TBR

My To-Be-Read pile.  Not everything is here, but this is a sort of “wanna read” for the coming year.  I plan to follow up in December with a picture of then.  We’ll see.

That’s all for now.

Marriage, Politics, and Dogs

I must at the outset state that I personally don’t, as the good ol’ boys like to say, have a dog in this hunt. There was a time I might have, but at this stage of my life—our lives, my partner’s and mine—there is no personal blowback. At least not yet, but I’ll make a point about that later. I say this in order to assure people, some of whom will assume what they will no matter what, that I’m grinding no axes here other than my usual intolerance for duplicity, hypocrisy, and related misapplications of do-goodism.

First, watch this video:

Okay, the aspects of that report I wish to draw your attention to are primarily the shenanigans to which the NOM finds all manner of, surprisingly honest, excuses to indulge. Some borderline, some blatant, many violations of legal and ethical standards. They don’t like playing by the rules—rules, by the way, they would be the first to accuse their opponents of violating should the tables be turned—so they have written a playbook for evading, avoiding, or just ignoring them in order to accomplish their higher purpose.

Which is…

I’m still not entirely clear on this. The one aspect of religious intrusion into public and private life that has never made sense to me—sense in terms of what rational people might do or consider appropriate—is the insistence that even those who don’t accept their premises should nevertheless live according to their ideas. I mean, what is so hard about “live and let live” that they find it impossible to tolerate…differences.

Yes, you caught me, I’m being rhetorical. Satiric. Perhaps ironic.

We all do what we can to advance our agendas when compelled. I don’t deny it. I have no doubt that there are many underhanded, backdoor actions taken in behalf of things I approve in order to break down social and political resistance to them. Sometimes I shake my head at them, thinking “we didn’t need to do that, did we?” Other times, I look at the iron wall put up in opposition to things which I believe would be a net positive and I think “there’s only one way to get through that” and tacitly give my blessing to the party or organization that gets it done. I do have a moral metric about these things (and, of course, if you’re on the other side from me, ideologically, you will refuse to accept that I base anything on any kind of moral principle) and I take pains to adhere to my own set of restrictions, lines I would not cross.

Here’s where I get a little frosted over this kind of stuff, though, in this instance. Religion presents a facade of divine moral adherence. As such, it is supposed to stick to a code of conduct, regardless of what it faces. That is, after all, what it’s selling—doing right regardless, being moral no matter the cost, representing Truth. So when it stoops to dirty politics, social shit-disturbing, and underhanded tactics, not to mention lying outright, I have to wonder just what it is they think they have to offer that is any different from those they oppose. Sure, if they pull this kind of thing off and keep the details quiet so most people never find out about the dirty tricks, they can claim to have won a moral victory. But the claim, whether believed or not, is based on a false representation. So by their own set of values, what have they gained? After all, won’t God know they lied and cheated, fomented bad feelings, misrepresented people, caused hurt and harm? Isn’t this a species of the end justifying the means?

Which we’ve come to accept from many quarters. Some millionaire wants to step up and advocate on behalf of his or her personal beliefs, just because, we are free to disagree or agree as suits our temperament. We might question his character over certain practices, but it remains an open issue as to whether or not he or she is right or wrong in what gets done in the course of advocacy.

We expect, however, a certain degree of consistency of principle, and the more entangled that principle is with the activist, the less we tolerate deviation.

Religions are supposedly the final arbiters of moral consistency. So when we find them institutionally engaged in unethical or outright illegal actions, whether in the name of a stated good or not, there is, or should be, a commensurate destruction of confidence.

Basically, if a church stands up and declares “This is wrong” and takes that stand publicly, fine. If it lends support to groups that also advocate in behalf of that stated principle, fine.

But if it colludes in essentially caustic moral actions in order to undermine a position and by so doing violates other principles for which it is a strong advocate, then at the most basic level, what value does it retain as a moral arbiter? If, in other words, it has to foment hatred in order to destroy a social policy, what makes it any different than any other group with an agenda?

Now, to be clear, I realize NOM is not itself a religion. But “close working relationship with the Catholic Church” kind of makes that a questionable claim. Whatever NOM wants to do, that’s their business, more power to ’em. But just from this (not to mentioned other things that have drawn considerable media attention) NOM is working hand-in-glove with Catholic hierarchy and given the Church’s position, they are ideologically on the same page. My questions here are about tactics and moral choices.

(I should say here that a couple of things puzzle me even more. I’m not sure why NOM is advocating keeping Guantanamo open. What does that have to do with gay marriage? Unless they expect some day to be able to send gays there? Ridiculous. Still, it’s in their playbook, so…)

I said I don’t have a dog in this hunt. My partner and I never “got married” in the traditional sense. I’m an atheist and both of us, back when it may have mattered, resented the “marriage penalty” in the tax code, so we let it slide. We’ve been together for 32 years. Obviously, we didn’t need a ceremony. We have our love.

But I have to consider the possibilities of activists like NOM. If they have their way, what we have would be in some form or other, illegal. There was, in fact, a time in this country when we could have done jail time for simply living together.

Here’s my sentiment. No one, especially not institutions to which I have no regard, has the right to tell people how to be together. Life is short, bliss is hard to find, and there has been enough ugliness in the world from one set of people trying to force another set to conform to standards that ultimately make no difference—unless we insist they do. Such insistence comes in many forms, mostly economic, but also social. Ostracization is harsh enough for nonconformity, but it rarely stops there, and we’ve had recent very public examples of how far it can go, with gays beaten and killed simply for being different.

So when our political institutions take steps in the direction of alleviating some of that, to make a space for people to live as they choose as long as they harm no one else, to strip away the pall of obfuscatory excuse-making that masks bigotry, and we see such steps opposed by the institutions that have always laid claim to being the source of moral activism by seeding suspicion and disaffection and causing rifts and advocating the dissolution of bonds of affection in order to achieve an ideological conformity that quite frankly no longer maintains, it ought to give people pause over just how far we’ve drifted down the road away from other ideals of community that held that religion and politics ought not mingle.

Lately there have been many things which have brought this to the surface in our politics. We’re brushing up against raw skin with sandpaper too often recently over what amounts to an attempt to inject into our politics an overt religious sensibility that appears to care nothing for people’s needs and everything for conformity to a set of practices only to mollify the prickly intolerances of people who, to put it bluntly, hate. Most of them probably don’t even realize that it’s hate, but when you put someone you don’t know, whose life experiences you are ignorant of, in a box constructed of saidisms, platitudes, and archaic phobias, you are indulging a kind of sterile hate. “Those People” becomes an anthem leading a charge to disenfranchise, with no regard for where they’ve been or what might happen to them should you get your way. Using your religion to justify intolerance is a slap in the face to everything most religions claim loudly to represent.

Hm. Maybe I do have a dog in this hunt.

On A Roll

I’ve been having a productive month.  This morning I polished up and submitted the fifth short story in two weeks.  Granted, most of them are rewrites, but a couple of them are such thorough redrafts that they might as well be all new, like the one I finished today.

Normally, I let a story sit for a while before sending it out, but right now I just want material in submission.  It has been a long time since I’ve had this kind of productivity in short fiction and I want to take full advantage of it.  Of course, it would be nice if some (or all) sold, especially to the markets they’ve been sent.

Soon, now, I’ll have two novels to start rewriting, once the notes are finished from the two people going over them.  Then I will set the short fiction aside and bury myself in the lengthier pieces.  There was a time I could finish a novel and write a few short stories with the left-over energy, but since about 2004 I have been in full novel mode almost continuously.  (The last brand new short story I sold was Duty Free for Lee Martindales Ladies of Tradetown anthology.)  During these past years, I either haven’t been able to finish the stories or they’ve come out crooked, sorry beasts requiring much T.L.C. and more time than I’ve been willing to devote.

Plus there have been the almost nonstop worries that are deadly to the creative process.  For whatever reason, those worries seem to have receded for the nonce.  Oh, they’re still there, they haven’t been solved, but they aren’t looming over me with Damocletian malevolence.

For the time being.

The other thing that has been distracting me, of course, is this thing here.  This.  The blog.  It seems my need for short work is satisfied by spinning out the varied and sundry expository forays here.  Granted, I usually pick a topic that I’m interested in, that I have, I think, something to say about, but really, I am no pundit, and if I were really good at this wouldn’t I be doing it for money?

But I do it and since it’s my blog, I say what I please, and that serves a need.  Sometimes I do this in order to codify my own feelings.  There’ve been a few times I’ve written something and found that I’d changed my mind about the subject by the time I finished.  Not often, but it’s happened.

However, I want to say thank you to any and all who come visit me here.  Whether you agree with me or not, even if I piss you off, the one thing I hope I never do is bore you.

I have another non-boring, froth-fomenting post coming up soon, but I wanted some breathing space between the last and the next.

Have a good weekend.  I’m going to do some more fiction now.

To Care Or Not To Care

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments for and against the Affordable Healthcare Act, specifically the individual mandate.  At issue is whether or not the Constitution allows Congress to require people to pay for something they do not want.  Commercially, that is.

At least, that’s the stated issue.  Depending on the group you listen to, the real issues range across the board, from “death panels” to socialism to Big Brother government intrusion to contraception.

There are some paradoxes.  Without getting into precise numbers—because, really, which ones are correct?—I’d like to review some of the inherent curiosities in this debate.

Health care costs are going up.  This fact is not disputed, I think, by anyone.  (Just taking this from a purely personal viewpoint, I’m one, maybe two rate increases away from having to give up my own insurance.)  There are a number of reasons for this—aging population, more and better technology available, slicker, more sophisticated pharmaceuticals, malpractice insurance, etc.  One factor, of course, is fewer people in the health insurance pool.  Common sense tells us that the more people you have participating in something, sharing the cost, the price per person goes down even while the overall pool of available money increases.  This is simple logic, basic math, economics 101.  Health insurance has gone up in large part because a great many people have dropped out of the load sharing.

Yet any attempt to make all those people participate is characterized as a bad thing.

Freedom of choice, you say.  Fair enough.

It would be fair if those people did not receive any health care they could not pay for out of pocket.

But they do.  We won’t let hospitals turn them away when they show up at emergency rooms.  Fair would be to tell them “you don’t have coverage, go home and die.”  Then live with it.  But we won’t do that.  Which means the load sharing increases on all the rest of us who do participate.

Hm.

Paradox number two.  Everyone—well, everyone who seems opposed to the AHCA—is terrified of rationing.  Of not being able to see a doctor when they want and then being refused treatment.

But that happens now.  Except it happens within the private health care system.  Insurance companies deny coverage, hospitals in turn do not deliver certain levels of care, and if you’re really poor you don’t get to see a doctor when you want for checkups.  The only time you usually see a doctor is when you absolutely have to and then it’s an emergency room doctor you may never see again for follow-up.

So…what’s the complaint?  That the rationing that happens now is acceptable and the rationing that might come from the AHCA is not?

Why?

Back to costs.  The worry is (stated worry) that we will have to pay for something we don’t want.  I, being a healthy twenty-something who has never had more than a bad cold (aside from the usual list of childhood diseases, many of which I didn’t suffer because I received vaccinations, which I got because health care was both available and paid for by someone else), can’t justify laying out a hundred bucks a month for an insurance policy I think I don’t need, and resent the idea that the government is going to make me pay for it.  Besides, this cool job I just got offers health care as part of the package.

But next year I’m going to be required to pay a higher percentage of my employer health care because costs are rising.  Hell, I don’t need it, so just cut me from it.  But that means everyone else in the company will end up paying more because I’m not chipping in.  At some point, the raise I expect will be delayed because the company has to meet rising expenses, which is a rip because I’m healthy and I’m being penalized now because other people aren’t.

So…what was that about being forced to pay for something I don’t want?  Just because there’s no check written that I send to someone for it does not mean I don’t pay for it.  There are many other ways in which the costs get levied.

Of course, I always intended to buy a policy when I reached my forties or fifties and maybe start having a few more problems…

By then, it’s not a hundred a month, it’s more like four hundred a month.  Why is it so high?  Because the costs are spread over a smaller and smaller pool of buyers. (And, to be strictly fair, we have more and more care available to pay for—technology has handed us a veritable cornucopia of options these days.)  How come they don’t do something to make all those self-centered smart asses pay their fair share so my up front costs aren’t so high?

Paradox the fourth.  No one, I’m reasonably sure, thinks pre-existing conditions are fair excuses to be denied the right to buy something you do want—namely, health insurance.

But somehow the government forcing insurance companies to provide such coverage—to people who want to buy it—is an infringement of personal choice?  That the rights of the insurance company are being violated?

Okay, so let’s have a public option.  Oh, wait, that opens the door to government control and rationing and private companies won’t be able to compete…

So if that’s not an option, what are people with these conditions supposed to do?  Wait till a crisis and go to the emergency room.

Either way, you’re telling them that whether they’re willing to pay or not, they can’t have what they want because…?

Other problems.  “Everyone knows” that preventive care saves a lot of money.  Catching problems before they get big means a healthier life, lower risks, lower costs, and so on.  “Everyone” knows this but no one thinks the government should mandate it.  We should rely on private insurers to offer the policies.

“Everyone” forgets that there was a hell of a fight back in the Nineties when the government did finally require insurers to offer things like Well Baby Care.  Insurers didn’t want to do it.  Mainly because a lot of doctors didn’t want to do it—it’s a low profit practice.

But maybe I’m misunderstanding things here.  Maybe I’m missing the whole point.  I can’t seem to wrap my head around the fact that a lot of people seem to believe that private enterprise will do something it has been consistently reluctant to do unless the government makes it, that in order to preserve some construction of liberty we should be willing to just suffer from a range of treatable ailments and force fewer and fewer people to pay more and more, privately, for less and less available care.

Don’t get me wrong.  American medical care is probably the best in the world—if you can afford it.

If you can’t, well, it’s still not bad, but it’s lurching along, bleeding from open wounds, and one of these days the rationing everyone thinks will occur with government involvement will become very real without government involvement.  Maybe one of these days we’ll get over our objections to just turning people with no money away and sending them home to suffer and die.

I don’t really think people have thought this through.  But I could be wrong.

But I do know that, human nature being what it is, people will generally try to avoid doing anything, even if it will benefit them, if they don’t have to.  The problem is that “don’t have to” part.  It’s like that old auto repair commercial—“You can pay me now…or pay me later.”

 

The Other Side

Let’s imagine the conflict known as the Civil War.  It had been brewing since before the Constitution was ratified.  The issues were marrow deep in American society, so much so that any attempt to address the issue of slavery was, in effect, a deal breaker for the new nation.  The South made it abundantly clear that any action on the part of the North to write into the new guiding document the idea that black slaves were somehow deserving of the liberty being claimed for their white owners—and thereby signaling the end of slavery among the Thirteen Colonies—would be met with absolute refusal to play.  Had the reformers, exemplified by the likes of Benjamin Franklin, tried to assert any kind of racial equality at the time, the United States would have been stillborn.

Instead, they put a time limit into the document—20 years—which forbade the topic from even being discussed in Congress until that later year, at which time, presumably, the issue would come to the floor for some kind of resolution.  History shows that every such attempt was met with denunciations by southern members of Congress and often with threats of secession—which by then were illegal.

Make no mistake, as some revisionists might have you believe, secession was not an option and everyone who voted to ratify the Constitution knew it.  Contrary to popular mythology, the original 13 states locked themselves together permanently.  A couple of later territories parlayed an “escape clause”—Texas was a big one, but the Texas “right to secede” had a limiting condition: Texas could only leave as long as it never took up arms against the Union, which, much to Sam Houston’s consternation, it did during the Civil War and forever lost that right, despite what Governor Perry might wish people to believe—but by and large, joining the Union was a binding act that could not be reversed other than by armed rebellion.  The South was in the wrong, legally speaking.

Another bit of modern revisionism that has become popular is that the South did not secede over slavery but over “states rights.”  This is patent nonsense and any cursory perusal of the declarations of secession shows that issue number one for all of them was slavery.  They were not going to let Abraham Lincoln and his Republicans take away their property.

It’s difficult to imagine how it must have felt to be caught between the two sides.  Philosophically, I mean.  And where you lived didn’t make much difference.  There were riots in New York and other places in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Many Northerners who had supported Lincoln in the war effort turned on him when the issue changed from preserving the Union to freeing the slaves.  Poor whites were no more enamored of the idea of free blacks than were Southern plantation owners.  As far as they were concerned, it was more competition for already depressed wages.

And the fact is many on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, even among those who didn’t support slavery as such, did not regard Africans as fully human—at least not the equal of white people.

Try as we might to spin it otherwise, the many-faceted nature of the War Between The States turned on questions of what it meant to be human.

We still have not settled that question.  It may be that for many people it is simply not settleable.

I want to be very careful here.  My purpose in laying out the nature of the conflict during the Civil War is to establish a base for what may end up being another civil war if we’re not very careful.  The conduct—philosophically, politically, legally, morally—on both sides of the slave/emancipation divide illuminates aspects of our culture and our nature that are difficult.

There may have been many white people at the time who truly believe blacks were fully human and fully equal by nature to whites.  Most of them did not hold much authority and given subsequent history they did not win the public debate.  African Americans remained second or third class citizens for well over a century after the end of the war and in some ways today still face an uphill struggle for equity.  The bases of the discrimination mutated over time and it might be fair to say problems shifted from nature to nurture and took on sociological contours rather than biological, but the fact remains people do not treat each other as fully human in all circumstances.

It is a salient fact of our history that during the heated debates of the Emancipation and Reconstruction Eras over equal rights, equal status, and equal abilities, one group was not even considered as relevant.  Women.

Certainly the Women’s Suffrage Movement put forth arguments for equality, but the country was not likely to go to war over what people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony asserted—that one half the population lived in conditions of chattel bondage and servitude based on gender.

The list of inarguable facts speaks for itself.  Women did not have the right to vote (federally, that is—some states granted it, here and there, from time to time, in limited fashion) until 1920.

Throughout the 19th Century, a divorced woman lost everything.  As a married woman, all her property belonged to her husband, including the children, and in the instance of a divorce the law said her ex-husband owed her nothing.  She left with the clothes on her back, which was all she was legally entitled to.  Variations existed here and there, but generally this was the case.

A woman was denied entree into the professions whenever possible.  The first woman to graduate with a medical degree in the United States was Elizabeth Blackwell in 1849.  She was barred residency in a hospital due to her sex.  The struggle continued, but by 1920 women represented only 5% of the entire medical profession as doctors.   Elizabeth Bragg graduated from Berkely in 1876 as a civil engineer, but it was not until 1965 that a woman was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.  In 1869, Arabella Mansfield graduated law school and applied to the bar in Iowa.  Iowa law forbade any but white males from taking the bar, but an exception was made.  She passed.  (A year later the law was repealed, suggesting that she was allowed to take the bar examination with an expectation that she would fail.)

You get my meaning.  The numbers were low, the exceptions more or less famous.  Most women in the professions generally had to give them up when they married and there was no social space for a career woman to live her life with the same expectations of free conduct as her male counterparts.  The professions for women were very much like taking vows.

The Civil War seemed to settle the question as to the humanity of slaves, but did nothing for women.

Of course, had you phrased it that way at the time, many people, including many women, would have looked at you like you had just stepped off a spaceship speaking High Arcturan.  Of course women are human, they might answer.  But, good heavens, they’re women.

As if that explained anything.

At the time, it sort of did, though.  Women had a clearly-defined function as far as society—and most people—were concerned.  They were to be wives and mothers.  Anything else was vanity at best, offensive at worst.  Women should be what they were “made to be” and aspire to nothing more.

It didn’t seem to occur to most people that the prohibition on aspiring to be more implied that women did aspire and aspiration was a wholly human trait.

But I digress.  The fact is, any attempt to question this basic assumption was met with disdain and often the full force of the law.  The Suffrage Movement itself split over the nature of female aspiration—most thought it enough to simply get the vote, while others intended that women be granted the full rank and privilege of being human as expressed by the lives of their male counterparts, with all that entailed.  It might be that this was more a tactical issue, but I don’t doubt that for many it was philosophical as well.  In an instance of political expedience, the Suffrage Movement repudiated the ambition to make women wholly their own agents and decided to stick to the more “sanitary” program of achieving the vote.  They didn’t want to frighten potential male supporters by arguing for their right to be anything other than what they had always been—wives and mothers—only with the right to vote.

Of course, even after gaining suffrage in 1920, women remained second-class citizens because society treated them that way.  Educational opportunities were harder to gain, access to jobs and careers more difficult (and when gained, advancement and recognition delayed or denied), and economic shackles remained.  Up till the 1990s, a woman’s credit history belonged to her husband, and often, even after a divorce, she would find it very difficult to establish any credit on her own without her (former) husband’s history making it awkward.  As the 20th Century progressed, it became clear that the vote simply wasn’t enough, that equality was made up of much more than the franchise—it entails respect, agency, and an assumption of individual worth and merit, none of which can be gained by casting a ballot but only by being allowed to live as one chooses.

I think it came to a real head after the Second World War, when all those women, who had been working in industry, building the machinery with which we waged that war, were told to go home and forget all about self-sufficiency, because the men were coming home and they needed not only jobs but pliant females who wouldn’t compete with them.  It wasn’t just the jobs, but a massive change in the educational system—classes that had opened up to women in the 20s and 30s were suddenly closing down again, women who wanted to pursue careers were castigated as unnatural, the whole weight of cultural expectation that characterized women as essential sex toys and brood mares fell on them in the 1950s and turned that decade into one of the strangest periods of American history and set the stage for all the emancipatory movements of the Sixties and Seventies.  June Cleaver was the cultural icon women were supposed to aspire to.  This to women who had been  and whose mothers had been building tanks, airplanes, and ships in the 1940s, running assembly lines, driving trucks, farming, and so much more.  They were expected to just forget all that and return to a condition of simple-minded obeisance all for the boys coming home.

As patriotic as this sounded, this was an instance where sacrifice becomes a form of slavery.

Yes, there were many women who were probably perfectly happy with this state of affairs.  But their happiness was built on the shattered dreams of women for whom this was simply unacceptable.  The one cannot be justified by the desire for the other.

By now, it may be obvious where I’m going with this.  We are facing the possibility of another civil war, one I’m not sure where the lines will be drawn, but one that could be brutally destructive.  We joked about the War Between the Sexes back in the day, but that’s not what this is.  This is going to be a war over the exact nature of agency.  The flags have now gone up the poles on the one side and I think it has taken a lot of people by surprise.  The blowback is coming.

Here is how I feel about this.  One side in this conflict wishes to privilege potential life in such a way as to deny self-determination and agency to half the population, the half that still has a solid argument that it has not yet been granted full equality with the other half.  That for the sake of what may be they will have to surrender themselves to conditions of servitude that the other side simply does not have to suffer, purely by dint of biology.

It is not sufficient to argue that all the one side wants is for things to go back to the way they used to be.  The way things used to be was not acceptable—that’s why we changed it.  The way things used to be was built on hypocrisies and legal fictions that privileged a status quo which, as long as certain people exhibited no aspirations at odds with the publicly accepted norms, everyone pretended was equal and fair and just.

Well, we all know how often that is actually the case.

What disturbs me—appalls me, really—is how little the Other Side really knows, not only about our history, but about any history, and how they are so easily manipulated by the agents of regress.  There are certain arguments we should have been done with that we’re having to have all over again because people—many people—don’t have a clue what has gone before.

They’re the sorts who believe the revisionists who tell us that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery but states rights or that the South really did have the right to secede.

They’re the sort that believes that any woman who has the temerity to talk publicly about her right to have sex is a slut.

A word to the wise—it’s not temerity; it’s self confidence.

See you on the barricades.

Spring, Damp, Coolth

I haven’t done any new images lately, so…

I made these on Bellerive, off of Grand, last Saturday evening after a light rain.

You might wonder what I was doing there.  Well, it was just before the coffeehouse at which I play and of which I just wrote.  I did a few images there, too.  To finish up, here’s one.

Just thought I’d share a little pleasantness before the forthcoming, which may or may not be…stormful.  We’ll see.

 

Music On A Saturday Night

Storms apparently kept a lot of people away. A shame.  The monthly gathering at the New Covenant Methodist Church on Bellerive happened anyway, a St. Patrick’s Day session complete with a pot of corned beef, and the limited audience enjoyed an evening of good music delivered by people who were having an enormous amount of fun.

More fun than I’m used to having inside a church.

I’ve been attending these now for almost five years.  Maybe longer, someone would have to check.  When I began, these open mic sessions offered nearly 80% karaoke, of variable quality.  Rich and Annette (Annette more forcefully—though Annette’s “forceful” comes across with the glee of a 12-year-old wanting to share a puppy) had been on me to come play.  I didn’t play at first.  When I did…

Let me explain something about my music.  Way back in the distant past, in a galaxy far, far away, I had aspirations to be a rock star.  Never happened, and in hindsight it never was going to happen.  As hard as I worked for those years, I really didn’t have the full range of dedication it would have taken.  I wanted to get up on stage (or better yet in a studio) and rock out, mainly on my music, music I wrote.

And it frankly wasn’t very good.  Like my fiction, it required time to ferment, to acquire some growth, some maturity, some…worth.  And playing other peoples’ music was just a stop along the way.

So I quit.  Didn’t touch a keyboard for, oh, almost 15 years.  I bought a guitar, learned enough to play along at parties, and then started writing a few songs (not very good ones) and Donna bought me a better guitar, and so it went, and there were even a few gigs, but…

After Clarion (1988) I came home, started writing stories that actually sold, and about a year later we found a piano that I thought would be perfect.  A Yamaha Clavinova.  It has a lot of bells-n-whistles, but mainly it has the touch of a real piano and two piano samples that are superb.  So, we bought it and I started noodling again.

Fifteen years is a long time to not play an instrument, and I had forgotten nearly everything.  But I didn’t buy it to restart a career that was never going to happen, I bought to for stress release.  (And in that cause, this machine has taken a beating.  I still have it, it still functions well, and I assure you I have pounded on it.  I’ve had it repaired once in 23 years.  That’s pretty reliable.)  So while I occasionally pull out some sheet music and painfully struggle through material I once knew by heart, for the most part I just jam.

I’ve developed a free-form style built around a handful of basic motifs that can be mixed and matched into a variety of presentations that allow me to fly.  Just the sheer joy of playing is what I want and I don’t care about the tune.  What I play sounds like something, has a familiarity to certain things, and people listen and apparently enjoy it while thinking  “I just can’t quite place that…”  It’s pyrotechnic, utterly improvised, and I do it because it makes me feel good.

Well…when I started playing at this little coffeehouse, it apparently made others feel good, too.

Gradually, the musicians have taken over from the karaoke.  There are now some fine players doing their bits.  There’s a floutist of considerable talent, two drummers (one of whom is phenomenal), a couple of good guitarists, plenty of singers (not me) and occasionally a violinist, a conga player, and once we had a first-rate saxophonist, and a trumpet player.

Then there’s me.

Charitably, I think I just shock people.  They don’t know what to make of me, but either they’re too polite or too stunned to not like it.

Occasionally, I even play well.

Last night we hit some grooves.  Some?  All night the playing was excellent, by everyone.

I brought a composed piece.  I wrote it down because the changes and the overall direction was more complex, more disciplined than what I normally do.  I arrived early with the intent of (hopefully) working it out with a couple of the others and at least including drums and maybe a guitar solo.  We ended up rehearsing—

Monkees.

Yes, well—don’t scoff, I liked the Monkees, and I was saddened by Davy Jones’ passing.  For the ending sing-along, we did five Monkee’s tunes.

Rehearsing those took all the time we had, so I didn’t get to work on mine with anyone.  I mentioned it to Bob, the drummer.  I asked him to sit in on the free-form I intended to do in the second half, just a basic 4/4 rock beat over which I could waffle.

When I began playing my prepared piece, all of sudden I had a rhythm section.  Bob and the conga player, Robert, just joined in, laid down a solid beat, and to my deep pleasure I didn’t stumble, and it was…

It was like flying.

A word about Bob.  He’s a musician’s musician.  Keyboard, guitar, vocals, and drums, he plays it all, and he plays it with a natural grace I envy.  But as a drummer he is surpassing good.  He found my groove, figured out how to nail it, and played as if we’d rehearsed it a dozen times.  I felt my face stretching into a grin halfway through.

I haven’t had quite that much fun playing in a long time.  Last year we did something fairly complex with a spoken-word piece I wrote (which is posted on this blog, the Jazz posts) that came together surprisingly well.  But I expected that, we had rehearsed.  This time it was spontaneous and it just rocked!  They made me sound pretty good, I think.

The rest of the evening was as good or better, and the Monkees’ jam was just fine, even if Rich’s voice was a touch raw and he couldn’t quite make those Davy Jones high notes.

And a lot of people missed it.

We didn’t.

I am so glad to have music in my life and so fortunate to know first-rate players.  Thank you all.

Noir at the Bar

There is, in University City, which is attached to St. Louis with Washington University as a buffer, a cool little coffeehouse/restaurant called Meshuggah’s.  They play host to a literary event called Noir at the Bar, which my friend Scott Phillips and a gentleman named Jedediah Ayres manage.  Primarily it’s all about crime fiction, which apparently includes a vast range of macabre material.

They had me in their line-up on February 28th.  I am the first science fiction writer to perform at this event and I think it went rather well.  It was recorded for podcast by Booked and the link to my reading is now up.  Right here.

I had a good time and the other readers were fine, I recommend them.  An evening of good readings and fine company.

Bunk

One of the downsides to the information super highway is the amount of bunk that disseminates faster than ever before.  It has always been with us, though, so we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that it’s the fault of the internet.  All the internet does is make this nonsense available faster, in more formats, and about more things than ever before, but the basic impulse has not changed since, well, forever.

Consider one of the earliest bits of nonsense that still gets some juice from time to time: Nero played while Rome burned.

Nero (Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, C.E. 37 to 68, emperor of Rome from 54 to his death by suicide in 68) became emperor after his uncle, Claudius, died.  He has been portrayed in popular fiction and some histories as a self-indulgent libertine.  The great fire that destroyed huge sections of the city in July of 64 has been laid at his doorstep for many reasons.  He was, in fact, a big urban renewal guy and one of the few theories circulating at the time that has any traction of being real was that he was doing some rather brutal slum clearance in preparation for a new construction project.  Even this seems unlikely, since the fire began very near to the Circus Maximus, which would be stupid if it were intentional, and also it began in a commercial area.  No one knows how it began.  It is much like the great Chicago Fire for which Mrs. O’Leary’s cow has been forever blamed, an assertion invented by a reporter that has become such a staple of the popular folklore that even people who “know” it isn’t true still cite it.

In the case of Nero, however, it appears that he wasn’t even in Rome when it began and when he heard he returned and immediately began organizing relief efforts.  The source of the “fiddled while Rome burned” is Suetonius and others who hated Nero.  Apparently it never happened and in this instance the exact opposite seems to be the case—he worked hard to save Rome and do what was possible after the fact.

But such is the power of bunk that people still talk about the callous and depraved Nero playing his lyre and singing The Sack of Illium in costume while the city burned.  It is a baseless piece of folklore, an urban myth of the first order.

There are two important things to take away from this.  The first is, of course, the power of images to fix the imagination in such a way that fact and truth have no chance of getting around the preferred myth.  The second is, such myths serve as distractions from genuine problems and redirect our attention from what is truly important onto fabulations that are easily manipulated and manipulative—because people who buy into them are more easily directed by such bunk in the hands of spinmeisters who would rather they didn’t pay attention to reality.

Because there was plenty about Nero that deserves serious ignominy.  Just not this.

The other thing such bunk does is paint a figure wholly one thing or the other.  There is no gray in such portrayals, no room for the ambiguities that are the way people really are.  I said Nero was a big urban renewal emperor, and this is true.  He was something of a reformer in this early reign and he did many public works that made him quite popular.  He successively extended the Empire and established rules over certain abuses by the Senate, and so forth.  Rome did not materially suffer under Nero.

But he had inherited the trend in Roman imperial life toward assassination as a means to consolidate power and even acquire it and apparently had his mother killed, who herself may have killed Claudius in order to secure the throne for her son.  As his reign progressed, an evident paranoia took hold and he became more and more erratic until finally there was an uprising in Iberia and he read the writing on the wall and took his own life.

He left a mixed legacy.

But all we remember him for now is Rome burning, bad singing, and orgies (which were more evidenced in his Uncle Caligula’s reign than Nero’s).  All the nuance is leached out and any lessons of value from understanding his reign are absent.

The other problem with bunk—you can’t learn anything from it.

I took some time with this business of Nero in order to lay the groundwork for my more contemporary point.  See, we can all of us pretty much talk about things that happened two thousand years ago with some dispassion.  (No one, I think, has a stake in falsely portraying Nero anymore.)  We can step back and look at the false picture and see where it came from and how it happened and understand something about how popular animosities have always given rise to distortions and outright falsehoods.

The reason we should always be aware of bunk like this is so we are not distracted from what may be far more important.  Bunk is noise, it is in a perverse way camouflage.  Not only does bunk mask what may be good about someone or something, but it works just as well as a mask for what may be significantly worse.  And for the one buying the bunk, it seriously erodes credibility, so that any valid criticisms he or she may have are suddenly given the same weight as the bunk—which is to say, none at all.  Bunk cheapens everything.

But there has always been bunk.  We love it.  Often we prefer the legend to the truth.  Legends are more colorful and certainly have the distinction of offering explanations that validate prejudices— but they do so without adding one worthwhile bit to any serious discussion.  Often just the opposite happens.  People who maintain the bunk version of events often impede constructive understanding and, if pressed, may actually turn on those trying to educate them out of the bunk.  Bunk can be very hurtful.  At the very least by taking up space where something useful might exist.  But also by providing a convenient test for determining who is or is not a friend or enemy.

I don’t think I need list the various manifestations of bunk that currently make the rounds of the internet and fill people with rationales for their displeasure and explain absolutely nothing.  We’ve all seen it.  Worthless allegations, unsubstantiated accusations, constructions of arguments that miss the real point, false comparisons, and outright slander.  We can recognize bunk because it always fails two major tests—logic and Occam’s Razor.  I suppose, though, that those tests are really different sides of the same one.   To put it simply, if something requires too many parts and demands the silent participation of too many people, or is simply far more complicated than seems reasonable, it is likely bunk.  (It’s best not to attribute to conspiracy what can be explained by oversight or incompetence.  History, after all, shows us that, with very few exceptions, most conspirators are incompetent—and they usually always overlook something.)

Anyway, I wish you all a bunk-free day.  It’s too much to hope for a bunk free year.