Reality, Real and Fake

By now those who don’t know about Phil Robertson and the debacle at A & E are most likely among those who have no access to any kind of media.  They have no idea what the world is doing, because they have no way of knowing what to pay attention to.  How can they possibly know anything about reality without the all-important medium of…well…media?

This isn’t really about Phil or Duck Dynasty or anything directly related to the people at the center of this.  Not really.  How can it be when what we see of them and hear them is simply not real?

How’s that?  Didn’t Mr. Robertson say those thing printed in GQ that got him suspended from his on-air presence in his own reality show?

Well, he did and he didn’t.  The man playing the part of Phil Robertson, in character as the patriarch of a television show, said some thing which were printed in a high fashion magazine that normally wouldn’t touch plaid shirts, bib overalls, and pump action shotguns or the beards sported by these folks.  They aren’t ZZ Top wailing about sharp dressed men with cheap sunglasses, so to begin with, the question is why were these words in GQ in the first place?

Well, because GQ wasn’t interviewing Philip Robertson, they were interviewing Phil from Duck Dynasty, which is not the same thing.

Again, how’s that?

In the past couple of decades we have become familiarized with the so-called “reality show.”  By now, we have, depending on which ones we’ve followed, which ones we like, and which ones we hate, have acquired the necessary distance to realize that these confections are shows about a particular reality.  Which is not the same as shows that are “real.”  That kind of show we understand to be a documentary.  Or, occasionally, the news.  We know this in our bones.  There is a difference between reality and a show.  We know it’s a fabrication and that the people displayed are not actually like that in—you know—real life.

Reality shows are manufactured product, which in turn makes the characters in them manufactured.  The Phil we see on Duck Dynasty is a caricature, a sketch, and to a large extent a fictional character based on a real person, but not the real person himself.  No more than the people on Survivor actually behave like that once the show is over.  At best, they are exaggerations, but in reality (there’s that word again) they are characterizations.

Novelists do this all the time.

The difference being that novelists (and other writers of fiction that pretends to be nothing else but fiction) seek the truth through the artifice of their creations while as best I can tell the main point of “reality shows” is to impose drama through an abstraction of reality that ends up giving us no truth whatsoever, because at the end of the show we know nothing about who these people really are, only what they do in front of a bunch of cameras filming them as they follow a loose script that sets up situations they would normally never experience.  Since the script itself has no thematic point, there’s no way to elicit truth out of what become nothing but a bunch of situational reactions with exaggerated responses.

In short, a reality show does exactly the opposite of what fiction is normally all about.  There’s no truth there, not even reality (how real can it be with a director giving directions and scenes being fed the actors?) but a farce designed to make us think we’re seeing what reality would be like if we all lived on a soundstage.

So when Phil Robertson gives an interview to a high profile fashion magazine that is highlighting his presence as the principle character of his show, everyone should know that this is not reality being engaged, but two fictions colliding.

(You don’t have this problem with actual fiction on tv because everyone knows the actors are not their characters—or should know—but the primary conceit of “reality shows” is that they are their characters.)

There are YouTube videos of Phil giving speeches and saying all kinds of things that are consistent with what he said in GQ and A & E never pulled him off the air for those.  Why now?

Well, because in GQ it’s the image talking—because it’s, you know, GQ—but all those other speeches are Mr. Robertson talking.

Mr. Robertson’s First Amendment rights were not violated by the disciplinary action taken by A & E because it wasn’t him giving the interview, but a character from a tv show.  That character—and you can tell it was the character because that’s how GQ packaged it—is pretty much fictional.  Are we going to defend the rights of a manufactured image that is owned by corporations?  And I don’t mean just A & E here, but the Robertson clan.

If it sounds like a tangle, that’s because we have entered upon a bizarre new scene in which fiction and reality have been mingled in such a way that it is genuinely confusing to some people which is which.  This isn’t cognitive dissonance in the classic sense, but cognitive estrangement in the sense that people are reduced to image and the image is empowered with more substance than our next door neighbor.  It’s as if people supporting Phil are suddenly aware that they can be removed from their show.  Maybe some of them even think that without a show, no one has any rights.  Certainly we’ve entered a new phase of only recognizing reality that ends up on television.

If that were not confusing enough, more has emerged about the Robertsons and how far they seem to be from their characters.  The yuppie lifestyles, the fashion sense, the cleanshaven condo-on-the-Gulf American Dream that has opted, for the sake of advertising and a larger market share, to don the garb and attitude of swamp-dwellers who’ve barely learned what a fork is for.  Which is the real Robertson Clan and which is the “reality” clan?

The net result has been a manufactured drama of civil rights that were never at risk.  (People have gotten so incensed at how Phil’s “rights” have been trodden upon but I can’t help but wonder where their ire is when some hapless minimum wage drudge loses his or her job because of something they posted on FaceBook. )  People have gotten pissed because a favorite character might have been taken away from them just for being himself.

And while that goes on we seem not to notice how this has cheapened the rights supposedly in peril.  What has been defended is the “right” of someone to misrepresent himself and say things he may or may not actually believe and then pretend that the misrepresentation is being oppressed.

Because nothing Mr. Robertson said has been censored.  He’s not serving jail time for what he said.  In fact, he didn’t even lose any income.  The censure—and that’s what it was, or should have been, censure, which is not the same thing as censor despite their similar appearance (and this is all about similar appearances, isn’t it?)—involved nothing that even prevented him from saying the same things again afterward.  The only people affected were his fans, but nobody said anything about their rights.

The Robertsons are in the business of making and selling decoys.

Reality Shows are very expensive, long-running decoys.

The people on reality shows are merely stand-ins for themselves.

The First Amendment is there to protect our right to speak truth to power.

Phil Robertson has made a great deal of money pretending to be someone based on himself and saying things and doing things that entertain people who get off on the image of that kind of lifestyle.

Even if he said something worth hearing, how would anyone, under these circumstances, know?  You hear the sound of the decoy, you fly in to find reality, and the substanceless fakery captures you and damages your right not be manipulated.

I really hope 2014 is better than this.


To start, I put up a new theme.  This one just appeared in the available queue and I really like it.  So I intend sticking with it for a while.  The last one was okay, but after a couple of weeks, it wore on me, so…

End of year review.  The good, the bad, the post ugly.

I turned 59 this year.  Not sure how to feel about that, but whatever I feel, it is what it is, I have no say in the matter.  (A meme going around is that the 70s are the new late middle age.  Well, that would give me about 30 more years or so to get it right, hm?)  More on that later.

As noted, I am now working for Left Bank Books, which has turned out to be a mixed benefit.  More benefit than not, frankly, since I am still not a Famous Author, able to live on my writing, despite my best efforts.  I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching about those efforts, believe you me, trying to figure out just what I did—or didn’t—do right.  And wrong.  And working a bit harder at fending off a touch of bitterness.  You do the best you can and then wait to see if that’s enough.  If I could do it better or do it just as well differently, I would.

I should explain about the mixed part of the job.  Much to my relief and enormous pleasure, I find myself looking forward to going to work.  I’ve fallen in with marvelous, subversive, intellectual types, each one amazing in a different way.  My last job, which lasted far longer than it should have, was one where I said regularly that if I hadn’t liked the people I worked with, I wouldn’t be there.  No sense slaving away at a job you don’t like in company with people you despise.  Granted, many folks—too many—do not have the luxury of choosing, and in that I’ve been fortunate, but even working with good and fun people can fail to compensate for the drudgery of a job you hate.  Such is not the case now.  I’m enjoying this immensely and my co-workers are wonderful.

But I’ve been staggering through the year trying to accommodate the new schedule and my writing and because of the nature of the job, the hours are staggered.  It’s been surprisingly difficult to get any kind of rhythm for my work and the net result has been a lot of fragmentary stories and not nearly as much progress on any of my novels as I would like.

I can’t blame all this on the job.  In fact, while the schedule has been a bit awkward, the job has nothing to do with my lack of progress.

I’m beginning—finally—work on the third novel in the Oxun Trilogy.  I’ve been building up to this—and more than a little intimidated by it—since finishing the second novel.  This one is the one set in the Napoleonic Era and is the most concretely historical, and frankly, it’s been daunting.  A couple months ago I opened a file and began.  And began again.  Began two more times before realizing that I’d started it in the wrong place.  Which also meant the research I’d been poring over was all wrong and I needed to deal with a different year and a different place.  I’ve begun once more and now it feels right.

Could I have begun sooner?  As much as I wanted to, no.  I didn’t have a way in till now.

Time weighs on my mind.  I’m about a decade behind where I wanted to be.  Maybe more.  (Okay, this is the tantrum part.  Just sayin’.)  When Compass Reach came out in 2001, I’d really thought it was the start of what would be an uninterrupted string of novels.  At this point there ought to be at least six, maybe seven Secantis novels.  At least.  I had a schedule drafted of which books would come next.  The collapse that came in 2005 derailed everything.

There are days I think I’m not really very good.  Not as good as I need to be, not as good as I want to be.  Such thoughts drag at me, so I dismiss them and move on.

So moving on.  (Tantrum over.)

I read far fewer books cover to cover this past year than the year before.  33, in fact.  But some of them were really good books.

The best of them included my friend Nicola’s new novel, Hild.  (See previous post.)  Also, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a quasi-fantasy, bizarre story about Ursula Todd, who lives again and again after dying in different ways and then starting all over.  It covers the big, violent middle of the 20th Century and is a fascinating piece of work that I hesitate to describe other than as a quantum biography.

I read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and his newest, And The Mountains Echoed.  I will read the one that came in between them, but, as beautifully written as these books are, as poignant and heart-grabbing, there is a sadness in them that, in the latter book, is almost unbearable.

Going Clear by Lawrence Wright is a detailed and comprehensive history of Scientology.  Well-written, thoroughly researched, it is a disturbing story that cannot but call into question the entire idea of religious movements.  Somewhat thematically—coincidentally so—linked, I also read John M. Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of America, about the pilgrims, John Winthrop, and Roger Williams and the nature of one of our founding myths.  A likewise disturbing history, it made me wonder why Roger Williams is not taught as one of the primary heroes of our national story—but then, the answer to that is also in the book.

One of the best SF novels I read this year is Lexicon by Max Barry.  It’s about language and love and power and freedom.  Superbly executed, it does not fail its premise.

I also read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas this year and I’m glad I did.  I also saw the film this year—twice, now—and I have to say this is one of those rare instances where book and film complement each other marvelously.

Possibly the most disappointing read was William Gass’s purported “last novel”—Middle C.  I reviewed it at length over on the Proximal Eye.  Gass is legendary, one of those bastions of high literary culture, and this was the first novel of his I’d encountered.  I cannot recommend it.

I am starting a reading group at Left Bank Books.  One of the things I’m hoping to do there is increase the profile of science fiction represented in the store, and after fumbling about a bit I decided this was the best way to do it.  It’s being tied in to Archon and will, if successful, result in a panel or two at next year’s convention about the books under review.  To that end, I reread Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks.

Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time will know the esteem in which I hold Banks.  It deeply saddened me when he passed away this year.  We were both born in 1954.  Cancer took him and there will be no more Culture novels.  It was with great pleasure that I reread his first Culture book and found it even better than on my first encounter.  I’d looked forward to some day meeting him, but that will not happen now.

We’ve lost a number of people this year in this field, some of whom I knew.  Frederik Pohl died.  Gateway is still, in my opinion, one of the best SF novels ever written.  Jack Vance also passed away, a writer I respect and have difficulty reading.  A paradox, that, and I consider the fault entirely mine.  There are riches to be found in his enormous body of work and I have yet to figure out how to extract them.

British writer Colin Wilson died.  I was peripherally aware of his work, which seemed to me to combine Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick in peculiar and occasionally fascinating ways.  I recall The Philosophers Stone in particular, but he will, for better or worse, be remembered for Space Vampires, from which the movie Life Force was made.  He called himself the greatest writer in the world once.  Well.

The biggie for literature in general, though, was Doris Lessing, who was a Nobel Laureate and had the audacity to write science fiction unapologetically and then tell the critics they were idiots when they derided her for it.

Ray Harryhausen died.  I still marvel at his special effects work in movies such as Jason and the Argonauts, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and many, many others.  I had a chance to meet him when he and Ray Bradbury were co-guests of honor at an Archon many years back.

Which brings me to the part where I ruminate on mortality.  I have a great deal I want to do yet.  I have a list of books I want to write, places I want to see, things I want to do.  The fact that it seems to be taking me an inordinate amount of time to get firmly established as a writer irritates me on the level of how much more I want to accomplish.  If I have a fear of death at all, it is that I won’t get finished with what I want to do.  The thought of leaving things undone, to be either completed by others, tossed out, or ignored bothers me.  That is my only reservation about mortality.  (Oh, I fear getting old and sick, but death holds no terror for me.  For one, once dead, I won’t know.  I expect it is very much like a switch thrown, then nothing.  Power off, lights out.  But I don’t like the idea of suffering.  Never did.)

On a more positive note, I did learn that I will have a short story collection coming out in 2014.  Much to my surprise.  From a local publisher, Walrus.  Closer to release date (May, we think) I’ll tell the story about it, but it will be called Gravity Box and Other Spaces.  The stars align and the chips fall properly, we’ll do a release event at Left Bank Books.

I’ve been continuing to recover from my near-death experience of August 2012.  Appendicitis, you will recall.  Then a complication, an abscess.  Didn’t get completely over the surgery(s) till December.  I went back to the gym in March of this year.  Right before coming down with the seasonal grunge,  I was nearly back up to all the weights I’d been doing, with the addition of an aerobic section on the treadmill.  I did 900 lbs on the leg press before the Cold From Hell, which is 30 lbs shy of where I was before my appendix burst.  Still not gonna make the thousand I wanted to do by year’s end, but hey, not too shabby for an old man.  (Oh, right, middle aged.)

We took a major vacation this past year to northern California.  The excuse was a kind of Clarion class reunion in Sacramento.  Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge were joint GoHs at Westercon and the idea for a reunion spawned.  Several of us showed up.  I wrote about it back in August.  It was amazing.  After the con, we rented a car and drove up the coast to see redwoods and Pacific Ocean and cool fog and wineries and ended up staying with Peter and Nan Fuss on their (modest) mountaintop.  Expensive and we could ill afford it, but it was also one of those cases of we couldn’t afford not to.  There are pictures over in the Zenfolio galleries.

Donna is almost—almost—recovered from the Job From Hell.  It took more out of her than either of us realized.  It’s been two years and she’s finally feeling something of her old self.  I continue to take care of her.

Especially now, for reasons I don’t wish to go into here.  Suffice it to say that years have caught up in an all-too common way and she has extra burdens, with which I’m trying to help.  We’re fine.  But…

We had a very low-key Christmas.  Didn’t even decorate.  But it was the Christmas we needed, because we spent it together.

This coming spring we will be celebrating 34 years together and I can truthfully say I love her more now than ever before.  We’ve been through hell together.  And heaven.  We are comfortable with each other and I cannot imagine life without her.

So all in all, 2013 was a better year than many in the last decade.  We made some fabulous memories and did some wonderful things and we’re going into 2014 feeling better and more optimistic than we have in some time.  In closing, I’d like to thank all the friends and acquaintances—and most especially the new friends we’ve made at Left Bank Books (Kris and Jay and Lauren and Shane and Jonesey and Jessi and Jenni and Randy and David and Sarah and Evan and Mariah and Robert and Cliff and Erin—which reminds me, next paragraph—and Wintaye and Bill and the other David and I know I’m forgetting someone)—and those we’ve known almost all our lives and those we’ve known only part of our lives and those we’ve known only a short time…

Next paragraph, yes.  I shot my (I think) fourth wedding.  Erin, a coworker, wed Frank in the store at Left Bank Books on December 1st.  I shot the pictures (the “official” pictures) and must report that this was one of the coolest weddings I’ve ever been to.  Another coworker, Jonesey (Sarah Johnson) officiated and great joy, a few tears, an annoyed cat, and tremendous celebration ensued.  I’ve never attended a wedding held in a bookstore before, but now that I have I wonder why it doesn’t happen more often.

There is, I know, much more to say about this past year, but for now this is enough.  We’ve come through better than we were last year at this time and ready for next year.  Anyone who can say that is in the plus column of life.

Happy New Year.



My Friend Has A New Novel

This is my friend, Nicola. She’s published a wonderful novel and I could not be happier for her. I get to talk to her from to time and I love it. I sometimes feel like I could talk to her for days and never get tired of it. (Of course, she’d get tired of me, so…)

Anyway, here’s a half hour of her talking about her new book and I wanted to share it.

Mary Poppins

There was a hardcover copy of a Mary Poppins book in my grade school library.  I remember finding it and being very excited.  Naturally, I’d seen the movie and I was already discovering how much better the books from which films were made could be.  So I checked it out and took it home and that night opened it up and—

Took it back the next day, unfinished.  To say it was nothing like the film is beside the point.  To say I found no magic in it would be closer.  But frankly, the Mary Poppins of P.L. Travers—of which we now are so vigorously concerned of late—I found to be a cold, humorless drudge who was obsessed with discipline.  She was more like Mr. Banks from the film, who had to be saved from his stern, business-before-all attitude before he let all of life pass him by.  I grant you, I was quite young—ten—and not, perhaps, the most patient of readers or the most perceptive, but the contrast was so sharp and jarring that I’ve never gone back.  Travers’ Mary Poppins was no one I would have wanted anything to do with.  That Walt Disney found something magical in these stories amazed me at the time.

Fast-forward to my erstwhile attempts at being a writer and the slight knowledge I’ve garnered about property rights and adaptations and so forth, and many things make much more sense now.  The books were popular—not Harry Potter popular, not even close, but they sold—and there was presumably a market that could be exploited.  It must have appeared to Uncle Walt to be an opportunity to do a little payback toward England, where his Peter Pan  was barred by the tidy little trust Barrie had put together that guaranteed revenues for the orphanage to which the playwright was dedicated.  Disney had gamed international copyright to make the film without cutting them in for anything and they successfully kept the product out of British markets (until only recently, when a new deal was cut, paving the way for, among other things, the wonderful Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry novels about Peter and the Lost Boys).  Walt was snatching another British property and this time nothing would keep the film from English audiences.

And he saw something my ten-year-old self didn’t—a way to extract a Disney production from the elements of the stories.

But the result was so different from the source material, one must wonder why he didn’t just come up with something completely new on his own.

Well, at a guess, that name.  Mary Poppins.  (Especially the way Dick Van Dyke said it, in that exaggerated cockney accent.)  And the setting.  And the back story.  Safer, maybe, to grab something whole from a long siege than risk opprobrium by cutting out a new set of characters and then being accused of plagiarism.  Uncle Walt, after all, had an image to protect—his was part of an America trinity that included Abraham Lincoln and Santa Claus, honest, uncorrupted, generous, and pathologically well-meaning.  In his calculus it must have seemed worthwhile only if he could show that everyone, from the creator to the audience, approved.

And he bloody well paid Travers enough for her work.  Sixty thousand pounds, which would have worked out to roughly  one hundred two thousand dollars, which, adjusted for inflation etc etc would be worth about three-quarters of a million today.  Plus she got five percent of the box office gross.

She was, as they say, set.

Yet from all accounts the new film, Saving Mr. Banks, portrays Travers as just as difficult, odious, and perpetually disapproving as her signature character, granting Disney an aura of magnificent patience in dealing with this woman he seemed intent on making rich just by making Mary Poppins even more famous.


Because the fact is Travers went to her grave hating the film Disney made.  He turned her work inside out, cut away large portions of it to leave in the bin, and concocted a musical mish-mash of mind-numbing magical mush which she reportedly loathed.  The serious points she wanted to make in her stories got short-shrift, the “proper British household”(which she rather admired, especially being the daughter of a man who struggled for the position of Mr. Banks but lost it, only to die prematurely when Travers was six) was held up to ridicule, and Mary herself came off closer to an Edwardian jet-setter than the nanny who could fix anything Travers intended.

Mary Poppins was a creation from her childhood.  She had grown up with this character, it was part of her DNA, so to speak.  Disney worked at getting the rights to make the film for 20 years.  Can anyone fault Travers for being protective?  Indeed, obsessively so?  This is something most writers understand in their bones—it is their work, no, it is their being which is, depending how you view it, either being praised or raped.

The success of the film did not hurt.  She published more Mary Poppins books after it came out, among other things, but she never agreed to another Disney adaptation.  At a guess, at a minimum, she must have thought Disney had trivialized her character.

(To understand what must have gone through her mind, imagine for a moment the idea of telling, say, Ibsen that one of his plays was going to be made into a new production by Gilbert and Sullivan.)

Turning things over to someone else’s control is hard.  It can wrench to see your work treated differently, with apparent disregard for what you envisioned.  Even if no ill intent is on hand (and surely Walt Disney had nothing nefarious in mind—he was first and foremost an entertainer, he wanted to make magic that sold well) it can be galling to watch what you have done…altered.

I find it ironic that the film has been titled Saving Mr. Banks.  Disney as an institution has had more than a hefty dose of bad luck since Walt died and is often criticized for a variety of business practices which, while perfectly normal in the Hollywood milieu seem horrid and crass given the “Uncle Walt” persona the company wishes to put forward.  I realize it’s a play on the Banks family from the books and that part of the story Disney put on the screen concerns saving Mr. Banks’ soul from the creeping corporatism that is stealing him from his family.  But the film is about Walt Disney and his company.  Saving Mr. Banks, then, is about saving an image, saving a corporation, saving…Walt?

I have met no writer of books who was ever satisfied with the job a film did with his or her work.  Not one.  It is a very different medium from the printed page.  Those few films that have successfully (however one defines success) translated book to screen are the exceptions, not the rule.  The film maker very often finds it easier or more workable to just dump large parts of a written work and start over.  If everyone knows this is going on up front, then the results can be artistically fine.  Take for instance Blade Runner, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  There is maybe 15% of the book in the movie, but it is a brilliant film for all that it has departed from Dick’s original story.

Be that as it may, one wonders at the reasons behind putting together a hagiographic film about a relationship, while certainly important, probably few people really cared about so long after the events.  Why now?  Why this?  And what use is there in misrepresenting so much of what happened?  (Which films do all the time, this is nothing new, but for those who know better it is nevertheless aggravating.)  I wasn’t aware that Walt Disney’s image needed a new coat of varnish.

For the record, I liked the film Mary Poppins.  I’ve been a fan of Julie Andrews ever since.  I liked it.  I didn’t love it.  I disliked musicals then, rather intensely, and the story seemed somewhat removed, but there were moments, magic moments, that took me out of my young head and made me marvel.  Enough that I became excited when I found that book in the school library.  Enough that I was disappointed at what I found on the page.

And that’s a point.  It matters what we’re exposed to first.  It sets out expectations.  While it may not be cool to admit it among certain circles, if the film is the first thing to which we’re exposed, it sets a bar that the books then must meet or surpass, and that’s just as difficult if the relation is reversed.  For me, the film remains stubbornly primary, even though I “know” better.  In a time when copyright and corporate ownership of intellectual rights is coming under more and more sophisticated scrutiny, it might behoove Disney to put forth an additional bit of mythology suggesting that this primacy is the valid one, that through his almost saint-like patience and paternal good will Uncle Walt was the one with the preferred vision and Pamela Travers was just, you know, being difficult.

Even a cursory glance at Travers’ life belies this.  She was an unmarried woman who had been making her way in the world of the theater and publishing for some time, who was in no way the constitutional drudge apparently being portrayed.  To be successful in that kind of life at that time, she could not be without considerable experience and business savvy.  It’s likely she smelled snake oil in Disney’s wooing and she reflexively recoiled.  She knew well enough that such a project would make her material existence easier, even if her conscience bothered her.  To personify what was a pragmatic business decision as some kind of character defect—because she was repelled by the subsequent production—is unkind, unnecessary, and more than a bit nasty.

Something Disney is not supposed to be.


My Personal Hall of Fame

This is purely personal pique on my part, but in the recent round of nominations for the rock’n’roll hall of fame, YES was one of the bands being put forward.  I would like to be able to say “much to my surprise” they didn’t make it.  But I’m not surprised, just disappointed.

Which is silly, because I could not care less about the hall of fame.  I know what I like, a lot of it was at one time on the fringes of mainstream, things I choose now still tend to be under-the-radar kinds of things (though much less rock than in previous decades), and I still have my loyalties.  To be sure, there are bands I kind of listen to now, having at one time been massively devoted to (for a week or a year), and wonder what I found so wonderful about them.

But there are a handful I never tire of, especially not the work done in their heyday.  And YES is one of them.  I fell in love with that sound four bars into the first song I ever heard of theirs and even though they’d recorded some duds, made a couple of records of incomprehensibly bombastic ambiance, by and large, overall, I still love them and when they release a new album I buy it, unheard.  Even in their worst, I find things of transcendent beauty scattered throughout.

I’ve written about them before, most notably here , and I don’t really have anything new to say.

Except that I found, here and there, some commentary on the intraweebs concerning their nomination that was mean-spirited and depressing.  I thought, are we still doing that after over four decades?

KISS made it.  Good for them.  They worked hard, they have a large fan base.  I can’t stand them myself, but it’s a big world, room enough for everyone.  If I wanted to, I’m sure I could get downright eloquent about how I feel that sort of music did nothing but lower the general I.Q. and bring down the standards of music.  But it wouldn’t be just about KISS and it wouldn’t be just about certain strains of rock music.

But YES seemed to have made enemies back in the day, people who believe any attempt at elevating the genre above anything more than the old 3-chords-and-a-bridge formula was somehow a betrayal of “authenticity.”  People who turned to rock because they despised classical (or more likely because they didn’t “get” classical) and not only tore at the reputations of YES but at the very idea of progressive rock as a movement.  It doesn’t make sense to me, but…

But music is too personal for the kind of total condemnations or complete annointments it often elicits.  I love YES but I also love Santana.  Not only that, but I’m inordinately fond of Mozart, Schubert, and Howard Hanson.  Not only that, but I’m a devotee of Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Joe Pass.  I love Vangelis as well as Jimi Hendrix, and Joe Satriani is to my ear as much a virtuoso as   McCoy Tyner or  Immanuel Ax.

Such are the inductees into my own hall of fame, of which YES has been an honored member since 1970.

Thank you for indulging me in a brief declaration of personal taste.

War On Christmas?

By now most people know about the flap over FOX News person Megyn Kelly’s absurd remarks concerning the ethnicity of (a) Santa Claus and (b) Jesus.  Actions within the DMZ of the annual War On Christmas have reached new levels of ridiculous.

I wasn’t going to say anything about this, but…

Santa Claus is white?  Really?  After all this time, we’re going to have that debate?

If you must know, Santa Clause is your favorite uncle dressing up in a red suit and bellowing joyously at a key moment in your life.  What color is he?  What nationality?  Whatever you answer, then you know what color Santa Claus is.

Santa Claus is not St. Nicholas.  Not because an argument cannot be made that the legends of St. Nikolaos of Myra (or Bari, depending which one prefers) can’t be construed as the model for the modern Saint Nick, Sinterklaas, aka Santa Claus, but because Santa Claus, culturally, is something else altogether by dint of centuries of “drift” and the compiling of other attributes of distinctly non-Christian provenance.   Like Christmas itself, the two long ago became Something Else.  (The modern Santa Claus is more descended from pre-Christian Germanic Odin than anything Christian.  Christmas itself, as we practice is, is from the Yule celebrations of the same pagan tradition.)

Jesus…well, really, does this actually need explaining?

But the question is, does all this constitute any kind of “War On Christmas”?  I don’t see Christmas suffering a bit.  It is now as has been since I can remember a time of family, of friends, of fellowfeeling, of charity, corny music, decorations, and the setting aside for a day, a week, a month of petty differences to embrace one another.  I haven’t seen much evidence that we’re doing any less of this than ever before.

What there is some struggle over is the idea that some people have it wrong and that those who think they have it right have some kind of obligation to shame the rest of us into accepting their version above any other.  Failing that, they then take it upon themselves to take our indifference to their dogmatic myopia as evidence of a war on Christmas and launch a counterattack by pissing and moaning about…

Well, frankly, about style.  As far as I can tell, they don’t like what other people’s Christmas looks like.  For one, we seem to have these other traditions all mingled in—Hannukah and Kwanza—distorting and “sullying” their vision, as if it’s all some kind of banquet hall and they object to the decorations.

I suppose what really bothers me this time is the flat out racism in evidence.  Santa Claus is white, get over it.  Jesus is white, historical fact, too bad about all you other people who think it might be otherwise.


Let me ask, in all seriousness, what color is the human heart?  I don’t mean the muscle, I mean the essence of our sentiment.  What color is that?  Because I was raised to believe that both Santa Claus and Jesus were all about the human heart, about healing it, about nurturing it, about celebrating it, which makes it an essential aspect of our commonality.  After discarding much of the silliness of both icons, I still find inspiration and succor in that basic truth.  I think that part is a good idea and how it is celebrated is irrelevant alongside the idea that it is celebrated.

And that has no color.  No ethnicity.  No politics, no religion, no ideology.  Just you and me and who we love and who we wish to love and the desire that love be the universal attribute by which we know ourselves.

So if there’s a war on Christmas, it is being prosecuted by those who keep insisting that there can be only one way to celebrate it.  Such people are truly small of spirit, and now it appears they’re bigoted as well.

Which is really sad.  Look at the opportunity being passed up in this, of getting outside your tiny enclave of conspiracy-driven paranoia and siege mentality and finding out that maybe those people down the street you’re not sure about are really kind of cool and interesting.  Being so publicly obsessed withe tropes instead of getting down with the True Meaning of the Holiday is just dumb and more than a little hateful.

Christmas is what we make it, out of the feelings of sharing and discovery and renewal.  It’s about being open and forgiving and generous and for one day out of the year setting aside differences and realizing that, in a very basic way, there aren’t any.  It’s about letting in the idea that we can be better together than alone and that shared joy multiplies and that there ought to be no limits on that.  It’s a Technicolor time.

It shouldn’t be whitewashed.

Status Update

It’s winter.  Officially.  Stuff is falling from the sky, sticking to things, and it’s cold.

A couple of things of recent note.  This past weekend, one of my coworkers at Left Bank Books got married.  She held it in the bookstore, after closing on Sunday, and another coworker officiated.  I shot photographs.  It was wonderful.

That morning, I went to the gym and had a surprisingly good workout.  Last year, I was aiming at doing a thousand pounds on the leg press.  I reached 930 lbs before my little abominal abdominal incident put me right back down in the whimpy weights.  Sunday I did 900 lbs.  I don’t think I’ll make a thousand by years’ end, but I feel not at all bad about this.

I have a few more stories to edit for my short story collection, which now has a (tentative) release date—May 10th, 2014.  I’ve seen the cover art already and it ranks with my favorite covers, done by a local artist named John Kaufman, who deserves a look.  I am delighted that the collection will be sporting such a cool cover.

My friend Nicola Griffith‘s new novel, Hild, was release in November—11-12-13—and is doing very well.  I myself have sold half a dozen copies already and it’s on my Christmas Season hand-picked list at the store.  Go check it out, your brain will thank you.

I have been working for the last several weeks on the third volume of my alternate history trilogy, the Oxun Trilogy, and I have run headlong into a number of problems (one of which is that I’m trying to get a novel started during Christmas season when time is at a premium).  I’ve written the first two or three chapters now four times.  I am poring over my research, poking at it, trying to find a way in.  Finally, I had a breakthrough and realized that I’ve been starting the damn thing in the wrong place.  Note to aspiring writers: this is often the problem with stories that will not advance beyond a certain point.  Not the only problem, but a big one.

Of course, this realization has necessitated acquiring a whole slew of new books specifically about—Napoleon in Egypt!  If anyone out there reading this has a suggestion for a fairly detailed history of specifically the scientific mission, I would appreciate it.

Given the above, I’m doing something with this novel that I almost never do—outlining.  I don’t think I have the time to wing it and correct it all later.  I need to know very well where I’m going and when.

Earlier conceptions of the book required an outline of a different sort, and that is still there, but this is different.

Christmas at Left Bank Books is generally a time of insanity, madness, massive customer presence, and long hours.  Which means I may not be making many posts till next year.  I thought I’d let anyone interested know what’s going on.

If I don’t get to say it later, Have A Happy Holiday!