Joy, Chagrine, and a Pretty Good Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was I thinking?

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

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

And all this Stuff to remind me.

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

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

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

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

Back to cleaning now.

Merit and Fear

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

We like to tell ourselves that such people are Heroes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of shock am I talking about?

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

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

But the main problem goes back to the merit argument.

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

However.

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

Wrong group? Do we still think that way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least, so such purveyors of intolerance wish.

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

What then will be learned from it all?

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

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

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

How can I say that?

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

And we wouldn’t be afraid of Obama.

Coffey (revisited)

Another repost. It’s a few days early for Coffey’s anniversary—June 18, 2005—but I’ve got a busy week next week, so I’m putting this up now. I will say, that after a rocky start, Coffey settled into a fine companion. She still has too much energy, but she’s a sweet animal and so good-natured as to be a model of canine affection. Anyway, on to the main thing…

It’s time. It’s been more than a year, hell, it’s been almost two
years, since our friend Kory passed away. The memorial
piece for her has been up…well, too long. I’ve been busy.It’s been
a hell of a time since Kory died.There’s no way to assess such a loss. You go on. It doesn’t feel good,
you can only deal with it. One of the ways I dealt with it—or tried
to—was through writing, but to be honest this past year or so has
been pretty rotten on that score. I’ve got a mountain of material that
needs polishing, finishing, mailing. I finished a first draft of an
alternate history, which needs rewriting, and I have a finished draft
of a new Secantis novel, which also needs attention. I have no new
contracts, I have nothing in any shape to actually submit, and all I
can say as excuse is that things have been not so good.

That only works for a while. Me, I get bored with too much self-pity
and frustration. I start doing other things. I became president of the
Missouri Center for the Book this year, a decision I’m still trying to
decide was worth while. It has, I’ll admit, been an education. I
started writing articles for local papers—not much, it’s terra
incognita
for me—but it was something.

We paid off the house. That took a hell of a load off.

And we got a new dog.

That’s right. I would like to introduce you all to Coffey.

Before you conclude that “Coffey” is close to “Kory”, well, you’re
right, it is, but we didn’t pick the name. Or rather, I should say, we
stumbled on it and she responded so whole-heartedly to it that we
thought she must have been named something close to it.

But Coffey is appropriately named. That’s her color—coffee bean—with
some frothy cream-white mixed in here and there. We rescued her from
the Humane Society. As we went through the pens, she was the only one
who didn’t seem neurotic. She had a real “Yeah? Whadda you want?”
attitude, but she was very playful. After an hour of negotiation with
Donna—we hadn’t intended bringing one home on the first damn
visit—we picked her up.

I’ll be frank—I thought it was a mistake that first week. She’s 32
lbs, very strong, and aggressively playful. She had some trouble
differentiating between her tongue and her teeth. Mouthy, as Donna
said. Now, Donna had been volunteering at the Humane Society for a
long time. Consequently, she was more experienced than I with a wide
range of dogs. She wasn’t put off. And it seemed that we had gotten
lucky in some respects. Coffey was thoroughly house broken. She did
understand certain commands. But others…well, we’re still working on
“Stay!” and we’ve had her now for six months.

The label at the Humane Society claimed she was a “pointer mix”. Yeah.
Mixed with, I thought, boxer, but then I saw the pit bull in her. I
thought “Shit” and promptly started doing some research on pit bulls.
Turns out, I had bought into the myths like most people. Pit bulls
generally turn bad because there are so many owners who think they’ve
just bought the ultimate macho animal and proceed to train them that
way. Pit bulls are actually what could be termed “people crazy”. Love
people.

Coffey’s day is made if she gets to meet a new people. She’s goofy and
playful and, as it has evolved, very affectionate. And about the right
size.

Despite her inordinate strength. Oh, yes, she’s a handful, all right.
And I almost took her back. But we’ve stopped the mouthiness, we’ve
begun teaching her to walk properly, and she’s settling in nicely.
She’s younger than claimed, too, so we got more puppy than we wanted,
but it’s too late. We’ve got a relationship.

She doesn’t like my crazy work schedule (neither did Kory) and now
Donna has a new job and her hours are long and crazy, but Coffey is
adapting. I think this will be fine.

And the other day she brought one of her toys into my office and laid
under my desk while I worked. This can be a really good thing.

Oh, yeah, and I am working again. Imagine that. Maybe it’s connected.

Anyway, I wanted to introduce you all to the new Resident Alien Life
Form—Coffey.

Since writing that, I’ve finished another novel, the historical mystery, but I still haven’t sold anything. I’m also into my fourth year now as president of the MCB, which, after long struggle, has turned a corner and will be Something. Also, I’m less sure about the pit bull I saw in Coffey. The older she gets, the more pointer she looks. She’s a beautiful dog, though, regardless.

Anyway, next post will be something new. Thanks for your time.

Obama and Resurgent Progressivism

Barack Obama has, for all intents and purposes, clinched the Democratic nomination for the presidency.  Hillary will jocky for position in before the upcoming convention.  Much speculation has been thrown about as to whether or not she’ll be a vice presidential nominee.  I am dubious of that.  Dubious that Obama will risk bringing her perceived “baggage” on board, dubious that she would accept.  I think it would be a hell of a slate, though, one that has only a single precedent (yes, there is a precedent) but with the roles reversed.

In 1872, Victoria Woodhull—a feminist, a suffragist, a newspaper publisher, a Wall Street player, a spiritualist, and free lover—declared her candidacy for president of the United States.  It was a serious bid, make no mistake, and one which virtually split the Women’s Suffrage movement in two.  Those who ought to have been her natural allies—Susan B. Anthony chief among them—couldn’t stand her.  They attempted to bar her from conventions, they denounced her in their own press, they threw obstructions in her path.  Why?  She was…immodest.

But the Women’s Suffrage movement was torn.  They needed Woodhull because she understood how to work the system.  She was popular, with men and women.  She understood how money worked.  She brought a lot with her, so they were forced to include her in their January 1872 convention as a principle speaker and as one of the “leaders” of the Equal Rights Movement.   As Anthony told the convention “Now bless your soulds she was not dragged to the front.  She came to Washington from Wall Street with powerful argument and with lots of cash behind her, and I bet you cash is a big thing with Congress.”

Woodhull was one of six women who appeared before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on January 12.  Their purpose was to push forward a Declaratory Act which would grant Woman Suffrage by vote of congress.  They had twenty thousand signatures.  That evening, suffragist and spiritualist Ada Ballou put Woodhull’s name forward as a candidate for president, leading the Equal Rights Party.  In May, the Party was officially chartered and Woodhull named as its candidate at Apollo Hall in New York City.

It was a progressive party by any stretch of the imagination.  Twenty-three planks formed the Party platform—covering education, suffrage, social and industrial reforms, several of which resonate down to the present:  graduated direct taxation, regulation of monopolies, labor laws, and a merit-based civil service to replace cronyism.

Because the Suffrage Movement has always been joined at the hip to Abolition (among other movements), Victoria Woodhull chose Frederick Douglass to be her running mate.

However, it was a publicity choice, one unfortunately not backed by the candidate in question.  Douglass did not accept.  He was committed to U.S. Grant and the Republicans and had been present at none of the Equal Rights Party events.  Woodhull chose to ignore this little problem and ran with Douglass the presumed vice presidential candidate.

By June the Party was deep in debt with donors bailing out.  By September it was over.

The Declaratory Act to grant suffrage failed.  Anthony and Stanton blamed Woodhull and her “precipitate” bid for the presidency.  Not to mention that Woodhull’s “free love” and spiritualist philosophies were unwelcome by the serious-minded and abstemious main line suffragists, who saw sex and booze as the twin shackles binding women to a second-class status (the Temperance Movement, founded the following year, joined suffrage and temperance and led ultimately not only to the 19th Amendment granting women the vote in 1921 but also to the 18th Amendment—Prohibition—which is the only amendment to the Constitution ever to be repealed).

Short-lived as it was, the Woodhull-Douglass ticket has become part of our national folklore, more for what it represented than for anything that it actually accomplished.  But a closer look shows that the ideas fueling this ill-fated bid were as progressive as anything one might imagine today.  It was, after all, the Equal Rights Party—and Victoria Woodhull was deadly earnest about that.  She sought to unchain everyone from the bonds of the past—materially and spiritually.

I have noted in the last several months the word “Progressive” coming to the fore, replacing Liberal.  McCain uses Liberal—expectedly, as a cudgel—but Obama, when he says anything like that at all, says Progressive.  For a long time, the Right has held a rhetorical high ground and dominated the discourse by controlling the language.  It has taken the Left all this time to realize that people react in often Pavlovian thoughtlessness to language and labels and to start using some of those strategies.  Most people on the Left tend to believe people are not so simplistic, but time and again we are shown that our expectations of other peoples’ intellectual capactiy are in error.  That and the fact that neuro-linguistics tells us this response is anything but  simple.

Bush has damaged the country.  Badly.  To some extent, this is because he has blindly followed his Party line—something conservatives are supposed to be above.  Mostly, this is due to his shortcomings as a leader.  He doesn’t Get It.

And of course he was handed a raw deal with 9/11.  Make no mistake, any president would have had problems dealing with that.  We were unfortunate enough to have a mediocre intellect in the White House at the time, but the fall out from that was daunting.

McCain is not a Bush clone—not on any kind of one-to-one basis.  But he is bound to a Party that has evolved into what it is under the influence of ideological positions which are untenable.  To become the Republican Party of, say, Eisenhower, they must divest themselves of a cumbersome element of what they perceive as their power base.  They cannot do this if they win.

In order for the Democrats to become a new kind of Party, one capable of dealing with the coming 90 years, they must have a focus.  Progressivism may be it.  Different from doctrinaire Liberalism, Progressivism is potentially a causal-based, reality-centered mind-set that could be flexible enough to utilize liberalism and conservatism as need be, something doctrinaire Liberalism could never do.

Obama has rhetorically held himself to be above the usual fray.  The minefield of race was a proving ground for him.  It is possible that he may be the locus for a resurgent progressivism which could free us from the left-overs of both the Cold War and the Fundamentalist crusades and catalyze the creation of a new American ethos.

But he’d better be damned careful who he picks as his running mate and how he manages his cabinet.  Because that’s where the difference will be made.

Would Hillary Clinton be a good choice?  She understands the nature of national politics in a way that maybe Obama, in his youth, does not.  She could be a powerful resource—Obama’s version of LBJ.  But she could also be a weight, binding him to 20th Century Politics As Usual.

Stay tuned.

Worst Ever

For some time there’s been a kind of running tally as to whether or not George W. Bush is the Worst President Ever. Other candidates have been put forward—Buchanan, Fillmore, and Polk among them. My own worst of list contains Andrew Jackson—iconic as he may be, his feud with the United States Bank catalyzed decades of regional inflation, bankruptcy, recession, and enabled the continuation of Southern slave-holding policies that might have faded as economically unviable under some kind of national debt management.

Here is an article running down Bush’s record and arguing for his position as Worst Ever.

I find it hard to argue with. I’m not inclined to, for one thing, but when you think back, Clinton’s presidency feels like some kind of Golden Age now.

I have a theory about why Clinton was so hated among those who still support Dubya. I think it has to do with a streak of isolationism bred deep in the bones of Americans. Clinton made deals, sat down and talked to people—“foreigners”—and generally acted as a neighbor to other countries. It’s a mixed record, sure, but our status and respect in the world was pretty high then.

Some Americans see this as not quite but almost treasonous. All this nonsense about illegal immigrants—and for some it extends to legal immigrants—goes to a sense that we should isolate ourselves, preserve what we have from the ravages of foreign investment, foreign entanglements, foreign anything. It’s okay to occasionally buy a Volkswagen or a Toyota, but General Motors should still be the number one car company on the globe. America won the Cold War and ought to be the only nation to hold the title of Superpower. But we ought no use it the way Clinton did.

Bush not only carried the big stick but he used it. Even Teddy Roosevelt understood that the power of the Big Stick was in its unstated threat, that using it actually diminished it’s might. And what did Bush use it on?

Well, he—or at least his administration—is a bully. He beats up on those he sees as a threat and stalking the schoolyard with a mad-on is his idea of a foreign policy.

But it reflects his supporters, who really are afraid of “ferriners.” His supporters are mad at Bush just now because, well, dammit, he got us involved with them anyway, with this mess in Iraq.

Well. I don’t know if he’s the worst we ever had. But it certainly isn’t going to be difficult for someone to do better.

Anniversaries

This is another repost from a long-ago Distal Muse.  But I’m adding a bit to it.  Yesterday was Donna’s birthday.

Anyone who knows me, knows that Donna is the love of my life.  There really is no other way to describe it.  Ours was a slowly-built relationship, a curious and unlikely collaboration that resulted in…well, we’ve been together for 28 years.  I think that should say enough.  She has supported my efforts, enjoyed the results, and more often has been the sole source of smiles in an otherwise grim time.  She’s my best friend, among other things.

One of the things she wanted was a dog.  We’d been living in apartments, of course, and both of us worked full time—me more than full time, with the writing taking up a good deal of “spare” time—and I was reluctant to bring an animal that needed care and attention into that.  But when we decided to buy a house, that was on the list of things I promised we’d get.

It was not the easiest thing in the world.  Neither of us was really prepared for all that it entailed and we made mistakes and lost sleep and—

See, we both of us take responsibility seriously.  We neither of us are the kind of people who would buy a dog, put in the yard, and pay attention to it only when it needed food, like many people seem to do.  However it would play out, the fact was that the dog would part of the family.

What follows is the post I wrote four years ago to commemorate the passing of our first dog, Kory.  So, without further preamble…

May 4th, 2004. At 5:20 PM we let go of a good friend. It was time.  Kory was an eleven year old shepherd-beagle mix, who normally weighed in at 55 lbs.
Donna always joked that she was shepherd, beagle, cat, and kangaroo. When younger, her jumping ability was astonishing. From a standstill she could reach our shoulder height
easily.

This section is about important encounters in my life as a writer.  I have to include Kory because of how richly she enhanced our lives.  We rescued her from the Humane Society. We think she was the runt of a litter–certain habits she got over only slowly (and some not at all) suggested abuse at an early age. If so, someone had been uncommonly
cruel, because she was less than three months old when we adopted her.

She picked us. Anyone who has ever gone through this process knows what I mean. There was simply no denying that she was going home with us. After a rocky start and a lot of sleep deprivation, Kory settled in to become a fabulous companion. Gentle, attentive, and a comprehension of English that astonished us to the last hour of her
life.

The best time for me personally was 1995 to 97. I had a chance to take those two years off from a regular day-job and try to be a writer. Kory kept me company all day. I write in the morning. She would come down after Donna left for work and lie under my desk until
lunch time. Then we’d go for a walk, eat, take a nap, clean house. She supervised.

She was sad when I had to return to the day-job grind. But she adapted. We trained her to walk off the leash. She waited at every intersection till we gave the word to cross the street. She was friendly to strangers, disinterested in other dogs, and always on the
lookout for squirrels and rabbits to chase. She never caught one, and I’m not sure she was really interested in catching them–she just liked to chase them.

Last year she stopped eating and starting losing weight. After a couple of visits to vets, we learned that she had a thyroid tumor. It had metastisized already, so there was no point in operative. We thought we had a few months at most. But we figured out how to get her to eat again, and she lasted till the date above. A whole extra year.  But in the last month, she took a turn for the worse. No energy, greater weight loss. She was not having a good time.

We were with her till she was gone.

Kory liked the idea of me being a full time writer. She encouraged it. She made us laugh. She took care of us. She was family.  She ís part of our history, the substance of what makes us who we are. She will be missed. She will always be with us.

Yes, we eventually got a second dog.  I’ll put up the post about her later.  But I wanted to put this one back up and to say that we now think back on Kory with only a touch of sadness.  The stories make us laugh.  She was a fine member of the family.

Despite the timing of her death, on Donna’s birthday, we had a good day yesterday and will continue to have good anniversaries.  Things end.  Even memory fades.  But the way things impact you linger.  Kory left us better people.  And that’s a hell of a nice birthday gift.

Discourse and Cynicism

I’m watching this tragic exchange between Barack Obama and his (now former) pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and wondering what may really be going on here.

Okay, so a lot of things Wright said in the past have been dredged up and tossed into the maelstrom of the current campaign to potentially discredit Obama.  “See, he went to this man’s sermons, this is what he really thinks!”

Can anyone really buy that?  I mean, seriously—how many people agree with every single pronouncement that comes out of the mouths of their pastors?  (When I attended church, I recall moving from a condition wherein I bought everything because I didn’t really understand it to a point where I began to question and then to the place in which I disagreed vehemently…it’s called growing up.)

The accusations Wright made in past sermons all had currency at one time or another.  AIDS was created by the United States to kill blacks (anyone with a passing knowledge of biology and genetics, or a bit of epidemiology—or knows a doctor well enough to ask—would know this is balderdash.  Intent aside, it’s not possible biologically), that 911 was somehow our fault (one could make a philosophical argument to that effect, but it still doesn’t fly in a direct causal sense), or that we are imperialists (again, if you want speak metaphorically, you can make an argument).  Sure, you can use these things as jumping off points to make broader arguments, and it is perhaps totally unfair of the media to have put these things out.

But then Wright himself, after claiming that he would not do so, has grabbed hold of the media bull by both horns and has contributed to the controversy.

Why?

I am just cynical enough to suspect collusion.  After all, this is giving Obama a wonderful opportunity to deny all the potential accusations that may come from a peanut gallery of racially-motivated antagonists when and if he gets the nomination.  He is able to use Wright’s statements are talking points to claim a clear difference.

Which doesn’t make anything he says in that regard untrue or insincere.  But having this kind of forum lends credibility to the sincerity.  After all, he didn’t bring it up.  He’s above it.  He’s not “that kind” of politician.

I am cynical enough to suspect it, but not quite cynical enough to believe it.  What this shows is the difficulty a candidate like Obama has being a non-minority candidate.  The discourse on race in this country leaves us with a problem for the candidate who wishes to be seen as an unhyphenated American—which is the best way to succeed in national politics—while being clearly affiliated with a specific strain of civil discourse, i.e. the race issue.  Barack Obama is and African-American.  What he has tried to do—and has been largely successful at doing—is convince the country that this is not his chief attribute, that he is not limited by the divisive aspects of the race dialogue as exemplified by Louis Farakhan and others.  He has managed to present himself as an American who can talk to all of us and is not bound by minority affiliations.

All it takes is one loud voice to remind us of that oftentimes bitter dialogue to drag him back into the fray and make us see him through a lens he has been evading.

This is the by-product of the long history of pigeon-holing that has defined this issue for centuries here.  On the one hand, minorities must struggle against the dominant insistence that they can be no more than what the cliched definition of that minority is seen to be, and it is a sign of heroism when an African-American (or Hispanic, Japanese, Indian, etc) manages to win individual respect against the weight of that insistent cataloging.  On the other, that same individual often must fight against members of that very group who seem set on dragging him or her back into the fold, unwilling to let them be an individual, insisting that they be representative of the group and no more and certainly no other.

Barack Obama should not have to waste his time telling us what he is not.  And we shouldn’t need to be reassured in the face of absurd accusations that a rational man is somehow a cloaked agent for an absurd position.

I am cynical enough to see that what should be in this instance is not ever going to be what is.  Not for a long, long time.

Sex, Gor, and The Good Stuff

The subject of John Norman’s Gor  came up recently in a letter from a long-lost cousin.  He wrote me about SF and different tastes and he mentioned this peculiar series and I thought, Damn, I haven’t thought about that since 1997.

I can name the year and even the week fairly precisely because I was in San Antonio Texas for the worldcon that year and ended up sharing an autographing session with John Norman.  I’d arrived at the table first, saw the name tags, and thought It couldn’t be…

But it was.

For those who may not know of Gor, this was a series of novels published through the Seventies which I can only describe as a combination of Conan and The Arabian Nights as if written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in collaboration with the Marquis de Sade.  Chains, leather, large bosoms, and a lot of improbable adventuring figure in them, although I was told by a friend that some of the Jungian psychology and mirror-world construction throughout the series was quite sophisticated.  I wouldn’t know.  I tried to read perhaps three of them—never finished any one of them.  I hasten to add, it wasn’t the bondage that turned me off—hell, I was 14 when I picked the first one up and any kind of gratuitous sex was appealing at the time—but it was the illogic of the plots and the sword-and-sorcery setting, even though it was written as if it were science fiction.  By my third or fourth attempt, the sex was beginning to bother me, but let me not pretend to a sophistry I did not possess at the time.  I didn’t know what bothered me about it, not till much later, only that it did.

The sex in these books shares something with a certain strain of Romance.  Women are forced to have the sex they apparently “really want” through the mechanism of a slave culture.  They’re tied up, they have no choice, and then discover that they like it.  What this shares with certain romances is the underlying liberation from personal responsibility.  No doubt this is true for certain people—I’ve been with a few—who really want to get down and dirty, but they don’t want to accept the responsibility of it being their idea. The conceit of “being taken” appeals because it frees them from blame.

As if blame ought ever to be part of sex…

For the males in these books, there is a similar loss of responsibility, since if things don’t work out they can sell the females—or get rid of them in some less pleasant fashion (they are property, after all).

I use the terms “males” and “females” quite intentionally.  These are not men and women—they don’t have the stuff to merit such descriptors.

All in all, these are wish-fulfillment fantasies of the first order, and after having spent an awkward half-hour with Mr. Norman I think I can say that with some degree of certainty.  Whether the wish-fulfillment is a device deployed in the novels to appeal to a target audience or an element of his own personality would be difficult to say, but I’m not sure such a distinction matters.

Norman fell out of favor and of course he was soundly attacked by feminists, and he made the mistake of defending the sexual ethics of his series.  I remember that it was an embarrassing screed.  It underscored the old rule of comedy—never explain the jokes.

The Gor novels are available, I discovered, from e-reads.com.

There are 26 of them now.

I remember that they had originally come out from, I think, Ballantine.  Then DAW picked them up.  The series was dropped due to flagging sales.  People had grown weary of them, which happens to many series, for many reasons.  Norman had decided that he was the victim of political correctness.  That is such a convenient excuse!  In this case, though, the numbers backed up DAW.

The thing that bothered me about the sex in these books I later came face to face with in my own life in a very unpleasant way.  I believe sex must be mutual.  Absolutely.  Power games have no place in it.  Both parties—or all three, four, five, or whatever the arrangement may be—must be there of their own accord, willingly, and with the clear knowledge of what they are there for.  Seduction for me is only valid if it is part of an already understood dance—in other words, seduction is foreplay.  The idea that it is to convince a somewhat unwilling party to do something they aren’t sure they want to do I find somewhat distasteful.

Long ago I was involved with a woman with whom I was, to use the cliche, Madly In Love.  I mean, I had it for her as deeply as it is possible to have it for someone.

But.

Turned out that we were fundamentally incompatible.  It happens.  It’s sad and occasionally tragic.  But one of the things that ultimately turned me off was her seeming desire to be dominated sexually.  She wanted me to “take her.”  I didn’t figure this out for a long while, not till other problems manifested, and then she threw it in my face as an insult, that I was somehow deficient.

It took some time before I understood that this was a pathology.  By “taking her” the burden of the relationship would have all been on me.  If it went bad, well, it would have been my fault, not hers.  My insisting that she be an equal participant ran afoul of that.

Twisty?  You bet.  How much simpler, one could think, to be in Mr. Norman’s universe where that was a given—woman are to be taken, and it still ain’t your fault.

I would like to assume the mantle of mature self-awareness here and say that I saw this as morally suspect and ethically bankrupt.  But the truth is, it was a major turn-off.  I can’t abide the idea of sleeping with someone who may want to be somewhere else.  Yielding shouldn’t be a valid concept in sexual relations.  How good can anyone feel about him or herself when they person they are having sex with probably doesn’t actually want them?  That the only reason they’re there in the first place is for reasons having nothing to do with mutual desire?

On the other hand, it’s not too hard to see why such pathologies emerge.  Sex is potent stuff.  It’s dangerous.  The pleasure derived is in direct relation to the risk involved.  Putting up boundaries, hiding behind games, negotiating terms all make sense when one is not sure about what one wants.  Sex is as good as the risk taken, though, so for it to be worthwhile at all, one must be vulnerable, and that is not easy to do.

The problem with fantasies like Gor is the pretense of no-risk sex.  The women are tied up, they’re not allowed to complain, the men get to walk away after a good spend, and there are no down-sides.  What was Erica Jong’s term?  The zipless fuck.

I’m not condemning here what used to be called casual sex.  Strangers meeting, screwing, parting, never to meet again…in and of itself, I can’t see a problem with it as long as everyone involved knows what they’re there for and why.  It’s just another variation of mutuality.  And no less risky than the committed sex of long-term lovers.

What I’m condemning, I think—if I’m condemning anything—is the attempt to “clean up” sex.  Clean up in the same sense as attempts to create a “clean” atomic bomb.  So there is just the initial explosion and no fall out.  Remove the risk, make it a computer game, render the consequences null.  Make it “safe.”  And remove responsibility from it.

As if that would somehow make it better…?

James Morrow’s Dasein

I like James Morrow’s work. (I like Jim, too, quite apart from his work.) His new novel, The Philosopher’s Apprentice, is exemplary. I think everyone should go out right now—right now—and buy a copy. If I may be so bold, this is what science fiction is all about.

Well, maybe not all science fiction, and even that which is about this does other things…

No, let me not equivocate. This is the pure stuff.

In my view, the thing that makes science fiction potent, beyond merely a neat ride to some cool places with some kick-ass characters, is that it is philosophy in action. I call it epistemological fiction. Epistemology, if I may borrow a quote from my Oxford Companion to Philosophy (the entry on Epistemic), is as follows: “A proposition is epistemic if and only if it has some implication for what, in some circumstances, is rationally worthy of belief.” Epistemology concerns itself with knowledge, with how we know things, and the nature of the whole process of knowing. By extension, it concerns itself with the nature of the knowable, and hence impinges on what we grandiosely call Reality.

Now, in the case of science fiction this can be a bit problematic, since a good deal of what we write about is not in the realm of what we acknowledge as Reality. To put it simply, there is no Galactic Empire (that we know of); we cannot travel faster than the speed of light (as far as we understand the universe to date); and there is no practical immortality. We cannot travel in time ala H.G. Wells, the likelihood of an alien invasion is next to nil, and sex with an alien probably won’t happen—physiology aside, we don’t (most of us) have sex with other species on our own planet, why would we change our proclivities for a be-tentacled zoomorph from Altair 4?

But.

In the introduction to his fine overview of philosophy, Think, Simon Blackburn writes: “I would prefer to introduce myself as doing conceptual engineering. For just as the engineer studies teh structure of material things, so the philosopher studies the structure of thought. Understanding the structure involves seeing how parts funciton and how they interconnect. It means knowing what would happen for better or worse if changes were made.”

In a nutshell, that is also what science fiction does.

We ask questions of the classic “What If?” variety in both philosophy and science fiction. The thing that separates science fiction from fantasy, say, is that we expect useful answers from those questions.

(Fantasy, though kindred, is not concerned with the nature of reality, but with the nature of myth. This is why readers can accept the fantastic nature of magic and dragons and so forth even while implicitly understanding that such things are not “real” but can then turn around a get mightily irritated at such things as sound in the vacuum of space or violations of conservation of energy in science fiction.)

What we do in SF is ask philosophical questions, primarily about the nature of being. The utility in SF is that, because we posit the existence of our fictional realms as real places, beholden to the universe in the same way we are, we can build the models that allow us to explore the human consequences of those questions. The castles come floating down from the air to rest firmly on the ground and we can go inside and study the architecture. More importantly, we can study the way the people living in the castle deal with that process.

For the most part, this is subtext. But it’s a subtext that constrains the characters and the action to a consistency which we can recognize as authentic experience. That is, if people lived in this place and time, this is how it would be.

That’s all. And that is also why questions of scientific validity are secondary, despite the attempt to define SF as a subset of fantasy simply because it decorates its stories with impossible things. We accept that FTL may be impossible, but we want to examine what life would be like in a universe (specifically in “our” universe, insofar as we know it) in which it is possible, and in order to do that we must make sure of the consistency of our premise. We have changed something and that change has consequences for authentic human experience. What are they?

(Fantasy, by and large, doesn’t care about such questions. Fantasy is not interested in the anthropology of Middle Earth, but in the reification of moral action. Setting therefore becomes a test, a journey through the underworld, not an examination of cause and consequence.)

Given that (and I stipulate that SF can and does ask other sorts of questions), we come to James Morrow’s new book, which is an excellent example of positing as real what can now be consider only theoretically.

Edwina Sabacthani is a top-flight, world-renowned geneticist. She owns her own island, the Isla de Sangre (Blood Island). She hires Mason Ambrose, who has just walked out on his Ph.D oral defense in disgust, to come to the island to teach—imbue, if you will—Edwina’s teen-age daughter, Londa, with a moral sense. It’s been lost, it seems, after Londa had a head-injuring accident, which also caused amnesia. Londa remembers none of her childhood.

Of course, not all is as it seems. Edwina has a staff, including a gentleman who is an expert at genetic manipulation—creating winged Iguanas and other exotic critters, most especially a huge tree named Proserpine who at one time possessed an actual brain with an actual consciousness—and some other people in other parts of the island who, Mason discovers, are doing the same sort of thing as he is for Edwina’s other daughters.

Other daughters…well, not exactly. And here is where the science fiction enters into all this thickly and exotically and becomes one with the moral play-acting with which Mason begins Londa’s education.

Say you are a woman who has reached a certain age and the desire to be a mother has of late become overwhelming. Say, further, that you are suffering from a fatal illness and have less than a year or two to live. You are supremely intelligent. You do not want to give birth and die, having essentially done the biology but missed out on the actual mothering. What do you do?

In the case of Edwina Sabacthani you employ your brilliance as a geneticist to develop the machinery and techniques to bring a fertilized ovum not only to term but to then artificially advance its maturation to any age you want. You produce, in turn, a 17-year-old, a 5-year-old, and an 11-year-old. This gives you the proper “spread” of key life experience moments of childrearing. They are all basically from the same genetic background, so they are triplets. They are, in short, the same daughter, in three manifestations. You can visit each of them by turns and immerse yourself in their progenic possibilities as a parent, partaking of the joys (and griefs) of each important stage of your offspring’s life.

There is, however, a problem.

Oh, not the empty brain problem that might appear immediately obvious—you’ve got that covered as well through a device which basically uploads all the necessay background information each child needs—but a thornier one you may not have initially anticipated. Facts do not suffice to make a human being. Each girl may be a prodigy in her own way, but none of them have gone through the necessary experience—living—to develop a sense of morality. You have, in short, created three well-informed and educated monsters.

The question of where our moral sense comes from is one which has haunted philosophy since, well, forever. Is it hard-wired at birth or do we acquire it, learn it? Since the process of learning begins practically immediately, there is really no way to definitively answer this question.

Except in a science fiction novel. At least, we can posit the circumstances wherein a fully form human is introduced to life practically an adult buy without a lifetime of learning behind its mind to fill in such delicate issues with any substance. What Londa—and the other two girls—must go through is a classroom education in morality which is intended to substitute for the way morality usually manifests.

Mason, with the rich history of philosophy to choose from, must decide which philosophers to use to base his approach on. One might think he’d choose Dewey, whose pioneering work in education would seem to make him an ideal primary source. But Dewey was pretty much a hands-off kind of educator, trusting the child to find its own path. He relied on the intuition the questing mind brought to the whole notion of learning, and merely supplied the requisite templates to best accommodate the questions.

Mason makes what to many might seem an unlikely choice. Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger is one of the curiosities that came out of the whole pit of the Third Reich. He had done groundbreaking work in philosophy long before Hitler came to power and is oft credited with founding Existentialism. (Sartre gets the credit for making it a major movement, sometimes gets credited for inventing it, but he built upon Heidegger’s work.) An existentialist Nazi?

Not exactly. When the German intellectual and artistic community began to realize what kind of a beast Herr Hitler was after he came to power in 1933, there was a division. Many left the country. Many stayed. Some joined the Party. Even among those who didn’t, many were supportive of the Nazi movement. A few probably even thought the Final Solution was not an altogether bad idea.

But those who stayed and gave support, no matter the reason, have been subsequently painted with the same brush—Nazis, with all that the label entails—and Heidegger is one who lived under that cloud. The direction of his work did change during the Third Reich, and in some ways it took on an ironic viewpoint. I’ll get to that.

Did Heidegger think the Third Reich was in all things a good idea? Doubtfully. He was probably one of those who thought a revitalization of Germany was necessary, that there were problems the Weimar Republic simply could not tackle, that the economic policies Hitler fomented were probably not a bad thing. It is difficult to imagine he would accept the racial theories, but like many others probably thought things would never get so bad. (The composer Paul Hindemuth received a rude shock from Hitler. He was very much a German nationalist, was proud of the fact that Germany was standing up for itself again and reclaiming its heroic heritage, and supported Hitler, at least in this aspect. He composed music to celebrate the new Germany—and found himself censured for being a degenerate artist. He never, I think, fully grasped where he had run afoul of the Nazis. When you listen to Hindemuth, you cannot escape the absolute heroic celebration of the individual. Hindemuth doubtless meant the individual German, but the Nazis were in no way about individual anything. Hindemuth’s music was degenerate because it was liberating, and the Nazis perceived that he would never compose march tunes for the Gotterdammerung.)

Heidegger’s chief sin, in the view of history, was that he equivocated about the Nazis and did not take a firm stand against them.

Personally, I think he was too stunned by it all.

Be that as it may, Heidegger developed the concept of the Dasein, which Morrow uses to great effect in The Philosopher’s Apprentice, and it would seem to be an ideal tool for such an examination.

Dasein is a German word famously used by Martin Heidegger in his magnum opus Being and Time. The word Dasein was used by several philosophers before Heiddeger, with the meaning of “existence” or “presence”. It is derived from da-sein, which literally means being-there/here, though Heidegger was adamant that this was an inappropriate translation of Dasein. In German, Dasein is synonymous with existence, as in I am pleased with my existence (ich bin mit meinem Dasein zufrieden). For Heidegger, however, it must not be mistaken for a subject, that is something objectively present. Rather it is comparable to the earlier separation of “Subject” from “subject” in the immanentist philosophy of Giovanni Gentile. Heidegger was adamant about this distinction, which carried on Nietzsche‘s critique of the subject. Dasein, as a being that is constituted by its temporality, illuminates and interprets the meaning of Being in Time. For more information, see other related Heideggerian concepts, such as being-in-the-world.

Heidegger used the concept of Dasein to uncover the primal nature of “Being” (Sein) which Descartes and Kant left unexplored. Like Nietzsche, Heidegger criticized the notion of substance, arguing that Dasein is always a being engaged in the world. The fundamental mode of Being is not that of a subject or of the objective but of the coherence of Being-in-the-world. (from Wikipedia)

Or:

Dasein: German compound from da (‘there, here’) and sein (‘to be’), thus literally ‘to be there’ and, as a substantival infinitive, ‘being there.’ In Kant, Hegel, etc. it is ‘determinate being’, especially in space and time, but also the ‘existence’ of God. It often amounts to a person’s ‘life.’ For Nicolai Hartmann it is the dass-sein of something (‘the fact that it is, its existence’), in contrast to its Sosein (‘essence, being thus’). Heidegger uses it for ‘the entity which each of us himself is’ and ‘the being of man.’ He does so for several reasons. Dasein is a neutral term: it does not commit us to viewing man as a biological entity, as a consciousness (Bewusstsein, a formation parallel to Dasein), or as essentially rational. Dasein has no determinate essence; its being consists in its possibilities, in what it can make itself be: for Dasein, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ It is ‘there’ in the world. But it is not confined to a particular place (or time); it ‘transcends’ and is ‘there’ alongside others or past events. It is the ‘there’ or locus of ‘being’: without Dasein there would be beings, but no being as such. (Oxford Companion to Philosophy)

You might begin to see where Heidegger had difficulties with the Third Reich, insofar as the world in which one’s “being” is engaged is necessarily part of the whole package. Corruption, disease, and perversion then become inseparable. “In understanding the world, Being-in is always understood along with it, while understanding of existence as such is always an understanding of the world.” The world he refers to is the everyday world, Husserl’s “life world.” Which would include the landscape of politics. He altered this by the mid 1930s, claiming by 1943 in On The Essence of Truth, that truth, and by implication being, is no longer principally in Dasein, but is the “open region” to which we are exposed. This neatly displaced man from a central place in his own self creation and rendered him but a borrower of whatever might be gleaned from the ocean of existence in which he is trapped. (This sounds more like Sartre.)

(It might also be interesting to know—and we can’t—if Heidegger regarded Hitler and his minions as ‘beings without Being as such.’)

In either case, Dasein would appear to carry with it a concommitant responsibility for self direction—in short, a moral center. Being There is a condition Heidegger related to being thrown into the chaos of existence, alone and without any help in finding one’s bearings.

However, none of us are ever so thoroughly tossed into the maelstrom and left there to flail and flounder about. At some point, we all acquire some kind of direction from those around others, intentionally or otherwise. It would seem absurd to talk about responsibility in a moral sense if no compass has been provided and none latently exists.

Which is, of course, precisely why Mason is eager to apply Heidegger to his tabula rasa charge, because here he finds an alert and conscious mind that has no experience of any such compass. And therein lies the problem which drives the rest of the novel.

Mason succeeds, of course, but the results—also of course—are unexpected.

Consider: we grow up in a complex of stimuli and examples of behavior often conflict. Right and wrong are in many instances contextual—and for that we have ethics—but we have a notion of absolute morality, which the world and its various manifestations confuses. The process of growing up within this landscape provides us opportunity to learn—to discover—the differing modes of interaction and how to define them, assigning right and wrong and all admixtures thereof to categories of response. To assume this education can be replaced with a text-book approach is hubris incarnate. We try to do this now in many ways. Learning by example seems indispensable, though we have also found that experience must be leavened by interpretation. Which is more important, though? And if, as some suspect, morality is innate, how much can teaching really affect it?

(American business would love to find a method of “imbuing” a knowledge base that is immediately useful on its workforce rather than relying on the rather unquantifiable realm of “experience”, which appears to create indispensable people, people whose lifetime of actually doing better fits them for the job.)
Mason’s success with Londa—and the success of the other teachers, to varying degrees—produces in her a profound devotion to a kind of Kantian imperative, an absolutist apprehension of the good, the beautiful, and the by god Right. Her vast education and native intellect direct her to try to take on the malaise of the world. It is as if she recognizes that her Dasein can possess no harmony unless the place into which she has been thrown, naked and bereft of a compass, can be brought into compliance with the moral maxims derived through the earnest efforts of her teacher, whom she lovingly calls Socrates.

It is when the world ultimately refuses to be ministered to where the tragedy begins.

Upon the death of their “mother” the triad of sisters leave the island and in Londa’s case begin to deal with the landscape into which they’ve been thrown. Londa takes the undeniable rightness of the moral compass Mason has given her and launches into a crusade to fix what she sees wrong. At first this is done through perfectly rational, utterly logical ways involving the improvement of the human condition. She establishes foundations to tackle specific probelms, medical, political, environmental, and social. Her work catapaults her into the limelight.

And brings her enemies.

Which, while intellectually she can understand, emotionally makes no sense to her. If a thing is wrong and consensus can be generally achieved that it is wrong, why then would any reasonable person oppose correcting the circumstance?

(One of the ugliest examples of this conundrum is the Civil Rights Movement. It is doubtful that anyone with half a brain disagreed in principle with the aims of the movement, and yet it was fought tooth and nail throughout the 50s and 60s by people who could not get around their objection to actually realizing equal rights with people they viewed as not only inferiors but as threats should the playing field be leveled. As if they said “Sure, you can give blacks equal rights to me, just so long as nothing changes.” The reefs upon which morality runs afoul…)

It may seem that Morrow has chosen a side in this book—and, indeed, he has, but not in the way one might expect—but he does not sell the opposition short. Because in fact nothing is absolute, no one is either good or bad, and the process of determining right and wrong is an ongoing task of compromise and assessment. What, after all, are we to make of someone whose company runs sweatshops in third world countries yet sponsors schools elsewhere? (Bill Gates may justifiably be accused of creating and operating an economic bully in Microsoft, but without it the Gates Foundation would not exist.)

What Londa lacks is the life experience to know why her efforts are challenged with such hatred and how to cope with it. When she is thwarted, her response is, while perhaps logical in some sense, irrational.

Mason’s own apprehension of the philosophical tools he uses changes over the course of the novel, and he comes to realize that while we may all be thrown into the chaos to wrestle with identity, ideally we are not thrown in alone. Interrupting—bypassing the “natural” unfolding of life—handicaps us in often unpredictable ways. And that each of us, when we enter someone’s life (perhaps with the intent to teach), must take care to recognize that we will have an effect. That even when we finally decide to walk away from someone, when we decide that our involvement with them is detrimental in some way, just having been there has altered their trajectory into the Nothing. A philosophical butterfly effect.

Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a Good Will. Intelligence, wit, judgment, and the other talents of the mind, however they may be named, or courage, resolution, perseverance, as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects; but these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them, and which, therefore, constitutes what is called character, is not good. It is the same with gifts of fortune. (Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals)

What is puzzling about [the] difference between empirical cases and cultural cases is that the first are without a doubt based on the testimony of the senses, but it cannot be said that experiential data are devoid of value in the second. Just for a start, an act cannot be recognized as murder unless there is some experience (direct or indirect) of of the fact that is was a killing. (Umberto Eco, Cognitive Types and Nuclear Content)

We have to seek for a discipline of the speculative Reason. It is of the essence of such speculation that it transcends immediate fact. Its business is to make thought creative of the future. It effects this by its vision of systems of ideas, including observation but generalized beyond it. The need of discipline arises because the history of speculation is analogous to the history of practice…The object of this discipline is not stability but progress. (Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason)

I began this by claiming that James Morrow’s new novel is exemplary of what science fiction can do at its peak, and that SF is fundamentally philosophical literature. Through the course of The Philosopher’s Apprentice we are treated to a demonstration of the possible consequences of a set of actions (Edwina’s “artificial” creation of three daughters, Mason’s choice of Heidegger as basis for his instruction). The question is asked, the plot proceeds, the characters learn. And as they do, we do. We may disagree with some of the conclusions, may even argue with the underlying assumptions, but that’s as should be. The whole point is to spark that dialogue, author to reader, and to confront questions which may not today have any immediate basis in reality, but may tomorrow.

When we step on that butterfly—or let it go—we have no idea what will happen next. But we should be aware that something will.

Done

I finished The Spanish Bride yesterday.  Two marathon sessions, Saturday and Sunday, got me through the last four chapters.  The last two ended up needing major reconstruction.  About a week or two ago I realized I needed one more plot thread, which required me to bounce back and forth throughout the body of the novel to insert the necessary connective tissue.

But it’s done.  Donna will go through it once more for nits to pick, but that should only take a week or two, then the last pass to straighten out typoes and such, and off it goes to my agent.

Normally in the aftermath of a novel I go through a bout of major house cleaning.  It needs it, to be sure, as I haven’t actually finished writing a novel now for almost four years.  I’ve gone from one to the next to the next to this one in a constant stream of wordcraft, with barely a break between.

I have, therefore, four novel projects now ready.  My agent has three of them.

First, for anyone wondering, there is a new Secantis novel.  It’s called Ghost Transit and it is complete and it is in the hands of an editor.  Should he take it, I have hopes it will be as part of a two or three-book deal and I have two more Secantis novels in the planning stages.  (I had every intention of writing a follow-up to Peace & Memory, which would have been the only direct sequel to any of the books, but the whole MeishaMerlin implosion scotched that idea.  I’d still like to do it.)

Secondly, there is a big walloping alternate history called Orleans, which is the first book of a planned trilogy.  It is set in the 1920s, in French America—one premise being that Napoleon kept Louisiana.  There are many cool things in this book and I very much wish to see it published and get the chance to do the next two books.

Thirdly, there is a space opera completely independent of the Secantis Sequence called Under Athena’s Eye, which was begun at the request of an editor, but did not pass muster.  However, I did more than a hundred pages of it and I liked the premise, so I intend to finish it.  This is the only project that is making the rounds incomplete.  A hundred pages and the outline.  It would be a stand-alone, but you never know how the unconscious works, it’s possible to do sequels to damn near anything.

Now we have The Spanish Bride, which is pretty much straight historical.  Ostensibly, there is a murder mystery in it, though honestly I’m not sure how much of a mystery it actually is, but there it is.  Something of a thriller.  I’m hoping it attracts enough interest that it becomes a series.  I have at least two more books planned in some detail and a concept that would see it through perhaps ten books.  It begins in 1780 and I decided that if I do a series it would go to 1821—Missouri statehood.  In that timeframe, there are numerous historical characters I can use, including Daniel Boone, Manuel Lisa, Aaron Burr, James Wilkenson.  I don’t even have to leave it set in St. Louis—in fact, the third book will largely take place in Pittsburgh.

There are a few other projects I’d like to do, but I’ve decided to stop here for now.  I need a sale.  I need a contract.  I need to know which direction I’ll be going next.  It would be nice to believe I can do all these projects, and in fact I probably can, but I had best not add any new ones to the list.

This is a strange feeling for me.  I won’t be starting a new novel after this until I hear something positive about the others.  In a way, this may be detrimental, but right at the moment I must confess to being thoroughly exhausted.  There are other aspects to my life that need tending to—not least of which is trying to find a new job, with better income than I now have, because I must be realistic about my prospects.  It is conceivable that I can strong-arm my career to the place I want it, but I thought that was going to happen five years ago and everything basically fell apart.

The simple fact is, I’m discouraged.  I’ve completed this novel by dint of sheer will power and stubbornness, practicing a kind of Zen self-obfuscation, ignoring the little demon on my shoulder telling me it’s pointless.  Being too much a realist can be detrimental to a creative process.  But this is the thing I wish to do.  I am satisfied at this point that the four projects previously outlined are good enough to accomplish this, that starting a fifth one right now would do little to advance my situation.

Now, before I get all moribund and morose, let me say that all of this is conditional.  I’ve quit before and it never took.  I’m not quitting now, I’m just taking a strategic break in order to assess my prospects and take care of some other much needed details.

Like cleaning my office and my house.  Like finding a more immediate source of better income.  Like dealing with the Missouri Center for the Book, which is doing fairly well at the moment.

But mainly I need to put my life in order and get happy.  I can’t say I’m particularly happy right now.  I’m not miserable, but I’ve fallen into the trap of using temporary distractions in lieu of real living.  This is part of the novel-writing process, it’s nothing new.  But usually I finish the damn book and go do something else.  As I said, I haven’t finished writing novels now for four years.

But right now I’m sitting here composing this instead of beginning the chores.  They’ll keep.  This feels more important just now.

One project looming, which may turn out to be nothing, is a short story collection from a new local small press.  I met the owner/editor a month or so ago and she is enthusiastic.  She knew my name and we talked about the possibility of a project, so I’m going to look into it.  I have a few short stories that probably fall outside the scope of the main body of my work, so it would be interesting to do something like this.  A couple of the stories would be new, previously unpublished.  We’ll see.

I’m more than a little ambivalent about the future just now.  It’ll pass.  This is just me being brain-fried from this extended period of work.  Give me a few weeks and other things to do and I’ll get back in shape.

Since about 1982, though, being a writer is about the only ambition I’ve had beyond being a good companion to Donna.  I’ve put so much into it that I can’t really see anything else.  Hence the career counselor I’ve been seeing.  Publishing is fickle.  Even if I get a new publisher, there is no guarantee that things won’t turn out the same way again.  I need something else.  But it’s hard to even consider it.  I’ll get The Spanish Bride into shape, send it off, and wait.  Maybe I won’t have to do anything else.

I’d really like people to see all this work, though.  I’m very proud of it and it won’t do any one any good sitting in a drawer (or a hard drive) unpublished.