More Quotes

I should point out that some of the quotes I’m putting up are my own thoughts, based on something I read. So anything unattributed is probably mine. With that in mind, here are a few more.

Numbers suggest, constrain, and refute; they do not, by themselves, specify the content of scientific theories.

H.H. Goddard and Robert Yerkes and Lewis Teman managed to supply the U.S. Government with a supposedly scientific basis for passing the strict immigration laws of 1924 that effectively kept millions of Europeans from coming here where Hitler was coming to power. They had nowhere to flee, since American I.Q. tests indicated they were of inferior racial stock and could not be allowed into America to “dilute” our native intelligence.

“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Oliver Wendell Homes, jr., Buck vs. Bell Supreme Court 1927

Alfred Binet destroyed Broca’s process of division by craniometric study, determined his own predilection toward subjective bias, and formulated the first crude I.Q. tests (1905). “The scale, properly speaking, does not permit the measure of intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.” Nevertheless, his work, misunderstood and coopted, was used to create the Standford-Binet I.Q. test, which held sway over the educational destinies of American children for decades, even though misapplied.

“A society defines what is normal and what is crazy—and then says anyone who challenges the definition is crazy.” Elizabeth Butler from “The Falling Woman” by Pat Murphy

Quotes and Musings

As salve for the more astringent posts preceding, I thought I’d start putting up a series of some of my favorite quotes.  I began keeping these on a pad of legal paper years ago, anytime I came across something I really liked, thinking maybe one day I could use them as epigrams.  Well, the pages are starting to tear and I need to put them in some more permanent form.  So I’m going to put them here.  And continue the practice online.  Some days I may just put up one, others I’ll do a few.

Bear in mind that in many instances I do not necessarily agree with the sentiments expressed.  Often I disagree strongly, but the quote is fertile ground for debate, and that I welcome.

I put one up a few posts back, the one about equality from Roberto Calasso.  So now, here are a few more.  Enjoy.

“All great efforts to improve human beings by way of training are thwarted through the apathy of those who hold the sole feasible road to be that of stricter breeding.”   Charles Spearman, 1927

“Well, I mean, yes idealism, yes the dignity of pure research, yes the pursuit of truth in all its forms, but there comes a point I’m afraid where you begin to suspect that if there’s any real truth, it’s that the entire multidimensional infinity of the Universe is almost certainly being run by a bunch of maniacs.”  Frankie Mouse, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself.” Roland Barthes

“Persistence of the normal is strong.”  Barbara Tuchman

Georgia On My Mind

Just when we thought it was a good time to buy one of those magnificent, Soviet-era dachas in Georgia, this happens.

We’re getting the updates on the most spectacular round of this event, but the fact is this has been brewing since the break up of the Soviet Union. Georgia couldn’t wait to get out from under Russia’s thumb, where it had been for two centuries at least. That they could not understand the desire on the part of the Ossetians and Abkhazzians to get out from under their thumb is proof that willful blindness, when politically inspired, is alive in all parts of the world. Georgia has been conducting low-level warfare in these two regions since 1993 at least. What has prompted this present crisis is Georgia’s president’s decision—due to a promise he made in his election campaign—to settle the issue once and for all and bloody well take the two provinces in question. In anyone’s lexicon of who to blame, Georgia is here the equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its decision to annex Kuwait (or China in its decision to annex Tibet—but for diplomatic reasons we don’t wish to draw such comparisons).

By that calculus, Russia has acted the part of the United States by invading Georgia and beating it about the head and shoulders until leaves Ossetia and Abkhazzia alone.

So why are we condemning Russia?

Because Georgia is the poster-child for America’s post-Soviet ambitions to see democracies spring up and flourish all over the former superpower. Saakhashvilli won a more or less open election with a staggering landslide (something the Republicans claim often but never achieve for themselves) and Georgia has every appearance of becoming a successful democracy.

We’ve made commitments, at least verbally. We told Georgia we’d back them. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Just what does that mean, though? Back them how? Cheer? Send money? Troops?

We are organizing humanitarian aid. We want to use our military to deliver it (though that’s still tentative). This would put U.S. troop in Georgia, sort of a glove on the ground in front of Russia, a school yard dare. If Bush plays this right, we may be in a shooting conflict with Russia before he leaves office. McCain’s rhetoric seems to support the idea that we should push Russia out. Diplomatically, of course (if possible).

But the fact remains that Georgia was the bad guy first. We should have told Saakhashvilli to leave those two little breakaway states alone*. Democracy being our religion, our missionary zeal should have inspired us to take the side of the underdog. Or in this case the under-underdog.

I am not so naive as to believe that the reasons for saying this and not saying that in a political situation are not complex. But the consequences of policy can often surprise and embarrass us. Damnit, why can’t the allies we back just behave?

Saakhashvilli and Vladimir Putin have also had a running cut fight going on since they got in each others’ faces. There is no love lost between these two. At times it has been juvenile, with references to height or brains. Doubtless Putin welcomed an opportunity to humiliate Saakhashvilli and that, too, is bad public policy. As I say, juvenile.

Doesn’t this all remind us of someone else, though?

The real tragedy is that here we have a president who has squandered whatever moral authority he had by essentially behaving in more or less the same way—naked aggression, overt regime change, nation building, using any excuse to send in troops, a snide remark about not needing a permission slip from the U.N. etc etc—trying to shake his finger, school-principle-wise, in Russia’s face, scolding them in a classic “Do what I say, not what I do” moment.

Now, for their part, Russia has a problem it will need to get over. What Putin really doesn’t want is for Georgia to become a member of NATO. Bad enough to have all the former Eastern Bloc countries signing up in what Russia can only perceive as a competitor organization—not necessarily the enemy, but surely we can understand their sentiment in feeling that Europe, not to mention the United States, may still feel a bit of concern over Russia’s ambitions and the bases of her fears? So it is reasonable to see Russia’s attack on Georgia as—also—a warning. Russia is saying, “Look, we can overrun this pissant democracy whenever we want, so have a care what kind of deals you make with them.” This is a form of gunboat diplomacy. Russia is probably saying more to us than to Georgia, which they consider a nuisance more than a threat. But they would like to keep it a nuisance. By joining NATO and allying itself with the West in such an overt way, Georgia does become a threat.

So what? If Georgia wants to join NATO and we want them, so be it. But we really ought to be more careful what kind of commitments we make to what kind of leaders and we ought to be willing publicly to chastise such leaders when they become antithetical to the stated goals of American policy.

*Because in point of fact, the state department told Saakhashvilli not to go into Osettia. We knew he was about to do it. We suggested in very strong terms that this would not be a very good idea. He ignored it. We’re downplaying that now. Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should let some of these sorts hang out to dry when they go against what we not only believe but in fact told them about.

It all goes back to what kind of promises got made. And man we need to be more careful with those.

I’ve heard mention of Teddy Roosevelt with regards to Bush’s ideas on foreign policy. Bush seems to like the Big Stick approach. But take note—Teddy said “Speak softly” first. He rarely used the Stick. It was a warning as much as a prescription. For all his bombast, Teddy Roosevelt was a cautious diplomatist. He had a grasp, as they say.

This guy doesn’t.

Apparently neither do many of his allies.

Equality and History

This will be brief.  Going along with my last couple of quotes concerning the election and all that it implies this year, I thought I’d post one of my very favorite quotes.  This comes from a wonderful book about the Heroic Myths of the Greeks, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso.  I recommend this to anyone struggling with mythology and origin motifs and the history of so many things Hellenic we take for granted.  Anyway, this quote is one of those “obvious” things we usually forget about when dealing at a fever pitch with, you know, equality.

Equality only comes into being through initiation.  It does not exist in nature, and society wouldn’t be able to conceive of the idea if it weren’t structured and articulated by initiation.  Later, there comes a moment when equality is geared into history and thence marches on and on until the unsuspecting theorists of democracy imagine they have discovered it—and set it against initiation, as though it were its opposite.

Elitism

In a previous post I talked about merit. It seems this election ability and expertise are hot topics. McCain has decided to attack Obama as Elitist. One wonders if he has any idea what that means.

To be utterly dismissive about it, it seems to mean that Obama speaks with an educated accent, uses words precisely, and refrains from talking to his audience as though they had only an eighth-grade education.

Unfortunately, we can’t be dismissive about it, because this sort of attack has historically played well in this country, and not always for the same reason.

Let’s start with Websters, though:

Elite: Those who are choice or select; the best; a kind of typewriter having twelve characters to the linear inch.

Elitism: The practice of rule by the elite class; the belief that this practice should prevail; a pride in belonging to an elite class.

Aside from the typewriter, what we have in those definitions is a mix of something being described as the best and an implied structure that separates members of a class from everyone else. In latter case, we tend to be suspicious of such folks because, as we all know, membership in a group does not automatically equate to possession of all the traits of that group. Meaning simply that just because everyone else is competent, brilliant, talented, good-looking, and popular doesn’t mean junior will be. But the group will defend junior’s privilege to pretend to be all those things, unto the detriment of the group. Often. This leads to potential disaster, as we have seen time after time.

As for members of an elite being the best, well, the way that should work is from the outside in—the best become part of the elite rather than being presumed to be the best because they were born into it.

This comes up strikingly in the current campaign. Garrison Keillor recently weighed in on McCain’s tactics over at Salon.com

And it’s an amazing country where an Arizona multimillionaire can attack a Chicago South Sider as an elitist and hope to make it stick. The Chicagoan was brought up by a single mom who had big ambitions for him, and he got scholarshipped into Harvard Law and was made president of the law review, all of it on his own hook, whereas the Arizonan is the son of an admiral and was ushered into Annapolis though an indifferent student, much like the Current Occupant, both of them men who are very lucky that their fathers were born before they were. The Chicagoan, who grew up without a father, wrote a book on his own, using a computer. The Arizonan hired people to write his for him. But because the Chicagoan can say what he thinks and make sense and the Arizonan cannot do that for more than 30 seconds at a time, the old guy is hoping to portray the skinny guy as arrogant.

Good luck with that, sir.

The elite to which McCain belongs seems to be of the born-into variety, at least under the terms of his attack on Obama. We can take nothing away from the man based on his war record, nor should we even attempt it. Personally, I’ve never put much stock in the whole “mediocre student” argument, even in the case of Bush. I was a mediocre student. If people choose to judge me on that basis, well, as far as I’m concerned they have a very narrow scope. But that’s personal anecdote, which is always dangerous. Nevertheless, McCain became a fighter pilot, and one does not get to do that if one is in general mediocre. In spite of the family managing to get him into Annapolis (which only goes so far—getting junior into Annapolis does not mean the family can keep him there, nor does it mean that, because daddy was an admiral that the Navy would let junior go through fighter training if he displayed indifference to training).

We do, in this country, make the mistake often of assuming skills in one area translate automatically to skills in another. It does happen. Many people are multi-talented. Ability is somehow raw and polymaths do exist.

But it’s not automatic. You have to work at it.

Obama has a demonstrated willingness to work at things. He’s had to. The question is, does this make him an elitist?

Taking Bush as an example, the claim he makes (or has had made for him) is that he is not an elitist. The logic may be something like the following:

“Just ’cause we got a lot of money and influence and can buy our way into positions designed to move us along the path toward power (and you don’t) doesn’t mean we’re elitist ’cause, really, look at me—I’m just as dumb as you are.”

This is the argument from the “I’m one of you” column of political tactics.

On the other hand…

“I came from a modest background, without the money to buy my way into anything, but I applied myself to my studies, I strove to shape myself into a capable person with certain skills, and earned my way into the positions I’ve had. Despite my more commonplace background, though, because I use my intellect I’m not one of you because I’ve made myself smarter than you. I am an elitist.”

Pause. Consider these two arguments. Which seems to be the truer description?

It is an interesting paradox in this country that parents charge their children to do well in school, get good grades, go to college, all so they can do well in life. It would seem that there is some grasp as to the value of learning. But we can also make the argument that learning is utterly beside the point, that the only thing of value in getting the good grades etc is the Good Housekeeping Seal one receives at the end and it has less to do with what junior ends up knowing and everything to do with the fact that junior was able to make the right associations.

Associations. Isn’t that the basis for an elite?

So if the latter reason for good grades is in fact the case—and it’s hard to argue that it isn’t—doesn’t that mean parents are trying to lever their kids into an elite?

Which, if this is the common understanding of the process, means that, really, the kid whose folks can buy his or her way through everything, regardless of ability, really isn’t one of “us” but part of a different elite and the kid whose parents urged, encouraged, and abetted an earned degree really is one of us (whoever the Us in that instance may be, but definitely common).

Which would kind of make McCain’s charge of elitism true—but it is an elitism of ambition and application, something we should all recognize as part of who we are.

Here’s the problem with all of this, though. It reduces the equation to one of Sets—which Set does the person in question belong to—and this threatens to render any personal qualities irrelevant. In this game the only thing that matters is the appearance of belonging. It doesn’t matter who or what the person is, only the characteristics of the group to which they ostensibly belong. It takes the individual out of the equation.

We have a history in this country of distrusting people not of Our Group, and for a long time that applied to intellectuals.  Adlai Stevenson is a famous victim of the kind of reduction to moronism national politics likes to play.  He was erudite, gifted, profoundly intelligent, and refused to pretend to be something he wasn’t.  According to the Republicans, he was an “egghead”—a label that seems to have lost currency in recent years, which makes me hopeful.  At the time, a college education was rare, certainly rarer than it is now.  The great wave produced by the G.I. Bill and the subsequent embrace of higher education as the mark of social status that came with the Sixties had not yet occurred.  People didn’t like being made to feel ignorant—not that they were, but in the hands of a virulent breed of politico they were told that people like Stevenson thought they were too stupid of comprehend their own interests.

But you can see it on a basic level, socially.  I don’t know how many conversations at parties I’ve shut down cold by contradicting a cherished myth with solid information or addressing an issue from a position of knowledge.  Party conversation, of course, is more ritual than actual discourse, so maybe that’s not fair, but if you go on up the continuum you find that certain myths never get debunked.  You can poke a hole is them all you want, wait a week, and the same people are repeating the same canards.

McCain understands this about people.  At least certain people.  That’s why, foolish as some of his assertions are, he knows those folks will respond.

What he has miscalculated, perhaps, is the effect this will have when it comes to the public apprehension of his opponent.  Because Obama is so clearly not the traditional target of such barbs.  People are having to do double-takes, rethinks, and self-examinations this time, because, while McCain’s tactics would probably work perfectly well against someone like John Kerry, they possess a patina of patronization about them when  aimed at Obama.

If Obama plays this carefully, he may succeed in making the voting public feel that McCain is impugning its intelligence by casting aspersions of elitism on someone who by every cultural metric of the last century cannot possibly be an elitist.  Obama may along the way instill a notion, finally, that being competent is not a bad thing, that knowing something and being unafraid (or unashamed) to say it, clearly, and not dumb it down is better in the long run for the country than pretending to some agrarian myth of American yeomanry, uneducated but instinctively intelligent, the model of Jeffersonian Arcadia.

That person doesn’t exist, not in any numbers that matter.  McCain is playing to something that faded out of existence as a national constituency half a century ago.  Obama is talking to the Americans that replaced that model, but who may only now be realizing it for themselves.

That’s an elite I wouldn’t mind being counted among.

The Election

Superlatives aside, I think everyone can agree that we have one those Major Elections coming up that are purported to mark Turning Points in History. We’ve seen many so touted that weren’t. It may be that the presidents involved in those Non Major Elections went on to be remarkable due to what transpired under their administrations, but that doesn’t turn their elections into something that could have been recognized as Turning Points. In a smaller sense, all presidential elections are turning points, because by the nature of our system we can mark shifts in historical currents handily under the heading of who is in the White House when the hairpin switchback came on us. But the fact that a given president was elected as major turning point? You have to look at what was actually at stake before the vote was cast and ask, in the context of the times, how much change was actually anticipated that would not occur had anyone else run and been elected.

That narrows it somewhat. By that definition, JFK qualifies—based on his youth and Catholicism, and one can debate which was more telling—as does Carter, based on a rejection of Nixon’s Imperial Presidency, since people stated clearly that an appointed Vice President represented too big a shift in our perception of acceptable politics to be tolerated.

Before that? Hayes, because of the national jerrymandering that resulted in his ascendancy. Lincoln certainly, since his election split the Union, and everyone knew that was in the cards. Jefferson because of his repudiation of Washington/Adams national policy.
In my opinion, most elections, in spite of the rhetoric, do not hinge on epoch-making change. Finer points can be argued, but the perceived good or bad of the candidates usually hinge on personal views of which of two roads leading in much the same direction is the better. The direction is not that different. FDR picked up and enlarged policies Hoover had already begun—recovery from the Depression was the issue and both candidates agreed. Distinctions of method did not inform the electorate, only matters of which candidate the people trusted to Do Something. As it turned out, FDR’s presidency did alter the national landscape, but the promise of such alterations did not inform the election. And in the case of Kennedy, people expected the country to change profoundly—positively or negatively—because of his election, but in fact it really didn’t change that much. Not due to the president, at any rate.

What we have before us now, though, is such a pivotal election, and one that has its roots in ideological perceptions ranging across the spectrum.

Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the divide has grown clearer by the decade between two camps that seem more and more irreconcilable. They differ profoundly over basic ideological concepts concerning economy, religion, foreign policy, science, and civil liberties. Not that the presidential candidates have differed all that much—both parties have striven to nominate candidates acceptable to the broad middle ground that exists between these camps—but the ideals and interests that drive people to the polls are more and more extreme, both sides struggling to find a candidate who will embody some kind of overwhelming choice, a fulcrum that will lever the country onto one path or the other, and in this debate those paths diverge profoundly.

Until Hilary Clinton lost finally to Barack Obama, it appeared that the race would be between candidates who pretty well embraced that ethic. Oh, certainly the fact that Hilary is a woman would have made this a Major Election, but her politics conform to the “least offense to the greatest number” ideal that has been informing party choices for a long time. Obama is arguably not in that mold. Agree or disagree with his stated ideas, he does not really fit that description. He’s young enough to believe differences can be made, basic changes can occur, and a better road can be built. Whether he’s ultimately allowed to do that is another question. But people perceive him to be an agent of change that is legitimate and sincere and potentially effective.

I don’t actually believe John McCain is his equivalent, but the fact is he is perceived by his supporters as such. It doesn’t matter. He embodies 20th century policy programs. He is of That Era. Maverick or not, his “independence” serves a vision of the United States that would be recognizable to someone facing the Kennedy-Nixon contest. He’s still arguing over the New Deal and the Great Society and whether or not it’s in our best long term interests to “give money to people who don’t work for it.” He probably still has some vague attachment to what has become a cliched envisioning of an Arcadian America, Traditional Family Values, and that while he wouldn’t himself advocate stripping women of their current rights and freedoms, maybe he believes it wouldn’t be so bad if women stopped “trying to be men” and went back to being wives and mothers and give up the struggle for equality. (Why else would he, the Maverick, embrace a Pro-Life policy, which if fully implemented by those who push it most fervently would lead to a regress to exactly that, overturning not only Roe v Wade but also Griswold?) Maybe he has some vague understanding that the future belongs to a changed global interaction and energy will have to come in new forms, but he stills understands such things in terms of oil and corporate hegemony.

His selection as the Republican candidate is a lukewarm repudiation of Bush, not because Bush was ideologically wrong, but because Bush failed. The reasons for his failure do not seem well understood by the Right. Talk of tactics and strategy avoid the harder analysis of basic direction. But McCain looks new, at least to Republicans, and I’m not sure why.

Obama, whether his ideas would work or not, is new. Not, perhaps, as radically as his detractors suggest, but…

Even so, the election itself will not hinge on that. What it hinges on is what we as a polity will find it acceptable to conceive in political terms. It makes comparisons to Kennedy all the more telling and relevant. What Kennedy’s election said was that this country, after 180 years of anti-Catholic sentiment, could conceive of the notion that all the horror stories about papists and religion were wrong, and that is would be possible to trust a Catholic to set his Catholicism aside and be a secular leader. It said that we as a country could embrace a new perception at the highest level.

I think this boldness on the part of the electorate carried us through the Sixties, changing one damn thing after another, until, exhausted at the terminus of the Vietnam War we faltered and found ourselves persuaded that all that change might have been in error, and at the end of the confused Seventies we embraced someone who suggested we could have The Good Old Days back. It was this shift in national mindset that Kennedy embodied that was important and made his election a Major One—a paradigm shift that we still carry with us. In the end it didn’t matter what Kennedy did, it mattered what we did.

So it will be in this election. Obama represents a paradigm shift—not that he would in any way be sure of fulfilling it, but insofar as we as a nation would elect him. It suggests that we are about to make a bold statement as a people about the 20th century and the Olde Time Crap that is currently crippling the Republicans.

But it is also the first election in a long, long time that cannot be predicted. Until the votes are in, there is no basis for making predictions.

What has been happening in many districts on the local level for years now is a curious malaise setting in among Republican voters. They are experiencing what Democrats were up till now—if asked, they state their support for this candidate or that, but on the day it seems in many places they’re just staying home. The majority of Democrats now in congress can be to some degree attributed to this. The Republicans are exhausted. I think many of them are also disgusted. I think many of them are just as weary of the right wing jeremiad as the Left is. The trouble is, it makes polling totally irrelevant.

As does Obama’s race. Odious as it may sound, it’s possible many people are telling pollsters that they support him, but on the day, standing in that booth, the decision before them, many of those same people may decide that they really aren’t ready to have a black man as president.

I would like to think I’m wrong. I hope so. But it renders all polls problematic.

We won’t know till the count is in.

It may also be that the paradigm shift I mentioned has already occurred, and that just the fact that Obama is taken seriously and there has been as little racial flavor to this election as there would have been in, say, 1984 (and yes, the New Yorker notwithstanding, there really has been damn little race-baiting so far) means we’ve already moved past something we’ve been struggling to get over since Brown v the Board of Education. (Yes, the same can be said of Hilary being taken so seriously.)

The vote in November may well be a turning point, not because Barack Obama might win, but because by winning we will have made a statement about which road to take. That makes it a Major Election. Obama therefore doesn’t have to be the equivalent of past great presidents—he doesn’t have to be Kennedy (who wasn’t all that great) or FDR or Teddy. All he has to be is a clear signpost at the fork in the road.

Old Stuff

Still cleaning things out, emptying closets.  Unearthing a lot of Old Stuff int he process.  I’ve never been good at keeping journals or diaries, but I’ve tried from time to time.  Occasionally, when I go through one of these housecleaning fits, I find them, sad fragments, disconnected sometimes by years, even decades, a few weeks, maybe a couple of months consecutively recorded, and now…

I’m finding things from before Clarion, before 1988, when I was still trying on my own to break into writing—into publishing, I should say.  Spiral notebooks filled with cryptic notes, phone numbers, names now forgotten, and story fragments, as well as the personal expression of profound frustration.  It can be enlightening, amusing, embarrassing.  I kept a lot of stuff—old manuscripts, first, second, and nth drafts, thinking that when I became Famous some university would take all my Personal Papers.  You read about that from time to time—“The English Department of the University of Falsetto has acquired the Papers of the late Milton Toastmaster, world-renowned novelty and short story splicer…”

But I’m sipping coffee now and leafing through a couple of long forgotten notebooks and chuckling wryly (yes, he says, one does hear the wryness) at the ambition and cluelessness.  It’s the story ideas that I thought I’d never forget, the paragraph or two jotted down acting as place markers in memory for when I could flesh out the piece.

For instance:

I, Demon

In The Way of All Things it is said that each god has a demon who pursues him.  The god fights and while he fights he tries to do such things as gods must do.  The demon wins—always.  But as he kills the god, the demon in his turn becomes a god.  And so it goes.

And immediately following this, a snippet of dialogue:

“Insurance companies will own us all one day.”

“Not me.”

Ideas never pursued for whatever reason—probably because I just didn’t have the Stuff to follow through.  For another instance:

Shop of Midnight Dreams

There was a time you could walk into our shop and get anything.  No, not like an antique shop—that’s all second, third, and fourth hand, mostly garbage.  No, we provided all new.  If you needed a wool sweater like Spencer Tracy wore in Captains Courageous, well, we made you one.  It’d fit, too, guaranteed.  A captain’s wheel table with a glass top?  That, too, and fingerprints would never show on the glass.  I remember once Stella whipped together a spinning wheel that spun gold—that was a special one, you don’t get to do that often.  The wheel won’t work for anyone but the person it was made for and we trusted her not to abuse it.  My own favorite was a lost meaning.  A couple on rough times had lost the core of what they were together; it was all wrapped up in a memory.  I found it and gave it back to them.  That was one of the hardest but one of the most gratifying.  We could do anything once.

It’s all different now.  You see, Mr. Waymaker retired.  Sold the business.  I guess I can’t blame him who’d want to stay around if—

I know where that one came from, but I have no idea where I thought I’d go with it.

Another binder yielded a concerted effort at journaling from 1985.  The January 21st entry reads:

I’ll be perfectly honest—just this once: I haven’t got the faintest idea why I want to be a writer.  But, then, this is only this morning.  I have an incredible cold (the same one I’ve had now all winter, I do believe; I can’t get rid of the damn thing!) and I wrote two pages of purest garbage in my novel before trying to jump start the car.  The car started.  Success!  The novel is moving of its own power to an inexorable conclusion of blood and violence through an inexorable trail of very dull and badly wrought prose.  It’s strange: I’m watching myself screw it up and can honestly see no way to stop it.

That year it probably would have been Compass Reach.  Seems some things only become more sophisticated, but not much different.

I kept a lot of lists in these things—stories finished, stories submitted, stories yet to be born.  There are titles listed I have absolutely no recollection of.  I sometimes, I remember, jotted down titles in an imagined short story collection and then tried to imagine the contents of the book as thought it were finished.  Thought I might trick my hindbrain into giving me the story to go with the cool titles.

I find a lot of notes about Donna.

Other people, less so, but one of these “journals” contains the piece I wrote the day Earline Knackstedt died.  Earline was one half of the Gene and Earline team that owned Shaw Camera Shop, at which I worked for 20 years.  While she was alive and they owned it, I think I loved that job.  Earline fought cancer for a long, long time, and finally succumbed in April of ’85.  It was devastating.  Not so much the initial news, but the slow, gradual realization of what her absence meant.  It changed my life.  Instead of buying Shaw Camera, I became more dedicated to becoming a writer, and I knew that owning a business would end that dream.  Three years later I applied to and was accepted at Clarion and went from there.

It’s the last couple days of July now.  Supposedly, at least two editors I know of have promised to finish reading Orleans and make some kind of decision.  I expect to be rejected.  It’s not even a considered thought, just what it.  Give me another year or two, and it really will be as if I’m starting all over.

I have “started over” dozens of times be the evidence of this Old Stuff.  I ought to be good at it by now.

If the rain has stopped I must go walk the dog.  To be continued…

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.