Reach out in the darkness

26 07 2015

hands in the darkness

There was no sun this morning. Just grey sky and a dampness that drains the color our of everything. I haven’t slept well. The chorus was singing all night in my head.

I feel like I’m up against the world.
I’m no good.
Why can’t I ever succeed?
No one understands me.
I’m so weak.
I’m a terrible person.
I’m so disappointed in myself.
My life is not going the way I wanted it to.
Nothing feels good anymore.
I can’t stand this anymore.
What’s wrong with me?
I’m worthless.
I wish i could just disappear.
I’ll never make it.
My future is bleak
It’s just not worth it.

This is the chorus of Depression singing its classic litany. Every person who has every suffered depression recognizes it. They’ve heard variations on the same theme in their head. Just thoughts, just the symptoms of the disease, like chills when you have the flu. But when you’re in the middle of it, they don’t seem like just thoughts. They seem to be telling the truth. The grim, grey, hopeless truth about yourself and your life.

I’ll never make it. I’m too weak. I always do the wrong thing. I always screw things up. I’m going to lose everything. It’s all my fault. What right have I got to be happy? I’ve done stupid things and made bad choices my whole life. I’m useless, and I deserve to suffer.

Sound familiar?

Once you’ve been depressed, once you’ve had that prolonged, intractable stretch of clinical depression, those neural pathways are set. The road has been built and paved smooth. Even if you manage to beat it with some combination of drugs and therapy, those solidly wired neural pathways are still there. One wrong turn and you’re back on that road again. People who’ve had an episode of depression are likely to have another. It can become the pattern of their lives.

Like an alcoholic, for whom just one drink is enough to collapse them, the vulnerable person needs just one blow to send them sliding down into the pit. Unlike the alcoholic, who can choose not to drink, we can’t always choose to avoid the blows life sends our way. Life is filled with disappointments, tragedies, sorrow. None of us are exempt. Loved ones die. Jobs are lost. Marriages fail.

Frightened, frantic, too overwhelmed with grief and confusion to conjure up the weapons to fight it, despair and hopelessness like fat leeches hanging off your back, draining the fight out of you, you fall.

Fetal position on the bathroom floor. Unable to get out of bed. Wanting to hide, give up, desperate to do anything to make the pain stop, sick to death with the unbearable wretchedness of yourself and your wasted life.

It is at times like these that you need to have others around you who know the disease, who have been there, who understand how it works. You need someone trustworthy who will hold you tenderly, speak to you gently, and remind you firmly that this is the disease. No fault of your own. The judgement upon you, the curse and condemnation are just thoughts, just the brain generating ideas. Not facts, not the truth. Just phantoms, however real they seem. Yes, your troubles are real, but they are not personal, not an indictment of you as an individual. You are still loved, valued, as much a vital part of the world as your fellow creatures. Your troubles will pass. The sun will sparkle on clear waters again.

The ruminations of depression are just thoughts. Very, very, unhelpful thoughts. The brain is a marvelous thing, but it was not perfectly designed. It evolved imperfectly. For all its wonders, it makes mistakes. Fools itself. But it also has a way of catching itself when the limbic system or some other mindlessly reflexive component begins to send it bad advice and harmful messages. We can train ourselves to be aware of it. To recognize it. To see thoughts as mere constructs of the mind. Some are helpful. Some are decidedly not. We can learn to distinguish, with the help of others, the perceptions that save us from the ruminations that tear us down.

With the help of others. That is why, when there is no sun and the morning is grey, when the chorus has been at it all night, when all I want to do is hide from everything and quietly cry–

Hiding is precisely what I must not do.

So this is me, writing, posting, not hiding. Reaching out to the fellowship around me, to the sunlight in the souls of others. Together, we will not go down that black road again. Alone, the shadows will eat us. Together, we hold brave candles against the dark.

On Demon Pond

10 07 2015

water lily

I took a daypack and headed out. Can’t get up to the Whites, so I did the next best thing and took to the woods of Deerfield. I went up Ben White Road, which is nothing more than an overgrown track. It used to be the road up to (surprise) the house where Ben White lived, somewhere back in the nineteenth century. A family called the Batchelders lived up there, too. There are two old cemeteries along the road, both of them empty. Well, almost. The graves were moved to a nicer cemetery in the center of town, but I have it on good authority (the town historian, who happens to be my cousin) that a distant relative of mine is still buried up there in one of the two cemeteries. Ephraim Flint was just a baby, and had only a fieldstone marker with nothing on it. I’m not sure if it was because they just couldn’t find him or what, but his grave was never moved.

So I walked past the tumbled stone walls which imprecisely mark this hallowed ground, and nodded g’day to Ephraim, wherever he may be. There’s a stone bridge going over the brook just before Ben White Road climbs the hill towards Steve Hicks’ property. The bridge has fallen down, reduced to a treacherously narrow strip of dirt that you cross at your peril. But you can still see the huge granite slabs that they used to build the bridge. Never ceases to amaze me how they built such a thing with just the sweat of humans and animals, and a knack for engineering.

I don’t cross that bridge. Instead, I cut off to the right and bushwhack my way along the brook up to Saddleback Mountain Road. This is how I make my way to our local CSA, Saddleback Mountain Farm, run by Wilmer Frey. Boy, does that man know how to grow a garden! So far this year we’ve had big heads of lettuce, fat cukes, broccoli and cabbage, rainbow bunches of chard and fragrant bouquets of basil. Food, glorious food, just as delicious and wholesome as it comes.

But I wasn’t going to the CSA that day. I continued up the road towards where NHPTV has their station on the top of Saddleback. There’s a ledge up there with my grandparents’ initials carved in it, and that’s another whole story. I didn’t go up that far. There’s a trail that forks off to the left, the Parsonage Woods trail. It’s a boy scout project, and takes you across Saddleback and down to Northwood Meadows State Park. That’s where I went. There’s an outlook at the height of land. I stood for a moment gazing at those distant, hazy peaks. Later, I thought. Someday soon.

My destination was Demon Pond, tucked into the woods to the east of Northwood Meadows Lake. There’s a trail that goes partway around it. It was a beautiful day, and I had all day to get there, so I took some time to explore some of the side trails, mostly just snowmobile paths and logging roads. I got myself good and lost. In fact, I ended up stumbling into the swamp behind the Northwood Transfer Station, startling a deer in the process. She tore off right in front of me, and I thought she might have had a wee companion, but the grass was too high to be sure.

Well, I backtracked and followed the sound of traffic and finally managed to get myself out onto Rte 4, my legs scratched up and deer flies orbiting my head in clouds. But I was in a good mood, chuckling at my own folly, because heck, it was a beautiful day and I was out walking with a pack on my back. I hiked in through the main entrance to Northwood Meadows State Park, past the inevitable folks with dogs. Everybody goes there with their dogs. I used to, back in the day. Only have one dog left now, and he complains after about a mile of trekking. So I leave him behind to lay on the steps and dream of younger days.

It was about two in the afternoon when I finally found my way to the trail by Demon Pond. I reached the end of it and kept going. No destination in particular in mind, but I knew I’d recognize the spot when I found it. I stepped over brush and fallen trees, ducked under low-hanging hemlock branches, the pond always to my right. Then I came out to a gentle slope down to the edge of the water. This was it.

Demon Pond is pretty shallow. You could barely sink a body in it. There’s some stretches of open water, but most of it is covered with lilly pads. They were in full bloom. Lovely white blossoms floated on the surface near bright yellow ones like bowls on green sticks. And the air was thick with dragon flies. They darted and zipped and hovered, coupling and rattling their wings and dipping their abdomens in the water in the glorious act of making more dragonflies. As a result of all those dragonflies, there was nary a skeeter to be found. Nor any deer flies, hallelujah. I hate deer flies with a blue passion. With apologies to my Buddha nature, I feel immense satisfaction when I manage to smack one of those bastards and end its buzzing, maddening life.

So I found a perfect spot, right at the edge where the checkerberries and pine needles segue into eelgrass and muck. A big pine shielded me from the rays of the sun, which was pretty hot at that point. The breeze was heavenly. I cleared off sticks and pine cones and dropped my pack, digging out my old poncho. It’s heavy, army green plastic, the hood long gone and repairs made with duck tape. But I pack it because it’s great to sit on, and still provides a goodly amount of protection should the weather turn foul. I wore it huddled on White Ledge near Chocorua during a thunderstorm during my crazier days of irresponsible youth. Damn fool, watching lightning strike yards away, whooping like an idiot.

That afternoon by Demon Pond I sat in peaceful contentment, eating the sandwich I’d planned on eating a couple of hours ago, before my detour through the swamps of Northwood. It tasted all the better for the delay. When I finished eating I drowsed a bit, then sat up and stretched. Time for a bit of contemplation.

I got myself situated, legs crossed as best I could, towel folded under my backside, and I took in the pond. Sunlight glinting off the water, a brook splashing into it somewhere roughly across from me. Enormous tadpoles sunning themselves on submerged sticks, salamanders hanging in the the water, crows conferring somewhere in the woods, other birds piping up from time to time: winter wren, some sort of warbler, oven bird, woodpeckers, the omnipresent chickadee. Jays being rude and arrogant. Something breaks the surface. Can there really be fish in this oversized puddle?

I am here. My mind keeps throwing thoughts at me. There’s a worry. Stuff I need to do. Now my stomach tightens as something painful surfaces. Busy little brain, refusing to be still, running like a pack of spaniels all over the place. Patiently I guide my focus back to the present moment, my breath slipping in and out, the present scene spread out before me. Aware of my thoughts as I am aware of the sounds. Can’t keep from hearing them, just let it happen. Watch and listen. Be. Just be. Aware. Alive. Present.

Busy little mind reminds me I’ve got troubles. That’s true. There’s an awful lot of suffering in the world, and I’ve got my piece of it to be sure. We cause an awful lot of our own suffering by clinging to things that can’t last and don’t really satisfy, by railing against things we can’t change, by worrying and agonizing over the way things are, or aren’t. We let the bad poison the good. Fear of what might happen prevents us from appreciating what is happening.

I focus on this moment, where there is peace. I can take this peace with me, take the strength it gives me, and walk back home. Yes, all those fears and problems will still be waiting for me. I’ve got a difficult path ahead of me. But if I focus on each step, and just that step, if I keep striving to be open to others, to practice kindness and compassion, to avoid acting out of fear or anger, I can handle whatever catastrophe life throws at me.

And when I need to, I can come back to sit in quiet contemplation by Demon Pond.

Murders, Mayhem and Mischief in Manatas

3 07 2015

Murder_in_ManatasWEBtnI’m an extremely picky reader. I’m slow to take a risk on a book and I don’t hesitate to pitch it if I find I’m not enjoying it. Too much darkness, violence, or explicit erotica, weak writing, unlikeable characters, inconsistent plot, bad science or lazy research, or putting too much strain on my suspenders of disbelief: all will cause me to toss a book in the discard bin. I don’t want to be “improved” by a book if it needs to make me feel miserable in the process. I don’t mind being challenged, but it needs to be like climbing a mountain: exhilarating, full of delightful surprises, moments of doubt and indecision that are surmounted, with logical progression and triumph in the end. I also like to be entertained, but I don’t want my intellect insulted in the process.

So it took me a few times of hearing Roberta Rogow reading aloud from her Manatas series before I finally decided to give it a try. The excerpts I’d heard were intriguing, with an appealing humor. It’s alternative history, taking place in what we know today as Manhattan, but in the late fifteenth century. The island colony of Manatas is a diverse community of natives, Europeans, and Africans, all overseen by the Sultan Petrus. Locals (Native Americans), Yehudit (Jews), Kristos (Christians, including denominations of “Erse Rite” and “Roumi Rite”) and followers of Islim (Islam) all coexist more or less peacefully. Halvar Danske, around whom this saga revolves, places his faith equally in Mother Mara and the Redeemer, and Thor. The primary business of Manatas is the Feria, a raucous gathering of traders from all over. Halvar, the hireling of Al-Andalusian Calif Don Filipe, has come to make sure the proper taxes are being collected for his master.


His mission also includes tracking down one Leon di Vicenza, a brilliant painter, engineer, and notorious maker of mischief. But his job is complicated when he discovers Leon’s body, the apparent victim of a brutal murder. Now the mystery begins, as Halvar gets sucked into one adventure after another, ruining one set of clothes after another, in the course of doggedly ferreting out the truth.

The author sets a brisk pace, keeping the action going, spicing it with humor and surprises. She tweaks the names of people, places and things in a very interesting and believable way; part of the fun for me was guessing what she was referring to. Some are easy, such as Kibbick for Quebec, or fratery for monastery, but some are cleverly obscure, like nguba for peanut. It is an actual word derived from Bantu, and from which the word “goober” evolved. There is a glossary at the end of books two and three which help with translation, but I needed to refer to them very rarely. It is pretty easy to deduce the meanings from context and skilled extrapolation.

It is not so easy to deduce the solution to the complicated series of interwoven mysteries that multiply with each addition to the saga. Halvar, using good wits, keen observation and the simple technology of the time, manages to solve one problem only to find yet another corpse and get drawn into another, all the while trying to avoid becoming a corpse himself. This very likable hero must negotiate tricky politics, romantic entanglements, and local wildlife (the latter not terribly successfully) in his quest to fulfill his mission for the Calif.

MischiefManatasWEBtnBook One, Murders in Manatas, has Halvar arriving in Manatas on his mission and introduces the reader to this alternative world. Book Two, Mayhem in Manatas, continues the saga, with new intrigues and complications. The latest, Book Three, is Mischief in Manatas, which more or less ties up the loose ends, but still leaves room for possible sequels. One can hope. All are available through Zumaya Publications, as well as through Amazon, Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Online, NOOK, Kobo, and all the other usual suspects.

Roberta Rogow has written several mystery novels based on an imaginary collaboration between Arthur Conan Doyle and Lewis Carroll. She also combines her clever humor with musical talent as a filksinger, and appears at science fiction conventions, mostly in the Northeast United States. (She will be at 9Pi-Con, July 31 to August 2.)  Roberta was inducted into the Filk Hall of Fame on April 20, 2013.

Her Manatas series is a fun read, well-researched, with a mystery and characters that hold the interest and keep the reader turning pages. Here’s to Halvar, may he someday live down his famed encounter with the sekonk.

The Great Experiment

26 06 2015

Bard Owl

Back to contemplating Meaning and Being while my book goes to the printer.

How does a person decide was is right? Right conduct, right priorities, right choices in who to be and whom to be with. Nearly all of us grapple with this question at one time or another, some of us more than others. We tend to buy our life philosophies off the rack. The easiest path is the one we were brought up with. Catholic, Baptist, Jewish; Democrat, Socialist, Conservative; we have ingrained guidelines, and if we are in doubt, there are authorities we can turn to.

Or, we can poke around and find out what else there is to believe, and pick something congenial. New Age Pagan perhaps, or Buddhist, or just choose a guru whose preachings resonate with you. Deepak Chopra or Dr. Wayne Dyer, or even Earl Holt III.

But why choose one over another? If we just take on a life philosophy like a suit, why ever question it? Why would a child grow to question the wisdom of a parent, or a priest question the teachings of a church? What causes that gut reaction of, “Yes, that makes sense to me,” or “No, they’ve got that wrong.”?

Because at the heart of it, we all have an innate sense of what is right and wrong. Even monkeys and dogs have a sense of justice. Much as we might want to shrug off responsibility for making moral choices, deferring to authority rather than making our own judgements and risking being wrong, the moral buck stops with us. There is some unconscious part of us that reacts to ideas and behaviors, judging them valid or invalid. And like so much else about us humans, it varies wildly.

So we can throw up our hands and embrace nihilism, relativism, or some other brand of Nothing Matters So Why Bother, or we can accept the rules of the game as given and work with them. We have to make choices. We might at well do our best to make enlightened ones.

It is quite likely that we can thank evolution for what we are, including our subconscious impulses. Empathy and cooperation solidified bonds among individuals in a group and enhanced their survival. But under some circumstances, selfish, anti-social behavior worked better, and so that was perpetuated, too. Sometimes embracing novelty is good. Sometimes sticking to what’s tried and true is good. Life is complicated and different strategies work depending on the situation. Humans excel at adapting. Our behavior can be extremely variable, thus we have an arrow in the quiver for whatever game we find.

So here we are, billions of individuals, all running a massive experiment in which life philosophy works best. Is it better to identify the enemy and destroy them? Or is it better to overcome differences and create alliances? Should we be socialistic, or ruggedly independent? Worship and obey without question, or refuse to cooperate when we think authority is wrong?

Each of us has a role to play in this vast experiment. We see how, over time, even within institutions like an organized religion, rules and beliefs change considering what works and what doesn’t. We don’t stone adulterers to death anymore. At one time, that made sense to pretty much everyone. But it proved to be a bad policy which most of us have rejected. There are still individuals out there who would advocate for it (in Saudi Arabia for example); that gut reaction hasn’t completely died out yet. But our social evolution would appear to favor mercy over retribution.

As communication improves (thank you, Internet) we have much more to consider. We have many alternatives to what we were brought up with. If we are the sort who feels that breaking the bonds of tradition is a good thing, we can strike out on our own and build a life philosophy that suits us precisely, then share it with others to see if it resonates with them. We can continue to tweak and fine-tune our philosophy as we try to live it and encounter problems. We run the experiment for ourselves. What tends to work better? Reaching out to others, or minding my own business? Trust or suspicion? Self-indulgence or self-discipline?

By my way of thinking, a practice works if it tends towards happiness and away from suffering. And by happiness I don’t necessarily mean pleasure. I mean the sort of inner peace and satisfaction that makes a person feel their life is good. And because people who feel that way are much better to be around, I want happiness for as many others as possible. So this is my contribution to the great experiment. I find Buddhism congenial, have a great respect for science, tend towards liberalism and socialism. I value compassion and empathy, and believe that being concerned with the happiness of others contributes to my own happiness. This is the life philosophy I am building (it is a work in progress) based on the person I am.

Each of us does this, more or less, consciously or unconsciously. With our nearly infinite variability, we contribute to the experiment.

And over time, the best philosophy shall succeed.

The cover of Awake Chimera

19 06 2015

Cover Design Flat sample

As I said to Angi, it never ceases to amaze me how an artist can take a dream and make it manifest. I’ve worked most of my life to master the art of doing this with words. Crafting language to be the vehicle to transport a story from one mind to many. Choosing the words best suited to capture emotion, sensory experience, inner struggle and external striving, drama and humor. The commercial aspect of a writer’s work too often cynically drains the sublime magic from this process. But that’s another rant.

In the course of having cover art for my novel done, I have had the privilege of seeing a vague vision in my head turned into a reality that other eyes can see. This is neither simple nor exact. Readers of even the very best writing often come away with ideas of what characters or settings look like that are different from what the writer had in mind, or what others readers envision. How often has the movie version of a beloved book been a disappointment because you didn’t picture it that way at all?

Angi and I went back and forth via email (she’s in Connecticut and I’m in New Hampshire) trying to triangulate in on an image that would do the trick. We started with sketches, then moved on to a painting which had to be tweaked and modified repeatedly. Sometimes I asked her to change something that just wasn’t right. Other times she came up with something that was actually better than what I had in mind. That’s the beauty of working with a professional. I got my money’s worth.

Or should I say, my backers got their money’s worth. I couldn’t afford to pay Angi what she asked for. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to offer her less. Artists, like writers, deserve to be paid for what they do. You can’t pay the bills with “exposure”. My publisher would supply artwork, but its a small press, if a respectable one. They don’t have a stable of professional artists on hand. I’d get a cover that was striking, professional-looking, but somewhat generic.

Angi suggested crowd-sourcing, something I’d never done before. We went with Kickstarter. I did the thing I hate most, putting myself out there and begging, and by jiminy, people came forward and helped out. I got 30 backers, plus a couple who just handed me cash. Thanks to them, I was able to hire Angi. Their support helped both the artist and the writer advance their dreams.
Cover Painting cropped small

So instead of a generic cover, I got Shaka Mahdi, on her ship, watching Prilock emerge from the marsh having discovered how to become a bird and fly. It is a moment of exaltation; he is discovering his power, his freedom, the legacy he has but to rise up and seize. She is happy for him, but wonders if this also means she will lose him. What use has a god for a mere mortal creature, however fond he may be of her?

The book will be going into final production as soon as the other particulars are settled: author bio and head shot, dedication, layout of the back cover, and so forth. The publisher will take care of getting the ebook formatted and into all major outlets, and setting up the dead tree version. Double Dragon is primarily an ebook publisher, but they do make print copies available on demand. I’ll be getting a box of 50 to take to the release party at Pi-Con And no, they do not come to me free. I pay for them, and then must recoup the investment. So every freebie comes directly out of my pocket. The Kickstarter funds cover Angi’s work, and the backer rewards, plus the processing fees that Kickstarter charges. Anything left over will go towards other expenses. There are always other expenses. This is why most writers of fiction can’t afford to quit the day job. This, and readers hooked on draconian Amazon discounts. Who do you think takes the hit for those? Not Amazon. But that’s another rant.

Never mind. Today I am happier than any human has a right to be. It is a beautiful day in June, I have a fantastic cover for my book, which will be out in another month, I have Pi-Con coming up, my favorite convention, and I have friends who will make sure I get there and get home again. And, thanks again to friends and family, I am heading to the North Country this weekend. I’ll be getting out and, rain or shine, taking to the trails. Staying two nights in my friend Mary’s cabin. Restoring my soul.

Life is good.

The Fire in the Theater

12 06 2015
Artist Andres Serrano and his inflammatory work, "Piss Christ".

Artist Andres Serrano and his inflammatory work, “Piss Christ”. Note damage done by protesters.

A couple of days ago, Reddit announced a crackdown on hatespeech on its subreddits, five of which were banned because of their overt racism, trans- and homophobia, and fat-shaming. No surprise, this created a bit of a stir.

On the one hand, you’d be hard-pressed to make a credible defense of the specific speech involved, which not only slammed the victims brutally, but advocated off-forum harassment as well. It’s the sort of thing that would make any intelligent, compassionate person cringe. There is absolutely no justification for it, and the world is a poorer place for its existence.

On the other hand, free speech.

Mind you, as a writer, blogger, and enthusiastic supporter of a free and unregulated Internet, I believe in the freedom to express ideas. I don’t think I need to list in tedious length the number of times a society has suffered and progress been crippled because an authority decided that certain ideas were “dangerous” or “unacceptable and inappropriate” and imposed silence.

We also know that yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is not free speech but a deliberate act of irresponsible malice.

But is saying that “Fat people have no right to live” the expression of an opinion, or a deliberate act of irresponsible malice like the above example? Unfortunately, it is both. The person yelling “Fire!” is not expressing an opinion. The fat-shamer most likely is. And he knows people are going to be hurt by what he says.

There are certainly people who say things, not because they honestly believe them, but because they want to outrage. Their speech is purely for shock value, an act of verbally violent protest. (*cough* 4chan *cough*). Personally, I feel no obligation to protect speech like that. Speech that is used as a weapon, for no other purpose than to push limits, using the “F” and “N” words just because they know it will make somebody uncomfortable, gets no sympathy from me.

But, how does one prove intent? How to distinguish between the person who advocates the torment of transgender people because they honestly believe transgender people are abhorrent (an unpleasant, but honest opinion on their part) and the douchebag who says it just to see the reaction of horror? You can have your suspicions, but you can’t be sure. And once you start gagging people because you find their opinions repellant, you’re heading right into the swamp.

Meat DressAnd then there is, gods help us, Art. Remember “Piss Christ” artist Andres Serrano? He immersed a crucifix in a jar of urine to stunning effect. His intention was to protest the profaning of a sacred icon, so I am told. It also massively offended religious believers who doubted his motives or didn’t give a damn about them. How about Lady Gaga’s meat dress, which came with a long explanation from her that it wasn’t intended to be offensive to animal rights advocates, but a statement against the governmental restrictions placed on the rights of gay soldiers (a connection I have a little trouble making).  Said she, “‘If we don’t stand up for what we believe in, if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones.’ “

Guerilla art, street theater, performances whose very shock value is part of their message and purpose, all are legitimate forms of expression which a free society ought to tolerate as much as possible, as long as it doesn’t amount to the equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in that famously crowded theater.

So, back to Reddit, which has been known as a safe haven for stridently opinionated social outcasts of all stripes. It’s a free forum for the sharing of news stories, images, blogs, and, of course, comments thereupon. The volunteer moderators on most subreddits ask submitters of content to play nice, and for the most part, people do. Or they get called on it. Then there are the subreddits where you just don’t go because you know you will be unapologetically offended. I don’t go there. I stick mostly to the Science subreddit, and don’t think they don’t sometimes get a bit salty there, too. I used to subscribe to the Atheism subreddit, but grew weary of their echo chamber antics. Now I don’t go there, either. If the place makes you uncomfortable, leave it. But demanding it be shut down so no one else can go there either is a bit harsh.

As much as I wouldn’t want to be in the room, I have no right to prevent a group of like-minded people from getting together to spew contempt. (Now that I think about it, I HAVE been in that room — we were like-minded political and environmental activists spewing contempt for the government and corporations.) What worries me is that when groups like that get together, they feed off each other’s energy. They tend to gravitate towards greater extremes when their negativity is normalized by fellow travelers. They get the urge to take their free expression beyond the realm of speech and into action. That’s when people get hurt. Property gets defaced. Damage is done. (Or, in my case, marches were organized and votes gotten out. The sword slices in both directions.)

Perhaps society has a right in self-defense to discourage the proliferation of hate groups and abusive speech. True, there are laws that deal with hate when it spills over into action. But a very good argument could be made that this is like waiting until the weed sprouts to pull it, while ignoring the seeds settling all over the lawn. We can’t disregard human nature and the dynamics of social interaction. We wind up running around putting out fires while matches are still being freely circulated.

But perhaps that’s the best we can do. Just keep putting out the fires, arresting and fining or jailing people who go over the line from abusive speech to abusive action. And use our own rights to free speech to express viewpoints in opposition to hate and intolerance. Argue loudly and tirelessly against the purveyors of irrational prejudice and defend the objects of their tirades. Fight fire with fire.

And you know, they have subreddits for that, too.

Taking stock of where I am

5 06 2015


It’s good, every now and then, to pause and take stock. Take a deep breath, stop dashing from task to task, look at where you are. This seems like a good time for me to do that. Actually, there isn’t really a bad time to do it.

When I meditate, I try to focus on my breath. On the sense of my body. On the sounds around me. On the thoughts that inevitably hijack my attempts to focus. I have observed that three general topics tend to be the first to intrude. Writing is number one. I think about my next blog, or my next article. I think about who I should be contacting and what I should say. Where I should go with whatever piece of fiction I’m currently working on. I think about the ms. that is out to two beta readers and worry that the reason I haven’t heard from them is because it sucks. I think about the book I’m about to publish, Awake Chimera. I’m pretty sure this one doesn’t suck, since I’ve had two SF heavy hitters praise it. I’m confident enough in it that I approached a professional artist to do the cover, and did a Kickstarter to fund it. Never done a Kickstarter before. Never attempted crowdfunding. It succeeded, and that is good. I don’t know if I could do it again. I hate asking people for money.

I hate asking people for anything. Why is that? I don’t mind when people as me for favors. For help. Why does it bother me so to be in the position of needing? Is it pride? Hating to feel obligated, like I owe my benefactors? Does accepting help put me in a position of subservience somehow? I can analyze this into atoms, but it won’t change the core attitude. I’ve got this thing about asking for help.

Which makes the other big issue I’m dealing with even worse. I got some bad information from a clerk at the DMV, and so I am looking at a summer without a license. I was very careful to ask questions every step of the way, do everything I was told, follow up promptly. But I missed a piece because this clerk assured me I was all set. She was wrong. I missed a deadline to file for an ALS hearing, and now it’s too late. Even though I’m fine with the court, and the legal system says I can have my license back June 18, the DMV, which has its own rules and procedures, says no. I have to wait until September. Yes, its a stupid, inconsistent, unjust system. It screws poor people. So what else is new?

If I’d coughed up several thousand dollars for a lawyer, I could have avoided this. But I decided against it. I’d already cost my family enough. Even now, I don’t regret that decision, because at least house arrest for the summer doesn’t cost my family anything. I’m the only one who suffers. I’d rather have it that way. Except I will have to keep bugging people for rides. I have to ask for help. I hate that.

So I’m grounded for the summer. Can’t go anywhere without a chaperone. That’s going to have a major affect on the second thing that generally demands my attention when I’m trying to focus on my breath: Hiking. Mountains. Wilderness. And me in it. Some of my happiest memories are of me, alone, out in the woods. Everything I need is in my pack; I just walk. Free. No obligations other than to get to where I’m spending the night next. This is why hiking the Appalachian Trail has such an appeal. It’s simple. Your concerns are weather, over which you have no control, and walking, over which you have absolute control. And food supply. Eat what you have, then stop and get more. Water. Fill your containers whenever you can. Occasionally an opportunity presents itself for you to bathe and change clothes. But no one expects a thru-hiker to smell like a rose.

Just walk, and experience each moment as it comes, pleasant or unpleasant, new trail with its surprises presented to you each morning. Life reduced to pure simplicity.

I doubt I’ll be able to pull off hiking the AT any time soon. In fact, thanks to my inability to drive, I can only walk locally. No way to get to the mountains I love. Unless I get a ride. See paragraph three.

It’s only one summer. There will be others. But that equation means something different when you’re 58 as opposed to 28. I’m running out of summers. I’m running out of years. I had lunch with an old friend the other day. I enjoy the company of adults of all ages, but there are certain life experiences that you can only share with somebody your own age. We both are facing something similar. When you’re down to your last few dollars, what do you spend them on?

The third train that pulls into the mental station when I’m trying to maintain meditative focus is my husband. A lot of good years with a good man. Through no fault of their own, people change. Their goodness doesn’t change, but life has its effect. We all find ourselves bushwhacking through the jungle, and we come out places we didn’t expect. We pick up a lot of scratches and bruises along the way. It can strengthen a partnership or fracture it. One wants to go in one direction, the other doesn’t. Both feel strongly and both are right.

My sons and I often take walks in the evening. We talk, or I listen to them talking about stuff I barely have a clue about. Video games, Dungeons and Dragons, music. I don’t mind, because I want to know what they are into and what they think. And sometimes, like when they are talking about creating their D&D characters and backstory, I can help a little. Otherwise, I’ve discovered it’s best to keep my mouth shut. When things get heated between them, I feel the urge to play mom and try to settle things. Nope. They are adults, now. I’m here if they ask, but otherwise, I’ve done my thing and now they need to do theirs. So I listen.

In many ways they are so much alike. Geeky, passionate about science and truth, outraged by cruelty, injustice, and irrational behavior. But they each have their own take on things and get into vigorous debates, tugging in opposite directions like a couple of terrier puppies. From the outside, I can see the validity of both sides. I also see the impossibility of them coming to an agreement. Neither is going to convince the other. They’ll argue all the way up Blakes Hill Road and back down again while me and the dog trot along behind. Maybe they eventually work their way to some tentative resolution, but on the whole, they have to agree to disagree. That’s just the way it is.

Both feel strongly. Both are right. Coriander: It’s delicious; it’s disgusting. Hiking: It’s the best experience in the world; it’s difficult, exhausting, and pointless.

Whichever way you feel, nobody is going to change your mind. Because, from where you sit, looking out of your eyes, feeling what you feel, having walked your path and picked up your bruises and scars, you are right. You are entitled to your assertions and justified in making them.

Certain choices can lead to disaster. We try to avoid those. But we don’t really know where our choices are going to lead, or what might lie on the other side of an apparent disaster. Or an apparent success. That’s the problem with big decisions, the ones that keep us up at night and gnaw at us. We are scared we’ll do the wrong thing and regret it.

But maybe, just as there can be opposing opinions that are both just as right, there are no wrong choices. Just choices that don’t take you where you anticipated going. Decisions that don’t pan out the way you hoped. There are so many factors out of your control, factors you couldn’t possibly know about. All you can do is roll with it. Improvise. Check you compass, consult your map, scratch your head, and go from there. If you turn left, and you don’t like where it goes, who’s to say you would have liked turning right any better?

So, in this summer of ball and chain, I will take stock. See where I’m at. Do things I wouldn’t have done if I’d had the freedom to go as I’m accustomed to. Wherever you go, there you are.

Here I am.


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