June 15, 2017

15 06 2017

Oh, how we want to share with our children the things we know and value! And oh, the disappointment when we have to accept that they just aren’t interested.

Each generation as it ages becomes increasingly disgruntled with the generations that follow. The older are critical of the younger. Critical of their values, their priorities, their choices, their work ethic, their lack of discipline and ethics. My parents’ generation disparaged mine, and now my generation wrings its hands over my children’s. I overheard in the library a couple of women my age talking about “kids these days” in ways hauntingly like what my parents would have said about me.

I remember. I saw the lives that adults had made for themselves, what they thought was important, and I rejected it. I saw what a mess the world was in, all the suffering, all the corruption, and determined that if this was what the values and choices of previous generations had brought us to, I wanted no part of it. I saw people working their asses off, sacrificing themselves to achieve success as they saw it, only to grow old and die without having lived life fully. Not me, I thought. Not me!

We remember our childhoods, how we were raised. If we had happy childhoods, we try to do the same for our own kids. If we loved playing in the woods, or baking in the kitchen with Mom, or building things with Dad, or spending hours reading or doing crafts, that’s what we want for our kids. We try to share the same things. But the world is not the same as the one we grew up in. Our kids quite likely will not have the same interests we did, especially as they grow older and discover what’s going on outside their parents’ sphere of influence. This can cause parental panic and the desire to protect one’s little darlings from the corruption—as we see it. When this doesn’t work, and they go their own way as young, curious, gregarious humans will do, the parents are heartbroken.

If our childhoods weren’t so happy, or we dwell on the mistakes our parents made raising us, we declare that we won’t make those mistakes. We wind up making different mistakes, which our kids then resent us for. Again, heartbreak.

Then there are the parents who are determined to give their kids every advantage. Only the best of everything. Their children must be happy, and any unhappiness is a problem to be immediately solved. Then they wonder why the kids grow up expecting the world to do the same for them. When life doesn’t oblige, they get angry and resentful. They do not understand hard work and self-sacrifice because it was never required of them. The generation that did the hard work and self-sacrificing then scorns these kids with their attitude of entitlement.

Each generation raises the next with expectations. Each generation tries to impart their wisdom, their values, their experiences onto the next. Each generation looks at the next with the eyes of age, judging the young by the criteria of the old.

Each generation is disappointed.


June 8, 2017

8 06 2017

She kept messaging me. Each time with a different version of what she had already said. Each time I politely repeated some version of, “I’m afraid I can’t agree. That’s not how I see it.” Finally I had to stop responding.

A friend of mine had the same experience, trying to end a futile argument with, “Let’s just agree to disagree.” But the person just kept at it. My friend and I agreed; the behavior was obnoxious.

In similar situations when I disagreed with someone, I’ve been accused of not listening. I’ve been accused of refusing to see the truth. I’ve been accused of being blind to the facts.  It makes me want to yell, “Just because I’m not persuaded by your arguments, it does not mean I am not listening. I hear you perfectly well. I disagree. I am going to continue to disagree no matter how you rephrase and repeat. Please, just stop!”

And yet, I have to admit, I’ve been in situations where my point seems so clear and inarguable that I can’t understand why the other person doesn’t see it. What I am trying to convince them of is obvious. Why don’t they listen to me? Why don’t they get it? I get frustrated. I get upset. I keep hammering at them.

Just like the person who didn’t want to “agree to disagree.”

Ideally, we all realize there are arguments we are just not going to win. When we have discussed something with another person long enough to get the clear picture that there is no way we are going to convince each other, we politely end the discussion. Sensible intelligent people take the hint when they are told, “I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree.” It’s a graceful way out of a deadlock. It’s civilized society’s way of avoiding coming to blows.

But if one of the people involved is strongly motivated, is passionate about their point of view, is absolutely convinced they are right and feels it is urgently important that they convince the other person because of what’s at stake, how likely are they to give up? If I am sure that your ideas and actions are going to do terrible harm to the community, and I must stop you at all cost, I am not likely to “agree to disagree.” I will keep arguing right up to the bitter end to prevent this terrible evil you are determined to bring about. You, of course, think that what you are doing is sensible and necessary. You aren’t going to listen to my hysterical warnings, no matter what I say.

Which one of us is objectively in the right? It depends on a thousand other things.

It makes me want to give up on the whole messy business of public discourse.  A lot of people feel the same, refusing to discuss “politics”.  And yet, our whole system of government is based on citizen participation.  And we can’t develop informed opinions unless we talk to each other, get the benefit of other perspectives, work out compromises.  So unless we are going to withdraw into the conflict-free cocoon of our echo-chambers, we have to put up with the cacophony, annoying as it may be.

June 2, 2017

2 06 2017

Puzzles again.

Perhaps they are so satisfying because they are problems with definite answers. In a world where problems often have no solution, or the solution is so complicated and baffling that it is beyond us, puzzles provide relief and comfort. Here is something I can solve. Here is something which, if I persist, will reward me with the satisfaction of resolution. I understand how to do, for example, a jigsaw puzzle, although crosswords or sudoku are much the same. I can be certain that there is a way to put the pieces together that makes a complete, coherent picture.

I don’t know how to solve the problems of people I know who are suffering, who have health issues, money problems, miserable relationships or just cope with depression and despair. The labyrinth of human relationships remains always an incomprehensible conundrum to me. The black box of my own psyche remains impenetrable. I do my best to try to worry loose threads of the tangle, but in the end, all I can do is throw up my hands and let go of it. I’ll never figure it out.

But puzzles, ah! I begin with a jumble of chaos, much as the world appears to be. One by one, I find pieces that fit together. Slowly a picture begins to emerge. And finally, it is all there. I have done it. I have figured it out. It is finite, sensible. Within my grasp.

I have done my puzzle for the day. Now, daunting as it is, I need to apply myself to the puzzle of living. A room the size of a gymnasium whose floor is covered with puzzle pieces. Over the course of my life I’ve worked out some of it; there are sections I’ve managed to put together. The rest? Futility.

There are those who claim to have solved the puzzle. I don’t believe them. The more certain they are, the less I trust them. These voices of certainty all say something different. Their answers don’t agree. One may be right; all are likely wrong; or there is some logic-defying Schrodinger’s cat of a way that they can all be right at once. Even that is a puzzle.

Never mind. The sun is shining briefly after days of clouds and rain, and the prediction of more rain and clouds to come. Let me do what I can and turn my face to the sun while it lasts.

May 31, 2017

1 06 2017

All the festivities of Memorial Day are over. Now, let all the summer fun begin. We’ve had our parades, made our speeches, waved flags and had solemn moments of silence for those who gave all. On the long weekend, of course, to make it more convenient. We’ve celebrated Memorial Day Weekend by opening our summer camps and lake houses, perhaps the first barbecue of the season, parties and get-togethers with friends and family. Hope you all had a great time.

And no, this isn’t going to be one of those tedious lectures about the real reason for the holiday, and how it isn’t all about having fun and cutting the ribbon on Summer 2017. The dead don’t give a damn. They are beyond suffering. Memorials are not so much for the dead as for the living, to reassure ourselves that we won’t be forgotten when we go, that our graves will be mourned over and our names will be spoken with reverence. Memorials also give the bereaved an opportunity to grieve, and to be comforted.

No, this is going to be a tedious lecture on how willing we are to sing praises and bestow honors on the dead, while ignoring the suffering of the living. That’s right, veterans. Oh, I hear you protest, but we have Veteran’s Day to celebrate them. Yes, one day in November to remember those who served. In the meantime, we allow our government to ignore them, to cut funding to the programs that serve them, or applaud a few pennies added to the VA budget.

Tens of thousands of those soldiers whose service we are so grateful for are homeless, suffering from PTSD, sleeping on the streets. An average of 20 veterans a day die from suicide. Meanwhile, our government pours billions upon billions into the defense budget, making weapons, our politicians talking tough and planning more wars to create yet more veterans to lie neglected in the street after they have expended their usefulness to the Military Industrial Complex.

We fall prey to the rhetoric of fear, terrorized into cheering government leaders who pledge to strengthen defense. That fear which they capitalize on keeps us from thinking through the consequences of aggressive defense. Billions in tax dollars are lavished on expensive weapons systems while our infrastructure crumbles and we argue about the cost of health care. But let’s not go there. Let’s focus on a major source of suffering, an inevitable by-product of our military presence abroad: veterans. Soldiers get shot at, blown up, see their buddies get shot at and blown up, witness the brutality of war, and it never seems to end. Bombing the hell out of people doesn’t seem to accomplish anything but radicalizing more terrorists. War is a soul-killing horror. And we put our soldiers through it for political reasons that are often vague or based on nationalistic ego more than real defense.

True, some military personnel come back and adjust without much problem. But the ones that don’t desperately need help. They aren’t getting it. The result is the shameful statistics I’ve cited.

No matter what your politics are, no matter whether you think US defense policy is absolutely justified or dangerously wrong, there is no denying that it creates a population of veterans who deserve to be taken care of. All the words of honor, praise and “support” will not feed them, shelter them, or get them the medical and psychological services they need. Next time some ambitious politician tries to get your vote with his talk about saving tax dollars by cutting social services, remember just who is going to be hurt. It’s not just some hypothetical, lazy “taker” trying to get on the government gravy train. It’s a very real human being, one whom you have lauded for their service to our great nation. And now you are telling them you think cutting taxes is more important than rewarding them for their service.

But by all means, let’s honor our dead and take care of their graves. It’s a lot cheaper and easier than taking care of the living.

May 22, 2017

22 05 2017

A recent blog by Susan Bruce got me thinking about rape culture. It suddenly dawned on me why it upsets me when authors play the rape card as a plot point in books. Even when they show the trauma and misery the rape causes, they are still doing something negative.

They are normalizing rape.

By using rape as often as they do to develop a female character or explain her behaviors and motives (or as a motive to a male character such as the desire for revenge if it happens to someone he cares about) they are subtly saying that rape is a part of life, something woman need to guard against, a normal part of male behavior.

In other words, rape is just a common misfortune, like getting cancer or being in a plane crash.

But it’s not. It’s a voluntary behavior. Rape isn’t something that just happens; it’s something that someone does deliberately to another person.

The frequency with which our fiction—books, videos, whatever—enforces this idea that rape is something that men do is not just reflecting reality, it is perpetuating it. Men can’t control themselves and should not be expected to. Men can be driven by desire to commit sexual acts and women just need to understand this and accept it. Boys will be boys. Happens all the time. Sorry, ladies, but you just need to deal with it.

If we put as much effort into eliminating rape as we do curing cancer or making airplanes safe from crashing, perhaps it wouldn’t “happen all the time” anymore. If men didn’t reassure each other that, yeah, we can’t help it, and women ask for it by their behavior, and some bitches really have it coming to them, if they didn’t make sexual aggression an intrinsic part of male identity, would it be so commonplace?

Rape should not be a normal part of social interaction. But the more often it appears in our entertainment, the more normal it seems. It reassures the rapist that his actions are not out of the ordinary. Even to be expected. The consequences are irrelevant to him as long as he gets away with it.

Read Bruce’s blog, please. I’ve provided links. Please think about what Rep. Debra Altschiller said, and the significance what other representatives did in reaction. I am sure they all consider themselves normal men.

Because rape and rape culture is just a normal part of life. Isn’t it?

May 21, 2017

21 05 2017

I am listening to an audiobook called The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel, about a man who, at the age of twenty, left his home in Massachusetts and disappeared into the Maine woods. He did not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later when he was caught and arrested for breaking and entering to steal food. Christopher Knight lived in a small, superbly secluded camp, emerging only to go on midnight raids for the supplies he needed to survive. These supplies, by the way, included books.

It’s a true story, and the author tells the story well, going into biographical and psychological details, interviewing people in the area and the police who caught him. He befriended Knight and got him to talk about himself and his experience. Finkel visited Knight’s campsite and describes the ingenious methods the man used to survive.

The story combines several elements that interest me: camping alone in the woods, solitude, and the psychology of someone who simply doesn’t need or want human contact. Ordinarily, human beings hate being alone. It is the worst form of torture we inflict on our prisoners. The United Nations has condemned solitary confinement as cruel, inhumane. And yet, this is what Knight chose. Even though he sometimes suffered terribly in the cold of winter, or from hunger, or both, he preferred this to returning to human society.

In the book, the author reports that very few people go more and a few hours without human contact of some kind. Most never go more than twenty-four hours. I thought back to my multi-day solo hikes. When I did the Grafton Notch loop there was a stretch of at least 48 hours when I didn’t see a soul. Perhaps it was longer. I recall passing one or two groups of hikers with whom I exchanged small talk, but I think that was just on the first day. Most of the time I saw no one. It was wonderful.

We are evolved to be a social, cooperative species. We managed to survive in a harsh environment by working together in groups. And yet, over the course of history, there have always been those who preferred solitude. Hermits, holy people, those who leave human commotion to go into the mountains, the deserts, the woods, hide themselves away in cells and caves, in order to find peace. Such solitude is the means to enlightenment, the way to the center.

What Knight experienced in his solitude was just the sort of enlightenment spiritual people talk about, that disappearance of self, the dissolving of the ego. He was never bored. Contemplation was his primary pastime, along with reading and the daily business of maintaining his simple existence. His way of life was the complete antithesis of our hyperconnected, intensely busy lives, where success is judged by achievement and how much accomplishment can be packed into our waking hours. We shun suffering and pursue happiness with dogged obsession. Knight accepted suffering—from cold or hunger, or the stress and guilt of having to steal to survive, the terror of being caught—as just part of life. It made the times of peace and contentment all the more sweet.

It occurs to me as I write that there are many in our society, the ones who praise self-sufficiency and scorn those who depend on others, would admire Knight. He solved his own problems, took care of himself, relied on no one to help him. But they overlook the stark fact that Knight could not have survived if it weren’t for other people. He could not have fed and sheltered himself without the help of others. That help was stolen, not given freely. But help it was. Even the hermits of the caves and deserts had food brought to them by others. They were not completely independent.

We need each other to survive. Social cooperation enhances our lives. It benefits us materially and psychologically. We experience mental and emotional distress when isolated from our fellow human beings.

Or at least, most of us do. Knight didn’t. And many of us can relate. Social can be difficult. Alone is easier. Perhaps we cannot live without other human beings, but we need a break from them. How much of a break depends on the individual. I can happily go several days without human contact. Perhaps even longer; I’ve never had the opportunity to find out. Being with people is a mixed bag for me. In general, it is always an effort, trying to think of what to say, trying to figure out what the other person expects. I am most comfortable in scripted situations, business transactions, interactions where what the other person expects and what I am supposed to do or say is clear.

Even being with people whose company I enjoy can be stressful. The pleasure of being with them is balanced against the constant effort I have to put into it. My earliest use of alcohol and marijuana were a way to reduce the anxiety of performing socially. I always experience a sense of relief when I am alone again, as well as a sense of accomplishment: Good, I got through that encounter successfully.

I hope my friends understand that this in no way means I don’t value their friendship. I envy those for whom social situations are pleasant and easy, and conversation flows effortlessly. It’s why social media, where interaction is mostly written, appeals to me so much more than face time. With an email or a post or exchange of comments, I can think over what to say, get it right, take my time. Much less pressure. I can be social while being alone.

Thinking about my solo hikes and how much I enjoyed the prolonged solitude has inspired me to plan another. It will be logistically difficult to arrange to have several days strung together without obligations. And I can’t really monopolize a vehicle for that long. Our household has four drivers and three cars, and wildly varying schedules. For me to disappear into the mountains for a few days with one of the cars would be a hardship for them. Still, I can plan and imagine. It is a pleasure to think about. In the meantime, I can find quiet moments of solitude here, in the early mornings, in the garden, in my room. Long walks in the woods close to home.


May 15, 2017

15 05 2017

Another rainy day, although it is supposed to clear. I’m grateful for the rain, but ready for a bit of sun. I spent most of yesterday cloistered in my room with my cats. I wrote another piece for the Monitor, scanned and posted a bit on Facebook, then devoted myself to revising a story to submit to an anthology.

I haven’t done much with short fiction for several years. It is a lot more work than the pieces I write for the Monitor, and it pays squat. But two friends of mine, Dan Kimmel and Morven Westfield, nudged me in that direction. I’d been cleaning out the basement (as my regular readers know) and unearthed a number of files from my past. Back in my younger days, I wrote compulsively. I was absurdly prolific and never sought to publish any of it. Getting my fiction published was too much work. I’d rather write.

As a result, I have this treasure trove of unpublished work. It desperately needs editing and revising; I’ve become a much better writer, technically speaking, since those early days. But I enjoy editing and revising; it’s not the chore for me that it is for other writers. And having established myself as a published writer, with a few connections and a better understanding of how the process works, I’m going to see what I can do about cleaning them up and finding homes for them.

In the process of choosing a candidate for submission, I stumbled onto one of my earlier unpublished novels. I wrote it in the early eighties. Terribly dated now, but I started reading it and was completely absorbed. Again, dear god, did it need a good edit! But the characters, the story—I couldn’t stop reading. I had to pull myself away from it to go make dinner. Yes, it’s my own damn book and of course I’m hopelessly biased. But I found myself wishing somebody else would write a book like that.

I enjoy reading, and I’ve discovered a lot of good books, many good enough that I’ve wanted to revisit them. But very few that totally sucked me in so that I didn’t want to stop reading, watching the end of the book approach with regret. You know the kind. Rare and wonderful reading experiences. Stories that resonate perfectly with you.

It’s not vanity to say that I felt that way reading my own work (and no doubt why I enjoy the revision process, polishing and perfecting it). I first started writing because I was dissatisfied with most of the books I read and wanted to write the sort of book I would enjoy reading. So naturally the characters are people I would like and the story is interesting to me. I wrote the ending to be satisfying to me. These are recipes for meals tailored to suit my tastes. Why wouldn’t I enjoy them?

Whether anyone would else would feel the same is the question. I expect most writers feel that way about their own work. They can’t understand why editors, publishers, and other readers don’t find the meal as tasty as they do. Kale is delicious! Why doesn’t everyone think so?

Experience and maturity provide the answers of course. If you want to appeal to a greater audience you stop insisting that they must like kale. You cook for other people to suit their tastes. Find a recipe that works and start cranking ’em out. You might actually be able to live on the proceeds. Heck, cook shrewdly enough and you might get rich.

Another thing I found in my excavations was a card I used to have tacked to my bulletin board: “Sibi scribere – The sensible author writes for no other posterity than his own, that is to say for his old age, so that then too he will be able to take pleasure in himself.” It’s an excerpt from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human All Too Human, picked up in my college days. It’s the fundamental choice a writer makes early on. Who are you writing for? Why do you write?

Sibi Scribere. I write for myself. But surely there must be others out there who also enjoy kale.