Plot Points

I got an email the other day from an old friend.  Coming from someone with whom I’ve been close for many years, the contents of this email were more than a bit mocking.  Now, most of that mocking —err, “catching up” to kids nowadays — had nothing to do with this blog.  One part however does pertain:

 “Now that you’re on the whenever-the-hell-you-feel-like-it plan for posting…”

Wait…what?  I deny that!*

*Also, I am not overweight!  I just have big bones!  Harrumph.

“…when the f—k are you gonna write about COVID?”

First off, only I can swear on this blog, goddamit!  And secondly…COVID?  Really?!  Haven’t we heard enough about that shit?  What, should I write about the bubonic plague, too?

At this point — with my fiction-writer-hat firmly on — there are really only two interesting subplots to the ongoing COVID drama.  The first is the impact this pandemic/crisis/stress-event is having on society itself.  Look, disease and outbreak and pandemic are probably the most influential things in human history; they have had effects on us far more significant and far-reaching than any nation-state, war or political event.

What, you don’t believe me?  The aforementioned Black Death rewrote life, society and culture  throughout the world.  The only change that can be considered even close to comparable is the First World War, and that really only “rewrote” Europe…

No, not the fall of the Roman Empire, not the Crusades, not Genghis Khan, not even the Second World War affected the world more than the bubonic plague.

Then you throw in tuberculosis…

And smallpox…

And leprosy…

Welcome to the history of the human race.  The governments of man are insignificant in comparison to the power of disease.  It is the small things — the tiniest of things, in fact — that have truly driven the evolution of human development, culture and society.

At first, I thought COVID was an ephemera.  I thought is was something that would come and go quickly.  I thought it was the disease equivalent of the Kardashians, to be honest.

I was wrong.

Oh, the disease itself can’t bear a candle too those true monsters I mentioned above, but the simple truth is that COVID is here to stay; it is endemic now, rather than pandemic.*  But the effect of it?  The true impact of COVID is far more psychological and social than physical, and that impact is amplified immeasurably by the “right-now” nature of modern communications and media.

*Note for the historically curious — the bubonic plague is actually endemic, too.  It is endemic to three places in the world (parts of India, Mongolia and the US) if I remember correctly, with periodic outbreaks elsewhere.

The problem really traces back to the fact that it has been a long time since humanity felt at prey to the natural world.  A long time since we were not — perceptually, at least — in control of, well, everything.  Oh, we have long known that nuclear weapons are a genie that can and will destroy us as a species if we let them out of the bottle.  We know that, but only in the most passing, intellectual way.  We do not feel it.  It is not visceral.  It is not truly real, not to a species and culture whose every history and proclivity is so totally focused on the emotional and the immediate.

COVID is real to us because of the deaths, yes…but also because of the social and political reactions to it.  COVID has had the most direct, powerful impact on human society since “we” watched millions die in the days of mid-20th century.  The effect — still playing out, mind you — looks to be more far-reaching, too.  Will it equal the world-changing impact of the Black Death or the First World War?  Very doubtful…but it has already far surpassed the impact of the Spanish Flu.  It has even, arguably, outrun the impact of polio (socio-politically, not physically).  

That, to me, is the first great subplot from COVID.  That is the background to a story yet to be written.

The second…

Oh, the second…

It could be argued that the second is but an unintended consequence of the first, but my own personal beliefs and outlook give it more weight.  What is that second? I hear you ask…

Acquiescence.

Humanity is notoriously fractious — rebellious, even — and given to protecting our personal needs and welfare pretty damned aggressively.  Now, different societies have different levels of this, I admit.  My own society — I was raised in the western US, and have lived the vast majority of my life there — strongly reflects the “ideal” of the strong, tough, independent sort.  Other places & societies differ.  And, yes, geography and topography have a dominant influence in this.  The outward bounds of culture — literature, music, art — merely reflect the spirit of geography and topology, they do not define it.  

And, yes, there are in fact very real, very physical reasons, why the Japanese culture — as an example — developed so differently from the culture of, say, Montana…

But…what about…

Let’s get down to brass tacks — and to why I why I think acquiescence and surrender are the second great subplot to the COVID pandemic — Australia.

Australia, when you get right down to it, is geographically a hell of a lot more similar to the sparsely populated reaches of Montana than it is to the necessarily dense population centers of Japan or Singapore.  And yet Australia has willingly surrendered, due to COVID, more freedom than any other place in the world.  The Australian people have willingly surrendered their personal liberty and independence.  Period.  And there is no going back for them.  They have chosen a dubious safety over freedom in ways that no other country or populace has come close to mirroring.

Look, I think anti-vaxxers are nuts.  Hell, I think the anti-mask zealots are also nuts; as nuts the pro-mask zealots.  I think masks in general — at this point — are nothing more than kabuki theater to make folks feel good, but when someone asks me to wear a mask, plain-and-simple courtesy means I wear a damned mask.  

I wear a mask, but surrendering all human interaction?  Even a misanthrope like me wants to go out for pizza and a beer and be with other people once in a while.  You expect, to be honest, folks like Americans and French to protest because…well, we protest everything.  But when the far more complacent and compliant Germans and Danes start protesting restrictions, too?  Yeah, that right there a sign.  But the Aussies?

*Sigh*

The Aussies have given up.  Plain and simple, they have given up.  Their post-COVID society will be unrecognizably different from what it was before.  For everyone else it is a matter of evolution, but for them?  For them it is revolution.  And not the good kind of revolution.

That is the acquiescence I find so fascinating: the willingness to give up all vestiges of freedom and independence for an ephemeral notion of safety.  And, yes, it is an acquiescence that has been used in plots and settings many times before.  In many, many books, plays, movies — even video games! — it has been used before…and will be again.  It will be used again because it is powerful…and because it carries with it such an element of truth to give with the shiver of dread.

Think of my second great COVID subplot as a question: Just how much are you willing to surrender to be ‘safe’?

I have my answer.  The Australians have a very different one.

{Musical Note — I had one song in mind when I started to write this post, but this one works so damned well I just couldn’t say no…}

Old Habits

I went to the beach today.  The weather is just starting to turn fall-ish, and a couple of hours sitting in the sun and breeze, watching the boats go by, seemed like just the thing for a relaxed “me day”.

Now, astute readers will remember that I (finally!) started sailing again a year ago, after an all-too-long layoff.  Before that break from the water, I was actually pretty good.  I could handle a boat in all sorts of weather without embarrassing myself.  I even took part in a handful of competitions, both as crew and as captain.  But nowadays?

Nowadays, I’m lucky if I don’t end up capsized on top of the damned dock; but that’s not the point.  No, the point is I was watching these sailboats…and getting all holier-than-thou judgmental.  “Trim your jib, man!”  “Good God, who taught you to take in a spinnaker?!”  “Tack…tack…TACK!  For the love of all that’s holy, tack you jackass!”

I think I need to switch to decaf.

Ahem.

The point of the above is falling into habits.  Actually, it’s more than that; the true point is about falling into old habits.  Being confident — arrogant, even — in my own abilities, to the point where I can and will criticize others, is an old habit that I once thought I had outgrown.  But, no…scratch deep enough — as I did this morning — and you will still find the self-confidence that borders on arrogance.  Of course, if you scratch even deeper, you will find also all those insecurities, doubts and fears that are so much a part of that damned black dog…

But even those aren’t the old habits I wanted to write about.  No, what pushed me to write this afternoon was a bit more mundane, but far more insidious: The habit of survival.

Oh, I don’t mean survival when trapped between starvation and an angry grizzly, nor survival when trapped between fight or flight.  No, I mean survival when trapped between…existing and living.  When trapped between fatigue and need.  To boil it down even further, I am talking about survival when excitement is deferred — and oh-so-distant — while you hang suspended between apathy and doubt.

That existence, that habit, by the way — the one suspended somewhere between success, apathy and doubt — that is one I think every freaking writer can identify with.  For me, that old habit rears its damned head when I take on “other” work to make ends meet.  It comes when the paychecks are regular, and the days fall into the miserable rhythm of go to work, come home, get paid.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Week after week.

Often, you don’t even realize how quickly time passes in that existence.  You just think to yourself, “I’m tired, I’m not gonna do the extra stuff today.  I can make it up later.”  Then, before you know it, it is already the next weekend…and you are still tired.  There are still excuses.

To put that insidious old habit in the words of the song I am appending below, you flinch.

It’s natural, you know, to flinch.  We all do it.  The trick is to realize when you are doing it…and to learn to fight that impulse.  That flinch — that existence — can become a lifelong habit all too easily.  The choice belongs to no one but you…and to me.

It’s like giving up drinking*, you just have to say to yourself, “Not today.  I’m not going to flinch today.”

*Ahem.  Hush now.

{Musical Note — Yeah, I know, I’ve been linking Dave Hause songs a lot lately.  In my defense, I’ve also been listening to him a lot lately!}

Amidst Disaster

Okay, so…

Look, I know I’m weird, alright?  I mean, who else writes the last scene of a story before he even has the plot nailed down?  Who else takes a story outline and proceeds to write scenes at random within the defined timeframe?  Who else would abandon a good paying job to be a writer?*

*And now a brewer…

Yeah, I get it.  You wouldn’t let your daughter so much as answer my call, let alone marry me.  I wouldn’t let my daughter marry me, either, to be honest.  I honestly am nothing more than a 12-year-old with a car and a (sorta) job.

Well, that and I happen to have a hell of a lot of experience of life and the world.  Not a lot of 12-year-olds can claim to have got drunk with a president*, or to have slept accidentally in a Spanish brothel, or to have lost (repeatedly) at pool to a renowned physicist, or to have fled from a mother grizzly who decided I was a bad influence on her cubs…

*of the Czech Republic, not the US, but it still works!

I’ve said it before, but the simple truth is that I have been (almost) everywhere, and done (almost) everything.  I’m that Forrest-Gump-type-idiot whose obituary is going to be longer than his list of actual accomplishments.

And do you know what really sticks with me out of all that adventure?  The disasters.  The failures.  The involuntary descent into fight-or-flight.  The moments that not only tell you that you are truly alive, but that also break down the barriers between you and…well…everything.

I’ve mentioned before, but when I travel alone, the first thing I do in a new city is get lost.  I don’t mean ‘can’t find the Michelin-starred restaurant on this block’ lost, I mean ‘what the fuck country am I actually in?’ kind of lost.  That kind of lost has shown me the best and worst of humanity.  Because I (willingly) suffer the disaster of getting lost, I have watched a hooker work a john while her daughter watched from the shadows…

I have stumbled upon the insanity of the stalinist apartment blocks in eastern Europe…

I have found the most perfect field of wildflowers off the coast of Croatia…

I have lit candles to the dead in a private side-chapel in St. Peter’s…

I have drunk shochu with yakuza in a Tokyo suburb…

Hell, I also drank whiskey with IRA “enthusiasts” in a backroom bar just outside of Boston…

I lost my passport in Budapest, and spent the next day dealing with the aftermath of a bomb threat at the US embassy as I tried to get a new one…

My point isn’t what I’ve done, it is what disaster has forced me to do.  Honestly, I can take even the most inoffensive and easy of my travels, and what I truly remember are the times when things went south.  Even something so simple as being too hungover to catch the train I needed led to interactions and events that I never would have experienced in any other situation.

I asked my friend, who fought so long ago at the Battle Off Samar Island, what he remembered about WW2.  It wasn’t the triumphs, and the defeats…it was the unplanned disasters.  “What do you remember about the ship?” I asked.  His answer will always stick with me.  “The smell,” he said, “those were the days before deodorant.”

When you expect, dear writers…

When you plan, and look around all the corners…

When everything is going according to expectations for you, and for your characters…

You’ve lost.  You’ve lost the thread…and the reader’s curiosity.

It is only when everything goes to shit and the random happens that the truly memorable occasions come to pass — both for you, and for your characters.

Look, if your protagonist gets drunk and passes out, you have a minor plot-event to work with.  If your protagonist gets drunk and passes out on the lawn of the archbishop’s palace, you have a whole new level of fun for your writing!*

*Not that I’ve ever done that.  No, not me.  The Polish police promised me that never happened!  Ahem.

It all comes to the question of disaster. As a writer, and as a person, do you cringe and cry from disaster? Do you defy it like some maniacal Ahab wannabe? Or do you laugh right alongside the universe itself while everyone else around you breaks down?

Do you know what got me to thinking about this?  Sailing.

Look, I love to sail.  I love to sail alone…and I love to take others sailing.  Unfortunately, I am a shit-magnet, to put it mildly.  If something is going to go wrong on a boat, it will go wrong when I have others sailing with me.

Now, if I tear a sail, or get becalmed, or run out of beer, when I’m sailing alone, it is no big deal.  Well, the running-out-of-beer thing is big, but the others are small.  But when I have guests on the boat?  Will they remember the adventure and fun of shit going south?  Or will they be all civilized and modern and complain (to others, of course) that “the cruise lines are better”?

Crap, it just hit me: I don’t need to write about celebrating disasters, I just need to get new friends!

{Musical Note — yup, I put this song up before. And, yup, I still love it. And, yup, it works…}

La Dolce Far Niente

My brain is semi-fried.  I spent just too much time over this morning and afternoon working on the concrete realities of trying to build a real-world business to be anything else.  I had a post in mind when my morning started, by the way.  I had it in mind, but it drowned quietly under the flooding waters of marketing plans and partnership agreements and renovation priorities…

*sigh*

Remember that rule of mine?  The one about writing it, right freaking then?  Yeah, I forgot too…

Still, there is enough shit bugging me to get out of the mental cage in which I keep my blog ideas to completely ignore my keyboard today.

1)  Thanks for the, umm, shitty service — Look, I’m a taproom guy.  Can I brew beer?  Yeah, sure I can.  But that isn’t where I shine.  No, where I am an expert is in the taproom itself…and in how we service and please our customers.  Very little, to be honest, pisses me off quite so much as fundamental errors in that service.  So I’m sitting at lunch today — plugging away at those renovation needs I mentioned — with a mostly-full beer and half-eaten poke bowl at my elbow, when my waitress stopped by to ask if I was ready for my check…

Are you kidding me?!  

There are few bar/restaurant sins worse to me than that particular one.  Your job is to get me to spend more money, not push me out the door!  This wasn’t fucking Appleby’s, mind you, it was a one of the better and more popular places in my new town.  It was a place that built its reputation as a good place to hang out, not as a place to offer cheap meals at the price of turning over tables as fast as possible.

She was young, however — and cute *cough, cough* — so rather than just give her a bad tip, I told her just how bad that check question truly was…and how it made me want to leave, rather than buy the additional beer or two I normally would.  I doubt if the words penetrated, but it was worth a try.  The title of this little subsection isn’t ironic, by the way: Had she not pissed me off, I don’t think I would have started thinking about writing a post today…

I still gave her a good tip.

2)  I’m A European Trapped in an American Body — okay, so the subsection above got me to thinking a bit.  It got me to thinking about the things that we Americans do very, very wrong.  Restaurants and bars are pretty near the head of that damned list, by the way.  Oh, I know we Americans are always in a hurry; we Americans always want to eat and run; we always want everything to be efficient and fast…

Fuck that.

I want slow.  I want inefficient.  I want to own that damned table until I decide it is time to leave.  Whether it is a single demitasse of espresso or 57 pints of beer, just bring me what I want and don’t get that damned check anywhere near me until I make that stupid little scribbling motion in the air that all tourists do when they don’t speak the local language!

The French and Italians know their shit when it comes to eating and drinking out, by the way, while the Germans and Czechs* ain’t far behind.  Even the freaking Brits outshine us in this area!  C’mon, America, get your shit together!

*I learned the reality of an old-school, locals-only beer hall in Czechia the hard way, by the way.  Yeah, remember to flip that damned coaster over to the back side when you’re done drinking for the night!  Ahem.

Look, let’s boil it down to brass tacks — if you want a great meal, you don’t go to an American restaurant.  If I had one meal left on this Earth, I would go French.  And, no, I am not talking about some fancy Parisian place with white tablecloths and sauces coming out the ass.  I want a good, village place.  I want a place where the food is grown within sight of the restaurant.  A place where grandpa and grandma cook recipes from their grandparents.  A place where you sit in the sun and drink wine and spend 3 or 4 hours eating a real five-course meal, shared with the folks who prepared it, and who grew it, and who love every second of the life they live.

It is only by the barest hair’s width I say the French won, by the way.  Put me at a table on the Amalfi coast, or in Sicily, or Tuscany and I am just as happy. Hell, I might be a bit happier because I don’t there is anything on this Earth than can compare with a meal within the bosom of a real Italian family…

La dolce far niente* is not just the coolest saying in the world, it is the coolest philosophy in human history!

*”The sweetness of doing nothing.”  I told you it was fucking cool!

{Edit Notes — Holy shit, did I need to proofread this damned thing before I posted it! Ahem…}

{Musical Note — oh, hell yeah…}