The Olympics? Err, No Thanks

4947999_700bOh, Winter Olympics, why can’t I love you?  Summer games, you are a lost cause, I know…but winter?  We should be so good together!

I’m a hockey player and fan.  I ski (quite poorly).  I snowshoe and hike in the snow and ice.  Hell, I live in the frickin’ mountains!

But the Winter games are still dead to me.

Part of it — a very big part, admittedly — is due to the sheer level of corruption and insanity that go along with putting on the games.  The money involved passed stupid a long time ago, blew right past ludicrous, and has moved well into the realm of silly.  For no host city or country are the games even remotely “worth it”.

The Games have become, sadly, nothing more than an uber-expensive exercise in nationalist chest-thumping.  Why on Earth would you ever want to spend the tens of BILLIONS it costs to host one?  And spare me the BS about tourism and marketing: you could pick twelve million people at random, give them each a thousand dollars to come visit you, and STILL spend less than the Pyeongchang games are costing…

And if the games cost too damned much to put on, so too do the athletes.  The games cost billions just to put on, but sending the athletes ain’t much cheaper.  And then you get into paying those athletes…and, no, “amateur” most definitely is not a thing anymore.

A gold medal isn’t about excellence, or pride, or competition — a gold medal is about money.  And that, I think, is my real problem with the whole thing.  Well, that and the raw nationalism…

I don’t give two shits how many medals the US won in comparison with Canada, or Norway, or freaking Lichtenstein, for that matter.

“Wow, that skier is really good…but they’re fucking British, so they can burn in Hell.”

One of my best friends in the hockey world is Polish…and, you know what?  He’s still my friend.  I still root for whatever team he is playing for…

I very much am a US patriot, but count me out on pointless-nationalism-thing.

Err…sorry about the squirrel-moment-rant — I just happened to read a story this morning about how “bad” the US team is in these Olympics, and about how the whole thing was a failure because of that…and about how the athletes themselves are failure, and miserable people.  Yep, you guessed it, that article drove me freakin’ nuts.

The Olympics were supposed to be about individual and team competition and achievement.  They were supposed to be about sport, not politics on skis.  Unfortunately, for most of the commentators and many of the viewers/fans, they are not about the sport…and all about the chest-thumping politics.

And with many of the athletes, that doesn’t get much better: they are about the dollars and sponsorships, not the sport.

Oh, there are still examples of the “true spirit” of the Olympics (“true” if you believe the old Chariots of Fire image), but they are all too few and far between.

Previews - Winter Olympics Day -1If I watch anything at the Peyongchang games it will be one thing: the Jamaican women’s bobsled team.  Not because of Cool Runnings, but because their coach quit and took their damned sled…and they stayed.  Red Stripe beer bought them another sled*, and the team is still trying.

*Brilliant damned marketing, by the way.  Even I’ll go buy a six-pack of a beer I don’t like for this one…

The Jamaicans won’t win, and they won’t make shit for money, but they’re still trying.  And THAT is what the Olympics are supposed to be about.

Shut Up and Listen

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”  — Isaac Asimov

imageShut up and sing.  Or write.  Or play.  Or any other occupation…

That’s a favorite phrase among a certain kind of folks nowadays.  Of course, what those folks really mean is “shut up…if you don’t agree with me.”

Now, there’s a belief out there that it is conservatives that embody that drive.  And, to a certain extent, there is a strong element of that among the more vocal and rabid “conservatives”.  But, just as much, the same belief and impulse holds true on the left.  Liberals can point to talk radio hosts and TV talking-heads, but conservatives can point just as much to college campuses and, well, more TV talking-heads.  And me?  I point to (pretty much) all of them.

And, no, it is NOT worthwhile to get into the tit-for-tat bullshit of “Well, they did it first!’

“No, THEY did it first!”

“Well, you’re a poopy-pants!”

“No, YOU’RE a poopy-pants!”

Is it any wonder why the most hated professions in the world are politicians and reporters*?  Even lawyers rank above them, for pete’s sake…

*To which I will add media talking-heads & “political-pundits”.

Let’s put this argument to rest right now: art, and especially writing, has always played a political role…and it always will.  Most often — and worse, to those who hate & fear voices that do not toe their particular line — that role has been to argue against the problems and abuses of the day, according to the artist’s personal perceptions and opinions.

Shit, Shakespeare’s Richard II is one of the most overtly political plays ever written.  Virgil’s Aeneid was written as pure political propaganda.  The Canterbury Tales had true political significance…Twain…Dickens…Fitzgerald…Wolfe…  And that’s just a handful of names, limited for reasons of word-count and space.  Hell, if I get into the poets, I could spend a good three seconds of thought and add another hundred names.

But, you know what?  Everyone deserves that freedom to express themselves.  Not just writers and singers and artists: athletes, and plumbers, and engineers, and astrophysicists….well, maybe not astrophysicists, those folks are freakin’ weird.  The point is: if you have an opinion, and sincerely held beliefs, it is not just your right, it is arguably your duty, to behave accordingly.  And it is manifestly NOT someone else’s job or right or duty to tell you to “shut up”.*

*And, before you ask (or yell): I fully realize that at-work and at-home are two different things.  I am trying to stay high-level and general in this post; I do not want to get into the briar patch complexity of when and where you are “allowed” to express yourself…

Once again, if you don’t like the message, don’t read, or listen, or watch.  It’s that simple.  Honestly, there are plenty of messages out there that I do not like, and therefore do not “consume”.  In the end, Person A cannot compel someone else to toe a specific line of belief or action.  But, just the same, Person B cannot compel someone else to agree with, or partake in, their beliefs or actions.

It really is that simple…and it really does go both ways.

No, the “command” to shut up and write (or sing, or play, or whatever) is one of the stupidest and most futile things imaginable.  If you don’t like the message, don’t read…or listen, or whatever.

Or, and let’s just try this on for size, YOU could shut up and try to at least envision another point of view.  You could try to understand, maybe even to learn.

Or you could live a bubble where the only voices you hear are those that agree with you.

What a miserable world — and life — that would be…and, sadly, pretty much IS right now.

Do you know what we call people who are utterly convinced that their every thought and opinion is 100% sanctified, righteous and correct?

Psychopaths.

And politicians.

But I repeat myself.

There Is Never Enough Space

Handout image of Saturn from space, the first in which Saturn, its moons and rings, and Earth, Venus and Mars are all visibleI wrote a space post last Friday, and that’s always a dangerous thing.

Don’t get me wrong, I like writing space posts.  No, the problem is that I had nowhere near enough words — nowhere near enough space — to write what I wanted.  So, today, I get to touch on one more of those (several) things I didn’t have the space or time to say in that post…

The ISS and current proposed NASA budget may have some folks clutching their pearls and searching for a fainting-couch, but complaints and battles about budgets are only the second oldest debate in space exploration.  No, the oldest argument — older than the flights of Gagarin and Shepherd and Glenn — concerns the value of manned spaceflight itself.

Now, one piece of explanation and background is required before I get into the argument itself.  Launching shit into space costs.  The more you launch, the more it costs.  It costs weight, and technology, and (most of all) money.  When you send just one astronaut into orbit, you are sending not just a 180-pound human, you are sending all of the food and water and air that human needs.  AND all of the additional fuel launching that stuff requires.

When you get right down to it, putting humans into space is expensive.  Your ships and stations have to be bigger (read: heavier), because they have to have things like atmosphere, water, HVAC, radiation shielding, toilets, medical supplies…you get the idea.  It is (literally) tons of stuff to support just one human.

That’s bad enough in low Earth orbit, but what about things like trips to the moon, or Mars, or even the asteroid belt?  That is A LOT of stuff to be trying to move around.

So, is it worth it?

You bet your ass.

Robotic probes can do an awful lot.  Hell, the Mars rovers have been absolutely phenomenal.  Even better, take the Juno and Galileo missions to Jupiter…the Cassini mission to Saturn…New Horizons…the various space telescopes & observatories…and, especially, the granddaddies of them all: Voyagers 1 &2.

We wouldn’t have learned half of what know without robotic probes.  And, let’s be honest, there are certain places where we HAVE to use robots.  No human, at our current tech level, is going to orbit Jupiter or Saturn.  Barring major changes, we are probably a century or more away from that.  But, the inner system still beckons…

Why?

If robots can do so much, why go to all the trouble and expense of sending people?

Because we — as a people, and as a species — need to stretch and reach and strive for more.  Because we need to feel as much as to see.  Because, in the end, we need to dream.

No robotic probe, no matter how capable or sophisticated or multifaceted, can provide the same connection and capacity as does a human.  No robotic probe can inspire dreams.

We anthropomorphize the shit out of our probes: from plucky Curiosity, to the self-sacrifice of Cassini, to the reckless daring of the two Voyagers, we have imbued our exploration craft with “personality” and “life”.

It’s not the same.
Why did the Apollo program resonate so very deeply with people?  Why did it connect with not just the people of the US, but also folks around the world?  Even back then, we could have done the missions with robotic probes.  Hell, the Viking landers were little more than Apollo technology, sent to Mars…but they had far less “connection” than a few frail humans walking awkwardly in bulky suits.  Why?

Because they were people.moonbeer

Because Neil Armstrong nailed it.  To paraphrase that famous quote: a giant leap for humanity required one small step by a man.

Hell, to tie this all back to writing: why did The Martian (both book and movie) resonate so very deeply with folks?  Because it was the drama of exploration and danger and disaster, yes, but also — and far more importantly — it was the story of “Mark Watney.”  It was the story of a person.

*sigh*

I just checked my word-count for this post…sure enough, just like last Friday, I’m running long.  Very long.  And there is still more to say.  More to say on this particular topic, more to say on space exploration, more to say on astronomy and science…

But not now.  I’m out of space.

Late…Again. *Sigh*

I know this will shock you — given that I write sci-fi, and all — but I love astronomy. I listen pretty fanatically to a handful of astronomy podcasts*, I buy astronomy & cosmology texts alongside the vast numbers of history books I collect, I can (and do!) still work a telescope for long nights of observations.

*And, yes, they are in fact kinda like the old “astronomy/cosmology for idiots…err, non-majors” courses back in college…

All of that means, of course, that I also pretty fanatically follow current missions and discussions and debates about space exploration. Crap, I remember sitting in my living room and watching the “live stream” of Voyager 2’s encounter with Neptune. The data didn’t really make much sense to me, given just how much interpretation and adjustment it requires, but I nerded out on it nonetheless.

Why am I writing about this?

804E49CA-BFC3-46EF-B980-3EEC244B0AD6Well, the recent test flight of the Falcon Heavy got me to thinking. First off, it is nice to see some options for (relatively*) heavy-lift become once again available. It was also seriously geek-worthy to watch the two secondary boosters land themselves pretty much simultaneously. That the primary booster did not also successfully land was an important learning experience that in no way detracts from the accomplishment. The ability to re-land and re-use boosters is a vital element of practical and affordable launch systems — and the space shuttle’s “drop ‘em in the ocean” system was, well, pretty damned inefficient.3E2B612C-2C19-4C83-A073-04EE44757693

*”Relatively” because we have given up A LOT of capability over the years: the Falcon Heavy is capable of about 3.4 million pounds of thrust at launch, with a payload capacity to low Earth orbit of about 70 tons — compared (sadly) to the capacity of the decades-dead Saturn V that we can no longer build of 7.9 million pounds of thrust, and 155 tons to LEO.

But the biggest part of the whole thing? Getting launches into private hands, and opening LEO to be an economic asset (and battleground). Look, NASA is phenomenal at pushing the boundaries, and at exploring and furthering our knowledge and understanding. It is, on the other hand, absolutely shit at turning those accomplishments to practical endeavors.

And you now what? That’s okay, that’s not what they’re there for. They’re there to explore, not to exploit.

There is an old saying, however, that “trade follows the flag”. In the old days, that meant that practicalities followed (and built on) exploration and discovery. In space, however, that has not happened…well, has not happened quickly.

Want to make space — more specifically, low Earth orbit — accessible and efficient? You gotta open it up to people to make a buck, then. Right now that is pretty limited to the launch systems of SpaceX and Blue Origin, but even baby-steps can get you there…

The astro-nerd world is currently roiling itself up pretty seriously in regards to the Trump Administration’s recently released “plan” to begin phasing out the International Space Station after 2024 with an eye to turning it over to commercial enterprises.

At first glance that sounds nuts…but only at first glance. That plan actually is one I am happy to hear, for a few reasons:

1) The damned station is ridiculously expensive and complicated to operate given that it is controlled and funded by the bureaucracies of no fewer than FIVE space agencies (US, Europe, Japan, Russia and Canada). Keep in mind, none of the other four have shown any interest whatsoever in funding the ISS after 2024, and we sure as hell ain’t gonna pick up the whole tab.

2) NASA, as I said, is bad at following up exploration and discovery with practicalities — the ISS is little more than a laboratory to learn about the human capacity to live in space for prolonged periods. The other experiments and tests that happen up there are basically 75% public relations.

3) A private company — more likely a consortium of several deep-pocketed corporations — could turn it from PR stunt into a legit lab for practical, realistic engineering needs. The speculation is that micro-gravity can help in the manufacture of things like fiber optics, certain pharmaceuticals, some metals & ceramics, and a handful of other applications. NASA doesn’t give two shits about that, it’s not their mandate. Commercial enterprises, on the other hand, can and will turn the place into a test-bed for technologies with potentially direct benefits to those of us here at the bottom of the gravity well.

NASA gave us shit like Velcro, carbon composites, Mylar, and automated flight computers — even Tang, for God’s sake! — but it took private companies to turn those into everyday tools. And that is not a bad thing.  No government agency on the face of the planet understands efficiency, or commercialization, or supply and demand…so let’s find ways to encourage those who DO understand those things to get involved. Let’s let trade once again follow the flag.

This Is Not Us

Sometimes I just can’t help myself…sometimes my love of history, and my life experiences, overcome my libertarian, ignore-DC-at-all-costs leanings.

The US has always been strongly and openly patriotic.  We have always — well, mostly always — been very supportive and appreciative of our military.  I usually keep my associations with that part of life private, but even I wrote about it once, in this post.

But, even with our propensity for open patriotism and the close (although declining) relationship between the civilian and military spheres, we have never really gone for outright militarism.  We have celebrated those who fought and bled and died, but never have we celebrated the tools of war.  Never have we valued and celebrated the power and lethality of our military over its humanity.  Instead we have valued and celebrated our friends and relatives, our neighbors and peers, who bear the burdens of those weapons, rather than the weapons themselves.

We are not Russia.  We are not North Korea.  When a nation — when a society — turns to celebration and glorification of its power, rather than of its people, a line is crossed.1  A line, and a crossing, from which there is no stepping back…

Now, it turns out, Mr Trump wants to have a parade.  He wants to have not a parade like those we have known in the past, but rather the opposite.  He wants to glorify the tools and weapons of war in ways the US has never done.

Look, I’m not a partisan of either stripe.  I neither hate nor love Trump…I just want a government that freaking works.  But, the nice thing about neither hating nor loving the man is that I get to call things the way I see ‘em.  And the way I see this “parade” idea is that it’s damned well insane.

When the soldiers of WWII came home, this is the kind of parade we threw:

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When Bush senior arranged a celebratory parade after the Gulf War — one aimed to also celebrate and acknowledge those who fought in Vietnam — it looked like this:

President_Bush_greets_General_H._Norman_Schwarzkopf_who_leads_the_Desert_Storm_Homecoming_Parade_in_Washington,_D.C_-_NARA_-_186434

What we do NOT do are parades like this:

nintchdbpict000322444369 Военный парад на Красной площади 7 ноября 1990 года

Or like this:

Report-North-Koreas-military-parade-to-include-fighter-jets-artillery 468a168249305b39b42bf3ae03846bd31

Shit.

If a parade we must have, then let’s do it right.  Let’s do a parade that celebrates the right thing…the thing in our military that really matters:

 

An Off-Topic Squirrel Moment

Aside from the lunacy of Alabama’s recent special election, I don’t comment on politics much.  Hey, as I’ve said before, you and I might disagree — or we might be totally simpatico — but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a meaningful conversation.  It certainly doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.  Not to trot out an old (vastly maligned) saying, but “some of my best friends are…”  You get the idea.

But you know who I’ve decided I respect?  Political writers and bloggers.  To dive into the cesspool of domestic politics every single day?  To write about it…hell, to even acknowledge it, every single day?  Worse, to do so voluntarily?!

Yeah, there ain’t enough shampoo in the world to wash that particular stink out of your hair.

But, and this is the big but, I love to read about politics, and to explore the backstabbing and shenanigans as much as the next guy.  Err, maybe more than the next guy: that history degree in the Roman Republic ain’t because I liked Catullus’ poetry…

It is, quite honestly, the politics that draw me into history.  It was, especially, the cut-and-thrust of international politics.  That there is some fascinating stuff, especially if you have a basic understanding of the cultures involved.  Unfortunately, far too few people seem interested in that part of it.  Far too few want to understand before they (try to) judge.

Countries like Russia, China and Iran — just to name three of the biggest players in the news right now — make easy “villains” in the kabuki theater of the US’s worldview.  Unfortunately, that is simplistic thinking of the worst sort.  That is thinking that gives rise to stuff like the (satirical) map I added to this post.the-world-according-to-americans

Thankfully, for those who want to learn and understand, that thinking lasts only until you actually get to know the histories of the others, the outsiders (from your perspective).  Until you look at things from other perspectives.  Until you switch off prejudices and judgments and try to understand.

Oh, even when you do so, the world is still full of adversaries and allies (well, confluences of interests, anyway)…but it’s nice to understand that your adversaries are neither insane nor maniacally evil.*  Historically speaking, Russia and China have valid reasons for why they are the way they are, both politically and culturally.  Hell, if we had their history, we’d have some of our own issues, too.**

*Both sides of the current US domestic political insanity could learn THIS damned lesson.

**Yes, I know — we DO have our own issues, but I’m staying off domestic politics in this.

And Iran? Let’s be honest: in spite of the last forty or so years, Iran is pretty much the oldest continual civilization in the world (the Persians).  It once was a beacon of science and art and learning…and will be again.  That is something I very much believe.  That is also why I have been so interested in the recent, nascent protests taking place there…they give me (and others) hope for the future.

Sadly, until you understand that history — the history of the Persian people as much as the various states that fall under that name —  Iran will be little more than mullahs and violence and threat.  Once you learn, there is so much more there…

Just like understanding the Russians: a country that has suffered violent invasion and slaughter for most of its history.  Hey, it’s not paranoia if everyone really is out to get you…

Just like China: a country that, in living memory, really was carved up and dominated by outside powers as private, colonial fiefdoms…

And that interplay, the “great game” between nations on the world stage, is just as fascinating now as it was centuries, or millenia, ago.

Snarking At The Moon

Okay, so I write sci-fi (for the moment)…

This, apparently, makes me an “expert” to some folks.  Now, I do know a lot of shit about a lot of things, but that’s mostly because I read…and because I love to learn.  cqg441259eqn34Hell, I once had to learn the actual math behind orbital mechanics — it made the nerd in me tingle with excitement, and the historian go out and get drunk.

None of this means, however, that I have a PhD in Astrophysics…

I still get the questions, though.

“What’s this stuff about habitable Earths around other stars? Does that mean people, too?”

“Why can’t we just build bigger rockets and go to the next star to meet them?”

“Why go to [insert planet/moon here]?  There are no cities or people, so why go all that way just to find some algae?”

*sigh*

Want to know about the political nature of the various priesthoods under the Roman Republic?  Or maybe get a breakdown of the Social War and its role in the rise of the Empire?  Maybe even learn a bit about Marius and Sulla?

You don’t?

Okay…okay…

Most of the sci-fi-ish questions I get arise from a couple of problems:

  1. Folks don’t learn the basics — specifically, the basics of physics and how the universe works, and so don’t know what to question, let alone how.  They learn “everything they need” from stories in the news, which leads to…
  2. Reporters are idiots.  Take relatively simple, easy-to-communicate facts and they will still dumb them down into complete uselessness.

So, a few (bitter, snarky) answers:

All of the “Earths” we have discovered so far are not.  Not “Earths,” I mean.  They are potentially rocky planets in something like the right orbit to potentially have liquid water.  That’s it.  That’s as “Earthy” as they get.

Let’s take the potential earth-like planet “found” orbiting Proxima Centauri.  Hey, it’s the closest star!  We have neighbors!

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It’s a potential rock orbiting a red dwarf, for fuck’s sake!  In order to be in the “Goldilocks zone” where liquid water can exist, it orbits all of 7.5 million kilometers from the star.  Earth, by comparison, is twenty times farther from the Sun…hell, even Mercury is something like five times farther out!  You could go boil your head in a microwave for the next thousand years and not absorb a tenth of the radiation that cooks this rock every single “day”.  If it does have “intelligent” life, those folks will look a whole lot like reporters…

Ahem, never mind.

And, before anyone asks: No.  Just no.  We cannot go there at the moment.  Oh, there are all kinds of theoretical engines that could get us there in…well…in a century or two.  But none of them actually exist at the moment.

Don’t get me wrong, some of those technologies and theoretical engines are fascinating — but that is all they are: theoretical.  Even if we could build a sufficiently powerful, practical VASIMR engine right now, do you know how much fuel you would need to accelerate to (and decelerate from) anything resembling a useful interstellar speed?

Even if we perfected the perpetually-fifty-years-away technology of nuclear fusion, you would still need loads of deuterium or tritium for the reactor.  And that fuel for your reactor does not include the (exponentially worse) metric-shit-ton of reaction mass you would need for your thrusters on the ride.

And, please, don’t even get me started on the pipe-dreams of “solar sails” and “laser-powered” craft.  For the former: take a sheet of paper and hold it on your finger tips…that is roughly the amount of thrust you would get from a square kilometer of solar sail in our inner system.  In interstellar space?  Yeah, your dog could fart you to Proxima Centauri faster.  And “laser-powered”? Just pure sci-fantasy bullshit.  Those designers read “Mote In God’s Eye” way too many times…

Just…no.

Look, I’m not shitting on the legitimate excitement of these discoveries…nor on the dreams of exploration.  We need those dreams.  We need to continue to stretch and reach beyond our grasp, or we will stagnate and die.

But, for the love of God, could we please do so with a modicum of common sense?

There are “new earths” out there.  The odds are there is intelligent life out there.  But, in all honesty, these things are a century or more from mere confirmation, let alone direct interaction.

No, what should really excite us right now are the wonders, and discoveries, on our own doorstep.  I agree 100% with manned missions to Mars…if only for the dream of discovery.  But that’s not the truly exciting stuff.  No, what really floats my boat is more of a reach…and more of a dream:

Missions to Titan, and to Europa, and Enceladus…places that are the most likely of all to have life.  No, it won’t be “intelligent”, but it will be different.  Different DNA, different evolution.  Crap, what more could you ask for?  Do you know how much we could learn just from some freaking algae?!

Missions to Uranus, and Neptune, and Pluto. These planets (and their moons) are things about which we still know next-to-nothing…

And let’s not forget the practical: asteroid mining, orbital research and manufacturing…

No, we have more than enough to keep us busy at home, thank you very much.  Dream big — always dream big — but act small.

The Smell Of The Fire

Earthquakes and riots.  Drought and pestilence.  Poverty and wealth, violence and isolation, all within blocks of each other.

I grew up in Southern California.  It is not the land of paradise and dreams that so many have tried to portray.  It is, in all honesty, a place I am happy to be from.

But you know what is worse than those ills I list above?  Fires.160724140455-01-ca-wildfire-gettyimages-579388882-super-169

‘Quakes may represent more raw power, may represent Nature near her strongest, but they are…well…expected.  They are simply part of the natural order of things.

Fires, though?  Fires are worse.  An out of control wildfire is chaos at its worst.  It is almost a living, breathing thing…and is the closest I can come to a true “supervillain”.  You cannot help but anthropomorphize a fire that is threatening you…okay, at least I can’t.

There is an inevitability to a wildfire, a creeping destruction that is as inexorable as it is unavoidable.  What is even more terrifying is when the fire, at its worst, seems to follow you.  I have been evacuated from a handful of fires over the years, and each time the fire shifted and forced me into a second evacuation.

Take a moment and picture that scene: you have to move again in the middle of the night…you have to explain to confused and scared kids — and confused and scared adults! — just why it’s time to leave again.  At that point, the fire isn’t random chance, it’s pure malevolence.

I even “trained” — years and years ago, as part of a high school summer vocational program — in forest fire fighting.  To learn and understand the physics of the fire, and the matrix of temperature and terrain and time…that didn’t help.  Not a bit.  Hell, it made the fire worse, because I understood the inevitability of the whole damned thing.

aHR0cDovL3d3dy5zcGFjZS5jb20vaW1hZ2VzL2kvMDAwLzA3Mi82NDUvb3JpZ2luYWwvdGhvbWFzLWZpcmUtZnJvbS1zcGFjZS5qcGc=Over the last few days I’ve been watching California burn.  Watching and remembering.  Remembering those times I had to evacuate.  Remembering sitting on my patio, watching the glow of a fire grow nearer, and debating if it was time to leave.  Remembering the ash covering my car.  Remembering the panic of the neighborhood, and the fear that was as thick in the air as the smoke.

Do you know what really sticks with you?  Beyond the fear and dread, I mean.  What sticks with you is the smell.  We’ve all smelled campfires and fireplaces…many have smelled the smoke of a house fire.  But a wildfire?  That has a stench all its own.

I will never forget that smell.

My heart goes out to those Californians living through this literal hell.  I know the feelings, and the fears…and the knowledge that there really is nothing you can do.  You are at the mercy of the weather and the terrain and the fuel.  You are at the mercy of a fire that wants, seemingly, only to destroy.

To put this in terms of writing: there is no agency here.  There is no possible agency here.  These “characters” have no choices to make that can impact the crisis.  They have no ability to change things.  They have, in fact, only one choice to make: stay or go.  That’s it.

The crisis of this story will move and resolve no matter which they choose…and that powerlessness, as someone who has lived through it, is the worst thing of all.

You Chose…

I wrote a post last Tuesday titled “Choose.”  It was a post that came purely out of my own particular brand of socio-political cynicism.  Actually, it was a post where that cynicism shaded decidedly into the darkness of pure pessimism.  It was a post attacking Alabama for inflicting upon the rest of us the noxious disease that is Roy Moore.

I’m sorry, Alabama.  I wronged you.

Like some of the alcohol-fueled revelries of my younger days, you flirted and danced and rubbed yourself all over that one person you knew was completely wrong for you.  You may even have swapped some bodily fluids…

But, in the end, you did the right thing.

In the end, you said “No more.”  {pun fully intended!}

Look, the rest of us know it was a tough time for you.  We know you got a little drunk, did a few things you don’t want to talk about.  We’ve all been there.  Chalk it up to experience, take a couple aspirin, and please — please! — learn from that hangover and find someone you can actually take home to your family without worrying about your little sister.

There is a ton of pontificating out there about the AL special election as a “sign”, as the first rushing tide of a “wave election”.  Or as a sign that nothing has changed.  Pick your poison, based on which side you favor…or read ‘em all and just laugh, if (like me) you’ve had it with both sides.

Folks, this was one very singular, very special circumstance of an election — the very definition of an “outlyer” — and neither party/side should be looking at the results with anything resembling contentment or happiness.*

*The rest of us normal folks?  We can be as happy as we damned well want: we don’t have to live with the rantings of a curacek** who believes liberty and rights belong only to those who look and think exactly like him.

**In Czech slang, curacek means “little dick”.  Hey, it seems to fit…

For the Ds: your guy managed roughly 50%…running against a bigoted, repressive, (alleged) pedophile who doesn’t believe in the US Constitution, nor in the rights enshrined therein, and who wanted to institute a theocracy that would’ve had even the Taliban shaking their heads about “religious extremists”.  Had the Alabama Rs put up literally anyone else, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.  Offer a quiet smile, take your win and move along.

For the Rs: yes, you “win” by not having Roy Moore as a running mate for literally every single election next November (and don’t get me wrong — that’s a big win), but AL is, to put it mildly, the reddest state in the nation.  If you want to still hold any vestige of power at this time next year, you should probably figure out that the rest of the US is most decidedly NOT Alabama…and that many folks, the results of the vote aside, ARE gonna remember your support of Moore.

It’s important to remember, however, that in the end, we are all better off with the way things turned out…at least for now.

One of the key lessons from these past few weeks, at least from my perspective, applies to all of us: the one to whom you choose to give your vote, who you choose to represent you, matters.  Don’t — as so many of us have done — fall into the trap of voting against someone.  Don’t vote from fear, or from anger, or from hate.

Vote for someone; vote for a candidate you can respect and admire.  A candidate that represents you.  I don’t care if you are R or D, or I, or anything else…vote for something.

To be defined only by what we are against leads inevitably to moral compromises and political absolutes that end only in the kind of bitter, antagonistic divisions that bring down nations and societies.

To be defined by what you are for is the only way this whole thing will actually work.

Not to go all existentialist on you, but you — as an individual — are defined by what you do, and by the stands you take.  Think about that…think about that, and stand for something.

Maybe Next Year

Last Wednesday’s IWSG post got me to thinking.  Which, I suppose, is what those topics are intended to do…

I wrote in that post about 2017 in a pretty general way. Looking back, of course, tends to do that: other than the truly exceptional — good or bad — things tend to blur together.  As the distance from them grows, the individual points lose their granularity and blend into a broader picture.

And, yeah, I’m using Pointillist painting for that analogy…because who doesn’t like a cool painting?

Anyway, the thinking…

We tend to forget the details, tend to forget the honesty and the emotion — the raw urgency — when we look back.  We tend to remember the past, and to come across when we write about it, very differently than we lived it at the time. Sometimes that distance is good, but often it is bad…occasionally very bad.

When I reread my IWSG post, I found a hint of phlegmatic acceptance that is most decidedly NOT who I am.  I wanted to drill a bit into that, wanted to make a point that I did not in that post: life is a fight, and you better damned well fight to win.

Three of the worst words in my little corner of the universe: maybe next year.

Maybe next year will be better.

Maybe next year I’ll get it together.

Maybe next year the words will come easier.

Maybe next year…

Not to sound like a heartless asshole, but maybe next year you, or I, will be dead.

I lost one sister when she was far too young…I’m worried about losing another…I lost one of my best friends when I was seventeen…I’ve lost too many more in the years since…

It’s a trite and overused old thought that I have to add (overused precisely because it’s true): you are not promised tomorrow.

Now, I’m gonna leave aside the more irresponsible parts of my life in this post: shit like the (arguably) crazy hiking I do, or the (arguably) reckless personal risks I am willing to take.

Nope, I want to focus on who I am, not on what I do.

And, as I’ve said before, who I am is a writer.

Yes, the money sucks for a freelancer.  Yes, the money sucks even worse for a writer new to the fiction industry.  Yes, there is far more frustration and challenge than celebration sometimes…err, often times.

“Go back to marketing and sales.  Be responsible.  Maybe next year you’ll be in a better place.”

“Maybe next year the money will be better.”

“Maybe next year you’ll have more time.”

I hear this from others — from friends and family — fairly often.  I hear this from the little demon on my shoulder all the time.  Hell, I hear this from myself.

Maybe next year…

No.

The words are who I am.  If I give in, if I say “Maybe next year I can be who I really am…” all I’m doing is surrendering.  All I’m doing is denying who I am by pretending to be who others want me to be.

Remember what I said above: life is a fight, and you have to fight to win.  At least I do.

I might very well die tomorrow…or next week…or next summer…or in thirty years.  But, no matter what, I refuse to have my last thought be that stupidest of regrets: if only I had one more year

No.

I’d much rather die reaching for a pen.  I’d much rather have my last thought be one of hope: shit, this would make a great scene…

Maybe next year isn’t an option. It isn’t encouragement, isn’t acceptance. It isn’t even regret.  No, maybe next year is a curse and a trap.

For me, at least, there is no alternative — I have to live, and write, like this is it…like there is no next year.

What is your next year?  What are you putting off?

What value, what meaning, are you deferring because, well, maybe next year...?