What Could Be

I had this great plan to put up some details about various hikes I like, to keep going with the “Yellowstone Practical” idea. I even started a post on that for today…

As you can tell from the lack of a morning post, I didn’t really follow through. Not because I couldn’t have, but because something else rose in my mind last night. Now, I’ve mentioned before one of writing’s primary rules: when an idea comes to you, YOU WRITE IT!

Last night I, err, did not write it. I didn’t quite forget the thought, but I did have to spend the better part of today reconstructing it while I worked in the store.

At any rate, here goes:

I spent some time reading the news on my day off. I know, I know…that is always a mistake. You’d think I would know better by now, but nope.

Most of the crap I was able to ignore, but something stuck with me: the whole damned NFL-anthem-flag controversy. How the hell is this still a thing?

Look, I realize I am not the most grown-up person in any room (including a room full of kindergarteners), but even I can see how stupid is this whole thing. And by stupid, I mean everyone involved. I know we’re talking about the confluence of politics, culture and sports here, but isn’t there someone who can be the adult in the room?

Apparently not.

So, what the hell, I’ll throw in my two cents. Actually, I’ve got two opinions/thoughts here, so I’ll round it all up to a nickel.

First of all: I am a sports guy. All of my life I have been a sports guy. More than that, I have been a team sports guy. Team sports are the everyday embodiment of self-sacrifice. Well…at least…they should be. In all of the bullshit, dating back to last year, I saw very little conception of team-first. I saw an awful lot of “me-first”, but not much else.

I will, however, call out for credit those that did put team first, that acted like the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. I think the Seahawks nailed it last year when they linked arms as a team. Much as I detest Jerry Jones, the Cowboys this year got it right, as well.

Those teams that had no unity? Truly sad.

And the cowardice of those that simply hid away in the locker room and hoped to bury their heads? Beyond sad, beyond weak, and well into the territory of truly pathetic.

Right or wrong, at least the other guys picked a side. I’ll always take someone who picks a side, whether I agree or not, over someone who tries to ride the fence and please everyone.

Okay, so that’s the first bit. The less important bit. Now comes the second part…

By definition, no society, no country, no people is perfect. To dredge up an old quote, “All are judged and found wanting.” The United States is anything but perfect. The flaws in our society today are manifold…and, in many cases, obvious.

Hell, I write about many of those flaws: about the exploitation of the weak, about the vast, indefensible chasm between rich and poor, about the evil one human can do to another for the smallest of reasons, about the suffering and despair that suffocate so many lives…

But that doesn’t mean I don’t think and dream of better. That doesn’t mean I think we as a species, as a society, as a country are irredeemable. If I thought that – if I bought that deeply into cynical nihilism – it would be time to just plain give up, and that I refuse to do.

To redeem ourselves, however, we need aspirations. More importantly, we need aspirations that can pull us together. We need symbols, and dreams, that we can all share.

I cannot comment on other countries, nor other peoples, but to me the dream of what the US could be is one of those aspirations. But to get there we have to value in common the effort and work it will take to get there.

The American flag is just a bunch of fabric stitched together, in one sense. It is nothing more than a glorified bed-sheet tied to a stick. In another sense, however, it is something very different: it is a symbol of what could be. It could/should be, when you get down to it, something to unify, something to symbolize all of our aspirations.

See the problems…speak out on the problems…give your time and your money and your life to fixing those problems…but dream and aspire together. Value what could be together.

You and I don’t have to agree. We can argue and debate and oppose each other all we want, IF we both believe in and value where we’re going…value what could be.

If, however, we hold nothing in common – if we share no aspirations or dreams – then we are doomed to strife and discord. And, eventually, to the disintegration of the little that still holds the many, many different strands of the US – as a nation and as a people – together.  In the end, all we will have left is the regret of what could have been.

A Full-House

“Your bet…” prompted the transgender girl slowly turning into a boy, looking to the left.

A shake of the head and a quick reply from the big, straight guy in that next seat. “I need another beer, first.”

“I’ll get it.” This from the rail-thin gay kid on the other side of the table as he stood and stepped over to the ice chest.

“Keep betting like that and you’ll need more than beer,” laughed the blonde, tougher-than-she-looks ex-cop.

In the background, a tall and aging server – head shaven to hide receding hair – is still throwing his all into hitting-on the pretty girl from Romania. She laughs and shakes her head; she still has a boyfriend back home.

College is a long time ago for me…err, both stints are a long time ago. It has been, over the years, hard to remember the semi-forced intimacy of that period. That period when boundaries are expanded, when preconceptions are shattered, and when new ways of looking at life are learned. That time when you well and truly grow up.

Six months ago, most of my friends looked like me. Most thought like me. Some even acted like me.

Now?

Now I play games with a transgender girl-turning-into-a-boy. Now I have real, meaningful discussions with a rail-thin gay kid. Now I feel avuncularly protective of a tougher-than-she-looks ex-cop. Now I laugh (with all the empathy and understanding of the fellow-aging) at a trying-oh-so-hard server*.

Six months ago, not a single one of us would have spoken three words to the others. Hell, none of us would’ve so much as entered each other’s orbit, let alone become friends. I’m a straight, white guy who is addicted to hockey and writes in brewery taprooms…what the hell do I have in common with any of these people?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

*Note: there are far more characters – and friends! – up here. The cast above, however, illustrates better than anything the variety…and the chasms crossed.

How Dare People Want To Learn About The US?!?!

A guest got mad the other day. Nothing terribly unusual in that, to be honest: even on vacation, some people just want to find something about which they can be upset.

No, what makes this event stick out in my mind is what the guest got pissed about. This person was mad because the cashier she was dealing with has a strong accent and is still working on her English.

I was nice, let me emphasize that. I very nicely implied just what a jack-ass this guest was, and very nicely got them the hell out of the store as fast as I could.

I carry bear spray whenever I hike – I may have to start carrying tourist-spray when I work.

I should probably expand on why this irritates me:

Roughly 40% of the seasonal staff up here (and in any national park) are here on what’s called a J-1 visa. Now, a J-1 is not a normal work visa, it is an educational and cultural visa. It is for kids from other countries to come and work in the US to improve their English, and to learn about our people and our culture. It also ain’t cheap…these kids spend a lot to come here for this.

Sometimes what they learn isn’t all that great.

The cashier in question happens to be from Taiwan – she not only is a college grad, but happens to be one of the hardest and best workers I’ve ever seen. I would trust this girl with any job I could dream up and know she would exceed the goals I set.

I’m good at languages. I’m very good. I speak several, and can make my way in a few more. But in none of those languages am I perfectly fluent, in none can I hide my American accent. Yet never have I had any random, tourist asshat get pissed at me because I struggled from time to time.

Well, except in Spain…they made of fun of me because I speak Mexican Spanish, not “real” Spanish. Fuck Spain.

Err, never mind…back to the point.

We, as the US (both nation and people), have prided ourselves on the worth and strength of our attempt at a meritocracy, and tried to build that on the equality that all humans bring to the table regardless of their origins.

Believe that many of us might, but we sure have a shitty way of showing it…

Every single person should have to spend a few months living in another country, learning another language and culture. It might sound trite, but that really does change you: changes your outlook, changes your thought patterns, and sure as hell changes the boundaries of what really matters to you.

Being A Kid Again

I was not happy with The Force Awakens.  You have no idea how hard it is to write that…let alone how hard to think it.  Star Wars is my childhood.  My current fascination with photography was born from that movie, the first film I really remember in detail.  And don’t even get me started on my love of sci-fi and fantasy…

As bad as were the three prequels, the three “originals” are the apex for me in oh so many ways.

That is why, honestly, it was so hard to be disappointed with The Force Awakens.  I wanted very much to fall in love with that movie, but it failed on just way too many levels.

But Star Wars is Star Wars, and I could only hold out for so long: I finally sat down to watch Rogue One.

I was, sadly, prepared to be disappointed.

Oh boy, was I not.

This is the Star Wars movie we’ve been waiting for since Return of the Jedithis is what Force Awakens should have been.  I rediscovered the magic of being that young kid sitting again in the theater and losing myself in a movie.

It sounds inadequate, but I can think of no higher praise to offer the writers and director and cast than to say, “You gave me back the magic.”

Well done, folks.  Well done.

What We’ve Done

I read an article the other day talking about the younger generation(s).  You know the ones I’m talking about: the stories that complain about how millennials and/or gen-z’ers are living with family more than ever before.  Normally I hear and see so many shallow, pointless stories like these that they don’t even register.  It’s just the same old stuff, put out over and over by lazy editors and even lazier writers.

But there was one random occurrence that brought this story to the front of my mind: at right about the same time I heard a radio ad for a retirement home.  This ad featured a couple of people complaining about how hard and time-consuming and expensive it was to take care of their parents as age set in.

I had to stop and think for a bit about the hypocrisy and insanity of it all: WHEN THE HELL DID WE FORGET THE CONCEPT OF FAMILY?!

The world is about more than just “me”.  It has to be about more, because the only alternative is that infamously savage life: nasty, brutish and short.  The subtext of both article and ad was the same: no one “normal” would ever want to care for aging parents, or help out emerging young adults.

For the vast majority of human history the important unit was not the individual, but rather the family.  More than that, it was the extended family.  Extended across generations and branches far more than we Americans like to think about in this day and age.

Honestly, we’re the outliers in this whole thing.

It is only in the last 100 years or so that the restrictive, internally focused and exclusionary concept of the “nuclear family” took such strong hold.  That concept that dictates a kid leave the house as soon as possible to start “his/her own family”, that says you’re on your own as soon as you do leave.  Worse, it adds the unspoken concept that family is something merely to be endured, or to be exploited, rather than a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Don’t get me wrong: there is a time and a place for the needs of the individual to take precedence, but surely that does not have to be the totality?  Surely the world is not a zero sum game, and the success of an individual can and does benefit the family as a whole?

That long example of human history I mentioned?  It tells us the resources of a family (not just money, but also influence, standing, relationships, knowledge, etc…) were the property of the family itself, not the individual members.  No, not even the individual who was the “head”.  Everything was a tool to ensure the family prospered and survived.

It’s alien to us nowadays, but the family really did carry a sense of caretaking, and of honoring the generations before and the generations yet to come.  Things like: 3, 4 or even 5 generations sharing a farm/company…great-grandkids helping to care for the old ones when life gets heavy…the realities and struggles of life shared between cousins, not just as updates on Facebook…that list can go on for a long, long time…

Instead we now have this vision of “one man (or woman) alone”.  We hold to the vision – venerate it, even – of leaving your family behind and “striking out on your own”, then have the temerity to wonder why the world is falling apart around us?

I think we can all agree that our society has problems – many problems – but the realization we never seem to get to is that WE’RE RESPONSIBLE.  All of us: old and young, prosperous and poor, influential and powerless, we all played our role in getting to where we are now.  We changed the rules, we taught the lessons, we created the messages, and now we are reaping what we sowed.

I’ve mentioned before that it doesn’t matter to me if you’re liberal or conservative…or even if, like me, you’re standing off to one side with a beer and a pretzel and a puzzled frown.  The only thing I care about is how you live your life.  Well, this is about how you live your life.  If you want to make things better, to help “fix” things, then the place to start is the very concept upon which all of human society is built: the family.

Punching The Fans

“Never underestimate the influence of stupidity on history.”

The above is a quote from one of my mentors back in college that has stuck with me all these years. Every time I start to forget or ignore that maxim, some entity (person, country, etc…) does something so plainly, painfully idiotic that I can only shake my head and remember Professor Frank’s words…

Thanks, United Airlines, for reminding me just what fucknuts humans can be.

The worst part? I’m not even talking about the fact that they – literally – pulled a guy physically off the plane and beat the shit out of him. No, I’m talking about the response from their jackass CEO. You know, those initial Monday words that he now can’t backpedal away from fast enough or far enough.

Now, I’ve mentioned before that my professional background is sales and marketing. I escaped that particular prison camp, thankfully, but the skills and knowledge are still there. It really ain’t all that hard, folks: you don’t insult the shit out of your customers when trying to cover up your own incompetence.

The best words are still those I once had to use to a player on a minor league team I worked for (when I was still involved in sports): you don’t punch the fucking fans!

No, Mr. CEO, you don’t fuck up then go out and blame everyone else. You go out and suck-up and grovel and apologize like a six year old caught in the act. Then, behind the scenes, you fix shit and make sure it never happens again. That way you get to keep your job. As of right now, I would not put any kind of bet on Mr. Munoz’s survival in that organization. Nope, not a chance – oh, he’ll last a few months, maybe even a year, to let things die down, then he’ll “resign” to “spend more time with family”.

The moral of this little story is this: people do really, really stupid shit.

Even smart, capable folks have those moments when they can fuck up taking a bunch of sailors to a brothel, let alone running a company. Or a country.

That, honestly, is something we writers need to remember for our own characters as well. Yes, you want to plot tightly and have multiple layers and complex dynamics. But sometimes someone just has to do something incredibly stupid to actually be believable.

Now, in reality, that person is probably going to be your protagonist…which is as it should be. If your protagonist is far too smart and capable to “punch the fans”, you’ve got yourself a Mary Sue. You don’t want that. Trust me.

Sinners 3 : Saints 0

Last Friday’s post got me to thinking a bit.  Specifically, it got me to thinking about the future…and about my vision of it.

unicorn-poop-cookiesThe first stories I wrote were intentionally light and easy, largely positive/optimistic.  While I never tried to paint the Star Trek land of puppies and rainbow-shitting-unicorns, I also glossed over a lot of err, reality.  An awful lot.

In what I’m writing now, that “glossing over” ain’t happening.  I am focusing, very intentionally, on the darker side of life.  Corruption, inequity, marginalization, exploitation…you know, all the shit Gene Roddenberry said would be gone!

Now, one thing to keep in mind: I am a cynic.  Possibly even a borderline pessimist, some would argue.  I’m gonna stick with calling myself a cynic.  And no, the glass being half-full or half-empty doesn’t matter.  I just want to know which bastard stole my water!!

Ahem.  Never mind.

The thing that helps me most when I imagine the future?  Studying the past.

History is full of highs and lows, and the future will be no different.  I don’t, however, see the future as totally bleak and hopeless.  Quite the opposite, actually.  But I do see the centuries ahead continuing all the sins of the present.  We very much will continue to visit on our children and grandchildren all of our sins.  Just as our parents and grandparents visited theirs upon us, and their parents upon them.  Call it the birthright from hell.

Humans as a species don’t change much, and certainly not quickly.  Aside from utopian dreams and naive idealism, there is no realistic situation where human nature itself will change.  If we haven’t changed all that much in the previous ten millennia, what makes anyone think things will be any different a few centuries from now?

The technology and locations and names have changed, but humans are still doing the same shit we did back when Ramses thought throwing together a big pile of bricks would be fun.  Julius Caesar could step onto the scene today and have to change nothing but the language…

We will, quite simply, always have peace and war, saints and sinners, winners and losers.  And, yes, we will always have drugs and booze and hookers, too.  Just like we will always have art and literature and music.  Not to go all gnostic on you, but there is always bad to counter the good.

I’ve written in the past about the first items in those pairs I mentioned above.  In Connor’s stories, and in his world, I am writing about the second ones.  I’ve mentioned before that it is more effective and more interesting, for both writer and story, to write about broken people than it is to deal with the perfect (here’s a link to that post), and that very much still holds true.

I could be writing about suicide and alienation and hopelessness from the perspective of a quiet, wealthy suburban kid…but those stories would lack the power and visceral, immediate reality of writing about a couple of street kids.

Besides, in all honesty, it’s just more fun to write about the sinners than the saints…

It’s Not Binge-Watching, It’s Research!

I’ve mentioned before I don’t do cable, I stream.  The problem with streaming is that you can just head off on random tangents.  Oh, I don’t mean stuff like binge-watching every single episode of Game of Thrones in a single weekend.  No, I would never do something like that.  Not me!  Nothing to see here, just move along…

No, lately I’ve been going, err…”research”.  Doing the old “compare and contrast” shtick from my school essay days.  Things like comparing both versions of Battlestar Galactica, or the old campy 60s Batman* versus the more current movie iterations, that kind of thing…

*How the hell did Bruce Wayne escape a life sentence, anyway?  He kept a young boy in a cave!

Anyway, part of my little experiment has been rewatching the various Star Trek series.  Now, I need to set the stage by admitting my complete addiction to the original series.  An addiction, I should add, that dates back to when I was like five years old.

The original series will always, always, always have a special place in my heart.  Kirk – and Jack Aubrey, for fellow historical fiction fans – is still the ultimate prototype for what a sci-fi/adventure captain should be.  Shit, I still want to grow up to be Kirk…

But the best of the lot?  Deep Space 9.  Odd, I know.  That one is pretty much the red-headed stepchild of the Star Trek world.  It’s the part of the universe that’s not really part of the universe.  That’s one reason why I like it so much.

Leaving the different captains and characters aside, each of the series had its own personality and focus.  And those differences are why I prefer DS9 above even the original:

The original Star Trek series was a commentary on the politics, culture and social problems of its day.  While that is what sci-fi can do very, very well (hey, I chose it as a genre for a reason!), it made that series more about plot than anything else.  The situations into which Kirk and the others were placed were in total control.  Everything else (characters, tech, etc…) was there to serve that plot.

Next Generation, on the other hand, was really all about the tech.  Oh, there was still some commentary, but it was less important than the gee-whiz tech (and the consequent special effects).  This was also the most…unrealistic of all five series.  Jesus, this thing drove me nuts with its saccharine cheerfulness.  To me, it’s still the worst of the lot.

VoyagerVoyager followed closely in TNG’s footsteps.  In spite of some good performances – and some real improvement in writing and directing in the later years – it’s still a show about a ship.  With some people on it.  And aliens.  And reversing the polarity of something…on every single goddamned episode.  Find a new throwaway line, for fuck’s sake!

Enterprise tried to get into characters, but it took until like season three for you to give two shits about any of them.  Two-thirds of the characters on that show needed to be punched.  Repeatedly.  It tried to escape the mold of the other series (being the last one made), but never lived up to its premise, nor escaped the shadows.

And then there’s DS9.  In spite of the criticisms above, I actually liked all the shows, but DS9 is my favorite for one simple reason: it’s a show about the characters.  The station is just a backdrop, it means nothing.  The setting and tech are there just to support the damned characters.  That’s the way it should be.  Oh, and I suppose I should mention that it’s also the darkest of all five.  It succeeds with themes and problems the others could not do well.  It also brings a certain bit of jaded cynicism the other shows, far more optimistic and happy, could never even consider.

Dammit…my little 400-word post (wishful thinking, I know) has blown up on me, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.  Shit, I could do a twenty-thousand word paper on this and still leave crap out.

I think I’ll just cut my losses and go nerd out on some anime now…The Eccentric Family at the moment, if you’re wondering.  Absolutely gorgeous animation that is also pretty unique in terms of style, and a story that is simultaneously funny and dark as hell.

P.S.

There is a (kinda old) joke that the two best Star Trek movies ever made are “Galaxy Quest” and “Master & Commander”.  It’s funny because it’s pretty much true…

What Are You FOR?

I’ve mentioned before my love of Russian writers.  Folks like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy just knew what was up.  Not only with Russians, but with humanity in general.  If you want to research and study the “human condition” there is going to be a pretty significant Russian presence in there somewhere.

A conversation (argument…fight…call it what you will) with someone a couple of days ago got me to thinking about this topic.  About one Russian writer in particular, really:

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Now, I’ve mentioned before my admiration and respect for both the writer and his works.  He is one of those guys I think everyone should read.  What he has to teach transcends, well, just about any and all divisions I can think of.

The first thing to know about Solzhenitsyn is that he loved his country.  In spite of everything that happened to him, Russia was everything to him.  You get the same sense reading Tolstoy, but (much as I love Tolstoy) Solzhenitsyn just pulls it off better.

Keep in mind, this was a man sent by Stalin to the Siberian gulags.  A man who, even after he was “released”, was forced to live in internal exile thousands of miles from home.  A man who spent his entire life, until he finally fled to the US, under the eye of the KGB.

But he still wrote.  Not just wrote, but wrote honestly.  Most of his works came out first via the uniquely Russian samizdat*.

*Underground press for a lack of a better term (there’s a lot more to it than that, but I’ll save the history/sociology lesson).

When Khrushchev began to relax things – a bit – Solzhenitsyn was finally able to openly publish A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch.  And it was still honest, still powerful.  He didn’t pull back, in spite of the very real danger…because he loved his homeland.

The Cancer Ward is perhaps the most memorable, gently presented and effective indictment of totalitarianism and evil that I’ve ever read.  The Gulag Archipelago?  Yes, it’s huge.  Yes, it’s powerful.  And, yes, you will be rewarded if you read it.

Every single thing the man wrote was for Russia.  Yes, he was an ardent anti-communist.  Yes, he was against the tyranny and insanity of Stalin and the leaders who followed him.  But Solzhenitsyn was never really defined by being against, he was forFor, most of all, his homeland, the nation he loved.

Why do I bring this up now?

Because we, as a society…we, as writers and artists…we, as a people…are very, very much falling into the trap of being defined solely as being against.  There is danger in that.

To be against is inherently negative and destructive.  To be against is also meaningless as it does not, and can not, lead to anything better.  What it leads to is, instead, the bullshit tit-for-tat idiocy we see so much of in politics and society today.

I don’t care what you are against, tell me what you are for.  And, no, semantic word-play does not count.  To be for is to build, and to strive for more.

That, as much as the search for faith and meaning, has come into focus as I write the current story.  My protagonist is bitter and angry.  He resents…everyone.  And, even more, he is against: against the corruption, against the pain, against pretty much everything for which his society stands.

It’s not enough.  Not for Connor, and not for me.

That is what I’m exploring: this kid, who has lived such misery in just eighteen years, has to find…something…he can be for.

Dear BioWare: It’s Not Me, It’s You

What do you do when the things you’ve loved all your life start to fall flat?

Not the older material, but rather when new stuff comes out in long-loved franchises that, err, sucks.

Yes, Force Awakens, I’m looking at you…

Even worse, for the moment, are video games.

*sigh*

Remember, I am a serious game nerd*. I, in point of fact, still have an original copy of Baldur’s Gate II (one of the top three games ever made!) that sees use from time to time. The graphics suck, but my God is that game fun.

*Which is not as automatic for a sci-fi writer as one would think…I’ve actually met folks who don’t game! That’s just not right…

Why am I talking about this? Mass Effect: Andromeda officially released today. And sadly…depressingly…painfully…BioWare has pretty much destroyed one of my all-time favorite game series.IMG_0149

That gives me the sads.

How could you do this to me, BioWare?! We’ve been together for so long! When you were down and out, when the creditors were at the door screaming for blood, I was there for you! I bought your games!

Now, when I need a new game to play in the worst way, you give me this shit?

I just can’t take it anymore! Square-Enix has been dropping hints, and I think it’s time I saw other developers…

Err, until DA4 comes out.

Until then, I get custody of Baldur’s Gate.