Now Comes the Black Horse

There’s a cream cheese shortage.  No, I’m not kidding, there is an actual, honest-to-God cream cheese crisis happening in the US at this very moment!

For the love of all that’s holy, how have we not mobilized FEMA?  How have we not started a milk-based Apollo Program to get out of this misery?  God forbid we have to take truly severe steps; when the rationing starts, so do the riots!

Does Washington not understand just how strategically vital is that crucial spread?  The only thing that would be worse of course is a coffee shortage, and not even in the depths of my embittered, cynical soul do I care to examine the consequences of something that horrifying…

I knew we were in trouble when I couldn’t find the real stuff on the store shelves.  I knew it, but I managed to lie well enough to myself to ignore the problem.  I’m good at lying to myself, by the way.  I’m good at pretending disaster is not impending, and that the world can and will keep going just the same as it ever has.

So, no real stuff.  No big tubs of the dense, smooth wonder with a recognized, trusted label.  Just small containers from some generic manufacturer.  Just insignificant containers of some strange, clearly artificial paste described as “whipped”….

Whipped?!

Whipped, you say?!?!

What is this nonsense?  Is this how you fool the shortsighted and placate the desperate?  Is this how you keep the world from ending?  Is there even so much as one real cow anywhere in the supply chain for this?  If I were French, I would spit on your “whipped” nonsense.

Err…actually…if I were French, there almost certainly would be very real riots happening over a such a travesty as this.  You can say what you want about the French, but Gallic pride and intransigence would never allow their world to descend into the misery of a cream-goddamned-cheese crisis!

Why do I write of such things, I hear you ask.  Why remind others of the miseries and pain to come?  Why focus on the naked bagel that so ruined your morning?  Because, well…

Because the Broncos suck, and I don’t want to write about that.  Because 2021, which once promised so much, has delivered so little.  Because there are still masks and vaccines and viruses exacerbating the differences between that need no more exacerbation.  Because everything else is falling apart, so why not the goddamned food chain, too?

And, no, I was neither kidding nor lying about the cream cheese shortage, nor about the travesty of finding only the generic “whipped” version.  All of that is the all-too-painful truth.

*sigh*

It really is a sign of the coming apocalypse.  Remember, while Death rides the pale horse, and War the red, Famine himself rides the black…

Crap, if I can turn cream cheese into freaking Armageddon, just what will I do if — or, sadly, when — coffee starts to become short, too!  I’m adopted, so I have no idea if I have French blood or not, but I know the language and the history and the culture — when the coffee runs out, it definitely will be time to go all Gallic and take to the streets.  I wouldn’t go and riot over much, but my daily pot of dark roast Ethiopian is worth fighting for!

{Musical Note — okay, so obviously not a terribly serious day. Let’s go with something that evokes, well, something else. Let’s just go with youth, and days of thoughts and worries very different, shall we?}

Other Things

I was about to close this blog down.

I was about to end the WordPress subscription and let the domain fall idle.

I was far too busy to write, I said.  I had far too many other things on my mind.

The world had its demands, I said.  All of those other things were more important.

And what did it matter, anyway?  This blog, this little seat at the bar I’ve occupied for the last five years, has never been anything more than a place for me to write in a personal, intimate style I would never use anywhere else.  It started as an experiment, morphed through a stage where it was “practice” and training, and in the end became…something else, something I can’t define.

Now, my father likes to talk about optimism.  He likes to remind me — the cynic of the family — that how we choose to view things is important in how we react to them.  Why I don’t share that same outlook is something we could debate for a very long time, but it is not germane to these words.  I understand the outlook.  More than that, I can even sometimes manage it…

So, when a technical trial and some serious process changes turned to a layoff notice months before I expected it, I decided to play the optimist.

Err…well…I decided to get drunk, actually.  Then I decided to play the optimist.

I haven’t written a creative word in months.  I haven’t explored a character, conceived a scene, or even so much as contemplated something so diabolical as subtext and socio-political commentary.

*sigh*

I couldn’t figure out why I was so unsatisfied.  I couldn’t figure out why my temper had so frayed, nor why energy and enthusiasm had fled.  That black dog, he was beginning to howl, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Two days ago I started thinking that I needed to write something…

…and I didn’t know where to start.  Hell, I didn’t even know how to start.

The blank page on my screen was no longer an invitation, it had become a barrier.  It made me feel small and insignificant.  It reminded me of better days, and I think we all know just how poorly I handle nostalgia and memory.

You have a choice at that point, you know.  The obstacle can be too much; the mountain too high; the price too steep…

Or you can just shut the fuck up and go back to the basics.  That was advice I gave four or five years ago, by the way.  When the writing suffers, when the words won’t come, just shut up and go back to the basics.  Just write.  Just be you.  Be who you are, whether you chose to be that person who lives through the words, or were born that way, doesn’t matter.  For good or for ill, it is who you are…so be that person. Be that writer.

For me that means sitting down in a pub with a beer at my elbow, music blaring in my ears, and an intentional pushing back of the cacophony of mental noise that has so drowned that little voice at the back of my mind…

Welcome back, little voice.

{Note — Yep, I’m re-using a song from a Christmas post I wrote a few years ago.  I love the song, and the sentiment still works, so here you go…}

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!}