Sunday, August 31, 2014

Aphorisms

One of the most unfortunate truisms is that life lends itself to aphorisms.

I think it's baked right into the fabric of the universe. Michio Kaku once wrote (and I think he was quoting somebody else but I'm too freaking lazy to look up who, exactly, he was quoting) that the difference between a fundamental law of the universe and an incomplete model is that you can put a fundamental law on the front of a t-shirt, using a legible font.

E = mc2, for example. Or Boyle's Law: PV = k.

Paraphrasing loosely, it's a good sign we haven't worked our way completely through a problem if something fills up a blackboard to overflowing. Fundamental laws tend to be elegant and to the point. Newton's laws still hold up fine after all these years, in spite of being simple enough that a six grade grasp of math will let you use them.

If your description of a phenomena takes up several notebooks and half a building's worth of chalkboards, then you're probably missing something obvious. Part of the popularity of string theory, for example, is the fact that many physics problems which are staggeringly complex under traditional math collapse into beautiful elegance when expressed in ten dimensions.

Aphorisms are like that. Maddeningly simple and easy to remember. They not only cross the line into cliche, they charge across it with reckless abandon. And that's something that drives people of a certain frame of mind crazy.

I had a friend once who was going through a lot of shit in his life. I told him "when it rains it pours." I probably could have put it some way more fresh and less eye-gougingly trite, but it's demonstrably true: random bad shit happens all the time. If said random bad shit occurs within a given frequency vis-a-vis other random bad shit, you get a compounding effect that makes the random bad shit worse. I could probably even draw you a chart, come up with some kind of formula to that effect. Or I could pull out the cliche instead and save us all time.

He took the comment poorly and justifiably so. Hell, I want to slap myself for it and it's been a good sixteen years.

I've been thinking about this recently, how most worthwhile advice tends to lend itself to kitschy little blurbs.

One of my friends is famously bad with money. The sort of person they use to illustrate points in personal finance books. Great person, hard-working, well-meaning and all that, but they're the financial equivalent of someone trying to play baseball with their thumbs surgically removed. We were talking at one point, and the topic of financial literacy came up, and they made the comment that they really wanted to learn to "do that thing I do with money" some time, heavily implying that it's some crazy-complex system involving fields of mathematics which haven't been recognized by mainstream science yet.

I believe my friend was referring to automated savings or something. They weren't making much sense. Alcohol may have been a factor in this conversation. Anyhow.

To be perfectly clear, it's not like I'm rich or anything. I just make a point of being responsible with cash. So I said that the secret to making money is that there is no secret. Because there really isn't. Work hard, keep learning to do new shit, avoid debt, spend less than you earn and do something useful with whatever's left over. That's it. The rest is just fiddly complication that you don't really need to know about unless you're really into optimizations.

Most everything you do in life comes down to something like that, where about 80% of it can be summed up in a few simple words. "You get a sixpack in the kitchen, not in the gym", for example. Writers write. If you want to lift more, then lift more. Damn near anything Bruce Lee ever said. There are millions of them.

For the most part, that 80% is all you really need to be good at something or at least make a good start of it.

If you're planning on mastering a subject and you can't explain it in a paragraph or two, then you probably don't understand it well enough yet.

You run across this sort of thing in finance, IT or physical fitness all the time. Usually if someone can't give you a good answer about something in a paragraph or two, it's a sign of that they're either a) trying to scam you, b) don't understand their own subject material or are c) trying to be excessively fiddly in such a way that'll eventually bite them in the ass.

Progress on the book is great. I feel like a steam locomotive with a full tank. I doubt I'll be done this weekend, but I'm very, very close. Next week, I'm taking a week's hiatus from posting because of my annual one-week long pilgrimage to Denver to hang out with family and be a drunken jackass across half of Colorado's breweries. Which will be an interesting dynamic, I guess, because I am still holding to my drink-less-rather-than-more resolution. I intend to be a moderate-drinking drunken jackass because hangovers suck at high altitudes.

Words:  601, 739, 858, 786, 793, 883, and 846.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Moment Of Shit

Sitcom writers have a term for that moment when some kind of moral interjects its way into a show, that moment when everything comes to a screeching halt and it's all group hugs and tears. The Tanner family Christmas, say, or that time Tony Danza teaches us all a little about how to deal with our senile relatives. Or maybe you get that one episode with the silent credits screen, where the show has a Very Serious Talk with you about the dangers of jaywalking.

Blossom teaches us all a lesson about smoking. Saved By The Bell really wants to educate us all about truancy rates. Arnold from Different Strokes has an encounter with a child molester (seriously, it happened, I remember it when it was on the air). We all take a time-out to get serious.

Sitcom writers call it the "moment of shit."

Seth MacFarlane most recently mentioned it, according to our favorite panopticon, Google, but it's an industry term. I've seen it come up over the years from various writers. I think it was one of the sitcom veterans who used to write for Rosanne where I first heard it.

...sounds awful, right? Very cynical. And yes, it is. Sitcoms are notorious for shallow heart-string plucking, or for bludgeoning their way through treacly public service announcements. Just clumsy, awful, punch the card in the time-clock type writing...which is unfair, because there have been some truly well-written sitcoms over the years (Rosanne, for example, had a great deal of fantastic writing). It's just that all things must bow before the 90% rule, even television. Turn on the TV and, yes, you, too, will only have a one in ten chance of getting the good stuff. Maybe one in a hundred. Maybe smaller. I dunno.

But everybody has to go through their moments of shit, those less than genuine moments of emotion you have to slog through because reasons. Whether you're a writer or not, it's just a thing you have to do.

Nobody wants to go to Chuck E Cheese, but to your toddler it's the most important place in the entire universe. So you go and pay homage to the mouse because it's important to someone you care about. If you have to suffer through an entire evening of shitting, screaming yard-apes, it's worth it to you, because it makes your own monster happy. And you have to like it, because your own yard-ape is paying attention and if you don't look like you're having fun, they aren't having fun either. Hug the mouse and smile, damn it!

Likewise, in your writing, sometimes you have to insert your own moments of shit, times when you have to bang through a scene because it makes sense and it's expected, even if you're not quite feeling it. Yes, it's good to be able to have every scene be a fist-pumping hell-yeah right-from-the-heart rocket-launching-barrage of genuine heart-felt prose. You want it to be genuine, but...sometimes you've gotta move along. Or go in a certain direction because, face it, that's what sells.

The "moment of shit" is an awesome phrase, easily one of my favorites, mostly because it conjures up images of cynical chain-smoking old writers banging out treacly shit for dimwitted audiences. It's blatantly admitting that you're selling out, taking your doctorate in literature (or whatever) and using it to create drek so you can cash your paycheck, probably at the liquor store, you scurvy dog, you.

But at the same time, we all have constant tiny moments of shit, because you have to take into account your audience. Every time you write, you're selling out a little, at least if you have hopes of someone else actually reading what you put down.

Of course, there's selling out and there's selling out. I think I like the phrase mostly because we've all been there at one point or another.

In other news, my replacement Chemex just came in. I've been in a constant golden haze of coffee-happiness. The first morning after I got the new pot, I just wanted to curl up in a corner somewhere with my coffee mug and just sob, from pure unadulterated joy. One of my friends pointed out that I could probably just make do with gas station coffee until the replacement pot came in the mail and I wanted to drive to where he lives and poke him in the goddamned eye. Only fiends and complete unrepentant degenerates would think that was a good idea. Gas station coffee, blergh.

It occurred to me this week that I could, if I Made A Project Of It, wrap up my book this weekend. Intriguing. Really depends on energy levels and social schedule.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

On Breaking My Own Coffee Pot

I broke my coffee pot on Thursday, barely twelve hours after my last blog update.

I've been uncommonly tired for the last couple of weeks. The kind of tired which arises out of...who knows what. Stress? Existential crisis? Humidity? Fatigue rays from the Xorquonian Attack Fleet currently in orbit about Mars? Something.

But I've been more logey than usual. When I'm not at work, exercising or actually at sleep, I've been in a bit of a fog. I think it's my body's way of telling me that I should probably go to bed earlier, even though seven and a half hours should be enough.

I got back from work that afternoon, in a somewhat exhausted frame of mind. I made supper. Finished washing dishes. I turned around, towel in hand, to mop down the stove and prep surfaces, not thinking much about anything. My right hand went into exactly the wrong trajectory: rib cage level when it should have been either way up or way down. My thumb was turned just-so as it swooped around, hooked the lip of the Chemex and off we went.

The Chemex is a beautiful thing, a wondrous example of mid-twentieth century industrial design. It is simple and elegant and curves like a piece of modern art. It's one of those appliances which looks exactly as it should be, the sort of simplicity which makes you appreciate, say, a paper clip for looking like it does, for being put together in such a way that it couldn't possibly be anything else than what it is and still do what you need it to do. A Chemex is, simply. Irreducible design and beauty. Perfection.

And it makes a beautiful tinkling noise as it breaks. Wind-chimes in the first gust of wind before an autumn storm. The first icicle to drop during the spring thaw. It took me a few moments to realize what had happened. Then I stared at it with the hard stare you give when you want to will the universe to rewind for a bit.

There is a frankly incredible amount of glass in one of those damn things. I think Schlumbohm was ahead of his time when he designed it. He must have invoked futuristic alien geometries, possibly not of this universe, name-dropped Elder Gods, twisted glass through the ten dimensions, making a Klein bottle that also, coincidentally, brews perfect coffee. I'm still finding glass in my kitchen, three days later.

The replacement won't be in until tomorrow or the day after.

It is astonishing just how much I've come to depend on that morning pot of coffee. And not even on a purely caffeine-related basis. I don't really need the stimulant to get through the day. I just find having a pot of perfect coffee in the morning helps launch the day properly. It gives me something to look forward to when I go to bed sometimes.

So, basically everything has been thrown off kilter. I've been making tea instead. It's awful.

The novel's going well. In the middle of the climax, writing action sequences, which are always a lot of fun. Hopefully, the home stretch will go just as well.

Totals:  550, 697, 641, 781, 617, 948 and 517.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

War Chests

I think all writers are the creative equivalent of crazy cat hoarders.

Lately, I've been reading a pretty great biography of Charles Fort, a man often called the father of modern paranatural studies. He was an interesting guy. You never really get a solid idea of just how seriously he took himself: religious groups loved him because he poked fun at science. Scientists disliked him because he was comfortable trolling around the fringes of the world, looking at things like showers of frogs or mirage cities or flying saucers while at the same time giving him grudging respect because he had a love of poking holes in overly-convenient theories. He tended to occasionally call his own fans crazies.

He lived in a comfortable halfway point between seeing his own role in life as necessary and being very aware of how ridiculous he was. One of his friends wrote a rather glowing review of him once in the opening of his book, "Lo!" and his main response was something along the lines of "you do realize that I'm just an old guy with bad eyesight who shares an apartment with a couple of parrots, right?"

He had a habit of keeping vast archives of what can only be called "weird shit." Boxes and boxes of the stuff. Notes and observations written on scraps of paper. Newspaper clippings. All organized according to topic: philosophy, astronomy, ethics, botany and the like. Occasionally, he'd get sick of it all and burn it or otherwise get rid of it. More often than not it would accumulate and get turned into wondrous books.

Even before he made a career as a collector of strange and wonderful information and as an observer of odd phenomena, he was a fiction writer. He'd collect metaphors.

Every time he thought of an interesting description or characterization, he'd write it down on a slip of paper and put it in a box. When he was short of ideas, he'd sift through his collections until he found something inspirational.

By his own account, at one point he had forty-thousand of the things, in boxes all over his apartment. At a low point in his life, before he turned to the paranatural, he burned them all, something which caused his friend, Theodore Dreiser, a great deal of distress.

I have to wonder how common such information hoarding is.

I recall an account of John Broome, I believe, the guy who created the modern version of the Green Lantern. He was famous for keeping filing cabinets full of weird clippings and notes. Stuff he could write into stories, interesting tidbits of information like factoids about astronomy or whatnot. The collection, by the time he died, was apparently massive.

It doesn't seem uncommon at all, at least among a certain generation. Back when you had to physically stump your way to the nearest library, uphill both ways, through knee-deep snow while fist-fighting angry wolves the entire way, it was pretty necessary to keep a war chest. After all, you'd never know what you'd need and when you dealt in the esoteric, you'd never want to look a gift horse in the mouth when you did run across something interesting and potentially useful later on.

These days, the internet fulfills a great deal of these needs. It always amuses me just how easy it is to sound like I know what the hell I'm talking about. I take a fair amount of joy in setting stories in locations I've never been to, because Google Maps will let me walk down the place's streets. My characters occasionally will wax philosophical on things I really don't have any knowledge of, simply because a quick stroll down a few pages of search results will give me enough to be a convincing charlatan. If I get something wrong, I blame the characters for being wrong. Easy.

But sometimes the internet fails you. Not because the internet isn't as good as a traditional library, but simply because there's so much knowledge to be had that you forget it exists. You run across something awesome and shiny, don't write it down somewhere where you'll bump into it later on, and then you forget it exists. I keep rediscovering interesting things I've forgotten and then kick myself for forgetting them.

I think there's something of value in going back to the cat-hoarding of Fort or Broome. As awesome as the internet is, it's really great to have a place you can go to for random interesting ideas you've collected, because face it, the internet is full of boring and terrible shit and there's no central curator of interesting things out there, except for you.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Fiction: For The Sky Is Fuchsia And The Buffalo Are Weirdly Sinister Today

Another month, another Wendig flash fiction challenge.

This one didn't really give us much to go on. Just pick a random color from an odd-ball table of colors and use that in the title. So I decided to get a bit weird. It's about disappointing road-side attractions and changing the world. Also, Crayolas and putting mustaches on buffalo.

Edit: this week's word totals are...618, 614, 642, 1107, 659, 710 and 512. Good progress.

Read:  For The Sky Is Fuchsia And The Buffalo Are Weirdly Sinister Today

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Logic And Gut Feelings Don't Live In The Same House

One of my long term goals in life is to not have to live in a cardboard box when I'm 70. Weird, I know, right?

Because of that, I've always invested in retirement fairly aggressively, particularly during economic downturns and other times when normal folk decide to pull their eggs out of the basket in fear. When stock prices are hovering somewhere between zilch and nada and you're afraid your job is going to go up in a small puff of ill-smelling smoke, the last thing you want to think about is some hypothetical you in forty years. People tend to be rather optimistic on the century-level timescales. Or they don't think about it much, because the future is some unlikely hazy thing that's far off, like a shimmering mirage at the end of a highway arrowing across the desert.

I've never been like that. So, I save like a mofo. Especially during the good times. As a result, the bad times aren't that bad, usually. An emergency is only an emergency when you don't have the money for it. But that's besides the point. I'm talking about goal-setting, here.

I've been reexamining my retirement goals lately and I realized that I could probably retire pretty early if I step up my savings rate. So far so good.

Because nothing much exciting has been happening over the summer, I decided to increase my pretax savings to crushing levels as an experiment. With no taxes on what gets pulled from my paycheck until such a time in the future as I need it, two decades of tax-free compound interest to look forward to, and nothing short-term to really save up for, might as well go for it, right?

Increasing my withholding percentage to the rate my math told me I could handle was extremely satisfying. It was one of the only times I've ever seen the accountant at work freak out. Apparently I broke some kind of company record. She actually made me repeat myself twice. In a movie, it's the sort of scene where someone drops a plate or there's a record scratch.

I held it at that rate for four months.

The end result was fairly positive. Net worth went up gangbusters. My retirement projections are way ahead of the game. I think I'm going to get a fairly sizable tax refund at the end of the year, which will be pleasant--I usually arrange such things so I wind up paying the government, because that's the responsible thing to do. But a tax refund will be a nice bonus at the end of the year, particularly if it's the result of tax-sheltering my income, like the cigar-smoking plutocrat that I am.

But...

Having pulled so much money out of my paycheck before I got it meant that the amount I was depositing into my checking account every week was very small, relatively speaking. It meant that I had to budget fairly closely, keep weekly expenses under control. Even though I could see where the money was going, watch my retirement accounts fly up at a phenomenal rate, I felt broke all the time.

If an emergency came up, I had to pull that money from savings I'd accumulated before I started cranking my retirement contributions.

Basically, the lack of flexibility was driving me nuts.

Logically speaking, I had every reason to keep doing what I was doing. I could think of a dozen reasons, easily, why putting all my money into retirement was optimal at this time. Reasons which would look good on a white board, maybe next to a smiling picture of Warren Buffett.

But.

Any time you set a goal, you have to take into account your comfort levels and gut feelings. Yes, there's every reason in the world you should have six pack abs. You'll look great, that fat you're carrying is unhealthy, the girls at the beach would go "ooooooo" when you take your shirt off. You won't have to pencil them in with mascara and fake it when you take bathroom selfies for Facebook. You get the idea.

All very logical. But spending an entire year eating nothing but salad and tuna fish is probably not a great idea. You'll be a basket case within two months.

Anybody can do anything for roughly a month or two. Three or four if you're a stubborn bastard. And hard goals are worth pursuing every once in a while since they push your comfort levels.

But you need to listen to yourself. Sometimes the best reasons to do or not to do something are reasons which can't quite be expressed in symbolic logic. In my case, it turns out that my short-term financial buffer (which I call my Fuck-It number) needs to constantly be going up or I turn into a mild basket case. It's not logical. My current Fuck-It number is pretty large, by almost any standard you care to name. Logic dictates that I could ignore it in terms of long-term goals.

Logic is not always in the driver's seat, apparently. Since my ability to hold long-term goals is governed more by stubbornness, habit and gut feeling, sometimes logic is not what I need to appease or work around.

So, I reduced my withholding rate again.

There were a few positive spin-off effects of this experiment: one, it really did wonders for my retirement savings. Two, it showed that it's not a difficult thing to change my withholding for a few months and really buckle down occasionally. I'll definitely do this again in the future. Three, it was the financial equivalent of a diet. I feel rich now, which is nice.

And I'm still saving aggressively, but it's at "wow, you really care about the future" levels and not "holy shit, are you insane?" rates.

I suspect finding a balance in any long-term goal is much the same. You can't spend all your free time writing, you have to chisel out time for your own emotional needs. You can't sacrifice sleep and friendship for fitness goals. Even though building that mashed potato Devil's Tower model is a worthy goal, you probably need to bathe every once in awhile. Etc.

It's just that sometimes, when you're prioritizing things, it's tempting to listen only to logic but that's not the only voice to listen to. Sometimes very minor things which seem trivial when you write them down amount to a great deal more over the course of a long-term resolution.

In other news, the novel's going great. And I think this is a short story week. So, there's that to do this weekend.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Gut Feelings And Missing People

And here we are, another gripping Sunday installment in which I write a lot of words about a whole lot of nothing.

The book's proceeding apace. Words are appearing at the usual rate, or even slightly faster than usual. Items in my outline are being crossed off. It's like watching magic happen, if magic involved grinding out verbiage and sitting very still for long periods of time in front of a laptop. Okay, it's not a whole lot like magic happening. Or if it is, magic is a pretty boring thing.

I hit one of those landmark moments that all people who write books hit, I think.

The dreaded dangling continuity error.

I'm pretty close to writing the climactic scene at the end of Act II. I just got right up to the moment when Shit's About To Get Real, so I went back to one of the earlier chapters which foreshadowed the event in question, to refresh my memory. And realized there was a character missing that should have been there. Not only that, it was a character that I had to specifically write in--he couldn't just be there. Things had to happen to account for him being there.

This meant I had a few choices how to resolve the dangling plot thread:

1. I could leave a note in my draft to the effect of "PLOT RESOLUTION GOES HERE. FIX THIS IN DRAFT TWO." Problem is, I'd have to do just as much rewriting to account for him being there as I had to do now. And there are outlining issues that I might as well tweak for his presence now as opposed to later since I'm going to have to rejigger crap anyway.

2. I could completely write him out. Go back to the previous chapter and change the paragraph he's in. That sucks because it's a plot thread I'm kind of fond of--his presence complicates things, in a potentially hilarious way. Also, it plays off his initial appearance in the book in useful ways. He reinforces a theme I want to include. So, he stays.

3. I could go back and rewrite several previous chapters to account for his presence. Slow build. Completely logical. Etc. That's...a lot of work. A lot of rereading. Staring at the wall refolding the outline in my head. Typing shit into my laptop. Fingers. Get sore. Thinking. About it.

What I finally wound up doing was just throwing in an extra scene at the beginning of the chapter, lampshading his arrival. Why is he here? Just bring him in, brutally sudden and mysteriously. Let the shit sort itself out over the rest of the novel. I get to do all the jokes and things I want to do with his presence, but at the same time, there's a level of mystery I get to play with while wrapping up the rest of the novel. Cool beans.

I like this approach because it felt right and sometimes you just have to go with your gut. Also, less work.

Totals:  600, 565, 573, 1070, 617, 856, and 508.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Twenty Year Wind-up

When I was an undergrad back in the early 90's, I worked at a security desk at the library. It was a great job. For the princely sum of $4.35 an hour, I'd wear a smelly red sweater, sit by a door for four hour shifts and mostly gather wool, do homework and wait for the alarms to beep. It could be staggeringly dull at times, but I got a lot of homework done and there was very little supervision, perhaps because the powers that be thought it would be a great idea to have my boss work a day shift on the third floor, when I worked nights on the first.

If I were slacking off and doing questionable things, the only person with any sort of authority to do anything about it would have had to come in eight hours early and then hunt around until they found someone who cared enough to listen to him complain. And that never happened, not even once.

The entire three years I was there, I think I met my boss only three times. Maybe not even that often. I'd show up, prevent crime by my simple presence by the door and then collect an $80 paycheck at the end of the week for my 20 hours of work. It was great, definitely one of those "are they actually paying me to do this?" kind of jobs.

During slow periods, sometimes friends would wander by and we'd shoot the shit for a few hours. I'd trade barbs with my nemesis, Israt, who worked the copy desk on the second floor. He'd call me "Jason," who was a similar-looking dude who briefly worked at my job. I'd correct him and, for the rest of the time I worked there, he'd call me "Mike Jason," possibly out of malice, possibly out of stupidity or lack of giving a fuck. That guy was awful and probably good for another story since a chance encounter with him years later was one of the turning points that got me back into physical fitness. But I digress.

I'd talk to a lot of people to pass the time.

Mostly friends, people I knew outside of the job, other employees. A few girls, but not that many because I was painfully shy back then and would flee screaming from anybody above a certain level of pretty.

My favorite person to chat with was possibly also the most odd. It's been too long and his name has been lost to me in the mists of time, but he was a great guy: a skeletally-thin Seventh Day Adventist who'd worked every university along the east coast, it seemed. His name might have been John but don't quote me on that.

I never did figure out what department he was in, what degrees he had, what, even, he was doing at my university. I'm guessing it was history or comparative religion because that's where the real oddballs wind up in any university. Well, that and pure mathematics or physics. Drama majors will always put up their hands and claim the spotlight at this point, but for my money, the math departments are where the real weirdos live.

He didn't drive a car or even own a bike. Years later, occasionally, I'd still see him walking to and from campus, a cancer-ward, six-packs-a-day thin man with wispy hair marching along with a book bag. Anybody who saw him probably thought he was homeless, which wouldn't be a bad guess. There's really not a whole lot of difference between an associate professor, grad student or the like and a hobo. The insane raving is usually slightly more coherent with homeless people and their crash pads are usually a bit classier, but that's about it.

I don't recall offhand how we met, exactly, but we'd talk through an entire four hour shift sometimes. He was a pretty interesting guy with an unusually deep background in history and philosophy, but he never spoke down to you. If you said something that was obviously wrong, he'd correct you and tell you a story instead and usually by the end of the conversation, you might not exactly agree with him, but you'd respect him for his opinion and see where he was coming from.

I would occasionally miss classes because of our conversations. There were probably people who made a decent living out of smuggling books past the doors while I was engaged in conversation with this tall cartoon-like skeleton-man. They'd see us talking about history, me in my ridiculous red sweater, him correcting my many errors gently in his North Carolina drawl, load up half the Encyclopedia Britannica into a big red wagon and just leave, alarms probably binging merrily away and being ignored.

Anyway. We talked a lot. Interesting guy, great perspective. Even now, twenty years later, I get the occasional knowledge bomb where some offhand comment by him will come to mind, drift about for a few seconds and explode. I wish I could go back in time and chat with him with my current perspective.

One time we were discussing books. I'd just read about Project Gutenberg--this was probably back in '96 when the internet was first becoming a thing. Project Gutenberg was just getting started. They were probably, at that time, just finishing with their first hundred books or so. I thought it was great they were doing this, making books accessible to anybody with a network connection.

John nodded, looked a little amused, and we wound up talking about libraries. He was of the opinion that people tended to fetishize books. Treat them as things to be collected, like awards or badges or whatever, when what was important about them was the knowledge inside. Completely sailed over my head at the time, but years later, when I first started my current path into minimalism, I was mulling over how many, exactly, of my books I wanted to keep. And that conversation came back and I realized that I was treating my books as objects when the truth was, I only cared about the information inside.

Twenty years later, that's a hell of a lot of wind-up. Makes me wonder exactly what other truth-bombs that man laid in my head. I'd like to imagine that he's still alive somewhere out there, wandering the land like Kwai Chang Cane, blowing college students minds.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Futures

I've written about this before, but I'll say it again: the future ain't what it used to be.

I grew up in a fairly odd place. For whatever reason, the thrift shops and used book stores of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan were something of a dumping ground for...well, for lack of a better term, weird shit.

You'd walk into a St. Vinny's in Escanaba in the eighties and you'd see what you'd expect to see: rows of junk stereo equipment, racks of thread-bare clothing twenty years out of date. Tired naugahyde furniture and weird brick-a-brack nobody in their right mind would ever want. There'd be piles of waffle irons, hair curlers and worn crucifixes, the detritus of peoples' lives, stuff which would never move at even the most hopping garage sale.

But. There was always an unaccountably large book section, way larger than you'd expect at a thrift shop. And in amongst all the cookbooks and encyclopedias and dime-store romances, there'd be weird shit. A lot of it.

Science fiction, naturally. Lots of sci-fi fans in the Upper Peninsula back in the eighties, I think. My introduction to Doc Smith, for example, was from thrift store acquisitions.

But it's the other stuff you'd occasionally find which mystifies me. There must have been a heavy contingent of hippies back in those days, because I'd find all sorts of strange books: UFO contactee biographies, the secrets of Atlantis, revealed. There'd be old issues of Fate magazine and strange volumes dealing with the occult. I am sure, if I'd gone to even more remote stores, perhaps up in Houghton or the Sault, I'd find the Al Azif or something.

I was an indiscriminate reader back then. I'd hoover those things up, repeat tidbits of information I gleaned from them to friends and family. They were so much better than normal science fiction because it was all true! Or at least it was to my ten year old younger self who was not armed with Google and a healthy dose of skepticism.

Back then, before the internet made everything so much less mysterious, I could sustain a sense of wonder for days, staring at a painting of what the sky must look like from the jungles of Titan, or perhaps a grainy photo from the surface of the moon which a UFO expert claimed proves that aliens built pyramids in outer space. If you squinted and turned your head just so, in amongst all the dots and smudges, you'd see it, too. You'd wonder briefly why NASA kept the truth from us, but you would come to the same conclusion every time: after all, the Cold War was on, and maybe there were Secrets Too Large for the public to handle.

My absolute favorite were the contactee books. Stories from men and women who'd been abducted by aliens, who'd invariably look just like you and me, except better in every way. Psychic. Blonde. Tall. The women were liberated and the men square-jawed and confident. They'd take the authors up into their saucers, show them the sights, tell them what's wrong with us as a culture and then set them down in a cornfield in Iowa with a pat on the head and maybe an idea for a best-selling book or two.

I think it must have been a great time, growing up a science fiction fan in the fifties when most of these books were written. It must have been a time when anything felt possible. Space was a new frontier, and, even if you didn't know it just then, there was a freaking moon landing ahead of you.

I really want to write a book some time about that, rekindle a bit of that sense of directional imperative, that technology is heading a specific direction worth going to, recapture that sense that there's a better future out there, that everything's going to be all right.

I think one of the primary things readers will talk about in a hundred years when talking about the fiction of the oughts and the teens is just how damn morose we are. Science fiction hasn't been this depressing since the grand days of the seventies, with all its economic turmoil, the Cold War and gas scarcity. Just as it was then, everything's all dark dystopian futures and sudden and implausible apocalypses now.

We're slogging through this zeitgeist of doom and woe and it's no longer hip to dream of a better future.

I probably have sort of a skewed perspective. There was plenty of bad stuff going on back then, after all. The usual wars, famine, racism, class struggle and plagues. People can be awful no matter what the time period. It's one of those things you can set your clock by: assholes make the world go round, after all.

But sometimes I just wish I could get that feeling back, of driving down a lonely dark highway out in the crack of nowhere, forest and corn field rolling by on either side of your rusty Studebaker. Nothing on the road at this hour but you. The AM radio coughing out the usual parade of loonies and semi-truths on Art Bell. You can see the stars shine bright and crisp overhead, so bright you barely need your headlights.

You pull over, get out on the gravel shoulder, leave the door open and the radio on. You look up and up and you know that maybe there's something out there somewhere besides us. You hear a woman talk softly on the radio about how the saucer-men have a plan, see, and, watching the lights in the sky flicker and shine, maybe you see a satellite roll fast overhead and the future seems kind of swell after all.

Totals: 647, 808, 795, 832, 772, 699, 960.

I'm averaging roughly 742 words per day, which ain't half bad. I've got two more chapters in this act, after I wrap up the small amount I have left in my current chapter, then Act III, which is looking like it might be kinda short. Maybe six chapters. Cool.