Seasonal listening: Autumn and Winter

I’ve always been a very seasonal listener. I am not sure why. Certain music just “fits” with certain times of the year, and not at others. Probably because I happened to hear and enjoy a particular piece (or group) during a particular season, thus the experience and the season become intertwined. This is undoubtedly strange, as I am not sure I’ve ever known anyone who is seasonal about his music choices, like I am. Certainly my wife is an anytime, anywhere listener. A fact which has made me grit my teeth on occasion. “No, no, no! Tears For Fears is summertime! You can’t play Songs From The Big Chair in January. That’s madness!” Naturally, she just smiles and turns it up louder. So I go on about my business, nevermind the fact that what’s rocking on the living room stereo is against all seasonal music logic.

Out here in Deployment Land, seasonal music is more important than ever before. Because where I am at, there are no seasons. There is merely insufferable heat and humidity, followed by not-so-insufferable heat and humidity, with occasional days of, “This isn’t so bad . . . at midnight, when the breeze is blowing from inland.” There are no mountains. Nor anything that grows, really. It’s beige, and it’s flat. Once every three months, it might rain. A little bit. And I doubt there’s been any snow in this part of the world since before the end of the last Ice Age; if even then.

So, I retreat to my headphones, and thank the Lord for MP3. Troops of past eras were stuck with Armed Forces Radio, or whatever vinyl was spinning at the (then, equivalent) MWR. Or, if you go back far enough, no music at all.

Ours is a time of technological wonder and luxury.

My tastes tend to be somewhat eclectic — these are my dozen-plus “stuck on an island” choices, for this time of the year.

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The Year Without Politics?

Everybody seems to hate it when Christmas decorations show up in the stores before Thanksgiving. Me? I hate it when we’re talking about the next U.S. Presidential election a full eighteen to twenty-four months away from the actual poll date. I mean, come on, seriously? Methinks this particular election (and this particular office) is literally blown out of proportion. The President is not — or at least shouldn’t be — an all-powerful individual who can make sweeping changes in a mere four years. What Congress and the Senate do actually has more impact on our day to day lives. So how come we’ve been rolling with the Election ’16 media frenzy since January of ’15?

Honest to goodness, I am sick of it. I am sick of the whole thing. Especially since nobody being pushed by either the media or the two big parties really gets me out of my seat right now. The only guy who got me out of my seat lately, was Romney, and before that . . . Perot. So obviously if I feel myself getting excited by any particular candidate, there’s a good chance (s)he’s gonna lose anyway.

My Facebook friends have also noticed that I am dialed up extra-cranky about the cultural Chekist infestation that’s plaguing social media right now. I was prepared to launch into a lengthy tirade about the whole schizophrenic mess, but (irony of ironies) Bill Maher did it for me!

Now, nobody can accuse me of fondness for Maher; he’s far too much of a raging anti-theist. But I think he nailed it right between the eyes with his Halloween 2015 commentary. It really says something when a chap like Maher is going off on the Politically Correct. His point at the end is especially apt. It’s something I’ve been saying for awhile now: the cheap “virtue” of internet slacktivism, is no virtue at all. It’s just self-righteous no-effort self-huggies for people who don’t want to break a sweat, nor get their hands dirty. You want to make the world better? Get off the damned internet and go do something that takes work. Otherwise, you’re not helping anyone, or anything.

Which takes me to Sad Puppies — or, rather, the people who fought against Sad Puppies with every fiber of their being. Because when the Hugo awards went off-script, it was literally a catastrophe so terrible and great that the Puppy-kickers pulled out all the stops to challenge Lord Vox in the Ritual of Desecration.

Me? Sad Puppies burned up my political fuel on a personal level. It’s one thing to pay attention to and argue about politics on the national scene, but Sad Puppies was both heated and contentious, and it took place right on my doorstep.

Certain people thrive on that kind of stuff — they eat political fights for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It gives them energy. Not me. I find politics draining. I felt (and still feel) it was worth it. But the baton has passed to others — and I am fully confident that Kate, Sarah, and Amanda will carry the banner high, and acquit themselves handsomely. If the vitriol they face is anything like what I faced last time — and there are plenty of indications that it will be — I am glad they are tag-teaming between them! In the words of Emmett (from Silverado): “You’re in it now, and it’s gonna get mean.

Which reminds me of an anecdote I once heard, about the glory years of the Soviet Union — before the world found out about all the horror that was committed by the Soviet state. It was said that Lenin (perhaps also Stalin) were so fully steeped in politics, that they even dreamed politics. For them, the Soviet Revolution was not just a waking thing, it was front and center in their unconscious lives as well.

Frankly, I find that notion more than a little creepy — and it may explain part of the reason why the Soviet Union (as happens with all Marxist states) turned out to be such a grotesque train wreck. Those men literally lost themselves to their political obsession — and innocent people suffered and died as a result.

I look at the social media agit-prop spilling across my screen every week — plenty of stuff that would make Lenin and Stalin smile — and I want to just . . . switch it all off.

The CHORF war against all things canine will continue whether or not I drop dead next week. The Republicans and the Democrats will keep playing flag football for the White House, with the media acting as one-sided referees. My social media feed will continue to be populated with high-volume, low-density blather about how Bernie, Hillary, Ted, and Ben, will all ruin the world — unless good people rush to stop them! It’s a state of perpetual crisis, fostered by the pols and the lobbyists and the activists and the fanatics, who want us forever teetering on the edge of a fearful abyss — lest we go back to thinking life is actually okay. People who aren’t in fear, can’t be maneuvered to do things the activists and the pols want us to do.

So, consider this my one-man vote against the politicization of everything over the next fifteen months.

Do I care about the election? Sure. Do I care about Sad Puppies? More than ever! And I will be cheering for Kate, Sarah, and Amanda! They’re going to have their hands full.

But this coming year . . . I am going to devote my full attention to things much closer to home. Being on the other side of the planet (from loved ones) has reminded me in a big way how lucky I am to be able to wake up every morning and have my wonderful little family. By the time I get back to the States next year, my heart is going to be very, very far away from the hollering and shouting. And I may just keep things that way. Again, politics are draining for me. I talk about them because I feel I have to, not because I want to. And right now, the “have to” is being displaced by a very strong desire to just let the typhoon pass over me.

In other words, this motherf***er needs a dandelion break!

What does the Bible have in common with William Shatner?

Two pieces crossed my desk this week, each of them tangentially connected to the other. Both of them discuss what I’d call the more unfortunate side-effects of adult fannishness. In the case of the one, the article-writer is essentially complaining that adults who were born in the 1970s and 1980s have so thoroughly coopted kid culture, that today’s kids are kinda getting squeezed out of the picture. Everything that used to be made explicitly for kids, has been all-growed-up and is now pitched to an explicitly adult market: video games, comic books, TV cartoons, etc. It’s a billion-dollar consumer party, and kids — anyone below the age of 16 — aren’t necessarily invited. The other article-writer engages in no small amount of self-praise because of the fact that he’s skipped paying bills and even skipped buying food, so that he has enough money to attend his favorite science fiction convention(s) — because you’re not a real fan until you’ve suffered and sacrificed for your street cred. It takes the maniacal dedication of an aesthete to make a fan (mundane) into a Fan (caps-f).

Now, I am the last guy in the world to jump up on the “You’re doing it wrong!” soap box. I generally say, hey, whatever floats your boat, it’s your life — you go ahead and live it.

But not paying bills? Not buying food?

I think 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13 has something to say about all of this:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I’ve had enthusiasms all my life. Just about everybody does. Such as rooting for a favorite sports team. Or loving a favorite movie. I’ve also let some of those enthusiasms go, simply because I haven’t had the time — all-growed-up! — to keep pursuing them. Like scale model airplanes. From age 9 through age 16, my bedroom was festooned with replica fighters and bombers. In my late teens and early twenties, I switched over to scratchbuilding starships from the Star Trek universe. But even that hobby took a back seat, as the demands of being a responsible adult increased. Taking on two careers (civilian and military) followed by, eventually, three careers (batcave job: author) meant making choices about where to devote my time. And this was on top of having a marriage and a family to look after, including church responsibilities.

But at no time did I ever fool myself into thinking that a mere enthusiasm should take priority over real world commitments and necessities.

Look, everybody scripts her own existence. No one person’s life is ever going to be lived exactly like any other person’s life. This is the beauty of free agency. But being a free agent doesn’t mean having a free pass from adulthood. Paying the bills and putting meat’n’taters on the table are so basic, so completely fundamental, they shouldn’t even be part of the discussion. This is rudimentary maintenance stuff, like brushing and flossing. If you actually have to decide whether or not you’re going to buy groceries and pay your power bill, versus spending that money on a convention . . . I’m going to gently suggest that not only is this not noble, nor does it elevate you above others, you in fact may have a serious prioritization problem that goes way beyond the silly hubris of declaring yourself more-fannish-than-thou.

Meanwhile, I do think my generation (we’re crossing into middle-agedness now, oh noes!) and the generation after mine, have a legit problem with extended adolescence. All over social media lately, I see people joking, “I had to go out and adult today!” or “I can’t adult today, I just don’t have it in me,” Where adult is a verb meaning, “Doing the unpleasant chores of the real world, which all grown-ups have been forced to do since the beginning of time.” Which is really kind of sad, considering the fact that most first-worlders live lives of astounding convenience and luxury, compared to their great-grandparents. We live much longer, we generally don’t have to worry about diseases like polio, and many of us sit in comfortable chairs behind comfortable desks, only having to log eight hours a day, a mere five days a week. Yet we talk as if this is a nigh-unbearable burden — a psychically crushing and existentially soul-destroying purgatory. Because reality won’t let us follow our bliss every waking minute of every day, all week, every month, each year.

I suspect our generational clinging to the loves of our childhood — comics, video games, cartoons — is a coping mechanism. And coping mechanisms can be good, so long as “coping” does not become synonymous with avoidance in actual practice. Real life doesn’t go away. In fact, the more a man avoids real life — escaping into his enthusiasms — the larger the problems of real life loom. In past eras, men who couldn’t deal, typically descended into pointless violence, or crawled to the bottom of a bottle, or simply ran away; abandoning wives and children. In our era? Adults who can’t deal may find themselves utterly lost in an enthusiasm, such that real life is just an annoying distraction. The enthusiasm itself becomes a replacement for reality — a secondary, preferable world. Could be a MMORPG. Could be the convention circuit. It doesn’t matter what the thing is. When the thing becomes more important than fundamentals — paying bills, taking care of yourself, and also taking care of family — you might have a problem. Dare I even say, a serious problem?

Now, lest I be accused of being a fun-hater, I want to emphasize that I am not saying we should all dump our enthusiasms and live a completely hairshirt existence. But I believe there’s got to be balance. And I do think there are times when we — all-growed-up, in body if not in spirit — have to put away childish things. At least until we’ve successfully reckoned with real life to the extent that we can plop down in that mythic beanbag chair, pull out the video game controller, and enjoy some well-earned R-and-R; knowing that the bases have all been covered.

I also think we can afford to let some things remain kid-friendly. We don’t have to drag every single damned thing we loved when we were kids, forward into our disillusioned middle age, where the sunshine of youth gets clouded over by the grimdark of maturity. One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed Cartoon Network productions such as Regular Show, Adventure Time and Chowder so much, is because they work for my daughter as well as they do for myself and my spouse. The jokes, the situations, the references, all of it operates at two levels. Which, if you think about it, is also true for much of the classic animation of yore. Example: the Looney Tunes shorts were originally written and produced for adult theater-going audiences. Not Saturday morning cereal viewers.

Regardless of whatever sort of balance each of us strives to achieve, it’s important to remember that the total universe of enthusiasms is an egalitarian universe. You like football. I like basketball. Somebody else likes baseball. You like Skyrim. Your friend prefers World of Warcraft. I prefer my throwback video game from twenty years ago. You attend a lot of conventions. I attend a few conventions. Our mutual acquaintance attends none. And it’s all good. As long as people are taking care of the fundamentals — doing what needs to be done for house and home — I think it’s no-harm, no foul.

The problem is when things get out of balance. When an enthusiasm becomes an obsession. When we get so caught up in our formerly childhood passions, we take over the landscape and crowd out the real kids. When we begin to depend on others to take care of our fundamentals for us, so that we can remain distracted by the alternate world of our formerly healthy diversions. And — last, but not least — when we mistake our out-of-balance obsession for proof that we’re better than the merely “normal” people who’ve managed to successfully keep one foot planted in the real world, while also being actively engaged in the fun of their choice.

And yes, I know, you can’t say stuff like this without making somebody angry — that’s expected. This is the internet. You can’t talk like this, and not make somebody on the internet flamingly mad at you.

My answer to the angry folk?

Let’s go back to the question I first posed: what does the Bible have in common with William Shatner?

Both of them tell us to get a life.

Nothing more need be said

From first-time Worldcon attendee Michael A. Rothman, who brought his boys along to see what Worldcon and “Fandom” was all about.

See his original Facebook comment here.

I took my kids to WorldCon to expose them to Fandom and I’ve consciously shielded them from any of the politics of the kerfuffle associated with the literary “sides” that were in play.

When we attended, we had good seats and they were excited to see if some of their choices would make it.

Let’s just say that my boys ended up being exposed to some of their categories being utterly eradicated from eligibility due to this thing that I’d shielded them from.

They couldn’t understand why their short story choice evaporated into something called “NO AWARD.”

As I briefly explained, the audience was cheering because of that decision and the MC made a point of saying that cheering was appropriate and boos were not.

My kids were shocked.

Shocked not by not winning but by having an entire category’s rug being pulled out from under it and then having all the adults (many of which were old enough to be their grandparents) cheering for something my kids looked at as an unfair tragedy.

I’ll admit to having feared this outcome – yet this was my children’s introduction to Fandom.

We are driving home and they are of the opinion that they aren’t particularly interested in this “Fandom” thing.

I find that a great shame – and I blame not the people who established the ballots to vote for (for my kids enjoyed a great deal of what they read on the ballots), but as my kids noted – they blame the ones who made them feel “like the rug was pulled out from under me.”

I’d offered Fandom my boys – my boys now reject them.

And yes, the picture below is just before us walking to the Hugo ceremonies. They’re excited about it all. I just find it a pity that they didn’t feel anything other than bewilderment and bitterness toward the people in the auditorium after the ceremonies.

Love one another, it’s the only way: Part 2

As noted last time, I am mostly out of the loop while overseas. Honestly, it’s a remarkable thing to be witnessing the American news cycle from a distance. Kinda surreal, to tell the truth. I don’t feel quite so immersed in the never-ending shouting, like I do when I am at home. And that’s been a relief.

Still, some things penetrate. And because the news of the past week is germane to a prior discussion, I wanted to put a few thoughts out there.

(NOTE: These are my opinions, just for me; take ’em or leave ’em. Others will have their own. I am not sure mine matter all that much, in the grand scheme of things. But here goes . . .)

If the base fear of religious conservatives is that gays and lesbians are “destroying” marriage, how can gays and lesbians destroy a thing which America’s straight couples have been actively destroying for a century?

Think about it. And let’s be brutally honest.

Rampant divorce.
Rampant infidelity.
Rampant abuse of spouses and children.

I don’t think those are the legacy of a people who collectively believe marriage to be sacred.

If I feel anything on the issue of marriage, I feel that marriage (by Americans) has been thrown into the mud and trampled upon. We did that. All of us. And now that gays and lesbians have picked it up out of the mud and said, “We would like to have this wonderful thing,” religious conservatives want to snatch it away and yell, “You can’t have that, it’s our most favorite thing ever!”

Oh really? Then why have we been treating marriage like garbage for so many decades? Because we have. As a society. With our collective actions, we decided marriage wasn’t important anymore. Long, long before the issue of gay marriage got to the Supreme Court.

And now that marriage is important to somebody — gays and lesbians — we try to keep it away from them?

I can’t wrap my brain around that. Too much cognitive dissonance.

The Supreme Court has swept away an inequality. Well, and good. I’ve thought this outcome inevitable for probably ten years now. Just because of the trajectory of the legal wrangling.

Does that mean I, as a person of conservative religious belief, have to cheer and applaud a thing which my religious doctrine says is wrong? Nope. But then, not every wrong thing in the world has to be barred legally. Like I’ve said before, freedom of choice is a bedrock principle of my LDS faith. And while I am not an authority — nor do I claim any ability to speak for any Mormon other than me — I do think choice is a huge part of these very divisive and contested political fights over the rights of other people.

Because the choices other people make, sometimes offend us terribly.

This past week, it seems to me that the Supreme Court decided in favor of more rights. More freedom. More choice.

I think that’s the way it should be. Even if my church doctrine believes also that the exercising of these freedoms (gay marriage) is against the plan of God.

Again, not every wrong thing must be legally barred. There are some pretty nasty guys over in Syria and Iraq right now who think every wrong thing (by their lights) should not only be legally barred, but people found violating the law should be burned, drowned, beheaded, and worse. In their desire to do a right thing (again, by their lights) they have fostered and fomented evil the likes of which we — as Americans — can barely imagine. Barbarity and bloodshed and the iron fist of true tyranny. That’s not what God wants. That’s not why Christ said what He said in His ministry on this Earth, and it’s not what the Atonement is about either.

The men of the so-called Caliphate have arrogated to themselves the seat of holy judgment. And they inflict heinousness in God’s name.

The men and women of the United States Supreme Court might also be accused of arrogating to themselves the seat of judgment, but in this particular instance, they have come down on the side of liberty.

I want to think that liberty — our ability to choose — is still the most important thing that sets America and Americans apart, from other nations and peoples in the world. Even if that liberty makes us highly uncomfortable, or we believe this liberty permits wrong-doing in the eyes of the Lord. We crossed the bridge of pluralism when the Declaration of Independence and, later, the Constitution of the United States, were forged. It’s not been an error-free path. Nor was the creation of the nation error-free. We almost destroyed ourselves in a Civil War that ultimately corrected the most egregious error. And the echoes of that error haunt our society up to the very minute.

Now, I believe another error has been corrected.

And again, neither you nor I nor any other religious conservative has to be thrilled about it. Compulsory celebration of sin — or the perceived expectation of same — is grating on many, and causing some very unhappy commentary. I get it. I really do. Nobody should be forced to violate his or her conscience by putting on a party hat for what we believe to be wrong.

But let’s not get wrapped up in negativity. Seriously. Not about this. Not about what the government says. The government’s job has been and always should be, to expand and defend liberty. The government just did its job. Believe it, or not.

Our job — all of us, and I am including progressive intellectuals too — is to find ways to be sowers of good seed among ourselves. To not be tempted into vindictiveness or hatred. To not inflict ourselves on each other, as a way to try to exorcise whatever negative feelings we have inside of us.

The most difficult part about being a religious conservative in a society which makes liberty paramount, is learning to get along with people who not only violate what religious conservatives see as God’s law, but getting along with people who think the law (and sometimes God with it) don’t even exist.

Likewise, the most difficult part about being a progressive intellectual in a society which makes liberty paramount, is learning to get along with people who not only don’t share the same standards and values, but who often think progressive standards and values are morally wrong, or lacking any moral fiber whatsoever.

That’s a mind-bending and difficult path. But that’s the spiral up. Blood, sweat, and tears. Not everyone is going to walk it. Many people will actively fight walking it — on both sides. But I think that’s the only choice that leads to net positive dividends for all concerned. One step at a time. The spiral up. And it starts at home. With our wives and our husbands, our children, our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and it moves outward from there. Neighbors. Coworkers. Friends. People we meet in our daily business. The lives we can touch in small ways, with quiet acts of charity, kindness, and mercy.

Not the blaring “Look at me! Look at me!” self-referential, vain pablum of social media.

I’m talking about the concrete, real-world stuff that nobody will see or notice: except those who experience the connectedness of a kind act, done out of kindness, with no expectation of recompense.

As I have loved you, love one another. That’s the Christ-like ideal. I think we express it best by tending to the gardens in our own back yards. And I don’t mean literal gardens. I mean spiritual and emotional gardens. Many of which are neglected and overgrown with the weeds of bitterness, rancor, resentment, and worse. I’ve got a garden like that. And I suspect, so do many of the people reading this. We all have to be responsible for our own gardens. And I don’t say that because I think my garden is perfect. Nope. I go to church every Sunday — yes, even when I am thousands of miles away from home — to be reminded of the fact that my garden is choked with weeds. And that weeding is a never-ending chore that I can’t escape. At least not if I want to be serious about my beliefs as a Christian.

I think mindful gardening and diligent weeding are chores secular progressives can embrace too. Dare I even say that some of the most mindful and diligent gardeners I know, are secular? Or at least not of my particular faith tradition?

It’s tempting to look at people — the world around us — and throw up our hands, declaring, “It’s all gone to crap!” So much wrong. So many people who seem dead-set on doing wrong.

What we do next, is a matter of deliberate choice. For our own personal lives. How we respond to the wrong. Not only the wrong we see outside of ourselves, but the wrong inside of us too. Focusing forever on the wrong outside, and ignoring the wrong inside — or acting like it doesn’t exist — won’t combat the weeds. It will allow the weeds to completely take over. Weeding is about tending to ourselves, and our own sphere. The people we touch every day. The ones around us who actually matter. That’s where the energy can bring forth good fruit. That’s where the “win” is. Not what goes on somewhere else, or what’s said in the news cycle. You can’t fix or control that stuff. You, in your office or living room, have no power to “fix” at the macro scale. And you will exhaust yourself fretting over the macro.

But you do have the power to “fix” at the personal level. I think that’s what gets lost in the never-ending carnival of arguments. We ignore the personal level, obsess about the macro level, and nothing worthwhile gets done. The weeds win.

Go back to gardening in your own back yard — daily — and you get the good stuff. It might not seem like it has a macro impact. But if everybody is a back-yard gardener, and everybody works at it, there will be a macro effect. That’s something I’ve always taken away from my scripture reading and other spiritual pondering. The idea that each of us individually doing small works of kindness, love, and forgiveness, can add up to a huge net dividend for the society as a whole.

This includes marriage. Do we want to put our money where our mouths are? How much time and energy are we devoting to our families and our homes? Shouting about marriage in the macro sense, while neglecting or abusing marriage on a personal level, is pointless. We prove we care about marriage when we put our wives and our husbands and our children first. Not last. First. And again, it doesn’t matter what the government does (or doesn’t do) about it. This is between us, and the Lord. He will judge us. Not the government. Not society. Not activists. God. How willing would any of us be to go before God right this minute, and give an account of our stewardship of our relationships with our spouses and our families? How much gardening have we done in that respect? Are we prepared to get called on the carpet? Do our choices and our actions live up to our rhetoric, as “defenders” of the “sacred institution” of marriage? Have we made it sacred every day? Do we show our wives and our husbands and our families forgiveness, compassion, love, and support?

Because that’s where my mind goes. And I think I am way too occupied trying to tend to my own garden — Weeds! Damned weeds, everywhere! — to get overly concerned with peering over the fence at somebody else’s.

Love one another, it’s the only way

I’ve been out of the media loop, so I am just now seeing the news report about the Charleston church shooting. As always, the internet is alive with people talking 110 miles a minute, about the event. I don’t have any spectacular insights to add, except to say I think the “answer” really does come down to working on your home, and spreading the love outward from there. People want to “fix” this, and I think they sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees. You want to “fix” it by getting angry? Transmute the anger into actions of love and kindness for your neighbors, your coworkers, your church friends, even people you only meet in passing. Forgive those who may have slighted you; especially the ones who did it without intention to harm.

That’s what Christ commanded, and I keep coming back to the notion that Christ called it over two thousand years ago: as I have loved you, love one another. Far easier said than done. Especially when the flames of hate and acrimony flare up. Blame becomes the theme of the day. When you hate and blame someone enough that they literally become “unreal” that’s when stuff like the church shooting can take place. Hate and blame cannot be “fixed” with more hate and blame. That may sound poofey New Age, but I think it’s true. Acts of hate and blame generate still more hate and blame, until the whole world is burning.

That’s how ISIS operates — the guys who are the reason I am away from home right now. They want to literally burn the world, because they think they’re so righteous and pure that everyone else deserves to be mowed down.

ISIS is not a problem you, in your office or living room, can fix. Church shootings are also not something you in your living room can stop or fix. You stop the hate and the blame when you make a personal choice, every day, to be a lover of the souls who inhabit your space. The ones you can touch with kindness, with cheer, with delight for life, with encouragement, and above all else, with an acknowledgment that we really are brothers and sisters.

Again, far easier said, than done. Which is why we have to be reminded over and over and over. Because all of us keep screwing up time, and time again. And it’s easy to get so wrapped up in how we are angry over what other people say and do that we completely forget about what we say and do. Again, there is the spiral down — world burning! — and there is the spiral up.

Notice, it takes no effort to be carried on the spiral down. That’s the path of least resistance.

It takes blood, sweat, and tears, to march along the spiral up. Effort. Always, effort. Movement and energy expended toward a higher goal. A selfless goal. A Christ-like goal. Even if you don’t believe in Christ as a religious figure, the wisdom of Christ’s words is entirely sound.

Foster the connections. Grow the connections. Love the connections.

Connections are what can save us. If not from the evil of the world, at least from the poison of rage and despair that can consume us inside.

Picture of a TOR buyer

These are just two paperbacks, from my ever-expanding collection of same. Over the years I’ve bought hundreds of them, almost always new. Not that I am against used books, but I’ve always appreciated the feeling of a brand-new paperback in my hands — fresh off the store shelf. The book on the left is one of the first TOR books I ever purchased, when I was all of 18 years old. From a B. Dalton store. I don’t even think those exist anymore? That book’s been read and re-read several times. It’s also responsible — to a large degree — for inspiring me to become a writer. And not just any genre, either. Hard Science Fiction. The subgenre in which I’ve won three Analog magazine AnLab awards. So, the book on the right shouldn’t be a surprise. I bought it last weekend, while I was on pass. I really liked A Fire Upon The Deep and A Deepness In The Sky. Vinge is also Hard SF. I’m looking forward to taking a return trip through his Zones of Thought universe.

It would be a damned shame if someone thought I was just malware.

Don’t you think?

EDIT: Notable TOR author Jagi Lamplighter has been collecting readers’ photos demonstrating that they, the readers, are also not malware. I think this is a great little project Jagi’s got going. An image says so much more than words, in this particular context. Look at all those fans! Those are some serious readers who seriously love their Science Fiction & Fantasy. Hundreds, and even thousands of dollars in books. Folks, this is what makes the field live and breathe. Right here.

Narratives versus facts

The unfortunate case of Rachel Dolezal is another reminder that narratives cannot survive without facts. It doesn’t matter how fervently you believe the narrative, nor how effectively you proselytize the narrative to others, if your narrative doesn’t have facts at the base of it, your narrative will crumble. Sooner, or later.

Because what happens is that disinterested third parties — not for your narrative, and not against your narrative — ask the question, “What’s it all about?”

They will begin to curiously parse through your story and your rhetoric, seeking the bedrock of your statements. And if there’s no “there” there, the third party is going to conclude that you’re mistaken, deluded, dishonest, or some combination thereof.

In Dolezal’s case, she wanted to redefine herself. So she came up with a narrative she wanted the world to believe — about herself, and who she is. Also, what she’s been through and what she’s experienced. At some point, the facts stopped mattering to Dolezal more than her own narrative mattered to her. And now she’s in a lot of hot water for passing herself off as someone she’s not, and she’s getting raked over the coals for it.

Because Dolezal’s narrative — about who and what she was — didn’t have any facts to support it.

Unfortunately, the internet and social media lend themselves more to narrative-building and spreading, than they do to fact-finding and evidence collecting. This is reinforced by the modern notion — which has been especially popular in social academics — that truth is merely a matter of perspective. Which is in direct contradiction with the Enlightenment principle that the world is accessible to humans through the testing and verification of ideas. Testing which can be replicated by anyone, anywhere, and yield the same results. That thing we call science.

Twenty years ago, physics professor Alan Sokal set out to prove that some of his compatriots in the social sciences were a little too enamored with narrative. So he typed up a brilliantly nonsensical paper he called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” In Sokal’s own words, “Could [I] publish [in a leading social sciences journal] an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?”

The answer was, yes. Which kicked off what has sometimes been called The Sokal Affair, or the Sokal Hoax.

Click here for Dr. Sokal’s own, rather exhaustively documented history of the whole thing. Pay special attention to Sokal’s explanation on why he felt it necessary to spoof his colleagues. His chief concern? That evidence and facts were taking a back seat to trendy theory, and an increasingly disturbing reliance on narrative, over empirical truth.

Two decades later, and we’re wrestling with the rhetorical python like never before. Because social media has allowed narratives of all kinds to spread like wildfire, gain support, even influence business and public policy, impact local and national elections, and shape how we look at the world as a whole.

Now, this has usually been true to a certain extent. Narrative has always been with us. But never in history have narratives been able to sprout and grow with such rapidity. Because now all it takes for a narrative to be planted, is for somebody on Twitter — especially a celebrity, or other public figure — to say something outlandish or controversial or provocative, and within twenty four hours that statement will have garnered tens of thousands of re-Tweets, “likes” on Facebook, blog articles discussing the statement, “followers” backing up the statement, and so on and so forth.

But eventually, when enough time has elapsed, and people have calmed down, the inevitable question will be asked: what’s it all about? And the digging will begin. And for those outside of the narrative — not pro, not con — a picture will emerge. And if there are few to no facts at the bottom of the narrative, that picture isn’t going to be a kind one. Adherents of the narrative will come off looking foolish, or worse. Especially if critical inquiry causes adherents to adopt a fortress mentality — circling the wagons — in order to defend what is, to them, a truth.

Which takes me back to juxtaposing the Enlightenment premise — that the universe is knowable and objective, through testing and experimentation — against the Post-Modern premise that facts and truth are relative, malleable, or can change from person to person, and culture to culture.

I am old enough to remember when the United States was locked in a grim ideological conflict with the Soviet Union. Beyond politics and economics, the Cold War was very much a battle of narratives. And for several decades in the 20th century it looked like the communist narrative might win out. Perhaps two thirds of the globe was either directly or indirectly controlled by one or more Soviet socialist regimes. And there were many who gleefully predicted that the Soviet way was the inevitable destiny of history. In Nikita Khrushchev’s own words, “We will bury you.”

Now, it’s entirely possible that Khrushchev believed what he said. Millions of people did. Even many people inside the United States — people who thought Soviet socialism was a great idea, and would inevitably come to America. Once capitalism broke down, and the workers rose up and overthrew the capitalist system.

What really happened?

Well, the Soviet narrative did not have enough facts to support it. Despite decades of entrenchment, and an iron-clad political enforcement of doctrine, Soviet socialism was not economically viable. Nor were the populations in those nations willing to endlessly endure the privation and control over speech and thought that was necessary to enforce what was, in the end, a flawed political and economic model. The Soviet Union collapsed. And much of the rest of the Soviet world went with it. Even China has, over time, seen itself “perverted” by capitalism, which is an economic system rooted in the world the way it really is, not the world the way we wish it might be.

Those few Marxist nations — Cuba, North Korea — still hanging on in quiet desperation, clearly do so on borrowed time. The “inevitability” of the Marxist system . . . turned out to be a fantasy concocted by those who so fervently believed in the fantasy, that even to this day, those in love with the fantasy will insist that it’s not a fantasy. For them, the narrative is simply too alluring, and too powerful. They are caught up in the narrative to such an extent that the facts — everything that’s happened since the Berlin Wall fell — don’t matter.

But that doesn’t mean strong emotion can overcome reality.

Right now, social media (and the social sciences, which play an ever-larger role in social media) tend to run on a lot of strong emotion. “If we feel it, it must be true!” That seems to be the motto. Your (collective) passion about a thing, is more important than the objective facts. Or so you (collectively) are told.

I disagree. I think all narratives which rely more on emotion, than on facts, unravel eventually. No matter how much they flatter our preconceptions. No matter how much they tell us what we want to hear. No matter if they frame the world for us in a way that we find most comfortable, or at least, most correct. All the correct framing in the universe can’t defeat evidence, if your framing is simply stories constructed on stories, which have been constructed on still other stories. Sooner or later, your stories have to be supportable. There has to be independently verifiable proof. The kind of thing someone not for you, and not against you, can pick up and look at and say, “Yes, okay, I think this verifies what you’re talking about.”

Earlier this year, a certain entertainment tabloid ran a rather outlandish story that was heavily laden with narrative, and which fell promptly apart once the narrative was exposed to scrutiny. The head of a major publisher recently noted that this narrative was in direct contradiction to the facts, which he outlined — as the tabloid was also forced to outline — so that he could avoid having his company linked to the perpetuation of that very same false narrative. What did he get for his trouble? The head of the publisher was attacked by people who are so thoroughly married to the narrative, almost nothing will dissuade them from it. Not facts. Not evidence. Not a trusted authority. Not even when the narrative actively crumbles beneath their feet.

It’s the narrative, or nothing!

Perhaps these individuals need a reminder that the graveyard of history is populated by the headstones of empires, nations, businesses, and movements, which all preferred narratives, to facts? Evidence matters, people. The courts (thankfully) require it. Journalism should too, though journalism has too often been guilty of spreading narrative over facts, of late. Which has resulted in some rather shameful moments.

This is a tricksy period for Western civilization. There’s a lot of well-intended talk about how we need to re-examine our flawed past, so that we can build a better future. I fear that future will be ill-served by narratives — or by children raised to believe that narratives are more important than truth. “I deny your reality, and substitute my own!” may be a funny oft-quoted phrase, but for a lot of people — especially those locked into narratives — it’s become gospel. And an unhealthy, even dangerous gospel at that. Our world literally depends on us being able to agree that 1 + 1 = 2. We rely on the common notion that many aspects of our world really are objective, and that this objectivity isn’t changed simply because of ethnic, gender, cultural, or sexual reference points.

Narratives which flout objectivity — and the narrative-minded who espouse them — are not just foolish, they’re destructive. It cost enormous blood and treasure for the Soviet “experiment” to rise, rule, and collapse. Ironically, most of that blood and treasure came from within the Soviet nations themselves. The unmarked graves of the many gulags, sing with the ghosts of men, women, and children, who were all deemed to be in contradiction of the narrative. And so they were sent away. Usually, to die.

We in the West think it can’t happen here. But it can.

All we have to do is tell ourselves that the narrative matters more than reality, more than the individual integrity of our fellow human beings, and more than our consciences.

In the end, the baseless narratives always fold. How much damage they do (prior to, and during the folding) depends on whether we nip them in the bud now, or allow them to flower and bear fruit later.

Sheepdog staring at the horizon

At this point, there will never be anything like a final comment on Sad Puppies 3. I myself have been talking less and less about it, as my block of overseas time nears. Once I am in the Middle East, I may not address the Sad Puppies issue again, until the Hugo voting is closed, and the actual results have been made known in August. With the voter packets now being reviewed, people are reading, and making up their minds. Which is ultimately the only thing that matters for this season anyway. But this hasn’t stopped the rest of the internet from chattering about the Hugos — whether it’s pro-Puppy chatter, anti-Puppy chatter, or that special kind of vindictive ad hominem commentary I like to call Puppy-kicker chatter.

Some of the anti-Puppy discussion has been reasoned, and makes its points without resorting to ad hominem language.

Most of the Puppy-kicker discussion focuses on how Larry Correia, Brad R. Torgersen, John C. Wright, et al., are horrible writers, horrible human beings, and deserve to die in a fire for their endless crimes against all that is good and decent in the universe.

A few Puppy-kickers remain convinced that Sad Puppies 3 was nothing but racist, sexist, homophobic cis-straight old white men fighting the future. Despite all actual evidence to the contrary. Which (to my mind) simply speaks to the fact that many armchair activists are far too invested in narratives to actually take the time to discover that Sad Puppies 3 had lots of women, it also had minorities, and didn’t give a hoot what the authors looked like, what was between their legs, or who the authors preferred going to bed with.

But then, armchair activists are forever inventing bogeymen to battle. They are forever winning, the future is forever theirs, but the present is forever besieged with (insert bad people here) so we have to FIGHT and PROTEST and NEVER GIVE UP, because having actual measurable objectives and quantifiable goals — the vast bulk of which have been reached or surpassed already — might mean you have to find a new line of work. And for armchair activists, that’s unthinkable.

So, today, Sad Puppies are the ultimate evil. Tomorrow, Joss Whedon is the ultimate evil. Or George R. R. Martin is the ultimate evil. Or Martin’s producers, at least, for the HBO rendition of Game of Thrones. I forget, who are the armchair activists attacking this week? There should be some kind of memo circulated, or something:

AT DAWN, WE TWITTER-BOMB J.J. ABRAMS FOR THE RACIST, SEXIST, CISNORMATIVE HELL-HOLE THAT WILL BE STAR WARS VII.

It might be funny, except for the fact that the whole reason I am going overseas in the first place, is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Most folks know them as ISIS, though the Arabic and Islamic nations partnering with NATO and other countries to fight ISIS, call those guys DAESH, which is derogatory towards ISIS/ISIL. DAESH are the charming folks who throw gay men to their deaths, from rooftops. And chop the heads off of innocent women and children.

That stuff is happening right now, in the real world.

But apparently, going after a writer or a director — for movies and TV shows — is the best way armchair activists can spend their time?

No, I don’t get it either. I don’t think I ever will.

For God’s sake, if you’re going to have a cause, shut your flapping (digital) mouths and put your bodies where your talk is. Get involved. Do something measurable. Concrete. Pursuing a quantifiable objective. Maybe even stick your necks out, and take a real personal risk? And I don’t mean tweeting fake threats to yourself, to gin up publicity and sympathy. I mean actually putting your body on the line for what you claim to think and feel. That’s why I joined the military in the first place, after 9/11/2001. I wasn’t satisfied being just some guy who gets pissed off on the internet. I took Roosevelt’s adage — about the man in the arena — seriously.

As my friend and author (and Sad Puppy critic) Eric Flint recently noted, he’s put his body on the line for what he believes. Other people spew a lot of hot air about being “warriors” for social justice. Eric’s a man who can actually claim that title, and be taken seriously; by allies and opponents alike.

So you will pardon me if I can’t spare much serious thought for those who think being some guy who gets pissed off on the internet, is somehow going to make a difference — a real, lasting, actual difference.

Which takes me back to a point Larry Correia and I have both made, about the Hugo awards: loads of people loved to complain about how the Hugos suck, and almost nobody was doing anything to make an impact. I say “almost” because there were interested parties working hard to effect the kind of change they wanted — Seannan McGuire didn’t get five Hugo nominations in a single year on accident — they just didn’t conduct their operations in broad daylight, nor on a scale to compare with Sad Puppies.

Which takes me back to a comment Michael Z. Williamson once made: we’re bad because we’re competent?

Well, whatever people have against Sad Puppies 3 — legit, or imaginary — it’s clear that the various narratives will continue without my input. I can only restate the obvious, in the hope that it sticks with people who have not decided to be dead-set against us. We (Sad Puppies Inc.) threatened nothing, demanded nothing, and closed no doors in any faces. We threw the tent flaps wide and beckoned to anyone and everyone: come on in, join the fun!

The Puppy-kickers have threatened and demanded a great deal. They most certainly do not want the “wrong” fans being allowed to participate in “their” (the Puppy-kickers’) award.

Sad Puppies 3 was a thoroughly transparent operation. We hid nothing. Concealed no ulterior motives. We said what we wanted to do, we invited people to help, and with that help, we did it. We transformed the Hugo landscape — at least for one season — and we got the spec fiction world talking about the Hugos like never before. In both good, and bad ways. How this all shakes out in coming years, remains to be seen. There are individuals — again, Puppy-kickers — who will mobilize to install new Worldcon rules that prevent the “wrong” kinds of people, from voting on the award. Either by eliminating the nomination and voting rights of supporting members, or by driving up the cost of attending membership, or both. Or perhaps they will simply alter the assembly and selection process of the final ballot proper? No more crazy democracy. A juried system. Who knows?

I do know that if Worldcon actually boasted even a third of the attendance of an average Comic Con — say, 25,000 people — almost no slate or push or bloc of any sort, could have the same effect such efforts have had in the past. Which is, again, a goal of Sad Puppies: to bring in more voices, more votes, more fans. We never turned our cold, wet noses up at anybody. We happily wagged our tails for any living soul who cared to participate. Because we (Puppies Inc.) believe participation was the overriding, validating factor in the extant process.

Others will doubtless disagree — and some of them are long-time beneficiaries of “small” participation which kept the voting pool puny, thereby making it easier for the quiet blocs to exert influence.

To wit: “I don’t know why people think the Hugos are broken, I get nominated and I win all the time!”

You could probably write a doctoral thesis about the privilege contained in that sentiment, eh?

So, I stare to the horizon. Aware of the fact that there won’t be any last words. Just maundering. My first month of active duty is ended. I’ve got a lot of work still ahead of me — both military work, and writing more books for Baen; which have been contracted. I won’t have the luxury of being able to keep my finger on the pulse of this whole ongoing argument. Nor will I try. Others — pro, con, neutral — will say most of what needs to be said, and they will say it far better than I could.

For this year, I hope every category sees a human being called to the podium, to receive a Hugo award. Because I still think Science Fiction is the best, most imaginative game in town. It’s a remarkable and marvelous field. That’s why it’s been worth getting involved — and not just talking.

Because — love us or hate us — the Sad Puppies give a damn.