Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Archive for July, 2008

Gay Marriage (How to Win)

Posted by midiguru on July 31, 2008

If you want to defeat Prop. 8, thereby preserving the right of all adult couples in California to marry, I can tell you exactly how to do it. Take the suggestions below seriously, stir in five gallons of funding for media buys, and bake for three months at 350 degrees or until golden brown and bubbling.

1. Lower the temperature. No matter what the provocation, no matter how incensed you may feel, do not get into shouting matches. Do not indulge in name-calling. Do not vent your emotions. There will be plenty of time after the election to vent your emotions — and win or lose, you’re going to have some emotions to vent! Until then, focus on winning.

2. Do not talk about “the right to marry.” The people who support Prop. 8 do not believe that this right exists. If you insist that it does exist, all you’ll do is polarize the dialog. That is, you’ll shut down any hope of changing their minds. A dialog in which you can find common ground has the potential to draw people over to your side. Confrontation will drive them away. Avoid using the word “right” at all.

3. Instead, talk about wanting to make a lifelong commitment and assume responsibilities. For most people, but perhaps especially for conservative Christians, marriage is a serious matter. Show them that you understand its seriousness, and that you feel the same way about it that they do.

4. Praise traditional marriage. Make it clear in every dialog and media message that, far from wanting to undermine the institution of marriage, you yearn to participate in it to the fullest possible extent. Do not talk about the high divorce rate among heterosexual couples!

5. Talk about the practical problems caused by not being able to marry. Talk about hospital visits and custody issues. Talk about inheritance and home ownership issues. Talk about child custody issues. But before you do this, do your homework! Make sure you know what you’re talking about.

6. If you’re religious, show your faith. Do this in positive ways — by talking about your church attendance, Torah study, or whatever observances you practice. Avoid arguments about doctrine. Emphasize the similarities between you and the rest of the religious community, not the differences!

7. If you’re not religious, avoid attacking religion. Religious people take their doctrines and dogmas very seriously indeed. Pointing out the hypocrisy of their doctrines — by quoting the Bible, for instance — won’t work, because they’re well armored with answers to such accusations. If you can respect others’ right to cherish beliefs that are different from yours, and if you can show that respect, you’ll be giving them a real-life model of how they might show similar respect.

8. If you’re in a committed relationship, describe it in ways that anyone can relate to. Talk about paying the bills, doctor visits, gardening, or whatever you and your partner do from day to day. Help others see your essential humanity and goodness. You might want to say, “We hope Proposition 8 is defeated — but even if it passes, it won’t change our love for and commitment to one another.”

9. Deflect crazy talk with a simple, repeated message. If the person you’re talking to starts babbling about pedophilia, S&M, or indiscriminate sex in restrooms, your response should be along these lines: “Most gay people are not like that at all. Most gay people disapprove of those behaviors just as firmly as you do. Most gay people are just like you and me. There are extremes of behavior among heterosexuals too, but you and I don’t have to let a few wife-swapping clubs poison our feelings toward the whole community.” Do not let yourself be drawn into dissecting the details; just repeat the message in a firm, friendly way.

10. No parades. No picket signs. Streetcorner protests are a relic of the Sixties. They don’t change anyone’s mind anymore. If you want to change people’s minds, go where there are lots of people (a street fair, for instance), set up a card table, and talk to people. And don’t make the mistake of putting a big “No on 8″ sign on the card table! If you do that, none of the people you want to convince will come near you. Choose a neutral-sounding name, such as “Gay Life Information.” And don’t wear your damn leather! If you want to be accepted into the mainstream, you need to look like you’re part of the mainstream.

11. Ignore the extremists. You will never be able to get a rabid homophobic bigot to vote your way. Focus on the swing voters — folks who have some concerns (because they’ve been lied to by the extremists) but who also have an essential sense of fairness. Address their concerns in calm, realistic ways, and appeal to their sense of fairness.

12. Avoid demonizing the opposition. Most people, even extreme homophobes, want the same basic things: They want to live in safe, pleasant communities where their dreams and aspirations are supported. Where we differ from one another is mainly in our view of how best to achieve those goals. If you’re talking to a swing voter and you can find something nice to say about his rabid homophobic pastor, you’ve changed his thinking. The next time he listens to the pastor, he’ll listen with less credulity and more skepticism.

13. Be prepared to counter specific stereotypes and misconceptions. Probably the number one misconception held by Prop. 8 supporters is the idea that homosexuality is a “preference” or a “lifestyle.” If these words are used, you need to counter them quickly, but always in a polite, friendly way. Don’t jump on anyone by saying, “It’s not a lifestyle!” Instead, you might say, “You know, I’ve met gay people who practice a wide variety of lifestyles. Some gay people are very conservative. Some are doctors or lawyers or professional athletes. So I’m not sure what you mean by ‘gay lifestyle.’ I don’t think there is such a thing as a single, monolithic lifestyle, any more than there is a single heterosexual lifestyle.” And so forth. Make up whatever responses suit you, but be positive. Provide new information.

14. Agree that protecting children from abuse is important. The stereotype that gay males are pedophiles is deepseated. Simply telling someone that the stereotype is inaccurate probably won’t get you anywhere. Instead, express your own concern with protecting children, and broaden the discussion to a variety of forms of abuse. You might say, “I agree with you that all children should be protected from sexual abuse. I also wish all children had safe playgrounds, adequate nutrition, and at least one parent who was always at home to provide guidance and support. The more stable couples there are in our communities, the better off all children will be. And of course marriage is the best way to give couples stability.”

Posted in politics, society & culture | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Competition

Posted by midiguru on July 27, 2008

A few years ago the Big Buzzword was “competitive.” Maybe it still is. Gotta be competitive. I always thought competitiveness was sort of pathetically testosterone-induced. Cooperation seemed to me (and still does) like a much better way to get along in life.

Trouble is, if you’re operating on a cooperative basis, and everyone else is being competitive, you’re going to get used as a doormat a lot.

This afternoon I spent an hour talking on the phone with an old friend. She has written several mystery novels since she retired. She loves writing, and she’s pretty darn good at it. But it’s very unlikely her books will ever be published. The publishing industry is too competitive. Even finding an agent to represent the books — there’s just too much competition.

The publishing industry is too ruthlessly focussed on the bottom line. We all know this. It’s not news.

I go through something similar in the music arena. My stuff is pretty good, but there’s no market for it.

Young people like to cling to the myth that in the end, talent will surely be rewarded. Sorry, kids — it’s just not so. The entertainment industry chews up talent and spits it out.

I can think of several strategies for dealing with this stark fact. You can give up; that saves a lot of energy. (Giving up can be done with or without depression, so that’s two options.) You can keep battering yourself silly trying to break through the wall. You can alternate between giving up and battering yourself silly; that’s how I usually do it.

Or you can get pissed off and do it all yourself. This tends to work best if you have some expertise in the marketing area and are good at schmoozing.

The good news about self-promotion is that, as draining as it can be, it’s probably easier than you think. The world is thick with media outlets. If you have something that’s even moderately interesting (and can be ordered online), you can probably find a variety of local radio and TV stations, local Sunday supplement magazines in newspapers, and so forth that will be very happy to give you free publicity. They have to fill their time and/or page space with something. It might as well be you!

Posted in music, writing | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Singers

Posted by midiguru on July 26, 2008

Decided to see if I could find a female vocalist to do some gigs with. Cello by itself isn’t a very fulfilling concert experience, but cello with a woman who sings and plays acoustic guitar — my, my, that could be sweet!

The thing I remember from 30 years ago, when I was still trying to put together a band, is that there are a lot of young women out there who would like to think of themselves as singers, but for whom the process of learning a two-hour set and then getting up onstage and performing it is still a mystery.

And that’s putting it kindly.

First response to my ad on craigslist was from a young lady (name withheld to protect the innocent) whose MySpace page features four of her songs. One is reasonably well produced, the other three are rather muddy demos. But that’s okay — you can tell how someone sings by listening to a muddy demo.

First clue: No indication, on either the MySpace page or her own website, that she has ever performed or played an instrument.

Second clue: She’s singing in English, but you can barely understand a word of the lyrics. This usually indicates that the songwriter has no idea how to write (or deliver) effective lyrics. There are two kinds of pop singers and two kinds of pop lyricists. The first kind are the mumblers. They have nothing to say, but they’re being deliberately cryptic about it in a feeble attempt to suck you in. The other kind, you can understand every word, because the words mean something.

Okay, I’ll make an exception for Bjork. She’s hard to understand, but even so, she’s amazing. Her unsettling delivery gets under your skin.

In general, though, mumblers don’t interest me. If you’re going to stand on a stage for two hours and captivate an audience, you’re going to need all the tools that you can muster, including poetry.

What do you want to bet the same observation will apply to four of the next five respondents to the ad?

Footnote: I was being optimistic. No other vocalists responded to the ad.

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Unchained Melody

Posted by midiguru on July 26, 2008

The cello has what has been described as “a freakishly wide range.” A good cellist can cover more than four octaves — more than any other instrument except piano, organ, and possibly the concert harp.

As an improvising cellist, I tend to scamper all over the place. This is not necessarily the right approach to good lead playing. If you listen to a good jazz trumpeter or trombonist, you’ll find that they create complex and absorbing melodic statements within a range of maybe an octave and a half.

They keep listeners’ interest through hip phrasing — deep syncopation, startling suspended tones, and so on.

On Pandora radio the other day I heard a female vocalist singing the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Turned out it was Judy Collins. She was the very first pop musician I ever paid attention to, back in 1966 or thereabouts. As a teenager, all I knew was classical music, so Collins sounded hip to me. If you had played me a Miles Davis track, I wouldn’t have known how to make heads nor tails of it. But her version of “Blackbird” was white-bread. She actually removed a couple of Paul McCartney’s syncopations and blue notes from the melody.

Ugh.

Frank Zappa once commented that when you’re writing music, you’ve got 12 notes to work with, and that’s not a lot. We all use the same 12 notes, over and over. (Devotees of microtonality, please do not email me. I already know.)

So the trick is knowing how to put those 12 same notes together in fresh ways. Where to draw one out. Where to cut one short. Where to make one rasp, or wobble. Where to wait instead of playing a note at all.

Jazz musicians have known this for a hundred years. It’s not a revelation. But it’s worth reminding ourselves of. Next time I try improvising a solo, I’m going to stay within one octave for a couple of choruses. Pretend I’m a trumpeter.

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Peer Support

Posted by midiguru on July 25, 2008

When I get depressed, it interferes with my creativity. What I need is an “art buddy,” someone who can offer support on an ongoing basis. I want to stay on track, not slog through the doldrums, but doing it by myself is so difficult that I often can’t manage it.

For reasons that we needn’t dwell on, I’m single and likely to remain so. Thus I have no support from a close family member in the home. (I realize that a lot of married people don’t have support either. That’s a slightly different issue.)

Even if I could find an online forum of like-minded artists, I’m not sure it would provide the kind of support I’m seeking. For one thing, reading words on a computer screen is not a social activity. For another, when posting messages to forums I occasionally let my impatience show. There are people who know me online who have concluded that I’m a jerk.

Face to face is better. You have a chance to work through that kind of thing.

I’ve tried doing it online. Last year Virtual Instruments started a Composers’ Workshop forum, for which I was (and still am, I suppose) the moderator. It never took off.

Ultimately, what I want is to have someone come with me to gigs. I have a couple of hours of music that I can play — solo cello with electronic accompaniments that I’ve recorded myself. It’s pleasant stuff, and I play it reasonably well. But the prospect of getting the gig, packing the car, driving to the gig, setting up for the gig, playing the gig, breaking down the equipment, putting it back in the car, driving home, and unpacking everything, and doing every bit of that alone … it’s just more than I can face. I don’t want to do it.

One way around this dilemma is to play in a band. I’ve done that, in the past. Bands have other issues. The guitar player has turned up too loud. The bass player wants to learn a tune that you think sucks. The drummer can’t make it to rehearsal. The guys don’t like your original material. The leader gets a gig that sucks, and you have to play the gig. It’s never-ending.

I just want to play the music that I want to play. I’ll take responsibility for it sounding good. But I don’t want to be alone at every stage of the process. If I have to do it alone, it’s just not gonna happen.

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Kindling

Posted by midiguru on July 24, 2008

I will never buy a Kindle. I love technology, but I also love books. The Kindle is expensive, and there isn’t enough content for it, and it doesn’t display graphics well, but those aren’t the big problems.

The really big problem is that Kindle’s content is, by definition and by design, junk food. It’s intended to be used and then thrown away. Robert Ludlum fans will love it. But I have on my shelf books that were published fifty years ago, by publishing houses that no longer exist. Will Amazon guarantee that the books you purchase today for Kindle will still be readable in fifty years? I don’t think so.

If they did guarantee it, would you trust them to follow through on the guarantee? Giant corporations can’t be trusted to guarantee anything more than 90 days in the future. Can you say, “Enron”?

My best guess is that the lifespan of Kindle as a product is five years at most. Maybe only two years. Beyond that point, there will be something new. You’ll be expected to pony up another $300 or so for it. Probably you’ll be able to download your existing files from Kindle (or from some Internet mega-entity, which we may as well call Big Brother) into the new device. But beyond ten or fifteen years, even file compatibility is not likely to survive.

What if a book is out of print or has been declared subversive — for whatever reason, it’s no longer downloadable from Big Brother — but it’s so wonderful that you want to share it with your friends? Can you put Kindle in a Xerox machine and make copies, or print out its files? Oops … didn’t think so.

Novels I mostly just read and set aside. But when reading nonfiction, I sometimes underline important passages or even scribble brief remarks in the margin. Can I do that with Kindle? Oops … didn’t think so.

The very name of the device evokes Fahrenheit 451. Need I say more?

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A Disturbing Story

Posted by midiguru on July 23, 2008

I’ve been retyping (and editing) some short stories I wrote 20 years ago, with the idea of possibly combining them with a bunch of new stories in a self-published anthology. The first three stories I retyped were extremely interesting in various ways, and actually fun to rediscover.

But the one I’m looking at now makes me uneasy. Not because it’s a bad story — I think it’s pretty good — and not because the content is raw. A few months ago I wrote a story that involves cannibalism, and it doesn’t bother me at all. This story is tame compared to that one.

It’s called “A Place to Stay for a Little While.” It was first published in the June 1986 issue of Asimov’s, and was anthologized in 1987 in The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories 13. Two things about it disturb me. First, it’s about a young man who is trapped in a powerful addiction. At the end of the story he has not escaped from his addiction, and it seems unlikely he’ll be able to. Second, the thing he’s addicted to is control. The other characters in the story are weak. They have no way to fight him. They’re destined to be victims.

This dynamic makes the story creepy in a way that standard horror tropes like cannibalism aren’t.

Or maybe it’s that most of my stories have an implicit moral structure. They may end happily or unhappily, but in either case one has the feeling that the universe of the story exhibits some sort of pattern that incorporates good and evil in a meaningful way. “A Place to Stay for a Little While” is about people whose lives are on the edge, and there’s neither a white knight on the horizon nor a mushroom cloud. If there’s to be any moral structure in their universe, they’ll have to make it up for themselves as they go along — and it seems not very likely that they’ll be able to manage it. They’re too busy trying to live from day to day.

Plus, the guy murders the radio. I think the radio may be the only genuinely innocent character I’ve ever killed off in a story.

I suppose that may require some explanation. It’s a talking radio. There, does that explain it?

Posted in writing | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Into the Vault

Posted by midiguru on July 22, 2008

I’ve written a fair amount of short fiction, some of it published here and there over the years. I doubt any publisher is ever going to want to do a new anthology of my stuff — not enough money in it — so why not do one myself? Services like lulu.com make it pretty darn easy.

The stories from the ’80s don’t exist in electronic form, but I have a cardboard box full of old author’s copies of magazines, plus three different anthologies that picked up stories of mine from the magazines. Retyping old stories is annoying, but it’s a great opportunity to re-edit them.

When I opened the box, I found a paperback anthology called Beyond Armageddon, which was published in 1985. I had entirely forgotten about it, which says something about how seriously I’ve failed to take my fiction writing over the years. Included in Beyond Armageddon was a rather desperately downbeat story of mine called “My Life in the Jungle,” which had first been published the year before in F&SF. The other authors in the book included (-ahem-) Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Poul Anderson, J. G. Ballard, John Wyndham, Roger Zelazny, and Arthur C. Clarke.

The fact that I had no memory of it is truly frightening. I think I need to pay closer attention.

Posted in writing | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

My Goodness…

Posted by midiguru on July 21, 2008

When we say a piece of fiction is “good,” what do we mean? And is this elusive “goodness” an entirely subjective affair, something that each reader gets to judge for herself, or is it possible to say something objective about it?

Yesterday’s post, and the responses to it, set me thinking about this. It’s a tricky question.

Works of fiction are made of words. They exist only in people’s minds. If we’re judging house construction, we can legitimately say, “This house was well built: It stood up to a hurricane. This other house was badly built: It fell down.” But the standards for fiction can’t possibly be that concrete.

Perhaps talking in terms of “objective” vs. “subjective” creates a false dichotomy. Is it necessarily the case that all subjective judgments are equal? Let’s suppose a man and a woman are having a serious marital fight. Their subjective experiences of what’s going on are quite different. Do we have to shrug and say, “Each spouse is right in his or her own frame of reference, and there’s no way to get beyond that”?

No. We call in a marriage counselor. In theory at least, the counselor is an expert. The counselor can suggest areas where each spouse’s subjective perceptions are incorrect or unhelpful.

In judging fiction, we need to be ready to defer to, or at least carefully weigh, the views of experts. If you have five friends who tell you your new story is terrific, but two writing teachers and three editors tell you the story is weak, you need to examine your friends’ credentials and motivations with care. You also need to examine the credentials and possible biases of the experts, of course — most experts have enthusiasms and blind spots, and many have agendas, overt or covert.

At the end of the day, though, the opinions of the experts will quite likely be of more value to you than the opinions of your friends. At least, they’ll be more valuable if your goal is to write better and perhaps sell your work.

People who spend a lot of time reading fiction, writing fiction, and thinking about fiction understand many things that are not readily apparent to a casual reader. They can spot lapses of technique. They’re aware of theme and symbolism. They will recognize and reject cliches. If a story lacks focus, the expert, whose time is valuable, will yawn and stop reading, unlike your friend, who will plow through to the end and then assure you (quite sincerely) that it’s a terrific story.

This does not mean all experts will agree with one another. At the expert level, judgments are still subjective. But the expert’s subjectivity is qualitatively different from the casual reader’s.

The expert knows what good writing looks like. The casual reader doesn’t.

Posted in writing | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

What Does “Good” Mean?

Posted by midiguru on July 20, 2008

Over at 1writeway.wordpress.com, K. Jayne Cockrill (interminablewriter.wordpress.com) posted a response to an interesting little piece called “What does ‘MFA’ Stand For?” KJ said this: “I don’t have an MFA, nor any other degree, but I believe (and have been told) that I am as good as any other writer being published today.”

When I see this kind of assertion, my immediate reaction is to say, “Oh, really? Who told you that, your mother?” Giving ourselves, and giving one another, a little moral support is a wonderful thing. But statements that fly in the face of reality don’t actually work as moral support. Statements that fly in the face of reality are an invitation to remain ignorant, egotistical, defensive, and irrelevant.

Setting aside my own irascibility, the central problem is this: What exactly does KJ mean by “good”? The definition of “good” with respect to fiction-writing (which is what the original post was about) is not even faintly one-dimensional. Without breaking a sweat, I could probably list 20 independent dimensions by which the “goodness” or “badness” of manuscripts can legitimately be compared. Are the characters believable? Is the flow of the action clear? Is language being used in precise and original ways? Does the theme have significance? Does the story evoke emotion?

And so forth.

A manuscript that is excellent when measured by one of these parameters is not guaranteed to be excellent with respect to others. My favorite example is Erle Stanley Gardner. Measured by many of the standards that are usually applied to fiction, Gardner was a dreadful writer. Yet he sold literally millions of books. He was excellent at the things his readers cared about (mainly fast-paced action, dramatic reversals, and innocent people doing stupid things to get themselves into hot water), so it didn’t matter that he was lousy at everything else.

So what does KJ mean by “good”? It seems pretty clear, for instance, that if she was as good at writing sexy vampire novels as Laurell K. Hamilton is, her sexy vampire novels would be found in bookstores across the land on the shelf next to Hamilton’s. One suspects that when KJ says “I am as good as [published writer Laurell K. Hamilton],” she means something other than, “I am as good at writing sexy vampire novels as Laurell K. Hamilton.”

I’m not sure what she means, actually. And I can’t help wondering whether she’d be able to define it.

I cringe when I see that sort of sweeping statement, and it’s because I’ve participated in a few critique groups. On more than a few occasions, I’ve observed that aspiring writers generally don’t want to be told about the deficiencies in their stories. Not even when they’re members of a group that exists for the express purpose of pointing out said deficiencies. Most aspiring writers want to believe what KJ boldly asserts: that they’re as good as Stephen King or John Updike, that they only need to be “discovered” or something for their innate genius to shine forth.

One important difference between a professional writer and an amateur is that a professional knows there are other writers who are better than she is. If you catch her in a non-combative mood, she’ll be able to tell you exactly how they’re better. Only a rank amateur thinks she’s so good she doesn’t need to improve.

Posted in writing | Tagged: | 8 Comments »

 
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