Relatables

Last night I read the opening chapters of a novel by an aspiring local writer. There were lots of problems; reading it and taking notes was a sad process. I don’t want to go into every detail of what I found wanting, but I do think other writers may benefit from pondering one or two of my observations.

The lead character was not a pleasant person. She was hostile and suspicious toward her friends. In a word, she was not relatable. There was little or nothing in her that would encourage a reader to want to hang out inside her head for 100,000 words.

A lead character who is too good would also be a bad choice, of course. We want the lead to be flawed — perhaps determined to overcome those bad habits, or perhaps quite stubbornly clinging to them. But along with the bad stuff, we need to find things in the character that we can admire or identify with. We want to be rooting for the character. As readers, we’re in the cheering section.

The problem with this particular lead character was that there was nothing positive in her to counterbalance the negativity. She was just annoying and unpleasant.

The author also has a tendency to withhold crucial bits of information for a couple of paragraphs, or for several pages. Something happened at the picnic, but what? Who is that person the lead character has just spotted across the room at the restaurant, the one the author is referring to as a “figure” in order to keep you guessing even whether it’s a man or a woman? The author may be under the impression that this encourages the reader to keep reading in order to find out — but in fact it’s what we do know that will keep us reading. If we know the person across the room is a hated rival (as in this case), we’ll want to keep reading in order to learn about the encounter between the lead and the rival. Blowing smoke in order to hide basic information is not a good technique.

At the moment I’m struggling with how frank to be with this writer. It would be all too easy to rip the manuscript to bloody tatters, but I’m pretty sure that would be a bad thing to do. As a matter of simple human decency I’d like to offer comments that might help the writer improve.

On the other hand, there are so very many bad writers cranking out garbage — and putting it up on Amazon, and tirelessly promoting it. The world does not need to be drowning in swill. Maybe it would be a public service to discourage amateurs from writing. And maybe it would be merciful to the writer herself. Take up gardening. Your chances of growing a nice healthy bush are much, much higher than your chances of writing a good novel.

This is one of the hazards of being a professional editor. I do in fact know what’s good, and what’s not. It’s not a he-said, she-said thing. It’s not a matter of opinion. When it’s crap, it’s crap.

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They’re Alive, Jim!

Pleased as punch to announce that both of my new books are now LIVE on Amazon. Where y’all can buy them if so inclined. Paperback or e-book.

While Caesar Sang of Hercules is a mystery set in ancient Rome. Amateur sleuth, but not a cozy. Not hardboiled, not a thriller — more of a classic whodunit, and with a side order of romance. Nero is a minor character. The sleuth is a slave named Germanus, a very ordinary fellow with a secret past. He’s in love with the beautiful young widow, but he knows it’s hopeless. And if I tell you any more than that, it will be spoilers.

The House of Broken Dolls is a collection of 15 stories, mostly fantasy. A couple are science fiction, but in my view SF is a sub-genre within fantasy. Ghosts, ancient gods, strange paintings, and so on. There are some unpleasant moments, but many of the stories have endings that are happy or at least ambiguous and therefore hopeful.

The earliest stories in this collection were written in 1982, half a lifetime ago. Nine of the 15 have been published before, in Asimov’s Science Fiction, in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, or in other leading zines. The most recent is the title story, which underwent serious revisions only a couple of years ago and has never before appeared in print.

The mystery was written in 2000 or thereabouts, but it didn’t seem to be marketable, so I set it aside. In 2020 a friend posted a Facebook link to a BBC video on Pompeii, and I found myself thinking, “Yeah, I wrote a novel once about that culture.” Found the manuscript, retyped it (the digital files were long gone), did quite a bit of editing, and here it is at last! It’s set about 14 years before the famous eruption that buried Pompeii, and 30 or 40 miles to the west, but that’s where you’ll find yourself.

The cultural details are as accurate as I could manage to make them. I’m sure there are a few things scholars will take issue with; ancient Rome was probably a lot stranger than I made it seem. But it’s not just a modern story in toga drag.

Okay, got all that off my desk. Now I can go back to work on the half-finished fantasy duology. You’re gonna love that one too. Magic, danger, romance, scheming villains — genre fiction at its finest.

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Cover Reveal II!

The scribblin’ elves at the Aikin Magic Factory have been busy. Two books published within a week of one another!

Truth is, both of these projects have been in the works for years. The short story collection is already live on Amazon, but I’ve asked the cover artist to do a little more work, so it will have a revised cover. In the meantime, here’s the cover for While Caesar Sang of Hercules, a historical mystery. It should be available for your purchasing pleasure in a couple of days.

First the teaser copy from the back cover, and then the amazing cover art by damonza.com.

Unseen danger, scheming suspects, colorful characters, and a rich tapestry of historical detail combine in an unforgettable tale of romance and suspense on the Bay of Naples during the reign of Nero.

At a grand banquet, a minor nobleman is poisoned and dies. Suspicion swirls first around the household slaves: If any of them did it, all of them will be put to death! Germanus has well-hidden reasons for hating false accusations, so he sets out to find the murderer, his only clue a severed human thumb. Secretly in love with the beautiful young widow, he knows he can never hope she’ll care for him: As a slave, he’s far beneath her notice. But when she’s accused of the murder, their lives are on a collision course with disaster.

Drum roll, please….

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Connecting

Writing is a solitary activity, we all know that. I’d like to find meaningful connections with other writers, but it’s hard. This afternoon I sat through the 90-minute monthly Zoom meeting with the local writers’ group (which is affiliated with the California Writers Club organization). I don’t feel even a smidgen of connection with the people in this group — but I’m there, because where else are you gonna go?

Some of them write memoir. Memoir? Why would anybody ever want to write, much less read, memoir? I’m baffled. The local club’s critique group has a word limit (for a submission to be critiqued at a separate monthly meeting) of 2,500 words. How can you possibly write a meaningful piece of fiction if you have only 2,500 words?

I’ve heard of flash fiction, thanks. The very idea makes my skin crawl.

I’ve suggested to the group that we start a long-form critique group, with a monthly word count of up to 25,000 words — and fiction only, please, no memoir. I’ll probably end up leading that critique group. But the truth is, I’m not looking forward to it, because I’ve seen some of the writing that people in the club have done, and … well, maybe I can help them a little, if they’re not too defensive, but I don’t expect to encounter any kindred souls, let’s put it that way.

I really need to be hanging out with, or at least acquainted with, some good writers. People I can look up to! But I have no “in” in the literary world. Okay, John Lescroart answers my emails, because he and I worked in the same office for a year or two, back in the ’70s. But that’s thin.

The project that I’m working on now, which may turn into a fat fantasy duology, would be almost impossible to explain to anybody, even if I had somebody to explain it to and even if I didn’t know better than to talk out a work-in-progress. Talking about what you’re planning to write tends to drain the energy away from actually writing the thing, so it’s better to keep your cards close to your chest.

Someone explained this once by saying that your subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between writing the story and talking about the story, so if you talk about it your subconscious thinks you’ve done it, and the flow stops. There’s something in that. So what are you going to talk about when you’re around other writers? Agents? I don’t have an agent. Word processors? Use Scrivener; don’t even talk to me about Word.

That’s a short conversation.

I got to thinking about connections tonight when I watched an hour-long video interview with Ralph Grierson. You’ve probably never heard of Ralph, but he was for many years one of the absolute first-call pianists in Hollywood. He played on hundreds of film and TV soundtracks. And see, Ralph is one of my Facebook friends. As is another retired first-call Hollywood pianist, Mike Lang. I know these guys, at least vaguely, through my years as an editor at Keyboard. I also know Hans Zimmer slightly, for the same reason. I’ve met him, and he’s one of my Facebook friends. Hans is one of the most titanically successful film score composers working today.

In the interview Ralph told a story about Don Buchla, one of the groundbreaking synthesizer designers of the ’60s and ’70s. And I knew Don. I visited his workshop several times and ran into him now and then. I knew Bob Moog too. Chick Corea, another stunning pianist, died recently. I used to edit both Chick’s and Bob Moog’s monthly columns for the magazine. I didn’t know these guys well, but I knew them.

I’m not really trying to name-drop here, though of course I’m doing exactly that. Would you like to hear how Suzanne Ciani once made me eggplant parmesan for lunch? Probably not. Okay, maybe the story about the time Glenn Gould phoned me. Or the time I had lunch with Laszlo Varga, who had been the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. Maestro Varga told us a story about his encounter with Glenn Gould. I had been invited to that lunch by my friend Larry Granger, who played cello in the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. Tilson Thomas was a student at USC in the ’60s when Grierson was there, and the two of them recorded the piano-four-hands version of Rite of Spring for Stravinsky.

None of that actually matters. The point is, in the piano-and-synthesizer world, I feel connected, and it lifts my spirits. Not so connected anymore, because we’re all getting old, those of us who haven’t died. But I still feel that I’m a tiny part of something that’s larger than just me.

In the fiction writing world, I don’t feel that. I’m sitting here staring at the computer screen, knowing that what I would like to do with this next project is so big and complex that it’s almost (but not quite) more than I can contemplate. And who can I talk to about it? Viewpoint, theme, world-building, character development, plot pacing — who can I talk to who will say, “Oh, yeah. I’ve done that. I get it.”

At the writers’ club meeting the guest speaker, who is a successful literary agent, went on for half an hour about recent changes in the publishing industry. On one level it was pretty interesting, and I’m sure a lot of the attendees appreciated it, but I know darn well my duology is not going to interest an agent. I’ll be self-publishing it. So the trends in the industry are utterly irrelevant to me; her talk was just dust in the wind. In the whole meeting there was not one word, not one single solitary word, about viewpoint, theme, world-building, character development, or plot pacing.

What a depressing miasma of irrelevance. Why was I even there? Oh, I remember now. To connect with other writers.

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Stick With It

In keeping with my new resolution to ignore the flaws in novels that I start reading and actually finish them, I have now plowed through to the very end of Tiger Burning Bright by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Andre Norton, and Mercedes Lackey. [Edit: See below for another start-to-finish read-through. Or maybe several.]

Several things would have stopped me dead along the way, if I hadn’t made up my mind to persevere. The biggest problem is that the plot is flabby. There are entire chapters where nothing happens except one of the lead characters sitting around and worrying about what’s going to happen.

Admittedly, the tension does start to build. The peaceful, prosperous city-state of Merina is being invaded by the army of Emperor Balthasar, and while Merina surrenders without a fight, that doesn’t satisfy Balthasar. His troops and his chief adviser (who turns out to be a necromancer) set out to tax and rape the citizens. The necromancer starts turning some of the able young men into zombies.

Unfortunately, the three lead characters — Queen Mother Adele, Queen Lydana, and Princess Shelyra — have no realistic plan for how to deal with the invasion. They go into hiding, and then they worry a lot. If they were fascinating multifaceted characters, this might be okay, but they’re not. They’re just stock feminist tropes. When they do actually get around to doing something or other about the invasion, they usually succeed, so there are no plot reversals. Lydana sneaks into a heavily guarded Guild house, plants an evil gem, hides behind a couch while the bad guys come in, and then sneaks out again. Momentary suspense, but no actual drama.

Also, a lot of the action takes place offstage, and is narrated to the viewpoint characters by others. This is what I call Paul Drake syndrome. In the Perry Mason mysteries, Mason’s private detective Paul Drake could be relied on to show up in Mason’s office, flip open his notebook, and tell Mason exactly what the police and the district attorney were up to. It was a tissue-thin plot device in 1940, and it was still tissue-thin in 1995, when Tiger Burning Bright was published. If you find yourself doing this while writing a novel, here’s a tip: You’ve chosen the wrong viewpoint character.

The business of the queen going into hiding is flat-out ludicrous. Queen Lydana has, evidently over the course of some years, established an alternate identity for herself as Mathild, a maker of cheap jewelry and owner of a small shop. So Lydana goes into hiding as Mathild, and Balthasar’s evil minions can’t find her. But why would a queen ever have bothered to create an alternate identity for herself as a peasant shopkeeper? The authors never bother to explain this.

Princess Shelyra, meanwhile, spends an awful lot of time creeping around in the secret passages in the palace. Once Balthasar has moved in, she’s able to spy on him. As the climax approaches, she and her soon-to-be boyfriend, Prince Leopold, are spying on the anteroom of the throne room, there being for some odd reason no spy-hole in the throne room itself. Six of Balthasar’s nasty mercenary guards are stationed in the anteroom. Shelyra and Leopold need to find out what’s going on in the throne room!

So what does Shelyra do? She whips out a blow-gun and some tranquilizer darts. She opens the door of the spy-hole wide enough to see where she’s aiming, and of course none of the guards even notices that she’s there. She then proceeds to shoot all six of them, one at a time, with tranquilizer darts. She never misses, not even once. They go all sleepy-bye.

Why would a princess ever have practiced shooting tranquilizer darts through a blow-gun? Probably for the same reason the queen established an alternate identity. Namely, the authors needed them to do that in order to keep the book from falling to pieces.

So then there’s a climactic battle between angels and demons, except we never actually see them fight. They show up, and then Shelyra kills the necromancer, and it’s all over. I’m leaving out a bunch of stuff. If you’re curious, read the book.

If I learned anything from this experience, it’s that you can actually judge the quality of a book fairly after the first hundred pages. Tranquilizer darts. As Nero Wolfe used to say, “Pfui.”

[New:] My next self-imposed paperback challenge was The Sardonyx Net by Elizabeth A. Lynn. Science fiction, published 40 years ago. In normal mode I would have bailed on it after 20 pages or so, because the opening is almost pure space opera. And indeed, it hardly qualifies as visionary SF. But it turned out to be a good read.

Not because of the SF elements. They’re way old-fashioned. The planetary ecology is simplistic, the economy of the planetary colony is not remotely believable, and no laboratory on the planet has been able to figure out the chemical composition of a drug that’s being smuggled and on which the economy depends. This is why I don’t write science fiction much. It’s too easy to get the future all wrong! Also, the actions of the bad guys, when examined closely, make almost no sense.

What’s good about The Sardonyx Net is, it’s about real people. The emotional tangle that freelance starcaptain Dana Ikoro finds himself plunged into is complex, and the aristocratic brother and sister with whom he’s entangled are memorable three-dimensional characters. They run the slave trade on the planet of Chabad, and yet, as much as it may shock today’s readers, they’re not evil people. The brother is partly evil, but he genuinely loves his sister, he’s a doctor (so he helps people every day), and he struggles against his desire to cause pain.

Slavery in the interstellar future? A weird choice for a story setup, and as I said, it’s not a realistic economy. Nor is this form of slavery quite what you’re likely to think. The slaves are convicted criminals, they’re fed happy pills so that they don’t mind it much, we never see any slaves being mistreated unless they try to run off, and their term of servitorship is temporary. It’s a prison planet, basically, and the ruling elite are the wardens. Nonetheless, Dana is a slave, wrongly convicted on a bogus charge, and it’s a bitter and difficult situation for him.

The novel doesn’t even end with the freeing of the slaves. Quite the contrary. The shades of gray in the morality of this future society may make idealistic readers very uncomfortable, but the shades of gray are part of what makes Sardonyx a good novel. It’s not predictable. Unlike Bradley, Norton, and Lackey, Elizabeth Lynn didn’t take the easy way out.

Is it a great novel? No. But it’s a heck of a lot more grown-up than Tiger Burning Bright.

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Digital Dodging

So you’ve written something using Scrivener, and now you’re ready to publish it to Amazon as an e-book. Scrivener will output the .mobi format that Amazon Kindle uses, so you just click a couple of times and you’re good to go, right?

Well, not quite.

This post is partly a memo to myself, because by next year, when I have another book, I will have forgotten the details. But if you use Scrivener (and if you don’t, you should!), you may find these tips useful.

The problem, I’ve found, is that Scrivener doesn’t leave blank lines consistently where you put them in your files. Sometimes the blank lines are fine, other times they get eaten. So a chapter head or the title of a short story may be jammed down against the following text, with no blank line. It’s ugly, and it looks unprofessional. If you’re self-publishing, it’s up to you to look professional.

To fix this annoying little problem, you’ll need two free programs — Sigil and Calibre.

Step 1: Export from Scrivener as a .mobi file. Load this into the free Kindle app and have a look. You may be fine, or not. If you see problems, continue as described below.

Step 2: Export the e-book from Scrivener not as .mobi but as .epub. Sigil does not load .mobi.

Step 3: Load the .epub into Sigil. It will show you a series of items (body1, body2, etc.).

Step 4: Find a line of html that produces the spacing you want. You’ll have to check the Kindle app to find the right line. For instance:

<p class="scrivener13">&nbsp;</p>

Step 5: Paste this in place of whatever line of code is failing to produce the vertical space. (In my case, the class was “scrivener7”.)

Step 6: Save your .epub under a new name.

Step 7: Launch Calibre and load the .epub into it.

Step 8: Use Calibre’s Format option to save your book as a .mobi.

Step 9: Delete the previous .mobi book from the Kindle app, because it won’t let you load the same book (or what it thinks is the same book) twice. Then drag your new .mobi over to the Kindle app. Check it carefully!

See, that wasn’t hard at all, was it?

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Cover Reveal!

Over the years a few of my stories have been published various places — in Asimov’s, in Fantasy & Science Fiction, and so on. Yeah, paying markets. I don’t tend to submit to amateur zines. I also have a few stories that, for some weird reason, nobody ever bought. And … within mere days, you’ll be able to buy and enjoy a collection of the very best of the lot! Fifteen fantasy stories. Well, two or three are science fiction, not fantasy, but I’ve come to feel that technically science fiction is simply a sub-genre within fantasy, so there’s that.

EDIT: Only one day later, it’s out! It’s not on my Amazon Author page yet, but if you zip over to Amazon and search for “house of broken dolls” it will jump right out at you. 380 pages of great stories — what’s not to like?

The rather startling cover was designed by my friend Chris Ledgerwood, who was at one time the art director of Keyboard, where I worked as an editor. Oh, and the quote from Isaac Asimov is entirely genuine. You’ll have to buy the book and read the Foreword to learn how it came about.

Without further ado….

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Reading Uncritically

Oh, good! He’s going to blog about writing again! Yes, indeed. Sorry for the distractions.

Over the years I have bailed out on more novels than I finished reading — sometimes after ten or twenty pages, sometimes halfway through Book 3 of a trilogy. What usually sets my teeth grinding is some rank absurdity. There’s no shortage of them. But sometimes the book is just dull.

I’m starting to think this behavior may be a mistake. Not that one can readily forgive an author for perpetrating an absurdity, or for fumbling along interminably while the plot languishes. But so what? Maybe the book is worth finishing in spite of the author’s glaring weaknesses. Maybe something good will happen in the story. Maybe a paragraph of description will sparkle. Or maybe I’m just too damn critical for my own good.

Having at one time haunted the tables at the local library’s used book sales, back when we had book sales (a sad loss, I have to say), I have a fair collection of SF and fantasy novels that I haven’t read (or that I started and then gave up on). And it’s not like I don’t have time on my hands. I’m retired, for Pete’s sake! Sometimes in the evening I play solitaire. Since I am, in point of fact, a novelist, wouldn’t it make more sense to read someone else’s novel than to play solitaire?

At the moment I’m about 80 pages into a 500-page fantasy called Tiger Burning Bright. Not, let’s admit, the most original title for a novel. The authors, believe it or not, are Marion Zimmer Bradley, Andre Norton, and Mercedes Lackey. A more formidable or venerable trio of best-selling female authors of fantasy would be hard to imagine (though I do also have, and have in fact read, the hardback of The Golden Key, by Jennifer Roberson, Kate Elliott, and Melanie Rawn, another formidable trio).

So far, the story by Bradley, Norton, and Lackey is moving at a rather glacial pace. The peaceful but prosperous land of Merina has been invaded by the armies of the Emperor Balthasar. Merina has no army, so there has been no battle. It’s all over but the shouting. That’s okay by me — I don’t even like stories where knights go hacking and slashing with their swords. The trio of main characters, namely the Queen Mother, the Queen, and the Princess (a royal family without men and with no male advisers or functionaries of any importance, made up quite transparently of a maiden, a mother, and a crone) has dithered for 60 pages or so about what to do, and all three of the women are now going into hiding so that Balthasar can’t capture and imprison them. They’re adept at disguises, and based on the lack of overt excitement in the opening, it’s a good guess they’ll be able to stay under cover. Whether they will be able to mount a successful resistance to the invasion is very much in doubt, since (a) they don’t have an army and (b) they’ve never even discussed among themselves how they might be able to manage it.

It’s not even clear why they would want to. By surrendering without a fight, they seem to have preserved the well-being of their people. Balthasar’s evil mage, Apolon, has some designs on a thing called the Jewel, which is in the temple of the Goddess, but it’s not at all clear that the jewel has any value that’s not strictly sentimental. If there’s a potent reason why Apolon can’t be allowed to get his nasty hands on it, the authors have yet to tell us.

The point, however, is this: I’m not giving either the trio of characters or the trio of authors much of a chance. There’s nothing specifically wrong with the novel; there’s just nothing about it that makes me want to plow through the remaining 420 pages. For that reason, I need to make a conscious decision that, hey, this is okay. I’ll keep going.

Among the sagas I’ve given up on in the past are Michelle West’s multi-volume story of Jewel Markham and Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. As irked as I may get at the bad habits of a writer (West in particular — no need for details at the moment), I think there may be something to be gained by setting aside my reactions, however justified they may be, and just going on with the damned thing. At the very least, it will be an improvement on playing solitaire, and very possibly one or another of these stories will prove better than I expected. Maybe even a lot better. It could happen.

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In Particular

Tonight I spent a fruitless hour talking with a friend about the “microaggression training” workshops that are soon to be offered by our local Unitarian-Universalist church. She’s fer ’em; I’m agin ’em. Neither of us managed to shake the other’s view. I’ve read a lot more widely than she has about the social movement of which this effort is a part, but she is much more inclined to be optimistic about life than I am.

Her stance, if I haven’t misunderstood it, boils down to the idea that doing small things that may improve the world is worthwhile, because these small things create momentum that will (or may) someday lead to changes in the big things. Such as, you know, an end to racism. Yeah, sure. Right.

Her examples of the need for microaggression training included people reaching up to touch a black person’s hair. Probably a black woman, and presumably someone the toucher doesn’t know well. I can’t even imagine anybody doing that, but my God, it must be utterly terrifying, having someone touch your hair. (Snerk.) Another example my friend mentioned was people asking a gay man (obviously they don’t know he’s gay) if he has a girlfriend. Wow — the idea that a gay man would have to think up a snappy comeback and have it ready! We should all rush to take this training so gay men don’t have to torment themselves for hours on end trying to think up snappy comebacks.

I’ve been reading a book called Without God, Without Creed by a historian named James Turner. In it, he traces the changes that took place in religion, and specifically in European-American Christianity, between 1600 and 1900, as a result of which actual atheism became, rather suddenly and surprisingly, possible. It’s a fascinating book, and one point in particular caught my eye. Before the Renaissance, people didn’t generally believe in the idea of progress. Human history was felt to be either static or cyclical, not to be trending upward. As religion collided with science and as the printing presses got cranking, thinkers’ view of history underwent a tectonic shift. The abolitionists in the U.S. in the 19th century weren’t the only ones who believed in or agitated for social progress, but they were in the vanguard.

Consider, if you will, Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement about the arc of history. Here’s a passage explaining that quote; I lifted it from an opinion piece on HuffPost:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is King’s clever paraphrasing of a portion of a sermon delivered in 1853 by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker. Born in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1810, Parker studied at Harvard Divinity School and eventually became an influential transcendentalist and minister in the Unitarian church. In that sermon, Parker said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

The ideal of social progress in the direction of justice, which my young friend cherishes, is an expression of religious faith — not just because it comes from the mouths of ministers but because it is unprovable and because it imputes to the universe itself a moral tendency that frankly doesn’t exist. The universe is not a place that is organized according to any sort of morality. The universe has no moral dimension at all. And in case it isn’t obvious, human history is a phenomenon within the universe. The only conclusion a rational person can possibly come to is that King was talking through his hat. (As the HuffPost piece by Mychal Smith points out, Parker was a good deal less confident about the thing than King.)

We can each try, if we choose, to bend the arc of the universe in a direction that we conceive of as moral, but at the same time other people will be trying to bend it in some other direction, and with just as much conviction that they’re right. Ultimately it’s a form of arm-wrestling. It could go either way.

I rather suspect that some of the millions of people who died in the Nazi concentration camps may have harbored grave doubts, as death approached, about the direction that the moral arc of the universe was bending. And that’s the point. Anything may happen. We’re not in control of any of it. In the next hundred years a new Dark Ages may descend. That wouldn’t be at all surprising — and whether it does or doesn’t is something you and I can’t possibly control.

If it pleases you to imagine that you’re doing good by housing the homeless, I’m happy to encourage you. Meanwhile, somebody else is planning to hunt down legislators and kill them in order to promote their own twisted version of a brighter future. We don’t know who will win, and Dr. King didn’t know either.

I’m not going to go into detail about the reasons why I’m personally offended by the idea of “microaggression training,” because it would be a long read, and it’s none of your business. The idea behind this training is that it’s supposed to help people be more sensitive in their social encounters with members of marginalized groups — people of color; gay, lesbian, and trans people; the disabled; and so on. As a lifelong member of a horribly marginalized group — and no, you’re not going to read any details here, you’ll just have to take my word for it — let me say this: Nobody ever gave much of a rat’s ass about bending the arc of my world in a more positive direction. I spent thousands of dollars paying therapists (in the days when those thousands had a lot more purchasing power than they would today), seeking professional help to try to get to a better grip on what was happening in my life, and it didn’t work worth a damn.

There was never the slightest likelihood that I would be able to live a life as a normal member of society, free of thick dollops of alienation and injustice. The therapists were happy to take my money, I might add; none of them felt that they needed to admit they weren’t going to be able to help.

And here’s the point: I don’t whine about it. My life is just fine. I write novels. I play music. I play board games. I edit people’s books. Sometimes I even do yard work. I don’t sit around and obsess about the not-at-all micro aggressions I suffered through in high school. I rarely think about my big misery-inducing problem at all, and this will probably be the only time you’ll read about it in this blog.

So when somebody comes to me and says, “Gee, you could take a workshop that would help you learn to become more sensitive to the emotional needs of people of color,” I just yawn. I’m occasionally boorish, but I’m not a racist. And the way I look at it, everybody in the world has some kind of horrible issue that makes life difficult for them. You might be black; you might have cancer; you might have been sexually abused by your uncle or a priest; you might barely have escaped from a horrible religious cult and be estranged from your family; you might be dyslexic and clumsy and unable to hold down even a minimum-wage job; you might have a great job but you’re a woman working for a male-dominated sexist corporation so you get passed up for promotion and ignored in meetings; you might be schizophrenic or autistic or blind. My sister was blind, by the way. Everybody has something.

So get over it. Live your life. If you want to try to help others, go right ahead. Be my guest. But if you’d rather play competitive pinochle, or spend months on end polishing the fenders on the mint-condition ’37 Packard in your garage, or sell amethyst crystals on the Internet by making up flagrant lies about their healing properties, that’s fine too. I wish you well.

As I get older, I no longer see life as a progression or procession through a series of grand, sweeping activities that are undertaken in the interest of noble abstract ideals. I’m pretty sure that whole dance is just a lot of pathetic hoo-hah. Life is lived only in the particulars. Only in the things we actually choose to do today, for our own satisfaction and nobody else’s. If you have clean underwear, you’re good to go — and even if you don’t have clean underwear, you’re good to go. Nobody fixed things up for me when I was a kid or a young adult struggling with personal issues, so why should I waste an hour trying to fix things up for someone else? I’ll do it if I feel like it, and if I don’t feel like it I won’t, and there is no moral judgment that attaches to my choice, because neither you nor anybody else has the right to pass moral judgment on me. Your morals are your own private business, and nobody else is required to kowtow to them.

Today I spent several hours reacquainting myself with a wonderful piece of music software and starting to compose a new piece of music using it. It was fun, and fulfilling, and required no recourse to moral judgment of any kind. Tomorrow I’ll probably work some more on that piece — unless I feel like working on my novel instead. There are no general principles. The arc of the universe ain’t going nowhere. All there are are the particulars — this moment, how it feels, what you’re doing right now.

If you would like to thank me for freeing you from the burden of your festering Christian guilt, you may send me money. Or don’t. Whatever feels right.

Posted in random musings, society & culture | 1 Comment

Whiners Being Picky

My local Unitarian-Universalist church sent out an email today announcing that they’ll be having “training” on “micro-aggressions.” The email I composed, but haven’t sent and probably won’t, because the people running the church just wouldn’t get it, goes like this:

Thanks, but I already know how to commit micro-aggressions. I’m good at it. I don’t need any training.

Oh, wait. You’re suggesting that I need to learn something about how to detect if people are committing micro-aggressions against me? Well, hey, if I don’t notice it, then it isn’t a micro-aggression, so that should be no problem at all. No training needed.

Oh, wait. You’re suggesting that I may be committing micro-aggressions without knowing that I’m doing it and need training in how to stop? And you have detected this in my personal behavior when, exactly? Have you analyzed my behavior and found anything of the sort? No? Then I’m sorry, but you’re not entitled to think that I need any information on this topic. You’re inappropriately generalizing. In addition, you’re confused about the definition of your own term. If it’s not an intentional (and intentionally insulting) act on the part of whoever does it, IT IS NOT A MICRO-AGGRESSION. It may be rudeness, but it is not a micro-aggression. The tendency to confuse rudeness with micro-aggressions is, I believe, rather widespread. But unless the training clarifies this — unless the training makes it clear that many or most of the things that the alleged victims characterize as micro-aggressions would be better understood as simple rudeness, thoughtlessness, or a misapprehension on the part of the alleged victim — then the training is actually going to be harmful rather than helpful.

And no, I’m not kidding. Well, the first two paragraphs were kidding, but the third one isn’t. The third paragraph is entirely serious. It is simply not possible for a statement or an action to be a micro-aggression if it is not consciously and intentionally an aggression. This is very clear.

The idea that we all ought to be policing our own behavior to detect unintentional slights that could be hurtful to people in marginalized groups is part of the culture of victimhood. It’s part of the assault of postmodernism on logic and society. The rationale is, if someone feels hurt by something I did or said, then that person is automatically right. I have hurt them. This is postmodernism in action: the idea that there is no objective truth, and therefore that all accounts of what happened (and especially the accounts of people in marginalized groups) are to be believed, not questioned or examined. Therefore it’s my job as a white male to start every personal encounter by being careful — by feeling guilty in advanced, lest I say or do anything that causes hurt feelings (also known as “harm” — a favorite weasel term of the Social Justice Thought Police).

I’ve got news for the people at my UU church: If there is such a thing as an unintentional micro-aggression, your sending out that email qualifies. I’m insulted. I’m offended. And if anyone has the right to decide that they’re being hurt by an unintended insult, we all do. The idea that a black or indigenous or gay or deaf or fat person is entitled to claim that they were hurt by a micro-aggression, but that I’m not entitled to do so because I’m white and, at least for purposes of discussion, none of those other things (though I really ought to lose a few pounds) — that’s just bullshit.

This is precisely the kind of bullshit that is being shoveled onto us by Critical Race Theory and the Social Justice Thought Police.

As my mother used to say (quoting the caption of a New Yorker cartoon from the 1930s), I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

Posted in random musings, religion, society & culture | Tagged , | 3 Comments