Who Owns U?

The schism within Unitarian-Universalism continues to deepen. The UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) has now sunk to a new low. You’ll find the details in last Sunday’s sermon by Todd Eklof; you can listen to it here, but for the benefit of those on the go, I’ll summarize briefly and, I hope, accurately.

A UUA vice-president sent a “cease and desist” letter to a group of disaffected UUs, the Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles Fellowship, demanding that they cease using the terms Unitarian Universalist and UU, “naming the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism as your primary source of faith,” “listing the qualifications of your leaders as substantially due to UU experience,” “using the domain name uu7pf.org,” and using the “chalice logo.”

As Eklof points out, it’s probably significant that this demand came from someone in the UUA rather than from an attorney. If nothing else, an attorney would probably have pointed out to the idiots at the UUA that they don’t own the letter U. Whether the chalice logo is a trademark I wouldn’t know. Possibly the new group needs to design their own chalice logo. But the rest of it is just a heaping spoonful of arrogant bullshit.

On the flip side, the UUA violated their own procedures in quickly approving the application of a split-off congregation that agrees with their blinkered views. They have an agenda. Their goal is to reshape the Unitarian-Universalist denomination in ways that they feel convinced are both virtuous and necessary, and like fascists the world over, they’re sure that the ends justify the means.

As in a number of other situations over the past few years, the UUA is trying to stifle dissent. They don’t want an open discussion of the issues that have been raised by concerned members of the denomination — not just by Eklof himself but by dozens of articulate and concerned UUs. In this, they remind me more than a bit of the acolytes of Donald Trump. Trump’s minions are pretty consistently refusing to testify before the House Select Committee. And why would they refuse? Because they know perfectly well that their conduct was indefensible. The same thing is true, I’m sure, at the UUA: They don’t dare participate in a free and open discussion of their views, because on some level they understand that they have no hope of surviving an honest debate. All they can do is stonewall and demonize the other side, exactly as the top Trump loyalists are doing.

Unitarianism was once a liberal denomination. Liberalism flourishes when there is freedom to debate. As André Gide once said, “Follow those who seek the truth — and flee from those who have found it.” The people in the upper echelons of the UUA are convinced that they have found the truth, but they’re cowards. They’re frightened silly of open debate. They can support their cause only through name-calling and outright lies.

As my mother used to say, quoting a 1930s-era cartoon in the New Yorker, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”

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Freedom vs. the Common Good

There is always, inevitably, a tension between individual freedom and the need to work together for the common good. Neither idea can ever vanquish the other, and in extreme forms both are evil.

When individual freedom is elevated as the absolute measure of virtue, the result is anarchy. You wouldn’t enjoy real anarchy. If freedom is the only thing that matters, drivers will be free to race down the street at 80 mph through school zones. Polluters will be free to dump assorted poisons into your drinking water.

Conversely, if the common good is all that matters, everybody will be required to march in lock-step. Books that include non-approved ideas will be burned. The police will be able to invade your home to check for compliance. This is totalitarianism. You wouldn’t like that either.

And in any event, neither state of affairs is achievable. In the real world, the need to judge the relative merits of individual freedom and group solidarity in a given case is always with us. It can be a parlor game or a matter of life and death, but it never goes away, nor could it.

We band together to create institutions that we hope will work for the common good. The most important of such institutions are governments and religions. The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood that when those two institutions get together, too much individual freedom is lost. They tried to set up a legal framework that would keep the two separate, but as events since then have proved, the framework doesn’t work very well.

The people who run large institutions tend to rise to the top because they enjoy having power. Having power means controlling other people’s lives. You may think your exercise of power is in the interest of the common good, or you may not care about that at all. In either case, individual freedom goes on the chopping block.

Because I’m distressed by the exercise of power (strictly in the service of the common good as they unilaterally define it, and don’t try to debate them, because they refuse to debate) by the upper echelon of the Unitarian-Universalist organization, I’m looking around for alternatives. I’d like to get together weekly with a group of like-minded people in order to discuss common concerns, maybe hear an inspiring lecture, and have some coffee and cookies.

The Satanic Temple appears, at first glance, to be a good possibility. Unfortunately, it’s much too small to be of any practical value. If I were an organizing type (which I’m not) I could start a local congregation, but I’m a bit concerned that the Satanic Temple goes too far in the direction of individual liberty at the expense of being aware of and concerned about the common good. According to their own website, they strive to “preserve and advance … individual liberties.” They “reject tyrannical authority.” They explain that “Satan is an icon … the heretic who … rejects all tyrannical impositions.”

That sounds nice, but who is to say whether a given authority is tyrannical or wise? Do you get to decide that for yourself?

We have, in this nation at present, a small but obstreperous “sovereign citizen” movement — a bunch of camo-wearing, gun-toting idiots who claim the right to ignore laws that they find personally inconvenient. Also, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos certainly enjoy individual liberty, and it would be hard to build a case that what they’re doing is good and should be supported. An important purpose of government is to rein in those whose individual liberties trample on the faces and bodies of others.

Governments are always imperfect, and the one we have at present is a good deal worse than that. Nonetheless, government is essential. Government is how we attempt (haltingly and ineptly) to work for the common good. Your taxes keep the street lights lit and the doors of the public library open, among dozens of other worthwhile social functions. And it’s an essential element of taxation that you don’t get to choose whether to pay your taxes. We all give up some personal freedom in order to advance the common good.

If you don’t like what’s going on, run for Congress. If you win the election, you’ll soon find out how little you can change. As Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst type of government ever devised — except for all of the others.”

The Satanic Temple is active in supporting social causes that I believe in, but their real vision is, transparently, about opposing the dominance of Christianity. I support that opposition, but it’s essentially negative. The same criticism applies to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is a much older and larger organization. I support what they’re doing, but it’s essentially negative. It exists in opposition to a social evil, but without proposing a social good that might replace the evil.

Secular values are very nice, but they lack a compelling appeal to the emotions. Secular values fail to martial the power of the unconscious mind. What we need are temples to Demeter.

Demeter was primarily the goddess of the harvest, but her mythology is larger than that. The essential point about Demeter as a philosophical idea is that we’re all part of the spontaneous ongoing flowering of life on this planet. Preserving and nurturing the works of Demeter is both a way of honoring the life of the individual — the individual tree, squirrel, snake, human, whatever — as it grows in its own natural manner, and also a way of working toward the common good.

As a symbol, Demeter doesn’t have the in-your-face baggage of Satan. Not only are we all children of Demeter, but Demeter is all we have. She is all we will ever have. Yet the worship of Demeter is free, for the time being at least, of the dogma that afflicts Christianity and other religions.

In some respects the worship of Demeter would be similar to the neo-pagan movement, but neo-paganism flirts with childish ideas about spiritualism and the occult. Also, its use of the terminology of witchcraft is, again, essentially negative. Calling what you’re doing witchcraft is a way of jabbing your thumb in the eye of Christianity — and as well deserved as that jabbing undoubtedly is, defining your movement by its opposition to something else is not a smart strategy. It doesn’t give you a vision of how to move forward.

I’m not an organizer or a standard bearer. I’m too old, and I don’t have the right social skills. So I’m just spitballing here, but I’m entirely serious. Demeter. If you want to start something, I’ll happily edit your press releases and web copy.

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The Politics of Naughty

Recently I read an article about how some museums and galleries are removing from their walls the work of R. Crumb. Crumb got started in the Sixties, and by today’s standards — or by any standard — some of his work is frankly disturbing. Among his other sins, apparently some of his cartoons depicted incest with children.

This is a ticklish subject. On the one hand, no museum or gallery should be required to exhibit work that the administrators of that institution find objectionable. But on the other hand, it’s absolutely vital that artists be free to transgress the norms of their society!

I fully support the right to transgress. I don’t want to live in a world where the only allowed forms of art are those that nice people feel are acceptable. Artists must always be free to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Sometimes it’s necessary to use shocking images or ideas to do that.

It’s also the case that each artist must be free to express their own truth in their own terms, using whatever techniques they feel are most useful. An artist who self-censors in order to gain social approval (or financial backing, which is a form of social approval) is not an artist at all.

But while supporting the right to transgress, I also have to support the right to ostracize. In some online gaming groups (or so I’ve heard — I don’t belong to any of these groups), teenage boys sometimes find it amusing to post messages demeaning women or homosexuals. This is a transgression, and we don’t need to tolerate it. The administrators of such groups must be free to expel the offenders.

Now let’s talk about Todd Eklof and The Gadfly Papers. This book has stirred up quite a kettle of trouble in Unitarian Universalism. I’ve been a member of my local UU congregation for the past five years, so I’ve followed this controversy with some interest. I happen to think Reverend Eklof makes some very good points in his book. Others disagree. (Full disclosure: I edited his second book, The Gadfly Affair, in which he lays out the events surrounding the publication of the first book and what followed.)

There was a concerted effort on the part of hundreds of Eklof’s fellow UU ministers to discredit the book. This is a form of ostracism, and I have to support their right to do exactly that. That said, the shabby and sordid nature of their attack is clearly displayed by three facts. First, many of those who attacked the book within days of its publication had not even read it. Second, while attacking it, they explicitly refused to say why they were attacking it. They did not feel it was necessary engage in a debate over the ideas in the book. Since Unitarian Universalism is (or was at one time) a religion that treasured open-mindedness, this refusal is, at the very least, a flat repudiation of UU values. Third, at the time when the ministers attacked their fellow minister’s book, the UU ministers’ association (the UUMA) had in place a policy (since rescinded, or so I’ve read) requiring the members to exhibit collegiality by, among other things, not attacking their fellow ministers.

There is also a UU principle that assures ministers of “freedom of the pulpit.” But I don’t want to go too far down that rabbit hole, so let’s move on.

Subsequently, the UUMA booted Eklof out. The reasons they gave for doing so were hypocritical, flatly disingenuous, and really laughable; if you want to know the details, read The Gadfly Affair. There was also an underhanded attempt to get his congregation to fire him; happily, the congregation supported him, so he continues, at least at this writing, to have a pulpit and a job.

I’m disgusted by the antics of the national UU organization. However, intellectual honesty compels me to acknowledge that the ideas that govern any religious organization are entirely arbitrary. Religions are not required to be logically consistent or intellectually honest; indeed, that would be impossible for any religion, since no religion has, or could conceivably have, any underpinning of facts on which to build a coherent doctrine.

That being the case, any religious organization, no matter how welcoming or inclusive it claims to be, can freely ostracize anybody that the people in charge feel ought to be ostracized. They are absolutely within their rights to do so. The only question any of us can legitimately ask is, “Do I want to be a member of this religion?”

That ought to be a simple question, but sometimes it’s not. If you’re currently a member, would like to remain a member, and don’t like what the people in charge are doing, you are of course free to agitate for changes within the organization. But that’s not likely to be easy. It’s not easy if you’re a Catholic, nor, these days, is it easy if you’re a Unitarian. One would like to imagine that the Unitarian hierarchy would be more open to rational debate than the Catholic hierarchy — but if one were to imagine that, one would be wrong.

It has been suggested that the higher-ups in UUism have re-introduced the idea of original sin. Among other things, if you’re white and a cisgendered heterosexual male, you’re presumed guilty. Your only proper course of conduct is to admit you’re a sinner and beg forgiveness. I’m not exaggerating, folks; I’m just describing the situation in unvarnished terms.

Todd Eklof was agitating for change within Unitarian Universalism. The fact that he was attacked for doing so proves only that some UU ministers are as blinkered and dogmatic as some Catholic bishops. But hey, we humans are all very imperfect, and there’s no reason to expect that we wouldn’t be. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, welcome to the monkey house.

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Music and Senescence

There are two ways to make music. First, you can physically play an instrument. (For simplicity we’ll lump your throat and mouth in with the other instruments.) Instead, you can record it, most likely using a computer. What you’re recording may be a physical performance on an instrument, or it may never have been physically performed.

I do a fair amount of computer-based recording. I also play the piano and the cello. Each activity has some real attractions, and also some limitations. As I get older, the limitations become more glaring.

I’ve become very frustrated by my cello playing. Quite often it just doesn’t sound the way I want it to. And this is only partly because I’m an amateur player with professional tastes. More important, it’s because I’m 73 years old.

One of the things that happens when you get old is, your hands lose tensile strength, that’s the first problem. The little finger of my left hand, a finger that is extremely useful, doesn’t always press down hard enough on the string, or it arrives on the string a little late because the muscles are slow to respond to nerve impulses. When this happens, the beginning of the note will be either scratchy or flat in pitch. As the pad of the fingertip sinks more firmly onto the string, the tone will firm up and the pitch will rise.

The second problem is coordination: Sometimes the messages from your brain get tangled up on the way to the muscles, so that the muscle doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. Playing any instrument is a matter of millimeters. If your finger is a couple of millimeters off kilter, bad things can happen to the sound. When the music calls for a quick move from one string to another, your finger may brush the wrong string. Or your bow arm may rise or drop to the new string a little late. Ugly noises ensue.

The third problem is, sometimes the brain gets a little mixed up. I find that occasionally I just skip a note, for instance. This is not a brain-to-muscle communication issue, it’s a mistake that is happening within the brain. The pattern of notes is not being cued up properly.

I hope I still have a few years ahead of me before I have to give it up. I’d like to have five years, but there are no guarantees. It might be five months, or five weeks, or five days.

Augmenting my frustration is the fact that computer recording doesn’t suffer from this sort of problem. I don’t record my cello or piano. (Recording the cello is possible, but playing the cello in a small home studio while wearing headphones is about as much fun as changing a flat tire.) I record synthesizers using MIDI.

This is a wonderful technology, and one of the things that’s wonderful is that what you record is perfectible. Notes can be lengthened or shortened after the fact. Their pitch and tone color can be changed with great freedom.They can be made louder or softer. And any changes that you make stay put! When I’m playing the piano, a phrase that I’ve played perfectly a hundred times can unexpectedly fall apart. This happens mostly when my concentration wavers — and when you get old, your concentration is more likely to waver. Also, I’m pretty sure there’s less margin for error. A small lapse in concentration can have larger consequences, because the network of neural connections that are assembling the music before sending it out to your fingers is thinner than it was 20 years ago.

Imagine if your computerized MIDI recording of a phrase reverted, suddenly and spontaneously, to an unedited version that you fixed weeks ago. That never happens. It can’t happen. Well, not unless your hard drive crashes and you stupidly didn’t make backup copies of your files. It’s preventable. But because playing a physical instrument is a real-time activity, the potential for a train wreck is never far away. No amount of practice will guarantee that a given run-through of a piece will be error free.

Why not just stick with computer music, then? Well, that idea falls prey a whole other set of age-related phenomena. Using the mouse to edit MIDI tracks or make tiny adjustments in on-screren knobs is a physical activity. If I do it for a couple of hours, and that would be absolutely routine — an ordinary session of creative work — my hands and wrists are not happy. I’m ambi-moustrous; I can mouse with either hand, and I switch off from time to time. But neither hand can be relied on never to lurch into the zone of pain due to over-use.

And my hearing? The highs are gone. This is not a problem, so far, with the cello or the piano, because the tone of the instrument is whatever it is. With computer recording, you have to be able to hear how the various instrument sounds mesh together. Maybe I’ll get another five years’ use out of my ears. Maybe.

I figured I’d write all this down and put it out there because I don’t remember anybody explaining it all to me when I was young. When you’re young, old age is something that happens to other people. You may try to help them when you can, or they may not say anything to you because they don’t want your pity. Or maybe they’re trying to convince themselves that they’re fine, that it’s all really just the way it has always been. For whatever reason, it’s not quite real to you when you’re young. When it’s happening to you, the details come into sharp focus.

I have a friend who played drums professionally for many years. He can’t play at all anymore because his spine gave out. I can still play, pretty much, but it’s becoming clear that no amount of daily practice can turn back the clock.

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Swim with the Minnows

One of the nice ways to shape your Facebook feed is to click on an occasional ad. You will then be swarmed by ads for similar products and services. Once in a while I poke at an ad for a writers’ service of some sort, and here we are. The ad below popped up today. It’s sad, really, but before I go into its failings, here’s the text, presented as a screen-grab so you can be assured I’m not changing a word:

First of all, “publishable” has at least two quite distinct meanings. Any sort of drivel is publishable, okay? All you have to do is generate a few files, toss the mess up onto Amazon, and bang, it’s published! But if “publishable” means “can be marketed to a mainstream publisher who will pay you an advance,” we have to ask whether Mr. Gorlov is going to be able to help you with that. I see no indication that he is.

His first two bullet points are about outside and internal pressures that may sap your ability to sit down and actually write. These are certainly issues that afflict a lot of aspiring writers, and successful ones too. Quite possibly Gorlov or his coaching group have some solid ideas about how you can work through these issues and get on with the writing. But these issues have nothing whatever to do with your ability to write “entertaining, publishable … books.” Zip. Zilch. Nada. You can set aside plenty of time to write, develop great self-confidence, and still be writing utter drivel. People do that all the time.

His third point addresses, in a vague and tentative way, the question of how to write well. Let’s be clear: If you want your fiction to be publishable in any forum more exacting than the self-publishing maëlstrom, you’ll need to write well.

What solution does he propose?

To start with, he addresses your emotions rather than your skill set. “[M]ost newer writers feel the same way.” I suppose that’s comforting, but knowing that you’re not alone is not, in and of itself, going to improve the quality of your writing.

The concrete solution he proposes is networking with other aspiring writers. And that’s where his advertisement runs off the rails. If you would like to write well, I would earnestly suggest that you not waste any time “meet[ing] other writers supporting each other and traveling the same path.” No. Don’t do it.

What you need to do, if you want to write an entertaining, publishable first (or second, or third) book, is to learn the craft of writing fiction. There are some wonderful books out there that will teach you what you need to know. In fact, I have a list of some of my favorites. Buy a few of these books, and others like them. Read them. Underline or highlight passages that speak to you. Scribble in the margins. Practice the skills. Read the top fiction in your chosen genre — and in other genres too. Read fiction not for entertainment but critically.

Learn about conflict and tension. Learn about world-building and scene-setting. Learn about characterization. Learn about dialog and pacing. Learn how to handle flashbacks.

And while you’re at it, learn to self-edit. In my experience, most aspiring writers have great difficulty spotting the weaknesses in their own work. (That’s surely true of me too, though I cherish the hope that my weaknesses are more subtle than some I’ve seen.) Aspiring writers tend to be stubborn about clinging to their blind spots. They think their turgid flailings shine with genius. ‘Tain’t so, McGee.

If you read a few good tutorial books on writing and then try a coaching group, I predict that you’ll soon find yourself thinking, “Why am I hanging out with these people?” And if you join the group without reading any of the books and expect that the group will help you, you’re beyond help. If you’re not willing to sit down and patiently learn the skills, just give up now. Take up knitting or table tennis instead.

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Presentation & Substance

At what point does the presentation of a piece of music — its staging — become an essential part of the music’s significance? To look at it another way, at what point does the staging become a distraction?

This is not a simple question. Some types of artistic expression, for instance ballet, require music, and yet the music is only a small part of the whole. Without costumes, sets, lighting, and dance, Swan Lake would still be a wonderful piece of music, but it would be only a pale reflection of what Tchaikovsky must have envisioned.

The same could be said of a lot of modern pop music concerts, I’m sure. Fans don’t actually go to the concerts in order to hear the music; they could hear the music just as well or better on their home stereo system. No, they go to see the lights, the dancing, and the costumes, and to share in some sort of participation mystique with the headliner and their fellow fans.

I never had any stage charisma to speak of, and if I did it’s long gone. I’ve been thinking lately about working up a set of music to play locally, using my new electric cello and some backing tracks that I’ve recorded. I’m having to remind myself that it isn’t strictly about the music. People will be looking at me, and from a distance of only a few yards, not in a gigantic arena. I need to practice my facial expressions. I need to remember to look as if I’m enjoying the activity and engaged emotionally with the music. If I’m grimacing, people won’t enjoy it nearly as much.

I may wear a hat too. We’ll see.

On the other side of the coin, lately I’ve been getting more interested in Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This set of 30 pieces, which you may never even have heard of, is one of the towering achievements of European classical music. Written for harpsichord, it’s most often played on the piano. For some years, even while learning other pieces by Bach (I’m strictly an amateur pianist, not gonna be gigging), I avoided the Goldbergs, because I felt such a repetitive structure would surely be boring. I was way wrong! Only an absolute genius could have found such a variety of possibilities in the simple tune.

Would a performance of the Goldberg Variations be enhanced in any way by staging? What if the harpsichordist wore jodhpurs or an Egyptian headdress? Maybe blue lights for the minor-key variations?

No, I don’t think that would help. It seems clear to me that any sort of performance staging would detract horribly from the music. Not just the Goldberg Variations but any other serious concert music stands on its own and is probably best presented in a sober manner; it shouldn’t be cluttered up with irrelevancies.

This question came up when I offered a few comments about some concert photos that someone posted on Facebook. Here we see a woman (I don’t know her name — sorry) performing the Elgar cello concerto, one of the staples of the repertoire:

The question is, does that rather remarkable gown add anything to Elgar’s music? Or does it cheapen the performance? Quite possibly, modern concert audiences are so jaded or clueless that they would get bored unless the soloist does something special in the way of costuming. On the other hand, those who are knowledgeable musically and have bought tickets in order to hear the Elgar might very well find the presence of the gown distracting.

Lest I appear to be a hopeless fuddy-duddy, I’m going to admit that Barbara Hannigan’s performance of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre is my all-time favorite classical music video. Possibly my judgment is warped by the way she rocks that outfit — but beyond that, her singing is stunningly good, and it’s not clear to me that a nice sober performance of that piece would connect for many concert-goers. The music is so very abstract and difficult that Hannigan’s shenanigans serve to bring it into sharp focus. Even the bit with the chewing gum.

I don’t think there are any hard and fast answers about staging. Your opinion might not be the same as mine. But I do think it’s a topic that musicians need to ponder.

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Light Reading

Bingeing on reading mysteries. Not quite ready yet to think seriously about starting to write a new book of my own, and even if I were thinking about it I wouldn’t be spilling the details here. So I’m filling time. Maybe priming the pump. Maybe.

Spoiler alert: I will be mentioning plot details about mysteries.

I’ve complained before in this space about P. D. James. She writes beautifully, and the plot of A Taste for Death is pretty good, though I’m still not sure why Berowne went back to the vestry a second time, the business of the new will is a rabbit pulled out of a hat, and the motive for Diane’s death was super-flabby. To get that far, I had to skim past great wodges of irrelevant stuff. James is fascinated by architecture. The word “balustrade” is flung at the reader more than twice, and there are whole pages of lovingly detailed room description, none of which advances the story by a millimeter.

Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl is pretty good. Hiaasen has a wry sense of humor and a sharp eye for contemporary American culture. I could never write like that, but it’s fine entertainment. Sometimes his bad guys reform (this happens to Buck in Razor Girl), but more often they meet terrible ends. Within Hiaasen’s framework of absurdity, the terrible ends are always fun, and they do make sense. No more need be said about that.

Jonathan Kellerman I gave up on a number of years ago. He wrote a novel (I forget which one) in which he displayed a huge moral blind spot with respect to some extra-judicial murders by the Israeli Secret Police. I found that offensive.

But this week I wanted something to read, and my local library lends ebooks, so I can borrow books and read them on my iPad without venturing out of the house — a perfect pandemic pastime. Not knowing offhand what other author to search for, I thought I’d give Kellerman a fresh try.

He writes well. Police procedural whodunits, much tighter writing than Michael Connelly. Characters shallow but entertaining. The trouble is, his murder plots are whiffy. The endings make no sense!

The Museum of Desire opens with a brutal crime scene in which four murder victims have been arranged in a sort of tableau in a limousine. After a lot of back-and-forth, it is discovered that the tableau mirrors an obscure 16th-century Italian painting. (I have no idea whether the painting is genuine or whether he made it up.) Turns out the killers have some connection with paintings pilfered by the Nazis. That was 75 years ago, but Kellerman is still milking the Nazis as villains. Anyway, the killers charitably commit suicide before they can be questioned. As a result, the question of why they should have gone to such elaborate trouble to stage the gruesome limousine tableau is never explained. It was a revenge killing, but surely they could have gotten revenge on the important guy much more safely without involving the other three victims, who were innocent of any wrongdoing or indeed any connection with the killers, in order to make an artistic reference that nobody, least of all the police, was ever going to notice. Also, the guy that they were getting the revenge on — the killers are a married couple, and what pissed the woman off was something to do with the guy’s sexual habits. Why her husband should have cooperated in helping kill the guy when the guy’s transgression had to do with fucking the wife, we will never know, because they committed suicide before they could be asked.

Kellerman plainly hopes you won’t notice any of that. The killers have been identified — and conveniently, there is no messy trial to go through. (The messy trials are, by the way, what makes Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer books so good.)

Today I checked out Kellerman’s The Wedding Guest. In the opening, a high-budget wedding reception comes crashing to a halt when one of the bride’s-maids finds a dead woman in a restroom stall. It’s a shocking opening; Kellerman does shocking openings very nicely. The woman has evidently crashed the reception. Nobody in either the bride’s or the groom’s family has a clue who she is. Following a trail of breadcrumb clues, Kellerman’s sleuths Milo and Alex are led to a large student dormitory, where a maintenance man has just OD’d in the basement. Perusing the wedding photos, they find one photo that includes both the dead woman and the maintenance man. The plot thickens!

When they finally figure out who owns the student housing, they bust into a Hollywood penthouse barely in time to save the life of the psycho killer spoiled rich guy’s next victim. And of course the killer falls over a balcony railing and plummets 24 floors to his death. Again, there’s no messy trial to be trudged through. The difficulty, which again is likely to escape many of Kellerman’s readers, is that we are never given a word of explanation about why the guy chose to kill the woman in a restroom stall at a wedding reception. We don’t even know why the woman was there! The maintenance man was in the photo, but he wasn’t the killer. There’s no explanation of what he was doing at the reception, and we’re never told about any photos of the actual killer appearing at the reception. In fact, we’re told that he was invited to the reception but turned down the invitation. Doing a murder there would have been so risky that even an intelligent and arrogant psychopath would certainly have hesitated. And the dead woman’s old connection to the location of the reception (a venue that was rented for the occasion) meant, in the end, absolutely nothing. It was a coincidence.

In sum, Kellerman is just a sloppy writer. He has, I’m sure, a huge fan base and a happy publisher. Neither the publisher nor his agent is going to pull him aside and say, “Jon, we need to talk.”

Don’t be like Jon. If you’re going to write a novel, please — make sure your plot actually makes sense, and that you trouble to explain it to your readers.

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The Moonstone & Sixpence

I don’t remember when I acquired my paperback copy of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. Internal evidence (the copyright notice on the reprint) suggests it was probably in the mid-1980s. If I read it at the time, I have only the most tenuous memory of having done so; I may have read the opening chapters and then dropped it. But having bluntly dismissed, in this blog, recently, the work of several modern authors of mysteries, I figured I ought to give Collins a fresh try.

Considered strictly as a mystery, The Moonstone is rather silly. The plot includes a trio of lurking “Hindoos” (the book was published in 1868), a heartbroken servant girl who hides a vital clue and then commits suicide, and — spoiler alert! — opium. Really there are only two viable suspects who might have absconded with the extraordinary diamond known as the Moonstone, and the book is structured in such a way that we know one of them is innocent. Still, there’s a good deal of suspense, because we don’t know what actually happened, or how Rachel could have come so bitterly and obstinately to blame Franklin for the theft of the jewel, when Franklin himself knows he had nothing to do with it. I won’t spoil that by explaining it to you.

What I found engaging about the book was not the plot but the writing. Collins was a friend of Dickens, and that sprawling 19th century style is in full flower. Beyond that, Collins gives us several first-person narrators, each of whom is privy to some of the events but not others. The first two fifths of the book are in the voice of Gabriel Betteredge, the head servant on the Yorkshire estate of Lady Verinder. Betteredge is a delightful old coot, very proper and yet emotionally engaged with his household and employer. He finds unfailing wisdom in his well-thumbed copy of Robinson Crusoe. When his portion of the narrative draws to a close, the story is taken over, for a few chapters, by Miss Drusilla Clack, a spinster who considers herself an exemplary Christian and is fond of distributing religious pamphlets full of advice, even when (as is inevitably the case) the recipient of the pamphlets shows no interest. Miss Clack is not a complex character, but she’s hilarious in a creepy way.

Both Betteredge and Clack exercise the leisure to share their opinions with us — opinions not about the crime itself but about life in general. They’re vivid characters, and that’s what makes the book worth reading. Toward the end of the story we’re introduced to, and have a few chapters from, Ezra Jennings, a tragic and doomed man who succeeds in penetrating the mystery that has baffled Sergeant Cuff, a legendary Scotland Yard detective. Here again, Collins is reaching well beyond the confines of his mystery plot. His concerns are larger.

If I write another mystery (not guaranteed), I think I’d prefer to follow Collins’s model rather than hew to the narrower strictures of the modern crime novel. Not that there’s anything wrong with the modern crime novel. In the right hands it can be a marvelous thing. I’m a big fan of Ross MacDonald, Rex Stout, Tony Hillerman, and a number of other writers. But the modern mystery is such a well-trodden field! I can’t help feeling it would be better to try something different — something more generous in its prose, its structure, and its details of character.

And why not? It’s not as if I have a huge fan base who are eager to snap up my next fast-paced, hard-hitting thriller. Whatever I write, I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends.

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Today’s Little Conundrum

On Facebook (yeah, I spend too much time on Facebook; you got a problem with that?) a friend posted a slogan from Occupy World. The slogan says, “Inclusion means making ALL people feel empowered and welcome.” (The caps are in the original.) This slogan, according to the accompanying text, is in support of gender diversity.

Now, gender diversity and racial diversity are lovely things, and I support them wholeheartedly. But the use of the word “all” makes me a bit nervous. Here’s the squeaky bit:

Does “all people” include men carrying assault rifles? Does it include those who refuse to be vaccinated? Does it include people who would like to distribute racist pamphlets? Does it include pedophiles?

You may think I’m exaggerating or engaged in a straw man argument, but I’m quite serious. At the point where “all people” starts to mean, “all people who agree with you and me about certain basic things,” it’s not inclusion anymore. It’s just sloganeering.

I’m perfectly willing to embrace what we might call selective inclusion — accepting and embracing all races and all varieties of gender identification and gender expression, while slamming the door on racists and white nationalist terrorists. But that turns out to be an awkward position philosophically, because if I assert the right to discriminate based on what I perceive as these basic moral issues (and I do), then how shall I tell an evangelical Christian that he is wrong to discriminate against homosexuals based on what he perceives as a basic moral issue?

The broad-brush embrace of inclusion is not quite as simple as we might prefer to imagine.

I’ve seen this kind of muddled thinking at work in Unitarian-Universalism, a once-liberal sect to which I still, at least nominally and for the time being, belong. UUs are very big on inclusion — on being a welcoming congregation. I certainly approve!

And yet, over the past couple of years there has been a concerted attempt, by a number of highly placed people in the national UU organization, to sabotage the career of a UU minister named Todd Eklof. Why have a bunch of UU thugs, including hundreds of Todd’s fellow ministers, ganged up on him? Because he had the audacity to publish a book that contained ideas they didn’t like. They didn’t bother to dispute the ideas in a public debate; no, that would have required actual logical thought. Many of them didn’t even bother to read the book before condemning it, if you can believe that. Instead they have engaged in a campaign of character assassination and tried to destroy Todd’s career.

How can these people consider themselves participants in a “welcoming” faith when they do not welcome intellectual diversity? When they insist on lock-step ideology?

The question is not whether Todd’s views are right or wrong. I happen to think he’s right, but perhaps I’m mistaken. The question is whether UUism welcomes a free and open debate about important ideas, or whether the people who are running the denomination feel that certain ideas are not to be expressed and the people who dare to express them are to be shunned. Thus far, the evidence points strongly away from any interest by the national organization in actual diversity of thought.

You can’t be a welcoming congregation if you don’t embrace intellectual diversity. Sadly, the minister of my own congregation is one of the signatories of the odious Open Letter that condemns Rev. Eklof’s book. Since I’m not in charge of the local congregation, there’s nothing I can do to get rid of this flaming pulpit hypocrite. But I do think the question of inclusivity needs some serious examination. Is “welcoming congregation” just an empty slogan? Is it just a cloak that we wrap ourselves in when it’s convenient and we want to feel morally superior?

If you follow the logic of this through to where it leads, you’ll soon discover that there are no objective criteria at all by which one might structure a morality. The moral choices — what we embrace and what we abhor — are all socially constructed and subjective. That being the case, the real problem is not that the UU higher-ups feel justified in attacking Todd Eklof. Just about all of us, excepting only a few rare enlightened individuals, spend a fair amount of time attacking people we disagree with. The problem is that the UU leaders are hypocrites. They claim to be inclusive and welcoming, but they’re not.

On that basis, I suppose we ought to admire racists and homophobes. At least they’re honest. I’m not going to try admiring them, but if I were really to practice inclusion I suppose I ought to.

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Just the Facts, Ma’am

Twenty years or so ago, back around the turn of the century, I had a dandy idea for a murder mystery set in ancient Rome. (It’s called While Caesar Sang of Hercules, and it’s now available on Amazon, but that’s not what this post is about.) At the time I was living in Menlo Park, so it was an easy drive up the hill to Stanford to browse in the on-campus bookstore. I acquired quite a good library of academically oriented books about Roman culture. I read great swaths of the books. I underlined salient passages.

I viewed this as an essential part of the creative process. I didn’t want to make dumb mistakes by projecting modern assumptions onto the Romans. I wanted to get it right. I’m sure there are still a few highly debatable bits in the book, but I didn’t want to be slipshod.

There are several ingredients that are part of writing a decent novel. First, you have to tell a good story — a story that engages your readers and keeps them turning the page. That’s really the only thing that’s absolutely essential. With the other bits, you can play fast and loose if so inclined.

You need good characters. This is optional, however, not required. Some best sellers have shallow stock characters. You need to write well, but the standards here are somewhat lax. Lackluster prose will serve if the story is good.

And then it’s nice, as an added bonus, if you get your facts straight. This is, I’m sorry to say, not a requirement at all. I’ve read science fiction novels that clobbered the whole business of interstellar travel, computer science, or genetics, books that bludgeoned the science to death. You can win a Hugo or a Nebula with this sort of book. It’s been done.

But I don’t know how to do that. The idea of riding roughshod over the facts because I’m too lazy to do the research makes my skin crawl. And if the facts undercut the story, so much the worse for the story. I won’t cheat. I will occasionally let a loose end slip past me, but I always regret it afterward. And the main structure has to be solid.

This is why I may never write another novel. It’s just too darn much work. I have an idea for a science fiction story set in Los Angeles in 1933. I’ve done some preliminary research. But the amount of available information on LA totally fucking dwarfs the amount available on ancient Rome. There are photographs. There are maps. There are archives scattered in libraries across the Los Angeles landscape. All of which, were I to roll up my sleeves and start working on this story, I would have to dig into.

The technology of 1933 included elevators, typewriters, telephone switchboards bristling with cables, Model T Fords that had to be started by hand-cranking, cameras (had the flashbulb been invented in 1933?), and airplanes. Any of which, if it appears in the story, would have to be fact-checked. Trolley car routes and the amount of money required for carfare. Legal frameworks: Prohibition wasn’t repealed until the very end of 1933, so during the summer there would still have been speakeasies. Offshore gambling ships were a big deal in LA in 1933. J. Edgar Hoover was already a top dog in Washington, D.C., but his agency had not yet been renamed the FBI.

Sure, the research would be fun, up to a point, but it’s really endless. And at the end of the day, readers wouldn’t care. If anything, a lot of readers would be put off by this level of detail.

One of my plot ideas was to have a young African-American man offer to drive my young lady lead character (who is white) to an important rendezvous. Race relations would be a very interesting sub-topic for a book set in 1933, and I rather like this bit. It occurred to me that the young man might be injured, so she would have to drive his Model T, perhaps to take him to a doctor or to scout around on her own in places where a streetcar wouldn’t take her. But, nope. She would not have known how to start a Model T, much less shift gears. Driving a car was nowhere near as simple a matter as modern readers (and writers) would imagine. If you want to learn about the Model T, head on over to YouTube. That’s where I picked up these bits.

Possibly the complexity of all this will explain why at the moment I’m putting most of my time into composing music. The lovely thing about music is, there’s no logic to it. If you like the sound of a particular chord, use that chord! Nobody can tell you it’s wrong. The more you know about music theory, the more sophisticated options you’ll have, but ultimately the only arbiter of “correctness” is your own taste.

Don’t try to use this justification if you screw up the details about a telephone switchboard or the gearshift on a Model T.

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