Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Bold Prediction

The next few years will not make America great ("again"), not in terms of happiness, prosperity or security anyway.  Not even for white guys.  Don't forget to own this one, you assholes.

It occurred to me last night that we're probably witnessing the end of the post-war era in this country.  As if there've been a continuum of assumptions and influences that have held sway for the last 30 years and more, that's now letting go and slipping away.  Change has been hovering grimly all over 2016, where each celebrity death has felt like the passing of the times.  We are hitting ecological turning points.  1945 is escaping living memory, and there aren't going to be too many more baby boomers young enough to throw out as candidates after the new administration has had its turn.   I'm not delighted that their saving throw is likely to overshadow a generation (my generation, as per fucking usual), and I fear it's going to be a tough stretch for many of us.

On the other hand, it's been my observation that the millennials have better-developed consciences than we do, and the younger people seem better still.  They may have the wherewithal to make a better world for themselves.   And they've been getting screwed their entire sentient lives, which has to count something for the motivation.  Wherever they take it from here, with whatever resources are still left, it looks like it'll be somewhere different.

My hope, honestly, is that our new president delivers what he has always claimed to be selling: outsider status.  He doesn't appear to have a deep understanding of how politics, economics, or the natural world work, and clearly has no use for conservative intellectualism, surrounding himself with something other than the usual undead army of advisors.  Maybe he won't be imaginative enough, and maybe he's not even cruel enough, to really gear the system to grinding people down.  Maybe he'll content himself to governing only as far as he can see.  The status is all that really matters, right?  Here's hoping for the least-worst.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

A Candidate I Could Have a Beer With, Part IV

To tell the truth, I hadn't really drank in almost eight years. It's true that I felt a little better without all the booze, and I lost a little bit of weight, but the real reason I stopped (and I have never told Jane this) is that after my father-in-law died, I didn't have nearly as much cause to. (I don't know if the old prick had a heart attack at the idea of a black man as president, but it seems possible to me, given the timing. I remember thinking he'd die on the spot if I told him that I actually once met the dude, but I never got the chance.) But overall, things have felt better since then. I'm older than I was, obviously, but not enough to really start feeling it yet. There's a lot of work for a geologist with all the new gas wells everywhere, and if my job remains pretty thankless (and depressing when I think about it), it's still meant more regular hours, better pay, even a better place to live.

Better restaurants too.  But, yeah, Jesus.

It was a couple Saturdays ago, on family night. Jane wanted to try a new place, a real barbecue joint like the people are always going on about on her tv shows.  I guess they're popping up even out here these days. We went there, and they had sawdust on the floor, long wooden tables, and served the food to you on big sheets of paper. It all seemed a little fake to me, or maybe just out of place.  It was too clean in the corners or something, and nothing was worn or busted (and of course it was too expensive to pretend to think of as a dive) but I can't deny the food was delicious. It was as if it was trying to be down-home, but also the kind of place the suits could come in to for a meeting.  And hey, for all I know, that's how they actually do it down south.

The guy who walked in behind us was wearing a suit.   But he didn't wear it like an office guy would, like it was part of the job. Instead, this guy was beaming in it, hands in his pockets, shoulders back, paunch on display.  (Brother, this is why I slouch.)  I think he was proud that he got to wear a suit, like a kid wearing something too big for him. First impressions, right? We all got in line, and he stood really close behind me. I'm not necessarily a hands-off guy, but like most people, I do like a little personal space.

"Howdy, y'all," he said.  Yeah, Texas, I'm pretty sure, even if he didn't seem like the howdy-ing version.  More like the college-Texas accent I come across in the industry sometimes.  Maybe he stopped at this place because he thought it would make him feel at home.

"Nice family you got," he went on, leaning his head toward Jane and Simon. "I can't tell you how good it makes me feel to see real American families doing well in these trying economic times."

He spoke these words slowly, drawing out 'real American families' to the point of discomfort, and grinned a little closed-mouth grin when he was done. I started to ask where he was from, but the line moved forward just then, and there was an awkward moment as my wife and son moved up a step while I stood still. This guy bumped up even closer to me, now physically touching, and the grin didn't change. I moved forward too, determined to ignore him from here on out, but he kept tailing us.

And by the way, I am never eating at one of these places with group seating again.  People piled up along these tables and were almost forced to talk to people they didn't come in with.  I've met interesting strangers in my day, but I don't want to get stuck in a seat I can't move from if the conversation starts getting weird, like this one did.  I was just about to shove my face into my brisket (or whatever it was Jane picked out for me), and this guy plops his suited ass across from us, and now he's all "Excuse me," in a loud and haughty way, like he's really affronted about something. 


"Excuse me, please!" 

Maybe it's something about the drawl (and to be fair, he had already rubbed me the wrong way), but I could hear both a whine and a threat in his voice.  A couple other people had looked at him the first time, but now the whole restaurant was staring our way.  (Everyone except Simon, who had his head buried in a game.  Why did we ever get him that thing?)  The bench felt hard and narrow all of a sudden.

He pulled his lips back into that smile again, with his teeth just barely showing.  "I think it would be appropriate to thank the Lord for such a fine meal, don't you?"  He spread his arms out, "don't you?"

I think he meant everyone, but he was looking at me.  "I ...guess?"

"Smart people never guess.  Let's begin."  He pulled his hands together and bowed his head with great solemnity, but ruined the effect a little by opening up his eyes at the end and scanning the room with them before starting in.  I was watching more than listening, and that's probably why I was slow to pick up on what happened next.  

"...and Lord, deliver unto this great land a true leader who can steer us away from the false gods of socialism, and protect the unborn from the predations of liberal..."

Oh shit, that's not a good topic to bring up around Jane.  She gripped my leg hard enough to bruise it. 

In the quiet moment between the murmured "amen" and the normal diner sounds resuming, I could hear my wife's teeth grind.  Mr. College-Texas was no longer paying attention though, and was now digging happily into his greens and noisily poking them into his mouth.

"You know," she said coldly, "I had an abortion once.  It saved my life.  And even if it didn't, I am sure I could live with the ...predation."

He looked up, his eyebrows arched and mouth slack.  "Well, you're going to straight to hell then."

I did my best, good husband that I am.  "Hey, who the hell do you think you are?"

"Sir, where did you go to school?"


"I am certain that it was no Princeton.  You are clearly no Einstein, no Madison.  Who am I?  Someone who without doubt has an IQ far higher than yours.  Do you really wish to get into an argument with me?"

I am not normally one to lose my cool, such as it is.  All those years listening to Jane's father and I never raised my voice.  But this guy.  "Bent fuck sad potato you!" I yelled.

"I rest my case.  Enjoy life with your harlot."  He dabbed the corners of his mouth with a napkin, let the grin slither across his face one last time, and got up.  As he turned his back, I got up too.  But Jane grabbed my arm.

"Please don't, Bob.  You're not that kind of person."

"I'm not following him, Hon," I said, rapidly deflating.   "I think I'd really like a beer though" 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Review: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I devoured Ready Player One in just a couple sittings, which is a rare thing for me these days.  It certainly went down in a delightful way, but now, a few weeks later, I'm not so sure if that was really because it's a fundamentally delightful novel, or because I am the laser-targeted audience of it.  It does have tons of positive energy--it's probably going to make a fun movie--but I'm aware that even a grouch like me has few defenses against such a focused ray of nostalgia. 

The story is set thirty years in the future, in a joyless, overpopulated world that we don't, thankfully, see much of.  With cheap energy on the way out, populations have been retracting toward what jobs or assistance are left, and middle America has put its own special flair on the ungoverned shantytown, which by the 2040s are basically trailer parks piled up on top of one another.  It's here, nestled behind his aunt's clothes dryer, that we first find Wade Watts, navigating high school, and chasing whatever available escapes from his shit existence.

Fortunately for Wade (not to mention the rest of humanity), online resources have developed quite a bit by these days.  There exists a shared virtual OASIS, which is basically a shared, free-form, customizable online environment, with vast servers and a really spiffy virtual interface, that has grabbed up the entire population.  Everybody uses it.  Like Facebook, it was the right technology at exactly the right time, and it made its developers fabulously rich.  People meet, game, watch TV, go to school, and have business meetings in OASIS, because let's face it, it helps to go somewhere.  In the book universe, the originally developers of the technology were children in the 1980s (just like me!), and the imprint of these old men's dreams is everywhere in the virtuality.  The event that sets the plot in motion is that the company founder, one James Halliday, has died, leaving an elaborate will.  Whoever can find the three Easter eggs he left in his sprawling online galaxy will win his inheritance, and it proves to be more difficult than even obsessive fanboys can work out.  By the time Wade (online handle: Parcival) is lucky enough to figure a piece out, most of the world has long since given up the hunt, but now an egg has been found, and the chase is on. 

The "egg hunt" draws heavily on the 1980s cultural influences that led Halliday to create OASIS in the first place.  It was informed by all the stuff nerds would have liked, before the days when being a nerd was cool.  A hunter culture has grown up that studies and celebrates the culture, and Parcival has (rather conveniently) mastered every potentially relevant facet of 80s dork trivia: from the popular movies, to the bad Japanese tv imports, to prog rock, to Dungeons and Dragons, to the clunky computers, to the arcade games we used to obsess over.  All of these things have some prime niches in the OASIS, and the accelerating race through them is a love-fest to us current fortysomethings.  The first clue, we learn before long, is within a vintage D&D campaign, not found before now because it was hidden in an unlikely place.

It's interesting to me (and it earned Cline a pass for the book's most obvious flaw) that I knew a few savants like Parcival growing up, or at least I knew kids who shared an aspect or two: misfits with freakish game skills, or fan nerds, or kids who could sleuth out computer tidbits, or who obsessed on text-based games.  And maybe I'm a little ashamed about the times I sidled away from these perpetual acquaintances in the vague hopes of finding where the girls were, or what mysteries alcohol might hold for me.  [I am ashamed, to be clear.  And I am sure I would have liked the girls from those original circles better, too.]  In any case, the characters did not seem completely artificial to me.  It's not quite as spot-on as was, say, the world where Freaks and Geeks was, but that (virtual) rec room where Parcival hung out with his buds only needed the spilled sodas and forbidden thrill of HBO movies to match my experience at that age.

And of course these 80s kids are the ones making popular culture now too, cobbled together from the trash of three decades ago.  I realize that I have no useful vantage point to judge it--I honestly can't tell if there was something really original that was sparking to life in those times, or if it's merely the weird sensation of our turn at adulthood now rolling around.  I mean, I want to believe that it was the off-color, under-the-surface, cult fare--the independent scenes--that ended up resulting in anything worth a damn.  I want to argue that illegitimacy, popular scorn, is what lit the creative fires that are burning today.  But that's bullshit, right?  Or at least bullshit here?  Pretty much everything mentioned above (except the MUDs) was successful, and these quaint beloved movies were friggin' blockbusters.  Reminiscing about our shared love of Star Wars is maybe not so controversial.  But there were new things developing then too, and maybe there's an argument that this was the decade where people (Americans anyway) started to turn more toward a shared multimedia escapism that, in the timeline of Ready Player One, eventually coalesced into a population-wide MMORPG.  

So is this novel an objectively good book, or is it rollicking nostalgia service?  I tried to imagine how I might have reacted to it if had been released in 1990 or so.  I think it could have been: its obvious predecessors were there (Neuromancer gave us cyberspace in 1984, and Snow Crash, which is a lot closer in tone, was only a couple years around the corner), and god knows the pop culture references were still fresh.  It might have been both more fun and more insufferable.  (But as for the planned movie, I'm sure the special effects would have sucked back then.)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Review: Songs of Earth and Power, by Greg Bear

[Songs of Earth and Power is a combined edition of Greg Bear's two novels, The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage, "substantially rewritten" so that they hang together better as a single story.  Recommended by my music instructor.]

Talented musicians, they say, can reach an elevated state of focus, where extraneous thought turns off and the moment is fully attained.  It's as if they become a conduit for the music itself, channeling some pure entity that exists apart from the instrument, apart from the player, the written notes, the composer, or the audience.  Parts click in place, improvisation becomes inspired, and the notes seem to find themselves.  (So I've heard, anyway.)  My man Switters has written about how the debut of The Rite of Spring all but broke polite society a hundred years ago, a piece clearly intended to convey music's connection to this more primitive source.  It's hard for me to imagine that a tightly written score is really the best way to get across that kind of pagan and improvisational sound, and I don't see how it could be played worth a damn without an orchestra full of crack musicians all deep in the zone.  But even a blues riff is light years beyond any notes you could put on a page. 

What is the zone?  Athletes and writers talk about it sometimes too, as do theoreticians.  Is it (in music) the result of extensive practice, where muscle and ear memory team up to satisfy or confound biological expectations of tone and rhythm?  Is it being good enough to express our intuitions about the modes and patterns we've been conditioned to since birth?  Alert enough to make subtle adjustments--right when our inductive brain functions are going full-fire--to connect nuances of tone to similarly subtle emotions?  Or skilled enough that the hands finally respond at the speed of thought?  Is it a non-language conversation between fluent players who are sharing similar ideas?   Are body resources are being siphoned away from cognitive centers (or are brain chemicals being flooded in) to produce a sensation of euphoria?  Maybe!  Or maybe there's a simpler and more appealing explanation.  Maybe it's magic.

Greg Bear couldn't have come up with a better conceit for Songs than this, where music is not just magic, but the Deep Magic, the stuff that worlds themselves are made from.  (Which, to be fair, has often been a song.)  The mystery is introduced in the story when elderly composer Arno Waltiri befriends unassuming youth Michael Perrin at a suburban Los Angeles party.  Michael aspires to be a poet, and Arno forms a bond with the teen over that, and we learn before long that back in the 40s, the old man had gone full Stravinsky on the LA crowd, not just scandalizing them, but literally transporting listeners away to some other plane.  Before he passes away, Waltiri leaves Michael some instructions on how to make the same trip over the hedge by foot, where he finds a small community of lost listeners and other artsy types who inadvertantly got themselves a little too close to the source.  As it turns out, the native fairy folk haven't been governing them especially well.

The first two thirds of The Infinity Concerto read like a certain 1980s-vintage urban fantasy (kind of like these), which shows a contemporary person reacting somewhat realistically to a strange and unexpected  world, not necessarily with high stakes.  Throughout the book, Michael remains fairly calm given his circumstances, and he's even somewhat genre aware.  (I might argue that his reasoned temperament is the only real constant through the story.)  He is not mean-spirited, but he is not gifted with great empathy either (which may seem strange for a poet, but is not for a 16-year-old).  In fact, one of his magic tricks is to bundle up and discard parts of his essential self, and the first thing he sloughs away is guilt, self-recrimination, or anything else that might make him whine.  As his role morphs from confused interloper, to unwitting tool, to full-on Chosen One, we are spared a young man's agonizing about the sacrifices required to save the world.  There are points where I'd expect the kid to offer up a little more understanding for the people he's hurt, but if this story must turn into another Hero's Journey, then it's nice to make the trip with someone who's a little more rational about getting on with it.

The realm of the Sidhe, where Michael ends up, is an interesting place to visit--its vaguely archetypical geography (decaying manor house, border town, wasteland, forest), sudden boundaries, unclear sense of time and distance, spooky inhabitants, and subjective magic combine to give it a sort of half-baked fantasyland feel.  Intentionally so.  The Realm is a world that's a little less real than ours, richer in possibilities because it was not as well glued together by its creators.  It's worked as a home for the Sidhe since they walked out of Earth a couple dozen millennia ago, but the human settlement is one of the cracks that have recently appeared in its winsome fairy-ness, along with (or maybe because of) a rogue half-human mage named Clarkham, who has been busy annoying both worlds for a couple centuries now.  After a long opening stint in town, Michael finally makes it out into the larger Realm, and eventually confronts Clarkham at a broadly telegraphed replica ("all should cry, Beware! Beware!") of Coleridge's Xanadu, where we are reminded that Michael is a poet.  By the time we get to The Serpent Mage, the tired gods have really let the Realm go, and now the Sidhe are emigrating by any possible means, as the whole construct starts to splinter away into the void.  Michael is now faced with how universes are created anyway, and how anyone is going to deal with merging the two of them, if it can be done at all.  Let's hope he knows some crack musicians back on Earth.

I don't have any reason to think that Bear was getting creatively meta with these novels, but the Realm is not a bad metaphor for the books themselves.  They are occasionally lovely or delightfully bizarre, but the story doesn't hold together well enough for its inhabitants to last in it.  It is really inconsistent in focus and scope.  A full two hundred pages are spent in the human and mixed-race refugee camps, and none of those relationships had a convincing impact on the later plot.  Bear's fabulous premise gets diluted to encompass any creative art (hiding a small world in the taste of a fine wine is cute, and while oenology can be inspired to the level of art, I was not convinced that it creates the same elemental thrill as music), and when it's finally about the music again, as it was at points in the second book, I'd kind of forgotten about it.  Here, after long neglect, are a group of players literally rocking worlds as they perform Waltiri's and (why not) Gustav Mahler's lost concertos (didn't they feel anything all the hours they practiced it?).  And there, at the end of things, comes along Mahler himself, along with the likes of Homer, Mozart, and (why not) Hillel--anyone who was anyone in human history--who were totally not long dead, but had been chilling in elfin purgatory, available at just the moment Michael needs a song of power to be improvised on the spot.  As a series of related episodes, these sorts of things are sometimes fun, but I lost faith in anything like a coherent arc, and when the author would go on about the core mythology that bound all the threads together--something about mages and makers of many different races--I didn't find those parts especially compelling.

But here's for putting the creativity back in Creation.  Songs of Earth and Power maybe didn't amount, in itself, to the grand symphony it sensed behind all things, but it had a few nice tunes, and that's fine with me.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

At Gun Points

It's hard to ignore the national argument about guns these days.  Between the president's recent executive efforts, the ravings of lunatic acquaintances on Facebook, and actual conversations with those old friends I am required to accept as sane, it's hard for me to resist formulating some kind of internal statement of principles in response to all the unsolicited opinions.  (I know I coughed up something along these lines a couple years ago; I recall it was one of my more obnoxious posts.)  As I probably mentioned then, I don't have any particular issues with gun ownership, collecting, or sports, and I recognize firearms as occasionally useful tools of land stewardship.  It's not my bag, but hey, if you like the things, then more power to ya.  And as far as hunting goes, I feel similarly about that as I do about smoking in bars, other people's backyard parties, or leaf blowers.  Which is to say, I would greatly prefer the public space to accommodate my activities more than those of some orange-jacketed yahoo who might accidentally put lead in me, but I accept that some kind of compromise is probably appropriate here.

I don't reflexively hate the things, but I've arrived at a few considered points in my internal process that I can't work past, and which I've never seen adequately refuted in the public conversation.  And, well, here they are. 

  • Owning a gun is one thing, but carrying a gun, on the other hand, makes you a dangerous asshole.  You are dangerous because you're carrying a gun.  And you are an asshole because you feel the need to be dangerous in my company.  
  • Any reading of the second amendment that gets around the "well regulated militia" part is incredibly tendentious.  For something held so proudly forth as an unassailable totem of gun rights, it's front-loaded with weasel words.
  • Gun manufacturers (and their lobbyists) don't necessarily have citizens' best interests at heart.  Their goal is to sell guns, which may well be inimical to the well-being of the people, considering you can sell more guns when groups of locals are inspired to point them at one another.  I won't address exporting them into conflict-rich zones (I don't know enough to comment), but let's take the NRA formulations as stated: the bad guys with guns, the world where only outlaws have guns.  They didn't mysteriously appear in their hands of all these scary people.  They bought arms that you, the gun companies, manufactured and sold to them.  Are you seriously using the threat of the people you've already armed to sell even more guns to the rest of us?  Fuck you, the NRA.
  • It's not your imagination: mass shootings in the U.S have gone up in the last 15 years, according to the FBI.  Meanwhile, our murder rate is higher than other developed countries, and guns make up the majority (like 60%) of those homicides.  Guns are reported to increase the risk of suicide, at least among young people.  I'm aware that statistics can be massaged, but these seem as reliable sources as anyone's going to find.  I'm aware that overall, violent crime is down here, as it is in many parts of the world.  But it's not too adventurous a hypothesis to propose that what gun access does is to change the nature of violence.  They're death-enabling.  Would-be murderers are empowered to take dozens of victims along with them.  People down a rough path can have them right there when they're feeling their most desperate.  Maybe this isn't for the best.
  • You're almost never going to get the jump on a prepared armed person.  Any self- or home defense scenario which requires you to grab a hidden pistol from your person, or fish it out of your possessions, you've already lost.  Seriously, playing cat-and-mouse through your sleepy house, standing off a mugger, preemptively intimidating a violent display, it all presumes you've identified the offender and his intentions (not to mention established the safety of everyone in your dangerous path) before he's had a chance to perpetrate his crime.  Good luck with that.  It also presumes your threat identification skills are top-notch, and let's be honest here...

    In order to ever put the odds of these kinds of scenarios in your favor, you have to be constantly prepared.  There are situations where this level of perpetual adrenalized vigilance is warranted, but it is very stressful.  Usually it's limited to people whose job it is (cops, soldiers, gang enforcers), and because it demands abnormally high commitment, they get paid for it. 

    It's true that sectors of normal life can also come under such routine threat as to require hyper-awareness, but when the social contract has broken down to such a degree as that, the equation changes.  There are marginalized enough people in this country, sadly, but promotion of American gun rights has almost always been from a position of social privilege.  I realize that I've been lucky, world-citizen-wise (as have the president, those Facebook loonies, and my friends).  I'm not really at much risk getting wasted in the path of some neighborhood strongman or some aggressively deranged bastard, and I think obsessing about them is kind of chickenshit under the circumstances.  I'm currently much more worried about drunk drivers, cancer, house fires, and botulism--you know, the perfectly rational stuff--none of which can be deterred with firearms.

Undoubtedly, the number one perk of civil society--arguably the definition of civil society--is that walking out the door isn't an invitation for death.  A few legal hurdles don't sound too onerous to reserve guns for those who want them for nonviolent ends.  The people who feel otherwise, I just wish to hell they'd make the honest argument that they feel the tradeoffs are worth it to them.  If the increased risk of horrible violence (for someone) is worth the security/enjoyment/empowerment a gun provides (to you), then demonstrate your steel-eyed toughness and say so.