Gone Fishin’

Please forward all correspondence to SpaceJunk.

I’m wondering if there’s some web-parallel service to a Winter Caretaker, someone who could come by once a month and open the windows, dusting and airing the rooms out in the summer, then battening down the hatches come autumn, while keeping the water running a bit in the winter to make sure the pipes don’t freeze up, and then coming around to make the minor repairs needed in the spring…basically, someone to do the little bits of daily upkeep that prevent a structure from becoming a ruin.

I wonder this because I’m going to be moving on from here.  Pretentiously Eloquent Microfiction is closing up shop, boarding up the windows and putting in a change of address form.

A while back, I speculated on what to do with this site…it began as a novelty, a place to record my returning ability—and willingness—to write, and what was driving me at the time was short bursts of language, Pretentiously Eloquent Microfiction, as I originally defined it on day one.

I had realized that, over time, my work—fiction and non—had moved away from that structure, and was of two minds about what to do:  do I change things around here, reflecting the evolution of what I’m working on now and how I want to share it?  Or do I keep things as-is, a reminder of what’s come before, and a desire to maintain a realistic history, at least as much as you can online.

And I decided, then, to keep on keeping on.  P.E.M. is critically important to me, as much a part of what defines me in this last half-decade of my life as my family and my new career.

But the time has come for me to realize, and acknowledge, that the work begun here, lo many years back, hasn’t just changed in direction:  it’s complete.  As in, over.  Something new is come ‘round, and it just doesn’t fit here anymore.

So, I’m turning out the lights and locking the door behind me.  I may return to these parts at some point in the future—if publishing my fiction on the web ever again becomes something that I feel I need to do, it’ll end up here.  But it’s time for some new scenery.

So update your bookmarks, if you will:  SpaceJunk.

These are my new online digs.  Something shiny, with different places to arrange the furniture and a new view outside the windows.  I’ve migrated some of the least-fiction-related posts from here over there already, just so we have something to build from, and now that I’m getting comfortable there, and feeling somewhat freed from the original strictures that were built here, you may even find me posting there more often there than I have been here of late…though, of course, the Rules of Engagement still hold.

And in case this truly is the last post that will go up here, I want to end it with something that it began with, something important that reminds me—and I hope encourages you to do the same—that intent is everything, and the baggage and previously-existing conditions surrounding a thought, or emotion, or situation, can and must be re-evaluated, so that it becomes meaningful to you, and you’re not just absorbing the meaning that others have given it as your own:

“We’re deathly afraid of that stabbing word ‘pretentious,’ the word that students use to curse each other’s ambition.  It’s a young person’s word, a shortcut-to-thinking word. I’m a big fan of pretension.  It means ‘an aspiration or intention that may or may not reach fulfillment.’  It doesn’t mean failing upward.  It means trying to exceed your grasp.  Which is how things grow.”

– Warren Ellis

 

A Review of A Dance With Dragons

In Which I Discuss The Book I Just Finished Reading, And Make Mention Of (And Not A Little Slander Upon) The Remainder Of The Series To This Point, With Some Ranting…Literary Criticism This Ain’t

I had the idea of writing this up in a nice meta fashion, mimicking the book—my vibe of it, not necessarily the specific style of GRRM’s voice—but then realized I’d have to write some 10k+ words of generally meandering chatter, spending most of my time talking about the crisis that guy who was working the drive-through window at the place I went for lunch suffered through this morning in his parking lot, and other random bullshit, all while occasionally, briefly mentioning in passing that, oh yeah, there’s a review coming, and it’ll be amazing, and then back to inane, unrelated stuff, before ending the review with a sudden, massive, completely absurd shocker like “BTW, if you read past page 643, you’ll get AIDS and die!”

And that wouldn’t be much fun for anyone, me or you.  Which, incidentally, would serve as a perfectly adequate and accurate review, but, you know, fun and lack thereof.  So here’s something that was at least a bit more fun to write, if not hopefully read.

Ultimately, I finished it.  And had moments where I genuinely enjoyed what I was reading.  He’s a good writer, and has created a handful of vivid characters in incredible circumstances, and I genuinely want to read about them and see how their stories end up.

The key there:  a handful.  All great storytellers seem to understand this just fine.  You can have a cast of thousands, but you need a couple of key names above the titles for people to latch on to.  Especially in an epic story where the POV keeps moving around from location to location…that’s jarring enough.  With all sorts of intertwining conspiracies and plotting, and motivations and loyalties switching on a dime…  And if you want to keep your readers invested in what’s going on while moving them around all over the place, it really helps to have a consistent landing spot for them whenever you return them to someplace they haven’t been for a while.

You don’t suddenly, 500+ pages in, drop in a long chapter involving characters that we haven’t even heard mentioned since halfway through the last book, some 5 years and 700+ pages ago, a dozen or so of them with very similar, hard-to-pronounce names, and somewhat bland and overlapping, easily-confused personalities and motives, and try to reveal  a whole bunch of obscure minutiae about a small element in a vaster conspiracy, then abandon those characters and that location and the whole conspiracy for the rest of the damn book, and expect me to care or even fully follow what’s going on, even after reading through it multiple times.

I’ll say it again:  a handful.  It’s worth noting that the book ends with an Appendix that attempts to list out the key characters and their relationships to each other, just for this one book.

It’s 53 pages long.  That’s not a typo.

In the Appendices for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien does something similar, listing out the family trees of each of the major houses involved in his stories…not just those mentioned in the book you’ve just read, by the way, but everyone, from the very first great-great grandfather, long since dead, through all the generations over thousands of years, up to the present day and the living heroes who participate in the events covered in the book you’ve just finished reading, a book that is often cited as the definition of Epic Fantasy.  All those people, across multiple races, and thousands of years.  And it’s barely half as long as GRRM’s list of the people in just one book that we’re supposed to keep straight in order to understand what’s going on.

Seriously?  I’m not dumb, I’m actually pretty smart and occasionally smart enough to justify at least a reasonable amount of my inherent arrogance and misanthropy…and halfway through the book, I just gave up trying to follow all the major narrative threads and treated it like a long collection of vaguely-related short stories, pretending at the beginning of each chapter that it was unconnected to anything I’d read previously.

And then we come back around to those few characters who are interesting and worth paying attention to, and they’ve actually got a decent part of the book set aside for their stories, and what do we get?

Jon wakes up, and it’s cold.  He eats some food, drinks some wine, wanders outside into the snow, meets with people who don’t like him, discusses a decision that’s somehow important to whatever’s eventually going to happen (probably in just a couple thousand more pages, it’s like imminent and shit), finds that those people disagree with him, and makes his decision anyway, one that seems pretty obviously clear to everyone reading along.  He leaves, walks outside, it’s cold, he mopes for a bit about how hard it is to be a commander, and then goes to bed.

There.  Fill in some of the generic blanks with random specific details (who he’s meeting with, what the decision is), and you can mad-libs about 90% of the Jon chapters in the book, some 200+ pages.

Was that fun?  Let’s do it again.

Daenerys wakes up, bathes in her pool, chooses what dress to wear, and goes off to procrastinate.  She worries about her “children”, makes a decision that’s pretty obviously awful to everyone reading along, worries some more about her “children”, goes to her pool, and then goes to bed.

Same thing:  we just covered another 200-ish pages of the whole book.

And the worst part is that there’s some really good stuff in there.  Jon does make some pretty massive decisions regarding the future of the whole realm, and his story does bring us ever closer to the fabled Winter that is coming…in the same way that tilting your head slightly forward while standing in Santa Monica does, in absolute terms, bring you slightly closer to Yankee Stadium.  And Daenerys ends up riding one of her dragons, finally claiming her birthright in full…until she stops, and leaves him, gets diarrhea from eating unripe berries, and worries some more about her “children”.

It’s all just buried until mountains of wasted paper and ink.  Sigh.  The man needs an editor more than anyone since Steve King wrote 300 pages too many for The Tommyknockers.

The only one who actually has anything to do is Tyrion, and that’s not because he’s actively pursuing anything—if it was left up to him, he’d happily stay in one place, drinking and whoring until his money, dick or liver runs out, whichever comes first—but because larger people with ulterior motives keep dragging him around, listening to his fast talking just enough to decide to keep him alive, but never enough to actually take his advice and get shit done.  (Except for one memorable occasion, which is probably the most interesting part of the whole book:  Connington’s and Aegon’s return to Westeros, which is the only part of the book I have no issue with at all.  There are a handful of complex but easily-discernible characters, each with their own private motives but all with a clearly-defined goal, and together they take actual tangible steps to achieve that goal.  It’s like someone snuck in and wrote some GRRM fan-fiction while he wasn’t looking, and he never bothered to take it out.)

You know those detective shows or movies, where they’re hunting a serial killer, and they finally come upon his apartment (and of course he’s already long-gone), and they see what must have started as a simple peg board, a few newspaper clippings and notes to help keep things straight, only the guy is bug-shit nuts and now every inch of every wall is covered with photos and articles and notes and drawings so disturbing they’d make a childhood psychologist shoot himself in despair for the next generation, with lines drawn randomly connecting stuff, and it’s all done in some very natural lighting, like afternoon sun from a window, with plenty of dust and haze in the air, and the whole point is to make the audience think “Holy shit, this guy is bug-shit nuts, no sane person could even read through all this, let alone try to make sense of it and connect it all into a larger whole?”

I imagine that’s what GRRM’s writing office looks like these days.

So, to sum up, I didn’t hate it, there was some really good stuff in there, and of course all the hints of some grand, once-in-a millennia conflict coming “soon”, which is entertaining (at least for the first couple thousand pages of foreshadowing), but I won’t be re-reading it, ever, and if the next book is anything like this one, I’m probably just going to set them aside and ignore them until the entire series is done, by which point I’ll be retired and have plenty of time to wade through them and see if the whole damn thing was worth it.

And, seriously, TWO Arya chapters?  That’s it?  That’s like paying a stripper for a lap dance and giving her $200 to take off her watch.  If we don’t get at minimum an entire book’s worth of Arya killing all the motherfuckers on her morning prayers’ list before this things wraps up, I’m gonna be pissed.

Why Google+ will fail

An expansion of a conversation begun with Dave and Patrick one night over scotch and cigars…


In my first draft of this post, I started off with, “Well, not ‘fail’, exactly, it’s not like they’re fundamentally flawed, throwing Blink tags all over the place or something awful like that, but they’re certainly not going to hit the targets they’ve gotta be aiming for…”

And after reading that bit through again, I realized that, ultimately, yes, they were going to fail.  The stakes are too high, the goals too large…what would be considered phenomenal success for anyone else is failure for them.  They’re not playing for a respectable second place…though I’m sure they’ll find some way to make that work for them, when it becomes evident that’s where they’re going to end up.

But enough of the navel-gazing, down to business:

Google+ is going to fail, and fail big-time.  There’s only one measure of success for them:  Facebook, and every one of their 750 million active users.  Anything less than that–or even just chopping that number way down, by more than half, and passing them by a clear and evident margin–isn’t good enough.

And the sad part is that it won’t have much–if anything–to do with what they’re doing or how they’re doing it…truthfully, although it’s still very early, from what I can see, they’ve learned almost every lesson you could have hoped they would have learned from Facebook, and have already demonstrated a willingness to fix those things they still don’t have quite right yet.

If it was simply a matter of putting a better product on the market and trusting that everyone–or at least the vast majority of people–would take a look at the new offering, compare it to what they’ve currently got, and then choose what’s clearly better, then there’d be no problem.  But anyone who’s ever looked even briefly into real-world marketing economics and sociology knows that it’s never that simple.  Or else why do we still have both Coke and Pepsi on the shelves?

For my one grand, sweeping generalization per post (which I really can’t be bothered to explicate fully; please just assume that I know that things are much more subtle than this when examined in detail, and my usage of the more general ideas doesn’t ignore nor invalidate the complexities of overlapping, evolving micro-systems), there are three kinds of people using the Internet with any degree of regularity (i.e. the 750 million active users of Facebook):

  • Hard-core geekerati
  • Technically savvy people
  • Grandma Betty

The hard-core geekerati write for Boing Boing, invest 10x more into their Reddit time than they do the local neighborhood watch, cite donations to Wikileaks as a charitable deduction on their tax returns, and not only knew all about Google+ before the information was public, they already had an invite before the announcement came, either through inside contacts or because they’d figured out how to hack the invite interface.

These folk know in intimate detail the differences between FB and G+; in fact, Google designed G+ with all of their many tumblr posts and tweets complaining about FB in mind.  Given a choice between the two…well, there really isn’t a choice for them.  G+ wins in a landslide, and either they’ve already fully migrated over to it from FB, their megalomania assuring them that anyone who doesn’t follow them over probably doesn’t get it anyway, or they’re primarily on G+, but still hanging around FB until its momentum dies out and everyone they care about has similarly ported over, so they can leave it behind for good.

I’m not even going to pretend that I know the demographics here, nor can I be bothered to work up any reasonably-researched estimates, so I’m going to pull wild guesses out of my ass:  assume there aren’t too many of these folks, it requires a certain mobility to their lifestyle, a willingness to adapt to the new and strange, and the financial means to pursue it…worldwide, we’re talking, what, 5 million people, tops?

That leaves 745 million people still actively on FB.

The second group, the people with various degrees of technical savvy…these people know enough to have already tried turning their computer off and back on again before calling technical support, but not enough to never have to call support at all.  They’re probably already on G+, but still consider FB their primary Internet “home”…G+ is a cool place to check out, like that new show on AMC…it’s interesting, but gets immediately put on hold if there’s a new episode of [fill in R-rated HBO hour-long drama here] on the DVR.

But they see the promise.  They have some of the same concerns about FB that the geekerati have, even if they’re not nearly as passionate about it.  Ultimately, they’ll end up preferring to move wholesale over to G+, but it’s not something that’ll be a driving factor in their online lives.

Again, not going to pretend I can estimate numbers here, but since these folks need to have enough leisure time to explore new ideas, and the financial means to acquire the tools often enough to gain enough mastery to be willing to explore in the first place…what, between 50 and 100 million people, worldwide?  That’s probably really, really high.  Still, for the point of this exercise, we can be conservative in the “trying to invalidate the point I’m trying to make” direction, and go with 100 million, and still…

That leaves 105 million people on G+, and 645 still actively on FB.

Brief aside:  as of this writing, there are only 10-15 million active G+ accounts total.  That’s primarily because it’s still in Beta, still invite-only.  I’m somewhat speculating down the road, once the invites become unnecessary and anyone who wants to can sign up.  This is an “after the system stabilizes” kind of thought experiment.

And now we come to the third group, Grandma Betty.  Which is where G+ will fail.

A bit more generalized pontificating…there are two major paths that the Internet has followed down through the ages.

The first is for those who pay attention to what’s going on, the savvy…basically the first two groups already mentioned.  For them, the Internet, and computers in general, have been in a constant state of evolution, from the first IBM PCs, to your first Intel x86’s, and Usenet, and downloading porn in a dorm room that looks like just a bunch of random ASCII characters until you manage to find and download an image decoding program, and Archie to search for stuff, and then Mosaic, Compuserve, Excite, Ask Jeeves (non-boolean, real-term searches!), and Geocities and Friendster and MySpace and Facebook and, now Google+.

The second–the one that Grandma Betty is aware of–is made of much broader strokes.  The Apple II.  AOL.  And now Facebook.  It’s not an evolution, it’s a series of fascinating new peaks that captures their interest, becoming a part of their lives in the same way indoor toilets, color television and automatic transmissions have…with no concern at all with what happens in all the valleys in between.

And this is the problem that G+ is facing.  Grandma Betty doesn’t care that G+ is a little better than FB.  For her, FB is not one markedly more popular option in a long line of evolving ways to interact with people online; for her, FB is The Facebook.  It’s The Internet.  It’s being Online.  All of that, wrapped up in a single identity.

The idea of switching over to something better…well, why?  Isn’t one color TV basically the same as another?

Or, to land on another, probably more relevant analogy, what I’m basically saying is that FB is DVDs, and G+ is laserdiscs.  Yeah, there are a number of savvy people who are going to see all the benefits the latter offers over the former, and will switch over, either in whole or in part…but the vast majority of people won’t be aware of a difference, and won’t care.  I mean, we’re how many years into the HD/Blu-ray “revolution”, and DVDs still outsell Blu-ray discs by a magnitude.

And laserdiscs are an interesting footnote.

There are 645 million Grandma Betty’s out there.  That’s the difference between winning and losing in this game, and I just don’t see any way that G+ stands a chance at stealing even a small fraction of them.  Grandma Betty just likes being Online, on The Facebook, and is still feeling pretty pleased with herself that she’s figured out how to post photos that her family and friends can see.  The entire debate and choice between The Facebook and Google+…or anything else that’s similar, better or not…flies over her head the way a debate over PER vs. Adjusted +/- stats in basketball fly over the head of someone who is only peripherally aware that Michael Jordan isn’t playing professionally anymore.

So that’s my bit; I like G+, I’m one of those people in the second group I mentioned, and I’ve got an account and post to it occasionally, have some Circles set up already.  But I wouldn’t bet against FB any time soon.


And no, I have no intent on posting as to where I’ve been for the last 6+ months…too busy dusting this place down…damn it falls all to pieces when I step away for a while.  I may get to that…later.

Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?

No, I’m not gone, and despite the rather thick layer of dust everywhere, I haven’t abandoned this blog.  This is one of those periods of radio silence I mentioned way back on Day One…it’s just gone on a bit longer than I’d been thinking these types of spells would.

That isn’t to say that this post is a “hey everyone, I’m back, expect multiple posts per week from now on” piece.  I honestly have no idea what will be going on here and when for the near future.  The day job is slow now (though looks to be ending up rather manic shortly, all the way until late spring), but there are other things taking a sizeable chunk of my attention span:  books to read, games to play (got a PS3, finally, and there’s a metric shit-ton of games to catch up on), evolving family dynamics that are important to me, that I want to be present for and not regret missing later on.

Mostly, though, I hit a point late last year where I was able to come to peace with some things that were starting to rear their heads again.

Put simply, I love writing.  Fiction, non, whatever.  Short pieces, longer pieces, Lakers pieces, all of it.  Falling through the hole in the page and being utterly and completely present in the moment, with the external censors and observers turned off, is a transcendent, ecstatic experience for me.  My understanding of the process, and my experiences with it, have done more to shape my understanding of the world and my own spiritual and religious outlook on the world than all the reading, praying, fellowship…ing, etc., put together.

But it’s not a compulsion for me, at least not usually.  I don’t feel “wrong” if I haven’t written on a regular basis recently (again, at least not usually).  The love of it is always there, but the alignment of my priorities and the net gain when weighed against the other things I’m not doing when I’m writing is something that ebbs and flows.

Up until about a year ago, it had ebbed for nearly ten years, and then last year was a definite case of flow.  I wrote half a dozen new short fiction (the microfiction this blog is named for), two much longer stories (edging into the realm of short novellas), and over 50,000 words on a new novel, the longest single piece of work I’ve ever put down on the page (even if it’s not done yet).  Not to mention  what is close to 100,000 words worth of posts here on the blog.  For anyone not named Piers Anthony or Stephen King, that’s quite a haul, and compared to the years-long dry spell preceding it, it was astonishing.

And then—partly due to external events (like changing my job and career path), partly just due to the tidal flow of these things that I’ve come to accept within myself—it began to ebb again.  I have a new story, longer than the microfiction, shorter than the epic genre pieces of last year, that’s about 2/3 done…and has been in the works for almost two months, off and on.  I have the scattered notes for the second part of my essay on Grace spread across two different notebooks and a partial Google Docs file…and it’s showing no signs of coalescing in the immediate future.  I even figured out a solve for a major issue with the novel that was one of the reasons progress on that came to a halt (I couldn’t muster the effort to keep bricklaying on new chapters until sorting out that major structural flaw)…but have no real compulsion to try to get my head around the effort it’s going to take to write the remaining 40k or so words that it’ll take to finish the book.

See, while it rarely feels wrong for me to take a break from writing (even if that word, “break”, is a bit longer than what other people would consider using that word for), what does feel wrong to me is to feel bad for not working when I don’t want to.

I know I’m going to piss off anyone reading this who’s done any sort of work towards becoming a writer themselves, especially if they’ve taken a class, or a workshop, or read books on the subject.  Because beyond style, beyond how to find an agent, or use of adverbs, or proper manuscript formatting, the one thing they will all tell you, relentlessly and with zero pity, is:

–          Doesn’t matter if it’s great, just get it down on the page (or “Don’t worry about getting it right, just get it written”).

–          Write every day, no matter what.

–          You can’t call yourself a writer, you either write or you don’t write.

And, hey, that may work for some people, probably even most, it just doesn’t work for me.  I’m not setting aside every other effort in my life to make writing my primary path.  Writing is, for me, ultimately, fun.  It is a good thing, a benefit that enriches my life beyond the daily work to be happy and healthy with my family and home.  It is, in other words, gravy, desert, a bonus bit that helps the sum of good things equal something great.

And I refuse to view it like taking my vitamins.  I refuse to feel guilty for not having written X-hundred words every day.  I refuse to beat myself up because this weekend, just like last weekend, I’m going to pleasantly descend into the proper gaming posture and spend multiple hours “wasting” time that could better be spent on something “more important”.  Like writing.

Writing isn’t important in and of itself.  It isn’t some holy task that we—even those of us who love it and are really good at it—are obligated to complete on a regular basis, like attending church or changing your underwear.  It is nothing more than scribbled symbols on paper (or the electronic facsimile thereof).

Its value comes first and foremost from the benefit it brings to the person making those scribbles.  If you’re lucky, someone else will gain additional value from it later when they read it, but sorry, that’s a downstream consideration, not the reason pen first gets put to paper.  And it loses all value for me when I start beating myself up for not having done it.  I’m okay with the notion that I may, at times, be suffering a lower level of amazing greatness in my life than I could, under ideal circumstances, if I found a way to incorporate writing into that ideal circumstance.  But I refuse to take a net loss from a happy baseline just because, at that particular moment, writing was not a part of forming that happy baseline.

Imagine if the money in your pocket was worth 20% less because it was all ones, fives and twenties, and without some tens in there, the rest of it just didn’t mean as much.

That’s horseshit, and something I will not have in my life anymore.

Not to say that a regular regimen isn’t a good thing for many, even most other writers.  And truthfully, when the compulsion to scribble on the page is upon me, it helps to have a schedule, even a quota, to make sure I keep myself organized, because under those circumstances, a lack of writing ­is a bad thing, not because I was supposed to and didn’t, but because I wanted to and didn’t manage to make the time for it.  It’s when I don’t want to—and note, this is not an active “I am really opposed to writing right now” but a sated “I don’t feel a strong urge to write right now” thing—that beating myself up for doing something I do want to do instead of writing just seems absurd to me.

And I’ve now spent almost 1300 words writing out why I don’t feel like writing.  And I’m okay with that contradiction.  To sum up, I’m not gone for good…just not entirely sure when I’ll be back.

See you soon(ish).

…it’s a name for a girl – Part 1

I need to caveat, from the start, that I don’t usually write about serious topics here, and don’t plan to make a habit of it.  Not that writing, U2 and the Lakers aren’t serious for me, but they’re not “if we disagree, and keep discussing it, tempers are likely to flare and we’ll both stomp off muttering curses under our breaths, slightly sick from the adrenaline rush of actual emotional conflict” serious.

But that’s sort of where tonight’s post will lead.  It’s not like it’s all that controversial, but I’m also not likely to be in the mood for non-committed back and forth on it.  Most topics, I can take either side, enjoying the effort more than what side the victory is on.  Not this one, I don’t think.

I also need to caveat that I don’t plan to go into detail about any of the tangential topics that this one would naturally raise.  I’m going to give you the minimal amount of background necessary to grok where I’m coming from, and then we’ll move on.

And I finally need to caveat that this post already has two (and now three) caveats more than I like—my blog, I get to do what I want, when I want, and shouldn’t have to explain things.  But as I noted, this is a somewhat serious topic, and since I don’t tend to go publicly diving in those waters that often, I’d like for them to be clear and not open for a variety of troll-baiting interpretations.

And now, with sufficient baggage strapped aboard, we’re off…

So, here’s the background.  Once upon a time, I was very religious.  Serious case of bornagainitis.  Probably because I was first introduced to religion at a critical moment in my life…parents recently divorced, transitioning from elementary school to high school, puberty, intellectual awaking…all that great after school special crap.  My mind and heart were desperate for something deep and involved to sink their teeth in to, and a fervent Born-Again Christian meal just happened to be walking by.

I will now skip ahead 20 years—and easily a couple hundred thousand words, if I just stuck to summarizing the high points—and expect you to keep up.

These days, I don’t like religion.  I don’t think my actual beliefs have changed all that much, but I am a lot clearer on A) what exactly “a belief” is, and B) what mine are.  There’s been a demi-glace-like reduction to the overwhelming symphony of ideas and concepts I first walked into 20 years ago, distilling the core principals to their essences while somehow increasing and balancing their complexity at the same time.

Which are pretty words to sum up something I already posted here a while ago:  Before enlightenment:  chop wood, carry water.  After enlightenment:  chop wood, carry water.

To conclude the incredibly-brief background section of this post:  I once was Christian, in an organized fashion, and while I now pursue disorganization (spiritually speaking), my beliefs are rooted in that ground, and despite two decades of scrutiny, and wide-spread exploration into a large number of seemingly-incompatible belief systems, those aspects I’ve identified as the basic principals of Christianity stick with me to this day.

One of which is the topic of the post I’m almost finally about to start writing.

(And no, I’m not talking about the Bud Light version of Christianity, the “Jesus was a cool guy, and what we can really learn from the bible is to be good to each other and love each other and maybe go to church on Easter, but there’s no need to get too bogged down in the details” version…fucking pussies.)

(And, one more [fuck me, does that make four?] caveat:  when I mention the word God, no, I do not mean it the way you think I mean it, except yes, I mean it exactly the way you think I mean it.  Which is to say, I’m not about to get into specific definitions here in this post, and do not assume that I’m being vague because I’m assuming that y’all already know exactly what I’m talking about; I’ve just spent 645 fucking words setting up this post before even mentioning what the post is going to be about.  I’m not leaving out a specific description of God because I’m aiming to be brief.  You want to challenge what I have to say because I mention God, and how absurd is it to believe in a dude with a beard on a throne living up in the clouds?  Well, I don’t believe in that either.  When I say God—at least for the purposes of this post—I could be talking beard-dude, I could be talking Yahweh, I could be talking the Ineffable, I could be talking tP / t…meet me halfway, if you would.)

What I want to talk about is grace, and why it’s a unique concept, one that blows apart the typical Christian-centric structure that usually encloses it.

I think I can say—without tempting too much in the way of debate—that as long as we’re moving along through the dimension of time, we’re all heading from something to something else.  There is an ideal, no matter how minor, vague or undefined, that we’re moving towards.  It can be superficially consumerist (“I’m not thin enough,” or “I’m not rich enough.”), it can be more personally meaningful (“I don’t take good enough care of myself,” or “I need to treat the people I care about better.”), or overtly hedonistic (“I am not nearly as baked as I should be,” or “I have not slept with nearly enough girls as I’d like to.”) ,or overtly spiritual (“I am not yet as far down the Eightfold Path as I aim to be,” or “I have yet to properly give Satan his full due.”), or any of a million different variations of all of the thoughts that pass through our heads in any given day.  And it doesn’t necessarily have to be fully conscious:  dropping trou and squatting is moving you closer from the present state of stomach cramps to the ideal of “deuce successfully dropped,” no matter how consciously you’re staking out those milestones.  We’re talking prime mathematic givens here, not specific recipes.

When the spiritual aspect is considered, just about every possible path (I hesitate to call them “religions,” since there are far more people pursuing spiritual paths without the trappings of religion than there are people genuinely pursuing a religiously-defined path, as opposed to giving that religion lip service while more actively following one of the consumerist/personal/hedonistic/etc. paths already mentioned) is just that:  a path.  Today, you are Here.  Tomorrow, you will be There.  If successful, that There will be closer to the ultimate goal than Here is.  And most of the time spent walking that spiritual path is focused on defining the steps needing to take you from Here to There, and monitoring your progress.

This is true even for most Christian paths, which to my mind completely misses the point.

See, Christianity has this unique concept, one that none others have or embrace, called grace.

Grace is a gift.  Grace is something un-asked for, given regardless of whether or not it’s deserved or has been earned.  Grace is, in the context of the notion of a path described above, a profoundly disturbing disruption of the basic understanding of how things work.

Put another way, grace is the fucked-up quantum entanglement to traditional religious Newtonian processes.

In the specific context of Christianity, grace is the given forgiveness of your sins before you can ask for it and with zero comprehension or concern for the notion of atonement.  Grace is the gift given by God that removes the need to walk any distance down a spiritual path.  Grace says that you do not have to earn the ideal you are pursuing by measuring yourself against some external spiritual yardstick—you already have it.  Grace says “I have a pancake on my head; your argument is invalid.”

Enough with the platitudes:  let’s get down to business.

Here’s what’s amazing about the concept of grace:  because it cannot be earned, it is given to everyone.  That fat fuck next to you on the bus, the one you caught staring at your ass, making you wish you hadn’t worn the low-riding jeans, knowing he’s saving up the brief, furtive views for his spank-bank later?  Yeah, he’s been given grace.  Your boss, the one who gave you a list of things to do today, and then kept passing on emergency requests from his boss, and then spends his time in the break room bitching about how you’re too lazy to get through the short list of easy tasks he gave you earlier?  Yup, he’s been given grace too.

…That guy who screamed out something in Farsi before triggering the ball-bearing-laced plastic explosive he has strapped to his chest in the midst of a crowded market?  Again, yes, he’s been given grace.

Which is kinda the point:  if grace can’t be earned, then when given, it’s given to everyone.  There’s no criteria for being an eligible receiver.  That’s what’s beautiful about it:  the drunk puking on himself in the gutter is as beloved and worthy of grace as you are, and while that might feel like a bit of a raw deal for you and your paid-my-rent-on-time-no-speeding-tickets-in-two-years self-esteem right now, it very profoundly says that all of the joy and wonders of God and the universe are equally available to both of you.  All of you.  All of us.

Which is how it should be, or else what’s the point?  I don’t want to believe in a God that would pick and choose which people are worthy of Him based on an ever-changing, semi-objective matrix.  I mean, are we to assume that God was okay with Abraham having multiple wives back then but isn’t in favor of it now?  That’s too much like trying to get into the right clique in high school.  Sure, he might like caring for puppies now, but who’s to say he won’t like people who paint their dicks blue later?  Sure, that sounds absurd…but it fits within the set.

It’s far more likely that the ultimate point of convergence with God isn’t defined by nor dependant upon details like that.

But that makes for a difficult follow-up question:  if everyone has been given grace, does it matter what we do?  Are we all going to heaven (or whatever you want to interpret that particular phrase to mean)?  And if we are, then does it matter one bit what we actually do?  Can those people doing what strikes us to our core as evil be just as promised the Promised Land as those of us who try each day to do more good than harm?  And the people who aren’t even paying attention, who are wandering through life in a self-induced haze, do they get to wake up at the pearly gates and say, “Hey, there’s a heaven.  Who knew?”

I don’t think so.  It’s not that it isn’t there, waiting for them; it’s that, fundamentally, gift giving requires two people.

Anyone who’s been a scout of any kind (boy, girl, whatever) or had a father/relative/etc. teach them more “traditional” skills will know what an Active Transfer of Control is, even if that particular name wasn’t used.  It’s the first lesson of knife safety.  When someone is handing you a knife, they hold it out and say, “I’m giving you this knife.”  You reach out, put your hand on it, and once you have a firm hold of it say, “I have the knife,” at which point that someone lets go, and the knife is yours.  Or there’s the rock climbing ritual of “On Belay?” “Belay On.”

What it comes down to is a clear, active decision with awareness of what that decision means, with no unstated assumptions.  And that’s the second half of the grace equation:  the gift has been given, but you still have to accept it.

And really, the only way to do so is with a prayer I learned long ago, when I first joined the Church, just read along and say the words out loud as you do, “Heavenly Father, in Jesus’ name I repent of my sins and open my heart…”

Ah, I’m just fucking with you.

Not to say that that particular method isn’t perfectly and completely valid.  Here’s where that thing I said earlier, that I “hate religion”, is proven to be not entirely accurate.  You certainly won’t hear me speaking against—especially to denigrate—anyone’s particular religious beliefs (unless there’s a joke to be made, because one of my most profoundly-held beliefs is, if you can’t take a joke, fuck off).

The flip side of grace being available to everyone means that everyone has to be able to receive it, if they’re willing, and that notion is incompatible with having a single, set, pre-defined path for doing so.  Which does mean that all paths are valid, including the familiar, stereotypical ones you all already know about…

…within reason.

Because—and here another traditionally-Christian tradition pops its useful head up—words are cheap.  Or as a youth pastor back in my high school days (for reals…which may help explain my willingness to do some desert wandering, given his mentorship) quoted to me, “Money talks and bullshit walks.”

You know and I know that unless you’re dealing with a world-class actor—or you’re intentionally willing to deceive yourself because of some unresolved and possibly unrelated issue—it’s pretty damn easy to tell when someone’s going through the motions.  My six year-old daughter may say “Sorry” for sticking her fingers all through my rice, but she was laughing when she did it, and sullen when she says it, and I know the only reason she’s saying “Sorry” is because she doesn’t want to get punished again, not because she’s honestly understood that her actions have negatively impacted another’s life and desires to communicate to that person her awareness of the consequences of her actions, both empirical and emotional, and regrets her actions, and her willingness to make amends.

And she’s a lot better at faking it than most people I know my own age.

There’s a reason you don’t handle knives with just anyone, and why you don’t rock climb with people you don’t know.  The giving-accepting relationship requires trust, since the only definitive proof you’re going to get of the other person’s trustworthiness is when you pull your hand away, and either the knife falls to the ground, possibly impaling your foot, or slices your fingers as the other person fails to release it, or when your handhold slips and the rope that’s supposed to catch you shortly after you fall whistles through the carabineer loud enough for you to hear the entire way down.

To sum up the point of these analogies, it’s pretty obvious to God, however you define Him…and to yourself, really…whether or not you’re telling the truth when you consciously decide to accept the grace that’s been given.

I’m not going to tell you what specific fruit will be borne when you do that.  I have my own thoughts on the matter, but there’s a reason I ultimately decided against going to seminary and becoming a preacher, and it’s because I have a hard enough time sorting this shit out for myself, and the most difficult thing to do was de-brainwash myself from all the rules and regulations other people had posted on my walls.  I’m not about to just switch seats here.

But I can at least tell you what I think are some pretty critical components of the process, however they end up manifesting themselves:

You have to know yourself.  More importantly, you have to be willing to know yourself.  Borrowing from David Brin here when I say that the greatest inherited skill human beings have today is self-deception, especially rationalization.  You take the dumbest motherfucker off the streets right now, hand him one more beer than he knows he should really drink tonight, and he’ll find some way to convince himself that not only is it okay to drink that beer, but the world is a better place because of it.

In order to accept grace, you have to be able to know if you’re telling the truth or not.  You can ask any smoker who’s in the car on the way to 7-11 even though they’re trying to quit how hard that can be.  I found it through the progressive mind-clearing zazen of Zen.  Others find it through prayer and bible study.  Others find it through rigorous adherence to the scientific method, even when their pet theory—the one that’s going to get them tenure and an extra zero on the end of the grant check, maybe even that ½ paragraph blurb in Time magazine’s year-end round ups of the “best of” in science—turns out, by the evidence, to be completely wrong, and not in the “well, then the opposite must be true” way, but in the “wow, I have no fucking idea what’s going on here” way.

It just requires an acceptance that most of what you think you know about yourself is completely, flatteringly wrong, and a willingness to turn that laser-sharp ability to dissect others’ faults onto yourself.

Simple, right?

Next time:  so you’re willing to examine how much of a shit you are…what’s next?

New-to-you – Over

Woah, did I say in my last post that an old story of mine was going up “tomorrow”?  Which would have been, like, a month ago?  No, I couldn’t have.  I think, when I typed “tomorrow”, what I meant to type was “sometime in September”, I just spelled it really, really wrong.

So here’s the one I was talking about.  Posted exactly when I said I would.


Over

There’s music playing in the background, badly.  The selection could use some improvement as well.  We were speculating earlier that the musician is probably related to the restaurant’s owner—nepotism, that great equalizer.  But I’m into my third glass of wine—miles behind my rambling friend here—and the buzz is smoothing out the rougher edges nicely.  Even Barry Manilow on an out-of-tune guitar is bearable after your third Merlot.

It’s a small restaurant.  “Atmosphere” they advertise; cramped it is.  You can only apologize for so many inadvertent elbows for so long before it all descends into absurdity.  Or a brawl.  Thankfully, this appears to be a crowd of the former.  My knees, on the other hand, are black and blue and know the underside of our off-balance table too well.  I imagine I’ll be feeling them—and everything else—rather vividly tomorrow morning.  God bless Merlot—but God really loves two aspirin and a glass of water before bed.

It’s an Italian restaurant, supposedly.  The menu is in Italian, and there’s enough garlic hanging to invade Transylvania with, but there isn’t a pasta dish or a clam in sight.  It’s good, don’t get me wrong; in fact, it’s already gone.  It’s getting pretty late, and most of the new customers wandering in are wearing blazers and pearls—it’s time to go.  Except our second bottle’s only half empty, and we both know we’ve only got a few more of these Romantic Evenings left in us, so we’re lingering.

It’s over, almost, for us.  You couldn’t tell from the outside, and, hey, we’re doing a pretty decent job of ignoring it ourselves.  But we’re lingering, and we know it.  It’s not exactly devastating.  Oh, hopefully it’ll happen as a fight, so she can cry and throw things and I can yell and get righteously pissed-drunk afterwards.  But it’s coming regardless.  I can feel it lurking just a couple of tomorrows away.

So, we linger.

But we’re not the only ones.  Just across the aisle from us, actually.  She’s by herself, has been since we first came in.  I can only imagine the scene we missed.  Just as we were showing up, a big, burly man came storming out of the restaurant’s front door.  I hope to God I never have on my face the expression he had on his.  He looked damned.  Like whatever had been haunting him had finished its work and seen that it was good.  He brushed by us without noticing, and I probably would’ve forgotten all about it except, when we went inside, the place was silent, not a word or a clank or warbly Fmaj7 cord in sight.  And all eyes were on this woman, this woman we ended up sitting just across the aisle from.

If he looked bad, she was worse.  Still is, as far as my surreptitious glances can tell.  Her table is as small as ours, and was set for two, but—and this is what’s absolutely killing me, and probably her as well—along the edge of the table are four or five crayons, strewn across a half-finished child’s activity place-mat.  The man who left didn’t have a little one in tow behind him, and there’s no one else at the table with her now, and so the question I still haven’t been able to answer is:  where the hell is the kid? I don’t know and still don’t know.

She has a glass of wine—whatever plates and silverware she had were picked up a while ago—and occasionally she takes a polite sip from it, probably without realizing she’s doing it.  She doesn’t look like she’s paying much attention to anything right now.  I’ve seen couples waiting by the door for a table, and given how rude our waiter has been to us, I’d expected someone to ask her to leave a long time ago.  But they haven’t yet.  In fact, part of the crampedness at our table is a result of everyone who uses the aisle’s swerving around her, ending up in our laps.  And no one’s staring anymore.  Maybe there is some compassion left in this world after all, people who won’t kick you, no matter how gently, out of their way when you’re down.

Her make-up is still in place, same with her hair.  She doesn’t look like she’s been crying.  Her dress is nice but doesn’t look very expensive.  If I had to guess I’d say she was just the other side of thirty.  She’s wearing a bracelet and stud earrings but nothing on her fingers or around her neck.  If I weren’t still lingering, I might wonder if she was attractive.  Her napkin is folded in her lap, a streak on a dangling end showing that it’s done its job.  But I can’t get over those crayons.  They aren’t set so that she or the person sitting across from her would have used them.

What happened?

I think it’s time to go.  There’s still a little wine left, but I have some more at home if we need it.  No more lingering; dinner’s over.

Sore and tired

I’ve been trying to figure out what to write about for this next post.

Lakers?  The NBA’s in its deadest spot of the year right now, mid-summer with most of the major personnel moves already made and training camps still more than a month away, but I can always come up with something to say there.

U2?  I could let you know the results of this mad march through their entire career (still going, btw, with Zooropa just about to wrap up as I type this; I’ve had to take the expected breaks for family/food/bathroom/etc., so it may not finish tonight), or any of a hundred other thoughts I’ve briefly touched on here and elsewhere and expand on it in full.

But no, neither of those, at least not tonight.  If I’m going to complete this Refresh of the blog, catching both it and everyone who swings by up on where my head is at right now, then I need to cover all the bases.  And aside from my family (which I will not now nor at any point the future be writing about here), the three most important things in my life are the Lakers, U2…and writing.

So, a post about writing it is.

I need to point out something that I’ve mentioned in the past but never quite explicitly laid out before:  writing has seldom been a compulsion for me, the way it seems to be with every successful, productive writer I’ve read and admired in my life.  Sure, there have been stretches in my life where nothing has felt right unless I’ve been at a keyboard, or sitting with a notebook and good pen, churning out the wordcount.  As recently as this past spring, I had stretches where I was putting down well more than 10,000 words a week.  (To give a reference point, the average published novel is approximately 90k-100k words, meaning at a rate of 10k words a week, you could write five complete novels in one year.)

But that’s the exception, not the rule.  I don’t ever really get hit with writer’s block; it’s more what Kevin Smith so eloquently referred to as “writer’s laze”.  As in laziness.  As in, more often than not, I don’t want to expend the energy to create something that will entertain others as much as I want someone else to entertain me.  Getting back into a groove where that someone who’s entertaining me is me takes a convergence of events that I have yet to fully understand, let alone master.

Viewed another way, my relationship with my writing would be familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time working out.  When you’re in the thick of it, taking even a single day off leaves you feeling awful, with your entire life out of sorts until you get your body moving again, muscles working, sweat flowing…  But if you take more than a few days off, it gets harder and harder to remember how good it feels when you’re in the thick of it, and easier and easier to reach for the remote/beer/chips instead.  That’s not the whole of it, but it’s a measurable part.

And I’d have to say, right now, I’m very comfortable on my writing couch, and finding it harder to remember how good it feels when I’ve worked up a wordcount sweat.

Part of it is just that this stuff is cyclical, and not something I’m going to beat myself up about.  If I ever, ever feel like writing is something I have to do, and begin chastising myself for not doing it, like a sinner eager for the burn of confession, then I will stop cold turkey.  Writing improves my life, its presence in my life makes it a better thing; I will never allow it to be viewed in reverse, that writing is the default baseline, and its absence is a sub-optimal, suffering existence.  So, I’m not working right now at the same pace I was recently.  That’s okay.  I love the people around me, I show up on-time for my job and work hard while I’m on the clock there, I find lots of things in my life that make it well more than worth living…a downswing in my writing production does not negate any of that.

Part of it is the new job I’m working at.  There’s a much longer post in my head, waiting to be written, about this specific sub-topic, but the short summary is that after eight years of joy and suffering, I’m in a new place, with a new vocabulary and syntax—and I don’t just mean the words we use at the workplace, I mean the rhythm and intent that the entire workplace operates at—and it’s taking me some time to figure out how my life fits with all that.  Imagine a musician, just joined an orchestra, learning a new piece of music.  And while he’s not worried about his ability to play the new piece and play it well, and fit in well with all the other musicians around him, it’s still new to him, and so all the little things that define him as a musician worth having around have to come from conscious intention, rather than unconscious trust.  I know, after I’ve been there for a while, I’ll know the people, places and processes well enough that I can focus my conscious intent on what’s truly important, rather than the moment-to-moment logistics, but at the moment, it’s consuming rather a large percentage of my mental RAM, which doesn’t leave a lot left for working on a novel that has three main characters, their stories intertwining, all while a massive religious war is breaking out (and I’m right now at the moment when the armies are invading and alliances are forming and breaking…it would be a bit much to wrap my head around if I were reading it, let alone trying to create it out of blank pieces of paper).

And part of it is just that the creative tank is low, and I need to fill it up.  You don’t tend to realize just how limited your input of vital nutrients is until you push yourself out of your comfort zone and start relying on every last ounce of what you’ve got.  Borrowing from an analogy earlier in this post, about six months ago I started working out in earnest, driving my body to do more and more each day, only to completely crap out a month ago, and realized that I hadn’t paid any attention to my diet.  I was still eating the same crap food, but my body needed far more of it, and much better of it, if I was going to be able to keep up at that pace.

If you replace “body” with “writing output”, and the food bit with creative stimulus…well, that’s where I’m at right now.  I can’t work off just the pure adrenaline that accompanies the realization that I can work, I need to make sure that all aspects of my life are pulling in harness, input supporting output, the rhythm and routine of things resulting in a harmony that’s pleasing and worth pursuing.

I’m in the earliest stages of that process right now, and thus the actual wordcount output has been a bit low.  I don’t expect that to last.

In the meantime, I’ll be posting an old story tomorrow, one of my all-time favorites, just to keep the fiction blood fresh here.  Something to keep the pump primed until the spice begins flowing again.