Make America What Again?

What with the shit-show we’ve got going on right now as a nation — concentration camps on the border, a wag-the-dog escalation to a war of choice with Iran, a serious bump in hate crimes and people identifying as Nazis and white supremacists, a climate crisis that will destroy life as we know it starting to kick in for real, a nationwide election coming up that will undoubtedly be fucked with by hostile foreign actors while the beneficiaries insist nothing’s wrong, and a legislature unable, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to do anything but confirm hardcore conservative federal judges to lifetime sinecures, just to skim the surface — it’s easy to understand the widespread longing to go back to the way things were under the Obama Administration. To get things back to normal so we can all go back to living our lives without having to worry that the demented narcissist with the nuclear football will bring about Armageddon in a fit of pique or even just to avoid jail time.

I get it. I really do. I also would like not to live my life in a fog of existential dread, in which every action is pointless because, Rapture or not, the end is probably nigh for the American experiment and possibly human civilization and what can possibly matter anymore?

But even were it possible to return to whatever passed for normal before — and it isn’t — such a return is not even desirable, both on its own merits and especially in light of the challenges we face as Americans and human beings who live on the rapidly-warming, ecologically-imbalanced, and soon-to-be-downwardly-spiraling Earth.

I’ll explain.

Continue reading “Make America What Again?”

Black History Month Book Report #3: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

So, unlike many if not most spec fic writers, I never had a Lovecraft phase. I mean, I knew the name. But if I read anything until much later in life, it didn’t stick. So I hadn’t read The Horror at Red Hook, of which The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle is a retelling from the point of view of a black man.

Not that it’s required to enjoy this page-turner of a dark mystery novella set in ’20s-era Harlem and New York. Which is good, because I’m about three decades past the point where Lovecraft’s turgid prose and particular brand of cosmic horror was going to land. Victor LaValle, I’ll be reading more of.

Tommy Tester is a hustler and musician living in Harlem with his father, who makes his living playing music for white people and doing the odd odd job for them, too. When Robert Suydam, a mysterious and wealthy white man with a very strange plan to liberate New York’s poor and marginalized, hires him to play a party in his mansion, it opens the door (alright, eldritch portal) to a whole new (horrific) world for Tommy. Continue reading “Black History Month Book Report #3: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle”

So It’s Come to This

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Now I know my ABCs

What do you even say when you see something like this in a kindergarten classroom? I mean, really, what do you say? Given its placement, the way we read left to right, the Lockdown Song is apparently even more important than learning the alphabet.

How has it come to this?

How have we reached the point where school shootings are such a part of the fabric of our national life that someone decided it was better to start preparing children for the worst than to try and preserve their innocence awhile longer, and provide an environment where what’s best in them might flower and grow?


These questions are rhetorical, obviously. We all know how. A powerful manufacturing lobby made a Faustian bargain with a political party (and possibly, even probably, Russian oligarchs) to sell as much of their product as possible, consequences be damned. For them, from their position and perspective, it’s actually a virtuous circle. Scientific studies have shown that fear makes people more conservative, makes them buy more guns. Once the market reaches a certain saturation (like, idk, one gun per person in the freest, most prosperous nation in modern history), the feedback loop reinforces itself. There are too many guns, and it’s too easy to get them, to make it harder for upright, responsible citizens (or, really, anyone) to buy guns to defend themselves from all the other people with guns. Never mind how your chances of dying from gun violence vastly increase when you purchase a gun.

But that’s just science talking. And science, despite its dedication to reflecting and clarifying actuality, can’t hold a candle to narrative when it comes to getting people to do (or not do) stuff.

But back to the virtuous circle, which is not really virtuous unless it’s in your interest to make people frightened so you can sell them guns and get them to vote for conservative politicians whose policies are generally terrifically unpopular. I mean, does anyone who isn’t rich really think the rich need more money while the rest of us scrabble and scrape? Does anyone really want to live in a world two steps removed from a battle royale where it’s all against all and fuck everybody who ain’t me and mine? Some people might, but fuck them.

So, the circle. How does it work?

Well, what you need is to cultivate an atmosphere of threat, fear, and scarcity. Which isn’t hard, because people are wired to respond to threats. It’s how we survived, evolutionarily, and though we’ve created a situation in which most of our instincts aren’t really optimal, evolution takes a while to catch up. Anyhow, I don’t think it’s a big stretch to say that when things get scary, or scarce, people’s circle of concern tends to tighten up. They start looking out for them and theirs. They also look for targets, because fear and scarcity take their toll on a person. And because fear produces anger and anxiety — which, let’s be honest, don’t exactly lead to clear thinking — it’s easy to divert that fear and anger away from their actual sources, so the underlying causes and problems never get addressed.

Which brings us back to the Lockdown Song. I mean, just think how many guns a whole generation suffering from a lifetime of fear will buy. Long term, school shootings are going to be great for business.

When Do You Stop Clapping?

The West Coast is on fire. The Southeast is underwater, and it’s only the start of hurricane season. Nazis are feeling their oats, and the jackass we elected President is having a pissing match with a nuclear power when he’s not announcing his intention to deport a million people who are better citizens than he or I have ever been. Daily life is surreal, like we’re clapping and clapping, trying to believe hard enough to bring Tinkerbell back to life. Tinkerbell being a world where it makes sense to do things like buy houses and have children and plan for your retirement.

When do you stop clapping? When do you stop thinking the world will go on as it has, and start planning for contingencies that were science fiction two years ago? What does that even mean? Buy a gun? A bunch of canned food and bottled water? Order an apocalypse kit from the Mormons on Amazon and stop at every gas station you pass so when the moment comes you’ll have a full tank? Where will you even go?

I’m sitting here with a to-do list a mile long. I’ve got businesses to grow, a novel to finish, people who expect me to make things for them and do things to make their homes nicer. But I look outside, and I can’t see the fucking sky for the smoke, and people in the place I grew up (Florida) are bracing for a hurricane that’ll ravage the whole state whichever of the approximately five thousand possible paths it might take heading inland it ultimately does.

I’m sitting here paralyzed, because if Tinkerbell’s dead then I’m crazy to worry over what things make a normal life. If she isn’t I need to clap harder than ever, knowing it might not be enough. We all do, together.

I honestly don’t know what’s to come. Whatever it turns out to be will be hard, for all of us. It already is.

I don’t have much in the way of encouraging words today. So I’ll borrow some from people much wiser than I.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
-Fred Rogers

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Why Thinking About Death Will Make Your Life Easier and Better

We’re all conflicted sometimes. We find ourselves at a crossroads, looking one way, then the other, trying to see down the road to where it goes and what’ll happen to us along the way. Each has its virtues, each its shortcomings. The tradeoffs can be murky. Or not. Sometimes it’s a matter of what to prioritize. Career or family? Passion or stability? Travel or save your money? The right answer depends on so many factors it can feel impossible to game them out clearly enough to pick. The one thing you can be sure of is you can’t have it all. You have to choose.

For some of us – and I count myself as such a person – it can be paralysing, and we get stuck in a loop, hemming and hawing and unable to commit until outside forces make the decision for us. It’s a relief, in a way, since we’re absolved of the emotional consequences of making a hard decision. But there’s always ‘What if..?” The what-ifs will dog you, never leave you in peace.

So how does a person make hard decisions? It’s a question each person must answer themselves. Different people will have different answers, but here’s mine:

I imagine myself on my deathbed. The end is nigh. There’s no more time, no chance to change what’s come before. It is, as they say, all over but the crying.

What would I wish I had done?

Nine times out of ten, the answer becomes clear immediately.

No one likes to think about death, especially their own. I get it. It’s scary. And whatever you think comes after, whether it’s heaven or reincarnation or just… nothing, there’s little question that death is the end of the story of your life.

But in the face of death, life clarifies. The jumble of conflicting priorities pulling you this way and that gets a lot simpler. What matters, what really matters, jumps to the forefront of your consciousness, shining and obvious, and the provisional and secondary drops away. It isn’t gone, but its volume is reduced, its relative importance put into perspective. Decisions become much easier.

I first came to this realization decades ago, as a college student. But it wasn’t until my mother died eight years ago that it really hit home. I mourned my own loss, of course. But what broke my heart hardest was knowing that she had died without ever really being happy. Maybe happy isn’t the word I’m looking for, since we most all of us are afforded some happy moments in life. Maybe the word I’m looking for is content.

See, my mother always did what was expected of her. She got married, had a kid, worked hard, saved her money. All the things society says lead to a full and happy life. But she was always nagged by the feeling that she was missing something, and all the hoops she jumped dutifully through did not deliver the promised reward. She wasn’t bitter about it – well, sometimes, sure – but there was a kind of sadness in her, as if the life she lived and the choices she made were those expected of her, and not what she might have chosen for herself. Indeed, I don’t know if she ever knew what her true self might have chosen, because the weight of expectation life put on her gave her little chance to explore who that was. The best I ever heard her explain it was she felt like she was an artist who never found her medium.

That, more than anything – even my own loss – broke my heart when she died. All her chances were used up. There was no time left to turn things around, to find the medium that would let her true self express, to live a life worth dying for.

And of all the lessons her passing taught me, that’s the one that stuck firmest in my consciousness. That only when confronted with death do we know what is most valuable in life.

And so, to this day and til my last, that’s what I think of when I decide what to do, what choice to make, how to live my life. When I am on my deathbed, and there is no more time, what would I wish I had done?