Saturday, May 31, 2008

The World-Soul

When Hegel was twenty-nine, his father died, leaving him a modest inheritance which enabled the young philosopher to spend three years thinking and writing, free from fiscal worry. But those years passed swiftly, and by 1803 he was again looking for work. His friend Schelling brought him to Jena, and here he began tutoring and working on his first major work, the Phenomenology of Spirit, when the Napoleonic Wars broke out full-force. Now in dire need for money, he accepted one publisher's offer for its hefty advance; however, he faced severe penalties if the manuscript was not delivered on time.

In October 1806, on the day before his publishing deadline, conquering French forces entered Jena. Hegel barely got the manuscript off, perhaps at great personal risk (I can visualize him cradling it as he dodged mortar shells and marauding infantry). But here's the interesting part. Being a German, and being a citizen of a defeated German city, you might think Hegel was angry, bitter, or disheartened as the Revolutionary Army took his city. He had no such feelings. In fact, he was able to catch a glimpse of Napoleon inspecting the ravaged city, and he was positively overcome with glowing admiration:

"The Emperor - this world soul - I saw riding through the city to review his troops; it is indeed a wonderful feeling to see such an individual who, here concentrated into a single point, sitting on a horse, reaches out over the world and dominates it."

The first thought that came to my mind as I read this for the first time was, simply, how lucky this man was. How fortunate. Who among us can claim to have come face-to-face with someone that could be described as a "world soul"? Some who "reaches out over the world and dominates it"? I certainly haven't. But I suppose if you met a President that you particularly admired, shook his hand, someone like JFK or even RFK campaigning in the summer of 68, I suppose that would qualify. But I still think its a very, very rare experience, only because I don't believe there are many "world souls" alive at any one time. It's like that Jewish myth of (and I'm paraphrasing) the 32. At any given time there are 32 devout souls on this planet who's piety keep God from squashing us. I think at any given time there's only one or two world souls allowed to exist. Why, I haven't speculated on; but something tells me that such individuals probably make themselves as opposed to being ordained by a diety.

Have there been "world souls" in my day? I can honestly only think of two, and I don't think either fit Hegel's use of the phrase. Ronald Reagan and John Paul the Great. Detractors might label them as mere cult-of-personalities; but I prefer to view them as focal points of great movements. Through their gentle forcefulness, their charisma, their ability to communicate, they instituted sweeping changes in the last quarter of the twentieth century that we are still feeling today and will continue to feel for decades. The deaths of both men touched me very deeply. I only hope that I may experience, and possibly meet, another "world soul" before I die.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A Noble Thought

One would hope that at-home-staying humans will start thinking - "What was it I was thinking about when they told me I had to 'earn my living' - doing what someone else had decided needed to be done? What do I see that needs to be done that nobody else is attending to? What do I need to learn to be effective in attending to it in a highly efficient and inoffensive-to-others manner?"

- Buckminster Fuller, A Critical Path

Sign me up. I like what this man's saying. Excuse me while I retire to the basement with a pen and paper for about an hour or two. I have a lot of things to think very deeply about ...

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Way Station



Way Station
© 1963 by Clifford D. Simak

Way Station – damn you! How I wanted to hate you! How I wanted to throw you in the fire, or at least the used book bin, half-read, and me cursing the wasted hours, never to be mine again.

On the surface, your faults are glaring. A dull, humdrum protagonist (I’m almost yawning now), two-dimensional supporting characters (I’ve added a dimension in charity), and an abundance of clichés ranging from the tough-as-nails CIA agent, the country bumpkins and yokels and huck-yuck Deliverance types, the deaf-dumb-and-blind girl, the stoic anti-war war veteran. Prose laden with basic grammar-school adjectives, dialogue that feels constrained in a strait-jacket, blocks and blocks of characters thinking their thoughts right out on the page as if they were shouting at us through a bull-horn. Oh, Way Station, how did thy win a Nebula Award?

Wait – is the Nebula Award the SF honor voted by the crowds, a science fiction People’s Choice award? I think it is. No science fiction author in his right mind would vote for it for a Hugo, the Oscars of the genre …

But wait. I steel myself to say this, but, but … there is something here.

I could not put the book down. I would have finished it in three days or so, but due to life events, it took me a week. And I had to see how it ended.

What happened?

Ideas, I suppose. And a strange quality that called back to an innocent era, an innocent time, half-a-century ago. Well, perhaps innocent is not the best descriptor of this elusive quality. How about – what’s the opposite of "not-jaded"?

Back to the ideas. In a sentence, the novel is about aliens who, in establishing a galactic way station (think of a train depot) here on Earth, encounter a Civil War veteran and convince him to operate it. A little more detail? Okay. The way station is the man’s house, as done by Alien Home Makeover. It’s now impenetrable to any weapon on Earth. And as a bonus, our hero doesn’t age, due to some rays or something the alien machinery gives off. A century passes, and he’s amassed quite a bit of knowledge about the strange denizens of our universe.

There’s some intrigue that takes place in the last third of the book. I thought I predicted the outcome, but I didn’t, then I thought it would all end with a swell, cleaned-up denoument, but it didn’t. So, points for that.

The best part of Way Station is, I think, those ideas Simak develops. The different types of alien species, as well as some of the gadgets they bring with them, are intriguing. I like the pyramid of smooth ping-pong balls that can be moved any which way but stay in the shape of a pyramid. What is it? Maybe a game, maybe a calculator? Maybe an ethical or a philosophical calculator? The holodeck, made famous in the second Star Trek series, makes an appearance here. There’s also mention of a method the aliens have of dealing with hostile cultures – mentally incapacitating the population of a planet so that its beings can no longer operate weapons of mass destruction. This lasts for a couple of generations, then gradually wears off, yielding a new renaissance. The only downside is the fact that not only is warfare forgotten, so is manufacture, food supply, mathematics and science, etc.

The method of travel described in the novel was slightly creepy to me over a single point: the issue of whether living entities have souls, and how this would be affected by teleportation. Simak argues that we do, and it is merely souls that are transmitted throughout the galaxy. A new body is created at every new entry point. And what happens to the old ones? Well, our hero has gigantic vats of acid in the cavernous basement city the alien engineers have built for him …

So, a verdict? C+. Could have been a B had the craft been better. But it’s saved by that one thing every writer, every novelist needs: the elicitation of the desire in the reader to turn the page and see how it ends.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Slow Treatment

It’s Saturday night and we’re cruising around, trying to find someone to buy us some beer. Bob’s driving, I’m in the passenger seat, Steve’s in the back. Suddenly, we’re blinded: "What the hell?" Bright light floods the interior of the Corolla.

Bob adjusts the rear-view mirror, annoyed. This is his third set of wheels, quite different from his previous ones we were accustomed. For one thing, the Corolla isn’t a boat like the Monarch and the Olds. Those gigantic monstrosities could easily handle the ear-bleeding stereo systems he’d install into them first-thing. The Corolla is a sub-compact, similar to his mother’s Chevette that he drove into the ground in only three months right after school. But the Corolla as a genus is built for abuse, and Bob’s is the perfect man for the job.

He had let his friends up at SUNY, the body shop club, get their hands on it. They painted writhing, sizzling flames splaying backwards from the front of the cheerful blue hood, insinuating fantastic speeds no Corolla could ever attain. Upon the hub caps they designed yin-yang symbols that spun to a delirious gray blur as he drove by, symbolizing the zen state of mind only beer and perhaps Yes could induce. The crowning achievement had to be the peace sign, five-foot across, adorning the roof. A police chopper following us would have no problem locking on the vehicle in question.

Steve, in the backseat, is a rather odd fellow. Perpetually wearing a frog-on-acid expression, Steve knew how to network before I even knew what the term meant. He has connections. Bob may have the wheels, but Steve knows the right people. Hooking up with Steve means hooking up with at least a half-dozen unsavory types with the ability to get us youngins any type of contraband we could possibly be interested in.

We all curse, staring over our shoulders out the rear view window. Some idiot’s driving right up onto the peace machine of death, high beams like spot lights upon us. "What the hell is this guy doing?" I wonder out loud, irritated, catching Bob’s thoughtful expression in profile.

"This guy wants to smell what Bob had for lunch," Steve notes tastefully.

We’re coasting up a slight incline, a double-yellow-lined road, leaving our town north for Echo Lake. I must admit to being more than a little nervous. Something just don’t feel right. I’m never one for confrontations, at least dead-cold sober, and this looks like a confrontation in the works. But honor wouldn’t allow us to just let this a--hole behind us push us around, right? We couldn’t just pull over and let him pass us. That’s too much a loss of face. Bob would never do that, especially with us in the car. So, we’re doing forty on a local road, our friend’s closing in at fifty or so feet behind us, and I’m starting to get very nervous.

"What the f--- is going on with this a--hole?" Steve says, a little anxious himself. No more merry jokester. Now that is more disconcerting than a ton of metal speeding up behind you, twenty feet away.

"You know what this calls for," Bob announces expansively to the group. Ahah! I’m thinking, Bob will know what to do. The man always knows what to do in the appropriate situation. My friend will show this j---off behind us a thing or two. But my mind’s blank in the thick of the excitement – what does this call for?

Before I can ask or come up with a witty retort, Bob answers his own question: "This calls for ... the Slow Treatment." And the words come out of his mouth like a giant slackening rubber band, his voice lowering an octave for emphasis.

The Slow Treatment. I’d heard about it often, seen it done once or twice, even had it done to me on occasion. It’s a thing of beauty when done to perfection, and Bob’s the man to do it. This simple driving maneuver is brought out of a skillful driver’s bag of tricks only on the occasion of the most truly annoying of tailgaters. Which this idiot definintely was, we all decided by unspoken assent. Bob has merely tuned in to our minds, as he’d done so many times before, and found the appropriate mode of response to our ever approaching rearward nemesis.

"He’s getting closer," I add, trying to act cool as I shield my eyes to look behind me into the two angry suns gaining on us. There must have been something in my voice to betray my nerves. Steve picks up on it: "Bob, just let this guy pass – "

Bob silences us with a good-natured bark. Steve continues to one of his stock jokes and a dog-like yap-yap from Bob shames him quiet. My friend focuses one eye on the road, one eye in the rear view mirror as his right foot slowly eases up on the gas pedal.

The headlights surge forth, barely five feet off the peace car’s bumper. What is this guy doing? my mind frantically screams, and I’m not sure if I mean the idiot behind us or the idiot in the driver’s seat.

Never in the Slow Treatment does the driver hit the brakes. No, that would be a dead giveaway to the victim in the tailgating car, and an attempt would be made to pass. And in this case, that attempt would probably be successful, considering the Corolla was packing four cylinders – three if you count the one that misfired. But since we’re racing up an incline our speed quickly drops – fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty – in just a few brief seconds.

I’m wondering what’s going through the other guy’s mind – has he hit his own brakes? Is he even considering braking? He’s so close, accelerating so fast, he has to – he has no choice! But what is he thinking?

The intense light invading the interior of the Corolla flickers – brighter, dim, bright, dim, then steady bright. The bastard’s high-beaming us. He’s onto us. What is his rush?

A big silly grin spreads across Bob’s features. Feigning surprise, Bob shakes his head and cranks up the stereo - "And You and I" is playing - and taps his brakes.

Then the idiot behind us makes his move. In mufflerless burst of acceleration, he crosses the double-yellow lines and advances beyond our left flank. The scream of his engine overpowers even Chris Squire's thomping bass melting Bob’s speakers and my eardrums.

But Bob counters, slamming the Corolla’s gas pedal to the floor. I’m pressed back into the vinyl seat. I can barely turn my head to the side, to track the bastard trying to pass us, the only thing useful I feel I should do.

Both vehicles are neck and neck in half a second, speeding back up past fifty. The incline is sharper, putting more strain on both engines, but the crest of the hill is just before us. Now we’re at fifty-five, then sixty, then seventy. The dark trees on the sides of the road are a blur. We’re doing nearly eighty in a twenty-five mile an hour zone, a winding stretch of a dark, double-yellow-lined hill.

A car could conceivably appear over the edge of the hill, doing a peaceful thirty, only to be slammed into by the idiot, killing all involved, the idiot, the oncoming vehicle, maybe Bob, maybe Steve, possibly even my own indestructible nineteen-year-old self.

And even if not, both our cars will be airborne once we crest the peak of the hill, seconds away. Yet neither driver wants to give up now, so close, so close.

We reach the top of the hill, wheels to wheels, both engines screaming, passengers screaming. Then we all spot it simultaneously, but I have to question whether the idiot speeding next to us saw it at all.

Radar trap.

A quarter mile past the summit, nestled in a side street with only parking lights on, sits a local cop. We’ll pass him in less than two seconds.

Bob stomps on the brakes, gritting teeth. The idiot, in all his glee, cuts us off hard, no doubt gloating into his rear view mirror as his car cuts in front of ours topping eighty-five miles an hour. And a half-second later he’s in the policeman’s web, and we’re down to fifty, forty, thirty –

Bob swerves down the first side street he sees, only a block past the crest of the hill, tires squealing in protest, and I’m thrown against the passenger-side door, praying that the rickety old Corolla won’t chose this moment to throw its first human.

By the end of the block our adrenaline is down to mere overdrive. No one says anything for a few moments, save a reverential "Holy s---" from the rear seat. This is echoed by several more, each more pronounced and more triumphant.

I slap the dashboard, ecstatic. Do you know what we just accomplished here? One last thing has to be checked out, I decide. "Bob, turn around! We have to drive by and see! Turn around!"
"No way man!" he shouts between bursts of relieved laughter. "No way in hell I’m going back there!"

But I must find out. My mind is racing as fast as we were speeding a few moments ago. Then, an idea. "Bob, go onto Granville" – that’s the street parallel to the one we’ve been racing on – "and let’s go down a block, slow."

Steve agrees, seeing what I’m getting at, and now Bob, outvoted, has to do it.

But we find out the answer to all our questions when we turn off of Granville and head south towards the radar trap: spiralling red and blue flashing on the trees and the houses up and down the whole block. A multihued cop approaching the idiot's rolled-down window, summons pad in hand. Bob again hits his brakes, bringing the peace machine of death to a complete stop, and kicks it into reverse, backing onto Granville again.

We all realize what happened. Justice, sweet justice.

All in search of someone to buy us a case of beer.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Kirana

Back in 1999, I wrote my first novel, as a test to see whether I could even do it. I started January 1st, and wrote an hour a day, five days a week, my only goal to keep writing for that whole hour. In the beginning it was rough, embarrassing, sloppy, and I had my doubts. But after about a month, I’d say, I slipped into a routine, a regimen, and I actually looked forward to my writing sessions. After initial hesitancy I was never at a lack for ideas, and I learned a lot in the process of carving out that first draft.

I found out that my strengths, as they appeared to me, lay in characterization and dialogue. I enjoyed listening to my characters talk to one another. Talk, argue, fight, plan, plead, brainstorm … I really wasn’t part of the conversation. They were. It’s a really weird sort of an existential phenomenon, one you won’t understand unless you yourself are a writer. But that’s what I loved most.

What surprised me was my realization that exposition was something I really had no talent for. I just couldn’t do it, or couldn’t figure out a way to do it that seemed natural. Every story has some important background, every setting has some essential details, that you need to convey to the reader without boring him or taking him out of the story. I couldn’t figure out how to do it inconspicuously. I think I’ve greatly improved, but I still view it as a weakness.

The novel had somewhat tragic roots. Back in the summer of ’97 I wrote an outline that intrigued me; a few weeks later I banged out a little over 30 pages (double-spaced Microsoft Word file). It wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was exciting. For the first time since Star Rats I was a novelist. Then, fate struck. Being somewhat new to Word, I inadvertently deleted my file, then saved the empty version. What was I thinking? I don’t know; I just panicked. I lost everything. I did not have a hard copy.

That disappointed me so much that a year-and-a-half had to pass before I resumed the novel. I finished the first draft mid-July 1999. I edited it and created the second draft September to November of 2007 (I wrote two drafts of this novel in the interim). It’s geared to a younger audience than that second novel, but in many ways I think it’s a funner work.

You want a brief synopsis, without giving away too much? Okay.

A couple-hundred years in the future, the human race has spread through the galaxy. The McGuffin that drives expansion is fueled by diamonds. And Kirana, a dead, airless world, is a veritable diamond farm.

There’s a major mining facility on the planet as well as a military base to ensure that everything involved with the production of the gems goes without incident. Sure, there’s tension on the homeworld, tensions throughout the settled planetary systems, but when has there ever not been?

Then – an explosion. Massive. At the mining facility. Can’t raise ’em on the shortwave. The base sends a couple of search-and-rescue parties, and after surveying the carnage and bringing back a few survivors, they also unintentionally bring something else back.

The body of Kirana deals with our heroes figuring out just what did come back with the SAR parties. And the whys and hows of the Big Picture. There’s plenty of violence, false leads, trickery and double-crossing, and misfortune. I think the rewrite did justice to the ending, which now packs the punch the first one didn’t. Ironic and more of a shade of gray than its eight-year-old predecessor, Kirana draft no. 1.

Coming soon to a bookstore near you!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Short Stories Part 2

Following up on yesterday’s post, here’s the short summaries / teasers of the remaining half of the sixteen short stories I’ve written.


"The Mouse Brothers" – Follow the adventures of two mice destined to lead their people: Flick, courageous and charismatic, and his younger brother, the mystical Ash, struggle valiantly to overcome the hard winter, the threat of starvation, a violent tribe of rats, and a particularly nasty cat to lead their people to a new home.

"The Obfusquum" – Imagine an object small enough to hold in your hand, but powerful enough to manipulate reality according to the thoughts of the possessor. A group of men and women in post-war Europe hunt for it, fight against each other, and struggle with the simple question: what would you do once you possess it? For one, the answer to such a question is put to the test.

"Perimeter Gambit" – On a nameless icy planetoid, a young lieutenant stakes everything to search for life, but gets more than he wagered when he stumbles across the "nasties," the intergalactic enemy of mankind, and seeks to redeem himself with the captain who is saddled with the task to get them offworld alive.

"The Skunk Ape" – A young boy has a chance encounter with a giant creature in the woods and finds the strength to deal with his domineering father.

"Tin Roof" – Two young military officers face the unpleasant task of dealing with what may be the sole survivors of nuclear testing.

"The Treatment" – What do you do when in an alcoholic haze you steal a hundred grand from the 1950s Las Vegas mob? Go to a UFO convention in search of psychic powers! (Why, what else could there be to do?)

"A Twist of Character" – My answer to a Stephen King challenge from his 2000 book On Writing, it’s the simple love story of a man, his prosthetic arm, and the woman who wants to kill him.

"XIKN" – The metal machines flew down from the clouds, laser-targets locking, guns blazing, hunting down the infidels one-by-one. But a single believer risks his life to make it past them, and possibly reach sanctuary.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Short Stories Part 1

Over the past five years I’ve written sixteen short stories, covering a variety of genres: science fiction, spy/espionage, fantasy, horror. They’re between 5,000 and 15,000 words each, and usually deal with an individual or group of individuals facing either a seemingly-impossible task or having to deal with some insanely impossible phenomenon that shouldn’t quite exist but does. I think the strongest part of my stories, and the parts that I enjoy the most when writing, are the characters, how they become fleshed out mainly through dialogue that seems to come from their lips and not my typing fingers.

Originally I had the goal of writing two short stories a month, then one a month, but as you can tell, that’s a constantly shifting and perhaps too-lofty goal. Most of the stories were written between the tail end of 2002 and the beginning of 2005. In the three years since I’ve spent my energy on writing and rewriting a new novel and rewriting a draft of another one I wrote in 1999. I have a lot of ideas on the corkboard behind my desk, so I’d like to get back in the habit of writing short stories. I think they’re the best and first necessary step to getting longer work published.

Today and tomorrow I’ll post brief synopses of each of my stories, kind of like what the blurbs you’d see beneath the story title in the table of contents in an anthology. And once I figure out how to get ’em all copyrighted, maybe I’ll post the coolest of the cool parts on this website.

In alphabetical order, here’s the first eight stories:


"Armistice" – Geoffrey saw fierce action in France in WWI, survived to climb the ladder of post-war intelligence, and guide his nation through the Cold War. But can his conscience find peace with itself for what may have happened down in those trenches so many years ago?

"The Bathysphere" – Henry and his flamboyant mentor, the Professor Archie Dodd, plan the first high-profile descent to the bottom of the sea in a cramped iron sphere. Soon they’re face-to-face with something that severs the thick chain that’s their only lifeline to the surface world and find themselves plummeting to the ocean floor.

"Coins In The Sewer" – Question: Is teen-age Vincent a loser, or is he a serial killer? Both, or neither? And why does he throw his spare change down a sewer drain every night? (Based on an image from a Stephen King short story, "Everything’s Eventual.")

"The Gulley" – June and her cousins loved nothing better than spending the summer days playing in the woods around their Kentucky home. Then one very hot August night they find themselves under assault from mysterious entities emerging from the dark gulley behind their home.

"It’s Gonna Snow" – A group of post-apocalyptic survivors trapped inside a bunker due to the radiation pollution can only raise a spooky voice on the shortwave – and it seems to be approaching …

"K3" – The first multinational expedition to conquer the K3 mountain is an essential public display of global peace and cooperation. But an assassin has been discovered as one of the members of the team, and Moyet has the impossible task to discover his – or her – identity before tragedy occurs. But who exactly is Moyet?

"The Lumps" – Phil is a research biochemist hard at work researching deadly viruses for the government. Then one morning he finds two lumps on his neck, and very quickly doubts his sanity as well as reality as aliens, time travel, and his clone insert themselves into his once-perfect life.

"Mister Kingdom" – Sick and alone in an orphanage, Hannah tries to save her bed-ridden friend from a shadowy figure known only as "Mister Kingdom."

Saturday, May 24, 2008

T-Shirt Gods Revisited

A while back I posted on some t-shirts that I wouldn't mind having in my 2008 collection. Since 2008 is nearly half over and I haven't gotten those ones that I asked for, I'd like to suggest to the gods a few more that have been gestating between my ears for a while.

First of all, what t-shirt collection is complete without this -


Yes, that's right ladies, it's Maxwell's Equations. But since I don't need a chick magnet (only because I'm married), I'd wear a shirt with these equations proudly as a reminder of the human intellect. Yes, a man figgered out a hundred-fifty years ago or so that electricity and magnetism are actually the same force manifesting in our world in different ways. A t-shirt that functions as a tribute!

If that's a bit too heady (read: nerdy), then how about this -



You got it! It's Patrick Star, Spongebob's best friend, and an echinoderm I'm well acquainted with thanks to my three-year old daughter. She may prefer Squidward, but to me, Patrick's the best part of the show. He answers the question: can a cartoon character make an overstressed, underpaid forty-year-old man laugh?

Next, to piss off our left-of-center friends, and to make a rare political statement (I hate politics with a passion), we have this simple number -





I first saw this a year or two into the Iraq War, and it's found on protestwarrior's website. Initially I supported the war, but in hindsight, I now realize I was mistaken, but since we've gone in and done uprooted the only way-of-life those poor Iraqis knew, we have the responsibility to stay until it's right. So, the answer is ... I haven't a clue. But this I know: the doctrine of absolute pacifism is just asinine.

And finally, I like personalized message tees. So, again, to top off my ensemble, I’d need this line, in small dark letters, on a snappy white short-sleeve:

I don't do small talk.

It's not as antisocial as it seems at first reading. I'm not an antisocial guy. I'm just awkward in social settings, particularly ones with large groups of extroverted people. I think this would be a friendly way to convey my inner essence and allow me the freedom to escape to somewhere out of the way to read a good little book, by myself.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Philosophy On Deck

In sticking with my original plan to overcome my hopping tendencies, I am continuing my sparring match with Hegel. I have three short books to read about him, plus a longer one penned by Walter Kaufmann, then back to the anthology. I expect to be done with my reading and research by mid-September, a little less than four months away. Have to be, because that’s when my second child is due, and there ain’t gonna be no philosophy reading in my house for at least a few weeks after that. Screaming infants have that effect.

However, I do have a stack of unread books leaning against my desk. Actually, five of them. One is my philosophy stack, and there’s about a dozen books piled up. I’m thinking, in a kind of easy, non-commital way, that beginning with the new year I might take two months at a time to read a philosopher – and just one book at that. Tentatively, I came up with the following list to take me to next summer. And for your enjoyment, I include a photo of the philosopher in question, so you can put a face to the name (winks).



Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274): Shorter Summa. Ah, the master. Always wanted to comprehend him, but found the Summa Theologica too … analytical, I suppose. Is that the right word? Well, hard for me to read. The Shorter Summa is easier, and I did read through most of it a few years ago. But I want another go around.



William James (1842-1910): Pragmatism. This is supposedly one of the easiest philosophy books to read. And by easy, we don’t mean fluff. We mean intelligible. Understandable. 180 degrees from Hegel, the antimatter-Hegel in that regard. Anyway, I’ve had this one for a long time and the underlying idea behind pragmatism interests me: take what you find useful, what works, what’s ‘true’, and disregard the rest. Well, that’s quite simplified, but I suppose it’s a pragmatic definition.



Henri Bergson (1859-1941): Matter and Memory. This book tackles the mind-body problem. I’ve only read short selections of Bergson, and only a few at that, but I enjoyed what I read and think I understood it. This would be my first deep foray into this man’s philosophy. I heard the book is somewhat difficult, and that Bergson spent years researching and clarifying his thoughts before actually writing it. I’m curious to see how it relates to Hegel’s Phenomenology.



Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855): Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing. The spiritual / religious side of me has often wanted to read this man, seeing in him a kindred spirit, but I always, sooner rather than later, get turned off. I’d like to read this book as a true test of developing focus, and stick with it to the end. It’s not long, and shouldn’t be too difficult, and the title really, really interests me.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

One Syllable

There was no blue in the sky all that month. Not a trace of blue. Bleak gray clouds, fat and dark. All seemed an odd shade of gray. The ash, the bones, the rocks and the dried blood. No good guys, though. Still can’t find them. We were late. Or here too soon.

I stared out of the car, rubbed my eyes. I scanned the sky. Where was the sun?

Brin was at my side, her face a mask of fear. "They’ve been here, too," she said with a sigh.

"Yes." I hoped they had left. Shades. It was a bad way to die, by their hands. The car was now out of gas and we’d have to find some more. That was first on my list. Well … I glanced back at Brin.

And she turned to the seat in the rear. There was a dead man there. We did not know his name, but he saved us both. But a Shade bit him, and soon he died. He died in the back of this car, while I drove, and while Brin slept.

Brin snatched her stole and stepped out in the gray mist. "Damn all this ash," she said in a low growl. "I’m cold."

"It will be a cold spring." I grabbed the keys; I hoped the spade was still in the trunk. I waved at the shacks at the side of the road. "Check them for – "

"Yeah, yeah, I know the drill," and she was out of sight.

My shirt was torn. Bad. The wind cut through me like a blade. I hoped Brin would find us some fresh clothes. I lacked sleep, my hands were bruised, and the ash choked my lungs. But it would be dark soon and I had a good man to put in the ground.

Some time passed; I don’t know how much. I broke a sweat. The ground was hard, and my hands bled. By night the man with no name was gone.

Brin was still out in the small town, though.

I kept my sights down the road. Both sides. There was no noise but the wind, and there was no sign of … them. But still, I did not like this at all.

Back at the car I pulled the nerve gun out from my boot. Still packed a charge. Good.

But now it was too dark to see. Weird blue flames shot up past the lake, five or ten miles due north. That was the sole source of light. Faint and vague. Gas, meat, and a mine lamp. That’s what I hoped Brin could find.

She’d been gone too long, though, I thought. Should I risk a yell, a shout in the night, or would that bring Shades to us?

"Rick!"

I heard the sharp call, quick and high, but could not place where it came from. "Brin!" I moved down off the road, near the dark shapes that once were homes. I kicked a dead thing and gasped; what else lay off in these fields?

"Rick!" She was near, and I sensed fear in her voice. The nerve gun was out, primed, and I wished I could see more than a few feet in front of me. If a bolt from the gun hit her …

But I felt her arms on me, and she pulled me in. "Oh, Rick!" she cried, and I felt hot tears on my face. Hers. She shook, and I held her tight. She smelled bad, but so did I, and at this point we did not care.

"No gas?"

"No." A pause. "And no meat. It’s all cleaned out. They were just here. Still are I bet. We have to leave. We have to leave now! Where can we go with no gas?"

I shushed her, stood back. I found that I could not spot the car. But we’d be dead in it, with no fuel to get out of this town. I tried to think. Brin would ask me soon what we should do.

Sweat and ash dripped down my face, in my mouth and on my tongue. What was that ash made of? Part of me knew. Skin. Blood. Bones. Wood and rock. And I knew it would kill us in the long run.

As long as I could keep them from me. From us.

"Let’s go." I pulled her hard up the slope, back to where I thought the road was.

"Where, you oaf? Where can we go?" She was mad at me, real mad, for the first time in her life. I could not blame her. I’d been a fool.

She fought me, but my grip was firm. I hurt her, more hurt than I had done so far. "Brin – "

"No, Rick. You brought us here. You. What else do you want? What else?"

"I don’t know what to say to that, Brin."

"Then shut up."

"I tried." I let her go. "I tried my best … I thought we’d be safe …" I sat down, in the dark. It was just then I heard the noise. Them. Shades. Here, now. Of all towns, this one. I reached out, for Brin, but she was not there.

"Brin!"

I rose to my feet, ran back to the shacks. I fell, hard, with a shout. The gun went off as I hit the ground, and the sky lit up.

They were on the road, by the car.

They saw me.

I tried to get back up, but the pain was too much. "Brin!" I cried out, and sat up. The nerve gun still held charge, I saw. I risked another blast.

The sky flashed hot white, and I saw the Shades. Close. They’d soon be on top of me. But I saw – no!

There was a shape in the car.

Brin?

"Damn you," I growled. "There’s no gas in the car!"

Brake lights came on, and I saw them smash through the glass.

"No," I yelled. "I’ll save you, Brin!"

A blow slammed my head from the side, and then all was dark, for a long, long time.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hegel and Inner Space

Two weeks ago I posted an entry entitled “Hegel the Alien,” and I think my initial assessment of the philosopher was more than a little imaginative. I read the brief descriptions of his idealism by Durant and Lavine, and I’m now just about finished with Singer’s Very Short Introduction to Hegel. And now I have a somewhat different interpretation of Spirit.

That’s the problem, right there, that word ‘Spirit.’ In pretty much any book about Hegel you’ll read, you’ll come across three items. One, how difficult it is to read him. Check, I agree. Two, the whole thesis-antithesis-synthesis, which may or may not be an actual part of his philosophy. I haven’t heard definitively one way or the other. Most likely he had something similar, but not as simplified as that formula. Anyway, three: his use of the word Geist, the lynch-pin of his philosophy and written about in all his works.

If you aren’t aware of it, Geist is a German word that has no English equivalent. It can mean anything from ‘ghost’ to ‘spirit’ to ‘mind’ and all shades in between. Sometimes Hegel means what we would label ‘spirit,’ as in the ‘spirit of the times,’ and other times he means ‘mind’ as in that essence which centers itself ethereally behind your eyeballs. And other times he kind of combines the two in some bizarre concept that appeals to me, but I have a hard time grasping. It’s rather like a Zen koan.

Anyway, I think the mistake I made in that “Hegel the Alien” post was taking the word ‘spirit’ a tad too literally. I don’t think the philosopher envisioned some sort of upper-dimensional entity that springs from our minds or somehow creates or sustains our minds. But I think you have to admit it’s a decently cool theory, albeit a little disturbing.

Singer has decided to translate Geist as ‘mind’ or Mind in his short little book on Hegel. Now that I’ve read a summation of the philosophy using the term Mind, it strikes me that perhaps Hegel was a pioneer of the exploration of Inner Space. Consciousness, from pure sensory-consciousness, to perception, to judging, and to increasing degrees of self-consciousness. Maybe that’s a better angle to approach his works, since it seems to fit better with my late-twentieth early-twenty-first century post-Enlightenment scientifically-rational mindset. Or Mindset. Singer’s definitely exposed me to a different view of Hegel, allowed me to see the man’s philosophy from a different angle, and that’s very exciting to me.

I still believe, though, that Hegel had some sort of hybrid idea in mind (pun intended). And like all Zen koans, I won’t be able to crack it until after I’ve thought about it a good deal, and then only after some sort of subconscious revelation, like remembering something you forgot to do at work just before drifting off to sleep. Hmmm: how mystical!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Best Job I Ever Had

Upon reflection, I have to admit that, strictly speaking, I’ve never had a job I truly loved. That is, I have never been paid, so far, to do any of the things I love. All of my jobs have been to pay the bills. But of the dozen or so I’ve had over the past twenty-plus years, there were a couple I enjoyed beyond simple toleration. Utilizing unrelenting triage, here’s the “best” job I ever had:

During my freshman year at Rutgers I worked Saturdays and Sundays, fifteen hours a weekend, in the Library of Science and Medicine. They paid me $3 an hour. I don’t know how they legally did that, but I guess the steady student supply of slave labor was something too tempting for the university to resist. Regardless, the work was mostly low-stress and I had lots of free time to wander the shelves, read, explore, investigate. What’s not to like about that?

Every hour I’d circulate to a different duty. The one I hated most was at the checkout desk, particularly on Sunday when a major test would be held Monday morning. Professors would leave study guides (usually consisting of likely test questions) and we’d hand out the few copies on a first-come-first-serve basis. Students could be rude and impatient, but in retrospect I chalk that up to stress. There were a couple of cool people I worked with, a girl named Wanda, a girl named Faith, a guy whose name I forget but can still picture his face. But there was an Middle Eastern guy, I forget his name, too, who was ferociously afflicted with dragon breath. The head librarian never failed to schedule my desk duty with him, and when he would answer one of my many questions, my eyes would water and I’d be gasping for fresh oxygen.

I absolutely enjoyed getting at the library first thing in the morning, when 99.9 percent of the campus was sleeping off hangovers (and I had my fair share there, too). I put away journals, arranged the furniture, shelved returned items, etc. They had me spend an hour a day “shelf reading” where I just went book by book to make sure they were ordered correctly on the shelves. I would disappear into a corner, and any book that got my fancy I would spend some time delving into. I learned a lot that year, though I’m hesitant to reveal everything I read. But I was into physics back then, as well as medicine (I had toyed with studying anesthesiology), as well as … let’s just say weirder stuff I’m a little embarrassed about today.

So, the $45 I earned weekly bought my beer and off-campus food. I had something to do since my roommates generally went home for the weekends. My intellectual curiosity was satiated. Today, my goal is to earn a living writing and have loads of free time to continue my research into, well, whatever books pop into my life at that given time.

Now to me, that’s the best job to have!

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Worst Job I Ever Had

For five months in 2002 I worked in the IT Help Desk department for a Japanese bank in New York City. Well, I didn’t work for the bank, but for an IT company that supplied us to various companies to help with their tech problems. I had just spent 18 months working for the IT department of a large hotel chain, and enjoyed myself enough to stay in the field after a geographic relocation. But supporting this bank -

It was the worst job I ever had.

Why?

Let me count the ways.

First of all, the man who hired me “ran” the help desk at the Japanese bank, despite the fact that he could barely turn on a PC. He was a nice guy, though, a retired cop who was doing this as sort of a second career, but he didn’t understand you if you had to escalate a problem to him. So, we didn’t. In fact, there was no one to “escalate” problems to. You had to fix it, or take the heat. That wasn’t so bad, except for the fact that there was no training. You had to learn by doing. This also isn’t so bad, except that you were required to know the ins and outs of two operating systems, over twenty-five banking software programs, two email systems, and any and all printing and networking issues. Hardware and software. It quickly got frustrating.

There was a language barrier to deal with, too. I’d estimate 75% of the employees were native Japanese who spoke no English. Some were nice, some not so. The other seven guys I worked with, whether they were as stressed as me or not, were the nastiest bunch of men I’ve ever worked with. When you take merciless b***-busting, spritz it with a cover-your-a** mentality and shake (not stir) in an every-man-for-himself environment, you find it’s not too palatable. I probably realized this at the end of my first week.

My hours rotated every month. The earliest were 7-4, the latest 10-7. Not too bad, but I was commuting from New Jersey into New York City, via NJ Transit trains. So the later I had to be in, the earlier, comparatively speaking, I had to leave to manage traffic. You could count on the trains: always late an average of once a week. And they break down, too, on an average of once every two weeks. I was on a train that actually derailed (thank God we were only going a few mph) and we had to wait forty-five minutes for a “rescue train” to get us in to the city. And crowded Penn Station, especially when the weather gets warmer, ain’t no picnic either.

Yeah, the boss of the IT company that I technically worked for had no idea who I was, and the pay was less than meager, and the help desk area itself was such a mess you wasted half the time on a service call looking for replacement equipment. But there was one thing that tipped me off right away that things were not quite right there. My manager, the ex-cop, told me that all of us at the desk had to “look busy” all the time. Don’t stay at your desk too long. We could even go out of the building for an hour at a time, and he recommended it. Apparently our Japanese overlords were thinking about cutting the Help Desk expense, so we had to make ourselves appear as critical to mission success as possible. Late in the summer I was let go, one of those last-man-in-first-man-out things.

Yet there were a few things I liked about the job. Not the job itself, but some fringe benefits you could say. For the first time I explored New York City, and really enjoyed it. I hunted out a couple of used book stores. I started going to daily mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I found a couple of really neat places to eat lunch. I saw the sights, learned my way around and gained a bit of confidence as I traveled about in trains and cabs. My wife would meet me occasionally for some very pleasant dinners. I also managed to read a lot of books on those trains, classics and SF and hard-science stuff. And I discovered that a cold beer in a paper bag on a Friday afternoon train is just about the closest thing to heaven we can experience down here on earth.

But no amount of city life, books, or beer will ever, ever make me want to go back.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Recurrences


Well, wouldn’t you know it, but last night I had my recurring dream again. Must’ve been that lucid dreaming post yesterday still on my mind that done did it. In it, I said that I’d blog about the recurring dream later on, which means it goes on a blog topic list some twenty items long and growing, and maybe I’d get to it in a month or two. So, since it’s fresh in my mind, here it is.

It’s kind of a mild nightmare. In my recurring dream, I die. Not really, though. I’m part of a movie, a castmember, and we’re acting out scenes. And the scene in my dream is one in which the character I’m playing gets killed. The nightmarish part about it is that the movie is always different. Sometimes I’m shot with bullets, or stabbed, or eaten by some terrifying monster. Last night it was those little facehugger nasties from the Alien movies.

Now, I know that I’m not really going to die. Yes, there might be some pain and there will definitely be some discomfort, but I’m not really going to die. It’s just a movie, see? A very realistic one, a highly convincing one, but a movie nonetheless. So last night, probably around 3 or 4 am real time, my eyelids are twitching and my heart rate is racing as my ethereal self is wandering from room to room in the mazelike mansion, trying to avoid those facehuggers and the humans that might have been implanted with aliens. A couple of my companions did die, in front of me, and I had some close scrapes, but I woke up, thanks to a full bladder, still breathing and in one piece.

What does it all mean?

I’m not a psychologist and have absolutely no psychological training or experience. I took Intro to Psych in college and don’t remember a darn thing. So whatever I know is probably some bastardized form of pop psychology and it probably is a huge waste of time to try to analyze such a dream. Which is why I never did.

Until now.

What does it mean? I would guess this: On the surface it appears I’m afraid to do something [dying in a movie] that ultimately won’t do me any harm. I’m afraid of doing this thing because of self-magnified fears of it [the monsters, or bullets]. But my purpose is to act out the script, as realistically as possible. Conclusion: my subconscious is telling me to suck it up and do what I know I really should do with my life. Take that first step.

Or …

Maybe it means this. I feel trapped following a script for my life that I do not want. The monsters or the bullets or knives are symbolic of the unpleasantness I associate with this path [the movie]. I shrink at having to go through the scenes, knowing what’s ahead. Conclusion: my subconscious is telling me to do whatever I have to do to get off the picture. Take that first step.

Hey, wait a minute.

Either way, no matter how the parts of the dream are interpreted, it seems to be saying the same thing to me. Hmmmmm. No more thinking, procrastinating, whatever. It seems I need to do something …some action ... [acting?]

Or maybe I’m just not cut out to be an actor.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Snoozing Lucidity


One thing that fascinates me is dreams and dreaming. I dream every night. Usually I forget them once I’m out of the shower, but two or three times a week I have dreams that I remember. I also have a recurring dream, and have what could be construed as prophetic dreams, but that’s a subject for another post. I want to talk a bit here about lucid dreaming.

Simply put, lucid dreaming is the ability to recognize you’re dreaming when you’re dreaming, and to be able to influence what goes on in your dream as a result of this. You can fly, defeat the monster, beat up your adversaries, whatever. In your dream, you are now the master, and can do whatever you want. Some people just have this ability, others don’t, but it can be taught. Only once have I had a lucid dream, right around the time I first researched this topic about three or four years ago. But I stopped doing the techniques to develop this talent, and as a result, I am the pawn of my subconscious mind when I doze.

So, how do you get to be a lucid dreamer? The better innate ability you have of recalling dreams, the easier it is to develop lucidity. Some of these steps are kind of involved, but once you’ve experienced a lucid dream, I think you’ll want to expend the effort.

The easiest step to do is to firmly resolve, the night before, that you will comprehend the dream state. Repeat to yourself, with strength and emotion, "I will know when I’m dreaming tonight."

You can also try, as you’re falling asleep, to say, "One, I’m dreaming; two, I’m dreaming; three, I’m dreaming," etc, and eventually at some point you’ll find you are dreaming.

Get in the habit of programming your mind. Ask yourself ten times daily (whenever you look at your watch is a good reminder), "Am I dreaming or not?" The hope here is that you’ll find yourself asking this question while you’re actually dreaming, and that will trigger the lucid state.

Oh, of course, keeping a dream journal is a great way to start, especially if you’re one who doesn’t really remember dreams. It doesn’t have to be too involved. Just keep a pen and notebook by your bed. Ask yourself first thing upon awakening, "What was I dreaming," and just jot down a few sentences. It’ll take you five minutes, tops, and you’ll find yourself remembering your dreams more.

In the book Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge (which is the best and breakthrough book on the subject), a three-step technique is detailed to help develop this skill.
1. If you awake in the middle of the night, review any dreams for a few minutes until you’ve memorized it.
2. As you return back to the land of Nod, say (or even better, repeat) to yourself, "Next time I’m dreaming, I want to remember I’m dreaming."
3. While drifting off, visualize yourself being back in the dream you just memorized; only this time, see yourself realizing that you are, in fact, dreaming, and are in control.

Sweet dreams!

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Natural Life

I’m catching some flak here for spending $8 on a book on how to live a disease-free life based on natural and homeopathic therapies. There are some rumors flying about the author being something of a snake-oil salesman. Certainly the guy wants to get rich, as you can plainly see as you read through his book. And this is why my wife is rolling her eyes. Now, I admit that some of the things this dude is trying to sell me are downright nutty. But … there’s a lot in the book I’ve read elsewhere. It’s a massive book and I’m not going to read it cover-to-cover, but I did thumb through it and jotted down any tip or suggestion I thought wasn’t too out there. The tip or suggestion also had to be something I’ve read or heard somewhere else, by someone with at least a little bit o’ credibility.

So, here’s a bunch a habits I’d like to slowly merge into my current lifestyle. There ain’t nothing revolutionary here, but just think: what might the quality of your life be if you did most of these things?

* Drink eight full glasses of pure (filtered or bottled) water daily
* Walk one hour a day
* Stretch several times daily
* Practice deep breathing daily
* Do yoga, chi gung, or tai chi
* Do not eat any processed foods
* Chew each mouthful of food at least fifty times
* Eat as much organic fruits and vegetables as possible
* Avoid fast food restaurants (do not go to them at all!)
* Do not microwave food or water
* Avoid all artificial sweeteners and msg
* Do not drink diet soda (if you must drink soda, drink regular)
* Avoid pasteurized dairy, and limit all dairy foods
* Do not eat pork or shellfish
* Use low aluminum deodorant, three swipes max
* Avoid products containing white sugar or white flour
* Avoid “fat free” or “sugar free” products
* Take short showers and do not take baths
* Buy and use a juicer
* Eat raw organic nuts daily
* Use organic sea salt instead of regular table salt
* Eat organic dark chocolate
* Drink liquids (like beer) from bottles, not cans
* Reduce or eliminate TV time
* Keep sleep times steady between 10 pm and 6 am seven days a week
* Don’t read newspapers, listen to the news, or go on news websites
* Drive less / plan trips and errands / drive calmly
* Use a gentle-sounding alarm clock
* Drink a glass of water immediately upon arising
* Eat a big, nutritious breakfast every morning
* Avoid high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils
* Eat a salad (for lunch) every day

Easy, isn’t it? The first change I’ll work on (and have been working on for a while) is substituting bottled or filtered water for diet soda. Ouch!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Time Management


In an earlier post I listed some of the goals I’ve had over the past couple of years, and talked about my successes and failures. One essential aspect of attaining any goal is time management. For me, since I work full-time in a demanding job, have a growing family, and work on various projects (most to do what I really want to do with my life), time management is key. I’ve read tons of material on the subject, so I know what I should be doing. The problem is, well, doing it.

Why manage your time? Simple. You get more of the important stuff accomplished. The things that matter most to you get completed. Finished, done, pat yourself on the back and start something else. This leads eventually to less stress. Less overall general stress in your life (“Oh, no, look at all this stuff I have to do!”) and less situational stress in your life (“Oh, no, how do I put out this fire!”). And, at least for me, the less stress I have, the greater I’m able to concentrate and focus on the task at hand. It’s a self-reinforcing circle. The stronger my ability to focus, the less likely I’ll be hopping around from this to that, and the more easily I’ll get goals and sub-goals and all sorts of various important projects done. But my favorite reason for time management is this: more ‘free’ time is ultimately available to you, guilt-free, ’cause it’s scheduled in.

So, I’ve been reading a lot of books and articles and blogs and I know lots and lots of things that one should do to manage one’s time most efficiently. You know what? I still have trouble managing my time. Here’s a list of things I know I should do to make my life run smoothly. I know I should do these things. In fact, the more of them I do, the better my life flows. So far I haven’t got through a single day doing all twenty of these items, but I usually do at least five or six, sometimes as many as ten. One day I’ll get everything habitual, and then … well, see the previous paragraph.

I learned you have to blueprint your day, every workday. For me, this is simply a prioritized to-do list. It helps me remember crucial tasks, and gives me a sense of satisfaction when I see all the items checked off at quitting time. Though I’m lazy, it’s extremely worth it to spend the five or ten minutes first thing every morning to do this.

I also like blueprinting the week ahead every Sunday night. Who’s picking up our daughter? When will the wife be late from work? What’s the dinner situation over the next couple of days (we both cook)? What’s going on next weekend? What’s on the social calendar? I don’t like surprises, so this really helps. It’s worth it.

Set aside a time for finances. I do this either Friday night or Saturday morning. This way I can get all the bills out at the post office during my Saturday errands. I also try to make a half-hour or so every Sunday night for a time to review goals. Just so I know what I need to be doing in the next couple of days, where I’m progressing or what needs work.

Work is crazy. There are a few things I do, to varying degrees of success, to retain my sanity. Only check email twice a day. For me, once in the morning, once in the afternon. That’s it. I admit though, this is hard. Even harder is to let the phone go to voicemail. Then pick up your voicemail when you’re ready. It’s rarely a crisis situation, but that’s not always what your mind is telling you. A common time stressor is a higher-up coming over with an urgent request or mini-project for me to do. A good tip I try to use is to ask them for a deadline. Not everything needs to be done immediately.

Avoid web surfing, especially of the aimless kind. Also, when you’re working on something, give it 100 percent of your focus. Eliminate any distractions. For me, a distraction is background noise, talk, clutter. Try to stay organized. Spend five minutes at the culmination of any major project or at the end of the day to put everything back in its place. It helps me to be lest frazzled, and it frees up time.

At home, you have to triage ruthlessly. I try to keep TV watching down to a minimum. Ideally, it would be none; realistically I watch about 90 minutes of TV a day. Another goal I want to establish is a two-week meal plan. It’s not written in stone, but at least it saves time and effort thinking of what to do for dinner, day after day. And on the weekends, I have an unofficial, loosely-enforced rule: one day socializing, one day working (on the yard, house, whatever). This is very important to maintaining sanity. And for that day of housework, it’s best to keep a running to-do list for big and little stuff. Go through the house, room-by-room. You’ll fill up two sheets of loose-leaf paper. Try it.

Sleep’s very important. Most of us are sleep-deprived. I have another child on the way, so I’m accustomed to it. But the best situation would be one where you get good quality sleep for eight hours a night. I’ve read 10 pm to 6 am is the best. And don’t sleep in or stay up late on the weekends, either. But you knew this already, right?

To save time when driving, take a few minutes and plan your trips and errands logically. You’ll save gas and frustration as well as time. Oh, and a great tip I read is to listen to informational CDs in the car. I know I’m in the car six or seven hours a week by myself. Do I want to spend all that time listening to negative news channels? I’d rather learn something new. Grow. Expand. The library has hundreds of these tapes and CDs. Check ’em out.

Finally, the best way to get all this time management stuff down is to keep a loose and flexible schedule. Allow yourself plenty of time to get things done. Don’t get stressed out. Something’s better than nothing. So if I sounded like I was beating myself up in the beginning of the article … I was, and I shouldn’t. Some time management is better than none, but there’s always room for growth. However, beware the law of diminishing returns, and make sure the daily life you create is one you enjoy.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

George R. R. Martin

I am floored.

If it weren’t blasphemous, I would worship Martin as a god; instead I will hold him up as my inspiration. I will summon his presence whenever I sit down at a keyboard to write. I will strive to make my scribblings interesting and exciting and enlightening as if I was writing for him only. He is my muse. I must only ask myself, “What would George do?”

Anyway, Sandkings is my first dip into Martin’s fiction, and I am completely overwhelmed. Abuzz. Aglow. What great stories! His characters are more real than some people I know. His worlds are thoroughly sketched in a paragraph or two, a skill I am always polishing but has to come natural to him. His stories fold in upon themselves, wrap around past and present, and always test the protagonist, likable or not (and even if not – you still care about their fate). He strips his characters to their very core in merciless conflict. I honestly do not see a weakness in his prose.

His stories are set in the deep future, on distant worlds, and are populated with generally down-on-their-luck men and women, colorful and dangerous alien species, and all sorts of sentient entities not normally found in mainstream writing. Liquid pools of wisdom, black energy beings, hivelike insects, civilizations that can manipulate time with architecture. Many of his characters are downright unlikable, but somehow he twists you into rooting for them.

Immediately, I realized that Martin constructs his stories in this way:
* Step 1: Come up with a weird character and a weird setting
* Step 2: What is the very absolute worst thing that can happen to this weird character?
* Step 3: Make it happen, and let the story unfold.

How can such a writing system fail?



Sandkings – the best of the bunch. One of the most horrifying and suspenseful SF story I’ve ever read. Certainly the best horror I’ve read since early Stephen King. A particularly nasty man gets just desserts after abusing some warlike insect pets. The story just keeps descending into dread, nonstop, and we know that there’s absolutely no way poor Simon will make it out, though we hope he does. A+.

The Way of Cross and Dragon and Bitterblooms I gave each a B, but still, such stories still outweigh 90 percent of the junk that’s out there. Incredibly imaginative, descriptive without being boring, I read both in one night. The first is a futuristic take on the Inquisition, the second a girl’s near-death encounter with what may be a witch.

The Stone City. Interesting take on sailors stranded in a port. Only they’re deckhands for starships and the port is some out-of-the-way hyperdimensional highway nexus, and they’re forced to live in close quarters with all sorts of alien nasties. And the city itself, which turns out to be an increasingly dangerous character ... B+.

My wife is now obligated, by me, to read Fast-Friend, the shortest but I think the most idea-driven story of the collection. Suffice it to say it’s a mixture of the bitterness of lost love and the fear of annihilation when uniting with a being of pure energy. A.

The longest tale, In the House of the Worm, is second in dread to Sandkings. Set in the far future, when the sun is hot and fat, when mankind has mutated into a different species that lives underground, living in fear of the great worms. Superb characters, visceral claustrophobic fear. Imagine yourself in the dark with Annelyn, trying to find your way back home, using up your dwindling supply of matches, one-by-one … A.

And finally, Starlady, completely 70s in its feel. Oh, and the best opening paragraph of any short story, period:

This story has no hero in it. It’s got Hairy Hal in it, and Golden Boy, and Janey Small and Mayliss, and some other people who lived on Thisrock. Plus Crawney and Stumblecat and the Marquis, who’ll do well enough as villains. But it hasn’t got a hero … well, unless you count Hairy Hal.

First I thought it was about a superhero, maybe a tongue-in-cheek tale of a world populated by supermen. But no. Hairy Hal is a futuristic pimp. Picture Will Ferrell in the movie version. I give it an A-, only because it had no hero in it (winks).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Children of the Lens

Children of the Lens
© 1954 by E. E. “Doc” Smith


Ah, yet another book I was frothing at the bit to read, felt immediate disillusionment, and struggled (through over 250 pages) to find out how the author wrote the predictable ending.

The book is the fourth or fifth in a string of novels E. E. “Doc” Smith wrote in the late 40s and early 50s. The Golden Age of science fiction. It shows. Self-assured he-men, their flirtatious but sassy women, aliens in all shapes and sizes, rocket ships jetting back and forth between star systems in days, and those darn teenage kids and everybody smoking up a storm!

Sure, it’s dated, it’s hokey, but there’s that elusive charm about it, that confidence, that joy-of-living, that’s missing from so much of the novels put out today. You knew the good guys would win, and the enemies of Civilization would be dashed underfoot. The only question was how they would do it. Yeah, there was the threat that Kimball Kinnison, patriarch of a family of Lens-wearing superhumans, might meet his demise in the next-to-last chapter, but damn it! his wife, the red-headed Clarrissa, knew – just knew! – that he was still alive. A search commenced, and mom, with the kids united in a super-mind-meld thingie, found dad, and all was well after a round of hugs.

It’s not without its thought-provoking charm. I kind of like the idea of traveling to another planet as easy as hopping in the family Packard and motoring out to Coney Island for the day. The origin of the Lensmen, considered the inspirational superheroes of the Galactic Patrol, and especially their powers, is quite unexpected and interesting. Smith populates his universe with a slew of alien races, from dragons to beings that live in temperatures a notch above absolute zero, to asteroid miners to matriarchal societies whose members refer to each other as “it” (the pronoun “he” being unspoken, ergo no need for “she”). Vast space wars are fought by hurling rogue planets through hyperspace tubes. New metals have been invented, new weapons to mercilessly slay enemies in a most un-PC way, and mental tricks abound in a universe where thoughts and psionic powers effectively determine the action.

Though it occasionally reads like a century-old history book, the plot is simple enough to follow, once you’re a few chapters in. A great war covering two galaxies and millions of planets between good Civilization and the evil Boskonian Empire. Each are respectively coached and guided by two ancient alien races, the Arisians and the Eddorians. The Arisians have been selectively breeding and improving humanity, the apex of which is aforementioned Kinnison. They award the tops in humanity devices called lenses which enhance the wearer’s mental and psychic abilities; Kinnison is known as the Gray Lensman, and is the most powerful. But as the tale unfolds and clues are unraveled to find the homeworld of the Boskonians and subsequently annihilate it, we discover that the Gray Lensman’s children possess even more potent abilities that their dad, and the power of love, combined with a group merging of the minds, saves the day for Good.

A quick grade? Coming at it from an early 21st-century viewpoint, C+, purely because of the sometimes stodgy, hard-to-follow prose. A modern brush-up could entice me to raise it to a B+ …

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Joy of Physics II

In my previous post I noted that riding on a ray of light is an awesome and evocative SF image. It lead little Albert to develop the theory of Special Relativity as a twenty-something. And it now leads me to wonder … what would some other awesome and evocative SF images be?


* What would it be like to orbit a black hole?
* What would it be like to touch the event horizon of a black hole?
* What would it be like to view the universe from outside it?
* What would it be like to enter a higher dimension?
* What would it be like to visualize a quark or a lepton? Or a string?
* What would it be like to step outside of time?
* What would it be like to travel back in time? Or forward?
* What would it be like to be ‘beamed’ from a spaceship to a planet?
* What would it be like to instantaneously travel from Earth to another star system?
* What would it be like to instantaneously communicate to that star system?
* What would life on a gaseous giant like Jupiter be like?
* What would life on any other of the planets in the solar system be like?
* What would it be like to move an object with your thoughts?
* What if any of the physical constants, such as Planck’s, or c, or pi, were slightly different?
* What does an electron ‘see’ when it ‘orbits’ a nucleus?
* What does the nucleus ‘see’ when it ‘watches’ an electron?
* What if stars or planets were ‘conscious’? (Try to disregard the kooky factor here – perhaps there are other forms of consciousness, eh?)
* What would it be like to dive into the Sun if you were impervious to heat or pressure?
* What would the physics of a completely alien civilization look like?


A lot of these ideas are standard issue in SF, such as faster-than-light travel or ‘subspace’ communication. Gateway, by Frederik Pohl, is an excellent novel of what might happen if you touch a black hole. I thought Lightning, by Dean R. Koontz, a quite interesting tale of time travel by someone quite unexpected, though the physics was not too developed. There’s lots of other examples for most on this list. Any of these topics could be made into a short story or a novel, even the more weirder ones, with a little exertion of the brain muscle. And like little Albert’s vision, it might even lead to something revolutionary.

The Joy of Physics

How does the physical world work? Even more interesting: how does the physical universe work? How did the universe leap into creation? What is its ultimate fate – cold nothingness, or will it shrink back into itself, heat up, explode and begin all over, oscillating like some god’s accordion? What is dark matter, and does it play any part in creating massive galaxies, like invisible channels guiding ancient rivers on Mars? Or is it more like the veins and arteries in our bodies directing blood where its needed? Is it related, as most think, to the miniscule building blocks of everything, the particle soup that is defiant to neat categorization?

Stars, the massive furnaces that create the matter that was used in our creation. Look at your hand, at your fingernails. The carbon and nitrogen that makes us those complex carbohydrates in every cell in your body was created in a star. Ingenious, isn’t it? And stars not only create the compounds that build our physical bodies. Their gravity wells channel and direct intergalactic dust to form planets where life takes root. Or at least, that’s our present understanding.

Matter, and its behavior. Energy, and the laws it obeys. Galileo’s kinematic laws. Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation. Maxwell’s laws governing electrodynamics. The quantum theories that changed our understanding of the physical ninety years ago. All a part of the great search, the unlocking of the mysteries of existence. From the infinitesimally small (quarks, leptons, whatever they are), to the tremendously vast, and how it all interacts (see Einstein, General Relativity): that is the amazing part of physics.

When you consider a small metal ball rolling down a ramp and how that can be translated into a numeric relation, that, too is the amazing part of physics.

But the most amazing part of all? That the three-and-a-half pound organ behind our eyes can comprehend any of this at all. But it can, and does, and it does it best when it does it with joy.

When I was a boy, about eight or nine years old, my mother worked as a librarian. One day she brought home an illustrated physics book for me. It wasn’t complicated, it was geared to someone my age, but I ate it up. It was my favorite book that summer; it seemed I read it every day and every night. The sixties-style illustrations, the colors, the charts, the ideas, the implications … it all jumped off the page and into my imagination. I was in love with a science. Unless you’ve been there yourself, you probably can’t understand. Your nerd alert detectors may be flashing spastically right now.

Adulthood and the real world tempered my enthusiasm for the grand scheme to unlock the secrets of the cosmos. I studied physics at Seton Hall from the summer of 1992 to the spring of 1994 and burned myself out. Living on my own at the time, I had to work full-time as I went to school full-time. Important relationships suffered irrevocable damage. I was also forced, as every college student is, to take courses in which I had no interest in, which wasted my time, energy, and money. Eventually, I flunked an important course (Calc III), and decided to drop all my other distracting classes and retake it (I aced it the second time around). Bitter and disillusioned, as they say, I dropped out to reevaluate where I wanted to take my life, which in hindsight, was a mistake.

I failed to take into account something very important about myself earlier on, however. I am generally bookish, and when it comes to the real world, I’m all thumbs. I can paint a wall, but can barely hang a picture. Physics at the college level is kind of a split personality. I suppose ‘they’ don’t know whether you’re a theoretician or an experimenter. Both are valued; both have produced their fair share of Nobel Prize winners. In fact, they chase one another in a game of tag-you’re-it! in ground-breaking discoveries. Sometimes the theoreticians think up something strange and beautiful and it’s up to the experimenters to supply real-life confirmation; sometimes the experimenters provide the data that results in the creation-discovery of a new theorem. So, college physics basically is half ivory-tower dreaming, and half hands-on break-out-the-tools construction. Both involve imagination and number crunching, but they appeal to different sides of the brain. I was no experimenter, and barely passed Electronics 101. Electronics 102 frightened me so much I dropped it after the first two classes.

The joy of physics naturally leads to the love of SF. What is SF but the extrapolation of where known physics leaves off? And who knows how much SF has inspired the discovery-creation of new physics? Einstein famously credits his insights into relativity as the results of daydreaming what it would be like to ride on a ray of light. What an awesome science fiction image!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Great 2018 U. S. Winnebago Tour

I’ve always been into history. The first thing I do when encountering a new subject is delve into its history. What’s the history of Science Fiction writing? The history of Hegel’s life? Quantum physics and relativity? The timeline for the JFK assassination? Heck, twenty-five years ago I was hitting the library to discover the history of Led Zeppelin.

So now I’ve been tossing this idea around to torture my wife. If I ever get really successful (BRAIN: When I get successful, WHEN!) I’m threatening her and my daughter with the rental of a winnebago to travel the country for three or four months investigating its history. Yeah, she gives me the funny looks and rolls her eyes, but deep down, I know … a good bribe will get her to come with me.

The question is, what do I want to see? Since in this fantasy I’m the household breadwinner taking in, oh, at least four hundred gees annually, I get to choose. Over the past couple of years I’ve been jotting down places I’d like to see or visit, a museum or national monument, whatever. I’ve only slept in nine states (NJ, NY, MA, MD, SC, PA, OH, WI, CA) and driven through eight or nine others to get to them, so I really haven’t seen much of this great expansive country of ours. Hmmmm. Well, here’s a short list. I had a longer one, but I lost it, so here’s my itinerary off the top of my head, in roughly the way I’d like the trip to go.

North East
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Home/Museum
Walden (Henry David Thoreau’s digs)
Niagara Falls
Liberty Hall / Liberty Bell
Gettysburg
Bull Run
Appomattox Court House

North Central
Lincoln’s Birthplace
Devil’s Mountain
Mount Rushmore
Litte Big Horn / Wounded Knee

North West
Yosemite National Park (Old Faithful)
Mount St. Helens

South West
Death Valley
Trinity (site of 1st atomic explosion)
Grand Canyon
Hoover Dam
Carlsbad Cavern
Pueblo ruins
Meteor Crater
Roswell

South Central
Mississippi Arch
Alamo
Dealey Plaza
JPL (Jet Propulsion Labs – big in US Space Program)
New Orleans

South East
Cape Canaveral
Fort Sumter
Kitty Hawk
Edgar Allen Poe’s Home / Museum (Baltimore)
Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home)

Coming your way in the summer of 2018!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Mammon


The American Church, that is, the holy part of it, is basically defending itself against a two-pronged assault from our culture. Here's the first. (Click on image above for a larger view.) I'll post on the second once I've found what I feel to be it's definitive visual expression. But as far as 'mammon' goes, I have to confess, this is such a deep part of us all, myself included, that I don't know how, short of a complete transformation of one's personality, one's essential being, this attitude / orientation / lifestyle / whatever, short of becoming a new creation - oh, wait ... that's what's promised us by a certain Someone, isn't it?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Star Rats


Dig the title? It’s a palindrome – and one awesome discovery for a ten-year-old. Me.

Star Rats, though it wasn’t the first thing I wrote, was my earliest bestest. Actually, I was probably eleven, and wrote it probably the summer after Star Wars came out. It combined all the greatest plot points and characters from a morphing of that Lucas film with Star Trek, all set in a universe of (mostly) mice and cats.

Like most of my work today, it was long, rambling, and unfinished. But it was my first novel, eighty pages in and going strong. I distinctly remember typing away on the massive cast-iron typewriter I begged my parents for as a Christmas gift, and remember how looking at the white page above the roller, how it would disappear and I would be in another galaxy, on another world, with mice and rats that could talk and think and travel across space, outwitting the evil cats in hot pursuit.

I thought the story had some great characters, though they were blatantly ripped off from the big and small screens. Larvel was the Captain Kirk figure; Milo was his Spock. Helming the bridge of the rats’ ship was Bailey the weapons officer and Pica the engineer. Who was their nemesis? None other than Cat Mongus, the feline Darth Vader of this alternate universe.

The novel (or novella, whatever, I was just going with it as far as I could) began with promise. Dialogue and action leaped off my fingers and somehow I tapped the correct keys to translate what I was seeing onto the paper. But then I recall it sort of bogged down. Ran out of gas, about ten pages in. Something further was needed. I don’t remember my thoughts, but I do remember their result. Larvel and crew must crash land on a planet to avoid Cat Mongus, and hook up with the Dogs, our Jedi-like Zen masters of my universe. Along the way, they used pack animals (somehow they were the same size as the mice) and now came my first excursion into horror. Some “primordial” parasite, and I do remember being transfixed with that word in quotes, found its way into the mule’s ear and grew … and grew … and grew, eating brain tissue, growing, until … the mule had to be put down for mercy’s sake.

My brother and I shared a refurnished attic when we were young, and we had The Storage Room, which was part of the attic that was unfinished, where we kept our toys and furniture, and whatever else was not kept in our room. We may have spent just as much time in The Storage Room as in our room. I recall reading part of The Fellowship of The Ring there, just before we moved out. But the cool thing about it was the secret compartment. One of the floorboards could be pulled up, and we could stash items there, and our parents (who never went into the Storage Room, anyway) could never find them. My last recollection of Star Rats was tucking the 80-page novella down in the secret compartment for safe keeping.

Where it is now, I have no idea. Perhaps its still sitting in the attic rafters, undisturbed but yellowed after thirty long years. But the experience planted a seed, and now I have two second drafts of science fiction novels completed and fifteen short stories of varies genres (SF, horror, espionage, adventure). Plus a whole backlog of ideas.

It’s time to get something published!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Hegel the Alien


Almost finished with my Hegel anthology. I have about forty pages to go in The Phenomenology of Spirit. This book is the most difficult book I have ever read, period. More difficult than calculus, modern physics, James Joyce, or, and I’m guessing here, Mandarin Chinese. It may as well be written in cuneiform for all I can understand of it. If I had to guess, I’d say that perhaps I’ve grasped 5 percent of the book’s essential ideas, and I’m not even sure if I’ve grasped those ideas correctly. I shake my head, but I have swallowed the bait. I have to understand this, even if it means spending a month reading secondary material and re-reading the anthology, slower, over the next six.

What is this book about? Hegel’s describing Spirit, his one overriding Idea. It spills into all his other works – no, it is the basis of all his other works, from theories on Art to theories on Political Science. All is through Spirit. But Spirit is not what us normal, Judeo-Christian-influenced twenty-first century men and women think it is.

What is it?

I wish I knew. That seems to be what the entire Phenomenology of Spirit is about. So, here’s my take on Spirit, and I acknowledge that I’m probably 180-degrees dead wrong. But the following ramblings are what I’ve taken away from three months of reading Hegel.

Step back a bit from reality and try to envision mankind as a whole, as a generality or an abstract concept. Now let’s assume a fourth – or fifth, sixth, whatever – dimension, something we can’t see or feel or detect, but some zone or area that occupies the same space as we do. Inhabiting this dimension is Spirit. Spirit is not God, who is outside-of-time; Spirit is in time, like us, in that it develops. It seems to have a symbiotic relationship with us. Rather, we have a symbiotic relationship with It. Its essence envelops us, engulfs us, and we It. We are the instruments of Spirit, but it chooses to use us more in aggregate than as individuals. It’s purpose is to develop, to grow in consciousness, yet in it we have our consciousness. Hegel spends a great deal of time examining the characteristics and qualities of this surprisingly complex entity, and the intricate rules in which it interacts through us. Art, Politics, History, the State – all are expressions of Spirit in our dimension. We are expressions of Spirit. The concept of freedom which is expressed in our reality seems to be a reflection of the development of Spirit. You can also look at this from a religious angle, too, though I don’t know how one could worship Hegel’s Spirit. It seems we are … not necessarily pawns, but … limbs of Spirit.

Got all that? Not too hard. But probably completely off the mark.

What interests me, though, is how thoroughly science fiction the overlying idea seems to be. Think about it. (Or: think about It.) What is Spirit? What is it exactly, precisely, in five hundred – no, one hundred – words or less. What is It? That’s what interests me, and in an SF context there could be a rich lode of ideas there. What strikes me is how utterly alien the man’s thought is. It’s almost inhuman. Wait, that’s a poor choice of words. Hegel’s thought, to me, could be viewed as the next generation of human thought, something we are not capable of thinking right at this time (and these works were written two hundred years ago). Or it could be gibberish, bloviation, dense writing to disguise weak ideas as important. At this stage, I can’t quite determine which position has greater validity. Certainly many have held the second position.


Much, much to think about.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Epitaph on a Tyrant

Epitaph on a Tyrant
By W. H. Auden

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.


Who came to your mind when you read this poem?

Auden wrote the poem in 1939, so he may have had Stalin in mind. I’m not familiar with Auden’s politics, but I would bet most men of that generation would think of the communist dictator. Possibly Hitler, as World War II would have been well under way by the time the poem was published. He may have had some banana republic dictators in mind, though I’m not too well versed on the geopolitical situation in the 1930s and 40s to name names. Tyranny and tyrants, I suppose, is one sad facet of human existence that will never disappear.

Me, I immediately thought of Saddam Hussein, our time’s Tyrant Supreme. The second line recalls the “bestsellers” Saddam penned. The fifth makes me think of those photo ops you’d see of his staff of generals at his table, all sporting the same exact mustache the dictator wore. The poem captures precisely the brutality and dreadful power of such a monster like the one that ruled over the Iraqi people for thirty years.

This poem is so perfect it tempts me to not even try ...

Monday, May 5, 2008

Crab Monsters!

Attack of the Crab Monsters by Lawrence Raab

Even from the beach I could sense it--
lack of welcome, lack of abiding life,
like something in the air, a certain
lack of sound. Yesterday
there was a mountain out there.
Now it's gone. And look

at this radio, each tube neatly
sliced in half. Blow the place up!
That was my advice.
But after the storm and the earthquake,
after the tactic of the exploding plane
and the strategy of the sinking boat, it looked

like fate and I wanted to say, "Don't you see?
So what if you are a famous biochemist!
Lost with all hands is an old story."
Sure, we're on the edge
of an important breakthrough, everyone
hearing voices, everyone falling

into caves, and you're out
wandering through the jungle
in the middle of the night in your negligée.
Yes, we're way out there
on the edge of science, while the rest
of the island continues to disappear until

nothing's left except this
cliff in the middle of the ocean,
and you, in your bathing suit,
crouched behind the scuba tanks.
I'd like to tell you
not to be afraid, but I've lost

my voice. I'm not used to all these
legs, these claws, these feelers.
It's the old story, predictable
as fallout--the rearrangement of molecules.
And everyone is surprised
and no one understands

why each man tries to kill
the thing he loves, when the change
comes over him. So now you know
what I never found the time to say.
Sweetheart, put down your flamethrower.
You know I always loved you.


This poem sums up nicely everything I loved about watching and reading SF as a boy. The weirdness, the horror, the science and rationality, the insanity of things gone wrong, even the humor. The poet is Lawrence Raab, who I know little of, except that he’s alive and well, publishing and teaching. I need to go to Amazon and buy an anthology of his work, or at least one of his several books of poems.