Sunday, October 29, 2017

Language as a Map

Antique map

Cartography, the art of making maps to record details of a patch of ground in human-usable form, is an artificial and abstract art. It’s artificial in that, when you come right down to the process, the map itself bears no physical relation to the surface it records. It captures none of the details that a human being standing on the ground would see, nothing that looks like the symbols on the map, not the trees, not the mountains, not the buildings. And the product is abstract in that, when a person tries to put the product to use, he or she must supply an intermediary step, that of knowing what the symbols represent and how they were used to depict the ground in two dimensions.

We might think that map reading is intuitive, but actually it’s an acquired skill. Most of us—or at least I did—picked it up at home, first from watching our parents use maps, and then by asking questions and following along ourselves. If the skill is taught in school anymore, it probably comes in the second or third grade, when the curriculum starts differentiating “social studies” from reading, writing, and arithmetic. By the time a child is studying anything so formal as “history,” he or she is expected to be able to look at a map and know the conventions, such as that the top is “north”—at least among those of us who are European descendants—and that some of the squiggly things are roads while others are rivers. If you went to the outback of Australia or the rain forest of Brazil and handed a map to an aborigine who has had no contact, or almost none, with civilization—if such people still exist in this day of satellite dishes and continuous, invasive explorations—that person would not know what to do with it. For him, it’s just a piece of paper with squiggles and colorful blotches. And when told that it describes the land surrounding him on all sides, his response would likely be, “Um … no.”

Anyone who has spent any time with antique maps knows that the conventions of cartography have changed over the centuries. Modern surveying techniques, exact measurements, and now satellite photographs have all made the details a lot sharper and more reliable. We no longer show mountains as little pictures of lumpy hills, representing the peaks only from the perspective of someone hanging fifty thousand feet in the air along the southern edge of the map—while the rest of the information pretends to be a vertical projection, invested with meaning only when viewed straight down from the document’s midpoint. We no longer draw little trees for forests or tufts of weed for swamps. For simplicity, modern maps like those used in schoolrooms show elevations as colored backgrounds, with the lowest areas usually in bright green, shading through yellows and light browns for the plains, to dark browns and reds for the highest peaks.1

A more detailed map—such as one you would use in hiking over rough ground—uses contour lines that try to represent a three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. And again, it takes skill to read this kind of map. You have to supply that intermediary knowledge step to understand that each line represents an equal increment in elevation—and then to realize that where those lines are far apart the slope is gradual and the walking easy, and where they are close together the ground is actually a cliff face and you’d better bring ropes and pitons.

Maps are also drawn for specific purposes. A roadmap, such as you once could buy at a gas station—back when they serviced all of a driver’s needs, not just gasoline, packaged foods, and big drinks—and now you must get from AAA®, are designed to show a dozen different grades of road, from dirt track to superhighway. But such a map is going to be vague on the subject of mountains, forests, lakes, and rivers—other than to show where the bridges and ferries are to be found. Conversely, a riverine or marine chart is extremely accurate about soundings, snags, buoys, and bearings but leaves the dry ground completely blank except for details like wharves and docks right at the water’s edge.

These days, with the ubiquitous smartphone putting gobs of online data in your hand, mapmaking as a representation intended for paper viewing is dying out. Maps are now compilations of all these details—filtered according to the application—on a screen that orients itself and picks the scale according to command and scrolls along as the user moves from one place to another. And now Google Earth does away with the abstract map entirely, showing you an actual photograph of the ground, taken by a satellite in orbit, with the ability to fly you down to “street level” and view photographs of the surface taken by a roving camera sometime within the last year or two. This is no longer a map requiring that intermediary knowledge step but a stop-action video of the ground itself that any aboriginal Australian or native Brazilian would be able to recognize—if the Google camera cars ever went to the Outback or traveled up the Amazon.

In the same way,2 language is an artificial and abstract way of representing the complex reality that we humans find all around us. It’s artificial in that no word or phrase is an exact copy of the thing or place being described. It’s abstract in that the hearer or reader of a statement made with language must supply an intermediary knowledge step involving the meanings and often the connotations of the words themselves, the mechanics of grammar and syntax, and an experienced ear to distinguish the sloppy, elided speech of everyday communication from the parsed and precise language as taught in school. Such knowledge must exist before he or she can appreciate the content and intention of the communication or description. If you don’t think this intermediate step is necessary, try walking as a non-Chinese-speaking foreigner into a bakery in Beijing and ordering a donut.

Just as maps have evolved from depicting mountains with lumpy little hills and forests with picturesque tree shapes, so human language has evolved—and it in all its forms is constantly evolving, adapting, and growing more precise and specific. If you read a history of language like John MacWhorter’s The Power of Babel, you can see that language as spoken is not the product of dialect pressures and slang usage working on neatly separated language families like “English” and “Spanish.” Instead, every person, as a member of a local group or affinity, speaks and writes with a set of evolving symbols and meanings. Spanish, as MacWhorter shows, is nothing but a dialect of Latin that has softened, morphed, and changed over the centuries on the Iberian Peninsula after the Roman Empire withdrew. Similarly, French is a dialect of the same Latin which evolved in northern France, while Italian is Latin that has developed in place on the Italian Peninsula. And English is just a cracked and crazed horror—the result of a millennia-long culture clash between the native Celts and the conquering Romans that was then warped and shaped by successive invasions from Northern Germany, Denmark, and French Normandy. And all of these languages went through another convulsion in the past six centuries or so, when mathematical thinking based on Arabic terms and scientific thinking based on Greek terms arrived with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

Just as maps are used for particular purposes—hiking, driving, or marine navigation—so languages have developed specific words and constructions for defined purposes. Two doctors discussing a patient will use precise medical terms and adopt a peculiar perspective of diagnosis (what is happening now) and prognosis (what will happen in a future with and without treatment) that the patient might only dimly understand. In the same way, two physicists discussing quantum mechanics, or two programmers describing a piece of software, will quickly subside into specialized terms—quarks, leptons, bosons, vectors … or RAM, ROM, gates, loops—that the lay person can only follow with much difficulty and then with a high potential for misunderstanding. Again, the average person doesn’t have that intermediary knowledge step, just as a speaker of English-only is lost in the Chinese bakery.

In dealing with maps, soldiers and other practical users must constantly remind themselves that “the map is not the territory.” You might think that you can plan an attack or defense in great detail just by working from a map. But maps are still artificial and abstract constructs. The slope you believe might be gradual enough for a team of soldiers to charge up carrying full packs and equipment turns out to be much steeper. The team is delayed—or cut to pieces in a crossfire. So a good officer tries to see the ground, perhaps by aerial observation, probably by walking over it in person, before committing to an action. In the same way, a ship captain knows that the chart may not include all the nuances of current and wave action common to an estuary or harbor and so employs a pilot who knows those waters. And a hiker discusses the trail with others who have walked it before committing his or her life to the wilderness.

In dealing with language, writers and other practical users must constantly remind themselves that the terms and constructions they use may not be understood by everyone who encounters the text. A good writer—whether of fiction like a novel or nonfiction like a technical manual—is constantly advised to think of the intended reader, imagine that reader’s familiarity with the intended words and concepts, and work through the differences. A technical manual to be used in a closed industrial setting will use different norms from the manual intended for home use in assembling a piece of furniture or operating a stereo set. A novel written for a science fiction audience will use different concepts, structures, and devices than one written for the romance or mystery reader.

But unlike a map, where the thing being represented is open ground and available to any set of eyes, the reality that language tries to capture is usually private and personal—at least for those of us who write fiction. What is the shape of love? Of frustration? Or rage? We cannot uniformly represent these abstract human realities with contour lines or graded roads. Instead, we must talk around them. We must present stories—circumstances, actions, results—that will elicit in the reader’s mind and memory the feelings we are trying to portray. I cannot accurately tell you the shape of love, but I can tell you a story about meeting and engaging with a particular person, living in their orbit and in their arms until their presence becomes second nature, and then losing that person to misfortune or misunderstanding, so that you can feel the delight and the pain in your own chest.

In this way, language is not just like a map, it is better than any map. Where a map is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional surface, the power of language encompasses past, present, and future, involves both actions and reactions, and includes the dimension of feelings about those actions and circumstances, regret for things that never happened, hope for things that might be different … that is, a representation of the a vast, multidimensional universe that is the human mind.

That is what we writers are about: we are cartographers of the human soul.

1. The color range doesn’t go through blue, though, because that color is reserved for the water of rivers, lakes, and oceans. And here, the convention is that the darker shades of blue are the deeper bodies of water.

2. This is not an original thought, but it’s one that has been rattling around in my head.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Life Like A Sword

Forging a samurai sword

Metaphors comparing the whole span of a human being’s existence to some household object or process—“Life is like a sponge!”1—are usually cheap and easy. But they’re fun to make anyway. So here goes.

A human being is like a sword, and life is the history of its making and use. The best human beings are the product of good materials and loving care in the making.

In the Japanese art of swordmaking, the master smith smelts and refines his own iron, prepares the wood to make charcoal for the steel’s carbon content and for heating the furnace and forge, and attends to every detail of the manufacturing process, including those components made by other artisans: the handle of ray skin wrapped with cord; the guard made of decorative but strong metal forged and carved into a memorable pattern; and the wooden sheath that both protects the sword and is itself protected by layers of shining lacquer. This attention to materials is like a child who starts with good genes, is born into a loving home with attentive parents who have consciously decided to nurture another human being, and is then given over to dedicated teachers who will work to make him or her into a confident, loving, productive, and happy adult.

The Japanese sword is made from two kinds of steel. The central core is a low-carbon alloy that is relatively soft and flexible, giving the sword its strength and resistance to shattering. During the forging process, this core is hammered into the groove of an outer jacket made from a high-carbon steel that is hard and stiff, able to resist blows and to hold an edge. When these two steels are quenched after being pounded together, the inner core contracts more rapidly than the outer jacket, giving the sword its characteristically graceful upward curve.

In similar fashion, the best human life is made of both flexible and hard mental and spiritual components and attitudes. A person who will be both successful and happy must have some measure of vulnerability to the world and the people surrounding him or her, able to understand and respond to the pressures that the world brings in into any life. A person who cannot bend under pressure will break. A person who cannot perceive love and pain in others and respond with compassion will live alone in a muted, unhappy, and unproductive life. At the same time, a successful person needs a shell, an outer jacket of mental and emotional toughness, able to withstand adverse opinions, direct and implied criticisms, and outright emotional and physical assaults without folding up or losing his or her drive and sense of purpose.

The Japanese smith prepares each piece of steel, core and jacket, before joining them. He hammers it out, then folds it over and hammers it out again. The steel may be folded and hammered between eight and sixteen times. The folding creates layers exponentially: one becomes two, two become four, four become eight—like the process of putting one coin on the first square of a chess board, two on the second, and so on until reaching a staggeringly immense number before loading the sixty-fourth square. With this level of combined folding, the samurai sword may have between 256 and 65,000 layers of steel in each of its component parts. These layers and the welds that are made where they fuse together give the steel its strength.

The best human life has a recursive element. Whatever a person undertakes—practicing a profession like law or medicine, playing a musical instrument, engaging in a sport or martial art, or perfecting a fine art like painting or writing—requires repeated practice, usually on a daily basis. Each time a lawyer or doctor takes on a new case, a musician confronts a new score, a player engages in a particular skill or move, a painter confronts a blank canvas, or a writer slips into the stream of a story, the person’s quality of effort improves. The practitioner discovers and sheds excess motions and bad habits. And he or she develops a deeper and deeper sense of the art and its complexity. The adept has explored both the art and his or her own psyche and abilities at a level that the beginner and the novice cannot understand. This layering of experience and expertise has its dull spots and its plateaus, like the weld line between one layer of steel and the next, where weeks of work seem to advance the practice and the art not at all. The knowledgeable student—or one guided by a knowledgeable mentor or teacher—knows that these plateaus are gathering places, where the mind and body are accumulating, analyzing, and storing past experience. Each plateau will be followed by a renewed climb with sharply increased ability and understanding.

In the same way, people build up a relationship with their life situation and with the people who inhabit it by going through periods of intense feelings of happiness, acceptance, and love, followed by periods of depression, doubt, and dislike. This is the way the brain and the mind build up a rounded picture of the physical world or of another special human being: seeing the object of life and affection from different sides at different times, making and remaking judgments about the situation and the person, reaching a state where one can say with confidence, “I know this place, this life, this other person.”

And finally, the samurai blade—like any sword or knife blade—is heated and then quenched, plunged into cold water or oil, to temper and harden it. The Japanese swordsmith coats his blade with clay in varying layers before this tempering. The thicker clay laid along the spine allows the steel in this area to cool more slowly in the water, making the sword’s backbone more flexible. The thinner clay along the cutting edge allows more rapid cooling, making the steel there harder.

Human beings are tempered by the shocks and reversals of life. A person heads in one direction, with one set of goals and expectations, only to be turned or thrust aside from the path by a personal failure, external conflict, or unexpected disaster. A person with the best preparation and attitude—the steel that is both flexible and hard—accepts the shock, adjusts his or her course, learns from the experience, and begins anew. A person with poor preparation and attitudes—the steel that is too soft or too brittle—collapses or shatters, stops, folds in on him- or herself, and does not begin again.

The finished samurai sword is a thing of both purpose and beauty. It is a weapon, created to be the best at the purpose for which it was designed: to cut a human limb or body apart with one blow, cleaving armor, clothing, tissue, and bone. It is a savage purpose, but one that is clear and obvious. At the same time, the sword is an object of love and beauty. The blade surface is polished to a mirror finish; the edge has a carefully defined, satiny appearance; and the components and appliances like the handle, guard, and sheath are examples of the highest craftsmanship.

The best human life should be a mix of purpose and beauty. The adult must take up and hold a position: a place in society, a profession or pursuit, and a role in the family or other communal group. These purposes define the life and make the person whole. At the same time, the developed life should be a work of art in itself: the person fills his or her time and expends his or her energy apart from the working world in acquiring and savoring experiences, knowledge, new skills, and wider associations that make a human being into a more rounded, capable, and attractive individual. The person creates order and beauty in the world through his or her thoughts and actions.

These are the elements and attributes of a good life—the best life. But not everyone gets to live such a life.

In feudal Japan, every samurai—the military adherent of a noble lord—carried both long and short swords, even in peacetime and always on his belt except in the most intimate moments at home, and then the swords were always within reach. The sword was both the symbol of the samurai’s position and the primary tool of his profession. During World War II, Japanese officers were expected to wear a samurai’s long sword, or katana, as a symbol of their rank. Many carried heirloom blades handed down in their families for generations. But toward the end of the war, when losses in the field had reduced the numbers of both established officers and antique swords, the crop of newly promoted lieutenants carried swords of no distinction, mass produced, and sometimes just hammered into shape and filed to an edge from any old piece of flat steel, such as a truck’s leaf spring. These swords were no better or more attractive than the black iron blades with hooked ends given to the orcs in The Lord of the Rings movies.

In these days in the West, with the decline of family life and the reshaping of education to focus more on self-esteem and a sense of entitlement than on knowledge, effort, and experience, many of our young people are left in a bleak state. A child from a broken family in a declining school, given no opportunity to recursively practice a sport or musical instrument, prepared for no particular purpose in life other than general dependency, and shielded from the mental and emotional shocks that are natural to sustained effort, prepares for a flat, dull existence without the tempering of personal trials and painful adjustments. Such a person is like a truck spring hammered out to look like a sword but with none of the internal qualities or external finishes that define a battle-worthy weapon.

I fear that we are making a nation with more truck springs than samurai swords these days.

1. You spend all your time wiping up messes, and when you’re old and saturated with gunk, you get thrown away. … Ewww!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Best Life

School picture

Irene Mary Moran (1940-2017) was born in San Francisco on 23rd Avenue, just north of Taraval Street, in a house her parents John and Delia Moran had owned since before the Great Depression. The neighborhood and the parish of St. Cecelia Church defined her early life and remained her spiritual home for more than sixty years.

The street she lived on brought friendships that Irene treasured throughout her life. It was also a steep street with smooth sidewalks that invited Irene and her friends to do crazy runs on their metal roller skates down toward Taraval, with only a sharp turn into the last driveway on the block—risking a fall and scraped knees or worse—as the way to stop from shooting out into busy traffic. Irene always said she got up the courage to do this after a breakfast that included a Cherry Coke.

When her beloved father died in 1948 of a heart attack, Irene’s life changed drastically. As a young man, John Moran had been a long-distance runner, had been wounded twice in World War I, and came to America from England to become a member of the U.S. Customs Service. Her mother Delia Carty had been born in Ireland, came to America in 1919, and worked for ten years as a domestic before meeting John in San Francisco in the late 1920s. John’s death put Delia, Irene, and her brother Desi in difficult circumstances. While the rest of the country was enjoying the rebound from World War II and then the economic growth of the 1950s, Delia received a modest inheritance and had to work as a school secretary. For Irene and Desi, these years were a continuation of the hardships of the Depression and the war years, and it made Irene careful about money for the rest of her life.

Irene was educated at St. Cecelia School, Mercy High School, and Lone Mountain College, where she studied history. After graduation, she worked for a while at Western Greyhound as a typist. She also had jobs during school as a sales clerk, usually at Macy’s downtown; so Irene rode the Muni streetcars on a daily basis. These work experiences—which were all that seemed to be available to a woman, even with a college education, who didn’t want to be a teacher or a nurse—convinced Irene she needed a better course. She studied library science at the University of California, Berkeley, where she took her master’s degree. This was her first time living and working in the East Bay, outside of San Francisco, and she would sometimes joke that she had moved “overseas.”

Right out of library school, Irene got a job cataloguing rare books and manuscripts at The Bancroft Library—where capitalizing “the” was a point of honor. Although she may not have realized it at the time, the Bancroft was the best place for her. It was and remains one of the most respected history libraries in the world, building on the collection of Gold Rush historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, who documented the development of California, the West, and Mexico and Central America after he arrived in San Francisco in 1852. Irene developed a great pride in the institution, made many lasting friendships in the library, and had deep respect for its Director of the time, James D. Hart.

With a permanent job and newfound freedom, Irene bought her first car—the first in her family—in 1965. It was a baby-blue Volkswagen Beetle, and she loved it. Irene was a self-taught driver and immediately took the car on a long, solo trip to northern Arizona. There she encountered her first patch of black ice, spun into a rock wall, and learned about getting her car repaired as an out-of-towner. She later took other trips in the VW with her mother to Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. She kept that car for more than ten years and then only sold it to the son of a friend.

Irene stayed at the Bancroft for 27 years, rising to the position of Head of Public Services. There she was responsible for staffing the Reading Room and preparing the quarterly exhibits of donations to its special collections for the interest of the library’s Friends organization and the many scholars who use its amazing resources. At the end of her career, as the Bancroft and similar special-purpose libraries all across the nation put the catalogues of their unique collections online, Irene learned the new skill of computer coding and access. Working at the Bancroft in a position of authority made Irene the confident, capable woman she was.

She was always ready to help visiting scholars in their particular searches. During the mid-1970s she worked with the author Elinor Richey in developing reference materials, photographs, and drawings for Elinor’s next history project, The Ultimate Victorians of the Continental Side of San Francisco Bay. The volume was being published, like Elinor’s other works, at Howell-North Books in Berkeley. Elinor kept telling Irene, who was a tall woman at five foot eleven, about this tall young editor she was working with at Howell-North. And Irene’s response would be “Yes, yes, Elinor. But about this picture …”

Irene and Tom at Christmas

I was the tall young editor, and Elinor would tell me about this tall librarian she was working with at the Bancroft. And my response would be “Yes, yes, Elinor. But about this sentence …” I did go into the library once to retrieve some photos, and met a tall and beautiful librarian with long blonde hair. I recognized Irene from her name badge, but the only words we exchanged was her asking me to use a pencil instead of my fountain pen in filling out an order form. In a rare book and manuscript library, ink was forbidden because a scholar taking notes might accidentally mark a precious resource. Those were the only words we spoke for more than a year. But I remembered the name Irene Moran.

We finally met formally, as in a date, in 1975 at the publishing party for Elinor’s book, which was held at the Oakland Museum of California. We liked each other enough to go to dinner afterwards. From there, we continued dating and got married a year later. Because friends of Irene’s in Berkeley had just been married by this smart, young woman judge on the circuit in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, we took our vows at the courthouse in Martinez on October 15.1

In preparation for living together, we had been looking at housing in the area and focused on the Gateview condominium complex in Albany. It was an easy commute to Irene’s job on campus and had good bus and BART connections for my then-current job at the Kaiser Center in Oakland. We signed the mortgage papers while we were still single and planned to move in right after the wedding. Because we were the first occupants of that condo unit, we had the balcony enclosed and hardwood floors installed—work that needed some time to prepare. It was a beautiful location, with views of the trees on Albany Hill from one side and down the shoreline to the Bay Bridge and San Francisco on the other. The price was more than anyone in either of our families had ever paid for a complete house, and we always thought we would eventually move out to a home in the Berkeley Hills. But over the years of looking and not finding, and coming back to our condo where the sun was shining and the views were inviting, we always decided to stay. We remained at Gateview for 41 years.

A major influence in Irene’s life as a young girl was her cousin Kathleen, who was some years older. Kathleen had served in the Marine Corps and eventually managed an office in Philadelphia. She showed Irene that a strong and independent woman could be successful in the world. In 1981, in the midst of plans for moving with her fifteen-year-old son Gary to California, Kathleen died suddenly of a thrombosis. Irene decided that she wanted Gary to come out west anyway and that we would make a home for him. Gary stayed with us until he graduated from high school and joined the Air Force. Irene and I never had children of our own; so Gary and his wife Jessica and son Shane have since become our family.

Although Irene loved the Bancroft, it was always, well … work. In the mid-1980s we were watching the Alex Haley television special Roots. One of Haley’s ancestors—“Chicken George,” a slave who was also an entrepreneur raising fighting cocks—declared his intention to save his money and “buy his freedom.” That notion reverberated with Irene. She then and there decided to save her money and buy her own freedom—or be in position to take advantage of the university’s occasional retirement buyout packages. She was finally able to retire in 1991.

Irene always loved to travel. During her early years, she took a solo trip around South America including Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Machu Picchu. And she went camping in Mexico and hiking in the Rockies with friends. She also flew to Ireland several times to visit the farm where her mother grew up, and which was then in the keeping of an aunt. After she retired, Irene and I traveled to London twice, to Italy twice, to Paris, and to Amsterdam. When I was working and unable to join her, she booked travels with lady friends to Brussels, Greece, and Eastern Europe.

Her newfound free time enabled Irene to volunteer in the causes to which she felt closest. Her brother Desi had suffered a severe mental illness all his life, and that inspired Irene to join the East Bay chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. Over the past twenty years, she has worked as treasurer and office manager and coordinated the mailing of the chapter’s bimonthly newsletter. Early in her retirement, she also volunteered at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, joining the Monday Day Crew. There for fifteen years she and others handled the rough physical work of herding sick and injured elephant seals and California sea lions, mixing fish mash and intubating animals that could not feed themselves, and cleaning the pens. It was vigorous outdoor work, and Irene loved it.

Irene also had twenty-plus years of serving as a volunteer usher at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. And she served two terms on the Gateview Homeowners Association Board of Directors, both during difficult times for the association.

Irene at Richmond Art Center

Her mother Delia died in 2004 at the age of 102, and we always thought Irene would live as long. In her final years, Delia suffered short-term memory loss: she could recall people from her life on 23rd Avenue from fifty years in the past but couldn’t remember what she had for breakfast. This might have worried anyone else, but Delia remained a cheerful person with a gracious disposition. This gave me hope that there can be peace and acceptance under all of life’s conditions.

Irene battled depression for most of her life and alcohol in her later years. She hit “rock bottom” in the year her mother died, and then she decided to do something for herself. She joined Alcoholics Anonymous and took up their program with a will. She embraced its Zen-like demand for self-examination and self-honesty, as well as the AA tradition of service to others. She became a backbone of her home chapter, picking up and driving people to meetings and to their other appointments. Although Irene broke from the Catholic Church at a young age, she found peace in the AA concept of a higher power, or supreme spirit, and she began meditating.

Irene and I took our last trip together in the fall of 2012, to Arizona to visit the natural wonders and Native American heritage of the Southwest. This trip echoed one we had taken early in our relationship to the canyon lands of southern Utah and northern Arizona. Shortly after our trip, Irene suffered a heart attack and had a stent installed. This showed her that, in addition to her depression and alcohol, she had to work on getting exercise and eating right. She rose to this challenge as she had to the others. Irene was a brave, purposeful, dedicated woman.

Despite her efforts, her last couple of years were a time of failing health and diminished capacity. Earlier this year, she began experiencing headaches, nausea, and leg pains, which a neurologist diagnosed as an arterial inflammation, or vasculitis. On the morning after Labor Day, Irene succumbed to complications from this disease and the powerful steroid used to treat it.

Those who loved Irene knew her wonderful qualities. She lived the best of lives—strong, alert, interested, and purposeful. She was my wife, my love, my lady, and my best friend.

Irene’s favorite passages from Desiderata

“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

“And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.”

1. Today would have been our 41st wedding anniversary. Love you, Irene!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Balance of Power

Balanced rocks

In matters of politics and economics, I do not believe that any one side of an argument or a proposition possesses the ultimate truth, holds exclusive bargaining rights, represents final authority, or has been gifted with the other attributes and artifacts of power. Yes, I believe that truth, rights, and authority all exist, but they must be established, weighed, and tested on a case-by-case basis. No one has uncontested power by virtue of his or her personal beliefs, political stance, or past actions and achievements.1

But it would seem that our current political situation and its effect upon our economic situation has devolved into a philosophical fight over who should have the ultimate power to decide where the truth lies in any discussion and how society should be organized and maintained. The conflict eventually comes down to who shall have the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness—and who should be shunned, shouted down, and ultimately hunted through the woods with dogs.

In this fight, some people prefer to give power and the weight of defining truth and making decisions to those who were either elected or, in most cases, appointed and hired into government positions. Adherents of this statist philosophy view these elected representatives and appointed or hired civil servants as high-minded, selfless, and incorruptible. They believe these government people should have authority over others because, first, they are bound to be fair and impartial through having no vested interest in the outcome of the decisions made in their sphere and, second, they possess the training and experience to make the best decisions based on the latest scientific, psychological, and sociopolitical thinking. The adherents have taken to heart Plato’s ideal, expressed most notably in The Republic, that society should be ordered and maintained by a cadre of philosopher-kings.

At the same time, other people would prefer to leave power and the burden of defining truth and making decisions in the hands of individual citizens. Yes, some decisions must be made for the common good by governors, legislators, judges, and their supporting departments—but these decisions should be in strictly designated areas like providing military defense and maintaining the borders; building community infrastructure such as roads, harbors, and water supplies; and offering police and judicial services for personal protection and redress of grievances. But for the rest of the social structure, the common people should have the freedom to decide what is right for themselves as individuals and spend their time, energy, and money obtaining the goods and services that they believe will best serve their needs. And others should be free to invest in the production, trade, and distribution of goods and the offer of services in an open market to fulfill those individual needs as they see them.

Those who advocate state control consider the free market, capitalist finance, and participation based on self-interest as rewarding greed, selfishness, and intentionally hurtful action. While those who advocate personal freedom of choice see an overclass of scientific and psychological expert administrators as an invitation to inertia, laziness, pride, and corruption of power.

But even the most libertarian advocate of free-market capitalism will admit that sometimes market forces under the principles of supply and demand, value paid for value received, and other effects of letting intelligent shoppers act according to rational principles will sometimes leave one side of the transaction in a position of advantage while the other suffers disadvantage and damage. Speculation and hoarding in times of crisis, market dominance and monopoly power are examples. In these cases the government needs to set some economic ground rules, and the courts must be available to render judgments and exact penalties.

And even the most progressive advocate of state control will admit that some functions of daily living are inappropriate for government to supply or control. Making personal decisions about whom you will love and take into your life, what values to teach your children and how to discipline them, where and how you choose to live, what career and pastimes to pursue, and what foods you like to eat or avoid are all subject to personal choice. Of course, some extreme advocates of state control—such as doctrinaire Communists and their totalitarian cohort—would insist that any personal element is a political illusion which should be discouraged and stamped out if possible. They believe that no individual choice or action is free from its ultimate effects on other members of society, and so every element of daily life should be guided by moral and scientific experts—or removed from the human psyche altogether.

These discussions are all about to whom you want to give the power in society.

For my part, I believe that any power structure is made up of people, and people in the aggregate and as individuals are not all one thing or the other. Some are greedy, some lazy, some dedicated and conscientious, and some are fools. Whether they work in a government office or a corporate headquarters, work out in the field with a state agriculture or transportation agency, or on the front lines as a customer service representative of a large corporation—they are still people with all their strengths and weaknesses, foibles and phantasies. But, with all of this said, I still believe that most people try to do a good job as they see it and as it has been defined for them in their work environment. Most people consider themselves to be basically good and well intentioned. Only a very few people wake up in the morning and think, “Now I will be an evil bastard.”

And most positions in the power structure, whether in a government or corporate setting, offer few opportunities for personal greed, laziness, and corruption. Every government has its code of ethics, as does every business organization. They have rules, personal and departmental goals, and internal audits. The people who run either organization, public or private, know that the population has its usual share—small in most cases—of connivers and criminals. The organization wants to give good service—even the Department of Motor Vehicles has service goals—and keeps an eye on how its employees are treating the public it serves.

In almost every political and economic situation, I believe in achieving a balance of power: between citizens and their government, between consumers and providers, between workers and management, between any two or more conflicting or competing groups. When one side of the equation has complete control, the other side is bound to suffer. Being a little-D democrat, I believe in the value of reaching agreements—each side gives something and in turn gets something—if not actual consensus among conflicting intentions and interests. This is only a matter of fairness because, really, while some people may be smarter, more experienced, more learned, and more level-headed than others, no one possesses the ultimate truth, the final word, or the all-seeing eye.

This means that any group which obtains prominence and power in a situation must remember Thomas’s Law: “The catbird seat2 is a wobbly perch and tends to dump you.” No one stays up forever. The wheel of karma grinds slowly but inexorably.

If you want an example of this, consider the current situation in academia. For most of my professional lifetime, university professors have enjoyed a position of both power and security in our society. With tenure generally available, they had economic situations that were assured against administrative removal for their holding controversial views or entertaining absurd or noxious ideas. Within the closed environment of the faculty lounge, they had a life of relative ease and congeniality, even with the imperative of “publish or perish.” And as shapers of the minds of future generations, they exercised as much control over our society’s values as any Hollywood or Madison Avenue mogul. The catbird seat. But now, with widely available student loans pushing up tuition, while declining educational standards and curriculum offerings push down the economic value of a basic college diploma—coupled with widely available learning options in the form of online and for-profit education—the secure position of tenured professors is rapidly dwindling. Soon they will have to “root, hog, or die” along with the rest of us.

For another example, consider the position of the Soviet nomenklatura at the top of Russian society. For seventy years, they were in positions of extreme power so long as they could toe the Party line and avoid the backstabbing of political competitors. But in the 1990s that all changed as the system that had nurtured and fed them collapsed of its own incompetence to raise the average Russian out of a third-world existence in an economy that lagged behind every other example in the developed West.

The catbird seat is a nice perch, if you can get it. And for some—like the last crop of university professors or a couple of generations in the nomenklatura—it might last until the holder is dead and gone and beyond caring. But without a balance of power, without a commitment to agreement and consensus, these niches have a relatively short half-life. Eventually, the perch wobbles and dumps you.

1. As always with a blanket statement like this, some exceptions apply. All individuals—except those previously shown to be irresponsible, such as the mentally incapacitated or convicted felons—have a right to life, bodily integrity, and freedom of person. Those who fall into the irresponsible category may give up some degree of freedom but still have a right to life and bodily integrity. Similarly, persons shown to be in possession of property in accordance with the laws of their society have a right to the use and disposition of that property under the law. Persons may be elected, appointed, or hired into positions of decision-making authority over other citizens—such as magistrates, judges, and legislators—but they hold that authority only in the sphere and under the terms of their service. With all that said, no one has a claim on ultimate truth—not even eye witnesses to the birth of creation.

2. See The Catbird Seat from September 29, 2013.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Road from Here

Mangrove path

I have never been much interested in the series or “franchise” treatment of novels, where each book stands alone and can be read in isolation with enjoyment, while at the same time being a unit in the larger career of a single character or an organization. Ian Fleming wrote a stream of such books with his James Bond character, and others have used the model successfully over the years: John Le Carré and his George Smiley books; Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and other detectives; J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books … the list goes on and on.

The key to these books is that each one follows a fixed formula or pattern:1 a villain plans a massive crime, James Bond is sent to hunt out the villain, foil his plot, and destroy his lair; a murder is committed, Poirot or Marple come on the scene, gather clues, and confront the murderer; Harry Potter and his friends encounter some mystery at school and try to solve it. And yet the books must also build a story arc that broadens and shapes the character: James Bond does fall in love and get married—even if only briefly; Harry Potter and friends find the real enemy in Voldemort and change the wizarding world. Sometimes the story arc drives the series, as Le Carré’s Smiley moves from being a minor but pivotal character in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to the man who saves MI-6 in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and then defeats the arch-nemesis Karla in Smiley’s People.

But I don’t write fiction to a formula. Sometimes I wish I could, because then the process of writing a novel would be simpler and faster. If I had a plot structure that I felt was my own—similar to the James Bond model or the architecture of any murder mystery—then I could spend my time honing the central character and inventing new villains and world-destroying schemes or imaginative new ways of and reasons for killing people to present to my character and ring the changes on my formula. But, as I said, I don’t think that way.

My novels grow slowly, usually over the course of a year or two, although some of my stories have been incubating since high school and college. For example, the kernel of an idea that became The Professor’s Mistress, with its Odysseus-like voyage through the canal system of central Ontario, reflects trips my family took in summers on my father’s cabin cruiser.

To write a book, I must first focus my brain—or really my subconscious2—on an idea that intrigues me. It might be a situation, a character, a place like those canals, or something else that captures my imagination. Then I begin building a story around it. And if the central focus is not a character to begin with, I can begin assigning characters to the story.

For example, the story of The House at the Crossroads, about a time-travel station, began with the notion of a building that was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. This is almost an atavistic thought: that certain houses and places have more stories, more history, more dimensions than others. But I wanted to make this thought come alive, as a house that really did hide a series of otherworldly dimensions. And from that point the story just grew: those dimensions would logically extend through time as well as space; so the house could be a portal for time travel; the portal would naturally require a generational series of gatekeepers; and those keepers would owe their allegiance to some group or organization that existed somewhere else in time, most likely in the far future.

A glib writer might say, “From there, the story just writes itself.” But, of course, it doesn’t. I had to pick the point at which the story starts: does it begin with an event at the house already in place, or focus on the act of establishing the house? I had to decide on the nature of the story: what goes wrong and needs fixing in the operation of the house or in the process of its founding? And I had to develop a group of characters with their own lives, aims, interests, foibles, and their own backstory. For me, this part of the outlining—for I am far from actual “production” writing at this point—is a matter of submitting pertinent questions to my subconscious, waiting for an idea to pop up in that black pool at the base of my skull—like answers at the bottom of a Magic 8 Ball—and working them into the developing story arc.

If I thought that my stories could be reduced to a simple, formulaic framework like Bond-defeats-villain or Poirot-identifies-murderer, then I wouldn’t be dealing with a living story that grew out of an idea. I wouldn’t be creating something that acquired a life and meaning of its own. Instead, I would be winding up my characters like mechanical toys to follow a track that had already been prepared for them. It would feel like hanging ornaments on someone else’s Christmas tree. Such a mechanical process might create a story that readers could love—for who does not love Bond, Poirot, or Potter?—but it would seem to me like a trick and a fake.

So the franchise novel, the long-running and lucrative book series, has never been my art. And maybe that’s a good thing, too. Because in today’s market environment, traditional publishers watch book sales numbers more closely than a patient’s fever chart. Spikes are good, but the slightest dip is a sign of doom. And while they would love to hear that an author has a long-running series planned, they will smother the first or second book in its crib if the sales numbers aren’t somewhere between stellar and spectacular. In fact, the only way to write a series anymore—if you’re not already an established author with a huge and loyal readership—is to publish it yourself, the numbers be damned, and have faith in your own creation.

Which is about my state of mind right now. After seven years of writing my novels and publishing them independently, a pattern has begun to emerge. I don’t have a long-running series in mind, but my creative energies seem to be focusing on three basic story streams. I already have two books in each of these streams and ideas are now swirling around for a third in each.

In the time-travel books that began with The Children of Possibility—of which The House at the Crossroads functions as a prequel—I can see a third book is needed. This novel would attempt to resolve the terrible breach in human history that Children opened. The story, sketchy in my mind so far, appears to involve inducting a Divina into the Troupe des Jongleurs and thereby learning the secrets of this strange divergence from the human race.

Of the artificial-intelligence books that began with ME: A Novel of Self-Discovery and continued with ME, Too: Loose in the Network, I have ideas for a third book. Since the first one dealt with solo ME as a new creation, and the second told of two versions—original ME and an evil not-ME—now I have to figure out how to get three copies of ME all working together or against each other. That’s going to be fun.

And finally, in the Wheelock family saga that began with The Judge’s Daughter and continued in the next generation with The Professor’s Mistress, I am now working on the third generation. This is the story of Dani, the child of Jane and William Henry. She graduates from the university with a degree in engineering and … the story continues from there.

Working on these three books—the third in each proto-series—will take me out to about three years. After that, I have other ideas. I want to go back to Mars, having written Mars Plus with Frederick Pohl, but not to any version of the planet that I’ve visited before. And I want to tell the story of a visit to—possibly the invasion of—Earth from the alien point of view. If I can adopt the viewpoint of an artificial intelligence who never existed, assuming the persona of an organic life form from another planet should be a snap.

As always, stay tuned.

1. The exception I can think of is Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. Although each book has a concise beginning and a satisfying end, the stories themselves follow no set formula. O’Brian is simply writing a hugely extended novel that covers twenty-odd volumes over twenty-odd years, beginning at a definite historical point in the Napoleonic wars and extending around the world. If you don’t know these books, which have been described as “Jane Austen goes to sea,” you are in for a treat.

2. See Working with the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.