The Good Old Days

I often find myself thinking about/arguing over how modern life is different than ancient life, and whether it’s better or worse. Modern life is full of mindless violence, out-of-context sex, artificially engineered diseases, inverted food foams…It’s no wonder modern people look back to times they thought of as simpler. But there’s not a single popularly-romanticized era that didn’t have its own problems that were arguably worse than any we have today.

The Paleolithic period, popularized by the Paleo diet, promises and end to acne, autoimmune disorders, cancer, heart disease, diabetes and any other chronic degenerative disease. It supposes that prehistoric man lived in a veritable paradise of wonderful health and harmony. But the average lifespan of a human living 10,000 years ago was roughly 35 years for men and 30 for women. They were subject to hookworm, malaria, and occasional anemia, and women often died in childbirth. Worst of all, accidents like broken bones, deep cuts and infected teeth killed people slowly and (I would imagine) painfully in a way they don’t now. Can you imagine dying from a blood infection brought on because you’d cut the bottom of your foot on a rock and then had to keep trekking? If you can, keep it to yourself.

Ancient civilizations like Egyptians, Mayans, Incas, Celts, Anasazi are full of amazing technologies and interesting art and science that lead people to insist that they had knowledge that we have since lost. Possibly wisdom gained from extraterrestrials. But all of those civilizations had catastrophic wars with their neighbors, and illnesses common to large populations living in close quarters, like tuberculosis, were common. Slavery was common in ancient civilizations, often a consequence of war where the conquered group became slaves to the conquerers. Childbirth and infancy were still perilous, and infection continued to carry off the wounded.

Perhaps you’re a fan of ancient Greece and Rome? Well, in addition to the invention of philosophy and politics, they saw the rise of patriarchal societies that treated women as property. Near-constant warfare (made easier and more efficient by inventions like the stirrup and teed saddle) and more crowded living conditions, always a fertile breeding ground for disease, were abetted by (in Rome) lead in the famous Roman plumbing that is thought to have contributed to the fall of Rome.

The Middle Ages? Well, they weren’t called the Dark Ages for nothing. More war. More disease. Education reserved only for the rich and the Church. Women’s rights enjoy a brief resurgence, but childbirth and infancy are just as dangerous as ever. Improvements are made to warfare (like the castle, muzzle-loaded cannons, and the codification of battle strategy and tactics), but not so much to medicine. And let’s not forget the plague.

The Renaissance may have seen the emergence of amazing developments in art, sciences and medicine, but it also saw the rise of European Imperialism, bringing with it genocide with both weapons and diseases.

I could go on and on, but the point is that the evils we have now – intolerance, political intrigue, war, fear, anger, stupidity – have always been part of the human landscape. There is not a single period in human history in which people have enjoyed perfect health and harmony, despite what people may wish to believe about their favorite historical period or culture. I don’t care whom you idolize – they had wars and diseases and if you had been part of the 99%, you would have been not only a good deal more poor than you are now, but you would likely have died not only earlier but a good deal less comfortably.

And in fact, people now have a demonstrably higher standard of living than ever before in history. Better education, more knowledge about healthcare and the impact of things like basic hygiene and innoculations, better methods of distribution for nearly everything mean that even poverty looks much wealthier than it has at any time in history.

What I’m trying to say is that we’re not special. We’re not smarter than our ancestors, we’re not more civilized. We’re also no less hostile, no less fearful, no less angry. The one thing that we are, and that our children will be after us, is more efficient. If we manage to wipe out humanity, it will be because we’ve spent all of our thousands of years of history distilling the most efficient way to do it.


What Are You Afraid Of?

The therapist I’ve been seeing for the past five months today came out with this revelation:

Given the things you’ve said to me, it seems you find the world a threatening place.

My therapist often says things I’m not sure about, and I have to go away and think about them. He’s a Freudian, and I call him on his bullshit. He’s trying to sift through my past, looking for single traumatic incident that imprinted on me this need to defend myself. I could relive every day since I was about 18 months old, and my shrink can pick through  any of the dozens of sub-optimal events that have shaped my view of the world. He would say that I’ve subconsciously formulated defense mechanisms that color all my interactions with people, and that, as a result, my outlook isn’t what it should be.

But there’s one other possibility. I’ve said before that I’m an introvert. No, I’m not going to link to a blog post where I’ve said it, because I say it all the time. Here’s a thing that’s true about many introverts: their nervous systems are wired differently. They experience sensations like sound, light and touch as more stimulating than other people feel them, and therefore have a stronger reaction. When you’re wired up so that bright lights, people talking in excited voices and people, clothes or stray breezes touching your skin feel uncomfortable to you, of course the world is a threatening place.

So it should be no surprise to anyone that, not only am I generally defensive, but that I don’t see that as anything I want to change. What I would like to change, though, is how this particular therapist views me. Because I’m now realizing that while I do have a fair few real problems (like an obscure obsessive/compulsive disorder that is the reason I keep my hair short), viewing the world as generally challenging isn’t a neurosis for me. It’s a reality.

Observing the Decencies

I’ve drawn the Pirate into listening to Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety. It’s the kind of audio book where we stop the playback every few minutes so that we can talk about what’s being said.

One of the points he made was this: “As our standard of living goes up, the luxuries become the decencies, and the decencies become necessities.”

I realized that I had only considered two classes of things: necessities and luxuries. When those are your only choices and you divide all the stuff you own into one of those two camps, you either sound like a delusional hedonist who classifies having a car for each person in their household a “necessity,” or like a rich liberal apologizing by classifying owning a computer as a “luxury.” Granted, what qualifies as “necessary” depends on your circumstances. If you work from home at a tech job, a computer is a necessity. For families living in dense urban areas with public transportation where only one spouse has a full-time job, having more than one car isn’t necessary. Convenient, but not necessary.

Here’s where the idea of “decency” comes in. It’s the idea of a thing that isn’t a luxury, but is a step up from a necessity. The wonderful world of hygiene is a great example. We all agree that keeping clean is a necessity: the first line of defense against diseases ranging from the common cold to cholera to ebola. If we agree that hygiene is a necessity, and hygiene means soap and water, we also agree that soap is a necessity.

If you are the hardy type, you can mix the same lye you use to unblock your drains with some water, add your cooking oil (including bacon grease and meat trimmings), and create a soap that will burn your skin, smell bad and serve your purposes. That’s necessity. Buying lye in bulk and using only your used cooking grease, soap made this way would cost a just under two and a half cents per ounce. When I was a kid, my mom always bought Ivory soap. It didn’t smell weird, and it was inexpensive. You can get Ivory soap for about 13 cents per ounce. Necessity or decency – your call. What happens when you get to things like Lush? Depending on your preference, you’ll be paying $1.99 to $2.64 per ounce for this high-end soap – two orders of magnitude more than the DIY version. There’s no way anyone can justify that kind of outlay as “necessity,” and calling it “decency” is disingenuous.

It’s been making me think about my own definitions. How much do I need most of the things I use and enjoy? How do I justify to myself the purchases I make? I need to think harder about the choices I make. I need to make sure that I’m not buying things just because I’m being lazy or self-indulgent. I need to remember that I’m not alone on this planet, and that I need to play fair, share, and leave some stuff for others.

Sincerely Yours

One of the many things that marks an introvert is the tendency to live in one’s own head. I don’t know how conversations work for extroverts, but for me they work something like this:

Me: Hello! It’s nice to see you! Is that her real hair color? I wonder if she thinks my dye job is awful.

Her: How are you! I haven’t seen you in a while. What’s going on?

Me: Nothing. I mean, I’ve been really busy, but it’s just the same old stuff. I sound really lame, don’t I? Oh, crap. She’s looking at her watch. She thinks I’m boring.

Her: I’m going to lunch with George at 1. Have you met George? He worked with Marshall in purchasing before Marshall moved to Des Moines. I heard he’s doing really well there. Really happy. He and his wife bought a five-acre property with a 100-year-old farmhouse that they’re fixing up.

Me: Wow! That’s great. He’s working in Iowa, or remotely? She thinks my house sucks. I know she does. For crying out loud, I’m not the DIY type! Or does she think I’m not happy? Why did she say “really” happy? Like I’m faking it? 

Her: Oh, he’s working remotely. Well, I’ve got to run. Call me! Let’s get together for lunch next week!

Me: Absolutely! Does she really want me to call, or is she just trying to be nice. I’ll call her, but I won’t mention lunch. Just in case she didn’t really mean it.

That’s right. Every single exchange is questioned. And long after that one-minute exchange is over, I’ll still be playing it in my mind, continuing to question “Did she really mean that?” for the rest of the day. In practice, it’s exhausting. I never feel like I know the truth about how other people feel about me. Whether someone is laughing at my jokes because my jokes are really funny, or because they think I can do something for them. When someone expresses delight or admiration for the work I’m doing, I don’t know whether it’s the work, or whether they’re trying to impress me by being impressed by me. I’m as susceptible to flattery as the next person, but I would also like to know that when someone is nice to me, they’re nice to me because they actually like me.

And just so you know, if I’m nice to you, it’s because I like you.

I’m Ruined

I spent December and the late part of January in writing intensives that brought home two dozen rules of good writing.  I’ve read half a dozen books, written fifty-odd pages of fiction and critiqued five hundred more since mid-December. And now I’ve been handed the latest work by one of the folks in my critique group, and I find that I’m reading the work of my dear friends differently.

First, my magic red pen has circled all his adverbs and underlined all his uses of “was” or “had.” Then, it has called out the instances where I’m being told something instead of shown it. Then, it’s putting brackets around all the POV shifts, all the verb tense shifts and all the “what the hell just happened” points. The only page that hasn’t received any revision marks is one that, because he formatted his manuscript in Word and I use NeoOffice, came out blank. (I went ahead and put a very sarcastic “This page intentionally left blank.” I know that contains an adverb, but it’s not original to me, so I don’t feel guilty.)

If it were my manuscript, I would receive back the markups and feel a little discouraged. I would look at red ink on every page, in huge amounts, and I might think “I’m terrible at this.” But there are two things that I know about this situation: the first is that this is an early draft, and the author is expecting major rewrites at this point. In fact, he may expect having to do more rewrites once it gets accepted for publication. Because that’s the second thing. The guy who wrote this has his third book coming out in April. He knows how to write commercial fiction.

The takeaway is that I can’t be hard on myself when I’m doing my own edits. I’ve long said that the hardest part of writing is editing, because it’s hard to edit yourself. On the other hand, I’m not sure.  Rick Moody said in a revision class that he believed that the larger questions of plot, characterization and style would solve themselves if you solve the smaller problems of adverbs, bad metaphors and passive voice. I am beginning to see how that’s true. Stripping your prose bare of all the stuff you put in to prop it up not only highlights what you did put in when you shouldn’t. It also shows up what’s not there. Tension. Action. Drama.

I’m going to start the re-writes on the novel that has been workshopped to death. It’s been two years since I wrote it, and it’s going to get the good going-over it deserves. And I hope that when my friend reads the markups I put on his draft, that he’s happy with the amount of revision I’m suggesting. And I hope that Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, H.P. Lovecraft, P.G. Wodehouse, G.K. Chesterton and all my other favorites forgive me, because now, even when I read their works that have been labeled as “classics,” I can’t help but think “Adverb…passive voice…adverb, oh my – two in a row!”

What Are You Doing?

I’m glad you asked that. I really am.

The thing that I’ve chosen to pursue is called hypertext fiction. In a nutshell, it’s a form of fiction that uses the utilities of electronic delivery to allow the reader to customize the story. Examples of it have been around for 20 years, but newer e-reader technologies and packaging now allow for better, more interesting presentations and the possibility that you don’t need to have access to the web to read the text (she says, although she has not solved certain problems just yet).

The story as I have imagined it has 6 characters whose points of view will be shown. It has what I’ve come to think of as 3 theaters of action, each one in a different part of the world. Action is happening in their stories at all times as the characters seek to deal with their situations and remedy their problems.

What I’m envisioning is not just being able to “package” the story from a single character’s point of view, but to be able to switch between several points of view (seeing the same scene from an 8-year-old girl, versus a 40-year-old man), or being able to package all stories told in a particular location. It means that I will be writing the same novel 6 times, and each of them must be entirely distinct, and each one must work with all the others.

There are two difficulties I foresee: the first comes in the writing itself. It’s going to be hard to write each node, or scene, as an independent thing such that you can go smoothly from one point of view to another and have the narrative make sense. For instance, if one character leaves the room after an argument, the other will stay behind and ruminate about the argument, or tear up the furniture, or whatever. The one who left might go and cry, or go and inject poison into the other’s toothpaste tube. Where does the scene end? Can you switch smoothly from the end of the poisoner’s scene to the beginning of the next scene starring the room-tosser? Will it flow, or will there be a backtracking? Not sure how I’m going to solve it. I’m also terribly prone to point of view shifts when I write. It’s easy to start talking about how he thinks she’s dependent and clingy and wishes she would just leave him and then put in a line about how she will never leave him because she’s punishing him for being such a wimp by making him take the first step away. If I did it better, it would be omniscient, but since I don’t, it’s just bad third person.

The other difficulty is in the user interface. How do you represent what the reader is seeing? How do you have them switch from one POV to another? From one scene in time to another? What happens if you push a “next” button? What happens if you choose a different character – do you get the same scene retold, or the next scene from a different POV? There are decisions to be made in the telling that will inform how this thing is programmed, and the Pirate and I have been talking about it nonstop.

While the idea of hypertext fiction is not new, the things I want to do with it are new, and are going to require what I anticipate will be years of work. But I’ve got time. I’ve got nothing but time.