It’s Ours

The last one was fairly dark.

I think it is remarkable that we can so easily go dark. From a purely human perspective, it’s easy to find ourselves the victims of circumstance and forget the power of humanity to overcome all of the worst parts of human existence.

I spoke about my good friend with cancer, and didn’t lean hard enough on the human ability to overcome almost anything. The truth is that I have more than one important person in my life battling cancer, and I am fascinated by the response, both from their perspective and my own.

I had a very passionate and inspired science teacher in the 8th grade. She was a teacher who was willing to go beyond the classroom to teach us of the world in which we live. I can distinctly remember stalking the edges of our middle school campus trying to find the birds she had recorded earlier, and wondering what the point might be. Her husband was fighting cancer, and she was searching for any possible response that might change the outcome. He lost, and she lost, and 40 years later I still think about it. If we’re being honest, I have no idea whether she is still alive, although I would guess not, since that kind of love and devotion generally leads to a spouse following her love into the afterlife.

Lem Parks was the closest thing I had to a grandfather. One of my actual grandfathers had died long before my birth and the other was long gone from my life. I can only remember meeting him once, when I was eleven. Given the attitude of his ex-wife, my maternal grandmother, I can’t say that I blame him for making a new life. The real question is whether she was so mean and bitter because of him, or before he decided to leave her. I’ll never know.

Anyway, Lem Parks was a good substitute. He managed to impart the kind of lessons and wisdom that a real grandfather should. He did so with patience and kindness, and most of his lessons stick as the absolute truth to this day. Lem’s wife devolved into the angry kind of dementia, which I totally understand. I can clearly recall conversations with her that repeated the basics over and over. Having no control of life would make me angry as well. It didn’t affect us, other than the occasional moment when she would throw an ancient rancid ham off her deck and our dog, Henry, would eat it only to be afflicted with doggie diarrhea for several days afterwards. The point is that when she died, Lem didn’t survive very long, even though to all accounts, he may not have known when she died. Somehow, he knew, and didn’t want to continue in this world without her. He died very shortly thereafter. I could write his imparted stories for weeks on end and every one of them held some good lessons for all of us, yet he could not survive without his wife.

So now, I find myself coping with another very important person with cancer. By coping, I don’t mean that I have to deal with anything like what she needs to handle. My own struggle is a pale shadow of what those with cancer and their immediate loved ones must endure, but I still end up with all the hard questions.

In one case, I believe she has the willpower to overcome almost anything. She is strength of will personified. In another, I don’t know, but I still care enough to hope that is the case. That leads immediately to the question of whether strength of will or the belief behind it has anything to do with the outcome. Perhaps the outcome is written in sheer biological terms, or perhaps the human will comes into play. I don’t know. If I take the case of my 8th grade teacher’s husband, where I handed her Science Digest articles about combating cancer through visualization, and it failed meant that either he failed to believe, failed to do the work, or it was just a pile of crap, I don’t know. In the case of my good friend, a person who is part of my family regardless of actual genetic ties, I don’t know if she can outgun cancer through sheer force of will, or divine providence, or whatever passes for a miracle. In the case of a long lost friend who is seeking resolution through the power of prayer and belief in God, I also do not know.

But here’s what I do know. We are creatures of belief. We are incredibly capable of converting belief into reality. In the seedy reality of life, that could apply to politics, or the outcome for our children, or the outcome of a cancer diagnosis. We should choose our beliefs wisely and then apply them with everything we can muster. Odds are, the outcome will follow. For better or worse…

So, to Shirley, or Judith, or the countless others of which I am not aware, I say believe, cling to those beliefs, and that will serve as the basis for your outcome. Bizarre as it may seem, we are creatures of belief, and we make our reality. For good or ill. How scary is that?

What if? Part 99

My brother, who is a very smart man, went through a phase when he was a single-digit kid. Being the youngest, he got away with essentially driving us crazy. No matter what the topic, no matter what we said, he could come up with a “What if?” question to go with it. If we were lucky, it was only one question. At the time, it was maddening. He knew the effect perfectly well and therefore never stopped at one question. But looking back, it may be simply because he was the smartest and best critical thinker in the family. This from a kid who declared loudly that he wanted to be a ditch digger when he grew up. I was never sure if he was just yanking our chain.

Decades later,  wearing the hat of a fiction writer, there is no better question.

As a fiction writer, you may ask the Fifty Shades question. What happens if a straightlaced, relatively innocent woman suddenly decides to dive into the world of S&M, dominance and submission? I never finished the book (it’s very rare that I don’t finish the book), so I don’t know. You may ask a question about what happened during the Great Depression, the Civil War, World War II, or the individuals involved and how their lives were impacted by history and events beyond their control. In fiction, these types of questions are asked over and over, and usually reveal new insights into the experience of those in the mix of human history. You may be more like my wife, who is as rational as a Vulcan and studies genealogy as a hobby to develop the story of our family reality.

For myself, I find this entirely valid. There is no number of individual perspectives on the story of humanity, no matter whether documented or fictionalized, that doesn’t add the to the value of what it means to be human and to answer the questions we are all asking. We all know that the stickiest stories are not judged on the basis of fact, but on the basis of impact. (See: current events.)

As a speculative fiction writer, the field breaks open like a good block on a linebacker. Sometimes the question runs for a first down and makes for a good story. Sometimes, it runs for a touchdown and leaves the general sense of, ”How did that happen?” SF writers not only ask questions about what we have experienced in the most granular and personal sense, but on what we may experience in the broadest sense. What are those questions? Well, they boil down to the intellectual property of the writer, in the sense that I have lots of ideas I keep close to my vest, but I can almost guarantee that every person with any amount of insight and introspection out there has a few of their own. I can guarantee it on the basis of hearing about it from many different people, and by asking those who don’t offer their ideas up for examination. Humanity is inherently creative, and that’s both beautiful and terrifying. We have it within us to create our future, or another nightclub shooting.

The masters of SF, from my point of view, may be 75% obsolete, but that doesn’t matter one bit. I spent my time in a small town mall bookstore that gradually became less about books and more about greeting cards and Christmas figurines. The manager knew me, and kept me abreast of the latest arrivals. Considering the modern state of that mall, minus one bookstore, I count myself lucky to have grown up as a SF geek at the exact time when I did.

Larry Niven was the master of worldbuilding. Robert Heinlein was the master of pitting the broad futurist ideas against social mores he considered ridiculous at the time. While Heinlein made it clear that considering women as anything less than men was the highest level of stupidity, in 2018 terms, his worldview may as well have been an episode of Mad Men with really smart women. Anne McCaffrey was the consummate builder of harmonious, Irish influenced societies with enough conflict to make it worth my while. She taught me how to work through a book full of weird names and culture far better than reading Chaucer in high school. If she were the saleswoman for the Irish model of life, we might all be in a better place. Madeleine L’Engle created stories that still resonate today for me, forty-plus years later. I read the entire set again recently, to discover that I found them good and bad in exactly the same way I did when I was a kid, which is bizarre, since much of the comedy of my youth falls flat in middle age. It’s safe to say that she found the mixture of simplicity and complexity that completely superseded the span of my life. Meanwhile, there was a huge litany of SF authors that completely exceeded my youthful ability to make heads or tails of their work. At the same time, there are anthologies that I would pay good money to reread just to flesh out the ideas that stuck with me over the years. There are even elementary school readers I would love to see again.

Although I can legitimately count myself a fan of Stephen King, I can also admit that he’s a step or two beyond me more often than not. That’s a good thing. I prefer to look up to my authors than to feel as if I can level a top-down critique. In the very modern sense, I can look up to a number of great authors who bring a great deal to the discussion of what I care to discuss. I have a shelf full of SM Stirling hardbacks that I can give and take on certain aspects, yet manage to impart the fundamentals that I believe to be true. We know nothing, and if you can deal with what’s in front of you, no matter what that may be, you are far better off than the vast majority of people around you. John Scalzi, for whom I’ve named a very good cat, is a master of humanizing a variety of concepts that would bring most of us to our knees. Incidentally, using the words “Good” and “Cat” in the same sentence is not natural to me. You can credit the cats or John Scalzi as you see fit. I can say that Scalzi the cat is my friend and devoid of most of the cat traits that turn folks into dog people. In sheer bonus points, that cat worships me like a minor deity. Who can argue with that?

The point is that you can come from almost anywhere on the spectrum and find that there is no way to navigate without asking the “What if?” questions. I’d suggest that the real question is “What do you want?” and ask it knowing that there is no way to answer without understanding the real consequences and costs of the questions. Let me bring it right home.

If you are fortunate like me, and happen to have a spouse with the best health insurance American money and employment (outside of Congress) can buy right now, and you consider the effects of universal health care… There is no way that universal, single-payer health care doesn’t degrade your own health services. No way. What is your stance?

Let’s broaden the equation. If you bought into the Obama version of American value, which he frequently espoused on foreign soil, and have decided that American values are morally bereft… Is there any way that you decide that American citizen success supersedes the success of some random person from El Salvador heading for a symbolic showdown against our evil President? I’d say not likely. Yet, that value equation is based on the idea that the benefits that we enjoy as Americans are essentially bottomless. While our politicians behave as if the fountain of American benefits is indeed bottomless, the truth is that every asylum-seeking individual costs us roughly $70k to adjudicate. For perspective, this is much more than the average $40k per year for every federal prison inmate. In purely rational terms, which seems to be a hard ask these days, we have to accept people into our country on the basis that they are worth more than $70k. Is this a tough standard? Not at all. I can reach out to my first level of contacts and find a whole range of Mexicans who are willing to work hard, meet their obligations, and add value to our country without having to stretch into any philosophical realms to justify their benefit to our country. How is this a hard problem? An immigrant who is willing to work hard and follow the legal path to citizenship is a no-brainer.

An immigrant who shows up at our border with a claim for asylum based on unsupported evidence is equally a no-brainer. It’s not a moral failing to say, “We can’t find support for your claims but you are welcome to start your long path to American citizenship.” The fact is that American Citizenship is, and should be, a hard path. We offer the best outcome that exists in the world today.

Despite the best efforts of a great many strong PR pushes around the world, America still is the best bastion of opportunity on the planet. Ask any turban-sporting Sikh convenience store owner you encounter. Presumably, that man could start a similar store anywhere in the Sikh world and he would make far less than he does by slightly confusing Western Washington residents. Presumably, and fairly, he would confuse far more people in other parts of the country as he half ignores his customers in favor of the cell phone conversation he is having in his native language. This is a man who is making virtually no effort to assimilate to American culture and is still making far more money to send home to his family in the Middle East without any real consequence to his balancing act. Other than what we offer him through political correctness… He makes out like a bandit in both American and Middle Eastern terms, and we support his efforts through our tax dollars in the form of underwritten loans that we could not get for ourselves.

Broadening further, the discussion of exchange has never progressed beyond this. The instant someone slides into the territory of a fair exchange of value, someone else throws the “shame” finger in the air and starts wagging it. If I walk into a car dealership and try to shame-finger my way into a free car, I’ll be lucky if I’m simply ignored. Why is it not okay to categorize potential American citizens in terms of their potential or even actual value to our country? The answers to this question are not easy, because it’s all too easy to remind everyone that we are all immigrants in one form or another. I’m the descendant of immigrants who wandered in over the past 400 years. My Native American friend’s people wandered in at some point as well, somewhere between 40,000 years ago and 1983. While it’s fair to say that prior claims have value, it’s also fair to say that very few pieces of real estate on this planet have not been taken by some new group at some point in time. In most cases, we have no idea who owned that land first, and even trying to seek the answer leads to a logical cascade of non-ownership. The debate becomes pointless.

And that’s where we find ourselves, wrapped up in pointless debates. For every position, there is a “what if” question that renders the position pointless. Even at seven years old, my brother knew this.

Let me demonstrate in SF author fashion. A very good friend of mine has cancer. It’s bad. There is some hope for optimism based on the technical details and her sheer bulldozer of willpower, but statistically speaking, she’s got a fight on her hands. As I write, she and her family are probably making all kinds of plans and tough decisions to fight for a positive outcome, and knowing her, she has a better than average chance of yanking a fluffy white rabbit out of a weatherbeaten hat.

What if the oncologist on her case dies in a plane crash midway through her treatment? We live in a world where it’s entirely possible that another oncologist can read her records and pick up right where the original doctor left off. It could have a profound impact on the outcome, or almost none at all.

What if the grieving relative of a former patient decides to shoot everyone at the oncologist practice where my friend’s treatment is being conducted? I’d say that injects enough disruption into her treatment that the best outcome is in jeopardy. The odds of this exact event occurring are incredibly low, but in the land of “what if” it’s not the likelihood that matters; it’s the impact.

What if the Yellowstone caldera explodes midway through her treatment? Her state is buried in a foot of volcanic ash. The entire emergency and medical response system is overwhelmed almost immediately. Basic services are gone. Food disappears in a heartbeat, and no one can even move from whatever shelter is available after all the roofs collapse from the weight of the ash. Whatever plans she had are gone – irrelevant and impossible. The same applies to everyone else with a medical condition as well. The availability of treatment and prescription meds just disappear in a cloud of ash. The healthiest people will have their hands full trying to cope with that scale of disaster, and those with serious problems will get shunted to the bottom of the priority list. Again, the odds are incredible, but the power of “what if” is that it’s not impossible, and if that particular event occurs, then every decision being made today is rendered pointless.

We can’t live happily in a world of extreme “what ifs,” yet we do. Turn on any news channel. It’s nothing but extreme questions designed to lead us into a quivering corner of fear-based decisions, backed up by the mindset of those who have something to gain from our fear. Those questions not only traffic in the extremes but they serve to break down our ability to even discern the level of effect on our lives. If every ideological crisis is tantamount to personal destruction, eventually it’s very hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Maybe your biggest problem is that your kid is being bullied at school. That’s a real problem with real responses that all carry the weight of potential downsides to your entire family. Meanwhile, the 24-hour news cycle parade of talking heads has convinced you that your real problem is that the reanimated corpse of Hitler may show up with a flamethrower and burn your house down, or some well-meaning politician may suddenly decide that your kid should be reallocated to a school across town to teach everyone the value of living with a long commute.

The issue is usually on the agenda of one side or another, and usually a pointless “What if?” for the vast majority of us.

There are endless “What if’s?” that none of us can answer, but there is good news. It really boils down to what (and who) matters in your world. Your spouse, your kids, your family, your friends, your pets can all be defined in a “What if,” that can be answered easily. What if I apply more kindness? What if I apply more support? What if I apply more forgiveness?

What if?

The Here and Now

So, I spent a lot of time and effort on Old Dog Haven, and it was a complete waste. I can’t go into detail because those details may be wrapped into a legal battle – maybe. Suffice it to say that ODH is operating in a legally non-compliant manner. On the short end, it may come down to public money being contributed to a nonprofit run by one person rather than a legitimate Board of Directors. For most of its history, that person would be the founder, and more recently, by a woman far less qualified, although she apparently thinks she is eminently and flawlessly qualified. The entire history of ODH is based on the idea that the Board serves as a mindless rubber stamp to the Executive Director. This is wrong on so many levels that I wouldn’t bore you with the legal argument. On the long end, we may be looking at a serious misappropriation of public funds. In the middle of that spectrum, there is the simple moral expedient of the idea that a foster home may invest actual love into a dog, only to be subverted by an organization that thinks it’s okay to euthanize a dog without the involvement of the foster home in the decision process. As one of those foster homes, I can’t imagine how furious I would be if ODH decided my dog needed to be euthanized without at least telling me before the fact. It’s an unbelievable moral failure that is clearly easily justifiable to those with no larger view, but for those of us who love those dogs, is unthinkable.

Meanwhile, I am trying to get a working arrangement to tell a story that started with a man who managed to survive an episode of child abuse that would give you the shivers, and after an intense and lengthy recovery process, has managed to create a foundation to help other children recover from similar situations.  This guy is worthy for the hardest of reasons, and his cause is just. I want to tell his story for the same reason I want to tell the story of animals as victims of human beings. I’m not trying to compare human victimization with animal victimization, but it’s a very similar outcome. Children are easy victims for abuse, and so are dogs, both of whom are instinctually born to trust us with their well being. If we fail to honor that trust, we fail on the most fundamental level.

The definition of the story has changed based on my direct experience this year, but if you care about the story of injustices, please head over to my gofundme page to help tell the important stories, those that supersede fiction and drop into actual lives. Thanks!

 

 

 

Weep Not

As a dog person, I encounter a lot dogs, and among many things, I notice one universal truth.

A dog can be blind, deaf, three-legged, one-eyed, sporting a pair of wheels to carry its back end, or named Lucky, and there is one thing you never see. You never see a dog wallowing in grief at the loss of function. As people, we could lose a limb in a horrific accident and there is no doubt that the experience will change our worldview. For some people it seems to light a fire; for others it triggers a will to quit and wallow in the victim’s land of despair.  We could go either way. In the land of dogs, the universal response seems to be: Work with you’ve got, and do what you do.

Earlier today, Sharon and I were at the Olympia Pet Emergency with Becker, one of our ODH foster dogs. He had the rapid onset of a range of symptoms that could amount to a common form of vertigo in old dogs or neurological deficit, which would point to bigger underlying problems with no good outcome. This set of symptoms is very hard to pin down, very hard to treat, and usually ends up in a discussion of quality of life and euthanasia. The emergency part is not the overall condition, which is always difficult and mysterious. The emergency comes from getting some symptomatic treatment so that Becker can hold down food and water well enough to evaluate the larger problem over time.

Presumably, every dog in the place was experiencing some kind of discomfort, and yet, I encountered a Bull Mastiff, A Black Lab, a Harlequin Great Dane, a weird long-legged Shih Tzu, and a Rhodesian Ridgeback, who were all more interested in making friends than in wallowing in whatever affliction had brought them to the clinic today. Meanwhile, Becker, who was experiencing the nauseous, drooling world spins of a college student with a bottle of tequila, was unfailingly good-natured with the whole process, including with the vet who stuck him with two shots.

But I still haven’t gotten to the point… I’m laying out the Way of the Dog in terms of dealing with limitations and discomfort, but then there was the vet himself. I don’t recall his name, and I wouldn’t single him out in any case, but I am here to offer my respect to him for this simple reason. He was born with a congenital defect of his right arm, and he treated it like any dog would. He acted as if it were not a factor at all. He shook hands with it, he handled the dogs with it. He used that malformed limb with the grace of a concert pianist and never once did anything to hint that we should even notice it, much less treat him differently because of it. Clearly he doesn’t need my respect because he handles it without a hitch, but he has my respect just the same. In a world where it’s all too easy to play the victim card to the hilt for issues much less intrusive to the actual practicalities of life, here’s a guy who works with dogs and played it just like a dog would. Work with what you’ve got, and do what you do. I offer my total respect, in the form of someone who couldn’t possibly measure up to that standard.

Adversity breeds strength, even in human beings.

Here’s a Theory

I have a lot of theories. Some of them may resonate, and some of them will fizzle inside my head with the first morning cup of coffee. Some of them are timely in the current events sense and are likely to offend roughly half of you. Some of them are far removed from daily life or the mores of 2018, such as they are, and are much safer for me to espouse. One of the tricks of the Renewal universe is that the projection of reality I was making with the entire story no longer exists. I was speaking about things that have been overrun by current events. That’s the price of losing momentum with a story. It has been adapted.

Here’s the theory. We have been here before. It may not have looked like our civilization with Uber, and Facebook, and a graphics card that can pump out 140 frames per second, but we have as homo-whatever have seen high civilization before. I support this theory with the most observable of facts. Put a pile of blocks in front of any five year old and that child will build something. Put a crayon in that hand and they will draw something. This need to build and create is so intrinsic that I cannot argue that we have never built complexity before our very short timeline of history. I was building tree houses at eight years old, and I am clearly a late bloomer.

In the fossil record of ostensibly modern, tool-using hominids, how many climatic events have occurred that would have completely erased our progress? Ice ages, volcanoes, floods, sea level change? The subject is open to scientific debate, but I have a very hard time believing that we developed along the long tail graph of learning virtually nothing for millennia, and then suddenly bursting into Western Civilization. Even within the known timeline of our history, we have managed to knock ourselves back to lesser understanding and development numerous times. The rule of humanity is to advance, screw up, reset, and advance again. There is no guarantee that the next advancement proceeds further than the last.

Of course, the religious take on humanity defeats this whole premise, but I have a hard time taking the notion of an infinite God of all creation and corralling that God into 5000 years of human history. Wouldn’t a God who lives outside of time be able to start the rise of humanity at the beginning of time? Would that God take our failures in stride and find it more interesting to see what we do next than to dictate a linear path of our advance? Surely, we are less predictable than a shark. Free will is a blessing and a curse, people. But we won’t know in this lifetime. Perhaps we are only a step along the path to the ultimate expression of that infinite God. That’s not ours to know either.

As we speak, the fossil record of humanity is in disarray. The Leakey extension of Darwinism was simple and clear. Lucy was entirely understandable. She was short; we grew and migrated. With the advancement of genetic analysis, the picture is muddy. Perhaps 75 species blended to become us. Perhaps our genetic Eve, a common term a few years back, is simply the survivor of a gigantic volcanic eruption 75,000 years ago, which drove us to the brink of extinction and killed off a whole range of our two legged competitors. We may never know. Or, we may develop some kind of ground penetrating scanners that reveal cities from a half million years ago. We will excavate them and rewrite everything.

Even so, it’s pretty clear at this point that we have been tool users with opposable thumbs for a very long time – much longer than we were taught. This country has been around for 240 years. Sophisticated banking has been around for 500 years. The discovered, lost, and rediscovered aspects of math and science date back far enough to blow your mind. Studies of language are equally mind blowing. While we are inventing verbs and hashtags from social media, we can trace back recognizable language roots as far as we can track history. The point is that all the language we know or have ever known is effectively modern language. What came before that? The picture of our lives is that we somehow went from grunts to language, but that’s not likely. Odds are that entire languages rose and fell and all traces were lost to time. Cave paintings suggest that those images served as language, but that assumes that the people of that time were completely unsophisticated. That is like assuming that the abstract sculpture in a city square is how we communicate with each other – and we all know that no one has a freaking clue about what that sculpture means.

So conservatively, let’s say that humanity or its close precursors have risen to some form of high civilization five times in the past million years. What would those civilizations have looked like? Was it the Flintstones or the Jetsons? Did they burn fossil fuels or metric tons of animal dung? Did they encompass every theory of ancient aliens or were they just a lot better than we can believe? Do our myths and legends derive from older eras, or are they purely based on everything that happened since the last fall? Did these civilizations fall suddenly or grind into decline? Did they bump up against our history, or was there a long dark age that spanned an ice age?

Perhaps the most important question is that if we have risen and fallen, is there any reason to think we are different today? Are we somehow better, more advanced, more enlightened? Do we have a better chance at a permanent existence in high advancement than any hominid that came before us? One out of five are not the worst odds, but if we look around, maybe study a little history, there is no reason to think we are particularly well adapted to our version of civilization. How many ways can we set up the long road to the next version of humanity? In that gap lies post-apocalyptic fiction.