Writing: The Rabbit Hole(s)

Theoretically, I’m working on 4 writing projects. I say ‘theoretically’ because, to be working on something would, I suppose, involve actual work at some point… Herein, for my own clarification, I’m laying out the various rabbit holes down which I plunge in order to not write. Maybe it will have some accident-scene appeal to the reader, dunno.

I have 2 short stories that, had I some combination of discipline and talent, I’d finish first. One is set in a Machiavelli-in-space meets Darwin universe, played somewhat for laughs. See? Doesn’t that sound great? This is one I just need to accept as the light fare it is, and plow through and get done. It’s been sitting there for a couple weeks now. I keep imagining there’s one more point or twist I’m missing that would make it something more than fluff – I suspect I’m wrong on that.

The second is more ambitious – another lonely guy in space story, with what I hope is a twist or three to make it interesting. It’s got technology, social commentary, art criticism and – yikes! Runs the risk of being both unfocused and boring. It, likewise, has sat undisturbed for a couple weeks. It requires, first, some thought-smithing prior to a last burst of wordsmithing.

Then there is an essays on how, even in speculative fiction, there is one thing you can’t speculate very far on – and that’s metaphysics(1). I’m cute-ing it up with lots of pop movie quotes, so as to counteract its inherent ponderousness.

Finally, there’s that half-finished(2) novel from 20+ years ago that I found when cleaning up. Oh, boy. As I read it, I started to get ideas about what it’s really about – bad move, from a get this finished POV. It’s about, well, everything. About philosophy, mythology, the origins of science, history – set on a sort of alternate earth in a peculiar galactic setting that makes for some different and interesting assumptions about the nature of reality. In the hands of good writer, it might be awesome – but alas! It’s in the hands of a hack with exactly one published work for which he’s gotten paid: me.

So, rabbit holes, right? The first story is a sort of broad joke, one of those ‘if you take this *all the way* to where it’s going’ stories. The rabbit hole is merely the notion that it should be better. I look at what I’ve actually got, and just don’t like it that much, but too much to toss it.

In the second story, I reached a point where I needed to clarify some motivation, so I did, and in the process introduced a new character whom I love, now I need to resolve or at least reduce the hanging-ness of her story, and – it’s looking novella here. Or I could toss her – but then I’m back to the ‘why is this guy all alone in space, really?’ problem. So, the real issue: write the damn thing! Then, if I hate, do something else.

Easier said than done.

I’ll blame Mike Fynn, a little, for the rabbit hole in the essay-writing. He had a link to a paper by a modern Analytic Philosopher named Cartwright, which had an amusing (to me, at least) aside early on about how philosophers (by which Cartwright means herself and her academic buddies) think one way, while physicists think another. Physicists, it turns out, think like Aristotle – because, unlike modern academic philosophers, physicists are trying to *do* something. It illustrated perfectly the point I want to make about the limits of metaphysical speculation in a story – because, in a story, the writer is likewise trying to *do* something. Are there, I wonder, stories out there that are 1) really good; and 2) espouse really bad metaphysics? Not talk about bad metaphysics, or even use bad metaphysics as a plot point, but are built upon bad metaphysics? Where the world of the story makes untenable metaphysical assumptions? I don’t know any, but maybe they’re out there.

The Cartwright piece is less than 200 pages, but dense. I think I need to read it. Somehow, I find a way to get derailed.

Finally, the novel – yikes! In the opening couple chapters, I introduce a bunch of characters – a little boy and a little girl who have had their village destroyed and everyone they know murdered by a detachment of Imperial troops; the commander of those troops; a hermit; the Emperor; and the Emperor’s son. I’m also laying out this odd planet’s astronomy, geography, history and mythology as I go. This is all to set the stage for the major conflict in the first part of the book.

Where to start? I found that I needed to create, at minimum, 3 more or less complete mythologies to go along with at least 3 different civilizations, because the theologies, philosophies and ultimately sciences that the story is working toward require them. Maybe they only show up a little here and there in the actual story, but *I* need to know them to write it. Then I need a history for these peoples, which will include a couple Colombus-style first contact events, who invades whom, how the cultures are assimilated/destroyed by the victors (or by the losers – see: Greeks and Celts)…

On the plus side, these things have been percolating in my brain for years and years. Also, in the last week or two, I’ve drawn a map and begun a write up of the astronomy of this planet, and started compiling mythology from several sources that will serve as a basis for the mythologies I need to create. So, all is not lost.

Yet I feel pulled toward more reading – confession: I’ve never read Dune, from what I hear, sounds like I should. Gene Wolfe and John C Wright also seem like good background, as they do traffic in similar ideas – did you know they write very long books? Demi-War and Peace length books? So, I’ve got to resist, or at least do parallel tracks, or I’ll never get this written.

Goal for next two weeks: knock off one or two of the shorter works, then toss ’em or submit ’em.

1. metaphysics defined practically as that which you must believe is true if you believe anything is true.

2. Half-finished if one takes ‘Have Spacesuit, Will Travel’ as definitional of the length of a novel; if one is looking at Firestar or Count to a Trillion – books a good demi-War and Peace in length – then I’m about 5-10% in. Unfortunately, it seems to be naturally mutating in that latter direction….

Higher Education Update: Home Front

Sometimes life is laid out for you.TMC

Today, younger daughter got an acceptance letter from Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, a Newman list Great Books school in New Hampshire. A few weeks ago, middle son got his from Thomas Aquinas. For the fall semester, daddy will be putting *3* kids through college at once, at 3 different Newman list colleges – Thomas More, Thomas Aquinas, Benedictine.

BCOlder daughter is set to graduate from Benedictine in January, so having 3 at once will only be for a semester – thank goodness. Once we had our first 4 kids at 2 year intervals, I knew the day was coming when there would be 2 kids in college at the same time. I also knew I was pushing them away from secular schools – anything with a ‘studies’ department of any kind is right out. Fortunately, we’ve been blessed with a good solid career, so we won’t be going into nice vacation home levels of additional debt – just a couple nice cars level. Sheesh.

TACThis leaves the Caboose, who just turned 11. If things work correctly, we’ll have a couple three years to recover after the middle kids graduate. After the trailing child gets through, I can theoretically retire. And I won’t quite be 70.

It does make me happy to be able to get good educations for the kids (3 out of 4 chose Great Books schools – wonder how that happened?) and I do think that we’re ‘supporting the work of the Church’ when we send our kids to orthodox Catholic colleges.

Now it’s up to them. As Cardinal O’Brein said at TAC graduation last year, it’s their job to save Christendom. If lucky, I’ll get to live just long enough to see the tide turn. Let us pray.

The Word Gap, cont’d

Reading a little article on Jimmy Butler, a professional basketball player, wherein was told a bit of the story of his life. Here it is summed up in the Oracle Wikipedia:

Butler’s father abandoned the family when he was an infant. By the time he was 13 years old and living in the Houston suburb of Tomball, his mother kicked him out of the house. As Butler remembered it in a 2011 interview, she told him, “I don’t like the look of you. You gotta go.” He then bounced between the homes of various friends, staying for a few weeks at a time before moving to another house.[1]

In a summer basketball league before his senior year at Tomball High School, he was noticed by Jordan Leslie, a freshman football and basketball player at the school, who challenged him to a three-point shooting contest. The two immediately became friends, and Butler began staying at Leslie’s house. Although his friend’s mother and stepfather, who had six other children between them, were reluctant at first, they took him in within a few months. Butler would later say, “They accepted me into their family. And it wasn’t because of basketball. She [Michelle Lambert, Leslie’s mother] was just very loving. She just did stuff like that. I couldn’t believe it.[1]

Jimmy Butler by all accounts is a remarkable person, who refused to give up despite a horrible childhood. But he gives great credit to ‘mommy’ – what he call Michelle Lambert – for giving him the love that got him through it all.

There are no doubt plenty of programs, both real and dreamt, to help out kids like Jimmy Butler. Some of them may even do some good. But it is when real human beings decide to get involved, to show some love and care at a human level, that the lives of people in need are changed.

Thus, talking about band-aides that address symptoms like ‘the word gap’ is not just missing the point, but diverting attention from real problems – the kind of problems that lead to a mother throwing her teen-age son out of the house because she doesn’t like his look. When the Pope talks about the kind of Christianity that gets its hands dirty, that goes out into the streets like St. Paul, St. Vincent de Paul and Mother Teresa, the kind of thing that Mrs. Lambert did is what I think he’s talking about.

Getting involved with other people is not usually going to result in a happy-happy story like Jimmy Butler’s or Michael Oher’s.  If that’s what we expect, we’re going to be more than disappointed. Reaching out to others is to embrace the Cross.  There will be failure, mistakes, ingratitude, the need to say ‘no’, misunderstandings, confusion, hurt if we are doing our jobs as Christians. Just look at the lives of Jesus and His saints – that’s what we’re asking for when we pick up our crosses.

We have a duty to vote well, and to try as best as we can to make our governments responsive to the poor. BUT – this duty is distinct from and entirely secondary to the commandment to love one another. Voting prudently with the needs of the poor in mind is part of our obligation to honor our secular leaders, and our secular responsibilities. Those responsibilities, however, are not in the list of judgments passed by Christ in Matthew 25, by which we will be judged saved sheep or damned goats. We most definitely do not fulfill even one tiny bit of our personal obligations to feed, clothe and house the poor by voting. Not one tiny bit. Confusion on this point has lead to some awful compromises – sell-outs – of Catholic principles and teachings in the name of social programs. No, no and no. We have traded real moral principles for the sizzle of some future steak – to be cooked up by a government that has demonstrably shown by the very act of extracting that trade that it does not share those principles. (1)


1. It is muddy thinking to imagine that a government can even have moral principles – people have them, if anything does, and defining trait of people in government is a will to power, not adherence to any morality. Even if we elect somebody of character, they only last a day, and are replaced.

Birthday Dinner, Turning 11 Edition

For your possible amusement: we have a family tradition, now running over 20 years and 50+ dinners, of letting the birthday child pick dinner. Mostly, it’s been the kind of stuff one would expect at the particular age; once in while, we’ve taken the family out if that’s been requested. it’s been fun.

So the Caboose turned 11 today. Last year, he wanted Thai curried chicken – cool, it’s something  make regularly, even if a a little ambitious for a 10 year old.

This year, we got Netflix. This child watches Good Eats. Yesterday, he pulls me into the living room to show me Alton Brown filleting a flounder, then throwing together some spinach stuffed flounder in a cheddar sauce.

My Beloved did the honors. It turns out to not be a hard recipe (we skipped filleting whole flounder for time reasons – we’ll have to do it again sometimes for the full effect). It was delicious. But gotta love an 11 year old that picks his birthday dinner off the Food Channel, rather than off a pizza menu.

Political Long Knives; ‘Word Gap’; Orwell Comes Home

Even more scatterbrained and distracted than usual, so here’s a drive by of topics off-leash in my brain:

I. To understand politics, you must understand sales and marketing. Machiavelli and Sun Tsu help, but in a democracy, especially one winding down before our eyes, sales and marketing almost IS politics. Thus, when outside money hires a notorious PR hit firm to go after Archbishop Cordelione of San Francisco, this is merely the kimono slipping open a bit – this is simply how it is done. We don’t often notice it – who’s going to tell us? The press? – but this is what politics is about these days.

To a political animal, it’s all about market share and stickiness. Get the idea that the Archbishop is some sort of hate-filled ogre to stick in enough minds, and it ceases to matter – politically – what he actually does or says. The end game, as envisioned by his enemies, is to render him so hamstrung that the Pope is forced to appoint an Episcopalian to replace him. As insane and delusional as this sounds to a Catholic, it makes utter and perfect sense to a Bay Area political animal. My only fear is that His Excellency is so obviously competent and holy that he may get promoted out, which will cause a declaration of victory and dancing (probably naked) in the streets. This is San Francisco we’re talking about, and I used to live there. Then, if there’s any justice in the world (I slay me) we’d get a John Vianney clone as a successor – he got upset with folk dancing, he’s have called fire down on the Pride parade.

Never planned on doing sales & marketing type stuff, only wandered into it 18 years ago when I started my current job at a tiny company (I was employee #8) and it turned out to be what was needed. I could do it because, first, I had that MBA, but, far more important, I’d spent about 8 years of my career prior working with or for sales people. I’d worked for a couple high-end sales people, and got to observe how they worked. That’s why, when it came time to negotiate price with gigantic companies, I hired one of them – that’s sticking your head in the lion’s mouth, not a trick for somebody who doesn’t know lions real well.

Here we’re talking about high-end sales people, who make million dollar sales to big corporations, as well as mass-marketing sales managers, who sell millions of people on an idea. Politics is an odd blend of both, as the Pitch must be made to both big donors and millions of potential voters.

Anyway, a couple points:

A. Good sales people are always thinking of the big picture. A used car salesman is generally trying to sell you one car once – a big ticket salesman is thinking how he can get a relationship going that will continue to generate sales for years to come;

B. Good sales people are obsessed with the competition: Your car insurance guy hates it if your house is with another company, because he know that other company will be pitching you car insurance. He knows this because that’s exactly what he would do.

C. Brand loyalty is the Holy Grail. When brand loyalty has been achieved, the victim has been sold an idea – that Apple products are way cool, or that Republicans are the epitome of eeeevil – so that he has been rendered impervious to pitches from the other side and can be counted on to buy whatever your selling (1)

D. Good sales people are always selling. They become the Pitch. Everything they do or say is evaluated against the Pitch.

E. A cold, cruel natural selection will weed out all those who fail at A – D above. After a very short while, only the big, ruthless sharks are left.

BTW – this is why having senators appointed by their state legislature was a brilliant design feature of the Constitution, as well as having the President elected by an electoral college selected by the states – it would have put two and a half out of three branches at at least some remove from the constant campaigning which is the defining characteristic of modern politicians. But see B above – a salesman sees a somewhat independent Senate and President as a threat and an opportunity, and will therefore not rest until they are brought to heel. One becoming a Senator is dependent upon pleasing the marketing machine that is the Party, then getting appointed to the Supreme Court by that Senate is likewise brought under Party control.

1. Thus, LBJ, an absolute stone master politician, will say to a couple of southern governors in regards to the Civil Rights Act: “I’ll have them n****rs voting Democratic for two hundred years.” He understands his audience and their shared goal. The n****rs are just marks. Brand loyalty is the goal.

II. Leah Libresco is talking about the “word gap” – the difference in vocabulary between well-off and poor kids. After a cursory reading (the comments are good, too) I respectfully disagree – Leah starts in right away with suggesting systemic cures to what is, really, a minor symptom of bigger problems.

For example:

The parents in the study don’t have any period where they work fewer hours, and so the researchers don’t see what their child would sound like if their parents had more moments to concentrate entirely on their child, or were less tired when they came home, or simply were home earlier in the day.

For the most part, more well off parents are more well off because they’re working. During the time when we had 4 small children in our house, I was working 50+ hours a week, and was frequently out of town on business; my wife worked at least that much, at the schools our children attended. Sure, there are some less well off parents who work more than we did, but, really, saying that work is causing the word gap? Unlikely.

Parents are meant to take on the role of Adam, but most homes aren’t Edenically diverse. Alone in a house, there are only so many things to name and elicit the color, shape, and number that describe them. If parents hit a breaking point when asked to read Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooiead nauseum, how much more exhausting can it be to endlessly iterate the objects in the house, without so much as a plot or a rhyme scheme to hold them together?

Huh? Does Leah really think that parents of articulate kids with large vocabularies got them by taking them to the park, pointing and naming things, and then drilling the kids on it?(2)  And that the problem is that a typical home lacks for items to name? If only they could get out more, their vocabularies would grow? As a parent of 5 kids, that sounds a bit psychotic. Sure, when the kids were babes in arms learning their first words, you may point stuff out and name it. But once they start talking at all, you talk with them, read them stories, involve them in your lives.

I do remember, once or twice, doing vocabulary stuff for fun. A couple of the kids were taking an English class, in which the teacher liked to playfully use $10 words in her examples, and the kids asked me for some ammo with which to fire back. We came up with a flashy sentence that they all still remember, but I forget, something like: Desist, jackanapes, or I shall defenestrate you with utmost alacrity. Sounds pretty good coming from an 8 year old.

The point of all this: Christ demands – and it’s a tough demand for me – that we get involved in other people’s lives. Love one another, and all that. And, frankly, that’s what’s missing, not vocabulary or education. The

2. Counter-example: I have a massively larger vocabulary than either of my parents – because I read books for pleasure. Dad grew up on a farm; mom’s family was the only non-farming family among her Czech immigrant relatives. Neither did college. Over the key 0 – 11 age range, I almost never saw my dad – he was starting a business, and either working, eating or sleeping 23.5+ hours a day. And was grouchy the other half hour. Mom was raising 9 kids, and so didn’t really spend time asking us what color our socks were.

So, shouldn’t we have poor vocabularies? 6 out of 9 kids went on to get college degrees, including 5 master’s and one JD.

Something else is at work.

III. Do people just not get what Orwell was saying? That totalitarian dictatorship is the end game, once language is bled of all meaning and we are all turned into liars? Winston Smith KNOWS that we have not always been at war with Eastasia – that’s the point. You reduce a man to a coward and a pliable fool by making him say things that he knows are not true. He begins to hate the truth, as it shows him to be a coward. 2-minute hates become a ritual expression of self-loathing.

We cannot even look to see what individual people are like. We merely need to know: do they speak our language? No amount of evil done to the enemies that tell the truth is too much – not that we’d call it evil, it’s just prudent actions against dangerous foes who will not get in line. Traitors. Terrorists, even.

Today, we are all required to use words in ways that are contrary to their meanings. One theory, which when stated contradicts itself, is that words don’t really have meaning, therefore we are free to make them mean whatever we want. Triumph of the will, and all that.

Once this process is complete – and it is nearly complete here in lovely California – a kinder, gentler totalitarianism is already here.

IV. This is the guy hired with outside money to run the smear campaign on Archbishop Cordelione. Notice his lack of, uh, commitment to the truth. After all, truth? What is that?

Illogical. Fascinating.

Others have said good things, better than I shall say, about the death of Leonard Nimoy, the most famous pointy-eared green skinned space alien of all space-time: Spock. Here’s my 2 cents:

I was 8 when Star Trek hit the airwaves. My older brother, who was about 18 at the time, was immediately hooked. Before each broadcast, he would take the massive TV from the living room and put it into the middle bedroom, where we could close all the doors and windows and make it completely dark. He’d pop up popcorn, make some iced tea, and all 7 of us kids who were still at home at the time would pile in, spread out on the floor and beds, and raptly watch. That’s how I saw the first year of TOS.

It’s hard for those who didn’t go through it to understand how totally mind-bending Star Trek was when it first came out. For a long time now, every cheesy TV show has a look and effects of a quality hardly imaginable in the 1960s. But they are imaginable now, because Trek imagined them first, even if budget and technology didn’t always allow much a realization of them. Before Trek, space effects were models, wires and sparklers; people rocketed about with no regard to actual distances or physics; aliens were less alien than some of the guys working at the local market (OK, so Trek didn’t exactly improve on that). About the best pre-Trek was Lost in Spacewhich offended even my 7 year old self’s sense of what was supposed to happen on space adventures. (Seriously, I remember getting into 2nd grade schoolyard arguments about how some such thing, such as getting from one planet to the next in a couple days, couldn’t really work that way. Yea, I’m weird.)

So, when the Enterprise wafted into view to that iconic music, man – the best thing ever! You could imagine a space ship like that! All the ‘science’ technobabble at least showed they *cared* – it wasn’t just fairy-tale magic (even when it  was). The crew was wonderful, cowboys crossed with James Bond or something. And of course, the best crew member was Spock.

Spock was cool. He was smarter than anybody else, saw things more clearly, and, despite or maybe because of all that, felt them more intensely. You always knew Spock was battling his human side, but not into submission, but rather to purify it into something worthy. He never really tried all that hard in his smackdowns of McCoy – Bones rarely got under his skin. Nope, the real battles with his human side were revealed in his struggles to harmonize his devotion to logic with his affection for the ship, the crew and Kirk.

It made for gripping TV, and even more gripping movies. Loved that guy.

As Spock warps off to the Undiscovered Country, we pray for the eternal rest of the soul of the man who brought him to life in our lives. We are better, more full of wonder and imagination, more geeky in the best way, thanks to him

Damn, I’m tearing up. May flights of angels sing Leonard to his rest.