On the importance of being critical of one’s government.

People who know me know that at times I am critical of our government. Obviously I think being critical of how your country works is important. I know there are others who think we should love our country, accept it the way it is, and be uncritical of it. To them I say this:

I think you should love your country like you love your children.

Now that’s a pretty general statement, with a lot of wiggle room for interpretation, so let me take it out of the general and into the specific.

For those who do not know, my wife and I have been married for almost 17 years, and between us we are raising a child, a boy who is at the time of this writing 14. For the most part, loving our son is easy. He’s a good kid, does well in school, has a lot of empathy, and tries hard to do well. That doesn’t make him perfect, that just make him easier to parent when he isn’t. And let me tell you, no child is perfect. The truth is, almost anyone can parent a child that does well. Its when your child doesn’t do well that marks the difference between a good parent and a bad one.

For example, imagine if your child is having a problem at school; say they come home with a D or an F on their report card, If that happens a good parent isn’t going to sit around and say how much they love their child. No. They’re going to get involved and fix the problem. Getting involved may mean talking with the teacher, hiring a tutor, changing the child to another class, removing outside stimuli (like video games) that are distracting them from their homework, or a whole host of other solutions (including ironically, doing nothing). It almost doesn’t matter what the parent does, or even if they make mistakes (they will), what matters is that they make the attempt towards a solution, and that they target each solution to be specific to the child and the problem. This is because every good parent knows that if you love your child, and they’re experiencing a problem, its your job as their parent to fix it. They also know that if you don’t fix the problem now, its going to grow into an even bigger problem further down the road.

In the same way, loving our country is easy. For the most part America is an amazing and wonderful place. Living here is easy, especially when compared to almost every other part of the world. Its easy here to make a living, easy to make friends and form families, and if things go bad, easy to reinvent yourself. That doesn’t mean things are perfect here, or that you are guaranteed to not experience difficult times, it just means its easier here than most places.

But what if your country is having a problem? What do you do as a citizen? Well just like a good parent, a good citizen understands that ignoring your country’s problems doesn’t make them go away. They know that if you want to fix a problem you have to roll up your sleeves and get involved. Getting involved may mean anything from posting something on a social media site, to writing your political representatives, to attending a rally/protest, or even going to jail. All of these things, and more, might be part of getting involved. It almost doesn’t matter what a citizen does, or even if they make mistakes (they will), what matters is that they make the attempt towards a solution, and that they target each solution to be specific to the government agency involved and to the problem.

And just like with parenting, the truth is that almost anyone can be a good citizen if the government is doing well. Its when your government isn’t doing do well that marks the difference between a good citizen and a bad one. And also, just like with parenting, ignoring a problem usually means it will only get more costly to repair when you finally get around to it.

“But wait,” some of you might be saying right now. “What makes you think I should parent my government? My government is the one doing things to me, not the other way around. Its not my child. I didn’t give birth to it. Why should I parent it?”

Ah, but you see, you are the parent. Every time you vote you help to give birth, even in a small way, to our government. Our government truly is of, by, and for the people. This is the nature of democracy. Every time we vote we give birth to a new child, a new government. Just like with our flesh-and-blood children, this doesn’t mean our government is perfect (its not), or it will always treat you well (it won’t), or that you will always feel the government that won the election accurately represents your interests (it often won’t). But its still your government. Even when your government acts like an unruly child, it is still your government, warts and all. Exactly like your child is still your child, even when they act like a jerk.

Some of you might say, “But wait a minute, Eric. I didn’t vote for X,” (whomever or whatever X might be) To those I say, too bad. It doesn’t matter who or what wins. If the election was legal, then the winner is the winner. That’s how we roll. If you don’t like the result (and there is no law that says you have to like our government) then get involved. Do more. Work to fix what you think is broken.

And just so we’re clear, throwing up your hands and saying, “But the government is all corrupt,” (or broken or useless, or part of the illuminati, or any other message of helplessness that people say about our government) doesn’t cut the mustard either. You may feel completely helpless against the onslaught of the government. And if you do I will say to you, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” (because I am sorry). But I will follow that up with, “that still doesn’t change anything.” You see, there is no law that says you have to feel like you can make a difference about our government. (You can, but you have to get up off you ass to do so. Sometimes lots of times up off your ass.) Assuming your feeling are important actually gets in the way. How you feel is insignificant. Besides it will change anyway. Its what you do that matters. So do (or do do, whatever floats your boat), but don’t feel.

Finally, some of you might say, “But wait. I can’t be a parent. I don’t vote.” To those I say, “Fuck you.” And I mean that. People have died so that we might have the freedom to choose who represents us in our government. Would you ignore those deaths because you have to get up a little earlier to vote, or have to leave work a little earlier, or vote on your lunch break? Would you pretend those deaths didn’t happen because registering to vote takes some effort on your part? Seriously? If you live here, if you’re a citizen, voting is NOT and option. It is the bare minimum standard by which you should measure your citizenship. If you’re not up for that effort, I have no respect for you.

At least its a start

If you look carefully behind the dangling participle you can see the remains of a theme that was hastily ripped out in favor of a scene about flowers.

If you look carefully behind the dangling participle you can see the remains of a theme that was hastily ripped out in favor of a scene about flowers.

I just typed the word “End” at the bottom of a story. Its not the end of the story, there’s a lot of work still to go with this one, including finding a title I like, which is exceedingly rare for me. But overall I’m very happy with the story, which is the important part, and I’m raring to rip it open and dissect its structure like a crazy 19th century scientist waving a scalpel and a thesaurus.

Now I need to find a way to celebrate.

 

On the Relative Power of Parenting

Kids on a bus

Somewhere in this photo a revolution is happening.

Our son, 13 but soon to be 14, is a rather typical boy. He loves computer games, he has friends, he has troubles with some teachers yet does well with others, he plays a part of a large number of inside jokes and stories that take place at school, and he is a joy (at least to us) to be around. He is also at times an annoying prat, but all of this is fairly typical.

Also, like most boys his age, he has almost zero concept of personal grooming. Every day we have to remind him to shower, like its a chore worse than doing math homework. Every day we remind him to put on lotion (even though you can see his skin flaking off in drifts), to put on Chapstick (even though his lips resemble the worst cracked road in America), to brush his hair, to put on deodorant, to brush his teeth. All of these things he needs to be reminded about. Daily. Sure he’ll do them, but you have to tell him to. He’d never do any of these things on his own.

So last night when I came out of the office I came across him after exiting the bathroom. He looked at me and asked, “Notice anything different?” It was pretty obvious what he was referring to. Our child, who has never to my knowledge intentionally picked-up a comb, had actually combed his hair. He had also put on lotion, put on chapstick, and put on deodorant. All of these things without us saying a word.

To put it mildly, this was a shock. If he had come home from school and announced a sudden and intense love for all things glittery pink unicorns I couldn’t have been more surprised. But here’s the kicker; once we did a little careful questioning we discovered the reason: He’d held a girl’s hand. Sometime on the bus ride home from The Disney Music Hall in downtown L.A., a trip in which both of his parents had chaperoned, he had sat next to a longtime friend and calmly held her hand.

Now his interest in the girl wasn’t a surprise. For a long time he has been the two have been sharing barbs in class. They trade insults back and forth all the time. We know this because he tells us every day. Mixed in with his daily exploits involving friends and frenemies, was a consistent sub-plot, a growing set of stories revolving around the same girl. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that the daily barbs mask something deeper, a growing attraction.

But when I look at this sudden change after a night’s rest I find myself troubled. Here we are, Teri and I, almost daily badgering him, trying positive ways, negative ways, (hell any way) to get the boy to take an interest in the basic level grooming. The kind of grooming required of every human that wants to live in polite company. Yet all of our efforts have remained consistently blocked by his whim. Yet give him the nerve to hold a girl’s hand on the bus one day and suddenly he’s off and running.

If I look at the situation unemotionally like an engineer–that is measuring the efficiency of our parenting by measuring effort over effect–I can only come to one conclusion: When it comes to the power of parents vs. girls, we don’t stand a chance. Heck, we’re not even in the same league.

Being smart is not something you are, it’s something you do.

I came up with this today and I’m posting it for prosperity.

I’ve often found most people assume that intelligence is a talent. That one is stuck being however smart they are (or however smart they think they are) and there is nothing they can do about it. Like intelligence is some crazy set amount, like a pile of rocks, and no matter what you do you can’t add or subtract from that pile.

The problem with this idea is it flies in the face of experience. All of us have met highly intelligent people who have done tremendously stupid things. Just like most of us have met  the intellectually challenged person who does some things very smartly.

So what gives? How can a smart person also do dumb things, and vice-versa? Well the short answer is intelligence is really a mark of potential, within a very narrow range. Its like a child born to very tall parents. Odds are when that child becomes an adult they will be tall as well, but its not a requirement. They can receive only short genes from their parents, they can experience a disease which reduces their height, there are all kinds of ways that they can be short. The point being great height, like great intelligence, is not set in stone.

But there’s another thing at play here, and that is the idea of doing as opposed to being. And that is the crux. What you do can be intelligent (or not) completely independent of how smart you are. Stepping in front of a speeding train is dumb (unless you happen to be Superman) while investing in your retirement is smart. You don’t need a PhD, or a certified membership in Mensa to know not to step in front of a train, likewise there’s no reason why an intellectually challenged person couldn’t put money into a retirement account.

But even more importantly, doing smart things offers a clear value to your life, whereas being smart only adds value when it’s applied. Doing smart is like investing early in your retirement, or not stepping in front of a train. Being smart is like being cute, or ugly, to tall, or short, or a redhead. In other words, it adds nothing to your life unless you’re around people who appreciate it.

Best of all, doing smart is something everyone can learn, and do. There is no limit to how smart you can do. You can go to school, learn another language, study patterns in nature (or people), create art, etc.  Doing smart only requires paying attention and asking smart questions. In contrast, there is a a very concrete and finite limit to how intelligent you are, and no amount of education or experience can change this. Being smart it turns out, is much more limiting.

When you make a mistake, and learn from it so you don’t do it again; that is doing smart. If you have a PhD and don’t learn from your mistakes, that is being smart. See the difference?

On Truth and rock bands

Look how young they are.

Look how young they are.

Its true. Rush is the Best Band EVR!

This is what I was thinking yesterday when I was working in the garden, cleaning up after our trees were trimmed. You see I had been raking away when a neighbor vbehind our house yelled from the alley that he liked our yard. We chatted for a bit about this and that, you know, the kind of conversation you have with someone you don’t know well. Water-cooler topics like the weather and such. Then he said something so out of the blue that it really stopped me. We were talking about ISIS and the English guy they call Jihadi John who is their spokesman/executioner (talk about unique job titles), when my neighbor informed me that this John guy wasn’t even a Muslim.

What exactly do you say to someone after that? It was such a disconnect from reality that I wondered if my neighbor was mentally ill. The thing is, he said this to me with all the confidence in the world. As if this statement were true: Jihadi John is not a Muslim.

So when he drove off, I got to thinking. Not about whether Jihadi John is a Muslim or not, a topic that is not up for debate, but about the nature of truth. And more importantly, how relative truth is.

In English we banter words like “truth” around as if they were universal, and the concept of truth is central to faiths like Christianity. Truth in this sense means something like the bible is true. By that we mean true for everybody all the time. But we also toss around other kinds of true just as readily. We’ll say, “the President is wrong,” or on a more local level “the City Council has failed,” or even on the smallest of scales, “that girl likes you.” All of these things may be true, or not true, but they are spoken as if they are true. And here’s the kicker, from the point of view of the speaker, they may well be true. At least true in a limited sense.

Which brings me back to rock bands. When I say, “Rush is the Best Band EVR!” This is an actual “true” statement, at least to me. While this may be true, it is a very local kind of true, one that is specific to an individual or a small group. Not all things can be true like this, but when it comes to things like art, in which there is no definitive measure beyond one’s own preference, then opinion and truth are essentially one and the same.

Its when you get beyond the individual that this kind of truth runs into trouble. So while the statement, “Rush is the Best Band EVR,” is true to me, it is not true to my wife. She would probably say something like, “Led Zeppelin is the Best Band EVR.” Her statement would be just as true as mine, which is to say they are true only within the narrow confines of personal opinion. If we want to create a “truth” about bands that encompasses both of us, then we need to find a way to measure “Best Band EVR” beyond the realm of personal opinion.

So this is how we get to quantifiable truths. There are truths we can back up with numbers. For instance the band with the most number of songs on Billboard’s “Top 100 hits of all time” is the Bee Gees. So obviously they are the Best Band EVR! Except the band with the most number of “Top 10 singles” is the Beatles, so they are the Best Band EVR. Except the band with the “Most weeks with a song at number 1” is Boyz II Men, so they are the Best Band EVR.

As you can see, the “truth” is getting quite a workout here. All of the statements above are true, but they are true only within the very narrow range of their measure. While truth has gone from personal opinion to one of quantifiable fact, it is still a slave to whatever way we quantify it. So we’re past the personal, but still not universal.

So are there any universal truths (what a philosopher would call universality)? The answer is a definite maybe. For instance most people will tell you there’s a universal set of ethics, and perhaps one of the most universally adopted ethical points would be, “Thou shall not kill.” Ironically almost every country where practitioners of ethics reside, also has a standing army whose sole purpose is to kill others. Apparently killing is relative (the same is true for irony as well).

Okay if ethics are relative then how about something simple like gravity. Well it turns out that’s not so simple either. While the formula that determines gravitational attraction is in fact universal, that doesn’t mean gravitational pull is. If two people on different parts of the Earth were to jump out of a window from the 47th floor of a tall building, they would hit the ground at slightly different times. This is because the gravitational pull of our planet is not consistent over its surface. But we can be sure a fall from that height would certainly kill them, except when it doesn’t.

Okay, lets make it real real simple. 1 + 1 = 2. Surely this is universal. Right? Well it is, as long as your number system is anything but binary. In binary 1 + 1 = 10. “Yeah, but who uses binary anyway?” you say. Well every computer, EVR. Right now the number of computers in use (that is binary math users) is probably over 1.5 billion, which is less than the total number of decimal math users like us humans. But by 2025 or so, that number is going to change. In the not too distant future the number of binary math users will become the majority. So yeah, it is important. To them.

So apart from a few math formulas, almost nothing is universally true. Which is kind of a bummer, but that’s how universal truths tend to be. That is, unless you don’t ascribe to the quantifiers I’ve used to measure universal truth. In which case, its not a bummer. At least for you.

So later that same day, not long after my conversation with my neighbor, I ran across someone on Facebook who opined that the Great Society had lead to a group of people with entitlement mentality, and that socialism has never worked. I was tempted to correct him, after all anyone with a few minutes of time could pull up numbers off the internet which would stomp all over his statements. But then I realized what he said was the truth. Truth in a very localized meaning of the word. That is, truth as opinion. While I hold a different meaning of truth than he does, and could happily bring up many quantifiable ways to support “my” truth, I didn’t. You see, quite by accident I had inadvertently stumbled upon a universal truth: Once something has become a truth, you can’t untruth it.

When someone says, “Jihadi John is not a Muslim,” or, “Socialism has never worked,” or even, “There’s no way humans can cause global warming,” there is nothing you can say to sway this person. To them this is a truth. And while you may hold a different “truth” or even a truth that can be supported with numbers, it is still not going to make any difference. You can not replace someone else’s truth with your own. That’s not how it works. The only only way to change the “truth” for a person is for them to do so themselves.

Perhaps the only universal truth then is that each of us are the sole arbiters of true, but only to ourselves.

Finding the voice for a character

I’ve been working on a novel of late, trying to piece it together. I’ve had the story in my head for quite some time, but my regular way of writing wasn’t working for it, so I thought I would attempt a new direction. In the process I realized I really didn’t understand the antagonist. Oh I knew who the protagonist was, and had a pretty good idea of his story arc, but the antagonist, the bad guy, well I didn’t have a clear picture of him.

So first thing this morning I opened up my word processor, like I normally do, and thought maybe I’d let him speak for a moment, to see if he had something to say. And let me tell you, he had something to say alright.

To give you some context, this story takes place near a thin spot in the Stratum, which is a placeholder name I’m using for the line that divides the souls of the living from those of the dead. The antagonist is giving a speech, or more accurately he is monologuing. To whom I don’t know yet. I don’t even know if I will use this at all. But he sure is a poisonous little creature, as you will see.

* * * * * * *

“I can see them. Everyday. They fall down here like a rain. ‘If only I had known,’ they say. ‘If only someone had told me,’ they say. They wear their regret on their sleeves like a badge of honor. A hundred clueless people a day. A thousand. They slough off your big cities like dead cells washed off a body. They fall down upon us by the thousands, by the millions.

“Do you have any idea how many people die in a big city each day? Do you even have a clue? In places like this where the Stratum is thin, they crawl across your soul like worms crawling over your skin. Each one complaining about their lives, like they didn’t know, didn’t understand. Each one acting as if they were ignorant of the fine print on the contract.

“But that is all so much bull shit. You know. All of you. You know. You just don’t want to deal with it. Reality gets in the way of your precious little lives. You don’t want to face the uncomfortable truth that you might end you existence one day because it will get in the way of your shopping, or of your stupid entertainments. It will spoil your precious plans to see the football game on Sunday. And God forbid your precious plans get spoiled over a little thing like death.

“And so you come down here complaining about the end of your days, poisoning the air around here with the last foul stench of your humanity. And then you move on, because it’s the other thing you do after blaming everyone around you for your own stupid ignorance. You leave. All of you. You go through the last door and fall into the river Styx, forever forgetting your lives, your loves, your regrets, all of it.

“But your passing leaves behind a cloud. A sickening smell. A stench. A miasma of regret. A pollution. And it clings to the underworld, and all of us who live in it until we are drenched in your decay. We are covered in your stupid shit. All because you don’t have the balls. You don’t have the cojones to live your lives like you know you should. To face your fate. You don’t have the guts. None of you. You’re all a bunch of spineless worms. And you come down here and think its okay to smear all of your stupid crap on us before you go.

“Well, I’m done with that. Done and past done. No more are we going to take your shit. We’ve had it. We’ve had enough. Which is why we’re here.

“There’s a crack down here, a weakness. And it happens to be in a thin spot of the Stratum, a place where the souls of the world and the underworld rub together. Well we’re going to hammer that spot. Hammer it until it breaks. Until it shatters into a million pieces. And all of your foul smelling regrets–the ones that have accumulated over the passing of millions of souls–will be released back up to the living. All of your sickness, your foul pollution, is coming back to you. Each of you. By a thousandfold.

“I hope you choke.”

Early 2015 clean up

Sand at Palm Desert

Sand at Palm Desert

L.A. is a desert. A desert with water. An ancient ocean-bed, dry and long buried, suddenly thrust back to the surface.

At any time, day or night, if you listen carefully you can hear the sound of the ancient sea, lost amongst the cacophony of millions of automobiles whooshing past or the harsh dry winds called the Santa Anas. The sound comes from the ghost of an ocean or some vast inland sea, calling up from the long dried mud on its bottom, begging to be wet again, to be submerged.

And the land responds. You can hear it whispering in the hot dry wind, or catch it rising slowly from the hot flat stretches of cement.

It says, “Never.”

It says, “No.”

It says, “Leave us alone.”

It says, “Goodbye.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

This morning I was going over my notes from the past year, many of which I wrote on the way to work and hadn’t yet integrated into my stories. I got in the habit of using the Notes App on my phone to write down ideas as they come, and then later integrate them into my flow. The entry above was one of the things I put down, way back on April 16 of last year.

Going back over them this morning was deeply refreshing. I kept finding these unexpected ideas and many of them were very good. It was a nice affirmation. One of those, “Oh yeah. I guess you can write after all,” moments.

Last year was not a good one for my writing. I really got bogged down in a lot of stuff which was all useful, but difficult to get through. Sort of a winter of discontent. Some things are like that; they are simply difficult to get through and there’s no easy way to get around them. There’s no shortcut. Grief is one of them. I supposed a long illness like cancer would be another. To get better you simply just have to keep going until you break through.

So I’m slugging away hoping to break through. Hopefully we’re near that point. I don’t know. I just keep putting my nose to the wheel and try to learn as fast as I can.

Episode #34 in which our hero needlessly spends too much money

The other day I dropped my phone.

This is nothing new, I’ve dropped the darn thing 20 times at least. I’ve got a nice slim case on it, so its never been a problem. It bounces, it slides, and then I pick it up again. The difference was this time it landed perfectly flat. And that was all it took. The screen completely shattered.

After determining that it still worked (it did), and cleaning the small pieces of glass out of my fingers tips, I went online and filed an insurance claim because I have insurance on the thing. The insurance company said they send me a new phone (a silver one instead of a white one, but that’s not a big deal) and I was happy.

Except I wasn’t quite sure. The deductible was $149, which is a lot of cash.

So today I started poking around on the web looking up iPhone repair and screen replacement. That’s when I learned I could have bought a new screen assembly for about $50, including tools, and replaced the screen myself. Doh! When I called the insurance company to cancel my claim I discovered they had already shipped my replacement, so I was stuck.

Had I but waited a single day, had I thought through the problem looking at every solution, had I been just slightly more motivated, I could have saved $100.

Damn. I hate it when I’m stupid like that.

So let this be a lesson to you. Think, search, then act. Not the other way around.

A snippet of an idea

He died before he could defuse the bomb of his passing.

I woke up this morning with this snippet of an idea in my head. Its not meant to be directed at any one person or thing, just a piece of language looking for a story to attach itself to. Its birth can probably be traced to the shot of whiskey and the late night conversation I had by chance with a neighbor last night who is a 23 year-old horror movie director.