Saturday, May 23, 2015

Fairy laundry

So our washer is on the fritz. Again. I know, we should probably just give up and get a new one, but at the moment we can't afford it; instead I gathered MILLIONS of magical quarters and spent most of the afternoon chillin' and sudsin' at the Seelie Court Laundromat. (Hey, I take my fairy duties seriously.)

As always, there was a bean-sídhe getting her laundry done (an industrial washer load... not a good sign). There was also a house-elf folding up someone else's shirts, a whole family of duendes doing their linens, some werewolves trying to get the hair off their jeans, and a punk tomte spinning himself in one of the tumble dryers and yelling "WHEEEE!" (kids, don't try this at home). The proprietor, an irritable day-shift vampire with a toothy frown and a pair of very dark glasses, watched the whole scene passively, giving off an aura of intense boredom; his only contribution was to grimace at the noise any time someone used the change machine.

Dontcha just hate it when you spill a whole pocketful of quarters?
Now I'm home again, nibbling on a little late-night snack and staring down a whole lotta laundry to fold. Hmm. Maybe I should've stolen that house-elf while I was at it.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Something extra

Some time ago, in a far-off place, there was a girl who seemed to have it all.

She was bright, charming, articulate, and so charismatic that she made friends effortlessly wherever she went. She had a strong sense of right and wrong, and a desire not just to do right, but to lead others toward the light with her persuasive abilities. She was honest and forthright, had a loving heart, a sparkling sense of humor and a ready laugh. And she sang with a pure, clear voice; when she was full of joy, nothing could stop her singing.

In fact, when the time came for her to leave that place and be tested, her Father had an idea.

"I think," he said, "that your particular test will be to receive something extra."

And so, as part of her test, the girl did receive something extra. Specifically, what she received was an extra chromosome.

This something extra affected the girl in many ways. It gave her eyes a distinctive almond shape, her face and body a perpetual shortness and a gentle roundness from low muscle tone. It gave her loving heart an unusual frame and an arrhythmic beat. It gave her hair that fell out easily and skin that was extra-sensitive to pain and scratches. And it gave her mouth and tongue a configuration that slurred her speech and made it difficult for her to communicate.

As she grew, this girl, who had always made friends so effortlessly, had to endure being shunned by some of her peers. Her ability to persuade others was hampered by a mouth that would not work as everyone else's did. She learned slowly, walked clumsily, talked awkwardly -- but she understood perfectly well what people were saying when they called her cruel names. She often grew angry and frustrated, wrestling with her own differences. And her loving heart was crushed many times over when even the people who meant well assumed that she was incapable of learning anything.

But the something extra she'd been given didn't change everything about the girl. She had just as strong a sense of right and wrong, and just as strong a desire to persuade others to do right, by any means available to her. She was just as honest and forthright as she'd ever been, and her sense of humor grew even sharper and more puckish under testing. Her slow speech didn't stop her from laughing out loud, greeting new friends, or boldly sharing truth with others. Her loving heart practically glowed from her chest. And nothing -- not mockery, not slow speech or learning, not even the altered sound of her voice -- nothing on earth could stop her singing.

Not everyone who met this girl understood the nature of her test, nor of her particular gifts. But it didn't take much perceptiveness for them to see her kindness, her genuineness, her determination, her sense of humor and her love. There was indeed something extra about her, something that had very little to do with her genetic makeup, and people could feel a palpable difference in her presence even if they couldn't readily define it.

Because this girl knew, above all else, that she was her Father's daughter. And that meant that she was capable of amazing things -- not just as part of her testing process, but in the ways she would continue to learn and grow long after the test was over. She trusted her Father to create the perfect test for her -- one that would teach her greater empathy, tenacity, patience, tolerance, courage, and how to laugh at herself. The refining process would take time and it would be painful, but it would also burn away every tiny grain of dross remaining in her, until she glowed with the fire of absolute purity that marked her readiness to become like Him. And following in her Father's footsteps was really all that mattered. Her willingness to receive and to bear a little something extra as part of her test would make her strong enough to receive a weight of glory very few others would be able to bear.

In the end, just as her Father had intended, she would indeed have it all.

And nothing would stop her singing.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Where Seattle trends really come from

[Originally written February 2012]

The other day, I saw a sight that's probably just as common in your neck of the woods as it is in mine: a homeless man by the side of the highway off-ramp, holding up a faded cardboard sign which shared some of his personal troubles and added, "Anything helps, even a smile."

I worry a lot about the welfare of these folks. But I started thinking about him and about the many other homeless folks I've seen in and around Seattle, and I had a sudden epiphany. You know all those trends coming out of Seattle and the western U.S.? The ones that were at first edgy and are now ubiquitous? WELL THE HOMELESS STARTED THEM ALL, friends. They were ahead of these trends 20 to 40 years before anyone thought to popularize them.

Don't believe me? Fine, check this out:

  • The homeless "lived lightly on the land" and were using recyclable materials, especially brown paper and cardboard, before the ecology movement ever thought of getting started. They were into "roughing it" before Nike, The North Face or REI made it popular with everyone else. They eschewed the use of cars before the gas crisis, preferring the ubiquitous (and completely hand-powered) grocery cart, and they were re-using plastic bags before the Seattle powers that be even thought of imposing a bag tax.
  • The homeless were wearing scruffy beards and thrift-store finds way before the Seattle grunge look took the world by storm. And the sometimes surprising noises they made were clear precursors to Kurt Cobain's mumbled and shrieked vocal stylings.
  • Long before people started wearing cell phones on their ears, the homeless were having inappropriately private conversations with unseen friends in public places. Before BlueTooth, they had NoTooth. (Unlimited minutes and no contracts. Why didn't we follow their example?)
  • The homeless were asking the American people to bail them out years before GM and the banks decided to follow their lead. And they had a "housing crisis" going on long before the rest of us worried about it.
  • Freegans! Think you're awesome and trendy for eating what others throw away? Forget it. The homeless beat you to the dumpsters more than three decades ago. And if you think Jerry Seinfeld popularized soup, you haven't been to a soup kitchen lately.
  • The homeless were "hanging out" in public before there was a term for it. They were people-watching years before the advent of "reality TV." And long before social media gripped the nation, the homeless were publicly announcing every passing thought to strangers and scrawling notes on walls for everyone to read.
  • Finally, well before the Occupy movement ever got going, you could look under any freeway overpass in Seattle, any night of the week, and find it fully occupied.
Feeling depressed yet, hipsters? Well, don't despair! If our government continues screwing things up, you'll be joining this ahead-of-the-curve trendsetting group very, very soon.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Finishing

For most of my life, I've been paralyzed by a fear of failure.

I'm not really sure where it got started, but being labeled as gifted in grade school probably didn't help matters much. When you hear over and over again at a formative age that you're smart, especially in conjunction with the phrase "so why can't you apply yourself?", you tend to develop a sharp, haunted fear of failure. (After all, if intelligence is a major part of your personal identity and yet you can't seem to make intelligent choices or live up to other people's expectations of your abilities, then who are you?) I'm also a perfectionist who can't bear to create flawed or slipshod work. And I don't like people to see when I've made mistakes.

So, naturally, I put up a write-as-you-go rough draft of Unseen on my blog. Because I'm stupid that way.

This story both thrills and terrifies me. I can see the desired shape of it in my head; I know what I want it to be like. And yet I also feel like it's devolving into a train wreck in real time. It lacks the depth and texture I want for it, and there are plot holes I don't know how to close up. I've been sitting on the next section of the story for almost two years, writing and tweaking and rewriting, and finally deleted the whole section because it's been stuck like a front-wheel drive car in waist-deep mud. nnnghrlhblhr.

I was sitting in my car at a stoplight yesterday, waiting for the light to change and mulling over these and other concerns, when I noticed the license plate of the SUV in front of me. It said "IFINISH." And I thought, If ever there were a phrase that didn't describe me, it would be "I finish." I can't seem to get anything of consequence done. I'm a regular champ at starting things, but finishing them? Yeah, not so much. But the more I sat there looking at that license plate, the more I thought to myself: Sooz, you are seriously being stupid.

Looking at this situation honestly, what's the worst thing that could happen? Well, I could write a crappy story and bore you all to death. Or I could never finish the story, in which case certain parties would come after me with torches and pitchforks because they'd invested precious hours of their life reading the draft, and now they have to know how it ends. Or I could write a mediocre-to-good story and have to self-publish it because no editors would give me the time of day.

Or I could finish the draft, polish it, publish it and make millions, and have to go into hiding or something. (Nah. You are not reading the random rantings of the next J.K. Rowling here.)

But really, even if I do fail, so what? Would anyone other than me care or even notice?

So right now the wall beside my desk is plastered with little yellow Post-It notes all having to do with plot bits and pieces from Unseen. I'm shuffling them around to try to figure out what happens when and why. It's making my brain and stomach hurt. But I'm starting to reach a point in my life where not finishing things is more painful than the fear of doing them wrong. I don't know when the next installment of Unseen will be posted or even whether it'll be any good, but it will happen, even if no one is around to see or care. Because I'm crossing this finish line for myself, if for no other reason than to prove to me that I can do it.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Sometimes I forget

It's just another cool and perfect spring night, and I've finished another Epic Late-Night Grocery Run. I'm leaving the Safeway, pushing a little half-sized shopping cart, and I can't help but smile as I look up at a beautiful blue-white full moon glowing through a lace web of cloud, on my way out to my car.

And between the door and my car, in the parking lot, is a large SUV with the windows down, and in the driver's seat of the SUV is a man. I don't know whether he's simply upset, off his regular medication, or both, but he is spitting and foaming out a ranting running commentary, fuming and rocking so hard the car is bouncing on its wheels, his profanity frequent and incandescent and barking out like bullets through an unsuspecting crowd.

I keep walking, trying to maintain a normal pace; wait until I'm next to the car to unlock the trunk; try to put the groceries away at regular speed. Panic attracts attention. And all the while the yelling and swearing -- and now, because I'm close enough to hear it -- the shouted threats against this man's unknown, perhaps invisible assailant continue to escalate.

It's not a phone conversation, because he never stops. He doesn't even pause.

I consider ditching the shopping cart, but decide to scoot it into a corral instead, mentally trying to formulate a plan in case he gets out of the SUV. When I turn, his car is rocking violently, and I make myself walk, not run, back to my car and unlock it. The minute I'm inside, I surreptitiously lock all the doors and drive off in a different direction from home, until I'm sure he hasn't decided to follow me.

Since I'm a night owl, I run most of my errands after dark, and most of the time I don't feel unsafe. But when occasions like this crop up, as they do -- well, Miss V has a perfect phrase for it: "Sometimes I forget that I'm a girl."

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Welcome to civilization

W
ATCHING the news a lot lately, and doing a fair amount of thinking. Specifically I've been watching footage of the riots in Baltimore and the annual protest/anarchist convention that is May Day in Seattle, and I've come to a rather chilling realization: although American society has become more mature over time and made some amazing changes for the better in every generation, it is not truly civilized. At best we are in a precarious state of semi-barbarism, too easily poised to tip and slide toward the poles of anarchy or fascism. We have created, or have allowed to be created, a situation dangerously close to civil war, where one half of America seems perpetually pitted against the other half.

Why do I claim our society is not civilized? How much time have you got? Seriously, let me count the ways:
Many, many more signs of our semi-barbarism exist, but this ought to suffice for illustrative purposes. We have a limping, dysfunctional society, but we don't truly have civilization.

So what is civilization, then, and what would it look like if we had one?

My friend Jim Wright succinctly defines civilization as "large-scale cooperative existence." Others refer to civilization as a basic, shared code of manners and behavior, a tendency toward long-term thinking and planning, a push toward kindness and egalitarianism, a habit of thinking beyond individual needs, and an active effort to make the future better than the present.

Dozens of writers and thinkers far wiser than I have struggled to create literary models of a true civilization: Thomas More's Utopia, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, James Harrington's The Commonwealth of Oceana, even William Pène du Bois' whimsical Gourmet Government in The Twenty-One Balloons. But the problem with all such created utopian societies is that they are not built for real human beings -- in other words, rather than altering ideals to suit the vagaries of human nature, the authors alter human nature to suit their ideals. In some ways these efforts remind me of the dwelling in the Ray Bradbury short story "There Will Come Soft Rains" -- an exquisitely-designed and executed smart home, purpose-built to anticipate and provide for its family's every need, but completely unprepared to handle the human propensity toward war and self-destruction. So any useful discussion of a true civilization has to take actual human behavior into account; it can't pretend that all people will always be courageous, loving, gentle, creative, altruistic, and fantastic cooks when, clearly, some are not.

I've been throwing out ideas about what the ideal civilization would look like, at least by my lights. Like the other list, this one is far from comprehensive, but it's a start.
  • Civilization seeks above all to be good, and to encourage goodness and kindness in its people.
  • Civilization cherishes the individual human being and supports every person's healthy, positive growth and development. To that end, it continually maintains the highest standards of health care, education, jurisprudence and freedom of movement.
  • Civilization champions the rule of law over the rule of man. To that end, it is probably best served by the political structures of democracy or representative republic, so that citizens of the society can take an active role in crafting the laws under which they choose to live. Not that there have to be many laws; civilization's high educational standards tend to produce adults who are more than capable of governing themselves.
  • A civilized society balances justice with mercy. It does its best to remove from society those who actively seek to harm others, while recognizing that people can and do change for the better and encouraging such change.
  • Civilization recognizes that while people are inherently different, such differences are necessary and healthy to a functioning society. One sex is not superior to another, and skin color has no more sociopolitical significance than eye or hair color.
  • Civilization is reasonably tolerant of difference. Is a civilized society completely tolerant of all behavior? No, because not all behavior is equally tolerable. A true civilization would be tolerant of many individual beliefs, quirks and eccentricities, but as it would champion its own right to continue existing, it could not tolerate the fomenting of anarchy among its people. Nor would it tolerate such barbarism as murder, rape, sexual assault or molestation in its midst.
  • Civilized people listen to others -- not just those with whom they happen to agree. They have a strong tolerance for discussion, even when it becomes uncomfortable or threatens their most cherished beliefs, and they respond to discussion with more discussion, never with threats or violence.
  • Civilization is loath to go to war, but will vigorously defend itself against barbarians at its gates because it knows its society is worth defending.
  • Civilization uses peer pressure to encourage good manners and discourage uncivilized behavior. It does not tacitly condone bullying, swearing and various other poor manners by allowing them to go unchallenged in public.
  • Civilization sees faith as a social good -- specifically, the belief that every citizen can find solutions to make today better than yesterday, and tomorrow better than today.
  • Civilization encourages positive, nurturing social bonds between family, friends and neighbors. A civilized society would recognize addiction as a sign of an individual's profound social disconnection, and act accordingly to remedy it.
  • Civilization actively champions creativity in the arts and sciences, technological improvements to individual lives, society and ecology. As a side effect, it knows how to travel in style.
Yes, at least some of these are pipe dreams. I don't necessarily know how a society would successfully do everything on this list. And no doubt some of these definitions are too fine-tuned to be of much help under current circumstances. (What good is it to point out that swearing and bullying are uncivilized behaviors, when we're dealing with riots and rape?) But you have to start somewhere, right?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Honor

B
ACK when I was younger and dumber, I worked at an organization which shall remain nameless, and with a person who shall likewise remain nameless, because this person became the closest thing to an enemy I've ever had in my adult life. S/He was petulant, abrasive, supercilious, wholly ruled by emotion but nevertheless convinced of his/her own logical behavior, and generally insufferable to everyone with whom s/he came in contact. This person, in fact, eventually decided I was in his/her way and took steps to push me out of my job at that organization.

Here's the thing: as a secretary with employee information at my fingertips, I had access to this person's full legal name, mailing address, telephone number, email address, date of birth and social security number. Think I could have done some damage with that info? Yep. Was this person ever in serious danger of my doing so? No, not really. I'll admit that in the first three months after I lost my job I was still actively bitter about what had happened, and more than once I thought about using that data to exact revenge. (Remember, I was younger and dumber back then.) But over time the anger and bitterness faded, and I chalked up the whole experience to a life lesson learned.

Yes, I could have used that information to ruin someone's life, with a very high possibility that I'd never get caught. So why didn't I do it? At the time I had a number of reasons in mind, not the least of which was that it would be a serious violation of the golden rule. But I also felt very strongly, even on my bitterest days, that getting revenge would not have been honorable.

Honor -- here roughly defined as lawful, noble or great-hearted behavior -- isn't currently a celebrated virtue, at least in America. It's been shuffled over to the discount shelf of unfashionable virtues, along with modesty and filial piety. I'm not sure most young Americans could even define it without a dictionary. And yet honor was once a powerful force to shape our destiny as a nation. The signers of the Declaration of Independence put their good names to a document which famously concludes, "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." As is common in classic English writing and speaking, this list proceeds in order from least to greatest importance. The signers understood that their lives and their fortunes would be on the line, and might very likely be taken by the enemy. But no one else could take from them their honor -- the only abstract human possession here described (and by Thomas Jefferson, no less) as sacred.

It's a shame that more parents don't teach their children about honor, and the benefits of having and keeping it. For one thing, it's far easier to live with yourself when you are secure in the knowledge that you have behaved honorably. As writer Lois McMaster Bujold defined it through one of her characters, "Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself." Thus, the only person who can truly damage your honor is you, through the deliberate choice to engage in mean-spirited and cruel acts; even if such acts never come to light to cast damage on your public reputation, you will always know what you've done.

I've been thinking about honor a lot lately, as I read news stories about various people cyberbullying, making death and rape threats, doxxing and engaging in similar activities against people they consider "the enemy." Such people invariably work hard to remain anonymous, which suggests that even if they care nothing for their honor, they have some scruples about damaging their reputations (or at least about getting caught). And I've come to a conclusion about these tactics: no matter what someone else did to get you to the point where you thought such behavior was a good idea, you have lost the moral high ground. Your meanness, your petty behavior, your acts of social terrorism reveal far more about you than they do about the target of your spleen. If you do these things, your honor -- your sacred honor -- is destroyed, and you have no one to blame for it but yourself.

Maybe it's time we made honor a valuable concept again. What do you think?