Roughly once a year I manage to rouse myself at an early enough moment to go out and get a picture of the sunrise. This is this year’s picture. Enjoy.
Roughly once a year I manage to rouse myself at an early enough moment to go out and get a picture of the sunrise. This is this year’s picture. Enjoy.
Today PZ Myers ruminates about the problems he has with the atheist movement here in the US, much of which, from my point of view, boils down to “the problem is that there are people in it.”
Which, I will hastily note, is not me snarking. People are hierarchical, status-sensitive and in many ways fundamentally conservative creatures. We crave structure, hate disruption and are wary of outsiders and change. And some people are just plain rotten people, and those people are widely distributed. I’m not entirely sure why the atheist movement (and/or the various public examples of it) would be at all different. And given the larger society in which the atheist movement in the US exists, it’s not entirely surprising that things play out as Myers notes:
Too many atheists turn out to be just as shallow as the fervent faithful I rail against. Too many see atheism as another useless difference they can use to excuse discrimination against others they are already prejudiced against. I used to have this illusion that an atheist society would be more tolerant, that under it government and education would be secular, but the churches would still exist, if people wanted to attend them — a sort of Scandinavian ideal. But no, what I’m fast learning is that tolerance isn’t automatically a property of abandoning the false tribe of religion, but is more a reflection of the greater culture it is embedded in. Atheists can still hold a “kill the wogs” mentality while babbling about the wonders of science; people who regard women as servile appliances for their gratification don’t seem to become suddenly enlightened once the scales of faith fall from their eyes.
Shorter, reductive version: Atheists are as perfectly capable of being complete assholes as anyone else; becoming an atheist will not, in itself, keep one from being a complete asshole. This isn’t surprising; what would be surprising, in fact, is if it did. Because that would be a first, in the history of all humans and all of their congregations, regardless of how, and around what, these congregations formed.
This is why, incidentally, the phrase “we’re supposed to be better than that,” drives me crazy, when it’s used as a way to argue against a group of people laying down certain official guidelines in how to deal with each other, most recently in dealing with harassment issues. Sure, okay, you’re supposed to be better than that, but you know what? You’re not, because you’re all human. Having one thing in common, whether it be a belief or enthusiasm or hobby or political mission, does not make you immune, individually or as a class, to all the other ridiculous social baggage humans carry with them all the time. The belief that it does or should, among other things, creates within any assemblage the space for assholes to thrive and prey on other people.
I am agnostic of an atheistic sort (I don’t believe based on the scientific evidence that the universe needed a creator but as a technicality I’m aware I can neither prove nor disprove that one existed), and quite a lot of my friends are also agnostic or atheist. But they are not my friends because they are agnostic or atheist, nor are they better people because they are agnostic or atheist. They are people who are good and are atheist/agnostic. In some cases becoming atheist/agnostic helped them to become good people, by helping them to abandon ideologies that led them to treat people poorly. In other cases, they were good people, who also came to believe the universe didn’t need a god in it to exist.
Conversely, there are people who believe the same things I do, with regard to the existence of god, who I judge to be absolute shitcanoes. Sometimes they were already shitcanoes, and sometimes they have decided their atheist/agnostic beliefs allow them — or even demand them — to be absolute shitcanoes to others. They’re terrible people and I want nothing to do with them. I’m okay with calling them out for being terrible people.
You don’t get credit with me simply for believing something I believe. You get credit for how you deal with other human beings.
I think internalizing the fact that no opinion/belief/enthusiasm inoculates either you or anyone else from the baser aspects of the human condition, or the larger social milieu in which we all exist, is probably a very smart thing to do. It helps manage the disappointment when the cool new group you find yourself with is eventually revealed to be full of flawed and fallible human beings, and it helps to free you from the initial desire to rationalize shitty behavior within a group merely for the sake of identity politics. And on the rare occasions when everyone in the group is actually good and decent, it allows you to appreciate just how nice that really is.
Normally I try to avoid vapor trails in my sunset pictures, but I think they make this one work.
A nice selection of books to take you into the weekend. What looks good to you in this stack? Let me know in the comments.
For today’s Big Idea, Chrysler Szarlan, author of The Hawley Book of the Dead, is here to explain a bit about running, about making one’s peace with haunted forests, and why one should avoid white vans that appear in unexpected places.
The way I write, big ideas kind of explode in my head every so often, and give shape to the book or story I’m working on. Like fireworks on the 4th of July. Sometimes you have to wait for the next one, sometimes they all come one after the other, pop, pop, pop.
When I began The Hawley Book of the Dead, my first big idea was to run away. That’s the long and the short of it. I was looking for an escape from the novel I was writing at the time, which had started bleeding creepily into my own life, producing fires, floods, and crazy people chasing me with knives (for real, not only in my nightmares). My big idea was to stop that book from becoming TOO REAL AND SCARY. So I rode my horse into the New England forest, which is where I look for ideas. And the main character of The Hawley Book of the Dead, a woman searching for her missing twin daughters, began speaking to me.
Soon, I learned that she was running away, too. That was the next big idea, that my character was running as fast as I was. Running away from a killer who was stalking her. A killer who was responsible for the death of her husband. So she fled with her daughters from Las Vegas, where she had been a famous illusionist, to the place I always felt safest: to the middle of the Hawley Forest. I discovered that Hawley had been the home of her ancestors, a family of women with special powers. Yet another pop of an idea. So I went with those glimmers of story.
Now, Hawley is a real place. A town of 300 people, bisected by this huge state forest. And it is as creepy and beautiful as the town in my book. It has a cemetery smack in the middle of it. It has old cellar holes aplenty. At one time, it held a few hundred people, farmers of the rocky soil. Now it is deserted. And eerie. There are ghost cows there, roaming the wide roads. I have seen them. They made their way into my book.
So how is it that I, and my heroine, Reve, feel safe in this haunted place, where there is a tension between the otherworldly and this world? How is it that we are both comforted by that?
I found that Reve had grown up riding her horse in the forest. She’d grown up in these haunted New England woods, and had made her peace with them. Just like me. She discovered that if you make friends with the spirits around you, you need have no fear of them, and also, that they just might protect you. That’s what I felt all my years of riding and walking and skiing that forest. I felt it would protect me, because I knew it. I felt the pulse of it, I knew it like the back of my hand, every inch of trail, every crumbling rock wall. I knew its terrors and its beauties, and I appreciated them all. I still feel safer there than in my suburban house, surrounded by people.
Reve at times in the book thinks the feeling of safety might be an illusion, her sense of credulity stretched thin, especially when her daughters go missing. Are they being protected by the forest spirits, as she sometimes thinks? Or are they dead, after all, killed by her stalker? It was a fine line to walk, a fine line to try to write.
But then I remembered the white van. You see, you can drive into the Hawley Forest, as well as ride or walk. Hunting is permitted. Most times when I saw a Jeep or a pickup truck, I’d think nothing of it, just turn my horse to let it pass. But in the fall of 2008, just around the time I started the Hawley book, I began seeing a white van driving the forest. And every time I saw it, some instinct made me plunge off the trail, into the woods, coaxing my little horse down into cellar holes even, so as not to be seen. It happened three or four times, over a period of about a month. To this day, I have no idea if the driver of the white van was evil, but that’s what I FELT. And I still believe the spirits of the forest guided me, helped me, at that time. Turned me from some kind of bad intentions.
So the transmutation of experience into fiction began. My big ideas of escape, then of finding protection in the forest, were written into the warp and weft of the book. I ran from one novel, to another novel. But the second novel gave me, and my characters, the protection of the forest to fall back on.
I can’t explain it, I only know I feel it, and that Reve feels it. We believe in magic in the real world, because we’ve been saved by it. That’s our big idea. We run from peril, to the forest place. Not spooky to us. We are New Englanders, after all.
It’s called “Old Beach Road,” from Martha’s Vineyard, a somewhat obscure band from Australia. If you like Fairground Attraction, you’ll like this one (if you like early Crowded House, you might like this as well, too). I tried to set it so you can miss the annoying (and not part of the song) countdown at the beginning of the video, but if it doesn’t work, the song itself starts at ten seconds in.
Aaaaaand apparently that’s all I’ve got for you this Thursday. How are you?
Yup, I’d buy a book from that cat.
I leave the title of said book for you to muse over in the comments.
Wanted to see me on tour but missed me because I was inconveniently not in your city? Fortunately, there is video of me at various stops, and you can watch me do my thing. It’s just like being there, except with no personalized book from me at the end (sorry). The readings are generally the same, but the Q&A sessions vary and are fun to watch, in my opinion. Each appearance is about an hour.
If you watch all of them, you’ll notice that there are parts of my appearances (aside from the readings) that are the same at every stop. That’s because it’s a performance — I have these things planned out so that they are as entertaining as possible, and so I don’t stumble over myself any more than I absolutely have to.
And so, without further ado:
September 3: Seattle (via University Bookstore)
September 4: Mountain View (via Google)
September 9: Iowa City (via Prairie Lights Bookstore)
September 16: Concord (via Amazing Stories)
Who would you want as the first speaker to an alien civilization? National Book Award winner William Alexander proposes an intriguing candidate in his middle-grade novel Ambassador, and after reading his Big Idea piece, I can’t say I entirely disagree with him.
I love the word “ambassador.” I remember rolling it around in my eleven-year-old brain while watching Star Trek TNG. Ambassadors command reverence and respect. They defeat villains by knowing what to say and how to listen. They can end wars with words. Supposedly. Federation ambassadors seem to accomplish all of these things offstage, but on board the Enterprise they suffer tragic deaths or are otherwise incapacitated right before a commercial break. Then Picard takes over, quotes Shakespeare, and fixes things. I wondered what an ambassador might actually do if they could just live through the commercials.
“Neoteny” is another favorite word. It means “the retention of juvenile traits in adulthood.” Biologists usually use it to describe physical traits like the muppetish gills that axolotls keep when they refuse to grow up and become salamanders. But neoteny also refers to social and cognitive traits like curiosity, empathy, and the ability to learn new skills or form new social bonds.
Most social creatures ditch those childish things by adulthood. Consider sheep as a random example. Lambs frolic. They explore, play chase games, and taste whatever they can find. Meanwhile the adult sheep stand still and chew. That’s pretty much it. They’ve already learned everything and met everyone they need to know in order to survive, because they have survived, so now the curmudgeonly elders enjoy their right to masticate all day long and grumble about frolicking youth. This makes solid darwinian sense—provided you have a stable environment. But if you happen to live in rapidly changing circumstances, then the set of things you should know by the time you grow up destabilizes accordingly. Curiosity becomes a vital survival trait, even among adults.
Stay childish, everyone. Our continued existence will depend on our neoteny.
You might consider reading kidlit. Or writing some.
A few years ago, at my friend Ivan’s apartment, I paged through a coffee table book about interspecies friendships. Huge photographs documented adorable, improbable bonds between foxes and hounds, gorillas and kittens, crocodiles and parakeets, and so on. Such friendships usually form early, between juveniles.
The words “ambassador” and “neoteny” collided in my brain. Kids have not yet fixed the boundaries of their social worlds, or limited those boundaries to the worlds that they happen to be standing on. Ambassadors between planets should be kids.
I wrote those two favorite words on a scrap of paper and stuffed it in my pocket.
Fast forward to the present. The book Ambassador stars eleven-year-old Gabe Sandro Fuentes. He’s a second-generation Latino immigrant to the United States. (So am I.) He has all of the cognitive, code-switching benefits of a bilingual brain. (I don’t. My family tried very hard to assimilate, so my own command of Spanish atrophied. I miss it.) He knows how to move smoothly between worlds, languages, and cultural expectations. Curiosity, empathy, and skilled communication are his survival traits. And the word “alien” throws off many different kinds of sparks inside his head, both before and after he becomes the ambassador of our planet.
I wish I still had that little scrap of paper. I don’t. It probably went through the laundry and got compressed into a dense nugget of linty pulp. But those two words were too important to forget, and their collision gave me the concept, the protagonist, and the title of Ambassador.
Maybe I’ll call the sequel Neoteny.
That is all. Thank you for your attention.
And it involves the book’s protagonist, Chris Shane.
What is it?
1. It may be a spoiler for those of you who have not read the novel already, so don’t click the link below unless you’ve read the book and/or don’t car if the book is spoiled in a sense (note the information does not spoil the plot, just something about Chris).
2. To find out what it is, follow this link.
And yes, it was fully intentional.
I’ll talk more about it in the comment thread here, which will serve as the spoiler-laden discussion of the book. So obviously, don’t read any further unless you’ve read the book and/or don’t mind it being spoiled for you.
When I came back from the book tour, I was greeted with hugs and kisses, which was very nice, but also with some potentially bad news, which was that Lopsided Cat, the Scalzi Compound’s most senior cat, had gone missing for two whole days, and that when last he was seen, he was wandering toward the treeline with a limp.
This was naturally cause for concern, because Lopsided Cat is not young — he was at least a couple of years old when he came to us, and that was a dozen years ago — and also because we live in rural America, which has things like coyotes in it. As a mostly-outdoor, working cat (we have agricultural fields on three sides, and in the fall and winter the rodents that live in the fields occasionally attempt to move into the house, so all three cats guard against those incursions) there is a decent chance that one day Lopsided Cat would leave the house and just not come back. Krissy and Athena had walked the treeline and checked the basement and the hedges thoroughly, but Lopsided Cat was nowhere to be found. Krissy thought it important to let me know the current state of the cat’s whereabouts or lack thereof. We all prepared to be sad for the possible end of our excellent cat.
Which why when Lopsided Cat actually showed up later in the evening, still limping a bit but otherwise perfectly fine, he was annoyed and surprised by the sudden amount of attention his appearance garnered — lots of happy yelling and petting and being picked up and squeezed. His expression at the time clearly communicated What the hell? but he tolerated the attention, then ate some food and went to sleep in the basement, as is his custom. And then in the morning he went back out again, because, well. That’s his thing. As is, for that matter, occasionally disappearing for a couple of days.
So, crisis averted for now. It’s still entirely possible one day Lopsided Cat will wander off and then just not come back, because, again: outdoor cat in a rural area, used to his independence. But today is not that day. He’s still around, and we’re happy to have him, for as long as we do.
While I was on tour with Lock In, I turned off the comments here at Whatever, opening them for Big Idea posts and the occasional post when I was able to spend a little time babysitting the thread. Among other things I was curious to see what, if any, effect turning the comment off would have on visits to the site.
The answer seems to be not a whole lot. Traffic to Whatever overall was down in the last four weeks, but I expected it to be down, because it always goes down when I’m on book tour — I’m not posting as much and what I do post tends to be short bits about where I am on tour. Turning off the comments doesn’t really appear to have dropped viewership lower, as a percentage, than any other time I’ve been tour — or if it had it was negligible enough that I don’t see it.
In one sense this is not too terribly surprising. As I’ve noted before, Whatever gets thousands of visits and visitors daily, but only (generally) a few dozen commentors on any given day. As a percentage, the commenting class here — as it is pretty much everywhere — is small compared to the overall readership. The inability to comment is not a huge thing when you don’t comment at all. Likewise, I suspect that most of the commenters were cool with the comments being off for a bit if I couldn’t sit on them like I usually do. So overall: Not a huge surprise, although it’s still interesting to me.
It doesn’t mean that I’ll be keeping comments off, mind you. The commenting class here may be small relative to overall readership, but it is of high quality, if I may say so myself, and for those folks to who do read for the comments (and I’m one of them), I would hate to deprive them of that enjoyment. So comments are back on. Comment away, you crazy kids!
That said, I am going to make one major change: After 14 days, comments threads will automatically close. I’m doing this for two reasons. One, in nearly all cases, the conversation in any comment thread is done two weeks out, and the only non-spam comments the comment threads accrue are from people who generally don’t have anything new or useful to say — indeed, late hits in my experience are generally some form of trolling. They won’t be missed.
Two, I turned comments back on here and less than a half hour later had more than 200 fresh comments in my spam queue. The good news is that WordPress’ spam catcher caught nearly all of them, but on the other hand, it was a reminder that I get a couple thousand attempted spam messages a day here. The site has close to nine thousand entries, many of which still have (had) open comment threads. If you’re a spammer, that’s a lot of shots on goal. Limiting the spam opportunities to just a few dozen active threads will make my site maintenance a lot easier, and these days I don’t have as much time to moderate as I used to.
So if you have anything to say on a comment thread, say it in the first couple of weeks, or forever hold your peace, at least here on the blog.
Here’s another change I’m going to make. From time to time while I was traveling (or otherwise busy), I’ve wanted to comment on some contentious topic or another but held off because I simply didn’t have the time to sit on the comment thread. As a result, and because I am rather more busy with travel and work these days than I was before, I find myself not writing up those pieces. I think Whatever’s range of topics has suffered a bit because of it recently.
So, here’s the plan: If I find I want to write something on a contentious topic but I don’t have time to moderate a comment thread, I’m just gonna write the thing and not turn on comments, or wait to turn on the comments until I have time to moderate. Simple! So simple, in fact, that I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t think about it before (In fact, there have been times when I’ve done that, but it never occured to be to think to myself “hey, you know, this is a thing you could do whenever you needed to.” Because I’m an idiot, you see).
When I have the comments off (or delayed), how will you comment? Well, of course, there is Twitter and Facebook and your own blogs and even (gasp!) email, which is how people used to comment to me before comments were on here at all. Who knows, it may even lead to an increase in hate mail, which, to be honest, I hardly get anymore (this is not an actual complaint).
In any event, that’s where I am on comments.
Fort Loramie, a town just up the road from me, celebrates its German Heritage Days (on pretty much the same days as traditional Oktoberfest begins, incidentally) with a big tent, ruben bites (think a ruben sandwich, in nugget form), and of course, lots of beer. We went last night, and I took photos. If you’re interested, here’s the photo set. Click on any photo there for a bigger version of the photo.
A quick post for a couple of technical matters.
One, as I have returned from the tour, full commenting has returned to Whatever: Comments are turned on by default, and all posts whose comment threads are not otherwise turned off are now open. I’ll have more thoughts a bit later on what I learned about having the comments off while I toured.
Two, I’ve turned off my email autoresponder, so if you’ve been holding off to send me email, go ahead and do it. Also, if you sent me e-mail anytime in the last month and wanted a response and didn’t get it (because I wasn’t responding to most email while on tour), go ahead and resend (Note: you don’t have to do this for Big Idea for October and November: I’ll be getting to those all by the end of the month).
And now I am home again.
Save for a couple of one-off events in October, the Lock In tour has come to a close. It was a lovely time and it was lovely seeing so many of you out there on the road, but it’s nice to be able to come back home and not have any place that I need to be for a little while, other than here with the family.
It’s been a great four weeks. If you were a part of it, thank you for being part of it.
I think I’ll go take a nap now.
Because why wouldn’t there be?
Also, it’s well past time I came out of the closet as a Sith Lord, evidenced by my red lightsaber. Frankly, I’m relieved it’s out there. Now I don’t have to pretend I’m not Force Choking all who oppose me.
Look! History right out of the window!
Tonight: Last night of the tour! Barnes & Noble! Rittenhouse Square! 7pm! Be there and bring every one you know!
Tomorrow: Nothing! Because, again, it’s the last night of tour tonight! Yay!