The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Four: My Ukulele

The ukulele, of course, not being a big thing, either physically or existentially, on the list of things I am thankful for. But not everything has to be big for you to be thankful for it, and my appreciation for the uke is genuine.

Possibly the best way to describe my appreciation for the ukulele is to make another comparison. It’s the 80s, and everyone has themselves a Rubik’s Cube. I had one myself, and I have to say I wasn’t particularly fond of it. On the surface it seems like I would be exactly the right sort of fellow to solve one of those things, and perhaps if I really put in the time to learn how to do it, I could have. But in point of fact I was both too lazy and too impatient, so in the end the way I “solved” my cube was to take it apart and reassemble it with all the colors in the right place. It was the Gordian Knot way of solving it, I would flatter myself by saying.

But! There was another one of those puzzles called the “Pyraminx,” and that one I could solve, no problem at all, probably because it had two fewer sides and was thus correspondingly at the correct level of challenge for someone who was as lazy and impatient as I was. Does this mean that I operated at a lower cognitive level than all those Rubik’s Cube solvers? Oh, probably. But, eh. The Pyraminx was fun for me, the Rubik’s Cube was not. And there it was.

Now: Take the guitar. I have a guitar, and have had one since 1990, and I can operate it at a level that is marginally above incompetent, which means I can strum out chords if I can remember where to place my fingers. But honestly, I’m not good enough to say to people, “yeah, I can play the guitar,” without feeling like a total fraud. Part of this is that I’m lazy and don’t actually put in the time required to get good, but the other part is that  suspect I’m just not at the right level of coordination. I’m bad at chording, which means I sound terrible, which disinclines me to keep at it.

But then there’s the ukulele, which is the Pyraminx to the guitar’s Rubik’s Cube. It has two fewer strings, which means a third fewer things to keep track of, and thus chording is commensurately easier. It’s also smaller, which for me seems to make a pretty big difference. And there’s the fact that as an instrument it’s pretty forgiving. You screw up a chord on a guitar and it sounds like hell. Screw one up on the uke, and it sounds cute and winsome. Basically, it’s the perfect instrument to just mess about with.

And that’s me: A guy messing about. I don’t have any illusions about my musical abilities; they are at best moderate — I can drum pretty well, and my singing voice isn’t horrible as long as I stay in my specific, limited range — and no one’s going to call me up and ask me to replace a musician in the middle of a tour. But I do like to play music, and I find having something to fiddle with is both restful and keeps me from being sucked into the computer 24 hours out of the day. For someone like me, the ukulele just plain works.

This is not to say that there are not people who can rock the uke with serious flair, mind you. It’s a serious instrument in the hands of serious musicians. But you can still enjoy it even if you’re not a serious musician. It scales to accommodate the player, is what I’m saying.

For me, I’ve been enjoying learning to play it and learning songs on it; I actually have a repertoire of songs that I can play without having to have the music in front of me, which has never happened to me before with a stringed instrument. Again, I will never play the uke professionally, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to enjoy playing it for its own sake and for mine. And I do. It’s fun to be connected with music that way. And, yes, I’m thankful for the ukulele for doing that for me.

I’m also thankful for it because the same qualities that make it enjoyable for me also make it enjoyable for Athena, whom I have given her own uke. We’re getting some nice father-daughter time out of it. Which is also something to be thankful for, as any parent knows how easily that parent-child time can get away from you. This helps keep it around. And sets it to music. I like that a lot.

(PS: Related, from Amanda Palmer)

The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Three: Luck

I’m a lucky bastard, and sometimes it annoys me when people don’t acknowledge that fact.

In most cases they mean well, because most discussions of luck around me come up in the context of my fiction career, when I note that I got lucky when Old Man’s War, my first published novel, was not only plucked from online obscurity by Tor Books but then became one of the big science fiction books of its year. This precipitates comments suggesting it wasn’t about luck at all, and that I shouldn’t underestimate my own efforts/skills/timing or whatever. My response, aside from thanking these folks for their upvote, is point out that of all the writers currently practicing the craft, in the science fiction genre or out of it, I really am the last one who needs to be reassured of his skills and talent. I’m good at what I do, both in writing and in marketing myself. Trust me when I say I’m not running down my skills or abilities. Indeed it’s because I am not notably neurotic about those things that I can say, with a full, clear and reasonably objective point of view, that aside from anything else in my life, I have been lucky. Extraordinarily so. It does nothing to minimize what I have done purposefully in my life to acknowledge that fact and to be grateful for it.

What is luck? At the end of the day, it’s the good things that happen to you that you simply don’t or can’t control. Stepping away from a curb the second before a car you didn’t see barrels right over where you just were. Finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk. Stepping into a restaurant for a bite to eat and seeing an old friend you lost contact with years ago just before she steps out the door. These are all some obvious examples of luck. It works the other way too; you can step toward a curb just as a car you didn’t see plows into it and into you; then you are unlucky.

In either case the event is not something you consciously or purposefully controlled. You can argue left and right about how much “luck” has to do with any particular event: In the case of me getting lucky with Old Man’s War, I still wrote the book, and I still had, for the time, a robust presence online which meant it had a better chance to be seen than perhaps other similar novel presented online would have. Both of these had a significant impact on my luck. Be that as it may, ultimately I had no control over Patrick Nielsen Hayden going to my site, reading the entire novel on his own time, and deciding to make an offer on the book outside of the usual submission channels. Had he not decided to do just one of those things (and particularly the last one), it’s pretty obvious that my life would be a different one than I have now.

However, this is not even the best example of what an incredibly lucky bastard I am. The best example is me meeting my wife. Many of you know that I met my wife in 1993 when I was doing a feature story for the newspaper I was working for at the time. The story was on a local DJ; I followed her around all day, including to a gig at bar, at which Krissy and her friends chose to show up, and at which she saw me dancing with someone else and decided to approach me later that evening. We then danced several times that night and than made arrangements to see each other again, and everything went from there. It’s a nice story.

Here are some things to consider:

1. I was originally supposed to follow the DJ in question on an entirely different day, when she was supposed to do an evening gig at an entirely different bar in an entirely different city. If the story had gone as originally scheduled, I would not have met Krissy.

2. The bar we did meet in was in a city that neither Krissy nor I lived in; she and her friends went to that bar specifically because they liked the DJ. I don’t think I had actually ever been in that city before that night. If it hadn’t been for the specific DJ, doing that specific gig on that specific night, I wouldn’t have been there, and I wouldn’t have met Krissy.

3. Even if Krissy had decided to go to a bar in my town one night, I don’t drink, and as a result, outside of science fiction conventions (which I did not go to at the time, nor did Krissy), I never go to bars. If I had not been doing this particular story, which occasioned me being in a bar for work, I wouldn’t have met Krissy.

4. If I had decided that being on job meant I couldn’t do any dancing, Krissy wouldn’t have seen me on the dance floor and become interested in meeting me. And then I wouldn’t have met her. Note, incidentally, that asking random women to dance is not what I usually did at the time; in fact, I’m pretty sure that night was the only time I’d ever done it.

5. Krissy tells me that she saw me because she was getting a drink at the bar and I happened to be dancing at that time. If I had decided to skip that particular song — or if the random woman I had asked to dance had decided not to dance with me — Krissy wouldn’t have seen me, and given how crowded the bar was that night and the fact she was with friends and probably would have spent most of her time with them had she not seen me on the dance floor, it’s entirely possible we would not have met.

6. If Krissy had made the assumption that the person I was dancing with was my girlfriend, she might not have approached me. And then we might not have met.

7. And so on.

If you add all this up, the odds of me having met my wife, given who I was, where I lived and what I usually did with my time, are so infinitesimally small as to be almost completely non-existent. Pretty much the only chance I would have ever had to meet her was that one time, that one night. You know, there’s a word for meeting one’s lifelong love on the single night in either of your lives that you would have ever had the chance to meet. It’s called “luck.”

When I want to drive myself hair-pullingly crazy, I think about all the ways it would have been so easy not to have met my wife. And then I call up my wife and tell her just how happy I am that she’s in my life, and that I love her and that when she comes home I’m totally gonna rub her feet.

So when I tell you that in my life I have been blessed with an extraordinary amount of luck — more luck than one person should probably have, in fact — don’t rush to assure me that luck has nothing to do with where I am in life today. I do appreciate the thought, to be sure. And I know you mean well. But I know the truth. I’m a lucky bastard. I’m thankful for it.

(P.S.: Wanna hear the first song Krissy and I ever danced to? Go here.)

The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Two: Air Conditioning

I suppose it’s odd to note one’s thankful for air conditioning in November, in Ohio, when the temperature outside is a brisk 46 degrees, with a high of 53 expected later. But then again I’m not just talking about things I’m grateful for today. I’m also talking about things that I am grateful for in, say, August, when we’re having one of those 90 degree, 90 percent humidity days and going outside sucks all that is good and decent out of you and leaves you being nothing but a perspiring lump of simpering boy-man. On those days, hell yeah, air conditioning rocks.

I have always been an air conditioning fan, but then I would be, considering where I have lived in my life. I grew up in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, which is far away from the cool ocean breezes and backed up against the mountains, so we would bake from May through September. Then I went to Chicago, whose summers are famously sticky. Then to Fresno, where the average high temperature from June through August is above 90 degrees, and 100 degree temperatures were not in the least unusual for several days running. From there to Washington DC, which was built on a goddamned swamp. Ohio is the least air conditioning-intensive of all the places I’ve ever lived, but the part I live in has a “humid continental climate,” which means lots of summer days when you’re swimming through body-temperature air.

Seriously, in all of these cases, I wonder how people managed before air conditioning became widespread. The answer is that they designed houses for air flow, slept on porches, wore big hats, fanned themselves a lot and sweated the proverbial buckets, all day long, every day from mid-May to the end of September. I do understand that. But they can’t have been happy about it. It can’t have been fun to spend four and a half months of the year in a state of overheated stickiness — and not the fun kind of overheated stickiness at that. Oh, we can romanticize it and talk about “sultry summer nights” if you like. But what I suspect “sultry” really meant was that everyone had sweat stains on their clothes and smelled like they have been marinating in hobo sauce. Which to me at least is the very opposite of sexy.

All of which possibly tags me as an ineffectual wimp when it comes to matters regarding heat, to which I cheerfully say: You bet I am. I suppose if I had to live in a world without air conditioning I could survive, although I would probably whine enough that those around me would want to murder me, and I would sincerely hope that the mysterious disappearance of air conditioning technology was not also coupled by the mysterious disappearance of deodorant technology. However, I don’t have to live in such a world. Indeed, my ancestors sweated like pigs through all their summers in order that I could live in a time where I could press a button and have my living environment be seventy two degrees on any given day of the year. Not taking advantage of air conditioning would be positively disrespectful to them (I’m pretty sure they’d feel the same way about my playing video games too).

So to my ancestors: Thank you for sweating, so that I don’t have to, unless I want to, say, in a gym sort of situation where the sweat is a laudable result of trying to make myself look fit and sexy, rather than in a I’m just existing sort of situation, where I’m sweating because the alternative is heat stroke. I’m sorry you’re not here to enjoy this air conditioning with me. I’ll try to enjoy it for all of us. It’s an awesome responsibility. But I think I’m up to the task.

The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day One: Not Drinking Alcohol

When I was heading to Germany last month, people were very excited for me. “You’ll have a blast at Oktoberfest!” they said. “Germany has awesome beer!” That’s nice, I would say, except that a) Oktoberfest actually mostly happens in September, and b) I don’t drink alcohol in any event. People were stunned at the lexicographical betrayal involving the dates of Oktoberfest, but even more stunned at the idea that I don’t drink. If you don’t drink alcohol, and you’re an adult human, it’s usually because you’re either an addict in recovery or because you have some religious prohibition, and often it’s assumed you either can’t be around people who drink because of the temptation, or because you look down on those who imbibe.

But, really, no. I’m not a recovering alcoholic; I don’t avoid booze because God told me to. I just don’t drink — never have and at this late point in my life have no intention of doing so. I can count the number of times I’ve drunk alcohol on a single hand (they are: Half a beer when I named editor of my college newspaper, half a glass of champagne at my wedding, a shot of uzo the night before a friend’s wedding and a polite amount of wine at a dinner hosted by my French publisher). And to be clear, I don’t care if you drink, as long as doing so doesn’t make you an asshole. Everyone who’s ever seen me at a science fiction convention knows where I am almost all the time: I’m in the bar with friends. This is not the mark of someone who has a low tolerance for other people imbibing.

Be that as it may, I am thankful I don’t drink, and here is why.

Because I would be an alcoholic if I did. Oh, my, yes I would. And I know this because I come from a fine and illustrious line of people who are. Mind you, it’s not just alcohol, it’s pretty much everything that you might put into your body, to which your body responds with “Wow, whatever the hell that was, you just keep bringing it to me.” This is why, incidentally, in addition to not drinking I also have never smoked, taken a hit off a joint, dropped acid, snorted a line or have embarked on any other sort of pharmaceutical adventure. Because there’s very good odds that I really just wouldn’t want to stop. And I would kind of hate that. Not just for the obvious “d00d ur an addict” aspect of it, but because secretly, deep down inside I am a total control freak and it would just kill me to be in the thrall of a bunch of psychoactive molecules bouncing up and down on my dopamine receptors like a trampoline.

There’s also the fact that since I would inevitably become an alcoholic, I would equally inevitably have to process through the recovery culture that hovers around addiction. And while I wish to be clear that in my opinion this recovery culture is useful and necessary for those struggling with addiction issues, and I have nothing but admiration both for those who reach out for support and those who offer support to those in need, speaking as someone who attended Alateen meetings like other kids went to church, there’s very little that makes me want to stab myself through the eyeball more than sitting around talking about this stuff. I’d inevitably be the jerk in the support group who everyone else wants to put out their cigarettes on. If not drinking did nothing else for me than keep me from these meetings, and (more importantly) from being the turd in the punchbowl for other people genuinely trying to get clean and stay clean, then I would be thankful for that alone.

Because I would be a complete asshole drunk. There are happy drunks. There are silly drunks. There are moody drinks, and angry drunks, and philosophical drunks and horny drunks and sleepy drunks. Huggy drunks, talky drunks, quiet drunks. And then there’s the drunk I would be: The one who says, blurringly, “Now, I know I shouldn’t say this to you, BUT…” and then goes on to say that thing that everyone knows but doesn’t say, because saying it will only make the person it’s being said to completely miserable, and everyone else is annoyed because now that shit’s been said and everyone’s got to deal with it. And you know what that would make me? That’s right, a complete asshole.

I don’t want to be a complete asshole. Or at the very least, if I’m going to be a complete asshole, I want it to be because I made the affirmative and sober decision to be so. I don’t want to have the (bad) option of later trying to excuse my behavior by saying “Oh, Jesus, I was so drunk.” Because that’s a terrible excuse. One doesn’t spontaneously become drunk, after all. One generally makes an effort in that direction. And one generally has, by personal awareness or the reportage of others, some idea of what sort of drunk one becomes.

Now, it’s possible that I could be wrong, and I would be, say, a happy drunk. But, look. Historically speaking, I’ve have a hard enough time not getting punched in the head for saying That Which Need Not Be Said when I am entirely sober. The first thing to go when you’re drunk is your impulse control. I’m laying good odds that I’m not a happy drunk. I’m laying even better odds that the first time I were to get drunk, I’d end the evening flat on my back, trying to breathe through a nose that someone else just tried to punch through to the other side of my skull. Because I would have been a complete asshole, you see. And they would have been right to do so. Better to avoid that altogether.

Because I would get fat. I know this because I got fat in my late 20s when my metabolism slowed down and then suddenly all those Cokes I was sucking down turned into a jiggling tube around my abdomen. Fortunately for me I was able to switch to zero calorie sodas in order to continue my assiduous attempts to make my bones porous through excessive intake of phosphoric acid. However, there’s no such thing as Glenfiddich Zero. Alcohol is inherently caloric. Drink enough of it (and I would — see above) and you get fat. This is especially the case when you spend much of your time sitting at a desk, typing, as I do. I mean, hell. I got up to almost 190 pounds without the help of alcohol; throw in three or four of beers at the end of the day (and I would — see above) and suddenly 220 pounds would not be out of the question. I would have to jokingly suggest I was lovably cuddly. And then I would want to kill myself.

I don’t want to get into an argument about whether certain weights on people are inherently unhealthy, incidentally. I fully support the idea that there are different healthy body shapes, weights and that not everyone is meant to be Skinny McBeanpole. But I also know what I should weigh, and I gotta tell you, 200+ pounds ain’t it. If I drank, I would be unhealthy fat.

Because I’m cheap, and drinking isn’t. And considering how much time I spend in bars at conventions and with friends otherwise, I’m guessing that I’d end up spending a stupid amount on drinks every time I went out. As it is, I spend a few bucks a night on diet colas, and sometimes I don’t even get charged for those, on the idea that I’m the guy driving everyone home at the end of the night (which at a convention means pointing them in the direction of the elevator; even so). This comports swimmingly with my cheap nature.

Because I like giving myself permission to do what I like. Or, as I more usually put it, “I can get stupid on my own.” In my experience a fair amount of drinking happens because someone wants to do a thing they can’t do when sober because they’re terrified, or chicken, or worried about being embarrassed or whatever. So they have a couple of drinks, lower the inhibition shield and then they can enjoy themselves. Which is fine, and often an elegant solution for that person. But I personally think it’s better just to sack up, recognize that anything that drinking to give yourself permission would solve could probably also be achieved while sober, and then do it. Then you actually get to be totally present for that thing, which is even better.

And in the case of dancing, which I love to do, and which is often a thing people need a couple of drinks in them for, you’ll also be a lot more co-ordinated. Which is a much better state of affairs than the alternative, when it comes to the dance floor.

(Yes, people: I dance. And you know what? I dance well. Deal with it.)

Because I like being the designated driver. This is true. It’s a nice service I can offer and presents no imposition on me because, after all, I wasn’t going to drink anyway. Most of my friends, however, do drink and enjoy drinking. It makes me happy to let them do so, enjoy their company and get them back home in one piece. It’s nice to be useful.

And that’s why I’m thankful that I don’t drink alcohol. It’s good for me, and good for others. And it’s easy, since, really, it requires me to do nothing. And I’m already doing nothing already! I love it that it works out that way.