The 10s in Review: Whatever Best of 2010 – 2019

It’s been a fairly momentous decade for Whatever — it had some of its highest trafficked years in 2012 and 2013, and while direct daily visitorship to the site has declined as people migrated to Facebook and Twitter as those two sites took over the Internet, Whatever still manages to make a splash when I link to it from one of those two sites. I’m personally curious what will happen when those sites inevitably decline; while I’m not exactly waiting for the “blogosphere” to come back in any meaningful way, I hold out the hope that personal sites might nevertheless get a general second wind as people begin to entertain the idea that there’s more to the online experience than just what Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey think they should see.

Over the course of the last decade, several pieces I wrote gained traction on the Internet at large and/or were some of the best things I’ve written in that timeframe, and/or represented the moment in which they were written in a particularly memorable way. Below, you’ll find links to these pieces. I’ve limited the list to twenty because I don’t want to tax anyone’s patience, and also because I think that’s enough to get a taste of how this decade was here on the site. Enjoy the retrospective as the 10s come to a close. Barring catastrophe, I’ll be writing here through the 20s as well. I’m looking forward to seeing how the recap of that decade might vary from this one. Come back in ten years and see.

For all of you who have stuck with this site over the last decade: Thank you for reading, and commenting, and linking in. Let’s keep at it.

Thoughts On a Year of Exercise

A year ago today, weighing nearly 200 pounds and feeling physically run down, and also feeling somewhat depressed about those facts, I hauled my carcass up on the treadmill we have in our basement and started walking on it. I did about 20 minutes worth of walking that day — not a lot, just enough to elevate my heart rate — and was grumpy about it the entire time. At the same time I also instituted the habit of counting my calories, with the goal of eating fewer calories in a day than I was burning. My goal was to eventually be at 170 pounds, more or less.

A year later, I’m still exercising, still watching my calories, and on most days I’m somewhere between 165 and 170 pounds (currently I’m just over 170, due to holiday eating, which I’m fine with, because holidays). What is my thinking about a year of exercise and calorie counting? Well:

1. People told me that the first few weeks of exercising would be the hardest, and after that point all the endorphins would kick in (or whatever) and then I would really start to enjoy that. Well, that was a lie — at no point in my year of exercising has it been much other than an annoying thing that I’ve had to do in order to achieve a particular goal, and then maintain at a particular level. Or more accurately, it’s probably not a lie; some people probably really do get an endorphin rush (or whatever) from exercise, I’m just not one of them. Which is fine, I’m not doing the exercise for itself, I’m doing it for the benefit I accrue from it. But it would have been nice to get a little buzz from it rather than just crankily hauling myself down to the treadmill (or outside when the weather got nicer) on a regular basis.

2. It turns out that in actual practice, I don’t exercise to lose weight, I exercise so that I can eat more calories and still lose weight. With regard to calorie counting, I initially set my calorie goals to lose about a pound a week, which meant I was supposed to eat about 500 fewer calories than I burned on a daily basis. When I didn’t exercise that meant eating a number of calories that made me feel generally unhappy — just few enough that I felt hungry and annoyed. But if I exercised for a half hour or forty-five minutes, aside from any other cardiovascular or metabolic benefit, it also meant I could have another 250 to 350 calories a day and still hit my calorie goal, which meant I could eat enough that I didn’t feel hungry and unhappy. Once I understood that the point of exercising was to be a calorie bank  — points I could redeem for pizza — it made regular exercising more bearable.

3. It also meant that honestly speaking the real key to losing weight was the calorie counting, not the exercising. Which makes sense, because physics. It’s not to say that the exercise wasn’t important, because it was: as mentioned above, it was a calorie bank, but also and more importantly, it offered other physical benefits, which in turn offered a number of psychological benefits. I feel better, and feel better about myself, because I exercise, even if I find the act of exercising itself sort of annoying. But at the end of the day, me being who I am and the laws of nature being what they are, logging food and making sure I kept to a general caloric intake was what lost the weight. Exercise was important but complementary to that activity. Commensurately, even though right now I’m not actively trying to lose any more weight, I’m still logging what I eat because as it turns out it’s really easy for me to jam a lot of calories into my body if I’m not paying attention.

4. Also key for me was understanding that the exercise and calorie counting was going to be a permanent thing now, and not just something I was going to do until I hit a goal. I’m 50 now and my body isn’t my friend on this score any more — basically my body now wants to go Full Santa, and will unless I keep on it. This is what it is, and there’s little point in complaining about it; age has its benefits but effortless health isn’t one of them. I’ve done exercise and calorie counting before and stopped when I hit a goal (or just didn’t want to do it anymore), and experienced the see-saw thing. So when I started again a year ago, I started with the idea that this was now the new normal. Again, that helped a lot.

5. I felt better when I started exercising, and I feel better now than I did a year ago, both physically and mentally. But it’s important to note that exercising and bringing my body closer to something that corresponded to my own internal self-image of myself did not, in fact, solve all my problems. 2019 was in some ways a difficult year for me (I’ll probably speak of that in another post), and the extra energy and feeling of well-being that I got from exercise didn’t change that. I have a sense that 2019 might have been even more difficult without me working on myself physically but of course there’s no way to prove that. I should say that I wasn’t expecting exercise to be some sort of panacea, either for the world’s woes or my own; I’m well aware that no matter where you go, there you are. But I guess I was expecting the knock-off benefits in other areas of my life to be more substantial. As it turns out: Nope, or at least, not in 2019.

6. Exercising and counting calories worked for me and if you are someone who is looking to shed a bit of weight and work on your body, it’s something I can generally recommend to you as well. I do think it’s important to be aware that you’re signing on for a process as well as a goal, however — and that this process will take a while and will be work no matter who you are, and when the goal is hit, you’ll still have a process you keep with. It took me eight months to drop 30 pounds, and the additional four months has been maintenance of that. One year in, what I’ve really done is establish a new baseline for anything else I do from here on out, whether it is to keep things more or less the same, or decide on a new goal, with a different process. For me, the awareness that this is as much process as goal has made a difference in how I feel about it on a day-to-day basis, and how I engage with it in a larger frame. It’s made it easier to stick with. For me, that’s a real thing.

Merry Christmas, Everyone

Hope it’s been lovely. Mine was.

Whatever Best of 2019

And here we are again on Christmas Eve, which is my time to take a look back on what I’ve written on Whatever over the year, and pick out the pieces I think have some special merit — whether because of the writing, or because they characterize events, or because they note some (usually goofy) aspect of my life. This year we have pieces ranging from serious thoughts on the president’s impeachment all the way to a piece about putting gummy worms into burritos. Yup, that’s 2019, all right. It had range.

In any event, if you missed them the first time, or just simply want to read them again, over and over, obsessively, because it’s just been that kind of year, hasn’t it: My picks for the Best of Whatever in 2019, in alphabetical order.

Not a bad year for Whatever posts. Thanks for reading them, and me, for another year.

21, Part Two

The more formal 21st birthday portrait. Also, my kid continues to be pretty great. Thank you, that is all.

21

Athena wishes to let you know that today she is twenty one years old!

But Krissy does not approve of Athena’s manner of celebrating her birthday!

There, that’s better.

A very happy birthday to my daughter, who is one of my favorite humans, ever.

Review: The Rise of Skywalker

(This review will be spoiler-free, but the comment thread will be allowed to have spoilers. If you’ve not seen the movie yet, tread lightly there.)

In the digital era of music, there have been complaints about something called “Dynamic Range Compression” — a production tactic that levels out the sound in the a recording so, on one hand, you don’t have to suddenly jab at the volume knob when an incredibly quiet passage is followed by an unbelievably loud musical phrase, but on the other hand, you no longer have the highest highs and the lowest lows. The music all gets stuffed into the same middlin’ band, volume-wise, and after a while, consciously or not, all that middlin’ gets noticeable.

Which is where we are with The Rise of Skywalker, and indeed the Disney era of the Star Wars saga.

To be clear: I was perfectly entertained by Skywalker, and I’m not in the least surprised that I was. Disney, bless its infinitely black heart, knows how to entertain; these days one rarely goes to a film from one of the studios that forms Disney’s sprawling cinematic archipelago (Pixar, Marvel, Walt Disney Animation, Lucasfilm) with the fear that one’s about to see an eyebleeding clusterfuck — this is not the studio that’s going to make CATS, for better or for worse. Disney has entertainment down to a science, and you will get your money’s worth: a little song, a little dance, a little Force tug down the pants.

And indeed, over the five Star Wars films that Disney has made since it bought Lucasfilm, it has done something no one else managed with the universe: It’s made it reliably consistent, and consistently entertaining. The first Star Wars trilogy was all over the place in terms of consistency, including within the same film — even The Empire Strikes Back, the best and most consistent of the lot, struggled with this. The prequel trilogy was consistent, but it was consistently bad, an artifact of George Lucas’ own disengagement with the concept of entertaining people other than himself. Disney doesn’t have Lucas’ ambivalence on that score; it gets that when you lay down your money for a Star Wars movie, you want to go somewhere a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and enjoy it, for a couple of hours at a time. So even the least of the Disney Star Wars films (that would be Solo) is entertaining as heck.

But that comes with a price. That price is, for lack of a better term, Cinematic Dynamic Range Compression. The grand operatic scope and feel of the Star Wars saga, which even the prequels had in abundance (heck, there was even an actual opera scene in the third prequel film) has been squashed down and routed into something like a bus tour of various planets, each with its single big tourist spot, which one enjoys for a bit and gets a selfie at before one is placed back into the bus for the next destination and the next big event. The Disney trilogy is forever hustling us along; we’re on a schedule, folks, keep moving, sorry.

Nowhere is this more evident than The Rise of Skywalker, which, incidentally, actually has its characters visit a tourist event, just to be hustled away on bus. Director JJ Abrams has a checklist of places he needs to get to and people he needs you to see (the fanservice aspect of this film is very very very obvious), and he’s gonna hit them on time, because apparently he gets paid for checking things off the list, rather than for letting his story have a moment to breathe. Breathe on your own time! We’re walking! There is enough plot for three films here, possibly because Abrams and his various screenwriters are wrapping up not just one trilogy but three. There’s no time for time.

Which is a shame. There are a lot of moments in Skywalker that, while affecting, could have been even more so if they hadn’t been so gosh darn rushed. The prequel trilogy had excellent actors who weren’t utilized fully because as a director Lucas didn’t know what to do with people; the Disney trilogy has excellent actors who aren’t utilized fully because they simply don’t have the time to process, onscreen, the overwhelming emotions they’re supposed to be having. Abrams the director steps on several of those moments because apparently he’s got another plot point he’s gonna cram in. It’s deeply rare, especially these days, that I say a film should be longer — Jesus, they really don’t need to be any longer — but Skywalker genuinely could have benefited from an extra ten or fifteen minutes, just to let its actors do their jobs.

But I don’t think that’s what you hire JJ Abrams for. Abrams has six films to his credit; five of them are parts of franchises — Mission Impossible, Star Trek and now Star Wars — and the sixth could best be described as the bastard child of ET and Close Encounters. Abrams isn’t bad with actors, and has a light touch with humorous moments that I very much appreciate. But he was hired to shepherd a very expensive film with many moving parts saddled with an almost impossible set of cultural and financial expectations, because he’s shown that he’s actually good at it (poor Colin Trevorrow). The craft of acting might understandably take a back seat to those off-screen realities, even if ultimately it doesn’t do the movie itself any favors as its own thing.

Looking back, I realize that my observations about Skywalker are very much of a piece with my observations on Avengers: Endgame, another Disney film this year which was tasked with wrapping up not just a trilogy of films (well, a quadrilogy in the case of Endgame), but an entire universe to that point — down to the allusions to a tour and the phrase “we’re on a schedule, here.” Both Skywalker and Endgame are films that can’t and don’t exist for their own sake — if you came to either without being steeped heavily in their respective universe’s lore you would be hopelessly, hilariously, lost — and to that end the miracle is that they work to any significant degree. Both of these films are ungainly and in some ways existentially sad cinematic beasts, never to be appreciated out of a context that will now recede further and further into time. “The thing about a dancing pig is not that it dances well, but that it dances at all.” Disney has given us two dancing pigs in the same year.

And they both… dance well enough! I enjoyed my last swing through the Skywalker saga, and with these characters, and would happily watch it again, even as I acknowledge that it’s rushed and haphazard, and dynamically compressed in that familiar and safe way Disney entertainments are and will almost certainly will continue to be, for Disney is too big at this point to mess with its own formula in any significant way (maybe they’ll let 20th Century Fox be the place where they say “fuck it, let’s throw this against a wall and see if it sticks,” but I seriously doubt it). I was entertained, and having now seen eleven Star Wars films between the ages of 8 and 50 years old, I appreciate when a Star Wars film is consistently entertaining, because enough of them weren’t. And if this is indeed the end of the Skywalker family as a central focus of the Star Wars universe, it ends well enough.

But I would have been okay with some more dynamic range, Disney. “Ending well enough” isn’t the same as “the best it could have been.” The Rise of Skywalker could have been better, if you would have just let it breathe.

DRDF: It’s a New Reality; or, Dorm Room Rock, Circa 1987

So, in high school I was in a band called DRDF, which was short for Dead Rats Don’t Fly, which was formed because our friend Tommy Kim wanted to record some songs he’d written in order to send a cassette of them out with his college applications (spoiler: It worked in at least one case). I played drums and contributed lyrics, most notably to a song called “It’s a New Reality.” The EP of songs was recorded and placed on about 10 cassettes total (one each for the band members; one each for the college applications), and since this was all 33 years ago now, they were all promptly lost to history.

Or so I thought! Turns out one band member had kept his cassette, and very recently he ripped the music on it into digital form and — importantly for this piece — sent the MP3 of our EP to me. And now, because it amuses me to do so, I’m sharing one of those songs with you, the aforementioned “It’s a New Reality.”

How does it sound? Well, pretty much as you would expect a band of 17-year-old boys in 1987, recorded onto C-90 tapes, to sound like: Terrible! But also, I have to say, awesome. Awesomely terrible. Terribly awesome. You get the idea.

I am positively delighted to be able to listen to this song again, and the other ones, which I will at some point get around to posting as well (or at least, putting online). In the meantime, enjoy 17-year-old me, whacking away at the drums.

New Books and ARCs, 12/20/19

It’s the last stack of new books and ARCs before Christmas (and this year, also Hanukkah). She anything here you’d be happy to unwrap? Share in the comments — and happy holidays!

I Can’t Promise I Will Never Be Problematic: A Twitter Thread

Archived here for posterity.

1. Recent events have prompted some folks to ask me to assure them that I will never be problematic, so they can continue to read my work with a clear conscience. Folks, I have some real bad news for you: I can’t promise that, and here’s a thread on why. Ready? Let’s begin.

2. To begin, I can’t promise that because I have already been problematic at various points in my past — I’ve shown my ass in a number of ways. I try to listen to friends/others when I do show my ass, and do better, but it has happened before, and will probably happen again.

3. I can’t promise because there are gaps in my personal knowledge and experience, and sometimes I will do/say something problematic because I didn’t know, and also, I didn’t know I didn’t know. What one does from there is important, but I’ll still trip over lines I didn’t see.

4. I can’t promise because what’s problematic is a moving target, with different people, different audiences and different groups. What might be fine with one group (and a group close to me) might not with others. I try not to do harm but I also accept the view on that differs.

5. And I can’t promise because sometimes it may be that what I believe to be moral and correct may be different or even in direct opposition to what you believe is moral and correct, and we might not be able to bridge that gap (or want to). When that happens we can talk…

6. … and perhaps through discussion come to a better understanding. But sometimes we might not, or one or both of us might decide that discussion is futile in any event, so why bother. In which case: Hi, I’m problematic, and that’s where we are.

7. As an example, there are a fair number of people on the US political right who won’t touch my work because they see my personal political and social positions and are all “yeah, no,” and I’m fine with that because I’m comfortable with my positions and their response to them.

8. (There’s also some on the left! Although not as many, but even so I’m a pretty damn corporate straight white dude, and that’s a thing.)

9. Now, here’s a thing: I do try to learn and try to grow and to be decent to people. I’ve accepted I’ll be wrong, and I work to mitigate when I am. But I can’t promise I won’t fuck up, and when I do, I can’t promise you’ll always be happy with how I work to be better.

10. When and if that happens, and you decide you can’t hang with me or my work anymore, then take your leave of me. There’s a wide world of creators out there. Find the ones that speak to you. I understand that will happen, and that you may criticize me as you go. That’s fair.

11. In sum: I can’t promise I won’t ever be problematic, for whatever set of criteria you use to determine that. What I can promise is that I’ll always be aware I’m not perfect, and will continue to work on myself. It’s up to you to decide, as we go along, if that’s sufficient.

12. And this is the end of this particular tweet thread. To show my appreciation for your attention, please accept this picture of a cat. Thank you.

 

Impeachment Thoughts

The front page of the Dayton Daily News today.

For the record, my thoughts on the president being impeached, because, oh, my, he certainly was:

* It was inevitable, not (just) because the Democrats were gunning for the president, but because Donald Trump is a crook and was one even before he came into office. Also he’s incompetent, and also he’s disdainful of any check to what he feels are his prerogatives as the president, whether or not they are legal or constitutional. When you have someone as president who treats the law as an inconvenient impediment to get around when it’s in the way of what he wants, and you have the House in the hands of the opposing political party, then yes, impeachment was never not going to happen.

* And yes, absolutely, the House Democrats were gunning for the president — because, let’s recap, he’s a crook, and an incompetent, and disdainful of the law. He’s a bad president, the worst since I’ve been alive, which takes some measure of doing, but more than that, he’s a malign president, and shitty human being, who never had any business in the White House in the first place. The question isn’t why the Democrats are gunning for him, but why removing a malign incompetent crook from the Presidency of the United States was not, in fact, a bipartisan effort.

* The answer to that, aside from mere partisanship, is that the GOP is in a dark place at the moment, politically and morally. It’s easy to say it’s in thrall to Trump and his shitty version of politics, but Trump is the symptom, not the disease. The disease is a heedless caucasian authoritarianism in thrall to the wealthy. Its initial vectors of the current infection were Lee Atwater and Newt Gingrich and folks like them, the ones who, when confronted with the chance to make even simple moral and political decisions in a manner that suggested comity and a concern for the general commonweal, asked “what if we… didn’t do that?” and proceeded from there. Trump is the culmination of decades of GOP planning to… well, evidently, to see what would happen if one of the major political parties of the United States simply decided that everyone who was making less than $250,000 a year could just go fuck themselves (that the majority of GOP supporters make far less than that is an irony that I’m sure the GOP quite enjoys).

Trump arrived on the scene too early for the grand GOP experiment — it would have preferred someone smoother and more tractable — but they’ve worked with what they have and here we are. The chance the GOP would interrupt their plans at this point to have a moment of moral clarity or concern about the national welfare was always pretty slim. If those are the facts on the ground, then of course it fell to the Democrats to handle the problem. One may argue, if one wishes, that they are imperfect messengers for this issue. But it’s not the Democrats’ fault that the GOP doesn’t want to hear the message at all.

* There’s no possible way Trump is actually removed from office by the Senate — Senate leader Mitch McConnell has already let it be known the fix is in and that the Senate Republicans will essentially run a sham trial in their chamber once it gets to them. But even if McConnell hadn’t already been so openly disdainful of the impeachment process, the idea that there would be 67 votes to remove even a malign incompetent crook like Trump in a chamber where the majority is held by the modern GOP is a fantasy. The GOP is fine with Trump as he is, doing what he’s doing. They know he’s a crook, but he’s a useful crook, and anyway it’s more important for them to stuff the Democrats than it is to remove the manifestly worst person in living memory to hold the office of president. How this is a surprise to anyone at this point is beyond me.

Which is a shame. It would be nice to live in a world where there was, in fact, bipartisan support for ridding our country of an awful president, who is also a criminal and has done criminal things. But that’s not where we are at the moment, and it’s not where the GOP has any plans to be anytime soon, and like the GOP we have to work with what we have. This may be why, mind you, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is allegedly not in a rush to send the articles of impeachment over to the Senate; no point in getting stuffed early when there’s more work to do, and advantages to be gained.

* Nor do I expect anyone in the tank for Trump to be swayed by the impeachment process, because why would they? Once again, it’s not like Trump supporters didn’t know who their man was when they voted for him. They knew just fine, and were either willing to work with it or actually wanted those things about him. Moreover, there’s a certain tranche of people who are perfectly willing to accept, nay, celebrate, that their team lies and cheats as long as the wins pile up; it happens in sports and it happens in politics. There are a lot of Trump supporters who just like wins, and simply antagonizing people who dislike Trump counts as a “win.”

Likewise, Trump supporters (and GOP supporters generally) have been well-trained for years to distrust anyone, and any informational source, outside of particular approved sources, and the approved sources are — strangely enough! — spinning a very interesting alternate theory of the impeachment process. There is irony that those who rail the most about “fake news” are the ones who consume it the most frequently and uncritically. But, again, here we are in 2019 and we work with what we have.

As it happens, recent polls have seen an uptick in Trump’s approval ratings, and among other things, I suspect that has to do with some unengaged Trump supporters re-engaging because their boy is being attacked and their approved media sources are losing their minds about it. “Uptick” here is relative — in aggregate, the man is still nowhere near 50% approval, nor has he been at any point in his presidency — but it’s not ignorable either. Anyone who thought that the president being impeached would suddenly mean his approval rating dropping through the floor should think again. Trump supporters won’t be having any of that, and if you think they will, check in on your own biases and news sources.

* Of course, this is just going to make Trump more, well, Trump. The man has never understood why people wouldn’t just let him be king, and narcissists never react well to blows to the ego. If you think he’s lost his shit and been completely unreasonable before, just you wait. Things are going to get worse, much worse, especially if, in fact, Speaker Pelosi frustrates McConnell’s plan for a rubber-stamp acquittal in the Senate. And while there is some schadenfreude to be had with Trump spinning in tight, angry circles about this, at the end of the day he’s still president, he’s still a petty, vindictive little shit of a human, and he has enablers. Expect bad news from this dude. More than usual, I mean, and including directives and policies and proclamations that will energize his most bigoted and violent supporters.

* Now to dispose of some whining: “They’re trying to overturn the election!” = “I either don’t understand the Constitution of the United States, or I do and I’m hoping you don’t”; “The President did nothing wrong” = “I don’t understand the law, or I do and I’m hoping you don’t”; “Presidential harassment!” = “I don’t understand the concept of co-equal branches of government, or I do and I’m hoping you don’t”; “Biden and/or Clinton!” = “I want to distract you from the fact the sitting President of the United States is actively performing criminal acts.” There are more of these but you get the running thread: either the person saying them doesn’t understand how things work, or does, perfectly well, and hopes that you don’t and on the basis of that can be convinced of the lie they are actively telling you. Oh and also they want to distract you from the sitting president’s bad actions.

* President Trump has been impeached, deserved to be impeached, and if we lived in a world that was just, would be removed from office. With that said, I’m not happy we’re at this point. In a better world, Trump wouldn’t have been elected or even have been the GOP candidate, but he was and he was, so the next best thing would have been that Trump, who was never going to be a good president, could have at least respected the office and its particular set of powers. There was little in his policies that he couldn’t have achieved without stepping outside the confines of the law, and he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in today, being only the third president to be impeached.

He did this to himself, and he didn’t have to, and he didn’t have to inflict it on all the rest of us. We’re where we are because of him, and because he just couldn’t be bothered to know the law, and his job. And you know what should happen to people who can’t be bothered to know their job, or to do it well. They shouldn’t have it any more.

The Big Idea: Matthew Hughes

When cultures meet, is there always a “clash” — or is there a way for disparate peoples to not only get along but thrive? This was a line of inquiry that Matthew Hughes is interested in, and pursues in his new novel What the Wind Brings.

MATTHEW HUGHES:

Back in 1971, when I was an English major at Simon Fraser University, I happened across a footnote in a book about cross-cultural contacts. The author was making the point that castaways arriving on foreign shores – like Japanese fishermen washed up on the coast of what was to become British Columbia – usually fared poorly. But the footnote mentioned an exceptional case: shipwrecked African slaves on the jungle coast of sixteenth-century Ecuador who allied themselves with the local indigenous people to form a mixed society – the “Zambo state” – who survived and prevailed against attempts by Spanish conquistadors to re-enslave them.

I thought: that would make a great historical novel. But it turned out to be difficult to research, because most scholarship was in Spanish-language academic journals.  Still, I kept it in mind as the decades rolled by and I eventually became a novelist. So, when the teens of this century arrived and North American scholars began writing about the Zambos, I could do the research and write the book.

Over my fiction-writing career, two themes dominated: I tended to write about outliers struggling to thrive in social environments not made for their kind; and the societies I created were often diverse, full of odd people energetically pursuing odd goals.

Writing about oddballs comes naturally to me, because I am one. Writing without judgements about diverse cultures came from observing how diversity gives a society strength and resilience. So when I came to write What the Wind Brings, it made sense to me that the Africans, many of them survivors of wars among well organized West African states, would combine with Ecuador’s Nigua people, who had spent generations fending off attempts by the expanding Inca empire to come subjugate them.

Military skills combined with an intimate knowledge of a challenging landscape offered an advantage. But the marriage of African and Nigua was not made in heaven. The Africans, as I envisioned them, came from a patriarchal culture; the Nigua, like many indigenous peoples of the Americas, I assumed to be matriarchal. Both groups had customs and ingrained habits that required rough edges to be rubbed smooth. And so they were, by mutual agreement.

The resulting mixed society outfought and out-thought the Spaniards, until finally the latter agreed to leave them alone. The Zambos endured for generations, and today their descendants are a distinct, thriving culture within the Ecuadorean social mix.

My own cultural background was originally working-class British, a typical Liverpool mongrel of English, Irish, Welsh strains, with a little Manx. I came to Canada as an immigrant child in 1954, and I was lucky we came then because Canadian immigration policies in those years discriminated strongly in favor of WASPs – even men like my father, a 40-year-old unskilled and uneducated laborer with a wife and five children.

Then, in the 1960s, those policies gave way to new thinking. Canada began to welcome newcomers from all over the world, including people who were formerly legally discriminated against, like Canadian-born Asians who had long been barred from becoming pharmacists or architects under provincial laws governing the professions.

The official Canadian term for such people, according to the census, was “visible minorities.” In 1961, when I was twelve, less than one percent of Canadians fit that bureaucratic category, some of them the descendants of American slaves who were brought to Nova Scotia after the Revolution, others the children of Chinese railroad builders who never went back to China (though they were harshly encouraged to do so).

By 1981, under the new immigration rules, the percentage had increased to 4.7, and by 1991 it had reached 9.4. By the time of the 2016 census, the number had risen to 22.3 per cent, and that did not include the more than four per cent of my fellow citizens who are aboriginal people and are not, for arcane bureaucratic reasons, classified as “visible minorities.”

By 2031, visible minorities, almost all of them first- or second-generation immigrants, will account for a third of Canadians.

But at the same time we have been taking in people of all colors and cultures, we have not imposed a “melting pot” ethos on the newcomers. We are a multicultural society. We follow Rodney King’s advice: we all just get along.

Well, not quite all. We have our racists and reactionaries, most of them in rural settings where visible minority immigrants don’t tend to settle. And our record regarding aboriginal peoples leaves a lot to be desired, though we’re now finally making real efforts toward reconciliation.

But here’s the thing: there is no established political party in Canada that opposes immigration and multiculturalism. Recently, a Conservative Member of Parliament left his party and tried to start one. His “People’s Party” ran candidates in October’s federal election – and was roundly rejected by the people, attracting a paltry 1.6 percent of the nation’s votes. Their defector/leader lost his seat.

So, in my lifetime, since washing up on Canada’s shores, I have seen my country evolve from whites-only to all-are-welcome. We have grown no ghettos; yes, first-generation immigrants tend to settle in neighborhoods where the neighbors look like them, but their children spread out and live among the rest of us. Intermarriage is too common to be remarked upon. There is no National Front in Canada, no Know-Nothing Party. No Stephen Miller would ever rise to a position of power here.

That is the one of the big lessons of my life, and it’s the idea I have sought to express in What the Wind Brings. Without beating a drum or ladling in infodumps, I wanted the reader to come away with an understanding that diversity is strength, that we succeed by finding ways to all get along and by looking out for each other.

These days, it’s a timely lesson.

—-

What the Wind Brings: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Kobo|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Facebook.

View From a Hotel Window, 12/16/19: NYC

And my very last business trip of the year. Downtown NYC is very vertical. I’m here meeting with Tor about The Last Emperox, which comes out in a few months. We have plans. Then back home tomorrow, for the rest of 2019.

The 10s in Review: A Musical Playlist

What was I listening to during the 10s? Here’s a 40-song playlist on Spotify, alphabetical by artist.

For this playlist, I used the following rules:

1. Every song was put out in 2010 or later.

2. One song per artist; generally speaking, my favorite song from that artist during the 10s.

3. I actually had to have the song in my intentional music rotation, i.e., no putting stuff on that list just because it has cultural cache, even if the artist is otherwise a favorite of mine. So, for example, no David Bowie because I only gave his 10s albums a casual listen.

4. Conversely, no excluding songs that other people might find hopefully corny or unhip, because, well, sometimes one is corny and unhip.

5. No songs that I commissioned to accompany book releases, because that’s awfully self serving, even if the songs were pretty great.

6. No covers of songs, because those songs technically are all from another decade.

This is what we have:

What do we learn from this playlist? One, that I listened to a reasonable slice of new music in the 10s rather than just merely retreating into old dudeness; two, that while my personal listening is fairly well balanced in terms of men and women, it’s still pretty overwhelmingly white; three, my primary mode of new music in the 10s appears to have been pop and dance, with nods to rock and R&B; four, that my musical tastes are not exactly obscure, although there are some pockets of weirdness in there.

If I had to pick my personal Artists of the Decade, i.e., the ones with work from this decade that I intentionally listened to the most, the titles would go to The Naked and Famous and to Kyla La Grange, which is an excuse to toss in another song from each here, in the form of YouTube videos:

I’m aware that this playlist is deeply at odds with the critical consensus of the most important albums/songs of the decade, but, meh. I’m not here to be impressing anyone; I’m here to tell you what new music I was listening to in this decade.

What new music were you listening to during the 2010s? Share some of your favorites in the comments, if you like.

Behold My Jedi-Like Powers of Persuasion

Today on Twitter I posted a poll (which incidentally is still active as of this writing):

Which led to many spirited comments about Baby Yoda’s eating habits, the sentience of porgs, and whether Chewbacca should have eaten that porg he cooked up, regardless of the aghast looks of other porgs. This naturally let me to say:

And LO AND BEHOLD:

This is naturally the best piece of art that has ever existed, and I am proud to have played a part in bringing this truth to a hurting and needful world although it existed before I asked for it, I still feel pleasure in knowing my wishes were answered. Please enjoy “Baby Yoda Eating a Porg” in good health.

(PS: Here’s a link to the artist’s site if you’d like to see more of his stuff.)

Spice Gets Into the Season

Some might say it’s only because her favorite napping spot is next to the Christmas tree. But I think she likes the holidays for themselves, and because the Christmas tree has many compelling ornaments to bat around.

Hope your Thursday has been merry and bright, folks.

And Now, An Update on My Drumming

As you may remember, a week ago I got myself an electronic drum set, set it up and started pounding away on it. Here’s what I’ve learned from a week of getting back into the swing of it:

1. I still suck because I am unfathomably rusty, but after drumming roughly an hour a day for a week, I suck less than I did, and some things are coming back better than others. For example, I’m having no problem at all with syncopation, which has always been a strong suit of mine. On the other hand, I can play well or I can play really fast, but at the moment I can’t do both. Hopefully that will improve in time.

2. People have asked about how the cats are handling the drums and me playing it. Well, the picture above shows Zeus hanging out while I’m whacking away on the set. The secret: playing through headphones, so the only person who hears the mighty roaring sounds of the set is me; the cats hear drumsticks hitting mesh, which is very not loud at all. When I play the set through an amp, on the other hand, the cats are deeply offended.

3. At the moment I have a case of adhesive capsulitis going on in my left shoulder (more commonly known as “frozen shoulder”), which limits its mobility somewhat. I thought it might be a problem for playing the drum set, but it turns out it’s really not, and to the extent that I’m regularly exercising the shoulder at the current limit of its mobility, it might actually be helping to restore range. I can live with that.

4. Some folks have asked if I’m planning to put together a band or something. The answer is no, I bought the drumset for my own enjoyment and amusement. That being said, I have a plan to turn a part of my basement into a home music studio, of which the drum set will clearly be a part. Don’t worry, I’m not going to be giving up my day job. But that’s sort of the point; it’s nice to have a hobby.

5. And I am having fun! With that said — and here’s another reason an electronic set was the way to go — I’m playing the drums relatively quietly so that I don’t mess up my hearing. 50-year-old ears are not the same as 15-year-old ears, I have to say.

In all, I’m very happy to be thumping away again. Maybe someday I’ll actually be good! There’s more practice between me and that day, however.

In Which Krissy’s Picture is Stolen for a Facebook Advertisement

From a Twitter feed I just posted about this, archiving here: 

1. So, a friend on Facebook pinged me with this ad she saw there for a talcum powder lawsuit scheme and said, “isn’t that Krissy?” And indeed, it is — and the picture strongly implies that she’s holding a settlement check.

This is not true, and also, the photo was stolen.

2. The picture, which I took, is actually Krissy holding up our last mortgage check. I wrote a piece about that moment here:

The check is going out, not coming in. Krissy’s happy because we paid off the mortgage, not because she’s gotten a settlement.

3. Also for the record, Krissy is not now nor has even been a party to a suit regarding baby/talcum powder.

4. So how did Krissy’s picture end up on this ad? On a hunch, I typed “Woman Holding Check” into Google Image Search, and well, there she was. Not right at the top, but not that far down the page, either. The jackass making the ad probably made a similar search.

5. Now, obviously by this point, neither I nor Krissy consented to the use of this photo in this ad. Nor is this photo public domain, under Creative Commons, or legally licensed. I took it and retain the copyright to it. Its use is, flat out, unauthorized and illegal.

6. (This use is also definitely not covered under “fair use.”)

7. Leaving aside any strictly legal issues regarding the photo’s use, there are the issues that a) Krissy appears to be endorsing the site the ad links to, b) people who know Krissy might assume the settlement check means she is/was ill, specifically with cancer (she’s not).

8. The person bringing the ad to my attention is a friend of Krissy’s and I had to assure her that Krissy wasn’t part of a suit (with everything that implies). It seems careless and cruel on the part of the ad maker to use that photo and to make people actually worry.

9. I also can’t imagine an ad using unauthorized and illegally obtained photos for commercial purposes actually conforms to Facebook’s advertising policies. It would be nice for the service to have better intake protocols to keep this from happening in the future.

10. tl;dr:

a) A picture of Krissy I took was used in a facebook baby powder lawsuit ad;

b) Neither of us consented to its use;

c) Krissy was not party to a suit/settlement and is physically fine;

d) The ad maker/people using the ad are scum;

e) Facebook, do better.

/end

An Accidental Family Triptych

As most of you know I fiddle a lot with photos, and then upload them to my Flickr account. Today I uploaded a picture of myself, another picture of Krissy, and a third photo of Athena, and Flickr posted them in a manner that quite unintentionally made what I think is a really compelling family triptych, covering an interesting range of styles and emotions. This triptych will last only until I upload another picture, so I thought I would document it now. This is us, in December of 2019. More or less.

The 10s in Review: My Career

The short version is: It was a pretty good decade for my career.

Now, let’s expand that, in bullet points that are in no particular order.

* First, the stats: Eight novels, two novellas, two short story collections, four nonfiction books, six anthology appearances (there may be more, I suspect I’m forgetting one or two), two TV series, two video games, one interactive graphic novel. Multiple appearances on various New York Times bestseller lists as well as the USA Today, Publishers Weekly, Locus, LA Times and other bestseller lists. A week as the #1 author on the entirety of Amazon. Won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, two Locus Awards for best science fiction novel, two Audie Awards, and was nominated for (and occasionally won) other domestic and international awards. Toastmaster of a Worldcon. Special Guest at San Diego Comic-Con. President of SFWA for three years. Got a nice contract. I’m probably forgetting something but I think you get the point. A solid decade for me.

* And also, not inevitable it would have been so. I’ve noted before that there is a three-year gap between the publication of Zoe’s Tale (2008) and my next novel Fuzzy Nation (2011), which is the longest gap between novels in my career. This was because Tor and I had a bit of a falling out in there (due to a contentious contract negotiation) and I spent time doing other things. Tor picking up Fuzzy Nation — or more specifically, offering on Fuzzy Nation in a manner I decided would be acceptable — was not a sure thing, and had Tor decided to go in another direction with that particular book, it’s entirely possible my next decade could have looked very different indeed. So you could say I’m delighted that Tor and I managed to patch things up. I strongly suspect I prefer the current version of events to what might have been.

* Am I the biggest science fiction writer of the 10s? Nope — in terms of sales of a single book, that likely goes to Ernie Cline or Andy Weir (for Ready Player One and The Martian, respectively), and there are other science fiction writers who I suspect in aggregate have sold as well as or better than I have. Nor am I the most important science fiction writer of the 10s — I’m very certain that honor goes to NK Jemisin, although there are other contenders as well, including Paolo Bacigalupi, Ann Leckie, Cixin Liu (in English translation) and Ted Chiang (this is, I assure you, not a complete list; also I’m not talking about fantasy at all here).

So if I am neither the biggest nor the most important science fiction writer of the 10s, when someone bothers to write up the history of the genre in this last decade, what will they say that I brought to the party? That will be up to them but if they were going to ask me, I would say: Consistency and approachability. My work comes out predictably and frequently, it’s remarkably regular in terms of quality (and that quality is pretty good), and my work is really easy to get into and share with other people, including people who don’t think they like science fiction as reading material. I am, more or less, “a sure bet”: People who know they like my stuff can feel pretty comfortable that whatever new thing I put out is going to be something they’ll like, and can share with friends.

Which is, I am the first to admit, emphatically not sexy, and is open to reasonable criticism — the negative complementary of “consistent” is “same-y”; for “approachable” it’s “unchallenging.” Likewise, my science fiction work is frequently called “lightweight” and “pleasant” and other such things. Which I cannot and really would not mount a defense against, because, well, it is, at least on the level of initial readability. My books are designed to suck people in and keep them zooming along until they come out the other side, hopefully having gone “wheee!” most of the way through.

I cannot say my writing is underappreciated, exactly — please see my sales and awards shelf for the last decade, and that contract of mine; I’m doing just fine — but I do think that it’s accurate to say that a very minor curse of an author who writes consistently and accessibly is that people often assume that what they do is easy to do. The best and really only response to this is, well, okay, try it. Then get back to me about how easy it is to do. Of course it looks effortless; that’s part of the point. But in practice it’s more complicated.

I will say that one of the advantages of writing consistently and approachably is that when you do (and, yes, when you’re a straight white dude in the SF genre), you get away with all sorts of shit. This decade, I wrote a novel entirely about metaphysics, personal narratives and free will. I wrote another novel with a protagonist whose gender is never revealed, and which features significant discourse on disability and culture. I wrote a third novel about humanity’s heedless exploitation of a diminishing natural resource it doesn’t understand, and the consequences of a society built on rent-seeking, where the majority of the people pushing the plot forward were not white, straight or male. All of these books got into the NYT lists and/or won awards.

So, yeah, I feel good about what I wrote this decade, and how I wrote it, and where I fit in with the other notable science fiction writers of the decade. Not the biggest, or the most important. But when they write that history, I’ll be in there.

* Any discussion of my career over the last decade needs to include the antipathy of me by a certain cadre of right-wing SF writers and fans, a group which overlaps (considerably) with the “Sad/Rabid Puppies” who publicly shat themselves so dramatically during the middle bit of the decade with regard to the Hugo Awards and other aspects of the business and community of SF/F literature. I noticed the first real push of the antipathy after Redshirts won the Hugo, and certain dudes suggested that Redshirts won because I had sucked up to the Social Justice Warriors sufficiently, rather than because, say, it was a popular book riffing off a beloved science fiction franchise in a clever and affectionate way, written by a writer who’d been nominated for Best Novel a few times before.

In the full bloom of the Puppy beclownery there was more of the same, a fair amount of snide discussion of my sexuality and gender, and general allegations that my sales numbers were inflated and/or propped up by bulk purchases by my publisher, which, by the way, was doing terribly and would soon be out of business. My personal favorite bit of this was when there was a long discussion about how my 2014 novel Lock In had been a massive sales failure and that Tor was about to drop me as an author; this discussion was happening simultaneously with me negotiating with Tor for my multi-book, multi-year, multimillion-dollar contract (which included not one but two sequels to Lock In). When the contract was announced, the narrative shifted to how much more I would have made self-publishing, and then later how I’d never really make as much money as the public figure of the contract. Which, well, okay, dudes. In time most of them have left off this nonsense, but there are a few of them still out there on this bullshit — why, I was chucklingly misgendered just this week!

What is it about me that bugged and in some cases still bugs these dudes? If you ask them they will give you all sorts of reasons, but having dealt with this nonsense for a better part of a decade I’ll tell you it’s mostly envy, and frustration about the state of their own careers, which they feel should be better because they write the sort of science fiction they’ve always loved and assume others still love as well. And which I also do, so why the hell do I get the big contracts and they’re (mostly) left to scrape by? There has to be something else involved — thus the secret cabal of SJWs, bulk purchases, also I’m gay and/or trans and thus not a man at all, hur hur hur. Add to this the fact that at least a couple of these dudes legit dislike me for other reasons (most of which boil down to the fact they can’t argue their way out of a paper bag and at one point or another I pointed that out to them in public), and some of them just happen to be bigoted as fuck, and you’ve got a fairly toxic mix of resentment and complete bullshit.

This hasn’t affected my career in any meaningful way — see the summary earlier in the piece — but on a personal level it could be tiresome. I’m guilty of taunting some of these dickheads on occasion, because they deserve the taunting and because I know my successes irritate the shit out of them. But mostly I’m glad it’s largely done and over with, save a few stragglers. I think after a certain point it just became difficult to argue that I was a failure, and that their doing so just accentuated their own relative positions, which they preferred not to do. And also, after a certain point you do just have to get on with your life and write your things. To the extent that some of them are doing that, good for them. Those that aren’t, well. Bless your hearts, dudes.

* The above nonsense notwithstanding, I do think the 10s were an outstanding decade for science fiction and fantasy, and that we exit the decade with the field being more diverse and (commensurately, as this is causation, not correlation) far more exciting to be a part of and to read. The mode of the genre has manifestly changed, in what sells to publishers and to the public, and to what is out there winning awards and other accolades. Science fiction flatters itself as being the literature of ideas and of challenging accepted orthodoxies; the 10s were a decade in which that actually happened to be true, not only in the topline, best known work, but also in the fray, where new writers are coming up to challenge old ways, and established writers are taking chances they might not have done before.

But speaking of the topline: starting in 2010, the (other) Hugo best novel winners have been Paolo Bacigalupi, China Mieville, Connie Willis, Jo Walton, Ann Leckie, Cixin Liu, NK Jemisin and Mary Robinette Kowal. Over at the Nebula Awards, you can add Kim Stanley Robinson, Jeff VanderMeer, Naomi Novik and Charlie Jane Anders to the best novel list. These writers and their works could easily stand with the best writers and work of any other decade; every time I think of them as my peer group I get chuffed. Toss in the other nominees for both awards over the last decade and it gets even better. I can’t believe I got to be part of such an amazing decade in my genre.

I also think the field is only going to get better from here — more writers, more diverse experiences that they are drawing from, more and better fiction that take us places a lot of us didn’t know we wanted to go. Earlier this year, some half-wit suggested that I would never win another award in the genre because I was a straight white male. My response to this is a) I’ve won enough awards so it will be fine if I don’t win any others, and also b) I feel pretty confident my work can compete, in sales and in accolades, with any work by anyone. Whining that a larger and more diverse pool of writers (and award voters!) makes it more difficult for your work to be considered is the long way around to saying “I can’t write well and my work can’t compete.” It’s gotta suck to think so little of yourself and your work, and also (apparently unwittingly but even so) to say so out loud for everyone to hear and see. Not exactly a sterling self-recommendation.

* And in fact I am looking forward to the next decade of my career. My first book of the new decade comes out in April, and there’s more to come after that. Let’s see where this ride takes me next, and how long it lasts.