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Archive for August, 2013

But it’s important.

But it sucks.

I write short stories, and every so often I go through a brief phase of submitting them to a few professional markets. I’ve started getting quite good at being rejected. It’s something I seem to have a real knack for, in fact, when I apply myself.

Anyone with even a modicum of professional writing experience in any comparable field will tell you that rejection is an important part of the process, even a positive part. And of course they’re right. If you’re getting rejected, it means you’re putting yourself out there, and if it keeps happening, it means you’re demonstrating the kind of persistence which sometimes gets rewarded with success. Ploughing on through the “no”s is a crucial part of making it to your first “yes”.

Harry Potter was turned down by I can’t be bothered to look up how many publishers before Rowling sold her first novel, Edison proudly discovered ten thousand ways not to plagiarise the lightbulb, you get the idea. Failing means you’re on the right track. It’s kinda obvious, but can be difficult to take on board.

It’s a philosophy I’ve repeated many times, and embraced in theory, but I’ve not really examined how well I do at it in practice. How much do my instinctive thoughts and reactions, in the moment, actually match up with the ideal?

The particular example of writing rejections doesn’t cause me too much neurotic stress. But some kinds of perceived failure have a much greater tendency to rankle. Sometimes getting it wrong really doesn’t feel like useful progress.

One of my problems seems to be with an unhelpful aversion to wasting my time. For instance: I’ve been trying to untangle and organise the plotting for a mostly second-drafted novel lately. (The one about a zombie and a vampire who run a detective agency, of which I bashed out a first draft a couple of NaNoWriMos ago, if you’re interested.) One thing I’ve done this week, in an effort to organise all the chapters, is to print out a series of short scene descriptions onto small bits of paper, and to blu-tack them to a whiteboard, so as to arrange them into some sort of coherent narrative.

This may all have been a colossal waste of time.

I’m still getting confused over what makes narrative sense to happen when. It hasn’t instantly resolved any of my structural or pacing issues. I’m not sure it’s going to be of any more help keeping track of future changes than the notes I’d already made on the computer. It looks pretty, I suppose, and it’s all neatly colour-coded, but I’ve a suspicion that may all be a load of toss.

This isn’t one of those times when I’m using pointless distractions to avoid actually writing, and really I just need to just sit down and get the fuck on with it. I do need to do something to figure out the sodding structure of the thing, and just staring at walls of text doesn’t seem to be helping. Sticking notes to a board is as valid a way of having a go as any other. But it still really bugs me that it might not have been a useful way to go.

I’m finding it especially hard to put the whole “failure as a learning experience” idea into practice in this particular scenario. It just feels like I put in some effort and made zero progress anywhere, and this is deeply infuriating and off-putting.

What’s really ridiculous, though, is the way I keep falling back on the worst coping strategy ever.

It’s taken me a while to even get as far as the whiteboard, because rather than struggle with something that seems likely to end in failure – rather than even contemplate it seriously, sometimes – I’ll just do something else that isn’t even meant to be productive. Those same minutes I’m worrying about wasting on some pointless wall-chart writing aid, turn into half an hour on Kongregate, or watching TV, or something else equally passive.

This way, I don’t just risk getting nothing useful achieved with my time, I guarantee it. But I won’t get that feeling of having strived for something and then failed to achieve an immediately measurable result. So it feels like less of a loss.

You can see exactly what my brain’s doing. It’s trying to avoid that feeling of having wasted time doing something that failed. It wants to protect itself so much from that unpleasant sensation, that distractions which fail to achieve any of my goals become acceptable. Which is colossally unhelpful of it. I mean, this is not-opening-bank-statements level thinking. It’s lamentable.

And it’s going to take some serious practice before I get over it.

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So, I could do with keeping fit, and I think I should incorporate some more exercise into my life.

This is the sort of person I am now. I’ve got a wife and a career and a mortgage and a cat and a beard and a packet of sherbet lemons. I’m an actual grown-up. I’m also just the right sort of middle-class twat to want to start working out.

The sherbet lemons aren’t a grown-up or middle-class signifier, to my knowledge. They’re just on my desk as I type this, and so sprung to mind as another example of the wonderful things my life is full of these days.

Anyway. I’m not joining a gym or buying any more expensive and pointless equipment. Despite my brain’s better efforts, I’m determined to learn about my limitations from past experience, so I know that’s not the way to go. I’ll have much more success if I start getting active first, train myself to build up the motivation and drive on my own steam, make some kind of physical exercise a part of my routine, and then consider any external aids once I’m likely to use them, rather than getting the shiny gadgets first and expecting them to inspire me.

The problem is, I tend to get discouraged from doing any particular kind of exercise if I suspect it’s not the optimal thing I could be doing.

I mean, even though the basic fact that exercise tends to be good for your health is straight-forward, the health industry is at least as littered with misinformation and dodgy advice as any other. There are no doubt plenty of really effective ways to do yourself a great deal of benefit, but they’re vying for space with a bunch of crappy ideas that will mostly just waste your time.

The usefulness or otherwise of vitamin supplements and protein shakes and whatnot may not be so tricky to unravel if you know what you’re doing, but I’m coming up short when trying to figure out how to exercise effectively. If you add words like “scientific” or “skeptic” to an internet search for workout-related terms, you mostly end up reading about stuff like that “Evidence-based 7 Minute Fitness” thing the media was fawning over a little while ago, which, if even a modicum of scrutiny is applied, turns out, yeah, not so much.

I am at a particular loss as to how to separate out the good advice from the bad in this field.

Chances are I’ll just end up doing some running. It’s hard to go too wrong there, I suspect, and there are plenty of apps I like the look of to keep you organised and give it some structure. If I can get past the bewildering clusterfuckmare of acquiring the right sort of footwear, that is. Ugh, just thinking about going shopping for running shoes makes me want to give up on the 5k part and just stay on the couch.

Anyway. Advice or thoughts appreciated. I’ll let you know if and when I decide to give this “going outside” thing a shot. I hear it’s full of something called “fresh air”. Can’t possibly be good for you.

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To nobody’s surprise, I consider it important to be able to empathise with people around us, especially those who are “different”.

It’s something where I try to walk the walk as much as I talk the talk, with varying success. There are a lot of ways in which I do pretty well at accepting and delighting in other people’s differences. The convention I went to on my honeymoon had a fair complement of transgender folk, gay people, bronies, steampunkaholics, to name but a few. I’m not in any of those categories myself; they’re all distinctly different from me in certain ways, but not in a way that presents any problem for me to interact positively with them.

That’s not true for everyone. There are people who are homophobic, or otherwise similarly prejudiced, and who would have been affronted and angered at the very existence of many people I shared a hotel with that weekend.

Comparing myself against them, I come off pretty well. I get to pat myself on the back for being fairly forward-thinking and progressive. But that’s not the most useful comparison I could be making.

I mean, if you’re a gay man who basically likes people and thinks we should all be kind to each other, we’re not really that different. Our values probably overlap a lot, in more interesting and important ways than that one divergent factor of sexuality. It’s pretty easy for us to see each other as part of our respective in-groups.

But the people with whom my interactions are more interesting – the people who provide my loving and compassionate nature with an actual challenge – are the ones who think homosexuality is an abomination unto the Lord, and all fags are going to burn in Hell.

Or who think those freaks getting sex changes need the devil beaten out of them.

Or who think atheists are all immoral Satan worshippers.

Or who think mainstream scientists are part of an academic conspiracy to push their fabricated global warming agenda onto a nation of sheeple.

Or who think they’ve uncovered the evidence left behind by the shadowy organisation who orchestrated 9/11 as part of a plot to bring about a New World Order.

Or who think Sylvia Browne has given them messages from their deceased relatives, and that it’s such a shame how closed-minded skeptics can’t accept anything that goes against their inflexible, set-in-stone ideas of how the world works.

Or who eat Marmite.

You get the picture.

Those are my out-groups. Being nice to gay people is easy. This is where my mettle’s really tested.

If I’m going to claim to be any better at dealing compassionately with others than your average hateful, gay-bashing preacher, then it’s my interactions with these people – the ones whose values truly differ from mine, who are truly “other” to me – which I should be judged by.

It’s no good if I’m lovely to people who are part of my tribe, but sarcastic and contemptuous to any outsiders. That’s exactly the behaviour I complain about in others. It’s just that for them, the outsiders are gay people, atheists, or whoever. For me, the outsider is anyone with an irrational hatred of gay people, atheists, or whoever.

So those are the people I need to try to treat respectfully, if I’m going to be at all consistent. If I start being a dick to someone, it doesn’t get cancelled out if I can prove they started being hateful first.

My in-group values being nice to people, and I will tribalistically defend our values just as vehemently as you’ll defend yours. Because if you don’t share our values of being nice to people then you’re WRONG and we HATE you.

That’s the danger that’s too often missed. Treating kindly those people who are different is the precise thing you’re trying to encourage in others. Being hostile to someone whose main difference from you is that they don’t want to treat other people kindly, is entirely self-defeating.

Yep, I seem to be drawing another lesson from Jesus here. Two in a week. Love your enemy. If I make it three, call an exorcist.

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Marvellous. It is Learning Difficulties week. Is there an Academic Excellence week. This country is a liberal left leaning minefield of pc.

Katie Hopkins there, earlier today, not understanding.

The thing that really doesn’t need doing is explaining what’s wrong with this. We’re all sensible people here, I’m sure. We all understand the potential value in setting aside a week for such a thing. We can see why it might be a good thing to highlight some of the problems that people with learning disabilities face in their lives, or the prejudice they encounter, or the organisations and efforts which already exist to help them out and which could use your support, and the people whose worlds they brighten.

We can easily see how such a thing can be worthwhile, how the disingenuous question about “academic excellence” misses the point (when are white people going to get their own history month, eh?), and how campaigns to raise awareness for disabled people can be motivated by much nobler motivations than the exercise in obsequious box-ticking that Katie Hopkins imagines “political correctness” to be.

We understand that #LDWeek13 is a positive effort by decent people to do good things for people who deserve it.

Katie Hopkins doesn’t understand that.

That’s the thing to remember when you react to her deliberate efforts to be unkind and insensitive. She does not understand.

And that’s a particularly human trait, that not understanding. We all get that about all kinds of things, all the time. It shouldn’t make someone seem weirdly different to not understand something. It’s just like me with the popularity of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, or my wife with the Banach-Tarski paradox. When it comes to the value of Learning Disabilities Week, there’s an incomplete series of concepts in Katie Hopkins’s brain, failing to lead her to the conclusion the rest of us have reached. She doesn’t get it.

Now, I wish she did understand it. There’s something there to be understood, something meaningful. But it’s only worth getting frustrated at her lack of understanding, if it’s going to lead you toward some action that might actually increase that understanding.

Understanding things is good. When someone doesn’t currently understand something, then an action which increases their understanding is an action that makes things better.

I can’t seem to make that paragraph less clunky. If it seems tautological, then that’s probably a good sign. All I’m saying is, it would be lovely if some people who don’t understand some things, could come to understand those things, by way of being talked to.

And I’m increasingly finding that a more interesting challenge than just reiterating the things that we enlightened folk understand already.

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You’ve seen the slogan. You’ve read the bumper sticker. You’ve bought the cereal. You’ve collected the action figures. WWJD is everywhere.

It’s a global trend, a widespread meme, a constantly repeated rhetorical question, which exists primarily – it sometimes seems – to give atheists something to chuckle over, and marvel at the asinine, fantasy-driven approach that some people take to solving their problems.

Against the trend, I think there’s a really powerful idea buried in the cliché, and it’s odd how unnoticed it tends to go.

The baggage that comes with invoking Jesus is obviously a big hindrance. In some ways it renders the question moot, because Jesus never existed.

Or, I dunno, maybe he did. Different historical scholars seem to have different ideas on this. It may well be that the science is settled, and the controversy is an entirely artificial one which relies on people like me being bamboozled by the way both sides seem to have a significant presence, despite one of them being utterly wrong (cf. intelligent design). It doesn’t remotely matter.

There’s also the question of whether the character of Jesus is really such a wonderful example of the sweetness and charity he’s presumed to exemplify. The God of the Bible is a malicious, spiteful tyrant, after all, and it was Jesus who introduced the idea of sending people to Hell for calling your brother a dick (I’m translating for a modern audience).

The result of which is that most people (including me until, like, this week) don’t really get any further in their considerations of WWJD than being mildly amused that anyone might seriously use what Jesus would do in their situation as a guiding principle for their actions. Even moderate Christians often distance themselves from the phrase, finding their more extreme counterparts bothersome for all the same reasons we do.

But I think the basic idea behind it could do with a reboot, and a closer look.

WWJD comes from an awareness that we don’t always meet our ideals, in our natural, everyday behaviour. We plan to get things done, but flake out. We promise ourselves we’re going to tidy the house, but end up sitting and watching TV all evening. We make grand plans to eat healthily and work out, and then remember how much effort it takes to actually do all that. We want to resolve a dispute with a friend or partner, to apologise and make everything right, but find ourselves getting so wound up and infuriated that we end up shouting, or saying deliberately hurtful things to score a point and make ourselves feel better.

Very few of us can claim to be the person we really want to be. But we usually do have an idea of that person, a concept of the creative, industrious, charitable paragon of virtue we feel like we could be. Even if we regularly fail to live up to that construct in the moment, when it comes time to actually take action.

We could all be doing better. And maybe there’s a useful way to prompt ourselves to do better. If there’s anything about the current direction of your life in which you’re not entirely satisfied with your own performance, ask yourself:

If I were a better person – if I were the diligent, patient, paragon of virtue I wish I could be – then how would I respond to this situation? What would I be doing now?

If you have the time to pause for just a moment, and ask yourself the question… and if you can come up with an answer (which is generally the easy part)…

…then why not just do that thing, instead of whatever inferior thing you were going to do instead?

There are limits to this notion’s scope, obviously. It might be clear that the ideal you would punch out a bear that was threatening your family, or play a heartbreaking violin solo, or solve a quadratic equation for complex values of x – but simply knowing that fact doesn’t help you achieve any of those goals, if you aren’t already physically capable of them.

But surely some of your goals are more attainable. Maybe the ideal you would converse with arse-grobbling shitgibbons on the internet without spitting bile at them about what arse-grobbling shitgibbons they are…

And so maybe you can, too.

Maybe the ideal you would have more patience with the sonofabitch who cut you up and made you slam your brakes on that time, and make allowance for their various human failings without writing them off as a waste of atomic matter and bearing a grudge for the rest of the day…

So maybe you could start doing that now. You already know you’d rather do that than your usual thing.

Maybe the power to be awesome was inside you all along.

Of course, it can be really, really hard to remember this kind of thinking in the moment. When you’re angry or frustrated or frightened or upset, the natural thing is to do what feels, well, natural. Which is generally something other than positing a hypothetical version of yourself and planning a response around that. There’s a way you react to things which feels like the kind of person you just are. It’s not easy to remember to think things over when you’re busy reacting.

Which is why people wear those goofy wrist-bands and stuff, I guess. To help them remember the person they want to be, even – especially – at times when their instinct is to act like the less awesome version. The idea is to cultivate that more thoughtful reaction, the one you wish could be the way you react to stuff, until it becomes such a learned habit that that’s just the person you are.

It’s a really powerful idea… if you can just get past the whole Jesus thing. It’s a shame when religion makes good things so inaccessible.

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Another thought about the monarchy, which I didn’t quite finish in time to post immediately after the last one.

Say you live somewhere without a monarchy. You’ve got a government running things in the form of a representational democracy. It’s based, at least in theory, on politicians holding office for limited terms to carry out the will of the people who directly elected to put them there. But it’s still a flawed system in many ways, and you’re wondering how it could be improved.

While discussing this very subject, your drinking buddy Ten-Toed Jake pipes up.


Hey, [opines Jake], you know what I reckon’d sort this government out? If they put me in charge of everything. Make me the big boss of the whole country, I’d knock ’em into shape.

Oh god, [you sigh], this is going to be another of your implausibly drawn-out, baffling flights of fancy that I’m going to have to play along with, isn’t it? Alright, then, let’s see. Putting you in charge of the whole country… It’s not quite in keeping with the whole notion of democracy or egalitarianism, is it, Jake?

Nah, but look where just voting for people’s got us. Everyone hates politicians. They’re just in it for themselves, they spend more time campaigning than actually working to help anyone. They could do with being taken down a peg, having someone they have to suck up to, make sure they don’t get too big for their boots. I reckon I’d be good at that. And then when I die, my son can take over.

One-Nosed Colin? What, so he gets to run the country after you? And then his kid, I suppose, and on and on down the generations forever?

Yeah, why not?

For a start, your family all seem to have weird names that describe perfectly normal and unsurprising characteristics.

You’ve not met my cousin, Gary Twoballsbutnotwhereyoumightexpect.

But mostly, why should it be you and your family, indefinitely? I mean, you’re not even pretending to be democratic about this. Who gave you the right to just decide you’re in charge of everything now?

Oh, I see. You want in on the action, eh? Making a power-grab? I’ll arm-wrestle you for it.

What?

I mean, I think it should be a basically arbitrary choice who gets to rule over everything, and obviously I think that arbitrary choice should be me. But it might as well be based on any number of things. We could arm-wrestle for it, or maybe have a “whose ancestor was the awesomest” contest. Just so long as we pick someone, then stick with them and their descendents forever. No changing things around centuries down the line. At least not without a massive, devastating civil war.

This still sounds insane, Jake. I admit the current system could stand some serious changes, but I don’t see how this can possibly be an improvement.

Okay, fine. Have it your way. We can say I won’t have any power to actually run the country, I won’t get to make any of the actual decisions – but they’ll all still have to, like, ask my permission to do everything, and stuff. Not because I really get to decide, it’s just ceremonial. Keeps them from getting too uppity, y’know? For the look of the thing. And I’ll need millions of dollars of taxpayer money every year to keep up this fabulous new lifestyle of mine.

Hmm.

I’ve got to be able to pay for my gold-plated butler, otherwise how can I expect the Junior Senator from Oklachusetts to feel appropriately demeaned when he has to kiss my feet and call me “your glorious, well-endowed worshipfulness” every time he wants a bill passed?

You’re not selling me on this, Jake.

Oh, come on. Think of the pageantry! The glamour! The spectacle! People will flock just to be near me! It’d be great for the tourist industry.

I’m not sure people would want to get closer to you if you declared yourself king and started ordering everyone around, Jake. Actually it’s starting to have the opposite effect. But even if they did, I don’t think it’s worth giving up the ideas of equality that we at least nominally cherish, and raising some arbitrary line of individuals onto some kind of diamond-encrusted pedestal, regardless of their merit or qualities, and exacerbating any class problems our society might have by reinforcing the notion that some people are inherently better than others and deserve fealty and unearned wealth as part of their birthright, just in the hopes of bringing in some hypothetical, hard-to-calculate, harder-to-prove foreign coin.

Huh. That was quite a speech. Really tripped off your tongue, there. Almost like you’d crafted it ahead of time in order to make some sort of point.

What can I say, I’m a fluent public speaker. Look, Jake, it’s not about you, you’re a great guy… It’s just the idea of having anyone in that position of bizarre pseudo-authority. It doesn’t sit right. It seems like an entirely superfluous addition to a supposedly egalitarian society.

Hmm. Well, I’m going to go ahead with the coup I had planned anyway. I think it’s my round first though. Another pint?

Cheers.


I may have lost the thread at the end a bit there. But the point, of course, is that introducing a purely symbolic monarchy seems to make very little sense, if you imagine a world where we don’t already have one. Our own system evidently isn’t one we’d want to switch back to, were the status quo different. So maybe it’s time for a change.

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Cracked posted an article recently (and you know how much I love to use that phrase as a basis for a blog post, over and above any efforts at research or serious journalism), about movies in need of an epilogue. Top of the list is The Breakfast Club, the whole point of whose story is undermined without knowing what happens the next day.

To needlessly recap, The Breakfast Club is an ’80s film about a bunch of angsty teens who get stuck in detention together. They each very obviously fit into a different high school demographic – there’s a nerd, a jock, and so on – and would never be friends or find anything in common while living their usual cliquey lives. But being trapped in a room together all day with nothing to do prompts them to, like, talk about their feelings and stuff (with conversation being helped along by smoking some pot), and they actually find things around which to empathise with each other. They start growing close, and forming some meaningful relationships.

The point is, without knowing what happens to them once they’re back to their regular school routine, there’s no way to know what moral we’re supposed to draw from any of this. One clear possibility is the idea that they’ve formed some lifelong friendships, and those cheesy stereotypes will be broken down the moment the bell rings for class the next day. The popular athlete will carry on being friends with the skinny dork, even if this means the other popular athletes call him a loser, because friendship means something, man, and is totally more important than just being cool.

I’m with Dan O’Brien that this completely fucks over all the honesty that’s been central to the film up to that point:

The right ending would have the kids all going back to their own cliques, because that’s how you survive high school.

I think that unlikely bonding experiences such as occur in The Breakfast Club are possible in the real world, and I also think that a much more likely outcome is that the status quo will be more or less restored once everyone resumes their usual place in the mangled teenage hierarchy. Where I disagree with Dan is in his labelling this outcome as the “tragically ever after” ending. Even avoiding schmaltzy bullshit, there’s still a lot of hope in a film which ends that way.

What really would be tragic is if the tribal, in-group/out-group, them-and-us thinking which prevents us from appreciating or understanding each other could never be conquered. It would be tragic if the human tendency to stay within our safe, familiar spaces full of like-minded, similar folk, and to be suspicious of outsiders and mock those who fall into our mental category of “other”, was destined unfailingly to overwhelm our efforts toward empathy and universal compassion.

And it might seem like an ending where the Breakfast Club kids go back to their cliques is about exactly that tragedy, but that’s not what’s going on at all.

Like Dan says, that’s just how you survive high school. In that competitive, emotional, hormonally charged context, the incentives are really strong for adolescents still finding their way in the world to avoid risking the castigation of their peers with whom they’ve found some tenuous acceptance. An American high school (perhaps even more so in the ’80s than today) is one of the hardest places imaginable to start trying to break down these barriers between groups. You’d barely have more luck persuading people to reach out and make a connection beyond the socially imposed limits on what’s acceptable in South Africa under apartheid.

And yet the whole movie is about those barriers giving way entirely to a few hours’ conversation.

Even when a divisive, unfair, destructive caste structure is held in place by the power of high school cliques – one of the most indomitable social forces known to mankind – it’s still just a façade. It crumbles to the touch. Shift the conditions a little, and love and compassion can be unearthed almost instantly.

The obstacles preventing people from connecting with each other are entirely artificial, and have nothing to do with the humanity underneath. The restrictive social structures are all that hold us back, and once those are done away with, our capacity to get along and support each other shines through.

Of course, in this case, it doesn’t last. High school is still what it is, and its very nature discourages certain types of human connection. But social structures are a malleable part of our world, and can always be replaced if enough of us decide that we deserve better. Our ability to make unlikely friends is what’s left in us, when all the surrounding bullshit is stripped away.

The Breakfast Club with a realistic ending isn’t a tragic story; it’s one of hope. It just reminds us how much work is still to be done.

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