An image from one of my walks this past week. There is beauty in the world. It’s nice to be reminded now and again.
As some of you may remember, back in March I pulled away for a time from all social media. And, as you may have noticed, even now my social media presence remains limited. I haven’t been blogging regularly. I haven’t been sending out my newsletter. I have been far less “chatty” than usual. And there is a reason for all of this.
In March, our older daughter was diagnosed with cancer.
The months since have been the longest and most difficult of my life, and our ordeal is far from over. She is undergoing treatment and has responded well so far. Her spirits are good — remarkably so. She is, as I already knew, one of the bravest, wisest, strongest, most positive people I’ve ever encountered. Even in this most difficult time, I am so very proud of her. And I know that her attitude has been and will continue to be a most potent weapon in her battle. That said, though, the cancer had progressed significantly before it was discovered and she still has a long road ahead of her. We are hopeful in the long-term — we believe we have every reason to be — but again, this is hard.
We are grappling with fear, uncertainty, the sadness that comes with knowing our child — yes, our adult child, but nevertheless — is suffering and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. We are grieving for all we’ve lost as a family. Not because we doubt that she’ll recover. But because, even after she is cancer-free, we will, all of us, live for the rest of our lives fearing a return of the illness. We as a family — not just Alex, not just Nancy and me, but also Erin, our beloved younger daughter — have lost our innocence in a way. We’ll never be the same.
There was a time, early on, when I was exchanging texts with my brother about one development or another, and I wrote something about “Alex’s oncologist.” And I had to pause to say to myself and to him, “Fuck, my daughter has an oncologist.” The past several months have been filled with moments like these. Times when I catch myself saying things no parent ever wants to say and thinking of things I never in my darkest dreams thought I would have to consider.
At times, work has been a balm, and I have been able to lose myself in my writing or the freelance editing I’ve been doing recently. At times, I can’t do anything at all. I have started therapy, which has been wonderful for me. I have continued to exercise and eat well. I have managed not to drink myself into oblivion even once, though I will admit to being tempted on more than one occasion. I sleep moderately well, but often wake up feeling utterly devastated and sick to my stomach. Nancy and I still manage to have fun when we can. We also take turns comforting each other. One day one of us will be okay and the other will be a wreck. The next day we’ve reversed roles.
Mostly, though, we move through life and work and quiet time feeling like we’re wearing those leaded bibs they use at the dentist’s office when you’re getting x-rays. Everything is weighed down. Everything is harder, more wearying. Our tempers are a bit more frayed. Even our best days are only so-so, and our worst days are bleak and seemingly endless.
Before now, I hadn’t wanted to make this sort of public pronouncement. I’m not entirely sure why. Alex has been very open about being sick and has made it clear to the rest of us that she doesn’t consider her illness a secret to be guarded. Maybe I feared “announcing” it would make it feel more real. Though honestly, I don’t know how it could be any more real. Maybe I just wanted to put off the exchanges of messages and comments that will inevitably follow a post like this one. Maybe I wanted to avoid the tears I’ve shed while writing this.
Whatever the reason, I felt that with everything else I’ve pulled back from this year, my cancellation of my appearance at DragonCon warranted an explanation. The fact is, even with all the precautions the convention has taken — and the con committee has been terrific in this regard — I fear exposing myself to the Delta Variant of Covid-19 in advance of a visit with our immunocompromised daughter. I am sorry to miss the convention. I am sorry to disappoint those of you who looked forward to seeing me there. I hope and plan to attend in 2022, when this latest surge in the pandemic is a distant memory, and our daughter is on the mend.
Many of you, I am sure, will want to help in some way. The fact is, there is not much anyone can do right now. I welcome and am grateful for your expressions of support and friendship. I would, however, ask two things of you: 1) Please respect our privacy. I have shared what’s going on with our family. I have no intention of filling in additional details. And 2) Please do not share your cancer stories with me. I know they are kindly meant, and I thank you for your good intentions. I also know they will do nothing to help me, and will in fact increase my anxiety.
Otherwise, I ask only that you spare a positive thought for my daughter, my family, and me.
Thank you so much for reading this. Take care of yourselves. Be kind to one another. Hug the people you love.
Today is release day for “The Witch’s Storm,” the first installment in my new trilogy of Thieftaker novellas, The Loyalist Witch — Thieftaker, Fall 1770. For more about the release, you can read the interview I did with Faith Hunter yesterday, which appeared here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). You can also find more information about the novellas here.
Usually, release day posts are all about getting readers excited about our books or stories, “pumping up the volume,” as the expression goes. And certainly I want you all to be psyched about the Thieftaker releases — not just “The Witch’s Storm,” but also “The Cloud Prison,” which will be out in another four weeks or so, and “The Adams Gambit,” which comes out four weeks after that. The novellas turned out well, I think. I love the stories, I’ve enjoyed writing the new characters I’ve introduced, and I was thrilled to return to old character arcs — Ethan, Janna, Diver, Kannice, and, of course, Sephira Pryce.
The fact is, though, as many of you already know, this release comes at a difficult time for my family and me. I have only recently returned to social media after a much-needed hiatus, and while I have adjusted to the new realities we face, they weigh on me still. And so I find myself in the position of wanting to be enthusiastic about the new stories, but also NOT wanting to be falsely positive and happy-go-lucky.
Look, it’s easy to gloss over this stuff. Plenty of writers deal with difficult times and manage nevertheless to put on a smile and sell their books. But I’ve been open about the simple truth that this is a hard time for us right now. I’ve been private about the exact circumstances, but I’ve been up front about the rest. And so it feels odd to pretend for this week that nothing is wrong, that I’m focused entirely on promoting the new project.
By the same token, I don’t want to wallow. I don’t want to be the guy who can’t take pleasure in the day-to-day because he’s too focused on His Problems.
There is, of course, a larger point here. As I say, other writers deal with these questions, too. Really, all of us do. Part of being a professional in any field is being able to set aside the personal to meet our work obligations. We compartmentalize. Our emotions have their time and place, as do the qualities that make us good at our jobs. I am married to someone who excels at compartmentalizing. I am just okay at it. I can set aside my worries, fears, sadness, etc. and write for hours at a time. As long as I remain alone, in my office, with just my plot lines and worlds and characters, I’m fine.
This sort of thing, though — interacting with real people, whether remotely, virtually, or in person during times of crisis — gives me more trouble. I’m not entirely sure why. I suppose I don’t like to put on a façade, and I’m not particularly skilled at doing so. That’s not a bad thing, per se. I like to think that I’m genuine. But it’s also not an unalloyed good. I think at times I would be happier, and more pleasant to be around, if I was better at setting aside my emotions temporarily.
We are, nearly all of us, struggling with one thing or another at any given moment. I know precious few people who are purely happy for any length of time, and those I have known who are tend to be blissfully lacking in self-awareness or compassion for others. Social media has a way of smoothing over the bumps and bruises life metes out, and making us all appear to be content, confident, stable, and thriving. But really my current struggles have much in common with things all of you are dealing with in your lives. Yes, the crisis impacting my family right now is particularly difficult, but I’m far from alone in that regard as well.
And so allow me to say that I wish all of you well, and that I appreciate the kindness and support so many of you have shown me in recent weeks and months.
Yes, I have a new novella out today, with two more on the way in the near future. I hope you’ll check them out. I won’t insult you by saying that reading the novellas will improve your lives, but they might be diverting for a time. Just as they were a ton of fun to write.
Tomorrow, May 18, Lore Seekers Press will release a new Thieftaker novella, “The Witch’s Storm,” the first installment in a trilogy called The Loyalist Witch — Thieftaker, Fall 1770. Today (with my D.B. Jackson hat on) I sat down with my wonderful friend Faith Hunter to talk about the new project. Part I of the interview can be found at Faith’s blog. Part II of the interview can be found below.
(Continued from the blog of Faith Hunter)
Faith: You know how much I love this series! How was it going back to the Thieftaker world after taking a hiatus from the books?
DBJ: Well, I suppose I should point out that while I haven’t written a Thieftaker novel in some time, I have been writing and publishing Thieftaker-universe short stories almost yearly since that last novel came out. But this was a far more demanding project and honestly, I enjoyed it immensely. I love these characters — not only Ethan, but also his nemesis, Sephira Pryce; his love, Kannice Lester; his mentor, Janna Windcatcher; his closest friend, Diver Jervis; and a host of historical figures including Samuel and John Adams, Joseph Warren, Stephen Greenleaf, and others. All of them are here in these new stories. But I have also brought in new characters: a new set of villains and some new allies as well. So for me as a writer, there was enough here that was familiar to make me feel like I was reconnecting with old friends, but there was also enough innovation for the plot lines and character interactions to feel fresh and exciting. I hope my readers agree!
Faith: Historical novels (especially with magic and mayhem and murder) have always made my heart pitter-patter. Tell us a bit about the history that forms the backdrop for the stories.
DBJ: There was a lot to work with actually. On the one hand, the trials of the soldiers and their captain were a huge deal. Think of all the big trials we’ve had in recent history — the way they captivate the public — and then magnify that about a hundred times. The Boston Massacre was a huge, huge deal throughout the colonies, but in Boston in particular. It’s easy to forget that the population of the city was only about 15,000 at this time. So while “only” five people died that night in March, chances are that if you lived in Boston, you’d had some contact with at least one of the victims. Add to that the fraught political climate of the time and you have a recipe for a lot of tension. Plus, as the title of the first novella suggests, right before the trial began, Boston was hit by a hurricane. Now, I have adopted the storm for my own narrative purposes and added a magical element. But the fact is, there was a ton going on, historically speaking, and I was able to work most of it into the novellas.
Faith: Do you have more Thieftaker stories in mind? Please say YES!!!
DBJ: Definitely. The fact is, I’m probably better known for Thieftaker than I am for anything else I’ve published, either as D.B. Jackson or as David B. Coe. My readers always seem to want more of Ethan’s adventures. And while I have drawn upon a lot of pre-Revolution history so far, there’s so much more to explore. Plus, I can take the story forward into the War for Independence itself. There’s really no end to what I can do with Ethan and company. So yes, given that there is some demand, and given how much I love to play in this universe, I have no doubt that I’ll be writing more novels, more novellas, more short stories. So stay tuned!
D.B. Jackson is the pen name of fantasy author David B. Coe. He is the award-winning author of more than two dozen novels and as many short stories. His newest project is a trilogy of novellas that continues his Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. He has also written the Islevale Cycle, a time travel epic fantasy series that includes Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin.
As David B. Coe, he is the author of epic fantasy — including the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle — urban fantasy, and media tie-ins. In addition, he has co-edited three anthologies — Temporally Deactivated, Galactic Stew, and Derelict (Zombies Need Brains, 2019, 2020, 2021).
David has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his family live on the Cumberland Plateau. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.
About five weeks ago, I announced on various platforms that I would be withdrawing from social media for a while, and would also be delaying the releases of some upcoming projects. My announcement prompted expressions of sympathy and friendship from so many of you and I am deeply grateful for the love and support I have received since then.
I am, at this point, beginning once more to dip my toes in the social media waters. The family health crisis that prompted my pull-back from various platforms continues and will be on-going for months to come. I ask for your patience, your understanding, and your respect of our privacy as we cope with the issues at hand. Nancy, our daughters, and I are fortunate in so many ways. We love each other, we communicate well, we support one another. We also have at our disposal resources — stable finances, excellent health coverage and health care, mental health support — that too many people in this country — in this world — don’t enjoy. And we have marvelous friends and loving extended family who are bolstering us and helping us in every manner possible. We will get through this.
In the meantime, as I have seen to my own emotional well-being, I have learned a great deal, confirming things I thought I knew about myself, and discovering other things that have surprised and even shocked me. I am 58 years old, and I am still growing and deepening my understanding of my own mind and emotional history.
One discovery that probably surprised me more than it should have is this: A quarter of a century plus into my literary career, the simple act of sitting down each day to write is still both a boon and a salve for my tender emotions. Day after day, I have immersed myself in my current world and narrative and character arcs. And not only has working been good for me, it has been gratifying. I can’t always tell while writing a book if the finished product is going to be any good. Often, I’ll finish my first draft and then start to read through the novel, expecting to be horrified, only to find instead that what I’ve got is decent. And it’s possible that with this book, since I think maybe it’s pretty good, I’ll read it through and find that it totally sucks.
But I don’t think so. I am enjoying it far too much. I am 80,000+ words in at this point, shooting for a finished product of 90-95K. I expect to complete draft number one by the end of this week.
As to my pending releases, I hope to release the first of the Thieftaker novellas, “The Witch’s Storm,” within the next six weeks or so. Two more novellas, “The Cloud Prison,” and “The Adams Gambit” will follow. I hope that RADIANTS, my new supernatural thriller, will be out sometime late this summer or early this fall. And I know that DERELICT, the anthology from Zombies Need Brains that I have co-edited with Joshua Palmatier, will be released late this spring or early in the summer.
In short, while my family and I are weathering a difficult stretch, life — professional and personal — must go on. I am not yet ready to resume my three-blog-posts-a-week social media regimen, nor do I expect to be as active on Facebook and Twitter as usual. And my plans in terms of convention appearances remain uncertain.
But I will be more visible in the weeks and months to come than I have been since mid-March. Again, I am grateful for your support, your patience, and, most of all, your continued friendship.
Be well, be kind to one another, and find joy in the love and companionship of the people who mean the most to you.
As I have mentioned previously, this past weekend, and the weekend before, I participated in the Futurescapes Writers’ Workshop as both a lecturer and a workshop instructor. I gave a talk on writing epic fantasy, and then ran critique groups on fiction writing, query letters, and first pages/synopses. It was a terrific experience. I met and spent online time with new writers, all of whom were passionate and energetic and brimming with new ideas. It reminded me that our genre, and indeed the entire literary world, is constantly remaking itself. At times, publishing industry dinosaurs like me lose sight of that fact. I came away from the conference hopeful for the future of storytelling and reinvigorated with respect to my own work.
As you might expect, I did a great deal of prep work for my various classes — I wouldn’t dream of entering settings like those if I weren’t armed to the teeth with talking points, notes, topics for discussion, etc. For one thing, I have a responsibility to my students, and I take is seriously. And, though I don’t think most people would know it to look at me and listen to me, I suffer from profound stage fright. That preparation is my armor, my spell of warding. If I prepare well, my thinking goes, I’m less likely to make a complete fool of myself. This doesn’t always work — I’m perfectly capable of looking and sounding like an idiot even when I’ve done my homework. Still, I think my strategy is sound, at least in theory…
But my reason for bringing this up is that invariably — and my Futurescapes experience was no different — my best moments as a teacher come when I step away from my prepared remarks and lesson plans, and simply open the room to questions and discussion. It’s not that what I prepare is bad, nor that am I so dazzling on my feet that my Q&As become some sort of transcendent pedagogical spectacle.
No, the magic of those open discussions lies with the students themselves. As much as I try to anticipate questions and concerns with what I prepare, the simple truth is I’m often surprised by the issues raised by my students. And those surprises almost always force me to think about the craft or the business from new perspectives. Their thoughts force me to make connections between seemingly disparate elements of professional writing, which then resonate through my thinking on a whole host of issues.
For example, since answering a question the other day about multiple points of view in a student’s story, and how we decide which elements of a narrative might best be conveyed by a specific character, I find myself rethinking the structure of my current project. With multiple point of view storytelling, our readers always have more information than any one character is likely to, allowing our readers to anticipate key encounters and perceive dangers that remain hidden from our protagonists. But how far ahead of our characters do we want our audience to be? Is it a matter of sentences? Of pages? Of chapters? And how do we decide which plot points deserve that kind of treatment?
I don’t necessarily have answers yet. And the discussion with my students didn’t wander far down this particular path. But as Robert Frost once said, “ideas are a feat of association,” and my conversations with my students have been sparking associations in my head right and left.
I believe that the discussions were similarly stimulating for my students. More than that, though, I think they were comforting. Again and again I was reminded of something that I often take for granted. Writing is a solitary endeavor — now, in our Covid world, more than ever. I am starved for the company of my colleagues, for the opportunity to drink beers with my friends and talk shop. I can’t begin to imagine how desperate I would be for that if I wasn’t a quarter century plus into my career, and all too familiar with the challenges and vicissitudes of this crazy profession. Young writers just want to talk, to hear that others are grappling with problems and harboring hopes similar to their own.
That’s why the unscripted moments of teaching often stand out as the most rewarding. Those are the times when we — student AND teacher — let down our guard a little. That’s when we step out of those strict pedagogical roles and allow ourselves — all of us — simply to be writers.
I’m so grateful to the young writers I encountered who offered me a week filled with such moments. I hope they are still buzzing with creative energy the way I am.
It often takes me some time to settle on a topic for my Monday Musings post. Some weeks one issue or another is such an obvious choice that composing the post is easy. Other weeks I can struggle with the choice for a couple of days. To be honest, there is a part of me that wants to use this week’s essay to rant and rail against the ridiculousness of Daylight Savings, but that’s the lost hour of sleep speaking…
The truth is, I am troubled by a new calculus that has crept into my writing process: I find myself trying to anticipate the potential blowback I might receive from various subjects. I am, at times, writing scared. And that bothers me.
Now, no one who knows me, or who reads this blog, is likely to mistake me for a shrinking violet. I voice my opinions with passion. Usually. Certainly, I pulled no punches during and after the recent election. I believed our former President represented a fundamental threat to the integrity of our democratic republic, and I wrote accordingly. I make no apology for that.
I have touched on other issues over the past year — race, climate change, Covid denial — and I intend to keep advocating for the things I believe in.
The fact is, though, there are also issues I avoid, not because my opinions are so extreme — they’re really not — but because they are nevertheless likely to provoke extremists. I am reluctant to put myself in the crosshairs — figuratively and literally — of those on the Right by jumping up and down with too much vehemence on the questions that get them most exercised. I am reluctant to incur the wrath of my friends on the Left, with whom I agree often on issues, but less frequently on tactics. I am all too aware of the simple truth that with some subject matter, regardless of our intentions, we are likely to push someone somewhere too far.
We are living in an era of emotional inflammation. We are, all of us, a bit more irritable, a bit more sensitive, a bit more liable to fly off the handle at slight provocation. I know too many people who have stepped in the proverbial hornet’s nest without intending to, without even knowing the danger existed on whatever the inciting topic might have been. I have seen them swarmed by hyper-conservatives who berate and insult and cast wild, ugly, false accusations that are hurtful and damaging despite their lack of actual substance. I have seen others summarily judged and blacklisted by too many progressives who only a day before counted the people in question as allies.
I have seen people threatened by actors on both sides, and while many of those threats are made in the heat of the moment and probably do not promise real physical danger, who knows? And who wants to take that chance?
I’m not willing to assume the burdens that come with Being Controversial. I have a life to live, a career to maintain, a family to keep safe. Why would I want to put any of that at risk?
The problem with that thinking, though, is that it allows the bullies to win. It gives too much power to those at the fringes — the loudest, the most virulent, the least deserving of such influence.
And so I’m torn. A society like ours thrives on information, on diverse opinions, on healthy, productive debate. Many of the ills we see in today’s America exist because these things have grown scarce. We can’t agree on simple facts. We refuse to tolerate opinions that differ from our own. We’re shouting at volumes that preclude an honest exchange of viewpoints. I want to write what’s on my mind. I make my living writing fiction, but I engage with the world through my beliefs and my ability to articulate them. I enjoy a good political argument. I like it when something I write in this space fosters discussion among those I consider friends and colleagues.
Being afraid of that dynamic is relatively new for me, and entirely unwelcome.
I have no answers today. As I grope in the dark for some sort of meaningful conclusion to this piece, I wonder if I’m a fool to post it, if I’m inviting just the sort of backlash I seek to avoid.
John Milton called opinions “knowledge in the making.” We are richest as a people, as a body politic, as a society, when reasoned discussion and informed beliefs are not just tolerated but encouraged, when those who are fortunate enough to have a platform, of whatever reach and scope, are unafraid to avail themselves of it. I want to live up to that ideal.
Sadly, the state of our nation makes doing so all but impossible. We need to do better.
Which is why I will post this, consequences be damned.
Yeah, today’s my birthday. I’m a year older, but, I assure you, no more mature.
I have a lot going on today — work stuff. So I don’t have time to for much of a post. But I thought I would share this photo from a few birthday’s ago — seven actually. Nancy and I went to Chicago for my birthday week and had a wonderful visit. In the middle of the week, a beautiful snowfall transformed the city. This photo, taken along Michigan Avenue, was probably my favorite from the whole trip. I hope you like it.
They don’t care that the twelfth king of Hamsterdom was Belchamiethius IV, known to his subjects as “Conquerer of the Exercise Wheel.” They don’t need to know the names of each mountain peak in the Twelve Dunce Cap Range.
This past weekend I gave a talk on world building for the Futurescapes Writers’ Workshop. It was a lengthy talk, and I’m not going to repeat all of it here. But I did want to focus on one element of the topic, because I think it’s something writers of fantasy, of historical fiction, of science fiction, and of other sub-categories of speculative fiction lose sight of now and again.
When we build our worlds — and I include in this doing our research for historical settings — we actually have to construct our worlds twice. The first time, we do it for ourselves. We apply whatever techniques we use for such things, and we come up with histories, governing systems, economies, religions, social and cultural traditions, physical features for our land, climatic trends that influence everything from food production to troop movements, etc., etc., etc. We develop our magic systems, if our worlds have them, or perhaps technological developments if our books trend more toward science fiction. In short, we do everything one might expect in order to create a rich, complex, believable setting for our books and stories.
For me, this can be a lengthy process. I take my world building seriously, and I like to have most of the fundamentals in place before I begin to write. Naturally, I have to go back and fill in gaps after I’ve started putting words to “paper.” I find it nearly impossible to anticipate every question I might need to answer, every detail of my world I might need to develop. To this day, I still come up with new spells for Ethan Kaille to cast in the Thieftaker books. In fact, the upcoming novellas have an entirely new element of magick — one Ethan hasn’t faced before in a foe. So there’s that to look forward to…
My larger point, though, is this: Even after we have finished building our worlds and have turned to the writing of our novels, our world building is far from over.
Because while the world now exists for us, the writer, it remains entirely unrealized in the minds of our readers. And so now we have to construct it again, this time in a manner that is digestible and entertaining and unobtrusive, not to mention elegant, poetic, even exciting. We have to present all the necessary material — and not an ounce more — without slowing our narratives, without resorting to data-dumps or “As-you-know-Bob” moments, without violating the basic principles of point of view.
None of this is easy. But we come to this second instance of world building with certain advantages that we didn’t have the first time. Namely, we now possess an intimate understanding of our worlds. We have unraveled their mysteries, determined how societies function — or don’t — and, most importantly, decided which elements of all that work we did during the first world-build are most important to our stories.
That last is crucial. We will always — ALWAYS — know more about our worlds than our readers do. That’s as it should be. We have to know, to a ridiculous level of detail, our worlds’ histories and mythologies and landscapes. We absolutely do not have to convey all that information to our readers. To do so — and I say this with utmost sensitivity to the effort expended in that initial construction of the world — would bore the poor dears to an early demise. They don’t care that the twelfth king of Hamsterdom was Belchamiethius IV, known to his subjects as “Conquerer of the Exercise Wheel.” They don’t need to know the names of each mountain peak in the Twelve Dunce Cap Range. They don’t want to read a recitation of the Gerbilord’s Prayer in the original Quilmardian.
In all seriousness, I know the temptation. I understand pouring tons of work into a world and wanting to share every detail with our readers. But the fact is, we don’t need to reveal everything in order to justify the work we’ve done. Sometimes, sharing a single necessary detail can communicate the weight and volume of all that remains unseen.
And so this second instance of world building demands that we prioritize. We must decide what our readers have to know in any given moment, and then tell them that much and no more. If we can do so with fluency and grace and perhaps even wit, all the better.
But the point is this: Our initial building of the world is an exercise in excess. We want to figure out everything there is to know about our worlds. We seek every crumb of knowledge, so that we are fully prepared for the creation of our characters and narratives.
The second building of our world, the one for our readers, is an exercise in restraint, in determining what is necessary information, and what is superfluous. It’s not easy, but done correctly it will keep our readers coming back to our worlds again and again.
Let’s begin with the obvious: Everything that’s old is great, and new stuff sucks. It’s important to get that out of the way before we move on. I mean who are we kidding? The way things were when we were young — well, not so much “we” as “I” — the way things were when I was young? That’s how it should all be now. Progress is bad. Innovation is bad. Technology ruins everything and the world was a better place before people invented all that stuff. By which I mean, anything that hadn’t yet been invented when I turned 21.
Music isn’t meant to be sold song by song. We’re supposed to buy albums. We’re supposed to put up with the bad songs in order to enjoy the good ones. That makes the listening experience better. For every “Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One” we should have to endure a “Doctor Robert.” For every “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?” we should have to suffer through a “You Gotta Move.” It’s only fair. No one is entitled to a perfect listening experience, and songwriters deserve the chance to have their crappy songs heard alongside the good ones. This is America, damnit!
And don’t get me started on CDs versus LPs. What ever happened to the art of piecing together a two-sided album, of figuring out the proper song order so as to make those horrible, vinyl-wasting tunes that we hated as hard to avoid as possible? I mean sure LPs warped and skipped, and got scratched, making them all but unbearable after a year or two of solid use, but that’s a small price to pay for the inconvenience of having to interrupt a pot-induced haze to get up, walk to the stereo, and turn the record over.
Songs are meant to occur in a certain order. That’s how God intended it. And by God, I mean Mick Jagger. Or John Lennon. Or Joni Mitchell. Or David Crosby. Or Aretha Franklin. Or James Taylor. You know. God. As day follows night and spring follows winter, “You Can Call Me Al” is meant to come after “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” Except not really, because that album came out after my twenty-first birthday. But never mind that.
The point is, albums set the order of songs and never shall they exist in any other configuration.
Except for mix tapes.
Okay, I confess. Back when I still listened to LPs (Kids, ask your parents. And get the hell off my lawn…) I made mix tapes all the time. I loved the idea of cutting out those songs I didn’t enjoy. I loved the idea of putting my favorite songs from any number of artists and any number of albums in one collection and being able to listen to all of them together. I loved listening to a new mix tape, of savoring the lingering surprise of the next tune from a completely different source.
Sadly, even in my pot-smoking days that surprise lasted for all of two or three listens. After that, the mix tapes became too familiar, taking on the wearisome predictability of the albums from which I’d culled the songs in the first place. As Rob Gordon (the John Cusack character in High Fidelity) says, “the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art.” But even the best made mix can’t save us from the fact that we remember and anticipate.
Enter the “shuffle” command on our phones and computers.
That stuff I said before, about everything new sucking? I didn’t mean this. And that part about all technology after the mid 1980s ruining the world? I might not have meant that, either. And the stuff I said about how great LPs were — that was total bullshit. Not that a case can’t be made. I mean, cell phones and computers and the constant presence of social media and “connectivity” in our daily lives — there’s a lot there to dislike.
But the shuffle command makes all of it worthwhile. Hitting “shuffle” is like putting in the ultimate mix tape. Every song is one we want to hear. Every transition is a surprise. Every listening experience is destined to be different.
The state of being. Not the band. They definitely came on the scene after my twenty-first birthday…
The other night, Nancy and I were cooking dinner, and we had my iPhone on shuffle. (iPhones are okay. They were invented way before I turned 21. Really. I promise. Same with Bluetooth speakers like the one we were using. I swear.) And, quite seriously, I was struck that evening, after the fourth or fifth excellent song in a row, by the absurd amount of pleasure I derive from the shuffle feature. Ridiculous, I know. The world is in the midst of a pandemic. The planet is melting. American democracy is on life-support. But I can listen to a collection of Eagles tunes without fear of hearing “Chug All Night.”
It doesn’t get better than that.