Tag Archives: history

Monday Musings: Uncertainty, Optimism, and the New Year

I have been sitting in front of this screen for the better part of an hour, trying to write something for my opening Monday post of 2022. I am in no mood for prognosticating. With Covid still raging, and forty million Americans still stubbornly refusing to be vaccinated and bizarrely resistant to wearing masks, this doesn’t seem a time to be confident about anything, near-term or long-term.

I have no interest in reviewing the year just past. Any discussion of current political trends is likely to be irrelevant a month from now (and depressing for me and my like-minded friends in the interim . . .).

I also don’t wish to write about something frivolous (I have been enjoying this week’s Premier League soccer broadcasts and considered — briefly — writing about that).

I have written far too often about my personal struggles of the past year, and don’t wish to revisit them once again.

And, I realize as I write that last, I am reluctant to delve too much into my current emotional state. Because the truth is, I feel pretty good right now. Better than I have for much of the past year.

This will sound odd, but optimism scares me.

I come by my pessimism naturally. My mother could be terribly superstitious, and often didn’t like to give voice to her hope for good things, at least not without knocking on wood or something of the sort. I can be the same way. And on occasion in the past, when I’ve allowed myself to think positively, I’ve had bitter disappointments. None more devastating than this past year, when I dared feel some optimism in the winter, with The Former Guy having left office and the harsh winter Covid wave seemingly on the wane. Then our daughter was diagnosed with cancer.

And so saying I feel good right now scares me a little. The truth is, we don’t know what will happen with our daughter’s illness. Things look good right now, but with a disease like this, there are never guarantees. We as a nation don’t know what will happen with the pandemic. Things look dire right now, but if we can weather this wave, which seems likely to peak late this month, who knows? We also don’t know what will come of the anti-democratic rumblings and activities of the far right. I fear the worst, but hold out some hope that our system of government, which has seen so many crises over the past two hundred and forty years, will prove resilient.

Life’s uncertainty is a source of both wonder and terror for all of us. Good things come out of the blue, sometimes changing the course of our personal or professional existence. Disappointment and tragedy do the same. The hardest part of my emotional health journey over the past year has been coming to terms with that uncertainty and embracing it. Because we can’t know what will happen. Over the years, I’ve written so many characters in so many different stories in so many fantasy worlds, who have the power to glimpse the future, to judge people’s fates, or to see their own. Call it Divination, or The Sight, or Scrying — the power is a common trope in the realm of speculative fiction.

It is a power I am not sure I would want. I know, I just said that dealing with uncertainty has been difficult for me. But I also think knowing our future would rob us of something essentially human. Because while I have never been good at being optimistic, it is something I strive to be. I believe hope is the most human of emotions. Take away uncertainty, and we take away hope as well.

I will admit that my view on this isn’t entirely consistent. Would I like to know for certain, right now, that my daughter will forever be just fine? Of course. Would I want to know the opposite? No way in hell.

Embracing uncertainty means more than merely accepting what we can’t know. It means refusing to game out scenarios in our minds (something I do far too often, to my own detriment), resisting the tendency to give in to our worst fears, or to build up too much expectation for unrealistically rosy outcomes.

And so as I stand at the leading edge of this new year, I find myself unwilling to make predictions, or even to spell out with too much specificity what I want to see happen and what I don’t. Life comes at us fast, and the older I get, the harder it becomes to slow down the days, the seasons, the years.

But for the first time in my life, I am content to begin the new year saying to myself and to the world, I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen to us personally, professionally, politically, socially, culturally. I. Don’t. Know. And that’s okay. Today, I feel good. I’ll let you know about tomorrow when it gets here.

Have a good week. Have a good year.

Professional Wednesday: Writing To Heal

Writing saved me this year.

I have been through a lot over the past 12 months, from dealing with the devastating reality of one of my kids having cancer, to coming to terms with my personal mental health issues, to dealing with some physical health issues of my own, to grappling with all the other shit all of us are dealing with these days — the pandemic, economic and social uncertainty, existential threats to our republic, etc., etc., etc.

To the extent that I’ve worked through these issues (and many of them remain works-in-progress), I have done so by drawing on a variety of resources. I have a wonderful support system that consists of family and friends (you know who you are; I am more grateful to you than I can say). I am in therapy. I take a lot of long walks. I birdwatch and play guitar and take photos.

And, of course, I write.

Soon after my daughter’s diagnosis, I threw myself into writing the second Radiants book, Invasives, which will be out early in 2022. The plot doesn’t really touch on the issues I was coping with in my life, but it is a powerful book, one that demanded I plumb the depths of my emotions and consider what it means to be part of a family, in all its definitions. Writing that book got me through the early days of our family crisis. The novel allowed me to channel my grief and fear into something productive, something other than my own bleak moods. I often say that my favorite among my own books is my most recent one, and there will continue to be truth in that long after Invasives is no longer my most recent. But this book will remain special to me for the rest of my life. How could it not?

After finishing the book, I turned to a new editing venture — a freelance editing business — in large part because I needed to keep busy and, at that time, had no idea what I wanted to write next. But I also continued something I began the day after we learned our daughter was ill.

I journaled.

That may not sound revelatory, and the truth is I have journaled off and on throughout my adult life. But journaling about my daughter and her illness, journaling about my emotional health issues, journaling about all the sources of fear and grief and rage and every other emotion I’ve encountered recently, has been a key element of my mental health regimen over the past year.

I don’t journal daily, and I try not to make journaling feel like homework, like something I have to do. But I have found that writing an entry a week works quite well for me. Sometimes I don’t have a lot to say and after a couple of pages I’m done. Other times, I can’t wait to get to the journal and before I know it I’ve written ten pages in the course of an hour or two. Always, though, I give myself room to roam in my writing sessions. I might come to the entry with things I want to jot down, but invariably I go in directions I couldn’t have anticipated. Often I write my way into epiphanies I likely would not have experienced if not for the journal. Sometimes thoughts that have come to me while I journal will, in turn, spark an idea for this blog. Sometimes, they will even creep into my fiction in subtle ways. But I journal for me, for my health and my clarity.

Last year, in my final Writing Wednesday post, I wrote a piece called “Why Do We Create?” In it, I wrote about my various creative endeavors and what I get out of each one. I was trying to make the point that we don’t have to write for profit, for professional advancement, in order for writing to be valuable and rewarding. Little did I know what awaited me in 2021.

And so with the year winding down, and with a new year and new challenges arrayed before us, I wanted to amend a bit what I wrote in last year’s post.

I write because I love it. I write because I have stories burning a hole in my chest waiting to be set free and characters in my mind who clamor for my attention, who are eager to have their stories told. I write as well because it is my profession. I make money doing it. I aspire to critical success, I hope for the respect of my writing colleagues, I wish to please my fans and gain a wider readership. And I write because the act of creation is a balm for the mind and the soul. I draw comfort from the mining of my emotions, from the process of chronicling my personal journey, my struggles and demons as well as my growth and realizations. And I take satisfaction in using the emotions of that journey to animate characters who have different issues in their lives, but whose emotions have the same weight and resonance as my own.

Put another way, I write to heal. To heal myself, and also, perhaps, if I am fortunate, to bring a modicum of healing to those who read my work or my blog, even as they struggle with their own crises and challenges.

I wish all of you a joyful, healthful, healing 2022. And I look forward to continuing our creative journey together.

Monday Musings: Showing 2021 The Door

A year ago, as 2020 was winding down and the nation was exhausted from months of lockdowns and economic devastation, from a disturbingly divisive Presidential campaign, and from the anti-democratic rantings and tantrums of our then Sore-Loser-In-Chief, I wrote a Monday Musings post about the year that had been, and the year I thought and hoped would be coming.

I closed last year’s post with this: “But I believe 2021 will start us on a path to a new normal, something different from what we knew before the pandemic, but something also more comfortable than what we’ve been through these past nine months.”

This is why I don’t gamble more. I really, really suck at prognostication. [Early in 2020, I closed out my first post of the year by saying I hoped that year would be “your best year yet.” Wowza.]

Six days into 2021, a group of terrorists posing as “patriots” stormed the Capitol building, the seat of the American republic, in an attempt to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 Presidential election. Six people died.¹

So much for the “new normal.”

The pandemic proved far more stubborn than many anticipated, its resurgences fueled by the Delta and (recently) Omicron variants. Too many Americans have refused to be vaccinated. Too many still resist wearing masks. And so the virus has had ample opportunity to mutate, to grow more transmissible and more adept at evading the protections offered by the vaccines. (A silver lining: Maybe this will convince some people that evolution is real . . . Or maybe not . . .) We enter 2022 in the midst of a spike in cases that could prove to be the worst yet numerically, even as this newest strain of the virus appears to be somewhat less virulent than those that preceded it.

And, on a personal note, our family was beset in March with a terrifying health crisis that dominated much of our year, leaving us exhausted and emotionally spent, even as we celebrate quietly what has so far been a promising outcome.

In short, 2021 has been for us, and I know for many of you as well, anything but the bounce-back year we were anticipating.

So, where do we go from here? How do we say goodbye (or perhaps good riddance) to this year without setting ourselves up for another disappointment in the year to come?

Honestly, I’m not certain. The truth is, pretty much every year brings joys, be they large or small, and every year brings its share of tragedies and crises. Some years may be better than others on balance, but they all bring a mix of emotions. 2021 has been just about the hardest year of my life, and yet it has also seen the graduation of our younger daughter from college, a wonderful professional opportunity for Nancy (more on that in the weeks to come), and several publications for me as well as the auspicious beginning of a new freelance editing venture. Even our older daughter, who faced illness and grueling treatments, had an excellent work year and some memorable travel experiences with friends.

We are, all of us, resilient, as individuals and as a social community. It may not always seem that way, and certainly ominous clouds loom on our social/political horizon. Anti-vaccine misinformation is literally killing people across the country, just as continued lies about the 2020 election threaten the very existence of our democratic republic. We have a long way to go in so many respects. But I suppose, despite everything, and notwithstanding last year’s utterly useless predictions about 2021, I remain an optimist at heart.

It feels strange to say this, because I suffer from anxiety, and too often allow myself to spiral into negative thinking. But somehow my anxiety and my basic optimism coexist. I’m sure 2022 will bring its share of trials and calamities. I live with a Stanford-trained biologist, so I’m not so naïve as to think that Covid is going away anytime soon.

Yet, I also believe 2022 is going to be better than the past two years have been. I suppose on some level I have to believe this, for my own sanity. And so without making bold predictions, and without any illusions as to how foolish I might feel a year from now, reading back through this post, I look forward to the coming year. I welcome it.

And I say to 2021, “Don’t let the door hit your butt on your way out…”

—-
¹ Two insurrectionists died of heart attacks. One was shot and killed. A Capitol police officer died that day of a stroke after sustaining injuries and being sprayed with chemicals by those trying to breach police lines. And two more officers committed suicide within a week of the insurrection.

Creative Wednesday: Books To Buy For The Writer In Your Life

‘Tis the season for giving, and for searching out gifts for the writer on your holiday shopping list. Or, if YOU are the writer on your holiday shopping list, searching out gifts for yourself!

And so I thought I would share with you a list of some of the books on my bookshelves that I would recommend most strongly as presents for a writer. These are not novels, though I could probably make that sort of list as well. These are reference books, tools a writer might use in the crafting of their current work in progress. [That said, I would be remiss if I did not mention that my website, www.DavidBCoe.com, has a bookstore, from which you can purchase many of my novels!]

Reference booksThese are books I turn to again and again during the course of my work, and I expect the writer on your list will do the same. Not all of them are easy to find, but I assure you, they’re worth the effort. So here is a partial list:

1) Standard Reference Books: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: Eleventh Edition (the hardcover, bound in red); Roget’s International Thesaurus: Seventh Edition (organized thematically, not by alphabet — trust me); The Chicago Manual of Style: Seventeenth Edition (although if you were to get, say, the fifteenth edition instead, you might save some money and not really lose out on much).

These are all invaluable books. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary includes not only definitions and the like, but also dates for when the words in question entered the English language. This is a huge asset for writers of historical fiction or fantasies set in worlds analogous to historical eras in our world.

Roget’s Thesaurus, with the thematic index rather than an alphabetical or “dictionary form” organization, demands a little extra work from the writer. Looking up words is a two step process — check the index to find the precise meaning of the word you’re trying to replace, and then go to the indicated page. But the advantages of having entries grouped conceptually are huge, if difficult to articulate. Suffice it to say, I often wind up finding the right word not with my original search, but with a secondary one that begins with a related idea or concept.

And the Chicago Manual not only offers style and usage guidance for almost every imaginable writing circumstance, it also shows how to prepare and format manuscripts professionally, and how to copyedit and proofread (and how to read a copyeditor’s or proofer’s marks), among other things. Every writer should have a copy, and actually, now that I think of it, I need an updated version!

2) What’s What: A Visual Glossary of Everyday Objects – From Paper Clips to Passenger Ships, Edited by Reginald Bragonier, Jr. and David Fisher. I found this book used several years back after it was recommended to me by a friend, who happens to be a writer as well. Basically, the book provides you with the correct name for every part of every common object you can imagine. I used it just the other day, while writing a new Thieftaker story for the Noir anthology. I needed to know the name of the “u”-shaped arm of a padlock, the piece that swings open and closed to lock something. It’s called a shackle. I hadn’t remembered that, and would have spent way too much time looking for the word online had I not owned this book.

3) English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh. Like Merriam’s, this book provides the date for when common words entered the English lexicon. The added bonus that sets this book apart from the dictionary is its detailed index, which differentiates among various usages and meanings for the word in question. For instance, “lap” has an entry for the “lap” that a child sits on, and another for “lap” as a verb, as in a dog lapping up water, and still another for “lap,” as in an orbit around a track. Those usages entered the language at different times. This book gives a date for each. Handy, right?

4) The Cunningham Series of Magic Books. Scott Cunningham has written a series of books for magic practitioners that cover a wide array of topics. He has one on magical herbs and plants, another on gems and minerals, still another on oils, incense, and brews. He has books on Wicca and one on elemental magic, and others beyond these. I am not a practitioner, but I find the books immensely helpful when I am writing about magic, particularly for series that are set in our world, like the Thieftaker and Justis Fearsson books.

5) The HowDunIt series from Writer’s Digest. These books are meant for mystery writers and those who write police procedurals, but I believe they are also indispensable for writers of urban fantasy, horror, and even epic fantasy and science fiction. Available volumes touch on writing crime scenes, on writing about investigative procedures, on poisons, on murder forensics, on injuries and body trauma. I have seven of them, and I’ve used every one.

I could go on with more titles, but this is already a long post, and I have A LOT of books on my shelves. But here’s the thing: When it comes right down to it, there are no limits to the kind of books a writer might find valuable. I have history books, tourist guides to castles and cathedrals, an illustrated architecture book on a ninth century Frankish monastery, books on astronomy, books on weapons, books on military campaigns and tactics, a book on animal tracking, field guides to trees, flowers, edible plants, rocks, butterflies, mammals, reptiles, and birds . . . SO many birds . . .

If you know a writer, and you happen to be glancing through the bargain bin at your local bookstore, chances are you can find something that person is going to love and find useful. Because — surprise! — writers love books.

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: Thoughts on GET BACK, the Beatles Documentary

Before watching it over the last week, I’d heard and read a good deal about Peter Jackson’s Get Back, the three part, eight hour documentary (sort of) on the Beatles and the lead up to their famous rooftop concert. Some people LOVED it — people close to me, whose taste in such things I trust. Others felt it was fatuous, over-hyped, overly long, and even boring.

Having now watched the entire thing, I wanted to weigh in with my thoughts and observations.

I am the youngest (by a lot) of four kids, and so my musical tastes were formed largely by the preferences of my older siblings. By the time I was seven years old, I was already starting to listen to rock and build my record collection (kids, ask your parents). But still, that was after the Beatles had split up, and already they were, to me, the stuff of legend, a band my brothers and sister spoke of with utter reverence.

So I have long been subject to the mystique of the band, and for me, seeing them unrehearsed, unvarnished, and in the act of creating, is thrilling. The Beatles stopped touring in the mid-Sixties, and though they put out plenty of albums, they rarely appeared in public, which only served to enhance that mystique. Seeing them so intimately in this film is a gift. It rounds out their image. And there are a couple of moments in the first episode, when Paul is working out the lyrics and chords to “Get Back” and Let It Be,” that literally gave me chills.

Beyond that, I believe Jackson’s approach to making this film — basically showing us as much as possible with minimal, almost non-existent outside commentary — proved incredibly powerful and effective. The Beatles and those around them speak for themselves, leaving it to us to evaluate, even to judge. As such, the film, in my opinion, serves as a much needed historical document and corrective.

Things I thought about while I watched, in no particular order:

For a long time, I disliked Paul McCartney. Most of the narratives surrounding the band’s break-up have placed the lion’s share of the blame on Paul. He was the one who initiated legal proceedings against his bandmates. He was the one whose burgeoning solo career killed any chance of reconciliation. There may or may not be truth to this. The legal battles are matters of public record. But my God, the man is a musical genius. During the time documented by the film, he was exploding with creative energy. Every day, it seemed, he had a new tune to share — already he had in mind several of the songs that would populate their final studio album, Abbey Road.

Whatever tension was said to exist between John and Paul — and certainly there is some evidence of that tension in the footage Jackson has shown us — when they were playing music together, they were completely in sync. They are clowning, riffing on each other’s playing and singing, feeding each other’s enormous creativity. I am fortunate to have been in a band with two dear friends (this was long, long ago — the band is no more; the friendships endure) and I can speak to the power of that musical connection. There is nothing like it. Watching them together was joyful.

Whatever blame Yoko Ono has borne for the demise of the Beatles seems unjustified. Yes, she was in the studio with them all the time. Clearly, she and John were very much in love. But Linda Eastman (later McCartney) was there a lot, too. So was Ringo’s wife, and George’s. I saw no evidence of hostility or resentment directed at Yoko by any members of the band. She and Linda appeared to have a good relationship. It seems to me she has been subjected to vilification that has little to do with reality and much more to do with misogyny and racial stereotypes.

To my mind, the most destructive dynamic in the studio, as captured by the filmmakers, was the conflict between George on the one hand, and John and Paul on the other. John and Paul, who have been lauded for their songwriting since the earliest days of the band, appeared dismissive, at times contemptuous, of the original tunes George brought to them. This despite the fact that George wrote some of the band’s best music: “If I Needed Someone,” “Taxman,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something,” “Here Comes The Sun.” George’s walkout in the middle of the film was, in my mind, completely understandable.

During their rooftop concert, the police arrive, responding to noise complaints from neighbors. When Paul sees that the bobbies have come, his expression is utterly joyful. Classic moment.

I have often thought of the Beatles as a band of okay musicians who came together and created something magical — the musical version of alchemy, of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. But watching these sessions, seeing each of them play instruments other than their own, and noting as well the ease with which they picked up on new material, I realized that I have given them too little credit over they years. Yes, the four of them together were magical. But each was very, very good at what they did.

I understand that their earliest music sounds very, very dated now. Not so the material from the second half of their incredible run. I challenge anyone to find in rock history twenty minutes of recorded music that is better than the “B” side of Abbey Road. With the singular exception of the Rolling Stones, who are also deserving of “Legends” status, I would put the Beatles’ 10 best songs from 1967-70 up against anyone’s 10 best from a similar period. The hardest part would be picking which 10 Beatles songs to use.

While watching the documentary, I remembered a conversation I had with my brother Bill. He was fifteen years older than me, and like any teen in the 1960s was fully caught up in Beatlemania. Several years before died, we were talking about the Beatles and he told me about the first time he listened to the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“You have to realize,” he said, “we’d never heard anything like it. Ever. It wasn’t just that the songs were great. They were doing stuff in the studio that no one had ever done before. It was mind-blowing.”

Their later music may not sound dated the way the early stuff does, but neither does it sound trend-setting. Because everyone started doing what the Beatles had done. Fifty years later, it’s too easy to forget the degree to which John, Paul, George, and Ringo changed the world. They weren’t just the most popular, the best selling. They had more than just talent and mystique. They were experimenting with . . . everything. Hair, clothes, drugs, music, lyrics, recording technology. They shaped the future. They were larger than life, larger than fashion, larger than music.

Which is why this close up look at them, this revealing and humanizing documentary, is so welcome. I will never listen to their music the same way.

Faith Hunter Interviews D.B. Jackson — “The Witch’s Storm,” part 2

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?

"The Witch's Storm," by D. B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)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.

http://www.dbjackson-author.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com/blog/
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Monday Musings: Writing Scared

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.

Monday Musings: A Paean to the “Shuffle” Command

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.

Sticky Fingers, by The Rolling StonesMusic 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.

Nirvana.

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.

Monday Musings: Taxes and Patriotism

I started work on my taxes this weekend, which is probably why taxes and government spending are on my mind for this Monday Musings posts.

Let’s get this out of the way up front: No one likes to pay taxes. And if we didn’t care about driving our cars on roads, or flying in airplanes that don’t crash into each other, or eating meat that doesn’t make us sick, or having some basic income in our golden years, or having access to health care after retirement, or going to beautiful National Parks, or doing about a thousand other things that we take for granted, we would love to keep all that tax money for ourselves, to spend as we see fit.

But, of course, we do want those things I mentioned. Plus we want a national defense. We want the police and fire and EMT services paid for by local taxes. We want to foster the arts and promote scientific research.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

(A couple of other tax quotes for you: “The best measure of a man’s honesty isn’t his income tax return. It’s the zero adjust on his bathroom scale.” — Arthur C. Clarke; “Income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf.” — Will Rogers.)

I agree wholly with the Holmes quote (and probably the other two as well) and also with Joe Biden, who said during the 2008 campaign that paying taxes is an act of patriotism.

Biden said this after Barack Obama was criticized for proposing an end to the Bush tax cuts. Obama did raise taxes marginally, only to see them cut again under the most recent Administration. I have every expectation that the Biden Administration will roll back at least some of Trump’s tax cuts — those that were targeted at corporations and the wealthy.

Without revealing too much, I will say that Nancy and do pretty well financially. We benefitted from the Trump cuts, and wish we hadn’t. We didn’t need the cut. Others did. We wound up increasing our charitable giving to compensate, and we will gladly pay more in taxes if it means cutting the tax burden for those who aren’t as financially secure as we are.

What bothers me most about the conversation surrounding taxes in this country is those who say they don’t want their tax dollars going to social welfare programs, because they don’t believe in giving others a free ride.

First of all, if they honestly think that living in poverty is a “free ride,” they’re insane. Folks in Texas lost their heat and electricity for a week, and there was an outpouring of sympathy and aid — all of it justified and deserved. But there are plenty of people in this country who can’t afford to heat their homes at all. There are people in this country who live on the streets, who wander from shelter to shelter seeking a meal or a bed or a bit of warmth. Every night in the United States children go to bed hungry.

In a civilized society, we try to take care of them, to feed and house, to warm and comfort.

And I would say to those who object to social welfare spending that I, too, don’t like all the things my tax dollars buy. We spend nearly $700 billion a year on the military. I believe that is way, way too much. We spend money to benefit oil and gas companies, big pharmaceutical companies, huge agricultural conglomerates, and all sorts of other corporate entities. Most of those expenditures come in the form of tax breaks and credits, but that doesn’t change the fact that they increase the tax burden on the rest of us. I object to much of that spending.

Some would tell me that defense systems, the search for oil, R & D for new drugs — these are things that benefit all of us. I might argue with these points — I don’t think new defense systems are necessarily good for anyone, and I know that finding more oil to burn is a terrible idea — but I understand the logic of the argument. And I would counter that lifting up those in need helps all of us as well, that improving education for those with the least pays dividends for all of society, that enabling all to participate fully in the nation’s economy improves that economy for everyone.

The larger point is this: We don’t get to pick and choose where our tax dollars go. I have to pay for a new weapons system and for oil and gas exploration that Exxon can easily afford to do on its own. Others have to spend on school lunches, teacher training, childhood health subsidies, vocational retraining, etc.

This is the price we all pay in order to live in a diverse, thriving nation.

Federal Deficit ChartAnd one more point I would like to make. Interest on the national debt currently gobbles up 8 cents out of every tax dollar. The budget deficit for 2020 was $3.7 TRILLION (slightly less than the chart above projects — I included the chart for the trend line). Even before the pandemic hit, necessitating emergency spending, the Trump tax cuts had driven projected deficits way up over where they were by the end of the Obama Administration. Some will try to tell you that those tax cuts simply returned money to the pockets of Americans. Bull. Every dollar that Donald Trump added to the deficit increased that interest expenditure I just mentioned and forced the rest to pay more. By skewing his cuts to the wealthiest among us, he basically forced the rest of Americans to subsidize a tax cut for the rich.

In any case, I still have a bit of work to do on our taxes, but it looks like we overpaid for the year. Most likely, we’ll take our refund in the form of prepayment of my estimated taxes for 2021. That’s just the way it works.

Have a good week.

Creative Friday: SITTIN’ IN Fifty (!) Years Later

Sittin In, Loggins and MessinaFor this week’s Creative Friday post, I’m doing something a little different, and writing about someone else’s creativity.

Lately, I have been on a kick of going back to old music that I once loved but lost touch with along the way. Some of it I have tried to rediscover only to find that it’s really not all that good and ought to have stayed lost. But a few of the albums I have gone back to have surprised me with their quality. One of them is an old classic: Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina’s Sittin’ In.

Actually, the album is officially credited “Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina.” When they started together in 1971, Loggins was a young singer/songwriter at the start of a promising career, and Messina was already a rock veteran, having enjoyed success in Buffalo Springfield and Poco. Messina was brought in to produce a Loggins solo album, but wound up contributing songs and arrangements, not to mention guitar work and lots of vocals. In the end, they released the album as a duet. Over the next five years, before their somewhat messy break-up in 1976, they went on to release six studio albums and a live album. After the break-up they fulfilled some contractual obligations with another live album and a couple of greatest hits releases.

They’re probably best known for an old-time rock tune called “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” a song I never cared for all that much. And several of their later albums sold better than the first. But to my mind, Sittin’ In was the best album they put out.

It includes a couple of beautiful and popular ballads. Loggins wrote “Danny’s Song” to celebrate the birth of his brother’s son. This is one of those songs that no one knows by title, but everyone recognizes. The chorus has been sung by crowds in college coffee houses for nearly fifty years. “Even though we ain’t got money/I’m so in love with you, honey/And everything will bring a chain of love…”

“House at a Pooh Corner” is a lovely-if-saccharine-sweet homage to childhood, and another coffee house favorite.

But where the album really shines is in its up-tempo numbers, which combine the exuberance of straight-ahead 70s rock, with the instrumentation of country. “Nobody But You,” which opens the album, is one of my favorite songs of all time. By anyone. From the opening guitar lick, to the tidy, tasteful finish, the song simply soars.

“Back To Georgia” begins what was once the B side of the album with similar energy and power. The centerpiece of that second side is the smoky “Same Old Wine,” which could well have been written today:

Well we give them the election,
That keeps filling our heads full of lies;
Can we trust in new directions,
When their promises are in disguise?
Well someday the truth will catch up
I just hope it don’t catch us all by surprise.

The album also includes “Vahevala,” a calypso-influenced song that was the biggest hit on the album. It remains catchy and affecting, though fifty years on, some of the lyrics are, let’s say, problematic. A tight three-song medley on the old A side ends with the soulful “Peace of Mind,” and Loggins’ piano ballad, “Rock and Roll Mood,” completes the collection. There really isn’t a bad track here. I can’t say that about too many albums.

Without a doubt, part of Sittin’ In’s appeal for me lies in nostalgia. This is an album I listened to throughout my adolescence and well into my college years. It carries some wonderful memories, as well as some more poignant ones. But as I said before, I have been listening to lots of albums from that part of my life, and some of them don’t hold up well at all.

This one does.

If you don’t know it, you should check it out. If, like me, you had it once, but lost touch with the music, give it another listen. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Have a great weekend. Stay safe. Be kind to one another.