Friday, June 16, 2017

A Cooling-Off Period

Today is Friday, June 16th, 2017.

A Cooling-Off Period

I came home from work Monday evening to find that two of my family members were ill from heat exhaustion. I went back out for a 12-pack of Gatorade and sandwich fixings and they took cool baths and rehydrated and started feeling better. They had both been surprised by their own dramatic physical reactions to a short time spent outside. It was only 90-something, but the humidity in the woods was intense.

I took this as a teachable moment to talk to the kids, over dinner, about how the weather is becoming more unpredictable and dangerous, and how this trend is going to continue as they get older. They must respect the weather in ways that just weren’t often necessary for me, or my wife, when we were kids. This will include not just the increasing risk of heat exhaustion, but risk from flash floods, lightning, and high winds.

An EPA document from August, 2016, marked “EPA 430-F–16–024,” lays out some of the ways that anthropogenic global warming will affect Michigan:

Changing the climate is likely to increase the frequency of floods in Michigan. Over the last half century, average annual precipitation in most of the Midwest has increased by 5 to 10 percent. But rainfall during the four wettest day of the year has increased about 35 percent. During the next century, sprint rainfall and annual precipitation are likely to increase, and severe rainstorms are likely to intensify. Each of these factors will tend to further increase the risk of flooding.

And:

Higher temperatures increase the formation of ground-level ozone, a pollutant that causes lung and heart problems. Ozone also harms plants. In some rural parts of Michigan, ozone levels are high enough to significantly reduce yields of soybeans and winter wheat.

Because I work indoors, in an air-conditioned building, and commute in an air-conditioned car, the only real misery I experienced this past week has been the effects of ozone, soot, pollen, and other particulates on my eyes, sinuses, throat, and lungs. I’ve been unable to read aloud much because the low-grade irritation of my throat will bring on coughing fits.

And, of course:

In recent decades, severe heat waves have killed hundreds of people across the Midwest. Heat stress is expected to increase as climate change brings hotter summer temperatures and more humidity. Certain pepole are especially vulnerable, including children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor.

The heat was acutely uncomfortable in the afternoons this past week, but fortunately it cooled down enough each evening that we could sleep cool, which seems to allow the body to recuperate from heat stress and wake up refreshed. It gets really bad when it doesn’t drop below 80 degrees F or so in the evenings, and the body doesn’t have a chance to effectively recover. That’s likely to happen this summer. Keep in mind that it isn’t even officially summer yet.

I won’t link to the EPA document, because I think it is likely to disappear from government web sites, if it hasn’t already. But maybe you can find it archived, if you search for “EPA 430-F–16–024.” If you don’t live in Michigan, there is probably a similar document for your state. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. But if anything, I believe it is not nearly alarmist enough. Our children won’t thank us for leaving the planet in this condition, but maybe they will think slightly better of us, if we do what we can to prepare them for the warming that is already inevitable.

Fortunately, Michigan is supposed to cool off a bit over the next few days. The forecast claims that highs next week will be in the seventies, with lows in the fifties. But I don’t doubt that we will be hit hard by extreme heat this summer. It’s been my experience that recently the weather forecasts have become quite unreliable. I think the forecasting models just haven’t caught up with the facts in the atmosphere. So for several days now the highs have been higher than predicted, and the predicted rain has barely materialized. I have started to recently consider the weather forecast to be more aspirational than realistic.

I’d say that the weather, together with the very grim news from the Arctic, Antarctic, and global South, might be enough to push any remaining global warming deniers into a more realistic view. But from what I can see, as things get clearly and obviously worse, the true disbelievers are digging in and doubling down, and they will die, quite possibly of heat exhaustion or warming-amplified disease, still believing that it was all a hoax.

White Working Class

I finished White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America by Joan C. Williams. I think this book is worth reading, because it brings up some ideas for further discussion. There is a certain amount of insight to be gained here. As a Sanders supporter, I feel like I was already thinking about many of the things she has to say. Her book might help to identify and formalize some of these things. But the negatives remain.

The book conflates much of the working class and middle class in a way that I don’t think is all that helpful, since there exist real and important differences between these groups. Yet even after warning about the dangers of Manichean black-and-white thinking, it creates a sharp distinction between these groups and the group she calls the “PME,” or Professional and Managerial Elite. It accuses the PME of class “callousness,” which I think is largely valid. But it fails, it seems to me, to explain that a large portion of the middle class finds this PME to be an aspirational model and so votes for the PME’s Democratic party, even when they themselves are well below the income level required to be part of the PME, won’t benefit much from the Democratic Party’s policies in practice, and might be more usefully understood as part of the great “precariat.”

This, I think, is a sort of parallel to the “why do working-class people vote against their own best interests?” insights in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which Williams denigrates as paternalistic. Williams doesn’t, it seems to me, talk much about the importance of real solidarity across class lines, but just a somewhat vague “compassion” and “understanding.” And so it is a bit short on prescriptions.

I think the compassion and understanding she preaches is valuable, but only to a certain point. She also, in her quest to get her readers to have greater understanding and compassion for the group she calls the white working class, fails to level any honest criticism against this population, and bends truth and morality to defend them. For example, she repeats the commonplace idea that Vietnam veterans returning to the United States were spat upon by protesters.

This is actually untrue, but to this day it is part of the working class’s mythology about itself, a slur that denigrates the anti-war movement and portrays those who fought overseas as victims of the culture wars. Jerry Lembcke debunks this myth in his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, but I still hear it told to me all the time.

In fact, I had a conservative friend tell me that her husband, a former soldier doing IT work, was actually spat on in the white house by a Clinton staffer, who also called him a “baby-killer.” I’ve heard similar stories many times, but the details always mysteriously evaporate upon inquiry. There remain no contemporary accounts in newspaper or television media of any such incidents, except for a few cases in which the spit flew in the opposite direction.

Williams’ retelling of this myth is similar, in my view, to the Southern insistence that flying the Confederate battle flag is about “heritage, not hate” — it’s a form of self-serving historical revisionism which is “more true than the truth.” The flag was not actually widely flown, postbellum, in the South, until the South chose it as a symbol to show defiance against Federal orders to integrate schools.

When she is “truthy,” not truthful, I have to part ways with Williams. And when she bends over backwards to express compassion for Trump supporters, without holding them to account for the real consequences of their ongoing support, I have to part ways with her as well. She mentions that her WWC “folkways” must be seen as just as valid as the “folkways” of her PME. But when the “folkways” of both groups include lynching, slavery, gay-bashing, state violence, mass incarceration, and extreme environmental injustice, I think we need to talk more about our “folkways.”

I have compassion for Trump voters and those who remain Trump supporters. But you know what I value more than compassion? Real solidarity and justice. And I don’t believe we can have truth and reconciliation with those who voted “with their middle fingers,” and who continue to parrot lies, without truth, any more than I can reconcile with those who still believe and insist that there was no valid criticism of Clinton from the left.

Just yesterday the New York Times demonstrated a truly impressive spine-twisting yoga pose called “both sides,” when it published an editorial that suggested that Sanders supporters need to consider their culpability for the mass shooting carried out by James T. Hodgkinson. I won’t link to the editorial, as I don’t want to give them any ad revenue for such ridiculous posturing, but the author suggests that this was a “moment for liberals to figure out how to balance anger at Mr. Trump with inciting violence.”

Personally, I’m not sure just what Hodgkinson’s disease was, but in the real world one can scour Sanders’ speeches, tweets, writings, and interviews in vain looking for examples where he has incited violence. And also in the real world, one doesn’t have to look very hard to to find examples from the right. One might even start in the oval office.

Knausgaard Again

I just picked up a copy of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Book 5, which has just come out in paperback. And so I’m diving back in to the novel. I started book 3 a while back, but what with the frantic activity of the past year, I got distracted only a few pages in. It’s time to catch up.

The Pirate Planet

My voice is a little raw, but I’ve been reading bedtime stories as best I can. Last night I read more of Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet by Douglas Adams and James Goss. The story has picked up a bit by the end of part one, at almost the 100-page mark. But we have over three hundred pages to go, and it’s hard to believe that the payoff is going to be worth it. In adapting the screenplay, Goss really over-inflated the ball. The book is heavily padded with lots of telling sans showing. I find myself wishing there was an abridged audiobook version available. But no — the audiobook is unabridged, and ten hours long.

The kids — big Doctor Who fans — are doing the best they can, but finding themselves bored. We should probably just cut our losses and watch the original episodes. I have ordered a DVD of this story arc from an eBay seller. Even if it isn’t great — and I don’t doubt it won’t be (err, sorry about this sentence, it got away from me a little bit), it should be a good lead-in to a discussion about the dangers of adaptation.

Podcast News

In the midst of all this, Grace and I have felt compelled to start recording again. And so this is a sort of “pre-announcement announcement” — we’re going to be creating new episodes of the Grace and Paul Pottscast.

The web page will be a blog, like the blogs for my other podcasts:

https://pottscast.blogspot.com/

So bookmark that page. There is nothing there yet except for a placeholder image of a kitty. I’m allergic to cats, so don’t blame me — Blogger put the image there. There will also be a Facebook page, but I have not created it yet.

The schedule for episodes is not clear to us yet. The exact contents of the first few episodes are not fully clear to us yet, atlhough we’ve been brainstorming and making some test recordings. My recording setup is working right now, but if it stops working, we may not have the money available to get it working again for a while. And we’re going to be pretty busy in July. Our baby girl will have open-heart surgery. That’s pretty terrifying. But maybe it will help to talk about it. I’ll do what I can to get some new content out there. And hopefully with my wonderful wife’s help, it will be better than the old stuff.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
June 16th, 2017

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Swamp Daze

Today is Monday, June 12th, 2017.

Swamp Daze

Summer has arrived and I have not cut the grass at our new house in Pittsfield Township, so it is almost waist-high. Walking around the yard, it feels a bit like being hip-deep in swamp water. We set up a fire ring, but we can’t use it until the grass is cut.

We have a mower, but two years ago my Dad ran it over a rock and damaged the blade. He took the blade off, put the mower away wet and completely gunked up with wet grass, and headed back to California. I took the blade to Ace Hardware in Saginaw to be sharpened, and picked up the sharpened blade, but but having just started my job in Ann Arbor, which required living half of each week out of town, my time at home with the kids was very limited. I didn’t want to spend it mowing the lawn. So I didn’t get around to trying to reinstall the blade, and we wound up just paying a lawn care company to cut our lawn.

A few weeks ago, I brought the mower down to the new house. I flipped over the mower to try to figure out how to reattach the blades. There are two. I don’t have the tools on hand to reattach them what with the moving in progress (the sockets are… somewhere…). It’s also not exactly clear to me how the blades go on (and the manual is… somewhere…). Meanwhile it looks like putting the mower away covered with wet grass led to a lot of rust on the blade drive shaft and the underside of the mower.

So I need to take it to a shop, which is also a thing, because I know where in Saginaw I would happily take it, but not the equivalent in Pittsfield Township. So I’ve got to find a place and take it there. It won’t fit in Grace’s car, so she can’t do it during the week. I’m also not entirely sure the mower will be fixable. Which is pretty aggravating, because it was a $400 Honda mower.

So our yard desperately needs an extreme mowing, but at this point a mower won’t even cut it and we will need to rake up and compost the very tall grass and weeds. So I might need to go over it with the rechargeable weed whacker, hacking down a small area at a time and raking up the results. We’ve also considered trying to hire a neighborhood kid, or maybe someone who is not a kid. The lawn services Grace spoke to don’t want to come out once or even a few times. They are only interested in doing business if we sign up for weekly service for several months.

On the positive side, I am continuing to feel gradually better.

Work is coming along. I’m in an “implementation slog.” I’m adding features to the firmware for the MX family instruments. I’ve done the proof-of- concept, the first partial implementation, the beta-testing, and the improved design. I’ve then taken that redesign and implemented about three- quarters of it. I’ve solved the interesting problems and the rest is mostly implementing a bunch of code that is, by design, somewhat redundant and standardized in structure.

The prototype design was more complex, using a forest of C++ classes, where I I had to subclass objects for custom behavior and hook them up to each other in containers using an observer pattern. But it was hard to read, and would have been much harder to maintain and extend. Sometimes the tough part of a software development job is solving a design problem. Sometimes the tough part is understanding and fixing a tricky bug. And sometimes the tough part is maintaining your concentration and making steady progress while implementing a large, but deliberately simple and clear, and so boring, piece of code.

This weekend I made two trips up to Saginaw to continue the sorting and packing. Summer arrived with a vengeance and it was hot. Summer road construction has also arrived and the Michigan state flower — the orange and white plastic road construction barrel — is in full bloom. On Saturday, it took me three hours to make the drive to Saginaw, which normally takes about 100 minutes. So I sat pretty much stopped in traffic for an extra hour and twenty minutes, trying not to grind my teeth. I would have done deep breathing but in the extra ozone, soot, dust, and pollen, that is not advisable.

The rooms I was working on — the office and studio — are on the highest level of the house, built partially into the attic. The net effect is that it is hot up there. So I spent Saturday and Sunday afternoons into the evenings drinking quart after quart of water and sorting and packing little bits of stuff that accumulated in my office over the last seven years.

I threw away a lot, but I’ve learned that can be very important to keep certain kinds of paperwork, particularly anything having to do with my unemployment benefits, and there was a lot of that. When you’re unemployed, the paperwork is pretty much a full-time job, especially when you include the work search records. A good chunk of my notes could go, especially the notes having to do with jobs past. There were many notebooks full. When doing my software development work, I just down design ideas, little to-do lists, and notes from meetings. Even if it is only a page or two a day, it adds up over the months and years. Looking back at those old notebooks, I find myself slightly stunned by how much work I did, just plugging away steadily at those jobs.

What really slows me down is the detritus of half a million little personal projects. There are homeschool projects, electronics projects, music projects, podcast projects, writing projects about C programming, writing projects about electronics, and documents and notes for my adjunct teaching gig. There are pictures and bits of family history. Much of this I don’t actually want to throw away. The notes can go, at least once they serve their actual purpose and I integrate them into a writing project. I am hesitant to actually throw away antique photographs.

So the best I could do in some cases was to sort the stuff well enough to pack it, with an eye towards sorting it further at the new house. So I’m committing myself to spending even more time. But at least there is space in the new house to actually get it sorted. And it’s not sweltering in our new basement.

I also brought my desks, which are sanded and stained doors placed on top of plastic sawhorses. The doors barely fit in the car. I have to push them between the two front seats and hope I don’t need to brake hard. And I brought a number of delicate items that needed to be hand-carried. Among these are some ceramics my mother made, back when she went by her maiden name. There are ceramic egrets with long, graceful necks. The necks are so fragile that I don’t even want to try to put them in boxes. The necks can’t support their own weight. So I carried them wraped partially in bubble wrap and placed right on the passenger seat, strapped gently to the seat, the necks hanging over the edge. I hoped for the best. They made it. They’ve survived for over fifty years and I’m hoping not to be the one that breaks them.

On the one hand, I’m hoping not to burden my kids with a hoarder-house, a home piled with what may seem like, to them, a lot of garbage. On the other hand, I’d like them to have some sort of organized legacy — my library, my mementos, an archive of items left to me by my family of origin. And I want to leave them a trove of items from their own childhoods — what records are worth keeping of the places they lived, the things they did. That trove is inevitably part-digital. How to make sense of all that, and try to help it survive to another generation, is a big subject. But I think a strategy is starting to come into shape, and the new house can help me work on that — steadily, a little bit at a time.

Anyway, our house-emptying project continues. I’m doing as much as I can bear to. We are not at all happy with our progress. We wanted to be finished by now. But I try to enjoy the small victories. When I left Saginaw on Sunday, the office, studio, and bathroom were completely empty of everything, except for a pile of framed and loose posters. The posters along with Grace’s framed posters and pictures will probably require a carload of their own. And I’m really not sure where they will go, in the new house. But we’re getting stuff done.

I have my desks set up in the new house and they look good there. The room they are in is a basement room, with no windows, but yet it is much less claustrophobia-inducing, to sit at them there, than it was to sit facing the sloped attic walls in the old office.

Paul Conquers the New Yorker

Speaking of minor victories, I want to take a moment to note that I am all caught up on the New Yorker. It’s taken me months, but I have worked my way through the backlog of issues and completed the most recent one. For the first time in forever, I don’t have a New Yorker to read! In a burst of optimism I might hope that I can actually, now, keep up, reading each one when it arrives, and completing it before the next one arrives. But let’s not get too far into crazy talk.

Now, if I could only get on top of the pile of back issues of the New York Review of Books… but hey, small victories!

It’s All About Class

There are a lot of recent books that take on the 2016 election, from one perspective or another, and I’ve become wise enough to realize that although I might enjoy starting all of them, I am not very likely to finish any of them. But I did pick up one book that I think I can probably finish, a thin book called White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America by Joan C. Williams.

I have read and watched Williams in a few recent interviews, and liked what she had to say enough to try reading her book. It seems like she has some insight, although I am not sure how much, and some advice, although I’m not sure how useful it is.

My first difficulty stems from trying to figure out what class I fit into. This has been an issue my whole life. My mother’s parents were upper- middle class, educated, descended from bankers, with both Revolutionary War and Civil War soldiers in my family tree. My maternal grandmother was college-educated, a schoolteacher. My maternal grandfather worked as a chemist for Welch’s, the grape juice company. He had to move his family repeatedly for work, and wound up moving his family to North East, Pennsylvania and working at the Welch’s factory in Westfield, New York, actually leaving my mother in California while she finished high school. My mother, after my parents divorced, followed them, meaning that my family started out split across the country. My mother found herself raising two boys while living in a trailer. With my grandfather’s financial help, my brother and I went, for a few years, to an elite private school, among the children of doctors and lawyers, while also living in a trailer.

I did not fit in well there, or in high school. Because of my mother’s background, I don’t think she ever felt at home among the working-class residents of our trailer park. She worked as an Occupational Therapist at Hamot Community Mental Health. She was culturally middle-class or even upper middle-class, but her financial circumstances as a single mother made her financially lower middle-class or working poor. She had few friends, although I think she did find a sense of community in the First Presbyterian Church of North East, eventually becoming a deacon there.

I was raised partially by my grandparents, but my grandfather died when I was nine years old, and so I think my education in how to be middle-class was somewhat stunted. My mother remarried, a man who was a World War II veteran and assembled motorized wheels at General Electric. He was firmly of the working class, and a lot of his value system rubbed off on me. In high school, I had difficulty fitting in, and as a scholarship student in college, also never really felt at home. The real values I absorbed seem mostly to center around the primacy of work and a deep fear of being impoverished. And so for decades I’ve put work ahead of pretty much everything.

I had never really realized what our more elite educational institutions were for, besides the secondary mission of education — they were for networking and acculturation. Cash-poor while in college, I never could take the overseas trips or ski trips or other added-cost opportunities. I studied, very unevenly, pursued my interests like audio production and writing, drank only moderately, and tried to learn the basic relationship skills I had mostly failed to learn in high school (see “intellectionall advanced, socially retarded.”) Failing to network, I never really learned to use my “PME” (professional managerial elite, to use Joan Williams’ term) contacts to find work. It also means that I feel almost as out-of-place at a college reunion as I think would at a high school reunion.

My current income brings me within spitting distance of the class that Williams calls the PME, and which I’ve also seen called the “cosmopolitan elite,” and yet not only do I not identify with those folks, I tend to avoid things that would signal my solidarity with them. I don’t like to fly — it is ostentatious and carbon-wasteful. I’ve done a little management, but I am very ambivalent about doing anything that feels like “ladder-climbing” away from the kind of work where I design and build things. I left my community of origin, expressing a middle-class value to flee, not stay in an economically un-promising place, but have since tried (and failed) to find an economically un-promising place and establish roots there and try to help build that place up. I now find that I feel like an outcast in the city I spent twenty years living in, because it has priced me out, and with a large family, to the liberals DINKs and one-child families, my family might as well be Amish, arriving to a restaurant in a horse and buggy. And so on.

I think Williams has some good recommendations, about how we need to think deeper about, for example, why poor working people don’t simply move to find better work. That’s a facile and deeply offensive conservative talking point and Williams demolishes it, and rightfully so. That kind of mobility scatters and demolishes traditional family support structures, and that brokenness persists for generations, as I well know.

While I am finding the book to be worth reading so far, I also agree with the review in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

The book is not about the working class in any meaningful sense. Its treatment of race is, at best, fleeting. Regarding the former, Williams arrives at a definition of the working class that is neither traditional and coherent nor usefully innovative. She expels the poor, wage earning or not, from the ranks of the working class and shuts the very rich out of the ranks of those holding it back. Income alone, not the more meaningful measure of wealth, defines her answer to the question “Who Is the Working Class?” The bottom third and top 20 percent are excluded, with an exception made for those making more but not having college degrees. The result is a “class” defined by making $41,005 to $131,962 annually (median: $75,144), and by holding values alternately seen as understandable or wonderful.

See: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/whos-afraid-of-the-white-working-class-on-joan-c-williamss-white-working-class-overcoming-class-cluelessness-in-america/

In one notable passage, the author talks about the difficulty of making small talk at a high school reunion, particularly how, to a working-class person, the question “so, what do you do?” can induce rage in a man who sells toilets. In an interview, Williams suggested that a better opening conversational gambit, when talking to a working-class person, might be “how about that (whichever) sports team?”

She’s trying to avoid confrontational topics, and that seems like a good idea, but the idea of having to actively study sports, a subject I have no interest in at all, in order to communicate with my old classmates at a high school reunion, still seems not just condescending but misguided.

As the victim of constant bullying, I have mostly solved the dilemma of how to communicate with them by never attending a high school reunion (and a couple of years back I missed my thirtieth), and only very occasionally, and briefly, returning to the towns I grew up in.

With my family there all dead, the only reason in 2017 I might go back to Erie, PA is to take my children to visit their grandparents’ grave. And because my children haven’t grown up anywhere near there, the question of where I myself should be buried, or have my ashes buried, as a vexing one; I would like my marker to be in a family plot, to honor my mother’s family, but if I would not condescend to visit those places while I was alive, why would I want to “live” there after my death?

From what I can tell on Facebook, ignorant bullies remain bullies, well into middle age. And the single most salient feature that I can discern in the posts of my working-class high school classmates is their lack of solidarity. Not solidarity with me — I mean, I left and was successful, right? I’d say “fuck that guy” — but solidarity with themselves. If I post an article about how workers earning minimum wage cannot pay for a two-bedroom apartment in any city in America now, my old classmates, who might be supervisors or floor managers in chain stores now, talk entirely about how it is the fault of the workers. Never mind that if seventy-five percent of the jobs available in a given town pay minimum wage, seventy-five percent of the people who live there have to take one of those jobs, if they want a job. But to my classmates, it’s always, and entirely, about how certain people refuse to work harder and better themselves, like they supposedly did.

Their sympathies lie entirely, fit with total congruence, into the values of the business owners. There’s no room to talk about how, if the minimum wage had kept up with inflation since 1968, it would be about $4 an hour higher than it is today; the 1968 minimum wage, adjusted to 2015 dollars, would be $10.90. My classmates are talking about minimum wage jobs as if they were starter jobs for high-school students working part-time for spending money. But that has not been true for many years.

And they are Trump voters, for the most part. Not just Trump voters, but people who still support him and are actively defending him today. Try to debate, and post a link to an article — they will run it through a web site which rates the reliability of the source based on how allegedly conservative or liberal it is (liberal bad, conservative good) and tell me they can’t accept the argument because The New York Times is bad, but Breitbart is good. There’s no getting to shared facts — every fact is suspect. And to try to talk with them about values is, basically, to turn on the spigot from Fox News.

So, and this is a serious question — what do we have to talk about, which would be meaningful to both of us? What could we say to each other that wasn’t just condescending politeness on both our parts?

While I may be at least temporarily close, financially, to that “PME,” what with paying two mortgages and a barrage of medical bills I sure don’t feel like I’m not part of the precariat. And it’s not at all clear to me that I’ll be able to pay off the house before I have to retire, or how long I can do this kind of work before some combination of ageism and actual cognitive decline starts to make it impossible to get hired again.

Would their answer to my anxieties be “work harder in order to better yourself?”

Doctor Who Series Ten

I got off on a bad footing with the first episode of Series Ten. Amusingly, the very first word spoken in the episode is “Potts.” We meet Bill Potts, a young food-service worker and black lesbian. She works at the University where the Doctor just happens to lecture, and attends his lectures. The Doctor summons her to a meeting, offering her an opportunity for special tutoring, despite the fact that she is not even enrolled in the University.

Immediately we get a very muddled set of values. In a rapid-fire speech, Bill explains her interactions with a white woman at the school. Bill noticed this woman, apparently, because she noticed the Doctor noticing her. Bill then wanted either to remove the source of the Doctor’s distraction, or found herself attracted to the woman because the Doctor was attracted to her — I’m not really clear on this:

Okay, so my first day here, in the canteen, I was on chips. There was this girl. Student. Beautiful. Like a model, only with talking and thinking. She looked at you and you perved. Every time, automatic, like physics. Eye contact, perversion. So I gave her extra chips. Every time, extra chips. Like a reward for all the perversion. Every day, got myself on chips, rewarded her. Then finally, finally, she looked at me, like she’d noticed, actually noticed, all the extra chips. Do you know what I realised? She was fat. I’d fatted her. But that’s life, innit? Beauty or chips. I like chips. So did she. So that’s okay.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this, but it seems like Bill lost interest in the woman after she became fat. And a few minutes into the show, in a montage of Bill’s life at school, we see her wink at an overweight woman as she shovels extra fries onto her plate. Whatever the intent, this comes off as the show making a fat joke at the expense of the actress, who doesn’t even get a speaking role.

So I was interested, but then I was also a little puzzled. And then we got a strange, ineptly produced take on the myth of Echo and Narcissus. Bill meets a young woman in a club, makes eye contact, and falls head-over-heels in love. The woman has a strange feature in the iris of one eye: a small star-shaped patch. (She looks at Bill and Bill literally sees stars; the woman has stars in her eyes; choose your own heavy-handed metaphor.) Knowing next to nothing about her, Bill has such an intense crush that after they speak a few words to each other, Heather asks “Please. You can say no. Would you come with me? Can I show you something?” And Bill practically shouts “God! Yes!” in a way that I find unnerving. Her desperate desire for love and her tendency to form fast crushes seems to be very out-of-sync with the stoic, cynical young woman who is used to disappointment.

Bill’s crush, Heather, is in scenes that must have been photographed across a couple of different days of shooting. Her hair changes, and her makeup changes. I’m just a touch face-blind, and her face changed so much that I wasn’t sure she wasn’t played by a different actress in some scenes. And after this confusion, the episode turns into a very rapid-fire pastich of horror tropes — traditionally misogynistic horror tropes. Heather liked Bill, but before long she was, in monstrous form, chasing Bill with fingernails extended like claws, screeching like a banshee, popping out of puddles like Meg Mucklebones in the movie _Legend:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxjYJayuWoA

Unlike Meg, who desires flattery, Heather, once dissolved into a puddle by her desires, can only echo the things Bill says. I was reminded quite uncomfortably that homosexuality has been historically been considered a form of narcissism, and linked to a failure to achieve the ability to form mature relationships. And here we have Bill, with a tremendous sudden crush, being pursued by a watery hag-creature that echoes her words and reflects back her own face. Contrast it with an episode it reminds me of, “The Curse of the Black Spot,” which invokes horror tropes as well as the mythology of the Sirens, but more intelligently and deliberately, and was better in just about every respect.

I wrote about this on Facebook, and long and ultimately pointless argument ensued, with people arguing that I was over-interpreting and seeing things that weren’t there. I wound up watching the episode twice more. Maybe I was over-interpreting, but even on the third viewing I still found this episode disjointed and disappointing. I think the show in general still has a tendency to slip far too readily into very conventional horror tropes, and does so a bit unthinkingly, even when those tropes are associated strongly with sexism and misogyny.

I expected better from this new season. For the most part, the episodes that followed haven’t been as disjointed, but they haven’t been that good. “Smile” was not bad, but “Thin Ice” seemed very derivative of “The Beast Below.” “Knock Knock” seemed very derivative of “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe.”

The three-parter “Extremis,” “The Period at the End of the World,” and “The Lie of the Land” — well, they’ve had some nice moments but none of them seem to really work well enough to keep me from getting distracted by the gaping plot holes. Last night’s show “The Empress of Mars” was not bad, but again, not great, either — not one of these season’s episodes have lived up to “Blink” or “The Girl in the Fireplace” or Capaldi’s “Heaven Sent.”

The show has introduced a storyline involving Missy, but has spent very little time actually setting it up. The series has ony three episodes left to turn around, or it will be remembered as a mediocre series. That would be a shame, as Peter Capaldi makes a pretty good Doctor. I just feel that he wasn’t given the best material, especially not this season. It all feels to me like the show is running on recycled ideas at this point. I hope it gets better, but I fear we’ll have to wait for a future series for that.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
June 12th and 13th, 2017

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Deplorable Fever

Today is Tuesday, June 6th, 2017.

A Deplorable Fever

I realize it’s kind of a humble-brag to say “I’ve been busy” when so many lack work, but — I’ve been busy. I realize it’s no fun to read about other folks complaining, but — along with busy: sick, exhausted, and disheartened.

A couple of weekends ago, I took a few days off work to try, a bit frantically and a bit ineffectively, to get work done on the house in Saginaw. I spent over a long five-day weekend bouncing between Ypsilanti, Saginaw, and Ikea, bringing loads from the house and building shelves in our basement.

In our years in the Saginaw house, I found some specific uses for specific rooms, but I never found a way to really get my things organized. So many books never made it onto shelves, and so many things that might have been useful for home-schooling never came out of storage. So many square feet, but so little usable space.

The wood-paneled office/studio/bathroom suite is a perfect example. In this suite, the small studio room has cabinets of drawers, behind wooden doors, and a few bookshelves built into the walls. It’s really a beautiful room, with all that wood — like a meditation chamber. It’s crafty, and cleverly put together. When the sun comes in, it just glows. The larger office room has two wide, shallow closets built in to one wall.

With better climate control, the little suite would be suitable for a teenager, or a mother-in-law. The smaller attic room was being used by a disabled adult as a bedroom, living in the home with his mother. A single bed fits in the small attic room nicely, along with a few books. Not much else will fit. I used the room to record, but since it is a small wooden box, you need a lot of acoustic panels and foam to cut down on reflections. Without the panels and foam, it sounds like you are recording inside a wooden cigar box. This woody sound might be nice on acoustic guitar but it is generally unwanted on vocals.

But the room is very poorly insulated, and leaks heat in or out like a sieve. It’s almost never a comfortable temperature in there. The drawers are not boxed in properly, or insulated, and so anything you store in them is exposed to the crawlspace, which may as well be open to the outside. That isn’t good for papers or electronics. I had to keep the things in these drawers sealed in bags. Guitar strings kept in the drawers would corrode. Papers would grow mildew. The insulation and weather-proofing was something that could be fixed, and might not even be that costly to fix. It needs someone who knows how to work with older houses in a way that takes into account their eclectic design and construction. But because of my declining and irregular income during the years we lived there, and the difficulty finding decent contractors, we weren’t able to put work into that project. I’m not really a handyman.

The studio room would have been great for a teenager’s bedroom, or a guest bedroom (for more adventurous guests). But it is not a flexible space, which, it turns out, is what I needed, more than anything. The lack of flexibility was carved into the shape of the room. If you place anything in front of those cabinet doors, you can’t open them without rearranging furniture. The room is built into the attic, so the ceiling slopes down steeply. It was possible to put a small table in that room, for recording two seated speakers. It was possible to put up some mic stands so I could stand in the middle of the room (where the ceiling was higher) and record guitar and vocals. But there wasn’t really space to keep both setups in place, and so it was very hard to use the room when I needed it.

In the office room, if you want to be able to open the very wide closet doors, you can’t put a desk or a table in that section of the room. There’s also a bathroom door that opens into the room. So a third of the room must remain clear just to be able to access the shallow closets. I used one closet to hold a build server, and Ethernet switch, and my clothes, and the other to hold my bins containing cables, and a few boxes. But this was a very small fraction of the storage space I actually needed given all my different projects.

In both the studio room and office, with little room for tables and shelves, most of what I was working on, or with, would wind up in piles on the floor. I knew it wasn’t a good idea to keep guitars in there. I kept my acoustic guitars, which I knew were sensitive to changes in humidity, downstairs. But I kept a few electric guitars in there, hung from the walls in those awkward angled corners, to keep them where I could pick them up and use them, and because there wasn’t another place for them. This wasn’t really a good idea — the necks and fretboards would dry out in winter, and the strings would corrode quickly from the humidity in summer, and they needed constant adjustment. There is barely any wall space where one can place bookshelves. If you set up a desk, the desk faces a steeply sloping attic wall, which feels confining and doesn’t allow you to rest your eyes by looking out a window. You can’t put much on the desk. And you can’t put up a whiteboard, and be able to reach it — there just isn’t flat wall space available. So, it was never very comfortable to work in that office, in an ergonomic sense.

To make the temperature in the suite bearable during the summer months, I placed a portable air conditioner on wheels in the bathroom, running its vent hose to the bathroom window. This made the already small bathroom uncomfortably cramped.

In the winter, the office was fifty degrees or colder all the time, and I’d have to wear three layers, a hat, and fingerless gloves. My finger joints would ache and my nose would drip from the cold air. In the summer, I’d be dripping sweat instead of snot, stripped down to shorts. It was never not uncomfortable. But I did my working-from-home jobs there, for five years. My desks were doors placed on plastic sawhorses and the office was always a cluttered mess, the floor piled with junk in boxes that I could find no other space for, but I made it work. And it is also the place I recorded and mixed and mastered my music and podcast and video projects during those years, such as they are. It was a very attractive room. It would have been a great place to lead a daily yoga workout for a small handful of people. But I never did figure out how to make it work well as an office and studio.

The new house features a big finished (more-or-less) walk-out basement. Most of it isn’t nearly as attractive. There’s no beautiful wooden “man-cave” pine paneling, and no beautifully refinished pine floors. The floor is some kind of ugly adhesive flexible tile glued down over slightly uneven concrete. There’s some kind of minor (I hope) water problem behind one of the walls. But the rooms are square rectangular volumes with full-height ceilings. There is good lighting in most of the basement. There is wall space where we can place shelving. Already, it is allowing me to actually put in a lot of shelving, and to start storing and organize things as I never could in our Saginaw house. I’m able to start opening up boxes and sorting and disposing of things that I’ve had in storage since the death of my mother in 2007. And it isn’t unbearably hot or unbearably cold. It’s hard for me to overstate how nice it is for me, to write or work on music in a place that isn’t unbearably hot or unbearably cold.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Three Mondays ago, having taken a few days off work so I could have a long weekend to work on the house, I spent the day in the office/studio, taking apart the network wiring, the computers, and the piles of junk. I sorted things into boxes: office supplies, guitar parts and music items, loose electronic devices such as Ethernet switches, and dozens of loose wires and cables. So many cables, that I finally gave up sorting them and just piled them into a box labeled “unsorted cables.” I found my missing Heil PR–40 microphone. I found many cables that I had needed, and bought again. It’s like an archaeological dig. There are piles and piles of papers. Some of them go back years, although my experience buying the new house has taught me that I should be cautious about disposing of — well, pretty much anything, really, that might have some connection to my income or expenses or taxes.

I made a great deal of progress. The studio room is now completely empty. The closets are completely empty. I threw away bags and bags of trash and bins of paper recycling. But there’s still a fair amount to sort — piles and piles of fiddly little things. Guitar picks, USB memory sticks, post-it notes, notebook pages, photographs, drawings, diagrams, wires, breadboards, screws. So many things that really shouldn’t just be thrown away — although I might get to that point, and just start sweeping everything that remains into the trash. Whether I actually sort it all or not, when that stage is done I’ll be able to take the last few things out of the rooms — the plastic sawhorses and doors that form my desks, and a couple of garage- sale chairs that need regluing. I’m hoping to get that finished this coming weekend.

That Monday, despite pounding glasses of water, and an iced coffee, and despite the fact that it wasn’t that warm in the upstairs, I was sweating like crazy all afternoon, and felt dizzy. My back ached, which I attributed to carrying heavy boxes and being 49 years old and far too sedentary. But then everything started to ache. In the car on the way home, so much hurt inside my rib cage, pain signals coming from various vague places, that I began to wonder if I was having some kind of mild heart attack, or some kind of problem with my kidneys or liver. Even my fingers and toes hurt.

It wasn’t until I got home that I found that Elanor had been coughing and feverish, and Grace was feverish, too. So this was pretty clearly some sort of a virus; a cold or flu. Little Elanor slept it off in just a couple of days. Grace and I did not.

I had barely any cough, just a fever each day. My head was packed, but I couldn’t get anything out. The strangest symptom was that my eyes were oozing gobs of yellow-green mucus. There was nothing I could blow out of my sinuses, but it was coming out of my eyes. My head throbbed horribly. Sitting or standing or even turning my head would result in stabbing pains through the back of my head.

This was no fun at all, and it lasted a long time. I never had a fever that was high enough to make me think I should urgently see a doctor, but it was a fever every single day. It is still with me, although it is getting much better. The weekend before last, we had Elanor’s baptism at the Cathedral in Saginaw. Elanor’s godmother Julie came in from out of town to accompany us. I’m afraid we were not great hosts. I just hope we didn’t give it to her.

I had to drive a carload of kids, wear my suit, get through the long, long day with a pounding head and fever and diziness, and drive a carload of kids back home. Grace was in the same boat in the other car. We got through it, and our youngest Potts was baptized, but it was an ordeal. I started trying to use over-the-counter nighttime cold remedies, which helped a bit. Aleve also helped the fever and joint pain.

Over the last week, the pressure in my head gradually began to ease. I managed to blow out a whole lot of blackened dried-up blood from my sinuses. There had been some kind of epic battle up in there, apparently taking place mostly while I was sleeping. I think it killed all the cilia in my mucous membranes, and they had to grow back. As the swelling went down inside my sinuses and air could get through again, I could hear these shockingly loud popping and grinding sounds coming from inside my head. It sounded like the ice breaking up on Lake Superior.

I’m still not back at 100% yet. I’m back at perhaps 75%. Things seem to still be moving in the right direction, and I’m grateful for that. Fortunately, through all this, while both Grace and I have been sick, we have somehow managed not to both be at our worst at the same time. So we’ve been able to trade off to some extent, as the functional adult who is able to make dinner when the other can’t do anything but go to bed early and moan.

A Fever of Deplorables

As Washington continues to burn down, fall over, and sink into the swamp, with Trump’s grotesque narcissim and full-press corruption infecting everying it touches, I’ve been increasingly jittery about politics as, I think, most of us have been. I’ve been compulsively tweeting, and yet for the most part almost no one is answering. Feeling isolated and desperate, I’ve increasingly felt the need to talk to people about our current political nightmare and dilemma. But the only people who seem to want to talk back are those who want to keep litigating election. Specifically, Clinton supporters who want to continue to cast blame on progressives who did not vote for Clinton.

In their view, the only thing that needs to be corrected next time is the voting practices of people to their left. They believe these folks didn’t vote “correctly.” They seem to think that teaching them to vote correctly can be accomplished, primarily, by mocking them, or recycling stale memes about Clinton’s e-mails. Oh, they also seem to think that it will help if they tell voters to their left that the only reason they didn’t vote for Clinton is that they either are misogynists, or unwittingly swallowed a lot of incorrect misogynist propaganda, promulgated by the far right, which they now incorrectly believe.

In this world view, there can exist no legitimate left-wing critique of Clinton. Anyone who voted for a third party candidate, or deliberately sat out the election because they did not feel that their values were represented in the race, is politically naïve, a dupe of the right wing, or a useless idealist who refuses to act in the world as it is.

This world view was summed up pretty well by Driftglass of the Professional Left Podcast. Post-election, he made these comments:

The ones who are saying ’See?" See? This is what you get for nominating a neo-con neo-liberal war-hawk… yeah. Whatever. I’m sure that makes you feel better… I’m going to make sure that as far as I’m concerned you’re shouting into a rain barrel, because I don’t need to listen to it. I’m not obliged to listen to that opinion.

No, of course he isn’t. But he and his wife seemed genuinely shocked that Trump won. And if it isn’t obvious, if you were shocked — well, you weren’t really paying attention to the mood of the electorate outside your bubble.

Driftglass went on:

If you were, as of yesterday, a Republican of conscience who was horrified by the fact that this guy was [at] the top of your party’s ticket, and you spoke out about it and you’re angry about it and you said ‘I can’t do it — I cannot do it — I just can’t,’ then we might disagree about a bunch of other things, but you’re on my team. Because we are in very bad times now. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to mock you, and when you step out of line I’m going to say terrible things about your propensity to backslide, but you’re on my team.

If you are a liberal who just couldn’t quite get your ass out of bed because, ‘you know, really, what’s the difference between the two?’ Or ‘you know, Hillary is so bad at these things and you know what?’ then you’re not on my team. And, to quote Michael Corleone, to Fredo, ‘I don’t wanna know ya… I don’t want to have anything to do with you… I don’t want to hear you when you come to visit our mother; give me a day’s notice so I can get the hell out of town. I have no interest [in] you, you’re not in my family anymore.’ This was your character test, and you failed. And maybe the next time there’s a big ’ole national character test you can step up and behave like a grown-up. But until then, I don’t know ya, and I don’t wanna know ya. I’m not gonna get mad, I’m not gonna yell, I’m not gonna blame; I just don’t wanna know ya or anything about you. Go away. That’s all I have to say.

And he’s apparently stuck to that. Yep, Driftglass has decided that he has more in common with “never-Trump” Republicans than he does with actual progressives who haven’t been willing to support the Democratic party’s ever-rightward, ever-moneyward, ever-more-corporate drift. Because bipartisan neoliberalism is, in his world, apparently not a thing worthy of concern, and apparently the idea that a candidate with a “D” after her name could be insufficiently “left” — isn’t a thing in his world.

Because Driftglass spends his time watching the Sunday shows. He believes the shows are important, in some sense; that they tell us where the bounds of the national debate are. But that’s true only if you believe the debate is confined to working politicians, the military, and the folks who do the rounds of these TV shows and newspaper columns — folks you might call part of the “cosmopolitan elite.” He’s very good at mocking “wingnut welfare,” where right-wing pundits can apparently always find a job, in a think tank, or magazine column, or on television. He’s been very insightful about pointing out how Rachel Maddow can only say certain things, because she’s employed by MSNBC, and speaking ill of her fellow pundits would be a quick way to lose her nice job. But he seems less able to understand that years of watching this range of debate, from A to B, have left him believing that the bounds of this debate pretty much are the same bounds as the American voters, and those outside this range aren’t worth paying any attention to, and deserve only a curt write-off. (“See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya!” or, is it, perhaps, “Smell ya later?”)

This view is also summed up in a tweet by Frank Conniff, formerly of television’s Mystery Science Theater 3000, who wastes no opportunity to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. In response to an argument where a Twitter member told him

That makes me wonder if you know what neoliberalism is. Hint: it’s neither new nor liberal

Conniff responded:

I do know what neoliberalism is - it’s a catchphrase invented by misogynists.

Conniff said this in reference to the campaign of a Democrat whose campaign logo was a red arrow, pointing to the right, telegraphing the Democratic party’s intent, for anyone who cared to look with open eyes).

I can’t really bring myself to listen to the Professional Left podcast any more, but after Driftglass dismissed me from his circle forever, or at least until I “grow up” (hey, I’m not quite fifty yet, hope springs eternal…) I still could not resist doing a few “needle drops” on later shows. Here are some more words of wisdom from Brother Driftglass (for I don’t think of him as beyond redemption, even if he thinks that way of me):

“If you stood with me, on this day, then you’re my brother, or my sister. And if you didn’t, then you’re not. It’s pretty much that simple.”

Anyway, That’s pretty much the definition of tribalism, dear reader, something the left loves to accuse the right of doing. It’s the epitome of treating politics as sports. Which is bad: see this article from Harpers in 2006:

https://harpers.org/archive/2006/02/crap-shoot/

And it is why people on the left can’t work together on — well, pretty much anything.

Especially not when this is what they think of the white working class:

“Do not buy into the bullshit that the DNC needs to work harder to cater to the ‘feelings’ of the white working class. The white working class needs to get the fuck over it.”

So, there you have it. Let that be a lesson for you, white working class!

Janine Garofolo echoed a similar sentiment on David Feldman’s show, in a long interview. I’m not going to dig it up now, because I’m tired. And sick. But maybe I’ll put it in the Director’s Cut of this blog post.

In a Dark Place

I’m in a strange and dark place. Hell, nationally we’re in a strange and dark place. I don’t feel that I can make any sense of my high school classmates, who tend to be Trump supporters talking mostly about one of two subjects: either about the horrors of abortion, or how global warming is a hoax.

I also don’t feel that I can make much more sense of my college classmates, who tend to be Clinton supporters, without reservation, or at least with no reservations they are willing to admit to beyone “well, no candidate is perfect.”

My Clinton-supporting friends are apparently fully comfortable with her militarism and corporatism, her racism, her vote for intervention in Iraq. They seem to be perfectly willing to let go of Yemen, and Syria, and Libya, and the arms deals with the Saudis, and the “tough on crime” comments about “superpredators,” and her coziness with Goldman Sachs, and her comfort level with fracking, and her apparent satisfaction with killings by drone.

They’re willing to let go welfare reform, which gave huge tax cuts to businesses and beat up the working poor. They’re willing to let go the build-up of the prison-industrial complex. They’re willing to let go Clinton’s support of No Child Left Behind, and her seat on the board of Wal-Mart, and her destruction of Honduras. To me, it’s not about the e-mails; it’s about the impunity to voilate security rules and apparent contentment to take the records of the Presidency out of reach of FOIA. But to them, it’s a meme: “but her e-mails” in response to any criticism I might make of Trump. Since I didn’t vote from Clinton, I’m not allowed to criticize Trump.

(That last criticism is, although it seems perfectly reasonable and self-evident to me, apparently “out of bounds” — because the “e-mails” attack is an attack from the right, it isn’t legitimate for anyone to her left to attack her on her carelessness with government documents and her willingness to continue practices pioneered by the Bush administration — see https://www.dailykos.com/story/2016/3/5/1496408/-A-Helpful-Guide-to-Criticizing-Hillary-Clinton-From-the-Left, and apparently any criticism of the Clinton Foundation is also considered out-of-bounds when coming from the left.)

The people willing to vote for Clinton are people for whom, apparently, none of this was disqualifying, because Trump is an openly sexist bigot and misogynist and a rapist and racist, as though you could put their two records on opposite sides of a balance beam and decide that one was clearly worse.

Oh, and her racism isn’t really racism because it’s couched in more polite words. (And because they pretty much agree with everything about it, as it represents, pretty much, the standard liberal analysis of Black Lives Matter and any other black leadership that becomes demanding).

Balanced in the Scales and Found Wanting

Trump doesn’t have a record in politics, and so, you know what? One of the two candidates clearly did have a record is worse. And it wasn’t Trump.

In 2017, todllers are drowning in the Mediterranean because Libya is a failed state. ISIS is creating chaos and death in the Midle East in part because Clinton’s policies led to the rise of ISIS.

One of these two candidates was extremely ethically challenged and crass; the other was a known war criminal who openly praised Henry Kissinger.

And I was supposed to chose the war criminal because of Trump’s various “isms.” But all Clinton’s “isms” — all the identity politics markers — supposedly outweighed her record as a war criminal. Guys, it was a chance to break the glass ceiling!

Yeah, that has a lot of meaning to white working class women. I’m sure it has something to do with internalized misogyny, because liberals know best.

And if I wasn’t willing to vote for the war criminal, I was the sexist, the middle-aged “Bernie Bro.” This analysis, of course, completely disparaged the opininions of the large number of young people, including young women, who supported Sanders and his hopeful economic message over the pantsuited crowd; and it was promulgated largely by the Washington Post, who decreed that Sanders was “un-electable” and made it so via a series of increasingly unhinged editorials. See: https://harpers.org/archive/2016/11/swat-team–2/

I’ll Be Over Here with the Useful Idiots

An article on Counterpunch summed it up pretty well: https://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/09/01/courting-right-smearing-left-ethos-clinton-campaign

Last month, adding to the archive of left-punching, conservative writer and ardent Clinton supporter James Kirchick enthusiastically denounced those he called “the Hillary Clinton-loathing, Donald Trump-loving useful idiots of the left.”

“In this weirdest year,” Kirchick wrote, “there may be no weirder phenomenon than the rise of the progressive Donald Trump supporter.”

Among those apparently deserving of the label “progressive Trump fan” are Glenn Greenwald, Rania Khalek, Zaid Jilani, Julian Assange, Jill Stein, and Katrina vanden Heuvel, all of whom, according to Kirchick, are “captive to a crude and one-dimensional anti-Americanism.”

Uh-huh. I’m anti-American.

The one sin that unites these progressive commentators, journalists, and political figures with Trump is, in other words, that they all dare to question the morality of America’s use of force abroad.

That’s me, or at least that’s one set of my reservations about Clinton. And so I don’t feel like I have a political party, any more like I feel like I have a clear class identity. It’s a little unnerving. But then, I’ve never had a conventional family; I’ve never had conventional friends; I’ve never been much of a “joiner” (I’ve always had the problem Groucho had, of not wanting to join any club that would want him as a member). I’ve become mostly accustomed to the fact that insisting on being an ethical person in an unethical world is to be an outsider, like the Christians that are “in the world but not of it.” As an outlier from childhood, I’ve always known this wasn’t going to be easy for me.

Never Hillary

The thing is, I was never going to vote for Hillary. I didn’t vote for Obama a second time, and regret voting for him the first time.

If you’d like to re-litigate the election, by all means, let’s re-litigate the election. Let’s examine why so many people didn’t vote, for starters. Next, let’s examine why so many Democrats didn’t turn out.

Blaming third-party voters is entirely an exercise in “trolleyology.” In the trolley scenario, a majority of folks are apparently comfortable with throwing a switch to run over group B to save group A. But there is a small number of people, myself included, who aren’t willing to reduce lives to numbers and do moral calculus that involves weighing criminals against each other. People like me are saying “hey, there’s someone strapping people to train tracks and sending trolleys speeding towards them — can we please do something about that?”

You know, us idealists unwilling to grow up and live in the real world.

Mark Fisher in his essay Exiting the Vampire Castle wrote:

‘Left-wing’ Twitter can often be a miserable, dispiriting zone. Earlier this year, there were some high-profile twitterstorms, in which particular left-identifying figures were ‘called out’ and condemned. What these figures had said was sometimes objectionable; but nevertheless, the way in which they were personally vilified and hounded left a horrible residue: the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism.

See: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=11299

Fisher reminds us that

Class consciousness is fragile and fleeting. The petit bourgeoisie which dominates the academy and the culture industry has all kinds of subtle deflections and pre-emptions which prevent the topic even coming up, and then, if it does come up, they make one think it is a terrible impertinence, a breach of etiquette, to raise it.

Yep. Poor whites are literally dying:

mortality rates of whites with no more than a high school degree, which were around 30 percent lower than mortality rates of blacks in 1999, grew to be 30 percent higher than blacks by 2015…

See: (https://www.brookings.edu/bpea-articles/mortality-and-morbidity-in-the–21st-century/)[https://www.brookings.edu/bpea-articles/mortality-and-morbidity-in-the–21st-century/]

The authors suggest that the increases in deaths of despair are accompanied by a measurable deterioration in economic and social wellbeing, which has become more pronounced for each successive birth cohort. Marriage rates and labor force participation rates fall between successive birth cohorts, while reports of physical pain, and poor health and mental health rise.

But the “white working class needs to get the fuck over it.” That’s the message we need to hear. Not one of solidarity. That is, if the Democrats want to keep losing.

I’m not sure it’s entirely clear to us yet either what people are responsible for supporting Trump, or the most productive way to try to gain solidarity with these people for the purposes of grass-roots organizing. I’ve seen think pieces talking about the white working class and why they voted “with their middle fingers.” I’ve seen think pieces explaining that the bulk of Trump voters were not really working-class, economically, at all, and educated, higher-income, middle-class white men went for Trump in large numbers.

All I know for sure is that sisterhood really wasn’t powerful, the Democratic turnout was weak, the Democratic party was preaching to the choir, identity politics aren’t compelling to most working-class and middle-class whites, and the 2016 election season was long, brutal, and incredibly wearying. I know Michigan democrats went for Sanders, but Clinton still seemed to take the state for granted. Whatever you think about her e-mails, or RussiaGate, and I don’t honestly think that much about them, I don’t think anyone could claim that strategy helped her.

Animals

In this conflicted time I’ve been listening to a lot of music. I was listening to Radiohead, but its passive voice didn’t seem to inspire me much. I found myself drawn to a Pink Floyd album I was aware of but didn’t, I think, ever fully listen to, back in the day: Animals. I’ve been listening to this album, pretty much over and over:

If you didn’t care what happened to me,
And I didn’t care for you,
We would zig zag our way through the boredom and pain
Occasionally glancing up through the rain.
Wondering which of the buggers to blame
And watching for pigs on the wing.

But, unfortunately, I do care.

Meanwhile, I’m reading news headlines today that bars in Washington, DC will show former FBI director James Comey’s testimony live on their televisions and offer drinks including the “covfefe cocktail.” We’re going to watch be watching for pigs on the wing, hoping that something damning will come out of that testimony. Of course it will, but that isn’t the real question. The question is whether anyone in a position to do something, will do something. Meanwhile we’re retreating further into our bubbles “wondering which of the buggers to blame.”

What I mostly see is that the media frenzy about Russia is continuing unabated, but getting us almost nowhere. I believe the truth here is fairly obvious, but yet irrelevant. Trump is mobbed up, deep in the pocket of Russian and Chinese and even Iranian business interests. This situation doesn’t even require Russian hacking or election meddling to be completely unethical. But that’s largely irrelevant as long as Congress refuses to act on the ethics issues, and they seem to have every incentive not to act.

What will take down this president, if anything, is not these ethics issues, or even his blatant abuse of power. President Trump will go down if his owners decide it’s time for him to go down. He’ll take a fall if Wall Street decides he is a losing proposition, or Russia or China decide they don’t want to throw good money after bad. That’s about it.

Apparently I’m not the only one to re-evaluate Animals in light or recent events; it looks like Roger Waters has been using songs from Animals to openly criticize Trump: http://radio.com/2017/01/23/pink-floyd-animals–40/

I’ve had to stop reading and responding to just about everything on Facebook (that’s not necessarily a bad thing). I’ve had to back away from Twitter. I’ve had to stop listening to NPR. Folks around me are complaining that so much is going on, in this administration, but really it isn’t — they are getting hardly anything done. And there are actually very few news stories, aside from these constant leaks and staff issues. There are too many cows frantically chewing too little cud.

I’d like to say that getting rid of these inputs was freeing up time to spend with other friends or family. That’s not exactly true now. I am working on it, though. I’ve been getting my home studio back together, with a setup that should make it easy to record an interview-style podcast. So expect to see some more podcast episodes from me in the near future, if that’s the kind of thing you look for. Although as I’ll be shouting into a well, maybe it doesn’t matter.

So, here’s what I’ve been reading!

The New Yorker Backlog

I’ve had a subscription to the New Yorker magazine since last fall, and what with this, that, and the other thing, I got very far behind. I’m the first to admit I have a problem with the way I read these magazines. Apparently the right way to do it is to skim through them, looking at articles, perhaps reading the first paragraph or two, in order to decide if you are interested enough to read the rest.

I don’t seem to be able to do that. I can skip the opening section on events, because mostly it just makes me frustrated to read about the concerts and film festivals I won’t be able to attend, but as for the articles, I pretty much feel compelled to read every one from start to finish, even if it becomes a slog partway through. And so I’ve done that. I’ve caught up on everying. In the last few months I’ve read all the issues from September or so through the end of May, and I’m almost up to the most recent issue.

That’s a lot of text. I have mixed feelings about all this reading. On the one hand, I feel better informed about many things — for example, I was quite interested in the profiles of Rod Dreher and Michael Flynn. It was quite interesting to learn about the demilitarization of the FARC. But for every piece like that, I find that I’m dragging myself through articles about thoroughly unlikeable people doing thoroughly unlikeable things with their enormous wealth — for example, a recent article about a custody battle between two unmarried women fighting over a boy brought to this country in an overseas adoption. I can’t find a heroine in that story, just abuse of power, failure of empathy for others, and open contempt for the ways in which we’ve traditionally protected children through marriage.

I’ve settled into a pattern. For some reason, I usually read front to back until I get to the story. Then I skip the story, and go to the end, and read the articles in reverse order until I get back to the story. Then I read the story. Often, the story doesn’t strike me as very good. But once in a while, there is a really good one. This story by John Lanchester is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. It beautifully defies expectations while maintaining an impressive forward momentum, containing not one wasted word: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/03/signal-john-lanchester

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

I’ve seen this book kicking around the store shelves for a few months ago, and finally picked up a copy. It’s good Reynolds, with some of his more horrific body horror elements toned down a bit for a wider audience, but still present to remind you who you are reading. This is the story of two sisters who are fleeing an oppressive home life and go into space. It’s basically a seafaring story in space, complete with solar sails and piracy. The setting is a lot like the world of Serenity. I almost feel like Reynolds may have borrowed, or at least adapted the plot from a seafaring story I’ve read before (it isn’t Treasure Island).

The story does not really need to be in space. That makes it, I think, at least by some definitions, space opera instead of science fiction. That’s at least partially true of a lot of Reynolds’ work, but it seems to be more true of this one. I also don’t feel like the characterization is deep enough to make it truly interesting. The world-building does not feel very complete. The plot twists are a pretty predictable. But on the positive side, it moves along pretty quickly and it’s a relatively short book. It might make a good introduction to Reynolds for people who don’t routinely read big science fiction novels already, such as younger readers.

Several Children’s Books

I get bored pretty easily, reading the same children’s books to the kids night after night. They get bored, too, and so I like to vary the reading level, with something targeted at the older kids, and something targeted at the younger.

As a semi-random experiment one night, I pulled out my copy of Crime and Punishment, the version translated by Oliver Ready. After explaining a bit about Russian names, we just dove in. And I was a bit startled to discover that the kids love it. I have to stop to explain certain words, but they love the settings and the characters. Ready’s translation really is a big improvement. It brings out the pathos and humor of characters like Marmeladov, and Raskolnikov’s mother. In fact, this translation has made me realize something about the original that I think I never really understood after reading older translations — it is not, in fact, that heavy a book. And in parts, it seems closer to melodrama and satire than the heavy moral drama I had previously believed it to be. There’s just a lot more subtlety ready to be picked out by the active reader. A. N. Wilson says of this new translation “That knife-edge between sentimentality and farce has been so skilfully and delicately captured here. A truly great translation.” See: https://www.spectator.co.uk/2014/09/crime-and-punishment-by-fyodor-dostoevsky-book-review/

We are also continuing to read the fourth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in which Rowling at one point writes “…said Sirius seriously.” Yes, she really wrote that. She’s pretty shameless with the cheap gags now and then. This story features a falling-out between Harry and Ron. I suppose my kids must be able to identify with this, since they are frequently having spats between each other, but honestly, I just want to get through it. These books get longer and longer and past a certain point, they aren’t all that much fun to read out loud, because so little happens in the amount of text I can read in a typical bedtime reading session.

I’m also reading from the next book in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series, I Shall Wear Midnight. These are getting darker and more serious, but they are not always fun to read aloud. In this one Tiffany seems to be burned out due to the constant trauma of being a watch and, perhaps, is losing her mind a bit. These books have really slow parts. I’m hoping this one picks up soon. The plot summary says that she is supposed to travel to Ankh-Morpork, which ought to liven things up. There’s only one more book in the series after this: The Shepherd’s Crown, the last book Pratchett worked on before his death.

I have read the children the first few chapters from another adaptation of a Doctor Who serial written by Douglas Adams. Not originally conceived as a novel, the book Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet was adapted from multiple drafts of Adams’ screenplay by James Goss. Although one might think the Doctor Who worlds and Hitchhiker’s worlds were quite distinct, Adams shifted plots and story elements between the two worlds on several occasions. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency borrows from Doctor Who scripts for Shada and City of Death. The “Key to Time” story element — really a “dismantled MacGuffin,” a way to introduce a number of plot coupons http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DismantledMacGuffin — reads superficially a lot like the search for the parts of the Wikkit Gate in Life, the Universe, and Everything. And apparently that novel began life as an unproduced screenplay Adams wrote called Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen.

Anyway. Is it any good? Well, in the notes at the end of the book, Goss talks about how despite trying to keep every story element he could, at some point he had to cut out some pieces, because it just didn’t read well as a novel. I found that encouraging. But the first couple of chapters are, in fact, poorly disguised info-dumps. The kids fell asleep and I could barely slog through them. Things pick up a bit when we meet some characters and I can start to do voices, and pick up a bit more when the Doctor appears.

But as to whether this whole thing is worth reading as a novel — the jury of my children is still out. I don’t think I’ve ever watched the whole “Key to Time” arc, although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen episodes from that sequence, as back in junior high and high school I occasionally got to watch random Tom Baker episodes of Doctor Who on PBS. They had their funny moments, but I mostly remember the melodrama, dumb dialogue, and cheesy, cheesy sets and monsters. So, I’m not sure any of us will find this book enjoyable enough to finish. It may be for the hardcore fan of the Tom Baker Doctor Who, or completists who would like to own everything Adams worked on. While I have a soft spot for both, I can’t really count myself in either camp.

I’m also reading at a few other books as time and interest dictate. We’ve nearly finished Secret of the Marauder Satellite. I’ve let Oliver Twist languish, as the kids didn’t seem to be getting into it, but we might go back to it. I wonder if they might enjoy Great Expectations more? And we have more to read from Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. I’d like to start reading Burn Math Class, but I think I’ll need to dig up a small whiteboard to make that effective.

On My Stack

On my own “to-read” stack, now that I shouldn’t need to put in quite so much effort to keep up with the New Yorker, is Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel Borne. I haven’t really started it, but reviews suggests that it just might do the things that made Annihilation so great, while not doing the things that made the rest of the Southern Reach trilogy disappointing by comparison.

I’ve picked up new copies of Philip K. Dick’s short stories in new printings from Citadel. If you know me, you know I’m all about the uniform editions. Meanwhile, I think I’m actually going to sell my Subterranean Press collection of hardcover editions of these collections on eBay, if I can get a reasonable price for them. They are beautiful, well-made books, and I love to hold well-made books, but these editions strip out the original introductions, prefaces and publication information about each story. This is probably due to copyright issues, but it makes these volumes less readable than the inexpensive paperbacks, and so I will pass them on.

Closing Words

I’ve been torn recently, wondering if should even attempt to continue this blog. I wondered if I should just announce a hiatus, perhaps until September, and give myself some space not to worry about not coming up with more content. But I should remind myself — even if I feel anxious when I haven’t written, or recorded, I always feel better having done so. And so I think it is best to continue, in the hopes that something useful will come out of all this angst.

There’s more I should say. We’ve been watching the tenth series of Doctor Who. I have thoughts. But they will have to wait. Until next time!

Ypsilanti, Michigan
June 6th and 7th, 2017

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Hurrying Up and Waiting

Today is Monday, March 13th, 2017.

January was very difficult. February was difficult. March looks like it will be (wait for it) difficult. But we have gotten through some huge changes, and we’re all alive and mostly well! Thriving, even. Although also exhausted.

It’s been a case of “hurry up and wait” over and over — frantic activity alternating with anxious delays.

We successfully finished the long “hurry up and wait” process involved with purchasing a new home. The original planned closing date was January 24th. We sailed right past that. Every few days, we’d get a note saying that our loan underwriter needs more paperwork — documentation, letters of explanation of something-or-other, or water tests. Lots of water tests. We thought we had completed all the required water tests back before Christmas, but then suddenly were told that a nitrite test result (“nitrite,” not “nitrate”) was needed. We thought they had all the tax documents they could possibly need, but then suddenly they needed more. So, we’d scramble frantically again to get them more paperwork. Since I was in Ann Arbor half the week, and I didn’t have every one of my old files with me, this often meant more delay, until I could get back to Saginaw and dig through my files. For example, I had to dig up a letter from 2007 documenting an annuity that I inherited from my mother. I’m just fortunate I still had that letter, because it was pretty much the only documentation I had on those payments.

Anyway, the wear and tear on our nerves was hard, and got harder the longer the process went on. My hands shook a lot, and my heart raced constantly. I’d cut out most caffeine, and had to remember to take deep breaths, try to eat healthy food, and try to let go of the idea that I could control — well, anything. Whenever an e-mail message came in from our loan officer, I’d have a mild panic attack. Each time there was another series of demands, I’d work as hard as I could to get everything done that I can possibly could. Then I’d have to just tell myself, again, “I’ve done everything I can,” and let it go, and let the professionals working on our behalf do what they can. Trying to maintain my equanimity was a real challenge.

To raise the degree of difficulty a bit, we had a baby. Our plan had been to buy the house, move, and have the baby. But the baby had other ideas. Elanor Susan Potts was born on January 24th, ten years after the death of my mother, Susan, on Susan’s birthday. Is that creepy, or sad, or wonderful? Well, it seems like a little of all three. Baby Elanor was early, by about three weeks. Grace needed a C-section, her third. I made a lot of trips up and down US 23.

We have not yet sold our home in Saginaw. It is on the market, but it is not really ready to show; it is a terrible mess of half-packed boxes, and we have not moved our furniture out yet. We are living in our new home with no furniture except some beds. I think we’ve grown to actually enjoy the minimalist lifestyle in the new house. But every Sunday I’ve been back in Saginaw working on sorting, packing, and bringing carloads of stuff back down to Ypsilanti.

As for the books: I’ve been bringing boxes of books to our basement from storage; they are stacked on pallets. There are about 115 books moved so far. The final count will probably be close to 150 of the 12" x 12" x 12" boxes, with a few extra open boxes that held books that their owners didn’t want to seal up in boxes. The final total will be well over 3,000 books.

We don’t have any shelving for the books yet. I estimate that they will require almost 250 feet of shelving. That would amount to something like 16 tall Billy bookcases. And that’s just for the books, not counting any CDs, DVDs, or Blu-Ray discs.

I intend to purge a number of them as I unpack, but the numbers are still a bit stunning. What with the many expenses coming up, I am scratching my head, wondering just how and when we will be able to get shelving installed. Given the weight and number and variety of sizes of the books, I don’t think just buying some Billy bookcases from Ikea is going to cut it. We need to get a carpenter into the basement and have some custom, heavy-duty, floor-to-ceiling, properly-anchored-in shelving built with the specifications that we need.

What with everything going on, I have not gotten a lot of reading done. But I’ve gotten a little bit done.

Washington by Ron Chernow

I picked up an abridged audiobook (on CD) of Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington, simply called Washington: A Life. I have the book in print form and started to read it, but had to set it aside. I just wasn’t up to reading such a long book. The unabridged Audible version runs for over 40 hours. This abridged version runs for just 12 hours. So a lot is missing. But I’ll give credit where it is due: the abridged version doesn’t seem disjointed or choppy.

It took me a while, because I only listened to it while driving, and sometimes I just wasn’t concentrating well enough to follow the story and so had to shut it off, but I finally finished it. (I did a lot of driving over the last few months). Washington’s story is amazing. I knew the big picture of his life, but there are plenty of details here I wasn’t very familiar with. I did not know, or did not remember, that Washington inherited slaves. I knew that pretty much all the founders were from aristocratic families (Hamilton being a notable exception), but I did not realize quite how wealthy Washington’s family was, how much advantage his early connections gave him, and the details of his eagerness to acquire land. I was not aware of some of his close shaves in the French and Indian War. I knew he had the typical ambivalence towards slavery, but hadn’t realized quite how contradictory his writings and actions on the issue of slavery could be (Chernow describes one letter where Washington is defending the rights of slaveholders not to have their “property” seized in abolitionist states, but then he “suddenly remembers that he opposes slavery.”)

Listening to even this abridged audiobook, I found myself having to confront the general, long-standing difficulty I seem to have with reading history. I think I tend to dislike reading history not because I dislike names and dates, but because I like narratives and stories. In historical accounts like this narratives are necessarily fragmentary because the evidence and source materials are fragmentary. When the writing can focus on a particular incident that forms a narrative arc, like the story of Benedict Arnold’s bizarre betrayal, and his wife Peggy’s strange role in the story. This is a fascinating incident and I found myself wishing that I was listening to the unabridged version of the text. But Chernow’s text can be difficult, especially given my limited knowledge of the political and historical background. I found myself often realizing that my “ears had glazed over” and I had lost track of what I was hearing, and backing up the CD by a few minutes to listen again. Chernow’s writing can be both really compelling and a little soporific. I learned a new word: “truckle.”

When I started to arrive at the end of the book, I hesitated to listen to the ending. Biographies of historic figures have to end and they have to end in death. Listening to the details of Washington’s death, even in abridged form, affected me deeply. But he faced his death with his trademark emotional restraint, as a stoic. The details about the eventual emancipation of his slaves, and the provisions he made for them, ends the narrative on a hopeful, humane note.

Hamilton by Ron Chernow

After finishing Washington, I switched right over to Hamilton, a book I started to read in print and again set aside. I am nearly finished with the abridged audiobook now. I knew a bit more about Hamilton’s life than I knew about Washington’s. Chernow gives side-stories and back-stories of other fascinating figures, such as the Burr. I was not aware of the depths of Burr’s villainy. Chernow writes with undisguised rage at the awful fraud of the Manhattan Company, a company ostensibly founded to provide clean water in the midst of a multi-year outbreak of yellow fever. One can understand, a little, how Hamilton wound up in his fatal duel. In other episodes we learn a bit more detail of Hamilton’s views on the national debt: he believed it was important to create one, and for the Federal government to assume the debts of the states. But he didn’t intend that debt to be permanent. (Why have we never had a “sinking fund?”)

As a fan of the musical I knew the basic outline of Hamilton’s life. His strange, assertive personality is more deeply illuminated here, even in the abridged version. His many personal faults align with a seeming death-wish. In modern terms, he’d be considered a risk-taking individual. There clearly were connections between his horribly death-saturated early life, his lowly origins, and his combative, driven career. Compulsively confessional, and driven to wordiness, his faults remind me in some ways of my own faults.

In many ways my view of the world is quite “Hamiltonian.” I’m not a royalist; I was appalled to learn that Hamilton at one point considered the idea that the American presidency should be a hereditary office. But like Hamilton, I believe in the value of education, expertise, professionalism, and experience. This book forces me to examine my beliefs about the world and who should govern people. The differing views of the founders on populism, democracy, meritocracy, immigration, and other very “modern” topics makes Hamilton’s life incredibly relevant today.

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

I finished reading my children Wintersmith and we are now slowly working our way through The Shepherd’s Crown. These books confirm my opinion that these are not Pratchett’s best work. A Hat Full of Sky was more compelling but even that one felt over-long. Pratchett seems to continually fall back on the Feegles as comic relief to leaven overly talky books that are a little light on plot. When they come together, they have some really beautiful scenes and moments. There just seem to be a lot of pages in between these scenes and moments.

Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds

I re-read the second of the Revelation Space novels. Its darkness feels a little quaint and even a bit silly now, like a cheesy horror movie whose big bad villain is not nearly as scary as you remember. But the book moves along well, with flashbacks to a second narrative that parallels the main storyline nicely, and growing mystery over the narrator’s identity. Reynolds shows in this book that he is getting a handle on how to move a plot along, and compress time reasonably well, so that the narrative doesn’t have to cover every moment. It’s still a pretty big potboiler of a space opera, but I really found myself looking forward to reading a few chapters each morning.

This book has gone through many printings and so I am a little puzzled to keep finding typographical errors and apparent editing errors. For example, on p. 621 of the mass market Ace paperback:

The thrust beams of the two deceleration ships were not to be underestimated as potential weapons, but neither Armesto or Omdurman would have the nerve to sweep their torches over my ship.

“Deceleration” here should read “decelerating.” I came across a half-dozen or so similar errors, and I found them a bit surprising. And I am still puzzling over the book’s final line, and why Reynolds included it. But it’s a fun book, and holds up well for what it is — a dark space opera thriller.

Death’s End by Cixin Liu

I am nowhere near finished with this doorstop, the third book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, but I’ll finish it eventually. The best I can say about this third book so far is that the author has, in each volume, managed to startle me with his untamed ideas. The storytelling itself is not always worthy of the originality of the ideas, at least in translation, but it is the ideas that keep me interested.

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

I came across this book in a classroom and decided it would make a great bedtime story book. It did. Brown wrote and illustrated this book about a robot marooned on a forested island and her attempts to understand the lives of the animals. She becomes the foster mother of a young duck called Brightbill. The kids absolutely loved this story, and I enjoyed it quite a bit myself. The chapters are very short, so it is easy to read a few chapters at bedtime and then find a stopping point. I recommend it for kids of a variety of ages. My five, eight, ten, and twelve-year-olds were all very much engaged by the story. (It didn’t hurt that I gave some of the animal characters funny voices).

Wollheim’s World’s Best SF Series 4

This collection was originally titled The 1975 Annual World’s Best SF.

I’ve made it a small “side quest” in recent years to track down the science fiction anthologies I remember from my childhood. They are long out of print, but if you manage to find the right hole-in-the-wall bookstores, you can often find copies still in good condition. I remember this one very well; I probably read it when I was somewhere around the age of twelve. Things I read at that age seem to have been burned into my brain.

In particular, I remembered one story very well: “A Full Member of the Club,” by Bob Shaw. This is a story about branding and consumerism and it seems even more relevant now than it did then. I read it aloud to Grace and she agreed that it was a great story.

Other notable stories in this collection include “A Song for Lya” by George R. R. Martin (hey, does anyone remember when George R. R. Martin could write? Those were good times). In 1975 some of the strangeness of the New Wave movement in Science Fiction was still present, and so we have some surreal and beautiful stories including “The Sun’s Tears” and “The Bleeding Man.” There’s an Asimov story too, “Stranger in Paradise.” Reading this story, second-rate Asimov even at the time, is a reminder that while Asimov could craft beautiful scenes and ideas his writing was painfully utilitarian. He stands out in this collection like a sore thumb, his clunky sentences and awkward exposition pretty much burying a story with some interesting ideas about autism and robotics.

Oddly, I also had very clear memories of Wollheim’s introduction, which begins:

Utopia ended in 1972. Unfortunately most of us didn’t know we were living through the world’s Utopian Age when it was on. For most of the world it did not exist then or now. But for some of the world, a small minority of people living in the United States and Western Europe, it was as near Utopia as human history had ever produced since the dawn of history — and may not produce again for a long, long time.

This struck me as insightful then, at (I think) the end of the Carter administration, and now it strikes me as prophetic, since the slow collapse of the American dream is no longer just a fringe idea. Wollheim continued:

What we are saying is that the period of the Sixties represented the highest technological level of society ever achieved and the most unlimited expenditure of the planet’s resources and energy for the whim and pleasure of those who could afford it. They represented perhaps ten pecent of the inhabitants of the U.S.A. and Canada, and a smaller percentage of people in Britain and the adjoining European areas. As for the rest, the vast majority, they received a few odd drippings from the overflowing table but mainly they had to keep on working to make ends meet and worrying about the same things that people have worried about since the rise of Sumeria.

And so here we are. Wollheim asserts that the stories in the book all represent visions of utopias, or perhaps dystopias. That’s a bit of a stretch given that a number of the stories do very little world-building. They’re all worth reading, and of at least historic interest, but I wouldn’t call them all “good.” As I’m able, and as I get them unpacked, I plan to continue to read through more of these old anthologies, and see what else I can come to understand about the present by reading about what writers in the past thought about the future.

Next Time

There are several other books in progress. I’ve been reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid to my kids. This was a book that was hugely significant to me; it was probably the root of my lifelong interest in abstract thought, logic, recursion, paradox, proof, puzzles, formal systems, and a range of other topics. Even talking about the book itself is a big topic. The kids are loving it and I’m loving it too.

I’ve also been reading the kids chapters from Oliver Twist. And we’ve seen two movies in theaters recently: The Lego Batman Movie and Hidden Figures. I have things to say about both of those movies.

I’m sure there are more books I’ve either finished or abandoned; I’ll have to look through my box. There’s so much more I’d like to write about, but it’s been a long time since I posted a blog entry, and I don’t want to wait any longer. Until next time!

Saginaw, Michigan
March 13–15, 2017