Monday, May 22, 2017

The Simple Truth

There is no power equal to that possessed by the common man. The most powerful kings and emperors have only ever existed at the leave of the average citizen. All the power that any institution can have over the common worker is illusory. Armies, prisons, corporations, all fall to dust without the support of us. The only power institutions and rulers have is the power to divide us against ourselves. To that end they use all their efforts and all their skill, and all too often they succeed. They need our support even in suppressing us, need some of us to act against the good of all. Those who rule over us could never be where they are without a fair share of Judases.

Rulers divide using fear. No one would tolerate the despot if it weren’t for the fear that something worse awaited us should we not follow him. Fear leads to hatred and then to violence, which we all know feeds upon itself. The violence of one group creates the justification for the violence of another, which then places the justification for violence back on the other side of the court. Thus are we divided and thus are we conquered.

The games those who seek to rule us play are too crafty for us to understand, the average mind incapable of thinking in such twisted patterns. But do not fear that that makes you ignorant, do not feel inferior because you are incapable of thinking like them or cannot outwit them. A healthy mind should not even attempt such thoughts of manipulation and deceit. It is a game that well-adjusted people should never play.

Do not fear that you will never be free from their machinations. They will always be ahead of you in the games they play, but all their plotting will come to nothing if you keep to the basic principles you know in your heart to be true. They cannot manipulate you if they cannot make you stray from your core values.

Do not hate, even when you do not understand. Do not support violence, even when you are afraid for yourself and your family. Hatred and violence are their tools, not ours. They make tyrants strong but they are the ruin of civilizations.

Have faith, in yourself and in the overall goodness of humanity. Perhaps people are not naturally angels, but neither are they naturally devils. The deciding factor is the way we choose to perceive ourselves and others. If you commit to seeing the better angels of your own soul and of those you meet, you will turn the tide in favor of goodness.

We are meant to see our fellow humans as our brothers and sisters, our parents and children. This is the natural order of things, the way humanity has lived for countless generations. Primitive man realized he was part of a family as much as he was an individual. Advancing, he realized he was part of something larger, part of a clan. Then still something larger, a tribe, a city, a nation. The history of humanity is one of searching for belonging in an ever-bigger community. We have now arrived at the logical endpoint, the realization that we are all one people, a global family, each of us depending upon others for our own survival.

The ties between people are not merely economic ones, they are far richer than that. Nor need they be hierarchical ones, relationships between master and slave, ruler and ruled. Those are primitive kinds of relationships, dysfunctional relationships. Our society has learned on an individual level that healthy relationships are built on respect, equality, and love. We have learned that when you are treated cruelly and are manipulated by another person that the best thing you can do is to distance yourself from that individual. It is time we as a society begin to distance ourselves from the kind of people who create unhealthy relationships. Equally important, we must dismantle all systems of government and enterprise that encourage such unhealthy relationships.

Do not follow those who would lead through power. Do not react to them. Step away. Create your own reality. They will attack you, they will assail you, they will try to make you believe the world is coming to an end. Do not listen. Do not enter through the door they try to push you through. They want you to live in their world. Do not go. It is a horrible world. Build instead your own world. You are both world builders, he and you. Build a beautiful world. Build it and do not doubt.

Of course, doubt has been inevitable, because that is what makes you different from those who seek to rule others. They do not doubt because they never stop to consider anything other than their desire to dominate. Doubt if you must, for your world is built stronger in the end by your ability to doubt. Doubt will cause you at the outset to contemplate that those who seek to dominate perhaps have the answers. If that is the case, then continue to doubt. Doubt until you find answers that give you strength and surety, not doubt and pain. Doubting in the end will give you greater surety, will provide a solid base for all that you build from then on out. But in the end no structure is built by doubt but through faith and will. Eventually you will have to build the world that crowds out theirs.

Do not accept their world. Do not accept their arguments. Do not accept the idea that it is their prerogative to frame the debate. They desire a master/slave relationship, and too often they get others to accept that paradigm because they are then permitted to be masters on a lower rung. Many who are dominated seek solace in dominating others.

They use the threat of violence. Your only answer to violence is to refuse to succumb to it. That is you showing you do not accept violence as an answer. That is you creating a peaceful world and it is your only hope of ever building one, the only hope of converting recruits from the other side.

We cannot beat them at their game. We can only survive by sticking to ours. We must play by our rules, we must live by our standards, our ethics, our ways of life. We must not bow to statues they have carved, nor accept the choices they have given us.

A better world is possible but they will never willingly give it to us. The war they say is needed to achieve peace will only lead to other wars. A better world is possible but we will never achieve it using their methods. We cannot ever dominate them, but we can entice them. We can set the good example. By showing others a better way, we will win many to our cause. And as they leave more will follow. Those who remain will lose much of what had made them strong. And if they do not then see the light they will at least play OUR game until the opportunity to play theirs arises once again.

You have seen a better way, and therefore it is incumbent upon you to lead. Perhaps it is not your inclination to lead but it is nevertheless your responsibility. Refusing to lead will mean allowing others to do so, those who desire to lead but are unfit to do so. Perhaps the best leaders, as Plato and George Washington would attest to, are not the ones who are willing to lead but those who must.

And each one of us has an opportunity to lead. Even if only in the smallest of ways we can still be leaders, teaching others the virtues and practices that will build a better world. Every time you hold a door open for someone, you are not only doing a good deed but you are being a role model, and that is what it means to lead. Every time you step out on a limb, take a chance of failing by doing the right thing, a noble thing, you place yourself at the front of a surge of a movement. Success will come not in one massive wave but in the countless successions of waves crashing upon the shore, transforming our world in unseen but substantial ways. Every single wave makes its contribution, each surge that reaches upwards and pushes onwards will bring us where we need to be. Even when we do not see it, even when the rocks of indifference seem no different than they were the day before, we must be aware that in time they will give way. And all of us, each of us, is pushing towards that day.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Self-Publishing And The Gatekeepers

"... The chief qualification of ninety-nine per cent of all editors is failure. They have failed as writers. Don't think they prefer the drudgery of the desk and the slavery to their circulation and to the business manager to the joy of writing. They have tried to write, and they have failed. And right there is the cursed paradox of it. Every portal to success in literature is guarded by those watch-dogs, the failures of literature. The editors, the sub-editors, associate editors, most of them, and the manuscript readers for the magazines and book-publishers, most of them, nearly all of them, are men who wanted to write and failed. And yet they, of all creatures under the sun the most unfit, are the very creatures who decide what shall and what shall not find its way into print–they, who have proved themselves not original, who have demonstrated that they lack the divine fire, sit in judgment upon originality and genius. And after them comes the reviewers, just so many more failures. Don't tell me that they have not dreamed the dream and attempted to write poetry and fiction; for they have, and they have failed. Why, the average review is more nauseating than cod-liver oil...."

-- Jack London, "Martin Eden"

All of us who learned in our youth a love of reading have likewise developed a love of books and those who introduced books to us. Somewhere above us, we imagined, way upon high, were those who decided what was and was not worthy to be set into print, given a lovely cover, and permitted on the shelves of that greatest of all stores, the bookstore. There was a certain magic to the process and there was a saintliness bestowed upon all who were involved in the process.

Most likely, too, we first acquired the love of reading from a teacher, a parent, or some other authority figure. Books were sacred mysteries passed down from the elders to the youth, an initiation of sorts, necessary before we could enter into this new world that only books could lead us to.

The same thing goes with young people who get their first taste and desire to become writers. Somewhere in their past they were given an assignment by a teacher to write, at which point they discovered they liked the process of creating something from nothing. Maybe they even felt as if they were talented at it and, maybe, a teacher or older person had taken interest in the writing they had done and complimented them on it. Perhaps they even encouraged them to pursue their interest in writing. Maybe they even went as far as sharing it with the class or submitting it to a publication or a competition.

We writers are always looking for our work to be recognized, acknowledged, appreciated. It is natural, after all, for those who spend so much time creating in solitude to want to know that other people can relate to what we have done. If we didn’t get positive feedback of some sort, it would be reasonable that we should question our relatedness to the outside world, even our sanity.

Which is why it has always been the case that the writer has sought the recognition and acceptance of those who are the gatekeepers of what does and does not get published. Of course, in the past, that was the only option for a writer to get read, to win the favor of those who stand between the writer and an audience. If you could not win favor with the publishing houses or the media, few people would ever get the chance to read your work.

Such is not the case anymore. Granted, it is still easier to appeal to those systems and institutions that know how to smooth the way for a writer that fits their mold, but it is not the only way. The potential is now there to bypass the gatekeepers and thereby bypass the demands they place upon you. You no longer have to conform your writing to their tastes, no longer have to alter and mangle your work to fit into their conception of what a given audience wants.

Let us put aside all notions that publishing is anything other than a business, that publishers are interested in bringing your thoughts to readers rather than bringing the reader’s cash into their pockets. Don’t get me wrong, the art of writing can still be sacred and pure, as can the act of reading, but to get from writer to reader it must pass through the meatgrinder that is the market, where art and integrity are at best talking points.

And while publishing has been little more than a business for quite some time, probably dating back to Gutenberg, the machinery and industry that controls the process has only become more focused on the bottom line since then. The big publishers are getting bigger and the smaller ones are getting gobbled up or are fading away. The market for booksellers is increasingly coming into the hands of a few players such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The bigger the institutions making the decisions the greater the distance between the decision makers and those who have concerns other than profit.

Thus, the person in charge of reading manuscripts is no longer acting under his or her own discretion but instead looking for something that fits the template given to them by the corporate office.

Today, focus groups and spreadsheets have made it amazingly possible to remove from publishing decisions any thought of art, ideas, or beauty. As always, publishers have heaps of manuscripts awaiting attention, but today they are able to immediately access whatever is trending. Algorithms and corporate mindsets are shrinking the role that individual humans play. Nobody is asking what new work might speak to the troubles and concerns of the world as it is today but rather what is currently selling with the 14-18 year old market.

So on one hand we have a constriction of the gatekeeper’s concerns into a small gap of moneymaking banality and on the other we have an unprecedented alternative to traditional publishing in the form of self-publishing. Indeed, some people who have found success in self-publishing have seen the big publishers come knocking on their doors. What would keep people from taking the easier, less restrictive way that offers complete freedom and a vastly larger slice of the rewards?

But of course, that’s not the way we have been trained. Many of us are still looking for the approval—not from the ultimate audience, the readers—but from the anonymous sources at publishing houses, magazines, and newspapers. We are still looking for that nod from the teacher telling us we have made the grade.

There is some merit to that approach. It is important to get all the instruction we can from those who have the appropriate experience and knowledge. If we want to produce quality writers it is important that aspiring ones serve some sort of apprenticeship and learn their craft from acknowledged masters. Self-publishing in some ways has turned on a sewer pipe that’s been dumping a flow of sludge into the marketplace, but at the same time it is a conduit that permits those who don’t fit the mold or aren’t willing to conform to it to find an audience. And if you think the publishing industry has been elevating the art of literature, I ask you to take a look at the bestseller’s lists, where Bill O’Reilly and James Patterson never seem to leave the list. And the authors who are given the largest advances—celebrities and newsmakers who have never written anything more complex than a Tweet—are those who will be given a ghostwriter to do their work for them,

Which brings us back to the Jack London quote I began this essay with. Those who serve as the gatekeepers are not the best qualified to judge what good writing is. If that was true in London’s time it is doubly true today. They are neither successful writers themselves nor do they seek to advance the craft. Inexperienced authors may sometimes view them as benevolent fairies who will waive their magic wand upon them and pronounce them as the chosen one, but in truth it’s a business and business and art have never mixed well.

I am not saying there is necessarily anything wrong with choosing the traditional method of publishing, nor do I wish to say that publishers think about money to the exclusion of all else. But there is an alternative now, the likes of which has never existed until recently. Jack London went on to be the most successful and best paid author of his day. Much more than that, though, he was in my mind the greatest writer the United States has ever produced. But the rejection he received before breaking through the barrier the gatekeepers maintain is a tale of epic struggle, leading to countless moments where a less determined or less desperate person would have quit. I am quite certain he would have welcomed the opportunity self-publishing offers, and equally as certain he would have succeeded at it.

I have chosen the route of self-publishing, though I have yet to find success. Once it began to look like I would soon have a finished novel, I began to think about what to do with it next. While I had always assumed I would go the traditional route, Jack London’s warning had always been in the back of my thoughts. And when I got to know authors who were independently publishing I just seemed to fall in with the community. It seemed the logical approach for me, perhaps because I fell outside of the norm, never considered myself trendy. The additional work is no doubt something I would like to fob off on others: the self-promotion, the search for editors, proofreaders, and cover artists. But it is worth it to be in charge of one’s writing and one’s destiny. Too often one believes that the publisher cares for your book as much as you do and that is just not true. In the end, the writer is alone in his desire to nourish his work.

I do not rule out signing a contract with a publish someday. But when I do it will be as someone who has already achieved a degree of success and has attained a degree of knowledge of the industry. I realize it is a hard road to take, but I do not see an easier one. The world—the publishing industry included—is utterly indifferent to what you are writing and it is up to you to change that situation. While those who initially encouraged our writing had our best interests at heart, those in the publishing business have their own interests. I don’t blame them, they have a job to do. Those who are unable to write must still bring home a paycheck, and I’m sure they offer a degree of assistance to those who do. Still, should I ever wish to go into business with them, I’d like to do it on my own terms and with the sleep wiped from my eyes.

Monday, May 8, 2017

We Don't Have To Fail

I know, the problems of the world seem so vast, so far reaching, never ending and unconquerable that they scare the hell out of you. But we don’t have to fail. Our leaders and our institutions are failing us, and everywhere people are shouting and angry with their fellow man when they are not actively killing one another. But we don’t have to fail.

How, you may ask, can we do other than fail? It seems we know of no approach except to blame others for the way things are. We are incapable of looking inward for the answers, are afraid to believe that inside us lies something of value we can give to the world. Afraid of the awesomeness of the task and the smallness of ourselves, we place our faith in powerful forces, ceding the role we need to play to governments, corporations, and technology. But we need not do so. We need not fail.

Our world can only ever be as free as each one of us is free. So long as we give our hearts, our minds and our labor to institutions that do not respond to our humanity, we contribute to the problem rather than the solution. We must be both servants and rebels, servants to humanity but rebels against demands from anyone who asks us to surrender what is best in us to systems and bureaucracies that are not functioning as they should.

We can only triumph if each and every one of us works towards the goal, each one of us dealing with the piece of the grand puzzle that is placed in front of us, that part of the puzzle only we know how to solve.

We will only succeed if we have faith that others are not so different from us, that each of us, deep down, has the capacity to work towards a better end than the one we are hurtling towards. We will succeed if we stop digging through the wreckage of our current situation for bones of contention and instead seek out what can still be salvaged. We need to let go of what separates us and focus instead on the vastly more important issue of what unites us. For God’s sake, stop pointing the finger of blame.

We succeed one individual at a time. We move towards success with every soul that commits to the betterment of mankind without waiting for a sign from God or proof that their fellow man is doing his part. We cannot wait for the change, we must be the change. It must start with us. Each and every soul that commits to the path is a step in the right direction, is a step away from the abyss that awaits us should we fail. We need not fail.

We succeed when we refuse to see one another as an enemy. We succeed when we refuse to see war as an option. We succeed when we take away the power of another to dictate our actions and take the power in our own hands. No other person can make you work against the common good. No person, even at the barrel of a gun, can make you do injury to your fellow man.

This is power. This is ultimate power, the power not only to define who you are as a person but the power to influence others by your example and thereby change the world. Powerlessness is merely the belief that others control your behavior, that you must do things you’d rather not as a way to respond to their actions.

You have the power. You must believe this. You are not helpless. The feeling of helplessness you feel is the will of others working within you. You cannot and never will gain power through this feeling of helplessness, it will only further ensnare you in the world that others wish for you to inhabit.

You are free. Whatever holds you down and limits you, you have the choice as to which road you travel. Knowledge is power and the truth shall set you free. You must never use the excuse that the institutions won’t let you do what you would like. They cannot rule without your consent. It is time now for you to exert the authority that is invested in you and in all of us.

The roads diverge quite sharply. One leads to division, discord and destruction. If you choose that road you will see every approaching stranger as an enemy. On that road you will find countless excuses for selfish behavior and the use of force. The other road is a commitment to optimism. Not foolish optimism, for you know the way is long and hard. It is a commitment to optimism whatever setbacks you may encounter. It is choosing a path and sticking with it when hard times come, not falling back on your crutches of negativity and conflict whenever you face obstacles.

The world is in danger. Civilization is in danger. It seems foolish to believe there is something you are capable of doing about it. It seems daunting, the sheer audacity of it makes you want to run away and let mommy and daddy or the government or the free market deal with it. But mommy and daddy can’t help you, the market doesn’t care about you, and the government is only what you have made it. If you have distanced yourself from the power structures that rule then they will not work in your best interests. It is you. It is you, believing in the commonality of humanity and our ability to find a way to peacefully coexist and make our way to a better future. Because if you believe in humanity, humanity will respond positively to your belief. You are not the only one working towards that goal. There are others, too many to count, who have shown the way. Their lives have been a testament to the nobility, courage and faith that can be found in human beings. They have made sacrifices far beyond what most of us ever have to worry about, so do not worry about not being up to fulfilling your small part in the play.

But do not make idols of those who came before you. Do not believe that the greatness exhibited by them does not exist in some degree in you as well. It lives in you, or else you would not be able to appreciate it in others.

You need not do great things, you merely need to do what you were born to do, be what you were born to be. You only have to become aware of the nobility and the possibilities that are latent in us all. Appreciate it in your role models, accept it in yourself, encourage it in others. These three things, acting upon one another, will strengthen each, thus making yourself and others stronger, thus raising up all of humanity. It is within you, it is within all of us. This is our future, if we are to have one. It is a choice for us to make. If you have a better option, I’d love to hear about it. We are all in it together.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Random Thoughts Part 24

I haven't posted much on my Amazing Morse blog lately. It seems that politics have distracted me. For any interested in what I've been writing about, please check out my James Rozoff, Solutionist blog. And now for another batch of thoughts thought randomly:

Technology has not made humanity any wiser, it has only made us more dangerous.

Those who best demonstrate the values we wish to teach our children are the ones who should be most rewarded in our society. Do we wish to reward good sportsmanship or the physical ability to dunk a ball in a hoop? Do we wish to reward those doctors who save lives or those who implant fake boobs? Do we wish to reward those who amuse and distract us or do we wish to reward those who instruct and enlighten us?

When technology has acquired the ability to take care of all of our needs, perhaps then we will discover that one of our greatest needs has always been to care for others ourselves.

The bad behavior of another is not justification for our own bad behavior, it is a cry of help from someone who is in need of a good example.

Where once we had religious leaders or politicians telling us what was good or bad, we now have lobbying groups, advertisers, marketers, and public relations firms. Hardly an improvement.

We are fast approaching an age where we are capable of bringing to life every horror from myth, religion, and imagination to life. Man-beasts, rivers of blood, a world in flames. And yet we mock religion even as we go about proving the prophesies. How can a God exist who would create a Hell? No, it is we who are busily creating a Hell for ourselves. Would you have Him save us, or would you have us save ourselves?

The difference between a brand and a reputation is you can get rebranded but you can’t get rereputationed. A reputation means something. Don’t talk to people who use the word “branding”. They are the tools of Satan if they are not Satan himself.

If you want to change the opinion of someone who you believe is locked into his own, begin by finding something you can agree with him on. This revolutionary action will break down his preconceptions. 

Laws are feeble attempts to dissuade the masses from doing what they desire. The will of the masses is utmost, laws are what the minority attempts to keep us distracted with.

If we spent our time working on the areas in which we agree, we would have no time for arguments or conflict.
An idiot is capable of an insight that humbles the wise. It matters not the source but the perception that has been brought into being. The opposite is also true. Never assume something is brilliant because a brilliant person said it.

People admire strength, confidence and straight talk. When they can’t get it from the right sources, they’ll go elsewhere.

Americans consume art the way they consume food, supersized portions of low-grade high calorie, low nutrition mass-produced junk. Twinkies are not food and entertainment is not art.

The renaissance, that era everyone likes to point to as the time when humanity made its way out of the dark ages came about precisely because the people embraced the past. The name itself means “rebirth”, a bringing back from the past all that was good and vibrant and yet had been forgotten. You cannot move forward without an understanding of where you have come from. You cannot expect to grow something new without a connection to your roots.

Man has within him a capacity for stupidity so deep that even the very wisest can never hope to gauge it.

The foolish man is always afraid to say he doesn’t know and that is what gives him away.

True art costs. No one pays that cost more than the artist.

We are in an age that expects its art and its news to be provided for free. Nothing is free. If you do not help to support artists and journalists, you will not get beauty and truth but propaganda and advertisement.

I can’t help think Christians seriously overthink the Sixth Commandment. God did not use fine print.

People only appreciate prophets when the sky is burning, the ocean roiling, and a plague of locusts is on the land. They are quite easily dismissed before then.

There is in puritanism a degree of voyeurism. Too often the puritan is obsessed with the lurid behavior of others rather than concentrating on what is required by their own faith.

Dear scientists: if your government officials are so unaccountable to the knowledge you try to share with them, stop creating dangerous toys for them to play with. It’s time for scientists to go on strike.

Scientists are a lot like philosophers and mystics except they torture animals.

Simplicity is a lost art today. We drive cars hundreds of miles in order to run in a marathon, we drive to the gym to walk on the treadmill. We use riding lawnmowers to insure we have enough time to exercise. And we look at our smart phones instead of the window to see if it is raining.

The sleep of reason creates monsters. So too does the sleep of self-determination. When we surrender our will to rule ourselves it creates politicians.

All the tears that have ever been shed have only one cause: time. Whatever tragedies befall us they are but road markers reminding us of what has been and is no more.

I find myself becoming increasingly nostalgic for the past, but after all I suppose that is the only thing one can be nostalgic about.

Children today are introduced to screens before windows. They gaze first upon the interpretation man has made of reality before seeing reality as it is.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Dead Raccoon That Is Trumpcare

What The Failure Of Trumpcare Can Tell Us About What’s To Come

I believe President Trump made the best of a bad situation in withdrawing his healthcare proposal. Admitting that he lost is not something that comes easily for Trump, but distancing himself from a sure-fire disaster is second nature.

We’re finally getting a sense of what the Trump Presidency is like. Make bold promises, offer the moon, and then rely on others to carry out the hard work once the deal is agreed to. The promise on the campaign trail was to immediately repeal Obamacare, and replace it with something much better. Clearly, Donald Trump had no idea what that something better was, but he figured somebody in the senate was smart enough that they had been busily preparing for the moment when they might have a chance to repeal the ACA and replace it.

He was wrong. He left things in the hands of Paul Ryan, who was confident, articulate, and absolutely out of touch with reality. Trumpcare was in fact Ryancare, and Ryancare might just as well have been called Randcare (Rand as in Ayn, not Paul). Ryan’s idea was that if you were poor or you were sick that people like you should not burden people like Ryan’s opportunity to get Lasik eye surgery.

Now I don’t consider our government to be much of a democracy, but there are limits to what any government can get away with. Even brutal dictators have to show some semblance of concern for the poor and unfortunate. Even Adolf Hitler had to disguise what he had planned for the untermenschen.

So Trump/Ryan/Rand care was dead in the water. Rule number one that astute politicians learn is not to stand next to a dead raccoon or people might associate you with the stink. Given that the dead raccoon is sitting on top of his head, Trump was unable to distance himself from it. Fortunately Obama had a stinky raccoon of his own, and Trump was savvy enough to put that in front of the public’s nose and point to it as the cause of the stench.

Now Obama’s raccoon wasn’t quite dead, but it never was a very healthy animal. It was the spawn of a most unlikely coupling. In fact, there is good reason to believe that it was Mitt Romney and not Barak Obama who was the biological father. It doesn’t matter, it bore the Obama name, and therefore President Trump could never let it live. You see, Donald Trump can never tolerate anything that has the name of another man. He’s like the sultan in 1,001 Nights, who takes a virgin bride each night and has them beheaded in the morning before they can cheat on him. The thought of other males in his domain is unacceptable. Trump is the alpha-male and any other who challenges him must be eliminated.

So with Trumpcare dead, it was best to shift attention to Obamacare. Let’s put aside for a moment all these health care plans mean something to sick people and even well people who are afraid of needing healthcare someday, because Donald Trump never cared about that end of things. Trump cared about scoring points with the voters and Obamacare was a vulnerable program. Still is, especially since the Republicans have done nothing to nurture it and everything to wound it. Again, let’s not worry about those people who are actually in need, let’s worry about scoring political points.

Donald Trump will let Obama’s lame child live, all the while tripping it whenever it walks by, depriving it of food and scaring off those who would try to help it out. Let it shamble weakly towards its grave, the whole while taunting it and by extension any other male who would attempt to put their name to something that is rightfully Trump’s. That’s what alpha-males do.

But here we have exposed Donald Trump’s weakness: his unending need to feed his ego. Here should be the game plan of Democrats going forward, to rename every proposal the Republicans put forth from here on out. Donald Trump comes up with a tax proposal that would reduce taxes for the wealthiest Americans? Call it The Ryan Code. Instantly Trump will lose all desire to support it. A new war in the Middle East? Call it McCain’s war if you want peace. This must be done for every plan President Trump comes up with, every single one. Except Trumpcare. Leave that stinky thing firmly perched atop the president’s head.

P.S. The raccoon in the picture is not dead, it is only sleeping. I would never post a picture of a dead raccoon.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Magic, Belief, and the Art of the Elevator Pitch

I was doing a book sale/signing last weekend with a group of local authors I know. We were one table among a myriad other vendors selling their wares. I’m not really one for talking about myself but I did grow up with a few performers in the family and understand the necessity of hawking one’s wares. So I talked to people and did point out the books we had for sale. But then somebody asked me what my books were about and suddenly I sounded like Maimonides attempting to describe God. All I was able to say is what my books weren’t. Yes, my books involved magicians, but they weren’t the kind that waved their wand and turned people into animals. I mean, they’re stage magicians, but they don’t have supernatural powers. Well, they sort of do have supernatural powers but not the typical kind of powers. I mean they can see into the future or talk to the dead, sort of, but it’s not from saying hocus pocus and gazing into a crystal ball…well, not exactly.

And I could see in the eyes of my potential customers that the light had faded and they soon walked on towards other booths. I had failed to make a connection. And instead of getting to the root of why I had failed to make a connection, I closed the chapter in my mind and started thinking about something else. You see, when things become uncomfortable, when questions arise which cause us to question our reality, we humans often have a tendency to change the subject or look the other way. We become comfortable in the world we have fashioned for ourselves even if it is not helpful to us.

Fortunately, my fellow author, Tara Meissner (this isn’t a plug, but buy her book Stress Fracture) told me something like “you don’t have an elevator pitch. They were looking at your books and you couldn’t even tell them what they were about. Why would someone buy your book when you can’t even explain what it’s about?” At which point that trigger response in me wanted to reply something like “It’s art, baby, don’t even try to categorize it. Don’t label me, because labels are limits.” Fortunately before I could say anything stupid like that, she followed it up with something like “It comes off as kind of arrogant”.

Aw, cut to the quick. And I knew she was just being honest. More than that, she was right. She tried to beg off it a bit as though she thought I might be offended but I knew just what she was talking about and agreed with her a hundred percent. Of course, we all need others to point out the obvious from time to time, especially us authors or, dare I say it, artists. See, as an author, I see the picture as it exists in my mind, as it should be, rather than as I have actually put it down into words. A writer first has to conceive of an idea, and then put it into words. If you cannot put it into words so that others can share what you have conceived, then you are not a writer but a dreamer. Which is totally cool, too. The world needs more dreamers, they are beautiful people. It’s only bad when you are a dreamer who thinks he is a writer, then you are a delusional dreamer. So in order to be a writer you have to express the ideas you have given birth to. You have to awaken those same ideas in the minds of others that you yourself have experienced. And if you aren’t able to tell people why they should read your books then you are doing a poor job of it.

It’s just that I’m a writer, not an advertising agent: on that I am firm. For me it is the writing and not the sales that must always be my motivator. I hate the term “elevator pitch” because it suggests to me some sleazy self-important climber sucking up to a superior or a client in whatever manner is necessary. And that’s what I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding being. I have to place honesty above all other considerations.

Okay, but I should be able to explain what I do honestly, shouldn’t I? Below is one attempt to do so. It might sound a little pompous, or arrogant. It might sound grandiose. I guess I’ll have to risk it. Perhaps it is not merely misrepresenting myself but having people see me too clearly that I fear.

I write about real magic. I write about what is left after you get rid of all the illusions. And the world is full of illusions. We never really are able to cut our way through the illusions. But magic is the belief that there is something beyond the illusions, that in smashing through the simplistic answers we more closely approach the reality, though we may never see it fully. To disbelieve in magic is to believe that there is nothing more than illusions, that beyond them there is simply nothing. Ultimately, neither answer will have definitive proof. Ultimately it is a choice, the choice of limiting ourselves or giving ourselves up to an unseen and invisible something that turns mundane existence into a miracle. We create magic within our souls, by choosing to believe, by opening ourselves up to something beyond what we are presently aware of.

Perhaps it is a decision to believe in God. Or at least just believe, believe in something even if I cannot express in words what exactly it is that I believe in. Life after all is not about living the life that we can understand but the life we can briefly catch a glimpse of. It is being humble in order to grasp the vastness of the universe we exist in. And it is having faith in that universe. It is believing you are a part of that universe, and it and you have a common goal/destiny, potential for harmony. It is believing that the division between you and the outside world is an artificial distinction we draw because we have not yet pierced the veil of illusions to reach what lies beyond.

I guess I have not worked it down to an elevator pitch yet. In time I’m sure I can winnow that down to a couple of sentences in order to give people an idea of what it is I write. Until then I’m afraid I’ll be staring at the walls of the elevator anytime someone else enters.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A New Short Story For You, Prayer Shawls

Prayer Shawls


The word was mouthed soundlessly into folded hands, so that anyone who might have seen Betty Volk would have believed the old woman was deep in prayer.

Her eyes were cast forwards, but it was not the crucifix in front of her which held her gaze. To the left of the altar was a display of shawls, made by women of the church to be donated to patients at the local hospital. But there was one in particular that demanded her attention. That shawl, that bright, gaudy shawl captured her attention like a neon sign, making all else about it seem drab by comparison. Everything else—the other shawls that were on display, the green pennants behind the altar, the chalice into which Christ’s own blood soon would be poured—nothing else mattered. Those garish colors stung at her heart like knitting needs plunged by hateful hands.

She closed her eyes, trying to drive away the malice it aroused in her. But closing her eyes she saw the face of Mabel, the woman responsible for her pain. She saw that glib smile that passed for kindliness to so many who knew her superficially. She saw the woman who bought her clothes new rather than from Goodwill and rummage sales the way she and most of the others in the knitting club did. She saw Mabel’s hands, hands that had not been worn down by years of work the way her own had.

She opened her eyes again, saw her own gnarled and misshapen fingers in front of her. Once she had been capable of producing such finery that she would have put anyone of them to shame. Now pain gripped her hands so tightly it brought tears to her eyes while she had knitted the prayer shawl that was on display with the rest of them.

Hers was a simple blue shawl, tasteful, but thick and well constructed. Mabel’s was a flimsy thing, made more for show than comfort. Dear God, it looked more like something a lady of the evening might wear, not something to keep an old person warm. Betty had used yarn donated by a parishioner, but Mabel… Where did she even find such yarn?

It betrayed the whole idea of charity, betrayed those who had contributed yarn for the project. It was all about vanity for that…Bitch…Mabel. The hatred rose again in her, a hatred so burning and alive it almost made her feel young again, almost made her feel capable of things she had never even considered in so many years. She was old—oh, so old—but there were passions that were still sharp in her. It seemed that all that was once good in her had been taken by time, while those passions that should have mellowed with age, should have been conquered at long last by maturity or simply dissipated with the ebb of vitality, still lingered in her.

Lust. Dear God, it still possessed her, though nobody would ever want to consider the idea. Pride. It still determined her behavior, though there was precious little for her to take pride in at this stage of life. Jealousy. She prayed that she might be free of it, but somehow it seemed more difficult to pray with any degree of focus nowadays. Age and human frailty had overridden and overcome all that was once best in her. And while she once believed in the superiority of spirituality over the physical, time had taught her many bitter lessons. It seemed as if her inability to straighten her fingers to pray somehow prevented her prayers from coming out straight. She was merely clay, a poor vessel for holding the virtues she wished to possess.

She had spent the better part of mass obsessing over the shawls, over her hatred of Mabel. She mumbled the required responses and amens without really being aware of what she was saying. At some point the priest had pointed to the shawls and explained to the parishioners that they were to be donated to the sick at the local hospital, but Betty took no pride in her accomplishment, spoiled as it was by thoughts of Mabel.

Lost in thoughts that had taken hold of her despite her attempts to drive them out with prayer, she suddenly became aware that the priest was now in front of her. It was time for communion, and he was delivering the host first to those in the front row, those like herself who were too old and infirm to stand in line like the rest. She opened her mouth to have the host placed upon her tongue, then took hold of the chalice and drank perhaps deeper than she should have of the wine.

A thought flashed through her mind, powerful and compelling. For an instant, the idea of spitting into the chalice so that Mabel might unwittingly drink from it came to her. It filled her with revulsion, and she choked it down quickly into the dark recesses of her mind. She concentrated on the host within her mouth, hoped to find strength and salvation from its presence within her.

She swallowed determinedly, lowering her gaze once more to her hands folded in prayer. But the thoughts continued to come from the dark areas within her.

Her eyes closed, the blackness within her became more overpowering. The prayers she silently uttered seemed to be lost somewhere in parts of her mind no longer accessible by her aged spirit. Within a gap where memory could no longer find the words, she heard the voice of Henry talking soothingly to his mother.

Henry. What a despicable little lickspittle. Mabel’s youngest, her special child, her baby. Spoiled brat, more like it. She had ruined that child. She never allowed him to grow up, never let him become his own man. And now here he was, middle aged, and still living at home. Taking pleasures in things someone with a bit of youth to them should not be bothered with.

He should have had a wife, should have had a life. Instead, his life centered around his mother. And when she passed, what would he have then? Bah, what a waste of life.

She turned her head to see Henry arm in arm with Mabel. It was disgusting. It looked more like man and wife than mother and son. It was unnatural, that’s what it was. And Mabel, she was lapping it all up. Her child was like the shawl, not something with a value in and of itself but a thing to garner attention for her.

Henry stood back so that Mabel might receive the host, then he followed. Such a dutiful child. You could see the thought in Mabel’s eyes, could see the pride she took from his debasement. Anything to get attention, anything to have all eyes on her.


Very well, thought Betty. If it’s attention you want, it’s attention you will receive.

Having received the Eucharist, Mabel moved to the left where a deacon awaited her with chalice held in front of him. She walked right in front of Betty, noticed her and gave her one of her fake smiles. And in that moment the darkness took control of Betty.

Betty had her cane in one hand. Henry was now taking communion. For a moment, Mabel was without the support of her son, without which she might well have needed a cane, just like Betty. With a deftness that surprised her, Betty moved her cane subtly in front of her, directly between the legs of Mabel, throwing her off balance. Betty looked up at Mabel’s face to see the smile die, turn to surprise and then fear.

It pleased Betty. For a moment she felt young again, felt the thrill of excitement and accomplishment. She could still make her mark on the world.

Betty watched it all as if it was occurring in slow motion, as if at last time had slowed down for her, as if time was finally giving something back. Mabel came down hard, harder than even Betty would have imagined. The surprise and fear that was on Mabel’s face was now wiped away and replaced by agony. She lay there, motionless.

Apparently, beneath the fine clothes she wore, she was every bit as frail as Betty. In that moment, the regret began to well up in her, but the thrill she felt at what she had done never really left her. She felt that she was still alive, still capable of doing big things, even if what she had done was horrible. She was alive, she could right injustices. She still had power.

Henry was hunched over his mother now, who was lying face down. He attempted to roll her over but his actions were accompanied by a piteous shriek, the old woman’s voice an insufficient tool to express the pain it must have caused her. Betty looked at Mabel, whose face was now turned towards her. Blood dripped from her nose in gobs, but she knew that was not the main source of her pain. It was a hip, Betty could see that by the way she responded when Henry had sought to move her. She could sense that it had shattered like an old piece of stained glass.

Gone was any semblance of pride or sense of superiority from Mabel’s countenance. So wrapped up was she in her own pain she didn’t even care about how undignified she appeared with the blood pouring down her face, the grimace of agony on her face that rivaled the one carved into the face upon the crucifix. Pity rose in Betty once again. Like a pendulum, pity and satisfaction moved through her. She had the natural revulsion at seeing another human being in pain. And then she remembered the smile that had been on Mabel’s face and the pendulum swung back again. Betty preferred the look Mabel had upon her face now.

For a brief moment, she forgot where she was, and permitted a smile to come to her lips. Then she remembered and wiped any sign of satisfaction from her appearance. She looked at Mabel, but she hadn’t noticed, so wrapped up was she in her pain. Henry too, had no attention for anyone other than his dear mother. Relief surged in her, until she averted her gaze and saw another member of her knitting circle. Flora had a look of horror on her face, but it was not Mabel she was looking at. She was looking at Betty.

Flora knew. Betty was certain of it. Betty could tell by the way Flora could not avert her gaze, although she tried to look away.

Yes, Flora knew. It was time to close her eyes, to appear deep in prayer as she contemplated what to do about Flora. She would have to be dealt with.