May 18, 2011

The Age of Man

When do you know when you're halfway there? This odd rhetorical-esque question popped into my head on the way to my day job this morning, and embedded itself like a splinter.

Do you ever know? Because, technically, you really wouldn't. Think about driving somewhere. Oh, you might be able to guess that you're about halfway to your destination, based on time or mileage, but you can't KNOW you're in the exact middle of something until you've gotten to the end, and, even then you're no longer in the middle. Right? It feels oddly existentialist, but that could just the lack of coffee in my bloodstream.

I remember hearing the stories about Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus in the anglicized format) being nearly at the point of a mutiny (nearly at the sword point, not to put too fine a point on it - - okay, I'll stop that now) because the crew simply didn't think they were past that point of no return and would rather risk a long trip home than continue on towards the unknown or the likely expectation of a trip over the edge of the world. And the historically accepted facts indicate that Chris - once they did actually arrive at land - didn't even realize the truth of what he'd accomplished, that he'd "discovered the americas."

Although, actual history reveals that he didn't actually discover it. And not just because people were already living there (an old Lakota Sioux friend of mine used to joke about wanting to celebrate Columbus day by discovering someone else's home and claiming it for his own), but because Vikings had been here - apparently several centuries earlier than the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. But I guess it's really okay, since Chris didn't realize he had found the new continent anyway. Plus, there's that whole thing about how Amerigo Vespucci did the cartography and got to name the place, so that's an entirely other complication. But I digress. The point I was going for is that all too often we really don't know exactly where we are. Not while we're on the journey and, many times, even after we've arrived.

There have been a lot of significant moments that we can look back on as world-changing events. some of them leave monuments, like the Pyramids; others have monuments erected in their honor. Some are chronicled in stories, songs, paintings or statues - and some simply have the memories of their enduring impact, engraved into our hearts. July 4th, 1776. May 10th, 1869. December 7th, 1941. November 22nd, 1963. July 21st, 1969.

I started thinking about all those historical moments - the good and the bad - and realized that many of those big events don't necessarily have a date stamped on them. And while many of them do, some of those dates aren't even entirely accurate - like in the case of July 4th not being the actual date on which the Declaration of Independence was signed. But we like to commemorate dates. Most Christians celebrate December 24th as the birthday of Jesus, even though it is widely understood that this date was simply chosen as a means to absorb Christians into the Roman practice of Saturnalia.

Additionally, fundamentally global-altering discoveries don't generally have that sort of a birthday, either. The telephone, the computer, the television, the internet. When did any of those begin? Can anyone pinpoint the moment at which they emerged, blinking, into the light? You might as well attempt to get people to agree on the moment life begins, or when the first man (or woman) walked on the earth. Perhaps it's more like an accomplishment than an invention that gets our attention? For example, the concept of flight has been around for centuries, but it was the Wright Brothers who achieved it in 1903. And although trains had been around for years, it was a spike being driven into the ground at Promontory Summit in 1869 that made history.

Computers seem to be the big event of this generation - the internet has brought the world together in new and amazing (read: sometimes frightening) ways. Processing speed is unbelievably fast - and transmission rates are already into the realm of well beyond the fantastic. You don't think we've come a long ways? Go back and watch "WarGames" or the original "Tron". You'll cry.

There's that whole "Technological Singularity" that seems to be causing a bit of concern - simply because things are rapidly moving along so exponentially fast that people can't even imagine what's going to happen after a certain point of development; that things will occur so quickly that the human capacity for thought will get left behind in the virtual snap of fingers. That transitional apex of understanding and development is assumed to be so evolutionary that it looks like a pinhole in comprehension, one that no one seems to be capable of peering through. Others seem to view this as the concept of approximating zero or approaching infinity. From any point approaching the horizon, it looks like a line across your vision, but isn't it just another perpetually migrating destination?

Kind of makes me feel like my own life. Have I already passed the halfway point? Am I already more than halfway between birth and death? Did I already miss my chance to have a midlife crisis? I never really wanted a toupee or a really fancy car, so maybe I'm just not wired that way. Or would I even know?

Feeling awfully rhetorical today. I don't have the answers, here. I'm in the same boat with all of you, looking out over the water and hoping for land. Although, to be perfectly honest, I'm happy enough with the sound of waves and the feel of the wind against my skin that I don't mind the open horizon. Are we there yet? Eh. We'll get there when we get there.

May 12, 2011

You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned

Was challenged - in a kind and encouraging way - to open up a thought on the topic of "diversity". The original blog was delivered from a perspective that comes to us straight from across the pond, and, as this topic never fails to do, it got me wondering about my own sense of bias, my feelings on differences between people and the stereotypes which often ensue.

This is a challenging topic to address, one might say, because I fit into the traditional model of "what the $%&@!! do you know about diversity?" - I'm a straight white male in my middle age, so that kind of makes me more in line with "the man" than "the oppressed", right?

Well, I guess I'd have to say to that, yeah. Not that it would be something I'm proud of, because I honestly didn't do anything to be white, straight, or male, and the fact that I'm still alive in my early 40s has more to do with dumb luck than any particular methodology of heath care upon which I've set myself. Do I get any kind of benefits - real or implied - by being thus? Or, at the very least, do I avoid many of the pitfalls and challenges that face other people who are otherwise? People who are different - whether by the color of their skin, their sexual orientation or gender - or different in any of the readily obvious manners that some people use to instantly categorize or assume prejudice against? I guess I'd have to say yes, since that's just an issue of public record: people in this world commit - still today - all manner of atrocities against others simply because of whatever excuse they may find. Merely, as it inevitably becomes apparent, due to some sort of differentiation that the aggressor finds intolerable.

Now, on the one hand, I do understand the notion of categorization. It's a natural tendency of people to expect a pattern in the world around them. People will generally buy the albums from an artist or genre they love, simply because of past experiences - or watch movies with a particular expectation simply because of the actors or writers or directors. Or, consider your favorite flavor of ice cream - and then ask yourself if the company who makes that flavor really matters, or are you predisposed to like that flavor, generally regardless of who manufactures it? What's your favorite color, and when choosing a new shirt are you more likely to pick that color of shirt over another color you don't like?

Let me be clear, here: I am not in any way attempting to justify prejudice. I think the automatic fear or hatred of a person simply because they possess a specific characteristic is horrific and profane. What I'm saying here is that prejudice does partially result from what is an automatic human characteristic. We tend to gather similar experiences and build a common expectation from them. You burn your hand on the stove, you become nervous around stoves. But you also shouldn't go around destroying stoves because you burned your hand that one time.

Prejudice is a learned response - and this means it can be UN-learned. In fact, it may be one of the lessons most worth un-learning of all the possible things we can deliberately evolve during the course of our lives. See, the fact is, everyone's different. And though certain life experiences may sometimes establish some commonalities, it's not just unfair to the person who's being generalized, it's also unfair (albeit to a lesser degree) to the person doing the generalization. I'll explain.

A guy's driving home, late one night. The highway he's on has some construction up ahead, so he hops off the freeway before he gets stuck in a nasty traffic jam, but ends up in a part of town he's not used to. He can't find the onramp back to the freeway, and after several minutes of panicked wrong turns, he finds himself in "the bad part of town" and promptly gets a flat tire. It's late, he's lost, and his cell phone can't get a proper signal, so he decides to get out and walk to find a 7-11 or a pay phone. After a block, a couple kids who live in the neighborhood - approach. They've both got dark colored skin.

"Hey man," they say.

He turns and runs, fearful that they mean to do him harm or rob him.

They look at each other, shrug, and keep walking along their way. Unbeknownst to the man, both kids have cell phones (their parents wouldn't imagine letting them out at night without a way to call home), and one of their parents is a mechanic, to boot. The other kid's dad is a police officer.

Now, considering that story, who was most hurt by prejudice? Clearly, the two kids didn't need a reminder that some people are afraid of other people (note, I didn't mention the man's skin color, did I?), and could very easily have grounds to be offended by the man's behavior. But in this case, his stupidity really harmed himself - his fear kept him from learning that the two kids might have helped him.

On a less extreme level, as a writer I have to embrace the fact that every person has a story. Every single person. And though the stories may in some case be similar, it's usually only superficially so. Being prejudiced isn't just a horrible character flaw; for me, it would also be crippling from a spiritual and creative perspective. I love that people have uniqueness, that, really, if you put four people on the tv screen and sang "one of these is not like the others", I'd like to think you could pick any one of the four as the odd man out. I know I'm not the same as all other straight white males. I don't think there's a single characteristic you could pick out about me that's the same as any other person, actually. And I prefer it that way - just like I expect most people to be.

If every characteristic were an ingredient you might find in your kitchen, imagine combining twenty of those ingredients in any manner you wished; order of mixing, arrangement, cooking time, etc. Now, adjust the process, order, temperature, preparation techniques and so forth, even in the slightest way - and you're liable to get something totally different. I found this out when I was a child, making chocolate chip cookies for the first time. I thought that the important thing was just to put all the ingredients into the bowl at once and then mix. Turns out that you won't make cookies that way. Well, okay, you CAN, but they'll taste like crap.

And people are made up of millions of ingredients - each moment is a new experience, each person a different procedural step, and even beyond all of that, there's a certain element of personality and soul which comes from somewhere altogether ELSEways.

The fact is, assuming two people are the same because they kind of look the same is like saying Vanilla ice cream and lard are the same, because they're both kind of white.

So really all I'm saying here is that you can KIND of reach some generalities, but that everyone's different in at least some ways, and that everyone sort of makes assumptions about other people as a general rule of thumb. But that doing so is lazy, ignorant and should be avoided whenever possible. Like, if the dude you see coming towards you is wearing a hockey mask and holding a bloody machete in one hand and someone's head in the other, maybe it's not a good time to ask them about their philosophical uniqueness. Just saying. That's a rare example, though, obviously.

Oh, and sharks. I still don't like sharks, and if I see one of them walking towards me, I don't care if they have a cell phone in their pocket, I'm going to be running the other direction.  And you should, too. You don't believe me? Ask Roy Scheider about that - or, I suppose you could, but you can't, and I'm pretty sure sharks had something to do with that, too. But I don't HATE sharks. I'm just terrified of them. Completely. Absolutely. And I don't consider that a phobia, because a phobia is an unreasonable fear, and I think a fear of sharks is completely reasonable.

But that's a totally different thing than being afraid of people or hating them because of the color of their skin, their gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or any of a thousand characteristics you decide to be so horrifying. Except, perhaps, characteristics of bigotry or misogyny or homophobia, those kinds of things.

Fear and hatred stemming from prejudice; we should probably agree for that to be intolerable. Just a little confused why we can't seem to do that.

May 10, 2011

Gravity and Grass Stains

I remember this one hill near my home when I was a kid; it was near the high school and we'd often ride our bikes out and play around the grass and playground equipment. Tag and kites, whatever the day required, that field had it. It's almost difficult now to remember being so easily entertained by...well, a park. But, anyway, in the middle of it all was a really big hill that bottomed out into an inverted dome of grass - and one of the things we did was roll the hill. You know that one, right? Just lay down, cross your arms and let gravity spin you into a near-vomitous pillar of laughter. And eventually, one of us would get the idea of taking the hill at a run. Just nose towards the base and run run run. It was great until about half way down, when you just couldn't keep your feet under you any longer, and BAM. Wipeout.

Sometimes I really don't know how any of us survived childhood.

At any rate, that adrenaline was just awesome. It was a drug, honestly, wasn't it? You just don't see people laughing like that when chemicals aren't involved.

But all that aside, the sense of being almost ready to wipe out, where you're churning your legs as little flesh-and-blood pistons of fury, recognizing that, at any moment, you're about this far from face planting. It's pretty exhilarating. Very exciting, and yet empowering. It's also a very close approximation to the sense of omnipotence that is generally only experienced when we're too young to know better. Joy versus risk. When do we discard one for the other? At what point do we allow the possibility of failure to unseat our celebration of life?

Or are the two mutually exclusive? I'm leaning towards not. I think it's the possibility of risk which makes the celebration more satisfying, to be honest. Running down the hill for the first time and laughing right up to the moment where you wipe out is fun, yes. Crazy mad insane fun. But picking yourself up, going back to the top and doing it again? Oh, that's just super-crazy. And even more fun.

Granted, "all things in moderation" (including moderation?), meaning that, yes, we can't hope to live in that realm wherein all the world's cares go screaming past, too blurred to distinguish or bother; but we certainly can opt to visit there from time to time. I think I took a while off from that place, but yet.... starting to feel that again. Only, without so tremendous a risk of grass stains.

Getting ready to launch three more books - book 5, "Into the Blink", as well as two of my autobiographical journals, "The Middle Age (1 and 2): A Geek's Journey from Boy to Man (and back again)". That'll bring my library to a not-so-whopping-and-yet-still-nothing-to-shake-a-stick-at total of Seven. And this will be an even crazier year than last. In addition to working on "The Crook and the Blade" (book 6) - with a target launch date of mid-September 2011, I'm also developing a few more ebook anthologies, as well as some other projects that are still kind of hush-hush (for now).

Me and my daughter are working on some short stories for a children's anthology, which I would like to have completed by this fall, too. I would love to find a good artist to work with for some interior art, but have been toying with the idea of just doing the sketches myself, in a kind of A. A. Milne sort of reductive style.  It'd be fun to break out the pencils and pens and see what I could do after so long. I should think my old college art professors might be a little relieved that I haven't just completely thrown away their lessons.

Working with some other fantastic authors now, too - Jen Ashton, HL and Garth Reasby, just to name drop a few - and the projects I already have lining up for 2012 are just so exciting that it's all I can do not to throw everything else aside and work on them right now.

So here I am, laughing, arms flailing, feet going just as fast as they can, wind rushing past my face and the ever-present threat of a park full of rich sod stretching out its innumerable tendrils to cushion my fall. And yet, I've stopped worrying about the possibility of falling; today, I'm more enchanted by the possibility of flying.

It feels like a good day to enjoy words.

What's your hill? What's that one place for you that gives you that "I AM SPARTACUS" moment?