Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Politics of White Noise

President Richard B. Cheney with unidentified assistant.

My post description mentions politics, which means exposing the contents of my brain matter on this matter, which resembles nothing so much as extra-finely ground sausage derived from all the animal parts of all available species. In other words, you really don’t want to know everything that’s there, believe me: “Why does Hillary Clinton sound like my mom telling me to clean up my room?” "Yes, if I were a girl, I could take Barack Obama home to my parents, but would that make him the president we need?"

I long ago shunned any association with political and religious extremists and fanatics, long before the rise of President Cheney and Lord Bin Laden but no matter how I stiffen my arm and supplement it with a ten-foot pole, their voices, strident with righteous certainty and bruised with resentment, seem to dominate the discourse, especially in this medium of the Internet: this playground for digital nihilism.

How do I write about politics without sounding like I’m merely murmuring assent to something I scanned from Keithiana Huffpolbermann or Stevjon Colwart? How do I avoid sinking to crackpotism, all cross-eyed passion and self-ennobling, but murderous purpose. With many of the blogs and comments I review—though not all of them-- real worldisms like gravity, death and the air we breathe start to look like mere opinion: there are people who never die, objects that never fall and the astronauts float in space, free of even oxygen.

Take the war in Iraq (please): there are numerous positions a mind can take. Supposedly, the more educated one is on this matter, the more solid the ground the opinion stands on. But then there's the supposedly well-educated expert William Kristol of The National Review. Being not at the center of events, either in Bagdad or Washington D.C. myself, but in desolate Emeryville, California, I’m forced to form my opinions from the experience and expertise of those who stand closer to the fire. I feel like a short man in the back of a large crowd, dependent on the whispers coming in from far away. Even so, no matter how hard they try, the war’s supporters continue to sound more and more unhinged with every passing casualty. “We now seem to be on course to a successful outcome,” declares Kristol (Modern conservatives: the new crazy-hippie potheads).

I don’t have much confidence, even in the people I agree with and, especially, in those, who both fiercely love and passionately hate them, whether it be President Cheney or Cindy Sheehan. In the online world, on its many blogs, wrath and resentment is what fuels most discourse. Anyone can turn into a troll—yes, me, too. And I’m ashamed of my trollness, but here, this environment of uninhibited voices, regrets sound as loud as a flower’s breath. It is too much nuance and it indicates a surrender of power.

The digital world is made up of ones and zeros, eithers and ors and so, it seems, are most of the
minds that occupy it. Nuance is missed altogether or regarded with suspicion. “We need to take al Qaida real seriously” can be read as code for “I love President Cheney!”; “Impeach President Cheney” becomes “Yay al Qaida!” My real point of both those original propositions, which I firmly believe, seems to have a better chance registering in traditional print. Even “President Cheney” to most blog readers, is evidence of ignorance and not the dour satire I intend. I say “one;” You say “zero.” I say “zero” you say “one.” That’s how it is. Maybe I should leave. Or maybe I should see if anyone has the brains and balls to throw me off. But that would take too much thought and work, wouldn’t it? Better to keyboard “asshole!” and hit “Send.” That’ll show me!

Don’t believe everything you think: Considering my reality-based experience, words of wisdom.
ORRRRR: Isn't it really just an elitist attack on the already damaged self-esteem of the disenfranchised and the powerless? Who am I to challenge the beliefs of others? After all, wasn’t it so-called “expert” scientists whose decisions led to both space shuttle disasters . . . why, they might even have done it on purpose! If you can think it, it’s true. And once you say it in public, it can become even more true. Paranoia is therapy. The most reasoned, evidence-based argument cannot penetrate the armor of a deluded certainty.

The Internet seems to like nonsense memes. Where this commons is concerned, Yeats is right. The center cannot hold, because, in this case, there isn’t one. Some of the blogosphere’s most ardent supporters believe they are supporting the vanguard of some sort of village square democracy, a true conversation among people that will lead to progress. But Cheney supporters, Matt Drudge, al Qaida and other tyrants and totalitarians believe something else and they all use the Internet, too: Very well, from what I understand. The Internet works better as soapbox for the mad than as a forum for serious thought, useful ideas and sly, subtle wit. I will continue to read The New Yorker.

The Internet is amoral. Not only does it, in itself, lack any kind of moral content, its consequences are both good and bad. Like hammer that can be used to build a house, or for murder, it’s indifferent to good intentions. From where I keyboard, this battle has no end, until, at least, the power grid that civilization so deeply depends on melts down and humans creep back to our fire-lit caves.

The liberal blogosphere’s belief in the power of good to overcome the Internet’s core amorality is based on the, sad-to-say, false assumption of Universal Human Goodness. This amorality, and its consequences, cannot be explained away anymore than al Qaida can. Especially here, on the Internet, this commons, where every comment has equal voice and it all adds up to a sizzling fury of white noise.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Shop Talk #3: A Long Long Trail A-Winding

The last we visited this subject, I’d just finished Draft #2 on that upcoming smash-through-the-roof bestseller you are—of course--all going to read, The Vampire of Alpine Canyon. By the time of posting, I was ending a mini-vacation from writing and was starting to comb through the manuscript to see what hell I had wrought upon the computer screen. Here’s what I learned:

1) Draft #2 came to a total length of 618 pages, or around 174,000 words. At least 130 pages,or around 35,000 words, must go.

2) As far as writing—execution, style, control of narrative, spelling—your correspondent is still attending the Danielle Steel School of Keyboarding Your Way to Bestsellerdom. Misspellings and bad sentences abounded like repeated stakes through my heart. I found no howlers—I really wasn’t looking for them—but there was plenty to roll my eyes to the ceiling in search of that lightning bolt that God fires down on all bad writers (or should anyway). Discontinuities remain: I’ve only settled recently on the name of a significant geographic feature—not the eponymous canyon—while a couple minor characters changed monikers throughout. Is there a cat in this book, or not?

3) However, I did detect significant improvements. The plot and story are much more clear, focused, and coherent now. The time and place are set as are my major characters and most minor ones. I have all the basic plot I need, and may even be able to snip away a few knots and strands and sew together a few others to spin a swifter, more graceful yarn. As I read Draft #2, I started grading each chapter, A through F. I gave myself mostly Cs, a couple of Fs, and more Bs and As than I expected to find. At least one chapter had leapt from a D-minus to a B-plus, simply by radically rethinking a character. The ending still pleases me though, of course, I might be wrong. Some of you may get to tell me.

4) Research: One of my major characters is a rural professional, but don’t expect a Tom Clancy novel with entire chapters of step-by-step instructions on doing whatever; nevertheless, in those scenes when my character practices his profession, I want it to ring true, not in only in terms of basic procedure, but also in terms of his role in the community. I’ve purchased several books on the life of rural professionals and have been in contact with at least one. Wikipedia has also turned out to be helpful

5) Other research: I have a supporting character who is a county official, so I must learn more about his business, too; another supporting character is a fanatical sports enthusiast,so at least some reading must be done to capture the experience and some—but not too much—of the lingo involved; still another is a character who lives on the dole, so how does the welfare system operate in such situations? And then, there’s all that wonderful flora and fauna.

About research: it’s not my tip-top, number-one strength. The reading part I’m one hundred percent on, but, like a lot of writers, I cringe when it comes to actually approaching strangers and asking questions. I feel like Ken Tobey opening that door in The Thing (the good version). What waits on the other side? “None of your goddamn business!” or “Ohhh, I get it! You’re gonna put me in your stupid book and make me look like a buffoon! Here’s my middle finger! How’s that for information, asshole?”

Interesting note: one of the greatest genre writers ever, Donald Westlake, has claimed he hates research and actually hires out for it! I have mixed feelings about that. I also tend to fudge a little regarding what my book is about when talking to people. As any of you who have written supernatural fiction might know, of all genres, outside of pornography, it can elicit the most hostile reactions, no matter how many allusions to Shakespeare, Poe, or Nathaniel Hawthorne you toss around (“A vampire novel!? Uh-uh! No way! Step back, or I’ll break your nose with this door!”)

I’m already up to Chapter 7 of Draft #3 and seem to be making good progress. The characters and their world now seem to be knit more tightly than ever. The people act more decisively with deeper, stronger emotion and clearer purpose: less like hapless stick puppets, more like flesh and blood characters. I can already see saying good-bye to several chapters that fail to do anything but cure insomnia. A couple things still seem too long and I feel like I’m sometimes packing too much information into too small a space.

Another field trip disguised as a camping excursion to lovely Alpine County, California, lies just ahead, next week. If I can avoid certain Vile and Dangerous Diversions, I may be typing “The End” before I know it!

And then the next step: taking this baby on the road for a spin. Presenting it to a select sliver of the reading human population—both writers and non-writers--and seeing what gives: seeing if I have successfully painted the world and its creatures that exist in my head into the minds and dreams of those whom I offer entrance.

There’ll be more about that, later.

A Vile and Dangerous Diversion! (Photo by Elizabeth; cat by Flo!)


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Them Thar Hills! #1: The Perfect Swimming Hole

Most of what occurred during our vacation in Lake Tahoe was chortle-provoking somehow or other: On the first night, for example, I sliced my fingers open on my razor and staggered about our super-luxurious lodgings, bleeding like Saw X before finding first-aid. For the rest of the night, I stared at the ceiling and wondered if would ever see Emeryville again.

The following incident is perhaps best illustrative of both the adventure I sought and the lesson that brought home that Boy Scout motto: “Be prepared.”

On Wednesday afternoon, my brother-in-law Charles and I took a noonday hike from a trailhead south of Emerald Bay into the Desolation Wilderness. Our destination was Granite Lake, but cartographic confusion took us instead over rocky Cascade Falls Trail to its eponymous destination: a huge fall of granite that rises up from Cascade Lake, before sinking back down into a bowl of high mountains. Numerous streams carved narrow paths through this field, with little hint of the power they carry during spring runoff, but that was OK: We were after bigger game. We were determined to find the perfect swimming hole, even if it killed us. Which it almost did. Me, that is.

Not far from the end of the trail, up the gray slope, Charles heard the sweetest song in nature: the echo of fast running water plunging into a deep pool. The sound led us down into a ravine that was choked with hundreds of fallen conifers, white as bleached bone: It had seen neither fire nor axe in at least a generation. It was so choked with riparian vegetation we could barely find ground to stand on: It was like walking through a game of pick-up sticks played by titans. Charles, the taller of us, bushwhacked on ahead of me, high-stepping like Paul Bunyan through the trackless forest, while I cautiously waded behind like Woody Allen.

My caution failed me, anyway. Despite my careful steps, some support I expected to greet my foot turned out to be illusory. My left hand shot out to stop my fall. Sharp dry wood gouged into my flesh at the base of my thumb and the tip of my first finger. I saw that blood, first. Then I turned my hand over: Saw XI.

“Charles . . . .”

Musn’t panic. Musn’t seem unmanly. My tiny voice bravely squeaked above the woodland hush and the first chatter of birds waking from their afternoon siesta. Crawling one-handed over high horizontal trees, I cautiously followed the sound of falling water, grateful I hadn’t sprained an ankle, or worse.


I imagined how Charles would react when he saw my blood-spattered form, gaunt and hideous in the green-shadowed woods. (“Oh my God! Tom! Quick! Lie down! No! Don’t move! Here’s all my water! I’ll get the Medivac and fly it in myself!”)


Finally, the last of my blood gushing from my body, I crawled over one last fallen conifer. I imagined the heartfelt concern on Elizabeth’s face; the crowds gathering around Charles, congratulating him on his quick thinking and undaunted courage—

“CHAR-RELS!!!!--Oh. There you are.”

Charles stood ten feet away. I showed him my gashed, bloody hand, ready for him to spring into action.

“Eww wow, man.” Then his big blond face beamed as he pointed up ahead.

“I found it!” He wore his best proud happy kid’s face. “I found the perfect swimming hole!”

Charles had spoken Truth: It was the perfect swimming hole, a boy's secret, fed by a still fast mountain stream. Before I knew it, cold mountain water had washed my nerves away, while washing the crud that my fall had embedded in my hand—-most of what was pulled up was only surface skin.

We weren’t alone. A family, ranging in age from five to fifty, joined us from further upstream. Unfortunately, they weren’t looking for a swim; they were a funeral party looking to return their patriarch’s ashes to nature.

We politely claimed first dibs, promised it would be a quick swim to which they kindly acceded: The first time Charles came up gasping and sputtering, he said: “Are you sure you want to leave your Dad’s ashes here? It’s darn awful cold.”

Afterward, I sat drying in the sun and patched up my wound with the first-aid kit I always carry with me. Actually, these wounds are so common they can be a badge of honor: especially when you’re prepared to deal with them. If this had happened in the city, I’d be whimpering in bed for days.

We joined the mourning party to find the way out. Here’s when that kind of worry reared its head: Instead of going back the way we came—which we couldn’t find anyway; we’re no Natty Bumpo’s here—we headed down creek, before cutting back toward the rock slope. Soon, the deadwood piled to heaven. We had to make like the Flying Wallendas, walking along the tops of fallen logs. One wrong step could have made me the star of Saw XII.

As you can tell, we all made it safely. Later on, over the best-tasting beer ever, Charles and I concocted a Tall Tale about how I received my wounds while rescuing Charles from a bear attack. For some strange reason, the only reactions we received were tiny headshakes and rolled eyes.

Everybody’s so goddamn serious these days. . . .

(Photo by Author; model, Elizabeth Burchfield)