There’s Something About Those Stars

Every night, I venture onto my back porch and spend about 15 minutes looking up at the stars. Because I do this at pretty much the same time every night, I see the same stars over and over again, and almost exactly in the same position as the night before.

The constellation that gets my attention is Cassiopeia. I don’t know where I first learned about this particular constellation, but it’s one of the more famous ones, so I imagine it was sometime when I was young. Even still, I don’t think I understood how to spot it until I was in my twenties.

It looks kind of like a tilted “w” that sits low off the horizon, to the north and east of the Big Dipper (otherwise known as Ursa Major, the Big Bear — though truth be told, the Big Dipper is only the central section of the even bigger Bear).

I somehow know Cassiopeia was a Greek queen, but I don’t know how that queen’s story earned her a constellation (not that she didn’t deserve it or anything; I simply don’t know the facts of her story).

Usually, during these minutes of stargazing, I don’t carry my iPhone on me. This has not been because of a deliberate decision on my part; it’s merely been an ever-lengthening coincidence.

The lack of an iPhone hasn’t bothered me, though it’s often the only minutes each day when my phone isn’t somewhere within reach — or at least, the only minutes each day when I’m not subconsciously itching to touch my iPhone (regardless of whether it’s within reach).

The reaching for it, just the gentle desire to touch it, to make sure it’s there, I feel it, subconsciously, all day, and when I’m not able to do so, some part of me, sometimes consciously but always subconsciously, cries out, “Where’s my phone? Where’s my phone?,” until finally, there it is!, and I have it again.

But that itch goes away each night when I look up at the stars and pick out Cassiopeia. I don’t notice this lack of an itch, but thinking back on it, it’s true: the itch completely goes away.

Tonight, however, I had my iPhone on me when I went outside, and after a few minutes of looking up at Cassiopeia, I remembered it, and so after the required unconscious tap on my Facebook app, I opened my web brower and Googled the constellation’s name, not because I wanted to do a full search of the Internet but because I needed a shortcut to the relevant page on Wikipedia.

And Wikipedia (i.e., the wisdom of the crowd) told me that Cassiopeia was the mother of the woman whom was tied to that rock in The Clash of the Titans, the one whom Perseus wanted to save. She (the daughter) was served up to a sea monster to appease the wrath of Poseidon, who was holding the mother guilty for the crime of blasphemy, which she (the mother) committed when she boasted that both she and her daughter were more beautiful than the daughters of a sea god. The sea god was not Poseidon, mind you, but rather, the god who ruled the seas prior to Poseidon, so like, one of the sea’s still-living, past-ruling-gods (kind of like the sea’s version of Jimmy Carter).

Poseidon had to do something about such a boast. There’s a reason blasphemy is a sin. Blasphemy calls into question the power dynamic between a subject and its ruler. In order for the ruler to continue to rule, these dynamics cannot be doubted for a moment, and every outspoken doubt must be met by an overpoweringly undoubtable show of force, elsewise one brings into being the very beginning of a revolt.

And so Poseidon did what he had to do, and he came up with an unimaginably bitter pain for the boastful Cassiopeia: she had to sacrifice her beautiful daughter, whose only guilt resided in being the object of her mother’s boastful pride. To satisfy the wounded sea god’s pride, however, Cassiopeia had to sacrifice her daughter in a horrible, yet relevant way; she couldn’t just slice her daughter’s neck; she had to give her living daughter up to be consumed alive by a horrible sea monster.

In the story, Perseus comes along just in time and saves the princess (whose  name, by the way, is Andromeda; you’ve probably heard of her: we not only gave her a constellation [right below Cassiopeia’s], but we also named a galaxy after her — we’ve always liked princesses better than we’ve liked queens).

But the princess wasn’t really the guilty one; her mother was. So Poseidon had to come up with another punishment for the queen’s blasphemous crimes. He decided to curse her with a frozen immortality where she would forever be positioned as her daughter was positioned during what must have been the most torturous moment of both her and her daughter’s lives, forcing her (the mother) for all time to relive and never be released from the pain of that horrendous moment.

But he would do so not in private; Cassiopeia would not be frozen in some locked dungeon far beneath the earth where no one would ever see her or think about her crimes; no, instead, she would be held up high where we would all have to bear witness to her pain, a reminder to all of humanity as to what will happen if we boast against the gods (including those gods who are no longer in power).

And Cassiopeia sits above us, tied to her throne like Andromeda tied to those rocks, crying out, forever stuck in a moment of impending and violent shame.

The story of Cassiopeia doesn’t relate to my addiction to my iPhone, unless one wants to stretch the metaphor to its breaking point and compare modern culture’s worship of technology to the act of an ancient blasphemy…but hey, for argument’s sake, why not?

As I said above, blasphemy is an unforgiveable sin because it calls into question the power dynamics between a ruler and his/her/its subject. If we imagine for a moment that there is no such thing as God or gods, then what blasphemy are we committing when we sacrifice parts of our lives to technology?

As an academic living in rural Vermont, I have more than a few friends who are committed anti-technologists. They’re not nutjobs — they all watch Netflix, use computers, drive cars, etc., but they are also outspokenly critical of the costs and pains that come with our dependence on modern technology.

They are, in a word, humanists. They believe that humanity has an intrinsic value that ought to be defended. To their credit, they do not seem to believe that humanity is more valuable than anything else on the planet, but they believe that, despite its egalitarian relationship with everything else, humanity is truly unique and deserves to be saved.

One of the things it deserves to be saved from is technology. Like any other vice, technology sucks the life-force out of humanity and redirects it for its own use — like a poppy plant getting humanity high in order to make us grow more poppy plants. The more we sacrifice our energy, our attention, and our time to technology, the less control we have over our selves.

Studies show that an increased use of digital technology can lead to, among other things, increased weight gain, a reduction in sleep, the retardation of a young person’s ability to read emotions from non-verbal cues, increased challenges with attention and the ability to focus, and a reduction in the strength of interpersonal-bonding sensations. It directly harms our ability to enter into healthy relationships with other human beings, thereby harming humanity’s ability to regulate itself.

In other words, technology rules over humanity at this point; it regulates our interactions, even when we’re among each other. Technology has inserted itself into even our most intimate relationships (see: vibrator), and found itself enthroned upon an altar at which the majority of us bow down every night until we go to sleep, stealing from us the only productive hours we have after we sell ourselves into wage slavery in order to pay down our debts, debts which, let’s be honest, were mostly incurred by the manufactured desire to offer tribute to technology (collected in small amounts by technology’s high-priests: Comcast, Apple, Verizon, Samsung, the New York Stock Exchange, etc.).

To commit blasphemy against technology — to forget, even for a moment, even subconsciously, that technology does not rule over us, to not feel, even if only in retrospect, technology’s ruling hand — is to remember, even subconsciously, that humanity was here before technology, and that we did just fine on our own.

We weren’t weak. We weren’t bored.

We had kings and queens and gods who kept them in their place. And every night, we looked up at the dark night sky, and without feeling the uncomfortable itch of addiction, thought to ourselves, calmly, quietly, “There’s something about those stars.”

President Trump Did What Now?

I haven’t written about politics in a bunch of weeks. The reason is simple: it’s only a matter of time before Donald Trump gets impeached. There seems to be enough smoke now for any fair-minded person to agree that there must be some kind of fire. I don’t claim to know exactly what it is or who was involved, but I don’t doubt that the act of collusion includes the man at the highest level.

The NY Times is now reporting that Presidents Trump and Putin had an undisclosed, private conversation that lasted as long as an hour during the G20 Summit. It’s true that the conversation occurred in front of many of the world’s leaders, but except for Presidents Trump and Putin, only a Kremlin-employed interpreter knows exactly what was said.

Trump is attacking the Times for the story — “Fake News story of secret dinner with Putin is ‘sick.’ All G 20 leaders, and spouses, were invited by the Chancellor of Germany. Press knew!” — but it’s not about whether the press knew about it (nor is it about the President’s use of quotation marks around “sick” — does he think he’s quoting somebody or is he misunderstanding  the use of scare quotes?). It’s about whether the press reported the conversation, and until now, they had not.

Journalists know a lot of things. They don’t report on everything they know. The best of them only report on the things they know for sure, which means they have evidence to support it.

And what did the NY Times journalist, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, report?

She reported that “hours into” a G20 dinner, President Trump rose from his seat and joined President Putin for “a one-on-one discussion…that lasted as long as an hour and relied solely on a Kremlin interpreter.”

She wrote some more words to allow the White House to register its reaction,  and she wrote some others words to provide context for more casual readers, but at bottom, those are the only facts that she reported.

And President Trump calls it “Fake News!,” not because he denied it happened, but because he’s upset someone thinks such a conversation should be news.

This is the reason those of us on the left think he is an idiot. He can’t stop getting in his own way. How hard is it to not have a private conversation with the person you’re being accused of colluding with? And if you must have a conversation, how hard is it, really, to arrange a truly private one?

You know how hard it is for this president? Incredibly hard. Everyone in the bureaucracy is out to get him. He can’t make a phone call to anyone on the planet without someone else knowing about it, and with the leak culture being encouraged by the press and, let’s face it, the American people, that someone else is more than likely to let the information slip. How much worse would it look if President Trump tried to arrange an actual secret meeting with President Putin?

He had no choice. He can’t just not talk about the situation with President Putin, collusion or no collusion, so his only choice is to do it in the most public place possible.  If he actually wants to talk about the collusion issue, he can’t trust the State-department interpreter to not share the details of their conversation, even if only under oath to a prosecutor.

So what the President did, collusion or no collusion, makes complete sense. But to think, even if only for a minute, that such a conversation doesn’t deserve to be news is to think something bat-shit stupid. If the President of the United States had a private, one-on-one conversation with the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, the existence of that conversation would make the news — and I don’t even know if they have Prime Ministers there. To imagine it wouldn’t be news when you do it with your alleged colluder in treason…that’s just dumb.

That’s why I haven’t been writing about politics lately. I’m so done with trying to understand this President. I don’t have to anymore. I get it, and I honestly don’t think he’s a match for the one-two punches that keep coming at him from the bureaucracy and the press. If Mueller is as ethical as the press suggests, then it’s only a matter of time before they take him down.

At this point, writing about Trump feels more like trying to catalog and predict the ending of a one-sided fight — will he go down because of some kind of final, powerful blow or will he just succumb to a continuous onslaught of jabs? Making those kinds of prediction can be fun some of the time, like trying to predict which character on your favorite HBO show is going to die next, but more often it feels like trying to get excited about the arc on a crappy reality show.

There’s a danger in feeling that way, of course. If we allow ourselves to get bored by the lack of progress or overwhelmed by the case’s ever-growing details (how many fucking people were in that room with Don Jr. and how the fuck are they all connected again?), then we risk losing the urgency of the resistance. I get it.

But seriously, let’s look at this shit. Yes, the Republicans are trying to fuck up all kinds of shit in Congress, and yes, the President is doing a ton of real damage via Executive Order, but it seems the most they can do right now is all short-term stuff. They’re not organized enough to ram something through Congress — Trump is too unhinged and vague, and the Republican Congress has to reconcile the desires of too many “moderates” (as if…) with too many Tea Party crazies. If the Democrats can stay united in their resistance, the Republicans can’t deliver on the biggest promises they’ve made to the electorate, and they’ll continue to look and act completely dysfunctional.

Yes, there are things to do. Yes, there are real dangers to fight. But in all honesty, it seems like those who are doing the fighting for my side of things are doing a damn fine job, and I’m trusting them to continue to do so.

Me? I’ll keep going to work each day to teach the next generation of leaders how to think for themselves. It’s the least I can do.

What does it mean to be a self-published writer?

I’ve always interpreted self-publishing in terms of a bookstore: A self-published writer is someone who, from start to finish, is responsible for getting that book on that shelf.

But if I’m a bookstore owner, why am I going to allow you to come into my shop and just put your book on my shelves? If I start doing that, I’m going to have hundreds of wanna-be writers showing up on my doorstep, trying to get their stupid-ass books on my shelves. If I say yes to you, the rest will think I’ll say yes to them, and next thing you know, to make sure the books I sell remain high-quality enough for my customers, I’m screening which books make it on my shelves and which ones don’t, which basically means I’m doing the job of a publishing house now, and damn it, I’m trying to run a bookstore, not a publishing house, so no…you can’t put your self-published book on my shelf.

Can you imagine trying to talk your way past that guy? That’s a hell of a struggle, and even if you’re persuasive, it just means you got your book on that one shelf in that one bookstore, and everyone knows that no one goes to bookstores anymore.

So now, when you’re talking about self-publishing, what you’re really talking about is putting your book on Amazon. And that’s simple. Anybody can do that.

And millions of them do.

So now what’s your next struggle? It’s rising to the top in the cage-match rumble for a reader’s attention. If you want people to find your book in the jungles of Amazon.com, you have to work your network, which means turning friends and family members into customers and hopefully having a few of them who turn a few friends of their own onto your book.

But that seems kind of slimy to me. It’s putting your network to work, and that feels like an exploitation. I don’t want my friends and family to work for me. If they dig what I’m doing and they recommend it to someone else in the natural flow of their lives, that’s great, that’s honest and genuine; and that’s how I want my relationship with my readers to be: honest and genuine.

So there has to be another form to self-publishing, one that doesn’t require me to haggle with a bookstore owner or exploit the strength of my network.

And that’s when I realized there’s this. My blog. There doesn’t have to be anything other than this. It’s a place where I publish my writings and make them available for free.

I’m not a professional writer, and now that I’ve reached the age of 40 and am involved in a career that satisfies me personally and professionally in so many different ways, I’ve given up the desire to become a professional writer. I pay my bills in other ways, so why not write for free?

This doesn’t mean I’m not going to self-publish a book someday. But if I do, I’m going to link to it here on my website and make it available for free.

Because that’s what I think self-publishing should mean. If I didn’t get paid to write it, why should you pay me to read it?

There’s no resource being consumed here, nothing but time. And if your time is just as valuable as mine, why should you have to cover the cost of mine?

Except, wait a minute, because if we’re really talking about an exchange of time, truth must be spoken: it takes me a lot longer to write these things than it does for you to read them. Doesn’t that mean you owe me something? If our exchange value is time, doesn’t that mean you owe me some of your time (provided I have’t wasted whatever time you’ve already given me)?

That would be true if our time was equally as valuable, but it’s not. By virtue of your presence here, we can assume that your time — i.e., your attention — is precious. There are literally countless other things you could be doing with your time right now, but instead of doing any of those things, you’re doing this: reading the words I wrote. That’s a gift I must truly appreciate.

Because obviously, as someone who actually keeps a blog, I must have a lot of time on my hands, a portion of which I choose to give to this.

As a self-published writer, I’m not being paid for this. But as a self-selected reader, you’re actually paying for the time that you give me: in an attention-based economy, giving someone your eyeballs is to give them a major form of currency. I can use your eyeballs as leverage in a negotiated contract where the other party would be agreeing to exchange their services (editing, publishing, and marketing) for your eyeballs. If I give them you (i.e., my network), they’ll give me money. They won’t even have to read my work first because decision makers don’t care about what’s between the pages they publish; they care about the number of eyeballs that will, at the very least, scan those pages.

But, as I said before, I will not trade on the strength of my network. I refuse to think of my readers — of you — as a revenue stream. That would fuck up our whole relationship, and I’m not willing to do that.

Your attention is expensive, and it’s the only resource being consumed here. Everything else I’m just giving away.

I hope you find as much joy in it as I do.

The Arts of Telling the Truth

During the first ten years of my writing life, I learned that readers don’t want any bullshit but they do want to be entertained. The art, then, was the art of telling the truth. Some people call it advertising.

Ten years ago, I gave up the art of advertising and dedicated myself to the art of fiction. To my delight, many of the techniques I used in the art of advertising applied equally to the art of fiction. Regardless of how fictional a story might get, it has to be grounded in a shared reality between reader and narrator; it has to be grounded in something that both the reader and the narrator consider to be the truth.

The source of the truth doesn’t always have to be acknowledged by the narrator, but as the writer, its your duty to know exactly what that truth is and to not be shy about letting it be so.

Partly in thanks to this shared imperative to artfully tell the truth, my decade of experience in advertising and my six year study in fiction allowed me to earn a Master’s of Fine Arts degree from a college of artists worthy of the name.

Eight years later, I’ve learned that the same imperative that grounds advertising and fiction also grounds the art of education. Like readers, students require truths to come to them in a language they can understand. They may not want to face the truth directly (because the experience of doing so might be boring), but they also don’t want to put up with any of your bullshit. Like advertising and fiction, then, the art of teaching is just another genre in the art of telling the truth.

But for the first time in a long time, I need to revert to the art of advertising, which, while sharing the imperative to tell the truth, also has a set of rules and practices that differ greatly from the arts of fiction and teaching. Where fiction tells the truth in the service of a story, and teaching tells the truth in the service of the future, advertising tells the truth in the service of a transaction. It’s been over a decade since I put my words in the service of something that feels so base.

If I’d done my job correctly over the past year, this project would already be done. The goal: to create a brand-new website for my school, one that in no ways relates to the current content or design. The students were supposed to be in charge. I was there to drive the project and to lend support, and another adult was there to spark their ideas and educate them on the process of thinking like a marketer, but the students would be the people with their ideas on the table and their hands on the keyboards.

During the first three quarters of the school year, they met once or twice a week, during which time they developed concepts and ideas for the website. By March, they had approved the website’s structure, tone, and design. During the fourth quarter, they were supposed to get to work.

Unfortunately, the quarter moved too fast and their workloads grew too high, and so as a group, they could not finish the task of actually writing, testing, and launching a website. This was understandable — disappointing, but understandable — but it also meant that the project’s final deliverables fell on me.

That’s why my schedule for the next four to six weeks includes not only four days of teaching and/or administrative work, but also one complete day per week that is dedicated to the production and launch of the newest version of the school’s website.

The difficulty will come not from any of the technical details of the project (while I might not be able to achieve the website of our dreams, I’m confident I can produce, at minimum, a clean and professional looking website). No, the difficulty will come, ironically enough, from the task I’m most qualified to accomplish, that of writing the words themselves.

As you are aware, my writing borders on the verbose. Verbosity does not perform well on the web, where content is meant to be skimmed, not indulged in. Visitors to a website arrive to accomplish a task or to find some specific information; they don’t come to languish in the art of written creation.

I am able to be verbose on my blog because it’s my fucking blog, and if you don’t like my verbosity, that’s your deal and no harm to me.

But on my school’s website, if you don’t accomplish the task you came to accomplish or find the information you so desperately need, your child might not find the school that best fits their unique needs, or the school might not grow fast enough for me to grow in my job, or the parent of a diagnosed child might not find the water in the desert that our program can be for some families. If a visitor doesn’t like my blog, big whoop; if a visitor doesn’t like what I write on the school’s website, the harm could be great and the foul could almost be a sin.

At the same time, I know I can get it right.

Writing a contemporary website won’t be easy for me, and it will take humility to remember that my tone is not the school’s tone, but by the time the project is complete, I suspect I will, once again, discover that the art of writing a website is just another genre in the art of telling the truth (tasks and information not included).

A Declaration

I don’t run from the epithet, American. As a liberal in conservative America, I sometimes feel as if I’m supposed to. We’re a country full of nationalistic and self-involved racists whose ability to empathize with those whom we trod down upon is never enough to live up to our hypocritical claim of being a Christian nation. We’re loud, obnoxious, and willfully ignorant. We cling to guns and our religion because we’re too stupid to rise up against the capitalists whose propaganda we swallow whole every night. We are afraid of every little thing, and that fear drives us to wave our army dicks all over the world in an attempt to scare off anyone who might disagree with us.

Is that something to celebrate? No, not at all. But you know what is?

The ability to stand in my own backyard, surrounded by family and people in my community, people whom I’m proud to call my friends, and to share with these people some fine ales and wholesome foods, and to laugh with them as we await a public fireworks display, paid for through our donations and our tax dollars in celebration of those who came before us and of those who stand among us.

Somewhere tonight, a child huddled in the wreckage of a bombed out building. Somewhere else, a woman died giving childbirth in a dark and marshy field.

But here, on my property, in my community, no one worried about that. The thought of those realities didn’t come up once. Our children ran around and laughed, and the only reason any of them cried is because they bonked their heads together in the bouncy house that one of my neighbors, unsolicited, was nice enough to lend to our party. I didn’t worry for any of the babies in attendance; I didn’t once doubt their parents’ ability to provide them with food and shelter and love. During the evening, three different SUVs drove by my house with Sheriff written on the side, and not once did I imagine that anyone in those cars would be a threat to me, my family, or my guests.

But somewhere, a middle-aged man died of a curable disease, his family looking on, sadness and relief both present in their eyes. Somewhere else, a father cuddled with his son knowing that, if the rain doesn’t come tomorrow, there will be no water.

I know as a liberal white man I’m supposed to feel guilty about my privileges, and in some ways, I really do, but there also times like today, when I can throw horseshoes with new acquaintances and neighbors, when I can make fun of close friends and know that my humor won’t be misconstrued as meanness, when I can stand over a grill and non-ironically live out a Budweiser commercial, times like today, when I really and truly feel grateful to call myself an American, and I don’t feel guilty at all.

Happy Independence Day, everybody. May you have a life to be grateful for as well.