This Morning

This morning I am thinking about being positive.

I’ve been as critical as I can  be, the last few posts; I think I should try to come up with some positive solutions to the problems I’ve been describing. After all, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Okay, actually, that’s the first thing. No more either/or thinking. No more win or lose, no more all or nothing. (Okay, maybe a little bit of all or nothing. I don’t want to be definitively black and white about this.) It is entirely possible to be both part of the solution AND part of the problem; I  think most of us are like that at least some of the time. It says something positive about you if you have enough self-awareness to recognize that you are part of the problem, and if it is a serious enough, complex enough, intransigent enough problem, then the effort, the incremental steps towards being part of the solution, are good enough. Working is enough. Trying is enough. There are also those who are only part of the solution, not part of the problem, and they will be the ones moving things forward; if those of us who are still stuck with one foot in the muck can just ooze out of their way, that will be enough.

Example? Sure. I do a lot of things right as a teacher. I focus on the actual material and the skills that students can gain from it. I am open and willing to take student input on what we will do in class, how long we will work on it, and so on, so I give them agency in their own education and also some ability to make their education more useful and appropriate. I care about them, but I do not mother them. I know and love my subject, and I model that love and that knowledge for them, as often as I can. So with the problem of, say, adults who don’t treat teenagers with respect but expect both respect and unending effort (and humility) from teenagers, I’m not part of the problem, only the solution. With the problem of education being detached from utility and from interest — the sort of education that stops at “The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” — I am part of the solution and not part of the problem.

But when it comes to argument, I still tend to want to win, and to show myself as smarter and more right than my opponent, and I am all too willing to see my students as my opponents. I overwhelm them and cow them, and make them feel like they’ve been defeated, rather than like they’ve been taught. I do this in all of my arguments. I am aware of it; I am trying to fix it. I am trying to stop myself from taking up arguments in class; two years ago I inserted myself into a class assignment on writing argumentative essays, and I wrote essays in response to my students’ arguments; I don’t do that any more. So I’m learning. But it’s difficult, because I run a discussion-based class, and I want my students to offer attempts and theories, but I also want to challenge them to go further and explain better what their point is. Too often that challenging discussion can slip right into an argument.

So I’m working on it. Still not there yet. If someone else could come in and fix that for me, it would be great, thanks.

But that’s not the positive solution I wanted to offer today. (It’s part of it.) The issue I wanted to talk about today is the one from yesterday, the way that teenaged boys suck. I feel like I’ve got some connection to this problem, though not as much as someone who is actually raising a boy, so I can at least offer some suggestions.

The first one is the most obvious: toxic masculinity has to end. Not the competitive indoctrination, which is a separate issue; but the idea that men must be manly, must be strong and especially silent, must enjoy and appreciate only manly things: all that has to stop. The training in violence that comes with this also has to stop, for more reasons than just for the sake of the boys who our society makes into brutes. So if we can continue to work on the problems of bullying and emotional isolation and gender specific activities and traits and strengths, that would help enormously; I think those things would help all of us be less douchey, not just teenaged boys.

But yes: the thing that I believe will make the most difference with teenaged boys is the constant shouting in their faces that they must be competitive, and they must always strive to win. Sports is the first and most obvious issue here. Sports, especially little league sports, have to be changed entirely and immediately. We need to stop keeping score. We need to stop talking about winning and losing, and about doing whatever it takes to be the one on top.

That probably has to start with how adults consume sports. I was listening to NPR yesterday, and the news host was  talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning, a hockey team who just got eliminated from the playoffs in the first round by a team they were supposed to beat. And though part of me questions whether that is even news outside of Tampa Bay (or Columbus, the team that beat them), the larger issue was the tone of the story: the host actually asked a Tampa sports reporter if the people of Tampa felt angry and betrayed by the loss, in addition to being shocked and disappointed. And the Tampa reporter said: Yes.

Look: if your year, or even your day, is ruined by a game lost by a team that happens to share a zip code with you, you have bad priorities. I will die on this hill.

I am fully aware of the arguments for team spirit, how it brings people together and gives them something to cheer for and to bond over; but there is too much evidence that losing hurts more than winning, and that our time and money would be better spent on almost any other activity rather than watching professional sports (Just look at how “winning” a professional franchise affects a city) to sustain that argument. We’d be better off treating sports as something fun to watch sometimes, and more fun to play, if we’re not too hardcore about winning. That’s how sports should be treated with young boys.

That’s how everything should be treated with young boys. And with grown men. There are serious things that need to be taken seriously: the problems with the world, and the causes of suffering. That’s where we should be aggressive, and take no prisoners and never retreat and never surrender: getting clean water into Flint, Michigan. Ending the spread of AIDS. Peace in the Middle East. You want to teach your kids to fight? Teach them to fight those things. Fight to make this world a better place.

Otherwise, maybe we should teach our kids to just have fun. And we should mean it.

(To be continued.)

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about competition’s price.

Competition pushes us forward, motivates us to work harder and to seek that competitive edge, that special something that separates the winners from the losers. The will to win is what makes Olympic athletes, and Fortune 500 CEOs, and America — particularly Donald Trump’s America. And as long as you are one of the people born with the opportunity to be a winner — someone with the physical gifts that an athlete needs, or with the background and connections to network your way to the top of a major corporation, or you happened to control half a continent with an embarrassment of natural riches, which was conveniently emptied of 95% of its population by disease just before you arrived to take over, well! Then competition can help you strive to achieve all of your potential, can create a situation where you can be dominant and reward you for that dominance. Competition can make you great.

But there’s a price. There’s always a price. Capitalism should have taught us that: there is no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody always has to pay. We think that the price we pay for winning is the hard work we put in to be the best, but that’s not it: that’s the labor that produces the end result, but it isn’t the cost of the raw materials, and it isn’t the waste that is left behind. Before I lose you with this oh-so-clever industrial metaphor (Which, I confess, is essayed with only the dimmest understanding of economics and industry, at least half garnered from civilization-simulator video games) let me make my point: the cost of competition is twofold. It consumes the soul of the winner, and the life of the loser.

Competition requires an environment where competition can thrive. That means it needs a contest, an opportunity for too many people to struggle for too few resources (Or, in the modern sportsing era where athletes “earn” the GDP of a small nation every year, it is too many people struggling for too many resources which are all consumed by one enormous glutton rather than being distributed to all in need) and for the possession of those resources to be claimed by the winner of the contest. This quite obviously hearkens back to natural selection, the struggle for survival, which also produces winners and losers — or, more appropriately, those who live and those who die. Competition takes that same instinct and channels it into a situation that is not life or death, with essentially the same result: all else being equal, those with greater determination win — the early bird gets the worm — but inevitably, those with the greatest adaptive advantages are selected. You can see it in sports, where athletes are bigger and stronger and faster than ever before.

But even more than that, for our strongest to survive in competitions, we have to train them, essentially from birth, to compete. Tiger Woods is a perfect example of this: he was raised, quite literally, to win. And so he won, and now he is back to winning, and I suppose that gives his life meaning and makes all his effort worthwhile. But look at the cost: look at the rest of his life. The man has destroyed his own family life; he has ravaged his standing and reputation in society in every way other than what standing he gets from the fact that he can hit tiny white rocks really, really far with a metal stick; he has damaged his body nearly to the point of crippling himself; he has struggled with substance abuse.

That’s what it looks like when you’re the best.

I mean, it makes sense. If you are raised and bred to compete, then you would be likely to compete in everything. Having just one wife wouldn’t be enough: you have to have the best wife, the hottest wife; and then you need more wives. Getting high isn’t enough, you have to be the highest in the history of highness: you have to beat out such luminaries as Snoop Dogg and Bob Marley, and when you try to hang with those guys, it’s gonna cost you. And when you aren’t gifted with a freakishly impossible advantage (That would be Shaquille O’Neal, who didn’t have to work hard to be successful, simply because nobody else in the basketball world was that big. Andre the Giant, as well.), then the cost of beating out other people with the same gifts you have is — well, whatever it takes. Sacrificing every other part of your life so you can get in more training is only the first step: after that comes cheating, and doping, and Lance Armstrong, who was gifted with natural ability (His lungs are preternaturally efficient, allowing him to move more oxygen and therefore put out greater physical effort for longer — like, say, when you’re riding a bike uphill) and a drive to win, and who still used performance enhancing drugs. And also ruined his otherwise successful life thereby. Of course, he wouldn’t have had that successful life if he hadn’t won, but it’s hardly his fault that our culture rewards only the first person across the finish line; I don’t doubt that Armstrong could have been top ten in every Tour he won, even without the walrus testosterone or whatever the hell he stuck in his veins.

And that’s the final cost. Competition may make winners: but it also therefore makes losers. And everything that winners gain, losers — well, lose. And the very nature of competition requires that loss to hurt, because otherwise the losers won’t strive to become winners. So at best, with only two people competing, competition creates as much overall suffering as it does overall reward. But of course there’s never only two competitors: which means that inevitably, in all cases, competition makes more suffering than reward. Competition hurts us. Always. Even, I would argue, those who do win, because at some point, no matter who you are, you stop winning. Athletes retire, companies get eclipsed by new up-and-comers or by simple shifts in the economy or the culture, and nations — no matter how great — fade and fall. Competition makes losers of all of us. That’s the price.


Winning and Losing and Fighting

I wrote this last night.

I just want to say that I have nothing to say.

My fiction has not had the appeal that I always hoped it would; I’m not sure if it’s more because my writing is boring and overly wordy, or because people have largely given up reading, or some combination of the two. But the point is that the ideas I come up with, which I think will get people to buy and read and talk about my books, don’t make any of those things happen.

I’ve also come to realize that, in almost all areas of life that I wish to write about, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I understand teaching well, and to some extent I understand writing and literature, but even there, I realize that I have only one of many perspectives on what I do, and I don’t think I have any real proof that my opinions are correct. I have suspicions that the same urge we all have to confirm and conform and support one another is the real reason why people tell me I teach well and write well.

This means  that I think there  is little reason for me to share my ideas. Those ideas are probably wrong, after all, and not well-written enough to be worth contributing just for the sake of  the eloquent prose and powerful rhetoric. I mostly just babble online, and the books show it. My essays show it. My audience shows it. My continued — shall we be generous and call it a “lack of success” rather than an abject failure? — lack of success shows it. I don’t know that I’ve ever convinced anyone of anything. I suppose I’ve been entertaining, though not on any scale that makes it worth doing.

So since I don’t know facts, and I don’t write lyrical prose, why would I say anything at all? Any time I think about picking a position and going for it, I think that doing so for the sake of fulfilling my urge to write creates an atmosphere of contentious disagreement, and if it’s not a strongly held conviction, then it feels like disagreement for an audience. Back to entertainment, and doing nothing good for my country — which I do love, by the way. But that’s not interesting. I don’t do that because nothing’s going to change my audience’s mind, so nothing I say is going to have any impact on the world. Et voila.

I have felt the urge to write. I don’t do well with not writing. I wanted to write tonight, about an argument that would be worth having. I thought about writing about Trump, but what I’ve seen for the past two years has shown  me that people, whether they agree or disagree  with Trump, will bend over backwards to show how they will never, ever, EVER, change their loyalty, no matter how many reasons they find to do exactly that. On both sides, too: if I were to write an essay praising Trump for what he has done well — engaging with North Korea and Kim Jong Un, maintaining the strong economy, even things like renegotiating NAFTA and getting NATO members to pay their fair share of the defense spending for the alliance — I’d get lectured on what he’s done that’s terrible (Too long a list to include). If I focused on the Naughty list, I’d get these things put forward as reasons why he’s done all the right things, and a dozen other angry disagreements about why I’m wrong and an unAmerican libtard. I don’t know that anyone would consider the points I’d raise, not least because I don’t even know what the hell I’m talking about.

If I stay away from politics, which would be fine with me, then what do I write about? Teaching? Ugh; talk about beating a dead horse. I don’t think I’ll ever again have an interesting or informative story about teaching that I haven’t already told. So what, then? My dogs? They’re lovely, but I don’t know anything about them other than what I observe, all of which has already been observed by anyone with dogs.  Talking about my family is taboo, especially if I were to try to air the dirty laundry that would make those stories interesting. I could try to write fiction — I am trying, still — but then we come right back to that whole “Your writing sucks and is boring” theory I’m operating with.

Again: I’m not trying to garner sympathy or affirmations. I’m trying to explain why I haven’t been writing, so that other people who are feeling like they don’t have anything to say that’s worth hearing can understand how I got to feel this way. I don’t know if it started with the failures of my fiction career (which are not shocking, as fiction writing is a damn hard business to break into) or if it came with my recent understanding that I am often wrong in my political views, that many of them come from my party loyalty rather than my own rational thought, and that plenty of my ideas are based on prejudice rather than reason. (That also is not a knock against myself: that is a description of how 99.9999% of us act about our own political views, which are generally wrong if not simply irrational. Though this is my own opinion, and as such is highly suspect, as it is based on little or no evidence, like all of my political opinions.)

I’m not sure what my point is. I was trying to write something more in line with my absurd argumentative holiday, but I couldn’t settle on a topic, and then I couldn’t get it going; I suspected that it was because this idea, that I am not fit to write and that my opinions are not worth being written, has permeated my thoughts more and more lately. It is possible I’m being too hard on myself. If so, I’m not sure how to fix it. Maybe if I can share my honest feelings and thoughts — and that, too, is difficult, as my honest opinions and thoughts are exactly what got me into trouble some years ago — then it will help me move past them.

Though I don’t know if there’s anything worth saying on the other side of these doubts, either.

I really don’t know much of anything.

I posted it, and then twenty minutes later, I took it down. I decided people didn’t really need to see my despondency, and while I said in there that I was trying to be honest so people could understand how I felt and how I got to be that way, that wasn’t really my intent; I was sad, and I was frustrated, and I was trying to write something. Anything.

It had already had some effect, though, because I know there are people who get email alerts from this blog which contain the posts, so it went out to those people, at least, and some of them might have read it. And it had some effect on me: by the end of writing this, I was thoroughly depressed, and by the time I went to bed, I was worse. I woke up at 2am thinking about this post, and about my life and my writing; it took me two hours to get back to sleep, and now here I am, first thing in the morning, writing this, rather than doing my usual check of Twitter and Facebook while I eat breakfast.

Here’s the thing: this is not true. I am not a bad writer. I am not a failure. I am not a fool. It’s true that I’m not an expert in the things that I write about, but I am damn good at research, at critical thinking, at deciding what facts to include and what to discard, and how to show a logical path of reasoning to a conclusion. That means I can write a good essay, which is pretty much all I write on this blog, apart from the book reviews (which are also good, I think). There’s nothing wrong and a lot right with my attempts to speak to truth in writing. I don’t have to already know the incontrovertible truth before I do that. In fact, there’s a reason for me not to know everything when I start writing: part of my intent is, as I claimed to be doing here, to show my thought process; I can’t do that as well if the thoughts are already done and set. Besides, even when I really am struggling to find an answer, that still doesn’t mean I can’t write an essay, and a good essay: because the word “essay” comes from the French for “attempt.” That’s what it is, and that’s what I do, and I do it well. Most of the time, I know that. As much as I know anything.

So what happened last night, that left me oozing melancholy onto this blog (My poor blog: you’ve taken so much from me, with never a word of complaint. Thank you for that.), is simply that I set myself an impossible goal. I picked a battle that I could not win, because I didn’t think it through before I started fighting. (There’s a reason I’m using war metaphors, instead of, say, “I set out on a journey I couldn’t complete because I didn’t know the destination, or the path.” That would work too, and if that makes more sense for you to describe a creative endeavor, then think of that, instead.) I decided that I had to write something last night. Had to be done on November 5th. No other option. I decided it in the late evening, around 7:00 or so, and by 8:00, I had — no ideas at all. I did an eminently stupid thing, which was to look on Twitter for possible inspiration; I honestly can’t think of a less inspiring place for genuine thoughts — unless  it’s  Facebook, where I also looked for ideas.

Needless to say, it didn’t work. I started writing something political, but I’ve had a lot of trouble determining my political stance lately — or maybe it’s my perspective — and so I question every potentially political statement I try to make. Happened last night, and I swiftly gave up on writing about politics. (Though that’s why it has a prominent place in the deluge above. That and I do think writing has the potential to make change, and politics is the thing in our society that needs the most changing, I think. Actually, maybe I’m wrong. You know, I’ve never really written about prejudice or hate. Hmm.)

That’s when I gave up. Surrendered. Decided I had nothing to write last night, and therefore, I had failed. And thus, in a stubborn attempt to write something, I wrote about my failure. But I didn’t do it well, which is why I took it down, and why I’m writing this now.

I did fail last night. But only because I was impatient. I created an artificial deadline for myself, and then collapsed when I couldn’t meet it. I think now (this is what I thought about between 2am and 4am) that this tendency to make up imaginary deadlines is a common practice, and not only for creatives; I think a lot of us do it a lot of the time. I have to be married with kids by 30 or 35. I have to have my dream job by 25. I have to be a millionaire by 40, or retired by 55. We pick essentially random points in the future, and we center our sights on it — and charge.

And miss.

On some level there’s nothing wrong with artificial deadlines like this, because it does keep us moving. It keeps us from putting today off for tomorrow, especially when today is the deadline. That’s a good thing, because despite what my students say, there is actually nothing at all good about procrastination. It’s understandable, but it’s never good. My students say they work better under pressure, but honestly, the pressure always comes from within: either you make the thing a priority, or you don’t, and if you do, there’s pressure to do it, and if you don’t, there’s not. Invented deadlines can be a way to convince your underbrain, that lazy lizardy bastard, that this thing is a priority NOW. There are plenty of times when I’ve sat down to write, telling myself I needed to find something to write about — and I have found something, and I’ve written, and it’s been fine, and I’ve won. Most of Damnation Kane was written that way, to be frank, especially the first book. I decided it was going to be a serial, I decided it was going to have a chapter published every Saturday by noon, and so every Saturday morning, I sat down and wrote a chapter.

The problem is what I did wrong last night: sometimes you pick a bad deadline, or a bad goal, and then when you miss it, you feel like a failure. Last night I shouldn’t have been writing. It was Monday: Monday’s a bad day to write. I should have been listening to music and grading vocabulary sentences. It was my own fault that I felt like a failure, because I didn’t create a way for me to succeed. I lost the battle with myself, with my writing, because I didn’t think enough about my strategy, about my plan of attack or my objectives, and so I didn’t win.

Why am I talking about writing like it’s a war? Because today is Election Day. And just as we set imaginary deadlines for ourselves in creative endeavors, so we do in politics, as well.

We’re going to be hearing a lot today about how this is the moment, this is the chance, this is the make or break, do or die, last hope for everything we believe in. I heard on the radio yesterday that today’s election will determine if this is Trump’s America, or not. I had the same reaction to that that I’m currently having to my own bullshit (That was what I was trying to write about last night before I gave up on politics), which is: that’s fucking nonsense.

So let me be clear. Today is a battle. Last night was a battle for me. Neither last night for me, nor today for this country, is the end of the war. I didn’t write something useful last night; here I am, less than twelve hours later, writing something I am much more pleased with (Though it still may not be a victory. It probably never is, which is where the military metaphor fails. I used it to make the analogy to politics, is all.). If this election goes badly — and I mean that, in all sincerity, for people of any and all political positions, because this election, like all of our politics right now, is so supercharged and combative that any result is going to be heartbreaking for one side or the other, if not both — the most important thing in the world to realize and remember is: there is another election in two years. (We should also remember that politics is not all of life, but that’s a different subject.)

The truth is this: the struggle never ends. Never. We win small battles, we lose small battles — usually only when we surrender, especially when the battle’s with ourselves — but we always keep fighting. The victories that progressives have had in the last fifty years have built up the fighting spirit on the conservative side, and that gave us the current situation; that situation is now building up the fighting spirit on the progressive side. That’s maybe even the way it has to be. It’s almost physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and so the pendulum swings, and then swings back, and the farther it goes in one direction, the harder and faster the return swing is going to be. There’s nothing — nothing — that can happen that will end the swinging of the pendulum, other than the death of all humanity. (Which is a fair possibility, of course, and the one that should probably have the most urgency to it, because those deadlines aren’t so artificial.) If Trump was actually Hitler (He’s not) and he took over the country in a fascist dictatorship, then there would be a rebellion, there would be a war, there would be an overthrow. The struggle would continue, and eventually, it would move the other way. There would be untold suffering in the meantime, and I don’t mean to say the struggle doesn’t matter, therefore: what doesn’t matter is the deadlines.

In a creative endeavor like my writing, there is no end. I’ll never be such a great writer that I don’t feel the need to get better. I’ll never write a work so fantastic that I’ll never want to write something even more fantastic. I will at some point write something that I can’t beat, but I’ll always want to. I will want to keep writing until I die, whether I am successful or not, whether I achieve what I want to achieve when I want to achieve it, or not. The struggle — the journey — will always go on.

Last night I decided there was an end to the fight, at least in the immediate sense. And I picked the wrong end, and I failed. I am going to try not to make that mistake again; when it’s a bad night for writing, I just won’t write, even if I told myself that I would. My ambitions have to bend to reality, not the other way around.

Let’s all try to remember that today, okay? Today may be a chance to achieve what we want to achieve. And it may not be the right time yet. Maybe things have to get a little worse before they get better — whatever you think “worse” or “better” means for this country. But today is not the end. Tomorrow we will still have to fight, even if we win today.

Tomorrow I’ll still want to write. Today, I won.

Now I’m going to go vote, and hope. And stay ready.