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Rants

Animated monologues and other over-the-top essays

Rant: Processed, My Ass; I Wanna Kill Something

Yes. I wanna kill something. And what I wanna kill is the term “processed food.” I wanna drive stakes through its eyes, pound it flat with a sledgehammer, then flip it over and pound it even flatter. I’d stake it to an anthill except that I like ants a little too much. The term must die. It’s a lie, fake science, fake health, fake everything. It’s also racist, classist, and elitist. I’ve heard it enough. I do not want to hear it again.

Some background: Five or six years ago, when I was on the verge of turning 60 and my blood pressure was inching up, I saw my GP. The first thing he said was, “We have to get you off of processed foods.” He hadn’t asked me anything about my diet. He didn’t define what a “processed food” is. He didn’t know that I was eating processed foods, whatever they might be. He didn’t know what I ate at all, but he was so sure that hypertension is caused by processed foods that he didn’t consider his advice absurd. I was so taken aback by the lack of logic that I didn’t even call him on it. I will not make that mistake again.

I just wrote him off, and soon had a better GP. This one simply handed me a prescription for lisinopril, which has been doing the job just fine ever since.

Still, everywhere I go, I see cautions against eating “processed food.” Nobody ever defines the term. Everybody who uses it assumes that its definition is obvious and universally understood. I dunno… Is cooked food processed? Is pasteurized milk processed? No? Then what does “processed” actually mean?

Crickets. (Which some consider health food. Unless the crickets are killed first, in which case no, because that would be processing them.)

If it’s about salt, say that it’s about salt. And provide numbers. I did the science on myself and found that salt does not affect my blood pressure at all. (Obviously, YMMV.) There’s actually significant evidence that it goes the other way. In fact, there’s evidence that eating more salt causes you to lose weight.

If not salt, then fat? Research finding that most fats are not only harmless but necessary and beneficial is piling up. Eating fat gooses your metabolism, especially if it’s been awhile since you’ve eaten carbs. Eating a high-fat, zero-carb breakfast is one of my major strategies for keeping my weight under control.

Sugar? I’ll definitely buy that. But it’s funny how nobody mentions sugar as a key element of processed foods. Chemicals? Which chemicals? Give me a list. Be specific. You and I are made of chemicals. I eat nothing but chemicals. And so do you. We need a precise technical definition here.

All that said, little by little, I’m beginning to get a clue. I may even have a definition for you: Processed food is any food that my tribe disapproves of. Yes, here and there I’ve heard snarky pseudo-definitions on the order of “any food containing more than five ingredients.” Good luck if you want six different vegetables in your vegetable soup. I counted the ingredients in Bugles earlier today: Corn meal, coconut oil, sugar, salt, baking soda. That’s it. Bugles are health food! (What’s scarier, to me at least, is that they’re over fifty years old, and I remember their introduction.) “Processed food” is in fact one of the most important entries in the Encyclopedia of Virtue Signaling.

“Processed food” is also, in some circles, code for something eaten by working-class people, who admirably don’t care what our fackwot Harvard-educated elites think of them. Harvard, by the way, was bought off by the sugar companies decades ago to make the case that sugar was safe and fat was evil. Ever since I learned that, I’ve considered Harvard a fake university, and The Atlantic agrees with me. The gist here is that you really really don’t want to be lumped in with people who work with their hands, so never admit that you even know what fish sticks or TV dinners are.

Ok, I know, shut up, Jeff and cut to the chase. Here’s the deal: The term “processed food” is an undefinable nonsense term used by snobs who try to make it look like they know something about health but are actually obsessed with distancing themselves from those yukky working classes. It’s just that simple.

Want to prove me wrong? Go find me a precise, technical, unambiguous, and widely accepted technical definition of “processed food.” You must meet all four points, without exception. (If you don’t, I will shoot it down in nuclear flames.) Otherwise, I think my conclusion stands.

Rant: Do You Like Kippling?

HR Binder - 500 Wide.jpg

I’ve been busy here, fighting entropy. (Yes, you can fight entropy. You just can’t win.) The fight’s even harder when you move from a largish house to a house that can (at best) hold about two-thirds the entropy. I’ve never done that before. Now I know why.

I used to have a 12′ X 12′ book wall with a rolling ladder. Book freaks can do the math in their heads; there were a lot of books on that wall. We did a very aggressive book purge before we shoveled the survivors into boxes, and we may have given away books enough to fill about a quarter of that wall. We had some empty space on the numerous other movable bookshelves around the house up north. No more. Empty space is just about gone.

And then, a week or so ago, we had the last of the storage containers delivered. It wasn’t large; just one of those “pod” things you see advertised. I knew it contained the bulk of my electronics and ham radio books and magazines. What I’d forgotten is that it also contained six or seven boxes of “ordinary” books on history, psychology, religion, and weirdness. So after I took a few days to empty the electronics and radio collection onto the two big particle board shelves I’d built specifically for that purpose (including shelves spaced for both the old and the new ham radio magazine trim sizes) I realized that I still had eight or ten boxes to deal with. (More on this later.)

Dealing with the radio stuff was tricky enough. I had bought the full run of Ham Radio back in the early 90s from a friend of an SK in Mesa. The mags were all neatly placed in those spring-rod magazine binders. It quickly occurred to me that the binders rougly doubled the space that a year’s magazines occupied on a shelf. (See the photo above.) It took half an hour of sitting tailor-style and yanking spring rods, but I reclaimed most of an entire shelf by dumping the binders.

That was easy, compared to the next decision: What to do with Wayne Green. He’s dead, as is 73, his iconic ham mag. There’s nothing quite like 73. I took it for many years, and bought the issues that predated my license at hamfests. I enjoyed reading it. Green was certifiable, but he wrote entertainingly, and did gonzo if tasteless things like publishing a rear view of a (male) streaker holding an HT on the cover, as well as any number of scantily-clad women, generally holding ham gear as fig leaves. Some of his technical articles were useful. A lot of the construction articles were sloppy, and some of the designs (pace Bill Hoisington K1CLL) were just, well, nuts. I built a 1-tube converter from 73 back in the mid 1970s. It actually worked, more or less. Most of the others smelled like trouble. I tried a couple of K1CLL’s VHF projects, both of which immediately cooked themselves in their own parasitics. The late George M. Ewing WA8WTE wrote ham-radio oriented fiction (often with SF & fantasy elements) for 73. It was a ginormous, engaging, and practically indescribable mess.

So. Keep or recycle? Tough call. Having just saved several shelf-feet of space by dumping the HR binders, I punted and piled ’em all back onto the shelf. After all, I have a soft spot in my head for Wayne Green, because in 1973 he bought the first piece of writing I ever sold for money. (He then sat on it for more than a year before publishing it.) So I’m conflicted.

Philip K. Dick coined a term for the sorts of things that accumulate in odd corners during a life of anything other than abject asceticism: kipple. 73, in a way, is kipple. So are malfunctioning (but fixable) gadgets, functional (but obsolete) gadgets, parts that roll under your workbench or fall behind shelves, and the peculiar things that lurk at the bottoms of cardboard boxes at hamfests marked “Whole box – $5.” Every time I’ve moved my workshop, I end up with a couple of boxes of stuff I’ve picked up off the floor or out of coffee cans and ratty, ripped-up cardboard boxes piled where piling was possible. I’ve always called them “hell boxes,” but kipple is what they are. Kipple, like wire coathangers, is said to breed when nobody’s looking. Having had a workshop of one sort or another since I was 13, one would get that impression.

My already-tight workshop here still has three substantial boxes of kipple for me to sort through. I’ll do that another time. For now I’m faced with a slightly different problem: Passing judgment on books that are obviously not kipple. How does one make decisions like that? I’ve spoken of this before, but have not solved the problem.

The base issue is this: How do you know what you’re going to have to look up or quote in a year, two years, or five years? How do you even know what you’re going to be interested in? How can you tell where the rabbit hole leads before you dive in? One thing leads to way more than another.

I’ve long since gotten rid of all my DOS books, as well as my Windows 2000 books. I made a special effort to get rid of obsolete books that were thick. Other categories are tougher to figure. Are books on weirdness even necessary? Well, hey, I’m a writer, and fiction is made out of nonfiction, even if the nonfiction is nonsense. Besides, how can I make fun of things like zombies and vampires if I don’t know anything about zombies and vampires?

One solution is to buy a few more shelves for the Closet Factory buildouts in our three walk-in closets. I’ll probably do that. Another is to look critically at the usefulness and/or quality of the books I still have. That would also be a good strategy, if it wouldn’t take such a huge chunk out of however many years I have left.

So I suspect there will be boxes of books here and there around our house, hidden wherever hiding is possible. As I abandon certain tracks of thought (how can there be trains without tracks?) the boxes may shrink. They will do so slowly.

There was a joke once, long ago when I was an undergrad English major:

Q: Hey, do you like Kipling?
A: I dunno, I’ve never kippled.

Well, I have. I’ve been doing it for almost two years now. It hasn’t gotten any easier. And truth be told, I don’t like kippling at all.

Rant: Lots of Supermarkets

Twenty-odd years ago I remember reading a compendium of “real-world” ghost anecdotes. They weren’t stories, just individual reports from ordinary people who were not looking for ghosts but ran into them anyway. One of my favorites was a report from a widow in England who saw her recently deceased husband on the staircase every night for a week. The man looked happy, but said nothing until his final appearance, when he spoke one sentence: “There are lots of supermarkets where I live.” Then he winked out and she never saw him again.

Well. I can think of a lot of better things to tell your grieving spouse when you appear to them postmortem:

  • I’m all right.
  • I love you.
  • I forgive you.
  • God is good.
  • There is $10,000 in hundreds stuffed inside the living room couch.

But…lots of supermarkets in heaven? That is so unutterably weird that it lends credence to the report. Why would the widow make something like that up?

Maybe she didn’t. My experience here in Phoenix for the last month and a half suggests that it may not be so weird after all. Work with me here: Until six weeks ago, Carol and I lived on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain near a town of about 400,000 people. Colorado Springs is not a small town, but we still had to drive 75 miles to Denver for certain things, like The Container Store and any useful bookstore that wasn’t Barnes & Noble. Today we live in America’s 6th largest city (instead of its 41st largest city) and if you toss in suburbs like Mesa and Scottsdale, the metro area has four and a half million residents.

Nor are we way out on the fringes of things, like we were when we lived in Cave Creek in the 1990s. We’re right down in the thick of it all, three blocks from tony Scottsdale and a little over a mile from the Kierland neighborhood, where the primary occupation is spending money by the livingroom couchful.

The amount of retail here is staggering, as is the number and sheer diversity of restaurants. I didn’t know that Mexican Asian food was a thing, but it is, albeit what sort of thing I’m not yet sure. (When I decide to find out, well, it’s just a few miles down Scottsdale Road.) Driving around the area, Carol and I go into a sort of Stendhal syndrome trance at times, boggling at the nose-to-tail storefronts and shopping centers within a couple of miles of us. It’s not like we’re hicks from the sticks; Colorado Springs is hardly the sticks. But we’ve never seen anything even remotely like it.

There is a supermarket called Fry’s Marketplace a few miles from us that is about twice the size of any other supermarket I’ve ever been in. They have a wine bar, a sushi bar, a substantial wine section (something we didn’t get in Colorado due to corrupt politics) and plenty of stuff that may or may not be appropriate for selling in grocery stores, like…livingroom couches. (Eminently stuffable ones, too.) Outside there’s covered parking and a car wash. Oh, and valet parking if you don’t want to walk in from the far corners of the lot.

Now…what if we were hicks from the sticks?

I wager that we’d pass out in astonishment. Yes, I know, we all get lectured a lot about how we shouldn’t obsess on material goods. So who’s obsessing? I think I come out better on this score than a lot of people; granted that I hoard variable capacitors and never met a radio tube I didn’t like, absent the occasional gassy 6AL5. Read this twice: There is a huge difference between wanting everything you see and seeing everything you want. I don’t want all that much, but I appreciate being able to get things that I do want, weird or uncommon though they might be.

I can empathize with that poor old dead guy in England somewhere. Perhaps he lived all his life in a village in Cornwall, and ate the same things all the time because the same things were all there were in his village. Maybe he was poor. Maybe he just got damned sick and tired of bubble and squeak. He knew the world was a richer place somewhere, but his own circumstances didn’t allow him to get there.

Then his heart gives out, and wham! God drops him out in front of some heavenly Fry’s Marketplace, where your credit cards have no limit and you never have to pay them off. (Maybe he met Boris Yeltsin there.) Good food, lots of it, and never the same thing twice? That could be all the heaven some people might want. I think I understand why he came back to tell his wife about it.

So. Like most people, my collection of loathings has swelled as I’ve passed through middle age. I don’t like green vegetables, and haven’t now for 63 years and change. Along the way I’ve picked up loathings for certain philosophies and people, like Marxism, Communism, and the sort of virtue-signaling wealthy socialistic urban elitist busybodies who buy $59 titanium pancake flippers and then wear torn jeans to show their solidarity with the working poor.

Far worse are the people who assume that their way is the right way, and that if I don’t see things their way, well, I’m a [something]-ist and deserve to be re-educated in the gulag of their choice.

Choice, heh. Choice is a good word. Freedom means choice. Choice does not mean overconsuming. Choice means being free to consume what I want, and not what some worthless meddling government apparatchik thinks I should want. I walked into Fry’s Marketplace. It was a wonderland. I walked out with a smile on my face and a bag of gemstone potatoes under my arm. That, my friends, is America.

Slander it at your peril, and ideally somewhere out of earshot of the rest of us.

Rant: The Lasting Legacy of the Sad Puppies

SP4 Logo 500 Wid.jpg

After the appalling 2015 Hugo Awards ceremony (google “Hugo Awards asterisks”; I can’t bring myself to write about it) there arose a litany:

The Sad Puppies Lost!
The Sad Puppies Lost!
The Sad Puppies Lost!
(Repeat until purple.)

Except…they didn’t. The losers were the poor writers who would likely have won the award if the Worldcon Insider Alphas hadn’t decided to burn the award down rather than let people they disapproved of win it. The even bigger losers were the Hugos themselves, which are now proven to be political proxies for a bogglingly stupid culture war that most of us would prefer not to fight.

The biggest losers of all were the hate-filled tribalists themselves, Alphas down to their shitflinging Omega footsoldiers, who got their asses handed to them in a big way and threw the only tantrum that they could. Now, I don’t know precisely what to make of it, beyond my longstanding contention that tribalism will be the end of us all if we’re not careful. What I can say with fair confidence is that it isn’t over. (More on this later.) What I can say with complete confidence is that the Sad Puppies won big on several fronts:

  • They brought the cobwebbed machinery behind the Hugo Awards out into the open where everybody could look at it. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
  • They made everyone aware of the curiously obscure fact that you don’t have to go to Worldcon to vote for the Hugos. All you need is $40 (soon to be $50, I think) and an Internet connection.
  • They exposed corruption that’s been going on for quite a number of years, and I’m not talking about inclusiveness, or diversity, or clever (if silly) experiments with pronouns here. (That’s a separate issue.) I’m talking about the fact that a derivative and mostly boring novel like Redshirts can only win a Hugo via corruption.
  • They alerted everyone to the fact that Worldcon and traditional SF fandom are rounding errors compared to the number of people who buy and enjoy SF and fantasy. Too few people nominate and vote for the awards to make corruption impossible and the awards themselves meaningful.

That’s a lot, right there. That would be enough, in fact, to persuade me that the Puppies won. But the Sad Puppies did something else: They created the nucleus around which a whole new fandom is crystallizing. People who took that lonely walk away from SFF suddenly realized that lots of other people were taking the same walk, and for the same reasons: Modern print SF is for the most part dull, dudgeon-rich message pie, and fandom is ideologically exclusionary and mostly under the control of a handful of high-volume haters. (I and many others have been called fascists one too many times.) If you have the unmitigated gall to have libertarian or (gasp!) conservative leanings, there is no place for you at that table.

Well, alluvasudden there’s a brand-new table.

In part (like most of everything else these days) it came from Amazon. The NY imprints have a powerful bias against fiction with libertarian or conservative themes. While they were the gatekeepers, there was little to be done. Now, with indie-published ebooks generating close to half of all ebook sales, authors can make fair money (or even a good living!) without bending the knee to Manhattan culture. They don’t even need ISBNs. They do have to rise above a pretty high noise level, but that’s a technical challenge: If you write well and understand the nature of the game, you will be noticed. The more you write, the more you’ll be noticed, and the easier it becomes.

What didn’t come from Amazon came from Google. The commotion generated by the Sad Puppies’ sweep of the Hugo nominations got a lot of attention. Commotion does that; it’s almost a physical law. People who hadn’t followed the SF scene for many years (if ever) discovered Web forums and new authors whose vision of SFF was far closer to their own.

Ironically, most of that commotion came from the Sad Puppies’ opponents, who could have strangled the Puppies in their sleep simply by keeping their mouths shut. But no: They had to vent their tribal butthurt, and in doing so recruited thousands of brand-new Puppies to the cause.

This new fandom centers around a crew of writers who (I suspect) give the New York imprints nightmares: Larry Correia, Sarah Hoyt, Brad Torgersen, John C. Wright, Peter Grant, Cedar Sanderson, Brian Niemeier, Amanda Green, Kate Paulk, Tom Knighton, R. K. Modena, Dave Freer, and many others whose work I’m only beginning to sample. Some have books from the tradpub imprints (Baen especially) but all are indies as well. I’m linking to their Web forums here so you can discover them too. Additional sites of interest include collaborative webzines like The Mad Genius Club, The Otherwhere Gazette, and Superversive SF. (Several of the above authors contribute to all three sites.)

At least one SF convention leans libertarian: Libertycon, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There may be more than that, especially among the smaller gatherings. I don’t know, but I’m always looking. I think there’s a lot of upside in smaller, in-person meetups held in local pubs and other gathering places, and if I can’t find one in Phoenix I may well start one. I’m intrigued by reports from the major Puppy authors who have attended various media cons around the country. Sarah Hoyt’s is instructive. The boggling crowds at events like ComiCon are more diverse by far than attendees at traditional literary cons, and much, much younger. There is way more interest in textual SFF at the media cons than I expected. It’s not all movies and comic books. Now, I’m not sure how much I’ll be attending media cons; Worldcon-level crowds make me a little crawly, and the media cons draw eight to ten times more people. What stood out in those reports for me was the fact that people at the media cons were actually having lots of pure freeform fun, not searching desperately for something to be offended about.

The bottom line is that a vast and mostly invisible network of new friendships happened as a result of the Sad Puppies phenomenon. I’m reading more SFF now than I have in a decade. The Paperwhite helps, of course, as does the “toss-it-in-the-cart” pricing that predominates in the Kindle store. I’m corresponding with other writers whom I’d not met before. I’ve learned that indie publishing can work, and work well. (Thanks, Sarah!) I’m hearing others saying more or less the same thing about the Sad Puppies universe: “It was like coming home.”

And it’s not over.

No sirree. Sad Puppies 4: The Embiggenning is well underway, run by Kate Paulk, Sarah Hoyt, and Amanda Green. These are formidable women; I pity the poor tribal troll who tries to call them “female impersonators.” The logo once again is from Lee “ArtRaccoon” Madison. Sad puppies Frank, Isaac, and Ray from last year’s logo have returned, this time bringing their new robot friend Robert with them. Robert isn’t the least bit sad. He has no reason to be.

His side is winning.

(More thoughts on this issue of a new SFF fandom as time/energy allow.)

Rant: Sad Puppies vs. Anti-Puppies, as the Kilostreisands Pile Up

Yes, I’ve been scarce in recent weeks, but bear with me: I’m off doing something difficult but important, which I’ll tell you about later.


Although it’s been going on now for three years, I hadn’t ever heard of the Sad Puppies phenomenon until a couple of months ago, and what brought it to my attention was an ongoing rumble raging up and down the social networks and blogosphere. The rumble was just a rumble until April 4, when the Hugo Award nominations for 2015 were announced. Then, ye gods and little fishes, the Puppies swept the slate and it became Hugogeddon. I’ve already described the Sad Puppies thing here as part of a series that I’d originally intended to focus on Sarah Hoyt’s Human Wave SF manifesto. It’s a movement to bring new people into the Worldcon culture and perhaps get some attention for writers who for whatever reason are never considered for the Hugo Awards. The Sad Puppies 3 effort was all very much up-front and out in the open. The most powerful man in SFF publishing, Patrick Neilsen-Hayden, stated quite clearly that the group violated no rules whatsoever.

But oh, my, the dudgeon, the squealing, the bright purple faces, the curses and threats and slobbering on the floor. Writers of considerable stature, whom I had read and long respected, lost that respect instantly and went onto my Seventh-Grade Playground Tantrum-Throwers List. They seemed to think that anyone who put forth a list of recommended authors or works was trying to dynamite the awards, and (worse) that this was a brand-new thing that had never been tried before. Well…Mike Glyer, who belongs to the Anti-Puppy (AP) faction, pointed out that slatemaking has been practiced erratically since the very first Hugo Awards season in…1953. Apparently the difference between recommendations and a slate is that a slate is put forth by people we dislike.

Takeaway: Hugo Award slatemaking is nothing new, and does not violate the rules. You have a constitutional right to be upset about it. I have a constitutional right to think of it as a nonissue. I’m not going to argue that point any further in this entry. (I doubt I will argue that point further at all. Don’t even bring it up in the comments.) I have something else in mind entirely. Let me phrase it as a question:

How in hell could a couple of mostly unknown authors turn the venerable Hugo Awards inside-out?

My answer: adverse attention. For a definition, let me quote from a textbook that I made up just now: Zoftnoggin & Wiggout’s Fundamentals of Sociometry.

Adverse attention is a rise in the attention profile of a previously obscure phenomenon caused by the actions of an entity that opposes that phenomenon. In the vast majority of cases, the triggering force is outrage, though it sometimes appears through the action of envy, pride, lust, asshattedness, butthurt, or other largely emotional psychopathologies.

This being sociometry, adverse attention may be quantified, and there is a standard unit for expressing it:

The fundamental unit of adverse attention is the streisand, defined as one previously uninterested person achieving a degree of interest in a phenomenon sufficient to compel them to email, share, or retweet information about that phenomenon to one other person in a social network. As the information propagates across a social network, the connectedness of the network influences the total amount of adverse attention that arises. For example, if each of ten previously uninterested persons receiving the information passes it on to only one previously uninterested person, eleven streisands of adverse attention have been created. If one of those previously uninterested persons has 200 followers on Twitter or 1000 Facebook friends, the number of streisands increases rapidly. In a sufficiently dense network, the rate of increase can become close to exponential until the number of previously uninterested persons asymptotically approaches zero.

I’ve seen evidence for this in the comment sections of many blogs that have criticized or condemned the Sad Puppies. A common comment goes something like this: “Wow! I never knew that you could vote for the Hugos without going to Worldcon! And I just downloaded the free preview of Monster Hunter International. This is way cool!” Zing! The world gets another Puppy.

The emotional tenor of the criticism matters too. I’ve seen a few comments that go something like this: “I’d never heard of the Sad Puppies before. I’ve been trying to figure out which side is right, but the sheer nastiness of the Sad Puppies’ critics makes me think they’re just sore losers. I’m more or less with the Puppies now.”

Then, of course, there are the hatchet-job articles (all of them roughly identical) in what most people consider legitimate media, like Entertaintment Weekly, which later retracted the article once it became clear that it was libelous. The Guardian wrote another hit-piece that fell short of libel but still misrepresented the phenomenon. These are not just blogs. These are significant publications that have a lot of readers.

And those streisands just keep piling up.

It’s something like a sociological law: Commotion attracts attention. Attention is unpredictable, because it reaches friend and foe alike. It can go your way, or it can go the other way. There’s no way to control the polarity of adverse attention. The only way to limit adverse attention is to stop the commotion.

In other words, just shut up.

I know, this is difficult. For some psychologies, hate is delicious to the point of being psychological crack, so it’s hard to just lecture them on the fact that hate has consequences, including but hardly limited to adverse attention.

My conclusion is this: The opponents of Sad Puppies 3 put them on the map, and probably took them from a fluke to a viable long-term institution. I don’t think this is what the APs intended. In the wake of the April 4 announcement of the final Hugo ballot, I’d guess the opposition has generated several hundred kilostreisands of adverse attention, and the numbers will continue to increase. Sad Puppies 4 has been announced. Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen have lots of new fans who’d never heard of them before. (I just bought the whole Monster Hunter International series and will review it in a future entry.)

To adapt a quote from…well, you know damned well whose quote I’m adapting: “Attack me, and I will become more popular than you could possibly imagine.”

Or, to come closer to home, and to something in which I have personal experience: “Feed puppies, and they grow up.”

Actions have consequences. Who knew?

Elves ‘n’ Dwarves

I just finished walking to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,which is the third or fourth time I’ve seen it. I have some grumbles: The damned thing came to 181 minutes long; did we really need atolkienic rock giants starting a rumble with dwarves clinging to their pants legs? On the other hand, it was visually startling and lots of fun, and I give Jackson points for working in some of the appendices’ material, especially Radagast and Dol Guldur. Sure, Goblin Town was over the top, as was the Goblin King (“That’ll do it”) and the whole Goblin Town episode reminded me of a side-scroller video game.

All that said, what I really like about the film is its depiction of the dwarves. We didn’t see much of them in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, beyond Gimli and stacks of decayed corpses in Moria. From his own text, Tolkien clearly didn’t like the dwarves much, both explicitly and implicitly. I figured that out over 40 years ago, once the Silmarillion was published. Unlike elves and men, the dwarves were tinkered together after work hours by Aulë, the Valar demigod of tinkering. Aulë was out of his depth there, so Eru (God) fixed their bugs and archived them until the elves got out of beta and were RTMed.

That’s a pattern in Tolkien’s universe: Aulë’s guys were always digging stuff up and doing stuff with it, causing lots of trouble in the process. Fëanor made the Silmarils, and before you know it, we’d lost half a continent and the rest of the First Age. The dwarves in Moria dug too deep and struck Balrog; the dwarves in Erebor unearthed the Arkenstone, which made Thrain go nuts and hoard so much gold that Smaug sniffed it half a world away.

Oh–and Sauron (disguised as as a sort of evil Santa Claus) gave the clueless dwarf kings Seven Rings of Power. Worst. Idea. Evah.

Ok. They were nerds. You got a problem with that? By contrast, the Elves just sort of sat around inside their own collective auras, eating salad and nostalgia-tripping. The elven makers like Fëanor and Celebrimbor all came to bad ends, leaving behind the elven New Agers, who made a three-Age career of doing nothing in particular while feeling like on the whole, they’d rather be in Philadel…er, Valinor.

Screw that. I’m with the dwarves. They had an angular sort of art design that I envy (see any footage set within Erebor) and a capella groups long before the invention of barbershops. (See this for a bone-chilling cover.) We haven’t seen them in the films yet, but Weta concepts indicate that dwarf women are hot, irrespective of their long sideburns. And only a celebrity dwarf could tell you why mattocks rock.

Metal is fun, and craftiness is next to demigodliness, especially with Aulë as your demigod. The dwarves are basically Tolkien’s steampunkers, and if they didn’t have airships it was solely because they didn’t like heights. Sure, they were maybe a little slow on the uptake at times. Playing with minerals requires an intuitive grip on chemistry, and out of chemistry (given metal plating for motivation) comes electricity, as the Babylonians showed us. After three Ages, the dwarves still didn’t have AA batteries? Sheesh.

Still, they did real damned fine with iron, bronze, gold, and mithril. Makes you wonder what they could have done with ytterbium. Eä, the Final Frontier? Fifth Age, fersure!

Thirty Lessons I’ve Learned in 61 Years

  1. Defy convention.
  2. Question authority.
  3. Keep your promises.
  4. Nothing is simple. Simplicity is bait on somebody else’s hook.
  5. Never wear anybody’s advertising but your own.
  6. When you think you’ve heard too much Gustav Holst, play some Madonna.
  7. Friends are a revenue center. Enemies are a cost center.
  8. Never believe anything an angry person says, especially when they’re not angry.
  9. Fat makes you thin. Sugar will kill you.
  10. Political parties exist to take everything you have and hand it to psychopaths on a silver platter.
  11. Fathers matter.
  12. Time shatters what cannot hold, and perfects what cannot be broken.
  13. If you can still wear a shirt thirty years later, you know you’re doing OK. This is a good reason to keep a shirt or two for thirty years.
  14. Join a political party and you’re selling youself into slavery.
  15. Evil is the root of all evil. There is no middleman.
  16. Love matters way more than who’s got a plug and who’s got a socket.
  17. Don’t try to make a bowling ball out of 2 X 4’s.
  18. You’re not really an adult until you can run around the house in your underwear, reciting Dr. Seuss at the top of your lungs.
  19. Certainty is a species of mental illness.
  20. Self-esteem is confidence without calibration.
  21. Think outside the box. Then make something out of the box.
  22. If you see a pinata, remember that somewhere close by is a blindfolded person swinging a stick.
  23. Pitch can be useful. It’s politics that defileth all it toucheth.
  24. Don’t settle for an iron will. Gram for gram, aluminum is stronger.
  25. A dog is a fingertip of the Almighty, thrust briefly into our lives to measure the breadth and depth of our kindness. Remember Whose fingertip it is.
  26. Dance, especially if you’re not good at it.
  27. Stand by your spouse no matter what.
  28. They build too low, who build beneath the stars.
  29. Kick ass. Just don’t miss.
  30. Think!

Man, But I Miss Knobs

avh-x2500bt_hero_large.jpgThe six-disc changer in my 4Runner’s console stereo dropped dead late last summer, after serving me well for eleven years. Considering the mechanical nightmare the damned thing was internally, I’m a little surprised it lasted as long as it did. So for about ten months now, I’ve been reduced to listening to the radio, in a town where radio is not a priority. (Irony, however, is a Colorado Springs delicacy: With just about every other town and county but Denver voting to ban legal marijuana, the home of Focus on the Family looks like it will soon be the highest city in the state.)

I haven’t listened to pop radio in the car for maybe 25 years, since I started recording mix tapes off vinyl. I expected to develop (however unintentionally) an appetite for recent pop music. Hey, it worked with Madonna in 1986. Not this time. I found one band worth investigating further (Owl City) and bought four, count em, four MP3s. A couple of Owl City tracks, Kelly Clarkson’s “Catch My Breath,” and Two Door Cinema Club’s moody song “Sun,” which I bought because it contains the word “drumlins.” Just that, based on ten months of mostly cringing and reaching for the volume knob.

Now I can’t even do that.

After punting for far too long, I went down to Car Toys earlier today and had them install one of these. It had a Bluetooth phone feature I wanted, since I don’t like manhandling a phone in the car. It plays MP3s from a thumb drive, and every MP3 I have that’s worth hearing will fit on a thumb drive. (Not a big one, either.) It looks for all the world like a smartphone held sideways, complete with the little four-square menu button. All it lacks is a volume control knob. It has a mute button, which will come in handy, just like it does when The Weather Channel plays that excruciating commercial about the poor woman who’s been falling on her kitchen floor and failing to get up since before they tore down the Berlin Wall. It has firmware to update, God help us, and…cripes, I wasn’t ready for this…a remote.

At the risk of sounding like an MP3 on autorepeat, well, all it lacks is a volume control knob.

I’ll get used to it. (I got used to Madonna in 1986, after all.) Mostly what I want out of it is hands-free phone calls and MP3 playback. I know why it doesn’t have a knob: Knobs take room on the panel that you could otherwise fill with icons. And a knob would add another 85.67 cents to the UMC. Besides, knobs are just so 1952.

Just like me.

Rant: The Real Problem With Clerical Celibacy

Black smoke. I guess we try again tomorrow.

I had intended to post a couple of pertinent entries during Pope Week, as some are calling this, but got involved in a new book proposal I’m working on. I genuinely expected that we’d have a new pope by now. Not so.

Anyway. I haven’t done a rant for years. Here ya go:

I’m reading a lot about clerical sexual abuse being rooted in clerical celibacy, as though it were obvious. This is not a new argument, nor does it have much grounding in reality. Abusers abuse not because they’re celibate but because they’re abusers, and I don’t think the Roman Church has any more of them than any other large organization. We pay the scandals more attention because the Church and its people ought to know better. We’re right to demand higher standards of conduct from church people than we do from politicians or TV reality show stars. Marrying off every priest and bishop in the Roman Catholic Church would not stop sexual abuse. I’m honestly not sure what would, though we need to continue the search with everything we’ve got. No, we need to eliminate mandatory clerical celibacy for a deeper reason: It selects for dualists.

The more I read of Church history and theology, the more I distrust ascetic theology and its real-world implementation, monasticism. Monastics make much about being “in the world, but not of it.” Excuse me? If you’re in the world, you’re damned well of it, because God gave you a meat suit and put you here. You will be of the world until you’re no longer in it, and what happens then is a whole separate discussion. Deal with it.

The deeper meaning of the mantra “in the world but not of it” lies in a theological system that arose in Persia in ancient times. Spiritual reality to the Persians was an unending war between Good and Evil, with the two being a pretty even match–hence the term “dualism.” There was a high, all-good God who had little to do with physical reality, and a grouchy creator God who had brought physical reality into being and trapped immaterial souls in material bodies that suffered and committed evil. Cooked down to essentials, this meant Spirit Good, Matter Bad.

Dualist thought of this sort crossed over from Persian mysticism into Christian theology several times in Christianity’s early centuries. Some of these threads were eventually declared heresies and suppressed, while others (especially the Great Dualist, Augustine of Hippo) became mainstream, to everyone’s sorrow.

I see dualism very clearly in the emergence of monasticism. Monasticism is more than just living off by yourselves somewhere. Nor does it describe a community simply working toward self-discipline in a systematic fashion. (In our dreams!) Early monastics were powerfully driven by the dualist assumption of Spirit Good, Matter Bad. The human body was a bundle of yukkh that not only had to be controlled but also humiliated, starved, and as often as not beaten and tormented through physical pain. Until Vatican II every Jesuit was given a little whip called the disciplina, and part of the Jesuit Rule specified that a Jesuit must beat himself with the disciplina every night. (Former Jesuit seminarian Garry Wills recalls this vividly in Why I Am a Catholic.) Because Spirit is the only godly part of a human being, torture of the body in the service of God was no big deal. Diocesan clergy certainly had a role in the torturing and execution of heretics, but it was monastics (particularly the Dominicans) who systematized it and made it a science. And over the centuries monastic thought seeped into diocesan thought, until clerical marriage was formally forbidden throughout the Western Church in the eleventh century. (It had been forbidden locally in some areas since the time of Leo the Great, circa 450.)

Monasticism isn’t about torture anymore, but its dualist view of the cosmos remains: Matter is of no great consequence, and the human body is simply a temporary vehicle for a fully spiritual soul. All physical desires are at least suspect. The world is a vexing source of temptation that cannot be redeemed and is best ignored. Sex, in particular, is fallen and unnecessary for anyone with a spiritual inclination. This attitude goes back to Paul, who thought the world was about to end and saw marriage as nothing better than a means of avoiding sexual sin until it did.

Some modern writers (including Garry Wills, whom I otherwise admire) think that clerical celibacy is a good thing because it focuses clergy on matters spiritual. My experience with married priests and bishops in the Anglican Communion (most but not all of them American Episcopalians) and many in the Old Catholic Church points in an entirely different direction: Finding peace and balance with the physical world is not surrender or even accomodation. It is part of our task as Christians. If God created the Universe, the Universe is sacred and cannot be dismissed as unimportant or (worse) evil. Married clergy have a sense of groundedness about them that is not impossible for the celibate, but harder work to achieve and tougher to maintain. (Those who succeed are spectacular clergy indeed, however rare.) This may not be due to marriage itself, but perhaps to an attitude that the married, to succeed in marriage, must maintain: The Other matters as much as the Self. Life is not just me and God hanging out in a private garden. It’s me and God and everyone else sharing a God-given world that must be consciously shepherded for the use of all.

Obviously, not all celibates are dualists, nor are all dualists celibate. That said, celibacy, especially when pre-emptively imposed on all clergy, tilts the graph toward dualism because dualism considers sex unnecessary and the physical world as less important than the spiritual. Those who are willing and able to embrace celibacy are more likely to lean in a dualist direction, with a preverbal if not fully perceived impression that the physical is sundered from the spiritual and the two parts set against one another.

No. Give me a priest who dances with his (or her) spouse, who will raise a glass to the health and success of all present, and who understands the rocky road on which Carol and I walk because he (or she) has walked that road too, with a loved one close at hand. Give me a priest who faces the east at dawn and shouts, like Patrick, “I arise today by the power of Heaven!

I want a priest who celebrates the unity of all creation because all creation is of God, and all men and women are of this, His singular, glorious and undivided creation.

The War on “Moist”

I have heard the angry voices (particularly God’s and Stephen King’s–or maybe it was just Stephen King’s) raised against the spreading curse of words that end in -ly, with particular emphasis on dastardly constructs like “only” and “early.” Today, for the first time, I’ve seen lexical blood spilled on a new front, against the horror of the word people are said to revile above all others…

moist.

Well. I’m a cultured individual, long steeped in the ways of the world, and no stranger to the pleasures of the mind and the senses. I have tasted anchovies. I have drunk sweet wine. I have read Barry Malzberg. I have danced the Invisible Horse Dance with my nieces and nephews. I have cocked an ear to what was either interstellar noise or leaky capacitors. I have gazed upon the jade sculpture on my tall bookcase until I became…well, you know what I became. I signed up once to pet a naked mole rat, but the line was too long and we had to go home. Genuine WTF moments have gotten thin in this, the seventh decade of my life. But the war on “moist” caught me up short.

I thought it was the primary virtue of cakes. If not, well, what do you call a cake that isn’t dry? Wet? Damp? Sodden? Moldy? (HuffPo takes on this crucial question with elan.)

I see that this is nothing new. The war on “moist” began a long time ago, at least as long ago as 2009. I missed it somehow. The Colorado Springs Gazette did not run the story under a 500-point rendering of “WAR!” Nobody mentioned it on Slashdot, nor Ars Technica, which posts on lots of things it knows nothing about. The war on hated words was highlighted in the New Yorker in 2012, and while there was a long line leading to the word gallows (with “phlegm” and “fecund” fidgeting while waiting their turn) the word eye-to-eye with the Lord High Executioner was “moist.” Men who use the word “moist” are undateable. There is even a Facebook group called “I HATE the word MOIST!” (Well, that certainly nails it.)

So what’s the deal?

The question came up recently on the Facebook wall of a writer friend of mine. A woman whom I don’t know explained: “Just imagine your 65-year-old mother reading it aloud as she reaches a pivotal sex scene in a romance novel. Enough said.”

Enough indeed, especially if you knew my mother, who would be 88 this year if she were still with us. She spent a considerable chunk of her life keeping parts of her house from becoming a little too moist with spilled milk, dog vomit, and thrown cream-of-mushroom mushrooms, which are moist squared. I’m guessing she didn’t have to read sex scenes aloud to be moist-averse. Small children and dogs were plenty.

My view? This has already gone too far. The word “moist” has not been seen in actual use in several months, though many have spoken passionately about it. Alas, its parents “most” and “mist” have unearthed a suicide note. We bludgeoned it, we drew and quartered it, we broke it on Little Orphan Annie’s code wheel, and we mopped up the gore with a towelette. We will not have “moist” to push around anymore. Who will be next? Who? Who?

The New Yorker says: “Slacks.”

I’m in.