Year of hell

(The title isn’t from a song this time. Instead, this very appropriate name comes from my favorite episode of Star Trek: Voyager, the most underrated of the Trek series.)

One year ago, I was free. One year ago, I had hopes and dreams. I believed I had a chance to succeed, to achieve some of the life goals I’ve had for decades. I lived in a country where this was possible, if unlikely for one such as myself. I was depressed, yes, but I felt like I could see the light, that I could reach it, if only I tried hard enough.

A lot can change in a year.

Now, I live in a dystopian nightmare. I haven’t been inside a business in a full year, apart from five seconds inside the America’s Best store in Hixson last May. I went in to get my new glasses. I’d gotten the prescription in February, but then I had to find the money to pay for them. By the time I finally managed that, the whole world shut down, with the notable bastions of intelligence in Sweden and South Dakota. So I couldn’t actually pick up my order until businesses were “allowed” to reopen.

But it wasn’t that simple. As soon as I walked inside, the cashiers demanded a temperature check, so I walked right back out. My mom, who took me down there (can’t drive without glasses, remember), is less allergic to authoritarianism, so she submitted to the illegal medical exam long enough to retrieve what I had already paid for.

Since then, I’ve mostly stayed at home. And that’s most certainly not because I believe that’s the best way to combat a virus.

No, lockdowns don’t work. We have proof of that. You only need to look at the places that didn’t imprison their entire citizenry for months on end to see the real numbers. Similarly, masks don’t work. That’s why I haven’t worn one since December 2019, when I thought I had the flu. (As it turns out, I had the Wuhan coronavirus. You know how I know? Because it was listed as the flu and an “unknown pathogen” on my release papers.) As I haven’t been sick—in the physical sense, as I know I’m seriously mentally ill—since, I’ve seen no reason to restrain my breathing, trigger my anxiety, and curtail my liberty in that manner.

Well, you might think, what about the vaccine? Uh-uh. First off, it’s not a vaccine, because the purpose of a vaccine is to provide immunity to a virus by stimulating the body’s immune system. The Moderna and Pfizer mRNA treatments don’t do this. They don’t prevent you from contracting the Wuhan virus. They don’t prevent you from spreading it to others. They barely alleviate the symptoms. What they actually do is even worse. Ask Hank Aaron. Ask the nurse from Chattanooga who passed out on live TV. Ask the women who’ve had miscarriages, the perfectly healthy men in their 30s who have suffered serious injury or even death.

The virus has an overall fatality rate of around 0.02%, and essentially no reinfection. (Wait, 0.02%? Don’t the official numbers say 0.26%? Yes, but those are heavily inflated. Per the CDC’s own report, only about 6% of deaths can be traced to the virus itself. The rest are due to comorbidities: preexisting conditions such as obesity, heart problems, kidney failure, etc. Since comorbidities aren’t counted for vaccine deaths, we need to compare apples to apples.)

The mRNA “vaccines” cause serious harm in about 5% of cases, and death in as many as 0.4%. We don’t know the exact figures, because they rely on voluntary reporting, and no one wants to point out that Emperor Fauci has no clothes. However you look at the data, though, it doesn’t lie. On the whole, getting the virus is actually safer than getting its supposed cure!

And that’s merely one more truth the world has decided to deny in the past year. But there are many more.

  • Lockdowns are ineffective. They achieve nothing in terms of slowing the spread of an illness, unless you go to the extremes of a certain communist dictatorship and weld people’s doors shut so they can’t go outside. As sane countries are supposed to respect things like basic human rights and dignity, citizens will go outside. And they should, because the fastest way to end a pandemic is to reach herd immunity.

  • The Chinese virus isn’t even a pandemic. Take away the overinflated death counts, where suicides, overdoses, car accidents, and murders are attributed to a virus simply because the victim tested positive in a flawed procedure three weeks before the time of death, and it never reached the CDC’s defined threshold of pandemic status. That’s when approximately 5% of all deaths are caused by the pathogen in question; only by counting every death under the sun were we able to hit that mark even at the peak last April.

  • The makers of the “vaccines” have ulterior motives. Notice that they are indemnified against all liability, and they’ve received billions of taxpayer dollars. These treatments have bypassed the normal FDA requirements, and why? The virus isn’t another Spanish flu. It’s not smallpox or polio. It has killed fewer people than tuberculosis in the past year.

  • People are suffering. The single-minded focus on this particular virus has caused irreparable harm to our society and our populace. Suicides are at an all-time high. Childhood trauma is rampant. Depression and anxiety, as I know all too well, can make plenty of people wish they were dead, or at least not living through this.

  • The media is not on our side. For twelve months, they have parroted the talking points of a specific segment of the political spectrum. Andrew Cuomo was a hero when he sent infected patients to nursing homes a year ago, killing thousands of elderly men and women. The governors of California, Washington, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, and many other states have acted in a way more appropriate to the old Soviet Union, if not the feudal era. And not only have journalists not called out these gross abuses of power, but they have lauded them every step of the way.

Twelve months ago, even expressing these ideas was heresy of the highest order. You were instantly branded a denier, a skeptic, an alt-right fascist terrorist. You were called racist, sexist, or any number of other hateful epithets.

Now? Oh, it’s even worse. But some people are waking up. There’s a strong anti-mask movement that isn’t hard to find. The worst government abuses and excesses are finally getting pushback. Alternative social media platforms are gaining in popularity, especially now that the big players—Google, Twitter, Facebook—have deemed scientific accuracy and a love of personal liberty to be violations of their terms of service.

It’s been a rough year. In twelve months, I’ve gone from cautiously optimistic to suicidally depressed. The only thing that gives me hope is the knowledge that I’m not alone in this. Anyone who has taken any time at all to think about what we’re being forced to endure feels the same way. We don’t want a “new normal”, where children aren’t allowed to play, where handshakes and hugs are illegal, where you’re a prisoner in your own home unless you agree to undergo experimental genetic modification. No, we want what we had. What was taken from us.

This “pandemic” isn’t worth the name. Compare the total death counts in the US from 2019 and 2020. Shouldn’t those “500,000 coronavirus deaths” show up there? Look at the flu stats for this winter—rather, the total absence of them. Look at the mental health crisis sweeping our nation, and tell me stopping what amounts to a bad cold is worth that cost. Spare a thought for the record number of suicides in the last year.

Because there were a lot of days where I almost joined them.

The life I’ll never have

(The title of this post is adapted from a line in “Act Of Faythe” by Dream Theater. I’m going to try to be more diligent in crediting the musicians who inspire me.)

It doesn’t take much to trigger depression, to send a person who suffers from it down into the depths. Sometimes all it takes is the slightest thing, a casual remark uttered where he can hear. Just some little comment that gets misinterpreted, gets filtered through this dark lens I’m forced to use to look at the world, and I’m in the dumps again.

It works even better when you throw it in my face.

I love my family. I’ve said that so many times, and I’ve often wondered if I write it so much because I need to be reminded. But I really do. I love them with all my heart. I wouldn’t be here without them, and I mean that in a very literal sense: besides the obvious “my mother gave birth to me” stuff, I would have killed myself long ago without the support I receive from my close relations.

That said, they make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect, after all. In the past year, they’ve grown more accustomed to my mental state, and I’ve tried to work with them to help them understand what it does to me. That’s good. For too long, I felt like I couldn’t talk to anybody about it, as even my own mother would say, “What do you have to be depressed about?” If I said something to my aunt, she’d always counter, “Imagine if you lost your son.” My brother? “So am I.”

Now, it’s better, if only because all their fortunes have gotten worse to match mine. And that, I think, is what made yesterday’s triggering event so…powerful. My mom and I were talking. I’d just ordered pizza for dinner, and we were waiting on the delivery. For no reason I can fathom, she started browsing Facebook (she’s become quite the social media fanatic since last May), and she showed me a picture.

My half-sister. At her wedding.

I’ve told the story before, but I’ll recap. My father left when I was 12. (That’s 1995, for those keeping score at home.) He was having an affair with his secretary, and they got married the week his divorce was finalized. The first baby, a girl, was born in 1998. She’ll be 23 this summer. Twenty-three years old. The last time I saw her in person, she wasn’t old enough to walk! (For the record, she has a younger sibling. I’ve never actually met my half-brother, and he was born in 2001.)

Something about that just hurt on the deepest level. Here I am at age 37, driving myself into near-suicidal insanity in an attempt to make even the smallest step toward a life of my own, and the little baby from that weekend vacation in ’99 is not only grown, but married.

I made some mumbles of acknowledgment when my mom was swiping through the pictures. Somehow, she didn’t notice the tone of my voice growing dull and lifeless, or the way I quickly turned my head so I wouldn’t have to see yet another yardstick for my failure. No, she kept on going, looking through Little Sister’s friends list.

Did you know that my cousin, who (I think?) is also 37, is a mother of two? I certainly didn’t. You tend not to hear about these things when you don’t talk to certain people for literal decades. Her sister, about five years younger, has a child of her own, apparently. Their brother in the middle? No idea. I got tired of the pictures and had to excuse myself, because I was already on the verge of tears.

I’ve never met any of my once-removed cousins on my father’s side. I don’t know their names; they may not even know I exist. That doesn’t trouble me as much as it probably should. We all have some relatives we don’t see often enough. Mine just happen to be very close on the family tree.

What bothered me was the comparison. My mom didn’t mean to do that. I don’t blame her for it. I am upset that she seemed oblivious to the pain she was causing me, but it was my own mind that made something painful out of what should have been fun and lighthearted.

Still, it hurt to be reminded of what I don’t have. What I sometimes believe I’ll never have. Because…this world isn’t getting any better, and I’m not getting any younger. I’ve been denied for so long, and maybe it’s pity or envy talking, but it just isn’t fair. It really isn’t.

I try. I try every day to be better. I’ve written dozens of novels. I’ve created a few applications and websites. I instinctively grasp things most people don’t even try to comprehend. Those who know me best all agree that I’m good at what I do.

But does that really matter? In the end, does it matter how good you are, if you never have the chance to prove it? Connections count for more than experience when it comes to job hunting, and I have no connections. The easiest way to make money is to inherit it, but that’s hard to do when the man who was supposed to provide the inheritance ran off to spend it on the woman he thought was more worthy. My only marketable skills are in overcrowded fields, I can’t open a business of my own when nobody’s allowed to open a business at all, and that doesn’t even begin to get into the other blocking factors.

I know what I want: I want to be a husband and a father. Part of that comes from a competitive drive to outdo my own father, to prove that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes he did. Part of it comes from my personal belief in bionatalism, the idea that my primary purpose is to reproduce and thus further not only the species, by my own genetic lineage. And the largest portion of it comes from the simple fact that I have someone with whom I could make it all happen. Best of all, she genuinely wants the feminine counterpart to that life. With me.

I don’t think I’m more deserving than, say, my half-sister or cousins. My low self-esteem won’t let me think that. I do think I deserve a chance. We all do, and I’m still waiting on mine.

I’m just tired of waiting.

1 impostor remains

(Yes, I made the Among Us reference. I’m not immune to memes.)

Yesterday, I had a job interview. Well, it was really just the introductory phone screen that starts the interview process, but I’ve only once made it past that point, so it’s as good as the real thing for me. I’ve done about ten of these things in the past two and a half years, ranging from lengthy phone conversations to orientation seminars to code tests. Every time, I have the same problem: I feel like I don’t belong.

I know, I know. That’s strange to hear. You would think a guy who’s been writing code since before most of the interviewers were even born would be able to project confidence. The wisdom of age, if nothing else.

Not me.

As I’ve stated many times before, I suffer from a cocktail of mental problems that add up to what’s called Impostor Syndrome. Put simply, it’s the feeling that I’m only pretending to be what I claim. In my case, a programmer. (I prefer that to “developer” when describing myself, as I’d rather write code than worry about infrastructure, marketing, PR, UI design, and all the other things under the developer umbrella.) I started learning this trade when I was 8. I started doing it seriously around age 13. I have nearly a quarter century of experience at this point. Maybe not all professional experience, but my mind doesn’t allow me to take it casually. Every line of code I write is serious business to me.

Yet the same thing happens every time I try to talk to someone else about it with the aim of getting paid to do what I love. I second-guess myself. I waver. I panic. Because these people have been in the business world, while I make a string of half-baked, half-finished toys. They spent tens of thousands of dollars on a degree. I’m self-taught; my formal programming education consists of the occasional BASIC lesson in elementary school.

If that sounds self-deprecating, well, it is. That’s how I get when my anxiety kicks into high gear. I begin to think that they’re thinking, “This guy is a joke. Why would we ever hire him?” I can’t compete with the imaginary “perfect hire” my mind has created. And if I know I’m going to lose, why bother trying in the first place?

I do have some serious accomplishments. I know I do. Look at Agena. Look at the little queue service I wrote for my brother’s Twitch stream, which he still occasionally uses after three years. As unprofessional as it may be, I can even point to a certain, ah, unsavory forum he used to administer: for the better part of eighteen months, I kept it running and even improved it. Without access to docs or even, in some cases, the server itself.

It’s just that…I can’t point to these when it’s time to step up. I get too scared that someone will think they aren’t real enough. “Oh, he wrote 50 lines of PHP. Wow.” And so much of what I feel makes me a good programmer is intangible. There’s no space on a résumé for passion, drive, and focus. HR doesn’t care about those; they want to see a BS in computer science and 4-5 years of DevOps.

Worst of all, this is a self-reinforcing problem for me. Each rejection only proves, in my mind, that I’m not good enough. If I were what I claimed, wouldn’t I already have a job? So that feeds the Impostor Syndrome, which makes the anxiety even worse for the next time around.

Short of actually getting hired (or somehow starting my own business, a near-impossibility nowadays), I don’t know how to break this cycle. Maybe, if I had more exposure, I could cope, but even getting to the interview point is hard enough. As I said, ten in two and a half years. And that’s from about 1500 applications.

I know I’m not the best at what I do. I also know that I’m a lot better than many people already working professionally in this field. I’ve found and even fixed their bugs, so that’s not just Dunning-Kreuger talking. So why is it that, when push comes to shove, I feel like a pretender?

Rhythm of War: my thoughts

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Brandon Sanderson. I’ve stated that many times here, and I often use him as a yardstick for my own writing skills. Why? Because he’s one of the few authors out there who is popular and accessible, but also takes worldbuilding seriously. In other words, he’s a kindred spirit, an idealized version of myself in one specific aspect.

I felt that way when I got hooked on Mistborn. His series that started with Skyward filled a need I didn’t know I had. And then there’s his in-progress magnum opus, The Stormlight Archive.

This thing is massive. It’s comparable to the Wheel of Time or Song of Ice and Fire novel series in sheer size and scope, but it’s really nothing like either in the details. No, this is something else.

So far, the series comprises four enormous tomes. The first, Way of Kings, clocks in over 1000 pages, and this is no simple text. I knew that when I saw the table of contents, which included not only two different prologues, but also an “Ars Arcanum” section (a common feature of Sanderson’s writings, where he describes the book’s magic system through the eyes of a character) and illustrations.

That’s a trend that has carried through the series. These books are works of art, and I encourage anyone who wants to read them to pick up the hardcovers. They’re just worth it.

The story

(Note that I will be spoiling the first three books of The Stormlight Archive. That’s kinda hard not to do when you’re discussing the fourth entry in an epic fantasy series.)

Rhythm of War picks up, following a prologue that is the fourth retelling of a pivotal event in the series, shortly after Oathbringer leaves off. The world of Roshar is at war, as the dark god Odium has resurfaced after thousands of years. His malign influence turned the enslaved Parshendi into the demonic Voidbringers, powerful beings from such a distant past that they were thought to be legendary.

Standing against the tide of darkness are the Knights Radiant, a small but growing group of humans with divine powers of their own, granted when they bond with beings called “spren”, fairy-like creatures that represent emotions, forces, elements, and essentially any other part of the world.

Odium’s forces control much of the world, while the Radiants and their followers have retreated to the lost city of Urithiru, and it is here that most of the book’s story takes place. For the Voidbringers have found a way to not only locate the lost city, but turn its magical defenses on the Radiants, shutting them down.

The secondary plot of Rhythm of War concerns the spren themselves, specifically those representing honor. These are some of the most powerful, as they are closer to divinity; Honor is another deity of the setting, specifically the one worshipped by humans as the Almighty. Problem is, he’s dead. The circumstances leading to his death were revealed in prior books, and the fallout has been on display ever since.

Honor’s spren “children” consider humans to be oathbreakers, owing to events of ages gone by, and they have begun to refuse the bonds that create knew Knights Radiant. That weakens the war effort, obviously, so getting them back on the good guys’ side is paramount. Doing that, however, requires meeting them on their own terms, in a kind of parallel dimension called variously Shadesmar or simply the “Cognitive Realm”.

A digression

This is one of those Sanderson conceits, and I have to pull you aside to explain the gist of it. Many of his works are in a shared setting, the Cosmere—this inspired my own Paraverse, as I’ve stated before. Rather than a single planet, however, the Cosmere is something closer to a whole galaxy. Roshar is merely one planet. In fact, it’s one of three in its system. The other two, Ashyn and Braize, are not physically inhabitable (Ashyn used to be, apparently), but have a kind of spiritual presence; humans in the series consider them heaven and hell, respectively.

Other books in the setting take place on different planets. Mistborn, for instance, is set in the world of Scadriel. For the most part, this is nothing more than flavor, a background detail put in for more serious readers to drool over. Each world has its own characters, its own history, its own magic system, and they’re mostly separate.

With Rhythm of War, that’s starting to change. I don’t know if this is because The Stormlight Archive is meant to be a series that “connets” the Cosmere as a whole, but it certainly seems that way. Flavor text, in the form of opening quotes, talks of the various “shards of Adonalsium”, some kind of divine artifact that effectively turns people into demigods. Odium has one, that of Passion. Honor’s was, well, Honor. Sazed, a character in Mistborn, gets two of them, uniting Preservation and Ruin into Harmony.

It’s all very interesting, if mostly because it’s so maddeningly vague. We get a few tantalizing hints that some of the Stormlight characters are from other parts of the Cosmere. One, known only as Wit, actually is: he’s some kind of world-hopping author insert who has cameos in all the setting’s various novels. Obscure references from him and the chapter intros point to something big happening in the universe at large. As Sanderson has repeatedly stated that he’s a fan of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, I can imagine what sort of reckoning that would be.

The world

So Roshar is part of a larger setting, but that doesn’t mean it’s bland. Not by any means. As usual for a Sanderson world, there’s a lot of thought put into it. The world map is a rough approximation of a Julia fractal, for instance, and this fits with a number of references to mathematics and aesthetics that permeate the series. The original Knights Radiant all have palindrome names (e.g., Kelek) as did their cities—Urithiru counts if you treat “th” as a single letter.

The biggest feature of the world is the storm. Something of a supernatural hurricane, it repeatedly crashes into the east coast of the Roshar continent at somewhat regular intervals, bringing heavy rain, damaging winds, and the magical essence of Stormlight.

In typical Sanderson fashion, the storm defines the cultures, the kingdoms, and every aspect of life. The word “storm” itself can be used as a curse. (The author prefers not to use English profanity due to his religion, so this is his way around that.) Calendars are oriented around the storm schedule rather than the sun and moon—moons, rather, as Roshar has…two, I think? Cities, towns, and even villages have to bear the brunt of constant battering, so they’re designed to sit in the lee of walls or natural rock formations. And so on.

But the worldbuilding goes deeper than this, because you also have to take into account the geography, the ecology, and here is where Brandon Sanderson shines. Roshar is a harsh planet with harsh terrain. Except in the far western land of Shinovar, where storms are far weaker, the land is cold, rocky, and downright alien. There’s no topsoil, because it’s all been eroded away. Permanent rivers are rare. And the native life reflects that. Instead of trees, plant life mostly consists of short, stout organisms, most of which have adapted to encase themselves in hard shells. Animals do the same; some also have gemstones within, a nod to oysters and the fabled bezoar that serves as a major plot point.

Natives to Roshar don’t see anything wrong with this. To them, it’s life, even if it’s a life unlike ours. In much the same way, Mistborn‘s inhabitants think nothing of a sky full of volcanic ash or a land so brown it could be a map in a Quake game. The inhabitants of Skyward‘s devastated planet know only their world, their life of eternal aerial warfare and a life lived underground.

That’s what draws me to Sanderson’s works. He doesn’t make a big deal about his worlds. They’re different, sometimes so incredibly different that we find it difficult to imagine them. But to his characters, they’re home. And home is nothing special. It’s just where we live. It’s part of who we are.

The characters

If he has any weak spots, writing good characters definitely comes close to the top of the list. Kaladin is exactly like Vin, Spinsa, and almost any other protagonist Sanderson writes. The troubled youth with a checkered past who stumbles into a superpower. It’s so cliche that you want to cringe, but he plays it well, and the worldbuilding more than makes up for it.

I will say that he’s getting better. Rhythm of War‘s ensemble cast at least offers variety. It’s also pretty much the DSM-5 in novel form, though. Kaladin is now suffering from severe depression and anxiety, which resonated with me so strongly that I sometimes had to put the book down. Shallan has multiple personalities (whatever that’s officially called these days) that get confusing in the narration. Taravangian, a relatively minor character who ends the novel in a much different position, is a bona fide sociopath.

It goes on from there. Kaladin mentors a small number of men who clearly have PTSD. The Lost Heralds—four of the original Knights who found immortality at some point—are varying degrees of insane. Adolin is a narcissist, though he is getting better; one of his subplots turned out to be my favorite part of the story, even ahead of exploring the lost city and waging a resistance against an occupation force. Schizophrenics, psychopaths, and sadists are all represented in the cast. One of the heroes has a developmental disorder, but pretends to be mute so no one will hear his “slow” speech.

In other words, it’s almost like everyone in Roshar is damaged in some way. Nobody’s perfect, and this setting shows the truth of that in all its naked glory. That said, these characters aren’t defined by their mental state. They’re people. Kaladin, for example, has a very good reason for his depression: he blames himself for his brother’s death eight years ago, and losing his friends in battle only reminds him of that. His father pressured him into becoming a surgeon, someone who saves lives instead of ending them, but fate put him in this position.

There are other good characters. I greatly enjoyed Navani’s story of invention, experimentation, and quiet resistance. The spren, when seen in their native realm, are a fascinating take on fairy and “daemon” myths. Most of all, the people interact in ways that seem logical. You don’t always understand their reasons, but you get that they have them. It’s a rarity in today’s hyper-politicized fantasy landscape.

The fatal flaw

I’ve said this one before. If I have any problem with Sanderson’s writing, it’s not the worldbuilding. No, that’s top-notch. It’s not even the character development, because I can see that he’s getting better at that. Book design? Rhythm of War, like its three predecessors, is a masterpiece in that department.

But the prose. Oh, the prose.

I will freely admit that I’ve never taken a class on writing. I scraped by in English class in high school, even if I somehow managed to be #1 in the school on standardized writing assessments. (20 years later, and I still can’t figure that one out!) On top of that, when I write a novel like Nocturne or Innocence Reborn, I’m doing it without an editor. I’m my own proofreader. You’d need a microscope to find my self-esteem, a miracle to get me to praise my own work.

Despite all that, I can say with no reservations that my prose is far better than that of my favorite author. Yes, Rhythm of War is 1200 pages, but he could probably cut a hundred or more off that if he just learned how to use a pronoun every now and then. His word choices leave a lot to be desired, and leave what would be an otherwise impeccable book with long stretches of repetitive dialogue or narration. And all that isn’t getting any better. It was the same in Mistborn—the prologue of Shadows of Self left me literally wincing at points.

Unlike many, I won’t criticize Sanderson for avoiding profanity. I do the same thing in my works. It’s a personal decision that contributes to an author’s style. For the same reason, I had no problem with Peter Brett’s use of dialectal speech in the Demon Cycle series, to name one example. It fit his style and the world he was building.

Yet there’s no excuse for some of the cringeworthy prose in these bestsellers. (Worst of all, in my opinion, was the random use of “okay” by a character in Oathbringer. I have never in my life lost suspension of disbelief so fast.) What is the point of a professional editor if not to polish these things?

Take that away, and Rhythm of War is a solid 10 in all respects. Sure, the series as a whole is a huge time investment, but it’s one that pays out better dividends than buying GameStop stock. You’re getting access to a beautifully made world, a creation that rivals Middle-Earth in its complexity and sheer gravity. The story is truly epic. The characters are, in some cases, perfectly imperfect. Sanderson knows how to write.

I just wish he’d learn how to write.

The Shotgun Divorce

It’s very rare that a country splits in two. Korea did it (with the help of a war), leading to a case where one of the most advanced countries borders one of the most backward. Scotland almost seceded from the United Kingdom a while back; alas, that didn’t pan out. South Sudan might be a good example, if not for the fact that it’s now one of the poorest places in the world.

In modern times, there’s really only one positive data point for a country splitting: Czechoslovakia. The nation was born from Communism and the ashes of the World Wars, but it always had tension. Maybe not as much as its Yugoslav cousins, but the Czechs and Slovaks almost seemed destined to split.

That split took place in 1992. Less than 30 years ago, and not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall, and the rest of the Cold War icons. Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic (now somewhat officially known as Czechia) and Slovakia—not to be confused with Slovenia, an entirely different place. Relatively speaking, it was a peaceful parting of ways. Even the popular name for the momentous occasion sounds affectionate: the Velvet Divorce.

The United States is fast approaching a point where our internal divisions are too great to overcome. We’re reaching critical mass, and the highly disputed elections of 2020 only brought that into sharper relief. Texas legislators are talking about secession, using the state’s inherent right to revoke the treaty which brought it into the Union in the first place. No other state has this option, and quite a few Constitutional scholars think Texas doesn’t, either. But that didn’t stop them in 1861, and it might not stop them 160 years later.

Another option

Let me preface all of this by saying that even the possibility of Texas leaving the US is very, very remote. Secessionists always speak up after an election. It’s just that they’re a lot more vocal now, for reasons which should be plain.

Especially in the so-called red states, like my own Tennessee, people are growing afraid. Afraid to speak their minds, afraid of losing their jobs, their culture, or their lives simply for having the “wrong” political opinion. That fear, if it remains at a high level, could lead to some drastic action.

But is there a better way? I think so.

A couple of months ago, after the affidavits, hidden-camera videos, and taped confessions began to come out, the state of Texas sued six other states. The rest of the US jumped in, all but Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Alaska (if I recall correctly) taking sides. Under the Constitution, only one court can hear a lawsuit where both parties are states: the Supreme Court.

That has been tried before. In the late 1800s, the states of Kentucky and West Virginia were drawn into the most famous blood feud in American history. A posse from Pike County, Kentucky, wanted to collect the reward on “Devil Anse” Hatfield (my third cousin, three times removed) and members of his family, all of whom were, at the time, living deep in the forested hills of West Virginia. Barely a generation removed from the Civil War, the issue of states’ rights was still fresh in the minds of those in power in either state. Anse’s brother happened to know the law well enough to use it against his family’s pursuers, and he had connections. In the new America of Reconstruction, he wanted to argue, were law enforcers from one state allowed into another, or did they need to contact their counterparts across the border? What about warrants? Rewards?

The feud was mostly resolved before the case could get anywhere, alas, but others have gone before the Supreme Court in the decades since. It’s not common; we get state-on-state action on average once every few years, and it’s usually for something trivial like where to draw a border.

And the Texas case wouldn’t get to change that, because the Court threw it on dubious grounds of a lack of standing. That was, in essence, the main problem of the election suits, a Catch-22 in the legal system. In almost every case, judges ruled that the plaintiffs’ arguments didn’t have merit because their objections should have been brought up before the election. Of course, those same judges would have thrown the cases out in October, too, this time saying that no harm had yet occurred. Honestly, it’s a clever way of punting.

But it means that we have an issue where some states are seeking redress from other states, and the only court with jurisdiction is refusing to hear any arguments. What to do? Secession looks more promising, given these legal hurdles, right?

I’d agree to that. However, I do think there’s room for a more amicable parting than what began at Fort Sumter. Following the best example of a national breakup I know (and the very familiar proclivities of my fellow Americans), I call this option the Shotgun Divorce.

He said, she said

Like any divorce, who gets what is one of the first things we have to consider. In this case, it’s somewhat simple. We want to peacefully divide the United States into two parts, loosely based on the majority political opinion. We can go by state for most of it.

  • One nation, call it the Republic of America (ROA), will be the “red” states of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, West Virginia, South Carolina, and Alaska. In addition, the supposedly blue states of Arizona and New Mexico are closer in culture and politics to nearby Texas, while the eastern half of Oregon is very unlike the socialist stronghold of Portland; a fringe movement to secede is gathering steam there, so we’ll allow it to join the ROA as the new state of Columbia. (I’d considered doing something similar in the Midwest, forming the state of Superior out of northern Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.)

  • The other nation, which we’ll name the Democratic States of America (DSA), comprises California, Washington, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, North Carolina, western Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, and Hawaii.

The United States also has a number of outlying territories. With the exception of Puerto Rico, which is already on the path to statehood and would join the DSA, these can fall under joint rule for the time being. They include Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Marianas Islands, the US Virgin Islands, and a few “Minor Outlying Islands” that barely have anyone living on them.

The District of Columbia is a special case for a few reasons. One, it’s the national capital, so awarding to it one party is almost like calling them superior. Two, it has a significant “civilian” population that is overwhelmingly Democratic, so not giving it to the DSA isn’t entirely fair. And three, the Constitution expressly prohibits making DC a state. This is a conundrum, and I think the best course of action is to declare the federally-owned parts of DC neutral territory, while reverting the rest of the District to Maryland.

This arrangement isn’t perfect by any means. The ROA has significantly more territory, though its not as densely populated as the DSA states. Those, however, are split in two: the West Coast is separated from the East Coast, Midwest, and New England. Maybe we could call that punishment for the jokes about flyover country? The only other option that comes to mind, short of a stretch along the northern or southern border, is three countries, but that seems too complex.

Dividing the spoils

Our fractured country is more than just land, though. A modern nation-state has a whole host of rights and responsibilities, along with interactions on the world stage. So we also have to look at how the Shotgun Divorce would affect these.

As we aren’t part of any super-national organizations like the EU, some of it is easy. We obviously need to convince other countries to accept the ROA and DSA as separate entities, but most would be ready to support one or the other, enough that we wouldn’t be left in limbo. Thus, we avoid the fate of Palestine, Catalonia, Tibet, East Turkestan, and Transnistria, all of which, despite fulfilling the basic requirements for nationhood, have their very existence questioned by world powers, and thus are relegated to a status best described as occupied by a foreign country.

Trade deals could be made with either party, or both, and many of the current treaties can remain in effect. The ROA and DSA could apply for individual status in the UN, WTO, and other global organizations. On the other hand, some might be unpalatable to one side: the ROA probably wouldn’t want membership in the WHO, for instance.

What happens to the USA’s current status would have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, I think. Things like our permanent seat on the UN Security Council are hard to reconcile with the breakup I’m describing.

And that leads me into one of the most important domestic matters. What happens to the US military? Other federal organizations (FBI, CIA, DOT, etc.) would split into two, one for each side, but the armed forces comprise such a large and important part of our nation’s budget and focus that we need to consider its fate carefully. The bases aren’t too hard: they go to whichever side they fall into. The personnel, on the other hand, may need some reassignment.

Freedom of choice

This can tie into the meat of my argument: freedom of choice. It’s not enough to divide the United States into two groups that aren’t quite as united. That doesn’t solve the problem. Red states still have significant populations of Democrats, progressives, and even socialists in their major cities. Rural parts of blue states are full of gun-toting, God-fearing Republicans. Simply cutting along the lines gives us more discontent.

Instead, the divorce agreement needs to include a provision for free movement. Obviously, this starts with semi-open borders: minimal checkpoints along the new boundary between ROA and DSA, with no passports needed to cross from one to the other, but some sort of ID required at the official border crossings. Both sides also have to allow immigration from their counterpart, and here’s the kicker. Not only do they allow it, but they pay for it to start.

For a period of one year, the respective governments of the new nations would provide for families who wish to move to the “other” side, paying at least part of the cost. This can come in the form of a stipend for moving expenses, a tax rebate given to those who plan to leave, or whatever else works. The key is that everyone is given the choice. They’re not rounded up and kicked out, nor are they forced to live under a political system they find repugnant.

Now, this doesn’t mean that there is entirely free movement between the ROA and DSA. If we did that, it’s all for naught. So there are some checks. For one, you must live and work in the same country. For another, dual citizenship isn’t allowed. If, for example, this red-blooded Tennessean wants to marry a woman from newly-Communist Virginia (I don’t, by the way; my future wife already lives in my home state), then one of us will have to change sides. I move to the DSA, or she comes to the ROA, but something has to give. In a very meta twist, divorce would have to allow us to regain citizenship in the original country of our birth.

The greater experiment

The Shotgun Divorce is just a thought experiment, really. It has almost zero chance of ever happening, especially in the way I’m describing it. But if it did, I believe it would be better for everyone involved. True, the road would be rocky at the start. The transition from one United States to two would cause headaches for everyone, and even some of the tiniest questions have no good answers. (Who’s allowed to have a .us domain? Does shipping from DSA Washington to ROA Texas count as international? And would the USPS have to deliver?)

The positive advantages of this sort of breakup are twofold. One, it devolves power: with approximately 50% of the country, mostly those politically opposed to you, out of your way, your vote counts for twice as much. That brings us closer to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, most notably government that stems from the consent of the governed. For four years, nearly half of Americans refused that consent; now, the situation’s the same, but it’s the other half denying the legitimacy of the administration. With two countries, two governments, two presidents, this problem goes away.

Does that solve all the problems? No. Does it create more? Most likely. But it would give us the chance to run a true Great Experiment, and that’s the second advantage of my proposal. We almost never have the opportunity to use scientific methods in social situations. This would be one such opportunity.

A proper experiment requires a control group. The ROA/DSA split provides it. No matter which side of the divide you find yourself on, you can look at your new country as the continuation of the USA, while the other is an experiment in governing the way your enemies want. And maybe their way is better. Maybe your side will falter, while theirs enters a new golden age. Or maybe it’ll be the other way around.

We won’t know until we try.

The last Dark Age

In the title of this post, “last” means “previous” rather than “final”, for I truly believe we are on the precipice of a new Dark Age. With that in mind, it’s not that bad an idea to look back at the one that came before.

Defining the moment

A lot of modern academics don’t even like talking about the Dark Ages. They prefer the bland descriptor “Early Middle Ages” instead. But that line of thinking is faulty in multiple respects.

First, the given reasoning for referring to the Dark Ages as something else is because the “darkness” of the times was a localized concept. Outside of Europe, it wasn’t all that dark. Islam, for instance, had a bit of a renaissance around the same time, and China barely noticed the troubles of the West at all.

However, this same logic should dictate that the Middle Ages are no less localized. After all, the term comes from post-medieval sources who placed that time between their modern era and the classical period of the Greeks and Romans. Similarly, is referring to the Iron Age (which began around the time of the Greek Dark Ages, starting in 1177 BC) any less patronizing? Iron tools were never developed by natives in the Americas or Australia; what was the Iron Age in Anatolia would have been nothing more than the later Stone Age in Mesoamerica. The Middle Ages aren’t “middle” at all, except through the same lens that gives us the Dark Ages.

The second reason why it’s an error to conflate the Dark Ages with the Middle Ages is character, and it’s the subject of this post.

Beginning and ending

Before we can get to that, though, we need to define the limits of the period. The beginning is fairly easy, because Europe’s decline can be traced directly to the fall of Rome in 476 AD. This event was the culmination of decades of barbarian activity, with the entire empire facing threats from waves of migrant Vandals, Goths, Huns, and others. Those peoples slowly encroached upon Roman territory, nipping away at the borders, until they were able to reach the capital itself. Rome was sacked, and the last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, fled into exile. Or was sent there. Conflicting tales exist, but the gist is clear: Europe no longer bowed to Rome.

Things didn’t change overnight, of course. The barbarian kings often paid homage to the Byzantine emperor who continued to style himself Roman all the way to the 15th century. For a time, they considered themselves successors to the western throne, or at least to the provinces it had once controlled.

No, the Dark Ages only truly began once continuity was lost. That was a slow breakdown over years, decades, generations. The barbarian hordes lacked Roman culture. Without an imperial presence in Europe, that culture began to disappear, fading into memory as those who continued to consider themselves Roman aged and died. Later in the post, we’ll look at what that entailed.

As for when the Dark Ages ended, that’s a tougher question. Some might point to the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. Indeed, this did rejuvenate Europe for a time, bringing about the Carolingian Renaissance, and the 9th century gave us a few technological advances; Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, by Joseph and Frances Gies, details some of these, including the three in the book’s title.

Another date might be 927, marking the defeat of the Vikings by Æthelstan, first King of England. This was significant from both a political and religious standpoint, as England became a unified Christian kingdom for the first time in its history; Spain, for instance, wouldn’t manage that for nearly 600 years. And Æthelstan’s victory over the Danes did begin to bring about the changes that define the Middle Ages, such as the feudal system.

Still others would argue that the Dark Ages didn’t really end until William the Conqueror was crowned in 1066. By this point, all the pieces of the Middle Ages were in place, from the manorial society to the schism of Catholic and Orthodox. The Reconquista had begun in Spain, Turks were overrunning Byzantine lands, and the Crusades were about to begin. Clearly, the world had moved on from the Fall of Rome.


Personally, I think that’s too late, while the Charlemagne date of 800 seems a bit too early. But it may be that there is no single date we can point to and say, “The Dark Ages ended here.” Rather, there’s a continuum. The period ended at different times in different places throughout Europe, as connections to the past were rediscovered, and connections among those in the present were strengthened.

When the period began, the results were devastating. As Roman rule fell, so too did Roman institutions. The roads, so famous that we enshrine them in aphorisms, began to succumb to the ravages of time. Likewise for the bath, the forum, the legal framework, and the educational system.

The replacements weren’t always up to par, either. One of the reasons the Dark Ages are, well, dark is because of the relative lack of written works from the time. We have tons of Roman-era books: Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Ovid’s masterpieces, the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, and even the New Testament of the Bible all come from the Roman world. By contrast, the best-known writings to come from the period 476-1066 are histories like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, religious texts such as those by Bede, and Beowulf.

That’s not to say that people in the Dark Ages were stupid. Far from it. Instead, they had different priorities. They lived in a different world, one that didn’t have much opportunity for philosophy. Even when it did, that was almost exclusively the domain of the Church, one of the few institutions that retained some measure of continuity with the previous age.

With the breakdown of Roman society came a change in the way people saw themselves. While the barbarians did become civilized, they didn’t become Romanized. Gone were the trappings of republic and the scholastic zeal we associate with Late Antiquity. Dark Age society focused more on tribal identity, family honor, and individual heroism. The world, in a sense, shrank for the average person. Some of the changes came from the pagan background of the Gauls, Goths, and others, but they retained them even after converting to Christianity.

The unifying power of the Church may have helped usher in the end of the Dark Ages, in that it created the backdrop for the centralization of secular power, turning petty kingdoms into nation-states. Seven English kingdoms became a single England. Vast swathes of Europe fell under the rule of the emperor in Aachen. And this could be seen as lifting the continent out of the mire. A powerful nation can build bigger than a small tribe; the grand cathedrals begun in the ninth and tenth centuries are evidence of that.

But that didn’t change the fact that so much had been lost. In some places, particularly rural Britain, standards of living (which weren’t all that high in Roman times, to be fair) dropped to a level not seen since the Bronze Age, some 2000 years before. With Roman construction and sanitation forgotten, life expectancies fell, as did urban population. This was the Dark Ages in a nutshell. When Hobbes describes early man’s life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” he’s also talking about post-Roman, pre-medieval Europe. A life without even the most basic trappings of civilization, with little hope for advancement except through heroic deeds, with the specter of death lurking around every corner…that’s not much of a life at all.

Light returns

The Dark Ages did, however, come to an end. As I said above, the ninth century brought about the Carolingian Renaissance, a small uplifting. Much later came the 12th-century version, which brought about the High Middle Ages. Bits of darkness lingered all the way to 1453, when the last vestige of ancient Rome fell to the Ottoman Empire.

Odoacer’s sack of the imperial capital in 476 brought about, in a sense, the end of the world. When Mehmed II did the same thing to the other Roman capital, Constantinople, a millennium later, the effect was quite different. Instead of a new Dark Age, the end of the Byzantines fanned the flames of the Renaissance. The true Renaissance, the one which deserves this name. By then, so much of classical times had been forgotten by Europe at large, but it was now rediscovered, the bonds reforged.

Dark Ages end when light shines through. Or when enough people decide that they are destined for greater things. In Europe, the three centuries after 476 were a period of stasis, even regression. What little of our modern media touches on this period tends to focus on heroes real or invented: Vikings, The Last Kingdom, and so on. That’s understandable, as the life of the ordinary Saxon in Winchester, the Frank in Paris, or the Lombard in Pavia is relatively dull and uninspiring. The ones whose names we remember are those who rose above that. Heroes exist in every age, no matter what the society around them looks like.

Darkness, in this sense, can be defeated. This is a darkness of ignorance, of barbarism, of tribal infighting. Knowledge is the light that washes it away. To this day, we still can’t recreate some of the progress of Antiquity: we don’t know precisely how the Romans made their concrete, the composition of Greek fire, or the purpose of the Antikythera Mechanism.

Those secrets were lost because continuity was lost. The passing of culture from one generation to the next stopped, breaking a chain that had endured for centuries. With our interconnected world of today, it’s easy to think that can’t happen anymore. After all, we can call up an entire library on our phones. But what happens when that chain is sabotaged? What happens when culture and history are intentionally altered or buried? The result would be a new Dark Age.

Culture and history forgotten. Waves of migrants. Cities sacked. The loss of classical education and scholasticism. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

Seven year itch

Today is January 6, 2021. That means a few things. First, I somehow survived 2020. Despite all odds, despite the world throwing everything in my way, I’m still breathing. Whether I want to be, well, that’s the question, isn’t it? And 9 months into the two weeks to “flatten the curve” has me wondering what the answer really is.

Second, it’s the day the electoral votes are supposed to be counted. (I’m actually writing this post the night of the 4th, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.) That’s a whole other story, one for a different post. Suffice to say, this is one of the last chances to stop the coup against our great nation, to stand up for liberty and against oppression.

But today also marks an anniversary, of sorts. More of a commemoration, actually. Seven years ago, my cousin passed away. And that changed my life for the worse, in ways that still reverberate to this day.

It was a Monday. As is often the case after Christmas, my sleeping schedule was horribly out of balance. I can’t remember the exact times, but I had stayed up through the night before, and I was ready to fall asleep around 4 PM. I’d just climbed into bed, in fact, when my grandmother called. She was talking to my mom, and my brother suddenly ran into my bedroom.

As a quick digression, my aunt is a mother of one and a huge animal lover. Her only son was named Joey. Her dog was named Zoë. (Yes, the dots are necessary. She insisted.) The rhyming was intentional, and it stemmed from an incident whose details I can’t quite recall. Whatever it was, it happened as she was bringing the dog home, all the way back in 2005.

Anyway, back to the story. As I was getting comfortable, my brother burst into my room and said, “Zoë’s dead!”

I was shocked for a moment, because it’s always sad to hear about a family pet dying. But it’s only a dog, not a human being. So I made a little joke, we laughed, and I shrugged it off. A few seconds later, I hear a bloodcurdling scream from my mom downstairs. “No!” she wailed. And I do mean wailed. I had never heard a sound like that out of my own mother. I didn’t know she was capable of it.

Well, I had to find out what was up. Surely she wouldn’t be doing that over a dog. As I’m coming down the stairs, I hear her crying and saying, “He can’t be!”

Zoë was female, so there went that theory. What really happened was that my grandmother (ten days shy of her 91st birthday) had misheard “Joey” as “Zoë” at precisely the wrong time. The one who had died was not, in fact, the dog, but the man.

That Monday was awful already. It was the coldest day of the year, with a temperature that never got out of the 20s and ended up somewhere around 0° Fahrenheit. Bitterly cold for Tennessee, and actually the coldest January day for my small town since the 1980s. The doors of my mom’s car were frozen shut. The pipes running to my upstairs bathroom burst in the night. And we would have to brave this frigid evening, because my cousin really did die.

We met at my grandmother’s house. Trailer, rather, the same one where she passed away a little over a year later, and the same where my uncle did the same in 2020. My brother and I rode with my mom and stepdad. Another of my aunts, who lived next door, had come down, along with her youngest daughter. Everyone was on the verge of tears, if not openly weeping. We hugged, shared words of consolation, and generally settled into a kind of vigil, waiting for more news.

That came soon enough. Joey had been sick. I recall that very well. He’d had the flu at Christmas Eve; I caught it from him. Influenza rarely kills someone 35 years old, but it can happen, and it’s even more likely than a person the same age dying to the Wuhan virus. Especially if that person is, to put it bluntly, morbidly obese. He wasn’t one of those people you see on TLC, eating everything in sight and never moving from their beds. No, he was a very active, very energetic man who just happened to have some kind of medical problem that left him almost totally unable to lose weight. So he was probably north of 400 pounds at the time of his death. (A lot of it was muscle, to be fair. And he was tall: 6’5″, the tallest in our family by a good 5 inches over second place, which happened to be me.)

In his later years, he’d had problems with his heart, stemming from his weight. He also had some kind of spider bite (I think?) on his leg that never properly healed—his treatment was on hold until he recovered from the flu. So he was by no means in perfect or even good health, but death always comes as a shock in someone so young.

I didn’t see him until the funeral. I couldn’t. While everyone else went to my aunt’s house, about a quarter of a mile up the road, I stayed with my grandmother. Except I didn’t so much stay with her as lock myself in her room where she couldn’t see me cry.

And cry I did. Pretty much constantly.

I’ve often mentioned my emotional attachment to music. On this occasion, I listened to Black Eye Galaxy, an album by blues rock musician Anders Osborne. I’d never played the whole album in one sitting before then, and I haven’t since. It’s just too powerful, too poignant. No set of songs has ever, in my opinion, encapsulated such pure, undiluted anguish. That was exactly what I needed at the time. I needed someone to tell me that they had felt something like what I was feeling.

Because Joey might have been my cousin, but he was more than that to me. He was closer to a big brother. I looked up to him. After my father left, I did so even more, using him as inspiration for my own big-brother nature. He was a friend to everyone, a big, cuddly teddy bear of a man who could still get angry if you crossed him or his family.

Most of all, he respected me like no one else in my life. When I spoke, he listened. If he needed advice on anything from computers to music to stereo modding to growing peppers, he turned to me, and he wasn’t afraid to tell anyone why. That’s what I lost. Seven years ago today, I lost not only my cousin, but my best friend, my mentor, my biggest fan.

I haven’t been the same since.

Two days after he died, I dreamed of him. We were out shopping with our respective mothers, and I followed him to the games aisle. Our family has a tradition of game night, and the two of us often talked about new games to get. (Settlers of Catan was the one I wish we’d had a chance to play.) In the dream, we were browsing the shelves when I suddenly looked over at him and said, “I guess we don’t get to play games anymore, do we?” If anyone ever tells you that your heart can’t break in a dream, they’re lying.

I was a pallbearer for the first time in my life, as I had been the odd man out for my grandfather’s funeral in 2012. I was also the music director for the service, and I still have the list of tracks I used:

  • Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Simple Man”
  • Randy Travis, “He Walked On Water”
  • Brad Paisley, “When I Get Where I’m Going”
  • Vince Gill, “Go Rest High On That Mountain”

Not all my kind of music, I’ll admit, but it served its purpose well. And I only cried for one of the songs, but I dare anybody to listen to Vince Gill without getting at least a little misty. It’s just impossible.

The days that followed were the hardest for everyone. My aunt refused to take down her Christmas decorations, because he was the one who put them up. She still takes weekly visits to the cemetery where he was buried, and she was very upset a couple of weeks ago, when the road was blocked due to a suspicious vehicle scare. (This was right after the Christmas bombing a hundred miles away in Nashville.)

We all had to adapt to life without one of us, without the natural leader and protector we had lost. Our family parties are a lot…less now. Smaller, less raucous, and I’m the one leading all the games. Before, that was an honor: Joey, first of anyone else, declared me the permanent game master. If we were playing any kind of trivia game, he said, I had to be the one asking the questions. Otherwise, nobody else could win! Since he left this world, that position became a necessity, as we just don’t have enough people to balance out my, ah, wide body of trivia knowledge.

Most of all, I lost one of the very few people I felt I could trust to stand beside me through thick and thin. My uncle’s health was growing worse, my mom was spending more and more time taking care of him and my grandmother, and I just didn’t have anyone older to talk to. Not in the same way I could talk to him. Just as when my father left, I became the older one, the man in charge. I wasn’t ready for that when I was 12, and being 30 didn’t make it any easier.

The loss, and the responsibility that came in its wake, sent my depression to a level where I could no longer ignore that it existed. For seven years I’ve lived with it, dealt with it in whatever way I could. Two years ago, I realized I would be older than Joey had been at the time of his death. Something about that resonated in me. Call it survivor’s guilt, because I honestly felt like I didn’t deserve to outlive him. I didn’t actively consider ending my own life, but I did passively accept that, if it did happen, it wouldn’t be unjust. After all, I wasn’t half the man he was.

I still feel that way. He never married, never had children. Given the state of the world and my life, I doubt I’ll have the chance to outdo him in either respect. But he had a decent job, a number of loyal friends, and a generally positive attitude that, in my seemingly eternal depths of despair, I outright envy.

Seven years have gone by. In one sense, that’s nothing. In another, it’s forever. So much has changed that he’d probably find the world almost unrecognizable. He’d be asking me for help to navigate some of the strangeness we have to face today that just wasn’t there even as late as 2014. Or we might have found ourselves on different sides of this great divide that is taking over every aspect of life. I can’t say for certain. I do know that there are times I miss him more than ever, and times when I would gladly give my own life if it would bring him back.

“Family comes first” is a motto I use in all my books. The first novel I released, Before I Wake, was my way of illustrating that. It was in a lot of ways, for him. The protagonist, Jay, is so named because those were my cousin’s initials. And I’ve added small nods to him in other works, as well. The Soulstone Sorcerer has as Ian’s boss a very…large man named Joseph, who recently had gastric bypass surgery; my cousin had been considering that for some time. The Endless Forms series has a number of references. As his mother was the one who pitched it, I felt it would be a good place to toss in as many as I could fit.

But those are only small reminders, my way of coping with a tragedy. After seven years, the memory remains. So does the wound. Oh, it’s no longer fresh, but it left a scar on my very soul, one that will never truly heal.

The end

We’ve finally reached the end of this miserable year. It seems like just yesterday we had things like hope, friendship, and society, but it’s really been nine months since such concepts were outlawed, ostensibly to protect us all from a ravaging virus that, as it turns out, is about as deadly as the flu we deal with every year. Add in a real-life coup d’etat right here in the good old USA, and it seems as if the world is in the throes of a nightmare the likes of which we haven’t seen since the days of Nagasaki.

My own nightmare reached new depths, too.

2020 was supposed to be the year I turned it around. In January and February, before the world went (rather, was driven) totally insane, I had plans. I was going to get a full-time job. I’d move out on my own, maybe to somewhere around Nashville, like the uncle I had just bid goodbye. This Christmas, if everything went just right, would have been the first I’d celebrate as a husband, and maybe even an expectant father.

Well, none of that happened. Instead, I’m stuck in my bedroom, the place I’ve spent most of the year. The last time I was inside a place of business was getting my glasses in June; I walked right back out the door when they demanded a temperature screening. Since then, I don’t go in anywhere but the homes of family members, with the lone exception of Election Day.

I’m a loner by nature, but I’ve never felt more alone than this. And that, I think, encapsulates 2020 for me. It’s the one lesson I’ll take from this year. I’m alone but for my family. There’s no one looking out for me. No guardian angels, whether in the literal or metaphorical sense. If I’m going to succeed at anything, it’ll be by my own merits, my own luck…neither of which I have in any great quantity.

The current political situation has forced me to ally with all manner of people I used to consider undesirable. Fundamentalist Christians, conspiracy theorists, and people who really do deserve to be called racists. I don’t love them. I really don’t even like them. But they at least share some of the ideals I hold most dear. They have hope, and I envy them for it.

They have faith, as well, and that is something else I’ve lost. I can’t look at this mess of a world and see any grand plan. Nor can I forsake it entirely, in the belief that suffering through this life is necessary before getting the “true” reward that awaits beyond. When I read right-wing posts going on about Biblical prophecy or equating a vital medical procedure to murder, I have to shake my head. They would call me a heretic or heathen. The only reason I still associate with them is because the other side would call me worse.

I know I don’t fit in with them, and I never will. Honestly, that doesn’t bother me much. I’ve lived 37 years without fitting in. Given the choice between gritting my teeth through sermons or walking on eggshells each day to avoid being canceled, I’ll go with the ones who aren’t starting riots and destroying the lives of those they disagree with.

But where do I go? That’s the real question for 2021, and it’s one I’ve been thinking quite a lot about.

I can’t keep pretending things are going to just get better on their own. I also can’t believe anyone is going give me a real chance to better myself. They haven’t yet, so why would next year be any different?

One of the great things about the internet is the vast wealth of knowledge available. That knowledge is an endless source of fascination. If that weren’t enough, it has also taught me much about myself, showing me that the things I considered personal were, in fact, already in existence. Indeed, they’re often named and studied, but I never knew until I thought to look it up.

In this case, I’m referring to a personal philosophy. “Bionatalism” is the word I didn’t know I’d been looking for, and I found it last week. Put simply, it’s the belief that reproduction is a moral imperative.

That belief is one of my most fundamental. I recently found out that my cousin has been cheating on her husband. Obviously, that’s horrible, but there are extenuating circumstances that make it not all her fault. You see, he had a vasectomy a few years ago. Without telling her beforehand. Something about that really did repulse me more than the thought of her cheating. A part of me felt that he deserved it.

I’d never do such a thing. I made that vow to myself when 37 was closer to my mom’s age than my own. Since summer of last year, when the prospect of a serious relationship became a tantalizing possibility, I’ve been thinking of that vow, along with others that follow the same line of thinking.

Unlike many people my age, I want children. I want the chance to be a father, to teach a son and a daughter all that I know. I yearn for the chance to hold that bundle of joy. I’d take the 3 AM feeding and the endless crying and the diapers and all of it, if only I could hear the “I love you, Daddy” when I get home from work. As long as I can watch their eyes light up on Christmas morning, or see their expectant, hopeful faces as I unwrap my own Father’s Day gifts.

You won’t hear most men say it, but I’ll shout from the rooftops that I want to raise babies as much as I want to make them. To me, that is the ultimate goal of life. I’m without even one child, when I’m almost at the age at which my father was working on his fourth (whom I’ve never even met!), and I consider that my biggest failure by far. Everything else I’ve screwed up pales in comparison to the thought that I can’t accomplish the one thing life does. My one inherent purpose.

With each passing year, I get that much closer to the end of my time as a man physically capable of reproduction. If I reach that point with nothing to show for it…well, I try not to think about that. Doesn’t mean I’m successful.

So much of my depression and anxiety come back to that, especially this year. I’ve put enormous effort into getting my life on track, setting goals and whatnot, only to be beaten back at every turn by a world that has gone beyond uncaring and become actively antagonistic. I constantly feel like a failure, and that robs me of what little joy I have left, sending me further into the depths of despair.

I know I’m running out of chances, but what chance is there? I couldn’t support a family on minimum wage, I’m apparently unemployable for anything else, and starting my own business just isn’t possible until we push out the pandemic scaremongers.

My options are limited. My dreams are hanging on by the slimmest of threads. I’ve pushed away my truest friends, given up on those whose friendship was contingent, and isolated myself. Why? I think it’s because, deep down, I feel like….maybe it’ll hurt them less that way. Like a dog that runs away from its owner when it knows it’s going to die, I’m hiding to keep from hurting those I love.

Rationally, I know I’m often making it worse, but I’m reaching the point where I just can’t bring myself to care anymore. Are we really better off living in the fantasy of “things will get better” forever? I don’t think so. Things only get better if we make them, and I’ve tried that. I’ve given all I have, and I’ve got nothing to show for it but the pain of failure. Over and over again.

2021 may be my last chance in so many ways. I’m willing to become a revolutionary, if that’s what it takes. I will suffer so that others might be free. I love liberty more than myself. Depression has only changed the magnitude of that difference.

I’ll continue to write. If I can’t have children in the real world, I’ll create my own. The pride of seeing my name in print is still enough to bring a tear to my eye, and the steadily growing collection of paperbacks I’ve written is…something like a family, I guess.

As for the rest, I can’t say. Whatever happens, though, I know only I can fix me. And I’ll have to do it alone. Just like always.

Twospeech: An experiment in English diglossia

The English language is, like so much else in today’s world, in a state of conflict. Especially in America, our language serves two purposes which are distinct and even, in some cases, diametrically opposed. Not only must it serve as a native tongue for the vast majority of inhabitants of numerous countries (the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and so on), but it has also been adopted, in the so-called World English form, as a modern-day lingua franca for most international communications.

Those two purposes, however, work against one another. By serving as an international language, the value of English as a literary language is devalued, for we native speakers lose the connection that every other language allows. Conversely, the “Anglo” cultural connotations present in the language can be seen as relic of colonialism. Why must speakers of, say, Japanese or Arabic care about how a particular offshoot of the Saxons lived a thousand years ago? On the other hand, why shouldn’t Americans or Canadians have the opportunity to forge a closer cultural bond with each other than they would have with nonnative speakers?

In other words, we have a clash between a culture wanting their own language and a world needing a language without strings attached. But there is an answer.

The lingua franca

In days gone by, people—Europeans, rather—would turn to Latin. The Romans ruled a large swath of Europe, along with parts of North Africa and Asia Minor, and they spread their tongue throughout their realm. Thus, even centuries after their decline and fall, their speech was still seen as a model. It helped, of course, that many of the languages spoken in those regions were descended from Latin: the Romance tongues of French, Spanish, Italian, and so on.

Latin, of course, suffers from numerous problems of its own. It’s a complex, baroque language, and the “New Latin” movement that started shortly after the Renaissance only made the situation worse. On top of that, it is still a human language, associated with a culture.

As that culture is now extinct, we can counter most of the anti-colonialist arguments. Using Latin as a lingua franca doesn’t spread Roman culture any more than using modified Arabic numerals in mathematics spreads Islam. Time and evolution have detached the Latin language from its roots.

To a lesser extent, we can say the same thing for Classical Greek. Here, the situation is murkier. Greek is a living language, spoken (obviously) in Greece. But there are significant differences in phonology, grammar, and lexicon between the writings of Homer or Plato and what’s spoken on the streets of Athens today. In that sense, we can make a lesser argument that Classical Greek is sufficiently acultural to serve as the basis for a global language.


One might also consider other possibilities. Chinese script, for instance, spread throughout East Asia, penetrating Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, among other places. Sanskrit is the ancestor of languages spoken by over a billion people, and has a rich literary tradition of its own.

These do have their own problems. Chinese might have a unified script, but this hides a wide range of variation in the spoken form, so much that what Westerners call dialects should, in fact, be treated as languages in their own right. Thus, for a spoken global language, we would have to choose one, and that disadvantages speakers of the others. Mandarin might be the most prominent, but why pick it over Cantonese?

Sanskrit’s daughter languages are even more distinct, much the same as the Romance languages of Europe, so cultural favoritism isn’t as much trouble. Rather, the problem here is one of connotation. In the West, Sanskrit is often considered to be the tongue of mystics and monks at best, New Age pseudoscience at worst. In a quirk of history, its vocabulary didn’t penetrate far enough outside its initial borders to gain global recognition. Thus, we should call it a more distant third choice after Latin and Greek.

Two other contenders, Classical Arabic and Old Church Slavonic, we must also reject due to connotations. In this case, the factors are religious, as they are inextricably linked to Islam and Orthodox Christianity, respectively. As we want to create a world language that respects diverse cultures while promoting none of its own, those best known as liturgical or scriptural won’t work.

English as spoken

Fortunately for our purposes, English already has numerous loanwords and coinages in Latin and Greek. (Most of those coming from Sanskrit and its children are cultural loans such as yoga.) By some estimates, as much as 50% of English text derives from these two languages, and that percentage is even higher in technical and scientific contexts. Modern terms often combine the two, creating forms such as television or hexadecimal, further diluting any connections to the native tongues.

This extensive vocabulary can be the beginning of our world language. Indeed, it already is. Scientific terms built from Latin and Greek roots have been borrowed into languages all over the planet, no matter whether those places and peoples were ever even conceived by the Romans.

Thus, we see one fairly simple path to removing the appropriation and colonialism of English: using and creating new “classical” terms wherever possible. English is a more isolating language, though, meaning that it uses a lot of purely grammatical words. Articles such as the, linking verbs like be and do, and many more have no lexical content at all, so there’s no harm in keeping them. It’s only the “content” words we need to worry about.

Conversely, the “native” form of English should favor native-built content words rather than classical borrowings and neologisms. English-speaking nations and peoples share a culture with a long and storied history, the same as any other on earth. We should maintain it, add to it, without forcing it upon the rest of the world or leaning on others as a crutch.

In time, we would have two different varieties of English. One is the “internal” native tongue, respecting its history and culture without attempting to spread them. The “external” language, by contrast, serves as a truly cosmopolitan manner of speaking, accepting all but favoring none. Rather than a distinction of station, what linguists call register, we would see a dichotomy of inner and outer, effectively two languages, although they would remain very, very close in many ways.

This state is called diglossia, following the “classical” tradition of Latin and Greek neologism. Using a more native approach, we might call it twospeech.

What it’s not

Let’s get this out of the way first. Twospeech is most emphatically not another attempt at linguistic purity, whatever that may be. We’re not trying to remove all traces of foreign influence from English. Instead, the goal is to create a more solid cultural boundary between speakers of Native English and those of World English. On one side, we have the tongue of the common citizen of the United States, England, and other countries where English is the primary language. On the other, we have the citizens of Earth itself, humans of all stripes, who should transcend barriers of race and ethnicity.

What it is, or could be

The “world” form would, most likely, become the educated variant, in much the same way that European university students throughout the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods learned Latin, then used it in scientific publications. We’ll call this style epiglossia (the “over” language) or worldspeech, depending on which form we’re speaking.

“Native” English, however, would be the word on the street. Perhaps it would receive “rural” connotations, but the interconnectivity of today’s world will act as a brake on such tendencies. The key is that this form is only intended for English speakers. Yes, it sometimes brings back old words, including some designed by linguistic purists in the past. It also adds naturalized loans, particularly those from Anglo-Norman or the Viking invasions, and it necessarily must turn to its higher-class sibling for scientific talk. But it retains its own character despite that. We’ll call it demoglossia, the “people’s” language, or kinspeech, to emphasize the shared bond between English speakers.


Epiglossia, then, has the following characteristics:

  • The lexicon is built mostly from Latin and (Classical) Greek roots, with borrowings from other languages allowed when appropriate, but only if they retain their cultural context. In all cases, phonological considerations should be taken into account, as well as the limitations of our script.

  • Grammar is formal English, as would be used in a research paper, professional speech, or government memorandum. In particular, colloquial phrases should be avoided.

  • Slang, being specific to a subculture, is best omitted, but common abbreviations are allowed. For example, “chem” for chemistry is acceptable.

  • Speakers should take care to consider the audience, using forms such as singular “they” if appropriate.


Demoglossia charts its own course, with these guiding principles:

  • English grammar remains unchanged, but colloquialisms are allowed for all but the most formal situations, encouraged whenever speakers feel comfortable.

  • Although lexical items can be borrowed from Latin and Greek, as in epiglossia, prefer native constructions and coinages, using roots from Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman (and its related dialects of Old French), and words imported into English-speaking areas historically.

  • Deriving shortened forms from classical roots (including epiglossia itself) is acceptable. Illustrative examples include phone and TV.

  • Creativity is key, as the goal of demoglossia is to embrace the Englishness of our language.


This is just a sketch, but it’s an idea with merit. Many have tried throughout the years to create a “world” language, whether a fixed form of English or an auxiliary language such as Esperanto. Twospeech leans more toward the former, but attacks the problem in a different way, by accepting the inherent conflict between the two ideas of what English should be.

Today, the language is under assault from multiple directions, and they will eventually cause a split or perhaps even the fall of English as the international standard for communication. Embracing the notion that the language we speak to outsiders doesn’t necessarily have to match the one we use among friends is only doing what every other culture has to do on a daily basis. In that regard, Twospeech fosters linguistic equality.

It is true that this proposal doesn’t remove all the parochialism from World English, but it’s a significant step forward. In the coming weeks, I’ll expand upon this initial sketch, because I believe it to be educational, even enlightening.

On luck

Luck is a funny thing. Some people say it doesn’t exist. Others swear it does. Me? I’m conflicted on the subject, and here’s why.

I’ve stated my humanist leanings numerous times on here. I won’t say I deny the existence of deities or other supernatural or metaphysical elements. I simply believe that, if they do exist, they play little to no role in our daily lives. One look at the state of the world today is enough to support that notion, if you ask me.

But luck is different. While it might be considered metaphysical, it’s also quantifiable, in a sense. Take random chance, say the rolling of dice or drawing of cards. We can measure the positive and negative outcomes and, using statistical methods, determine the likelihood of each. Given enough samples, patterns might emerge. Anyone can have a run of good outcomes, a hot streak. Likewise, we’ve all experienced extended periods of bad outcomes. For most people, they tend to average out.

I’ve had my share of ridiculously bad luck. When I played online poker (before it was made illegal in the US in 2008), I got a royal flush once. That’s a rare outcome, around 1 in 31,000 hands for Texas Hold ’em. I also had a run of over 160 hands without being dealt a pocket pair: about 1 in 640,000 odds of that happening. You play enough, you tend to see some odd things, so no big deal. And we all knew that PokerStars was rigged to generate action, making that whole “3% chance to win on the river” more like a n 80% chance. (Fans of tactical strategy games and RPGs like XCOM and Fire Emblem understand my pain here.)

Running statistical tests on the hands I played and their outcomes showed that I did, in fact, lose more than I should have. Consistently. Not all of that can be chalked up to janky algorithms. Over the 4 years I was on PokerStars, I was about 1.5 standard deviations below the mean, so in the lowest 15% in terms of how likely I was to win based on the percentages.

Speaking of standard deviations, let me digress to a case where you might say I had extraordinarily good luck.

IQ tests are notoriously unreliable as indicators of absolute intelligence, as everyone knows, but they can be useful for comparison. If two people the same age, from roughly the same background, take the same test around the same time, then yes, you can compare their IQ. Get enough people like that, and you can start drawing a few conclusions. Not quite as many as proponents claim, but a few.

Now, IQ is traditionally defined as a normal distribution with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15. Thus, a person of “average” intelligence (for their age—this part is important!) has an IQ of 100. By the rules of math, about 68% of people have an IQ within one standard deviation of the mean, or in the range 85-115. Two standard deviations (70-130 IQ) covers around 95% of the population.

I’ve only taken one proper IQ test in my life, when I was 5 years old. (The one I took at age 9 was flawed for numerous reasons.) A funny thing I learned only recently is that those tests max out at 175. That makes sense. An IQ of 175 is five standard deviations above the mean, so 99.99994% of people are going to be just fine. But if you’re in that 0.00006%, what then?

Well, you get told that the people administering the test were “afraid to keep going.” In 1989, I didn’t know what that meant. In 2020, I understand that it was my mom’s way of saying that I hit the grading cap.

Yeah, I’m smart. So you could say I hit the lottery at birth, but everything since then? Not so much. Oh, I can hit those 1-in-10 and even 1-in-100 chances, but the bad ones certainly seem to outweigh the good. Parents divorcing during childhood? That was something like a 25% probability at the time. Major depression? Affects around 10-15% of Americans, myself included. The list goes on, and it has led, especially this year, to a lot of personal pessimism. I tend to expect the worse when I’m involved, for no other reason than I’m used to it.

Of course, some things I can control, to some extent. And those generally turn out decent, though rarely great. I take pride in my books, for instance; the only luck involved there is getting noticed, which I’ve yet to accomplish. It’s a similar story for the software I write. As long as I have a high degree of control over an outcome, I can make something out of it.

That’s not luck. That’s skill, determination, grit…whatever you want to call it, I’ve got it. If I’m working on my own, with my own deadlines and objectives, I’m good.

Only when other factors get involved does everything fall apart. Social situations, relationships, and my eternally unsuccessful job hunt are all good examples. Those aren’t situations where I can just try a little harder to push through to the end. It doesn’t work that way.

And that, I think, is what constitutes bad luck. It’s the state where, if you’re relying on someone or something beyond your control, you’re going to be let down more often than not. That does exist, whether you want to attribute it to probability (for every me, there’s surely someone with incredibly good luck; they tend to be CEOs, athletes, and politicians) or supernatural factors like curses. Honestly, I’d accept that I’m cursed—it would make a lot of things make more sense.

Until I see some evidence for that, however, I’ll continue to believe luck exists, and that I used all mine up for a brain that’s one in a million.