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.

Contenders

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

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

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.

Conclusion

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.

Novel month 2020 – Day 30

Today’s word count: 2,722
Total word count: 52,495

And we’re done. Whew. Considering there were about 5-6 days where I wrote nothing at all, and another 2-3 where I didn’t do much better, this is actually an accomplishment. I’ve finished 6 chapters (counting the prologue) of On the Stellar Sea, and it’s shaping up to be a decent novel. A worthy addition to the Orphans of the Stars series, in my opinion.

I might take a break from working on it now, though. As has been the case all year, my depression has interfered with my writing all month. I’ve suffered. I’ve made the ones I love suffer in turn. Nanowrimo this year was catharsis, plain and simple. It was a chance for me to get lost in a world of my own making, the one place where I still have a modicum of control. That may have saved my life. I’d say it saved my sanity, but I’m not sure I have any of that left.

It hasn’t been without hardship. The continued lockdowns have worn me down. The election madness leaves me genuinely scared for the future, and far less certain about my own place in it. I’ve spent eight months documenting my thoughts on such matters, sometimes speaking in great detail of the toll 2020 has exacted. Each new obstacle, each new attack on the life I was trying to build, leaves me one step closer to giving up for good.

I’m almost to that point. In 2017, I wrote like a maniac. Over 1.2 million words in total, quadruple my output this year. I told myself I was doing it because I didn’t want to deal with the real world. Now, I simply don’t feel I can deal with it. Yet I sometimes feel I can’t write, either. I’ve had more periods of genuine writer’s block since March than at any point in the past decade. I would say that it hurts, but…everything hurts these days. One more pain doesn’t change much.

I’ve failed at getting a job. I’ve failed at starting my own life. I’ve failed to respect the woman I love. I’m sure I’ll fail at nearly everything else I try in the future, because that’s just how my luck runs. For this one moment, however, I can say I succeeded at something. If November has one silver lining, it’s that I can always fall back on that.

The merchants of despair

I am a humanist.

I’ve said that before, but it bears repeating. Now, most people who call themselves humanists do so out of a kind of rebellious nature. They’re agnostics or atheists who disapprove of such labels for whatever reason. Worse, too many tend to be the “militant” sort of atheist who hold their lack of belief with the same dogmatic zeal as the most fundamentalist Christian or Muslim.

I’m not like that at all. Instead, I see humanism as a celebration of humanity and its accomplishments, as well as a belief in its capability for good. We can achieve great things. We have. History is full of human milestones. We’re the only species on Earth (and, as far as we know, in the universe) to domesticate plants and animals, use spoken and written language, harness the power of fire, work metals, build cities, travel to the moon, cure diseases, split the atom, and a thousand other things. Above all, however, we introspect. We philosophize. We are aware of ourselves in a way no other creature has the capability of being.

That’s beautiful, in my opinion. The creations of man, whether mental, physical, or indeed spiritual, are beautiful. While we have made some awful mistakes and inventions, progress is, on the whole, a good thing for everyone involved. The rapid explosion of progress since the two most pivotal eras in history, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, has given us much to be thankful for. We live longer, healthier lives than our ancestors. We have more material wealth. We understand the world far better than they could hope.

Some people don’t like that, and I honestly can’t understand why. Why are they so dead set on keeping us poor, sick, ignorant, and isolated? A thirst for power explains a lot of irrational behavior, yes, but naked displays of dominance aren’t usually so…insidious. In 2020 alone, we have seen countless examples of human beings arguing for their own extinction, a position not only evolutionarily suspect but morally bankrupt. Yet this position finds backing in the media, on campus, and even in scientific papers. Why? Is there some kind of secret death cult out there?

Until a couple of weeks ago, I would have dismissed that notion as a conspiracy theory on the same level as the Illuminati and Pizzagate. But then I read a book that made everything click.

Humanity’s enemy

Robert Zubrin is best known for his advocacy, often to the point of mania, of manned Mars missions. For over 30 years, he has led the charge in fighting for a permanent human presence on the Red Planet as soon as possible. Growing up, I heard his name on numerous space documentaries, and I still see interviews he has given on the subject. (The series Mars is one example.)

He has other writings, though. In 2011, he published Merchants of Despair, in which he describes an “antihuman” movement that, according to his theory, has been operating for nearly two centuries with the express goal of controlling population by subverting progress.

Numerous examples show the antihumanists in action. Most are concerned with eugenics, the hateful policy of forced sterilization, abortion, and contraception for a specific set of undesirables: blacks, Jews, Indians, Uighurs, the mentally disabled, etc. The targets change depending on who’s doing the extermination, but the principle remains the same. If we don’t stop “those people” from reproducing, eugenicists claim, they’ll overrun us good and pure folk and drag us down to their level. Obviously, any sensible, rational person would reject such notions, but most people are neither rational nor sensible. Thus, population control movements have grown over the past 200 years.

It began with Malthus, who argued incorrectly that the Earth was running out of land for food, and severe measures to curb population growth had to be implemented right now in order to save our race from extinction. His theory was so wildly inaccurate that it couldn’t even predict past resource use, but he had friends and believers in high places. Malthusian principles created the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s, then racked up an even greater death toll in 1870s India. In both cases, the country in question was a net exporter of food at the time, yet the British government forced residents to starve in order prevent some mythical calamity.

Fast forward to the 1930s, and we know what happened. The Nazis were the gold standard for eugenics, raising genocidal population control to an art form. Following the same principles as Malthus, Hitler argued that Germany would eventually be too crowded to feed itself. But now there was an added wrinkle, because science could “prove” that some races were more degenerate than others. And wouldn’t you know it, but Hitler’s enemies just happened to number among them!

Before the true horrors of the Holocaust were revealed—or even started, for that matter—many Americans were wholeheartedly in favor. Herbert Hoover attended the Second International Congress of Eugenics in 1921, seven years before he would be elected President of the United States and plunge our country into the Great Depression. J. P. Morgan was there, too. Representing the British (45 years after the India debacle, mind you) was Charles Darwin’s own son.


That was before World War II. With the end of the war, the opening of the death camps, and the subsequent Nuremberg trials, the whole world got to see what eugenics really looked like. So you’d think that would be the end of it, right?

Wrong.

Now, instead of open calls for extermination, those advocating population control became more subtle in their efforts. The best way to stop overpopulation, they decided, wasn’t to kill people who were already here, but to stop them from being born in the first place. Thanks to some politicking from such notables as Robert McNamara, forced sterilization became a condition of US foreign aid to Third World countries. Doing it at home (mostly for criminals and mental patients) was legal until the 1970s. The entire Vietnam War can be seen as a eugenics experiment, as those in power took the slogan “Better Dead Than Red” literally.

Abortion as a political and population-control tool also sees its birth in this era. Planned Parenthood formed out of the eugenics movement, and its original goal of choice carefully neglected the possibility of choosing to have children. Around the same time, one Communist Party official in China read up on these efforts and got the great idea of limiting all families in his country to one child each. Never mind the disastrous consequences for the fabric of society. Isn’t running out of food worse?

Yet the biggest crime to lay at the feet of the antihumanists is, in my opinion, environmentalism. In the past decade, and especially in the past four years, we’ve seen more radical forms of the Green movement grow like a cancer in our society, but they were there from the start. The Sierra Club has deep ties to eugenics, for instance.

Hatred

Here’s where it gets interesting. And evil, in my opinion.

We’ve all seen it this year. “Nature is healing,” they say, as they show weeds growing through cracks in concrete or wild animals overrunning a city street. “We are the virus,” they claim, often adding that the Wuhan coronavirus (most likely created in a Chinese lab, so not natural at all) is some kind of divine wrath for our excesses. How a virus with a fatality rate of around 0.1% is supposed to be apocalyptic is beyond me, but you can’t expect logical consistency from some people.

Such extreme environmentalism has been around for over half a century, and Zubrin argues that it shows a more modern form of antihumanism. Instead of calling for deaths or preventing births, green eugenicists want to use economic and government pressure to make having children financially unbearable. To do this, they have blocked the progress of technologies, inventions, and medicines that save lives. We must not help people, they argue, because then those people will breed. Better if they die sick and miserable than be fruitful and multiply.

DDT was the first casualty, according to Zubrin. The endless campaigning against nuclear power is another front in this fight. Though he was writing with incomplete information, he even targets global warming, and here is where the last piece fell into place for me.

We know that the fears of global warming are overrated. Even top climate activists such as Michael Shellenberger (Apocalypse Never) admit this. Current climate trends are well within the limits of human civilization. Sea levels aren’t rising rapidly; the Maldives archipelago, to take one example, was supposed to be completely underwater by 2018, but they’ve now announced that they’re building new airports in anticipation of heavier tourism. Add in the work done by sleuths such as Tony Heller, who illustrate how temperature records are being manipulated to claim accelerated warming, and you get the feeling that somebody somewhere isn’t telling the whole truth.

Earth isn’t going to become a second Venus because we drive too much. In fact, as Zubrin illustrated nine years ago, the slight overall warming predicted through the 21st century is actually beneficial. It increases arable land, and actual climate shifts may open up even more. We’re seeing that today, with record crop yields all over North America.

Those who fail to learn from history will find that it repeats itself. 2020 America is in real danger of turning into a mirror of 1845 Ireland. We have plenty of food. We have plenty of jobs. We have plenty of toilet paper. Yet government control and overblown fears are preventing us from using these resources properly. They’re just saying it’s because of a virus instead of overpopulation by “inferior” races. That’s all.

But the result is the same. Lives are being lost. Not to starvation, as then, but to other preventable factors. Suicidal depression, of course, is one I’m intimately familiar with. Yet we also need to look at the back side of population control. How many children weren’t born because of lockdown restrictions? How many couples didn’t get a chance to meet because they were under effective house arrest? How many relationships ended (or are on the verge of ending, or never really got going in the first place) due to the loss of a job or the failure to find one?

Whatever that number is, it’s not zero. I know for a fact.

Humanity’s hope

That’s why I’m a humanist. I see these problems in the world, and I realize how many of them are of our own making. Worse yet, they’re easily fixed. We have the means to give food to everyone on Earth. We have ways of making power literally too cheap to meter. There is more than enough wealth to go around.

We shouldn’t have to force women into tubal ligation surgery out of some fear that they’ll have too many kids. We shouldn’t distribute condoms as business cards or demand IUD implants as conditions for government aid.

We shouldn’t claim that a one-degree change in temperature is going to wipe out all life on Earth. We shouldn’t argue that the cleanest, safest form of energy production we have is actually nothing more than a way to make bombs. We shouldn’t pack millions of people into unsanitary cities, then deny them treatment for the diseases that inevitably occur.

We can be better, but only if we embrace progress. Not progressivism, but progress itself, the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment which state that, as man is the only animal with the capability for reason, it stands to us to use that reason to shape the world, and society, in a positive way.

To do otherwise is to advocate for death on an unimaginable scale. Earth’s population is roughly 7.7 billion at present. With our current technology, we can easily feed, house, and care for at least twice that. But the goals of the environmentalists, the globalists, and others who, I now see, have been aligned with the idea of eugenics all this time, are to reduce our numbers to pre-Industrial levels. The problem with that is simple to recognize: technology allows our carrying capacity to increase. By banning those advances which produce more food or lead to longer, healthier lives, that capacity drops precipitously.

They would kill not the six million of Nazi fame, but over six billion. Some claim the goal is inscribed on the monument known as the Georgia Guidestones: a population not to exceed 500 million. Think about that. To reach that figure, we would first have to let over 90% of the world die. Then, those who survive would be forcibly limited to replacement-level reproduction. How many children would never be born in such a world? How many artists, statesmen, inventors, scientists, friends, and lovers would never take their first breath?

These are our enemies. They must be, for those who value life must always stand against those who preach only death.

Now I understand the cult-like behavior I see so often in the world. It really is a cult. It’s a cult of despair, destruction, and death. Looked at in that light, the lockdowns, the Great Reset, Chinese propaganda, Antifa, global warming fearmongers, and so many other things make sense. They all share one thing in common: they’re antihuman.

Hope vs. fear

As I’ve often said, I don’t like putting politics on PPC. I’ve done it before, of course, but I don’t like to make a habit of it. Tonight, however, I think it’s necessary. We’re about 24 hours removed from the polls closing on the most tumultuous election in recent memory.

This was a race between hope and fear.

I’m a libertarian. I’ve said that enough before. I consider myself a strict constitutionalist, and I try to justify all my stances by referring to our nation’s founding documents. My vociferous objection to mask mandates and other measures taken in the (IMO, misguided) battle against the Wuhan coronavirus boil down to that: they’re unconstitutional on their face. Bans on public gatherings are in direct conflict with the First Amendment’s right of assembly. Contact tracing is a violation of the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable, warrantless searches. And so on.

That said, although I did not vote for him, I spent last night wanting Donald Trump to win. A direct about-face from my stance 4 years ago, yes, and for the same reason I opposed him then: I’m concerned about American civil liberties. As our national political game has become a team sport, where one must choose Team Red or Team Blue, I could only choose Red.

Why? Because the Republicans, no matter how awful I find some of their beliefs, ran on a campaign of hope. We can be better, they say. Don’t be afraid, don’t cower in your basement. On the other side, the Democrats’ message was all about fear. We have to be scared of the virus with a 99.87% survival rate. We have to hide away until every last vestige of freedom has been smothered.

Worse, though, is the way some Democrats seemed to glorify division. That’s not to say Republicans were triumphing unity, mind you, but when one side is saying that I should be ashamed of who I am, what I stand for, because of things I can’t change (my race, my sex, etc.), and the other tells me that we should all have the same opportunity no matter who we are, well, my choice is clear. Even if that other side’s promises are hollow, why would I want to support those who hate me by default?

Xenophobia is real. It has many guises: racism, sexism, classism, attacks based on religion or disability or a thousand other things. We, as humans, are naturally xenophobic to some degree. It’s what keeps us alive. Without some concept of us versus them, we couldn’t form the social bonds necessary to create civilization. The excesses are horrible, true, but we should treat them like the outliers they are.

And we should strive to be better. Always. As people, as a people.

We, as humans, can rise above our petty differences. We’ve put men on the moon, we’ve harnessed the power of the atom, we’ve created a world our ancestors would call nothing short of magical. We didn’t do all those things because we were afraid. Far from it. And the challenges of the future will fall to us if we’re hopeful. Men on Mars. New cures for diseases. Fusion power. Geo-engineering. We can achieve great things if we work together.

But too many people would rather be afraid. They would rather hide away from the danger, the risk, associated with any great endeavor. What if someone dies? What if we can’t do it? What if it the cost is too great?

For two years now, I’ve been trying to pull myself out of the wreckage that is my life. I’ve been trying to get a job, find true love, start a family…in short, be a man. And I’ve suffered a lot of setbacks in that span, a lot of failures. I’ve risked my mental health in multiple ways. I’ve been severely depressed, or so consumed by anxiety that I can’t even type for my hands shaking. I’ve been on the verge of suicide, ready to grab the nearest gun and pull the trigger. And I got back up. I tried again.

At this point, even I’m not sure why I keep going. It’s not faith, because the past day has shown me how much of my faith in humanity has been misplaced. But the other two virtues, hope and love, still somehow burn within. Oh, they’re flickering, sputtering flames. I won’t deny that. They’re apt to go out at any time. They have before.

I love my family. I love the one I so desperately wish I could add to that family. And, to bring this back on topic, I love my country. I’m a patriot, in the classical sense of the word. The ideals of America, the self-evident truths upon which our nation was founded, are ideals I share. All men are created equal. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights. Government should fear the people, not the other way around.

That never changes, no matter who is in power. Any party must hold to these ideals, or they no longer represent this country. They no longer represent me.

America is not a nation of cowards. We didn’t meekly surrender to the redcoats, the Nazis, or the Soviets. We fought for what we believe in. In some cases, we fought a lost cause: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. And those were, in large measure, political struggles.

In our darkest hours, though, we fought on because of hope. And we see that tonight. While one side claims a very dubious victory in favor of fear, the other keeps hope alive. Truthfully or not, they believe that freedom itself is at stake.

We’ve survived worse times in the past. If we’re on the road to a second Civil War, as some claim, that would indeed match the lowest point of American history. It would be bad for everyone, but we would emerge stronger, more unified.

As for me, I don’t know. This week has taken a lot out of me. That’s why I didn’t do any Nanowrimo writing today. I just couldn’t. But I think I’m done with national politics. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the people’s voice is shouting into the abyss. Until we, as Jefferson put it, water the Tree of Liberty, it’ll stay that way. We’re pawns in a bigger game, crossing our fingers that we don’t get captured.

We hope. That’s what human beings do.

Summer Reading List Challenge 2020: The also-rans

(I never did write this, even though I promised it two months ago. Here goes.)

Through the summer, I challenged myself to read three new books, including at least one in a genre I don’t normally read or write. You can see in my earlier posts (part one and part two) that I did complete this challenge. Humble Pi, Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, and even Verity were all interesting works. I learned from all three, whether it was how to avoid common math errors, the history of a very interesting place to which I have a very slight ancestral connection, or just how to be a better author.

These were not, however, the only books I tried to read. As I stated in “Politics and the escape”, I attempted to read two others during the summer. These books I found interesting to start, but I was quickly turned off by the nuisance of politics—particularly politics I strongly oppose—shoved into otherwise decent works of nonfiction.

So here are my thoughts on those abandoned entries in the challenge.

A hopeless history

Title: Humankind: A Hopeful History
Author: Rutger Bregman
Genre: Sociology
Year: 2020

Bregman is, from what I gather, a bit of a media darling. He’s one of those random Euros who doesn’t really do much, but gets invited to TED talks and things like that because he says what some people like to hear. And the description of Humankind does sound inspiring. It’s supposed to be all about how humans have evolved to be fundamentally good and social, which is true.

What isn’t true, however, is the dichotomy the author paints. It’s a rotten foundation for a book that could have otherwise been great for everyone. But Bregman sets up the argument that society must choose between Rousseau’s “return to nature” and Hobbes’ Leviathan. Your choices are green socialism or authoritarian socialism.

This is a common theme in European politics, and it’s one of the fundamental disconnects between that entire continent and the United States. In the European view, individual liberties are always subservient to the nebulous idea of the public good. That’s why they have things like GDPR, burqa bans, and “hate speech” laws, while we in America have barred such measures in one of our founding documents.

But in Bregman’s world, there’s no room for libertarianism, or indeed liberty at all. In his view, people can only progress by working together under the strictures of a state. Because we’re too dumb to care for ourselves. No, really. He spends an entire chapter claiming evidence that humans have evolved to become stupid as well as social. We’ve “domesticated” ourselves, and mentally we’re no better than puppies. This, of course, ignores the individuals who have, because they were individuals, changed the world. Tell Einstein or Newton that they could have done more if they’d only made more friends.

I didn’t finish Humankind, as I was so disgusted with this unending statist screed that I had to put it aside. Supposedly, the last part of the book sketches a new vision for the future, centered around things like basic income and open borders. A restatement of another of the author’s books, and one I obviously can’t endorse. Not because I’m against such notions—I think a universal basic income system could work, for example, but only if done properly—but his version of utopia strikes me as very dystopian. In the great social future, there’s no room for individuality or personal growth or opportunity. It’s the extreme opposite end of Franklin’s famous quote: those who sign on to this vision are giving up all liberty in exchange for the safety of never having to make their own decisions.

Huh. I guess those people are like puppies.

Treason of thought

Title: The Contact Paradox
Author: Keith Cooper
Genre: Science/Astronomy
Year: 2019

This is another one I went in really wanting to like. I’m a space enthusiast, to put it mildly, and SETI has always fascinated me. So when I saw a book that claimed to challenge “our assumptions in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” I had to check it out.

Indeed, there’s a lot of good science in this text. It shows how our current SETI approaches ignore a vast search space. The reasons we do that, of course, are all financial, not from a lack of technology, knowledge, or will. And The Contact Paradox doesn’t really address that.

In fact, one section places the author squarely against increasing SETI spending. And, indeed, spending on any kind of science. A section on environmental matters, beyond preaching the usual global warming dogma, insults those of who choose to look at the evidence themselves, calling skeptics “traitors of humanity” whose opinions aren’t even worth arguing against.

I’ve had emotional reactions to books before. A few novels have made me cry. Some left me feeling a sense of enlightenment and inner peace. Nonfiction doesn’t normally inspire the same emotions, but it can; anybody who saw the 50+ pages of notes I took for my CBT workbook could detect the gamut of emotional responses. Never before, though, have I felt such a visceral anger at an author for the words he wrote. I immediately closed my reader app, and the only reason I didn’t delete the file was because I wanted to remember the name of it, in case I ran into it again and thought about reading it.

We skeptics are not the traitors. Far from it. We are the ones following the scientific method. The alarmists who claim the Earth will become uninhabitable within the decade unless we stop driving, stop using plastic, stop eating red meat, and essentially stop doing anything productive at all, those are the true traitors. They are the ones standing in the way of humanity’s progress. Without them and their cult-like mentality, their constant denigration of those they consider heretics and apostates, we could solve the actual problems facing us today.

It’s the opposite problem to what Bregman runs into, if you think about it. In Humankind, the stated assumption was that humans have become lesser. We’re not as smart, on the whole, as we should be. And his thesis is that this stunting of our mental growth means we need a strong state supporting us, because we’re just too dumb to be left alone.

Cooper, on the other hand, echoes the alarmists’ claims that we need to become lesser. That progress needs to come to a screeching halt, if not a total reversal to the nasty, brutish, and short lives of agrarian societies before the Industrial Revolution.

What both authors share is the anti-individual mentality that has seeped into every part of our modern culture. In this view of humanity, no man is an island, as the saying goes. Instead, we must all be chained to the mainland, never allowed to ask the question, “What’s beyond the horizon?” It’s a limiting view, but I posit that this is by design. By keeping us small and scared, these people believe they can keep us controlled.

No dreams of becoming better than we are. Those can’t be allowed. Creativity and imagination must only follow prescribed lines, as well. It’s cultural thought control on a level even Orwell couldn’t imagine. And authors such as Bregman and Cooper are supporting it. They’re enabling it.

When I write a novel, I do it to escape. I do it to imagine a world that isn’t necessarily better than ours, but one which is different enough to be interesting. Some of them include my vision of utopia, yes. Every author does that. What I don’t do is claim my vision is the only one allowed, that anyone who disagrees is not only wrong but heretical. That’s not the point. I’m not writing a persuasive essay or political tract. I’m telling a story.

And in my stories, the people who try to control others are rightly considered the villains.

The mind and I

As I stated in a previous post, I’ve been undergoing therapy for my depression and anxiety. Of course, being in my financial situation, my options for this would be limited even without the Wuhan coronavirus scare. Thus, I had to turn to internet-based modes of therapy. And, as you know, some of the “cognitive behavioral” set actually did show results for me. It has helped me understand my mental state better, so I can recognize the hallmarks of deepening depression and prepare for them. It’s made me see the triggers for my anxiety, which lets me know how to plan around them.

The next step was to try something called “mindfulness”. I’ve been giving it a shot, and…I have to wonder if I’m wasting my time.

The problems are many. First and foremost, though, is that mindfulness is connected to meditation, and most meditation sources are geared toward India and Zen. No joke. Don’t believe me? Look up the phrase “mindful meditation” and see how many hits you get talking about monks, referencing Buddhism, quoting people most of the West has never heard of, or throwing in random Sanskrit terms.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Obviously, the practices have some benefit for some people, or else they wouldn’t have endured. But I think they’re given way too much credit simply for being exotic.

In roleplaying circles, there are a lot of running jokes, but one of the most familiar involves the katana. Strictly speaking, half the people talking about them don’t know which Japanese sword the word refers to, but they all agree that it absolutely must be the best. Why? Well, because it’s a katana, silly! No other reason than that. It’s from a different country, a different culture, and most Americans don’t have direct experience with that culture. Instead, we hear ninja and samurai legends. We watch anime or read manga. We play JRPGs. And that gives us a stilted, ahistorical view of Japan.

It’s the same way with India, and indeed Buddhism. Look at the popularity of yoga, or curry, or chai. Look at the way Tibetan monks are portrayed in the media. (Except that they’re mostly called “Chinese” to placate the Communist Party nowadays, despite Tibet historically being an independent nation.)

In the West, of course, we have the Abrahamic faiths, which provide a much different sort of mind-body-spirit breakdown, and so many of the culture contrasts flow from that. We think of ourselves differently, and that’s inherited. When we see an entire people—essentially a whole continent—so unlike our own, we might idolize it. That’s normal and natural. After all, ours sucks in a lot of ways. The problem is, theirs does, too. It just sucks in different ways.

But we never see that. We gloss over the downsides and fixate on the upsides. Think about the cuisine, for instance. Sure, a lot of people like Chinese food, but how many Americans would be willing to eat some of the things rural Chinese eat? Andrew Zimmern made an entire series based off this very notion: Bizarre Foods.

Religion and spirituality are no different. What we see as exotic and intriguing is, to the people who were born into it, the normal way of the world. Nothing special about it, not from their perspective, so why do we feel the need to idolize?


Okay, but the whole point of mindfulness is supposed to be that it isn’t Buddhism. It just takes some inspiration from it. But that, I think, has some bearing on why it just doesn’t click for me.

At least in the guides I followed, so much of the instruction revolved around frankly New Age notions. Look at your thoughts gently. The only moment that matters is now. You have to switch from doing to being.

I get that some of it is intended to combat the very natural internal criticism that leads to self-loathing and, ultimately, depression. It’s supposed to distract you from thinking about all that by focusing all your mental power on something else, something…trivial. Like your breathing.

This is where I ran into problems. Believe it or not, I’ve tried some things like this before. Hypnosis, for example. It doesn’t work well for me, and I know why. My mind is very, very analytical. I’ve always been a thinker. It’s only in recent years that thinking has led so often to worrying.

Since I’d give anything to make that stop, I thought I would try a system that promised to quiet the disturbed and disturbing thoughts. But it really doesn’t. Not mine, anyway.

It’s not that I can’t focus. As anyone who knows me will attest, I can get so focused on a task that I forget about everything else around me. However, that task has to have a purpose, or I get nothing out of it. I’ll get distracted, or I’ll think of some other way to spend my time, something more productive.

One of the biggest problems I’ve recognized with my thoughts lately is that I have developed a skewed sense of purpose. The things I should be focusing on fall by the wayside because, well, they’re too hard. Too hard, with too much risk of failure. So I get less done overall, and I end up making next to no progress, but inertia is powerful. And I’m just so tired of being frustrated at every turn. You can only fall so many times before you decide it’s not worth it to get back up.

I’ll admit, the mindfulness guides do directly reference this problem. They call it out, and they promise a way to fix it. I really wish I could make that way work, but I don’t see how I can do it. To do so, as I understand it, would require me to change everything about the way I think, decide, and act. I would have to reinvent myself. On a philosophical level, I have to wonder how much that’s even possible; surely, if I change too much, I’m not me anymore, right?

In the more personal (and familiar) sense, altering my behavior and thought patterns to that extent seems like an awful lot of effort for very little gain. I’d be giving up most of what sets me apart, the analysis, the thoughtfulness, the way I can often anticipate what someone’s going to say. And for what? Maybe relieving my depression and anxiety? (Not even that, really. The stated goals of mindfulness aren’t to “cure” the low moods and persistent worries. Rather, you’re supposed to learn to accept them and move on. Which sounds nice in theory, I guess.)

Again, I’m not saying this is a complete failure, or that nobody should try this sort of therapy. All I want to say is that I find it a poor fit for me. It goes against everything I’ve done for 37 years. It runs counter to the way I know my mind works. I think this “impedance mismatch” is a large part of the problem, but my natural skepticism adds to it.

Something isn’t better just because it comes from the other side of the world. It’s different. Nothing more, nothing less. As always, your mileage may vary. I’m an odd person in many respects, and that cultural skepticism is one of them. I don’t like anime. I’m not big on “ethnic” music.1 You probably won’t catch me at, say, a Thai restaurant. That’s just who I am. Trying new things, exploring, that’s fun. I love it. But they’re not always special simply for being exotic. Remember, the things we see as alien are, to those who live with them every day, normal. And to them, we’re the aliens.


  1. Okay, I will make an exception here, because “Baba Yetu” is an amazing song no matter who’s performing it. 

37

(I’m writing this a day early. I hope nothing bad happens in the intervening time.)

37 is not a very interesting number. It’s prime, and that’s about all it’s got going for it. Oh, and it’s one-third of 111, which is cool, I guess.

Becoming 37 isn’t much more interesting, as far as I’m concerned. And the last 12 months have taken a lot out of me. They’ve worn me down, as anyone who dares to look through the PPC archives will attest. My depression reached new depths at numerous points over the past year. Worse, it stayed there far longer. These weren’t the two or three days of past episodes, but sometimes weeks.

For most of 2020, I felt like I was living through a waking nightmare, and I just wanted it to end. The bad dream, the year, my life…whatever worked. I wasn’t suicidal at any point, mind you. Nor was I a danger to myself or others around me, apart from the negative mentality and lifelessness that I’ve felt so often since March. But there were days as a 36-year-old where I would lie in bed and just not care what happened to me, solely because the effort it took to get up, to live in this fallen world, was too much for me to bear. I became something else, someone else.

I hate that someone.

I’ve been in therapy for about two months, though the primary phase of it ended a couple of weeks ago. It’s helped, as I’ve described in recent posts, but I know there’s a long way left to go. As I attempt to celebrate the 37th anniversary of my birth, I’m hoping for a rebirth, a return to the man I once was. Or a better man, even, one who is wiser with age, but also with the experience of knowing what it’s like to go all the way to that edge and step back.

The world is still broken. My county remains under effective lockdown indefinitely, and there’s the very real chance that, two and a half weeks hence, a man will be elected whose goal is to extend that to the entire country. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people suffer just as I have suffered, some of them pushed as far as taking the ultimate step I have refused. Cities burn in what the media calls “peaceful” protests, while those defending themselves and their liberties are labeled as murderers and extremists. 2020 is Bizarro World writ large, and it seems as though it will never end.

I don’t often talk politics on here. The subject is too demanding, too demoralizing, especially for one such as myself, someone who doesn’t take sides in the grand game of Red vs. Blue. For this birthday reflection, though, I have to look at the state of my life and see how much of it is dominated by politics, by forces beyond my control. That, more than anything, has contributed to my depression, I feel. And it has soured me on entire swaths of the political spectrum. I never fit on that to begin with; now, “a pox on both your houses” is too mild to describe my feelings.

On a more personal level, I feel like I’ve been set up to fail. This time last year, things weren’t great, but they seemed to be improving. I’d finished writing a great novel, I had others on their way, the job search was picking up, I had made friends…I was starting to get a small but perceptible feeling of positivity. Then I began to falter. My relationship with my beloved got rocky, to say the least, and mostly because of my mental health problems. Last December, I endured a sickness that, I now recognize in hindsight, was most likely caused by the Wuhan coronavirus. A month after that, my uncle passed away after a long struggle.

Then came the pandemic, which we now know to be greatly exaggerated. For seven months, a normal life has been denied to all of us outside Sweden and South Dakota. I took that harder than most, I think. At times, I felt as though everything in the world was arrayed against me, all its forces singling me out as their target. I may try to be rational, but in this case, I started wondering if I’d been cursed, if this was my punishment for stepping out of line by trying to reach for the life I wanted, rather than the miserable existence I’d been given.

Today, I still can’t definitively say that’s false. By the law of averages, I should have some positive results, right? As far as I can tell, I have one, and I can’t keep making her wait. She’s not getting any younger, either.

So, while I may have other goals for 37, they all come back to that. Getting my life back on track, taking it where it was supposed to go before the world went mad. Becoming the man I want to be, the man she deserves. Living, rather than simply existing.

“Happy” birthday. Yeah.


Addendum: I wrote this around 2PM on the 15th. A few hours later, I learned that my mother’s best friend passed away. I…think she was 60? I’m not certain, and I can’t find an obituary online yet. Strictly speaking, that doesn’t go down as yet another awful thing to happen on my birthday, but it’s more evidence in favor of an October curse.

I didn’t know her well enough, but my mom and aunt both considered her the next best thing to a sister. Despite her failing health, she stayed with my uncle in some of his final moments back in January; if nothing else, she deserves to be remembered for that.

Although I’m not as affected by her death as someone who was closer to her, hearing about it, especially on the day before my birthday, shocked me more than I expected. One of my first thoughts was relief that she hadn’t waited another day. Then, when I realized what I was saying, I felt incredibly selfish. What right do I have to ask that another human being die a day early to spare me hearing bad news on my birthday?

More than anything, that has left me troubled as I write this at 9:20 PM on the night before it posts. I’m not shedding tears for a woman I usually saw once or twice a month. They’re for me, because what kind of monster have I become?