The Joy of Short Stories

It’s time to discover it again. I don’t mind novels. I’ve wasted a lot of time reading them over the years. But I’m not the daydreaming type. I don’t read to get lost in story worlds; kudos to the author who is savvy enough to get me lost, anyway. I read to get lost in mental constructs. I read for ideas, and it’s a lot faster to get to the author’s completed idea when reading short stories. For those who are daydreamers, short stories are conversely things of joy because daydreamers, as readers, can still immerse themselves in an author’s dream world without having to give up hours of their lives to do so.

As a writer, I can write my ideas (and dreams) into short pieces in a few hours, versus the months to years it takes me to complete the first draft of a novel. Because of that, I used to write a Christmas story every year or toss off a story when my novel-writing was frustrating me. I remember hearing at writing workshops that short stories were just as, if not more difficult to write than novels. That’s bullshit, really. Does anyone actually believe that? The details do have to be very focused in a short story; writing them is a good discipline because of that. Still, it’s much easier to keep track of the details when the plot is accomplished in under 10,000 words. The novel I’m currently finishing I wrote very quickly (in about a month), but two years later, I’m about to lose my mind trying to remember all the details.

There are a number of good short story magazines out there: there’s Sci Phi Journal, for example. Yesterday, I read this article on the Castalia House blog, which links to a journal I’d never heard of before called Cirsova. Of course, most of you know about friend Jessica Thomas’s Common Oddities. I have too many short story anthologies on my Kindle to link to — and, hey, I have one called The Jaybird’s Nest and other stories that has had few reviews and could use some more. If you click on the Common Oddities link, go to the second (Spring 2014) and read my story La ’tistic en la mente to get an idea of what’s in my book of short stories.

I haven’t written a short story in years, and it makes me a little sad. As I said, it’s time to rediscover the joy. Have a great day and week, as I may not post again for a while.

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Every Grain of Sand

Shot of Love, in my most un-humble opinion, isn’t one of Bob Dylan’s best albums. For a start, it’s short, and Dylan’s gems are usually found in a haystack of songs. But I’d forgotten about the last song on the album, Every Grain of Sand, until I heard it the other morning in the car. It was one of my favorite songs in high school; my dad must have bought Shot of Love at some point in my childhood. After all, it was one of Dylan’s post-conversion 80’s albums. The melody of the song is haunting when mixed with the lyrics and the vocals. I’m posting the lyrics, but I suggest you go find a copy of the song somewhere and listen to it.

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood [sic] every newborn seed
There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair

Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay

I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.

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Hugos 2016

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the Hugos because I honestly don’t care enough. I’ve read some of the work on the list; others I’ve not read. If I read fiction at all (becoming rarer), it will be spec fic; however, my tastes are eclectic and often bizarre. This is nothing new. The other day, when hanging around the house, I put on an old pink shirt my dad screen-printed for me when I was fourteen: the screen-printing design is composed of the repeated word eclectic done in calligraphy. He printed the shirt for me because it described me. Yes, it still fits. It’s one of those large unisex eighties t-shirts. All I’m saying is that my taste is not going to run in tandem with the accolades of the world, and far be it for me to judge the world’s tastes.

Oh, who am I kidding? I’m a judger. I’m a judgemental judging judger of the worst variety. That’s why I end up as an INTJudger in the Myers-Briggs personality spectrum. So I’m going to be a little judgmental right now. Some of the Hugo winning fiction is quite decent, in my judgmental opinion. But when I read the winning fiction in what I consider to be my favorite category, short fiction, my mind reeled. Cat Pictures Please is trite verging on banal. A couple of months ago, I read this review that calls the story “benign.” I agree with that assessment. The review concludes by calling the story “uncompromisingly nice.” I don’t agree with that, and I’ll explain why.

It’s a story about an AI who, rather than becoming malign, decides to help irrational people who can’t always be helped, in exchange for cat pictures. The story is benign because the writing is mediocre at best. It makes no attempt to play with innovative ideas. It makes no strides toward stylistic genius. The author doesn’t explain why the AI is accidentally sentient or why it prefers cat pictures above all else. She also makes little to no attempt to write in the voice of a highly rational AI, choosing instead an informal vernacular that sounds like a native speaker of English, not an AI attempting to learn a human language without human language acquisition parts in its “brain.” In fact, it rather sounds like the voice of an irrational human female who likes cats, which is why it doesn’t strike me as benign.

See, the AI helps people by meddling in their lives. The AI is a classic do-gooder that thinks it knows what’s best for a person — you know, what the person should eat, where he should live, whether he should come out of the closet and therefore live happily ever after (in the story, the man who comes out is a pastor with a family; the AI is irrational enough to not consider the possible fallout from the man’s decision). The AI determines that it is rational for people to, say, get flu shots and go into therapy for depression. In other words, the AI is like every other well-meaning meddler. It tries to compel humans to do what it considers best, without fully examining the ramifications or imagining the future consequences. However, the computer hasn’t figured out a way to force humans to do anything — so, again with the benign. It’s basically like that annoying friend everybody has (who undoubtedly has a cat) who knows what’s best for you. The utopia in your friend’s mind doesn’t actually exist and never will, which makes the friend, at best, a fantasist or a librarian and, at worst, a mentally ill social worker who wields her low-level power to persecute parents because they don’t buy the right brand of diaper.

Now, the story might have risen above the level of trite and banal if it had dealt with the irony inherent in the situation presented — you know, what I just discussed above. But it doesn’t. And that’s what good spec fic used to do. It used to be about examining the possible benefits and risks involved with a technological world, peering into dystopias and utopias, as well as exploring new possible worlds and other-worldly creatures. Science fiction used to grapple with ideas while taking the reader on an adventure. Instead, the Hugo winning short story of 2016 doesn’t want to examine itself at all. It wants to be nice, but doesn’t realize how nefarious its “uncompromising” niceness actually is.

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What Does It Mean to Be a Neighbor?

It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a neighborhood. Apparently, I lived rural for too many years before re-entering the world of neighborhoods. This is what I remember about having neighbors: they offered to help fix or give advice about the car. They came over for chats. They invited you over for dinner or to have coffee. They asked to borrow your dress because they were going out for a special date. Their children came over to play. You fed their children when they were over for hours, engrossed in summertime fun. They brought you dinner after you’d had a baby. It went both ways. They fed your children, and you brought them food.

What is it like living in a neighborhood now? The people don’t bother to get to know you. Instead, they make threats against you. They form a coalition against you because your son plays with a toy sword outside. They are ready to call the cops and tell them your son is playing with a weapon. They scheme against you. They steal part of your livelihood. They pound on your door and  make threats. They tell you they will shoot your cat. Their children never come over to play.

I’m not idealizing the past. Neighborhoods breed gossip, and humans stink as a general rule. However, the ugliness and unfriendliness seem to have morphed into a new breed. And everything I said in that first paragraph was true. I’ve had those interactions with people. Yet, I knew that neighbors did nasty things to each other even back then; the HSLDA archives are full of people calling CPS on their neighbors for ridiculous reasons ten or twenty years ago. Sometimes I just want to go backwards, though, to a time when it was okay — despite the propensity for some people to be assholes — to meet the family across the street without having them look at me with horror and suspicion.

 

 

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Complementarian Platitudes

I’ve come down hard in the past on complementarianism — mostly because it’s a church term that was invented in the mid eighties that defies definition; that is, it would be meaningless to historical Christianity. Those who use it do so in order to dwell in ambiguity. That’s what I gathered after having read enough of the Council members’ meaningless platitudes: complementarianism can mean whatever suits your fancy at the moment.

When I was considering my current series of feminism as mental illness, I had a niggling memory of Mary Kassian having once said something retarded about equality. By “retarded,” I suppose I mean yet another meaningless platitude. When I put “Kassian” and “equality” together in my Google search bar, I hit on this blog. The Kassian article the author, Dalrock, links to is good enough for me as a case-in-point. The source article is found here: Cherishing Your Marriage.

I’m going to try to make quick work of the retarded bits. Let’s start with this one: I am left with the impression,” says Kassian, “that he regards my desires and interests as more important than his own, and I feel cherished.” The “he” here is, of course, her husband. So in the strange meaningless alter-reality of the Council on Biblical Manhood/Womanhood, male leadership means that the man must regard the woman’s desires and interests above his own. While the biblical mandate to love your neighbor as yourself might indeed mean putting your own interests aside for a time, intrinsic to the ideal of the golden rule is self-love, not self-loathing. And, by the way, the golden rule is for everyone, including Kassian. In our society, where we make few sacrifices because we’re rich and spoiled, I can’t imagine how I would feel cherished if my husband put my needs ahead of his own. Groveling does not make me feel cherished.

The Scottish saying “a tatty and a pass” just popped to mind — I don’t know if I’m quoting it quite right; I first read it in an Alexander McCall Smith book. The meaning is what I’m after, though. In hard days, and there were many in those northern climes, the family would get a potato and a pass of meat to get the smell of it, but the dad would eat what little meat there was so he had strength to work. There was mutual denying of self-interest occurring. Some went without meat; meanwhile, dad worked himself to the bone. Who among the American university professor types lives like this these days? If Kassian’s husband is denying his interests for hers, he is likely forgoing what would make him an interesting person to begin with.

Next, here is part of what the author, Dalrock, quotes: “Brent upholds and guards my ‘equality’ so I do not feel the need to do so.” I don’t know how to analyze this one, to be honest. I have no idea what it means. If I were to ask my husband if he would please guard my equality, he would look at me as if I’d gone insane. And then he’d tell me to guard my own damn equality. Or something. It’s hard to tell, as I don’t usually speak in euphemisms and/or platitudes unless I’m trying to be funny. And it’s difficult to be funny if I have no idea what the words coming out of my mouth mean. Maybe that’s the point of humor, though — not knowing. I mean, it does inspire silly images such as a soldier standing outside the door and marching up and down the walk while robotically shouting, “She is equal! She is equal!” to all people who approach the domicile.

She goes on to describe how it’s possible for him to be her male-head-leader: She encourages him by “communicating to him all that has happened during my day.” In other words, she dumps on him. Okay, I do that one too, and so does my husband sometimes. It’s good to have a person to talk to at the end of a hard day. I’m not sure how it helps him be a leader, though. Is he supposed to sort through her complaints and problem-solve them? If it were a big problem, that might be doable, but everyday petty details are not the purview of leaders. If leaders wasted all their time on petty details, they wouldn’t get anything done. Rather, leaders delegate petty problem-solving to those they are leading and ignore the petty details.

This post is getting longer than I wanted it to be, so I’m going to wrap it up with one last token analysis. She uses the term “couch time” to describe the heart-to-heart communication she has with her toddler. Oops, I mean husband. Look, when I hear a term like “couch-time,” I don’t think of a heart-to-heart dumping on one’s spouse. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love to sit and talk with my husband or conversely listen to him (he speaks about 100 words to my 1), usually over coffee or when out on a drive, given the complementarian manner of speaking euphemistically, I’m going to guess she meant something more fun than talking. I mean, change the meaning to Ooh, it’s couch-time, all kids in bed. Mommy and I need to  do a little “communicating” and suddenly it sounds more … natural. If that were the case, it would hearten me a bit. I might actually believe this couple has the ability to maintain a male-female relationship as natural human beings.

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