Why Blog?

When did we, as a society, become so garrulous? Have we always been gossipers, schadenfreuders, busybodies and toe tappin’ whistlers-in-the-dark?

Oh, we can philosophize, delve into mystic depths, and we can be astute declarers of independence, no doubt, communing with gods and muses. But yeah, we’re gossipers too.

And it’s become easier to whine. The New Age has provided us with new mediums and platforms. And because there is often anonymity in our screeds, it often seems that the internet has just given people who have nothing to say another way to say it.

I run across profound inanities on Facebook and blogs everywhere, posts dealing with such trivialities as technically unhelpful refrigerator repair news, travel itineraries, and flat attempts at witticisms. I suppose I can be as guilty as any of these good-hearted quasi-philosophers of the mundane; they are not alone. We can be aggressively unapologetic, lamenting or praising something or other on our publicly shared To Do Lists. Others give vent to incomplete and unconsidered opinions. Interestingly I actually agree with or appreciate many of these posts, but conclusions become less palatable when they appear to have been arrived at by sloppy thinking and asserted with the vehemence of true believers. People I agree with are often sloppy, and others I do not in the least agree with display remarkably admirable exercises of logic.

(Which has taught me that, while crucial, logic by itself is not everything. But that’s a subject for another day.)

There are many other bloggers who are fun and/or rewarding to follow. Some are awfully (and purposefully) humorous, and others are observant and instructive. Many are just a delight to read, as a poem or a good book are delightful to experience.

It’s not easy being a responsible thinker or a practicing artist, or just a human being raising legitimate questions, seeking to get a bead on the various shades of reality, truth, beauty as well as dissembling and prejudiced conviction. Lord knows that I fail so repeatedly at the process myself.

So: why another blog?

Well, I suppose precisely because I so often fail at the process.

I remember reading somewhere — I no longer remember when or where, though I suspect it was in relation to an article in the National Geographic about the passing of the extraordinary naturalist and writer Aldo Leopold — that: It is doubtful that a man has thought deeply on a subject until he has written upon it. I think the quote was from some ancient Greek or Roman philosopher, I can’t remember who, nor have I been able to track its provenance.

Writing is related to speaking aloud, to conversation, only in writing you’re conversing with yourself. You expose yourself to your own cerebrations. Putting your thoughts into spoken or written words makes it easier to get a look at how good our thinking is, or how stupid or half-baked our opinions on other subjects can be. Writing, like conversation, is a testing and refinement of both what we think, and how we think.

Did I say that out loud?

And though others sometimes arrive at our conclusions before us, there’s always the chance that we might do it better, clearer, more expressively. The writer Paul Hogan wrote, “Everything has been said, but not everything has been said superbly, and even if it had been, everything must be said freshly over and over again.”

As a writer, blogs are also another opportunity to refine and hone our craft of self-expression. Practice makes perfect. It’s an opportunity to practice the discipline of saying what we mean, and meaning what we say. Know thyself. The wonderful science fiction author John Scalzi, who maintains an interesting and lively blog, says that he maintains a blog as literary exercise, to hone his tools and hoe the garden of words, to build a literary muscle memory.

So why another blog?

To practice, practice practice.

To learn the art of being awake.

Here goes.

In Memoriam

RICHARD “DICK” STEVEN SINGER
November 22, 1941 – June 24, 2016

When someone you know and like dies, the areas in your life in which they most commonly showed up will shine brightly like the always-surprising burst of light from a camera’s flash. But soon enough the light fades and normal vision returns. Memory is that way. What you can no longer see with your eyes and no longer occupies Euclidean space and time is thereafter cast indelibly, like a work of art, in the cerebral synapses like one of Brian Eno’s music lightbox collages.

Dick was primarily the close friend of my oldest brother Daniel, but I never held that against him. (Am I clear enough as I mumble, tongue in cheek?) I knew a lot of Dick’s history, but the bulk of it was filtered through that oldest brother whom time revealed as the most unreliable of narrators.

So Dick was Danny’s college friend, but he lived with my parents and with Ricky (my younger brother) and I on numerous occasions. At Jackman Street, when Ricky was between 2 and 3 years of age and I was 12 or so, it was 1965 and Dick had his own bedroom in our house.

Dick was kind to me as a pre-adolescent. In 6th grade I actually started writing a science fiction novel, though I never managed to write but one chapter. Dick read it and critiqued it, judiciously praising it, keeping in mind my age and inexperience in order not to discourage me. When he purchased one of my books online decades later, he reminded me of that time and that early attempt at self-expression, and I was surprised he remembered.

He must have been 23 years old or so when I was in seventh grade, my first year of Jr. High. Among others, I took a printing class, and one of our projects was to make business cards. (No doubt the mastermind project of a lazy teacher. I mean, what 7th graders in the early 1960’s would have wanted or had a purpose for business cards?) When Dick learned that I was in this class, he asked me to make one for him. He wanted it to read:

RICHARD SINGER
Citizen of the World

And nothing more. I made the cards, and I do believe they were his first business cards ever. Lord knows whom he passed them out to. Over the years when we talked, whether by phone or in the person, I would often greet him as “Dick Singer, Citizen of the World,” and he would nod, chuckle and clap me on the shoulder.

As with my brother Ricky, we always hugged and kissed each other on the cheek.

At Jackman Street he brought a fancy FM radio tuner on which he played jazz, and Playboy magazines, quite a heady mix for a twelve year old. I fell in love with Wes Montgomery, Tony Bennett, Lena Horn and Billy Strayhorn and Miles Davis and Bill Evans. I also fell in love with the airbrushed beauties from Playboy magazine, and yes, it is true, I loved the fiction that they published. Honest. I read and fell in love with the short stories of Jean Shepard, which later became the book “In God We Trust; the Rest Pay Cash,” which I bought. I read “The Lost City of Mars” by Ray Bradbury. And there were Arthur C. Clarke, J.G. Ballard, Thomas Disch.

Thanks, Dickie.

I attended his wedding to Suzanne Jayne, whom he called Susie. Oddly enough, though, I never met his three children (grown and with children of their own for some time now), nor did he ever meet my wife and two children. That was the nature of our acquaintance. We’d cross paths by accident at some restaurant, or run into each other in the various courthouses we practiced law at: Los Angeles Central on Hill Street, the L.A. Federal court on Temple, or Van Nuys Superior. Sometimes we would meet at the office of the late F. Adrian Muñoz, in El Monte, where he got me my first regular lawyering gig. We even ran into each other out in the boondocks of Rancho Cucamonga Superior Court one time. It was always a surprise, always a laugh and a hug and a game of catch-up and a promise to get together for lunch. And yes, we did have lunch every so often, sometimes just he and I, a few times with Ricky. He never failed at trying to play the goodwill ambassador trying to get the four dysfunctional de Anda brothers to lay down their hatchet and let bygones be bygones, at least for the span of a meal. We’d bitch to each other about friends or relatives, and sometimes each other. We would sometimes amusedly piss each other off — about small things to be sure — but we always made each other laugh, or grow somber with melancholy, lamenting that the days keep getting shorter and shorter, remembering those gone, and observing the cliché that there was, and never would be, enough time to do everything we thought we had to do. He had known my father, who died in 1980. He always called him “Poppa,” and while she was alive, he always called my mom “Momma.”

Our acquaintance spanned over five decades, and we lived those decades not very far from each other. Yet I loved Dick like the cousin who lives in another city, the one you see every time he’s in town, with whom you talk to now and then and exchange heartfelt homilies, pleasantries, inconsequential chatter that gains depth and dimension not because of subject matter, but because you’re doing it with someone whom you consider family. These are people with whom silence is just another form of conversation. He was a reminder to me that the idea of family doesn’t always work, but that when it does, there are few things more satisfying. Kin, clan, member of a tribe. Shake the dust from your sandals and sit. Let us talk about the wide, mysterious world out there. Salud!

With his passing, he has moved farther away now, the furthest away he’s ever been (though I’ll catch up with him sooner or later).

An ancient Greek philosopher wrote, “There are tears in things, and all things doomed to die touch the heart.” Dick will be in my heart for the rest of my life.

Dickmeister, Citizen of the World: I love you. Rest in peace, brother.

What Do You Really Know? Part Two

Quite often when my younger brother asks me a question — about whether I like something, or what I think about some idea, event, some thing — I grow distanced, philosophical, observant, and I question not only the feelings I have attached to the answer I’ve yet to give, but I question the question itself.

It annoys the crap out of him when I do this.

And, like listening to the stereo full blast in my car, it’s okay when I do it.  But boy do I hate it when others do it.

I’ve always thought that it’s an admirable goal to not think thoughts that are unoriginal, but rather arrive at my own thoughts under my own steam.  An economical gambit, something like my friend M’s rule of never spending what you simply don’t have.  But it’s becoming increasingly evident (only “becoming”? you say: tsk tsk) that (running with the spending metaphor) intellectual and existential awareness requires a lot of credit, borrowing, and a lot of going into debt.  There seems to be no way around it.

Growing up with two older brothers, I was the recipient of many a hand-me-down.  Although I balked at getting used clothes, it impressed my junior and high school friends to see me wearing pretty hip threads that were beyond most of our means, certainly so in the quantity that I had.  Imagine what a wardrobe I’d have had if I’d had 4 older brothers!

I suppose that it might be pointed out that, because I did not buy these clothes, my couture did not accurately reflect who I was, sartorially speaking.  My choices were limited to what my brothers had grown bored with; and because the clothes were free they did not truly reflect my choices, since the economic model posits that what we pay for is a better barometer of true choice, and hence more reflective of persona.  What we give up in exchange for what we acquire is a more complete précis of who we are.  What you get for free is worth the price you paid for it.

I think it’s safe to say that in the arena of the choices that make up the clutter we call our minds and souls, no one ever quite get to pick from an unlimited market.  There will always be markets beyond not only your means but outside your knowledge.  There will always be something you do not know.  When I was a Seventh Day Adventist, I endeavored to be as informed a thinker as possible.  This entailed not only being conversant with the King James Holy Bible, but with the intellectual writings of the Church, such as the writings of Ellen G. White and such, as well as having faith-honing debates with fellow believers as well as non-believers.

How much of an original and free thinker was I in those days?  I’m probably flattering myself, but within the boundaries of what I was exposed to, on a 10 point scale, maybe an 8.

And on the Cosmic Unified Theory’s Spectrum of Free Thought (C.U.T.S.F.T.), where is that?  A 2 or a 3?  Maybe.

When I grew up and evolved into an atheist, I felt that it was the result of more information, helping me refine my choices.  (Funny how most Christians feel that atheism is a limiting view because it denies God.  I think it’s the other way round.  I’ve grown to believe that atheism is more comprehensive and inclusive than theism, it embraces more.  A belief in God is so very limiting.  Atheism, on the other hand, has the whole mysterious and beautifully enigmatic universe as a backyard in which to play.  Also, you can’t deny or reject something until you’ve examined it with some level of scientifically rigorous examination.  Believers tend to close their eyes and/or get hostile to anything that questions their perspective.  They’re like the politically correct and incredibly humorless former Smith’s frontman Morrissey with his vegan issues.  Or communist ideologues.  Or religious fanatics.  Or even militant atheists.  But in general, atheists are the intellectual omnivores of the cosmos.  They’re pretty funny people.  Unless I’m mistaken, it was Dostoyevsky who wrote, “If there were no God, then everything would be pretty funny.”)

As an atheist, my C.U.T.S.F.T. rating rose to something around 5 or 6.  (Sorry, but I’m essentially a very lazy person, and this was the best I could do.  But I think that even if I were God I’d probably score no higher than a 7 anyway.  Maybe.  On a good day.  After having a nutritious breakfast.)

Is that the best that can be done?  Are these the two antipodes?  At one end, making our choices from a limited palette; at the other end, always endeavoring to increase what we know — or shopping at as many and as varied a group of clothes stores (to pick up again with the clothes metaphor) — to ensure that what we end up choosing is what we really want, what really suits us, what are our best choices.

Kind of looks like that.

I imagine that most of us, no matter how intelligent, fall somewhere in between these two poles.  And, wherever you fall on that spectrum, there is honor and integrity selecting (from the pool of data available to us) those choices that best echo who we are.

Who we are?  (Ah, I hear someone say, but that’s a whole ‘nother conundrum. Who we are?  Is that the gold standard? And what if you are — like Bill Cosby joked in his skit about cocaine — an asshole?  Is it your goal to be the best asshole you can be?)

Perhaps originality is overrated.  Maybe our best chance at integrity, as Sartre pointed out, is in making choices that have some sort of universal application and benefit.  After all, we choose for ourselves what we believe others should also choose.  That Californian New-Age-Twenty-First-Century bullshit cop-out that says, well: it’s okay for you to believe in God or to be a Buddhist or be a vegetarian or an omnivore or a Republican, but I don’t and I’m not.  That’s like Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack making fun of a ridiculous golf outfit on a store mannequin but, when seeing Ted Knight right next to it actually wearing the outfit, says, “Ooo, ooo.  But it looks good on you!”

No, it doesn’t.

You still look like an asshole.

Which is just what my kid brother is thinking of me when I start my practice of splitting hairs.

Is it live, or is it Memorex?  And does it really matter?

I think it does.  But hey, that’s me.

If a tree falls in a forest, and nobody is there to hear it, did it fall?

I think it just did.

In Memoriam FREDRIK POHL 11/26/1919 – 9/2/2013

In the summer of 1981 when I turned 27 years of age, after the typical hiatus that so many go through after “growing up”, I rediscovered science fiction.

I’d started law school, was in the beginnings of my first truly serious relationship, and was looking towards the future.  I was learning what it is that society demands of us, as well as learning what it is that women want.  Both time intensive pursuits.  For down time I turned, by reflex, to reading.

After a hiatus of an estrangement of over ten years, I began rediscovering the genre that I’d fallen in love while in elementary school, the slice of literature that was, for my money, the closest to rock-and-roll and poetry, twins of solace that had gotten me through many a hard time.  The following ten years of reintroduction that followed were a period of rediscovery, delight, profound excitement.

I had grown up with Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Robert Heinlein, Damon Knight, James Blish, and many more in this vein, all wondrous writers and of varying flavors.  Bradbury was poetic and homey; Silverberg twisty and sardonic.  I loved the challenging adventures and dissonant perspectives of SF, and even the art — quite often especially the art — that came with it.  I began to discover writers that had been in full force when I’d first discovered SF in the early 1960’s, but whom I had not known of nor read: Samuel Delany, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Barrington Bayley, J.G. Ballard, Phillip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert.  And there were more (at the time) current writers in 1981 and the years to come.

For me, however, no writer touched me quite as profoundly as Frederik Pohl.

Prior to my discovering Pohl, and for quite some time, he’d been a juggernaut of a presence and power within the field.  Editor, agent, author, literary collaborator, science autodidact extraordinaire, futurist and keen observer of the human condition.

Early on Pohl had attained an enviable level of literary fame that others within the field yearned for.  Motivated by the 1953 publication of The Space Merchants, which had been penned along with his friend and collaborator Cyril M. Kornbluth, Pohl earned high praise from the likes of Kingsley Amis, Anthony Boucher and Groff Conklin.

After Kornbluth died in 1958, there were many who opined that the magic was gone, and that Pohl’s best days were behind him.  He spent a decade, more or less, profoundly active in the SF field but producing little memorable writing.

It was not until the 1970’s that he got his second wind, an inspiration lasted well into the 2000’s.  In 1996 he published Man Plus, and in 1977 the first of the Heechee series, Gateway, both novels Nebula award winners.  In 1980 he won the National Book Award — an award usually reserved for the likes of Phillip Roth, John Updike, Saul Bellow and friends — for his novel Jem.

I’ve loved Pohl’s writing, both short stories and novels, but Gateway, which is probably his most famous novel and the one he’ll always be associated and remembered for, was the first of his many books which I read.  As a growing man I still had my quotient of introversion and psychological metamorphic settling, and the text of this extraordinary novel was like a glass of ice water in the face, a slapping wake up call that took my imagination hostage, resonating with my ow personal history.  It provided the sense of wonder and drama that I hungrily yearned for.

The novel is the story of a young man, Robinette Broadhead, troubled by the prospect of spending a life working the food shale mines.  When the tale opens he’s broken-hearted over the rejection by his girlfriend, not to mention conflicted over the death of his mother for which he feels responsible; money which could have been used to get her a new lung was used instead for his psychotherapy necessitated by a breakdown.  He finds that he wants to — no, needs to — escape.  He wins a state lottery and is able to get a one-way ticket to Gateway.

Gateway is an asteroid that aliens  (randomly christened as the Heechee, since they are long gone when the traces of their existence is discovered) had used as their long-abandoned base of nearly a thousand small spaceships.  The ships are preprogrammed for particular destinations, of course unknown to humans.  The ships are of a technology beyond humans, and the best they’ve been able to do is ride them to their mysterious destinations for an unknown duration, and, if lucky, to return alive.  Many have returned, but just as many have not.  Starvation, dropping out of orbit near a star long since gone nova, and unsuccessfully fiddling with the controls and getting lost are just some of the reasons leading to death.

But a few trips have gone to places where the Heechee left behind bits of marvelous and useful advanced technologies.  These finds have made their discoverers, as well as the Gateway Corporation, wealthy.

Gateway is both a possibly winning lottery ticket as well as a game of Russian Roulette.

For those of you who have yet to experience this enticing and riveting book, I’ll stop.   This is, however, the setting and background against which Robin Broadhead finds love, courage, despair, and profound guilt, as well as the beginnings of a redemption of sorts.

Like many of Pohl’s novels, Gateway is a work that is funny and touching and psychologically acute.  Just as the asteroid (appropriated first by aliens and then by humans) is a honey-combed marvel of mystery, darkness and discovery in the midst of the emptiness of outer space, pocked with answerable and unanswered questions, the characters are likewise enigmatic and, to themselves as well as to others, alien, contradictory, and seemingly unknowable and profoundly wondrous.

One thing that I love immensely from the series are the information retrieval computer programs.  When Gateway begins, Robinette is in psychological therapy, and his counselor is an artificial intelligence whom we will eventually know as the icon and hologram of Albert Einstein.  This program appears and speaks to Robinette like a sentient creature, answering questions, fencing opinions, offering gentle guidance, exhibiting all the traits of being an individual, and eventually becoming a trusted friend.  It is accurately said that science fiction is bad at predicting the future.  But there are times when SF authors touch upon later technological uses, and this one by Pohl struck me as an early pointing toward the Internet, especially what it can someday become.  Google and other search engines are constantly refining their protocols, and it is conceivable that one day instead of calling up Google or Yahoo from a keyboard, we will simply talk to our browsers, the way iPhone users now speak with Siri.

It is sad that when writers die often their catalogue disappears with them.  And with the advent of new writers and the Publication on Demand phenomenon, the river of ink — or digital pixels if you’re a Kindle or iPad fan — grows everyday, swelling into something huge and mysterious, like Asimov’s intergalactic Psychohistory encyclopedia.  Most of it is unvetted and of questionable quality.  However, in every sphere (do-it-yourself or the traditional vector of publishing) quality has a way of rising to the top.

And surviving.

Frederik Pohl, rest in peace.

What Do You Really Know? Part One

As a person, we are constantly creating the world, consciously and unconsciously stitching and unstitching the fibers that make up its weave.

As writers, the process is, we’d like to think, a little more deliberate.  An ancient Greek philosopher once said that is it doubtful that a person thinks fully upon any subject until they have written upon it.  Not an absolute dictum, mind you.  But in the process of creating descriptions of the world for our stories, each time we recount to ourselves and our friends our adventures, we learn much about ourselves, about how well we pay attention to reality, and what we remember of it, what we make of it, what we take away with us.  We focus in on what we do and do not know.

In training to hone my writing skills, I have learned that I know the world far less better than I thought.  When asked for the definition of a word by our children, we often realize that we believe that we know what it means but can’t articulate it.  A high school professor used to tell us that if you can’t give the definition of a word, you really don’t know it.  You might know something about it, you might even use it correctly, but you wouldn’t make a life-and-death bet on it.  So much of our worlds turn out to be impressionistic and nebulous, like (and here I am surely undeservedly flattering myself) a Monet painting.  Something blotchy and a little messy when seen up close, but which gains perspective and artistry the more we step back, maybe squint our eyes a little, and if you’ve got a few drinks in you, so much the better.

The more detailed a painting — or a story — the more we see how sharp and observant the artist’s eye can be.  But a lot in art relies on the magical and illusorily powerful strength of suggestion.  A good deal of art is like Hollywood movie sets which have built-up facades that create the illusion of a modern city block, or an American cowboy town on the frontier, or the bridge of an interplanetary starship.  But look close enough and you’ll see that, no, really, not only is that not Abraham Lincoln, but how could I have even been fooled?

Of course, a good artist will, like a master magician, keep you from realizing that you’ve been fooled, too occupied by the artistically aimed bombardment of data to see the strings and the superb manipulation of light and shadow.  A good artist is a superb magician.

You can go too far, of course, like John Fowles in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” giving us paragraph after paragraph of the names and descriptions of the trees, plants and wild flowers covering a mountainside, or David Payne taking up page after page in describing a stained glass window in “Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street.”  Story can drown in too much authenticity, and in the process, seem unreal at worst, or, like real life, stupefyingly boring.

All this brings up the question, however, of what reality is.

You can read Thomas Harris’ novels, and like Will Graham in “Red Dragon” never be able to rinse away the madness of true evil.  The world through Harris’ pen is tricky, devious, populated by monsters not always easy to recognize until, like a fly caught in a spider’s web, you are their victim.

Or you can read the jaunty, deceptively light and delicious prose of Peter Mayle and believe in a world where humorous mischief and an appreciation of elegance and the education of the senses, and not evil and the tragically inelegant, reign.

There is, I think, no one literary genre that can give you a comprehensive and unified vision of life, any more than a single cuisine which will offer the definitive statement on what food is (as opposed to what it can be).  Painting and art might best reflect a style or the current party line, but what unified theory of literature might encompass Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare, the Three Stooges and Godzilla?  It’s hard to imagine Hannibal Lector or the Tooth Fairy living in the same world as that of Garrison Keillor or of Jean Shepard.

But we look for reality — and often enough, some measure of reassurance about the world we inhabit — in fiction, in story.  Schools of fiction are like organized religion; there are a whole boatload of them out there.  Is it a matter of simply choosing one that pleases us most?  Or is there some ultimate truth out there?

There’s an interesting and almost oblique observation in William Gibson’s 2010 funny and wildly inventive novel, “Zero History,” that touches on this question of what and how we perceive.  One of the characters, Milgrim, finds himself inside the corporate headquarters of Blue Ant, a fashion conglomerate most closely resembling the Pentagon.

The lobby here suggested some combination of extremely expensive

private art school and government defense establishment, though when

he thought about it, he’d never been in either.

I’ve never heard a real gun shot, but I have plenty of ideas about what they sound like; I’ve watched enough programs running the gamut of The Man From Uncle through Sam Peckingpah and Clint Eastwood all the way through to the newest Mission: Impossible with Tom Cruise and the Jason Bourne movies with Matt Damon.  I’ve lived a cloistered life, but hey, I know all about violence, espionage, duplicity, the New World Order.

So much of what we “know” is picked up tangentially through movies, magazines, television commercials, mass media.  A lot of what we “know” is obtained not through direct first-hand experience, but rather mediated through various other filters.  We get fed, like baby penguins, with partially chewed and partially digested food prepared by our penguin moms and dads.  The message is the medium is the message.  Is the medium.

Is the message.