Focus Training Day

I did it. I spent the entire morning completely unplugged. I woke up around 7:30 AM, turned off my phone, turned off my computers, made some breakfast, wrote in my journal, and then read through two full, honest-to-Sagan, paper books.

No computer screens. No teevee showing a binge of YouTube or Netflix. No taking breaks every few minutes to see what was trending on Facebook or  Twitter. I didn’t even really know what time it was, exactly; the only clock I have that isn’t also a computer is on the microwave in the kitchen, and I only went in there to get more coffee.

I woke up and wrote a page in my journal, longhand, just organizing my thoughts. I haven’t written in my journal since October last year.

I’ve felt distracted and despairing that I would ever be able to read a book in a reasonable amount of time ever again. Every time I’ve tried, recently, I get nervous and distracted and eventually give up, even on “easy” reads. Even on short books.

I’ve had Charles Bukowski On Cats on loan from the library since August last year. I’ve renewed the damned thing over and over again. It’s barely 120 pages, and it’s poems and short-short stories and vignettes and drawings. And still, I haven’t been able to finish it. This morning, I read through it while making breakfast (scrambled eggs, bacon, garlic hashbrowns, English muffin, coffee), and then while I was eating breakfast and then finishing it.

I finished it. And it was still early. I had planned to stay offline until noon, if I could manage it. I sat in my office and looked out the window and felt the pull to turn on my computer, if only to update Goodreads, tell the world I’d finished this book.

Instead, I got up, put the sheets in the laundry, and pulled down another book on my “to be read” pile: Hunter Stockton Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Sat down on the couch and started reading. Got to about page 40, flipped ahead to see that the whole thing was only 200 pages, realized I could put a serious dent in this before my self-imposed screen jail time had elapsed.

When I reached the end of Part One, almost exactly halfway through, I got up, stretched, pulled the sheets out of the dryer and put them on the bed, and noted the time: 10:30 AM. I could finish this book in one sitting. Like I’d done in the distant past. I actually had the focus, the drive, the attention span to read a whole novel in a few hours.

I can’t tell you what a revelation and what a relief this is to me. Once I got into HST’s prose, I stopped worrying what was trending on Twitter. I no longer cared what arguments were happening on Facebook. I did, briefly, wonder if my friends or family were trying to reach me, but I allowed myself to feel that anxiety, then kept reading. I’d be available all too soon. I can catch up. The world can wait for just a bit longer.

And I have returned. I feel calmer and less stressed. Reading is meditative. Having the words of someone else in my brain lets me soothe the fears of my own inner voice. I’m recharged, and ready to return to the global consciousness.

Take a break from the Internet from time to time. It helps.

The Way You Held Me Up When I Was Down

Today was a heartbreaking day, a day I have been dreading since the election, a day were America swore in as president possibly the worst American in our time, a man whose biographers agree is self-centered, insecure, and a bully. A man who ran a campaign of hate and divisiveness, a man with a record-breaking commitment to lying lies. An admitted sexual predator. The list goes on.

And in my heart of hearts I know: Donald Trump is not a unique snowflake. There are still plenty of people in our country who see nothing wrong in that list above. They may even frame it all the same way I did, and even then, think that behavior is a reasonable reaction to the world today. I know how we got here, I do. As much as I didn’t want to face it, as hard as I tried to believe we were getting better, I knew: America still has plenty of anger, hate, and bigotry.

We need to face that head-on if we want to come back from this, I think.

My depression stems from the sinking feeling that we have to fight it. On the other hand, on a more positive note, as a friend pointed out to me: my goal is clear. There is no disputing the very wrong ideals that are showing themselves now: racism, sexism, hatred of the poor. And fascism. Actual, for reals, corporate-interests-before-everything-else, fascism. Turns out, it can happen here.

Because the evil is now so clear, because evil’s supporters are now so vocal, it’s easy to identify them and that makes it easy to resist. If you ever wondered what you would have done when the Nazis rose to power, well, now’s your perfect chance.

Fight. Fight smart, but give no quarter. Hatred may be on the rise but this time we have a chance to knock it back for a good, long time.

Resist.

Make art.

Sing.

Dance.

Laugh.

Love, and love everyone.

And support those who do all those things, too. We’re all in this together. We are all individuals, but we share a purpose: making this world a better one for every single human.

Fascists hate all of that.

Herding Cats Is The Perfect Analogy

A friend on Facebook shared this essay about the political left in America infighting, by Sammy Leonard, and it’s got me thinking about how differently the right and the left operate, at least in America.

Disclaimer up top: if you weren’t already aware, I consider myself a liberal, democratic socialist, leftist, communist… all of those. My tagline for the longest time was “a little to the left of Bernie Sanders,” and that was before Senator Sanders ran for president and suddenly everyone knew who he was. I supported Bernie in the primary, right up until he was clearly losing, at which point I switched to the Democratic nominee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I did that for pragmatic reasons, not idealistic ones. I did it because the GOP nominee was Trump, and having him in the White House would be beyond disastrous.

Lucky us, we get to see if my (and so many others’) fears are accurate, alas.

Back to my main point, however. The above-linked article shows me that among the left, there are large demographics that are still holding on to their ideals and not joining forces with other left-aligned groups to make common cause against a clear and present danger like the Trump administration is shaping up to be.

Why doesn’t the left know how to work together?

There are probably many reasons, but let me offer at least one. Liberals all tend to operate from a particular frame of reference; they share ideals and goals. One of those shared goals is the idea that speaking up, dissenting to an authority figure, is a net good. Liberals like to protest, they like free speech, they don’t automatically accept what our leaders tell us without some evidence behind it.

I’m generalizing, of course, and it’s somewhat easy to find counter-examples of conservatives protesting, dissenting to authority, and valuing free speech. What I’m suggesting is that liberals put all that higher in priority than do conservatives.

A more top priority for conservatives, baked right into the name, is preserving order, following chains of command, and offering deference (often spoken of as “respect”) for authority. Let the leaders lead, they say. This ideal gives the right the edge in organizing against a common threat, and that’s the part that those on the left either never had, or have forgotten about.

Many electrons have been spent outlining the demographic differences in the Republican and the Democratic parties. The GOP is largely older, largely white, largely male, largely middle-class or better off, while the Democrats include large coalitions of blacks, Asian, Hispanic, LGBTQA, younger voters, and more women. That is a consequence that arises when the left champions ideals of inclusiveness and diversity.

What that means is that the left has some learning to do. Specifically, liberals need to learn better how to avoid infighting, how to accept that people are imperfect and may not fully agree with each other, but that we can all push together on those policies and goals we share. Maybe we can even learn to help people in other coalitions to achieve what they need even if we don’t fully agree with them, as long as they can help us when our goals are being tested.

It’s a strategy that has worked for the right, which is made up of at least three large coalitions with differeing goals: the Christian authoritarians, the neo-con geo-political strategists, and the pro-gun pro-capitalism paleoconservatives. When crafting their party platforms, they make sure that every faction gets some attention, so they can count on every group working for the overall good of the party (often at the expense of the country and the world, at least in my view).

The Democratic Party doesn’t really operate like that, and it shows in the fault lines we continue to see today. Bernie Bros are still bitter and angry at what they see as party leadership pushing Hillary Clinton as the nominee, for right or wrong. Blacks are upset at being abandoned over the very serious issues of being a black person in America, which to this day results in far too many deaths; Sec. Clinton did not really address this in her platform, although black women still turned out in large numbers for her anyway.

And Cory Booker gets reamed for a non-binding vote that’s seen as being anti-Bernie, when in fact it wasn’t Bernie’s bill (he was a co-sponsor but Sen. Kobluchar authored it) and Sen. Booker voted for Wyden’s far more direct bill, despite supposedly being in Big Pharma’s pockets. I have to admit, I fell for this smear, too, and repeated some memes showing how terrible Booker was, without knowing all the facts. I can get better.

I hope we all can get better, the faster, the better.

Nazis (I Hate Those Guys)

It’s raining outside. This was going to be freezing rain, but it’s above freezing now, so it’s just rain. The rain is still falling on ice and packed snow, though, so it’s slicker than snot on the unpaved streets and unshoveled sidewalks in my neighborhood, which is to say all of them.

I’m done, so done, with winter.

Time Square, Nazi-occupied, as seen in Amazon's Man In The High Castle
Time Square, Nazi-occupied, as seen in Amazon’s Man In The High Castle
I spent my three day weekend mostly wandering from room to room in my apartment but at some point I started watching The Man In The High Castle, the Amazon TV series based on the least PKD-like book by PKD. That’s just my opinion, it’s still a brilliant book, it’s just not as balls-to-the-wall PKD as, say, VALIS or Radio Free Albemuth.

The show is a slow build. It bills itself as science fiction but the only real sci-fi on evidence for 90% of the first season is the premise: what if the Axis won World War II and the Japanese and Germans divided up North America between them? We get introduced to a bunch of characters: Juliana Crain and her boyfriend, the hapless artist Frank Frink; Nobusuki Tagomi, the Japanese trade minister with a penchant for throwing the Chinese I Ching; and Joe Blake, a blonde-haired blue-eyed truck driver on a mission.

I don’t think Joe Blake was in the novel. In fact, they’ve changed quite a bit about the novel to expand out the story for long-form television, and they’ve done a decent job of it. The plot wanders a bit in the first season, which is a danger now in the age of binge-watching, something that might not be as noticeable when watching week to week.

The 10% of the series that’s sci-fi is the films: black and white films that show an alternate reality, that is, our reality, where the Allies won the war. The moment in the first episode, where Juliana breaks down while watching the film over and over again, in her shitty little basement apartment in Japanese-occupied San Francisco, is visually mesmerizing and evocative.

Equally compelling is the scene where Joe Blake, driving his truck cross country, has to stop for a flat. Tense because he’s carrying a secret cargo, he gets helped out by a friendly local cop, and the tension fades… right up until the cop, finishing up changing the tire, asks Joe to see his transit papers, and we realize that this is not a free country we’re watching.

Then ashes start to fall, and Joe’s nervous question is answered by the cop very matter-of-factly: it must be Tuesday. On Tuesdays, they cremate “undesirables” at the hospital. Oh, right, the Nazis won.

If you have Amazon Prime, I strongly recommend this show. For some reason lately, Nazis and fighting them are timely, alas.

Do You Believe It’s Day?

I told myself I’d write every day this year, and man, have I missed that goal. I guess 2017 only 14 days old, so it’s only 3.8% over, and there’s a lot of ground to cover before we call it done, but with the mood I’ve been in this winter, it’s hard to see the bright side.

It’s been a long winter already. The long winter followed a long fall, and a stressful summer, and the incredibly anxious spring. Let’s face it, 2016 was more trash than treasure. There were bright spots, to be sure, but it all happened under a cloud for me.

I have plans to get things together this year. All of those plans include a daily component because I’m trying to build habits. I’ve learned that motivation is a fickle muse, but habits keep you moving along towards your goals. Once something becomes a habit, it’s easier to do it than it is not to do it. Like brushing your teeth, or going to the cafeteria on your break and getting some bacon. Maybe that last one is just me, though. But can you blame me? Bacon is amazing.

Of course, the political situation in the most egotistical of the Americas is part of the gloom. Love him or hate him, Trump appears to be taking great delight in breaking every single norm, custom, or law on his way to the inauguration. Picking his daughter for First Lady and keeping an expensive Secret Service detail in New York to protect his wife. Firing every appointed diplomat just because. Keeping a private security force for himself instead of the Secret Service. Firing the head of the security detail for the inauguration during the inauguration. And so much more; I can hardly keep track.

And all the tweeting. Every morning, the man who will be leading arguably the most powerful nation in the world gets up, checks his Twitter feed, and starts hitting back. There’s no stopping him. It’s unnerving. And possibly distracting and confusing. It’s hard to keep track, which might just be the perfect description of America these days. We’re angry, unnerving, confused, and clearly hiding something, as a nation.

On a personal level, I’m also glued to my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and it’s freaking me out. I keep wondering what’s next, while also dreading whatever news I find. It’s not healthy, and I don’t know how to stop. Maybe I should delete those apps and just take a break. A writer I love, Sady Doyle, mentioned (on Twitter, of course) that she made a promise to pitch or blog instead of thread or long-form on Twitter, and that would also be a useful rule. It’s one reason I’m here and writing stream of consciousness style. I’m training myself just to sit and write and not edit.

Training my attention span is part of my plans to get things together this year, too. I remember being able to sit and read for hours at a time but these days my attention wanders whenever I try that. The few things I can sit and do for hours now are watch videogame let’s plays or play videogames myself. Except for last night, when I fired up Skyrim and was barely into it for an hour, and most of that was just getting my character back to their home base, ignoring all the possible quests. Once back at home my Dragonborn laid down and slept for 12 hours, which made me feel a bit sad.

So I saved my game, quit the app, and went straight to bed myself, where I slept for 9 and a half hours. Sigh.

Tomorrow will be better.

Return to a Zone of Comfort

I’m (1) waiting for the bus in the snow (2). Tracker says it’s five minutes away. I wait a bit, check the app again. The bus has disappeared from the app (3); next bus in 35 minutes. Ugh. I start walking home (4). Two blocks later I hear the bus rolling up behind me (5) and start running towards the closest stop along the icy sidewalk (6). Driver honks, waves, and stops for me (7) and I don’t have to walk home (8).

That is a complete story, according to the Harmon Story Circle:

  1. A character in a familiar situation
  2. Needs something
  3. Enter unfamiliar situation
  4. They adapt
  5. They get what they wanted
  6. But pay a price
  7. Return to a zone of comfort
  8. Having changed

My Favorite Posts From 2016

Over and under bridge.

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I need some personal inspiration. It’s been a long December, a long winter, a long year. I’ve seen other authors out there, posting their 10 favorite things they’ve written in 2016, and my first thought was, “did I even write 10 things this year?”

Yes, I did, but not much more than 10. Here’s my pick for the best of my writting this year.

My brand for 2016: meloncholy, emotional, nostalgia, apparently.

2017 will be better.

U TURN PERMITTED EXCEPT TRUCKS #screwyoutrucks

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The Future Is Retro Now

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This old bar, on the last Friday before Christmas, was full but not packed. I picked the window table, but the chair facing away from the view, so I could see the folks sitting at the bar, and the other patrons. Though I could turn my head to look at the sidewalk and the street with constant traffic.

Was Multnomah Village ever this busy when I lived here, 22 years ago? It doesn’t seem like it.

And there wasn’t a corporate for-profie medical clinic across the street, that’s for damned sure. That whole idea feels like dystopia to me, alone. It sits next to the frozen yogurt shop, which metaphor escapes me right now.

I sip my strong Irish Quaalude and poke at my pocket smartphone and think about the end-of-the-world politics of the country in which I live. The reality TV star is going to have the power to order nuclear launches soon. We’ll find out about the next war when he taps out 140 characters or less and posts it to Twitter. How many retweets and faves will the Armageddon get?

22 years ago I was renting a basement from a co-worker not far from this bar. It was a money saving idea for both of us. We worked at Powell’s and idly dreamed of unionizing and I did my job, terribly and despondent. I was at Powell’s, off the clock but still hanging around, the night America elected Bill Clinton, the Comeback Kid from Arkansas, and my roommate tried to cheer me up (I was not political but still very cynical) by saying, “Hey! The good guys won one this time!”

In comparison with the presidents who followed him, maybe Bill Clinton was a good guy. I’m still not 100% certain, though. My idea of a good guy would be someone with politics like Bernie Sanders, but maybe a person of color or a woman so they’d actually speak for the most vulnerable in our country with the voice of experience.

22 years ago I would sit in this bar with a sci-fi book and read and eat and drink. I remember it being mostly empty. I remember the fancy dark wood paneling. I remember the upside down clock over the bar. I remember tasting gazpacho for the first time and wondering why a bar that touts its Montana roots would make a cold Spanish soup. It was good soup, though. Tasty. Gazpacho is not on the menu tonight, however.

Tonight, I’m sitting in the bar, tapping out my memories on a pocket supercomputer that’s constantly connected to a global information network, eating and drinking. Fancy wood paneling intact. Upside down clock still there. Montana roots still evident, at least on the menu. Evidence of totalitarian economy on view out the window.

This Christmas season, I’m feeling like I’m finally getting the dystopic cyberpunk future I was promised all those years ago.

White Wine In The Sun

Christmas 1996. The family gathered around a dining table, in Cancun, Mexico. Clockwise from left: Dad, Aunt Carol, Max, Lisa (sister), Bill (brother-in-law), Betsy, Tom, David, me, Mom.
Christmas 1997. The family gathered around a dining table, in Cancun, Mexico. Clockwise from left: Dad, Aunt Carol, Max, Lisa (sister), Bill (brother-in-law), Betsy, Tom, David, me, Mom.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

The picture above is one of my favorite Christmas memories. My family, seated around a table in a dining room in Cancun, Mexico, eating Christmas dinner. No gifts (except for Max, my nephew, who still believed in Santa Claus), just all of us, good food, booze, and warm sunny beaches.

Starting in 1996, my family began a tradition of celebrating Christmas with vacation trips, almost always to warm, tropical places. It began when mom won her first battle against cancer, and has carried on in some form ever since.

The first trip was in ’96, I believe, and the family went to San Diego and Tiajuana. I had just started a new job, though, and could not go with them, so I house-sat for my sister in their new house in the West Hills. We got an ice storm that year, and I ended up trapped by a fallen tree, and missed some work.

Calling in Sick From Mexico

The next year, the year in the picture, I was able to afford to go, except for not having enough vacation time to cover it. I had left that job for a short stint doing phone support for a different company. I’ve never told anyone about this, but I fell into a deep depression, and basically didn’t show up for my new job for 3 or 4 days. Luckily I was able to go back to my previous job, but in doing so I lost my scheduled vacation time, even though the trip was paid for already.

My solution was to go on the trip, not tell my boss, and then call in, making up a story about being stuck at the beach and unable to return. When I got back, my boss, a very patient woman who was probably the most empathetic and understanding manager I’ve ever had, asked me point blank if I went on the planned Mexico trip. When I admitted it, she just shook her head and said, sadly, “we could have worked something out.” I earned some demerits (company policy) and lost a promotion, but remained at that job for almost another year.

The Alphabet Game

It was all worth it, to spend Christmas with my family. Now I have the memories, and the stress of that job is long forgotten.

That trip was the year David (Bill’s brother, my sister’s brother-in-law) and I played a drinking game where we drank one drink for each letter of the alphabet. In one day. It was epic. He and I and my sister and her husband were sitting around in the afternoon and noticed that the names of all the drinks we were drinking started with the letter B, or included the letter B? It’s a little unclear. But we joked about drinking the alphabet.

Lisa and Bill dropped out, but David and I took it as a challenge. We made it to the letter S (I believe that drink was called the Seven Seas and featured that many kinds of rum), or possibly R? I barely remember making it back to my room. In the morning, I woke up to Max pounding on the door, because it was Christmas morning, and it was time to open presents.

This Year, and Next

This year, I’m house-sitting again, in a different house in the West Hills. My dad and Carol are going to Carol’s kids’ house for Christmas dinner. My sister and her family are on a cruise in South East Asia. And I’m sitting here, remembering Christmases past, and vowing, like always, next year I will go away, to a warm sunny place, and celebrate.

Merry Christmas, everyone. I hope whereever you are, and whatever you do, you’re surrounded by people you love, warm, safe, and happy.