Optimistic Cynic

Choosing to be happy sounds so corny, but I am convinced it’s the only way not to get crushed under the weight of this hard, fallen world.

How one become happy in a world filled with imperfect human beings, and while being one yourself, will differ from person to person. Some use religion. Some decide to ignore negative information. Others find that dwelling on the bad helps them cope. Still others might drown the tragedy of being alive with distractions, either electronic or chemical.

I get that. I really do. A lot of what people do depends on their fundamental views of human nature. This deep stuff, but so much of one’s world-view depends on their answer to the following question: are human beings intrinsically good, or intrinsically bad?

Note well that I did not say “evil,” but “bad.”

People can either be perfected here on Earth and it is society that corrupts us, or we are born broken somehow and need to structure society, as well as work on structuring ourselves, to mitigate these tendencies.

In other words, society has to improve, or you have to improve.

This is really a simplified version, but it helps see how each of these basic assumptions about the nature of being can influence nearly everything, from political affiliations to religious beliefs to the very kind of art one creates and enjoys.

I am clearly in the second camp–that human beings are fundamentally bad and have to be trained to be good–and yet I find this a pretty empowering view of things. In fact, gaining a greater understanding of this view, and treating others and myself in accordance with it, has helped me become happier over time:

  • We are all imperfect, but we can all improve;
  • There will never be a Utopia or a heaven on Earth;
  • We all need to be kind to each other and ourselves because we’re all broken; and
  • I’m never surprised or disappointed when people, from the individual to the species level, makes the wrong choice.

Human beings will never learn the hard lessons from history. That is a fact. This is pessimistic, but pessimism about human nature doesn’t have to translate into being a miserable person.

I have come to consider myself as an optimistic cynic. I have no illusions about humanity’s ability to navigate terrible crises before the happen and head things off. This isn’t how the overwhelming majority of us operate, personally or societally. We have a massive inborn self-destructive streak, and we’re really good at sharing this dark tendency with society at large.

But, and here’s the weird part, we’re still here. We haven’t annihilated each other from the face of the planet, despite our best efforts. Yes, many peoples have been extincted through deliberate genocide, or by being conquered and breeded out of existence, or even inadvertently through diseases. Evil stuff like this still happens, and that’s the tendency we see among those people who can’t cope with the burden of being alive: they lash out at existence itself, whether they’re a mass shooter in a movie theater or school, or a dictator directing their anger at “those people over there.”

And yet, civilization exists in many parts of the world. And it’s actually quite nice. Believe it or not, lots and lots of human beings frown upon destructive, evil behaviors. This would not be possible for as long as its been going on (albeit, in a still woefully low proportion of the global human population) if this fallen nature of humanity couldn’t be mitigated.

Our rules don’t perfect us. They keep us free, from the harmful actions of the government, from the harmful actions of our fellow citizens, and often from the harmful actions of ourselves. Laws aren’t magic, but they do express the values of a society. And I’m much happier living in a society where things like rape and murder are punishable by life imprisonment or even death than a world that tries to legislate these dark impulses from our basic nature.

Because that is never going to happen. Continue reading “Optimistic Cynic”

Confessions of a Bad Friend

No one ever really leaves their school days behind. We graduate older and somewhat wiser than when we entered, but carry with us personalities and associated baggage formed during that time.

The teenage years are a crucible in which we are shaped. Whether it is a good thing that this happens in school is a debate for another day. It just is.

Sadly, some of us, me included, could be horrible people during those days. Just absolutely wretched. Worst of all, we could be wretched to people we considered friends in order to acquire status in the eyes of people who were really also kind of horrible.

That’s right: I had good friends I threw under he bus, on more than one occasion. Because I could be kind of an asshole when I was younger.

More than “could be.” I kind of was.

It’s shameful to think about, but less embarrassing. Age gives perspective, and moments like these are why we are able to learn and grow.

But man, I’d love to have some of those years back.

I thought of this particular individual as I filled out my application for a security clearance for work. A part of the application involved listing the names and contact information of those who have known you for a certain amount of years.

“Ah, my friend [NAME WITHHELD] would be perfect!” But then two thoughts came to mind:

  1. Would he actually respond, or even give me a positive reference?
  2. Can I truthfully consider this person a “friend”? Does he?

The answer to question 1 is unknowable. But I know the answer to question 2 is an unequivocal “no.” Continue reading “Confessions of a Bad Friend”

Cultural Traps, Part IV

America is a funny place. And Americans are a funny bunch (when we can actually agree on what the hell being an American even means anymore, but I digress).

As time passes and more strangeness unfolds, I realize that the older I get, the more that criticisms of this country that would have rankled a younger me now see valid and very well-founded. It’s not that my love of this country has diminished with age. It’s that my uncritical, unthinking love of this country has diminished with age, as has my uncritical, unthinking love of ANYTHING.

Music, philosophy, politics . . . you name it. Things are different now, and assumptions have to be examined accordingly. That’s what my Cultural Traps series is all about. That said, let’s look at a few more of those supposedly unshakable American tendencies that either make no sense, or trap you in a harmful way of thinking that doesn’t let you fairly and accurately examine all sides of an issue.

Now, I know every culture on Earth has its own traps and foibles, but I’m an American, dammit. So I’m focusing on ‘MERICA!

Here we go.

Being Immune to History. I read an article the other day on The Federalist by a gentleman named Jesse Kelly–normally a pretty funny guyabout his preference that the United States peaceably split. A “divorce,” he calls it. It’s an interesting premise, and one has to rid oneself of the typical American tendency–discussed here–to have a hysterical, knee-jerk reaction to even the merest utterance of an idea in order to appreciate what Kelly says that’s deeper than “we should have an amicable split”:

Anyone who thinks this is a radical idea has an extremely narrow view of history. If you don’t believe me, go try to book a plane ticket to Czechoslovakia, or look at a map of Europe from the year 1600, then look at one today. See any differences? Borders move. Countries split and change hands. They do this for a myriad of reasons.

A rebuttal on the same website, written by one Lyman Stone, calls this idea dangerous and impracticable, if you’re interested in reading the counterpoint. I’m not here to debate the merits of this idea. But I do think Kelly raises an interesting point when he says “Anyone who thinks this is a radical idea has an extremely narrow view of history.”

By and large, Americans have an extremely narrow view of history. We seem to believe that history began in either 1963, if you ask Mr. Larkin, or five minutes ago, if you ask anyone born between 1997 and 2000.

Get “woke.” Get on “the right side of history.”

Those who wish us harm have very long memories and even longer time-horizons and visions for the future. Remember, the Chinese still smart over their humiliation at the hands of Western powers some two-hundred years ago, and ISIS and al-Qaeda and their ilk are still mad about the Crusades . . .

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Meanwhile, we here in America are totally convinced that we can eliminate all crime by disarming the populace or something.

Worse, we’re absolutely convinced that everything will continue the way it has just because. Bad things never happen here, nor will they ever. Our way of life will continue in perpetuity, and America will always be the Top Dog because of some undifferentiated belief in “Freedom!” no matter how many stupid, short-sighted policies are shoved down our throats.

Concurrent with this trap is the inability to even conceive that something may at some point change, or that maybe the way we do things isn’t the best way to do things. Who knows? Maybe this country will split someday, or some of the bigger states will break up into smaller, more representative states. Or maybe some states will want to leave entirely. Or maybe the United States will not remain the world’s only hegemon, either militarily or economically.

Hey, it could happen. But no one wants to talk about it.

Stuff like this “sneaks up” on us because we are blind to its possibility. Nothing occurs “just because” or “for no reason whatsoever.” Effects have causes. By being blind to this, thinking that America is truly the peak of civilization obviates the need to improve and leaves you with stagnation and rot which will really bring the whole thing crumbling down.

This tendency, this false sense of security, might be the most tragic aspect of the whole American experience. Which brings me to the next cultural trap in this discussion. Continue reading “Cultural Traps, Part IV”

Interesting People, Vol. 1: Adam Lane Smith

Welcome to a new feature here on Amatopia! It’s called “Interesting People,” and I’m going to interview people I think are interesting. Simple enough, right?

For this inaugural installment, I interviewed author Adam Lane Smith. Adam wrote one of my favorite books that I’ve read in a long time, a sci-fi mystery/adventure called Making Peace. I reviewed it upon release, and I highly recommend it to fans of the genre, or anyone just looking for something a little different than what you’ll find on the bookstore shelves.

Adam is also a very intelligent and easygoing guy, and I’ve truly enjoyed getting to know him over Twitter. In essence, he is the very definition of an interesting person. I hope you enjoy the conversation (my questions in bold, Adam’s responses in normal type):

* * *

Before we get into anything else, tell me one thing: why on Earth don’t you have a blog or website of your own?!

The short answer is that I’m lazy.
The long answer is that in the process of writing my book I had to deal with many pitfalls and time sinks. My former publisher went full SJW and let me know in a passive-aggressive manner that I was no longer welcome at their company, and then in an aggressive manner threatened my day job. I started and then completed an apprenticeship as a psychotherapist. I worked a traveling job. I started two new jobs. I conceived and then had my first child, and then conceived my second. I worked long hours reading everything published and unpublished from fellow authors while networking with them and raving about their works on social media so they’d know who I was when I finally published my book.
The struggle wasn’t limited to my personal life. After I finished writing the book, I unwillingly went through three separate people for my final cover. My second cover artist almost opened me up to being sued by using copyrighted material and claiming it was legally okay after I confronted him. I had to learn about editing and got a punch to the gut from the fantastic editor I hired, which necessitated 45 hours of editing and rewriting after I’d thought I was done.
All of that is my sniveling way of saying I was exhausted. Rhett C. Bruno mentored me through the launch and warned me sternly not to launch without a website, but I was beyond caring. I wanted to be a real author and be done with the cursed work which had tormented my soul night and day for three years. (Is that tortured enough for me to be considered an artist?)
But, unlike with modern Hollywood trash writing, there is a happy ending! I’ve got someone working on my author website right now. That’s registered at AdamLaneSmith.com, and will eventually exist once I prod him hard enough.
That’s a pretty good reason not to have a blog, but I’m glad to hear that the official home of Adam Lane Smith on the web will soon be up and running.
 
Your answer dovetails nicely into my next set of questions. As someone who really enjoyed Making Peace–indeed, it’s one of the strongest Pulp Rev works I’ve read–I’m eager to discuss writing, but I’m also intrigued by this publisher who tried to get you fired. What’s that all about?
 
Before getting into that, though, how about a little of your background, to the extent that you’re comfortable talking about it? You know, the kind of thing an actual professional interviewer would’ve asked you about first.
I grew up in Central California in George Lucas’ home town. When he writes about Tattooine and has Luke complain about how miserable it is, that’s what he’s talking about. When he writes about Mos Eisley, that’s our home.
I grew up poor in the ghetto. My mother came from a wealthy family but was disowned and disinherited for marrying a Christian man, and my father grew up with a divorced mother in trailer parks. No one helped us, and my parents each worked multiple low-paying jobs day and night to keep us fed and scraping by. Life was hard. Much of this is mentioned or hinted at in the afterword of my novel.
People died, friends were molested, I fought for my life several times against violence and untreated sickness, I developed PTSD, family members were abducted and raped by gangs, violence was ever present. One of the first lessons you learn is to lay on the floor with the adults on top of you so they die first and the kids might live under the corpses.
I learned to love reading as an escape, and dreamed of being a writer. By the grace of God, I worked my way out with the help of my diligent wife. Now we live a life of relative comfort and safety on a farm.
Those who’ve read Making Peace probably see a great deal of my upbringing in the setting.

The Ladder Generation

I am of the first generation to do worse-off financially than its parents’ generation.

I’m okay with that. There are other things that we can give to our children and the succeeding generations, hard-fought bits of wisdom that will help them avoid the same mistakes we made, and some advice regarding things they can do now to make the future easier.

This will be short and sweet, and is meant to elaborate upon a tweet thread from a few days ago that got a halfway-decent response.

Becoming an adult is a good thing. Reject the youth-worship that’s engulfed American culture for the past 50 years. It will stultify you more than nearly anything. Learn. Grow. Progress. Improve.

And sometimes . . . sometimes, listen to old guys.

Alright my friends, here we go:

  • Avoid Expectation Inflation: We are living in an anomalous time of unprecedented material abundance and physical security. Our parents likely never faced hardship, and they–maybe even our grandparents–grew up in a post-World War II world where (1) prosperity seemed to happen without even trying and (2) the older generations wanted to make sure that the younger generations never experience similar hardship. This led to many of us thinking that if we just followed The Rules, we’d be similarly successful–a house bigger than our parents’, more cars, better vacations–just because! This is not the case. It seems self-evident now, but when you’re in the sea, you don’t really notice the water. It’s okay to not have exactly the same lifestyle your parents had. Or even better, if you want that lifestyle, get serious about what it takes to achieve it. The rules have changed. It’s different than when your parents were younger. That world is over. I had the misfortune to be in my teens and twenties during this transition. The transition is over. You are aware of it now. Realize that the future is what you make of it, and not a given.
  • Be Serious: Don’t just think about what you want out of life and where you’d like to be. Make a plan. Bring it to life by writing it down. Make a list of where you’d like to be one year from now, five years from now, and ten years from now. Add some concrete steps you can take, or systems you can put into place, in order to get to where you want to be. Put it away for a few months and then revisit it to see where you are. The time and relative lack of responsibility that you have now won’t last forever. Lay the foundation in your 20s so you have something solid to build upon in your 30s. This ties into the next bit of advice. Continue reading “The Ladder Generation”

Institutionalized Entertainment

Institutionalized: “to make into an institution . . . give character of an institution to . . . to incorporate a structured and often highly formalized system . . .”

Presented without comment:

The Walt Disney Company is so huge that, absent a formalized structure, it wouldn’t be able to get anything done. But Disney is just an example of how this idea institutionalizing everything, including the content, is a firmly entrenched part of nearly every form of entertainment or escapism that you partake in. This idea of gatekeepers giving a patina of quality to something that has gone through some sort of rigorous, formalized process is pervasive in nearly every facet of life, and not just entertainment.

After all, a doctor who went to Harvard for medical school is clearly superior to one who went to, say, one who went to the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota, right? I mean, just on paper, it’s axiomatic, isn’t it? Who cares about the doctor’s actual history of results, you know?

And so it goes with what you watch, read, and listen to. It’s all been filtered through a big machine in order to get a big, fat, institutional stamp of approval. And everything without that stamp is clearly inferior.

It’s obvious, isn’t it?

Of course it’s not. As author Brian Niemeier is fond of pointing out, the gatekeeper-controlled model in publishing is a dying proposition:

The power of big New York publishers to hand out golden tickets capable of turning struggling authors into millionaires is an artifact of the 20th century. Now? As Moe Greene would say, they don’t even have that kind of muscle anymore.

If you were an aspiring author trying to break in prior to the 1980s, New York publishers were your best shot at the big time. Since 2006, indie has stolen tradpub’s thunder to the extent that you’re now four times more likely to make seven figures by going indie than by signing with a traditional publisher.

But old habits die hard, and industries that are still making money, without realizing that they’re surviving on legacies of past greatness, will continue to follow the old ways. Disney will keep churning out stuff with the Star Wars label slapped on it, year after year, heedless of the negative financial consequences due to viewer fatigue and failing product quality.

The music industry will keep reproducing the thing that’s selling records now ad infinitum for the next five minutes, until people get so sick of that cookie-cutter thing that they move on to the next cookie-cutter thing to fill the silence for the next five minutes.

The book industry, particularly in the science-fiction and fantasy realms, will continue pumping out massive doorstop-sized tomes of “epic” fantasy that will never be completed, as long as the stories are soaked in post-modernist thinking and contemporary political right-think.

As long as the wrong-thinkers get shut out. Because the stuff they make is bad. And it’s bad because it doesn’t have our seal of approval.

Continue reading “Institutionalized Entertainment”

Fasting to Feasting: An Ode to Delayed Gratification

Christos Anesti!

That is Greek for “Christ is Risen,” what we say as a greeting during Easter Sunday and for forty days after.

But this post isn’t about Easter per se. Easter comes into it because it also represented the ending of the Lenten fast. For 40 days, I did not eat meat, fish, eggs, dairy, oil, or wine, aside from designated feast days (and the occasions when there was nothing else fast-friendly to eat save for things that had been cooked with dairy, eggs, or oil.

I also stayed away from sweets and other forms of alcohol. Now, the real reason for fasting during Lent is to fast from sin, but the self-denial of certain foods is an important part.

Anyway, yesterday, let me tell you, I went to town on this little guy:

And let me also tell you: it tasted so damn good.

There is a certain magic to delayed gratification. I’ve written about this concept before as it relates to music, but it would be folly not to highlight the importance of delayed gratification to life.

If you can put off immediate reward after the performance of some kind of duty, you will enjoy and appreciate the reward far more . . . and you will likely get far more stuff done in life. Continue reading “Fasting to Feasting: An Ode to Delayed Gratification”