In Which I Write Vaporware

I’ve had a rash of sales that haven’t come to fruition. I shouldn’t be too sad, because I already got paid handsomely for one of them: but I really look forward to seeing the stories in print.

I sold The Bloody Stone to the anthology “Ghosts on Drugs” and it was one of my best selling experiences, including a conversation with the editor that made the story so much better that I could probably sell it to other places as well – and they paid me the highest price I’ve ever received – but when is the anthology coming out? It’s still open ‘until filled,’ so submit stuff, people!

I sold a reprint of Kindling, one of my favorite stories, to Hic Sunt Dracones. Signed a contract and anything – but I have no idea when the anthology will come out. At least it is closed, which suggests they have all the stories they need.

Selling them is fun and seeing them come out is fun. I’m just a tad impatient.


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Female figure emerging from stone

Mourning Victory by Daniel Chester French, modified from the Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons

I’m a total pantser when it comes to writing. If I know the story’s end, it will never get written; if I know who I’m writing it for and what its purpose is, it will be a dismal failure. I write to explore things, and only find out what I’m writing about well into the process. I only find out what I’ve said long after the story is done.

This can be really frustrating, and I’ve often envied people who outline their story and dictate whole chapters in the car while driving across Death Valley, or so forth. My method obviously isn’t going to lead to a big-ass career as a popular writer, and for a while that realization led me to try other methods. But they simply don’t work for me, and I’ve come to realize that I don’t write in order to have a successful writing career but to explore – and discover – my own stories. Thank goodness I have a day job that I love!

One kind of excitement that pantsers like myself get that doesn’t appear in the blogs of more disciplined professional writers is the moment when the story comes to life. Sometimes I only have to write ten words before it happens, and other times it takes ten or twenty chapters. It doesn’t mean the story will be any easier to finish, but it means that being in the story has become part of being in the world, rather than a project I need to complete. I’ve found its central image, the one that ties into my own life and that I would be exploring anyway even if I weren’t writing a story about it.

Sometimes I write that image long before I recognize that it’s central or that it
matters. That’s what happened in the current Osyth novel, which I wrote ten chapters of last summer and then set aside because it hadn’t yet come to life. Going back to it, I discovered that the central character, who I thought was dealing with one sort of thing, is actually dealing with a different sort of thing entirely, and one I’m excited to be working on.

2018 is going to be a good year.

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I Can’t See How the Republicans are Wrong Here…

modified from open clip art

And it worries me, of course.

But it seems to me that giving tax breaks on graduate students’ tuition waivers is, essentially, financial support for the graduate school industry.

Universities are obviously the great beneficiaries of the graduate school industry, and they are also the great employers of the PhDs produced — but they have almost stopped hiring those PhDs, except as poverty-level adjuncts.* So why should the government chip in to help them produce more?

Like all republican initiatives, this one is being done in a way that will inconvenience the ambitious poor more than it does the ambitious rich, unless universities do the right thing and cover the tax bills. I’m with people who say that is wrong. But the underlying premise is one I can get on board with. Why should anybody pay you to produce an oversupply of workers so you can exploit them?

None of this applies to undergraduate education, of course. There is a brisk demand for people with undergrad degrees, which still usually are a ticket into the middle class, and taxing the loans that allow students to get those *is* heinous class warfare. But that’s a very different thing from targeting the bloated pyramid scheme that graduate education has become.

*Obviously, I speak here of PhDs that are not aimed at other professional careers.

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List clipart from Pixabay

I can’t keep up with these new rules, but apparently if you ever expect to denounce/excuse/ignore one guy’s sexual abuse, you must make sure you’re on record as denouncing/excusing/ignoring every other one.

I was on a research vessel once where the crew had been told not to swear in front of students, so they created a list of numerical codes for their favorite epithets and posted it in the mess hall. What we need is something similar – a public record website where people can find blanket pro forma denunciation statements. Then they can go on with forming their opinions of individual situations as they normally would, and just post the relevant denunciation statement links at the end like Creative Commons licenses.

Continue reading

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Seizing Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

Over last weekend, even the conservatives I follow online were becoming OK with taking down those Jim Crow-era confederate monuments. There was a little rumbling in the form of left-siders feeling a need to argue that no, those monuments were nothing like statues of the founders … but overall, there was a moment.

Today, the news on the right side is about attacks on statues of Columbus and Junipero Serra. Could we leftists not even wait until we had advanced a few feet toward taking a contested space, before demonstrating what we would do to it once we’d conquered it?

I once worked with someone who always had to be Winning™, and as soon as you managed to meet one set of demands a new set popped up – just for the sake of having something to win. Because *having won* didn’t matter, it was the act of winning that mattered. I think the activist left is in the hands of this sort of person, and it’s going to work out about as well as you’d expect.


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Forgiveness, really?

meme about forgiving but not ever letting the person get near you againI can’t be the only person who sees stuff like this on their Facebook feed, but sometimes I think I’m the only person who is bugged by it.

This is fake forgiveness. I mean, if someone said that to you, would you consider yourself forgiven?

At one time I was as anxious as anybody else to be told that this was all forgiveness required of me. But what a rip-off! I kept achieving this kind of fake forgiveness and wondering why it didn’t make me feel any better or behave any differently.

The fact was, all I wanted at that time was the label of forgiveness. I had, in a weird way, accepted both that it was a good thing to have, that it was a magic label that would somehow make things stop hurting, and that it didn’t really exist  – an attitude that I probably hold toward a lot of the virtues society makes a big deal of. I didn’t realize what forgiveness actually was, or that it was even a real thing, until long after I had experienced it.

Now I can look back and spot the times when I’ve practiced real forgiveness. There aren’t many, because I live a life pretty free of offenses, but I can say from experience that it is pretty grand. When I can manage it, it makes an offense against me feel insignificant – like failing at a task when your attention is already on the next step. When I truly can forgive someone, it’s because interacting with them is just one part of my big, big life. I don’t care what the offense says about them, or their attitude toward me, or my self-worth; I care about how we’re going to move forward in the best way. How I deal with them and their trespass is part of how I approach a larger goal. Practice, so to speak. One more opportunity to do it right.

As I say, I lead a pretty offense-free life. I’m not saying people with bigger grievances than mine should be expected to be so blasé about them. But what I do feel justified in saying is that we don’t come closer to approaching true forgiveness by lying about what it is. And I feel justified in saying that the stuff in this meme, which is all about tension and caution and keeping score and protecting oneself against the offender, is just about the opposite of forgiveness. If that’s all there was to it, it wouldn’t be worth pursuing.

The things I’ve really forgiven people for are hard enough to spot – because by definition, they’re the ones that I don’t sit around obsessing about – without my muddying the waters with fake definitions and self-flattery. But I bet all of us have had experiences of true, freeing, relaxing and healing forgiveness. So I say, let’s give up the social pressure to award ourselves this label when it doesn’t apply, learn to identify the real thing, and accept no substitutes.



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What Not To Do on Palm Sunday – and all the rest of the year, too.

Black palm leaf

public domain image from Pixabay

I’m very easy-going about religion. I generally find religious stuff quaint and charming, even the stuff I’m actively involved in — and I am more actively involved in religion than almost any of my lay colleagues. I go to church every week, drop in at centering prayer, participate in and publicize my participation in church activities and initiatives. Yet I often seem to be the person in my circle who cares the least about religion, either as a support or a threat.

There’s one bit of religion, however, to which I react as strongly as the most anti-religious of my friends, and that is Palm Sunday. I hate Palm Sunday as much as some of them hate being sprinkled with holy water, which makes it a useful natural experiment and guide for churches of What Not To Do. How did those churches of long ago poison Palm Sunday for the most easygoing christian in the western world?

It was by telling me I was guilty of stuff I hadn’t done. You know (or maybe you’re lucky enough not to know) those play-acting services, the ones where at one point you have to parade around the outside of the church waving palms and then later you have to yell ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ and sit through a sermon about how we all are to blame. This was the pattern in the episcopalian church of my youth, and I can still feel the combination of embarrassment  and indignation it sparked in me. I would never have waved these pitiful bits of stiff green leaves to indicate approval and had never heard of anyone called Barabbas, so it was all pretend, right? But then if you really pretended and got into the ‘struck him over the head’ part, people were mad at you.

My episcopalian days are long over, and for years I have belonged to churches whose Palm Sunday ceremonies involve donkeys and dyeing Easter eggs; but the poison of the past is still in me, and I decided last year that I am old enough to just stay home on that day. It’s become obvious that no amount of more enlightened churching will ever overcome my indignation at having been blamed for something I didn’t do. I see the day coming when I will skip Easter as well; it was always the Sunday when you went back to the church you were mad at and pretended they hadn’t grievously insulted you just the week before.

This isn’t just a lesson for churches. There’s an awful lot of blaming people for things they haven’t done nowadays. An awful lot of policies and positions from both sides of the political spectrum stand on it. So let me go on record as saying that whatever momentary acquiescence can be forced out of people by such arguments, it will not last as long as their indignation – not even if you give them chocolate and colored eggs afterward. The day will come when they decide they are old enough to stay home, and you will be very lucky if they only stay home one Sunday out of the year.

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Unasked Questions

man at table in park with sign; 'I will argue with anyone about anything'

My google-fu has failed me: I can’t find the original source of this.

Thirty years ago, when I began my teaching career, I taught a course with a unit on natural selection.  I was qualified to teach this, having just finished a PhD in systematics; what’s more, I had spent the summer reading a book about where natural selection applied. So I could lay out the conditions clearly and create a wide variety of case studies for my students to apply it to.

But I had three students who simply could not do it.

I spent hours in my office with them, going over the basic steps, but when I gave them case studies – even ones we had just gone over together – they could not apply the main concepts.

These students became thorns in my paw for other reasons as well, but I have since realized that they probably simply didn’t believe in evolution. It’s easy to forget that students come into your class as adults, with their own positions and opinions even on the topics you think you will introduce them to.

I couldn’t answer their questions because they never asked them and I was too green to even realize those questions were out there, much less make my classroom welcoming to them. It’s only come to me lately that this was an instance of a bigger issue – deciding when a debate is settled, and the fact that it seems debates never really are settled.

“The subject is closed.” “This discussion is over.” “Let’s not open that can of worms.”

Then along comes somebody who does open that can of worms, and none of us know how

alt.right dude welcoming the chance to educate questioner.

Once again I cannot find an original source for this. I got it off twitter, from an archived page that will no longer load; though this copy is modified from sizzle.

to make the argument that we’ve relegated to history books. Or worse, none of us even hears the discussion because we haven’t been included, people seeing that for us the topic is settled. Nobody asks us why they should believe evolution; they just refuse to do it on our exams. Nobody asks us why they should accept Black Lives Matter or avoid the alt.right, they just go off and talk about it with people for whom it’s not settled.

Why am I thinking about this today? Middlebury, of course. The people who opposed Charles Murray’s talk were very invested in declaring the conversation over. But they couldn’t have accomplished that, even if they’d succeeded in preventing his talk. They could only have sidelined themselves.

The conversation is going on, with or without the people who wish it were over. And colleges are about teaching, about new people appearing every darned year with no knowledge of the topic, about conversations never being over and topics never being closed. A new generation appears who have never even heard the basic, most taken-for-granted things in our fields.

One of my friends in grad school said ‘How can you stand the thought of teaching the same thing over and over and over again?’

‘When I get bored with it I can always quit,’ I said; and 30 years later, I have never gotten bored with it.

If we can’t stand the thought of nothing ever being settled, we shouldn’t be teachers. Being part of the endless repeating conversation is our job, our privilege, our responsibility and our opportunity. If you’re bored with it, you should quit.

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I Amn’t Dead (Writing-wise)

Cover of After Avalon; raven and sword in the snowSeems as if we’ve all had a lot to think about for a long time, writing being low on the priorities list, but I did publish in another 18th Wall anthology. I sold a retooled version of The Knight of the Ice Moon to their After Avalon anthology of stories from after the fall of Arthur, and as always it was a very pleasant experience. In addition, I got a shout-out in an interview Nicole Petit did at Greydogtales.

Is that a grand cover to be associated with, or what? The artist, Barbara Sobczyńska, won for best artwork in the 18th Annual Preditors and Editors Readers’ Poll.


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Is Ideological Diversity Dodging the Question?

I like Heterodox Academy. I like the fact that people outside it are identifying that parts of our society are too dominated by people of one political persuasion. I like the way more and more college administrators are saying the antidote to speech is more speech.

But I don’t like the assumption underlying all of these. It’s an assumption of bias: an assumption that we should not only accept that everyone has biases, but that we individuals shouldn’t even feel an obligation to try and overcome them. Our workplace ought to compensate for our failings, this model assumes. If it provides enough people with enough different biases, we will hash it out between one another.

I agree that people with different biases hashing things out between one another is preferable to a bunch of people with the same bias congratulating one another. But individuals challenging their own biases is preferable to either of these. Isn’t it, in fact, one of the main duties and obligations of a scholar? If we didn’t challenge our understanding of things, we would stop leading the life of the mind. We would stop welcoming and reacting to new discoveries – stop making them. We’d stop re-evaluating things we knew. I would not be angsting over whether topics I’ve been teaching for 30 years really make any sense in light of what I learned yesterday.

I can’t wait for some physiologist with a different bias to point out that my understanding of respiratory acidosis is simplistic – and it’s not because I’m at a small college.  Even the largest university probably doesn’t contain two people with different biases about that topic. I had to find it out for myself, though there was no pressing reason for me to think I had a problem. The fact that I find something like this out for myself every semester reassures me that I’m still learning and growing, doing my job. The year I go without discovering that something I’ve been teaching is inadequate or outdated is the year I stop living up to my profession.

Have faculty in general given up this ideal? Have we decided we can outsource the critical eye to people with other backgrounds, other ideologies, other experiences? Have we despaired of our ability to question ourselves and hold our opinions lightly, as provisional and subject to refutation?

I may be misreading the movement entirely. The idea may be that by hiring a diversity of colleagues, we will be better enabled to challenge our biases. I just dont see much of that in the discussion. Personal development and the virtues of a scholar seem sadly lacking, and that makes me sad. Because we shouldn’t be satisfied with being the representatives of an ideology, partisans of one side or another.

It’s the life of the mind. Arent we in it to expand our minds, to improve ourselves, to become greater than we are? Having time to do this, to make it our major focus, is a tremendous privilege. Let’s be worthy of it.

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