The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, September 28, 2006


Taking off in a few hours for San Francisco, to teach the first 2-Day Path workshop with my buddy Scott.  Wow.  It’s been almost ten years since I taught a two-day Lifewriting-style workshop.  Am I nervous?  No…really more like, curious. You see, I genuinely think that the technologies we’ve gathered together are kinda breakthrough (George Leonard tried it a long time ago…he’s an incredible man, but the movement tech we’ve got is superior).  I want to know if I’m wrong, and the only way I can possibly know is to perform the actual experiment of teaching, say, a thousand people and then correlating their results over the course of, say, a year.

One data point at a time…
Someone asked what a “Turkish Get-Up” is, and I’ll tell you.  It is one of the most vicious whole-body exercises God ever let live.  Basically, you lay on the ground, and hold a weight at arm’s length over your head.  Straight arm.  Now, get up from the ground, keeping the arm straight over your head.  Get up any way you can, using the opposite arm, whatever.  While standing, switch arms.  Lay back down.  Get back up.  Repeat.

It uses virtually every muscle in the entire body.  In Pavel’s terrific “Enter the Kettlebell” he suggests doing this continuously for five minutes as part of his “Program Minimum”—a total fitness workout in only 34 minutes a week!  Note: don’t try to go quickly.  This is a “Low Gear” exercise that will work your legs, back, abs, shoulders…and all your deep stabilizer muscles.  Excellent for grapplers!
Is it petty for me to be pissed at Adrian Brody for kissing Halle Berry at the Oscars?  Probably, but to understand why, you’d have to be willing to look at it from my point of view.  Berry has transformed her career by making herself (cinematically) sexually available to white men.  Can anyone even REMEMBER the last time she was romantically paired with a black man?  She is channeling Dorothy Dandridge in that sense, the beautiful black actress who had to have an affair with Otto Preminger in order to promote her career.

Over and over again, for decades, I’ve watched black men minimalized sexually—even in their own movies (I’ll never forget Ice Cube in “XXX” just getting out of prison, having a seductive blonde ask if there is “anything that he wants” and him replying “a cheeseburger.”  Dear God.)  at the same time I’ve had to watch white guys promote themselves as the sexual gods of the universe.  That’s their right, of course.  But that exclusion—specifically the exclusion of scenes of what I call “breeding behavior”—I believe to be one of the quantifiable measurements of racism in society.

The fact that I can actually statistically measure the difference in audience acceptance of such imagery (as measured in box office results.  Take the average movie in which a given white star has sex as opposed to a film in which he does not.  The box office stays about the same.  Take the average film in which a black actor has sex as opposed to those in which he does not.  If he has sex, the box office goes down.  Exit poll data suggests that the difference is that white males don’t enjoy such scenes.)

And I believe that this cultural disconnect will show up everywhere a subjective impression determines the outcome of a situation: jury trials, jobs, loans, housing, who a traffic cop pulls over, who a white cop will instinctively/reflexively shoot.

For the entire history of blacks in America, white males have had sexual access to our females.  First during slavery (and no, it wasn’t all rape…although considering our current opinions of sexual harassment and coercion in the workplace, it is impossible to consider such relationships entirely “voluntary”) and then afterward.  We all know that power is the greatest aphrodisiac…I  sincerely think that one of the  road-blocks to social equality was this cultural advantage—that just by being white, a man had a competitive advantage socially, because by dating or being seen with him, a black or Asian woman was “moving up.”

Why would any sane person want to give up an advantage like that?  So when I see Adrian Brody presume that to give the biggest black female star in history a big wet sloppy kiss—on television—in front of her husband, no less, who sat in the audience with a smile grimly stitched onto his face—it was an insult, a reminder of the degree of social privilege he inherited just by having white skin.  Like I said: NO black actor would have done such a thing to, say, Julia Roberts.  Never.  Three hundred years of aversive conditioning have guaranteed that.

But Brody just instinctively knew it would be all right.  Sorry, but unless America would have reacted as enthusiastically if Wesley kissed Brooke just as passionately, this is just salt in a wound.

I’ve had to watch this play out countless times.  When I talk about the differential in sexual scenes in movies, white guys will usually ask one of the following questions, all of which, to me, indicate that they REALLY don’t want to understand what I’m saying.

1) ”Well, there are more white people in America.  Of course there’s more sex scenes.”  I’m not talking about raw numbers.  I’m talking about the percentage of such scenes in movies starring whites as opposed to blacks.
2) “Well, there was a kiss.  Why doesn’t that count?”  Because we’re not measuring kisses.  I’m measuring love scenes.  If I said “notice that no one eats steak in movies?” would you say, “well, they’re eating hamburger, why doesn’t that count?”
1)     “Well, they woke up in bed together.  Why doesn’t that count?”  Suppose I said: “notice that there are no car chases in Hitchcock movies?”  would you answer: “well, you get to see parked cars.  Why doesn’t that count?”
2)     “Well, why does sex matter so much anyway?  I don’t even like sex scenes?”  Obviously, for the statistics to be so skewed, sex matters a LOT.  Whether it does to you, or to me, is irrelevant.  SOMETHING is going on here.  If I said: “Ever notice that you never see Asians wearing green in movies?” would you say, “Well, who likes green anyway?”
3)     “Well, maybe black actors don’t want to do love scenes.”  Sorry.  We’re just like you.  No differences I’ve ever been able to see.  My wife actually did an article for Essence magazine on this issue, and interviewed several actors.  Over the years, I’ve had the chance to ask several more.  They all say the same thing: the studios discourage them because over decades, they’ve seen the data.  White guys turn off if they see anyone but another white guy having sex onscreen.
And finally, after realizing that I’ve really done my homework on this one, they usually fall back on: “well, things have gotten better, haven’t they?”  No.  They’ve gotten worse.  The 1970’s was the time of “Shaft” and “Superfly” and so forth—films made by major studios for a black target market. These films had strong, smart, sexual heroes. To this day, there's never been a black male more overall competant and fully human than Richard Roundtree in "Shaft In Africa."  Jesus, that was thirty years ago!

Then the market shifted, so that there are fewer studios, fewer theater chains, and corporate decisions are made at levels far removed from the day-to-day realities of film production and distribution.  A few black stars: Denzel, Will Smith, etc.—can now make as much money as major white stars.  But they have to appeal to a general audience to do it, and to do that, they have to keep their clothes on.  Again, if you want to see how this works, look up a list of the top 300 boxoffice films, and note the difference in levels of sexuality.  The data is there.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Price Paid in Advance

Yesterday, I was working on one of the exercises for the upcoming Path workshop.  It consists of writing out my own obituary.  This symbolizes a sense of rounding to life…there is birth, and there is death.

In-between those critical moments is the passage known to us as life.  What will we do with it?  What do we want to accomplish?  Leave behind?  What contribution to the world do we care to make?  What lives will we touch, and how did we touch them?  What did we make of the miraculous body we are given?  What friends did we make, and what of the family we built?

These and other questions are central to the creation of what I call the “Life Story.”

For writers, understanding the scope of our life dreams, and the prices that we are prepared to bring them into reality, is essential.  How can you write about a character’s hopes and dreams if you are not in touch with your own?  Simple: you can’t.

Why not try this incredible exercise yourself, over the next week?  Just write your life story, from today until the day you die.  It can be in any form you want, and doesn’t have to be longer than one page.  It does, however, need to cover the three most basic arenas:

1) Career
2) Health and Fitness
3) Primary relationship and family.

Look at it carefully—does it contain implications of the price you are prepared to pay for what you want?  Remember: there is a price for everything you want in life.  And the price is always paid in advance.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Question on Simultaneous Submissions

A student question:

Dear Steve,

  Firstly, I'd like to thank you for all the inspiration. I look
forward to reading your news letters and blog every day. I have a
quick question that I hope you can answer. I know you're busy so I'll
be brief.
  I'm about to try and get my first short story published and I keep
reading about "no simultaneous submissions." Is this is hard fast rule
I should stick to, or should I just send my story out everywhere and
worry about this if/when it happens?

Thanks again for everything!




Each magazine has individual requirements.  If one asks “No simultaneous submissions” PAY ATTENTION.  They ask this because, if they like a story, they will begin the process of editing and publishing, even before they have a contract back from you—and the contract often consists of you cashing their check.

If you’ve submitted the story elsewhere, they can’t publish your work exclusively.  What if TWO magazines accepted your story at the same time?  Believe me, you’re causing headaches for editors.

Remember that you’re not trying to sell a story.  You are building a life, a series of habits…the integrity of the process (including building good relationships with editors!) is far more important than any individual sale. 

Good luck!

"Scoundrels" and the National Lampoon

I was reading a “Best of National Lampoon Cartoons” anthology.  Remember that magazine?  It grew out of the Harvard Lampoon, and always considered themselves in competition with Mad Magazine.  Well, they’re long gone as a magazine, and Mad is still around.  I always thought the N.L. was hysterical, but mean-spirited.  That if they saw a traffic accident, their first response would be to make jokes.  I remember that they got in trouble for a fake Volkswagon ad, showing a floating VW beetle with the caption: “If Teddy Kennedy had driven a Volkswagon, he’d be Presdent today!

Well, in looking back through the cartoons, they are just as funny as ever.  But I was also reminded of something about them that irritated me.  And that still irritates me to this day.

To be white, in the world of the National Lampoon, was to be normal.  To be non-white was to be the butt of a joke.  In other words, you’d never see a black or Asian person just walking by in the background, watching another character’s humiliation or situation.  No.  ALL background characters are white.  As are most foreground, central characters.  The ONLY time you saw a black person in a cartoon in the National Lampoon was if they were making a specific racial joke.  We weren’t human, we were jokes.

This hit me on the same day that I was looking at movie reviews, and saw one for “School For Scoundrels” with Billy Bob Thornton.  You know something?  He’s starting to annoy me.  “Monster’s Ball” was just a travesty in terms of racial imagery. 

Then there’s “Bad Santa” with the black dwarf.  And the single full-sized black security cop who gets killed.  All right…

And now Micheal Clark Duncan appears in “School For Scoundrels” as a “sexually ambiguous” assistant to Billy Bob.  Wow.  I believe that they’re making funny anal rape jokes as a running gag.  Considering that we will NEVER see Duncan in a love scene, emasculating him in a blonde wig to amuse the white frat boys is annoying.  It reminds me of one of my very least favorite movies, “The Green Mile” where Duncan simply functions to deliver white people to enlightenment, and to give Tom Hanks a raging sexuality…while he himself dies a dog’s death.

There’s this theory I came up with thirty years ago that I called the “Breeding Circle.”  It had to do with black male images in cinema.  I suggested that, grossly disproportunate to white images in cinema, black men were presented as non-breeding competition.  In broad terms, this meant that in a fascinating percentage of movies, the black characters were presented as too old, too young, too gay, too fat, or too dead to be reproductive competition.  The heroes of these movies were always young, straight, lean-bodies white guys.

Just for funsies, can any of you remember even a single movie where the only white male character fit in this category? 

I got so sick of seeing movies where the only black male character was an old man, or a little kid, or grossly obese, or gay (flamingly so) or died—often protecting a white guy, or inspiring him to rise up and improve himself.  Ugh.

It got so bad when I was a kid that when I was going to see an action movie with a mixed cast, kids in the neighborhood would ask me “how they killed the brother this time.”   We knew that America thought we were garbage.  The fact that these images were so enduringly popular told us everything we wanted to know.

Black male stars still cannot have love scenes and attract large audiences.  Until they can, I’m not going to see movies like “Scoundrels.”  I know why people are REALLY laughing: laughter is a release of tension, and believe me, a man like Michael Clark Duncan is threatening indeed.  In the subconscious fantasies of white guys across American (present company excluded, of course) he is a eunuch, or gay, and will never compete for breeding space in Halle Berry.

And by the way, it will be years before I forgive Adrian Brody for kissing her at the Oscars.  Does anyone here believe that if Wesley Snipes had kissed Julia Roberts, America would have found it as “romantic”? 
My workout schedule leading up to this weekend’s workshop is the following:

Warrior Wellness (wakeup and joint health)
Turkish Get-Ups (a fine whole-body exercise, performed continuously for five minutes.  Grueling)
Flow Fit 2.  (My current time for 15 repetitions: 29:00.  It works all basic fitness components, and also works the Six Degrees of Freedom, breaking the chains of Fear-Reactivity quite nicely)
Finish off with Kettlebell of Heavy Clubbell swings (in 2-minute rounds.  Thirty seconds of work followed by 90 seconds of light Silat)

ON alternate days, pure rest/recovery work, centering around Yoga.  These are my Bikram days.  My body seems to be enjoying this program…energy levels are high, and I can drop weight any time I want.  I sleep well, so I know I’m not overtraining.

All of my fitness aspects are handled at home…but only Yoga seems to address actual health in the way I like.  When I don’t do it, my body slowly starts remembering that I’m not twenty-five any more…

Monday, September 25, 2006

Jet Li’s Fearless (2006)

The umpteenth telling of the guru of the Jin Wu sports federation, Huo Yuanjia, is also, reportedly, martial arts master Jet Li’s final Wu Shu (traditional Chinese Martial Arts) film.  If so, he goes out on a very high note indeed. This story (which is the back story for Bruce Lee’s “Chinese Connection”) deals with the period when China was colonized by the British, Russian, and Japanese, who referred to China derisibly as the “Sick Man of Asia.”  Huo Yuanjia is pulled into a series of contests between the greatest fighters of the colonizing powers.  As he is considered a hero by millions of Chinese, you can probably imagine the outcome.

Despite its predictability, the movie flat rocks.  Jet Li intended it to be his statement of the meaning of Wu Shu, and what it has given him over the course of his life.  What he has given us is a document for the ages.  Jet Li is one of those few human beings whose motion exists at the edge of perfection.  There simply isn’t another level above Jet, although there are others—Baryshnikov, Astaire, Chaplin, Bruce Lee, and a few others—who have left cinematic testimonials of similar kinetic excellence.

The man has one of the most “physically intelligent” bodies I’ve ever seen in my life, and the story is poignant and honest enough to create a thematic backbone.  I cared.  And because I cared about this tale of an arrogant man who finds enlightenment, the martial aspects simply soared. 

Simply put, traditional martial arts films just don’t get much better than this.  The acting is only “O.K.” but the choreography and execution are extraordinary.  For martial arts fans: A+.  For moviegoers in general, a “B.”

Saturday, September 23, 2006

My Thoughts On Torture

I’d define the word “Torture” to include all emotional and physical pain specifically designed to de-construct the psychological mechanisms used to inhibit the flow of communication. Clearly, there are gradations.  What we generally call “extreme” torture would be those methods that end in death.  Somewhere in-between threatening to call your mommy and removing the viscera sans anesthetic is the region most often referred to when people use the word.

Everyone has used it.  And every time it was used, it was thought to be needed.

Let’s get it straight: there is nothing new going on here, in terms of the “Terrorist Threat.”  All they can do is kill us. If we were a village of 100 people, the Huns coming over the hill to slaughter our village is absolutely as devastating, to those in the village, as the threat of a mushroom cloud.  The Nazis thought they needed it, the Inquisitors thought they needed it, the Russians in the Gulags believed they needed it. And on, and on, ad nauseum.

We decried such measures, became world leaders in encouraging our fellow men to hold themselves to a higher standard, and the world looked to us for moral leadership.

But you know what?  Judging from our recent reactions, the insistence of virtually an entire half of our political spectrum that sexual humiliation, waterboarding, beating, tormenting with unmuzzled dogs and the like are just “pranks” and “humane”—(a corruption of language that is almost as frightening as the acts themselves) it is clear that this kind of bestial behavior is resorted to whenever people feel threatened, and that the only reason we (apparently temporarily) held any moral high-ground is that we were protected by oceans.  We felt safe.  So we were functioning at a higher level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of human needs, and could afford to be sanctimonious.  Then we lost .001% of our population, and went apeshit. 

Dear God.  If the Brits had been made of such weak stuff, they would have descended into utter barbarity during WW2.  I am ashamed.

And afraid.  Make no mistake: those who would encourage such actions against “Others” who are identified by religion, or nationality, would have little compunction against using them on the basis of race. Or sexual orientation.  Or politics.

They ignore the words of the experts on these subjects, who say that the information obtained is questionable at best.  They are the same people willing to forgive warrentless wiretapping, invading a foreign nation without cause, exposing active intelligence agents, secret prisons…

And they are us.  The Right is just the side of the spectrum that is more hierarchical and conservative in thought.  We’re all that way, given the correct circumstances.   There is nothing different, nothing special—either positively or negatively—about our brothers and sisters on that side of the political aisle.  We’ve all been frightened and grown rigid.  We’ve all believed we were correct, and been impossible to talk to.  We’ve all been willing to trust some strong leader even when our hearts want to pull in another direction, and our minds want answers to unasked questions.

We’ve all been there.  They are us.

Don’t you dare think that the Right, who I honestly believe to have been hijacked by extremists.   Just how many innocent Iraquis have died?  You don’t even know, do you?  Do you care?  And if you do, how DARE you not understand why our actions have inflamed the Islamic world!  Yes, they railed against us before—but also admired us and wanted to be like us.  The numbers who now hate us and wish us harm HAVE to have increased. They would not be human otherwise.

As you watch America debating just how much flesh we can strip from the bones, how much terror we can interject into hearts, how cold the cells can be, how close the unmuzzled dogs can get…

Remember, those debating this about Arabs would do it to you, my friends. Yes, they would.  And they would shake their heads sadly and say it was necessary.

Remember that when you approve such techniques, it is 100% inevitable that they be applied to innocent people.  No justice system in the history of the world has been perfect.

Remember that with every act a society takes, it is building its future, and revealing its character.

Is this who we are?  Would you want your sons and daughters to behave in such a fashion?  Well, remember that this is how people behave when they are afraid, or feel at risk.  And remember that the next time you hear people suggest that group X or Y “isn’t like us.”

Here we are, the wealthiest, most powerful, and once upon a time most beloved people on the planet.  And one little bitch-slap made us resort to barbarity, dragged us into the humiliating public spectacle of our President wanting to know just where the moral line is.  Dear God.  This man says that God talks to him, and HE doesn’t know where the moral line is.  He’s supposed to be our leader, and he sounds exactly like any defendant at Nuremberg protesting that the methods were necessary, that he was doing what had to be done, following the will of the people and his duty, and finally just following orders.

We will recover from this. Eventually, the world will forgive us.  But they can see that we are just like them now.  No better, no worse.  Knock down two of our buildings, and we’ll kidnap innocents and torture them to salve our fear.

Maslow would understand.  Our grandchildren will be ashamed.

Friday, September 22, 2006

"Thar" Cultures

An interesting and controversial essay on the concept of "honor" and its impact on social progress...


When FIVE former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  (Gen. Hugh Shelton Chairman under Bill Clinton & George W. Bush, Gen. John Shalikashvili Chairman under Bill Clinton,  Gen. Colin Powell
Chairman under George Bush Sr. & Bill Clinton,  Admiral William Crowe Chairman under Ronald Reagan & George Bush Sr., Gen. John Vessey, Chairman under Ronald Reagan)  revolt against the White House’s plans for torture, I think it is clear that a lack of faith in our Commander-In –Chief is justified.  Some on this board have defended Bush, I think because they are staunch Americans who love this country as I do, and believe in the Conservative values Bush pretended to support.  They support the war in Iraq because they feel it will make America safer, and support the removal of tyrants.

I can have nothing but respect for all of these opinions, even if I disagree with ways and means.  I have six words for you: This President has abused your trust.

You may not believe me yet.  But as election time nears in '06 and '08, and more and more Republican officials  jump ship, I think you’ll find the Emperor revealed as having very few clothes indeed.  And it’s going to be embarrassing. I just want you to know that if that happens, I don’t want to see any crowing on this board—this is deadly serious, and the events of the last six years will resonate for the next sixty.  We HAVE to pull together as Americans, and know that we can survive a bad leader, we can have our disagreements, and still pull toward a common dream.

Can’t wait to read the history books.
2) I was offered a three-book contract yesterday.  I’ll be looking at the particulars over the weekend, and we’ll see.  That would mean that the next year would be BUSY, with screen and television work as well as books and NPR talks.  And teaching the Path, and studying Silat and Japanese arts, and raising my fascinating and rambunctious little boy, and getting Nicki into UC Irvine.

Man oh man, am I ever living in “interesting times”…

3) I’m going to need to connect with an EXPERT on canine intelligence in connection with a SF-Horror project that’s sort of a cross between Jaws and E.T.  Any suggestions?

4)I wake up every morning, and go to sleep at night repeating “I Am” to myself, allowing my drowsy mind to examine every meaning and possibility in those two words.  Using different inflections, different visualizations.  Meditating upon those two words has been said to be the simplest and most reliable path to Enlightenment.  We’ll see.
What I have noticed is that after about a month of this, the words seem to be resonating with my Hara, my Tan T’ien, the third chakra. Interesting, and a bit unanticipated.  I’d been combining it with the Heartbeat meditation, so the “I am” sinking to the Hara was surprising.  Would it make sense to say that the “feeling” of this is as if my Hara is a ball bearing connecting my lower animal drives with my higher emotional/intellectual drives?  That’s just an impression, and I don’t really know what the hell it means.  But sure is interesting…

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Pattern recognition in writing

As I said a while back, juggling multiple projects is something like playing multiple games of chess.  The chess master sees the flowing patterns on the board, and moves his pieces into an aesthetically pleasing configuration.  From vast experience, such artistic arrangements also lead to winning positions.

In writing, there are patterns as well, underlying the surface elements of grammar, spelling, paragraph construction, etc.  They have to do with the way character and plot interact with each other, and themselves.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you return to a project after a few days or weeks away:

1) Who is my lead character? 
2) What does  she want?  What does  she need?  What is the difference between the two?
3) What is her greatest flaw?  How does this interact with the plot to create drama, or opportunity for growth?
4) What is her greatest strength?  How does this resolve or complicate the plot?
5) What is the moment of the character’s greatest despair?  What allows her to triumph despite the obstacle?
6) Does the character end the story on a higher or lower level than her beginning position?  Why, or why not?
7) What personal pain or joy am I expressing in this story? 
8) What is the difference between what this story is APPARENTLY about, and what it is ACTUALLY about?
9) Does this story have mythic or classical underpinnings? In other words, am I re-interpreting an older work or theme?
10) Why should a reader care about my characters?

Asking questions like this can jump-start your process.  Take a couple of these questions, and apply them to your work today!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Pope's Speech

All right, I wen to the text of the Pope's speech

And the part that got people upset was his reference to a conversation between an  "erudite" 
Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an "educated" Persian.  The emperor said:

"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The answer by the Persian is not given.  To me, when one quotes an "expert" on a subject without rebuttal, one is supporting that position without having to actually take responsibility for such support.  The fact that the Pope "regretted" people's hurt feelings without repudiating the sentiments is further suggestion--to me--that he meant exactly what he said. For the titular leader of Christianity to make such a statement and not understand the weight it carries is incomprehensible to me.  I have to believe that he knew, and was saying what he wanted to say, while reserving the right to back off just a leetle bit if things got too hot.  Standard politics. 

This doesn' tseem intellectually honest to me, and I find that regrettable.


1)   The most recent post posits a society in which there is both a safety net (basic human needs provided at the level of, say, a State Prison) and a Libertarian “engines of free enterprise and competition” state.  The idea is that no child wallows in poverty, yet the best, brightest and hardest-working can achieve massive success.
You know?  I have no idea how this would work, or indeed IF it could work.  I’ve always thought that the higher the safety net, the lower the ceiling.  But it’s always seemed to me that this was pretty much the “Star Trek” universe, and that was, and is, a dream that has attracted and held millions for over thirty years.  Just because I can’t see a way doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
2)     I’m glad no one suggests that because I don’t demonize Islam for the violent actions following the Pope’s rather regrettable comments, I’m suggesting that we guilty Westerners should beg the forgiveness of Muslims for our wicked, wicked ways.  That would be bullshit.  But a nun being killed means that the person who killed her is wicked, not the Religion he professes to believe in—and which forbids such killings.  You see, people, I believe something, based on countless hours of conversation with other human beings, and the reading of countless thousands of pages of essays and letters from various political and philosophical groups.  And that is this: the way you treat “B” is gonna determine how you treat “C.”  In other words, the same mind-set that says: “Muslims are evil because .001 percent of them rioted” will also say: “Black people are stupid because they riot and burn their own neighborhoods.”  Of course, that same mentality (although not necessarily the same people) would say: “When the Irish rioted during the Civil War, lynching black people in the streets of New York, they were displaying their uniquely violent and uncivilized natures” or “The use of Kamakazi pilots by the Japanese during WW2 means that they don’t value human life” or “The higher percentage of male violence means that men are evil and corrupt” or whatever.

Having been the victim of such thinking, I had a choice early in life.  Looking around at (what seemed to me) to be a massively damaging series of actions toward the African side of my genetics, combined with incredible denial and ongoing self-righteousness, and a slaughter of lives and potential that I still cannot quite wrap my mind around, I saw many of my brothers and sisters (in the African genetics sense—God knows I have brothers and sisters in many, many senses) succumbing to despair, hatred, self-loathing, or quiet tamping-down of negative emotions.  I wanted none of those things, and instead decided to search for the root causes of negative, violent behavior.

The hardest thing to understand or forgive was the tendency human beings have to blame the victim.  In other words, it is one thing to mug someone and then piss on them as they lay unconscious the gutter. That’s loathsome, but there’s worse.  Worse is to laugh at the person in the gutter, pointing them out to your fellow muggers as examples of how worthless a broke, injured, smelly person is, and how that state is indicative of their basic nature.

THAT is what human beings do. So the exact same mechanisms that guide all of my pain into love CANNOT be undone just because it would be politically correct to demonize, say, Muslims. Can’t do it.  I would have to also demonize white people.  And black people.  And men.  And women.  There is no end to it, because there isn’t one of those groups that has not, in my mind, exhibited loathsome and violent and/or instigating behavior, then twiddled its thumbs and said “not me!” 

That said, I went way out of my way to actually meet Muslims during my research for “Lion’s Blood” and “Zulu Heart” and found them about the same, morally and ethically, as the Christians, Jews, and atheists I’ve known.  Some good, some bad, some exemplary.  Human.

So whenever I hear group X reporting on the evil of group Y, I automatically assume that there are cultural filters that will keep X from understanding its own culpability, or understanding the way group Y sees them.

This tendency of human nature seems pretty damned universal.  I fall into it myself, but struggle to keep my eyes clear.  It’s a full-time job.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Socialist/Libertarian State?

A post a few days ago concerning the idea of social programs as "Safety Nets" got a couple of interesting responses.  Hopefully the authors and any other interested parties can elaborate...
Here's the gist:

"Embrace welfare ideals to make sure that every child has certain fundamental basics: food, health care, education. Then get libertarian: turn everyone loose and let them compete."

Provide the bare essentials for people (no luxuries and not too comfy) while also giving them a system in which they can go out and strive for more through their own hard work and smarts."

How about a few more thoughts along these lines?  What would happen in such a system?

Coach Sonnon's Prayer

My very dear friend Scott Sonnon just posted this on his board at

This is Scott's heart.  To me, it is this kind of spiritual thought--on the part of warriors--that can lead us out of the current darkness.  I genuinely love this man. 

I pray today because I am so sublimely grateful for this opportunity to have one more day to experience this enormity, this monumental blessing of being able to be healthy and fit and happy and loved. I pray because my family gets to experience an exuberant life, because my children beam with vitality, love and confidence in themselves and their strengths, because my wife loves me despite my ubiquitous shortcomings and my snail's pace growth, and because she challenges me to grow more and more far beyond what I thought I was capable so much that I feel I might burst. I pray because my brothers and sisters in our community here teach me so, so, so much every day and I feel each and every ounce of effort that you put forth to become healthier, stronger, better people. How could I possible pray enough to express my gratitude for all of this???

I pray because I cannot fathom how I could by some apparent geographical jackpot get to have such a privileged life, because the food I get to eat is in such abundance and such richness that I ask for forgiveness for such bountifulness. I pray for help to know how I can take from the world only that which I need, and yet accept abundance in my life when I am given some beautiful adornment as a present from my wife like shoes which cost enough to feed another family for a month.

I pray for guidance in understanding that I help people become healthy and fit because we live in a society so glutted with nutrient-empty fodder and such emotional masochism that we actually have to worry about becoming obese. I pray for help to know the right step to take, in knowing what is essential for my contribution, what will help our organization to grow responsibly, to help people just enough that it doesn't hurt others, because a business can grow so rapidly that it outstrips itself and hurts others more than it helps.

I pray to learn how to responsibly spend my monetary energy as a consumer so that I am helping the economy one dollar at a time; to resist the shortsightedness of hording my resources in the event of "something bad." I pray to know how to make these hard-right decisions, and to keep my awareness in even the smallest choices, like spending an extra two dollars on bacon made from free-range turkey who were not pumped full of chemicals and tortured in cages too small. I pray to know how to invest in the best choice of product, even if that is the most expensive option, because that will last the longest with the least disrepair so that I am contributing positively not only to the economy but to the environment as well. I pray to be a positive, responsible, active consumer and thus contribute to our way of life, and all of the wonders it affords us like I've already prayed for and will again tomorrow.

I pray that I am helping share my education appropriately so that I both learn from those medical professionals who have such miraculous abilities to help us heal ourselves and teach them how to integrate their skills in an overarching model of wellness lifestyles. I pray with gut wrenching thanks for not having to live in pain and with disease, and to know how I can best be of service to those poor souls who do and because of their courageous suffrage are my betters.

I pray that my government officials will hold themselves accountable for immoral decisions and actions, even if I would have had to make similar decisions would I have been in their shoes. I pray that my government is telling me the right amount of truth and not withholding an inappropriate amount of the truth in order to take advantage of my family. I pray that when the truth is fully disclosed that my compatriots respect that hard decisions need to be made, and still hold those responsible accountable for immoral crimes.

I pray that in this global chaos that I am never called to fight by my government for a cause I know in my heart to be unjust. I pray that I am never called away from my family to kill in the name of a cause I do not understand, because I pray that I never become good at it as I may be, or worse that I would become not repulsed by it and become self-righteous, for that would be the most emotional torture I can imagine. I pray to never have to decide between a righteous enemy and an unrighteous brother. I pray that I will never have to know how to to hold myself accountable for allowing a government official to misrepresent me, my family and my compatriots.

I pray with more love than I can muster for my compatriots, some of whom I've never met, who fight for our way of life, because they do. I pray that we are able to take the right courses of action to ensure that our way of life is guaranteed because in my heart I know that we are on the cusp of spiritual transformation, a chrysalis which could be crushed if we succumb to omnipresent fear of imminent attack from every side, every day. I pray that my government officials are able to create a solution beyond my comprehension which will ensure our social welfare, and protect us without infringing upon the lives of other cultures on other shores. I pray that we are not unwittingly experiencing abundance at the price of food from the table of another family with a father who looks desperately at his crying, hungry, fear-ridden children.

I pray that the religious leaders of the world will set aside any institutionally-specific doctrine just to the extent to realize that the common denominator in all religions is love, and like the love of your most intimate, your spouse, you give them the benefit of the doubt even if your most sensitive button has been pushed, that they have done so innocently, accidentally or with temporary ignorance. I pray that I never find that I have prejudiced someone because they have done something so repugnant to me that I lose that love; I pray I never must hold myself accountable for acting out of fear and hate. I pray that I never have to decide between my family remembering me because I protected them by committing an immoral crime or them remembering me as the cause of their injury, impoverishment or death because out of love I withheld action. God, I pray that I never need to choose, and I pray for the wisdom and the strength of the fathers who must.

I pray with such dire desperation that we will be granted the grace to love one another and express our eternal gratitude for all of the blessings we are given each moment, even this humble, if not trite attempt to share my gratitude with any who would suffer through reading my prayer.

Today, I pray because like no other time in my life we stand at the edge of the abyss and despite how supremely impossible each and every choice is, I pray that we can somehow, through all of our seething, indignant outrage at the atrocities that may be and have been committed against us, Oh my dear God, even against the most radiant love in my life, my children, that we manage to place love first and let it guide us through the darkness of our shared plight.

Tortured by Mistake

It was absolutely statistically inevitable that people would be unjustly tortured (just as its inevitable that people be unjustly arrested, jailed, and executed…no justice system is perfect).  Today’s headlines included the story of Syrian-born Canadian software engineer Maher Arar, “rendered” and sent to jail in a secret CIA in Syria.  There, for more than a year, he was interrogated, beaten, and whipped with electrical cables.

And now, it appears that he is entirely innocent.  I have no interest in playing footsy with the definitions of torture.  I am very worried about the mentality of the officials who want to know just how much flesh they can peel, how much fear they can induce, how close to death they can take someone and still be “legal.”

Interrogation experts have stated repeatedly that there are other means of gathering information.  Many suggest that torture is inefficient.  I know that I try very hard to live by the rule of treating others as I would have them treat me.  This includes the concept of a clean death, especially in a combat arena where all participants have agreed to play.  It does not include torture.

My people were tortured in the process of working them literally to death (don’t believe me? Look up the statistics on life expectancy for slaves: approximately 23 years at a time when whites lived to about 38.  Within 50 years after slavery ended, that life expectancy had risen to about 37 years.  Do the math).

I’m sorry.  Anything that is wrong done to me or mine is wrong done to anyone.  There is no other point of view that, to me, aligns with Spirit.  For some of those who defend this behavior to simultaneously proclaim themselves Christians makes me want to vomit.  It really does.

Jesus wept.
A letter from a student in India, regarding a recent post where I suggested that you should set a writing goal such as “one million words” and move steadily toward it, sending in your stories and essays for evaluation…

Dear Steve,

This letter has evoked a response in me. After reading
this one, I went through calculations of my entire
writing career of 15 years covering both vernacular
and English.

To my amazement, the percentage of rejection stands at
around 20% ! What should I do now? What can be the
ideal attitude of a writer at this state of things? I
wish to have a few lines from you.

Warm regards,

Well, I’d say if your rejection stats are no more than 20% you are an exceptional writer indeed!  You should be aiming at the highest quality publications you can find, in whatever way you measure that, either money or status.  By sending your material to the toughest editors in the field, you are getting high-level feedback from the best in the business.  Congratulations!

My son Jason has been waking up at ungodly early hours of the morning (starting at about 4:30) and then refusing to nap at preschool.  He’s actually causing a problem, and waking the other kids.  Does anyone out there have a suggestion?

Very disappointed with the Pope over his recent comments about Islam, that the Prophet Mohammed brought nothing new and positive to the world.  Even more disappointed with his “apologies and explanations.”  Everything said in response to the (rather predictable and human) outcry suggests that he’s sorry people were offended, but that he meant exactly what he said.  Wow.  Not exactly the kind of contribution to the global discourse I would hope for, unless one is trying to start a holy war. 

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Let's Find OUt If Steve's Right!

I was accused of living in a fantasy world about the way societies work.  Fair enough--everyone's entitled to their opinion.  But a little straw poll will determine if I'm right or wrong on this one, I think.  My position is that fewer people would have supported the Iraq war if their own children and husbands had been at risk--if there had been a draft.  (Note: I'm not asking anyone to agree that there should be a draft, or agree that the Iraq war is a mistake.  My only real point was that fewer would have agreed.  My PERSONAL POSITION is that we shouldn't fight a war we wouldn't be willing to have a draft to fight. There's a difference, o.k?) I right or wrong?  Why not ask five of your friends who have children.  Ask them if they would be more or less likely to support the war if there had been a draft, and their chidlren might have gone.  I've done this (informally) over the last months, and the strong answer is "less likely."

Try it yourselves.  Now, frankly, I think you already know the answer, and it's one that supporters of the Iraq war are afraid of. They believe that, even if the mass of Americans DON'T want the war, they are simply wrong, too stupid to know what is good for them.   I believe that they, in general, are capable of making such decisions--if they understand the cost-benifit ratio.

But because taxes weren't raised, goods weren't rationed, and few people (comparative to WW2 or Vietnam) know anyone actually involved in the fighting, we sort of went to sleep on this one, and are very slowly waking up.  These measures would have made (in my estimation) people much more mindful.  Come voting time, they would let Washington know in no uncertain terms what they want.
If you conduct the proposed experiment (asking five people whether they would be as likely to suppor the Iraq war if a draft provision had been in place) I'd love to hear what your experience is.  Honor system applies--I'll believe whatever you say.  But actually try it--don't just jump in with opinions.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Misc. Thoughts

1) Someone asked what I thought of TV Reality Show “Survivor’s” race-based tribes.  Well, separate from social context, it’s just good marketing.  It sure got people talking, didn’t it?  In social context, it is somewhat problematic just in terms of the entire production.  I’d have more confidence in the concept if the creative team behind it was also mixed ethnically—which I sincerely doubt. 

People will tend to cheer for “their” group, and feel somewhat guilty about it.  80% of the winners thus far have been, I believe, white males. One black female.  You’d go broke betting that a black guy was going to win on that show anytime soon.  I don’t believe I ever watched an episode, but would be lying if I didn’t admit to wondering how it would all shake out.

And it is this automatic tendency to side with "your" tribe that makes it imperative that we remain aware of our small actions, which multiplied across millions of people create hideous results. And always have.  And always will, if we refuse to see the truth about both the positive and negative aspects of human nature.

2) Torture in the news. Thank God that Republicans are starting to wake up that they don’t have to march in lock-step with the White House, even if I’m cynical enough to think they’re mostly doing that because of the mid-term elections.  I wouldn’t want to live in a country that had torturing suspects as S.O.P.  I just wouldn’t.  That’s not the America I grew up loving. 

On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed watching Jack Bauer torture suspects.  What’s the difference?  He’s fantasy, and he’s never ever wrong.  If he was wrong ONCE, it would stop being entertaining. 

And in real life, you are absolutely, positively certain of getting it wrong X% of the time.  Period.

But what if a nuclear bomb was going to go off in Los Angeles, and I had to torture someone to get the info?  I’ve been asked this, and my answer is, hell yes I’d torture someone to get the information.   Or kill.  But I wouldn’t want my actions to be legal.  I’d be prepared to be jailed or executed for what I did to save my family, friends, and millions of others.  I could live with that, if it had to be done.   But I wouldn’t want it to be legal.

3) My thoughts on the draft.  I think almost anyone would say that there were circumstances under which it is reasonable for a country to demand its citizens fight in its defense. This principle has worked pretty well, for a long long time.  My thought is this: whatever standards you have for that circumstance, we should fight a war for nothing less.  Our definitions of that circumstance will vary.  But I honestly believe that we shouldn’t be willing to go to war for anything that wouldn’t be worth the death of our own children.  And I think the Iraq adventure was begun on a much “lower” standard.  I have simply heard too many people speak as if the lives of volunteers are less important than the lives of draftees.  And I think that down that road lies the death of our national character. 

To put it more simply: it wasn’t worth a draft?  It wasn’t worth fighting.  I tie those two together, yes indeed I do.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

In Shape For Jason

I mentioned recently that I’ve redrawn the basic philosophy behind my workouts.  Being in shape for yoga, or silat, or karate, or FlowFit, or Kettlebells, or whatever, is fine, but I find that some particular focus is best, and the most important I can think of is to be a good father to a VERY physically active and coordinated child.  What are the qualities needed to keep up with a three year old?

1) General energy and health
2) General Joint health—(lifting, rolling, jumping, etc.)
3) General muscular strength
4) General coordination (heck, I don’t know what sports he’s going to want to take up! I have to be prepared for a bit of anything.)
5) Emotional calm and centeredness
6) The ability to get excited at a moment’s notice.
7) The ability to rest deeply and sleep fully when opportunity arises.

There’s more, but those are the most basic ones.  To this end, my current external workout plan includes Bikram Yoga, Silat, and mixed Japanese martial arts.  Home preparation for this is a 3X/Week routine.

1) Warrior Wellness (for joint health and warmup).  10 Minutes
2) Silat djurus.  10 Minutes.
3) Kettlebell and/or clubbell. Specifically, start with 5 minutes of  Turkish Get-Ups.  Grueling.  Then I flip a coin—heads, Kettlebell aerobics (swings), tails Clubbell aerobics (Gama Casts).  Protocol: 30-60 seconds of KB or CB, followed by 1-2 minutes of shadowboxing. 15 minutes
4) FlowFit II.  Like solving a Rubik’s Cube with your body.  Brings together all basic elements of fitness and opens a doorway to advanced fitness and sports coordination.  Goal: 15 reps in 15 minutes.  Last Saturday, I did 15 reps in 48 minutes.  I’ve got a long, long way to go.

The above is done three times a week, alternate days.  Other days are rest and recovery (Yoga or Warrior Wellness only)

Seems to be working great. My energy is very high, all basic physical traits are in line.  I can approach my body’s maximum capacity for every aspect of fitness with the possible exception of 1-rep Max. 

Comments on recent post

"Creating a nation of people who look to the government for all of their basic needs is actively creating a nation of slaves (I don't use the word lightly, my friend.)"
I know you don't, Rory.  I don't think that providing a safety net is the same thing as "creating a nation of people who look to the government for all their basic needs".  But that probably has to do with an attitude about what we are, at the base.  I trust private industry to be good at certain things, and government to be good at others.  But my belief about the most essential aspects of human nature include the opinion that when basic needs are denied, those unfairly denied them have less motivation to obey the social contract.  I remember a guy telling me once (hah hah!) that if we were on a deserted island, and there was only one sandwich left, he would kill and eat me. Fine.  But then later he tried to tell me that people obey laws because of some innate standards which express our spiritual essence. Hmmm.

There are people who will resist evil no matter what pressure you put on them.  Others who will resist good no matter how much kindness they are shown.  And then there is the mass of humanity, who will do what they perceive as being in their best interests. 

I honestly believe, based on countless hours of listening and reading or books, essays, debates, discussions, and what not, that people on the Right tend to believe that the conditions human beings find themselves in are basically indicative of their worth.  While those on the Left tend to believe that the environment created much of the behavior we witness in the world. 

And when I see “clusters” of attitudes that, to me, arise from this basic difference in the way (it seems to me) they are viewing the world, I take it dead seriously—having simply dealt with countless people on both sides of the spectrum who are good and decent—and see the world differently.  At times, very differently.

Government education has its downside, but so would a corporate alternative.  I might well agree that a certain amount of competition would be a good thing, but how much?  A National health plan might well have some disadvantages—but so does no National health plan.  And while there are people on one side who doubtless would like “the government” to carry the entire weight of their lives, on the other side we will also find those with utter contempt for those less fortunate.  Each side has its poison, its broken, diseased emotions.

Personally, I’ve had to deal with a life of hearing people on the Left and Right debating, directly or indirectly, the racial situation in America—specifically the differential between income, education, incarceration, etc.   And the farther “Right” the speaker, the less they seem to acknowledge that there are very real differences in the situation that the descendants of slaves find themselves in, in comparison to any other group in this country.  They seem to have no slightest awareness of things I’ve been forced to be aware of since I was a child.

Anyone who knows me knows that I believe absolutely in personal responsibility…but there is entirely too much self-congratulatory “we made it, if you didn’t there must be something wrong with you” in the human spirit.  Too much readiness to forget advantages that one might have had as a member of a group.   In many cases, it seems equivalent to meeting someone from a third-world country, comparing incomes, and assuming that you’re smarter than them because you earn more money, forgetting that you were born with the fantastic advantage of being American.

There are similar advantages to being   white, heterosexual, male, lean-bodied, tall, smart, etc.  Some of these things you can change, some you cannot. 

I can say nothing about the intent, and the heart, of those who believe that we are in Iraq to help the Iraqi people—as individuals.  I hope that each and every person reading this knows that, as an individual, I want to believe that you are as loving and spiritual as anyone who ever walked this planet.

But as a group, I have to say that when I see what seems to be a differential between the concern for poor, or brown, or disadvantaged people at home, I am less likely to believe that you really care about those foreigners you’ve never met. 

It bothers me that I’ve never heard anyone comment on the apparent discrepancy between the “Let’s fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here” and the “We’re doing it for the Iraqis” attitudes.  What? I love you, so I’m going to trigger a gang war in your front yard, knowing that it is absolutely inevitable that many of your children will be slaughtered in the process…because better your children than mine??

In my mind, these two attitudes don’t gel.  Politics makes strange bedfellows, indeed.
When people talk about Trickle-Down Economics, to me, they are missing the fact that that can only work in a closed economic system, not in one where money and resources can leave the country.  Oddly, again, it would only make sense if one disbelieved in national boundaries, and the people most in favor of TDE seem to be the least trusting of the United Nations and other efforts to build a single world government.

Those who are most in favor of privatizing governmental programs have tended to be, (in my experience) most likely to be in the group that would most benefit from not having to pay the taxes for public education or medical—usually (but not always) white, upper middle class, educated, and few or no children.  Fine.  It doesn’t bother me at all when people look out for “their” class.  My assumption is that 99% of human beings think that way, and probably about 90% of what I’d consider really, really good and decent people as well.

My problem is when people of class “A” suggest that what is good for them is actually good for class “B” as well—whether or not members of class “B” agree.  Sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, classism of many kinds is disguised by such rhetoric.  “If group X would just (educate themselves, stay in the home, stop using drugs, save their money, whatever) they would be better off…”

Which may be true, but ignores the fact that human beings are hugely shaped by their environment.  Note that the shift from manual labor to office environments, combined with super-sized meals, has created an epidemic of obesity.  Same people. Hard workers.  Want to be healthy, and sexy, and happy. 

And everywhere I look, I see people so fat they waddle, their sex lives in the toilet (based on private conversations with hundreds of them), unhappy with their bodies and no idea what to do.  And  many of these people are SMART, man.  Really, really smart.  And trapped by an ab-reaction to the changing environment.

I cannot have compassion for them, and not look at the poverty, and crime, and education rates, and lack of medical care, and not know that our society can do much better. And I know damned well that the billions spent in Iraq will end up coming out of social programs here in America—it’s already happening.  And considering that so many of those who oppose such programs here are in favor of the war, I have to wonder if some of the Left-wing pundits who say that this was a deliberate tactic to force government to shrink might not have a point after all.  I hope that’s not true, but I fear it might be.
So…I’m afraid I want to err on the side of providing services, if we have the ability to do so.  Adventuring in foreign lands in my mind provides less security for our country than providing for our own citizens.  I’m in favor of providing the same basic health and access to education that one would get in a state prison—at the least. After all, all anyone needs do to get that is to break your daughter’s back.

Personally, I’d rather not give a desperate, alienated human being that choice.  I know that, if my son were starving and society had abandoned me, I’ll kill to get his bread.  I KNOW I would.  And I suspect that I’m not alone there.  We flaunt our wealth to the whole world.  We spend stupendous amounts of money overseas, and during Katrina the CANADIAN armed forces seemed to arrive in New Orleans before our own people.  I consider this to be an utter disgrace, a break-down of much of what I love about this country, much of what I have always believed we are.

I believe in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs—when the basic needs are taken care of, only then can a being evolve to higher levels of responsibility, maturity and contribution. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Ousting Saddam

You know, when people say: "there were good reasons to oust Saddam, even if he wasn't an immediate threat..."  I have to theory.  But not in practice.  In practice, Bush Sr. knew that "taking out Saddam" would create a quagmire.  If every American child had free breakfast (if needed), if higher educations were more available to poor people (the cost of the Iraq war would have paid for how many full four-year college scholarships?), if health care were universal, if we'd had the resources and will to respond with swift efficiency to a disaster like Katrina and a few more things like that--

THEN I could imagine spending such a fantastic amount of our financial and moral capital on such a speculative adventure.   I find it fascinating that, in general, the people who are MOST in favor of providing these services to Americans have the least interest in the Iraq adventure, while those MOST in favor of our actions in Iraq seemed (to listen to them) to have the least interest in providing those governmental services to Americans.  This doesn't make sense to me...and as I've said before, it reminds me of the Civil Rights era, where those interested in the Civil Rights movement at home had (in general) an anti-Vietnam stance, and some of those most strongly AGAINST freedom marches and protesting for rights at home talked loudest about providing "freedom" for those overseas.  What?  There's something wrong with this picture.

Charity starts at home.  Those who think we should be in Iraq for the sake of Iraquis who ALSO believe in things like Universal Health Care and Education...well, they seem to be a tiny minority. My personal opinion?  Saddam was contained. He'd gotten his ass kicked--badly.  He was on the wrong side of his testosterone flush, and probably just wanted to enjoy his billions and his declining years.  In theory it makes great good sense to remove foreign dictators.  In practice, such attempts at nation-building strike me as hubris of the highest order.
It seriously troubles me that so many of those dedicated to "bringing democracy and freedom" to people on the other side of the world seem to feel our own government, here at home, should not be expected to provide basic necessities.  It is a bit like a guy whose own children go barefoot, but spends all the time visiting lovely widows to make shoes for THEIR children.  Wow!  The intentions may be good, but it is certainly reasonable to raise your eyebrows and wonder.
There are those who posit the "one reason" theory on either side.  We can agree that they are probably over-simplifying.  So those with better perspective might occupy themselves making a list of all the reasons--fair and foul--and then prioritize those reasons  as most to least contributory to the invasion and current situation.  Which ones would build a coalition in Washington? Which ones relate to the needs of the average American?  Which ones match the Neocon agenda?  Whatever the truth is, I can promise you it's a tangled web.
It is because the web is so tangled that it bothers me that Americans aren't being asked to sacrifice more.  Our volunteer army is, in my mind, filled with heros and patriots, as well as average Americans looking to make a better life.  But if this is the kind of cultural death-struggle Bush says it is, then we need to have a draft, so that EVERY American must face the spectre of his or her nephews and nieces, sons and daughters might be forced to fight and die.  Then, and only then, will people ask the hardest questions, and evaluate whether we should really be there or not.  I have simply heard: "they're all volunteers" too damned often, as if that absolves us of the responsibility to treat each and every one as precious and irreplacable.  If I was a soldier in Iraq, and my tour of duty had been extended as the lines get stretched thinner, I would PRAY that, back home, my fellow Americans were debating this issue.
If this is the kind of all-out war we've been told, there should be rationing, and sacrifice.  The  idea of tax cuts at such a time make sense to those who believe in Trickle-Down Economics, and no one else.  What percentage of the population is that?  And if TDE doesn't work, in whose interests might it be to promote the idea that it does?  Follow the money...
I trust America, but one truth of human nature is that we only pay attention to the things right in front of us.  "The squeaky wheel gets the grease."  Yes, I believe that a volunteer army allows many Americans to think the responsibility, the death, the risk, the tragedy is someone else's affair.  EVERYONE in American during WW2 knew people who were fighting in Europe or Japan.  It was intimate and immediate.  That just isn't true right now, and I think that's one BIG reason why it's taken so long for the country to wake up and realize they disapprove of this war.  That would have happened LONG ago, if on September 12th a draft had been announced.  Trust me. 

You never know the number

You never know the number

I just got this note from one of my writing students from Hurston Wright, currently walking the Thousand Mile Road…


Just wanted to let you know that I've gotten back my
first rejection in a long time.  I sent a story I
wrote back in '99, shelved after getting rejected,
then sent back out to the Big Three (Analog, Asimov,
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction).

Needless to say that my first rejection came from John
Joseph Adams at TMFSF, who stated in a note:

"Thank you for submitting (Story Title),' but I'm
going to pass on it.   This tale didn't grab my
interest, I'm afraid.  Good luck to you with this one,
and thanks again for sending it our way."

I can tell that this is one that is original, and I'm
glad that he replied quickly.  But I'm not really
disappointed, only pondering how the story was not
interesting enough.  However, I'm keeping in mind what
you said at Hurston Wright, that this is a numbers
game, and I have more stuff to send out in the next
upcoming several months.  What do you think?

I think that you’re doing exactly, precisely the right thing.  Send this story out to the next venue on your list, and get on to the next story.  You will learn more by writing new stuff than by re-writing old material.

You have to INTERNALIZE the basic structures of writing before your artistic sense can be freed to improvise on the fly.  While there are processes such as visualization, self-hypnosis and so forth that can speed this process up a bit, the primary means is simply to work your butt off, while reading the best material your brain can handle. 

That formula, plus time, will get you there.  Remember—there is a number of stories you must write to hit the creative gold vein—and you never know what that number is.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Bush's Speech

Didn't watch the 9/11 movie last night--did however read the reviews in Variety and Hollywood Reporter, which suggested, contrary to political ranting on the Left and Right, that blame was spread fairly evenly across the political spectrum.  I was interested in Bush's speech, and read the full text this morning.

You know?  That wasn't a bad speech, and I would have actually respected it, and considered it presidential, with just one change: an open admission that Iraq began on an error, and that we are cleaning up the mess we created, that has led to AT LEAST ten times more civilian casualties as America experienced on 9/11.  I can see it as an honest mistake, for the best of intentions.  But the endless conjoining of Hussein's regime with terrorism is being done with full awareness that his political base still largely believes that there is such a direct connection.  In my mind, he used weasel words, and to fail to lay out the situation clearly, he opens himself to serious charges of attempting to re-write history, to try to help people forget that the reason we WENT to Iraq isn't the reason we're being given for why we're still there.
It may be possible to reconcile the gap, but Bush had a chance last night, and chose not to take is tempted to suggest for political reasons.  Fine.  That is, I suppose, his right, and in an election year possibly the only course a political animal can take. But it saddens me.  We gave him so much trust after 9/11. And right now about 60% of Americans feel that trust was abused.   Only time will tell if their perceptions are accurate, but this morning, it feels to me that last night was Bush's last opportunity to really come clean and be a leader...and he chose to throw it away.

The speech was rousing, and patriotic, and optimistic...and a glaring attempt to live out his remaining months in an alternate history in which we were never, ever told that Hussein was a clear and present danger--and in which that danger was proven to be demonstrably false.  Some cling to reports of degraded biochemical agents roughly as toxic as Black Flag as evidence that the original reports were right.  To me, this is just sad.

If only our leader could say: "we were wrong. We are terribly sorry.  Now, let's find the best way to make this right."  I could respect that, I really could.   And now, it's just too late.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Catching Up

1)     In training.  Pushing my fitness a bit in getting ready for the Path seminar in San Francisco.  I found my mind bouncing around a bit over the last weeks.  What kind of fitness did I want the most?  And to what life goals would I attach the most significance?  After all, fitness is extremely specific to activity.  Fitness for, say, Silat is different than fitness for karate.  Yoga isn’t the same as Clubbells, and Kettlebells aren’t the same as Hindu Push ups.  Some of these “map over” others quite nicely, but none are precise.  How about looking good physically, both for my own ego and for Tananarive? Or having the energy to write all day? Or…

Now, I was having these thoughts as I ran around with Jason in the park, and it suddenly hit me: my primary need for energy and fitness has to dovetail with my most important goals in life.  And the best fit is, simply, to keep up with my son.  To be able to run and wrestle and play with him is enough fitness for anyone. It requires a dynamite blend of aerobic and non-aerobic capacity, flexibility, and coordination…because, after all, it shouldn’t feel like “exercise” to play all-out with your kid.  It should just be joy.  And that means that my fitness needs to be ahead of my energy demands, and my body needs plenty of time for recovery. 

And ever since I came to that realization, my workouts have been just a little more tightly focused, and more fun.  Hey, I’m working out so I can play with Jason!  What a deal!

2)     There are too darned many projects on my table, but that’s inevitable at this moment.  Several are sure things: books, and a new article for NPR (more on that later).  Others are speculative: movies, television series ideas, short stories, new books.

How to keep all of these things balanced?  That’s the key.  I have to find my own mental and emotional center, and then create from that place. Whenever I look at my list of things to write, one part of me wants to panic.  Another part just has to behave like a chess master playing multiple games simultaneously. 

Now, there was recently some excellent research into this phenomenon, with an eye to replicating such superior performance in other fields.  What they found was that hard work, over time, was the most important single factor in their success. Obsession.  The emotional endurance to study early in the morning until late at night, to learn countless opening and closing positions and continually test theories in actual competition.

This kind of brutal work leads to a sublime sort of pattern recognition. The master looks at the board, and, without thinking ANY moves ahead at all, knows what his next move should be in order for the board to “feel” right.  Then he moves to the next board, and does the exact same thing.

The search for this proper “feeling” is an important kinesthetic aspect of mastery.

Looking at your stories in reference to the Hero’s Journey, and your characters in terms of the Chakras, is excellent: these two patterns will yield unbelievable gold in your search for story success. But when you relate them as well to your own life…well, you’re “faking” the kind of instinctive connection that great storytellers have made since the beginning of time…and are on your way to your goals!
3)  Saw “Crank” (2006).  Basically an update of “Speed’s” conceit.  In this case, a hit man has been injected with a drug that will kill him if his adrenaline level drops. He engages in all manner of silly tactics to keep it juiced up as he searches for the man who poisoned him.  Good, “B” movie fun, if you can ignore the fact that every bad guy in the movie is black, Asian, or Latino, and the “good guys”—our hero and his doctor friend, for instance, are both white.  A “B” for action fans.  Otherwise a "C-"
4)  Saw “Protector” starring Ong-Bak’s Tony Jaa.  An utterly remarkable athlete and martial artist (one gets the very real sense that this guy would kick your ass, no question about it).   The movie is alternately sophisticated and quite crude, touching and absurd as a country boy searches for his sacred elephant.  The Thai movie industry is searching for the formula that will give it mainstream success, and I don’t doubt they’ll find it.  Someone certainly needs to find Jaa a movie he can really shine in.  I understand why he is, so far, reluctant to come to Hollywood.  Why should he play a villain or Coolie so that Bruce Willis or somebody can look good whipping on him?  He wants to play heroes who are meaningful to his own cultural context, and that’s just fine.  Still, I can’t wait for his first actually good movie.  He moves like a combination of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan…and that is really the highest complement I can offer.  An “A” for martial arts fans, a “B” for action fans or Asian cinema buffs, and all others stay away.

Stella Awards

It's once again time to review the winners of the annual Stella Awards. The Stella's are named after 81 year old Stella Liebeck who spilled coffee on herself and  Successfully sued McDonald's. That case inspired the 'Stella Awards' for the most frivolous successful lawsuits in the United States.
5th Place (Tied)
Kathleen Robertson of Austin, Texas was awarded $780,000 by a jury of her peers after breaking her ankle tripping over a toddler who was running inside a furniture store. The owners of the store were understandably
surprised at the verdict, considering the misbehaving toddler was Ms. Robertson's son.
5th Place (Tied)
19 year old Carl Truman of Los Angeles won $74,000 and medical expenses when his neighbor ran over his hand with a Honda Accord.  Mr. Truman apparently did not notice there was someone at the wheel of the car when he was trying to steal the hubcaps.
5th P lace (Tied)
Terrence Dickson of Bristol, Pennsylvania was leaving a house he had just finished robbing by way of the garage. He was not able to get the garage door to go up since the automatic door opener was malfunctioning. He could
not re-enter the house because the door connecting the house and garage locked when he pulled it shut. The family was on vacation and Mr. Dickson found himself locked in the garage for 8 days. He subsisted on a case of
Pepsi he found and a large bag of dry dog food. He sued the homeowner's insurance claiming the situation caused him undue mental anguish. The Jury agreed to the tune of $500,000.
4th Place
Jerry Williams of Little Rock, Arkansas was awarded $14,500 and medical expenses after being bitten on the buttocks by his next door neighbor's Beagle dog.  The Beagle was on a chain in its owner's fenced yard. The award was less than sought because the jury felt the dog might have been a little provoked at the time as Mr. Williams, who had climbed over the fence into the yard, was shooting it repeatedly with a pellet gun.
3rd Place
A Philadelphia restaurant was ordered to pay Amber Carson of Lancaster, Pennsylvania $113,500 after she slipped on a soft drink and broke her coccyx (tailbone). The beverage was on the floor because Ms. Carson had thrown it at her boyfriend 30 seconds earlier, during an argument.
2nd Place
Kara Walton of Claymont, Delaware sued the owner of a Night Club in a neighboring city when she fell from the bathroom window to the floor and knocked out two of her front teeth. This occurred whilst Ms. Walton was trying to sneak in the window of the Ladies Room to avoid paying the $3.50 cover charge. She was awarded $12,000 and dental expenses.
1st Place!!!!!
This year's runaway winner was Mr. Merv Grazinski of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Mr. Grazinski purchased a brand new Winnebago Motor home.  On his trip home from an OU football game, having driven onto the freeway, he set the cruise control at 70 mph and calmly left the driver's seat to go into the back and make himself a cup of coffee.  Not surprisingly the RV left the freeway, crashed and overturned.  Mr. Grazinski sued Winnebago for not advising him in the owner's manual that he could not actually do this. The jury awarded him $1,750,000 plus a new Winnebago Motor home. The company actually changed their manuals on the basis of this suit just in case there were any other complete morons buying their recreational vehicles.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The next week's writing process...

In working on a current book, with my friend, mentor and collaborator Larry Niven,  I’ve reached the end of the first “chunk” of the project.  It consists of about eight chapters, introduces all basic characters and situations and environments, and is the piece we’ll probably use to market the whole thing.

The piece I’m working on today deals with a woman who is in charge of  the physical plant for a lunar base.  This is where much research will have to come together, as well as plot elements and character detail.

This is the way I’m approaching it.
1)     rough out the chapter(s) in Final Draft
2)     Polish the Final Draft material.  Are all image systems cooking?  Does the dialogue work well?
3)     Treat this piece of the book as if it is stand-alone.   Is it tight, honest, crackling?  Is it funny and a little sexy? 
4)     Stop. Create my character outlines based upon what my subconscious created in this first draft.  Go deeper.  Use the Chakras.
5)     Outline my plot again, using the Hero’s Journey.
6)     Do the Hero’s Journey and Chakra model (of personality) create a “whole” in my mind?  These two fit together into an organic whole that my deepest  “writer self” comprehends far better than my conscious mind. I must work on this until it “feels” right kinesthetically.  When the “feel” of it, the  “emotions” of it and the “logic” of it all point in the same direction, I’m ready to go.
7)     Flesh out  the Final Draft script into prose.
8)     Polish, polish polish.  Add two senses per page.
9)     Find the unexpected kernel of  truth.  There is always a moment, a statement, a description that rises above the rest.  Once I find it, go back to the beginning of the entire book, and re-write everything to rise to this level.
10)     Put it aside for at least two days, then re-write again.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

To Lynn

"Dear Steve, I have just found some of your older blog entries in a google search. I looked around a little and thought that perhaps I might ask you a question. I'm a little embarrassed to ask as a total stranger and a brand new visitor, but I'm just getting a feeling I might be in the right place.

I have been having problems dealing with traumatic memories and am having quite a bit of disruption in my life. I do have a therapist, but I am in a stuck place. I think I waited rather long to seek therapy and am socially isolated and dealing with anxiety. I feel the need to find a simple-to-grasp way to support myself emotionally during this time. If you have one best piece of advice for a starting off point for this type of situation, what might it be?

I apologize for barging into your blog like this, I wouldn't normally hi-jack someone in this way, but I am searching..."
Lynn, you posted this note, and I wanted to respond to it.  AS LONG AS YOU ARE SEEING A THERAPIST, yes, there may be some resources I can offer.  I ask that you take a look to the right, find the "Five Minute Miracle Discussion Forum" button, and post there.  Let me know more about your situation, with specific information about the difference between the way your life is now, and what it would look and feel like if this issue were not deviling you.  Let me know about your career, personal relationships, and physical health/fitness.

Now, then...ANY recommendation I make to you should be discussed with your therapist.  If you make me this promise, I'll offer what help I can.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Book Review: "The Looming Tower"

A recent book review I wrote for NPR--they decided not to use it, but I thought I'd share it with you guys...

By Lawrence Wright

Five years ago, on September 11, 2001, Americans were  given an horrific wake-up call.  Millions of television viewers watched the World Trade Center fall, whiplashed by our own mortality, stunned that we were more vulnerable than three post-WW2 generations had complacently believed themselves to be.  The question of what and how and why that day happened,  has been, and continues to be the subject of innumerable debates, books, movies, television specials, blogs, and  articles.

It is into this fray that author Lawrence Wright’s riveting, heart-breaking and frightening THE LOOMING TOWER charges, it’s journalistic eyes wide open.

It begins with a crisis of faith by a mild, middle-aged Egyptian martyr named Sayyid Qutb (QWI-TUB), and ends with the fall of towers.  The two are linked by a series of tragic emotional webs.

Qutb, an author and educator,  was martyred in 1966.   His words, his life and especially his death inspired Arabs angered by the sustained American presence in the middle east  and especially Saudi Arabia.   Many railed against the power of American Media, seen as an  amoral global juggernaut.  They were frustrated by America’s continuing support for Israel.  In Qutb they found a role model, an intellectual who embraced death in the service of Allah.

One of these  disaffected Saudis was the    tall, wealthy, charismatic Osama bin Laudin.  His quest for meaning was influenced by the heretical doctrine of takfir, through which the Prophet’s Koranic injunctions against suicide and the killing of innocents were twisted to justify politically expedient murder. Wright argues that it is these radical takfiri—not mainstream Muslims-- with whom we are locked in mortal combat.

From a compilation of hundreds of interviews and exhaustive research, Wright shows us the mistakes made by men of good will on both sides—Americans represented by FBI counterterrorism chief John O’Neill, whose warnings to two administrations went largely unheeded, and who ultimately died in the collapse of the World Trade Center.

Al Qaeda –literally meaning “the base”—began as a tiny force.
It is sobering to realize how many of Bin Laudin’s goals have actually come to pass:
—the ensnaring of America in a war in Afghanistan. 
--The radicalization of more Islamicists due to our military action in response to 9/11. 
--The investment of much of our moral and economic capital in an increasingly divisive war.

Bin Ladin’s end game?  The crippling of America as a world power.  Certainly a conservative Islamic empire, govered by Koranic law rather than modernity or democracy.  And make no mistake: he imagines no limits to the reaches of this empire.  “The Looming Tower” does not try to give us answers, but rather sufficient understanding to ask the correct questions.

The greatest mistake one can make of an enemy is to forget that they are behaving with understandable human motivations.  To demonize  is to simplify them beyond any useful capacity to predict, let alone prevent or understand, their actions.  

Whatever combination of military, diplomatic and economic responses one favors, to ignore the origins of al-Qaeda, their motivations, the sources of their funding and recruitment, and the full range of their perceived grievances with the Western World is tantamount to suicide.

Al Qaeda would love for the United States—and Islam--to think we are at war with Islam itself, and not the radical takfiri. We have stepped into so many of their traps…”The Looming Tower” asks that we be impeccable in our commitment not to fall into this last, even more disastrous one, as well.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Death Is an ally

Death Is an ally

Over the last few days, I found out that Robert Sheckley, brilliant SF writer and an old friend of mine, died last December, and I never even heard about it.

He fell ill while on a trip to Europe, and died in a hospital on the East Coast.  And I never heard about it.

I had a choice of ways to deal with this—some that would trigger fear and anxiety, and others that would deepen my understanding of life in a useful way.

I always try to choose the second.  Lord knows I often fail.
When my father was dying of cancer fifteen years ago, it became difficult to watch the process—it ate him up until he began to resemble The Cryptkeeper.  But there was a voice inside me that cautioned me not to look away.  To, rather, observe this process with infinite care.  That it is where life ends, and the ending helps us to interpret the beginning, and everything in-between.

Life, you see, will lie to us—it doesn’t want to lose us, and will tell us things last forever, that individual actions have little importance, and that tomorrow is as good a time for action as today.

Death knows better.  It whispers that if we love, we need to express that love today.  That if we have hopes, we need to formulate those hopes into plans, and act upon them today.  If we love to dance, or sing, we must dance and sing today…tomorrow is too late.
I remember the last time I saw Bob.  We were having lunch in Portland, and I went up to his office, a small and cluttered loft he kept very separate from his living quarters.  I have no interest in ragging on the dead, but for the last decade his volcanic creativity had slipped its leash.  He could begin writing, but not end it.  He saw a thousand possible story branches in every action, every word, every feeling. 

For years, he had controlled this fountaining of creativity, converting it into one of the finest bodies of work in the history of the science fiction field.  Now, it had gotten away from him.  Unless an editor sat and dictated what he should write, he just couldn’t quite do it.

So he wrote books, but they were often set in other people’s worlds, controlled by corporate needs, trading on the Sheckley name or his still impressive manic creativity…but time was closing in on Bob, and it was painful to watch.

Did his love of certain herbal substances help him or hurt him?  I can’t say.  But anyone who drank as much as Bob smoked would certainly be thought a problem drinker.  According to Bob, he had never really needed discipline—he just sat at the typewriter and BANG!  Out popped a story.

And once this ability began to decline, he had no way to de-construct his psyche, clean the wires and tubes, and focus down again.

What is there to be learned?  More than anything else, I just wish I’d stayed in more careful touch with him.  Friends gone are gone forever, and all we have left is our memories, and the things unsaid.

I’m not certain there was much unsaid.  But I wish he’d had a little more time to create wonder.  I’m not egotistical enough to think that I could have or should have made a difference. 

But that doesn’t stop me from wondering.