The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"School For Scoundrels"

Saw “School for Scoundrels” last night. Someone asked me to check it out and comment about Michael Clark Duncan’s role. The movie is about a school run by Billy Bob Thornton (who actually does some VERY nice, subtle acting in the role) to help wimps (especially the protagonist, "Napoleon Dynamite's" Jon Heder) become lions. Duncan plays his aide-de-camp, an enormous, threatening, hyper-male figure. It is implied that he has actually raped some of the students.

Now…considering that male rape is treated like a joke across the board, I can’t take that too personally. Every man (and all but one woman) in the entire film is a cartoon, so you have to roll with it. In other words, a funny movie, Duncan (or the other black characters) comes off no worse than anyone else, really. Overall, I’d give the movie a “B-“. By the way: the last line is a killer.

Now if you want to get me going about Duncan, look at “The Green Mile,” a perfect example of the hideous choices made when people aren’t aware of their unconscious racism. A “Magical Negro” movie at its most loathsome. But that’s another story.

K is for K

(Yep, I know, I skipped "J")

That is, "One Thousand." My impression at this
point is that a daily goal of 1000 words a day is
enough to keep the gateway between conscious
and unconscious minds open and healthy.
To a certain degree, this is just dredging out a
channel, understanding that the constant pressure
of the workaday world, and all of the trivial and
non-trivial demands on our time and minds, will
cloud this connection.
It is close to the dream state, you see. The
creative part of your mind is so primal, so
young, so outside of social conventions that
it is, or can be, extremely difficult to access
it and simultaneously keep our lives in balance.
But if you aim at writing 1000 words (or 5 pages,
or some other quantity that is a "stretch" but
not too painful), while simultaneously meditating,
clarifying your values and goals, and increasing
the quality of your reading...
Good things are going to happen. Our minds
(from one, admittedly mechanistic viewpoint)
are machines designed to succeed. Continue
telling it what you want (in this case: increased
quality of writing that reflects our deep values
and most honest perception of the world)
and it will start trying to give it to you.
Continue this process for a couple of years,
and you'll be in completely new territory.
You see, so much of success in anything is
a numbers game. You simply have to do "X"
an unknown number of times before you
jump up to the next level of performance.
And you have no idea what "X" represents.
So for the sake of simplification, let's say
that the number in writing is One Million
Words. Get beyond a million words, and
you are at a different place with your writing,
your ability to represent the reality you
experience, and so forth. It is the doorway
to spontaneous, instinctive, reflexive writing.
Now...if you are constantly challenging
yourself with fine reading and/or viewing
of quality books, stories, plays, and films...
Then you will find that your work slowly,
surely, simply gets better and better.
Another thing: most people aren't ready for
the truth of how much WORK is necessary
to become excellent at anything. They think
that if they try it, and don't succeed, that
there is no point in trying again.
That means that if you have more gumption,
more tolerance for failure and emotional pain
than the next can actually
out-perform a more "talented" person just
because you had the ability to "step up to
the plate" again and again and again...until
your hands were raw and your heart ached,
but you just wouldn't quit.
I'm telling you that people with that quality
simply can't be stopped. And that you can
train yourself to head in that direction...
By committing to write a thousand words a

Write With Passion!

"I" is for ideas

"I" is for Ideas

"Where do your ideas come from?" Ah, the classic query,
and every writer gets it. And the answer seems so
glaringly obvious to most that it seems simplistic
and infantile. Some create smart-assed answers to
brush people off (Harlan Ellison's infamous: "there's
a guy in New Jersey, and every month he sends
me a six-pack of fresh new ideas..."

Do you know that people actually come up to
Harlan after talks and ask for the idea guy's

Sigh. All this means is that people are not in
touch with their own creative process.
Everyone has one. Not everyone knows how
to mine it.

Simply put, creativity is drawing connections
between apparently unconnected facts. Seeing
a leaf, and imagining freeway offramps. Seeing
intertwining snakes in a dream, and imagining
a double helix. The truth is that all of us have
an absolute explosion of creativity every night
--our dreams. To get in touch with our
dreams is the beginning of connecting to our
creative source.

Keeping a dream diary can be an essential part
of the process of increasing our creativity.
Another is simply the principle "Garbage In--
Garbage Out." In other words, output will
never exceed input. In fact, GIGO is entirely
too generous. The truth is that if we eat
steak, we know what comes out the other end.
So...what happens if we START with crap? I
don't even want to go there.

So keeping a strong creative flow depends
on a few things:
1) Quality of input. It must be high-quality,
and daily. It must include intense experience
of life itself, observed and recorded in a journal
or in daily writing.
2) Quantity of output. You must write daily,
to keep the flow going and to learn how to
turn off the inappropriate "editor's voice."
3) Learn to discern. You must develop an
aesthetic sense. Of the ideas that come to
you, you must learn to determine which are
appropriate and usable.
4) Direct contact with the subconscious.
Meditate. Keep a dream diary. You have to
deliberately "thin" the walls between conscious
and unconscious mind. This is where the
gold will be found...but it takes work, and
the willingness to trust your own process.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Washington Post "Review"

We've gotten nothing but great reviews on Casanegra, but here's one that puzzles me. It was in the "Washington is also reading" section (is that a section?) and reads:

Washington Is Also Reading

Sunday, July 29, 2007; Page BW14


By Blair Underwood with Tananarive Due & Steven Barnes

(Atria, $25)

That's right. Three authors. Does that make for a better yarn? Well, that's for you to decide, but with the caliber of talent on hand -- an award-winning actor and two novelists, each boasting an impressive résumé -- the odds are auspicious. Their protagonist, semi-profitable actor and recovering gigolo "Ten" Hardwick, unveils a new talent hidden beneath his hunky exterior -- detective. And not a moment too soon, as he finds himself the prime suspect in the death of rap star Afrodite, who went from former client to potential sweetheart after their recent rendezvous. Hardwick's hunt for the killer takes us on a roller-coaster ride through Hollywood (with tidbits about the evolution of black films), the rap world and the sex-for-pay industry. Hold on, there's bound to be some turbulence. (F)
Now, I'm puzzled about the parenthetical "F." I'm guessing that it relates to a reviewer's name. If it's a grade, that opinion certainly isn't reflected in the review itself. Anyone out there familiar enough with the Washington Post to help me figure out what the "F" means? If it IS a grade, I can live with that, but seems weird...

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Simpsons (2007)

Du’h! You know, I’ve never been a huge Simpson’s fan, but always found them amusing. This wasn’t like “South Park,” where I looked forward for months to the movie, and was knocked on my butt. This full-length theatrical version of the longest-running situation comedy in television history isn’t going to make new fans, but it is quite funny, sometimes touching, and sometimes drags a bit. Overall, it works and occasionally is drop-dead hilarious. The basic plot deals with Homer screwing up the town of Springfield so badly that the EPA is forced to take drastic measures. Animated hilarity ensues. Fox labored mightily to keep the plot secret, so I won’t give away details here. Most if not all of the beloved Simpsons characters appear, and Bart skate-boards while quite naked. What more do you want? Give it an "A-" for Simpsons fans, and a "B" for fans of animation and/or snarky humor.
The I.F. is still working just fine, although I find myself getting a little lazy with it—eating sloppily on Feast days just because it doesn’t show up on the scales. Can’t do that. My body craves the best food available on Feast days, and if I don’t give it, I’m gonna pay down the road.
Was in Las Vegas last weekend, for a seminar with my first Kenpo instructor, Steve (Sanders) Mohammed. He’s 68 now, and a bit wizened, but his reverse punch is…perfect. Not good, not excellent, not fast, not powerful. Perfect. As in no detectable flaws.

Back in the 60’s he was a Vietnam vet who studied Ed Parker’s Kenpo and found its circular motion inadequate for tournament play. He extracted bits and pieces of various techniques, simplified and streamlined, and became one of the most successful tournament competitors in American history. He also had vast street experience, and produced an absurd number of high-level fighters. In fact, at one point seven out of ten of the top tournament competitors in the California-Nevada-Arizona tri-state area were all Sanders students.

He can now explain intellectually the value of the drills he had us perform, endlessly, up and down across the dojo floor. Jesus, he was smart. He saw things so clearly, and is just now being acknowledged for his brilliance.

His wife Connie was there, too. I still remember when they hooked up, about 22 years ago. What a horn dog he was then! Wow! The guy was just a sex machine, and if there had been rules about consorting with students, he would have been in jail. Now, I never saw ANYTHING that looked even vaguely like sexual harassment. He treated the male and female students exactly alike. But I found out over time that he’d gone through a LOT of the lovely ladies who came through his front doors. My guess is that they came on to him more often than he came onto them…but Connie sure ended that.

I suspect that he is quite happy and content in his life. He is a gentleman and a scholar, and one of the three most important men in my life.
Tananarive is out of town visiting her Mom, and Nicki is down at Comicon with her boyfriend. It’s just me and Jason here for the weekend, and he seems to be sleeping late this morning. Come to think of it, he went to sleep pretty fast last night. Hmmm. You know, he had shots at the doctor a couple of days ago, and that in combination with T being gone might be making him just a bit low-energy.
Arrgh! Just realized I haven’t meditated in a couple of days. Darn. Just slipping into the Mommy role with Jason probably threw me for a bit of a loop. Have to get back on the horse.

To recap what seems to be working on that level:

1) Meditate daily. Slow, still, and deepen the breathing.
2) Exercise at least 3 times a week, and connect your meditative breathing to the exercise breathing. Increase exercise stress while maintaining a smooth inhalation-exhalation cycle.
3) During the day, 5X, stop and breathe for 60 seconds. If possible, stress your breathing with an exercise (for instance, FlowFit)

The above will slowly begin to change the way you breathe under stress. During meditation, visualize the end point of your current goals. Begin to develop a sense of whether you are internally aligned to do your best, day after day, to accomplish them. This is tricky, but disciplines like Tad James’ “TimeLine” are good at this.

Over time, you’ll start knowing when you are fighting yourself, dragging your feet, misaligned or unclear. If you can’t see yourself accomplishing your goal, don’t you think that it will be difficult to harness your skill, strength and creativity?

Now, here’s the weird part. I preface this by saying the following only SEEMS to be true. I don’t believe it. But I have experienced things that are close enough to “true” here that I’m gonna say it just for fun:

If you can find the right alignment of inner and outer resources, you attract luck. Visualize your goal, align inner resources, clarify the inner light that represents your emotional/spiritual state, work hard and consistently to move forward and clarify your reality map…and stuff just starts falling into your lap.

It’s so strange that it feels like magic when it starts happening. It can actually be a bit disturbing. That disturbance is what has induced me to stop the practice in the past—life was just getting so good that it freaked me a bit. I suspect I won’t let that happen this time.

However, I notice that my subconscious is always waiting to stop me from moving too fast. T out of town? Perfectly reasonable time to stop meditating! After all, Jason needs me…

NO! He needs his father to be at the absolute highest level of effectiveness and energy and emotional flexibility. Balance. Centeredness. It takes me twenty minutes a day to do this, but EVERYTHING in the world will conspire to keep me from it.

Almost as if there are demons and angels, I’ll tell you. Easy to see why so many believe in them.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

"I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry"

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

Well, there it is. I actually took a break in the middle of the day, and went to see an Adam Sandler comedy with my wife. Lord God, forgive me.
Well, you know the premise: a widowed fireman (Kevin James) is afraid that if he dies, his kids won’t get the benefits. He has the bright idea of having his best friend (Adam Sandler) pretend to be his Domestic Partner, to get around the rules. Low-Jinx and much socially responsible soul-searching follows.

The first 2/3 of this movie was pretty hysterical. Sandler’s arc as he reacts to someone calling him “faggot”—a word he himself had used not twenty minutes earlier—is actually a terrific scene, in a lowbrow comedy kinda way. And overall, the movie has its heart in the right place. As one character puts it: “In America, we have the right to put anything up our ass we want.” Trust me, this one is still for the frat boys—it isn’t exactly Brokeback Mountain. But there is a touch of something more there. Straight reviewers have been harsher than the one openly gay critic I read, who thought it was a hoot. It’s been interesting to watch straights get all offended for their poor gay brethren. I’ll give it a “B” for Adam Sandler fans, a “C+” if you’re not, and, unfortunately a great big…


You know? I sometimes think that tolerance, or non-prejudicial attitudes seem to be a zero-sum game. In other words, when Sandler (and his producers) stretched themselves to be kind to gays, they let some of their other attitudes show. Rob Schneider shows up as a Chinese minister, and it’s pretty much worse than Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s.” Sorry, but considering how few Asian actors get cast anywhere, if you were going to have a stereotype, at least cast a real Asian—an actor could send his daughter to Yale for what Schneider earned here. If you’re gonna be humiliated, at least get something for the pain.

On another note of grim inevitability, when Ving Rhames shows up as a beefy, threatening, uber-tough Fireman…and the only black fireman…why was it so #$%@@ predictable that he would be gay? And wiggle his ass naked in the shower? And get the only screen kiss I can remember this ultra-masculine actor ever getting…with another man.

Please remember this in the context of white audiences still apparently unwilling to accept the onscreen hetersexual coupling of Black or Asian men. IT'S NOT HOLLYWOOD--don't think you can pigeon-hole it, lay this problem off on a few executives. Hollywood just tallies the box office, boys and girls. They have no agenda higher than making their Hummer payments. This is America.

It is so terribly predictable, and the rough genetic equivalent to having the only black male character in an action/horror movie die. Sorry, but I can’t help but believe that this wasn’t some statistical fluke, it is deliberate (or subconsciously “loaded”) to create an effeminate, non-threatening clown out of this impressive man. Can any of you think of a single movie…I mean one single film where there was only a single white male, who was gay, in a film filled otherwise with heterosexuals? I have to think that this kind of stuff—a howl to the typical white fratboy Adam Sandler audience—is a universal human tendency. Because if I took it personally…I probably would have climbed up on a building with a rifle by now.

Oh, and that predictability factor…just watched “The Peaceful Warrior.” Very nice adaptation of Dan Millman’s book about the spiritual awakening of a college gymnast. There is only one black gymnast on the team. Guess who gets badly injured, so that the white guys can feel all bad, and then compete for his position.

People, when you see me reluctant to tar an entire group of people without absolute certainty (our recent discussions) it is because I hold with a death-grip to the idea that people are just people, that the negative tendencies I see are a part of our nature that becomes more severe under pressure…and that “there but for the grace of God go I.” The instant I start attributing differential basic value and morality to groups based on religion, nationality or ethnicity…

Well, it isn’t pretty.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"Hairspray" and epistemology

I deeply appreciate the way the Christianity-Islam discussion wobbled a bit, and then straightened out by itself, never devolving into acrimony despite the extreme provocativeness of the subject. But please notice the most important thing: as soon as someone appeared with knowledge of the contrary position, the entire discussion elevated.

I’m not trying to sway anyone’s opinion about Islam and/or Christianity. Only about feeling confident in any discussion where the opposite position is not well represented.
Please also note that I didn’t say that you can’t determine whether Christian or Islamic countries are wealthier or healthier (in fact, one of my favorite metrics, Infant Mortality, makes it clear that there’s a difference). My comment is that it hasn’t been proven to my satisfaction that the difference is due to innate differences in the religions themselves.

Note that I suggested Infant Mortality as a measurement to determine the value of Universal Health Care. And, predictably, opponents of UHC brought up the many pre-conditions that might influence this. Sauce for the goose.

I’ve always considered the Koran to be more Old Testament in feel. Lotsa slaughter, and fun for the whole family. But unless you want to say that the “Peacefulness” of the text is a measure of its value, you’d have to say that the New Testament is better than the Old—and by extension, Christianity better than Judaism. (Oh, wait! There are PLENTY of people who feel exactly that way about Judaism. Although I’ve never, ever heard someone say the New Testament is “Better” than the Old. I HAVE heard people speculate that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New. That logic has always seemed torturous to me, the symptom of someone who expects reality to look the same from every direction.)
So, please—at no time do I suggest that others should change their beliefs on this subject. I’m just saying that I will never, ever accept the judgment of group A against group B if it contradicts my own intuition. I also admit that part of the reason for my apparent inflexibility is that the acceptance of the “Look at their inferiority in Metric X” argument to denigrate a class of people legitimizes that same argument in other contexts. I believe that the usage of a mode of argument is habitual—we will use it again and again to shape and clarify our world view.

My belief: that to use such an argument with Muslims increases the likelihood of using it with blacks, women, gays, Liberals, Conservatives, whatever. One of the things that bothers me is the human tendency to exploit and dominate, and then blame the resulting damage on the victim, and actually use the damaged state of the victim to legitimize the original assault.

I’m not saying this happened with Islam. I’m saying I’m unconvinced that the differences—which exist in my opinion, as well as yours—are intrinsic to the religion, and not the result of varying cultural or geographic conditions, the result of competition between Christianity and Islam, the result of comparing two differing periods in their parallel development, or any number of other factors I simply have no knowledge of—in the same way that “Guns, Germs, and Steel” presented a view of race and social development that required the integration of vast amounts of information concerning the spread of domesticable species of grains and animals, and the difference between the east-west spread of the Eurasian land mass, and the North-South orientation of the African.

So ultimately, this isn’t a discussion about Islam and Christianity. It is a discussion about the human decision-making process. You make your decisions by sorting information one way. I make decisions by sorting another. As long as you are happy with the results of the decisions you have made, and feel that it reflects an accurate map of reality, damned good for you.

And you will notice that there is more than one conclusion that intelligent people of good faith can derive from the same data set.

In my mind, one of the differences is that thing that I said differentiates Liberal and Conservative: the question of whether existence precedes essence, or essence precedes existence. Here, it is related not to an individual human soul but to the nature of a belief system—but it’s the same mode of thought applied to a different arena.

I submit that my theory, or instinct, is that someone who believes that the current state of a belief system is indicative of its essence is more likely to believe that the current status of an individual human being (or group of human beings) is indicative of THEIRS. Clearly, I’m stating I don’t believe there is a certain connection, but I’m not saying there’s no connection at all, either. Just that I need more data, and I will never accept the sole opinions of those who would benefit (in the sense of “mine is better than yours”) in making up my mind.

Here’s what you might want to do: you could say: “wow. Steve was really damaged by what he perceived to be racial injustice and stereotyping. He’s grown rigid and blind in this arena. Pity.”

Or: “Wow. Steve held on by faith and intuition to a non-stop assault on his sense of humanity. After decades, he finally was able to support an emotional position intellectually. And he believes that it is the moral and wiser thing to do to extend that same faith to other groups and individuals, until his heart and head agree that that faith is unjustified.”

I’m sure there are other ways to look at it as well. Just want to make it clear that this is NOT a religious or political discussion, at root. It is epistemological, not cosmological.
See “Hairspray.” It may be the best musical since “Grease,” and in some ways, it’s better. Of course, that’s personal preference. The curious thing is that John Waters, who brought us “Pink Flamingos” and the spectacle of a 300 pound transvestite eating poodle dooty, created an odd parable in the original film “Hairspray,” dealing, with subversive style, with the grotesque underbelly of the 50’s and early 60’s—a period many still look back on as some kind of high point in American culture, which was filled with state-sponsored hate for others.

To make a musical out of this cynical comedy was something of a stretch. That it works is astounding. This story of a bouncy chubby girl who “Can’t Stop the Music” and yearns to express her inner slo-mo explosion of talent and energy…and the repercussions when she pushes to integrate the “American Bandstand” style music show she adores…is powerful story material in a way few musicals can match.

And casting John Travolta was an absolute genius move. Travolta, who has made some REALLY bad movie decisions (uh…turning down “Chicago”, anyone?) here shines as the mother of said bouncy, chubby dancing machine. Watching “her” perform a soft shoe with Christopher Walken was a moment as devastating in its own way as watching Effie singing her show-stopper in “Dream Girls.”

This is a film about energy, aliveness, joy in motion (like “Footloose”), tolerance, and allowing human beings to find love in any way they can. It is loving, and life-affirming, and excruciatingly funny, and that rarest of things these days: a REAL musical, that utilizes the fantasy trope of “this character is revealing her essence in song and dance” that was missing from weasely movies like “Chicago” that feared to simply let the characters break out into song. In my mind, the only good musical to underperform at the box office was “Little Shop of Horrors.” The others were strange hybrids without singers and dancers who could really sing and dance, or without the slightest sense of translating the stage to the screen (“The Producers” or “A Chorus Line.”

The Hollywood musical is back. Thank God. And “Hairspray” is the best example of it in thirty years. Not the best film made from a musical, or with music. (I’d probably give that to “Chicago”.) But the best toe-tapping, bouncy real musical I’ve seen in a generation.

What incredible fun. An “A”

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Christian-Muslim discussion

Note how the level of discourse changed (I think very much for the better) the instant a Muslim joined, and it was no longer all Christians (or those raised in a Christian context who haven't taken another side--and trust me, we are all bombarded thousands of times a day with Judeo-Christian attitudes and propaganda)? THIS is what I wanted, and it would only get better were there as many Mushtaqs as there are people taking the opposite position.
ALSO notice that if person "A" is in the "we're better" position while person "B" is in the "we're equal" position, "B" is constantly on the defensive. But if "A" and "B" both have equal and opposite positions, the conversation devolves to verbal violence.

I am not saying that Islam is better than Christianity, or as good, or worse. I'm saying that it may very well be possible to determine that one is better than the other by picking standards--but that if Christians pick the standards, they will win. If Muslims pick the standards, THEY will likely win. Both sides will then stand around looking smug.

I've seen almost identical arguments "proving" that blacks or women are inferior, and rejected them. It would be dishonest to accept one just because I'd be a part of the "winning" group. Yes, I use standards to help me decide whether "A" or "B" option is more appropriate. But I constantly remember that my opinions and perceptions are molded by my perceptual filters.
For instance: to me, it feels like Post-9/11, America took a big shift to the fearful and paranoid, willing to give up freedoms in exchange for security. The threat to habeus corpus, defense of torture, wiretapping citizens, denouncing free speech in opposition to political goals, vilification of former allies who disagree with us...all struck me as perfectly normal human responses to stress. In fact, to some degree, I always felt that any society that doesn't exhibit some of these tendencies under stress probably won't survive. Under pressure, materials, individuals and societies become rigid.

One important question to ask would be: in the conflict between Christian and Muslim societies, over the last few centuries, who has occupied, invaded, or colonized who? If we grant that Westerners have legitimate reason to feel threatened by Islam, does Islam have legitimate reason to feel threatened by the West? I suspect that you could take individuals of otherwise comparable education, intelligence, world experience, literacy, whatever. Now, sort them according to the single criteria of "Christian or grew up in a Christian society" or "Muslim or grew up in a Muslim society" and you would get very different answers. And that those on each side would think the other to be blind and bigoted.

Again, it doesn't mean that there is not an ultimate Truth here, merely that as humans with egos, we ain't gonna find it. What we are left with is practical truth. We as individuals and cultures must have opinions about these things, or we cannot guide social policy. I do not think people shouldn't talk about these things, or get upset if they come to different conclusions than I do. That's life. But I decline to host one-sided discussions: I already know what the conclusion will be. Majority, of whatever orientation, will win every time.

I WILL welcome discussions when there is an intelligent, polite person to take the opposite view. Atheist or Agnostic, if you were raised in the U.S., unless you ever specifically took a class taught by a Muslim in East-West relations or Middle Eastern History, you MAY have virtually no input from the other side of the issue.
One of the reasons I feel so strongly about this is that the "logical" and racist explanations for black-white cultural and I.Q. differences make plenty of sense. But I always had faith the "proofs" of the supposed biological differences were wrong, based on things like observation of thousands of individuals, and a sense of the structure of reality. It wasn't until "Guns, Germs, and Steel" that I began to have an intellectual grasp of the factors that went way beyond race that could well have caused every social differential I'd ever seen or heard of.

That doesn't mean Jared Diamond was right--just that the world he sees makes sense to me. And it doesn't mean that there is a similar explanation for the apparent differences between Christian and Islamic societies--just that I am unwilling to accept the clustered, direct or indirect opinions of Christians and those who grew up in their societies, any more than I was willing to accept the opinions of whites about blacks, or men about women.

This doesn't make me correct. I am merely externalizing my internal processes. This is how I think. On things like this, I am mighty slow to change my mind.

Advice from Jerry Seinfeld

Here’s a terrific piece of creativity/productivity advice from Jerry Seinfeld, found at:

Jerry Seinfeld's productivity secret

Editor: When software developer Brad Isaac told us he had productivity advice from Jerry Seinfeld, we couldn't turn down the chance to hear more. Read on for the whole story from Brad.

Years ago when Seinfeld was a new television show, Jerry Seinfeld was still a touring comic. At the time, I was hanging around clubs doing open mic nights and trying to learn the ropes. One night I was in the club where Seinfeld was working, and before he went on stage, I saw my chance. I had to ask Seinfeld if he had any tips for a young comic. What he told me was something that would benefit me a lifetime...

He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was better than that. He had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself - even when you don't feel like it.

He then revealed a unique calendar system he was using pressure himself to write.

Here's how it worked.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. "After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain."

"Don't break the chain." He said again for emphasis.

Over the years I've used his technique in many different areas. I've used it for exercise, to learn programming, to learn network administration, to build successful websites and build successful businesses.

It works because it isn't the one-shot pushes that get us where we want to go, it is the consistent daily action that builds extraordinary outcomes. You may have heard "inch by inch anything's a cinch." Inch by inch does work if you can move an inch every day.

Daily action builds habits. It gives you practice and will make you an expert in a short time. If you don't break the chain, you'll start to spot opportunities you otherwise wouldn't. Small improvements accumulate into large improvements rapidly because daily action provides "compounding interest."

Skipping one day makes it easier to skip the next.

I've often said I'd rather have someone who will take action - even if small - every day as opposed to someone who swings hard once or twice a week. Seinfeld understands that daily action yields greater benefits than sitting down and trying to knock out 1000 jokes in one day.

Think for a moment about what action would make the most profound impact on your life if you worked it every day. That is the action I recommend you put on your Seinfeld calendar. Start today and earn your big red X. And from here on out...

Don't break the chain!

Brad Isaac is a lead software programmer and blogger. You can read his motivational strategies every day on his goal setting blog, Achieve-IT!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Why no Christianity-Islam debates here

Was in Las Vegas over the weekend, at a Kempo seminar taught by my first instructor, Steve Mohammad. He’s 68 years old, and his movement is completely impeccable. The Whipping Willow martial arts association has acknowledged him as the creator of his own style, and this was rather a coming out party.

Had a banquet later at a Mohammad’s Mosque in Vegas—very nice, and some of the conversations were even more interesting. One started skirting in the direction of comparing black folks and white folks. I knew where that one was going, and backed out of it pretty fast.

And this is germane to the question of discussing whether Islam can produce Democratic, capitalistic societies as Christianity has, and why I won’t go there, either.

Here’s the problem? Who says Christianity produced the governmental and economic institutions that make the West Wealthier than the Middle East? Why, Christians say that. Do atheists? It’s been my experience that atheists generally say that the economic and political institutions we hold dear evolved DESPITE Christianity, not because of it. I’m not agreeing, just pointing out that you can’t automatically link the two.

And even if you could, you would have to demonstrate that the underlying historical conditions have been identical. If so, it is reasonable to contrast the effectiveness of the two. If not, well…

Well, in that case, you get a discussion that is distressingly similar to conversations I’ve had about women (“since women haven’t contributed as much to science, art, and politics, clearly they are intrinsically less capable in these areas”) or race (“since blacks have higher poverty and crime levels, clearly they have less innate capacity…”) dozens of time sover the years.

Not that some of these arguments might not have merit. But here’s the important part: If group X has a discussion about their merits in respect to group Y, and there are not members of group Y present, the conclusion will be, at best, that the groups are equal. If it is decided that one is better than the other, then group X will come out on top. 99% of the time.

In other words, there is nothing more predictable than the fact that any homogeneous group will conclude that they are the best. Whites, blacks, women, men, Americans, Europeans, gays, straights, Christians, Moslems.

Want to have a chance to have a real discussion? Have equal numbers of Moslems in the discussion. Otherwise, you’ll come to the conclusion that Christianity is better for producing Democracy, or truffles, or anything else.

Better still: have the discussion between a group of historians and economists who are Chinese Buddhists, who have no investment in either side winning.

What bothers me is the tendency people seem to have to forget (or ignore the fact) that we have an innate, automatic tendency to believe we are the best, that our team, tribe, nation, gender, religion, political party, or sexual orientation is the best. That’s just the way most people think. It disturbs me when members of group X sit around, discuss their relative merits with group Y, and then feel secure in their apparent victory.

And of course, their reasoning makes sense to them. Heck, there is nothing in the world that is easier than agreeing with what you already believe. And I know NO ONE who doesn’t think that they have good reasons for what they believe. That their beliefs aren’t based on facts and logic.

Wow. I agree with myself? I convince myself? Great. Wow. I conclude that blacks, or science fiction writers/fans, or martial artists, or 50-somethings, or Yogis are the enlightened ones? Big surprise.

I simply won’t consider any conversation about whether Islam is less suitable for the production of a democratic republic with liberty for all, unless equal numbers of representatives of the opposite point of view are present. Unless it’s clearly labeled as a B.S. conversation being conducted merely for fun Too many factors. America only freed its slaves 150 years ago, and gave the vote to women 100 years ago—and guaranteed full legal rights to Americans of African descent only about 40 years ago. Trying to separate out what levels of development are made possible by varying resources and historical accidents is a task that taxes the academic theoretician, let alone the practical social engineer.

And when there are vested interests and psychological tendencies that make it CERTAIN that X is 99% of the time going to come to the conclusion that X is best, it’s worse. When the issue is as charged as the history between Christianity and Islam, or Europe and the Middle East, I wouldn’t really expect answers to arise unless the conversation is…dare I say it? Fair and Balanced.

Go ahead, have those conversations--just grasp that they are all straw man discussions. Never make the mistake of thinking you've settled something.
Only crazy people don't agree with themselves.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Islam, governments and such

I tend to go by personally known examples, when possible. The reason I don't think Islam is fundamentally flawed despite the fact that most Muslim countries have governments we wouldn't want, is that the actual Muslims I've met, whether Middle Eastern or American converts, have seemed as fine and decent as Christians or anybody else. Possibly my sample was filtered and invalid for some reason. But I don't think so. At any rate, Dinesh D'Souza, for whom I have no love, published an interesting article on the subject of an Islamic Reformation. His thinking seems sane to me.

Can Hirsi Ali Lead An Islamic Reformation?

Posted Jul 19th 2007 6:53PM by Dinesh D'Souza
Filed under: Religion, Islam, Islamic Radicals
I admire Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who suffered female circumcision and escaped an arranged marriage to a much older Muslim man in Somalia. Ali fled first to the Netherlands and then to the United States. Given what she endured at the hands of her Muslim family and community, I can't blame her for becoming an atheist.
But now this atheist seems to be trying to lead an Islamic reformation. Speaking at the Sydney Writers Festival, she called on Muslims to "review the example of the prophet Muhammad. Muslims are not used to criticizing Islam, they are not used to criticizing the prophet Muhammad." Well, Buddhists are not used to criticizing the Buddha either. Jews aren't known for their denunciations of Moses. Nor do believing Christians typically criticize the founder of their religion, Christ. Attacks on the founders of religions usually come from other religions, or from the enemies of religion.
I'm not suggesting that Muhammad or Islam are beyond criticism. I'm not suggesting that Ali's call for change is wrong. I am suggesting that it will never happen in response to the agitation of people like her. An atheist's call to Muslims to change the theology and practice of the Muslim religion is unlikely to fall on receptive ears in the Muslim world. Of course it will rally critics of Islam in the West, which is really Ali's constituency.
Imagine if Luther were not a devout Christian but rather an atheist. Could he have led the Reformation? The very idea is absurd. It took an Augustinian monk in some ways more devout than the Pope to bring about the transformation of Christendom. So it is with Islam. Change, if it comes, will be wrought by devout Muslims who combat the Islamic radicals by showing fellow Muslims a better way to practice their faith.

I.F., exercise, and longevity

I.F. update.
I love this eating plan. On fast days I pretty much forget about food (unless I've had a high-intensity workout, in which case I might have a little protein to take vitamins with). But the overall flexibility is great, and I feel no negative effects at all during workouts. And that wierds me out, just a bit. Here's a bit of research on a tangential subject:

New Clue Into How Diet And Exercise Enhance

*Science Daily —* The traditional
prescriptions for a healthy life--sensible diet, exercise and weight
control--extend life by reducing signaling through a specific pathway in the
brain, according to Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers who
discovered the connection while studying long-lived mice.

They said their findings underscore the importance of maintaining a healthy
lifestyle and may also offer promising research directions for understanding
and treating diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Morris F. White and his
colleagues published their findings in the July 20, 2007, issue of the
journal Science. Akiko Taguchi and Lynn Wartschow in White's laboratory in
the Division of Endocrinology at Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard
Medical School were co-authors of the research article.

In their experiments, the researchers sought to understand the role of the
insulin-like signaling pathway in extending lifespan. This pathway governs
growth and metabolic processes in cells throughout the body. The pathway is
activated when insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1 switch on proteins
inside the cell called insulin receptor substrates (Irs).

Other researchers had shown that reducing the activity of the pathway in
roundworms and fruitflies extends lifespan. Despite those tantalizing clues,
White said, "The idea that insulin reduces lifespan is difficult to
reconcile with decades of clinical practice and scientific investigation to
treat diabetes."

"In fact, based on our work on one of the insulin receptor substrates, Irs2,
in liver and pancreatic beta cells, we thought more Irs2 would be good for
you," said White. "It reduces the amount of insulin needed in the body to
control blood glucose, and it promotes growth, survival and insulin
secretion from pancreatic beta cells.

In earlier work, the researchers had found that knocking out both copies of
the Irs2 gene in mice reduces brain growth and produces diabetes due to
pancreatic beta cell failure. However, in the new study, when the
researchers knocked out only one copy of the gene, they found the mice lived
18 percent longer than normal mice.

Because reducing insulin-like signaling in the neurons of roundworms and
fruitflies extends their lifespan, the researchers decided to examine what
would happen when they knocked out one or both copies of the Irs2 gene only
in the brains of mice.

Mice lacking one copy of the Irs2 gene in brain cells also showed an 18
percent longer lifespan, and the near complete deletion of brain Irs2 had a
similar effect. "What's more, the animals lived longer, even though they had
characteristics that should shorten their lives--such as being overweight
and having higher insulin levels in the blood," said White.

However, both sets of Irs2 knockout mice exhibited other characteristics
that marked them as healthier, said White. They were more active as they
aged, and their glucose metabolism resembled that of younger mice. The
researchers also found that after eating, their brains showed higher levels
of superoxide dismutase, an antioxidant enzyme that protects cells from
damage by highly reactive chemicals called free radicals.

"Our findings put a mechanism behind what your mother told when you were
growing up--eat a good diet and exercise, and it will keep you healthy,"
said White. "Diet, exercise and lower weight keep your peripheral tissues
sensitive to insulin. That reduces the amount and duration of insulin
secretion needed to keep your glucose under control when you eat. Therefore,
the brain is exposed to less insulin. Since insulin turns on Irs2 in the
brain, that means lower Irs2 activity, which we've linked to longer lifespan
in the mouse."

White and his colleagues are planning their next studies to better
understand how healthy aging and lifespan are coordinated by Irs2 signaling
pathways in the body and the brain. White speculated that the insulin-like
signaling pathway in the brain might promote age-related brain diseases.

"We are beginning to appreciate that obesity, insulin resistance, and high
blood insulin levels are connected to Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's
disease, and dementias in general," he said. "It might be that, in people
who are genetically predisposed to these diseases, too much insulin
overactivates Irs2 in the brain and accelerates disease progression. Thus,
insulin resistance and higher insulin levels might be the environmental
influences that promote these diseases," he said.

*Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by Howard
Hughes Medical Institute.*

Claudiney Morais
Rio de Janeiro - RJ

Thursday, July 19, 2007

"Us-Them" and the 80-20 rule

There are certain things I consider a big warning sign of a rigid and wounded psyche, and one of them is a powerful “Us-Them” attitude along the lines of
1) Male Chauvinism.
2) Women who believe men are responsible for the evils of the world
3) Homophobia
4) Liberals who believe Conservatives are all racist war-mongers
5) Conservatives who talk about “The Liberals” controlling all media or hating America.
6) Whites convinced of Black inferiority.
7) Blacks convinced all Whites are racists

And so on. It’s that 80-20 thing: if you think that more than 80% of what is Good is found exclusively in your group, that’s an automatic red light. Between 50 and 80%, I’m watching carefully to hear how you describe Group X in spontaneous discourse.

This is another version of the “disastrous relationship history,” “financial nightmare” or “obesity” red lights: the strong suspicion that there is perceptual distortion.

Again, I’m not saying that I’m correct, just talking about the way I sort stuff out. I START with the assumption that people are pretty much just people, and modify from there. There are simply too many people who start with the assumption that the “other group” has completely different values and capacities. Most of the time, I don’t see it.

And most of the people I’ve met who are successful in all three major categories seem to see the world in full color rather than black-and-white.

If there was a religion that really had “The Truth,” I would expect its members to pretty much walk on water. Absent that, I have to think that the measure would be the percentage of adherents who are healthy, successful, and capable of deep and abiding love. This doesn’t seem to vary hugely from religion to religion, so I assume they’re all pretty much heading in the same direction, and people who think religion X or Y is demonic pretty much fit into the “distortion” category.

The same is true of Politics. When people get to the “We’re Right, You’re Wrong” pretty much across the board, I begin to assume that they are selecting and deleting reality, while believing they’re oh-so-logical. Almost any of the Radio personalities talking politics seem to be in this category, probably because they thrive on controversy. None of them seem capable of seeing two sides of an issue. Fine. But while I suspect cynicism on their part, when private citizens promote the same perspective I have to ask a couple of questions:
1) Are members of group X FAR more successful than members of group Y in health, finances, or relationship stability?
2) If not, upon what objective criteria do they base their apparent belief that they are smarter and better than the other group?

If there is no vast difference, then my default position is that the apparent difference in perspective is caused by a perceptual filter (fear, early childhood programming, existential/religious belief) that is operating below the level of logic. This is the kind of person who takes the “if they disagree, they must be knaves or fools” approach. They virtually NEVER seem to wonder if there is more than one legitimate way to view an issue.

Because I’ve seen this behavior in people of all persuasions, religions, political leanings and levels of intelligence (as well as detected it in myself) I tend to assume that when people of apparently equal intelligence, education and moral strength have, as groups, very different attitudes about basic life questions, the answer lies not in logic but in basic assumptions about the ultimate working of the universe.

Although this assumption doesn’t always prove out, it works often enough to be quite useful.

In the same way, assuming that Anger is just a mask over Fear has enabled me to deal with and defused angry, aggressive people on three continents, and makes sense of the most bigoted, narrow-minded folks I’ve ever encountered. Human behavior just makes sense viewed this way. Not only does it make sense, but it points to the most efficient path for my own growth, or the growth of my students: see where you’re blocked in one of the Big Three, assume you are dealing with a fear. If the underlying emotion or belief is something that is rational from an adult perspective, then maybe you keep it.

But if you wouldn’t have programmed yourself with that belief, or engrained that fear, as an adult, then you have to deal with the emotion. Pain and Fear are there to call your attention to a problem. But once you have actually absorbed the lesson, you don’t need the negative charge or emotion any longer.
Again, for me to believe that either Conservatives or Liberals “know” the truth to the exclusion of the other side would mean that the other side is deluded. That delusion should show up in their daily lives, in some measurable fashion. I think that a healthy person has a constellation of beliefs about life and the world, selected from both sides of the political spectrum. The more their attitudes are from one side or the other, the more I question. And when they demonize the other side, use words like “Hate” or obsess about personalities, the brighter that red light flashes in my head. If they literally dehumanize the other side, I suspect that they are projecting their own fear and weakness onto their “opponents.”

Liberals who think Right-wingers hate nature. Conservatives who think Moslems don’t value human life.

In both cases, I think that they have lost the capacity to project themselves into other lives, ask themselves: “under what circumstances would an ordinarily reasonable, good person behave in this way?”

I think that the reason this doesn’t happen much is that when you have to fight, you might have to kill. Most people can’t fight or kill someone they respect. They have to trash-talk, propagandize, dehumanize or they’ll freeze when it’s time to pull the trigger or drop the bomb. So when we are threatened, I think that it is a natural human tendency to assume the “other” is less than us. In fact, I think it’s almost impossible for most people to function in any other way. And that’s a shame.

You CAN simultaneously defend yourself and respect your attacker. This, however, requires a higher level of emotional/spiritual preparation than to demonize. Hell, they do it at the level of High School football—turning the opposing team into 2-dimensional figures to crush, stomp and humiliate. The question of their humanity barely comes up.

And both sides do this, although I believe the Right does it too much, and just perhaps the Left doesn’t do it enough (excessive hierarchicalism as opposed to excessive egalitarianism). But I hear it from both, and find it equally regrettable.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

In this corner...Jon Lovitz?

The name “Jon Lovitz” jumped out at me on the radio, because he’s an alumnus of UCIrvine, which Nicki is about to enter. Apparently, he got into an altercation with comedian Andy Dick at a Comedy Club, during which he slammed Dick’s head into the bar until his nose bled. The provocation? Well…apparently, years back Dick gave comedian Phil Hartman’s wife cocaine at a party. She’d been off the stuff, relapsed, and some time after this point murdered her husband in a drug and alcohol-fueled nightmare.

After an argument of some kind, Dick said he would put the “Curse of Hartman” on Lovitz (who was said to be a good friend of Hartman), and the fun began.

The radio was buzzing with “controversy” about the legitimacy of Lovitz’ actions. Most callers said Dick was asking for it, and the radio co-host pretty much agreed. The host was outraged (I suspect that the outrage was manufactured for the sake of controversy, but that’s just an opinion.) I thought I’d weigh in.

1) By no means do I agree with Lovitz’ actions. Period. I would hope that I would never do such a thing. Period.

2) Did I hear right, that he “slammed Dick’s head into the bar” suggests that there was alcohol involved. Alcohol is notorious for thinning the wall between emotion and logical restraint.

3) Dick’s comedy seems to be based on how offensive he can be without getting hit. Looks like he overshot.

4) Lovitz kicked someone’s ass? I wouldn’t have thought he had it in him. Then again, I hear Lou Costello was actually the hard-line ass-kicker of the “Abbott and Costello” team. (Once, in fact, he demanded that Universal bill him first. The studio rep sniffed and said that the company hadn’t hired “Costello and Abbott”)

5) You curse a drunk man and simultaneously insult the memory of a friend of his, whose death you may have contributed to. Let me think…throughout the world, throughout time, has this kind of behavior led to butt-whipping? Death? Would you look at “Romeo and Juliet” and notice the fantastically slight provocations that led to swordplay in the street? Thumb biting in one’s general direction? Oh, please. I suspect that the contexts in which one could reasonably expect to get away with such nonsense would represent a tiny, tiny fraction of human history. The norm is not “walking away with dignity.” The norm is bloodshed. Dick depended on Lovitz being more civilized than 99.9% of humanity over more than 99.9 percent of our history has ever been. I would admire Lovitz for walking away. But kicking Dick’s ass? Seems perfectly predictable to me.

6) A man walking into a tough bar with hundred-dollar bills hanging out of his pockets, has the right not to be robbed. A woman walking naked into a room full of sex offenders has the right not to be raped. But we’d know they were idiots, wouldn’t we? Andy Dick was an idiot, and what happened to him is exactly what I would warn my son would happen were he to behave in the same way. I see nothing to be outraged about. In fact, were I on the jury, I’d be searching for an excuse to call it self-defense. Did ANYONE see Dick touch him first? Was Dick taller, that Lovitz might feel in fear for his life? Was there a lump anywhere on Dick’s clothes that might have been mistaken for a weapon..?

No? You’re sure? Oh, darn…

Anyway. While I wouldn’t want to behave that way, and wouldn’t want my son to behave that way, or a friend, I doubt I’d disown my kid or sever ties with a friend who did. In fact, I know I wouldn’t. Guess I can’t completely escape the barbarian in my soul.

Lest we forget: perfectly civilized societies had dueling to discourage rudeness. People who behave like Dick depend upon others behaving at a higher level of decency than they themselves are willing to offer. Hard not to think that the existence of the Jon Lovitz’ of the world keep such people…thoughtful. I like thoughtful people. They’re polite.

Breath Work

From Nancy:
I've read Body-Flow, Freedom from Fear-Reactivity by Sonnon and Let Every Breath Let Every Breath by Vasiliev. I've been working with exhaling through my mouth with some extra effort and inhaling through my nose while letting the inhalation be as reflexive as I can manage. (I'm not sure that exhaling through the mouth is generally better than exhaling through the nose, but at present, it's doing a lot to loosen my jaw muscles.)

I've been doing this pretty frequently in the course of the day (not on a schedule), and it makes a huge difference. Doing nothing (usually futzing around online) isn't nearly as attractive as it was. This makes a huge difference to me, and I'm hoping to make more progress with it.

I'm now wondering how much of inertia is not enough air/too much muscular rigidity. This still leaves emotional and brain chemistry explanations in place--there's got to be some reason why some people find it plausible to get into restricting their breath to a debilitating extent, but the breath seems to be a part of the cycle that I can get at.

Steve, it's unlikely that I would have found those books without you, and I'm more than grateful.

I'd be interested in anything more you have to say about "smart people who can't get their act together"--I'm definitely in that category. If there are sub-types, I'm in what I call "laughing depression". It's possible to enjoy some things and pursue hobbies, but taking care of myself is incredibly difficult.

Bless you, Nancy. I am so incredibly happy for you. I think the "reasons" for the breath-work's power are many, and exist on multiple levels simultaneously.
1) Physiological reasons that relate to muscle tension.
2) Physiological reasons relating to CO2/Oxygen balance in the bloodstream
3) psychological reasons relating to paying conscious attention to breathing
4) Spiritual reasons that have to do with gratitude for life.

And on and on. What is important: it works.
I'm not destroying my ego yet...but nibbling away at it. Egos are very useful things! My most basic advice: take responsibility for all three areas in your life. Assume that you have control and you created your circumstance. See what comes up as a result of this position. Then...remember its just a position, and we really don't know.

Enjoy the mystery. Relish knowing that you don't know.
A question. There's a percentage of politicizing beyond which I think people have...well, let's just say I think it's emotional compulsion masquerading as intellectual clarity. It occurs to me that the best way for me to quantify this might be to ask you guys an odd question:

When talking to someone who is of the OPPOSITE political orientation to you, how dogmatic about "Liberals" or "Conservatives" do they have to be before you begin to suspect/detect rigidity and blindness in other areas of their personality? Try to give this a percentage number. We all know people who feel that their corner of the political spectrum is responsible for all that is good in America. Call that 100%. I try hard to maintain the position that what is good in America is a result of tension between Left and Right--I AIM at 50% but probably ain't there. I'm looking for a "Fast and Dirty" measurement here, your instinctive "hit" on how far from center someone OPPOSED TO YOUR VIEWS must be before you begin to suspect them of emotional/psychological blindness.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

"H" is for Hero's Journey

Another entry from my Lifewriting mailing list.

The concept of the Hero has taken a lot of
battering lately. Many think that, especially
when examined as part of the archetypical
Hero's Journey, that this is outmoded as a
story-telling tool. Others have suggested
that it is sexist (why not a "Heroine's Journey"?)
or too culturally specific (most examples
given are Northern European) or that there
are many, many stories that do not fit into
this mold. Or too restrictive.

What can I say? Any model of reality is less
than reality itself. Always. And the more
complicated the model, the more it may
SEEM to represent the world "as it is" but
actually, the further from actually usable
truth it becomes.

Outmoded as a story-telling tool? Viewed
correctly, it has worked for tens of thousands
of years, and is likely to survive the latest
Hollywood story-development fad. Sexist?
If I called it the "Heroine's Journey" that
might or might not satisfy these folks. If I
built a story model around the specific
DIFFERENCES between men and women,
all I'd be revealing would be my own political
and psychological theories. I try to model
everything on what Human Beings
and women are a little different, but about
99% the same. As are people of different
times, races, cultures. The differences get
us into trouble, but assuming that there
are more differences than similarities
leads to disaster and distortion. Non
culturally specific? Only if you try to take
each step too literally, and search for
very precise correlations with cultural
iconic tales. The Hero's Journey appeals
to me because it relates to the path
generally followed by human beings as
they move from one phase to another.

Too restrictive? Again, only if you are so
dogmatic that you try to make every step
fit exactly into some kind of pattern.
That is not the point. The point is to find
a way to look at story that has some
relation to the path of life itself. We
meet challenges. If they are large enough,
they frighten us. We take actions, usually
smaller ones before larger ones. We
gather knowledge, skills, allies, mentors.
If the challenge is large enough, we will
run into the end of ourselves, the death
of our ego. Unless we have faith that
there is something more than our self-concept,
we fall back into stagnation. But if we move
forward, risking body, heart, and mind,
we learn lessons that are invaluable--
which transform us, and prepare us to
be Elders in our tribe.

Warriors, healers, teachers, parents,
artists...all have different expressions
of this. The term "Hero" here merely
means one who is willing to move
beyond fear to a more authentic
expression of Self. This can be spiritual,
emotional, doesn't matter.

I've used this pattern with great success
for over twenty years. It is flexible, and
powerful, and resonates. But it is not to
be used as some cookie-cutter template.
Understand the meaning and impact of
the steps...

And then change them with artistry.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Dim Sum

Blair was on Regis and Kelly this morning, and we’re watching the Amazon and Barnes and Noble numbers dropping. That’s really a lot of fun.

Strangely, if you take a look at the “people who bought this also purchased…” slot, you see a strange difference between Amazon and B&N. On Amazon, most of the “other” books are black-themed. On B&N, most of the other books are straight mainstream mysteries.

Another strangeness: our Amazon numbers are worse on weekends than weekdays, while the B&N numbers stay about the same.

Here’s an odd theory to explain it. More black readers use Amazon than B&N. A lower percentage of blacks than whites have home computers. Therefore, they buy books during the week—at their work computers, while whites are buying them on the weekends at higher rates.

Not sure why that difference exists, but it would explain both the book choices and the number variations…
Saw “Harry Potter” this weekend with Nicki, and enjoyed it plenty. I’ve never read the books, but they seem to be WAY above the average level of children’s books that were available when I was a kid. I wonder what people will think of them in fifty years.
Had Dim Sum with Harlan and his buddy Josh Olson (“A History of Violence”) Saturday. I think Harlan has a hard time believing he’s survived so long. The guy was definitely burning the candle at both ends, with a blow-torch aimed at the middle. And despite his health challenges, he is remarkably fast, clear and brilliant in conversation. His wife Susan is an Avatar of compassion, let me tell you. He is not for the faint of heart. Known him for 35 years, and still get a little nervous before I call him. Why? Like Octavia, Harlan is a writer’s writer. He is pure. Deal with him, and you had best to come Correct, as they say. In comparison, I just dabble. He encourages me, directly and indirectly, to be the most honest, unfiltered, direct version of myself. God knows that’s what he’s done, warts and all. Just a singular human being.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

I.F. and resolving dualities

My weight this morning: 170.8. I need to Jacuzzi more often, ‘cause I’m pushing my body pretty hard—FlowFit II, Kettlebells, and Silat work. Leaning out very very well.

Thoughts on I.F.:
Be VERY careful to eat well on Feast days. I find that if I’m not, I have two indicators: my lips begin to chap, and my fingernail cuticles split. I pay very close attention.

It is also quite predictable that people with real weight problems are going to hit a “mother load” of grief with I.F. For God’s sake, be sure you’re meditating and/or consulting a therapist. During this process. Here are some of the issues people have told me about:

1) Family pressure to eat
2) Massive guilt if you eat on Fasting days
3) Tendency not to eat enough on “Feast” days, leading to breaking fasts, and a self-destructive cycle.
4) Unexplained emotional jags.
5) Ravenous hunger. (Hoodia anyone? Also—you could always eat some fruit, or a little protein. The trick here is that when people succumb to the hunger, the subconscious then resorts to tactic #2, leading to a “why bother…” spiral.

In other words, whatever social pressures, habit patterns, emotional needs or whatever have been the PSYCHOLOGICAL component of the weight will rise up to bite your ass. The PHYSICAL components are certainly there (slow metabolism. Powerful hunger pangs) but for probably 99% of people with weight issues, these are less crippling than the emotional stuff.

My sleep pattern has remained pretty constant: I need about 6.5 hours of sleep a night, where I used to need 8-8.5. It’s very strange. I’ve been operating at a very high level of physical and creative output, as well, so clearly my body and psyche are getting more efficient at healing and recovery.

My routine is to work on martial arts/fitness stuff three days a week, and every other day is either Yoga or completely “off.” If I can’t get into the Bikram school, I do Ashtanga short forms at home. Got myself a portable yoga floor to put over my rug—need the support for my wrists.
This morning’s meditation was very clear. I’m enjoying the following:
1) Heartbeat meditation to occupy my kinesthetic channels.
2) Inhale: “I” Exhale “Am” (silently) to occupy my internal auditory channel
3) Visualize light running up and down my spine. Anchor the light at my anal sphincter and take it all the way up to the seventh chakra (as in “hold your head as if suspended by a string from above)
4) When the light is strong, rotate it out into a “Time Line” with my current year goal at the end. Here, I check to see if my values, beliefs and emotional anchors are aligned with my goals. If they are, everything “looks” smooth, and is an indication that my conscious and unconscious motivations are in alignment. If I “see” gaps, wrinkles, knots, etc., I know I have work to do.
5) If there is work to do, (and sometimes even if there isn’t) I will visualize “Stevie” my younger self, and ask him what he needs from me. Usually, he just wants to hold hands with me. He generally smiles and tells me to chill out. Occasionally, though, he gives me hell for some transgression.
The whole Jed McKenna thing has been so comforting, really. So: the end of the voyage is a return to the core energy, and a dissolution of ego. If I don’t take my ego too seriously, that sounds pretty cool—destruction of “self” but awakening to true “Is-ness.”
Imagine a plastic bag of salt water suspended in the middle of the ocean. The plastic tries to tell you that IT is you. And is in terror of being ruptured.
Well, that makes sense, especially since the entire “game” of earthly existence seems to be some kind of educational/evolutionary experience which we must play hard to get the most benefit from. Notice how language breaks down here? There is no “I” exist or play, and yet there are perspectives from which the “I” is strong indeed—and will shriek at us if we damage or threaten it. Oh, and there is no “us.”
Sigh. This is either hysterically funny, or confusing as hell.
The interesting thing is how it seems vital to be able to look at it both ways at the same time. Life is a splendid game, of no importance. We are intended to evolve, but there’s nothing really going on. “I” love, fear, strive, suffer, glory.
There is no “I.”
It would be enough to drive someone crazy if you aren’t flexible enough to get the joke.
You know the type often by their politics. Women or men or blacks or whites or liberals or conservatives or Democrats or Republicans who believe their side is “correct” and the other side simply “wrong.”
It’s sad. They literally can’t resolve dualities to see that people see the same mountain from different directions. Once you see that, it’s much easier to understand different philosophical or political perspectives: everyone wants to make the world what they think will be the most pleasant for THEM. Very few people are honest enough to admit that what is best for Them might be disadvantageous to perfectly good, nice people in another life situation.
Never underestimate the power of greed and fear to masquerade as morality and righteousness.
I think that every time you resolve one of these dualities, you get to jump up a logical level, rising up the Chakras: for instance, if you genuinely resolve the Me/You dichotomy at the Third Chakra (power) you get to enter the heartspace of “us” (Fourth Chakra, love.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"G" is for Gurus

A few times, I've expressed comments on the order of: "If X turns out to be true, I'll admit I was wrong." Now, that doesn't mean that a given "X" couldn't be true, and I was still correct. It means that I will often set up simple tests to sway my opinion one way or another. Yes, the issues are often (if not always) more complex. For instance, I never believed Saddam had WMDs. If they had been found, I would have thought "oops! I was wrong." I have hard-right friends who still believe, based upon grainy photos on fringe web sites, that there were indeed WMDs. I have hard-left friends who, had WMDs been found, would have claimed Bush planted them. In both cases, I consider these examples of people who have simply made their minds up, and won't be swayed by evidence.

When I said that the question of Nationalized Health Care is complicated, but if one says that it is less efficient, I'd look at life expectancies and infant mortality rates. We could also look at "wait times" for services. I didn't have the data when I said that. If it turned out that these indexes were favorable to privatized health care, I would have taken that VERY seriously. While I would have been willing and interested in looking at additional data, my base position would have shifted on the issue of "is it efficient for the average person?" I have a sense that a big chunk of people on both sides of political issues are arguing backwards from the premise that X or Y is true--and then look for the data to support their position. In complex issues, there is ALWAYS data supporting either position. If you don't start in neutral, you are trapped by your preassumptions, no matter how smart you are. In fact, I don't think intelligence helps you here much at all. We are driven by our emotions--intellect is secondary, I do believe.

I am not in any way suggesting that I'm above this. Christ, I put my own emotional mess right out for everyone to see. I have to meditate daily, or the B.S. stacks up so high I can't see out of my windows.

I say this because I think that my core belief about Politics--that it is not really rational at all, despite measured debate. That it is a worldly expression of spiritual beliefs (essence before existence or existence before essence) explains better than anything I've seen or heard why intelligent, educated, moral people can disagree so violently about things that seem to be so damned CLEAR to both sides. Because ANYONE who is strongly political is arguing backwards from a premise that roots in their subconscious. They don't grasp the degree that ANYTHING that supports those pre-assumptions automatically gets brownie points, and anything that disagrees with it has to march up a steep and ugly hill, with intellect lobbing spit-balls all the way.

I remember reading St. Augustine arguing logically for the existence of God. I actually felt sorry for the guy--it just can't be done. And no one at his level of intelligence and education would ever try it unless they STARTED with the assumption that there was one, and then tried to "prove" it logically.

I guess I'd say this: any time there isn't an easy, actually workable experiment or piece of evidence that would disprove your contention, you are safest to assume that your position is based not on logic, but on emotion. That may not be completely true, but otherwise you can argue yourself into circles, never realizing that you've already made up your mind--and are now just re-convincing yourself of what you were pre-disposed to believe.
Another dose of my Lifewriting Mailing List essays...

G is for Gurus

There are so many writing teachers out there.
Each of them has the ultimate writing formula,
and the ultimate characterization tool, and
the most sure-fire path to publication or
screenwriting success. And many of them
are really smart, really knowledgeable,
really good and sincere people.

Hell, I say terrific things about my own product,
the LIFEWRITING YEAR LONG, and judging by
the reactions of the people who have purchased
it, I have every right to. But I try to make one
thing very clear: there is only one real guru.
One real teacher. And she lives within you.

No external teacher can do anything save point
in the direction of your internal guru. If they
say they have "the" way, take it with a grain of
salt. Yes, there are still fabulous things to learn.
And you should learn all you can, from everyone
you can. But YOU are the one who has to make
it work.

I've heard it said that a martial art won't turn you
into a fighter. You have to find the fighter within
you...the thing your are willing to die for...
and then learn to express that truth within a particular
system of movement. And no class will turn you
into a writer. But if you can find the writer within
you, you can use John Truby, or Robert McKee, or
Chris Soth, or Steven Barnes to teach you how to
refine and channel that storyteller into someone
who can communicate to others.

But if you can't make that internal connection,
forget it. Forget it. There are no magic formulas.
If there were, everyone would have discovered
it by now.

But the good news is that the truth is buried in
plain sight. There are no guarantees of external
success, but you CAN become a better writer, a
better fit for a particular market or genre. If you
will connect with your own heart, learn to speak
your own truth, you can go deeper and deeper
toward the gold buried in your internal vault.
If you understand the various structures which
are the "language" of writing, you might learn
to express that truth in a way that makes you
money. Maybe.

Some people seem to have this naturally. The
rest of us fight and claw for every inch. But
if you are writing to express yourself, to sing
your song, to clarify your own thoughts...then
the act of writing itself is a victory.

I've got twenty-two novels, tons of television,
and two movies in development at Fox
Searchlight. I'm a starred speaker at the L.A.
Screenwriting Expo, and have lectured on
creativity from Mensa to the Smithsonian, and
have taught writing at the University level.
And I'm still just trying to figure it all out, to
grasp how my heart and soul and intellect
and energy can combine to create the best
work I can do.

And these messages I write to you are really
messages to myself, reminding myself what
I know, and what I don't know. Just trying
to figure it out.

You are, and must be, your own authority.
Your own teacher. Your own Guru. Now, if
you're willing to take that responsibility, I'm
here to help you along. Get the LIFEWRITING
YEAR LONG, listen to the Cds, read the
workbook, do the homework. Especially,
the homework. And somewhere along the
way, hopefully, you won't need me, or any
teacher, ever again. Heck, you might WANT
me, but you won't NEED me. And that
makes all the difference in the world.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

You know, I balance uneasily on the issue of childhood deprivation. On the one hand, you can take any given problem: poverty, racism, single-parent families, abuse, etc., and demonstrate that, on average, such problems drop the curve—the average person, given one of these situations, will perform below the average of the person without such disadvantages.

On the other hand, a notable percentage of high-achievers came from such backgrounds. What to make of this?
1) It might be that a person with an extraordinary innate capacity will actually be motivated to higher accomplishment by childhood trauma.
2) It might be that most high-achievers come from healthy backgrounds, and we hear so much about those who come from damaged backgrounds BECAUSE they are so unusual. (This is pretty much what I think.)

It is interesting that there seem at least two completely different schools of response I hear when people talk about poverty or deprivation in relation to achievement. The “your past made you who you are” response is very in alignment with my own attitudes…but there is a problem with this.

My sense is that people who do NOT suffer problem “X” have a hidden belief that if THEY had problem “X” they would do better with it than the average “X”-er. Now, that may be true, and is probably a healthy way to think. This only becomes a problem when someone thinks that the average member of THEIR group, were they born into problem “X,” would perform better than the other group.

So…when I speak about being without a father, or the problems associated with race and my childhood, I get the same response from two entirely different groups. The “maybe you wouldn’t have accomplished what you have had your father been there…” response can be a truth relating to the fact that certain people, confronted with challenges, fight back twice as hard.

The average person doesn’t. The average person, confronted with a challenge, will suffer for it in comparison with a person without said challenge. When someone says: “perhaps growing up black actually motivated you to excel” my antennae tingle. Do they mean that they think I’m unusual, and respond to challenge by working twice as hard? Or are they saying that the average black person has below-average results because the intrinsic nature of their being is sub-standard?

(And those of you who think blacks actually have less intelligence are, in my mind, saying exactly this. Unless you were to say that there are multiple qualities which add up to a quality human being, and blacks have MORE of another of these qualities, so that the total is the same even though the distribution is different—which argument I’ve never heard convincingly expressed by anyone who believes in the Bell Curve. Lip service, yes. Actual convincing belief, no.)

So I watch this response. There have simply been too many times in my life when I’ve been encouraged to consider myself “different” from the average black person. Well, probably. But no less “different” than I am from the average white person, I promise you. I’m just me. I never had protective coloration, or the luxury of believing I was the same as anyone, or had any herd at all to belong to. Fandom was probably the first place I ever felt relatively invisible…and that was until I started realizing that fans, regardless of their protestations of color-blindness, were just as human and prejudiced as any other members of the species. Sigh.

There was just no where to hide, ever.
But…that led to an interesting series of actions and attitudes. If I couldn’t model myself after any man (no dad, no uncles or grandfathers, mother never re-married. All media models until about 1965 were white) then I began to dig deeper into myself, seeking whatever ultimate core to my personality I might find.

I think that the early disappointment and disillusionment set me up in a way I never anticipated: I knew that what I was being told about the world was bullshit, and I knew it from the age of seven or eight. That’s a horrible age to learn something like that. I knew that there was nothing I could rely on, nothing I could trust, no one who could tell me the truth. There was no security.

When I think back on it, I wonder how that poor kid survived, I really did. I could find no moral core. No absolute reality that related to this world. I stole from every job I ever had, and couldn’t stop myself based on any sense of right and wrong.

How did I stop myself? By taking the position that every time I stole, I diminished my belief in my ability to earn what I wanted without risking imprisonment. Honesty became the more efficient course.

I generally feel no guilt, no shame. I have to find other ways to motivate myself, because at some deep level I feel that every adult who should have given me an accurate view of who I was and what I was and what the world was…lied to me. Maybe not deliberately, but they did.

I couldn’t begin to tell you how much therapy, meditation, counseling, ceremony, psychoactive experimentation, prayer, biofeedback, and other stuff I went through trying to find the core of my reality.

And the deeper I went, the more I realized (or came to believe) that there was simply nothing there. No final reality, no solid core, no essence of “me” that is then expressed in its corporeal form. Nothingness…and Everything…two sides of the same coin.

But no “me.” And that realization (or belief) separated me from everyone, and everything, in some ways that were kinda odd for my age. It’s taken me quite a while to develop a theoretical model to even BEGIN to explain some of this stuff to others. Had to look far and wide. Truth be told, you can sense it in the Red Letters of the New Testament. I don’t see or feel it in much of what Christ’s followers wrote, though.

I think I became something of a Zen Christian—that is, any of the principles of the Bible that I can verify through the interaction of natural forces, or the behavior of animals, I will consider truth. The rest, to me, is politics.

All around Robin’s barn we’re going, this morning. Where does all this connect to what I was saying?

My ego-shell is definitely damaged, and may never heal. I spend time every day separating myself from it, but life slaps you upside the head and reminds you that you are human. Then, the crap about race, and gender, and career and so forth gets very real.

If I hadn’t been black. If I hadn’t been small and weak. If my father had been in the home…who would I be?

I have no idea. It is reasonable to posit that I might not have accomplished what I have. But then I might. Like I said, the average person, given a broken leg, will limp. The extraordinary person might rise to athletic supremacy. What motivates that? I don’t know, and I know I have an aversion to believing there is anything special about me…that road seems to offer little joy.

What road DOES offer joy? The road of service, the road of growth and evolution, the road of creativity. To take my attention off myself, and put it on the work that needs to be done, that I might be able to do if I can just rise beyond my wounds and stay there long enough to report back what that territory looks like.

That, of course, is what this blog is: an attempt to dump out the trash barrel in my soul, to lighten the load so that I can perform at the highest possible level for another day.

Look at the stuff that repeats in my online journal. I’ve spent hellaciously more time, energy and money on my inner work than the average person, and it still plagues me like a multi-headed hydra. Maybe it always will.

But every time I look at someone who is homeless, or broken, or lost, or lonely, I remember the endless string of teachers, mentors, therapists, courses, and peak experiences that have enriched my life, and been grateful that my mother set me on this path, even though she herself was not able to walk it.

There, truly, but for the grace of God, go I.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Monday Morning Thoughts

Here’s a link to an article concerning Valerie Plame’s employment history at the CIA—and the fact that it was covert.

Please, please, someone tell me that somewhere out on the blogosphere, SOMEONE on the Right published this information. Anyone? Because I am terribly afraid that politics is trumping national security on this. That the very people who claim to care about the welfare of our country and Constitution are, instead, protecting Bush and his cronies. I cannot avoid the belief that Bush commuted Libby’s sentence not because it was “too harsh” (in which case he could have reduced it to, say, six months) but because Libby had sworn to keep his mouth closed only so long as he avoided actual jail time.

Please. Didn’t SOMEONE publish this? The disinformation machine has been running 24/7. All I’ve seen from the right is a unanimous “she wasn’t covert.” This is just a lie. Bald and dangerous. This is heart-breaking, it really is.
Saw “Pirates of the Carribean” III over the weekend. It was actually a lot better than the second one, and fun, but way too busy, and obsessed with special effects at the expense of plot.


And they have Chow Yun Fat lusting after Keira Knightly. He kisses her at one point. Immeditately, what flashed through my mind was “miscegenation alert! This man is dead!” and within sixty seconds, he was.

Disgusting how predictable this crap is.
The tension of the last year (waiting for papers to get signed over at Searchlight) has been killer, and is showing up in my morning meditations, as well as (what feels like) immune system suppression. This would be a REALLY bad time to back off of the inner work, although my external goals are pulling at me ferociously.

The strangest thing. The more you need to meditate, to journal, to do the internal stuff, the more the external world will collaborate to convince you you don’t need to do it. All of the inner voices will rise up like a chorus and scream at you that anything, anything, is more important than that inner work. Cutting your neighbor’s cat’s toenails seems more important.

I have a friend who is dealing with massive existential fear. She will not meditate. Virtually every complaint she has about her life would ease if she did. She “never has the time,” although she has time for trips and reading and movies and anything else. Then, from time to time she comes close to a breakdown, and begs me for advice. When I tell her to look for the light within her, or count breaths, or listen to her heartbeat, she balks. “How long will it take?” At least six weeks to begin to quiet the ego-mind and allow her to slip deeper into her Self.

“I need something NOW!” she claims. This has been going on for over a decade. It is so very sad—if only she had begun when we first started having these discussions, she would be at a completely different place in her life. As it is, she is choked with fear, trapped in a career she no longer loves, and in a loveless marriage. And everything, absolutely everything, is someone else’s fault.

What’s even worse is that she espouses Conservative political beliefs that emphasize personal responsibility—she has no real compassion for the downtrodden. So she talks Right, but behaves as Conservatives claim Liberals behave—blaming everything outside herself for her predicament. It has to be absolutely tearing her apart.
At this moment, for the last week, I’ve actually had all three aspects of my life operating in dynamic balance at a higher level than ever before. Physically (Intermittent Fasting, Kettlebells, etc.) everything is clicking nicely. Spiritually (meditation, family) I am healthy and have no real issues. And Career just took a jump. If I can balance the multitude of projects for another 30 days, the stress level should drop a bit.

But operating at a higher level means that my foundations must be dug deeper, so that I dropped into a section of my psyche I haven’t visited in a long time. It seems that the more sophisticated the engine, the more sensitive it is to grit and bad gasoline. Or in other words, as I ready myself for faster growth and higher performance, the less tolerance there is for psychological dead weight.

Or maybe its just that old patterns feel safe to rise up and present themselves. Man, the “black men can’t have sex in movies” thing is such a sore spot for me that I twitch just looking at boxes at the video store. It’s not cool at all, and I can’t seem to get to the bottom of it.

But then, I’m not sure I SHOULD turn that off. If I don’t remember that that’s a land mine—and an uncharted one—when I take meetings in Hollywood I’ll believe what the executives say (SURE we can have sexual/romantic relations in our movies for black characters. And by the way, don’t you think “Shaft” worked better when they…ah…”streamlined” the story a bit by taking out those pesky bed scenes?) rather than what their actions show.

And I’ll kill my new career. I have to hold the “true” reality in my mind while pretending to believe in the “presented” reality. Otherwise, I’ll awaken the sleeping demon. If I can handle it properly, I can create images that help to desensitize the public to this insanely hot-button issue.

This is just the cost of being awake.
Someone asked me about my responsibilities to black male readers in SF—and to young black SF writers. I have two answers here.

1) The first one comes from my human self. And it says that I’ve pulled that plow, alone, for almost thirty years. I’ve written twenty-two novels, many of which contain EXACTLY the imagery I craved when I was a kid. The books are out there. In this sense, I know I’ve made the world a better place than I found it. But it cost me, more than I can communicate to most people unless they have been in the minority in some major sense. If I was 20 years old today, I’d look at what Steven Barnes did and be incredibly inspired, and determined to kick his ass and go WAY beyond him.
2) The second part is the purely creative spirit. There is so much left to do, and I cannot do it while weighed down by my fears and insecurities. So I have to move beyond them. But I can’t quite do that without moving to the next career level, which MIGHT demand that I create color-blind material, just to create the financial and career stability that will give me the freedom and opportunity and leverage to create some of the images we need to desensitize the market.

This is social programming, to be sure. Just as many filmmakers deliberately did in the 60’s, using their power to create social change. I can’t do that without leverage. And sometimes that feels like selling out. Arrgh.

No, I can’t stop moving forward. But without healing those wounds in myself, I can’t operate at a more spiritual level—I just don’t have the foundation.

This is one of the areas where I wish to God my father had been in the house. His absence left a hole in my heart I’ve never been able to fill, no matter how I try. Maybe my experiences with Jason will help here.

But this is one of the reasons that I am so disgusted when I hear about men having children without parenting them. Or women deliberately getting pregnant, even though they are without partners. This is selfishness, and childishness on a level so deep that it flirts with evil. Blindness at the least.

When this happens in the White community, it is bad, and damaging. But when it happens in the Black community, with the lack of cultural images to compensate, it is something very close to social suicide. It is somewhere way, way beyond irresponsibility. I have great respect for those women who raised their sons and daughters without fathers—as long as the situation was beyond their control (accidental pregnancy, widowhood, abandonment, etc.)

But if this was your choice? I have a very, very difficult time controlling my anger. And when those boys run wild, or those girls get pregnant out of wedlock and the women wring their hands that “they did everything they could” I want to vomit.

Ah, yes. This level of my life is like a broken leg-bone that has never quite set because I have to keep putting weight on it. I can build up the muscle around it, and anesthetize it, but the bone doesn’t heal, and I can’t quite put my full weight on it.

Mom worked herself to death trying to compensate for Dad’s absence. And Dad did the best he could—he just didn’t have the “father” thing worked out too well.

They tried. I wish they’d been just a little more successful.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Note to Frank, and on CASANEGRA

I want to clarify something to Frank. On re-thinking, it wasn’t four “ex-CIA” guys I heard/saw claiming Plame was covert. It was three, plus my friend who is former Military Intel. Only two of them claimed to have specific knowledge—the other two were guessing based upon what they knew of the case. And there is a possibility that someone was lying, of course. I didn’t/couldn’t check credentials. Two of them were on the radio, one on television. It all seemed legit, but because we are discussing things that are critical to the safety of our country, I wanted to be super-clear, and as honest as I could be.
Boy, Amazon is great. I’ve been watching the numbers on CASANEGRA bob up and down. Got down to 935 yesterday. Blair did Entertainment Tonight and is doing another huge show on Monday. I think People magazine is coming up next week…

I appreciate folks coming to my defense about CASANEGRA when a poster seemed to criticize our decision to work with Blair. Warms my little heart.

But there is one thing clear about such critics: they are NEVER professional writers. They may be intelligent readers, or unpublished writers. But they are in delusion about what the professional life is.

There is no war between art and commerce, unless it is in the heart of the artist. I can always create something that is EXACTLY what I want to write. Might not be able to get it published, but hell, who cares about little things like that?

There are apparently a few writers who can write exactly what they want, with literally no thought to the market at all, and make plenty of $$.

Great. But unless you are independently wealthy, you had BETTER take the audience into account. Shakespeare certainly did. Twain certainly did. Hell, the Sistine Chapel ceiling was painted for money.

Anyone who thinks that my art is more important than my family doesn’t understand me at all. My art is my life. My life is my art. Writing is just a facet. My art is, (in Larry Niven’s words) “Life lived as a tapestry.” With the greatest degree of grace and power and contribution and joy I can manage.

I have rent to pay, a daughter to put through college, a son to raise, a wife to cherish, family and friends to assist in any way I can. For almost thirty years, I’ve been the only black male SF writer in the field, and have used every trick of mental conditioning, goal setting, emotional cleansing and networking I could manage to keep going.

Last year, I came to believe that I could never reach financial security in the SF field. Not that many do, but I’d always believed that if I was good enough, and worked hard enough, long enough, I could. I no longer believe that, due to some very basic human wiring that unfortunately works against me.

But I’m not a quitter. I really don’t know how to stop, once I’m in a fight. So I wanted to try Mysteries, which I believe has greater acceptance of non-European characters. I tried several contemporary novels (THE KUNDALINI EQUATION, BLOOD BROTHERS, IRON SHADOWS) and wasn’t happy with the results—great reviews, no sales.

Hmm. One of the problems was that the book buyers at Barnes and Nobel just didn’t know me in this new guise. They literally just didn’t buy the books. They never had a chance.

Hmmm. So…what to do? Can’t stay exclusively in SF. Can’t find the right opening for a sideways move. This is kinda scary.

Ten years ago, Tananarive optioned MY SOUL TO KEEP to Blair Underwood. She had written the “David” character with Blair in mind, so it was a perfect fit. Over the decade, we’ve gotten to know and admire him. He’s a shark, but he’s an honest shark with great integrity. As long as you don’t jump in the water with an open wound, you’re all right. In fact, I find him delightful.

I’m not a shark. More of a dolphin, I’d say. Dolphins build community, and a dolphin community does quite well with sharks, thank you. We are cautious of them, but understand they are of the natural order. As long as you take responsibility for yourself, Sharks are perfectly cool.

At any rate, one day Blair came to T and asked her to write an historical novel with him, set in New Orleans in the 19th century. I suggested that if T was going to invest the year necessary to write a book, it should have the potential to make a series, to create a platform that might bring us to a new audience, allow us to write new things.

She agreed, and I shared my thoughts on mystery and suspense—a genre I dearly, dearly love. We sketched out some ideas, and presented them to Blair. He’s quick on the uptake, and made great suggestions of his own. We re-worked the character and the world, and began working.

Blair contributes characterization notes, and knowledge of Hollywood’s paler side. I had a big chunk of responsibility for plot, research, and of course the action sequences. And Tananarive pulled off a miracle with her blitzing First Draft attack. What a woman! You really should have seen her.

At any rate, once we decided to do this, the only question was creating the best book possible. The three-way partnership, and Blair’s participation, gave the book a special cache, a marketing hook that would take it beyond what New York can typically do.

This is a fairly new business model. We don’t know what will happen with it, but I already get queries from other writers wanting to copy it. Hah! Good luck. If you have a ten-year relationship with a star, such that there is real trust and communication, you can do this. Otherwise, I’d think it a pig in a poke. Whatever the hell that means.
We have plans for numerous future books, dealing with Hollywood, Black Hollywood, social issues and spectacular crimes and criminals. Maybe even a little espionage, if I can integrate some of what I’m learning from “Hughie” my Military Intel friend.

Only some, though. Some of what I’ve learned, believe me, you don’t want to know.
At any rate, I am perfectly aware of the tightrope walk I’m performing, trying to balance my inner and outer worlds as an artist. It is an intoxicating challenge. Hell, last night I saw my book front-and-center on Entertainment Tonight. How many writers have ever done that?

But there are dangers to the artistic spirit. I’ll try to navigate these water carefully.

Capsizing is a definite risk.

And like I said: there are sharks in the water.