Friday, July 15, 2016

King of Nothing


My Dad didn't care much for pop music -- though he loved classical stuff. Once in a great while, however, a pop song appealed to him. This was one of them.

One of his nicknames was Kingzy. And after he heard this song a few times, he had a new one: King of Nothing.

The message of the song spoke to him, I guess -- when you're just a little kid, you don't ask why so-and-so likes a certain song; you just like it along with them. Now perhaps I can figure it out, because I'm a King of Nothing myself -- though like Dad, I have a lot in life: A wonderful wife, great children, a terriffic suit, and great henchmen. And I live in a place that's relatively peaceful, I have a roof over my head, food to eat, and two dogs that bug me while I sleep.

But no grandiose things. No palace.

But I'm a happy guy. Just like Dad.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

A Candidate -- or at Least A Defeatist Attitude -- to Get Behind


The Scariest Thing of All



We have lost count of the number of books in our house.

We could probably count them, but given the state of our childrens’ rooms, there’s no chance we’d get them all in a single count. We’d have to have some kind of system, say, little stickers, to put on each book as it was counted to make sure we could tell the counted from the uncounted.

But who wants to put stickers on books?

And the vast majority of these books are not new. We buy them used from thrift stores. We buy them used online. We buy them used at library sales, garage sales, the army surplus store. Sometimes I swear they’re smuggled into the house baked inside loaves of bread.

I have two paperback books in my work bag. The kids have books spilling out of the bags they’ve taken to scout camp for the summer. And they leave books all over the place: On the kitchen counter, on the floor in the bathroom, on the couch, under the couch, stuck in the couch cushions, piled high on my desk because they don’t want to bother with the alphabet to put them back on the shelves properly.

I can, however, account for every single gun in the house.

Because we don’t have any guns.

Because they don’t fall within our realm of interest.

Dad had a shotgun, propped up in the corner of his office.

As boys, my brother and I had bb guns that looked like real pistols. (And aside from my brother accidentally shooting a friend’s sister in the rear end, nothing bad ever happened with them. But we are not black.)

I’ve shot guns with the scouts, plinking away at targets with my youngest son, who has earned the Rifle Shooting Merit Badge.

I’ve seen both worlds, and books are more interesting.

So to hear President Obama say things like “We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book. ... We know these things to be true,” disturbs me.

The author of this article was obviously disturbed. But maybe he or she is disturbed about the wrong thing.

I have not seen the kinds of neighborhoods he’s talking about. If there are guns flooding my neighbor4hood, we don’t see them. Though I know there are plenty about.
Conversely, we don’t see books flooding our neighborhood either. But every house I go into has them, often piled high to the sky.

But maybe it’s a case of what you see is what you get.

I won’t argue that guns may be flooding neighborhoods. I won’t argue that maybe some kids in those neighborhoods, because they see so many guns, decide they want one. And many get them. Maybe a gun has more cool factor than a book or a computer. Computers and books are for nerds. Guns, hell, they make you look cool, if the covers to what few rap albums I’ve seen are anything to go by. (Again, I don’t listen to rap music if I can help it. It’s not my thing. That it is the thing of others is outside my realm of experience.)

And maybe in my neighborhood there’s no peer pressure to get a gun rather than a computer or a book. I do know my wife and I spend what money we can to make sure books and computers are in the house.

I don't know how easy -- or how difficult -- guns are to get, legally or not. As they don't interest me, I don't have them in the house, so I have no experience buying them. But maybe I should pause for a moment to think what it would e like to live in a neighborhood where the mindset is get a gun and use one because they're cool, because you have to have one, because the gang wants you to have one. Just like I want my kids to have books.

But I don’t know what it’s like to live in that kind of neighborhood. So it's easy to get caught up in wooly thinking that scoffs at the idea of guns being easier to get than books. It's not a matter of cost, availability, or illegality -- it's maybe a matter of what's on the mind.

If the choice is between food and a book, well, it’s food. Certainly it’s food rather than a computer, if money is tight (as it is, we make do with ancient computers by most standards, though the kids do have their own Kindle Fires, so we’re not all that bad off).

We don’t have to make those kinds of choices.

We don’t live in a neighborhood where you’re scared of your neighbors, where you don’t leave your “stuff” out at night – though there have been a few bicycle thefts around, so we’ve got that tiny whiff of the unsavory around us. We’re not surrounded by poverty, shunned because of the color of our skin or mortally afraid of the police (in fact, we’ve had only one visit with a policeman at our home, and he was an animal control officer coming to help us get a marmot out of the engine compartment of our Honda; the marmot left before the officer arrived). Oh, and those warnings about speeding.

But the cops look at me and think “Huh. Middle aged fat white guy.” Or, when I was younger, “Punk fat kid.” But they never gave me any trouble, aside from a winger wag over that foot on the gas pedal. Because I’m whitey, Or not. I don’t know. It’s nothing I’ve ever had to think about.

So I don’t live in a world where guns are easier to get then books or computers. And I don’t want to. That some do live in such places, maybe it’s an exaggeration to say things like that. But living where I do, I don’t know. All I know about those neighborhoods is what they show me on TV – and that’s not a lot –and from a few trips through California.

Whitey here is very disconnected from this kind of thing. It’s not my world.

And we tend to accept the reality of the world we live in, even if that reality is distorted by the media, our faulty, rose-colored memories, our pallor, or the fact that for the rest of the folks out there, we don’t have room for empathy or even a whisper of understanding because our heads are firmly planted in the sandy soil of the universe we have crammed inside our skulls.

Maybe that’s the most disturbing thing of all.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

I Hate Waiting



I was fortunate last week to find about half a dozen people willing to beta read the first 25 chapters of Doleful Creatures.
But now I have to wait.
And I hate waiting.
What I should be doing is to continue Revision 15. After all, I’ve got the first 25 chapters re-worked, but there’s some serious work to do to get the rest of the book caught up with the revisions. I have eliminated one plot point that’s been there from the start – meaning aside from characters, this book is NOT what it originally set out to be. Which is what you have to expect with a first novel, especially written by a person who favors starting out and seeing where the story ends up, rather than outlining it from the start. So I have to go through the rest of the book and kill the rest of that plot – not that I’ll be difficult; just the revision of one chapter (revealing how little this certain plot point added to the story, really).
But then there are new plot points I’ve introduced that I have to tie up in the last portion of the book, points meant to give my main characters – Aloysius the badger and Jarrod the magpie – a little hope at the end. No deus ex machina hope, but perhaps a little bit of relief from the pain they’ve had to suffer.
Then there’s the feedback from these beta readers to consider. I’m convinced at least one of them is going to provide some pretty powerful feedback that’ll either help me make this a great book or shatter my spirit to the point I reconsider my lifetime priorities. I don’t know what to expect from the others. I hope they’re all mean, because it is as I told them: I want this to be a good book, not one that gets me a pat on the head.
I also need to make a list of important place names because I want to draw a map that goes with the story. Why? Because I am a big nerd.
 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Always Look for the Helpers


"If you look for the helpers, you'll know that there's hope."

In times of tragedy, it's natural to want to shut the world out and remain in a safe cocoon of happiness. But if you want to make a difference in the world, be a helper. Because there are always helpers.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

A is for Atom



Note 1: Inspired by a much shorter, more artistic list about New York City features today on Buzzfeed, I present this ABC List for East/Eastern Idaho.

Note 2: This list is meant in a lighthearted manner. I won’t apologize if someone gets offended. If you can think of something better to go with a letter, include it in a comment, don’t’ just announce your offense.

A is for atom. Folks who are new here hear talk of a mysterious place called “The Site.” Ask about a quarter of the population here, and they’ll tell you “The Site” is where they work, though some of them cheat and work “in town.” But if you’re a fan of nuclear energy or a foe of nuclear waste, you’ll be sure to learn “The Site,” a sprawling research facility the size of Rhode Island, is the birthplace of commercial atomic power and the nuclear Navy, and is a major employer here. A could also be for Ammon, Idaho Falls’ neighbor to the east, where all the businesses are moving and all the citizens are building houses but where, if you ask everyone else, nobody wants to pay taxes for the services they want so desperately. I live in Ammon. I don’t quite see it. And I do pay my taxes.

B is for BYU-Idaho. We’re so infatuated with Utah (see “U is for Utah”), we’ve transplanted a bit of it here in Brigham Young University-Idaho, in our own Little Provo, Rexburg. Some locals are still going to call it Ricks College, and some might even call it Rick’s College, and they will still have the t-shirts that say “Who is Rick, and Why does He Have A College?” It’s where a good portion of the population went to school, and where a good portion of their children will go to school. May as well surrender to that now.

C is for cotton. Pioneers who settled the area wanted trees. The closest thing they had to trees were cottonwoods in the river bottoms. They’re called cottonwoods because their seed is parachuted to the ground in cottony fluff. That gets EVERYWHERE. I could have knit a sweater with the cottonwood fluff I scraped off the fins of my air conditioner this summer. Alternatively, C is for “the church,” as in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), the predominant local religion. If someone asks if you’re a member of “the church” that’s the church they mean. The gleam in their eye if you answer “no” is normal. Just get ready to meet the missionaries. And if C can stand for one more thing, it would be Chubbuck, Pocatello’s neighbor to the north. For the rest, see “A is for Ammon.” It’s the same story.

D is for Downtown, and that’s downtown for every city in the area, with the exception of Rexburg. Downtown is where all the transplants and hippies and Californians hang out. They’ve got it cleaned up quite nice, though. (See “R is for Rexburg” for an explanation of its exemption from this description.)

E is for East. Or Eastern. See, in North Idaho, they’re very adamant it’s not “Northern” Idaho. Here in East or Eastern Idaho, we’re a little bit more laid back about it. Unless you’re from California or Utah. Then whatever you call It, you’re wrong.

F is for “the Falls,” a nickname for Idaho Falls, largest city in Eastern Idaho, or “the Flats,” a defunct nuclear weapons assembly plant outside of Denver, Colorado, where many Site (see “A is for atom”) workers used to be employed and who are reminded on a daily basis that “this ain’t the Flats,” whatever that means.

G is for government. As Westerners, we have a pretty sketchy view of the federal government. And as you may recall from A is for atom, a good portion of us work for the government. For entertainment, we try to reconcile our sketchy federal government views with our not-so-sketchy federal government paychecks. Sometimes our heads explode. And as for state government, that’s over there in the capital. Boise. We don’t have much to do with them. There’s a reason I-15 links us to Salt Lake City, you know. Local government is fairly progressive as far as Republicans go. Idaho Falls is on its second female mayor. Ammon is on its first. The rest, well, white guys.

H is for Hippies. Who live mainly on the numbered streets. Or in Pocatello. Or particularly in Teton County, Idaho, and Jackson, Wyoming. We still call Jackson “Jackson Hole,” by the way, and when we talk about Hippies (anyone transplanted from California or, increasingly, Colorado) we put emphasis on the “hole.”

I is for inversions. Though it looks like a plain, when you drive from the Idaho National Laboratory to the Iona foothills, it’s clear the Snake River and the cities that line it are in a valley. And in the winter, warm air in the valley gets trapped beneath cold air rolling off the plains. Which traps all that lovely car exhaust and wood smoke and everything else in the valley for weeks on end. It’s the only time we pray for wind.

J is for J. As in 1J. Here in Idaho, you can tell what county a person registered his or her vehicle in by the first two numbers/letters on the license plate. 1J means Jefferson County – and Jefferson County means the state’s worst drivers. Except for those from Madison County. Or Bonneville County. Or those damn BYU-Idaho kids. Especially if they’re transplants from Utah.

K is for Karol and Jay. Karol Honas and Jay Hildebrandt, our local news anchors. They’ve been on Local News 8 for donkey’s years. Jay kinda lost his mystique for me, however, when I spotted him in his front yard, wearing his TV News Suit, watering a tree while wearing hip waders. K could also be for Kenny Rogers Roasters, as ours was the last in the chain to close. I never went there. It’s a KFC now.

L is for La – an extremely popular name appendage for women of a certain age in this area. Another Utah transplant (see U is for Utah) has got many ladies in this area named LaRene, LaDean, LaRue, etc. Sensibly, the younger generation has moved on to more conventional names, also imported from Utah.

M is for “mute.” Not mute as in silent, but mute as in mute point. More commonly known as a “moot point” in areas of the nation where people know how to pronounce “moot.”

N is for Napoleon. As in Napoleon Dynamite. There are so many East Idaho in-jokes in that film we just can’t get enough of it. And secretly, we ALL believe we woulda won state if coach woulda put us in fourth quarter.

O is for Ochi. Fred Ochi is perhaps East Idaho’s most famous artist (though fans of Werner Gisin might dispute that). Ochi is known for watercolor paintings of landscapes and barns. The finer establishments in Idaho Falls all have Fred Ochi art. O could also be for Oh My Heck, our most popular Utah-imported expletive (see U is for Utah).

P is for Pocatello. Pocatello is the other large city in this area. They have Red Lobster. They have Costco. Judy Garland sings a song featuring Pocatello, because Pocatello is fun to say. Pocatello Pocatello Pocatello. Other than that . . .  And yes, P could have been for potato. We do grow an awful lot of them around here. But we’re not obsessed with them as the rest of the nation appears to be.

Q is for quilts. Every year at the Eastern Idaho State Fair, I have to spend a good portion of my time sitting on a metal chair near a fan, evading the ruling ladies who don’t want people sitting in metal chairs by their fans, as I wait for my wife who is looking at the quilts on display. Drive in any direction out of town – any town – and you’ll find some quaint business like the Quilt Barn or the Quilt Shack or the Quilt Emporium or Crazy LaRene’s House of Quilts selling quilts. Half of the boxes in my garage hold old jeans destined to become denim quilts.

R is for Republicans. Many years ago, I was working with my brother on a construction job in Jefferson County. There was a lone thunderstorm blowing through that produced a rather brilliant bolt of lightning followed by a loud clap of thunder. “There goes the last Democrat in Jefferson County,” my brother said. I don’t think I need to say any more, aside from the fact we recently had a candidate for precinct committeeman named “Sadie Despot.” The emphasis was on “spot,” by the way. R is also for Rexburg, which has been billed as the most Republican city in the most Republican county in the United States. There are finer shades of conservatism in Madison County, however. Sugar City is where folks move to get away from the RINOs in Rexburg. And Archer is where folks from Sugar City move to get away from the liberals in Sugar City. As for the downtozn exemption mentioned earlier, Rexburg does in fact have a nice downtown. Just no hippies. A few RINOs is as close as Rexburg gets to hippiedom.

S is for smoke. Those cottonwood trees the pioneers planted? Many of them are old now. Too tall and gangly. They’re being cut down in droves because the wood is weak and the massive branches fall and smash cars. But the frugal folks here never waste anything. Someone in our neighborhood burns cottonwood in their wood stove all winter long. Cottonwood stinks like a skunk when it burns. And thanks to those inversions (See “I is for inversions”), I get to smell cottonwood smoke ALL WINTER LONG. S could also be for Sunnyside, a major east-west thoroughfare in the Ammon/Idaho Falls area, where most of the worst drivers in the state ply their horn-honking, lane-weaving, fence-crashing trade.

T is for Tetons. Technically, this mountain range is in Wyoming. And technically, you can only see the tips of the mountains from here if you’re in the right spot and if the sky is really, really clear. But you’ll see them everywhere, in local business names, in logos, at the mall . . . And we know secretly there are many French-speakers who laugh at the “Grand Tetons,” but we just don’t care.

U is for Utah. Utah is where ALL of our bad drivers come from, with the exception of Jefferson County. Or Madison County. Or Bonneville County. Your results may vary. Because, generally, we’re all sucky drivers. But we blame them all on Utah. Or California. Or the BYU-Idaho kids.  It’s also where we import most of our conservative politics from.

V is for Vandersloot. As in Frank Vandersloot, mogul, Melaleuca founder, billionaire Republican political donor, and the most popular local member of Democratic enemies lists. Chances are if you don’t work at The Site, you work for Melaleuca. Or you enjoy the Melaleuca Freedom Celebration (our Fourth of July fireworks show) or watch the Idaho Falls Chukars play at Melaleuca Field. Or you listen to one of the radio stations he owns. Or visit the popular local news website he owns. You’d better check to make sure he hasn’t written his name on your underwear. And inc case you think I'm being too mean to him, I'll point out he's pretty decent to his employees, to the tune of a combined $1.2 million in bonuses he just handed out to his employees -- a feat he repeats year to year.

W is for wind. The joke is if the wind stopped blowing, everyone in Eastern Idaho would fall down because we’re so used to leaning in it. Seriously, when we moved to Sugar City, one of the windier places in the valley, the wind chimes on our front porch NEVER STOPPED CHIMING that first summer. Alternatively, W could also be for Wilson Rawls, who re-wrote and published “Where the Red Fern Grows” while working at The Site in the 1950s. He’s the local literati, and there’s a statue honoring him at the Idaho Falls Public Library.

X is for . . . I don’t know. It’s never for anything interesting really. I mean I could put something here about X-rays due to the Site connection (see A is for Atom) but that’s lame.

Y is for Yellowstone. As Yellowstone National Park is only a 2-hour drive, we consider it our back yard. And every year we swap Stupid Tourist Stories. So far, with the Bison in the Backseat, the Canadian Sign-Ignoring Bros, the Bison Petter, and the Portland Hot Pot Wanderer, 2016 has been a bumper year for new stories.

Z could be for Z103, a local radio station popular with the kids, but since I’m middle-aged now it’s lost its significance to me over time. I mean, it probably still means something to some folks around here, so I’ll include it or otherwise I got nothin’. Like X.

Utopias

I read a lot about utopias and a lot of utopian novels -- from Thomas More to George Orwell to Samuel Butler. And while most of them seem to mean well, few of them end well.

I know I'm leaning a lot on the world of fiction. But fiction mirrors reality, friends.

So it was interesting to read this Slate piece about the shortcomings of scientific utopia. And the reason for its failings come not in this article, but one from the New Era, just this month.

But first, Slate.

Here's the crux of sociologist Jeffrey Guhin's critique of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson's proposal for a "rational," "science-based" utopia:

The myopia of scientism, its naïve utopianism and simplistic faith, bears an uncanny resemblance to the religious dogmatisms folks like Tyson and [atheist Richard] Dawkins denounce.

Previous to that, he says:

It’s striking how easily we forget the evil following “science” can do. So many times throughout history, humans have thought they were behaving in logical and rational ways only to realize that such acts have yielded morally heinous policies that were only enacted because reasonable people were swayed by “evidence.” Phrenology—the determination of someone’s character through the shape and size of their cranium—was cutting-edge science. (Unsurprisingly, the upper class had great head ratios.) Eugenics was science, as was social Darwinism and the worst justifications of the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Scientific racism was data-driven too, and incredibly well respected. Scientists in the 19th century felt quite justified in claiming “the weight of evidence” supported African slavery, white supremacy, and the concerted effort to limit the reproduction of the lesser races.

I'm tired of living in a world that's dichotomized. Whoever says science or religion have to go it alone doesn't understand science or religion.