Friday, November 30, 2012

Writing update, November

A pretty slow month for me, submissions wise, because I haven't finished any new stories this month. I dedicated my writerly energies in the last four weeks toward a much longer short story than I usually write (about 6,000 words, versus a typical length of 1,000-2,500 words). Usually, I'll compose three or four new stories in a month, but this one has really slowed me down.

I have three stories currently submitted to various markets. There are at least two other stories I need to re-submit, but haven't yet. I'm not quite sure whether I'll rewrite them before I do that, or whether I'll be lazy and re-submit them as they are.

In a previous post, I wrote:
Here are my submission statistics by month:
May: 3 submissions, 1 rejection (1 form)
June: 4 submissions, 3 rejections (2 form, 1 personal)
July: 4 submissions, 5 rejections (3 form, 2 personal)
August: 6 submissions, 3 rejections (1 form, 2 personal)
September: 5 submissions, 7 rejections (4 form, 3 personal)
October: 6 submissions, 4 rejections (3 form, 1 personal)
November: 3 submissions, 3 rejections (2 form, 1 personal).

I don't know if the story I'm finishing now is great, but it's a big step forward for me. Most of my stories are concerned with characters going through some period of emotional upheaval. But this one combines that emotional upheaval with a narrative arc in which stuff actually happens in the world of the story. In other words, it has a real plot.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

George Orwell dispenses valuable advice, craps on politicians

Don't use the passive voice, dummy
From George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language":
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
He gives six rules for avoiding bad writing:
i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
This is good advice, but Orwell's essay is really about politics and language (as the title states). He writes:
Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
This suggests that bad political writing is a deliberate act of malice rather than mere incompetence. Orwell wrote the essay in 1946 about British politics, but this point remains relevant for Americans in 2012. How much has been written about the "epistemic closure" of the republican party in the run up to the recent election? How much of that phenomenon was based on near-meaningless talk and writing from pundits and politicians?

For Orwell, clear writing is political activism.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thanksgiving part 2

The Turducken cometh:

To be precise, it's a Cornish Turdoublucken: A cornish gamehen inside a chicken inside a chicken (not a typo, there were two chickens) inside a duck inside a turkey. 

It tasted good, but it precipitated a much larger food coma than I've ever experienced before.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving part 1

Thanksgiving weekend has begun. Yesterday I had dinner with Emily's family. Spinach and brie stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, biscuits, cranberry sauce, and:

Smoked turkey roulet, bursting at the seams with stuffing and meat.


1) Remove breast from turkey (with skin, of course)
2) Lay breast flat
3) Pound breast flatter
4) Add delicious stuffing to middle of breast
5) Roll up the breast, truss it.
6) Put in charcoal grill over coals covered with rosemary for ~2 hours.
7) Slice and serve

Like a turducken, one of the benefits of the turkey roulet is that there's no carving at the table--the meat has no bones in it. It was delicious. Very smoky, very tender (from all the pounding), and not dry.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

pre-Thanksgiving pie post

Chocolate pudding pie, with a gluten free crust. Pudding via Smitten Kitchen.

More food to come. I'm gearing up for a Thanksgiving holiday of smoked turkey breast roulade and turducken.

More on "Lincoln"

An interesting article from Kate Masur, writing for the New York Times:
Even more unsettling is the brief cameo of Lydia Smith (played by S. Epatha Merkerson), housekeeper and supposed lover of the Pennsylvania congressman and Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Stevens’s relationship with his “mulatto” housekeeper is the subject of notoriously racist scenes in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.” Though Mr. Spielberg’s film looks upon the pair with far more sympathy, the sudden revelation of their relationship — Stevens literally hands the official copy of the 13th Amendment to Smith, before the two head into bed together — reveals, once again, the film’s determination to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves played a role.
Masur's argues that, beyond the film's beautiful opening scene, the African Americans in "Lincoln" do not have a material influence on the outcome of the film. She doesn't mean that the characters themselves are passive, because in several instances African American characters speak out about their experiences. She means that the film does not show African American characters having a direct influence on Lincoln's (or any other politicians') thinking about slavery or the 13th amendment.

I would quibble with this a little bit, because the opening scene, in which a black soldier confronts Lincoln about equal pay and equal rights, frames the rest of the film. But certainly "Lincoln" could have done better showing how escaped slaves worked and argued for their own freedom.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Some short stories I've read recently, and liked

"He Reminds Us" by Jennifer Linnea. A short piece about home, how people view other homes, exoticism, and otherness.

"Everything Must Go" by Brooke Wonders. Compellingly weird. A story of domestic abuse, strife, longing, and fear. A sentient house and its strange inhabitants: an invisible mother, a father made of glass, a son growing wings, and a daughter getting thinner and thinner.

"Cartographer's Ink" by Beth Cato. I found the central theme of leaders deciding the fate of the subjects from afar, without a lot of perspective or remorse, particularly compelling and relevant.

Three pretty different stories, but I liked them all!

Monday, November 19, 2012

A few more thoughts on "Lincoln"

As I said in my review the other day, I really liked the movie. This isn't to say I thought it was a perfect history. But it's important to consider the function of a movie like "Lincoln" before castigating it for playing somewhat fast and loose with the historical record. "Lincoln" tells a great story that expands the cultural conversation about Lincoln and the "fate of human dignity." I would argue that, in the context of historical fiction, fidelity to the general bent of history and its lessons is much more important than slavish dedication to dates and facts. Obviously that sort of thinking has produced works very controversial films, as different as "The Birth of a Nation" and "Glory." But every movie should be judged on its own merits, and I think "Lincoln" passes the smell test. Anyway. A few gripes follow:

--Lincoln felt a little too modern. His views on racial equality are left pretty unspecific, which leaves us as viewers to project our own opinions onto him. This makes him seem much more racially progressive than he was. There's one borderline cringe-worthy scene in which Lincoln asks Elizabeth Keckley (Mary's servant and a former slave) about what "her people" will do once they are free. But other than this Lincoln is left as something of a cipher, as far as his opinions on true equality for blacks and whites.

--The scenes in which Lincoln interacts with Mary or Robert are well done, and include important characterizing moments for Lincoln, but don't come to much plot-wise. I should mention, also, that Mary isn't treated very well. She gets one chance to talk crap at Thaddeus Stephens, but comes off as petty more than empowered.

--There seem to be significant problems with the timeline, and some sleight of hand with the historical sequence of events to ratchet up tension. The peace commissioners from Richmond, who in the movie seem to languish for a long stretch at City Point and Hampton Roads, were not even named by Jefferson Davis until January 28, and did not cross federal lines until January 30, just one day before the 13th amendment came to a vote.

--The Hampton Roads conference, with the aforementioned confederate peace commissioners, has been misrepresented. The fundamental difference between Lincoln and the confederates, in the film, is the 13th amendment. But the conversations were doomed from the beginning--the confederates were not interested in peace without independence. Lincoln, of course, demanded reunion.

--There was an explicit mention of Lincoln's interactions with manacled slaves on a flatboat trip he took as a young man to New Orleans. In the context of the film, the story grounds Lincoln's anti-slavery sentiment and helps explain why he regards slavery as evil. But the story is apocryphal. Lincoln did ride to New Orleans as a young man, though there is no reliable documentation as to what interactions with slaves, if any, he had there. The inclusion of this story is more a case of poetic license, though.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A "Lincoln" Review

"We must consider what will become of colored folk," shouts Michael Stuhlbarg as George Yeaman, stalking the floor of the House of Representatives in a scene from "Lincoln," Stephen Spielberg's amazing new film. For Yeaman, speaking about the upcoming vote on the 13th amendment to abolish slavery, the question is straightforward: the United States cannot afford to end slavery, because it is not ready to see freedmen as equals. White people will not stand for freedmen who can vote, or who can marry their daughters.

George Yeaman
As Yeaman speaks conservatives nearly froth at the mouth, standing from their seats and crying their indignation each time he names another milestone of black equality on the slippery slope lurking beyond the 13th amendment. The vitriol is shocking--a reminder that slavery remained divisive even within the Union as the Civil War raged in southern territory.

Yet the response from republicans to this bald racism, this racial fear-mongering, is equally shocking. Though Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the radical Republican faction in the House and played by Tommy Lee Jones, might believe the slaves should be freed and granted full political and social equality, he sees no traitors among the pro-slavery faction of his cohort. Stevens dishes out some spectacular name-calling, but it's all in good fun, and the message is clear: slavery remains a political issue, a matter to be debated within and decided by the political institutions of the United States. 

The tone is set: tempers flare, unscrupulous characters abound, ends justify the means, and abolition hangs in the balance.

Into this fray steps Abraham Lincoln. A magnificent, funny, charismatic Lincoln, a Lincoln capable of stopping the lives of a hundred indispensable people long enough to tell a poop joke. This is a Lincoln not conflicted about slavery, or about the 13th amendment--slavery is evil, and should be abolished--but conflicted in other ways. Conflicted about Mary Lincoln, whom he interacts with with something approaching tolerance. Conflicted about his son Robert, who wants to join the army.

In this way Lincoln becomes someone we recognize. A man capable of greatness, beset by the difficulties of his time and all times: a congress of ideologues; an unhappy home. Through it all he's human, in the way we expect our heroes to be. He's smart, but, more important, he's wise. He bears the weight of the horror and death of war, but remains resolved to end the conflict in such a way that that horror will not have been in vain. He is the most important person in any room. He loves his children, and his wife less. This is a Lincoln who, in true post-modern fashion, anticipates his loudest, most persistent critics, deconstructing his own legacy of illegal actions. In the next breath he explains this lawlessness away by claiming that the people, who re-elected him, have validated his actions de facto. Such a scene, in which I found myself nodding along with Lincoln's logic, is the bizzaro world twin of the moment in "Frost/Nixon" in which a clammy Frank Langella, as Nixon, bellows, "when the President does it, that means it's not illegal."

I can imagine that, with a lesser actor than Daniel Day-Lewis, or with a lesser screenplay, the entire movie might have fallen apart. A poop joke? While the telegraph office waits on pins and needles for news from the assault on Wilmington harbor? Somehow, it works: the moment seems appropriate because Day-Lewis's face, haggard and haunted, reminds us that he has never, not for an instant, forgotten the sacrifices of his soldiers. Day-Lewis's Lincoln is practically tactile, inviting us to admire the misplaced hairs sticking from his grey beard, or to trace the deep creases in his face as his mouth and eyes creep into a sly smile. Spielberg wants us to see Lincoln as a man, imperfect as anyone else, instead of the idol he's become. The depiction feels right. It's aided by the crisp screenplay, which dispenses enough comic relief to lighten a film that might otherwise have smothered in the smoky seriousness of the wood-paneled rooms where the fate of the 13th amendment was decided. 

The movie has minor characters galore, all of whom seem to contribute memorable moments. The strongest of these is Tommy Lee Jones's Thaddeus Stevens. His limp becomes the physical metaphor for his compromised principles as he publicly denies his more radical views to protect the passage of the 13th amendment. Yet the subtext is clear: he's limping, but still walking. He, and the country, can move forward. One of the final scenes of the movie shows him presenting a copy of the just-passed amendment to his common law wife, the mixed-race Lydia Hamilton Smith. This is what progress looks like.

"Lincoln" works hard not to fall into the trap of equating the end of slavery to equality for freedmen, but the emotional importance of its climax rests partially upon that assumption. As viewers, the passage of the 13th amendment at the end of the film is our payoff. All of Lincoln's work, and all of his belief in the equality of man, has come here to fruition. This, of course, is not quite how things worked out in real life. The 13th amendment was closer to a beginning than an ending, an early chapter in the story of American racial justice which has not seen an end, and may never.

Not to say that, even with the terror and death that followed, the 13th amendment was not a great advance for human dignity. The vote on the amendment is a worthy climax to a story about war and freedom and herculean feats of politicking. Throughout, the film nods to the potential difficulties of reconstruction, and to the necessity of the stuff of the 14th and 15th amendments, which came later to grant citizenship and the franchise to freedmen. Perhaps, if we're lucky, some brave filmmaker will attempt to show on screen how those two controversial amendments passed. But, as Lydia Hamilton Smith says, speaking about the 13th amendment at the end of the film, maybe "Lincoln" is "enough for now." 

Friday, November 16, 2012

I read this article

Via longform, this really interesting piece about the lives of two men after the video of one of them tea-bagging the other went viral. I should note that it's a deeply uncomfortable article to read. Or, at least, it was for me.

The author uses this story, about an act that some people might view as a harmless prank, to excoriate the typical media and legal response to sexual assault, in which the wants and needs of the victim are subjugated to any number of other interests. The author shows how the crime was joked about, the victim was mocked or blamed, and how the victim blamed himself to some extent.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

An excellent burger

Eaten this weekend at Carnitas Snack Shack. There's bacon jam spread under the melted white cheddar. The patty sits on top of a layer of tasty aioli. The bun is toasted on both sides (!) and served hot. A very tasty burger and a personal favorite.

I know I make this look easy, but only burger eating experts should try the advanced techniques displayed here:

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Diablo 3 and the economics of nostalgia

During the dozens of hours I've spent playing Diablo 3, I've realized three important things either about the game, or about myself.

One: Diablo 3 is a game designed for children, though it has been marketed to adults.

Two: Diablo 3 is not very much fun.

Three: I bought Diablo 3 only because I had played Diablo 2.

Thing One informs Thing Two. The narrative is the time-tested story of good vs. evil, packaged as an endless stream of inane quests in which I, the player, must kill more demons in new location X for new reason Y. The quest dialogue, which serves as the prime mover of the story, is made up of expository information dumps. That's bad enough, but any time my character speaks I can't help but be reminded that the game I'm playing is much dumber than I'd like it to be. (For instance: my witch doctor shouting "Death comes" at a group of dead monsters. Or my barbarian saying stuff like, "I will hunt the goatmen. The sword will be in their midst.")

But there is communication through the game mechanics, too. The game allocates skills as the player levels, as well as attributes. So all witch doctors of the same level have access to the same skills and have the same base hit points, mana, and damage. Mostly, I've found that the skills don't make much of a difference in the way my character performs; I simply bind one of the high damage skills to my mouse button, and click away. There is very little thought to be invested in the manner of killing monsters, who, typically, die horribly and in great numbers. (If one kills enough monsters in a row one is rewarded with text on the screen which reads "Massacre!" It's the most positive use I've ever seen for that word.)

So the game is stupid, or at least simple. The mechanics of play are simple enough for anyone, even a small child, to understand--one simply points and clicks on the ugly monsters to kill them. The moral dimension of the game--the player is good, the monsters are bad--could not possibly be simpler. And the method of communication--monologues by characters telling you either their own thoughts or motivations or the thoughts and motivations of others--is the least subtle way to communicate anything. After thinking about this, I concluded that Diablo 3 is a game designed for children.

But why should I want to play a game for kids when there are so many other more interesting things to do with my time? In short, because Diablo 3 is intended for children, I don't think it's very much fun.

However, while Thing Two can't possibly be Blizzard's desired result, I believe that Thing One is a feature, not a bug, of the game. And that is because of Thing Three. I only bought Diablo 3 because I had played Diablo 2. Had I not played Diablo 2, I doubt that I would have bought Diablo 3. In short, by buying Diablo 3, I hoped to reclaim some of the fun I had as a teenager playing Diablo 2. I bought Diablo 3 because of nostalgia. I can't have been the only one. Blizzard isn't stupid. They know that a large portion of their player base is, like me, looking to play a video game to achieve a minor return to childhood.

This is the same model used by, say, the studio behind Chris Nolan's Batman movies--in which a profoundly silly character was hemmed into an "adult" product, which intends to hark back to its consumers' adolescences and childhoods. Certainly this is part of the reason why there are so many reboots and sequels in video games and Hollywood movies.

I know that video game reviews have a lot of problems, and can rarely be trusted, but consider that an adult (writing for ign, an important gaming site) wrote the following passage about Diablo 3:
Bringing your axe down for a killing blow or blasting an enemy with a skill that rips the flesh from their bones is empowering, but the eruption of gold and treasure that spews into the air induces a rush of jubilation. Picking through the gore that was my enemies so I can pluck out the gold and choice items is like panning for precious metals. 
This passage, in (deliberately?) stunted, child-like prose, describes the appeal of Diablo 3. This is because the best way to enjoy Diablo 3 is to turn off your brain, sit back, and pretend you're 15 again.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Response to the non-existent backlash to my last post

"But Ben!" you cry. "Why buy all those books? Use an e-reader instead!"

To you I say (or, rather, Joe Queenan says):
People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel. Think it through, bozos.

(Full disclosure: I own a kindle.)

Monday, November 12, 2012

I can't resist a book sale

The thrift store down the street had a sale on books this weekend. I went a little crazy.

Each book cost 10 cents. I bought:

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov
The Response to Industrialism by Samuel P. Hays
And Still They Come: Immigrants and American Society 1920s to the 1990s by Elliot Robert Barkan
Gettysburg by Early Schenck Miers and Richard A. Brown
Historian's Handbook by Wood Gray and Others
Major Problems in American History Since 1945 edited by Robert Griffith and Paula Baker
The American Image: Past and Present edited by G. D. Lillibridge
History and Theory edited by George H. Nadel

I'm pretty stoked about all this stuff. Especially so for the History and Theory book, which is quite old and sure to be full of all kinds of wacky esoteric history thoughts.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Duotrope is a tool for hope

Readers of this blog may not be familiar with Duotrope, the online catalog of thousands of markets for fiction and non-fiction of all sizes and sorts. It has a great search function for people who know, say, that they want to sell a short story to a market that takes science fiction and pays a particular rate. The site is free, even though it is incredibly valuable.

Perhaps the best thing Duotrope does, though, is accumulate statistics on its users' submissions. It allows users to record when pieces are submitted to a market, and when and what response the market sends later. Then it displays these statistics. For instance:

When I consider submitting to a market I know how long the process will take and how likely I am to get published. This is very useful information. And, in some sense, the numbers don't matter, because Duotrope is really a tool for hope. Without it I would be sending stories blind, with no clear idea of how long I should expect to hear back. I'd rack up rejection after rejection without a sense that publication was even possible through the slush pile. But, with Duotrope, even if I know publication of one of my stories at a given market is extremely unlikely, at least I know that someone, sometime, got published following the same instructions I am.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Google Trends theater

Google Trends is an amazing tool which allows users to see the relative popularity of terms in Google's search engine over time. I fiddled around with it last night and came up with the above plot.

What I found interesting here was the seasonality. Every year (especially for "the constitution," "bill of rights," and "first amendment") there seem to be two peaks. Turns out the first peak coincides roughly with the beginning on the school year in September. But, also, they coincide roughly with the US Supreme Courts schedule.  They hear arguments from October until April, then finish up in May and June by delivering outstanding decisions. So: the first peak on the graph represents the beginning of each Supreme Court term, and the second peak represents the end of the term, when decisions come out.

I would guess that this behavior is less pronounced for "second amendment" simply because it's a less popular search, and the seasonality gets lost in the background noise of general searches not related to the Supreme Court. I'm sure that this lack of popularity has to do with the fact that the Supreme Court doesn't decide very many cases involving the 2nd amendment.

An interesting plot! More to come from Google Trends.

NOTE: Thanks to Emily for helpful analysis for this edition of Google Trends Theater.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Taxation and Civic Duty

Wikipedia has a useful table in its article on income tax in the United States:

There's a lot of information in this table, not much of it obviously assimilated into any argument, but I want to make one point: top tax rates used to be a lot higher. 

This blog post for The Atlantic debates whether Obama is a "transformational" president in the way Reagan was when he ended the New Deal era of American politics. I don't know the answer to that, obviously, but it seems clear that if he is, we will see a return to higher tax rates. The New Deal era, from FDR's election in 1932 to Reagan's election in 1980, featured an incredibly high rate of taxation. During Reagan's term in office those tax rates were brought way down. The tax rates under FDR and all presidents to Reagan were high because they had to be--huge wars were fought, entitlement programs were invented, and the role of the federal government vastly expanded.

I am not well educated on the social history of the U.S. in this "New Deal" era. But I'll speculate that taxation was viewed, much more than now, as an important civic duty. Especially during war time. For example, FDR levelled a "victory tax" on all incomes over $624 in the U.S. in 1942. Even for citizens who couldn't, or wouldn't, fight, they could be an important part of the war effort by paying their taxes.

Taxation now is framed in conservative terms. Romney and Obama warred about whose tax plan would save the middle class the most money. But if we, as a nation, are actually concerned about our national debt, while still committed to our entitlement programs, shouldn't we shift the conversation onto progressive ground? Taxation is not an annoyance. It is a civic duty. If we go to war, we need to pay for it. If we want entitlements, we need to pay for them. As citizens of the most prosperous country in the world, we need to re-frame the conversation about taxes, and decide that there are some things worth paying for. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

There's a presidential election today

Are you voting for the federalists, the anti-federalists, the democrats, the whigs, the free soilers, the know nothings, the republicans, the constitutional unionists, a fusion ticket, the bull moose party, or will you write in Ralph Nader?

Also, a brief wikipedia history of expansions of the elective franchise:
-The 15th amendment. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
-The 19th amendment. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
-The 24th amendment. The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay an poll tax or other tax. 
-The 26th amendment. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

It is worthwhile to remember that voting is not a right in the same way that our other "rights" are. Free speech, for example, is guaranteed by the constitution. The elective franchise is not, in general. The march towards democracy has been fitful, and remains incomplete.

Cooking update

I did some good cooking last week. On Thursday I made bacon and potato tacos with a cucumber avocado salsa (yum!). This weekend I made lemon zest buttermilk gluten free pancakes on a hand-me-down griddle(!). Sadly, there are no pancake pictures.

You may recognize the above as bacon.

I bought a new cookbook: The Science of Good Cooking. Some of the "science" reminds me of introductory biology was like in high school. "Facts" appear out of thin air to explain the physical processes of cooking. It's a little unsatisfying. But I did use a new recipe for home fries from the book that produced very good results (add baking soda to boiling water before blanching the potatoes!). Crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.

Cucumber avocado salsa is always delicious. The cucumber makes this lighter than a typical avocado guacamole, and it's perfect for something heavy like a bacon potato taco.

The finished product, with a little tomato on top. Very tasty.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Book Review! Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest by Jan Morris

Jan Morris notes early in the introduction of her book Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest that the desire to write and read about Abraham Lincoln is so strong that by the year 2000 "more words had been written about him than about anyone else except Jesus Christ, to whom he was frequently likened.” The number of pages-per-year, however, might skew in Lincoln’s favor after accounting for Christ’s 1,800 year head start. Why then did Jan Morris write another book about Lincoln? It seems the answer is so Morris, an Englishwoman, can play contrarian to American historical lore. She rejects Lincoln-as-Christ, instead comparing the great President to “grape jelly.” Upon her first visit to America in the 1950s, she found Lincoln and the unappetizing diner condiment equally ubiquitous and commercialized. This distaste for Lincoln kitsch fueled her skepticism of Lincoln’s legend and pointed her toward a quest to discover the man for herself.

Unencumbered by an American childhood, Morris has few preconceptions about Lincoln. To her, he is not the Great Emancipator, or, indeed, an American Christ. Instead he is just a man, and she aims to find out what sort of man he was, warts and all. At first this is refreshing. Instead of romanticizing Lincoln’s childhood, as so many others have, Morris launches into the glib dismissal of Lincoln lore that would border on sacrilege for an American: the young Lincoln to Morris is little more than white trash, a boy she condescendingly refers to as a “frontier urchin.”

Friday, November 2, 2012

Submissions update

If my calculations are correct, I've received 23 rejections, and currently have 6 stories noodling through the ether of the submissions process. One of those has been out for a very long time to a market that has become unresponsive, so I'll chalk that one up as a non-response rejection: that makes 24 rejections, and 5 stories currently submitted. 

Here are my submission statistics by month:
May: 3 submissions, 1 rejection (1 form)
June: 4 submissions, 3 rejections (2 form, 1 personal)
July: 4 submissions, 5 rejections (3 form, 2 personal)
August: 6 submissions, 3 rejections (1 form, 2 personal)
September: 5 submissions, 7 rejections (4 form, 3 personal)
October: 6 submissions, 4 rejections (3 form, 1 personal)

These numbers are difficult to understand. But I can say that none of the stories I submitted in May, June or July are stories I submitted in August, September, or October; I've retired my early stories and am now submitting only more recent ones. 

Some markets habitually respond with a form letter, or respond with a personal note. So far I've only had one personal response from a market that is a habitual form responder (my one close call with publication). But the personal responses I've received recently have been of a higher quality, and have all included a note encouraging me to submit more. I call that progress!

One final note. I feel good about all the stories I currently have out. None of them are poorly written, all of them have interesting ideas, and at least a few of them have compelling stories with strong characters. I like my chances with them. And even if none of them get published, it only means I need to write more and better stories, which I believe I'm capable of. Onward!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

I voted

I sent off my ballot today. I voted for a bunch of stuff, including President of the United States. Afterwards I was on youtube and came across this video:
It's a typical anti-establishment argument. Oh, the public sucks, politicians suck, fuck voting!

He gives two bullet points for why he doesn't vote:
1) It's meaningless! Your vote is too small to affect change, and besides, the choices are garbage anyway.

2) If you don't vote, you aren't a part of the political system, and therefore don't have to take responsibility for the result.

I find this line of thinking despicable. It doesn't take a lot of research to learn that the franchise has been one of the most embattled "rights" of the American citizenry, because it's not a right at all. The 15th amendment, the 19th amendment, and the 1964 voting rights act were all steps towards turning the "right" to vote into something general instead of specific to rich white men. They were steps towards democracy. They were all, in their own ways, social revolutions.

The idea that the voting is meaningless is to neglect this history, and to disregard the entire concept of political activism. It's quite a privileged thing to say. George Carlin was a straight white male, and in the above video sounds like he's never considered that voting might be a way for people to defend their rights or assert their own political prerogatives.

It's easy to poke fun at the American electorate, and to harbor a deep cynicism for voting altogether. But it's not very thoughtful, or productive.

What I read in October

Darkness Visible by William Styron. The harrowing account of Styron's own descent into deep, suicidal depression and eventually ascent out of it. It's short, more of an essay than a book, but it packs a wallop. Styron reminds the reader often that, really, there's no way to communicate the depth of suffering experiences during depression, but he tries his hardest. He notes that what often makes suffering bearable is the knowledge that it will pass, but his depression made him believe it never would, which made it unbearable and pushed him nearly to suicide.

A historical note. Styron writes: "And soon I was in the throes of a pervasive hypochondria." Hypochondria here is a symptom of depression, or deep melancholy, and Styron defines it: "Nothing felt quite right with my corporeal self; there were twitches and pains, sometimes intermittent, often seemingly constant, that seemed to presage all sorts of dire infirmities...It is easy to see how this condition is part of the psyche's apparatus of defense: unwilling to accept its own gathering deterioration, the mind announces to its indwelling consciousness that it is the body with its perhaps correctable defects--not the precious and irreplaceable mind--that is going haywire." He notes that "hypochrondria" and "melancholia" were often interchangeable until the 19th century. I was reminded of the letters of Abraham Lincoln, who sometimes wrote of the "hypo" he experienced. He was depressed. One of the unexpected benefits I found in Styron's book was a little insight into what Lincoln meant, and what he felt, when he spoke of his own hypochondria.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. Let me preface this by saying that East of Eden  and Of Mice and Men are two of my favorite books. Travels with Charley sucks. It's phoned in. There are maybe three or four passages of startling insight or beauty in the book, and they come either in the prelude to the trip or when Steinbeck travels through Salinas and its surrounding areas. That's great, but it's not like Steinbeck needed to take a huge road trip to wax poetic about Salinas some more. The rest of the book is a haze, nothing much of note or interest happens, and I got the impression that most of it was made up anyway. Having returned pretty recently from a cross-country road trip of my own, I sympathize with Steinbeck's attempts to turn something that seems profound, but really isn't, into something profound for people who don't know any better. But I don't think he did a very good job.

Sick From Freedom by Jim Downs. Historical monograph addressing the health crises of freed slaves in the wake of emancipation and during reconstruction. This book expanded my understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction, post-war freed slave experience, and the nature of freedom in America. It reconstructs a heretofore forgotton smallpox epidemic in the freed slave population in 1866, explaining how the great population displacements of the war helped it spread. There was little effective response from the federal government, which had a stated interest of getting freed slaves back to work on their former plantations to restart the southern economy, and feared that too much federal aid in the form of food, clothing, or healthcare would make freed slaves dependent.

I can't remember the name, but I was reminded reading this book of the abolitionist society that disbanded after the 13th amendment was ratified, claiming that their work had been completed. Ever since the Civil War there has been a persistent belief that the nation's responsibility to former slaves was over once they had been freed. Certainly as time has gone on "reparations" has become more and more of a punchline. Sick From Freedom finds the origins of this feeling. It's in the freedman's bureau, too worried about slaves becoming "dependent" to worry about the thousands and thousands who died of disease or exposure because they had no healthcare, land, or housing. It's in the journalists of that time, who editorialized that the health crises of freed slaves signified that slavery was a moral good, and that without slavery the African race was doomed to extinction. It's almost incomprehensible.