Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Ways to be magical

I

was going to write an introductory statement here about why one would want to be a magical person, but you know what? That's nonsense. In a society that seems determined to make life as mundane as possible, the allure of being magic ought to be self-evident. So on we go!

THINGS MAGICAL PEOPLE DO

PLAY. This, more than any other trait, separates the magical from the mundane around us. Magical people are most likely never to have lost the instinct for play that they had in childhood, or have rediscovered that joy as adults. Playing is a way of dancing with life. So: fly kites. Blow bubbles. Play with yo-yos. Learn a few simple magic tricks. Juggle (anything from plucking scarves out of the air to juggling bean bags to full-on contact juggling like Michael Moschen in Labyrinth). And if you have boring errands to run and other adult responsibilities to fulfill, find ways to turn them into a game. There are a myriad ways to make everyday life more like play -- and thus more magical.

Create. Makers are magicians, and ANYONE can harness creativity. More specifically, try some of these:

  • Paper magic. Start by folding simple origami models. The great thing about origami is that you can do it practically anywhere -- all you really need is flexible paper, a flat place to fold it on, and a bit of manual dexterity. This is also a nifty way to recycle scrap paper. Once you have mastered a few basic patterns, you can amaze people with your skills. (I make flowers or cranes to give to friends and little kids.) If you have a lot more dexterity with scissors than I do, scherenschnitte is another option. And if you want the completed object to have a little magic of its own, whisper a friendly little spell to it as you make it.
  • Play an instrument, particularly a portable one. Small instruments, such as harmonica, mouth harp, tinwhistle or ocarina, are especially magical -- and, with the possible exception of the mouth harp, just about anyone can play a simple tune on the first try.
  • Sing dumb songs. Better yet, try neat folk tunes if they don't have too many verses. If you absolutely cannot carry a tune, poetry or storytelling is an excellent alternative. (Don't know how to tell a good story?  Take a storytelling class!)  For a good collection of dumb, novelty, folk and other weird and funny songs and skits, find the Doctor Demento Show archives online or check podcasts for novelty song goodness.

Be curious. Magical people are most likely to be curious about the world around them and the wonders it holds, and are always looking for opportunities to learn or try new things that will fill them with delight, whether it's marbling paper, sampling an unfamiliar food, cosplaying, stargazing, geocaching or bungee jumping. Recognize that the world is full of marvels to be sampled and enjoyed, and be open to trying as many as you can.

Be confident. Start each day with the expectation that something wonderful is going to happen -- because you will make it happen. Enter contests. Smile at strangers. Stand up for what's right. Assume you will be lucky and things are going to go well. Keep a wellspring of optimism inside you. If you're not used to being confident, practice confidence -- ask yourself, "How would I proceed if I were a confident person?" and then do it that way.

Be subtly whimsical and/or a little bit mysterious. Real magic isn't like stage magic; it doesn't draw undue attention to itself, because it doesn't need to. The right people will notice and draw near. Commit everyday acts of whimsy that you find fun, even if others think they're silly -- do the Jedi hand-wave at an automatic door, put your coat on with a theatrical sweep, give the shopping cart a gentle push so it glides forward and you can walk along behind it without touching it, learn how to crack open an egg one-handed, leave a tiny toy in an unexpected place. Also, consider cultivating a little touch of mystery in your interactions with others. People don't need to know everything about you right off. Share a little something magical just in passing that leaves them curious to know more.

Practice story magic with other people. My mother, who would never have described herself as magical, had a superpower. She could sit down next to a stranger, smile, start chatting, ask a few open-ended questions about that person's life, then actively listen. More often than not, she could learn someone's life story in about 20 minutes. Most people like to talk about themselves, and if you give them an open invitation to do so, they usually won't let you down. Active listening, where you pay attention to details and ask follow-up questions, is paramount. If you practice this particular magic, you will quickly discover that EVERYONE has a story, and most are fascinating.

Expand your vocabulary. Don't speak another language?  Time to get curious and try something new. If this particular magic doesn't come easily to you, discover rare or unusual words in your own language. Finding the perfect word to describe a concept is powerful stuff.

Find magical places near you. These can be wonderful little shops, special restaurants or bakeries, unexpected red-brick roads, hidden parks in the middle of big cities, caches full of tiny treasures -- the possibilities are vast. My personal resources for finding such places include Atlas Obscura, Geocaching.com and Waymarking.com, but there are many, many others.

Track down and enjoy magical media. My particular media magic of choice is books, and I have a huge list of books I consider magic -- Under Plum Lake by Lionel Davidson, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, C. S. Lewis' Narnia books, the People stories by Zenna Henderson, etc. For those with a preference for animated movies, the Studio Ghibli version of Howl's Moving Castle or Tomm Moore's Song of the Sea are likely places to start. And then there's music -- your life's soundtrack. Mozart, Vivaldi, Cosmo Sheldrake, Loreena McKennitt, Sissel Kyrkjebø, Regina Spektor, whatever makes your heart leap when you hear it. I personally recommend going to YouTube and looking up cover versions of the song "Nature Boy" by eden ahbez (the Emmelie de Forest version is a delight).

Notice little magical things and write them down. My theory is that small magical things happen around us all the time, but our mundane minds usually forget them unless we take the time to record them. I carry a small notepad and pen with me, and every time I experience something that seems magical, I write a brief note about it.

Perform random acts of kindness. Pay the bridge toll for the stranger behind you, or randomly spring for someone else's purchase. Offer a heartfelt, unexpected compliment. Write down a favorite quote or song lyric on a notecard and leave it in public for someone else to discover. (Or make a treasure map for someone to find, then actually leave a small treasure at the X!) Make a mixtape for someone (OK, cassettes have gone the way of the dodo, but you can put all kinds of musical mixes onto a thumb drive, so DO EET). Bring a stressed friend a gift of emergency chocolate, a bouquet of seasonal flowers, a favorite book or game, or some other small personal token as a reminder of your friendship. There are many more suggestions for random acts of kindness online if you need some pointers to get started.

THE ART OF THE MAGICAL HOME

Curate a collection of magical household items. Seek out household objects that have a touch of magic to them. Yes, you could just keep your liquid soap in a plastic bottle, or you could put it into a green cut-crystal dispenser. You could make tea in a basic brown teapot, or one painted with a black dragon that turns all sorts of wonderful colors when it's filled with boiling water. (Or both, if you've got the room and the inclination!) These items don't have to be expensive. My elephant-shaped glass container, which I use to hold cotton balls in the bathroom, was purchased in a secondhand store for a pittance, and most of my teacups and saucers were thrifted. The idea is to look for functional items that speak to your soul and create a little splash of unexpected color or beauty in your home. And part of the point is to collect a magical trove that's unique to you, not put together by anyone else. Don't expect to do this in one fell swoop; it takes time.

Clean, not tidy. A magical home is regularly cleaned and well cared for, but also definitely lived in. It's all right to have a little creative chaos in progress, whether it's a partially-finished bit of knitting, a painting being worked on, a potion being brewed, a vision board for a future project, etc. (Just don't be like me and have ALL these projects out at once. There is a difference between creative chaos and COMPLETE chaos.)

Gracious magic. Old-fashioned manners, particularly if they're flexible, are a form of magic -- specifically, a formal way of showing even strangers that you care about their comfort. Handwritten thank-you notes are rare and beautiful these days, and worth the time to create for those who have shown you kindness. (If you enjoy the practice, beautiful handwriting is a bonus.) It's worth the time it takes to learn how to host, serve and eat a meal gracefully and with confidence. And you are free to take up forms of politeness from other cultures if they appeal to you. Someone I know uses the Japanese word "Itadakimasu" before each meal; it essentially means "I humbly receive" and is a formalized way to thank all those entities, human and otherwise, who made the meal possible.

Become a kitchen witch. Cookbooks are grimoires of the most ancient and arcane sort, and food and drink are some of the most potent magic known to mankind. Learn to cook (or bake) at least a few special things. If you find you have a knack for it, branch out and try mastering more. Share your creations with friends, or with persons who will soon become your friends. Start putting your own twist on things -- slip a little coconut extract into your hot cocoa, or a pinch of cayenne, or some powdered cardamom, and see what happens. (Spices are definitely magical.)

Grow things. NOTE: This isn't a magic for which I have much natural talent. However, I know several magical people who are expert gardeners -- and who slip all sorts of esoteric and enchanted plants into their homes, food, baths, gifts, everything as a result. Even if all you have is a fire escape or an apartment balcony, you can grow herbs or flowers in containers. Plus it's quite possible that a properly tended, lush garden invites fairies to move in. I'm just saying.

Have a familiar. It could be a cat, a fish, a frog, a bearded dragon, a wiener dog, a hamster, a ball python, any kind of animal with which you have a special affinity. Keeping an animal companion in your home ties in with the above-mentioned practice of growing things, in that it's a way of practicing empathy toward a different kind of living being than oneself. The world is full of creatures who have just as much a right to live and flourish as we do, and learning to appreciate the quirks and traits of a non-human creature is a kind of magic. (And yes, of course, feel free to use "pet" instead of "familiar" if you're more comfortable with the term.)

Develop household rituals. One magical acquaintance of mine lights candles on the table before every evening meal, and invites teatime guests to pick their own cups from her substantial teacup collection. Another magical friend ties mellow-sounding bells to the trees in his yard, so they ring softly every time the wind stirs the branches. Yet another friend is well-versed in kitchen garden magic and creates household potions and possets from the herbs in her yard. Over time, you'll find rituals that suit you best and blend them seamlessly into your life.

Scent. Is. Magic. Go into a shop that specializes in perfumes, and find a scent that transports you. Candles and incense and other whatsits for scent delivery are pleasant ways to start, but nothing beats straight-up perfume oils for staying power. If you don't have a shop nearby that specializes in scents, Possets and Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab are places to start online (and both offer small samples of their larger-sized scents). If you show a knack or a fondness for it, you may go on to mixing your own scents for your home.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Remember that magic is gracious. Some of your friends may be sensitive to strong scents, and triggering a friend's migraine is in no way magical. In such cases, going fragrance-free is the kindest choice.

MAGICAL SELF-CARE

Discover the art of self-pampering. This looks a bit different for everyone. Some folks love getting manicures. Others enjoy having their brows threaded and shaped to perfection. Still others find bliss in a good back massage. And others prefer a do-it-yourself attitude and put together their own homemade day spas. In any case, personal cleanliness and pampering rituals are a way of being kind to yourself, of honoring the body that holds your particular magic. It's not indulgent, it's supportive! (I feel it's important to spell this out: pampering is not exclusively "girly." Masculine folk, for instance, can and should enjoy bubble baths if they feel like it.)

Drink potions. Any day you feel like it, make or find a potion. This can be anything delightfully drinkable, from rich hot chocolate to ginger beer to herbal tea to some truly exotic homemade concoction, though I do recommend that it not be anything seriously habit-forming. Determine before drinking what this potion will do: give you wisdom, intelligence, wit, humor, beauty, lovability, or any other specific personal trait you're looking to cultivate. Concentrate firmly on this trait as you drink the potion. Watch magic unfold.

Give yourself permission to enjoy occasional treats. For me, the key is to space them out enough that they remain special and still feel like "treats," not just thoughtless habits. My magical treat of choice is quality chocolate, and one of my very favorites is a concoction called a dark Florentine bar, made by a chocolatier called Brugges Chocolates in Redmond, Washington. (It is definitely a magical place.) Even though Brugges is perilously close to my home, I deliberately choose to separate my visits there by one to two months (or longer) so that each visit remains special. Of course, treats don't have to be edible. You can also give yourself permission to buy (or pick) bouquets of flowers, permission to create a fairy door in your house, permission to try a new hobby or craft... it's pretty open-ended. You know what constitutes a treat for you.


So this isn't an exhaustive list by any means, which means you should add to it! Also, I'm curious: are you magical, or do you know any magical people? If so, what traits have you observed that you consider magical? Share in the comments below.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Time to get prepared

If you were hanging around this blog in March of last year, you might remember that I wrote a little treatise on the importance of being prepared for disasters (like, say, the pandemic). If you weren't, you can find it here.

Why do I bring this up? Oh, for a few reasons:

  • Last year brought a horrific fire season across the western United States and Canada.
  • There's been little rain and snow across most of the Western seaboard this year.
  • Fire scientists at San Jose State University in California say that cuttings taken from trees and brush across the state indicate fuel moisture content of a terrifyingly low rate not seen in the last decade. Low fuel moisture describes the low water content of trees, shrubs and grasses -- the items that provide fuel for a wildfire -- and the drier these are, especially this early in the year, the more combustible they are and the more likely upcoming wildfires will be widespread and dangerous.

Image of the Holiday Farm fire, September 2020
Holiday Farm fire, September 2020.
Public domain image by U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Region.

If you live in Western North America, make a plan now to survive a wildfire in your area. Pack a bag with necessary items and put it in your front hall or the trunk of your car. Put all your important documents in a safe place, and make copies to keep elsewhere in case they're incinerated. Keep your cars' fuel tanks topped up. If you have pets, prepare to evacuate with them. Be aware of lightning strikes near you. Set up a phone tree to contact a family member outside the danger zone and let that person know you've made it to safety; then he or she can call everyone else so you don't overtax the phone system in an emergency.

And if you don't live in the immediate path of a wildfire, but you remember having to breathe mostly smoke for about a month in 2020, now would be an excellent time to invest in a quality air purifier for your home. Don't wait until the orange haze descends and you have to fight everyone else trying to buy one off Amazon.

We weren't ready for the pandemic, but we can be ready for this. It's time to get prepared.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Fiction: Bob the Human

[LONG-WINDED PREFACE: A while back, for about a hot second, I had a Reddit account (before realizing it wasn't really my thing) and used it to post a short story that got some positive interest, which is always nice. Since I don't have it posted anywhere else, I thought, "well, why not here?"

There are two types of fiction I find particularly difficult to write. One is science fiction; while I love reading it, I can't always wrap my brain around all the implications of certain scientific concepts and how they would mesh with -- or transform -- human nature. Nor is it easy for me to try to think the way a truly alien intelligence might think. It's a challenge. The other type of fiction that's hard for me to write is pure dialogue. So of course, right out of the gate I posted a short SF story that is ALL dialogue. Never let it be said that I'm not up for a self-made challenge or two.]

 

BOB THE HUMAN
(originally published under the name a-skyful-of-stars)
(Click here to hear Miandis and his mom read "Bob the Human" on YouTube)

"Well, that's done. Our course is all laid in and executed; the ship does the rest. From here on out to the Nebula it's pretty quiet."

"Sounds like we'll have orbits of free time. Care to play a game?"

"No, thanks. Between my memory and my clan's, we've played every game in this ship's database at least two hundred times."

"What about stories?"

"Only if you've got a new one."

"Hmm. Want to hear about the prank the 15-gen Threz pulled on the Grati?"

"Is this the one about filling their entire hall with foam putty?"

"So you've heard it then."

"Way too many times."

"How about the time the ghost of Jorit 2 Makh the Exemplar came back to haunt the Retmer clan?"

"Uh. That was another Threz prank, wasn't it?"

"What can I say? We Threz like pranks."

"Sorry, we Dorg spend too much time worrying about cargo and all the things that can go wrong with a ship to appreciate pranks."

"Well. Hmm. I suppose I could tell you about Bob the Human."

"… uh, that one is not familiar. What about Bob the Human?"

"Well, it started 3 gens ago with Threz 37 Norcim, my clancestor. Fought in the Human War. We honestly thought that with our superior tech, the whole thing would be over in a half-orbit or so. Turned out we were right, but not for the right reasons. In our defense, every clan of Finayar underestimated how the humans would fight under pressure."

"Yeah, two of my clancestors were pilots in the Human War. Our memories of humans are frightening. The things they did, even with grossly inferior weapons… nngh."

"Well, anyway, once the war had come to a standstill and the Finayaran ambassadors had worked out the treaty with them, Norcim signed up for the Finayaran Exchange. Honestly, we didn't really want to get to know humans, but the terms of the treaty demanded it -- and we were promised a sizable land grant on a colony world once we'd completed the exchange. So we agreed to stay for one Earth orbit. And that's how we met Bob the Human."

"Bob was your exchange host?"

"No, no. Our host was Anne. Very friendly and attentive to Norcim -- a bit too attentive, honestly -- weirdly interested in Finayarans, so we were constantly looking for valid reasons to leave her dwelling. We met Bob one night in a communal drinking hall -- a 'bar,' if Norcim's memory serves. Bob came right up to us with a large blue bottle -- he admitted later he was a little, uh, 'plastered' at the time -- and said, 'Hey there, Finnie, you gotta try some of this stuff. Cures rabies, scabies and babies!'"

"Ra-bies…?"

"Well, rabies and scabies are both Earth illnesses. Babies… well, that was the primary reason Norcim didn't want to get to know humans. I assume you’ve heard the rumors?"

"What, that they… uh… that they reproduce…"

"Mm-hmm. Full-on sexual reproduction. They're even sexually dimorphous."

"Ugh. Like animals?"

"Yup. It's why we assumed we could colonize Earth. Sapient species just don't reproduce sexually."

"That's kind of disgusting."

"Do you know, it's even disgusting to them? Bob told us that when young humans learn about their species' own reproductive behavior for the first time, they usually find it repulsive."

"Wait, so… how are they coerced to mate?"

"We asked Bob about that. He said, 'Oh, you get used to it. Matter of fact, usually the trick's getting us to stop mating.'"

"Oh, that is SO NASTY!"

"Ha! At least they usually mate in private."

"So if they, uh, mate instead of dividing -- then each new gen of theirs begins with no clan memories?"

"Exactly right."

"Glorious Finayar. How do they survive?"

"Good question. Young humans are frighteningly altricial. They can't walk or speak or do much of anything for themselves. So for the first several orbits of their lives, their closest clancestors do everything for them, including sheltering them, feeding them nutriment and removing what they eliminate. Every gen of young must be taught language, behavior, how to survive, and they're constantly supervised, because they don't even know enough not to throw themselves into deep water or play with intense heat. It's an exhausting process."

"Their clancestors must resent them."

"Norcim thought so too, at first. But over time we observed that humans instinctively care more about the beings for whom they sacrifice, not less. So the more trouble clancestors take to care for their young, to ensure their survival, the more emotional connection they have for those young."

"Hmm. Still seems like a lot of trouble. Parthenogenesis is much more efficient."

"It certainly has its advantages. At least we start with our clancestors' memories. All we have to do is grow to full size and take our clan's role in society."

"Well, that's exactly why our society is superior. No knowledge is lost, every being improves on the competence of the gen before it, every clan has its proper place. Dorg are pilots, Threz are warriors, Grati uphold the laws, Retmer sculpt, Jorit are philosophers..."

"Hmm."

"…what?"

"So, if we're superior… and if nothing is ever lost… then why don't we dance anymore?"

"All right, you know better than to talk like that."

"Why? We're on a ship in the middle of nowhere. Orbits of time. No one else is listening. Why can't we talk about what happened to the Ruuk?"

"Not on my ship. Tell me more about Bob the Human."

"Fine. Bob… well, Bob loved pranks as much as Norcim. He could've been a Threz. He figured out a way to rig a coffee machine at his work so it randomly dispensed balsamic vinegar."

"Coffee… vinegar?"

"Coffee is a human stimulant drink. Vinegar, well, isn't. Norcim found them equally revolting. But it was fun to hide with Bob and watch other drowsy humans fill up their cups, take a big swig and then spew it across the room."

"You Threz are all mildly insane, aren't you?"

"I think the word you're mispronouncing is 'fun-loving.'"

"You're always getting yourselves in trouble."

"Well, that’s where the fun is! Bob used to take Norcim for rides on this old two-wheeled machine called a Harley. It made horrible noises, it went too fast to be safe, and the only protection we had were round headgear that didn't fit our head, and clothing made of processed animal skins. If we'd fallen off we certainly would have perished. And it was spectacular! We went YEEEHAA."

"What's yeeehaa?"

"Obviously, it's the noise you make when you're hanging onto the back of a Harley."

"Humans have weird customs."

"You said it. Do you know that every orbit they celebrate the day they were born?"

"What would they do that for?"

"Well, Bob tried to explain. He said that life was precious to humans, so they tended to have celebrations every chance they got. But he really should have explained what a birthday party was like before we got there. It was the most bizarre thing we'd ever seen. The guests had covered the inside of the dwelling in dangling bits of paper. They all yelled at Bob in unison when he entered and threw more bits of paper around. Everyone put tiny bright cones on the tops of their heads and blew through objects that made squawking noises and flicked out like a Retgar's tongue. Then they turned out the lights and ceremonially set fire to a confection. Bob just sat there grinning in the light of this flaming pastry while they chanted this peculiar little song, and then he blew out the fire before it could do any damage to the dwelling. Then they stabbed it repeatedly and gave slabs of it to every guest… we supposed that it came from some ancient human tradition where everyone present must share in the ritual sacrifice. It was disgustingly brown inside, but everyone was eating big mouthfuls and making noises of joy, so Norcim tried a bite."

"And?"

"Well, we didn't die. But the stuff they called 'ice cream' was better."

"Huh. As I said, weird."

"Then afterward, they put on some raucous noise they called 'classic rock' and everybody danced."

"What, Norcim didn't… you… danced?"

"Why not? It has no political connotations on Earth."

"But… even on Earth… it could have been reported. No one after Ruuk 10 Dragut…"

"Oh, NOW you want to talk about the Ruuk."

"No, no I don't. But how did Norcim even know how to dance?"

"We didn't. One of the guests at the party taught Norcim how. It was easy. And it was fun."

"Oh, come on! How can you expect me to believe that anyone could learn in one day what it took the Ru -- ah, never mind."

"What it took the Ruuk clan multiple gens to learn?"

"I did NOT say that."

"Oh, stop sulking. The short answer is that human dancing, at least casual dancing, is simple. It doesn't require all the gens of formal training the Ruuk used to put into it. There's no deeper spiritual meaning, no ritual symbolism. It's done for pleasure."

"But… didn't it cause them to…?"

"No. No one at the party acted like Dragut. No one at the party had ever heard of Dragut, other than Norcim. How could humans know anything about the Ruuk clan, or how it perished? It's not a well-discussed part of our history, even on Finayar. Can't even talk about it with you, apparently."

"It's just… now that we know dancing is dangerous, that it… spawns untested ideas, encourages rebellion, breeds dictators like Dragut… I mean, can you deny the Ruuk were evil?"

"We used to think they were. Norcim believed what our clancestors believed, that the Ruuk had to be extinguished for the good of all Finayar. But after the dance at Bob's party… well, there was nothing subversive in human dancing, nothing but fun. I'm more inclined to believe now that the only Ruuk who really went bad was Dragut. The rest simply followed orders. We could have redeemed them. Preserved their memories, their experiences. Instead, we've lost that part of our culture forever."

"Well. We don't need to dance."

"Neither do the humans. But they do it anyway."

"How can you possibly be flippant about this? Haven't humans ever had to deal with the horrors of a dictator?"

"Oh, they've had plenty. Bob told us about some of the humans who tried to take over Earth. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim, Ruff, Shang… it was a long list. Somehow humans manage to fight back and destroy dictators without completely wiping out their clans in the process."

"That's so odd. I mean, humans showing restraint. They were such horrific fighters during the war."

"You know what Bob told Norcim once?"

"Hmm?"

"One night, when he'd had too much to drink -- again -- he admitted that he was a war veteran. Killed many of us."

"You made FRIENDS with a war criminal?"

"You know, on Earth Norcim could have been considered a war criminal for all the humans we'd killed. But Bob didn't treat us like that. Not ever."

"But… but they were so fierce. Killed so many. What was it that enraged them so much?"

"Norcim wanted to know that too. Bob told us, 'I had to fight them… well, fight you, I guess… after Colleen, after the Finnie blitz. It gave me something to live for after she was gone.'"

"And Colleen was…?"

"Bob's mate."

"Ugh. Back to mating again."

"Well, sexual reproduction may be distasteful to us, but Bob… well, for him it was more than just ensuring the next gen. He developed deep emotional connections with his mate. Even when they were separated, he said, thinking of Colleen made him feel stronger, happier, more full of life. The way he described it, it was almost as though they -- shared each other's lives. Something like what we share with our clancestors, only voluntarily."

"Huh. And when he lost that connection, he had to fight us? I don't understand."

"Well, he said that when Colleen died, she took some of his soul away with her. No, don't ask. Bob tried to explain souls so many times, and we never understood it. But his connection to Colleen was so strong he came close to killing himself rather than living without her. Fighting let him get revenge against the beings he felt had taken his mate from him. It gave him a chance to fight for the survival of his clan. And it gave him a reason to go on living until he could come up with reasons of his own."

"So… he fought us. They hated us. How could you ever think of him as a friend?"

"Because he was a friend. He did all the things friends do. He cared about what happened to Norcim, not just because we were part of the Exchange, but because Bob honestly liked us. He wanted us to be happy, to have a good experience on Earth. And he made sure we did."

"I don't see how he could like you as a friend, if he was so busy killing us for revenge."

"Oh, that. He said, 'Don’t worry about it, Finnie. We usually make friends of our enemies after every war. Besides, I expect Colleen would want me to. She always loved the idea of ETs.'"

"ETs?"

"It's from an old entertainment of theirs. 'Extra-terrestrials.' Their name for every sapient species that doesn't originate on Earth."

"Tsh. Making friends of their enemies, myopically self-focused, sexually reproductive… humans are the most bizarre little creatures."

"…I suppose so."

"Now you don't sound all that convinced."

"It's just… I've thought about it for a while, and I'm not sure we should look down on humans for the way they reproduce."

"I don't follow you."

"Well, if we'd reproduced parthenogenetically from the very first intelligent Finayaran, we'd all be the same, wouldn’t we? All part of one clan?"

"I… guess, but…"

"But instead there are many different clans with differing physical characteristics… and our clan memories don't go all the way back to the beginning, so… well, hasn't it occurred to you that at some time in the long past, Finayarans must have reproduced sexually too?"

"UGH. You've spent too much time on Earth; they've corrupted your thoughts!"

"Oh, hardly. The Jorit have been positing the same theory for orbits now. Jorit 40 Klenabar has been saying that sexual reproduction has some advantages over parthenogenesis."

"That's because Klenabar is a deviant."

"That's just another word for 'thinks differently from the rest of us.'"

"Look, I can't discuss this tawdry subject any longer. I'm going to go see to the ship."

"As it suits you."

 

Image of stars in space

[5 ORBITS LATER]

"You're back."

"Well, I've done everything I can think of to do. We're still on course, all the maintenance systems are working properly… it's all ticking along just fine."

"I see."

"And… uh… I've been thinking a little about what you said."

"What part of what I said?"

"About Klenabar. And advantages to… uh… you know."

"Sexual reproduction?"

"Nnngh. Well. I just don't see how it could possibly be more useful."

"Well, Klenabar's theory is that Finayarans once reproduced sexually, and that's what created our clan lines -- we all originated from individual beings with specific skills and talents. Klenabar believes there's evidence to show Finayar had an extinction-level event about 40 gens ago, before we developed spaceflight. Some individuals survived, but they must have been sterile. Back then, parthenogenesis could have been a secondary method, a way to reproduce in emergencies, but it must have become our only option."

"Huh. Even assuming Klenabar's theory is correct… which I'm not sure I believe… then it would have been an evolutionary advantage only in our past. Parthenogenesis is superior. We're far more fortunate to be as we are."

"Hmm."

"Oh, what now?"

"You remember how fiercely the humans fought?"

"Of course. Wish I could forget."

"They were fighting for their mates. For their offspring. For the emotional connections they had to other humans. And not just to other humans, but to other beings as well."

"I thought you said Earth didn't have any other native sapients."

"They don't have to be native sapients. Humans voluntarily care for animals. They cultivate local flora in their dwellings. And sometimes they even protect offworld species. One night a couple of humans came up to Norcim, called us 'dirty splitter' and said something about 'making an alien autopsy vid,' and tried to cut us open with blades. But they didn't get the chance, because Bob went after them with something he called a… um, I think it was a 'Louisville slugger.' He fought them like a true warrior. Would have made any Threz proud. I think he might have saved our life."

"Well, that was… honorable of him."

"It was more than honorable. Because Bob thought of us as his friend, he was willing to put his own life in jeopardy to protect Norcim's. That's what we saw during the war. It wasn't just that humans were trying to defend a world they thought of as theirs. In the process of trying to colonize Earth, we destroyed many beings that were precious to them. That's why they would do anything to beat us."

"That doesn't make much sense. There are always other beings with whom they could forge connections. It's not like we wiped them all out."

"No, no, think. Humans are different from us. Do you know why I'm going back to Earth?"

"Because it's the only planet that will have you?"

"Ha ha. No. I'm going back to tell them about Bob the Human."

"Uh. Wouldn't they be better off hearing Bob's stories from Bob?"

"Well, yes, but... after the orbit in the Finayaran Exchange, Norcim went back to claim the land grant we were promised, and Bob was -- remarkably emotional at seeing us go. We kept telling him not to worry, that Norcim or one of Norcim's descendants would come visit him in the future. And he said, 'Look, Finnie, I'm 62 years old. Realistically, I'm not going to see you again. But I'm damned glad I got to know you. Don't forget me, all right?'"

"Heh. Silly thing to say."

"That's what Norcim thought, but we hardly had time to dwell on it. We had other things to think about, mostly colonization. Three gens later, though, when the colony was well established and I was still only partly grown, I thought it'd be fun to go see Bob again, or some of his descendants."

"Let me guess. He groaned and called you Finnie."

"No. He wasn't there. His dwelling wasn't there. None of his clan members or friends were there."

"Hmm. Must've moved offworld, then."

"I thought so too. I went to the human government to find out where he'd gone. They combed their records and told me Bob died thirty orbits after we left."

"Died? Glorious Finayar, what happened to him? Was he in an accident?"

"They said 'natural causes.' That it was common for humans back then to die after ninety or a hundred orbits."

"What? But he was so young!"

"They were all so young. All the humans Norcim met during our time on Earth had been dead for at least three thousand orbits. I couldn't comprehend it. They told me that even now it's rare for a human to live beyond a hundred and forty orbits. They just… succumb so quickly. I had no idea how fragile, how tiny their lives were."

"Oh. Well, that explains…"

"What?"

"After the war, the humans wanted to talk to the Dorg. They were offering to exchange their technology for ours, specifically for the faster-than-light tech they were sure we had in our ships. We didn't understand why they thought we had tech past lightspeed. But it makes sense, if they live such short lives…"

"Right. They couldn't even survive a journey to the nearest star outside their system. It’s why all their colony worlds are so close together."

"Well, at least you found Bob's descendants, didn't you?"

"I did, actually. Many of them. So many."

"And did THEY groan and call you Finnie?"

"No. None of them recognized me."

"But -- oh. Oh, that’s right. They don't have clancestor memories."

"Exactly. And since their lives are so short, Bob's whole life might as well be a myth to them. All they knew was that they had a clancestor who fought in the Human War. That was when I started to understand the tragedy of being human. Every single one is a discrete, solitary individual, with no memories other than his own, and no way of transferring memories directly to the next gen, so every single death is like the extinguishing of the Ruuk. I think that's why they make such strong emotional connections -- so they won't feel so alone."

"So… so Bob is just… gone?"

"No, not completely. He's here in my head. With Norcim's memories. That's why I go back to Earth. I can't bring Bob back, but I can make sure his descendants have all our memories of their clancestor. Each time I visit, I tell another of their gens everything Norcim knew about Bob -- his friends, his mate, his beliefs, his pranks, his vengeance, his kindness, the way he lived."

"Tell me, do you think they… appreciate what you do? Do they like hearing about Bob?"

"I think most of them do. But I'd do it anyway. I've realized their small lives need our long memories."

"And besides, Bob wouldn't want you to forget him."

"Oh, believe me, Bob would be impossible to forget."

"So… uh… care to play a game?"

"Sure."

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

How to blam a piece of crap

So, since February 3rd is Blam This Piece of Crap Day in our household (it can be in yours, too! Try it, it's fun!), I thought it might be worthwhile to show y'all an example of how a piece of crap can be BLAMmed up into something better.

A 14.4 oz. can of beef chunks in water
Exhibit A: canned beef chunks in water.

I've had these canned beef chunks in our food storage for quite some time. While they are not horrible by any means, they tend to look rather off-putting when they first come out of the can, like something you might feed to a dog.

(Foties from here on out by Captain Midnight. Thanks, honey!)

A rather unappetizing bowl of watery broth with canned beef chunks in it
Here, Fido

Appearance, however, isn't as important as taste. See, this canned beef was designed to be part of a long-term food storage solution. I want to use it up before it loses significant nutritive value. Canned meat works fine in any application that might use leftover cooked meat; it makes decent chili, for instance. But at this point in its shelf life, canned beef often tastes more like can than beef. If you make beef enchiladas out of this, you will taste the canned flavor. If you make deviled meat for sandwiches, you will taste the canned flavor.

I do not want to taste that can. I do not like it, Sam-I-Am.

So whatever I make with this will have to be flavorful enough to defeat the taste of the can.

Fortunately, I know just the thing, because I watch the Future Neighbor channel on YouTube. I'm gonna BLAM this can into a spicy red-pepper-based stew over rice!

Gochujang paste, gochugaru, onion, potato, garlic, mushrooms, and a whole lotta tasty oils and sauces
Ingredients assemble!

For those of you who are Korean or who cook Korean on the regular, yes, this is an adaptation of gochujang-jjigae. Yes, OF COURSE it tastes better with fresh beef/pork/chicken and otherwise more authentic ingredients. But it was surprisingly delicious just using up what I had. (In fact, to complete this dish, I had to buy exactly one item from the store: a jalapeño pepper. I thought I had one, but it had been sitting in the fridge too long and had started growing its own little civilization, and eating volunteer mold is never a good idea.)

Not shown: the pepper I had to buy and some soy sauce, because, um, I forgot this recipe had soy sauce. I did add it later.

In addition to the beef chunks, there was a handful of mushrooms of questionable provenance which I wanted to use up, as well as some leftover rice and a rather sad-looking old potato.

Let's do this.

Gochujang, onion, garlic, potato, green onions, mushrooms, mushroom soaking water, jalapeño pepper
Mise-en-place

In the center: gochujang, a traditional Korean fermented red pepper paste with tons of fabulous flavor. Around it: half a white onion, the aforementioned jalapeño, mushroom soaking water, mushrooms, green onions, the peeled and thinly sliced potato, and about 2 tablespoons minced garlic. Oh yeah.

Drained and rinsed beef chunks
Let's drain and rinse those beef chunks. They look better already.

Time to put a wok or other large saucepan over low to medium-low heat, and add some neutral cooking oil and some sesame oil. It immediately starts to smell good.

When the oil is hot, you slide in the gochujang paste and cook until it starts bubbling and changing the color of the oil. Mmmm. Then you throw in about a tablespoon of gochugaru (red pepper flakes)...

Orangey-red gochujang broth
Mmm, gochujang broth.

...and immediately follow that with a few cups of water (we added the mushroom soaking liquid to this), bringing the whole thing up to a boil.

Broth with potatoes, garlic and sauces added in
Bubbling broth!

Here you add the potato, garlic, some soy sauce and some fish sauce. If we'd been using fresh beef, this is where we would have added that -- but since canned beef is so soft it will fall apart if you look at it too long, we decided to wait until later in the cooking process to fling it in.

This bubbles away for about 5 minutes, letting all the flavors get to know each other and giving the fish sauce some time to settle down.

Broth with mushrooms, onions and jalapeño added
Getting chunkier

At this point you add the white onion, mushrooms and jalapeño. Bring it back to a boil...

Adding the beef chunks
And into the drink they go!

...add the beef chunks, gently stir to break them apart, and let the stew bubble for another 7 to 10 minutes, or until the potato pieces are soft enough to eat.

Stew nearly done, with green onions added
Is it stew yet?

When the potatoes are soft, sprinkle over some of the green onions, turn off the heat and let the stew sit for 10 minutes to allow the flavors to relax. Check for seasoning -- if it's too salty, add a splash of water.

Finished stew
Done!

The stew is now complete. Heat up your rice and plate that thing up.

Spicy stew over rice, all ready to eat
All ready to eat

Put rice in bowl. Put stew on rice. Put green onions on stew.
Put spoon in bowl. Put spoon in face. Repeat until gone.

Stew and rice with a spoon
Nom.

And that, my friends, is how you BLAM a piece of crap.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Shadow Marxism

(Originally written in response to a Marxist literary theory class I took in college, circa August 2004. No, it was not my favorite class. Yes, I was verily bugged about it. This is more or less a snapshot of my thoughts at the time, some of which have since changed -- which is only to be expected after accumulating another seventeen years of life experiences.)

Before making less than complimentary remarks about a dead man, I should in all fairness disclose some information about my background, natural bias, and education. I am not an expert on Marxism, nor do I claim to be -- just a student of human nature and somewhat capable of reading between the lines.

Karl Marx
Hey kids! It's your ol' buddy Karl!

I will freely admit that I am biased against Marxism. Even before I knew anything about what Karl Marx had written, I wasn't a big fan. Maybe it's because I've been able to witness applied Marxism in my lifetime -- the shortages and shoddy quality, the oppression, the constant fear. And that's the best-case scenario. (If atheists can point to the Crusades and the Inquisition as an indication that Christianity is rotten, I can certainly point to Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Hitler as indications that communism ain't all it's cracked up to be. As Eric Raymond puts it, "if the road to a Christian hell is paved with good individual intentions, the road to totalitarian hell is paved with communitarian idealism." But I digress.)

I should also admit that my current understanding of Marxist philosophy, while more comprehensive than it once was, is only at a pop-culture level. I have not read all of Das Kapital or The Communist Manifesto in English, much less in the original German, and I doubt I will ever exercise the patience to do so. However, I have spent the better part of the summer studying Marxist theory as applied to literature and have also checked my notes carefully against the Youth for International Socialism page, so I believe my understanding of Marxist philosophy is about as accurate as any garden variety, well-read non-Marxist is likely to have.

With all that disclosed, here's what I know about Marxism, courtesy of my still-incomplete education:

Marxism is an economic philosophy with a twist. Were it not for that twist, Marx would be studied only by pointy-headed economics professors. You see, Marx wrote that everything is based on economics -- that all human social activities can be broken down to issues of finance. Money, according to Marx, is the base from which all other social structures -- religion, morality, education, politics, law, etc. -- eventually grow. All of these social structures, called "superstructures," are designed to reinforce notions of private property and of capital. This doctrine of the universality of Marxism is one reason why Marxist thought has invaded nearly every organization and soft-science discipline: Marxist literary theory, Marxist philosophy, Marxist psychology, even the ultimate oxymoron of Marxist Christianity.

The Marxist view of history is one of inevitable economic change. According to Marx, all societies go through four stages: feudalism, in which the peasants labor for the luxuries of the wealthy; capitalism, in which the working class labors for the financial gain of the middle class; socialism, in which the masses revolt and create a dictatorship of the working class; and pure communism or "workers' paradise," in which private property is abolished and all humankind works together for the common good. Marx stressed that all these stages led inexorably to the workers' paradise; it was, for lack of a better term, fated to be so.

Marx also claimed that in post-Industrial Revolution capitalist societies, the bourgeoisie (loosely, the middle class) get and keep their money by continually exploiting and oppressing the proletariat (the blue-collar working class). The only way to change this state of affairs, Marx claimed, was for the proletariat to gain control through violent revolution. There was no point in trying to change social superstructures, since they were all part of the capitalist base -- instead the proletariat must rise up and take control of the means of production, freeing themselves from capitalist slavery in the process.

Although Marx claimed his view of history was inevitable, he also owned it was quite possible that economic change could be indefinitely delayed by societal forces pushing hard for the status quo. Thus, it would be necessary for the proletariat to rise up in revolution immediately, so that workers' paradise could be achieved in their lifetimes. He also claimed that it would be impossible for revolution to take place in isolation -- global industry would require a global revolution, until the entire world was one huge workers' paradise. (Cue John Lennon's "Imagine" and fire up the patchouli incense.)

So is everyone asleep now? (Man, economics really is a dismal science. Spending money is fun, but talking about it is always boring for some reason.)

As I first studied Marxist thought, my initial response was one of incredulity. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need?" Sounded nice, but would it really work? From what little I'd seen of human nature, I'd determined that people who have no financial motivation or inner drive to work usually don't work. Somehow I didn't think "the greater good" would provide sufficient impetus to keep the world running smoothly for long. Studying Marx's socialist stage of history, I wondered how the proletariat dictatorship would determine how people were to be fairly rewarded for their work, how they would decide to price items, what would be manufactured and who would get them in what quantities. That would be an extraordinary amount of work to decide. And when Marx claimed that the proletariat dictatorship would eventually voluntarily disband, I snorted out loud. Since when have human beings ever voluntarily relinquished power?

In fact, I began to think Marx was an incredibly stupid man. Here I was, a mere humanities major, and even I knew that money isn't at the core of human social activities. In fact, money is only a placeholder for one of the primary motivators of human activity -- power. If Marx didn't understand that much, he wasn't very intelligent; certainly he knew almost nothing about human nature.

But as I've continued to consider, I think I could make a case for Karl Marx being quite cunning and a careful student of human nature. And yes, I now believe he was well aware that many human activities can be broken down to a desire for power. He purposefully didn't write about power as a motivator, though, because he didn't want to draw attention to that fact. Beneath the veneer of overt Marxist thought there lies a deep shadow -- and concealed in that shadow, I have come to believe, is the true purpose of Marxism.

Why did Marx write what he did? After all, he came from a petty bourgeois family -- the very class he claimed to despise. He did not seem to be averse to money, though he clearly did not understand how to keep it -- he blazed through two inheritances in his lifetime, continually borrowed from friends and admirers, and was notorious for being unable to balance his own checkbook. Perhaps this was where his obsession with capital first arose.

In his life, Marx must have observed large numbers of what he called "the proletariat" -- what I would call the uneducated, working poor, laboring under inhumane conditions for little pay. He must have realized how desperate these people were, how much they yearned for a better way of life, and how there were no rules or laws in place to help them attain that life. He must have noticed, too, how many of them there were. At some point he must have realized what a powerful latent force was contained in the masses, especially if they were united and working toward a single goal.

And so, I believe, he wrote that goal for them. It was a simple idea, one that even the uneducated masses could grasp, and it could be popularized easily without significantly watering down the message. It told them that they were worse than slaves under capitalism, and that religion was merely a drug to keep them in their places. It claimed that money was the problem, a problem that could only be solved through violent upheaval. It promised them that after the revolution, they would have better living conditions and a modicum of dignity. It whispered to them that they would run the world as they saw fit. It told them that all they had to lose was their chains. In other words, it told them exactly what they wanted to hear -- that without any need for industry, education or piety, the poor would inherit the earth. And the people ate it up with a spoon.

Marx wrote with the full intent of having his ideas put into action. But, I believe, he was not wholly honest about his motivations. He encouraged the masses to rise up and, by virtue of their greater numbers, take over society, knowing full well that such a mob -- uneducated, often undisciplined, and completely inexperienced in leadership -- would quickly fall into chaos. Without the bourgeoisie to guide them, there would be no one qualified to run the factories and farms and other means of production. Society would grind to a halt as the new dictatorship of the proletariat floundered in its unfamiliar role. The workers of the world would need help. They would need someone with an education, someone more familiar with the mechanics of production, yet still sympathetic to their cause, someone who would come to their aid and, with his greater knowledge and expertise, run their brave new world for them. In other words, they would need someone just like Karl Marx.

In my opinion, Marx wrote about money because he knew the proletariat -- the cannon fodder who would accomplish his revolution for him -- were obsessed with money, and he realized that promises of its abolition would stir them to action. He wrote only indirectly about power, if at all, because acquiring power for himself was his chief end in inciting revolution. He wrote about changing human nature and about a mythical workers' paradise the way one dangles a carrot in front of a donkey; he knew full well that pure communism would never come to pass -- but once he and those like him had gained control of the new socialist order, they could run the people's lives any way they saw fit for as long as they liked. What Marx was forwarding, under the veneer of mutually beneficial communal living and labor for one's fellow man, was an old-fashioned meritocracy where all the rules of the game were written with the express end of awarding Marx the crown.

I believe the majority of rank-and-file Marxists understand only the surface of Marx's theories -- they gladly swallow what he promised to deliver, despite the fact that no practical application of Marxism has ever delivered the so-called "inevitable" workers' paradise Marx promised. Nor will it ever do so, regardless of how many times it is tried, because Marx never fully stipulated the conditions under which it would appear -- only the conditions to create the socialist order he desired. But what about the upper-class, highly-educated people who recognize "shadow Marxism" as I have described it in this editorial -- and who are still ardent Marxists? These are the people whom economist Thomas Sowell describes as "the anointed" -- those who, like Marx himself, believe they were meant to rule over others. They are likely to espouse socialism as a means to an end, to hold democracies in contempt precisely because they reflect the will of the people and not of the ruling class. These opportunists are the ones to watch like hawks. They would love to stir up the common folk to violent revolution, waiting with pale brows and clean hands until the deed is done and their coronations can begin.

To quote Dr. Sowell again (he is eminently quotable): "The left takes its vision seriously -- more seriously than it takes the rights of other people. They want to be our shepherds. But that requires us to be sheep." If you consider yourself to be one of Marx's proletariat class, in the name of all that is holy, don't be a sheep. If you've read this far and understood it, you're smart enough to get a post-secondary education and take control of your own life. You don't have to wrest control from others through acts of violence and thuggery, only to be stepped on by the anointed once you've done their dirty work for them. You don't even have to agree with everything I've stated here. But don't let yourself be used by those who are not forthcoming about their true motivations.

Remember: it is power, not religion, which is the true opiate of Marxist thought. And like any opiate, it is deadly addictive.

(ETA: if today's events in Washington, DC have taught me anything, it is that the opportunistic "anointed" can come from the political left OR the political right. Trump et al. seem convinced that they have the right to rule indefinitely, regardless of the people's votes, and are more than happy to rile up "the base" to achieve that end -- using violence and thuggery if they deem it necessary. HARD PASS THANKS.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Reaching out

F
OR years, my mom had this recurring desire to start a charity. Not just any old kind, but something specific.

"I'd love to match up families with each other," she'd say. "Then one family could help the other one get through tough times, kind of the way an extended family does. I just think it would work."

Mom would have been thrilled to discover that someone else had the same idea -- and, further, acted on that idea and started a charitable organization. Family-to-Family provides the link through which one family can help another get through tough times. If you have enough for your needs and a little left over, I urge you to contribute. Should you decide to participate, you can choose to help a struggling family, a veteran, a Holocaust survivor or a refugee family get through the pandemic. There's more information at the website.

It's what Kari Sue would do! After all the kind and selfless things people did for her and her family, she would have been so excited to help someone else. I only wish I'd discovered this place a long time ago and could have shared the news with her before she died.