Saturday, November 22, 2014

Potlucks and LIFO, being too disgusting for a bully to touch, divas with PTA mothers, and making widgets: why sometimes you should just get drunk with Mr. Evil

Usually I like to do the seven things weave for blog posts, but this time I just had four in mind:
1. I've decided to blow off my church's Thanksgiving potluck this year due mainly to laziness (the first chance to sleep without setting an alarm in a while, and the awareness that it's the last time I can do that till Christmas because I have choir rehearsals and performances to make).  Interestingly to me, the moment I decided to do that I felt a pang of relief: my pet pot luck irritation would not be happening to me or various other people this year.  To wit:

At the end of every pot luck, it will be discovered that half a dozen lovely homemade desserts, relish trays, salads, and breads were never offered to anyone, and instead people ate various storebought stuff.  The fresh-from-the-oven dinner rolls are still under the aluminum foil in their lovingly packed pan; the crowd ate Poppin'Fresh. The grandma's-recipe pecan pie is uncut but its pie server is soaking in the dirty dishes, having been commandeered to cut Safeway brownies. The artfully arranged hand cut vegetable tray with homemade dip is in the refrigerator, untouched; the people ate handfuls of that culinary fraud, "baby carrots", from a crackly plastic tub, dipping them in Kraft Ranch dressing straight from the bottle.

How this happens is that the people who make good things at home tend to arrive early to set them out.  The people who remember on their way to the church that there's a potluck stop at the store and buy a bag of Oreos, or a readywashed salad or plastic relish tray.  They typically arrive at the last minute, when the homemade stuff is already set out, and as they run down to the potluck table, they find all the space taken up with the good homemade stuff. So they move that "out of the way" and set down their bag of storebought crap. (Sometimes appropriating serving implements, since they didn't bring those).

Note that nobody -- probably not even the last minute token Oreo bringers -- wants to eat the last minute stuff from the store when the good homemade stuff is available.  In fact, the reason why the Oreos and presliced veggie trays and so forth win out is that they were brought by people with less interest in the process, and the serving table is a LIFO (Last in first out, for you nontechnical types) system.  So for the sides, everybody eats that stuff they could have bought on the way home (usually the main dishes are safely immune), and the proud cooks go away with their work unsampled.

2. As a fifth and sixth grader, I had one particular bully-tormentor who was a year older than me and one of the most popular boys in his class, one of those socially precocious boys who is first to have a girlfriend, first to come to a dance drunk, a star athlete in seventh grade because he's hit puberty already and it was nice to him, that sort.  The leader of the popular boys' lunch table.   

About the middle of sixth grade I realized that in those days, schoolyard fights were essentially a very rough sport, more like bullfighting than boxing -- i.e. the bull gets goaded into attacking and then beaten and humiliated.  So I meekly endured teasing and having my nipples pinched (don't ask me why this guy was so fond of pinching male nipples, but he had a kind of route of a half dozen victims) for about a week while I planned, and then one day rode my bicycle into a crowd of him & friends, jumped off and threw it forward, thus tangling his legs. 

While he was tangled, I grabbed his hair and pulled his face into several thoroughly inept punches that were nonetheless probably at least a bit painful, and before he was together enough to retaliate, the nice old lady who lived in the house, who was sitting out on her porch, came along and sternly ordered me to go away.  I rode off, unretaliated against.

The next day I sneaked up behind him and hit him in the back of the head with a stick, while he was on his way home from school, and then ran like hell.

He confronted me on the school playground and I told him that he could hit me all he wanted (or as much as he could before a teacher was forced to notice him doing it) and I wouldn't try to defend myself, but he'd never be able to watch his back all the time. He shoved me down and got sent in early from recess. After lunch, walking by his classroom where the teacher hadn't come back yet, in full view of the room mother, I stepped into the room and hit him fairly hard in the head with my math book.  I got to go home from school early.

I wasn't sure how long I could keep this up, figuring sooner or later he'd catch me in what my childhood defined as a "fair fight," and I'd really take a pounding.  But while I was in the public library reading later that week, he came over and sat down next to me and said, "Everyone is saying you're beating me up and getting away with it."

I pointed out that I was hitting him from behind, using weapons, no warning, taking cover behind adults, all the things that destroyed ones honor. He said he was telling people that but they were still saying that I was hurting him and that he was afraid of me. He admitted he was only walking home with friends from school nowadays.  (I"d have used that strategy myself if all my friends hadn't been the same kind of bully bait I was). He got pretty close to saying he was afraid of what I might do, and he was humiliated by the teasing he was getting.

I offered to lose one fight to him in public, once, in exchange for his leaving me alone forever.

He was outraged.  "You would THROW A FIGHT!  You would JUST LOSE IN FRONT OF EVERYBODY!  You DON'T EVEN CARE!"

And he got up, left, never spoke to me again as far as I remember, and never bothered me. Apparently I was just too disgusting.

I employed similar strategies on two other bullies, with equally good results, though that was the only time I offered to throw a fight.  The only other verbal exchange that might have been relevant was that when I had ambushed one young goon and had him pinned down, and was alternately slapping his head and rubbing his face on the street, he said "I give up," and I said, no, he didn't. If I couldn't get out of fighting him by just giving up, then he couldn't get out of this by just giving up. Then he said nobody would believe I had done this, and I said he could explain his scratched up face any way he wanted, since he and I both knew. I let him get up eventually -- he was crying pretty hard -- and he asked me if I wanted him to apologize, or stop beating me up, or quit hassling me. I said I didn't care what he did, now, because I could always do this again.

Being a not very nice kid, I enjoyed the fact that he was quietly afraid of me for about a year after, giving me nervous little glances and drifting out of the crowd whenever his friends decided to make fun of me.
3. If you have no musical theatre interest, it's possible you've never heard "At the Ballet" from A Chorus Line.  Go listen to it now, I'll wait, and you obviously have time if you read this blog.  Now, what you're hearing there is a pretty good reflection of a very large number of kids' lives. If there's not much for you at home, sports programs, or some art activities like band or theatre or choir, can give you a full-on life, or so it feels at the time. Sadly, though … comes time for the big musical, the big game, the big concert … and all of a sudden, some kid who misses half of practices, dogs it on all the laps, never even showed up to help run the Thespian concession stand, has the big part or is starting in the position you wanted.  And they might be pretty good but not nearly as good as you are. 

What the hell happened?

It wasn't until I was working in kid programs myself that I came to realize that the kid from the happy, supportive family -- especially the very achievement-oriented one -- has a parent who may well be essential to the operation.  Sure, Alice May Theatrebit works hard and she's there all the time, and you give her a good role, but Bethany Familyvalues's mother is president of the PTA, and coordinates parent volunteer efforts, and in short can keep your program going.  Neither Alice's indifferent parents nor Bethany's ever have to ask or exert any pressure; it's just, one kid will be there and work her heart out for you no matter what, and the other one will do a reasonably good job if you hand it to her, but if you don't hand it to her, she may lose interest and quit and there goes your painfully built program.

4. I mostly don't fall for it anymore, I hope (or it's done more subtly on me nowadays) but I have seen many students from middle school on up who make no effort till very late, then walk in and ask what they can do to pass, then don't do whatever they're told it is and try to bargain down, and continue the cycle of begging, agreeing, not complying, and re-begging until time runs out and the instructor has agreed to give them everything in exchange for no work.  Perhaps you've seen someone do that in a class or two, too? It seems to be a pretty common experience.


Now, what do those all have to do with each other? I think this: there is great power in not giving a shit. Rewards often go to those who don't care about them exactly because they don't care about them.  The one who can walk away from the bargaining table will get the best deal; the most reluctant get the biggest bribes; fortune favors the less prepared one who shows up at the last minute, because they will get all the help to keep them participating.

Obviously not in all cases and not in all fields of endeavor.

One place where it may be less obvious is our economy.  Let us suppose you work at Allied Widget as a widget-maker, perhaps a highly experienced and skilled widget-maker with forty years of widget-making behind you. You can't lose that job.  Widgets are your life. If the company is in trouble, you'll be on your union leaders' case to make concessions to keep it open.  You'll be going to the boss and asking what you can do to help.  You need Allied to be there because it's your whole life.

Now suppose you're an investor and Allied's stock is tubing, probably due to all the news in the previous paragraph.  You may very well decide to buy more Allied -- because to keep you, and thus preserve their stock price, they'll have to think about declaring a dividend. Two days ago you didn't know they existed, but you bought them on the off chance that they will pay to keep you, and if they don't, you can dump them just as easily.

So who gets the best deal, you the worker or you the investor?

Suppose you pour your heart and soul into a fifty-year crusade to create something marvelous for all of humanity, or to right an injustice as old as history.  And suppose the final key law to achieve your goal now comes down to one legislator's decision, with the rest of the legislature tied. Does your legislator go with you, the passionate advocate? Or with Mr. Evil, the passionate anti-advocate? Or does the legislator figure that he'll get a vote from one or the other of you, but not both, but he'll get thousands or millions from voter/taxpayers who have barely heard of the issue?

Maybe you and Mr. Evil can go out and get drunk together afterwards.

I offer no fixes or proposals here; I see no way you can measure intensity directly, and after all, very often, as Yeats said, the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. I merely observe that it can be a tough world in which to be a good cook, a bully, a kid for whom the ballet "wasn't paradise but it was home," a regular student who does his/her homework, a worker or an advocate.  Or I suppose anything. But it does seem like a very interesting way in which it sucks to care.

A momentary impulse seized me ... or it will ... or it did

I was looking at Book Riot and ran across this video from books and pieces, which I'm linking to on YouTube.  Partly I was just interested in the flapping hands and the strange urgency with which she speaks -- she seems to be really afraid we'll all get bored or tell her to shut up or something, when in fact she's a good deal more interesting than most of the people you can find browsing the net and nearly all of the people you can find hanging out in the coffee house. 

The question was about the attraction of the 30-80 year -- or really, the 50 year -- future.  Why is so much SF set at about that distance in time?

She mentions most of the usual explanations: fifty years is about the right time frame to be comprehensible but still strange enough.  It's far enough away so that there is more than one likely alternative, close enough so there are not an infinite number of incomprehensible ones. It's an artifact of the limits of writerly imagination.  All that sort of thing.

Let me throw out one she didn't say that seems likeliest to me, and maybe that's just because I'm an increasingly old poop who spends more and more time these days working around young people. (I highly recommend that combination, by the way. You get to be near all that energy and interest and excitement but you're not obligated to have zits, cliques, or obsessions).

Science fiction, if we are talking about professional venues (defined as "the check would be enough to make a difference in your month or longer")  is written by youngish (usually late 20s and up) through middle-oldish (70s or so) people.  Add fifty years to their age and you get middle-oldish to dead.

But some people from our present will still be alive in fifty years, with memories of our time.  They are those short guys we call "children."  I was born in 1957; 1964 is memorable for me (though I missed a lot, too, of course), in a whole swarm of details.

Many people's idea of what the world is like is formed in childhood (and sometimes never changes, or changes only slowly); furthermore, if children are not too severely abused or neglected, and most aren't, they tend to like the world of their childhood and to think of it as normal and right.  (One of many reasons why reactionaries can find new reactionaries, I suppose). 

So, when I sit down to write about what happens in 2064, I'm imagining a world where:

1) I'm dead or close to it, and certainly out of most social circulation.
2) But kids (e.g. grandchildren) are still around (oldest grand will be sixty, an age I have no trouble imagining, and presumably 2014 will seem about as remote as 1964 now does to me).
3) And my present day existence will be remembered mainly by people seeing it in the mental golden glow of childhood.

Just to spill more amazebeans upon you: most writers love attention, and really love favorable attention, and want to be well thought of.  So when I set a story 50 years into the future, I'm picking a period when the elderly experienced characters with wisdom ("old wise guys") are people I know today, but are most apt to think I sure was swell. Or more likely awesome.  Probably sick, actually.  No matter. It is the time when I am likely to be out of accurate living memory, but still in living memory,surrounded by the glow of nostalgia.

And I'm guessing this feeling is true for a lot of writers.  Besides the video cited above, I recently had occasion to re-read Heinlein's Requiem (the story where D.D. Harriman hires a couple broken down rocket barnstormers to fly him to the moon, and dies there, leaving the RL Stevenson "home is the hunter" poem on an air tank tag as his epitaph).  Heinlein wrote it in 1940; it's set in 1990 (two years after Heinlein's actual death -- you don't get much more precise than this, do you?) 

So when Harriman tries to explain to these two spacemen why he wants to see the plain old moon even if it will kill him, he falls back on telling them about his childhood, and talks about being an 8-15 year old kid who lived and breathed ... science fiction magazines. Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Boy's Own Electrical Experimenter, all that pop science stuff that was all over the newsstand in the 20s and 30s.

Harriman is 70-something  at the time (the doctor who won't let him fly says so).  So he was born between 1910 and 1920 ... about a decade younger than Heinlein.  A rich kid, crazy about science in the late 1920s or early 1930s ...

Three guesses who D.D. Harriman's  favorite writer was, and I'm sure you'll be right all three times (though we have no way to check). Maybe Heinlein himself, but also very likely Doc Smith, Murray Leinster, H.G. Wells -- the writers Heinlein conspicuously loved.  And if that kid had somehow known the rather dashing young naval officer that Heinlein was when Harriman would have been ten years old ... well, if that's not the warm glow of memory, what would be?

Really, it's remarkable how well SF writers resist having the children they like grow into admirable, heroic adults who then remember their creators (or the characters who are surrogates for their creators) with the same glow that Disney, Thornton Wilder, or Heinlein brushed over pre-WWI smalltown America, like Thomas Kinkade the day that the store had a special on Valium and chrome yellow.


Quick note here: I felt the urge, I wrote the piece, wanted to see how long it would take to just dash something off about an idle thought.  Might do it again or not. Those of you who like the blog, hope neither too much nor too little. Those who don't, why did you read this far?