4 – 8 – 15 – 16 – 23 – 42

After a three-month hiatus, Ana Spoke has resumed posting to her blog today. Explaining she “was too busy getting married and starting my new job” to blog, Ana never did lose her literary ambition, although she struggled mightily to get back into her writing.

The difficulty Ana faced in re-starting speaks powerfully to a dilemma that’s been coming for some time. About five years ago, I was writing sporadically in this blog, and wasn’t happy with what I was posting. I had read from several bloggers that the key was to make a committment of some fashion — number of posts per week, word count, completing a story each month, whatever — and stick to it. Many suggested that posting each day was the key, and for whatever reason that committment was the most appealing to me. Not sure of the exact date, although I do know it was the day after my younger son’s bar mitzvah (I could look it up, as if that mattered) — I told myself I was going to post something, every day, in this blog, starting that day until… whenever.

I’m now wondering if whenever’s day has finally come.

At times, the show’s title perfectly described its audience

It’s not that the thrill is gone; I still love writing, and blogging, as much as ever. But this daily obligation has me feeling like Desmond Hume from the television show “Lost”, tasked with entering six numbers (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42) into a computer terminal every 108 minutes (I’ll save you the work — the six numbers add up to 108). Desmond was told this sequence of numbers had a supernatural power, and entering those numbers was the only way to prevent a catastrophic event. “Lost” was a cult phenomenon in its day, and its fans spent a good deal of time and energy speculating on some of the show’s recurring motifs, particularly those six numbers (hey guys, astrology has 12 houses and 9 planets — guess what number you get when they’re multiplied!). Posting on online message boards, speaking at conventions, and giving interviews to fawning entertainment writers, the show’s writers would frequently drop hints at the numbers’ significance, but after the show ended in 2010, they admitted most of show’s motifs had no hidden meaning. Those numbers had been chosen pretty much at random, and served as nothing more than a useful plot device, what the detective novelists would call a red herring. In other words, Desmond had been entering those numbers for absolutely no reason.

The decision to post every day was the right call five years ago, as I don’t think I could have produced as much as I have if I didn’t have that disciplined motivation. But there’s been too many obligatory posts the past several weeks, and I don’t see the value in keeping the streak going any longer. My Christian readers will likely say that I’ve made an idol out of my daily obligation — and they’re likely to be correct.

But as I contemplate stepping away, I think of Ana’s struggle to resume writing. Let’s say tomorrow, Wednesday, I decide not to post. What’s going to motivate me to post on Thursday? Or any other day this week? Next week? The rest of the month?

If you’ve managed to wade through the preceding 500+ words, I’m now asking a favor. What advice do you have for blogging consistently, but not daily? What tactics do you employ to keep posting regularly? I don’t want to be like poor Desmond any longer, but right now I’m at a loss in my search for a different way of being diligent.

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The Passive/Aggressive Despot

Mark Aldrich, The Gad About Town, posts regular updates on journalists imprisoned for simply doing their job, such as the Egyptian photojournalist Shawkan. His post today focuses on the United States, and the Donald Trump administration’s attacks on media credibility. I find a lot of wisdom in the following excerpt:

Autocrats in our current era will not march into newspaper offices and destroy printing presses, as they did once upon a time; they will simply shame and harass them into silence. They will cajole their credulous supporters into not believing credible evidence and into a resistance of critical independent thinking.

I’d like to expand on Mark’s analysis with the following two comments:

  • Comparisons of Trump to notorious dictators of the past are an ineffective distraction. Journalists in America aren’t going to be arrested (unless they choose to investigate a riot), but they will be subject to a sustained passive/aggressive attack from the President. No direct accusations, but rather a continuous series of suggestions; no call to action, but should some lunatic decide to take the law into his own hands… well, the President never told him to do it, and besides, the victims had it coming to them anyway. Mark doesn’t compare Trump to Hitler, Saddam, or Stalin (the comparison to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is made to demonstrate parallel tactics), which is wise, for Trump’s brand of maniacal despotism is unique, and needs to be called out and combated on its own terms.
  • Expressing outrage at Trump’s behavior is a waste of time and energy, and I’m glad to see Mark’s post is free of self-righteous indignation. Anger will never get Trump to admit he is wrong, as maniacs are by definition incapable of the self-reflection required to acknowledge error. And while outrage might persuade some of his supporters, a core group will continue to believe in “alternative facts,” no matter how vehemently we present the truth. I also believe Trump and his supporters welcome the outrage, seeing it as yet another distraction from his more nefarious policies, such as his increasing friendship with Vladimir Putin. We can, and must, fight every lie with the truth, every false assumption with logic, every attempt to circumvent the law with all our available resources; outrage does nothing to help in any of these fights.

The current regime is less than a month old, and it’s proving to be just as mendacious as we’d feared. We have not only to chose which battles to fight, but also must take care in how we chose to wage those battles.

Super Boor

Super Bowl LI will be played this evening; kickoff should occur some time after the singing of the third or fourth patriotic anthem, the broadcast of a couple dozen overproduced commercials, and the 30 men and 20 minutes required to flip the damn coin. The game represents America at its boorish best — even our most sports-adverse citizens cannot ignore the event, while the rest of the world tolerates our obsession like a kindly yet overbearing relative visiting for the holidays.

I wanted to begin today by reblogging a post about the game that makes no actual mention of American football. Agnes Wright is ready for the halftime show, and shares some recipes for what has become an American tradition.

Clicking a link to the future

Interesting post from Fargus Larbis today about the future of retail merchants. It’s not looking good for brick-and-mortar stores, as online retailers are competing with and often beating them on price, delivery, and service. I’m anxious for the retail professionals who staff and manage these stores; some can perhaps find employment with online retailers, but the trend with both virtualization and automation is for fewer employees. And if people don’t work, they won’t have money to feed into an economy that’s increasingly being driven by consumerism. And if the consumer market dries up… I don’t want to think about what comes next.

The fate of conventional retail stores reminds me of my father,  who worked in retail most of his professional life. He was a department store manager for several years, until one day I came home from grammar school to see him sitting in front of a typewriter at the dining room table. This was highly unusual, so I asked why he was home.

“I quit my job today.” There was neither pleasure nor apprehension in his reply. “I’m writing my resume.” Later that evening, I asked my mother about the meaning of resume, as the word was entirely new to me. Immediately afterwards, my father would respond to questions about why he quit with clipped monosyllables, laced with a tone that invited no follow-up queries. A few years later, as his former employer’s immanent bankruptcy made the news, he finally gave me the full explanation. “The company’s profit margin had been falling for years, and they went and built a high-rise corporate tower in New York.” That building was featured in each story about the bankruptcy. “Upper management was in complete denial, but it was obvious to me that I had to get out when I did.”

Our family struggled for a couple years after my father left that job. He eventually opened a franchise for a national electronics retailer in the rural town where he was born; for years in the mid to late 1970s, his store was the only place in a fifty-mile radius where consumers could purchase electronic and computing devices. He was the first retailer in the area to sell an electronic calculator, a primitive device by today’s standards — it could only perform simple arithmetic, had no memory, and was as large as some of today’s notebook computers — but was such a novelty in our area that people would drive in from miles away just to say this amazing device. It was so popular that he kept it in a safe overnight, to prevent burglary.

My father made a good career for himself in retail, and provided valuable commodities to our small town. There will be fewer stories like my father’s in the years to come (he left the industry entirely in the early 1990s, when he saw the potential for online retailers), and while I hope the tales that replace his will end just as well, I fear we’re in for a good deal of social disruption in the coming years.

Platitudes Are Not Always Right

This week’s Discover Challenge from the Daily Post is to “write a post that goes against the conventional wisdom — reinterpret something for us.” I’ll take this opportunity to take shots at a particularly annoying platitude.

The assertion that the customer is always right has about as much value as an apple a day keeps the doctor away: you may feel good about yourself when making either statement (I’m providing excellent customer service! I’m taking care of my health!), but using either slogan as a guiding principle is ludicrously short-sighted. I’ve got nothing against apples; there’s even a couple trees growing in my back yard (the blossoms in spring are a particular joy). They’re nutritious and certainly more beneficial than many other things we routinely ingest, but if galas and fujis and golden delicious are a substitute for a balanced diet, exercise, and routine medical exams, you’re in for some serious problems.

Now, about those customers. Let’s cut out the nonsense first: yes, we need to listen attentively to them; yes, we need to show respect for their opinions; yes, they will ask for products and services we wouldn’t purchase. I gotcha, boss. But, always right — please. Let’s return to the business of health, and consider a conversation between a doctor and patient, the doctor’s customer:

“You have the flu. Go home and rest; here’s a prescription for the pain.”

“Thanks, doc.” Patient examines prescription. “Is this an antibiotic?”

“No. You have the flu, which is a virus. We’ve tested you for bacterial infection, and it was negative.”

“OK, but the thing is, I got sick this time last year, and I got better right after I started taking the antibiotic.”

Doctor checks the patient’s file. “That’s right, you had a bacterial infection last year, so that’s why the antibiotic made you better. Antibiotics only fight bacteria — they do nothing against a virus.”

“But my cousin took an antibiotic a few weeks ago, and he got better right away? I just want to get better, doc, and I KNOW the antibiotic will help. What’s the big deal?”

Yes, the customers are always right — except when they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Or they’re trying to defraud the buyer. Or they’re sacrificing long-term benefits for short-term gain. Or they’re trying to purchase materials for a weapon.

Aphorisms are fun and convenient, but are poor subsitutes for wisdom. Anyone who seriously believes the customer is always right has no business being in any position of customer service.

Ignorance is strength

George Orwell

[Today’s prompt from The Daily Post: Devastation]

Over this past weekend, a dystopian novel first published in 1948 entered the bestseller list on Amazon. The “alternative facts” promoted by President Trump’s leading spokesperson has evoked comparisons to doublethink and newspeak, concepts introduced in George Orwell’s 1984.

I’m glad to see Orwell re-enter the public conversation. My doctoral dissertation in the 1990s relied heavily on the writings of Eric Blair, but as I studied and wrote I wondered if Orwell would remain intellectually and culturally viable in the 21st century. He had a lot going against him — deceased for almost half a century, the title of his most famous work evoking a year sinking further into the past, ridiculed by academics as a lightweight (“let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about” was a frequent punching bag for postmodern philosophers, who argued that meanings didn’t exist outside of language), castigated for his role as a government informer in his later years. Orwell seemed headed for the dustbin of history; I’d been fascinated by his work since high school and was still moved by his call for simple human decency in defiance of political oppression, and I regretted what I saw as his coming demise.

Well, perhaps that’s changing. Trump’s America is certainly no Oceania, but in less than a week we’ve seen this administration intimidate the press and attempt to control how information is communicated. The Conways and Bannons in the regime seem to realize that while any third-rate despot with enough guns can temporarily control a population by force, a tyrant who controls people’s thoughts can remain in power much longer — and what better way to control people’s thoughts, than to bring devastation to their language?

So welcome back, George Orwell. You felt out of time in your own age, and for all the wondrous technological advances since your passing, I’m sorry to say we’re no less fearful and brutal than what you remember. Maybe it’s that sense of alienation, your feeling of not belonging in an age like this, that gives you an insight that, for all your faults, make your voice still so valuable at this time.

L’Chaim

This evening marks the beginning of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the second century B.C. In a somewhat rare confluence of the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars, the first night of the eight-day Jewish holiday occurs on Christmas Eve this year. Mine is one of those fortunate families that celebrates both holidays, and while neither my wife nor I pretend to be experts on the matter, I thought that since both holidays will be celebrated within 24 hours of each other this year, it would be appropriate to share some thoughts on how we’re able to make these holidays work for us.

  • Don’t try to meld the two holidays. While both Hanukkah and Christmas in the modern era celebrate events that have only a nominal relationship to history, they have distinctly different messages. And yes, we can argue about that message for each holiday, but attempts to conflate the two celebrations have always seemed shallow and unsatisfying, to my wife as well as myself. On the eight nights of Hannukah, we light the candles and say the blessings; on Christmas, we play music celebrating the birth of Jesus. We both take immense satisfaction with each.
  • You can be religious without being exclusionary. You don’t have to be Jewish in order to appreciate the story of Judah Maccabeh’s rebellion against religious oppression, or Christian to admire the aspirations for peace on earth and goodwill towards humanity. Never be afraid to express what the holiday mean to you, or be so stubborn to believe that your partner, your children, or other family members or friends could possibly derive another meaning.
  • It’s all about family. The holidays are a time for families to come together. Those gatherings can be bittersweet and even hostile at times — but even at their worst, the holidays serve as a bond for keeping the family together. For some, the holidays serve as nothing more than an excuse for mass consumption and consumerism, but if that’s what keeps the family together, well then, guess there’s nothing wrong with that. When it comes to celebrating any holiday, do what works best for your family.

These are the thoughts that have allowed my wife and I to enjoy both holidays for over two decades. We see both as occassions to celebrate life, to raise a toast of l’chaim. We’ve never valued one over the other, never made sacrifices or accommodations for either holiday. And this year, we look forward to being able to celebrate both holidays at the same time.

    The Good, Fight

    Mark Aldrich (aka The Gad About Town) supplements his always entertaining Today In History series today with an extensive analysis of last month’s Presidential election in the United States. As Mark shows, Trump’s rise to power is not entirely unprecedented, as his rhetoric has been used by many American politicians in the last century and a quarter. History, as the saying goes, doesn’t actually repeat, but it most certainly rhymes.

    I haven’t written about politics in this blog since the day after the election. The time required for NaNoWriMo certainly had something to with that, but so too did my shock and yes, disappointment and anger at the outcome. My opinion of The Fraud has not changed — he’s a maniac who admires dictators, and an existential threat to our country. We’ve faced greater threats and the checks and balances built into the Constitution will allow us to survive, but I also believe he has to power to cause a great deal of damage that could take decades, perhaps generations, to undo.

    To minimize the damage, the incoming President and his administration will need to be resisted by people of good conscience. The punctuation of today’s post is entirely intentional — there not only needs to be a good fight, we need the good, to fight. I’m not sure what exactly that means yet (although I’ve all but given up on the Democratic Party, at least at the national level — yes it’s important to vote, but it’s also foolish to believe that Presidential and Congressional elections are the solution to our nation’s problems). Maybe the answer will come to me at the end of the month, during an overdue vacation in a land of abundant warmth and pleasant sand, or perhaps I’ll come to the conclusion that I need to create my own answer. All I know now is that staying in my comfortable home while the world around me falls on its face isn’t going to work for me.

    It’s time to fight. Don’t know where the battle will take place, who or what foes I’ll be facing, or what weapons I’ll wield. But the fight is coming, as sure as the dawn, and I’m not running from this battle.

    When You’re Wrong

    Guess I should stick to fiction rather than political commentary on this blog.

    My analysis of the 2016 Presidential election in the United States was completely wrong, and the fact that many people far more intelligent than I were also wrong does not make me feel any better. Come January, the most powerful office in this country, and arguably the entire planet, will belong to a man completely unfit for the responsibility.

    People have asked this morning how I feel about last night’s results, and I don’t know how to reply. I’m still numb. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be — what? Angy? Depressed? How should I be?

    All I can do now is admit the obvious. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It starts there, and where it leads will be an answer for another day.