Brief Update

Small World, the sequel to Skeleton Crew is about 136k words long (compared to 55k for Skeleton CrewI).

A niche publisher (which I will not name since contracts have yet to be signed) emailed me recently to say that Skeleton Crew was "awesome" and that they would like to republish it and to publish the sequel.

I don't have a timeline for publication, but I'm guessing springtime. I'll update when the details are more concrete.

Happy new year!

Help with a Hammer

I couldn’t get my car to start the other day. I had somewhere to be and for the life of me, I couldn’t get the damned thing to turn over.

I was desperate and absolutely beside myself. I went up and down the street, begging each one of my neighbors in turn for help. Many of them shrugged, most told me to fix it myself, and a couple cast a sideways glance at the big house down at the end of the street.

At long last, I found myself at Sam’s door with my hat in my hands. The big Texan reluctantly answered in rattlesnake boots and a ten-gallon cowboy hat. Over his shoulder he carried the biggest hammer I had ever seen. It gleamed like the sun and must have weighed twenty-five pounds if it was an once.

I knew he would have it with him. He never went anywhere without it.

“Sam, buddy, I really, really, really need your help,” I said. “My car won’t start -- today of all days -- and I’m at the end of my rope…”

“Nope,” Sam said, cutting me off with a spit of tobacco juice on my shoe. “I ain’t your buddy and you don’t want my help.”

“No, really I do!” I reassured him, swallowing my pride and trying to ignore the stink of wintergreen on my foot. “I’ll do anything!”

Sam shrugged and followed me back to the car. On the way, I described the sound it had been making the day before and I told him all the things I had tried this morning. He stared at the engine for a moment or two before swinging that big beautiful hammer over his head and bringing it down on my engine block.

He wailed on my car for a good five minutes without tiring. No matter how I begged and pleaded, he just wouldn’t stop. Bits of plastic and broken glass flew this way and that. My tears disappeared into a slowly expanding puddle of radiator fluid.

“Why? Why? Why?” I cried. My vision was blurred so badly that I could barely see his wife-beater t-shirt that I had in my fists.

“You asked me to,” Sam said with a shrug.

The truth is, Sam isn’t a guy at all. That 250 pound Texan is the United States, and that hammer is the world’s biggest military.

The military may be a tool, but it doesn’t fix anything. That’s not what it’s for.

Oh sure, it’s chased Adolph Hitler from France and Sadam Husein out of Kuwait, but those were special cases. Both France and Kuwait had their shit together long before they were invaded. Once they had their countries back, they had no lasting problems getting things back to normal.

But what about the rest of the Middle East? What about Afganistan, Iraq, Syra, and who knows where else. Yemen? Somalia, or perhaps?

Most of the world is broken, the US included. We hear you asking for help. We understand your desperation. We do! And we wish we could.

But how do you plan to pick up all the pieces once we finish smashing things to bits? Do you really want the sort of help we have to give?

Heroes and Villains

In one Christmas episode of “South Park,” Cartman tallied his “naughty” and “nice” lists for the year in hopes that he had done enough nice things to balance out all the naughty. Coming up short, he tries to count “brushing my teeth” as nice so that he can still get presents from Santa.

While brushing your teeth is certainly good for you, we’d have to all agree that it is not objectively “good”.

People like to describe good and evil in terms of how closely an action mirrors their prefered religious text, but I try to steer away from that. Choosing one religion as your measuring stick can cause a knee-jerk reaction from the faithful of other religions.

So how would you define good? Think about it a moment before reading mine. I’d be curious to know how similar they are.

Good: Helping a stranger with no promise of reward.

Was your definition similar? I like this definition because it cuts right to the heart of the matter and it excludes a few things where we, like Cartman, try to give ourselves more credit than we really deserve.

Helping your friends and family is great, but isn’t that expected of us? Isn’t that the job of being a friend, a brother, a mother? Or do you recall that time where a tree fell across the road and you helped a dozen other motorists pull it to the side of the road? You might be tempted to congratulate yourself for helping so many out, but really, weren’t you just working together to help yourself?

Sadly, by my own definition, I fall pretty short on naughty v.s. nice. I guess Santa owes me some coal this holiday season. Oh well.

While we’re talking about good, how would you define a “hero”? The media is so quick to use that word that it’s nearly lost all meaning.

Take a moment now to ponder it and see how different your definition is from mine.

Heroic: Risking something of great value to help a stranger.

I spent a lot of time thinking about good and evil before sitting down to write this piece and I was surprised at how much easier it is to say what good is than it is to describe evil! Perhaps this stems from being raised on cartoons that pitted the heroes against really ludicrous, two-dimensional villains.

How many times have we seen a nemesis that does evil things simply because he is evil? Does that make any sense at all? Does anyone, even the most “evil” figure in the news today, think of themself as evil?

Probably not.

In reality, most everyone thinks of themselves as one of the “good guys”. Everything else is just a matter of perspective.

I suppose that ISIS -- easily the most “evil” organization in the news today -- thinks that killing civilians is a small price to pay to accomplish their larger goals. We all make these trade-offs, even if ours are not as dramatic. Our military attacks a target when they judge that the risk to civilian lives is sufficiently low -- not zero. Heck, I drive to work, knowing full well that my car is contributing to the Earth’s pollution.

So what are your definitions of evil and villain? Do they differ from mine?

Evil: Satisfying your own needs without regard for others.
Villainous: Doing evil things.

The strangest thing about imagining evil in this context is that it turns one of our most cherished beliefs on its head. This may be hard to swallow, but bear with me for a moment.

One nearly universal belief we share is that newborn babies are pristine and pure. That we are all born innocent and that any evil traits we have as adults are things that we have picked up along the way. That this world is a filthy, evil place, and that if we aren’t careful, that it will rub off on us.

But I propose that reality is quite different from how we wish to view it. That, by my definition at least, infants are the most evil form of humanity. I’m not blaming them for anything, but we are all born at the peak of our helplessness. We are in that moment as needy as we will ever be. We are also incapable of helping others.

It is hard to explain the looks of shock and horror I receive when I suggest this. “That’s horrible!” people shout. “What an awful outlook on life!”

But is it?

Imagine for a moment just how I view the world… That we are all born evil, and then are immersed in a world full of wonder and good. As we grow, we learn how to be good. We learn to share. We learn that despite how much we might want something, that it may be wrong to take it. We learn that the people around us are just as important as we are, and that we mustn’t hurt them just to satisfy our desires.

True, some people fall short and don’t learn to be good growing up.

But thankfully, most of us do.

Gun Culture

It was the day after the Christmas Party Massacre in San Bernardino when a friend of mine asked if I was pro-gun or anti-gun -- as if my stance could only be one of two, Schrödinger’s cat possibilities.

I’ve never owned a gun, but I’m certainly not anti-gun.

I’ve spent a few weeks in a country where civilians were not allowed to own guns. All the homes, save for the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich, were sheathed in bars and padlocks. It seemed only weird at first glance, but when you had to unlock a padlock, go through a gate, and then relock the padlock behind you whenever you entered or left, it turned out to be surprisingly distressing.

Here I was, a prisoner in my sister’s house. It’s not that I had anywhere to go, but without her key I couldn’t even step out the door if I wanted to. What if there was a fire? I couldn’t jump out a window, they were all padlocked too. It was a surprisingly claustrophobic experience.

But Malaysia had its share of the poor and desperate, and without guns as a deterrent, thieves had no reason try to sneak in and out unseen. If they could find a way in, the simplest way for a young man to rob a home was to simply wake the family and hold them at knifepoint until they were given all of the owner’s valuables.

Yikes! That possibility was even more unsettling than self-imprisonment.

So I am glad that I can own a gun and that American thieves have a reason to be wary of me. Sure, our lax gun laws have not eliminated robberies and home invasions, but I do not live in fear. When homeowners interrupt a burglary in the U.S., the thieves usually run away.

That said, I am by no means pro-gun.

America has a mysterious love-affair with the gun; a dysfunctional gun culture.

I don’t think less of my friends that own a hunting rifle. I don’t pity my friends that keep a handgun in their bedroom. These people have made well-informed decisions about the ownership of a very dangerous weapon. They keep their firearms locked up and have made a conscious tradeoff between security and the risk of an unintentional discharge -- of property damage, the injury or even death of an innocent.

But I am wary of my friends who carry guns with them, of friends who have hidden guns throughout their homes so that they are never more than a few steps away from access to deadly force. Gun ownership has a strange effect on the psyche. And although these “gun enthusiasts” may view the rest of us as living in fear, I refuse to accept that as reality. It seems to me that those who fetishize weapons of mass violence are far more likely to respond to the unknown with unwarranted aggression, to risk aggravating situations that could have been diffused otherwise.

What would have happened if George Zimmerman had not been carrying a gun while on neighborhood watch? It’s impossible to say for certain, but I believe a very different story would have unfolded. When the 911 dispatcher told George that police were enroute and that he should not confront 17 year old Trayvon Martin, he probably would have listened.

I remember being a teenager and how I was angry at the world for thinking that I was up to no good when I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was confrontational too. Trayvon certainly had a chip on his shoulder and was looking for a fight. Perhaps the same sad outcome was inevitable, even if it had been the police who stopped the hooded teen to find out what he doing that night.

But I bet George wishes now that he hadn’t been emboldened by a 9mm Kel-Tec.

Stories like that of George and Trayvon are actually commonplace in America. Most don’t end in a death, and so aren’t sensational and newsworthy, but I think they are important to note just the same. A work buddy who flips off a road-raging motorist, a friend who takes a gun from his glove compartment because another customer at a gas station is stressed out… have these people protected themselves or escalated a non-event towards something that could have been tragic?

Politicians are deeply divided on how to fix America’s gun problem. Perhaps the laws do need to change to make it harder for dangerous people and potential criminals to get a gun legally, but laws are not going to change this gun culture.

How do you change a culture? I don’t know. I’m no philosopher and I’m not a parent, but I suspect the answer lies in how we raise our kids. If we taught our kids that guns don’t solve problems, they create them; perhaps they would grow into adults that were just gun owners, instead of disciples of the gun, instead of worshippers of mass-produced false-gods.

Some of them might even trust mankind enough to forgo owning a weapon at all.