The language of the camera

I have some more serious thoughts about our slow-rolling world war sitch, but they will keep. Here instead is a gallery of shots from recent mornings and walks.

I have hung some orange halves in the hope of attracting orioles, but my expectations are extremely moderate. But to my joy, the white-throated sparrows are back. I haven’t so much as glimpsed one in the years I’ve been here, but ever since I found out who sings their sweet song, I’ve listened out for them in the spring and fall.

Meanwhile I’ve cleared off my deck in preparation for this year’s garden. I wonder if there are blue and yellow flowers that will grow in shade?

The Mudsillers

Last week I posted about the despicable aims of authoritarians both at home and abroad, and how our definition of “The Bad Guys” has to recalibrate for a new age. Since then, I’ve discovered more about what that means. Yes, it’s a new age, and old terms are not a perfect fit. But the past is prologue to the story we’re in now.

This week in the war in Ukraine:

These conscripts dug trenches in the Red Forest of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and probably got their lifetime rads, and then some, within the hour. Some reports say they didn’t even know what the Chernobyl complex was when they occupied it. What a boneheaded move, one might say. What terrible tactics. And how can you not know what Chernobyl was?

But it turns out that it’s really quite simple. The Russian command simply does not regard the safety or support of its rank and file, and this is, I am told, a longstanding posture going back to the USSR. They throw bodies at their theatres of war until they win — or founder. According to President Zelensky, he tried to get Russian command to collect their dead from the streets of contested cities; they wouldn’t.

Surely this can’t be true — it’s too horrifying. But the evidence piles up in independent reports and social media uploads; and the treatment of cities like Mariupol, a testament of rubble to undeniable war crimes, confirms the logic. These conscripts are trained in trauma that apparently makes Full Metal Jacket look like a stroll in the park; shoved across the border with armor and provisions that are the crumbs left over from grift; and bid to pay forward as much cruelty as they can. And many of them do.

To be honest, though I consider myself as a writer to have a fairly robust invention of horrors, I had simply never conceived this. Cruelties toward the enemy, I could imagine; but not a corresponding abyss of disrespect for one’s own troops. Even in Ann Leckie’s Justice trilogy, the Radch empire’s ancillaries are fed into the maw of war only after being converted from human POWs to ships’ apparatus.

But there is one aspect of those books that illuminates this real-world enormity. Early in Ancillary Justice, two officers are talking about ancillaries and the imperial project. One officer, who is of a much higher caste than the other, says: “Here’s the truth: luxury always comes at someone else’s expense….When you grow up knowing that you deserve to be on top, that the lesser houses exist to serve your house’s glorious destiny, you take such things for granted. You’re born assuming that someone else is paying the cost of your life. It’s just the way things are.” The way things are is a statement with religious overtones in Radch society; it is pious to believe that both luxury and misery are wholly deserved by the people who experience them.

This has a direct correspondence in real life to the idea of the mudsill people, an analogy devised by a South Carolina senator to not only justify but celebrate the institution of slavery. The mudsill, the lowest foundation of a building that keeps it stable and protected from the elements below, is essential to the stability of the building; as southern landowners saw it, some groups of people had a divinely ordained destiny to be the sill plate for their metaphorical houses. Slaves were slaves because they deserved it as inherent inferiors to the people who lived on their backs.

Thus while many arguments in democratic societies center around how to develop the economic and social infrastructure to eliminate reliance on groups as mudsills — sweatshops, migrant fruit pickers, miners, factory and food service workers, to name a few — authoritarians are infuriated to see anyone escaping mudsill status and are determined by any means possible to undo all safety nets, all acknowledgments of minority rights, and all the operational structures that make people freer.

If your very sense of self depends on having people set below you and degraded for your benefit and convenience, then no doubt the flourishing existence of healthy democracy is an existential threat. If you regard a sovereign nation as neither sovereign nor a nation, no doubt you will do colossally stupid things like invade it with a picked-over force and camp out in a nuclear exclusion zone of your predecessors’ own creation. But just because it’s colossally stupid doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. And just because it’s not our cities being shelled doesn’t mean we’re not in it up to the eyeballs. We might equip and train our army better, but we’re fighting mudsill malevolence just as much here as Ukrainians are there.

We have less to fear than the mudsiller authoritarians. But we also have more to lose. Look to your sovereignty, and watch your neighbor’s back.

Now the green blade riseth

The thing about the impossible, is that it continues being impossible right up until it isn’t anymore.

That goes for many kinds of things, and it cuts in more than one direction. But right now I’m mostly thinking about world events. There are tipping points accumulating in all sorts of places, and suddenly I don’t think we’re fighting a rearguard action against fascism, cruelty, and cynicism. I think we have a potential for a rout on our hands. But we have to build up the possible.

When an online friend asked his audience, “What do you think you can do, right now?” — he was crowdsourcing answers to get a full perspective on the current state of the possible. I thought of what another friend has been saying about the videos of songs and performances coming from within Ukraine and outside of it: that music is resistance. Every platoon has its ditty; every arena has its chant; every polity has its anthem, to be sung in times of joy and times of anger. Lift every voice and sing — or if you have to, lift every chair and swing!

So what I’m focusing on is art, as nourishment of the possible. I’m thinking of ways to mobilize the art at my hands — whether that’s buying it, playing it, displaying it, or writing it — to continue compiling substance toward that tipping point. And if this idea speaks to you, I encourage you to do it too. Or — if you have a different idea of how you would build up the possible: do that.

If this idea coalesces into something more organized, I’ll update here. Watch this space.

Fresh as the shriven snow

Happy Mardi Gras to all who celebrate, and may your Lent bring you a blessing. Lent, in its original incarnation, was the time set aside for those preparing for baptism into the Church; since I spent most of Epiphany season preparing for a medical procedure, Lent’s arrival doesn’t feel like an ambush to me this year. My house is clean, my larder stocked, I did my errands (carefully), avoided covid exposure, and took lots of “prehab” walks. Now the procedure is in the rearview and so far, the prep work has been paying off.

Something else is different about Lent this year: I’ve come out of the pandemic with a changed perspective. Not a change in beliefs or opinions, really — but a re-saturated perspective on what it means to take on penitence.

In Dante’s Purgatorio, the first thing Dante is bid to do is wash his face with dew, reflecting a doctrine that we don’t really subscribe to anymore: the doctrine that the first duty of a penitent is to be cheerful. It’s always seemed so weird to me that the gospel for Ash Wednesday is the one from Matthew about not making a big production about it when you are fasting or giving alms — as we have ash crosses drawn on our foreheads and put the kneelers to extra use and play hymns in a minor key.

But shouldn’t we be sorry for our sins? I hear the reproach. Why, certainly — but isn’t it so relieving to get started tidying up, to begin pointing one’s feet toward home! Shouldn’t we remember that we are but dust? Yes, but why the long face about it? I just watched a TikTok video of a young Ukrainian girl demonstrating how to start, drive, and make off with a Russian tank. I bet she remembers she is but dust: and the video was funny as hell.

In a time when some people are demonstrating how unrepentantly wicked they’ve chosen to be, I think it is imperative that any penitence we undertake is purposeful, to the point, and above all cheerful. We are good. People are good. We might feel broken from time to time, but nobody is broken on a fundamental level. I escaped thinking that about myself, and I am determined to free the other prisoners.

Pancakes today, fasting tomorrow: and a smile for both.

Cat paralysis Sunday

Or, well, the cat is doing her best, but I’ve been doing laundry and collecting up recycling this afternoon, so she had to wait for me to flop back down to seize her chance.

Here is a gallery of recent photos taken on walks and for morning shots.

I’ve been doing some work to make Future Me’s life easier — decluttering the house, removing a science experiment from the fridge, stocking up to cook more at home again — all of which makes Present Me happy too. The pandemic really helped it to sink in that all those polymaths and prolifics in past ages had wives to take care of all the logistics of living for them; and if they were wealthy, they had servants too, and didn’t have to work a full-time job. Having accepted that working full-time, maintaining my own household, and also writing prolifically is not a reasonable expectation, I find it easier to savor the little victories. Plus, I’ve got more threads of the skein in my hand, and with luck, I’ll soon see the striations of the plot of TLT work together better.

Well, we can hope. Happy Sunday!

Monday miscellany

First, a small gallery of recent photos:

I’ve been bitten by the Clutter Bug and have started systematically going through my house to clear off surfaces one by one. I hope to have reduced the surging piles of stuff in the next couple of weeks. So in a similar spirit of neatening, here are a couple links to things I have been enjoying during the time I neglected the blog.

If you have not already been following it, NASA and its peer institutions in Canada and Europe launched the James Webb Space Telescope on Christmas Day. It has now been fully deployed and inserted into orbit around the Lagrange 2 gravity point, and is now in cooldown mode prior to starting its mission. You can keep track of Webb’s progress here.

My favorite Youtube fact purveyor did a recent roundup of the life of Mary Shelley on the Biographics channel, following one he did on Byron, my guilty favorite of the Romantics. Thanks to yet another video on his Geographics channel, we can thank Mount Tambora and the Year Without a Summer for the epic rain in Switzerland that stuck Byron, the Shelleys, and John Polidori indoors and forced them to come up with a couple little things like, you know, Frankenstein.

I attended a KC Symphony concert recently which included on the program Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by a young guest conductor who has a podcast on classical music, which I highly recommend, even if like me you haven’t always got the attention span for podcasts. You can find out how Shostakovich saved his life and the life of his family in Stalin’s regime by the writing of this symphony here.

And finally, a link to a website I intend to come back to and talk more about in future posts — A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, which is pretty much what it says on the tin: a youngish professor of Roman history comments on SFF media and books, among other things. I really want to write a full-length post on his series on The Fremen Mirage and the worldbuilding pitfalls it creates — because when do I not want to talk about worldbuilding? — so I’m leaving this link here to remind myself.

(Also, having read a good portion of the interesting articles on the site, I notice that our pedant has a Patreon, as so many folks do these days. Very enterprising, but then he’s very disciplined about posting weekly.)

And that’s the roundup for today.

The turned page

Oh, hello, 2022. Didn’t see you come in, there.

I’m not sure I have anything evaluative to say about 2021, other than that for me it was the year of adrenaline blowback. I did a bit of mental writing and not much else besides watch a lot of recuperative television and obsess over the La Palma volcano.

But the volcano is done erupting, a new year has come, and change is in the wind. I wouldn’t say I feel existentially rested, but the promise of forward momentum on several fronts has lifted my senses a bit.

All of which has reminded me that I have a website that deserves a steady infusion of Genuwyne Quality Content. So here is a small gallimaufry to kick off the new year.

A thing I started doing early last year was to take a handful of photographs while my tea was steeping, and then post them to Facebook as a start to the day. Over the ensuing months I’ve collected quite a few photographs, anywhere from five to ten a day depending on how many interesting things I found in my environs every morning. I have toyed with posting a regular selection here, but didn’t want to commit. However, the server changes from last winter are complete, and I’ve discovered I can upload images from my phone. So here’s an initial selection of morning pics from recent weeks.

But although I did not commit to posting images to the blog, I did start and maintain a mini-newsletter for my readers. Each missive contains my favorite of that morning’s pics; a link to some magpie thing of interest; and a brief meditation, a rumination on my current writing labors, or a (we hope, dear reader, entertaining) bout of recreational complaining, plus the occasional doting dispatch on the antics of my cat. Most if not all of the images above appeared in Morning Lights.

What I’m saying here is that even if this blog falls into neglect again, you can still get a little Morning Light in your inbox every day, for free, without having to look me up on Facebook and hope their thrice-cursed algorithms actually show you the morning pics I post. (Every creator you know is bitter about Facebook.)

I might expand the scope of my newslettering in the future, but for now, I’m keeping it simple. Meanwhile I leave you with the latest custom ambient noise generator I’ve made on MyNoise: Consort of Stars, a homage to the vibrations of stars and galaxies across the universe.

And at the moment, that is all the news that’s fit to print.

An autumn poem

It’s a beautiful fall day, with the wind shaking leaves out of the trees and carrying them where they will. So I’m in the mood to post an old poem of mine on the same theme, along with a few of my morning pics. Enjoy!

Temperance: To the Artist (Psalm 147)

The scent of rain sidles in
As you notice the wet spots appear on the pavement:
First one, then three, then many,
Then they overlap, then the light dry spots
Are the exception. Before you know it,
Your hair is wet and the runnel of water
Is flowing along the curb.
You put your bare foot into it,
And watch it change the flow.

At Christmas you lie in bed,
Looking rapt out the window.
Outside the dark, quiet house
The sky is a silent riot of stars,
The Big Dipper huge and haloed,
Vincent van Gogh having his way with nature at last.
You trace its lines with your finger
Before you close your eyes.
Van Gogh was on to something.
Even if things break loose and roll
In your cluttered attic,
You can’t stop the stars from singing.
They will sing all night long,
While you sleep draped in the window-shaped
Quilt of starlight.

In the fall when the wind moves
And the leaves tumble like confetti,
You must have noticed what beauty
There is in the throwaway gesture.
A leaf, brilliant red, in the wet street,
Run over by all the neighborhood cars,
Is still a study in careless perfection.
The work of the leaf is to grow;
The art of the leaf
Is to fall.

The stories you tell are like this.
You know to wait for the unforced gesture,
The quick-dealt outflung pirouette
Which may be seen by only a few
Or none at all. You wait for the thing
That is complete and perfect even in its flaws,
For the thing that knows itself as you toss it out
To be caught by the wind and carried away,
Lost to you and therefore never lost.

Sometimes the waiting is hard.
But it’s the only way you know
To imitate the one you love.

Well, we persevere

I’ve been neglecting my blog — it’s one of the hazards of blog-keeping, but I have been preoccupied with a lot of quotidiana lately, and all you who are signed up to Morning Lights have been getting small bulletins on how writing is going. I’m tempted to say that the short version is “Not great, Bob!” — but really, this is a recognizable stage in any project of mine, so the distress is minimal. To go back to the gardening metaphors, it’s not usually a good idea to dig up plants to see how they’re getting on.

Woke up this morning to the depressing news that the reviewer assigned to Ryswyck for an indie contest I entered has DNF’d it.

It’s true that everyone who has finished the book found it “exponentially rewarding” as one reader termed it. But I can’t hang over everyone’s shoulder urging them to go on reading — can’t, shouldn’t, don’t want to. I find myself in the position of being unable to repent my artistic choices, but knowing they have their consequences, and a depressing DNF percentage is one of them. Well, it was a long shot anyway, and as an old internet acquaintance said, we persevere.

I admit when things like this happen I wonder why I am bothering with this enterprise; but as soon as the thought takes shape its answer is already apparent. This is my vocation, and I can’t not do it. I think we think that if someone has a vocation that its truth will be proved by its success, that deserved fame and fortune is an ontological marker for what you were meant to be doing. But, as long as I’m breathing, I’m making up stories and finding ways to put them out in the world for others to find and enjoy and be lifted by. It doesn’t really matter if the work is bad, and I don’t think mine is. For a writer, writing — like blood — is compulsory.

Anyway, when I run into things like this, I give myself ten to thirty minutes to have a panic attack or a despairfest or a hot flush, and then I carry on.

In other news, my photography kick has extended itself now that I have a good phone camera, and I’ve wanted to post galleries on here to go with my daily selection for Morning Lights. I haven’t had the bandwidth to make selections from what’s becoming hundreds of photos, but if I sat down once a week or so to pick a half dozen I really like, it might be a way to keep the rhythm up here. If I want to. We’ll see. Post-pandemic life is a vast improvement on this time last year, but it does throw into sharp relief the stamina one doesn’t have. The bandwidth may just all go into writing, in which case I must beg my readers’ indulgence.

And so it goes.