The Loss Leader of Life

Seems to be growing well.

Every New Year I vow to attack this blog with great vigor, resolving to update it at least once a week with reports of my adventures and successes which I assure myself are many and sundry. And for a while this goes as planned. Then summer arrives and I am reminded of the projects and endeavors I swore to do as I peered at the yard through rime-laced windows and it all goes out the door. Figuratively. Literally.

Which is how it should be. There are only so many days in a year, only so many of which are warm and pleasant, and I am less grasshopper than ant. Over at UncMo my friend Christina, who is a thousand times more articulate than I am, has recently embraced the freelancer lifestyle in which “every hour has to be accounted for.”

The upshot is, every hour is billable to something. Your livelihood. Your loved ones. Your sanity. Your soul. Remember that’s always true, whether you’re freelance or not: Every hour is billable.

So running and paddleboarding and building and maintaining gardens and manufacturing tiki bars with the sons and performing various minor household upgrades and binge-watching Jessica Jones and working for money and sometimes — sometimes! — actually writing something for submission has not left much time for dear old bloggy. And yet at odd moments I have tightened a few gaskets. I reorganized the Clips page to highlight the good stuff. I truncated my biography on the About page. (True story: more than one venue has identified me as an “archaeologist” even though I haven’t performed practical archaeology in 14 years. I prefer short one- or two-sentence bios to accompany my byline, and always justified my longish About page for those who took the trouble to click over to learn more about me. Alas, this seems to have confused some people who think studying archaeology as an aid to one’s historically themed writing is the same as doing it as a profession — so out went the education along with other superfluous details). I still don’t know what to do with the Genericons in the lower right corner; I don’t like them but haven’t found a substitute.

The garden smells of basil, the arugula is as light and sweet as cotton candy, and the pumpkin vines are already out of control. I PRed a 5K last month. The garage sports a fresh coat of paint. The Sound is warm and perfect for swimming.

 

Schemes of the Blackest Dye

Next Thursday I’ll be a panelist at the Fairfield Museum for a discussion of espionage in Connecticut during the Rev War. I’ll be joined by UConn’s Rachel Smith, who dissects the show TURN at her blog, TURN to a Historian, and Black Rock historian Robert Foley.

From Nathan Hale to the Culper spy ring to conspiracies big and small, Connecticut and the coast of Long Island seethed with skulduggery in large part because only about two-thirds of the population felt the red, white, and blue — the rest still pledged fidelity to the House of Hanover. Smedley and friends once caught some Loyalists on the Sound who, upon interrogation, confessed a “Scheme of the blackest dye”:

John McKey of Norwalk later testified that on April 15, a Charles McNeill of Redding approached him saying that a colonel in the British army had in his possession lieutenant’s commissions for each of them. The British were galvanizing the loyalists into a fifth column to be called the Royal Americans. Their first job was to construct an intelligence network that would relay information about Continental troops to the British.

Plots! Treachery! Whaleboat battles! Next Thursday, April 7, at the museum. It’s free! modestly priced!

Domo Arigato Mister Paychecko

Maria points the way.
CC BY Havelbaude, remixed by DJ Jax K

A few weeks ago I received the news that my role at my bread-and-butter freelance gig has been automated. The job — which is a mishmash of coding, editing, and technical writing — has increasingly been my work focus over the past five years, and yet by the end of 2016 it will be performed by computers overseen, presumably, by interns.

Recently while ruminating over robot apocalypses — and I’ll give you one guess why — I questioned the assumption that AIs would necessarily want to kill humans. After all, we haven’t shared the Earth with another intelligent species for about 40,000 years so we shouldn’t assume that two of them couldn’t coexist. Then I recalled that any program is only as smart as its programmers, which is why computers are great for playing chess and winning trivia game shows but immediately out themselves as Nazi nymphos the moment a single degree of emotional intelligence is required. Anything crafted by the hands of shaved chimpanzees will naturally be obsessed with murder and fucking.

I’ve worked in the Internet since 1997 and while I will miss the gig’s sweet, sweet income, I’ve found that layoffs/contract expirations can be blessings in disguise. There’s always the possibility that the automation will be less promising than expected and the work will still require a human touch (again: it’s only going to be as good as its architects), but I choose to believe this is the kick in the pants I need to get back to neglected ideas and projects, primarily long-form nonfiction. Like it or not, the robots are shoving me into a brighter future.

Questionable Advice to Underage Minors

Last Saturday I was invited to participate in History Day, wherein students put together historical projects — papers, documentaries, museum exhibits, websites, you name it — based on extensive research and interviews. The projects are then judged and the winners are awarded something — what, I’m not sure. Towards that goal, the Fairfield Museum and History Center collected a bunch of historians and invited kids from around southwest Connecticut to ask us, one-on-one, for advice and direction.

I’m flattered to have been asked to help out, especially because I was only one of two historians present who didn’t have a PhD after his or her name. Most of the kids were middle-school aged and I was amazed at how deeply some of them had leapt into their subjects, but after the original shock — this was my first experience with History Day — I realized I could provide something the other historians probably couldn’t, namely guidance on finding interviewees and resources like images and how to structure their narratives.

I’ve been asked before to write articles or columns on writing advice. I always decline, mainly because I feel every writer’s methods and path are too particular to be much use to anybody else, and also because I often feel too lost at sea myself to advise others how to navigate. That said, as I sat and talked with the students there were four recurring suggestions that popped up over and over, and maybe it’s helpful to repeat them here in case you, my noble reader, find yourself or your offspring working on something similar.

Make it personal. I felt afterwards that my experience as a parent played a bigger part than my work as a writer or historian. You know how it is: your kid comes home with some grandiose idea for a school project, but when it comes time to sit and do the project with him, the ellipsis between Point A and Point Z becomes abundantly clear. Many of the attendees at History Day simply needed help drilling down to what their end product would be and how they would present it. To that end I recommended identifying a specific person or point in time — or, if the project was biographical, an episode in the person’s life — that is illustrative of the overall history or arc. One young woman was doing her project on the Radium Girls and I advised her to highlight one of the girls in particular. Readers or viewers naturally empathize with individuals and by showcasing one girl’s experience, the student could communicate the broader phenomenon.

Prioritize your content. In research, you always wind up with more information than is germane to your project. All projects have limits, whether it’s a word count or a maximum running time for a documentary or skit, and limits are good because they help structure your narrative. For example, in Smedley I left out a lot of info about Smedley’s post-war merchant trade. To the internal completist it seems a shame to leave stuff out but throwing in everything will get you, and your reader, lost in the weeds. You have to prioritize what to include, and in doing so you give the project an architecture. A zillion biographies have been written about what made Hitler be Hitler. They all work from the same pool of facts but each historian places emphasis on a different aspect: one thinks Hitler was the way he was because he was a failed art student, while the next thinks Hitler was Hitler because of his experiences in World War I, and so on. Each writer arrives at her conclusions by emphasizing or prioritizing episodes or sets of facts over others. Use the scissors. The good news is that the stuff you cut often shows up in other projects. Especially blog posts.

Pick up the phone. Free lunch was included in History Day, which was certainly an inducement for me to attend. As we sat munching, the grown-ups chuckled over how reluctant the kids were *to call* someone on the phone. One young man I spoke to was researching early Fords and how they changed American culture; another pair was doing a project on the Black Sox scandal; and still another couple of students was making a doc about cannibalism at Jamestown. Yet none of them had actually contacted Ford or the White Sox or Historic Jamestowne. I told them that big longstanding companies or franchises like Ford and the White Sox will often have dedicated historians and archives, and places like Historic Jamestowne, whose whole mission is public outreach, will likewise have staff happy to answer questions (especially from kids). It’s always worthwhile to contact a company or group directly to see what they have. Go to their website and look for their media or PR office. Or, worst case, just call their direct number and ask the voice on the other end.

Use your network. The line between history and journalism thins the closer the horizon reaches the present. There are no ancient Egyptians left to interview but if you’re writing about the Beatles as one group of girls was, then you’re in luck — as I told them, not only are there fifty years of interviews they can mine, there are still people around who’ve met the Beatles (including a couple of actual Beatles). Journalists use their contacts and networks to find and write stories — stories that others can’t write because they have different networks. Mrs. Kuhl’s dad and uncles, who sell sailboats, once sold a boat to John Lennon and even accompanied him on his 1980 cruise to Bermuda, making for some of the best stories I’ve ever heard around a Thanksgiving dinner table. If you’re writing about something that happened within the recent past, ask your family and your network about it. Even if they don’t have any direct contact with the person or event in question, they may be able to direct you toward someone or someplace that does.

On the Wagon

CC BY Dwight Burdette
CC BY Dwight Burdette

Wil Wheaton posted a list of Seven Things I Did To Reboot My Life which might as well be subtitled, Because Now I’m in My 40s. For this guy, all of them hit close to home:

Drink less beer.

I love beer. I mean, I really love it. I brew it, I write about it, I design recipes of my own, and I’ve structured entire meals around what food will pair with the beer I want to drink. The thing about beer, though, is that it’s really easy to just keep on drinking it until it’s all gone …

Like Wheaton, I’m invested in beer culture: I like to collect the glassware and I’m always DTF local craft creations (especially pilsners, which are a terribly underrepresented minority in a world of IPA privilege). But also like him, I’ve lately discovered that drinking alcohol isn’t as easy as it used to be. A good buddy of mine — a friend I used to drink with as a teenager — recently told me he started cutting back on his evening adult-beverage intake because just a couple of beers puts him in a bad mood the next day. I’ve had the same experience, though the following morning I’m not so much grumpy as I am groggy and addlebrained. The reason, Wheaton points out, is due to our metabolizing alcohol as sugar, which means drinking two or three beers at dinnertime is like chugging two or three bottles of Mountain Dew right before bed and then expecting a full night’s sleep to ensue. Even after a pair of seemingly innocuous low-APV drinks I don’t sleep as deeply. As Wheaton says, “it turns out that drinking alcohol to help you go to sleep does not result in good sleep, but does result in feeling like shit when you wake up.” Hence I’ve joined the temperance movement, at least on school nights.

Wheaton’s whole post feels semi-autobiographical for me, from the endorphins produced by writing, to trying to make more time to read, to his preference for running over lifting weights. This is 40, I guess.

NecronomiCon 2015

On Sunday I did something I swore I would never do: I attended a writerly convention.

I’ve mulled attending writers’ cons before but the programming — forums on television shows or movies I’ve never seen or academic panels hashing obtuse literary points — never appealed to me, and the current radioactive climate of genre writing is not an invitation to reconsider my apprehension. But when I learned of NecronomiCon 2015, a celebration of all things H.P. Lovecraft located in Providence, Rhode Island, just two hours up the highway from me, I was tempted. When I also realized NecronomiCon only happens every two years, and moreover 2015 was the 125th anniversary of HPL’s birth, I threw down $30 for a day pass and put gas in the car.

I don’t regret it. A panel on Clark Ashton Smith provided a wealth of biographical details I hadn’t known beforehand, and a later discussion on Lovecraft and philosophy, which ranged from existentialism to the Kantian sublime to Schopenhauer, was a hilarious high point of the day. A sure way to make a cynic laugh is to point out that Lovecraft’s monster-worshipping cultists were just millennialist Christians in bathrobes — the Rapture is great for them but a horror story for the rest of us.

Left to right: Jack Haringa, Phillip Gelatt, Scott Connors, and ST Joshi discuss Clark Ashton Smith's love of strange. And I mean that in the Urban Dictionary sense.
Left to right: Jack Haringa, Phillip Gelatt, Scott Connors, and S.T. Joshi discuss Clark Ashton Smith’s love of strange. And I mean that in the Urban Dictionary sense.

Over at the marketplace in the convention center, I met the super-nice artist Jason C. Eckhardt, who has done work for Chaosium as well as the illustration for the cans of Innsmouth Olde Ale. He said he had received enormous positive feedback at the con and was considering making prints of the Olde Ale artwork. Narragansett Beer also had a booth; their next offerings in the Lovecraft Series will be the Reanimator — a modification of their helles bock — and, in the winter, the I Am Providence stout. I bought some books and a T-shirt, which I suppose are connish things to do.

Reanimator Helles Lager

Yes, Lovecraft has his issues. But you know what else he has? Fun. As H.L. Mencken wrote,

The great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom even ordinarily respectable. No virtuous man — that is, virtuous in the Y.M.C.A. sense — has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading.

I love Lovecraft’s incredible descriptions of New England landscapes, I love his globetrotting mysteries, I love his Jazz Age atmospherics. Decades after first discovering him, I can crack open a Lovecraft story and still thrill as ordinary men become detectives, drawn to uncover dark secrets and cosmic conspiracies at the cost of their lives and sanity. There’s something powerful there, and it was worth $30 and a two-hour drive to reflect upon it for a day.