Meaning in Life

The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everyone rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.
- Alan Watts

It’s been a productive month; I think the choice to reduce my blog check-ins is paying off. Traffic has only dropped off slightly, while my ability to produce new fiction has increased dramatically. Since my last post, I’ve added 8,428 words to my WIP. If I average 600 words per day through the end of March, I will finish my latest novel and be able to ship it off to my editor with plenty of time to manage a May release for Team Alpha. I’m excited to share this opening to a space opera series with the world… even if there is increasing evidence from such hallowed sources as Courtney Milan and Nora Roberts that plagiarists, scammers, and scummy people (book stuffers) have joined the Amazon party and make it increasingly difficult for original fiction to find its audience.

I’m blessed that I have a day job that allows me the luxury of pursuing my creative vision without having to worry too much whether it will ever pay off in terms of sales that (in an ideal world) would offset the costs of bringing quality content to market. In other words, I can subsidize myself–a rare position in the writing world. This may not always be the case, so I’m enjoying it while it lasts.

In some ways, my efforts are also a nod at the generations of female researchers whose names were hidden in notes of thanks rather than being given the authorial credit they would have earned in current practice. The rather odd flip side to that outdated practice was an article that asked readers to carefully consider whether they should take a promotion. A strangely related piece about the harm to business productivity when companies force employees to give up their free time for one reason or another. The article argues strongly for the need to back off from the 72-hour workweek by focusing free time on creative pursuits.

In the realm of more scientific research, a pair of authors dug into the well-known doomsday population predictions from the UN (that by 2100 there will be 11 billion people on the planet, specifically), and found… that the basis for the prediction doesn’t hold water. Reading the article about their provocatively titled book Empty Planet leaned heavily on debunking “everybody knows” style thinking, and speculated that not only is the rate of urbanization but also the rate of female education are outstripping predictions–and both have a significant cooling effect on population growth. Aptly, then, the final article I’ll share this week from those I’ve read recently: An interview with David Dunning on the psychological effect that bears his name: The Dunning-Kruger effect. “Here are the classic findings from the original paper on the effect in graph form. The worst performers — those in the bottom and second quartile — grossly overestimated their ability (also note how the best performers underestimated it).”

In heading back to the writing trenches, I can leave you with the news that my beta readers approve of my direction to date, so I’ll tease you with the opening paragraphs of the story as it currently stands:

At least in space, the air doesn’t smell like despair. Her brother would thump her if he ever heard her say that out loud. Dr. Marina Spitzer grimaced as the g-forces accumulated and she tracked the gauges in front of her eyes.

“So far, we’re still in the green over here.” Three years into their mission and it was still strange to her to use the tongue switch to make the words print out in the chat screen for her team mates. Given the frequency of the slingshot maneuvers they were using to traverse deep space, though, the group couldn’t count on being able to use hand signals or even type on their keyboards.

But it was vital to make sure that the seedlings in her care made it to their destinations hale and hardy, else essential nutrition be missing for the entire team. And for the future of humanity.

Rina argued with her brother in absentia. She was definitely in space—even if she were in a spaceship on her way to the next in the string of planets that everyone left on Earth hoped would suit for starting over. And she imagined she could smell the greenery her dials and gauges were reporting on, as the oxygen they provided filtered throughout the ship.

She imagined him putting on his rebreather mask as he braved the pollution of nuclear winter on his daily trek between the home block bunker and the research institute in Stuttgart. She was out here for Karl as much as for humanity.

Until next time, remember to question your assumptions and live your life for yourself. The rest, as the great Alan Watts points out, is merely crazy-making noise.

More Credentials, for Real

We were born to be real, not to be perfect.

This week I spent three days in class learning about ITIL, Information Technology Infrastructure library (according to Wikipedia)… or IT Infrastructure Lifecycle according to the notes I took from what our instructor told us. A great deal of what was covered hearkened back to the word salad I had to get used to for my PMP. The interesting-to-me distinction is the focus on shifting IT organizations to the service mindset–to the degree that each phase of the lifecycle has service in its name: Service strategy, service design, service transition, and service operation… with continual service improvement sprinkled over and through each of those four segments of work.

Today, then, the interview I responded to by Lorna Suzuki went live. She’s an impressive indie author with the rare credential of having had her trilogy optioned for movie rights. There’s more than a little bit of inner squeeing going on at having connected with her. And she’s consented to submit to interview questions of mine, so look for that post in the upcoming weeks.

Apart from that, I’ve managed to squeak past 39K words in Team Alpha, as well as provided beta reading feedback for two other author friends. For some reason, I’m feeling more connected to the writing community these days… and enjoying it.

Naturally, I’ve also been reading. Not only novels, but also stories that introduced me to existential therapy, a modality that sounds like it matches the kinds of questions hubs and I bat back and forth in our daily lives together. I suspect that validating existential concerns for each other in the way described in that article plays into the intimacy we’ve built with each other.

Then there were the articles that resonated with my feminist heart. The one about the 13-year-old who opened the doors of Stuyvesant HS to females 50 years ago felt vaguely familiar to me, a W&L alum who attended that university within 4 years of its decision to go coed. There’s definitely discomfort in kicking open that door, and it’s ironic to me that I’m still doing it to some degree by working in the IT sector.

On the other side of the balancing acts in my life, is the question of cooking. I enjoy it. I do it well. But coming up with recipes that match what’s in the cupboard on a regular basis is exhausting. In a review of the book Pressure Cooker, there is a thoughtful assessment of the unconscious bias and judgment in available cookbooks–and an unexamined classism that accompanies them. It was an eye-opening read that reflected on the nightly exhaustion I feel when coming home from work and faced with yet more decisions about how I might choose to nourish myself.

As we come up to Chinese New Year (lunar New Year, this year on February 5), a friend of mine pointed me to an old evaluation in the Foreign Policy Journal of Asian women born in “bad luck” years. The statistics of how their lives unfolded point to a chicken-egg question of whether there is some kind of esoteric proof of Asian astrological practices and insights, or whether belief in those assertions becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Similarly, more recent news that some Japanese pensioners are committing petty thefts to be able to be sent to jail pointed to a whole other swath of cultural assumptions that might make a westerner cringe.

So I’ll close with a link to the Rejected Princesses site, a collection of women’s biographies (both historic and modern) that don’t otherwise get much visibility. It’s fascinating to see the range and scope of work women have been undertaking through the millennia–much of which gets ignored or actively excised from history.

Until next time, I’ll continue to work toward that balance we all aspire to in our pursuit of being Real.

New Year Thoughts

I get most of my exercise these days from shaking my head in disbelief.

Something about the changing of the years invites an atavistic response to make grand adjustments. As I get older, though, it becomes clearer to me that really, the change from one year to the next is about as stirring as the change from one day to the next. There’s gratitude that we’ve been granted another sunrise, naturally. But January is a dreary month. Quite similar to December, in point of fact. (As I write this, it’s been snowing for 24+ hours, we have more than a foot of snow on the ground at our house, and the county and the Federal governments have shut down for work tomorrow.)

So while big changes aren’t necessarily in the works, I’ve been considering my blog in the past two weeks. It’s not a particularly high-traffic website, and serves primarily to let readers, friends, and family know what’s been going through my head recently. Since it represents very few conversions to sales, and takes several hours to craft each time I post, I will be cutting back the number of posts–likely to once every 2-3 weeks, unless I have a book review I feel compelled to share.

Part of the reason for this has also been an ongoing conversation with hubs about focusing on those elements of our lives that bring us the most satisfaction. As introverts, we face the holiday season with a lot of cringing. Being in loud, boisterous environments is draining–even if there end up being a couple people present who we genuinely enjoy. We started experimenting with just saying no to attending large gatherings. Given how much better we felt, that is likely to continue.

There are other reasons to retreat from a busy social calendar, too. Articles I read recently point to other pitfalls of modern living. One written about the millennial generation, which is younger than both of us, still addressed the stress and burnout we’ve been dealing with… for similar reasons. The reality most authors (and artists) face is that we’re working day jobs and squeezing out productivity from the hours others might dedicate to their extended families and friends, or hobbies done just for the fun of it, not for overcoming the ubiquity of living paycheck to paycheck and looking for additional income streams. Or working in an industry known for its ability to drive women out of its ranks. Unsurprisingly, these stresses in my generation are trickling down to the next generation in even more pernicious ways.

On the flip side, there were a number of articles proclaiming their joy at works with an authorized publication date of 1923 being released into the public domain. (I will be curious to see whether anyone does something creative with Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, which featured on this list.) Similarly, Isaac Asimov made some astute predictions on the eve of 1984 about the nature of our world now. His points about the changing requirements of our workforce in the face of “computerization”, and how those would require changes in education have compelling echoes in the last article I linked to in the previous paragraph.

In news that provokes my scifi author brain, two other articles rounded out my online reading. The first reviewed recent studies in genetics that point to the need for a radical revision of the gene concept: “The utility of the concept of a basic ‘unit of inheritance’ and the long implicit belief that genes are autonomous agents” means researchers are finding much broader context for genes’ activities. In fact, some studies seem to point to the idea that genes are responding to the community of cells around them much more than simply driving creation of their replicas. In my mind, this has a provocative link to the article I read about quantum computers. Recent research in that field indicates the existence of an intrinsic error-correction mechanism that could also explain the robustness of space-time. In 2014, physicists looking to fix the daunting error rates of qubits discovered “a deep connection between quantum error correction and the nature of space, time, and gravity.”

Could it be that genetics and physics are converging on something akin to a holographic view? It’s a question that has my story brain hopping, though I’ve been too busy with day-job related efforts and the remnants of the final few holiday obligations we accepted to do anything much about it. Still, I managed three days of writing so far this month, producing 547 words after a complete stand-still in December. Hubs and I have formed a creative pact to finish what we’re working on by the end of May, so maybe having a partner in art at home will push us both to reach our goals.

The nature of the world being what it is, there is more than a little truth to the graphic I included with today’s post (courtesy of hubs’ Reddit scrolling). I enjoy blogging as a way of tracking where some of my ideas originate or are fleshed out. And as a way of holding myself publicly accountable for progress on my writing. But given the increasing time constraints in our lives, it seems best to focus my efforts further by cutting back on a few things that don’t offer much return. So I’ll be back (here) when the spirit moves me, but I’ll always be around in my books.

Thoughts and Plans

Triathlete: Eating, Reading, Sleeping

It’s officially the last day of 2018 as I start writing this, so my final check-in of the year isn’t even on my regular blogging day. Sometime in the course of this year, my blogging goals shifted on me in a way I’m not entirely clear about just yet. The quarterly ROW80 “sprints” drift in time the same way I do. It’s difficult to feel committed to any of those deadlines when life happens with such regularity.

And yet, I like having a spot to check in–if not weekly, at least semi-monthly. Where I can consider some of the things I’ve read and keep track of old articles that keep bumping through my brain.

In the past week, for instance, medical researchers published a finding about parachutes being useless that highlighted quite a few of the pitfalls of experimental design. And I learned about a charity that makes a practice of buying medical debts in the US to be able to wipe them out. As well as the impact of the ridiculous cost of housing in California, that is pushing more and more people to live out of converted vans. Finally, there was a woman who learned at 50 that her father was not the man she’d been raised to believe he was.

Each of these stories is a unique reflection of the time and place in which I live–as well as being a leading indicator for why I’ve been spending an outsized portion of my time immersed in fiction. According to my Goodreads Reading Challenge page, I’ve read 85 books this year. From what I recall, only one of those was a paperback, and a disproportionate number were romances of various stripes. The original moniker for my blog (A Book A Day) has never been more true than in the past week, as I’ve spent each of my evenings churning through yet another novel. So when I stumbled across the cute image I’m including in this week’s edition on Twitter, it felt entirely appropriate.

This year, despite focusing on a genre that I know will deliver a happy ending, I’ve broadened my stable of favorite authors. I’ve discovered Alyssa Cole, Ekaterine Xia, Holley Trent, CE Murphy, Seanan McGuire, Olivia Dade, and Vivian Arend. Many of these authors are on Twitter, too, so I get treated to their thoughts on other topics (including their various 4-footed friends) as well as the outstanding fiction they produce. I’m thrilled that my old favorites keep coming up with new stories, too. I’m as much of a voracious reader as I ever was, though it’s odd to have numbers that quantify what that means–that it’s not unusual for me to read 2-3 books per week. But getting back to the triathlete image… retreating as thoroughly as I have this year into fiction suggests a level of escapism that means I should probably work for a bit more balance in my choice of pursuits.

Which brings me to a blog post by one of the people in my Triberr groups: How to choose a word for the upcoming year. I’m tempted by several: tranquil, work, balance, and focus. (Though, honestly, that last word now only plays in my head in the evil “I’m hypnotizing you” way that the character in the Marvel “Agents of SHIELD” said it… so it might not mean *exactly* what its dictionary definition is to me anymore.) Hubs and I will be discussing this later today to see whether we can refine a vision for the new year that lets us reach some of our goals.

So I’ll return in the new year with my thoughts and plans and see whether I can find balance in my various interests and pursuits.

Detachment

"Detachment is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you." -Ali ibn Abi Talib
“Detachment is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you.”
– Ali ibn Abi Talib

Our Milwaukee house finally sold last week. Objectively, three months on the market is not bad. However, given all the stress that came with ridding ourselves of terrible tenants, preparing the property for sale, and then crossing our fingers after each of the open houses our realtor held… it’s felt like an eternity of hoping. And then an intense week of scrambling to make sure all the paperwork is signed properly in front of a notary public, and that all the funds are available to cover the shortfall between what the sale price was and what the remainder of our mortgage was. Our buyer got an excellent deal; the house became very expensive for us.

However, as Ali ibn Abi Talib notes so profoundly, there is a significant release in disallowing some thing or circumstance to own you. Your thoughts. Your energy.

So hubs and I have spent the weekend decompressing from the stress of it all–some of which, I’m sure, contributed to the fact that hubs is on his second week of fighting a nasty bronchitis, and I’m a week into a debilitating cold/flu. We cuddled up to watch “The Spy Who Dumped Me” (which had its humorous moments, but wasn’t particularly special–aside from having two female leads in an action/adventure comedy). And the next night, to watch the first handful of episodes in season 2 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” The photography in this show is lush, and whoever came up with the visual idea of flipping the world on the pivot of the points of the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower was a genius. The show continues to have strong dialog and characterization. I love the Susie character. On the other hand, the flippant disregard of the kids as anything other than background props keeps nagging at both hubs and me. The other oddity: The baby in the piece… is maybe a year older than hubs. It’s strange to imagine that such stifling times were actually recent history.

As a related point, I recently read an article about how women were written out of the history of science. Contrast that with reporting in The Atlantic last month about this century’s robber barons: The owners of the Gilded Age of Silicon Valley.

Why is it that even still, as a woman, it’s so difficult to gain some kind of traction within the cultural zeitgeist? Possibly, it’s related (at least in the publishing world I pay most attention to) to what Kameron Hurley wrote about for Locus Magazine: The “everybody already knows” phenomenon… that somehow never reaches the newbies to the conversation. It seems most of this could be explained by a generally human disinclination to share our foibles, false starts, and failures.

But, and this relates back to the pain of coming up with a huge pile of cash to be able to sell our house: fundamentally, as a society, we like to measure success by a bullshit metric: How much money did that thing earn? I say bullshit metric in earnest, because a metric should be applicable in all circumstances. A ruler is never going to measure an inch as anything other than an inch. However, a pile of money? The ways to accumulate (or lose) that are so diverse and range from laudable to execrable, so why (and how?!) would it count as a singular signifier of worth?

So we’ve been philosophizing and reminding ourselves of the happy times we enjoyed in Milwaukee. We’re no longer homeowners, and given how we drained our savings to achieve that, we won’t be for some time again–if ever. But we’re finding value in maintaining the serenity of our home and the health of its inhabitants, so maybe I’m going to be able to return to my WIP again someday soon. And be OK with the fact that there are times in my life when life overwhelms me so I don’t have the energy to sit and write. At least this week, for the day job, I was able to churn out a 10-page research report, so that appears to have loosened the writing cogs to a certain degree. It’s been two weeks since I wrote the 218 words that crossed me into the second half of the story, but thought and words are percolating there again.

As for my other goals, my FitBit says I averaged 8 hours and 9 minutes of sleep last week and 5,578 steps per day.

There are only 10 days left in this iteration of ROW80, so I’m well aware that I won’t be finishing Team Alpha this time around. But I have gotten other things done that needed doing, so I’ll continue putting one foot in front of the other. And I’ll likely report back again next week. Until then, I recommend checking out how the other ROW80ers are doing.

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