When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed

Yes, I know that’s a quote and rip-off from Walt Whitman’s elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, but it also expresses my feelings about the lilacs in my front yard. I confess that I love the scent of lilacs, and I look forward every year to their blooming… and four out of five years I’m disappointed. This year is no exception. After two months of spring in winter, yesterday, just as the lilac blooms began to open, the temperature dropped to twenty degrees and it began to blow and snow, and it wasn’t just a few flurries, but a good half foot. Most years where we live, it’s like that. No matter when the poor lilacs attempt to bloom, it snows, and I don’t get to enjoy their fragrance.

Last year, I planted more lilacs, a slightly different variety, and put some of them in more sheltered locations. It didn’t matter. When you have temperatures in the twenties and winds over fifty miles an hour, and snow coming down hard, the lilac blooms don’t stand much of a chance. Now, of course, in two days, the temperatures are forecast to be back in the sixties, but that’s a bit late for the lilacs.

Houseman had it right, except his cherries seemed to bloom without fail every spring; my lilacs face much longer odds.

Still… there’s always next year,

But the lilacs remind me that those rare times of beauty, whether floral or otherwise, are to be cherished, because no matter how things are planned, especially where beauty is concerned, you can’t count on anything except what’s there at the moment to enjoy.

Wagging the Dog

Last week Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team, issued a blistering attack on the NCAA, declaring that college basketball was “horrible” and “ridiculous,” and that the college game wasn’t preparing college players for the professional game played in the NBA.

Cuban may well be right about how inadequately college basketball prepares players for the pros, but his attack illustrates two enormous problems with American colleges and universities and an equally large problem with American business.

The first problem is why colleges and universities are paying enormous sums of money to field sports programs at a time when the cost of a college education has gone through the roof. No matter what anyone claims, college sports don’t pay for themselves. No doubt some particular sports at given universities might, but given the new contract awarded to Urban Meyer [over $5 million annually] by Ohio State, I have my doubts about even that.

The second problem is that not only does Mark Cuban regard college as a vocational school, but so do most state legislatures and students, and the problem there is that in today’s fast-moving and ever-changing society and business culture most students can expect to change professions a minimum of seven times, if not more. For them to be successful throughout life, they need more than a single set of skills. They need critical thinking and decision-making skills, not to mention written and verbal communications skills – all of which are skills sadly lacking in far too many college graduates, even for a significant percentage of those obtaining graduate degrees.

Cuban’s comments also illustrate an on-going basic problem with not only the professional sports businesses, but American business in general. They all want someone else to do the hard work of training and screening potential employees, and a college education largely fulfills this requirement. In the past, a large portion, if not all, of this training/screening was paid for by state legislatures through state tax revenues, but state funding as a percentage of each student’s education cost has dropped to an all-time low.

In effect, Cuban wants someone else to train his players at their cost, and he’s complaining that the NCAA isn’t meeting his standards. So sad…

Helicopters and Profitability

All too many years ago, I was a Navy pilot who flew helicopters both for odd utility missions and then for search and rescue off a carrier. Back in those ancient days, the first “big” helicopter I flew was the Sikorski H-34, the last front-line helicopter to use an internal combustion engine – the nine-cylinder Wright 1820 Radial. For those of you for whom this conjures no image, the H-34 is the bird that attempts to retrieve Gus Grissom’s waterlogged capsule in the movie The Right Stuff.

The other Sikorski I flew was the H-3, a twin turboshaft powered helicopter originally used for anti-submarine warfare, but many were converted to search and rescue birds during the Vietnam era because the Navy’s principal SAR helicopter – the Kaman H-2 – was originally only a single turboshaft helicopter that lacked the power to do heavy lifting in the high density altitudes of Southeast Asia. I flew the H-2 for a short time as well before transitioning to the H-3.

Like most helo drivers of that time, I loved the Sikorskis. They were strong, durable, and reliable. And they definitely didn’t have all the glitches of the H-2s , about which I wrote a SF story, in a way [“Iron Man, Plastic Ships”].

So… I was rather shocked to learn that United Technologies (UTC), the parent company of Sikorski, is looking at “strategic alternatives” for Sikorski, including spinning off the company as an independent entity. Why? Because its projected annual growth rate is only 3-5%, and its profit margin is only 10% – on annual revenues of $7-8 billion, compared to 15% for Pratt & Whitney, the other principal division of UTC . Although Sikorski has an order backlog of $49 billion, more than any other military helicopter manufacturer in the world, and firm orders and deliveries scheduled into the late 2020s, this apparently isn’t profitable enough for the suits at UTC, despite the fact that Sikorski just landed over a billion dollar order from the Indian navy.

One of the oldest helicopter manufacturers in the world, with solid profit margins, and lots of future sales, isn’t making enough money. And Sikorski builds really good helicopters. But apparently, making solid profits and producing an outstanding product isn’t enough for corporate America.

And that’s more than sad.

“Good” Fiction Writing

There’s currently a kerfuffle over the “Hugos,” otherwise known as the World Science Fiction convention’s annual awards for best writing, art, etc. The uproar lies in the fact that one group agreed on a “slate” of novels, short stories, novellas, editors, artists, etc., eligible for the award and legitimately used social media and the rules for nomination to essentially overwhelm the traditional members. The upstart “Sad Puppies” movement did this because, if I understand the matter accurately, they felt that the “traditional” voters were more interested in diversity and social issues than story itself, which is apparently why they labelled those traditional members/voters as SJWs [social justice warriors].

From where I stand on the fringe of this literary internecine kerfuffle, the conflict boils down to the contention by the Sad Puppies that the SJWs have essentially marginalized “story” in F&SF fiction writing while giving awards for non-story concerns such as multi-culturalism, gender diversity, and other liberal beliefs. The so-called traditionalists seem to believe that “good” fiction requires more than merely plot and action.

That’s probably a simplistic summary, but I think that’s the gist of the conflict, in which case the issue is really over just what it takes for fiction to be really good.

As often occurs, I find myself firmly in the middle, because I find straight “action” stories or novels, no matter how intricate the plot, and no matter how clean the style, rather shallow. On the other hand, I find anything that is used that overshadows the characters and the story to be excessive. Yes, there is a place for multi-culturalism, diversity, sexual/gender issues, or any number of environmental and political issues – but only if they’re an integral part of what affects the characters and the development and resolution of story and plot.

I also don’t think that writing an issue-oriented novel for the sake of the issue usually results in the best fiction. I write about women and their issues because, with my background, I’ve been surrounded by intelligent and highly competent women with stories to tell. Likewise, with a long history in politics and environment, I know the stories to be told there, but I never set out with “an issue” as the main focus of a book. The issues arise because of the characters and the story, not the other way around.

So my feeling is that issues shouldn’t drive the story, nor is a novel or a story that ignores the issues that would arise in such a setting anything more than wish-fulfillment escapism – and there’s nothing wrong with that… except that escapism that ignores the issues that should be there if the whole story were told usually fails to be the best fiction, perhaps the best escapism, but not the best fiction.

The Vision of Tomorrow?

Do the people of the United States have anything close to a common goal for the future of the country… or of the world?

From what I’ve observed, there is a welter of conflicting goals, and the vast majority of those goals are highly personal, and most could be reduced to two words: “more” and “celebrity.” That is, most people want more of everything, and they want to be famous… or at least become “someone.” And there is also a large contingent of people who just want to be “happy.”

Now, I’d be the last one to deny personal ambition, but I’d like to point out that the big problem with these three “goals” is that people seeking them directly will almost always fail. They’re all by-products of other acts and ambitions. Yet more and more my wife the university professor sees students with these sorts of general and vague visions and goals. When I was young, a long time ago, young people had much more specific and focused ambitions. They wanted to be doctors, professional athletes, pilots, president of the United States, or to build houses or buildings, to be the first man or woman on the moon. The focus was on accomplishments, not upon the results of accomplishments.

There are still young people with specific accomplishments as goals, but there are far fewer of them. Equally unfortunate is the fact that virtually no national politician or aspiring politician seems able to articulate a clear vision of a future for the nation except in general terms, such as “to return to the values of the past” or “to be a force for good in the world” or “to strengthen our nation and economy” or “to seek equality and fairness” and so forth.

Exactly how are we supposed to accomplish any of these, even assuming that they’re worthwhile, and I have grave doubts of that in the case of some of these general platitudes?

Any policy or goal that’s specific seems to get shot down before it can even be discussed. Rebuild our infrastructure? Too expensive. Enact measures to stop global warming? Also too expensive, and besides we couldn’t really do anything. Improve health care for those who lack it? You can see what happened there.

All of this raises a more fundamental set of questions. Do we really want leadership and challenges? Or do most Americans just want “more” ?