Archive for June, 2021

Failure to Follow Through

The other day I read about a 31year-old National Guard veteran who is dying of stage four colon cancer because of two things: excessive exposure to airborne toxic chemicals created by U.S. Army disposal techniques by deployed forces and a lack of effective medical care by the V.A. after discharge from active duty.

I wish this surprised me, but it didn’t. It’s merely a newer version of what happened in Vietnam with Agent Orange and other exposures, and it’s due to a basic flaw in U.S. society. As a society, unless required by law, we never plan to follow through adequately, in terms of both maintenance and funding. Let’s send troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, but don’t plan for safe disposal of waste and damaged or abandoned equipment because it’s either too costly or too dangerous and, especially don’t plan for and fund adequate rehabilitation for those who come home injured and possibly disabled. The failures of DOD and the V.A. in these areas have been exposed and publicized for decades, but nothing has changed that much.

That’s not the only military aspect, either. At one point several years ago, something like thirty percent of military aircraft were unavailable for flight because of the lack of maintenance and spare parts.

But it’s not just about veterans. It’s everywhere. The United States built the greatest highway system ever, but it’s falling apart everywhere, especially the bridges, because there’s never been enough funding for maintenance and repair. The same is true of the electric power grid – especially in Texas. It’s true of dams and water projects.

It’s true in education. We’ve created a system where the only way for most young people can hope for a decent-paying job requires going into debt for years. From what I can tell, almost no one in authority ever seriously asked about the economic, social, and practical repercussions of such a system while it was being created. Nor did anyone ask if “the college for everyone” model made sense for young people or for the nation as a whole.

The principal reason why the college cost fiasco occurred is that almost every state in the Union decided years ago not to maintain the state’s per pupil funding at public colleges and universities while expanding enrollment and facilities (lower state taxes were clearly a higher priority). And it’s often worse than that. At my wife the professor’s university, in order to serve the increased enrollment mandated by the legislature, the university has raised funds for new buildings from donors, but the legislature skimps on maintenance funds for those buildings, and big donors are far less willing to support the less glamorous business of maintenance and support. A previous dean of the library system was removed from his position because he had the nerve to tell the provost that there was no physical way to supply the services demanded by the administration with existing funds. They eliminated his position, but haven’t found any way to fund those services. Now, this year the university has had to cap new enrollment for the coming school year because the soaring price of housing has created a severe shortage of affordable student housing – not to mention housing affordable for anyone in Cedar City who is not comparatively affluent.

The southwest of the United States is suffering the worst drought in 1200 years and reservoirs are at all-time lows. Yet more and more people are moving there every year, and until the last year or so, the politicians and industrial leaders ignored the experts who kept warning of the problem.

And those are just a few examples of the failure to look ahead and to follow-through on commitments.

An Unseen Economic Impact

While public opinion polls currently are less than infallible, at least when they’re attempting to forecast election results, their margin of error is usually within a few percentage points. This means that polls are often not terribly useful in predicting national election results, but they can be very useful in quantifying public sentiment… and sometimes that quantification is frightening… if one considers the implications.

For example, public opinion polls show that roughly half of Americans are unconcerned about election laws that effectively restrict voting access or otherwise give a partisan advantage to one party, including continuing gerrymandering. This group of roughly half of American is much more concerned about infrastructure, immediate pay improvement, and climate change. From what I can determine, more people appear to support Trump’s lie about having the election “stolen” from him than the number who are concerned about election restrictions.

I can certainly agree that for someone unemployed or underemployed, getting a job or getting a better job is of far greater concern than future electoral restrictions, but ignoring current and future election law restrictions is only going to make it harder to improve problems such as inadequate education, wages suppressed by a low federal minimum wage, a crumbling public infrastructure, and the growing challenge of climate change, because the people who back restricting the right to vote, both directly and indirectly, are predominantly the same people who oppose dealing with the problems of low-income, unemployed, or underemployed people. Those who push election voting restrictions are also among those who benefit the most from keeping wages low and who oppose increasing the minimum wage.

Yet far too many Americans fail to understand that restricting voting access, over time, is just as much an economic issue as a legal issue; it’s just not as obvious to most people.

What Doesn’t Happen

Almost all the time, novels – and their authors – are judged by how they depict what happens in their work, and how the protagonists and possibly the antagonists act, either to further or thwart the action. Sometimes, the protagonist must accomplish something against great odds, and sometimes he or she must thwart the diabolical plans of the antagonist.

In real life, however, sometimes there’s a third possibility – that an evil is occurring slowly and inexorably and that very few people are aware of that evil or that they’re aware of the events and don’t see them as evil. As a result, no one does anything, or too few people do anything.

Now, there are more than a few novels where the protagonist appears in such situations and attacks and miraculously and quickly brings the evil and the evildoers to an end. In history and real life, however, that usually doesn’t happen… and when it does, it usually takes time and/or a war or two and also, usually, very few people are pleased with the results.

In the first century or so after the creation of the Islamic faith, women played notable and powerful roles, but as the clerics (male) became more powerful, women became less so and were marginalized on a continuing basis… and few if any men with power did anything about it, certainly nothing that reversed that trend. Now, personally, that strikes me as a growing evil, but it clearly didn’t bother the men of the faith.

Certainly, the western European conquest of North America didn’t seem in the slightest evil to the conquerors even though the results were effectively genocidal as far as Native Americans were concerned, and, from what I’ve seen, even to this day, more sympathy and publicity goes to the descendants of slaves than to Native Americans.

But to write a novel where evil grows… and is either praised or ignored? There are some – such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, 1984, and others – but, face it, how many books as dark as those do most people want to read, especially in stressful times? Most readers want excitement and uplifting stories.

The “problem” with uplifting stories is that they can either become wish-fulfillment escapes or create the idea that change for the better is the norm and that it’s not that hard to accomplish.

So what’s a writer to do?

Forgotten City

The other day I came across an interesting article in Archaeology dealing with an ancient city I’d never heard of – Ugarit. The city was founded around 2000 B.C. on the coast of what is now northern Syria, presumably because it had a good harbor. As an independent city-state located on the northern border of the Egyptian empire and on the southern border of the Hittite empire, for roughly 800 years Ugarit maintained semi-independence and prospered as a trading hub. At some time in the period 1350-1315 B.C. Ugarit became a vassal-state of the Hittite Empire, but remained self-governing, and continued trading with both Egypt and the Hittite Empire, as well as with other Mediterranean lands.

Unfortunately, Ugarit was attacked, burned, and leveled by the “Sea Peoples” in roughly 1185 B.C., during a period when the “Sea Peoples” also obliterated states and cities in Cyprus, Canaan, and Turkey . The area around Ugarit was not reoccupied for almost 300 years, and the ruins of the city were covered and never reoccupied. But because all records were kept on clay tablets, more than 5000 have been recovered since the 1930s, and many have been translated, revealing that the city was a wealthy commercial hub, where five separate writing systems and eight languages were in use simultaneously. Ugarit also boasted a large royal palace and a hundred and fifty foot tall temple to Baal that was likely also a lighthouse towering over the harbor.

Culturally, Ugarit was also different in other ways from neighboring lands. Women had far more autonomy compared to contemporaneous cultures, and records show that women owned property in their own right, that unmarried or widowed women could be heads of households, and that queens had separate estates and held prominent diplomatic and religious positions. Poems and what appear to be scripts for plays with stage direction have also been discovered, written in the Ugaritic language, as well as works from other cultures.

In the century before Urgarit’s fall, the scribes there developed and began to use the first alphabetic system that included signs for vowels, but the destruction of the city was so thorough that no one survived or returned, even to claim buried hordes of wealth, and it was more than two centuries later before the Phoenicians re-developed alphabetic writing.

In reading all that, I couldn’t help wondering how much else was lost, and whether history would have been different if a city-state I’d never heard of had survived.

Review Thoughts

Recently, I read a review of a forthcoming S&SF book that began by trashing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby as a story about insufferable and deeply uninteresting spoiled rich heterosexual white people and their petty self-centered problems. And on the surface, the reviewer is correct. But on a deeper level, Gatsby is also about an ambitious and flawed outsider trying to force his way into the power structure to gain acceptance.

Now whether one likes Gatsby or not, it’s simplistic to characterize the novel as being merely about spoiled rich people, just as it would be simplistic to characterize N. K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season as a future survival story in a world dominated by plate tectonics or Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness as being about survival on a frigid planet inhabited by hermaphrodites.

Yet too many readers and reviewers only consider the superficialities when reading or reviewing books. Currently, marketing doesn’t help either, because good and complex books don’t lend themselves to “elevator pitch” descriptions. And too often, the elevator pitch descriptions, either by the publisher, reviewers, or readers, focus on what can be described simplistically, rather than what cannot, when what cannot be described in simple terms may be what the novel is really all about.

And yes, there are those few, ultra-intellectual reviewers who go to the opposite extreme and focus on how the author’s psychic traumas and/or personal life (as is most likely the case with Gatsby) are reflected in the “subtext” of the book, or how the writer should or shouldn’t be supported because of his or her or their political outlook, any or all of which, while they may or may not be true, has nothing to do with whether the novel is a good piece of work on its own.

According to studies, “critical” reviews, for the most part, don’t influence sales that much. It’s more likely that sales influence reviews, one way or another. Yet far too many writers, especially those with “literary” aspirations, worry about reviews, which they can’t control, rather than spending that energy on writing the best book they can.

Sloppy

The other night we took visiting family to a very nice local Italian restaurant, one that, while not pricing menu items the way they would be on either coast, would not qualify as inexpensive anywhere, except perhaps in comparison to Michelin starred restaurants.

Everyone in our group was dressed in a fashion I’d call tasteful casual, the women in dresses or blouses and trousers, the men in slacks and collared shirts. The restaurant is enclosed and air-conditioned and was close to full. Not a single man besides those in our group wore a collared shirt, and several inhabited shorts or trousers that either swallowed them or which they barely fit into. Most wore flip-flops or tennis shoes without socks. And the T-shirts had generally seen better days. Hell, the T-shirts I do yardwork in were in better condition than some I saw in the restaurant. The women weren’t any dressier, either.

When we took our daughter and her daughter to the airport, many of those entering the security check point were attired in an even more “casual” fashion.

I’m not talking about well-fitted T-shirts and jeans with sneakers. I’m talking tank tops and too tight shorts revealing too much corpulence in the wrong places and flip-flops.

Now… I realize that I’m certainly less casual than almost any writer out there, since for nine months of the year I write wearing long-sleeved dress shirts and slacks [usually with vests], switching to polo shirts with slacks only when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees F. I do wear boots, rather than sneakers, but that’s because any brand of sneakers I’ve tried hurts my feet. I don’t expect other writers working at home to follow my sartorial preferences [not that many could ever be persuaded], but wearing worn T-shirts to nice sit-down restaurants does strike me as being in bad taste, and it can’t be a matter of money, because people without money can’t afford those restaurants.

Is it the idea of “freedom,” carried to excess, i.e., “I’m comfortable dressing like a slob, and I should have the freedom to be a slob everywhere?” Or is it that good taste or manners are obsolete and considered irrelevant? Or possibly, the flaunting of wealth and power through a total disregard for neatness and taste?

If that’s the “new wealth,” I’m in even greater support of higher income taxes.

Nickeled and Dimed to Death

Last week our son and his wife came to spend a week with us, and a good time was had by all. Said son is the U.S. manager for a small, family-owned, boutique British retail firm, which means he’s financially comfortable, but not extravagantly paid. They flew coach, and his observations on the air carrier were succinct – “They try to nickel and dime you to death.”

For example, although they’d booked their reservations together, when they got to the airport they were told they couldn’t sit together unless they paid another $75. Since the airline going to Utah isn’t the one he flies on business, the baggage fees were $25 per bag. I lost track of the various other fees involved.

His experience is hardly unique. Everywhere I look, there are fees tacked on. Get a new cellphone, even with the same carrier and with the same number, and the odds are you’ll be charged an activation fee – even though said “activation” takes a few minutes at most. I can see such a fee for a new customer… but for an existing one?

Can you even get a new car for the advertised base price? And would you want to drive it? How many people stay with “basic” cable or satellite television services?

Higher education is notorious for such fees. Books, lab fees, activity fees, accompanist fees, parking fees, etc. And I’m sure everyone can cite other examples.

Part of the reason for all those fees is because almost everyone shops for everything on price… and retailers and others use low prices to lure people in, and then tack on the fees, because the initial low prices often don’t even cover costs.

My wife the professor is always amazed at how often university students don’t look at the bottom line when choosing a college or university. A higher-cost more selective university will offer a student what appears to be a significant scholarship, perhaps double what a less prestigious college might offer, but so often the students only compare the scholarship offer and not the bottom-line cost. If tuition is $30,000 a year at university A, and a student is offered a $15,000 a year scholarship, the tuition cost is $15,000. University B, with similar offerings but less prestige, offers a $10,000 scholarship against tuition of $20,000… and the student or family often pick the higher scholarship, even though they’ll end paying [or owing] $20,000 more after four years. Of course, since universities are identical, other considerations have to be weighed, but so many students – and their parents – don’t even think about that.

But… everywhere I look I see this pattern… and how many people fall for it.