Roscoe’s Beef Stew

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Filling and melancholy.

Ingredients:

  • Three pounds of slow-cooked brisket, left over from the second-night Passover seder where you managed to fit fifteen people in one little room for dinner and your wife touched Jew and Gentile alike with her telling of the flight from Egypt.
  • The juices of the same, totaling about two cups, which you rescued by reboiling the shit out of it for about ten minutes.
  • Half a bottle of cheap merlot, because you drank the other half yourself.
  • Three potatoes.
  • Two shallots, the last, slightly wilted survivors of a whole haul of shallots it took both hands to carry inside when you got back from the Quaker New Year’s Gathering with her, laughing and smiling. You squeezed her hand as midnight struck in the middle of the mountains, and some distant bagpipes sounded “Auld Lang Syne.”
  • The last half of the celery she set out to dip in salt-water tears and people didn’t finish.
  • Three carrots, which forms the third of the Holy Trinity, the mirepoix.
  • A pack of white mushrooms, because you are the only one eating this, and no one will mind.
  • The whole contents of a full tea kettle, less the two cups you had with breakfast this morning. She had Mariage Freres, you had builder’s tea.
  • A spoonful of Old Bay from the dented tin that’s followed you to China and back twice.

Instructions:

  1. Put on folksongs of quiet desperation, to fill the silent house with music as you are about to fill the cold kitchen with warmth and the salon with light.
  2. Rescue the gravy of the brisket – boil the shit out of it while you take your boots off.
  3. Pour yourself a glass of that merlot. It’ll taste better as the evening wears on, the aromas mingle, and the sharp edge comes off experience.
  4. Tumble the desiccated brisket into the Dutch oven where you’re boiling the juices, add half the bottle of merlot and the contents of the kettle. Toss in some Old Bay. Cover.
  5. Stab the brisket every now and again with a meat fork, until it starts coming apart under the fork’s ministrations.
  6. Chop the vegetables rough, adding them in order of toughness: first the potatoes and the carrots, then the shallots, then the celery and the mushrooms.
  7. Cover again, turn the heat down to low, and leave it be until the meat comes apart if you look at it funny.
  8. Pour yourself a bowl of thick stew, knowing that no matter how far away she is, she loves you and misses you. Drink a glass of the cheap merlot with it, and toast once for her.
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I regret nothing.


If you’re voting for Bernie…

 

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If you’re voting for Bernie, good for you! I agree with you that Bernie Sanders is the best candidate running, both for the many accomplishments he’s got done in his time in Congress and because of his voting record of consistently voting in the interests of the American people, especially the worst-off Americans. I support him for his well-thought out tax plan, his willingness to confront race issues, and for letting the rest of us democratic socialists out of the red closet.

If you’re voting for Bernie, you’re probably stirred by his message of revolution: “not me, us.” You want to see a more democratic, more just America, where mothers don’t have to choose between nursing their newborns and getting a paycheck, where veterans aren’t begging for change on the street, where CEOs aren’t taking home millions while their workers count pennies. You’re passionate, you’re inspired, you want to change the world.

But if you’re voting for Bernie, voting for Bernie isn’t enough.

If you’re voting for Bernie, you’ve seen the same memes I have, telling you 469 seats in Congress are up for grabs this election. Socialist (or at least socialist-friendly) Senators and Representatives will make President Sanders’ term a lot easier. But do you know who your current Senator and Representative are? Here’s your answer. Do you know who’s running against them? Find out here. Do you know which candidates side with Bernie on issues like minimum wage, antitrust action, and campaign financing? Check their websites! (I’d also peek at their ranking with the Citizens’ Congress.) Now you know, and you can tell your friends and neighbors to vote for Bill Ostrander (or whomever) in the same breath you mention Bernie Sanders. You might even volunteer for those down-ticket campaigns, where every vote counts.

If you’re voting for Bernie, you care about your government and what it’s doing to you and to the rest of us. Get involved in local politics. Your state, county, and especially city governments have a much bigger impact on your life than the resident of the Oval Office – and vice versa. Look up your city council’s agenda for their next meeting, and go speak at public comment. Sign up for a city board or commission appointment, such as Public Works, Planning Commission, Recreation and Parks, or, erm, Citizens’ Finance Advisory Committee. Run for elected office! San Luis Obispo just became the first city in America to get money out of elections and clean up campaigns because of a small group of dedicated citizens. Start there.

If you’re voting for Bernie, you care about working people. Unionize your office  Half the reason we need Bernie in the first place is because capital convinced white-collar workers and service people that we didn’t need unions. But the same laws of economics apply to white-collar jobs as blue-collar: If all you working stiffs are on the same page about demanding a living wage or paternal leave or inclusionary hiring practices, you can win against management. You don’t have to strike, you just have to be willing to negotiate…and be willing to stand with your brothers and sisters when they need you.

If you’re voting for Bernie, you care about the downtrodden members of society. Volunteer a few hours or a few loaves of bread at your local homeless shelter. Organize a #BlackLivesMatter march. Join a campus or city social justice activist group. If you’re church-going, demand your congregation help. If you’re a frat boy or sorority girl, get your brothers/sisters behind you for community service. If you have five hundred Facebook friends, get a tenth of them to show up. Put your skills, time, and resources to making this country more just, more fair, and more equal, so that  we really do have liberty and justice for all.

If you’re voting for Bernie, you want a revolution. One man isn’t a revolution. It can’t just be him, it has to be us. We have to carry the revolution forward. And while it sometimes involves waving banners and shouting slogans, most of it is doing homework, sitting in meetings, speaking at podiums, and making agreements. It’s coalition-building and voting your conscience and doing a job. It’s keeping in mind the vision of a new America, and making your corner of America look more like that. Then, and only then, will we have a real revolution. Then, we’ll see body-cams on policemen and bankers in jail. Then, we’ll earn the right to say “we fought the revolution.” Until then, there’s work to do.

If you’re voting for Bernie, you don’t mind a little work to bring the revolution. If you’re voting for Bernie, you live for it.

birdie

 


What Have You Done for Paris?

As Paris exploded, I was writing a book.

As the recriminations mounted, I read Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

I’ve spent almost all of my free time since Friday the 13th either writing No Time, arguing on Facebook, or reading about physics.

It’s one Hell of a contrast.

Hawking, in a direct and engaging way, explains current ideas about how the universe came to be, the fundamental building blocks of matter and energy, the shape of galaxies and the fate of existence. He recounts a litany of human beings working together to understand the nature of the universe. He is calm, hopeful, and full of wonder. The world in A Brief History of Time is a place that can be understood through observation, cooperation, and rigor.

What a world of difference from the world where over 150 Parisians died in a bursts of gunfire and bombs, where le President orders random carpet-bombings, and where Americans of every political and cultural stripe grin at the opportunity to grandstand. Yes, France has stricter gun laws than the United States. Yes, Japan had an earthquake almost-but-not-quite-the-same-day. Yes, whatever political concerns you, personally, may have are far more important than Beirut or Paris. Yes, whatever points you want to score are appropriate in the wake of a horrific attack on sacré Paris.

It’s obvious by now that ISIS claims responsibility because of how it helps their recruitment effort. ISIS wants the refugees of the Middle East (and all Muslims) to see the world as a battle between East and West, between Right and Wrong, a clash of civilizations to tighten the trousers of Samuel Huntington and Richard Dawkins. The next day, Poland helped them immeasurably – they closed their doors to Syrian refugees. Rhetoric across the West is revving up again against the wicked mussulman and his swords and his bombs and his army of wives. If your enemies helped everybody see the world the way you do, wouldn’t you take the credit?

You know what’s not obvious? Who was actually responsible for the attacks. We’re going to have to trust les gendarmes to work that one out. Because right now, unless you read French, you probably know less about it than I do, and I know jack shit.

Some of you, and deep down you know who you are, are right now using Paris as a means of making your point. On Thursday the 12th, how many of you had heard about the attacks on Beirut? No, not ‘those people’ on your friendslist, you. You, the one sharing that clever meme about the Lebanese flag and that heartrending cartoon of all the tragedies that the media ignores. Did you know or care about Kenya on the 12th? Then why are you using Paris as a piggyback?

If you care about Beirut, show me where to give blood so it gets there. Show me where to send medical supplies. Fill my feed with that, the way I’ve been showing snide, cynical slacktivists how to actually do something to help the Parisians.

How about you? Yes, you, who went to Paris once in 1993 and hated it, but are now insisting we all #PrayforParis. Have you even read the Quran? How is it, then, you now are an expert at discerning the true intentions behind the words, and know that those intentions are murderdeathkill? Why are you worried about Islamist terrorists when study after study shows the most dangerous demographic in America is white males?

If you are eager enough to give blood to defend all we hold dear, why not give blood? You can save lives across the world, whether it’s for a specific attack or for the low-level violence and natural tragedies that make the cosmic background radiation of human life.

And you, eagerly consuming every thinkpiece on Atlantic, or FOX News, or Huffington Post, without even bothering to check the BBC or, mais non!, Le Monde? How can you possibly claim to be any better than your ideological enemies, the one you are using Paris as a cheap pipe-bomb to attack? How are you any better-informed, any better-acting, any less an asshole?

One such thinkpiece summed it up perfectly:

“Paris wasn’t just a massacre. It was a megaphone to be used for whatever you wanted to shout.”

Je m’appelle Mathieu, and it is not my Paris. It is not yours, either. I am sick and tired of the grief-shaming and the war-drum, and of everyone throwing Paris in the mud for their petty political battles. It is the City of Light, the City of #OuvrePorte, a city that is grieving and a city that is angry. It is a city in need of answers, in need of friends, and in need of peace.

I said on the 13th and I say today: Vive la France. Vive la paix. Vive le Paris.

If you can, donate to one of the aid organizations at work in Paris. Many of them also work in Beirut, which I can actually find on a map. If you can’t, sing La Marseillaise, or at least hum a few bars. Watch Mr. Rogers’ short comment about looking for the helpers, and look for the helpers next time you watch the news.

There are better things to do than argue on Facebook. Like reading Brief History of Time and looking up at the stars in wonder, or creating a new work of art, or donating a little money or blood to provide aid to Paris. One day, I’ll learn that. One day, I hope we’ll all learn that.


Veteran’s Day

“The Last of the Light Brigade,” by Rudyard Kipling

There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four !

They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey;
Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they;
And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, “Let us go to the man who writes
The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites.”

They went without bands or colours, a regiment ten-file strong,
To look for the Master-singer who had crowned them all in his song;
And, waiting his servant’s order, by the garden gate they stayed,
A desolate little cluster, the last of the Light Brigade.

They strove to stand to attention, to straighen the toil-bowed back;
They drilled on an empty stomach, the loose-knit files fell slack;
With stooping of weary shoulders, in garments tattered and frayed,
They shambled into his presence, the last of the Light Brigade.

The old Troop-Sergeant was spokesman, and “Beggin’ your pardon,” he said,
“You wrote o’ the Light Brigade, sir. Here’s all that isn’t dead.
An’ it’s all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin’ the mouth of hell;
For we’re all of us nigh to the workhouse, an’ we thought we’d call an’ tell.

“No, thank you, we don’t want food, sir; but couldn’t you take an’ write
A sort of ‘to be continued’ and ‘see next page’ o’ the fight?
We think that someone has blundered, an’ couldn’t you tell ’em how?
You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now.”

The poor little army departed, limping and lean and forlorn.
And the heart of the Master-singer grew hot with “the scorn of scorn.”
And he wrote for them wonderful verses that swept the land like flame,
Till the fatted souls of the English were scourged with the thing called Shame.

O thirty million English that babble of England’s might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children’s children are lisping to “honour the charge they made – ”
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!


SF Review: The Martian

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A few months ago, I went to work for a legal referral service. My first day there, I signed up with a secret society of science fiction readers, dedicated to reading the entirety of the SF&F top 100 list and sounding witty while they do it. Which is how I ended up reading Andy Weir’s The Martian.

Mark Watney is a steely-eyed missile man.

Obligatory shot of Matt Damon.

Obligatory shot of Matt Damon.

Although, in my mind, he was a black guy from Chicago. Why Weir didn’t name Mark Watney “Smith” and go ahead and call it A Martian Called Smith, I’ll never know.

I enjoyed The Martian. It’s good. It’s not great, but it is very, very good. I can safely say that it’s the greatest Robinsonade of the 21st century. The Robinsonade in literature has been pretty sorely lacking since, oh, Lord of the Flies. And yet, with starry-eyed cheer, Andy Weir delivers a fine one. And, by God, he makes you believe in it, even if you think you know better.

In a lot of ways, The Martian is a throwback: science so hard you can break your teeth on it, the scientist as hero, the Robinsonade plot, the moral at the end almost straight out of Star Trek: The Next Generation. What George Lucas did for 1930s serials, Andy Weir has pretty successfully done for 1950s science fiction. I don’t mean the whole raygun gothic style, Watney’s sarcastic comments and pop-cultural awareness are closer to Star-Lord than Buck Rogers.

Mark Watney (left), shown here demonstrating his appreciation for the music of The Who and of CSI: Miami.

Mark Watney (left), shown here demonstrating his appreciation for the music of The Who and of CSI: Miami.

I mean the heart of old SF: an unshakable, almost religious faith in the power of a single individual to solve the hardest obstacles using brainpower and grit. I’m not the only one who’s made that connection.

I’ve heard it argued that Robinson Crusoe’s great strength is in Crusoe’s moral development over the course of the book. Remove that moral element, and you have Mysterious Island, which devolves into Swiss Family Robinson, which devolves, ultimately, into Survivor. All you have left is the clever tricks. The Martian escapes this fate by doing to the heart of old SF what Watney does with the artifacts left behind with him: dust them off, shine them up, and hook them up in a new way so everything works…mostly.

But Andy Weir isn’t mired in an SF future where everyone smokes and uses protractors. Watney, as mentioned, can go toe-to-toe with Star-Lord for wit, charm, and pop-culture references. He has the sense of the sardonic we’ve come to expect from all literature (and protagonists). More importantly, he needs other people in order to succeed. While Crusoe thanked God for a footprint in the sand, Mark Watney is both more proactive in finding company and has a slightly larger vision. Watney realizes that no man is an island, even when he’s the only man on Mars.

In fact, (spoilers) THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE THAN MATT DAMON IN THIS MOVIE.

In fact, (spoilers) THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE THAN MATT DAMON IN THIS MOVIE.

With that said, my great criticism is that The Martian offers nothing new. Mark Watney solves problems and defeats forces of nature, he comes up with clever tricks and makes history. It’s riveting to watch, and Watney is a great guy to spend a few hundred pages with. But you don’t come away from The Martian with any new ideas, or with any new ways of looking at things.

And, in the end, that’s the point of science fiction – to make us see things differently. Philip K. Dick made us question what was real, Frank Herbert demanded we look at messiahs with distrust, Ursula LeGuin challenged how we thought about gender. Back before them, Asimov showed us an alternative to Frankenstein and Heinlein showed us several alternatives to liberal democracy. The Martian doesn’t ask us to see things differently. Assuming we’re not already in the habit of seeing the world as populated by total fucking assholes, it’s pretty conventional. The Martian reassures us that yes, people are basically good and yes, human reason can overcome the worst difficulties. …and that’s about it.

I did enjoy the book as a marvelous adventure, same way I enjoy Captain Blood, Treasure Island, and, yes, Swiss Family Robinson. I have hopes that Andy Weir will set his sights a little higher with his next book, and the one after that, and the one after that. If he has vision and daring to match his storytelling and his science, he could be another Greg Bear or Robert Forward.

And when I’m in the mood for less mind-bending fare than Man in the High Castle, Blood Music or Neuromancer? When I need a dose of tarnished idealism, that still believes in the power of fragile flesh and steel, and by God make me believe, too?

I’ll pick up The Martian.

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Life is meant to be lived from a Center, a divine Center… a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. It takes no time, but it occupies all our time. Thomas R. Kelly, Testament of Devotion, 1941 Pacific Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Simplicity, Advices

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Heinlein’s Rules #6: Write a Better Story Tomorrow

Think of this as “Mathieu’s errata to Heinlein’s rules.”

With a couple of exceptions, I hate looking over my old work. The patch-job of an exposition, the research errors, the way society has changed since the story was written…they all make me cringe.

And that’s a wonderful thing.

Because it means I got better in the meantime.

I’m the sort of man who’s only happy in motion. As long as I did better today than yesterday, and will do better tomorrow than today, I’m satisfied. If I’m stuck or idle, it doesn’t matter how much I’m making or how secure I am, I hate life.

Heinlein’s five Rules only apply to the life-cycle of one story, but any cartoonist will tell you that what happens between the panels is as important than what happens inside them. It is absolutely vital that you learn and grow as a writer and a human being from story to story.

This is where Jack London, as much as I admire the man, fell down. From White Fang forward he wrote the same few stories about the Arctic, manly men, seafaring life, boxing, Glen Ellen, Socialism, and the inherent superiority of the white man*. Robert Heinlein, on the other hand, is exemplary in this – yes, Heinlein always writes himself into his books, but it’s never the same man twice.

What do I mean by ‘learning and growing as a writer’? For one, new techniques. I used to be absolutely terrible at writing action sequences and sex scenes. But I learned how to block out the movements of my characters during action sequences, so I knew where and how fast everyone was going. And I learned to focus on the single emotional theme for each sex scene, so they don’t descend into passionless IKEA erotica. I still have issues with exposition…but I’m getting better. Because I’m studying how other writers have handled it (both well and badly) and trying new approaches. Fan-fiction and short stories are wonderful for this kind of thing.

I also mean stretching your limits – I wrote No Time partly because I’d never written a mystery before. Now, when I want to work in some of the things I learned writing a mystery (such as how to conceal or withhold information from the reader) into a romance or a fantasy piece, I have those tools. This is part of why I do write in so many genres – that, and because it’s fun.

I also mean writing characters and situations you find troublesome. I applaud Eliazar Yudkowsky for “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality,” insofar as he tried to write Voldemort as reasonable…from Voldemort’s point of view. Voldemort’s criticism of liberal philosophy and democracy as a whole is extremely troubling, partly because it sounds like he’s making legitimate points. That required Yudkowsky to climb inside the head of an avowed authoritarian – no easy task for someone who grew up in a liberal democratic republic!

My addendum to Heinlein’s rules is very simple. Rule #6 is “write a better story today than you did yesterday.”

Keep that up, and not only will your fiction get better with time…you’ll get happier.

Now go and lay down a couple thousand words. I want to see your story on my desk by Monday.😀

*with some exceptions like The Iron Heel, People of the Abyss, Star Rover, The Sea-Wolf, John Barleycorn and Martin Eden. The point still stands.


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