Friday, December 4, 2009


We hear the word "infrastructure" fairly frequently these days, often in combination with the word "crumbling".  It's a disturbing trend, so today I'd like to explore a little about the meaning of the term and some of its implications within society.

The prefix, "infra" means "below" or "beneath". My old dictionary from the 1970's also includes "inferior to" in the definition. We'll come back to that later. In its original sense, infrastructure refers to "an underlying base or supporting structure" – or – "the basic facilities, equipment, services and installations needed for the growth and functioning of a country, community or organization" (American Heritage Dictionary, New College Edition, 1976). The latter sense is heard most often in the media when referring to roads, railways, water and sewage systems and the newer network of cables, fiber-optics and wireless nodes that form the basis for modern communications.

The ancient Romans had a good grasp of the value of infrastructure. Several of the roads and aqueducts they built thousands of years ago survive to this day.  Every society since has put the gold of its wealthy and the toil of its poor into building and maintaining infrastructure.  At various times and under various stimuli, infrastructure-building will enjoy a heyday and great (or not-so-great) works will be constructed.  Sometimes it's to glorify a ruler or an ideal, sometimes to bulwark against a threat, other times, it serves to bolster a sagging economy.  In this country, we've seen more of the latter two cases than the former, though I think 'glorification' has probably produced more of the world's durable and aesthetically pleasing structures than has necessity.

Once the infrastructure has been created, there must be the will and the means to maintain it in working order, not just for a while but, effectively, forever.  This is much harder to do than to drum up the initiative create it in the fist place.  It seems to be part of human nature to not wish to think about the stuff that goes on below the surface — the water mains, the sewers, the cables, etc.  But rust and rot never take vacations so somebody has to be thinking about, and doing something about the hidden stuff day in and day out ad infinitum.  If at some point, however, we elect a 'fiscal lion' who hacks the budget of the maintenance department, or if hard economic times force the same decision, the inexorable progress of decay can go on unobserved for years.  The next thing you know, water mains are breaking and gas lines are exploding and the media begin talking about "crumbling infrastructure".  Again.

The foregoing is an example of great beginnings that stumble down to bad endings.  This is not the only scenario.  What happens if you begin by not thinking about infrastructure?

A Case Study

Mid-20th Century Baltimore, MD: a medium-sized East Coast city boasting close to a million residents.  Not a fancy place like New York or Boston but one possessing a great deal of local charm and a pretty good baseball team.  In 1968, everything changed.  When the news of Martin Luther King's assassination broke, people took their outrage and disappointment into the streets.  There were ten wrenching days of rioting and the city was locked down under martial law.  Fearing that the genie of racial violence was forever out of the bottle, both black and white citizens began streaming out of the city to the surrounding suburbs.  As housing stock was used up, pressure grew to expand the suburbs with new development and Baltimore's "urban sprawl" kicked into high gear.

Today, Baltimore's suburbs, coupled with those of neighboring Washington, D.C., have grown to an alarming extent (Baltimore-Washington Land-Use History).  Air pollution from cars has blossomed due to the greater commuting distances.  Run-off from parking lots and lawn herbicides has poisoned suburban streams.  Because the developers buy up farm land and forest tracts, we have seen significant losses of both arable land and wild habitat.  All of this is due to widespread disregard of all considerations except economic growth.  One consideration ignored is that of the infrastructure needed to support the burgeoning population.  Schools, roads, water and sewer systems have become over-burdened and require expensive retro-fitting to accommodate the new reality.  To quote the old bromide: they did not plan to fail, they failed to plan.

We are moved to ask, why is infrastructure given such short shrift?   A clue may lie in the meanings of "infra" mentioned above.  If infrastructure is perceived to be "beneath" our notice or "inferior to" other considerations, guess where the dollars and planning time are not going to go?  If you wish to stretch the point a bit: that which occurs beneath is dark and scary.  Best not to think about it.  Whatever the source of the short-sightedness, there seems to be little impetus to change matters.  In 1997 Maryland's then-governor Paris Glendenning championed a statute in state law that he dubbed the "Smart Growth Initiative".  It is supposed to mandate a more holistic approach to community development, specifically with respect to the infrastructure, but recent studies have shown that since its passage, the statute has been largely circumvented or ignored (Study Calls MD Smart Growth a Flop).

All the Myriad Pieces

There are other infrastructures besides the ones I've mentioned.  For example, there is the coastal warning infrastructure.  The earliest components of this system were lighthouses, recorded as far back as 660 B.C.E. on the coast of Egypt.  Foghorns and bells have also been around for ages.  These days, nearly every vessel carries a GPS device that does a much better job of letting the operator know when they are straying too close to the shoals.  Some folks have advocated for doing away with the old system of lights and horns since it's now hopelessly outclassed by technology.  But this technology depends on a system of satellites in orbit around the Earth, and each satellite costs millions of dollars to build and launch.  And let us not forget the vast amount of research, experimentation, manufacturing capability, etc. that had to precede the launch of even the first of these satellites.  In addition, GPS receivers are the end-product of sophisticated manufacturing techniques, each phase of which has its own infrastructure, right down to the batteries that power it.  If you consider what it would mean if there was a breakdown anywhere in this complex web, I'll bet you'd be just as happy to hear the mournful bray of a horn the next time you're rounding the Cape in a blind fog.

The key word is "web".  Every system we depend on is tied together in a vast interconnecting web-work of technology, of materials and parts, of human knowledge and perhaps most importantly, human cooperation.  Consider this last in terms of what can happen when a major industry or service is shut down during a strike.  Nearly everything in our lives is supported by largely unseen networks of people and machines.  Some of these are robust and resilient, others are tenuous and fragile.  It's good exercise to think about all of the systems that go into the vital functions of your life and conjecture what you'd do if those systems collapsed.  How does the food get to your supermarket and how will you eat if it doesn't?  When the electricity fails to come out of the little holes in your wall, what then?

What To Do When the World Ends

There is an apocalyptic vision that our entertainment media have been promoting for some decades.  It states: "something big will happen to kill off lots of people and those of us who are left will have to fend for ourselves".  The underlying idea is embedded in several religions and has such force that even people who don't subscribe to those religions strongly suspect that there's something disastrous lurking in our near future.  Over the course of my life, there have been a few times when this future seemed closer than others — the Cuban Missile Crisis and September 11th, for two — but more often, the likely nature of our doom is that the world won't end and we'll still have to pay the mortgage next month.  That said, contemplation of world-ending events is useful because it forces us to think more clearly about infrastructures.

Except in the case of a total annihilation of the human race, after "the end of the world", there will be people left.  Maybe even lots of them.  The shattering part of it for the survivors will be the sudden loss of many of the infrastructures that we take for granted — food, potable water, emergency medical services, etc.  Some people, of course, don't take these things for granted and have plans to cover their own and their family's survival in the case of disasters up to and including the end-of-the-world type.  They envision that they can become little islands of 'survivability', if you will, until things can be set back in order again.  Or, perhaps, forever, depending on how far-sighted they are (you can read more of my thoughts on this subject in: Resources).  To bring this into context: They envision surviving in the absence of infrastructure.

Perhaps it's a part of the American psyche to desire complete independence.  We're are fueled by images of rugged individualists — iconic characters portrayed by John Wayne or Clint Eastwood — and told that we can attain our dreams if we work hard and "think outside the box".  On the other hand, of course, we're constantly receiving signals that it's best to conform or face social ostracism, but that's a topic for another day.  In a post-apocalyptic world, that rugged individualism will probably get you through the first days or weeks and maybe even months, but sooner or later, it will be necessary to link up with other people and start cooperating with them.  You will need to start rebuilding your infrastructures.  These will doubtless be quite different from the accustomed systems but if they're well crafted, they should serve to sustain life, perhaps for a long time.

Before the world ends — if it is going to — it would be worthwhile to spend some time thinking about what a set of alternate infrastructures would look like.  They would need to be very local: neighborhood and small-town sized in terms of the number of people and/or geographical area.  There would need to be food production and distribution, medical and other emergency systems, some kind of militia to protect against aggressors and so forth.  It would, in fact, look a lot like the pre-industrial world.

Suppose, instead of waiting for the end of the world to create our new (yet old) infrastructures, that we begin working on them today.  Beginning now, let us craft ways to engage with our friends and neighbors to create networks of cooperation that are small and local and robust.  Many critical systems that serve us now are as delicate and specialized as the electronic navigation system I spoke of earlier.  Let's start thinking more in terms of lighthouses and horns.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Sometimes, ideas suspended in the flow of thought will suddenly crystallize into an understanding.  This happened today while I was reading "Anathem" a novel by Neal Stephenson.  The novel opens in a place called "Arbre", which may or may not be Earth, in the cloisters of a quasi-religious order whose purpose is to preserve and advance that world's sciences.  Once every ten (or hundred or thousand) years, the cloister opens it gates to allow the secular world in for a period of days.  In preparation for this event, the young protagonist, Fraa Erasmas, and his cohort are grilled by their teacher to make certain they have a good grasp of "The Iconographies".   In this context, "Iconographies" refers to a set of well-recognized mental images that the secular people (the "saeculars") hold as their guide to the characteristics of the members of the order (the "avout").  Since the two societies seldom interact, it is crucial that the young fraas and suurs (brothers and sisters) be well prepared for the full spectrum of reactions — from friendly to violent — that they might encounter in their dealings with the saeculars.

Each Iconography is a caricature, often based on images from the saecular media, that the saeculars have condensed into abbreviated form over the ages.  For example, the "Yorran Iconography" depicts the avout as madmen in white lab coats who plot to take over the world while the "Muncostran Iconography" illustrates them as absent-minded though essentially benign beings who have the saecular's best interests at heart.

These depictions, stripped of their science-fictional trappings, are pretty common literary devices that have found their way into every medium from books to movies to cartoons.  In the examples above, I'm sure you'll recognize the shorthand for "scientist" with either a negative or positive spin.  There are similar images for all kinds of stock characters: the "computer nerd", the "millionaire playboy", "the dumb blonde", etc.  They are, of course, thin and hollow and bear only the most superficial resemblance to real people but we continue to use them everywhere  — and there's probably no end in sight.

So, what was it about this novel and its concept of "Iconographies" that grabbed my attention?  Let's begin by turning our attention inward, to you, my friend.

Within the compass of your own skull, you are a fully real, totally unique being.  From this perspective, you are, so to speak, the star of your own show.  The years of your life have built a story of joys and sorrows that you alone understand; have given birth to struggles, frustrations, triumphs and contentments, that nobody else in the world could ever fully know.

The next best thing to your personal understanding of who you are resides in your spouse, your closest friends, your family members.  They see a version of you that is less than your personal picture — but they see things about you that you can't see.  To them, you are a three-dimensional character in the play of which they are the star, though even after years and decades of knowing each other, there is always a gulf that can never be breached.  This is one of the mysteries.

If we broaden our circle to include acquaintances and co-workers, the picture of you begins to get sketchy and two dimensional.  Perhaps they know some of your habits, your interests or your notable eccentricities but little more.  Imagine how they might describe you to a stranger.  Your life in twenty five words or less.

Beyond this relatively small sphere, you are faceless and unknown (unless you bear the curse of celebrity).  The only means by which the vast bulk of humanity might "know" you is by the groups or categories to which you belong.  By this measure, I am a Man, I am an American, I am a Wiccan, I am a Programmer, etc.  Some of these categories may also describe you so, in those respects, you see a part of yourself in me.  In those instances where we do not share a category, you probably have a picture of what a member of that category may be "like".  This may be accurate to several decimal places or it may be something akin to a caricature.  This last case is the focus of my discussion today: most of the people in your world, in my world, in everybody's world are perceived as icons.

Its curious that we should have the term "icon" in common usage.  Up until 1973, when David Canfield Smith of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) applied the term to computer control elements, an "icon" (or "ikon") was a religious painting, usually depicting an important personage (e.g., a saint).  Today, it's hard to find anyone doesn't think of an icon purely in terms of little pictures on a computer or phone screen.  The icon represents in a very concise way, the entire experience of a computer program or some action within a program.  When you see a little picture of a house, you know that it means "take me back to my Home Page".   There are dozens or hundreds of common and well-understood icons and they are largely taken for granted.

I started this with a description of an imagined society in which large groups of people deliberately held themselves apart from one another except for brief periods.  In the long spans in between, lack of personal interaction reduced their understanding of one another to mere icons.  I would submit that much the same thing happens in real life as we quarantine ourselves within our comfortable warrens, congregating with others with whom share an increasingly narrow range of characteristics and interests.  When we encounter members of other warrens, be they political, religious, racial, national, etc., we risk being blinded by the icons that immediately pop in front of our eyes.  Behind that icon is a real flesh-and-blood person.  I guarantee it.  It's worth thinking about.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


The other night, the power went out for several hours.  First time in a while.  We coped with it well enough, cooking dinner on the gas grill and sitting up past dark by lantern light.  But what if the power went out and never came back on?  I mean, never.

Several times a year, a bunch of us gather at a homestead in rural southern Delaware.  We work hard together, then as the evening winds down, cluster in groups to talk.  I often find myself seated with a handful of younger folk whose ideas and energy give me a lift.  This last time, the conversation centered on the topic of survival in the absence of social order.  It was fascinating to hear the various ideas and reflect on similar conversations I'd had decades ago with friends now long lost.  Even in the best of times, we are ever mindful of Chaos, the dark beast that haunts the perimeter, looking for a breach our walls.

There are two primary approaches to the survival problem.  At their most basic, they can be expressed as: a) learn a lot of skills and b) have a lot of stuff.  "Skills" can encompass everything from back woods survival to blacksmithing to medical arts to whatever is needed to rebuild civilization.  "Stuff" can be cash, gold, diamonds or stamps — or non-perishable goods, bottled water, tools, building supplies, etc.  Being in one camp doesn't preclude having some of elements of the other but judging by the heat of arguments between their proponents, you might as well try pushing Kraft Singles on a cheese connoisseur.

In my observation, there are serious flaws in both points of view.  Suppose you have all of the requisite woods lore to survive for months with nothing but your bare hands — and when the big breakdown comes, you're stuck in New York City . . .  Or, say you've got bunkers full of food, tons o' guns, megawatt generators and five miles of duct tape — and you're vacationing in the mountains when it all blows up.  Oops.

To be fair, I'm much more in the 'learn skills' camp though I do have a bit of 'stuff' here and there.  I believe, however, that there is a "middle way" that takes the best advantage of both schools: Be Resourceful.

"Be Resourceful" is a more focused version of the Boy Scout motto, "Be Prepared"*.  The primary skills required are observation, visualization and a healthy dose of knowing how things work.  It involves being able to adapt what you have to serve for what you need.  This kind of goes against the grain in consumer society — shouldn't we "just go out and buy" what we need?  Perhaps not.  Having grown up, shall we say, economically challenged, and the child of generations of Connecticut Yankees, we learned to make do with what we had or we did without.  But there was a basement full of tools and stuff so when beset by a burning need have something I wanted, I used my imagination to turn junk into toys — and turn my father's hair gray as I blithely scattered the contents of his workshop all over the house.

A resourceful mind causes you to save all manner of bits and pieces because they "might come in handy some day" though sometimes it may take years to find just the right use for any given part.  In every house I've lived in long enough to set up a workshop, there will be a dozen examples of something made from scraps and "adapted" hardware.  Some are stop-gaps, meant to last until the genuine article can be secured and others become an integral part of the household.

I'll give you a very high-profile example what I mean.  You may have seen the movie, "Apollo 13" (1995, Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon) which was based on an actual mission to the Moon in 1970.  During the flight, an explosion in an oxygen tank forced them to abandon the Command Service Module and cram three astronauts into the Lunar Module, a space intended for two.  This put a strain on the system that scrubbed the carbon dioxide from their breathing air, a condition that could have killed them if not corrected.  They had replacement scrubber canisters, but they were designed for the abandoned module — literally square parts that wouldn't fit into the Lunar Module's round holes.  Working with the engineers on the ground, they came up with an ingenious work-around using hoses from the space suits, storage bags, bits of cardboard and lots of duct tape (!).  Through this "kludge", they were able to survive the three day trip back to Earth.

So, how does all this apply to your life and times?  Perhaps we'll never be faced with a breakdown in our social and economic support systems but it's best not to proceed on that basis.  The truth is, there is no way of knowing what form a dramatic change might take.  Just ask the people who lived in New Orleans in August of 2005.  If I were to make a recommendation, it would be to acquire a set of "The Foxfire Books" and read them.  They are the product of a writing project started in the late '60s in which students at the school in Rabun Gap, Georgia interviewed their of elders and recorded stories and how-to information about the culture, skills and lore of southern Appalachia.  The books show you how to make a life using what nature provides.  It may not be the one true answer, but it'll get you thinking.

The power is back on again and I'm feeling just as complacent as I did before it went out.  I trust that the lights will come on the next time I flick a switch — and be bitterly disappointed if they don't.  But my world won't fall apart if that happens.  Even if the lights stayed out, I'm sure I could cope, and probably for a long time.  But you always hope you won't have to.

All the best,


* Yes, I was a Boy Scout.

Monday, September 14, 2009

What Would You Save?

Something posted by a friend on Facebook sparked a train of thought about the concept of "saving".

Like many words in English, "save" can be used in several ways.  Most of them boil down to "to preserve" or "to rescue" — and some imply a little of both.  When we use a bank for our savings, it preserves the money we've earned and, if things get tight, it can rescue us from economic disaster.  Used as a noun, a "save" in sports either preserves the team's lead or rescues them from losing a point, etc.  At its root, I believe the word "save" implies "resistance to change" and it's this I'd like to explore a little.  To quote the recently departed comic writer Larry Gelbart, "I need to write to find out what I'm thinking" — so what follows may surprise me as much as it does you.

There is a fairly new theory in physics which states that time does not exist (see "Killing Time" video above).  This means that physics is just beginning to catch up with ancient Hindu philosophy which tells us that time is an illusion (Maya) perpetrated on us by our minds.  The illusion of time allows us to make sense of the world around us by putting the one quality of our universe that does exist into more-or-less linear order.  That quality is "change".

In Western culture, we've come to take the notion of time for granted.  We are certain that time is real because after all, in most places you can hardly turn around without seeing a clock or calendar.  This is actually a fairly new thing for humans.  The earliest timepiece that we know of was the sundial and that's only about 5,000 years old.  Long while you think?  Humans have been around for a lot longer than that — arguably between 250,000 and 400,000 years.  So, for most of our existence, we concerned ourselves, not with the passage of time, but the with the changes in the world around us.

Judging by anthropological studies of the few primitive cultures that have survived into the modern world, our ancient ancestors had a profoundly different concept of time from ours.   They saw the cycles of day and night, of the moon and of the seasons as turning wheels rather than a narrow line joining past to future.  They saw that everything changes continually but that each wheel inevitably comes around to the same spot again.  Ancient astronomers extended this concept to include the movement of the planets and created calendars to describe larger and larger cycles — 180 years, 3,600 years 26,000 years.  Eventually humans sought to capture the concept of smaller and smaller cycles as well.  Days were divided into hours, hours to minutes, minutes to seconds.  Today we have parsed time into divisions as fine as "attoseconds" (10 to the minus 18 or .000000000000000001 seconds) with 100 attoseconds currently being the shortest measured span of time.

During the long process of defining time, the primacy of the cycle slipped away and was replaced by the concept of intervals.  We are awake for an interval of 16 hours and asleep (if we're lucky) for eight, the commute to work takes 45 minutes, the coffee is ready in five minutes.  We may note the changes but they are not at the center of our awareness.  If fact, rather than watching the changes in the world, we seek to hold them back as they come rushing at us.  We try to preserve them until we can deal with them, beg to be rescued from the difficult ones, or seek some kind of salvation so that we never have to deal with change again.  This, then, is the crux of my question: in the blur of life's changes, what should be saved and what should be allowed to slip away?


At the bottom of the screen is a little blue button that says "Save Now".  If I click it — or even just wait a few seconds, it'll change to say "Saved".  It's a small thing but within this sphere of changes that I (somewhat) control, it provides a bit of comfort.

All the best,


Oh, what was in that post that started all of this?  You'll find it here: Stabbing Westward - Save Yourself

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Free Expression

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Let me be begin by saying that I love fiercely the Constitution of the United States of America.  Hopefully, this doesn't make me a wild-eyed jingoist in your eyes.  Stay with me for a bit and I'll do my best to redeem myself.

When I was a boy in school a long, long time ago, one of the core subjects from 9th Grade onward was "Social Studies".  It covered the same topics that were taught as "Civics" in an earlier era, combined with a certain amount of the history of Western Civilization.  We spent a good deal of time studying the U.S. Constitution and discussed the structure of the government that it described.  Every child in that classroom, even poor students like myself, knew by the end of these lessons that our government consists of three branches: Executive, Legislative and Judicial.  We knew that the Legislative branch is composed of two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate; that the Judicial branch is headed by the Supreme Court; that the Executive branch is held by the President, Vice President and an appointed Cabinet.  We understood that the Constitution put specific controls in place so that no one branch of government can gain more than its share of the power, controls called "checks and balances".  Through all of the turmoil of wars, economic despairs, corruption, power grabbing and so on over the last 222 years, the Constitution survives as the final authority in our Nation and we young Americans were inspired to be proud of this fact.

The Founding Fathers built into the Constitution the provision for change by means of Amendments.  They deliberately made this requirements steep: three-fourths of the states must approve in order for an Amendment to be ratified.  Although over 10,000 amendments have been proposed since 1789, only 27 have survived the process.

The first Amendments were introduced to Congress by James Madison in 1789, barely two years after the Constitution was adopted by the States.  The ten articles that we now know as the "Bill of Rights" were ratified in December of 1791.  It's important to note that the Bill of Rights does not tell us what we have the right to do — it states very clearly what the government has no right to do to us.

It is the first of these Amendments that I'd like to discuss.   It consists of 45 common words, yet it rings with a power that has few peers in the English language.  Scroll up and read it a few times.  Consider how much ground those words cover.  Consider also how greatly influenced they must have been by the recent — and poignant — memory of the tyrannical rule of an insane and paranoid monarch who punished his critics with torture and death.  Although there have been many attempts to re-interpret the First Amendment throughout history, as long as this Union lasts, we will always have the words of the Founders to use as a touchstone.  Is this what they meant?  How would they have decided in this particular case?

And yet, the language of the First Amendment should not be interpreted to mean that you can say whatever you like.  In fact, the purpose of the First Amendment is to forbid the government from silencing speech that you hate.  Does that set you back?  Why in the world would the architects of our system want that?  It is a great credit to the breadth of their vision that they could write these words from the perspective of the governors knowing what amazing filth and bile might at some point be spewed upon them by the governed.  But they knew that a government that was just and strong could weather even the most poisonous criticism, that its authority would not be eroded by harsh words but rather strengthened by acknowledging the right of its critics to speak freely.  I find the wisdom of this to be breathtaking.

Far from being an artifact of a bygone era, our First Amendment is being invoked continually as we move into the uncharted waters of the Digital Age and deeper in to seemingly irreconcilable partisanship from our roots to our top branches.  We have recently had to consider whether what is deemed to be "hate speech" should be protected and the old issue of what should be prohibited as obscenity has surfaced again,  As I write, the Supreme Court is deciding a case that could have profound repercussions within our system of electoral politics: should corporate monetary contributions to political advertising be protected as free expression?  The decision may well overturn a century or more of belief that it should not.  We shall see.

The next time you hear something that makes your blood boil, I hope you'll pause for a moment and give thanks to the wise elders who made it possible for such utter clap-trap to be allowed to see the light of day.  You never can tell when you'll need to utter some clap-trap yourself . . .

All the best,


Monday, September 7, 2009

Telling Tales

There is a saying: "Stories weave the world".  I think this is true on many levels and I'd like to use this space to explore some of them.  Take a walk with me, won't you?

This past Sunday on NPR's "Weekend Edition", Liane Hansen interviewed author Dan Chaon, who has just published a novel titled "Await Your Reply" (full story here).  During the course of the interview, Liane asked the author, "Did you know when you were writing the book how it was going to end?" to which he replied, "No, I did not — not during the first draft — and in fact, I was really surprised by a lot of the twists and turns that came up as I was writing."  What's this?  Shouldn't the author, the one who is telling the tale, know, not only the "beginning, middle and end" but all of the details in between?  It would seem not.

If you listen to interviews with authors, you'll notice that they frequently refer to such phenomena as the characters "taking over" the story or the plot veering in unexpected directions.  Most people who have written fiction will acknowledge that at some point, the characters take on a life of their own and, as the author, you are not so much directing their actions as reporting what they do within the framework you've created for them. You may even find that the characters revolt if you try to force them into doing something that's "not in their nature".  Madness, you say?  Try it some time — I think you'd be surprised.

Okay, so what's going on here?  The process of creating a story usually begins with an inspiration of some kind — a first line that pops into your head; an event or person you observe that starts a chain of speculation; a real-life story that you feel can be tailored to fiction.  The question of where inspiration comes from is a whole other topic — let it suffice that most stories grow out of its root.  The next things you might do are to outline the plot, dream up a cast of characters, situate the action in some known or invented place and then stitch the whole thing together with movement and dialog.  Every writer does it a little differently but those are the basics.

Now, the important thing to note is that all of this is takes place first in the writer's mind.  Oh, true, sometimes the story flows out so fast that you think it's coming directly through your pen (or word processor) but the scene arises in the mind and is witnessed in all its detail by the mind's eye.  In fact, all of the senses plus the full panoply of the emotions may be called into the scene, potentially giving the writer access to as much detail as real life.  The degree to which the writer can record this scene and, through craft, remove themselves from the telling will, in large part, be the measure of how successfully the story can draw the reader in.  Draw them in so that they witness the scene as the author did.


When we dream, we find ourselves in the middle of a parallel life, peopled either with those we know or with complete strangers.  The scenes may range from the familiar and mundane to the wildly outrĂ©.  On those occasions when we become aware that we're dreaming (the "lucid" dream) it can seem indistinguishable from waking life.  Further, recent research using FMRI has shown that our minds make no distinction between dreams and movies — or moving-image stories in general.  It doesn't require much of a stretch to suggest that the creative state of the writer falls into the same class.   It is a kind of 'daydreaming' deliberately engaged for the purpose of creating a story for the page or the screen.  Night dreams are stories, daydreams are stories and stories are, well, you get it.

The next step may require you to don a larger set of boots.  I am going to suggest that our normal waking consciousness is of the same class as the story or dream.  The only distinction is an artificial one that we've "agreed" to make.  More on that in a moment.

All of our sense organs connect to our brains via nerve pathways — wires, for all intents and purposes — and the signals they carry require a finite time to get from one end to the other.  Although we take for granted that our sensory impressions register in our minds at the same instant that our eyes, ears, etc. perceive them, there is a measurable delay between perception and cognition.  Fractions of a second to be sure, but still measurable.  What this means is that "now" is not right now but a microsecond or two in the past.  Instead of directly perceiving the world moment-to-moment, we are actually building up an image complete with sound, touch, taste and smell within the theater of the mind — the same theater that presents us with the Late-Late Show of our dreams as well as moving pictures provided by books, movies, radio, television and, for that matter, our buddy pouring his heart out over a beer at the local pub.  It is the same apparatus and it behaves, in all circumstances, in essentially the same way.  Given the well-known efficiency of Nature, it would be hard to imagine that She would have created us otherwise.

So, what do I mean when I say that we agree to make a distinction between dreams and reality?  From the moment of our birth (some would argue before that), we begin getting messages from our parents that the world works a certain way.  We learn that mother means safe and warm, that day is for waking and night is for sleeping and that our needs are usually met if we make a lot of noise.   Later, teachers, friends and the media tell us that the world is filled with delights and dangers, that we do things this way and not that way.  It's part of a complex story called "This is How We Live".  Among the lessons is, "it's just a dream" — meaning that the images and stories we remember on waking are not part of our real life experience and need not be taken seriously — especially if the images are scary.

With the increasing mobility and communication available today, it's possible for many of us to see that the stories that build a person's reality differ from culture to culture — sometimes wildly.  For example, the aboriginal people of Australia have the concept of "The Dreamtime" as a reality that connects them with their earliest times, when their Gods walked the earth.  They don't see this as a metaphor — it exists and plays an active part in their culture.  They are taught to enter the Dreamtime in the waking as well as sleeping state, to interact with it and bring back information from it.  You cannot convince someone brought up this way that "it's just a dream" — no more than I could convince you that you could enter the Land of Oz by walking out your front door (well, most front doors).


I believe that we are now beginning to see serious rifts in society as a result of cultural stories that differ in significant ways.  This is occurring all over the globe in what otherwise appear to be homologous cultures.  Part of this is due to the increasing diversity in news, social and information media and entertainment.  There are so many different media channels available that large segments of the population can receive a noticeably different set of stories from those told to other large groups.  There is, in effect, no longer a "mainstream" of thought but more and more individual streams that diverge, sometimes to an alarming degree.

I'd be willing to bet that you wouldn't have to go back too far into your past to find an example of a social or political issue where you felt that you had a solid grasp of the facts and that your conclusions on the subject were inescapably true — only to find that someone with apparently the same facts had arrived at a totally different conclusion.  I am also willing to bet that you found the opposing view to be either intellectually insupportable or morally repugnant — or both.  You may have thought, "How in the world could these people believe this stuff?"  And, of course, "these people" are wondering the same thing about you

The tapestry of life is vast and unimaginably complex.  Each of us weaves our own thread and the more creative or influential among us embroider designs into the fabric that may impact the lives of millions (or billions) for generations.  It's possible every now and again to get a glimpse of the loom of time and change, and to use the knowledge of this to make your life more meaningful — or, at very least, less stressful.  Once you know for a certainty that stories weave the world, you can use your story to weave a place of beauty and know that it is good.

All the best,



For some lighter fare, I invite you to enjoy "A Fish Story" — a short work of fiction that I wrote several years ago.  This is how I know about characters taking over and telling you what to do ;-)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Time of Change

With nights dipping to the 50's and the shadows closing in at half past seven, I'm inclined to think that changes are afoot.  This time of year makes me a little wistful.  Being a child of the summer, I've always felt that the world was most right when the Solar Lion was roaring in the land.  True, Mid-Atlantic summers can be beastly, but man! the woods and fields are so lush and abundant and a cold beer at the end of the day can be a gift from the Gods.  Still, change comes and I'd be foolish not to acknowledge it.

In the world of Western Magick there is a principle known as, "as above, so below", credited to the semi-mythical figure, Hermes Trismegistus (contained in something called the "Emerald Tablet").  This is most often expressed: "as above, so below, but after a different fashion", and taken to mean that any principle that we can observe in the physical world has its echos in both broader and narrower realms -- though it might require some pondering to see exactly how they correlate.  Thus, the yearly cycle of seasons is reflected in the longer cycle of climate, in the longer still turning of the Zodiacal ages and also in the smaller cycles of day/night, full/dark moon.  Some quality of "ebb" or lack is present in all cycles and some quality of "flow" or fullness is present at the opposite extreme.  These cycles have their resonances in the more subtle realms of spirit but I'll leave that discussion for another time.

No matter where we are in life, it's possible to look up for a moment and see the larger picture.  Imagine that you are walking down a city street and chance to look off to one side at some precise instant. You see a blade of grass aligned with a sapling aligned with a phone pole aligned with a water tower aligned with a sky scraper aligned with a mile-high column of clouds.  Beyond this is perhaps a constellation aligned with the spiral arm of the Milky Way and who knows what in larger and larger scales.  And it need not even be something directly observed.  We might be reading a book or watching something on TV when we encounter a kernel of information that aligns our understanding of some small thing with the larger principle it represents.  Sometimes these insights are so profound that we remember them years later and know that our life changed at that moment.

Change is occurring around and within us continually.  That things will change is one of the few truths we can depend on utterly -- nothing, truly nothing lasts forever.  Even still, there seem to be long periods of relative changeless-ness interspersed with great bursts of tumultuous change.  It is during those times of noticeable change that it's of greatest value to look around us and see how the changes in the microcosm of our lives is reflected in the world around us.  When the seasons are changing, we can pause and say, "What is changing in the broader world, and what is changing in me?"  We might even ask, "Since change is going on all around me, do I need to change as well?"

I draw the blanket closer around me and the cat snuggles in behind my legs.  Perhaps tomorrow evening we'll put the first fire of the season in the wood stove.  I know that my days of outdoor grilling are numbered but I see that a nice butternut squash came with this week's bundle of vegetables so pretty soon I'll be thinking about soup.  Maybe change isn't so bad after all.

Blessings to you,


For a great illustration of "as above, so below", watch this wonderful video, "Powers of Ten", created by Charles and Ray Eames.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Few Words Too Many

When I first heard of blogging a few years ago, I'm afraid I was rather dismissive of the idea. "Blog" sounds like "blah" -- and it seemed that there was a great potential for blah-blah-blathering until all of the eyes of the Universe glazed over. By now, of course, we can hardly imagine a world without the blog (as we can hardly imagine the world without any number of fill-in-the-blanks) so that is why, at this late date, I am jumping onto the bandwagon. Perhaps just before it rolls off a cliff. Cliff's are useful; ask any Fool.

The prime motivator for this is that I often have just too many words to fit within the cramped, ever moving trivia stream that is Facebook -- and certainly more than one can assay in the microcosm of Twitter. It's quite possible to impart some wonderfully full-blown sentiments in those small spaces if you are feeling particularly pithy, but there are no guarantees. More often, my little freeze-dried thought crystals are comprehensible only to me or to the few friends whose magnetic particles are aligned the same way. The result is that I end up feeling a bit shabby when someone I care about misses whatever point I may (or may not) have been trying to make. My apologies to you, dear ones. I may be clever but I'm not always wise.

Yesterday, my sweetheart brought home a new book for me: "Illuminations -- Mystical Meditations on the Hebrew Alphabet" by Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki. The Aleph-Beth contains keys to understanding the unfolding Universe from the mystical perspective and it's something I've vowed to learn more about. So, with that and with this, my first chapter of "Clear and Obscure", I embrace Aleph, the first path that takes us out of the realm of the safe and known and into the as-yet-to-be. My foolish foot hovers above the Abyss.