Looking back, looking forward

Mom’s gotten a pretty bad shake here over the past few weeks. To be fair, she earned it.

However, two days after my birthday, I feel called upon to do what I did at her memorial service and shine a light past that.

I took a break from writing because this heavy-duty shit was really starting to get to me, and most of my thoughts about the other issues of the day are not especially extraordinary or, amongst most of my friends, controversial. There is also the question of professional blabbityblab beyond the scope of my desire for full-time work, but that belongs on my product site and my shingle site.

I’ve broadly hinted but not actually come out and said directly that Mom’s influences were in a large fraction positive. Here’s “directly.”

Reading & writing

I’m struck hardest by the thought that my own affection for the genre of science fiction didn’t really come from Dad or anyone else in particular; that was all on Mom. Her fondest memories — Asimov and Harry Harrison especially — were shared with enthusiasm. She took up Douglas Adams while I was in Texas, a step that paid dividends to me in high school.

Star Trek was on Channel 12 every Sunday apart from Easter, and every Sunday Mom went out of her way to watch it. Many years later she turned me onto the Stargate franchise and the Whedonverse, albeit more by happenstance. I don’t want now for fondness of those settings and the characters that inhabit them.

Mom also tacitly supported my RPG habit when I was into that — in fact, it was one of my few enthusiasms that she didn’t make any effort to moderate for the sake of parsimony.

That went down in the few years before she threw herself over the proverbial edge for the last time.

If you’re not a SF/F nerd, ask one whom you know about the contribution of that literature and those stories to their worldview. Chances are that they could go on a while, and perhaps sometime I will, but not today. It suffices to say that in my case, the contribution was huge.

Mom’s influence on my writing was lighter, more subtle. The most visible sign of her touch is my talent for dropped commas, because she declared a just war against my abuse of punctuation when I was twelve years old… and I overcompensated, at least with respect to commas and semicolons. You don’t need to remind me that I still abuse pauses, which I see anymore as an artifact of my crazy stream of consciousness.

My exposure to the idea of literature as art came to me from diverse sources, both in and out of classrooms, but I’ve always gotten the biggest kick out of literature that I’ve chosen to read on my own.

My interest in writing was something I came to on my own, but Mom’s willingness to encourage that interest was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise emotionally bleak childhood.

The Golden Rule

The Letter of Paul to the Galatians puts it like this:

“For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” —Galatians 5:14, as taken from the New American Standard Bible

During the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant reformulated that sentiment:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” —Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

The parlance of our times quotes from what Wikipedia declares is a 16th C. catechism:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Until I was fifteen, I was inarguably among the tallest and brightest among my age cohort in any room. As a young child I learned easily the inflections of authority with which Dad speaks, and I possessed a preternatural fervor for fairness. A short temper and the gait acquired from an early childhood injury — which still yields to close observation today — leads with the other traits to a ripe target for all manner of teasing and bullying.

Mom was at a loss to be a bulwark, in no small part because of her own insecurities and her favorite mode of coping with them. In spite of her consuming distaste for religion she was, however, very clear on one point: that a refusal on my part to live by the Golden Rule would only make matters worse, and somehow she was able to put the critical thinking across to me so that I took her point to heart.

My initial willingness to make things simpatico, my willingness to like and be liked, is a huge part of how I relate to people… and it’s owed almost entirely to Mom’s efforts.

The extent to which those efforts have borne fruit begs more questions, and I don’t care to rest on my laurels, but I figure that I do all right more often than not.

Solicitude toward the sick

Unfortunately, this lesson was learned from my regrets, rather than any active effort on Mom’s part.

It’s only in the past few years, as I’ve shed enough of my ego, that I manage to recognize the value of booze, of maryjane, of the rest of the recreational pharmacoepia without passing judgement on those who are still actively misusing drugs and alcohol. My responsibilities with respect to people who are using stop at acknowledging with minimal judgement their belief that their anxieties are more than they can handle unaltered.

The anxiety with which I struggled while writing the book, and too often to the point of disconsolate depression, solidifed this belief once and for all. I spend significant fractions of each day trying to keep the crush of that anxiety out of my head, and have for as long as I can remember.

My rights thereby stop at gauging and avoiding the toxicity of those people to my own boundaries and goals. Nowhere do I earn, much less deserve, any credit for my refusal to let my indulgences go beyond the light side of moderate. That refusal is no more, and no less, than a choice that I make for my own benefit.

It took ample reflection upon Mom’s drinking and using, reflection upon the years of vitriol I heaped on her for their consequences, and reflection upon the total failure of my reaction to be of any real help, before I adopted those beliefs.

Music

Kraftwerk, “Autobahn” (remix)
@amazon
@allmusic

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Lessons from Mom

Lessons from Mom —by Ben Henick, 9 July 2010

All journal entries

  1. Talking About the Weather
  2. To the Rafters?
  3. Coming of Age with Killer Apps
  4. Race to the Bottom
  5. Meditations on Decay
  6. Net Neutrality, or the Lack Thereof
  7. Three Problems
  8. Post Mortem of a Book Project
  9. The Egg and the Chicken
  10. Yellow Dog
  11. Digging Through the Clutter
  12. Lessons from Mom
  13. Being Careful What You Wish For
  14. Out on a Limb
  15. Beliefs, No. 1
  16. Like a Chimney
  17. Does Not Compute
  18. Past Trends, Future Results
  19. Beyond These Four Walls
  20. Competence, Confidence, and Reality
  21. Anesthesia
  22. King of the Mountain
  23. “A Deer in the Headlights”

Disclaimer: This is definitely self-indulgent. If you don’t like it, read somebody else.

This nook of the Internet is my antidote for Twitter. ©2010 Ben Henick, all rights reserved.

Job, or hell?

Yesterday I happened on two links. (Good grief, I love the Web.) The first is an e-mail alideshow of sorts aimed at the guts of some hypocrite named Spencer, the author’s (erstwhile imaginary) boss. The second is an article in Slate discussing the (un-) desirability of low- to mid-level service jobs.

…And then there’s the story of the flight attendant who on Monday found a spectacular way to say “take this job and shove it” after being verbally assaulted at length by a passenger.

All three pieces are a kick. Reading them in rapid succession, as I did yesterday afternoon, is a kick in the guts. The article about jobs-in-general particularly evoked from me a visceral response.

Rich get richer, poor get poorer

The sense of entitlement to profit that I raised a few days ago is evident in every talk about compensation I’ve heard about, or participated in, in the past several years. It seems to me like the vast majority want labor for the cheapest they can possibly obtain, while remaining content to throw handfuls of money at senior management and holders of equity — even ones who, as it turns out, contribute little or nothing.

It always seems like the same old story: hire somebody with the basic minimum of proven ability in order to get away with paying them as little as possible, train them up to the minimum needed by the organization, fire the ones who don’t take comfortably to that scheme at the instant they’re identified, and work the others to the bone until they burn out.

I believe that on some level, most people recognize that this is going on. However, I struggle to understand why. It seems axiomatic to me that people who feel valued will work harder, yet the trend moves toward every possible effort to remind people that they’re replaceable and ought to get the best out of things while they can.

Compassion vs. sociopathy

The only fact that adequately explains this prevailing state of affairs is broad, unwitting subscription to the system cobbled together from the amoral rants of a mildly nutty Russian emigré. On balance that would not be so bad, except that like that ethos’ nemeses — Communism and Christianity — “Objectivism” works a hell of a lot better in theory than in practice.

I see two deep flaws with this ethos, deepening my my confusion. First, we can’t all be Howard Roark; lots of us lack the temperament requisite to that outcome. As much to the point, if we all could have and act upon that power, civilization as we know it would rapidly descend into barbarism. One man’s clear thinker is another’s cold-hearted sonofabitch, and the latter type is awfully good at inducing conflict.

Second, human beings possess and act upon compassion compulsively; the ones who habitually refuse or fail to do so are (rightly) called sociopaths. We all recognize that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and communities tend to raise the minimum when given the chance. Cutting loose that weak link instead… goes a bit far.

Meritocracy

The happy finish of the labor market’s neo-Nietzchean race to the botom can be found in two virtues that are compatible with all of the belief systems in play: honesty and fidelity.

As it stands, the realities of social (im-) mobility leave some with first-class tickets, and consign the rest to steerage barring both outstanding luck and superlative effort. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that anyone who manages to climb their way out of steerage won’t be shoved back down by some vindictive asshole.

Rewarding honesty and fidelity in the workplace — and penalizing those who lie, cheat, and habitually cover their asses — would go a long way toward making the labor market a better place for everybody.

We have the technological capacity to discover and promote out of steerage quickly the ones who’ve earned it, as a matter of course. We can do the reverse for those who feel most inclined to rest on their laurels. Why don’t we?

Music

Hey Lewis & The News, “Workin’ for a Livin’”
@amazon
@allmusic