Category Archives: constructionism

Flying Ice

Monday this week was a day made for disappointment. It always is, but this week was worse than most. After an ice storm lent me another four-day weekend, it was a real bummer to come back to the office. Nobody was in a great mood, and everybody had a lot of work that needed doing, to get caught up. I put in my nine miserable hours, packed up some extra reading to take home with me, and then called it a day.

The roads were pretty clear by then, except for the steep-walled piles of dirty gray slush spilling onto the sides, but the drive still posed some little risks. I felt my car slip a little turning onto MacArthur, and again as I pushed up the ramp onto the highway. It was nothing dangerous, really — just little reminders that the road wasn’t really dry.

I hardly needed them, though. My windshield was enough evidence of that, with the thin, semi-transparent patina of slush thrown up by the cars ahead of me. That got a lot worse when I got onto the highway, and I was leaning forward, waiting for another pass of my worn out wipers, when the car in front of me threw up more than just slush. A pebble the size of a BB flipped up and smashed against my windshield, inches from my nose.

The sound of it startled me — surprisingly loud crack in the still of my car –and as I flinched back, I wondered if it had chipped the glass.

I first started driving in 1995, and I drove for fourteen years without ever getting a cracked windshield. I’ve certainly taken my share of pebble bombardment, but they make those suckers pretty strong. Still, the thought crossed my mind because, only a week earlier, gravel bouncing out of the back of a dump truck had put a big score in the driver’s side glass right above the dashboard. First time in my life, and here came another pebble one week later.

And then the wipers blurred by, smearing away the muck, and they left behind a single glittering spot, ten inches above the week-old chip. I grunted in frustration, I rolled my eyes, I probably thought something mean about the driver of the dirty white Tercel.

But then a sarcastic smile twisted my lips. I shook my head and chuckled, and said, “I wonder if I constructed that.” See, I believe in something called social constructionism, and one aspect of it is that the things we expect, the things we anticipate, are the things that are likely to show up in our reality. By worrying about my glass getting chipped, had I made it happen? It was a swift-passing thought. I sighed and let it go. Probably just coincidence. It’s a funny old world, after all.

The words were still fresh in my mind, the smile still on my lips, when I heard the distant groan and rip just before a sheet of ice tore free from that same car. I’d seen it happen on my drive in that morning, and even once or twice already on my drive home, but this time it happened right in front of me. A blanket of ice and snow packed two-inches thick suddenly caught the wind, dancing like a kite up into the air for two seconds, three, and slashing back down to earth.

I was too close, though. I got in the way. The largest shard — probably two feet across — came stabbing straight down at me. I braked, I swerved, but there was no time. I caught a dozen pounds of ice dead center on the passenger side of my windshield, at sixty miles per hour. It boomed like an explosion, and the whole windshield shattered — safety-glass holding the fractured bits in place, but ruined.

It was five o’clock on a Monday afternoon, northbound in the left-hand lane of one of the city’s major thoroughfares, so I had sixty-MPH traffic right on my tail. As soon as I knew I was still alive, I put my foot back on the gas. My heart thundered, and I had to fight to catch my breath, but the windshield held. I had a small rectangle, maybe two feet by one, right at eye level on the driver’s side where the glass was whole. It was enough to give me a clear view of the road, as long as I leaned forward. It was enough to get me home, anyway.

So I drove on, terrified every time another piece of ice flipped up into the air and wondering if the shattered windshield might give way yet. Ten miles still to go, and nobody else on the road cared how fragile my situation was. I just focused on breathing, focused on getting home safely.

And while I was at it, I tried my hardest to ignore that chip, right in front of my nose, marring the one bit of good glass left to me.

(I prepared this post according to the assignment description in this week’s Creative Writing exercise over at UnstressedSyllables.com. I’d love any feedback you’ve got to give.)

The Placebo Effect

Found this article through Digg, and thought it was worth sharing.

The headline claims that placebos are getting stronger, but the real situation is a little more complicated than that. Still, it’s a great review of the placebo effect in general and a fascinating look at how major pharmaceuticals are addressing it right now.

Greatness: The Dream House

A Postmodern Short Story

Facebook has recently put me back in touch with an old high school friend, G–. He was never a close companion on the scale of D– or Brad or Mike, but we shared classes and we shared conversations for most of six years, so I was glad to see his name and face show up under the enigmatic, “People you might know.”

I added him to my friends list right away, and when he confirmed he immediately followed up with an email offering a quick summation of his lifestate, and I responded with one of my own. Then he wrote back, saying, “Man it’s good to hear from you! I’d completely lost track, but I’ve never forgotten all the crazy conversations we used to have. Are you still playing part-time philosopher, or have you finally joined the flock?”

I hesitated over my answer, and finally wrote back, “Still just as crazy, but I hide it better. My big obsession since college is radical social constructionism, which suggests we collectively shape our reality by our expectations. It goes deeper than that, but that’s a good snapshot.”

I sent that off and put the ball in his court. If he wanted to ask me for more clarification, he could. In the process he would bring down an avalanche of information from me, but at least that way it would be on his hands. If he wanted to let it go, safe in the knowledge that I still had some weird notions ready to hand, he could. He surprised me, though. He wrote back and said, “No way! That is a good summary, but I know all about it. Weird that we would still end up talking about the same ideas after all this time….”

So it turned out I was the one who couldn’t leave it at that. I’ve known a lot of people who get social constructionism when I explain it to them, but never one yet who was already familiar with it. And I sure didn’t expect G– to be the first one! He’d always been willing to listen, stupefied, while I rambled on, but he was never the real philosopher himself. So I asked him for his story, and it was a good one.

He graduated with me in the spring of ninety-eight, and while I went off to Little Rock for the summer and then to Oklahoma for college, he stayed in Wichita and spent a few months working on a roofing crew to save up his tuition. When he got into WSU in the fall, he held onto that job. It paid well, and he liked the work.

So one weekend he was working on this rotted out roof over on the West Side, tearing out ruined plywood and rebuilding the frame while the irritated homeowner tapped his foot down in the front lawn, wanting them to be done. It was a big job, though, and they ended up working until well after midnight, tacking down new shingles by the light of flood lamps so they could do another job the next day. Sunday morning he got up, went to work, and showed up at a home halfway across town to find the same homeowner standing by the curb talking to his boss.

G– pondered on that while he worked, and when his first break rolled around he struck up a conversation with the client. Turned out the guy flipped houses for a living, and both of these were projects he hoped to clear in a couple weeks. That piqued G–‘s curiosity, and I guess the fellow liked G– because he gave him a business card and told him to keep in touch. G– did, and at the older man’s direction he spent all his free time that fall going to seminars, reading books on the topic, listening to tapes, and checking out videos that all promised the guaranteed secret to financial independence through home sales. By the end of his first semester he was ready to give up roofing and studying and become a real estate man.

By that point he really felt like he knew what he was doing. Nineteen, with no money, no degree, and still working his high school job, he was sure he was ready to make the investment. So he did his research, and over finals week, between tests, he closed on a 2/1/1 FSBO west of Tyler that he knew was worth a twelve percent profit. It cost him sixty thousand dollars and he had the whole Christmas break to get it fixed up and listed.

So he drove out on a Sunday morning in his crappy little pickup, armed with nothing but a little toolchest he could carry easily with one hand. There may have been a power drill, too, but that would be pushing it. He eyed the dead lawn critically, the gutter hanging loose over the front porch, as he approached up the walk and turned his sixty thousand-dollar key in the twelve-dollar Wal-Mart lock. Then he pushed the door open, but it caught fast at three inches. The chain was on. Not only that, but he could smell incense burning in the house, and a moment later he heard someone moving around inside. He took a step back, checked the address, but this was the right place. He’d been here before after all, for the inspections, and the house had been empty then.

He probably should have been afraid, but young men are fools. He pounded on the open door, loud as he could, and called out, “Hey! Hey! Who’s there?”

A woman’s voice answered him indistinctly, and a moment later she floated into view. Her haid was black, pulled up on one side in a complicated braid. Her eyes were green, and she was wearing nothing but a threadbare white towel. That stopped him short.

She didn’t show any sign of embarrassment or remorse. She just smiled politely and said, “Well? What’s all the fuss?”

“This is my house,” he stammered, his anger coming back a bit. “I came out here to do some work on it–“

“Good,” she said. “You need a new water heater.”

“I need to know what you’re doing here,” he said. “This is my house.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s mine.”

He frowned, and his heart started pounding. He knew all about liens and he’d spent a week reading about squatters’ rights, but he hadn’t really expected problems at this place. He’d cleared the title two days ago. His stomach knotted at the thought of the legal expenses it would take to get this sorted out. He shook his head, trying not to think about it, and said, “How do you figure?”

She just smiled and said, “Magic.” He stared, blank, and she slipped the chain off the door and withdrew into the room. He pushed in and found a beanbag chair and a tiny, ancient black and white TV plugged in by the front door. A spill of worn paperbacks lined the wall — the tattered carpet their only bookshelf — and a stick of incense burned in its holder atop a battered minifridge on the far wall. He took it all in at a glance, and felt his rage rise up again.

“What is all this?”

She shrugged one shoulder without losing the towel and said, “My stuff.”

“Why?” he asked. “Why this house?” He felt a desperate fear, and wondered if his dad could help him out of it.

“I had a lovely dream that took place here,” she said. “Well, not exactly this house, but one close enough. And I was driving down the road last week and saw the sign out front and I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s my house.'”

“But it’s not yours,” he wailed. “It’s mine. I saw the sign, and then I bought the freaking house.”

She smiled and turned away. “That’s a kind of magic,” she said. “Money. But mine’s better.”

“And what’s yours?” he said, as he dug the cell phone out of his pocket.

“Desire,” she purred, turning back to him. “Anticipation. Faith.” She gestured to the room around her with a long, slender arm. “This is going to be my house. I can make it mine by sheer force of will.”

She caught his hand and dragged him back toward the hall. “This will be my room,” she said, opening the door on the smaller of the two. “Just enough room for a twin bed and four bookcases.” Then she turned him around and pushed open the door to the master bedroom with one toe.

The walls in there were angry red, the wookwork stained almost black. Bringing that room to a neutral color was a chore G– was dreading, but it had a dreadfully oppressive feel as it was. It didn’t seem to get through to her, though, because the girl danced into the room and said, “This will be the kids’ room. Lots of space to play. Can’t you just imagine?”

“Listen,” he said, “if you want to buy it, I’ll have the house on the market soon–“

She shook her head. “No you won’t,” she said. “Not this house. Besides, I don’t have any money.”

“You don’t need any,” he said. “I’ve got a great guy. I’ll give you his number.”

She just shook her head again. “I’m not interested.”

“Then you have to get out.” It was hard to be stern with her, but he had work to do. “Today. Now. Or I’ll call the cops.” He wasn’t entirely sure he could do that, but she didn’t call his bluff.

She sighed, and her shoulders fell, and she said, “Fine. I’ll go. Can I use your phone? I need my dad to bring his truck if I’m going to get all this stuff out.”

He grumbled about that, too, but if it got her gone he could spare the minutes. He waited there with her while she made the call, heard her ask the man on the other end to bring the truck, and then he got his phone back. “Good,” he said. “Umm…thanks. Now you can get dressed or whatever. I’m just going to get started–“

“Fine,” she said, and disappeared into the guest bedroom. He just stood for a moment, stunned, staring at the closed door. He thought about calling his dad, but decided to wait. He didn’t want her to overhear any part of that conversation.

Instead he went to the front door and got his tools. He had a handful of little projects from the inspectors, and he had planned to knock those out quickly and then spend the rest of the day planning his big renovation. He pulled the list from his back pocket, unfolded it, and picked the first item: busted faceplates in kitchen and laundry room. He had a couple cheap tan light switch and outlet covers in his tool chest, so he grabbed those and a flat-head screwdriver and got to work.

Thirty minutes later he was out front with his pickup pulled up in the yard so he could stand on the hood to reach the gutter. He had three long gutter spikes between his teeth and a hammer on his belt, but all his attention was on the warped bit of sharp-edged sheet metal in his hands. He couldn’t get the dangling section to match back up to the piece still on the wall.

Below him the screen door screamed open before it banged against the wall, and G– mentally added two items to his list: oil the hinges, and reattach the hydraulic arm. Then he glanced down at the pretty trespasser. She was wearing patched jeans and a worn brown sweater now, with flip-flops for shoes in spite of the cold. He growled, “You still here?” but the nails between his teeth garbled his words. She giggled and held up a thick paper cup. Sweet-smelling steam curled off the top of it.

“He’ll be here any minute now,” she said. “Hot tea?”

He just shook his head, amazed at her aplomb, but after a moment he relented. He climbed down off the hood of his truck and let go the dangling gutter. It creaked ominously, but it didn’t fall. He took the offered cup, then sank down on the front steps. “Thanks,” he said.

She moved around in front of him, fists on her hips, and waited until he looked up to meet his eyes. “I’m not a bad person,” she said softly.

“No,” he said, biting off the words. “You’re just crazy.”

She took a step back as though he’d hit her. For the first time since he’d shown up she looked upset. “I’m not crazy!”

“You can’t just move into someone else’s house because you want to.”

“You’d be surprised,” she said. “But I didn’t. I moved into my house–“

“This is not your house!”

“As you see it,” she said, then held up a hand to forestall his argument. “Okay, and the cops, too. I can’t suppress that kind of authority.”

He took a slow sip of his tea, then set the cup aside. He leaned back and looked up at her, finally curious. “What are you talking about?”

She frowned, as though she didn’t understand the question, and he shook his head. “You were talking about magic earlier,” he said. “Now it’s ‘suppressing authority.’ You don’t look a crazy person–“

She stomped her foot. “I’m not crazy!”

“Then what are you talking about?” He glanced up at the dangling gutter and knew he’d rather hear her story than get back to that. “Spill it.”

“Have you ever heard of Phenomenology?” she asked. “Brain in a vat?” He shook his head and she sank down on her heels in front of him. “Your whole universe is a model built inside your head, using your experiences, your expectations, and tiny electrical pulses from your nerves to populate it. Everything you see is just a message from your eyes to your brain, and based on that little spark of lighting your brain adds to the model however it sees fit. Everything you touch, every word you hear me saying–“

“Okay,” he said. “What’s the point?”

“It’s all a dream,” she said. “Your reality is a dream. Your brain is making it up, all the time, and you just go along with it. If you wanted to, though, you could change it. Take control of the dream. Put your mind to work for you and start producing reality instead of just consuming it.” She was breathing faster now, and her eyes were wide. He couldn’t help smiling at her enthusiasm.

“See,” he said, “that’s where you start to sound crazy.”

She rolled her eyes. “That’s the hard part,” she said. “When dreams overlap. When my world and your world come into contact, and they’re not the same, we have to negotiate a common ground.”

“And how would you do that?”

“Talking,” she said. “That’s the purest magic, rhetoric. Money works, too, like you said. And force.” She turned up her nose. “You invoked force, and I retreated, and your dream won out over mine.” She rose back to her feet, unfolding gracefully, and reached out to touch the fallen gutter with a tender hand. There was sadness in her eyes. “I lose my dream house,” she said, “and you get this dump. Congratulations.” As she said it her dad pulled up to the curb behind her. He honked the horn once and she glanced back over her shoulder. “I’ll be gone in a minute,” she said, and disappeared into the house.

After that there wasn’t much excitement to the project. G– got down to work. He fixed the easy stuff quickly, but after that things ground to a halt. He got into the attic to examine the ductwork and found termites in the ceiling. He pulled up carpet to check out the hardwoods and found water damage down to the subfloor. Christmas break came and went. When the lease on his apartment expired in the spring, he moved into the house so he could work on it full-time over the summer.

In spite of his difficulties, he kept an eye on the real estate market, still committed to his plan. In June he bought another place and sold it in July. In August he bought and sold two places, one of them in the same neighborhood as his starter house. He finally settled into a rhythm, learned the eccentricities of the local market, and got pretty good at what he did. He never could sell that first 2/1/1, though.

Then on a Thursday night, two years later, he was at Barnes and Noble grabbing a book on plumbing when he spotted her in one of the comfy chairs reading a trashy fantasy novel. He fell down into the chair next to her and when she didn’t look up he said, “Hey, squatter.”

That got her attention. She blinked at him for a moment, then grinned sarcastically and answered, “Hey there, cops.”

“That’s me,” he said. “What’s happening?”

“The kingdom’s crumbling and the lord goes off to war,” she said. “You?”

“Better than that.” He grinned. “Want to know something funny? I never did sell that house.”

She tilted her head, considering him, and said, “If you’re looking to unload it, I still don’t have any money.” She opened the book back up, ready to forget him.

He blinked, and coughed an awkward laugh. “Umm…no,” he said. “That’s not what I…. Listen, do you think you’d want to go out to dinner?’

Again he got that long, quiet stare, but then she nodded. “Sure,” she said. “Where did you have in mind?” They did Mexican, and then the Olive Garden on Saturday, and burgers next Friday before they went bowling. And then in April they got married. He finished college, and two years after that they started a family with twins on the first try. He spent a weekend moving furniture, painting, getting the kids’ room ready. And as he put the finishing touches on the new nursery — their old master bedroom, but they would need the extra space for two cribs, two dressers, and oh, the mountain of toys — he laughed out loud and went to find her in the living room, curled up with a book.

“It’s about done,” he told her.

She looked up at him absently, then saw the look on his face and her eyes narrowed. “Why are you smiling?”

“Remember the day we met?” he said, sinking down next to her on the couch. “Here?” She nodded, and he went on. “You said the master bedroom would be your kids’ room. Standing there in a towel, you told me that with a straight face.” She nodded again and he smiled. “Well, it’s done,” he said. “It came out just like said. Isn’t that crazy?”

But she just smiled, and laughed, and told him, “No. It’s just as it should be.”

Greatness: Heart’s Desire

There’s a verse in the Psalms that took me by surprise, first time I read it.

“Delight yourself in the Lord; and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

That’s Psalm 37:4. It’s in a familiar vein, “Ask and you shall receive,” and the kid asking his father for a loaf of bread, and even the insistent widow. That’s all Jesus, though, right? I mean, he was a generous guy. It struck me, though, reading the psalmist saying the same sort of thing….

Prayer is a serious thing, in the Bible. It’s a powerful thing. We are encouraged and ordered to use it. And not just for meditation, not just as an opportunity to spread our lives before God, and hopefully gain a new perspective. We are directly instructed to ask for what we want, because God wants to be our provider. He makes that clear, again and again. Look what he was trying to do in Eden.

That Psalm caught my attention when I was a boy, back when I was about sixteen, and I put it to the test. I felt confident in that time, because I did delight in the Lord, I was certain of that, and more importantly, I knew without a doubt the desire of my heart. And I didn’t have it.

So I prayed. I prayed, and in the night I had a dream, a glimpse of the life I wanted to have, years off, and that was enough for me. I took confidence from that moment, and I received what I asked for then.

That was a powerful experience for me.

A prayer isn’t a birthday cake wish, y’know? I don’t think it needs to be a secret. Sitting in church last Sunday, the man was saying this or that about relying on God, about letting him exercise his power within your life. That’s something I believe in, as all of you know. I believe the world is a malleable thing, that reality can be bent for the purposes of God or man. I nodded, understanding and encouraged, even, and suddenly I remembered high school, and that desperate prayer….

I have a heart’s desire, in my life today. I have lots of things to ask for (and hope that they will be given). We have a baby on the way, and I want her to be healthy. I want Trish to be healthy through it all, and I worry about that. I want lots of little things, the comforts that require wealth beyond what I already have. I pray a lot. I ask for a lot. But those are just things. Somehow, in my head at least, I’ve separated such prayers, such petitions, from the sort of desire the psalmist was talking about.

My heart’s desire, today and now, is to be a best-selling writer. I want to publish a work, and have it read by the world. I want to write, stories and lessons and snapshots, to show readers what the world was and is and could be. I want my name to be remembered, for the words that I said. I have a message that I want heard, I have talents, gifts, that I want to use. I want the money. Not that — I want the opportunity. I want my writing to be my life.

I was an A student in elementary school. I was good at everything except multiplication. I could teach myself, given the right books, and I usually managed to get them. I had a lot of plans for the future. For most of my childhood, they had nothing to do with writing.

A lot of you have known me for a long time, but if you haven’t heard me tell this story, you don’t know this story. That is to say, most of you know me as a writer, but none of you were there, at the crucial moment, when I discovered why I was a writer. Maybe Josh, but no one else.

I was maybe twelve. Probably eleven. We’d had a handful of writing projects over the last year, and I’d done well enough on them (but, then, I did well on all of my projects, as long as they weren’t based on multiplication). One day I was thinking through the writing process, though. The actual job description, of the sort of person who writes stories, and I realized it would be a home job. Maybe a nice office, maybe just a pad of paper on the kitchen table, but it would be a home job.

I wanted that, because I wanted to be home for my kids. I wanted to be home with my family, even when I was working. That picture stuck in my head, and I’ve never shaken it. Even times when I was certain I didn’t want kids, it was mostly because of some variation of the disappointment at realizing I wouldn’t be able to realize that picture.

I was twelve. That’s how I thought when I was twelve. Yeesh.

That’s my heart’s desire. I have a great job now, a fantastic one, that pays well and demands nothing of me but those things at which I excel, those things I can do easily and quickly and well. Given some of the things that have been discussed recently, it could get even better. And it’s a better job than I deserve, considering the effort I’ve put into it. I chalk that up to a blessing, a gift. I’m in no position to complain, and I realize that.

But my heart’s desire is to be a writer, just a writer, completely a writer, for my family. That last bit matters, too. I could have been a starving artist. I could have refused to take a job, and chased after every avenue available to me to get a book sold (in a market that is incredibly difficult to get a foot in the door), but it’s about more than that to me. That’s why I described my picture, my goal when I was twelve. I want it for my family, not in spite of my family. I want something better than I deserve to have, something I maybe had a shot at in the past, but I’ve squandered my opportunities. I want something that would completely change my life. I want it as a gift, served up on a silver platter.

Why not? It’s happened before.

I do delight in the Lord. Maybe not as loudly as I did back then. Certainly not as dogmatically. But I do. And I crave this, looking through the few short days between now and then, I want this very much. Please, let it be so. Amen.

The King, to the Poet (A Poem)

The King, to the Poet

Something happened, when no one was looking.
Quietly, politely, we tore it all down–
Ages old, majestic and mighty, we tore it down to build something new.

Shiny and new.

It was a tapestry once, that told a story around which we built our lives.
It was a mighty whole, a single fabric, built of myriad mysterious pieces.

With the blessing of all (or all but the fringe) we took it apart.

We took the shiny pieces and the pretty pieces and the useful pieces
And put them to work,
Doing our bidding (we once did its), and serving us in strength.

We marvel then at what our lives have become,
All built of artificial fibers and synthetic materials.
Appropriated. Misused.

And what of that old rag, that ancient tapestry?
It’s tatters now, of course, torn to shreds and threadbare
All that’s left behind.

And those same who plundered it now mock it for all the things it lacks.
For all the holes, for all the inconsistencies and flaws–
For gaps, that they had made.

There are gaps, and holes. Places where things once were,
Where things shiny and things pretty and things useful used to be.
It’s not the rag that’s torn, though.

The single piece is shattered, scattered, but its fragments still as strong.
Alas, they no longer grow as one.

You see, it was a living thing. It breathed the life of man.
We killed it, for our own ends — butchered it, for our wealth.
We took its intellect, to make us wise.
We took its heart, to learn some sort of kindness.
We took its soul, to give us more than life.
We took its might, its powers, its strength to change the world, and we made the world we wanted.

We still have all the pieces, and look how much they change our lives.
We killed the thing to get them, though.

We could start anew, of course. Some have tried.
We could make a new fabric, and start the ages-long process of giving it life,
Weave in the first of many threads, and make a gift to our descendants.
We’re a world of scavengers, though.
We’ve made our lives out of plundered parts now, and we’re not about to stop.

Start another if you want. It can be done.
But I’ll tell you this, my prophecy and sigh:
They’ll watch,
And they’ll point and laugh,
They’ll criticize everything that is not what the old thing was.

Then they’ll take everything that’s good, and mock you all the more.

Greatness: Story Idea

I took a nap and had a dream.

It was mainly about a little girl, named Ideine, who had a bunch of friends, but wasn’t happy. The actual scene in the dream was kinda something out of Buffy, and the girl was kinda Willow (but, to all of that, not really).

The story would start, “Ideine sat alone, and cried.”

Sometime in the past, an old man gave her a penny and he said, all sad, “You get everything you ask for, and you lose everything you want.” And it was true. The rest of her life, from that point, went exactly like that. Those became the natural laws of her reasonable, ordered, rational universe.

She became a kind of Cassandra, although she had been given no powers. She learned how to know what the universe would be, to see the future, simply by extrapolating based on her two natural laws: “You get everything you ask for, and you lose everything you want.”

Umm…it probably wouldn’t be a very happy story.

Backstory for My Vampire Book

There are two distinct elements at work here….

First: hundreds of years ago, there was a boy named Daven who went up against a dragon and lost. In the process, though, each received a kind of infusion of the other’s blood, creating a bond between them.

(There’s a whole long story, there, but to sum up, dragons are creatures of pure chaos, raw energy undirected. Humans are granted the special power of order, reason, to overcome their environment. The combination of the two made a single entity greater than its racial template, as it were.)

Daven had three sons by his wife Isabelle. After the birth of the first son, Isabelle also bonded a dragon, and as a result their second and third sons exhibited remarkable characteristics. They were born with a vast potential of power, inhuman authority, and they gravitated toward extremes. Isaiah became a creature of pure order, an aesthete who divorced himself from the messy chaos of humanity. Damion, on the other hand, embraced the raw power of chaos, embodying its lust for power and thirst for life. He became a monster, a terrible force that fed upon the blood of man for its survival and bent its victims to its own dark purposes.

Damion was not all dragon, though, and his roots in humanity tethered him to a sort of order, a limitation he could never escape. No matter how his power grew, he was always defeated by the unity of man, and the desire for order and control. Undying, immortal, he was always driven from any place he claimed. His greatest weakness was the overwhelming and unifying power of the Darken Orthodox, a strict and extensive branch of the ancient King’s church.

(Part the second)
The Darken Orthodox held sway over all the lands of the Ardain, the southern mainland that had once been part of the FirstKing’s lands. A century after the death of Daven the kings of the land lost control of their realm, and the Ardain rose up in rebellion, dividing into four kingdoms, known as the Major Baronies. In the city of Darken, in the southeast of these lands, stood a Cathedral that rivaled any in the world, commissioned from the wealth of Daven himself. Following the rebellion against the crown, the Darken Cathedral became the heart of the Darken Orthodox, the church of the Major Baronies.

The church’s power was absolute, and gave the Darken kingdom a political dominance of the other three. The church had its own order of knights, who had political authority to cross any border at will, and bore full judicial authority throughout the Ardain region. Many of the powerful resented the church’s clout, but the commoners were a devout people, and church prospered.

It came to pass, though, that an heir of the ancient king was found in the Northlands, and a high-ranking officer within the church’s Order Knights started a war to re-establish the old king’s throne. Civil war came, then, with five sides fighting each other, and in the Chaos, the church lost much of its hold on the nations.

In this atmosphere, the wandering Damion saw a chance for power. He began on the outskirts of one of the Major Baronies, on the border between civilization and wilderness. He began to establish a presence within a small town, gradually building influence over its citizens and amassing an army. There were rumors of dark tidings, but it was a dark time throughout the nation, and none looked too closely into the rumors.

This is the background. Our story begins when a lowly soldier returns home. A one-time Order Knight, disgusted with the policies and practices of the church in its prosecution of the war, abandons his faith and his assignment and seeks to return home. It is a dangerous journey through lands torn by war, but when he arrives home, he finds his village dark, changed, and a gloomy tower stands on the horizon where a beautiful, mysterious stranger has taken up residence.

Naturally, hilarity ensues.

Greatness: A Story Idea

A long time ago, I had a dream in which I was reading a short story by Zelazny, and when I woke up I remembered the story that I had been reading. It was a good one (and very Zelazny-esque), and I made some short notes to myself, in the hopes that one day I would write it up.

Then, of course, promptly forgot all about it.

Bruce wrote me the other day, and mentioned in passing the AA phrase, “fake it til you make it,” which reminded me of my own comment recently on the issue of lying, concerning pretending to be something better than you are, in order to become that (and the difficulties associated with that).

Also, for some completely inexplicable reason, Toby has been inundating my poor GMail with countless (read: “two”) articles concerning mind-controlling parasites.

And thinking on these things reminded me, across time and space, of the story idea I’d had long ago.

It goes like:

Somewhere in space, on some out-of-the-way planet, there is a parasitic creature that is capable of mind control, that enhances its victim’s aggressive instinct.

Another advanced race discovers the parasite and cultivates it, using it as a form of rehabilitation on truly horrible criminals, enemies of the state, and conquered enemy soldiers, turning them into state-sponsored assassins and soldiers. Eventually that race’s entire standing army is peopled with zombies controlled by these parasites.

Generally the life-expectancy of one of these zombies is pretty short, given its reckless charge into danger, but one particular criminal is so incredibly lucky and talented, that she lives for years longer than any other. She is quickly promoted from soldier to assassin, and becomes feared through the galaxy (style of thing).

Finally she shows up at some out-of-the-way bar and sits down across the table from some wanted fugitive, who recognizes her and knows that he’s dead. He strikes up a conversation, trying to buy time, and most of the actual story takes place within their little dialogue. And over the course of the story, you discover that the mind-control parasites themselves only live a couple of years, and that this one woman’s controllers died more than a decade ago, but she had become so much what the parasites made her, that even after their influence was gone, she just kept it up.

Then I suppose she kills him, because why not?

God: The Magic Architect

Once upon a time there was a Magic Architect and he was the best Magic Architect that had ever lived. The Magic Architect was able to build any kind of house or building just by wishing for it. Anything he could imagine, he could create, with just a word! His own home was a huge mansion, and it was filled with delightful things, but there were very few surprises there. Everything was simple, and beautiful — every wall, every room, every decoration.

Then one day the Magic Architect had a child! A beautiful baby boy was born, and the Architect was very happy, and very in love with his little son. As the boy grew older, he began to play with toys, and his favorite toys were little blocks. The boy would sit for hours, building, and the Magic Architect saw that his son, too, would be a Magic Architect.

(Continued in comments…because it is REALLY long.)

Greatness: Self-Determinism and the Nature of Reality

One of the most fascinating aspects of human history has been the remarkable success of the human species. Man, pitted against all Nature, has been able to thrive in nearly every climate. Man’s dominance over his environment can be seen in every aspect of his life. Man acts as Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer, building environments to suit his needs, maintaining them according to his expectations, and destroying them when and where they no longer suit him.

Man exerts his control over his environment in many ways, from metaphorical response to concrete pragmatism. From his earliest days, Man has used storytelling to create meaning and understand the world around him. By interpreting natural events in mythical ways, early Man was able to conceptualize the complexities of his environment in his own terms, and then respond to the story, rather than the base environment, in a way that allowed cultures to unite and prosper in pursuit of common goals. By sharing stories, individuals were able to share their interpretations of the world in which they lived. While the creative story defines the meaningful world in which Man lives, his interaction with that world tends to take a concrete form, in the use of tools and technology. From the crudest axe to the particle accelerators and nuclear reactors we see today, Man has long sought to use the elements of his environment to shape it into one more suited to his desires. Whether building structures for safety or damming rivers for power, whether moving mountains for easier travel or developing medicines to double his lifespan, Man uses technology to shape the reality he encounters into the reality he desires. Even within his own communities, Man creates reality, building up social structures to define the roles of community members, and manipulating expectations so that the creative energy of a multitude might work together to strengthen their shared environment. This last process can be most clearly seen in any established institution, from the covenant of marriage to the culture of Western Science, societies work together to construct shared systems of control on their environment.

Of course, these institutions are as much devoted to sustaining as they are to creating, and this can be seen clearly in the tendency of such systems to incorporate a great degree of tradition and respect for history. The base concept of “culture” — that is, the collection of human creations that most clearly illustrates a society’s constructed environment, most commonly in art and stories — is a maintenance force. That is, the cultural works of a society are valuable precisely because they are able to illustrate aspects of the society’s constructed reality, and encourage an audience to continue to construct for themselves a similar reality. By “constructed reality,” I mean those aspects of a society’s environment that are not inherent, not absolutely natural. This extends to every manufactured good, every built structure, but also to ephemerals that factor — in a very real way — into the lives of the society’s members; ephemerals such as morality, covenant relationships of any sort, and higher-level constructs such as worldview that, though based on the natural environment, will not naturally occur in precisely the same way from individual to individual, or society to society. Whenever a society agrees to share a constructed reality — again, from a similar architectural style to a generally compatible worldview — the society tends to devote itself to the maintenance of this constructed reality. On the most practical level, this is seen in Man’s animal instinct to survive, as the individual seeks to maintain a reality that includes him, rather than accepting nature’s proposed reality that…doesn’t. This same practical survival instinct echoes through all levels of a society’s constructed reality, as people strive to maintain what they have built, encouraging others to accept their own creations, and defending them against outside threats. Just as Man’s creative aspect can be found in the tools he uses to create, so too his sustaining aspect can be seen clearly in the tools he uses to measure and to record. Man’s clear desire to ever-more-perfectly measure and describe the world around him arises out of a desire to defend that world, to replicate his reality as faithfully as possible, whenever it is threatened.

Any force capable of creating and sustaining, must necessarily be able to destroy, as well. Consider the example of Man’s animal desire to survive, used earlier. This very basic sort of sustaining can only be achieved through the act of destruction, whether of plants and animals used as nourishment or of enemy creatures competing for resources. In the same way, Man’s power over nature includes a powerful destructive aspect on every level. Just as story and myth are used to create a meaningful worldview, there are methods of philosophical and rhetorical speech that can be used to destroy constructed meaning, from Nihilism to parody and satire. Furthermore, some methods of constructing meaning, such as Rationalism and Western Science, simultaneously construct meaning while destroying any other constructed systems that might rely on the same source material. Of course, Man’s destructive nature is not limited to his own constructions, but can also be bent against his base environment, destroying aspects of it that stand in his way (such as a mountain demolished to clear a path for a highway). Naturally, such destruction must also extend to those competing with Man to define his environment — namely, other societies of Man. Thus we have seen, throughout history, the violence and brutality of war, the viciousness of execution and murder, as Men ultimately destroy those who would challenge them to define the environment in which they move.

It is easy to focus on this last aspect of Man’s power and despair. It is equally easy to look on great works of art from time gone by, and regret what has been lost, or to consider Man’s wondrous accomplishments and marvel at the greatness of Man’s spirit. It is most important, though, to consider the whole aspect of Man’s power, to see clearly the ways in which Man builds environment (and maintains it, and destroys anything that would challenge it). It is important to understand the whole picture, to consider the parts together, so that we can more wisely interact with our fellow Man, and more powerfully, more perfectly shape an environment that will benefit us all.

(Click on Comments for links to previous posts on this topic.)