on digital books, a lime green glass, and d’Artagnan

From some indeterminate point in May to an equally vague point in September, I drink cold brew coffee in the morning. I drink it from a lime green plastic glass — because something about that color appeals to me in a summer sort of way, and because I like the clicky sound made by the iced tea spoon when I stir it. In September — at the end of this week, in fact — I’ll shift back to hot coffee, which I drink in a brown metal insulated mug.

I could, of course, drink the coffee in any sort of container and it would taste as good, but I choose those two because they please me. They’re a part of my morning ritual. Greet the cat, check the perimeter (with the cat, of course), feed the cat, get my coffee, read the news. I live a fairly irregular and unscheduled life, so that morning ritual provides a sort of ground-level continuity — a semi-stable foundation to begin the day.

What does that have to do with digital books? Nothing, in a material way — but they’re related in a sort of philosophical way. Recently a friend mentioned they couldn’t bring themselves to buy an e-book reader, and asked me how I could bring myself to abandon physical books. This is my answer.

A lot of people have a relationship with books that’s similar to my relationship with my lime green plastic glass. The thing is, physical objects can develop a certain presence that stems from the object’s personal history with the user. We’ve all experienced this. Maybe you have a favorite shirt — something faded and worn and not suitable to wear in public, but imbued with memories and a weird sort of affection that makes it impossible to discard. Maybe you have a screwdriver or soup ladle inherited from a grandparent, or a some old work gloves loaned to you by a friend who moved away before you could return them, or an early Baywatch poster that’s sort of embarrassing now but still un-throw-awayable — something (some thing) that has a personal meaning to you and only you.

So, how could I abandon physical books? How could I give up that tactile experience of holding a book in my hand? How could I shift away from the sound and feel of turning a physical page? Didn’t I miss the particular smell of a book? How could I reduce a great novel to nothing more than a collection of digitized ones and zeros?

I get that notion. I totally do. There are absolutely some physical experiences that clearly lose something important when they’re de-objectified, when objects are turned into information. The ringing of a church-bell, for example; we can digitally reproduce that sound, but we can’t reproduce the experience, the physicality of a ringing bell, the way the sound waves impact our bodies.

But for me, the impact of a book — and especially of a novel — isn’t in the substance of the paper and the binding, it’s in the ideas generated by the story. It’s in the unique and intensely personal interpretation of what’s written. For me, it’s the writing that matters more than the way it’s presented; it doesn’t matter to me if the words are printed on a physical page or digitally reproduced on a screen.

Originally, I thought it would matter. In fact, I refused to buy an e-book reader because I was concerned it would degrade the experience of reading. But then, back in 2010, I was given a Nook, an e-reader developed by and for Barnes & Noble booksellers. It came with a couple of classic novels already loaded — both of which I’d read and re-read several times. Pride and Prejudice and The Three Musketeers. Because it was a gift, I felt obligated to at least try using the Nook. So I started to re-read the story of Charles de Batz de Castelmore d’Artagnan and his ridiculous quest to become a musketeer — and by the time I finished the third paragraph, I was caught up in the narrative.

Imagine to yourself a Don Quixote of eighteen; a Don Quixote without his corselet, without his coat of mail, without his cuisses; a Don Quixote clothed in a woolen doublet, the blue color of which had faded into a nameless shade between lees of wine and a heavenly azure; face long and brown; high cheek bones, a sign of sagacity; the maxillary muscles enormously developed, an infallible sign by which a Gascon may always be detected, even without his cap—and our young man wore a cap set off with a sort of feather; the eye open and intelligent; the nose hooked, but finely chiseled. Too big for a youth, too small for a grown man, an experienced eye might have taken him for a farmer’s son upon a journey had it not been for the long sword which, dangling from a leather baldric, hit against the calves of its owner as he walked, and against the rough side of his steed when he was on horseback.

That pair of sentences would make any modern editor have a seizure, but they set the tone for this particular novel. More importantly, they create an image in my mind of the character d’Artagnan. Reading it digitized — like it is here — creates the same image in my mind as reading it on a printed page. That mental image has nothing to do with the medium that created it, paper or digital. It’s unique to me; your mental image of young d’Artagnan is probably different, because…well, fuck. I have to go off on a tangent here. I’ve been trying to reduce the number of tangents in these blog posts, but damn it, here we go.

That’s d’Artagnan, right there.

I think we can all agree that with very few exceptions, books are better than the movies made from those books. One reason for that is because the characters in movies rarely resemble the characters we create in our mind when we read a novel. But on occasion, a character is so perfectly cast that we impose that actor’s face on the character in the novel. And the 1973 film adaptation directed by Richard Lester has permanently imprinted the face of Michael York on my personal interpretation of d’Artagnan. Now and for the rest of my life, when I read The Three Musketeers, I see Michael York.

Right, tangent over, and back to my point, which is as follows: some physical objects, though routine contact with people, develop an almost mystical connection to the person who possesses them. I have a relationship with my lime green glass, for example. My cold brew coffee would taste as good in a ceramic mug, but the glass means something to me. But my relationship with books, and particularly novels, is different. That relationship is grounded in the ideas created through the writing, not in the device that contains them.

When it comes to books, my interest is in the cold brew, not the lime green plastic glass.

slay the big bad, return to the prom

There were many days during the Trump Dark Nightmare Interval when I felt like we were living out an episode–hell, an entire season–of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One of the many messages hard-wired into BtVS was that the Slayer was…wait. Okay, there may be some folks who aren’t familiar with this television show. I mean, BtVS ended in 2003, almost two decades ago, so I suppose I should recap the…no, never mind. You either know about BtVS or you don’t. If you don’t, then I advise you to correct that failure.

Anyway, one of the many things I liked about Buffy is the way the show ended. Instead of…okay, damn it, I guess I do need to explain a little bit about the show. Bear with me a moment. The premise of BtVS is that 1) there are vampires, 2) there is a vampire Slayer, and 3) the Slayer is always female. Got that? Lots of vampires, one female Slayer. Not just vampires, mind you; there are lots of other forces of…well, wait. Here’s the show’s intro:

Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer.

So, again, lots of vampires, one Slayer* (yes, there’s an asterisk to appease BtVS fans who know better, but y’all don’t need to fret about it–just accept one Slayer-many vampires). If you do the math, you’ll see the shelf life of a Slayer is generally pretty brief. But when one gets killed, another is ‘chosen’. Don’t ask about the selection process; it doesn’t matter. Just accept it. A Slayer dies, all her power and abilities get transferred to some other poor girl. And yes, they say ‘girl’ because the new Slayer is always a teenager. Again, don’t ask why; it just is what it is. What matters is that this girl/young woman is then stuck with the thankless job of killing vampires. There’s a large pool of ‘potential’ Slayers out in the world–girls and young women all over the globe who are unaware and unsuspecting, but standing in an apparently arbitrary queue to become the next Slayer.

Them’s the rules. Buffy had no choice; some Slayer died, and she got drafted into a career she didn’t really want–and tried to avoid. Who could blame her? One day she’s picking out what to wear to prom, then next she’s supposed to fight demons? And eventually be killed by them? Who’d sign up for that? Wait, here, watch this. It’s a scene in which Buffy learns about a prophesy that she’s going to die.

“I’m sixteen years old,” she says. “I don’t want to die.” Doesn’t matter that another Slayer will be born; she’s sixteen and she’s going to be killed (and don’t forget, there’s a HUGE difference between ‘dying’ and ‘being killed’) just because she won a lottery she hadn’t even bought a ticket for. “They say how he’s gonna kill me? Do you think it’ll hurt?” She just wanted to go the fucking prom like a normal person.

Okay, now back to the point I wanted to make at the beginning. We’re closing in on what we hope is the season finale of the Trump story arc. He’s been sidelined, but he’s still a threat. So are all the lesser marauding TrumpDemons out there in the community, spreading Covid and insurrection. I find myself thinking about the way BtVS ended. Until Buffy, every other television/movie superhero story in the world ended in pretty much the same way: the superhero finds a way to stop the Big Bad (whatever it happens to be) by being a superhero–by using superpowers in an heroic way.

But not Buffy. She stops the Big Bad largely by changing the rules–by ending that “one girl in all the world, a chosen one” business. Buffy stops the Big Bad by giving up the very thing that makes her special. She finds a way to make ALL the potential Slayers into actual Slayers. Teen-aged girls all over the world can now do what Buffy does.

And they need to. Because the Big Bad–in whatever form it takes–can be stopped, but it never dies. It always keeps coming back. Which, obviously, is why Slayers have to keep showing up and kicking its ass. Which is why Buffy’s prom keeps being interrupted.

Slay the Big Bad, return to the prom.

My point–my goofy, sappy, obvious point–is that even though the current Hellmouth has collapsed in on itself, there’s still a LOT of ugly shit in the world and the threat is still active. So it’s up to all of us, to each of us, to step up and be as strong and determined as teen-aged girls. So to speak.

We don’t have to stake anybody (and really, we shouldn’t, even if we want to); but we DO have to put in a little effort. Vote, of course. But also call your members of Congress. Donate (if you can afford it) to candidates who share your values. Attend a demonstration. Buy and wear a t-shirt proclaiming your views. Seriously, wear a t-shirt. Being public about your opinions is not only empowering for you, but also encourages other folks to be public. It’s a way of recognizing and supporting other vampire slayers.

It’s okay to be scared–even by little things, like making a phone call or wearing a t-shirt in public. Ask yourself, “What would Buffy do?” Then put on your t-shirt or prom dress and don’t let your fear make you silent. Go to the prom, dance and have fun, slay a monster or two while the band is on break, and return to the prom. Keep dancing. Make your voice heard.

Make your voice heard.

i had a thought

So Texas legislators got clever and cute; they found a way to dodge the civil rights protections that allow pregnant folks control over their reproduction. They cobbled together a devious, shifty way to stop abortions–which, after all, is a safe, legal medical practice they disapprove of for their personal religious reasons.

See, the mechanism by which the courts protected civil rights involved is grounded in the 14th Amendment. That amendment is divided into two chunks. The first chunk defines who qualifies as a US citizen. We can skip that for now. It’s the second chunk we need to pay attention to. The second chunk says…well, hell, just read it:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

There it is. No State–like, say, Texas–can make or ENFORCE a law that deprives a citizen of their rights under the Constitution. That ‘enforcement’ business is where Texas got cute. The State of Texas doesn’t enforce any abortion ban. Instead, it relies on ordinary citizens to step up and sue the shit out of anybody who performs or aids or abets an abortion. If the Federal government says, “Yo, Texas, c’mon, you know abortions are legal, you can’t do just ban them,” Texas can say, “Hey, it’s not me, I’m not doing anything, I’m just standing here with my hands in my pockets.”

Cute and clever, right?

I had a thought. It’s just a thought; I haven’t done a lick of research about this. But if this shit stands…and given the Trumpist-dominated SCOTUS, it might…my thought is this: maybe we can turn the idea on its head.

Democratic-run states can pass similar laws. If anybody aids or abets a firearm sale that results in an injury or death, we can sue the shit out of everybody involved. The person who sold the gun, the people who hired the person who sold the gun, the individuals who assembled the gun, the company that manufactured the gun. They all aided and abetted the injury.

Now apply that to catching Covid, or attempting to vote, or polluting the air, or contributing to climate change, or or or. Hell, make it so private citizens can sue clothing manufacturers for failing to put workable pockets in women’s clothes–surely we can come up with an argument that requiring a woman to carry some sort of bag at all times is an infringement on their right to…something. Autonomy? Doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter, because the point–as with the Texas abortion law–isn’t necessarily to WIN the lawsuit. It’s to harass and intimidate; it’s to force the people we disagree with to cough up the coin (and the time) necessary to defend themselves in court.

Okay, I admit, that would be a shitty way to behave. It’s a shitty way to even think. But right now, I’m kinda okay with that.

We can be cute and clever too.

cane toads of politics–part 2

Back in June of 2014–that’s 20fucking14, people–I wrote about the cane toads of politics. I was talking about the way the Republican Party was deliberately encouraging fuckwits and conspiracy theorists to disrupt healthy political discourse as a tool for gaining and staying in power. My point was….wait. Damn it. Hold on.

Okay, cane toads–a quick and dirty primer: they’re a species of truly massive, voracious, ridiculously fecund toads that are also poisonous to predators. These gargantuan bastards will eat anything, including each other if no other food is handy. Greedy industrialist farmers who wanted a cheap, easy way to control insects introduced cane toads to sugar cane fields in places like Hawaii, the Caribbean, the Philippines, and now–because cane toads ARE such massive, voracious, ridiculously fecund, poisonous toads–the cane fields are overrun with cane toads.

Every Republican governor in the US.

Right. My point, as I was saying, was that introducing and promoting cane toads (or any invasive species) into an environment inevitably results in the destruction of other species that are actually helpful to that environment. When you introduce the cane toads of politics–the gun toads, the climate toads, the religious toads, the abortion toads, the conspiracy toads–into local and national politics, you create the conditions that inevitably degrade and destroy a healthy political environment.

Right now Texas is a cane toad state; it’s overrun with cane toads. Florida is just about there. Almost every state with a Republican governor and legislature is heading in the same direction. Right now, today, Texas is a state where almost anybody can openly carry a gun in public–no need for a license, no need for training, no need to obtain a permit, no need to undergo a background check. Sure, you’re supposed to legally obtain that gun, but nobody is going to check to see if you did.

Right now, today, Texas is a state that has deliberately and systematically made it more difficult for Black and Latino citizens—citizens of Texas–to cast a vote to determine who will govern them and make their laws. Right now, today, Texas is a state in which it is almost impossible for a person who is pregnant to obtain a legal abortion, even if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.

How is that possible? It’s possible because cane toads eat their own. Like I said back in 2014, Cane toads don’t stop being cane toads just because the beetles are gone. They’re still hungry and they’re still poisonous, and they don’t stop. This is why there are no longer any moderate Republicans. This is why there are no pro-choice Republicans, no Republicans who believe in climate change or reasonable firearm safety legislation, this is why we have anti-vax and anti-mask Republicans, this is exactly why there are Republicans who support insurrectionists. There aren’t any moderate pragmatic Republicans anymore because the cane toads ate them.

If we want to preserve the cane fields of representative democracy, we have to drive out the cane toads.

i am asshole, hear me roar

At the beginning of August I wrote a post about the response of the patriots at FreeRepublic to all those anti-vax fuckwits who, as they’re about to die a preventable death from Covid, suddenly see the benefits of being vaxxed. I titled the post Asshole Culture.

A few days later somebody asked me, “Greg, old Sock, this ‘Asshole Culture’ of which you speak, qu’est-ce que c’est?” Which is a good question. For those of us who spent too much time hanging out in grad school Sociology coffee shops, ‘culture’ is an overarching term to describe the social behaviors and norms of groups, grounded in the shared knowledge, beliefs, customs of the individual members of those groups. So Asshole Culture is basically the associated social behaviors of assholes.

Back in 2015 I began calling certain members of the Republican Party the Fuckwit Collective. I did that because they were, you know, a collection of fuckwits. Seemed pretty obvious. It was pretty obvious. But it was also naive.

Anti-mask/anti-vax assholes.

See, I thought the Fuckwit Collective was doing cruel stupid shit because they were just too stupid to understand that what they were doing was cruel. Silly rabbit, that was naive. It’s become clear to me now that a LOT of conservatives are doing cruel stupid shit NOT because they’re stupid, but because they’re cruel. Either the Fuckwit Collective has evolved into full blown Asshole Culture, or they were always assholes and I failed to give them credit for it.

Let me simplify it even more. This is the mantra of Asshole Culture:

I do/do not want to do this thing. I don’t care if it helps other people. You can’t make me do or not do this thing. I will go way the fuck out of my way to create a disturbance sufficient to make others miserable in order to do/not do/stop other people from doing this thing. I am Asshole, hear me roar.

Examples? You want examples? Dude. Obviously, the anti-vax assholes. It’s not just that they don’t want to be vaxxed, they don’t want other folks to be vaxxed. Why? Because it makes them feel bad, it makes them feel weak and vulnerable. So they act like assholes. They disrupt free vaccination sites to prevent other folks who WANT to be vaxxed from getting the vaccinations. They not only refuse to wear masks themselves, they don’t want others to be masked. They will disrupt school board meetings that want to keep kids safe by enforcing mask mandates. They will threaten school board members at their homes.

Open carry assholes.

Another example? Open carry assholes. The assholes who want to be openly armed in line at the Dunkin Donuts. Others (and I’ve done this my ownself) will mock them for being timid, afraid to stand in line at Dunkin Donuts without their guns, but that’s not true. They’re not afraid; they’re just assholes. Their intent isn’t self protection; their intent is to intimidate others, to make other people uncomfortable.

Another example? Aggressively Christian assholes. The assholes who insist on putting Christian religious symbols in public non-religious venues. Like the Christian cross recently placed at the entrance of the Mission Command Complex at Fort Dix. That wasn’t an assertion of religious belief; it was just some asshole trying to provoke a response which will allow them to claim to be persecuted. The intent wasn’t to promote Christianity; the intent was to piss off non-Christians.

Anti-trans assholes.

Still more examples? Defending the 1/6 insurrectionists as ‘tourists’. Calling for Biden to be impeached for withdrawing from Afghanistan. Performing fake audits on the 2020 election results. Claiming there’s a war on Christmas. Protesting at citizenship ceremonies. Insisting on ‘patriotic’ fireworks displays during a drought. Scaring people about trans folks using public toilets. None of these behaviors are sincere expressions of belief; they’re all examples of assholes being assholes.

Asshole Culture is nothing more than performative indignation intended to insult or outrage or intimidate others. It’s now the dominant culture in the modern Republican Party. How did that happen? Why did it happen?

My assumption is it happened because there’s almost zero consequences for being an asshole if you’re white.