I’m not a cabinet maker

A Mason Bee hatching box I made for my wife.

The illustration above shows that I’m no cabinet maker. I’m slapdash at measuring, hopeless with mitre joints, mortice and tenon, or even worse, bloody dovetail joints. I am not skilled, despite a desperate desire to do a good job, and many years of sawing, planing, gluing, and drilling. It’s not that I haven’t put in time and effort, it’s that I haven’t LEARNED anything.

But you know what? That’s ok, because the stuff I am making is not for sale. It’s not going to be gracing anyone’s dining room, holding their precious heirloom china. When I make a box, it’s because we need a box to put something in, like hatching bees, or nesting birds or juggling equipment. Because I’m aware of my shortcomings in this area, I don’t expect much of my woodwork. If someone points to the barbeque box and says “Hey, this thing isn’t quite straight, and the door doesn’t close!” I’d be all “Yeah, you got that right. And look, it’s not properly weatherproof either.”

Why am I telling you about my inadequacies as a woodworker? Well, it’s an analogy (as well as being true). I spend a lot of time being a proofreader, and that’s something I’ve had to learn to switch off when reading social media. People post on social media (mostly) to get a thought or two off their brains. Pointing at flawed spelling or punctuation is meaningless point-scoring. I know I’m often fumble-fingered when trying to type on a stupid tiny phone keyboard. So, yeah, social media gets a pass. Like my barbeque box, right? It’s not for sale, it’s not polished, it’s not FOR anything, except holding my gas cylinder and supporting the barbeque.

But say you want to be a published writer. Say that’s your aim, your ambition. THEN, I think it’s reasonable for you to take the trouble over your work. Learn how to make dovetails, as it were. Because you ARE selling your work. You are standing up and saying “This is good, this is worth your time.” And if you want me to invest my time, then I think I’m worth proper punctuation, thanks.

Yes, you can point to a dozen or more award-winning novels who play fast and loose with rules of punctuation and grammar and maybe even spelling. And maybe you can find more than a dozen people who say they actually enjoyed reading those novels, and maybe some of them are telling the truth. If those authors are honest (and I don’t know which ones you’re thinking of, by the way), then they have chosen to discard those rules for a reason, for a specific effect. (In the novels I’m thinking of, the effect was to make the whole experience of reading more unpleasant, but that was ok because the stories were rubbish, the characters unlikeable, and the resolutions deeply unsatisfying.)

Let me be specific, and give you an example that turns up quite frequently in the works I proofread:

“Yeah.”

We all read that the same, didn’t we? It’s the word the Beatles sang in “She loves you”. It’s a lazy agreement, lacking formality. It’s an exhalation, or a shout of joy. Now look at this:

“Yea.”

Language is flexible, so you could make that three-letter word rhyme with “pea” and “sea”, or with “hay” and “day”. It’s the second one that I default to, reading it as a medieval agreement:

“Yea, verily my Lord, ’tis true.”

Why does this matter? Isn’t language evolving? That’s certainly what people say over and over when challenged over mistakes in grammar or spelling. And maybe it is, but “yea” is ALREADY A WORD. So when I read this:

Pete slumped back, defeated. “Yea.” he whispered.

Pete is saying a medieval word, which doesn’t match his character or his attitude. It’s wrong, it doesn’t fit, it throws the reader out of the moment into a little heap of “huh?”

If you want to be a writer, make an effort to learn the nuts and bolts (or tools and joints) of your chosen craft. Make sure that, if you’re leaving the nails exposed on your cabinet, it’s because you intended to.

Watching “In the Heights”

My kids have some weird pipeline into YouTube that connects them to the world of stage musicals. I don’t mind, because it seems to permanently block the pipeline that would lead to idiotic fundamentalism, Neo-Nazi madness and all the other evils that the algorithm seems to hand out to sad, lonely white boys with gun fetishes. Anyway, my kids are strong for LGBTQ+ visibility and rights, and that seems to tie in well with stage musicals for whatever reason.

The point is, they were Lin Manuel Miranda fans long before Mrs Dim or myself could remember all three names, let alone the order they came in. I do remember getting the original cast recording of In The Heights from the library, but it meant little to me, having not watched the show it came from. This week we finally got a chance to watch the movie version on Crave, and yes, I know there were representation issues even then, with LMM having to apologise for some decisions made about some characters, but it certainly wasn’t a whitewash. ScarJo wasn’t even any of the trees in the background.

In publishing (which I spy on through Twitter association with Real Authors), there’s a lot of discussion about representation. People with marginalised voices or experiences have historically been told that their stories have to conform to the (white) expected audience, or they won’t sell. the proof of this is usually the lack of books by those kinds of authors. but that is obviously a self-fulfilling prophecy – We can’t take you on because your book won’t sell, and your books don’t sell because authors like you don’t get taken on.

So here’s “In The Heights”, a story about a group of immigrants (1st and second and third generation) in an area of New York that is slowly pushing them out. They’re worried about their community, their livelihoods, their futures, and in some cases, their chances of staying in the country. None of this, to be clear, meshes with any of my life experience. I don’t even like New York. (I went once. It was ok, but I’ve been to better cities.) This being the case, I should NOT be the target audience for this adaptation. But I felt for the characters. I could understand their anger at their treatment because of the colour of their skin, or the country of origin, even if it has never happened to me. I could understand the anger of the daughter whose father was desperate for her to go to an Ivy League College, for her to do so much better than he had, whether or not it was what SHE wanted. I could understand the man looking to revive his father’s business, even though it meant leaving the community where he’d grown up. These were not things I had experienced, but they were things I could understand. And you know what? I didn’t need an explanation, or dictionary, or even subtitles for most of it. Just empathy.

Someone talking about film once said “I’d rather be confused for ten minutes than bored for ten seconds”, but I think the mega-studio system has lowered the bar on both those timings. In the search for ever bigger hits, movies are being reduced to reach the lowest common denominator. Don’t make me think, don’t make me work, explain it all, lay it out, and don’t ask me to read subtitles. Watching “In The Heights”, or reading “Binti” or “Mexican Gothic” doesn’t require a study of other languages or cultures. It just needs an open mind, an empathy for the feelings of another human being. Our ceremonies, habits and customs might vary, but love is love, hate is hate, fear is fear. People are people, to paraphrase a Muppet Movie.

As a white Cis/het male, I have no problem with watching movies where the lead is female, of another race, of another sexuality. Why would I? Story is story. If it’s a love story, I’d like a happy ever after, whether it’s for him and her, for her and her, or for them. “In the Heights” made me laugh and cry because the stories were good, and so it didn’t matter that I don’t like New York, or that (despite my best efforts and fervent desire) I still can’t speak Spanish. But the important thing about it is how many people out there will see THEIR story on the screen. they’ll see people who look like them finally stepping out of the shadows of some other lead actor. Because of this, they’ll feel that what they do in life matters. They can tell their stories, or launch their business, or go to college, because they’re not just background extras in life, they are the stars of their own story.

I’m not myself today.

We have a program at work called “Not myself today” that is intended to help people spot signs of mental illness or dysfunction – anything from work-related stress, to more major issues of depression or things like that. Jaunty posters in the elevator encourage us to take time out during the day to step away from screens, to go for a walk, to listen to music, meditate or talk to a friend. We have testimonials on the Staff Web from NMT representatives (Ambassadors) who talk frankly about their own experiences, and encourage us to share ours. The whole point is to show that everyone is suffering to some degree, thanks to Covid, to staff shortages, to the pressure of the modern world. Ignoring that fact, just putting on a brave face and soldiering on doesn’t solve the problem.

So I shouldn’t have a problem with telling my co-workers that I’m on the edge of a breakdown myself, right? I shouldn’t have to remind myself that it’s been almost six months since Mrs Dim had her stroke, that I’ve spent that long worrying about her health, her future, our finances, the mortgage, the kids’ education, the car… I shouldn’t have a problem with telling them that I need some time off, but I do. Because I don’t get paid for time off. Because I only work four days a week anyway, so why would I need more time off? Because my job isn’t hard, it’s not physically demanding, or mentally draining, and I don’t have to bring it home with me. And besides, there’s only three of us to do the job, one of whom is still learning the ropes, and the other ALSO only works a four day week, so if I don’t go in on Friday, there’s only one person to do everything…

There’s always a reason, isn’t there? But last night I was looking at the upcoming days and feeling dread. Every morning was going to start early and there would be things to do immediately, even on the weekend. I would be getting up with the alarm and starting off at once all the way through to next Friday. Then I could have a lie in, if no one arranged anything else for me to do in the meantime. But you know what? We have to get the tires changed on the Mini, and I should have booked a dentist appointment, and I need to see the Chiro again… The thought of having to wait so long for just the possibility of a bit of a break was too much.

So I had a little bit of a breakdown.

Mrs Dim called work this morning and told them I wasn’t going to be in for a couple of days. Of course, she only spoke to the answering machine, so I don’t know what’s actually going on there today, but Mrs Dim keeps telling me that’s not my responsibility. I’m not the boss.

But I still feel terrible for putting the burden on someone else. Yes, I feel better for staying home, and it’s true that my responsibilities for the home mean I have to prioritize my mental health – I’m no good to anyone if I have a full breakdown, after all – but feeling better just means I feel I should be going in to work.

The point is not so much the stigma about mental health preventing me for asking for time off, it’s me being in a precarious work position at 49. My job doesn’t have paid vacation, so time off means less money. The library as a whole is struggling to fill positions, so the auxiliaries who would usually cover vacant positions in my department are already fully employed in other positions for weeks ahead. I can believe in the validity of my need to give myself a break, but there aren’t mechanisms in place to support my department if I do. Again, that’s not supposed to be my problem, but letting go of the idea of my responsibility to the patrons is hard. It’s one more source of stress.

Here I am, collecting my scattered wits at home, trying to find a balance between caring for my wife and letting her care for me. Wondering what’s happening at work, if my absence will actually push anyone to make changes.

Book Review : The Past is Red

Given the two years of Covid, and the trailing toxic cloud of the Trump administration (which, like it or not, affects the whole world, despite America’s insular cluture), you’d think we’d want to avoid the climate catastrophe in fiction. Certainly, reading apocalyptic visions of the near future was not on my to-do list, since it feels like I could look out the window for that.

But I trust Catherynne Valente. I’ve read “The Girl who circumnavigated Fairyland in a boat of her own design” and liked it. She’s well-respected by authors whom I respect. And also, that cover was a real draw.

It’s a short book, narrated by the main character, Tetley, who lives on what was the great Garbage Patch in the middle of the ocean. The survivors of the rising waters landed on the garbage patch and sorted the garbage into different lands, then made homes there.

Tetley is an unreliable narrator, but always sets the record straight eventually. As the cover reveals, her voice is remarkably upbeat, given her situation as a hated outcast among her own people.

I’m not going to go into detail about the plot, because it’s twisty, and told non-chronologically, and I don’t want to inadvertantly give away important points. But it’s a gripping story – not in a run-for-your-life-there-are-wolves way (though there IS a tiger), but in a turn-the-page-I-have-to-know-what’s-next way.

I think what really got me was one character expressing my own fears about the future. He bewails the loss of ease. When I think about the problems we have all perpetuated, I worry that my children’s children won’t live a life where water comes from a tap, or electricity is easily accessible. I know that’s not the case for everyone right now, and that inequality is just as unforgivable as the inaction to prevent the catastrophe that we can see approaching. But, like that character says, it’s “soon, but not yet”, and so we have not acted, because to act would cost us some of the ease and convenience we have become accustomed to. We won’t risk that, despite the certainty that it will cost us the earth.

Read the book, folks, it’s really, really good.

Inspiration

Writer's Block, Flow, and Some Views on 'the Muse' – Jennysoft.com

Inspiration is not the problem.

Inspiration is BLOODY EVERYWHERE. All the time.

It’s in the song you hear over breakfast. In the conversation of strangers on the SkyTrain. It’s in the summary of the movie on tv later tonight, a paragraph of someone else’s invention that sparks a thought about something almost, but not quite, completely different.

Every day, there’s something that makes me stop and look at a picture only I can see. Perhaps it’s a whole scene, perhaps just a vignette. Sometimes it’s a story thread, winding away through the air like a piano playing in the room next door.

Inspiration is the brain’s cold-caller, ringing me up when I have my hands full, finding their way around the blocks on their numbers to offer the best deal on anything I could ever want, but I have to answer RIGHT NOW, hand over my credit card details without delay or this offer will expire…

And it’s impossible to silence this clarion call, there’s no escaping it in my everyday life. Driving the work van, choosing the books for today’s patrons, walking from the SkyTrain station to the library, there are mountains of potential unfolding in my brain, crowds of characters parading through my head, their arcs intersecting in moments of blinding drama that would shake the foundations of the literary world if only –

I…could…just…get…to…somewhere..that..I…could…write…them..down.

And the grim truth is that I can escape. If the noise of Calliope’s musings gets too loud, I can bring down the curtain with a single, simple act.

I sit at my keyboard.

Terry Pratchett was not just good and funny, he was right.

No one argues the fact that the loss of Terry Pratchett was a tragedy. The televised version of “Good Omens” brought a new wave of readers to his books, and there are millions like me who have never left the Discworld, coming back again and again to walk the streets of Ankh Morpork with Vimes and Carrot, or run across the Chalk with Tiffany Aching, or run away from everything with Rincewind the wizzard*.

Terry’s words have appeared on my social media timeline again and again in the past few years. People pick the Vimes “boots theory” of socio-economic unfairness, or Vimes’ musings on how the police should be the servants of the law, not the government. They pick Granny Weatherwax’s words on Headology, or her disections of psychology.

One of my favourite quotes is this exchange between Miss Tick, the Witch Finder, and Tiffany Aching:

Miss Tick sniffed. ‘You could say this advice is priceless,’ she said. ‘Are you listening?’
‘Yes,’ said Tiffany.
‘Good. Now … if you trust in yourself …’
‘Yes?’
‘… and believe in your dreams …’
‘Yes?’
‘… and follow your star …’ Miss Tick went on.
‘Yes?’
‘… you’ll still get beaten by people who spent THEIR time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.

But to me, Terry’s works seem even more prescient now, or at least written by someone who really saw people as they are. We’ve all seen people saying they finally understand the trope in zombie movies where people who have been bitten conceal the bite, putting their friends and families at risk. We’ve watched the people marching for their “right” to become infected, to pass that infection along to the vulnerable.

Last night I started re-reading “The Bromeliad”, Terry’s trilogy about the Nomes. It has a lot to say about people as a group, and how good ideas can be hard to get into heads that are, apparently, completely empty. It also shows that the best leaders are the ones who don’t want to be leaders, but want to make life better for others. I feel that too many of the people at the top of our political trees are the ones who wanted to be important, wanted power, wanted influence, and don’t care what they have to do to get it.

Of course, the Nomes don’t have social media. They listen to the people in charge, and then they argue amongst themselves about it, but they don’t have these outlets constantly promoting voices that may or may not have good standing. Outlets that are, let’s not forget, built and run by individuals and companies that are aiming to make money, regardless of what they said when they set up the app,or site, or whatever. (Most of these social media sites we cling to start with a fanfare about connection, or sharing, or communicating, but they all come down to money in the end. If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product being sold. Because, yes, we gave them our email address, our phone number, our likes and preferences, and not one of us read the EULA before we clicked the “accept” button. We gave them permission, and we don’t know what for.)

So, as I did in my lonely year in Portsmouth, sharing a two-bedroom flat with a man whose entire diet consisted of Frosties, I have retreated to the comforting world of the Nomes. Where life is hard, and difficult, and getting anything done requires explanation, repetition and shouting. But they do it. They go from Outside to the safety of The Store, then almost immediately have to persuade everyone to leave The Store, even though most of them don’t believe there’s anywhere else to go. They have to figure out how to take enough with them to survive, and to do that they have to persuade the others that they are capable of doing it.

Terry saw the world very clearly, and he put so much of what he saw into his books so we could see it the same way. I’m sure he’d be horrified by the behavior on display today, and I would dearly love to see what he would say in response. We can’t claim things on his behalf, of course, but we can read what he wrote and allow that to influence how we behave, in this world that’s sometimes more unbelievable than one carried on the back of a giant turtle.

*Rincewind’s spelling is as good as his…er…spelling?

Why your opinion is worthless

It’s been nearly two years of Covid. Two years of speculation on what it would mean, how it might spread, how it could be fought and overcome. And for just as long there have been people who said that it wouldn’t be a problem, that it wasn’t a danger, that people shouldn’t worry.

Those people were wrong. That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. Covid spread worldwide, it’s killed millions, and it hasn’t gone away (or even “disappeared like a miracle”)

Now we have vaccines, something people were desperate for when the scope of the problem became evident, but the effectiveness of those vaccines has been eroded by people who:

A: Wouldn’t get vaccinated

B: Wouldn’t wear masks and

C: Wouldn’t reduce social interaction.

These people are broadly grouped together as “Anti-vaxxers”, though in truth they have no organisation, no common message, and only ignorance in common with one another. Countless op-eds in newspapers and online have suggested that we (the folks who got vaccinated, maintained social distance and continue to wear masks in public) should treat the “vaccine hesitants” with respect, because we won’t change their views with scorn, mockery or, it appears, the truth.

While I understand this point of view, I think it falls down on one fundamental point – it’s bollocks.

If, after nearly two years of Covid, you are “hesitant” about the vaccine, it’s because you are being wilfully ignorant. You have ignored the mountains of evidence and clung to obscure YouTube videos and Twitter links that reinforced your original thoughts They are right, you believe, because even though they are the minority viewpoint, they align with YOUR viewpoint. The “Mainstream media”, which you trust for your weather, traffic reports, news of major crimes and international events, is targeting this one aspect of modern life for a torrent of disinformation, and are paying off legions of doctors and nurses (and, presumably, dead people) to create this fiction that Covid is dangerous.

If you don’t “believe” in the vaccine, let me take this opportunity to say I do not care in the slightest about your beliefs, and neither does the world. You can choose not believe in tables, or mountains, or Buddhists. The world will still contain those things. Your belief, or lack of, does not change anything.

If you are “hesitant” because you don’t know what’s in the vaccine, or you’re worried about being microchipped or traced, then I hope you cook every meal from fresh ingredients you farm yourself, and never take any other form of pharmaceutical. I hope you read every word of every EULA that accompanies every app on your phone or your computer. In fact, I would hope you don’t HAVE a phone if you’re worried about being tracked or traced.

If you’re concerned that the vaccine rewrites your DNA, please lie down in a dark room before you hurt yourself or others. It’s probably too late to tell you not to take horse de-wormer.

Finally, if your stance is predicated on “Freedom” or involves the words “liberty” or “constitution”, reflect on the fact that you are looking for language that will permit you to care only about yourself and your own convenience. Other people would like freedom and liberty. Other people are protected by your country’s founding documents. Why do YOU suddenly take precedence when you’re being asked to take medical precautions that protect YOU as well as them? When you shout about freedom, I see a toddler whining about having to eat vegetables. You don’t care what the results of your actions may be in the future, you want to avoid responsibilities NOW. You don’t want to wear a mask, or take a vaccine, it’s inconvenient to you.

There’s no reason to treat such attitudes with respect, or to attempt to understand them. They are selfish, childish attitudes that have prolonged this pandemic, and will continue to do so. I’m vaccinated, I wear a mask to work every day. I keep my distance when I can. None of this is convenient, but it’s necessary. It’s necessary because childish, selfish people refuse to take those same precautions, and I’m done with them.

Chuck Wendig: The Book of Accidents

Working at CanPages wasn’t a bad job. It was close to home, paid more than my previous job, and I had to actually WORK (because proofreading is hard). Of course, the skeptical would say that getting a job with a provider of local phone directories was a little short-sighted, especially in 2013. Anyway, yes, they were bought out and shut down, but a few sections were told to finish up what they were doing before leaving. Including my section, who stayed on for three or four months after everyone else had left.

With nothing to do.

And I mean, NOTHING. I had a desk, a Mac and two 23 inch screens, and no work to do. I spent those months on Google Plus, which was still a thing back then, and I’m pretty sure it was around that time that I came to know the work of Chuck Wendig. First through his G+ posts, then through his blog, Terribleminds, and then through his books.

Over the years I have read e-books, physical books, borrowed books from the library, asked for them for Christmas. I don’t know that I’ve read everything he’s written, but I have read all the Miriam Black books, and the Atlanta Burns stories. I read “Wanderers” with more than a little awe at the sheer scope of it.

It’s natural enough, then, that I would grab “The Book of Accidents” with both hands when it came along.

Chuck Wendig does not write easy books. He doesn’t spin calming visions of meadows and sunshine. His are not the tales of humourous misunderstandings, or social faux pas. Chuck puts monsters under the beds, then has those monsters turn out to be glove puppets of a worse monster, who is actually only the polite face of a monster so terrifying that other monsters leave a nightlight on.

“The Book of Accidents” is big, not as long as “Wanderers”, but still a healthy-sized tome, and I was looking forward to reading it slowly. I’ve just about finished “The Night Circus” for the third time, and need a break from the swirling rage it generates by being so effortlessly brilliant and simple, yet mind-numbingly complex and heartbreaking at the same time. The family sat down to dinner last night and put on a movie I wasn’t interested in, so I picked up “The Book of Accidents.” That would have been around 6.45pm. I can’t tell you what time I finished reading the book that night, because I lie on my side facing away from the clock, but I suspect it was past 1am. I’m a bit tired today, but it was totally worth it.

Like many of his books, “The Book of Accidents” quickly builds up a head of steam, and then it does not relent. The characters and the events are moving fast, and I did not want to stop reading, did not want to step out of the world of the novel and have to wade through normality for a day to get back to reading. I read, and I read, and I read, and when I closed the book, I did not feel cheated. The story delivers on the early promise, and while not every thread is neatly tied off, they don’t need to be. If there’s no sequel, that’s not an issue, but if there is, I’d read that for sure.

A few warnings – Chuck deals in gore, and there is plenty in this book. There are graphic descriptions of deaths and violence and school shooting victims. Like I said, he’s not writing whimsical comedies here.

But if you like sharp prose, fast plots, weird, weird, WEIRD goings-on and a SUPER-SIZED dollop of scary, then this is the book you need. And then go back to Blackbirds, Bad blood, Shotgun Gravy….

Genius is hereditary….I hope.

Alongside the ever present conundrum of “What sort of plays do you write?”, the second most popular question people ask is “Why did you become a playwright?”*

It’s a fair question, and one I used to answer with some vague pompous and self-aggrandizing waffle about working my way through the various formats until I found the one that took the least effort for the most money.
But the stupid thing is, there’s a sensible and much more compelling answer: My Dad is a playwright.

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It’s stupid because it’s taken me so long to realise. Dad has always been a vicar. It’s something he worked hard at, and I only really thought of him in those terms : Dad/Vicar. But while he was doing all that vicar stuff, he wrote several terrific plays for the young people of the church (and a good few adults as well) that play to all the strengths of good community theatre plays.

1.    They are written for a minimalist stage. All Dad’s plays were performed in the church, and although he was able to construct a small stage for most of the churches he worked in, the performance space was not purpose built. There were rudimentary flats, but the main idea was that lighting and props gave the idea of location (along with the dialogue, of course) and any bits of furniture that were needed could only appear if it was feasible to lug ’em onstage by hand during a blackout.

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2.       Like the staging restrictions, there were restrictions on the effects available. The lighting was limited, usually either hired or volunteered, but the best you could hope for would be different lighting areas and some colour. No flashy effects or projections – this was in the early Eighties, after all.

3.        Large cast. With the number of kids in attendance, plus the adults, there were a lot of people to accommodate. Luckily the Bible isn’t a small cast production, so there are plenty of parts on offer if that’s your source material. But you have to be pretty smart about how many are going to be onstage at a time, how long are they on or off, and what the heck are all the folks who aren’t onstage doing?

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4.     Story. Yes the Bible has plenty of stories to work with, but if you’re performing for a church audience, you have to think of new ways to present stories they’ve heard every Sunday. That was tricky enough in “All Prophet No Loss” which dealt with the various prophets, but in “Man on a Donkey” Dad was telling arguably the most famous story of all, Holy Week and the Crucifixion.

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Dad took on these challenges while doing his day job, one far more demanding and time consuming than any I’ve ever tackled. He wrote these brilliant full length plays and my Mum wrote songs to go along with them. Together they produced and directed them, oversaw the making of costumes (again, something simple, like tabards or waistcoats in the main) , manufactured props and painted flats.

And in amongst it all, a young me was wandering around, occasionally helping, usually hindering and always in some part or other. I was the man in the market, explaining the strange behaviour of the Prophet Hosea. I was a slave in Egypt, singing a funny song based on the old hit “Right said Fred” and trapping a wicked overseer in a statue made from cardboard boxes. Critics agree my best appearance was as the advertising salesman “Gordon Bennett” selling his line of Garden Machinery for Block and Dibber.

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Years of my childhood, spent preparing for and acting in plays written by my father, and I couldn’t come up with a more compelling reason for being a playwright than : “It was easier than writing a novel.”

Sometimes life’s secrets aren’t secret at all – they’re so obvious you have trouble seeing them.

 

*This has only become the second most popular question since I stopped working as the Door Greeter in Home Depot. Back then, the second most popular question people asked me was “Which way to the washrooms?”

Be a man.

A Dirty Job (Grim Reaper, #1)

As you might be able to tell from the illustration, I’ve just finished reading “A Dirty Job” by Christopher Moore. Again. I think this is the third or fourth time I’ve read it, and I’ve listened to it on audio a couple of times too. I’ve also read the sequel, but not recently. I’ll be collecting that one again next week, I think.

One of the things that draws me to this book is that the central character is described as a Beta Male. Not only is he described that way by the omniscient author voice, he also describes himself that way, and is content with the description. In a world where we love to label people, Beta Male is not usually considered one of the nice ones.

The odd thing is, Alpha Male is also probably most used as a derogatory term. Maybe it’s my own Beta sensibilities, but the few men I see using the term unironically about themselves online are NOT living the kind of life that looks appealing. It’s the kind of life that looks both entirely superficial and exhausting. It’s all about how shiny and fast my car is, how big my pecs are, how much cash I’m making RIGHT NOW, and the crucial point of all this is: are these things MORE than everyone else around me?

Of course, Alpha Males will tell you I’m wrong about that. They’ll talk about warrior this, and hunter that, and maybe leadership something or other. If you’re unlucky, they’ll also start in a diatribe about wolf society that is both wrong and outdated nonsense.

Growing up, the heroes onscreen that I saw were all Alphas. They were bold, physical, decisive. They took risks. I remember very clearly watching a James Bond movie (The World is not Enough) where Bond follows a lead by assuming a man’s identity and getting on a plane. He doesn’t know where the plane is going, doesn’t know what his assumed identity was meant to do there, and he had no back up. To me, that was terrifying.

But being Beta has made my life what it is. It didn’t bother me that I earned less than Mrs Dim, or that her career meant we would have to move every couple of years, so I couldn’t have a traditional employment path. It meant I could accept the reality of me being the primary caregiver once we had children, and it meant our arguments, disagreements, fights and differences of opinion never boiled over into anything major – I had backing down built into my DNA. And backing down doesn’t mean losing, folks. When you lower the temperature of the fight, you allow the pre-frontal cortex to re-assert control of the brain, supplanting the amygdala, which kicks in first in stressful situations. Your amygdala is the lizard brain, the home of fight-or-flight, whereas your proper reasoning is in your pre-frontal cortex. Once that can consider the facts, you make better decisions, but it’s slow to get moving. I didn’t win every argument (a lot of the time it was because I was wrong), but sometimes I got my point across later.

I have three kids, all AFAB, and I used to get a lot of comments about being a dad raising girls. People used to express sorrow at the family dog also being female, as if having a male dog would give me some kind of solace, some bastion of maleness from which the pair of us could regard the rest of the family. It always sounded weird to me, because I LIKED my kids. Just because they were girls didn’t mean there was some kind of gulf between us. They liked Star Wars and Doctor Who, and yes, they had dolls and fairies and stuff too, but they were my kids and I knew them very well. When they were tiny I would dress them for practicality, but when they were older they picked their own outfits, and dresses or trousers were their choice, and I don’t believe my views affected those choices one way or the other.

My middle kid told me the other day that I don’t fit a lot of the dad memes on Reddit – I’m not emotionally distant, or rushing out to spend time fishing or working on a car. I still did all the stuff I remembered from MY childhood – a dad should give rides on shoulders, should say “Hey, I think I have a book on that” when you’re doing a school project, should help you fix broken things, be bad at dancing, and know some obscure songs.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Alpha Males are the whole problem. You get assholes in every community. I belong to the Star Wars Fan community, Cosplay Community, Writing Community, Library Community, Ex-pats community…. No group of people exists with a common thread that doesn’t include at least one person who’s an asshole. But the Alpha Male image is based on propping up the ego of that individual. All the traits that they laud in themselves are selfish ones. Are they the ones to lead a group of survivors on a desert island? Maybe. Are they a useful member of the community in normal times? Less so, I would say.

We finally live in times where marginalised communities are rising to be heard. People from areas of life who have been oppressed, enslaved, denied, derided and pushed aside. They are standing up and demanding their space. Who is IN their space? Right now, it’s generally white guys, guys who think of themselves as global Alphas. And while most people know that it’s a big table with room for everyone, all those Alphas think that allowing others to the table means pushing them out. Betas would be asking if anyone wanted snacks on the table, if everybody was ok with their chairs. Betas want people to get along. Remember that internet tagline about “Don’t teach women self-defense, teach your sons not to rape?” That’s this too. The whole idiotic “incel” movement is based on entitlement : “I should have a girlfriend who has sex with me, I’m OWED one. The films and TV say it should happen because I’m a strong man.”

Alpha thinking. That guy who gave symposiums on “How to get girls”, who wrote the playbook. Like there’s a formula you can repeat to win any woman. Alpha thinking.

Alpha thinking has done more than enough. European men have rampaged around the globe, incels have murdered women, others have killed indiscriminately because of their belief in themselves, in their rights and what they are owed. It’s past time for the Alphas to stand aside, and realise their lives are phony and destructive.