Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Freedom vs. Safety

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We all want to be safe. We want the military to keep us safe from terrorism; we want the police to keep us safe from criminals; we want the FBI to protect us from the mafia and other internal threats; we want the CIA to protect us from external threats.

We want to be able to go to the store or the library or school or our jobs and feel as if we’re not under imminent threat of attack from some maniac or group of maniacs who have it in their heads that we’re evil and need to be destroyed.

We want to be able to monitor those people who are plotting against us so we can prevent their attacks before they happen. We want to be able to prevent them from getting their hands on weapons that can kill us.

At the same time, we all want to be free. We want to be able to read what we want and say what we want without interference from the government. We want to be able to have a conversation without worrying about whether we’re being monitored by some creepy agency that’s purporting to keep us safe from terrorists.

Many of us want to be able to hunt or keep a gun for protection, and many of us don’t want our Second Amendment rights infringed by those who disagree with our positions. And many of us are afraid that if only the government has weapons, then we are at risk if some madman gets elected and decides to curtail our rights and freedoms. Sure, the odds of that happening are slim, but if we give up our guns, do those odds change?

We don’t want guns in the wrong hands, but we don’t necessarily trust the government to tell us if we’re worthy of carrying them. How intelligent, how sane, how stable must we be to be allowed to possess a gun? And who decides if we’re a threat?

Unfortunately, we can’t have both complete freedom and complete safety. We must sacrifice a little freedom to preserve our communal safety. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. How much freedom do we surrender? How much risk is acceptable? I don’t think we’re far from the ideal balance, but I don’t think we’re there yet either. On guns, I think we need a little more control – on speech, a little less.

Perhaps

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I like dreaming

Imagining things will someday be better than they are

We will respect each other

Listen to each other

Resist judgment because we don’t know all the facts

We’ll offer support and friendship

And a dollar or two

Because money’s value is not just a number on a bill

But in how that bill can buy a meal

Or a sweater

Or a home

But I won’t give away all my money

Because then I won’t be able to buy beer.

Faith vs. Truth

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

When we discover a “truth” we want to tell the world about it, for we are excited that we’ve learned this new thing and we want others to share our excitement. And sometimes, that’s a good thing. But sometimes it isn’t.

When we discover that we can save money on fuel by going to a gas station not too far away and we tell our friends and family about it, that’s a good thing.

When we discover that we’ve been wasting resources by taking extra-long, hot showers or mowing the lawn more often than we need to or heating our house to a comfortable temperature even when we’re not home, then it behooves us and our social network to point out the fact so that others can learn from it.

However, when we discover a “truth” like religion and become born again and decide to share that truth with others, we have a tendency to bore or irritate or offend.

Partly this is because religion is (or at least should be) personal.

Partly it’s because we tend to be too enthusiastic in our sharing, assuming everyone will want to know the good news because we’ve become infatuated by it.

And partly it’s because truth like this isn’t truth at all – not to denigrate it, but religion isn’t truth.

It’s faith. It’s belief.

It may be a particularly strong faith. We may be certain our religion is correct based on our reading of holy texts and conversations with holy people and reports of miracles and such, but the fact is that religion isn’t about truth – other than personal, internal truth – the truth of self-knowledge. It’s about using myths and lore and legend to make sense of our lives when we can’t otherwise make sense of them.

If we find truth in religion, if we find meaning where once there was none, yay for us. But the idea that everyone else must share that internal truth is folly. And it’s dangerous. Let’s keep our religion to ourselves.

Why Sports Matter

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I loved sports as a young man, cheering on the home team and playing several sports myself. I saw in athletics the joy of learning what my limits were – the pursuit of physical perfection even though I knew that wasn’t really possible.

Later I came to look down on sports as the glorification of the physical (and the individual) at the expense of the collective. Even for team sports, especially professional team sports, the adulation tended to migrate toward the stars. We remember the stars of the great teams from the past, but we forget the supporting players.

Magic Johnson, Joe DiMaggio, Wayne Gretzky, Brett Favre, Mia Hamm: all of them caught our imaginations at some point. But their teammates are mostly forgotten.

And there’s an arbitrariness to sports that Noam Chomsky so elegantly noted. Sports, he said, occupy the population and keep them from trying to get involved in things that really matter. They train us for subordination to power and for chauvinism – and they develop totally irrational loyalties.

This is all true.

And yet – it is also true, I think, that sports mollify something black in our natures. They serve as a stand-in for the violence of which we might otherwise partake. Without sports, we might engage in endless wars. It almost seems like we do that now anyway, but the global scene might become more chaotic without sports to drain us of our competitive urges, our desire to dominate, our appetite for the hunt and the kill.

Not to mention that physical exercise is necessary for the mind as well – without movement, blood flow dries up and the body shrivels, taking the mind with it. So I’m back to being pro sports again, though I will never be a great fan of professional sports ever again.

I’ll instead try to stay active and appreciate sports at the lower levels – grade school and high school particularly – watching kids thrill to their accomplishments. See you in the park.

Cloning a Mammoth

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

If we could clone a Woolly Mammoth, should we?

The scientist in me says, “Yes, absolutely. Think how much we could learn about it – how it lived and interacted with its environment. And we could experience something that hasn’t been around for thousands of years. Plus, look at those massive tusks!”

But the humanist in me says, “No. We would have to keep it in a cage of sorts for its own protection. We couldn’t let it roam free. Its habitat is not what it used to be. It would have to be managed and controlled, forever a prisoner. You just know some moron would want to kill it for his trophy collection.”

I think we’re close to pulling it off – probably in the next decade. And I think, once we know how to do it, someone will decide that we ought to. I only hope we’re kinder to the mammoth this time around.

Kenny

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I never knew you.

You lived across the street for twenty years, except for those times when the state incarcerated you.

I saw you wander the neighborhood collecting other people’s castoffs, seeing value in their trash.

A lawn mower with a clogged carburetor, a bicycle with a broken chain, a desk with an amputated leg.

You welcomed them all.

It was people who mystified you.

If only you could have connected with us the same way.

Instead you stared in our direction with van Gogh intensity.

You dared us to breach the space you built around yourself.

Someone once said that you must be a nice person because you loved dogs.

And you did.

But you frightened me enough that I kept my distance until that Sunday morning when the van pulled up to cart your body away.

Then I tried to understand you and why you would choose to leave this mortal coil.

I guess, in the end, you had nothing except the seven dumpsters of Things they hauled out of your house.

Your precious collection.

I may not have known you, but I will remember you.

Individual vs. Societal Rights

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

When does a society have the right to tell an individual how to live his life? When does an individual have the right to tell society to leave her alone?

Consider the case of a sex offender who has been incarcerated for 20 years and who has now served his sentence and been recommended for release by the psychiatrists who have been treating him. Should he be released even though there’s a chance he’ll abuse someone else?

Should he be kept behind bars even though he’s served his debt to society and has been deemed no longer a threat? Do sex offenders lose their due process rights completely? We can’t know for certain if he will abuse someone upon his release, but there’s obviously a chance he will re-offend. Do we get to keep him locked up?

Or consider the drunk driver who has been arrested 10 times and keeps on driving while impaired. We can take her car away and revoke her license, but what happens if she continues to find ways to drink and drive? Can we lock her up for life?

How about the man who hoards garbage on his property for decades? Can we go onto his property and clean it up even though in his mind he’s not hurting anyone? Do we have the right to tell him how to live his life?

What about the schizophrenic who refuses to take her medication because it makes her feel not like herself? Yet when she is unmedicated, she is at risk of starting fires or hurting someone because of voices in her head?

These are tough questions and there are no easy answers.

But choices must be made and society has an obligation to protect its citizens. The individual must defer to the collective when public safety is at issue. That does not mean we can run roughshod over individuals with impunity.

If the sex offender, the drunk driver and the schizophrenic cannot be trusted to live unconfined, then the confinement must be something better than prison. If we can take away the hoarder’s property, then we must compensate him for it. But how much should society have to pay? What happens when the societal burden becomes too great?

If we have to fix roads and sewers and the electrical grid and pay for medical services for the poor and elderly as well as fund national defense, how are we supposed to pay for all this without raising taxes substantially?

We as a society need to decide what kind of government we want. Until we determine that, we can’t forge lasting solutions to these problems. We can create a hands-off government and accept the risks that accompany it or we can establish a more interventionist government and sacrifice certain individual rights.

I prefer the latter, but I realize the country is split nearly in half, so I suspect we will continue using bandages rather than solving the problem.

Where do characters come from?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Characters can come from anywhere; they can be composites of people you know, derivatives of people you’ve read about or seen on TV, or wholly invented. But they will also be a part of you if they’re to be believable.

You must insert a part of yourself in every character you create, even the villains and the minor characters who inhabit the page. If you don’t do that, readers will generally fail to connect to them. That’s not to say all your characters should be similar or speak or think in the same way, but they should all have a truth to their motivations and goals.

For example, in The Devereaux Dilemma, I created a character called Sister Ezekiel. I’m not a nun. Never have been. So how do I create a believable nun? I started with a nun who taught me in grade school – Sister Isadore. She was slim, with gray hair and glasses, and rarely demonstrated a sense of humor to her students (I assume because she wanted them to take school seriously).

I added in what I knew of Mother Teresa – how she struggled with her faith despite being a nun and in service to God – a woman who was iron willed and unyielding when it came to protecting her charges.

Finally, I asked myself, if I were a nun (or a Christian brother or priest or monk or in some way in service to God), how would I approach the challenges that Sister Ezekiel faces? I had to imagine that I possessed the faith she possesses. I had to imagine that I cared for her guests as much as she did. I had to put myself in her shoes to determine what moves she would logically make.

By doing that I was able to construct what I think is a believable character with the proper motivations and decision-making processes. Many people have told me they love that character. That’s very gratifying. But it took a lot of work, a lot of sitting around thinking about what I would do if I were in her place. That’s where the part of me got inserted into that particular character.

And that’s how each character must be approached – as a separate challenge and a unique individual. If you do that and you do it well, you will have created something to be proud of.

What is good writing?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

What is good writing?

Is it brevity?

Is it beautiful language that flows – a silky smooth river of words meandering downstream from the premise to the inevitable conclusion, swirling around obstacles in pretty whirlpools that delight, drifting ever further to the waterfall finale?

Good writing is writing that strikes a chord in the reader, making the reader want more – and that can happen in many ways.

It often seems to happen through the expression of a great idea in a way that allows the reader to grasp it quickly, though sometimes it happens by positing a question or problem for the reader to solve, provided the question or problem is one that the reader finds interesting.

Poetry often offers imagistic phrases with ambiguous meaning that we find pleasing even though we’re not quite sure what the poem means. This is an example of the silky smooth river of words.

Hemingway offers the opposite – a terseness that might qualify as minimalism. And yet many of us find his work pleasing as well.

We writers should probably be trying for some middle ground, trying to order our words in such a way as to please the reader, but also staying out of the way of the story. When you are reading a novel and come across a particularly beautiful sentence or a particularly awful one, you are pulled out of the story for a moment and have to re-insert yourself into the make-believe. That’s usually not a good thing.

Practice the craft of writing every day, temper your skills on the forge of repetition, but always remember you need to offer the public a compelling reason to engage in the act of reading your work.

Does Isolationism Work?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

With the Ebola virus hitting western Africa hard, there has been increasing talk of isolating ourselves from at least that part of the world. But should we?

Many nations take a more isolationist approach to the world than the US. We’ve been interventionists for a long time, so if we were to shift our focus more inward, the global situation would change pretty dramatically.

Yes, we would help ourselves in the short term, not just with keeping out disease, but also with utilizing the money we save on badly needed infrastructure. Our roads, bridges, sewers, power and rail lines and oil/gas conduits all need work and would greatly benefit from more attention.

But there’s a cost too.

The rest of the world expects us to be their police officers. We meddle and interfere, but we also prevent, to some degree, hostile, expansionist actions by other countries to neighboring nations (see Ukraine and Russia for an exception).

If we were to abdicate that responsibility, how long would it take China, Russia and other aggressive nations to assert their dominance in their sectors? And how difficult would it be to assist subjugated countries if we don’t have a military presence nearby, ready to move at relatively quick notice?

If we like the balance of power the way it is, if we don’t wish to be faced with the empire China and Russia long to become, we have to at least consider whether we should be pulling back from our voluntary commitments to the rest of the world.

I’m no isolationist. I’m not an expansionist either. But there’s a middle ground we can tread that keeps the status quo intact, preserving the balance of power we have grown accustomed to and before we decide to change that situation, we need to think carefully about the consequences of doing so.

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