Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Spring

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

You tease us with warmth

Like a belly dancer

Swaying nearer

Then pulling away

Veils keeping us from seeing you clearly

Music pulsating

Audience edging forward in their seats

Eager to grasp the beauty you promise

While you skirt the edges of the stage

Bare feet gliding sideways

As you study us

Watching to see how much you can torment us

Before you recede once again

Into the distance

But only for a spell

While we, entranced,

Call for your return

Helpless with the hope you inspire

Damn it!

Get over here, you vixen!

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Mental Illness: We Should Do Better

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I took some medication recently that caused me to suffer from almost crippling anxiety. I didn’t know at the time that the medication caused the anxiety, nor did I know for the first day or two that I was suffering from anxiety. I just began to feel anxious, less energetic and less motivated to do things.

Later, the anxiety worsened to the point that I had a minor panic attack over the idea of shoveling snow. I almost couldn’t force myself outside to clear off the driveway. I somehow managed to get the job done, but I worried the whole time I was shoveling whether I was having a heart attack.

I felt slight pain in my arm and a little tightening in my chest – not enough to drop my shovel and run into the house to call 911, but enough that I seriously wondered if I might die right there.

As the days passed and my anxiety eased slightly, I considered seeing a doctor. I knew that my anxiety was a problem, that I shouldn’t be that concerned about six inches of snow. I feared that I might have undergone some sort of chemical imbalance in my brain, and that I might have this kind of debilitating anxiety for the rest of my life.

What a terrifying prospect.

To live one’s life in a constant state of nervousness and indecision, to worry about small things as if they were life-changing events, to worry about larger threats as if they were imminent: this struck me as a horrible life.

I also thought about how if I had owned a gun, I might someday decide to use it on myself if the anxiety worsened. I worried about killing myself and I also worried about living with such an emotionally painful disability.

Eventually, the anxiety disappeared and I learned that it had most likely been caused by the medication. The first thing I resolved was never to take that medication again. But the second was that I needed to have a greater appreciation for those with mental illnesses who live among us every day.

We can’t know what it’s like to experience that kind of suffering every waking moment, but I can tell you that from my brief flirtation with it, it was the worst time of my life.

We have a tendency to blame the victim in this country, to say that these people need to buck up and get help, even though we don’t want to pay for it. We want them to get jobs despite the fact that doing so requires a motivation and energy they often cannot locate. We think there’s something wrong with them and that’s true; but what’s wrong with them is a physiological disease, not a mental deficiency.

We need to put more effort into treating mental illness, a disease that nearly 1 in 5 Americans suffer from every year. For more information, check out this link:

https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers

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The World Demands Hypocrisy

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We are all hypocrites. That should come as no surprise to most of you. We all decry liars even as we all lie. We all demand perfection from others even as we fail to achieve it ourselves.

But hypocrisy is inherent in our nature. We are genetically wired for it and we’ll never be able to eliminate it from our society. Why? Because it actually works in most cases to advance our positions, to keep us in power or help us attain it.

Look at the simple lie. We tell our children to tell the truth. We ingrain in them that truth is the best policy and for the most part we believe that. But children soon discover what we learned in our youth: lies serve a purpose.

Sometimes lies are done for selfish reasons, to prevent being punished for doing something wrong or to bolster one’s standing by perhaps diminishing others’ respect for a rival.

And sometimes lies are done for selfless reasons, to prevent another from feeling bad by praising inferior work or maintaining their self-esteem. “It’s not you, it’s me,” is a common phrase for removing oneself from a relationship. Everyone knows it’s a lie, but it softens the blow of rejection.

The point is that lying often works. People – not just the liars but the recipients of the lies too – feel better as a result.

Or look at those on the opposite side of any political argument. We find that our opponents use bizarre logic to justify their positions, twisting the facts to reach conclusions they want to reach instead of allowing the facts to speak for themselves. The problem, however, is that they feel the same way about us.

Each side uses the facts that support its positions while discarding those facts that are inconvenient.

Political pork: bad. A government project in my neighborhood that brings stable jobs: good. Burdensome government regulations: bad. Forcing companies not to pollute our water: good. Increased property taxes: bad. Highly rated schools and a strong police force: good.

Consider the thrice-married Trump. A sexual predator, he won the support of evangelicals who decided he was better than Hillary (perhaps because he was anti-abortion and that trumps everything else) and voted for him despite declaiming the behaviors he proudly admitted to committing. That’s good hypocrisy!

There are so many examples of hypocrisy I won’t even attempt to list them all. But here’s the thing: we’re all hypocrites – and we all have to be hypocrites to survive, to get ahead in the world.

If you tell the truth all the time, you likely won’t get very far in your job. Telling the boss his idea is stupid will probably only get you fired. So you lie even though you’ve told yourself that lying is technically bad.

Hypocrisy, ultimately, is part of the human condition. So it’s okay to mock it, but maybe not as harshly as you wish to. Because we all imbibe from that stream.

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Sunrise or Sunset?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Everyone likes a good sunrise or sunset, but people definitely fall into two different camps on these events. Most folks prefer sunsets to sunrises. I’ve talked to quite a few and they tell me that the reason for their preference is because the colors are generally better. And that’s true.

But they also like to see the colors slowly fade to black – a normal sky gradually coloring with golds and oranges and reds finally overcome by gray and then charcoal – the end to another day, a chance to wind down from the stressors and demands of friends, family and job.

Watching the sun set seems like a perfect way to move from activity to quietude. Days of hustle and bustle give way to nights of relaxation, as the mind numbs itself looking at the pretty colors, anesthetizing the brain without having to resort to alcohol, although alcohol helps.

Sunrises, on the other hand, are about the transition from stillness to motion, from the unseen to the seen. And I defy anyone to insist that sunsets are the prettier event after witnessing an Arizona sunrise with the mountains in the distance reflecting the morning star’s rays.

A good sunrise helps prepare one for the day, for the challenges to come, for the frenetic pace that inevitably will follow breakfast. Before the kids are up, before the office calls, before the mind opens fully to the myriad requirements on one’s time, just sitting in a chair and staring at the waking world leads one to marvel at the possibility inherent in every moment.

I think the reason most people prefer sunsets is because of the lifestyle we lead. We’re often, at least in the cities, still asleep when the sun rises, except in winter. During winter we’re in the office or at school, so it’s easy to miss the colorful palette that dances outside our windows.

Sunsets, however, generally occur after we’re home and before we retire for the evening. They strike when we’re best able to appreciate them. That gives us a greater opportunity to notice their beauty.

Even if we’re home for the sunrise, we’re generally getting ready for work, taking a shower, preparing breakfast, getting the kids’ lunches packed, feeding the dog, checking our email for projects that need to be finished today. We’re steeling ourselves for action, uninterested in pausing for even a moment, because we want to hurry on our way, get to work so we complete our tasks as quickly as possible and get back home.

Our society makes it difficult for us to appreciate sunrises in the same way we savor sunsets.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you like sunrises or sunsets more. What matters is that you take the time to linger over them. Not every day. Maybe not even every week, but once in a while. Put down your device, move to a window (or even outside if the weather permits) and, drink in hand or not, simply watch the free slideshow, letting your mind be carried along to serenity.

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Why America Is Moving Right

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

America is moving closer to being a Republican-governed country even though a majority of its citizens identify as Democrats or Independents. How is this happening?

Largely it’s a result of the dictates of the Constitution and the geographic movement of individuals to large cities. Let’s start with the Constitution. It requires two senators from every state, whether large or small. So Wyoming (population 585,000) gets two senators just like California (population 39.25 million). Utah (population 3 million) gets two senators just like New York (population 19.75 million).

In fact, 50 percent of the population lives in just 9 states – California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Georgia. This means that 18 senators represent half of the country while 82 senators represent the other half.

People are leaving rural and semi-rural areas for cities and suburbs – the places where jobs, education and other opportunities are greater. So it’s no surprise that people want to live there, but it does raise certain problems.

The folks who remain in rural communities lean more Republican than Democrat. So even though the US Congress is re-aligned every ten years after the census – with growing states getting more representatives and shrinking states getting fewer – the Senate is a different story. Those numbers are fixed.

And it’s not just the Senate where this becomes an issue. Recall how we elect presidents – a little thing called the Electoral College, which consists of 538 electors – one for each member of the House and one for each senator, with three extra for the District of Columbia.

We’ve already seen examples of how that will play out in the coming years. Only five presidents have won office despite losing the popular vote – John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), George W. Bush (2000) and Donald Trump (2016), who lost by the greatest margin of any president in history.

These kinds of elections are likely to occur with increasing frequency as the population moves into cities and suburbs. In the not too distant future, I can imagine a candidate winning as much as 65 percent of the popular vote and still losing the election.

Republicans (the winners) will be happy about this, of course, while Democrats (the losers) will not. But whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, this dynamic leads us to a potentially vast problem – and that is the end of the peaceful transfer of power.

If you are one of the two-thirds of the country who voted for the losing candidate, are you going to accept the results without some sort of action? Many will, I suppose. But many won’t. They will begin by marching and protesting, but if their voices are not heard, many will ultimately resort to violence.

It’s hard to blame people for engaging in a revolution when the vast majority of them feel as if the system is rigged against them. That’s because the system IS RIGGED against them. It wasn’t intended to be rigged in this particular way, of course, but that’s what is happening and what will continue to happen.

So how do we stop it? That’s both simple and extremely difficult. We need to revise the Constitution to make the popular vote the deciding factor. Easy, right? Except, if you live in Idaho or Mississippi, why would you want to revise the Constitution to give yourselves less power?

And since we need two-thirds of the states (or two-thirds of both houses of Congress) to begin the process, and three-fourths of the states to agree to revise the Constitution, it’s going to be very hard (perhaps impossible) to get it done. So the only way to get there may be through revolution.

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Who decides what a meaningful life is?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I heard that question asked the other day. The obvious answer seems to be that we do, that each of us gets to decide what kind of life is meaningful and how we want to go about living it. But I’m not certain it’s that simple.

Assume I decide that a meaningful life is sitting in front of the television, watching every episode of every 1970s detective show, while eating buttered popcorn and drinking light beer. Am I right? Is that meaningful?

Well, it has meaning of a sort. It means that what I find important is incredibly trivial to the vast majority of people. It probably means that I shouldn’t be allowed to vote or decide any issue more important than what I want to eat for dinner.

Or assume I decide to do what others tell me I should do – join the military because my family all joined the military and they think it’s what every child should do, or become an engineer because my teacher says I’m good at math and it would be a waste not to follow that path. This seems marginally better, but it still leads to questions like why should I listen to these particular folks?

Listening only to yourself or doing what others expect of you can result in a meaningful life. But a better course of action seems to be combining what we desire with society’s expectations for us.

This isn’t always the path to meaning, but it offers more potential for substance than either of the previous two mentioned. Yet, even this isn’t quite far enough. We must also engage in thoughtful analysis of what we choose and why we choose it.

Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. What does that mean? It means that we need to think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Going through the motions, turning off our brains and just “being” without considering our motivations and the results of our actions is a waste.

We need to challenge ourselves to be better. And this is difficult because humans are essentially lazy. We seek the comfortable path; our bodies always seek to conserve energy. Pushing ourselves is the opposite of that. It’s the expenditure of energy on the possible without the promise of a reward.

So we must create the reward out of the effort we expend rather than from whatever outcome that effort produces. The outcome is merely the icing atop the cake. We give to others with no expectation of a return. And many times we get nothing in return. Yet we can still find satisfaction in the giving, in the belief that our gifts have benefited others.

We ask questions; we engage others; we listen; we suggest. We do not demand or bully. Nor do we disconnect, no matter how futile we believe our efforts will be. This takes work. It’s hard thinking about what we ought to be doing.

And even if we don’t ultimately achieve our goals, as long as we’ve made strides toward those goals, as long as we’ve put in the effort, our failures ultimately are not failures – because we tried. That is meaningful.

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Yesterday’s Solutions Don’t Always Fix Today’s Problems

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

There comes a time in every democracy, in every nation, when we reach a crisis that can’t be handled in the usual ways, in the ways that we have traditionally managed those challenges.

We understand the world by examining the past, by looking at how we solved certain kinds of problems before, then extrapolating from those experiences to utilize a similar solution to our current dilemma.

Often this works. A recession? We can increase the money supply as well as government spending. This works to prop up the economy and keep things moving until we work our way out of whatever led us to the slowdown in the first place. It’s not perfect; we still feel economic pain, but it usually eases the suffering.

But there are times when solutions aren’t so easy to come by. The world is almost endlessly adaptable. Which means that we can almost always find a solution to any given problem.

However, any given problem also has the means to find new ways to torment us. Bacteria killed us off for many years until Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and we then developed antibiotics.

Many people believed bacterial infections would no longer be deadly after that, but the bacteria evolved, over and over, until we now have superbugs like MRSA that are either resistant to antibiotics or completely immune to them.

In the same way, economic downturns evolve as sophisticated players learn to manipulate world markets more efficiently. The recovery from a depression or recession isn’t always the same and in fact has generally gotten worse with each succeeding recession as more and more businesses generate their wealth without the use of employees.

If you’re able to create wealth without people, you can also recover wealth without people, which makes for jobless recoveries wherein stocks rise but those who did lose their jobs have difficulty getting new ones, and those who didn’t lose their jobs see slow wage growth.

Inequalities rise. Tensions flare. The haves blame the have-nots for their situations, asserting that they just have to work harder to get ahead, while the have-nots blame the haves for rigging the system to keep the wealth in the hands of the wealthy.

Those of us who have the right and inclination to vote elect people who promise to represent all of us, not just the rich. And on rare occasions those politicians do what they promise, but more often they don’t. Usually they work to maintain the status quo that got them elected. They protect themselves and their jobs, which means protecting the benefactors who helped them win their offices in the first place.

Nothing much changes but the faces of the candidates who promise change. Meanwhile, frustration builds. More and more radical candidates seek and gain office. Compromise becomes a dirty word, an indicator of the same old, same old – even though it’s not. And eventually we lose the ability to get anything done, except in the most extreme circumstances.

So politicians wait for crises, unable to take meaningful action until they’re forced to do so. And when the crisis hits, they do what they’ve done in the past, figuring since it worked then, it ought to work now. But like bacteria, crises evolve. Today’s recession (or healthcare crisis or opioid epidemic or environmental catastrophe) cannot always be successfully fought with yesterday’s weapons.

We’re on the edge of another crisis now. It’s just around the corner. I don’t know precisely what it will entail, but I won’t be shocked if we handle it badly because we’ll be so busy assessing blame and protecting our own that we won’t have the time or the will to properly fix it.

And when we finally try yesterday’s solution, it will no longer work.

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To Cliché or Not to Cliché

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

A cliché is generally defined as a phrase that is overused, betraying a lack of originality. And for the most part, speaking or writing with clichés should be avoided like the plague. But in today’s world, I’m not certain clichés are the poison they’ve been deemed to be by the literary elites.

First of all, except for the most egregious examples, it can be difficult to ascertain exactly what constitutes a cliché. Phrases that were once original and clever are often repeated to the point that they become clichés, but they can then go out of common usage and become fresh again years later.

One of the dictionary definitions for a cliché is an old chestnut. But when is the last time you heard that phrase? I would venture it was quite some time ago. In fact, if you call something an old chestnut nowadays, most people will look at you in confusion.

But even aside from that, another reason clichés aren’t the problem they used to be is that most people read far less than they used to. They might read 3 or 4 books a year – compared to thirty years ago, for example, when they might have read 15 or 20.

As a result, when they read a familiar phrase, they don’t think of it as tired and overused. They think, “Oh, yes, I know what the author is trying to convey here. I’ve heard that expression before. Clever.”

This is not to say that one should use clichés often or even that one should aim to use clichés at all. It’s still wise policy to find creative ways to express yourself as a writer so that what your reader sees is something fresh.

But it also depends on what your goal is: if you are writing for a literary audience, shun clichés with every fiber of your being; if you are writing popular fiction, seeking to sell your work to the masses, a few timely placed clichés can give your novel a leg up by appealing to the familiar in your readers.

So clichés aren’t the death knell some have argued they are. If your story is fresh, if your characters are believable, if you have created a hook that readers find difficult to resist, then a few clichés aren’t going to take your book from success to failure.

But if you’re just re-writing pulp fiction — your prostitute with the heart of gold is forced to care for the precocious orphan while fending off the advances of the evil banker — and if you’ve loaded your story with cliché after cliché, then you’ve got a problem.

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Fix Your Writing Mistakes

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I’ve worked as an editor for over 25 years and have hosted Write On! Radio for the past dozen. I’ve spoken with authors young and old, good and bad, serious and frivolous. So there isn’t much that surprises me anymore about writing and writers. But there is a lot that continues to disappoint me.

Writers make mistakes, just like everyone else. No big deal. But it would be nice if writers would fix the obvious mistakes in their writing before turning it over to their editors or publishers.

Here are some of the most common mistakes I find:

—Failing to include end quotes in dialogue. This is an easy one to miss, and the occasional slip is not a huge deal, but when it happens multiple times, it’s frustrating because it pulls you out of the story. You now have to figure out where the conversation ended. Sometimes that’s easy, but at times it can be difficult.

For example: “I went to the theater, but didn’t see Pete there. I also went to the bowling alley and bowled a few frames, but I’m not going to tell you that.

This second sentence, we learn, is a thought, but we don’t understand that until we get to the end of it. Now we have to go back in order to place in our minds where the end quote should have been, slowing us down.

—Failing to include commas when addressing people. This is more carelessness than anything else.

For example: “You know Jim, we never should have stopped at the bar.” Are you addressing Jim or are you talking about Jim and saying that because we know Jim we shouldn’t have stopped at the bar?

Again, we can probably figure out from context that you’re actually speaking to Jim, especially if Jim responds. But why tax the reader? Why pull the reader from the story? All it does is annoy the discerning reader, who is likely, after seven or eight of these kinds of mistakes, to put the book down and find something else to read.

It’s okay for authors to be vague about what they wish to convey. But it’s generally not okay for writers to be vague about how they present what they want to say. Of course there are exceptions, like James Kelman, who can get away with it. But he does it deliberately, to make a point about the way people speak.

—Changing the tense of verbs in the same sentence or paragraph.

For example: I went to the cemetery. As I kneel beside the grave, I spoke to my father. Yes, we can figure out what the writer is saying. But it leads us not to trust his message. If you’re in past tense, stay in past tense. Simple, right?

—Apostrophes in the wrong spot. Either putting them where they don’t belong or failing to put them where they’re needed. For example: I stopped off at Joes Bar and had a few drinks with the Johnson’s. You need apostrophes for possessives, not plurals.

—Misspelling common words. The one I see most frequently is probably lead – as in, “Abraham delivered them. He lead them to the promised land.” The past tense of read is read, but the past tense of lead is led.

Why is this stuff a big deal? For several reasons. First, in today’s publishing industry, there are way fewer editors than there were in the past. Fewer eyes looking at the text, fewer chances to catch mistakes. So if you don’t find these mistakes, there’s a good chance no one else is going to either.

Second, if you want to be taken seriously by readers, editors, agents, publishers, journalists, etc., you need to demonstrate mastery of the basics. If you can’t do that, how are you going to convince them that you can master the more difficult aspects of storytelling?

Third, reviews are vital to sales. All it takes are a few nasty reviews from readers who talk about how poorly a book is written to doom it to oblivion. Yes, there are exceptions – books that are poorly edited and written that still reach tremendous sales goals (e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey). But those are rare.

In short, clean up your writing. Edit it and proofread it, then do it again and again until you’re sick of looking at it. When you’re no longer finding any mistakes, then there are probably not that many left.

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What Is Our Duty to the Planet?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I’ve been thinking about people quite a lot lately – how we influence the planet and its denizens – and I find myself questioning things I used to believe. Like how much we should try to mitigate the damage we have done to our various habitats.

Animals and even plants in the northern hemisphere are moving north. Trees that used to thrive in the southern US are faring better farther north, dying off in their southern ranges, drifting into colder climes as the warming planet has made those new territories more palatable.

There will be winners and losers in this new reality, even among humans. Those living in coastal areas and deserts seem destined to lose out, while folks in the northern plains probably will do better.

A mass extinction seems a real possibility – the sixth extinction. The question becomes: is that necessarily a bad thing? We’ve already had five mass extinctions in our history, which made it possible for humans to become the dominant species on the planet. Life cycles on and off, up and down. Humans currently reside in an upward cycle.

There’s a chance we could make things better for those more fragile life forms by altering our lifestyles. But should we care about animals and plants that are so specialized, so unable to adapt, that we have to go to extreme lengths to save them?

The murrelet, for example, lays an egg on a platform of moss or lichen on an old-growth conifer branch. A heavy wind can knock the egg off. The more we cut down old growth forests, the greater the impact of wind on the remaining timber. Similarly, the giant panda prefers eating mostly bamboo. Changes to the environment that don’t necessarily harm the panda can nevertheless harm bamboo and hence the panda.

I could cite many examples of endangered plants and animals: the Bornean orangutan; the Amur leopard; the pika; the Sumatran rhino. The point is, it will be almost impossible to save them all, and very difficult even to save most. Incredibly expensive. That money might be better spent on endeavors that make life better for us at the expense of these exotic animals and plants.

I don’t advocate that, but I understand the arguments. With change, some species will win and some will lose. And some of these changes are inevitable; others are just extremely likely.

What responsibility do we bear for our fellow creatures? What is our obligation to save a frog in the Amazon basin or a plant on the side of a Mongolian mountain? If the vaquita goes extinct, how will we be diminished?

Perhaps it matters only to our pride, our sense of self-worth. Perhaps our focus needs to be on only the plants and animals that give us the most joy rather than trying to preserve them all. For it seems certain we cannot save them all.

The best argument for trying to save them all seems to be that there may be medical marvels hidden away in obscure flora or fauna that once lost will never be regained. Yet if we pour our energies into the myriad creations that need saving, we risk spreading ourselves too thin. And we may end up saving fewer species as a result.

I don’t know the answers, but I do know that I have to try to save at least a few of these endangered creatures, if only to depart this world with a smaller stain upon my soul.

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