Category Archives: Woe is Richard

[A-Z] Z is for Zoology Etc.

Animal_diversityWhen I first started college at UC Davis, my plan was actually not to study Philosophy or English or any of the liberal arts at all. I’d done so well in my science classes in high school (particularly AP Biology) that I originally planned on going into medicine, with a focus on Biomechanical Engineering, whatever that meant at the time.

But, as usually happens with freshmen in college, I ended up changing majors. First, I went in as a Biological Sciences major. Then I decided that Marine Biology was really neat, so I switched to that. Then I was going to double major in English and Zoology, theorizing that I could do science in the days and write science fiction at night (“I could make up realistic sounding aliens, and then write about them!” is what I told people). Then I really wanted to be a veterinarian, so I switched over to animal physiology.

Then came my sophomore year, and I was a bit more realistic about what I could achieve in college. Mathematics had always been my downfall in high school, and I was no better off in college, where Calculus just about killed me. And so did Chemistry. Ugh. I ended up taking Statistics twice, and did worse the second time around than the first. But I did fantastic in the biology courses and physics courses that I took. I got a B+ in Physiology 110, which many students agreed was one of the hardest undergraduate courses at UC Davis. Emboldened, I took another swing at Chemistry, only to fail again. Double ugh.

Then I took a course in the philosophy of the biological sciences, and it was like I’d found my true calling. I was one of the only students in that class who understood the material and what was going on. The professor (actually a professor of population genetics who happened to dabble in philosophy) was impressed by me as well. Just at the end of that quarter I officially changed my major to philosophy.

My memory’s a bit sketchy here, but, as I recall, to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree from UC Davis, you needed a total of 180 quarter units (each class, of course being 4 or 5 units). To get a degree in Philosophy you needed to have a minimum of 52 undergraduate units in philosophy courses. When I graduated, I had 80 units in Philosophy, and 225 units overall, the point at which the University pretty much booted you out. That meant I had over 100 units in a wide variety of other courses like Botany, the aforementioned Statistics courses, Religious Studies, Political Science, Anthropology, Sociology, Folklore and Mythology, History, and so on. Not enough in any one field to get a minor in any of them, let alone a double major. I just enjoyed learning about whatever tickled my fancy whenever I opened that course catalog. My major adviser called me an intellectual vagabond and a dilettante. I wasn’t sure at the time, and I’m still not sure, whether he was complimenting me or expressing his frustration.

And, ironically, I never took a course in zoology.

And when it came time to graduate, I froze in terms of what to do next. I could have gone on to graduate school in Philosophy (I had a particular propensity for the philosophy of science as well as symbolic logic and the philosophy of religion), but the notion of having to focus on one area of study for the rest of my life was grating to me. I ended up doing… nothing. Floating. Drifting. Taking on job as a barista, a clerk at a video store, a newspaper delivery driver, a pizza delivery guy, and so on. Really, it was by chance that I ended up working at the same University where I had studied, and sheer luck landed me into my current job (okay, I spent years teaching myself web programming, but you get the idea).

To this day, I still enjoy reading books on philosophy and science, and I pride myself on being able to talk intelligently on a wide number of topics, as well as being smart enough to ask questions on the topics I know nothing about. I went to library school for a little bit, on the assumption that I would be able to find in there a career that would let me be paid to be an intellectual vagabond and dilettante, but I wasn’t able to fully integrate my love of open source technology with what I was learning, so I dropped out. A silly decision which I still regret, but what the hell.

So now I get my dose of vagabonditry and dilettantism here and there, reading books, watching documentaries, visiting zoos and natural history museums, and so on, though I really don’t do any of those as much as I used to.

In a way, I still feel adrift. I like the job I’ve landed in, and I enjoy writing the stories I do, but I still wish I could have found a way to make my curiosity pay my way through life.

On Project Abandonment

This is the album I’m currently listening to:

Cosmosalbumcover

It’s The Music of Cosmos, the soundtrack for Carl Sagan’s masterful PBS series from the early 80s. It’s got music by Vangelis, J. S. Bach, Leopold Stokowski, and so on. It’s tremendously meditative, and back when I was in high school I listened to this album obsessively, over and over again, frequently while sitting in the dark or out walking at night.

Back then, inspired by Sagan, I was going to be a scientist of some sort. I wasn’t quite sure what sort, though, because Cosmos covered just about everything there was to cover, from the evolution of humanity to the distant reaches of the Universe, and the idea of focusing on just one field felt a little confining. I decided, when it was time to go to college, that I would stick with the field I was good at, which was biology.

All this time I was writing, as well. I wrote some science fiction, some fantasy, and some stories about a detective named Fizziwinker (no, I have no idea where that name came from, what it means, or whether or not Fizziwinker had any other name besides Fizziwinker). But I was a big fan of Cosmos, and of science in general, and I had this idea round about my senior year of high school that I would write a book about science. Not just about science, you see, but Science (with a capital S). It was going to be all about the history and philosophy of science, and more: an exploration not just of those topics, but also of what it means to be human, and our place in the Universe. It was going to be called The Neverending Symphony, which I thought at the time was a grand title (it is now the title of a series of video games, I believe).

In college, I put away this idea, figuring (a) I was too busy studying biology and then philosophy to get anything like this written, or (b) I was too busy playing Dungeons and Dragons to get anything like this written. But in the 90s, after I graduated college, I resurrected the idea. Briefly. I couldn’t be a scientist — as a guy who graduated from college with a Philosophy degree and a GPA just below 3.0, that road seemed closed to me. But I could still write about science, and I could still inject that book about science with all the philosophy I had just learned. I could still write my Neverending Symphony.

But I didn’t. In fact, I never really got anywhere with that project beyond putting together a mix tape of music that sort of put me in the same mood as the Cosmos soundtrack. I also had no idea how to go about writing such a grand project.

There’s still a part of me, though, that thinks that perhaps I could pull this off. After all, if linguist/funny writer Bill Bryson could write A Short History of Nearly Everything, then perhaps I can write The Neverending Symphony. It would take a LOT of research, basically a second liberal arts education, in the arts, humanities, and sciences, to make it happen.

How would I even start? I have no idea.

Should I even try?

Writing vs. Kobolds

Sneak koboldWell, the kobolds are at it again. This whole week has been a mix of anxiety and depression and bouts of low self-esteem and, well, whatever else you can think of. The kobold attacks have focused on my writing, instead of my job and my general sense of personhood. I suppose that’s progress… of some sort… I don’t know. Whatever.

They’re sneaky, these kobolds. I can be doing whatever I’m doing and suddenly get stabbed in the back by some sort of kobold rogue. The bastards. This past week, I’ve been trying to focus on work, but the kobolds attacked my writing self esteem anyway. Again I say, those little bastards.

I Tweeted these attacks as they came. I figured that being public about my depression and anxiety couldn’t hurt. There are plenty of people who are open about these conditions, and they don’t seem to have any ill effects. So that’s what I did. Here are a couple of the Tweets that I made:

and…

and…

and so on. Various people on Twitter and Facebook pointed out that there were cognitive distortions behind these attacks, and that helped. Emotional reasoning, mind reading, fortune telling, and so on. It helped me come up with some logical responses, and while that helped a little, depression lies and blocks your ability to listen to logic.

It helps a little to go over my writing history. So here goes:

I wrote my first “book” when I was pretty young. I don’t remember my exact age, though my mom probably does. It was called “Tornado in the Sky” and it was about… well, a tornado in the sky. I’m not entirely sure what that means. But I wrote it, illustrated it, and bound it myself. I kept writing through middle school, proud of my stories, and through high school. In fact, my 12th grade English teacher actually told me that I was the finest writer he’d ever had to honor to teach, which made me feel great, because I had (and still have) a great deal of respect for him. I wrote more in my freshman year of college, even submitted my science fiction and fantasy stories to some of the major markets (Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction). Never got a sale, though I got some very nice personal rejections from some of them.

And then in my second year of college — this would have been 1987 or so — I just… stopped. I fell in with a crowd that played a lot of role-playing games, and for years I focused on Dungeons and Dragons, and for something like fifteen years I focused all of my creative energies on role-playing games of various sorts. Almost always as a Game Master, not as a player; I loved worldbuilding and running games in the worlds that I created, and, if I do say so myself, I was pretty good at it. At least two people have said publicly (by which I mean Facebook) that I was the best DM ever.

In 1996 I wound up running a Live Action Role-Playing game (see here for a sense of the plotlines I was coming up with and running for the players). That, of course, took up all my creative energy, and I didn’t write stories during that time. I ran that game for five years, bringing it to an end in 2001.

During all the time that I ran and played role-playing games of various sorts, I did not write. That’s fourteen years. There are plenty of writers who say that role-playing games helped them become better writers, but I think I learned a lot of bad habits instead. Sure, I became pretty good at world-building, but my style of DM-ing was pretty reactive. In other words, most of what I did, I did in response to what the players did; as a result, the characters I came up with in my stories were pretty passive, reacting TO situations, rather than initiating actions of their own. In fiction writing, this is a bad thing.

So. Fourteen years is quite awhile, and, as I mentioned, during that time I learned some bad habits, and lost some good ones.

It was in 2002 that I decided that I was going to take writing seriously again, by which I mean I would write regularly, try to make some sales, and so on. I have made a few sales, none of them professional or qualifying me for SFWA or HWA membership, but at this point it’s been two years since my last sale. Which is why I feel like I’m not moving forward. And why I doubt my abilities as a writer. And at the age of 45, I feel like I not only haven’t made any pro sales, I, therefore, never will. That’s what I mean by being too old. And what I mean by not moving forward.

I recognize that these are ridiculous thoughts. I would never tell anyone else my age nor older that they’re too old to start a writing career, because it’s simply not true. Yet I have no problem telling it to myself. But when faced against depression and anxiety, logic rarely wins. Depression lies, as others have pointed out before, and sometimes it’s so loud you just can’t drown it out.

Another kobold attack, which I think makes me look like sort of a jerk, is the second one; I have friends who have made professional sales, who have won awards, and so on. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy for these friends of mine, and I begrudge them nothing. But… I feel like I’m never going to get there myself. Again, that’s a statement that’s full of cognitive distortions and distorted thinking, but it’s a hard one to get past.

So… I’m not sure where to go from here. Just keep writing, I suppose. Just keep writing. And submitting. And getting feedback from my writers’ groups. And so on. I’ve got my Story of the Week project going, and I’m still rewriting Code Monkey!. And I’ve started plotting my novel for this year’s National Novel Writing Month. And I have plans for another novel after Code Monkey!. But none of these feel like they’re professional level projects or goals. I don’t even know how to set professional goals. Feedback would be helpful here.

I think that’s it. Depression should lose to logic, but sometimes depression’s lies are too loud and too convincing.

Thoughts, anyone?

Signal boosting; plus, singing kobolds!

Now, before you do anything else, go here and read the announcement. In brief: my friend Andrea Stewart has won first place in the third quarter Writers of the Future contest, which is a really big deal. I love it when friends of mine get published or win contests or things like that. I always like to say, haughtily, “Yeah, they’re in my writers’ group. Also I went to a party at their house and it was awesome.” Also, read Andrea’s more detailed blog post here.


Kobold_Bard_by_D_MACWriting about depression is always difficult, but I’m told it’s therapeutic to do so, so here we go.

I’ve talked about kobolds as the metaphor for my depression. The metaphor is only a couple of years old, but it was inspired by my old Dungeons and Dragons days. Kobolds are easily defeated monsters, you see, when they come along in singles or in pairs. They only have half a hit die after all (meaning between 1 and 3 hit points, meaning that they are really easy to defeat). But when they show up in huge swarms, bursting down barricades and pouring into dungeon chambers, they can easily overwhelm and vanquish even the more experienced and high-level parties of player characters. Depression is kind of like those kobolds; there’s always one or two tagging along, knocking on the door, begging for attention, but generally easy to vanquish. But sometimes they show up in swarms, battalions, and then it’s easy to let the darkness overwhelm you and just… stop. For those like me who have been diagnosed with Bipolar Type II, the kobolds sometimes go away completely, but when they swarm, they really swarm.

And for the last few days, boy have they been swarming.

My current angst seems to be centered on three things: my health, my writing, and my age. I’m about to turn 45, you see, and my beard is going gray and I’m getting gray at my temples and some of my joints ache and I get gastric reflux occasionally and so on and so on. Maybe I’m coming down with one of those midlife crisis things that I kept hearing about all my life. Is it time to buy a red sports car, track down a girlfriend who can’t legally drink yet, and get some hair plugs? (Probably not. I hate sports cars, I’m very happy with my wife, and I’m not going bald at all.)

Nah, I think it’s more that in certain areas of my life, I feel like I’m always starting over, and that’s frustrating. I weighed in at the doctor’s this morning, and discovered, to my horror, that I weigh as much now as I did five years ago. So… I feel like I’m starting over with regards to getting my act together when it comes to my health.

And when it comes to my writing, I feel like I’m a failure. I’ve been writing all my life, and eleven years ago I decided to crack down and take my writing seriously. And now at age 45 I have yet to make  a single professional sale, or even finish a single novel. I feel like I’m at the start of my writing career, and that, too is frustrating. (And to clarify, because it’s come up a couple of times in private messages on Facebook: No, Andrea’s success has not exacerbated these feelings; on the contrary, I’m very happy for her, and the news actually cheered me up quite a bit.)

But these thoughts… they’re all irrational. They’re the kobolds singing their nefarious songs to me. It’s just the depression talking, and depression lies. That’s an important truth to keep in mind when one’s depression feels overwhelming. Of course, it would be nice to stop up my ears like Ulysses’s sailors and ignore the songs of the kobold sirens, but that’s easier said than done.

And now, three days after the stupid kobolds started singing their songs, I’m still feeling captivated and enthralled. I can’t seem to figure out how to eat nutritiously, how to stop eating when I’m no longer hungry, how to get started with the exercise, and so on. And I can’t seem to focus on my writing at all; it’s far easier to watch old episodes of Futurama than it is to choose a writing project and work on it.

I know that the proper approach is just to get going and start moving, but it feels overwhelming. Everything I’ve read tells me to simply choose one task, a starting point, and focus on that for the moment, but even that seems like it’s too much.

But depression lies. The kobolds deceive and obfuscate. It’s hard to remember that when I’m sitting at my desk at work, wishing I could just go home and go back to bed with my cat, but remember it I must. And keep taking the meds, and keep focusing on the small, individual tasks before me.

Sooner or later, these feelings will pass, and I can go back to normal.


On another note, this is entry 1,000 on my blog, which I’ve been keeping on and off since 1996. It’s gone through several permutations, from when each entry was simply a separate HTML page off my website, through a custom blog program that I wrote in PHP, to Moveable Type (eugh) to WordPress. So, yay.

Angst

Okay, I don’t feel quite the level of angst that the subject of Edvard Munch’s painting seems to, but I still feel some, especially when it comes to my writing.

Of course, every writer experiences angst of some sort when it comes to their craft. Is my writing good enough? Will the editors like this one? Even best-selling authors with a vastly successful track record must feel some of this when they’re working on a new project. Maybe this one isn’t as good as the ones before? Will this one find a home? Will this one even sell?

My own angst generally comes down to this question: what in the world have I written? And where can I possibly send it? It actually comes down to a question of genre… and the fact that I have no idea what genre many of stories fit into. For example, my story “Teh K1ng in Y3ll0w” is nominally a Lovecraftian pastiche, but it’s also a caper story and a comedic piece. Where would it go? It wouldn’t go to any of the major horror markets (unless they have a remarkably flexible editor), but it wouldn’t go to any humor markets either. So… What do I do with it?

Some of my mixed-genre stories have found homes (see my Bibliography page), but most of them sit in my files, waiting for that special market, the place that will take the sort of story I tend to write. Major markets, especially SFWA and HWA qualifying markets, tend to be genre-specific: Analog, for example, is geared towards hard science fiction. Asimov’s is a more flexible, but still expects science fiction primarily. Fantasy and Science Fiction is, well, geared toward fantasy and science fiction. It might be a good home for “The X of Doom” when I finish that one, but, again, “Teh K1ng in Y3ll0w” probably won’t work there.

So: Sigh.

When it comes to novels, I think I’m in better shape. Novelists like Tom Holt, Christopher Moore, Terry Pratchett, and Neil Gaiman have all written the kind of humor-focused genre-crossing novels that I write, so if I can honestly compare my writing to theirs, I’ll be in good shape. It’s just my short stories that are homeless.

For now.

 

 

A Day Full of Kobolds

A kobold in reposeRemember that swarms of attacking kobolds is the metaphor I’m using for depression. Winston Churchill spoke of the black dog that followed him everywhere as a metaphor for his own depression (though I think he was actually bipolar — I’m sure that someone with a better knowledge of history can correct me on this), and I didn’t want to steal his thunder. So for me it’s kobolds. It’s funnier if you’re a Dungeons and Dragons geek like me and know that lone kobolds are weak and easily defeated, while a big swarm of them can be a serious threat to reckon with.

Anyway.

A few years ago I was diagnosed with a condition called “double depression”. With double depression you get to feel constant low-grade depression — dysthymia, for those who are curious — interspersed with bouts of more serious depression. The dysthymia isn’t incapacitating or even all that serious, doesn’t have any specific cause, and can even lift for days at a time. You get used to it, sort of like that low-grade pain in your back that you don’t even notice until it’s gone for some reason. You can get good at acting as though it doesn’t exist; you can act cheerful with your co-workers, your friends, even your loved one.

But the low points — the dips, as it were, or major depressive episodes — really can be incapacitating. You wake up, having slept for eight to twelve hours, feeling exhausted and as though you have to wind yourself up, like a child’s toy, just to get out of bed. Nothing holds your interest. Even typing on your computer keyboard seems like a chore. There’s a hollowness in your chest, an emptiness in your solar plexus, that demands you just curl up and ignore the world around you. Daily maintenance chores — showering, shaving, brushing your teeth, taking medications (among which are, ironically, anti-depressants) — are skipped just because you don’t have the energy. Interacting with co-workers is okay, because it’s a distraction and because you’ve mastered the art of hiding your feelings, though it’s too easy to just call in sick and sit at home eating and watching television or surfing the web (and you probably would if you had any sick hours left and hadn’t squandered them all already). Being at work sucks because, in spite of the “attaboys” and “good job” comments you get from your boss and co-workers, you can’t help feeling like you’re screwing up and are on the verge of being fired at any moment. Above all you spend the day on the verge of tears without really knowing why.

Hope is elusive. You feel as though nothing good will happen, that nothing good will ever happen. At the same time, you also feel as though everything good that has happened has been due to undeserved good luck, or just a plain old fluke. I also have trouble writing, because of the above-mentioned chore of sitting at the keyboard and typing, and because I’m convinced nothing I write — short stories, novels, whatever — is marketable, let alone publishable. In this mood, it’s difficult to motivate myself to do any writing at all. Works in progress stay untouched for days, possibly weeks, at a time.

At least, that’s how I experience a day when the kobolds are attacking in swarms. Your mileage may vary.

Lunch hour’s just about up, so I’d better finish this up. Do you have days when the kobolds attack? How do you experience them? It’d just be nice to know that I’m not the only one.