In Times of War: How Will This End?

At best, uncertainty is a difficult emotional state. We live in a world of routines, reliable cause-and-effect, and pattern recognition. We don’t need to test gravity every time we take a step, which is a good thing. We make assumptions about how people we know well (or people in general) are going to behave, based on their past actions. (Erratic behavior, whether due to mental illness, substance abuse, or misreading body language, can be traumatic, especially for children.) We anticipate many things, from the functioning of traffic lights to our own digestion to the reaction of a deer suddenly come upon in a meadow, based on our understanding of “how things work.” We use these strategies all the time without thinking about it. Having a reasonable sense of how events will unfold frees up mental (and physical) energy and gives us a sense of control over our lives.

Unexpected things happen, of course. Most of the time they’re ordinary bumps and bruises like burned dinner, a sprained ankle, a higher-than-normal electricity bill, or a traffic ticket.  They can be terrible: 9-11, a hurricane, the wildfires that swept through my part of the country a couple of years ago and resulted in my family evacuating for a month. A death in the family. Often we have little or no advance warning: it’s over, leaving us stunned or horrified or grief-stricken. We don’t get to vote on what happened, we only get to pick up the pieces afterwards. At other times, we have advance notice, like the wildfires or other weather events (but not earthquakes, lived through a couple of big ones, too) or Covid-19. We grab the kids and the pets and get out of town; we wear masks and stay home, and so forth. Even if there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves, we often have a pretty good idea how things are going to go. Not always, of course. I remember staying glued to local news while camped out in our hotel room, anxiety eating away at me as the fires got closer to our house; I’d go to sleep certain that in the morning, our place would be ashes (but it survived with only a little storm damage).

I think war is fundamentally different. On a day-to-day basis, for those in the fighting zones, it must be like a monstrous union between the Chicxulub impact, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the Black Death. Adrenaline fight-or-flight panic overload survival time, one blast at a time. But for those of us watching the catastrophe unfold from afar, anxiety takes over as the dominant emotion. Watching one horrific event after another taxes our ability to pay attention to the present moment, and that is normal. It’s in our DNA to anticipate what will happen next. In our minds, we flee to the future.

Where will Russia strike next? What weapons will they use? What can we do to shield Ukrainian civilians? Will anything come of the peace talks? What will China—or India—do?

Enter the pundits and op-ed writers, predicting everything from the economic collapse of Russia and Putin being deposed, to Russia bludgeoning Ukraine into surrender to plots, to assassinate Zelenskyy to even wilder speculations. They speculate about increasingly grim futures: Is this a prelude to nuclear war? The collapse of Russia and a worldwide recession? We gobble up the columns, even though they often leave us feeling even more anxious and wretched than before.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

I think the answer lies in how predictability lowers anxiety, and the greater the stakes, the stronger the allure of a promised outcome. Not-knowing is a hellish limbo, and all too often it’s more intolerable than believing an authoritative voice with a fixed answer, no matter how grim.

I’ve started avoiding those opinion pieces. I see headlines while I’m scrolling through news, but I’m getting better at not clicking on them. Instead, I remind myself that masking anxiety with visions of doom is not likely to help anyone, beginning with myself. The truth is that I don’t have a crystal ball—and for sure the pundits don’t, either.

Working myself into a lather harms impairs my ability to think clearly. It cannot affect the outcome of the war.

Powerlessness is hard, and in evolutionary terms it’s dangerous. But when it is our true condition, the best way to manage it is by seeing it for what it is, and then finding ways to make a big difference in our own lives through good self-care and a small difference in the world.

Not Civilized Yet

I started feeling very sad while out on a walk this week. I wrote a senryu about it:

My heart keeps breaking.
It aches for the not yet known
but yet very real.

I couldn’t pinpoint any one reason for feeling this way. It was perhaps the awareness that we are at a point where things will have to change coupled with the awareness that I will not live long enough to see much of that change happen.

One of the truths that hits us — or at least hit me — as we age is that everyone dies in the middle of some story. Experience shows us how long it takes to get anything finished, but when we’re young we think those many years between us and old age (and death) will be enough.

They’re not. They never were.

Even if I live to be very old indeed – and I still hope that I do – there still won’t be enough time.

From reading history and paying attention to current events, I’ve developed the theory that humans — at least the ones in wealthy countries — tend to think they are civilized. The people who came before us made mistakes (slavery, genocide), but we’ve done better.

That might be rather American-centric, but I suspect it’s true in Europe and large parts of Asia as well. Climate and political refugees are unlikely to share this belief.

It is, of course, untrue. We are very far from civilized. Continue reading “Not Civilized Yet”

Science Fiction and Sociology, Economics, History, Philosophy …

Once upon a time, there was a lot of science fiction in which tech discoveries saved the day. Or so I’ve been told.

If you asked me to come up with something like that, it would be The Martian, which is very recent. The so called “Golden Age” stuff that I’m familiar with isn’t all that tech-driven. Asimov’s Foundation was rooted in psychology tempered by history. All the Heinlein I’ve read is about his philosophy.

Truth is, I suspect an awful lot of science fiction that is touted as “traditional” and “the way it ought to be” is mostly about some white guy solving all the problems with a well-timed punch to the villain’s chin.

Still, there were a lot of stories from the 1950s and 60s that either focused on or mentioned amazing tech, especially computers. Now most of us are carrying around that tech in our pockets.

These days, a story about a fancy new technology is more likely to show up on the business pages than in an SF/F mag.

Where we need to deal with tech in SF/F today, particularly in near-future stuff, is how we incorporate it into our society in a reasonable way. That is, we need tech tempered by economics, sociology, history, philosophy. Inventing new things is nice, but figuring out how to live with them is crucial. Continue reading “Science Fiction and Sociology, Economics, History, Philosophy …”

Half Way Across the River Jordan

I didn’t get to wear my “Not Throwing Away My Shot” hoodie to be vaccinated because the sleeves are too tight to roll up.

… or something like that. By which I mean that I have had my first dose of the two-dose COVID vaccine, which gives me the dim but hopeful feeling that there is a future out there.

I was impressed with the speed and efficiency with which my health care provider (UCSF) managed the whole thing: found an appointment on line, finished a couple of pre-visit questionnaires and the inevitable boring stuff about insurance (even if the vaccine is provided free, they may charge to administer it), and on the day of all I had to do was show up with ID and wait in line for ten minutes.  The nurse administering the shot was a pro, and the needle very fine, so the shot itself was negligible. The site itched a bit and was sore for about 24 hours–I’ve had allergy shots that were worse.

Now all I have to do is schedule the second shot, Continue reading “Half Way Across the River Jordan”

Edge of Chaos Blog Symposium

Edge of Chaos

Starting today (November 5, 2020), the website Social Justice at the Edge of Chaos is presenting a blog symposium. The symposium is curated by Beth Plutchak, a writer and visionary thinker with a background in economics and social justice.

As the introductory post explains, this symposium is part of an effort to bring the science of complex adaptive systems to bear on the difficult problems facing us today.

Treehouse resident Nancy Jane Moore will be participating in the symposium. Other participants include Debbie Notkin and Dr. Clare Hintz.

New essays will go up each day, followed by responses. The symposium continues through November.

You can sign up for email notifications here.

The Future is NOW

What does a cute dog on the phone have to do with service stations of the future? Bear with me: I hope you’ll like the journey and its destination.

I barely remember the service stations of old. I can pull up small, distant memories of 33 cent gasoline, the Sinclair dinosaur, Phillips 66 signs, and service station attendants who washed the windows, filled the tank, and helped in emergencies. I remember driving to Palm Springs with my grandmother and a sandstorm that pitted our windshield and forced us to stop at one such station in Whitewater. I recall a trim, neat guy in a white short-sleeved shirt and sharply-creased navy blue trousers helping us. His name was embroidered on the chest as I recall. Maybe it was “Joe” or “Frank.” Continue reading “The Future is NOW”

Thinking Generationally

I’m working — slowly — on a book that includes a generation ship. (The way I’m going it may take a few generations to write it.) The other day on social media, a friend observed that the extended lockdown made it clear to him that he wouldn’t be happy on a generation ship.

I think I would be. Being stuck on a space station with just a few other people – which I find more similar to lockdown – wouldn’t make me happy, but a well-set-up generation ship with a thousand or so other people has the potential to provide one of the things I value most in life: community.

I’m talking way more community than we get in our modern lives. I mean, I live in an apartment building with thirteen households, and while we’re mostly friendly and cooperative (except for one asshole), we never have each other over for dinner. We do things for each other in a pinch, pet each other’s dogs, chat in the lobby or in the back yard, but we’re not a community.

When I was at Clarion West all those years back, living in a dorm with sixteen other students up and down the hall, I was happy most of the time, because I was surrounded by people with common purpose. I’ve felt that way in Aikido dojo, though I didn’t live there and have as much community as I would have wanted.

But our modern lives are not well set up for community. Also, since I grew up in a small town where the ways in which I was different would have made me more and more miserable as I got older if I’d been stuck there, I know that communities are not always good.

But the generation ship that I’m developing for my book could be a very happy place for me. Continue reading “Thinking Generationally”