I Think There’s Something Wrong With Me

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Like many other people, I’ve been home by myself a lot over the past few weeks. I was sick. I’m 99.9% sure it was just a seasonal cold. I had a sore throat, runny nose, and a cough. There was never a fever or difficulty breathing or anything like that. But, just to be safe, I had my daughter stay with her mother for a couple of weeks and self-quarantined. About a week ago, I was feeling healthy again. I couldn’t wait to see my daughter, but decided I should give my house a thorough cleaning first and I would see her this week.

I spent about five days cleaning. I used soap and water, bleach, and disinfectant wipes. I swept, scrubbed, vacuumed, and mopped. I did every last bit of laundry, including sheets and blankets. I cleaned the sinks and the toilets and the shower. The house is cleaner than it has been in years. I even de-cluttered and did some interior decorating.

And here’s the thing. After all of that, I felt nothing. There was no sense of satisfaction. No pride in a job well done. Nothing. I was grumpy while I was doing it, and still kind of grumpy when I finished. The only positive thing I felt was a bit of relief. It definitely wasn’t psychologically worth the effort.

It’s not that I can’t feel good after cleaning. I used to work in kitchens and ended every day with sweeping and mopping and scrubbing and sometimes vacuuming. I used to feel good at the end of work. I had a sense of accomplishment. There was satisfaction knowing that everything was ready for the next day. But when it’s my own house, I can’t get that feeling.

I feel like I’m supposed to feel pride or satisfaction or something after I clean my house. Isn’t that part of what home ownership is about? It looks like other people enjoy a clean house. I don’t understand why I don’t. For me, cleaning is nothing but a chore, whether it’s before, during, or after.

I wish I were different. I clean because I have to. Never because I want to. If I had money, I’d hire a cleaning service in a heartbeat. Alas, for the foreseeable future, I’ll have to keep cleaning for myself and making myself grumpy every time.

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Philosophy Phridays – Plotinus

Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Plotinus.

Plotinus is something of an odd figure in the history of philosophy. Any way you look at it, he is one of the most influential thinkers who ever lived. But he said very little that was actually original. He considered himself to be a true Platonist. Basically his goal was to interpret, clarify, and spread Plato’s ideas. He also spent a considerable amount of time defending Plato’s ideas against non-Platonists like Aristotle, the stoics, and the Gnostics. He was born in Egypt in 204 or 205. He moved to Rome where he did most of his writing and teaching until his death in 270. His writings are collected into a work known as the Enneads.

Alfred North Whitehead has a famous quote, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” It’s hard to overstate how important Plato’s ideas are. The reason Plotinus is so influential is that he is the lens through which most people have viewed Plato over the last 2,000 years. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all incorporated Platonic ideas, and they found those ideas in Plotinus. I know a lot of people don’t really think about the philosophical concepts that underpin their religions, but the idea of a singular, perfect god is just one of many that we can thank Plato and Plotinus for.

As for his actual philosophy, Plotinus believed in three fundamental metaphysical principles (That may sound familiar to some Christians). These were The One (aka The Good), Intellect, and Soul. The One is simple and perfect. It is being. Intellect is the rational contemplation of The One or the eternal forms. It is essence. Soul is desire, particularly desire for things external to the desiring being. The three together are what give structure, order, and meaning to the universe.

Plotinus’ ethics are tied up with his metaphysics. This will sound familiar to anyone who has read Plato, but Plotinus believed that evil was essentially distance from The One (The Good). In practice, this means that overly strong desires for physical things are bad. This is where he quarreled with the Gnostics. They believed that the Soul had fallen and this world was bad, whereas Plotinus didn’t believe the physical world was bad, just misplaced desires.

His ideas of beauty are similar. The Good and the forms are beautiful. We recognize beauty when we can see some of the eternal forms in something. This meant that, like in Plato, physical beauty is the lowest type of beauty. It’s only a distant image of the form itself. The highest forms of beauty are seen through contemplation.

That’s a very brief overview. As I said, this is some of the most influential stuff ever written down. Personally, I prefer reading Plato if I want some Platonism, but that hasn’t always been an option for most people. I suppose we’re lucky that both of them are so readily available. But if intellectual history interests you at all, I recommend spending some time with Plotinus.

Gerson, Lloyd, “Plotinus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/plotinus/>.

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Philosophy Phridays – Sakya Pandita

Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Sakya Pandita.

I should say right at the beginning that I’m way outside my comfort zone this week. My favorite philosophy tends to be English and American from the last 150 years or so. My only formal exposure to Eastern philosophies was an Indian Philosophy course I took in college. The professor was a disaster. Since then, I’ve explored a bit on my own, mostly by reading the big-deal, famous works like the Bhagavad Gita and the Analects of Confucius, but I know a lot less than I should. Frankly, I don’t even know how to pronounce many of the words in the article, and many have accents and dots around the words which I don’t know what they mean or how to type them. So, I’ll do my best, but don’t take my word on it. And if you’re at all interested, I recommend reading the actual entry or the primary sources.

Sakya Pandita lived in Tibet from 1182-1251. He was a Buddhist philosopher, and is one of Tibet’s all-time, most-important thinkers. He was influential in the areas of epistemology, philosophy of language, lexicography, grammar, and translations. One of the things that made him so important is that he studied many of the original, Indian writings instead of relying on translations like most other Tibetan philosophers.

He is so highly regarded that most of what we know about his early life is mythological. It is said that his mother had a prophetic dream about him when she became pregnant. They also say that he could read and write Sanskrit as an infant. As he got older he did study with many great masters and became, “the fourth of the “Five Great Throneholders” of Sakya.”

As for Sakya Pandita’s philosophy, most of the specifically Buddhist stuff went right over my head. I get the impression that it’s important to Buddhists in the same way that Christian philosophers try to answer questions about the Trinity and transubstantiation. He wrote a work known as The Three Vows. These three vows are the disciples’ monastic vows, the bodhisattva vows, and the Mantra/Tantra vows. If I understood it correctly, he seemed to be saying that enlightenment can only come through a true understanding of what the vows promise. There are no shortcuts.

As for his epistemology, I’m a little more comfortable. He was an anti-realist when it came to cognitive and linguistic objects. He was kind of the opposite of Plato. He didn’t believe that objects of thought or speech existed in the real world. We act as if they do because of a sort of pragmatism. Plato thought that when two people discuss something like The Good, there is actually some external good that they are both referring to. Sakya Pandita believed that when two people discuss something like virtue, they are referring to different mental representations, and they remove the differences to make communication possible. He seems to have arrived at that conclusion through the Buddhist beliefs about impermanence.

That’s the gist of what I got out of the article. I did learn some things. And if anyone out there is well-versed in Buddhist philosophy and wanted to clarify some things or point me in a direction for further study, I’m all ears.

Gold, Jonathan C., “Sakya Paṇḍita [sa skya paṇ ḍi ta]”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/sakya-pandita/>.

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Boomers and Millennials

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For as long as there have been people, old people have said, “Kids today. . .” and young people have said, “Old people just don’t get it. . .” There have been jokes and stories and songs written about the phenomenon. Most of them treat it humorously, which seems about right. There have recently been some who take the generational differences more seriously, sociologists and marketing folks, for example. And now, probably thanks to the marketing folks, the different generations seem to take it more seriously themselves, especially the Baby Boomers and the Millennials.

In the press and on social media, you see it constantly. Boomers accuse Millennials of being lazy; Millennials accuse Boomers of selfishly destroying the world. They seem serious about it. It’s not just general complaining. Each group is trying to pin blame on the other group, as if having someone to blame would fix anything.

It’s easier to dismiss the Boomers’ complaints. Every new generation in history has been considered lazy by their elders. It’s never because of actual laziness. It’s because each new generation learns to adapt to a changing world. They do things differently than their parents did. People seem to have a natural affinity for hazing. Any hardship that I went through built my character, so others should go through it, too. Boomers are jealous of the fact that Millennials face different hardships than they did.

The Millennials’ complaints seem more difficult to dismiss, but they’re not really. One common complaint is that Millennials are the first generation to be worse off than their parents. That’s simply absurd. We’ll ignore the fact that we can make pretty good arguments for Gen Xers being worse off than their parents and maybe even Boomers being worse off than their parents (Remember, we’re talking about a generation who came of age during Vietnam and has since suffered through Watergate, the two-income trap, stagflation, trickle-down economics, and the aftermath of 9/11). Generations being worse off than their parents is just something that happens periodically throughout history. It happened in many cultures with colonialism and slavery. It happened with the fall of Rome. And I’m sure it happened many times before that. There’s nothing special about Millennials in that regard.

The more serious complaint was mentioned earlier, that Boomers are selfishly destroying the world. The selfish part of that can be dismissed easily. Boomers are no more or less selfish than any other generation. They have consistently done what they thought was best for themselves and their friends and families. They fought for civil rights, women’s rights, and peace. They weren’t always successful, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

As for the accusation that Boomers are destroying the world, it’s a bit of irony that the generation that invented environmentalism has been given that legacy. Boomers legitimately got us the EPA, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. Air and water quality are better than they were 40-45 years ago.

I know, though, that what Millennials are actually talking about is climate change. Climate change is real, and horrifying. There’s no denying that. But blaming Boomers for it is a bit much. It didn’t start with the Boomers, it goes back at least as far as the industrial revolution. When the Boomers reached adulthood, the prevailing wisdom was that we were going to run out of fossil fuels rather than cook the planet with them. In the 1980s, when I first heard about climate change, it was Boomers sounding the alarm.

As for not doing enough to mitigate climate change, the Boomers are guilty, but no more guilty than Gen Xers and Millennials. We would still be part of the Paris Accords if Millennials had only shown up to vote in 2016. The fact is, climate change is a very difficult problem which is unlikely to be solved with personal choices. It doesn’t matter what generation you’re a part of, we have all failed to act properly. Singling out the Boomers is just passing the buck.

I see two basic reasons for the feud between Boomers and Millennials. One is a very old problem, that is somehow both important and trivial. That is a basic lack of empathy. It’s trivial because it is so common it’s barely worth mentioning. But it’s important because the lack of empathy makes us all think we would have done something differently given the opportunity. Boomers assume that if they had smartphones and tablets when they were kids, they would have still gone outside to play with their friends in person. Millennials assume that they would have been fighting for trans-equality in 1965. Neither of those assumptions are true or very realistic. If Millennials had been born in 1950 instead of 1990, they would be just like Boomers. And if Boomers were born in 1990 instead if 1950, they would be the “lazy” and “antisocial” ones.

The other reason is more difficult. Our view of history has changed. We used to believe in progressive history. Some, like Hegel and Marx, believed it literally. They thought that history had a purpose it was building towards. For others, it was more figurative. When Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he was expressing this figurative view. The basic idea is that we get better, we learn from our mistakes, and things improve as we move forward. This view gave us a kind of optimism. Major changes were seen as good. Iron improved upon bronze, the printing press improved upon scribes, coal fired power improved upon wood, internal combustion engines improved upon steam engines.

That view has given way to a kind of pessimism about the past. Everywhere we look we see slavery, genocide, and ecological destruction. And, this is the key, we blame the people of the past for those things. We are coming to a view of history as an ongoing moral catastrophe. We only see what we did wrong in the past. With our lack of empathy, we fail to understand why things happened the way they did.

I don’t have the time for a full philosophy of history, but I believe these are the reasons that Boomers and Millennials are fighting today. The Boomers think the Millennials are squandering the improvements they were given, while the Millennials think the Boomers caused more damage than anything else. Neither view is fair.

People are people are people. We need to remember that. Boomers are no better than Millennials and Millennials are no better than Boomers. We are all reacting to our given circumstances. Instead of focusing all our energy into blaming others, we should be working together to fix our common problems. Blame doesn’t fix anything. It’s time we recognize that.

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Philosophy Phridays – John Austin

Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is John Austin.

John Austin was a British thinker who lived from 1790-1859. He is famous for creating the school of analytical jurisprudence. He also came up with an approach to law known as legal positivism. He was good friends with Jeremy Bentham, James and John Stuart Mill, and others of the utilitarian circle. He was never very successful in his lifetime, though. He had trouble keeping a job and rarely finished his writings. The article blames these failings on his, “nervous disposition, shaky health, tendency towards melancholy, and perfectionism.” Most of his success is because his wife supported him, both emotionally and economically, and she worked to publicize his writings after his death.

Austin is often considered the first person to study the law analytically. He would analyze key concepts of the law, such as legal duty, legal right, and legal validity. In his time, common law was in fashion. People thought that the law was a matter of tradition, community mores, and things like that. Austin saw it as a thing in itself, that came from the top down. In other words, it was created by the sovereign. It is a view much more in line with modern, centralized states than the common law view.

His other main innovation was legal positivism. At the time he wrote, most people thought of law as merely a branch of moral philosophy or political philosophy. “Legal positivism asserts (or assumes) that it is both possible and valuable to have a morally neutral descriptive (or “conceptual”—though this is not a term Austin used) theory of law.” It is important to study the law as the law, not as how it relates to morality or politics. Not that these things are unimportant, but they are a separate field of study.

Many who have written about the history of philosophy have talked about how subjects often start as philosophy before breaking off to their own domain. Physics, economics, biology, computer science, and psychology all started as philosophy. I kind of look at Austin as the person who made the break between philosophy and law. Thanks to him, the law is now the domain of lawyers, not philosophers. Figures like that are interesting to me.

There are a few scholars out there now who believe in Austin’s particular views and try to defend them, but not many. For the last century, people have been pointing out problems with his ideas about sovereign authority. They also point out that his command theory doesn’t work very well when looking at wills and contracts. He also didn’t leave much room for international law and treaties. Even though his views are no longer in fashion, he is still an important figure in the history of philosophy and the law.

Bix, Brian, “John Austin”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/austin-john/>.

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Why Not Biden?

I just published a piece called Why Not Bernie? I am currently undecided, I wanted Warren, so I’m reasoning through my options in public. It’s time for me to tackle Joe Biden. I’m finding it a bit difficult to write about Biden. He’s literally been in Washington for my whole life. But I’ve never given him much serious thought before now.

I’m not happy that I’m forced to think seriously about Biden. He’s basically what the status quo was before Trump. He’s a moderate Democrat, no more and no less. His policy ideas are forgettable. He’s not really smart, but not really not smart. He seems decent enough, but isn’t in any way inspiring. I agree with him on some things and disagree on others. To put it succinctly, he’s meh. He’s a completely average old, white man.

It’s hard to overstate how bad that is. I really don’t want an average person to be president. The status quo before Trump was, in most ways, bad. I’ll grant average would be better than the actively bad person we have as president now, but the president has a very difficult job. Average isn’t a qualification.

There’s not much more to say about Biden. But doing this little exercise has demonstrated that I definitely prefer Biden over Bernie. They basically have the same ceiling. If we’re lucky, either one of them can be a placeholder president. But, it seems like Biden’s floor is almost the same as his ceiling. Bernie’s floor is much lower.

Sadly, none of this seems to matter. By the time my state’s primary gets here, Biden will be the unofficial nominee. At least the November decision will be easy, whatever gets Trump and the Republicans out of office. That will likely mean a vote for Biden. Too bad I can’t be more enthusiastic about it.

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Why Not Bernie?

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Elizabeth Warren was my first choice to get the Democratic nomination and run for president. I explained some of my reasons in a post called Why Warren? There were other candidates that intrigued me, Kamala Harris and Julian Castro come to mind. I could see myself voting for either one of them if they were still in it, but Warren separated herself early in the race. Most of the other twenty-odd candidates, I would consider myself neutral on. I think Andrew Yang was trying to start an important conversation that we need to have, but I never got the sense that he would make a good president. Then, there were three whom I actively disliked: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Mike Bloomberg. I don’t think they would be good presidents, nor do I think they have added any substance to our national debate. I wish they hadn’t run at all.

Of course, the only two serious candidates left are Bernie and Biden. I don’t know which one I’m going to vote for (or, more likely, which one I’m going to vote against), so I thought I’d try reasoning it through in public. I’m starting with Bernie because his supporters are incredibly vocal and loudly claim that, as a Warren supporter, Bernie is a no brainer.

I believe the reason the Bernie supporters think Warren supporters are natural allies is because of their policy similarities. They both talk about Medicare for All and college debt forgiveness and things like that. That argument doesn’t go very far with me. Part of that is that while Warren has legitimate policy ideas, Sanders sticks pretty strictly to hopes and dreams. Warren not only told us what she wanted to do, she told us how she was going to do it. Bernie either doesn’t know, or can’t communicate the plans. Either of those options is bad. Another part of the problem with comparing policy is that where Warren and Bernie diverge, Warren is better every time. Heck, Bloomberg would be better on guns and the environment, and he’s basically a Republican. But the real problem, for me, with comparing their policy ideas is that I don’t judge political candidates based on policy. As I wrote four years ago, I don’t have the epistemic confidence nor the relevant information to judge most policies. I’m forced to judge based on what kind of people I think they are, and Bernie doesn’t strike me as a good person for the presidency.

I know Bernie has the reputation of being a decent guy. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the relevant personality traits to be president. First, he doesn’t strike me as particularly intelligent. That’s not to say he’s stupid, it’s just that I want to be able to trust that the president will always understand his briefings and advisors. The job takes someone who is legitimately smart. Look what happens when they’re not, like with our current president or with Bush Jr. I’m not confident in Bernie’s ability to be better.

A second personality trait that Bernie seems to lack is curiosity. He’s strangely confident in his views and doesn’t want to hear opposing viewpoints. One of Warren’s most appealing qualities is her curiosity, her willingness to learn. She listens, absorbs, and evolves. Bernie just yells at or complains about people who disagree with him.

Related to that, Bernie is awfully close-minded. I feel like he set all of his opinions when he was eighteen and hasn’t budged since. The world has changed quite a bit in the last sixty years. My own views change all the time. I’d like a president that’s at least capable of changing his mind. Who knows what the future holds? I want the president to be open to whatever comes up.

Bernie has an awfully thin record for someone who’s been in public office for forty years. He doesn’t have a signature piece of legislation or even an issue where he’s led the conversation. In a lot of ways, he’s basically been a seat-filler since he’s been in the Senate. His only talent, and it’s been a very modest talent at that, has been as a social critic. This isn’t the place to get into the issues around social criticism, but let’s just say I don’t think Noam Chomsky would make a good president either.

Bernie also has a major racism/sexism problem. As a person, I don’t believe Bernie is a virulent sexist or racist, he’s not Trump. I do think that he’s a typical old white man sexist and racist. It’s almost forgivable. When his views were formed, he was quite progressive. But what was progressive in 1960 is much less so now. That’s not the real problem, though. It’s the racism/sexism that comes from his most ardent supporters and surrogates that worries me. He should have put a stop to it more than four years ago. The fact that he hasn’t means one of two things. One is that he’s not really worried about it, which means I’m giving him too much credit, he’s more racist and sexist than I think. The other is that he’s such a poor leader that he can’t get his most ardent supporters and surrogates to behave. Either choice is not presidential material.

The one unequivocally good thing I can say about Bernie is that he’s Jewish. Having our first non-Christian president would be wonderful. It would break a lot of barriers and open doors for all the non-Christian Americans out there. It would also be great to have a woman or an openly gay person be president, but those don’t appear to be options in 2020.

All of this ignores the fact that Bernie’s old and has had a heart attack recently. As much as I would prefer a younger president and a fully healthy president, those also don’t appear to be options in 2020. And they aren’t my primary concerns anyway. As far as I know, Warren is in good health, but she’s not exactly young either. I guess what it boils down to is that Bernie reminds me of Trump in a lot of ways. He may be worlds better than Trump, but the legitimate comparisons are very worrying. I will certainly vote for Bernie in November if it comes to that, but I don’t want to vote for him in April. I’ll look at Biden next and see if it gets me any closer to a decision.

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Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 presidential race today. I’m having a hard time with it. As I’ve written about before, I don’t just think Warren was the best candidate in the 2020 election, I think she’s the best candidate of my lifetime. That, in and of itself, is pretty demoralizing, but I don’t think it’s the reason I’m having trouble processing it. I’ve known that it’s more than twice as hard for a woman to run for office and with the way Warren has been treated throughout the campaign, I can’t say I’m shocked. I’ve been trying to mentally prepare for this day for a while now. I think the reason this is so hard for me is because of the people that are left.

Those people are Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden (I guess, technically, Tulsi Gabbard, too, but she’s awfully problematic and she’s clearly not going to win, so I’ll just talk about the other two). This isn’t the first time my preferred candidate has lost the primaries. Just four years ago, I was a Martin O’Malley supporter. He was out before my state’s primary, so I went over to Hilary Clinton. I didn’t have any problem making the switch. While it’s true that I preferred O’Malley, I could find plenty of positive reasons to vote for Clinton. With Sanders and Biden, I’m at a complete loss. I know I’ll vote for one of them in November because one of them will be running against Trump, but deciding between them for the primary has me confused. When I look at the two of them, I only see negatives. That’s never happened to me before.

I’m going to think long and hard about my choice, although there’s a decent chance the race will be decided by the time I get to vote in the primary. That would make my life a little easier, but it still won’t be satisfactory. I don’t know what I’m going to do. In the mean time, I’ll mourn the Warren campaign and dream about her becoming the next Senate Majority Leader (It doesn’t seem likely with Chuck Schumer there, but it would be pretty great if it happened).

I know Warren wouldn’t want me to give up hope. She said in the email she sent out to supporters that she wants us to keep fighting, to keep her movement alive. I want to do that, but, right now, I don’t know how. I feel like Obi-Wan when Luke leaves Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. If anyone does know what I can do, I’m open to suggestions. Please let me know.

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Swearing In Fiction

I saw The Photograph recently. I liked it: solid story, likable characters, good acting. I recommend it. One thing about it jumped out at me. Somewhere about midway through the movie, one of the characters swore. He used the F-word followed shortly thereafter by the D-word. I can’t be sure, since I don’t have a copy of the script, but I believe those were the only two swears in the movie.

I’ve also been watching Star Trek: Picard. Honestly, I’m a die hard Star Trek fan, but it’s kind of frustrating. The acting is wonderful, but the story just isn’t there. It’s like they had a five episode story that they are trying to tell over ten episodes. But anyway, they swear often in the show. Picard hasn’t to this point, but all the other characters do. I’ve been watching Trek my whole life, and the two most recent, Picard and Discovery, are the only two iterations with swearing.

In The Photograph, the couple of curse words were jarring. I had been brought into this world where they talked a certain way, then about an hour in, they talked differently. I was sitting there thinking, “Whoa, where’d that come from?” It took me out of the movie for a couple of minutes. It would have been a better movie without those two words.

In Picard, I probably wouldn’t even notice the cursing if I hadn’t been watching Star Trek for the past forty-five years. It’s perfectly normal swearing compared to everything else on streaming platforms and in movies. But, because it’s Star Trek, it surprises me, and takes me out of the action, every time. I’m pretty sure it would be a better show without the cursing.

I read an interview with Michael Chabon, the creator/show runner of Picard. In it, he was asked about the swearing. He said that they swear on Picard because people swear in real life. People always have and they probably always will. So, swearing in Picard is a way of injecting realism into this world.

That explanation struck me as stupid. This is Star Trek we’re talking about. They have warp drive and transporters and aliens and those aliens are genetically compatible with humans. There’s nothing real about the Trek universe. Why would it be important for the characters to swear to make it more realistic? They’re not going for realism, and the audience isn’t looking for realism. Realism for the sake of realism isn’t good entertainment. Star Trek has been building a fantasy world for more than fifty years. Until now, part of that world was that people spoke without swearing. Using curse words in Picard unnecessarily changes the universe that’s been created and takes away some of its magic.

The Photograph is not science fiction. The characters are all human, the settings are New York, Louisiana, and London, and nothing happens in the movie that would be impossible in real life. But it’s important to remember that nothing in the movie is real. Despite its apparent realism, it is a world that someone built. Like all fiction, it’s a fantasy. The creator picks and chooses what goes into the world, hopefully, for a reason. The language choices are a big part of that world building. I can handle just about anything a storyteller wants to throw at me as long as it’s consistent within the world they’re building. It’s too bad that two minutes out of this movie had to be inconsistent.

When I was in college and taking writing classes, I would make characters swear in the name of realism. Curse words are a ubiquitous part of the real world. I was afraid that my dialogue wouldn’t feel natural without them. Then, I realized that no one writes natural dialogue and no one would want to read it either. If you transcribe an actual conversation between two people, there are a ton of partial sentences, dropped words, non-verbal interactions, mistakes, stutters, and mispronunciations. Tedious doesn’t begin to describe what that would be like for an audience. If dialogue has to be stylized anyway, at least I could make it into a voice that enhances the stories. I haven’t written a swear word since. In my writing, they are unnecessary.

I’m not saying that there is no place for profanity in fiction. It can be used for comedic effect like in a Kevin Smith movie. Or it can heighten the realism if the point of the piece is to depict something real, like a battle or a censorship case. But most of the time, swears are gratuitous. At best, they’re just extra words. At worst, they destroy the world that the piece is trying to create. They’re usually not fatal, I still enjoyed The Photograph and I haven’t given up on Picard. But both would be better with a little less realism.

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Pen For Hire

Here is my second story for the 2020 12 stories in 12 months challenge. The prompt was “For Hire” and the word count was 1,000. This one was a bit of a struggle for me. My January story was about an unemployed guy, and, even though that’s what the prompt prompted for me, I didn’t want to go that route again. Instead I went for a little bit of silliness. I hope the humor comes through.

“I need a fixer.”

“Why don’t you just use Tony? He never lets you down.”

“I know, but this is different. I don’t want Tony, or anyone in the family, to know about this.”

“We’re all discreet.”

“Sure you are. It’s not a matter of trust. This isn’t family business. And don’t ask me what it is. I won’t tell you.”

“I’d never.”

“Good. So, how do I find a fixer from outside the family?”

“I dunno. Did you try the internet?”

“I want to keep the cops out of this, too.”

“That’s what the dark web is for.”

“Show me.”

He stood up and let his nephew have the seat in front of the computer. A few keystrokes later and they were looking at a list of classified ads. Hitman. Enforcer. Executioner. Hitman. Hitman.

“Jeez, it looks like something out of a bad Mafia movie. You’re sure this won’t get me arrested.”

“I’m sure.”

“Leave me, then.”

His nephew left the room and he sat back down at the computer. He scrolled through the listings. How many hitmen does one city need? Then he saw one that said, “Pen for hire.” He chuckled. Like a pen would do him any good.

He kept scrolling. They all looked alike. The only one that was different was that pen one. He went back up and clicked on the pen for hire:

The pen is mightier than any sword, gun, or tank. I can fix any problem, solve any conundrum, or rehabilitate any reputation. And unlike all the other listings on this site, I can do it legally. Just tell me your target, give a few days for some research, and BAM! problem solved.

This couldn’t be real, could it? He clicked the link. It took him to a standard looking website called Pen For Hire. It had a picture of a quill in a bottle of ink at the top and under that was home, about, contact us, and frequently asked questions. He clicked on frequent asked questions. The first question was, “How can what you do be legal?” He thought, Good question, and clicked on it:

My methods do not harm anyone physically. While it is possible that I hurt their reputation or pride, I only write what is true. So, I don’t run afoul of any slander or libel laws.

Fair enough, but how effective can it be? He clicked the back arrow. The third frequently asked question was, “Is this method effective?” He clicked it:

Unfortunately, due to the nature of this work, I cannot provide testimonials. However, my clients are always satisfied. People’s reputation and relationships mean more to them than their physical bodies. By manipulating them, I get the desired outcomes.

He clicked the back arrow again and scrolled through the list of frequently asked questions. He came across one that asked, “What if the target is too good?” He clicked it:

I’ll answer your question with a question, can someone be too good? But I take your meaning. What if the intended target has not said or done anything that can be used to damage their reputation or relationships? First of all, it is rare to find someone that good. Most people have skeletons. However, if the target does not, I will not lie or fabricate stories. In other words, I will not take the job. You will get a full refund and you should reevaluate your grudge against the target.

Who is this guy to tell me to reevaluate anything? He clicked the back arrow and scrolled back to the top of the frequently asked questions. He only had two more questions. They must be here somewhere. He found the first, “What, exactly, do you do?” He clicked it:

Every case is different, so I don’t have a single method. Generally, I run negative publicity about the target. If you want a leader removed from power, I undermine the confidence in her leadership abilities. If you want revenge on the target, I will humiliate him for you. There is a lot of flexibility. I will tailor each job to fit your needs.

He clicked the back arrow and started scrolling again. He got to the very bottom of the list before he saw it, “Why should I choose an ethical hit?” This was the real question. He clicked it:

There are several reasons for choosing an ethical hit. First, it is at least equally effective and more ethical than a traditional hit. If you have two options that have the same results, you should always choose the more ethical option. Second, because it is legal, you won’t take any heat from the fuzz as a result of the hit. Third, it is harder to trace back to you. In a traditional hit, there are weapons and fingerprints and DNA and a money trail, all of which can be used by your enemies to trace it back to you. That creates an unending cycle of retaliation. Using the truth as a weapon means that the target can only blame themselves. If a marriage falls apart over an affair, the target should not have had the affair or should have hidden it more carefully. You cannot be blamed for that. Unlike a traditional hit, an ethical hit can be the final move in a battle.

Definitely intriguing. He reread this answer a few times. Could he avoid retaliation? And the cops? That would be nice. How much does it cost? He clicked on the “contact us” link:

No job is too big or too small, but since every job is different, we will have to negotiate payment. Submit the information about your target and a contact number to begin.

He didn’t like the idea of leaving a number, but he could use one of the burner phones. It was tempting. After a moment, he clicked the back arrow until he was on the classified page again. He clicked a hitman. I guess I’m just old fashioned.

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