The Joys and Horrors of a Routine

“If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please.” – Epictetus

“In things a moderation keep; Kings ought to shear, not skin, their sheep.” – Robert Herrick

One of the things I find hard to do is be moderate. I feel passionately, and I get passionate, loud, sometimes angry at people who don’t share my opinion. I don’t know why, but that’s the way I’m built. The same goes for, say, ice cream. If there’s real ice cream in the fridge, I must eat it. It calls to me, and preys upon my mind until it’s gone. But I often go long stretches without ice cream in my freezer.Eye_Clock.jpg_thumb

So far in my writing career, I’ve been much the same way: Fixated on a project to the exclusion of all others, but when that project is done, I move on to another obsession. And yet I face the dilemma of routine. I am against it in many ways, not the least of which is, apparently, my basic nature. But those writers who have come before me – Lawrence Block, Orson Scott Card, Stephen King – all teach that a writer must have a routine.

Routine.

Ugh. I hate the word about as much as I hate the word tradition, and for the same reasons. Routine, to me, conjures up images of accountants and bland, middle-aged people living in the suburbs. They go on vacation to Ocean City or Venice Beach or wherever they go, because that is where they go on vacation. And I imagine they always go at the same time, say the first week of August, because that’s when they go. They do the dishes completely every night, they watch the same TV shows, they eat pasta on Monday nights, because Monday night is pasta night. They do the same thing over and over and over and over because that’s what they do, and when they do it. Tradition is basically the same, but having to do with holidays and religion.

And yet, people far smarter and more talented than I have argued the virtues of routine. So, what am I to do?

I have a book to finish editing, another to write, short stories to clean up, and various household tasks I need to attend to. All of this would be easier if I did original writing from 10 am to noon, revising from noon to 2:30 and household chores from 3:30 to 6 pm. But I don’t. But I should. But I don’t.

Well, ok, sometimes I do. I do follow a routine, but I don’t do it routinely. I think that’s missing the point.

So I struggle to find a way to be consistent with my days; to use my time wisely, because sooner or later I’ll run out of it. Perhaps you struggle with this too. I think we all do to some extent. But other people have faced the same dilemma and made the best possible use of their time, and thus changed the world. I can only hope I learn the lessons they knew, and I’m happy to learn anyway I need to. Even if it hurts me. Because my days are numbered, and every one I waste is another story I can never tell the world.

“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein.” H. Jackson Brown

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The Call of Cthulhu

CTHULHU 11x14What, you may be asking, is a Cthulhu, and why is it calling? Well, here’s a picture of Cthulhu, although that hardly does him/it justice. But at least it gives you an idea. The Call of Cthulhu is one of the great stories penned by horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, and is one of many stories he (and others) have written using a cast of horrible, ancient, god-like things that lurk in the dark places of the universe, the mad cultists who serve them, and the desperate people who rise up to battle these blasphemous, abhorrent things. They aren’t horror in the Jason Voorhees style, but Lovecraft1934more cerebral and disturbing, not gross and bloody.

I have been a fan of these stories since the late ’80’s when I first discovered them, and I discovered them through a role-playing game called, appropriately, Call of Cthulhu. And when I refer to a role-playing game, I’m talking the table-top version, with dice and paper and writing implements, not a video game. Lovecraft’s works have yet to be done justice in a video game, but I’ll be there to play it when someone does it right. The closest parallel so far would probably be Silent Hill. It’s close, but not the same, and not part of the same universe.

stephen-kingIf you’ve never read any of these stories, I strongly recommend them. And if you don’t trust me, trust Stephen King, H. R. Giger, Brian Lumley, Neil Gaiman, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Clive Barker, John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro and a huge number of Anime and Manga writers. Lovecraft is considered by many to be the most influential writer of all time, beating out Shakespeare and the aforementioned King. And everyone else. If you’ve never heard of him, or never read his works – the works of the most influential writer of all time – you really, really should.shakespeare-seriously-noob

My reason for wanting to discuss this topic is two-fold. First, I admire his work, and hope someday to be quoted as saying he was a huge influence on my New York Times bestselling novel-turned blockbuster movie. I want to promote his work, and invite more people to explore a rich and detailed world that looked at horror, fear, and the human condition in a new way.

Second, on Friday, August 23rd 2013 I will be starting up a Call of Cthulhu game with my Friday night gaming group. Similar to Dungeons and Dragons and other similar games, we will sit down and together tell a tale of common people – gangsters and immigrants and scholars and cops – coming face to face with these things, and having to make the choice to lay down their lives – and their very sanity – to stop the evil and save innocent lives. I’ve played this game before, and I’ve even run it before. But I am attempting to tell a very complex story – real-time and with no editing – based only on some notes I have, and my wits.

In role-playing games, someone always has to be the “referee”, “storyteller” or “game-master”. That person is responsible for the majority of the story, and for adjudicating rules and judging the outcomes of actions. It’s never easy, but it can be very fun. Call of Cthulhu, however, is the most difficult game of all to run because it’s 1/3 mystery (with lots of details that must be discovered in musty libraries, and from shady characters in dark alleys), 1/3 exploration (because there’s usually a place where somebody is hiding something, and the heroes have to find it out) and 1/3 action (as the heroes break into buildings, fight cultists and attempt to stop evil high priests). This is a fine balancing act, and at all times every decision has to be made with the goal of creeping out the players.

And let me tell you how hard it is to creep out real people in the room with you. There are jokes, crinkling snack bags, side conversations, and comments putting your story into a usually silly context when compared to the modern-day. In other words, it’s hard for people to take horror seriously when they’re all sitting in a room – safe and sound – together. There are many ways to try and combat this.

I use music as much as I can. Most of the Cthulhu stories are set in the Roaring ’20’s or Depression-era 1930’s, so music can transport people into thethe-cotton-club-1936 story quite effectively, even if only for a little while. I also use props when I can. Nothing drives a player’s imagination quite like when they get to hold a musty old book in their hands and they know it represents a book full of dark knowledge that might drive them mad, but may also help them stop the things.

Costumes are part of some of these games, and I’m encouraging their use here. When I run a game that’s in a fantasy setting, it’s more vague in detail, less specific in style and form, so the use of costumes is less effective. But the 1920’s have a unique feel to them – a “flavor” unlike any other time period – a feel that is important to replicate, and so I’ll encourage costumes.

248101-2I also use accents and voices. Being a trained actor allows me flexibility that some storytellers don’t have. My friend Andrew used to run a killer game back when he played, but voices weren’t his thing. We all play to our strengths, and having Vinnie “Weasel” Scalatti talking in a certain voice will bring him to life. Knowing that Professor Armitage at the Miskatonic University library often scratches his beard and pulls on his earlobe is worth its weight in gold as far as pulling people into the story.

When it comes right down to it, however, the best tool I have, the most effective trick I can pull, is to remember what I’ve learned over the years from everyone who gamed with me. I’ll be channeling the spirits of all those who have come before me and been my guide. I might be a good game master, but I got that way because of watching others, and by failing in front of others who allowed me to fail, then helped me up. Most of them would never see this blog post. Some of them are gone now, off to that eternal gaming table in the sky. It doesn’t matter. They’ll be there with me, encouraging me, suggesting details. They’re always there when I run a game, and some day, I hope I stand behind others as they tell their own tales and run their own games.

This is the way it is. I go to run a horror game to thrill and frighten my friends, but I do so as part of all of mankind. Just like the heroes in Lovecraft’s stories sometimes seem alone, but are really soldiers fighting the things together, so it is in our lives in general. Those who have gone before me in this world – and sometimes beside me – are now gone on to live a different life, or an eternal rest. But we are all of us threads in the tapestry of humanity, and none of us – no matter how wise, to paraphrase Gandalf the Grey, can see all outcomes. None of us can see all the tapestry.

I call my teachers and mentors out here, friends, as you must call out those who have guided and sheltered you. Ken, Chris, Dave, Rich, Sherry, Ice cream, Eric J., Hans, Art, Greg, Missy, Tracey, Andrew. There are more, but the ceaseless winds of time have ripped them away from me. They are with me still: They always will be.

TuftI leave you with a poem, written far better than I ever could. This poem, by Robert Frost, has carried me through some difficult days and nights. I will let it speak for itself.

The Tuft of Flowers by Robert Frost

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,–alone,

`As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
`Whether they work together or apart.’

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

`Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
`Whether they work together or apart.’

She Had “It”

“Hello, Aunt Edna.”

“Hello.”

Pause. “How are you?”

“I didn’t…” pause, “when they were there, you know.” Awkward pause. “It’s because of me they put the flowers in across the street.”

Me. “What flowers?”

Pause. “They know I’m contagious. That’s why.”

“Why what, Aunt Edna?”

“Why they put the flowers in. The flowers are cameras. That’s why they put them in, because I’m contagious. So they can watch me, when I’m near the kids. I don’t go to the park.” Pause. “It’s in my sweat. Don’t touch my sweat, or they’ll know what you think.”

The above conversation is the kind I used to have with my Great Aunt Edna. She had schizophrenia, but we didn’t know that until later in life. She was Capture Edna VogelinCapture Edna Vogelin obitundiagnosed for many reasons, but the largest had to be social stigma. My grandmother, Dorothy, surely knew something was wrong, but I’m not aware of her ever saying anything except “just talk to her for a while.” It was as if we were all saying, ‘ignore it, and it’ll go away.’

She was old when I knew her first in the ’70’s. The awkward phone calls happened in the ’80’s, but she had been sick long before I was born.

She was born in 1921 just after World War I and so she was about eight years old when the Great Depression happened. Her teens and early twenties were consumed with surviving the Depression, then World War II. She might have developed schizophrenia anyway, but being a young woman in your late teens – when schizophrenia starts to surface for most people – and having to suffer the added stress of unemployment and war may have been a factor in triggering her condition. My father also told me she was serious with a young man, who then ditched her for another girl. This he believed was the shock that pushed her over the edge. We will never know because all the people who might have known are dead now.

Sigmund Freud had started his work more than 30 years before she was born, and by the 1940’s, psychiatrists understood a great deal about the disorder. It’s not like she couldn’t have been diagnosed. Not too many years later the first functional antipsychotic drugs came on the market. So why did she go untreated?

Stigma.

Mental illness has such a stigma even now, in 2013, that I’m amazed we don’t face even more denial and avoidance than we already do. But our culture still faces a huge barrier. The distance between the illness and the conversation about the illness is great. It’s one thing to say you have high blood pressure (I do), but quite another thing to say you have mental illness of some form (I have in the past). Even there I feel the need to tell you which disorder I have suffered with because it’s not a “bad” one – like if I told you I had a serious disorder you might not read any further. The stigma is everywhere.

There are many uncomfortable taboos our culture today. I see them in a sort of progression of complexity and awkwardness. First is illness in general. If you have a cold, you probably don’t mind saying you have a cold. I don’t. But I’ve known people who feel it makes them weak in some way to admit they are sick. More dangerous illnesses are increasingly likely to run up against this first stigma level.

The next level of stigma would be physical abnormalities. I was waiting in a line today, and a young woman in front of me drew much attention because she had some form of dwarfism. People didn’t want to stare, but stare they did. Sidelong, when she wasn’t looking, but they couldn’t wrest their eyes away from her. People with movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease fall into this category, along with amputees and people with other severe disfigurements (thus the rise of face transplants in recent medical news). These conditions are not “normal” – only meaning they aren’t something we see every day – and thus the social scripts we use to interact with others don’t fit these unusual circumstances.

The third – and worst – level of stigma is mental illness. Why? People say all kinds of things, from a macho “get over it” to the extreme view that mental illness is a sign of demonic possession. There are many other taboos regarding mental illness that I’m not familiar with. Some cultures still lock up their “abnormal” citizens – not in a hospital where they might receive treatment, but just in a jail. In fact, this is common in America today, with some estimates putting the number of mentally ill convicts in our prisons as high as 50% or more of the total population. A little research here would probably open your eyes. It’s not like we don’t know how to treat mental illness – in fact, there are more options available now than ever before – but there is no funding and, of course, the stigma.

So what do we do? My great aunt lived into old age with this disorder, and was only treated in the last few years of her life when she went into a state-funded nursing home. She lived decades with a fractured mind, and I’m sure she wasn’t a happy woman. She never married, never had children, worked a menial labor job in the Just Born Candy Company factory boxing chocolates. She had no aspirations, no dreams that I know of, no hope. She just struggled through one day after another, trying to make sense of the confusing thoughts and threatening voices that filled her mind. She was never violent (most schizophrenics aren’t, by the way), just sad, lonely and disturbed.

And we all paid for it. She might have written poetry, like Anne Sexton did, or painted, like Van Gogh did – both people with profound mental illness, and both people who added beauty to the world. The world is dimmer for the way she was treated, the way she fell through the cracks. Please, do what you can to confront this difficult issue. Even just talking openly about mental illness can help. Don’t judge, don’t poke fun, but talk about it. Take it seriously, and share any stories you may have. If you don’t now, you will eventually, because at least 25% of us will confront mental illness ourselves sometimes in our lives, which means if it’s not you, it will affect someone you love. See that you’re ready for that conversation when it comes.

A Little Boy and A Fat Man

December 7th, 1941. A day, said then-president of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt, that will live in infamy.

Hiroshima dome after bombing

Hiroshima after the atomic bombing

All my life growing up, however, it was August 6th, 1945 that was the infamous day. We’ve killed hundreds of thousands of people in a single day in warfare before, but rarely was it mostly civilians. Exact numbers will never be known, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki rank up near the top. The firebombing of Dresden in Germany was also horrific. But it wasn’t nuclear.

Mankind has been inventing new ways to slaughter each other since we first started sharpening sticks, and it shows little sign of stopping. So far, nuclear weapons are the worst we’ve come up with, and the horror that emerged from Japan at the end of World War II is, in my opinion, the most gruesome and horrific ever. Part of it was the suddenness of the attack – people vaporized in mid-stride – and part of it was the unseen killer; radiation. Something about that combination has terrorized me all my life.

As an adult now, I have little fear of death. But if I could only take you back to my bedroom in the late 1970’s and the 1980’s when I obsessed over the thousands of Soviet warheads pointed at America and her allied nations, you might understand the terror I lived with every day. And, of course, I was hardly alone in that terror. My entire generation can remember the fear – a fear my children have never had. Sure a nuclear war could still happen, but the odds have dropped majestically in the last 22 years.

I was 12 when I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima – a chilling, terrible account of the bombing and the immediate aftermath – and I realized then in 1981 that we were all living in Hiroshima. Everyone, everywhere could expect nuclear horror to rain out of the skies at any second, with little or no warning. To this day I wonder why I wasn’t damaged more by that weight on my young shoulders. And I don’t wonder why I learned to escape into fiction.

Gandalf and Aslan and Arthur Dent and similar characters were my protectors in those days, and I’ve never stopped being thankful. Not only did they protect me from the nuclear bombs I so feared, but they taught me how to tell a story, and how to appreciate one.

And yet those weapons aren’t gone. There are fewer now than there were, but there are still far too many, and not all of them are accounted for. North Korea has nuclear weapons, and Iran wants them. Plus Pakistan and India – rivals for decades – both have nuclear weapons pointed at each other. And yet, there hasn’t been another nuclear attack anywhere in 68 years. That’s encouraging.

Since 9/11 the fear has shifted. Now, it’s not nuclear weapons from the sky we fear, but nuclear weapons carried into cities by un-hinged terrorists (religious or otherwise) who see slaughtering hundreds of thousands of men, women and children as simply a means to an end. Can you even wrap your mind around that? You and I, we worry about buying healthy food and paying our bills and getting ourselves – and perhaps the kids – to appointments. But at this moment there are men – mostly – searching for a way to slaughter innocent people just to prove a point.

And what do we do about it? Well, if you’re like me, you talk about it. And you make what changes you can. I don’t know what drives people to extremism, but I can imagine ideology can do it, and so can hunger or resentment. I try to imagine what would drive me to do such things. And then I try to change any actions of mine that might contribute to those modifying conditions. I try to make people aware of the dangers of extremist ideology, and the dangers to our food supply. And I refuse to buy into the “American dream” that means always buying new stuff. I’m not perfect, but I’m trying. And it’s baby steps, sure, but if we all made a few baby steps, that’d be an awful lot of babies moving in the same direction. That would be something!

Hiroshima today

Hiroshima today

And also I write. I remember how J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and Douglas Adams helped me, sheltered me, and fanned the flames of my hope and creativity. So I’ll try with my writing to do the same thing for others which they did for me. I’ll try to tell stories that make people think, and make people hope for something better. I’ll try, and I’ll keep trying, because this is what I was born to do.

There is a staggering amount of darkness around us. It bathes us in fear and blinds us to what’s really before us. But darkness can be dispelled by light, so I’m taking my lantern out from under the bushel and placing it up on a pedestal for all to see. I don’t know how much light I will actually be able to shed, what changes I might be able to cause, but for the sake of more than 200,000 people who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and for the future of any single person who might pick up a story of mine and feel just a little better afterwards – I’ll write.

To quote one of my favorite proverbs of all, from Africa, ‘If you cannot be a lighthouse, be a candle.’

Will you light a candle with me?candle