Saturday, January 25, 2020

An Examination of "The Ones Who Stay and Fight" by N.K. Jemisin

Several years ago I finally became aware of a piece of fiction written by the legendary Ursula K. Le Guin that greatly moved me. The story, entitled The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas can't really be classified easily. The best description for me is to call it philosophical/science fiction/fantasy in that it creates a situation that could never happen in reality but nevertheless opens up a huge can of ethical and moral worms that does bleed over to our world.

In short, Omelas is a utopian city of total happiness and plenty inhabited by a sophisticated citizenry who have no need of kings, soldiers, priests, or slaves. Omelas is such a cool place that Le Guin goes as far to strongly suggest that booze, drugs, and orgies are a standard practice for the citizens. The one huge wrinkle in this charmed existence is that to ensure the continuity of Omelas' success is that one unfortunate child must be kept in filth, darkness, and misery for its entire life. Making matters worse, this sacrificial lamb has no idea why it is being treated this way and pleads to be released.

How this arrangement came to be is never explained by the author, that's why I add the word “fantasy” in my personal description. In fact, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas is an incredibly short story given the complexity Le Guin is able to build.

For the lucky kids of Omelas, once the elders feel that they have reached a certain maturity, they are brought down to to the place the tortured child is kept and explained that its suffering is the reason for their peace and plenty. While initially disgusted with the conditions the tormented child must live, these new citizens eventually acquiesce to that single injustice. That is except for a tiny few of those young folks and those older who can no longer live with the knowledge that their happiness being conditioned on the suffering of a single human being. These dissidents leave Omelas never to be seen again.

Now you might be wondering how such a piece of fantasy could possibly disturb my philosophical foundations. Well because dear folks, much of the glorious American lifestyle is built upon the sufferings of millions of poor folks around the world and here at home.

American revel in plenty on display at your average grocery store. Shelves stocked with cheap food to the point we're dropping dead of obesity on a regular basis. This food is very often picked and prepared by migrant workers who labor in conditions most Americans would call cruel and unusual punishment. And yes, the pay and living conditions for these people are almost certainly crap. For the most part we're oblivious to what those folks have to do to just survive.

The technological gadgets we base our lives on now and the clothe we wear are also produced by people in factories dealing with conditions that would cause Americans to riot. The best example is the factories where our nifty smart phones are produced. While exception may exist, hundreds of stories over the years have leaked out of near slave conditions the workers are forced to endure. So you'll have to excuse me for my sentiment, I get uncomfortable when someone suffers at my expense.

The killer for me is that unlike those few exceptions who leave Omelas, I can't leave for various reasons. Yes, that makes me a hypocrite but I continue to cling to my weary conscious and not pretend the shit is wrong.

I didn't think another story could affect me as strongly but I found another just yesterday that again rocked my philosophical foundations. It is called The Ones Who Stay and Fight by the brilliant author N. K. Jemisin.

Jemisin's story takes place in another city that at first read seems a lot like Omelas given how plenty and happiness seem to abound. But her fictional city, named Um-Helat isn't really a utopia and there aren't any fantastical elements like the tortured child who keep everyone fat and happy with its suffering. Um-Helat uses what I would call realistic technology to make everyone's life better.

The author also gives us details about the nature of Um-Helat's citizens. There are many different ethnic groups who speak varying languages. We never learn anything about the nature of Omelas citizens other than their propensity for getting high and group sex. In Um-Helat everyone lives for as long as fate, choice, and medicine allow. The kids have opportunity to advance in life while parents don't have to give up theirs.

Breaking with Omelas, the city of Um-Helat is not a true utopia. The economy of the city appears to be built on a form of benevolent capitalism with slightly more white folks doing the executive stuff and with slightly more colored folks doing blue collar jobs. We are quickly informed though that active efforts are underway to remedy that small injustice.

The author also tells us that while everyone has access to an apartment, some are indeed homeless with the city offering up padded benches for sleeping and maintenance of the space under bridges to keep them clean for occupancy. For those suffering from mental illness, the city keeps them away from weapons or places they might harm themselves. If these homeless folks become ill or cannot take care of themselves the city comes in and takes them to a facility to be cared for. The philosophy of Um-Helat is to care for its inhabitants, not to generate money. The author makes the point to say that Um-Helat is not “barbaric America” nor Le Guin's Omelas which she described as “a tick of a city, fat and happy with its head buried in a tortured child.”

No, Um-Helat appears to be something as close to utopia as humans can achieve, but this is where things go slightly sideways. The technology of Um-Helat allows them to listen and view communications from parallel Earths in other universes where society hasn't advanced as much as them. Since the citizens of Um-Helat have no worries about safety, war, food, healthcare, and the other basics of life, they often seek knowledge of these other, less developed realms. But the knowledge of places where hate and fear rule is viewed as dangerous by the leaders of Um-Helat.

In the past the ancestors of the people of Um-Helat knew greed, hate, and war. The remnants of that age dot the land in the form of ruined cities and implements of war. Knowledge of these previous eras is passed to the young citizens carefully and is a shock given the world they were raised. These young people simply do not have any concept of a society where only certain humans were respected and cared for while others were excluded on the basis of physical characteristics or behavior.

This is why knowledge of other Earths and their bizarre societies is considered dangerous. Since Um-Helat is a polyglot city made up of many different ethnic groups with multiple languages spoken in the streets, the spread of ideology that sets some above others cannot be tolerated. While the vast majority of the people in Um-Helat who listen in on these alternate Earths react in total horror to the brutality they hear and see, the idea of those evils and the rationalization for their existence remains. Through word of mouth these deceitful ideas spread and because Um-Helat shares a similar past with these backward, barbaric places the Social Workers of the city must act to contain the contagion.

As the story concludes three Social Workers stand over a body of a man they have just killed. He had broken the law by listening in to the alternate Earths and his punishment was swift. Next to the dead man is his young daughter, distraught over what the Social Workers have done to her father. The daughter through tears warns them that she will get revenge over what she sees is the murder of her father.

The Social Workers look at each other in concern over the girls words. They now understand that the dead man had shared the poisoned knowledge of the other Earths with his daughter. To an uncontaminated citizen of Um-Helat it would be incomprehensible to spread such beliefs. But because the daughter has been contaminated she has already decided that the Social Workers are less important than her dead father.

The duty of the Social Workers is clear, the girl will be quarantine away from the public. Over the next several days they will attempt to reach the girl and explain why her father had to die. If the girl can be reached and made to understand, she will ultimately become one of the Social Workers. Because all the Social Workers have been exposed to the notion that some people matter above others they have dedicated their lives to defeat that idea.

I came away from the story shaken because of something said at the end, that everyone, the poor, lazy, even those considered undesirable can matter. That the idea of this provokes utter rage in those who have been taught to believe some people are more important than others. The narrator called this rage the infection defending itself.

I like to think of myself as “enlightened.” That I am above the petty prejudices that do define our society. But this story forced me to realize that I'm just as stuck in the mire of fear and hate like all the others I look down upon. It's incredibly hard to look past my own enmity but I think I understand at least one point of the story. That when you start making distinctions about the worthiness of people you devalue your own existence. I can't honestly say I will keep this understanding at the forefront of my thoughts. We're in the middle of a shit storm of hate and misunderstanding in this country and as the story suggests, the infection uses rage to defend itself.

The other point I think I now understand is that The Ones Who Stay and Fight is a response to Le Guin's story of people walking away from the tortured child kept in Omelas. That injustice and oppression has to be fought no matter the cost. My final takeaway from this story is that while I welcome this revelation, I'm just not that smart enough to know where to begin to fight.

The story: The Ones Who Stay and Fight can be found in the short story collection entitled How Long 'til Black Future Month on Amazon. I highly recommend it!

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Celebrity Equinox Cruise: December 14-21 PART FOUR

    After a peaceful day at sea our next stop was Costa Maya, a stretch of Mexican coast on the eastern Yucatan Peninsula. As usual I was up way before my wife roaming the ship taking pictures. There was a fairly cool wind blowing as I snapped this picture of the sunrise. It felt awesome!  

    The nearby village of Mahahual is a popular cruise ship port with beaches and beautiful coral reefs. My wife and I didn't leave the ship that day instead we laid out at the indoor pool. Hindsight being what it is, that was a mistake since there were two biosphere reserves in the area.
     As I was strolling the decks that morning, I noticed a strange building off in the distance. But since the sun wasn't fully up and the haze in the air, I couldn't really tell its purpose. 

    This massive structure at first looked like a Mayan pyramid sticking out from the surrounding jungle. You would not believe the numbers of pictures I took of what I thought was a Mayan ruin.
   I eventually learned it was not a genuine historical monument but a brand new, Mayan-themed water slide. Luckily, I didn't embarrass myself by verbally speculating to anyone about the structure.     

    A discovery that was truly mysterious was this sailboat. At first I assumed it had been washed ashore by a recent hurricane and probably abandoned. While this picture doesn't show it, the boat is a considerable distance from any sign of human habitation. I'd say about a mile from the docks and the village.
    As I obsessed over the boat, I realized it was sitting almost upright, something I doubt a raging tropical storm could accomplish. I also noticed that the boat still had its rigging, a sign that it was a recent arrival to that location or that someone was taking care of it.

    Naturally, since it was in a reasonable walking distance from where the Equinox was docked, I wanted to go check it out. Something my wife said would have been a bad idea. Mexico isn't a good place for a stupid American to go walking off alone in the best of locations. So I continued to watch the boat from the Equinox and take pictures hoping to squeeze a few more details out.   

    If you click on the picture here, you should be able to tell that the name and origin of the sailboat isn't painted on the stern. You should also be able to tell that the sailboat looks relatively new, in the sense that it appears to be recently constructed.
    It's a good thing my wife talked me out of trekking to this sailboat just to satisfy my curiosity. Given my luck, I would have probably been on the news for getting snake bite or simply disappearing.      

    If I titled this picture it would be called, "Fluffy Anvil of the Gods." Sorry folks, since we stayed on the ship there isn't many pictures that do not involve my mystery sailboat. 

    As much as I have whined about the "Blue Hairs", my wife and I spent much of our ship time in the Solarium. A place dominated by the old folks who shied away from all the loud music and activity of the outside pools.
    The Solarium was exceedingly comfortable and quite, allowing me to read in peace.  

    I may have already posted this picture but I wanted to point out a few things about the main pool. It was freaking cold! I did want to at least say I did get in the pool figuring it would be as warm as the one in the Solarium. I only got down to my waist before having to do a quick retreat. 

I also wanted to point out that I did visit the gym several times while on the cruise and in fact took part in a yoga class. The yoga instructor, a goddess originally from New Zealand took it easy on her students but even the basic moves kicked my ass. Sorry no picture of me in the yoga class exist.
   Instead here's one of me on the tread mill working off some of the excellent food the ship offered.  

A piece of Key Lime Pie. One of many that died at my hands. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Celebrity Equinox Cruise: December 14-21 PART THREE

     Being upfront here, I simply do not have the talent to take decent pictures nor write a proper description about Key West, Florida. A partial explanation is that while I have visited the place four times through the years, it was always on cruises that took me away after only a few short hours.
     But truthfully, I am far from an unbiased person when it comes to Key West. For years I listened to Jimmy Buffett sing about the place, its character, and its history. So I continue to be enchanted like a love struck teenager even though many people have tried to dissuade me of my clumsy romanticism. These detractors say Key West is tacky beyond redemption and that its banal commercialism has ruined everything special about the place.
     All very possible, but enough still lingers to make it close to paradise for me.    
    On my first visit to Key West way back in September, 2001 the aftereffects of a very recent 9/11 prevented a lot of the usual tourists from visiting. Long story short, that allowed me a lot of time at the Southern Most Point. There was no line of people waiting to have their picture taken at the colorful buoy.
    On all my other visits though, the line of people has been so long as to make it impossible for me to get another. So I just settle to take a quick picture as I ride by on one of the Couch Tour Train or Couch Tour Trolley.
    Caused a bit of an issue with my wife as we rode passed the Garden of Eden Bar on the very crowded Couch Tour Trolley. As I mentioned in earlier posts, the Celebrity Equinox was overwhelmingly an older crowd with many obviously of the more socially conservative bent.
    So my lovely spouse didn't appreciate when I loudly spoke out about how we needed to get off the trolley, go up to the Garden of Eden Bar and strip down ot our birthday suits like we did years ago. No, we never visited that bar but I did thoroughly enjoy my wife's discomfort and the weird looks we got from all the raging stiffs.

    Yes, there was a price to pay for my improvisation but it was worth the several hours of stony silence. I honestly can't say I would never visit a clothing option bar like Garden of Eden. While on cruises I generally follow the idea that since I will never see any of those people again I can act as stupid and foolish as I want.    
   The "Lost Weekend Liquor Store." With such a name, that place screams to be added to a story of some hard luck loser looking for redemption.
   From what I understand, it's actually a new business, not something from the days when Papa Hemingway could be found walking the streets.   

    If you look beyond the palm tree you will see the destroyed air traffic control tower at Key West Airport. Now the story told to us by the trolley driver was that the tower has been that way for years. That air traffic is controlled by some person sitting at the end of the runway with a radio.
    Not sure how about the truth of that story but it does sound cool.   

    Time, or the lack of it, has always been my enemy when visiting Key West. On this trip I accompanied my wife to the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, not a place many would expect me to like, but it was awesome. If my heart was normal, allowing me to drink beer, I would have done the bar crawl again.
    But be that as it may, I did enjoy seeing the 50 to 60 different species of butterflies that live in the indoor park.
    Not sure what species this bad boy belongs but this was one of my better pictures. It was funny how many shots I took but because of the nature of butterflies, failed to capture any image. 

    In the center of the park was a pond where two flamingos lived. They are named "Rhett" and "Scarlett" and didn't give a damn about any of us humans prowling around their humid home.     

    This butterfly looks like he, or she, has seen some rough times. Not sure if butterflies fight, but I can't think what would have caused this damage to its wings.

    A better view of the insides of the conservatory. 
    Like the previous visits, we had to get back to the ship much too early. These two Princess Cruise line ships were tied up at the Mallory Square docks. One of the things that fascinates me about cruising is the complexity of these ships, even medium-sized one like these two. Pack a couple of thousand spoiled North Americans and Europeans on a ship with about a thousand paid crew members answering their every whim.    

    Don't really know why I included this picture. Maybe because all the others I took at Key West were just not good enough. Riding the Couch Trolley wasn't really conducive to taking good photographs. Plus my wife was having issues with her knees making walking highly problematic.
    While I have forgotten the name of this little island just off Key West, I do remember it's one of those upper crust, exclusive communities.    

    Barely an hour after leaving Key West I took this picture. I really liked the contrasting blues of the sky and ocean. The next stop on the cruise after a day at sea was Costa Maya, Mexico.  

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Celebrity Equinox Cruise: December 14-21 PART TWO

Returning to a more pleasant subject, this was our cabin on the Celebrity Equionx. I wouldn't call it spacious but it was more than comfortable for the seven day cruise. We did have a fully stocked minibar refrigerator with seven dollar candy bars and five dollar can sodas. Neither my wife nor I ever considered touching any of those items. Especially since room service would have been "free" except for whatever tip we gave the waiter. 

The bathroom was enormous compared to what the Disney cruise ships offered. The one caveat to that statement was that Disney Cruise ships have TWO small bathrooms in their cabins. The logic being someone could be getting dressed in one while the other would be used for it usual purpose.  

Our veranda was awesome giving us a great view of the ocean.

Way back in 2000, my family and I did a cruise on what was then call "The Big Red Boat." That cruise line went bankrupt and out of business around 2002 but the casino aboard it was my only encounter with that level of gambling. The Disney ships don't have a casino and it was something I was quite grateful. The Big Red Boat's casino was a seedy place whose clientele I honestly found creepy. While I didn't gamble on the Equinox, I was surprised to find its casino a clean and well maintained place free of individuals that tried to look like third-rate Bond villains. Truth be told, the casino never was crowded for the entire cruise.

I did sort of laugh when I saw these slot machines. Back when Linda Carter played Wonder Woman on television I would have never imagined seeing her image on one-armed bandits.   

Instructions on how to launch the lifeboats. Several years ago a cruise ship began sinking in the Indian Ocean with the crew being the first to abandon ship leaving passengers to fend for themselves. The news reports did say the passengers were able to get themselves off the ship. So this is why I search out these instructions on every cruise. Not saying teh crew on Disney nor Celebrity ships would do anything unprofessional, but it's better to be prepared than surprised. 

They had a sort of art museum on board with a few dozen paintings hanging in one of the common areas. Wanted to take pictures of them all but my wife said that would be uncool.  

The outside pool area on my early morning walk. That morning we were a few hours away from docking at Key West.
What can I say about Key West that hasn't already been written by better men. It's tacky, spoiled, and overrun by tourists searching for a replacement for their lost shaker of salt or a flip flop repair shop. But I love the place even though I've never spent one night there. Making matters even worse, my wife and I did the trolley tour just like millions of other human locusts that have plagued that paradise over the decades. More pictures to come soon, that is if the Orange Buffoon has not started WW3.   

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2020 Just Hit and We're Already FUBARed

We're not a day into 2020 and already I want to puke from all the warm, fuzzy and sickly gooey expressions of hope and unfounded optimism saturating social media concerning the new decade. The straw that broke this camel's back was an Instagram post by a B-list celebrity I actually like saying he “knew” the new decade would be filled with love, charity, and a couple of other things I missed due to an oncoming wave of nausea. Sorry to break anyone's bubble, especially after a night where they may have gotten laid, but folks we're fucked.

Everyone put on their memory hats and think back to New Year's Day 2010. President Obama was in office and the Democrats had control of both houses of Congress. Think about all the wonderful progressive expectations that were suppose to magically appear out of thin air. Of course the reality of the massive FUBAR situation hit the Obama coalition about six months later with many becoming disillusioned that wild herds of unicorns were not roaming Washington DC farting out rainbows and happy endings.

In fact several internet friends of mine, extreme progressives, would go as far to suggested President Obama was some sort of corporate Manchurian Candidate out to maintain the Bush/Cheney status quo. Which was funny in a way since the Republicans had lost what little remained of their minds by screaming on everyone of their media outlets that Barrack Obama was a secret Muslim born in Kenya out to ban guns and Jesus.

God in Heaven's sake, I would have never guessed that knowledge of the workings of basic politics was such a rare commodity. Especially after the 2010 midterms when all those progressives stayed home allowing the Republicans to take back the House of Representatives. Instead of rushing to the voting booth to bolster President Obama, liberal/progressives had something better to do like standing in line for that new Iphone or sipping coffee at Starbucks.

Yes, some good legislation was passed during the Obama Administration but a lot more stuff went to shit because of the irrational assholes controlling the U.S. House and eventually the Senate.

Let's see, Moscow Mitch McConnell cock blocked President Obama's last Supreme Court pick. Due to the crazed whining of Ted Cruz and the Tea Party types in the House, the credit rating of the United States Government was downgraded when they allowed the country to default on its debt payments. Without going on a long tangent, I'll just write that Republicans threw in numerous other monkey wrenches into the delicate workings of our government all in an effort to discredit and embarrass President Obama.

All this lead to the disastrous 2016 presidential campaign where we ended up with Donald Trump in office. This allowed the Orange Sociopath two Supreme Court picks with Ruth Bader Ginsburg edging ever closer to a meeting with the Grim Reaper. Throw in hundreds of Trump's lower court picks, all quickly approved by Moscow Mitch's Senate majority. You want a political dystopian nightmare? Well with Trump picking federal judges and Mitch allowing them express lane approval you have a good chance to live it.

So here's the skinny on 2020 as I see it from my humble but wise observations.

We have an individual occupying the White House who pals around with authoritarian dictators. Who openly expresses contempt for a free and open press while “joking” about running for a third term. If that wasn't nightmare enough, you don't have to look hard to find some of his supporters speculating about other members of his family running for POTUS and establishing a dynasty that one meme had lasting until the 2050s. An individual who calls foreign leaders and extorts them to open investigations on his political opponents. I could continue but the icing on this rancid cake is how next to no one in his party dares to whisper the slightest opposition to his growing megalomania delusions. For brevity's sake I'll just mention there is a whole host of environmental crises that Trump not only refuses to acknowledge, but actively works to make worse.

Assumptions are a dangerous practice, but I'll go way out on a limb here and say the Roaring '20s as that B-list celebrity put it will not be filled with love, charity, and whatever else he said. We're in survival mode here folks, this coming 2020 election is not an “opportunity” as Elizabeth Warren has said. If the Democratic nominee happens to win, something I'm coming to doubt, we'll spend years just trying to mitigated the damage Trump and his sycophants have done to the United States and the rest of the planet

The 2020s will be a decades of work and rebuilding on all levels with an eager population of ignorant Trump supporters ready to rush in and finish their job if the liberal/progressives become distracted by yet another shiny object. Sorry to piss in your corn flakes this morning but if you ain't scared and ready to do everything and anything to defeat Trump, you are all sorts of wrong.