Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Gratitude: a Necessity

When I started my blog a little over a year ago, my first post of substance was about gratitude. You can read the whole thing, but the gist of it was that it's not natural for us to be grateful. We tend to take for granted everything that goes right and spend most of our time trying to improve and fix the problems, whether real or imaginary. It's not bad, necessarily, because it motivates up to aim higher and work harder, but appreciation for what we do have is also a requirement for a truly fulfilling life.

There exists a type of person almost pathologically incapable of gratitude, and we seem to have more of them lately. From an overpaid feminist professor decrying the patriarchy to a successful musician disappointing his fans to make a political statement to an athlete denigrating the country that offered him fame and fortune, new examples appear on a nearly daily basis.

The phenomenon of ingratitude, of taking gifts for granted and spitting at those who provide them is far from recent and not unique to wealthy Western nations. It is, in fact, old and universal enough to have been immortalized by a Russian 19th Century poet in a tale of The Fisherman and the Golden Fish.

For those unwilling to struggle through the valiant yet clunky attempt at a translation, it's a story of a poor Fisherman who catches a magical golden fish. In exchange for sparing her life, the fish offers the man anything he desires. At first, being kindly and humble, he simply lets the fish go. However, his wife repeatedly forces him to make ever more extravagant demands, with predictable results.

On its face, the tale cautions against greed and pride. But the character of the Fisherman's Wife is all too familiar. Her first request is modest (a new wash-tub), and even the second is understandable (a nicer house). But the more she receives, the more unhappy, demanding, and cruel she becomes.

Why is that? Do the newfound material possessions make her dissatisfied? Does she subconsciously miss poverty? More likely, she simply didn't have the ability to appreciate what was given to her. Every new gift only brought on the thoughts of what she was still lacking, and she kept asking for more, meeting no resistance, no indication that there might be a limit.

But of course, whether in fairy tales or in life, there is always a limit. Whether it's a magical benefactor or luck or true productive ability, there is only so much tangible success available to us within a lifetime. On the other hand, the amount of satisfaction and joy we achieve is very much ours to decide. The difference between happiness and misery very often comes from appreciating what one already has.

Can gratitude be learned? Perhaps. As a counter-example to the tale above, there is a Jewish joke that has been a favorite in my family. It tells of a poor Jew who comes to the Rabbi to complain about his small house. The Rabbi tells the man to buy a goat and bring it inside for a month, then get rid of it. Needless to say, after the month is up, the man appreciates all the "extra" space in the house and stops complaining.

Most people experience something similar throughout their lives: an event so traumatic that normalcy seems like a gift. Cancer survivors know of what I speak, as does everyone who watched the towers collapse on 9/11. Just living seems enough. Having family and friends around feels like a luxury. Yet it doesn't last. After a while, we start taking it all for granted again and seek more. However, any time we start to feel low, we can look back and say, "Today is not so bad, for I had been through worse. And thank goodness for that."

That is one way to learn gratitude. Another is to look around and see those less fortunate than us, whether in this country or around the world, not to feel guilty and self-disgusted as some activists would have us do, but to appreciate how rare our "normal" really is. Another is through religion. As a relative newcomer to religion, I was quite surprised how many prayers center around thanks. After all we usually think of prayer as a request rather than an expression of gratitude, but clearly the two go together.

Whatever the path to gratitude, it is my hope that more people in this world find it, for is not just a societal convention we learn as children under the umbrella of good manners. It's more, even, than a form of repayment to those who help us as we face the challenges of life. Fundamentally, it's a key to lasting happiness, available to all just for the asking.

The choice for the appropriate music video was between Martina McBride and this. Sorry, Martina.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Book Review: Set to Kill by Declan Finn

Take an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Make it THREE murder mysteries.

Replace the middle-aged Inspector with a security expert who happens to be a martial arts guru/all-around killing machine still dealing with the aftermath of saving the world as we know it.

Replace upper-class Brits with a collection of endearingly and/or annoyingly (depending on your perspective) odd characters inspired by real-life players in the sci-fi publishing world.

Stick it into the naturally insane environment that is the world's largest Sci-Fi/Fantasy con (fictionally renamed WyvernCon).

Add 'splosions, hired killers and enough weapons to run a minor war.

Oh and also make it funny enough to qualify as satire.

OK, so maybe it's nothing like an Agatha Christie mystery after all. But it is a darn good read. The reason I was thinking of Christie is because, underneath all the fun and goofiness and inside-baseball sci-fi literary community references, there is a solid plot worthy of an old-fashioned detective novel. As with any good mystery, the final reveals were surprising yet backed up by clues sprinkled throughout the story.

The pacing is good, and while some sidetracks and background sections slow down the main story, they're still amusing enough to keep the reader entertained. The violence is not as plentiful as Declan Finn's fans might expect, but there's still sufficient to keep the adrenaline flowing. The fully fictional characters are well enough developed that you can go into the story cold and still care about what happens to them; and those inspired by real life are easily recognizable while changed up just enough to still fit into a satirical fiction environment.

I can't find anything particularly "wrong" with this book to explain why exactly I'm only giving it 4 stars on review sites. Perhaps Mr. Finn set my expectations for his work too high and I've become stingier with my stars. That having been said, it's still very much recommended, if only as a palate cleanser in between his more traditional novels because it's just so very different. Enjoy and as always, Happy Reading!

Purchase Set to Kill on Amazon

Monday, November 14, 2016

#GabWriters Interview with Everitt Foster

For those who haven't heard, Gab is the new and exciting alternative to Twitter that offers those of us who believe in free speech an opportunity to meet and socialize with the like-minded. Naturally, the site is fairly heavy on creative types, and a Everitt Foster was nice enough to include me in his series of #GabWriters interviews. Unlike most blog interviews, this one has personalized questions based on my biography and other internet data. Topics cover growing up in the Soviet Russia, politics, religion, writing, my newly released novella and I don't quite remember what else.

Please note that I wrote most of the answers while watching the Presidential Election, so emotions were running high and the brain-to-fingers filter was only marginally functional. Thus you get to see as close to real me as you'll probably ever get, and also, unfortunately, wild typos abound. Apologies in advance, and enter at your own risk!

Gab Interview with Marina Fontaine

Marina Fontaine is… not a French tennis player. So let’s not make that mistake, (Thanks Google and FaceBook for your screw-ups). She’s a writer, and Gabber and all around interesting person! Check our her books here on GoodReads, and here on Amazon, and she gabs at gab.ai/mashak99

  1. You grew up in Russia, what was it like for you and your family? What types of struggles did you endure?
I would hesitate to use the word “struggles” because the hardships of everyday life were so completely internalized. It only became obvious in retrospect, and by comparison with what is considered normal in the West, just how wrong the system was. I’m talking of the little things, like being able to get decent quality food, or reliable transportation to and from work, or hot water from the tap any time you turn it on, or medicine when you are sick. When you can’t rely on the basics always being there, it adds up, it takes up the mental and physical energy that could be spent elsewhere. Mind you, we were an equivalent of a middle-class family, living in one of the better-supplied cities. It wasn’t temporary. It wasn’t poverty. It was normal.

So you take people who already have trouble just getting to a physical comfort level, and then you add what most of us commonly think of as oppression. By the time I was growing up, the mass arrests and purges were already over. So pretty much keeping one’s head down was good enough. But what comes under that umbrella? Not asking questions. Not speaking your mind outside a very narrow circle of friends. Having very limited access to news and entertainment. There were ways around the last one (Voice of America was huge at the time, and samizdat books, and “unapproved” music), but again, that’s a lot of energy spent on something that should be taken for granted.

Also, just to get through life, more or less everyone had to break the law. The reason the country held as long as it did was from underground economy. So in theory, anyone could be jailed and any time. What better way to keep citizens in check?

I heard someone say not long ago that Americans move like free people, and it’s probably hard to understand unless you’ve seen how non-free people move. The day-to-day drudgery, the constant looking over one’s shoulder, being suspicious of strangers—it all adds up, and it does feel like physical weight. Or at least once it’s gone you realize it was there. I liken it to having a chronic health condition, being adjusted to it, and then having it fixed.

I suppose you can in fact calling this experience a struggle, just not the way people think of the word. It’s not glamorous or heroic or particularly interesting (unless you distill into a fictional story, and then it could be made interesting, in the right hands).

Read the rest of the interview here.

And as a bonus to my blog readers, since we're getting personal today, here's my favorite Russian song of all time. The fact that the first boy I ever kissed sang it to me might have something to do with it, but I also love the not-quite-Russian theme of holding on to light and hope no matter how dark it gets.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Plea for Perspective

I try to stay away form politics on this blog, except for occasions where politics intrudes on culture, and sometimes not even then. There is a proliferation of political blogs and new sites, and my motto is, "If you don't have anything new to say, be quiet." My readers' time is limited, and they don't need yet another post on their newsfeed repeating something they already know.

However, in light of the happenings this week, I do in fact feel the desire to weigh in. Escalation of rhetoric during a Presidential election is nothing new. Both sides throw around words meant to paint the opponent in the worst possible light, and in spite of all the complaints about negative ads and not focusing on the issues, fear and negativity are always weapons of choice because they are the weapons that work best. It's not even new to paint the supporters of the opposing candidate as somehow lacking in either intelligence or common decency. That's how you shame people into staying home on Election day, or at least into being quiet about their views so they don't influence their friends and neighbors in the direction you don't want.

It's different now. Why? In short, because so many of us have lost the distinction between words and actions. Disagreement equals hate equals threat equals violence. Is it so shocking that, having convinced certain segments of the population that a certain candidate's victory will cause them physical harm, we are now seeing them scream in terror and lash out at the nearest, often innocent, targets?

It's true that the worst of the violence we are seeing is not organic and spontaneous, but an orchestrated attempt by George Soros and others like him to break our system of government and replace it with a dark visions of their deranged dreams. But enough of the strife is real, and it can lead nowhere good.

Below is a link to a blog post from an online friend of mine who writes under the name of Dedicated Tenther. I'm sharing it in the hopes that his words might begin to bring down the temperature of our collective disagreements so that the country we all love so much doesn't go down in (possibly literal) flames. As we are nearing the Holiday season, it might be a good time to step back and appreciate what we do have here, as Americans, and how important it is to keep it.

Please consider…

I’ve been lectured and spoken at.  I’ve been told I’m insensitive.  I’ve been told that I just don’t understand.  Donald Trump was elected president, and now people have all these feelings and I’m not taking them seriously.
Believe me, I do.  I understand that you are hurting and scared.  I completely get that.  My problem is not with your feelings themselves.  My problem is two-fold.  
First, and most important for my friends and family, my problem is that your fear and pain is based on lies.  You have been fed a diet of lies for months, and you believe them.  Indeed, why wouldn’t you?  It’s not like anyone has been denying them.  Indeed, much of the supposedly Conservative media (which obviously means something different than I thought it did a year ago), is engaging in the lies just as much as the “mainstream media.”
Second, and less important personally, but more important from a practical standpoint, your engagement in this very public hysteria is dangerous.  Because good and decent people like you believe the lies, too, bad and dangerous people have the moral cover to do horrible things.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Catholic Geek Interview: Superversive Press and The Product

Below is the link to my appearance on The Catholic Geek radio show, originally aired on October 30th. Jason Rennie gives the background on the Superversive Press and why he chose to publish my novella. We also talk dystopian novels, the joys of living under Communism and the difficulty of creating fiction that makes sense when so much of reality doesn't. Enjoy!

Listen to the full podcast here.