Category Archives: Social comment

Campaigny McCampaignface

It is not well known that I have a little sideline selling stuff, on Ebay as well as on retail consignment. In the consignments, which I market in retail establishments, the worst thing that ever happens is that the retail venue hires a cretin who does not grasp that I need to get my tags back. Those enable me to see what sold, determine whether I am making reasonable profit, and (if need be) tell the IRS what I did sell. I can live with the occasional cretinous moment.

That frustration is nothing compared to Ebay, which I have taken to calling “Ebenezer.” Don’t most of us normally assume that major changes to policies and technology that are used by millions of people happen only after various committees and managers review them, think through the potential outcomes, and schedule implementation? Don’t we assume that, on some level, these people are smarter than most of us?

I don’t. I think it’s possible that they really aren’t too bright. My experience-based belief is that the technical changes at Ebenezer are directed by a pointy-haired boss who parlayed a gentleman’s C- at a low-rated business school into a six-figure income managing Ebenezer’s “vendor experience.” I don’t think this PHB answers to anyone, ever. I think he just gets whims in his head, sends his code monkeys* a memo, expects them to work 100-hour weeks implementing his directives, then starts to cook up another memo.

In the year I’ve been doing us, the list of Ebenezer’s f-bomberies is long and monthly. Every month, every single month, it’s some fresh hell. I can live with the fact that it’s always pitched as though it’s to our advantage, when in fact it’s the opposite, because I expect that of all corporations. The key phrase is “to serve you better, we are…” That’s b-speak for “because we can screw you, we are…” What are most irritating are the petty stupidities, and those are what convince me there is no oversight here, no management. I think it’s just some PHB with a Word memo template and a deficient intellect.

Here’s an example. When you sell stuff on Ebenezer for a fixed price, there are a couple of ways you can push it. You can set up to entertain offers, and you can set auto-accept or auto-reject amounts (or choose to listen to any offer at all, which I think is smarter, because you can then counter with something rational). You can also use promoted listings. In these, you agree to pay Ebenezer an extra fee if the item sells because they shoved it in someone’s face. This, in my experience, gets rid of more stuff than does considering offers.

Now, sometime in the past, the PHB determined that it would be nice if sellers could name and track promotional campaigns. That seems reasonable, doesn’t it? What’s to complain about? It even defaulted to creating a campaign named (in my case) something like “US Campaign [date]”. Sounded so official, so markety, so businessy. It made me want to ramp up my solutioning of problems, my verbing of nouns, and my total quality management to get to the client delight level. Okay, whatever. I accepted the default name, and thereafter that was the default campaign for promoted listings. About three months later on, it decided to start a new one for me, similar rubric. Okay, fine, don’t see how this is going to hurt me.

This meant that when I was relisting, say, a hundred items, I didn’t have to make a choice on that dropdown box unless I had some reason to assign a given promotion to a given campaign. Lacking such reason, I plowed through, accepting the default. Until one day the default changed without notice.

No longer was the default campaign an existing campaign. Now the default was to begin a new campaign. If I didn’t make a dropdown choice, every single item I chose to have promoted would be assigned its own new, special, unique campaign. I would eventually run up against some limit of total campaign listings.

Now, because a PHB (in my supposition, which I admit is based mostly on outcomes and plausible explanation based on having worked for a number of PHBs) told a code monkey to change something–or, perhaps, simply failed to review a code monkey’s work–all of a sudden there was an extra step necessary. Just one more step, where there wasn’t one before. I only created three new campaigns by mistake before I realized what was happening.

I also learned that I couldn’t just reassign existing listings to a given campaign, the better to clean up the mess. The choices were greyed out. I could delete a campaign, but that would remove the promotion from any listings currently live that were using that campaign. A feature that was nothing to me, transformed into an unannounced pain in the rectum: that’s Ebenezer and its vendor experience PHB.

So I got annoyed. When I get annoyed with a corporation, which is not infrequent, I find a creative way to mock it. Even if I am the only one who gets a laugh, that’s the candle I light rather than cursing the darkness. More accurately, I light it while cussing the darkness pretty hard; fair enough. But I do light it.

I needed a campaign name that would sort to the top of the list, that I would recognize, and that would reflect my opinion of the PHB and his (in my experience, men are more likely to be PHBs) vendor experience management.

Campaigny McCampaignface was born.

Now, at least, I get a laugh every time I relist an item and choose to have Ebenezer ram it in people’s faces promote it.

 

*I get the term “code monkey” from one of my cousins, who posted a video long ago to explain what his work was like. It is not meant to disparage those who write code, but to highlight how management uses those coders’ skill sets.

Advertisements

Writing women, and writing for women: an interview with Adrienne Dellwo

I have frequent conversations with clients about gender in writing. It is fair to say that I have to open some male writers’ eyes on the subject, which of course is twofold: presenting women as realistic and interesting characters, and presenting writing that will have above average appeal (thus, marketability) to women. In short: one disregards women, as an audience, to one’s own detriment.

Rather than tell you why all that was so, I thought I’d seek a more expert opinion. I first met Adrienne Dellwo serving on panels at a science fiction convention. We were fellow travelers in the freelancing field, but she has since expanded her creative horizons into fiction and cinema. She was gracious enough to agree to an interview, and she was as candid as I could have hoped. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed participating.

===

JK: Adrienne, could you go into a little detail about your literary career?

AD: I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but I rarely finished even a short story, let alone a novel. Part of the problem was that I didn’t feel like I knew how the whole process was supposed to work.

I started going to conventions for the writing panels, and that really helped. Then, after a panel on World Building, I started thinking about what my world would look like, if I were to build one. A scene flashed through my head, and it became the opening scene to Through the Veil.

That was the first book I finished, and I eventually found a publisher for it. I now have three books out and just finished my fourth last night, actually. And I have two more that are partially written.

Congratulations. This helps the readership understand why I felt you would be the perfect subject for this interview. To some degree it is a sort of self-check. I wanted to write a blog post about writing women (as characters), and writing for women. Then I realized that my idea was stupid, and that it would be far more productive to ask an actual woman.

LOL! Thanks.

First, I want to be clear about generalization. I don’t think any rule, anywhere, applies to everyone in a given group. At most, we might reasonably say that a given generalization is more often true than not. And of course, like everyone else, you are not acquainted with the whole of the population, so you speak from your own circles and experiences. Do those sound like reasonable caveats with which to preface a discussion of the majority of the human population?

Yes, they do.

Great. Let’s start with me running past you some of my longstanding admonitions to clients. If you think any of them are incomplete or flawed, I’d like to know how they can be corrected. First admonition: on average, women are more likely than men to be readers, thus (knowing nothing about the content) the audience is likely to be majority female. Do you agree?

Based on studies and surveys I’ve seen, yes, I believe it’s true that women are more likely to be readers, so it makes sense that they’d consume most of the books, regardless of genre.

The goal there was to hammer home the urgency of the question; if they value their marketability and reviews, they had better reckon with that reality. Running off the majority of one’s audience strikes me as a terrible notion.

Absolutely!

Second admonition: most women have an easy time perceiving the difference between presenting sexist characters (which may be simple realism) and an obviously sexist author (which is a correctable flaw). True in your experience?

Oh, yeah. If most of the characters, the female ones in particular, are presented realistically and just one character is a jerk, that’s a lot different from the sexist representations of women that fill some books. Or, rather, that show up in the single token female character who’s surrounded by alpha males.

Would you say that the latter case is the more common? The only woman on the baseball team, or in the office, et cetera?

Definitely. In a ton of mainstream novels, the only developed female character is the protagonist’s love interest.

So we aren’t talking about just a quality problem. It’s as much a quantity problem.

Quantity, in my experience, might be the bigger problem. We’re so accustomed to it that it’s considered normal. Think of the Smurfs–a bunch of males, plus Smurfette. In the Air Bud movies, they’re all male puppies except for the single female. The male dogs have names that reflect their interests, while the female just gets a girlie name, as if she doesn’t get interests at all beyond being feminine. It’s her entire personality.

Then it continues on–how many developed female characters do we get in DaVinci Code, for example?

It’s been a long time since I read that. I don’t remember many.

That’s because there’s one. The love interest.

And it’s one thing if you’re in a male-dominant environment. You can’t slip women into the submarine in Hunt for Red October, for example. Historically, they just weren’t there. But in other settings, women are chronically under-represented.

If authors would include more female characters, we’d get more interesting ones because they’d need to give them actual personalities to distinguish one from the other. Instead, we get one representation, and she’s basically the same in book after book.

Of course, we have authors who write plenty of wonderful and varied women. I’m talking about a subset of mainstream male authors who tend to get a lot of popular attention and have big-budget movies made.

Can you paint me the picture of this fatigued representation? Just so that my clients and readership can know when they find themselves sliding into inadequate portrayal?

She’s tall, slender, beautiful, and smart. But not smarter than the protagonist, of course. She wears high heels and glasses (the glasses let you know she’s smart!) and pulls her hair back when she wants to be taken seriously, then takes it out of the bun or ponytail and gives it a dramatic shake when it’s time to be sexy. Because she has two modes–serious and sexy.

Most of the time, she’s too busy being serious to have any interest in a romantic relationship, and she may even be resistant to men because of a bad experience in her past (probably a boss or professor), but the protagonist is so manly and brilliant that she’s unable to resist.

So in essence, she is a prop? Like a fake sword or a glucose whiskey bottle?

Precisely. She’s there to give the man someone to bounce brilliant ideas off of, and to fall in love with him.

Another trope that’s layered onto this one is that she’s also a martial artist. That means she can fight well enough to stay alive until the man can save her, and she’s super in shape which makes her more sexually appealing.

Then the author says, “Hey, she’s smart and strong–I write strong female characters!” Um, no. You write fantasy-fulfillment props.

I have a client with an upcoming book where his adventurers, five in number, include one woman. But she’s the fighter and sergeant, and she doesn’t have any love interest. She spends a fair bit of time kicking ass, and speaking of which, her own is not exactly hourglassy. But she’s got enough heart to feel like her own person, not a prop. Sound promising?

It does. Putting a woman in a group with four men and not having her in love with any of them is practically revolutionary.

My client worked hard at this, and it showed.

One more admonition: the most telling cues to the author’s outlook are found when the author portrays women, and in particular interactions between men and women. Agree?

It’s definitely a big one. Something more interesting is interaction between female characters, though, because it’s surprisingly rare and all too often deals with jealousy or commiserating over a man.

In other words, they are not so much about the women, but male-centric. The connection/conflict would not exist without him.

Exactly.

In Through the Veil and its sequels, I have a spiritual order that’s all women. They’re not wives or mothers, their primary interest in life isn’t romance or domesticity. Taking them out of those roles is freeing for me because I can make them individuals on a level I’m not accustomed to seeing.

Because, having grown up with prop women who have no agenda of their own, I have to watch myself. It’s easy to write what you’ve seen and read a million times.

It’s why propaganda works.

So true! I hope younger authors will have an easier time avoiding these issues. In my experience, they’re far more aware of the problems entrenched in media, and therefore more able to avoid the ruts.

In the ’80s, none of us thought Breakfast Club or Revenge of the Nerds or Top Gun were problematic. When I watch ’80s movies with my kids, though, they’re outraged. So we’re getting better, as a society.

Reader by reader, author by author.

Yep. And generation by generation. When I paused The Breakfast Club to talk to my daughter about some of the issues, she told me what was wrong with it. She was all of 12 at the time. Kids are savvy these days, and that tells me that even if authors keep writing hollow women, they’ll stop being successful.

One suspects that certain parents have laid better groundwork than others. I know Joe [her husband], and I’m sure they get mutual message reinforcement on gender issues.

LOL! So true! My kids don’t get traditional gender roles at all. We both cook and clean and buy groceries and pay bills and fix things and create things. Because of my health issues, I stay home and Joe goes to work–but while I’m home, I’m writing medical articles and books and screenplays. On film sets, sometimes he directs, sometimes I direct. So yeah, my kids think any kind of artificial gender roles are just weird.

Where possible, I counsel my male clients to make sure that some of their first readers include women who can offer feedback, but that alone is unlikely to correct inherent biases and flaws. What would you suggest they do in order to write better women, and write better for women?

At conventions and in writing circles, you hear a lot about “writing strong female characters.” I think we need to stop focusing on that, because then we get into definitions of what strength is and what female means. That’s all problematic! Meanwhile, when you read male characters written by female authors, you don’t run into the same issues as with the reverse.

We need to go back to basics. We write good characters when we treat each one as an individual with their own goals, dreams, fears, etc. If you’re looking at a female character that way, rather than as just a love interest or sex object, you’re going to be fine.

The prop women we discussed earlier have one major trait in common–the male protagonist’s goal becomes her goal the moment they meet, whether she has any prior motivation to pursue it. It becomes her goal because he is her true goal, and she’ll mold herself into the proper shape to fit.

So if a man is having trouble creating a decent female character, I’d suggest an exercise–write a short story about that woman, earlier in her life, where she’s the protagonist and there’s not a love interest. Once you see her as a full human being, she’ll come across that way on the page. Or write the character as a male buddy and then change the pronouns.

And if you think, “But I’d have to change everything about the character to change the gender,” then you’ve found the real issue you need to work on.

Because too many of these female props-as-characters have too many qualities that are either a) female-specific, and/or b) centered around a male?

Exactly. And here’s the thing–when women write male characters, they write them the same way they write female characters! I think about his goals, his challenges, his insecurities, how he views the world based on not just gender, but environment, circumstance, culture, and up-bringing.

All of us are much more than gender, so when you start thinking about “how do I write a woman,” it’s easy to fall into the trap of creating a stereotypical woman rather than a realistic one.

Granted. At the same time, I think some of them mean well. They just don’t know what they’re doing, at least in my observed experience. My theory about that is that they have not spent enough time in life trying to see the world through her eyes.

That’s the crux of it–they haven’t examined her as a character in her own right. And I understand how confusing it must be for a lot of men. They put women in the story and get criticism for not creating believable women, so they heap on more “feminine” traits only to get more criticism. I get it, I really do. But it all boils down to the same thing–stop trying to write “a female character” and write fully realized characters who happen to be female. It’s one characteristic of many, not the defining characteristic.

I’ve sat in panels where authors try to define both strength and what it means to be a woman, and the only things that came out of it were stereotypes and generalizations. When you apply them to the whole of human experience, they fall short. I have a lot of traits that are considered traditionally masculine. I know plenty of men who have traits that are traditionally feminine. One of my children rejects gender constructs completely and considers themself neither male nor female.

Then you’ve got gender-fluid people and trans people–gender is a spectrum, not a fixed point. And the longer we go without fixed gender expectations in our society, the more we’ll see that manifested.

I suspect that, beginning with the current generation of children and after, we will see that reflected in how they write.

I’m seeing that already. There’s a great young author named Kaye Thornbrugh who refuses to write unhealthy relationships like you see in so many popular books targeted at girls and young women. I’m in a writing group with several recent college graduates, and they’re writing with an understanding of the gender spectrum that turns everything on its head.

Can you name a couple of male authors who do an excellent job portraying women and gender dynamics? What specifically do they do well?

A lot of people might be surprised by this answer, but I think Stephen King does an exceptionally good job of writing women. I’ve read a majority of his books, and I’ve never felt like a female character was a prop, or under-developed. The reason is that he’s good at developing all of his characters, regardless. He sees them all as full-fledged human beings, and they come across that way. Read Gerald’s Game or Rose Madder or Lisey’s Story to see examples of female protagonists done well. In It, he captures children perfectly. When you read Insomnia, you’re certain you understand what it’s like to be elderly. And it’s all because he doesn’t rest on stereotypes and generalizations. He understands people, period.

Backing up a little bit, there’s been a shift in the way female characters are discussed. At one of my first cons, I heard the criticism that a lot of “strong females” were just “men with boobs,” because they weren’t written any differently from men. Everyone knew it was problematic to define how women should be written, but no one questioned the criticism itself.

At my most recent convention, I saw that criticism questioned because the criticism itself uses a narrow lens of what it means to be female. Sure, you can make generalizations about how women tend to be more nurturing, or how female friendship is different from male friendship, but then you’ve got swaths of women who fall outside of that definition. I have a high school friend who joined the Marines, has never gotten married or had kids, and fits in better in traditionally masculine environments. She lifts weights, goes rock climbing, and jumps out of airplanes for fun. At the same time, she’s heterosexual, loves wearing ultra-feminine clothes when she’s not at work, and decorates her house with floral prints.

Heh. Try pigeonholing all that!

Right? You can’t!

And none of it is because she was abused or sexually assaulted, or because she grew up without a mother, or because she can’t have babies. That’s just who she is. She’s also pagan and has a degree in physics. Wouldn’t you rather read a book with her in it than with some cardboard cutout in high heels and glasses?

Definitely. She sounds intriguing.

We’re all drawn to things that are unusual and unexpected. So create weird women. Create the oddball who can’t be pigeonholed and doesn’t want to be.

Draw from the weirdness inside you and the weirdness in people around you. That’s what’s real.

A science fiction convention could supply enough relevant material for a lifetime of writing.

Hahaha! Without a doubt!

So, Stephen King. Any other men doing above average?

I have a good friend named Bracken MacLeod who’s an amazing author and writes great women. Check out his book called Mountain Home. (Stranded is also amazing but intentionally male-focused, as it’s about toxic masculinity and its impact on men.)

The shared superhero series I write for has a lot of great female characters. It’s the Just Cause universe, and it was started by Ian Thomas Healy. (I know that sounds self-serving, but I wouldn’t be writing for the series if I didn’t admire a lot about it.)

Fair enough. I would also like to note for the reader that it took you longer than anticipated to ponder on this. Do I interpret that fairly to say that the number of major, popular male writers doing a good job on gender is a bit bleak?

That’s fair. I’m browsing through my Kindle and finding a dearth of male authors, and the only big-name ones are Stephen King, his son Joe Hill, Patrick Rothfuss, and George R.R. Martin.

Martin is a controversial one in this area, with some people thinking he created a sexist world in order to show women (and other oppressed people) overcoming it, and other people thinking he himself is sexist. I’m having trouble remembering much about most of Rothfuss’ female characters. I’m not sure whether that’s his fault or mine. LOL

Let the record reflect that the interviewee, like most readers, has voted with her wallet. A thing for prospective and evolving authors to consider.

That is the final arbiter, isn’t it?

If not the final one, it is surely of importance even if it is not the primary determinant of quality.

Very true.

I should mention Erik Scott de Bie, as well. He’s got some great women in his books.

In young adult, Cory Doctorow.

Cory Doctorow I’ve heard of.

His books Little Brother and Homeland are the best YA I’ve read, and as a YA author, I’ve read a lot. They should be taught in every high school. Sorry to go off-topic, but he deals with themes of personal freedom and government over-reach in the name of safety, all with near-future technology and phenomenal character development. Great books.

I feel like I should mention female authors who provide great examples of female characters, as well. High on my list is Diana Rowland, who writes the Kara Gillian/Demon Summoner series as well as the White Trash Zombie series. Her women are tough and quirky and fully developed. I also like Lish McBride, A.G. Howard, and Jennifer Brozek.

And Mercedes M. Yardley. She’s brilliant.

Now I’d like to know who among the men is doing it wrong, and how they are blowing it. The more prominent the names, the greater the percentage of our readership that will relate.

I stopped reading Dan Brown and John Grisham a long time ago, largely because of their female characters. I can’t provide more examples because I don’t read a lot of mainstream fiction anymore, especially if it’s written by middle-aged, straight, cis white men. I feel like I’ve read it all before, over and over. (I should add that I don’t read romance or much “chick-lit” for the same reasons, even though a lot of that is written by women.)

Fair enough. I’d add W.E.B. Griffin to that list, even though it’s speaking critically of the recently deceased.

Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they were good writers.

You can find a ton of articles online with examples of how men have written women poorly. They’re often hilarious, while also sad. When they describe a woman being aware of how her breasts move, you know they’re so entrenched in the view of women as sex objects that they think we actually view ourselves that way.

My mind reels with comic examples of women busy living their lives, punctuated by internal monologue about breast movement.

Yeah. Can’t say I’ve ever experienced that in real life. I mean, what kind of bras are these women wearing? They shouldn’t be moving that much!

I’m told most women are wearing poorly fitting bras. Of course, I’m told that by people who are selling bras.

They do, but even those keep them from swinging around and rubbing against each other.

And the key point, of course, is the tendency for the whole thing to be about the breasts because that’s what the author identifies with femaleness. Or femininity. “Welcome to You Are Your Ta-tas!

Okay. Narrowing the focus for a moment to the portrayals of women, what would you say are the most prevalent flaws–the moments where nearly every female reader rolls her eyes? I say ‘female’ because the reader may well be under the age of eighteen. I understand that this may be slightly redundant, but I’m looking for identifiable trends.

When she cowers and waits for the man to save her. Or when she falls prey to obvious emotional manipulation.

The scene in Captain Marvel (spoiler alert!) when she looks down at her former commander and says, “I have nothing to prove to you,” is possibly the most empowering moment I’ve ever seen on screen. Because every girl and woman has been made to feel like she has to prove herself to a man.

Would it be fair to say that ‘proving oneself’ to the men is another of the prevalent flaws in men’s writing as well as on the screen?

It’s everywhere, in our society as well as our media. That’s why it’s believable when he throws down the weapons and challenges her hand-to-hand.

I didn’t see the movie, but I know that it inspired very polarized reactions. Some of them struck me as comically insecure.

It’s a great movie. One of the best of the MCU, for sure. And any man who has a problem with it should probably get professional help.

I sense that most of the men who feel threatened by the fact that there’s a movie about a superheroine, of which most women and girls seem to approve, aren’t too receptive to help.

What are some obvious early ‘tells’ that inform you there is bad gender writing ahead? The one that comes to my mind is the inability to distinguish girls from women, but you would surely notice more than I would.

I cringe when there’s an excessive emotional response to something because it signals that the author considers women to be over-emotional. If you want to create a character that is highly emotional, it needs motivation–just like anything else. Gender isn’t motivation enough.

I’m pretty selective about who I read, though, and probably 80 percent is by female authors. So I don’t come across it a lot these days.

Oh–something that hasn’t come up that’s important to mention: We need to stop using sexual assault as the default reason for a woman to have emotional or psychological problems. Yes, it’s prevalent in society, but it’s used too often as a convenient and easy explanation. Men get more varied backstories.

Same for domestic violence?

Yeah, domestic violence, too. Along the same lines is having lost a child or having an inability to conceive. Give us motivations that aren’t rooted in the fact that we’re female. Just like a character in a wheelchair may have something to be angry about other than being in a wheelchair, or a person of color might have a chip on their shoulder about something not related to race.

Or if you’re going to use those elements, don’t just make it a throw-away.

I think a similar interview could be done with a reader of color, with equally productive results.

Or a disabled person. Or a non-straight or non-cis person. It’s far too common for one trait to define a character’s entire personality and backstory.

You definitely never want to read Harry Turtledove. Not only are you your difference in Turtledove, but it comes up in every single scene.

Ugh! “Othering” needs to end. If someone can’t recognize the full human experience of someone who’s not exactly like them, they shouldn’t be writing. We all face limitations to understanding other people, but we need to do what we can to overcome them. I know that as a white person, I can’t fully understand what it’s like to be, for example, a brown person in America, but I can pay enough attention to know what issues people of color face, and I can view people of all types as complete people with complex lives and personalities and experiences that aren’t all tied to a small set of characteristics.

Okay, this goes back to characters like Captain Marvel, at the risk of ground already having been trodden. Please think of female protagonists you have encountered in fiction. Can you identify some whose appeal you consider very widespread among women, and tell us what makes them so appealing? One of my favorites is Ari Emory, out of C.J. Cherryh‘s Cyteen series.

It’s hard to deny the appeal of Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games. She’s capable, independent, brave, and analytical–all traits that are considered typically masculine. She’s also insecure and protective of the people she loves. You might think of that as her softer, more feminine side, but how many books and movies picture men protecting their families? (Die Hard and Taken come to mind.) And insecurity is universal, even though we see it portrayed in women and girls more frequently.

Because that’s how the authors view women and girls, one supposes.

Yep. And because we don’t want our alpha males to show weakness.

Kara Gillian, in Diana Rowland’s Demon Summoner series, is someone I think would appeal to a lot of women. (Those books should really be more popular!) She’s a homicide detective who summons demons on the side. She’s tough, snarky, and intriguing with a mysterious backstory.

What do you think of Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Anita Blake?

I actually haven’t read her yet, but she’s on my list.

Patricia Briggs‘s Mercedes Thompson, for a localized example?

I’ve read a little of that series. I’ve heard Mercy criticized as an unbelievable female character because she’s too much of a loner and “women need at least one close confidant.” I don’t buy it–I think that’s too stereotypical a view of what a woman is, and that characteristic is believable in the character.

Mercy has a lot in common with the two heroines I’ve mentioned, and that series is wildly popular. Interesting, eh? Amazing what happens when you put a complex, non-stereotypical woman on the page.

Now I would like to look at your own writing experience. I can imagine it going the other way. Do you find it challenging to write male characters in your own fiction?

I don’t, and I don’t think many women do. How many articles have you seen calling out women for unrealistic portrayals of men?

I think the reason for that is complicated. For one, we’re inundated with the male viewpoint all the time, and a disproportionate number of characters we read or watch are males written by males. Second, there’s a pervasive myth in our society that women are mysterious and men will never understand them–so why should they try?

The book I just finished (Plague, which will be out in September) is my first long work with a male protagonist, but I have prominent male characters is all my fiction. I don’t find it hard to relate to that experience because I pay attention to people. I watch, I listen, I learn. I go beyond a small set of traits when imagining who people are.

As a screenwriter, I’ve never had an actor say, “This isn’t how a man would act.”

Here’s the thing about authors who write bad female characters–their men aren’t that much more interesting, either. They’re generally what the author wishes he could be, not honest reflections of the human experience. Readers who like those authors like to see male and female in terms of stereotypes and dated expectations, and they tend to get whiny when their expectations aren’t met.

Is there anything I should have asked you, but didn’t think to?

I don’t think so. We’ve covered a lot of ground.

Indeed. Anything you’d like to add?

I’ve worked it all in already. LOL

Thank you so much for taking time to share your thoughts with the readership, Adrienne. Best of success to you in all your creative efforts!

My pleasure, and thank you!

Amazon losing market share

They are. Oh, not a statistically significant market share. But they are losing a good percentage of the share that is our household, and it would surprise me if we were the only ones.

Why?

It isn’t for moral reasons. We aren’t engaging in a partial boycott. Whether we should is a worthwhile question, but it’s not like Wal-Mart, where I haven’t knowingly shopped since I borrowed bought a breast pump I knew I would return. It’s not like that chicken place with the stupid name, where I wouldn’t eat there simply because the name is too stupid, even if they hadn’t come out as homophobes.

That’s not to say that this outcome doesn’t please me. It does. Amazon needs competitors. Amazon offers numerous shopping irritants:

  • Sellers like Wal-Mart hiding behind fake names. Nothing like getting a good deal and finding out you shopped at Wal-Mart.
  • Rating system is garbage, and vendors can easily get nasty reviews removed. Vendors have nothing to lose from nasty reviews.
  • Try calling Amazon for customer service. Hell, try emailing them for it.
  • Opaque tracking system clumsy to use. Seeming delays of a week to ship while, evidently, they move stuff around their network.
  • The known truths about what a hell it is to work there.
  • Delivery vans unmarked and pretty much just throw your stuff at the porch. And that’s if your Amazon delivery guy doesn’t turn out to be your porch pirate, as happened in one case near where I live.
  • Good luck getting an Amazon shipper to combine shipping for multiple items.
  • Amazon still thinks it’s a reasonable deal to ask you to pay, what is it, $90 or so per year just so that you can get free two-day shipping on all the stuff you buy from them.
  • Worse still, Amazon nags you without cease to sign up for this.
  • Still cannot block a bad shipper. There’s one book outfit there, a horrible vendor, and they have perhaps a dozen branch operations. It’s very hard to avoid them.

Of late, I’m buying routine items increasingly on Ebay, using Amazon to help identify/select them (such as small bits of hardware; just like many people use a brick-and-mortar, then go buy the thing online). Because:

The rating system may be hugely inflated, but no seller wants a nasty feedback. In my experience, most will fall all over themselves to avoid it, provided they have evidence of dealing with a reasonable person. And if you are a complete jerk toward a seller, s/he has a different remedy toward you: s/he can prevent you from seeing their merchandise in the future. So unless you want potential vendors to go away, it is in your best interest to be reasonable.

I have several times called Ebay for customer service. Using a telephone (ask your grandparents what that was). And received it. Other good parts:

  • Tracking: either it has a tracking number, or not. If it does, you can see where it’s going. If not then not. Wow! It’s almost as if that’s the way the concept is intended to work!
  • Doesn’t use Amazon delivery, thus doesn’t lead to unmarked vans out of which people leap desperate enough to work at one of America’s workplace gulags, and who quite often look like they would just as soon turn porch pirate. And near where I live, have done so.
  • Shippers will quite often combine shipping for multiple items within reason.
  • Not everything is up for auction. Much of what’s on Ebay is fixed price. In some cases, you can make a lower offer and it will be accepted.

Today was a good example. I needed some very large manila envelopes at a reasonable price. I didn’t know what the standard size was, but Amazon was a great place to look it up. When I was serious about buying, I went to Ebay and found the same thing, about the same price. It wasn’t even a contest. I would have paid a little more to buy it anywhere but Amazon.

I bought from the platform that used real shippers, cared about my feedback, and didn’t feed a massive inventory and shipping machinery that grinds human beings to submission.

Another example, on a later day of blog post composition. My wife needed some supplies she always uses. I went to Amazon to look up what their people wanted for these supplies. When it came time to make an actual purchase, I bought on Ebay. The deal was much better.

I got a volume discount. I won’t have to deal with sketchy-looking Amazon delivery vans. Everything was better.

Do you not now see what was the point of Amazon Prime? It’s a brilliant strategy provided one is dealing with an ovine people who love the meth that is ‘free shipping.’ Get people to pay an annual fee, and they will feel compelled to shop at Amazon to take advantage of the shipping. It’s like a ‘loyalty’ card at a coffee place, except that coffee places don’t expect you to pay an annual fee and don’t propose to automatically renew you by charging your credit card unless you cancel. Amazon Prime is the worst deal going and it has the effect of roping you into acting to your disadvantage. They would not offer it, and pressure everyone constantly to sign up for it, if it were not to their profit. It is to your disadvantage.

Yes. You are advantaged by buying only what you need, and by shopping for the best value. Amazon is advantaged by you buying there even if you do not need, and by you not comparison shopping.

I never take any of those ‘loyalty’ cards because it’s obvious that their intent is to get me to shop at a given venue more consistently–and in the case of mag-strip cards, to compile a nice dossier on my shopping. The employees don’t understand why I won’t just do it to get 10% off. I explain, as patiently as is in my power, that the card’s goal is to induce me to shop there; that my goal is to shop where is most advantageous for me. Thus they have their goals and I have mine, and they are mostly opposed. I can tell by the look in their eyes that, in spite of how hard they work for what little they are paid, they never thought of that. Their eyes say what their mouths won’t: whatever, man, you should just take the discount.

I wish they would blurt that out. I might rejoin: “Has it ever occurred to you that one reason for poverty is poor attention to money management?”

The vendors have their goals and problems. The consumer does not need to own either. I don’t see the company stepping up to support my goals and they aren’t owed support for their own.

At heart, they flat do not give a damn what I think. As Amazon does not.

Somehow, I’m not supposed to adopt the same attitude.

We saw it with IBM. We saw it with M$. When a company reaches complete market dominance, it tends to stop caring what the public thinks of it.

It never quite seems to process the fact that this sword cuts both ways.

Free shipping: why it sucks for you

I’m not kidding.

In the modern-day online economy, free shipping has almost become a baseline expectation. I am told that if I’m selling online, and I don’t offer free shipping, I might as well write off every customer under forty. That is tantamount to telling me that every customer under forty is innumerate.

I don’t believe that. But I do believe that some customers, at all ages, refuse to do the simplest arithmetic.

To be fair, free shipping is an acceptable deal–for one item, from one vendor at a time. To be clear: that makes it a wash, not an advantage.

(This, by the way, is the first in a new category of posts at The ‘Lancer: “Robin Hood.” I intend to use this category for public service articles meant to expose ripoffs and scams, and to suggest creative ways to make life worse for ripoff and scam artists. Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was my absolute favorite book growing up, and over half a century later is still a great inspiration to me.)

The ripoff comes when you buy more than one item from the same vendor. The more you buy, the more you inflate the vendor’s profit. The better a customer you are, the more you suffer. The vendor counts upon you to be an idiot. He hopes you will think: if there’s free shipping, hell, why not stock up?

Let’s take a fairly common vintage baseball card as an example. Suppose it costs $1.50 with free shipping with Vendor Joe. With another, Vendor Jill, it costs $0.75 with $0.75 also for shipping. In the second case, if you buy multiple items, Jill may readily agree to combine your shipping costs to a degree. (Since this is Jill’s moment of victory, if Jill did not, Jill would demonstrate the intellect of a prehistoric fern.) Joe’s shipping charges can’t go below zero, so Jill is sure to be the better deal. No matter what, when you get this so-called free shipping, you are absolutely being charged for the freight; the cost is just relocated to the item’s price.

That card costs either vendor fifty cents to mail, but appearances drive this whole monte game. In essence, Jill charges you the fifty cents plus a modest handling fee. Jill appears petty and pecuniary and nickel-and-diming. For gods’ sake, her shipping costs as much as her merch! What does she think I am, independently wealthy? Joe looks as if he waves a magnanimous hand and throws in the cost of delivery, just to do you a favor, fagedaboudit, good ol’ Joe.

Same amount. Same shipping. Same economics–except that you like Joe better. He’s the free shipping person! And when you buy two cards, your brain may think that the more you buy, the more you save, but you can see from this description that it is the other way around: the more you buy, the more you overspend. Suppose you buy ten cards in that price range. Obviously, they cannot all be shipped for one $0.75 shipping charge, but they surely can be shipped for far less than $7.50. Since Jill has not been lobotomized, she knows it costs less than $7.50. Jill also gives you credit for not having been lobotomized, so she presumes you know this as well. So she charges you perhaps $4.00, which still covers her overall shipping plus a little extra: total, $11.50.

Joe can’t lower shipping costs below free, so unless he offers a volume discount, his ten cards cost you $15.00. And whatever his volume discount, it is unlikely to beat Jill’s simple and fair charge.

Fagedaboudit.

Why doesn’t everyone go to Jill for their bulk buys? Joe counts upon your negative emotional reaction to Jill’s method, which appears to be dinging you for every little thing à la carte. (You mean I have to pay for extra sauces?) Also, you have to ascertain in advance what her policy will be, and that requires icky work-like stuff like reading and asking her questions. There is also addition and subtraction in play, which is math, thus even ickier and difficult and wasn’t on the test. It’s all so hard, and you just want to be done! The five-second instant gratification cycle has passed! Joe is hosing you, but you like him better, because he doesn’t quibble over petty stuff like shipping charges. Bing, bang, done, oh, I have a text coming in.

It’s a shell game. Ever seen those? Pick which coconut half (or overturned bowl, whatever) the ball is under. You always win the first time, just like a monte game. Or a nearby shill steps up and ‘wins’ to make it look good. When there’s more on the line, there is no way you win because the target has been moved in a way your eye will not track.

For one item, free shipping is a wash. Take it for gospel that the vendor pays for and is being paid for the shipping, whatever shell the money is under. Beyond one item, with the same vendor, the equation is simple:

The more you shop, the more you’re milked.

Joe really, really, really hopes you will never figure this out.

Ah, but what if Jill screws you by only discounting shipping a little bit?

First, this would defeat our non-lobotomized premise about Jill, because Jill would be stupid not to know she’s dealing with someone who has figured out the shell game and has chosen her on the logical presumption of better value. Jill is honest enough not to use the free shipping ripoff. Second, and consequently, Jill knows that she has a volume customer who may buy significant amounts from her in the future–but not if she gouges on the shipping. Once that customer trusts her to keep freight charges within reason, she will be a preferred vendor.

Joe? Fagedaboudim. Jill rocks. Joe’s running game on his customers.

Free shipping: just another shell game to make people think they got a bargain when in fact it’s a wash for one item, and a ripoff for more than one.

Celebrating those unifying national traditions…by being jerks to each other on Nextdoor

For those unfamiliar with it, Nextdoor is a social media site for neighborhoods. In order to get in, one must prove that one lives in a given area. It’s another brainchild of Nirav Tolia, of Epinions fame, someone I have at least spoken with on the phone. One can see in its concepts certain commonalities, including the farming out of moderation to community leaders.

What’s Nextdoor like? You’ve all seen just how phallic people can get when hiding behind a keyboard. (If you haven’t, create a Facebook account and despair for humanity.) Nextdoor offers the same pleasures, but with a bit of a reality show vibe because you might meet these people. For those in your neighborhood, you can see their real names and addresses. There’s one lady in mine that I muted long ago, but every time I drive past her house, I think less than kind thoughts about the canine components in her DNA.

About two-thirds of Nextdoor posting concerns lost and found pets. No joke. I call it Lostcatsdoor in my mind. I sympathize with everyone who loses a pet, though I think everyone who says ‘fur baby’ needs a bucket of cold water. I never say anything about those posts, unless I think I spotted the animal in question, but at least lost pet searching is a productive purpose. It boggles my mind how so many people can be so urgently bothering deities every single day over someone else’s pet, but it’s harmless, so okay.

Right now is prime time for the most important tradition in Nextdoor’s young history: The Great Annual Fourth of July Alienation and Verbal Brawl. Ours is already in full swing, with everyone piously choosing up sides. The battle concerns fireworks, and whether they should be detonated, and what sort. Here’s a scorecard:

  • Team Pet Trauma: demands that everyone else stop celebrating because it scares their pets.
  • Team Murrica Fuck Yeah: demands that everyone stop bitching and start blasting, the more the merrier. Will set off dynamite sticks if he (it’s always a he) can find any. Would probably fire howitzer salvos if he could.
  • Team Law & Order: reminds everyone that all fireworks more interesting than a kitchen match are illegal here in Oregon, therefore everyone must be obedient. Ve muscht nicht disobey der rules!
  • Team Veteran PTSD: points out that a holiday celebrated by traumatizing the nation’s past defenders is Doing It Wrong. They have a point.
  • Team Rectum: doesn’t particularly care about the issue, just trolls people up real good. If need be, brings up politics and accuses some people of being on the wrong side. Without them, this verbal brawl might peter out.
  • Team Incendiary: dismisses all safety concerns, telling people they should sit out all night with a hose if they worry about someone else starting fires.

And every year, by this time, they are in full swing having the entire fight all over again. It’s usually even the same people. I’ve lived here for three years now. I think they look forward to it. It never seems to occur to them that if this is the way they feel about and treat each other, maybe we have less to celebrate than we might imagine. Maybe we should call it Division Day, to reflect how we really feel.

Watching people bicker over Independence Day fireworks is like watching several doctors and nurses have an all-out brawl over patient care. “No, you pill-pushing hillbilly, he does not need a goddamn MRI!” “Go soak your head in a filled bedpan! He needs an MRI and if you don’t get out of the way I will run your ass over with this gurney!” “Bring it, Doc Holliday. This scalpel will sort you out.”

I have no plans ever to be a senior citizen

No, I’m not checking out early. If I were, I’d practice far less self-denial. I expect to live a lot longer than my life choices say I should, which is unfair to people who made excellent life choices and don’t get to do so. I can’t help that.

Rather, I plan to refuse the label, ‘senior citizen.’ I hate it.

My problem is not with my elders per se, but with this prominent tumor in our landscape of euphemisms. Some of them actually warp meaning. (How is ‘bath tissue’ descriptive of toilet paper? Do you take toilet paper into the bath with you?)

Worse still, every so often, we decide that the label is not laudatory enough, and concoct a new one that kisses more ass, deviates farther from sane reality. This is grotesque. If you aren’t satisfied that your label kisses enough ass, why not just call them ‘sainted deities’ so you don’t have to keep upgrading to something gushier? I’m serious. If that’s the ultimate intent, just come up with something right now that implies they are perfect and wonderful in every way, and speech-nightstick the rest of us into using it. Take the short cut.

My grandfather, who was elderly for most of the time I knew him, referred to himself as elderly. He also referred to his clients as elderly. As a nursing home administrator, that was a lot of people. If we’re going to choose a word, I’d say ‘elderly’ is a little nicer-sounding than ‘old’ to apply to people (but only if one attaches stigma to age as a concept, which our culture definitely does). If we want a shorter single noun for ‘elderly people,’ we have ‘elders’ ready to hand. We don’t need ‘senior citizen.’ For one thing, we don’t know whether or not they are citizens, especially in my area. (I am reminded of the dumbass who lauded Nelson Mandela as a ‘brave African American.’) For another, it feels like trying to hide the reality of aging, as if the fundamental fact is stigmatizing. I do not consider that it must be so, though I must say that quite a few elderly people seem dead set on making it so by the way they treat the young people who serve them. The term seems to hint that one is afraid or ashamed to come to terms with old age, and thus now wants a new word that will let him or her pretend otherwise.

In keeping with the tradition of more laudatory euphemisms every so often, now stores and restaurants are using ‘honored citizen’ to describe discounts and menus. Gods. Does that mean that the rest of the citizens are not honored? Dishonored? What is worse, it plays into a sense of entitlement that says to youth: now it’s my turn to be a jerk and make the kids put up with it. I will become harder to please, less patient, crabbier, fussier, and expect to be catered to as though this all were my due. Oh, am I going to enjoy this. I will let my ‘too old to give a shit’ flag fly free!

Think of it as Roseanne’s Mother Syndrome.

So far as I’m concerned, this is a horrible way to age. It tells me that this person, despite all those years of experience, has missed most of the lessons. Patience? Nah. Compassion? Faaaa! Empathy? Harrumph. Kindness? Screw you, my hip hurts. Courtesy? I’m old enough not to care what people think. Smile? I’m grumpy, so forget it!

(I cannot resist a digression. My parents-in-law lived in a gated ‘senior citizen’ community in Orlando. FIL was president of the HOA, a hive of backbiting and bitchery that only his considerable retired first sergeant skills could restrain from open civil warfare. He nearly always had someone in his house complaining about someone else. Anyway, the first morning I was there, he was sitting with another old guy in the living room and introduced me. The old man scowled at me. “I’m grumpy,” he said, I decided to have a little fun. I smiled, walked up and put out my hand. “Well, nice to meet you, Mr. Grumpy!” I think my FIL smiled. And when I was gone, I suspect Mr. Grumpy did. In fact, I called him that for the rest of the time I knew him, and asked about him by that term when I talked to my parents-in-law. He’s long since passed on now, and I couldn’t tell you what Mr. Grumpy’s driver’s license said his name was.)

But back to life’s lessons. How awful is that? Not only does it mean that all life taught someone is to be a worse person, it separates one. It divides one from the youthful and middle-aged majority of society. The young will endure it, as they always have, but it will harm them for no good reason on multiple levels. In addition to the indignity of having to tolerate crabbiness they did not deserve, the young won’t get what could help them most. They need access to all that elders have learned, but they damn sure aren’t going to ask an unapproachable person. Young and old move farther apart.

It is not acceptable to me. I don’t want to be alone. One day, unless something goes very wrong very soon, I will be elderly. If my grandmother’s genetics have taken significant hold, it is theoretically possible I could spend a long time being elderly. The one barrier we can nearly never cross in perception before we cross it for real is time: at fifty-four, it is not in my power even to imagine how sixty and seventy and ninety feel. Following my own logic, maybe when I’m sixty I’ll have this huge change of heart, embrace ‘senior citizen’ for myself, become a jerk, and dismiss this post as whippersnapper stuff. I cannot know nor can I imagine. However, I think it likelier I will hold fast to a view that by then will have aged six more years in the barrel.

At the same time, if young people call me a senior citizen, or an honored citizen, or whatever increasingly laudatory baloney their employers have pressed upon them, I won’t get mean about that. Talk about someone who didn’t even read his own messages. No, I’ll just smile and be kind to the kids. Why?

I do not often raise my voice.

Because we should be kind to the kids. Because it is wise and just and proper and decent. And because anyone too stupid to figure that out in sixty or more years, including thirty spent as a young person in one’s own right, has wasted over half a century.

The young need our help, if they can view us as people rather than wellsprings of grump. They need our knowledge, our friendship, and above all, they need our support. They need us to seek to understand their world, that it differs from the one we experienced at their age, and to apply all we have learned while offering them our resilient support. I have seen elderly people who aged in this way, and it taught me a lot about how I ought to age. When they finally passed on, they left a world filled with loving kindness that had delighted to honor them and now revered their memories. They were never separate.

They did not need euphemisms. They made elderhood something to admire on its own merit.

Euphemisms are only needed when honesty simply won’t do.

The role of bird poop in US history

Guano, as we towers of literary force are supposed to refer to bird excrement, has the surprising tendency to accumulate on islands frequented by numerous birds. What in the continental United States would be referred to as ‘parts of rural Georgia,’ far out to sea, may once have been worth planting the flag and bringing a shovel.

In 1856, the United States decided that it was entitled to claim any island that was:

  • a) uninhabited (perhaps because it was too coated with bird dook for anyone to want to live there);
  • b) too coated with bird dook for anyone to want to live there; and
  • c) unclaimed by anyone else (perhaps because it was too covered in bird dook to be of interest).

This resulted in us claiming about eighty islands worldwide. Considering the nitrate-rich nature of bird poop, this was somewhat less stupid and arrogant than it might seem–though that bar wasn’t set terribly high.

Weirder: we still claim some of them. Some have even been strategic in wars. Others, strategic or not, got the shit kicked out of them in those wars. The United States: Not Only Will We Control Your Islands Of Bird Ca-Ca, You May Wish You Had Thought Of That Before We Did, Suckers.

Here are the ones we’re still hanging onto, even if our yearning for bird turds has declined or, more plausibly, if we already confiscated all the bird turds we deemed essential to our national interest:

Bajo Nuevo Bank, a.k.a. the Petrel Islands. A couple of very narrow atoll-like reefs with minimal land area (as in, if you have a decent arm you could throw a baseball from the east beach to the west beach at most points): draw a line north from the Panamá Canal, stop where you reach the latitude of the north Nicaraguan border well to the west, and you’re in the right neighborhood. Colombia claims them, and the International Court of Justice agrees, but for some reason we still dispute the sovereignty. Thus, it is a pair of guano islands that still fit into the conversation. I doubt that we will ever go down and start shooting at the Colombian Navy over this, although given trends in our national leadership, I no longer put any stupidity or lunacy past them.

Baker Island, originally New Nantucket. Just over three-quarters of a square mile, it’s halfway between Hawaii and Australia and very close to the Equator. We built an airfield and used it as a base during World War II, partly in response to some Japanese air attacks. We left a lot of airfield-and-army-related junk there, where it all still rusts or otherwise deteriorates. Now the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service operates it as a wildlife refuge, which means in essence leaving it alone since it has no human population or strategic value. They visit it every couple of years, just to see how everything’s coming. You know, make sure no one has set up a meth lab, look for Gilligan, that sort of stuff.

Howland Island. This isn’t far from Baker Island, about thirty miles nearly due north, and is in roughly the same ignored condition. Its land area is a little over a square mile and a half. Before she disappeared, that great Kansan Amelia Earhart was searching for her preplanned stopover point on Howland Island. We had big plans for this place in the 1930s, intending it as a refueling stopover for intercontinental air travel, and to that end we set up a colonist program where four Hawaiians at a time would come to live there. This was not easy in peacetime, but got worse when the Japanese bombed it the day after Pearl Harbor, killing two of the colonists. We evacuated the other two, landed a battalion of Marines, and prepared to hold fast. After the war, we abandoned Howland Island; now it’s another Fish & Wildlife-administered/ignored refuge.

Jarvis Island, formerly Bunker Island. Well southeast of Baker Island–far enough to be almost due south of the Hawaiian island chain–is another square mile and three-quarters of former guano mine. We tried a small settlement there, which led to some drama when the colonists saw a submarine surfacing not long after Pearl Harbor. They figured the US Navy was there to rescue them. When the sub opened up on them with its deck gun, the colonists reconsidered their hypothesis. Later, the Coast Guard picked up the Jarvis Island colonists, then shelled their former settlement. Not to be outdone in the destruction of uninhabited places, another Japanese sub swung by and also shelled the ex-settlement. This too is now a wildlife refuge.

Johnston Atoll. This small group of islands, the largest of which amounts to a square mile, sits about 850 miles southwest of Hawaii. There’s a long reef, the primary island, and a couple of minor islands. In aerial photos, they mostly look sculpted by Seabees. You will not believe the things we have done to Johnston Atoll.

For a variation on the usual theme, we did the wildlife refuge thing first. Given that tensions with Japan were on the rise in those days, that didn’t last long. Over the next seventy years, we would:

  • Base warplanes out of it
  • Base the Coast Guard out of it
  • Plaster it with nuclear weapons, including some failed launches
  • Set up an anti-satellite missile base (we did not shoot down any actual satellites from here, at least not that we admit to)
  • Track satellites and recover film cans dropped from satellites
  • Test biological weapons
  • Store chemical weapons
  • Store Agent Orange
  • Destroy the chemical weapons
  • Knock down all but one building, then abandon it
  • Come back to clean up all the chemical and nuclear mess we’d made over the years
  • Kill some invasive ‘crazy ants’

And there may have been other activities that have never become public. In fact, I think you could just about bank on that.

Kingman Reef, formerly Danger Reef. Its total land area is .012 square kilometers, and it sits there and gets wet about a thousand miles south of Hawaii. After about ten minutes of mathematical ineptitude, I collapsed with apathy before figuring out whether its area was the size of a basketball court, or a football field, or a baseball card. Then I found out it’s three acres, so much of it awash that there is not much need to take any action except refraining from hitting it with a boat (odds of which, by accident, are rather remote). Another wildlife refuge run by those hardworking and dedicated public servants at Fish & Wildlife, and another guano island that found its way into the United States due to bird feces.

Midway Atoll. Now we’re talking! Imagine you are on Hawaii’s big island and you get this craving to boat along the line of the islands, headed for Japan. As you pass between Kauai and Ni’ihau, you say screw it, I’m just going to keep going. About a third of the way to Japan, you’d hit Midway. It has three islands (one is dinky), surrounded by a reef, so unless you looked alive on the approach you would probably run your boat aground and suffer an ignominious and very expensive rescue. You aren’t supposed to go to Midway without advance permission, so there is no reason for the permanent workforce of forty to make nice with you, even if you hum the Marines’ Hymn and say you only came out to visit the war memorials. Total land area is about two and a half square miles, so there are a finite number of places to sneak in, and you would somewhat stand out. Do not do it.

While history has proven Midway an ideal location for carrier-based naval warfare battles (look this up if you doubt me, then come back and apologize), its location was incredibly strategic in World War II. Had the Japanese won the 1942 carrier/air battle and occupied Midway, they would have been positioned to threaten the Hawaiian Islands. Having fought so hard to keep it, the armed forces just couldn’t break up with Midway for another fifty years. The Navy finally shut down its last operations in 1993. The people who live/work there are with Fish & Wildlife, and it’s another refuge. It has proven a good place to study the impact of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which stands as an enormous monument to corporate and government social responsibility when no one is around to punish them for doing the wrong thing.

Navassa Island. About a third of the way from Haiti to Jamaica, you’ll find this two-square-mile uninhabited island. Columbus’s men visited it and reported back that it had no water, giving people (even those Native Americans Columbus and his successors failed to eradicate) reason to avoid it for another three hundred and fifty years. Only when its bird crap value became evident (and it met the other conditions) did the young United States pounce on this place. Haiti protested. Even then, we knew we could win a war against Haiti, so we stood our guano. It was the scene of some ugliness when a phosphate (bird crap) mining company hired 140 black contract workers from Maryland to extract the fabled feces. Conditions were awful, the workers revolted in 1889, and in a move much envied by so many in the modern world, they killed five of their supervisors. Take a guess at how that went over in our justice system, knowing how it functions even today.. At least we didn’t execute them, but only because President Harrison intervened.

For some years we kept up a lighthouse on Navassa, but the Coast Guard took it down in 1996. I gather that what happens there now is: Fish & Wildlife officially has charge of it, Haitian fishermen camp out there when they feel the need, the U.S. prohibits this but does nothing to prevent it, and the end result is a wildlife refuge that mostly works in spite of a disputed claim no one seems to press.

Palmyra Atoll. Had you gone looking for Kingman Reef, but missed about twenty miles south, you would come to one of the few guano islands (this one, in fact, did not contain significant guano, so the original basis for a claim was flawed) with a permanent staff. One wonders what sins one must commit in order to be assigned there. Anyway, Palmyra amounts to a little more than two and a half square miles, girdled by reefs on three sides, and divided into a whole bunch of little islands. In a clever attempt to disguise its true purpose, the one with the airstrip is called “Aviation Island.” Back when there was a Kingdom of Hawaii, said kingdom claimed Palmyra. The United States incorporated it into the Territory of Hawaii, but it is not now part of the state; the government took it away upon statehood. It did service as an airbase during World War II, and now the Nature Conservancy owns part of it, with an ongoing population of a half to two dozen.

As for the other seventy-odd, other countries claimed them, or got them in treaties, or for whatever other reason we decided not to be difficult about it.

And that’s the story of our guano islands, the territory we annexed in the name of bird deuces.