Tag Archives: fiction editor

Greek phrases I wanted Berlitz to provide me

If you are familiar with the Berlitz language books, they will get you through a trip rather conveniently.  I especially like the helpful phrases.  I don’t speak Greek, except for about 25 really poorly pronounced words and phrases, but I can think of a lot of English phrases I would have liked to render in Greek:

  • I promise I am not here to start a riot, Officer.
  • I assume this is the same city street plan as the time of Pericles.
  • There is no way I can eat all that.
  • I don’t know what the spicy cheese dip is called in Greek, but it’s the only food I ever need again.
  • Right now I would commit low crimes for a toilet that allows you to flush the paper.
  • It looks like, long term, you lost the Persian War.  Look at all these barbarians on the Acropolis!
  • Never again will I refuse to believe that a tour bus can get through any space.  I bet he could drive this thing through a GI tract without messing up the paint job.
  • Please show me to the only ten square feet of Greece that are as flat as Saskatchewan.
  • What is the strike about? Oh, wait, I forgot.  It’s Monday.  My bad.
  • So when are you going to get a good Viking metal band at Epidauros?
  • Okay, I give up.  Is it ‘Patra,’ ‘Patrai,’ or ‘Patras?’ Just someone please clear this up?
  • No offense–this Corinth Canal is hella cool to look at, but that’s about all it’s good for.
  • I have no idea how even a goat can find anything to graze on out here.  I have half of the country’s non-olive vegetation caught in my socks!
  • How many pottery traps does this bus stop at?
  • With all these steps and slopes to climb, how does anyone in this country achieve fatness?
  • What do you call a Greek female banker who loses her composure? A drachma queen, ar ar.
  • Please don’t make me drink ouzo.  Do you have any Nyquil instead?

Finding faults: the fine art of proofreading

My current effort is the final proofreading of a book soon to be published.  This sort of work is no joke, because final proofreading means just that:  the last set of eyes.  If I miss it, it gets printed, and every time I read it, I will have to live with the fact that I missed it.  All I expect is perfection, and I consider full perfection a reasonable expectation of myself, attainable or not.  In writing and editing, that’s elusive and imaginary, but in proofreading, it is simple:  you either saw it and noted it for correction, or you have failed.

I haven’t been given leave to say anything about the book itself, so I cannot do so here, though when it goes gold I will trumpet it, as I am proud to be associated with it on many levels.  Its author is a social historian whose work I admire (and am honored to be asked to nitpick); it covers a topic we mostly would rather not address, but should and must; best of all, it’s in sufficiently good shape it can be proofread.

That works this way.  A work may need heavy editing/rewriting, in which case it is frankly incomplete or incompetently written.  A number of people make good livings doing this, and honest livings, bringing to fruition the autobiography or musings of an otherwise interesting person who cannot write to professional standards.  Moderate to light editing will mean rather less of the above, and intellectual honesty compels my confession that my own ‘finished’ works could benefit from moderate editing.  You get so grooved into your habits that you fail to see where they bother the reader.  “But that’s my style” is a bad rejoinder.  If your style makes the reader unhappy, your style needs adjustment, because without the reader you are soliloquizing.

On the above two groupings, proofreading is not really feasible, as they will change too much.  You can only proofread something that is ready to go to print–before that, it’s wasted energy.  If it needs editing, it’s not ready for proofreading.  This book, with which I am helping, is fully ready for proofreading.  I’m on an Easter egg hunt for odd commas, misspelled names, very rare run-on sentences, mislaid accents on foreign names, loose spaces, italic and case issues, and anything else I encounter that I imagine the author does not want printed as is.

And goddamn it, I am going to find them all.  The layperson might imagine that the author would be shocked, appalled and dismayed that I do.  The professional understands that this is precisely what the author desires.  I change nothing; I merely call attention.  I have no investment in how the author and editors react to what I highlight, for their work is to act upon my work.  They’re capable, seasoned hands.  Once I have noted and pinpointed the issue, action is on them.  They may decide to ignore what I say.  They may tell me to not bother with a given type of issue going forward.  They may make changes.  And I don’t care.

How can I not care? That’s the easiest part, which is that I know my role.  My role is to spot and note, and occasionally to suggest, or explain my reasoning.  Nothing more.  Once one has read a manuscript enough times, and edited it enough times, it becomes the norm to one’s eyes.  Errors that have always been there are no longer seen.  You can’t proof your own stuff.  I am, with no false modesty, the best proofreader I have ever met, and I cannot proof my own stuff.  The value a final proofreader can bring is a combination of fresh eyes and zero emotional investment.  The author has worked on this book for five years, and gods only know how much time his editors have put in.  Quite a bit, to go by the state of the finished product, which has me looking for the fussiest and minutest details.  I can suggest how they might handle an issue, but they know what they meant it to say (or look like).  Once I call it to their attention, it will be handled as they see fit.  I did what was asked of me, and avoided meddling in what was not asked.

It’s not that I don’t care about the end result.  I care about it almost savagely.  I care enough about it that if you send me a chapter in which I think I didn’t find enough problems, I’ll suspect that I lost focus, and do it all over again until I am satisfied I have found all that exists.  If I find nothing, I will do it again.  If I go through it thrice and find zero, then I finally believe my work is done.  Believe you me, I care.  I just know where my job begins and ends, and trust my teammates to take the handoff and hit the hole for paydirt.

Radcon 2012, afterword: okay, enough with the sickness

I now find, as expected, that while my fairly robust constitution fought off the Plagues of Radcon for a few days, the battle is lost.  I have the congestion/throat disease, not the dysentery disease.  It’s probably the same one that turned John into a stationary snore machine for a couple of days, though he didn’t seem to have a lot of muss associated with it.

When this happens, and I identify the early signs, my first action is to pick up the telephone and order some cold medicine.  The only pizza place around here that will put both jalapeños and chopped garlic on a pepperoni pizza is Round Table, and I’m currently boycotting Pizza Hut anyway since they actually dishonored a current coupon in such a stupid way they deserve to keep hearing about it.  I will then consume as much of the pizza as possible over the next few days.  This is my primary early punch in the mouth to any cold.

What does it do?

  • Since I do it every time, it is a conditioned signal to my system that we are going to fight, not just suffer and moan and suppress symptoms.  No, we’re gearing up.  We get stronger when we feel we can do something about it.
  • Because it tastes good, it improves my morale.  Morale is important.  Morale affects your mind which affects how your body resists.  If my nose and throat cannot be happy, some part of me can be.
  • If there is any infection-fighting ability at all in garlic relevant to colds (which are viral, but resulting sinus infections are not), I’m getting a heavy dose.  If it is not relevant at all, I do myself zero harm.
  • If nothing else, it will surely clear my sinuses, especially as I put the pepper flakes on.
  • It’s a pretty nasty combination of toxic waste to dump on the invading microbes, just on general principle.  “Okay, you little varmints, this isn’t going to be your happy vacationland.  I’m about to ruin your whole trip.  Anyone thirsty? Have a drink!” as I munch and swallow another combination of peppers and garlic.  I can picture the microbes phoning their travel agents demanding refunds.

Does this all cure the disease? Of course not.  When applied as it is just taking hold, does it affect the severity and duration? It seems to.

And if not, it does no harm, and I enjoy the pizza and thus suffer a bit less.

Radcon 2012, epilogue: Down with the sickness

When Ignition (the fire dancers) performed Saturday night at Radcon, they did one of their early routines  to Down With the Sickness by the rock band Disturbed.  In no way did I imagine it prophetic.

Turned out there was a truly nasty stomach/intestinal bug ripping through Radcon.  It’s pretty normal to get sick at any SF con; it’s as close as there is to an airplane ride or a third grade classroom in terms of random proximity to lots of careless people who might be ill.  This one is worse.  It produces power-chucks, vicious runs, and a lot of pain/fatigue.  Dozens of cases.  I had no idea it was even happening.

Life’s mercies:  neither I nor my friends caught it.  John had a nasty hanger-on cold/sore throat that caused him to sleep through most of Monday, but no stomach stuff except that he had the appetite of a hummingbird (if that).  My strong suspicion is that Deb and I had this in Anchorage; sounds quite familiar.  In any case, bullet dodged, and fortunately so.  I feel badly for the many who fell ill.

Edit:  so I post this, and Jenn PMs me to advise me:  ‘not so fast, my friend.’  Goddamnit!  Evidently they’re both under the weather.  No fun!

Radcon 2012, Sunday: A coward and an ass

By Sunday, anyone who has done Radcon right is running on fumes.  Mostly coffee fumes.  Had to be at the con by 9 AM, as John wanted to hit a panel.  I practiced the fine art of loafing around for an hour, but also hunted down the con registration wizard to pay her some homage.  Fair is fair.  She has truly stepped up and fixed the very worst thing about Radcon (and it never had many bad aspects to begin with), making it a far better con.  Registration is now a Radcon strength.

First panel for me was at 10 AM, on collaboration with other writers.  What the panel could not know was that John and I had done some intensive writing collaboration some fifteen years back.  We were both present.  It didn’t continue, but did not harm our friendship at all, nor did it rule out future collaboration.  We had simply never gotten around to discussing why it petered out, though I had my guesses.  Well, I decided to test those guesses.  So I asked:  “Suppose I once did some collaboration with a writing partner, and it faded out.  I’m pretty sure that part of the reason was that he’s a good guy, and some of my stuff was sophomoric and useless, and some of it just sucked, and he was too good-hearted to tell me.  Is that often a reason a collaboration could fail?”

John’s head swiveled like a turret and his eyes got big with that ‘why, you crazy fucker!’ look and smile, but he reacts well on the fly, and he curtailed any other response to avoid tipping the panelists off.  Panelist:  “That collaboration’s doomed.  Never work.”  I nodded thoughtfully, sagely.  They actually had a point.  We would have been better collaborators had we been more candid.  The discussion proceeded, and near the end, I asked:  “Suppose someone were actually in the panel with a past partner in a faltered collaboration, and begin to ask about reasons it went south.  Would that be a dirty trick?”

“That would be a coward’s act,” said one panelist.

“I’d say that person was a real ass,” said another.

I could see John staying on the down low, manfully suppressing his desire to bust out into laughter.  I actually don’t think the panel caught on, which is even funnier.  I’m not sure how I held back.  There was a reason I saved that for the end.

Next panel was on the best writing advice they had ever been given.  “Nothing sells in a drawer.”  “Keep writing.”  All of it was good.  I wanted to add a ton, and would have loved being on that panel, but they did well.  My own best writing advice came from the redoubtable C.J. Cherryh, a class act:  “Never follow any rule off a cliff.”  A well-focused panel.  Final panel, on scams writers should beware, was also good albeit a bit wandering and rambly, understandable at noon on Sunday of Radcon.  Afterward, I had the great fortune to run into S.A. Bolich, a fantasy author from Spokane and one of the nicest you could hope to meet.  We said our farewells in the dealer room and elsewhere.  I didn’t run into Sharon on Sunday, but it was so great to see her and meet her current pair of first-time con-goers.

All in all it was a great Radcon, even if there weren’t as many panels that really drew my interest.  They are getting new blood in the leadership and moving stuff in good directions, except for the room party situation, which I do understand is somewhat out of the hands of the leadership since it relates to liquor laws, enforcement and the hotel management.  One gratifying moment came when visiting with a coffee barista, who said that of all the conventions and such that lodge at the Pasco Red Lion, Radcon’s crop of 2000+ certified weirdos treat the hotel staff with more friendliness and courtesy than just about any other group.

Think on that a minute.  Rather than urbane executives, elegant real estate agents, streetwise police detectives, class reunion-goers and anyone else, the hotel staff is happier dealing with a bunch of people dressed up as Klingons, Victorian grandes dames, zombies, vampires, pirates, belly dancers, elves, Imperial stormtroopers, anthropomorphic furries, Spock, and gods know what else, than with completely conventional and evidently well-adjusted people.

Kind of amusing when one thinks about the socially dysfunctional geekage reputation, eh?

See you in February 2013.

Radcon 2012, Saturday

A decidedly slow awakening but for good reason:  Marcel had desired to make omelets for all for breakfast, and while they are delicious, they take time.  No matter for me, as oddly enough there was only a single panel that interested me.  Our friend Amanda had wanted to bring taco truck lunch for all of us at the con; I knew the idea was likely not going to succeed (due to the difficulty of getting six people to all not be in panels at the same time before 5 PM), but she seemed to want to do it badly, so I just let her give it a shot.  Well, they made good midnight snacks later.

The Rasputin outfit is more comfortable than the Boer costume, but requires more prep because I have to wear a wig and mousse my beard back to the brown it once was (a messy process). Jane, seamstress of my Rasputin outfit, was elated to see me in it for the first time.  I’ll probably be on her business’s Facebook site, doing the freaky eyes for the camera.

Most of my day was spent socializing, except for one abortive panel at which an author (I’ll give the name privately if someone gives me a good reason to want to know) proved to be a full-dress horse’s ass.  The subject involved gender and writing.  Three of the panelists (two women, one man) were on time and at their assigned posts, and the discussion began down some productive lines of exploration.  Perhaps fifteen minutes in, the fourth (male) panelist arrived with apologies.  He then conceded to construct Fort Conceit on the table in front of him:  a small fanned-out wall of perhaps a dozen of his titles in paperback.  It is customary for panelists to display a book or two, especially if it’s new, but to display your complete works is absurd.  It looks like you are saying:

“I have more stuff in print than these other clowns.”

“I fear that you haven’t heard of me at all, so I’d better prove I belong.”

“I have an ego the size of Idaho and it spills over into British Columbia.”

I already didn’t like him when he committed a sin of panelism:  he failed to shut up and listen to the discussion for a while.  Another:  he used his outside voice.  Thus, when he began to debate with his fellow panelists, he sounded like a double fool.  As he shattered the urbane, thoughtful ambience with what may have been thoughtful views if taken at face value, he had no way to know he was retreading ground already covered in the discussion.  I put up with it for about five minutes and left, and I am quite loath to leave a panel between the first five and last five minutes.  My bro John was forty seconds behind me, having reached similar conclusions.

All in all a fairly normal Radcon Saturday otherwise, except that the wind put a damper on the fire dancing troupe.  They performed anyway, of course, and did their very level best, but gusts were too high for some of their best stunts.  One weakness this year:  their music was lame.  Not loud enough, not fierce enough.  Their crowd fluffers had a hard time keeping the audience excited, which is normally not a problem with the fire dancers.

Later on, Jenn and Marcel pretended to be interested in the dance/rave, and I pretended that there was a a chance they’d want to stay for it, mainly because it was their first con experience and I wanted them to at least explore everything to their hearts’ content.  Mission accomplished.  My feet felt like I’d had an ‘enhanced interrogation’ by then, so anything that let me take a seat and relax was a winner for me.  We weren’t even motivated to bother seeking out room parties Saturday; by trying to create a secure area where all parties must be, with Security providing the ID checks, they have in essence destroyed room partying.  Either that or I just don’t get invited to the real ones.

As with the usual Radcon Saturday, by then I just didn’t give a damn, I was so tired and footsore.

Radcon 2012, Friday

Rolling with my crew:  my bro John (flew in from Bahamas) and good friends Jenn and Marcel from B.C.  For those who do not know, Radcon is the Tri-Cities’ own science fiction convention.  To some it’s essentially the geekfest (and they have a point), but to a lot of us, it’s something not to miss.

Registration at past Radcons has been a disaster.  How disastrous? How about a three hour wait in line for those who failed to pre-register, half and hour to an hour for those who paid in advance? I was certain Radcon would never, ever fix this.  I was wrong.  John, whose pre-registration failed to reach the destination, was in line maybe ten minutes.  He actually got in quicker than did Jenn, Marcel and I, in the nearly non-existent pre-registered line, because the person handling it was on break.  We were badged and ready to rock in fifteen.  I’m still processing the amazement.

I wore my Boer veldkornet outfit:  farmy clothes, bandoliers, sjambok (an African whip), bush hat with purple plume–steampunk without the goggles.  Jenn went Victorian and looked like a figure from a different time in corset, frilly blouse and long dress with knee boots.  Smashing.  Marcel, who is a big dude, went pirate with a big longsword, eyepatch and period shirt.  As strongly as one would never want to aggravate Marcel even under normal conditions, one would really not wish to in that case.

None of the Friday panels were must-go events for me, though everyone else was in panel heaven.  For me it was more a day of exploring and shopping.  Many friends from past cons, howdies and updates swapped, many hugs and smiles:  a feeling of being by now something of a fixture and familiar sight oneself, comforting.  Jenn and Marcel found what John found, and what I found before:  people at Radcon are in the main embracing and open, easy to talk to, with no tendency to try making new people feel like outsiders.

Dinner with Sharon and her friends from Spokane (all delightful ladies; Sharon fairly lights up a room), Jeff and Nyssa (probably the most competent and successful vendors who attend Radcon, year after year), and of course our crew.  Nyssa is a riotous deadpan storyteller and entertained us greatly, as she always does.

We were going to go to the Spocon room party, but it was completely packed.  We were going to head down to Irish Heather’s for a nightcap, but no one was around,  and by universal agreement we were all footsore and zonked from staying up too late the previous night.  We thus made it an early night and came home.

Shortly thereafter, I did one of the more boneheaded things I’ve done in some time.  It speaks well to my comfort with my guests.  I was getting out of my Boer accoutrements in the dining room (where, to Deb’s annoyance, everything I need for Radcon is piled on the dining table).  Without really thinking, I shucked my trousers, leaving me in a short-sleeved shirt and my underwear.  I then remembered the gift necklace I had gotten Deb, and mushed over to show it to her.

That was fine, except that Jenn was still upstairs.  Oops.

In such a circumstance there is nothing to do (after making a hasty retreat to repair one’s insufficient attire) but accept that there will be much hilarity at one’s expense from the women.  And the men, too, when they learn about it, which will occur within seconds of their next meeting with the women.  Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t also ditch the underwear too.

As we relaxed to tell Deb of our day, and hear her comments on our utter geekery, Jen whipped out a bottle of Buckley’s.  This is a Canadian cold remedy not sold in the U.S., and while she had brought it to combat lingering cold effects, it was also a chance for me to sample its legendary nastiness of taste.  If you search on Youtube, you’ll find videos of people suffering through their doses of Buckley’s.  First, of course, I smelled it and got a shock:  imagine Vicks mixed with ammonia.  Seriously!  Now, I’ve had a faceful of ammonia in life, and I didn’t like it much.  Since I didn’t have a cold, I just put a little in a teaspoon and…down the hatch.  No sweetener, no alcohol; it looked and tasted something like an acrid liquid Vicks.  Pretty unpleasant, but nothing as repulsive as Nyquil.

What, you mean you all don’t accidentally drop trou in front of your guests, then taste-test a new Fear Factor cold medicine on your first day of a science fiction convention?

Then You’re Doing It Wrong.

Current read: Vietnam novel _Frenchy’s Whore_

The main reason for the blogging hiatus has been real life happening, and it continues to happen, though Radcon is coming and I may be sober enough late at night to post summaries.  (I am, in great pain, replacing the caulking in my guest room shower.  Does anyone want me to blog about this?)  But in the interim, I’ve been reading a novel about the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam by Verne E. Brewer, Frenchy’s Whore.

I learned of this tale by meeting the author himself playing a Facebook game.  He impressed me as a good guy who hung out with good people, and a little experimentation satisfied me that my rather unorthodox social perspective needn’t divide us.  I’m always interested in descriptions of warfare from those in a position to know, since I’ve never been in that kind of war.

So far I’m quite impressed by Brewer’s descriptive talent.  I wish I’d been there to do some editing, but that would be mainly proofreading and very minor orthographic adjustments; he paints a scene with the sort of talent you expect of a far more seasoned writer.  Though it’s presented as a novel, Brewer doesn’t make any pretense that it is other than an autobiographical work.  So far I like the presentation, especially the story about chucking the CS grenade in the 1SG’s quarters.  While my father-in-law was a jumping first sergeant, and evidently one hell of a good one, I can easily imagine that some of them needed a tear gas grenade chucked into their rooms while drunk.

Looking forward to seeing how the book develops.  Brewer is quite candid that it was a form of therapy to help him process and come to terms with the experience that was Vietnam, but I think he’s also got messages in here, as do most authors worth their salt.

Some odd language facts

Odd to us native English speakers, anyway.  To non-native speakers, our whole language is odd.  Anyway, I just felt like writing this, so here we go:

Magyar (Hungarian) has almost no relative, only distant ones:  Finnish and Estonian (which are not far apart from each other).

German and Arabic have four cases (meaning the noun changes to show its function in the sentence).  Latin has five, Russian six.  Finnish has, good lord, fifteen.

In Hebrew and Arabic, a ‘conjugation’ doesn’t mean what it means in French or Spanish.  It means actual changes to a root that make it into different verbs.

Irish has arcane rules that require changes to spelling and pronunciation at certain times.  Most of those spare Hs you see are really more like diacritical marks, that somehow affect the preceding letter.  FH, for example, is completely silent.  There are two different methods for this, and only some letters can be modified this way.  And of course, the two groups only have some overlap.  So C can become CH or GC.

French makes its spoken past tense with different helping verbs.  Thus, ‘he is died’ but ‘I have spoken.’

Bad news about Greek:  none of the accented syllables have accents where we intuit they should be.  Good news:  nearly every word incorporates an accent mark, so you’re going to know anyway.

Any word in Spanish over a certain number of syllables (four +, I think) has an accent mark to show the stress.  In French, however, there are no stressed syllables.  The marks you see affect only pronunciation.

Turkish has two Is, one without a dot.  The one without the dot is pronounced more like IH, like in ‘fish.’  All things considered, they adapted their language to the Latin characters pretty well.  It wasn’t even a century ago.

No matter how many Dutch people you ask, you will never properly pronounce ‘Schiphol.’  Do not bother.  Every Dutch word you try and read aloud, you are butchering, unless you actually studied Dutch.  Happily, speaking only three languages is considered borderline mentally challenged for a Dutch person, so they very likely speak another language that you also speak.

Swedish not only has a word for ‘so’ (try to define it sometime for a non-native speaker!), it sounds the same: så.  The ring makes an A a long O sound, so every time you said ‘awng-strom’ for Ångstrom in physics, you were wrong.  ‘oang-stroom, ‘ with vowels like ‘oat broom.’

Russian has no articles.  None.  (Neither does Swahili.)  This explains why Russians learning English find the concept so very challenging, much as we find verb aspect (a different verb for whether the action is completed or ongoing) a challenging aspect of Russian.  (In Spanish and French, this is handled by choice of tense.)

Latin is named for Latium, the part of ancient Italy where Rome was.

Swahili has noun classes based on what the noun represents:  people, objects, abstract concepts, etc.  One differentiates these with prefixes.  Thus, a group of Tutsi are ‘Watutsi’ (yes, that’s where the old dance name comes from).  The language is ‘Kiswahili.’

Afrikaans is essentially an evolved, simplified Dutch.  By the time it was named Afrikaans, it had gotten rather farther from Dutch than Australian from British, or arguably, Québécois French from Parisian French.

A lot of the swear words in Parisian French are scatological.  A surprising number in Québécois French are religious.

If you know swear words in Spanish, don’t use them.  They are taken by native speakers as sullying a beautiful language, and can mark you as a person of the lowest social class.  Also, say ‘mamá’ rather than ‘madre.’  The latter carries overtones that are a short throw from speaking of all Hispanic mothers anywhere, not a group you’d want to slight in even a minor way.

Swedish has two genders:  common and neuter.  They used to have three, but they combined masculine and feminine, as a national decision, about a century ago.  One of the advantages to having a native language spoken nowhere else in numbers:  whatever the Japanese say is Japanese, for example, no one’s in a position to debate with them.

Icelandic is so similar to Old Norse that any literate Icelander can read the ancient sagas without trouble.  Convenient, as there are just about zero illiterate Icelanders.

What makes English so hard for non-native speakers to learn well? It’s not our grammar, which isn’t too bad.  It is the inconsistent spelling, immense vocabulary, and multiple meanings a given word can have.  Proof of the difficulty comes in how atrociously even many native speakers write English–it’s hard even for us.

Arabic has 28 letters.  Most have four forms: initial, medial, final and isolated.  The ‘unfriendly’ letters, have only two forms:  final and isolated, as they cannot join to the next letter.  The dots are part of the letter; many letters can be told apart only by the number and location of dots.  Thus, a TH looks like a B except that TH has three dots above, and a B has one dot below.

Farsi uses the Arabic alphabet written in a slightly different style, and adds four letters not found in Arabic:  P, CH, ZH and a sort of G.

If Spaniards seem to lisp their Spanish (to ears used to LatAm Spanish), they don’t have speech impediments.  Z and soft C are pronounced TH in Castilian.  Una therbaytha, por favor.

Finns find the consonant blends of English terribly difficult to master.  That’s okay.  Everyone else in the world, except Estonians, finds everything about Finnish impossible to master.

What was it like growing up in the 1970s?

(This was originally a message board post people seemed to really enjoy, so I felt free to republish it here.)

When the 1970s began, Vietnam was still going on but the hippies were starting to thin out. It took pot a few years to grow mainstream (by my early high school years late in the decade it seemed like I was the only one not smoking it). Then Nixon got in trouble and resigned. I got a pretty good laugh over his later rehabilitation, given how deeply and nationally he was excoriated. In a sense, he was the initiator of the modern political climate, where the good of the nation has ceased to factor and the only thing that matters is beating the other guy. This was confirmed when Ford promptly turned around and pardoned him.

The energy crisis was just unreal. What most people do not realize today is that, in terms of relative purchasing power, the $4/gal spikes a couple years ago were probably less dramatic than what we saw in the early 70s, with gas lines around the block and rationing in place. Just as when gas was hovering around $0.80 in the late 1990s, it was actually a lot cheaper than the $0.25/gal I remember as the lowest price in my lifetime’s awareness (late 60s). As ever, most people simply have no idea how to compare costs and values from one era to the next.

One big kerfluffle was the gas pumps. They were not digital–the numbers rolled on a spindle inside–nor were they equipped to show prices over $0.99.9. When gas cleared a buck a gallon, just about every gas pump in the country required a retrofit. What a goat rodeo.

A lot of new stuff came along: the desktop digital calculator (we were awed), video games (wanting an Atari in the mid-70s was like wanting a PS3 a couple of years back, only more so because there was nothing before it), and the fadeout of party lines. (Yes, they were a prime tool for snooping on your neighbors’ conversations, and yes, that did occur. It was a punishable offense to fail to yield a party line if someone declared an emergency.)

Carter got elected just as the post-Vietnam national malaise was settling in. It lasted into the early 1980s. Might have been the worst president ever for the time in which we got him. Inflation up to double digits. Interest rates for borrowing up in the same neck of the woods. People with decent credit and income who do not buy houses now, at today’s depressed mortgage rates and prices, simply have no idea of the historic buying opportunity before them, perhaps because it was before they were born. Carter’s focus was to rag on the rest of the world to have better human rights. (Everyone ignored him.) That didn’t do jack for our flopping national morale. The modern deification of the troops? Unthinkable. Did not exist. The military was outdated, had too many druggies, and the junior officer corps in particular was shaky. Good thing the Soviets didn’t invade West Germany in 1976–they probably would have won. Happy Bicentennial.

Then comes the second defining event of the era after the energy crisis, the Iran hostage crisis. On top of that, we couldn’t even make a rescue attempt without a desert disaster. In 1979, “person who burns flags” became synonymous in many minds with “Iranian” in many minds, and the term “Iran” acquired a lasting toxicity akin to that which “Jane Fonda” has with Vietnam vets. Every night on the national news, Walter Cronkite: “And that’s the way it is, this 300th (or whatever) day of captivity for the American hostages in Iran.” When I see Iran talking about getting nuclear weapons, it proves to me that they understand us as poorly as we understand them. They truly believe that we think like them–like pragmatic Near Easterners interested in bargaining, who understand the game. They have no idea. A lot of us in those days felt so infuriated that we would have welcomed and endorsed an air attack on Iran’s population centers with weapons of mass destruction (not a chance under Carter), and some of us (emotionally, if not practically–and not everyone looks at such matters with a practical side) think it’s long overdue. That generation–mine–is now starting to run the country. If Iran had any idea of how much lasting loathing it created by taking and keeping the hostages, and how gladly some people would open up on them even thirty years later, they would turn pale. They would immediately shut down anything and everything nuclear. They would not do the least thing to give an excuse to people who, at least on an emotional level, would love a pretext to even that score with modern weapons. I’m not saying this is the right idea for us as a nation today (at least not with my rational side…), just pointing out what kind of fire they are playing with. If they knew, and they are sane (and I think they are, at least when it comes to their own survival), they would throw a bucket of water on that fire and never light it again.

That’s part of the reason the 1980 Olympic ice hockey victory meant so much, why everyone can remember where he or she was when we beat the USSR (probably glued to the TV; it should not be forgotten that we still had to beat a tough Finnish team to win the gold). We felt like a country that couldn’t do anything right, couldn’t even stop a bunch of radicals from invading our embassy and humiliating our people, couldn’t rescue them without screwing up, completely demoralized. Then came the Olympics and something finally went right. I would describe the 1970s as a time of national pessimism, a sense that we had already lost the Cold War and were just waiting to be the last non-socialist country in the world, a time of things going wrong and government unable or unwilling to do a thing to fix them. We know now, of course, that it didn’t all work out that way. But that’s how it felt at the time.

I disliked the 1970s deeply. I remember them as a nearly unbroken string of bad news, failed leadership, and general impotence. I’d never want them back again. While we had a lot more freedom as kids–we were essentially still as free-range as kids of earlier decades–I for one had the sense that my parents’ generation had completely boned the pooch and was going to leave it up to mine to clean up. And looking around at the people in my school, it seemed pretty obvious we would be too drunk, stoned and lazy to do that. (What I did not foresee was just how much worse they would screw it up; how, presented with golden opportunities, first the Boomers and then their successors would botch them.)

I graduated from high school in 1981 with a general sense of worse things to come, a very dystopian view of my country and even humanity. When the Berlin Wall fell, this dystopian view shook quite a bit–maybe I’d been wrong. Subsequent events proved that it had just been a temporary hiccup. I soon realized that our national psyche had to have its Emanuel Goldstein, a focus for regular sessions of the Two Minutes hate, and if the Soviet one were gone, we’d need a new one and we’d create it as necessary. Without an external enemy to direct the angst toward, it would find its direction inward, and a lot of people had a lot invested in that not happening.