“Careful, don’t scare it away with any quick moves,” Peter Marchenko said, leaning over the console. The warning wasn’t needed… [This is Part 8. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

From orbit, Europa gleamed pure white like a flawless pearl. That illusion was broken, as Mark Woods knew it would be, when the landing craft descended… [This is Part 7. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

When I enjoy a free or low-cost ebook, I’ll often write a review. I consider it a way of showing appreciation for the author’s time, effort, and willingness to share creative energy with the world. It’s chiefly meant as encouragement, like posting a comment on a thoughtful blog entry or giving feedback to a friend in a writers’ group.

Conversely, when a book doesn’t suit me at all, I move on to something else without reviewing it. Everyone has different tastes, and I have better things to do with my time than complain. Besides, it strikes me as mean-spirited to post a review saying that a book sucks, even if that is my honest opinion. It’s not like commenting on a shoddy product where a company has been deliberately cutting corners to save money. Authors of ebooks usually aren’t weighing cost-benefit considerations when they dream up their stories. They’re just ordinary people.

And when I read a book by a celebrity author, I generally don’t feel motivated to write a review. Not even if I believe it’s a great book, recommend it to someone I know, or buy it as a gift. That’s because I put celebrity authors in the category of businesspeople selling a commercial product, rather than online acquaintances creating stories for the pleasure of sharing them. As such, my encouragement isn’t needed.

For the past century or so, we’ve had an entertainment industry whose business model has been to create glamorous stars for the masses’ adoration. They’ve made it such an ingrained part of our culture that it seems like the natural way of things. We expect to see tabloids full of celebrity gossip in the grocery checkout line. Most of us take for granted that a career in the creative arts is only available to a lucky few, and that for everyone else it’s just a daydream. When our kids say that they want to be actors, novelists, or singers, we tell them it might be a fun hobby, but they’d better keep up their math and science grades because they’ll have to get a real job.

Of course, today’s technology-driven society really does need a lot of engineers, and I am not suggesting we shouldn’t inform our young people of that fact. On the contrary, I’m very much in favor of programs that encourage high school students to take a rigorous schedule of math and science courses in preparation for careers such as engineering and nursing, which are facing major labor shortages in the near future. That’s wise public policy in a world of rapidly falling birthrates and increasingly specialized jobs. But at the same time, our technological advances have created more space for artistic pursuits than we ever had before.

In the early days of our celebrity culture, real physical constraints made it impracticable for any significant number of people to pursue creative careers. We still had a mostly agrarian society, and manufacturing was low-tech and labor intensive. Most people had to be farmers or factory workers because the economy didn’t generate enough surplus production to support more than a few entertainers. Also, the low level of technology meant that films, printed books, and vinyl records were expensive to produce and distribute.

What a difference a century makes. Today’s cheap technology and the Internet have made it possible for anyone to create indie movies, songs, and books. Although our culture still has its celebrities and all the hype that goes along with them, I expect that paradigm will fade quickly as we move toward a decentralized entertainment industry. The corporate winners will be companies like Amazon that provide a low-cost platform for individuals to market their creative works.

While indie artists won’t make millions or have paparazzi following them around, there is enough money in today’s economy that they should be able to earn a respectable living, while also enjoying a close relationship with audiences who look upon them as friends.

July 7, 2013 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

I recently exchanged emails with someone I knew from a writers’ group several years ago. We’d had great fun sharing stories with a lively, imaginative circle of friends. Even the silliest stuff usually found an appreciative audience who understood it in the playful spirit it was intended. But after a while, we just got busy with other things and drifted away. We talked about how much we’d enjoyed the group and how we missed those days.

“Sometimes my husband asks if I’m ever going to get back into it,” my friend told me, “but I don’t know that it’s possible to recapture magic in a bottle.”

After the conversation ended, I thought about all the moments that we don’t fully appreciate until after they have gone by. We chase around after our kids when they’re young, and we feel exasperated because they’re so noisy and they make such a mess. Maybe we snap at them, “Grow up!”—and then they do, and we’re left looking at their empty places across the quiet dinner table.

Or we complain about trivial annoyances at work, even though it’s a pretty good job and we get along well with our coworkers. We let the small stuff get blown totally out of proportion, and we grumble about every careless or inconsiderate thing someone does. We fantasize about how much better a new job would be. But after we’ve moved on, we don’t remember the little annoyances; it’s the good times that stick in our minds.

Of course, we learn something every time our circumstances change. Our perspective broadens, and we become more resilient. Even though change is stressful, we’ve come to expect it, as creatures of our busy modern society. If we stayed in the same place doing the same things all our lives, as most of our ancestors did, we’d get bored and restless. Besides, we have much longer lives than our ancestors, so naturally we’re going to fill them with a greater variety of experiences.

The way I look at it, those magic-in-a-bottle moments aren’t really lost. They just get moved farther back on what I envision as a memory shelf, as present-day moments take their place. We write more stories and find other groups of readers who enjoy our creations. When our kids are grown, we still have conversations with them, even though they live somewhere else and we talk about different topics. Maybe we become grandparents, as more time passes. We find new jobs that challenge us to develop our skills in unforeseen ways, and after a while we discover that we’re pretty good at them.

Before we know it, we’ve built up a lovely collection of antique bottles sitting proudly on the imaginary polished hardwood of the memory shelf. They sparkle in different colors, glowing inside with fragments of the magic they once held. Here’s one that gleams softly in warm green-brown hues, holding memories of a beautiful summer morning at the river. There’s another, flickering a bright fiery yellow like the candles on a birthday cake. And look at that perfect red—it’s just the color of the roses around grandma’s porch, fragrant and humming with bees on a Sunday afternoon.

The magical moments we encounter in our daily lives can easily go unnoticed. We rush from one activity to another, worried about completing our tasks and staying on schedule. Often we don’t pause to be mindful of the dazzling sunlight coming through the window after a dark gray morning, the soft comfortable fabric of a new pair of blue jeans, or the affection in a loved one’s voice greeting us when we return from an errand. So many little details don’t find their way into our conscious awareness until many years later, when a scent or sound unexpectedly triggers a wonderful memory.

When we take the time to notice life’s small details as they unfold around us, we’re opening a door to invite the magic into the present.

Three pale blue speckled eggs filled a bird’s nest on the wall calendar in the classroom. Their smooth ovals contrasted with the long, straight twigs that formed the circle of the nest… [This is Part 6. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

Protest banners, rippling in a stiff wind, filled the large screen on the dining room wall. The camera angle panned out to show thousands of chanting marchers… [This is Part 5. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

We’re always busy doing something, or at least it seems that way. When we’re not at work, we’re running errands or doing household chores. On top of that, many of us regularly work out at the gym, watch our kids’ soccer games, attend religious services, volunteer with a charity, or fill our schedules with other obligations. Even the things people do to relax—such as watching TV, going to the movies or a sporting event, and playing video games—often take up distinct chunks of time too.

Because most of us have so little unscheduled, free-flowing time in our lives, we feel like we’re always being interrupted. We let the phone go to voicemail because we’re in the middle of something, no matter when we get a call. We feel annoyed when a coworker asks a question because it breaks our train of thought. When a family member wants help around the house, it’s a nuisance because we have to put aside whatever we were doing. Even if it’s nothing but Facebook or a mindless video game, we’re still getting interrupted, and we don’t like it.

In today’s society, interruptions often are described as wasting time, which in turn causes us to resent people who interrupt us. A common cultural script goes like this: “How inconsiderate they’re being! Don’t they know our time is valuable? We’ll never get anything done if they keep bothering us!”

When I’ve had a day with a lot of interruptions and start feeling annoyed, I find it helpful to remind myself that it’s not really a natural instinct to react this way, even though that’s what it may seem like. Getting angry when we’re interrupted is a culturally conditioned response—or, in other words, a collective bad habit. We can change how we react to interruptions by reframing them in our minds. When our coworkers or family members ask us something, it’s probably not because they want to waste our time. On the contrary, if they didn’t value our input, they wouldn’t be asking for it.

Living in such a busy world gives us both opportunities and challenges. Every year we have more choices about how to spend our time, and we can put together a schedule better suited to our needs and interests. We have far more opportunities than at any time in the past. But the more choices we have, the more mental energy it takes to navigate them effectively. We don’t have much left over for dealing with unexpected changes. Without predictable routines, we’re likely to get overwhelmed by stress. So when someone interrupts us, we may perceive it as a threat to our fragile coping ability. As such, it triggers the fight-or-flight response. We may snap at the person or storm off in a huff before we even stop to think about it.

Because so much of how we respond to interruptions takes place on a subconscious level, if we want to respond differently, we have to change our subconscious perceptions of what an interruption is. Put another way, we have to tell ourselves different stories. Humans are by nature storytelling creatures, and we filter all of our experiences through the narratives we use to explain them. Therefore, if we don’t want to get stressed out by interruptions, we have to convince ourselves that the interruptions are not really a problem.

Parents do this as a routine matter when teaching children good time management habits. We might, for instance, tell our kids that it’s time to do their homework now, and they can just pause the cartoon or the video game—it’ll still be there afterward. But often we don’t think about applying this simple lesson to our own busy schedules. When we get interrupted at work or while we’re doing something around the house, we’re likely to react without thinking and get annoyed about it. We’d do better to remind ourselves that the task isn’t urgent (which it usually isn’t) and can get done later.

As with many of the things we do, taking control of the interruptions in our lives is chiefly about developing better habits.

May 13, 2013 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags:

Back in the 1990s, my favorite computer game was an empire-building game called Lords of the Realm. Players began with a small medieval fiefdom and had to grow its economy, raise an army, and build a castle. As the game progressed, players could build stronger castles. Armies invaded nearby lands and conquered them through battles for control of the castle. Different prices had to be paid to equip soldiers of various types, and peasants could be conscripted. Although peasants got killed quickly going into battle with their pitchforks, they were useful for digging when a moat around an enemy’s castle needed to be filled in.

I enjoyed the sound effects for the battles, which included dialogue. Professional soldiers such as knights or pikemen replied with an eager “Yes, my lord!” or “Right away, sir!” when sent into battle. The peasants, however, made their lack of enthusiasm abundantly clear. When they were selected, they grumbled something surly like “What now?” or “Where to this time?”

I don’t suppose the authors of the game had in mind today’s employment practices when they composed that dialogue, but it struck me as an amusing and very apt bit of social commentary. Modern corporations no longer expect to keep employees for a lifetime, or indeed for any amount of time. Company pension plans are vanishing. Instead of training young workers, which was once common practice, managers insist that new hires must already have all skills required for the job. If no applicants can be found who have the perfect background, work goes undone or is contracted out. Very little thought is given to the long-term effects of cutting costs; only the next quarter’s profit matters.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone in management, under these circumstances, when the employees grumble like surly peasants. Corporate executives give rah-rah speeches and bestow small perks such as letting employees wear jeans to work, but that doesn’t change anything. When their decisions reflect the attitude that any worker can be replaced at any time by someone who comes cheaper, they can’t reasonably expect to enjoy the steadfast loyalty that a medieval knight would give to his liege lord.

Eventually, as globalization progresses, the multinational corporations will exhaust their supply of low-wage workers in underdeveloped nations. I estimate that in less than two decades, companies will be faced with widespread labor shortages. Thereafter, advances in automation won’t keep pace with a shrinking labor force and an increased demand for better-trained workers. When that happens, the most successful companies will be those willing to invest the money needed to retain skilled employees. Competitive pressure will force employers to raise wages, improve benefits, hire the most qualified applicants without discrimination, and generally treat their workers with more respect.

Many executives won’t like it, of course, because they’ve gotten so accustomed to treating their employees like peons. They’ll have no choice but to face the facts, however. If they don’t… well, another feature of the Lords of the Realm game was that if the peasants got too unhappy they’d revolt. They would abandon their fields and go marauding across the countryside. If the revolt wasn’t put down quickly and the peasants’ happiness level raised, the castle would be lost. Those who want to manage the corporations of the future would be wise to take a lesson from that.

Mark Woods woke from a dream of flying. The rhythmic sound of his wingbeats as he soared over blood-red cliffs and a dark ocean faded… [This is Part 4. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

What are you?

The answer most of us would give, according to the customary social script, is an occupation: truck driver, teacher, sales clerk, or whatever we might happen to be doing for our paycheck. If we’re older and no longer working, then the answer changes to retired, perhaps with our previous career description tacked on. As students who haven’t yet entered the workforce, we might talk about our particular course of study and a career plan based on it. When we’re married and spending our days taking care of small children, we occupy a traditional niche in society as a stay-at-home parent.

But there are no good answers in this script for those without jobs who don’t fit the categories of retiree, student, or homemaker. Unemployment doesn’t just leave a person with no money—to a large extent, it also strips away his or her identity. Our society has plenty of words to describe the jobless, but that lexicon is viciously pejorative: bums, slackers, moochers, takers, lazy, useless, and a burden to others. So when we’re unemployed, that means we’re not only faced with the stress of looking for a job, not finding one right away, and going through our savings (if we’re lucky enough to have some). We also have to deal with the perception that anyone who doesn’t have a job is a worthless social failure.

And right now, although things are slowly improving, there are a lot of people who don’t have a job. We live in a society that is struggling to adjust to the massive impacts of globalization and modern technology. At present, the world’s economy is fragile and all too easily disrupted. There are many more people looking for work than the number of jobs available.

It’s not always going to be like this. As the world becomes fully industrialized and birthrates continue to fall, we can expect that many industries will face chronic labor shortages. People who are looking for jobs will have no problem finding them. But we’re not there yet; and in the meanwhile, we have to ask ourselves—on both a collective and an individual level—how we’re going to deal with today’s difficult job market.

Without getting into the political debate about whether the government ought to focus on job-creation programs or tax cuts, I’ll simply note that both sides recognize there is more involved than money. Politicians, whatever their party affiliation, commonly talk about work in terms of a person’s dignity and ability to contribute to society. Work is generally understood to make up a large part of our identity.

Before the modern era, when there was very little social mobility, defining people’s identity in terms of their occupations made a lot of sense. If your father was a blacksmith or a carter, you probably were too, if you were male; and you would never do anything else, unless you had the bad luck to get conscripted by a passing army. Everyone in your town would refer to you as John the smith or Tom the carter. A man’s occupation was a quick and easy way to distinguish him from others who had the same given name, back when common folks didn’t have surnames.

Now we live in a complex, unpredictable society where most workers will change jobs many times. Career retraining has become commonplace as old industries shrink and new ones emerge. It’s not unusual to get a college or university degree in one field and then end up employed in another. Modern workers are more likely to migrate to another city or country, and we have more diversity in our personal characteristics and interests. As a consequence, a person’s job says less about his or her identity than at any time in history.

And yet, we still ask children what they’re going to be when they grow up. The dominant cultural narrative is much the same as it was centuries ago, defining our personal identity and value in terms of how we earn our pay. If we get laid off and can’t find another job, or if we’re stuck in a low-paying job and have had no luck applying elsewhere, it’s hard to look at the situation objectively and not feel like we’ve been rejected by society in general. Our culture takes it for granted that a person’s dignity and value depend on employment status.

There are many variables that go into determining that status, however, and often they’re not under our control. We can’t reasonably be expected to predict an economic downturn that causes our company to go bankrupt or a technological advance that makes our work experience obsolete. Prejudice or nepotism can cause a less qualified applicant to get hired instead of us. Maybe our employer decides to cut costs by moving production overseas. We can’t prevent any of these things from happening, so why do we allow them to change how we feel about ourselves and about other people in our community? We might do better to think about redefining our values, in more ways than one.