Sunday, November 07, 2010

Wheel of missed-fortune?

Every now and then it occurs to me that it might be nice to bid a (basically) fond farewell to the monthly grind of freelance writing. After all, I've been at this on and off since the fall of 1981, and continuously since the fall of 2001, when Rodale decided I was no longer integral to its plans. I'm getting a bit long of tooth for it. Long of tooth, short of drive. I used to be indefatigable, routinely pulling all-nighters. This was particularly true back when we first moved to San Diego ('85). I'd start in on something after dinner, my wife would put that last cup of coffee in front of me before going to bed at around 10, and I wouldn't even realize how many hours I was logging at the keyboard till I became vaguely aware that birds had begun chirping and I saw the first tentative rays of sunshine sneaking past my window-blinds. I never do that anymore.

I guess I've become...fatigable.

I can't complain; I haven't done badly for myself in the overall. I can say without false modesty that I've not only achieved but obliterated every artistic* goal I had when I traded in my salesman's sample kit for a typewriter in 1982. Since that first sale to Harper's, I've seen my byline in pretty much every magazine that young writers dream about (or used to dream about, back when craft and literary merit meant a lot more than they do today); at various points in my career I've been a member of the stable at several of the elite, "opinion-leading" journals.
In fact, at one timenot so much anymore todayI would've ranked my editorial Rolodex (and there's an antiquated reference!) with anybody's anywhere: The top editors at the top magazines in just about every writing discipline or area of interest knew of my work and took my calls. I've also done books and a TV movie, and for a time had a second movie option in the hopper (though that fizzled when the book on which it was based went unfinished, for reasons we can get into someday if I'm in an especially self-flagellating mood). I've also have had more face-time on network TV than a crazy kid from blue-collar Brooklyn ever could've imagined, growing up. .... All of which raises the timeless question, Why don't I have any money in the bank?

But freelancing is a young person's game. By my age (I can't even type the numbers without wanting to cry), and after this many total years in the business, most writers have either (1) gotten out of the business, (2) gone part-time, finding another way of more reliably ensuring that bills are paid between writing gigs, (3) managed to land a renewable/sustainable contract with a major magazine, web site or other source of ongoing work, or (4) done a blockbuster book that left them set for life. The vast, vast majority
upwards of 80%, I'd guesstimatefall into categories 1 and 2. Statistically speaking, almost nobody falls into category 4: several hundred or maybe a couple thousand, tops, out of the millions who've tried their hand at the business in the three decades I've been doing it.** And every year like clockwork, liberal-arts programs and journalism schools disgorge tens of thousands of additional bright-eyed wannabes, most of whom have been equipped by their colleges with not a clue about how things actually work in the real world. That is a travesty unto itselfI've written about it for The Writer, but couldn't find the page to link. Another topic for another day.

Anyway, that's my typically overlong way of saying that I occasionally send out a few resumes for this or that. And when I do, I'm forced to confront a sobering truth.

See, I had a charmed life early. Things seemed weighted in my favor, as if the world were one huge craps table and I were a 6-foot-4-inch set of loaded dice. I got every big job that I applied for, even though I was seldom (if ever) technically qualified. The American Legion made me editor and ultimately publisher of its magazine, a post that in turn made me a director of the world's largest veterans' organization, without my being a veteran myself. You cannot appreciate how remarkable that is unless you've worked within the chummy and somewhat paranoid insularity of Legion National Headquarters. It's a little bit like being made head of the AMA without being a doctor. When things went south at the Legion a few years later, I was immediately offered a plum professorship at Indiana University, one of America's foremost journalism schools, despite my mere possession of a lowly BA. In almost all cases, jobs at such elite institutions of higher learning demand a PhD, minimally an MA or MFA. Among the more curious and amusing results of this was that I often ended up mentoring grad students whose academic bona fides dwarfed my own. In 2000, I left the IU job in mid-contract
a departure that I'm sure I'll rank on my deathbed as my greatest misgiving, at least career-wisein order to accept a six-figure job as head of book editing at Men's Health. I had never previously edited a book.

The stunning latter-day irony, however, is this: Now that I do have those glossy qualifications and credentials on my resume, I can't even get to the interview stage for lesser jobs. It's as if none of it ever happened and I'm back to square one. I'd have thought SHAM alone would put me at square two.

This could mean nothing. It could just be one of those things. (Would a cynic say it's karmic payback?) But it makes me think that you get a certain number of chances in lifejust randomly, by the luck of the draw, whether you deserve them or not—and then that's that. A few glorious and heady times, the cosmic wheel will land on your number, and you'd damned well better make the most of those "hits," because your number may not be coming up again.

* i.e., as distinct from financial.
** And that club is even smaller and more exclusive today than it once was, considering that so much of the most successful writing nowadays is done by non-writers, our pal Sully Sullenberger being a prime example. I'd include Rhonda Byrne in that same group.


RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, you obviously just didn't WANT it enough! :-)

Seriously, I've found myself asking the same kind of questions of late. What finally occurred to me is that having a lot of money just hasn't been at the top of my priority list. As a result, I'll likely die poor, like the majority of writers throughout history. But if the sum total of my actions in this life - including what I've written - brings some degree of improvement to the people I've encountered, I'd consider my life pretty much a success. After all, when this vehicle I'm driving wears out, I won't be taking any stuff with me to the next waypoint. All that will be left of me are the memories people have of me and the insights they gained because of me. Even if those insights were the gained by observing my stupidity, the end result is the same, and one with which I have no issues!

Ask yourself how many lives you've touched. And realize that you only know a fraction of the total.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, so write that blockbuster book that will set you for life (on jazz, or baseball, or Oprah... well, OK, maybe not Oprah).

NormDPlume said...

I don't know why you bother to agonize and and fret over career changes. Just last week, you wrote that everything in life is pretty much predetermined and we are just pawns being moved by an unseen hand in the chess game o' life. So why worry and agonize over the outcome of a predetermined event in which you have no control? Unless, of course, you have been programmed to fret and agonize over outcomes of events you cannot control.

Steve Salerno said...

NDP: When I first read your comment I threw my hands up in the air and immediately began typing a rather nasty reply. But cooler heads prevailed (apparently I have several of them), so I'm going to try this one more time, and hopefully it will "take."

In saying that I believe everything is determined, that is like saying that I know my life is like a train with a fixed route, and I'm on it--except I don't know where the route goes. Why would that imply that I simply ignore what may happen along that route?--e.g. derailments, possible muggings on the train, etc. Now, those things too are predetermined (derailments etc.); they're going to happen regardless of anything I do or anything anyone else does. But we still react to life as humans, and those reactions are then fed into the supercomputer that determines where our lives end up. Maybe I'm a stand-up guy, and I see a woman on the train being mugged, so I intervene and as a result she gets to live another day. But my being on that train was part of HER route, even though she didn't know it. Had I not been on that train, she might have died that day. But I had to be on that train, even though neither of us knew it beforehand. So regardless of how threatened she felt at the moment the mugging began, she was destined to survive. Since she didn't know that, however, she's terrified at the moment it happens. Right?

Everything that happens helps shape us. I happen to know of one very bad thing that has happened in your family, and certainly that has played a role in shaping you and your feelings on certain matters. But that event was going to happen--there was no way around it.

So what if I believe (as I do) that every single leaf on my land was destined to be in that exact place and no other since the beginning of time? So what if I believe (as I do) that every ball on every roulette wheel to be spun in the future can land on one, and only one, number? Why would that imply that I wouldn't go to the casino?

Or let's use another example: Say a thriving medical practice now has 1000 patients. There may be 1 or 2 patients that are going to die in the office during a visit. That is going to happen, at precisely the only time it can happen, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Does that men we stop seeing patients?

Just as you evidently don't follow my reasoning, I don't follow yours.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: Oh, OK. Since you asked nicely....

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - I've got one question. Who (or what) had nothing better to do than to write the script determining how each blade of grass would grow, wither, and die, how each organism would divide and multiply, and how each word would come out of the minds of a few million writers, each describing in some detail how life works, yet few of them in agreement?

Given that it would take an omnipotent and omniscient entity to pull off such a task, doesn't it concern you, just a little bit, to think that such an all-powerful Divine Source of all creation might actually be obsessive-compulsive on a celestial scale? And if we humans aspire to some level of communion with such an entity, how would we be described in the CSM (Cosmic Statistics Manual)?

Oops... make that three questions. But I couldn't help it... my curiosity was predetermined.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: I think your comment displays the mistaken knee-jerk assumption that is common among people who encounter deterministic arguments.

No one pulled the strings. There is no puppet-master. It's This system of thought does not require, or presuppose the existence of, a supreme being of any kind.

Say you were standing above a mixing bowl with five different-colored marbles. One by one you toss them all into the mixing bowl. On each toss, there is one and only one way in which those marbles can end up positioned with respect to one another. The physical variables involved--the weight of the marbles, the force with which you throw them, wind vectors (if any), subtle vibrations in the room at the time they land, subtle differences in the slipperiness of the surface of the bowl itself from point to point, subtle differences in the arm angle (or finger pressure) with which you drop each marble, etc., will all "conspire" to produce a fixed result. Each marble will land, and stop moving, in the only single spot in which it could have. We don't know where that spot is going to be, so we still throw the marbles as an exercise; maybe we even bet on the result. ("I say the blue marble is going to end up top left...") But there's only one possible result each time. As I see it.

When the Big Bang occurred (assuming it did; we don't know that for a fact), all of those forces were set in motion, and the physics in play determined forevermore where all of the universal "marbles" would end up at any fixed point in time. That is why the pretty reddish leaf I see out my window has been on its journey to that spot on my lawn, and that spot only, since the beginning of time. Again, as I see it.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, I understand your explanation, but IMO, your example still doesn't offer convincing evidence that the act of dropping the marbles into the bowl was predetermined, rather than being a random act based upon a spur of the moment decision.

I do happen to find the Big Bang Theory quite believable, in both physical and spiritual contexts. I believe that at the instant of creation, the physical laws governing the universe were established, and that we function within the framework of those physical laws. However, the presupposition that every minute act was determined at that instant begs the question: by what (or whom)? I just can't accept that the sequential minutiae of all existence was spontaneously cast in stone, and that no deviation from that script is possible. It is no more believable to me (and no more supported by actual evidence or even logical assumptions) than is the notion of a vengeful spirit who created and supposedly "loves" us, yet is willing to send us to an eternity of torture if we don't pray correctly or call "him" by the right name. As you stated, this is how I see it. I simply don't accept the notion of determinism as being either logical or spiritually sound.

I'll stop far short of calling you a nut-job, but If I didn't think you tossed some of this stuff out there merely to stir the pot a bit, I'd say you definitely have your moments. But please don't be offended... I acknowledge that I have plenty of those "moments" myself. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: To my mind, if there is a cause, then there is only one possible "next step" or outcome. (That's an oversimplification, b/c everything has multiple antecedent events, and the interplay between them produces the inevitable result, but you get my drift.) Everything that occurs in life has a chain of causation. If I had not written SHAM, you would not be participating in this blog. If you did not have a certain personal history, you would not have been attracted to this blog. You can regress all such incidents back to their primal causes. Though neither of us knew it, we were destined to have this conversation at birth.

Similarly: You are not going to sit down and eat a plate of pistachio ice cream if you hate pistachio ice cream. We are shaped by who we are, where we've been, what we think. "Choosing" to not eat pistachio ice cream is not a choice at all. It's a programmed response to software. And if you now say, "Oh really? Well I'm going to go out right now and eat a plate of pistachio ice cream, just to show you," then that is why you're doing it: to show me. You're doing it because we had this conversation, and maybe you're the kind of person who likes to prove a point. (And you can't help the kind of person you are.) So choice.

If you are Charles Manson, you're going to kill people, because that is what you do. If you are the Pope, you're going to exhort people to be nice to each other, because that is what you do (when you're not absolving priests of molesting kids). It's the same in both cases.

And let's say for the moment that I'm wrong. Well, if there is not a cause...then why does anything happen? Are you implying that things happen for no reason at all? What is a thought? It's an electrochemical response. That is physical. Take away the physicality of thought and there is no thought. Deactivate those neurons (or stimulate different neurons to fire) and you have a different thought. Again...all physical.

Steve Salerno said...

Here's a very succinct way of saying everything I've been straining to say:

If there a cause, then there is no choice, and everything is predetermined.

If there is no cause, then life is insane, chaotic, totally unpredictable. And I don't think life is insane, chaotic and totally unpredictable.

RevRon's Rants said...

I'll try the succinct thing, as well. The cause might influence the choice, but does not necessarily wield absolute power in determining that choice. IMO, most absolutist assertions that attempt to explain non-physical phenomenon, such as "If there a cause, then there is no choice, and everything is predetermined," are flawed and prone to falsehood. I am, however, open to looking at evidence to the contrary.

Life can indeed be insane, chaotic, and unpredictable. Not totally unpredictable, mind you, but in many areas, completely unpredictable. I think it is frequently the fear of such unpredictability that fosters the need for some orderly explanation, even if such an explanation diminishes the import and significance of our lives (which are, in the greater scheme of things, unimportant and insignificant enough already!).

Steve Salerno said...

My point is that the reasons take away the choice. Sure, there is never any one specific reason why we do something, but there's a weighted computation that goes on internally (and, I'm betting, subconsciously) each time we face a "decision." The equation is performed, the software spits out the result, and that's what we do.

And life is only "crazy" from our perspective as people who (a) do not understand all the variables involved in causation and (b) expect other people's sense of order to parallel our own. If a person has craziness in the programming somewhere, then every once in a while the craziness will win out over the other variables. I do not believe there is any such thing as true chaos, which presupposes instances in which something happens for no reason at all: e.g., a rose bush suddenly produces a watermelon. It just doesn't happen.

But look, you and I have been down this road before, Ron; a number of times. I wonder if we'll ever reach a meeting of the minds? Is that our destiny? ;)

RevRon's Rants said...

And my point is that those reasons might influence or even explain choice, but do not wield absolute power over it.

Perhaps it is our destiny to disagree on this subject, Steve... I just don't choose to accept an idea that is, to me, both illogical and limiting. Perhaps I'm just predetermined to insist upon what I perceive as clear logic, and to chafe against arbitrary limitations. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, question: Does a flower have free will?

Assuming the answer is "no" (and maybe I shouldn't make that assumption), Why's it any different with us?

Elizabeth said...

I did ask nicely. No, really. I've been watching Ken Burns' utterly fascinating series on jazz last week and thought to myself, That's what Steve should write about. Really. :)

RevRon's Rants said...

Ask the flower. Its answer (or more accurately, the lack thereof) should provide a pretty good clue as to the difference. However, if the conditions required for the plant to thrive are better a few feet away, it's likely that at some point, the plant's progeny will "choose" the more ideal location. Whether this is a response to predetermined factors and events or a conscious/instinctive/synaptic "decision" to seek a preferred environment brings us right back to the different ways we perceive the nature of... well, nature.

We can bandy about with different notions as to the flower's potential sentient nature, but if we planted that flower in a given spot because we found it aesthetically pleasing in just that location, can you imagine the complexity of the factors that would have to be in place in order for our decision to have been predetermined at the very instant of creation? If nothing else, it sure seems like a profound waste of engineering, and the universe is by no means wasteful.

BTW - I readily acknowledge that we're not likely to come to anything other than an agreement to disagree on this, but as long as I'm having fun... :-)

Steve Salerno said...

My point about the flower is that we tend to imbue humans with all these mystical qualities when in fact we're no different from any other PHYSICAL entity on earth. A flower is programmed by nature to do what flowers do. We are human and we think and talk (not always in that order), but so what? We're just following our programming as the flower follows its programming. There is nothing magical about being human, as I see it. Of course, we see humanity as magical, but pulling back from our narcissistic tendencies to glorify our own existence, I don't see how we could view it that way. In fact, if you believe in evolution--that we came from "lesser" life forms--how is it even possible that we have choice? Everything about us evolved to what we are today, is that not true? Everything about us was caused by something that came before. So where did the choices creep into the mix?

Here's something else to ponder: If everything in life really is predetermined, including all thought, then we can't necessarily trust the validity of logic, either, because determinism would mean that we can't help but see the outcome of any given syllogism in the way we're predetermined to see it. So all my careful reasoning here is pointless.

(But that's how you see it anyway, right?)

RevRon's Rants said...

"If everything in life really is predetermined, including all thought, then we can't necessarily trust the validity of logic, either..."

And if grasshoppers carried .45s, mockingbirds wouldn't f**k with them. As you know, I happen to ascribe as much validity to predeterminism as I do to the existence of insects wielding military weaponry. And I do tend to have a great deal of faith in logic, since it is generally supported by empiric and anecdotal evidence, even if not universally applied (even by me).

I wouldn't call your careful reasoning pointless, Steve... just based upon assumptions that I view as being inherently flawed.

Is this the point where we digress to the point where we call each other an ignorant slut? :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Only if we're meant to.

But I'll start: "Jane, you...!"

Elizabeth said...

Steve, I think this (dare I say poignant) post should be a required reading for all young folks (not that they are willing to listen), or anyone who considers him/herself such (not that they would listen).

It expresses the inevitable reckoning with our ever-shrinking time and opportunities, something many of us deny as long as it is possible -- and sometimes even longer.

For a variety of reasons, I too have been engaging in similar reflections this year, and have come to the wise and inevitable Shawian(?) conclusion that youth is wasted on the young.

And, oh, if only we knew then what we know now...

IOW, what else is new.

I'm trying to impart this knowledge to my children -- with no success, as you can guess.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: Thank you. I think. ;)

But remember, such notions would be considered "negativistic" and "disempowering"; they'd never pass muster in today's "the world is (endlessly) your oyster!" zeitgeist.

Jenny said...

Elizabeth wrote: "I'm trying to impart this knowledge to my children -- with no success, as you can guess."

This elicited a good laugh, which I suppose was "meant to be," given that I am also a mother and can appreciate the disconnect between one's own experience and that of an offspring.

Steve and Ron, I couldn't help but think an optical illusion might be a good way to differentiate between what each of you is trying to say to each other. You know, images that can be looked at in different ways. I also think about those ones (I haven't seen one in quite awhile, but they used to be popular) that have some hidden scene inside that you can only see after staring at the thing just right, focusing on some unseen area behind the image, almost looking all the way through it, if that were possible. Of course, it is not. I was unable to see the "hidden" image whenever I looked. Is this ability to see that which is not immediately visible in those pictures a skill that can be learned, or are some people (me, for example) just predetermined not to see it?

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny: VERY pressed for time today, but let me add again that predetermination does not mean you can't learn new things. It just means that whatever you end up learning was predetermined to occur at some point unknown to you. We don't know what we're predetermined to do, or not do. We just live our lives in the meantime.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about your post for days. And what I came up with is: I think VERY few people get through life without having a few wrestling bouts with "what if I'd made different choices?" and "how did I end up HERE?" This is the downside of living in a society that offers lots of choices. Medieval peasants didn't have this particular problem (though they had plenty of others, I wouldn't want to trade places with them). The other big downside is recognizing that even if one has made *excellent* choices, there are factors beyond our control. And I'm not referring to predestination, I mean the mundane stuff of outsourced industries, lousy economies, technological shifts, etc. Like you said: It's just... life.

An example from my own life: I once took an overseas job because I didn't want to always wonder "what if I'd taken that job? what would my life be now?" Nope, I signed on for the risk and the adventure. And you know what? It sucked. I was miserable, ended up coming back home, career-wise it was a pointless detour. The only lasting good thing was the generous pension plan, though I won't get that benefit for another 20+ years. I would have been better off staying right where I was. But I couldn't have known that then. No one could. It's just... life.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 2:08, certainly there's a lot to what you say (and you don't need me to "bless" your words for you to know that). But in my case, and in many others I've seen, I keep coming back to what my father once told me: "Whatever else you do, end things right." Which, in his view, entailed "setting things up so that they can end right." Certainly there are myriad factors beyond our control, all the more so today. But there are steps that can be taken to minimize the odds that you'll be 60 years old, as I am, and look back and wonder: Did I have every great chance I'm ever going to have before I was 45? Or maybe, more to the point: Did I not appreciate the golden opportunities that came my way when I had them?

Of course, the wild card in all this is youth, which, as GBS famously tells us, is wasted on the young. When we're young, and full of piss, vinegar and notions of immortality/invincibility, we always think that our best years are still ahead of us, that the world is an oyster full of limitless pearls, so it doesn't matter if we burn the bridges that lead to the sea...

Sometimes it does.

Jenny said...

Hi again. That's an interesting way to look at things, Steve. Would you say it is predetermined, for example, that certain people will look at an optical illusion and see one thing whereas others will, at first glance, see another thing? I'm thinking of some of the illusions that just require a slight shift in perspective to be able to see the "other" illusion there. For example, there's that one showing the contours of what looks like a very old woman's face; and yet those same lines, looked at differently, will also appear as a young woman. Which image is seen first? Maybe one person looks and sees the young woman right away, then refocuses until the old woman comes into view. Then another person sees it just the opposite, first the old and then the young woman. What I'm getting at here is, how can any of this be predetermined? Maybe one person can have different experiences of the same image at different times. For example, I might look at the picture one day and see the old woman first, then look on another day and see the young one first. Do you kind of see what I'm getting at?

On the other hand, after some morning errands today I just happened to arrive in our driveway and glance at the clock to see it was 1:11 p.m. and felt that little tingle of destiny, on this Veteran's Day 11-11. It was as if I had arrived just in time! For what, well, I guess that's another story. ;)

Dimension Skipper said...

It seems Mr. Earl Pomerantz has been paralleling SHAMblog points fairly often recently. In today's post over at his blog, he touches on the concept of determinism vs. free will (although he doesn't explicitly label it as such). You can go read the whole piece, of course, but he concludes with:

. . .

Is everything that comes out of our mouths simply self-serving rationalization? – We like something because we can do it; we don't like something because we can't? If that's the case, why do we even bother opening our mouths? Why not just say,

"I prefer myself to other people"

And leave it at that?

It would be sad if this were true.
It would mean thinking is something we
imagine we’re doing, when what we're really saying is,

"I'm me. And being me, this is the only way I can think."

Which makes it less "thinking" than saying the same thing a thousand different ways.

Hm, he pondered.

It's interesting, considering where I started, that I ended up in this unexpected place. That
could be proof of actual thinking. Or maybe – knowing me – it's the only place it could have gone.

I think it clarifies determinism for me somewhat where he says...

It would mean thinking is something we imagine we’re doing...

...and also...

Which makes it less "thinking" than saying the same thing a thousand different ways.

In other words, thinking and free will are illusions (within the framework of a deterministic view). And it's not that we fool ourselves, but that we can't help but perceive that we think we're thinking.


Anyway it's just yet another variation on the debate and it is a debate I find interesting and occasionally ponder (whether or not I have any choice in the matter) in my own very much layman's way.

Then again there's that old saw which goes:

I think therefore... the universe may actually be mere holographic projection on the surface of a sphere. Or something to that effect.

Hogan realised that in order to have the same number of bits inside the universe as on the boundary, the world inside must be made up of grains bigger than the Planck length. "Or, to put it another way, a holographic universe is blurry," says Hogan.

...Explains fuzzy logic.

See also these Science Daily articles here and here as well as Michael Talbot's book The Holographic Universe.

Glancing at the wiki page for Talbot and the Amazon reviews of his book, it all sounds somewhat "shammy" to me (at least his take on it anyway if some of the reviews are anywhere near accurately representative). I've never read it nor am I ever likely to do so. I certainly can't endorse it.

The science-like articles are from early in 2009 and mention experiments in the coming year to try to confirm things. I don't recall hearing anything yet as to whether the concept panned out or not.

Sorry, kind of went all over the map on that one. I only brought the holographic universe into it to highlight that not only may free thought be an illusion, but physical reality as we perceive it may be too if certain ideas can be confirmed. Hard to tell, really.