Monday, October 17, 2005

Gluttons for Punishment or Laughs?

Image from
I'm scared, and check out the corner devils. Remind you of anything? P.S. for some reason, my pics seem to be a little funky. I'll work on it.

For me, these items all knit together, especially after my previous fear post.

1) Scott Burgess' Daily Ablution blog, which I enjoy in its relentless vivisection of the Grauniad's (Guardian's) journalistic offerings, provides an examination of two recent "imminent apocalypse" type stories. One asserts, among other stretched-thin conclusions:

Almost daily, new evidence is emerging that progress can no longer be taken for granted, that a new Dark Age is lying in wait for ourselves and our children.

Well, best we smother them in their little beds then, isn't it, to save them the horror of reaching their own doomed maturities? Read Burgess' examination of the weakly supported, strongly arguable conclusions that humans have become less innovative since peaking in roughly 1873. Keep in mind, you'll have to disregard muscle cars and microsurgery, antibiotics and chemotherapy, supersonic jets and space travel, photocopiers, and cell phones, dammit, because we've lost the mojo.

What I find most fascinating is the bleakness of outlook from educated, middlish-class people in civilized societies who are today the beneficiaries of health, prosperity, productivity and conveniences which heretofore even emperors could not have commanded. The whole post is worth reading point by point as you see the lengths one must go to to turn ethical scientists stating findings carefully into shills for the adult diaper industry.

Another tidbit that jumped out at me was this scenario of the soon-to-arrive bitter end:

Famine and chaos increase in the poorest and most unprepared countries, killing thousands of people at first, then millions as infrastructures collapse and civil wars rage.

The Grauniad author may not be as educated as I credited, since this very scenario is happening in Africa as it sadly has for decades already. And most of what they require is an infusion of current, even slightly outmoded, agricultural and pest control technologies through uncorrupted governance and the thousands dying from famine and pestilence could be greatly relieved. Perhaps the journalist is suffering from "learned helplessness" where one fears attempting even what is possible.

2) However, to address that subject, we must turn to this lengthy, but highly readable and fascinating, article from the Times (ht: Arts & Letters Daily) on the still-emerging science of happiness. It discusses the definitions of happiness, its biochemical signatures, and how it may affect aging and health as well as the "hedonic treadmill" which allows us to become inured to the good and focus on the terrible instead. One explanation for this tendency is that our brains evolved during the challenges of the the Ice Age when humans survived while the mammoths and sabre-toothed cats perished.

Survival in a time of adversity forged our brains into a persistent mould. Professor Seligman says: "Because our brain evolved during a time of ice, flood and famine, we have a catastrophic brain. The way the brain works is looking for what's wrong. The problem is, that worked in the Pleistocene era. It favoured you, but it doesn't work in the modern world."

In fact, the article notes that of the six universal emotions, only one is positive. This may be analogous to our uneven sensations of heat and cold. We sense small drops in temperature faster than rises, because they're a greater physical danger to us. I recently also posted on gender-based brain differences. Combining some concepts from there with the ideas found here, we see that happiness seems to live in the pre-frontal cortex and left brain where creativity and abstract reasoning (dare we suggest innovation?) also seem to reside.

Perhaps happiness can activate the parts of the brain tied to creativity? I'm interested to see how the science develops. But I would posit, off my uneducated cuff, that a non-stressed, relaxed, detached (content?) state of mind- which so many athletes and artists report anecdotally as being integral to their moments of greatest achievement and inspiration- is a necessity for innovation. This all means, to me, that panic and marrow-melting terror about the future won't help us avoid the outcomes we fear. Only optimism, enthusiasm, and mental resilience will.

So I say it again: Have a laugh, you dour mf! There's a world to enjoy and to save!

3) On a smaller scale yet illustrative of the same points, an author previously known for his comic edge has created a pseudonym to write work to be taken more seriously and perhaps grab the serious cash and prizes. I read in Sarah Weinman's excellent blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind that Richard Hawke, whose Advanced Reader's Copy (ARC) of Speak of the Devil was stuffed in my Bouchercon goodie bag, is none other than Tim Cockey. Read the Publisher's Weekly review under the title for a laugh about the quality of this "first novel."

I loved Cockey's books about the Baltimore undertaker named Hitch with their horrible pun titles based on the word hearse. However, I saw him speak at Left Coast Crime (in 2003, I think), and he was on a humor panel with a few other authors who also weren't sure they were strictly comedic. I sensed their discomfort with the category and agreed it sold their books short. Ask "cozy" writers about that, too, if you want an earful. The Hitch books are funny, and while there are over-the-top characters, I also found them very smart and human and good for more than merely a laugh, in the verbage of those who so undervalue wit.

When Cockey changed his title theme from the hearse puns to Backstabber for the last Hitch book, I wondered if it was an attempt to get wider readership and exposure (noble aims both) by making the book's first impression grittier and letting the humor be a serendipitous discovery for readers. It's true that being thought of as comic is a harbinger of lesser regard by the professional marketplace and trickles down to fewer copies sold. This is not because the writing is easier done. I would argue it's tougher, especially since a key element of humor is surprise, and surprising a laugh from intelligent readers is tougher than finally manifesting a painful situation that you've been foreshadowing for hundreds of pages. However, if a book doesn't just contain humor but is seen as a "humor book", it is degraded in comparison to its bleaker cousins, just like brillant comedies that never win the Oscar. Perhaps this is the prejudicial wiring of our brains. I wish Richard Hawke much luck. I like what I've read so far.

At the moment, I'm working on a lighter, even frothy, piece and a much darker one, and find I require them to spell each other. Some of the darkest stuff I write, I don't know that I'd want to read, and I find it repellent and uncomfortable living within those people and situations while I'm doing it. But in my head, it's mostly the monstrous that shows up for inspiration roll call, so there I'm stuck. Meanwhile, my nightstand has room for all of it, and I plan in my personhood to skim ever more lightly-lightly into a robust old age.

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