Author Archives: Rob Tyler

About Rob Tyler

Rob Tyler has been nipping at the cuffs of short fiction for longer than he cares to admit. When he’s not punching the keyboard, he can often be found reading, running, canoeing, straightening up his crooked old house in Fairport, or attending to his needy orange tiger, Attica, named after the institution from which she was rescued. His two 20-something daughters are living proof that it is possible to love your greatest critics.

The 1619 Project

If anyone is still confused about Black Lives Matter – what it means, why it’s important, why “all lives matter” totally misses the point – they need to think a little deeper.

Ok, so I needed to think a little deeper. The light bulb was screwed in, the lamp was plugged in, the circuit was live, but I still needed to flip the “ah ha” switch. Or have it flipped for me. To see the light.

This flipped the switch for me:

Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.

From the 1619 Project

The legacy of slavery and white privilege defined this country from the start. To defend our way of life, to wrap ourselves in the flag, to turn a blind eye to social inequities, to justify any of this by pointing to the lofty principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights is a joke. A very bad, profoundly consequential, horrible joke. Even as the “founding fathers” were declaring that that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” they owned black slaves.

You could say the foundations of this nation reflect the absolute height of moral hypocrisy.

Some progress lately around the confederate flag and monuments, police profiling and brutality, growing awareness about the causes of poverty, violence, and astounding incarceration rates in this county. Symptoms of a sick society. Change is inevitable, but there is so much resistance! Fear and shame.

We’re not to blame for the past. But we are (all) responsible for the future. We need to accept and learn from history to make things right.

So says the privileged old white guy. What do I know? What have I suffered? Not so much, but I can learn from those who have. And that’s why black lives matter to me, and to all of us.

Update: Here’s a great, relevant video I came across since posting the above –

Jeffery Robinson, the ACLU’s top racial justice expert, discusses the dark history of Confederate symbols across the country and outlines what we can do to learn from our past and combat systemic racism.

Covid Chronicles: The Haves and Have-Nots

We’re hearing a lot about “flattening the curve” and getting life back to normal within months. This is misleading. Until there’s a vaccine – which is at least a year away – life as we have known it will be only a memory.

Consider the curve; what it represents, what flattening really means. The curve represents the incidents of infection in the population. Flattening the curve – by social distancing, for instance – doesn’t end the contagion, it just spreads it over a longer period. That’s a good thing, because it reduces the burden on our health care system at any given time. If you need medical care or a hospital bed, you’re competing with fewer other patients. But in a way, flattening the curve is just kicking the can down the road. Unless you live in a bubble, the virus will find you – and each of us – sooner or later.

Once it’s in your body, the virus is nearly impossible to eradicate. There is no “miracle cure,” despite what our president says, any more than there’s a cure for the common cold or the flu or polio or smallpox. Treatments abound – from chicken soup to aspirin – but you probably don’t want to bet your life on them. Better therapies may be coming, but the best way to truly protect yourself is to boost your own immune system. Unfortunately, until we have a vaccine, the only way to do that is to contract the infection, suffer through it, and risk death to build up antibodies in your system. Not an option most of us would choose, but it may choose us regardless.

After enough of us survive the infection, the population will develop “herd immunity” that will dampen the rate of transmission. Think forest fire running out of trees. One consequence of flattening the curve is that it delays the development of herd immunity; it conserves fuel for the fire. As soon as we relax our social distancing, there’s nothing to prevent the infection from roaring back.

For the next year or so, everyone on the planet will fall into one of the following three categories. Many aspects of your life will depend on which category you are in:

  • Vulnerable. That’s where most of us are now. Not a fun place to be. Living in constant fear of catching it. Practicing behaviors that provide the only protection we currently have: washing hands, wearing masks, avoiding contact with anyone who has the virus…or might have it. You won’t feel safe, and life will never return to normal for you, as long as you are in this category.
  • Infected. If you have an active case of covid-19, you’re a threat to the vulnerable. Those of us who are skating through life with asymptomatic infections will soon face a different reality. Widespread testing will eventually get here, and when it does, everyone shedding virus – asymptomatic or not – will be identified and treated accordingly. No more guesswork. The vulnerable will know exactly who to fear.
  • Immune. Long before we have a vaccine, we’ll have an antibody test that can determine if you’ve had the virus and are now immune. If you’re in this category, you’re one of the lucky ones. Throw away that mask! Sneeze and cough with abandon! You can’t get it and you can’t give it. Everyone loves you, because you can’t hurt them. But they might love you a little TOO much, because your blood contains antibodies that might confer immunity on others.

As bad as things are right now, we may be living through the best days of this pandemic. Because as long as we’re not sure who has it, who doesn’t, and who did, we really are all in this together. We’re in the same boat. We share the fear and uncertainty. But when we’re able to know definitively, through testing, who has it, who’s immune, and who’s still vulnerable, our relationships with each other will change. Not back to normal, and probably not for the better. We won’t all be in this together anymore. Maybe not for a long time.

How Does it Feel to Want?

This is a question I’ve been asked many times, usually by someone punishing me by withholding affection or for seeking it from someone else. It’s easy to shrug off as merely a cruel jab, a rhetorical question not worthy of response. But it’s not that simple.

Because wanting can actually feel pretty good. It gives you energy. It’s motivating. It makes you feel alive. Certainly, it’s better than having and not wanting, which can inculcate ennui and a kind of deadness, the dreaded “sad satiety.” A sense of being trapped by what you thought you wanted, but which weighs on you once you have it.

“The honey doesn’t taste so good once it has been eaten; the goal doesn’t mean so much once it has been reached; the reward is not so rewarding once it has been given… What could we call the moment before we eat the honey? Some call it anticipation, but we think it’s more than that. We could call it awareness. It is when we become happy and realize it, if only for an instant.”

—From “The Tao of Pooh,” by Benjamin Hoff

Wanting but not having vs. having but not wanting: yeah, it’s a little abstract. A better subject for beer talk than charting a life course. But what of love? [Insert screech of tires under hard cornering.] Is it better to love (to want), or to be loved (to have)? We all want to be loved. It’s safe and easy. It feels good, if you don’t think too hard about it. But you don’t have to read the Bible to know that it’s better to give than to receive. To love another is to get beyond yourself.

How does it feel to love? Electric, scary, intoxicating. Love persists, requited or not. Love is risky and it can hurt; it can list to one side or the other, but it tends to right itself. It can waver, but if it turns to hate, it was never love in the first place.

All well and good, but the cruel irony is this: to love may be better, but you can’t make it happen. It comes to you, as a gift. You can’t choose who to love. You can, however, choose who to leave, when having becomes a burden you no longer want to bear.

End of the Road

If you take Route 30 about 7 miles east out of Absecon, NJ, you dead end at the seashore near the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City. On a cool, crisp morning in October, there’s plenty of parking on the street. You can walk up to and across the boardwalk onto the beach without encountering a soul.

The Ocean Casino Resort is massive and cold and dehumanizing in a way that may have been mistaken for awesome and luxurious in previous decades, when the rooms were full of customers eager to gamble away their savings. Seeing it, now, is like time-traveling to a ghost city of the future. As the day warms up, people emerge. A few joggers and bikers pass by on the boardwalk. Men are fishing from the jetties. Down the beach, closer to the bay outlet, heavy equipment is adding boulders to the sea wall, as though it’s going to make a difference.

Chemtrails Over Naples

Naples is a little town off the beaten track in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. If it were on the beaten track – that is, the track regularly traveled by well-heeled renters and owners of lake-side property – Naples would not be the town it is, and I wouldn’t love it so. But it happens to be located a mile south of Canandaigua Lake, where property values are among the highest in the nation. Not so in Naples. The beaten track, and the wealth that flows along it, runs north. Naples, like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, is “the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve.”

One of the Naples business establishments that has survived the decades is the Middletown Tavern. It’s not actually in the middle of town, more toward the south end of Main Street. Which is convenient for me, residing as I do in the hills closer to that end that the other. It’s the one place in town where you can go for a burger and a beer any day of the week. It’s where the locals go, the bikers, the guys in overalls and John Deere hats. It’s where I’ve started going, because you’ll always feel like a stranger in Naples until you’re on a first name basis with the bartender at the Middletown Tavern.

I struck up a conversation with some guys at the bar last week. Barry is middle-aged, short haired, bespeckled – looking very much like the engineer that he is. I immediately felt a kinship. Not many engineers in Naples, and I figured he had a story. Ken is younger; not a lot to say.  More like what I’ve come to expect from the locals who have to deal with the occasional, obnoxious tourist who took a wrong turn on the wine trail and is enthralled with the “small town charm.” Poverty can look like charm to the untrained eye.

You’d think the weather would be a safe subject. You know, with all the rain, the high water, the thriving knotweed (my major contribution), the slow spring. And it was, at first. But then Barry and Ken exchanged glances and Barry said, “You wonder why you never see blue skies anymore?” Chemtrails, he said. Solar geoengineering. Climate control. “It’s all on the internet.” International conspiracies. I questioned his reasoning, his resources. I even asked him about Pizzagate. He demurred.

The conversation fizzled. I realized that I had been romanticizing Naples; imagining that it was still the place I knew in the ’70’s, full of artists and intellectuals and hippie philosophers of all stripes. But the decades have changed it, after all. Now it’s a retreat for retirees and conspiracy believers, a refuge for those with delicate sensibilities or a love for nature, a suffocating backwater for kids longing for a larger life, home to families and farmers and shop owners and musicians and the transgendered. In other words, like most places.

For a day or two, I was disillusioned. Then something clicked. Now I feel more at home there than ever. I’ve been reading up on chemtrails. It’s bullshit, of course, but makes for excellent beer talk.

Schopenhauer’s Hair

After 40 years as a wage slave, I retired last September. I quit as soon as I could. As soon as I was confident that I would have a dollar left at 92. For me, work always felt wrong, like putting on someone else’s clothes every day. Trying to be that person; trying to hide how I felt about the corporate machine I found myself in. Maybe in another profession I would have felt differently. But I stuck with the career I chose – or which chose me – for as long as I had to, and not a moment longer.

Friends and coworkers warned me that it might be rough at first. That I wouldn’t know what to do with the empty hours and empty days. That I would miss “having a place to go each morning.” That life would become meaningless without someone telling me what to do with my time.

That only happens to people who loved their jobs. Poor sods! Retirement was my reward, my atheistic afterlife.

I celebrated by spending October in the country – in a barn, in the Fingerlakes area. Rustic, but comfortable. A living space in what used to be the hay loft. The place had been neglected for years and needed work. I spent my days clearing brush, painting the weathered siding, making small improvements inside. Trapping mice. Watching the colors change on the hillside above the pond.

That lasted a glorious three days. Then I came down with Lyme disease, which put a damper on my idyllic retreat. My meniere’s got worse, too. I was a mess. I moved back to town in November and read Buddhism between doses of doxycycline and meclizine. My daughter visited and made me eat vegetables. I slept a lot. The holidays came and went in a blur. I gazed into the abyss and it gazed into me.

I read a lot while I convalesced, and at some point stumbled onto Schopenhauer. I fell for his philosophical pessimism and the way he embraced Eastern thought. But mostly, it was his hair. I think mine might get that way, if I stop cutting it. I can do that now. That’s part of the reward. To acknowledge the absurd; to look ridiculous. I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas. But it’s not too late!

I will return to the barn and wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled and my hair like Schopenhauer’s. And when I can’t pack any more dirt under my nails, I’ll head into the village and drink cheap beer at the Middletown Tavern and discuss deer ticks and knotweed with guys in John Deere hats.

It’s taken me 63 years to get here. If I live long enough, it will have been worth it.

 

 

 

 

Anthropomorphizing AI

Artificial intelligence is hot. Self-driving cars and autonomous robots are here. We converse with Siri and Alexa and Google Assistant. It’s easy to believe that these systems and devices have achieved some degree of human intelligence, perhaps that of a child. They seem almost alive.

It’s good to be reminded that they aren’t.

They aren’t to be trusted, not because they have evil intentions or faulty logic, but because they are still just dumb, program-driven machines. Ask the man who’s Tesla attempted to drive UNDER the trailer of an 18-wheeler. (Oh wait – you can’t, because he was decapitated.) Other tragic, more recent examples: the Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes. It appears that the cause was Boeing’s “Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, which is designed to automatically command a plane down if it senses an imminent stall.” This is auto-pilot software that is supposed to be smarter and faster than human pilots. And yet, it relies on input from a single angle-of-attack sensor. Boeing’s solution? Feed the software additional input from a second sensor. And if both sensors are bad?

You can update the software and plug in additional sensors, but it’s still not intelligent , artificially or otherwise. No system controlling an airplane, under any circumstances, should nose dive into the ground or ocean at 400 mph. Common sense, right? That’s what AI is missing. It ain’t human, not even close. It’s not your friend. It doesn’t care if you live or die. Which is why it’s a bit unnerving to see it proliferating throughout technology we depend on every day.

As for me, I will continue to drive my car myself. Even at the risk of missing a text or Facebook post while I’m at it. At least until AI gets smarter than me. Who could have believed that would be so difficult?

 

 

 

 

The Edge of Weird

A line from Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” describing the repurposing of once glorious Clarice:

“They grabbed everything that could be taken from where it was and put it in another place to serve a different use…wrought iron gratings torn from the harem windows were used for roasting cat-meat on fires of inlaid wood.”

Splendor, rearranged “in a different order, no less appropriate to the inhabitants’ needs than it had been before.” And maybe more so.

 

Vonnegut’s Rules for Writing Short Fiction

In his book Bagombo Snuff Box, Kurt Vonnegut listed these eight rules for writing short fiction:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Great rules – they capture what I’ve heard in countless workshops. If I’d only read these 40 years ago, think of the time and money I might have saved! Just kidding of course; some rules need to be hammered into your head, from every angle, over and over. You never forget how to ride a bike, either, but you still need to steer.