Kool-aid and cyberpunk composition

There’s a Kool-aid served at Mamma Nem’s in Montgomery, AL that is the single most amazing liquid I’ve ever ingested; it’s called “Downtown.” A combination of cherry Kool-aid flavors, it’s thick with sugar and cherry-liciousness. I now have a jones for “Downtown” that is decidedly unladylike. I can’t even find the words to say how I feel about this drink, except when I get it, I suck it down like it’s salvation in a glass. Every time I drink it, and I try to get it often (the food is incredible, too), I can’t help but think of three things:

  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, a book I read as a very young child (which I should have never been allowed to read).
  • My best friends when I was very young, Christie and Carolyn (next-door neighbors with whom I drank a lot of Kool-aid–our favorite was cherry).
  • Jim Jones, his sad-bad-murderous-mind-bending business, and the phrase having “drunk the Kool-aid“–which refers to his sick and wicked ways that cost so many their lives (and also refers to the Wolfe novel).

And just this very moment, I realized my unfortunate use of the word “jones” and “salvation” in the first paragraph. If the shoe fits, wear it; or wear the shoe like you mean it. We are the accumulation of moments mashed up together until the moment when we are revealed to others–then perception becomes reality. Well, a kind of reality for someone. I would wish that perception to be a hazy one that always colors me in the best kind of light, like those special camera lenses and lighting that make one look ethereal. I say, I would wish that; if wishes were “Downtown,” then I think wishes might be worth something. (If life were like “Downtown,” I never would have grown up. Christie and Carolyn and I would be playing in our connected backyards forever, digging holes to China, swimming, and swinging, and laughing, dancing to records, jumping on our emerald early American couch in a Japanese house, running with scissors. No future, only the present.)

I must have too much time on my hands as this sort of weird rambling around in a blog is solipsistic to say the least (I write; therefore, I am), but deeply strange and fun, too–making connections from so many places and spaces in time and text. It’s a blast to write when the writing bug bites me. But is that a good thing? Perhaps I would have been less cursed with self-awareness, and more blessed if I’d had a whole lot less time for self-reflection (and lived in a cleaner house). For instance, if I’d been born a Victorian mill-worker I probably wouldn’t have had time to blog. You know what being a mill working in 1848 would mean: on the job at 10 yrs old, six days a week, married at 15 or 16 (if I even got married), 8 kids by 24, dead by 30. Guess I’ll just shut up now and move on.

I’m getting ready to teach a writing class for scientists and engineers. I am neither, but I do love science, and the genre that goes with it so nicely: science fiction. As I have been trying to work through my approach for this writing class (thank goodness I’m going to be working with an amazing teacher who will be a tutor for the course–I love working with people instead of alone), I finished reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). That’s right, I just read this in 2011. I’m sorry now I missed this when it was brand spankin’ new. I would have loved it back then–I would have gotten it, too. I was deep in the world of computers and math (a math major in the mid-1980s, if you can believe it, and took a BASIC class in 1985 maybe). More on this later as I crash into other events and ideas.

I’ve been teaching one class already this summer which is really about intellectual collisions, creativity/innovation, and how knowledge/text gets made and shared. We’ve been reading/writing/talking about writing across/in/through disciplines and curriculum, open educational resources, open source software development, copyleft, teaching, learning, and everything connected to all that. We’ve worked through music, films, college education, secondary and elementary education, revolution, literature, piracy, our lives, our hopes, and our futures.

It’s been a big ol’ collision fest–or perhaps a demolition derby is a more accurate description. The “big bang” theory isn’t just a TV show or a theory for scientists. The idea, phrase, words pretty accurately describe writing studies, too.

So, as I write I’m drinking “Downtown” (have to always get a to-go glass upon leaving Mamma Nem’s), thinking about my job (teaching writing and literature), and wondering if I should re-read Neuromancer. A collision is a just-right way of thinking about these things, IMHO. I love science fiction and have read it voraciously as often as I could, in great spurts of energy, but rarely with any plan or regular commitment. Sad to say this was one of the books I missed reading, though I have known of it since it was first published. The mid-1980s was one of those times of grand sci-fi reading, but this never made it into my hands. (I remember a handsome red-headed young man insisting I needed to read it, but I must not have thought he was that handsome.)

It’s taken me forever to read it, too, once I started–in April, I think. I got the e-book version so I could carry it around with me on my iPhone or read on my iPad, but it wasn’t something I couldn’t put down. I put it down a lot. I was not immediately drawn into it, but it was definitely something I wasn’t willing to let go of. I had to know what was going to happen. I felt lost a lot of the time, partly because I didn’t consume it, but sipped it. I also felt like I was somewhere very familiar. Perhaps I inherited a post-Neuromancer sensibility from having read books by authors who came after this, authors who tried to insert their works into a genre that they felt was defined by Gibson. I knew cyberpunk was “invented” by him (and the term cyberspace coined by him), but what I didn’t really understand was that cyberpunk (as a thing) was invented because of this book, not necessarily within its pages, on purpose. Luckily, the book I purchased also included a stunning afterword by Jack Womack, a fiction and SF writer.

I was struck by several things he wrote–especially by his kinship with Gibson described in the most loving, deep, rich terms. I was touched by it–in the kind of way I am often touched by writers who own their craft and draw me in like I’m an arrow they can direct, pulling a bow string taut under me, and keeping me on edge or releasing me at will to strike exactly the target of their choosing. It was lightness itself, and yet, cut to the core of something very personal and private. Really not expecting that at the end of what I thought was a pretty hardcore riff on humans and machines and whether there is a difference. (And happily, reading Neuromancer brought me to The Difference Engine by Gibson and Bruce Sterling–how could I have missed this Victorian alternate-history steampunk book? I’m so losing my literary touch. Or maybe I’m just getting it back. I wonder if I can buy this book in under 30 seconds? Bet I can.)

I was driven to highlight several passages by Womack. (Bless the ever-loving hearts of the code folks who knew that I needed to highlight and write notes on texts I was reading on my iPad–I adore them with all my heart.)

These three sentences are the ones I liked the best:

  • “The past lingers in unexpected and unavoidable ways long after we believe it gone.”
  • “When the past is always with you, it may as well be present; and if it is present, it will be future as well.”
  • “To be truly ready to confront the future–actual or imagined, societal or personal–and to live reasonably within it once you are ready, an entente cordiale must first be made with the past, and the past is always the more frightening of the two.”

How beautifully written… a small and elegant homage to humanity’s grappling with itself. And amen. I think I write about this sort of wrestling with the past all the time–I could be wrong–but it feels like that. It feels like I’m constantly trying to outrun being defined by what has gone before me. Although I can’t do that, I also don’t want my future to be defined only by things I cannot change. I believe in an open heart and that this can and will make a difference in a single life–which can also have a profound impact on more than one life. Remember John Donne? Don’t ask “for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” We’re never really in this all alone. If we think so, we’re wrong. (“We” means “you” because I already know this.)

Maybe the past/future thing is why I’m wondering if I should re-read the book–it hit me as a book that was teetering on the sharp blade of regret. I taught a class using Blade Runner (1982) and Strictly Ballroom (1992) many years ago and I saw a lot of what I talked about for that class in this book (I really need to write about how I taught those two films as text for a freshman writing class). Both films center on fear, painful pasts, regrets, rebellion, and maybe a kind of freedom wrought by defiance. Regret: a word that can only define what is past.

It was as if I was remembering something as I was reading Neuromancer at the same time that the characters were also remembering. Their memories were harsh and hard and yet fuzzy and uncertain. As a reader, I was often uncertain. And still I felt as if I was remembering… as I read Victorianesque and Romantic worries not far buried beneath the surface maybe? Feeling my own regrets sharply? Remembering other science fiction novels/films? Remembering a hippie philosophy of the present and future based on mind-altering drugs (lots of drugs in Neuromancer)? Just what was I remembering? I don’t know. But it was both a stimulating and uncomfortable read for me–lots of memories of the past awoke to haunt me–not distinct but there for sure. I was invigorated by the reading as well–it felt timeless. I felt timeless and weighed down.

I want to write “I drank the Kool-aid” to say how glad I am that I read this novel, but it would be awful to just end with that–too self-serving, like Spock avoiding “Live long and prosper” when saying farewell to his future self in the latest Star Trek movie, and too icky with the Jonestown reference. (But isn’t that weirdly horrific in a science fiction kind of way? I can only really process that kind of death through a lens of non-understanding that comes with a fictional buffer. How could people really believe that mass suicide was a good thing? I can’t hardly believe it happened, though I know it did.)

And “drinking the Kool-aid,” though literal tonight, just wouldn’t be accurate. I’m glad I read the book, but it didn’t make me happy to have read it–reading this book made me think. I don’t often come away from books with that as the major outcome. Mostly I consume with glee or just to consume (a detective novel is about consuming for me, not about thinking). Thinking is hard. It hurts sometimes. I prefer to do as little of it as I can legitimately get away with.

I wouldn’t call myself a cyberpunkist now, not by any stretch of that word (though I did have a punk life once). I’m not even a cyberspace-ist. Just because I read this novel, and think it’s really great, I wouldn’t make those claims. But I am very much a science fictionist, and I am wondering now about how I’ve always taught writing. My writing classes have always been tinged with the past somehow and an embracing of the future–something science fiction always, something hero’s journey (you know it’s everywhere). I’m not sure I’ve ever taught a writing class without a reference to science fiction (or a literature class for that matter). How could I teach writing without science fiction–it’s the writing down of what we imagine the future could be. Is that not a leap of faith we all take as writers or creators of anything–that what we do, what we say, will matter after we are gone? And that somehow it re-routes the future? Do we not believe our present-day accomplishments will become things of a future we can only imagine? Do we not think the future is a lot like the present, only longer? Our present becomes the past that matters in the future. So I hope.

I always teach students (or I better) that the world will be a better place for their having been in it and been able to articulate and communicate their ideas to others. I’m an idealist who’s never lost my idealism. It’s gross, I know, to admit that because the world is filled with such horror sometimes, but truly, aren’t things better when we can know, and perhaps understand, another person’s views, another people’s beliefs? It’s my job to share this notion with students–that writing counts, that communication has to happen, that connections matter. In all my classes, writing or literature, undergrad or grad, this is the thing–that we can and must speak to each other through text of some kind. We create the future, or we let the past create it for us. Am I really saying that? Is that what I really mean? Maybe.

And perhaps that’s the best way I can get ready to teach scientists and engineers about writing for the rest of this summer–be aware of what you carry around from the past, think about how you craft your present, and let the future be something you can imagine filled with grace and great deeds. Why not? Why not teach students that writing the future is what writing can be all about?

I believe the future of my life will be about writing, teaching writing, helping to create writing things in a commons, like Writing Spaces (now with a gorgeous ebook: Web Writing Style Guide–from writing to publication in under four months–take that Houghton Mifflin, if you even exist anymore). The future of the book is “e” and WS is making it happen. Hope for the writers; hope for the future of the book for writers.

Now that’s more like a proper ending to a blog that begins with Kool-aid, bulks up on science fiction, and ends with something like a mini-teaching philosophy (and works in a quote by Dan Quisenberry, a gloriously clever relief pitcher in the Major Leagues and later, a poet).


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Filed under Interdisciplinariness, Surprising Information, Victorians Everywhere, Winning is Everything

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