In Phoenix, remembering…

I’m in Phoenix right now, drove in yesterday to visit my Aunt Barbara, a lovely, charming, sparkling lady.  Her husband Carver was my father’s youngest brother, for whom I had a special place in my heart.


I was raised by my mother and sister, without brothers, or nearby male relations, and my father was out of the picture most times.   Even though Carver lived back in Michigan before he moved to Phoenix, it was this big, bluff, funny black Santa Claus of a man who taught me to play catch, and provided me with a glimmer of insight into the kind of man I might grow to be.


It was up to me to clarify that goal, and then fill in the gaps with mentors and strategies to become, as I put it “admired by the kinds of men I admired, and desired by the kind of women I desired.”   Sure, I wanted to be admired by the kind of women I admired, but “desire” had to fit in there somewhere, and it wasn’t gonna be with guys. They smell wrong.


Anyway, filling in those gaps was critical for me, and difficult, as there were few examples of people who looked like me in books, television, or film.  This was why I started creating black characters–to feed my own psyche, and later to help “fill the gap” for other boys like I had been.


And…isn’t that what we do?  We all want the world to be a better place for our children, and I think that this urge is one of the driving forces of humanity.  And for those to see ALL children as “their children” we have to ask what will make the world a better place for them…and for their grandchildren.


Yesterday, talking to Aunt Barbara, I was speaking of that obligation.  And that if the purpose of life was to seek joy, then the next step was to ask what activities and perspectives bring joy long term.  They are best when aligned with both personal and social values, but in a pinch…once your values are clear, you have to be prepared to walk alone.


For me, the question is a better world for my grandchildren.  To have that, they need the basic pain relievers: food, shelter, autonomy.  To seek joy, they will need love and self-expression, and a sense of who they are.


As artists, we can touch on two things:

  1. What is it to be human?
  2. What is the world that humans live in?


These two overlap and mirror each other, and are actually two different versions of a deeper question.  The actions of your characters express your beliefs about humanity. The way the universe responds to their actions expresses your belief in the ethical structure of the universe.


Science fiction often deals with the structure of reality, from physics on up.   If you don’t just want to write an article, you have to create a human being through whose POV you learn this factoid.  In a shallow story, they simply witness: they are an excuse for an intellect-bound writer to expound on something.   In a better story, the character has emotional needs woven into their observations, so that learning this thing has a survival value, or changes the pleasure-pain equation.   In the BEST stories, this goes so deep that learning something changes the way they view themselves and the universe.


Every time you tell the truth about yourself, your life, your mistakes and triumphs in the context of a story, you are letting your readers have the blessing of living a slightly different life. With that perspective, they understand themselves and their companions better, have a clearer view to draw cleaner maps, and a perspective that allows them to navigate their existence with greater alacrity, avoiding more pain, gaining more pleasure.


My uncle played ball with me because he enjoyed it, and also felt an obligation to his lonely bookish nephew.   The idea of fulfilling that obligation gave him joy.  Perhaps triggered lonely memories of his own, such that playing with me eased an existential pain.


I played ball with him because it eased my loneliness, made me feel I was worth something, helped me understand what the “big boys” did, gave me a skill I could use to gain friends and fit in…as well as develop my body-mind complex.


Avoiding pain, gaining pleasure.  It mattered, and still matters more than half a century later.


Little things count. And stories can multiply this effect across entire cultures, across barriers of time and space and culture.  They are one of the things that make us human.

Thanks, Unk.  I miss you.  The little boy inside me still remembers.


Write with Passion!

Steven Barnes


Why “Do the right thing”?

In some discussions of morality, some people will say:

“If I’m not going to be acknowledged for behaving morally, I won’t.

“If there was no God, why would we be moral?”

“If no one was watching, I’d steal.”

“If I wasn’t afraid of getting caught, I’d cheat.”


O.K.–they are saying they have no internal compass for morality. That absent the approval of the tribe, or the fear of being cast into hell by God, or of being thrown into jail, or getting a painful divorce…they would do things considered “bad.”


But…do THEY consider these things “bad”? Or do they consider them neutral, but mouth platitudes about them being “bad”?


I remember a guy who, under other circumstances spoke deeply and fervently about God and morality, commenting about how if we were on a liferaft together in the middle of the Pacific, he’d kill me and eat me.  Nice.   Hard for that person to then come back later and tell me about morality, don’t you think?


He’s saying there is no moral law absent human perceptions, there is only efficiency and effectiveness.  Law of the jungle.  I can deal with that, because it seems to me that ALL morality starts there.  It is “bottom up” in the sense that the same principles against stealing, killing, lying, raping and abusing children recur all over the world (to varying degrees) even among cultures who have no contact with each other.    Cannibalism is relatively rare as well, so we might add that.


If human beings aren’t much good alone, then a primary survival question is: “how shall we live together?”


Hard to imagine any kind of society where there are no laws against killing, lying, child abuse, stealing and so forth.   At the very least, that culture will be smaller and more chaotic than a culture that has prohibitions against such things. And will therefore be out-competed by them.


But WHY do people obey those rules? Initially, for the same reason children do their homework or pick up their rooms: to avoid punishment.  This is the CHILD level of the game.


The fact is that you CAN get away with stealing much of the time. This leads to the “tragedy of the commons,” where you are best off, short term, convincing other people to be honest, while being a thief yourself.


LONG term you will usually be found out.  But it is entirely possible to postpone that reckoning for an entire lifetime.  People who put out a surface appearance of being “good, pious” people, but are horrible behind the scenes.  Again, however…in general this will be found out over enough interactions, enough deals, enough years.


But another thing that happens in a society is we ask “what is true?”  What is the structure of the universe? And all societies evolve religion and mythology.   Ways to grasp the infinite.  Whether imagination or revelation, they create demons and gods, and begin to personify vast natural forces into structures we can begin to understand.  Often, they mirror the structure of human societies: we understand the strong father or loving matriarch, so a LOT of god figures mirror those.


It is an exercise for the reader whether you believe this is human beings projecting what they know, or a Divine Mind simply recapitulating its essence in Earthly form.   The notion works either way.


But the point is that you can see morality as starting from individual human needs, progressing through group imperatives and becoming encoded socially through mythology and religion.


As soon as you believe in a God figure, you have an omnipotent being who is ALWAYS there.  He knows when you’ve been sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or….


Oh, wait. Different magical being.  Ahem.


If up and down the structure, morality is important…but FAKING morality is actually more effective short-term,  but actually BEING moral is more effective long term, then we ask the next question: how can we be moral beings whether or not there is anyone watching?


We must integrate morality into our most basic essence.   We must do what we do not for EXTERNAL rewards, but because that is simply who we are.  Or who we aspire to be.


When I was a kid, I had a hard time with stealing.  I just couldn’t figure out an external reason not to.   I was smart enough to get away with it…but it was clear to me that eventually I’d run into someone smarter than me, and I’d be screwed.  I might have been smarter than ANY body, but I sure as hell wasn’t smarter than EVERY body.


No matter how swollen my ego, I knew that wasn’t true.    So what could I do?


I had to find the aspect of my personal intimate being that was contrary to theft.    It took a few days of deep introspection, but I found it:


Every time I stole, I stole because I believed that was the most efficient and effective way of gaining something. But that means that I had no real faith that I could organize my mind and heart to EARN it.  ONLY if I could not earn it did it make long-term sense to steal it.


I was damaging my faith in myself.  And without that faith I couldn’t accomplish my dreams.


There.  I’d found it.   I BELIEVED that: that stealing weakened my ability to create the life I wanted, whether or not I ever got “caught.”


Armed with that, I was able to turn my life around.  It had NOTHING to do with other people, or an omniscient being. It was “what do I want from life?  Who do I have to be to get it?  Is every action of my life a step toward becoming that person?  Yes? No?  If `yes’, continue. If `no’ CUT THAT SHIT OUT.”


And that, evolved when I was about 24, removed any thought that dishonesty was a viable tactic, and clarified my path.




When you hear law-abiding people who insist that morality (“goodness”) is tied with obeying the rules of society, also hear the ways what they are REALLY saying is “as long as I agree with the laws of society, so long as I believe they are good for me and my family, I will obey them.”


One thing that cracks me up is hearing one of them then state, re: 2nd Amendment Rights, that a lawfully elected government could only take their guns if pried from their “cold dead hands” and imply that they would kill legally empowered law enforcement officers.


In other words, they will agree with laws, consider them moral, if and only if they are in alignment with their personal desires and interests.   This is a serious reality of life.  It is only dishonest if they then imply that other people should obey laws even if they don’t align with personal interests.


Tragedy of the Commons, right there on the level of obeying laws. What is right?  Law of the Jungle. What is efficient?  Convincing other people to obey laws for the sake of “goodness” when you are actually picking and choosing.


Is this common?  You bet. Is it optimal?   I think not…but that’s a value decision.   You have to decide for yourself.


And for your children, of course.   And every time a storyteller writes a tale of moral consequence, they are arguing the ethical structure of the universe.


In Black Panther T’Chaka kills his own brother, conceals the crime and abandons his nephew to poverty.   Was it right?  Few would say so. Was it understandable?   That kid was gonna go Hamlet on the royal family, you know damned well.   If your primary intent was to protect his son and the throne…well, yeah, li’l Killmonger was kinda screwed.  In fact, it would have been safest to kill him.


It would have been BEST, probably, to Flashy-Thing that kid’s memory and give him to a middle-class family in Atlanta somewhere to raise.  But of course that would involve more people in setting it up, and the more people who knew, the more dangerous. Someone ALWAYS wants to take the throne.


(And that is where I agree with Wakanda remaining secretive until and unless there is a sufficient organization of nations to deter open invasion to take their resources. And those who think “Wakanda was strong enough to resist” IMO aren’t thinking it through.  If I’m writing that story, I don’t attack openly.  I attack psychologically, splintering the alliances of tribes, supporting usurpers, supporting assassinations rather than outright military action UNTIL THEY ARE WEAK ENOUGH, or until I have a puppet on the throne. That story is EASY to write.  You don’t attack where your opponent is strong.  Attack their weaknesses.  Ego and ambition.   Wakanda would have been toast within a couple of generations)


One theme of BP is that evil will emerge.  Decisions made from efficiency, unless they are aligned with morality, will come back to destroy you.   T’Challa was so appalled by what his father had done that he gave Killmonger a chance to surrender and almost lost that fight, WOULD have lost it if Killmonger hadn’t succumbed to his sense of the theatrical and tossed him off the waterfall rather than just stab him to death.  Boom. Done. He’d have the throne.


To be a king, T’Challa had to be a better man than his father. But even that was only standing on his father’s shoulders: he was the man he was because his father had protected him.   He was a worthy son: a warrior, a statesman, capable of both vengeance and mercy.  “You are a good man, with a good heart. And it is hard for a good man to be king.”


There you go. A beautiful, wise moral and strategic lesson encoded in a superb entertainment.   Works for people in general, but for an underserved community BP is an absolute THUNDERBOLT.   An advance so extreme that I can only think that Ryan Coogler was “lit” along his entire system: intellect, emotion, aesthetic/creative, political, philosophical, kinetic and more.   It worked on all levels, and presented what might be the overall strongest Marvel character: a man of intellect, physicality, morality, family connections, political savvy, courage, and capacity to love. What comic character has as many levels cooking?   Spider Man has his Aunt May…Thor has his relationship with his father and half-brother…but we watched Tony Stark going batshit to kill Bucky who was only a puppet, willing to KILL a “friend” (Captain America) to do it, and this was after 2/3 of a billion dollars of therapy and twenty years of distance.


T’Challa had better control of his emotions less than a WEEK after holding his father’s corpse in his arms, confronted with the ACTUAL killer.   No slightest comparison in terms of maturity and “wholeness.”


What do YOU think of morality, ethics, the human condition?  What do YOU think your community, or the human race needs to move forward to the future?


Either support the art that teaches these lessons, or asks the right questions…or create it. That is one of the ways we can, as individuals, make the world better for our children.


The other is to do the right things, not because otherwise we’ll be caught, or so that people will pat us on the back.  Those are rewards for sleeping children.


Do what you do because that is what you are.  THAT is how you change the world. Once word, one action, one soul, one work of art at a time.



Write with Passion!

Steven Barnes

Try the Morning Ritual for 30 Days…


Seven years ago I was crashing and burning in Atlanta, unable to find my balance, depressed, and scared. The entire map I’d created of my life had been blown up, and I just wasn’t sure what was next.


Desperate, I reached out to a mentor, who reminded me of one of the most basic practices: the Morning Ritual.    Desperate, I remembered that I USED to do it, but had abandoned it some years before.


I was out of ideas, and committed to trying it for thirty days.

1)Choose an activity where you can move continuously for 10-20 minutes.   Tai Chi, Tibetans, Yoga, walking, running, rebounding, dancing.  You need to be able to speak WHILE you move, so swimming probably doesn’t work.  I use Tai Chi

  1. WHILE MOVING, hold a positive posture and facial expression, move and breathe as powerfully and joyfully as possible.
  2. WHILE MOVING, chant affirmations about the following things, visualizing the positive memories and/or results as appropriate.
  3. (Assuming you are doing this for 20 minutes.   Scale the time up or down as necessary)
  4. Go through the pieces of the M.A.G.I.C. formula: Magic = Action X Gratitude X Intention X Conviction.
  5. Did I say WHILE MOVING for all of this?
  6. Five minutes Conviction (Faith): “Every Day in Every Way I’m Getting Better and Better” is one such. Find one you can say without choking.
  7. Five minutes Gratitude.  “I’m so grateful for X, Y, Z” (health, security, family, life, sunshine, mentors, resources, skills, etc.  If you say you have none of these YOU ARE LYING.  If you can read these words, you have resources.
  8. Five minutes focusing on Intention, your long and short term goals.   Here’s a secret: take the same sense of certainty you had about the PAST experiences, and attach them to your FUTURE goals, and especially the things you must do TODAY to make them happen.  If this is hard, ACT AS IF you are confident.  (“I’m so excited that I made ten marketing calls.  Wrote five pages.    Exercised for twenty minutes.  Read fifty pages.  Etc.)
  9. Five Minutes Conviction that you have all the resources you need to have a successful day “All I need is within me now.  All the courage/intelligence/ creativity/ energy etc.)



So I started the process.   Every morning.   AND IT FELT RIDICULOUS.  Every poisonous voice in my head told me this was all bullshit, nonsense, sunshine-up-my skirt happy-crappy idiocy.


But the trouble was: Just by DOING this, I was taking Action.   I was actually taking forward steps.  Actually connecting intellect, emotions, and physical action.


Well..if I was actually DOING it, why was this voice telling me I wasn’t?


Could it be that those depressive, negative, attacking, mocking, vicious voices were LYING  to me?


It’s like climbing a mountain, all the time the voice that has plagued you for years is saying: “there is no mountain. You are not climbing.”




Once I realized that the voices in my head were lying sacks of shit (the technical term, I believe) I began to separate myself from them. Ask different questions.  And by the time I’d done this for a week, just one week, I noticed that I was getting more done, and felt better and had more fun.


But I had to do the work. I had to actually expose my demons, force them to the surface by doing the thing they hate: coordinating mind, body, and emotions for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.  Do this continuously over time, and you cannot help but change.    This is the most powerful you are capable of being. It is way beyond mere “focus” or “motivation”.  It is coordination of every aspect, it is coherence, like a laser, with all efforts moving in the same direction, just for that 10-20 minutes.


And you begin to feel the Path. Feel the result of operating with greatest ease and joy.  Life will still have obstacles, but if you will do this for 30 days, things will shift.


My theory so far: if you have a neurological condition that is beyond “mere” emotional alignment, YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO DO THIS.  If you can do it, you can heal.


So far, this seems very true.   People drop out.  It’s like that “Sentence a day” thing.  IF you do it, you cannot fail to publish.


IF you can perform a “30 Day Daily Ritual” diet, you cannot help but become a healthier, happier, more productive person.


Anyone want to take the bet?


And…did I say WHILE you are moving?





Love and Ignorance and Images

“The evil in the world comes almost always from ignorance, and goodwill can cause as much damage as ill-will if it is not enlightened. People are more often good than bad, though in fact that is not the question. But they are more or less ignorant and this is what one calls vice or virtue, the most appalling vice being the ignorance that thinks it knows everything and which consequently authorizes itself to kill. The murderer’s soul is blind, and there is no true goodness or fine love without the greatest possible degree of clear-sightedness.”  Camus, The Plague


I can agree with this, especially if the ultimate knowledge is love and connection.  “Num”, the Koisan belief that there is “one soul looking out through many eyes.”


If we believe in “doing unto others as we would have done to ourselves,” and we love ourselves, we won’t want to do harm to others.   We might order them chocolate cake when they love vanilla, however.


I am pretty sure that 99%+ of human evil comes from violating this: not seeing others as part of ourselves, and/or not loving ourselves.


This is why it is critical to love ourselves.    When that is a trial (and it often is) if you pay attention, you have just learned why the world has so much pain.  And you have also learned the gateway to healing.


Add another step: “Violence stems from anger, anger from fear.”


And you have an even clearer view of the problems in the world.

  1. We don’t love ourselves.
  2. We don’t feel connected to others, so that we fear them.
  3. We aren’t willing to protect ourselves as ruthlessly as we would protect our own most beloved children, and therefore attract predators looking for easy prey


How to undo this?

  1. First love yourself. If the meaning of life is to be joyful, then we have to control our emotions. We do this by controlling our language, focus, and body movement.  The “Morning Ritual” is all about this, and it is fascinating how I can say POINT BLANK over and over again that “you move continuously for 10-20 minutes WHILE focusing on positive things, past successes, and future outcomes” and people will report back that they “meditated and then did Yoga” or something.  NO, dammit: AT THE SAME TIME. Sheesh.  Your ego will trick you.  It does NOT want to die, and if you have a negative self-image, it may try to harm you to stop you from killing it.  Believe that shit.
  2. Love one other person.   This is generative. After you learn to love yourself, if you love another human being you want to give them the gift of joy.  You’ll start noticing that the same things that create pain in your lie (negative self-talk, negative focus, lack of healthy movement) create pain in theirs.  If you have children together, you start seeing how they grow up, what affects them, and will apply those lessons there.


This is where control of images connects to “control of language” and “control of self-talk.”  Self-talk would include the images you make in your head.  If they are images of pain, failure, and fear, you will avoid actions that take you in that direction.


You have to have PERMISSION internally to take an action. You have to believe that an action will take you closer to pleasure and further from pain, OR YOU WON’T DO IT.


This is where a movie showing someone you identify with as heroic is so important.  The hero ALWAYS hits the “Dark Night of the Soul” (T’Challa is thrown off the cliff) and all seems lost. The way through is the “Leap of Faith” in yourself, your companions, or a Higher Power.


And of course, in Black Panther it was all three.  As it was in Star Wars: A New Hope.  Beautiful.


This is CRITICAL for children and adults, because you simply cannot move from one major level of life to another without expecting failure.   The problem is that we forget this lesson, no matter how many times we go through it.


Fiction helps to remind it.  Seek out images  that nurture you, and your “tribe”.  If there is a lack of them, create them.   I suggest that this is meat-and-potatoes, not “frosting” on a non-essential cake.  The evidence is the frequency with which these images are created and devoured by any autonomous culture.


If you are underserved by the majority culture for whatever reason, these images will control your emotions, and your emotions determine your actions, and your actions create your future in a feed-back loop that will either ascend or descend.


Take control.


Be the hero in the adventure of your lifetime



Write with Passion!

Steven Barnes

Finding your theme

The movie “Star Wars” (now “Episode IV: A New Hope”) works not primarily because of the effects, or the music, but because those things reinforced a central theme that resonated powerfully with the audience.


In fact, all of your verbal pyrotechnics, extrapolations, witty dialogue and clever plotting will mean little or nothing unless they trigger emotional responses.


How do you do this?


  1. Just write your story.  The first draft should be having fun, just tearing it off if possible.  If a long piece, I suggest plotting it out first so that you have “safety rails” but then the writing itself should be crazy fun.  When I was working on “The Secret of NIMH” I put mouse porn in the first draft, just to entertain myself.
  2. Be careful to take your mouse porn OUT before completing the second draft, o.k?
  3. Now, after the first draft, NOW you look at the story and ask about the thematics.  What are you saying?   After all, there are two questions that connect to every action, every thought, and every work of art: Who Am I? and What Is True?  In other words, what are human beings?  What is the universe they live in?
  4. Let’s look at Star Wars.    Remember: art is subjective, impression not mathematics.   So there will be multiple interpretations possible.   This is just one.
  5.  The climax of Star Wars is the attack on the Death Star.  The ultimate weapon of the greatest villains in the galaxy, capable of destroying an entire planet.  It is about to destroy the rebel base, and everyoen he cares about.    The attack is failing: his friends are being killed one by one, the defending ships slaughtering them, as the Death Star moves into position to  fire.     This “technological terror” is unstoppable, the evil motivating it merciless, its power beyond conception.   Ships exploding around him, he fails his first attempt to drop a torpedo into a vulnerable vent.  Things are moving faster and faster and faster, no time for thought, no hope, and…
  6. And in the middle of all of this, he hears the voice of his beloved mentor Obi Wan Kinobi saying “trust your feelings.”
  7. What happens when he does?  He successfully destroys the Death Star, saves the rebellion.
  8. How would this work as a theme, then: in the midst of a depersonalized world, risk and hopelessness, and forces collaborating to make your individual lives meaningless, the greatest power in the universe is actually…your own heart.
  9. Would that appeal to people?  Is it true? Is it positive?  Is it useful?  I say “yes” on all counts.   Armed with that, you go backwards and forwards through the entire script, asking yourself: what is necessary here for the final scene, the destruction of the Death Star, to have the maximum impact?
  10. You cut off any reasons not to engage with the challenge: kill his aunt and uncle
  11. You supply him with allies representing courage, creativity, love, sacrifice, wisdom.
  12. You remove any possible sympathy for the enemy who will be destroyed when the Death Star blows up, so that the audience will feel nothing but joy (ummm…have them blow up an innocent planet? Yeah, that works)
  13. You alternate between drama and comedy, to control flow of tension. You CANNOT simply increase tension higher and higher and higher without pause.  You can, however, “wave” it, creating moments when your reader/viewer can “rest” which prepares them for the next ascention.


In other words, you can write the first draft, THEN isolate a thematic core, then go back and look at every scene, every character, every line of dialogue and ask “does this increase the gut-punch of my climax?  How?”


If it doesn’t…change or delete it.   If it does, laugh like crazy. Enjoy the ride!


Write with Passion


Vertical Integration

Can human beings write across barriers of race, gender, nationality, religion?  What about extreme morality and behavior?  Surely there are limits…

No, I don’t think there are.


I saw the documentary “Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Hitman” is back on Netflix.  That’s the tale of Richard Kuklinski, an apparently soulless professional assassin/serial killer, one of the most dangerous human beings whose thoughts  have ever been recorded on film.

I wouldn’t have wanted to be in that room with him, even in handcuffs.   Another part of me is dying to.  Sigh.


He spoke mostly in cold blood about all the people he killed for the Gambino crime family…but there is no moment when you cannot sense the predator just under the surface, the satisfaction in the kill, the pleasure in the fear shock and surprise in the faces of his victims at the moment they realized he was about to take their lives.


Beyond chilling.

If you would be safe in the world, it is critical that you understand that human beings like this exist.   Your best bet:   they cannot be argued with. Reasoned with.  Have no “better nature” to appeal to.  Stay out of any arenas that could overlap with their interests.   If by some horrific coincidence you end up between them and something they want…God help you.


But for me, the most interesting thing wasn’t the discussion of his kills (which seem primarily connected to what I’d call  an ‘unshielded’ predatory nature combined with a value structure that allows toleration of no slightest sign of disrespect, and a fear of powerlessness that results in serious pleasure from dominating others.  Suggesting a thin, thin ego shell over a belief that he, and all other human beings, are demonic beings pretending to be civil.  But that’s another discussion)


What was most interesting to me were a few moments when he discussed the effect of his behaviors on his family, which had no slightest idea of his secret life.  Especially the impact on his daughter.


Now…it would be easy to be cynical about this.  To assume he was faking for the camera, or pretending to be human to continue a masquerade that has served him all his life.   Simulating human emotions he doesn’t feel. That’s one perspective.


But I know something. I know how it feels to hold your newborn child. And that from discussions with hundreds of parents, something happens at that moment.  Some door of perception opens in the heart, and you glimpse a larger, deeper reality…just for a moment.  You understand something new about where you fit in the cosmos, and it is a profound understanding.


Profound enough to penetrate the pale heart of a man like Richard Kuklinski?   Possibly.  Possibly.


While the notion that it is just for show is tempting, the opposite could also be true: that it was profoundly honest, and a glimpse of something else, a road not taken.  Paradise Lost.


The “Nature” side of the argument says that such people are just born bad.  Genetics.  PRE-genetics, a twisted soul perhaps.


The “Nurture” part says that during gestation or childhood something went terribly wrong.


Ultimately, I believe people start with a feeling, a sense of which is true, then twist their intellectual fact-gathering to support what they wanted to believe in the first place.   Take your choice.


“Don’ trust people. Instead, RELY upon them to do what they believe to be in their own self-interest. It’s up to you to figure out what that is.”–Harley “Swiftdeer” Reagan


“Never appeal to a man’s better nature. He may not have one. Invoking his self-interest gives you more leverage.” Lazarus Long (Robert Heinlein)


And the way I would put that is that not everyone is “vertically integrated” in the sense that their survival is congruent with their emotional, mental, and spiritual maps of the world. Most world religions and philosophies attempt to do this. When you do, self-interest and community service are precisely the same thing.


A couple of things make this all work together.

  1. Remember the question of doing what you love/loving what you do?  There is no intrinsic honor or value in a specific activity, save what we choose to bring to it.  We do this by connecting with it until it is something we would do even if there were no external pressures.    Do it for its aesthetic pleasure, or because it is connected to curiosity, a way of self-discovery or expression.  People who believe that without “Faith in God” there would be no morality are simply telling you either how THEY motivate themselve not to murder old ladies, or that they consider the mass of humanity beneath them.
  2. The Koisan belief in “Num”: “One soul looking out through many eyes” is congruent with the notion that there is no altruism.  That selfishness isn’t a problem. That the problem is a lack of expansiveness in your sense of Self.  Most people can expand that to include their families. This is part of the process of developing empathy and “altruism.”  Selfishness is no problem.  A non-expansive definition of “Self” most certainly is.
  3. The “Core Transformation” technique reinforces this.   If all human behaviors can be reduced to an attempt to connect with the Divine (or perhaps the sense of peace experienced in the womb) it doesn’t take much of a leap to see this “divine core” could be seen as the personal, the “Num” as the group.
  4. That “Vertical integration” of morality, passion, discipline, focus, and much else can be seen IF “Num” and the “Core” are seen as the same thing.  As a construct, it is very, very tempting.
  5. If all animals move away from pain toward pleasure…if all human action is an attempt to find some transcendental peace…and if we are social creatures unable to survive alone…and if game theory suggests that SHORT TERM benefits can accrue from theft and dishonesty, but LONG TERM benefits come from treating others fairly and honestly, “as you would wish to be treated”…then aligning your personal desires (The Child) with your ultimate values (The “Ancient”) and be sure that every day’s behaviors (short term) are aligned with your long-term outcomes…that is about as good as life gets. We become as efficient and effective as humans can be.




If I start from the “equality” side of the spectrum, that we are all connected, all part of the same being, I can explain human variation very easily…and mistakes made from this position strike me as smaller and less damaging.


If I start from the “inequality” part, I see people who are ignorant of huge swaths of environmental factors. EVERY TIME.   For instance: those who believe in racial inequality MUST downplay the effects of slavery.  You simply cannot believe what black people say about that institution and its aftermath and also believe what the “Bell Curve” implies.  Both cannot be true.    It seems to me that  mistakes made from the “inequality”  position have been responsible for most of the human misery, war, slaughter, genocide, slavery, and social horror of our history.


Note: Superiority beliefs MASKING as “Equality” beliefs might be the worst.  This is the “all animals are equal, some are more equal than others” thing.  Communism definitely falls into this, and presents a special danger because the claim of supporting equality is seductive, perhaps more seductive than simply stating outright “we’re going to kill you because we want your shit”.


But that’s another subject.


If equality between genetic and ethnic groups is the safest place to start, then the same question has to be addressed between men and women.  Start from equality?  Start from inequality?  Which one requires less distortion?    I say from equality…with some critical differences.

Vive le difference.

And ultimately…how about between people?  Are all human beings of the same basic stuff, and is the core difference what we experience along life’s path?


This is not a question that can be ultimately answered, but I do think it is useful to have a basic, broad sense of your personal beliefs.   IF I start with basic equality, all of us being a part of the same “stuff” then we have a “vertical integration” between not just our personal being from survival to spirit, but from male to female, from the personal to the social.  Possibly from the human to the cosmic.


All fitting together, even if we can’t quite grasp it intellectually. Can you see a sort of pulsing dynamic sphere of life and existence?  Does it require a belief some broadly defined group is inferior to yours?   You are following another path, and good luck to you. Hope you enjoy the company.


I see it clearly in the arena of writing, a three dimensional dynamic sphere of the whole process. Seeing it isn’t some magic pill for turning one into Shakespeare, by the way.    One of the things that becomes clear is where I am on the path of conscious/unconscious integration, and I’m delighted to say that all I can see is the people better than me, further down that road.  Most of that is that they really, really did invest more of themselves in being that thing.  They SHOULD be better than me: its more important to them.


Same with martial arts, spiritual matters, finances.   There are certainly cases where people just seem to be better popped out of the box…but most of what I see, by far, is that they just…invested more of themselves in a particular arena.


The implication of “expertise” is that “morality” is a part of this. Most of what we consider “morality” is just selfishness where the “self” is the body public. If the cells of your bodies were an “every man for himself” prokaryotic cluster, you’d be pretty screwed.   Nope, they have to work together.

If all human behaviors are to bring us pleasure, and ending up in jail, dead in an ally or a tragedy to our families is not pleasure, and logic suggests that we cannot walk such a toxic path without serious risk of being caught…


Then it is reasonable to say “something went wrong.” By any standards, not just moral or legal. That the Richard Kuklinski’s of the world are not merely two-dimensional  monsters, they are people unable to fulfill some basic need, unable to follow some internal map to joy without a detour into consuming darkness.


Something…went…wrong.   Hey, maybe they’re genetic outliers.  I can’t deny that possibility.   But which of us have not had thoughts, urges, fantasies which, if followed, might have opened doors within us leading to private hells?   Who has not become addicted to non-optimal behaviors? Not been alarmed by the growth of hungers that could destroy our bodies, relationships, careers? Not felt that we dodged a bullet by blindly following some social or religious dictate?

Never? You are perfectly disciplined in body, relationships, career, and finances? Really?   May I have the registration number on your halo?  It’s right behind the little wire thingie.

I know I’ve screwed up.  Oh, yeah.     Sometimes, you need faith to claw your way out of such a trap.  I don’t have a fraction of the aggression of some of the human beings I know.  But its there.   Oh, yes.  And if I hadn’t harnessed my fear and anger and pain to positive actions…if I hadn’t believed that I would have more long-term pleasure by following a set of principles not all THAT better than Dexter Morgan’s “Harry’s Rules”, I don’t know who or what I’d be.


Is there a Richard Kuklinski in all of us?   If there isn’t, there is little harm in imagining there is.  But if there is?  It could be horrific to assume there is not.


Our most basic negative drives are about moving away from pain. Our more elevated, but quite possibly still universal drives is to connect to the divine. You can integrate this so that you have discipline in body and mind, motivation to hunt and gather, problem-solving to align drives and morality, and ultimately feel safe enough to love without limits.


And all of that…or any part of it…I find a better seed for a good life than assuming that “they” out “there” are the bad ones.

We’re just fine.  Yeah. Tell me another one.



Sharing Your Dreams and Nightmares

Jason was recently reading DIARY OF ANN FRANK in school.  Couldn’t have approved more. One of the most famous books of the 20th Century, it tells the story of a young Jewish girl whose family went into hiding during the occupation of the Netherlands.  For over two years they hid there…and then were discovered.  Ann died of typhus in a concentration camp, possibly only weeks before it was liberated by the British.


Despite this and countless other photographic, literary, historical, eye-witness and documentary  evidences, there are Holocaust deniers.   Films, museums…it doesn’t matter. There were people who lied about it while it was happening, and people who lie about it now.  Without understanding that history, it is impossible to understand some of our current geopolitical and cultural realities, as well as grasping the full nature of human evil and courage.


And the sleepers, snakes and monsters who promote those lies are at the very least unconsciously supporting that outcome.  At the least. At the worst…they know damned well it happened, and APPROVE.




And this is despite the fact that the mechanisms of media, both non-fiction and the “dream machine” of Hollywood …well, lets just say Jews are not under-represented.   Let’s imagine what would happen if they WERE. If for instance, there were no Jews represented at the decision-making level in New York publishing, Hollywood media, the news industries.  None.


Think it might be even worse?  Think that the snakes and monsters would have an easier time of selling their lies?


THIS is why it is CRITICALLY important to get ahold of the mechanisms of media. To create and promote your own stories.  Told your own way.  Now, it might be truth, documentary, textbook material.


Or it could be myths, designed as all stories are to nurture, teach, inspire the youth and the hearts of your community.  “Separate but equal lies” as a satirist once put it.


You can’t win races by trying to be “equal.” You win them by believing you are the best, the fastest, the strongest.  Reality might prove you wrong, but that believe is what gets most of us through the Dark Night of the Soul. There will ALWAYS be negative voices saying “you are inadequate.”  A balancing voice saying “you are equal” still leaves you in the red…maybe only half as deep, but still dripping blood.


The balance to that “you are -10” is a voice saying “you are +10”  you’re the best, the most beautiful, the strongest, the sexiest.  Everyone wants and admires you.


ONLY when you have the “-10” voices quieted is it safe to give up the “+10” voices.  And frankly…most of us never get that quiet.


Now…what the hell to YOU think happens if someone with the very natural “X tribe is the best!” controls the images for Y tribe?   Does it take a lot of thought to figure that out?  Really?


The other tribe will be presented as weaker, more evil, less intelligent, more servile.  Less sexy. “Y” women will be presented as desiring X men.  X men will be presented as subhuman, alien.  Criminal and without positive agency.


You can see this anywhere you have X’s in power over Y’s.  One hears complaints about this regarding race, religion, political affiliation, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, military service, class, wealth…it doesn’t matter.  THIS IS WHAT HUMAN BEINGS DO.


The easiest thing in the world is to believe your own bullshit.  “Why, a group of X’s did a series of tests, and yes, we X’s are superior!!”  Wow.  I can only shake my head that people don’t ask the next question.


The difficulty Xs have in believing Xs could be just as evil as anyone else explains most of the “sleeping” denial to me. The rest are snakes and monsters who actually approve of the damage, and are lying to maintain an advantage.


We need everyone of EVERY letter of the alphabet to tell their stories, proclaim their beauty on the open marketplace of ideas.   Then we can see the similarity, and those who are merely asleep will be able to awaken, because it actually profits us to have an accurate map of reality.  Only the snakes and monsters need fear the truth of human equality.


“Black Panther” succeeded not just because it was a terrific entertainment, but because damned near every minute of screen time showed us something we’d never seen before, and in the aggregate, it was simply the most powerful denouncement of four centuries of lies that had ever been on the screen. And the fact that it has been as monumentally successful as it has suggests to me that the world is hungry for truth…


Or at the very least, those “separate but equal lies.”  Your fantasies and fears, your loves and terrors, your hopes and nightmares are as valid as anyone else’s who have ever lived.  I believe in the basic unity of humanity, and have no fear of what happens if we all speak what is in our hearts.


Do you have a dream to share?



Steven Barnes

Holocaust Denial

The subject of “Holocaust Denial” and “Gaslighting” came up over the last few days, and I think there is a strong connection: attempting to convince people that something didn’t happen. That they cannot trust their own perceptions. A version of Goebbels’ “Big Lie.”

Sounds reasonable to me.

All right…let me ask the next question. WHY? What is the PURPOSE of such denial? What end does it achieve? I’m starting with the assumption that the phenomenon is very real–no “Deniers” are welcome in this discussion. For the rest of us: what precisely is the PAIN the denial is avoiding, or the PLEASURE it promises? Every human behavior can be boiled down to these two primary motivations.    Let’s roll up our sleeves and dig in.

This is important to a number of other discussions we’ve been having.

Motivation, and the “Baywatch” revenge story

With any activity you need to perform daily, over thousands of days to reach your goal, you need FAR more reasons to do it than you have reasons “not to” do it.


The Hero’s Journey suggests that every single cycle of change will throw you into the Dark Night of the Soul. That means that if you don’t have a long term plan, killer motivations, support structure, measurable short-term goals, stress and fear coping mechanisms and so forth, you will be tossed out of your program. And will probably blame the program, rather than your lack of tactical support for your plan.


With writing here are some of the negatives you will run into:

  1. Fear and doubt
  2. Fatique and frustration
  3. Distractions
  4. “Writer’s Block” (fear and procrastination)
  5. Fear of criticism (loss of tribe)
  6. Fear of hope.   (If I admit I want this, my “old” life will seem lacking)
  7. Not having a clear plan of action, short term actions that lead to long term goals.
  8. Lack of a compelling future.


I knew that if I was going to have a chance to succeed, I’d have to overcome massive obstacles, keep going when I wanted to quit, deal with fear and pain and rejection and betrayal…and keep going day after day, year after year.



And here are the specific motivations that I’ve used, from childhood to adulthood:

  1. It’s fun!
  2. It gets attention from my friends.
  3. It makes my friends happy.
  4. It pleases my teachers
  5. I get to create stories with people who look like me
  6. I can make money.
  7. Hey!  I can get laid!
  8. WTF…I can get laid A LOT!
  9. I can affect people’s lives for the better.
  10. I can make a LOT of money
  11. I can take care of my family
  12. I can get my ideas out into the world, and those ideas seem…unusual.
  13. I can communicate with brilliant people, and by writing things they respect, earn my way into their circles of trust and influence.   They become intellectual allies.
  14. I am expressing who and what I am, and exploring my sense of what the world is.
  15. I am creating and nurturing a network of friends and students around the world
  16. It’s fun!




I guess I’m saying all of that to say that sometimes you have enough pain associated with a long term goal that you need to take special action…


I really only wanted to quit writing once.   It was in connection to my work on BAYWATCH.   My first script thrilled them: “best first draft we’ve ever seen!”


But my second or third script was a satirical take on the show, where a television producer wants to do a show about lifeguards, and the beach crew is offended because all the women are bimbos, and the men are brainless steroid junkies.   I NEVER thought they’d go for THAT one…but they did. Thought it was hysterical.  Wanted Weird Al to play the producer.


Anyway, I wrote it the best I could, but I’m not a comedy guy.  One of the two producers on the show punched my script up, which was cool.  He knew Baywatch much better than I did, that was for sure.   But then I got a fateful call.  The Writer’s Guild.   The Producer wanted half the credit on the script.


My stomach sank.  Why did this multi-millionaire want half of my little residuals? Why?  And worse, I knew that if they arbitrated, and he lost, he’s find a way to take petty vengeance.


I begged the Guild to just let Producer have the credit, but they wouldn’t.  They arbitrated, he lost. Unfortunately, he was a neighbor to the head of my agency, and went to him and told him: “Steve isn’t a very good writer. We just gave him the script out of sympathy.”


Jonathan Westover, my personal agent, told me this story, and I was fucking crushed.  I thought these guys were my friends.  Foolish, yes…but I really did.


I kinda spiraled down after that. Didn’t know who to trust, or what to do. My wife Toni saw the pain I was in, and it disgusted her with the industry. After the L.A. Quake she’d had enough and decided to leave California…and pretty much challenged me to come with her to Washington State.  There were a complex of motivations, but one was simply that she was trying to save me.


I had to choose between my career, and my family.    No choice. Nicki trumps EVERYTHING.  Our house in Canyon Country was upside-down due to earthquake damage. I gave it back to the bank, trashing my credit in the process.  Packed the house into a trailer.  Toni and Nicki went up to Washington ahead of me to find a place to live.   I was about to turn off the utilities and drive away when…the phone rang.


Baywatch wanted to talk to me.   WTF?  I called their offices, cautiously.  What, did they need me to test their new anal probe, or what..?


“Stevie baby.” Producer said.  Yeah, that’s my memory.   You see, they were a script short for the season, and they needed one fast, and good, and of COURSE they thought of me.  Why, of course…


So we met in Beverly Hills, all smiling and friendly, and mapped out an episode on the back of a napkin. Something about an ecological terrorist who hijacks a sailboat in an attempt to destroy an oil platform.   As a special treat, they let me do a “B” story giving Garner, the black lifeguard, his first girlfriend.


Handshakes all around.  This’ll be great!


Yeah, fuckers. It’s going to be great.


I drove up PCH fuming.  I don’t think I’d ever been quite that angry in my life.  I couldn’t let them get away with this, but what was I going to do?   Well, I realized I didn’t ever want to work with them again, that was certain.   So what could I do..?


Heh heh.  An idea came to me….and all up the coast, every night I stopped at a motel and wrote until midnight, laughing like a loon.




Turned in the script, and they loved it. Heck, I even got to choreograph part of the fight scene on the sail boat, working with the Olympic Gold Medalist in Tae Kwon Do.  (She’s never seen a Puter Kapala head throw from Silat, and was shocked, shocked I tell you…)


But as for the love story?  Well, keep in mind that Baywatch was a VERY family friendly show. For all the bare skin, they were VERY careful to dial back the sexual content and innuendo.   The day they filmed the core of the love story, Gregory Allan Williams, the actor who played Garner (who had annoyed me as the only member of the cast who wasn’t ripped, and also had been neutered until this point) came up to me all excited with the script.


The girl who played the love interest had been one of the Pepsi “Uh huh” girls in the Ray Charles commercial. She seemed to like the script as well. When she met me, she danced across the studio and literally jumped up into my arms, locked her arms around my neck, kissed me and smiled.  Reminds me of the joke about the Polish actress…but I digress.


Anyway, Greg asked me, in disbelief: “how in the hell did you get this line in the script?”


What line, you ask, gentle reader?  Well…


The set up is that Garner, the beach cop, is chasing a bicycle thief and falls into the water.  He doesn’t swim (!) and must be hauled out of the surf by a gorgeous black lifeguard, “Grace” (not her real name.  I honestly don’t remember what it was) we’d never met before, who resuscitates him.


Later, he approaches her gratefully, and the following dialogue takes place.


Garner: I just wanted to thank you…

Grace (flirtatious): You’re not going to use that old line about how since I rescued you , you belong to me, are you?

Garner: No, I’m going to use a brand new line.  I know a bar where the steaks sizzle so fine that cows line up to jump on the grill.

Grace (laughing): Scout’s honor?

Garner: I never was a Scout…but I AM prepared.

Grace: Well…I don’t ordinarily eat meat (pause) but I might make an exception tonight.




And you can believe that the actors put every drop of insinuation into that line it required.   How did I get that line into an 80’s family show?


“It was easy,” I laughed.  “The first draft of the script said ‘I don’t ordinarily eat RED meat.’  I knew that once they approved it, if I dropped `red’ out of the next draft their minds would fill it in.  They wouldn’t realize the implication had changed.”


And…they didn’t. Right through rehearsals, filming, and editing.   In fact, they never realized what I’d done until they broadcast it.  At its peak, Baywatch was seen by a BILLION people worldwide.  And a substantial percentage of those folks sent letters complaining.


Oh, revenge was very, very sweet.   All that pain of betrayal was cancelled out.  Couldn’t let it stop me.


I have miles to go before I sleep.



Write with Passion!

Steven Barnes



If I Were King of the World…

One day, I might get the chance to make one change in the way kids are taught.  One opportunity. This is connect to the “what would you do if you had 100 million dollars.”

Let’s say I was creating such a program for a novel. I don’t have to worry about the politics, only the question of whether it works.

Well, I think with about ten million dollars you could change the culture, by creating a basic program for inner-city kids.  Others would be welcome to use it, but they would be the focus.  Frankly…I might focus on inner city GIRLS, specifically.   That might be an even more precise focus, so long as they didn’t start hallucinating that they were better than boys, which is a problem: everybody wants to rule the world.


IF I did that, my focus would be:

  1. On inner-city, disproportionately POC kids, and their allies.
  2. On girls, and their allies.

Is there anybody NOT in one of those two groups I’m prepared to cry over?  Nope.


So if I was to create  a program to change the country, I’d teach something generative.  It would have to have influence in all major aspects of life.  Do a simple practice, get a larger result.


It would need to have the BENEFITS of meditation without being called meditation.  “Intermittent Fasting” wouldn’t be a part of this program: I have no information about its effects on children, and wouldn’t want to promote the notion.  But the “Goal Setting” portion would include physical, which includes diet.  There would need to be generative aspects for study, finances, relationships, diet, and more.     All encoded in the “Morning Ritual”.


The program would be designed to:

  1. Need little/no equipment
  2. Be teachable without highly trained personelle. Cut and paste. Plug and play
  3. Cover all basic physical fitness
  4. Be scalable at both ends (high and low fitness)
  5. Teach basic meditation techniques without calling it “meditation”
  6. Stress relief
  7. Focus
  8. Have rapid academic and sports benefits, to increase motivation
  9. Be easily trackable and measurable in effects
  10. Be fun
  11. Easy to learn
  12. Teachable via website
  13. A dash of yin-yang balance somehow, so that the girls would see gender in a broader non-competitive context.
  14. Be flexible.  People WILL need to change things. So…a primary central core, but adaptations suggested.
  15. Be strong. People will TRY to change things they are not comfortable with, things that would actually cause positive change but frighten their egos.  So I would have to resist the constant attempts to change and weaken the program.
  16. All the elements would be easy to research.  There would need to be easily available resources for further study, and those who did such study would be richly rewarded.
  17. Ultimate, it would have to pull them into the core questions: “who am I?” and “what is true?”
  18. To summerize: short, powerful, effective, easy to learn, easy to modify to make easier OR harder.
  19. Gamification.  Can be practiced either competitively or non-competitively.
  20. What other basic aspects can you sugggest?

Current program:

  1. Five Tibetans
  2. Joint Mobility
  3. Morning Ritual

What BASIC needs do you think I should consider?