Ladies and Gentlemen Let me introduce you to Christopher Beats. A good friend of mine. I didn't know he wrote until a few years ago. I knew him as one of the guys my husband played GURPS with (long story).
You know what I'll let you read his bio instead:
Christopher Beats is a starry-eyed idealist currently wandering the canals and boulevards of South Florida. He used to teach history at various levels and institutions but now focuses on writing beautiful lies.
We are all prisoners of our time. When I was teaching history, I liked to use the word zeitgeist to describe this. Halfway through American History Part II (1866-Present), though, one of my students finally did it. He asked me what zeitgeist meant.
Up until that moment I thought everyone knew about zeitgeist. Everyone working on a college degree anyway. I made that mistake a lot--assuming people knew something they didn't. Unfortunately, the average student just didn't have the guts to correct me. The optimistic part of me likes to think that they scribbled it down and looked it up later on Wikipedia.
The negative part of me--some might call it the realistic part--knows better. A lot of people just plain don't care. A fellow instructor of mine, while discussing the Astor family in the late 1700s, mentioned that there was an Astor on the Titanic when it went down. In what can only be described as a Reader's Digest moment, a student asked “You mean John Jacob Astor lived until 1900?” To which the instructor replied sarcastically “Oh yeah, this guy lived over a hundred and fifty years.” Minutes passed and no one challenged her. Finally, she had to tell them it was a joke.
I had another fun incident in American History I (1492-1865; don't ask about before 1492, because evidently nothing existed). It was a night class in my first semester. I had this bad habit of throwing together my powerpoints the same day I did my lecture, often with disastrous results.
In this case, my powerpoint said we had twelve Supreme Court Justices and that US senators served four years. Hopefully, ninety percent of you are calling me an idiot right now. The other ten percent--I hope--are from other countries and have understandably filled their minds with useful information about their own political systems.
So for those ten percent from overseas: welcome to America, thanks for reading my post, and for your information we have nine justices and our senators serve for six years.
No one in the class challenged me or my powerpoint. I had fifty-five warm bodies in front of me with presumably warm brains and not a single one of them challenged me. These were college students. Didn't their high schools have civics classes? Did none of them know? Or was it that the ones who did know were afraid to challenge a professor? Even one so obviously young and inexperienced?
Whatever the cause, I have noticed that the world is full of people who don't challenge. It's easier to sit there quietly even if you know the right information. When I hear people talk about what is wrong in our country, this story always comes to mind.
Which brings me back to zeitgeist. I usually translate it as 'the spirit of the times,' meaning the attitude or feeling of an era. When that student in American History II finally asked what zeitgeist meant, another student explained it for me. She said it translates from German literally as 'time-ghost,' which is infinitely cooler than how I explained it.
Understanding the time-ghost is important to understanding a given period of time and its stories. The zeitgeist of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft was decidedly racist and, in a way, possessing of a certain brutal beauty.
Today the zeitgeist may be less racist but it's still quite cynical. It's also bitter. Blame whoever you want, but it's undeniable. I went to a wedding last year, stood and talked with four or five other men my age and not one of us had a job. We weren't lazy people (okay--maybe I am. But the rest weren't). We were educated. We even came from different fields: there was an engineer, a couple teachers, a woodworker, and others. Yet all of us were without jobs.
It's hard to overstate the importance of that moment when you're talking about my novella, Cruel Numbers. It's Steampunk in a divergent timeline, but the America in Cruel Numbers has a lot in common with our America. I don't mean for my story to be preachy, but that time-ghost rides me like it rides all of us, so that's inescapable.
In addition to being Steampunk, Cruel Numbers is noir. Noir likes to come in and out of fashion, like tall shoes or swing dancing. There's a reason it's caught on again now. The protagonist of Cruel Numbers, Donovan Schist, is a person who's put in a bad position. He quits his job because his employers use him to hurt people. Sometimes the people he hurts have it coming, other times they don't.
I've never broken anybody's kneecaps, but I faced my own ethical dilemma recently. It was made all the sharper by this sour economy. As with many people with an MA, I bounced around teaching at various levels and institutions, subbing here, adjuncting there. Most of my employers were the height of professionalism and always put academics first. Unfortunately, one employer (who I will not name) did not. I learned the hard way that there are institutions out there that put profit and student satisfaction above academic rigor and honesty. My first semester there, the institution put me in a position where I had to choose between towing the party line or following my professional ethics.
In the end, my sense of fairness won out. What they asked me to do just wasn't fair. So I squirmed out the door with my head down and dodged the next contract they offered. It helped, of course, that they were paying a miserable salary even for an adjunct. If they'd offered more money, desperate as I was to work, I'm not sure what would have happened. Maybe I would've swallowed my scruples and done what they asked.
This kind of situation happens with too much frequency. I'm not going to blame someone who tows the line to keep the boss happy. These are hard times and paychecks don't come easy.
But for those people who stand up--even when it screws them--Cruel Numbers is about you. There's nothing more noir than doing the right thing and being punished for it. Don't believe me? Watch Casablanca. It's a hard thing, standing up when everyone else is quiet. It's even harder when you're facing not just embarrassment, but the loss of income and prestige as well. Despite this, something drives people to do the right thing. This spirit--the desire to stand up and do the right thing even when it's hard--that should be our time-ghost.
Thank you to Christopher for stopping by. He can be found over at his blog The Quantum Rumba .