Poetry, Theater, Dungeons & Dragons


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I’ve written before about my childhood love of Dungeons & Dragons. When I was 11 years old, D&D transformed me from a kid who loved The Hobbit and the D’Aulaires’ books of Greek and Norse myths into someone who wanted to make his own mythic stories. D&D (and related role playing games like Call of Cthulhu and Paranoia and Traveller: 2300) were one of the few ways I interacted with other human beings during a challenging early adolescence: my friends and I would gather in my dad’s basement to roll dice and shout about spells and orcs for entire weekends, for long, oppressively hot summers.

I still feel a twinge of embarrassment when I tell people that I play D&D every Sunday evening. Anytime I mention my adult D&D habit to a casual acquaintance, I fight the urge to explain that it’s not what you think. Thanks to the Internet’s capacity to link the shy and geeky with one another, we celebrate nerd culture today in a way that I could never have imagined when I was 13; however, Dungeons & Dragons has remained a cultural signifier of beyond the pale nerdity. We’re all nerds for something, for Star Wars or Game of Thrones or Fallout, but the ones who play D&D, they’re, well, nerd nerds.

Popular culture has never been very kind to D&D players, holding us up for a special kind of ridicule:

Image result for art thou feeling it now

One might argue that the treatment of D&D in shows like Stranger Things is more sympathetic and sweetly nostalgic, and I suppose that’s correct as far as it goes. But even here the Duffer Brothers built their series opener around D&D as a canny quotation of the D&D scene in the movie E.T.–and in both E.T. and Stranger Things the D&D scenes serve to establish the main characters as misfits and somewhat ridiculous young nerds:

The party back together again [Netflix]

Stranger Things [Netflix]

(Viewers who rolled a successful spot check also noticed that the Stranger Things lads were playing an adventure in which the characters were facing the awful demon prince Demogorgon, a name-check which also dredges up the old 1980s terror of D&D as a plot to involve children in devil worship. D&D thankfully survived that literal witch hunt.)

Why do I continue to play a game that people typically regard as an obsession for socially awkward tweens? The short answer is that it’s great fun, and I suppose I need no more elaborate an answer than that. But as I reflect on why I still have fun playing D&D, it occurs to me that tabletop role playing games mean something more than nerdly entertainment. Role playing games represent a distinct art form, a mix of fiction and theater and puzzle that is hard to appreciate as a spectator.  But when it’s played well–and I acknowledge that D&D is often not played very well–the game can be transformational for participants.

D&D is a kind of collaborative storytelling in which each of the participants plays the role of one of the characters. Players choose to a large extent the characters they want to inhabit–their backgrounds, their motivations, their strengths and weaknesses. The Dungeon Master acts as a kind of stage director and omniscient narrator, describing for the characters what they can see and hear, acting out the reactions of the characters’ enemies and friends and environment.

It’s a historical accident that these stories generally take place in a Tolkien-esque (some would say highly derivative) fantasy world of elves and dwarves and dragons. Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, tried adding a Tolkien-influenced “fantasy supplement” to his tabletop medieval warfare game Chainmail, largely in an attempt to boost his game’s popularity. The first role playing game could just as easily have developed from a science fiction concept, or from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, or from film noir. It just so happened that Gygax was obsessed with medieval warfare and that his players were Lord of the Rings addicts (ironically, Gygax hated Lord of the Rings–he considered it bloated and lacking in action).

The key to Dungeons & Dragons is not the dungeons or the dragons. It’s the idea of a person creating a story whose outcome can only be determined by the others at the table, those people who in ordinary storytelling would be the listeners or the readers. If the Dungeon Master is a good storyteller, and if the players are decent actors–or at least willing to play along with a bit of enthusiasm, the experience is, well, magic.

I Marched for Science


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March for Science2

Photo credit–Carlyn Eames

I’m not a professional scientist. I do have enough training to work as a lab tech if there’s ever some neo-Maoist Cultural Counter-Revolution where we’re all rounded up and forced to work in research facilities–it goes without saying that that won’t be happening during this administration. I’d be reluctant to call myself a scientist because I have published no peer reviewed papers, and my field work is competent at best (and often in graduate school I wasn’t at my best).  Having said that, I have actually worn a lab coat and safety goggles as a part of my job–for a week here and there, anyway–and I  have all the love for the scientific enterprise that an enthusiastic amateur science fiction author can have.

Across the republic, the streets were filled with people like me last Saturday at the March for Science. Well, based on the signs people were carrying, I’m sure that a lot of the marchers were bona fide scientists–at least bona fide lab techs and grad students. And, while there has been a healthy debate within the sciences about whether this kind of public advocacy is helpful or harmful to the cause of science, put me down as one who believes it’s valuable for scientists and science-lovers to stand up and be counted.

MArch for Science1

I appreciate a properly footnoted sign. Photo credit–the lovely Carlyn Eames

There has been push-back from some scientists–this article at Slate is a typical example–that the march was an orgy of uninformed and misinformed pro-science good-feelery from non-scientists. That is, according to Dr. Jeremy Samuel Faust, the folks marching mostly don’t understand science enough. If marchers did understand the state of science, with its almost guild-like patronage system, its rampant data mining and cherry picking, its Potemkin peer review, they wouldn’t be so eager to draw up witty signs and march in its defense.

Faust does have a point: I suspect few of the people on the march this weekend understand what statistical significance really refers to, and even fewer would be ready to talk about the many misuses of p<.05 that researchers engage in because they’re trying to score a publication (or, more likely, because most scientists are not statisticians and often use statistical tools in ways they were not intended).

And yes, that’s a problem. But that’s not what the march is about. One can support the scientific enterprise, be willing to march in the rain for it, without knowing everything about science. None of the marchers, even the scientists, have a full understanding of all of the sciences humans engage in. The geologists on the march don’t know any more than I do about high energy physics, and the high energy physicists know less about environmental biology than I do.

Many of the scientists out there, even the duffers like me, know that there are deep problems with the sociology of science, with the misuse of methods and publication and statistical analysis. But something the marchers all had in common, scientists and non-scientists alike, was a support for the idea underlying science: that the scientific method can be used to describe our environment and make useful predictions. Faust is right that the scientific method is a roundly abused idea even within the sciences, to say nothing of non-scientists. But one can love and support a good idea without understanding it fully.  Whether any individual marcher can be picked out of the crowd and made to follow the scientific method to Dr. Faust’s satisfaction is beside the point.

The scientific enterprise is flawed, just as representative democracy is flawed. I marched because I believe in the idea of science (and, for that matter, representative democracy). The way to reform the institution of science is the same as the way to reform the republic: it will be saved by people who care for and love those institutions. Science and civil society won’t be reformed if we roll over when the administration attempts to hobble the EPA or reverse even modest US actions to counter climate change.

“Proteus” Is In Print!


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My latest story, “Proteus,” is out in the May/June issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact! On the spectrum of my work, “Proteus” is closer to the hard sci-fi  pole–hence its appearance in Analog, widely regarded as one of the preeminent publishers of the hard stuff.

“Proteus” is the second of my stories set in the John Demetrius cycle, set (so far as I can imagine) about 100-200 years in humanity’s future. The whole cycle takes up questions of our coming experiment with transhumanism, as well as a kind of meditation on the nature of utopia and dystopia–I’ve tried to create a world like our own, in which utopia and dystopia coexist in different parts of the world and for different people at the same time. “Proteus” was also an immensely fun story to write–it involved a good deal of research into the terraforming of Venus and the nature of any possible human colony on Venus.

Analog on MAX

Photo credit Carlyn Eames

To get a promotional shot for the blog, my wife obligingly took a couple of pictures on our way to The March for Science this morning. I’m dressed as the most terrifying greenhouse gas on the planet, old silent-but-deadly methane. And given the name of my blog, I thought it best for her to take the photo on the MAX train, Portland’s closest analog to a true subway.


Analog on MAX2

It’s hard out here for a simple hydrocarbon. Photo credit Carlyn Eames

Analog can be purchased wherever fine science fiction magazines are sold, including at the 800-pound Amazonian gorilla.


Retiring Mr. Methane


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It is with mixed emotions that I retire my current profile photo for this blog: good old Mr. Methane:


This is one of my favorite pictures of myself, taken by my wife on Halloween 2015. I thought I did a decent job making myself into a ball-and-stick model of the most frightening greenhouse gas on the planet. And the picture captures what I’ve always considered the essential ridiculousness of my writing enterprise.

But, I suppose if I want people to take my writing seriously, I might get more of the right kinds of attention if my profile pic doesn’t show a man in a black body suit and Styrofoam deedle balls.

And, I’ve been lucky to work with a truly talented photographer, Pat Rose, who took the most flattering photos of me I’ve ever encountered. The one I call “Smiley Joe” will go on the back cover of Stranger Bird when it comes out:

Joe Stranger Bird cover photo

And for the blog itself, I’ll be using another of Pat’s fabulous shots, the one I don’t have a name for yet:

Joe web profile photo

I’m open to any names you want to suggest. “Oddly intense sci-fi man?” “Half-light Raconteur?” Really, he needs a name.

And old Mr. Methane? My wife had the genius idea that I should pull the old costume out for the March for Science. If I can wear a black bodysuit and stand up for civil society? What more could I want out of the weekend?

Seeking Beta Readers!


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beta--gillie rhodes

Photo credit: Gillie Rhodes

If you’ve spent much time at TheSubwayTest, you know that I have a novel coming out this year. And as I’ve learned recently in my mystical journey into novel publishing, finding readers for your first novel is an adventure in self-promotion. With that in mind, I’d love to find some beta readers for the book here in the forest of fantasy & science fiction blogolalia.

If you like fantasy, if you like young adult lit, or if you just like me, I’d love to send you a pre-publication draft of the manuscript. Young adult and tween readers are especially welcome, though I would like to find a few adult adult readers (i.e. old adults) as well. What’s Stranger Bird about? Well, without giving away too much, it’s the story of a young misfit who is summoned to the service of a great and distant emperor. On his journey, the boy is awakened to his own gift, the talent for understanding the speech of animals, and he comes into contact with many who would use his abilities for their own ends. Yet after arduous travel, the boy arrives at the capital and the emperor’s palace, only to find that the land is held together by a dark secret. How the boy navigates this secret marks his passage from the powerlessness of childhood to adult realization, to the knowledge that, of all creatures, only people can choose what they become. As I say elsewhere on this blog, “The book is an homage to the fantasy authors of [my] youth—Ursula Le Guin, Richard Adams, Lloyd Alexander—and a nostalgic look back at the dark and mythical tales of an earlier generation.”

What’s in it for you, you may well ask? Precious little, but maybe something of value to some of you: your name in the Acknowledgments section of the book, an opportunity to influence the development of this story, a chance to see Stranger Bird before anyone else does.

If you’re interested, you can give me your name and email address by clicking on this link. I will send a draft copy of Stranger Bird to up to 20 people that volunteer. The file is an MS-Word file–feel free to append comments or turn on “Track Changes” to make your suggestions.

Some of you know that I’m a community college English teacher and an old school grammarian–don’t let that scare you away from telling me about things in the book that aren’t working for you grammatically, syntactically, punctuationally, characterologically, or otherwisely. It’s impossible (for me, anyway) to write an 85,000 word story without making some mistakes. My editor, the estimable Ann Eames, has already found a lot of them. But she and I both know there are more.

A Pitkiny Story Is Icumen In!


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After a bit of a dry spell, I’m happy to announce a new Pitkin publication: my story “Nonesuch” has been accepted for an upcoming issue of Black Static, the great English horror and dark fantasy magazine.

I’m especially excited to have this story find such an excellent home. “Nonesuch” was a huge leap for me as a writer, my first attempt at dark fantasy, and definitely one of the best stories I’ve ever written. Watch for “Nonesuch” in Black Static (as well as my new John Demetrius story “Proteus” in Analog) in the coming months!

A Club That Will Have Me As a Member


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I’ve put on a good act that I don’t care much about external validation for my work. That’s really more of an aspirational sentiment than anything else. Like Groucho Marx, I can say pretty breezily that I wouldn’t belong to any club that will have me as a member–however, if you invite me into your club, I’ll turn pretty moony-eyed.

Last year I was accepted into the Science Fiction Writers of America, which cost me $100 and came with this snazzy membership card:WIN_20170326_15_16_34_Pro

Since I joined, I haven’t given the membership much thought or availed myself of the SFWA’s surely awesome services. But this month, SFWA sent me the ballot for the Nebula Awards:


  • All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
  • Borderline, Mishell Baker (Saga)
  • The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • Ninefox Gambit,Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
  • Everfair, Nisi Shawl (Tor)


  • Runtime, S.B. Divya (Tor.com Publishing)
  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson (Tor.com Publishing)
  • The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle (Tor.com Publishing)
  • Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
  • “The Liar”, John P. Murphy (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
  • A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com Publishing)


  • “The Long Fall Up”, William Ledbetter (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
  • “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea”, Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed)
  • “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories”, Jason Sanford (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
  • “The Orangery”, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
  • The Jewel and Her Lapidary, Fran Wilde (Tor.com Publishing)
  • “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, Alyssa Wong (Uncanny)

Short Story

  • “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, Brooke Bolander (Uncanny)
  • “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood)
  • “Sabbath Wine”, Barbara Krasnoff (Clockwork Phoenix 5)
  • “Things With Beards”, Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld)
  • “This Is Not a Wardrobe Door”, A. Merc Rustad (Fireside Magazine)
  • “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, Alyssa Wong (Tor.com)
  • “Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station│Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed)

Looking at the roster of writers, I realized that I’m the last person who should vote on these awards: while I’m familiar with some of the writers, I haven’t read any of the works on this ballot. One could argue that I’m not much of a science fiction writer if I don’t actually read works of contemporary science fiction. (I do read sci fi and fantasy–at least some–but practically all fiction that I read in any genre is older stuff. In 2016 I didn’t read a single book that was published that year.)

I do know the work of some of these writers–in particular I’m a big fan of Kij Johnson. Without reading all of these folks, though, I probably won’t be voting. I may have time to get through the whole short story category, but I doubt I’ll get far beyond that by March 31.

However, I do want to proclaim these names to you. Have you read any of these pieces? What’s not on the list that should be? Who of these writers would you recommend?

Remake the Electoral College, Part II


It’s exciting  to see people’s increasing enthusiasm about replacing America’s 18th-century sop to the slave states, the Electoral College. Oregon is currently considering a bill–HB2927–that would join the state to The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. New Mexico and Connecticut are considering similar measures. Oregon friends, now is the time to contact your state representative in support of the bill!

To explain the beauty of The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, below is the repost of my original message on the subject, written last November before the Time of Troubles had actually begun:

Friends all over the place are talking about how and where to support civic engagement with their time and money. The ACLU tops the list for many of my friends–as well as for a whole lot a friends I didn’t know I had.  There’s good reason today to support The Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, The Sierra Club, The Council on American-Islamic Relations–all places to devote your efforts if you are interested in preserving civil society during the Time of Troubles. I’ll be giving loved ones memberships to these for Christmas.

And there’s at least one more that deserves your support, even though the issue it covers–electoral reform–may seem like small potatoes compared to the threats we are facing. FairVote.org has been doing the quiet, patient work of improving the way elections work in the United States since 1992. And, among the many forward-thinking reforms that they have advocated, one of the most timely is the reform of the Electoral College.

Democrats have ample incentive to support Electoral College reform: Democrats have won the most votes in four of the last five presidential elections, yet we’ve had a Democratic president for only two of those electoral cycles. One can be forgiven for believing that, along with persistent gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics, the Republicans have used the Electoral College to hold on to power despite being a minority party in the United States.

Yet, the Republicans have just as many reasons to support the reform of the Electoral College. Yes, over two recent cycles (2000 and 2016) the Electoral College has favored the Republicans, but there’s no structural reason that this should be so. Indeed, some of you remember the scenario (and personal fantasy of mine) that in 2004 John Kerry would win the Electoral College in spite of losing the national popular vote. If I remember correctly, he came within 70,000 votes of winning Ohio (and hence the election) that way.

I had hoped in part that the election would swing that way in 2004 because I believed (and still believe) that if the Republicans had suffered the same kind of defeat that the Democrats had in 2000, there would be a bipartisan consensus to do away with the Electoral College.

But for better and worse (mostly for better), it will be extremely difficult to do away with the Electoral College entirely. Doing so would require an amendment to the Constitution, and that’s a pretty high bar to clear: the last amendment to the Constitution(the 27th) occurred nearly 25 years ago, 202 years after if had been proposed in 1789.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some way to reform the Electoral College without having to amend the Constitution? It turns out that there is such a way. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has just the kind of wonky name that puts people to sleep. However, it’s one of the most fundamental advances we could make to our presidential election system today. And we can make it law without having to amend the Constitution.

Here’s how it works. The Constitution is helpfully vague about how states choose who their electors will be:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress…

In other words, individual state legislatures have wide latitude to decide how electors are appointed. And, if a state legislature decides that electors should be appointed on the basis of whoever wins the national popular vote, there’s nothing in the Constitution to forbid it.

Yet, what would be the incentive for a state to give up its influence over the electoral process by choosing its electors that way? That’s a good question, and certainly swing states like Ohio and Florida have little incentive (beyond an interest in democracy) to do so. Those states receive millions of dollars in ad revenue from the presidential campaigns every four years–they have a much greater stake in the status quo. However, the so-called “safe states” like California, New York, and Oklahoma–states which are reliably red or blue in every election–have less influence over presidential elections today than they would have if they simply banded together and agreed to choose electors on the basis of the national popular vote.

And that’s what the compact aims to do. As soon as enough states agree to appoint their electors that way–that is, as soon as states representing 270 electoral votes agree to it–the compact would go into force.

I’ll write more later about the benefits of such a plan, as well as about its constitutionality. But for now, check out the map of states which have already voted to implement the compact. Check out the states where the compact has almost passed–that is, where the compact has a reasonable chance of passing in the future. Check out how many times it took some of the states to pass the compact into law.

One of the beauties of this kind of work is that it is a concrete step for the public good that can be accomplished in state houses, where individual voters can bring more pressure to bear. Friends in Oregon, friends in Colorado, friends in Oklahoma and Tennessee: find out what your state legislator is doing to support this compact–which is to say, find out what your legislator is doing to support democracy in the United States. FairVote.org can help hook you up with this project.

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free…of the Car


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I’ve seen the Ford Company’s Super Bowl commercial a few times now–Google has determined that I’m part of Ford’s target demographic when I choose a Philip Glass or Gerald Finzi piece to listen to on YouTube. There’s a shout-out here to electric cars, to new car-sharing economic models, to bike sharing, and to self-driving vehicles–all trends that Ford seems to be trying to get out in front of. And it all plays out over Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free,” one of the most beautiful and spiritual songs in American popular music. I have to say it’s a remarkable ad, even though Google doesn’t seem to know how much I dislike driving and how unlikely it is I’ll ever buy a new car as long as I live:

Or maybe that’s the point. Ford seems to be selling its brand here to people that don’t consider themselves drivers, or at least not typical drivers. It’s too early yet for me to say whether this particular piece of corporate propaganda is simple greenwashing–think British Petroleum’s laughable “Beyond Petroleum” campaign that aired in the months before the ecological crime they perpetrated with the Deepwater Horizon spill. Is it possible that Ford is really positioning itself as part of the solution to climate change, energy scarcity, air pollution, traffic gridlock–that is, all the problems that Ford hath wrought over the last 100 years?

It’s not impossible to imagine Ford remaking itself for a new transportational reality. Electric cars and self-driving cars are still cars, and Ford seems better-positioned to create them, if they want to, than many other companies trying to enter those markets. It’s a little harder for me to see how car-sharing and bike-sharing fit with the business model of Ford or any extant motor company: the whole idea behind vehicle sharing is that fewer people overall will buy cars. But I suppose there are smart people in Detroit trying to see how they could monetize car sharing in a way that beats out Uber and Lyft–perhaps the Ford of the future will be a massive car (and bike?) owner, a kind of Netflix of vehicles, renting out cars to drivers at a price that makes car ownership seem silly.

A corporation, whether Ford or BP, is an amoral kind of organism designed to do nothing more  than maximize value for shareholders, in the same way that an amoeba is designed to eat rotting organic material until it’s big enough to split, amorally, into two amoebas. I wouldn’t call Ford’s move in these new greener directions a sign of Ford’s goodness, any more than BP’s greenwashing was a sign of corporate evil. Both corporations are just trying to make money for shareholders, and Ford is better positioned to handle the changes coming its way than British Petroleum has been. Solar power and wind power are entirely different industries than petroleum extraction; BP is no better positioned to enter the solar power market than Nike or Coca-Cola are.

And to be sure, Ford hasn’t transformed itself–the ad seems more aspiration than reportage. The ad slips in a decent amount of legerdemain, as when this supposedly green, forward looking new company cuts to a shot of the GT tearing along the freeway with all the subtlety of Chester Lampwick’s rocket car from The Simpsons. But the ad has beguiled my attention in spite of, or perhaps because of, my distaste for the driving experience. If a car company can do that, it’s a pretty neat trick.

The Seeds of Trump’s Undoing


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I’ve been working on a couple of long blog posts that I have wanted to finish for a while. However, I back-burnered them all today as I digested the news of Michael Flynn’s resignation as Trump’s national security advisor. I was reminded of something I told my wife on the night of the election, and which I have repeated many times since: the seeds of Trump’s undoing are right in front of us.

I was not making a prophecy. I had simply been reading the news which was available to us since before the election, such as this groundbreaking piece by Mother Jones veteran David Corn. Many have suspected for months that Donald Trump was receiving aid from a hostile foreign power, a power determined to manipulate the outcome of the presidential election.

There are many Republicans in Congress who have circled their wagons around Trump because he is one of their team, because presumably they see some advantage to themselves in protecting the president. But even within the famously disciplined Republican Party there are increasing calls for investigations, not four weeks into Trump’s presidency, into “what did the president know, and when did he know it?”

The echoes of Watergate are obvious, but facile. Our current national nightmare is a great deal worse than Watergate: we are talking about an enemy state, ruled by an anti-democratic strongman, subverting our electoral process in order to bring a favored candidate to power. And Trump, Putin’s favored candidate, has been artlessly, bafflingly open about his desire to reward Putin for the help.

Today on CNN, Democratic congressman Seth Moulton called out the elephant in the room: the support of an enemy state’s agenda at the expense of the interests of your own country is, by definition, treason.

There is chaos and trouble ahead. In the same way that I wonder about my parents’ and grandparents’ stances in 1974, our kids and grandkids will ask about how we acted, and what we did, during the time we’re living through.