Update: Writing, Reading, etc.

Finally got back into the writing groove, and finished a story. No, seriously, I, decorated member of the Procrastination & Self-Defeat Hall of Fame, finished something. It’s a trifle, really, under 3,000 words, but it’s done. Will let it sit a couple days, make a single clean-up/formatting pass, and then send it off to an appropriate publisher. THEN, I’ll read it to the family.

Time to start my collection of rejection slips.

Next up are two more stories that are almost done as well. The first is a bit more ambitious, maybe 7-8,000 words worth. Got maybe another 1,000 to 1,500 words to go.

The first two stories were begun in the last few months. The third story has been rattling around for 20 years. I’ve actually written it twice already – the draft I’m now on is #3. So, instead of continuing to rethink and over-think it, I’ll follow Heinlein’s advice and just do it.

The second one will probably take a few days; the last I can probably finish in one sitting.

Next up: I’ve three other stories that are not so close to being finished, one of which has this elaborate tense moment/flashback/even more tense moment/flashback/really tense moment/flashback/climax structure that may frankly be out of my league to pull off. Plus, if I recall (been a while since I looked at it) it’s chock full of info-dumps. Not sure if I can work it, but, again, taking Heinlein’s advice, I should just finish it and send it out. Who knows?

The second is only maybe 1/2 done, and, If I recall, ran aground on technical issues – I couldn’t see why, exactly, events would unfold as I wanted them to, given the underlying tech. Bradbury would just write the hell out of that sucker, and it would be so good that you’d not even notice that it didn’t make much sense until long after you’d wiped the satisfied tears from your eyes. If it were pure stand-alone story, I’d just hold my nose and finish it. But it’s part of the TNTSNBN* Universe, and so I want to work it out so that it makes sense, rather than having to orphan it. Heinlein would say: Just Finish It! I should not be a schmuck and listen!

The third is an attempt at humor (actually, several of these stories are funny at least to me!) that projects a cowboy attitude into space – Mike Flynn, among others, has already done this (and Flynn’s efforts should make a fellah like me saddle up and get out of Dodge, if’n I had any horse sense.) But really, if you’re imagining what kind of culture would develop or be required in space, you’re kind of limited, at least in the early going, to maritime and frontier – those are basically the types of people you’ll attract, and the culture will likely reflect what we’ve seen on earth. Cowboys in space is not really far-fetched, but almost inevitable. It’s really just a matter of degree – do you want to play it for laughs, or make it less obvious and play it straight? (And those aren’t really mutually exclusive options.) The only other is sort of barbarian migration, but that conflicts with the high tech ideas – at least, ships and cowboys were on the cutting edges of the tech of their day (think: marine chronometers and six shooters).  Maybe this one gets skipped? Is that Heinlein I hear tsk-tsking?

After triaging those 3, think I’ll start some new ones. I’ve started a folder of story ideas, many just a phrase, some a sentence or two. I’ll pick one and write it next, eschewing the tendency to think too hard about it – just gotta do it. I’m afraid my mind runs toward thinking tech/nature/politics before thinking people (Asimov, anyone? If only I were that good!) such that my characters, to me, seem a little thin. I hoping I’m wrong. The solution is to just keep cracking and hope for useful feedback.

Then, once I’ve steeled myself with ample rejection notices and, one hopes, gotten an item or two published, I’ll plunge back into TNTSNBN.* I’ve got maybe a dozen or two pages of useful introductory materials/scene setting/character introduction written, plus many pages of notes and research, and stray drafts of key scenes, written so I could focus on where the story is going.  Family trees, backstories, charts and graphs figuring top speeds and acceleration and relativistic effects, doodles of what the ships look like, descriptions of the key tech, whole planetary systems mapped out and named, screen grabs and web pages – yea, gotta stop and write the darn thing.

Finally, probably after I retire (7 years, but who’s counting?) I’ll write a book or two on education history.

Reading? Well, the pile is not getting any shorter. Have 80 pages of an early Heinlein novel to finish. We’ll be starting The Everlasting Man for the Bay Area Chesterton Society reading groups starting in July, so I’ll be rereading that.

Aaaand, this weekend all our kids are in town! Woohoo! Older Daughter and Middle Son are driving up from SoCal; Younger Daughter and the Caboose are here already! The hammock I ordered has arrived, the weather is supposed to be near-perfect this weekend, and the lemon tree still hangs heavy with lemonade-in-potentia. The shield (item E) needs to be finished, the half-finished brick oven cries for attention, and there’s a dude about 20 miles away trying to get somebody to take 1,900 paver bricks off his hands – that are still in the ground. I could use them, except I might be dead by the time I dig ’em all up.

I’m real busy, but happy about it!

* The Novel That Shall Not Be Named

One Last Thought (no, really) on Guardians of the Galaxy II

Somebody check my meds – over the last few days, I have written about 2,000 words on GotG II, and would need another 1,000 to finish off where I was going. This, while I’ve only finally gotten back to the stories I was writing  after my week-long business trip.

And it’s not even a big deal – a relatively minor point raised a couple times by Malcolm the Cynic set off my hair-trigger ‘must EXPLAIN!’ reaction, and BOOM.  Sheesh.

So, going to try to cut it down and be done with it.  This is it – no more overthinking this popcorn flick for me. (BTW: I have about, I dunno, 15,000 words on the Matrix in a folder someplace. It has some philosophical implications, ya know? I have issues.)

Related image
Drax’s backstory is even more tragic than this! And this is a pretty tragic backstory. 

 

However expertly the filmmakers have worked this – and it’s good!  – I find myself after the fact wondering about it.  That’s not good.

The esteemable Malcolm the Cynic and I agree, as can be seen here, that upping the emotional stakes was the only way to go – you’ve already saved the galaxy once, if all you do is save it again, that’s unlikely to be very satisfying. BUT – if our heroes can resolve or at least make progress on their terrible family issues *while* saving the galaxy again, that’s something! That’s what the filmmakers did, and did very well, so well that I paid to see this movie twice.

Let’s reframe my only issue with this by means of a story I read who knows where years ago, told in order to give advice to writers:

A pulp editor was buying a series from a new promising writer, where an adventurer named Flanagan (something like that, work with me) got into and out of a series of tough spots, with each instalment ending with a cliffhanger which was resolved at the start of the next.

One week, the editor gets an episode that leaves off with Flanagan really stuck – he’s been left in the bottom of a deep pit, with razor-sharp spikes lining the walls, and has nothing with him except the clothes on his back. How will he ever escape?

The editor is eagerly waiting for the next installment, dying to see how, this time, Flanagan escapes. When it arrives, he quickly reads until he reaches the part where it is written: “With a mighty leap, Flanagan leapt out!” At which point, we can assume, the manuscript hit the wall.

So, is it wrong for a hero to leap out of a deep pit? The answer is ‘it depends’. If the hero is Spiderman, Superman or the Hulk, no – they leap (or fly) like crazy. The problem in the case of those heroes is that everybody knows they can leap out of a pit, so it’s really not a cliffhanger unless the writer adds other things to the scenario: the spikes are kryptonite, or Bruce Banner is feeling particularly melancholy for some reason, or Spiderman knows that Mary Jane gets it the second he gets out.

Being trapped in a pit is only a problem if something like the normal human rules apply. Batman or Indiana Jones are not leaping out of a deep pit – their escape would have to be set up in some other way.

In short, we have expectations, that the rules set up by the writers will be followed. Hulk can throw a tank, so having him throw a mountain is really not that much of a stretch; Superman can shove a planet, because he can pretty much do anything. But Batman can’t survive a 200′ drop onto pavement without changing the rules. He’s a rich man in a cool suit, not a superhuman.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make: what leaps out of emotional hell are we willing to accept? Is the leap plausible enough not to ruin our suspension of disbelief?  I say: in GotG II, in the moment, the leaps are believable, but upon reflection, at least some are not. Further, to believe them upon reflection, I contend that one must accept the modern lie that the abandonment, manipulation, torture and use as tools *of children* isn’t all that big a deal – you can leap out of it. Like a hero falling 20 stories, you just dust those kids off and send them back into the fight. No harm done.

This – the abandonment, manipulation, torture and use as tools of children – is the heart of the divorce and hookup cultures. This is the world – Hollywood, everywhere – in which this movie is viewed. Instead of victims of such treatment being horrible outliers, they are instead everywhere. They are the norm. To recognize how profoundly traumatic divorce and abandonment are makes the emotional leaps in the movie contrived and insufficiently convincing, as if Spiderman could suddenly turn invisible or Batman had laser vision.

How is it supposed to work? Here’s Ed, from City Slickers, describing his best day ever:

I’m 14 and my mother and father are fighting again. You know, because she caught
him again. Caught him! This time, the girl drove by the house to pick him up.
I finally realised he wasn’t just cheating on my mother. He was cheating on us.
So I told him. I said “You’re bad to us. We don’t love you.”

“I’ll take care of my mother and my sister. We don’t need you any more.”
He made like he was gonna hit me, but I didn’t budge. Then he turned around and he left. Never bothered us again. But I took care of my mother and my sister from that day on. That’s my best day.

What was your worst day?

Same day.

City Slickers is an interesting parallel: friends, each suffering wounds in his personal life, accept a journey that turns out more difficult than they could have imagined, both in terms of physical challenges and self-discovery.  An unlikely emotional leader emerges, then dies. Wounds are reopened, yet, through the love and heroism of friends and the catharsis of achieving their mutual goal, great progress is made.

The difference: in City Slickers, everybody (well, except maybe Curly) is a regular human being, and so regular human being rules apply. In GotG II, nobody is a regular human being – yet, this isn’t Solaris, we’re supposed to relate to their humanity however packaged. The path to healing and recovery must be something a regular human being could do, otherwise, it’s an emotional Deus ex Machina.

Here are the emotional journeys I find unconvincing upon reflection:

Peter: Peter is abandoned by his father, but raised by a loving mother (and her family) for about 10 years. By modern standards, that’s almost idyllic. In reality, Pete’s is probably already a somewhat emotionally messed-up dude, but not in a way he couldn’t normally overcome with the love of others.

Then, his mother dies in front of his eyes when he’s still a child. He is kidnapped, bullied (somewhat, at least) and used by Yondu for about 24 years. Those would be pretty scarring experiences by any measure. And, they do scar him: he grows up to be a free-wheeling playboy adventurer without much of a conscience. During the opening sequence of GotG I, we learn he’s willing to betray Yondu, risk the life of the blue girl whose name he can’t remember and who he’s brought along as a bang buddy.

Despite being untrustworthy in these comparatively small things, is the stuff of heroes.

Believable? Well, maybe. Part of the drama between Gamora and Peter turns on him being a charming scoundrel willing to do plenty of evil if it works out for him – the ‘a little of both’ line at the end of GotG I cements this. So, do we buy that? Upon reflection?

The stakes are raised by increasing the emotional damage. The father who abandoned him returns, talks nice, but is ultimately revealed to be more than willing to hurt, use and even kill Peter, to have used and killed Peter’s mom and be willing to  kill anyone else who gets in the way.  And to destroy the universe to remake it in his own image.

On an emotional level, is this not exactly the way divorce looks to a kid ? In any other context, it stands beyond even Greek myth in its horror, more, perhaps, like Hindu myth in embracing the unreality and ultimate meaninglessness of the universe.

So Peter turns on his father and kills him with the help of his friends. He gets a little kids’ revenge on the parent who destroyed his life. He discovers that his foster dad, who had himself been horrible abused as a child and likewise used and abused him, is nonetheless his real daddy, willing to die for him.

Believable? No.  In the real world, kids do not have a cathartic experience of killing off daddy that makes it all better. This is not so much exploring Peter’s emotional journey as it is acting out 70% of the audiences’ revenge fantasies. As a revenge fantasy, it works. As a plausible plot point, it fails – upon reflection.

Gamora and Nebula: These are the two characters who, under just about any believable scenario, should end up raging sociopaths or curl up and die. Perhaps they had a few years deeply and unconditionally loved by their parents before Thanos murdered their parents and proceeded to torture the girls into becoming killing machines? The problem here is if the girls were raised well enough by their natural parents to have any reserves of decency, love and morality, Thanos would not have been able to turn them into remorseless assassins. He would first have to destroy any residual goodness.

Nevertheless, like Finn in SW:TFA, each woman has reserves of goodness that no amount of trauma, torture and mistreatment could destroy, even as they act as assassins, even as they fight daily. While they are both cripples, they nonetheless can be launched on the road to healing by a little loving, by a boyfriend and by a sister. Harkening back to the divorce and abandonment culture, the relationship between these sisters is also horribly common – you can’t take it out on daddy or mommy, so you take it out on your sibling. Once you can come to grips that your mutual hatred is really simply redirected hatred of your parents, all is good! You only ignored and mistreated your sister because daddy was so mean to you! How could you be expected to notice the physical and emotional destruction – he’s turning sis into a machine on both levels – when daddy is being so mean to you?

All that’s left is to get revenge on the parents…. That’ll have to wait for a future episode.

Again, perfectly functional as a revenge fantasy. But upon reflection, not a plausible plot point. Emotional fantasy.

Yondu and Rocket: We are informed that they are each other. Where Yondu got his moral compass is unknown – again, maybe he had loving parents before his capture and molding into a soldier? But Rocket’s is pretty much inexplicable except by assuming his makers toyed around with giving him a conscience? If they could do that, why not make him obedient and docile?

Really, Yondu is the same as Nebula and Gamora, not Rocket. He just managed to escape earlier, and use his skills to become a captain – of pirates.

(All the pirates seem to be cut from the same mold – damaged children. None, certainly not Taserface, come off as the bloodthirsty psychopaths real pirates of necessity tend to be. They seem, rather, to bumble about like the Lost Boys until one captain or another executes them. It’s Pirates of the Caribbean all over again: they have heavily-armed ships and a homicidal code of honor in order to pick pockets and do a little light burglary? Yet, they’re the *good* guys, like Peter, just a little rakish.)

A 90-second heart-to-heart spot between Yondu and Rocket sets up the grand finale – Yondu’s heroic self sacrifice to save Peter.

Really worked well in the moment. Believable upon reflection? No.

Moral: don’t reflect much on popcorn flicks?

Research!America

Against my better judgement, took a phone poll from Research!America, the caller for which claimed Research!America is an independent non-partisan research group.

This claim of neutrality might be somewhat less than completely accurate:

Research!America is the nation’s largest not-for-profit public education and advocacy alliance working to make research to improve health a higher national priority. We urge Congress and the administration to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Science Foundation (NSF) at levels that keep pace with scientific opportunity. We also advocate for federal funding for global health research and a legislative and regulatory climate that stimulates growth in industry research and development.

Maybe it’s just me and my pesky reliance on logic and English, but ‘advocacy’ and ‘neutrality’ are pretty much mutually exclusive in this space-time continuum.

The questions themselves bore my suspicions out. Seems the state of California has passed a bunch of legislation intended to “fight climate change,” and the poll was intended to frog march me to the right conclusion – that anyone who cares about THE CHILDREN!!! must support the efforts of Comrade Brown and his Lysenko-ite hench-minions to have California lead the way in Stopping Climate Change!

I was asked to give my opinion on various statements that, when boiled down, took the form of ‘do you support the efforts of all right-thinking people to SAVE THE CHILDREN AND THE PLANET or are you a greedy, callous SOB who probably works for the oil companies and would just as soon inflict fatal asthma on babies as say hello?’

More or less. Mostly more.

(This is certainly an appealingly simple way to view reality. None of those pesky details or facts or trade-offs need trouble the serene innocence of one’s mind.)

Maybe one of these days, I’ll turn down a pollster’s request, on the invariably confirmed premise that it’s just playing into the whole puritanical elitist drive to lead us little people to the correct positions that we, poor dears, can’t be trusted to reach on our own.  For now, I’ve contented myself with trying to get the pollster off script and rolling my eyes *hard*. It’s some small comfort.

Father’s Day Recap

Here’s hoping all 3 of you fathers who read this blog had a nice Father’s Day! I sure did. After this, I’ll lay off the autobiographical stuff for a while, I promise. Well, except for pictures of the brick oven and fiberglass shield when I get them done. But who wouldn’t want to see those?

As mentioned in the last post, went to see Guardians of the Galaxy II yesterday with our 2 kids currently home for the summer. It was fun. Younger Daughter and the Caboose also did breakfast and dinner for ol’ Dad. Breakfast consisted of Eggs Benedict. While they did buy the English muffins, Younger Daughter made the Hollandaise sauce while the Caboose poached eggs, chopped Canadian bacon and did assembly. Delicious.

Dinner was falafels, with pitas, hummus, that yogurt stuff  – all homemade that afternoon – along with tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados, and other good stuff to add in.  Also delicious. My daughter makes the best hummus, and fresh pitas are way better.

Then, came dessert:

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That is a carrot cake. Anna Kate was wondering why I took a picture, because to her that’s just a cake like you’d whip out any old afternoon. Not like these, say, or this.

Other than that, we caught the 10:30 Mass with grandma. That’s a production – she does not move quickly. At. All. Must allow 15 minutes minimum at either end for helping her into and out of the car.  And sat around in our air-conditioned home. It was 105 F here yesterday. Only supposed to be 98 F today.

Weekend Update/Pointless Post

Unless you like pretty pictures of food and second thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s no excuse for this post, and no reason for you to read it. Just being upfront.

A. Did get a bunch of reading in last week, will do a couple more book reviews soon. I could get used to this. In addition to the client visit/long plane flights/boring evenings in hotels providing opportunity to read, I felt well, which reinforced how not well I have been feeling since about November. Nothing in particular, just draggy, sleepy, unfocused. Might be blood pressure meds – but those have been the same for years. Will be seeing the doctor soon, but, as usual, I always feel better after making an appointment. (If only this worked for dentists – chipped teeth and decaying fillings just heal themselves once you’ve got a date to get them fixed. No?)

B. Saw Guardians of the Galaxy II a second time because it’s Father’s Day, it’s 105F outside, and my younger daughter had not yet seen it. Gotta say: as goofy as the action is, as unnecessary 90% of the (slight, I’ll admit) potty talk is, this movie works so well on an emotional level it’s shocking. Yondu steals most scenes he’s in, manages to convince you you’ve misunderstood him all along, and gets you crying (well, I, at least, had something in my eye) near the end – and then they ratchet it up from there – and it works. One of the reasons I wanted to see it again was exactly that: had I just fallen for cynical manipulation the first time? I kind of think not – I think they really understood that the only stakes worth raising were emotional stakes, and they went at it with everything they had, and it worked.

C. Speaking of pretty pictures of food: this year, my basil crop has been and continues to be outstanding. If you’ve got basil, make pesto; if you have fresh homemade pesto, make pasta; if you have homemade pesto pasta, you must bake fresh bread. I do understand that wasting people’s time with pictures of food is lame. I’m making an exception this once (well, except for my daughters’ cakes – but those are art) because my family kept going on about how beautiful this particular loaf of bread was:

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So, yea, it’s a picturesque loaf, I’ll grant. It’s the simplest loaf of yeast bread I know how to make – this one just came out particularly beautiful after the manner of its kind.  Tasty, too.

D. On the flight back from Atlanta, got to see lots of snow. There was plenty in the Rockies near the New Mexico-Colorado border, on  into Utah (especially considering I was on the right side of the plane heading west, meaning I was mostly looking at south-facing and thus less snowy slopes) .

The real snow action was the Sierra:

 

We seemed to be flying right over Yosemite, so my view was of Mono Lake (too low for snow, just north and east if Mt. Whitney and just north of the Long Valley Caldera), Hetch Hetchy, which is the valley on the western slopes just north of Yosemite and which contains San Francisco’s main reservoir, and the high granite domes which make up the bulk of the high southern Sierra.

Lots of snow, even in mid-June. Several ski areas have announced that they will be open through August! The pictures are too small to see this, I suppose, but even from the air you could see areas above 8,000 or 9,000 feet just buried in snow. Along the western side, I could see white-water waterfalls coming off those high granite domes down into the valleys, and all the rivers were likewise white until well into the foothills. Spectacular.

E. My son asked long ago for me to make him a shield. After googling around, I decided to try fiberglass. Just because I’ve never done it before. So I made a hardboard form, if you will, gave it three coats of varnish to seal it, had my son apply 4 coats of wax to it. I’d attached some 3X2 boards along the sides, screwed in a couple big hooks, had my son lean on it in the middle, them wired between the hooks to get the curve:

 

Then we applied the world’s sloppiest gel coat – hey, it was our first time! As soon as we can get 2 uninterrupted hours, we will put on 4 layers – 2 mat, 2 cloth – and epoxy in a handle and adjustable strap. Then let cure over night.

And pray we can get it off the form!

St. Jerome’s Tips on Teaching a Child to Read

Via Twitter:

403 A.D., St. Jerome instructing Laeta how she should teach her daughter Paula to read. Over 1500 yrs later I got the exact same education.

First, this is utterly charming, especially given Jerome’s well-earned curmudgeonly reputation. Second, a literate woman teaching her daughter to read is given encouraging advise by a Church Father – those evil misogynistic Catholics at it again! Almost as bad as Francis de Sale’s obvious care and affection for “Philothea”.

But third, here is clear evidence that people believed that a mom could teach her own young daughter to read.  Everybody in every culture always believed that any responsible adult could teach their own children anything that similarly competent adults knew – reading, say, or basic math. Plato, 2400 years ago: Charging money to teach children what every competent adult knows is fraud.  The amazing thing: over the course of 150 years in the West, the newly developed class known as educators have managed to convince hundreds of millions of adults that they are *incompetent* to teach their own kids much of anything at all.

Recall that Horace Mann’s complaint, following Fichte, wasn’t that kids were deficient in reading and writing – they were *morally* deficient. No, really.

So, professional educators, from Day 1, with more or less personal awareness on the part of the personnel involved, have been committed to the *moral* education of our kids. Mann found out that this idea was repulsive to the citizens of Massachusetts, who would not vote for compulsory, tax-funded schools – for their kids. Once the Potato Famine sent a million Irish Catholics their way, then the good solid Americans were ready to make *those* people, patently morally inferior to *our* people,  attend moral reeducation camps – schools. In order to sell this, people had to be convinced, or at least cowed into silence on this issue, that parents, grandparents and so on are incompetent to teach their own children. Talk ‘performing to grade level’, don’t talk about educators’ more or less conscious contempt for the morality of the peons. See: the current phase of the sexual revolution, or critical theory, or ‘truth is relative’ or – you get the drift.

What constitutes morality may have changed, but the puritanical zeal of our betters to educate us, the unwashed masses, in it only keeps growing.