Archive | October 2013

Because you’re evil

The word evil and a rose.

Sometimes evil is attractive and enticing. (Cover image for “Evil” by Matt Goss.)

Most stories involve a conflict. At the beginning of the story the protagonist is confronted with a problem, an obstacle, or a riddle, which will be resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end, and which is the thread that connects everything that happens in between together. Resolving that problem usually involves a struggle with other characters or forces, and some sort of inner conflict.

Protagonist is another word for hero. Because we often think of the main character of the story as a hero, and because stories usually involve the hero in some kind of conflict, it is tempting to think that every story needs a villain, too…

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Plot speaks louder than words

Sometimes a story isn’t about what it says it’s about.

I’ve written before about readers who contacted me about one of my stories and believing that the opinions of some of my characters are also my opinions. They don’t understand that one can convincingly write a character who has a substantially different worldview than oneself. So just because characters say something, that doesn’t mean it is the author speaking to you.

Similarly, just because the narrator says something, no matter how authoritative the narrative voice of a story may be, that doesn’t necessarily reveal to you the beliefs of the writer. The writer may be intentionally ironic, for instance, having the characters and narrator say something which the action of the story directly contradicts.

More often, the writer isn’t trying to profess any profound beliefs, he or she is just telling you a story. Where the writer’s beliefs are revealed are in the consequences that befall characters for their actions. Which isn’t to say that stories are always intended to be fables. It’s just that when we are weaving a story, the action is going to be driven by what feels right to us, what feels like would be a reasonable outcome. And what feels real or right or reasonable is going to be determined by our fundamental beliefs.

Most writers don’t think about stories from the point of view or philosophy or morals. We have an idea about a situation, or there’s a question we’re pondering, or maybe we just think it would be interesting to put a pair of characters together and see what happens.

So, for instance, a writer might have the protagonist say something like: “It’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them” while discussing his or her enemies. But if the character subsequently slaughters each and every one of those enemies without mercy, and if the reward for doing this within the story is the hero being proclaimed a hero, and so forth, well, that story isn’t about learning to love your enemies. At best, it is a demonstation of one way someone might rationalize genocide, but it isn’t about learning to love.

Of course, a story isn’t just about what the writer thinks. A story is just a collection of words until an audience hears it or reads it. So even those readers who have been mistaken about what my beliefs were, or who concluded that I was sending a particular message which was never my intent, once I put the art out there, the meaning is no longer mine alone.

If story inspires a particular meaning or feeling for you, then that’s what the stroy means to you. And what the author meant shouldn’t be relevant to your enjoyment of the story.

But if you are curious about what the writer actually believes, don’t pull out lines of dialog or specific sentences. Look at the plot. What happens to characters as the results of their actions? What kind of actions lead to success or failure? And what is the tone the story takes with those actions? Sometimes a character does what everyone agrees isthe right thing and fails anyway. Does the tone of the tale imply the failure is an regrettable tragedy or or just desserts?

That’s where you get clues to the writer’s heart.

“Why’d ya do it?”

Ant colonies in temperate regions will close off all the entrances to the colony at night to prevent the interior temperature from dropping to fatal levels. In order to properly seal the entrances, a small number of ants have to push material into the entrance and pack it down from outside. Trapped outside, they die when the temperature drops. Their sacrifice contributes to the ongoing survival of the colony, so from a genetics and evolutionary viewpoint, the death of a few members of the colony is a good thing.

Not that the ant actually thinks of that. They aren’t nobly volunteering to make this sacrifice for the rest of the colony. The species has evolved a series of behaviors in response to various stimuli, and they just do it when it’s time.

When a person like me—a very analytical guy prone to introspection, and who watches everything amd everyone looking for patterns and drawing conclusions—talks about the behavior of other people, the reasons I ascribe for their behavior are an awful lot like our academic analysis of the ants. We understand the benefit which the colony as a whole gains from the sacrifice of a few ants, but the ant doesn’t.

Most of people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about why we do the things we do. Even someone as notoriously over-analytical as me doesn’t spend much time thinking about why I’m doing something while I’m doing it. A person on the street asks me a question, and I answer. How I answer, from my tone of voice, to my body posture and facial expressions, are the result of a complicated process going on mostly unconsciously.

If I saw the person before they asked the question, likely part of my brain did an assessment of them based on how they looked and acted. I may be in a slightly defensive mode if my brain has seen similarities between them and people who have harassed me on the street in the past, for instance. I will be very defensive if my subconscious assessment has tagged them as a certain kind of prostelytizing jerk (lately more likely to be some sort of teabaggy political sort, but I’ve also been harassed by nut of a religious variety).

I may feel quite friendly and welcoming if I recognize them—even if it is only as a stranger who has nodded and said, “good morning” when we’ve passed on that street before.

Similarly, how they behave toward me is going to be influenced by their own subconscious assessment of me based on the same sort of superficial features. I’m a short, overweight, grey-bearded white guy. Depending on the other person’s past experiences, that might mean I look harmless, or annoying, or potentially a source of unwanted attention.

So they might frown at me because I seem likely to cause them some annoyance or inconvenience. Or they may only appear to be frowning at me, but they are actually just trying to figure out what is written on the t-shirt of a person walking behind me. Or maybe they’re just squinting because of a blinding reflection from the windows on a building across the street.

So, if when they ask me a question, my tone of voice might sound annoyed or even angry, while inside I’m only aware that I’m worried that this person is going to make me late. And because I sound angry, they may give me a less than enthusiastic thank you after I give them directions to the place they can’t find.

And we both walk away thinking the other person was rude.

I try to remind myself of that when I rant about someone like the guy on the bus last week. I remember the experience from my perspective. Which has its own biases. Maybe I was the one giving off attitude and expecting other people to respect my wish to listen to my music and read my book.

Missed signals and entitlement

Otter with his paw up.

“No, thanks. I’m fine.”

Before overhearing the conversation the other night, where I heard a young man cajoling a woman of his acquaintance for not liking one of their mutual acquaintances enough to date him, I had been thinking of the many ways that we are all socialized to accept, excuse, and even enable a lot of socially aggressive behavior from guys. And also how we, as guys, are socialized to aggressively take what we think is ours.

It started at the end of a previous weekend, but I’m going to save that story for later, because it involves a topic that causes some people to stop listening and start arguing. Instead, I will start nearer the end of the week, and rant about bit about a guy on the bus…

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“Why don’t you like him?”

Creepy smiling guy with "I like your hair, it smells nice"

A creepy guy meme.

I now know who the creeper/proto-rapist in my neighbors’ social group.

I was half asleep late Friday/early Saturday, when a vehicle pulled into the driveway between our building and the next one. I heard the voice of the 20-something guy that lives with his girlfriend in the unit behind us talking with several other people of both genders while they unloaded something from the vehicle with the engine still running.

As the number of voices dwindled down to just a woman I didn’t know and the neighbor (I believe she was driving the vehicle and the other friends were from a separate vehicle out on the street, perhaps?). The neighbor suddenly asks, “So are you going to go out with Adam?”

And she replied, “I don’t like Adam.”

“Why not? He’s a nice guy!”

“He always acts creepy around me.”

“Oh, he doesn’t mean anything by it…”

“I don’t like him.”

“Why don’t you like him?”

Ah! There we have it. The classic attitude guys have been socialized to have when other guys of their acquaintance sexually harass, touch without permission, and otherwise creep on girls of their acquaintance.

Otherwise known as, rape culture…

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A Halloween playlist

Sometimes I don’t know why I try.

So, I saw in iTunes radio a new station called Halloween Party, and I felt like listening to something different, so I clicked it. First song? Stevie Wonder singing “Superstition.” Nothing the slightest bit spooky or Halloween-like about the song. Oh, sure, the word “superstition” could be related to something Halloween-like, the actual lyrics? No.

Almost any time someone posts a so-called Halloween playlist, the songs are chosen because the titles of the song have some tenuous connection to sort of scary-ish concepts, regardless of the content of the song. If you’ve ever done such a thing, I have a news flash for you: the title of a song is not the song. There are some songs whose titles don’t even appear in the lyrics, so when I’m listening to the playlist, if I don’t happen to remember the title, the reason it has been included will be a complete mystery.

Now, you have the right to create a playlist anyway you want. If you want to collect songs together with altogether incorrect criteria and name said playlist a Halloween playlist, of course you can do that.

I happen to believe that a Halloween playlist should consist of tracks where the content of the track has some connection to ideas, moods, et cetera, that people associate with Halloween, trick or treating, monsters, and so forth. So, my 2013 Halloween playlist (yes, I make a new one each year) is:

1. “Theme from the Ghost and Mr. Chicken” – if you aren’t familiar with this comedy send up of various Hitchcock-esque movie tropes starring Don Knotts, you really need to Netflix it or something. And the organ music is suitably spooky and silly, at the same time.
2. “It’s alive!” From the Young Frankenstein soundtrack. This isn’t a song, it’s the dialog for one of the funniest scenes in the movie, when Dr Frahnk-in-steen finds out that he put an abnormal brain in the body of his creation.
3. “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” by Julie Brown. “Everybody run! The Homecoming Queen’s got a gun!” and “…it’s like the whole school was totally coked or something!”
4. “Over at the Frankenstein Place” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
5. “”Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” Yes, the theme song from the original cartoon series.
6. “Body Snatcher” by Billy Idol. With lyrics about demons, creeping shadows, and so forth, this is where the list segues from the strictly comedic.
7. “Double Trouble” from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Spooky.
8. “I Can’t Decide (whether you should live or die)” by Scissor Sisters. Includes lyrics like, ” I could bury you alive but you might crawl back with a knife and kill me” which is definitely creepy!
9. “I Can Make You a Man” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
10. “Dark Shadows” the original eerie, spooky, haunting theme song from the ’60s gothic horror soap opera.
11. “Rest in Peace” from Once More, With Feeling, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode. “Whisper in a dead man’s ear doesn’t make it real.”
12. “Funeral March of a Marionette” an orchestral piece which was used as the theme for the old Alfred Hitchcock show.

This year’s is silly and harkens to horror movies and horror-related TV shows. Last years was a bit different, with songs like “Zombies Ate Her Brain” by The Creepshow and “Zombie Jamboree” by the Kingston trio.

Many years my list includes “Monster Mash” or “Thriller.” Which are obvious choices, but sometimes obvious is good.

Deciding how much to tell

An otter holding a bottle of beer.

Now how is he going to carry the hot dogs back from the concession stand?

A few days ago my second blog post about the meaning of persecution included an anecdote about a figure of speech. The explanation I gave for the figure of speech, “caught in a suicide squeeze,” was intentionally truncated and simplified. I didn’t explain that a suicide squeeze specifically begins with having a runner on third base with less than two outs and the runner leaving the base at the same time (or milliseconds before) the pitcher releases the ball…

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Book Review: Countdown City

Cover are for Countdown City.

Countdown City, by Ben H. Winters (book 2 of the Last Policeman trilogy).

Countdown City is a mid-apocalyptic noir. When I reviewed The Last Policeman, I mentioned that I was a teeny bit disappointed, after reading it and loving it so much, to find out the author was working on not one, but two sequels, because I thought the ending of the first book was perfect.

I’m no longer disappointed.

The quick set-up: we’re just 70-some days away from the earth being struck my an asteroid that’s too big and was discovered too late for us to do anything about it. Society has been crumbling for some months, and our hero, Henry Palace, a former police detective in Concord, New Hampshire, is now out of work and living in a world without electricity or much of anything else, where a very militarized police force is in charge of distributing the small amount of food and goods still available.

And the woman who babysat Hank and his sister back in the days after their parents’ death while they were living with an inattentive grandparent, is begging him to find her missing husband. In a world where people are running away to do crazy things before the end, and other people are willing to kill for a stash of coffee beans, she wants him to find a missing person.

The author described the first book as existential detective novel. I continue to prefer my description as a mid-apocalyptic noir. The first book asked the question, what’s the point of solving a murder when the world is about to end. This book poses the question, what do promises and commitment mean when there is no tomorrow?

The answers this book gives, like the answers before, may not surprise you, but by the time you reach those answers, having watched what Hank does to find those answers, you believe them.

If you don’t want the slightest hint about the ending, stop now. Other wise, click the Read More below:

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Fairy ring!

Toadstools on the lawn. (Click to embiggen)

The toadstools growing in a roughly circular formation in our lawn.

Late Sunday afternoon I ran to the store to stock up on certain things. The local union is about to start a strike against a bunch of the stores (specifically several of the big chain stores) and I really don’t want to cross picket lines. The closest grocery store to us is a union store but it is not subject of the strike because it is part of a smaller, local chain that isn’t screwing over the workers in the way the big chains are. But said store, even though I like shopping there, has a smaller selection than the other stores.

When I got home, Michael came out to help me unload, and he pointed out something I had missed: a fairy ring! Toadstools coming up in a large ring on the lawn, right next to the car. So I had to take a picture…

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