Archive for category Human Behavior

Through the Glass

We are about a year behind on episodes of The Americans. Our being behind is not a reflection on the series; it’s just that there’s so much good stuff to watch. But as the series goes on, I find myself more and more impressed with the writers’ ability to project the opposed mind-sets of the Soviet spies versus the American FBI. I like the way the two sides sometimes try to communicate, and I like the way they get things wrong. I like the way both sides misunderstand both enemies and allies.

The Americans aims for a dispassionate view. FBI Agent Stan Beeman, his boss, Frank Gadd, and Gadd’s secretary, Martha Hinson, all want to do the right thing, even though they sometimes get things terribly wrong. The Russians are also trying to do the right thing–the right thing in their eyes anyway–even as they commit havoc, mayhem, and sometimes, murder.

Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings were born, raised, and indoctrinated in Mother Russia, but have been living in the U.S., speaking English, raising two children, and pretending to run a travel agency for the last couple decades. To a greater (Phillip) or lesser (Elizabeth) extent, they have gone a bit native. We meet other Russians–handlers, and embassy personnel, each with their own view of themselves, of home, and the U.S. Some are true believers in their system; others are ambitious, seeing the U.S. posting as a tremendous opportunity. Everyone is looking through a different pair of glasses.

Elizabeth and Phillip don’t see themselves as others do. They often don’t want other people to see them; they wear a multitude of disguises to fool the subjects of their missions. But out of disguise, they are unable to convince their daughter of their integrity. The power to play roles, take on identities, has distorted what can be seen of them.

Both as individuals and as a nation, we tend to see our own power as benign. Sure, we make mistakes, but our heart is in the right place, right? When someone sees threat in our actions, he seeks to thwart us. This happens between neighbors and between countries. Everyone feels misunderstood and put-upon. Everyone knows exactly what is wrong with everyone else.

Whoever we are, wherever we are, we are enmeshed in our own, flawed view of ourselves. We look in the mirror, and left is right, and right is left. Our emotions magnify some of our ugly, while blinding us to other sorts of ugly. We put on makeup to enhance and to hide ourselves.

The passage of time can further change what we see. Elizabeth and Phillip are decades removed from their training. They do what they do for their country, but we wonder if they even know what their country is at this point. We the viewers know they are only a few years away from the collapse of the Soviet system. In earlier seasons, I felt kind of sorry for them, for that. Since the 2016 election, I see the situation differently.

The show makes a point of not naming top government officials. When Frank Gadd goes to “see the director,” he doesn’t call him by name. The show open shows a series of American and Soviet leaders in quick succession, emphasizing neither the current Soviet Premier not the current American President. The show absolutely wants to be about individuals trying to function in the system (more than one system, actually) while trying to see through the wrong side of one-way glass.

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A view through Berlin Wall remnants, west to east

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The Gendered Protagonist

Recently, I submitted a novella. The writer’s guidelines strongly hinted a preference for a female protagonist, without saying so explicitly. They also said the writer should feel free to submit as he or she saw fit.

My submission had a male first-person protagonist. It was promptly rejected. I don’t know if my male POV was why, if my synopsis made it sound too much like a “he” story, precipitating a quick rejection. I’m not all that curious about that, though. The editor has every right to decide whatever he or she decides, for whatever reason.

The rejection did make me think about writing from a female vs. a male POV, however. I employ a female POV a good deal of the time, but I use male protagonists too, as well as a few that aren’t one or the other. What’s more, the gender (or not) of my protagonist is one thing I don’t dither over. I know, right from the get-go, whose story it is, and where they fall on the gender spectrum.

Here are my personal statistics: Of a total of forty-five short stories (forty published) and two unpublished novellas, twenty-seven (57.4%) are written from a female point of view. Eleven (23.4%) are from a male point of view. Three are neither male nor female (6.4%), and six stories (12.8%) are from multiple points of view. Leaving out the “neither” and “multi” categories–in other words, when I chose either male or female–71% of my protagonists are female, and 29% are male.

My choosing a female protagonist/narrator is the most natural, the expected. Multiple points of view could be seen as a way of covering my bases. “Neither” points of view are kind of special, and quite specific. One of those was a non-gendered narrator commenting on the sex-based gaffes of gendered individuals. The other two were things, not beings. One was an evil ceramic patio fountain, and the other (actually another multi) was serially a cake, a food magazine, and a supermarket magazine rack.

That leaves the men. Why do I choose a male protagonist? Much of the time it’s that I’m writing  a character who is used to being in control of situations, but finds himself in a situation he can’t fix. He underestimates those around him–especially women, but men, too. He thinks he controls more than he does. He is a man of action, but this time, his actions don’t work. I have an abundance of female characters on hand to give him helpful advice, which he does not take. (To be fair, sometimes their advice isn’t all that great.)

My remaining male protagonists are, save one, passive. One is a statue. He is clearly male though, so I haven’t put him in my “neither” category. One is grieving. One is tired. One is clueless. The only one who isn’t either overly confident or overly passive is superhuman.

I choose my protagonist’s gender without much thought, but not without reason. Is the gender choice inevitable? Could my male or female characters be written as the other gender, or no gender at all? I don’t think so.

My goal is not to write “she” stories or “he” stories, but human stories. That said, gender is a big deal when it comes to how we see ourselves, and how our culture sees us. Usually, a story rests more easily in one gender, rather than the other, or none, or both.

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Two Lives, Very Different


UnknownimagesI’ve gone on before about my shift in reading. At one time, I read close to a 50/50 mix between lit-fic and SF, with a bit of mystery and political intrigue thrown in. Oh, and a non-fiction or two. In recent years, I have given up so-called “realistic” fiction in favor of genre work, almost completely.

Today, though, I find myself in the middle of two books, neither of which are genre, and both of which are non-fiction. One is Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years a Slave. The other is the Bob Spitz biography of Julia Child, Dearie.

The Julia Child bio was given to me for Christmas, and it was a good pick, because I adore Julia Child. The second I downloaded after seeing the movie by the same name, because (and this will also be familiar to readers of previous posts) I wanted to see if the movie stuck to the facts as given in Northup’s work. (I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and so far, it does.)

These books are wildly different from one another in some respects. One is about a twentieth century woman who transformed our nation’s approach to home cooking. The other is about a nineteenth century man kidnapped from his life as a free man, and sold into slavery. They are also quite different in quality. The Northup memoir is elegant, full of nineteenth century wordiness and flourish, but clear and brilliant in his descriptions of people, places, and events. The Spitz effort is full of cliches and clumsy wordiness…a nervous, twitchy sort of style. I stumble over his sentences the way I would stumble through a cluttered room. He also seems to have San Diego and Los Angeles counties mixed up with each other. Palomar Observatory is not atop Mt. Wilson.  I put up with the writer, because what he depicts is of interest to me.

And now, the great similarity. Both Twelve Years a Slave and Dearie work on me the same way genre fiction does. They are each set in a time different from my own, and in a place so different, it might as well be a different planet. Julia’s childhood of privilege in Pasadena, her career in the OSS, and her transformation into an expert on the art of French Cooking is a grand saga of exploration and reinvention. Solomon Northup’s ordeal is a kidnap and survival story of the first order.

There is a deeper genre connection as well. I love SF because it asks the big questions about who we are, what we could be, what we might become, and where we came from. Julia Child reinvented herself at different times in her life, and Solomon Northup had himself reinvented by others, against his will. Because Julia’s invention was a matter of her own choices, her triumphs were true and solid, and carried her through a long and healthy life. Solomon Northup didn’t fare nearly as well, apparently. He was rescued from slavery, and restored to his true life in 1853, but after a few years, apparently disappeared. No one knows for sure what happened. They didn’t have the phrase, “post-traumatic stress” then, but I imagine this is what he experienced. Plucked from his life, given a new name and sub-human status, and then suddenly restored to become a spokesman for abolition…who he was in his own soul couldn’t keep up with external events.

These are two remarkable life stories, both of which get to the essence of who and what we are.

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When Life Annoys the Writer

If a writer is going to produce results, i.e. finished, readable work, he or she must set aside time and energy for the task. The writer develops strategies to manage time and energy. A writer:

  1. Writes every day
  2. Sets aside a specific time, and treats that time slot as he/she would any other obligation
  3. Avoids distractions during writing time
  4. Adjusts mind to approach work in a calm, confident, optimistic manner.

The key thing is to give one’s work priority over anything that will keep for an extra hour or two. This includes all housework, and all bills that aren’t already past due. This includes requests for volunteer work. This includes suddenly needing to go to Costco for more paper towels. If one’s regular time to write is compromised, one needs to reschedule, to find another slot in the day to make it up. Socializing, exercise, and relaxation are essential to health, but need to be scheduled around writing. It’s not always easy, no one is perfect, but a writer can maximize available time with the single act of giving it priority.

But sometimes, life intervenes in one’s schemes. Illness, paying work, serious life crises of oneself, family, or close friends, and natural disasters all lay waste to our writing time. And sometimes, life just gets annoying. Sometimes:

  1. Telemarketers, having long since decided to ignore the NO CALL list, ring our land line up to 15 times a day. I screen all calls, but the ringing ricochets around my brain. It is astounding how often the phone will ring the moment I have sat down, picked up my pencil or laptop, and adjusted my mind, and formed half an idea.
  2. A friend or family member will call with a perfectly reasonable, legitimate request (not idle chit-chat) and I will have to go do something for them, feeling guilty for feeling annoyed, because I know they would interrupt their stuff to take care of me on occasion.
  3. My husband will call, wondering if he left a) his briefcase in the family room, b) wallet on the dresser, or c) guitar in the hallway. Yes, yes, and yes.
  4. Stuff breaks. Cars break. Electrical stuff breaks. Plumbing leaks. Cable systems break. Everything is broken. No one wants to help me fix this stuff on my schedule. Things even pretend to break, as a plot to do in my head. This week, my dishwasher pretended to break. Turned out there was a loose spoon that had fallen out of the basket. Once put back, everything worked again. A happy result, but not until about half an hour had been wasted.
  5. People come to the door with packages, religious material, and requests for money. If it’s a package, I have to see what it is. If it’s one of the other two, I have to hide until they go away. This takes time.
  6. It’s tax time, or house re-fi time, or family-member-buys-a-new-car time. Car dealer calls to welcome us to the name of car family.

All of these are normal things in life, and most of the time I’m not bothered by them, but during the last couple weeks, they have piled up on me. An unusual number of things have broken, or pretended to break, since the first of the year. The phone calls have been out of control. For the most part, these annoyances can be traced to the problem of abundance. Having a bunch of stuff, like cable TV and a house. Living with people who also have stuff. Having friends. I could get rid of the land-line phone (thinking about it), get rid of time-consuming luxuries like a house (but love my garden), cable TV (no, no, no!!!), leave my family, reject my friends, and be poor, isolated, and lonely.

Sound like a plan?

Living in a garret would pose its own set of challenges.

Living in a garret would pose its own set of challenges. I would have uninterrupted time, but no inspiration, and no fun. It seems that from the chaos, comes the joy.

Photo: Ben Husmann

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How Do You Spend the Time You Have?

The previous couple weeks have been dominated by news of death and mayhem. Roger Ebert died less than two days after announcing a “leave of presence.” A writer I respect and like, Iain M. Banks, announced recently he is suffering from terminal cancer and has an unknown but very short time to live. Then, Margaret Thatcher died, and Annette Funicello. Jonathan Winters. Then, the horror in Boston. Last night, the explosion in Texas.

Over the years, I have had friends and family members die in their thirties, forties, fifties, and older. No matter the age, no matter the cause, no matter if the person was accepting of death, I always wished they could have had more years.

Science fiction and fantasy push back at death; immortal (or very long-lived) protagonists abound, and I, the reader, happily go along for the ride. I, too, want to live forever, or at least for another fifty years. Diseases have been conquered. Only the brain needs to survive an accident…the rest of the body can be regrown. Better yet, keep a backup of yourself in storage for handy downloading, in the case of total physical annihilation.

Why not?

And yet, there is a nagging sense that an extremely extended life would not be good at all. There is a strong suspicion that death is good. Death is necessary. I see it in the decaying matter I spread around my plants to make them grow. I see it on the owl cam (http://owlsmatter.com) as Father Owl brings back a succession of carcasses to feed his children, which Mother and Owlets then rip apart and enjoy. (The biggest of the owlets doesn’t bother with ripping; it seems to be able to swallow a mouse whole.)

Life needs to be fed, and life feeds upon other life. Life is change. Conception, growth, weakening, and death. To ignore the cycle is to enter a realm that is somehow shallow and unsatisfying. Aside from all the practical problems or overpopulating and demographic disruption, if everyone lives forever, what does life mean?

I cannot come up with a satisfactory answer to that question. I read science fiction when I feel like pondering it.

We all feel the wrongness of death resulting from needless, stupid violence. The death of a child in such a fashion is unspeakably horrible. But death, in general, someday…I can’t imagine being human without it, but I never want it to happen to me or anyone I like, even a little.

The only meaningful question I’m left with is the title of this post. I can possibly influence, but cannot control, the length of my life. How death is doled out is inherently unfair. The only thing I can do is be mindful of how I spend my time.

Although I’ve worked diligently through my life, through various jobs, volunteer gigs, and around the house, I have wasted time as well. I have volunteered for stuff I should not have, I have fussed around the house at things I should not have bothered with. I have often, too often, put my writing behind activities which should have had lower priority. As a result, I am still trying to finish my first novel at the tender age of sixty-something.

Why I have wasted my writing time does not matter. I’m sure anyone reading this can guess why. Writer’s Block is way up there. And yes, I did have other things I wanted and needed to do. Things that were important. Nonetheless, I should have tried harder.

The last couple years have brought changes. I now do give my writing time priority, occasionally in socially awkward fashion. It doesn’t matter. It is something I need to do.

Recent deaths–those from old age, from disease, from accident, or from senseless tragedy–they all remind me that none of us have forever.

Appreciate life. And if you’re a writer, write.

Some roses from my back yard to enjoy for a brief while...

Some roses from my back yard to enjoy for a brief while…

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What I Have Learned This Week

One of the pleasures of one’s life work, be it writing, parenting, domestic engineering, or that eight-to-five job, is what a person is forced to learn, and how that forced education enhances one’s life. Parenting has given me a lot–how to be a line ref in soccer, how to treat the feather plume in a shako (marching band hat), and how to care for cockatiels. From domestic engineering, I learned (and am learning still) about plumbing, TV cabling, termites, how to cook, and so forth. From the old job, I learned how to read an insurance policy.

From being a writer, I’ve learned how to use a computer. The word processor was the first “killer app” for me, and led me to be a relatively early adopter of the technology. Writing has led me to be an enthusiastic consumer of non-fiction, and of documentaries, and of educational programming.

This past week, as every week, I learned a lot.

Last Sunday, I learned my 20-something daughter did not know who Arlo Guthrie was. Nor had she heard of Woody Guthrie. She had heard of Bob Dylan, and she did know the song, “This Land Is Your Land,” but thought it was older than it is. I realized how much cultural lore is lost from each generation–a name known by everyone in my generation becomes obscure in subsequent ones. I might not know who Woody Guthrie was, but for Bob Dylan, and the folk revival of the early 60s.

On Monday, I learned what a marcona almond tastes like. The ingredient had popped up in a couple recipes I wanted to try. They are expensive, and not sold everywhere. I found them, bought some, and used them in a recipe. They’re good, more like macadamia nuts in both texture and flavor, than they are like regular almonds. The recipe, by the way, was Moroccan Chicken with Carrots.

On Tuesday, I learned that a significant theme in my novel is Information Uncertainty. No matter how much information we have, it is never enough, and as for the information we do have, we can’t trust it, not really. And yet, there are still a ton of people walking around, acting as if they have all the answers, telling the rest of us what to do. How can they believe their own voices?

Wednesday was busy. I’m sure I learned a lot, but I haven’t had time to isolate any particular lesson.

Yesterday, I learned that everyone, of all ages, knows who Roger Ebert was: 20-somthings, 40-somethings, and 60-somethings all liked and respected him. What a life, well and gracefully lived.

Today is too new to know what I will learn, but I will keep my eyes and ears open.

They don't taste like almonds, but they look like them.

They don’t taste like almonds, but they look like them.

Photo: http://www.thetapaslunchcompany.co.uk/spanish-food/appetisers-olives-pates/Roasted-Marcona-Almonds-130g

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When the House Is Falling Down

A contractor prepares to do repair and maintenance on my house.

A contractor prepares to do repair and maintenance on my house.

It isn’t, but it could be.

This is not an attempt to compare my situation with my house with those who have lost their homes in natural disasters, or by other means. It’s just that the house is such a potent symbol for one’s world, one’s life, one’s self. Termites eat away. Paint peels. Clutter lies about. Dust accumulates. Everything is what it is, and everything is a metaphor for something else as well. I’m not certain what all of this has to do with my state of mind when I’m writing. Does it depress me? A little. Does it shame me? Not like it used to. Would I really want everything to be perfect? I don’t think I would.

Having a house perfect costs money, and it also takes time. Most significantly, for anyone who works at home (like a housewife-writer), it means contractors and other life forms intruding on my peace and quiet. They have questions. I need to make sure I give the right answer and that they understand me. Sometimes, I don’t know the answer. They could be speaking Neptunian, for all I understand. “Just do it!” I say, but it is not enough. Everything takes longer than you think it will. There is the warping of time. Twenty minutes is really ninety, in the land of contractors.

They make noise. They move things. Some are better at cleaning up after themselves than others.

All of the above runs through my brain when I contemplate home maintenance. As a result, I often procrastinate having things done, in order to maintain the peace and tranquility I crave. I get away with this, mostly. I am married to someone who could live through the destruction of Pompeii, and still think everything was just fine. He might notice a change eventually, maybe. (“Didn’t we used to have a wall here? How long have we had lava pouring through our dining room? A volcanic eruption? Really? When did that happen? You didn’t tell me!”)

I cannot give in forever to my procrastinating nature. The house really could fall down. Also, disrepair and disorder carry their own burden of chaos. At a certain point, you have to take care of it. And when I do, when I really take care of a problem, I feel as though I have tamed a dragon. I do a little dance when the formerly broken thing has been put right. But my latest dragon-taming success had to do not with structure, or plumbing, or cosmetics. It had to do with the digital world of Cable TV.

The more s&*# we have, the more that can break. All those computerized goodies we can’t live without. And we really can, except to do so really will make our lives a lot more work, and a lot less fun. It me takes one-tenth the time to pay bills than it did in, say, 1990. About one-eighth the time to make plane reservations. In a little tiny device, I carry a telephone, still and movie camera, address book, calendar, bookshelf full of books, calculator, road maps of the entire world, photo albums, notepad, yellow pages, multiple messaging systems that did not exist a few decades ago, a big chunk of my music library, information from around the world, including weather, sports, news, traffic reports, and opinions. Oh, and I can shop from my phone, too. And play games. I would have required a small panel van to carry around all those functions in 1990. But if I were driving a panel van around with all that stuff in it, I would know what I had. I would feel its weight, and understand the difficulties in its maintenance.

I don’t understand and don’t want to accept the difficulties of maintenance. My electronic magic toys pull me away from attention to the tactile: termite-chewed wood, rodent chewed cable, and paint sloughed from house trim like dried-up cake frosting. The digital world is like air. It is invisible, or nearly so. It is my personal magic wand that has seduced me into thinking anything is possible, that I am Mickey Mouse in a wizard’s hat, dancing in Fantasia.

I am reminded the broomsticks are impossible to control.

Photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sorcerer’s_Apprentice

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