Posts Tagged Human behavior

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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A Holiday Guide for Writers

There are certain things I need to stay sane and healthy. These include:

  1. Proper sleep and diet
  2. Exercise
  3. Some minimal socializing
  4. Writing
  5. Reading
  6. Music

There are other things that are unnecessary for my health and sanity, although I do enjoy them, in small doses. Some of them are:

  1. Baking cookies
  2. Shopping
  3. Cooking Christmas dinner
  4. Holiday Decorating
  5. Gift Wrapping
  6. Parties and large social gatherings in general
  7. Sending Christmas cards

All of these holiday activities take time, and when time runs short, some activities are sacrificed–including items from the list of things I need to stay sane and healthy. Exercise suffers. I eat too many high-fat carbs. I don’t have enough alone time. Maybe I let the holidays mess with my writing schedule, or I read less. Let’s face it…I do all of the above in order to create the Christmas I want.

The first things to go from my sane ‘n’ healthy list are exercise and writing. Exercise…because it takes time, and I am lazy. Writing, because it takes time, and effort, and I’m lazy. Sleep, on the other hand, only requires lying down. Reading and listening to music are passive enjoyments.

Writing and exercise are the first to go, and I suffer from their lack.

I haven’t had much luck with the exercise, but I am determined to make a stand on the writing. It seems to me that there are certain things I can do. And here, I don’t need a bunch of numbers. I need only one rule: that my scheduled daily writing time be honored. This is it, and that is all there is to my Holiday Guide for Writers.

Taking the distractions of the season in reverse order: I am not sure I’ll get cards out this year. Fewer and fewer people send them. If I do send them, they may go out late. This is okay. This is a decision. As for parties, I keep them few and with people I want to spend precious time with. I am done with obligations, mostly. I will go with store gift wrap and bags with tissue paper whenever possible. Decorating? Yeah, that’s my favorite. I’ll spend a little extra time on that. For the rest of it, Christmas dinner will get served, my loved ones will have presents to open, and yes, the cookies will be baked. It will be fine, it will be enough. I will let the rest of the season take care of itself.

I am recycling this photo from a post from last year. Saves time! Helps allow me to stick to my writing schedule!

I am recycling this photo from a post from last year. Saves time! Helps allow me to stick to my writing schedule! (Link to previous post below.)

https://speculativemartha.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/ill-have-that-outline-now-please/

Writers: Do what you need to to stick to your writing schedule during this festive season, and stay sane and healthy.

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I Know A Place…

I don’t remember the name of every dearly departed restaurant my husband and I used to love going to, but I remember the food, the ambience, and the basic serenity that descends upon one while being waited on and nourished with excellent food. Here is a short list of the departed:

Gandhi

Gustaf Anders

Bangkok 4 and 3

That French restaurant in Tustin

The Iron Squirrel

W

The Four Seas

It hurts when a favorite restaurant closes.

I have vivid memories of restaurants visited away from home, in Albuquerque, San Francisco, Brighton, Calais, Paris, St. John Cap-Ferrat, Venice, and Rome.

If restaurants are so important, why don’t we see more of them in fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy? When I Googled “Restaurants in Science Fiction,” the results were mostly for Disney, plus an ad for Ruth Chris’ Steak House. I had the same result when I searched for fantasy. Why?

One reason may be related to plot. Restaurants are places to pause, to relax, to have a nice meal…to restore oneself. SF tends to be literature involving action, often in places too remote in time or space to have such amenities. Even is they were available, our characters don’t have time to sit around and restore themselves. And if they do go to a restaurant, someone recognizes Lady Catelyn, and a huge fight breaks out. We never get to see the dessert tray!

Another reason restaurants are thin on the ground, especially in science fiction, is that they may not exist, in the same form, in the future. They might all be automated, with no human wait staff. The food may, indeed, all be printed from machines, sort of like the pellet diet I feed our cockatiels. Or we may end up in the world of The Windup Girl, where Monsanto has taken over the food supply.

An unappetizing thought. And no, I don’t really think it’s going to be that way.

And the more I think about it, the more I can come up with memories of restaurants in SF:

1) A teahouse figures prominently in The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald.

2) They stop at inns for nice meals in The Hobbit quite a lot.

3) Poppy Z. Brite has a delightful mainstream series–Prime, Liquors, and Soul Kitchen, which are entirely about two chefs and their restaurant, but it is entirely non-SF.

4) And what about The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams?

I guess maybe what I’m looking for here is something a bit different than the above, like a picky eater with a craving she can’t quite define.

Okay, I can define it: It’s the individually owned, sit-down venue with excellent food at slightly expensive but-not-ridiculous prices. The bistro. And it is this exact sort of place I think is in dinosaur mode. It’s much easier not to have wait staff or a lot of square footage devoted to seating. Much better to have most of your sales be take-out. This appears to be a trend. As for food quality, it depends on what is available, affordable, and demanded in various areas of the world. The number of hopeful chefs on TV competitions leads me to believe no one is going to give up cooking any time soon.

the-restaurant-at-the-end-of-the-universe

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Good vs. Evil, Good vs. Good, Evil vs. Evil (Part 1)

Here are some of my favorite fictional evil people:

1. Good vs. Evil: Jerry Lundegard is a car salesman with money trouble. He embezzles from his employer, who happens to be his father-in-law, and attempts to make right this misstep by arranging a fake kidnapping of his wife. The plan is to use the ransom money to cover up the money problem.

Jerry never takes responsibility for his wrongdoings. He blames circumstances for whatever goes wrong in his life. He does not want to do evil. He only wants to cut a few corners so that he can fix this little problem he has. If he could just fix this little problem, everyone would be happy, and everyone would like him. Even his father-in-law. Jerry is insecure, deceptive, arrogant, and naive. This last quality, the naiveté, becomes the major driver of the gore and horror that ensues.

William H. Macy rocketed into my pantheon of acting gods with his portrayal of Jerry in Fargo (1996). We see the increasingly desperate turning of wheels in his mind as Jerry is confronted by the heroic Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). I loved watching Jerry writhe in this battle of good vs. evil. We have a touch of empathy for him…but only to a point. Then Good must out Evil, and Jerry must have his comeuppance.

2. Good vs. Good: In comedy, everything is just a misunderstanding and all will be well in the end. Nonetheless, even comedies have their occasional true villains. Tammy Swanson, a.k.a. Tammy Two (played by Megan Mullally), is an evil library director in territorial battle with Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in Parks & Recreation. She is amoral, power-mad, and arrogant. She wields a frightening sexual power over ex-husband Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). To me, the single funniest thing about Tammy is that she is a library director, offering Leslie opportunity to make snarky and hilarious anti-library comments, and demonstrating there is a little bit of Tammy in Leslie. The most evil thing about Tammy, however, is not that she wants to steal Leslie’s beloved Lot 48 for a new library branch, but what she does to Ron…particularly what she does to his hair. Tammy has the ability to make Ron be not-himself, and exercises this power without remorse, thereby placing herself in direct opposition to the spirit of the show, which celebrates the potential of everyone to become their best selves.

In comedy, evil lacks potency, overcome as it is by all the good intentions that surrounds it. Its attempts to upset the order of the comedic universe backfire, and all is good.

3. Bad vs. Bad: It’s a tie between Walter White of Breaking Bad, and Cersei Lannister of Game of Thrones.

Walter (Bryan Cranston), like car salesman Jerry, begins by needing just to cut a few corners…for the greater good, of course. His position is a sympathetic one, at least initially. He is dying of lung cancer. He is a high school chemistry teacher with not a lot of money, has a special needs son, and they are a one-income family–wife Skyler stays at home to see to Walter Jr.’s needs. The diagnosis is a death sentence; Walter only wants his family to be taken care of after he’s gone. He has expertise in chemistry, and so he’ll just cook a little meth, make some money, and die having accomplished his goal.

Walter is pulled into the monstrous evil of the Albuquerque-to-Mexico drug scene, but he is not overwhelmed by it. On the contrary, he finds himself growing into his new enterprise.  He sees himself as smarter and quicker than those he deals with. He is a massive control-freak. He becomes addicted to his new-found power. As the seasons progress, one moral boundary after the other falls, and we see just how evil a “good” person can become. But Walter isn’t “good.” He didn’t “break bad.” He always was bad, infected with a frustrating, thwarted psyche, just waiting for an opportunity. Indeed, a professional career counselor couldn’t have picked a better field to display his aptitudes and interests.

I also love to watch Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) on Game of Thrones. The character is born into a culture of violence and sexism, where a highborn woman is someone to use for the forging of political ties, through marriage, where perhaps she may wield influence, but perhaps not. Every female character in this saga has to deal with slightly different circumstances, is afforded slightly different opportunities, and makes slightly different choices, based on her character and her talents.

Cersei is ruthless. She is smart, but as her horrible father tells her, not as smart as she thinks. She is expected to marry when told. She does marry one man, but has her children by another, her twin brother, Jamie. She thinks she knows everything there is to know, but she is willfully ignorant of quite a bit. She is unable to see beyond her own prejudices. Something of an atheist, she simply doesn’t believe in the monsters beyond the wall. She is likewise in thrall to her hideous son, Jeffrey. As with Jerry in Fargo, I love to watch the wheels turn in her head as she struggles to keep control, but is constantly blindsided by evil that is smarter and quicker than she.

Next post, I’ll throw out some of my favorite heroes.

"Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before." -- Mae West

“Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.” — Mae West

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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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