Pearls Before Swine

January 9, 2016 — Leave a comment

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Hence my WordPress icon. (Hat tip: Lynn.)

jjabrams

I saw the original Star Wars — it wasn’t called “Episode IV: A New Hope” when it was released — a couple of weeks after my 11th birthday. Like JJ Abrams, I was the perfect age to experience it, and it shaped my idea of what science fiction, fantasy, and movies were all about for the rest of my life.

When I was 14, Empire Strikes Back had a particular impact on me, because my father had died the year before. At the age where I should be challenging him, I had only shadows to face.

Return of the Jedi, at 17, offered me reflection and personal redemption, played out in the lost son/dead father relationship of Luke and Darth Vader.

Then, the prequels came. Of course I saw them, but it was like trying to recreate something of a particular time and place, rather than moving forward. They felt constructed, a collection of complex parts imitating life.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has brought that original, life-giving feeling back, not by animating the backstory, but by moving forward with the people I care about, and introducing their children, both literally and figuratively.

Here are the things seeing Star Wars last night made me think of, in the order I thought of them. Turns out there are six, and I won’t pad it with four more to make a convenient title.

It’s the most psychologically adept science fiction/fantasy film I’ve ever seen. The characters’ flaws are genuine. They do not feel tacked on to make someone the good gal or the bad guy.

It’s not filled with wire-fu silliness, like the prequels. There are force powers, but they don’t involve turning jedi into magical gymnasts. In that sense, I feel Star Wars got back to its Western roots, and away from being pseudo-samurai films mixed with Hong Kong action films. Yes, Star Wars has universal appeal, and Lucas was hugely influened by Kurusawa, but it is a distinctily American series, and in this film it feels like that again.

It is both the most light-hearted, and most serious, of the series. (This insight belongs to a friend who is a much more serious Star Wars fan than me. I am only expanding on it.) The jokes are great, with nice touches for us oldsters, and the dark parts are graphically dark. When people are hurt in this film, they bleed. For example, you don’t just see a scene after the storm troopers attack, as in the original Star Wars — you see them murdering unarmed civilians. This film puts the War in Star Wars.

That midi-chlorian crap isn’t even mentioned. As far as I’m concerned, that was some kind of hardcore materialist influence that hit George Lucas and his screenwriters between the early 1980s and late 1990s. The Force is clearly a divine power, and the Jedi are space knights of an ancient, priestly (or monkly) order. Let’s quit retrofitting every powerful story with advanced tech into the hard scifi traditions of Clark and Asimov, or the pseudo-atheism of modern Hollywood. Star Wars was never meant to be that. It’s about good and evil not just as social constructs, but as living forces beyond human control which must be joined or fought. If that’s not a transcendent power in the Judeo-Christian sense, it’s a distinction without a difference.

The acting was superb.

The pacing is excellent.

It absolutely deserves to break all the box office records, not just due to fan-boy and -girl guaranteed attendance, but because it’s setting the standard for what scifi/fantasy films are going to be all about for the next generation.

The day after seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I indeed have a new hope.

The River

September 11, 2015 — Leave a comment

riverI almost died last month.

It’s hard for me to write about this, not because I lack the ability to tell a story, but because I’m not sure I want to tell it. There is something in keeping it to myself that makes it mine, in a way that telling it does not.

The things we tell are always compared, judged, ranked, accepted, qualified, or discarded. That’s not a bad thing. It helps us understand ourselves. If my story resonates with you, we will have a kind of kinship. If it doesn’t, we will be distanced. This is how we define our tribes.

When I realized that I may die soon, I felt alone. I wanted to see my children and wife again, and was angry that I might not get to. The anger fell into a choking sadness, and that, once exhausted along with my body, became a choice.

I decided to reach out to God. I told him that I could not do this alone. If it was just me, and my body, and my mind, I was going to die. I needed help.

I got it.

I do not claim to know what God is. I would be a terrible prosylitizer. But what I do know, with more certainty than my own identity, is that part of what God is, is power. For me, on Tuesday August 18, 2015, God was enough power for me to survive six hours alone, beaten by rocks, torn by thorns, until I could carry myself to my inept, would-be rescuers.

Let me be clear on that: What saved me was me, with God’s help. Oklahoma’s river rescue services can go suck one.

I believe that was the point of my experience. It did not restore lost faith in humanity, or myself. I still think far too many people are idiots, and that I am weak. This was purely about me and God, and facing death.

That is why I cannot tell the story. I’m afraid that when reveal in bare facts it will lay limp, a dead thing pinned to cardboard, and I will doubt again.

And I don’t want to live that way anymore.

Like it or not

August 14, 2015 — Leave a comment

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In “Young women, give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice,” Naomi Wolf suggested that women quit speaking with “vocal fry” — that back of throat rattle that, to some people, makes the speaker sound lazy, whiny, or vapid. (It doesn’t seem to have harmed Bill Clinton, who still “feels your pain.”)

This suggestion set off the Rage of the Internet, which I enjoyed reading. I had to look up several terms used in third-wave feminism, including TERF and SWERF — derogatory acronyms for feminists who don’t think of Caitlyn Jenner as a woman (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), or who don’t think prostitution is an acceptable path toward a woman’s self-actualization (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist).

I don’t care if women speak with vocal fry, for the same reason I don’t care if men gauge their ears to the point where you can slide a roll of quarters through the sagging hole: I believe you should be free to express yourself however you like, and to learn from the consequences.

The weak spot in all the rage: What’s being asked for is not simply freedom of choice (let women speak however they want to speak), but also freedom from criticism — that is, denying the other person’s freedom to disagree, even if she’s an older, successful woman trying to help younger women be successful, too.

On the surface, criticizing Wolf seems like a defense of young women’s self expression. However, I think it’s really an attack on criticism itself, by narcissists who want everything they do to be praised or ignored.

Here’s another example of what I’m talking about — a video of a young woman complaining that no matter what a woman decides to do regarding pregnancy, she’ll be criticized. I can’t embed it here, but you can follow the link (it’s a public posting on Facebook). It’s labeled “#Dowhatyouwanttodo #hatersgonnahate ~ Sarah J,” so I assume her name is Sarah.

I can sympathize, because she’s clearly frustrated, and as a guy raised by a single mom, and the single dad to two girls, I know that parenting decisions are never easy.

However, there’s an aspect of her rage that I found troubling. I had to watch it twice to catch it. At first, I thought she was simply criticizing a collection of social taboos, such as “women over 30 shouldn’t have babies,” but on when I paid closer attention, I realized that what she’s really criticizing is criticism itself.

“Do what you want to do” and “haters gonna hate” are the chants of people who want approval — otherwise, why be upset? — but who cannot handle rejection. It is the philosophical equivalent of Facebook, only allowing Likes. If you disagree, you are a “hater,” and denied value and relevance.

One popular comment on the video reads “No sound, because she’s deaf, puts you in her world. In the tub, because she doesn’t give a flying f-ck what you judgmental f-cks think about her.” This sounds bold and supportive, but it’s not correct. She does care. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t record her commentary and post it on the internet, and, calling people “judgmental f-cks” is something a judgmental f-uck would say. All he’s really saying is, “don’t criticize,” before criticizing the criticizers.

Sarah’s conclusion is, “No matter what you do, people will talk sh-t, so do what is best for you.”

I agree in that you shouldn’t let people’s criticism completely drive your decisions, but I disagree that “do what’s best for you” is a good conclusion to her topic: becoming a parent. “Do what’s best for the kid” is far better.

And yes, that’s a judgment. More specifically, it’s something that can only be said by someone who’s older and wiser, to someone who’s younger and inexperienced.

I was not over my selfish phase when I had my first kid. It caused problems I wouldn’t wish on anyone. So when I say, in counter-point, “What’s best for the kid is two parents who are emotionally and financially stable,” I am not saying “and you’re an idiot for having other ideas.” I’m simply saying, “Please, trust me on this. I’ve been down this path. Some options are indeed better than others. All options are not all equal, or even good. Some should be avoided, when possible, for the benefit of the child, as well as yourself. And, just because I don’t like some of the options you listed, doesn’t mean I don’t like you.”

In a Like-only society, where advice is shouted down en masse, usually by anonymous cursing on the Internet, wisdom is lost. The world becomes a pep rally, where nothing is learned until it’s too late. If you only listen to people who support you, you’re not going to learn anything, because you’re in an echo chamber.

There is no behavior that affects only you, just as there is no child who impacts only himself. We’re connected, whether we Like it or not. So here’s my final judgment: We need to grow up as a culture — to recognize that online is IRL (In Real Life), with the same expectations of honesty and thoughtfulness — and allow people to politely disagree, even on things we’re passionate about.

Guacamole

July 17, 2015 — Leave a comment
Western water tower, Frank Tellez.

Western water tower, Frank Tellez, 2007.

I wrote the Western into a dusty hole. Maybe it’ll get up and mosey on again, maybe not. I know you’re supposed to finish what you start, but sometimes that’s just a pep phrase, something you tweet with #amwriting for some virtual pats on the back.

I’ve been reading good stuff, which is half of what you need to do to write good stuff. Maybe I’ll just be in a deep reading phase for a while. I’ve found a virtual kinship with Jonathan Franzen in his collected essays. The fact that he irritates many people pleases me.

I’m keenly interested in what he has to say about our devices, our social media, and our neuroses:

The striking thing about all consumer products — and none more so than electronic devices and applications — is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)

But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.

If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).

He said this in 2011, not last week. This is a man whose book was made an Oprah Book Club selection, and his response was… nonplussed.

I learned that he was friends with David Foster Wallace, who taught creative writing at my alma mater’s sister college, Pomona, until taking his own life in 2008. So it’s like he’s this older brother in a parallel world. Or at least that’s the shelf I’m putting him on, for now, as I enter the early phase of reader-love.

What I find compelling about his thoughts, such as the quote above, is not that I’m above it all with him — but that this is something I need to work on. I get excited when someone likes my writing, whether tweet or novel, and worry when they don’t. I’m sick of both. I want my writing to be enjoyed, but I don’t want to attach that to my self-worth. Publishing is too much of a bitch-goddess for that.

the_displacement_trilogyMy last two books — Oyu’s Trident and The Woman in the ’61 Checker — I wrote for my daughter, Rose. We go on long walks and talk story, both her ideas and my own, so if she likes it, I’m good. I can’t write for the world. I can write so one person will enjoy it, and people who are like her can tag along.

Speaking of reading pleasure, I’ve got a Kindle Countdown thing going on with THE DISPLACEMENT TRILOGY, my three-volume scifi story (300 Miles to Galveston, Missionaries of Omo, and Oyu’s Trident). It’s $1.99 for 521 pages, and has a groovy new cover. Give it a look, and see if it’s a ride you want to join. You can preview the first 10%, or FIVE WHOLE FREAKING CHAPTERS, online, which is way more than anyone should read on a laptop browser. So if you enjoy the first chapter, just buy the damn thing. It’s the cost of a Big Gulp.

And if you don’t like it… that’s OK. I don’t like guacamole, but it’s still much appreciated. To me it looks and tastes like Play-Doh.