Thursday, December 29, 2011
Kids, Western culture's tendency over the last few hundred years has been to attempt to subordinate all ways of being and becoming, all methods of understanding, and all wisdom under the rather limited worldview fostered by one of the several branches of knowledge--namely, science. While science has led to many great things, its aggrandizement above other ways of viewing the world leads inevitably to a magnification of its flaws, as well as its fine points.
One manifestation of a common scientific worldview is our tendency toward division, categorization, and compartmentalization. You will see this whenever you walk into a bookstore (if indeed there are bookstores by the time you're alive, theoretical kids): bookstores inherently ask the question, what category are you looking for? Children's? Adult? Teen? Science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy? Teen paranormal romance? Erotic science fiction poetry? Here at the end of 2011, I think some of this strict categorization is starting to break down: I am seeing the same book shelved in teen sections AND adult sections, and "Young Adult" books shelved in "Adult" categories. Writers, as they ought to do, are breaking free from the compartmentalizations imposed upon them.
If bookstores were run by people with an artistic sensibility, the books might be arranged intuitively, or all grouped together in a single running mass. The fact that these ideas seem hopelessly whimsical simply shows how tenacious the grip of a scientific worldview really is.
In light of this, it might seem dangerous, even blasphemous, to say: babies--people--do not come from DNA. Yes, I'm familiar with genetic research, and the fact that we have supposedly broken people down into the constituent categories that add up to all their traits and tendencies. But people are greater and more mysterious than any combination of genes could ever describe.
In fact, people come from mystery. People come from sex. That is, people come from the mysterious absolute union of a man with a woman. This is just as true of babies formed in a test tube as it is of babies formed the old-fashioned way. People are a mystery that will not be solved by categorization; sex is a mystery which cannot even begin to be clarified by compartmentalization.
Our culture has an extremely clever way of covering up this fact: by making it ubiquitous. Sex and physical beauty are everywhere; therefore they come to seem like not a big deal. Here's a fun game: every time you hear a euphemism for sex--sleep with, screw, fuck, bang, do, etc.--replace it with the grammatically appropriate version of "the mystical joining of one body to another." See what happens. Maybe nothing; maybe you'll want to cry.
Just because a mystery can be cheapened does not make it less a mystery. Just because people treat sex sort of like a handshake does not mean that it has any less significance. Just because people categorize sexual acts into "more serious" and "less serious" does not mean that they are not all united.
Kids, sex is a lot easier to get into than to get out of. We are physical people; once we begin to rely on something that is physical, we get very upset when it goes away. There is nothing necessarily wrong with holding hands, kissing, "making out." But always remember that it's foreplay; and always remember that if you start getting to know someone physically and ultimately are not with them, the pain is just as great as if it is only your heart that desires them. And if your heart desires them too, then the pain is doubled.
If you are sixteen and never been kissed, don't worry about it. If you are twenty-one and have never even held hands with anyone, don't worry about it. If you are thirty, or forty, and still a virgin, good for you. Any friends--of whatever kind--that are upset with you for this are not your friends.
That said, don't get hung up on purity either. Purity is certainly a wonderful thing; it is, of course, the absolute safest way. But we are human. We are weak. It takes an endless string of victories of self-control to maintain "purity," but it only takes one defeat to lose it. I'm not recommending you go out and have sex; if you've been paying attention, most of what I've said has been dead set against it until the exact right time. However, if you end up doing so--or if you decide not to kiss anyone until your wedding day, and end up accidentally kissing on the first date--or whatever--it in no way decreases your value as a person. Christ still died for you. I still love you. You could get an STD--four of them--and these things would not stop being true.
We can get to the mechanics in a minute; any questions on this, the important part?
Saturday, December 24, 2011
Personally, I find it presumptuous and pretentious at best to even call this a debate. Why? Because in order to render this debate completely pointless, all that is needed is one single instance of a man and a woman being "just friends" and nothing more. If there is one single instance of this, anywhere, ever, then no matter how well-reasoned or smugly self-anecdotal an argument against the idea of men and women being "just friends," that argument has been disproven.
To be smugly self-anecdotal myself, I actually have rather a lot of experience here: I have more truly close friends who are women--that is, there are more women with whom I would entrust my life or my deepest secret--than men.
I would not want to belittle the complexity involved here; male-female "just friendships" tend to be more complicated than same-sex friendships (though I even have personal experience to contradict that generalization). Basically, in such a friendship, the possibility of romance has to be dealt with in one way or another. Sometimes one or the other or both friends have to go through a "crush" phase; sometimes re-evaluations need to be made--in some cases, frequently. Or, sometimes, both sides are uninterested in being anything more than friends from the beginning.
Whatever. The whole "debate" leaves a bad taste in my mouth; it's the kind of either-or thinking that a culture obsessed with polemics likes to jam down everyone's throats. It's the kind of binary thinking that makes for smug, self-assured, simplistic pronouncements whose effects are ultimately negative, in that they limit the range of options available in an already rather sticky territory. Sometimes when things are complicated, "either" and "or" are equally bad, and the best option lies somewhere not in the middle, but off to one side, above or below the stated options.
(By the way, as the post I linked above points out, this sort of "either/or" thinking is what's known as a False Dichotomy Fallacy--an argument that presents two options as if they are the only ones, when there are actually several more available.)
Ultimately, I think, it comes down to what world a person is willing to build. If a person decides to build a world where men and women have to be either More Than Friends or else ignore one another, then that is the world they are going to inhabit. However, if a person is willing to live in a world where it is perfectly possible to be friends with a member of the opposite sex, they will find that that world exists as well.
Monday, December 12, 2011
The boy stood on the balcony of his parents’ high-rise apartment, looking down at the city glimmering, swimming below, a stew of golden light and red and green and blue neon, with occasional glimmers from afar of the torches of the revolutionaries, occasional gunshots as the revolution made its slow progress, not affecting the boy and his family and those like them, the rich, the privileged.
As the boy stood there on the balcony, he knew. The knowledge came with his parents’ voices swirling and boiling out from the apartment, with the rising cacophony as they shouted at each other, screamed at each other, accused each other as the world burned around them.
The boy spread his wings and jumped. He flapped his wings and he flew. His stomach churning, he flew out over the sea of the city, out past the gleaming spires pricking the sky like silver pins, then out over the seas of rolling wheat, dull gold under the white of the moon. He came to a barn, and he flew into it and sat alone, and suddenly he knew that he was all alone. But it was better than hearing his parents scream.
When [insert Idol here] happens, I will be happy.
As long as [insert Idol here] happens/fails to happen/continues to happen, I will be happy.
2. Some Possible Flesh
When I graduate, I will be happy.
When I get my bachelor's/masters/PhD, I will be happy.
When I get married, I will be happy.
If I can date [name], I will be happy.
As long as I marry [name], I will be happy.
If I always have friends around, I will be happy.
If I am always friends with [name(s)], I will be happy.
As long as I have a job that pays at a certain level, I will be happy.
When I am making enough to afford a certain level of luxury, I will be happy.
As long as I have a roof over my head and enough food to eat, I will be happy.
3. The Walking Dead
This is the kind of crap our culture foists on us. We are led, raised, and preached into the belief that there are certain things we must attain in order to attain happiness. This is preached at us by our books, our movies, our other entertainment, our pastors (even the good ones, sometimes), our presidents, our leaders, our role models. It is unavoidable. The pursuit of happy-ness is the medium in which our culture grows, and therefore it is inevitably the message of that culture.
4. The Problem Is
The problem is:
It's not true. None of it is true. If I cannot be happy with the sum total of all the gifts I have been given, then the sum total of all the gifts I have been given plus this one thing that I really really want is not going to give me happiness. Or, if it does, then it will be happiness founded on the most shifting of shifting sands.
5. The Religious Part
Up to now, what I've been saying is pretty ecumenical, I think. That is, it can be agreed with or disputed without getting into the thorny subject of religion. The rest of the parts are religious. So if that flips your lid, go away. OR, better yet, stick around and see how another side thinks.
Once I asked my brother if it ever seemed to him that if we could think the right thought, glean the right insight, we could see the bones of the world. Not really responding to that, he said the right insight is this:
Christus resurgens ex morituis iam non moritur mors illi ultra non dominabitur.
Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and dies no more; death shall have no more dominion over Him.
Everything else, from the clothes on our backs on up, is gravy.
6. The Valley
This kind of fiasco happens in a Christian setting, too, and sometimes it is all the more nefarious by being clothed in Christian language, as if not only is this the only way to attain happiness, it is the only way to attain salvation, or at least the only proper way to respond to salvation.
One that I see a lot due to my time of life is, “Once you are married you will attain happiness and be living a proper Christian life.” I have never had this preached at me; I have only had it assumed at me. Which, actually, is worse.
Once you have joined a good Bible study, you will attain happiness and be living a proper Christian life.
Once you regularly tithe ten percent, you will be living a proper Christian life and attain happiness.
Once your church/youth group/Bible study swells in numbers, you have attained a sure sign of God's favor, and of course happiness. (An inexcusable personal aside: nothing will make me run from a church so quickly as when it is clear that its members and leaders are happy to see me not because I am a person, but because I am a number.)
Once you devote as many of your waking hours as you possibly can to things that are labeled “charities,” you will attain happiness and be walking correctly with Christ.
...all of the actions implied are perfectly honorable, and all are symptoms of a healthy faith. However, none of them, that is none of them, are requisite; none of them are required for salvation. The statements as they are written above are lies.
Look at “The Problem is.” I would be willing to bet every Christian knows someone, if only second or third hand, who has left the faith because something happened to them that they were somehow convinced a loving God would not let them go through. Often they lost the only person in the world who could make them happy. Is our faith as shallow as that?
7. Shall These Bones Live?
Our faith is ancient. We have roots that transcend this time, this culture, and the prejudices and blindness that come from any pervasive medium, any culture.
And what do we do with those roots? Our tendency is to ignore them, or to be embarrassed by them, apologize for them, and try to mold them to fit in with the message of our culture. Why? Every culture has its prejudices; every attempt at freedom is oppressive.
Our faith is an escape route. Embrace the ancient. The more it seems to offend our cultural sensibilities—whether that involves secular culture or church culture—the more likely it is giving us something that we need.
If Christ did not rise, I am of all men most miserable. You know the rest.
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Ray Bradbury, an author I tend to trust on the subject, says that an author has to write 1,000,000 words of fiction in order to know what he or she is doing. Various other writers I tend to trust have said similar things, or directly backed up Bradbury's statement. It's one of several reasons I try to write more or less constantly.
But, the closer I get to a million words, the less I feel I know what I'm doing. The closer I approach to that threshold, the more aware I am of my own shortcomings, the more I realize how pathetic my knowledge of techniques and of other authors is, the more I feel like I should stop writing before I get to a million words and know nothing.
In 2009 I took Playwriting, a class I was let into by the grace of its teacher in spite of not having the prerequisite courses for it. It is still one of the classes in which I learned the most about writing in general.
As a final project for that class, we were required to write a 1-act play. My play was described as "very Ethan-ish," which I suppose is a compliment. It was about a mother and daughter, and the person who killed the mother when the daughter was an infant. At the height of the play, the daughter reads the one letter she got from her mother, a letter written by her mother while the daughter was an infant:
“My darling child,
"I write this as I watch you sleep peacefully, your little eyes closed, your little fists relaxed (for once). I am thinking of all the things I want for you, of all the things you will accomplish, and of how proud I will be of you no matter who you turn out to be. But, and maybe this is just the natural worry of a mother, most of my thoughts turn towards things I have experienced or seen or heard that I never wish you to experience. Things I hope I will be able to protect you from. Things I know I will not be able to protect you from—your first love, your first broken heart, your first betrayal.
“My mother, in her semi-mystical way, always used to say this to me: ‘The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.’ The dragons in life, I have found, are never what we expect them to be. They are never what we are prepared for. We must face them on the strength of our weakness, that weakness which is turned into perfect strength by our God.”
For one of my graduate classes I just finished reading The Painted Drum, a novel by Native American author Louise Erdrich. This is a novel that is about, among other things, mothers and daughters, and the love that is between them. It was published in 2005, four years before I wrote my play, but as implied, I had not heard of it, much less read it, until this year. A couple pages from the end of that novel we have this:
"There are other things that [my mother] could say to me, things I will never hear. I doubt that many mothers say these things to their daughters... They try to protect us, even when we're middle-aged. So I must supply the words for myself:
"Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could." (Erdrich, The Painted Drum, 274)
Obviously there are differences--her writing is good, mine is not; my writing has overtly religious content, hers does not; etc.--but they are similar enough to give me a slightly eerie feeling. I suppose some burgeoning writers like me would be annoyed, perhaps thinking that such similarity implied in them a lack of originality. However, I tend to view the finding of such things oddly flattering. I take it, perhaps incorrectly, to imply that I have hit on something universal, or at least somewhat universal. At the very least I find encouragement in the fact that my wild guess at what a universal theme might be in such a case is so similar to someone else's--someone with a LOT of credo, no less.
Saturday, November 19, 2011
to be your harlequin, your palanquin,
you needed only to have told me.
I would have sprung, on Mercury's slippers,
into the tops of the trees
where the real leaves lie, with their real slippers,
with their buds of exchange
and their slippers like old theaters
breathing the dust of soliloquies
past, breathing the dust of two
children who thought they were adults
and were performing for each other
in that old theater on an august night
and the soft melting of whose lips
illustrated, unconsciously, the soft melting
of the snow in April, illustrated
the way all things fade away in the end.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
...it has problems. In it, Sanderson talks about postmodernism in fantasy, declaring himself to be a postmodern fantasist and trying to define ways in which fantasy has been, and is, postmodern.
I only have the time and energy to point out a few of the problems at the moment. I guess my first major beef is that after stating, correctly, that fantasy was very quickly ready for a postmodern era, since it was subverting its own genre tropes almost from the beginning, Sanderson says this (in the context of his idea for Mistborn):
The thing that made me want to write it, originally, was the thought, “What if Rand lost the Last Battle? What if Frodo had failed to destroy the ring? What if the Dark Lord won?”See. Frodo DID fail to destroy the Ring. Why is it that nobody, especially those writing criticism of Tolkien, seems to remember this? Frodo failed. The evil, the corruption, overcame him, and it is only through the influence of Gollum's greed that the ring is destroyed.
What I'm saying is, if this sort of thinking makes fantasy postmodern, then fantasy has been postmodern from its very beginning. Which essentially renders the appellation meaningless. (Actually, this sort of thing goes back farther than Tolkien. Lord Dunsany was subverting the tropes of fairy stories, and James Branch Cabell subverting the tropes of basically everything, decades before Tolkien published Lord of the Rings.)
Here's a post from Jeff VanderMeer where he says a lot of the things I thought about this post, and has much more credibility to do so. Vandermeer is one of a slew of fantasy writers I can think of off the top of my head who are actually postmodern; others include Michael Moorcock (Elric, among others); Neil Gaiman (though he claims, rather charmingly, not to know what it means to be a postmodern writer, his short stories and most of his novels are filled with postmodern tropes and techniques); China Mieville; Steven Erickson; R. Scott Bakker; Kelly Link; Jeffrey Ford; Jasper Fforde; and even George R.R. Martin. Not all of these people are writers of epic fantasy, though a lot of them are, but all of them are more postmodern than Sanderson probably ever will be. (And I do realize the ridiculousness of the phrase 'more postmodern,' since as VanderMeer points out, postmodernism is not a monolithic concept of the type that lends itself well to a scale or even a continuum.)
Of course, that leaves off the writer who might be the king of postmodern fantasy (a title I am guessing he would hate): M. John Harrison. By the end of his Viriconium books, Harrison has deconstructed his fantasy world right out of existence. That, ladies and gentlemen, is postmodernism (granted, one of many possible incarnations of postmodernism); that is deconstruction. Setting a world a thousand years after the hero failed is a neat concept, a springboard for a good story, but it does not make a book 'postmodern fantasy.' (Or if it does, then the appellation would have to be defined so generically as to be useless.)
But my major problem is the point Sanderson seems to be making about Mistborn. He seems to think that the series' success came from the fact that it was a supposed postmodern fantasy; that it was the specifically postmodern things he was doing with the book that made it good. Now, there's a certain truth to this, if we go with Sanderson's definitions of postmodernism: most of the people I know who fell in love with those books seem to have done so because the story was something they had not seen before, the world-building and concepts very new, very fresh. If Sanderson got there by consciously taking epic fantasy tropes and twisting them, then more power to him. But again, he's just following in a long line stretching from the people subverting William Morris in the late 19th Century up through the reactions to Tolkien up through now. If that technique is postmodern, once again, all of fantasy is postmodern, and it's not even worth having this discussion.
The thing is, people don't fall in love with a technique, or with a form, or with a movement, when they fall in love with a book. People want good writing, good characters, and a world that they can either get lost in or through which they can gain new insight into the world, or both. Mistborn has enough of those things that it sold well, and that people fell for it.
If you want real postmodern fantasy (which, sometimes, I do), read M. John Harrison. If you want a good story with solid characters and an intriguing world, read Brandon Sanderson. Don't worry about the deconstruction, unless that sort of thing floats your boat, in which case, let's have coffee.
Friday, November 11, 2011
raked by the moon’s silver venom.
you called me and said you wanted to walk
said you were depressed
and that you wanted to attack the night and talk
about anything that wasn’t being depressed.
since I was the one who had said you weren’t allowed
to walk alone at night you said I was the one
who had to walk alone with you.
that was years ago. the moon has waxed and waned,
becoming a great accusing face,
a silver spoon made to overflow with its own mercury,
melted down in the crucible of our hearts.
we walked a crooked shining silver sidewalk
past a slow stream that wound under a bridge
of bright yellow with streamers flying,
and both of us thought of being kids,
when bridges were castles in the sky
floating high above a night land whose green
and twinkling flow like a river
the color of a peacock’s tail
spelled redemption from all the bloody scrapes
and the throat-tearing shouting matches
that filled our days like the hot sun.
i told you a line i took from hemingway:
that the world breaks everybody
but afterward many are strong in the broken places.
i used to like that sort of thing,
big sweeping cynical speeches
from novelists who knew everything.
now they hurt too much, and the breath
to make the speech comes from a place in my heart
that is too broken for words.
we are broken places, you and I,
and how can we be strong
when we don’t believe in strength?
moonbeams shoot out the ends of your hair
and i hold the sun in the palm of my hands
but all i can remember are three red-gold leaves
that floated to the sidewalk that night,
the silent wind of whose passing
through the river of the moon’s face
silenced us as if forever.
Monday, November 07, 2011
A golden moment's come to pass,
And it made a swift goodbye.
Waved its hand from left to right,
Saying bye, farewell, goodnight.
But it left me brave and bold,
Like the knights of ages past,
Like the dawn leaves dew upon the grass.
As morning glories bloom,
So do some things in life this way:
Rising early but well past noon,
They weaken die and fade.
But there's many perspective buds
Still clinging to the vine,
Waiting in patience
To show their glory at later times.
Oh I got what I wanted.
And I'll be afraid no more,
And face all these toxic things,
Also, their EP, "I Was Seeking and I Found," contains five songs: "Buck Up, They're Coming.", "You Can't Escape Them;", "You Can't Evade Them.", "But You Can Enjoy Life Before And After,", and "Without Fear of their Return."
Thursday, November 03, 2011
She led us to the edge of a giant bowl in the woodlands, a sudden valley that dips away and down. The trees grew at angles that made some of them look like awnings, like giant fans, like someone had chucked a giant toothpick into the side of the hill.
“I used to come out here when I was a lot younger, when my parents and Cassie were shouting at each other,” Grace said. “It was the only really rebellious thing I did until… well, until everything I did was rebellious.”
There was a tree that was growing at an angle that was nearly horizontal. Into the trunk, in a rough sort of block letter carving, was the word GRACELAND. Grace pointed to it and grinned at us. “My mark,” she said.
She led us farther down the slope, all three of us leaning back to counter balance as we scuffed our shoes in the dirt side of the valley, until we got to a tree that had fallen. Judging from the size of the thing and the rot at the base of the trunk, it may have simply died of old age. Grace hopped up on the trunk and balanced her way out onto it. Mark stopped and watched her go; I hopped up after her and followed behind, ready to grab her if she fell. She turned and gave me a bit of a quizzical look and then yelled at Mark.
“You have to come up here, too.”
Mark sighed and hauled himself up onto the log, and came and stood by the two of us, a little close, as though he were trying to stand next to Grace through me. Grace pointed and we turned and looked off the broad side of the log down at the valley as the sun was striking it.
“I have this timed down to the second,” Grace said. I was about to mention how the valley did look really beautiful when the sun was at this exact angle, filtering through the trees and making the valley glow green and shining red off of some metal that must have been buried in the dirt, and white off a hundred sprays of mushrooms I suddenly realized were scattered throughout the valley floor. But the breath to form the words caught suddenly in my throat. The view wasn’t what she was talking about at all. The sunlight shone another scene, as if the light itself was creating a view, or projecting it. Suddenly the valley floor became mapped with roads of gleaming gold and the trees transmuted into houses, but houses like I had never seen before, great hills black as pitch with gold windows from which white light shone, and one great house like a miniature mountain which rose over all of them. There were people dressed in robes almost like kimonos, adorned with stars, robes of gold and white and red, and in the center of the town a great fountain sprayed water into the sky, and above the fountain rose a globe that pulsed with color, more color than I could comprehend, color that seemed to encompass all hues at once and leave me with the feeling that I was seeing more than I could possibly comprehend. I stared at the scene for what could not have been a minute but felt like hours, not sure where to look, wanting to see all of it and barely able to comprehend or contain any of it. Then, the sun passed behind a cloud, and it was gone.
Tuesday, November 01, 2011
There's not a whole lot for Larry and me to report about that year either, and unlike certain people, I won't take 1200 words to say how little there is to talk about. Larry and I pretty much went on the way we always did. We would have known who Grace was, if you asked us, and we knew when she went off to boarding school because that's the kind of thing that home schoolers will talk about, but she was nobody special to us at that point.
That was the year we both got jobs; I started working the cash register at a gas station and Larry started working desk and shelving at the local library. He would show up to the gas station and sit on a stool behind the counter with me and grab cigarettes for people if I was too slow to find the pack they asked for. I would show up at the library and follow him around while he shelved and sometimes unshelve things just to make him mad, which didn't work because he said it just killed part of his shift while not really making things more complicated for him, shelving wise.
We went through several phases, that year: an alchemy phase, a time travel phase, an Atlantis phase, and several minor history phases (the Napoleonic Wars, the Hundred Years' War, the Great Depression, British Colonialism). We did some writing, too, mostly to entertain ourselves and each other. One series we wrote while some of our phases overlapped was about time traveling alchemists who sometimes lived in Ancient Atlantis. That was fun. Larry's library job allowed him to check out materials without getting overdue fines, which allowed us to keep books for the months on end that we required when obsessed with a particular subject.
One book Larry checked out, on supposed (or suspected) Atlantean architecture, showed a picture of a pyramid sunk under the ocean in the Bahamas, on the stone side of which was carved a circle with spiky points, that could have been a stylized sun, or moon, or star. I remember Larry staring at it for a while.
“I recognize that design,” he said.
I glanced at the picture. “Says it doesn't resemble any known design.”
“I can see that. But I still recognize it.”
“Did you dream it? Maybe the Atlanteans are trying to communicate with you.”
“Maybe,” said Larry, but he was still focused on the book.