Happiness, Placebos, and the Beliefs of Others

Because I need one more thing in my life to distract me from actually making progress on any of the other things in my life, I’ve picked up a new hobby recently: wire-wrapping. To be honest, at this point, picking up the hobby mostly consists of watching hours of video tutorials. Something about them is just mesmerizing.

I have gone so far as to pick up some wire and rocks for the wrapping, which involved a trip to the Rock & Art Shop. I loved the Rock & Art Shop before I ever set foot in there, because my nephew has been buying all of his Christmas presents for the family there for a few years. He always finds the neatest things, so I was excited to have an excuse to pop over while I was in the area for a class with my mom.

My mom, against any odds I would have given you, fell in love with a hunk of polished fluorite. It was pretty, all purple and green, and her encomiums drew the attention of an equally enthusiastic clerk. “Oh, I love fluorite,” the young woman said. “It’s so good for you.”

The clerk then proceeded to spend several eternally long minutes exclaiming on the metaphysical virtues of fluorite, on its ability to soak up the positive ions emitted by technology in order to prevent them from throwing off our balance, on its ability to inspire creativity, and a number of other things I didn’t quite catch because I was trying to figure out how to get my mother out of this conversation before her religious aversion to all things mystical overcame her general politeness. Fortunately, about the third time that my mother said, “Yes, well, it is a very pretty rock,” the clerk picked up on the negative charge of her words and stopped attempting to talk the store out of a sale.

I have a tough time interacting with folks around such topics myself. I grew up in a pretty religious home and went through a difficult transition when I left home and realized that my particular beliefs were not just rationally hard to justify: they were actively harmful to people I cared about. I’ve managed to find a place where I feel stable, which includes a general skepticism of all things without any scientific support and a default moral position of trying (not always succeeding, but trying) to default to kindness in my actions to others. Anything more codified or mystical tends to put me at yellow alert, because it strikes me as just another skin for the same lack of responsibility for one’s behavior to others that drove me away from the church in the first place.

But…one thing that I do believe in is the placebo effect. While I very much doubt there’s any rigorous data supporting the ability of fluorite to improve one’s creativity objectively or any clinical trials to test whether or not Mercury being in retrograde actually makes the world go haywire, there are people who put stock in those ideas, and I’m sure that their belief plays a role in their ability to cope with what life throws at them. Coping mechanisms don’t need to be rational to be valuable, and having people who don’t take value from your particular mechanism cut it down is only either going to polarize you into a stronger belief or chip away at the placebo effect that makes your belief useful. So I try very hard to mostly keep my own baggage under wraps when other people wax poetic about their rocks and stars and prophets and just live and let live unless I see someone being hurt by someone else’s belief-motivated actions.

And then, there’s this: a qualitative study based on self-report around some admittedly squidgy emotion words. When you look at the vast numbers of people who cling to some sort of belief system, though, it’s not hard to accept the notion that the ability to engage in awe might actually be valuable to our well-being. Awe isn’t something I’m great at: experiencing wonder doesn’t so much go hand in hand with habitual cynicism as it does hand to hand. I’ve been stuck in a rut of “That’s cool if it’s true, but what’s the flaw?” habit of mind for a while, and it’s a rut that has some legitimate usefulness.

So here’s the question: how do you balance useful skepticism with a bit of healthy awe? Is it possible to experience the benefits of wonder without getting swept out to sea in a riptide of nonsense?

I had an extended conversation with a friend awhile ago about this article. I read it when I was at the bottom of a particularly unproductive slump of negativity, and she took me to task for doubting my own ability to wonder, because I do have a tendency to get a bit carried away by things that spark my interest…like watching people turn bits of unremarkable rock and wire into shiny jewelry. Or how knitting and trigonometry go hand in hand. I tend not to think of those sidetrips of fascination as awe, though, which is where the squidginess of emotion words in qualitative studies becomes problematic. If awe is not operationally defined, how am I supposed to look at my interest in dendritic limestone and judge whether or not it’s meeting my recommended daily dose of awe?

There are, obviously, no perfect answers that will suit everyone, and it’s not a scientifically well-defined problem, but it is something I chew on from time to time. What is the difference between faith in the ionic properties of rocks and joy at the process of turning them into art?

On Possessing the Origin of All Poems

I am bogged down in my least favorite part of writing at the moment. Every single one of my ongoing projects is at a phase where I’m slogging through tedious continuity edits and fact-checking. Blergh. If I emerge from the other side without shaving my head bald as some sort of desperate prayer for salvation from the tedium, I will count myself saner than expected.

I have to laugh at myself about the continuity piece. When I set out to write Autumn’s Daughter, the original intent was to work on a YA fantasy concept that would require minimal research and therefore be an easier gateway for playing with voice and plot and the like. I wasn’t wrong about the level of research needed to pull AD off, but what I failed to realize is that if you create a world that you decide to keep writing in, you are still going to have to put research in. The only difference is that you have a much smaller body of information to keep track of (i.e., what you’ve already written as opposed to, say, the entire span of works on Korean culture) and the information originated from your own brain…which mostly just means it would be several degrees of magnitude more embarrassing to rest the pivot point of the sequel on a fulcrum that you outlawed as impossible in the first book.

Fact-checking research is frustrating, but it’s also the foundation of believable contexts and rich scenarios. So: it matters.

The most difficult problem of research is, of course, “How do I know what I don’t know?” A friend gave me the term “postage stamp worlds” to encapsulate this struggle. When you look at stamps, they seem like a fairly simple illustration, but the closer you look, the more you realize that the art is lush with detail that seems impossibly complex for the size of the thing. Any area of expertise or knowledge is the same way: from an outside perspective, it looks like an interesting little hobby or quirky set of facts. The minute you decide to step in to become part of the world, however, you will find yourself tumbling down an absolute warren of rabbit holes.

I fall into these warrens all the time. One of the first qualifications for being a writer is probably an unhealthy fascination with pretty much everything, although there is some serious irony in the fact that my endless fascination with everything really eats into my writing time. My latest warren is drawing, in particular botanical drawing, and while I was reading Bente Starcke King’s Beautiful Botanicals, my brain latched onto this:

At the risk of moralizing, I will nevertheless point out that you should work from original materials and never copy someone else’s drawing. If another artist made a mistake, you are likely to repeat if not magnify an error.

While she’s discussing the importance of drawing from actual plants instead of photos or drawings, it’s an interesting thought to ponder in the context of writing. There is a great deal of temptation to borrow research from other writers. If I were to write high fantasy, for example, it would be incredibly tempting to simply mash together all of the weaponry / clothing / conveyance / horse gear / etc. terms I’ve picked up from reading an unhealthy amount of high fantasy. But that approach means that (a) I might repeat or build upon another writer’s sloppy research and (b) I’m limited to the set of details that other authors have chosen to pull from their studies and could very well be missing that lynch pin detail that makes the scene work.

I was listening to Tex Thompson and Dan Bensen talk writing on Dan’s podcast awhile back (which you should listen to in full), and they got into a discussion about Tex’s writing of horses and characters who love horses. Tex made the point that even though she is not really into the smelly, hot labor of caring for horses, she spent plenty of time around people who are, which itself gave her an insider’s perspective on how people appreciate horses.

What all of this boils down to for me is that, while good research is essential to rich fiction and the best way to resolve the epistemology problem of research is to get your feet wet in whatever postage stamp world you’re working with, you don’t necessarily have to dive in to find the hidden questions. Smart researching means making friends with a wide range of cool people with diverse interests and listening actively and intently to their enthusiastic gushing for the thing they love.

…Which means that writing fiction doesn’t actually excuse me from developing the good interview/people skills that scared me away from journalism many moons ago.

Curses. Foiled again.

One Mainer’s Guide to Snowpocalypse Survival

I keep seeing a set of snowstorm survival tips from the Bangor Police Department circulating online, and while there’s some very nice advice from some wonderful humans in there, I think there’s an underlying assumption implied by some of the specific advice that this big snowstorm you’re facing is sorta cute by Maine standards. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But I remember the ice storm, and let me tell you, if things get that real for you, on this storm or the next, buying cereal and batteries is just not going to cut it. So here’s my slightly tongue-in-cheek insight on how we actually survive truly bad snow and ice up here in God’s frozen hindquarters.

First: Mainers and “stocking up.”

The reason we survive snow storms so nicely is that we all assume that any report of 1″ or more is heralding the next snow-pocalypse. This is why I am positive that all fiction about looting food stores after the collapse of civilization is grossly optimistic. (One day, people. If the world goes to hell, your local grocery store will be out of everything in less than 24 hours.) Fortunately, most of the weather events don’t turn into the ice storm of ’98, so if you clear out the grocery store of all non-perishable food items every time there’s a whisper of impending snow, you will eventually acquire a stash of dried beans and oatmeal that will carry you through the actual End of the World as We Know It.

Cap’n Crunch? Please. As if the people buying all the bread didn’t clear out all the milk first anyway. Also, little tip: sugary carbs like cereal are going to leave you feeling hangry, anxious, and sock-mouthed pretty fast if that’s all you’ve got on hand. I know stuff like beans, Spam, sardines, Vienna sausages, and other weird canned stuff that can technically be eaten at room temp or below is not going to appeal to anyone who didn’t grow up on the stuff, but non-perishable sources of protein and fat are going to help you feel full longer than cereal and possibly not as many people will have thought to clear the shelves of them, so try to think outside the habits of eating that are normal and reasonable in a functioning civilization.

Nuts and nut butters are also good choices, of course, but I think the bread/milk hoarders tend to at least hit the nut butters, so if you’re later to the legal looting madness we call “stocking up for a storm,” be brave. Canned meat tastes like salt and fat, and human tastebuds are engineered to appreciate that combo, so you’ll adjust. Grab some mustard…there’s probably plenty of that in the store, and mustard can cover a multitude of weird canned food sins.

Second: water.

Elementary school science might come in handy here, but do you know what snow is? That’s right: it’s frozen water. I’m not saying you should eat snow straight as a rule, but in a pinch, you can melt it down and use it to flush toilets or wash dishes or take a sponge bath. If you can boil it (no less than 1 minute at a full, rolling boil), it’s certainly less dangerous than dying of dehydration. So if you got caught without the massive gallons of backup water supply that all seasoned Mainers tend to keep in their basements (swapping out annually, 1/8-1/4 tsp. bleach per gallon of stored water), don’t panic: you’re surrounded by the stuff if you can put in the work to change its physical state and sanitize it.

Third: management of food temperatures.

If you’ve got three feet of snow, you’ve got what could be called a natural ice box. That’s how you keep the milk for the questionable life choice of sugared cereal as a survival food cold. Just…be mindful of the local wildlife population when deciding how to store food outside.

If you’ve got a grill, you’ve got hot food and an option for boiling water, so don’t forget to clear out the remnants of the charcoal section that Home Deport carries in winter, or fill up your propane tanks. If you don’t own appropriate cold weather equipment for grilling in the middle of winter, we will only judge you a little teensy affectionate bit for wearing three pairs of pants. Whatever it takes.

Fourth: management of your temperature.

You can make more body heat than you might think just by sticking the whole family in the same room. (That questionable suggestion of a sponge bath is going to start to sound brilliant real fast.) Hang towels across the windows if they’re not well-insulated. Old blankets or sheets can help add a layer of air insulation to doors, if needed. Blanket forts make great places to read and play board games and they let you improve the ratio of bodies to air space for minimum heat loss. Propane heaters can be tempting, but read the warning labels: a lot of them (like patio heaters) are not meant to be used in an enclosed space, so be smart and pick up a carbon monoxide detector for good measure. And they will quite possibly set things like polyester on fire, so, you know…don’t stand too close in an effort to get warm.

Fifth: batteries.

If you don’t have batteries, don’t panic. As long as you can muddle through without emergency services, you’ll probably survive without power for a couple days. Or weeks. But if you do have batteries, it’s worth managing your power needs sensibly. Priority one is maintaining communication for emergency purposes. This means not playing games or streaming videos on your cell phone or letting your teens spend long hours arguing with their boos about who should hang up first. Not if you don’t have a way to recharge batteries. Additionally: if the phone lines don’t go out (and I have never experience the phone lines going out, though I imagine plenty of folks don’t have landlines anymore), a corded phone will work without power. You can still get them and they are cheap as dirt, so it’s a sensible communication option to have on hand if you’ve got a landline.

Priority two is keeping light for emergency situations. Cheapo LED flashlights run off a single AAA for a crazy long time, so that’s our go-to flashlight. Two packs are maybe $5 at places like Home Depot and Harbor Freight, and you probably have tons of AAAs from all those times you thought buying a multi-pack of batteries was a good deal only to realize that pretty much nothing runs on AAAs. If you can get one, an LED lantern that can be charged via a solar panel or a handcrank is damn handy for lighting a room a bit if you don’t really want to just go to bed when the sun goes down.

Finally, and in all seriousness: check on people.

This is not a joke or an idle suggestion. Old people and folks with serious medical conditions are at risk for a lot more than heart attacks under tough conditions. They might not have had the transportation to get to the store to stock up. They might not have the physical strength to haul water. They’re more susceptible to lower temperatures. They might need medications or regular life-saving treatments that they can’t get access to if they can’t shovel themselves out. Single-parents with little kids are also going to have a much harder time managing the extra strain that comes with a weather emergency. If you have the strength to make yourself useful, warm yourself up with a little exercise and break up the monotony of waiting for civilization to pull itself together by going door to door to check on your neighbors.

You might just save lives (or at least make some new friends), and there is nothing more badass than taking the time to take care of others in the middle of a community crisis. Just remember the first rule of emergency response: you can’t do any good to anyone if you get yourself killed or seriously injured in an attempt to help, so if a situation would require you to endanger yourself in order to be useful, call the pros. Inform the trained professionals and do what they tell you to do instead of adding one more needed rescue to their list.

So that is the best addendum I can offer to the BPD suggestions. Really and truly, take care of each other and don’t panic. If it gets really hairy, at least you’ll be able to tell the stories of how people came together for the rest of your hopefully long and unsnowy lives.

To Hold Lightning

Once upon a time (late 2009, to be precise), I started this blog. It began under a different name on Livejournal as a light-hearted way to keep in touch with family and friends while John and I were living in the distant heathen wasteland (kidding) of Massachusetts. My first post was about the absolute nightmare which is moving into Boston on September 1st (dear lord, DON’T) and was followed soon after by a haiku about the stupidity of walking barefoot onto a fire escape. Much more about the adventure of living than about anything of particular import.

My blog took a turn of sorts in 2010, when I moved the site to WordPress and changed the name to reflect my writing aspirations instead of our location, since we were getting ready to move in the not too distant future. My first post there is now HILARIOUS to me, since I have gone from being a rank n00b in WordPress to someone who is paid to shepherd other n00bs around their shiny new WordPress sites. The renaming of my blog has always worried me a little bit (is it too pretentious? I mean, it’s stuffy, which is okay because I’m stuffy, but is it off-puttingly snooty?), but I think now that the name “Between the Lightning Bug and the Lightning” has turned out to be very reflective of the struggle I’ve been going through in terms of what and what not to say online.

I have been too silent. I’ve been writing, mind you. I have a dozen drafts that have never made it into the public eye because after writing them with great passion, great anger, I calmed down and was afraid. Who am I to talk about the role of shared transgression in humor? Do I know enough about cultural appropriation to speak up in public about such a tricky issue? Does my role as a writer give me enough of a stake in what happened at Charlie Hebdo to speak to extremism and art as a weapon? Have I read enough modern philosophy to talk about the death of the author and the controversy with the Hugos? Is it okay for me to be publicly angry at the way that jackasses on the internet target opinionated women? Where’s the line between a productive expression of that anger and a non-productive joining of the troll hordes?

I’ve been stepping away from the lightning bugs, the funny little life stories, and stepping towards the lightning, the arena of Topics That Matter. But I’ve been afraid to hold the lightning and own it, so I’ve been too silent.

Recently, just to test the positioning of a reading lamp I had installed, I picked up a volume of essays by Emerson that was close by and ended up skimming “Self-Reliance” and I stayed put, captivated by this essay which I somehow had missed in my education (or forgotten), because of this piece in the first paragraph:

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

I had been talking with a friend not long ago about the challenge of being opinionated online as a woman. We were in agreement that it’s not the safest choice. It only takes one troll to decide you’re worth targeting to rain fire and frustration into your life. Anonymity is safer…but anonymity also reduces the impact of what you say. We went back and forth quite a bit, but ultimately, I walked away from the conversation feeling like I was doing myself a disservice in remaining quiet.

I wrote the bulk of this essay after that conversation a while ago, but I still held off on publishing it. It takes a lot of guts and a little stupidity to wield lightning, and I’m not convinced my balance of the two isn’t reversed. So I waffled and added this piece to the unpublished pile until earlier this week, when the remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. brought some of his more famous masterly good sense to my attention: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Here’s to reaching for the gleam of lightning and surviving the inevitable burns.

Book Review: Groom of the Tyrannosaur Queen

tyrannosaur-queen-coverbMy friend Dan Bensen is giving us all a lovely New Year’s present: he’s releasing his book Groom of the Tyrannosaur Queen! This is a project I had the immense pleasure of reading while he was in his later revision stages awhile back. If you like super-cool future tech, dinosaurs, and philosophical barbarian kings, you’ll definite get your $3.99 out of this book, so you should probably go pre-order it now.

Quick Review:

Overall, I really enjoyed the story. Very cool world-building, interesting characters, fascinating tech and social structures. It’s the rich sort of place that leaves me wondering about the not-quite-told stories, of Andrea’s life in the future, of the time travelers who got lost in the past. And, of course, you can’t lose with riding dinosaurs. Who hasn’t imagined themselves in the T-rex rodeo? Seriously. AWESOME.

Once again: here’s where you pre-order for January 1. Go forth and enjoy.

The Spoilers Awaken

John and I saw The Force Awakens for the second time last night, and I am ready to talk details with other raging fans. If you haven’t yet seen it…

THIS POST WILL CONTAIN MASSIVE, GIANT, IMPORTANT SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS. IT WILL ALSO CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR ALL PREVIOUSLY RELEASED STAR WARS EPISODES. TRUST ME: THIS IS NOT A POST SUITABLE FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN ALL THE STAR WARS AND WHO WOULD LIKE TO EXPERIENCE ALL ASPECTs UNBIASED BY OTHER PEOPLE’S OPINIONS. IF YOU EVEN THINK YOU MIGHT FALL INTO THAT CATEGORY, YOU SHOULD FLEE. CLICK OFF THIS TAB NOW. SERIOUSLY, GO AWAY. YOU DO NOT WANT TO READ THIS BEFORE YOU SEE THE MOVIES.

Okay, I think that did it. If I ruin anything in Star Wars for you now, you have only yourself to blame. Also fair warning: I have a LOT to gush and theorize about and this post will not be easy to keep up with if you’re not already a moderate fan of the franchise.

Quickie Review

Two thumbs up is not enough. I am giving The Force Awakens the Jazz Hands of Approval +1.

Long Review

I’ve heard people complaining that it’s too much like A New Hope, but it’s not. It’s like the first episode of a new Star Wars trilogy: Force-strong mechanically apt pilot with obvious Skywalker bloodlines leaves desert planet to engage in galactic politics as a prospective Chosen One…this is the kind of stuff we’re here for, folks. If you don’t like it, I seriously question your decision to show up at a Star Wars film. But beyond being a new 1 of 3, VII echoes the entire original trilogy. It would take an entire series of posts to call out all of the subtle and brilliant details where Abrams calls out the original series. (Hello, sexy opening shot inverting the opening shot of IV, and here’s a solid LOL for that moment where Abrams was all, “Gee, Georgie, I think your borrowings from the work of Leni Riefenstahl were just too darn subtle, but don’t worry, I’ll fix it.”) That being said, here are a few key points to highlight that VII was not calling out only IV, but rather the entire original trilogy, a point which is critical to my later speculations…

Episode IV

  • Poor desert dweller with a knack for flying and talking to droids is forced to flee the bad guys after taken up company with the missing droids of the good guys who carry vital information
  • Escape from desert planet is (just barely) facilitated by the lovingly mocked hunk of junk we call the Millenium Falcon
  • The mystical big bad and the military big bad don’t play nicely together, and they both answer to a bigger bad who likes to govern via hologram.
  • The bad guys demonstrate the power of a new nasty super weapon against a stronghold of legitimate government. (Fare thee well, Coruscant. Say hi to Alderaan for us.)
  • Not long after stopping at a watering hole about which disclaimers are given, the main character ends up in the clutches of the bad guys and imprisoned on their nasty super weapon
  • The good guys get hold of info about the nasty super weapon (and also the info on the droid, which turns out to not be of immediate use) and analyze it
  • Rescue/escape and destruction of the nasty super weapon occur and are facilitated by the presence of a sneaky Force-strong character

Episode V

  • Emotional character puts himself in danger he isn’t equipped to handle for the sake of saving a friend.
  • Father and son confront each other in the middle of a dark and eerily lit space and a moral battle is fought for the son’s soul. Things do not go as Dad would like them to.
  • A member of the Skywalker line loses a hand. (Probably. John and I couldn’t quite tell if Ren lost his hand or was just badly injured in the final battle, but I’m assuming loss of hand because: Star Wars. It’s all fun and games with lightsabers until somebody loses a hand, and somebody ALWAYS loses a hand, because those things are frickin’ dangerous.)
  • One of the main characters ends the episode in a comatose state.
  • The main character seeks out a hidden Jedi master for training.

Episode VI

  • Han Solo requires some assistance from the plucky heroes to get out of serious trouble with some seedy smuggling associates.
  • A ground strike team sneaks onto the enemy base in order to take out the shield that will allow the fleet to destroy the nasty super weapon.
  • Complications arise that make taking out the shield slightly more difficult than expected.
  • The confrontation between father and son ultimately results in the father dying, through what could be construed as willing sacrifice on the part of the father. (Waffling hand gesture on the second part of that statement…that’s a point for debate.)
  • The nasty super weapon is ultimately taken out by the good guys’ craziest pilot, who flies straight into the weapon to shoot em’ up. (Note to the First Order’s engineers: critical system redundancy. Look it up.)

So: J.J. Abrams has given us an excellent first Star Wars movie while taking us through the cycle of the entire original trilogy, and he pulled it off with elegant filmography; combat that also serves to further both plot and character development instead of just showcasing fancy explosive toys; spot-on in-jokes that work fluidly such that they are not only nudgy winks to old fans, but also humorous to the characters in the immediate context (i.e.: potentially funny to new fans too); and a plot that is so perfectly paced as to be extremely re-watchable.

Speculation Time!

Okay, so: the burning questions we are left with at the end of VII are as follows:

  1. Who is Rey?
  2. What the heck is Kylo Ren’s problem?

Let’s start with the first one: Rey’s identity. We are obviously meant to assume that Rey is of the Skywalker bloodline. Let’s operate on the assumption that this is not a red herring, because if it were, it would be a pretty serious breach of the long-term plot of the series. If we draw out the family tree from the point that matters (i.e., Anakin: the Skywalker who was conceived by the midichlorians and was ostensibly the Chosen One),  we have two possible branches Rey could have come from: Luke or Leia. The age difference between Rey and Kylo Ren is foggy, but he is clearly older than her, and I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that he’s older, and enough so to be her father. It’s the theory I like best, and to try to persuade you, I’m going to break out all three possibilities in order of my opinion on their likeliness.

Possibility 1: Rey is the daughter of Leia and Han

Rey latches onto Han and vice verse pretty quickly in a father-daughter sort of dynamic. It’s adorable. She’s crushed by his death. In some of the spin-off books, Han and Leia have twins, Jacen and Jaina, and Jacen goes bad. This is alternate universe stuff, not canonical, and in that universe, there’s a character named Ben who is Luke’s son. So…there’s some tradition that Abrams could be playing around with, making Kylo Ren and Rey twins and playing off the brother/sister reveal, but the movie doesn’t work towards that storyline at all. For one thing, it seems likely that Ren would know if he had a twin sister. For another, we know that Luke has been missing for an extensive period of time and that Ren’s betrayal, which seemed to happen while he was an adult, was the cause of his disappearance, and the hints of vision Rey has imply that her abandonment on Jakku was closely connected to Ren’s betrayal, which suggests a substantial age gap. Where do you hide a powerful potential Jedi from someone who wants to destroy Jedis? On a planet that is as devoid of life as possible. (Can I get a booyah for deserts as sensible Jedi hiding spots?)

So let’s call the age gap extremely probable and say that, at best, Rey could be Han and Leia’s younger daughter…maybe Ren was already off being seduced by Snokes and didn’t know they had a baby in their middle age, or maybe he only got vague rumors of her. We can’t discount it given the timeline, but don’t you think that Han and Leia would have given some tiny hint of the fact that they’re hiding the existence of a daughter? There are a number of scenarios under which this lack of hints and foreshadowing could be explained, but it’s a weaker familial bond than the Star Wars universe tends to focus on, and it lacks emotional oomph in my mind.

Possibility 2: Rey is the daughter of Luke Skywalker

Luke’s lightsaber is clearly calling out to Rey in a, “Hey kid, this is your heritage!” kind of way. Putting aside for a moment the very curious mystery of how Anakin’s original lightsaber which Luke loses on Bespin turns up in the basement of a mystically-minded bartender, there’s an appeal to assuming that the lightsaber is trying to travel from father to son to son’s daughter. John suggested that when Ren is digging around in Rey’s mind and finds her dreams of the island in the ocean that those might have been memories of her childhood pre-Jakku, instead of visions of where she will find Luke. He thinks it could be Luke’s super secret place, where he could have raised the child of a forbidden love, and that the reason the old dude who has the missing map piece is both on Jakku near Rey and has the map piece is because he was some confidante of Luke’s who helped put Rey into hiding.

I think this is a reasonably strong possibility. What I don’t love about it is that Jedi aren’t supposed to have families because having spouses and children leads them to attachments that entice them to misuse the power of the Force for the selfish means of protecting their own families at the expense of others. (This is the entire point of Vader’s origin story. Now you don’t have to rewatch II and III. You are so very welcome.) Luke more or less figures this lesson out at the end of V: attachment leads to loss of hand. And loss of Han. (ba-dum, ching!) At the end of VI, we leave him on the path to walking the balance between compassion and attachment, which is the whole trick of being a Jedi. Falling off it to have an affair and a kid isn’t impossible, and you could see how that secret could be wrapped up with his guilt and disappearance, but that doesn’t work nicely with the character arc trajectory we left him on and the role that he has stepped into (that of Obi-Wan, the Jedi instructor who lost the promising pupil to the Dark Side). And it doesn’t do what the final possibility does, which is to answer the second burning question: What is Ren’s problem?

Possibility 3: Rey is the daughter of Kylo Ren.

Let me tell you a story about a young Jedi named Ben Solo. He is the grandson of Anakin Skywalker and the nephew of Luke Skywalker. Son to a powerful political/military leader who was once royalty and a military leader/smuggler with an iffy noble streak. They’re heroes, parents who have built a mythical legend for a son to step into, but they’re also leaders who are wrestling with a world that is still broken by civil war. Ben is the scion who is expected to make something of his potential. He is expected to be great as those who have come before and to carry on their fight.

But here’s the thing: Ben is just a kid. If he were any other Jedi kid, he would be able to fit in with the other young trainees Luke rounds up and maybe find his feet among equals, but he is expected to be the best because of his parentage. This makes his peers wary of him and maybe even nasty to him, so he doesn’t have a lot of friends. And the worst part is that he’s not really all that much stronger than the rest of them. I mean, he does pretty well, but he’s no obvious child wonder like the legendary Anakin Skywalker, whose name comes up constantly as the person to beat. He knows Anakin is his grandfather, but he doesn’t know that Anakin became Vader, because Luke and Leia and Han see an angry, frustrated streak in him that scares them and they’re trying to protect him from the same fate through hiding information.

So: what we have here is an angry young Jedi who wants nothing more than to be part of something and who thinks that the secret to getting his parents and uncle to stop stonewalling him is to prove that he’s powerful enough to handle himself.

Ben catches some rumor of something going on in the underworld of Coruscant that makes him think that Luke isn’t the only one with knowledge about the Force. He finds himself in something like a Fight Club for Force-sensitive teenagers who Luke discarded as too old for training in his search for new students, young people who slipped in between the cracks in the time in between Anakin killing off almost all of the Jedi and Luke working to rebuild the order. (Important point that is much more obvious in both the prequels and the Clone Wars animated series: Jedi are indoctrinated in the training from a VERY young age because attachment and Force training can be a dangerous combo.) Ben understands their anger at what their mysterious organizer teaches them to think of as the Jedi’s elitist control over the Force and he finds himself welcome there in a way he isn’t at the Academy because he has classic Jedi training and is willing to share his knowledge. His training and his bloodline makes him the best of the lot and he quickly rises to leadership among their ranks. In the course of this second life that he keeps carefully hidden from his uncle and master, two things happen: (1) Ben falls in love with the hard, awkward, hormone-charged stupidity of a teenager, probably with a serving girl at the Academy who is nice to him because she’s not in direct competition with him. (2) The mysterious leader of the Force Fight Club takes Ben under his wing to teach him to use anger to improve his power.

Ben’s success in training exercises starts to improve, but Luke becomes concerned about the way he is achieving success. He starts keeping a closer eye on Ben and ends up catching him in the middle of a secret tryst with his lover. He pulls Ben aside for a lecture about the dangers of attachment and the lure of the Dark Side, which does not go well. Ben becomes angry and defensive. He uses Anakin as an example of why there’s nothing wrong with what he’s doing and runs off in a rage. The exchange triggers Luke to call Leia and Han because he thinks they need to tell Ben the full truth about Anakin, to which they agree reluctantly. Luke patiently waits for Ben to come back, which is a critical error, because Ben runs straight to the his shadowy mentor, who gives him the full(ish) scoop on Anakin, making Anakin sound like a powerful hero who was persecuted by the manipulative, controlling Jedi.

Ben comes back from this meeting, confused and upset, and runs straight into his love, who is herself worried because she just found out she’s pregnant. Ben, who is worked up and angry and scared, reacts with a temper tantrum of epic proportions that leaves her afraid for her safety because she isn’t seeing the full picture behind the source of his rage. She goes to her mentor and good friend, Luke’s assistant, who looks oddly like Obi-Wan Kenobi, and asks for advice. He advises her to confide in Luke, who has just had a very horrible conversation with Ben in which he realizes that Ben has gotten the story about Anakin from someone who has made it very difficult for Luke to regain control of the message. He is terrified that Ben is lost, but thinks that if he can separate Ben from the girl and her baby, at least for the time being, and get Ben alone in a powerful place for meditation and training, he might be able to set Ben back on the right track. He sends the girl and his assistant away and begins combing the archives for clues to the location he thinks he can use to help Ben find his way back. Ben figures out that Luke is involved with the disappearance of his lover and their child and commits fully to his shadowy mentor, who finally brings him in to the full secret of his intent: to wipe out the Jedi and found a new, less controlling order: the Knights of Ren.

Several years pass. Luke continues to scour the old Jedi archives for the pieces of the map he needs to the first temple. Ben desperately wants to look for his lover and child, but his new master insists that he must be patient, that the time is not yet right. His lover is raising their child in a secret location, protected by Luke’s assistant and kept secret even from Han and Leia because Luke is afraid they would want to raise the child, which would put her at higher risk of being found by Ben and his knights, who are becoming an increasing threat as they form an alliance with the remains of the Empire. Luke fails to realize just how much of a threat. His avuncular affection for Ben makes him think the boy would never fully betray the Academy, and so he is blindsided when Ben leads the Knights of Ren in a brutal attack against the Jedi at a time and place he knows they will be most vulnerable.

Luke realizes that Ben’s child is no longer safe where she is. He has finally found all he needs of the map to the place of power, which he no longer believes capable of saving Ben, but still important in finding again the heart of the order. He give R2-D2 most of the map with instructions to go mute until his heir is ready to find him, but sends the other piece with his assistant to improve the data’s security. He has an ally in the Republic help Ben’s family and Luke’s assistant relocate to a safer spot, but the First Order has gotten wind of the last piece of the map to the place of great power that Luke has found, which is being transported on the same ship as the child and her mother, both on their way to the Rebellion’s secret base. The First Order catches up with the Rebellion ship above Jakku and things go sideways.

The Rebellion manages to take down a Star Destroyer over the planet but in the fight, the child’s mother is killed (would it be a Disney movie otherwise?) and the child is separated from their protector, Luke’s assistant, ending up in the questionable care of a junk trader. By the time Luke’s assistant discovers what has become of her, everyone thinks she’s dead and the data destroyed in the crash, and the assistant, who was also transporting the important piece of the map for Luke, realizes that both the child and the map will be safer for the time being if everyone just goes on thinking they’ve been permanently lost. Ben feels his lover’s death and blames Luke, committing even further to the dark path he’s on.

The details, of course, will undoubtedly vary, but the broad strokes in this explanation of Rey’s identity make the most sense to me as a way of playing out the themes of attachment and the questionable goodness of the Jedi Order that show up in I-III and the Clone Wars. Unveiling this back story would allow VIII to mirror both V and I-III, which would fit nicely with what Abrams set us up for in the way he constructed VII as a mirror of both IV and IV-VI. And it fits a number of details that might be giving us hints:

  • Han seems to have no idea of Rey is. Leia only seems to know who Rey is via Han and Finn’s reports.
  • Rey’s visions show Luke’s robotic right hand giving something to R2. Granted, it could be someone else’s robotic right hand popping out of a Jedi cloak, but I think it’s safe to assume R2 got the map and some instructions from Luke.
  • Rey’s visions clump together her memories of a Republic ship (pretty sure that ship is similar to the ambassadorial ships, but ship-shapes aren’t my strong suit) flying away with visions of Kylo Ren and his minions on a field of carnage that I’m assuming are mostly dead Jedi trainees, and while there is obvious past-future jumping happening in her visions as she sees Kylo Ren in the snowy forest where she will face him shortly, there is still a strong sense that her being abandoned is pretty directly connected (probably in time) to Ren’s betrayal and Luke’s disappearance, which we know to be contemporary to each other.
  • Kylo Ren reacts to the announcement of a girl who helped the droid get off Jakku in a manner not dissimilar to the way Vader reacts to indirect news of Luke when he’s first realizing their connection. His attempts to persuade her to join him are not as direct as Vader’s to Luke, but the language and approach and the demand of his master that Rey be brought to him is similar to the Luke-Vader-Palpatine dynamic.
  • R2-D2 doesn’t wake up until Rey gets off the Falcon at the Rebel base, implying that she’s the one he was meant to be waiting for.

Anyway. This post was already way too long and nerdy about 3k words ago, so I’m going to stop talking about it. I’ve got the Star Wars bug deep in my head, though, so I may end up wasting my vacation writing silly speculative Star Wars posts. Next up: “Why R2-D2 is actually the hero of A New Hope and how this fact should lead us to think more deeply about what’s going on with droids and the political reality of the Clone Wars. Or: Why the original Jedi Knights might actually have been racist slave-owners who weren’t as morally above it as they liked to think they were and how Anakin was, in fact, the essential catalyst to the Force eventually becoming balanced again.”

A Little Sneak Peek

I did it! I hit 50,000 words in November and I am not dead yet. John has been very patient with my annual descent into madness for most of the years we’ve been married, but I hadn’t really thought about how this NaNoWriMo thing looks to him from the outside until recently. I read him a scene I was was working on, and he gave me this amazed look of utter surprise and said, “Oh, you’re actually good.”

Cue jaw drop. John doesn’t really read my stuff for any number of reasons, so he’s been encouraging me in this madness for five years, all the while thinking that it’s entirely possible that I’m absolute rubbish. Bless his heart. It is, of course, still entirely possible that I’m absolute rubbish, because John’s opinion of my work is not necessarily to be trusted. All the same, I thought I’d share the scene he enjoyed, which was part of winning this:

NaNo-2015-Winner-Banner

Excerpt from first draft of “Emperor of None,” an episode of The Sentinel:

Haral Jalai Ranaran Olad Amran, the ninth of his name, High Holy Emperor of the Unified World Collective, felt cobblestone under his feet for the first time in all of his eighty-nine marks.

For the first time in his life, his thin slippers, made from the delicate fronds of a swamp plant that had to be harvested by hand to avoid disturbing the fragile symbiotic balance the root system shared with a specific species of fungus that gave the loloran fronds the deep red hue that none but the emperor was allowed to wear, were meant to whisper along polished stone and handwoven carpets. The cobblestone snatched at the slippers threads. It was pocked and torn from the spraying of bullets and the charging of cleated boots meant to grip slippery surfaces and rip flesh. The stains had dried now to rust, but Amran could still see the stones freshly glistening with treacherous red in his memory. Even from the safety of the Emperor’s Vault, watching the death of his world through the fractured report of a hundred far-seers, the stink of iron and shit had clung to his nose.

The wind, the rain…they had not stopped. In his exile, unable to break out of the vault, the wind and the rain had carried on as usual doing their mighty best to soften the evidence of Amran’s failure. In time, and not so much as Amran would like to think, they would succeed in erasing not only the bloody remains of war, but the fact that the many people of the Unified World Collective had ever existed at all. What happened here, the sublime and the wretched, would fade from the memory of the universe and the lesson would be lost.

Amran looked at the face of each body he passed. They were too far decomposed for him to open their eyes that they may meet the final wonder face-on, but he whispered the final benediction for each. “In fellowship, give you rest.”

It would take him the entire day to make his way to the outskirt of the city a mile away, so glutted the way was with the fallen, but did any one of their brave hearts deserve less? These had been the last to fall, his champions of the vault, and he had known many by name. Sent gifts to congratulate them for weddings and births. Sat with them in grief for a lost one both had loved. Knew their children by name, their partners, their aging parents. Broken bread with them on holy days. He would give each the final benediction even if it took him a week to walk his intended path.

When he reached First Court, the smell hit him like a physical blow and dropped him to his knees. The fountain was piled high with the bodies of the dead, their rotting limbs hanging down like the maleable limbs of a child’s posable doll, flesh gone gray. If his stomach had not already been empty, he would have lost its contents then and there. He did not force himself to walk closer to the awful pyramid, knowing that their flesh would melt way under his fingers if he tried to move these bodies, to lay them out with some personal dignity. So he prayed the full benediction, there on his knees, eyes refusing to close against the evidence of his shame.

When he had finished reciting the lengthy ceremony, he added his own personal prayer. “Hara Mother, why have you called me to bear the witness of these days?”

He received, as ever, no answer.

Bracing himself against a stanchion, Amran pulled himself to his feet and limped around the outer ring of First Court. His knees were too old for that sort of prolonged prostration. They screamed at him with every step. He ignored the pain, turning his focus to the shattered buildings that had been crafted as works of art, symbols of the love that had brought the entire population of a culturally diverse planet together under one government. Eight and a half emperors had been born, lived long lives, and died within the Vault at the center of Jalai Hasheen Nar, the Courts of the High Holy Emperor. As a child, Amran had used his flight of far-seers to wander the city freely, and he had marveled at the edges worn smooth by more than eight hundred marks of wind, rain, and life. Peaceful life. Now, the buildings were gap-toothed and cracked with webs where they still stood at all. He could see clearly that the coming winter winds would finish the job the war had begun and crumble many more into piles of rubble and dust.

“Please, Hara Mother, if I could have prevented this by actions of my own, let me find the answer. Let me find a way to share that answer with history and so prevent the fate of my people from befalling any other.”

The sun was setting when his destination came into sight. The mottled orange and yellow of the trees caught the fading sunset like a blaze: even to look at it warmed Amran’s heart and made him forget for an instant the pain of the scrapes and broken blisters his soft feet had earned on this unholy pilgrimage of the damned. He did not pick up his pace, however. The outer streets were no emptier of the lonely dead than had been the inner courts and he continued his work of pausing to bless each one where they lay.

By some mercy, the winding steps to the Garden of Insight were free of bodies. No one had bothered to bomb the tiny piece of landscaping, so no one had died in defending it. The sight of this sacred place left unprofaned drove home again the confusion and fear that had filled them all when the world went mad. The destruction had been utter and utterly impossible to imagine, but many gardens, the true holiest of holy places for his people, had escaped intact. How could anyone attack them with such ferocity and yet not seem to know enough about them to understand this idea that even the smallest children knew? Gardens were the symbol of the strength bred by the communion of diversity, a living example provided by Hara Mother of how to live well.

Amran climbed the steps, slow but steady. His heart felt ready to burst by the time he passed through the small worked metal gate at the summit. The hill was not high, but it was steep, and his life as the High Holy Emperor had wasted little focus on building his physical stamina even when he was a young man. He wondered if his body could withstand the trial to come for long enough to find the insight the central tree promised.

The Tree of Insight, with its evergreen leaves and bright yellow pseudocarps, was visible from the outer edge of the small garden, but the path was designed to invite meditation. One did not embark on the trial lightly, and in fact, Amran knew of only two recorded public uses of the trial since the founding of the Collective. Even so, maintaining the labyrinth of low berry bushes had remained the first priority of the Jalai Hasheen Nar gardeners. The paths had only been managed by volunteers, yet Amran had never seen so much as a single overgrown branch through the eyes of the far-seers. Only at the very end of the war had his people been unable to keep up the loving care of this sacred space.

Which in itself should have spurred those beasts to destroy it, Amran mused. Still and even so, he was glad it had not.

The tiny fragrant vines that carpeted the footpath released their comforting smell as he wound his way through the maze. Their oils soothed his soles, which were mostly bare as the bottoms of his slippers had shredded away many hours before. The ripe sour-sweet smell of the red berries, waiting for birds that would now never come to harvest them, was intoxicating, the very fumes of the fermenting fruit on the ground nearly enough to topple Amran in his hungry, exhausted state. This, however, he had been conditioned for, and he let his mind float away from his body as he stumbled through the steps of a sacred dance he had hardly practiced since he was first instated as the acting High Holiness.

It was not truly the steps of the dance that mattered now, of course. Who was there to watch and judge his motion? What mattered was the spinning and the way it forced his mind away from the pain of his body and forced out all but the most burning thoughts, all but the impossible questions that demanded answer. And so he whirled, now sunwards, now contrasunwards and stepped, now forward, now back, progressing towards the tree with the sacred slowness of the bird that Hara Mother loved, silly to look at, but utterly focused on its questing task as it chased the quick-quick beetles beneath the sand.

The dance felt broken without the shshing rhythm of the acolytes shuffling their feet in the sand to keep beat for the supplicant. Amran held that absence close to his heart as he moved, hearing in the too-present whistling of the wind the loss that he sought to understand. What other mantra but the keening emptiness of his world could better focus his mind on his questions?

By the time Amran reached the base of the tree, the sun had dropped below the horizon, taking with it what little heat it offered. The robes of the emperor were no better suited for cold than his shoes for stone, made of the same frail fabric that marked his status as more a work of art than a person, a pretty thing it pleased his people to maintain as a symbol of the hard-won peace and prosperity that so much blood had been shed to acheive so many lifetimes ago. The biting cold would soon be irrelevant, of course, so Amran clenched his holy teeth against the indignity of chattering and stepped onto the low bench ringing the Insight Tree.

Traditionally, the task of gathering the bright green drupes that hung from the yellow fruits like tails would fall to the same acolytes who shuffled their feet. Amran clutched the hem of his robe and pulled it up to form a basket, exposing his knobbly legs, and walked the perimeter of the circular bench from one end to the other, gathering a generous handful of drupes by his own hand. He stepped down into the spot where the path cut through the bench and considered the shrine. It was smaller than he had imagined, like the tree. Like the garden. Like the might of his own people. Barely big enough to hold one man bent with age and heartache.

He pushed his way past the hanging curtain of strung stones and turned himself around, waiting until his eyes adjusted to the dark well enough to find the tools he would need: the small iron brazier, the rough flintstone, the piles of tinder and wood.

The tinder, with no attendants to keep it fresh, had gotten damp and begun to rot. No matter. Amran pulled the shredded remains of his shoes from his feet and tore the cloth into little strips. He had lit enough robe sleeves on candles accidentally as a child to know his clothing was flammable enough. He piled the strips in the center of the brazier and struck the flintstone against the iron bowl until a spark caught and set the little pile smoking. He blew gently until a flame blossomed. The slivers of wood had yet escaped the damp and these caught readily enough as he added them one by one to the fire.

The fire was small, but in the tight enclosure of the shrine, it was enough to offer a little heat and comfort to Amran’s old bones. He permitted himself a moment of pleasure in the warmth before adding a few of the drupes to the pyre.

The acrid sting of the chemical in their smoke hit his eyes and nose almost immediately. He winced back at the startling pain, but forced himself to open his mouth and breathe deeply into the smoke. He added more drupes as the first few turned darker against the light of the fire, and as he added them, he prayed.

“Hara Mother, hear my prayer, for I am dying in ignorance. Let me not pass from this world without first knowing why I could not save my people from this war.”

Book Flood Bracket

I recently read about Jolabokflod (which describes the December-heavy Icelandic publishing schedule that is tied to their tradition of giving each other books for Christmas Eve and then spending the evening reading). This naturally sounded very cozy to me, though not quite workable as is to fold into my family’s existing holiday traditions. AND THEN…I came across this stupendous post about how to host a March Madness style book tournament and realized that, while that specific how-to focuses on classrooms, I totally have the tech chops to work out the same sort of thing. If you’ll look carefully, you will see nothing up my sleeves. *Clears throat and makes a grandly dramatic gesture.*

I will now attempt to connect more with friends and family over books during the darker days of the year without adding more pressure to socialize in person to anyone’s plates.

Want to play?

Here’s how it’s gonna go:

Step 1: Suggest a read before the end of November.

What were your favorite reads this year? All genres/formats welcome. Individual short stories and poems are okay. If you suggest a complete collection of either, however, I will buy a copy to beat you with, so it might be in your best self interest to stick with thinner volumes. (Kidding. Sort of. But I won’t include collections directly in the Step 2 voting list because I want to see each piece evaluated on its own merits.) Leave a comment here (or message me on Twitter or Facebook, whatever). Do it before the end of November.

Step 2: Vote on what you want to see in the lineup.

I’ll put up a ranked voting sort of poll once everyone’s suggestions are in and send the link out to everyone who gave me book suggestions. You’ll have approximately a fortnight to rank your picks according to either what you have read or would like to read.

Step 3: Make predictions!

On my birthday (December 16th), I will release a tournament line-up based on the top 16 choices. This is not a money-betting game, unless you all want to come up with a way to turn it into a fundraiser for a cause that supports literacy education (which I will totally contribute money to, but don’t ask me to figure out fundraiser logistics–if anyone volunteers to manage it, I’ll help with the communication of logistics). You can, however, make your guesses about the outcome in the comments in order to receive either public praise or mild humiliation for your predictive skills once the total tally comes in. (I will figure out some easy way to fill out a bracket for this by then…definitely going one step at a time here.)

Step 4: Read and vote!

I’ll set some arbitrary timeline for completely this thing (probably sometime in January) when I put the lineup together. In the meantime, we will all go out, read each other’s favorite books, have good conversations about said books, and vote on our favorite choices. Don’t ask me exactly how the voting mechanics will work: I will figure it out by December 16th and let you know then. (See above re: one step at a time. : )

Step 5: Win!

This is one of those things where “winning” is getting a feeling of satisfaction from doing something that’s good for your soul. This means, of course, that you really can’t lose, so why not give it a whirl?

Sound like fun? Great! Leave a comment and tell me what you want to vote on!

 

 

Grant Us Courage

My heart is breaking for Paris right now. I think most of the world’s heart is breaking for Paris right now. My heart is also breaking for Raqqa. My heart is also raging, because I’m sure that the official response is going to include violence, and one of the reasons that guerrilla tactics are effective is that there’s no head of the snake or body of the lion in the way there is with traditional fighting forces. Innocent bystanders will be killed in the course of a military response, and those deaths will not all be caused by the terrorists we’re fighting.

The most difficult piece for me personally is that I understand why there will undoubtedly be a “show of force” in response to the attacks on Paris. When people that are included in our sense of tribe are hurt, we want to return the favor to the people who did the hurting. We want to make the people who did the hurting incapable of hurting anyone else again, so we hurt them. To death, if we can find them.

I struggle with my emotional understanding of this inclination, because it’s very much at odds with something that I have come to believe with increasing strength as an adult: life is better when we can all see each other as part of the same tribe. And as much as the violence in Raqqa and Paris makes me sick to my stomach, as much as the epidemic of school shootings makes me clench my fists, as much as the egregious misuse of police force against black people makes me ashamed of the brokenness of our law enforcement system…those terrorists and lone gunmen and undertrained cops are still part of our tribe.

And we are failing them.

I was watching Phantom of the Opera a few weeks ago, and this scene hit me like a ton of bricks:

For those of you who don’t know the story, the Phantom was treated very badly as a child because of his deformity and found solace in both the opera and his love for Christine. His connection to both is threatened. At this point in the movie, he has kidnapped Christine and trussed up her beloved and told her that she either has to agree to marry him or her love will die. She manages to find compassion for him, and her kindness in reaction to his violence is what persuades him to let both her and her lover go.

This moment is the reason I love the Phantom of the Opera: that rare story that has the bravery to suggest that maybe, just maybe, there is a solution to terrorism that doesn’t involve gunning down those who have harmed us. And maybe, just maybe, it starts with trying to understand what has caused the terrorist to feel so thoroughly divorced from the tribe of humanity. Why does the terrorist feel demonized to begin with? How do we change the world so that the terrorist might have grown up feeling like a worthwhile part of a community instead of a spat-upon villain whose voice is never heard?

I’m not a politician, I’m not a military commander, I’m not a historian, I’m not a sociologist. Off the top of my head, I can’t speak to historical case studies or make plausible predictions about how any “strong response” will play out. I won’t try to make some blowhard statement about what the world should do in response to the ongoing issue with terrorism because my broken heart just doesn’t know. What I am is a writer and what I can offer is the work of my imagination. So here are some ideas about what we can do, at home, ourselves, on a local scale, to try to make the world a place where every single piece of our tribe feels like they are welcome and cared for and important and part of us.

Help refugees.

The plight of the families trying to flee Syria and reach safety is appalling. Relocating a lot of people quickly is always going to be a hard logistical challenge, but kicking them when they’re down is a great way to make them think that the very people they’re fleeing might just have a point about the rest of the world. Let’s feed them, shelter them, hire them, and get to know them. They are human beings. They are part of our tribe. Let’s not isolate them.

End poverty.

People who have the means to make a decent living (and that means pretty damn far above the minimum wage even in the U.S.) are less likely to feel marginalized and desperate. I’m assuming: it seems like a common sense assumption, though, so I’m going to go with it. Poverty is a real problem. If I were young and hungry and watching society slap my family with demeaning labels in exchange for barely enough to get by on, I’d probably listen to anyone who offered me hope of something better. So let’s be the solution. Let’s end poverty. Let’s end hunger. Let’s build a world in which it’s actually possible for all people to both do valuable work and earn enough to support themselves and their families. (Personal political opinion: I have more hope that Bernie Sanders could support this goal than any of the other U.S. presidential candidates, so…let’s make “Elect Bernie Sanders” an action item under “End poverty.”)

Prioritize education.

Better access to education is part of ending poverty and creating wealth. Education can be tough to improve, especially for those who need it most, because poverty has some tough impacts on learning too. But I CANNOT stress this enough: EDUCATION MATTERS (pdf). It opens doors to a quality of life and it opens channels for communication, for spreading the idea that we all thrive when we manage to treat each other with kindness and dignity. So let’s make education possible for every human being.

Cherish the difficult people.

I joke sometimes about starting a Church of Enlightened Self Interest. Our only piece of dogma: life is better when we all do our best to be nice to each other. I hear the news coming out of Syria and Hungary and Paris, and I wonder if I should stop joking and take action, because this inability to see Self in Other is hurting us all. It’s like stabbing ourselves in the eye with a hot poker and pretending we didn’t need that eye anyway because it was twitchy or it had cataracts. So here’s a personal challenge for you: ask yourself who you’re most afraid of, who you would be most likely to strike out at with an animal’s sense of self-preservation if you met them in a dark alley. Make an effort to get to know more about that person and what makes them operate in the ways that scare you. Find some small piece of human connection that let’s you feel even an inkling of compassion. I won’t pretend I’m good at this: it’s damn hard to find a way to take the perspective of people who are willing to hurt me. But I think if we all practiced changing our habits of mind around people we have a hard time understanding, we’ll get better at imagining ways to prevent these violent people from turning violent in the first place.

Airdrop kindness.

In the service of ending on a note of hopeful imagination…what if we used our capacity to drop stuff at remote locations to send care packages to our enemies? What if we responded to violence with, for example, coloring books and colored pencils? I’m not saying that the positive benefits of coloring would improve the outlook of ISIS or change anything meaningful, but I am positive that dropping bombs on them isn’t going to make the world a kinder place on the whole. So why not try sending them little presents? Nothing important, nothing that would make it easier for them to carry on killing and raping and maiming…but little tokens to say that we want to find a way to communicate. That we want to be able to find a compassionate way to live together on the same small planet.

We cannot tolerate the violence of terrorists, I know, and I will never suggest we should sit idly by and ignore gross violations of human rights. But neither should we tolerate a world which systematically fails to treat human beings as human beings. Maybe, just maybe: if we work harder at the latter, the strength of the former will start to shrivel.

What are YOU doing Saturday afternoon?

Now that I’ve finalized my decisions, I can announce that I’m the judge for the Teen section of the 2015 Joy of the Pen, a statewide literary competition. I will be at the Topsham Public Library this Saturday afternoon, handing out prizes. The Teen portion is a new piece of the competition, so all you English teachers and school librarians whom I dearly love, this is for you: Joy of the Pen is an awesome chance for your young writers to stretch their wings a little, so pretty please keep an eye out for the deadlines for next year and encourage your fledgling authors to send in their work!

If you’ve got some spare time this weekend, come on by the TPL to listen to this year’s winners read their work and give them a massive round of applause!

jop2015 reception poster