A Transformative Lie for December 16

Yesterday was my 30th birthday. It was a good one by any standard of birthday goodness, but especially by the measure of December-in-New-England birthdays. Neither weather nor flu nor holiday bustle cramped my ability to connect with people I care about in some genuinely lovely ways, and I felt spoiled rotten and enveloped by love all day long. For me, personally, it was a very good day, but…

December 16, 2014 was not a good day. It will be remembered by history, in fact, as a #BlackDay, because in Peshawar, 141 innocent people, 132 of them children, were slaughtered.

What possible justification for this pointless violence could be beggars the imagination. And in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown and the strangulation of Eric Warner by officers sworn to uphold public safety and the failure of grand juries to indict either of the officers responsible for their deaths in order to allow full trials to sort out what happened in each case, it’s clear to me that America has plenty to hang her head in shame for as well.

My news feeds are full of horror and injustice. If you buy the premise of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, things are better than they were (at least in terms of percentages of populations): humans are less violent than they once were and continue to be less violent. I am persuaded by his argument, but the fact that, by percentages, we’re less bloodthirsty than our ancestors does nothing to comfort the grieving families of Michael Brown or Eric Warner or any of the 141 victims in Peshawar. We have further to go. Much, much further.

And here’s the thing: we are capable of being better. So here’s the transformative lie that I’m going to tell, not to sweep the horrors under the carpet and not to forget our unforgivable sins for an instant, but to give us all a truth to aspire to: we are defined by the beauty and good we bring to the world.

So let’s consider other 16ths of December that have brought better things to the world.

1770: Ludwig van Beethoven was born. I would wager that even those of you who aren’t fans of classical music still recognize his name and probably hum certain of his melodies absentmindedly from time to time because his influence in western culture lingers on. And let’s talk about the drive to create beauty in adversity: Beethoven composed this beloved piece (and many others) after he had lost his hearing.

1775: Jane Austen was born. Austen is the master of the insult so refined that the victim would be apt to thank her for the compliment before realizing the intent. This knack for subversive humor is what makes me love her work: her social commentary was presented via the sort of romance novels popular for her day, and while one might not see anything quite resembling modern feminism in her plots, her commentary on both class and the ludicrous necessity of marriage for women to get by was and is an important voice in favor of a change we’re still working through. Also: she’s funny.

And because people can be lovely, all of her works (which are in the public domain), are available for free online.

1866: Wassily Wasilyevich Kandinsky was born. Kandinsky turned his back on a career as an attorney to pursue art. He left Russia to be free to practice art without the restrictions of communism-turned-fascist. He was one of the earliest artists to work with purely abstract forms.

I highly recommended perusing his work online too.

And let’s not forget Margaret Mead (1901), Arthur C. Clarke (1917), or Quentin Blake (1932), to name just a few fascinating people who were born on December 16th and made a positive, memorable impact on the world.

And then, the events…Charlie Chaplin signed with Keystone to start his beloved film career (1913). “Vortex” by Noel Coward (another Dec. 16 birthday, for that matter) premiered in London (1924). Gemini 6 returns to Earth and Pioneer 6 is launched into orbit (1965).  The insanely long version of “American Pie” we all collectively know enough parts of to sing the entire thing if we’re in a large enough group was released (1971).

I won’t lie. In looking for these events, I found a much longer list of tragedies and acts of violence. We are primed, I guess, to focus on the worst we have to offer as far as the histories are concerned. It’s understandable. We need to confront the violence and gross failures of justice to create change. But there is beauty and thoughtfulness and laughter and kindness to be had from humanity too and, I believe, as we fight for a better world, we must not think that art and science and kindness are anything less than our best weapons: if we want a better world, we need to be better ourselves. I believe that peace will come from cleverness and compassion, not the barrel of a gun. I believe that our best hope is to work harder at creating a world that understands on a gut level what a joy life can be when we are unutterably lovely to one another.

So…I have no answer, no solution, no explanation, no excuse for Peshawar, but while we slog forward, I will be doing my best to be kind and to add pleasant things to the world in hopes that it will, if nothing else, provide some small signal amplification for the reminder of what we have it in us to be.

Maine Etsy Shops…Not for Tourists

Obsessively tracking packages is like a gift I give to myself this time of year. Etsy is my favorite because I can buy local AND not ever actually leave the house to do holiday shopping. I thought I’d share the joy and offer up a list of a number of Etsy shops with cool items that aren’t the usual touristy blah, which isn’t to say that Maine’s summer wannabe residents wouldn’t love these shops too, just that I gave a pass to anything that looked to be predominantly lobsters, blueberries, moose, seashells, and lighthouses. (Though if that’s your cup o’ tea, there are plenty more Maine Etsy sellers with interesting and quality takes on the tourist tropes, and bless you, because we love our tourist dollars. : )

But no, this list is to connect you to Maine artists and artisans, whose work is lovely or nifty or fun in its own right. And yes, there is an emphasis on fiber art…most of you come here for the knitting patterns, I know, so that’s all for you, m’deahs.

Fiber Art

On the Round – Owls Head – Bright, shiny, squooshy, handspun yarn and beautifully dyed fibers for spinning your own.

Maine Woods Yarn – Palermo – These folks have a special place in my heart because my first spindles came from them. Great kits for anyone who wants to give spinning a…whorl.

Maine Fiber Tools – Saco – This guy knows what a lathe is for: making pretty, pretty spindles. And yarn bowls. Great options here for the knitter or spinner on your list.

Funky Jewelry & Sexy Bags

Buy My Crap – Bangor – Who doesn’t love a little self-aware snark with their customized resin bangles? Send him your photos or buy one of her cool designs.

Fiona – Rockland – Simple stones set into elegant jewelry settings for a juxtaposition of elegance and simplicity that is Maine all over. Would pair equally well with evening-wear or Bean boots. :)

Rough and Tumble – Norway – Handmade leather bags for the person in your life who needs a bit of luxury spoiling.

Quirky Decor

North Wind Carvings – Orono – You’ve probably seen these carvings at various fairs, old faces peering out of the wood…perfect for that oddball with a fondness for fairies and woodland mystique in your life.

Timberstone Rustic Arts – Montville – Rocks, transformed. Lamps, pendants, soap dispensers, vases, birdhouses, clocks…all kinds of nifty things. Definitely a fun store to browse.

Mexican in Maine – Bangor – Not your usual Maine art. Forget the landscapes and lighthouses…this art has a Mexican style and the price for original work is low.

Sunny Acre Farm – Falmouth – Need a little birdhouse in your life? These are adorable…primitives style with a French flair.

Enchanted Forest Maine – Perry – Fairy house lamp. Need I say more? I do? Okay then: paper mache dragon. Djinn bottle incense burner. Just go look…it’s a fun shop.

World Building: Management Edition

Help me out, folks.

I’m writing the third (and final, I think) book of The Sidhe Diaries for this year’s NaNoWriMo. For the most part, it’s going quite well. I’ve got some deliciously depraved bad guys, some loose end tying up of epic proportions, some fun new applications of the practical magic the sidhe call the silver. But I’m running into a bit of a problem: my world is outgrowing my brain space.

Three books in, I have a decent cast of characters who have changed and grown over the arc of the story. The major characters are easy enough to keep track of: they’re constantly in the action, so my mind is always working with their motivations and knowledge. I’m finding, however, that minor characters who I have not been constantly with or taking decent reference notes on, are supremely annoying to keep track of. I think I may have accidentally resurrected the family dog in the third book after forgetting whether I did or did not kill it in the second, for example, and I can’t for the life of me remember or find the name of a character who was of minor importance in Autumn’s Daughter, non-existent in Autumn’s Sister, but who is coming back around to be somewhat more important in Autumn’s Exile.

Anyone have any brilliant, low-maintenance, easily searchable ideas for keeping track of things like characters, rules of the magical system, physical descriptions of completely fictional places, etc.? The notes system in my writing software, which works tolerably well for a standalone story, is turning out to be too cumbersome to be a useful reference over a series.

Erotica and Romance Need to Break Up

Fair warning: this post should, uncharacteristically, probably be labeled as 18+ / NSFW.

I do not read much erotica / lady porn / vaginal fantasy. Part of the reason is that my upbringing was pretty tight-laced, but as I’ve become a more vocal advocate of feminism, I have come to believe that part of the battle for human equality along the gender divide is demystifying sex. It’s okay for ladies to get horny, and it’s okay for humans to indulge their horniness as long as doing so does not endanger or degrade one’s self or other people. Erotica is one of the simplest and safest entry points for bringing the conversation about female sexuality into a broader sphere, but with few exceptions, I despise the entire genre with the fire of a thousand newborn suns.

This weekend, while trying to read a book that was recommended to me by a friend who is a connoisseur of the genre, I was about ready to hurl my ereader across the room when I had another inter-genre epiphany. Erotica doesn’t have to inherently suck. Erotica is only sucky because there is some badly mistaken and deeply ingrained notion that it is appropriate for all erotica to be romance.

Wait, wait, wait, you may say. Aren’t erotica and romance the same thing?No, my friends, they aren’t, and I would even go so far as to say they’re locked in a mutually destructive relationship.

Let’s define erotica first…

Erotica is any book in which the description of sex reaches an anatomically specific level ending in details of how climax was achieved. In short, it’s porn, in words. I have zero problem with porn in words because I don’t need to stop to worry about whether the end result was achieved in a way that is non-exploitative: the people doing the sex are fictitious. Whether or not the authors are given a fair shake is a conversation for a different day, but the issues there are generally the same issues faced by authors in general and (usually) female authors in specific, rather than the issues faced by actors who are getting naked for the camera.

Erotica, furthermore, has the opportunity to provide healthy examples of consent, safe sex, and the right of women to enjoy their bodies. It can sometimes be the most ass-backwards of genres when it comes to power and gender roles, but when it’s done well, erotica is one of those genres that is capable of lighting the path towards gender equality.

And now, for romance…

A romance novel, by contrast, is any novel where the primary conflict in the plot revolves around the success of the romantic/sexual relationship between the two main characters. I rather loathe romance novels because, by and large, they are fond of upholding that ass-backwardness I was just referring to. They usually end in a wedding and babies and very frequently involve a dynamic in which either the woman has to be rescued by a stronger man or a strong woman has to learn how to be meek enough to be lovable to a man. Gross.

Because the sexual relationship is at the heart of the plot, rape or attempted rape are disgustingly common tools for increasing the drama of the plot. Ex-cah-uze me? You’re writing a book that’s designed to get ladies in the mood and you’re going to throw the cold reality of the prevalence of rape into the mix? I’m not saying society is at a point where we don’t need to expose the prevalence of rape in fiction, but good lord, people–rape and erotica are a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad combination that undermine erotica’s ability to empower women to enjoy their sexuality. I call bullshit on the commonplace use of rape to up the drama-ante in erotica.

Beyond the rage-inducing incompatibilities, romance and erotica are just fundamentally a poor match. The point of erotica, let’s not mince words here, is arousal. The structure of your typical romance novel goes like this: reader meets girl > reader meets boy > girl and boy meet > girl and boy hate each other > girl and boy find a common problem that brings them together > girl and boy decide that maybe they can stomach each other > girl and boy get down to business. That means a bare minimum of three to four chapters before any fun stuff happens, and most of the book is designed to leave the reader completely frustrated by all of the stupid arguments and external influences that are preventing the sexytime from happening in anything that resembles a dominant percentage of the book.

Romance and erotica, I think you need to take an honest look at your relationship. You’re just going to keep hurting each other if you stay together, but you could both be so much stronger, so much happier if you agreed to see other people or, you know, take a break to just work on yourselves for a while.

A modest proposal…

You may very well still be scratching your head about how we could possibly separate romance from erotica. There’s genre erotica, I can hear you thinking. Supernatural erotica is a billion-dollar industry, isn’t it? No doubt. But I have read a fair amount of that, and every one so far has been romance cosplaying SF/F in a poorly constructed costume.

I wouldn’t, however, want to read a book that was absolutely nothing but X-rated sex scenes…there’s something to be said for a bit of build-up and the value that plot has in making you care about the characters you’re peeping in on. So here’s what I want to see a market boom in: erotica whose main couple is in a stable, loving relationship and who are working together against some larger problem. Still not seeing the potential? Imagine a book written from this rough concept:

Opening scene: Zale and Talon, life-partners and co-captains of the inter-stellar messenger ship G.S.S. Gutenberg, are engaging in some delightfully inventive zero-g sex (which would necessitate some sort of light bondage, or maybe acrobat-style ropes, just to handle the whole equal and opposite reaction bit of physics) when their com beeps, alerting them that they have an unexpected visitor.

Introduction of conflict: The visitor is a mob-boss who intends to destroy the legitimate government of their home planet. He has some leverage against them that makes it very difficult to say no to his demand that they play a critical role in his devious scheme.

Role of sex: Because the conflict is external to their relationship, sex can be used as stress relief, a way to break up expository discussions about how to manage the conflict, and an act of celebration. Lots of opportunities exist for quality, consent-positive, body-image-positive, safe, and creative sex.

With this approach, erotica can tackle plots that are actually interesting in a format that permits a higher ratio of sexytime to plot. And unshackled from the bone-weary tropes of the erotica/romance tango, romance is set free to work on being less shitty in its treatment of women.

I’m sorry to say that I do not have the courage to actually commit vivid, anatomically-precise descriptions of sex to paper, so I am not likely to be the person who turns the genre on its head with my brilliant non-romance erotica. I would love to read the book I envisioned above, though, so if anyone wants to take the idea and run with it, it’s yours. Just let me know when you need beta readers. Also, if you have read any good erotica that avoids being romance, please feel welcome to share recommendations in the comments!

Sci-Fi, Horror, and Genre Jumping

Once again, I’ve been enjoying a great conversation with Dan Bensen about genre. It began with a mutual rave fest over the inter-genre brilliance of Lois McMaster Bujold, particularly around the elements of horror in The Sharing Knife series (which would be more broadly classified under fantasy in the vein of the Alvin Maker series). We agreed that it’s one mark of a book with rich world-building when imagining the story being told from the perspective of another character in the series would easily recast it as a different genre.

This seems, to me, to play out especially well in science fiction vs. horror. Horror has a good grasp on the value of the unseen monster: if you can’t get a fix on it to explain it, you can’t feel any confidence in the resolution, leaving the possibility of terror hanging in the air. Science fiction, however, thrives on meeting the new and unexplained and giving it a name, learning its language, figuring out how it dies or what will persuade it to be nice so it’s not scary any more. If you look at a story from the boots-on-the-ground, oh-god-we’re-all-dying-one-by-one perspective of, say, a military commander failing to get a group to safety, you’ve got horror. If you turn it around and look at the situation from the viewpoint of, for an extreme example, a scientist in the lab with the ability to measure and test the situation for variables under more controlled circumstances, the same premise can become science fiction. Which genre the story ultimately belongs in depends on which perspective wins: knowledge or fear.

This realization led me to the epiphany that  I should probably be writing horror instead of science fiction…the one arena where my inherited tendency to anxiety might actually be an asset. If you can think of a rational solution to a scary problem, I can come up with a catastrophic point of failure.

This realization in turn led me to think it would be fun to write a horror story from the perspective of the correspondence between two people reacting to horrific crisis: the rational, optimistic scientist observing the situation from a safe distance and a military commander in charge of the situation on the ground. Dan graciously invited me to riff on his alien incursion story base on the Lolo Complex forest fires last year, so I’m going to try my hand at something a little different.

More to come on that soon.

Say hello to Autumn’s Daughter!

I have dragged my feet and generally taken far too long to get here, but as of yesterday at 9:46 am et, my first book, Autumn’s Daughter, became available for sale via Amazon.

eBook cover for Autumn's Daughter

Would you care to purchase a copy? I’d be ever so grateful. :)

A Few Thoughts on Self-Publishing

One of the reasons I’ve taken so very long to publish this book is that I’ve been waffling about the best approach. Book publishing is at a bit of a crossroads. Self-publishing an ebook is a much less expensive and risky proposition than self-publishing a print book, which ultimately means that the barrier to entry doesn’t do anything to control the quality of what’s out there. How on earth is a humble reader to know which self-published books are worth their hard-earned dollars?

But there’s also a rising democracy of art which is giving more and more power to individual artists to be heard without the backing hand of a major publishing house.

Major publishing houses make me anxious because the whole business model of advances on royalties seems…binding. The pressure to write something that can be sold isn’t always conducive to producing the most genuine or innovative stories. And let’s be blunt: there is a shit-ton of anxiety in the whole query process. I heard it quoted that the average book that makes it to publication goes through about 35 queries…so that’s months or years of writing and revising a frickin’ request for one person to read a book. And if…IF…you can get that one person to agree to take you on as a client, they then embark on the mission of trying to sell your book to a company, which they may or may not manage to do, and IF they do sell it, there’s a cranky corporate machine that analyzes your book for profitability, cuts it up, spits it out, brands it, and so on, until finally your book makes it to the real world for readers to engage with.

And what has the writer been doing, meanwhile? Writing and re-writing queries instead of stories? Slaving away on books that might never see the light of day? Running in circles revising this first book with no real sense of whether the revisions are improving the situation? Getting stuck in a quagmire of anxiety about whether writing is a valuable pursuit?

I’m not saying there’s no room for the major publishing house model: the touch of many expert hands might turn a real stinker of a manuscript into a polished jewel. I am absolutely certain that my own book would be cleaner and sharper if I had that sort of support network, and my launch-day sales would be higher because of the marketing dollars and expertise that publishing houses spend to support their investment. And when you’re looking at the risk and dollars involved in print publishing, the traditional model makes much more sense. But:

There’s another way to share stories, and I think it’s a way that is less likely to make me lose my marbles.

I work for a web development company, and our internal slogan is “fail early, fail fast, fail often.” We design in the browser, we run A/B tests, we mess around with test variables, we track analytics, and we make our process as transparent as possible to clients to give them ownership in the design process through opportunities to provide continual feedback. It’s mad efficient and it makes client relationships smoother because they know what to expect from the get-go. We don’t invest massive amounts of time and energy in any stage without client approval because our model is designed to be lean, light, and flexible.

Because of the magic of the internet, of the information age, this “minimum viable product” approach can apply to just about anything. I’ve put out a book that is as carefully edited as my poor brain filters, the help of my friends, and a few limited resources can achieve. Is it worth five bucks? Yes. Can we do more with it? Abso-friggin-lutely. So what do you want? Do you want an audiobook? Do you want me to pay for better copyediting? Do you want the sequel faster than next fall? Do you want merch and bling? Because we can communicate through any number of platforms (Twitter, Goodreads, Google+, my contact form), I can talk directly to you and we can make this little book our plaything, bring it into whatever medium we like.

Not to be a massive cheeseball, but I like the idea of being the people’s writer instead of being just one cog of many in a huge corporate complex.

I KNOW. I published on Amazon. It doesn’t get any more huge corporate complexy than that, and believe me, I don’t love all of their policies. But here’s the thing: I can’t actually talk to readers and cultivate that creative community with them unless I can first find those few honest-to-goodness fans who love my story for itself, not just because they love me as a person. Amazon is a not-stupid place to start finding and connecting with those folks. I can’t speak to how Amazon deals with publishing houses, but as an individual author, I have a massive amount of control over my work, far more marketing support than I could possibly afford to pay for on my own, and direct access to substantial communities of folks who are most likely to truly enjoy what I have to offer. Maybe established authors and publishing houses can afford to pooh-pooh that kind of opportunity. Maybe someday we’ll have built a big enough community that I can make my work free to everyone on a pay-what-you-want model…but I’m too pragmatic a person to pretend I’m even close to being there, so for now: Amazon.

So. To sum up: I have chosen self-publishing as my first option because I think it’s got some cool potential over traditional publishing that suits my worldview, and I am looking forward to connecting with readers. If you’re of a mind to go adventuring with me, the first, best things you can do to send us on our way are (1) Read my book and (2) leave a specific, honest review.

Many thanks!

Science Fiction isn’t about Science.

I was talking with John and my in-laws about “Lucy” yesterday. None of us had seen it and John doesn’t want to because the fundamental premise of the science fiction is painfully wrong. Here’s the trailer:

The premise seems to be that some sort of trauma triggers this woman to be able to use a rapidly increasing percentage of her brain, which gives her crazy superpowers, because, dontcha know, normal humans only use about 10 percent of their brains. I understand John’s objection: that 10 percent thing is complete and utter nonsense, nonsense which is easily dispelled by reputable sources if you take 0.35 seconds to Google it.

But the myth persists and has enough appeal for a movie founded on it to bring in big names like Morgan Freeman and Scarlett Johannson. Why?

Let’s wind the clock back to the mid to late 1800s. Meet Jules Verne. He has been hailed as one of the founders of modern science fiction and admired as a futuristic prophet, many inventors crediting him for inspiring their work, including submarines and helicopters. As a kid dreaming of being a science fiction writer, I would daydream about what magical invention I might concoct that would inspired some young scientist to change the face of technology as we understand it.

As a practicing writer, however, I’ve discovered something about science fiction and the process of a responsible writer: research is a pain in the ass.

Jules Verne did his research, and it made his work great. He kept up with the scientific advances of the day and tried to extrapolate what would come next. And because the world was really only just starting to have enough science for specialization to be a thing, it was possible to gain a pretty thorough picture of a wide variety of fields without yourself being a scientist working in that field.

Let’s talk about the singularity for a moment. Personally, I think Ray Kurzweil and his ilk are guilty of bad science, bad math, and generally warping reality to fit their cockamamie dream of becoming robots instead of dying. But underlying their assurances that we will all be uploaded to the cloud within the next few decades (snort) is a notion that is useful for the purposes of considering the state of science fiction: exponential growth.

Do a quick image search on world population growth. See the curve that dominates the charts? That’s what exponential growth looks like. Now do the same search for growth of computing power. Pretty similar, although I would be wary of charts that extrapolate into the future–they make the curve look much nicer. The basic idea with exponential growth is that the larger X gets, the faster it multiplies, and I think the same principle can be reasonably applied to science thus: the more we know and the more people who have access to resources to act on that knowledge, the faster we will discover new things.

What this means for science fiction is that even if I can read an article in the latest quantum mechanics journal about a new discovery that might have implication Z, by the time I write a story about it and get it out into the world, Z may very well have been disproved or replaced with an updated notion and if the technology is carrying the story, I will have egg all the hell over my face. And that’s a best-case scenario. In actuality, I’m not even really capable of going that far: the edges of research are so wildly specialized that I can’t actually read the latest articles on quantum mechanics because I’m at least ten years of education short of having the math chops to grok anything more than the abstract and discussion…and I can often only get that much if the author is a particularly lucid writer. I have to rely heavily on second-hand interpretations of the math, which creates its own minefield of possibilities for Getting the Science Wrong.

So how do we write science fiction if the future is too close to comfortably predict, and if the coolest science is incredibly difficult to understand?

The blockbuster nature of “Lucy,” with its egregious crimes against plausibility, points to a question that I think science fiction writers need to ask. What draws the audience in? Because clearly, it ain’t good science.

The science fiction that I have generally found to be the most compelling is the stuff that says, “Let’s pretend scenario Y is true. Let’s throw this set of humans into the plot and watch how they react.” I think science fiction shines the brightest when, instead of being hung up on shiny toys, it asks interesting questions about human nature, psychology, and posits other possible ways of being. In that case, the popularity of “Lucy” makes perfect sense: of course it’s appealing to imagine that we all have potential superpowers locked away in our skulls, ready to be awakened by a little trauma. Of course it’s fascinating to imagine how the world would react if this were discovered to be true and we had no way of predicting how powerful one individual might become if that potential were unlocked.

The best of the genre, in my mind, is more and more about accepting a given “what if” as true, no matter how implausible, and thinking through the human consequences that will result from that set of circumstances. Which means, in turn, that writers who are up to their elbows in history and the study of human nature may end up praised by future generations not for their foresight of being able to travel quickly around the world, but for their discovery of elegant or useful approaches to problems like preserving cultural identity while easing the transition away from harmful practices within a specific cultural heritage (which is another fascinating conversation for another day). What is good culture building if not a sort of qualitative metanalysis of human behavior?

It’s not the easiest mental transition for me to make, reading a lot more history/philosophy/psychology and a little less of the MIT Review. I am, however, comforted by the knowledge that if my proposition is correct, I can at least get the really cool science wrong and it won’t matter much because only maybe a dozen people out of 9 billion will have good reason to be grumpy at me. :)

The Coyote’s Karma

Some couples disagree about religion or money or who has to do what chores or which team sportses the best. John and I, however, can’t come to terms with one another over robots, zombies, and now, apparently Wile E. Coyote. Before we get into the debate, let’s do a quick jaunt down memory lane, shall we?

It began innocently enough. I had commented on the fact that John’s Landmark avatar was about to be crushed by a giant box (not really, there are no physics, but there was a giant shadow over him), which made John chuckle and sigh that he had always felt bad for Wile E. Coyote.

Me: Wait…you were cheering for Wile E. Coyote? He’s the bad guy!
John: No, he’s not. He’s the clever one.
Me: *Raises eyebrow* He wants to eat the roadrunner. They show him licking his lips and leering.
John: He’s the one whose perspective they always tell the story from, the one you seeing trying new things, looking for a clever solution to the problem.
Me: That doesn’t make him a protagonist. At best, he’s an anti-hero.
John: He’s an engineer. I always loved how he would come up with some new way to try to catch the roadrunner. The cartoons were never that satisfying, though–I was always sad that he never managed to catch the roadrunner.
Me: Seriously? I’ve always loved the karmic justice. He always gets squished by his own plans backfiring. That’s why it’s funny: in his desire to hurt the roadrunner, he only ends up hurting himself.
John: But he’s hungry! It’s the circle of life.
Me: He and the roadrunner exhibit equal amounts of self-awareness, but the roadrunner is just doing his own thing. The coyote can buy things from mail-order catalogues–I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need to kill the roadrunner to get a decent meal.

This somehow devolved into a (not actually then researched) conversation about whether or not the cartoon could have been a commentary on the Cold War, John’s theory being that the slipshod engineering of the coyote could be poking fun at Russia’s notoriously sloppy space program during the fifties. He told me about the death of Vladimir Komarov, the colorful version that includes him being forced to pilot a ship that was known to be unsafe on pain of death and cursing the Kremlin as he died.

Me: So you’re saying that Wile E. Coyote is Russia during the Cold War and that you’re cheering for him?
John:  …

A little (very little) research tells a very different, less political, more existential tale of the adult themes behind the cartoon, but John still clings to his love for the cleverness of the coyote, and I’m left wondering how many other kids watched that cartoon and cheered not for the joyful, come-what-may roadrunner, but for the ultimate victory of the embodiment of hunger itself. I find myself hoping that, at least in this instance, I’m not the one with the atypical perspective on the situation…

Postage Stamp Worlds

In the course of having one of my knitting designs reviewed by a technical editor recently, I discovered that I knit wrong. Literally: my basic knit stitch is wrong, which means that everything I do has a gauge that is nigh impossible to duplicate with a normal knit stitch. The functional difference of how you end up doing what I’ve been doing versus knitting correctly is tiny. Minute. Miniscule. And apparently critical.

As I was telling this story to some friends over lunch last week, one of them mused that knitting is a postage-stamp world. Which is to say, if you look at it from a distance, it doesn’t look like much, but when you get up close, the level of detail is incredible and you can fall right through into a world with far more depth than you realized. I love that concept and I think it’s widely applicable. Most specialized labor, hobbies, artisan work, whatever, is made up of these postage stamp worlds, and recognizing that is probably the first step to developing a genuine interest in and respect for the work that other people do.

The concept of postage stamp worlds also seems like a darned good construct to keep in mind if you’re about to embark on learning something new, especially in the information age. This is a bit ironic, perhaps, but I think the information age is actually not all that fabulous for passing on expert knowledge…yet. Most beginning internet learning is happening at that flat, distance level with no help from Mary Poppins to pop the artwork into life (or vice versa). Sure, I can pull up Youtube videos and download ebooks and PDFS and even order books from my library without leaving my dining room table, and all of these things are valuable learning tools. This is how I learned to knit. Which I did completely wrong.

My point is that just because you can kajigger something to do more or less what you want it to do doesn’t mean that there isn’t a standard or more efficient way to do that thing. And sometimes the autodidactic among us end up disguising our ignorance of the underlying principles when we find those Frankensteinian workarounds, only to have that ignorance backfire on us in hilarious and stress-inducing minor catastrophes when we try to do more advanced work. Learning from an expert in person tends to call attention to such discrepancies pretty quickly, but learning from experts in a context where they have the ability to see our work, note a misunderstanding, and put us back on the path to understanding a core concept of their particular postage stamp is not an experience that is characteristic of learning a new thing from the internet.

Again: yet. I suspect that we can both make the internet a better learning environment and become better internet learners, and to that end, I’m thinking about these questions:

  • What questions should you ask when learning something new?
  • Are there general guidelines we can recommend for teachers interested in creating static lessons for beginners?
  • How do we best help n00bs find experts?
  • How do you determine that a teacher is, in fact, an expert, rather than a hack who knows a few things more than you?
  • What is the best technology for connecting teachers and students working together remotely?

I have a few thoughts about the first two after this experience, so…more on that later. The latter three questions aren’t really my forte, though. Thoughts?

 

My Friend, the Doctor

No, not THE Doctor. Not this time. My memory of children’s movies (especially musicals) from the ’60s and ’70s is, perhaps, a little unusual given the fact that I was born in the mid-80s. Hands up, all ye who can sing even a few lines of The Gnome-Mobile. No takers?

Yeah, I thought not. (Sisters and St. G cousins, y’all don’t count.)

My grandparents had an excellent collection in pristine condition, and visits to their house included frequent screenings of The Gnome-Mobile, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Mary Poppins, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, Willky Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and, my personal favorite, the 1967 Rex Harrison Doctor Dolittle.

I don’t remember the last time I had my hands on a copy, but I’m fairly certain it was college or earlier, so you can imagine I was nostalgically delighted to see it pop up on Netflix recently. When I queued it up with a cautious giddiness, I expected to be let down by the movie’s inability to hold up to expectations over time, or by a conflict in my adult ethical perspectives. You know, the sort of thing that kills our love of more than half of the movies we adored as kids? But from the moment the charming artwork played along with the overture in the opening credits, I was a kid sitting beside my sisters and grandfather in the basement of my grandparents’ old house in Waltham, the one the sold when I was six or seven.

I’ve never managed to get through the more recent Edie Murphy iteration of Doctor Dolittle, and the reason for that is apparent from the start of the movie. Murphy’s Doctor starts hearing the animals as if by magic and struggles to deal with it (as I recall…I honestly couldn’t stomach that stinkfest the last time I tried). Harrison’s Doctor, however, is something of a brilliant sociopathic Sherlock Holmes / House sort whose specialty happens to be animal linguistics and physiology. He chooses to work with animals because he finds them fun and delightful, while humans bore and distress him. His ability to speak with them is not some campy, improbable accident: it is a scholarly labor driven by a deep compassion for all living things…except for humans.

I love one particular moment in the movie where this constrast is demonstrated clearly. All throughout the movie, Dolittle speaks to animals whose language he hasn’t mastered in English, assuming that they understand him. I would chalk this up to convenient movie mechanics with a hint of Empiricism, except for the moment on Star Island where he first introduces himself to the leader of the natives who have imprisoned his ragged band. Instead of using standard English, he pulls out this “Me Doctor, you savage” nonsense. The reasons I am choosing to interpret this as an internal assumption that humans are stupid rather than a racist approach are (1) D.D.’s already eloquently established that humans are ignorantly horrible and (2) he immediately apologizes when the leader introduces himself in perfect English and proceeds to note that the Star Island community is structured around language and learning.

I’m not quite sure what this says about the writers and their perspectives on race and the problematic cultural narrative of the noble savage, but the more time I spend thinking about it, the more willing I am to just give them this interaction as a win that aptly illustrate’s Dolittle’s perspective.

Beyond the highly intelligent misanthropy that leads Dolittle to be a scholar of animals, the movie is just so darn quirky. It’s basically My Fair Lady meets The Odyssey meets The Life Aquatic meets the Voyage of the S.S. Beagle. Utterly glorious. For those of you who haven’t seen it and who doubt that it merits two and a half hours of your time (does one need to post spoilers warnings for films that are over half a century old?):

  • D.D. abandons life as a doctor for the landed gentry of England because they are cruel, self-involved, and stupid. His parrot sees his love of animals and suggests he become a vet, offering to teach him their languages. (“I speak over two thousand languages, including Dodo and Unicorn….I had a classical education.”) He devotes himself with great joy and enthusiasm to this task, with the consequence that he becomes poor (relatively speaking) and completely cut off from all human company, save that of an alcoholic Irish fishmonger with a touch of the Blarney.
  • In order to finance a search for the Giant Pink Sea Snail, a “Red Indian” (Tibetan) friend sends D.D. a two-headed llama thing called a pushmi-pullyu, so naturally, D.D., the fishmonger, and an 11-year-old boy called Stubbins run away to join the circus. In this routinely-exploitative-of-animals environment, D.D. is moved by the plight of a seal pining for her husband, and so helps her escape, which involves dressing her up in stolen clothing and throwing her off a cliff, though not before clasping her in his arms and singing her a love song and sighing, “If only you weren’t a seal…”
  • For this act of throwing what, at a distance, looks like a woman off a cliff, D.D. is brought up on murder charges, is acquitted on the basis of the fact that the cloak is verified as stolen, but is then sentenced to an insane asylum for a conversation with the magistrate’s dog (to prove he can, in fact, speak with animals), which reveals said magistrate to be a glutton. His parrot-tutor orchestrates an escape after the fishmonger and boy fail to come up with a decent idea, and all three set off on their sea voyage, accompanied by the stowaway niece of the aforementioned magistrate.
  • They set sail for a migratory island, a destination chosen by sticking a pin in an atlas, talk to many sea creatures along the way, and finally reach their destination with the aid of a storm that destroys their ship and a dolphin who understands Indiana Jones-like attachments to hats (in this instance, a top hat).
  • The storm has blown the island off course, causing the local wildlife to develop colds, which D.D. & co. deal with magnificently. Their encounters with the local folk (who are very educated due to the number of shipwrecked books they’ve recovered, but also very superstitious) teeter between godhood and death by torture, and eventually lands on the godhood side when the whale pushing the island back on course pushes them all the way back to the place where the island originally fell off the African coast.
  • The Great Pink Snail (which I like to think of as the Questing Beast for this movie) shows up on the shore with, inexplicably, the same cold that had plagued the animals on the island. D.D. cures him, for which favor the snail is willing to bring the company back to Puddleby. (“He must be the only snail on Earth with four bedrooms.”)
  • D.D. remains behind, to the sorrow of all, because he is an escaped convict in England. When news reaches him that all of the animals in England are on strike because of his sentence and the local magistrate is therefore begging to have him back, he builds a saddle for a giant lunar moth (“needs to compensate for a steep rate of incline”) and flies back home after a quick jaunt to the moon.

This movie is on the absolute best kind of crack. And in between the cracks, it makes an eloquent argument for humanity to exercise more compassion, especially to animals. It also makes a surprisingly decent, for 1967, attempt at feminism. There’s only one relevant human female, her songs are all complete crap, and she’s largely a trumped-up pivot for an ill-advised attempt to stuff a half-cocked love triangle into a story that is already overfull, BUT… (1) She has her own motivations which do not center around finding a man and (2) They have an overt conversation about gender which, though subtle and mostly squished into a montage, manages both to convey that feminism is about women being treated as competent, complete humans and to gently mock men for forcing women into the impossibly hard role of carrying a double workload before allowing them access to equal respect. The movie also manages to touch on the balance of the culture of empire vs. native culture and the question of education vs. superstition, and all in a light-handed, enchanting way that still raises interesting questions and offers perspectives without trying to achieve resolution, all without departing from quick-witted repartee and a great kindness of spirit.

In short: Doctor Dolittle is a helluva movie. And while you are adding it to your Netflix queue, I shall be pulling out my battered Hugh Lofting collection to see how the movie compares with the books. And in the meantime, because I love all my Doctors and this mashup is unbearably perfect, I shall leave you with this: