Free Speech and Consequences

A friend of mine came under attack by a few of the dumber donkey butts of the internet. This friend had the audacity *gasp* to point out that, even if you’re not pro-Clinton, calling her a bitch is not an effective way to sell the feminist angle of your candidate’s platform. And of course, a number of trolls used this microscopic excuse to start calling my friend (and Clinton) a bitch (and worse). As if that wasn’t obnoxious enough, they then started whining about their first amendment rights being violated.


I’m not going to touch the toxic masculinity issue with a ten-foot pole here, but with election season ramping up, I KNOW I’m going to see a large number of these mud-slinging-followed-by-first-amendment-slinging conversations popping up from people all across the political spectrum. So, for the sake of sanity and civility for all, here’s a little PSA reminding you that there is a difference between having your first amendment rights violated and being called on your aggressive bullshit.

Let’s review, for thirty seconds, what the First Amendment says.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

If we focus, for the purposes of this little case study, on only the speech aspect as it applies to making vicious comments on social media, this little piece of language can be simplified to mean something more like, “The federal government can’t stop you from talking like an asshole.”

Let’s also simplify, for the moment, the complexity of how free speech rights play out in the context of social media user agreements with different companies. The first amendment does not meant that Facebook and Twitter (who are not, surprise!, part of Congress) are necessarily required to let you shoot your mouth off, making their platforms toxic environments for the rest of the users, but they also aren’t great about kicking out the assholes because it’s not always profitable for them. You may very well be allowed to be a verbal bully by the people who are actually in charge of the rules that determine whether you’re allowed to play with the other kids on any given internet playground.


That doesn’t mean you won’t face consequences for your actions. The same loose oversight of speech that lets you throw around words like “bitch” and “cunt” means that private individuals (also not covered under that peskily specific “Congress” label) who think your language is shitty have the right to tell you as much. If you use words in ways that identify you as ignorant or a misogynist pig, you might just get called ignorant or a misogynist pig. Surprise! If you don’t want to wear that label proudly, maybe start taking a few seconds to think about what you sound like before you post something.

You could have just thought it.

Even when you have a legitimate disagreement with someone’s statement, you may always choose to deal with it in an intelligent, thoughtful, constructive fashion. If you choose to use language aggressively and unkindly in order to force a person out of the conversation, you’re an asshole and you’re making the world just a little worse.

You don’t have to be an asshole to make your point heard, and if that’s the route you choose to go, there might just be consequences. People might point out that you are contributing slightly less to the conversation than a massive pile of excrement. They might unfriend you. They might publicly shame you for your words. And guess what? Not one of those consequences comes even close to violating your injudiciously exercised first amendment rights.

tldr; if you can’t take it, you are more than welcome to stop dishing it out.

Worry: The Salt of Imagination

There’s a quotation floating around the internet in the form of various inspirational memes, and I feel the need to respond to it.

“Worry is a waste of imagination.”

On the surface, it seems like a sweet piece of sentimental encouragement, but I’m going to take a strongly oppositional stance: it’s not only wrong, it’s toxic.

Why is it wrong?

From an evolutionary perspective, worry is one of the fundamental functions of imagination, if not the wellspring that makes the ability useful enough to survive in a population over time. Worry is, by definition, a state of anxiety over actual or potential problems, right? In the context of survival, worry is a thing of beauty. The ability to imagine everything that could possibly go wrong is a valuable step towards preparing a functional response that will keep you alive.

And while you can make the argument that the original problems that worry helped us anticipate (tiger attacks, for example) might be less pressing, you’d have to be a fool to think our world is functioning so beautifully that we have no use for solutions that spring from the imagination’s worries.

Worry might lead us to imagine living in abject poverty, which we might respond to by showing up for work on time consistently or being sensible about the debt we take on. Worry might lead us to imagine the return of smallpox, which we might respond to by getting our shots and advocating for good vaccination policies. Worry might lead us to worry about triggering World War III, which we might respond to by working really hard to keep the Drumpf from getting elected.

Far from being a waste, worry is one of the critical tools of imagination.

Okay, fine, maybe the quotation isn’t completely accurate. But toxic? Really?

Yes, really. Even if you brush off the worry about what it would be like to live in a world run by irresponsible adult-children who are incapable of applying forethought to situations that might be beneficial for us to avoid, shutting down the people who are good at worrying is just mean.

In my observation, social groups are more effective when you’ve got a good balance of naturally negative people and naturally positive people. Not necessarily a 1:1 ratio. 3:1 might be closer to the mark. If you look at “negative” people as “problem seers” and “positive” people as “problem solvers,” you can see how that balance might be useful. Three people whose primary talent lies with fixing things for every one person who’s primarily good at noticing what might need fixing could mean good odds for fixing those identifiable problems.

The difficulty is that “positivity,” being a trait that is useful in larger quantities, becomes “normal,” while “negativity” becomes seen as less desirable. (And let’s face it: negative people are not often the ones who are good at helping to foster group cohesion, which adds to the perception of negative thinking as inherently bad.) So instead of recognizing that these two habits of imagination (problem seeing and problem solving) are complementary skills that need each other, there’s a tendency for worry and negativity to be seen as something that has to be fixed by the positive people. And to treat negativity as something that needs to be fixed is to treat people who are better at seeing problems as if they are broken.

Labeling people as broken for the habits of mind they were born with is a toxic behavior, and that’s exactly what this quote is doing.

Come on…you’re not saying worry is always a good thing, are you?

I’m not. Really, and truly, I get where that quote is coming from. Worry can drag people down without serving a purpose. Just like blind enthusiasm.

Any trait that’s too far out of balance is going to lead to problems. In a world that’s a lot safer, statistically speaking, than the world in which worry was initially useful (i.e., Tiger Attack World), our imaginations are certainly capable of latching onto ridiculous scenarios to fret about and spiraling into obsessive panic attacks. That’s not good. That specific variety of worry is a waste of imagination. But if you lump all worry into the same category of wasted brain power, you will accomplish exactly two things:

  1. You’ll make the habitually positive people feel smug and self-congratulatory about their own lack of worry, leading them to feel justified in further telling negative people how broken they are.
  2. You’ll make the habitually negative people feel more broken and give them something else to worry about.

That quotation does both of those thing. I do hate to deprive the internet of a pithy conceptualization of a rampant topic, of course, so here’s a suggested alternative:

Worry is the salt of the imagination: too much could give you a heart attack, but it’s still essential to life.

How to Format eBooks (Like a Boss)

I recently ran a workshop on formatting ebooks for the Lewiston Public Library and promised to share an electronic checklist and the presentation slides on my site. So…here they are!

How to Format eBooks (Like a Boss): Slides
How to Format eBooks: Checklist

After the presentation, the librarian showed me her demo version of PressBooks, a service the library is considering subscribing to. It’s a WordPress-based tool for making properly formatted, quite lovely ebooks with a lot less labor than the DIY process I describe above, so if you’re daunted by the more technical process or want some a wider variety of spiffy pre-made styling options, you might find it worthwhile to shell out the $20/book.

Maine authors:

Once you’ve got your book up and published, one way or the other, don’t forget to consider submitting to…

  •  Self-E – This will eventually get you in their module for subscribed Maine libraries with a chance at being added to the national module. Right now, this is pretty much the only workable path for library exposure for indie authors.
  • ReadMaine – This is a work-in-progress, but once enough authors have sent in their info, you’ll have a free listing on a site meant to help Maine readers find and support Maine authors.

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 sounding 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 experienced 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…


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.”