Archive for the 'Writing' category

[Un]remarkable space

Aug 31 2011 Published by under Etc, Writing

Another move finished. That's seven-ish in the past four years. I swear I'm not going anywhere this time.

I said that in February of this year. "We're not going anywhere this time. I swear." That's the hindsight bastardization, anyway.

There's something comforting about our apartment this time. Instead living among the bloodless ranks of plastic-sided townhomes filled with [blank] professionals - empty rooms, empty homes - we moved to an old neighborhood close to the metro. The homes are all brick here; worn, cracked, discolored. You know what it will smell like when you roam inside. The outlets are in weird places. The furnace is ancient, painted white to cover the rust patches, patched with sheet metal to cover the holes made by the rust.

Normal people get up and go to their normal jobs. The men wear normal uniforms and carry shiny toolboxes to white vans. There's a bunch of normal kids who beat the shit out of each other and chase the stray cats in the alleys. The kid upstairs pounds our ceiling running (Imagine: all that force through the little pressure points). I imagine his mother and I groaning in unison. Go back to sleep, kid. She clicks down the stairs in a rush every morning and Oscar growls and barks as she passes our door. Oscar hates when people are in a rush.

Some of my neighbors ride a bike to work, but I doubt they think of themselves as Cyclists. A Cyclist is a person that uses a bicycle for their primary mode of transportation even though he or she has more than enough money to use a car. The idea is that Cycling is better for your health and the planet's health than using your car, which is true, but because most normal people roll their eyes at Cyclists (Note: it doesn't help that Cyclists wear silly clothes that cost more than most bike-riders' bikes) and continue to use their cars, Cyclists usually just end up getting in the way and pissing off the normal people, which in turn makes them seek each other out and create support groups and the like. Cyclists often whine on the internet about how they're treated on the road. After they're done whining, they drive their SUV to Whole Foods to fill out the menu for their All Organic Dinner Party. You can't use your bike to pick up organic appetizers for 15 people.

Just this morning, as I loaded Heather up for school, waving to the gasman (he looked sleepy), I noticed that the vine that winds through the hedges in front of the building next door was peppered with morning glory blossoms. There's other vines too, that wind up the brick to our roof. I often stop to think about the aerial roots of young vines, how they find those comfortable little crags in stone or bark, how they nestle in and fit snug. Are they soft nodes as they squeeze their way in? Do they harden in maturity?

Part of the concrete frame around our window crumbled in last week's earthquake. I took a picture of it during the hurricane:

Earthquake damage

 After the hurricane, the maintenance guys framed and fixed it. Oscar was a little disturbed by the floating men with drills outside our window. I had to bring him into the bedroom for a co-nap the other day to calm him down. Overall, he seems happy with their work. It's their methodology he questions.

Twitter is back up. Link is up there, next to the aerial plankton. I'm working on revising and submitting some short stories. I'm thinking about which of the four novels I've started in the past couple of years I should focus on. The library around the corner has a lovely science section I want to delve into. I've been thinking about all the ecology basics posts I started years ago and wondering if I should continue work on them. I've read many papers that I never bothered to detail on here. I have some theories as to why and might even share with the world why I consistently shy away from sharing. Maybe.

The morning glories out front remind me of what I saw on a Walk the other day. A Walk is what I do sometimes to try to reduce the life-endangering fat around my midsection. I'm not really going anywhere in particular. Some people walk to move themselves from one place to another and end up getting exercise in the process. I used to be one of those people when I lived in Atlanta.

Anyway, there was a woman in her sixties bent over in her garden showing her grandson how to weed. It was a good day to weed, as my mother says, because the ground was wet. Normally, there's nothing spectacular about an older woman in the garden with her grandson. Thomas Kinkade probably thinks about that a lot as he watches his employees paint his ideas. The spectacular thing was that she, her garden and her grandson were reflected in the wide panes of a sliding glass door of her basement apartment. On this tiny plot, crammed between a busy sidewalk and an adequate living space, she did her own landscaping. There were no contracted professionals in red shirts blowing pine straw around soft asphalt, just a grandmom with her grandson in her unremarkable garden dug into a remarkable space.

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Writing arm

Aug 30 2011 Published by under Writing

There's something sad about the fact that, after 10 uninterrupted minutes of writing with a pen in a paper notebook, my hand muscles ache and the tendons in my arm feel like they've been pulled from their dockings.

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Harry Potter is a survivor, maybe, but no hero

Jul 14 2011 Published by under Creative Process, Science Fiction, Writing

Like most of the country, sometime in the next week I’ll shuffle up to a ticket booth, shovel out 40-ish dollars and see the second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I want to see if the movie adaptation can save that train wreck of a narrative in the last book.

I’m not really sure at what point during the evolution of the series that this essay started to come together. Maybe the bumbling luck in the Goblet of Fire. Maybe the null result of Dumbledore’s Army. Perhaps it was the trip with Dumbledore to the seacave and the ensuing helplessness in the event of his death. As I read more about Harry Potter, the less I thought of him as a hero. He is rarely cognizant of his circumstances, and even when he’s presented with ample clues, he (she?) relies on the heavy-handed power of deus ex machina to force a conclusion. It gets to the point where you wonder who is more inept: Harry Potter or J.K Rowling.

Harry Potter is like a modern-day Candide, a hapless victim, a thrall of inherited circumstance, an unwilling, unwilled window to Rowling’s world. The biggest difference, of course, was Candide was Voltaire’s rhetorical pawn and I’m not really sure what – if any – point Rowling is trying to make. I think she’s trying to tell us a story for its own sake. I think she started writing it for the kids. It’s since developed into an unintended mirror of culture and identity.

Antonia Susan Duffy wrote a piece in the NY Times in 2003 discussing the strange world of HP:

The important thing about this particular secondary world is that it is symbiotic with the real modern world. Magic, in myth and fairy tales, is about contacts with the inhuman -- trees and creatures, unseen forces. Most fairy story writers hate and fear machines. Ms. Rowling's wizards shun them and use magic instead, but their world is a caricature of the real world and has trains, hospitals, newspapers and competitive sport. Much of the real evil in the later books is caused by newspaper gossip columnists who make Harry into a dubious celebrity, which is the modern word for the chosen hero. Most of the rest of the evil (apart from Voldemort) is caused by bureaucratic interference in educational affairs.

Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, ''only personal.'' Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.

Now, I don’t completely agree with her assessment of Rowling’s fans – that’s habitual among the scornful – but the idea of Rowling’s secondary world as trivial and shallow resonates with my impressions of the series.
Like most modern fantasy, the wizarding world of HP is a place of trite, amalgamated whimsy. No doubt, for centuries stories and myths morphed over time, massaged by their tellers, shaped by conquering cultures and wanderers. But until recently, the extent of the myth salad we now endure was not nearly as confused. By the time stories of vampires, dragons, knights, wizards and goblins were being incorporated into video games, the motifs were becoming woefully overused. Rowlings world is a mashup of a mashup of a mashup with no binding principle, no underlying metaphysical unity. Voldemort strikes fear into the hearts of the most powerful wizards, but he can only kill one person at a time. He and his black broom band scare a few people in London. The most horrible spells are nothing more than a knife in the dark, a beating in a small alley. But if the world is truly “only personal”, Armageddon comes with a flick of the wrist.

Should we expect anything else in this age? I don’t think so. It fits the times. Harry is the perfect man-child: ineffectual, entitled, spineless, lost, confused and utterly reliant on a decisive father figure and the life-filling drama from his friends. Even in the end he cannot rise above his circumstance – Rowling won’t let him. He must be nannied beyond the grave to rise up – truly undead now – and actualize the “we had it all along” narrative deception. In the wake of his resurrection, the victory of the good guys is like all the stories we spoon-feed to our kids in America: loud, inconsistent, sugary and indulgent. As I read it, I could only think of Heather’s eight-year-old nephew going on in detail to me about how he’d like to buy a pool so he could fill it with sharks and blow up the sharks with a rocket launcher.

The story really isn’t about Harry at all. The protagonist is Dumbledore as far as I can gather; he’s the only one that really knows what’s going on at any time. So why make the mistake of an amateur novelist? Passive characters can be excellent narrators of a story and still play a big part or turn out to be the most important piece. It’s hardly fulfilling to follow someone so empty.

Heroes sacrifice themselves for the sake of something bigger. In a place where the end of you is the end of the world, is it possible to be a hero? Perhaps it’s better to call Harry Potter a survivor rather than a hero, and the frame of that story is a very different shape than the one Rowling forced this story into.

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Format, prescriptivism and Plato's chair

Mar 10 2011 Published by under Journalism, Writing

Even during blogging droughts I try to keep up on the continuing discussions among science bloggers. I came across a couple of posts in my catch-up reading that I really enjoyed reading, and wanted to share a few thoughts on format, language, standards and how they apply directly to what I've experienced.

Melody has a post up at Child’s Play discussing a piece from the New York Times about literacy and grammar, the general “decline” of English:

…to pull the strings together: I agree that part of what’s driving linguistic variation may be, as Greene argues, a lack of strong “top-down” constraints on variation. Basic literacy has exploded, but not well-normed literacy, and that probably has a lot to do with the massive educational disparities that exist in this country. On a societal scale, our education system is clearly failing to get everyone ‘up to standards’ [3].

She goes on to say that there is an inherent moralistic imposition in the standardization of English taught that doesn’t account for its colloquial value among communities.

I can see the reasoning, but I think that’s based on a incomplete idea of how the English language is accepted/presented among even the most pedantic English teachers and grammar Nazis. As Melody says, it constitutes an enormous body of words, phrases and mechanics, a mish-mash of bastardizations and misinterpretations that become a new standard; part of the beauty of English is its affinity for new words, new turns of phrase, its capacity for the incorporation of novelty. I grew up calling Capicola ham cabigal, and Ricotta cheese rigot – other Italian Americans knew what we meant, but the gourmet shop clerk did not. But I think underlying even the most nuanced dialect of English is the same basic structure that makes it, well, English, and that the standard isn't necessarily in conflict. It was made clear during my education that grammar constituted ground rules, and knowing exactly how to break the rules is what has produced our greatest writers and speakers. That was always emphasized.

Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is a great example of this. Faulkner writes from the differing perspectives of a group of Southerners – family and friends – that surround the death of a friend and mother. Each chapter is written from one character’s perspective in their own dialect. Faulkner’s range is astounding. Darl is traditionally articulate and perhaps, the vessel of the author. Vardaman is young and brash, his language is crude on the surface, but Faulkner writes with such skill that he evokes beauty from “poor” grammar and non-standard English. Faulkner was breaking the rules in all the right ways over 80 years ago, appreciating the way people truly spoke the English language, because he knew how to.

In other words, fiction hasn’t been following the rules for a long time. Authors recognize the value of colloquialisms. No one has written like Herman Melville since Herman Melville. We've always loved slang, always welcomed it warmly into general use; then we abuse it until it's annoying and drives us all crazy. You're on notice, lolspeak.

I think it’s more productive to consider language in an applied, categorical sense. The proper use of language depends on the standards of the medium or the institution governing the medium. In gaming, social media and blogging, anything goes because it’s unmediated. We write without filters. Our online communication is usually intended to be an exchange rather than a presentation. We want feedback. I usually don’t bother with punctuation when I’m getting rolled by pro nerds online. In the interest of brevity, why type “you’re” when you can get the same result with “ur”?

But when I go to work, I have an industry standard to uphold. I need to communicate technical information in the most clear, direct fashion that I possibly can so that there is no confusion for the end user. I need to take industry slang and translate it. My terminology needs to be precise and consistent. It needs to conform to the style guide. The terms Window, Screen, Dialog have specific meanings that need to describe the same components in every instance.

Similarly, journalistic writing is formulaic, as Hannah is fast realizing (congrats on the internship!). Using the inverted pyramid feels awkward at first, but like technical writing, it’s purposefully restrictive. News story writing is bread and butter; content needs to be concise and churned out quickly. The formula streamlines the process, helps the writer to focus the delivery of information. Not every piece is a story, and usually only experienced journalists are given feature pieces. But even the expansive features in newspapers and magazines are formulaic. In fact, the vast majority of blog posts you’ll find on – including my own – are predictably constructed. The structure exists because it’s useful.

The inverted pyramid isn’t the frame, the marketing scheme of “Science Is Cool” or “Science Is Friendly” is. Scientific research in the context of a journalistic interpretation is often treated like Plato’s chair – we judge its value based on some theoretical purest form, a subjective, ineffable idea of the research. The truth is, however, that it’s the skill of the writer working within the format that determines the piece’s informative value to us. It is not a story until it’s given a narrative; the quality of the narrative is dependent on the skill of the writer.

When you’re forced to work within a restrictive format, along certain standards, it teaches you precision that can be applied to more creative formats. Let’s not pretend that there aren’t levels of communicative ability; some have a better mastery of language than others, but I think all lovers of the English language hope that this appreciation extends to its outer reaches, its innovations, its novelty and its interpretation.

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