Literary Squirreling

hh-animals-squirrel-4Not to go all textual and English Lit 101 on you, but I’ve been thinking about some of the classics. And, well, about one classic writer in particular: Dickens.

Now, there is no other writer — with the possible exception of Shakespeare — more resented or reviled by generations of high school and college English students than Charles Dickens. Sadly, he is reviled not because of his writing, but because…well…none of us actually wanted to read Great Expectations at fifteen…and we certainly didn’t want to read Bleak House at nineteen. At those ages, a kid (a guy, at least) wants nothing more than sex and action…he certainly doesn’t want guilt and commentary and lit-crit homework.

But, when you get a bit older, and hopefully a bit wiser, things change. That’s when you go back and re-read. That’s when all the irritating assignments from your teen-age years start to make actual sense.

You all know I draw a lot of my mood and inspiration from songs and albums, from artists like Brian Fallon and Chuck Ragan and All Time Low and The Fray…I could go on for a very long time with that list, by the way. Well, a verse — and a specific line — from the group that is pretty much my current favorite got me to thinking…and to re-reading:

Well I wonder which song they’re gonna play when we go
I hope it’s something quiet and minor and peaceful and slow
And as we float out into the ether, into the everlasting arms
I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains we forged in life

—Gaslight Anthem, “The ‘59 Sound”, SideOneDummy Records, 2008

(Here’s a link to the regular song/video, if you’re interested — there are also acoustic versions that I actually like even more)C63D9EB7-59DA-4E2F-88CE-410E84810D4F

Okay, so what the hell am I on about, then? Marley’s chains…

I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.

I’m pretty sure we all have some of those freaking chains. I know I do. Whether those chains are, like Marley, those of greed and a slavish devotion to profit above all, or are ones that keep you tied to the manifold other idiocies to which we humans are so susceptible, we all have failings we are going to regret when we die…

Which was the point of the whole damned story.

It wasn’t about Tiny Tim, it wasn’t about Christmas, it wasn’t even really about Scrooge…and, God knows, it damned-well WASN’T an allegorical warning about “government interference in business” as one jack-ass columnist tried to argue! It was a story about the willing enslavement under which we put ourselves, and about second chances.

Any one of us could be Jacob Marley, could be Scrooge himself. But…ask yourself this: just who is the real “hero” of the story?

Scrooge changed, yes. He learned and changed to escape the enslavement of greed, and the callous disregard for others that goes with it…but it was Marley who saved his ass. Marley — condemned to walk forever as a ghost, condemned to hear and bear forever the chains he made for himself — came back to save his one friend. He came back, when you get right down to it, to force his friend to change and escape a similar fate.

A Christmas Carol isn’t Scrooge’s story, its Marley’s…it’s the story of Marley and his chains. When you get right down to it, it’s about one miserable, damned soul saving another.

Shit…Dickens was writing anti-heroes before they were cool!

As a final thought: editors and agents will tell you (with good reason) to read as much of the recent work in your genre as is possible.  But don’t, for the love of all things writing, forget the classics!  The publishing world really is one of the most arrogant and self-obsessed industries in the world, and it very much is more than willing to dismiss every writer and work older than six months as “archaic” and “weak”.  Don’t be that person, don’t let that worldview define you.  The classics are, well, classic for a reason…make sure you are able (and willing!) to learn from everyone.

Nerd Alert: Astronomy Stuff!

EB8689A0-C6DC-4EFC-B0A4-5EFD204B5DC9Okay…it’s time to really get my nerd on. For those of you frightened by forays into the darker, scarier reaches of nerd-dom, now might be a good time to look away…

What’s got me all geeked-up, you ask? Direct imaging of planetary systems.

And, no, I don’t mean our damned system. Don’t get me wrong, I love the cool-as-hell pictures of Jupiter and Saturn and Pluto to which we have been treated lately, but they don’t get me well-and-truly going. Not the way “pictures” of other star systems do.

Think about it: should I get all hot and bothered about an uber-detailed picture of Jupiter’s storms…or by one that shows a gas giant orbiting another star? That’s like arguing about which is better, The Phantom Menace or Empire Strikes Back. I mean, c’mon now…let’s be real here.

2EC55F4B-A197-4162-850E-ACE87FB8A55CWith all that said, imaging of what the professional astrogeeks call “extrasolar” systems is hard. I mean, REALLY hard. We can’t truly do it in visible light because, well, stars are kinda bright. There have been some cool successes, however, including one of a planet roughly twice the mass of Jupiter orbiting a brown dwarf (which I’m adding here).  Take a look at this picture before you check out the ones below to…well…get yourself used to what this kind of stuff looks like.

Visible light is a problem, but other wavelengths…other wavelengths are a different story. We still have trouble picking out planets, but very smart people are working very hard to do this. And even the “crappy” pictures are pretty damned cool.

This is more of a photo post than a normal one, but…crap…the pictures are freaking awesome…

1) A bunch of baby pictures of newly forming planetary systems…more specifically, the dust clouds around young stars where planet formation is taking place.  The cleared “lanes” and spaces you can see are where planets have already come together:

SPHERE images a zoo of dusty discs around young stars

2) And some “adult” pictures…well, at least as close as we can come:

3) And, lest you criticize the “bad” pictures above, just remember that we are talking about hundreds of light-years for most of them.  Heck, just getting good pictures in our own damned backyard is tough: below is what Pluto and Charon look like to Hubble, versus what we finally saw when we got a “close-up” from the New Horizons probe.  Not to repeat myself, but this stuff is hard:

A61913E4-6C5E-4A71-A793-447316A3A83C

I Wanted This To Be Funny, But…

I’ve been reading some recent stories about the NFL’s settlement of the “concussion suit” billionagainst it.  Let’s start with the basics: there is over a billion dollars involved

A BILLION.

That’s…err…a lot.

im-shocked-shockedAnd yet people are shocked — SHOCKED — that there is fraud and gaming-the-system going on.

Look…humans are humans.  The naive, wishful thinking of both the left and right aside, human nature hasn’t changed one single bit in the 10,000 years of written history.  Let me make clear something I’ve implied before: drop Julius Caesar, or Alexander the Great, or Ghenghis Khan, or pick-your-own-ancient-figure, into the modern world and, after some language lessons, they would fit right in.

Shit, Ivan the Terrible and Vlad the Impaler would probably share a reality show on basic cable: ”Real Executions of Eastern Europe”…

At any rate, back to the topic at hand.  The single best story about the NFL last week was the one describing the advice one prominent ex-player received from his (very expensive) lawyer: show up to the medical test hung-over and doped on Valium.

Dammit!  Why don’t I get instructions like that?!  A bad morning-after, and a couple of mommy’s little helpers, to help “win” a million bucks?  Sign me up!

Okay, so all joking aside…

I’ve had more than my share of concussions.  I started playing tackle football when I was nine…I still play full-contact hockey at a high level…hell, I actually used to — shh! Don’t tell my mom! — take part in the very early days of the UFC…you know, the days when it was a weekend tournament, and you fought over and over until you lost…

Nowadays, I get a concussion if I shake my head too vigorously.

I also happen to receive all of the medical and practical data from the hockey players’ unions (some I “earned”, some I have been gifted by friends).  Honestly, that data scares the hell out of me.  No one can know for sure if they have CTE until a doctor cuts their skull open and takes a brain sample.  In other words: no one really knows until it’s too damned late.

But…but, there are symptoms.  Let’s look at the symptoms, shall we?

Depression.  Isolation & emotional instability.  Tendency to anger and self-loathing.  Suicidal impulses.  All of life’s little demons in one shitty package.

Now, look…this wouldn’t be anywhere near my radar if I didn’t have a number of friends for whom it is a DAILY issue.  Friends for whom this is very much reality.  Hell, let’s be honest: if I didn’t have a friend who killed himself over it…

It wasn’t until high-level hockey and martial arts were added to the “foundation” of football* that my brain got knocked silly, but I’m still nowhere near where some of my friends are…

*I was fourteen years old…got the shit knocked out of me on a kick-off.  I got helped to the sideline and the coach put up some fingers.  “How many?” he asked.  I got it wrong, according to my friends/fellow-players on the sidelines…but I was back on the field for the next play, anyway.

Chronic_Traumatic_EncephalopathyI admit it: I make fun of a lot of shit.  I have to make fun of the world and the universe, or it just might make me scream in rage and fear.  But as much as I wanted and intended this post to be funny, to be a “joke-post”…well…the damage that repeated concussions cause, and the reality of CTE, that I can’t make fun of.

I’ve lost one friend already to CTE (sadly, confirmed), and I have a number of others — tough men all, looked at as “fearless heroes” for their play on the ice and the field — who are utterly terrified that they are next.  So, the next time you condemn a football player for going out of bounds a step too soon, or a hockey player for declining a fight, or any other player for committing some athletic “faux pas”, just remember what really is at stake for them: everything.

The Revenge of Micro-Fiction Friday

No contest or challenge, this time…just “navigating small” and writing the words that come…

1) “Dreams of Smoke”

I tried so hard to hold it, the memory of the dream.

Even after everything, the dreams were still there…the dreams we had shared.

But so was work, and family, and all the trappings of life the way it was supposed to be. But supposed to be doesn’t include dreams. Supposed to be doesn’t leave room for could be.

I stood in that room, surrounded by white and green, surrounded by all the little lights and the beeping machines. Surrounded by fear, and by loss. I tried to hold on to her, tried to hold on to the dream.

A touch on my shoulder, and a gentle voice. One last squeeze of her hand, then. One last chance for the dream to come true…but the harder I held, the more the dream turned to smoke, drifted away.

I turned and left, broken. Like what could be, she was gone…and so was the dream.

 

2) “If Only You’d Known Me Then”

The endless summer of my younger days. Nights under the stars, sharing dollar-booze and thoughts that cost the world. Trysts under the overpass, tearing at each others’ clothes. Days under the sun, before the coming of autumn and winter. When I was invincible and immortal…when I was young.

“If only you’d known me then…” I whispered.

Before life took its toll. Before reality and consequences. Before regrets.

She reached a hand — her touch was light, barely there. I hesitated, stopped, trapped by what I was at that moment. Broken and frail, weak in ways my younger self would never understand. Could never understand.

I couldn’t help her, couldn’t help myself. If only she’d known me then…

There were no tears: I remembered enough of the strength I once possessed to be strong one last time. There were no tears…but no words, either.  I wasn’t that strong.

Her frail hand was shaking almost as much as mine. “I know you now,” she said gently, lovingly.

 

3) “The News”

“I have money — you don’t have to worry about that,” he stammered, his mind several steps behind reality.

Her hand on his arm, a smile that was no smile. “It’s not that, and you know it.”

Laughing screams from the nearby playground brought a flinch. A look over, a glimpse of those kids, and it all came crashing home.

“But…what can I do?”

A shake of her head, then. “I just wanted to give you the news myself, before you heard it from someone else. I’ve already been to the clinic.”

The news changed everything.

 

Behind-the-scenes notes:

1) “Dreams of Smoke” started as a very different story. What I had originally envisioned, however, just didn’t come together, so I put it aside. When I came back to it, a few days later, I had 125 words and a broken story. I put on an album and got working to “fix” it. The only part of the original I truly stuck with was the limit of 200 words, and the “vision” of dreams disappearing like smoke. I’m still not sure if it worked.

2) “If Only You’d Known Me Then” is a story about age…about getting old, and everything that goes with that. It is, to be honest, intended to be the opposite sentiment to Springsteen’s “Glory Days”, but drawn from the same well. Trying to do all of that in 150 words may have been over-ambitious…

3) “The News” is autobiography. The moment that changed the universe for me…and that’s all I’m going to say about it.