Yoda’s Failure

I made a mistake as I started lunch.  I know it’s hard to believe, that mistake thing.  I mean, c’mon…when have I ever made a mistake?

Okay, then.  Moving on…

My mistake?  I read the comments sections of a number of news & opinion websites I follow.  Now, look…I know internetland.  Hell, I grew up in internetland.  I grew up in the frightening old days before Reddit, cesspool that it is, managed to actually raise the level of discussion.  I grew up in the days when Usenet was the only place to go for active conversations and interaction.

*shudder*

To all the permanently outraged and indignant out there: before you find yet more library books to ban and burn, try visiting some of those old-school places first.  Stay away from the alt.binaries areas though.  You do not want to see that shit.  Trust me on that one.

So you have cynical, well-armored me reading the comments…

You have the me who has yet to find many moments when my fellow Americans have not found a way to live down to my worst expectations, let alone delve beneath them…

And still I found people managing to lower the bar.  Not by a millimeter or two, mind you, but by entire freaking miles did they manage to sneak under my already sewer-level expectations.

Have I mentioned just how fucked we are as a nation and a society?

I have?  Oh.  Okay.  I’ll move on, then.  Just give me a minute or two to wash the taste out of my mouth…

You ever see those old war movies where they sterilize a wound by pouring booze on it?  Yeah, it works for that taste in your mouth, too.

A friend once asked me how to keep his kids safe on the internet.  “Join the Amish,” was my reply.

Ummm…

Remember way back when I warned you just how wordy I could be?  About how I started this blog all those years ago specifically to improve my short-form writing?  Yeah, I just used 300+ words for a semi-joking, mostly real, and 100% cynical intro that has nothing, really, to do with what I sat down to write about.

Yep, no matter how huge the changes in my life lately, I’m still me.

So what did I actually sit down to write?

Well, I thought about the news story I read about the rapper whose fans had a party with his embalmed body.  I thought about that one, but I’ll save it for the next post.  There is just too much fun to be had with that whole entire concept to squeeze in to this one.

No, today I sat down to write about something I have talked about before.  I wanted to write about a concept that has been a recurring theme in so much of my writing, not just here on the blog but also in my fiction stuff.  It has especially been a part of the personal (private) concepts I have used to explore characters and settings…and myself.  That concept?  To put it in words I have used before, I’ll refer to a flashfiction piece from a few years ago: someone else’s skin.

I have worn someone else’s skin.  For far too long did I wear someone else’s skin.  For far too many reasons — excuses all — did I wear someone else’s skin.  I have made a habit of being what others want me to be for a very long time now.  I did so because I thought I had to. That I will write about later…

No, for the moment let me tie this back to the theories and philosophies and reality of writing — you know, what this blog is supposed to be about — that truly define writing for me.  And when you boil everything down, there is only one thing that truly defines writing for me: characters.

Look,  I know you can write characters who are exactly what they seem.  I know you can write someone interesting and compelling who is, well, exactly what’s written on the tin.  You can also write about a can of tuna.

No, to me, a character has to be real.  A character has to have good days, and bad.  A character has to have bad breath at the worst possible moment; a character has to stumble over his or her words;  a character has to occasionally be what others need him/her to be, rather than what they are…let alone what they want to be.  In the end, a character has to answer to the people and the world around them as much, if not more, than they have to answer to themselves.

Just like real people.

Now for the “but” that inevitably comes with an assertion like I just made…

BUT…things change.  But…people change.  But…your characters have to change, too.  Oh, I know, we all make the proper noises about growth and change and development in our characters.  We all know that we have to use the plot, and its various crises, to show how our characters are evolving and changing.  We all know that, but still we tend to restrict those changes to the “big” things.  And we forget the small things.  We forget the real things.

My favorite example of this is Luke Skywalker, of all people.  Look, he grew over the three movies in which he was the protagonist.  He grew and changed and improved himself.  Lucas showed that quite well.  He even managed a nice emotional touch when Luke’s rage in his fight with the Emperor in Return of the Jedi turned to pity and regret when he chose to spare his father in that fight.

Okay, golf clap there.  Good job, Luke.

While Lucas had a great image of Vader’s mask disintegrating, he forgot to show the mask Luke himself was wearing.  What Lucas didn’t show was the expectations and burdens that Luke bore from the failures of the old Jedi.  The failures, when you get right down to it, that belonged to Yoda and Obi Wan…but for which Luke, and ultimately his nephew Ben, paid the actual price.

Luke wore someone else’s skin when he took up the mantle of Jedi and teacher.  Luke tried to be what his teachers told him he should be, and failed to be what and who he really was.  It was that failure that, by the way, that caused Ben Solo to fall and become Kylo Ren, not any innate drive towards evil.  Hell, one could argue that it was Yoda’s own failure to understand and embrace the gray areas — and Obi Wan’s weakness in not standing up for what he knew to be true — that drove Anakin himself to turn from neurotic, angsty teen into the world’s best antagonist.*

*Don’t believe me on that score?  Watch again one of my favorite ever movie scenes, linked below.  Luke is all speed and tension and urgency, and Vader is just…relaxed.  Luke is a rabbit, terrified and scurrying, while Vader is very much the predator, toying with his prey.  To (mis)quote the movie Patton, “God help me, I do love it so.”

So…just who are your characters trying to please?  Just who are they trying to be?  Chances are, if they are at all “normal”, that answer is not themselves.  It doesn’t have to be some plot changing answer, by the way.  No, as the writer you can go all Greek-drama on that score and have the answer be very much offstage, but you do have to answer the question.  So the question when you create your characters is not just “Who is your character?” but also “Who is your character trying to be?”

{Clip: Nerd Mode enabled!}

Musical Note: I had a list of songs I was going to choose from, to match the theme of what I wrote above. But…well…I decided not to. No, instead I decided to answer here an email from my Dad. My Dad responded to some of my previous music choices with some of his own, and I realized that I have very much limited what I use here in my posts. That is not necessarily a bad thing, by the way, as I try to match things like mood and tone and intent between post and song, but it does to shortchange the breadth of my choices. So, below, I am posting a song that really is a favorite of mine. One funny note about this tune: y’all know hockey is my thing. I actually teach hockey, to be honest. Or at least I used to. One of my favorite exercises has been to take this song and make the folks I am working with do agility & shooting drills to its timing and rhythm. You will never laugh so hard as you will watching high school and college players — all confidently arrogant in their youth and abilities — stumble over themselves trying to keep up with a song that is almost a hundred years old…}

Food, Beer and a Music Podium

So I started thinking about food.

No, not like that!

Err, okay…pretty much exactly like that, but I plead hunger and impatience for my lunch to come.

Well, it’s a bit more than that, actually.  I started thinking about food a few days ago, mainly because I was cooking…and because I love to cook.  I love the process of taking a pile of disparate ingredients and turning them into something greater than the sum of the parts.  It is actually one of the more satisfying things to me, to be honest.  Strangely — for a guy as given to impulse, randomness and flights of fancy as me — that process of turning chaos into order is pretty damned relaxing.

But just as much as the process do I enjoy what food means.  Look, when I get together with friends, we inevitably end up in the kitchen.  We inevitably end up sharing booze and food and good times.  Even at “work”, when I get together with others involved in the beer world, we inevitably end up back in the brewhouse, still sharing booze and food and good times.

So where am I going with this?  No, that’s not me projecting your response to the opening above, it is me legitimately asking myself that question…

When it comes to food, I love it.  No, really, there is nothing I won’t try.  I love it all. I’ve had some of the most refined, perfect food you can imagine, from Kyoto to New York to Nice.  I’ve also had street food.  In the back alleys of Mexico City; in the streets of Marrakech; in those neighborhoods in Naples you aren’t supposed to go…

And in every bite there has lived that one thing so impossible to define, but so crucial to life: culture.  The culture and life and heartbeat of those who gave birth to that food, both the individuals and their people as a whole.  The food that sticks with me — and the food I like most to eat — is, by the way, the street food.  The peasant food.  The food that make families brag about still using great-grandma’s recipe.

I once spent several hundred dollars on a formal 30-course kaiseki dinner in Kyoto.  I loved the meal, but if you pressed me, I could only really describe one or two dishes.  Do you know what I remember more from that trip?  The grilled chicken cartilage* I had at a tiny Shinjuku izikaya.

*Yes, it really is a thing.  I won’t explain in the interests of saving space and word-count, but buy me a beer sometime and ask about it.  I can go on for hours about some of the weird shit I’ve had in my life.  Just don’t ask about the sheep’s eyeball — I didn’t enjoy that one.

I thought about this as I was cooking dirty rice, by the way.  More peasant food.  Food that started as a way to extract all the flavor possible from leftovers and off-cuts and what was left after the rich had their pick.  It was James Michener who introduced me to this reality.  I don’t know if you have ever read any Michener, but one of the things he excelled at was connecting his readers to the cultures he was trying to explore.  One of the ways he did that was through their food; more importantly, through the historical nexus between food and culture.

In the US that nexus is one of class, yes, but also of race.  Steaks and roasts we all know.  They were — and still are, to an extent — the food of the wealthy.  Then you have the foods for the rest of us, for those at the bottom.  The fish stews and pies for the New England fishermen.  Gumbo and jumbalaya for the French Acadians (yup, that’s where “cajun” comes from) transplanted to far off Louisiana.  For the slaves and former slaves there were wild greens (collard, mustard, etc…), catfish and leftover/unwanted cuts of pork and beef…all those things that lie now at the very heart of American barbecue.  As a matter of fact, I just paid $25 for a meal that once was given to slaves because the master couldn’t be bothered to supply anything better.  Hell, lobster was once so despised that is was used only to feed prisoners…

That is how food both reflects and embodies culture.  That is how food defines who we are as a people…and, just as much, who we once were.  That is a key part of the magic of it all.

As a writer, I sometimes get chastised for using food and booze too much.  I use them, however, to reflect my characters.  To reflect who they are, and who they aren’t.  I use them, often, to create situations where the food — and the atmosphere around it — defines the cultures and backgrounds of the characters in ways that would otherwise take hundreds and hundreds of words.

I am, at heart, a peasant.  I would rather have real coq au vin in a tiny country village than the best dishes from the fine dining places in Paris.  I would rather, as a writer, use a hundred words of my characters’ thoughts and reactions about food and everything surrounding it as a mirror for the real world than five thousand words of exposition.

One of my disappointments with George RR Martin, by the way, wasn’t that he talked too much about food, it was that he didn’t use food enough to truly comment on the lives and circumstances of the different strata of the society he created in GOT…

{Musical Notes — this started as something very different.  It started as a desire to find a good, old school song to use.  That desire morphed into finding those anthems that are truly evocative of an era.  Then, me being me (and beer being beer), everything morphed again into finding those songs that we don’t even have to actually hear anymore; into those songs from which we need only an exposure of a second or two to remember, and to feel.  I had to limit things to the last fifty-ish years, if only to keep the number of songs manageable.  As a further note, these are all songs I love…and all songs that bring their own memories for me.

Gold Medal: perhaps the most instantly evocative of these songs, for far more than one generation.  Don’t cheat, don’t look ahead.  Just listen.  It won’t take more than one second if you are anything at all like me…

Silver Medal: a better song than the first, it does not have the instant cross-generational impact of the “winner”.  It is to me one of the best songs ever recorded…

Bronze Medal:  This song is my generation.  It should probably take the Silver, to be honest, but the second place song is just a better song by a better creator…

Honorable Mention: I couldn’t help myself, this song had to make the list.  It had to make the list because, not long ago, I was walking to my own locker room at a hockey tournament, only to hear a bunch of middle school players belting out this song in the next room.  That is cross-generational appeal…and a song you will instantly recognize…

Life, in Short

A dad, using a wadded gum wrapper to play tabletop hockey with his young son…

The mom playing a game with that boy’s toddler sister about using a “real” cup rather than the normal sippy one…

A grandmother, at the next table over, embarrassing her middle school grandkid with stories from her younger, wilder days…

Two guys, both in Lions gear, up at the bar arguing Michigan versus Michigan State — just when it gets heated, they remember they are both Lions fans and the commiseration starts…

A young boy and an old man, both doing the same pee-dance on their way to the restroom…

One observation.  A few words.  That’s where the characters — and their stories — start.  That’s it, one simple observation.  You take that observation and build from there:

That dad, he remembers his own father.  He remembers the distance — the distance not of neglect, but of absence due to work and need.  He won’t let that happen, not to his son.  His wife?  As she plays, she remembers the miscarriage, and the tears they shared for her lost child…

The grandmother wants to connect, wants to build something real with her granddaughter, but the distance is so vast.  Was it really so long ago that she herself was twelve and embarrassed and confused by her grandmother?  Death came before that gap was bridged, and she had long ago promised herself to be more than a memory, distant and faint, to her family…

The boy worships his grandfather.  The boy wants to be his grandfather.  He copies everything the old man does, every move and mannerism.  He can even mimic his voice.  He knows nothing of the pills and medical bills.  He knows nothing — not yet — of the memories, either.  Nothing of the nightmares that still haunt from time to time.  Nothing of the sound of the guns, nor the loss of platoon-mates…

There is something to be said for a “scenes of life” story.  For a story that uses the protagonist as a sort of voyeur to follow — and get sucked into — the lives and dramas of those around her or him.  An old shared-universe fantasy series had the Vulgar Unicorn; sci-fi had Quark’s Place; the good ol’ days of style and mystery had Rick’s Cafe…

The temptation to build a story out of vignettes has a lot of power, to be honest.  Look, you all know that I love characters.  Stories, to me — good stories, stories of meaning and power — are about characters, rather than plots.  As a writer I believe firmly that the plot is there to move things along, yes, but in service to the development of the characters,  The plot provides the conflict and stress, the climax and resolution, that our characters need to grow and change and become more than they are.  When the plot is the be-all, end-all — when the plot determines everything — well, then you have…nothing.

That grandmother I mentioned above?  She doesn’t have to save the entire freaking world to have a story to tell.  No, she just has to have a story that resonates.

I freely admit that I much prefer to write about characters because it lets me focus on the flawed and the broken.  And, look, we are all flawed and broken in one way or another — some just happen to be more so than others.

Arguably, the characters in the tiny vignettes I posted above are all broken in their own way…and that is what we writers need to both understand, and work with.

I hated him in high school, when I was forced to red his stuff, but the more I read and learn, the more I appreciate the insights of a certain “staple” writer:

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”

Oh…that writer?  Charles Dickens, in Great Expectations.

{Musical Note — a bit of old school becuuse, well…hell…why not?}

I Chose This

Some people have panic attacks.  Others have rage attacks, or attacks of uncontrollable loneliness, or lust, or greed…  Let’s be honest here, we humans are subject to attacks by pretty much every single one of the seven of the deadly sins, and then some.

For me — because I am constitutionally incapable of being “normal” — I have attacks not of the negative and base emotions, but of civilization.  No, honestly…I am not going all writer-ish and making shit up; there really are times when the concrete and cars and people become so overwhelming that they send me into full freak-out mode.

Kinda like today.

Coming back from lunch, I pretty much lost it.  I got back to my AirBnB — driving like I was a sixteen-year-old on the LA freeways again — and spent the next two hours hiding inside, coming down.  It ain’t a lot of fun, in case you’re wondering.  It is also something I haven’t felt in several years…

*sigh*

This is pretty much why I abandoned the real world in favor of Yellowstone in the first place.  I have — quite literally — stumbled between a mother grizzly and her cub; I’ve been lost in terrain vastly different from what the old maps showed; I’ve climbed trees faster than any fat man should in order to avoid charging bison; I’ve had to skip the bear spray and go straight to the pistol on more than one occasion…

And in none of those instances, nor in the dozens of others I could relate, have I been even a tenth as stressed and panicked as civilization can make me in a single bad afternoon.

Now, like all of the good problems and challenges we set for our characters, I have no one to blame for this shit except myself.  I chose this.  In more ways than one, I chose this.  I chose to leave paradise and once again immerse myself in the “real world”.  I chose to give up the peace and stability I crave for the chaos and uncertainty I loathe.

It’s more than that, by the way.  It is something I hinted at in my last post: I chose to embark on an entirely new venture…alone.  Now, like most writers, I’m a creature of solitude and privacy.  I don’t share of myself often or easily, and I certainly don’t seek to share with others my burdens and challenges.

This new venture, this re-immersion into civilization, however…it is frightening to me.  It is, in fact, more frightening than “civilization” itself.  Oh, sure, I have friends and family with whom I can talk; friends and family who care and will do everything in their power to help.  But, well, when those friends and family are surprised that I’ve reached out to talk to them more in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years?

Yeah, I chose this.

And sometimes it overwhelms.

This is, in fact, one of the few times I can actually wrap my head around Bilbo, and his fear and uncertainty at the choice to leave the Shire with Gandalf and the dwarves.  Now, keep in mind, Bilbo leaving the Shire was Tolkien’s way of expressing — of finally talking about, after several years — his own choice to volunteer for the Royal Army in WW I.  Bilbo fought at the Battle of Five Armies; Tolkien fought in the charnel house that was Battle of the Somme…

Me?  I get stressed out because there’s too much fucking traffic.

“Hi, perspective!  Thanks for coming…”

Ahem.

Some have asked me, by the way, why this blog is sometimes focused and on-point, and at other times is completely random and stream-of-consciousness.  My answer is always the same: “I think with my pen.”

Okay, so that answer is old school, but to say “I think with my keyboard” just doesn’t have the same resonance.  The sentiment and meaning are the same, however.

I think by putting the words together.  Simple, silent contemplation is not useful for me; that just leads to sidetracks and roundabouts, and a waste of time that is dangerous for someone who fights depression.

No, I need to see the words come out — I need to feel them — in order to give shape to the thoughts, and so to exorcise the ghosts of creativity and imagination that gave rise to them.  Plus, well…it’s fun to sit out on the deck with nothing but a beer, some loud music, and a blinking cursor…

{Edit — eek! I forgot to add a song. Let’s fix that…}