On Courage and Strength

I finally sat down to write today.  Oh, it hasn’t been all that long since my last post — certainly it has been nothing like some of the pauses when I was still living inside Yellowstone itself— but it has felt like forever.  It hasn’t been just this blog that I haven’t been writing, by the way, it has been everything.

I haven’t written a word since that last post.  Not a word on my personal stuff, not a word on my professional stuff, not a word on anything.

That honestly has sucked worse than the COVID itself (which sucks pretty damned bad).

I still can’t quite catch my breath, but at least I can see some daylight ahead…

At any rate, I want to get a post put together.  It’s more than want, really.  I need to write these few hundred words in order to flip that switch inside my brain from “meh” to “create.”  

I am not, however, going to write about the election.  Bah!  No more!  No more robocalls!  No more texts!  No more bullshit, I can’t take it anymore!  I put my phone into a box, then I buried that box.  I poured some cement on the dirt.  I built an altar on top of the cement and sacrificed a goat to the old gods of silence. I put a nuke on top of the altar…

Yeah, you get the picture.

So, what am I actually going to write on?  Err…well…”manliness.” 

And, no, I’m not trying to make this about sex or gender.  Linguistically speaking, I’m using the word to denote the complex set of beliefs and behaviors our culture has associated with concepts like strength, endurance and courage.  These concepts have nothing to do with the fun bits below our waists, by the way.  They have, however, everything to do with who a person is, rather than what.

I know, I know…how can I make a short blog post about something so big?  And just how did this come up anyway?!  Yeah, I just read a good article on it, and I got to thinking.  That’s always dangerous, of course.  Actually thinking is just asking for trouble…

Now, I’m not going to even begin to try to fully unpack the concept itself.  That would take several thousand words…and enough beer to drown me.  What I do want to say, however, is just how screwed up is our surface level view of this concept.  If you ask anyone for an example of “manliness” without giving time to consider and think, you will get some silly ass answers (no matter their location on the socio-political spectrum).  You will get the kind of “manliness” that is anything but.  You will get the false “tough-guy” persona of a Trump, or the false “real man” persona of a Bernie Sanders.

Neither of those is true, nor admirable.  Both are, in fact, the merest masks worn to cover inner deficiencies, and to give a shorthand route to popularity among their shallowest of followers.

No, what is true “manliness” — what defines true strength, endurance and courage — is something far more than shallow bravado and meaningless belligerence.  Equally, it is more than the shallow and meaningless showboating of “virtue” and “righteousness.”

No, if you have to talk about your strength and courage, or if you have to signal to others that you have it, you have already failed.  You have become an empty suit more prone to villainy than heroism.  Period.  End of story.

I’m going to offer an example to make this point.  An example not of those who come instantly to mind — those showboating and wearing masks — but of one whose strength and courage were true…and made a difference.

The story, then:

Tensions were rife everywhere.  The world was on the edge of war.  A single mistake and hundreds of thousands — millions, even — would die.  Those who made the decisions were not at risk, of course.  They pushed and pulled and manipulated from places safe and insulated from all threat.  Those on the front lines, however, were not so insulated.  They were instead educated and trained to fight and to follow orders to the cost of life itself.  They were taught just how much of a threat were the “others” (humans will always find “others” to hate and fear), and that survival rode on their ability to fight and win.

The ships above were carrying death.  Even worse, for our hero, they were seeking him.  Seeking him, and his shipmates on the fragile little submarine.  They would kill him, he knew, if they found him.  Every bit of training he had, and all of the secret intelligence so hard-won by those living among the enemy, told him that.

There was no contact with home.  Submarines at the time could not communicate when they were deep underwater.  Even today they struggle with such communications when down a thousand feet.  The world was on the brink of war, they knew.  The enemy was hunting them, they knew.  And that was all they knew.

Then the enemy found them.

There is no doubt, when on a submarine, that you have been found.  Your main defense relies solely on your invisibility.  When that invisibility fails, you have few options.  One of those options, however, is as old as war itself: overwhelming force.  If the other guy tries to stab with a knife, you shoot with a gun…

The sub was dying already.  The air was foul and batteries almost flat.  They could wait no longer.  The order came from the captain, then.  Fire.  Fire everything.

The torpedoes on the sub, they weren’t those of this man’s father.  The torpedoes would do far worse than sink a hunting destroyer.  They would do far worse than sink the entire fleet, even.  Detonating nuclear weapons underwater, you see…that would sink the entire world.

This man…this man of quiet strength, he refused to fire.  Without his approval, as first officer, the  sailors could not — would not — carry out the captain’s order.  The torpedoes stayed in the tubes, the sub surfaced to quietly face the circling enemy, and the world lived on…mostly unaware that the strength and courage of one man saved them all.  Even the enemy, those who had hunted so hard, quietly acknowledged this man with the highest of praise: “he saved the world.”

Oh, who is he?  Not who you may think.

Vasily Arkhipov, Soviet Navy.

Submarine B-59

There are other examples I wanted to offer.  Examples of names you no doubt know, and others of which you have never heard.  Examples, even, that would surprise you.  I wanted to offer those, but verbosity got the better of me, as it so often does.

Courage and strength — that which we in the US call “manliness” — it is not a thing of posturing and shouting and the shaking of fists.  It is a thing of heart and meaning and conviction.  It is, when you get right down to it, a thing inside you, not a mask to wear.

P.s.

Can you guess who has spent the morning thinking about his next protagonist…?

Edit — I don’t think I need to add this explanation — err, I hope I don’t need to add this explanation — but I will, just in case. When I mentioned the wearing of masks above, I was referring to the wearing of a false face. To the external projection of qualities not present internally. I most certainly was not referring to the wearing of masks as a tool in the battle against this damned virus. Forget the false masks of pretense, but wear your real mask!

The Definition of Cool

Has it all blown up yet?

No?

Then I’m gonna sprawl out on my deck and start in on a twelve pack…

The news tonight is gonna be a spectator sport, so I figured I would get in some warm-up reps.  The weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth will be biblical…from whichever side loses.  All of the pundits — again, from whichever side is the loser — will spend countless hours spinning and massaging their past statements to make themselves look oh-so-right, no matter the results.  The tears, the impotent rage, the temper tantrums…it’ll all be more Shakespearean than, well, Shakespeare himself.

So how will I kill time until the fireworks start in a few hours?  Sean Connery, that’s how.

With Connery’s passing, I lost another of my favorites from the movie world.  That entire world is very much the poorer without him.  So, in honor of Sir Sean, I’ll queue up a bunch of his films in which to lose myself.  I, of course, will have to start with Dr No — anything else would be a crime — and then just build from there.  Although it wasn’t his last role, there is only one possible choice for the climax of this little film fest: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Only Connery could have so totally upstaged Harrison freaking Ford!

I started thinking about just which of his flicks I want to watch, then I went back and scanned through his filmography…

Holy shit, just exactly how many of movies did I absolutely love?!

Beyond the Bond stuff, you the fringe flicks: Time Bandits, Highlander, Outland...

You have the war movies: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, The Man Who Would be King...

The brilliant stuff: The Great Train Robbery, Murder on the Orient Express, The Untouchables

The cool stuff:  Name of the Rose, The Presidio, The Hunt for Red October

And, c’mon, say what you will about the movie itself, but who didn’t squee just a little when he come on at the end of Robin Hood as King Richard?!

IMDB, in fact, lists 94 acting credits for Connery, starting Way back in 1954!

*sigh*

Err, I think this might just take a more than a single afternoon…

Thank you, Sir Sean, for providing so many of the scenes and moments — so many of the characters — that helped to form my imagination.

How Do You Choose?

Random writing, today.

I’m working on the fantasy series I want to write.  Unfortunately, the series I have in my mind is…well…it’s at least two different series.  Two different ones, but both do I want to write.  Both have characters I like, and stories I believe in.

How do you choose?

The worst torture the Romans could ever dish out was simple: line up the entire the family, then ask the father which child lived and which died.  The father always gave the Romans whatever they wanted.

So, for me, which story lives, and which dies?  Into which story do I plunge the dagger?

Okay, so no story every really dies…but putting one off for a couple of years (at the minimum) feels a whole lot like killing it…

Like that father, how do you choose?

No, really, how do you choose?

The story not of the young kid who wields a magic sword to become king, but rather the story of the sword so dedicated that he seeks out the last survivor of “his” family…

Or the story of the bitter immortal — the “angel” exiled for his part in the lost war in heaven — who wants nothing more than the grey numbness of oblivion…

I love Connor and Oz.  Err…well…Connor is a great character, and a great narrator, but it is Oz who I actually love.  It is Oz who is my favorite character.  But their time is coming to a close.  Once their third story is written, that’s it.

Hell, if I’m honest, there never should have been more than one.  Somewhere Peaceful to Die was written to have no sequel…but I couldn’t let those characters go.  The Silence That Never Comes and The Flicker of Ghosts came (are coming) because I couldn’t let go of those two characters.  But the time has come to finally let go…

So what fills the blank?  The stories of devotion and innocence that drove my youth?  My take on the Belgariad and the Chronicles of Amber and the Lord of the Rings?  Or…

Or…

Or, a more deeply personal tale?  A tale built on experience and reality?  A tale of a weary life lived among those far younger?  A tale of bitterness and loss amidst the joys and innocence of youth…?

It would help, of course, if one had a character that stood out more for me than the other…but both call to me:

Finntan’s hope, the innocence of his life, and the dedication of the magic items that dedicate themselves to him…

Versus the world weary insouciance of Runae…versus the concept of the once-great wanting nothing more than the forgetfulness of death…

How do you pick which child lives and which dies?

How do you choose between the hope and love that you wish the world was, and the bitter pain that you know the world actually is?

I tried conflating them, I really did.

Yeah, it was worse than you think it was.

Those two cannot be combined.  Not in any way.  I tell either Finntan’s story, or I tell Runae’s.  I can’t combine the two…not any more than I can plan out to a third series!

*sigh*

This is why, of course, writers get paid the…ahem…small bucks.

If I had wanted to get rich, I would’ve been a plumber.

Musical Note — the song below is one I love. It is a song that has not specifically been a part of anything I’ve conceived or written, but rather has elements that touch on everything I’ve written (not to mention having the best song line ever: “If you’ve never stared off into the distance / Then your life Is a shame”)…

Art Class

Art is supposed to make you feel.

That’s it.  There you go, you just got your BA in Art for free.  You’re welcome.

What?  More to the story than just that?

*sigh*

Fine.

Art also needs to make you think.  It needs to make you want to look beneath the surface and find the piece’s message.  It needs to make you want, even, to take those emotions and that message and examine their meaning in your own life and world.

This holds true, by the way, for everything from the greatest works of music and painting and literature to the very least ones.  If it makes you feel, if it is in some way evocative of emotion and experience, it did its job.

For my fellow writers out there, that means your story has to mean something.

That is, by the way, why I despise the books that tend to dominate bestseller lists and bookstore racks — they are generally the shallowest and most meaningless of fluff.  Action-adventure tales, mysteries, romances, thrillers…it is just far too common for these “beach reads” to ignore the imperative to inspire and evoke, and instead focus on simply pandering to the lowest common denominator.

I want to use a bit of an experiment here.  I want to play Art Professor for a moment and set an exercise for the class.  I’m posting a picture of a sculpture below.  Before you read the explanation below that picture, I want you to just to study the piece and see how it makes you feel.  I want you to find what the sculptor was trying to say, and what it means in your own life:

I love sculpture, by the way.  I can sit and stare for a long time at a painting…but I can sit and stare all freaking day at a truly meaningful sculpture.  And, yes, I did exactly that the first time I saw this piece in the Vatican Museum.  I stared and thought.  Thought not just about the story/myth the creator was trying to depict, but also about what he was trying to say.

That serpent, killing the father and his children…it was more than a freaking serpent, I knew.  There is too much emotion in this piece — too much honesty — to be a simple depiction of a myth.  I know what I felt as I stared at it that first time — and the various feelings and memories it has evoked every time I have seen it since — and that is a hell of a lot more than just curiosity at the fate of a Trojan priest at the hands of some god-sent sea serpents.

The piece itself is tucked away at the end of a short hall in the Vatican, given no real explanation or context.  The first time I saw it, I knew nothing of its import or effect.  I knew nothing of the inspiration it was for Michelangelo’s later works; I knew nothing of the shattering effect it had on Renaissance artists when it was dug up and put on display in Rome in 1506; I knew nothing, even, about the fact that it was the statue Pliny the Elder had so powerfully described in a work written two thousand years before (a work I had translated years earlier as part of my study of Roman history).

I just knew it hit me like a ton of bricks.

It is still one of the most powerful pieces of art I have had the privilege to experience.

Now, fellow writers, did you do your class work?  Did you follow the exercise?  Did you study the piece and explore what it meant?

And, for the most important question of all, did you go beyond the exercise and think about how you evoke emotion and feeling in your own work?  Did you think about what those boys were thinking as they died?  What the sea serpents really meant?  What it all really said?

You don’t have to hit the mark, you know.  You don’t have to create a masterpiece. But you do have to try.  You have to try to create an emotional response, or you are just hacking out words.  With a lot of my own work, I am trying to make people think about the forgotten and overlooked parts of life.  Sometimes — okay, oftentimes — I am trying to bring a tear or two.  Occasionally, I even want to make folks laugh.

Oh, the piece itself…it is generally called Laocoon, or more rarely Laocoon and His Sons.  It depicts a story we first hear about in Virgil’s Aeneid* —although there are hints of much earlier versions — and was very likely created not long after that epic poem was written…which puts its creation somewhere in the area of 20 BC – 10 AD.

*Another book I had to read in the original Latin!  Ahem.

Let’s close out with a song, shall we?  Let’s go for meaningful and evocative…the “soundtrack” to the scene where I kill my favorite character. The song that has even more meaning to me from my own life: