Not Actually A First-World Problem…

So I come home from a hike this morning.  I went early into the backcountry, just to spend a couple of hours before the coming storm hits.  The snow back there is knee deep at this point, so I’m tired from the workout.

No problem, I’ll just go inside and get out of my wet stuff and pound some coffee.  That’ll fix me right up.

Uhh…

What the hell?

Why the hell are there THREE moose hanging around the door?!

1193190949_1Hey, I used to watch Rocky & Bullwinkle, I know how this works.  They’re just harmless, cute ruminants.  They’ll probably just skedaddle when they hear and smell me.

Oh, wait, they’re not deer, they’re fucking MOOSE.  They don’t “skedaddle” for anything, they stand and stare and contemplate converting to carnivorism.

Ummm…uh-oh.

It’s not just three moose…it’s a mother moose and her two daughters.

Oops.

So, a quick lesson for you, if you’ve never encountered a moose up-close before.  They’re, uh, kinda big.  I don’t mean big like an NFL player, I mean big like in a moose vs. car fight, the moose wins.  They’re not as huge as bison, but they’re not far off, either.

Anyway, I came to a stop about fifteen feet from Momma Moose and she…well, she stared.  She stared like any mother who was worried about her daughters would.

I wasn’t a guy just trying to get inside to relax, in her world I was some creeper in a trench coat on a playground…

It’s a reminder of an old joke, “What can a fifteen-hundred-pound moose do?  Anything it wants.”

images.jpegDeer would’ve just run.  Elk would’ve just run.  Hell, even a mama bear would’ve started herding her cubs away.  Momma Moose?  She owned that damned area, and I was the one who was gonna have to leave.

I am, just to let you know, typing this over breakfast at the cafe down the road…

Amo, Amas, Amat…

I started thinking about language the other day.  More specifically, I started thinking about “foreign” languages.  About languages other than the one in which you were (presumably) raised.  Of course, me being me, that train of thought started to morph — is still morphing and evolving — so we’ll just have to see where this post actually ends up going…

There was a BBC story the other day, one that got a lot of play, on whether or not British kids were even willing to try and learn a foreign language anymore.  That same article could well be written of the US, too, I should add.

Now, keep in mind, I’m in no way a neutral party in this.  I love languages.  I love learning them, I love speaking them, I love thinking in them.  And yes, it is true that when you start to dream in a language, you have finally internalized it…

01FF06C5-15AD-4096-8B72-71F05BEE7B5CMy degree in Linguistics aside, I’m lucky enough to be able to say that languages come easy to me.  They come very easy.  I can pick up basic phrases and vocab in an hour or two, and be fully conversational — if I’m immersed — in about two weeks.  Although I have (sadly) let my array of skills atrophy a bit, I can still make my way fairly fluently in five different languages…and have a sixth that I could “bring back’ with some effort.  I say that not to brag, but as background to why I simply cannot understand why you wouldn’t want to learn a different language.

I firmly believe that you can’t truly know a people or a culture until you can speak at least a bit of their language.  The more fluent you are, the more you can come to know them.  And no — not just no, but hell no — Google Translate is not a legitimate option.  Any translation, even from a person with legit skills and experience, is necessarily inaccurate, especially if the languages are not immediately related.  There is approximation and editing involved in all of it, and that changes things…sometimes massively.

Thankfully, there are real-world reasons, besides just innate desire and ability, that push folks to learn other languages.  I’ve mentioned before that I’ve spent a lot of time in central and eastern Europe.  Well, given the position and influence of English in the world, the folks in the Baltics and Poland and Czech have their kids in full English immersion programs, alongside learning their own native language, starting at age 5.  Five.

That’s when you should be learning languages, by the way.  Our brains at that age are still forming the basic neural pathways we will have for the rest of our lives as we become more active in learning to understand the world around us.  What you learn at five will stick with you for the rest of your life because, quite simply, that’s how our brains are (literally) wired.

As an aside, here’s a key little travel tip for you: if you are in a country where you don’t speak the language, and want to learn, listen to little kids.  Watch and listen to four- and five-year-olds as they interact with each other, and with adults.  The kids will use simple grammar and construction, as well as over-enunciating the words, because they are still learning to understand and be understood.  The adults, in turn, will explain difficult words and concepts to the kids in simple, easy-to-understand terms.  Bingo! Free language lessons!  And you thought that two-hour train ride was going to be a waste…

Now, there are some schools/programs here in the US that do the same thing…but not nearly enough of them.  There is no better way to grow a child than in a kindergarten/elementary-school program that fully immerses them in two (or even three!) languages throughout the week.

Shit, I kinda do the same thing even now by watching “foreign” movies/shows solely in their original language.  If it’s a language I even kinda know, there are no subtitles.  I just have to make do and follow along as best I can.  If it is one I don’t know, I’ll leave the subtitles on until I start to pick up enough vocabulary to understand without them.*

*The non-verbal aspects are important here as well, by the way.  A lot, and I mean A LOT, of the info in a movie or TV scene comes from non-verbal communication rather than dialogue.

I’ve mentioned before that the languages I speak, as well as my background, very much play a role in my writing.  I made a conscious decision to use other languages and cultures (Japanese & Thai, if you’re wondering) as the basis for Connor’s society in Somewhere Peaceful to create a feeling of “otherness.”  Just as importantly, however, I very specifically chose Japanese because there are concepts and feelings behind the (modified) real-world slang I use that don’t really have English equivalents.

61CFB7DD-AE08-4D98-BE12-0E9CB7F02930Okay…so…my first fear as I started to write this post has held true: it turned left at Albuquerque and ended up being about something other than what I actually sat down to write about…

*sigh*

Welcome to my life.

Now get your ass out there and learn a new language!  Once you get comfortable enough to start using it in your own writing, you will not regret it.  That I promise you.

Venting My Spleen, Or How Bad Beer Ruined My Day

IMG_0384Harrumph!

Look…I live in Colorado.  Yes, I live at 5,000* feet.  Yes, we get snow.  Yes, we have some cold, windy days.  But — and this is the big but — if it is 5 degrees and snowy on Monday, it is pretty damned likely to be 60 degrees and blazing sun by Wednesday.  That’s just life in Colorado.

*Actually, I live at more like 8,000, but I spend a lot of my time “down the mountain” at 5,000

That’s also, err, kinda why I like living here.

So why, in a place where cold weather lasts hours rather than weeks — let alone months — why in the hell would a brewery completely close its patio?!?!

For the last four days I have been stuck in crazy wind and blowing snow, not to mention temperatures that have had to really try just to reach double digits.  But now…

But now, when I’ve come down the mountain to meet friends for lunch, the weather is sunny and 60…yet still I’m stuck sitting inside!

GODDAMMIT!!

HARRUMPH!!!!

Okay, so I’ll (kinda) save you from (yet) another bad-taproom rant…but it’s hard.  Honestly, it’s really freaking hard.  Do you have any idea just how much I hate restraining myself like this?

My spleen may explode, by the way, for lack of proper venting…

*sigh*

694A53EF-73B8-4A6E-BABD-2162622AB479I really need to get back to work on that brewery guidebook I’ve had simmering on the back burner for that last couple of years…

SSSHHHIIIIIIITTT!!!!!!

Okay, so while I was waiting, and wasting time, I had my first sip of a terrible freaking beer…

I hate my life right now.

…No…must…restrain…self…

…Cannot…vent…now…

…Ummm…

48F2F907-46AF-4A20-A700-9A245B197775My one poor little brain cell can’t…err…do two things at once, so it’s either vent or write, but not both…

I repeat: I hate my life right now.

Decline and Fall

When you write speculative fiction, one of your biggest tasks is world-building.  Whether you’re writing a star-spanning sci-fi civilization, or a medieval kingdom in fantasy, that world-building is just as key as are your characters.  If the world is neither compelling nor unique, pretty much no one is going to give your (presumably brilliant!) characters a chance to reveal themselves…

Now, I do a lot of prep and background work long before I write a story.  I do it for my characters, yes, but for my “worlds” also.  In fact, I probably do a bit too much.  I work out details and histories and facts that no one will ever see, especially given the tight focus I like to keep on my characters.  I do that background work — that invisible work — because I think the depth and “reality” are necessary.  Characters are shaped by their society, and their society is shaped by it’s history.  A Pole and a Czech are not far apart in space, their respective societies are not far apart in respect to the time the modern iterations have existed, but their histories…their histories make for vastly different people and outlooks.

I started thinking about world-building over the last couple of days not because of the work I want & need to do on a new story, but because of the news.

Yep, the news.  The real world, boring, obnoxious news.

One of the favorite tools of the speculative fiction writer is the “empire in decline.”  From the decline into senescence of Tolkien’s Gondor to the fall of Moorcock’s Melnibone…

From the disintegration of Martin’s Seven Kingdoms to the disintegration of Asimov’s Galactic Empire…

Hell, from the fall of Lucas’ Old Republic to the destruction of just about everything in the Walking Dead, the decline and fall of a civilization offers far-too tempting — and far-too effective! — a backdrop for any speculative writer to ignore.

Of course, I’m not just a writer, I’m also a historian.  More than that, I’m a historian whose academic training is in the decline of the Roman Republic, and its transition to Empire.  That training and knowledge tends to give me a certain perspective on, and fascination with, civilizations on the wrong side of the peak.

560d2cee9dd7cc10008be5e5-750The thing about all those declining kingdoms and empires in stories is that they are there to give the characters something to look back to, something greater and more wonderful to hope/dream/aim for.  They’re plot devices as much as they are world-building.  That’s why you never (or very, very seldom) see good stories place the protagonist as a member of a civilization at or near its peak, not unless that power is something to be hated and overthrown.

And you certainly never see a protagonist sit amidst all the power and splendor of a dynamic, vibrant empire and say, “You know, this is all going to shit…”

So, as I said, I’ve been reading the news: You know, this is all going to shit.

As a politics geek, and a history nerd, the realization that I am living on the downslope of such an empire, that every passing year in my country will be worse than the last, is troubling and depressing.  To think that we are no longer capable of things that seemed so simple just a few years and decades ago…to think that every crisis, every problem, will just get worse…

*sigh*

But as a writer?  As a writer, that thought offers all kinds of possibilities and ideas…and challenges.  We can’t forget the challenges.  To create hurdles and problems that have meaning, that matter, is not easy when you’re talking about a society at or near its peak.

Writing-Exercises-1024x512Writing and thinking about all this has inspired a bit of a writing exercise (that will probably never see the light of day…just like most of my “practice” exercises): can I create the basis/plot for a story that works in a similar setting?  Can I create a fantasy or sci-fi setting and circumstance that sets a protagonist willingly and happily amidst a power actually at its peak?  Can there be stakes and challenges that mean something in that setting?