Sunday, July 29, 2012

To Orphan or Not To Orphan

It’s another reading week for me.

If you don’t know what I mean by “reading week,” then you should probably refresh your memory on that point.  We’re talking about my fiction here; specifically, the on-again, off-again novel whose semi-chapters I keep inserting randomly into my blog.  (And, if you don’t care anything about that, you can move on immediately and save yourself some time.)  Last time I mentioned a reading week, I managed 3 more installments over the following 3 months, and I haven’t returned to it in the 4 months since.

Of course, I also have a 4-month old child now, so that’s probably not a coincidence.

Still, I need to get back into the groove, if I ever plan to finish.  And, excitingly (at least for me), I actually did have a useful idea—remember when I said that I was having trouble figuring out how to get from where I was to the end of this book?  Well, I had an epiphany a couple months back, but I haven’t had the opportunity to do much with it.  I need to put it into words before I completely lose it.

Of course, 4 months is a long time.  So long, in fact, that I’ve gone all the way back to the beginning of the novel to really refresh my brain about the story.  Another thing I do besides reading what I’ve written, as if I were reading someone else’s work (that’s the reading week post again), is I interview myself.  That sounds really weird, I know ... some people say talking to yourself is a sign of insanity.  It’s not, really, and that’s good, because I do this all the time.  I practice difficult conversations I need to have with other people, I explain things I’m working on to an imaginary audience, sometimes I even psychoanalyze myself.  I do this because I’m naturally a verbal person, and saying things out loud, putting abstract thoughts into actual words, makes them real for me in a way that just pondering doesn’t.

Take that second example, for instance.  I’m working on a difficult problem at work, say, and I’m not sure what’s the best way to design the solution.  So I’ll pretend I’ve already done it, and now I’m giving a presentation on it, perhaps to my co-workers.  I explain what I’ve done, and defend my choices.  If I can get all the way through the presentation without stumbling, I’ve got a pretty good design there.  But, essentially, that never happens.  What happens is, about halfway through, I’ll trail off in the middle of a sentence, because I’ve realize that what I’m about to explain is the stupidest thing ever.  And that makes me backtrack, and rearrange, and refactor, and come up with a better design.

Same goes for my writing.  By pretending I’ve already published my book, and now people want to interview me (’cause, you know, I’m a famous author at that point), I force myself to verbalize why I made this authorial choice, or what I was trying to say with this particular passage, or whatnot.  And that, in turn, brings many things that I was doing subconsciously out into the light where I can stare at them a bit and go “hey, that’s interesting,” or sometimes, “no, wait a minute ... that’s dumb.”

In a way, this is just a continuation of the reader/writer dichotomy I talked about in the reading week post.  Me the Reader is the interviewer, asking questions to try to understand the story more completely.  Then Me the Writer comes along and answers the questions, as best he can, talking about what (or who) has inspired him, why he made certain choices, etc.

One day recently, I was conducting such an interview on the way to work (I have a 40-minute commute on a good day, so it’s a perfect time for this sort of thing), and Reader Me asked what Writer Me thought was a very interesting question: why isn’t Johnny Hellebore an orphan?

Although the story of Johnny Hellebore is aimed more at an adult audience (as I explained previously), there’s certainly no denying that he is the latest in a long and venerable line that includes Peter Pan, Dorothy Gale, James Henry Trotter, Harry Potter, and the Baudelaire children ... all of whom are, in fact, orphans.  So, why not Johnny?

Of course, the simple answer would be: because he isn’t, that’s all.  In other words, Johnny might have been “born,” as a character, with parents “built in,” so to speak.  But, the truth is, he wasn’t.  I described how Johnny came to me: fully-formed, in a dream.  He was ragged and unkempt, and I knew he lived on the streets, and I sensed somehow that he was parentless, but that’s not really the same as being an orphan.  Giving Johnny parents who were alive, but absent—and more than absent: ineffectual—that was a conscious choice on my part.  Why did I do it?

Well, to a certain extent, it was just to be different.  The orphan thing’s been done.  Done very well, by authors much more talented than I.  If I tread those same boards, I have to step up my game quite a bit to compete.  Safer—and more interesting—to try some new territory.  I’m not entirely sure why I chose to have Johnny’s parents be the way they are now (probably it started with the dream I had that became the prologue), but, upon reflection, I really like it.  It reminds me of one my favorite movies: The Breakfast Club.  Remember the scene between Andrew and Allison?

Andrew: What is it?  Is it bad?

Allison: <silence>

Andrew: Real bad?

Allison: <silence>

Andrew: Parents?

Allison: <softly> Yeah ...

Andrew: <nods> What do they do to you?

Allison: <whispering> They ignore me.

To me, that’s one of the most powerful scenes in that movie, and that’s saying something.  The idea that you might have parents who would hurt you is frightening.  The idea that you might have parents who don’t care enough about you to even bother ... somehow that’s even scarier.  And, intentional or not, that’s how Johnny’s parents turned out, as I began to develop his backstory.

Johnny’s father was interested in money.  Climbing the business ladders was all he cared about, and, in the end, he resorted to extra-legal measures to achieve the level of success he was aiming for.  In those circles, being a family man was important.  It showed stability.  He could have gotten where he wanted as a bachelor, but it was easier to just go out and find a wife.

Johnny’s mother was taught that men were the key to financial security.  She didn’t particularly feel like she needed to fall in love; she just wanted to have enough money to be comfortable and didn’t particularly want to have to work for it.  Some might call her a gold-digger, and she probably wouldn’t even have objected to the characterization.  Along comes this man, and he’s obviously successful, and on his way to even bigger things; he isn’t hideous or anything, fairly quiet and non-obnoxious ... sure, why not?

And they were married, so he got what he wanted, and she was left to her own devices, which is what she wanted, and then he said now we need a child, and so she said, okay, but just one: I’m not getting fat and screwing up my back more than once, and one was all he needed, and there was Johnny.  His father only needed the fact of a child, and his mother didn’t even need that.  As an actual, physical being, they had no interest in him.

What happened to these people when they were children to make them this way?  I don’t know, although it’s an interesting question, and perhaps we’ll explore it someday.  I suspect it was pretty awful, although probably not as awful as what Johnny grew up with.  Although, remember: this was Johnny’s life from day one.  In a very real sense, he had no idea that parents were supposed to love you until he started school and met other children.  In fact, if it wasn’t for Amiira, Johnny would be a very cold person, and quite distasteful himself.  This is why Amiira keeps coming up in the story even though she’s been gone for years before the story starts.  She’s Johnny’s anchor, the one person who helped him realize that people could make connections with each other ...

Anyway, it was interesting for me to ponder all this, and I thought it might be interesting to share with you as well.  Plus now I have it written down for me to review later, in case I need to return to this topic for future reference.  And you, fair reader, will now be able to experience some déjà vu when you hear my first interview as a famous author.  You’re welcome.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Reflections on a Homsechool Conference

I don’t have time for a full blog post this week, as I’ve just come back from a homeschooling conference (or “expo,” they prefer to call it).  Just walked in the door a couple hours ago and found one of our cats had managed to shut himself up in my room.  For three days.  With no food or water.  Or anywhere to go to the bathroom.  Other than, you know, my bed.

So I’m a bit busy and a lot exhausted, and quite looking forward to sleeping in my own bed for a change (well, after further rigorous cleansing).  But, since it’s fresh in my mind, perhaps a few words on the conference may be in order.

We homeschool our kids more out of necessity than anything else.  When we lived on the East Coast, we sent our child to a Sudbury school, which worked really well for us.  On the East Coast (or at the very least in the Southeast), “homeschooling” meant your family were crazy religious fundamentalists.  This is primarily because the response of the Southern Baptist Conference to the integration of public schools was to strongly encourage homeschooling for their parishioners.  So, you know, there really is something to that perception.

So, on the East Coast (or, as I say, at least in the Southeast), if you’re a crazy fundamentalist, you homeschool, and, if you’re a crazy hippie (like us), you send your kids to weird private schools (Sudbury being just one option: Montessori, Waldorf, Progressive, Indigo, Reggio Emilia ... there’s no shortage of options).  But, when we moved to the West Coast, it just didn’t work that way.  It’s weird—you’d think that a nice liberal hippie state like California would be very open to weird alternative educational models.  But the truth is that the stringent state and school district requirements make it practically impossible to run such a school, particularly in the Los Angeles area.  Then again, we Californians couldn’t manage to legalize pot or gay marriage, so maybe it’s time to rethink that whole liberal hippie thing.

Point being, homeschooling out on the West Coast doesn’t (necessarily) mean lots of praying and basket-weaving for Jesus and that sort of thing.  Rather, it’s (typically) more of the crunchy granola barefoot children with annoyingly independent thinking and far too advanced vocabularies.  So that’s what you’re in for when you head to the California Homeschool Network Family Expo in Ontario (no, not Canada: San Bernadino County).

This is basically set up like any business or technical conference: there are sessions, with speakers, and a vendor hall full of people trying to sell you stuff.  Although it’s hard to say whether this is more aimed at the parents or the children ... for the most part, homeschoolers of this variety don’t distinguish.  Why shouldn’t the kid take an interest in his or her own education?  No one is going to be more impacted by the quality of said education, after all.  So people who present sessions, or hope to sell you educational aids, have to be prepared to deal with, shall we say, younger customers.  Which is probably good for everyone involved, all things considered.

Of course, a lot of what you get out of a conference is a social event.  I spoke a bit about this last year in relation to my trip to YAPC, which is a technical conference for Perl programmers (of which I am one).  In fact, one of the things I lamented at that time was not being to take my family, because I’m a lot less social without them.  So this sort of conference is the perfect antidote to that: I got to meet lots of people (and see lots of people I knew previously) and I was always with one or another of my family to sort of “lean on,” socially speaking.

So we did a heck of a lot more socializing than attending presentations.  In fact, the eldest and I only attended one, really—we started to go for a second, but then realized we’d seen it last year—although the whole family went to a another talk given by the same guy who did the session we did manage to attend: Jim Weiss.  The session was on using stories to teach, which I thought was quite excellent.  The other talk was just him telling some stories, which was sort of like a practical demonstration of what his session tried to show us.  He really is quite talented as a storyteller.  Made me a bit jealous, actually.

Outside of official sessions, we enjoyed the reptile zoo, and our favorite vendor booth, the wonderful folks from The Comic Shop, where we picked up yet another version of Fluxx and yet another Munchkin booster, as well as a copy of Munchkin Booty (i.e., the pirate version of Munchkin).  Oh, and the first deck of Pokémon cards for the smaller animal, which is a bit depressing, at least to my future wallet.  But lots of fun stuff at that booth.

But, again, mostly just socializing.  We got to chat with lots of other families in the same situation as us and compare notes.  We got to see plenty of folks that we only get to see once a year at this very event.  We got to play a few impromptu games of Fluxx with random kids that wandered up to us to see what was going on.  This was our third year, and we had a blast.  So, all in all, we had a great time and we’re glad we went.  And I reckon we’ll do it again next year.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Newsroom: Hit, or Retread?

There are 3 people I always trust to create a good television series: Joss Whedon, Alan Ball, and Aaron Sorkin.  These are people known in the entertainment biz as “show runners”: they create the shows, they write many (but never all) of the episodes, they may direct here and there, they almost certainly produce a bit ... essentially, they’re the creative driving force of the series.  Basically, any time any of the three of these gentlemen put out a show, I’m going to want to give it a shot.  (Well, at least two of them: sorry, Joss, but until you learn to stop letting Fox pick up your shows, I’m in a wait-and-see mode for you.  Experience is a harsh teacher.)

What these three people have in common is something that other show runners share too (names that immediately spring to mind are JMS of Babylon 5, Jenji Kohan of Weeds, Kurt Sutter of Sons of Anarchy, and Murphy and Falchuk of American Horror Story— no, we will not be using the “G” word here), but these three guys are at the top of that heap.  Others have what they have, just not as much of it.  And what that is can be distilled into two big things: characters and dialogue.

It’s often been said that you need characters that your audience will care about.  This is not that hard, actually (although it’s shocking how often writers don’t bother, considering how relatively easy it is compared to, say, convincing a network producer to buy your pitch).  But it’s just a subset of what you really need: characters that are interesting.  You need characters that, be they heroes, villains, or just innocent bystanders, are unpredictable without being insane, outrageous without being alien, and sympathetic without being maudlin.  When they show up on the screen, people watching need to go “oooh, I can’t wait to see what they’re going to do next!”  Or hear what they’re going say next, which brings us neatly to the next point, which is ...

All three of these guys have been accused of writing “stylized” dialogue, which is just a fancy way to say what interviewers have been saying to all of them for years: real people don’t talk like that (the most recent example I’m aware of being Colbert to Sorkin).  And here’s something else they all have in common: none of them ever appear bothered by that observation.  As far as they’re concerned, it’s okay to have characters speaking dialogue that isn’t strictly realistic.  And it’s okay by me too.  After all, who else put flowery, stylized langugage into the mouths of their characters?  How about William Shakespeare?  Oh, sure, you say: that’s just Elizebethan English.  But do you seriously believe that anyone ever talked in iambic pentameter all day long? using all those evocative metaphors, many of which Shakespeare actually invented for the purpose?  No, of course not.  Shakespeare wasn’t so much pushing the envelope as blowing through it and coming out the other side on fire.

These guys don’t push it as far as Shakespeare, of course, but the point is that that these guys aren’t trying to have their characters talk like real people talk.  Rather, this is the way real people wish they talked.  This is the way real people fantasize that they talk, when applying their 20-20 hindsight.  The way they dream of talking, in the conversations in their heads.  It’s actually much cooler than the way real people talk.  And, because these guys are masters, it doesn’t seem jarring or draw attention to itself the way it would in the hands of a lesser writer.  It just flows, carrying the viewer along for the ride.

Most people know Aaron Sorkin as the West Wing guy.  Indeed, in the Colbert interview I reference above, it was the only other of his shows to be mentioned (although they mentioned a few of his movies).  But I never actually watched The West Wing.  I was introduced to Sorkin via Sports Night.

Now, you must understand: I don’t watch sports.  I hate sports, in fact.  When a friend of mine said, “you have to watch this show,” I said, “why would I watch this show? I hate sports.”  This led to the following bizarre exchange:

It’s not about sports.

What do you mean, it’s not about sports?  It’s got “sports” right there in the name.

It’s about a sports show.

I don’t watch sports shows either.  Why would I watch shows that tell me about sports?  I hate sports.

Well, it’s not really about sports shows either.  It’s a show about a show, and the show that it’s about just happens to be a sports show.  But it’s not about sports.

Uhhh ... yeah, right.  Whatever.

But I gave it a shot, and I got hooked.  I watched every episode I could, and I watched it all over again in repeats.  This was easy, because, like so many shows, its life was cut tragically short.  Sorkin wrapped it up as best he could in the time he had, but there’s no getting around the fact that, when you watch the entire run (much like watching Firefly, or Carnivàle), you can’t help but feel that the world missed out on something magical due to the amazing (and apparently infinite) stupidity of network executives.  Ah, well ... wouldn’t be the first time.  Nor the last, I suspect.

Just recently, I got the complete series of Sports Night on DVD and rewatched the entire thing, beginning to end.  It really is quite worthwhile, and I highly recommend it.  But the point is, it wasn’t 10 years of time for fading memories we’re talking about here, but rather less than two.  Easily fresh enough in my mind to cause a bit of déjà vu when I saw Aaron Sorkin’s new show, which premiered less than a month ago.

The Newsroom, in fact, is more than a little reminiscent of Sports Night.  It’s almost creepy in fact ... Will is Casey and Mackenzie is Dana, Jim is Jeremy and Maggie is Natalie, Charlie is Isaac.  Sloan may not be Dan yet, but that’s probably only because she hasn’t had enough airtime yet.  She’ll get there, I’m thinking.  Hell, even the “ancillary” characters (I hate to call them that because I’m sure at least some of them would find it insulting) line up to a certain extent: it’s hard not to see Neal, Kendra, and Gary as reincarnations of Kim, Eliot, and Chris, and, when you look at Don, don’t you get a little echo of Sally? even if he’s going after Natalie and not Casey?  No, wait: that should be Maggie and not Will.

It’s a very strong parallel, is my point.

Now, on the one hand, that’s okay.  I can sympathize with recycling characters that you feel like didn’t get to hit their full potential— I do it all the time in my own fiction.  And, hey: they were very cool characters the first time around, so it’s not like I’m sad to see them back or anything.  It’s just ... weird.  It’s a different show, about a different kind of show (and still one I don’t watch, as it happens), with different characters ... and yet it’s all the same.  It’s like going in to work one day and finding all your co-workers have been replaced by pod-people or something.  And then, when they don’t act exactly like their Sports Night avatars would (’cause, you know, they’re actually different characters), that jars you.  But when they do act exactly like that that’s weird too.  So I dunno.

The other issue I have with The Newsroom is that it has a much harder row to hoe than Sports Night did.  I imagine it’s a lot more like West Wing in this regard, although I wouldn’t know, since I still haven’t watched that (although I probably should).  See, Sports Night had the distinct advantage of being a comedy.  Oh, sure, it had its dramatic moments (as any good comedy will), but that doesn’t change the fact that, at its heart, it was a funny show that could surprise you by being touching and sweet and sometimes even suspenseful.  Newsroom, on the other hand, is the other way around.  It’s a serious drama, discussing weighty issues of the recent past and theoretically (hopefully) making you think ... and, every once in a while, they throw in something funny.  So far, I have to say it’s not working that well for me.  Somehow I find it easier to shift from a casual, amusing tone to a serious one, than to go from “whoa, that’s some deep shit” to “oh ho, she accidentally emailed the whole office.”  I have to believe this will get better (’cause I have faith in Sorkin’s ability to ride that line), but so far it’s a tough act to buy.  Maybe Sloan will be a good character for this (heaven knows Olivia Munn can be funny as hell, as she’s proven with her Daily Show work).  I’m in wait-and-see mode on this aspect as well.

But there’s no doubt that the three shows I’ve seen so far (episode #4 is on tonight) are pretty compelling stuff, proof that Sorkin has still got game.  Some may complain that his preaching about the loss of integrity in today’s news shows is heavy-handed, but I happen to agree with him, so maybe I’m prone to overlook that.  (It reminds me, actually, of the remarks George Clooney made in the special features of the Good Night, and Good Luck DVD.  Perhaps Clooney and Sorkin are drinking buddies or something.)  The characters are interesting, and the dialogue is hyper-real, and the show within the show is, so far, far more interesting than I would find any real-world example of a news show to be, I’m quite sure.  So far, I’m enjoying The Newsroom, despite a few niggling doubts.

So what’s the answer to the provocative question posed by the title of this week’s blog post?  Well, you may recall that I’m a big believer in paradox: the answer is both, of course.

Of course, if I wanted to prove I was a real Sports-Night-nerd, I would have phrased the title question as “Quo Vadis?”  I resisted the urge.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Perl blog post #8

Today’s post is another technical one, that deals with fear of change and how a particular development practice can help with that.  I’ve no doubt that, even if you’re not too technical yourself, you could get something out of it if you were willing to give it a shot.  Or, just refer back up to the masthead if you prefer.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Mistaken Hue

A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for.

This is one of the earliest quotes I can remember being inspired by.  Like many quotes, its attribution is uncertain; when I first came across it, in a calendar I bought at the college bookstore my freshman year, it was ascribed to that perennial wit, Anoymous.  Then I found out that it was said by someone really famous (undoubtedly either Voltaire or Mark Twain), and then that it was uttered by Willaim Shedd (whoever that is).  Now that I check again, Wikiquote tells me it’s a quote from John Augustus Shedd, from his classic tome Salt from My Attic.  Which is apparently a book so obscure that some people question its very existence.

But no matter.  The quote is a good one, regardless of who said it.  It’s simple, direct, and evocative.  I immediately interpreted it to be a reference to matters of the heart, but of course I was young and stupid then (and, as it happens, in love with someone who didn’t return my affections).  So of course I would see the romantic side of this quote.

And yet ... this quote can be interpreted so much more broadly.  It can be a metaphor for the folly of playing it safe, in life in general.  Perhaps you’ve seen some variation on this old chestnut:

If I had my life to live over, I would try to make more mistakes.  I would relax.  I would be sillier than I have been this trip.  I know of very few things that I would take seriously.  I would be less hygienic.  I would go more places.  I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.  I would eat more ice cream and less bran.

I would have more actual troubles and fewer imaginary troubles.

You see, I have been one of those fellows who live prudently and sanely, hour after hour, day after day.  Oh, I have had my moments.  But if I had it to do over again, I would have more of them—a lot more.  I never go anywhere without a thermometer, a gargle, a raincoat and a parachute.  If I had it to do over, I would travel lighter.
If I had my life to live over, I would start barefooted a little earlier in the spring and stay that way a little later in the fall.  I would play hooky more.  I would shoot more paper wads at my teachers.  I would have more dogs.  I would keep later hours.  I’d have more sweethearts.

I would fish more.  I would go to more circuses.  I would go to more dances.  I would ride on more merry-go-rounds.  I would be carefree as long as I could, or at least until I got some care—instead of having my cares in advance.

As it turns out, this was not written by the mythical 85-year-old “Nadine Stair,” nor is it an English translation of a Spanish poem by Jorge Luis Borges.  It’s actually a piece from the Reader’s Digest (which makes sense, given the tenor), written by a 64-year-old named Don Herold.  Again, though, it’s irrelevant who wrote it: does it ring true?  Does it say something worth listening to?  I think perhaps it does.  I think it tells us to take the ship out of the harbor.

Here’s another, different version.  When I get a movie on DVD, I often watch the “special features,” which my eldest used to call the “great theaters” (when he was much younger, of course).  Watching the Great Theaters on a DVD is one of my habits that most of my family could care less about; generally they all get up and leave the room while I check out all the behind-the-scenes info on the making of the cinematic magic.  Often I do this whether I particularly liked the movie or not; sometimes I even find the making-of bits (or the bloopers, or the deconstructions of the stunts and special effects) more entertaining than the movie itself.

But I digress.  The point is, when I first watched Bend it Like Beckham (which I actually did enjoy), I watched the Great Theaters.  All of them.  The movie is about a British girl of Indian heritage, and her father is played by Anupam Kher, who’s a rather famous Bollywood actor.  Throughout the Great Theaters, he kept saying this quote over and over again, using slightly different words, because he felt it summed up the spirit of the movie so well.  I’m sure he was quoting someone else, but I’ll give him the credit, since he’s the one who burned it into my brain.  Here’s my favorite of the several different ways he phrased it:

If you try, you risk failure.  If you don’t, you ensure it.

I rather like this, because it takes the original quote and steps it up a notch.  Now it’s not just a missed opportunity you’re stuck with if you don’t risk taking the ship out of the harbor.  You’re actually failing by failing to move.  You’ve not only gained nothing, you’ve lost everything.  You think you’re staying out of the game by refusing to play, but you’re not: you’re forfeiting.

Anupam Kher gives us the short version.  If you’d like it spelled out a bit more clearly for you, how about we listen to Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP from 1977 to 1992:

The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching our goals.  The tragedy lies in having no goals to reach.  It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled.  It is a calamity not to dream.  It is not a disaster not to capture your ideal.  It is a disaster to have no ideal to capture.  It is not a disgrace to reach for the stars and fail.  It is a disgrace not to try.  Failure is no sin.  Low aim is a sin.

Hooks was a Baptist minister and a lawyer, so I tend to trust the man when he talks about sin.

I often say that I am a romantic, despite the fact that I’m a cynic (a dichotomy to which I should really devote its own blog post).  This is one of the expressions of that outlook.  I will continue to write my novel even though I’m far too old to become a famous writer (although of course Stieg Larsson is always an inspiration—hopefully I won’t need to die first, as Larsson did).  I will continue to demand a work environment where I can relax and have fun even though it’s “unrealistic” to expect a business to be run that way (never mind that I myself ran a business exactly that way for 12 years).  I will continue to encourage my children to follow their own dreams, even if those dreams are completely ineffectual ways to earn a living.  Because, as Robert Browning tells us:

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?