Saturday, March 31, 2012

16606--Writing our Wrongs

It feels wrong not to write -- forget about "How do writers do it?"  How does everyone else not? 

Realize that I'm not talking about some small thing here.  The written word is the very structure upon which we hang our complex thoughts and communicate them to each other.  While human culture may precede structured writing, history doesn't.  History is made of writing, every letter an atom.  Molecules of complex ideas are brought to clarity through the power of written words.

I know, a picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, but there's little chance that every person viewing the picture is going to have the same thousand words come to mind.  If that had been a truly successful system, we'd still be sketching hieroglyphs to each other and comic books (aka graphic novels) wouldn't need letterers.  This blog would just be a bunch of pictures.  Can you imagine trying to craft a complicated legal deal into a contract composed entirely from images?

The written word is such an integral component of our lives and culture that I think we would do well to increase writing as a focus in education.  The benefits of training young minds in not just abstract thought or linear thought or the use of imagination or researching information, but also in organizing all those things into a coherence that can then be communicated to others could be so immense as to be unquantifiable.

Quantifying things is the realm of math.  I enjoy math.  I respect math.  It's what our brains use to understand the universe.  Writing is what we use to explain what we've learned to each other and to understand ourselves.  Despite the danger of unleashing endless hordes of pretentiously self-absorbed wordsmiths upon the Earth, imagine the impact alone of living in a society where more people chose their words carefully, thinking before speaking.  Imagine people taught from youth to be mindful, examining the world and themselves, doing more than crashing about on a lifetime quest for food and pleasure. 

Even a bad writer is making an effort, taking measure of their successes and shortcomings.  With practice and guidance, probing the darkest reaches of the soul with such confrontations as to yield any manner of improvement.  It sounds like going where the pain is and poking at it.  I suppose it is.  I still call it personal development. 

After a couple of generations of mindful, thoughtful people working to actively raise more of the same, there might be a lot less dark to find prowling in those corners and corridors.  Working the brain creates the potential for a better brain and better performance.  Who couldn't use a better brain? 

The written word allows our thoughts to transcend time and space with clarity and depth.  We've been gifted, thus, with the power to communicate with those we may never meet.  With it rests our hope that some future explorers won't sift through the dirt and rubble of our remains and have to piece together speculations about what use we made of pizza cutters, wii-motes and ten thousand other modern oddities that have come to populate our world.  It means there's hope that someone might even make sense of Beanie Babies, Justin Bieber and YouTube videos one day.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

16602--I Can Tell You It's Chewy

It was a peaceful Saturday morning.  All the cartoons I cared about watching were over and I was getting ready to visit one of my good friends.  We were single guys with free time and a Saturday ahead of us.  Before I could leave the house, though, the phone rang.

My mood being what it was, I took a chance and answered.  On the other end of the line, rather than a caller I knew, I found myself chatting with a telemarketer asking me if I'd like to take a survey.  I was feeling generous or perhaps just mildly adventurous, so I told him to bring it on.  He sounded surprised and maybe a little excited about not being rejected.  As I said, I had free time.  And he was going to send me five dollars and a bag of Fritos.  I was in.

The caller proceeded to ask me if I had cable television service.  I did.  With that confirmed, he told me to tune to a special leased channel so he could show me a commercial.  Just for me?  Cool!  Plus, I just learned what those strange extra channel spots were being used for.

The private show began and I was treated to two slick commercial spots for a new chewing gum.  The ads had clearly seen the touch of computer wizardry as well as creativity.  After watching them, the survey began.  I was asked about my impressions of the commercials.  Had the appropriate messages about the virtues of the new gum been conveyed to me?  Going through that, he asked me the deal-closer: Would the commercial make someone like me buy their gum?

Answering honestly, I told him, "No."

I think I actually heard his crest fall.  "Oh?  Why not?"

"Because I don't chew gum," I said, "so I would assume that someone like me wouldn't either, so..."  There it was.  We had a few seconds of silence as, I imagine, he realized the time he could've saved if a question covering that one basic thing had been added to the front end of the process.  We were already several minutes into the whole mess, though, so he pressed on like a trooper.

I'd seen this sort of mentality before, in Congress of all places.  The Department of Defense had this project they were developing called the Sergeant York.  It was an anti-tank weapon that, even after having had over a hundred million dollars thrown at it, literally couldn't hit the broad side of a barn.  That's no hyperbole.  I saw the video footage.  The decision was made to continue throwing money into development because they had already invested so much at that point.  You may sigh now.

The survey droned on with the two of us slogging through a staggering list of questions that all seemed to end with the exchange--> Me: Not likely at all.  Him: Why not?  Me: Because I don't chew gum.

I kept smiling and refrained from laughing.  In return, every few questions, he muttered an apology.  Hey, we were both getting paid for it, so we did our jobs.

We finally wrapped up the awkard call, put the survey behind us and got on with our lives.  When I finally made it to my friend's, I got as far into the story as starting the survey when he looked at me with puzzlement and that cocked head thing that people do.

"I don't think I've ever seen you chew gum," he said, shaking his head.  "You don't chew gum, do you?"

There it was!  Like I said, cover those crucial basics early.

Now, I'm going to imagine that there are some life lessons in all this somewhere, but I'm going to leave it to you to pull them out this time.  I've got to go recover from that mind-numbing survey all over again.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

16599--So We're Shutting All This Down in Dec. 2012?

Technically, as long as we're moving forward, we're always getting closer to the end of things.  I'm not sure if some members of our society are trying to slow things down or speed us toward the end.  Either way, sometimes they make me wonder about the value of society as a whole.  At the very least, I certainly find it easier to agree that we're overpopulated.

I was talking with an acquaintance about a work situation.  He was complaining that one of his co-workers seemed to have changed sides in a tense labor situation to join management's position.  As a result, he equated the betrayer to Benedict Arnold.  This told me that his feelings were pretty strong on the whole matter, but also made me realize that I hadn't heard the name in so long as to wonder if people at large still identified him with the same level of ire that he once held.  Sure, no one's naming their kids "Benedict" that I'm aware of any more than I'm running across any little "Judas" or "Adolf" rugrats, but are they teaching these details in school?

My wondering made him wonder, so we snagged a passing twenty-something we both knew and asked him, "Who's Benedict Arnold?" 
A head and shoulders profile engraving of Benedict Arnold. He is facing left, wearing a uniform with two stars on the shoulder epaulet. His hair is tied back.
Ruined the name "Benedict" for everyone

This drew a puzzled look and an "ummmm..." so we quickly threw him a rope with "How about Nathan Hale?"

"ummmm...Wait," he said.  His eyes were starting to light up.  There was something going on under that hair!  "War guys!" he said happily.

"Which war?" my partner in puzzlement asked.

"Civil war?" our young contestant asked.

Not Nathan Hale. It's Patrick Henry, but he said ballsy stuff, too.

We dropped our heads with a heavy sigh.  The young man seemed very disheartened. 

My partner tossed out, "Hey, who's Maynard?"
A man with a microphone stands on a major stage set.
Did not perform for Civil War USO

 The future senator's face lit up.  His head nodded at some tune only he could hear and he announced, "Lead singer of Tool!"

"You can go now," I told him.  "Thanks for playing."

 In an unrelated situation, straddling the fence between tragedy and comedy, I was watching Bill Maher's film "Religulous" on one of the cable channels.  So that I didn't have to contend with any of the household noise distractions by turning up the volume, I had the closed-captioning on during the film.  The son I have who's old enough to make this sad and funny was watching also and saw the word "literacy" pop-up in one of the interview segments.

"What's...'ly-ter-a-see'?" he asked, trying to sound out the word to the best of his phonetic ability.

My laughter was entirely reflexive and the spasms it brought equally uncontrollable.  When I was able, I corrected his pronunciation and told him it meant irony.

Don't tell me you wouldn't have done the same.

Both the young men mentioned have been through years of American education.  Neither of them is stupid.  I know that the second one has been lauded by his teachers as being possessed of impressive potential among his peers.  That usually strikes me as sad and funny, too.  It makes me wonder where their bar is set.

As I was saying, these people aren't stupid.  Whatever their level of intellect, I feel the sadder part of their situations is that despite their potential, they lack the drive and desire to fulfill it.  Content in blissful ignorance?  They seem to be.

Well, at least we got past the earbuds for brief interaction.  It seems that we've got a lot of people getting lost in a quagmire of media overload.  I'm not sure if that's better or worse than the ones being conditioned by video games to become future drone operators and snipers and such.  Either way, these are the inheritors of the future whether it's a long one or a short one.

I'd like to see a long one.  I suppose that means I'd better keep up on eating right, exercising, studying and keeping up on health and longevity developments.  Assuming most of us are still here next year and the Mayan secret plot to bring us all down has failed, maybe we can take another shot at lighting some fires under the slackers.

Time will tell.  Then, as they say, in a hundred years, no one will care anyway.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

16593--You Can't Do This Job If You're Stupid

During my time in the world of the workers, I've been at the entry level, whatever comes between that and supervisor, supervisory level and managerial.  I suppose if I count my own small business ventures, I've been an owner, too.  Though I found the above to be true at each level, it was something I found I waited to share with people until I was at least a supervisor.

As a supervisor, I was responsible for orientation of the people who were brought into the company for me to supervise.  Sadly, there were stupid people doing some of the jobs I was responsible for overseeing, so I had begun telling the new ones that they couldn't do the work if they were stupid after the first one I told left.  We were in the midst of orientation, he said he was going to get a drink or a snack and never came back.  It wasn't my intention to run him off, rather to emphasize the importance of using his brain.  The inherent beauty of that being that it would keep from adding to my daily aggravation levels and protect him from me conceiving creative things to do to his car.

Did I think it odd and a little rude for him to quit on the sly?  Yes, even cowardly, but I decided it had been the better decision for both of us in the long-term scheme of things.  I'm sure he spared me a great deal of disappointment by leaving before he actually got his hands on any company or client property.

As a manager, I was interviewing the people who I would hire to become sources of aggravation.  That gave me the opportunity to get involved in the process even earlier, heading off those bad choices before they even got into the company.  That's about the best you can do in business, but as a writer you can go even further.

When you're writing, you have both the power and the responsibility to protect your audience from not only stupid characters, but from characters doing stupid things. The readers are trusting you to take good care of them, having entrusted you with their time and maybe even some money.

As a writer, it's your job to bring your best to the meeting of minds.  The audience comes ready to receive whatever you have to offer.  No writer has any right to ask for any more than that.  Every writer should bring no less than a work that has been well thought out, thoroughly edited and presented in a compelling package.

That's the basic gist of the writer/reader social contract.  A writer who feels it's too much of a bother to learn to spell, how to use the grammatical rules of whatever language the writing is in, to re-check the "finished" product that one last obsessive time and to put a pretty bow on the whole thing before sliding it over to the public for consumption doesn't deserve the attention of readers.  I don't feel that those basics are asking too much.

Those basics are simple mechanics that anyone can learn, so there's no excuse for not doing that much.  If you've gone to all the effort to do the writing, it's just lazy not to do the last bits.  The writing itself is without question the hardest part.  Some say writing well is one of the hardest jobs in the world.  Maybe it is.  Maybe it isn't.  If you're going to do it well, I know you can't be stupid.  You just can't fix stupid.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

16592--Gods at Play...Old School

Before there were video games or James Cameron movies or last airbenders, there were avatars.  "Avatar" is another one of those ancient Sanskrit words that managed to make its way into our world without having anything to do with its original meaning.

Now, "orange" has always meant "orange" and coming from Sanskrit would pretty much explain why it doesn't rhyme with anything else.  "Rook", on the other hand, has nothing to do with chess or castles and "nirvana" has as much to do with spiritual paradise as "avatar" does with virtual reality. 

"Avatar" means "to cross-over down" or "to come down", specifically in reference to a god.  What we usually seem to have is some deity who has decided that some situation in the mortal realm requires more direct intervention than sending a   convenient storm, talented hero or even a specially crafted demigod to deal with things. FashionGirl.png No, some complex issue that's important to this particular god has prompted a descent from existence as energy and will to dwell in the material world and take care of business personally.  Now, don't ask me what motivated this because I'm not one of those people who walks around claiming to know what any god wants.  If a deity is all "we" think a deity is, then it's probably more than we could honestly conceive.  Hell, I've woken up from dreams I could barely explain to people, so I doubt I could wrap my mind around the whole of a multi-dimensional cosmic being anymore than a goldfish in a glass bowl could explain the ocean. 

Shhh...we're talking about black holes next.

If you want things done a certain way, sometimes you have to handle them yourself.  Zeus was a big fan of slumming from Olympus, frequently taking a hands-on approach to matters that interested him.  Those matters usually involved having some mortal bear him a child, but where better to skip delegation and opt for a personal touch?  Despite his arrogance and wrathfulness, this probably made him seem very relatable to his followers, especially the guys.

File:Shiva-destroyer.jpgOther gods were also said to manifest their incarnations in many different forms, under different names.  Maybe running around down here is their version of virtual reality and they just come down from the heavens to play around.  Are they scoring points?  Are we non-player characters in their World of Warcraft?  City of Heroes?  Mass Effect?  Maybe that's what happened to all the god sightings and mythologic interactions: they got bored and moved on to another game server...I mean, planet.  They could be out there screwing around with the lives of...fifteen-foot-tall blue people halfway across the galaxy.

Hey, don't look at me like that.  It's a big, weird universe.  It could happen.

As we get better at fine-tuning technology and robotics, cybernetics and genetic engineering become more adaptable tools, ideas like those proposed in "Gamer" and "Surrogates"--running about with your consciousness projected into another body, natural or not--may find their way into our own spectrum of entertainment and daily living.    Rising from the dead could be as simple as respawning in a new avatar.  That might have a profound impact on the lives of anyone watching who's not in on the game, but I suppose pulling out the grown-up tools and attempting to emulate what we thought we saw in those we once worshipped is going to come with some risks.

If we make a mess, it's just a game, right?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

16590--And Then Write Some More

I'm going to be honest, rather than just make up a number, and tell you I don't know how many times I've told other writers to "Just keep writing."  I know it sounds like the advice from that delightful fish movie, but I guess that's OK.  Couching life lessons in comedy is like coating vegetables in chocolate.

For me, I don't believe I ever find a problem with the doctrine of writing whenever possible.  Always having some means of note-making close at hand is great because there are times when you're not actively seeking inspiration that it does strike.  Personally, I like to have a couple of my favorite pens, some kind of notebook and something electronic (these days, my smartphone is the latest incarnation of portable electronic notepad).  It may sound redundant or overprepared to some, but I like to be ready for the ideas that just come to me and I like to be able to chase down the others.

Writing doesn't just happen by itself.  There comes a point when you need to put pen to paper and start writing something.  Really, just write.  If you've got an idea, great.  If you don't, write anyway.  I say that because whether you have something fresh and stimulating to fill your blank page or you're just stringing together words, you need to keep moving forward (not that you're unwriting).  It's all progress.  Even if what you're doing just ends up being the warm-up for something else entirely, that activity still had its part to play in getting you to the good stuff.

I never try to retain who first said it, or wrote it, but it still holds true that you shouldn't be concerned with the quality of a draft, whether first or second or fifth.  You can rewrite anything you've written, but there's nothing much to be done with a blank page but to put a bunch of words on it.

You're still here?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

16586--Don't Settle for a Spark

If you're going to write, don't be shy about it.  Jump in with both hands on the keyboard and your brain in high gear.  Creative spark?  Tap into the energy of the humongous 3500 DD batteries at the center of the world (they keep it all spinning, trust me) and set the whole roof on fire with your inventiveness!  The readers didn't come to not believe what you're offering.  They suspended that at the door, so load up and hit 'em with both barrells.

This means it's up to you to cut loose, dust off your imagination (proof that our ancestors didn't waste all that evolution) and write outside your experience.  I know, for years people have said, "write what you know", but that's also brought us to everything written being derivative of everything that's come before.  Some of that is attributable to writers and some of it to audiences.  Audiences like what's familiar to them and writers often find it easier to just give them that.  This is why formulaic sitcoms and dramas perform better on television than anthology shows.  Likewise, a book series gains an edge over a single work that is new and unknown.  We all know who James Bond, Sherlock Holmes and Superman are and we know what to expect from them.  More importantly, we don't want them to change.

"But, Phoenix, characters are supposed to grow and change in stories."  Well, some characters are supposed to and some aren't.  Our heroes are icons who are strong enough to resist the chaos of change, facing challenges that would tear others down, all presented in the context of an inventively told tale.  Remember those guys I just mentioned?  I didn't have to describe them because you know who they are, how they do things and what they represent.  What's special from one story to the next is how it's told.

Even a story that one might consider wholly unique under the sun, requires some familiar elements in its structure or it'll be too alien to find much of an audience and leave its writer to be either mocked or locked away.  The mass audience likes not feeling completely lost.  The feeling that they can know and understand your characters helps your audience to relate to whatever's going on with those characters when you send them on whatever version of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride you cook up.  With luck they'll be able to skip the dizziness and nausea.

Monday, March 5, 2012

16580--Playing God for Fun and Profit

  Writing is a strange endeavor.  It's sort of an exercise in how to make friends (literally, for those of us who would craft fiction) and influence people.  The work of creating characters, full worlds in which they live and act, and of course the tales that bind them maddens the mind of many a writer.  Some have trouble shouldering the pressure of all that hangs on their every word choice and turn of phrase.  Sadly, that is part of the paradox of the human mind.

People carry the desire within them to be in command of their own destiny, of the elements of their world.  People relish the power to make choices.  At the same time, many shy away from such positions of power and authority, unable to bear the weighty mantle of such responsibility.  No matter the circumstances, even the earliest record of man indicates simultaneous drives to control and to abdicate responsibility for things beyond control to unseen higher powers.  With no evidence, stories were created.  Faith was created, explaining mysteries of lightning, thunder, fire,'s as though we have an inherent fear, some of us, of being the master.  We don't want to be alone in the dark, no one watching over us.  We want desperately to grow up, but still to entrust our well-being to unseen parents.  It makes us feel better.

Writers write, but how many will attempt to remove themselves from the pilot's seat, claiming that their characters write themselves or act of their own accord?  How many claim their stories write themselves?  Even cast in a role of absolute authority, as a writer or an artist bringing absolutely anything into existence from nothing, many refuse to accept it.  Was it divine inspiration?  Did the devil make them do it?

Who's to say who's right?  Maybe our ancestors were guided by ancient aliens or divine beings and were taught at the dawn of creation that we aren't alone in the dark and beings far greater than our meager ability to understand do indeed watch us from above.  Maybe we're just striving to be like them.

Whatever the answer, worldbuilding is heavy work.  I know it keeps my brain busy, learning all the details and making sure they fit together.  On some level, it's almost addictive.  And it never seems to get simpler no matter how many planes/dimensions/worlds I let myself get sucked into populating...and then depopulating.  I'm also pretty confident that, even though I don't know how all the connections are made in that brain to create what's created, what I write won't write itself.  I also know I'm not going to wait for a note from a divine messenger, especially one I've created.  For good or ill, it's all on me.

I'd better get back to work.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

16579--No, Dear, Zombies Can't Climb Fences

When I was a kid, they said cemeteries were so popular that people were dying to get in.  They told us the fences were for keeping people out.  There are some things people just don't like to face.  Walk with me while I explain...

I went to another funeral recently.  I wouldn't say I've been to a lot of them, but I seem to end up at at least one every few years.  They don't seem to have changed much.  Certainly, they have yet to show me the "fun" that the name suggests.

I suppose I should add that the recent honoree wasn't anyone close to me.  We never even met.  I was just there for emotional support.  The way these things run, though, I had plenty of free time to ponder...

When someone dies in America, the body is put through several preparations prior to the funeral that ensure that if it wasn't dead already, it would certainly be before it got anywhere near the coffin.  This certainly does away with any need for the old tradition of holding a wake (in which people gather to see if the corpse is going to wake up, since being found dead drunk apparently used to be fairly common and medical practices were slow in catching on to confirming death).  Still, creatures of habit that humans tend to be, wakes continue to be held and everyone gets a chance to make sure the deceased is really dead.

At the actual funeral, the coffin was locked shut.  Locked?  Are they worried about graverobbers?  The lock seemed rather standard, built right in, yet most people aren't celebrities and certainly aren't buried with much of consequence.  You can't take it with you, after all.  They tell us that all our lives.  I tried to get myself listed as my own beneficiary once, but my investment counselor just gave me a blank look.  I explained that it was only fair that I get to keep what I had accumulated rather than let others piss it away on things that had nothing to do with chocolate.  I was told to fill in a name or the financial planner would put in her own.  They really don't want us taking anything with us.

The coffin was driven miles away and put into a cement vault, rather a more ornately designed one than I'd seen in recent memory.  That was sealed and then lowered into the ground and buried by a team of men with shovels.  Now, there's obviously a good deal of money being made from people dying.  Even if you were just selling the wooden boxes and putting people into holes in the ground, you could still make a good living just from the volume of customers (when my own father died, they tried to charge for the box even though we had him cremated).  For some reason, though, there's a whole lot of extras that have been put into the corpse-handling process, but why?

I've heard it said that there's some fear about contamination of the ground or the water supply by the decomposing bodies, but that doesn't make sense unless there's something they've been slipping into the food that they don't want coming back to bite us.  Hmmmm... 

Maybe the undertakers' lobby is just so strong that they can get whatever legislation passed that they want, ensuring people will have to spend outrageous sums on funerals.

Maybe they just need to come out and admit that all the extra precautions are truly spurred on by just one thing: deep, unrelenting fear of the undead.  I don't know whether to blame George Romero or go all the way back to Bram Stoker, but it seems that there's a serious concern about keeping corpses from getting back up out of the ground to ramble about and feed upon the living.  Even the old ones must make for some tough zombies because I'm not sure if even Houdini could get through all that grave security...y'know, without becoming zombie-Houdini.  Then there'd be no stopping him, of course.

Even faced with the prospect of either a vampire- or zombie-themed apocalypse, I guess people felt bad about decapitation (which could strain common feelings toward the open casket) and opted for embalming instead.  Of course a simple stake through the chest, nailing the body to the coffin, would be a simple enough solution to keeping them in place, though perhaps a bit messy.

Personally, I think the obvious choice would be cremation, but I could be considered biased.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

16576--You Might Put It in a Child-Proof Package, But Irony is Still Funny

Photo: Great News!!!!!  We have a big medical company to sponso........ hey! Wait a second.... 

Design by Aristotle C Pramagioulis

Hollywood is missing out on a form of entertainment I seem to be finding increasingly amusing.  There are these commercials that…Yes, I said commercials.  I know there are lots of them that are funny and there are occasional primetime compilation programs put together to showcase them.  I’m not talking about those.
The commercial spots that’ve increasingly been tickling my sense of irony are the delightful little sales pitches from the pharmaceutical industry. They seem to offer pills for every plague or discomfort they can think of.  Too excitable?  Feeling down?  Can’t sleep?  Can’t stay awake?  Whatever your ailment, they’ve probably got a pill for it or they’ll have one soon.  I know…that’s not really all that funny.  In some ways, it’s kind of sad.

So what makes me laugh?  Where’s the punch line?  It rests in the inevitably lengthy list of side effects.  These things rival works of epic literature.  The warnings dwarf the sales pitch.  Apparently, unlike a car company or a fast food restaurant, drug companies are required to tell you all the bad things that might happen when you use their product.
Worse than the size of the list of side effects is its content.  To find out that attempting to combat your irritable bowel or chronic drowsiness may result in rashes, boils or death seems like it may be asking customers to play the game for some heavy stakes.  To make it more interesting, there are bound to be at least a dozen other potential side effects.  Throw on top of that the warning that whatever you’re trying to clear up may be made even worse and you’ve got the crowning kick in the nethers that makes the whole commercial break such a delight.

I’m laughing at the drug companies, not the afflicted, I swear.  The other way around would just be cruel…y’know, like giving someone who’s depressed a bunch of pills that may make them feel suicidal.  It would be a whole new reality show!  Uncontrolled Substances or something like that.  There’s probably a network that could put that into an hour-long format and bring in some money.  I’d watch that sooner than The Bachelor.