Tag Archives: Writing

26 is the new 80

Yesterday I dramatically underestimated how old some folks I knew as children had grown. I figured middle school, but they’re both in 11th grade. Outrageously underestimating the ages of children is what elderly people do. Now in my second quarter-century of existence, I am having a quarter-life crisis.

Now, I’ve heard that as you begin to get older time starts to move more quickly. Given that it seems like a week ago I was just starting at NC State and just yesterday I first met my now girlfriend of almost a year, I imagine that if this process continues consistently, by the time I’m fifty I’ll be seconds away from ninety-nine and then dead. On my deathbed I’ll be telling the nurse “I feel like I was being born just five minutes ago.”

I also am beginning to get ailments that doctors just say I’ll have to put up with for the rest of my life. Well, one. I got my first “floater”  a little while back. It’s just a little dot that hangs around on my eye and gets in the way, especially when I’m working on my computer. Apparently they’re normal at only 26, but it took me a while not to feel existential dread about my inevitable demise every time it appeared in my vision. I suppose a crucial part of aging gracefully is coming to accept each new manifestation of my physical form’s slow, inexorable decay as it comes.

So, now it’s time for me to get serious about my life goals. Clearly I don’t have much time left, so I’ve got to start achieving them, pronto! That means I have to define these goals. Here they are roughly in no particular order:

  • Satisfaction and security in my career
  • Love and mutual support in my relationship
  • Being the change I want to see in the world
  • Some form of self-expression through my writing
  • A community that will not be mostly dead when I’m even older than I am now

The key of the last one is to avoid being alone in old age without having to have children, which are a drag on at least four of my five life goals as presented here. I suspect this can be accomplished with the proper intergenerational community involvement. In any case, I’ve got to get to work on it! Who knows how fast the years will start flying by?

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Who Loves Jerry?

Jerry had had his hair done like Jamie Jackson, but he wasn’t Jamie Jackson. Jerry’s hair was not like Jamie Jackson’s anymore. It was spread with the rest of him out across the rocks beneath the aptly named Suicide Ridge. Looking down there now, you couldn’t be blamed for having no idea Jerry had ever existed. “C’mon, Mike,” said Kenneth, “are you scared?”

Mike’s hair was plastered to his face underneath a knit cap. He shuddered under his thick jacket. “I don’t know, man, this seems like a bad idea.”

“Well, Mike,” Ken frowned “it’s dangerous, yeah, that’s kinda the point. How are ya gonna know if you’re like Jackson if you don’t find out?”

Mike crossed his arms against the cold, “but if I’m not like Jackson, I’ll be like Jerry.”

Ken rolled his eyes, “yeah, but it won’t matter then, will it? I mean, if God, er, or whoever he is, if he just lets you die, clearly you don’t matter.” Mike didn’t know what he was doing here. He’d been standing right here a week ago when Ken was convincing Jerry to jump. He asked the obvious question anyway, “Why don’t I matter?”

Ken kicked a rock off the off the edge of the cliff, as if just to see something fall off while he waited for Mike to jump. “Nobody cares about you, man! This guy, he controls everything! He won’t let Jamie Jackson die, and everybody knows it. If Jackson jumped off this cliff right now, a plane would come swooping down to catch him, or a wind would blow him so he falls in the ocean instead of on the rocks.”

“Or maybe he’d wake up in traction with a feeding tube down his neck.” Mike put his hands in his coat pockets.

“Naw, man. That’s boring. Jackson is clearly a main character. Who wants to watch a movie about some jerk who jumped off a cliff and ended up in traction?”

“You want to watch the movie about some jerk who jumped off a cliff and magically flew out to fall in the ocean.”

“Damn right. That’s what everybody in America tunes in to see every night when Jackson does his next death cheat.”

“People care about me.”

“What?”

“People care about me. You said nobody cares about me.”

“Who? Who cares about you?”

“My parents do, idiot. They love me.” Mike realized his parents would be devastated if he ended up like Jerry.

“Oh yeah?” a smile wormed its way across Ken’s face, like he’d just figured out how he was going to win this argument, “tell me more about these parents of yours.”

“What?” Ken knew Mike’s parents, “you know my parents.”

“I do,” agreed Ken, “What do they look like?”

“Uhh,” Mike was baffled at this line of questioning, but he tried to conjure an image of his parents in his mind. He pulled the cap further down over his head. It seemed to be getting colder by the minute.

Ken tapped his wrist, “Well?”

Both of Mike’s parents were redheads like him. “They’re both redheads, like me.”

Ken nodded, “Oh, is that right? Tell me more.”

This was infuriating, “What do you want to know, Ken!? What’s the point of this stupid quiz?”

Ken’s smile opened into a full malignant grin, “what are their names?”

Michael’s parents names were Linea and Hurton. “Linea and Hurton, is that what this is all about? You just want to stop calling them Mike’s mom and Mike’s dad?”

It was a lame insult, and Ken ignored it. “Your redheaded parents Linea and Hurton didn’t have names until just now. They didn’t have red hair, or even exist until I brought them up. They won’t exist if you jump off and don’t survive. Don’t worry about what they think. All that matters is the creator and what he has planned.”

Michael was genuinely fearful now. He had to admit it was frighteningly difficult to remember any more details about his parents. They just looked like floating red wigs in the air with little labels “Linea” and “Hurton.” “I-” he stuttered, “Who are you?”

“I’m Ken, you’ve known me since Kindergarten.” Michael had known Ken since Kindergarten. “How many people have you led to this cliff?” Michael asked.

“Hundreds. Or maybe you’re the first. Does it matter?”

It didn’t matter. “It doesn’t matt-” Michael started to say, but caught himself. He had to leave. He had to go back to his parents, his real, whole parents who existed in flesh and blood.

But what if they didn’t? His zero-degree rated coat was not warm enough for the weather now. The wind whipped at his face, his nose stung and burned with each breath of icy air he sucked in. A fog obscured everything more than a hundred yards away. There was nothing besides Ken, Mike, and this cliff.

Mike was right next to the cliff. He could have sworn he was not that close before. Just one step and he could know if he was real. If there was anyone out there who was real and really cared about him. If he wasn’t…

Ken was right behind him. He seemed to hear his thoughts, and Michael felt his hot breath on his ear, “it’ll all be over anyway.” Michael reached a foot out over the precipice.

“Don’t do it!” came a voice from the fog. Michael looked back and saw a light. Ken frowned, “You’ll never know!” he snarled. Michael looked at Ken. He took his foot back onto solid ground. “Maybe I do know,” he said suddenly as the light grew brighter and a bright blue uniformed police officer came out of the mist. The sudden squall had died down and Mike was comfortable in his heavy coat. He walked toward the police officer, keeping his eyes on Ken, “Maybe God, or whoever he is, just showed me he does care.”

Ken stood stock still on the precipice, glaring ominously at the police officer, who eventually gave up trying to convince him to get in the car to be taken home. The officer turned away and said “you should know the window on your side doesn’t close all the way, kid,” before leading him to the passenger seat. As Mike and the officer drove away, Ken disappeared into the fog.

In a sudden fit of terror, Mike realized he thought of the officer as just a bright blue uniform. He looked over and saw him completely. He had dark skin and a long, narrow face with a square jaw. His nose was prominent and looked like it had been broken in the past. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and his bright blue uniform was worn and had a mustard stain next to the right pocket. He saw Mike staring at him, and he smiled. “Hey, kid, you know that God loves you, right?” Mike knew now that God loved him and wouldn’t let him come to harm. On the long trip home, though, a chill wind blew through the window of the cop car. The question remained in Mike’s mind.

Who loved Jerry?

Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles

On the website “fanfiction.net,” the user “proudhousewife” states

My little ones have been asking to read the Harry Potter books; and of course I’m happy for them to be reading; but I don’t want them turning into witches!”  To resolve this, she plans to “make some slight changes so these books are family friendly!

As it turns out, these slight changes involve rewriting the entire book from scratch, starting from Chapter 1. The result is so over the top that the story reads like a parody of itself. I’m going to provide you some of the highlights of just the first chapter.

The story, called “Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles,” starts in much the same way as the original. Harry Potter lives under the stairs in his aunt and uncle’s house. Now, though, Uncle Vernon is a sheepish house-husband and Aunt Petunia is basically how tea partiers probably think of Hillary Clinton,

Aunt Petunia, a career woman, barked from her armchair where she sat with her feet up. She had short, curly blonde hair and never wore any makeup…she was wearing a baggy, unflattering pantsuit.

A knock comes on the door, and Hagrid arrives,

On the porch was standing a huge, muscular man with a big, manly beard; and he was dressed in a plaid, red shirt, blue jeans, and sturdy, leather boots. His chest was covered in a thick, unruly carpet of coarse, brown hair. He wore a necklace that looked to Harry like a lowercase T. Just looking at Harry feel happy, peaceful somehow; but he couldn’t say why! [sic]

Hagrid is travelling door to door and asks if Aunt Petunia has been saved. Aunt Petunia tells us something important about the setting of this story in her next line,

Saved? Don’t tell me you are you one of those Christians?

Then Harry solidifies it by asking what a Christian is. Wherever these people live, it is a place where a child could possibly grow to eleven without knowing what a Christian is.

Immediately Aunt Petunia / Hillary Clinton takes action to prevent Harry from accepting Christ,

We are too smart for that. Haven’t you read Dawkins? God is dead! Dawkins proved that. Would you like us to educate you on the Dawkins?  … Harry does not need your religion, he has science and socialism and birthdays. Haven’t you heard of Evolution? I have a very good textbook on Evolution that I could give you on it if you would like to learn things. [sic]”

Hagrid calls her on the evolution (the story capitalizes it, because apparently “Evolution” is the name of the god people who believe in the theory worship) point, though.

“Evolution is a fairytale. You don’t really believe that, do you?”

“Yes, I do!” Aunt Petunia screeched.

“Well then prove it!”

…And all of a sudden, this woman who apparently reads textbooks on evolution as a hobby, is struck dumb at the prospect of explaining how science works.

Aunt Petunia could only stare at him; and her big mouth hung open dumbly. Here she thought she was so educated; and always demanded that Christians prove what they believed in; but she couldn’t even prove her own religion. It was then that Harry knew who the smart one here was!

Next we see the first instance of what will be a recurring theme of Harry being wise beyond his years.

“Tell me how to get to this heaven place!” Harry cried wistfully, clasping his hands together. Sometimes, the wisdom of little ones is really amazing. We think we grownups know it all; but then God speaks through the mouths of little ones; and shows us how we are all mortals struggling along the path of life. Humility.

Pretty soon, Harry will be quoting from scripture, referencing specific verses by their author and number. This actually happens in the next chapter, which picks up immediately where the first chapter left off. Apparently the sinner’s prayer leads to instant memorization of the Bible.

After that little aside, Harry’s “holy energy” prevents Aunt Petunia from restraining him from reciting the sinner’s prayer, and Hagrid tells him he is now a Christian and a student of “Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles!”

The zaniness of this retelling doesn’t stop here. In future chapters you can look forward to Hermione, here Dumbledore’s daughter, forgetting all about any interest in academic success and repeatedly offering to help with her highest calling – dishes and cooking. You’ll also get to see God-as-personal-retainer complete with instant gratification of prayers for food to be prepared and prayers for doors to be opened, not because they’re locked, but because they’re too heavy for poor, feminine Hermione. After a philosophical discussion about the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism with Ron, punctuated by extremely detailed descriptions of them eating bacon and talking with one’s mouth full of bacon, Harry then argues with Draco Malfoy that women are not inferior to men, it’s just that they have different skills, and that is why they should stay in the kitchen.

“Women shouldn’t not have careers because women are stupid!” Harry shouted indignantly. “Women are not stupid at all! Women should not have careers because women are nurturing and loving and their gifts serve them best in the home!”

Voldemort, rather than killing people, works through Congress to reduce the rights of the poor, set-upon Christian folk. Really, I could go on and on about how entertainingly ridiculous this story is, but you really should just read it yourself.

 

Radical Interpretation

First off, I would never buy a t-shirt like this. I don’t think jokes belong on t-shirts. If something is going to be on your body to be read over and over and over again by everyone you meet, it should be something weightier than a snarky one-liner. Nevertheless, this particular snarky one-liner is a good lead-in to this blog entry.

I do correct grammar on-the-fly in my head. I don’t do it any more when people are speaking to me, but if I’m reading an academic paper, especially one that hasn’t been written or proofread by a native English speaker, I often used to find myself getting upset with awkward phrasings and missing words. Now instead I will read the sentence, correct any particularly displeasing issues in a sort of pre-conscious part of my mind, and then and only then let myself really start to parse the sentence.

It recently occurred to me that I could apply a similar tactic to larger issues. For instance, as any literary scholar will tell you, a work of fiction is a cooperative endeavor between author and reader. The author’s statements provide a skeleton that the reader fleshes out with his or her own experiences and understanding. Two different readers can often get very different understandings of the same book, especially if it’s a good book, or the Good Book, for a famous example.

The world is already littered with different interpretations of the Bible, so I’ll discuss something else here. J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” comes to mind. “The Hobbit” is a story of an entire race of lazy, middle-class short folks who don’t like to wear shoes, one of whom happens to go on an adventure. At many points in his adventure, our hobbit friend runs into various different beings: dwarves, elves, eagles nothing at all like the eagles we know, “wizards,” which I suspect may be a species unto themselves, and men, all of whom have their own goals and intentions and are mostly just trying to make their way in life, being neither stalwart servants of good nor nasty, hideous embodiments of evil.

Our hobbit, Bilbo, also meets some other beings who the omniscient narrator himself describes as “cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted …[creatures that] make no beautiful things.” This he says of the entire race of goblins.

Never trust a goblin. They’re wicked and bad-hearted and make no beautiful things.

Not one goblin can be kind or good, just as no goblin can ever make anything that is, in some abstract absolute sense, beautiful. Needless to say, I don’t like to imagine a world in my head based on racist blanket statements.

So, what can I, as the reader, do? I suppose I could stop reading, but altogether I’m relatively happy with “The Hobbit,” so I won’t do that. Instead I will draw upon my ability as the reader to interpret the story as I like. My interpretation of this story is that the “omniscient” narrator is in fact a human speaking many years later to us, the readers. This narrator is a flawed narrator, who relates the story according to his human biases, being raised by other humans whose ancestors no doubt went to war with these very same goblins. Since the goblins are no longer around to defend themselves, it makes perfect sense that they would become exaggerated and vilified in the many retellings of the story over so many years.

If you’re thinking right now that there’s no way J.R.R. Tolkien meant for his story to be taken as being told by an unreliable narrator, then you’re right. However, I might reiterate that as a reader, I can make whatever interpretation I want. If you find you’re reading something that makes you upset, remember that no author can force you to believe something you don’t want to. Let your imagination run free!

If you’re intrigued by the idea of alternative interpretations of J.R.R Tolkien’s work, you may like to read the English translation of “The Last Ringbearer” that tells the entire story of the Lord of the Rings from Sauron’s side. This is an even more radical interpretation than mine of “the Hobbit.” It goes so far as to claim that orcs aren’t a different race at all, just a slur that Tolkien uses to describe foreigners. I haven’t given it a read myself just yet, but it’s freely available online, so if you get to it before me, let me know what you thought!

Writing Non-Sexist Fiction

BlackWidowHawkeye
“The Hawkeye Initiative” replaces female characters in comic book art with male superhero “Hawkeye” in order to expose the unequal portrayal of the sexes in comics.

A friend of mine recently reviewed one of my stories from a feminist and minority perspective. I won’t go into the details as they’re frankly rather embarrassing save to say that my story did not hold up.  It was difficult to hear some of the feedback, but I was pleased overall because much of it aligned with some of my own concerns. My third person limited perspective from two white male main characters as well as my own identity and personal experience being male make it a little more difficult for me to be appropriately feminist, but that’s no excuse. My reader and I discussed at length what a white heterosexual male fiction writer can do to make his work fairer to other life experiences, particularly those of women.

One suggestion my reader brought up was a gender swapping thought experiment. The theory is that characters not built around gender roles can have their sex reversed with relatively little change to the story. (Gender swapping in fiction is not a new concept: see “The Hawkeye Initiative” above). For instance, if my story starts out with a woman in high heels falling and being abducted by an enormous beast, I should consider making the woman a man and the effect that would have on the story (The first effect would likely involve the removing of the high heels). My reader had a particularly radical view on this that I could invert the sex of any character, including both my male main characters, with little change to the story at all. He said this would always be the case unless something in the story specifically hinged on the physical nature of their biological sex.

At this point we decided that perhaps my friend’s identity as a homosexual man whose life experience includes relatively little of the adult american gender dynamic is what leads him to underestimate the real significance of gender in who a person is in a story or in real life. Women have proven time and time again they can do almost anything a man can do and more and men likewise, with the differences between the groups outweighed dramatically by the variety present within each, but the difference between men and women still exists, especially where societal roles are concerned. However, the perspective of someone with much less of this experience permits me to check my assumptions as to the significance of the differences genetics and society impose on men and women and become aware of whether my work challenges or is complicit in the exaggeration of such differences that have the potential to alienate people with different life experiences.

Plus, I happen to have learned through this experiment that a number of my characters may actually be much better as the other sex. A gossipy southern mother who knows the proper way to entertain could now become a indiscreet southern father who is particularly concerned with appearances. In a later story I’m thinking a garrulous ten-year-old and natural leader might be better cast as a loquacious tomboy with a knack for collecting small gangs of elementary school boys to do her bidding.