Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Comfort of Airports

Traveling out and about last week and this, and while it's on the road type travel (though no existential poetry from me, mind you, and certainly not on a scroll) it has given me the occasion to stop and think about traveling in general. For a while I was doing quite a bit of it in the air, to the extent where I managed to accrue enough frequent flier miles to actually use. I used up all of them at once, and haven't done much traveling since, but I figured at the time the nearly free ticket was better than holding out for the first class upgrade. At the rate I was traveling, if I'd kept going, I expect eventually I'd have made that upgrade though.

And let me tell you, it's a very, very nice upgrade. Not worth three times the coach price, unless you have that kind of money just lying around, but worth taking the upgrade when you can get it.

I like flying, for the most part. I have issues with take-off and landings, but that's simply my brain crunching the numbers and realizing that's when most accidents happen. Plus there's the noise and the shaking and the rattling... and that I don't drink before I get on the plane. Regardless, it's still enjoyable. Not my preferred way to travel, as coach is still coach, with not enough space, not quite enough food - though international travel has domestic trips beaten in terms of food quality and quantity by quite a bit - and too many people. Considering on the really long trips I can sleep through a lot of it, and that I don't suffer from jet lag, it's still the fastest way to go around the world.

Travel the same path often enough and you get to know the airports, too. To a certain extent all airports look alike, regardless of the country you're in. Partly this is because whatever the native language might be, English is the language of travel, and so it's on every sign you see. (The bilingual signs in Canada always crack me up, but that's another story entirely.) Partly it's also because the needs of the traveler remain pretty much the same the world over: food, trinkets/souvenirs, hygiene products, and diversions. That latter category includes everything from books to music to movies, now available just about everywhere. Even when there isn't a skymall.

That familiarity breeds a certain amount of comfort. You get off the plane in a strange land (and even if you've been there before it's still a strange land when you're far from home), yet you have this familiar buffer zone before you have to make the full transition. If you're going elsewhere and stopping on a connecting flight you have the chance to eat, walk, or whatever, again in a familiar and less crowded environment.

If, like I was, you find yourself traveling the same routes often, those foreign airports take on an extra degree of familiarity. It doesn't make the trip monotonous, at least it didn't for me, but it does alleviate some of the headaches when you know where you're going inside a massive international terminal. In some ways I had started to gauge the length of my trip by where I was. One airport was closer to the beginning, the next layover closer to the end, and so there was a sense of anticipation that built from place to place. At the very least, I knew where to go to find a good place to get out of the way and relax.

In an odd way I kind of miss it. Not so much that I find myself going back to airports to hang out - though there's a story in there, I think, and not the one with Tom Hanks - but just enough to have acquired a certain amount of nostalgia.

Because honestly, even if they have bench seats, airports still aren't all that comfortable a place to sleep.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Skulls and Bowls

Just a couple of odds and ends around a central theme, but don't expect anything other than the central motif to tie them together. No deep meaning, just tidbits.

-> Read an article in a magazine on biblical archeology that was about incantation bowls. These are apparently Jewish artifacts from the 3rd to 7th Century that relate to magic and demons and such. Not something I would have traditionally associated with Judaism, though it occurred to me the story of the golem is both Jewish and magic. Some have figures inscribed in the bottom, but all have these written incantations that spiral outward from the bottom. In an unusual twist, there are also incantation skulls, though these are much fewer and of somewhat questionable provenance.

-> There is a persistent rumor that the Skull and Bones group at Yale has the remains of Geronimo. There is now a lawsuit in the works to try and verify that and then return them to the Apaches if that is in fact the case, though despite persistent rumors it seems unlikely. Though it does make you wonder who's skull and bones the society actually has.

-> During medieval times of the methods for dealing with vampires was a brick in the mouth. This was done post mortem, and was applied much earlier than the stake through the heart method which was apparently popularized in more recent eras. The brick in the mouth was a medieval method (the news article was about a 16th Century skeleton) and if you ask me not well thought out. Why couldn't the vampire just take the brick out? However, the people back then felt it worked.

-> And last but not least, the concept of "lilith" as a general class of demon who afflicted young mothers and infants dates back much earlier than the specific "Lilith" later tied in with vampire lore (and other things). That one was apparently a medieval creation and came about much later. But the "liliths" of the demon variety show up much earlier, and are in fact mentioned on some of the incantation bowls.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Weight of Expectations

It occurred to me sometimes that expectations can take some of the joy out of an experience. It was triggered today by the rather lackluster parade I went to with the family. The entire thing lasted maybe 15 minutes, and then it was over. It was less a parade than a traffic jam in green. And while I have no idea why the parade was such a bust (the local Halloween parade is huge by comparison), I did realize that despite my disappointment, my daughter wasn't. She's five, of course, and there was candy and balloons so that alone probably made it worth her while. She didn't have the weight of expectations to deal with either, though, having only been to a few other parades.

Then I was listening to a review of "Watchmen" which I confess to owning and having read at least a dozen times since first buying it. It is, in my humble and entirely unprofessional opinion, a tour de force in comics, and the one comic that should be on a "must read" list along side other titles of great literature. (Heck, it could replace several Dickens' titles if I had my way.) Early reviews and such seem to indicate that the comic faithful will enjoy the movie, but that it may go over less well with the general public. Despite the hype and expectations, some reviewers who enjoyed the source material found the work a little too faithful, which is something that can work for and against adaptations. (The "Lord of the Rings" springs to mind, despite it's being exceptionally well done.)

Then there was the book I got from the library a few weeks back. Big expectations. Rave reviews from lots of people I know and talk to. Great book. Must read. And... utter disappointment. I'm not entirely convinced I would have enjoyed the book or found it all that great even without the expectations, but under the added pressure to live up to what I'd been told it folded miserably.

Some of it was just the bad writing, as it was another example of an author violating some of those "sacred covenants" of writing - like "show don't tell" - and doing it badly, serving up examples of why the rules are there. But at least some of it was the nagging thought in the back of my mind that I had picked this book up, and gone to some trouble to be sure it was the first in the series because there are now three of them, expressly because it was supposed to be good. And yet I barely managed to finish it, because by the end I just didn't care about what I was reading.

And that's the one expectation that has to be fulfilled with any book - there has to be a reason to care about what you're reading.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Do What You Like

They say you should do what you like. It's not a writing specific guideline, like "write what you know" (which like all such writing guidelines is a little vague, a little misleading, and yet still at times dead-on). It's a job mantra, the one everyone tells you to follow. Do what you like to do, have a job that you enjoy going to - at least in principle - and don't worry about the money. I can interject here that this is a cultural, as in other parts of the world the attitude is clearly "worry about the money." But I didn't grow up there, and so I don't share the attitude that how much money I make determines my happiness.

Though it would be nice to be rich and dismissive of that rather than poor and dismissive.

Anyway, I have tried for the most part to follow that advice. Hence I've never (yet) worked in fast food. One of my most enjoyable jobs was the least clean, back when I worked as a dishwasher, but the work there had a certain satisfaction to it when everything was clean which appealed to my own sensibilities. Also helped that the people were good to work with and I was fed very, very well. Certainly better fare than the orange meatloaf they tried to pass off on us one night in the Commons.

In attempting to follow this advice I have looked for work as a writer. This is in addition to the other work I look for which suits my other interests and skills. For the most part it has been somewhat successful, especially as I've had a late start at it. It's not making me rich, as I never expected it to, but it has provided supplemental income. Which lately has been all my income. However, in writing for money I am sometimes forced to take on those topics in which I have no interest in. They are, in other words, nothing I like. And yet... I need to get paid.

Sometimes it's mostly a question of just generating the enthusiasm for a topic, because I have a diverse enough interests and an undying sense of curiosity, so almost anything will eventually interest me if I take the time to get into it. But it's acquiring that motivation to get interested that can be rather difficult. (Which I think is another blog entry somewhere down the line.)

If I could find someone to pay me to write reviews of movies, books, food, locations (and pay for my expenses) or just humor my opinions for a paycheck, I'd be all set. In the meantime, until the day when the fiction pays me well enough not to have to do anything else, I'm stuck researching the odd and esoteric.

Which is still better than working in fast food.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Loss of Language

I was listening to a program on public radio this morning that was interviewing a guy whose job ti is to go around and try and preserve languages before they disappear. This wasn't the first time I'd heard about such a project, but it reminded me that among all other things we're losing in our rush to homogenize world culture is all these various languages. And I'm not bashing globalization, either, because I am well aware of all the good things it has accomplished. But these languages are the victims of both a dwindling population and a dwindling usage because there's little utility in learning them, other than for academics, when they're only spoken by an increasingly diminishing number of people.

Some of the samples that were played during the interview were ones which were likely no longer spoken as a living language, because the recordings had been made by elders in the community who have probably died by now.

It got me thinking on the ongoing evolution of language. English is in no danger of dying out anytime in probably the next millennia or two, seeing as it's been around for a thousand years or so in some form (though Old English is as indecipherable to me as Greek). Which is not to say that if we fast-forwarded to a thousand years from now we'd understand what was being spoken. The slang and common terms alone would probably elude us. Other major languages have been around longer... but we are approaching a point where the number of languages spoken around the world is dropping to a core group of languages.

Which might an optimist think that this would improve communications among us. I am not much of an optimist, at least not these days (actually I tend to be an optimist who plans like a pessimist) and doubt that we'll resolve our difficulties in communicating with one another simply because we have less options. But as someone who writes future-oriented fiction - yes, I write sci-fi, I know, I know - it made me think about the way my characters speak, and perhaps making some small changes to that.

Nothing large, because few things bog down a book faster than jargon, but just a couple of things here in there. (Like Josh Whedon having his characters in "Firefly" curse in Chinese, though that doesn't strike me as a really good language for swearing. German, on the other hand, always sounds like you're swearing even when you're just asking to pass the salt.) I haven't quite decided what yet, but I'm working on it.

In the meantime, if you've got a little extra and are looking for a tax-deduction: www.livingtongues.org

Friday, March 6, 2009

Business End

One of the things I mind about being a writer, and one who gets paid for it, is that sometimes the business side of things rears its ugly head. I don't want to be a business owner, though in a way I am, and in part it's because I don't have the skills for it. I know self-employed owner/operators, and have seen how the good ones work. I don't have it in me. Especially the people skills.

Sometimes, though, I don't get a choice.

Most of the people I write for are also professionals. They may be contracting my creative services (and writing is a creative process even when it's nonfiction- but that's a whole other entry) but it remains a contractual, professional relationship. I expect to be paid if I do what I am asked, especially if I go above and beyond what is initially asked. Which I might do if the request is reasonable and the person nice enough about it.

But there are those people who don't quite grasp the concept that I do this to get paid. Granted I write for other reasons, but very, very little of anything I've ever written for a paycheck was something I'd have just sat down and wrote without the dollar signs - however few in number they may be - hanging in front of me. Not everyone comprehends that, and the worst are generally those that are putting together some sort of project. Worst still are those for whom the project is either personal or some sort of pet project - and that doesn't have to be an individual, it can be a non-profit or something else, though most of the time the ones I have trouble with are the individuals.

These are the kind of people who think that because it's a labor of love for them, it must be for you, the writer, too. They also seem to think that it's no big deal if they don't pay you what they agreed on, don't pay you on time, or try simply not to pay you at all. One such entity offered me a tax deduction because it was non-profit. (Like those help me much. I need the paycheck, especially in this economy.) These are also the people with whom, eventually, you have to revert to business mode.

Where you play nice, be polite, and then go for the jugular when they don't get it right the first time.

... And then write grisly deaths for them in the next WIP. ... After you've been paid.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Redfining Yourself

I think one of the biggest psychological obstacles you can have to overcome is dealing with the expectations of who you thought you were going to be. Mostly this is something you have to deal with when you're older - I don't think most 21 yr olds are given to that sort of introspection anyway, though you don't have to be a great deal older. I'm sure some of the impetus behind the mid-life crisis comes from this, but you don't have to be midlife for it to happen.

Nor is it necessarily a one-time only thing. You can have a plan for yourself and a path you want to follow, only to have it taken away from you. It can be something you worked hard for over the years, never dreaming it wouldn't happen (and consequently not having a back-up plan) and then, suddenly, you have to deal with the fact that it isn't going to happen. Or maybe at some point later you take a look around at your life and realize that, while there are many good things, you aren't where you expected to be, not because you couldn't get there but just because you haven't yet. These are the times when you may have to redefine what you want - which in some ways defines who we are, after all.

I didn't call this "reinventing" because that's somewhat a more drastic approach - and ultimately I think those attempts fail. We have certain things at our core, and those don't change. There are only so many directions you can go along the paths you have available. I could try and reinvent myself as a nuclear physicist for example, but given my limited mathematical skills it would be doomed to failure. But there are certain paths I can take, certain options open, and at various times I've made decisions about which to choose.

There's a metaphor here for writing too, of course, because often times we start out with a vision for where a story is going. Then we go along and suddenly that vision isn't working. Which is when you have a choice: you can sit there and lament what might have been and how it didn't work out, or you can go with it and see where it takes you. Which sometimes works out much better than your original might have ever possibly have.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Classical Strings (Part 2)

One of the other use for those odd details, the seemingly insignificant ones, is when they turn out to either play a much more pivotal role, or when they take an ordinary object and present it in such a way that it challenges our expectations. For the former I think of those little clinic sub-plots on "House." For a while you could guarantee that House's "ah-ha" moment would come from the patients he was seeing in the hospital clinic. There would be something about them that would trigger the right thought, and voila, the principle patient for the week was saved.

(They stopped using this device so consistently as the seasons progressed, which I felt was good because they were starting to overuse it. You have to know when to let something go even when it's working. Preferably while it's still working and before it becomes stale a trite.)

The latter prompts me to think of Stephen King. Now King is of course the master of turning the ordinary into something else. (St. Bernard's, for example, or a rose. Not clowns. Clowns were already evil so forget that notion.) But the one that comes particularly to mind wasn't the central character or bad guy but rather an almost secondary device in the book that could have easily been filled by something else - the sparrows of the Dark Half. Now aside from being the book that taught me the word "psychopomp" - a word that to this day remains one of my favorites - it has also prompted me to never quite look at sparrows the same way again.

King didn't, to the best of my knowledge, make up the role of sparrows. He just took one of the lesser known of the classic psychopomps and elevated it to center stage for a bit. But it's one of those things where you look at something - in this case a sparrow - and have a certain set of expectations (sparrows aren't particularly threatening outside an Alfred Hitchcock film I don't think). Which then get stood on their head.

These sort of things can also be used to flesh out the details of your character. If your character has a guitar, for example, odds are the reader probably expects that character to play rock and roll or country (especially if the readers are Americans). You could go half the book with the guitar unplayed and the assumptions unchallenged, only at a pivotal point to reveal that in reality, the character carries the guitar because they play classical guitar. It's not the sort of thing that just springs to mine, unlike if the character carried a violin or had a cello on the deck of their cabin.