Monday, November 30, 2009

Watered Down and Twice as Marketable

When did Tinkerbell stop being a bitch? I remember watching Peter Pan, the Disney version of course, and noting even as a kid that Tink was a nasty piece of work. As an adult watching the movie again, I could take it further and realize she was a vain, self-centered, conniving, and mean-spirited fairy. This was not the happy go-lucky make a wish kind of fairy. This was the bite you on the finger kind from Labyrinth.

However, in this day and age of the Disney Princess Marketing Machine, that personality type probably doesn't sell so well. So instead, Tink's been repackaged and redesigned into some plucky little heroine. There are still aspects of the old Tink, and as a writer I'm curious to know how this new Tinkerbell becomes the version we see with Peter Pan... but I have my doubts that Disney will ever tell that story.

Not when they have the Disney Fairy Marketing Machine to consider.

This isn't the first time a character's been rehabilitated to make a buck or appeal to a wider audience. Vampires have been getting this treatment for years, long before they started to sparkle. The George Clooney Batman movie was made primarily to sell toys. Or at least it looked that way, so I hope that was the intent. And there are any number of other examples I could probably think of if I was inclined to do so at the moment.

Which I'm not.

Now I can't really fault the House of Mouse, because they've been doing this for years. They built an empire on it, and really, if you watch Steamboat Willie the Mickey Mouse you see there is a far different character from the Mouse my little one watches on Playhouse Disney. Same for Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Looney Tunes. I could probably blame the societal impulse to make everything "wholesome" but the cynic in me says it's probably more just marketing than anything else.

I don't think you could turn the original Tinkerbell into a very marketable franchise. She doesn't exactly espouse the values we want our little girls to emulate, after all. While this requires me to admit I've seen the first Tinkerbell movie - her origin story, naturally - the bad fairy in the film reminded me far more of the original Tink from Peter Pan than the titular character did. In other words, she was vain, self-centered, and self-serving. Naturally she got her comeuppance, because we can't have the villain get away with it in a kid's movie.

In a way I'm disappointed. While the new Tink has been repackaged to teach a couple of different important "moral" points, I think they could have used the old Tink to teach how not to behave. They would have stayed true to the original character - at least in her original Disney manifestation - and I wouldn't have been scratching my head wondering what happened to her.

Plus they could have done tie-ins with that old Elton John song. ... Though on second thought, that probably wouldn't go over very well with the parents.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like....

The holiday season has officially arrived in my house. Not only are the lights and the tree up, but I've had my first candy cane. The candy cane is one of those things were somehow the season just feels incomplete without it. It's like winter without a snowman, summer without a trip to the beach, Easter without the Cadbury Bunny. Egg nog is necessary too, though I am content to purchase that rather than make it.

It's those little details that sell the season for me. Granted, the commercials can run it into the ground, but I don't watch a whole lot of television anymore, so I miss most of that. Add to that I gained an appreciation for the Holiday Spirit after living abroad in a place where they didn't really celebrate it, and it's safe to say the Ghosts of Christmas don't need to be visiting me.

All of which reminded me of how adding the little details into your writing can really help sell a scene. Someone once commented that Stephen King does this really well, mostly with the sort of grounding details that make his stories more real, more relevant, like a TV guide on the nightstand of a character - usually right before said character gets carted off by the monsters. Getting those details right can be the difference between achieving verisimilitude and leaving your reader going "wait, that's not right."

I wrote before about movies getting things wrong, from the howl of a wolf in the Carolinas to the car that explodes every single time it drives off the cliff. But mostly we accept those. Even though we know they're wrong. It's like sounds in space: yeah, it should be completely quiet... but how boring would that be? (For the most part. Sometimes that quiet in space works really, really well.) Yet even when we accept them, for a brief moment they can take us out of the reality of the narrative.

Good details help keep you deep in that narrative, so that for all intents and purposes it's as real as it can get. (It shouldn't feel completely real to you, because then you've lost touch with reality. And while some people I know would make that argument about me, that's an entirely different topic.) This is where research helps, as well as that time-worn/honored piece of advice to "write what you know."

So for me, if the story takes place during the holidays, there ought to be a candy cane in sight somewhere.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The L-Factor

I don't play video games. In part this is just because I tend not to do very well at them. I've enjoyed the occasional first person shooter, and was suitably wowed by Halo (which I played in tandem with someone else who was very good at video games, on his system) ... but aside from a foray into the realms of Final Fantasy, and a couple of sports and racing simulations, that's been about it. As I said, mainly it's a lack of skill, as I was never able to master all the various combinations and things you were supposed to use, and then also in part it's just lack of interest.

I also have a very, very limited musical ability.

So it should come as no real surprise that I don't own a console of any variety, and have also not had a desire to play Rock Band or Guitar Hero. I have entertained the notion that it would be fun to learn to play the guitar, and yes I've fantasized about being an actual rock star - but without the screaming fans I think it would lose some of the appealing ambiance. Performing for a virtual audience does not hold the same interest for me.

... and yet...

There is a caveat. Yesterday I saw a commercial that may have me rethinking my lack of a modern gaming console, and the desire to invest in a mock guitar. What was this road to Damascus for me, you ask?

Freddie Mercury as a Lego person, singing "We Will Rock You."

Yes, I love Legos. Grew up on them. Was seriously disappointed that I did not get to Legoland when I lived in Europe. (I've been to Disneyworld. It was fun, I enjoyed it... but Legoland is my personal Mecca.) For the chance to rock out as a little yellow Lego person I could be seriously, seriously tempted to revise my Christmas list.

It's always been this way with Legos and video games. I owned a couple of racing games when I had a Playstation. The one that got played most often was Lego Racers. I was abysmal at Tomb Raider the few times I attempted to play it. But Lego Indiana Jones just calls to me. (Also helps that I am a huge fan of Dr Jones.) And Lego Star Wars?

My geek cup runneth over for that one.

I haven't gone so far as to actually purchase any of those, and it's unlikely I will. I have neither the funds nor the time to invest in video games these days. However, the prospect of little Lego Freddie Mercury is enough to keep me quite amused - and hunting around Youtube for clips. That's likely to be as far as it ever goes.

.... and yet ....

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Santa Dilemma

As it's nearly Thanksgiving, I thought I'd take a moment and do what the entire retail industry does and skip ahead to the next holiday. This is actually something I wrote a few years back, not that any of my few readers here would know this had I not just mentioned it. The spirit of full candor has, for some odd reason, fully gripped me so I will also admit, from the start, that I did eventually cave in and go along with the mass deception.

The holiday season has arrived, and now that I have a very-inquisitive pre-three year old on my hand, I find myself in a bit of a dilemma. You see, my little one knows what Christmas is, or at least the basics of it. She's certainly aware that there is something in it for her. She'd have to be blind, deaf, and considerably less bright than she is not to have noticed the holiday push. (Which started back in October. I think Santa handing out Halloween candy is stretching it a bit.) And while we haven't been to church often enough for her to even begin to grasp the religious implications, the fat guy in the red suit is a different manner.

I'm not trying to be a Grinch (trademark, copyrights, etc., please don't sue me Seussians) about this, but I'm not sure perpetuating the myth of SC is something I want to do. At least not as the jolly old elf who actually comes down the chimney. I do believe in Santa (insert Peter Pan allusion here), as the representation of the spirit of Christmas. I think the fat guy serves a noble purpose in that, and I'm not about to argue otherwise.

But lying to my daughter about where the gifts under the tree comes from? I know, I know, every parent does this. And we don't view it as lying. Except it is. Sure, we say it's all in fun. We get to smile, laugh covertly into our egg nog, while they rejoice... up until that moment when they learn Santa's one big con job, and realize that Mom and Dad have been perpetuating a delusion for the past several years.

My daughter's going to realize Dad has no idea what he's talking about soon enough, triggered no doubt by the onset of her teenage years. I don't need to add fuel to that fire. Sure, no child I know of has ever turned to their parents in the midst of an argument and shouted, "You lied about Santa Claus," but I think there's that voice, perhaps subconsciously, somewhere in the back of every teenage head that says: "You can't trust them. Remember Santa? Or the Easter Bunny? A rabbit that lays eggs? No wonder we're failing biology!"

[The Cadbury Bunny, on the other hand, is quite real. No arguing.]

On the other hand, while I don't want to lie, I don't want to face the wrath of other parents down the road when my kid exposes the cover-up to her pre-school classmates. I don't need that, being labeled as the anti-Christmas backstabber, revealing the secrets of the inner parental cabal. Nor do I need my daughter being ostracized as some conspiracy nut when the other parents convince their children that she's just a little weird.

"Which," they'll say soothingly to little Jimmy or Jenny, "is not unexpected. Look at her father."

So I'm stuck. I think I have one more year of wiggle room on this, before I have to start tackling the hard issues like this head-on. This year she can just enjoy the holiday without worrying about metaphysical things, like, what happens when the Reindeer have to go? And why does Santa eat the cookies but leave the carrot sticks for the Reindeer? Is he starving his animals? And was Tim Allen more than just a little creepy in the fat suit and beard?

In the meantime, does anyone know a good recipe for egg nog?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Why I Will Survive the Apocalypse

I am apparently well equipped to survive the Apocalypse. I say this not because I have a storm cellar stocked with dry goods and water (though I do know a guy who has such supplies) nor because I possess some unique skills such as the ability to grow crops, hunt game, fashion my own clothes or fly a rocket ship. No, apparently, I possess these skills because I am a writer. Or at least, so Hollywood tells me.

Mind you, I've not seen this latest parable, but according to the plot summaries I've read, in 2012 John Cusack's leading character is a writer. This follows a long line of rather ludicrous and unlikely heroes in Hollywood. I remember one reviewer commenting on Will Smith's lawyer in Enemy of the State. But that was Will Smith, so a certain leeway applies. As much as I like John Cusack, however, I have trouble believing any of the writers I know are equipped to survive the end of the world.

(With the possible exception of Stephanie Meyer who has clearly made some sort of deal with demonic powers. There's no other explanation for it. Then again, maybe that just guarantees she'll be among the first collected.)

This is not to say I haven't learned things that might not be useful in my writing career in the event of the impending end of the world. But there's a wide gap between researching something to write about it, and actually doing it. I wrote a couple of short articles on edible plants, but without the guides I used as a reference in my backpack, I'm as lost as the next guy. Maybe a little less lost, having been a Boy Scout, but even then there's a limit to my abilities.

The bulk of the things I have written on I just can't see being any help should an asteroid strike, or a supervolcano explode, or nuclear war break out, or any other number of doomsday scenarios occur. Though I might possibly survive the invasion by a large lizard type critter that breathes radioactive fire, based solely on Orson Wells surviving Godzilla. But as I don't live in Tokyo - or for that matter within five hundred miles of the nearest oceanic coast - somehow I foresee my having plenty of time to get out of the way should something come ashore. (Nothing ever comes ashore in the Great Lakes, not even in Hollywood. ... Okay, there was one exception, but I challenge anyone to name it.)

None of which matters to Hollywood. I'm not sure there's a reason why the main character in the latest disaster flick is a writer. Part of me suspects there's a jar someplace where Hollywood writers reach in and draw out a random career for the hero. How else do you explain Arnold as a kindergarten teacher?

Or maybe it's just wishful thinking on the part of the screenwriters, attempting to get themselves on that doomsday list in the event of the end of the world.

Either way, should we reach that point in my lifetime, I will cling to the hope there's a reason for it, and that whatever reason it is will be made manifest when the time comes. Which beats cowering under my desk, which is most likely where I'd really be.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Not so Classic Classics

Once upon a time, which is the way all good stories should start, I thought that the best use of my summer vacation would be spent in reading through the classics. Mind you, this was back when I still had a summer vacation and figured there was no point in letting my brain sit idle. It wasn't just the classics, either, but any number of philosophical or spiritual or historical texts, some of which still sit on my shelves. Some of which still sit, unread, on my shelves.

This, however, is about the literary classics. The Dickens. The Twains. The Faulkners. The [insert famous author here]s. Some of which I really like. I have yet to read a Robert Louis Stevenson story I don't like. Same thing with Twain. Faulkner's a little harder, but like Hemingway I think he grows on you. Whether he grows on you like a fungus I can't answer, but I have come to appreciate both of them. That may also be tied simply into growing older. "The Old Man and the Sea" was enjoyable back in high school, but it took me a decade thereafter to enjoy "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

Some of the classics failed to meet expectations, but were nonetheless enjoyable. James Fenimore Cooper's "Last of the Mohicans" was weighed down by the style of the time and the fact that I saw the movie first. And expected the book to have similar pacing. Which it did not. In the least. And my subsequent attempts to read the rest of the Leatherstocking series did not go terribly well, but I suspect that I may have picked the wrong book to read next. Which says more about my need to do things in order than it does about Cooper's literary skills.

Other classics just... well... they were bad. Really bad. Defied all expectations bad. Even though they should have had a great story. I've ranted some about Dickens in this blog before, and he is my favorite whipping boy in this regard. I think "A Tale of Two Cities" took what should have been one of the best set-ups in the history of books and just muddied it and batted it around aimlessly until it lost all appeal. I suspect my 1oth grade English teacher realized this when he let us watch the PBS movie version before we took the test. Which is good, because I failed to finish the book.

The one that really stands out for me, that tops them all in the "worst of the worst" was "Robison Crusoe." I borrowed the book from an English major friend of mine between my junior and senior summers. He gave me an odd look when I requested it, asked me why, and it was only after my own attempts to read it that I understood the look. Having only been familiar with the movie/television versions and spin-offs, I had expectations of some grand, jungle island adventure. The basic plotline buoyed up those hopes.

The actual book dashed them. Now, I can't say for certain that the book didn't get better - although my English major friend averred it did not when I gave the book back to him in the Fall - but it lose me in the first hundred pages. That was it. That was as far as I got before the book bored me to tears. Instead of the adventure I got piousness and prayer. I'm sure there was a treehouse in there somewhere, and encounters with hostile natives or pirates or something but it was all... buried. In what amounted to a really long, really boring sermon.

Not sure what all that proves, mind you, and it may say more about me than the book, but in my opinion, sometimes the best way to appreciate a good book is to see the movie.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Twenty Minutes Into the Future - in 10 Seconds

The tri-corder has arrived. For those who have no idea what I just said, the tri-corder was this little hand-held doohickey (yes, that's a technical term) the doctors in Star Trek could use to scan someone, anytime, anywhere, to figure out what was wrong with them. Think of it like a portable x-ray/MRI/"other medical things I can't even begin to identify" device. Pure science fiction.

Back in the 1960's, that is. Turns out, modern technology has caught up with Star Trek, more or less, and it's no longer a fantasy. The portable medical scanner is, in fact, a reality. It may not be the complete diagnostic tool the tri-corder was supposed to be, but it's darn close.

Then, too, consider the modern cell phone. Which does just about a million and one things besides make calls. It is, for all intents and purposes, a portable computer. I remember back when the best thing to do with a computer was to turn the cursor colors and make pretty patterns on the screen. (I was in grade school, and it was one of those Tandy machines.) Now, if I could afford one, I could have something in my pocket that does most of what I rely on my laptop for. Not perfectly, and frankly, I prefer my laptop, but it's the possibility that blows my mind.

It's the unexpected pace at which the "future" arrives that provides something of a perilous pitfall for those of us in the science fiction genre. You've got a limited number of options when it comes to "when" in the setting - either it's the near future, or it's the far off future. There's kind of a middle ground, something like Star Trek, for example, which is only a few hundred years away, but that kind of falls into the latter category with the space ships and the aliens.

I say "future" as a stand-in for futuristic. After all, my favorite bit of science fantasy takes place a long time ago. And my second favorite turned out to... well, let me stop there before I give away any spoilers. (Hint for those who want to know: Toasters)

Near future stuff is most often the domain of cyberpunk and a few other things like it. "Max Headroom," which gave the particular sub-genre the setting device I appropriated for this entry's title, was something which was clearly in the future without being all that far away. Like most such near future efforts, in some ways it came up a little short. In others... well, sometimes as a writer you get lucky.

Some things kind of fall in between. 2001 looks, on the surface, like a far off future. with spaceships and AI and the like. And considering it was some 40 years away, that seemed like a bit of distance. Now, of course, we've been and gone. Bladerunner is set in a scant 9 years from now, and while I want my flying car I seriously hope the rest of it doesn't come true. And it looks unlikely to.

As a writer who dabbles in science fiction, I tend to set things rather nebulously in the future when I do. I am well aware that whatever I write, even without narrowing down a date for it, will very likely either seem silly or hopelessly outdated just within my lifetime. For example, I wrote an internet-based bit of fiction - as in the internet figured into the central plot - back in the early 1990's. When I blew the dust off it here a year ago, I had to laugh at most of what I'd written then. The reality of the internet had turned out to be far different than the predictions and what all the sci-fi of the time was envisioning. I reworked it, and made it more in keeping with what we know now... and also toned it down a bit so I don't laugh at it in another ten years.

I think if you're serious about it - like William Gibson or Philip K Dick - that near future can actually be a bit more challenging, because you can't make those great leaps that writers like Heinlein and Herbert did. I'm not serious about it, at least not at their level, so I freely admit my own stuff is either a blatant pastiche or a carefully crafted homage, depending on how generous my reader is inclined to be. And you have to write it with the knowledge that no matter what you might predict, the future could catch up with you a lot sooner than you think.

All that said, now that the tri-corder is here, where's my phaser?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Very Superstitious

I'm not, mind you, but the Stevie Wonder song popped into my head as I was thinking about the date today. Hopefully, it's as stuck in your head now as it is in mine. If it's not, you can click here and give it a listen, as well as watch a clip that further illustrates what I was saying about Sesame Street. I like to spread the misery around. Not that it isn't a good tune. Quite the contrary. But after two hours of hearing it round and round in my head... well, any tune gets old fast that way.

I can't really afford to be superstitious anyway, as I am the provider of food, snuggles, and a clean litter box for the resident black cat here. She crosses my path frequently on any given day, more so if her water dish is empty. (I have tried to explain to her that if she trips me and I hit my head, her water dish will not get filled, but she's a cat. Reason is lost on her.) Also, if I had the amount of luck that was supposed to go with finding a penny... well, then I ought to be winning the lottery. Or at least have the Prize Patrol on my doorstep.

Neither has happened. Of course, I don't play the lottery, either, and only ever once bought something from Publisher's Clearing House, so that might have something to do with it as well.

Still, I'm not completely dismissive of superstitions. In part this is because I attend church, and while we refer to it as "religion" I am well aware that in large part that's a "po-tay-to, po-tah-to" kind of distinction. Also, because I happen to be a word geek, I love finding out the origins of various words and phrases, and know that some superstitions were rooted in good measures.

Not that any spring to mind, at the moment. But I know some were.

Friday the 13th has historic origins, and if you've read Dan Brown or watched the movie, you'll know what those are. (Yes, he got that right. Blind pigs and acorns and all that. Actually, that's a little unfair. I'm sure he does some research, and the book was entertaining.) Though I have to wonder how that became spread across any Friday the 13th, and not more like the Ides of March wherein it's a particular day associated with a particular event. Maybe because Shakespeare didn't encapsulate that one into snazzy rhyme and meter? Hmm, possible.

Aside from that event though, and a series of ultimately silly movies and one, slightly less silly and slightly more entertaining short-lived television series, I think the day is in large part like any other. I am even inclined to agree with Garfield the cat in that Monday the 13th seems far more ominous to me, having been once in a Monday-Friday kind of job. Mondays were definitely scarier. Especially because of the weekly meetings. *shudders*

Anyway, I don't have a rabbit's foot, or other charms - heck, I haven't even had a bowl of Lucky Charms since college and expect by now I'd find them too sweet. So if this day does hold inauspicious things for me, I guess I'll just have to weather them as best I can. Somehow, though, I don't think it does.

Knock on wood.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lonely Place of Dying

There was a disturbing item in my local news a while ago. A local senior citizen had passed away, in her home, alone. Now that particular scenario plays out far more often than it should anyway, but what made it more tragic was that her body went undiscovered for about a year and a half.

Think about that. The woman was dead, for over a year, and no one noticed. No one missed her. No one thought to wonder where she was, or if they did, not enough to check on her. Her utilities were, one by one, simply turned off for non-payment. Whatever mail she received disappeared into a mail slot and piled up, flier by flier, junk mail by junk mail, until at last the Post Office cut her off, too.

I say this as someone engaged in a largely solitary profession. Unless you work in-house for someone, as a writer chances are you're alone at your desk most of the time. At the moment I can't claim much of a social life, either, without admitting that most of what I do have exists on-line. (I haven't had cause to get out much lately, okay?) Even so, I don't think I could be dead for more than a few hours before someone would notice.

Other than the cat. Which is small comfort, really.

To some extent, this is because I have a family. Even in the days when I didn't, while I could extend that time frame to a few days - possibly - eventually someone would notice. Again, it probably would have been family, just more extended than the members I live with now.

But what if I didn't have any family, at all? As of right now, my only work occurs here, at my desk. I have no boss to report to. If the ladybugs finally overwhelmed me (dealing with a minor infestation at the moment), presuming they didn't devour me in some horror movie-esque special effect, at most it would be about two months before I was found. Only because I rent, and my landlord would show up to evict me.

(Wonder if I could finally get him to fix that leaky shower that way...)

And if I didn't rent, if I owned my home? Then, like the woman left alone, it would depend largely upon the weather, I think, and the season in which I died. In the end, that wasn't even how the local woman was found. She was discovered because looters thought her home was abandoned. Not that the looters reported her, but a neighbor noticed them.

My point is, I think it's all too easy for us to isolate ourselves. I'm not going to turn this into a rant against cell phones and tweeting and whatever else people like to point to as a scapegoat. The truth is, we make our own connections. Even if it's just the local person behind the counter when we pick up our Sunday paper. Which is more difficult to do at Walmart, but, again, not getting off into a rant on that, either. If we have no one in our life who would notice our passing, I think we ought to make an effort to do something about that.

It's not even always on us to make those connections, either. As with so many other relationships in life, for good or ill, it takes two. The woman in the article had family. Distant, extended, but family nonetheless. One of them, I think, should have noticed. Should have tried to pick up the phone over the holidays, or something. She had neighbors, too. I don't know if the blame lies with anyone source, and I suspect there's more than enough to go around.

So as we approach the holidays - and I know we do because the commercials have started - I think it's a good time to look around and take stock of our connections, and those of others. And perhaps ask if, in the coming season, the best gift we can give might not just be that of our company.

[If you're inclined to read it, the original article is at: - just click the link for the full url.]

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Can You Tell Me How to Get

Going to do something slightly different with this post. Before you read, click *here* and that should provide the proper musical background for this post. I could have gone with a number of clips, but this one happened to highlight one of my two favorite cast members - Oscar, not the dog - so it seemed more appropriate.

Sesame Street is 40. Like most urban neighborhoods, particularly those in New York City, it's undergone a few changes and more than a little gentrification. I don't clearly remember it from the days when I watched it, but even from my little sister's days it had changed some when I tuned in so my own little one could watch it. Evolution is a big part of why the show is still going, and still relevant, even amidst the competition. Kids like me and my sister could count to ten in Spanish long before Dora came along.

I learned a lot from Sesame Street, beyond the fact that having no impulse control could be amusing. (Which is why Cookie Monster remains my favorite. If you've never seen it, look up his NPR interview. Yes, Cookie Monster was interviewed by NPR.) I can't begin to quantify the more prosaic academic stuff, as I don't think Sesame Street's designed to actively teach that sort of thing. Reinforce the alphabet and numbers and other learning bits, yes, but not as a substitute for the primary role of parents and educators.

Sesame Street is not a babysitter, but it will help you with the sing-a-longs.

No, I rather think the bigger impact Sesame Street had on me was simply introducing me to the wide expanse of culture at large. Their roster of guest appearances reads as a sometimes quirky melange of the performing arts, and any child watching can guarantee an exposure to things like country music and classical performances (the orange singing opera has stuck with me all these years). That harmonica during the end credits is an example of the more subtle ways they broadened my horizons, taking a simple tune and interpreting it in a myriad of different ways. My favorite remains the slightly bluesy harmonica, but in any version the tune - and the themes behind it -are recognizable. If you've not heard the current incarnation of the theme song you'd likely be in for a bit of a shock - it, like the rest of the Street, has adapted with the times.

It wasn't just the music, either. Big Bird went to China long before I did, and brought a foreign culture home to me in ways other shows didn't. And I would argue still don't - Dora rarely strays that far from her roots, and even when she - or Diego - does, it's usually to visit places and people that are merely slightly transported versions of themselves. The Street is, and has always been, multi-culturalism at it's best. The inhabitants of the Street are just different, and everyone accepts it and for the most part doesn't feel the need to comment on it or analyze it.

Beyond skin tones (or furry hues) there was just a sense that it's okay to be different. There is plain old silliness that is never mocked, always accepted. Sesame Street taught me it was okay to retain that sense of childlike wonder, and that people are people, even when they're green and fuzzy and grouchy. It also reminds me, as an adult, that children are people, too, and it's okay to let them hold onto their ideals and expectations. They'll have to grow out of it soon enough, so while they can they should be encouraged to embrace the idea that their neighborhood includes a guy in a trash can.

As a reminder of that, the man inside Big Bird was once approached by a photographer. Carol Spinney was half in the costume, and he asked the photographer to wait, and let him get in full costume first. He didn't want to undermine the illusion for the kids, didn't want to muck up the idea of who Big Bird is by introducing the man inside the costume. It is that respect for children and their perspective that I think is the lasting impact of Sesame Street.

I hope they have a cake big enough to celebrate all of that.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Real Life... Only Better

The movies never get it right. History, that is. Now, as a historian (technically, anyway) I could turn this into a rant about that, and I have a book on my shelf that is, essentially, just that: a collection of articles that examine what movies get wrong when they turn to history. As interesting as the book is, though, I think it misses the point. The movies aren't about teaching, they're about storytelling. And while a good history film - or book - has a strong narrative, there's a difference between those and what a movie - or a novel - is trying to do.

In fact, one of the best historical novels I ever read was "The Killer Angels" which was pretty accurate, and made into a pretty accurate movie. But I wouldn't recommend using either to study for a test on the Battle of Gettysburg. By the same token, I love the movie "Glory," which the book on my shelf ripped to shreds. Admittedly, it is inaccurate. Highly so. (Watermelons, in Massachusetts? At that time of year?)

On the other hand, citing it's inaccuracies misses the point. It's not like Hollywood was going to green light multiple movies about African-American Civil War regiments. So while, yes, it's true the 54th was educated Blacks and not slaves, by making the movie 54th a more diverse mix I think it conveyed a broader message. And anyone who missed the symbolism of the watermelons wasn't paying attention.

Hollywood gets a lot of things wrong. Ask any cop, forensic scientist, or plain old physicist. There comes a certain point where certain sacrifices get made for the purpose of a good narrative. There's a line there, mind you, as do too much and you venture over into the realm of the truly silly. Also, sometimes, as a historian I do think that Hollywood could have and should have gone with the truth, and it would have made for just as good cinema. (It's Stirling Bridge, Mr Gibson, Stirling Bridge. Which brings me to...)

With a few examples, Hollywood gets most of it wrong. Braveheart is a great film. One of my favorites and I've watched it many times. As history... it's hysterical.

Apparently though, Hollywood isn't the only one that does this. Shakespeare, it turns out, may have over-stated the odds in Henry V. To that end, some NY Times op-ed person thought to rewrite the famous speech. You know, the "hold their manhoods cheap" speech. Which, in turn, is the real reason for this post. I'm reasonably certain Shakespeare new his facts. I'm also reasonably certain he knew a better story when he thought of one. As fiction, mind you. I don't think Shakespeare ever made any claims to be a faithful chronicler of history, which I kind of thought the NY Times piece overlooked in it's mock-up of the speech.

If you're going to write history, actual factual history, then yes, you need to be accurate as much as possible. But if you're sticking that "Based On" label, or better yet the "Inspired By" in front of your work, I think you ought to be granted some leeway with the actual events.

So long as you're telling a good story.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Death of a Character: Resurrection

The dead don't always stay dead. This is a lesson I learned early on in fiction. I read Sherlock Holmes, who may not have been the first hero to die only to be resurrected, but was surely one of the most famous and probably one of the first instances of the "fans" keeping something alive. (There are a few other parallels with Star Trek I could mention, but those will keep for another time.)

For those who don't know, Arthur Conan Doyle got tired of his consulting detective after the initial run of short stories. Feeling the character was at an end, he crafted a suitable ending for Holmes, letting the detective meet his end locked in mortal combat with his nemesis, Moriarty, at Reichenbach Falls. Having penned and published the story, Conan Doyle moved on to other projects. The fans would have none of it, and eventually Conan Doyle caved in, resurrected his hero - who it turned out had only faked his death - and went on to write more stories. Holmes wasn't done yet, and did eventually earn his retirement as a beekeeper in Suffolk (or was it Suffix?), England.

Sometimes, characters just won't stay dead. Comics are notorious for this, Spider-man's parent company Marvel in particular. No one stays dead in the Marvel universe, not for very long anyway. Which, in my opinion, has lead to some rather silly things and has robbed death of much of its impact. Yeah, they killed Captain America. Whatever. You knew they were going to bring him back eventually. Heck, they brought Bucky back. (And if that makes no sense to you, consult the Wiki gods.) So if you do this in your story-telling, you run a very real risk of boring your readers. They know their beloved character isn't really dead, after all, so it's all kind of ho hum.

You can't even keep the shock value of a good death going if everyone knows it's not going to stick. (Even if it should, Marvel comics being an example yet again of having brought back a few people I thought should have stayed gone.)

I think there are times when death and resurrection serve as appropriate motifs. Sometimes a role just isn't the same when another person takes up the mantel, say in the case of the new Batman. (Though I am reserving judgement.) You run a storyline with someone filling in, but eventually that runs it course and the main act needs to return. Achieving that return is tricky, and can be as alienating as the original death if either of them is handled badly.

All that said there are moments when the sacrifice of a character serves a need of the plot, as well as their return. I think in those moments it's important to have the character come back slightly different. You don't get to die and come back unchanged. Gandalf's demise in the first part of the triology still has tremendous impact on me, even though I know every time I read/see it that he's going to return. In part it's because Gandalf the White isn't quite the same as Gandalf the Grey, and so something was lost in that death.

Of course, if you right in the right genres, death never needs to be permanent. There are always clones or zombies.

Though I don't know that anyone has ever done zombie clones, or cloned zombies. Might be something to consider.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Getting Outside Your Range

Placido Domingo is singing as a baritone. Mind you, I only know he's a tenor, normally, because of that thing he did with the other two guys - only one of whom I can name off the top of my head. Not that I don't listen to opera, as I do, but I don't listen to it frequently enough to really know much about any of the stars or recognize them by voice. In part because my local radio doesn't carry that "Sunday at the Met" program, assuming it's still airing at all. Also in part because I just don't listen to that much opera.

None of which really relates to my point today. It turns out that Placido started as a baritone, and then early in his career moved up to a tenor. Where he proceeded to make his career. Now, in part because his voice is aging, and in part just because he wants to, he's come back down (musically speaking) to a baritone. By the sounds of it, he's just as comfortable as a baritone as he was as a tenor, but I am reasonably sure it took a bit of an adjustment. I'm also sure, because the guy on NPR said so, that having sung as a tenor Placido now brings a little extra something to being a baritone.

That's the part that got me thinking about how at least once in your life you ought to try something outside your normal range. Speaking as a writer, you could probably substitute "genre" for that last word without too much trouble, as that's really what I'm talking about here. However, it also applies to dabbling in poetry if you normally writer novels, or short stories if you write poetry, or something that requires you to follow a different set of guidelines than you normally do.

It does violate the old trope of "write what you know" but let's face it, in this day and age research is at the tip of your fingers anyway. There are limits on the usefulness of any rule like "write what you know" anyway, at least if you're going to be too much of a stickler about it.

This has a couple of advantages, not least of which is exercising some of your creative muscles that you might not normally use. If you spend most of your time thinking about spaceships, writing about a modern-day setting, or even getting historical, presents brand new challenges for you. Good writing is, of course, good writing, regardless of genre. And you don't necessarily need to come all the way out of your normal comfort zone to make it work. Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" series contains elements of the Western and high fantasy that don't show up much at all in his other works, for example, and it remains I think some of his best writing. (Hated the ending, no matter how much it fit, but that's another entry altogether.) Robert Parker has also written some fine westerns that are far removed from the streets of Spencer's Boston.

The results aren't always good, of course, and sometimes writing exercises are just that and no more. But another advantage to when they do work is a fresh perspective. When you normally write in a particular genre, you can get too accustomed to the trappings of that genre. Switching can help shake you out of those trappings, and not just by getting you to work within a new set of guidelines. A different mode of writing can liven up some of the tropes - which every genre has - not only in the genre with which you are experimenting, but then when you return to your comfort zone. It's like taking a vacation, appreciating the change of scenery, and then coming home and appreciating what you have anew.

Then again, some people go on vacation and decided to stay.

Monday, November 2, 2009

In Your Dreams

I was reminded last night as to why I don't normally look to my dreams for inspiration - they don't make any sense. Which is not to say that my dreams come free of narrative, because they do not. I'm not sure if it's a by-product of my being a writer or what, but for the most part, those dreams I have which I am aware of come with a certain narrative flow. Not necessarily a plot, mind you, because I think if you say plot it implies certain things about structure which are most definitely not the case. Rather, it's more of a free form prose device, where one thing flows into the next without any real regard for the larger story.

Most of the time.

On occasion, I will have a dream that could be translated into a complete story, or that at the very least provides some sort of kernel that could be nurtured into something more. They've even been written down. The ideas, mind you, not the full-fledged stories. So far I'm not sure I've put any of them into so many words as to count for a full story. It may well be that they aren't meant to be, either. I tend not to have whole stories pop into my head anyway, as things almost always occur to me in just lines or even more nebulous ideas.

I'm generally not one to interpret my dreams, either. Sometimes I have a dream (or more recently a nightmare) that even a Psych 101 student could decipher, but those are in the minority. Moreover, I am inclined to think that Freud rather over-stated the whole dream imagery aspect of our heads, though whether he was inclined to think that way or not I don't know. I suspect if he'd lived to see the cottage industry built around the idea that all our dreams have meaning... well, there were those cigars.

Most of the time I think our dreams are mostly a clearing house for all the various thoughts and tangents and other mental detritus we accumulate. Our brain sorts through it, making sure there isn't something useful, before simply dumping it. It might also all just be a bi-chemical byproduct of the brain's releasing various things to help us recharge and relax. My cat dreams, after all, but I don't think she's too concerned over what they mean.

On the other hand, maybe sometimes for her, a mouse isn't just a mouse.