Friday, February 05, 2016

Genre Fiction

When I was a folksinger, I read that Woody Guthrie had written 3,000 songs, and I remember not being that impressed.  I was writing about a song a week at that point, sometimes three or four, and I figured that if I weren't going to school and were just riding around and singing here and there, plus hanging out with other folksingers who would give me ideas, and multiplying that over forty years, no big deal.  Because there's a knack, and it didn't seem to me to be a high skill.  Most of the songs wouldn't be that good, but they might be acceptable, and a few would be memorable.

I thought same applied to commercial folk-rock and to country music.  There was just this knack, and it took a while to get into it clearly, but then you could just crank them out, much as Tin Pan Alley, or the 60's pop writers like Carole King and Neil Sedaka had done. (Fun trivia: "Everybody Loves a Clown" was written by Leon Russell.) In retrospect, I think I might have manged it with folk-rock, though I now doubt even that.  My few attempts at country songs illustrate that I did not really understand that genre, only the stereotype of the genre. My stars, those songs are terrible, and there is only one I can bear to listen to even a part of now.*

The problem was, I was trying to elevate the genres I aspired to, not work within them.  That seldom works. You must have love for a genre that you expect to crank out a career from.  You might eventually hate that genre and yourself, but you have to love it first.

My children grew up on Bible or other Sunday School skits that my wife and I had written.  Not great literature, but there's a knack, and really, we could have churned them out like candy if we had to make our living by it somehow.  We did mean to elevate the genre - Lord knows it needs elevating - but no so far as to remake it, to write the One Great Bible Skit that transformed.  We just wanted them to get the point across clearly, borrowing from the techniques we knew from much reading.  Perhaps we should have done more.

I aspired to be a writer of fiction in those years as well, but even though I loved 2.5 genres - mystery, fantasy, and sci-fi/speculative - I considered myself above mere genre fiction writing.  I now wonder if it is truer that I could not rise to that level.  I thought of myself as a true descendant of Tolkien, Lewis, and Alexander; or Chesterton, Christie, Sayers, expected to put up something at least vaguely comparable, though I might not hope to match them.  A career of half-a-dozen sword and sorcery potboilers that were out of print a few years later was not for one such as I.

Without changing my attitude about that, it is doubtful I could have done it, even with practice.  I wonder now whether that would have been a better choice, if I could have remade myself well enough to write like that. The timing would have been right, as I would have been developing my craft just as the market was growing to its peak.

I still can churn out a song or a skit if you need it. Though neither of my sons engage in that, I'm betting they could do so as well, because it was in the air of their whole childhood, far more than mine.  Genre fiction would quite possibly be in their grasp as well.

Yet perhaps not. There needs to be not only skill, but personality type, desire, and love of the genre.

*The chorus of "Shot a Lawman Down," which long predated "I Shot The Sheriff," wasn't half bad. Sort of an Eagles/Pure Prairie League thing.  Early country-rock.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Just To Ruin Your Evening

Speaking of Bilbo...

Some things cannot be unseen.


The Road

Reading about the Great North Road today (Dick Whittington, thrice-Lord Mayor and all that), the site linked to a Hillaire Belloc extended quote.  I have heard of Belloc, but never read anything of him.  ACatholic writer, he was friends with GK Chesterton and paired with him in the '10's and '20's, so that George Bernard Shaw affectionately called them The Chesterbelloc, a monster.
"There are primal things which move us. Fire has the character of a free companion that has travelled with us from the first exile; only to see a fire, whether he need it or no, comforts every man. Again, to hear two voices outside at night after a silence, even in crowded cities, transforms the mind. A Roof also, large and mothering, satisfies us here in the north much more than modern necessity can explain; so we built in the beginning: the only way to carry off our rains and to bear the weight of our winter snows. A Tower far off arrests a man’s eye always: it is more than a break in the sky-line; it is an enemy’s watch or the rallying of a defence to whose aid we are summoned. Nor are these emotions a memory or a reversion only as one crude theory might pretend; we craved these things - the camp, the refuge, the sentinels in the dark, the hearth - before we made them; they are part of our human manner, and when this civilisation has perished they will reappear.

"Of these primal things the least obvious but the most important is The Road. It does not strike the sense as do those others I have mentioned; we are slow to feel its influence. We take it so much for granted that its original meaning escapes us. Men, indeed, whose pleasure it is perpetually to explore even their own country on foot, and to whom its every phase of climate is delightful, receive, somewhat tardily, the spirit of The Road. They feel a meaning in it; it grows to suggest the towns upon it, it explains its own vagaries, and it gives a unity to all that has arisen along its way. But for the mass The Road it silent; it is the humblest and the most subtle, but, as I have said, the greatest and most original of the spells which we inherit from the earliest of our race. It was the most imperative and the first of our necessities. It is older than building and than wells; before we were quite men we knew it, for the animals still have it to-day; they seek their food and their drinking-places, and, as I believe, their assemblies, by known tracks which they have made.
It sounds very much like Chesterton, doesn't it? The full quote from Belloc's book The Road, is here 

Also -

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say”(Bilbo Baggins)

Friday, January 29, 2016

Once Upon A Time

In the context of research describing how Disney teaches terrible values about women  there was the following quote:     There are no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast, no women bonding in the tavern together singing drinking songs, women giving each other directions, or women inventing things.

I just sat and stared at that for a minute or so.  I wondered “What would be the best way to explain what is wrong with this to the people writing it?” This in turn leads to “Well, what exactly is wrong with it?” When you set yourself the task of trying to explain such things in simple English, you see new elements along the way.  Sometimes your initial argument starts coming unglued.  Sometimes you find even better arguments you hadn’t thought of.  At minimum, you set yourself a bit of exercise in refining exactly what it is you think about a subject.

The four activities men are doing and women not, are not equally separate.  The women in my wife’s college sorority certainly bonded together in tavernish settings singing drinking songs. I’m not sure that practice was common before WWII, but we can at least clearly say women are obviously capable of this. Giving each other directions…I’m not sure what the movie context for that is, but I’m thinking this is also pretty manageable among women, dating back many decades.  Centuries. Women have invented things, though that seems more recent as well.  In the types of economies common to fairy tales – there’s a general feel  for the ones from your own culture, however remote – there are two types of invention, the magical and the technological.  In the former, the women are quite the equal of men in the Wands, Enchanted Beasts, and Animated Household Object categories.  In the technological, which is intentionally related to our own,  women simply don’t show up in any century in the Improved Blunderbuss, Newfangled Harness, or Mineshaft Support categories.

And then there’s the “no women leading the townspeople to go against the Beast,” which let you know right up front that these researchers…well, never mind. Any insult would distract from their probable good qualities of industriousness, seriousness, and concern for fairness in all things.

But taking the list as a whole we have the overwhelming impression of “You’re crazy.  That world never existed anywhere, not even close.” To which their obvious response would be "But it's make-believe.  All of it is made up anyway. Disney isn't historically accurate to any era with these stories, nor are they true to the original tales.  They rework them to..."

Yes?  They rework them for what purpose? It is easy to say "to make money," but that doesn't answer why those particular reworkings have the effect of making money.  Disney reworks old stories to fit them to more modern values.  For the last two decades or so that has meant Spunky Gals. Those of us familiar with the older versions have responses ranging from irritation to horror, but that is largely because we are comfortable with older things and their wormy creepiness, violence,  and mixed primitive sexism.  And even we don't much like some of the earliest tales.  We like them partly updated.  The general public likes them even more updated, but even they require that this be recognisable as an old story put in modern terms.  That is what a fairy tale is.  When we say "Once upon a time," that is a different story than one beginning with "Wouldn't it be cool if..."  The latter is science fiction - which also has some good movies that make money.  But very different movies.  (Fantasy occupies some middle ground, closer to fairy tale.)

There was never in our culture - nor, I think in any other - a time and place where women led the townspeople against the Beast and bonded over drinking songs.  There just wasn't, and harumphing that there should have been isto plead for a different genre.

But once upon a time there was one woman who wanted to lead the townspeople against a monster, and that's a story we like.  Or perhaps two sisters, or some supernatural female figures - elves, dryads, sibyls - led a hamlet or an army into the fray. But the joy of those stories is that those females are unusual.

That is the main problem with the researchers' understanding.  They don't under the genre, so they want it to be something else.  They want Once Upon A Time to be Wouldn't It Be Cool If. They are free to make those movies if they like.

A second, lesser criticism.  They tot up how much the male and female characters speak in the early Disney Princess movies versus the newer ones, with surprising results. I think their interpretation of this is a muddle, but it's interesting to see. There is one significant difficulty with all this.  Many of these male and female characters are um, crabs, or teapots, or frogs or whatever.  This is a place where I agree that dividing the genders into neat binaries may unwarranted.  Snow White's dwarves are necessarily pretty butch, but the mice in Cinderella? Not so important. Also, making definite interpretations about features such as Ariel's "voice" tries to force modern categories onto older elements.  Really fairy tales are messier in their symbolism that way.  It is another woman who takes her voice, while every male would rail against it.

Practical Application of Haidt



It occurred to me that I hadn’t given any consideration to the practical application of Haidt’s 6 moral foundations to the current presidential primary campaigns. First, the Democrats, just because Bernie jumps off the page here.

Sanders’s foundational appeal is abundantly clear.  His campaign to date has mostly hit the fairness/cheating bell, repeatedly and loudly.  That a few people are very rich means they have cheated, and he is quite blunt about the system being rigged. This is one of the two main foundations for liberals, and however hard Hillary tries to match him on this, she’s not going to come close, because of her own wealth, and the perception that she abuses her positions and office for her own gain. The best she can hope for is to neutralize this foundation by being “good enough” on the economic fairness, trying hard to pick off support from specific groups that believe they are being treated unfairly, and leaning hard on the fairness aspect of “it’s about time we had a woman as president.” Bernie mostly says “We’re all being treated unfairly, except the 1%.”  It’s working.

On the foundation of care and harm they may be more equal.  Sanders wants people to have things, to be cared for by the government more than now, but Clinton has been at this longer and her voters trust her on this. Interestingly, both are stressing what largess all Americans are going to be eligible for – read Middle Class – not just designated groups. However, Clinton straddles this far better than Sanders, and she calculates that people who want their group to be specially noted for being treated unfairly will prefer her. On that score, she is also far more aware than Bernie that while enthusiasm can get you launched, the voter only has to like you 1% better on the final day.

Here is an interesting twist.  Both are attempting to play loyalty cards as well, which is supposed to be a conservative foundation.  Bernie’s Simon and Garfunkel ad “…all come to look for America” gives instant patriotism permission to all the cynics.  It’s very much a Jack Kennedy New Frontier appeal, and that song is more effective than both Bill Clinton’s and Obama’s “hope” appeals, because those always carried an undertone of “paying the other bastards back.” Sanders has only a very few people he wants to pay back.  I wonder if that whole-tribe America appeal might actually be sanctity instead of loyalty. Since Sanders is notably restrictionist on immigration (though we have noted that his supporters aren’t aware of this, and he may be waffling again), there might be some unconscious us/them appeal on that level as well. Or even consciously hinting at that, not that they’d tell Bernie.  But some of these political video producers are pretty clever. Even I was moved by it.
  
Hillary’s constant hint to her supporters is “Hey, I’ve been loyal to you (black people, women, gays, elites, lobbyists) all these years, so you should be loyal to me.”  Anyone with a memory knows that’s not true in any of those cases, but it’s half-true, and the associated, rather menacing hint is “Well, but I have the strength to protect you and Bernie doesn’t.”

I’m not seeing authority/subversion issues anywhere in the campaign. (Liberals don’t tend to stress than until after they are in office.)  Whatever liberty/oppression bells are being rung are better described under fairness/cheating.

On to the Republicans in the next post.  They look muddier (as would be expected with more foundations to attend to), but I think that Trump is focusing his campaign on some sort of proportional fairness. If you want to get in and offer your opinions on that before I get mine in, fine.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ridiculous Prediction

I never read articles about the horse-race aspect of elections, because it is such foreign territory to me, and voters always do things that puzzle me.  But let us pretend that my complete lack of skill is actually a marker for objectivity and my outside observer status allows me to stand back and see what others cannot.

Okay, even I don't believe that, but here is the one thing that should make you pay attention, anyway. All the people who know this stuff well and make their livings from it have been completely wrong - as wrong as I am - about Trump.  And if you look at it, they have been almost as wrong about all the other candidates, Democrat and Republican, as well. Wrong about Bush, wrong about Clinton, wrong about Cruz, wrong about Sanders...

So here's my thought: None of the current top four can win a general election.  You can read all the experts on that.  All four have major negatives that are so strong that none of them can get half the vote.  Heck, I don't see how any of them gets 40% of the vote.  Bloomberg entering screws both sides.

Let us note here that Sanders, Trump, and Bloomberg have no party loyalty. And that is reciprocated by their parties. Cruz is better only by comparison.  Only Hillary can cling to that shred of "Look I have been loyal to you in good times and bad, I'm calling in every chip." Downside1: Young men, even Democrats, hate her, and young women are slowly defecting. Downside2: If she gets indicted...

So every four years some clever journalists get to speculate what a brokered convention in either party would look like. 

Maybe this time it's true.

In either party if it gets to convention with no one having enough delegates - if in either case it goes to a second ballot - then all bets are off. Some pundits will look good in retrospect because they guess right what would happen, but really, who are you going to trust to explain this?  Karl Rove?  James Carville? Ann Coulter? Jon Stewart? When was the last brokered convention and what does it have to do with now?

IF, a modern convention goes to a second (third, fourth, and the longer it goes the greater the panic) ballot here is my prediction:  these are generally just delegates, the people in the party who have no principle except winning. The honest liberals, honest conservatives, deeply committed evangelicals, fanatic environmentalists, social-justice warriors, fists, second, or third wave feminists, libertarians - these all fade into insignificance. There aren't enough of them to matter.

They want to win.  More than anything they fear the abyss of their party not only losing, but losing badly. Candidates who did not excite the voters even in their own states, Senators or Governors with lackluster records and little charisma*, all of these might be held aloft as the One True Hope of the party.




The people will weep, they will scream, they will gasp.  They will need consensus, and unity, and a focus so badly that they will embrace what they will later tear down. They will nominate someone and the enthusiasms will rapidly become genuine (that is, as genuine as it ever is). If it sounds like I am predicting some terrible collapse of democracy and being my ultra-cynical self, it is just the opposite.  I think both the Republicans and the Democrats will pick a better candidate that way than they will elect now.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What's In Your State?



All states, even small ones like NH have regions that inhabitants use to subdivide the place.  A few are familiar names to outsiders – Cape Cod, Black Hills, Long Island, Outer Banks;  many more are immediately understandable once one has heard it.  If you hear that a state has a mountain region or mountain district as a distinct idea known to natives, it’s fairly simple to pick up a map and figure out where that is.  The names vary slightly and are not quite predictable, but neither are they surprising.  It’s Connecticut Coast, not Seacoast.  Some say Maine Coast, others say Coastal Maine, but no one says Maine Shore.  New Hampshire’s region next to the Atlantic is The Seacoast.  Massachusetts breaks that up into distinct bits.

Instate, an important area might own the geographic feature:  The Lake*, The Beach, The Island, The River. Outsiders get annoyed at the provincialism of this, but language is about communication.  Others are obvious enough to be predictable even if previously unknown.  I’ll bet they call that The Panhandle in Oklahoma. (They do.)

Others are less obvious, and those are more fun.  Anyone could figure out what the Lakes Region or White Mountains refer to, but you have to pause a bit for others.  We used to have the Golden Triangle in NH, but I haven’t heard the phrase in years.  Above The Notch is a real thing here. Some are not fully distinct even to natives.  Upper Valley refers to the area around Hanover and Lebanon, sometimes including parts of Vermont, sometimes not.  But Upper Connecticut Valley might mean that area, or the one farther up near Colebrook.  The Merrimack Valley in some contexts means everything from Nashua to Franklin, but since the high school of that name went in it more likely refers to the upper half of it.

I know Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, and a few Massachusetts regions, but I’m interested in the regions of your states that tend to be known internally, but don’t occur to outsiders.

*There are nuances here.  The speaker’s family may own property on another lake, or those in the conversation may know that some other lake is meant. Yet if they move to a different conversation at the same function they might revert to The Lake meaning Lake Michigan, and none other.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

They Cut Lund's Brain

He came back to the hospital around 1980, after having been out since the early 60's.  Richard had been able to be placed at one of those small-town boarding houses that still existed then, where a woman would take you in and cook your meals and do your laundry in exchange for your disability check.  You got to live with a couple of other guys, equally disabled, and got to sit on the porch and smoke cigarettes, waving to the people who came to recognise you and your harmlessness. The family might drag you to church or to Grange or some hobby of theirs like flea markets.  They remembered your birthday and they gave you a cake.  They had a stocking for you at Christmas. If you said crazy things no one minded, really. A sparse life, but not abusive, usually.

Things could go wrong.  If you got violent or uncooperative, they would send you back, and after we had tuned you up and haggled with them a bit, they would have you back. But not always.  You might have become difficult beyond their ability (or at any rate, their willingness) to have you back.  Maybe you hit one of the other men, who was still afraid of you. Or maybe you had said alarming things to the granddaughter that made them think you were no longer safe.

So Richard was back, and it was our job to fix him and then sweet-talk and reassure the landlady that he could be wedged back in.  Letting her complain about how bad he'd been and go on irrelevantly and at length how hard her life was, with her daughter moving back in with a baby and her husband's back finally gotten too bad for him to work anymore.

But Richard wasn't fixing up all that well.  He was difficult and now refused to clean his room or take a shower, even when I was hooshing him in good directions.  He might suddenly turn and get combative - our word for when someone is violent in response to intervention but not initiating violence - but generally he was just stubborn. He had been very assaultive years ago in the hospital, but had been a lamb, mostly, since he had gotten a frontal lobotomy at our facility in the late 1940's.

Not all lobotomy patients were alike.  They were less violent and angry after the procedure, but their impulsiveness or delusions might remain. The older staff had general advice on what to do with them, as they had known many in earlier years, but it was generally acknowledged that it was all still very unpredictable, and some were still obstreperous or surly even after they'd had their brain messed with and been placid for years.  Just one of those things.

I'm sorry, I have to stop for a bit.  The memory is very painful now that I'm in it again, back there with Richard Lund 35 years ago.

********

Richard Lund isn't his real name, of course. Even now I couldn't identify him clearly because of confidentiality laws.  He had no wife, no children.  His parents had died.  I want to say he had no siblings, but perhaps there was a half-sister, now living in western New York or some such. There was no mention of her in the record beyond his childhood. Revealing his name would hurt no one, and my inability to fully commemorate him is ironic in terms of what I will write later, but there it is.  Rules are rules.  Even if I were to reveal it, you would be unable to track him down, because he shares a name with a semi-famous person from a few decades ago, who gobbles up all the search engine space.

He was my assigned patient, and he was annoying in a few ways. He was always reluctantly cooperative at best, and likely to sucker-punch me at odd moments once a week. Yet what grated on me most was his vocabulary.  He was a poser, showing off that he knew words, but using them wrongly. Underneath it all, there was the unspoken assignment that I was supposed to be brushing him up, or his placement would be lost. As if this were my fault. I was increasingly frustrated, and it must have showed. One of the nurses suggested I take an hour or so to read through his old histories and see if there were anything helpful there. I took the hint, and gratefully accepted the time off the unit.

State hospital records were a ridiculous contrast in those days.  There would be a shift note by the unit staff 3 times a day, 365 days a year, for as many years as a soul lived in hospital, pages and pages of slept 6-7 hours...ate 75% of dinner...attended walk group without incident. Useless after a week or so but preserved forever. Clinical notes, by psychiatrists, social workers, or psychologists, were more sparse.  In one of the oldest charts I ever saw I read Virginia's yearly notes from the psychiatrist, 1926-1935, two sentences each.  One learned to paw through the thick brown binders ignoring whole sections in order to find some three page treasure:  a social history, psychological testing, a school record.

Richard's chart from the late 1930's - 40's bounced back between two dramatic themes: he was continually assaultive, responding to no reason, no sedative, and no intervention.  He had an eye for the helpless victim and wreaked havoc among them, poor quivering souls who wanted only to be left alone. So frontal lobotomy, in the context of no restraining medications and the other choices being physical restraint - in chair, in cuffs, on bed - was the kindest choice, however grim it seems now. I had seen enough of the violent preying upon the innocent, and the violent in restraints for days on end, to know that the choices were not clean.

The other theme was his poetry.  He had been published in a half-dozen of the small, ephemeral literary journals of the day. Taped into his record were two Table of Contents from reviews I had not heard of, but also included poems by William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. Someone in 1944 had included three of his published poems, and in the back section were replies from editors and poets who he had evidently appealed to to get him OUT of this hospital. His requests are not recorded, but a secretary for William Carlos Williams had sent a rather odd, distant reply, saying that there was nothing that could be done but praising a poem he had written years earlier. An editor of Pound's replied that he no longer had any contact with that man since his arrest after the war. (Pound was confined to an institution himself at the time.)

So he was a poet - perhaps second-tier but real, and rising - and the State of NH had given one of its sons a lobotomy.  Local Boy Does Good, from a town too small to have its own high school. But that all came to an end.

For good reason, but I still hated it.

*******

I went back to the nurse and said "You knew what I was going to find when you sent me, didn't you?"  She allowed that she had.  One of the older nurses had vaguely remembered Richard was a poet, and knowing me, she thought I might be one of the few who understood what it signified. I am no fan of any poetry, but I was enough of a failed writer myself to understand what he most have dreamed and nearly grasped.  I brought the thick binder down to the day area where Richard and a few others silently sat and asked: "I found some poetry that Mr. Lund wrote years ago. It was published in real literary magazines.  Do I have your permission to read it aloud?" His expression changed not in the slightest. He had a perpetual look of one-half tick above neutral, except when he would instantly turn to fist-clenched anger for a minute or so, and I detected no flicker.  That's not enough for "consent," but I really wanted to read the poems and I pressed on. 

One nice woman listened intently and gushed after I finished the first poem, looking at Richard and praising him in cooing tones. I couldn't tell if he had heard me, or cared in the least.  He was unmoved by the second and third readings as well, except that he corrected my pronunciation of the name of an obscure Greek goddess, putting the accent on the correct syllable. Nothing more.

"Mr. Lund, if you want to do any writing again, I can get you notebooks, and put them in a safe place every night.  And I promise to read what you write."  He did not look at me nor turn a millimeter in my direction nor blink an eye.  "Nope.  They cut Lund's brain and he's in a wall.  It's all Ozymandias now."

I thought for years that the Ozymandias reference was just his broken posturing again.  I get it now.

But this is the last thing that will ever be said or written about him, and I can't use his name.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Charles Williams Quote

CS Lewis was a great admirer of Williams's work.  I have known of Williams since college but have never gotten around to reading any of him. Tonight in a book about Lewis I found this intriguing quote from his fellow Inkling's essay "He Came Down From Heaven." I had never thought anything like this, and it is remarkable evidence of Charles Williams's belief that Christianity was True Myth, Necessary Myth.
If, per impossibile, it could be divinely certain that the historical events upon which Christendom reposes had not yet happened, all that could be said would be that they had not yet happened.