Thursday, December 23, 2004

A Truly Stray Thought

I've been sucked into signing up for a bunch of online sweepstakes. It started very simply with one little sweepstake that ended on Nov 30th and has blossomed into a 20-minute obsession each morning. I can't wait for the holiday season to end and half of them at least to go away. Or at least that's what I tell myself. We'll have to see where I am with this in March to know for sure.

However, this obsession is not why I'm writing. It certainly isn't in keeping with the meaning behind this blog to blather on about how I can waste time with the best of them. So, while you're wonder what on Earth I'm doing and if I've been hitting the eggnog early this year, let me put your mind at ease. I had a stray thought that might prove interesting as I went through my technique.

I copy my email so I don't have to type this long string with every different sweepstake, but I realized my street address is much more cumbersome. So why don't I copy my street address instead of my email, I asked myself? I don't know if you'll agree, but I found the answer fascinating.

The email address is interpreted by a computer. If I type even one letter wrong, transpose two characters as I have a habit of doing, I am doomed. There is no way the communication will ever find me. But, if I transpose two numbers, write circle as cirlce or do some other strange twist on my address (as long as the zip code is right because it's interpreted by a computer of course), I can usually trust that my mail carrier will figure it out and the message will still arrive safely, or a helpful neighbor will chuck it back out for another try at least.

Now I'm not usually the computer phobic type. If anything, I'm the complete opposite, but this moment of clarity gave me a connection to the doomsayers who condemn computers as the coming of the end. How will I manage without knowing a human hand will gently massage my errors into something still usable? I've developed tons of coping mechanisms. Yes, I use both grammar and spell check. I copy critical information from the one instance I know is correct to avoid introducing error. I try to avoid typing in long strings of numbers if I can help it. (You should see me trying to install an OS!) And I guess that's my answer. Without humans to interpret and work around human error, those of us who aren't perfect (most, if not all of humanity) will learn to cope or will slip through the cracks, going into the oblivion of misfiled emails and accidentally deleted or moved files.

And all this from filling out sweepstakes :).

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Life as a Canary

Now, I don't usually use this blog for things of a more personal nature, but I wanted to share a little moment of realization with the lot of you.

Apparently, I'm suicidal! Umm, just kidding actually, but I did try to kill myself and my whole family the other day.

We have a gas stove because my husband swears they cook better. Anyway, before you start to wonder why this is relevant, I was cooking dinner the other night, a nice batch of spaghetti with red sauce. As I was serving, I noticed the burner was off. Frankly, dinner is often frantic so I figured I'd turned it off already and went about my business.

Some time later, I went back to the kitchen, boiled water for tea on the other front burner. Sitting down to work at my computer, my throat started tightening up and I started sneezing. My jacket had acquired the pervasive scent of gas. I ignored it for a while, but then went to investigate. Imagine my horror as the smell got stronger the closer I went to the kitchen.

I asked my husband if he could smell it, and he said no. I have a very sensitive nose, but it is tied to memory so I will actually smell things from other times and places. Smelling things that aren't there is not uncommon. However, the gas scent was really strong so I continued past my husband and to the stove.

What I discovered was terrifying. Apparently, I'd had the burner low enough under the sauce that the wind generated while I served dinner had blown the flame out. Without the flame, I'd assumed the burner was off. I'd even lit another burner right next to it.

I'd been lucky I hadn't burned down the house.

Frantic, I ran around turning on fans, ditched my jacket and took my inhalers so I could breathe.

That accomplished, I went back to normal life, had TV time with my hubby and then went to write until the wee hours of the morning. When I finally finished, I went sniffing about, acting the canary as I tried to decide whether to shut off the fans, satisfied disaster had been averted.

This was when I discovered my boys had closed their door before I'd turned the fans on. Their room reeked. I grabbed a flashlight and checked to make sure both were breathing, which they were thank goodness, and turned on their bathroom fan to draw the gas out.

Yipes. I'd almost lost both sons, not to fire but to gas inhalation. Then, I went into my bedroom and discovered the same problem. We keep our door shut as well and the gas had seeped in under the door and collected there. Well, our door swung wide, I checked my husband for signs of life, then spent the night fending off curious kitties who usually aren't allowed in our room with their sharp claws and our vulnerable waterbed.

By morning, things had settled back to normal, but I came away with a real sense of my mortality and how easy it was to risk not just myself but those I love. I also recognized the need to really listen to my body. It gave me warning long before I listened, acting the canary and telling me I couldn't breathe, this place wasn't safe for me or anyone else. My older son had also mentioned the scent to my husband with the same result. Now maybe we'll all be a little more cautious when something isn't right and I hope you all will too. It takes so little time just to check when something feels wrong and so much time to recover if it really is wrong and we ignore it.

I'm grateful that things turned out so well, and yet how easily they might not have. First the gas, then lighting a fire next to the gas leak, then having both husband and children sealed in rooms full of gas. If I didn't know it was my own life, I'd have suspected one of S.L. Viehl's novels had sideswiped me ( She says her plotting technique is to put characters in the worst possible place and then make it even nastier. Boy is it scary when life acts that way.

Epilogue: Not a week later, I tried to electrocute myself while installing a new dryer...I think life is telling me to slow down. Hah! Some other month :p.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Just the Facts? A Non-Binary Proposal

All my life I've been told humans are binary. Look, people say, there is man and woman, the most basic binary. However, as I've grown older, I've learned about hermaphrodites, who, though rare, deny the proposition of a binary nature.

How about straight or gay? Well, what about bisexuals?

And war and peace? How about truce states?

And finally computers: aren't they the ultimate binary?

Well, I've studied some computer history and here's what I've learned. Yes, the basis of a computer is small "switches" that are either on or off. However, a single switch is not a computer. It provides nothing but the limitations of binary. It is only when those on/off switches are combined into bigger groups, 8, 16, and 32, that they start to do something. They only find meaning when exceeding their binary nature by being grouped together. It's not if switch A is on or off but if switch A, C, D and F are off while the rest are on that makes a computer or program work.

Anyway, you might wonder where all this is going so let me explain. The concept of humans being binary by nature has supported the dualities of good/bad, right/wrong, and true/false in such a way that many, when presented with a fact they don't know, see only two possible options: it is true or it is a lie.

I, personally, think life is more complicated than that. One fact may be true within context while another, opposing, fact may also be true when its context is known.

That may sound obscure, but think about it in relation to some examples:

* A shirt is green. Seems simple, straightforward and factual. Either the person making the statement is right and you agree, or wrong and you disagree. However, take that same shirt to Afghanistan and the "correct" answer becomes the opposite one. Did the shirt change? No, but the context did. Afghans identify colors, most noticeably blues and greens, differently from the Western world.

* The situation that stimulated this thought also seemed simple on the surface. A person asked about submission manuscripts. One person provided an answer that contradicted the answer later provided by someone else who has credentials in the print industry. The "correct" answer prize was then given to the credentialed person while the other was slammed. But wait! The first answer is actually the standard for several online and academic publishers based on a guidelines search. So, does that make the first answer correct? No. Does it make the second answer incorrect? No. They are both correct within their contexts.

* Another binary is taking someone else's life. Americans, as a culture, accept murder is wrong. And yet, murder in a situation of self-defense is okay and even considered heroic. Similarly, a soldier sent to kill our enemies is not then sentenced to life or the chair, but is the person attacked any less dead?

A binary world is an easier one to live in. There isn't the need to ask questions or discover whether the fact, truth or evidence (whether your own or that provided by someone else) has a context within which it is true or false. In a binary world, one truth or fact can be legitimately battered over the heads of people who do not agree or who present a different perspective. In a binary world, such an act is approved of, encouraged and lauded.

I don't live in a binary world. When presented with information I don't know, even that which appears contradictory to what I know to be true, I try my best to avoid the "You're wrong" answer in favor of opening a dialogue. People are resources, not just because of their jobs or the fancy letters after their names, but also because they bring to the table unique experiences and have been exposed to concepts I might not have. Shutting down the discussion at the first sign that my own truths or facts might be called into question, slamming the evidence provided without taking the time to listen and explore, maybe even researching on my own, could take from me an opportunity I'm never likely to get again.

There's this golden tenet that crosses many religious and cultural boundaries. Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you. Take a moment to evaluate how you've reacted to someone else's opinion or knowledge and make sure you haven't slipped into a closed, binary world. "You're wrong" shuts down a dialogue forever and most likely on every topic rather than just the one you opposed.

When you run into something you cannot discuss, a simple "Let's agree to disagree" stops the conversation without severing the possibility of future exchanges. When you run into a fact you "know" is not true, keep the dialogue open, provide some information, but be just as willing to revise your understanding if the information the other person provides proves both facts true within context or even that your information is flawed. That's how people learn, grow and expand their knowledge.

A binary world is one computer switch clicking on and off in the darkness. Even Morse Code has long, short and pause because a true binary communicates nothing.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

New Mailing List: An End to Guilt ;)

Hi everyone. I can't tell you how fun it is to know I have actual readers out there, but I keep running into difficulty posting with any consistency. Now, blogger doesn't seem to have any fancy features like mailing lists available to the basic customers, but I've come up with my own solution. You will see two new links on the left-hand side. It's a simple email you send to me if you want to be added to the Stray Thoughts mailing list. Whenever I make a new post, I'll send out a note alerting you to another stray thought. That way, you won't have to keep checking back and the thought of you all checking won't guilt trip me into posting not so stray thoughts :).

Just the standard disclaimer: I won't use this mailing list for any other purposes and you can leave at any time, just click the remove and send the email.

I hope this helps things. Thanks so much for sharing my mental moments :D.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Can I help?

Hmm, well, it is two days past the end of the month and no stray thoughts. I've had them, but I've been in too much of a mad scramble to write any down. Instead, I'm going to talk about fate, cats and doing the right thing.

I like to help people. It's part of my nature and always has been. I'm the type that sometimes comes across as nosy because when you express frustration, I jump right in with an offer to help. There are a lot of things and people in need in our world, and just as many people who ignore those needs. I may ignore the global, turn aside requests for money or even walk away from a homeless person a time or two because I can't trust them to use my help appropriately. For example, I very rarely give cash to street people. Food, drink (of the coffee type) maybe, but cash no. My reasoning is simple: How do I know they won't use my cash to make their situation worse?

However, all those confusions slip away when the simple question is: "Do you need some help?" This question frees me because what I can offer is my knowledge, my time, my personal effort. If I know something that might help you, I'm willing. This mostly happens with computers and the like, but also works when someone is lost in an area I know, when someone just needs to vent, or when I can help with my writing experience.

All people have something they can share if they'd like, moving us back in some ways to a bartering society but where the currency we barter with is help. Given a no strings situation, would you choose to offer some time to help another person? The concept of pay it forward has been around a lot longer than the movie sharing the same name, but it is one I truly believe in. It's the reason I moderate at, and why I make a point of answering questions when I have some bit of knowledge to share.

Now, this open willingness has made me a victim before where I was sought out before people would try to do things on their own or they came back every time rather than actually learning how to do things. I've had to develop techniques where I encourage knowledge transfer rather than information, the difference being summed up in the old parable, "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime." Still, for the good we can each do, it seems a small enough risk.

Sometimes the help one person can give is a small thing with little impact and sometimes it's a huge thing, but the size doesn't matter. Whether it's one child sharing pinata candy with another who wasn't quick enough, a grown-up holding the hand of someone who just experienced a major loss, or someone listening to the frustration in another's voice long enough to stop and show how to display that image, each moment makes the world as a whole better.

So, what do you think? Is the life of a Good Samaritan limited to people like Mother Teresa or can all of us make a difference, make one other life a little brighter?

I guess Meep's story (fate and cats) will have to wait for another time. I found a stray thought to follow.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Official "I'm Not Dead Yet" Blog Entry

I started this entry to assure all those faithful readers who check back week after week to find I've posted absolutely nothing that I haven't given up. It's been a busy summer with a lot of trips and a scramble to get any work done on my writing goals. And then, being me, the title made me start to think about death and my odd relationship with it.

Okay, so I made you curious at least.

Does anyone remember what they thought when faced with the concept of death as a child? Oddly enough, raised an Irish Roman Catholic though in unusual circumstances, I developed a different concept that I never quite let go of even though I wasn't consciously aware I held on to it.

When I was little, I decided there existed a baby pool. This pool contained the souls of every living being that wasn't currently alive. And yes, this is rudimentary reincarnation. The concept was based on when babies were conceived, a soul came down to fill them and, if the baby didn't survive, the soul returned for another try later. The same is logically true of souls that manage a full and healthy life, but I was obsessed with babies, possibly because my mother had a miscarriage before my older sister was born.

If you've been reading this blog, you already know I'm a little strange, so having a concept like this when really young, probably around 5 or so, shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Now scroll forward approximately 20 years (if you can figure out my age from that, more power to you...I certainly can't remember it), and imagine a first-time mother taking her 2-year-old son on "nature" walks through the heart of suburbia.

I can't remember how the conversation started, but I remember when it jumped past all appropriate discussions with a toddler. It was right around when I tried to explain rocks weren't alive and so couldn't die. Then, I'm explaining all living things die, plants, animals, even people. Uh oh.

"So what happens after death, Mommy," pipes a little voice.

I'm Catholic; my husband's Jewish. These are two diametrically opposed religions when it comes to death. There is no "after" for Jews, just hope for an eventual resurrection. Scrambling for my comparative religion class work, I give this 2-year-old some options, explaining I grew up believing in the Catholic Heaven. Oh no, that wasn't good enough. In desperation, I trot out the baby pool, only discovering then that I remembered it at all but reaffirming that it was what I thought when young, rather than what I think today.

That 2-year-old, in all seriousness, explained back to me the basics of reincarnation. "I believe when people die, they come back just exactly the same," he says. I fumble, stunned for a moment, then nod encouragingly. "Well, some people do believe that," I say. "I wasn't brought up to think that way, but some people do."

In the possibly eeriest moment in my history as a parent, my son turned to me and said, "You just wait and see, Mommy. You just wait and see."

Should we go to our children for the answers to the great deep dark? That place where none can tell us and we can only find out by crossing the ultimate line? Or is it ultimate at all? Should I trust in the words of a 2-year-old and my own fragments of memory?

To some, death is cut and dried. You're there and then you're not. But, to others, myself and my son included, death is a complex, layered concept with possibilities that should overwhelm and often do.

You know what? I'm curious. This concept has risen in some of my oldest writings with enough frequency to get me committed if I were still in high school in today's paranoid environment. And yet, for all of that, I'm planning on letting this question simmer, planning to explore it thoroughly through supposition, and take my own sweet time in following the scientific method and finding out the "truth" for myself.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Should Exploring Hard Questions Look Like Us?

I wrote a story about an alien with a nasty past, exploring a fragment of his time. I love the story and find it rather powerful, but I didn't recognize the theme until called on it. The theme considers the question of repenting. If someone who has committed deliberate, terrible crimes gives up their life of crime, are they still accountable for those crimes? Now, my tale doesn't give an answer and if I had to give one it probably would sound something like "It depends," but the philosophical point came when I was asked if using aliens to explore this message diminishes it.

That's a pretty big question, in my opinion. I see two sides to the argument:

1) The truly difficult questions shouldn't be explored in an alien environment because the impact of the decision is lessened to the point that the decision becomes random as opposed to a thinking choice.

2) Presenting difficult questions through an alien world allows us the distance to really explore our beliefs and the reasons for them without our thoughts being disrupted or undermined by emotion.

Remember what I said first. I wrote a story about an alien and I stand by his story. However, I have to ask myself if I'd started with the theme, would I have chosen an alien to bear this question?

Here are my thoughts.

1) Science fiction has a long-standing tradition of exploring issues considered untouchable in mainstream writing because it allows for that distance. Does it diminish the emotional impact? Absolutely. However, if I wrote a story about released sex offenders who had repented and fixed their ways, could I set aside my own fears about the reformed sex offenders in my neighborhood? I think I'd be charged with going on a soapbox and probably would provide an emotional answer as opposed to exploring the question as I did in the short story I mentioned.

2) This position, probably obvious from my earlier statements, is more in line with my thinking. I'd relate it to anthropologists who go out and study "alien" cultures only to learn more about their own. Very few people can look at their own lives with any sense of objectivity and that goes for anything that might touch their lives.

If you ask me if a sex offender should be allowed to live three blocks from where my children play in the park, my answer is no. It doesn't matter if they've reformed. It doesn't matter if they've served their time and swear up and down that part of their past is behind them. I don't want a person who ever did such a thing near my kids.

That statement is not reasoned. It is not objective. It has nothing to do with laws, rights or philosophy. As a mother, I cannot accept the risk.

However, within the context of an alien world far distant from my daily life, I am able to look at questions which otherwise would provoke solely an emotional response.

I think this is one of the successes of science fiction. Racial integration, mixed marriages, homosexuality and many other binding questions were addressed on Star Trek long before they could be touched on a mainstream show. If we are to explore those things that touch our lives, I feel this is a good way to gain the distance necessary to apply objectivity and really question our own assumptions. We may find the same answers for some questions, but others may have a complexity hidden by our fears.

Without that distance, the emotional response can overwhelm the reasoned one and, when we let our fears govern our actions, it is difficult to produce a society, legal or political system that protects the appropriate rights of all people, not just those who happen to sit on the top of the heap.

So, tell me what you think about exploring the bigger questions through the medium of "alien" societies. Does it promote objectivity and therefore reasoned responses or distance to the point that the question has no impact? Or is there a third answer?

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

My Brain's Gone Old Style

You may notice I've made some changes in my blog. Blogger has added a critical feature (that of comments with email notification) that made taking time out from my already overbooked schedule critical. The sad part about this change is the old post comments are lost to the blog. However, just so you know, I kept copies of everything and really appreciate the comments, even those I had no time to reply to.

Mariko said in response to the question of historical accuracy that might bend minds to accept something now inappropriate: Hogwash.

Okay, so I paraphrased ;). I just wanted to say, I agree with you entirely and disagree with you entirely. While in a perfect world understanding where we came from and that a human mind can indeed sink so low is important, the risk is there. Though many people can read about a killer and identify with the person without accepting killing as a moral and acceptable action, I'm not so sure the same holds true when faced with the logic of whole societies. There are enough splinter groups who currently believe in things I find repugnant to show that what was acceptable in the past has not entirely slipped off the human grid. While some would learn, others would find validation. Is that necessarily an argument to smooth the edges of the past with the beliefs of the present? No, I don't believe so. On the other hand, I think writers should be aware of the potential impact and make their choices consciously. Have that morally repugnant character serve a real purpose and don't target the book to those who are still forming their understanding of right and wrong and by all means I'd prefer an accurate portrayal. To paraphrase a little less liberally, I hope: Those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it. In today's world, how many are willing to dive into dusty textbooks. And yet, that same information conveyed in a narrative form can enthrall millions.

Okay, enough. Apparently, the jury (my little mental one) is still out on this issue. Luckily, as of yet, I don't write historical fiction. Someday, I'll probably have to face this issue head on.

Monday, April 26, 2004

The Freedom of Strangers

Yesterday, I went to a dinner party at a friend's house. We didn't know most of the people there, including two families from Great Britain, one English, one half Welsh. At first, we trolled our way through the common topics, asking about their holiday, discussing the weather and other small talk. Then, the discussion gradually migrated to topics not usually raised in these sort of settings. Religion seemed a relatively obvious one seeing as two of the visitors were Anglican priests, but we also delved into politics and terrorism.

While these might not be traditionally acceptable topics and are ones most people veer away from in horror, the discussion fascinated me. We all seemed to be enjoying ourselves. Our hostess commented at one point that she was very impressed. We'd managed to discussion both politics and religion, the two taboo subjects, while remaining civil.

We were aided by our similar positions on both US and British politics, but still, there were moments when one or more stood out in opposition to the group. Despite some differences, the discussion never became aggressive.

Honestly, I'm rather awkward in social situations where dating, clubbing, shopping and the like are traditionally discussed because I have not had much experience with these things. Give me a good political or philosophical discussion though, and I fit right in.

What struck me later is the freedom we all had. Only our hosts knew everyone, and even then didn't know them for long. There was little need to ensure we could face each other over a desk in the morning or at the playground while our kids ran wild. We could say what we believed with no real repercussions. Oddly, this may have allowed us to explore each other's character in a way we normally cannot except with our true intimates. I walked away with a good sense of who people were and the understanding that they knew a bit of how I think. I may have made some true friends, though long distance ones, all because I didn't have to shield my words or thoughts for fear of consequences.

Have we reached a point where we can only be open with strangers? Has the kindness of strangers changed from physical to emotional care? We all wear masks because it is how we're trained to deal with different social situations. I'm an introvert and yet have held roles in life that require me to be very extroverted. The extroversion is a mask I don to handle situations, rarely revealing more than a caricature of myself because of the consequences an ill-favored opinion might have. So, I ask you, with who can you just be yourself? And how many of those strong friendships were forged because, at the beginning when meeting as strangers, you had nothing to lose?

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Rock Golems or Robots?

Sorry for the long delay, folks, but I hope you'll enjoy my latest offering.

What draws us to either science fiction or fantasy? I have an interesting take on this question because I'm observing its development in my own home. I grew up fascinated with Heinlein and Arthur C. Clark as well as Marion Zimmer Bradley and Anne McCaffrey. Despite my sister's efforts, I kept steady for years until MZB wrote a series of books with a talented author, Mercedes Lackey. I then went to find her books and they were fantasy. This started my slip into becoming the generalist I am today.

Fast forward to my maturing children. I have one who loves all things fantasy. He enjoys creating fantasy stories, is absorbed by Dungeons and Dragons, and cheerfully edits anything I write with a fantasy theme. My other wants science fiction and little else. He grudgingly read Harry Potter and prefers Animorphs, though the science there is questionable at best. He rarely reads my fantasy and begs me to write more science fiction stories, preferably with heavy, deadly machinery.

While it's obvious they made their choices, for now at least, I find it interesting how these choices show up in other areas. My sf son confronted me about the Tooth Fairy, asking not if she exists but why we pretend she does. He finally agreed to go along with the tradition to get his quarters but made sure I know he knows it's all bunk. In comparison, his brother never questioned the Tooth Fairy. Whatever he might believe, he's willing to accept a world imbued with mystical forces beyond our comprehension that make the mundane world a little more fascinating.

So then, is the preference of science fiction over fantasy a sign of grounding in the physical reality where things are defined by what you see and touch? Does a leaning toward fantasy show up in those more open to an indefinable world overlaying the physical one? And what about those like myself who enjoy both paths?

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

The Phoenix Arisen?

With the exception of some holdouts who reject all things electronic, most of us, and anyone reading this, have been sucked into the world of electronics. Like children, we approach our computers with the faith they will boot up in the morning and reveal all those things we depend on them to store. Some of us are more like foster kids on their third or fourth foster family. We want to hope, we want to trust, we want to have faith but at the same time, we squirrel away backup copies because we've had that trust crushed before and just can't manage to come up with blind faith. Yet, even with those backups, they are a precaution rather than a pattern. We might remember for a while after a crash or data loss and then slowly the backups stretch further and further apart as we forget, as we slip into the faith it won't happen again; it won't happen to us.

My computer has developed an odd, intermittent crash problem. I ignored it as long as I could, stiff in my denial, and then finally called in support. Of course, having been on the other end of the support calls in my professional life, I know the shiver of fear and horror they must have felt the minute I said the dreaded "intermittent." This word means no viable way to confirm the problem is resolved. It means no simple way of tracking down potential solutions. It means weeks, maybe months, of trying option after option, only to find out a month later it didn't actually resolve the problem. Hence my denial. I knew all too well what I'd face once I admitted to the problem and knew the loss in time would easily exceed the time I'd lost putting my data back together after yet another hard crash. And yet, what if it got worse?

I did everything asked, including rebuilding my OS, but nothing helped. The next step? To replace the hard drive. Now, I swear they gave this order just to put that shiver of fear back where it belonged--on my spine. There is no way to make sure every bit of data, every file I've tucked here or there, every customization I made on one of my software and every convenience I'd created over the past couple of years would make it to the backup. No matter how hard I tried, I knew I'd lose something in the transfer. I made lists, check off sheets, analyzed the various folders and finally, did the rebuild.

Yay! Yes, I lost some data along with my faith (temporarily) that my computer would always work. Yes, I had to redo all sorts of customizations and stamp out MS Word's special character replacements once again. But, when it came down to it, after the loss of only one full day, I was up and running on a new hard drive, problem solved and with minimal (no critical) files lost.

Then the new drive started ticking. Suddenly, I feel a lot of sympathy for Captain Hook.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Realism in historical fiction

This question came up in my writing community ( and I had a difficult time with my answer. I would generally say I'm interested in realism in historical fiction. I see this genre as a way to learn about history in a more approachable manner than through history books. While not a valid way to learn the information for a history test, as long as the author does their homework, reading an enjoyable historical fiction work can give you insights into other times and mentalities.

So, with that as my perspective, I had some difficulty with the realization my openness to the culture of other times had limits. I had no difficulty learning that Harold the Green died because William the Conqueror told his men to shoot arrows into the sky. This neat piece of information came from a historical novel told through the perspective of a man with William the Conqueror. It has stuck in my memory while tons of history lessons have vanished into the murky underworld of my mind.

During the discussion, I realized I wouldn't feel the same delight if I were to explore the perspective of a slave owner accurately portrayed or even a person of extreme prejudice (a position with many similarities). We know historically, from actual documents from the time, that certain people were considered non-human. This made up the underpinnings of slavery in a "civilized society" just as it validated the objectification and restrictions placed on women. You don't have to treat them like they are thinking, reasoning beings if they aren't.

Now, though I've had discussions about finding some main characters problematic, especially female ones, because of their independent natures, I don't think the accurate portrayal of casual cruelty in the main character would be any more attractive even if true to the time. Now, the words casual cruelty may have raised up images of beatings and abuse that one wouldn't expect of a "good" slave master for example. However, take a moment to consider the treatment of our beloved pets.

For a dog, it must eat, drink and relieve itself not on a natural schedule, but one dictated by its master. It is often confined in small spaces, whether a crate or a house. An owned dog cannot go out on its own and explore the world. Cats have a little more independence, but especially indoor cats have many of the same restrictions.

These are our beloved animals and yet we chain them at will and discipline them when they fail to obey our, probably arbitrary in their minds, rules.

On what grounds do we treat them this way? Well, they're just animals. They don't know any better. Now translate that for a moment to the most benevolent slave owner. Remember, they believed slaves were little more than animals; they had to or I'd hope their ingrained sense of right and wrong would have rejected the practice.

Oops, there I have to question am I applying 20th century mentality to earlier times?

Bringing this back in a full circle, think a moment on true accuracy in historical fiction. Would we be able to enjoy tales of life in those earlier times if the works accurately portrayed that life even if it meant identifying with someone who thought nothing of chaining his slave to make sure he wouldn't run when the master left home? And if we did enjoy, what does that say about our veneer of civilization that it is so thin as not to rebel even when presented these mentalities in fiction?

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Blush Smilies

My question today is quite simple. Since when did a happy blush disappear from conversation? In the translation to online communication, we convey emotion through smilies. There is a set of standard smilies for the basic emotions, happy, sad, angry and of course, blushing. So why is the blush marred by a frown? To me, a blush is much more likely to be embarrassed by compliments, in a flush of pride, so happy your face changes shade. Something seems wrong when that's the emotion for context and yet here comes this frowning face as if the world is against you.

It may seem a small quibble with all the other things in the world, but think for a moment what a happy blush conveys in real life.

You compliment a friend on a beautiful dress she made. She's happy but embarrassed and uncomfortable. You know not to say anything further but at the same time, you know she appreciated your comments. If she frowned while blushing, wouldn't you wonder if something was wrong? If maybe she didn't make the dress and is too embarrassed to admit it because you already praised the skill as hers?

How about someone blushing with pride because they finished an assignment early and think it went well. Would you really want to convey that emotion with a frown?

I have a friend who blushes online all the time when receiving compliments. Seeing her frown annoyed me so much, I made her a new blush. A smiling one . I just did a web search for smilies and I'm not the only one. They're called smilies for a reason and I for one prefer a self-conscious smile to a frown any day.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Watch Your Language!

I ended up having an interesting discussion with a teacher at my kids' school the other day I thought I'd share with you.

First, I want to ask a question that I'd like you to answer honestly. Since you will be answering it to yourself, to prevaricate would be only to lie to yourself ;). Have you ever used a swear word? Doesn't matter how minor or major, have you ever used any one?

How did it feel? Did it help relieve some of your tension or stress, did it let you get the emotions out of the way and clear your mind for managing whatever happened next? Did it serve any purpose at all?

Okay, maybe more than one question.

Basically, languages are living entities that adapt and grow to reflect people's needs. When the first computer was invented, someone had to name it. Same with the first knife or the first time a person saw a horse. While some words have outlasted their purpose except within reenactment societies, every word in common, everyday usage has a purpose. Aquarius was delegated to a zodiac sign probably once the need for a water bearer vanished with the introduction of plumbing. So why have swear words persisted? Why is it that swear words exist in every human language I've ever heard off, often with commonalities such as the potty words? If my assumptions about language growth and word persistence are valid, then there's a reason, a true purpose, for swear words.

Now back to my conversation with the teacher.

The topic began with the overreaction to the use of certain terms by both teachers and students and the failure to recognize cultural influences putting these words into people's common vocabulary. Imagine someone told you not to use the word sleep. Now imagine having to remember to check every sentence before it comes out of your mouth to ensure you haven't used the word sleep. Further imagine suffering disciplinary action of various levels if you should slip up because it came up within context and you didn't think fast enough to recognize what you were about to say. A profuse apology and immediate retraction of your statement is considered irrelevant in the face of your failure to avoid mentioning *that word*.

Now, I am not in any way advocating the random use of swear words within the school system. Nor am I suggesting slip-ups should be allowed to pass unnoticed. However, I think things have gone a little too far. Swear words are a way to express emotions and sometimes even an alternative to violent action.

My husband is a tense, aggressive driver (he's going to love that description :)) to the point that he got annoyed when people cut me off (who I didn't notice) when we were caravanning. To counter road rage, he swears at other drivers, under his breath now with the introduction of little ears and more recently a chorus of "Daddy, watch your language." While I would not advocate this method, for my husband, it lowers his stress and makes him a safer driver. How does this work? Well, he has expressed his emotions.

Emotions are dangerous things when bottled up and have been known to burst out all out of proportion if not given voice or at least appropriate consideration. The use of swear words is one, non-violent method of expressing and validating the emotion so its urgency passes.

Let's go back to the school system for a moment. Whether you have kids, are currently in school or have a pretty good memory of your own experiences, I think most of us understand school is a stressful environment where social and academic pressures clash together with students crushed in between. Hmm, perhaps comparable to a bumper-to-bumper commute with a critical meeting or appointment at the other end.

So, we hope the students will relieve their stress through positive physical activity during recess time (which, by the way, gets shorter as school becomes more intense until you're left with only a little time after lunch and then only if you gobble your food). And what about the students for whom recess is the most stressful part of all where they must endure the active ridicule of the other students and exclusion from all group activities?

Now counter that with the proscription of emotional interjections (which is basically what swear words are). I'd think the stress level would intensify without an outlet. And before you say, "Well, only 'real' swear words are proscribed," let me point out my son was talked to for using "pissed off" as in "This really pisses me off." A swear word? Maybe so since it falls into the potty language category but it is also an adamant expression of emotion, a legitimate phrasal verb according to the American Heritage Dictionary (

Say, "This really upsets me."
Say, "This really pisses me off."

Do they feel the same to you? Do they serve the same purpose? Maybe so, but then I'd ask, what's next to join the list? Will students be limited to only politically correct forms of expression and all come across as if in a new age love fest? And if they're not allowed to express these more complex and pressing emotions in a way that allows them to manage them, will we see other consequences.

I have an 11-year-old stress case. Well, honestly, he comes by it naturally since I was one at the same age, but still, it seems to me my children need all the tools in their language arsenal to handle the stressors put on them at every age. Are we helping or harming by trying to box them in to proper behavior all the time? Shouldn't there be a time and place for expressing themselves even if it involves swear words? When my guys get rowdy, I tell them that's outdoor behavior. When they use bad words, I tell them to watch their language. I must be ever diligent against the explosive expression of emotion because if they slip up at school too many times, there are consequences. I wonder what the consequences of the constant repression of emotions might be and when we'll see them...or have we already?

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

What's the difference between books and movies?

Censorship. Okay, that's a big, nasty word that on the surface I don't agree with at all. However, I realize as a mother, I censor what my children are exposed to every day. I actually let them read practically anything with the understanding if something makes them uncomfortable or they don't understand it, they should come and talk whatever it is over with me. This probably makes some parents cringe and, I'll admit, when Sean spouted back a synopsis of one of the books I'd given him, the heavy material shocked me. He wasn't bothered and understood what was presented well enough for us to have a really good conversation. This speaks well of my intention not to shelter my children but bring them up as thinking beings despite the small number of years they've managed to accumulate.

That's all very well, but why am I bothering to comment about it? Well, today I censored them swiftly and without thought to the possible expansion of their view of the world. They ended up watching a bit of a movie about small time drug dealers being attacked by their neighbors and in trouble with their buyer. Ever other word out of the characters' mouths seemed to be a foul one and the content between drug dealing and use, and murder and assault was extremely mature.

Okay, how is this different than reading a book about an abused child who splits into multiple personalities in an effort to handle it?

Was the problem the television being a more "in your face" presentation? Was it specifically the foul words that could get the kids in trouble if they repeated them at school? Was it hypocrisy on my part to be open in one area and censorious in another?

I don't know the answers to any of those questions, but thought I'd throw this thought up to all of you. Is there a difference when mature topics are presented in a fictional setting between books and television or movies? And what do I teach my children by making that distinction so pointedly. On the one hand, I said, we'll discuss it and figure it out. On the other, I came down as authoritative parent figure "You Shall Not Pass." Right or wrong, I'm uncomfortable with the inconsistency and my inability to come up with a straight answer, not that this will in any way affect my decision to let them read what they want to or to limit their TV privileges. It just means I'll worry the concept in my head until I decide something, possibly just that I'm happy the way things are, contradictory or not.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Where'd my keystrokes go?

Okay, maybe it's not profound, but to a multitasker, there is nothing more frustrating than doing a rapid switch between windows on the computer and typing away only to discover the switch hasn't activated the text box. So, what happened to my perfect sentence or witty aside? Where can I recover those words; restore my thoughts?

So far, I haven't found the keystrokes anywhere. They're not on the old application or the new. They've slipped in between to nestle somewhere in my computer session never to be seen again....

Or are they? Do they build up in some hidden buffer just to spill over randomly and put a "j" in kilobyte or an extra "e" in weird? Do our half-thoughts take on a life of their own and add a new layer to the intelligence growing in our operating systems? What ever could the answer be?

And now, back to your regular programming.

Hey, I promised stray thoughts, didn't I? :)

Monday, January 05, 2004

You say To-MAH-to, I say To-MAY-to, let's call the whole thing off...

Okay, I made my writing goals so here I am back with another stray thought.

My sons, ages 9 and 10, picked up a nasty habit of starting each sentence with "No." I've been trying to tamp down on it especially since they are contradicting opinions rather than facts they know the answer to. Well, I recently realized I do the same thing. It's a chicken and egg, did I pick it up from them or did they pick it up from me? But either way, it's a horrible habit.

The thing is, we're not alone in this. How many times have you heard or participated in arguments over things that have no "true" answer? One I've heard often enough in my family is over colors. You look at a car and perceive color, believed to be an absolute, differently. "It's a green car." "'s a blue car." and so on.

So, my "think about it" question for the day is why do we spend so much time contradicting non-facts. Is it not enough to share our perspective? Must we establish through persistence and loud voice our way as the right way especially on things for which there is no right way? Or maybe, by becoming aware, we can tame this beast and temper our responses. Let "No" become once again a minor syllable used most often by two-year-olds or closely followed by "thank you."

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Monkeys and Keyboard Posture

I'm not sure whether I had this thought while writing or when trying to crack the tension out of my back and neck but here is my first stray thought.

Monkeys are natural keyboardists cause they're designed to free their hands while sitting. Humans are built to free their hands while standing, making long term sitting an uncomfortable and potentially crippling decision. Natural selection is dead because of medical advances. If it wasn't, would we humans revert to a more monkey-like physical structure and see instances of carpal tunnel reduced?

This is just a question and/or thought. I am in no way advocating a return to an earlier age or reduced medical care for infants who otherwise wouldn't survive. Even if we could give away medical advances, I don't think we should.

However, in creating an artificial environment, we've distanced ourselves from more than the feel of the soil. You'll hear a lot about how human technology has undermined the natural maintenance of animal populations, making some too strong and others extinct. What I haven't heard a lot about is how we've lost our own forms of natural maintenance and development. With overcoming all that is dangerous and deadly in a more Hobbesian world, have we lost also the good pieces allowing us to adapt over generations to new climates and new situations. Will our children's children be better adapted to our technological world or will we keep passing on the same traits necessary for times before humans gained the ability to control life and death regardless of nature's choices? Simple environmental manipulations such as indoor heating mean someone like me who is better adapted to desert climates can survive anywhere. What other ways have we managed to conquer natural limitations in such a way to make the natural world almost irrelevant?

As a writer, these questions develop an additional element. When designing alien societies, should I focus on what adaptations they have to their current environment or to one far in their past. At what point does natural selection give way to technological manipulation in the world I craft?