Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Antitheses

Self-centered post ahead. You have been warned.

-

Something strange and unprecedented happened over the weekend. It was so unexpected that I was honestly thrown for a couple of hours; and yet, it seems such a small thing.

I finally met a Theodora Goss story I didn't like.

All right, a couple of absolutely necessary clarifications. Goss is one of my favorite writers; I've read every single one of her blog posts; I go into the archives when I'm in need of inspiration; and all of you should go read Princess Lucinda and the Hound of the Moon, The Witch, and The Rapid Advance of Sorrow as soon as possible.

The story of hers that I read and didn't like is not a comment on her abilities as a writer. The story ("Estella Saves the Village") was, on the contrary, well-written. I didn't like it anyway. But that's a comment not on Goss's (awesome) writing but on the place where my personality/identity/ego diverges from hers.

No matter how great my heroes, I'm going not to see eye to eye with them on some occasion. So, as I have said before, disagree boldly with people you respect.

It is personal, but the person to which the negative feeling pertains is me.

-

What bothered me about the story? I'm not going to give away too much of the story, but before too long the reader will probably notice that some of the characters are allusions to literary figures from the Victorian period. The reason this offended me was not because it was used as a gimmick; au contraire, for it was important. Rather, the sheer literariness of the premise/story bothered me. I might have imbibed some of Feynman's anti-culture sentiment. In any case, recently I've been tired of the convention in books for book-loving characters to gain automatic goodness points.

Another thing that bothered me - a more important consideration for me personally - was not so much the story itself as the general aesthetic called to mind: Victoriana Pre-Raphaelite floral Fairy Folk Romantic aesthetic style. I had realized before that it was not me. I did not realize until the weekend just how not-me it is.

Does this discussion sound frivolous? Maybe it is, somewhat. But (I am doing this deliberately) a post by Goss called Becoming Yourself illustrates why such discoveries, individually small, are important:
The surest way to become yourself again, I think, is to discover what you actually like, item by item, and fearlessly acknowledge it, not matter how uncool it makes you. I have a passion for murder mysteries, for example. I like Land’s End cardigans, and buy them in various colors. I also like pearls, and brooches of various kinds (I know, what am I, sixty-two?). Also, The Secret of Roan Inish and banana splits (I know, what am I, twelve?). I will probably never wear a scarf, because I have a passion for murder mysteries and it would give someone a convenient way to murder me, thank you. Most modern dance bores me, but then so does most Russian ballet. I don’t really see the point of modernist art. I love the pre-Raphaelites and Art Nouveau, and if that means I have bad taste, so be it.

I remember the days when I used to write with a fountain pen, until I realized I didn’t really like it. I was just trying to fit an image I had of myself as a writer. Now I write with a cheap rolling ball ink pen.

Figure out what you like and move toward it, one item at a time. Each item individually may seem trivial. But in the end, you will start to figure out who you are, and to become it.

My version: I like trains, cypresses, the ocean, lower brass, Rationalists, Rome, and sharks. I love math, I have a weakness for multiples of twelve, and prime numbers are gross. I prefer dark hair to bright, cool colors to warm colors, but gold and blue to silver and green. My taste in food is boring: I like plain toast and clear soda, and I loathe spicy food deeply (and the taste of peppers).

As for art - I like some Surrealist and Romantic art (Albert Bierstadt wins), but the Pre-Raphaelites' medieval themes alienate me. "School of Athens" is my favorite painting (ever?) and Jacques-Louis David was a boss. I don't actually like pretty things - I don't wear jewelry on principle and I have no use for floaty ethereal dresses or sandals. I want to be an engineer. I like structural, I like plain, I like sonorous and imperial and almost too simple to be elegant. My hair is short and I'm keeping it that way.

Therefore, the standard long-(probably red- or golden-)haired heroine with flowers in her hair and in the print of her flowy dress who picks wildflowers and sings in a sweet voice and may be an enchantress is not only not me, but also possibly my antithesis. Which is both unfortunate and useful. Unfortunate because I sound as though I'm hating on her and I'm not, we just belong to different stories. Useful because when I take away what is not me I see more clearly what I am.

This is a self-centered post (you were warned), and it has gone on quite long enough. Therefore, I shall leave you with two images that summarize the main gist.

Completely Not Me:
A Sea Spell - Dante Gabriel Rossetti
(source)

More Like Me:
Equestrian Statue of Joan of Arc
(source)

(It was difficult choosing what to search for. If I choose Mulan then I'm leaning too much on race [I'm Chinese]; however, this picture that looks almost exactly like my Doppelganger Vin is a dude and I'm...not. So third option.)

However this is only an approximation. The formula as I see it (this also subject to further refinement):

def grok(new_thing):
    you = [unknowable conglomeration of stuff]
    identity = [sum of self-knowledge]
    antithesis = [stuff you know you have rejected from your identity]

    if new_thing in you:
        identity.append(new_thing)
    else:
        antithesis.append(new_thing)

everything_there_is = [everything there is, just like it says]
for x in range(0, len(everything_there_is)):
    grok(everything_there_is[x])

Friday, July 26, 2013

Two X Chromosomes

Gender is, for me personally, a non-issue. I am biologically a female, but that is not as big a part of my personality as the fact that I’m an introvert, that I’m in the process of growing up in a safe neighborhood, and that I love math. I am an individual first and a girl second.

So it is in many books I read. Intelligent, independent, competent, complex female characters take action and bear the consequences and are treated by their authors as sentient beings - as real people. So it should be.

Some other authors have argued these points more eloquently and concisely than I could. Therefore I shall frame my thoughts on gender issues in books as a response to them.

I refer you to Shannon Hale’s post (from a long time ago), Why do you write strong female characters?:
I love my girl characters. I think they're different from one another, have various strengths and weaknesses like anybody does. I do think they're strong in their own ways. But I never make the decision "I'm going to write strong females in my books," a sort of inorganic goal to turn a character away from her natural tendencies of weakness into a statement of girl power. Yet that's what that question seems to imply.

So usually the way I answer the question is to say, "I think I'm writing realistic female characters."
…which is precisely the right way to go about it. When I was reading the second Princess Academy book I was gratified to note how all the girls had different personalities and how real they seemed, how like an actual group of friends.

More from the esteemed Ms. Hale:
While writing I'd decided that sexism didn't even exist in my fantasy worlds and I never had to wrestle with it. In my worlds, girls do stuff and nobody thinks two things about it.

But it turns out that my books aren't published in my fantasy worlds. They're published in this world. And people still do think two things about it, or three or four. And I'm surprised. But...but...didn't we already get over this years ago? Don't we already agree that girls are interesting and diverse, as are boys?

Are "strong female characters" really so rare that we note them, call them out as extraordinary?
Two things that stood out to me:

1. “I’d decided that sexism didn't even exist in my fantasy worlds” - I have done the same in GW, through measures such as turning titles like “Lord” and “sir” gender-neutral and fudging with last name inheritance (kids take the last name of the parent whose birthday they’re closer to). Since I can, I have also decreed that in GW, sexuality and race are non-issues.

2. “didn't we already get over this years ago? Don’t we already agree that girls are interesting and diverse, as are boys?” I thought so too. But then again, Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, and creationists still exist.

Now I’d like to point you toward a post by PC Wrede entitled Dragons and Gender Bias…Huh?:
...most stories are not allegories, and the vast majority of characters in a non-allegorical, realistic piece of fiction are not going to work if they are portrayed first as a member of a group (“a typical ___”), and only second as an individual with whatever strengths and weaknesses, quirks and phobias, that particular individual happens to have.

And I would argue that regardless of what traits or attributes a character has – race, size, ethnicity, sex, age, hair color, etc. – what shapes them most is the interaction between their own personality and the attitude of the culture they grow up in toward their particular traits, because that pretty much determines both the way the characters think of themselves (and others) and the ways they expect other people to think and behave.

I don’t have to worry about the problem implied in the first paragraph - of creating a “typical” character - because my characters usually come to me on their own, first, and then I have to find a world for them after. If my characters were not individuals, I would not care about them; if I did not care about them, I would not write their stories.

Re: paragraph two: so I have these individual characters, and I've found a world that can hold them more or less adequately. “Adequately”, not “perfectly”, because it’s on the edges that conflict happens. The conflict differentiates among different aspects of a character - if I’m getting too vague, do tell me - I mean, sometimes I have characters whom I use in multiple settings, and in each one they are slightly different.

My Doppelgangers operate on the same principle. One of the UChicago essay prompts this year is “You are you and your…?” - which I took as a challenge to separate out from one’s identity all external influences. Say that it can be done. Say that I have a soul that is wholly mine. What happens to that soul when put in a different setting?

EAL = soul + safe neighborhood + small immediate family + ...
Vin = soul + early exposure to magic + early vilification for use of magic + ...
Orsolya = soul + irresponsible adult figures + crime-ridden neighborhood + ...

And so on.

Note, please, that in the above equations nowhere is there “being a girl” for me and Orsolya, and no “being a boy” for Vin. Why? I can’t say, simply, that gender doesn't matter - it does, and people still get into arguments about it. But it doesn't matter as much as people sometimes think it does, and it certainly doesn't matter more than a person’s individual traits - whether in real life or in a story.

--

Self-deprecating meta-comment: perhaps this post was not really necessary. I assume that most reasonable people, and most people reading this blog, accept that female characters should have as nuanced/complex portrayals as male characters. However, writing this helped me clarify my thoughts, which for me justifies its existence.

--

Small case study: my WIP, Orsolya. In it, Orsolya (female) does a lot of rescuing of Nikodim (male). Is it a gender-reversed rescue story in which the gutsy girl saves the lad in distress? Is it a romance in which a headstrong young woman does anything for her love?

No and hell no. It’s the story of how character A, who is fanatical about duty and absolutely does not want to fail the people who have given her a chance at being important, gives character B, who is sheltered even before being kidnapped, a kick in the backside spurring him to grow up and take responsibility already, and how those two opposite personalities grow to complement one another. I could reverse the genders, make them the same gender, and it wouldn't change the bones of the story.

--

I can't write a post that touches on gender issues without including Mulan music.

Short Hair - Mulan OST

I claim this as my theme song.

--

By the way, next week band camp starts. I'll try to do two posts a week as long as I can, but as the school year gets into full swing I may not be able to.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Letters to a Young Poet

Last summer, I read Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke. A lot of quotes struck me, especially since I'm trying to write more poetry now.

(I'm definitely going to read more of Rilke's work, and the work of the writer (Jens Peter Jacobsen) he mentions in the letters.)

“Go into yourself…ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?” (6)
Yes. I must.

“Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary…rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty…use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.” (7)
Indeed, love poems are facile. I haven’t had a proper crush in ages and I wrote one last week (in my defense, there was a more specific message - but it was love poem nonetheless). The poems I've written that embarrass me the least are the ones about loneliness and history.

“Your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.” (8)
I have felt precisely this sensation. Sitting in my room in the evening, as the sun is going down, and listening to the sounds of others outside, while inside of me my thoughts settle.

“Ultimately, and precisely in the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone.” (14)
At times, this statement depresses me, but sometimes it seems instead a declaration of independence, of which I can approve. Maybe because I often feel alone, and the knowledge that others, too, live in solitude is somehow soothing.

“Always trust yourself and your own feeling…Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened.” (23)
In other words, when someone asks you for your opinion and you say you don’t know, you’re not being wishy-washy, they’re being impatient. I particularly loathe those who ask you your opinion only because they hope it will reinforce theirs. Patience. Patience.

“Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.” (41)
I've done a lot of that.

On Rome: “Waters infinitely full of life move along the ancient aqueducts into the great city and dance in the many city squares over white basins of stone and spread out in large, spacious pools and murmur by day and life up their murmuring to the night, which is vast here and starry and soft with winds.” (48)
Moving water, white stone, windswept sky. Yes. Think of these things when you are ill at heart or troubled in mind.

“What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours - that is what you must be able to attain.” (54)
When no one else’s opinions are pressing against yours - when no one may impose their way of thinking onto you - when you are free and alone and can do what you wish - then will you have inner solitude. I do not know for sure, because I have not yet reached it.

“It is important and full of new experience to rediscover a work of one’s own in someone else’s handwriting. Read the poem as if you had never seen it before, and you will feel in your innermost being how very much it is your own.” (66-67)
This is how I feel about "Seaside".

“We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.” (68)
I believe this in theory and occasionally apply it in practice. Self-control is the highest virtue.

On love: “two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.” (78)
My ethos in love is close to null, because I’ve never been in a relationship. But - for an introvert, this quote describes the perfect formula.

“Ask yourself whether these large sadnesses haven’t rather gone right through you. Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad…If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiments, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.” (81-83)
Reread this passage when you are sad. Surely the only way to move on from unfavorable events is to incorporate them into your being; surely, if nothing else, suffering is a way of becoming stronger. Or maybe suffering is just a way of learning more about yourself, how you respond to bad things. Though self-knowledge, I’d argue, is just another kind of strength.

“We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can…This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.” (88-89)
Frontier courage. I need more of that.

“Art too is just a way of living.” (108)
I don’t agree, literally, with the “just”, but I think Rilke is emphasizing the point that we don’t have to separate our art from the rest of our life. In fact, as a way of living, we have to bring it as much into ourselves as possible.

Ray Bradbury’s immortal quote always, always applies:
“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

I've never been drunk. But Rilke's letters are just like a sip of cold, clear water that, somehow, feels like an toast to the moon.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Pastwalking, or a Stroll through Spacetime

On Wednesday I went on a very long walk. It took me back over ten years and five miles, and while it was not as poignant an experience as I suspected it might be, I did think things.

The trees along El Camino Real are labeled with small metal squares: CT and a number. California Tree Registry? I tried Google but I can find no official explanation for the tree labels. Whoever put them up, they’d be a good way to indicate a meeting place. Tree 108 was an elegant, long eucalyptus tree with its bark mostly peeled away.

I passed through a tunnel formed by bushy plants between sidewalk and street, tall fence between sidewalk and house, with trees hanging their branches overhead. Completely hidden, a tunnel of wood and leaf.

A bridge with metal struts and railings, but wooden planks, traversed a dry creek bed. Silver sharpie graffiti - or perhaps simple scratching through the rust? - seemed to say “Teucer”. I am almost certain I misread it.

One “local landmark” information stand was almost completely destroyed, the glass shattered and the paper water-stained. I was surprised not to see any graffiti within, and happy.

A massive building, a new hospital, with more than eight storeys, loomed up - an edifice of blue glass with a silver metal exoskeleton, towering over the idyllic single-family suburban houses. At the top of the building there seemed to be smokestacks, though I know they were something else.

I passed the house in which I grew up. I had forgotten that the street number sign was made of stained glass. The massive tree that stood in the front yard was taken down - I believe it was ill - and a new one grows in its place, still small enough to need a stake. I wish luck to the children who now live in that place.

My old middle school - man. I never really had closure with that place. Once I graduated I had nothing more to do with it. I was thinking of the future, of my brilliant (ha) high school career. I haven’t been back since I moved and it was strange walking those halls again.

The greatest wave of nostalgia came for the library. It is beautiful, like a ship’s prow breaking over the wide-open blacktop. I glimpsed the interior, the steps leading down to the central area, a ziggurat in reverse and just as holy. If I hadn’t had that library, I would have done something drastic. Middle school was an unhappy time...That library was home to me. I discovered many, many great books through it.

I ate half of my lunch on the steps of the outdoor assembly area - that is, the steps that surround the field. It has always reminded me of a Greek amphitheater. I stared out over the field - plastic turf now - and thought about how, in my long story “Mind Butcher”, it is on a field based on my memory of this one that Vin reaches the Threshold a second time.

Back to my elementary school now. All the schools in my town seem to be undergoing renovations. But the gate was unlocked so I trespassed. I went up to the first floor (I’m counting ground level as “floor 0”) of the new building and sat down, to survey all I could see. The place has changed so much from when I was there, whereas my middle school is the same. The old play structure is long gone; there’s this entire new building; I couldn’t get into the main wings to see what other changes have taken place, but I’m sure they have.

Could they at least paint over that salmon pink? It was dark green in my early years there. I preferred that.

The overhanging chain-link cage around the baseball diamond had a lock on the top, useless. Of course, being me, I wondered what might happen if you unlocked the lock. Would a portal to another world open? Such portals there were, in this place, a long time ago. I made them, and my friends made them. With our minds.

I made a pilgrimage to a place whose name I will not write here. It is a name that can only be transmitted by the breath and the mind. I have, in my GW world, deified entities associated with the place.

Too many people were in the park. I regretted that: how lovely it would have been to sit on the swings. In elementary school I imagined myself on an elephant, on my way to meet a dignitary. In middle school, walking to the same park for PE, I sat on the swings and imagined that I was a winged assassin.

I walked to a school I have never attended, a private Catholic school not far away, and trespassed. The door was open. The lights were on. No one was there to tell me to take my pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-Nietzsche atheist self out of the hallowed ground. I have no idea what I would have said if anyone had approached me.

I ate the second half of my lunch on the steps of the branch library. Once upon a time, this too was my haven.

From there I should have gone home, but instead I walked down my town’s “other” main street, then along until I found a place to cross the train tracks. On the steps leading down from the crossing platform, I sat for a long time. I imagined my ship was coming in. I looked over the wilds, the tall grasses and lonely trees flanking the tracks. Suburban fantasy was made for such places.

I thought arrogant thoughts about how I could have saved someone if only we’d been in the same class in sixth grade. I thought about my own arrogance. I thought about how very few of my stories have rivalries anymore, and how it would behoove me to change that.

The train passed by, its whistle urgent and sorrowing. The ground trembled beneath me. I wondered why it is that people choose to commit suicide by throwing themselves in front of a train. Though I understand how lovely it is to walk down the middle of a street, and sometimes, only if I’m alone, I pause in the middle of the tracks as I cross, and imagine.

If you know me in real life, stop worrying. I have too many things to do with my life to want to die so young.

I walked to another park and sat in the rose garden, and I thought about how much I loathe the sound of crying, screeching children. The most annoying sound…I cannot judge them too harshly. Still: loud people of any age immediately draw my hostility.

Yet there was beauty in the park as well. A great tree, its back arching graceful as a dancer’s, its branches reaching skywards. Another, like the prow of a ship cutting into the air.

I believe I was thinking much of ships on Wednesday, as I walked through space and my mind danced through time. I believe I miss the ocean. Before the summer ends for good, I should go. Journeys are good for the magician’s soul.

-

Bonus:

My first favorite song: "Papercut" by Linkin Park.

The sun goes down
I feel the light betray me
The sun...

Monday, July 15, 2013

Nightmares

What do you fear?

-

Think of World War II. Not the concentration camps - the ghettos, the bombed-out cities, the ruined neighborhoods where, around every corner, you might find someone you know dead.

Okay, not quite that bad. No deaths yet. But the town is surrounded by an electric fence, and it is stuffed with hundreds of high school students, thirteen to sixteen, a crowd that swarms around in confusion that could, you know, turn quickly into stampede.

Further, you know - you and a handful of others - that very soon, they will let out the dogs.

You are short, but you have little difficulty pushing your way through the crowd because you walk along ledges and you look like you know what you're doing. And you do. While everyone else is milling around in confusion, you are heading for the perimeter. You know, and a handful of others know, a way to subvert the electricity. All you need is two people, because of some mechanism that involves the depression of two levers simultaneously, which offers a five-second window.

As you walk, you look out over the tide of your peers and you see someone you recognize. A friend of yours, a shy sort of fellow. He might make eye contact with you, or he might not; either way, he moves off in the opposite direction.

Surely, you think, he is one of the others who knows about the way to get out, and he is simply going to look for his little brother. Surely he will be all right.

So you find one of your other friends, a sweet girl who believes you instantly when you tell her you can get the two of you out, and who trusts you enough to do exactly what you tell her to do when you reach the gate.

The two of you depress the levers, and you run through. Neither of you die, and, further, once you are out you are greeted by the sight of at least a dozen of your friends, safe, clustered at the foot of an equestrian statue.

You see the best friend of the friend you missed in the crowd, and you ask, "Have you see X?"

The answer comes to you slowly, like the viscous dread that collects in the pit of your stomach. "I don't know."

These are the only gates that convey safe passage. If he had gotten out, he'd have to be here. Time is running out, and soon the dogs will be loose, and the last time you saw him he was heading deeper into the heart of the city, and - you think to the first moment, when you could have called for him, when you could have -

You find that you have no trouble going back in through the fence, particularly when you are sprinting and, well, you are made of lead and lead is a poor conductor of electricity.

When you reach the part of town where everyone is still clustered, you slow down. You don't want to cause a panic. Only one gate, and thousands of people, and the dogs...

Is that his brother? You go up to the boy and he isn't, but he's the friend of the brother of your friend and you are so near panic in this crowd of strangers that you seize on this tenuous connection as if this child, whom you have never seen before now, was really your brother.

So the two of you start to search for those two, down alleys and up side streets and in buildings with smashed-out windows. You descend into an underground bunker with bright lights and pink walls and a plate of cookies that you know, and warn your new little brother, are poisoned.

A clock must be planted in your brain, because you can tell that the dogs are about to be let out. You still have not found your friend, nor his brother, and the two of you are far in the city, far from the gate.

Your "brother" suggests that you start back down, to get out before the dogs come. Maybe the boys you're searching for have already gotten out a long time ago, maybe you're throwing away your chance of survival looking for someone who's safe, who might not do the same for you.

One more house, you say. One more house. You've climbed the stairs out of that bunker, and your hand is on the doorknob. The dogs can't hurt you anyway. Just one more house. It's going to be the next one, it has to.

You turn the knob.

-

And your dad calls you awake.

And you lay awake in your bed, staring up at the ceiling.

You see your friend that day at school - you see his brother, too, even - and they're fine, and everything is fine, but every time you look over at your friend in class you think I did not save you.

Even though you had all the information, you couldn't find him. You tried as hard as you could, and it wasn't enough. You failed. You failed.

That is worse than getting torn apart by the dogs yourself.

--

I had this dream a long time ago, but there was a similar one last night and I feel the need to publish this one. Well. Sweet dreams.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Imperator Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Divi Filius Augustus

Augustus
(source)
At the beginning of June I wrote of Doppelgangers and Mana Personalities, saying that figuring out with which characters - historical, literary, within your own stories - you identify can help clarify your (I should say "my") sense of identity.

To that end, I recently read a biography of Augustus Caesar (full name above). This is going to be one of those self-indulgent personal posts, but if you read on you get to find out about one of history's bamfs. So that's something.

All quotes/information from Anthony Everitt's Augustus.

-

I identify more with "Octavian" than "Augustus" - by Octavian I mean Augustus in his early adulthood, between Julius Caesar's assassination and his defeat (spoilers!) of Antony and Cleopatra. Thoughts loosely chronological.

Assassination of Julius Caesar
(source)
(Apologies: I could not find the name of the artist who created this painting.)

Octavian was not a boss soldier like Julius, or Marc Antony, or even his closest friend Agrippa. In fact, in his first few battles he gained a reputation for cowardly behavior and in the early years of the Second Triumvirate was clearly less powerful/more junior than Antony. He had been sickly as a child and in times of stress - such as before battles - often fell ill.

"For [Octavian], bravery was not an assertion of collective defiance and solidarity among colleagues but a solitary, obstinate act of will" (140). I see from this quote why people have classified Augustus as an INTJ. While I acknowledge the usefulness of esprit de corps, personal will to power is more striking. See: conservation of ninjutsu.

Complacency = eklusis, the unstringing of a bow - Marc Antony losing focus after his big victory over the republicans who slew Julius Caesar. Contrast Octavian’s “slow, undeviating pursuit of mastery” (206) - take your time, focus, succeed. He was not as ambitious as Julius; yet he was the one who attained and, more importantly, kept power.

Roman Forum
(source)
To gain popularity back in Rome, Octavian updated infrastructure and put in place systems that kept the populace happy.

Octavian surrounded himself with good people, such as Agrippa (boss soldier, see above; see also Battle of Actium) and Maecenas (PR guy). He recognized what his strengths and weaknesses were, and had other people around who could make up for the latter.

When he wanted something, he would get it in the end with persistence; Marc Antony underestimated him, did not treat him as a worthy opponent until he was. He got what he wanted thanks to himself; he knew how to take what was his, or what might be his.

Sunken Ruins of Alexandria
(source)
Octavian’s victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra made me really, ridiculously happy. I don’t even know why, though I feel the Apollo v. Dionysus dichotomy had something to do with it. Apollo v. Dionysus: Octavian v. Marc Antony. Reason v. emotion; the logical power-hungry ambitious upstart v. the hedonistic successful confident general.

Were this blog big enough to generate controversy I’d probably have to fend off arguments that Octavian represented masculinity/yang/the West beating down on femininity/yin/the Orient. I’m not sure how I’d respond to such accusations, except to say that reason is not the province solely of males and that Marc Antony was, I’m pretty sure, a man. Though in the end, it was Octavian dealing with Cleopatra.

Octavius Caesar and Cleopatra, by Anton Raphael Mengs
(source)
After beating Antony + Cleopatra, Octavian became Augustus. His political reforms, which included creating a bureaucracy, were oddly enough awesome. Goal: to “improve the honesty and efficiency of imperial administration” (231) - censuses so taxes would be fair, improving roads/relay stations so communications would be faster, establishing firefighter and police systems; “streamlining the legislative and decision-making process” (234).

Delegate! Give more people more responsibilities - people will do something well if they feel that it’s important, that it matters somehow (contrast: busy work). Even a bureaucracy is good if the alternative is inefficiency and corruption.

Phrase describing his wife Livia: simplex munditiis, or “simple in her elegance”

Suetonius on Augustus’s study, as quoted by Everitt:
“Whenever he wanted to be alone and free of interruptions, he could retreat to a study at the top of the house, which he nicknamed ‘Syracuse’ [perhaps alluding to the workroom of Archimedes, the great Syracusan mathematician and experimental scientist] or ‘my little workshop’” (245).
Every good study should be a retreat (declares the introvert).

Palatine Hill
(source)
“[Augustus] was always afraid of saying too much, or too little. So he not only carefully drafted his speeches to the Senate…but he also wrote down in advance any important statement he planned to make to an individual, and even to Livia (it says something of her own clerical tidy-mindedness that she kept and filed all Augustus’ written communications with her)” (250).
I do the same thing, if I can. I’d rather email or message someone than talk to them in person, partly because I don’t like the sound of my voice (I mumble) and partly because in writing my message down the meaning becomes clearer to me. Calling people on phones is one of my least favorite activities in the world. I’d rather eat a pepper (I loathe peppers) than call someone.

Moderate living in food and exercise lets a man with fragile health outlive more physically fit peers. Careful planning of your rise to power helps too.

Augustus’s palace at Pandateria: small valley with fountains and “a colonnaded portico with seats [which] created a pleasant spot for conversation” (256), stairs up to the main house “shaped like a horseshoe with a garden in the middle; it contained dining rooms, a bathing complex, and other living spaces. At the tip of the promontory, a viewing platform offered an uninterrupted panorama of sky and sea” (256-7).
A refuge of the highest order. Simple living is probably made easier knowing that when you need it, you can go somewhere beautiful and look at the sea.

Island in Tyrrhenian Sea
(source)
Towards the end of his life Augustus started to lose his touch, in my opinion. Thinking too much of his dynasty, wanting too much to keep power in the family…manipulating his children and stepchildren and grandchildren and basically everyone with whom he shared even a drop of blood. Denying other people their will to power, especially when the situation is basically that of a parent trying to force his children to follow his footsteps, leaves a terrible taste in my mouth.

I have never fully embraced the phrase “blood is thicker than water”. Nepotism deliberately undermines meritocracy and, worse yet, sounds almost legitimate because only a horrible person doesn’t care more about their family than other people, right? “Bloom where you’re planted” likewise makes me gnash my teeth. However, I am digressing. Reroute.

Roman Aqueducts
(source)
As Octavian, the underdog, our man commends himself through his focus, determination, and hard work. As Augustus the princeps (first citizen), his public life turned Rome, as the saying goes, from clay to marble. As Augustus the paterfamilias, he slipped up - but I’m guessing that a lot of people have messed up judgment when the subject is the people close to them.

It seems, then, that when he was working toward personal glory or the good of the state, all was well, but when he turned clannish things started to fall apart. That is indeed a lesson for me: champion individuals because of who they are, not what they are, and keep an eye on the big picture. “Big” meaning, in this case, empires.

Ara Pacis
(source)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

On the Deception of Dichotomies

I love math and physics. Science is, to me, absolutely beautiful. I agree completely with the following:
Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order.
-Albert Einstein, “On Scientific Truth”
However, I also identify as a writer, more specifically, as a writer of fantasy, who grew up on myths and fairy tales and has never quite relinquished the childhood wish to turn into a dragon and fly off and have adventures.

The fact that I had to use "however" is a problem.

Feynman disses poets. Fantasy writers of all sorts say things about science that, quite frankly, enrage me. This post will have two parts: first, I will rant and rave against the vilification of science. Second, I will offer an alternative viewpoint.

-

Part One: Science Slandered

When I get around to writing a personal manifesto, right near the top by "fear complacency" and "you can make whatever you want" will be this line:

Disagree boldly with those you respect.

Ever since coming back from the mountains, I’ve been cutting loose from what I see as the fantasy old guard: the group that finds resonance in Green Men and fae and medieval music sung by women with long red hair. Their work is valuable. However, I cannot agree with much of it.

Examples time.

Terri Windling, a writer I respect immensely (her book The Wood Wife was stunning), posted some quotes back in April on her blog Myth and Moor from writer Joanne Harris. As I read them my ire rose.

I’m going to spend a while explaining exactly why the quotes anger me, so I want to stress: this is not an ad hominem attack. Windling’s work in the fantasy community was and remains important and inspiring. I think she’s damn awesome. Harris’s book Runemarks was entertaining (though not compelling enough that I want to read the sequels). I am not attacking them, I am seeing where we disagree. In some cases I’m not disagreeing precisely with Windling and Harris, but rather a widespread point of view that the post suggests.

As my dear Italian teacher said, Se non c’e’ il conflitto non ci sara’ il progresso.

All right. Caveats over. Quotes are from Harris unless marked.

Originally part of a matriarchal oral tradition, [fairy tales] became legitimized as a more patriarchal literary convention -- much in the same way that traditional magic (feminine) was later absorbed by the (primarily male) science of alchemy before shedding its magical elements altogether and becoming the science of chemistry.
I take Harris’s point that more "learned sciences" were not accessible to women. Furthermore, Windling explains in reply to some comments that Harris is discussing fairy tales specifically, which were, historically, generally passed along by women; Harris is not dismissing males in the oral tradition. In short: nothing for me to get angry about.

However, I’m going to take this quote as a gateway. There seems a belief that magic/intuition = female while science/reason = male. Yin and yang, right? However, the implications of such are that men lack intuition/creativity while women lack intellect/reason. Given the number of awesome male artists and awesome female scientists, clearly this is wrong.

When something is wrong, censoriousness needs no other explanation. Next quote.

…our concept of magic has adapted to fit a more rational world. We now have a need to rationalize our need to believe in magic, as our world picture and our understanding of possibility continues to expand. But as the science-pendulum begins to swing back - with particle physics seemingly bringing us back ever closer to what once was called 'magic,' I think that the literal-figurative debate will become increasingly less relevant, as will the division between 'conventional literature' and the oral tradition. These stories speak to the irrational mind, and therein lies their power.
I’m going to take this point by point.

1) "rationalize our need to believe in magic"
I would argue that we need not to “rationalize” but to “find legitimate reasons for” doing things. Do you believe in magic? If so, why? The reasons must hold up under scrutiny, under experiment. Scientific thinking is not trying to kill wonder, it’s trying to get closer to the truth. If you can’t come up with real reasons to believe something, then maybe it’s wrong.

Someone call me out on this. Ask me to defend a belief of mine. If I can’t come up with a good enough answer, maybe I’ll have to reconsider whether I really believe it or not. (But please, nothing like “is the world real?”)

2) "as the science-pendulum begins to swing back"
Oh, goodness. I get the point: that particle physics is downright weird (in a fascinating way) that seems to gel more with “magic” than the Newtonian world-machine (which I personally find beautiful, though incomplete) does. However, the way this phrase is used suggests that science made a mistake and people who believe in magic were right all along - which appalls me. Science does not exist to support ideologies. The object of science is truth.

Feynman, please help me:
Physicists are trying to find out how nature behaves…Suppose people are exploring a new continent, OK? They see water coming along the ground… and they call it ‘rivers’. So they say they’re exploring to find the headwaters …But lo and behold, when they get up far enough they find the whole system’s different…As long as it looks like the way things are built is wheels within wheels, then you’re looking for the innermost wheel - but it might not be that way, in which case you’re looking for whatever it is that you find!
-Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, p. 192

The more personal problem for me is that I agreed with a lot of what was said in the post. Take the last line of the Harris quote above: "These stories speak to the irrational mind, and therein lies their power." I agree that the most intellectual story that leaves a reader cold is not as good a story as any of the old fairy tales. Stories that play with archetypes (I’m thinking of Jung’s collective unconscious) are imbued with power.

So you see (meta level now), even as I pull away from this mythic arts community, there is still much that is valuable in it. But there is enough that cuts against what I am that I cannot view myself as a newcomer at their golden hall - instead I am the traveler who slips in, listens for a bit at the threshold, and then goes back out because I seek my companions and they are not within.

Le sigh.

Next point. Children’s books have a shorthand of characterization that goes something like this: likes books, dresses sloppily, pets dogs = good character; cares about appearance, likes math = mean character. My question: why? I agree: appearance isn’t everything (though there is something wrong with the idea that just because someone cares about how they look, they're automatically shallow/unworthy). But why vilify math?

In Anne Ursu’s book Breadcrumbs, which is a retelling of the Snow Queen story, after the boy gets the mirror shard in his eye he starts liking math. I believe I did a literal facepalm once I saw what was going on, and it colored my opinion of what would have otherwise been a most excellent book.

Conversely, when I read Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore, the titular character’s head for numbers made me so ridiculously happy that I knew it couldn't just be because I’d found someone who was like me. It was because math-loving main characters are rare.

Why is it that much of the fantasy community (not all, and maybe it’s a problem of my perspective) looks askance at STEM? I place some of the blame on the number of dichotomies that get thrown at us: left v. right brain, yin and yang, Dionysus v. Apollo. This or that, using “or” in the vernacular sense: one of exclusion.

But I love math, and in math (and coding), “or” is inclusive. Or means “at least one”.

Yin or yang? Left or right? Dionysus or Apollo? Yes.

-

Part Two: Integration

One quote can sum up my entire alternate viewpoint:
How often people speak of art and science as though they were two entirely different things, with no interconnection. An artist is emotional, they think, and uses only his intuition; he sees all at once and has no need of reason. A scientist is cold, they think, and uses only his reason; he argues carefully step by step, and needs no imagination. That is all wrong. The true artist is quite rational as well as imaginative and knows what he is doing; if he does not, his art suffers. The true scientist is quite imaginative as well as rational, and sometimes leaps to solutions where reason can follow only slowly; if he does not, his science suffers.
-Isaac Asimov
(With much thanks to D.)

Friday, July 5, 2013

Midsummer Crisis

Every summer, I get discontent when I pass the halfway point. I look at what I've done, and it feels like nothing. I begin to question myself: my entire reason for being, my purpose in life. During the school year there is not enough time, and I think that once summer starts I'll be fantastically productive. Then summer comes and...I'm not.

This year, my usual existential crisis is compounded by college essays. I've gotten started relatively early, and a good thing, because most of my first drafts are a heap of ideas that will need a while to get kicked into shape. Oh, yeah, and I still don't have a job.

When I start feeling like this (that is, a complete hack whose future is bleak and whose soul is gray), drastic measures are not necessary. Here is my prescription for myself:

0. Lock the door

I am really, really introverted, and when I am in a bad mood the thought of there being any possibility of someone else bothering me, imposing their presence on me, and worst of all, talking, causes me intense anxiety. Locking a door is a powerful act. It delineates my territory, it gives me control over my physical and, by proxy, mental and emotional, space.

1. Talk to Marcus

No one can stop you from being happy "if you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound you utter" (20).

Focus: "every moment think steadily...do what you have in hand with perfect and simple dignity...and...give yourself relief from all other thoughts" (11).

One thing at a time.

Look at the stars to purge the earth from your mind.

2. Choose a few simple, concrete things to finish by Monday

For me:
-read Augustus, by Anthony Everitt
-finish the June 2011 issue of Scientific American
-catch up on Goodreads reviews

3. Listen to yourself

From September 2011: Immer Wenn Ihr Traurig Seid.

"The Day is Done"

-by William Wadsworth Longfellow

The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.

I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o'er me,
That my soul cannot resist:

A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.

Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.

Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.

For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life's endless toil and endeavour;
And to-night I long for rest.

Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;

Who, through long days of labour,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.

Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.

Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.

4. Listen to music

Brich Aus - Oomph!

5. Get off the computer already

As you can see below, this blog was published (as I type these words, "will be published") at 0046. In other words, so late it's early, and certainly not healthy.

Good morning? Good night. So we hope.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Varieties of Magic

A collection of thoughts.

-

One of my favorite things to write is technical magic explanations, complete with tons of imperfectly matching analogies. This is probably a side effect of having been convinced, when I was younger, that I could learn magic myself, compounded by my more recent awe of how beautiful and self-consistent physics is.

Another one of my favorite things is when a story has multiple magic systems running around and bumping into one another, merging and splitting off like amoebas. I particularly like when multiple magic systems are deeply interconnected on a fundamental level, revealing that all the smokes and bangs &c on the surface are only regional idioms/conventions.

From PCWrede's Far West:
“And then, suddenly, I fell through into the quiet that was just magic and no spells.

It was like being deep underwater, knowing that above me there were fish swimming, and higher up were boats and people fishing and swimming and splashing, but none of it could reach where I was. It felt like the ocean in my dreams. It felt right.” (334)

I'm not sure if the experience in the quote above is a higher level of magical abstraction or if it's a more visceral, literal way of grasping magic - up or down? Which is it, if you're meddling directly with the magical substrate? "Sub"strate - should be the latter, then. And yet, you are integrating all different magic types, finding what lies beneath, and integration implies upward motion.

What bothered me about the magic I read in books was how arbitrary some spells and gestures seemed. Then I thought, maybe the motions themselves don't matter; maybe it takes magical talent to affix a certain outcome to a certain procedure. Magic, in this view, is essentially a way of programming the universe; learning magic means gaining access to more and more modules, learning more and more ways you can do things. What kind of syntax would a magical programming language have? I only know python, so I'm imagining:

object.make_fly("wingardium leviOsa")

...or maybe not.

By the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, if you watch an electron it'll behave differently from when you're not watching it. Likewise with magic.

Bharati Krishna Tirthaj on Vedic math: "It is magic until you understand it; and it is mathematics thereafter."

However, much as I love math and physics, I do have some sympathy for people who want their magic not to be completely like science, not to have methods and steps; who don't mind a certain level of arbitrariness, a certain lack of sense; a certain addition of chaos.

From R. L. LaFevers's blog, quoting Holly Black, a useful set of distinctions:
Closed fantasy - the magic is hidden
Open fantasy - the magic is well-known and an acknowledged part of the world.

Day logic and night logic
Day logic - rules are spelled out, acts almost like science
Night logic - more intuitive and less reliable outcomes

As my above comments should make obvious, I don't much care for the whole dichotomy of day/night logic because the day is full of strange and unexpected things, while the night has rules of its own. Yet, as a spectrum, it works, or, following the metaphor more closely, as a cycle. I believe, in my stories, that people with magical affinity tend to start early on, usually at age six or eight (those being my two favorite single-digit numbers, as both are blue), without having any idea what it is they're doing. (I'm in good company on this one: see Harry Potter.) Then, with training or on their own, intuition is shaped by instruction.

Confucius says: "Study without thought is a waste of time; thought without study is dangerous." Replace 'thought' with 'magical talent' and you have, respectively, a Squib and an Ariana Dumbledore.

On the subject of magical creatures - that is, creatures that are inherently magical - well, that's a difficult one. I don't believe, as in many magic worlds, that certain creatures are "made of magic". Rather, I see magic as an emergent property like intelligence. However I'm not sure what makes magic emerge in one person rather than another. I do believe (when I say "I believe", most of the time I mean "in my stories, I take as true") that it's not hereditary, much, in which case it would seem that magic is a product of environmental influences, or maybe the part of us (which I believe exists) that is separate from both our genetic heritage and our surroundings. That discussion could get involved; let's postpone it.

A word on magical species: I see it taken for granted that out of all the humanoid species in a world, humans - Homo sapiens sapiens - are the least magical. I'm still poking at this idea, but I'm leaning toward the view that there is no difference on the genetic level between a non-magic human and a human magician. In the brain circuitry, maybe, but not in the chromosomes. Self-organizing systems, ja? And, another word - I think the idea of having completely not-human Fae is fantastic, as in they have a completely different innate sense of morality - more like insects, maybe? This needs must be deferred.

Another discussion I'd like to have later is about the role of gods in fantasy/worlds with magic. Theology is not my strong suit (probably because I'm not religious...) so that one might be offensive to some people. Whatever.

What about magical places? I do use the concept of ambient magic, that is, magic in a location, in most of my stories. But that is also, I believe, an emergent property, though again I'm not sure what makes it emerge. Forests and lakes and canyons seem to me, intuitively, more magical than some other biomes (is biomes the right word here?). The ocean is too immense for the word "magic", though my saying so is probably a product of my own tendency to glorify the ocean (not that I do so without reason. Just look at it). Can ambient magic be used in a spell? Or is it untouchable by human magicians?

Now would be a good time to pull out a sweeping statement that encompasses my entire theory of magic in all its divers and wondrous ways. However, no such statement exists. The closest I have to summarizing all I have said is this:

Magic, if real, has rules. We just don't know exactly what they are, and sometimes they manifest themselves in strange, strange ways.*

*Replace 'magic' with 'the universe' in the first sentence of that paragraph. Just for fun.