Friday, August 30, 2013

Suburban Fantasy: the Bird King

I've been thinking about the topic of suburban fantasy for a long time. It has not been properly coined, or else I haven't seen it used formally as a category, yet it is probably one of my favorite genres. No expert on literary movements, I am probably ill-qualified to write this post: but how do movements come about except through individual writers following their own gut instincts?

So. What is suburban fantasy?

Fantasy in a suburban setting. The story takes place in a contemporary, realistic setting, in which, perhaps, the magic is hidden (to use a Diana Wynne Jones term, the world is Naywards). Adults may be skeptical of the magic, and the gutsy preteen protagonist may have to keep his/her magic hidden from the parents and the school administration. Alternatively, the suburb itself has magic quietly asserting itself in ordinary, everyday situations.

I'll go into more depth on the characteristics of the first flavor, which tends to show up a lot in children's books, at a later time. The second is what concerns me tonight, and the reason for that is Shaun Tan.


Shaun Tan is the Bird King and the emperor or high priest or someone Super Important in the unincorporated universe of suburban fantasy. The rest of this post, I warn you, will be an appreciation post, featuring extensive quotes from Tan's writings, with some of my commentary.

Concept Art for "The Nameless Holiday"
from Tales from Outer Suburbia
by Shaun Tan

Oh yes, and absolutely gorgeous art.

Today, I spent the afternoon at the library, as I don't do enough, and I read two Tan books: Tales from Outer Suburbia and The Arrival. Absolutely stunning, both of them. TfOS is a collection of short stories told in both prose and picture; The Arrival is told entirely through images.

I'm going to quote from His Majesty Tan's "Comments on Tales from Outer Suburbia":

‘Outer Suburbia’ might refer both to a state of mind as well as a place: somewhere close and familiar but also on the edge of consciousness (and not unlike ‘outer space’). Suburbia is often represented as a banal, quotidian, even boring place that escapes much notice. Yet I think it is also a fine substitute for the medieval forests of fairytale lore, a place of subconscious imaginings. I've always found the idea of suburban ‘fantasy’ very appealing, in my own work as well as those of other writers and artists, because of the contrast between the mundane and extraordinary, the effect of which can be amusing or unsettling, and potentially thought-provoking.
He uses the term suburban fantasy! So it's not just me. I too find the juxtaposition of the weird with the everyday wonderful. Suburban fantasy is basically everything I did as a kid: my backyard is really a swamp and the garden stake is really a sword. Let's kill monsters, then go inside and have crackers and watch Pokemon.

Also, I can't be the only one who finds something beautiful about suburbia. I love walking through my neighborhood, especially in the late afternoon when the light makes everything golden. Endless amber streets, ordinary houses with well- or poorly-tended gardens, unexpected pathways, the dull whistle of a train...

Endgame - Shaun Tan, 1996
Northern suburbia did feel at that time like the edge of the world, relentlessly ordinary, yet also liberating in being so quiet and uncluttered, and not without a strange beauty. A lot of my paintings as an adolescent are large canvases depicting silent suburban landscapes: empty footpaths, shady parks, rows of blank-faced houses, deeply shadowed windows and wide roads, things I saw everyday. The other half of my artistic interest was preoccupied with something almost contradictory: science fiction and fantasy, strange worlds far beyond everyday observation. This remains true of my creative work as an adult: half of my attention is fixed upon everyday suburban landscapes, which I often photograph and paint, while much of my time is spent drawing imaginary characters and fictional worlds. I find both equally fascinating.
Cities impose their identity upon you. But suburbia - tabula rasa suburbia, tame suburbia, sanitized world - a child could take over suburbia. I say that with not derision but possibility.

I’m often looking for ways to bridging those two interests, an ambition made obvious in Tales from Outer Suburbia. Many of the book’s images refer directly to places I have visited or lived within, and are imbued with the same kind of atmosphere that exists in my ‘real world’ paintings. At the same time, the stories and illustrations feel very removed from anything real. I think each story is galvanised by that difference or tension, trying to bring reality and fantasy together, in a way that feels honest and correct – at least as a faithful ‘parallel world’.
Paraphrasing what a reviewer said about Theodora Goss's writing that she quoted in a blog post that I read a long time ago - "treating fantasy as though it were realism." That's the spirit.

All of the paintings in this story ["Stick Figures"] represent the immediate environment of my childhood and adolescence, in the sprawling northern suburbs of Perth; people who live there will recognise this immediately. It’s a vast, quiet landscape that I’ve been attracted to as a subject for painting over many years. In my early twenties I painted several works featuring local streets, populated only by a few crows. Sometimes the crows were fighting or gathering on power-lines, but mostly they were just standing around, as if waiting for something to happen (long, wailing crow calls in the sunburnt afternoon air feature strongly in the soundtrack of my childhood).
Yes, there's the sense of waiting in suburbia. First you wait to grow up, then you wait (or rather, can't wait) to get out. I'm getting theoretical here: Suburbia is usually thought of as a means to an ends - people settle in suburbia to send their kids to nice safe schools - and so are one long liminal moment, full of possibility of transformations.

From "Our Expedition"
from Tales from Outer Suburbia
by Shaun Tan
As kids my brother and I once walked home across two or three suburbs, having no other means of transport due to a bus strike. It seemed to take forever, and really made me think about the scale of suburbia, not just its size, but its relentless repetition of ideas – housing styles, parks, shopping squares, and identical roads that seemed to have no end. This is the story that best captures for me the feeling of a suburban childhood, and the psychological boundaries that can be created by spending a long time in any one place (I did not really travel outside of Perth until I was a teenager). When everything you need is locally available, and experience is routine, it can be hard to imagine other places or ways of living – the whole world becomes small and shrink-wrapped.
Full of possibility of transformations, did I just say? Yes, it is so - yet also working, a counterpoint, is the reality or illusion of stasis, of everything being and staying the same, of suburbia taking over the universe. A quiet, dull entropy.

The real danger of suburban life is complacency, and it’s easy to forget that our lifestyle of consumption and expansion is linked directly to vast industries, and the toll they extract on the habitats of other animals. Our lives are quite abstracted from the natural world that we depend upon everyday, both geographically and psychologically, and this is something that I feel runs through many other stories in the collection, a sense of brokenness or disconnection. The question that follows is how we might recognise and respond to this.
You know what I have to tell myself over and over and over: fear complacency. Perhaps suburban fantasy needs must end with a breakout?


As I mentioned, I also read his book The Arrival today. However, that book's setting is more an out-and-out fantasy land, albeit with allegory to any and all immigrant experiences, and this post is getting quite long anyway. Thus, I shall leave you with this photoset from The Arrival, and a quote from an interview on his 2012 exhibit Suburban Odyssey:

Perth felt like a peripheral place not just physically but also in a lot of other conceptual ways. Peripheral in a positive way, implying great possibility and opportunity, a certain license to muck about in the backyard, invent your own meaning without great consequence. I often wonder if I would have felt as liberated growing up in a bigger city, surrounded by a more self-consciously artistic culture or family – maybe not.
Suburbia is one giant safety net. Without as much obvious external stimulus as in another setting, the imagination is unbound.

From The Arrival
by Shaun Tan

Relevant quote from the foreword (written by Rolf Fjeld) to a volume of Henrik Ibsen's plays:

“The salient feature of the Old Quarter, we soon decide, is its diversity of styles; we pass first a Roman villa, then several gnarled stave churches, moated towers and archaic guild-halls in the Viking manner, interspersed with a ruined cabaret, a rustic summerhouse and a wittily ornamented honeymoon hotel…the variety gluts the eye; and there are more imposing works to come: two large ducal palaces, one austere and forbidding, but impressively powerful in conception, the other baroque and spaciously fantastic, with pennants flying; beyond these a small clapboard civic information booth; then a vast Romanesque cathedral with, like Chartres, two contrasting, unequal spires.

Next we cross a brief arid open space, the width of a couple of vacant lots, and suddenly arrive in what appears to be a model town of virtually identical row houses that extend to the city line. The dimensions, the basic floor plans, the somber coloring of the facades in this New Quarter seem hardly to vary…Only on closer acquaintance does one notice faint carvings of coiled serpents on the lintels, or ghosts that seem to materialize at the windows, or, on entrance, that the cellars are dark and swarming with secret life, and the attics are filled with long-forgotten things that nevertheless maintain their mysterious hold on the occupants below as they move restlessly about from room to meticulously furnished room.” (viii)

The New Quarter is, of course, a fantasy suburbia.


One final image:

The sky, as seen by me on a walk through my hometown. Pace and buona notte.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fortune Telling

Good evening, citizens. I might as well admit up front that what I'm writing about tonight is something about which I haven't thought much.

Fortune telling.
Tarot Cards
I'm reading two books simultaneously: Little, Big by John Crowley and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. Both books (neither of which I am halfway through yet) feature prominently fortune-telling devices, oracles - tarot cards and the I Ching hexagrams, respectively.

So, of course, since I'm a remarkably self-centered person, I began thinking about such devices in relation to my own life. Questions: Do I have similar objects I consult? Do I actually believe they work? Why/not? How are they useful?

Answers: I do have on my shelf The Book of Runes, by Ralph Blum, which I consult every now and then when I'm feeling directionless. I also flip randomly to pages in Meditations. However, neither of these are properly fortune-telling devices. I use them both as ways to gain insight into what I'm feeling at the moment - not so much because I believe there's some larger force guiding my hand, but because I trust my subconscious to pick out what it needs the most from what I feed it.

Once upon a time, when I was in elementary school, I would have believed. I would have sincerely thought that something was leading me to choose one rune over another, that some force in the universe was trying to tell me something. That events, preordained, could be revealed to me in the arrangement of cards or of bones, in shapes and signs and portents.

No longer. As I became a more and more sullen rebellious teenager, the idea of Fate became ever more repugnant. The universe is not deterministic. Newton's mechanics are beautiful; yet the craziness of quantum mechanics and uncertainty are yet more beautiful, and what is more, more accurate. As much as I enjoy Little, Big for its language, the implication that there is a Tale that will unfold whether we want it to or not makes me irrationally angry. Likewise Greek tragedy - what, you mean I really have no choice at all in the matter? The Fates said so and so it must be? Hell no! I object!

I have no patience with the ineffable. Perhaps this is a failing of mine. Yet I can see no rational argument for why the Spiritus Mundi would choose to manifest itself in an arbitrary arrangement of sticks in the sand (or animal guts, if that's more your thing).

Yet I still find myself drawn to fortune telling methods. Not so far as to try them out myself. No: my sense of intellectual integrity prevents me. But I do feel that they might, in a roundabout way, have some merit, if only in demonstrating the remarkable capacity of the human brain to find patterns out of chance. The cards are not trying to tell anyone anything - people are telling themselves things they know and have not accepted consciously.

More mundanely, I am drawn to the physical implements of fortune telling. Because the writer's tools are pretty nondescript - paper, pens and pencils, computer - activities which require specialized equipment that can be carried around compactly are inherently interesting to me. Artisans and their tools, artists with their sketchbooks and preferred brands of pencil, trumpet players with their assorted mutes - and "fortune tellers" with their packs of cards. Even though the cards don't "work", they still count as the tools of the trade. Most probably I am envious because few things in my life marry beauty and functionality.

Another way in which fortune telling is interesting/useful (= worth thinking about): use in stories. (I'm pretty sure I do this all the time - connect something to me me me, then to writing because then it might help someone else.) Do characters consult oracles or portents? Which characters? Why? Do they work? Do they really mean something? What form do the portents take and what does that say about the culture?

I should clarify something in general: I don't believe in this kind of magic anymore. But I consider it a worthwhile thought experiment to suspend disbelief on yourself and make worlds in which such magic is real, is valid, works.

It's late and I have to get to bed, so I'll summarize even though I feel as though I've only touched on the meanest facets of the topic. Thus: Fate is fake but fortune telling tools are shiny and your subconscious might find it easier to speak through them. Also they might work in created worlds - after all, it's your story. Tell it how you like.


Music for tonight:

The Seal Lullaby - Eric Whitacre

Sleep well.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Summer 2013 Film Consumption

To the consternation of several of my cinephile friends, I don’t watch a lot of movies or shows. However, this summer I did in fact consume a lot of audiovisual content.

First, some theory: why watch movies and shows? I don’t, often, because I’m the typical twitchy teenager and I don’t like sitting still without something to do with my hands and with my mind focused on someone else’s world.

But I do like movies. I am sure that greater thinkers than me have written about the differences between stories told on paper and stories told on stage/screen (…and the differences between stage performances and filmed, but that’s a whole other animal): here are my thoughts anyway, offered in no particular order.

A summary, first, of what I feel are the main points:
  • films are modular
  • films engage more senses
  • films ask less of the viewer than books do of the reader
  • films have a lower standard deviation

Longer explanations:

In a film (for the rest of the post, film = movies + TV shows), the creator of the work has more control over the consumer’s experience than in a book, since the creator controls the pacing.

Films are more modular than books: perhaps because the real or perceived LCD of the audience is lower. Movies require less context, are more uniform in length, and generally are more self-contained. TV series can be less so, because the length of a series can allow for longer and more complex story arcs, but episodes generally make sense on their own. (Generally.)

Films have a greater aesthetic sense - I’m not saying that they’re prettier or better, but rather that the aesthetic/atmosphere of a story is easier to convey in a film because you’re adding not only the visual but also the auditory dimensions. The world of a film is more inherently consuming than that of a book, in that the consumer of the film can do less work in conjuring up the setting and characters and mood than when his/her only assistance is words.

For all these reasons, films somehow seem more collectible to me - or maybe just because I’ve seen fewer films than I’ve read books? Or perhaps it’s a product of my long years writing - when I read, I can get lost in a book, but some part of my mind holds aloof, stealing things for use in my own stories. Whereas when I watch a film I relax and let the story happen around me.

Potentially controversial not-completely-believed statement: books are more experimental than films. Films use more conventions. Possible explanation for hypothesis: books are cheaper to produce. Less red tape through which to wade.

When I read a book I have to be on the lookout because at any moment it might start to suck. When I watch a film, there’s still that possibility, but at the very least the story will probably hang together.

I left firm ground behind a while ago. This is what happens when I theorize about things with which I have little experience.


Okay, enough theory. Here’s the practical part of this post: I am going to catalogue the films I consumed over the summer and note what resonated with me. I see this reflection/inventory-taking as stacking wood by the fire, to use in later, unknown projects. Who knows?

I watched a few scifi movies at the beginning of the summer:

The first two have a scifi cyberpunk aesthetic that, surprisingly, really resonated with me. Urban, slick, with gunfights and jumping across buildings and philosophy. Blade Runner’s overall atmosphere of an Asian-invasion constantly raining metropolis was damn cool. Re: the Matrix - my friend’s younger brother asked, upon meeting me, if I was Trinity. I’ll take that as a compliment.

On Jurassic Park: I was glad to note that it was just as good as I remembered it. A satisfying adventure with some glaring moments of scientific inaccuracy that I nevertheless enjoyed a lot.

For my friend’s birthday, I watched the Lone Ranger.

I know it got bad reviews, but I really liked it (though the pacing was pretty bad - it dragged on). Maybe because I’ve never seen a “good” Western? The portrayal of Tonto could easily offend people; however, I usually go easy in my criticism of pieces that are clearly satirical.

My favorite character was, conventionally, the main character. Clean-cut unfavorite younger brother who prefers Locke to the Bible - I’ve noticed that my favorites in a lot of the stories I consume are the moral, decent Everypeople. Like John Watson (on whom more, later). Also the actor for the Lone Ranger looks like an older version of Andreas Kale, which is useful if I ever remember that I like to draw my characters.

A few weeks later I watched a movie at a friend’s house with an entirely different kind of honorable main character:

Yes, a Jet Li martial arts movie. I enjoyed it way more than I expected to, even though the story was cliché in supreme and oozed Chinese nationalism (I’m not against that on principle, but the political overtones were glaring). The scenery was gorgeous, majestic, wonderful.

The things from the movie that stuck with me the most: the fight scene in the restaurant, the flight to the wilderness and being taken in by strangers, the use of martial arts as a way to increase national pride, and the arena with hundreds of spectators in stately dress - a drop of savagery in the midst of civilization.

Also: the pacing was awesome. Fearless was just a really well-constructed story. The framing - showing the martial artist defeating the three white dudes, with the Japanese combatant still left to go; then going through the Chinese dude’s journey and personal epiphanies, finally picking up where the frame left off. It sounds conventional when put like that but the “picking up” part was great, since that was the fight that meant the most.

As I wrote about last Tuesday, on the weekend after my birthday I had an excursion with my friend Lieutenant Sarcasm, and we spent a whole lot of time in front of a screen. I already wrote a little about what we saw, but once more for clarity:

Adaptation of a children’s fantasy series for a YA audience - didn’t go so well. Great action scenes, but the character decay of Annabeth and Percy irked me, a lot. The movies are missing practically all of the humor of the books, which I felt balanced serious business with light-heartedness well. Of course, they had to age up the protagonists in the movie, which automatically removes some levels of humor - the kids-goofing-off, Percy-as-dorky-class-clown-type shenanigans would be ridiculous with an actor clearly out of middle school.

All the same - what did you do to my Annabeth??

More satisfying was season one of BBC Sherlock:

I knew I would like the series. I did not know how much. Quite awesome - the series was true to the tone of the original, and the throwing together and mixing in of elements of the original Doyle canon’s stories worked splendidly. The second episode, about the Chinese tong, was not as good as the first and third, but I liked it anyhow.

I said I’d talk about John Watson so I will. He’s hands down my favorite character from that series, trumping Sherlock Holmes himself. Why? I’m actually not sure, except that Watson’s a decent fellow, an Army doctor, the responsible practical one, and smarter than many adaptors give him credit for being.

Hark! A Vagrant artist Kate Beaton agrees with me:
from Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
Something interesting about Sherlock was the length of the episodes - at 90 minutes, three times longer than the usual show episode. I liked it. The longer format gave each story arc time to develop, for complexity to occur, for leads planted early in the episode to come up later on. One long episode can go into greater depth than three shorter episodes that add up to the same length, because the writers don’t have to worry about the viewer losing track of the threads between weeks.

Though I know even less about TV shows than I know about movies, I’d hazard a guess that 90 minute episodes are unusual. That they exist and can be done splendidly well heartens me, because the stories I wrote fall of last year were almost all of an inconvenient length - too long to be a short story read in one sitting, and too short to be substantial as a book. Somewhere between the “long story” and the “novella”. I wonder if that length is natural for me? Certainly I like “Mind Butcher” and “Ingrid’s Quest” better than most of my short stories.

The inspirational message I took from the format of Sherlock was that the length that works best for the story at hand may not necessarily be the most common commercially viable. The inspirational message I took from the content of Sherlock was that stories do have DNA, and that can be extracted successfully and used to create adaptations that get at the heart of the work, and not just the Victoriana-London-fog-and-hansom-cabs trappings.

So I’m going to watch the second season sometime later this year, since my squire has it on DVD and is highly enthusiastic about British shows. That’s something to look forward to. More stories to consume.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Senior Year Resolutions

The school year has started out slowly: I've been going to classes for a week but nothing big has happened...yet. I definitely feel less thrown into the deep end than I expected, which is not good because complacency in the form of senioritis is my constant enemy, and a relaxed schedule (see this post on my other blog for more) bodes ill.

Or it would, if I let it. But I thought I'd take the opportunity now, in the beginning of the school year while I still have lots of free time, to codify what I want to do with my senior year.

Warning: self-centered post ahead.


I will remain healthy. I will prioritize my physical, mental, and emotional health by getting off the computer before 2300 (to get enough sleep), exercising in the morning before going to school (I have a free first period, why not?), taking breaks when I need them, focusing while I'm doing something to get it done as fast as it needs to get done, writing my blood clean regularly, and minimizing time spent with people who make me upset.

I will organize myself. I will work on college applications every weekend, make everything easy for the teachers who are writing me letters of rec, spend my free seventh period efficiently, keep on top of schoolwork, and finish essays before deadlines (school essays - at least one day; college essays - at least two weeks; preferably months).

I will keep up my end of bargains. I have a manageable number of extracurrics - band is most important, then math club, robotics, fencing, and volunteering. Whatever my role in any of these functions, I will do my part. As a safeguard against burnout, which I can predict might happen in October when robotics build seasons and raffle ticket sales for band coincide, I give myself a by on reading and blogging - so in October, if things get crazy, I may just post poetry here. You have been warned.

I will tutor people. I need 15 hours of STEM tutoring for AP Chem, hours I would ideally fill with paid tutoring...but if not, then I can always be a library tutor. Note to self: advertise in calc teacher's classroom and tell underclassman band friends.

I will mentor band people. I've been thinking lately about what it was like for me in band in the past three years, and I realized that every year the seniors are the ones setting the tone - which of course sounds obvious when stated. So, I'm a senior now. What to do?

Toward the freshmen: There was one senior girl, my sophomore year, who seemed to want to be a mother hen. I definitely don't want that, but nor do I want the indifferent seniors of my freshman year. So I'll probably just compliment them when they do things right and give advice when they do things wrong.

Toward the underclassmen on band staff: give them responsibilities. I'm trying to groom my co-captain to be band president, since he'd be awesome at it. My squire is now assistant drum major and so has passed to the drum major's responsibility, primarily, but I adore her so I'll of course continue to help her out.

I will feed my brain. I have a free first period, as I've mentioned, and I would like to emulate Danny Saunders from Chaim Potok's book The Chosen and spend my free time reading, first broadly on any topic that happens to catch my fancy, and then deeply. The Italian verb approfondire is one of my favorites, and means to study in depth, to master a topic. That's what I want. I have the time built in to expand the dimensions of my brain - why should I not do so?

I have a huge list of authors into whose work I should like to delve. On the nonfic side, it's mostly scientists - Freeman Dyson, Richard Dawkins, Feynman (I think I've read all the Feynman books at my library, though), Brian Greene, etc. I also have a list of fiction authors of whose work I have read one or two books that has whetted my appetite. Goal: read all the Ray Bradbury short stories ever.

I will abide by the principles of the 20-mile march. That is, I will make consistent sustainable progress toward my goals, starting early and letting my efforts compound.

I will go out in a blaze of glory. It's my last year. Why shouldn't I shoot for the ledger lines?


I meant that literally.

Irish Tune from County Derry - Percy Aldridge Grainger

Friday, August 16, 2013

Orsolya Summer 2013 Analytics

I last wrote about my WIP Orsolya in late June. Summer is a good season for writing, since almost every day I got up at a reasonable hour (for me) and spent at least half of the morning working on my story. As numbers will show:



Time elapsed (real): 1.5 months
Time elapsed (story): 4.5 years (timeskip!)
Chapters finished: 4 (4, 5, 6, 7)
Words: about 47000


Sticking Points:

I have a tendency to skim what I perceive as “boring parts” without actually summarizing, leaving a weird soup that’s not quite show mode and not quite tell mode. While in someone else’s hands that could be cool and avant-garde, I fear that it reads as rushed.

Plot threads abound. When pulled they won’t exactly unravel the story, but I’ve had to come up with some semi-lame explanations for why this happened and not that.

Most dreadful question to ask after the fact: Why didn’t they just do X?

How to balance descriptions of place with dialogue with plot? Ideally they’d all converge, but I’m not quite that skilled/experienced and I feel as though my descriptions are skimmable and unimportant. Of course, it’s on me to make them important, or at least interesting enough to justify the reader’s time.

(Side note: I say “reader”, singular, because I honor the individual to an extent that probably makes me hard to work with.)

Character portrayals are inconsistent. Of course, I can salvage this one: people of course seem nobler/more mature/better from their own POV. But sometimes I worry that I’m making a character seem too much like two different people - of course the thoughts can be incongruous with the appearance, but the actions must be consistent.

Lack of focus = bad.

I drag my feet on certain scenes, and then throw in action at the end of scenes/chapters. I worry that the pacing therefore becomes predictable. Increase syncopation! Keep your characters on their toes.



Technical magic explanations, emotional turmoil drawn from life, and balcony scenes <3

Reworking plot points until they hang together decently well, when they didn’t work before, and replotting the rest of the book with a better vision than before - greater precision through iteration, yay!

Getting over 1000 words of writing for days in a row.

Writing seven days a week for two weeks in July.

Not giving up.


Game Plan:

I’m not going to be able to write for multiple hours a day during the school year, especially since first semester is college apps season. Therefore I shall reinstate my normal school year expectations: at least four days a week, and 400-1000 words per session. I’m probably not going to finish before 2013 ends, since I have about 4.5 more chapters to write at around 15000 words per chapter. I do think, however, that I’ll be able to finish before I graduate high school.

Recalibrating my sense of success with a writing session may take time. I’m sure I’ll run into plenty more frustrations, have weeks at a stretch where I feel as though everything I write is bad. But the only thing to do is to learn from mistakes and to keep going. Sink in.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Protagonist Club: End of Summer Shenanigans

As I have mentioned, my best friend Lieutenant Sarcasm and I are working on the story Protagonist Club. To summarize: Justine Fischer and Serenity Fontaine, two freshmen who have learned magic, go around having adventures and saving the world (or at least, the neighborhood).

But why should they get all the fun?

Since last weekend was the last one before school starts (tomorrow, yay…) and also the weekend after my birthday, the honorable Lieutenant and I decided to have a lot of fun.


First: we watched Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters. Oh, man. So much potential. But what did they do to my Annabeth? Clarisse kicked ass, but who says there’s a maximum of one kick-ass girl per movie? Shame, shame.

Next, we wandered around the mall. I was reminded strongly of freshman and sophomore years, when I cared about what clothes I wore and was trying to acquire things in order to create a personal style. Silly girl. Creativity is subtraction, and I don’t have time to care about clothes (watch me swallow my words later).

At the Lieutenant’s house, we watched the first season of Sherlock. To anyone who might have tried unsuccessfully to get me to watch it before: don’t say “I told you so”. I knew I’d like the series, I just was unwilling to take time away from something else to watch it. The time has to be built in for me to justify spending time watching a TV show, no matter how superb.

Make no mistake, it was superb. For the people who live under bigger rocks than I do: the BBC show Sherlock is Sherlock Holmes in modern London with the same deductive processes and many of the same characters and spliced-together plotlines. Also, shipping.

Sunday afternoon we’d had enough time in front of a screen watching stuff (I practically never watch TV at home since I’m too busy wasting time on the computer to waste time watching shows) so we walked to the nearby canyon.

That’s right, canyon.

It’s not a particularly big canyon, but a canyon it is, with trails and trees and rocks and a creek. The Lieutenant knows all about plants and wildlife and I learned what an oak tree looks like, that bay leaves are a natural mosquito repellent, that squirrels make a weird chirping noise, that trees can grow through rock, and that my climbing skills have atrophied considerably since I was eight.

We wandered off the trail, climbing over stuff, hiking through grass, dodging other people. How fun would it be to hold capture the flag in such a place? A public park/canyon, with plenty of opportunity for ambush and hiding.

After an hour of hiking around it was time for ice cream and funny Youtube videos, and then I went home in infamy for not having called home right away when I woke up. But it was worth it.

NB: not my canyon, but similar
So. I don’t usually do day-in-the-life-of posts like this, so I thought I should explain a little more why.

Two levels: 1) why have days like this? 2) why write about them on a blog?

1) Fun. Spending time with awesome friends. Story fodder.

I’m going to write a post later on about all the movie-like things I’ve watched this summer and how they’ve influenced me, so I’ll be brief on this point. Essentially: watching movies and TV shows with long episodes are another way of consuming stories, with lessons to extract on structure, characterization, etc.

Walking in the canyon: raw knowledge, adding to the storehouse of experiences. Being out of doors has a way of heightening senses. Being out of doors with a friend who knows more about nature than you do keeps you alert to all the ways in which you are ignorant and causes an urge to greater curiosity and observation of details.

2) As usual, I have selfish and general reasons. General reason: others might find this post useful somehow. The codification of “everything you do can feed your creative work” and “relaxed input days are necessary” may help someone, somewhere.

Selfish reason: school starts tomorrow. I’m going to be crazy busy (I only have five classes this year since, alas, there’s no way I can get AP Comp Sci) and won’t have time for long writing sessions, much less sleepovers and movie nights. So I’m writing this post for myself, so I can remember from what I am scaling down my leisure.

Thus, for future reference, a recipe for productive down time (oxymoron? I think not):
  • consume stories
  • get fresh air
  • spend time with friends.

Wish me luck.


Music for today courtesy of Lieutenant Sarcasm's good taste:

A Good Day (Morning Song) - Priscilla Ahn

Friday, August 9, 2013

Band Camp 2/2: The Sinusoidal Path

Full title: “The Sinusoidal Path of the Vinyl Eel’s Blue-Shirted Frosties.”

I just lost band camp by four points.

Recap: We started the week in fourth, jumped to first and extended our lead helped by my Tuesday birthday luck, and then suffered a massive defeat on Wednesday during the Scavenger Hunt - though, since the scores weren’t added in until later, it looked as though we were doing well up to today, Friday, when we were a solid third place.

It’s probably my fault that we lost. We should have done more videos for the Scavenger Hunt - I should have organized the team better - rallied more people to stay - and we did very poorly during Thursday’s Olympic events probably because I distributed people poorly in relay events.

In other respects, I think I was a good captain. Our compulsories were all right, averaging second or third place, and we did decently well in drill down. One of our freshman girls thanked me today, at the pool party after we’d found out that we finished fourth, for being the captain.

Really, Scavenger Hunt was what did us in. And that one’s on me. But I find, to my surprise since I usually seize every opportunity to hate on myself, that I’ve already gotten over the defeat.

I’m staring at the computer screen as I type this, wondering if I’m telling the truth. Yes. I am, and it’s surprising because I’m competitive as hell, I love to win, and I absolutely have something to prove - or I had. Because I don’t anymore, and I think Wednesday was when it was all over already.

Let me tell you about Wednesday.

We started the day with a lead. Then our compulsories didn’t go well, and the band director seemed to be picking on us in drilldown - I know how it sounds, like I’m blaming someone else, but it would be something he’d do, try to beat down the first place team to make it a more even race. Then there was Scavenger Hunt, on which we did poorly.

Some of the seniors from last year visited for Scavenger Hunt, and I don’t know what - something in what they said? How they acted? - maybe I was being paranoid - I felt that they…disapproved of me, somehow. That I was the high-strung bitch who deserved to be taken down a peg. Or maybe I was projecting my own insecurities onto them?

Anyway, Wednesday sucked. Wednesdays usually do. I came home exhausted physically (from running around town) and emotionally (from beating myself up over having failed my team) and proceeded to write the filth out of my blood. For an hour.

And I let go.

Band Camp is about the team. My team is probably the second most close-knit, and we worked well together as a team. Maybe the leader (me) could have done a better job. But all the ways we failed were on me, and so the team was a success. I put together a great squad, a squad that I did not deserve, and we did our level best. We've done our best constantly, from the first day we assembled last Tuesday, and on Thursday as all the captains wandered around a party store getting prizes I was racked with indecision because I do, honestly, completely, believe that at least eighty percent of my team deserved some recognition, and it kills me that I wasn't able to acknowledge everyone’s efforts.

So we ended up in last place. When our band teacher announced the rankings in reverse order, the other captains were nervous. I was, to my shock, not. Our name came first, meaning we’d gotten fourth. I found out ten minutes later we were four points behind the third place team, and I figured out that it was because of Scavenger Hunt. But this was no surprise, since I knew we had not done well on that - that I had not done a good job on that.

I thanked my co-captain, who will do a better job next year. I was thanked by one of my freshmen. I shook hands with the first place team’s captain, our drum major. I was relieved not to have to be opponents to my lower brass family (the reappearance of my trombone brother, whom we all thought was transferring to another school, probably had a huge influence on my mental equilibrium).

Admittedly, I spent the time between leaving the pool party and getting home in a bad mood. But it’s gone now and I feel…I feel fine. Did I have something to prove? Yes, but why? Was I going to base my sense of self-worth on the band camp results? Am I a worse person for having lost?

After my spiel on Tuesday about how I don’t think people come of age, it’s ironic that I’m partially taking back what I said before. Character development is incremental, perhaps, but it’s not as smooth as the logarithmic curve. We advance in jumps - punctuated equilibrium holds true for individuals as well as species. I feel as though I’m a better person now than I was on Monday, July 29, when the last band camp of my life began.

As last week’s post indicates, captaining a team is incredibly difficult and stressful for an introvert - at first. Then I got used to it, got used to high-fiving and knuckle-touching my team members, calling commands, clapping lefts, not getting angry when underclassmen mess up, encouraging reasonable suggestions, giving credit where credit is due, balancing self-deprecation with self-respect (in front of my team, at least).

Rilke: “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.”

Solitude is not too difficult for an introvert. Owning that introversion while also behaving as a “public figure”, an “elected official”, a leader, is, as I have said, a harrowing experience. I’m glad I’ve gone through it, though. I’m glad to have had the privilege of putting myself to the test. Would it have been awesome to win? Yes. But I am in the process of grokking Marcus Aurelius, as I suspect I always shall be, and one could do worse than take two weeks to learn how to lose with dignity.

Perhaps I make too much of two weeks in the summer before my senior year of high school. But few people who know me in real life would accuse me of being a drama queen, and it’s always been my way to attribute greater significance to events than they deserve. Why not live your life like an epic? Einstein: “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.” We rose; fell; rose again; fell again, but fell gracefully, like a diver in deep waters. Sinusoidal.

We fought the good fight. We lost. I’m still damn proud of my team, and even though I’m sure that none of them will ever read this post, I want to put this out there:

Dear Frosties,

Thank you.

Your Captain

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Coming of Age

Today is my seventeenth birthday.


I am very grateful for the cake and bracelet, and the brownies that my mom is going to bake later today, and the excuse to take a 45-minute nap. Really, I am.

Honestly, though, birthdays don't mean all that much to me. What makes today any more special of a day than yesterday or tomorrow or Saturday? I don't feel any different, and I'm not different in any significant way. Character development is incremental. Change accumulates over time.

Birthdays are not a magical barrier that, once passed, leads to a new pasture of opportunities. (I may swallow my words next year.) In themselves, they're not much. Their significance, to me, is in what they represent - a year's worth of delta.

There's no one moment that I "come of age"; no one moment that divides my life into Before and After. I feel the same on the inside as I always have: idealistic, self-centered, ambitious, and arrogant. A child, in other words, no matter how old I am nominally.


...which is why (attention: transition happening) the term "coming of age story" has never sat well with me. I have described some of my own stories as such - Matt of the Lekron, Shadow Fissure, and others. I regret doing so.

What do we mean by a coming of age story?

Hypothesis: An untested character with a child's lack of responsibility gets thrown into a situation that tests his/her maturity and forces him/her to confront insecurities, and comes out with the ability to function independently in society and to make his/her own decisions. Henceforth s/he deserves to be treated as an adult.

Problems: People are not static. New phobias and insecurities spring up to replace the old ones, or personal deficiencies thought to be conquered rise again. What does it even mean to "behave like an adult"? Many adults I know are just as crazy and petty as we young ruffians are.

Hypothesis 2: A coming of age story is one in which an adolescent character attains mastery over his/her own mind/emotions and is henceforth considered an adult. Trial by suffering.

Problems: Same problem. You go through the fire and come out stronger on the other side. But the world goes on and you might have to go through the fire again, and again. Does it count as "coming of age" when n > 1?

Hypothesis 3: Coming of age is an iterative process. Alternately, it is a logarithmic curve:


Log functions always increase, which makes the analogy imperfect - someone can have regressions in their behavior. Improvement is not the only option, unfortunately.

However, I stand by the graph because
  1. the general trend is up (I believe in human potential)
  2. initial increases are larger than later increases, just as adolescence is often considered the time of most radical change for humans
  3. the curve flattens out as people become more and more themselves
  4. the limit is infinity (see 1)

Music for today:

Alter Mann - Rammstein
Wieviel Marchen dir noch bleibt?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Band Camp 1/2: The Introverted Captain

Sorry for not posting yesterday. I was exhausted.

This past week has felt really, really long. This summer, once I gave up looking for a job (this failure still rankles), I lived a mostly solitary existence. Solitary, and congenial. I’d get up around 0830, write for a few hours, practice euphonium, read, fence, work on Python projects, go on long walks, write college essays (not so congenial), water my neighbor’s plants…a quiet life perfectly suited to this introvert.

Then, this week Band Camp began.

First of all, getting up early has never been my strong suit. Second, I went from talking to less than five people per day to interacting with many human beings for over four hours at a time. Third, I have never before done anything near as emotionally stressful as captaining a team.

I should explain myself. Captaining a team means, first of all, choosing your people. Then it means deploying those people, making sure the newcomers feel comfortable and valued, balancing personalities, keeping morale high when you’ve just slipped from first place to third to fourth, explaining a simple maneuver to the kid who just doesn’t get it without losing your temper, encouraging people to participate, cheering people on in drilldown, giving short pep talks every day when you’re getting consistently third in every single compulsory (note for non-band people: marching formations/sequences executed by teams of 8-16 people), and coming home and crashing because you are just not used to taking care of anyone besides yourself and you are starting to doubt your ability to grow into this role that your hero the Trombonist made look so easy.

I can say fairly that I have gone through character development this week.

Wednesday was my nadir. My team had fallen behind, I’d turned the wrong way in both a demonstration and in drilldown, and I had blown out my lip after only an hour and a half of playing. Like a nightmare of sophomore year, the lower brass was getting yelled at to play louder song after song. Nightmare: because I wasn’t good enough.

So as I am wont to do, I went home and wrote the filth out of my veins. I realized I was envious of two people whom I actually think are awesome, because they’re better versions of me. I realized that I have always been the sidekick; always been in someone else’s shadow. Last year, being a co-captain was nothing new: I was the Trombonist’s loyal backup. Well and good. It’s easy to be the lancer when the hero is the Best Person Ever. When the hero is an actual hero.

This year, I am a captain. My name is first on the roster, people expect me to know what I’m doing, and - gods, what a terror - I have to inspire people. And I’m pretty damn sure I’m not the hero type. If anything, I fit the villain mold.

Through my writing on Wednesday I realized: I get angry at other people when I have behaved poorly/not measured up. I also realized that I underestimated the difference between co-captain and captain, and that I was letting my shock beat me up.

After Thursday we fell to fourth, or last, place.

Strangely enough, that made things easier. The average is not something with which I am comfortable - the hanging-on, the iffy, the let’s-cross-our-fingers, the unthinking maintenance of one level. The underdog, though, the losing team ready to make a comeback - that is something I can work with.

We made up a lot of ground on Friday. We’re losing our best marcher but we’re gaining another good one. We are poised to dominate regular drilldown. We are in last place but the teams have never ended the first week this close. We are down and we are not out.

After all, it is my team (she said as possessively as possible). I am the captain, Captain Evil Villain of the Frosties, and I am an introvert. And it is, as they say, always the quiet ones you have to watch.

(Hopefully when I post next week I won't have to eat my words. -grimace-)