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Friday, April 27, 2012

Crap we tell our kids


Now that I have a baby girl in the family, I’m once again in the unpleasant position of having to decide between easy lies or hard truths. We tell our kids a lot of bullshit.
Some of it is clearly fantastic. No rational, discerning person believes it for long. This includes such mystical creatures as the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and Santa Claus. All of those holiday-inspired Monster Manual rejects are supposed to be benevolent, but they have seriously creepy and disturbing aspects to them. Who comes up with this stuff? A fluttering pixie that comes into your room at night and, while you sleep, leans over you, rummages under your pillow, and leaves you a dollar in exchange for a discarded piece of your anatomy? Through the voodoo-style school of sympathetic magic, that little fairy now OWNS you. You’re her puppet. At the very best, it’s a creature that pays good money for surgical waste, but instead of making this perverted business arrangement to your face, it happens on the sly while you’re helpless. Yuck.
Then there’s Mr. Claus. He spies on every child in the world and if you’re “good” you get rewarded. If you’re “bad” you get coal. Or nothing. Who set him up as the ultimate moral judge? Is there an oversight committee of some kind, or does this grinning madman make all those decisions on his own? That’s a lot of power for one man, even a magical cherubic fat man. I’ve got to say, the best gift this guy could hand out would be the secret of faster-than-light travel, since he manages to visit every home in the world in just one night. Nor does he just fly by and drop gifts, bomber-style, but he dallies in order to drink milk and eat cookies. Pretty impressive. Of course, no one seems bothered by the sweat-shop he runs up there on the North Pole. Do his elves have a union? Are they actually a race of diminutive workers, or is he using child labour? No one’s ever inspected the working conditions up there, which is no doubt why he’s operating his factory in the frozen wasteland in what amounts to international waters.
Compared to this duo, the odd chocolate-egg-delivering Easter Bunny seems positively normal. Of course, made-up mascots are the least damaging things we lie to our kids about.
What about the old “you can be whatever you want to be” falsehood? I understand the motive behind it. We don’t want to crush the dreams of our kids before adulthood and the world has a chance to do it. Nevertheless, it’s a lie, and a cruel one. Not everyone has the capacity to do everything. They don’t send very many asthmatic dudes into space, and the guy I sat beside in school who couldn’t comprehend arithmetic isn’t likely to head up the Math Department at MIT. Yes, there are exceptions all around us. Stories meant to inspire where, against all odds, some guy named Rudy ends up kicking ass at something everyone thought he could never do. It’s wonderful when it happens, but the reason it’s inspiring is because it doesn’t happen every day! For every kid that works like mad and gets into the NHL, there are a thousand that work just as hard and end up playing in the Pickerel Valley Senior Hockey League.
It’s a cop-out to claim that these people can still do whatever they want. Yes, I can be a writer whether anyone pays me or not, and Joe Blow can still play basketball with his buddies—he doesn’t have to do it in the NBA. That isn’t the dream, though. The dream is to make a living doing what you love, not to do it on the side in your spare time. Pretending otherwise is fooling yourself.
Right about now we have a whole generation of kids that have grown up in the back-patting, no-one-fails-everyone’s-a-winner mentality our society has created. They are in their 20’s, and they are finding out that their parents have lied to them. You can’t be anything you want to be. You don’t always win. Life isn’t fair. These poor saps don’t have the emotional tools to deal with it.
So do I do the brave thing and tell Daughter these ugly truths? Or do I let her live in the fairy world of Easter Bunnies and unfettered dreaming?
I wish I had access to Santa Claus—apparently he’s got all the answers to life’s moral issues.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Who dies, Joss?


Avengers. I am looking forward to this movie. In order to not suffer the disappointment of high expectations dashed, I’m keeping my hopes as low as I can. I remind myself that Robert Downey Jr. annoys me with every line he says. His Tony Stark will doubtless frustrate me every time the cocky goober wanders on-screen. Probably they won’t give my favourites—Captain America and Hawkeye—the attention and effort they deserve. The villains will be predictably stupid and refuse to play “all-out” in order to follow the implied unwritten rules of evil, wherein fatal force is only used against secondary characters and the innocent (it’s important to get the heroes nice and worked up before a final confrontation, after all).
All of this “enforced negativity” is only being partly successful. Ultimately, I want to see the Avengers assemble. The big question is: how will Joss Whedon screw this up?
Don’t get me wrong—he’s done a lot of great TV and movies. He’s a master of advancing a plot while still managing to do realistic character development all while having humourous exchanges between Wisecracker A and Stoic B. The problem is he nearly always trips up at the finish line. If you give him a chance to see the end coming, he targets and kills precisely the wrong character, every single time.
Start with Buffy. We have seven seasons. In the very final episode he kills off Anya, and not in any particularly dramatic way, either. Virtually ANY OTHER CHARACTER would have more emotional impact for both the viewer and the other in-show characters. Pick anyone else and the plot becomes more interesting, rather than less. But he doesn’t. Anya dies, they mourn for about three seconds, and then are all relieved that the character-that-never-really-fit is gone for good. Whew. Where’s the drama there?
(I’ll give him a pass on Angel. The Wesley-Amy/Blue-skinned girl scene is one of the best in the series, and it wouldn’t have been possible without Wes dying. Besides, who else was he going to whack? Angel? It was his show. Spike? Who’d care? No, he made the right call.)
Then Serenity. Killing Wash? Pfft. By murdering the funny guy, you’ve made the entire crew even grimmer (which is pretty dang grim) and you’ve enacted this dramatic change in Wash’s wife Zoe. She changes from a stoic hard-ass to a… stoic hard-ass. Wow, what a development. Revolutionary.
So, who will face the firing squad in AA? I know it won’t be Stark, alas

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Emerging


I like to call myself an “emerging writer.” The government of Canada agrees with me, as I apply (and am rejected) for grants under the Emerging Writer category. What does this mean? Their definition means you’ve been published at least once (self-publishing doesn’t count). When you’ve gotten published a few more times, you get a bump up to a new title (I don’t know what it is, as I see no point in learning it until I’m there). For myself, an emerging writer is someone that writes on speculation and has absolutely NO guarantee that the next thing they choose to spend a year of their time on will meet with anyone else’s approval. You make a story and you go to editors, hat in hand, and hope one of them likes it (or at least thinks it’s marketable). Most times they decide in the negative so you keep on trying.
Contrast this with an established writer, who pretty much knows when he types “The End” (I don’t think anyone does that anymore) someone is going to happily take the manuscript and leave money in its place, sort of like a literary version of a Tooth Fairy. The process, in many ways, is just as magical. Imagine being paid to make up stories. Getting dollars for telling lies. Amazing. It’s a pretty sweet gig, though I’ll tell you, it doesn’t cover the mortgage when you’re still “emerging.” (This should come as news to no one.)
But so what? The term itself is positive. It speaks of hope and potential. Roses “emerge” from buds. Butterflies “emerge” from cocoons. The process is undefined, so it doesn’t limit you in terms of how long it takes you to reach your potential. Of course, a butterfly that takes twenty years to come out of its shell can be said to be stagnating (or dead). There may well be a shelf-life for writers after which “emerging” becomes “DOA” but I haven’t reached it yet (at least, I don’t believe I have, and that’s probably the most important part. You’re only as young as you feel, and you’re only finished when you give up.)
Living the process of emergence is a funny thing. In many ways, it’s like constantly looking for a new job. You get a lot of rejection, you get the occasional hire, but you must always be on the hunt. Each job you get, after all, only covers one month’s hydro bill (if a short story) and a novel buys you maybe a year of rent if you're super lucky and live in a dive.
When you submit a story and get rejected, you rarely know why. Like employers, few editors sit you down and say “your cover letter sucked, and I hated your tie.” Why should they? They’re busy people, and you’re just one name among many. Truthfully, I’ve often heard writers say it would be nice if editors gave more feedback, and it would be, but when have you ever been taught how to better yourself on a failed job application? I’ve never had a prospective employer say “the position’s been filled, and here’s why you didn’t get it.” It’s our responsibility as job hunters (writers) to do our research, find out what the company (editor) tends to hire (buy), and give them what they want.
There’s another, blunter potential reason editors avoid being too free with their suggestions. While writing, like acting, is a rejection-filled career choice, a lot of people aren’t cut out to be told “no” time and again. I am sure every editor could tell a hundred stories of rude, offensive letters or emails they’ve received from disgruntled writers. “My novel is the best thing ever written, and you’re a dummy-head for not buying it! When I make my first million I’m going to buy your magazine and fire you!” Some of these letters might tick you off, or they might amuse you, but they are all just another demand on already busy schedules.
Some rejections come in less than a day. Some take months. Both have their own agony and joy. A quick rejection can feel contemptuous, like they barely glanced at your submission before killing it. At the same time, you can move on and try to fix the story or submit it to a more appropriate market. The slow rejection gives you hope that ends up being dashed, but even crushed hope makes you feel “I got close. Just a little tweak or two and I’ll have a winner!” I appreciate (and dread) both types. Ideally everything would be a “yes” but just like a job hunt (or dating) you tend to miss more than you hit. That’s the nature of the game. It certainly makes the rare nod of acceptance all the more appreciated. (When I get an acceptance I have to make sure my kids are out of earshot as my language can get a little “salty” with exuberance.)
There are major positives to being on a constant job search, too. If you and your boss don’t get along, neither of you have to put up with the other for long (I haven’t had this problem yet, but I hear it happens). You’re always exploring new territory and meeting new people. There’s no “daily grind” to get you down, no “same ol’ thing” routine to crush your fragile human spirit. And best of all, as I mentioned earlier, you experience no greater thrill than getting that email that says “We are interested in buying your story.” [Insert joyous expletive of your choice here.]

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Delusional dream


I don’t post too often about my writing. It’s strange in a way, since it occupies a vast majority of my thinking (maybe that’s why teenagers will never make good writers; all they can think about is sex). Ultimately, I think I avoid yapping about it because I worry that the details of my writing, while riveting to myself, will be unspeakably dull to others. It’s a real problem, because part of being a writer is self-promotion.
I’ve always veered away from situations where I have to sing my own praises. No one who knows me would call me modest, but my confidence (arrogance?) tends to come out in smart-ass comments and a belief that if I want to do something, I can do it. Quietly. Without applause or public approval. Yet to be a writer is to put yourself up for public judgment. Will people like what you’ve written? Will they buy your book, your next book, anything you write for the rest of your life? What will they say about you? And is it worse if your writing isn’t memorable enough to say anything about at all?
That’s even assuming you get any of your writing out into the public eye at all. That’s no small trick. (There are plenty of statistics out there to illustrate how rare “making a living” from writing is, if you want to look them up.) When I first imagined being a writer, I pictured sitting with a typewriter in my basement, happily tapping away, with an eager agent ready to sell my every creation. (Yes, I was in a basement in my dreams. I’m a subterranean troll and the sunlight hurts my tender, mole-like eyes. My vision also included a typewriter—manual, not electric, mind you—which should also give you some idea of how long I’ve been throwing this dream around in my head. I wrote my very first completed novel by hand in notebooks and on looseleaf, and my second was printed on a dot matrix printer so ancient the process took two days. I still have them both, and they make me laugh at how juvenile my writing is—as it should be, since I was a juvenile at the time.)
This little writing dream of mine is more fantastical than Narnia, at least these days. There may well have been a time when writing was a solitary profession where the lone introvert could excel, but that time is long gone. You can pretty much do as you wish if you’re Stephen King or Neil Gaiman, but if you’re a beginner like myself, you have to engage your potential reading public. You have to convince them you’re worth bothering with because there is a LOT of writing out there to choose from. If they don’t know who you are, why should they take a chance on you?
And so is created the dilemma of humility versus ambition. How out of my comfort zone of utter silence do I want to get? All the way to the equivalent of a politician kissing babies and shaking every hand he sees? A friend of mine has recently posted on the dangers of being "that guy" and I agree with him. Maybe there are people out there that appreciate—even admire—the guy that never talks about anything but himself, but I’m not one of them.
Of course, drive a truck full of money to my house, and I’ll probably change my mind.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The "right" to vote


I’ve said it before: democracy just doesn’t work.

A classic line from the Simpson’s news reporter and social commentator Kent Brockman, it’s something I completely agree with. (A poli-sci friend of mine disagrees completely. He says democracy works perfectly, as it creates the illusion of control for the masses that prevents any serious revolt. With such cynical/realistic views, it’s no surprise we’re friends.)
Basically democracy gives power to as many people as possible. There’s a minimum voting age but otherwise, not too many restrictions. You don’t have to be a landowner, wealthy, white, or male, the common ways we have historically limited the right to vote. It’s pretty easy to vote, and judging from recent voter turnout numbers, pretty easy NOT to vote, too. Is that a good thing?
For those who’ve read the classic Heinlein novel Starship Troopers, there’s a character that contends “something given has no value.” Basically, if you got it for free, it’s worth what you paid for it. I’m not sure the world at large would agree, but there’s no doubt that we assign a greater value to the things we’ve personally earned. Your first paycheque, your first apartment, a car you paid for (or maybe fixed up), a crappy dog house you made yourself, whatever it is, your personally-assigned value for it tends to be higher if you a) wanted it, and b) had to struggle to get it. (As anecdotal evidence, consider the classic rich kid. Does he really care about his many possessions as much as you value your own?)
If this theory is true, voting shouldn’t be a right. It should be a privilege. You should have to earn it. A citizenship test comes to mind, the same way you have to jump through some hoops and show at least mild competence before they let you behind the wheel of a car. How many of us understand how our government actually works? Who’s your MP? Your MLA? Your councillor?
How many people understand the close relationship between education funding and societal wealth? Not many, to judge by the way they rail about property taxes and school budgets. How clear is our understanding of parliamentary procedure? How much value do we place on the rules that define our nation? All of this stuff should be second nature to a citizen before he/she is allowed to vote. Furthermore, you should have to APPLY for the vote, not have it handed to you. If you don’t want to vote, don’t.
Obviously this system, like all others, benefits the wealthy more than the poor. In spite of our (relatively sad) efforts, education is still a luxury item, which means only the rich can afford as much of it as they want. However, since the rich can sway the opinions of the masses during election time anyway, this would actually mean MORE work for them rather than less. After all, they can just hire mud-slinging consultants to smear political opponents, but they can’t HIRE someone to take the test for them. Even with tutors, they’d still have to actually learn this stuff.
Once this is in place, there would be two benefits. First, our government, right or wrong, would be chosen by interested, engaged, and educated individuals. Second, and most important, we would have a comprehensive list of those Canadians who have actually earned the right to complain about the way things work! Everyone else would be legally required to shut their cake-holes.
That’s the world I someday want to live in.