Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Synaptic Miracle; or, Thank You, Melissa Etheridge

So my brain has not been behaving in the way I'm accustomed to think of as "normal," lately, and I'm more worried about stuff than I normally am about Health Crap because if the brain doesn't work, nothing works. But -

All my life I have been unable to listen to instrumental music. Without associated lyrics, a bar of music slides right off my ears unless I have, thanks to recording technology, heard that identical bar of music several hundred times. I'm always about half a beat off the music when dancing if I'm trying to follow the music instead of matching my partner (which makes me an annoying partner), and one reason I have never gone out of my way to go to many concerts is, that they always lose me when they play those long instrumental riffs that musicians love so much and which are designed to work the audience up into an orgasmic state.

One artist I always go see, though, is Melissa Etheridge. Not only does she do an amazing live show, of which her albums - good as they are - are the merest shadows; but listening to the albums was a major emotional support for me during the Year From Hell, especially during the months when I had no choice but to process a lot of Stuff on my own, because the entire support network was hit simultaneously and no one had any energy to spare for more than mere survival. I was sitting at the soul-sucking day job day after day, typing up real estate appraisal reports and using lunch hours to run (literally; it's about 10 minutes on foot from the office to the hospital Damon was in) to visit my nearly-dead husband, and then at the end of the day visiting him again and going home alone. I couldn't have done it without Melissa on heavy rotation on my computer playlists. (Fortunately I was mostly in a room by myself and I don't think I made anyone else in the office hate her.) Going to every public appearance of hers within driving distance is the least I can do in return, and I always enjoy the show and emerge feeling stronger. But even Melissa loses me on the long instrumental riffs - even in "I'm the Only One;" even in "Like the Way I Do." I just - I can technically hear them, but I can't listen to them. They can't do to me what they're doing to the band and to everybody else in the audience. I'm not technically tone deaf, but my brain doesn't do music, as music. It can only do music as language.

Until her recent concert in Austin, when suddenly, starting with a "I'm the Only One" coming surprisingly early in the program, and continuing through a relentlessly hard-rocking set with almost no downtime, none of the softer numbers except "Come to My Window" (which isn't that soft), I got it. I don't know how, and I can't reproduce it in memory, and I would be surprised if I could get it again at a concert by a band I'm less emotionally connected to, but my brain definitely did do something at that concert that I had every reason to think it didn't possess the correct synaptical connections to do. And it wasn't just familiarity, because Melissa mixed things up from what I'd grown accustomed to - new band, backup singers (which she's never had before), a completely different concert structure, and instead of saving one of her familiar hard rockers for the encore she went with "Monster," which is from the new album and I'd only heard it a half dozen times, not having had the new album very long before the concert. And of course the point of those long riffs is that they're improvisations (or apparent improvisations) and expansions, novelty inserted into the predictable course of the piece.

At my age, new synaptic connections are rare. Brain activity after about 25 is less about learning new things than about refining old connections and extrapolating from experience - I have never seen this particular problem before, but it has elements in common with this, that, and the other situation that I have encountered, and those, these, and the other skills that I've already mastered will enable me to deal with it.

But I must have formed some new connections in order to experience the concert in the unprecedented way I did.

So there I have proof that my brain has undergone some changes recently - and that this doesn't have to be a bad thing.

Maybe I could even manage some math? Naw, let's be realistic here. I cannibalized those synapses to expand my sense of narrative structure decades ago. Besides, I have a husband who can do math for me; nobody but me can mediate music for me.

And once again, I owe Melissa Etheridge some hearty thanks.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Patient Zero in the Riot of the Nerves

Health Crap and Really Bad Public Events caused that hiatus there, and this isn't the time or place to go on and on about either, so let's talk about that idea I didn't get written up a few weeks ago because of the time it was going to take; which was - mass hysteria.

Outbreaks of "mass hysteria," whatever that means exactly, are more common than you probably think. The most easily recognizable modern cases happen in schools, in which a malady, the source of which doctors can't isolate, spreads like wildfire through the students, occasionally infecting teachers. The symptoms are real and physical - chills, fevers, fainting, rashes, pain - and the search for real, physical causes may be directed to the ventilation system, the cafeteria, recent vaccination programs, anything that the affected students may have in common. When none of these physical causes pans out, doctors start saying: "Mass hysteria," the newspaper repeat it shortly before dropping the story, and the parents get angry. Because "mass hysteria" has no standard, measurable diagnosis, and sounds like (and may be) a cop out. A doctor says "mass hysteria" and a parent hears: "I'm not a good enough doctor to figure this out, so I'm going with saying that your kid is a whiny attention-seeking brat with nothing wrong with him." In cultures in which concepts of spiritual malaise have a lot of traction, the afflicted may be seen as "possessed" or "bewitched," which takes us right back to the only case one ever sees treated fictionally, the Salem Witch Trials.

On the one hand, the afflicted girls of Salem Village are a classic case of mass hysteria. On the other hand, they aren't treated realistically as a mass hysteria case by fiction. This is undoubtedly because of the 200 people accused, jailed, and tried, with 19 of them hanged (none burned, get that out of your head), four died in prison, and one tortured to death by having rocks piled on his chest (Giles Corey's last words were: "More weight.") The appalling injustice of the trials cries out for villains; and though history and the people involved place the evil where it belongs, in a judicial system that was insufficiently rigorous and authorities willing to assume guilt if the crime were heinous and amorphous enough, novelists are fascinated by The Girls. How could they do such things? They had to know what they were doing by the end there, didn't they? After all, the accusations weren't true, so that must mean they were lying?

Well, no. It doesn't. They got afflicted, the adults they trusted said they were bewitched and put pressure on them to name names, and things snowballed. That's not the same thing as lying, at all; any more than fainting and breaking out into a rash in the absence of a discernible cause is whiny attention-seeking. I am here to tell you, just because nobody can detect a physical cause for feeling bad, doesn't mean you don't, physically, feel bad! The problem could be one not known and understood by medical science yet (or just not yet known and understood by the doctors available), or it could be a nontangible problem acting in tangible ways. An anxiety attack is physical enough for anybody who's been through one; and why should they not be contagious, in settings in which everyone is more or less anxious?

Mass hysteria thrives best in small, well-integrated communities - schools, convents, factories, small towns, etc.; and among the less powerful members of a society - women, girls, children, low-income workers. These are people who are stressed, who are discouraged from or unable to better their situations, who have to rely on each other and who cannot get any attention from Authority unless they kick up a fuss, but are not allowed to kick up a fuss. Hysteria is the riot of the nervous system, the frustrated outbreak of those with no recourse. Nothing generally changes in the wake of an outbreak, of hysteria or of rioting. They are not attention-seeking tactics; they are breakdowns of a system forced to function without proper maintenance and support.

So it's time we had a modern fictional treatment of mass hysteria, free of the dire consequences of the events in Salem Village. It isn't hard to find a protagonist, who would be a Patient Zero, a schoolgirl who has no desire to cause trouble, but does it anyway. She would experience the symptoms, and see them spread, and be called to account for them; aware all the time of her innocence, but beginning to doubt it. Could she really cause so much trouble, and not at some level be a troublemaker? But it has to be a gas in the vents, a poison in the water, something - her worst enemy caught it, too, and no way would her worst enemy imitate her! On the one hand, she'll be pressured to admit she was rioting over nothing; on the other hand, she'll be pressured to be sick again in order to prove that the riot wasn't over nothing. Can she be real, and others be faking? Where are the lines between what she wants to do, what she intends to do, what her body does in spite of her, what she needs, and what she doesn't know how to ask for?

The trouble here, as with most story concepts based on real life events, is to maintain realism and while achieving narrative satisfaction. Mass hysteria cases seldom wrap up satisfactorily; news outlets just stop discussing them and cases trail off. If people are still getting sick, they aren't doing so in such numbers as to disrupt daily life. The cause remains mysterious - "mass hysteria" (or "mass sociogenic illness" if you want to be very up-to-date and correct) is a handy label, not a diagnosis. Kind of like "heart failure" as a cause of death - yeah, duh, we all die of heart failure, ultimately. What triggered it? Could it happen again? Patient Zero won't end the story understanding how that worked, because nobody understands how that works.

So Patient Zero must have her own, satisfactory, internal arc. She must learn something about herself and the society she lives in that makes her better able to handle the stresses she's under. Perhaps she sees her interrelatedness with the others around her, who are all so much like her that they shared her illness - yes, even her worst enemy. Perhaps interacting with the various authorities in her life - parents, teachers, doctors, whoever represents the news outlet that publicizes the incident(s)- improves her understanding of how authority works and gives her the coping skills for when (inevitably) Authority lets her down again.

Perhaps she builds order out of chaos, without falling back on Authority's dodge of pretending that chaos doesn't exist.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Harvest Festival

The historical myth behind Thanksgiving is problematic in a number of ways, and it's been a rough week so it's hard to be thankful; but the basic idea of a harvest festival in combination with a day to count your blessings is sound, so - Merry Thanksgiving, y'all.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Grrrr...

Because this is not a political blog but I'm so totally not in the mood to write about my projects or writing principles or any of that stuff, here's a link to donate monetary support for the protestors in Ferguson. They're going to need it.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Trickster vs. Dark Lord

So, you've got an Evil Overlord, and the problem is, how to bring down the guy with all the power. You can destroy his power base and throw the ring into the volcano, you can fight a guerrilla revolution that carries within it the seeds of its own corruption (Yeah, saw Mockingjay Part 1 yesterday; the last book is easily the most disturbing and if you're in it for the happy ending, I can tell you, you need to bail now), you can go toe-to-toe in the field, your armies vs. his armies and way too many innocent people get hurt.

Or you can trick him into destroying himself.

The trick was lost to me when I woke up; and, being a dream-trick, probably wouldn't work in the real world or any plausible fictional one I could cook up. But I remember the Trickster. She had no political acumen or abstract sense of right or wrong. She had no physical power and no network of friends. She didn't even have a long-term plan. She was a street kid adept at talking her way out of trouble and accustomed to living from moment to moment. But the habit of jumping to the next stepping stone without looking to see whether there's another beyond it lands her in more and more complicated situations.

She has learned that, when she's at someone's mercy, the most effective strategy is to figure out what that someone wants, and convince them that the way to get it is to show mercy. She brokers information, and when she doesn't have any she makes it up. No one's going to take the unsupported word of a street kid, so she's also learned to seize on something, anything, concrete within reach and turn it into evidence of her truth. With any luck, she'll be able to escape before everything unravels.

But once in the Dark Lord's sanctum, she can't escape. All her ways are blocked. And she's not the only desperate liar in the citadel. Everyone from the lowly guard who first catches her all the way up to the Dark Lord himself wants a small handful of things: Security, Promotion, Power; which all boil down to the same thing in the toxic atmosphere of a reign of terror. They all, in their eagerness for more control, give her a convenient handle to control them; but if they ever suspect that she's anything but a scared tool of their ambitions, that's the end for her. Her basic claim is to know where Something is. They're the ones who project their own knowledge of the Something that can make or break the Dark Lord's power onto the vague flim-flam she starts with; and the faster she tapdances to reflect their desires, the closer to the top she gets. Until she has to deliver to the Dark Lord himself.

She doesn't want to be his downfall. She just wants to get away. And when she does become his downfall, and is shoved into his place at the top of the festering heap - she manages, at last, to slip away, leaving the Good Guys to sweep in to a squabbling, disoriented citadel and mop up.

This was a dream, and the few details of this broad outline are hopelessly impractical. A key feature of the con, for instance, was the cherry-red 50s Cadillac convertible she drove through the volcano. (Wrecked the shocks.)

As blockbuster fantasy series go, the premise has real possibilities. It'd have to be fast-paced, clever, disorienting, and very, very plotty. I.E., well outside my talent range, alas.

The premise would also work for a realistic stand-alone novel, if it were scaled down; if the Evil Overlord was the boss who runs a single town or corporation, for example. Still not really the kind of thing I can see myself writing.

I'd read it, though. It sounds like a lot of fun.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Nothing's Wasted

So there's this weird novella thing that I really like, but it's premise puts up a number of challenges that I've been having a hard time dealing with and who the heck publishes novellas anyway? It's been hovering around 10,000 words for over a year.

I was looking at markets earlier this week and thinking, maybe it would do for that one, but the 6,000-word limit is firm. Could I really cut 4,000 words?

Nope.

But the 8,923-word version reads a lot better than the 10,000 word version. So the time spent trying was time well-spent.

Now to deal with those continuity errors. It beats dealing with the novel WIP, which at this point is scaring me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I'm a Bit Dilatory Today

Hey, speaking of Pleistocene child graves, Project Archeology has a curriculum packet and guide for teaching about the Anzick Burial!

Also, on the importance of re-reading the guidelines right before you make the submission, I was just narrowly prevented from sending a story in Courier to a magazine whose editors believe Courier to be evil. I kind of feel like Times New Roman is evil, myself; but I'm not the one in control of that market, so back to the word processor we go.

I just - I like Courier. It looks like typing. It's large and readable. But hey, I type two spaces after a period, too.