Sunday, December 28, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Quick Fun with First Lines

Twenty minutes to company, and the dining room's still not in shape to play games in!

I was never prouder of my father than on the day he went to jail.

Yes, we all broke; but not for the reason you think.

She turned a corner and there it was, just as she had feared.

The kitten glared at me and said, in Leti's voice: "It's not funny!"

The noise stopped, and then at last I was afraid.

I blame the mailman, who wasn't a man at all.

None of this existed five minutes ago, and the question now is - what to make of them?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ten Years After

My memory and my diary are both unreliable for this period, but at some point during the week between Christmas and New Year's, 2004, I left the soul-sucking day job; stopped across the street to help our friends, who had (with their baby) been evicted, pack; worked for an hour or so and went home to check on my husband, who had left work early, and make supper; and found Damon unresponsive and going into anaphylactic shock from an allergic reaction to the antibiotic he'd been given to combat the mysterious and unrelenting series of symptoms he'd been exhibiting for awhile.

I couldn't drive then. The friend who followed the ambulance to the hospital, brought me home, and stayed the night that night was, herself, hospitalized within days of this.

And thus began the Year from Hell, ten years ago this week.

And now - we are still here.

Not unscathed, not by any means. Some of us broke and had to rebuild ourselves from scratch. We are not the people that we were. But we are still here. And if we can do it, you can do it.

I don't celebrate Christmas. But I celebrate this.

Happy Survival Week.

Go us!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: On the Ridge

Guest idea today.

Last week, after the main event of the Deadlands RPG, we had some time left, so we broke out an oldish cardgame called "Bushwhackin' Varmints Out of Sergio's Butte," in which the players are rival filmmakers shooting three different B movies, all with the same title, and trying to put together the best film they can while sabotaging the other players. At one point, our friend B had been deprived of all the characters in his movie, leaving him with only a location - "On the Ridge."

He defended the concept as an "artsy" one, and even explained a vision for it, which had come to him one day when he was out hunting in West Texas. A great deal of hunting consists of finding a good vantage point and sitting waiting for a target to wander by, and on this occasion he was "on the ridge" overlooking a deep waterway, and noticed some unusually round pebbles on the ground. They were round shot from a nineteenth-century gun, which he recognized as the descendent and heir of gunsmiths, and caused him to think about the people who had used this vantage before him.

This sense of connection through artifacts is what archeology is all about, of course; but most activities don't leave much in the way of interpretable traces, and these are the things that a movie of this sort would be focused on. A lot of the action would consist of following the practices, problems, and small dramas of hunters through the ages, including animal as well as human hunters (coyotes need vantage points, too!) interspersed with time-lapse sequences showing geological processes making sometimes subtle changes in the location. Variety could be provided by the occasional high-tension sequence of interpersonal conflict, from Pleistocene war raiding parties to immigrants dodging INS; focus down into the grass for ant-level drama, or draw back to present a snippet from some grand Western epic. It'd take someone with a sure grasp of narrative and the way film, specifically, works in order to get the timing and pacing just right, so that the film is neither majestically dull nor choppily disorienting; and I for one wouldn't want anyone doing it who didn't grasp the reality of history as opposed to the mythic oversimplification that is generally the province of theater. But if all the stars lined up and everything went perfectly, such a movie could become classic. Or go down in history as a magnificent failure, which is still an interesting thing to be.

Coincidentally, this same week I learned about a graphic novel, called Here, by Richard McGuire, which is several millenia worth of drawings of a single location which is variously a living room, a forest, a glacier, underwater, etc. (The man's website is crap in terms of showcasing his artwork, unfortunately, and Random House's page for the book isn't any better; I did the best I could with those links, but if you want to see the art for yourself I guess you'll have to ask your local bookstore). The existence of this book doesn't mean the idea is "done," though. The difference in medium between the graphic novel and the movie, the choice of a different location, and a different mediating sensibility in terms of the dominant creator leave plenty of space for more than one work on this core concept to exist.

And this gives me a chance to explicitly point out the concept I myself wish to get across, posting these week after week: Anybody can have a good idea. You don't need to be a professional artist, or have a degree, or earn any sort of credentials to have a good idea. B is a computer programmer who, when he's looking for ideas, is generally looking for an adventure to run as a game; yet he independently, while out waiting for a deer to wander by, got an artistic idea that parallels a concept which an artist is executing, to critical acclaim. (Words like "game-changing" get used in the work's reviews.) If B had decided to put in the 15 years or so of hard work to execute his idea in some medium congenial to him, he would eventually produce something distinctly his own. Whether it would succeed in the marketplace - who knows? Nobody ever does know, when they start down a creative road.

We are all, each and every day, having ideas. We are human. Creativity is our natural state.

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.