Fun, Fear, and Flamenco

Here’s an update on what I’ve been doing instead of blogging…


A few hours ago I got that peculiar feeling that I was being watched. I twisted around on the couch and saw a baby black bear peeking in through the screen door only a few feet away from me. (Sorry, no photos.) It was a great experience, albeit a bit disconcerting for me now that I’m sitting on the same patio where the bear came by. What freaks me out the most is knowing that I might come across one when I’m on a hike and not inside some safe structure—though I realize that a screen isn’t exactly impenetrable. Apparently they can open doors unless you have a good quality round door knob, and it seems your music collection doesn’t scare them as much as your chatter:

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No, there aren’t any black bears stalking around in the desert of Tucson. We rented a place in Durango, Colorado, far away from the 115 degree temps back home. I love hearing people in the checkout line at the grocery store complain about the heat here.

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In Silverton, about an hour from Durango, there’s still snow on the mountain, as you can see in this photo of Geordie playing on the train tracks

There are a lot of things to do in Durango, and most of them involve adventure. I’m not into becoming nauseated on the slowly rocking narrow gauge railroad train, nor do I want to face the possibility of falling to my death on a zip line. Yesterday we went rafting on the Animas River. I envisioned floating along, watching birds, waving at pedestrians along the river trail. Instead, we crashed into waves that went far over our heads. I felt like I was in the ocean. If I’d known the rapids would be that crazy I don’t think I would’ve taken my non-swimming husband on that activity. Everything went fine and we both had a good time, but in retrospect that was pretty scary. An older gentleman on our raft went overboard while shooting some kids with a water gun, probably because he was so focused on shooting the kids with the water gun and not on staying in the raft. I think our next venture will be checking out the hot springs spa down the street, maybe at night so we can do some stargazing. (The stargazing here is incredible. I can see the milky way so clearly that it almost seems like cirrus clouds are attempting to block the view of Cygnus.)

As I look into things to do here, the connection between fun and fear comes to the foreground. For some of us, the rush from imminent danger—usually in a controlled and relatively safe environment—is a pleasant experience, and that’s supposed to explain why we do some of the crazy things we do. For me, fun doesn’t come from facing physical danger, or if it does, that physical danger had better be entirely fictional. But I wonder how much of my kind of fun involves overcoming fear of another kind—for me, public humiliation, at least on some level. When I think about the sort of things I enjoy doing, there’s almost always a social component, or a creative element to my activity that involves public scrutiny at some point. For instance, if I do artwork, this will eventually be shown. If I cook something besides a grilled cheese sandwich, someone else will eat it too (and my husband is a gourmet…a published gourmet.) If I play guitar, someone will hear it. If I blog…well, you know.

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My partner is a Pilates instructor and professional ballerina…no pressure or anything. On the other hand, the dancer furthest away from me is 80 years old, and putting my whining self to shame.

I am not a dancer by any stretch of the imagination, but recently I’ve been taking flamenco dancing lessons, beginning level. At the end of May we had a recital in which we danced the Sevillanas. This was supposed to be a casual event at the teacher’s house, but eventually became a highly staged performance at a square with 100 rented seats…and that was apparently not enough. The kids had to sit on the floor while others stood around in the back. To make matters worse, we all danced on a set of ‘stages’—platforms really—that were built to protect flooring from the nails in flamenco shoes, and this felt like dancing on a trampoline. Everything went fine for the most part, excepting a shaky moment that apparently no one saw. I can’t say I felt any particular rush of pleasure while dancing in front of an audience. If anything I felt a bit disappointed that I didn’t do as well as I did while practicing in my garage for the month leading up to the performance, but I was happy that I didn’t blank out and forget the steps. I’m not really surprised by this. I tend to derive a great deal of pleasure from the craft side of things, not so much from the performance side. Still, I wouldn’t have practiced as hard as I did without the performance, without knowing things could go wrong.

In writing there’s a similar danger that things could go humiliatingly wrong, although this in a time-delayed fashion. Writing is done in a more controlled environment than public performance, but it is a public performance. The act of writing something down renders thoughts empirical, visible, public. In writing, the work is done elsewhere at the author’s leisure, and so expectations can be set higher, and the audience will naturally be less forgiving than they would be in listening to someone give an impromptu speech.

These things are on my mind now since I recently submitted a draft of my novel for my writing group. I gave myself an arbitrary deadline—my birthday in May—as a way to get through it, finally, and as a way to remember when I got through it should I look back years from now and wonder what the hell happened. Now I’m waiting for the group to meet again in July to do a critique on the whole thing, beginning to end, and I have to admit I’m nervous. I don’t usually get nervous about writing, but this is different. This is the entire novel. Because my writing group will know what happens and where I’m planning on going with my story, they won’t be able to give me the benefit of the doubt on any particular chapter or scene. This is the real test to see if it all hangs together. Things can go horribly wrong here. The stakes are high, not because I’ll be publicly humiliated, but because I’ve spent a good deal of my life on this…and actually, truth be told, failure at this point would be sort of humiliating because I’ve had plenty of time to get things right. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’ll get useful suggestions for any problems; my group is a god-send. But still, what if the whole story just makes no sense and I have to start over? What if?

Could it be that writers are adrenaline junkies of a different, more sedentary breed? Perhaps not the sort to get high on the potential for physical threat, but instead on skirting intellectual disdain from peers?

One of the best bits of writing advice I’ve received was this: Take Risks. This advice seems to hit on something true about most bad writing—it’s boring. I know that my best writing tends to come from risk-taking, the kind that makes me highly uncertain of how it’ll go over with an audience. As a writer I’m not too discriminating about forms of praise, but the best comes when there’s a sense that things could’ve gone the other way. That little bit of danger is what makes the praise all the more meaningful.


Do you find risk-taking fun? Meaningful?

What was the riskiest thing you’ve done? Did you find it rewarding or educational?

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The Challenges in Writing a Philosophical Novel

A while back I did some Googling to find out whether someone out there had written a book similar to mine, and in my research I came across Charles Johnson’s novel, Faith and The Good Thing. Too good to be true. He too makes use of the most powerful centerpieces in Plato’s works: The Allegory of the Cave and The Divided Line in the Republic, and Diotima’s Ladder in the Symposium. To name a few. 671564(See this for more on the meaning of Diotima’s Ladder.) I wondered how he turned these theories about the relationship of reality, truth, and beauty into a story that people would be able to appreciate as fiction.

I’ve always felt that Plato’s ‘harmony of the soul’ would make for a great story, if only I could figure out the right angle. I know the phrase sounds antiquated, but if we change the language a bit, we’ll find a remarkably current philosophy of lived experience, a nuanced one that doesn’t ignore all-too-human truths, and, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t ignore the  world we inhabit. But it’s true that Plato’s more concerned about the inner workings of our minds, and for him this needs to be understood before we can make sense of the world. We have complicated emotions and desires that can really mess us up, in so many ways, even intellectually, and we might not realize it. But Plato also says that these are an integral part of us, and necessary for attaining knowledge. Without desire, there’s no impetus to do much of anything, much less study philosophy. And yet, philosophers tend to think of emotion and desire as something that ‘gets in the way’ of reason, if they bother to discuss it at all. Plato plunges headfirst into the mess of the human psyche, and leads us to ask: How do we make sense of ourselves as creatures with noble ideas in a world that doesn’t seem to live up to our expectations? Should we lower our expectations, give ourselves a so-called ‘reality’ check? What if we get it wrong, and don’t realize it? What if  transcendent ideas actually are real? What makes something real anyway? How can something be said to be not real?

I think Plato has meaningful answers to these questions. My challenge is to turn something as technical as the Divided Line into an engaging story, to bring these questions back to life.

I was surprised to find that Charles Johnson and I came up with the same idea—we both independently thought to create characters that represent segments of the line. (Of course, he did it first.) My “Faith” character is also a religious young woman who represents picture-thinking on the line. Johnson’s characterization makes perfect sense to me, obviously, but it might not make sense to those who don’t know the intricacies of the allegory.

But that doesn’t matter. Faith’s plight as a religious young black woman whose mother dies, leaving Faith to roam the earth (well, Chicago) in search of “The Good Thing” makes for an intriguing story. She wonders what The Good Thing is, and so do we. Faith becomes a prostitute in order to survive, constantly searching, constantly changing as she encounters dodgy characters, each of whom represent other aspects of the divided line. She’s moving up the line or ladder, but from her original standpoint as a fairly stable innocent figure (representative of right opinion), moving up to higher levels of knowledge and sophistication is dangerous. Plato would agree, and the events in the novel exemplify what would otherwise be a yawn-inducing epistemological threat. Johnson has shown that the theoretical has serious, material consequences. Plus, there’s an element of magic to the tale, which lends an epic feel to the novel, a bit like John Gardner’s Grendel, (Gardner was apparently his writing mentor.) There’s a surprising merging of science and witchcraft, of art and reason, of myth and truth, and these create a thematic tension that sustains us throughout.

All of these elements make the philosophy come alive, but Johnson may have lost a broader audience was when he had characters dropping references to philosophers/philosophies that the average reader might not understand. What worries me is that I didn’t even notice that these references were problematic until I got feedback from my book group. So much about this novel was, in my opinion, brilliantly successful. Members of my group all agreed that the writing sparkled. And yet, these references were enough to make erudite people, some of whom are professors, dislike the book as a whole. The online reviews echo this complaint. Yet I missed it, so eager was I to make my comparisons and theories. This was an eye opener for me.

My takeaway from The Good Thing:

Don’t reference without clearly explaining. Better yet, don’t reference without being prepared to integrate the point into the plot and theme in such a way as to make the idea come alive on its own, with no need for you to call attention to the reference. OR—reference with such a light touch that readers who won’t get the reference won’t feel that anything’s missing.

Don’t make the characters wooden in order to drive home a theme. Give your reader time to figure out what’s being exemplified, and don’t worry if the philosophical theme isn’t crystal clear from the get-go. Don’t worry if it never becomes crystal clear. If you stick too closely to the archetype, you lose that breath of life that makes fiction fiction. Johnson juxtaposed his children’s fairy tale narrative style with a dark subject about modern life to make his archetypes worth following. But what he did is hard to do. And while I don’t know what segments of the Divided line all his characters represent, I got his overall interpretation well enough to let those details go.

Be funny. Yeah, easier said than done. But humor makes readers more likely to forgive you your heavy ideas. Johnson did just this, and it worked. He had a way of spinning out yarns that I’m incapable of. But there are more ways to be humorous than telling jokes. Consider goofy ordinary things that people do, and bring those into a heavy philosophical moment, grounding that scene in the mundane. Consider the setting and how that can contrast or illuminate the point in humorous ways. If all else fails, just put a dog or a baby in the mix. Interruptions can do double duty by being both funny and revealing, especially if your characters react in different, revealing ways.

 

Don’t be tempted to put all your philosophical ideas inside heads. This is sort of the default for philosophical fiction: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. It’s a kind of info dump when you think about it. When I don’t know how to convey some idea, I tend to just stick it into dialogue and run with it. Or I have someone thinking about the idea. But that’s lazy of me. Try conveying those ideas with no dialogue, at least as an exercise, and see where that leads. You might be surprised.

Don’t be too brief. If you want an idea to resonate, make it resonate. Don’t whittle it down to nothing out of fear of being boring. More than likely, you’ll make it boring by scraping away the meat of it. There are other ways to deal with dense material than to strip it down to a Cliff’s note. And if you want to let readers get their geek on, but you’re worried you might still be putting out too much info, put the diagrams and equations in an endnote. That way everyone can have their cake.

That said, brief nuggets of wisdom can work well.  Especially when repeated in a certain thematic rhythm. Johnson used a few snappy lines to crystalize various ideas, and the repetition of those lines gave a sense of movement in its own right. Also, these gave a sense of finality: “Don’t be interrupting to ask if the tale is true. Was it Good? Was it Beautiful? All right.”

Use subtext. The best of all possible worlds is when material conflict converges with ideological tension. When one character has something to hide from another, he or she might speak in generalities—in our case, in dry philosophical terms—while really being concerned about something much more mundane, which is, in a sense, more important. Make that mundane worry crystal clear for the reader, make it clear that this worry is bubbling beneath the surface of what’s being said or done, and you’ve virtually given yourself a free pass to go wild with theoretical musings.

For instance, when Faith meets Tippis, one of those dodgy characters she encounters on her travels, he takes her to a bar and drowns his sorrows in pontifications: “Everything you want is an object for the satisfaction of drives developed in childhood, and you, in society, are an object for others, hardly ever yourself…” and so on. This doesn’t feel like a lecture in the context, because they’re at a sleazy bar, and we know Tippis is eager to use Faith as an object for his sexual gratification. Faith realizes this too, and now we wonder how she’ll react to his professed philosophy. We also get a sense of just how pathetic Tippis is, and can feel sorry for him in this sense, just as Faith does, even when she’s powerless to stop him.

Give those ideas relevance by making them a stake in the game. If you can make the philosophical idea a necessary feature of your plot, you’re golden. If the protagonist doesn’t figure out the mind-body problem in time, his lover will literally lose her head. Well, maybe you can tell me how that might work.

By the way, tomorrow I’m going to the Tucson Festival of Books to see Charles Johnson do a workshop. Maybe I’ll get to thank him in person!


Any ideas on how to write a philosophical novel? Or a novel about ideas? What tricks or tools would you use?

Happy Holidays!

Geordie got to visit Santa Claus this year…he looks a bit skeptical here, but I think I’ll convince him in the end. (“Of course this 22 year old kid isn’t the real Santa Claus, but he’s working for Santa. Santa’s busy with your presents right now.”)

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My favorite thing about this photo is the teddy bear who has had just about enough of all this (lower right hand corner.) 

 

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Cranberry-Almond tart for us..

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Gingerbread javelina for Santa Claus…Geordie’s keeping watch. He still doesn’t believe, but he’ll see some pretty solid evidence come Christmas morning. 

The weather forecast says we’ll get snow on the mountain tomorrow, which means a white Christmas (for Tucson.)

Merry Christmas everyone!

It Can Happen Here

And it did.

Maybe we shouldn’t be happy that California and other states have legalized marijuana. At this point, we need every last brain cell just to carry on.

And we have not only Trump to consider, but also the major Republican win all over the map. Who will check Trump? Where’s the balance? I get this sick feeling that somehow this will all go downhill in some insidious twisted way that no one could anticipate, with each player in the game unwittingly complicit. Yet responsible.

The talking heads don’t know what’s going on, and when you watch them ad libbing at 2am, you finally get to see them admit it. Judy Woodruff nearly broke down in tears at one point as she described what could have been, apparently having had high hopes for Hilary. Surprise surprise. David Brooks told us about all the friends and relatives who were texting him, panicking, crying. As the veneer of impartiality was stripped away, their faces grew increasingly pale with each bit of information, and they filled the time by analyzing themselves: Maybe there was something wrong with the polling—Maybe this is about race—Maybe this isn’t about race—This isn’t about the economy—This is in part about the economy—Let’s take a look at college-educated white women in comparison to…—This election has been unpredictable—It seems no one saw it coming, at least none of the smart folks with their numbers and polls. Were people answering honestly? (Did they secretly vote for Trump? Were they ashamed to admit it?)—This just goes to show that there really was a silent majority out there.—Trump was right about one thing, we got it wrong.

I did watch networks other than PBS to see what they were up to. More of the same mind-numbing speculation, as I’d expected, but I was more interested in their emotional reactions. Several looked to be on the verge of puking or punching a wall. This was an interesting moment to watch—the talking heads letting their humanity show, just to kill time. I’m sure they’re wondering what part they played in this outcome, and so am I.

I sense the foundation of our lives has been ripped out from under us. Who do we trust now? The system? Is the world a reasonable place? It’s hard to believe it is.

What will happen next? What do you think? 


Here are some stress-relieving pictures to look at. If you’re one of those millennials who threw away your vote, look away. You don’t deserve any comfort.IMG_1301.JPGIMG_2355.JPG

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Halloween Costumes for The Procrastinators, The Couples, and/or The Underly-Ambitious Yet Self-Satisfied DIYers

You have no time to read. I’ll keep it simple.


A Lunar Eclipse: For Couples (or if you’re going solo, get creative)

The sun. If you have a dog, include dog. Make some sort of sun out of whatever you have on hand. Panty hose make for a nice impromptu stretchy material to attach the sun around your dog’s waist. Or you could tie the sun to a harness.

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If you don’t have a dog, tie the sun around a wrist and hold your arm out for photos. (The sun would go with the person wearing the shadow costume [see below], not the moon. And make sure your shadow costume wearer places the sun in front of the earth.)

Now the earth’s shadow. Wear all black, buy an inflatable earth or use whatever you can think of. I made this hat with wire which I bent into a halo shape, then placed over a black mask.IMG_2625.JPG

If you can’t find an inflatable globe, you could print out an image of the earth, affix the image to cardboard, and tie it to your wrist to hold in front of you.

Now the moon. I found an image on the internet, printed it out, covered it in clear mailing tape and stapled it to a black shirt. (Tip: Staple from the inside or risk getting stabbed a little throughout the evening.) Add black pants, black shoes, etc. Voila. You’re a moon about to be eclipsed. The smaller person in the couple should be the moon and should stand behind the shadow, barely peeking out. This is an eclipse after all.

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Last Minute Costume Ideas

Matching Couple

Retired (Hawaiian shirt, golf club, AARP card, etc.)

If you have a portable musical instrument, be a musician.

If you partake in any hobby that requires a costume, be that. (For instance, I’m wearing my flamenco skirt and castanets for tonight’s party.)

If you have formal wear, pretend you’re at prom. Add pimples and dorky glasses. Or go with a retro look.


More Costumes

Couples or solo, look here for details on these homemade creations:

A jumping cholla, a saguaro.

Fifty Shades of Grey, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Wind, a Tumbleweed (Yeah, people will say “blow me.”)

A Black Hole, A Shooting Star


The Ultimate Procrastinator’s Last Minute Costumes:

An undercover cop. Click here for details.

A Sale of Two Titties. (Print out: $$$FORSALE$$$ and affix to your chest.)

A Tale of Two Cities (Print out: London + Paris, for instance) and affix these to your butt…again, remember, staple from the inside. Or if you’re going to a really fun party, you know what to do. Don’t recommend Sharpie markers for that.

Last year’s last minute costume.


What’re you gonna be for Halloween?