LAST MINUTE Halloween Costume

Okay you have a few hours to go before that costume party begins, but no costume. Here’s what you can do, and all you need is your computer and a printer.

Undercover cop costume:

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Just Google “Undercover Cop ID card”. (Here you’ll see “Police Dept. LA” and “FBI” but meh. Who cares. Just say you’re actually a not-very-clever spy posing as an undercover cop.) Take the photos ripped from the internet, fit to size, print, then cut out and glue onto a piece of black construction paper.

The best part about this costume is you don’t even have to change clothes!

Have a friend or partner who’s in the same position this Halloween? Run to the nearest store and pick up a pair of handcuffs and red paint or dye. (Or just take those handcuffs out of the box of sex toys you’ve got hiding under your bed…but make sure they’re not the fuzzy ones.) Paint one hand, wear the handcuffs, and go as a set. You, the undercover cop, he or she: Caught red handed.

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And you’re done.

And now for the finale. Pumpkin cupcakes with cream cheese icing. A cheater’s recipe that uses a cake mix and a can of pumpkin puree. These took no time to make and they are surprisingly delicious (and not disgustingly sweet)!

So to those of you who read my post on freedom, below is an example of positive freedom failure. But I only ate half of one. The rest are going to the party, I swear.

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How Not to Make a Gender Statement

1. The writer must make his gender statement.

2. The writer must make her gender statement.

3. The writer must make his/her gender statement.

4. The writer must make their gender statement.

5. As a writer, you must make your gender statement.

6. The writer must make hir gender statement.

Gender-neutral pronouns would be wonderful, but getting there requires changing the status quo, often while in the midst of making a point that has nothing to do with gender equality.

I tend to rebel against changing convention for this reason. I don’t want to be cloudy, making a point about gender equality when I’m not talking about gender equality.

But what is the convention?

Problems with each scenario:

  1. I use “his” the most, but I know I seem outdated or even misogynistic. It’s what I learned in school and I don’t have a problem with it. When I read “The writer must make his gender statement,” my attention is not called to the pronoun. I simply absorb the information in the sentence and move on. However, I realize that since this convention is changing, others might find the “his” antiquated and therefore distracting.

  2. “Her” seems overtly feminist. It strikes me as politically correct even now that it’s actually the norm. I find it distracting.

  3. “His/Her” seems more distracting than 2. because it’s ugly on top of being overtly feminist.

  4. Consider: “My teacher took their book out.” There’s no way to make sense of this sentence outside of context if we allow 4. to exist as a convention. “Their” doesn’t bother me in informal speech, in certain cases, but doesn’t seem proper in writing.

  5. “You” only works in second person. Fine for blog posts, not great when you’re writing an academic paper or fiction in 3rd person.

  6. I reserve this for special occasions, and this is one of those occasions: WTF? If I saw “hir” in writing, I would assume someone forgot to use “hir” spell check.

I usually restructure the sentence and leave out the pronoun altogether if I can. I don’t like any of these options. But the problem is broader and goes beyond pronouns.

My novel, Philosopher King, is about a typical philosophy teacher and his typical students, which means it is male-dominated. I consider this a reflection of reality, not a political statement. In fact, I didn’t think about gender when I wrote the first draft, I simply tried to stay true to my experiences. Someone in my writing group noticed the inequality and wondered if I should change a few male characters into female. I thought doing so would seem unrealistic, and would draw attention to itself. However, I’m waffling. If she thought about gender while reading my first draft, perhaps others will too. Apparently the gender issue is inescapable.

I don’t want to distract the reader. I’m feeling damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Should I change the gender of a couple of male characters in order to avoid raising eyebrows? Or should I stick to reality? Any suggestions?

How do you deal with gender when you don’t want to address gender?

What is Freedom?

Just another word for nothing left to lose?

At Jmeqvist, you’ll find a great post distinguishing between positive and negative freedom. I’d like elaborate on these to get you good and confused:

1. Negative Freedom. Here I’m quoting Johan at Jmeqvist as he says it so well:

“…we are free in so far as external forces do not prohibit us from making certain choices. This concept of freedom is negative in that it concerns an absence of something, which in this case is the absence of interference.”

I might call this concept of freedom “common sense freedom” since in ordinary language (esp. in North America, as Johan carefully points out), this is usually what we mean by the word.

2. Positive Freedom. Here again I’ll quote Johan and then elaborate with a few examples:

“…a free person will be one who has a psyche that is properly ordered, so freedom on this concept is not about an absence, but about a presence of order in the psyche. This way of speaking has become marginalized, and may strike us as antiquated, but we see it arise when people talk about the way in which people’s desires can render them unfree.”

Plato: Those of you who are familiar with Plato know that he often spoke of being a slave to desire (consider the metaphor in the Gorgias which likens the blind hedonist’s soul to a leaky jar that can never be filled). One cannot be free until one has knowledge of what is good. Otherwise one is left to snatch at random desires, which will only lead to dissatisfaction in the long run, even if you happen to get lucky from time to time. Freedom in the Platonic sense will lead to happiness, happiness and wisdom being inextricably tied.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: One can be constrained in the #1 sense and still be free. “And all, being born free, alienate their liberty only for their own advantage,”—Ch 2 of the Social Contract. And: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” Here we have a sticky philosophy indeed, but I’m not capable of giving the best summary of it right now. What I will say is here we have a sort of Platonic idea of freedom, but replace knowledge of the Good with the Law and the General Will and you have a closer fit. The problem is the General Will need not be the general will of the majority, so Rousseau’s effort to bring the Good down to earth seems to have failed. The Good and the General Will remain just as abstract as before.

Kant: Freedom is unconditional, self-causing; in other words, it’s autonomy from the world of contingency for rational beings. Since we can’t control everything that goes on in the world of cause and effect, we, as rational beings, shouldn’t place our moral laws on empirical foundations, but instead on the Categorical Imperative. Freedom is noumenal and cannot be known, but must be assumed. Also, being a free agent doesn’t mean you’ll be happy. Morality and happiness do not necessarily coincide.

3. Existential Freedom. This area is not my forte, so there’s my word of caution. If we suppose, like Nietzsche, for instance, that there is no clear definition of what it is to be human, then there can be no ordering of the psyche. Achieving perfection cannot be a goal unless it is taken to mean something subjective (which, in my opinion, is not really the same thing as #2.) Without these definitions we move into a territory beyond black and white, beyond good and evil. One must scratch out one’s own meaning, own’s authenticity, in this world despite seeing beyond false, imposed definitions, and this self-invention ex nihilo is existential freedom.

Johan asked an interesting question of #1 and #2: Are these definitions of freedom contradictory?

It is certainly true that existential freedom (which Johan doesn’t go into) contradicts positive freedom, but what about positive and negative?

Johan says: “Unless we hanker after a single definitive sense of the concept of freedom, there is no reason to think that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are fundamentally incompatible.”

I agree with Johan, but I wonder how the various relationships would play out in the extreme.

Suppose you are given a choice between two boxes, but you don’t know what’s inside either box. You are free in the sense that you get to choose a box and no one is stopping you, but since you have no knowledge of what’s inside them, you have no rational basis on which to make a decision and are therefore not free in a positive sense (Let’s leave aside the possibility of abstaining from choice, please). Here positive and negative freedoms don’t seem to be in fundamental conflict, they just refer to different aspects of the situation.

However, having only negative freedom puts you in a crappy place. You have to gamble, and you don’t even know what’s at stake. You still have reason in this scenario, of course, which is why Kant’s freedom would not apply here. But in this case, reason is rendered entirely inoperative.

Let’s amend this metaphor and put a thousand mosquitos inside one box and a magical infinitely delicious calorie-free cupcake in the other. Throw in world peace if the cupcake is not enough for you.

Reverse the scenario. Suppose you know the cupcake and world peace are in one box, and you know mosquitos are in the other box, but someone has your hands tied behind your back and your mouth taped shut and so on so you cannot engage in your choice. Here we have one freedom (positive, knowledge-based freedom) but not negative.

But what good is knowing which box the cupcake is in if no one can eat it? What good is knowing how to bring about world peace and absolute guilt-free deliciousness if these things cannot come to pass?

Is positive freedom necessary for negative freedom to thrive?

Is negative freedom necessary for positive freedom to thrive? 

How would you play out this thought experiment for a society?

In what ways do these thought experiments pertain to real life situations?

What is your conception of freedom?

As usual, feel free to answer any of these questions. In fact, feel free to answer this question: Would you take the cupcake or world peace? And would it be chocolate or vanilla? Or something involving cream cheese?

Many thanks to Johan for his insightful post!

Why Contemporary Novels Lack Substance

I recently finished a novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and I can barely remember what happened except to say it had the general message that racism is bad, mixed race identity confusing. This message has been delivered a thousand times already. It seems to be enough to raise the same question over and over without adding anything new. But people praise the book. It’s supposed to be really good. And it was well-written, but shouldn’t there be more to a novel than “well-written”?

I don’t mean to pick on this particular novel. Disappointment with most contemporary novels is a pattern for me, and I wondered if it was my fault. Erikleo recommended Colin Wilson’s book, The Craft of the Novel, after I had made these complaints in a previous post. I have to say, I found Colin Wilson’s open and thoughtful critique of all authors great and small right up my alley. He raises the bar…and isn’t afraid of disparaging James Joyce or claiming that “The Lord of the Rings must be regarded as one of the most successful works of art of the twentieth century.” This pomposity would be irksome under normal circumstances, but in the context of our lax intellectual standards in fiction these days, I found it refreshing in its decisiveness, even if he turns out to be wrong. He insists that successful novels should have meaning and, more specifically, ideas. He summarizes the novelist’s goals at the end of chapter four, As for Living:

1. The aim of the novel is to produce wide-angle consciousness. Everyday consciousness  is narrow and limited; the novel is one of the most interesting compensations that man as so far devised.

2. The novel is substitute experience. Most of us have an appetite for a far wider range of experience than our lives afford. To some extent, the novel can provide it. It can even provide forms of experience that would have been impossible in reality.

3. The novel is a form of thought-experiment. Like the thought-experiments of the philosopher, its aim is to teach us something about the real world.

4. Ideally, the aim of the novel is not only to produce wide-angle consciousness, but also three-dimensional consciousness—something allied to the opium experience (the sense of relaxing and opening up), but with an unimpaired sense of reality—a recognition of the enormous and fascinating complexity of the world.

5. Unsuccessful novels are thought-experiments that have failed to ‘come out right’, like a calculation that has gone wrong, or a laboratory experiment in which the experimenter has made some crucial error.

6. The aim of all these thought-experiments is the exploration of human freedom.

Freedom? Thought experiments? This sounds like the language of philosophy. Indeed, Wilson says, “‘Describing reality’ and ‘telling the truth’ are only secondary aims, the novelist’s credentials—his authority for demanding the reader’s attention. His real aim is to understand himself, to grasp his own purpose…” In other words, writing fiction is a philosophical journey. 

Wilson seems aware of the usual platitudes that come from writer’s workshops. You can succeed in doing all the things the workshops tell you to do (show don’t tell, keep consistent POV, use only relevant details, don’t describe physical appearance by having characters gaze into mirrors, avoid omniscient unless you’re awesome…) and still fail because you don’t have ideas. “Most of the writers who have landed in blind alleys—from Flaubert to Beckett—have done so because they placed too much faith in artistic intuition, and too little in thought.” I think this is still going on. Would-be writers go to school and study writing. But what will they write about? They are told they already have things to write about, that everyone has something to say, it’s just a matter of saying it right. I disagree. This Mr. Rogers attitude has made writers intellectually and conceptually lazy. Workshop junkies would be better off stepping outside the ring for a moment to expand their horizons.

Wilson’s not advocating a cerebral novel with lengthy soliloquies or sermons. He’s saying it’s not enough to hold a mirror up to the universe. “A writer needs to have some idea—no matter how vague—of what he would actually prefer.” The mirror should be held up to the author as well. So many novels simply tell the story of a bleak and meaningless universe, a general sense of dissatisfaction, author nowhere to be found. Many would argue that the author is always there all along. I can see this point; we like to say that journalists, even when they take every step to be impartial, can’t help but reflect themselves in their selection of details, that Objectivity is impossible. However, novelists shouldn’t strive to be journalists. Even if the author is “there all along” holding up the mirror to the world, he’s still trying to hide, to make no claims, and this is boring. I suspect that if authors are forced to come out of hiding, they might take it upon themselves to have something to say.

I also suspect that omniscient has gone out of style because it puts the narrator-author too much in the foreground. (Here I’m not speaking of the clever omniscient of Jonathan Franzen, for instance, where it pops in from time to time, but stays for the most part in 3rd person limited and never makes sweeping claims). The topic of omniscience could be an entire post, so I won’t go into it here.

But this concept of expressing a positive idea of oneself is itself a bit vague. Wilson insists we must tell the story of a search for freedom, but here does not explain what freedom is. The most I could find were statements such as this:

Freedom is the same for all human beings, but the maze inside each of us is different. The novelist’s aim is to reach the freedom at the end of his own maze.

Lovely prose, but what does it mean?

Next post will be on the meaning of freedom. I give you all time to ponder that. Heavy topic, I know. My philosopher readers will have a lot to say and I can’t wait to hear it, but I hope it won’t be too intimidating for the fiction writers out there.

What do you think is the aim of the novel? (Not necessarily a philosophical novel this time, but all novels.) What do you think makes a novel meaningful? What’s your favorite novel? Why?

Off the Grid in Vermont

Okay, so I never went without electricity or warm water, but I did go without internet for a few days. It’s not something I thought I would complain about. I had a few moments in which I thought, “Oh, I’d like to see what’s going on in the blogosphere, check my email, make sure I have enough money in my account for the thing I’m about to purchase. Etc.” This is as far “off the grid” as I get.

But the real moment of internet lust happened because of a tick. I let out a stream of curses in the middle of the night and expressed in every conceivable way Lyme disease scenarios. Then my second nature kicked in and I said to myself, “I need to Google how to kill ticks” OR “How not to die of Lyme disease.” But alas, no Google was available. I tried to remember what to do, but I kept getting bee-scorpion-spider-rattlesnake bite advice mixed up. I cursed Vermont and said, not-so-silently, “This year for leaf-peeping and maple syrup had better be the best. Ever.” Then I had to believe my husband’s wisdom as he stuck a lit match up to the tender flesh on my side. My faith was not where it should be. I squirmed and screamed; therefore, he burned the hell out of me. But the tick remained, undeterred.

So I pulled this thing out with my bare fingers, nearly passed out, took a couple of Tylenol and pissed and moaned for so long that my poor husband had to take a sleeping pill to get to sleep.

But I can’t complain too much. I still have this:

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And this (my first kayaking expedition…here I am looking for spiders):

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And the best cider in the whole wide world: (Scott farm is next door to Rudyard Kipling’s residence, and it’s the filming location of Cider House Rules):IMG_1838

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So…I will be in and out for the next week or so. Sorry if I miss your wonderful posts in the meantime! Hopefully I’ll be able to catch up.