E is for Eastman and Eccentricity

Or, rather, caprice.

I had a difficult time with "E" because all the authors that came to mind were chapter-book authors, as opposed to picture book authors/illustrators.

P.D. Eastman, who published from the 1950s through the 1970s, deserves to be commended for his work--and here is his website. He was in fact a protege of Dr. Seuss and a cartoonist in his own right.

And yet, I cannot remember being drawn to a single one of his books as a child.

I recognize them. And I probably read them. But they interested me not a whit.

It brings up an interesting possibility: that children already have intensely personal, non-socially-induced likes and dislikes from the get-go. And that is rather astonishing!

I was drawn to Elizabeth Enright's drawings as early as I can remember. I became a fan of Trina Schart Hyman as soon as I figured out who she was. I adored Mercer Mayer's monster/magical books--so much so that I tracked down Mrs. Beggs and the Wizard years later. I didn't care for Maurice Sendak despite my mother being a tremendous fan. However, I greatly admire Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Dr. Seuss books were in our house (and I will discuss them in a later post) but eh...

Okay, it is lovely.
I was a huge fan of Cicely Mary Barker--and still have a couple of Flower Fairies books--which kind of surprises me now.  I didn't really get Quentin Blake or Edward Gorey completely but they stuck in my head, and I find them drop-dead hilarious as an adult. I was over the moon in love with the cover of Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three and frankly read the book for its cover the first time (I went on to collect the series). This was my Luke Skywalker phase.

I didn't much like the 1970s covers for the Narnia books, but I like them now, and the collection I own is the 1970s collection. I always adored Pauline Baynes' illustrations and still consider them to be without compare.

Charles Mikolaycak, Jan Pienkowski--there's a reason I'm doing a separate list for fairy tale illustrators/writers!

Mike Baxter is Wilson

As I get caught up on Last Man Standing, I've come to realize that Mike Baxter IS Wilson.

In Home Improvement, esoteric/literary discussions of life, alongside advice, were carried out by the half-hidden neighbor behind the fence, Wilson.

In one episode, Wilson informs Tim Taylor:
"There was a time when I thought my extensive research into ancient tribal cultures, obscure scientific data, and the thoughts of great philosophers would never come in handy. Then you moved in."
On Last Man Standing, Tim Allen as Mike Baxter comes across as more popular-culture oriented than Wilson--but his knowledge base is still fairly wide and unexpected.

Some of my favorite examples.

1. "Pinball Fever."

Discussing when a champion should pass the mantle on, Mike references "Billy" Shakespeare's Two Noble Kinsmen: Ever seen a production? he queries. I love the fact that he knows that Shakespeare had flops!

2. "Bad Heir Day"

Mike references St. Augustine.

3. "Shadowboxing"

In a fantastic discussion of whether book knowledge or experience-based knowledge is more important, Mike states that he likes a blend. He then goes on to state that he reads as much as he can get his hands on (love this guy!) including Camille Paglia and C.S. Lewis.

4. "Boyd will be Boyd"

Mike references Richard Feynman. 

4. "Arrest Her Development"

When teasing Kristin about her "capitalist" husband, Mike references 'The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell: "While I'm hunting humans on my private island--man, the most dangerous prey."

It's a great episode in terms of allusions since Mike effortlessly mixes references to a popular culture icon, the monopoly guy, with references to a 1924 high school classic.

Bonnie Bartlett: Great Character Actor

While rewatching Stargate, I was reminded of an excellent villain, Linea, played by Bonnie Bartlett.

"I know her!" I said.

Yup, she's the awful friend from Golden Girls.

And I have to give her major kudos. She effortlessly captures kindly but not saccharine--tough without any screaming or shouting. Matter-of-fact and charming. So you trust her--hey, she's Tim Taylor's mom!--right up until you don't.

She also has the impressive ability, as a villain, to present herself without defensiveness. "Thank you for helping me--I have my own agenda and my own warped morals--but still, I know how to say thanks."

Characters like this make excellent villains. They aren't quite Spikes/Crowleys (who tend to get defensive: Spike and Crowley like to be liked). Rather, these villains have absolute confidence in their own perspective, which affords them respect without viewers having to justify them.

Elias from Person of Interest is another great example.

In Bartlett's case, part of her villainous charm is her *voice.* It is very distinct and low. She can say stuff, and you think, "Uh-huh, yup, okay--wow, wait a minute! No, that's just wrong!"

Best Bad Acting Ever

A classic joke in every genre is when a good actor/dancer/singer pretends to be bad.

Angel imagines dancing badly at a party. Barney insists on singing off-key in Mayberry's choir. And so on.

Usually, these "bad" performances are more campy than bad. Don't get me wrong, Angel's dance is giggle-worthy. Barney's bellowing of "Santa Lucia" is hilarious.

Still, these are the "bad" performances of people who are performing. David Boreanaz, who may in fact be a bad dancer (though he does fine with Bones), is hamming it up. Like most people of his time period, Don Knotts was trained and sings fine with Andy Griffith when they are hanging out on the porch. Even with "Santa Lucia," his Broadway training shows.

But then there's Nancy Travis dancing as Vanessa.

Nancy Travis is a superb actress. What makes her dance with Kyle so mindbendingly funny is that it is actually---

Words can't say. "Two dogs trying to get back into a boat," Ed says, and it's the closest anyone can get.

Nancy Travis has always been high on my list of comediennes, but her "dancing" on Last Man Standing moved her to the very top. It is so truly--something--and so entirely unself-conscious. She is so willing to be truly "bad" without protecting herself with ham or camp. She exists in the moment of the dance and it is bizarre. Kudos, Nancy Travis!

Star Trek Themes From Original Series to Voyager

The interesting thing about watching lots of episodes in a show at once is a particular theme begins to emerge--that is, particular plots or ideas come up over and over again.

Star Trek: The Original Series

The Vietnam War is a far more constant presence than I originally appreciated. The show is inherently conservative in some ways, yet way ahead of its time in many others. The issue of "Should we interfere? When is interference right or wrong?" constantly crops up. It is, to borrow a word, fascinating since the writers are obviously highly conflicted, which washes over into the show. It is a more honest appraisal of how Americans felt at the time than "historical" narratives about the Vietnam War now.

The Prime Directive is more than just this thing that Roddenberry invented so Kirk could violate it every week. It's a loaded question that the writers gladly took on from "A Private Little War" to "City on the Edge of Forever." When is interference okay? Or not okay? When does one actually do nothing?

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Again, the easy answer is "Peace! They talk about peace!" But actually, the theme I noted is a constant reference, again and again, to disappearance.

There are a multitude of extremely creepy episodes where a person's world gets smaller and smaller as the people around them vanish: Crusher watches the Enterprise disappear, Geordi watches friends disappear in one episode and learns that his mother vanished in another. Picard sees his past disappear when Q shows up. Data is left alone again and again--without father or brother. Worf loses his homeworld, then regains it but never entirely. Tasha Yar is lost, then shows up in a way that keeps her still, always, on the outside. The Borg are a negation of humanity.

It's a theme that appears in TOS--"Immunity Syndrome" is a powerful example--but has more  resonance with the individual in The Next Generation. Disappearance is an ongoing threat. The Season 7 finale postulates that we all disappear, all humanity, forever.

But we don't. Picard saves the day!

Star Trek: Voyager

Like Deep Space Nine, Voyager's theme is basically, Life is complicated! However, it has a particular focus: Individuals are complicated! So what constitutes the individual?

Tribute and thematically relevant!
This theme comes into major focus with Seven of Nine, but it is there from the beginning and threads through multiple episodes and story arcs. It is, again, a TOS theme--usually encapsulated in Spock--and one that shows up in The Next Generation--usually encapsulated in Data--but in Voyager it attends more than one or two characters. The Doctor worries about a name. B'Elanna worries about her split identity (much like Spock). Tom worries about his role in the past versus the present. Captain Janeway worries about the identity of her crew: Are they still Starfleet? Brad Dourif as Sutor worries about being a sociopath. A Q wonders what it means to be Q and why one should bother. Neelix and Tuvok get combined but nobody is entirely happy with the "new" perfect being. They want the imperfect individuals back.

What is so interesting here is that these themes possibly reflect--as with the Vietnam War--cultural concerns contemporary to their shows' air dates, but they don't appear to come about because of an overall mandate: We are now concerned about this! Rather, they appear to come about because certain scripts are encouraged, preferred, suggested for the next stage.

Which is, to be honest, the way sci-fi always works. It always reflects us.

Realistic or Not: Social Reactions in Fiction

Is the end of Pollyanna--where the towns
people rally around--realistic? Yes, because
Pollyanna's actions and their responses to her
prepare us for their behavior.
One problem in writing is trying to determine how "society" will react to a situation.
Will all the townspeople gather together to support the main character in some terrible situation?

Or burn the main character at the stake?

Or ignore the main character and go about their lives?
The problem is that no one really knows. Still, it is fairly easy as a reader to determine a writer's insight into human nature by how quickly that writer falls back on "all human beings are evil; the town strode out with pitchforks" reaction--that is, how readily the writer falls back on "all human beings other than my tiny little group behave exactly the same for the same reasons."

It's a Wonderful Life is less realistic. The concentration
on flashbacks means that the audience hasn't seen any
evidence of prior good behavior from the townspeople.
Of course, trying to explicate all the various reactions--based on differing reasoning, motives, justifications, moods, and needs--can bog a story down. There's a reason Star Trek fell back on individual large groups as holders of single traits/arguments (see Diane Duane's Spock's World for a great example of when Vulcans don't agree with each other). 

I would argue that a writer's job is not merely to pick a particular solution--Shakespeare CAN kill off everybody if he wants to--but to make sure the clues are in place for that particular solution.

I recently read a time travel series out of order. I knew from the latter books that the main character's best friends were suspected of his murder when he disappeared--and I accepted that idea--

Only to arrive at the first book and discover that the main character was an entire plane ride away from his friends when he disappeared. Law enforcement officers (representatives, in this case, of society's reaction to an event) are simply not that dumb. They would concentrate on the area/resort community at which he was staying, focusing on the owners, their guests, and possible miscreants in the area.

Which doesn't mean that weird or black swan events can't happen to people--friends could get on a plane--but events in fiction should have a patina of realism. Real life can be very weird. In fiction, response needs to equate to conditions.

The Wild West of Star Trek: The Original Series

Star Trek: The Original Series is all about adventures with insights: lots and lots of "What ifs". I approve.

I confess, I have greater familiarity with The Next Generation, partly because I was a teen when TNG began and partly because I find it slightly more relaxing. However, I've always had great respect for TOS. Some of the most classic episodes in all of television come from TOS. And nothing has ever measured up to the Kirk, Spock, McCoy combination or, I should say, the Shatner-Nimoy-Kelley combination (sorry, Pine-Quinto-Urban).

I'm happy to report that TOS also has its bonuses from the writing perspective. 

To relax between grading papers (as I wait for the next one to come in), I added to my personal Star Trek fan fiction. Lately, that fan fiction tackled The Original Series, and I found that it has one major bonus in comparison to the other series. While TNG supplies the open environment and Voyager the closed environment, TOS supplies grit and a world without rules.

Sure, sure, there are rules. In fact, one could argue that the non-family-occupied Enterprise of TOS would entail far more regulations than the later family-oriented "we're not anything that resembles the military" Enterprise of TNG. But with TNG, I always feel like bureaucrats are breathing down everybody's necks. Bureaucrats can be amusing as Yes, Prime Minister proves. And they can be useful in terms of plots.

They can also often get in the way.  

One thing I really like about "Galileo Seven" is that the
Enterprise gets to the planet where the shuttle crashed but
can't automatically find the away team--cause, ya know,
planets are big and technology isn't perfect.
In my version of TOS, which may or may not be canon but fits my personal view of TOS, the First Contact office that I have fully staffed in TNG--full of Federation diplomats and Starfleet personnel and civilian experts--is so short-staffed during "Shore Leave" that one of my lowly characters can get a job there simply because he got on the Enterprise by accident (a bureaucrat back on Earth gave him VIP travel status to try and impress the character's relations, which put the character on a planet where the only way off was to catch a ride with the Enterprise, along with a bunch of actors, which proves that bureaucrats are still useful plot devices).

That kind of "hey, you folks need help?" approach doesn't fit the other series (even when the writers tried). TOS reminds me of Barney Miller and early Law & Order, back when police stations were actually dirty and busy and things fell through the cracks. There's something so engaging about TOS being on the edges of civilization: out there, out of contact, and willing to improvise.

In TOS, Deep Space truly feels like Deep Space.
This may be why I've never gotten into the more recent series--or even the more recent movies. The desire to "fix" TOS is too strong. Even some Star Trek novel writers can't help but back-fill TOS with current and TNG technology. I admire Diane Duane's novels, but I mostly ignore that she gives TOS holodeck technology--simplistic holodeck technology, granted, but still not my idea of grit and grime and surviving on the edge of nowhere.

TOS is all about clunky machinery that goes beep--and captains who mostly ignore the bureaucrats on the home planet--and characters who actually can do what the writers wanted Wesley to do in TNG, only in TNG it truly made no sense.

In TOS, adventurers and mavericks and outliers may apply.

Remastered TOS is lovingly done and quite impressive in some ways.  
But I regret some changes, like this. TOS is the wires and batteries.

Why Choosing the Supposedly Correct Side is Difficult, Part 3

I believe most people in most of history (and now) do not fall into neat categories. They don't want exactly one narrative to win: only the programs/outcomes/views of one particular side. Human beings are as complex as the times and events they encounter. They can want several things at once.

The wrap-up of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in England illustrates this point. It is a world in which extremists battled while ordinary people tried to survive.  

English Civil War

The Presbyterians are back! They control Parliament. They want to pass all kinds of laws telling people how to act and think and be.

Meanwhile, in America, Roger Williams has emphatically declared that mixing religion and politics is JUST WRONG (Mr. Separation of Church and State) and gotten kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But not executed (the leaders in Massachusetts rather liked him despite their differences).

The English Presbyterians, on the other hand, want to shut up people like Roger Williams by passing laws about blasphemy, so "[people] would either have to keep to [themselves their] conviction that God in his goodness would not damn people to hell for eternity or face execution" (Winship).

So it sounds like the Presbyterians are the bad guys--

Except, they didn't want to execute King Charles I, which they rightly considered far too extreme an act. The Congregationalists did want to execute him, in part because Cromwell's army was pissed as stink about not getting paid by the aforementioned Parliament (and Parliament and the king were lumped together despite Charles I having zero interest in Presbyterianism).

The army was filled with a whole bunch of people who didn't much like other people telling them what to think. Much more my cup of tea, EXCEPT--

(1) Charles I really shouldn't have been executed. It was pretty shameful; he was no worse than any other monarch and WAY more confused since his godly right to rule (which was still a given at that time) had come right up against the radicalism of a whole bunch of so-called freethinkers.

Oliver Cromwell: Somewhat less nutty
than his supporters.
(2) The Congregationalists were rather horrible. They were like high school cliques--or social justice warriors--who determine that anyone who doesn't stay in their little church/clique/supercool group is evil and satanic and just-so-baaad and deserves to be bullied and mistreated.

Cromwell takes over as Lord Protector. The Congregationalists (little personal churches) and Presbyterians (national church) get together in Parliament to pass as many laws as they can think of telling people how to think and behave.

Interestingly enough, many of these laws were rarely enforced since Cromwell's cronies (judges, magistrates, etc.) were far more interested in getting paid than getting in people's faces.

Cromwell dies. The world falls apart. Charles I is succeeded by a pro-Catholic son, which upsets everybody. Eventually, the English get sick of the whole thing and ask William and Mary to step in. They do. Separation of church and state moves remorselessly and inevitably forward.

So the Presbyterians and the Congregationalist didn't exactly come out ahead.

However, one can believe that the ordinary person who thought that God was loving and that executing kings was bad and that somebody should have paid the army and that going to the theatre is a positive (however much the plays might offend somebody's sensibilities): that person might have come out ahead in the long run.

Or at least that person's grandchild--if one starts with the upheaval of Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church all the way to the Glorious Reformation when the boring kings and queens arrived in England. There were probably a few peaceful decades in there somewhere.  

Why Choosing the Supposedly Correct Side is Difficult, Part 2

In the prior post, I summarize the beginnings of the Reformation in England. There’s a lot more to the story. The point is, in the middle of all that, what direction would a good, thoughtful, non-CAUSE non-crazy person leap?

Towards Queen Elizabeth? Okay, she’s cool, but not entirely pro-democracy.

The Geneva Calvinists produced the Geneva Bible.
Towards the Presbyterians? Some of them were okay, but the ones who got obsessed with surplices make me roll my eyes. And I’m not alone. People back then rolled their eyes too.

Towards Geneva, where the more extreme Calvinists hung out? They had that double-predestination thing going on, which enters "angels dancing on the head of a pin" territory when it comes to clearing up theology. And not all puritans were on board with it, some of them maintaining that double predestination “disgraced God.”

And yet--

These people brought debate and democracy to the whole idea of governance and religion. Granted, it was proto-democracy, not exactly the type of freedom-of-speech we Americans assume as a right. But it is still remarkable for the time period. It drew all sorts of people who were looking for alternatives to previous forms of worship. They preached individual conversion, even individual salvation for women as well as men (again, considering the time period, this is extraordinary!).

Dod was a fairly strict Puritan who was a
decent human being, prompting persuasion
through kindness rather than lectures.
Yet if a person wanted stability—well, there was the non-democratic queen. Only, Queen Elizabeth’s ability to survive every single group that wanted to drag her down—from Catholics to puritans—is a historical reality now, not a given at the time.

There were a large number of “conforming” puritans—those who acceded to the monarch’s requests—who maintained a more stable course. But they also tended to be a tad rule-oriented, becoming obsessed (and I do mean obsessed) with exactly how people should behave: hunt, talk, sing...They  weren’t fans of dancing, maypoles, plays, card playing—

On the other hand, they were almost aggressively practical. Counter-Reformation Protestants wanted the table where the Lord's Supper was set to be treated with more respect, as in placed somewhere in the church where dogs couldn't pee on it. But to puritans, it was a table, not an altar.

I can see both sides. Not the anti-plays stuff because, frankly, I perceive God as on the side of artists who want to add to creation (not cancel it). And I'm not too fond of peed-on tables. Yet I admire the practicality that sees a table as a table.

Ahh, history is messy, which is why I never trust a pundit’s streamlined version of history that fits whatever that pundit thinks should happen NOW (no matter what side of the political fence). 20/20 hindsight is easy. It isn’t reality.

See next post: Part 3

Why Choosing the Supposedly Correct Side Is Difficult, Part 1

A recent book about Puritans, Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England America by Michael P. Winship brings home the problem of “right side versus wrong side.”

It is easy, in retrospect (or if one is a pundit) to know exactly what the "right" or "winning" side is (those labels don't necessarily fall into the same category). That is, it is easy after the fact or for streamlined "I've got my narrative!" advocates to excise complications and know exactly how everyone was/is supposed to behave.

Truth is: the world is complicated and 20/20 hindsight can be downright arrogant.

The Reformation in England is a great example!

England goes Protestant. And Protestants are ecstatic—right up until they go nuts. Presbyterians decide that Queen Elizabeth isn’t going far enough. The Church of England is still riddled with things like surplices and the Book of Common Prayer, which is too close to the dreaded religion of the Antichrist to be acceptable (consider the extreme language).

Queen Elizabeth is unimpressed. No Catholic, she is still more Catholic (like her father) than Protestant.

Some Presbyterians pull back from their extreme demands. Others start preaching that the Church of England is a corrupt organization that is going to pull England down to hell. Queen Elizabeth is now miffed.

And I gotta say, I probably would have backed the queen—

Except I’m also a pro-democracy American. And one of the arguments the Presbyterians made was that the queen ruled by the consent of the governed. People loved Protestants, so the queen should love Protestants. The Presbyterians also ran their own meetings in a non-hierarchic fashion, through discussion and debate.

Then the queen rejected their even rather mild reforms—which mild reforms were likely totally justified. But Queen Elizabeth was increasingly irritated—and fearful—of a Puritan conspiracy and slammed the proverbial door in the faces of these early puritans.

John Cotton: A good puritan was supposed to question,
"Am I one of the elect or not?" for that person's entire life.
At which point, Wingate writes, “It was neither separatists nor anti-puritans who finally pulled the Presbyterian movement down. Presbyterians did that themselves.” With the kind of extremist rage that Causes (with a capital C) seem to evoke, the more extreme Presbyterians wrote abusive and venomous pamphlets that satirized all their enemies—and incidentally, kind of mocked religion too. Now everybody was miffed.

There’s a lot more to the story. The point is, in the middle of all that, what direction would a good, thoughtful, non-CAUSE non-crazy person leap?

See next post: Part 2.

The Willing (and Hilarious) Suspension of Disbelief

Human beings have the extraordinary capacity to enter into the world/assumptions/life of a fictional story and make it real.

French writer  Pierre Bayard has WAY more to say about this in his books Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery and Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles.  I recommend both books although the middle parts are rather dense.

The viewers' willingness to accept the show's reality was brought home to me recently while watching Home Improvement, which was filmed before a live audience. In the episode "Reel Men," Al and Tim (and eventually Wilson) go ice-fishing while the ladies stay home and wax their legs. At one point, in passing, Jill advises one of her guests to stay clear of the "wax" pot (green) and not confuse it with the "fondue" pot.

Tim comes home several hours later. Now, take into consideration that producers and directors do not purposefully poison or otherwise harm their actors. Moreover, the scene has changed which means that the pots are not even sitting on the same surfaces. Speaking as an ex-drama club member, in "real" life, the crew came in and moved everything around.

And yet, when Tim--unknowingly--dips his bread into the wrong pot, the live audience gasps, groans, and begins to laugh.

We've been told to believe that it is wax. Therefore, it is wax.

Reality Really Is Stranger Than Fiction

The proper actor for Lord Peter Wimsey
This is partly a Lesson from Fan Fiction. But it goes beyond that.

In my fan fiction, I've realized that having my characters miss information or clues--that time traveler is a con-artist!--because they are busy, tired, or simply preoccupied is unbelievable--

Even though it is entirely true-to-life.

In the novel Whose Body by Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey delivers the following monologue:
You see...if ever you want to commit a murder, the thing you've got to do is to prevent people from associating their ideas...You see, it's only in Sherlock Holmes and stories like that, that people think things out logically Or'nar'ly, if someone tells you something out of the way, you just say, 'By Jove!' or 'How sad!" and leave it at that, and half the time you forget about it, unless something turns up afterwards to drive it home. For instance, I told you when I came in that I'd been down to Salisbury, and that's true, only I don't suppose it impressed you much. I don't suppose it'd impress you much if you read in the paper tomorrow of a tragic discovery of a dead lawyer down in Salisbury, but if I went to Salisbury again next week, and there was a Salisbury doctor found dead the day after, you might begin to think I was a bird of ill omen for Salisbury residents, and if I went there again the week after and you heard that the see of Salisbury had fallen vacant suddenly, you might begin to wonder what took me to Salisbury...and you might think of going down to Salisbury yourself and asking all kinds of people if they'd happened to see a young man in plum-colored socks hanging around the Bishop's Palace.
He goes on to suggest that only after his theoretical behavior in Salisbury caused suspicions would his listeners remember something he mentioned years before about Salisbury.

Humans love the power of hindsight. We love to claim that we always saw the various relationships of action and inaction and interaction amongst tangents, red herrings, apparent red herrings, things and people and events and news and weather....

The truth is, Sayers through Wimsey is right: a particular set of events means little to nothing until and unless something gives that event a reason for it to come to our attention. As brain experts point out, the human brain tends to eliminate "unnecessary" information in day-to-day life. It takes training to slow the brain down and ponder whether the unnecessary information might actually be necessary.

But in a novel or short story or episode or movie, the information has been brought to the brain's attention. We have to pay attention; consequently, if a character ignores that information, the character looks stupid--

Which is unfair to the character. There's a great House episode which didn't get enough emphasis in which Chase points out that House has chased a particular hare down a rabbit hole dozens of times before--he was wrong all the previous times; why should he be right now? "Because it's this television episode" is not a realistic answer.

Watson truly isn't stupid. Sherlock is simply very observant. 

Fan Fiction Lesson: The Usefulness of Nuttiness

Nanites speaking through Data.
One of my Star Trek: TNG fan fiction characters is a member of the Diplomatic Service, Office of First Contact. This is a Federation office, not a Starfleet office. However, he, along with his boss, are seconded to the Enterprise, which, as Starfleet's flagship finds itself in a great many first contact situations.

My character, Meke, becomes more and more interested in First Contact with non-biological life forms, such as nanites and robots. His boss is an "old-school" diplomat who favors biological life forms. The boss also believes that all aliens are sweet and well-meaning and never at all intent on universal domination.

When the boss entirely misreads the Borg situation, in part because he ignores the resistance-is-futile component of Borg culture, he is replaced.

Meke's new boss is more insightful--but this created a writing problem for me. In real life, Meke would become more and more specialized (see Num3rs, "First Law" for an excellent example of how two fields can appear superficially similar on the outside--hey, it's cyber-stuff!--yet are in fact quite distinct in terms of specialization).

However, I didn't want my character to become so specialized that he would disappear (not every episode deals with Data and machines). What should I do? 

I gave Meke's boss, Max, a whole host of personality quirks.

Max is competent, even insightful, but occasionally tactless. He develops sudden dislikes for a first contact encounter and refuses to go further. He gets "exhausted" by certain situations and hands everything abruptly over to Meke.

One might ask, "How could someone like this end up on the flagship of the Federation?"

One would answer, "Seriously? Hasn't everybody had bosses like this that got promoted up the food chain way too far and way too fast?"

Max isn't a bad guy, so Meke doesn't try to get him in trouble. In fact, Max lasts right until he fails to pinpoint the true nature of Alkar, the vampire-like diplomat. Nobody else pinpointed Alkar's true nature (until the Enterprise, that is) but somebody has to be the fall-guy and Max is it.

In other words, I ultimately have Max get dismissed for reasons that have nothing to do with his actual tendency to foist his work on his subordinate.

More importantly, I figured out a way for my character to continue to handle first contact situations with species outside his specialization. Consequently, I was able to involve Meke in the episode "First Contact," starring the amazing Bebe Neuwirth. In "Half a Life," Max throws up his hands when Timcin changes his mind (again), leaving Meke to handle the fall-out.

This kind of approach is surprisingly common in series--the writers need to provide reasons for characters to stick around. Giving quirks, oddities, and idiosyncrasies to characters is one approach. Greg's hero-worship of the CSI team plus his manic boredom in the lab explain his decision to go out into the field, lending it a patina of fictional realism. Linda's flightiness coupled with her kind nature explain why she doesn't leave her job with Dr. Becker. Rimmer's constant need to complain to someone explains why he remains Lister's bunk-mate.

Quirks, oddities, and idiosyncrasies can keep characters present in an ongoing series. They can also get taken too far. And they often have a shelf-life. Even I determined that eventually Max would hit a wall and lose support. There's a gap in time when Meke is the only First Contact envoy on-board. And even that won't last forever.

Eventually, Xander goes out and gets himself a job. Kyle finds his calling. Neelix discovers a new community. While Naomi simply grows up. Finding the balance between the static narrative and the organic narrative is a writing challenge--and, one could argue, a life challenge as well. 

Folklore: The Captivity Narrative

The captivity narrative is very, very, very old. So old, it even has its own number in the Stith-Thompson motif index!

Basically the captivity narrative occurs when a member of one culture is seized and dragged into another culture.

Think of civilizations as having a common center. Despite what conspiracy theorists and angry Rousseauians try to get us to believe, this is normal. It is normal and inevitable for a stable culture to have a stable center of traditions and language and attitudes and beliefs. 

Human nature being what it is, that stable center is surrounded by variations--those who adhere to the center but interpret it in their own way; those who debate the center; those who ignore the center; detractors, even rebels.

On the edges of all this response to the center lie Sondheim's woods--a person goes into the woods to explore the "outside," which is, by itself, is fascinating.

However, here's what's even more fascinating. The woods are edged by the woods of another civilization, which has its own center.

How do we enter into that culture while still retaining our own?

If we merely go for a visit, we will still--and always--be perpetual outsiders. And it might not be a good idea anyway. Look what happened to Frodo.

If we're rebels, trying to search for another identity, well...first of all, that's kind of negates the "retaining our own center" aspect of the journey. The rebel has already shed the center, which makes the rebel somewhat less than interesting. (This lack of interest is evinced by the ones the rebel leaves behind and by the ones the rebel encounters: Benedict Arnold lost the respect of everybody, including the British.)

Because the real interest in the captivity narrative is the clash between the two centers. Captivity is both resisted and desired.  What happens when a person, who is still holding onto a center, is forced to adjust to another stable way of being? What compromises ensue?

Some of the most classic literary/popular culture productions in existence utilize the captivity narrative, including Beauty & the Beast; Light in the Forest; a stunning number of nineteenth-century "captivity narratives" regarding Native Americans and religion (Mormons, Catholics); a large portion of all sci-fi, including Asimov's non-alien sci-fi (the human-colonized planets colonized are as culturally distinct from each other as any "alien" planet); alien/UFO narratives...

Life Changes, Human Nature Doesn't

I'm a big believer that history does NOT repeat itself. However much people want to compare COVID-19 to past pandemics, it simply isn't the same thing.

Every now and again, however, I am reminded that human nature doesn't change all that much. (I'm still not going to talk about COVID-19 though I may in a later post.)

I am rereading Emma Lathen's excellent mystery novels and was highly amused by the following from Come to Dust.

A member of the Admissions Committee of an Ivy League-type college disappears, taking with him documents linked to admissions. Consequently, the high school applicants will have to go through the admissions process again (more or less). This is bound to cause all kinds of angst!

My version of Thatcher--up to date!
A sociologist writes an article, arguing that to help their teenage children in these trying times...
"parents should be unfailingly reasonable, totally unbiased, open to cultural innovation, and undismayed by personal hostility--"
The narrator, who is truly the voice of Thatcher, continues blandly--
"--without [the sociologist] explaining how this was supposed to prepare the young for a world that could be relied upon to display none of these characteristics."
The book was written in 1968.

D is for dePaola

The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola was one of my all-time favorites growing up.

It's a lovely book, and if the libraries here were open, I'd take it out and re-read it, including dePaola's "old story" notes at the back.

Luckily, I remember it well enough to know why I loved it so much when I was younger. I was a fairly theologically-minded kid--not that I used the words "theologically-minded." But I was interested in God and praying and stuff like that.

I was also one of those kids who was born feeling guilty--about everything, really. Somehow, however, I managed to separate those two things: God versus guilt. When I was younger, this separation was pure instinct. It was only as I got older, that I got better at parsing the difference. (So I do understand where Paul is coming from.)

C.S. Lewis was my primary gateway to the non-guilt/non-rule-centered version of relating to God--without eschewing fundamental morality. Edmund is wrong. He also isn't tormented. C.S. Lewis, by his own admittance, was far more interested in the awe-inspiring grandeur of God, which included a playful side, than in determining a list of rules or pinpointing insiders versus outsiders. He was also terrifically individual-oriented.

Tomi dePaola was a welcome second agreement to this view. The Clown gives the gift of his own skill and ability. The Christ child smiles upon the gift.

Add in the sheer big-picture wildness of Tolkien--the three authors go a long way towards explaining why I consider books as integral to my integrity as any ritual or external doctrine.

There are Aliens and Then There are Aliens

Another re-post (from 2006)--more about aliens

While watching Star Trek: TNG recently, I thought about the ways in which we humans think about aliens or the concept of aliens. There are basically three models:

Star Trek Model: This is also, kind of, the Star Wars model. Aliens are seen as potential friends or at least potential neighbors. Granted the Star Trek model depends on reducing all alien races to a few existential characteristics (so that all Vulcans are logical, all Klingons are warrior-like, etc.). Granted, too, the function of Star Trek aliens is to allow human issues to be discussed that, for reasons of political correctness, can't be discussed about humans. Hence, even though all the humans in Star Trek are ultra-rational and vaguely agnostic, they are still able to discuss religion with Bajorans and with Worf.

Star Wars follows this model in that the Star Wars universe is peopled by aliens working side by side with no one much remarking on the fact. I prefer the Star Trek version, simply because I loathe (as in detest to my heart's core) Ewoks. Star Trek aliens come out of a pattern but at least they aren't cute!

All in all, this model is remarkably inclusive. It is one of the better side-effects of liberal humanism. Aliens, however problematic they prove at first, can be loved and understood in the long run. I admit, the "aliens" in my Star Trek fan fiction are more complicated--because, well, people are so darn complicated--but I understand the writing approach that prefers to keep things simple. And Star Trek characterizations do deliver a framework that can be easily used and complicated by others.

Interestingly enough, however, even in Star Trek, the scariest enemies are bug-like creatures. The Borg is Starfleet's main enemy, but the Borg are still comprehensible. When Star Trek wanted to created a worse enemy than the Borg, what did they do?

They brought in the bugs.

Which leads me to Model 2: Independence Day. In model 2, the aliens are buggy and evil. They can't be reasoned with. They don't seem to have reasons, just superior technology (that can, nevertheless, be brought to a standstill by a mild, little earth-created computer virus. Yeah, right.) And well, thank goodness for Will Smith, I say.

The X-Files Model: In the X-Files model, the aliens are big and bad and buggy, BUT they aren't the real enemy. The real enemy is the government that hasn't told us, the American people, about the big, bad, buggy aliens. In fact, in X-Files, the aliens, or rather the existence of aliens, represent for Mulder belief and hope. The problem is the humans who get in the way of that belief and hope. Men in Black is this model turned on its head. (Yes, the government isn't going to tell you, but they aren't going to tell you for your own sake.)

Personally, I think it is possible aliens are out there, although I don't spend a lot of time tidying my apartment for a possible visit. Like any good Star Trek fan, my own sci-fi universe follows the many-aliens-functioning-together-in-the-same-universe scenario (although I leave open the possibility that said aliens might have more nefarious goals than sweet Roddenberry allowed for).

Ultimately, I think Douglas Adams is right. If there are aliens, they don't pay us much mind. They are no more good than the average pompous liberal (such as the Vulcans of Enterprise). And no worse than the average bureaucrat who wants to build a bypass through our galaxy. And if they do make contact, they will be Ferengi wanting to trade. Face it, they won't go looking for the Dalai Lama or George Bush or Al Gore or sincere Hollywood stars or even Queen Elizabeth. They're going to be dialing Donald Trump's number. [I wrote the last line before he was president--and before anyone had any idea that he would become president! I left the line in the post because...they probably still would! Or Rupert Murdoch's number. Or Jeff Bezos's.]

Watching Ryan Become Mike

One of the most enchanting things about Last Man Standing is watching Ryan become Mike. In his personal life, Tim Allen moved from lefty-ish beliefs to conservative beliefs. Last Man Standing shows us how that is possible.

First of all, Ryan--despite being a progressive leftist who speaks in cliches--is a fundamentally likable guy. The producers wisely discarded the too-full-of-himself con-man version of Ryan from Season 1, substituting the earnest man of principles instead.

The actor, Jordan Masteron, is not only quite attractive, he exudes an underlying sense of humor. The character/actor has a twinkle in his eye--and demonstrates great kindliness towards his girlfriend/wife and son. Ryan honestly believes in the goodness that he espouses.

He is also honest enough to balk at supposed givens. When Ryan begins to run Bud's Buds, he get exasperated at all the bureaucratic red tape:
"How can the government know how to run my business better than me?" he queries Mike, who grins at him with sardonic affection.
Ryan and Mike also share the same side when they both complain about the punitive treatment of boys in public schools.

A great scene where Mike realizes that Ryan let
himself look foolish in front of Mike in order to support
Boyd's non-aerodynamic car additions.
To be fair, Ryan is as honest about the bug-bears of the right as he is of the left. When Mike goes after ObamaCare, both Ryan and Kristin point out that "not everybody has a nice grandfather" who will swoop in with money to help out. And Mike listens. They have a point, even if he disagrees. One of my favorite things about Tim Allen/Mike Baxter is his willingness to argue.

My most favorite thing, however, is his rejection of fearmongering, whether it is being done by environmentalists or doomsdaying preppers (fearmongering isn't his version of Christianity either). And he tries his best to help Ryan help his own son not to fall down that particular rabbit hole.

In the end Ryan and Mike share more in common than Ryan, at least, realizes.