Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Wrong Heroes - Farewell to a Princess

2016 is, thank the gods, nearly over. A year that's not only taken David Bowie, Prince, and now Carrie Fisher from us while giving us an orange-skinned menace as President-Elect of the United States.

As I've said here before the Star Wars films hold a special place in my life, out of proportion with their actual actual artistic value. To me, then, Carrie Fisher, will always - in addition to everything else she was -  be Princess Leia. Thinking on both the character and the person in light of the current state of the world, there's much to see about how we think about women, how we think about
She drowned in the moonlight, strangled
by her own bra. 
men, and how we think about heroes.

The scene of Princess Leia's which resonated with me as a child was, of course, the rescue from the Death Star. Han and Luke had made their way to her cell and immediately found themselves attacked by imperial stormstroopers and on the verge of re-capture. Leia essentially took over her own rescue, grabbing a blaster from one of the men and leading them to the relative safety of the trash compactor.

Leia's place in the story was more than that, of course. She was a leader of the rebel alliance. An organizer. While Luke was living in the backwater of Tattoine and Han was eking out a living as a small time smuggler and con-man, she was doing the actual work. If one steps back and takes a long look one could ask - who is the actual hero? The one running a movement - and who goes back to running it in her older years when the men have run away - or the talented warrior/pilot with their flashier skills? Luke and Han won the day in battle, but it was arguable Leia who brought them TO that day so they could win it. She was the heart and mind, they the body.

As a mental exercise, try reimagining the story from her point of view; in place of the simple farmboy destined for greatness you have someone raised to closer to the emperor's shadow by a family who not only knew what they were doing but who consciously chose to defy the empire by hiding her. Someone who lost not only her family but her entire world, someone who has the same parent/child dynamic with Darth Vader that Luke Skywalker had. Let me repeat: Luke lost his Aunt and Uncle [who he never seemed to much like]. Leia lost literally her entire world.

We've not changed much. Decades after the first Star Wars films, JK Rowling gave us an even more egregious example of the wrong hero in the Harry Potter novels; Hermione Granger was the smartest student at Hogwarts, perhaps one of the smartest the school had ever seen. She showed bravery, initiative, creativity. Time and again, Harry succeeded because Hermione figured out the answer for him. Her strongest skills were academic - the willingness to read and study, and the ability to both remember what she learned and put what she knew into context. Harry's best skill was flying a broomstick very well and being successful at a sport. He was the lightsaber-wielding Luke Skywalker to the sharp-witted and sharp-minded princess.

And, of course, it's the laser-sword fights, the aerial combat, the wizards duels which we remember.

So, Princess Leia was a hero. Or should have been.What of Fisher herself, the person behind the character? She was smart and funny. I learned yesterday that she not only had a quiet career as a "script doctor" in Hollywood, but also fixed some of what would have been the most cringeworthy dialog in the Star Wars films. She's looked on fondly by her peers and friends.

I'm not usually one to mourn celebrities; their lives and mine are separate enough that the illusion of personal connection falters as they leave us. There are, of course, exceptions. I cried for Sir Terry Pratchett. And I cried for Carrie Fisher.I didn't know her that well, nor really follow her career the way I had some others, yet still I cried.

I cried for the years we'll never get to see; for the years ahead of her.

I cried for the bit of my childhood which is now irretrievably in the past.

I mourn for the loss of her voice, for her willingness to speak honestly and openly about her struggles with mental illness. To this day, that issue is still a taboo.

And I mourn the too-soon and pointless death. For the stories which will be left untold.

2016 was not a good year; in a way it seems almost fitting for it to end with pain.

So, we mourn.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Flash Fiction Friday - After Halloween

Hello friends. I'm back.

No real Flash Fiction Friday piece this week, but I will give you a brief original poem, and a promise that in this space there will be something every week. Some weeks it will be poetry, some weeks flash fiction, perhaps sometimes something a touch more substantive.

This is pretty heavy-handedly allegorical, but I suspect that to be the headspace in which many of us find ourselves around now; at least those of us who are decent human beings shocked by the national and global moves towards hatred.

More to come.

"After Halloween"

The pumpkins away
nor the plastic witch high on the tree
nor the scarecrows.

nor the pumpkins.

 I said the pumpkin already
didn't I?

It isn't just one house; there's a malaise,
a miasma
a plague of non-pumpkin removing

To gather them is no great task
Out before dawn in a dark blue pickup truck
flying wind-tattered stars and stripes

It's easy to gather up the pumpkins,
reminder of the schoolmaster's weakness
reminder of pagan rites
goard of the devil.
The pumpkins do not belong.

It's easy to gather the scarecrows
some plastic things from the dollar store
some straw-stuffing and twine.
All fake.
There is no corn here
           there are no crows.
The scarecrows do not belong.

The witches don't belong.
No need to explain why.

These all fit in the bed of the truck
under the fluttering banners
invisible in the pre-dawn dark of standard time.

It's a short drive to the shore.

It feels good,
the cool November air on your face
the faint saltwater mist
the pleasant ache in your arm
as you fling each rotting pumpkin
each vermin-infested scarecrow
each tack plastic witch
                                  as far from the shore as your arms can launch them.

Some of them sink.
Some may float, only to be smashed against the shore
by an unforgiving current.

You drive off, your work done.

Never to know which of the pumpkins
bolstered by witches magic
fed by sodden straw
will embrace their new home
will learn to swim
and will,
from the depths

Monday, November 7, 2016

A Pixel-and-Inkstained Election Endorsement

Warning: Contains politics.

Today is the eve of the Presidential election here in the US. After a campaign which stretched literally two years, tomorrow we cast our ballots and patiently await the returns. This is not my usual space to talk politics, but this is not a usual election. In an election which has seen The Atlantic endorse a candidate for only the third time in its hundred fifty year history I think it reasonable to give thoughts here in my space. We'll return to our regular programming soon after.

Those paying attention will note that this is the second time this season I mentioned the election, the first being back in April when I took professional cartoonist Scott Adams to task for what, at the time, appeared to be vocal support for Donald Trump. My statement back then is that we in the tech industry - to which Adams is at least peripherally connected - can and should be better than that. AT the time, Trump had been waging a campaign focused on subtle and not-so-subtle appeals to racism, and that Adams' support gave at least tacit acceptance to this divisiveness. I'm very sorry to say that things have gotten worse (and that Adams has fallen completely down the rabbit-hole of apologizing for and enabling blatant racism).

This is also my chance to - perhaps long-windedly- address a question a Trump supporter asked on Facebook:
your candidate is probably going to win, and yet all I am seeing is negativity. Aren't you excited at all that Clinton is on track to win?

That is a fair question, and here is my long-form answer:

I AM excited by the prospect of a Clinton presidency for her commitment to education, to universal healthcare, to protections for working families, for women's rights. I also know these to be part of my political philosophy which is not universal; there are some very honorable people who believe in smaller government, lower taxes, and a "hands off" governing philosophy. The debate between Obama and Romney or McCain was Rawls vs Nozick, social justice vs libertarianism. It's a debate about which I feel strongly, but one in which both sides are respectable. This year is something different.

This year we've heard the following from the Republican nominee:

  • The current President of the United States was born in a foreign country - despite ALL evidence to the contrary
  • The US is "under assault" by spanish-speaking immigrants pouring across our Southern border, and that these are rapists and otherwise criminal.
  • The "inner cities" are a lawless "disaster" in which African-Americans are both criminals and victims of crime.
  • That Muslims are scary, and that no Muslims should be allowed ingress to the country - even those who are actual American citizens. 
  • That the "Central Park Five" - a group of African-American youths wrongly imprisoned for the rape of a female jogger in Central Park are - in his mind - still guilty despite evidence to the contrary. 
Along with the slogan "Make America Great Again" (my emphasis), Trump continues to run a campaign specifically focused on  exploiting the fears of white racists reacting to shifting demographics.

We now have white supremacists vocally supporting Trump for president. We literally have the KKK endorsing him. In his weird, rambling trail of pro-Trump blog posts (some of which purported to disavow him or even endorse Clinton or Johnson), the aforementioned Adams framed the election through the lens of "persuasion" and explained that he understands it because of his training as a hypnotist. I'll do something different, and look at it as a story: in a period of changing economic times and social upheaval, the traditional majority ethnic group sees their power waning. A strong-voiced leader arises to tell them that it isn't their fault, that they've been stabbed in the back by those not like them, by invaders, by those with different faiths.  This is a story we've heard before, and it didn't go well the last time.

I don't know what Trump believes, but I DO know that everything he's done and said in his campaign has made it OK to be a white nationalist, that it's OK to be openly racist, that it's OK to be openly sexist. Every vote for Trump is a vote in favor of these ideals, whether you believe in them or not.

I can hear your objection: "But what if I don't support Clinton because of [Emails/Clinton Foundation/Iraq War Vote/Benghazi/other]?" My answer: It doesn't matter. The narrative of this election IS the narrative, with or without your approval. A vote may be your voice, but it is a voice sharply constrained in what it can say or how it can say it. A win by Trump - or even a narrow loss - helps to normalize all of what he stands for. That's just how it is. To go to our historic analogy, if you voted Hitler because of his economic plans you'd still get the gas chambers.

So why do I support Clinton? Lots of reasons specific to my political beliefs.  Why should all decent people support her this election?  To tell a story to our fellow Americans and the world as a whole about who were are and what we want to be.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Nightmare Fuel 2016, Day the Eighteenth - Simulacrum

Another catch-up day.

Just a quick snapshot that may or may bot be worth developing into something more.


Another day at the office. The same day as before. Wait for the train. Ride on the train. Sit at your desk, toil. Return home. The train is delayed, you get home late. Eat dinner without tasting it, put the kids to bed without hearing them.

The next morning, another day at the office. The same day as before. Wait for the train. Ride on the train. Sit at your desk, toil. Return home.  The train is on time today, but the guy sitting next to you is getting progressively drunker from paper-bags full of beer. He spills some on you, you return home in a foul mood spelling of stale brew.

The next morning. Another day at the office. The same day as before. Wait for the train. Ride on the train. Sit at your desk, toil. Return home.

The next morning. You wake up early with a plan. Your son went through a phase where he loved legos, where they were all he ever played with. You have enough to shape a man. You breath life into it. Not a lot of life; it doesn't need a lot. Just enough for another day at the office, the same day as before. To wait for the train. Ride on the train. Sit at your desk, toil. Return home.

Sometimes the legoman comes home whole, sometimes it's missing a brick or two. 

On some days you fix it, on others you don't bother do, send it out short a piece.

The next morning. Another day.

You sleep late. Read a bit, watch TV.

Another day. It comes home. Different than you remember. Some pieces may be missing, some added. You barely notice.

Until the day it comes home, quietly, wordlessly. Spills out the erector-set and starts building a model of itself.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Nightmare Fuel 2016, Day the Seventeenth - Playtime

Getting back to this project, almost a week behind. Some days it's harder to find inspiration, or to find time. This is one that doesn't quite fit the photo, but it doesn't quite NOT fit it either.


You and Will loved the woods. You know they weren't really woods - at least you do now. Just a few stands of trees behind the identical row-houses in which your family lived, a short walk from the low, brick prison bunker of a school building.

Not that it's the school that was the prison.

You always called it the woods, and your parents always humored you.

"We're off to play in the woods, Mom."

"Who  are you playing with?"

"Just Will."

This answer always disappointed them. "Don't you want to see if any of your friends from school want to play?"

"Nah. Just me and Will."

You ran out, leaving their whispered conversations of "too old for this" and "antisocial" and "what's wrong with her" behind. There were always whispered conversations, never anything to your face.

They never seemed to know that you could hear them.

You and Will had been exploring the woods that are not woods for years when he found it. It was always Will who found things, though he never seemed to know what they were any better than you did. This time it was obvious to you that it was an old refrigerator with the door taken off, but Will insisted that it was a very old flying saucer, its windows and doors long missing.

You remember everything about it. The crunch of dry autumn leaves under your feet, the crisp cool air, the long shadows cast by the sun, low behind the tall, half-bare trees. Mostly, you remember the day the other kids found you.

They were a few years older, at that age when boys think they're young men but aren't really yet. They saw us at the spaceship -- well, they saw me. Not Will.

I don't remember all the things they yelled, but "faggot" was one and "loser". And more.

Then there was only the sound of their muffled laughter far behind me and the snap of dry twigs and crunch of leaves as I ran back home. Will didn't come with me.

In fact, that was the last I ever saw him. When I came back to the spaceship it wasn't a spaceship; just an empty refrigerator in an empty spot under the trees, littered with empty beer cans.

Phoo via The Vintage News on Facebook:


Monday, October 17, 2016

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Sixteenth - Back to Nature

Happy Monday. I've been asked why I always use fantastical elements in my fiction; it isn't a need, but it IS something that lets one speak to the world more clearly and with more flexibility.

That said, there's may not be a fantasy element in the piece below. You can decided if it still works.

Back to Nature

"Let's go back to nature."

That's how it started. Henry's idea. Things like this were always his idea.

And it's isn't like I minded. Seven years after welcoming Billy to the world, live had fallen into a comfortable rut of getting him off to school, getting him back from school, and the blur of activities between. "Back to nature" could be fun. For all of us.

And so what if nature meant a nylon tent in a grassy clearing just ten feet from a parking spot? It was still a break in the routine, even if the hours you would have spent cooking were spent as even more hours rinsing lightweight tin plates with biodegradable camping-soap after spending an embarrassing amount of time trying to cook over an open fire before giving up and taking the portable propane stove from the trunk.

And so what if Henry couldn't make it, called out of town at the last minute? At least Billy and I would have a moment's peace together. Away from school and home and dishes and the damn vacuum cleaner.

And so what if Billy barely picked at the hamburger it took far too long and too much effort to cook, and whined for Mac and Cheese and that we COULD have made Mac and Cheese if we'd only brought it. After all, we had a stove.

And so what if I left Billy in the tent for a bit when I ran off into the nearby wood, after the sun had set. After all, that's what I needed, right? And I wasn't too far.

Yes, I knew that last part was wrong. But really, it wasn't so far.

My heart froze in my chest as the car's headlights pierced the moonless night, a beacon back towards our site. I ran, footsteps crunching on the thick carpet of dry leaves. My stomach dropped as I saw Henry silhouetted in the light. Yes, I'm sure it was him. Yes, he was over a thousand miles away. And yes, he was so backlit that I couldn't see his face, but you know how your husband stands. It was him.

As I neared the site, the lights die, leaving you in darkness, the afterimage lingering in your eyes.

Henry, of course, isn't there. Billy is lying awake in his sleeping bag, staring at the roof of the tent.

I zipped myself into my sleeping bag by his side, never again to leave.
Image via Buzzfeed

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Nightmare Fuel, Day the Fifteenth - "Footprints"

We begin the second fortnight of the Nightmare Fuel project with a ghost story, but not the creepy kind. Image is, sadly, from an unknown source.


We've been a long time away from Earth. Yes, we slept through most of it, but still the time passed. Six years, sixty, six-hundred, six-thousand. The numbers almost didn't seem to matter.

The ship, of course, was big enough to be a world.

A home.

My parents were born far from earth, but their parents weren't.

This, you have to understand, is back when we used earth-style names. Even those of us born here.So, Elon, Nikolai, Marie, Ada and I were telling ghost stories. Ghosts were another thing we'd  brought with us from Earth. The story I remember most was Ada's.

"It was the annual launchday party, and I was stuck with my parents. Again.  So Tom and I snuck off to the old containment site. The one that was build earth-style with concrete floors and those crazy old lights that cast a harsh, blue-white glare. You know the place.

Or maybe you don't. It's been a long time since any of us bothered with that. This is back when we still used old earth-style bodies. And when boys still wanted to do with them what boys wanted to do.

Oh, don't look at me like that. Tom wasn't a bad guy. Not really. He just wanted what he wanted. Though how he thought he'd get anywhere with the heavy trousers, jacket, and workboots we were wearing is beyond me.

And yes. This is a ghost story. Let me continue.

Anyway, this old bunker-space was a bit like a beach, if beaches were a bare and dusty concrete floor leading to a pool of stagnant water leftover for god knows what purpose.

Anyway, the more time we spent there the less good it felt and the more panicky. Like my heart was beating too fast in my chest, my stomach had that tight, cramped feeling. Like I should run. He put a hand around my waist as we walked, pulled me a bit closer. Too close. I guess if it were earth and a real beach it would've been romantic. I guess.

Or not.

Then, all of a sudden, I had this feeling of peace. Like I wasn't alone. I re-fastened my jacket, waked back across the dusty floor, back to where we came.  He followed with this hangdog look on his face, and the next day was all apologies, and the day after that acted like nothing had ever happened.

What? Yeah, I said it was a ghost story. After I ditched him, I needed to be alone. So -I went back. Yes, I know this is stupid, but what's a ghost story without someone doing something stupid? The place was just like I'd left it, bare concrete, our booted footprints in the thick dust. But beside them were another set of footprints. Bare human feet, alongside mine. Perfectly formed footprints, save for an odd scar in the middle of each bare foot, as if a hole had been borne in it.

They say that when we left earth, some earth-spirits came with us. That they walk with us, perhaps even carry us.

Share this story. Don't worry about Tom, or about me, or about what was happening.

Share the part about the footprints.

We're far from home, but we aren't alone.

As long as we remember that, we'll still always be human, and still always be from the earth.