Category Archives: Thoughts and Musings

Evaluation

Gonna be another short one this week (nope, still no Endgame here). I’m riding out the end of term chaos and generally trying not to plan much beyond the next week, after which things should settle down.

I did have one experience – Day Job related, again – that I thought was maybe worth mentioning, though. I had an evaluation done on one of my courses this winter. In general, my feeling is that you can evaluate me whenever the heck you want; I stand by what I do and have no problem talking about it with whoever. I was just a little worried about this particular one, though, only because this particular class had been a little on the quiet side, and I wasn’t quite as confident about what they would put on the evaluation forms as I might have been with other groups.

So yeah, I fretted a little.

They came back fine. In fact, they came back really good, especially from a group that I didn’t feel like I had a good read on and wasn’t too sure whether I had made an effective connection with.

So, yay me, but more importantly – I think we often fail to give ourselves enough credit for the things we’re good at and tend to assume the worst about any task that we’re undertaking. I know I do, anyway. It’s far from easy, but I know I need to try to be just a little more willing to believe in my own abilities and the quality of the (various kinds of) work I do. I also know I’m not alone in that.

Thanks for reading.

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Interpretation

Not a great deal to write about again this week (nope, still haven’t seen Endgame.) – I have been seizing a few more opportunities to knock out a few more words on the WIP, but not a lot to be said about that beyond ‘uh, trying to do some writing’. It will get better once I’m able to get it on a regular schedule again.

I don’t usually write much here about teaching, which is the Day Job, but I did have what I thought was a kind of cool moment last week that I’ve been thinking about a fair bit. I do a little bit of English tutoring in addition to the history teaching, and I’ve been doing a little bit of work with poetry with one of my students (they have been looking at it some in their class).

This student is pretty bright and ahead of their level, so I’ve been trying a little bit more advanced stuff than the material from their class, which has gone well. So, last week I had them take a look at a poem probably nearly everyone reads at some stage, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, by Robert Frost. I wanted to use it to start to introduce the idea that sometimes, we can look beyond the literal meaning of the words and see that the writer is talking about two (or more) things at the same time.

Which often seems like a pretty elementary point to people who think about writing a lot, but it was very fun to watch this student gradually catch on to this way of thinking, and by the end of our session suggest that maybe the poem was about what it’s like to get lost in a daydream. Which, I thought, wasn’t a bad interpretation.

I left them with the poem to keep thinking about.

Moments like that are what can make teaching very rewarding, and perhaps this student will go on to think about reading and writing in a slightly different way from now on. Mostly I just thought it was cool to be there as someone started to see something in a way they hadn’t before.

That’s about it for this week. Thanks for reading.

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Inundation

Over the past few days, the river here has flooded. It is supposed to crest sometime tomorrow, and so far my neighbourhood has stayed mostly dry, but there’s also an advisory out for heavy rainfall, so it’s still not entirely clear how that’s going to work out. Several places not far from where I live have already been less fortunate, and so have communities scattered all over in Bracebridge, Huntsville, Pembroke, and Kashechewan, a Cree reserve which has flooded every spring for the past 17 years.

(We should do something about that. My neighbourhood got the army called in to help.)

There’s something implacable about a flood. The water level keeps going up, and there isn’t anything that can be done about it. The primary means of defense is still a wall of sandbags, which seems like it should be heavily obsolete by now, but isn’t. And, even if you build your wall, ultimately it just may not be up to the challenge. You prepare as best you can, and in the end you hope it’s enough.

I think it’s a tough feeling for many of us, these days, when we are used to so much of our life being amenable to our control. We don’t have to deal with things that simply aren’t all that often, and I don’t think we’re particularly well set-up to handle them. As I said on Twitter, times like this make it really easy for me to understand why recourse to the idea of a higher power has been so popular – it provides at least some sense that there is something to be done about your situation, even if that something is just to ask for help.

Many times, things happen in our lives that are not our fault and not under our control. We just have to ride it out. I hope everyone out there having a tough spring for whatever reason finds the waters receding soon.

If you came here expecting a reaction to Avengers: Endgame, boy are you reading the wrong blog. Patience.

Thanks for reading.

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Notre Dame Lives

Yesterday there was a terrible fire at the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral. I said some stuff about it on Twitter, but I wrote it before there was any real sense of how bad things were and what the result was going to be. We know a little more today.

As bad as things looked yesterday, when we saw that ghastly image of the spire falling, the picture that emerged today was much more encouraging. The bulk of the ancient stone structure seems to be relatively intact, although assessing that will take some time. All three of the medieval rose windows somehow survived what looked to be nearly certain destruction.

Sometimes, things aren’t as bad as we first think. Things endure.

The roof was nearly completely destroyed, taking with it oak wood framing that dated to the 13th century, in places. Exactly how it will be rebuilt is something of a question. It almost certainly cannot be reconstructed as any thing approaching what it had been – there’s a shortage of century-old oak trees, to say the least. There’s also very valid arguments against rebuilding in wood at all – perhaps, since we’re starting over, it’s time to build something that would cope with fire a little better. In the 19th century, they rebuilt the roof of Cologne cathedral with an iron frame, apparently for just this reason.

Sometimes it’s better to start over.

I read a fascinating observation from Dr. Jez Wells, at the University of York, who pointed out that no matter how the cathedral is eventually repaired and rebuilt, it will sound different. The roof structure will not be the same as it used to be, and so all of the geometry of reverberations will be different, and the building will no longer respond to music in the same way it used to.

Some things can’t be fixed.

It’s also a good point that any of these ancient buildings have not been static throughout their long existence. They have been damaged, rebuilt, expanded, rethought, reconsidered, redesigned and redone many times. Obviously what happened yesterday was a particularly traumatic change in the state of a grand old building, and it is still painful because of all the things that have been lost and will never come again.

But, Notre Dame will be rebuilt. It will continue to be all the things it has been for eight centuries, and will still mean many things to a lot of people. It will be different, but things always are.

Almost always, we can carry on.

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The Star Wars Episode IX teaser dropped on us. Of course I have thoughts about this, and of course I’m excited. It’s Star Wars, after all, and we got Lando back flying the Falcon and Rey doing a pretty rad backflip cut a TIE Fighter in half looking manoeuvre. This setting does love a desert planet.

They didn’t really give us all that much to chew on, and I’m sure we can rely on some of it being misdirection. Death Star wreckage is cool, the Emperor’s laugh will always be unsettling. I hope they managed to stitch together a fitting farewell to Leia.

I am a bit worried that they’re going to try to push a Kylo Ren redemption angle. It seems very likely, but I think they’ll have to work hard to earn it.

I’m also concerned – both from the ‘Rise of Skywalker’ subtitle and the little bit we see here – that they’re rolling back the ‘Rey from nowhere’ background from Last Jedi and giving us some kind of Secret Skywalker reveal. Again I think that probably fits with the series’ overall mythology, but I also think it will be so much less satisfying.

If the hero is nobody in particular, then anyone can be the hero. That’s a solid message these days, I would argue.

In any event, it’s early days to know what’s going on with this film just yet. I have high hopes, and just a few gnawing worries.

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Ordinary Expanse

This week I discovered that the SF series The Expanse is available on Amazon Prime video. (Yes yes I am sure this was not difficult information to come by for people who pay proper attention to the world around them. It was new intelligence to me.) Thus, conforming quite well to my usual schedule, I have started watching it roughly 5 years behind the rest of the world.

I’m not super far into it yet (a pile of grading helps with resisting the urge to binge) so I don’t have a lot to say about the story yet (aside from general ‘I enjoy this’ level stuff) but I do already have Thoughts about the setting in general. I love that a lot of the future world imagined by The Expanse is dingy, dinged-up, worn-down and knocked around. A lot of the very obviously future tech is still just as obviously tools that people have done a lot of work with, objects that have been a part of people’s lives and taken the lumps that all of our objects do. (Not uniformly so, which makes a striking and effective contrast when we step into Rich People Land and everything is pristine. I think I like this show’s politics, but that’s a ‘later’ topic.)

I’ve talked about appreciating this aesthetic before, in Star Wars, and a lot of the future world of The Expanse reminds me of that, and Blade Runner. It isn’t a vision of the future we see enough, in my opinion. Many of our futures are gleaming in their perfection (Star Trek being perhaps the exemplar of that, in my mind) in which everything looks brand new and perfectly cared for. We also commonly see dystopia, where everything has collapsed and people inhabit the ruins of the civilization that has gone.

Both of those can be effective (although I think we tend to wait for the other shoe to drop on those gleaming futures, these days), but to me the middle ground of settings like The Expanse are perhaps the most plausible. The future will be like the present, and the past: inhabited primarily by ordinary people who have work to do, lives to get about the business of, and the environments they move through will primarily reflect that.

When I did history, I was a social historian, primarily interested in the lives of ordinary people, so it’s perhaps not a surprise that I tend to enjoy this in my fiction as well. The world of supermen and chosen ones can be a fun ride, of course, but what I actually expect we would find if we could look ahead to a future civilization is one kind of like The Expanse showed us: one that looks and feels like a place where everyday people live their every days.

So, lots of ground to cover yet on this unspooling tale, but I’m very much enjoying the early steps.

Thanks for reading.


 

Shoot I should also have added that the podcast I co-host, Broadcasts from the Wasteland, officially launched yesterday!  You can find us on iTunes or Spotify or visit us at our website and download from there.  I would be delighted if you checked us out.

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Down Cycle

I’m pretty low energy again this week, and feeling like I’m struggling a bit. Through my work as a teacher, I know that many of my students are doing the same, and so are some of my friends. I don’t believe any of my students read this blog, but perhaps someone like them will, and maybe they will find it helpful.

This is what I’m reminding myself these days. Everyone struggles sometimes. It’s ok to not be at our best all the time, and there are times when it’s enough just to keep going. Take care of yourself, reconsolidate your strength, and be back to being brilliant another day.

It’s ok to have times where we’re not at our best, it’s ok to admit that, and it’s ok to ask for a hand when we need it.

I read a little Taoist thought before I go to bed each night, even though I don’t really have the discipline to do it properly. There’s been a lot lately about how everything is cyclical, including our strengths and capabilities, and that it’s wise to recognize when we’re in a down part of the cycle, and wait to act until circumstances change.

That’s what I’m reminding myself to do this evening. See you again next week.

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St. Gertrude’s Story

So St. Patrick’s Day, I did the same silly tweet I did every year about St. Gertrude – March 17th is also the feast day of St. Gertrude of Nivelles, today seen as a patron of gardeners, sufferers of mental illness and cats. I am generally not a St. Patrick’s enthusiast, I find the curious world of lesser known saints interesting, and pointing out that you could celebrate St. Gertrude instead is at least arguably a joke.

This year the tweet kind of blew up for whatever reason, getting seen by (checks stats) 87,000 people. This provided me with the answer to a question I couldn’t help but have: ‘what happens when you have a tweet go (semi?) viral?’. The answer is ‘not much’, but it was fun to watch happen.

I honestly forget where I first read about St. Gertrude, but she’s an interesting figure. She was born in the early 7th century, refused marriage (shaving her head to try to put off potential suitors), eventually entered a convent (well, double monastery) and is supposed to have saved the faithful from both a storm and a sea monster. Regarded as a saint (although not recognized as such until the 17th century), she was invoked for help by people keeping gardens, travellers, and people suffering from fever.

The association with cats appears a very late addition, usually slotted into the 1980s. St. Gertrude was invoked against rodents earlier than that, at least in the 15th century against the Black Plague (spread, in part, by rats), and concern with rodents does make sense for a gardener. In addition, several depictions of St. Gertrude show her surrounded by mice or rats. There isn’t another patron saint of cats, a lot of people like them, and it’s not such a leap from invoking a saint against rodents to invoking her in favour of their classic nemesis (and our companion).

(I did find one article that said (correctly) that most monasteries and abbeys would have kept some cats to deal with the mice, and that Gertrude was known to be especially kind to the ones in her abbey. They didn’t cite a source, though, aside from mentioning the vita of her life in general, and I haven’t ever read it myself. So I’m not 100% confident on that one)

There’s another explanation out there for the mice – St. Gertrude apparently had special concern for souls in Purgatory. (imagine a sort of afterlife penalty box where you serve out the balance of your sins on earth) These souls were often represented in medieval art by mice or rats – so the depictions of St. Gertrude and the mice may have had nothing to do with actual animals at all, originally: they were about her interest in relieving souls from Purgatory, reinterpreted to be literal mice by the later Middle Ages and then to interest in cats even later.

We should note that she’s still not officially the patron of cats – the Vatican has never recognized the connection. But all of this demonstrates a lot of things about medieval religion that I find somewhat charming and endlessly fascinating, because a great many saints ended up getting their patronages due to popular connections first, and then later recognition by the institution. Popular practice was the driver a lot of the time, and people brought their own meanings to their devotions and found ways to get their needs served.

It is also interesting to me that St. Gertrude clearly has a great many authors to her story, and it has been continually rewritten, or at least reinterpreted, over the centuries. Unpicking what is the truth of her life is a puzzle for historians, but it probably didn’t matter to someone in 15th century Holland, looking desperately for help against a deadly disease. Their version was that St. Gertrude would help. It probably doesn’t really matter to the cat lovers who liked my tweet Sunday whether or not Gertrude of Nivelles really liked the abbey cats or not; their version is that she loved cats like we love cats.

Different people with different needs and priorities wrote the versions of St. Gertrude that they liked. I think it’s very cool that we’re still, on some level or another, working on the story of this woman from the 7th century today. It also demonstrates (I think) something else that fits more clearly into a writing blog.

Chuck Wendig wrote a blog entry last week about how, in his opinion, the people who run the Star Wars franchise should split off the movies into a separate continuity (or ‘canon’) from the books and comics, in sort of the same way that the Marvel superhero universe is similarly divided. His argument was (basically) that then writers would have more freedom to do what they wanted without worrying about whether they were fitting in with a lot of previously established (or still to come) canon. They could just write their stories, and not worry about it.

I think when you look at writing in the past, our obsession with ‘canon’ is a relatively recent development. If you look at the stories of King Arthur and his knights, it’s clear that there were a great many different writers across a great many years writing the stories they thought would be cool about these characters, and many of them do not even slightly make sense together. Even when someone tried to create a canon, like Thomas Malory, it doesn’t really work: Malory’s compilation still has two Excaliburs kicking around, and the Lady of the Lake is deeply confusing.

People at the time would have been perfectly aware of this, of course they would. This was their popular culture! But they also don’t seem to have been particular bothered about it, loved the stories anyway, and writers just wrote their tales, and didn’t worry about it.

Obviously this was a very different time, before ‘intellectual property’ was exactly a thing. And I could do a pretty deep dive into why we, as a society, might tend to gravitate towards the concept that there is a single right answer to any question (whether that be ‘what is at the centre of the Solar System’ or ‘did Han shoot first’) and are often uncomfortable with the idea that different interpretations may be equally valid for different people. Even without doing that, I think it is reasonably obvious why we tend to want at least some consistency within our stories, and to want satisfying answers to our questions about them.

However, I do think this gets carried rather too far, with expectations that each and every story set in the same universe has to fit together seamlessly and unproblematically. Heck, the stories we have about our own universe don’t even do that, so why expect it of our fictional ones? I think there’s a lot to be said for writers being able to ignore or at least greatly loosen ‘canon’ in all kinds of popular settings, write their stories, and not worry about it.

I think our stories changing depending who tells them, and who is listening, is a wonderful tradition and a great way to keep them alive. There’s centuries worth of evidence that even if there isn’t an air-tight ‘canon’, people will love them anyway.

Thanks for reading.

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Captain Marvel

Unusually for me, on the weekend I went and saw a movie that just opened! If you spend much time online, you will likely have seen that there is or was some controversy swirling around this one, part of which was an organized campaign by a bunch of tiny insecure people to tank its ratings before it even hit theatres. The main thing that did was make me (and, I do not doubt, many others) really want to throw my support behind it, so I made sure to go and see Captain Marvel.

Sure glad that I did.

It was a lot of fun, I thought the performances were great and I enjoyed the 90s throwback content (while simultaneously feeling even older than usual that we’ve hit the point where the 90s are retro). I loved the overall message of the film, that getting knocked down is not weakness: you just get the fuck back up. I loved seeing one of my favorite comic heroes on the big screen.

And yet, despite that, I know that the movie wasn’t really for me, not exactly anyway. Because sitting in the row right in front of me was a family with three little girls, who bounced up out of their seats with excitement when the ‘Captain Marvel will return in Avengers: Endgame’ card came up. Kind of like the joy from girls and women when Jodie Whittaker was announced as the 13th Doctor, I’ve been delighted to see all the similar excitement and happiness from women and girls getting to see themselves be the hero. That’s really who this movie is for, and as much as I enjoyed it, I know they enjoyed it on a level I really can’t – but I am so excited that they get to.

And look, there’s plenty there for the dudes. Leaving aside that the story is fun and Carol Danvers is a rad character, there’s Nick goddamn Fury. I’ve seen some deeply dumb takes about how Fury is done a disservice by his portrayal here, but it’s just not the case. Yes, Fury is the sidekick. That’s perfectly fine. He’s also obviously very good at his job (if in the early stages of his career), he’s funny, and seems like the kind of dude you would want on your team any day. No, he’s not very much like Fury as we see him later in life. But he’s a human being here, and Future Fury (or Present Fury, depending, I guess) should be thinking about how to get back to the place where he was great at being a SHIELD agent but also pet the cat and sang in the kitchen.

Some of the backlash against Captain Marvel is disheartening because it doesn’t make sense that people should be so insecure that they can’t handle a movie where a female character is the main character, and she gets to fly jets and punch bad guys and be the hero. It’s unfortunate to be reminded that those people are still out there. However, it is nice to also have the evidence that they’re a pretty tiny minority, even if they are loud. Captain Marvel, after all, had a huge opening weekend.

Higher.

Faster.

Further.

More.

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I hate Chekov’s Gun

I recently finished watching the most recent season of True Detective, and I’ve seen some people annoyed about it, and I have some thoughts. They are thoughts full of spoilers, so if you haven’t watched to the end of Season 3, think you might, and care about spoilers, probably just give this entry a miss for now.

Ok, for those of you still here (skipping the question of why? for a moment) – first of all, I thought the acting this season was great and I enjoyed the Ozarks setting way more than Season 2’s LA. I thought the main character’s unreliable and fragmentary memory was an impactful and clever new wrinkle to throw into the show’s established ‘multiple time frames’ format.

Now, where I saw some people getting annoyed was with how the resolution came together, and in particular that the ending violated Chekov’s Gun. I think I hate Chekov’s Gun.

To explain: we did get plenty of hints at something occult going on in the early going, with a Lovecraft reference in the first ep, creepy Blair Witch-y dolls, and a body posed on a stone slab in a cave. That, coupled with how Season One had gone (with some strongly implied Weird stuff going on) seems to have led many people to expect that dark magic was going to be part of the resolution here. And it wasn’t. We also had reason to expect some alarming child trafficking ring, and didn’t really get that either. And at least some of the audience didn’t like it.

First of all, I think some of that reaction comes from people being proud or fond of their solution to the puzzle we were presented with, and not being happy to learn that their speculation was wrong. That’s perfectly understandable, really – no-one likes to be wrong, and most people like to feel clever. However, I’ve seen a decent number of people frame their complaints through Chekov’s Gun thing: basically, that you shouldn’t introduce hints at occult magical things and then not follow through.

I am sure that the original advice behind what became the ‘Chekov’s Gun’ rule was well meant, and it probably applies decently well as a general principle (maybe especially well to a stage production? I’m not certain), but like almost every writing rule I have seen, it shouldn’t be applied as broadly as it is. Especially if you’re presenting a story about solving a problem (which a criminal investigation essentially is) – well, almost every one of those is a story of various false starts, dead ends, and things that looked important and then weren’t. Yes, in the first couple episodes of the season, the evidence for Occult Stuff looked strong. Turned out mostly to be smoke. I don’t think you want to go to the ‘fakeout’ well too often as a writer (or your audience won’t ever believe anything you present), but some misdirection is fine, and presenting the reality of any kind of investigation as a story of all the things we got wrong before we started getting things right is perfectly solid.

There were similar Chekov’s Gun complaints with the last season of The Americans (yeah, spoilers ahead) in which Elizabeth is given a suicide pill, speculation abounds about who will end up taking it or having it used on them, and then … no-one does. It gets buried in the woods as the Jennings flee the country. Again, I thought it worked great. It served to create some tension when it was introduced, and then having it come to nothing was part and parcel of how the whole world of our favorite spies was falling away. Sometimes it really is fine to introduce something intended to fizzle out, or show a road that no-one ends up taking.

Some people also objected that the non-occult resolution wasn’t as interesting. Look, I’m a huge fan of having fantastic elements in stories generally (not a shock, I am sure), but I thought what True Detective gave us this season worked pretty nicely. We saw several grandiose explanations for the murder of one child and abduction of another, but in the end it was a story about a series of reasonably humble human frailties and failings that led to it all. To me, the mundane roots of evil are at least as interesting to me as another abyss of the human soul (such as we saw in Season One) would have been.

Now, I would agree that the two massive dumps of exposition in the final episode came across as pretty clumsy, but it’s hard to see how they could have been replaced without at least another episode’s worth of action. None of this is to say that I thought Season Three of True Detective was perfect, but I think it was pretty darn good, and some of the criticisms I’ve seen of it seem to be treating yet another general principle of writing as an absolute, must never be broken, rule.

Increasingly, I think those don’t exist.

Thanks for reading.

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Starting Points

Struggling a bit for a topic this week, so you’re going to get something from Evan’s Barrel of Random Writing Thoughts. Enjoy?

Anyway, I read some conversations talking about the starting point for a new story. A lot of very good points were made about starting with the protagonist, what they want, and how they’re going to get it. Or a character, their challenge, and how they feel about it. You establish those things, and then you can start writing. And it makes perfect sense, and is perfectly sound.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever followed that process. The story that became The King in Darkness started with the ending scene. I had that ending in mind, and built the rest of the story backwards from there. What characters do I need, and what circumstances can construct the path that gets us to that point? Very different process.

For the story I’m working on now (for some values of ‘working on’), my starting point was an article I read on the BBC website talking about how FTL travel is not only impossible with current technology, and current ideas about technology, but is probably just straight-out impossible, even allowing for tech we haven’t thought of yet. ‘Well that’s no fun,’ I thought, and then proceeded to think about how well, if it can’t be done with science, how could it be done? Magic, obviously. That idea, and my hard SF-writing friend’s probable reaction to it, made me smile, and I created all the rest of what I’ve got from there. There’s dragons now. Very different process. As far as I can recall, I don’t think I’ve ever started from the starting point a lot of authors I respect agreed was their baseline for being ready to write. Man, creativity is endlessly fascinating.

And look, none of this is to say that I’m doing it right, or that I’m clearly doing something wrong. The main reason I mention this is just as yet another piece of evidence in the growing case that there is no Correct process for writing, or even a Correct part of the writing process. There’s only what works for you, and what doesn’t work for you, and even that may change from project to project. There’s certainly something to be said for modelling what other artists do, especially if you admire their work or if you feel like you don’t know how to proceed. At the same time, there’s no need to feel constrained by what other artists do, or to feel bad about your own process if it’s different. In the end, all that matters is that the creation happens.

God, that’s perilously close to advice. We’ll stop here. Thanks for reading.

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