sign me up so hard

For this.

I literally just finished, today, the first (and the earlier, thus the time period that interests me more) of the Dublin saga! I have an entire bookshelf dedicated to Celtic mythology and history! I argued furiously as a fifth grader against the [admittedly ridiculous and outdated] Caesar-centric carousel reel mindlessly demonizing the Celts! Neither of my family gave two figs for any roots rumored or otherwise in said culture, so this song doesn’t apply to me!

(And since it’s being made in Spain it should ideally avoid some of the heinous work hours imposed by companies based in America…)

It amuses me that they feel the need to justify romance in games but hell, given all the terrible people making themselves known out there, sure. Explain away. It’s fun. It’s a good time. There is your justification! Now let’s get on with some Druids-level shenanigans, shall we? All to save the harvest, of course.

Totally about the harvest.

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what miserable drones and traitors

Jindrich2_Beckett

In the same vein as Parts You Remember Best About Books, are there verbal stories that stick with you particularly? Lessons, perhaps, or tales told in school?

For me it’s the tale of Thomas a Becket and Henry II. I had forgotten entirely about how much of an impression it made on me — I just knew I knew the story — but then to see it referenced briefly in Edward Rutherfurd’s first Dublin book brought it all back. A history teacher told us the story, pacing around the room, no textbooks or props or papers or anything. He was a fantastic storyteller anyway —  I always gravitate to them; if I find one at a party I throw out one topic after another, like birdseed, to try and draw them out and get them talking so everyone else will hush and we can listen — but he loved, particularly, this tale. I think he threw in a VHS later so he could check off some box somewhere the school wanted him to check, but no one cared about the movie. It was his story of the two of them that held us rapt.

Their friendship and how it went south and how politics fucked up and ruined what we loved most. How maybe he meant Thomas to die, maybe he didn’t. Maybe he desperately wanted to take those words back. To undo what he’d done. Neither of them budging — the stupid, stubborn fools. The condemnation of the world that followed! The idea of people in hose and pointy hats being as scandalized in their time as people who were then getting the vapors over the Ken Starr report made the era and its people a lot more accessible to me, I think.

I don’t know if he’d recently read a particularly good novel about the Becket issue lately, or if he’d seen a play or what. But it was mesmerizing. We just sat there in our dingy closet classroom with no windows listening for what must have been most of an hour. Of all the Henrys — and thanks to Eagle Eye Mysteries in London, I was familiar with more of them than the average American curriculum (admittedly a low bar) called for — Henry II’s story always remained the most interesting to me, Hollywood’s obsession with Henry VIII notwithstanding.

I wish I could tell stories like that. I don’t have the stage presence for it. But given that I can barely type at the moment (one arm is in a splint), a verbal way to tell stories impressively would be great right about now.

begrudging enchantment

Disneylandfireworks

A while back, I went to Disneyland. I was a little leery of doing so, because I thought one needed a child in tow for it not to be weird. Not hailing from California, I was unaware that locals routinely just go there to hang out on their yearly passes, drinking and eating and people watching — I figured at my age you’d have to be one of the creepily childish Disney obsessives I knew (you’re 30 years old, let the little girl get the last Frozen coloring book in the checkout line, sheesh) to be there sans a young relative whose deepest wish you were fulfilling by taking them.

I was wrong. There were plenty of us there with no kids and without mouse ears, just strolling about. But I didn’t realize how reflexively I distance myself from the kind of claims we heard a lot as kids — you can do anything; the sky is the limit — until the fireworks show.

I was not aware there was a fireworks show. Not until, leaking from one eye from a horrendous migraine, I found myself herded behind a barrier thrown up in the street for a neon-lit parade which I also did not know existed. There were floats. It was the middle of summer — no holiday looming to explain them. Children stared wide-eyed, and parents with very young toddlers held them up hoping against hope, I’m sure, that this huge investment managed to be retained somewhere back there; that these tiny humans would remember something about this in years to come. That detestable flavor of adult was present, too, who elbows aside little kids to get their perfect shot with their very expensive DSLR. Whatever, dick. But predominantly it was families, as you’d expect.

I never went to either Disney resort as a kid. They were too far away, and I had a soft spot anyway for the perma-renfair, faux-Europe ambiance of Busch Gardens. So a lot of the mass-marketed Disney jingles that everyone who popped in a Disney VHS in the 90s remembers had fallen out of disuse in my head. Tinkerbelle flying over the castle as the 50s-esque Wish Upon a Star song, for example, had completely slipped through the cracks of my memory.

But, holy shit, at the end of the parade when they turn on the fireworks, she does. Some brave-ass performer on a zip wire careens around several stories in the air as fireworks explode behind her and backlight her amazingly. I am an inveterate sucker for fireworks, and they had the best-produced show I’d seen since Zushi. (I know, I know, it is foolish to be surprised — it’s Disney. But if you’re not around it all the time, consuming it all the time, you forget these things.)

It wasn’t just a physical show, though. There was voiceover. Julie Andrews — whose voice I know damn well might not even mean anything to these little kids near me, as even people in their early 20s had no idea who I meant when I requested her haircut, at multiple salons throughout the years. Julie Andrews was piping over the explosions, telling us in startlingly stern tone to “REMEMBER…dreams come true.”

And I felt like my dog does when I try to take him out into the rain. Four paws out and shoved forward; total readiness to grip the doorframe if need be to avoid going through that door. “Don’t lie to them!” I wanted to snap. “Dreams don’t come true! You tell them that for years and then they believe it and then the economy tanks and not only are they nine hundred miles from any dream they ever had, the whole world mocks them for thinking anything was achievable in the first place! Ha ha, look at these dumbfuck millennials with their cobbled-together lives! Don’t promise people the moon is within reach! There is no health insurance on the moon! No retirement matching!”

That was the opener. Andrews goes through a whole show though, evoking rides and characters from the park, all while scintillating displays of perfectly-timed fireworks fill the air with so much smoke it becomes a further carrier of light. A bigger canvas on which to paint. And by the end…ugh, by the end, you’re so dazzled that you don’t want to fight Julie Andrews on the dream thing anymore. “Remember…” she intones, and you want to believe her. You know very well she’s wrong but you want to believe her so much. And for a minute or two, you do.

I’m not a Disney fangirl. I have many ardent fandoms, but Disney isn’t one of them. I never made a huge deal about going to either of their parks, and I only went this time because it was convenient to do so. I had heard parents, though, even pernicious parents of the kind who discourage people from having kids just by existing, speak of the wonders of Disney and how it was impossible to go and not have a good time. I have to believe they are largely right. I couldn’t even see out of one eye and I still felt enchanted, bewitched by light and color and the so-certain voice I’d sung along with for years as a child assuring me of a fact I knew to be empirically false. The Dreams Come True show is billed as nostalgic, but it’s not nostalgic for the days when you wanted to fly (always my fondest wish) or swashbuckle on the high seas. It’s nostalgic for the time when you thought you might. When you thought dreams might come true. That’s their magic — they don’t even need to bring you and all your varied wants and desires to fruition. They just need to make you think it’s possible.

It feels, frankly, good. Highly marketably so, my kneejerkily cynical peers might add. Yes, I know, I paid for those minutes of wonder. And I’d do it again. Because if there’s one thing being an adult in a Disney park teaches you, it’s that, for many people, there is no price they won’t pay to be moved by something. Even something they know damn well is made-up. Magic.

lymond

gok

How I hated this book! How much I wanted to quit it, midway through! How much I enjoyed finishing it!

I couldn’t stand Francis Crawford of Lymond. Couldn’t believe that people still sung the praises of this series, begun in 1961, now, when surely people ought to have learned at some point that the loveable douchebag archetype is one that should be long dead. It’s a lesson the guys I play DnD with, regrettably, still have not learned: being an asshole is not a stylish character choice, or a trick of roleplaying par excellance. It’s just being an asshole. Lymond’s “guys want to be me, women want to sleep with me” affectation was gaggingly awful to have to stomach for the first 2/3 this book. The assertion, made repeatedly by those close to him overtly and covertly, that oh no, he’s just misunderstood, he’s really deeply sensitive inside and all the caprice and vanity is just a front — god, that gets old. Believing that kind of tripe is how your best friends end up dating jackasses for years, excusing every callous disregard or careless cruelty as just another instance of the carefully-constructed front masterminded to conceal the delicate flower within.

Typically, there is no delicate flower within. Just a run-of-the-mill dick. Of the kind that’s currently trending meme-wise, even:

tenor

Ugh.

But dammit, I bothered to finish this book — something I’d promised myself not to do anymore; to soldier through on books I am not enjoying solely for the purpose of finishing them — and I do like him. Because of a legal scene, of all things. And I detest legal scenes!

“Patriotism,” said Lymond, “like honesty is a luxury with a very high face value which is quickly pricing itself out of the spiritual market altogether.

[…] It is an emotion as well, and of course the emotion comes first. A child’s home and the ways of its life are sacrosanct, perfect, inviolate to the child. Add age; add security; add experience. In time we all admit our relatives and our neighbours, our fellow townsmen and even, perhaps, at last our fellow nationals to the threshold of tolerance. But the man living one inch beyond the boundary is an inveterate foe.

[…] Patriotism is a fine hothouse for maggots. It breeds intolerance; it forces a spindle-legged, spurious riot of colour.… A man of only moderate powers enjoys the special sanction of purpose, the sense of ceremony; the echo of mysterious, lost and royal things; a trace of the broad, plain childish virtues of myth and legend and ballad. He wants advancement—what simpler way is there? He’s tired of the little seasons and looks for movement and change and an edge of peril and excitement; he enjoys the flowering of small talents lost in the dry courses of daily life. For all these reasons, men at least once in their lives move the finger which will take them to battle for their country.…

“Patriotism,” said Lymond again. “It’s an opulent word, a mighty key to a royal Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. Patriotism; loyalty; a true conviction that of all the troubled and striving world, the soil of one’s fathers is noblest and best. A celestial competition for the best breed of man; a vehicle for shedding boredom and exercising surplus power or surplus talents or surplus money; an immature and bigoted intolerance which becomes the coin of barter in the markets of power—

[…] These are not patriots but martyrs, dying in cheerful self-interest as the Christians died in the pleasant conviction of grace, leaving their example by chance to brood beneath the water and rise, miraculously, to refresh the centuries. The cry is raised: Our land is glorious under the sun. I have a need to believe it, they say. It is a virtue to believe it; and therefore I shall wring from this unassuming clod a passion and a power and a selflessness that otherwise would be laid unquickened in the grave.

[…] “And who shall say they are wrong?” said Lymond. “There are those who will always cleave to the living country, and who with their uprooted imaginations might well make of it an instrument for good. Is it quite beyond us in this land? Is there no one will take up this priceless thing and say, Here is a nation, with such a soul; with such talents; with these failings and this native worth? In what fashion can this one people be brought to live in full vigour and serenity, and who, in their compassion and wisdom, will take it and lead it into the path?”

Damn.

In fiction, and for that matter in video games, I always enjoy most the fantastical stories that lean on love of country for their pillars. To a point. But unless our characters excavate those sunken pillars, realize the holes that riddle them and then decide whether to leave the foundation in place, holding up the ramshackle husk of the nation, or to let them topple — unless those dark places are entered (see: Malafrena, Tigana, and in a different way Stone’s Fall), it rings terribly hollow to me. For gapingly obvious reasons, I’m sure. Everyone should know better than to blindly respect the flap of a flag or the tattoo on a shoulder by now. If you probe deep enough to discover that those things are all that’s holding an individual together, and that without them, they are lost, fine, retreat. (As long as leaving them intact won’t harm others.) But if you’ve got a deeper framework that can withstand the self-interest and rot at the core of any scintillating spire of nation-based pride…cut it down. Call it out. Don’t make excuses for it.

Lymond’s comparison of patriotism with religion is not without cause. Blindly waving away the atrocities of your preferred group as insubstantial, too far past to be worth noting, or belonging to a group so wholly different than its current iteration that it might as well have been a different sect altogether, is as foolish as people claiming not to need to deal with their nation’s egregious past because “hey, I wasn’t there, why should care?” Because you exist at the level of comfort you do only because those atrocities were committed, to some profit, which profits were built on over time at the expense of others and for your ultimate, present-day gain. And if you still want to go and chant the anthem or sing a hymn because it makes you feel part of a whole, and less alone, fine…but you need to not be the coward who refuses to look into the empty self-interested maw at the heart of it. Look at it, and deal with it, and move on, singing or not as you see fit. But you have to look, dammit. You cannot pledge your life and what you imagine to be your soul to empty motions gone through out of unexamined habit; out of sheer ethical laziness.

Lymond, to his credit, looks, and has known for years how fragile are the loyalties that snuff out the lives around him like candles. He knows the animalistic, inglorious roots of such loyalties. But he limps after their good graces anyway, not because of any starry-eyed belief in their moral superiority but only to pursue, at what he feels is quickly becoming the end of his life, a final glimpse of the love in which he began that life. All his flippancy and volatility and interminable classical quoting aside, he is hollow and worn and wants only to be liked, a little, and looked at without loathing or greed, a time or two before he dies.

If he were any less humbled I would have loathed him still. But he’s been carved as empty as a jack-o-lantern by the end, and he’s running out of candle to light what’s left. This is perhaps the only way the loveable asshole archetype is made palatable to me: run the much-vaunted rascal so raw through the gears of life that all that horrid facade fractures and splinters, and cuts him deeply as the shards fall around him. If he does not have to learn loss as part of his becoming, his roots don’t run deep enough to be worth digging up.

kid vs producers

One of those dreams I wake up from with my hands aching from clenching them. But not out of fear? More out of…conviction.

And again one that started as someone else’s story and became mine, and then became someone else’s again. It was all animated, Pixar-style, because at first it was a movie about a little boy, maybe eight or nine years old, who gains a power he doesn’t want. He can gain animal skills and abilities by thinking about them — claws to defend himself from bullies with, at first, when in the heat of the moment he strikes out and has claws — and ears to listen in on conversations with. But he doesn’t want to stick out like this and doesn’t know how to stop it, so he makes his hair grow larger and poofier to try to hide the ears (which he can’t get rid of anymore), and tries to hide his monkey tail (which he acquired for some feat of balance, I think to escape the second round of bullies who were coming to beat him  up for having claws) from his older brother, who immediately is pegged for a bad guy. But in a creepy way — he’s college-age, dropped out and stays at home in a treehouse he built in the middle of the living room, but he keeps making lewd sexual comments to his much-younger siblings, all under ten, and no one is around to tell him to shut his mouth. So he’s creepy and too-sexual and not at all A Good Guy to these little kids. Plus he mocks this kid with the animal magic, so. An adversary.

Then, though, at some point the little boy became a little girl and…the world fell apart. At the seams. And the seams were objects of some kind? Little things, seemingly of no consequence, that when seen or beheld were cause, according to the producers of the film — you could hear them in the background snickering, like those older muppets in the box seats in The Muppet Show — were justification for the world to be torn apart. (In the way that, for example, the sight of the 1970s penny in Somewhere In Time rips Christopher Reeve out of the past, because of its disjuncture.) The objects that triggered the destruction tended to be small and pretty mundane — a necklace, an eraser, a cell phone — but each of them mattered to someone, and the producers wanted to punish people for their materialism. For liking the things. So they deemed that the world would rip apart over and over again, like in Groundhog Day, every time one of these objects became what they decided was too precious.

And this girl, who used to be the animal magic boy, still had magic, and at 10 or 12 now was aware that she could try, should try, to use her powers to hold shit together. But it didn’t work. She was the star of the story and the producers left her there, again like Groundhog Day in that she could hang onto her knowledge of what would happen even though no one else could. But the world kept ripping open no matter how she cried, begging people to do or say or think things that would keep the producers happy. When the world fell apart it was pretty horrific — rooms and people bubbled and burst; images arising from the minds of those caught in the bubble came into being and faded; which meant being around the creepy older treehouse brother was Not Good because he kept floating violent sexual images in there and scaring the kids before they all ceased to exist, and his 12 year old sister kept yelling at him to stop but he’d just laugh as he vaporized. Class A Creep.

But the problems were bigger than him. When the girl realized she couldn’t stop the whole place from falling apart she’d try to hold onto just parts of it. She made a map of her block in plaster, like those quick-setting plaster kits you put baby feet in to make this-is-how-big-I-was flagstones, and tried to…focus, I guess, on that, reasoning that if objects undid the world, maybe objects would hold it together too. And it worked for a bit but the producers got angrier and angrier that she was trying to control their story, and everything around her block disintegrated into a a void, and eventually they ripped up the block too, sidewalk crumbling away chunk by chunk, with neighbors screaming and everything. Then it would restart again, as they thought to edit it, refine it, make it better, and only the girl knew what had happened and would be happening again shortly.

She got better at explaining what was going to happen. Family and neighbors started to believe her and to give her objects invested with non-material meaning that she thought might work. There were a lot of stereotypes here. Like a surly goth kid who, when she explains what she’s trying to do — hold the world together by focusing on objects of love instead of just material value, for which they were being punished — the goth kid without a word takes off the spiked collar he’s wearing, which was a gift from his dead girlfriend or something, and hands it to her to try and focus on. Stuff like that. The collar in particular held the world together for a fraction longer than it had before, and the producers were forced to change the way they ripped things apart — instead of pulling horrors from people’s minds to unleash upon them, they just started smashing through the world, so it broke like glass in long webbed lines. The girl was furious and screamed at them but at that point it was a void so one she knew heard.

The people who had donated objects came to believe her more easily every disintegration, because she could walk up to them and explain to them why she needed whatever thing, because it was most precious to them and had been given to them the day before their dad died, or because it contained a lock of their childhood dog’s fur, etc. etc. She garnered this rushed respect from them as she ran around trying to collect enough meaning to keep the producers from smashing the world to bits, but it was never enough. She tried holding it together in different places — atop a hill, on a boat at a dock, in a town square. Nothing worked. Everything fell to ribbons. Toward the end, people who believed her were gathered around her, crying, yelling all the things they cared about to the sky, trying to prove that they were kind and decent enough to deserve not to be rewritten. But it never worked. It ended with some sort of moody non-closure shot, the camera panning toward the spiked collar sinking to the bottom of the water by the docks where the girl had dropped it in despair, right before the water sloshed away into nothingness again.

There was a soundtrack. It was amazing. I assume instrumental with huge swells. I know there was a soundtrack (despite not being able to describe it) because after the movie ended — because now it was a movie again — I was in a group of people watching it, and someone immediately tossed me an LP of the soundtrack, mockingly, saying at least the music was okay and they knew I liked movie soundtracks and LPs so here. I was enraged. This movie was great, how shitty was it to throw all that on a kid, and then to keep the laughing in there, keep sniggering at her for trying to save things. It was a stupid animated movie, the gathered people agreed. Derivative. Like if someone tried to mix Monsters Inc with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Into the Void.

I was furious. So over the next few days I hunted down everyone who’d seen that movie with me and argued them into seeing its merits. That is maybe why my hands hurt, I think. I would make them care the way the kid couldn’t — wasn’t allowed to — fix her world. And I would bludgeon their careless disgregard of the (admittedly somewhat…overstated, I guess) heart in that movie into compassion. I cited all the personal shit I knew about them and demand they stop being judgey standoffish critic assholes and actually put themselves in the position of this kid and think wouldn’t they try, wouldn’t they try their hardest despite all their pronounced Not Giving a Shit About Things, to hold the world together, even a tiny part of it, for the people they loved? And is that really something, Giving a Shit, that is so goddamn dangerous to their fragile egos that they have to deride it constantly every time its possibility arises? And it worked. I never convince anyone of anything, especially regarding movies, but it worked.

And then I woke up.

the value of a good frame

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I’m currently working on Voyageurs, by Margaret Elphinstone, and am enjoying it immensely. Not specifically for its subject matter, which I admit was what drew me to it the decade or so ago when I bought it. Nor even its characters, which remind me warmly, here and there, of Outlander (before we had to deal with Bree and her generation), on which I now await further books, since I am sadly caught-up. (And people wonder why I never finish series or shows; having to actually wait for the next bit is not my cup of tea.)

But what I enjoy most here is the frame: the knowledge that bookends this adventure into being only a memorable and life-changing adventure–not life-ending, and not life-changing to the point where our narrator’s end no longer at all resembles his beginnings.

I understand how uninviting this sounds. Or how chicken soupy — oh wonderful, so he gets back to where he came from, cool story bro. But there’s value in allowing a frame to promise us that whatever idiocy our narrator gets up to in-story, he eventually gains the self awareness with which to look back on it and gain more in retrospect, perhaps, than he stood to gain at the time, through the actual experience of the thing. In Voyageurs, a great deal of that reflection happens in the footnotes.

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It isn’t as though footnotes always serve this purpose. Sometimes — okay, a lot of the time — they’re just poor editing. Or at least an insufficient amount of it, permitted by a too-indulgent editor. Sometimes they’re annoyingly tongue-in-cheek (and sometimes pleasingly tongue-in-cheek, fine, fine…) But these footnotes specifically always come from the frame’s place of much-older-Mark-Greenhow-looks-back-on-the-exploits-of-his-youth-while-editing-them, and it creates a kind of ease and comfort. Maybe some of this comes from the fact that the character clearly reaches a point of ease and comfort, to be able to pause his life and look back on his old writings like this, but still. It shifts our focus from “what will he do” to “what will he learn?”

And no, this isn’t just something you can do by asserting first person every which way. Quite often people who go in for the first person will skip entirely the self-reflection you might hope you’d get: “I barely remember the man I was,” “only decades later was I to recall that…” “ignore the intervening half-century between then and now and let me limit my reflection to griping about The Youths instead of giving any hard looks in the mirror.” It’s so cheap when people do that. You have the chance, if you’re doing a frame and have kept your narrator alive and cognizant, of providing, even if not genuine self-awareness, at least the chance for the character’s later selves to get a word in on their former selves. Maybe they’re arrogant and self-absorbed; maybe they’ve learned nothing; but at least if they address the passage of time we get to see that. Too often people skip this step. Maybe they think it’s boring; maybe they don’t feel up to it; maybe they all write it and their overly-strict editors kill it, I don’t know. But I wish more people would go this route. It makes for a much more fulfilling narrative.

Take Mark Greenhow in Voyageurs again. He’s a Quaker in the wilderness of the US-Canadian border on the even of the war of 1812, as staunch and stiff in his beliefs as most young men raised in a faith tend to be (allowing, of course, for the fact that youth — the shaping of your thoughts, as limited to the breadth of the world you were allowed to expose yourself to — lingered then in a way it doesn’t now). That’s 24-year-old Mark Greenhow. But 40- or 50-something Mark Greenhow can footnote his youthful self’s more stubborn takes on how this or that religious stipulation applies to life, and observe that he was then too young to see the inevitable gray areas. From religious people especially — characters or real-life — it is always a relief to see that age has caused them to realize that the complex mess of the world rarely allows for the cut-and-dried righteousness of their sect’s texts on whatever subject is at hand.

Footnotes, as set up by the frame of the story, make these observations far more palatable, to me, than writing such observations directly into the cadence of the narrator’s main text — either by adapting a too-precious, too-wise tone, or by depending on more parentheses than anyone wants to wade through in a given paragraph. Footnotes keep a firm barrier between the past character and the present character, such that our eyes are continually drawn to the differences between the two (as well as what similarities remain). That’s really valuable. Margaret Elphinstone does it well here. More people should try it.