Following My Friend

I wish I could write like my friend Indigo. He’s just started up his own blog and as happens whenever I read his writing, I was blown away by his style, his wit, and his fearless honesty. Unlike me, he isn’t afraid to throw open the door to his life and let you see his hopes, his fears, his strength, and his vulnerability. He’s always been like that, amazing and astonishing me from the very first. I find it incredibly affecting and powerful, the way he carts it all out there and lets us rummage through his experiences and emotions. His first post was about how everything that happens to us, good or bad, can be a valuable learning experience, and knowing him has been a huge one for me. No one has ever taught me so much about courage and facing challenges with humor and determination. He taught me the importance of being the hero of your own story by showing me how it’s done.

He also writes fabulous fantastical fiction. The title of his blog ‘Narrative City’ is the setting for many of his stories. He is as yet unpublished, but when that happens (as it will, dammit!) you’d best be sitting down, for the world will shift on its axis. He writes heroes that stride across the land in seven league boots, even as they are crushed beneath the weight of their terrible burdens. Abandon all your prevailing assumptions, for nothing is etched in black and white. His villains evoke sympathy, his monsters are tormented and yearn for love. And if you are paying attention, you will see yourself in all of them.

I wish I could write like that. I’ve been trying to discover his secrets for years now, but I think it really does come down to courage. To be unafraid to face your darkest fears, lift them up into the light, and let the winds scatter them like the weightless ashes they are.

Someday, Indi, I’ll get there. Just don’t ever stop writing.

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On Dwarves

I have to say, Peter Jackson’s version of Tolkien’s dwarves impressed me. They come across as much more tough and courageous than in the book. And they have other qualities that I find fascinating. The way they work as a group, for one. We first see this demonstrated at Bilbo’s house, when the younger dwarves start throwing plates around like frisbees and the whole thing turns into the ‘Be Our Guest’ number from Beauty and the Beast, with dishes and flatwear flying everywhere. It looks like chaos, but nothing gets broken or chipped and everything ends up clean and neatly piled by the end.

The dwarves don’t even need to look at one another, they catch and juggle blind. It’s like they have a sense of where they all are, like a school of fish or flock of birds. It would certainly be a useful talent when working together in the darkness of a mine – being able to coordinate your movements and actions as a team, without having to see or speak. There was a distinct rhythm to their movements that turned into the beat they pounded out and evolved into the song they sang. Maybe that ‘Hi ho, hi ho’ trope from Snow White wasn’t so far fetched?

This extreme level of coordination occurred again during the fight with the trolls. Whenever a dwarf was in danger, another one would immediately come to his rescue. I saw a particularly dramatic maneuver where Dwalin jumped over the fire, landed in a crouch and Thorin uses him as a springboard to attack a troll who’d grabbed Ori. (Something similar happened when the dwarves were scrambling up into the pine trees and one of them used Dwalin’s head as a mounting block – tough and solid, these dwarves). In the troll battle, it was Bilbo’s capture that forced them to stop fighting – as if no one had been looking out for the hobbit, because he simply wasn’t on their radar screen.

In the caves of the goblins, when Gandalf cries for them to take up their arms and fight, all the weapons dumped in a pile by the goblins are thrown through the air into the hands of their owners. Axes, swords, pikes, slingshots tossed and snatched – It’s like the Flying Karamazov Brothers, times four. And during the escape, fighting a running battle against hundreds of goblins, Thorin or Dwalin only need to bellow a word or two and a dozen dwarves act as one.

It’s an amazing portrayal of close-knit unity. And one that gives a hint of how difficult Thorin’s leadership role is. He is taking his friends and his kin into incredible danger. To lose even one would be like the amputation of a limb. We see this during the battle of the stone giants when it seems they’ve lost half their number – including Fili’s brother Kili. The relief when they prove to be safe is immense. As is Thorin’s fury after he must risk his own life to rescue Bilbo. He doesn’t *need* any more burdens, not when he can barely manage to keep his own people alive. But it’s also a moment that shows how close Bilbo is coming to being accepted as one of them. Thorin had declared that he could not guarantee the Hobbit’s safety, but it’s become clear how much he is willing to risk in order to do just that.

Because these dwarves look after their own.

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I admit, when I heard there was going to be a movie version of the Hobbit, I wasn’t particularly enthused. Perhaps it was because I was such a huge fan of the LotR trilogy, the thought of going back to its short, light-toned prequel didn’t impress me. Gimli had a few good moments in the trilogy, but a whole movie based around thirteen such characters? Nah. I figured Peter Jackson had hit gold once with the stories of Aragorn and Faramir, Eowyn and Theoden, Frodo and Sam – what were the odds of him hitting it like that again? Especially if he wasn’t even planning to direct? No disrespect to Del Toro. I’d been intrigued by a lot of things in both Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy, but they were both heavy on horror and neither was in the same ballpark as LotR. So I only noted vaguely when it was delayed and Del Toro dropped out. Meh, whatever.

But when Jackson took over, things moved very quickly and I happened to see a posting for one of the first trailers. Curious, though still skeptical, I watched it.

There’s a scene in the Hobbit book where Bilbo is recovering from his faint and the dwarves begin to sing in their deep, sonorous voices. They sing of gold and dragons and the deep places of the earth. That’s the moment when Bilbo’s Tookish side expresses its yearning to go adventuring and see all the wonderful things he hears about in the dwarves’ song.

The exact same thing happened to me. That song drilled its way into my bones. I wanted to go see those wonderful things and hear that astonishing singing again. These were not the animated Rankin-Bass dwarves, with their Saturday morning cartoon voices. These were rough-hewn warriors, dedicated and determined, rattling with weapons, weighed down with thoughts of gold and vengeance. Even as they dexterously juggled Bilbo’s plates and drank his cellar dry.

So I went and saw it. Then went back a second time. And a third. This is something I never do. But I expect I’ll keep going back at regular intervals as long as it’s in the theaters. This is a movie that is made for the big screen, and I want to absorb as much of that as I can before it’s shrunk down onto a DVD. I keep seeing more and more to interest and enthrall me. I rushed out the door with Bilbo, excited, though still harboring deep-seated reservations. But the farther he goes, the more he experiences, the closer he comes to becoming an accepted member of the dwarvish troup. And that is no small feat. He is pulled along in their irresistible wake, and I feel myself drawn with him, over the fields and off to the places where stories happen.

Speaking of stories, did I mention Thorin? Leader of this company, exiled prince from a dragon-ravaged kingdom, it is his story that Bilbo has fallen into. The other dwarves laugh and joke and may appear foolish, but not Thorin. Peter Jackson has chosen to make him younger than many of his companions, but he is hard as lightning-struck oak, tempered to unyielding strength by the white-hot rage that burns continuously within him. He moves as if he is carrying a mountain on his shoulders, standing always in its unforgiving shadow. He is the last hope his people have that they might once again be great. If he fails, as did his father and grandfather, they will never be more than itinerant blacksmiths and tinkers. There is great power in him, as well as immense vulnerability. In this journey, he risks everything, and he knows, unlike most of the others, what it means to lose all you hold dear.

I’ve read the book, I know what happens. But I so want to follow this passionate dwarf-prince as his obsession for reclaiming what was taken from him battles with his love for his family, his friends, and in the end, threatens to destroy him.

Little, light-hearted prequel to the real story of Middle-Earth? No. Thorin Oakenshield’s story is the true heart of legend. His fate is one of both triumph and tragedy. There can be no other word for this than Epic.

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Why Pay Taxes?

I suspect a lot of today’s political disconnect comes from a different perception of wealth and poverty. Wealth is good, poverty is bad – ergo the wealthy are good and the poor are bad. Wealthy people made good choices, succeeded, and deserve to enjoy the fruits of their success. Poor people made bad choices, failed, and deserve to suffer the consequences of their failure. Many viewpoints I hear place a much greater emphasis on the potential for corruption from below – the poor taking advantage of government charity – while the wealthy are trusted to bestow their gifts in a benevolent and positive manner.

However, there are studies that show that wealthy people are more selfish and uncooperative than poor people. The simple explanation is that wealthy people can *afford* to be selfish. Poor people find it advantageous to pool their resources, do favors for one another, forge supportive bonds. Society is built on common necessity, not individual achievement. America has been fortunate in its ability to foster a great deal of both and to be able to balance the destabilizing effects of individual power and freedom with the grounding nature of communal support.

And that is the key. There needs to be a balance. Enforced if necessary. Our system of government, as flawed as it is, has an extraordinary system of checks and balances. The forgers of the constitution understood that power is naturally destabilizing. No single branch of the government should have too much. Those making and enforcing laws should be elected and removed by the will of the people – except for the members of the Supreme Court, who should be beyond the promise of election or the threat of being unseated, in the hopes that this would encourage impartiality.

Most of us have quibbles with this system – sometimes one view dominates another, and maybe no one ever really gets what they truly want – but the capacity for non-violent self-correction is beyond anything that has ever existed before.

Too much power is destabilizing. Unions – the foundation of America’s working-class success – are now frowned upon due to their collective bargaining power. They can influence political results by throwing the weight of numbers around. “Do this and our members will vote for you”. But to me this simply sounds like politics. A bunch of people getting together and saying “we want this. Help us make it happen and we will reward you.” The potential for corruption certainly exists, but at least the impact is somewhat diffused by the number of people who both contribute their voices and who benefit from the results. It is also a localized phenomenon, so the repercussions will directly impact the community of which the union members are a part. If they throw their weight behind something bad – “strip the treasury to pay us exorbitantly for work we don’t do” – their community will pay in other ways, and they, or people they know, are likely to suffer. Word may get out and they will be shunned and ostracized – people could choose not to do business with them. If regulations are broken, there could be legal ramifications and punishments.

A properly working society in which all members have a stake and a voice has a clear system of checks and balances. If you have a little stake, and yet have a loud voice, the society is not functioning properly. The louder your individual voice and the less of a stake you hold in the welfare of the community as a whole, the more likely the society is to fail.

The threat of corruption is ever present. It is human nature to work for one’s own benefit. It is the nature of society to prevent one person, or one group from working against the rest of society on their own behalf. Ergo the preservation of *society* is paramount for the benefit of all. I say that an imbalance of power is detrimental to a functioning society. It is not the poor who are a threat to this balance, it is the wealthy who isolate themselves from society with their gated communities, hired security, and private schools who wish only to protect what they have and increase it, and who face no censure or punishment for shaping a political system to do this for them. On the contrary, they are envied and congratulated for their ‘success’.

Checks and balances are *necessary*. The wealthy must give up some of their power on behalf of society in order to keep them from creating a plutocracy which primarily benefits people like them. Those with power must be held responsible and accountable for how they use it. But it is human nature to avoid both, and wealth makes this much easier to do. They must be taxed and those taxes should go towards building and protecting the society of which we are all a part, and whose health affects us all, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not.

Grinding poverty – the kind where decent shelter, proper food, and basic health care are *luxuries*, while it may be the result of bad choices, is more often the result of a broken society. It should not be looked upon as a punishment inflicted upon those who deserve it. Especially when *most* of them are children, who have no voice, but an *enormous* stake in the quality of the society in which they are raised and nurtured.

Being poor is not a crime. People without money are not ‘bad’. Those who work for little or no money – as women did for decades and many continue to do as they take care of homes and children and most of the volunteer efforts in this country – are not ‘failures’. Yes, money is hard to earn. So is respect, and trust, and love. It is a terrible thing when a person is forced to give up one for the other, and perhaps it is worse when – due to the overvaluation of money and the pressure to ‘succeed’ – a person *chooses* to disregard the importance of one in favor of the other.

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Why Will? (Shakespeare, that is)

It took me a looong time to learn to appreciate Shakespeare, but I’m slow that way. We read bits of the plays in high school English class and acted out scenes (badly). In college we read the plays out loud, discussed them in great detail, wrote papers that often missed the point completely (mine did, anyway). Then I worked backstage on a  school production, and as I kept hearing it, the language and the rhythms started to seep in and I slowly began to ‘get it’.

Then I joined a local Shakespeare theatre troup and ran costumes on two shows a year for several years. I sat in on the read-thrus and rehearsals, listening to the director explain how the wording, punctuation and structure of the text were all the stage direction that Shakespeare needed (aside from ‘Enter Pirates’ and ‘Exit, Pursued By A Bear’). He pointed out that if you only took a breath at the full stops, it was clear how fast and intensely you should be speaking in order to get the words out. If you studied the iambic structure, you knew which words should be stressed – and when Shakespeare broke those rules, there was a reason for that dissonance. It was rather like reading a score of music, and when performed right, could evoke just as much visceral emotion from those listening to it.

Shakespeare played with every sort of humor, from horrible puns, to broad characters, to ridiculous situations, to wicked wit. He delved into the depths of tragedy, the excesses of depravity, and the heights of honor. He ransacked the classics for familiar themes and stole all the best bits from his fellow playwrites – dressing them up to sound new and original. He wrote histories and romances and great dollops of pure fantasy. There were Gods and monsters, Kings and Queens, knaves and fools, shepherds and sailors – and he used them all simply in order to show us ourselves.

He did it with tricks and skill, using language and archetypes designed to trigger our instinctive reactions. He marshalled all the art and artifice at his command to represent the truth of the human condition. He layered them one on top of another so they obscured and smoothed over the seams and joints of his careful construction. You have to dig down and take it all apart to see why it works so well and carries its weight so effortlessly.

It is hard to imagine anyone else doing it ‘better’. Contemporary style concentrates more on portraying ‘reality’ in a stark and direct manner. Making art represent true life, rather than constructing artistic representations of life’s truths. It’s just a different way of doing the same thing – packing human experience into a very small space with such power and precision that when ignited by the spark between audience and performers, it explodes into a display that opens the mind and moves the heart.

Happy Birthday, Will. Glad you were born 🙂

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Why Edit?

Editing…honestly I’m a rotten editor. I don’t know how people do it. It’s a *little* easier going over someone else’s work – hearing the sound of an inconsistent voice or falling into obvious plot holes – but determining the objective quality of a story? That seems possible at the exteme ends of the spectrum – either astonishingly good or appallingly bad – but most stories fall somewhere in the middle. And some poorly crafted aspect may well ruin a great story, while a streak of brilliance can often salvage a bad one – and much of that is due to the experience and experiences of the reader interacting with those elements of the story. It’s very hard to determine what will strike a chord and resonate with another individual. Things you see as trite and junky could be like someone else’s treasured memories of eating Cracker Jacks and cotten candy on their first trip to the circus. It really is a matter of perspective.

I think by exposing ourselves to stories that are accepted as well-written, studying the elements that comprise good craftsmanship, developing a large repertoire of what works and why – we are much more likely to know ‘good writing’ when we see it. Even more helpful, we may be able to pinpoint things that are less ‘well-written’ and think of specific ways to improve them. We are also more likely to recognize what is hackneyed and what is novel. That seems to be one of the biggest complaints of slush-readers in general – they see too much of the same thing over and over again. The writers may not know they were being derivative, but the gate-keepers have seen that tired old act five times already today and don’t want to waste their time on one more. This is where experience and wide-reaching knowledge of the field becomes a valuable commodity.

Will professional editing infallibly create or select a best-seller? No. Will it be able to predict the next big genre-bubble? Nope. Can it turn a pretty good book into a slightly better one? Yes, very likely. Can it bandage and splint a wretched tale into something readable? Maybe, but there is wisdom and mercy in knowing when to stop. Can it chop a good story into a pile of hash? Probably, which is why the author needs to believe in the story they wrote – even if their objective view is obscured by the shining vision of ‘how it should have been’. Save it for the next story – this is how this one is. Make it sing, but don’t try to change a pop hit into an opera.

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Why War?

I was lucky enough to have a chance to see the Anglo-Saxon Hoard that was discovered few years ago in a field in Staffordshire, England. It was magnificent. More than two hundred of the exquisitely crafted pieces of gold and garnet treasure had decorated the hilts of swords. This was proof of how high the tools of war – and the prowess of the men who wielded them – were valued. I imagined how they would have glittered in barbaric splendor, riding together, raising their weapons with the fire of gold and the blood-red garnets shining on them. I thought of those warriors, with their pride and their mastery of battle. But, I thought of all the death and destruction those weapons represented, the culture of battle and conquest that required such symbols of power and wondered if I really understood. If I could ever understand.

There is something in us that seeks out and responds to the extremes of conflict. We appreciate and reward those who push themselves farther than can be believed – who hone themselves into objects of power. They first fight against their own perceived limits, and then set themselves to conquer the limits the world sets before them. Those that succeed become lords of men, hallowed, revered, adulated.

This, I think, is the spirit of the warrior – the one who comes again and again to the wall of failure and does not surrender to it. This is the spirit of battle that I think all humans should experience if they truly wish to understand themselves. We can never know who we are until we surpass it, look back and *see* what we were, measure how far we’ve come, wonder at how much farther we have to go. It *is* a struggle – hard, exhausting, painful. To fight against who we are, to take the next step towards who we may become, to weep with the impossibility of it, again and again. And yet to keep going despite it all.

That is the way of the warrior. That much of it I believe I understand.

But there is something missing. All that beautiful treasure and the skill, power, and prowess it represented, had been carelessly stripped off those weapons of war, stuffed in a hole in the ground, and forgotten for 1,300 years. The incredible craftsmen who made it, and those mighty warriors who earned the right to carry it – completely unknown and utterly forgotten. Perhaps that is simply the way of time – to roll like a wheel over the world, obliterating what was to make room for what will be. But how are we to know ourselves in the wake of such destruction? Must we endure the repetition of slash-and-burn tactics, that leaves a vast mess and shattered lives to clean up before any sort of painstaking progress can be begun again? Before artists and craftsmen have the peace and luxury to create their masterpieces that may once again be carried into a war that can only have one ending? Is that the only wheel we will ever know?

I believe in the need to battle against our own limits, to fight against the pull of inertia and despair. But I suspect there is more we need to know than that. Along with the art of war, we need to understand the art of surrender. Not of giving up out of frustration, or giving in to weakness and self-pity, but surrendering to that which we cannot control. Accepting that we are not all-powerful and all-knowing. Relinquishing our deeply cherished hope that we are *enough*.

We are not enough, and all the fighting in the world will never make us so. Only by giving up who we are and what we think we want, will we open ourselves to everything else that is possible. *We* are not enough, but the universe is. Once we surrender to that, all the battling will seem as nothing.

War is too costly to glorify. Honor and courage are too valuable to waste on a battlefield steeped in blood and hatred. There are better ways to wage war, and more important things to fight for.

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