Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: August, 2010

Grayscale on the Vocabulary List

As I left lab last night, I noticed a flyer tacked to the bulletin board on the first floor of the building.  I glanced at it and then had to do a double take.  It was an advertisement for a club with a certain ethical and moral position that I am philosophically against.  The particular position that this club advocates takes the view that the subject matter under consideration is black and white.  There is no gray.  Even the flyer itself makes no bones about that–as it was printed in black ink on white paper.

Yes, there are things that aren’t negotiable.  Two plus two is always four.  We all need oxygen to breathe.  But there are some other things, particularly things arising out of human culture, that are.  Human actions and interactions are a varied bunch.  To make things easier, people have grouped these actions and interactions into vast categories and have assigned them as either good or bad*.  But the problem is: these actions are performed by individuals with different motivations and in different circumstances.  And there will always be exceptions.  Depending on all of these factors, forcibly tagging a particular event with “good” or “bad” to simplify things is, at best, disingenuous.

I am reminded of a series of conversations I had with another grad student who I had privately dubbed “the creepy grad student.”  He was creepy because of his interactions with female undergrads and of disturbing pictures he left on a camera that another grad student accidentally discovered.  His actions said one thing.  His mouth said another.  While I and other people admitted our occasional failings, he always vociferously claimed to be a “good boy” who always went to church and never drove over the speed limit.  It might very well be true that he always went to church and obeyed the speed limit.  But the point is–it was wrong of him to bill himself as purely “good” because in reality, he was as complex and contradictory as the rest of us.

Sure, one can always point to people who seem uniformly bad or uniformly good–like Charles Manson or Mother Theresa–but the vast majority of us are in the middle.  Of course it is an admirable goal to strive to be a better person.  But it’s dangerous to assume that everyone is already just bad or good rather than to acknowledge that we all are gray creatures.  And from gray creatures, there will be actions and interactions that are also gray as both action and intention must be taken into account.

*So are the concepts of ethics and morality inherent in nature or were they culturally developed?  It depends on what you mean by good and bad.  If it’s like the difference between eating something edible and something poisonous–things that would literally influence one’s survival, then yes, one could argue that this binary moral compass is natural.  But if it’s something like “You can’t do action X in place Y because that’s just wrong!” then it’s cultural.  Obviously in this case, it’s the cultural good vs. bad that I have a problem with.

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I’m a Reader, Seriously

In the Publishers Weekly article The Franzen Kerfuffle and the Question of the ‘Serious Reader’, Rachel Deahl ponders the question: What is a serious reader?  Is a serious reader someone who reads serious books or someone who takes reading seriously by reading a lot?  Deahl contends that the latter can be considered a serious reader since the terms “serious reader” and “serious book” (whatever that means) may not necessarily intersect.

I personally dislike the term “serious” as applied to a book or a reader because “serious” could mean anything.  I do not set out to read literary books or novels that have won prizes.  Nor do I read two hundred novels in a year (currently, I’m averaging almost two books a month).  I’m sure some people would call me a casual reader or a recreational reader.  Yet I would consider myself a serious reader.  If I had the time, I could write up reviews.  I can also discuss books with other people if queried.  But why should I do any of these things?  A serious reader is not defined by how many reviews she writes or how many book club discussions she has let alone what sorts of material is read.  Why should a serious reader need to prove anything?

A serious reader, in my mind, is one with intent.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that there aren’t people who are serious readers but ones who are readers with intention. (The word “serious”, I feel, is fraught with too much cultural and emotional baggage.  What sort of emotion does one associate with “serious” anyway?  Surely, something sad and tragic has grave import.  But is happiness and comedy any less important in our lives?)  It does not matter what the book is about–the subject matter is irrelevant.  What is relevant is the mindset that the reader has when reading the book.  And what sort of mindset is one that I would consider one with intention?  It is the sort of mindset to read the book primarily for the book’s sake.  It is a willingness to read without outside pressure.  This would include everything from scholars and book critics to Oprah book club lovers.  Are you reading something to glean information and/or to enrich your mind?  You’re included.  Are you a sci-fi book geek or a romance novel junkie?  You’re included, too.

Even if someone only reads a book a decade, he or she could also be a so-called serious reader if there’s intent.  I’d argue that the very process of reading is one of intention.  Something is going on in the brain when the words on a page get transmitted as images to your eye, converted to nerve impulses, and translated in your brain so you can grasp the word’s meaning.  And once you’ve grasped the word’s meaning, it is almost impossible not to relate it to your own experiences or whatever information that you already possess.  If you don’t, you’re brain dead.

“Serious books” are another subject entirely.  Serious, in this case, is mostly a matter of taste rather than any objectivity.  There are award winning books that I’ve thought were crap and vice versa.  Sometimes, I think it’s all in the packaging.  If a novel that one person might cover with a chick in chain mail was clad in post-modern abstract art instead, wouldn’t the novel’s quality be perceived differently due to a critic’s cultural conditioning?  I’d say, absolutely yes.  One example that immediately comes to mind are young adult novels that also had different covers to appeal to adult audiences.  If those YA novels only had their original covers, a certain segment of the population would still think those books were children’s books with no redeeming value for grown-ups.  So anything can be serious–depending on your point of view.

Scribbling Done Yet Not Done

I am still behind on my ultimate Augnowrimo goal, but I’ve got to tell you, I am quite relieved that I’ve finally finished the short story portion of that goal.  I have never had a story give me so much trouble before.  I probably had around ten to twelve false starts before I really got going and even when I did, it was like jabbing pencils into my skull.

Creativity, unfortunately, is not a smoothly flowing stream.  Sometimes, the words just don’t come no matter what you try to do.  The really crazy thing is that I’m only doing this for fun.  I’m not sure what that means.  Maybe that I’m a masochist.

So what’s going to happen to this short story?  Well, it’s going to be edited during the rest of the month (while I’m doing some catch up on some other story) and then submitted to the Augnowrimo anthology.  Just for fun, of course, as I’m never going to see the profits from the sale of that book.  I think I’m mostly doing it for the infinitesimal chance that someone’s going to read it.  I’m not sure if that chance will be larger or smaller than if I had just posted it online as almost no one reads my online novels anyway.

A bit about the short story: The title is In the Hall of the Mountain King and is based loosely on the Norwegian fairy tale and Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt except there are no dairy maids and no worm-shaped trolls. (As this is set in the same universe as Sign of the Wyrm, my Julnowrimo project, I’m not having wyrms or worms as bad guys.)  But while my Julnowrimo project was set in Victorian England–or an approximation thereof–this short story is set in the present, in Idaho.

Idaho?! you might be thinking, Are you mad? It’s the least interesting place to set a story. Well, some people might think so.  I thought it would be a challenge.  And it certainly proved to be one.  The story itself takes place in a made-up town called Tangent which is based on a real location: Wallace, Idaho, the self-proclaimed center of the universe.  If you’ve ever been to Wallace, you’ll know exactly why I chose that place as the setting for the story.  It’s surrounded by mountains and one can easily imagine it as the home for trolls that have been transplanted to America.

The main character, traveling east to see family, is stuck in Tangent when a snow storm blocks off the mountain passes.  That’s when weird stuff starts happening and she begins to believe that there are trolls living underneath the mountains.  I view it as a fun adventure story rather than anything serious.  I mean, at one point, I even considered having one of the protagonists haul in a cannon to blast the trolls in the fight scene. (Instead, I used a variation on the chandelier* falling from the ceiling gag.)  I like the short story form.  It’s the length of story I originally started out with.  But I was just sort of tired of all the serious and depressing short stories that are currently out there, so I decided to write a silly one instead.

*No chandeliers, real or virtual, were destroyed during the course of writing the story.

Dream House

Last night, I dreamed that my parents bought a house that they intended to rent out.  My sister and I were helping them clean out all of the junk that the previous owner had left behind, putting all of this stuff in the front yard for a sale.  Apparently, everyone else in the neighborhood had the same idea so the entire street filled with yard sales. Bargain hunters soon rushed in to see what there was to buy.  It was as crowded as a Macy’s during an after Christmas sale.

When I awoke, what I remembered most was the house. It wasn’t something that I would have bought.  It was too cramped and byzantine.  But it had entirely wood floors which I really liked.  Although now that I think about it, I would have liked any wood or stone floor.  The occasional rug would have been fine. But I hate carpet.  Absolutely hate it.  If I ever end up buying a house, I would most likely rip up any carpet and replace it with something else.

This kind of surprised me because I generally don’t have any idea what my “dream house” would look like–or if I even had a dream house.  I feel that I am a long ways away from even thinking about buying a house. So what business is it of mine that I even have these impossible preferences?  However, there it is.  What are these preferences?  Well, some would say it’s kind of wishy-washy. There are certain styles which I think are unattractive, but it’s more of a case of only knowing vaguely what I like.

So here’s what I’ve come up with:

*No carpet.

*Minimalism everywhere, except for the place where I stash my books. There might be the occasional piece of art and quite possibly a photo or two in a corner somewhere, but there will be only enough furniture to make the place livable.  And absolutely no knick-knacks.  None, whatsoever.

*A white room with lots of windows, a wood floor, and awesome acoustics.  The only things in this room are a grand piano and a cello.

*A room that has been converted to a library.  Floor to ceiling shelves that are crammed to bursting with books but mysteriously has space for more.  The room will be lit with weird paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling and populated with gigantic stuffed toys that look almost like owls.

*A garden filled with a variety of tulips, planted willy-nilly.  I’m not very good with plants, though, so this may never come to fruition.

Midpoint Malaise

An update on my Augnowrimo project: It is still going in fits and starts and is looking more like a collection of random objects rather than a coherent whole.  Yes, I’ve managed to write every day, but it isn’t very much.  Thus, I am extremely behind.

I don’t know what it is about this month.  It’s not that I don’t have any ideas.  It’s just that I don’t feel like I have any good ideas.  Or even any terrible ideas that are so bad that in a way they’re good.  I’m in a creativity slump and this is not doing anything for my motivation.

A Slow Start

In lab, every time I’m doing a new experimental protocol, I try to budget in twice as much time as one could theoretically do the protocol.  The extra time is to account for doing unfamiliar things slowly versus the short time it takes to do something familiar automatically.

I should have applied this thinking to Augnowrimo.  As it is, with these crazy write-a-novel-in-a-month things, I try to do something different each time to give myself a challenge.  It is, after all, not very fun if one ends up doing the same thing over and over again.  Otherwise, why do it again at all?  Anyways, the rules for Augnowrimo are a bit more lax compared to Nanowrimo.  All you have to do is write 50,000 words.  It doesn’t even matter if it’s in one novel.  So this time, I am trying the following:

Week 1: Write a short story, approximately 10,000 words.
Rest of the month: Write Promegranate + Hellhound for the remaining 40,000 words.

The problem, of course, is that I did not plan on writing the short story until about 11 PM on July 31.  This is not the same short story I was working on at the end of July.  That one, at least, I have an outline for.  This one has no outline.  I have not done any planning for it and already, I’ve written an abortive beginning–which I’m tacking onto the word count totals anyway if not some alternate story.

I am not quite sure what the short story will ultimately end up being.  On August 2, I was desperately looking up Wikipedia articles on mythological creatures, trying to find inspiration.  I found something called a Bluecap and I thought, well, maybe I’ll write something on that.  So I’m writing.  Or trying to.  I had planned on making some progress tonight, but someone in lab sprung something on me at the last minute so I will have to attend a social obligation instead.

Geez, all these social obligations.  They totally put a damper on my secret life as a novelist.

Not Mommy Dearest

This past weekend was the first time I was mistaken for somebody’s mother.

Granted the kid was probably about five or six and not thirty, but still, it made me feel old.  I was quite relieved when the kid loudly corrected the bookstore clerk who was trying to find the kid’s mother that his mom was probably browsing somewhere in the back and not at the bargain shelves.

Although now that I think about it, my instant panicky feelings weren’t so much about age as the thought that I was actually responsible for somebody else.  I suppose some could argue that I would probably make a better parent compared to some other human beings in existence, but I totally do not feel ready or will ever be ready to be such a person.  It’s sort of what I’d imagine how some guy would feel if he were to be informed, out of the blue, that he was a father.  Does anyone really, truly understand how much a person has to sacrifice in order to make sure their offspring don’t grow up to be serial killers let alone productive citizens in society?

I’m not sure if I’m responsible enough for myself.  I don’t have the time or energy (or inclination at the moment) to even contemplate the notion of spouse, kids, family.  It still feels as if I’ve barely had the time to differentiate myself from my own parents.  Most likely, in the end, I’ll probably be like any other schmuck toiling away in the great edifice that is society.  In the meantime, I want to make something of myself.

I have nothing against kids.  And I have nothing against the poor bookstore clerk.  But I’m me, and I don’t want to play a supporting role to somebody else, even if it’s as somebody’s mother, even if the supporting role is assumed.