Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fitness and Fiction

I think there are a couple of destructive attitudes that exist out there about fitness that get in the way not only of realism but also are missed opportunities for character depth and development.

Attitude One: It's good genes, is all.
Um, no.
A very good friend of mine a very, very long time ago gave my DH a dirty look when he mentioned something about physical fitness and said, to paraphrase, "Well it's easy for you. You've got good genes."
It's never easy, even with good genes. As the years have gone by, my DH and I have to work harder (and eat less) to stay in reasonable shape. And we are not in particularly good shape. I try to look at my workouts as tricks I'm training my body to do, rather than view it as a routine, because routines are boring and never, ever end. For example, the latest trick I'm trying to teach my body is to be able to push up with my hands under my shoulders, flat-backed, from a position where I'm flat against the floor. There's not much leverage from that position. I can do it once if I arch my back a little initially, but that's cheating. After my morning attempt (failure) I usually do some plank exercises in hopes that the next morning, I'll be able to do a real one. And after I've done a real one, I'd like to do, say, five, and then I'll make up some other weird goal for my upper body. For abs, I'm working on a full body belly roll. And for my dex/aerobics, I'm learning how to jump rope again. I used to be pretty good ... when I was eight years old. Now, not so much.
Anyway, even those of us with decent genes can't slack off, so neither can our fictional characters. And many of them don't have gyms to go to, or even a culture that embraces exercise. So either they're going to be engaging in some sort of physical labor, or walking or horseback riding everywhere, or doing some other sort of practical training where there's an obvious pay off.* It's not going to be auto-magic. And by practical, I mean life-saving training where the goal may not necessarily be to look buff, but to stay alive. As the beautiful quote in Zombieland goes, "The first rule of Zombieland is cardio."

Attitude Two: Well, fictional characters have all their off screen time to get into shape and stay in shape, or they can do it with a montage.
Yes, but if it's a daily thing, and there's a lot of variety or a ritualistic quality to it, there's opportunity to show what your characters are made of. Some of them may be the equivalent of gym bunnies and work on their bodies all day, while others could do a short stint of intense exercise and then they're done for the day. Either way, it doesn't have to be some automatic thing to blow off. They should work hard, and be punished or rewarded accordingly. (Don't forget your overuse injuries!) By the way, new research shows that ten minutes of intense exercise a day has the same benefits as hanging out on the treadmill for hours reading a magazine. Sweet! But it has to be intense. So give them an excuse to do something intense every day, or make it part of their training routine, and create some consequences and characteristics that carry over to your story, and see what happens. Three letters. MIB. His fitness and spirit carries through the whole first movie. It's a beautiful thing.

Failing that, consider giving a character an average or even overweight body. Why not? They can still be attractive. In The Ladies' Number One Detective Agency, the main character is 'of tradition build' and is very desirable. We can celebrate health in all different sizes, a full range of capabilities and disabilities in our characters, and have it make sense. Which reminds me, remember, a lot of folks in wheelchairs are athletes too. It's not all about the chair. It's about the person in the chair.

There's a huge variety of awesome humanity out there. If the Phantom of the Opera can be seductive, than anyone can be.

I guess what I'm suggesting, ultimately, is that realism doesn't have to be a drag, any more than real exercise has to be a drag. I love my exercise time (when I get around to it. Ahem.) That's me time. And for those that don't ... you don't have to be Arnold or Demi to be sexy, healthy, happy and effective. Neither do your fictional characters. Give the reality a chance on the page and see what happens, just for fun. There are zillions of sexy long-haired whatevers out there in fiction who get their sleek, fit bodies for free. Dare to be different. Dare to be closer to life, and see what truths you reveal in your story that might not have turned up if you hadn't thought about physicality beyond a description of height and eye color.

And that super-fit guy with the lightning reflexes? There are few things that will gut him faster than not being strong enough to succeed when he's the strongest thing around. Then we'll get to see his real strength, and that's powerful stuff to see on the page, and in real life.

*One of the most painfully laughable scenes I've ever seen on exercise was in Cave Dwellers where the characters had rigged up a weight machine with rough rope, pulleys and rocks. WTF? He's a sword-slinger! You don't think his arms would be strong enough just from that? And he can't afford to be muscle bound. Oh for pity's sake ... but at least they were trying to explain why he looked like a body builder, I guess. Still. Oh. My. Gawd. That was so silly. Conan the Barbarian? Way better. Just saying. Although, it would have made more sense if that wheel wasn't in the middle of nowhere. It would have made more sense if it was in the middle of town or at least near a town and they were grinding wheat or something. Still, better than rock weights. A lot, lot better.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Learning From the Worst

I took my first creative writing college course in 1986. I had a really bad teacher. He could be described by many of the clichés as far as bad instructors* go, and yet I learned a lot from him. Some of the lessons he taught were unintentional, but much of his good advice had a solid foundation and he had some idea of what he was talking about.

So, even if you happen to end up in a really cruddy class or you pick up a book on writing and it's, let's say, almost completely wrong, you can still get a lot out of it, and not just the right parts.

For example, that really cruddy teacher? He told me that my writing was outstanding (yay!) and he suggested that I not waste my time in 'genre fiction.'

Though I was a rather impressionable young thing at the time, I silently disagreed. I also didn't argue with him. I did, however, learn that I had talent from someone who disdained my subject matter. Normally writers can't hear praise and focus on the negative, but in this situation I didn't hear the message that my story was crap because it was fantasy. Instead I heard the message that he loved my writing even though he didn't like the story. That was a very valuable lesson, though I didn't realize its importance at the time. I also learned that no matter what anyone said, I would write fantasy. I might have suspected that about myself, but I didn't know until this instructor applied pressure.

I try not to say bad things about books, so I won't name names, but I'm reading a book about writing technique that had a lot of muddy and poorly-illustrated examples to support flimsy points that weren't helping me learn more about writing. I persisted and now I'm in chapters of that same book that are fantastic and will hopefully improve my writing game.

This book inspired this post because the author admitted that he gave very bad advice in previous books and during creative writing courses he taught for various universities. (No, he wasn't my instructor, although that would have been fun if he had been!) I'm learning a lot from him, despite the fact that he's flawed, is occasionally unclear, and has admitted that he (potentially) led impressionable young writers astray. And that's important to realize and accept when we learn anything from anyone. Not everything someone teaches will work for us. And some of the instruction will be absolutely wrong for everyone, including the person doing the teaching. That person, like my first college creative writing instructor, might be working on an insipid, self-absorbed piece of so-called literature aimed at a small section of society he feels nothing but contempt for (this really happened, and as far as I know that thing was never published, thank goodness) but he may be the right person at the right time to talk about the use and abuse of adjectives and adverbs in writing, or active voice, or economy of language, or any of the gizillion things that need to be in a writer's brain working in the background while we take a roller coaster ride on the chemicals zipping between synapses in our brains.

You can learn just about anything from any instructor. Even the worst ones. It may not be the lesson they're intending to teach, but you'll learn just the same. And, there's always the chance that what you think is wrong and awful is actually right and good. You might not know enough yet to tell the difference. So it's important not to rely on one source for learning. More importantly, it's a good idea to look beyond the instructor and focus on the material itself. After all, it's not the teacher who is the focus of your work. Your work is the focus of your work, and the teacher is there to help you decide how to accomplish it, either by way of good example, or sometimes, by bad example.

*The bad college creative writing instructor cliché is as follows: has never published except perhaps a thesis or academic paper, worships 'literature' and disdains all other forms of prose, is ostentatiously well-read and reads all the correct literary magazines (preferably ones you haven't heard of with very small distributions,) helps edit or is senior editor of the university's own literary magazine that no one reads except the contributors, has a small stack of form rejection slips from the New Yorker that collect dust because the writing goes very slowly, and is very sure of self despite limited or zero credentials. Optional: has a substance abuse problem, is involved in an adulterous relationship or a relationship with a student, believes s/he is disliked because s/he is too intelligent to be understood by the common person, and consciously or subconsciously dislikes the characters about which s/he writes (which leads to a rather unpleasant form of writing where the author tortures or destroys that unlikeable character for no apparent purpose).

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Thrones

Another amazingly gorgeous sunny day in the Pacific NW.
I will, of course, be at my day job. I have to laugh. Well, I'll have a walk during my lunch, and sometimes I have to do stuff outside, so it won't be a total wash.

About leadership as depicted in fiction and film:

Rewatching The Hobbit always does this to me. Why are revered leaders sitting on their asses on thrones? Good, evil, doesn't matter. What exactly made their flat butts worthy of sitting in such an exalted place?

Let's ask this another way. What do good leaders do?

I have a good leader at work. If it weren't for his snappy dialogue, the look in his eyes, and the big red vest, you wouldn't necessarily peg him for the leader if you came into the store in the middle of the day. He stocks shelves and helps customers same as the rest of us. A customer interrupted him as he was answering yet another call (probably from someone needing leadership advice–he fields such calls all day–or from his boss) and he stopped and helped them. Didn't just tell them what aisle something was on. Led them to the product, asked them if he could summon additional help for them as he was on his way to answering a call. Excellent customer service, just like he drills into our heads every day. Leading by example. Working by our sides. Relentless in his mission to make us the best store in the system, and demands more of himself than his employees. This, from someone who will retire in less than two years.

Contrast that to the great orc chieftain, sitting on his ass, barking out orders. Even his ride sits on its ass when the killing of a subordinate is required. I wasn't filled with a sense of dread. I thought, this dude makes his lackeys do all the dirty work, and criticizes them when they get it wrong without any investigation whatsoever. He's got nothing. He's not a badass, he's the kind of bad manager/war cow-er-leader who gets his people killed. Why are they even following him?

The goblin king was even worse. He was comical, pathetic, lazy, self-aggrandizing ... he must have oversnacked and overslept his way to the throne somehow, because he sure didn't get there through leadership or even prowess. He fell over without a fight when he faced his enemies. I couldn't wait to get through that scene because watching that bad guy made me groan in sympathetic embarrassment for whoever designed and executed that scene. If his people had been insubordinate, if there was danger to him and he was barely holding on through bravado, I would have bought it. But no, his minions cheered on their weak, useless leader without sneers or sarcasm, and without backstabbing attempts to take advantage of enemies in their midst to finally get rid of the idiot.

Watch Band of Brothers if you want to see creative non-fiction depict a real leader. Major Dick Winters was so famously good at being a leader that despite his long years of quiet retirement and his death early in 2011, he still inspires the people he led.

One thing  The Desolation of Smaug got very right is the sense of decay, frustration, and misery that comes with bad leadership. (Can't wait to watch that part again!) The kingdom of the wood elves still has splendor–there are those that still care, and passionately–but many are self-medicating, there's the ever-present threat of insubordination, and the leader, terrified of what he sees coming, is barely holding it together. He clings to his throne because it's the only thing he has left. Without that symbol, he's got nothing to keep his people together with anymore. That's drama. That's awesome. I'll watch that all day. That's real leadership, not at its best, but compelling and real and I even sympathized with the king who is slowly, painfully losing everything he holds dear and doesn't know how to save it. And, perhaps not surprisingly if you think about it, I feared the King of the Wood Elves because I could tell how desperate he is.

How much more powerful and dangerous would the orc leader seem if he led by example, praised his troops when they did well, rewarded success, gave them working strategies and tactics to succeed when they failed to succeed on their own, and swore to avenge them when they died? He could still kill his own people, but not for failing him, no, for failing their own brethren and getting them killed through bad strategy, cowardice, etc. What makes evil leaders evil is not their thoughtless savagery. Thoughtless savages don't become leaders. Thoughtless savages need leaders to accomplish anything of any real scope beyond serial killings. Evil leaders can ramp up a sense of rabid devotion like no one else, because they can reward with things that good people would rather die than allow to exist. And evil leaders don't have to feel bad when they employ scapegoats, tap into addictive tendencies, publicly give rewards to undeserving scum to give the star players a little more motivation to prove their worthiness, betray a good soldier to establish a better one for the good of the organization, throw weak and underperforming minions under the bus, etc.

Perhaps the most painful moment in The Hobbit though, from a leadership point of view, was the telling of Thorin's history with orcs. Seriously. Stand on the edge of a cliff and brood while someone sings your praises and tells of your sorrows? Gawd, every real leader I know would be shaking their head and either insisting that it's ancient history and we've got real problems to deal with now, or they'd walk away in embarrassment. They'd protest, don't build me up to the newbie, please. Or, that's not how it happened (because from their pov they were scared spitless and not heroic at all at the battle that cost just about everyone they know their lives. Can we say survivor's guilt? Can we say, thinking over and over about what he could have done instead so that just about everyone didn't have to die that day?)

So, please, writers, get your fictional leaders off their butts and into the action. Even the bad guys. Maybe especially them, so that they don't just fall over at the climax of your big confrontation scene. Thanks!

Monday, April 07, 2014

Sexy Tears

After four rainy days off, I go back to my day job ... on a spectacular sunny day. I think my work schedule is more accurate than the weather man as far as predicting sun and rain.

On to today's topic.

I rewatched Star Trek: Into Darkness, and I have some observations that I hope will be useful. Forgive my wee preamble, please: I actually like this movie a lot, and I'm sure I'll watch it many times. I don't want anyone getting the idea that I thought it was painfully bad and in dire need of shredding.

Uniformity of reaction:
One of the tougher things to do as a writer is to characterize. I mean seriously characterize, as in define and express character. To use a great example of characterization, every one of the Avengers has their own way about that. Part of that is great acting, but acting is restricted by dialogue, the situation, and correction–which means that some of the fault falls onto the shoulders of the writers and director. Into Darkness had characterization problems.
Writers are people (I know, I know, that's just crazy talk but let me finish) and have their own personal reactions to situations. They have verbal tics, like saying "this rocks!" when they like something (or "awesome" or whatever) and they may cry readily ... or stifle sobs rather than go into full cry mode whenever possible. Their own responses are what they know at gut level. The difficulty is to then write characters who react in imagined ways to imagined situations who are not only different from oneself, but different from each other, but still fall into what the writers and director classify as worthy of admiration. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, there's a monotone. Just about every major cast member sheds a sexy tear, including Khan. Khan? Really? Khan the Ice Rage Machine? This very specific, fairly rare, delicate emotion becomes so repetitive that it could be turned into a drinking game.
Characters need to react to emotional situations differently from each other, especially in film where it's all visual and the internal stuff is harder to define and differentiate between characters. In writing, the difference between characters should be crystal clear. Which means, if a writer wants to have any range to her or his cast of sympathetic, admirable characters, that writer has to imagine, before a word is written, how a hothead can express grief and passion in an admirable way, how a genius creative can express grief and passion in a different way, how a cunning, savage mastermind can express grief and passion ... you get the idea. And that's true for every emotion characters express.

The homage:
I was on board with the re-envisioning of the original Spock/Kirk death scene from Wrath of Khan, right up until Spock cried out Khan's name. The original Kirk, yes. New Spock, no. Spock could have gone animal (and I loved how the actor went into enraged gorilla mode on Khan's ass in the following fight scene) right there, total predator. He could have lost it in any number of ways. But the Kirk echo didn't work for me. Wrong character. Not the way Spock would have expressed rage ... with a word. Howl? Maybe. Or total silence, or a growl .... lots of choices. None of them taken. I'm not sure why. Because they went a different route with the New Kirk. I'm scared? Gorgeous. Beautiful. Human. Very unlike the composed and calm Old Spock in the same situation. So why not give New Spock the same option–to be Vulcan-ish, but in the way we don't see Vulcans very often because it's so rare for that primitive side of them to escape? And what is a primitive Vulcan? I propose it's the mindless gorilla with the looping fist strikes that will smash an enemy to unrecognizable pulp before it gets its mind back, and that sort of critter doesn't have words. Yes, yes, Spock is half-human, but that's not what makes him different from Kirk and the other characters. It's his Vulcan nature, a nature so volatile that as-a-race they have tied themselves up and caged themselves because they fear it so much. So, writers and directors of Star Trek–show us why they're scared of it. Maybe there's something even scarier, something truly alien in there that Spock would have revealed. Lost opportunity.

The take-away:
Working out who characters are is something writers like me, who don't outline, discover as we go along (and then sometimes we have to go back and make changes, which is annoying! but necessary.) During the formative period, characters may sound and act the same. Usually they sound and act like whatever idealized heroes we have in our heads. If the writer has been at the game a long time, they may have their go-to archetypes and have some variety in the beginning. Some writers rely on what they've seen and read, so they'll have a cast that strongly resembles, say, the Avengers, or the Fellowship, or Griffindors .... I think that's better than having characters that are all Dirty Harry, but still. Characters are the heart of great stories, and some attention ought to be paid to the important details. Those details aren't in hair and eye color, or shallow details like whether they're a clothes horse or like curry (unless they take it to radical extremes–then it becomes really important!) The details are in the devils, and angels, inside of them. Every scene that evokes powerful emotions in characters is an opportunity to express the uniqueness and beauty of living creatures when they're at their best, or their worst. I hope more writers take advantage of those opportunities, because I want to see what happens when they do.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Weight and Self-Image, Part 2


There's a lot of fantastic stuff in the comments in the last post. I'd like to continue thinking out loud in an actual post rather than writing vast blocks of text in the comments. I tried to be succinct, but I got carried away, so, here we go.

During a writing course, one of the things the instructors hammered home is the idea that most writers can't hear positive things about their work. Even when they do hear it, they often dismiss praise. I was taught in the class to write any praise I receive down and study that part of my writing *more* than the negative. The aim is to reproduce success rather than try to eliminate failure.

I try to extend this to the rest of my life, too. I try to hear praise like Rory gives, and see myself how he sees me. That way I keep fighting to 'stay in shape' or to work on physical goals that have some other payoff than a number, like to be able to run a certain distance, achieve balance in a yoga position or be able to stand on my hands. I think that's healthier than 'get in shape,' which doesn't work from a premise that I'm okay where I'm at too. I also try to avoid aiming for a certain number of pounds (up or down, thank you Regolith for reminding me that some people think they're too thin), or to 'look good in a bikini' – I have to repeat over and over that Rory likes the way I look in a bikini right now, rather than listen to the self-revulsion of the thought of myself in a bikini (or LBD, or whatever.) And if he didn't like the way I looked in a bikini, why in the world would I strive to try to look good in one? As if that would make him love me more ....

I'm sure he'd be pleased if I had the flexibility of a gymnast and less excess in certain areas, but he's not unhappy with where I'm at right this second, either. I don't have to do a damned thing if I don't want to, and that places the things I do in the arena of my choice for my own purposes, rather than trying to satisfy some idea of what I think he might want me to look like instead of the way I look right now. My DH has the power to make me feel overweight, underweight, ugly, old ... and he has more power in my mind than society. He's not just my friend and lover and husband, but an ally in my mind when I battle self-image monsters.

If I remember to listen to his loving words, hear them, and believe them.

If he wasn't an ally, well, why would I listen to him? But that's a whole 'nother post about relationships.

It's still there, of course, the self-talk that emphasizes the negative. And it's tricky. Working from this paradigm seems to say, be happy with yourself the way you are, The End, and that's not a concept anyone will buy, for sensible reasons. We don't want to lose our drive to constantly learn, improve, to grow. If we're satisfied with the way everything is, from the state of the housekeeping to the mechanical soundness of our vehicles, what's going to motivate us to get off the couch?

But that's not what being happy with yourself actually does. Time moves on. We can be happy with the mechanical soundness of a vehicle, but it's going to need an oil change in X number of miles, and tires need to be rotated or replaced entirely, and inevitably there will be a crack in the windshield bad enough that a new windshield will be required, etc. I can love my car as it is, but I still need to take care of it.

I love my car, therefore I take care of it. If I'm okay (see, I can't even say if I love myself–ugh) with myself, that doesn't mean I stop doing all the things I always do. Nor does it mean I'll lose all motivation to try new things, or to get better. I will paint that old pick up truck, not because I don't love it the way it is (and I really do! Scratches and all!) but because I do love it. I want to play with it. I want to express my love for my truck by turning it into an art project, and of course I want to maintain it too so that it runs as long as possible. Would I fuss with the truck if I didn't love it? Of course not. I would let it languish or ignore it.

So if I didn't love myself, would I be motivated to take good care of myself? Would I only take care of myself because I'm supposed to, or because there's a tiny hope that if I take care of myself maybe in some distant future I'll be lovable? That's working from a place of pain and despair. That's less motivation, not more. And some people, because they don't love themselves, let themselves die or even speed their deaths.

Self-love also seems to mean vanity, arrogance, hubris, and other nasty things that we can safely agree are bad. I love Steve Barnes' approach, though I have to say this is my read on it and may not be his actual words or thoughts. We've known each other a few years, so what he's written and taught are tangled up with my own thoughts. Anyway, one of the lessons I've learned from Steve on this subject strips away all the bullshit, negative, backward-thinking societally-reinforced garbage we allow to rot in our minds.

Most people want to nurture children, love their friends, etc. If you saw yourself as a child, would you want to protect that child? If your friend was in pain, would you want to comfort your friend? If your favorite cousin needed help to survive, would you give it? So, assuming you say yes to these things, and assuming you consider this a positive aspect of yourself, can you see your self as your own child, your own friend, your own favorite cousin who you love? Sometimes I picture myself as a little girl and give her a big hug and tell her I haven't forgotten her, and that I love her. That's easier for me and reaches deeper than looking in the mirror. In the mirror, the whole world seems to see my flaws along with me through my own eyes. But when I picture my child self, the little blond, fragile, creative, loving, sensitive, horse-adoring, kitten-nurturing non-stop reader who loved playing by the water and building miniature architectural wonders with child-made ponds and rivers, I adore her with all my being and if the world wanted to hurt her I would destroy the world to save her.

Is it a trick of the mind? I don't think so. Looking back, there are things that hurt so bad and I wish I could go back and tell her that she's loved. So I do. I go back and hold her and tell her it's all right, I'm there for her. I'm her friend and ally, her mother and sister, her dragon if need be to fight her monsters and turn them into bits of charcoal. I don't want her to be so sheltered that she never grows up and never becomes strong, but by the blessed world she deserves to know she's loved and that she's not alone!

It's harder, maybe too hard, to extend these feelings to my grown self. I don't know if there's value in trying, when there's so much power in embracing the child within and honoring her. It's hard to see myself as Rory sees me, but I don't know if there's value in that either, when there's so much strength and joy in not just hearing the words, but accepting his love.

So that's where I'm at. By hearing and accepting praise, we let ourselves be loved, and can love ourselves. If we love ourselves, we're more likely to take care of ourselves, nurture ourselves, and grow. We can't always be stronger, or wiser, or more beautiful. Disease, age, genetics and all kinds of other stuff stand in the way. But the only thing that stands in the way of accepting love, loving ourselves and taking the best care of ourselves that we can is ourselves. I see nothing to be gained with self-loathing, and everything to be gained by being a friend to myself and help myself achieve my goals.

Maybe someday it'll be easier to do that. Even now, after all I've written and knowing it's true, it's hard to accept that liking myself isn't narcissistic horror. And maybe that's a check-and-balance within ourselves, to keep from become self-centered monsters that don't give a crud about anyone or anything else. But negativity and self-doubt should be just that, a thing to help keep balance, not the only thing in our minds. Ever.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Weight and Self-Image

I've been putting off writing about this for a long time, because I don't like to write about my more unattractive personality traits, no matter how human and normal they might be. But someone's gotta do it, damn it. If no one ever wrote about unpleasant things, nothing real would ever get said. In part I've been inspired by The Divided Mind by John E. Sarno, M.D., in particular a part where he talked about one of his own episodes with psychosomatic illness. He developed symptoms while on vacation with his wife (you'll have to read the book to find out what kind) and he had to admit that he resented taking her on vacation before the symptoms would let up. As he said in his book, this wasn't a very nice thing to have to admit, and he didn't like that about himself at all. It made him feel like a horrible person. That's the awesome and scary power of the unconscious. Sometimes it's easier on our egos to feel physically ill or cripple ourselves than admit that part of us is whiny and selfish, or whatever else might be going on. When I'm done with this book I'm going to check out some of his other ones. They sound fascinating.

Anyway, I've been fighting with my weight most of my life, even when I was skinny. I just didn't know I was skinny at the time. That tells me that I don't see myself very clearly. It makes it extremely difficult to know where I'm at. I can't look in the mirror and say hey, I'm huge or hey, I'm looking pretty good right now. I have a very athletic body and so I weigh a lot more than other people my height. Although I use the scales, it's better for me to use a tape measure around my waist and my pant size to gauge where I'm at. So, at 5'6", I'm about 175 pounds (right now less, two weeks ago I was a bit over) and wear a size 14. I know of very few women who are my height and weight that weigh as much as I do. So, there's the visual distortion, there's the weight wackiness (I feel ponderous whenever I look at the number on the scale), my intellectual goals which want me to be at a healthy weight where I can do all the stuff I like to do without hurting myself, my rational goal of maximizing my longevity and quality of life, and my not-very-subconscious goal of looking great and feminine and sleek (sleek's not going to happen with my shoulders. Just sayin'.)

Most of the time I'm okay with my size, and I'm strong and I have decent endurance though more cardio training is always good. I haven't done that in a long time now. Months.

Here's the ugly part, the things I don't like to admit.

Somewhat big doesn't trigger this–I grew up with a family where some members were perpetually round and I have some wonderful friends who are round that I consider healthy. But I'll see someone really big and the wow, how the hells, why the hells start going around in my head. I'm instantly ashamed of myself. And then I often imagine what it would be like to be that big, and to see that in other people's eyes every time they look at me, and I think, crap, I might never leave the house.

I have days when I want to do nothing but sweat so I don't have to face the scale at a given weight. I get really twitchy when I start to approach my pregnant weight. At the 175 mark I'm within five pounds of that. Maybe ten, if I'm generous with myself. 180 is the number in my head, but I think I went over that slightly when I was pregnant.

Pregnant. I'm almost as heavy as I was when I was pregnant with my first born child, with no child in my body. That slays my hopes and dreams and desires to be that super-fit grandma I might become someday if I'm lucky, the one who charges up and down mountainsides and goes skiing and fishing and all the things my mom does and other older women I admire do.

And now that I've said those things about my weight, I'm scared that someone I love and care about will think damn, if Kami thinks that's heavy, what does she think of me? I fear I'll hurt someone who has the same or worse self-image problems that I do, or that they'll hate me for thinking these things when they believe that I've got it good compared to them or whatever, and I start to make myself crazy and fearful.

So add to this mix of emotions that make me loathe myself, I have people I love that can't do all those things and I see them as beautiful and strong. One of them is very ill and believes they look fat. They don't. In my eyes, that person is thinner than I am. And that person probably is. I bet if we adjust for height and everything, that person is slimmer than I am. But that person doesn't see themselves that way, because that person's self-image is all messed up. Just like mine.

So I see someone super-heavy by my internal scale, and I try not to stare and try not to think the awful thoughts that I always do about how someone can 'let themselves go' and I think about myself and think, like I have room to talk, I have rolls like the Michelin Man, (but hey, my arms are totally like that, so, bonus!) and I go into a death spiral of shame and self-loathing and pity for the other person and I have this desire to try to help and encourage them. How awful is that, on top of everything else.

I'm ashamed to admit that I have the nerve to want to encourage and help someone who doesn't know me and would find it incredibly intrusive and arrogant and horrible to have a stranger try to be supportive about something so personal, when they have absolutely no knowledge about what I've done and been doing or not doing about my weight. I have my decisions to make and no one can make them for me. Our friends can keep us going, but a stranger has no business butting in. Just because someone is a certain size, or has twins, or moves with the aid of a wheelchair or whatever does not make them public property to ooo and aahh and approach with praise or sympathy or whatever. And yet people do this. And I think it.

Is social pressure to change our bodies all bad? I don't think so. Some social pressure is good. Social pressure reminds us to not be jerks, and helps motivate some of our other better natures including picking up trash, volunteering, etc. It's not the entirety of a given behavior (at least I don't think that people do everything just to please others and fit in) but it can be a valuable piece of a motivational spectrum to help get me off my butt. But some social pressure motivates people to distort their natural beauty, to carve up their faces and bodies until they don't look like themselves anymore, or to become housebound because they can't bear the stares. And some of that social pressure is entirely imaginary, about what I think people see when they look at me, versus what they really see. Some of that social pressure is distorted by a culture that is itself distorted (think the scary-thin models) and some social pressure is motivated by cruelty and our less-attractive selves. I don't like that part of me that stares at huge people, but others revel in it, laugh, make awful comments, and use weight as license to demean people and think less of them. I'm not sure that my desire to help overweight people become healthier is any better than the people that make fun of them. It's just as intrusive, but in the opposite direction.

There's nowhere I can take this. Society is what it is, I am who I am, and people are who they are. I just wanted to write about this because I'm a talker and a writer and I feel compelled to get this stuff out of my head and into the light. I think it's important to poke at this stuff, figure it out, and then do something positive if at all possible. I don't expect to change the world, or make people be nicer to each other. But maybe I can start a dialogue (or monologue.) This stuff has all been discussed before by others, but maybe not by all my readers, so, here you go. You've got thoughts in your head. What are you going to do with your thoughts, if anything? They're yours to keep, or to share, whatever you want or dare to do. If they're not what you want them to be and you're willing to fight to change them, I'll be here, silently cheering you on. I wouldn't dare actually cheer you on unless you asked me to, because ... well, you've read this far, so you know.

I'm scared to butt in where I'm not wanted.

I almost deleted this post. I don't know what it means that I didn't, and I don't know what it means that I put it up despite my qualms. I just hope that getting the thoughts out of my head will help someone or something someday.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Public Face: Who's it all about?

Recently I spend some time investigating some writers I'd never heard of for a friend who is handling the programming for a convention. Two websites and a few blogs later, I noticed a pattern of not-goodness. I'm keeping this super-generic because I don't want anyone assuming (wrongly or otherwise) that it's them. I don't want anyone to go hunting for a rock to crawl under. Nor would it be any fun if people assume I'm talking about them and get all defensive and decide that they're an exception for whatever reason.  I just want to offer some advice that hopefully everyone can use.

There are a lot of writers who blog about writing out there. Writers write, and writers obsess about how to write, when to write, why to write, who or what to write about, what music to write to, where to write, etc. I went in with that knowledge and expected that a writer's blog will involve writing on some level. So that's fine. It's natural for writers to obsess about writing on their blogs.

But.

Assuming that a writer blogs because they want to connect with their audience, it seems to me that it might be a good idea to make the blog about the audience. Impart useful information, write teasers, talk about cats [because the interwebs were created for cute cat pictures, instant information (right or wrong might not matter as much as getting it right away) and porn, as we all know] or whatevs. Get excited about the latest book coming out, or report on the awesome that's the convention, book signing, movie that came out, fab new writing haunt, etc. But I would suggest avoiding what these authors did, which was make it all about themselves. I don't mean, don't make it personal. Personal is fine. But there's a difference between sharing and narcissism. These websites seemed very narcissistic to me.

Most readers tolerate promotion so that they can find out the latest about the writer's new work. There's the work, which readers like to read about so they can snag the latest info about the story they love, and there's the author, who is the respected creator but not the focus of the reader's interest.

The posts had nothing to do with me as an interested party who wanted to know more about the author's work, and the author themselves. I didn't care about how hard it was to write the synopsis for the person's latest work, though I've been there and it does suck. Discussing an imagined slight of The Author's craft by some unwashed, unworthy fellow author or a critical reader or whoever–I wanted to bounce off the site but I was doing research, so I reluctantly read on. I do enjoy reading about stuff like that sometimes, but usually only if the author is a celebrity and is misbehaving. In other words, I read about that at their expense, usually through a third party. (See the Anne Rice example coming up shortly.) I also like to hear about famous authors being awesome, but again, through a third party.

I did actually want to know about the authors. And I found out plenty, though probably  not what the author intended. Reading between the lines, the authors sounded more interested in themselves as authors than they were their own work, or anything else going on in the world for that matter. They may be perfectly fine writers, but I'll never know because their web presence didn't inspire confidence in their writing. I'd expect that their books are in keeping with the level of self-awareness and insight into the wider world expressed in their blogs. Which is to say, they seemed to be using really tiny windows to look out at the world, and there were a lot of mirrors outside those windows.

I think an author-focused blog can work very well. Jay Lake famously blogs about his cancer journey. In fact, he's stated that he has more hits on his blog from others wanting information about his battle with cancer than his books. I think it's valuable to study how Jay talks about his cancer and how people respond, especially others who are facing cancer or have family with cancer. The information he gives helps people feel less alone, and prepares them for the things they'll have to face and decisions they'll have to make. This is valuable (and generous, and courageous.) I've also enjoyed author blogs when the authors discuss their trips to foreign countries, antics with their pets (again with the cats!) and stuff they've learned through research.

Contrast that to talking about how mean someone was when they offered unsolicited criticism of the author's work. If there was some insight, humor, something to entertain me, as a fellow crazy writing person I might have felt a connection. I've certainly had my share of weird, cruel and off-putting critiques. But as a reader, a potential buyer of the author's books, those posts turned me off more than anything. And, sadly, even as a writer sympathetic to the plight of other writers, my main reaction was to wonder if the author had a thick enough skin to survive in the business. That, and I had a flashback to Anne Rice's reaction to a bad review on Amazon. I still get a chuckle out of that. As entertained as I was by that whole debacle, it didn't endear me to Anne Rice, no matter how much I can sympathize with how hard it can be to deal with a bad review. She looked terribly unprofessional.

And these websites and blogs were just that. Unprofessional. It's not about the author. It's about the work.

And cute pictures of cats.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Divided Mind by J. Sarno

My DH and I are going to be at Norwescon 37. I hope we'll see a bunch of you there!

For once, I'm not overbooked. I'll have plenty of time to visit with folks. I expect I'll be spending a lot of time at the NIWA (Northwest Independent Writer's Association) table and possibly some time at barcon. I'm a bit of a foodie so if anyone has a suggestion for fantastic food around the SeaTac area, let me know.

Otherwise I'm assuming that I'm going to relax, do some writing, go to some panels, periodically sit in a hot tub, do some reading, and visit with friends.

Speaking of reading, I'm currently being blown away by "The Divided Mind" by John E. Sarno (which looks like Samo in the current font I'm seeing it ... see the whining in my last post for more rant-astastic information on this topic.) It explains a lot about the state of the physical and emotional health of, well, pretty much everyone in the western world right now. I firmly believe that not enough people get help for their mental and emotional problems and I think that this is in part because there's not a lot of quality care available, or maybe people just have trouble finding it or funding it.

I think a good indicator of whether or not a mental health specialist is worth the research, referral (if necessary,) time and expense is if they make things better within a finite period of time. And that may be what's going on with the majority of cases, but the public perception, or at least my perception and I don't think I'm alone, is that it takes years to work out your problems with your upbringing, and that puts the expense both in funding and time out of reach of just about everyone I know. What I like about this book is that the author addresses a problem and puts it in perspective. He then lays out a blueprint for how to deal with this problem, and what it's going to take. If all is as he presents it, then his methods are easily accessible, take a relatively short period of time to bring relief, and isn't going to rob you and your family of valuable resources forever. If the average person believed that this was what they could expect from a mental health program, I think most of them would sign up.

If. If they knew that the problems they're experiencing are mental rather than physical, and it seems that many of the problems we're facing, including lower back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, dare I suggest planar fasciitis, GERD, etc. may in fact be caused by a rather insidious mechanism triggered by the subconscious. It's actually been recorded and studied for over a hundred years. And yet psychosomatic illness is what happens to the other guy, or to the hypochondriac, not to, well, everyone. Really. It's, like, normal to have psychosomatic stuff going on. I should have figured this out. I had horrible dizzy spells that stopped me from going to school. No cause was ever found. And when I stopped going to school and we finished moving and things settled down, so did my dizzy spells.

Normal. It's not dumb, or a deficiency. It's a coping mechanism. And like a lot of coping mechanisms, sometimes it's worse than what it's trying to help us cope with or get through.

This book makes me happy. It's hard for me to contain my enthusiasm and delight. I feel I need to, though. I can't foist this on people who I think might need it. I can't wish stigmas away. If I could, then yes, I could go to people and say, oh, oh, you have to borrow this book from me and read it right away because it might help you! and they won't feel like I've just slapped them in the face and called them crazy and dumb and on top of it intruded into their private life.

Sometimes social stuff makes me crazy. Sometimes I really want to open my brain to someone else and let them see that all the things they might imagine that I believe about them isn't true. Sometimes I wish I could turn off the feeling that people assume things about me, because chances are they're thinking about the latest awesome You Tube video and don't give a crap about what I think about them. All that can help us be nice to each other and polite and kind and considerate, but it also can be an excuse to not say what we really want to say and it keeps us from telling the truth. Not the mean truth, but the scary truth, the real truth, the truth that exposes ourselves as much as it exposes the person we're speaking to.

Anyway, I'm only halfway through the book, but so far, I can definitely recommend it. The style is repetitive, but I suspect that's because the author is accustomed to disbelief and denial. Be prepared to be amazed.






Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Dear Font Designer ....

I spend several hours a month looking at fonts that I might want to acquire for my business. I'm pretty choosy. It's not just a matter of expense. I budget for fonts that will set me back over a hundred dollars and purchase them shortly before I need them (or sooner if they go on sale.) So if price is (usually) no object, what's getting in my way?

When I'm roughing the design for book covers and interiors I don't always have a specific thing in mind, so browsing through fonts helps me focus and suggests ideas. This means that your font design might suggest a concept that will result in my buying and using your font on my next project. I don't want to limit your creativity. Your vision and passion are an inspiration to me, and I'm always eager to look at your latest font.

Having said that, I'm often frustrated by some typographic tropes and give lots of gorgeous fonts a fast pass because of problems that come up when I'm trying to create a cover. Here are some very, very common problems that keep me from buying otherwise wonderful fonts:

Letters that look similar to other letters:  Usually, font designers are good about making certain that their letters look different from each other. They do a less-consistent job of making letters look uniquely like themselves in the grand scheme of all of typography. I see S letters that look a lot like a fancy P, and lowercase L letters that look like a lowercase T. A slanted, narrow, lowercase E when placed next to a F, T, or other letter with an overhanging element can be mistaken for an i with the dot obliterated. Here's the thing. When you have the entire font or a big block of text to look at, these visual misinterpretations by the human eye are rare because the context of all the letters helps our wonderful pattern-recognizing brain tell the letters apart. But if the title of my book is FiSh, which must stand alone on that book cover, it might look like FePh, or Tilk, or any other number of weird things depending on the font's idiosyncrasies. Those idiosyncrasies can have strong artistic and traditional foundations, but tradition doesn't help me a darned bit when I'm trying to make the reader understand that the book's title is FiSh. I recently saw this illustrated painfully in an otherwise beautiful poster where STRANGER seemed to read SIRANGER. For real. I even had a whole phrase to help me interpret the typography and I still had to take about fifteen seconds to see it. This is mainly a problem in swash and cursive designs, but I've seen it in decorative serif fonts as well.

Which leads me to letters that run into each other in unhelpful ways or that are spaced poorly, aka kerning and white-spacing: I think it's fair to say that all typographers, except perhaps novices working in a vacuum, address kerning and negative space to the best of their ability. For titling, I can adjust kerning to a certain extent and I'll be fine. Having said that, there's really nothing I can do with an r and n that combine into a figure that looks like an m but that, when I adjust the kerning, have awkward negative space around them so that they look ugly. The most common problem I run into? The capital letter M whose legs have such an extreme lean to them that even when the following letter's stem is touching them, the spacing still looks far too wide, white and awkward. The abbreviation Mr. and MA suffer in particular, and neither of those are an uncommon letter pairing. I find it maddening that this happens so often. All by itself, I have to say, the broad M letters look quite nice, but letters don't usually live in a vacuum. I rejected a huge number of otherwise wonderful fonts for the title job for MASKS because the combined slants for the M and A created a huge amount of white space that was not carried through to the rest of the title, even when I adjusted the kerning for SKS. As for body text, I'm not going to go through a whole book checking to see if rn looks like an m, so please, play safely out there, typographers.

Asian-inspired brush scripts that have letters that are too rough and have truncated parts meant to serve as absence of brush or a 'natural' brush look but end up looking unfinished and awkward:  Some of my clients are martial arts writers and would love to have a font that had the elegance and sophistication of good Asian-inspired brush calligraphy. Me too! The most common problem with the fonts I've looked at are incomplete letters. (The capital letter T in particular seems to always have a broken stem.) The second main issue is an almost random baseline and x height. I appreciate a certain looseness to the baseline and an overall feeling of freedom, but more often than not the baseline looks like someone tried to make a font that looked like Chinese or Japanese writing which is artful and gorgeous, but doesn't translate well into roman letters (roman letters are what most American and English readers think of as 'normal'). There's little respect for the roman letters in their own right and even less respect for the 'normal' baseline aesthetics for roman letters. Roman letters written as if they're set on a vertical rather than horizontal line and with a huge variation in ascender, descender and x height invariably looks sloppy, no matter how lovely the individual letters might be. More griping about baseline: capital letters are used to start the word more often than not, right? How am I supposed to ground my baseline with a broken stem? Sadly, such fonts that I attempt to use on a book cover end up looking like a Japanese or Chinese restaurant menu rather than a professional book design. I like that look ... on a menu ... but I'm trying to sell a book here, not food, and more often than not I need a formal mood. Artistic, good. All over the place, bad. Very short book titles can work using a rough font provided that the individual letters in the title harmonize well, but unfortunately, often they don't. Longer titles result in very poor results. I often have the feeling that the typographer is speaking with an awkward accent rather than working with a true understanding of the language of brush calligraphy. It would be very, very nice if there were alternates, btw, so that commonly used letters that repeat in words: e, s, t, o, a, r, etc. (and especially letters that are doubled) can have an alternate to make the title look hand-written. It would also be excellent if all the capital letters had alternates so that it's easier to ground that all-important baseline with something that will enhance the rest of title. I suspect that if I want a book title with Asian-inspired typography, my best bet will be to contact a brush calligrapher and commission a custom piece. Otherwise, I'll have to stick with calligraphic fonts with no brush-style elements but which have Asian architectural influences. There are some fine Asian-influenced brush fonts out there, but sadly they are very rare.

That about covers it for now. Thanks for reading!

Monday, March 03, 2014

Much To Do About Everything

Ack! It's been almost a month!

I've been using a list to keep track of things I want to accomplish. It's been working great, except that I've begun to realize just how much stuff I've got to do. That can be overwhelming. I'm more productive, but I'm also feeling constant pressure to get my list worked down so that I can have some leisure time without feeling guilty. I suppose I could have leisure time scheduled on my list as well ....

Which reminds me about something Steven Barnes teaches. Several times a day, take a few minutes (I try to do two or three minutes but sometimes I only do 30 seconds) to just breathe. Focus on your breath, make sure the breaths are deep and even and calming. Try to put everything else out of your mind. I wouldn't recommend doing this while you're driving. The point is not to multi-task and belly breathe while you're doing something else. The point is to take a mental break.

I've been doing this and it really helps. For the fifteen minutes total it takes out of my day, it gives me back a restfulness that's worth more than a nap of twice that length, and without the guilt of 'lost time' or the grogginess. Plus, on days when I don't do it or just do a couple of cheater 30 second sessions, I notice I'm less productive. If I don't give my brain the total break-and-breathe treatment, my brain takes it anyway, usually in the form of playing Bejeweled for a far longer period than I would have taken with the breathing. Besides, the breathing focuses me and clears my head. Playing mindless games on my computer A. keeps me at the computer, so it's not a real break and B. with my brain occupied the whole time, I don't get any silent, non-visual, black time.

What's black time? I don't honestly know what goes on. But when I breathe deeply, with my eyes closed, and deliberately don't think about anything, ideas start to pop in my head. Maybe I connect with my subconscious. I'm not sure. I just know that I come out of black time with workable stuff to do, whereas when I'm done playing a round of computer games, I have to spend time getting back into the working groove.

Weirdly (or maybe not) watching really good movies, reading good books, or tuning into a well-written tv series puts my brain into a great creative space too. I think it puts me into a playful mood. Not just any playful mood, either. Maybe my brain sees people at play and develops a desire to play Let's Pretend too. It's not as good as black time, but it's still better than playing computer games. The art equivalent of watching good movies is visiting Inspiration Hut or surfing Pinterest. I also enjoy paging through design and art books.

There's a big difference between how I view work and inspiration now and how I approached it as a kid. As a kid, inspiration was something that just happened, and I had a tendency to either do nothing until an idea whacked me in the back of the head, or I sat down and tried to think hard, and then I'd go with whatever came first that didn't seem lame. Now it feels less random. It's still mysterious, but I know if I breathe deeply, and then start to doodle, or do this, or do that, the thing that I'll need will appear and I can start to shape the vision into reality. It's nice to get excited and feel inspired, but I don't have to wait for that feeling to arise first. That feeling will come if I head in the right direction. I might be uncertain when I start on something, but if it's a good idea, guaranteed I'll be sucked into the project within a few minutes and the time will just fly on by. When I'm there, I don't care how much work I have to do. When I'm there, work feels like a blessing, and I want to do it all.