Sometimes “Home” is a Paradox

One of the weirder paradoxes in my head is that, even though my life in Napa was plagued by abuse, when I think of my “happy place,” it’s in that house where I lived.  One of the best ways I have to calm myself down is the close my eyes and picture myself standing or sitting in the front yard, the pool in front of me, the warm sun overhead, looking out over the fields and hills that surrounded us.

And this is the house where I was beaten.  Where I was told, over and over, that I was worthless.  Where I was told to shut up whenever I tried to sing, where I was ridiculed for being into books and reading, where I was made to fear the very people I should have felt safe with.

And yet…

It’s also the house where I grew up riding horses, and had a swimming pool in the front yard (it made sense there) in which I could be found 90% of the summer.  It’s the place where I learned not to fear heights as I climbed ancient volcanic rock formations and stood looking out over the valley below me.  It’s the place where I learned about the red-tailed hawk, and watched them soar.  It’s the place where I learned how to deal with rattlesnakes and scorpions.  It’s the place where I turned the volcanic tor in my backyard into the surface of various planets for my toy spaceships to land on, where I raised chickens and goats and cows, where I learned to milk a cow or a goat, and most importantly, where my imagination learned to soar.

Napa is my hometown, even though it’s the third place I lived in my childhood, and I only lived there from age 6 to age 13, and again for a few months when I was 15.  And that particular part of town where I lived is always going to be “home” to me, even though I probably won’t ever be able to afford to live there again.

I’ve lived in 21 different houses or apartments in six cities.  And at the end of the day, that place where I felt the most fear is also the place my brain calls “home.”   I keep an eye on that property, because if it ever goes on the market I want to see it again.  It’s changed, in some major ways, from the place I grew up, but I want to see it, partially from curiosity and partially to exorcise the remaining demons.

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Space Opera: Why I Love It (and some examples!)

I read a lot of SFF books, but Space Opera is my go-to genre.   Hard science is nice, but give me star-spanning civilizations, weird, wonderful, and plentiful alien life, and overwhelming stakes any day, and twice on Sunday.  My love can be traced to James P. Hogan’s Giants series.  I read the first book, Inherit the Stars, in 8th grade, and fell in love with it.  I found out there was a sequel and read it, too.  Then I went to high school, where I discovered from our SFF-loving librarian that there were, in fact, three more books in the series.  I soon exhausted the supply.

From there, it was a quick tour of 1970s and early-80s space opera, from Landis’ A Planet Called Camelot to Asimov’s Foundation and onwards.  While I read fairly widely across the SFF genre, as well as outside it, I have never loved anything like I love a good Space Opera. Part of my love for the subgenre is that it’s often based on characters rather than technology, where the personal growth of the heroes is as important to the book as the plot.  The key to why I love this genre above all others, however, is these three facets of the genre’s tropes: the variety of alien life, the epic scale (including bigger-than-life weapons and tech), and the adventure.

In the real world, science is showing us that it’s pretty likely a fairly barren universe out there, and any life besides us is probably so far away we’ll never meet them.  This depresses the crap out of me–I spent far too much of my youth dreaming of alien contact to be happy with a universe in which humanity is alone. A Space Opera universe, on the other hand, is teeming with life.  From aliens who look mostly like us to aliens who look nothing like us, Space Opera gives us lifeforms in abundance.  Some of them think enough like us that we can work together, but others are so unlike us that any contact is rife with the potential for disaster.  C.J. Cherryh’s work, particularly in the Alliance/Union universe, occupies the knife edge between these two extremes, with parallel cultures that can only interact in the most tangential ways.

What really makes me happy, though, is the vast canvas on which so much of Space Opera is drawn.   See, I love epic stories.  And how much more epic can you get than star-spanning civilizations, spread across hundreds or thousands of light-years, working together–or against each other–to survive in a hostile universe?

Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn series is one of my favorites.  In the first book, The Reality Dysfunction, an accidental rip in spacetime allows the souls of the dead to come forth and possess the bodies of the living.  A war begins, pitting the various factions of far-flung human space against the dead, forcing alliances among people who used to be enemies and spurring a few men and women to grow up, fast.

The trilogy (sold as six books in the US, though ebooks may have changed that) doesn’t disappoint on the tech front, either.  The Confederation has pure-tech ships that jump through space, and living ships that tunnel through and are in constant telepathic contact with their captains.  They have neural computers that allow a form of technological psionics in the Adamist nations, and genetically-engineered telepathy and consensus-building among the Edenists.   The aliens are even more advanced, including matter-creation and planetary engineering (one of the alien empires is based on a series of planets arranged in a giant ring around their primary star, all sharing the same orbit).  I WANT TO GO TO THERE.

Above all, though, is the adventure.  Groups of people (not all of them human), coming together to defeat a common enemy, or helping each other to survive in a hostile universe, confronting unfathomable threats… it’s the stuff we humans have been hardwired to love since the days when we sat around talking about how great it was we’d all escaped the sabre-toothed cat that day.

In addition to the books I’ve already mentioned, good space operas to try out would include E.E. Smith’s Lensman series (which I’ve sadly only read part of; I’d love to find more), Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, Frank Herbert’s Dune saga, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (which I really ought to write about soon), and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.  There are MANY others.  Should you be so inclined, here’s a link to get you started.

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It’s The Little Things That Make Things Better

I’ve been writing a lot of doom & gloom here lately, but in thinking about my life right now, despite the stress I’ve been under, and despite the pile of day-job work I need to do this week, there are some good things:

I love that my daughter’s last words before sleeping last night were “I love you, daddy. You’re the best.”

I love that my wife has had almost a week of being pain-free.

I love that my cat comes running to bed whenever I go.

I love that some of my students offered to help me carry things to the classroom this morning.

I love that the Westboro Baptist Church couldn’t find Leonard Nimoy’s funeral.

I love that the guy who laid a trap and killed a German exchange student will spend the rest of his life in prison.

I love that my book is almost ready for beta readers.

I love that my VP17 classmates are amazing folks who continue to stay in touch and support each other.

I love that I haven’t had an episode of afibrillation in over a year.

I love that my weight is going down again.

I love that on my bike ride this weekend, I saw 15 turkeys, a rabbit 2 deer, a flock of geese flying under the bridge I was on, and two egrets.

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The Real Reason Teaching is Hard

There’s all sorts of stuff out there about the long hours, the scorn we get from politicians and other morons, the relatively low pay, the socioeconomic issues that create students who don’t actually care to learn… I’m not going to talk about that stuff today.  Because while all that does make teaching difficult, it isn’t the hardest thing about this job.

No, the hardest thing is that the kids can break your heart.  Often, and in very jagged pieces.

I have a student who is unhealthily large.  He can’t wash himself properly, so he always has an aggressively foul odor.  He has no support at home.  I’m a big guy myself, but this kid… nobody should be so heavy, at 15, that they break a desk just by sitting in it.  He’s drowning in self hate while also putting on a happy minstrel face for his friends.  He’s told me how much it hurts him, but he won’t stop.

Another student has physical and mental issues that could easily be solved by medication, but her parents won’t allow her to take the medicine, because they are afraid she’ll go to hell for taking medicines.  They control every aspect of her life, including not letting her go to school when they want to punish her.  She’s missed 54 days of school so far, out of the 100 we’ve had.  If she gets the medicine behind their backs, they’ll send her to Nicaragua to be controlled by relatives there.  We’re trying to help her, but there’s only so much we can do.

There’s the seemingly model student, who is clearly going through something pretty traumatic, but isn’t willing to talk about it with anyone, even though he admits he probably needs help.

And then there’s the kid who wrapped his car around a tree, and who over the weekend tried to kill himself in shame, and is now in a psych ward.  I’m not making that up.  My fiction isn’t that fucked up.

On top of all that, there are the kids who just hate school, and by extension teachers.  They complain no matter what, and they’ll tell you “Fuck you” to your face if you call them on any of their nonsense.

And through all this, we teachers have to keep going.  We’re expected to wear a neutral face, and be on-task and learning-oriented all the time.  We’re expected to smile and nod at ridiculous, utterly stupid comments from parents, take abuse from students, and be utter professionals when all we want to do sometimes is scream, or break down and cry.

In ten years, I’ve been very lucky not to have lost any students to death, but even the ones who don’t get expelled are often lost, even though they’re in class every day.  There’s just only so much we can do, especially in the face of dwindling resources, politicians who think our job is easy, and parents who are utter failures at raising their kids.

Frankly, it sucks.

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Revision: How A Book Gets Better

So, I’m pretty sure this is a good book that I’m writing.  I mean, I don’t know for sure that it’s publishable, especially in the current condition, but I know it’s at least almost there.

And it’s getting better.

I’m now in Chapter 3 of the revision pass.  Last night, I saw that I ended one scene with the character leaping onto a vehicle and heading off to pick someone up, and then in the next scene, I begin when he gets there.  In reading these scenes, I realized that there’s a problem, and it’s kind of a big one:  The character makes a life-changing decision in the space between scenes.

Well, that’s clearly not going to work.  So I started writing what Jim Butcher calls a “sequel,” that is, a quiet scene in which the character reacts emotionally to the previous scene, works through his possible options, and makes choices.  They also allow (and even encourage) the reader to connect emotionally to the character.

In the process, I added several hundred words.  And I’m not even finished, yet.

It’s this ability to easily insert the scene that is why I love Scrivener so much.  Sure, I could do the same thing in Word or some other word processing software, but the way that Scrivener makes it easy is really something, and it doesn’t require me to reformat anything, move any text, or anything other than insert the scene where I want it and write.

The most important thing about this, though, has nothing to do with the tool I’m using.  It’s that even recognizing the lack means that I’m getting better as a writer.

And that’s precious.  That’s what I got from Viable Paradise, and it’s why I’ll keep telling people to apply until the day VP stops happening (may that day never come!).

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RIP, Leonard Nimoy

Farewell, Spock.  As the New York Times is reporting, he passed away this morning.

Nimoy, and more specifically his alter-ego in Star Trek, was important to me as a kid. I had a TON of anger issues, and the Vulcan was an inspiration on how to control myself.

See, in the lore of Star Trek, Vulcans don’t actually lack emotion–they are, in fact, deeply emotional, but in a profoundly dangerous way, quick to act on negative emotions. In their history, a man arose who espoused a way to control these negative emotions.

To a kid suffering from massive anger issues, this was a good thing. Spock’s fictional example of controlling his emotions even while maintaining and cultivating deep and meaningful friendships with his fellow crew helped me to find a way to suppress my negative impulses, while not going “full robot” and suppressing ALL emotion.

Beyond that, Nimoy was a kind soul, and a good man, and the world is poorer for his passing. I’m glad I met him.

Nimoy dealt with his share of angst regarding his most famous role. He famously published his autobiography in the 1970s, titled I Am Not Spock, in which he lamented the shadow cast on his work by the famous character. Later in life, he published a second version, this time titled I Am Spock, in which he described coming to terms with the fact that he would be forever known for Spock, and accepting that it brought as much joy as irritation into his life.

RIP, Leonard Nimoy. You were far more than Spock.

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Revision Is a Beast With Too Many Teeth

So I began revising The Damn Book.

Damn this book.

I went into the revision process knowing I would have to jettison and rewrite one chapter that just didn’t work.  And I knew I wanted to insert a few “interludes” that would show what daily life in the Empire is like for humans.  What I didn’t expect was finding so many little details that just bother me, and need to be fixed.

I don’t know how other people do revision, but here’s my method:  I read through the story as if I was just reading for fun, find things I want to fix, and fixing them as I go.  It’s not the slowest thing in the world, but it isn’t the fastest, either.  I find myself constantly going back in the narrative, looking to make sure things are coherent, checking to make sure what I think is the standing reality of the story is actually making sense with what I did last week.

The one nagging problem I’ve got is that I’m wondering why I insisted on writing this in first person.  I think Book 2, should it come to be, will move beyond first person and start showing some of the other possible viewpoints.

The work proceeds, but it’s slow–less because of methodology and more because of life and work events that preclude writing time.  My wife is dealing with some debilitating pain from an unspecified cause, which means I’ve been handling more than my usual share of child-related responsibilities.

And of course there’s the day job.  I had been all caught up with grading, but I’ve gotten behind again, largely thanks to idiotic administrative decisions that have necessitated me doing the vast majority of scutwork I used to be able to delegate to student aides, leaving me less and less time for the rather intensive work of grading essays.

My goal at this point is to get this book finished before I leave for my Scotland trip, which gives me four months.  I should be able to do that, right?

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