Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Ignorance is Anything but Bliss

Maybe it's me. Maybe my tolerance level is just much lower than usual. Maybe I'm just encountering more...less than intellectually scintillating people than normal as of late. 

I don't think it's me. 

Hard as it may be to grasp, but I think ignorance is on the upswing, and I think that's showing up on every level from personal to professional to global. I'm not saying this because I think I'm some kind of Mensa-qualified intellectual giant. I'm basing this statement entirely on events--some that I have witnessed and some we all have. Today has just been a benchmark day and really drove the situation home for me. 

Let me give you some examples. 

I'm one of those people who can upon occasion type faster than I  think. Not a slow thinker, just a very fast typist. People like me, with the gift/curse of 100 wpm, are the most likely to get involved in online spats. Surprising, actually, how insulting 140 characters or less can be under the right set of fingertips. That particular skill also can make you into a polarizing person. But I'm a writer. I *know* better than to get into flame wars. But sometimes they're just unavoidable. For example, if you want to get me really pissed off, insult my kids. Some *original phrase deleted* older gentleman whose previous attempts at insulting me consisted of "DUMB WOMAN" (that's a quote) saw a picture of me and my youngest daughter and posted on Twitter *spelling uncorrected* "Is she your lesban lovr? thats sick". 

She was 16 in the photo. Did not go over well. Why would he say that, you ask? Well, because I am a woman who loves sports, can discuss football knowledgeably, and calls up the same talk show he does to make actual points. So I called him homophobic and HE blocked ME for it! Reminded me of the time when I called out a blatant racist online, and his response was "I'm not a racist. And you spelled biggot (sp) wrong. It has two g's, like N*****R."


Yeah. Makes my head hurt still. Because I call the Paul Finebaum show, some butthead in Alabama throws out a homophobic slur at me--involving my own kid. 

Today I discovered that all Marines are trained killers. That's all. Just trained killers. Apparently, that is the only thing that defines the Marine Corps. Semper fi, indeed. And I am not capable of debating that because I am just a mother who never served (never mind the long military history of my family) and that I'm unintelligent because I write paranormal stuff (I don't write paranormal stuff) and weirdos like me probably think UFOs landed at Area 51. Always good to know. Did I mention that this particular *original phrase deleted* gentleman who made these statements self-identifies as a Marine?

Yeah. Take a couple of deep breaths. It might help. A Marine told me that all Marines are nothing but trained killers and that I, an American citizen, cannot refute that point because I am a mother and not a Marine. 

Nope. Breaths won't help. Shots might.

It's not just strangers online. A member of my husband's family told me once that the movie Gladiator was historically inaccurate. (Had to explain the concept of fiction to him) A neighbor whose tree fell on our house during a storm tried to claim that he shouldn't have to pay for damage or even remove the tree because it wasn't his fault our house was in the way and was, in fact, our fault because if we hadn't moved the car into the garage it would have broken the tree's fall and prevented the damage to the windows and doors on the front of the house. (Had to go through rudimentary gravity, wind velocity, and basic physics to him) And then there was the doctor who, before he ever examined me or looked at an x-ray of my injured spine, said, "Now if I had a magic pen that I could wave to make everything go away, things might be different. But you aren't hurt--you just want narcotics." even though in the x-ray I'd brought with me there was a blatantly obvious deformity (including a fracture) of my spine.

Don't get me wrong. We ALL say stupid stuff. I am guilty of the compound crime of hot temper/foot in mouth disease myself. And that typing faster than I think thing gets me into trouble if I hit send before I hit the brakes sometimes. Who hasn't sent something out into the world that they really wish wasn't lodged in the permanent memory card of the Internet?

Two word: sex tape. 

But outside of the microcosm of my little, unimportant world is the macrocosm of the world we share--and that's where ignorance snowballs into something ugly and dangerous. These petty examples of ignorance are symptoms, clues that lead us to the terrible realization that we're dealing with a national disease.

Right now in Baltimore, the National Guard has been mobilized to stop the ongoing and escalating violence--where ignorance, or maybe entitlement might be a better phrase--hones that ugly edge. For who in the world would think that protesting an obvious and tragic wrong justifies the type of behavior that's happening now? Do not mistake me here. I believe there is a viable and justifiable reason for communities in Baltimore to be outraged. But community outrage should never take the form or rampaging and random violence. Protest, yes. Loot the mall? Burn down businesses and homes? Torch cars? Get broadcast live nationally breaking into a liquor store and stealing the contents while claiming your actions are the responsibility of the authorities? Pretend that criminal behavior is a form of protest? Destroy the community you claim to be wanting to protect? 

What kind of protest involves stealing flat screen TVs and cell phones? Can you imagine what the great reformers of the American people would think of this? Can you imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. or Elizabeth Cady Stanton or David Thoreau's reactions to what is happening right now?

Tonight while Baltimore burns, the real outrage has to be that ignorance has eclipsed what should have happened today. Instead of using protest to initiate a real and necessary dialogue between the community and the authorities regarding the death of Freddie Gray, the relationship between the police and the citizens, and the alarming deterioration of race relations nationwide, the ignorance of people wholly uninvolved in the situation has led to a city overwhelmed by criminals and now about to be locked down by our own military. A tragedy has become a travesty, and the real issues are buried under a quagmire of horror. 

 The people who could affect any real, positive change in Baltimore are either holed up in their homes, or trying desperately to stop the rampage, like the courageous Nation of Islam folks who lined up and formed a non-violent human fence between rioters and police. Their voices will be drowned under the yells of the ignorant who are throwing bricks through windows or setting houses on fire, fueled no doubt by the booze they looted. 

And when, in future days, when the desperately needed dialogue begins, where will those rioters be? Not talking. Not trying to help. And for the most part, not being held responsible for their criminal behavior either. And they certainly will not be trying to find the right way to protest the tragedy that led to today's violence. 

My use of the word 'ignorance' was very deliberate. I realize that some might take that word the wrong way, particularly if they are determined to do so. Cultural ignorance has been claimed before. My French mother, whose Resistance-organizer father was shot dead in front of her as the Nazis fled from the Allied invasion, never forgave Germans--ANY German--for World War II. Any claim of 'but we didn't know' just enraged her. "How could you not know?" she sneered once at a dinner party, while all the rest of us squirmed. (Yes, I come by my temper naturally. I'm mild compared to her) "I was eight years old and living in France, and I knew that all you Nazis were burning Jews. You lived right there. You knew. You just didn't say it out loud. You didn't WANT to know." She was convinced that the German people were willfully and retroactively ignorant, and right or wrong nothing I or anyone else could say would change her mind. For a long time, I thought she was wrong. 

But lately I've started to wonder if such a thing as cultural ignorance was possible.  After Ferguson, I became convinced that it was not only possible, but epidemic. Just like a parent who turns away from their kid who pulls wings off birds and tortures dogs, we get shocked when our darling offspring turns into a serial killer. That's why on this spring day in Baltimore, I think we all see how dangerous ignorance can be if it goes on unchecked. 

The United States can no longer afford cultural, racial, or social ignorance. Ignorance is bankrupting us as a nation, as a people. Our country began with a dream of enlightenment, and sometimes, on days like today, it doesn't seem like we've met our promise. We, as individuals, have to accept our responsibility for contributing to a culture where the delusion is perpetuated that if we ignore a problem it'll somehow just go away. And just like we have to deal with the consequences if we hit send before we really think about what we're doing online, we are paying a heavy price now for all the looking the other way we did over the last few decades. 

If we had learned the lessons set by Watts or Kent State, we would not now be living through Ferguson and Baltimore. 

And we cannot address the ignorance of our society until we can acknowledge our own ignorance--and take personal responsibility for our actions that ensued. 

Bigot really only has one g. So does ignorance. Or ego. 

And guilt.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Spring Means...Kittens

Spring means different things to different people. For some people, it's about flowers and the days warming up. For others, it's baseball. In this house, it's football spring practice--and kittens. 

Yes, another spring, more kittens. Don't get me wrong--OUR cats are spayed \neutered. Well, except for Diablo, my polydactyl black cat. He's special. I rescued him three years ago as a wormy, flea-infested runt with six toes on each of his front paws. I will breed him at least a couple more times--polydactyl cats are lucky for us writers. So the spring influx of kittens isn't the result of negligence or lack of care in this house. No, We rescue abandoned litters and pregnant cats, and for the past couple of years people have been dumping their mistakes on our front porch. 

Last year, we had six momma cats and their litters left on our hands. This year, we had four momma cats. One was dead when I opened the box, curled around her litter of seven newborns like she'd tried to keep them warm to the very end. Two of those kittens died, but the other five I bottle fed and are now thriving. 

Usually, we've found homes for the kittens and kept the momma cats, getting them spayed and healthy. So we have lots of foster mommas for the abandoned litters, and that makes rescuing kittens a lot easier. All that being said, I have a hard time imagining that finding good homes will be easy this year. For one thing, we don't just 'give free to good home'. So many kittens end up as meals for snakes or bait in a dog fighting ring. We give these poor little things a lot of human interaction and care, and are emotionally invested in each baby we raise. So what we do is either charge $25 per kitten or defer that charge if we confirm that the new kitten's parents have made a vet appointment for their fuzzy baby. 

Funny how $25, which is substantially less than what we probably invest in each kitten, will deter animal cruelty. People who think nothing of spending hundreds of dollars on a reptile won't spend a dime on that snake's food. Last year some guy showed up in response to our 'free kittens' ad and wanted to take all of them. Since I know from a firsthand basis that no one wants an instant addition of 11 kittens to their home, I had no compunction in turning him away. 

How could anyone feed a snake a kitten? 


I have no idea, But they troll the want ads for those 'free to a good home' kittens.

So, we require people to prove they have a good home. That's all.  Personally, I think the only good snake is a pair of shoes. Maybe a purse or a belt. But not a final destination for a kitten I've nurtured from birth onward.

At any rate, this year I've decided to do things a little differently. For one thing, Shannon and I have been discussing building a catio for our feline family. We're already in the process of making a kitty wonderland in the basement, and a catio would benefit our geriatric cats in particular. We have six cats over the age of ten--Satan turned 15 last month--and those warm summer days would ease those old bones. Which, of course, means that we'll have to re-landscape out back to accommodate an access tunnel from the basement window, the deck, the pool, and my garden. Sounds like a lot of work. Good thing Shannon hates doing yard work or else this wouldn't be any fun at all. The first litter of kittens will be old enough to find forever homes in four weeks, so we'll need to knock that out fairly quickly. Fortunately, all those years of set building in theater will come in handy. I have an idea for a catio that can easily be expanded or moved but still provide security for the cats inside it. 

Even started a planter full of catnip they can roll around in. Maybe with a shrubbery--or two, to make a path (a path! a path!)--we can avoid the ignominy of a HERRING!

*The management would like to apologize for the Monty Python backslide. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog post*

And I think this year, I'm going to create a website that will come up in internet searches for folks in the area looking for a kitten. I'll post pictures of the kittens and some character traits and as each kitten gets a new home, I'll take that picture down. 

One of these days, if we win the lottery, I'd love to buy a huge plot of land in the country and create a permanent no-kill shelter and adoption center. That would be a wonderful addition to one's life story. But until then, as long as irresponsible people get cats and don't give them veterinary care, or keep them from situation where kittens could be created, I have a feeling that those cretins will continue to dump their problems on my front porch. So every spring, most likely, we'll have kittens to hand rear. When you help a kitten into the world, when you clean it up and give it to its mother, when you bottle feed it when it's so tiny it can fit in the palm of your hand, you're creating a human bond with that little life. Hand-reared cats trust humans. They like to be held, to play, to cuddle. They are well-behaved and reciprocate the affection they are shown. Anyone who's been to our house knows that when the front door opens, the cats big and small all run to the door to greet whoever comes in. And these kittens will do the same, because all they've ever known is human kindness--despite the fact that they were abandoned by humans when the snow was deep and the temperature low. 

So in the Summers household, spring means...kittens. That's all for now--those litter boxes won't change themselves, and there's an itty bitty kitten looking up at me from the nest with her siblings to let me know that it's time for her bottle.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Revelations and Revisionism, Mythology and History

One of the great things about being an author is the ability to choose any story you want to tell, whether you're fictionalizing a great event in history or creating the most fanciful fantasy or developing a love story that resounds with everyone that reads it. I'm working on a project right now called Revisionist--I'll tell a bit about it in a minute. First, though, I want to share a few revelations I've had in the past week about revisionism and Revisionist and the people who revise things. 

I love the SyFy channel. I'm an unabashed fan of several of their shows--Dominion and Defiance are great, Ghost Hunters I've been watching for years, and Face Off is a tie to the theater life I loved and now miss. But when SyFy makes a goof, they really make a big one. Their new show Olympus is an example of what I'm talking about. 

I know more about Greco-Roman mythology than just about anyone in the universe. In fact, I was a state and national champion in Mythology at Junior Classical League conventions when I was in high school, and my first fantasy series The Asphodel Cycle was a blend of traditional Greco-Roman mythology with standard epic fantasy elements. One thing I've learned as a writer with a strong classical background is that you can't "improve" the original. Clash of the Titans is a good example of this. Perseus didn't ride Pegasus the flying horse--Bellerophon did. In fact, Pegasus was born after Perseus cut off Medusa's head--for when her blood met the waters of the ocean (ie Poseidon), the god's spirit impregnated Medusa's essence and *poof!* Winged horse. 

And there's no such thing as a mechanical owl named Bubo perched upon Athena's shoulder. 

So--Olympus. I was excited that SyFy was doing a show based upon mythology, but last night when the premiere came on I was horrified within the first couple of minutes. Why? Because the Cyclops had one eye--which is mythologically accurate--but that eye was in his MOUTH. Why the change? Because a giant immortal with a single eye isn't scary enough? And think about the logistics of it. If the Cyclops's eye in in his mouth, then can he not see unless he's shouting? And what about eating? Is it really a good idea for a creature's only eye to be right there with his teeth? Not to mention the ewwwwwwwwww factor. It's just nasty. 

I could go on and on about the other "improvements" that wrecked Olympus, but that would be my longest post ever. I won't do that to you. Suffice it to say that about the only similarity between Olympus and Greco-Roman mythology are some character names and a few of the costumes. And that got me thinking: why the need for the changes in the first place? Mythology is full of amazing and relatively unknown creative elements that supersede almost anything since. 

I know what you're thinking. And I quote: My first fantasy series The Asphodel Cycle was a blend of traditional Greco-Roman mythology with standard epic fantasy elements. 

Yep. But I didn't change the basic elements of mythology. Instead, I built upon them as a foundation--made mythology into history. Asphodel has Amazons and centaurs and minotaurs and harpies and tons of other mythological creatures, but I didn't try to "improve" them. Instead, I kept their mythological roots intact. How do you figure you can make a harpy more terrifying than it actually is? A harpy is basically a bird of prey with a woman's face, what Homer called "swift robbers". They were sent by the gods to snatch things away from the earth, and were blamed for any sudden, mysterious disappearances, and anything they touched they befouled. So when a mortal named Phineus revealed some of the secrets of the gods, Zeus sent the harpies to punish him. Anytime he tried to eat, they would snatch food from his hands and befouled--yes, harpy poop and other various bodily fluids--everything else on the table. 

I'm pretty sick, but I can't think of a way to make THAT any worse. 

All that being said, as writers it's important for us to make the stories we tell our own. So I'm not saying that any story based upon Greco-Roman mythology has to be a regurgitated version of the original myths. For example--the Percy Jackson & The Olympians YA series. Author Rick Riordan brings Greco-Roman mythology into the modern age, creating a protagonist, Percy, who is the demigod son of Poseidon and a modern, mortal woman. The way Riordan drew Percy and his world up, it's very much in the line of classic Greek or Roman heroic tales. Percy's powers and abilities would work easily with those original tales. He's credible; as a son of Poseidon, for example, it's believable that he would be able to breathe underwater or talk with sea creatures. But what really makes the world and character work is the seamless integration of classical mythology and modern fantasy. Riordan doesn't "improve" mythology. He embraces it in such a way as to enhance not only those stories but the world he's created.

Something I wish the writers of Olympus had done, instead of serving us such a confused, ass-backwards mishmash of crap and loosely labeling it as mythology--and it's a lesson for me, one I learned as I work on my newest project, Revisionist.

We've all heard of revisionist history--when a people or a state change what really happened into something that bolsters their current agenda, like when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that the holocaust never happened, calling it an American fabrication of a "myth of the massacre of Jews." My Revisionist concept is a bit more specific. I focus on the story that might have happened if one single historical event had been changed. For example, what if JFK hadn't been assassinated? Or what if Issac Newton had decided not to sit under a tree? Or if Benjamin Franklin had been electrocuted when he flew a kite in a thunderstorm? What would change? What would stay the same? What different routes would history have taken from that pivotal moment?

Sir John Squire collected a series of alternate history essays in 1931 entitled If It Had Happened Otherwise. That volume included an essay by Winston Churchill that envisioned a world in which General Robert E. Lee had won the battle of Gettysburg, and that in turn influenced Ward Moore's Bring The Jubilee, a novel in which the Confederacy had won the Civil War in 1953. So alternate history has been around for a while, and my idea is neither new nor groundbreaking.

And alternate history is hard to write. You can't effectively change history without having a thorough knowledge of what really happened. For example, if JFK hadn't been shot and killed, what would have been affected? Well the 1964 presidential election for starters, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964--would it have been pushed through as vigorously as Lyndon Johnson did, or would the JFK administration have gotten it passed earlier? Or later? Or at all? Would Robert Kennedy have been assassinated? Or would he have been elected president in 1968, or would he have pushed back his run for the White House until 1972 or '76? One of the main reasons he cited for running was to continue his older brother's work. So if his older brother had lived to get his agenda completed or if he'd been unable to do so, when would Bobby Kennedy have felt the need to run? And how many subsequent presidents would have actually held office if that one fateful day in Dallas had never happened?

If a butterfly flaps its wings in Ohio, can that cause a typhoon in the south Pacific?

So Revisionist begins with that butterfly, and tracks the currents of history from there. The concept is intriguing to me, and because I'm studying the historical events on my particular timeline so thoroughly I am discovering all sorts of things I never knew before which is always good. I'm having to trace out my storyline adjacent the historical one, determine what events would have happened regardless and what might have been changed, and then tracing out the effects of the events that were changed and so forth. It can get very involved. I have long strips of butcher paper up on the walls of my study, where I'm plotting everything out. But it's also fascinating because I have to make sure that any changes I make to history occur in such a way that they can be seamlessly integrated with what really happened in that time period and after.

But the lesson I learned from Olympus was extremely valuable. I don't need to "improve" history. I don't need to make such wholesale changes to what we know as historical fact in order to tell a great story. I don't need to make JFK a Republican, or Issac Newton a spelunker, or the Civil War decided at Gettysburg with the swift defeat of damn Yankees to tell the stories I might want to tell in an alternate history novel. As long as I make the integration between history and fiction as smooth and credible as possible, I don't have to "improve" anything.

And man, do I wish the creators of Olympus and the SyFy channel had been able to learn that lesson before they ever put Olympus on the air.

What's that? What is the tiny change I make in the first Revisionist novel?  *evil grin* I'm not going to tell you.

But the working title of the novel is The Mother's War.