This weekend, most of RivalCastia is celebrating a Monday holiday. Those in the UK are enjoying the vaguely named "Spring Bank Holiday," which is generally celebrated on the last Monday in May as a secular replacement for the old late-May holiday of Whit Monday. These holidays tend to be just taking a day to rest, though in the village of Brockworth, the townsfolk traditionally participate in a race which involves rolling large pieces of cheese down a steep hill and chasing after them. Readers can learn more about the competition at the event's official web site, though with the caution that the entire site is written in Comic Sans and thus difficult for this author to take seriously. Here in the States, we also celebrate a holiday for final Monday in May, though ours is for more somber reasons. Memorial Day is meant to honor those who died while serving in the U.S. military. Despite what ignorant Facebook re-posts might tell you, this is not to be confused with Veteran's Day, which is celebrated in November to honor the living U.S. veterans for their service to our country, nor with Labor Day, which is celebrated in September and has nothing to do with the military whatsoever. Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day, and evolved from a number of local springtime tributes held for the dead of the U.S. Civil War. During World War I, the scope was expanded to honor the American military members who died in all wars. The day is typically celebrated by decorating the graves of deceased military personnel and holding parades, many of which feature active military as well as members of veterans organizations. This is also a time where many American families hold picnics and barbeques. To help remind Americans of the true meaning of the day, in 2000 the National Moment of Remembrance resolution passed, asking that at 3 PM local time, Americans "voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of Remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence."
It's been one of those weeks, writing-wise. Hell, let's be honest, it's been one of those weeks life-wise, too. The ones where you start quite a bit - snippet here, paragraph there - of a bunch of different projects, but can't get your thoughts together long enough on any one thing to see something through to its completion. They'll all get there at some point. Just not necessarily this week. Part of the reason is that in my various roles, both at Rivalcast and in my day job, it is widely understood/assumed that I am In Charge; that is, I have a track record of responsible behaviors and knowing where to find things to Get Shit Done, and therefore must be able to do anything at any time with a certain level of competence and panache. This is a dangerous assumption and one that I try to minimize whenever possible, because being In Charge naturally leads people to assume I Have Answers and thus come to me with all kinds of problems I am most assuredly not qualified to handle. People come to me with situations and are pleased because I seem to be taking time and thinking, but honestly, most of those thoughts are trying to control the panic over figuring out what can possibly be done and why the person is coming to me in the first place. Pull a few rabbits out of your hat and people begin to think you're a magician. And those are the easy ones.
It was a gorgeous spring day for my last community college visit of the semester. The atrium where the college reps tables were set up skirted a student art exposition showcasing their work for the semester - excellent, because I'd have the double bonus of increased traffic for my visit and get a more interesting focal point for my people watching. My assigned table was at the end of the atrium, directly across from the station where students of the sketch classes were doing free portraits of festival goers. It should have, by my estimation, been a very busy morning, so I wasn't even upset that my laptop battery drained itself in the first couple of hours trying to connect to the wifi. It was here things started to go astray. Without the distractions of paperwork, my brain focused on the (increasingly loud) conversations of the students nearest me. One in particular stuck out - a first-year, dressed in expensive designer Bohemian look clothes, who was spending more time talking about how she was being persecuted and punished for, in her words, being a "full-out 100% lesbian" (or, alternately, gushing about the attractiveness of Chris Evans. Yeah.) than she was actually sketching. We'll refer to her as "Tortured Artist" for reasons which will soon become clear. When a same-sex couple sat down at her easel to have their portrait done together, I got to learn more about Tortured Artist's perceived notions of herself than I'd think appropriate in an academic setting. The "persecution" part was her own words, though her examples of this persecution were among the most laughably first-world problems I'd ever personally witnessed: Her father was punishing her by not buying her the new car she wanted, but a different one instead (her presumably straight sister got to pick her own car). Tortured Artist was being persecuted for her art by her fellow students - they just didn't understand her work (never mind that of the pieces I saw, it was truly awful). She loudly described, in vivid detail, her embarrassment the first time she took a girlfriend home to meet her parents and they didn't embrace her choice as openly and readily as she wanted (it sounded to me like they weren't disapproving of their daughter's choice, but confused about the Chris Evans thing, too). The piece de resistance, however, was how at the beginning of the conversation this girl's mother was an ally, but by the end she, too, had apparently bought her ticket on the persecution train via the inexcusable sin of purchasing Tortured Artist's organic something or other snack from Giant Eagle, a local grocery chain, rather than from Whole Foods Market. The bitch.
It is April, 2006. I am nestled in one of the many crevices in the basement of the old math building, a colored pencil behind each ear as I furiously count tiny boxes. I'm modelling a number of different rule sets based around Conway's Game of Life - given a row of cells in one of two states (colored or uncolored), the state of the cells in the next iteration are determined by a set of rules that show what the cell's state will be based upon the conditions of the neighboring cells. These types of models, called cellular automata, show how simple rules lead to much more complex patterns over a large number of iterations. Except my current model isn't showing a pattern, and I am concerned now that I've made a mistake somewhere, but I can't see it. Leaning on the wall across from me, my algebra professor is amused by the mess of notepads and pencil shavings spilling out into the hall. "You know," he says as he heads back to his office, "MATLAB would make those iterations so much easier on you." He grins as he walks off. "You're not helping." I'm being teased, and I know it. It's well known how much I hate having to do things in the lab. I need to see how each line, each step of the process works to be able to visualize and understand how things work. The programs don't show their work, and if I get an unexpected result, I have no way of figuring out exactly why. It also doesn't help that any time I touch a machine in our lab, it immediately freezes, and if I try to reboot it makes the problem worse. I just looked at one of the machines earlier - didn't even touch it - and immediately got the spinny beach ball of death. If that weren't frustrating enough, the previous day we also had our group meeting with our supervising professor for our teaching experience, which had gone so amazingly awful that I'd immediately gone to my faculty advisor to talk about switching majors... four years into my program. This in turn led to a screaming fit with my then-fiancee, which led to my not sleeping, which segued into a decision to drive to campus early with the aforementioned colored pencils and graph paper to work on my models in peace.
I should probably have mentioned in my last post that AP is going to be posting on alternating weeks for a bit while I'm finishing Agents of Arachnos (final episode May 6!), prepping stuff for the summer writing program, and editing a new long-term story for you to enjoy (the hype train will be boarding soon). Add to this the fact that all of us staffers have full time day jobs while we moonlight at our fledgling media empire and, well, it's amazing we get anything done at all.
I only wish the books I fall asleep in could be this soft and fluffy (photo: ThinkGeek)
You can usually tell my frame of mind by a combination of two things: whether I'm stuck in my writing, and whether or not I'm behind in my issues of mental_floss. Snags on one or the other from time to time aren't cause for being overly concerned - everyone has a busy spell from time to time - but a combination of both for an extended period of time means we're dancing into dangerous territory. The particular snag, in this case, involves the ending of a certain story run we've been posting over the last year. When I plotted out the initial story arc back in January 2015, I had Baron's storyline completely sketched out, complete with an explosively dramatic finale. I was pleased with this, my plan was for the story to run on the website through Christmas time and then go into edit mode for release as an ebook in summer time. The ebook would have added content and any revisions we wanted. Yes, I was totally and publicly beta testing a book to via the RCM community. I'm pretty sure most people wouldn't think to do that, but then, I'm not most people. In spite of the workload, things moved along wonderfully...until we got down to the final few chapters, and I realized I had never written an action sequence like the kind I needed to end this story. And I panicked, because I had no idea how to even begin and I really, REALLY didn't want to screw things up like I did with my prior story. Allow me to explain:
I had an epiphany today. As I went to get my passport renewed, I was reflecting on a conversation I'd had with my mother the week prior. Of course, when I say 'conversation' in this case what I really mean is 'borderline argument," because I made the mistake of explaining I was going to get the aforementioned passport and she considers this to be a veiled threat. There's always been this odd duality in our relationship. On one hand, she's proud of my accomplishments and has said that of her three children, she's always worried about me the least. On the other hand, any time I mention travelling anywhere or the possibility of an opportunity that would potentially cause me to move, she is immediately against even entertaining the idea and will immediately launch into a guilt-laden monologue delivered in the way only mothers can. Most center on how she is convinced that should I actually move forward on such a possibility that I would be throwing away everything I'd worked for up to that point. Not to mention I'd be abandoning everyone I professed to love and would never see them again. Ever.
A long time ago, I came across an old proverb which has since turned into a sort of personal mantra: Those who tell the stories rule the world. It's a powerful idea, and a truthful one. Shane Snow did an amazing TEDx talk on this in 2014 where he talks about the reasons why storytelling is so important. We use stories to entertain, of course - books, movies, plays, many video games, and so on are story driven - but we also use them to teach concepts, to sell ideas, and to tap into emotions. Stories help make things memorable. In his book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Jerome Bruner noted that stories are about twenty-two times more memorable than facts alone. But why? Because stories, especially (supposedly) true stories, make us care. They spark emotion. They help us to build connections not just to the people in the stories, but also to each other, which in turn forges relationships that change how we see ourselves and each other and the world around us. If you enjoyed history, or even if you didn't, chances are that you remember some events that happened before your time because of their stories. People with religious or spiritual bents learn their philosophies not from a set of cut-and-dried rules, but the stories and parables that teach that particular way of life. "Ah," you might say, "but what about the Ten Commandments? Those are pretty cut and dry." Perhaps, but people generally don't memorize the rules on their own; what gives the Commandments power is the story that goes along with it. Moses hiking up a mountain and coming back down with some rules etched literally in stone doesn't really provide much encouragement to follow said rules, but Moses coming down with the rules and a story about how God himself personally gave him these rules and told him that the people needed to change their ways OR ELSE certainly packed a bit more of a punch. Toss in a golden cow and you've got yourself something that will stick in the minds of your faithful flock.
The scene is a late summer afternoon in 1991. I am seven years old, standing in my grandparents' living room and feeling rather pleased with myself, even though I am in trouble. On my feet are my brand-new school shoes, shoes that we had to visit a half a dozen stores to find because I was insistent that I would not wear anything else. This was exasperating for my grandmother - my siblings' requests for sneakers featuring Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Little Mermaid were fairly easy to accommodate, my demands for pink-and-white leather saddle shoes were not. They were also willing to compromise; Barbie and Batman gear were acceptable alternatives in their school wish-list, but I remained steadfast in what I wanted. Now I stood in the middle of the room in a little sliver of mid-afternoon sunshine coming through the window, admiring the pretty grey shadow pattern Gram's lace window sheers cast on the pink leather uppers. The reason I am inside is because now that I've gotten the shoes, I'm absolutely refusing to take them off. They were a prize hard won, and I want to savor the victory. This has led to a silent standoff between my grandmother and me, which is in turn interrupting the tranquility of my grandfather's Sunday afternoon. His favorite radio program is being disrupted jointly by Gram smacking pans around in the kitchen as she makes Sunday dinner, and me in the adjoining living room smacking into furniture as I perform a clumsy twirl around the coffee table (I'm not supposed to be doing that, either, because of problems in my inner ear throwing my equilibrium off, but I like watching my skirts swirl and quite frankly, it's fun). Papa is positioned in the doorway separating us, a neutral party trying to keep peace between two headstrong personalities, when a Glenn Miller number comes over the radio. As I accidentally backhand a plant (catching it, thankfully, without Gram seeing), inspiration strikes. "Gert!" he calls to Gram. "Turn it up a little. Sis, come here. If you're going to dance, you should at least know a few steps."
In my hometown in Pennsylvania, on a ridge overlooking the main boulevard, sits a copse of ancient pines that block the glare of the city lights from the old mansions sitting above. Positioned between the auxiliary parking used by the local college campus to its north and just off of a well-used sidewalk to the south, it is surrounded by various shrubberies and flower beds the local garden club has staggered down the side of the steep ridge, an oasis of green and color in the middle of a busy intersection. From there, you could see all of downtown, most of the residential neighborhoods tucked around the hills, and all the way off to the lone tree marking the edge of a farmer's field miles away. For someone the right size, the copse made a perfectly comfortable place to work, offered an interesting viewpoint, and had that rare property of affording complete privacy while being smack in the middle of everything. It was a secret in the middle of a town that held few, a place to observe while remaining unobserved. It was my favorite place to write. And then I made the mistake of sharing it with someone else.