By any other name

anonymous

I came across a blog post in my Twitter feed the other day that asked one’s opinion on pen names.  When I first got started online back in the early aughts, the mere thought of using my own name was verboten.  OMG, went the reasoned analysis, what if they don’t like what I’m saying about the newest Bond movie and find out where I live?  And it wasn’t even like I was trolling or otherwise comporting myself like an ass and inviting that kind of retribution.  My name was a part of my identity I didn’t want to give up to the nebulous strangers on the other side of the AOL dial-up connection (yep, I’m that much of a fossil).  Even when I started my first, short-lived blog in 2006, it was under the pretext of absolute anonymity.  I wasn’t in the greatest of places emotionally at the time and it seems, reflecting on it now, that I wanted somewhere I could vent without thought of consequence.  To tell the world what to go do with itself and flee, like deliberately passing gas in an elevator and hopping off at the very next floor.  In retrospect, a paper diary would have been preferable.  Unfortunately I have long lost the ability to log into that old site, and it still lurks online like a scrawl of graffiti on the last lingering pockmarked concrete wall of a long-demolished building (link not included for obvious reasons).  It’s a good reminder to me, though, of the misguided approach I once had.  If you are reaching out and hoping for connection, you have to provide something tangible for the other to connect back to.  An open hand won’t embrace a forbidding fist.

Interacting online, even under our own name and image, is still much like creating a character for an audience, and it is fascinating to see how quickly impressions become entrenched based only on a few facts.  Moreover, it is equally as compelling to see the level of trust that is offered through those impressions, which speaks fondly to those who keep faith in an innate human goodness.  Because we have no reason to believe, at all, that the character we’re seeing is genuine, that it isn’t a flight of someone’s fancy.  Who is Graham Milne, truly?  For many of you, he’s just the words and images that appear here and on Twitter and The Huffington Post.  He is only knowable to a certain degree, that degree being what he chooses to share or, perhaps more importantly, not share.  And yet, he is still me.  I didn’t make him up.  WYSIWYG, as the tech guys put it.  You can trust me on this one.  It’s simply easier to be truthful online because I’ve never been good at lying.  It’s easier to be empathetic to others because I don’t fancy putting those others down, nor being thought of as a bastard.  It’s easier to be me because that’s the role I was made for and I already know all the lines.

At the same time, there is a curiosity, morbid perhaps, as to what it would feel like to cut loose and lash out, to playact as one of those people who trashes everyone and everything that doesn’t align with his narrow worldview.  We all have those moments where we want to break the self-imposed identity bonds and run the @#$@ away, not that more than a few of us ever do.  One can see the appeal of authors who have been pigeonholed in one genre choosing to write under assumed names to jettison the preconceptions of their fans; of why J.K. Rowling had to become Robert Galbraith to write The Cuckoo’s Calling.  I certainly don’t enjoy the idea of being boxed in.  My first novel is a fantasy, but as much as I enjoy playing in that sandbox, I don’t necessarily want to write fantasy my entire life.  Assuming (hopefully – queries are ongoing) it gets published and garners some admirers, will they want to follow me when I venture into sci-fi, or political thrillers, or YA love stories, or musicals about beings made of cotton candy who just want to eat root vegetables?  What is the nature and what are the limits of the contract with my projected image of myself that I offer in exchange for a few moments of your time?  Am I expected to always be the same old Graham, and how far along the rickety, windblown tree limb can I expect you to follow me?  Will you hold onto me when it snaps and we both fall down?

It is not to suggest that there is an element of bravery to using your real name in your writing and your online interactions somehow lacking in those who prefer to remain anonymous when they publish.  Instead, it goes back to that question of what part we want in the play, if all the world is indeed a stage.  I suspect most of us are comfortable with what we’ve got because we don’t need to Method Act ourselves into someone else’s skin.  When we allow ourselves to show, when we expose our vulnerable spot, it’s a risk, absolutely – but the connections we’ll find as a result will be more lasting.  We won’t even question clinging to each other when that bough breaks.  We’ll find, to our delight, that we’re both wearing parachutes.

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The scale of Schadenfreude

bieber

It’s a difficult thing to admit your mistakes.  Even more so when admitting them is an acknowledgement that you are not in all ways the evolved, progressive, compassionate thinker you fancy yourself to be.  Truthfully, it’s never a state you should consider final; it’s a level to which you should continue to aspire in each moment.  The instant you get complacent about it is the instant you begin to backslide.  But I find myself wrestling with this in light of having read Amanda Palmer’s post about Justin Bieber.  If you haven’t looked at it yet, you should, and you should also note my friend Ksenia Anske’s top-rated comment.  Without question there has been an Internet-wide pile-on given the Biebs’ spate of recent misdeeds – if there were such a thing as schadenfreude overload, we’d be teetering precipitously on the brink.  As Amanda says, we don’t have to sympathize with or condone how he’s behaving – far from it – but at the same time, we don’t have to erupt with mirth and glee at his failures as if they provide justification for our existing dislike of him.  If we want to pretend we’re better than he is, sharing photoshopped memes of Bieber subjected to prison rape is hardly the way to do it.

Social media has propelled water cooler conversations into the public sphere.  Where we once just chatted about the news with our family, friends and colleagues in casual encounters over coffees, now our opinions are projected via digital loudspeaker for the entire world’s indulgence, whether wanted or not.  With this ability has come a new compulsion to weigh in on everything (I’m not unaware of the irony here).  Politics, sports, literature, entertainment, global warming, theories of parenting and what we really think of the guy at the post office counter are all fodder for discussion, reflection and ultimately, massive amplification.  Spurred by the appetite we perceive out there for our opinion, we try to top ourselves with outrageousness, to grab our share of the increasingly limited human attention span.  Whose hilarious “Bieber Sucks” comment will be retweeted and favorited the most?  It’s a game for the insecure, a race to the bottom of a well of validation for the basest instincts we possess.  And it is a depressingly seductive game at that – quick to sweep one up in the fervor of the fleeting moment.

In The West Wing episode “Bartlet for America,” we find a troubling discussion of the limits to empathy.  John Spencer’s Leo McGarry is an alcoholic and drug addict who has been sober for about a decade and finds himself having to confront an occasion when he relapsed.  You can only be forgiven so many times for the same thing, McGarry suggests.  There comes a moment, it seems, when the Rubicon is crossed and we no longer see the human being, but only the sin, with the possibility of redemption lost.  Look at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford – a man with ongoing substance abuse problems, who, enabled by his brother and a sense of entitlement, refuses to seek treatment or even acknowledge that there is anything wrong with him, instead turning his enmity outward at what comes off as the cast of a paranoid’s conspiracy:  chattering intellectuals who can’t abide the idea of him wearing Toronto’s chain of office.  The week the infamous “crack video” was confirmed, Ford became the subject of a biting takedown on Saturday Night Live and ongoing fodder for comedians and talk show hosts.  Where does he compare with Justin Bieber?  Is Ford a more or a less tragic case?  Is he held to a different standard because he is a politician?  Are they both considered, in a way, to be role models who have let their admirers down?  Is that the magic trigger, the idea that there was an implicit contract, that they owed us a certain standard and now they’ve reneged on it?  At what point is it deemed “okay” to ignore the soul and engage the satire?  Where is the line, and how do we know when we’ve passed it?

It’s not difficult, if you try, to empathize with Justin Bieber, with the soul behind the façade.  Ksenia points out in her comment that we do stupid things in our adolescence; it’s part of the deal.  The vast majority enjoy the privilege of not having a worldwide lens pointed at us while we do it.  Bieber was fed into the fame machine when he was still struggling to figure himself out, I’d argue not entirely of his own free will, but chiefly through the questionable machinations of parents too eager to live failed dreams through their offspring.  He’s suddenly gifted with millions of admirers and dollars, and surrounded day and night by sycophants eager to praise even his bowel movements as the Second Coming.  He cannot move, cannot make a simple comment without it being dissected by countless professional op-eds and layperson critics.  (On Twitter, Bieber’s most innocuous statements – “good morning” even – get shared over a hundred thousand times, and replied to with an equal number of requests for marriage.)  Faux pas in a moment of weakness that you or I could laugh off with our significant other instead foretell the end of civilization.  How does living in that scrutiny day to day not go to your head?  How do you not wake up one morning realizing that despite having everything you could ever imagine you’re still desperately unhappy, and wanting to tell the world to piss off, to prove to it through a series of immature and even illegal antics that you’re not as wonderful as these legions of obsessive fangirls think you are?  That someone as terrible as you think – nay, you know you are – doesn’t deserve admiration or even attention.  How do you like me now, bitches, you can imagine his thoughts screaming at him as he tore drunkenly down the streets of Miami in the middle of the night.  How did he feel then?  As much as the world might revel in hating Justin Bieber right now, we can assume it doesn’t come close to equaling the hatred he feels, deep down, for himself.

The argument back is always, he doesn’t have to stay in the public eye, he could walk away.  Maybe that’s true.  I don’t believe Justin Bieber thinks he has that option.  There are too many other vested interests, depending on his album and merchandise sales to fund the purchase of their own Ferraris and country club memberships, to ever let him go.  He is a mere cog now, mandated to grind out one drywall-deep pop song after another until his star fades away and he ends up on a “Whatever Happened To…” special, or dead of an overdose, whichever comes first.  He is the puppet dancing for the amusement of millions, and because he’s flubbed the steps we’ve turned on him with a vengeance.  One or two slipups might have been okay, but he’s obviously passed that point with society where continued empathy is possible.  He has transitioned from person to punchline.  And I guess that last point is what interests me the most in this conversation.  When do we get the societal OK to commence the attack?  What defines what makes one person an incorrigible miscreant worthy of our collective hatred and another a poor kid who just messed up?

It is as if there is a scale of schadenfreude, from the most unimpeachably virtuous saints ensconced at the top, forever undeserving of slight, to I don’t know, Hitler, one supposes, at the very bottom, where it’s always acceptable to dump endless reserves of scorn and mockery, and to find suffering and fault laughable.  Everyone else falls somewhere in between, and there’s a line below which you’re a legitimate target and above which you can still garner your fellow human beings’ empathy.  The location of that line remains a matter of personal opinion and choice, for forgiveness is for the most part, as “Bartlet for America” posits, not a renewable resource.

I made Justin Bieber jokes in private and in public, I bemoaned the notion that his celebrity status and wealth made it likely he would not receive much in the way of punishment for his illegal behavior, I belittled the judgment of those who set this irresponsible kid on a pedestal and yes, in the moment, I was glad to see him knocked off it.  What does that make me, though?  I’ve reflected on it since reading Amanda’s thoughts and Ksenia’s response, and I’ve realized that what it doesn’t make me is better.  My life and my standing are not ameliorated by crapping over the misfortunes of a famous stranger.

Schadenfreude means “shameful joy,” emphasis on the first word.  And even the religious notion of hell is predicated on the idea that it’s comforting to the living to know that evildoers are being punished without end in a horrible place – schadenfreude taken to a supernatural degree.  But believing that doesn’t change our lives, nor does it provide us any true comfort.  We can agree that what Justin Bieber did in Miami was illegal, dangerous and endangered lives.  We can agree that we don’t like his music or how he comports himself or having to see his face on every product under the sun.  We can agree that he is no role model or someone to be emulated in any way.  What we don’t have to do is cast stones at him with reckless abandon in the expectation that “that’ll learn him.”

When we become a person who is quick to mock and slow to try to comprehend, what we’re really doing is presenting ourselves to the world as fundamentally not a very pleasant sort, and pushing ourselves down that dreaded scale.  Before you know it, one day we’ll tumble below the critical line and find ourselves on the receiving end of the world’s outrage.  The problem with being so down on that scale is that it’s too far to pull yourself back up, and moreover, no one’s going to want to throw you a rope – unless it’s to hang yourself with.

Long live the Queen

elsa2

Amy Good kicks off today’s musings with her thoughtful post about the challenge in writing supernaturally empowered characters.  While it’s important reading for anyone crafting a story that includes such elements (guilty), it got me thinking again about Frozen and what a pivotal moment for the cinematic portrayal of women the character of Queen Elsa actually is.  You’ll forgive the inklings of hyperbole creeping into that statement, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.  (For additional insightful reading on Frozen and its depiction of women, be sure to check out Emmie Mears’ take at Searching For SuperwomenDebbie Vega’s at Moon in Gemini and Liz Hawksworth’s at The Stretch for Something Beautiful.)  I touched on this briefly in my original take on the movie, written the evening after I saw it, but as the movie has sloshed around my subconscious for the last several weeks, and I’ve listened to “Let It Go” more times than should be healthy, I’ve realized that there’s a lot more here worth exploring in greater detail, and some of these other great posts have crystallized – pardon the obvious pun – my thinking on the subject.

To delve more deeply into this character, we have to go back to her long-simmering genesis.  Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen has been around since 1845, and Walt Disney himself had long wanted to give the classic tale the animated treatment.  The stumbling block was always the title character, how to create a compelling version of her that would give modern audiences something to sink their teeth into, and several attempts fell by the wayside and were abandoned.  Even as the movie finally got underway in the latter half of the 2000’s, the story team still couldn’t crack the Queen.  The first stroke of inspiration involved making her the sister of the protagonist, Anna.  The second, and indeed the masterstroke, was in stripping Elsa of her villainy.  If you look at some of the original character concepts (just Google it, there are too many hyperlinks in this post already), Elsa was going to be your tired and typical wicked witch, with Anna presumably forced to fight and ruefully defeat her.  And then, so the legend has it, the songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez brought a draft of Elsa’s anthem “Let It Go” to the producers – planned originally as a “look how eeeeevil I am” strut in the vein of similar ditties belted out by Disney villains past.  Of course, that’s not what the Lopezes delivered.  “Let It Go” is a triumphant refrain of self-realization, not something you’d hear from the lips of Ursula, Gaston, Jafar, Scar or any of the Disney baddies that had come before.  Surely, then, Elsa could remain a good person, grappling with her own fears of who she’s become, and figuring out a way to integrate all the parts of her soul into a complete and confident being.  And to give that arc to a woman with magical powers is a blast of fresh Arctic air.  Full marks to screenwriter/co-director Jennifer Lee.

The wicked witch is one of the most regrettable archetypes in literature, because it originates from a fundamental place of (male) discomfort with the idea of powerful women.  We dudes have to face it and deal – women are always going to have powers that we don’t.  They can bear children, i.e. create life; short of bad Arnold Schwarzenegger comedies we’re forever out of luck on that one.  To be completely candid and even a little NC-17, women can arouse us physically in a way we can’t really reciprocate.  And even more to the point, we will never figure them out, no matter how long we spend in their company, how many writings of theirs we read, how many times we beat our heads against the wall when they do something completely unexpected and seemingly out of character.  They’re piercingly right with that old refrain – we just don’t understand.  We won’t.  And everyone knows what the typical human reaction is to something we don’t understand.

I recall reading once that the biggest driver of the persecution of witches in medieval Europe was that era’s version of the American Medical Association, that is, the assorted doctors of the time who were peeved that women were doing better at healing the sick with herbs and other natural lore than they were with the presumably university-endorsed “leech and bleed” treatment.  Invoking a mistranslated Bible verse and calling every second woman a witch was, to them, simply an effective way of eliminating the competition in the medical field.  To say nothing of how many other men probably hurled the charge when an innocent woman failed to return their romantic advances.  The witch became a catchall for everything men didn’t like about the opposite gender, and slithered her way into the darkest pages of the fairy tales that endure to this day.  Always out to cause mischief and throw up barriers to true love and occasionally eat a child or two.

To be fair, Disney’s earliest animated efforts did little to dispel this archetype.  Snow White had the Evil Queen, Sleeping Beauty had Maleficent, both characters of tremendous power, beauty and irredeemable evil (noteworthy that Maleficent’s name comes from the Latin maleficium, which means “wrongdoing.”)  We also had the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and a long, verging on infinite line of fantasy films both sumptuous and cheap featuring scantily-clad and/or hideous magical ladies waylaying our heroes with a combination of spells and wiles and cackling laughter, leading up to Tilda Swinton’s White Witch in the Narnia series, Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman, and Mila Kunis’ Theodora and Rachel Weisz’s Evanora in Oz: The Great and Powerful.  Such an easy path to tread for screenwriters half-assing their way through a script assignment.  What is the usual fate of these legions of empowered women?  Death.  Depowering and humiliation from time to time, but usually death.  It’s what they get for stepping outside the natural order, for interfering with the cause of love and freedom, baby.  When it’s at the hands of a man with a sword, the metaphor becomes even more painfully obvious.  Man conquering the unremitting darkness that is woman with his you-know-what.  Cue the Viagra ads.

In Frozen, Elsa’s cryokinetic powers are vast, verging on goddess-level.  We’re not just talking a blast of ice cubes here and there.  She blankets an entire kingdom in an eternal winter.  In the “Let It Go” sequence, she builds a stunning palace of ice with a few waves of her hand and stamps of her feet.  She can defend herself easily against a squad of armed men, and most importantly, she can create life.  With a mere flicker of her magic she conjures Olaf the snowman, an autonomous being with his own unique personality, and also her hulking hench-monster Marshmallow (who, if you stayed till the end of the credits, proves he has a softer side as well.)  To my recollection, the last time a female character as powerful as Elsa appeared on screen was 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand.  Like Elsa, Jean Grey in that movie was a woman born with incredible abilities she couldn’t control, and also like Elsa, attempted to live within constraints placed upon her by men, until her powers eventually exploded and injured those she cared most about.  Of course, how did that all work out?  Predictably, Jean turned evil, disintegrated a bunch of people, and had to be put out of her misery by a man with metal claws (more below-the-belt symbolism), after she begged him to kill her.  Impaled through the cold, dark heart just like the wicked witch deserves.

Frozen does not end with Elsa being saved or murdered by a man, or losing her powers.  It ends, ironically, with Elsa becoming even more powerful – gaining strength from her sister’s love and learning to thaw what she has frozen.  Achieving a balance and serenity within herself.  One of the most delightful little moments from the end of the movie is watching Elsa create a skating rink for her subjects and them having fun with it, because it signifies that she hasn’t had to sacrifice what makes her special to find acceptance from the outside world.  In her review, Debbie mentioned that some critics of the movie have suggested that Elsa should have had a love interest.  I can’t think of anything that would have so wrecked the essential message.  A woman’s journey to realizing her power is one she has to take on her own, without some barrel-chested dingus patting her hand and telling her “there, there.”  Ultimately, Anna’s sacrifice was about showing Elsa she needed to love herself, and that she could, because her sister would always have her back.  I can’t see that having worked as well or resonated as deeply if Anna was Andy.

What is Frozen telling us menfolk, then?  That a powerful woman isn’t someone we should fear, or try to cage.  That she isn’t someone we need to conquer or subdue in any way.  That we do best to help her figure out who she is and the extent of what she can do by staying the @#$@ out of her way.  And that the greatest thing we can do when she uses that power is cheer.

Save the father, save the world

mrbanks

“Winds in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewin’, about to begin… Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen, all happened before.”

First uttered on screen by Dick Van Dyke in 1964, those words are whispered again by the unlikely voice of Colin Farrell as Saving Mr. Banks begins, over vistas of turn-of-the-last-century Australia and the dream-lost face of the young Helen Goff, who will grow up to become author P.L. Travers and the creator of Mary Poppins.  In short order we leap forward from the idyll to early 1960’s England, where the adult Travers (Emma Thompson) remains, after 20 years of attempts by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to purchase the film rights from her, stubborn in her determination to avoid having her beloved creation bowdlerized by uncouth Americans who don’t seem to understand what the story is about, or, more importantly, what it means to her.  Drawn in for the moment by the allure of some much-needed funds, Travers agrees to fly to Los Angeles to work with the creative team on the screenplay for Mary Poppins – “work with” meaning shoot down almost every single idea – while resisting Disney’s personal charm offensive.   The unstoppable force meets the immovable object, and as the movie proceeds along two time-separated narratives, we see the girl trying to save her treasured father from his deterioration, and the woman fighting to preserve his memory from people she thinks are only interested in exploiting it for the sake of a mediocre cartoon.

Much like the movie whose conception it depicts, there are no villains in Saving Mr. Banks; only goodhearted people attempting to do the right thing, whether it is Farrell as Travers’ father reacting to every setback with a twinkle in his eye and spring in his step, or the increasingly exasperated but always smiling screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) struggling to meet the impossible conditions put forth by the uncooperative Travers during interminable meetings.  Particularly touching is the relationship that develops between Travers and her sunny limo driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti); while first treating him as an ill-informed Yankee, she comes to see him as a true friend, and is inspired to pass along to Ralph’s physically challenged daughter the proof that disabilities are not the same thing as limitations.  But misunderstandings abound, naturally, and this is probably the first screenplay in the history of Hollywood where the crisis point at the end of the second act involves whether or not penguins are to be animated.  (As an aside, it’s also the first screenplay to my knowledge where a character utters my last name:  checking into her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel only to find it’s been filled with Disney stuffed animals as welcome gifts, Travers shoves aside a Winnie the Pooh and grumbles “Ugh, A.A. Milne.”  I – what’s the expression – fangirl squeed?)

I’m a sucker for movies about Hollywood, particularly old Hollywood, and the attention to detail in recreating the feel of the Disney production offices (and Disneyland itself) of the early 60’s is impeccable.  The performances, especially Thompson’s, are elegant, the cinematography is lush, and the score is full of life and hope.  Magic exudes from each frame.  But despite the central conflict between Travers’ obstinacy and Disney’s persistence that is the focus of the trailers, the movie is about fathers, and the complex relationships we continue to have with them long after they are gone.  That is where Saving Mr. Banks packs its most powerful emotional punch.  Like Hamlet, the ghost of the father looms in every scene – Travers Goff, the man who helped the young “Ginty” unlock her imagination and set her on the path to becoming a storyteller, honored posthumously in her choice of surname for her writing career.  Befuddled by the author’s seemingly irrelevant demands on the script, articulated by frustrated Bob Sherman who pointedly queries, “What does it matter?”, Walt Disney initially misses the mark, thinking that Mary Poppins comes to save the children.  We have the benefit of hindsight, having watched, dozens of times, David Tomlinson as George Banks evolve from curmudgeonly drone to a man full of life and wonder and joy.  The children don’t even say goodbye to Mary Poppins when she leaves, but they don’t have to, as her spirit has found a new home in their own dear father.  Late in Saving Mr. Banks, Disney relates to Travers a tale of his own upbringing in wintry Missouri and of his difficult relationship with his hard-driving father Elias, and the two creative forces finally find their connection – a shared desire to redeem the old man.

Being someone’s child is taking on the responsibility of their legacy, willing or not.  In the movie, Ginty cannot understand why her beloved father is falling apart before her eyes, and she struggles to help him preserve his happiness and his dignity, even where her efforts are unintentionally harmful.  In creating the character of George Banks, P.L. Travers wanted (the movie posits, at least) to give her father the happy ending he could never find for himself.  When she sees him depicted on screen, and when she experiences the joy of the audience in watching him triumph, she weeps.  My father died when I was 11, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a significant portion of why I do what I do is trying to ensure that his name is regarded in perpetuity as highly as I think it should be – the same name (though different family) P.L. Travers mouths onscreen.  He was the person I experienced stories with.  Reading to me, and with me, taking me to the movies, kindling a lifelong love of narrative and of imagination and promise lying within pages and celluloid.  He used to let me borrow his handheld dictaphone so I could record my own imaginary episodes of The A-Team (don’t ask).  He’d let me fill LP-sized floppy disks from his office computer full of chapters of an unfinished attempted novel about a boy and his racehorse.   And though he died long before I ever began to take writing seriously, every time I sit down at the keyboard I’m hoping that it will turn out to be something he would have liked, that he would have boasted to his friends and colleagues about.  (Knowing him, he’d boast about it even if it was an illiterate pile of tripe.)  And perhaps, beneath the veil of different characters in settings far removed from that available to a small-town attorney, I’m trying to give him his happy ending too.  In the theater, I felt in my soul that primal need of Travers to do right by her dad.  To save him.  And a tear escaped my eye as it did hers.

For too short a time, they’re our whole world.  Eventually, our chances to talk with them are gone, to ask them questions that never would have occurred to us while they were alive, questions we thought we’d have time for someday.  When we were sharing a beer after staining the back deck together on a hot Sunday afternoon.  When we were tossing the football back and forth between three generations upon park grass touched with the first autumn frost.  Those scenarios aren’t possible now, so we try to replicate them in fiction.  We forge characters who ask the questions we can’t, and let them seek their answers, secure as we type that they will reach their destination and achieve the closure that eludes us.  When the stake is so personal, we comprehend why P.L. Travers did not want to give Mary Poppins up.  Mary wasn’t a character, she was a mission.  So was Mickey Mouse for Walt Disney.  It’s not easy to abdicate such a soulful responsibility, to hand over a legacy.  I wouldn’t be the first to volunteer for that, would you?  However, there may come a time when I’m willing to let go, to share the father I knew with a world that deserves to know him the way I did.  I can only hope that it’s in a manner as befitting as Mary Poppins, or Saving Mr. Banks.

“Winds in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewin’, about to begin… Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen, all happened before.”

The WordPress (Non-Dysfunctional) Family Award

family

Happy 2014 everyone!  And what better way to start it off than being recognized by an incredibly talented peer?  The lovely Nillu Stelter nominated me for the WordPress Family Award.  So many people to thank:  my agent, my lawyer, my manager, my agent’s lawyer, my lawyer’s agent, my manager’s lawyer, my lawyer’s manager, the incredible electrical crews and the guy who gets me my blueberry danish every morning.  Free Tibet!  Okay, on a serious note, I am deeply grateful, and it reinforces the truth that when you put goodwill out into the world, it comes rushing back to you in a wave.  I admire Nillu’s talent for being able to pack a novel’s worth of emotion and imagery into her short pieces, and you should absolutely check them out instead of wasting your time here listening to me pontificate on whatever bee crawled into my bonnet this morning.

Accepting the award mandates that you nominate six other bloggers you feel are deserving of the honor – people who have been welcoming and encouraging in your blogging efforts.  Ironically, Nillu herself nominated several of the folks that I would have included on my list.  Rather than re-nominating them, I’ll bestow upon them honorable mentions instead:  Rachael Spellman, Drew Chial, Jessica West and Amira Makansi, and defer to Nillu’s excellent encapsulations.  I also want to give shoutouts to two bloggers whose work and whose virtual friendships I treasure but who aren’t on WordPress so they technically don’t qualify:  Ksenia Anske and Heather Archuletta.  Heather’s site is a bit different from the rest as she writes about all things NASA and space exploration, and about her experiences as a “pillownaut,” i.e. a participant in NASA’s bed rest studies, which simulate the effects of low gravity on the human body over long periods of time.  It’s a whole area of space science I knew nothing about until I met her on Twitter, and it’s quite fascinating.  And she’s a fan of all things Star Trek as well, so, well worth your while.  Ksenia you probably know about already, so no sense retreading the obvious, other than letting you know that she just began writing her literary novel Irkadura two days ago and banged out an incredible four and a half chapters in a single sitting.  Something to think about the next time you’re lacking motivation.

Introductions out of the way, let’s move on to my list:

East Bay Writer – EBW merits a special place as she was the first WordPress blogger I really “connected” with when I started doing this back in 2011.  Absent the magical “Freshly Pressed” designation that points a massive spotlight on you out of the gate, you really do have to do the work and crawl your way out of the anonymous cellar in what is essentially complete darkness, fumbling for a grip and swinging wildly until you catch hold.  I’ll always be grateful to EBW for extending her hand and letting me know someone out there in the wilderness gave a damn.

Tania Monaco – tania2atee – I first met Tania in 1999 when we both enrolled in the “Crafting a Novel” class taught by the next person down on my list, and we were part of a critique group that grew out of that class and continued for several years.  Her feedback helped to shape the novel I tinkered with for way too long before finally growing the spine needed to submit it to agents (ongoing as we type), and I’ll never forget one comment in particular she made that was manna for a man trying to write a book from a woman’s perspective:  “How do you know what we’re thinking?”  Tania blogs about parenting her two young children and her posts about favorite songs are always a treat.

Lynda Simmons – I Love a Parade – My first creative writing teacher (at least, the first who wasn’t also trying to teach me to write essays about long-dead English novelists), a family friend from way back, and a by turns witty and poignant novelist whose book Island Girl is a rending story about a woman struggling to put her family back together before the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease claim her memory and indeed her very soul.  The woman who told me to my chagrin to ditch the 400,000-words-and-counting pile of rambles that wasn’t going anywhere and start something fresh and new.  Everything that followed is essentially her fault, so address your angry comments to the address in the link.  Just kidding.  Thank you Lynda, for so much.

Andrea Montgomery – My Simple Desires – Andrea doesn’t blog nearly enough, so my ulterior motive in nominating her is to try and give her a little nudge of inspiration.  She again is someone I have the fortune to know personally, and to envy from time to time since writing is her day job, as a communications professional.  There is a joyful touch to her blog posts which I’m finding myself missing, so, here’s hoping she gets back to it soon.

Tele Aadsen – Hooked – One woman at sea, trolling for truth, and what a beautiful journey it is.  Like EBW, Tele was one of my first “blog friends” on WordPress and it has been a privilege to read this amazing woman’s words these past years.  Taking a sabbatical from her career in fishing off the Alaskan coast, she is currently in a writer’s residency at the North Cascades Institute in Washington and working on her memoir, also entitled Hooked, to be published by Riverhead Books.  Cannot wait to hold a signed copy of that in my hands.  Reading Tele’s posts or seeing her comments on my own site are like a chat with an old friend, the kind with whom you can pick up like it’s only been a day even though months and months have passed.

And finally, the sixth blog on my list:  yours.  Yes, yours.  You, reading this right now – not the person next to you, you there.  Maybe I’ve stopped by yours in the past, maybe I haven’t.  But the fact that you’re doing it makes you a part of a family you may not even know you had.  You’re part of a tradition dating back to the first scratches on cave walls and extending far beyond the limits of our mortal shells.  We’re the reason our species has a history to remember, and dreams of the future to pursue.  We are writers, and whether we are read by millions or only a select few, we are each leaving our imprint upon a complex universe that is often difficult to understand.  Each book, each article, each post, even each thoughtful Twitter musing is a small step towards solving the greatest puzzle of all.  What does it mean to be us?  Choosing to enter into that conversation earns you a place at the table.  Welcome, friend; pull up a chair, pour yourself a drink and tell me a story.  Tell me what you think of mine.  And let’s create a new one together – as a family.