Wednesday, March 11, 2020

When Life Imitates The Classroom

A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as a "worldwide spread" of a disease. The Center for Disease Control defines it as "an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting large numbers of people." An epidemic, by comparison, is "an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above that is normally expected." (This kind of shoots down the whole "but what about the flu" argument, but that's not what I wanted to write about.) But I know this for an assortment of reasons, the most significant being that just before winter break two weeks ago, I finished a unit on pandemics in my 12th grade English class. Despite the fact that it was the first time I'd ever done it and I created it from scratch, it was one of the best units I've ever taught. It was rough and needs some smoothing, but it was also wildly creepy. Because while we were talking and writing about pandemics in my classroom, there was a real one going on in the world. 

These are strange moments, but they have been remarkably satisfying. My students were kind of excited about the coronavirus. There's a feeling of "holy shit, I did some real teaching there....can I get an administrator to come evaluate me please??? I had students tell me that when family members talked about what was going on they were telling them basic information about how diseases like this are spread and that it's happened before here in the United States. (I'm sure they were a little clearer than what we heard on television tonight.) The basic theme of the unit was learning how to write informational texts in the APA style. Most of my students will likely wind up on a community college campus in the fall taking the requisite pschyes and sociologies with no idea how to write or cite them, so this was a crash course attempt at that. We read loads of informational texts about pandemics, several that sound a lot like what we're experiencing now. I've thought of a hundred ways to fix that the next time, but it worked well this time. We looked at "pandemic" fiction as well, folding in a healthy dose of zombie fiction into the mix. They read excerpts from THE STAND and WORLD WAR Z. These are books you should read (or not if you don't want to get scared about what's going on). 

WORLD WAR Z is intense, scary and unsettling, mostly because it's told as an oral history and that's scary as hell. I've never read a more troublesome book as THE STAND. What King does right in that book is incredible and life changing. What he does bad is so bad it makes you wonder how much coke he had snorted the day he wrote it. Both are terrifying because we are seeing the early beats of each novel unfolding before us and those of us with knowledge of fiction know where this is headed. The media battling one another over which information is more correct. Corrupt leaders, both public and private, taking advantage of the situation to grab power at any cost. Ill-prepared government response to a crisis because of either said corruption or just general ineptitude. (Or both in this case.) Zealots using this opportunity to sell their brand of crazy vodka (there's ALOT of H1N1 experts on social media today...and I was only checking my union's group page for some information, I'm still on a Lenten fast.) It's not hard to see why, some of us are starting to wonder when Captain Tripps is going to get us. 

These are things we talked about as story elements. As things that prop up in these types of story and how authors develop them into elements that express themes. We learned that the scariest type of horror fiction is the one that is not only plausible but possible. My students are still marveling that as we were learning about pandemics, a real one was happening right in front of our eyes and before we knew it, it was at our doorstep. And, they are scared, so every so often I have to take my teacher hat off and don the dad hat. Telling them to relax and that they just have to remain calm. Keep an even head. Wash your hands. Lay low for a while. It's not a hat I'm comfortable with in that setting. But being a teacher is all about wearing different hats. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Bad Luck

This afternoon, I had started writing something else. An exciting new project that will never see the light of day. Maybe it will under a nom de plume. I don't know. It's early in the writing project and it may turn out to be nothing. I just don't know. A major problem I've been having lately is that I might have too many project monkeys throwing poop at me right now. Unfortunately, I don't have the time, energy or concentration to work on just one. I supposed it's a good problem to have. Maybe the reason the reason I don't want to concentrate on one is that I don't want to finish anything. But that's a talk I want to have right now and not the reason I'm writing this piece tonight. I'm writing because of this post about good luck by my buddy Brian. Go read it. I'll wait. 

When I was in my late teens/early twenties, I was a basketcase. (Some would say very little has changed.) My mom would often lament, "If not for bad luck, you would have none." I bought into that idea and it became my "Dante's Lament" in those days. I wanted to believe it. And I did. But there was more than that.

I made a lot of bad decisions at this time in my life, but if I needed something to break right, it would break left. Every time. It was easy to blame bad luck. It was certainly easier than blaming myself for all the things I was doing wrong in my life. I felt like I couldn't even make the right decisions because I knew that whatever I decided, it was going to go wrong. Where Brian mentioned Polyanna, I compare it to Charlie Brown. I was good ol' Chuck and life was the football. Lucy was luck or fate or whatever you want to call it. yanking the football away just as I was about to kick it. So my philosophy became diving into wrong blindly with no regard. I don't know as if I've ever quite recovered from those days and they remain a dark spot on my history. One I dredge up more often than I care to admit. (It actually reared it ugly head this weekend.)

Looking back, which I loathe doing, was my bad decisions combined with my cautiousness that I've talked about before that led to my life being a hot mess. Luck had very little to do with it. I wasn't willing to take chances and preferred comfort. I shied away from risk and chances. It cost me dreams, but I'm not going to retread those now. 

Luck was an easy scapegoat. When things are going good, our own humility tells us that it's not our talent or skill, that's boasting, but luck. We won't take credit for our own success. When things are going bad, especially when we are making really, really bad decisions and we definitely don't want to take responsibility for those decisions, we blame it on bad luck. Maybe it's time we accept responsibility for our selves (Christ, that sounds Randian, doesn't it?). Or maybe, we make like Sky Masterson and let it roll.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Buying Books

Last week I had a little time to myself. A rarity to say the least, so I decided to take a ride out to my local Barnes and Noble. I had a wallet full of birthday money and I was looking to buy some books, in particular the new book by former 315er Marshall Ryan Maresca, THE FENMERE JOB. And maybe a few more of his books while I was there. I have a two of his already vast catalog, one on my Kindle and the other safely tucked away on my bookshelf.

I treated myself to a venti iced Chai and a salted toffee cookie (I only ate half). To my joy, I discovered that Starbucks (at least the ones in Barnes and Noble) don't use straws anymore. This seems to annoy a lot of people, but having to bring ones own bags to the grocery store and not getting straws doesn't seem like a big deal to me. But that's another blog post, not this one.

I walked around the store, disappointed to find they did not have the book and for a massive store filled with thousands and thousands of books, it felt like there wasn't a lot of selection. Sure there was an entire five shelf rack of GAME OF THRONES books and a shelf and a half of WHEEL OF TIME. Three racks of tie-in novels, mostly related to WARHAMMER. I was saddened that there was no more Dungeons and Dragons fiction on the shelf, a cornerstone of my education as a writer. I perused the young adult shelves where I was deluged with a wave of darkness. Every book cover was black or dark blue or gray with almost identical silver writing. It was dismal. Is it that the "grimdark" subgenre has worked it's way down to young adult and we've decided that there really is no hope? Or was I just being oversensitive? I walked the aisles, moving through the traditional and romance titles before making my way through history and eventually over to the kids section. Even the writing shelves were dominated by Stephen King and B&N's own writing books. I was bummed.

I wound up walking out with my remaining chai and half a cookie. And that's all. And that made me sad. Me walking out of a bookstore without a book is an absurd thought. And a sad one. Is it that it's just easier to hit the Buy It Now button on Amazon and get exactly what I want? That's a good question. Fear not, dear reader, I did not go on without getting Mr. Maresca's book. I contacted the only local, independent bookstore I know, The Golden Bee Bookshop in the village of Liverpool and had them order me a slew of his books for me. So I'm supporting an artist that I love and a local business as well. I encourage you to do the same.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Dueling Fate, So You Don't Have To

If you've paid attention to me at all, either here or any of my social networks, you know that I LOVE STAR WARS (wait until I get around to my #99Inspirations blog posts). It's no secret that I thought the SEQUEL TRILOGY was terrific and thought that what they did for the series was not only important but necessary. My frustration with a portion of the fandom has been evident. Actually, my frustration with most fandoms is pretty evident. Most fans suck. But that 's not what this post is about. This post is about STAR WARS. But I can't discuss the sequel trilogy without discussing fandom.

Much of the criticism laid at the feet of the sequel trilogy is rooted in something I see every day in my classroom. People, especially "fans," want EVERYTHING spoon fed to them. They don't want mystery or something to think about. They want to be told that this bird is the representation of character one, that bird means nothing and have the bad guy spend a minute (because longer than that is the 21st century equivalent of a Shakespearean soliloquy) explaining how he raised fifty dragons without anyone knowing about it. Fans are so tied up into the stupidest minutiae and trivia. They really are fun at parties when they explain how the hyperdrive on the Corellian blockade runner is different than a J-type 327 Nubian class. They complain that things just showed up without explanation. I'm seeing it now over every little thing in the sequel trilogy and it's vexing. Look, we didn't know where Anchorhead or Dantooine were or what half those crazy creatures in the cantina were in 1977. (Hell, we only knew it was a cantina because the associated material told us it was.) We didn't know what happened on Ord Mandell or what Jedi could actually do until Yoda showed us in 1980. The Battle of Tenaab still remains a mystery 37 years later and we hadn't heard of the Sarlaac until we were hovering over it with our heroes.

The other part of it is pure entitlement. But I wrote about that when I wrote about Game of Thrones last May. To sum up: YOU DON'T GET TO WRITE THE ENDING. If that's what you want to do, WRITE your own MULTI-BILLION dollar intellectual property. But that's from a previous rant, not this one. This is about Star Wars. EPISODE IX in particular and more specifically DUEL OF THE FATES

DUEL OF THE FATES was the working title of a previous draft of EPISODE IX written by Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly that was ultimately handed off to JJ Abrams and others to rewrite for an assorted of very Hollywood reasons. It was morphed into THE RISE OF SKYWALKER and here we are. A few weeks ago, the Treverrow script leaked and was dissected all across Al Gore's Intrawebs and people were claiming it as the "ending we deserved." I read some of the articles and reviews. I was skeptical. About a week ago, I managed to get my hands on a copy of the script. (Okay, sounds cooler than it is. I just kept Googling and checking Reddit.)

I'm not going to give you a blow by blow breakdown of the screenplay, but I assure you, it wasn't the ending we deserved. It wasn't any better than THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. I finished it and felt kind of...well...MEH. It had some cool moments, but at best it was as good as TROS and at worst it was really awful. Someone on Reddit (I know!) put it best: it exchanged one kind of fan service for another. It's a first draft dated 12/12/16. I ordered the Art of The Rise of Skywalker book and I know that will have notes on drafts and what not. I can't wait for that so I can see the evolution of the story.

I always felt one legit criticism of TROS was the pacing of the first half. If that is your major criticism of the movie yet you felt the DOTF was the "ending we deserved," pacing wasn't your concern. It was something else. I always felt that TROS should've been "Infinity War-ed" into two movies. DOTF doesn't change that. It's a similar pace.

Treverrow gave more for Rose to do and he made the Knights of Ren actually scary. Rose's exclusion is one of the great sins of TROS. Having Luke's Force Ghost "haunt" Kylo was a nice touch, adding a degree of growing madness to the character. There's a suggested romance between Rey and Poe that is as flat on the page as it would be on screen. The implied romantic triad of Finn-Poe-Rey works much better on screen. The ground battle in Treverrow's script would've been epic, but I'm not disappointed by TROS's ending. There's a "Dark Side" Yoda that just kind of sucks and serves no purpose. A lot of the "good" stuff in Trevorrow's script made it into the movie we saw on screen and a lot of the crap got cut out. And we're better off for it.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Chasing The Buzz

A few Fridays ago my kids came home from school, as they do and, like a good parent, I waited until Sunday night to go through their bags. I waded through graded worksheets and school notices that I already read online. At the bottom of the pile was something that sent my heart racing and filled me with warm, fuzzy feelings of joyous nostalgia. The Scholastic Book Catalog. Never has a half dozen or so stapled sheets of colored newsprint brought so much joy.

I get high just smelling the newsprint and ink.
There's a great meme making the rounds about how we're all just chasing the buzz of the Scholastic Book Fair. And it's true. How many great books did we discover thanks to those brightly colored pages, not to mention the hundreds of different ways we learned to make paper airplanes, much to the chagrin of our teachers. The thing was there was no judgement, no shame in what you liked. There was nothing like ordering the books, bringing the money back in sealed envelopes and then waiting weeks for the books to arrive. The excitement of being called up to the front of the class to get them and the triumph you felt bringing them back to your desk. We really are still hunting that high, aren't we?

For a long time I sat at my kitchen counter, thumbing through the catalog, seeing what my kids marked. Then I looked for what I wanted. It was still kind of exciting. Cooper wanted lots of stuff, including things that are a little over his head. But we've started reading chapter books at night now because he wants to read. Natalie is Harry Potter obsessed and her markings were all over the place, still heavy on graphic novels and books that bordered on young adult. There's a conversation to be had about "older" middle grade and "younger" young adult but now's not the time to have that conversation and I may not be the one to start it. Another thought danced with the nostalgia I was feeling. A dark feeling. Why weren't any of my books in there?

It's a terrible feeling to have. But that's all bitterness and nothing else. I decided to enjoy the buzz. I spend too much time in Dante Hicks mode, lamenting the bad luck and decisions I've made. I'm writing, working through ideas. One day, kids will catch a buzz off of one of my books in the Scholastic Book Catalog.

Friday, January 3, 2020

2019: The Year In Review (Sort Of): The Writing

It's the start of a new year and that means it's time for a new notebook and a fresh start. This time of year always makes me think of the last Calvin and Hobbes comic strip ever.

I wrote a long, meandering draft in my notebook looking back at what I wrote in 2019, but that's not making a fresh start. That's looking back and it's certainly not what a boy and his tiger are telling us to do, is it. So instead, let's look forward to 2020.

I'm excited about this year, as far as writing is concerned. 2020 is going to be all about ambition. I feel energized, excited and focused about what I want to do. I'm not setting goals the way I used to...I've learned that's not the best way for me to accomplish anything. Last year, I discovered a new metric to measure my writing. Time not words. I can't thanks Mike Headley for that! I wrote for a total of 342 hours. That's a little less than an hour a day. That's not too bad. But I can do better. I need to do better.

I've thought a lot about how I want to approach writing in the coming year. It's not as simple as saying I want to write X number of hours. It's more than that. I need to think about logistics first. I had a great conversation last weekend with my friend Brian and I told him that I need to set aside a time, each day, dedicated to just writing. Brian wakes every morning and does three pages, every day. He doesn't measure in time. I do. I need at least an hour a day, so that's a goal I'm, setting.

I'd love to sit here and say that it doesn't matter the hour, but I already know that's bullshit. If I don't tell myself that I need to write from 10-11 every night (I'm not a morning guy, so don't suggest 5am), I'm going to put it off and ignore it. So I need to dedicate that time. I don't know if it'll be 10-11, but we'll see. I do know that it's got to be a solid hour. Add that to random times when I can find time to write (students working, after the kids go to bed, volleyball clinics, etc.), I should be able to hit 500 hours this coming year. But that's not all I need to do this year when it comes to my writing time.

In years past I've made lists of what I'd like to write and that hasn't served me in the least. I'm not going to share it here. These will be my "main" projects while I'm going to "schedule" additional projects as well. I've recently become enamored with AO3. I have a complicated history with fancfic but I've been won over by AO3 and decided to use that site to sort of stretch my writing legs a bit. This last year, I also wrote some stuff that never really saw the light of day and I want to continuing to do that along with a few other smaller projects that I've discussed with a few people. I also want to blog more.

For now, 2020 writing goals are to write at least 500 hours in 2020, try to write every day, set up a dedicated time each day to write and set aside certain times during the week to work on AO3 projects, my never seeing the light project and my blog while working on main projects.

Let's roll 2020.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019: The Year In Review: The Reading

So here we are, on the precipice of a new year. Leftovers from Christmas are eaten, most of the mess of 5 minutes of joy has been cleaned up and put away. The last week I've been ridiculously unmotivated in my efforts to do just about anything. I had loads of plans, all of which were abandoned for lazily sitting around doing nothing constructive. I still have some time for this (writing) and that (reading and binging TV shows) and the other thing (school planning and an audit of some of my grades), but today is all about reflecting on the year that was. I've filled an entire composition notebook with my random ramblings. I'm pretty proud of that. I decided to save my writing post for the new notebook and post it tomorrow. For now, let's talk about what I read this year, so get out your Amazon gift cards and get ready to do some ordering.

As the year comes to a close, I've read 155 books. That's the most ever in a year. Thank audiobooks for a lot of that. I'm setting a goal of 120 for 2020, though I'm sure reading with Cooper and my string of graphic novels will bulk that number up. I'm going to start working through my bookshelf and knock out some of my epic fantasy series as I prep for my year of writing....but I'll get to that in my next post. This is about the reading.

Top read of 2019:

THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orlean: This book was incredible. After hearing Jeff Pearlman talk with Orlean on his podcast, I checked the book out of the library. It blew me away. I couldn't put it down. (I read it on the beach in Maryland.) Part true crime, part history of the LA library system, part love letter to libraries, it is all amazing. The chapter where Orlean describes the process of burning a book is truly one of the most amazing things I've ever read.


Other best reads of 2019:

  • WHY THEY CAN'T WRITE by John Warner: Holy crap, what a game changer. This book has completely changed the way that I look at the way I approach teaching. It's really made me rethink so much of what I'm doing in my classroom. 
  • THE ELECTRIC WAR by Mike Winchell: Mike is a friend and long time supporter. Even if he weren't, this book is outstanding. Mike takes a difficult and complicated time in history and weaves it into an actual story. Reminded me of Sheinken. I can't wait for the follow up. 
  • THE RISE AND FALL OF THE DINOSAURS by Stephen Brusatte: I can't believe that three of my best of books are non-fiction, but it was a weird year. This book was amazing. It turned millions of years of natural history into an exciting narrative. I was my 6 year old self seeing the T-Rex skeleton at the Museum of Natural History. 
  • FIRE AND BLOOD by George RR Martin: Not non-fiction but it read like non-fiction. It really showed the depth of the world that GRRM created for his classic novels. 
  • FOR THE KILLING OF KINGS by Howard Andrew Jones: My favorite fantasy of the year. A throwback to the 90s, this book was a rollicking, fun adventure that reminded me of my own writing. It's pretty easy to see why we were agent mates for a while considering the similarities in our work. 

Disappointments: THE EYES OF THE DRAGON, THE SONG OF SUSANNAH, DRAGONS OF THE HIGHLORD SKIES. THERE WILL COME A DARKNESS (to be fair, I thought this was good but I had extremely high expectations that it didn't meet).

Series I Finished:
  • THE DARK TOWER by Stephen King: Long, meandering and equal parts masterpiece and piece of garbage. At a get together this past November I had a long conversation with a super fan of the series that was thrilled to talk about it with me. I'm glad I finished it and experienced it. 
  • THE WINNER'S TRILOGY by Marie Rutkoski: Satisfying but flat ending to a series I really enjoyed. Relied a little too much on the "characters making stupid decisions for the sake of plot" trope at times, but it's still worth the read. 
  • THRONES AND BONES by Lou Anders: I wish that this series wasn't over because it's really great. I'd love to see the world book that I KNOW Anders has for it. 
  • SIN DU JOUR by Matt Wallace: A classic fantasy series that grew in epic-ness as it went on. Side note, the final three books of this series I read while sitting in the hospital with my dad as he had a growth moved from his brain. It helped, so thanks Matt. 
So that was 2019 in reading. Tomorrow I'll likely talk about my writing.