Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Neurotic isn't Psychotic

Years ago my daughter wrote her first novel during the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an annual novel writing project held in November. She was thirteen or fourteen at the time. She was proud, and rightly so. Not many people write the novel they have floating around in their heads (and that's probably a good thing). Just finishing a novel is a great accomplishment.
I read her novel and had one major complaint - her heroine was psychotic. When I told her that (as nicely as I could), I think I crushed her spirit. This wouldn't be the first time I crushed the spirit of an aspiring author - I did the same sort of thing to my youngest brother a decade ago. I don't mean to do this. They both write well, and I enjoy much of the prose they put on paper. I just see flaws - and for the first things that a young writer puts to paper, that is simply a reality. Expect the flaws and keep writing.
I was wrong about my daughter's heroine, though. Psychotic characters have disconnects with reality and hallucinations. My daughter's heroine was neurotic, where the person is fully capable, but plagued by various physical and mental disturbances. Apparently heroes and heroines have to be neurotic for the book to be a best-seller.
Of course, I'm referring to the currently popular Hunger Games. When Darling and I read the books we concluded that Katniss was certainly a neurotic main character, but the author made it work, and work well. In the movie they did a good job of toning down the angst-laden Katniss and her conflicting internal motivations, which (to me) made it a more enjoyable film.
It will be more difficult to do that when the next two books are made into movies. I sincerely hope they succeed.
I started thinking about some of my favorite main characters, and realized that, to some degree, my most heroic and memorable main characters all tend to be neurotic, at least to a point.
Oh, it's easy to point at a villain and their behavior and shudder at the evil they do, and then analyze the deep psychological motivations that caused them to turn to the dark side. We even have some villains we begin to cheer for when they overcome these internal drivers. Darth Vader is the perfect example. (If you haven't seen all the movies, I apologize for spoiling the ending.) They are rare, though.
Take a look at Batman, one of my favorite heroes. We can all acknowledge that he is a broken man, driven by internal demons and unable to lead a normal life. He is called The Dark Knight for good reason. Aquaman? His hatred of surface-dwellers drove him insane. My favorite in the DC world is Superman, and he tends a little toward the neurotic also. Honestly, I think without Lois Lane he would just leave the planet or hide in his Fortress of Solitude. Of all the DC heroes, though, he seems the most heroic. Except for Barry Allen, my favorite Flash, but that's another story.
In the Marvel world you don't even need to hunt for neurotic heroes. Iron Man? Well, aside from the fact that being a hero drove the man to drink, to lose the woman he (should have) loved, and that he retreated from normal life - well, that's the point, isn't it? Thor? He's a Norse god struggling to be more human. There's stress for you. Let's not even talk about Hawkeye, who struggles with his own brand of conflicts, mostly involving women, both good and bad. Captain America is a man out of time, but he probably isn't neurotic, just tends toward brooding. The Hulk - okay, that's a given. Black Widow kicks butt and takes names, but can't focus on her own life at all. There's probably some man-hatred going on there, too. It isn't coincidental that I list all the heroes from the upcoming movie The Avengers.
What makes the neurotic hero different from the neurotic/psychotic villain? The villain wants to use his/her powers to subjugate the human race and take over the world, to encapsulate and simplify the concepts from hundreds of stories. The hero wants to use his/her powers to free people. Well, that's not entirely accurate. The hero is there to defeat the villain. Without the villain, there really isn't much of a story.
Try to Take over the World!
So do we have to be neurotic to want to right wrongs, to go beyond our normal abilities and try to rectify the evils we see around us?
I don't know. That's probably another post too.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Lessons from the New iPad

1. If it ain't broke, don't fix it
The new iPad is almost the same footprint as the iPad 2. The battery life remains about the same, which is an astounding eight to nine hours of use (outside of intense graphic games). Apple realized they have a good thing. They didn't change what worked well.

2. You can't please everyone, but you sure can please a lot of people.
The new iPad has the retina display, which every pundit expected. There were a lot of items expected that didn't materialize, but Apple made up for that by giving more than expected in a lot of categories. The new software combined with the new graphics isn't considered a huge technological leap forward, but it still puts Apple far ahead of other competitors.
3. If you don't want people to open it up and monkey with it, then build it like a brick.
There are no user serviceable parts on the new iPad (just like previous versions). By all accounts, if it breaks you are not going to fix it on the kitchen table with a set of screwdrivers.
4. Don't toss out a successful product line.
You can still get the iPad 2 instead of the new iPad. This decision expands the choices for people across a broad economic spectrum. For a lot of people, those who don't need bleeding-edge tablet graphics, the version 2 is more than enough, and now at a pretty good price point.
5. Once your product line is established, quit using version numbers.
The iMac machines have all been called iMac for years. There are different model numbers, different speeds, different screen sizes and different internal configurations. Essentially, however, they remain the same excellent machine for the user. Don't bother telling me that I have version 42 of the machine. Let the technician figure that out. All I need is the family name.
Of course the PC world has been doing that for decades now. Glad Apple joined in.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Six Lessons from Saint Patrick

March 17 is the historical date of the death of Saint Patrick, patron Saint of Ireland. The life of this amazing Saint can give us a few lessons, even today.
Make the Best of Circumstance
Captured in his mid-teens (various scholars sate age sixteen or eighteen) Patrick was a slave in Ireland for over six years. During that time he learned to speak the language, and, presumably, became acquainted with the local people and customs. He might have languished for years bemoaning his fate, but he didn't. He didn't choose this path for his life, but he made the best of it.
Be True to Your Roots
Possibly this lesson is really "Do what you know" but since St. Patrick isn't around for us to interview, we have to choose on our own.
St. Patrick's father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest (don't ask me how that works, but it must have been different for priests back then). Essentially he was raised in a family of great faith and states in his letter Confessio that he prayed every day that he was held captive.
This deserves further study
Follow your Dreams
A Dream caused Patrick to run away from his master in Ireland and head for the coast, where the dream said a boat awaited him. He could have hesitated, thinking there was too much risk if he failed, too far to travel to the coast, too much effort involved. Instead he escaped and headed off to the coast. What amazes me is that this young man, in his early twenties, quite obviously an escaped slave, managed to find passage on a boat back to his home.
Another Dream caused Patrick to seek the priesthood and return to spread the gospel in Ireland. St. Patrick wanted to go to free the people who once held him captive. That is beyond my human understanding.
Be as Kind to Family as to Friends
By all accounts, St. Patrick performed many miracles of healing. He didn't limit this to strangers and possible converts, though. Annals record that St. Patrick also healed a number of cows that belonged to his aunt, his foster father and raised his sister from the dead (or healed her mortal head wound, depending on the record).
He healed many, many others as well, but it is obvious he didn't neglect his family. Another thought on that: he was close enough to family to be able to heal them. So even though he was in Ireland, some of his family must have gone with him.
This has nothing to do with the blog

Place Your Trust in God
Obviously St. Patrick trusted God in all things in his life. Through his faith he converted many Irish people and created over 300 churches.
According to legend, many of the Irish leaders came after St. Patrick to kill him. In one story, an Irish chieftain came toward him and was unable to lift his sword arm to strike a death blow to the Saint. As the chieftain's heart softened toward Patrick, the arm was healed.
Remember the Simple Things
St. Patrick is famous for his piety and simplicity. He used the humble shamrock and its three leaves as an example of the Holy Trinity. How easy it would be to overlook such a small clover!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Wonderland, Wardrobes and Worlds

Since Darling feels so badly lately we took some time off from television and movies and I read the dystopian Hunger Games Trilogy to her. I actually started reading that when she went in for her biopsy, early in this cancer saga. Having heard high praise for the series, I decided it would make good reading material. The Hunger Games was a bad choice. Though it is a great story, reading about piles of delicacies while Darling was awaiting tests, having fasted for twenty hours or so, was a definite miscalculation on my part.
Still, we thoroughly enjoyed the series, and followed it up with the five-book Overlander series by the same author, Suzanne Collins .
Both these stories made me wonder what it is that creates a compelling adventure for the reader. What elements must we, as authors, include to entice them to turn page after page, to spend hard-earned money on the written word?
On the surface these books are not that similar. Written for young adults, though, you can see that the main character is younger than most. Like in the C.S Lewis The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series, a young reader can find a comfortable match with at least one of the main characters. That's important. We need to have a main character that the reader can relate to. If a reader can't directly relate to the character, they have to wish they could be the character. There is nothing profound in that discovery.
As I've always taught (given the chance) the main characters are thrust into situations where their principles are compromised and they must reconcile the conflict, both externally and internally. At the end of the story the protagonist must grow into someone greater than they were at the beginning of the story. There is almost always an element of "coming of age" involved in a good tale, regardless of the age of the character or the audience.
Redemption is a good element. I'm not sure what I mean by that, but to go to the brink of your own demise and come back as a better version of yourself - well, that can make a good story. If you lose yourself, it might still be a good story, but it becomes a tragedy.
A lot of good stories take us to a different world. With Gregor the Overlander we went to a world beneath New York City, separated by an almost magical barrier from his own world. With C.S. Lewis the characters are transported through a wardrobe or other magical means. With Katniss, the world is similar enough to our own that we can see the likeness, the dim reflection of the shadow of an alternate reality. The world of Panem is different; Katniss does not start or return to a world similar to ours. Still, we are given a strong mechanism to use in a story: start the reader in their own world and whisk them away to another. Burroughs does that with John Carter, Pellucidar and even with Tarzan. (Though I love the books by Burroughs, his main characters tend to be too complete and perfect right from the start.)
Now that I think about it, there isn't anything profound about that discovery either. Very few stories keep us in our own world, but they must have a link, a compatibility with the world we live in.

I canned pickles, jalapenos and serrano peppers the other day. I expect great things from them in about three weeks, and I'll let you know, either in a new post or in the comment. The cucumbers and peppers were fresh (a few days old perhaps) from a local Farmer's market.
That was a different world, and I really liked it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Seven Lessons From Strawberries

I learned a lot of lessons from strawberries.
Timing is critical. We can eat strawberries any time of the year here in the US. I guess they grow them all the time in California and ship them everywhere. However, there's something about fresh-picked, vine-ripened-in-the-spring-sunshine strawberries that stands apart. The sharp tang when you bite into one that isn't quite ripe. The sugary sweetness biting into one that is just past its prime, but not by much. Then there is the perfect blend of tart and sweet when you bite into a strawberry that is at its peak, picked at the pinnacle of perfection for that berry, for that vine, for that spring.
The best are hidden. Though it is not always true, some of the best strawberries are hidden under the leaves of the plant, usually plump and supported by the runners the plants send out. You have to move the leaves to spot them, but when you see them, you know it. The bright red surface of the berries gleam in the revealing light, and they have a glow that draws your eye to them.
How they smell tells you if they are good. Not all strawberries are tasty. Some look good, but are bland. That's the case with most hot-house strawberries, which is why I don't often eat store-bought ones. Some might look good on one side but are rotten on the other. The bland ones have almost no smell. The rotten ones give a slight sickly-sweet stench that tells you to avoid them. A really good strawberry smells fantastic, tickling your nose and making you move toward it, not away.
Loose sandy soil, not thick rich soil, produces the best ones. I don't know why, but when strawberry plants are put into ground that is too rich, they just don't develop good-tasting berries. The too-rich soil spoils the berry plant, and it often withers after producing fruit that might look good, but has little taste. A good soil, slightly sandy, produces the best berries. There is enough drainage that the water flows past the plant, watering the berries, and moves on. The strawberries take only the water they need, and don't hoard it, but let the water move on to other plants.
Even good ones get attacked. There is no experience quite like it, and you'll never forget when it happens. You bend over the strawberry plant. You spot the perfect berry. It looks amazing. You can smell it, and your mouth waters. You pick the berry and pop it in your mouth. One bite and the sweet juice flows in your mouth, followed quickly by the crackle and pungent taste of a stink-bug hidden on the side of the berry you didn't see. The lesson here is to be careful, and help get rid of the pests.
They have their time, they have their purpose. There is a thing about berries, especially strawberries. In this case it doesn't matter if they are store-bought or not. Bring them home and let them sit, save them for some unforeseen future date and they grow this strange white and blue-green mold. Maybe the mold is good for you, too, but the berries are lost. Eat them when they are ready. Enjoy them when you can. Look forward to when you can get more. Don't tuck them away and forget them.
Treat them harshly, and they are ruined. When you pick them, you have to pick the stem of the berry, not the berry itself. It is very easy to destroy the precious strawberry when you pick it without care.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Clarity of Purpose, Hidden Lessons

Our youngest is now eighteen, finishing his last few months as a senior in High School. He is launching a life of his own, though I don't think he is fully cognizant of that yet.
When I was a senior in High School, I wanted to get out into the world, start making the indelible mark I knew that I was destined to make. The siren call of that Destiny lured me into making choices I wasn’t too sure of at the time. Looking back, I’m not really sure of them now.
Originally I planned to go into the military. My choices were simple (yet seemed huge). I only needed to select the branch of the military I was joining. Since my Dad was a career Navy man, that choice seemed simple to me. So near the end of my senior year I took a greyhound bus to Detroit for a physical and some tests to enter the Navy.
I was a bit uncomfortable with a busload of strangers; my shyness was almost always an issue in my life (and a major stumbling block to many possible opportunities, but that is an entirely different post). The recruiters roomed me with a guy that was a giant. He was an ebony tower and seemed stern as a hitching post, ducking the top of the doorway to enter the room. We shared some of our reasons for joining, and he was from a hard background, a hard life. When he smiled, it was the sun shining and I didn’t feel quite so alone. Shyness can be a barrier, but just remember that almost everyone is shy to some degree. Start with that common bond and push through the shyness.
I was alone the next day, though. They sat us in a room and gave us a written test. I don’t recall the questions, except for one. There was a picture of a screw (with threads) and wanted to know which way to turn the screw for it to go into a surface.
I did really well on that test, so well that they called me into a small room and asked me if I wanted to go into nuclear submarines. That thought scared me, and I wasn’t prepared for it. That’s another thing I have a hard time handling, surprises. I adamantly stuck to my original plan: I wanted to go into the Navy as a radioman and then into the Seals. My recruiters knew better than I did, of course, but I didn’t know that and like many know-it-all teenagers I didn’t even listen to what they said. No matter how smart you are (or think you are) listen and look for the wisdom in what others say to you.
That wasn’t the hard part, though.
The next day we spent taking a complete physical exam. The questionnaire is what tripped me up and changed my life forever. There was one question: “Have you ever had a heart murmur?” to which I responded “Yes.” This answer put me in a much shorter line that moved at a glacial pace. I was already pretty tired of having a five foot nothing medical corpsman making obscene jokes and bossing me around. After many, many hours and some inconclusive tests on an EKG I finally went to the head guy and asked if I could just withdraw my application. I went home on the bus and made other plans.
I told my Dad I was going to college instead of the military. He was disappointed. A few weeks later I got a letter saying that I did not pass the physical. Dad was nice about it and told me he knew the Surgeon General, and did I want him to get them to fix that for me.
I was late choosing a college, so scholarships were an issue. If I didn’t get a scholarship, I wasn’t going to college. I halfheartedly sent applications to a number of local colleges and received a response from Aquinas College that they would cover most of my costs. I had some money in savings and I could make it work.
So that’s the story of how I ended up going to college instead of the military. Looking back, I regret that I didn’t spend some time in the military, as did each of my three younger brothers. That time might have helped me grow up a little before I headed off to college. Make the hard, life-changing decisions after careful thought and prayer, and don't be hasty to change the choice when faced with adversity.

I received a letter from In Touch Ministries, from Dr. Charles Stanley. He talks about the pressures he was under as a young man. He was failing his first few classes, he didn’t have the money to go to college and wasn’t sure where the money would come from. He talked about praying for God’s will in his life, which is a prayer I’ve prayed often, but not often enough. Human logic was telling him to pack it up and go home, but he felt the need to obey God and God gave him the courage to continue college. His life changed forever, and, through him, untold thousands of people have had their lives changed as well.
Was it God’s will for me to go to college, or was I supposed to stand more firmly and bravely go into the military? I don’t really know. I haven’t made much of a mark on this world, certainly not for the better. Not enough prayer. That’s for sure.
I want God’s will in my life. I never felt His will more strongly, His hand more firmly on me, than when Darling and I went to Africa last year. I pray for that clarity again in my life.
I pray for it in my son’s life as he heads into the college world. I pray for it in the lives of all my children, and in Darling’s life as well.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Declaring a Planet

I miss Pluto.
When I grew up our Solar System had nine planets. Pluto, the smallest and furthest away from the sun, was always my favorite. I'm not sure why.
Pluto was named after the god of the Underworld, although I've always preferred the Greek name Hades. Pluto is typically depicted as a discontented god, which makes sense. Let's see. I get with two of my brothers and we divide everything up into three realms to rule and draw lots. One brother gets Heaven and Earth (a bit greedy, I think). The other gets the Oceans to rule. I get the Underworld. I suppose someone has to do the job, but it just doesn't seem right, does it?
Pluto and Charon (Wikipedia)
Pluto takes 248 years to orbit the sun. Small as it is, Pluto has a moon, Charon, and three more that were not discovered until the twenty-first century: Nix, Hydra and P4. Since Pluto is smaller than our own moon, the fact that it has moons of its own is sort of cool.
Pluto and Charon share a closer bond than planet and moon. Together they are actually classified as one of the Solar System's binary systems, the sun and Jupiter being another. I don't know how they define that, though. Another interesting tidbit is that Pluto and Charon always present the same face to each other. Honestly, both are so small I'm not sure how they can definitively say that, but there it is. I know for years I was told that Mercury always presented the same side to the sun, but it doesn't. I don't know when the astronomers figured that one out, either. 
They both orbit something else
The spacecraft New Horizons, launched in 2006 should fly close to Pluto in 2015. Maybe the scientists will discover that these little planets don't face each other all the time. Regardless, just the fact that we can send a spacecraft so far into the reaches of space to do exploration is very cool.
I guess the first time I really thought about Pluto, or any planet, as an actual place was when the main character in Heinlein's Have Space Suit—Will Travel  was transported to Pluto and imprisoned there for some time. I read some books on the Solar System at the time, but Pluto was still a planet then.
When astronomers started finding objects that were larger than Pluto in the Solar System realm they started questioning the validity of Pluto as a true planet.
In 2000 the Hayden Planetarium reopened with only eight planets in our solar system. Some people were pretty annoyed at that, but I didn't hear about it then.
I'm not the only one who has a hard time with the demotion of the planet. I'm a fan of The Big Bang Theory and there is an episode where Sheldon makes his feelings completely clear on the subject.
In 2006 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) declared Pluto was not an official planet. New Mexico and Illinois actually passed resolutions that officially classify Pluto as a planet in the sky over their states. Even though I'm pretty sure they can't see Pluto from there without a lot of help. Still, if a declaration works for them it should work for me.
I officially proclaim that I will always think of Pluto as a planet.
Oh, and a dog.