Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Opposite of Memories

I'm trying to invent a word this morning.  Here is what I've come up with so far:
Amnesiary (noun): The opposite of a memory.  Something hidden in the recesses of your brain whose impact is unknown or unfelt until something makes it pop into view.  The strength of a good amnesiary comes from how deeply it is buried in your psyche and what it induces you to act upon before it is (re)discovered.
I had an encounter with an amnesiary this morning.  When I woke up, I was dreaming about bears playing basketball.  I was sitting in the stands with a bunch of people.  In this performance area were two bears, shooting basketballs at a couple of hoops.  
I was in that mental state where dream and wakefulness are washing back and forth against each other.  I had enough presence of mind to think that it was a pretty weird thing to dream about when one of the bears I was watching turned toward me and started clapping its hands together after making a basket.  
It was then that I woke up and knew that it wasn't a dream.  I had seen these bears play basketball in real life.  
It was at a place called Japanese Village and Deer Park.  It used to be in Buena Park, close to Knott's Berry Farm, I think.  It was an amusement park inspired by the deers that roam the park in Nara, Japan before the Toudai-Ji or Great Eastern Temple where there is a huge statue of Buddha.  Japanese Village also had deer that would allow you to pet and feed them.  They were, according to my quick online search, imported from the same herd that roams Nara.  There were also dolphin and sea lion shows, karate and samurai demonstrations, and all the buildings were made to look like they were part of some Japanese village out in the countryside.  I went online and found a picture of the entrance: 

Now that I can read a little Japanese, I can tell that the Japanese is misspelled.  It's supposed to say the same as what is there in English, but what it looks like it's saying to me is "Deer of the Garden and a Village Today."  
It was while translating the Japanese on the sign I found that I began to wonder something.  I've been a Nippon-phile, someone interested in Japanese language and culture, for years now.  I usually put it down to my reading the novel "Shogun" by James Clavell.  The novel came out in 1975, the same year Japanese Village & Deer Park closed.  It was while reading Shogun that I first noticed myself becoming interesting in Japanese history, wondering about the truth behind what I was reading in the book.  This interest extended itself first to comic books and cartoons, manga and anime as it is called in Japan, and finally to learning the language itself.  
I'm now thinking that it was that visit to Japanese Village that started it all.  
Even as a little kid, I remembered thinking that the place was a little threadbare when we went.  I remember my mom laughing her head off at the "mangy ol' bear" that clapped every time he made a basket.  She was near to tears, laughing as she clapped along with him.  Even so, there was something...  Cool, about the place.  The service people all dressed in kimonos. The architecture.  It was all fake, but it was a different sort of fake.  
I remembered the samurai show.  The stage was supposed to be the inside of a roadside tea house, a narrator explained.  People would stop for food and rest during their journeys.  A serving girl, polite and demure, was serving the customers.  Two of the local samurai starting harassing her in rude ways.  She kept pushing them away, but they wouldn't stop.  
Finally, from the corner, a ronin stood to his feet.  It was the first time I'd heard the word, "ronin."  It literally translates as "wave man" and refers to a landless samurai that doesn't have a master to serve that comes and goes like the waves hitting the beach.  This ronin had seen enough and told the rude samurai to stop.  
Of course, they refused.  There wouldn't be a staged fight show without such a refusal.  In stunning, dramatic fashion, the ronin killed them both.  He returned to his table and sat down, sheathing his sword and drank his tea.  
The narrator said, "Thus, Honor was served!"  
Honor was served.  I had forgotten that.  But I hadn't lost it.  As a kid, maybe seven or eight years old, there was something in that show and in that place that stuck with me.  If it hadn't been for that visit to Japanese Village, I might not have picked up that book with the samurai's hilt on its cover.  I might not have started watching anime or reading manga, learning the language or traveling over the Pacific to visit the country when the opportunity presented itself.  
I've been trying to trying to recover other amensiaries this morning.  I've gone to the obvious places in my mind's past.  The library at my Junior High School where I first started reading science fiction.  The restaurants my parents would take us to while driving to or from my grandma and grandpa's house.  The creek that used to exist near the house I lived in during the last of my elementary school days in Diamond Bar, where my brother and I could catch frogs and crawdads and keep them in empty coffee cans and cleaned out mayonnaise jars.  That creak is gone.  Paved over and replaced by office buildings and businesses. 
I should have known I would fail in any effort to pluck an amnesiary from my head.  If I could recall them when I wanted they would be memories, not amnesiaries. 
You hold your cherished memories like little treasures.  They are kept safe and unchanging in the lock-box of your mind.  Amnesiaries are, in a way, more alive than memories.  Because they pluck at your attention without you knowing it.  Making you go "that way," instead of this way over here.  
I stopped trying to find other amnesiaries when I noticed I was hungry.  I had a craving for pancakes.  Pancakes I'd made myself.  So much so, I went out and bought a new stainless steel mixing bowl and a whisk to make them with.  
I was washing off the whisk prior to using it.  I looked at it.  I found myself thinking of...  Another whisk.  In my Mom's kitchen...  Maybe?  
It was gone.  I finished cleaning it, then got to mixing batter.  Probably a quick little amnesiary darting in my head, like a fish dashing away before the net could close.  

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Feelings as yet Unnamed

A question for everyone.  Do you every have an emotion that you don't know what it is?  
This happens to me from time to time.  It happened this week.  It was at work.  I was trying to resolve an issue over a new process I've been instructed to implement.  It was making things difficult.  I wanted to get a postponement, but it was made clear to me that I simply had to deal with it and make it work.  
Walking back to my department I noticed that, instead of feeling more annoyed or put-upon, my mood had actually lifted.  I wasn't happy.  I certainly wasn't relieved.  I was energized.  An energy born out of the frustration I'd been feeling for the last several days.  It was a harsh, prickly feeling that kept crawling up the insides of my ribs, like some creature trapped in a cage trying to claw its way past the bars.  It was a I imagine Genghis Khan probably felt when he looked upon the helpless city he had just taken that had stood in his way.
I described the feeling to my writing friend, Ann Dulhanty.  She offered me the term, "violent elation."  Yeah.  After consideration, I've decided that it is an apt name for that feeling.  I wav violently elated that day.  
Does this ever happen to you?  Feeling something you can't simply call "love" or "hate" or "happy" or "sad"?  
I remember another nameless feeling I used to have a lot.  Back when I was a kid.  My dad liked to tease us.  He was an excellent teaser.  And having raised us, he knew exactly where our soft spots were.  I remember when I was the target of his teasing attacks.  I would be laughing and giggling.  His barbs were funny.  At the same time, I'd feel my face trying to screw itself up as if preparing to cry.  His barbs had points on them.  I'd be saying, "Stop it!  Stop saying that!" and laughing, wanting to leave, but staying there.  I could never put a name to that feeling.  
After giving it some thought, I came up with a term for it.  Repellent affection.  I was feeling repellent affection for my dad in those moments.  It was like eating a bowl of your favorite chili, as much as you wanted.  Relishing each and every bite as your tongue melts in your mouth and your insides ignite like they've been doused in kerosene and hit with a blow torch.  
I think we don't have enough words for the things we feel.  It's because our emotions stem from our instinctive reactions, and are felt in the different parts of the brain that monitor these physiological processes.  
What we call, "Love," for instance (which Nat King Cole assures me is more than just a game for two), is felt when twelve different regions of the cerebral cortex are stimulated and endorphins are gushing about in our heads.  I believe its associated our desire for nourishment.  It is why, amongst us mammals, that the first person one normally feels love for is our mother, the initial source of nourishment and survival.  It explains why so many words used in association with loved ones, like "sweetie," "honey" or "sugar" come from taste sensations, as well as the practice of bringing the orifice normally used to convey nutrients into the body into physical contact with the object of this mental stimulation ("Kissing").  
"Hate" and "Fear" I think are the same emotion in different contexts.  Its the feeling one gets when our "Fight or Flight" instinct is triggered.  Whether we fear or hate something depends on whether we are running from it or trying to kill it.  
I remember an acting teacher in college telling me once that he believed there really is only one human emotion, "Excitement."  The labels we give it, he contended, depended on the context.  
All of this means is that it's possible to feel multiple things, even contradictory emotions, at the same time.  Who hasn't been in a relationship where, particularly toward the end of it, you found yourself loving and hating someone at the same time?  The desire to feed yourself on their psyche and the desire to stop the threat they posed to your emotional existence by throttling them, all sloshing back and forth inside your skull like some left over stew pulled from the fridge gone rancid in its container.  
Taking a slight detour here, I think this answers the question that sometimes gets argued between animal lovers and skeptics about whether their pets "love" them.  I think the answer is clearly in the affirmative, as long as you're talking about animals that have evolved to have a cerebral cortex similar to ours.  Dogs, cats, parrots, hamsters, all mammals and birds, all have cerebral cortices.  Theirs are simpler than ours.  Which is why their love seems so much more unconditional.  But the machinery is there, so the emotion is there.  
Fish and reptiles, I don't think so.  Their brains are more elaborate versions of what would be our brain stems and medulla oblongata.  These areas deal with more primitive emotions, such as the aforementioned Fight or Flight response and territoriality.  An alligator in the swamp protecting its nest and clutch of eggs doesn't "love" its unborn children.  The eggs happen to be in the center of the area that his "Mine!" to her.  Once the eggs hatch and her clutch of baby gators swim out into the swamp, she's just as likely to think them a quick little snack as any other creature.  
It makes me wonder what creatures built differently from us would feel.  If his brain and nervous system was more than a primitive stimulus response network, what would a male black widow spider feel toward his mate.  The uncontrollable desire to get as close as possible to insert his quivering packet of spermatozoa at the end of his pedipalp raging against the desire to flee screaming through all eight of his legs.  Calling that such a feeling "love" would be like calling the cravings and DTs an addict might get "love" for their preferred substance to abuse.  
In the past, while trying to describe someone's feeling in my writing, I've worried over my inability to pick the one specific name for a feeling the character I was writing about was feeling.  I don't worry about it much any more.  The most interesting times in life are when you can pin what is going on inside you to one simple term.  "Contentment" is nice to feel on a summer, Saturday morning while swinging in a hammock.  "Raging palpitating revulsion" might make a more fun read.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

The Force of Impact Characters

There's a scene from the original Star Wars movie (the one where Han shoots first, to be very specific), that we all remember.  A single line will point you directly to the scene I'm thinking about.  
"Use the force, Luke."  
You know the scene I'm talking about now, right?  Luke in his X-Wing.  Darth Vader and his two escorts on his tail.  Shooting down the canyon of the Death Start toward the thermal vent.  A classic scene in cinematic history.  
An a moment when the Impact Character in that movie triumphs.  
Last week I mentioned a program that I discovered years ago called Dramatic Pro.  It's a story generation program that has its own story model.  The program asks you a series of questions about the story you want to write and from those answers a model for your story is generated.  
Dramatic Pro has had a huge influence on my idea of storytelling and the elements that go into it.  One thing I mentioned last week was the concept of a character's relationship with their problem solving technique and whether they will remain "steadfast," and continue to pursue their course of action no matter the obstacle, or "change," trying a new course of action to achieve their goals.  I called this the moment where they "keep the faith" or take a "leap of faith."  
While writing last week's blog, there was another concept that Dramatica Pro has given me that I wanted to tell people about.  I had to force myself to edit it from the blog entry because it really didn't have anything to do what what I was writing about.  So I've decided to write about here.  
The Impact Character.  
We all know what a Protagonist is, right?  That's the hero of the story.  The person doing things to overcome the obstacles and challenges preventing them from getting what they want.  
And we all know what an Antagonist is, I'm sure.  It is the person, or force or whatever, standing in the way of the Protagonist, actively trying to see to it that the hero fails in their quest.  
In Star Wars, the Protagonist is Luke Skywalker.  The Antagonist is Governor Tarkin.  If you thought it was Darth Vader, you're wrong.  In the original movie, he would be something Dramatica Pro would call the Contagonist, a force or person assisting the Antagonist in their efforts to stop the Protagonist in their efforts.  It is Governor Tarkin that is trying to crush the Alliance by destroying their base on Yavin 4.  Darth Vader is helping out by shooting down anyone that tries to fire a couple of proton torpedos down that thermal vent.  
It was Dramatica Pro that taught me that there is often another conflict going on, with another character trying to affect the actions of the Protagonist.  That character is the Impact Character.  
Looking at Luke Skywalker's situation, he has two conflicts he is dealing with while trying to set his sights on that thermal vent.  The first one is "real" conflict, stopping the Death Star from annihilating his friends and allies by blowing it up first.  This conflict is the one most clearly presented on the screen.  Luke wants to fire his proton torpedos down the thermal vent, ace-ing it just like he did those womp rats back home.  Darth Vader is intent on preventing Luke from doing that by turning him into a sparkling cloud of vapor and dust.  An intention completely unclouded by the knowledge he is blowing up his long lost son.  The irony.  
The other conflict luck is dealing with is more thematic.  It's not about whether or not the Death Star needs to be destroyed.  It's about How it gets destroyed.  
"Use the Force, Luke."  
Think about this: What would have happened had Luke ignored the voice he heard?  Put it down to that last bottle of Tantooine ale that Han had him drink the night before.  He shakes his head, clearing the vapors of that heady drink out of the way, and uses his innate skill to send those proton torpedos down the thermal vent.  
The Death Star would blow up.  The rebels would win.  Luke and Han and Chewie would get their medals, just like they did in the original movie.  
The future, though, would be different.  When Empire struck back, the rebellion would have been crushed.  Luke would have been eaten by that big ice cave monster.  No force to use to get his light-saber out of the snow, right?  There would be no one to come rescue Han once he's encased in carbonite.  No one to oppose the Emperor and his Death Star II.  There would be no prequels either, so maybe it wouldn't have been all bad.  
This is because, as Obi-Wan Kenobi believed, it wasn't enough to just destroy the Death Star.  He needed to rebuild the Jedi.  He needed a new generation to be raised believing in and using the Force.  And to do that, he needed Luke to take a Leap of Faith and to give something he had never heard of until a few short days earlier a try.  
Luke's external conflict, over whether or not the Death Star was going to be destroyed, was with Governor Tarkin and Darth Vader.  His thematic conflict, over whether he was going to destroy the Death Star by his own abilities, or by giving himself over to a mysterious, all encompassing presence within the universe, was with the story's Impact Character, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  
I like Impact Characters.  After first hearing about them in Dramatica Pro, I saw them everywhere.  I made a point of writing them into my stories.  They complicate things.  They can be both allies and adversaries.  They can make things harder for the Protagonist by trying to help them.  
In life, parents are often Impact Characters.  Mine were.  At this point in my life, my folks have become more like fans, looking on at what I do and cheering me on.  But as a child, they did everything they could, cajoled me, ordered me, rewarded me, spanked and punished me, to get me to do to things the "right way," all the while telling me they were doing what they were doing because they loved me and wanted me to be happy.  
At work, my colleagues, my fellow managers, are my Impact Characters.  They want me to succeed, to get my department to put out as much work as possible.  But they will also argue with me and try to tell me what they think I ought to do when they perceive problems.  
Impact Characters point out the choices you have.  Ann Dulhanty, a member of my online writing group, responded to a message I sent her once, telling her all the things I "had to do" that were getting in the way of my writing, by saying, "those are choices," and going on to say I should do more of what I wanted than what I had to do.  My best friend from college, Richard, responded to a recitation of the problems I was facing in my life by putting the blame on my own perception.  "You need to see yourself as deserving more," or something to that effect, was his response.  
It can be irritating.  Frustrating.  You feel yourself being forced to justify something that appears to be self-evident.  But this is, I think, a good frustration.  Even if you don't change how you do things, remaining steadfast as I tend to do, at least you have the chance of making the choice to be steadfast.  And an informed choice has the advantage of helping you see the consequences of your actions.  And that's what makes Impact Characters valuable, in fiction and in life. 
If I had been Luke, I probably would have ignored Obi-Wan.  I would have destroyed the Death Star and gotten my medal.  But having made that choice, I think I would have changed in other ways as well.  Become a bit more cautious at this example of how little things, like the design of your thermal vent system, can have big consequences.  I would have noticed that big ice monster and shot it before it grabbed me in the snow.  And I wouldn't have been on some swamp planet trying to appease some green little hermit, which would have given me more time to rescue my friends.  
A different sequel entirely.  But those are the options that Impact Characters can give you when you think about them.  

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Horns, Backs & Little Leaps

There's a story generation program that has had a tremendous influence on me as a writer.  It's called Dramatica Pro.  It doesn't give you story ideas.  It asks you a bunch of questions about the story you have in mind.  The answers lead to other questions, which often lead to discoveries about what you're trying to say in the story and gaps in the plot you might be blind to.  
The program has its own theory about story, some of which I've adopted as my own.  One part of the theory is every protagonist will face a choice in their resolve toward the problem they are facing.  They will either maintain their convictions and continue to strive toward their goal in the way they have been taught to do, or believe is right to do.  Dramatic Pro refers to this choice as "Remaining Steadfast."  An example is Daniel from the Karate Kid.  After he is injured in the tournament, his teacher, Mr. Miyagi tries to tell him that he's won already and it's no longer necessary to finish the tournament.  Daniel insists, though, telling Mr. Miyagi that if he doesn't finish, face the leader of the group that has tormented him since moving to Reseda, he'll never be whole.  Mr. Miyagi relents and treats Daniel so he can finish.  The rest, as they say, was a series of sequels of declining quality.  
Well, Karate Kid, Part 2 was good.  With Tamlyn Tomita playing the love interest.  Jeez, I still have fantasies about...
Anyway...  The other potential choice in Dramatica Pro's theory on the main character's resolution is to Change.  To go in a different direction.  To give up the past, the tried and true ways, and try something different.  The most famous example I can think of is Luke Skywalker hearing Obi-Wan Kenobi say, "Use the Force, Luke."  Give up trying to blow up the Deathstar using just your skills, like you did hitting those womp rats back home.  Use the mystical force that you only learned about a short time ago.  Luke decides to change and the rest, as they say, was a series of sequels which were pretty good, followed by a series of prequels that weren't.  
I put the choice of resolution this way: It's the choice between Keeping the Faith (Steadfast) or Making a Leap of Faith (Change).  
If I were a character in a story,  would be one that would Keep the Faith when it came to that crisis point.  Hang in there.  Keep digging.  Keep striving.  Better, more certain, to punch your way through the wall than find a way to leap over it or go around it.  Doing that will make you a bigger target, and you might come crashing down to earth in a way that you can't recover.  
Ironically...  Or maybe not so ironically, when you think about it, most of the characters I create in the stories I write are Leap-of-Faithers.  They decide on change.  They try the things they wouldn't dream of doing before.  I think I write characters like this because I am fascinated by the ability to make such a choice.  I wondered what it would take to bring someone to such a point that they could give up on what they thought was the "right" doing things.  
I think I have a better idea of that now from my personal life.  
Back in April, I was promoted to the position of Production Manager at work.  I didn't really have a choice in the matter.  My boss told me I had a weekend to consider the position.  Not to decide whether or not I wanted it, but to figure out how I was going to pass off my current assignments and take it over.  
I was also concerned over whether or not I could do the job.  I had been in a management position previously, and it had not ended well.  I thought that I might be setting myself up for another such failure if it took it.  On the other hand, though, I didn't think I had much choice in the matter, so I said yes, and moved into my new office.  
To my surprise, things went well.  Remarkably well, in fact.  My unit beat its production goal by the end of my first full month managing it.  It beat the production goal the next month, by even more.  And the month after that by a higher margin.  We've beaten the production every month since I've taken over.  I went back over the records a few months ago and discovered that the Production Department had not made the production goal in the fifteen months prior to my taking over.  
Things were going well.  
But as in any good, dramatic story, things didn't go smoothly forever.  I am unable to go into details, but it is safe to say that other concerns became paramount.  I felt that the tables had finally turned.  That the failure I had been afraid of back in April was finally staring me in the face.  
My response from the beginning was to work hard.  Now, facing the crisis, I decided to work harder.  I stayed longer hours, often skipping the gym and getting home just in time to go to bed.  I worked weekends, to catch up on the stuff that needed doing.  I watched what my people were doing to make sure we were getting out the work that needed to get done.  
I was pretty angry.  "Angry is the whetstone one uses to sharpen one's will."  I kept telling myself that.  It's my own saying.  You can quote me if you like.  I used my anger to wrest the situation into what I wanted, needed it to be.  I could see signs that things were changing.  Just not fast enough.  
Then fate stepped in.  Or the County of Los Angeles court system.  I had received a jury summons.  And at the peak of my efforts to "fix things" I was called in to serve on a jury.  The night before I went to court, I called in the supervisor and lead people of the unit and told them they had to take care of things until I got back.  I told them I hoped it would only be a day or so.  
A week later, after my fellow jurors and I levied our verdict, I was back in the office.  I was ready to do whatever was necessary to make things right.  
What I discovered, though, was that it wasn't necessary.  My guys had taken me at my word.  They had reorganized things.  The work was getting done.  We were hitting the daily number and beating it. 
Things came to a head when I went to someone's desk to check the work being done.  The supervisor came up to me and tried to take the work out of my hand.  "It's organized.  I've got a system.  It's working.  Trust me."  
I felt a surge of the anger I'd been carrying for the last couple of months.  Was he turning against me?  I was the boss!  Those words were on my lips.  I was the boss, and I was going to tell him what to do.  
Instead, I said, "All Right."  I let go of the work.  "I'll trust you."  I told him what I needed to see done and I walked away.  I walked out of the unit.  I walked through the other departments.  I wandered the halls of the office.  Part of me felt like I'd given up.  Like I'd quit.  Another part of me, a dizzy, lightheaded part, said that it was part of something else.  The strange, dislocated feeling I'd had while on jury duty was now the new normal.  
After my walk, I returned to my office.  I called the supervisor and lead people into my office.  "OK," I told them.  "You guys are running the show.  You've proven you can do it.  I'll take care of the things that need doing it to allow you guys to do your job.  I'm trusting you to take care of business."  
That was a month about a month ago.  We made the daily goal every day after that but one.  We lowered our base.  We dropped our late percentage.  And, by the end of the month, we set a record for the amount of work the unit has done in the history of the company.  By a big, huge, fat amount.  
Am I patting myself on the back?  Blowing my own horn?  Yeah, a little.  I am.  It's embarrassing because, well...  It's not something I'm used to doing.  I have a persona that I maintain at work.  The closest example I can think of is Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory.  A presumption that I am better than anyone else in the room, so you might as well leave me alone and let me take care of things, because I'll do it better than you anyway.  
But part of that is a defense mechanism.  A smokescreen to keep people from looking too closely to see how true it is.  Part of the reason I work as hard as I do is to find the mistakes that I "Know" are there before someone else does.  
But sometimes, and I'm getting to my point here, so please bear with me, sometimes you have to admit to yourself that you ARE good at what you do.  Just like sometimes, even when it goes against the grain...  Or, BECAUSE it goes against the grain, you have to take a little leap of faith and try something new.  Like trusting someone to do the job you picked them to do.  
Do me a favor though...  If you read this, keep it to yourself.  I don't want anyone thinking I'm getting mushy.  You know what I mean?