Monday, April 29, 2013

A Brief Hiatus

There is no blog posting this week.  Please check back next weekend for my latest posting.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Fortune Cookie Magic

Someone is trying to tell me something.  And they're using fortune cookies to do it.  
At the beginning of March I posted a blog entry entitled, "A Kite on the Winds of Change."  The blog was inspired by a fortune cookie I got that week.  Someone was going on maternity leave and Chinese food was brought in for a celebratory lunch.  
After finishing the beef & broccoli I ordered, I picked one of the fortune cookies provided and broke it open.  It read: 
"The winds of change will sweep through your life next month."
And, as anyone who reads my blog or follows my Twitter feed might realize, there were changes in my life.  Not in my overall situation, per se, but in terms of my attitude toward the people and things surrounding me.  Who to trust and support, and who to be wary of.  What I was going to do about the problems I was facing.  What I thought was important.  
Well, this week it happened again.  Chinese food was brought in for the clients that use our conference rooms for their depositions.  There were spare fortune cookies that were left out for the employees.  I took one of the cookies, which I opened after my own asian-inspired lunch of gyoza and brown rice.  This is what it said: 
"Your dearest wish will come true within the month!"
That's an exact quote.  Exclamation point and everything.  After years of getting these trite, innocuous fortunes, like "Friendship is the Greatest Gift!" I had received, twice in a row, fortune cookies that were really putting out the effort.  
I tucked the fortune into my wallet and headed back to my office.  It was then that a couple of questions came to me.  
The first was, "What, exactly, IS my 'dearest wish'?"  The second was, "Just how does fortune cookie magic work?"  
I'm going to tackle the last one first.  
The question formalized a few "rules" associated with fortune cookies that are followed.  I did not follow these rules religiously, in the same way, as a young man, I followed the liturgy at Mass.  But looking back, I realized that there were these steps that were always followed prior to opening my fortune cookie.  
First, you have to take the fortune you touch first.  This assumes, of course, they are put in a group or bowl in the center of the table.  If they give you your own separate fortune cookie, then it doesn't work.  It is important that you pick your fortune out of the group, and that you keep the one you pick.  You can't pick one, put it down and then pick another.  All you're doing is becoming an instrument of chaos, then.  I think it does something like turn your fortune into a misfortune, making the exact opposite come true.  And it does the same thing for the person who gets the cookie you discarded.  
We only get one chance at life.  It is the same for fortune cookies.  
Second, you don't open your fortune cookie until AFTER your meal.  This is important.  It's not like eating dessert first.  Sometimes you have to eat dessert first to stir things up and make them interesting.  With fortune cookies, though, this rule is sacrosanct.  Meal, then fortune.  Period.  
Why is this so?  Short answer: Because.  Slightly longer answer: Because, the magic won't work otherwise.  Actual answer: I have no idea.  I just KNOW it has to be that way. 
At a guess...  I think it has something to do with...  Nourishment.  Feeding your body, satisfying your physical needs, providing yourself with energy...  Somehow that activity provides "Energy" (here used in the vague, nearly meaningless way a lot of "spiritual" people I've met use it, as opposed the the specific, 'ability to do work,' scientific way I usually try to use it) that allows the fortune to take place.  
Finally, at least in the sense that this is the last firm rule that I know I'm aware of, the fortune has to be shared for it to come true.  You show it to the people you were sharing the meal with.  You let them see it and comment on it.  "Oooh...  That's a good one!"  Or, "I got one like that last week, and you know what..."  Things like that.
This spreads the fortune out into the firmament.  It recognizes that fortunes don't happen in isolation.  There is a world of cause and effect out there, and you need to prime the engines of universe to get things started.  Showing your friends is the first step in doing that.
And a quick side note: That whole thing of adding "in bed" to the end of your fortune is just plain silly.  It shows a lack of respect toward the fortune cookie.  Don't do it.  
The answer to my first question, just what might my "dearest wish" be?  My initial answer was, "To have all my wishes come true!"  
I don't think that works, though.  It's too much like telling the djinn that your third wish is to have three more wishes.  Good thing djinn aren't real, huh?  
The problem, as it would be with anyone, is that there are so many things I wish for, it is impossible to pick just one.  "To become a full time, professional writer" versus "Finding the 'Love of my Life' and enjoy the rest of my life with her."  Which do I choose?  As soon as I decide on one, I'll find myself longing to have the other.  
I could go with something more general.  "To be happy and content to the end of my days."  But that seems a tepid wish, one that would engender more a chance in one's personal attitude than a change in the universe.  Perhaps that's the problem with people and wishes to begin with. 
Maybe there's a way of turning this around.  Using the whole Fortune Cookie process to invoke change in the cosmos, instead of divining what is heading toward us.  
Fortune Cookie magic would be a very involved way of casting spells.  First, you'd have to learn how to cook in general, and how to bake fortune cookies specifically.  It would also help to have a lot of friends you could periodically invite over for dinner.  Then you'd have to write down on small pieces of paper the things you want to have happen.  There's probably a special process you have to go through before and during the writing.  Skill in meditation practices and calligraphy would be helpful.  Learning another language, with its own particular scrip, like Chinese, Japanese or Arabic, would make it even more interesting.  It would add an impreciseness of interpretation that all good fortunes thrive on.   
Once the cookies are baked, each with a different fortune inside, you cook the best meal you can and invite your friends over.  Make sure there is a lot of alcohol to go with it.  The more enjoyable the experience, the more power the spell is given.  
At the end of the meal, you bring out your bowl of fortune cookies.  There is a moment of subtlety here.  You could pick the first one for yourself.  But it would probably be better to offer them to your guests first.  Pick the person, besides yourself, you most one to have something good happen to them and go from there.  You get the last cookie remaining.  When you break it open, you show it to your guests, knowing that the good will you've engendered in them through the feast you've provided will empower the spell to take place.  Then, you sit back, drinking and laughing with everyone, as you feel the power of your fortune take hold and spread out into the cosmos.  
The thing about this magical system is that it would probably work to bring good into your life, even if magic doesn't exist at all.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Benedict Arnold Inside Us All

I've been thinking a bit about Benedict Arnold this week.  
The average American probably has one reaction when they hear that name.  "Traitor."  The former American General's name is synonymous with betrayal in American English.  
But if it wasn't for Benedict Arnold, the United States might have very well lost the war and never gained its independence from England.  
The Battles of Saratoga took place in upstate New York during September and October of the year 1777.  Benedict Arnold was a major-general in American army under the command of Horatio Gates, facing a British invasion force being lead by John Burgoyne.  The British aim was to march their forces from Canada down through New York and block the support from the southern colonies to New England.  
Now, Benedict Arnold, even without taking his treason into account, was a peevish fellow.  He enjoyed the good life.  This lead him to try to find some financial gain at whatever post he was assigned to.  He was brought up on court martial a number of times for corruption, though he was acquitted every time.  He was constantly writing letters of resignation.  Every time someone he considered to be of lesser ability was promoted over him,  he'd send one of these letters to George Washington.  Washington's response was to refuse his resignation and send him off to take care of some fort or fight some battle, which Arnold was usually successful at doing.  He eventually got his promotions, but his peevishness never alleviated.  This lead to him have numerous disagreements and arguments with his commander, Gates, including one that's been described as a shouting match that resulted in Gates ordering Arnold confined to his quarters, after which Gates left the army to rest at a farmhouse some miles away, presumably to chill out after having yet another fight with his troublesome subordinate.  
Unfortunately for the Americans, it was the next day that the British decided to attack.  
Arnold's response was to ignore Gates's order and rejoin the army.  The historical accounts of the battle credit Arnold's leadership with rallying the American side, driving the British army back and capturing some of their defensive positions.  Several days later, surrounded and outnumbered, General John Burgoyne surrendered the remainder of his army to Gates, who had returned from that farmhouse where he went to chill.  
It was because of the American victory at Saratoga that France decided to openly side with the United States against the British, sending not only supplies but armies and navies to the New World to help us fight.  Spain also began supplying us with money and weapons after Saratoga.  It's considered to be the turning point in our war for independence.  
Arnold, who had received a wound in his left leg that would eventually leave it two inches shorter than the right, was rewarded by having his seniority restored above those that had been promoted before him.  This gesture from Congress wasn't enough for him, though.  A few years later he fled to the British side after his negotiations to turn over the fort at West Point to the British was revealed.  In something of an ironic twist, he was given a general's rank in the British army and served under the general that commanded the British right flank at Saratoga in an expedition into Virginia.  He nearly captured Thomas Jefferson during that campaign.  Had he done so, his name would have come even more infamous.  
If Arnold had died of the wound he'd received at Saratoga, Americans would have a much different memory of him.  There might be something like the "Arnold Certificate of Valor," or it might be his silhouette embossed on the Purple Heart Medal instead of George Washington.  
A bit of trivia: The Purple Hearts that have been given out to soldiers during the Iraq War were made during World War 2, in anticipation of the casualties American forces would face during the planned invasion of Japan.  When those casualties didn't happen because of the Japanese surrender after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, they were saved and presented to the soldiers wounded in the wars since then.  
I hear people all the time talk about what they "know" about other people.  I don't think any of us really "know" anyone.  George Washington, who wrote letters on Arnold's behalf to Congress, clearly didn't know what he was capable of doing.  He never would have tried to promote him or given him such an important position as the command of West Point.  I can imagine how Washington must have felt when he got word of Arnold's plans to turn the fort over to the enemy.  
"That son of a bitch!  After all I've done for him!" 
That's supposition.  I didn't look up a copy of Washington's diary on line or anything.  
We are often so sure of people's motivations, of who they are, even if we have only the barest of evidence from their behaviors.  We see the suspect in the latest Trial of the Decade, and people say, "You just KNOW she did it!"  We're even more certain of those people we have contact with in real life.  We're all experts on each other.  I think we are all actually amateurs.  
That's one of the attractions of writing for me.  I can really know the people I'm writing about.  But even then, sometimes even I don't know what they'll do next.  I can be writing a scene and suddenly one of them pulls out the gun I gave them and shoots the other.  "Holy Crap!  I didn't see that coming!  I thought he was going to shoot the other guy."  
But even when I'm surprised like this, I still get why they did what they did.  Because I can see inside their head and know how they're wired.  I don't think that good characters are necessarily consistent.  Only a robot can be expected to do exactly what it is expected to do.  And that's assuming its behavior is strictly tied to its programming.  
When it comes to characters though, it is not consistency that makes them seem real to us.  It's the opposite I think.  It's the anticipation at what they will do next.  A tacit acknowledgement that we're never sure what anyone were paying attention to will do.  It's waiting to see if they're going to do what we think they'll do or something completely different.  As long as that action can be tied to something important to them, then we'll find a way to believe it.  
There's a story that, on his deathbed, he asked to have his old, Colonial Army uniform put on him.  "Let me die in this old uniform," he reportedly said.  "May God forgive me for having put on another."  
Assuming this is true, who is the real Benedict Arnold?  The soldier that nearly died helping create a new nation?  The peevish, self-important little fellow that enjoyed living high on the hog and wrote all those letters complaining of lesser people?  The cold-hearted traitor that betrayed his countrymen and comrades for a few thousand pounds?  The sorrowful old man at the end of his life, expressing his regret with a faded blue coat?  
How can you pick just one?  We are all heros and traitors inside.  The difference is what we let out for the world to see. 

Saturday, April 06, 2013

The Transmogrification of Dreams into Hopes

I think I am a dreamer.  But that doesn't mean I have much hope.  
I've been working with Dramatic Pro a lot recently.  I've mention this program in past blogs.  To recap quickly, it is a story generation program.  By answering a very detailed series of questions based on a theory of story the creators of the program have developed, you get a bible to follow for writing it.  It will give you organize everything from the character backgrounds and relationships to scene breakdowns.  I've used it for several years now, typically to help me problem solve stories that didn't seem to be working.  A month ago I decided to use it as it was intended, putting in the information for the novel and going through the entire process.  Thus far, I've already generated a 113 page, very detailed report about the story's background.  I'm starting the portion of the process of breaking down and plotting the scenes that need to be in the novel based on that background.  
One concept unique to Dramatica Pro is that of Dynamic Pairs.  These are...  Concepts, I'll call them, that give focus to the themes of the story you're trying to build, or to the characters' motivations or behaviors.  "Doer vs. Be-er," for example, is one of the dynamic pairs related to character.  Does the character try to change his environment, reshaping it to fit his/her desires (Doer), or does he or she try to find a balance within that environment, working to deal with it as best they can (Be-er).  
While working on my novel, Dramatica Pro brought to my attention a Dynamic Pair that I hadn't dealt with before, but which it said was important to my novel based on the way I answered the questions: Dreams vs. Hopes.
At first glance, one might think that Dreams and Hopes are almost the same thing.  The distinction, per Dramatica Pro, rests on expectation.  "Dreams," according to the program's definition, are things or conditions that are desired, but which fall outside reasonable expectation.  "Hopes," by way of contrast, are desired things or conditions one can reasonably expect to achieve or have come to pass.  
When I read the definition, I could see how this was important to my story.  My protagonist is a young man named Enrico Paoli.  He is a Second Son, the second male child in a fantasy world where the First Son inherits everything.  Second Sons in this world are either apprenticed to masters to learn a trade if they come from well to do families, seek jobs are servants if they are of the lower class, or follow "a second son's path," becoming soldiers or initiates in the church.  
Enrico, however, due to a promise made to him when he saved his older brother from drowning when they were younger, has other expectations.  Per his brother's promise, he was to inherit the family's very prosperous inn, The Two Doves, to run as his own as his mother did while she was alive.  His brother Giuseppe was going to keep the family farm on the outskirts of town, where he prefers to live and work anyway.  
Unfortunately for Enrico (there had to be something unfortunate happening for this to be a story), learns that the circumstances have changed, and obtaining his beloved inn comes into serious doubt.  What happens, in Dramatica Pro terms, is that his "Hope," his reasonable expectation of becoming master of the Two Doves inn, is turned into a "Dream," something he desires greatly, but which is now put out of reach.  The story is about his efforts to restore that Dream back into a Hope (or even reality).  
Not surprisingly, when it comes to the story of my life, I feel like I'm trying to do the same thing.  
I am a Dreamer.  I would say that is true in the general sense, but I'm coming to the conclusion that it describes me in the Dramatica Pro sense as well.  A good deal of the the things I want, the conditions I want to bring into my life, have the feeling of being "Dreams."  Things I want that seem less and less likely to come true: A Family of My Own, in its minimal description of a Spouse to share my life.  The Life of a Professional Writer.  A Home of My Very Own.  These and other things have been buffed and polished so many times in my imagination that they now have a brilliant, dream-like sheen.  They glitter and gleam and light up my dreams and day-dreams like beacons when things get particularly difficult.  But will-o'-the-wisps are lights in the darkness too, famous for not leading you anywhere.  
For a Dream to become a Hope, you have to add something to it.  
I went to WonderCon last week.  It's a small comic book convention that used to be up in San Francisco, but which is now at the Anaheim Convention Center in the spring.  The last panel of the day was a "Comic Creator Connection."  Sort of like speed-dating for writers and artists.  The writers go around the outside of the circle and spend five minutes with one of the artists seated on the inside of the circle.  The hope is that you find a connection with someone to work with to create a comic book together.  It's a terrific idea and I was happy to participate.  At the end of the session, the moderator made everyone raise their hands and swear an oath: 
Moderator: "I...  State your name..."  
Everyone: "I...  State your name..."  
We all promised to follow up with at least three of the people we'd met during the session "before our heads hit our pillows that night."  
I didn't keep my promise.  I got home late, you see, and laid down on the couch to watch TV for a bit.  I eventually fell asleep and well...  I figured, you know...  And I really didn't have anything I could start on IMMEDIATELY, right?  So, I...  
It's been like that with me recently.  Not exactly just going through the motions.  I'm keeping my dream alive.  Working on my novel six days out of seven, and going to WonderCon to remind myself what I want to do.  But I'm realizing now that my dreams are not turning into hopes.  I'm not expecting things to go my way, and so I'm not doing all I can to make them happen.  
Dreams are pretty.  All they have to do is move through your mind and look like everything you want them to be.  Hopes are uglier, in a way.  They have pieces of reality stuck to them, like warts on a princess.  Things you need to take care of, get done, deal with, for them to have a chance to become.  
Hopes are Dreams you've started to raise to become Truth.  And just as taking care of a child is dirty and difficult work at times, taking a dream from its "all things are possible" infancy through the unruly teenage years of hopefulness needs planning and doing.  
So...  What do I need to do with this realization?  
How about...   Go to Japan?  
It's been a dream of mine to go back to Japan.  I went there in the summer of 2007.  I've told people that my "plan" is to go there at least three more times, one trip in each of the other seasons, Fall, Winter and Spring.  I imagine the places I might visit that I haven't seen yet.  I want to do it.  It's been seven years.  
So, I'm turning the dream into a hope by doing this.  I will go to Japan in October of this year.  I saw an add for a nine day cruise around the Inland Sea of Japan.  I know one of the departure dates is in October.  I'll plan my trip around that.  
And...  Tonight, "before my head hits my pillow," I'll send at least three emails to the most promising artists I met last week.  I'll start each email with, "I know I promised to send this email last week, but..."  I'll try to think of something clever to add after that. 
And, I will look at each and every dream I have and see what it needs to become 'reasonable.'  I will write down what it needs and figure out where I need to go and who I need to speak to in order to give it that thing.  It will be like putting chains on my car, so I can get up the snowy road.  
I remember the story of Pandora's box.  When she was tricked into opening it, and all the evils of the world, war, pestilence, etc., were released into the world.  Hope was the only thing that remained in the box.  Or more precisely, the Spirit of Hope.  A spirit that tells you it's time to roll of one's sleeves and get to work.