Tuesday, September 30, 2014

As it Were

Flickr Credit: Lee Coursey

If you’ve heard at all about the recent controversy regarding the AP U.S. History censorship issues in
Colorado, let’s just say I’ve seen some of the stuff going on.

If you haven’t heard you can Google your own articles, but the principle of the matters it that the conservative school board is considering a review of the APUSH curriculum, and most people are considering this an attack on history and an attempt by the school board to try and control the amount of liberal material students will receive.

There’s a lot of things to be said about the issues, and I’m not going to pretend I have everything figured out. Do I think APUSH should remain uncensored? Absolutely. Does that instantly make the school board evil? No.

But I still know what is going on. A board member named Julie Williams has said she wants a curriculum that “present positive aspects of the United States,” “promote patriotism” and “should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” (source)

Is that necessarily a bad sentiment? I don’t think so. Patriotism is a noble goal.

My argument is against the second part of that sentence.

You cannot promote patriotism without explicitly delving into events that involve “civil disorder, social strife, and disregard of the law.”

We don’t have to condone it.

Slavery is a black stain on the American flag. Atrocities committed during the Civil Rights Movement, presidential assassinations, Jim Crow, abortion, Hiroshima, legal actions during the Great Depression, denial of the freedom to marry, pollution and our mistreatment of the environment, our actions in Vietnam, management and mistreatment of the mentally ill, Prohibition, messy embargoes, concentration camps and anti-Semitism (yes, I’m still talking about the US of A), blatant crimes against Native Americans, the Salem Witch Trials, prominent drug use, McCarthyism, the World Wars—these are things that mar my country’s history.

Americans have killed. They have been unfair. They have supported injustice and even gone against the very principles brave men and women founded this country upon.

I don’t feel guilty about it, because I’m not responsible for wars that took place fifty years before I was born. I had nothing to do with that.

But I do feel sadness—whether I was born or not, these events changed the people who lived during those times, which changed their children, which eventually changed the people who have raised me. Now I am who I am in part because of this. It is part of my heritage. It is part of my culture.

I am not proud that America has caused so much strife.

I am proud to learn that many of those obstacles we have overcome.

And I am ready to have faith that if history is to repeat itself, those telltale stains which still blot our everyday lives will continue to fade as we fight for justice and equality and freedom.

This is my pride as an American. This is what I hope students in Colorado will still have the right to learn, whatever the school board does or doesn’t intend, and I wish it just as much for every other student in America.

We are a great nation with a great many sins. We must not take pride in our sins, but still know them, because no matter what the future brings, the people who are alive (regardless of what country to which they belong) have a responsibility to all the other people who are alive, a greater responsibility to those who have died to get us here, and the greatest responsibility to those who will next be born.

What is that responsibility?

I’m sure everyone has a different opinion. All I know is this—we’re not going to solve today’s problems by sweeping yesterday’s problems under the rug.

So show me my American sins. I am not afraid.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


"Make sure they spell my name right." ~Armand Silva, Fringe

We often wonder what posterity will think of us. Indeed, what mark will we make on the world? Will future generations remember our daring exploits, to become the stuff of legend? Will we be cursed and scorned, delegated to obscurity? Or will we be no one?

"...He will know her name
And be well pleased remembering it, for in the old days,
Though she had young men's praise and old men's blame,
Among the poor, both old and young gave her praise."

The lines above are from Her Praise, by William Butler Yeats, a paean to his longtime love, Maud Gonne. Gonne was a social worker - in the sense that she worked tirelessly to help the plight of so many of the poor, particularly the Irish. The poem is a very beautiful one, one of my personal favorites. In the poem, Yeats mentions that he discusses Gonne with his rich, well-to-do friends, and all of them scorn her due to associating with the riffraff. In fact, some ignore her entirely- they mention other things, like a new book.

Yet, when Yeats goes to the poor, he asks around to see if any know who Gonne is. If they are poor enough ("if rags be enough he will know her name") they will know her, and praise her, for all she did to help them.

That is Maud Gonne's legacy. Who today knows who she is? Apart from a biography, her name mentioned in conjunction with Yeats, and the above poem, that is her legacy. Very little for a legacy, don't you think?

The interesting thing is that so many people today are immortalized through a single reference, or through extremely few remnants of their life and times. Sappho, the ancient Greek poet, has less than 200 scraps of her poems to her name.

I mentioned once before in a post that we'd be lucky if we were remembered, 150 years from now, by our great-great-grandchildren. Unless your family is the type to recall every single ancestor since the time of George Washington, then, no, you will not be remembered. I don't know who my great-great-grandfather was. I'd like to know. But the tragic thing of having ancestors who lived in another country is that often there are no records of ancestry, no census data. The knowledge of my family goes up to about my great-grandfather, and that's about it. I have asked, time and again, about my ancestry. No one has information. Nor do I think I will find any.

For some (not me, necessarily, but it does unnerve me some), the idea of being forgotten after death (or even in life, at old age) is disturbing and unbearable. We all know the stereotype of the "poor, old, and alone" man or woman, forgotten by all, either with no family or scorned by the few members they have left. He or she dies alone, with no one by their bedside, no one to hear their last words. In a House episode, one of the best ever, an old, homeless man with terminal cancer goes up to Dr. Cameron and requests for her to watch him die. Throughout the episode, we see her sitting by his bedside, offering to give him morphine or something to ease the extremely painful death that is lung cancer. He refuses. He says that no one will remember him in life, and he needs to suffer, so someone can remember him - Dr. Cameron herself. That is pathos at its finest, and incredibly distressing.

So then, what must be do then, to attain immortality? Immortality in its true sense, to live forever, is impossible. However, in the metaphorical, historical sense, it is possible. To be remembered, celebrated for centuries after death, like so many historical figures, is very tricky. Humanity is fickle. We may think "Oh, well, we'll remember Kim Kardashian and Barack Obama and Justin Bieber in 2114!" Will we? Barack Obama is likely to be remembered. But there are so many presidents who have not, and will not, be remembered. Who knows who Millard Fillmore is, or Chester Arthur, besides the American History student or history buff? Kardashian and Bieber will likely be forgotten too. There are countless singers and personalities who were famous once, and then forgotten. Buddy Holly (well, not so much, if the proliferation of his hipster glasses are any indication), Bill Haley and many more singers from the '50s and beyond have been forgotten or remembered by comparatively few people not from the era in which they existed.

The sad truth is - very many of us will not be largely remembered by humanity. But you can make a difference in people - in someone's family, in a community, in many different places. Try to make a difference - and be remembered. This is an awkward topic to discuss, but I find it fascinating. But that's the way to achieve immortality - make a difference. A very big difference.

(And make friends with poets who will write in praise of you. That always helps.)



Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Here and Here: Why Setting Matters

Flickr Credit: Vern

Do me a favor and check out this link really quick. Skim it, tell me which story element gets the shortest bit of advice.



That’s right—setting.

Now, to be clear, I have no problem with the ideas on that page. I mean, they’re not exactly wrong. But here’s the thing: if a story’s setting isn’t integral to the story, it’s been written wrong. Oops, sorry to break your heart. Sure, the place a story takes place seems trivial, and after all, all our stories are just the same but in different places. And ought we think about whether we want the plot to be driven by the conflict, or perhaps a character?

Yes. But also no; setting matters just as much. Take a peek at some examples:

  • Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
    • Artemis lives in Ireland because it is the most magical place in the world, Holly lives in Haven because it is the most populated fairy metropolis in the world. By extension, these are the two most important magical locations in the world—right where our heroes are.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
    • Scout’s home in the south sets the scene for racial prejudice and social crime. If you want to witness the injustice in the world, especially with moral characters, this is the place to do it.
  • Firefly created by Joss Whedon
    • Serenity has been called ‘the tenth character’ before, and as a ship she is more than the sum of her parts. While the crew visits many different planets, it is ultimately Serenity’s needs and failures that determine how Reynolds and his crew will live (or die).
  • Unwind by Neal Shusterman
    • The United States has again been ravaged by a war that has desolated life for would-be ordinary teens. The Heartland War has not only changed the land, but it has made teenagers the threat, and the country’s geography revolves around the idea that organ harvesting is not just a public service but a necessity. Talk about the land of the free.
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
    • The Vietnam War puts young men out of their element and exposes them to pain and atrocities that will haunt them the rest of their lives. The land drowns them, the world has forgotten them, and many times, the isolation is enough to make one crazy.

We could go on. The Cullens need cloud cover, New York is the new Olympus, schoolboys need to be isolated from all human contact on an island, the aliens want all the baby mamas for the next generation of Almiri in the same place.

If there’s not a place where things can happen then nothing will happen. Setting matters.

The characters need to care—we choose to stay where we are for a reason, or we are forced to stay where we are for a reason. Why is the character there?

It must have a life of its own—funnily enough, main characters aren’t the center of the universe. The setting should have a culture and a geography of its own. What is this place?

It needs to be threatened or threatening—there are few motivations greater than defending one’s home or trying to get back to it (*coughTheOdysseycough*). What makes this place a hotspot for trouble?

It needs to fill the gaps—as I write this, I am wearing a Penn State tee and sweats from my school. Oh look, knowledge. I am in my room; I have nine notebooks in sight, five books within reach, Greek mythology decorations hanging from the ceiling, a pile of laundry I haven’t folded yet, and memes posted to the walls from my favorite shows and movies. Oh look, knowledge. What does this place say about the people who live there?

It needs to matter to the readers—ultimately we want to leave or to stay, and if we leave we should rejoice, if it is torn away we should cry, and if we should stay we should sing. How will this place resonate with readers?

See, setting isn’t just where the story takes place. Where we come from says a lot more about who we are than how we look. There’s a world out there that matters. To us. To them. To you. To me.

When you write setting, make us breathe its scent until we nearly drown. When you read it, stop and to smell the horizon. You never know—it just might matter.

What are settings that matter in your favorite books? And, as a bonus, what does your current setting tell us about you?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

How I Rate Books—And Why it Matters

Flickr Credit: GSFC

2009, Rick Riordan publishes The Last Olympian, and I’m like, in seventh or eighth grade. I read it, and I love it, and I scribble it on my reading log in nearly indecipherable script. (De veras, I never realized how much my handwriting has changed in the last half-decade until I saw what a mess my writing used to be.)

Now, there was this 1-4 star scale on the Reading Log, which I actually attempted the first month I used it. Then I read The Maze of Bones, also by Rick Riordan, and gave it a 10. The Hunger Games got 150, North! Or Be Eaten got 2 million, Airhead got 11 million, Pandora of Athens got “like a gazillion,” The Emperor’s Code got a “centillion,” and The Lightning Thief and almost all subsequent books got infinity.

Then came The Last Olympian, and my poor little heart was filled with too much joy for infinity, so I’m sure you can guess what I rated it—“more than infinity.”

Yes, I still have those records.

What my 2009 self did not realize was that while infinity was very complementary towards Mr. Riordan’s books, I was completely devaluing every other book on my scale. Yeah, compared to a score of 2 (which I gave to Lord of the Flies) 2 million is a lovely score, but when you get up to 11 million and from there “more than infinity,” that’s not complementary at all!

As highly as I wanted to praise these books, I could only do so by shaming other books I’d read—some of which I truly loved.

When rating books, or anything, there always has to be a set scale. Amazon has a five-star scale, as does Facebook. IMDb uses a score out of ten, and Rotten Tomatoes gives a percentage out of 100. All things considered, each of these scales could be standardized to all match, and technically nothing would change, but I find that would take away some individuality, as well.

So where does that leave us? When creating a scale, we need three things:

1) Standardization—there must be a scale of some sort to encourage fair and easy comparisons, which will also demand specificity from the rater.

2) Simplicity—Infinity is a bad scale to go up to. It’s also hard to rate value based on electron content or whether it can pass rites of fire in your backyard. Make it easy to understand and easy to replicate, if necessary.

3) Individuality—What does each star (or number) mean? Is it like in school, where a 75% equals passing? Or as with Amazon, does 1 mean “I hated it,” 3 mean “I liked it,” and 5 mean “I loved it”? Will you choose an even scale, that demands choosing a side, or will you allow some gray area? How does this scale represent you, and what you believe about the content you’re reviewing?

Nowadays, I’m going on a five-star scale with a bonus question. It serves my purposes as a reader and watcher of movies, and it allows me to truly honor the media I love in reviews, and make sure I know what I want to return to.

Here’s what it looks like for books:

5—An amazing book, which I love and will remember fondly for years to come. Usually I identify with the characters, enjoy the plot, and admire the author’s choices for the text.

4—A good book, which is fun and interesting. It has good characters, a good plot, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It is simply a darn good book and I will enjoy rereading it.

3—An okay book, which was worth the read but imperfect. Maybe it wasn’t realistic, maybe it’s not my genre, maybe the plot was holey. I’d read it again, but I wouldn’t cry if I accidentally dropped it in the bathtub or something.

2—A poor book, which could have all sorts of problems, but isn’t completely past redemption. I’d reread it… probably.

1—Not worth reading again or I couldn’t finish it. Some books simply do not interest me or are so poorly written I can’t bother to see them through.

However, on my current reading logs, I don’t actually use this star system! That’s only for reviews on my other blog, Sometimes I’m a Story. When I’m putting books in my spreadsheet, I take into account one question:

Would I Read This Book Again?

To be willing to read a book again and again is, quite honestly, the highest praise I could ever give. If the answer is yes and I get stuck with varying degrees of quality, so be it. But I’ll save myself from the one-star books, and that is plenty for me.

What about you? How do you rate books? How does your system differ from mine?

Flickr Credit: Gabriel Lima

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Revising of History

"History is written by the victors." ~Winston Churchill

* * *

In 1637, in the peaceful Mystic River valley, in what is now Connecticut, a Native American tribe known as the Pequots lived rather peacefully and powerfully. They exerted some control over the neighboring tribes and enjoyed a high level of prestige. They traded with a strange new people, who had come over the sea some years before and had made their home there. They were odd in their manner of dress and speech, but they were friendly. Today, we know these strange people as the Pilgrims.

Eventually, however, tensions arose. Tensions had always arisen, but this was taken to a new level. Disputes over property, attacks against cattle (which to the Pilgrims, was an act of savagery only a beast could perform), that soon the Pilgrims knew that the Pequots had to go.

Gathering allies from other Native American tribes (among them the Mohicans and the Narragansetts, who were themselves against the Pequots), the colonists pledged to wage war on the Pequots. These tribes agreed on the condition that the women and children be spared. It didn't seem a strange request to them - that was how wars were always fought, to them, it was normal. The wily colonists agreed. But that was never their intention.

One night in June, 1637, the attack happened: secretly stealing into the enclosed palisade the Pequots called home, the Europeans and their Native American allies attacked. It was slaughter. Muskets shot many. The Pequots fought hard and fierce. Many tried to escape, but the exits had been sealed by brush, or else guarded by armed men. For those that did manage to escape, a line of Mohicans waited outside, ready to shoot anyone who tried to run off. Eventually, however, the bloodlust reached a crescendo.

"Burn them all!" John Underhill, the leader of this "expedition", cried out. The original intention was merely to kill, and plunder. But that would not work. Total destruction was needed.

More than 1500 Pequots were killed, the rest, sold into slavery. The Pequots were utterly destroyed.

* * *

I bring this story up to illustrate the fickle nature of history. This war is relatively little-known. Oh, yes, people may know of it, but yet many, many more are ignorant to the darker side of the beginnings of our nation. This battle happened only 16 years after the first Thanksgiving: a communal celebration between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans, giving thanks and blessings to true friendship, commending all to God. Yet, less than two decades later, these same people commended God for a decisive victory, a true "victory of Christianity", in the words of one church leader.

This is not to bash Christianity or even the beginnings of the nation in any way. This is to illustrate that there are two sides to every story: yes, there was goodwill and peace, but there was also bloodshed and death. The Native Americans were not wholly innocent, however: they later retaliated with "King Philip's War" in 1675-6, led by the son of Massasoit, the chief who had feasted and communed with the Pilgrims back in that first Thanksgiving of 1621: Metacom, better known by the British as "King Philip". Metacom led a fierce battalion of many Native American tribes in coordinated attacks against many New England towns and colonists. It nearly destroyed the English presence in New England.

"There is an underside to every age about which history does not often speak, because history is written from records left by the privileged." ~Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn was a historian who believed in the revision of history. To him, history was a lie, due to the influence of the elite and the privileged in all records. In a way, he was right. He took it to a new level, though: the level of the underdog. His "People's History of the United States", a paean to the underrepresented groups in American history: women, Native Americans, African Americans, the Irish, Mexicans - was also very derisive. It criticized the makers of this country in countless ways, denouncing the hypocrisy of religious freedom; the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness; slavery, and much more. Zinn was rather too extreme, however: yes, people have done bad, horrific things in history, but there were also many good things. All events in history have led up to where we are now in history, which is not a very bad place to be. A happy medium is what history needs.

* * *

There are many approaches to history: the conventional approach, the extreme revisionist approach, and the distanced, balanced approach. I will illustrate examples below.

Conventional: Pilgrims were very friendly and preached religious freedom. They formed friendly relations with the Indians in the first Thanksgiving.

Extreme Revisionist: The Pilgrims were hypocritical, murderous people that waged all-out genocide and persecuted other groups, all in the name of Christianity.

Balanced: The Pilgrims had cordial, friendly ties with Native American tribes, but due to need of expansion and cultural misunderstandings that result from two completely separate groups meeting and coexisting, they launched murderous, barbarous attacks.

The balanced approach is the most correct. However, it is also the most difficult to achieve: there are too many lies, myths, misconceptions, fabrications and confabulations to sever and untangle from the web of history. What we can do, however, is become informed.

Don't take what you know from middle-school history class to be correct. Read Howard Zinn's diatribe against most of U.S. history. But also read other sources! Read about the illustriousness of America, the shining beacon of hope it was, and is, and will continue to be, for many around the world. Get both sides of the story. The side one knows is always the mythical side. Deconstruct history, and learn the truth.

Don't only take America for an example: learn about the world! Europe is not world history: the British and French, the Romans and Greeks are not the sum of history. Learn about the marvelous innovations of the Chinese and the Islamics, the great works of the Egyptians and the Incas, the great societies of the Hawaiians, the Polynesians, the Aztecs.

You will become more informed. The truth will reveal itself to you. And then, perhaps, we can shed the various hatreds and prejudices of the past, and become more united, as humanity. It can happen. But it will only happen with a communal effort: everyone should become informed. Atrocities must be exposed, innovations must be celebrated. And then, with equality and balance, perhaps we can achieve some semblance of peace and unity in this weary world.



Tuesday, September 2, 2014

On Suffering

Flickr Credit: KristyFaith

I do not want to write this post. In fact, I have been actively avoiding writing it ever since I wrote the last
one. At first, I thought I had time. Then I got sick.

I do not know what it is like for you when you get sick. Maybe you enjoy getting sick, because you get off from school or work. I have not taken a sick day in nearly six years—and it is not fun. I do it because I don’t want to make up work. And also to prove that I can.

I do permit myself to get sick on the weekends, and I am writing this on a Sunday. My nose and lips are chapped and I keep pulling off flakes of dead skin that itch if I don’t and sting if I do. I don’t like moving my lips. My head throbs when I cough—less than it did yesterday, but still some. My back is sore especially, and my knee. I don’t know why, but apparently organs that have no business feeling ill decide that they can catch a cold too. There’s a tickle in the back of my throat that is a cough yet to come, and it will bring with it gobs of phlegm when my lungs can take no more. And my lungs have taken quite a beating.

You see, I have asthma. A cold that could take a normal person 2-4 days to get over might take me a week. Maybe more, if it’s bad. I woke up this morning hyperventilating, not because I was panicking, but because my lungs had contracted to the point where I could not logically meet my oxygen quota if I wanted to survive. I wrangled up my medicine, started my penguin nebulizer, and breathed.

There are a lot of good feelings in the world. It feels good when you are loved. It feels good when you finish an Avengers movie. It feels good when you wake up to a red sky and white snowdrifts. But to this day I maintain that there is no better feeling than being able to breathe again. It hurt to suck air into my lungs, but I didn’t care, because the pain was better than the wheezing.

I’m not complaining—that is simply how it is. It sucks when I am sick, but if I think about it, it is the same for all the book characters we know and love.

There is suffering. It lasts. It’s not easily solved. Things hurt in places they aren’t supposed to hurt, and there are other distractions that are only making it worse. They wake up to the terror of almost losing the battle, only to find a way to make it through… at a price.

Voldemort is on the prowl, he has spies everywhere. Harry has to deal with breaks in friendship, he doesn’t know where to go, and the Dark Lord’s wish is that he sacrifice himself alone in the forest. They will win… but the dead piling up don’t see their newfound freedom.

Frodo has the ring, but the land is devastated and he doesn’t know if he will make it. There is only Sam, and him, and Gollum, and Gollum wants the ring. He doesn’t want to throw it in—but he will, and the darkness will end… but Frodo will pay for with his health and free memories until he goes to the Grey Havens.

There is a huge mess, the Cat in the Hat has abandoned them, and Mom is coming home this instant. They clean up, but, ironically, the children must lie to their mother to maintain their integrity.


Otto Malpense.

Jane Eyre.

Captain America.

Jesus Christ.

There is suffering. And that matters. Not everybody has such a hard time with colds. Some people are sent to put a ring down a volcano and defeat the evil eye that has watched the land for many years. Some people are sent to die for the world’s sins and go to Hell. But some people get colds.

The point is this: every book, every story must have suffering. There is no point otherwise. Maybe you felt sorry for me when I described my cold, maybe you didn’t. But regardless, you did learn that I am in a fight, and that makes me interesting. I am not just sitting at this computer, scrolling through Pinterest and chatting with my friends. There are other things, other pains, and they haunt me even past my sleep.

And that is why it matters to them too. Characters must be interesting—even the secondary or tertiary characters. They must have pains. They must have struggles that they will die for or die from. It makes us care… and the good ones remind us of ourselves a little bit, too.

How do you feel about suffering?