Tag: Opinion (page 1 of 8)

Kids These Days & Their Stories

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Columnist on WSJ is a jackass! Read all about it!

Plenty has already been said about this WSJ article pertaining to young adult fiction. As usual, Chuck has written what we’re all thinking with an extra dose of profanity and buckshot. Instead of adding more fuel to the fire by talking about how wrong this opinion is, I’d like to furnish you with an example of contemporary fiction, aimed at a younger audience, that works effectively and is well-written without being saccharine-sweet and ‘safe’ all the time.

The example is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

… Yes, I watch My Little Pony. Get it out of your system now.

Anyway, I vaguely remember the original cartoon from the ’80s. My sisters were into it. I was more of a mind for Transformers, as I’ve mentioned, because robots that become cars and change back were far more gnarly than girly ponies. I was too young to pay attention to things like plot (which was non-existent), characters (who only rose above ‘broad archetype’ on rare occasions) and Aesops (that got beaten into your soft heads every episode) when things were exploding in a colorful fashion. But that was kid’s programming back then. It was safe.

Fast forward about twenty-five years and some hard-learned lessons about what does and does not make for good storytelling. When I was first made aware of the new Ponies, I was skeptical. I’d seen what they’d done to Star Wars and my beloved Transformers, after all, and besides it was ponies. I didn’t indulge or even glance at the show for the longest time. Then my wife got into it. I figured I’d try at least one episode, make her happy, secure the future of my sex life, maybe have a laugh.

I wasn’t expecting to get hooked.

I wasn’t expecting good characterization. I wasn’t expecting well-done animation and decent voice-acting. I wasn’t expecting legitimately funny, frustrating, joyous and touching moments.

And I certainly wasn’t expecting dragons, hydras, a cockatrice or a griffon so bitchy I’ve never wanted to roast a lion-bird on a spit so much in my gorram life.

My Little Pony isn’t afraid to go shady places. It deals with jealousy (a lot, I guess that’s a problem for girls growing up), isolation, growth from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, fear and even crisis management and racism, all in the context of the magical kingdom of Equestria and without being terribly overt or insensitive about things. Sure, there’s an Aesop every episode but they range from mildly anvilicious to rather well-presented. I mean, they do a Clients from Hell episode. I wasn’t all that inclined to like Rarity (the seamstress unicorn) but watching her put up with the demands of her friends as customers made me a lot more sympathetic and that feeling hasn’t gone away. Clients suck, whether you’re building websites or magically assembling pretty dresses for your pony friends.

Courtesy Hasbro
She’s not a shopaholic. She’s an artist. HUGE difference.

…Where was I? Right, children’s lit.

My point, other than these ponies being awesome, is that the show and its writers go into the darker corners of a girl’s adolescence and drag some pretty nasty issues kicking and screaming into the light so that the girls in question can face them without fear or shame. As I said, some of the Aesop-dispensing is a tad on the overt side, but when this show cooks it does so with gas as well as gusto. The relationships of its characters, the way they handle situations and the delivery of their lines is handled so adeptly and consistently that I can’t help but feel very strongly about the show. This is how children’s entertainment should work. This is how you write young adult lit well without sacrificing decent characterization, complex themes and dark subject matter.

The writers and animators of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic are wise in that they handle their stories in this way, and also in the way they keep the humor working on levels other than juvenile slapstick for any adults that watch and in the very adept and clever ways in which they handle character relationships and their reactions to the subjects at hand. While some cartoons and even major motion pictures and triple-A video games look at writing as a necessary evil to string together a series of flashy spectacles, this show knows its writing is the foundation upon which its appeal and meaning are built. Those other, flashier, more ‘masculine’ forms of entertainment could take a lesson or two of their own from this humble, pretty, bright and very awesome girl’s cartoon.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do something manly. Like bench-press something, or drink really crappy beer while yelling obscenities at a sporting event.

In Memoriam

American flag

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

We have the country we have today because people got pissed off enough to fight for it.

I discussed the reasoning behind our fight for independence back on our last Independence Day, and I still think this country has a long way to go before it fixes all the bridges that have nearly been burnt to the ground because of the actions we’ve taken in the name of securing our borders. That doesn’t mean that the men and women who died in service to the country should not be remembered, or that their sacrifice should be downplayed or marginalized. They were called upon to do their duty, to fight while others stand idle, and they answered.

America’s military is based entirely on volunteer service. People enlist for various reasons, from pure-hearted desire to serve the country to paying for a college education. And those who can already afford college can embark upon a career as an officer right from the start. The important fact, though, is that none of it is compulsory. Nobody is making these young men and women sign up for service that could ultimately mean they’re going to die far from home, in some foreign land, possibly alone with no one to remember them save for a line item in a report listing them as “Missing In Action”.

Other countries compel their citizens to join the military from an early age. There’s no choice in the matter. Regardless of how you feel about your country, you’re going to be serving in its military. As much as I admire Heinlein, the idea of compulsory military service being the only route to citizenship is a pretty scary one. But unless I’m mistaken, no country has gone completely that far yet.

Here, though, every person who puts on that uniform, male or female, young or old, gay or straight, left or right, does so for the same reason. They want to serve. They chose to answer the call to duty. Nobody made them.

And if they died on a foreign shore, they did so as the ultimate result of that choice. As lonely, painful, cold and dark as it might have been for them, it is a deep hope of mine that they do not consider themselves forgotten.

We have not forgotten.

Wars are horrible things. The necessity of force to further political or economic gain is an indication that cooler heads and well-spoken reason have not prevailed over base, animalistic instincts. Canny leaders and generals will at least do what they can to end the fight as quickly and directly as possible. Sun-Tzu teaches us “There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.” He was right 2000 years ago and he’s right today. However, this doesn’t mean that those that fight in wars are as horrible as the wars they fight.

Indeed, war can show the very best of human nature. Comrades helping one another through the battlefield, nobility in the face of unstoppable odds, compassion for one’s enemies; these are all things I feel we do not see or read often enough. In the pages of dry, procedural after-action reports are many such stories yet untold. In finding and telling them, we help to remember what it is to be a volunteer soldier, to choose to fight, to exemplify in our conflicts who we are as a country and what we stand for.

It’s probably my idealism creeping back into my rhetoric, but I’d like to think that, more often than not, on the front lines in foreign lands, the men and women of the American military ‘being all they can be’ means professionalism, respect, audacity and resolve. These volunteers should represent the best and bravest of us. They chose to defend our interests and our country, and we in turn are compelled to remember. For them it was voluntary; for us, back at home, living our lifestyles the way we are due to countless sacrifices born of their choices, remembering feels compulsory.

To all the men and women of the past and present who have chosen to serve America, making sacrifices from a few lost years to the one that means you’ll never see us again:

Thank you, and God bless you.

Dresden Zen

Courtesy the Dresden Files

In the process of writing Cold Iron, which is still in progress, I’ve reached for inspiration and motivation from contemporaries in the field of supernatural detective mysteries. First and foremost and long overdue is my reading of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, a series of novels about a Chicago-based wizard who operates a private investigation practice. Beyond the appeal of Harry Dresden himself is Butcher’s take on the supernatural world. The more I read these excellent books, the more I find Harry encountering situations in such a way that can actually inform the life of the reader. It could be a case of me reading too much into some works of genre fiction, but as far as I can tell, Harry’s got some lessons to teach, and not just about the proper care and use of one’s blasting rod.

Lesson: True power comes from within.
Book: Storm Front

One of the first and biggest uses of magic we see in the series takes place about two-thirds through the first book. A demon comes calling on Mister Dresden at home, and our hero is unfortunately not dressed for the occasion. In fact, he’s not dressed at all. His magical implements are not at hand and he needs to muster a defense lest a series of novels quickly become a short-lived one-shot. He taps into the elemental powers of the thunderstorm outside and his own emotional power to find a way to succeed. Without much preparation, without tools, without even clothes, Harry prevails. It’s not just a testament to the power of magic but also to that of the human spirit.

Lesson: Keep an open mind; things aren’t always what they seem.
Book: Fool Moon

Having introduced his version of vampires in Storm Front, the natural thing for Butcher to do in his second book is introduce werewolves. In pursuing a particularly nasty lycanthrope called a loup-garou, Harry goes down a bunch of blind alleys of reasoning and supposition. He always realizes his mistakes and checks himself afterwards, but it does lead him into some bad situations with far-reaching consequences. In later books we see Dresden taking a bit more time to discern what’s going on around him, and it saves his bacon more than once.

Lesson: Unlikely friends can be the best friends.
Book: Grave Peril

In hunting down poltergeists and investigating why they’re so violently prevalent all of a sudden, Harry teams up with a man named Michael Carpenter. Michael is a literal knight in shining armor, though he often wears jeans and a flannel shirt instead of the mail & tabard. He carries a holy sword, Amoracchius, and chides Harry for his habits and occasional disrespect for the Almighty – without being a dick about it. He’s a legitimately nice guy, and turns out to be one of Harry’s best and most trusted friends. You wouldn’t think this to be the case, given the tension that often exists between people who live in the Bible and those who gather the forces of the world unseen, but this sort of unlikely alliance yields a deep and abiding partnership that borders on bromance. Of course that could just be my take on it because I have a soft spot for Christian characters acting like actual Christians and not being Bible-thumping douchecanoes.

Lesson: Nature is both beautiful and fearsome; treat it with respect and wonder.
Book: Summer Knight

The very nature of the Fae is that of nature herself – breathtakingly gorgeous, timelessly alluring and very dangerous. Harry knows this from experience and, coupled with his growing skills of discernment, wades into what amounts to a turf war between camps of Fair Folk with open eyes and canny thoughts. He appreciates the wonders he sees but controls himself accordingly to get his job done. It shows his growth as a character and helps the audience realize that, even when it comes to pixies and water-clad nymphs, this world he protects us mundane folk from is an extremely deadly one.

How To Succeed At Failure

Courtesy verydemotivational.com

Chances are good that, if you’re reading this, you’re a human being. I mean, you could be an automated online process looking for SEO terminology, but if that’s the case you won’t get much out of this post. I tend to write more in coherent thoughts than barely-connected keywords. Anyway, the majority of my audience are human beings, and if there’s one thing all human beings do, it’s make mistakes.

Okay, all human beings do a lot of other things too, but I don’t have much of a knack for poop humor.

When mistakes happen, as they inevitably do, a lot of energy is generated. Disappointment, rage, confusion, dread; all of these emotions tend to fall towards the negative end of the spectrum. But like any energy source, it can be redirected. But how, and to where?

The Questions

When you fail, there are two questions that need to be answered. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is “Why?” Provided that your failure isn’t due to some sort of natural disaster, there’s a human being that can be referenced as the cause for the failure, be it yourself or someone else. Note that this is not about assigning blame, it’s about understanding the cause that lead to the effect of you feeling at least somewhat drained and broken.

Examine the circumstances. Was it something you said or did? Does the product you’re offering require more polish? Did you miss an essential bit of data in the process of assembling your solution? Did you approach the wrong audience? Was your timing off? Did you forget anything?

Quite a few of these questions, all expansions upon “Why?” are largely personal. There may be some navel-gazing involved. However you appoaching answering this first overarching question, as you hunt down the causes you will collect data. Your failure may be time-sensitive and require a rapid response, so you might not have too much time to gather all the facts. Still, the more data you can reasonably collect, the better you can answer the second question.

That question is: “What now?”

True Failure

The impulse in light of failure, especially repeated failure, may be to quit. Why band your head against the wall repeatedly? You won’t get anywhere, it tends to start hurting and someone else might own the wall and sue you for damages while you nurse that concussion. Better to quit and do something less frustrating with our time, right?

Wrong.

Quitting is the only true failure. It’s surrendering, admitting defeat. It’s saying that whatever it was you were trying to do, that you had devoted time, energy and talent to doing, simply isn’t worth that expenditure, and you were wasting it before you decided to run up the white flag.

Now, not everything we do is going to have a profound impact if we keep at it. The world isn’t going to end if you decide a puzzle has stumped you or a game is too difficult to overcome even on the easiest settings. However, creative endeavors and the potential fruits of labor at the workplace tend to have deeper meanings, even if it’s just how we’ll be seen by those who write our paychecks.

So more often than not, I would encourage you not to quit. Tenacity is a virtue that can be hard to find in an age where more creature comforts, distractions and products focused on ease of use help people become lazier. There are those who simply don’t see the point of doing something they can’t excel at or aren’t the least bit passionate about, and quit before they’ve even begun.

In other words, they’ve failed without even giving themselves a chance to try.

You Suck

This isn’t to say that everybody shoud do everything they can or have the inclination to try. There just isn’t time. But people who develop ideas for a narrative, or a career, or a new artistic endeavor, or a unique community initiative, or an unexplored workplace solution and do nothing with it after it’s emerged from their imaginative centers tend to baffle me. Why don’t they do something with their ideas? What’s stopping them from seeking further inspiration, time to develop those products or at least finding a partner with whom to collaborate?

If they’re anything like me, they’re probably reminded themselves that they suck one too many times.

It’s imporant to be humble, there’s no doubt about that. Having the attidue of “I don’t know everything but I want to know more” when it comes to creating something or playing a game or being a better driver or just about anything is a much healthier one than “I know everything and am always right.” But the exact opposite of that unfavorable mentality is “I don’t know enough and never will so I’m just going to give up.”

I mentioned in yesterday’s post how demoralizing the realization of just how much you suck can be. You get schooled in a game. Your art or writing doesn’t turn out how you thought it would. You get nowhere in a project at work, and the deadline is breathing down your neck. Encountering resistance is going to happen, and when it does many people (myself included) feel the impulse to just give up.

But I’ve learned to do something else with that impulse. Other than kicking it square in the teeth.

The Internet Is For More Than Just Porn

We are more connected to one another than we have ever been. While the world is running out of space and resources for the human race, it’s also shrinking in terms of distance between people in terms of communication. People who might never have met just ten years ago can now trade information, pleasantries or insults instantaneously.

It’s one of the best tools you can use for turning your failures into fuel.

Chances are there’s a community based around your area of enthusiasm. Find one and start asking members for help and opinions. Since the community is full of other enthusiasts, chances are at least a couple will share your passion, understand your struggle and have advice to give. There’s all sorts of help and encouragement available to you, you just have to hunt it down and ask for it.

The Path Ahead

Again, I want to stress that you should not feel obligated to treat every single one of your failures like this. Time is a limited resource and we each only have so much in our lives. Choose what truly interests you, what makes you come alive, and leverage that into a hobby or even a career. And when you fail along the path to achieving your goals related to this empassioning interest, that’s when you should ask yourself why, figure out what’s next and seek help and encouragement. To me, that’s how you succeed at failure.

If you have any other thoughts or suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

The Nostalgia Factor

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Yesterday on The Big Picture, MovieBob brought up the recent incarnation of Transformers on the big screen. He wondered why the bulk of both films seemed much less concerned with the mythology, characterization and interaction of the titular characters than it did with Shia LeBeouf allowing millions of frustrated teenagers to vicariously court Megan Fox. It’s relatively common knowledge that the Transformers grew out of a toy line from the 80s, and the animated series primarily aimed at moving more of those toys spawned a movie of its own. It was certainly no great gift to cinema or even to genre fiction, but at least it let the Transformers be the actual stars in a Transformers movie, instead of shoving them aside for gratuitous shots of US military hardware, misfiring bodily humor and Ms. Fox or some other walking wank material providing shallow titillation.

Let me reiterate that. The original Transformers movie was slightly better than the modern movies, but it still wasn’t all that great.

I mean, sure, I can watch it and smile but that’s mostly due to the memories. I can remember being a child, clutching a plastic toy, eyes full of the characters I retreated to daily coming to life. I spent even more time in my head back then than I do now, and seeing things I’d only imagined manifesting in front of me with full stereophonic sound and professional voice acting blew my adolescent mind right out of the water. Nowadays I’ll pick apart the plot, shake my head at the silliness and laugh at the effects, the acting or both. But there’s still a part of me that wants very badly to love the movie. It’s the part of me that’s never grown up. The Randal Graves part.

Just because something was first experienced when we were young does not necessarily mean it’s better. We just remember it fondly as a bright spot in a more innocent time. We didn’t have responsibility, the weight of obligation or the guilt of past transgressions getting in the way of our joy. We didn’t have to suspend our disbelief because, for the most part, we didn’t have much disbelief yet. I’m sure there are some kids who are growing up skeptical, questioning and very smart. This is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. Some of us just didn’t come into our critical thinking skills until later. And we look back on the times before those skills developed, on what we enjoyed, and don’t necessarily apply our critical minds right away. In a way, we don’t necessarily want to.

Case in point: Tron.

The original Tron as one of the many, many films that debuted in 1982, the year for genre films. I was introduced to many of the titles of that year at a very young age. When I first saw Tron, nothing like it had been seen before. The special effects employed laid the groundwork for the plethora of CGI methods to come, and many digital artists in cinema and video games today owe much of their craft to some of the techniques pioneered by works like Tron. The concept of a world inside a computer, populated with programs capable of interacting like people and battling it out in disc duels and lightcycle wars was overwhelming to my young mind. That idea stuck with me and colored my recollection of the film even as I re-watched it a few times. Things have changed for me. I can tell you that the original Tron suffers from badly aging effects, some questionable acting and characters that are nearly non-existent. You can name them and know them by sight, but you don’t get a really good sense of who they are.

Now, compare it to Tron: Legacy.

The concept of a living world inside a computer remains intact and gets a lot of fleshing out, but more importantly, we have characters who are not only given depth but also come across as somewhat realistic. The leads have good chemistry reinforced by solid writing, the effects look gorgeous and the score is absolutely phenomenal. The execution still isn’t airtight and it feels at times like the film is more concerned with either invoking old-school fans’ nostalgia or trying to lay the groundwork for sequels than remaining in the story in front of us. While this is also a problem in a movie like Transformers or G.I. Joe: the Rise of Cobra, Legacy pulls it off a hell of a lot better than either of those two. I wasn’t wondering when they’d get to ‘the good stuff’ or why we should care about the lead protagonist.

It’s not great, but it’s very good. It’s no Inception but it’s far, far better than many other attempts to revitalize older concepts and play upon the nostalgia factor of nerds like myself. It shows that the techniques of modern storytelling, from cutting-edge digital tools to the experienced hand of a writer concerned with character and pacing instead of merely concept, are superior to those used years ago. In other words, if you want to create a story with its roots in something that’s come before, you must remember that the nostalgia factor should only be an incidental concern, not an overriding or guiding principle.

Or as Yahtzee put it once, “Nostalgia’s a mouthful of balls.”

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