Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hypothetical future epic novel

For quite some time now, I've had an idea for an epic novel floating around in my head. I have to confess that I don't believe I have either the talent or the time to write it well but it's an idea that I'd love to sell to someone one of these days. The central idea of the book is an exploration of meta-fiction. The main character, Tom (my prologue currently gives him an Homeric epithet, Thomas the Unbound) knows that he is a fictional character.

Furthermore, he knows that he is a main character which means that he is practically invincible, since an author will only kill his main character if it serves some higher, symbolic or poetic purpose (e.g. self-sacrifice) or if the author introduces someone or something more interesting than the main character with which to replace him. The author (to whom I have been referring as Arthur) basically tells him to find his own destiny in the fictional world and provides a guide to help him in his journey - Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Don Quixote is a powerful literary figure in that his belief shapes his reality. In the first part of Don Quixote, the fictions his madness invents are only in his own head but, by the second part, they begin to transform the world around him. Thus, centuries later, he has perfected to a degree the ability to travel between fictional worlds at will. His vision, however, is limited to books of chivalry and perhaps the bible (since a good knight is also a good Christian). Tom knows no such limits.

Tom begins travelling through the world of Fiction, gaining power as he learns more control. At some point, he analyzes his own text as though from an outside perspective, unsettling Arthur no end. He decides that he wants to be truly immortal. To achieve this end, he decides two things:
1. He must be the most interesting person imaginable and do many amazing things so that Arthur cannot invent anything more interesting.
2. He must be selfish - since self-sacrifice is a vulnerability - yet he must not become completely evil or risk the hand of poetic justice smiting him. He decides that being power-hungry is a reasonable balance between the two.

To gain in power, he begins placing himself in situations in which Arthur must grant him additional power in order to preserve him. In my great, climactic example, he travels to the biblical depiction of the 2nd temptation of Christ and flings himself from the temple heights. Since, in a biblical context, Arthur cannot send angels to support someone who isn't worthy of their protection, he must instead grant him the power of flight.

By the conclusion of the tale, Tom has gained enormous power. His control of the fictional world is virtually absolute. A massive storm builds behind him as he attempts to merge all fictional dimensions into a single, great kingdom, threatening to tear apart the very fabric of Fiction as we know it.

Arthur suddenly realizes that there is only one thing to be done to stop Tom once and for all. He writes himself into the novel and traps himself in it, knowing that a genuinely all-powerful author is the only thing more potentially interesting than a virtually all-powerful character. He destroys his creation, restoring balance to the fictional universe but now cannot leave.

Here's what I have written so far - it's only bits and pieces but I'd love to have the chance to make it more. One meta-fictional twist to it is that "I" shifts between Arthur and Tom as they struggle for power.
Sing to me, Muse, of Thomas the Unbound, of his glory and power that transcend understanding.  Speak to me that I may write his tale and do justice and honor to his name.  Fill me, oh Muses of Fiction and Fantasy with the power of pen to create new life.  Oh patron saints of madmen, artists and inventors, grant me thy gifts and bless me with the talent to bring him to life, to give him a voice and a will.  
I set pen to paper and began to write.  "Thomas was a perfectly ordinary name, one that would fit well in almost any book.  This is precisely why it was a perfect name for the moat extraordinary figure ever created on a page." 
Yes, that's a good start...   
Chapter one:  the birth of a legend  
I blinked open my eyes as if awaking from a long sleep which I knew I could not have had since I had never slept.  I looked around me, expecting nothing since nothing was precisely the sum total of my experience up until that moment and thus, nothing is exactly what I saw.   
Nothing is quite so difficult to describe as nothing.  Except perhaps for eternity.  You may imagine, if it comforts you to do so, a field of white, glowing haze, a dark abyss or a simple, flat, gray plane but each of those is still something.  They have a color and a shape and so cannot be considered nothing.   
I knew, though, that I could not be blind and that I ought to see something - even in the darkest chamber one can perceive the dark.  With that thought, I saw Him.  Arthur, His name came to me, was my creator, perhaps something akin to a father except with no possibility of a mother. 
"What I'm telling you," replied Arthur calmly, "is that your destiny is completely your own.  As a fictional character, you have the freedom to do anything you can imagine."  
"I haven't exactly had a lot of experience with imagining anything yet," I answered.  "How am I supposed to know what to do with my life without any experience to draw on?  I know nothing beyond my immediate context and those gifts of language you've given me."  
"While I wish I could be your guide on your journey of self-discovery," said Arthur as he shook his head softly, "I am rather Ill-equipped for the task.  My life's experiences are those of a student, a writer and a simple father of a small family.  However, while I, myself, can only be your chronicler, I know the perfect guide to help you to find your own voice and lead you the rest of the way."  
With that, Arthur bent once again over his notebook and began writing with his original furvor.  An admittedly overused (though no less impressive for that fact) swirling blue and purple vortex appeared providing a convenient image to accompany the appearance of a new figure onto the scene.  
What first appeared through the portal was the head of an old, grey nag, well past its prime, whose decrepit body soon followed, bone by protruding bone.  Atop the horse sat a tall, gaunt figure dressed in a dirty, rusted suit of armor cobbled together, it seemed, from old kitchenware and a dingy yellow wash basin for a helmet.  For a moment, I doubted Arthur sanity as the weatherbeaten tail of the old gluepot passed into existence through the portal.  This was to be my guide?    
My doubts were quickly put to rest, however, when the figure atop the horse raised his visor and said,"¿Quienes sois vosotros que me paréis aquí?". He glanced then at Arthur and inclined his head, his tone softening.  "O Sabio Encantador, escritor de la historia de mis hechos y aventuras en la Mancha, ¿que requiere vuesa merced de mi?"  
I turned slowly to Arthur, certain now he had, indeed, lost his grip on reality or, rather, what passed for reality in a fictional context.  He returned my glance with a look of confusion.  He snapped his fingers as realization dawned on him.  "Of course, you don't understand Spanish.  Yet.". This last was added with a rueful grin and a quick scribble.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Heroes in a Colorful World

Hi, everyone. It's been an exceptionally long time since my last post but I felt as though I had to stand up and say something today about racism. In a recent discussion, one of my colleagues, believing himself to be surrounded by fellow liberals (I am beginning to believe that I am the only conservative in the state of Connecticut) declared that those from the Right ignore racism and pretend that it no longer exists in our society.

At least in my case, this is most definitely a false perception of conservatives. I think the problem here, though, is one of how we define success in this area. Liberals, in general, seem to be very concerned with tracking numbers and percentages. "This percentage of CEOs are white males," they declare, for example, or "This percentage of black kids drop out of school compared to this percentage of white kids. And let's not forget the Hispanic kids, Asian kids and (more recently) homosexual kids," stating that this must change. The way they decide to change it is by fiat - the government declares, "thou shalt have no fewer than X percentage of employees be of Y racial background or thou shalt lose much money." Colleges are praised for their ethnic diversity and racially-based scholarships abound. If you can prove that you have Native American ancestry, even if your family is otherwise like every other family in your local corner of suburbia, you are presented with a cornucopia of opportunities unavailable to your Caucasian neighbor. Thus, for the liberal idealist, a perfectly racism-free society would have those numbers balance perfectly - if 15% of the population is *fill-in-ethnic-backgound* then they'll be happy when they count that at least 15% of CEOs, managers, politicians and major league baseball team owners are *fill-in-ethnic-background.*

I remember a time when I was blissfully unaware of the issue of race or racism. I was a middle-class kid attending a private school in Los Angeles. One day, I noticed a girl in my 1st grade class who I thought was cute which, predictably, instantly made me uncomfortable talking to her. Noticing my discomfort, she declared, "Well, you just don't like me because I'm black." My mind was completely blown. First off, I *did* like her - that was precisely my problem. Secondly, and this is the part I expressed, "What does that [being black] have to do with anything?"

That day, this girl taught me 2 lessons I wished I had never learned with that simple statement. First, she taught me that there was some sort of fundamental difference between black people and white people. I hadn't even considered breaking people up by their skin tone before that moment. People were people, end of story, right? Apparently, this little girl thought otherwise.

The second lesson of that brief exchange, even more damning than the first, was that being black was a reason to not like someone. Now, it's important to note here that this message was not being touted by a white supremacist or a redneck but by a 7 year old black girl. Obviously, our social programming starts very early and happens on both sides of the "tolerance" line.

The next year, we moved to Santa Barbara. A new school brought new friends and new, interesting social situations. My first best friend in Santa Barbara was a kid by the name of Paul Gosh (I apologize for not remembering how to spell that last name). I would come home and tell my parents about what I had done with Paul today at recess or what have you. Then one day he came over. My parents were somewhat surprised to find that my friend was quite dark-skinned, a fact which I had never once mentioned even though I spoke of him frequently. Despite my paradigm shift from the year before, I was still pretty darn colorblind with regards to race.

Over the next couple of years, though, a particular ethnic group started getting my attention. While I should stress that this is a viewpoint I no longer hold, I decided at that time that I had a problem with Mexicans (to use the overly generalized concept graspable by a 9-10 year old). Why, you may ask, would I develop that kind of prejudice? The answer is quite simple. While I tried to be a friend to as many people as were willing to be my friend (which were, admittedly, not very many people), they consistently traveled together as an exclusive and unapproachable gang around the playground. They set themselves apart from everyone else and made it clear in no uncertain terms that they really didn't want or need anyone from outside of their racial profile. This was my first encounter with "*Fill-in-the-minority-or-ethnic-group* Pride" and I. Really. Didn't. Get it. I still don't! Why, I thought, would you ONLY want to make friends with people with the same racial background and exclude everyone else? I was being taught segregation in reverse - rather than keeping *them* separate from *us,* they kept their *us* separate from all of *them* (their Them being our Us - if that makes any sense which it probably doesn't).

Fast-forward through the years a bit and you'll find all of the race-specific clubs, assorted "Pride" groups and a really frustrated/frustrating Mexican Spanish teacher who hated white guys (it's documented, folks!) reinforcing this idea that we are not all the same and that the difference between races is more than skin-deep.

Even as a missionary in Guatemala, I found various kinds of racism all around me. Among them, while the way the Ladino was viewed by Latino society was a shock, the most striking to me was that same paradigm I had encountered in elementary school being repeated among my fellow missionaries. While we were often placed in multi-racial companionships (I actually had more Latino companions than Gringos), there were always the zone meetings where all the missionaries from a large area got together for training and, usually, pizza. During the social pizza-consumption portion of the program, I realized to my dismay that, every time, all the Gringos would gather together in one room and all the Latinos would gather in another room, usually with the Gringos staying in the room with the pizza and the Latinos filtering out. It's obviously hard to point fingers in this situation as to who is at fault - I really felt as though this minor xenophobia was some kind of "natural" (in the sense that the natural man is an enemy to God) process that I had somehow missed out on. Of course the English speakers want to hang out with English speakers if only so they can get a break from Spanish, right?

I made my choice then. When groups started separating, I always followed the Latinos. Even if I stuck out, even if I maybe even made someone uncomfortable by my presence, even though my grasp of the language wasn't all that great, I refused to be party to segregation, no matter how voluntary. I believe that any advantage I have/had in Spanish over my fellow Gringos is due, at least in part, to that choice. While I once hated the Spanish language because I associated it with those kids who ganged up on me in dodgeball and that Señora with her issues, I came to embrace it as a means of bridging the gap, of crossing into the space of "the other" and becoming one with them. While I have instructors here at UConn who dismissively decline to so much as comment on the idea (raised by my classmates) that we Gringos in the masters' program might be part of Latinoamerica, by choice rather than by birth, I truly feel that part of my heart is Latino. Okay, specifically Chapín but that's another story.

Boiling all this back down and bringing it back to my original point, my experiences have led me to a quite different conclusion regarding how we can measure success in combating racism. Instead of changing numbers it involves a change of heart - truly loving all people equally as God has commanded us. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you won't care what color they are, what their ethnic background is. You'll support them, share with them, raise your children together in harmony, not "in spite of" racial differences but because they really, honestly don't matter to either of you. If you truly love all of God's children the way we should, there will be no *us* and *them.*

It involves parents not teaching their children hate, but love, and I'm talking about both ends of the equation here. While I know that there are many white supremacist groups out there teaching their kids a gospel of hate - and that clearly needs to come to an end - I have to ask where that 7-year old girl learned that white people wouldn't like her because she was black? She certainly didn't learn it in school and she didn't learn it from me. Combating racism is a struggle for every home, every parent and every child. Once a parent has taught their child to hate or that they will be a victim of hate at the hands of white oppressors, as soon as a parent teaches their child a dichotomy between *us* and *them* along those lines no governmental edict or fiat will change their heart. Teach the parents to teach their children that love.

This change of heart won't be something you can measure, count or calculate percentages on precisely because that would defeat the purpose. As soon as you start thinking in terms of race, of comparing and contrasting along racial or ethnic lines, you are perpetuating the problem.

In my heart, I stand together tonight with Dr. King: I have a dream that one day all of God's children will be as equal in each others' sight as we are in His. I have a dream that every man will love his neighbor. I have a dream that we can start working towards that today. To quote Dr. King:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that my . . . children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

Which classic Superhero are you?

Your results:
You are Superman
Green Lantern
Iron Man
The Flash
Wonder Woman
You are mild-mannered, good,
strong and you love to help others.
Click here to take the Superhero Personality Quiz