musings

Life Comes At You Fast

“Life comes at you fast” is a phrase often appearing in commercials for Nationwide Insurance. It comes to my mind when things get hectic and feel out of control. It also happens to explain why sometimes I find it difficult to find the time to post to my blog. The past nine weeks have included, among many other things:

  • formatting and preparing a new book for publication (this does not count as writing!) (more news on this coming soon!)

  • caregiving - getting my mother moved into Memory Care at her assisted living facility

  • illness - two bouts of upper respiratory “crud,” my mother’s hospital stay for norovirus, herniated disc issues, family sharing upper respiratory infections with one another, doctor visits, physical therapy, and an MRI

  • travel - driving to Florida, flying back to Cincinnati and returning to Florida, several days out of the country, multiple trips across Central Florida, seven different airports in one two-week period

  • automobiles - repairs as well as out-and-out replacement

  • home - renovation work

  • income taxes done - assembling and submitting documents to have our taxes done, as well as my mother’s

None of this is excessively worrisome, in and of itself. But when these things are concentrated within a short time period, it leaves my head in a whirl.

Writers are often advised to not let anything interfere with their writing time. To squeeze in writing wherever possible. Sadly (!), writing magazines and websites abound with stories of Super-Writers who can crank out best-selling novels while running a household and holding down a fulltime job outside the home and changing diapers and volunteering at the nearest homeless shelter and teaching Sunday School at their church etc. etc. On the other hand, writers are also advised to not beat themselves up over whether they’re putting in enough time in front of the computer screen cranking out their work.

Today, I pledge not to beat myself up over how much/little time I spend on writing.

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First


Over the past few weeks we have moved my mother from an assisted living facility to a memory care facility. This transition was, not surprisingly, stressful, both physically and emotionally -- not just for her, but for me as well, as the quarterback for her care team. I could not have done it without the other people on the team: my wife, my aunt, our paralegal, our "facilities-finder," the staff of each facility, and many others. In hindsight, it all went rather smoothly, even if it was a very busy and tiring time. There were papers to sign, a move to coordinate, cleaning out all the junk from Mom's last room (including trips to Goodwill, Salvation Army, and the county dump for donations), learning the why's and wherefor's of coming and going from a Memory Care Center, assuring the continuity of medications, meeting new staff members, and always being vigilant to my mother's needs. We expected the move to feel disruptive to her, but she took things in stride, and accepted our "story" that she had to move to this new apartment because the old apartment had to be renovated.

But just as Mom was getting settled in, there was an outbreak of norovirus in her facility. She wound up in the hospital for a few days, confused and disoriented. When she was able to return to her Memory Care facility, she got sick again, just as I discovered - painfully - that I have an issue with my lumbar spine.

Setting priorities as a caretaker can be a major challenge. My late father-in-law grew up working on a farm and passed along a piece of wisdom: always feed your animals first. Do that, and then you can think about sitting down in the kitchen for breakfast. This is important when you live on a farm, because those animals provide a substantial part of your livelihood. But the role of caretaker for an elderly parent has to be approached differently. If you, as a caretaker, do not take care of yourself first, you will be no good in taking care of that parent. Just like when you board a plane and the flight attendant explains that if the oxygen masks come down because of a loss of cabin pressure, you should put yours on before you assist your children.

At the moment, I'm having to step back and let the rest of my mother's team focus on her care. I have to see a specialist to see what must be done so I can get back out on the playing field. This is difficult for me to do, but I will be no good to my mother if I don't take care of myself first.

Caretaking is one of the most demanding jobs on the planet. If you are a caretaker, please do not neglect your own health - both physical and mental.

There is Such a Thing as a “Weapons Aesthetic"

There is beauty to be found in weapons.

How can that be? Start with a Google search on the two words “weapon” and “aesthetic.” Take a look at what Pinterest users have organized under “weapons aesthetic.” My understanding of a weapons aesthetic is this: weapons obviously vary in their utility, when and how they are used in combat or self-defense. But they also vary in their design and their “eye” appeal.

Of course, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” As a beholder of beauty in certain weapons (both real and fictitious), I offer up the following opinions:

  • The Mauser C96 semi-automatic pistol is “ugly.” I don’t care for either the angular shape of the box magazine or the bulbous round handgrip. The materials don’t match, and the lines (angular and bulbous) don’t match.

  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E. gun, a pistol carbine based on a Walther P38 and used in the TV series, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is a thing of beauty. It is sleek, minimalist, and because it is made from detachable components, it can be customized on-the-fly. The toy version of this gun (which I owned in 1966, lost, and subsequently reassembled component-by-component from parts offered on eBay) is not an exact replica, and its aesthetics are marred by the design of the pistol (not a P38). As a boy I also owned a toy P38 that fit my hand so perfectly it felt like the proverbial extension of my arm.

  • Several of the weapons used in the filming of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings catch my eye because of the smooth curves and lines of the blades and/or hilts. See, for example, the double-bladed Mirkwood pole arm; Orcrist, the sword of Thorin Oakenshield; and the fighting knives of Legolas.

  • Ornamentation of any kind (e.g., jeweled hilts for blade weapons, filigree etching on gun barrels or handgrips, pink coloring for women) I find aesthetically displeasing. It is distracting and non-functional. (Though the fantasy blades mentioned above do have varying degrees of ornamentation, it is not overly distracting.)

The Mystery of Creativity

The world thrives on creativity. From entertainment to the arts to science and business, creativity plays an important role in giving us novel ways of looking at the world and solving problems. Thousands of books have been written on the topic of creativity. Many claim there is no mystery to creativity, and they offer approaches and exercises to make creativity “easier.” But there is no denying that there is no clear explanation for how and when creativity will “hit.” In my own creative endeavors, I’ve noted various approaches I’ve used.

Computer programming. In the early days of microcomputers and personal computers, there was a periodical titled Creative Computing. Computers were opening up entire new ways of looking at problem solving and hobbyists and experts were just beginning to recognize the potential for recreational computing. When I took a course in assembly language programming forty years ago, our homework had to be done on a DEC PDP-8/E minicomputer. Given an assignment to instruct the computer to flash the console lights from one end to the other, I went one step further and wrote a series of instructions that would produce more interesting patterns. A useful exercise? Only in learning how to tell a computer what to do at a very basic level. But mastering this in a creative way was very exciting.

Writing. I have long realized that the creative process in my writing is haphazard and difficult to describe, predict, or direct. For example, the development of the story in my fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri, involved a great deal of the following:

  • work on an idea

  • connect that idea to something else

  • sit on the idea for a while

  • turn the idea upside-down and see what happens

  • throw some new ideas at the work and see what sticks

  • trim away what doesn’t fit

  • go back to other ideas and see if they will connect

It was very much a process of evolution. It was also frequently like the process of accretion in planet formation, where over time bits and pieces glom together and attract more pieces.

Music. There are parallels in the development of music that I’ve written. I’ll toy around with a sound, a series of notes or chords, and jam with myself for a little bit. I’ll then develop something different, then think about how and whether those pieces could be connected. Then I go back in, as the work develops, and trim away excess while fleshing out other parts and laying down parallel tracks to give the music fullness.

Model trains. I’m currently working on a model railroading layout in my basement. It’s based on an N-scale train (one of the smallest size trains available), specifically a model of the Eurostar produced by KATO in Japan. There’s not much room in the basement, so the challenge I set myself was to construct something within a defined space, using as much of the track I have available as possible. I’m not into the highly-realistic scenery and detail that most train enthusiasts are. Instead, I’m trying to create something that looks futuristic. For the components, I’ve been collecting various household odds and ends, as well as leftover parts of various toys and toy systems, much like the found object concept in art.

Contrary to what some people claim, I still believe there is a significant amount of mystery to the creative process. This can be a cause for frustration when creative energy can’t be readily tapped, but it can also make for some real satisfaction in the end.

(For further reading, see Joe Fassler’s Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.)

Endorsements!

It occurs to me if rock stars can list the manufacturers of their favorite guitars, drums, guitar strings, etc. in the liner notes of a CD, and NASCAR drivers can post who makes their brakes, their engine parts, their tires, etc., maybe I can gather some endorsements if I list who makes my favorite writing tools!

Author Mark E. Lacy uses:

Pentel Energel pens
generic composition notebooks
Oberon Design composition notebook leather tooled cover

Microsoft Surface Pro 4
ViewSonic monitors
Microsoft Office: Word and Excel
Evernote software
Google search engine
Firefox web browser

My wife would tell me … “don’t hold your breath, honey.”
Yeah, I know, it doesn’t work this way.

Zarathustra and Mystery

When it comes to choosing names for fantasy characters, there are examples from history and literature that can be inspirational, or even repurposed. “Zarathustra,” or “Zoroaster” is one of those. Zoroaster was an ancient Persian prophet.

My first exposure to “Zarathustra” was via the score for a famous scifi movie.

I have blogged in the past about the sense of mystery, or mysticism, in fantasy and science fiction. I was introduced to this as a young teenager. When 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, my father took me and some of my friends to see it. The story generates all kinds of questions, including who placed a monolith on Earth to influence the evolution of Homo sapiens, and another monolith on the Moon to signal when humans first achieved space travel? What is the meaning of the "star child" at the end of the movie? I’m sure my father left the theater scratching his head and wondering why he had brought us to see this movie. I’m also sure I had some of the same questions, but the difference was I could accept that there are some questions for which there are no good answers. I was comfortable with, even relished, the mystery.

But beyond the mysteries presented in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I remember being profoundly moved by the movie’s score, and in particular, the opening theme by the composer Richard Strauss, which is the introduction to his tone poem, “Also sprach Zarathustra.” When I learned that Strauss was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous work of the same name (in English, Thus Spoke Zarathustra), I had to read it. This was in the early 1970s, shortly before I started college. It was a time of mysticism and psychedelics and Hermann Hesse and Tolkien and black-light posters of wizards and mountains. In translation, Thus Spake Zarathustra was rendered into “Biblical” English (“thee,” “thou,” etc.), which only added to its mystery.

As it turned out, I don’t think I understood a word of it! But it impressed me, and I went on to read many other mystery-flavored works as I transitioned into college, including those of Hesse and Kahlil Gibran. Feeling nostalgic, and imagining I may decide to reread Nietzsche, I recently added a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra to my library.

Creatures and Illustrations Thereof

Illustrations of creatures, both real and imaginary, have been part of human culture since the dawn of time. From the wall paintings of aurochs, deer, and horses on the walls of the Lascaux caves in France, to the whimsical creatures dreamed up by early explorers and depicted on old maps, capturing the essence of animals has been a fascinating part of human history.

I still have — though it is now tattered and without a cover — a copy of Francis Wardle’s Zoo Book, a gift to me over sixty years ago, before I could even read. I loved browsing through this book as a child, and I probably appreciated it more once my mother started taking us to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. From there, I graduated to the “How and Why Wonder Book” series. Like most kids, I was thrilled by dinosaurs. Even today I have an illustrated book about dinosaurs (Dinosaurs: A Visual Encyclopedia) waiting patiently on my shelf to be read.

Imaginary creatures have been our close companions since childhood. If not the Monster Under the Bed, it was Jess, the imaginary dog my parents let me have (because it made no noise, didn’t have to be fed, and didn’t have to be walked by someone). Authors and illustrators like Dougal Dixon have extrapolated from real creatures of the present to their possible evolutionary descendants of the future (see After Man: A Zoology of the Future, and other books). Illustrator Wayne Douglas Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials and Guide to Fantasy provide great visuals of creatures we will never meet except between the covers of a book.

But the creepiest book on imaginary creatures I’ve seen in a long time is E. B. Hudspeth’s The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black, a reference book by a fictional scientist with “comprehensive illustrations and explanatory texts regarding the musculature and skeletal systems [and] viscera” of “the lesser known species of the animal kingdom.” The anatomical diagrams in this book are presented as one would expect to see in a human or veterinarian anatomy book, showing the skeletal and muscular structure for almost a dozen mythological creatures, including a sphinx, a minotaur, a dragon, and a harpy.

Swords That Do More Than Kill

The most common weapon found in works of fantasy must surely be the sword. There are people who fight with one, people who carry one just in case they need it, and even some people who simply wear one as a fashion statement. Swordsmanship is often a key skill in many fantasy worlds.

But there are swords that go beyond simple weapons. There are legendary swords, such as Excalibur. There are swords that are legendary within a particular fantasy universe, including several in Tolkien's tales of Middle-earth. Some of my favorite examples of magic swords include the following:

  • Stormbringer. The sword used by Michael Moorcock's albino antihero, Elric of Melnibone', is an example of a sentient weapon. It gives him strength and prowess and frees him from the need for life-sustaining drugs, but it must feast on the souls of humans it cleaves. And sometimes these humans are not enemies, but friends.
  • Changeling. This sword, appearing in the Morgaine stories by C. J. Cherryh, is capable of tapping the power from space-time Gates to send its victims to a place and time they would much rather not be.
  • The Sword of Helsinlae. This sword is obviously a favorite because it appears in my fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri. It is pretty much an ordinary sword until its wielder, Visylon, chops down an evergreen growing from the grave of the ancient king Helsinlae. The sword is thus imbued with the power of this king, power that will play a critical role in the vanquishing of the sorcerer Raethir Del.

Though not an example of a magic sword, Terminus Est is a sword used by the executioner Severian in Gene Wolfe's series of science fantasy novels, The Book of the New Sun. This sword plays such an important role in these novels that it is almost a character in its own right.

Failed at Faulkner

Freda Spell, my junior high English teacher from Mississippi, and Merilee Allen, my cousin who once volunteered at Rowan Oak, William Faulkner's home in Oxford, Mississippi, will likely disavow, disinherit, disenfranchise, and just generally "dis" me for the heresy I am about to proclaim.

I can't appreciate William Faulkner.

In junior high, Miss Spell assigned me some of Faulkner's works to read. All I remember was how Faulkner could stretch a single compound sentence, making judicious use of semicolons, across entire pages. Like reading German, where many times the reader doesn't know the verb of a sentence till she reaches the end of the sentence, I would find that by the time I got to the end of one of Faulkner's sentences I couldn't remember what the first part of the sentence was about.

Nevertheless, over 45 years later, I thought I'd give St. William another go. I picked up a small copy of Sanctuary. I went down to the beach, opened up my chair, applied some sun block, and began to read.

And shortly thereafter, I gave up.

Extremely long sentences? No, not this time. Instead, within the first couple of pages, I got lost with which character was saying what. Faulkner's speaker attributions were alternately confusing or missing. Personal pronouns thrown around willy-nilly. Okay, I thought, if I persevere it will become more obvious. But before I could really and truly absorb this prose, I encountered consecutive sentences beginning with "Then [the woman did this]." Several characters were quickly inserted into the story without sufficient introduction for me to know whether they were sufficiently important to keep track of. And soon I had no idea what was going on at all.

And I quit.  

I know all too well the experience of prolonged deferral of gratification. Graduate school and student loans will do that to you. So will planning for retirement. But I have reached that point in my life, in my reading, where I no longer feel like trudging through "great literature" with the hope that I will feel gratified when I reach the last page.

Or maybe my attention span is growing shorter as I approach -- still from a distance, mind you! -- my second childhood.

I am not arguing against Mr. Faulkner's status in American literature. That truly would be heresy. Instead, I am simply saying, with apologies to Freda and Merilee, that I have failed at appreciating Faulkner's work.

Mysteries in Religion, and in Fantasy and Science Fiction

This time of year is one of several during the year sacred to Christianity or Judaism. One thing common to yearly observances of religious "holy days" is the aspect of mystery. The foundations of Christianity are based on events that go beyond miraculous - there is a deep mystery behind each one. How is it that a supernatural being chose to split part of himself off to become incarnate through the birth of a boy to a humble Hebrew virgin? How could the gruesome killing of the man that boy later became serve as a gateway for a renewed relationship between humans and their deity, with a consequent promise of life after death? How could that crucified man, both human and divine at the same time, rise from the dead and visit his disciples before returning to heaven?

Some of the most profound stories in fantasy and science fiction have great mysteries at their core. Who placed a monolith on Earth to influence the evolution of Homo sapiens, and another on the Moon to signal when humans first achieved space travel (2001: A Space Odyssey)? What is the meaning of the "star child" at the end of the movie? How are prophecies revealed? How was a hero's destiny created in time past, and by whom? How were the means by which the prophecies are fulfilled come into being? 

In some cases, sufficient research by characters in a story may elucidate these mysteries. Ancient ruins on other planets may be studied to understand the civilizations that left them behind. But in other cases, the mysteries run so deep they can never be understood, for they go well beyond what science can ever explain. They are literally of mythic proportions, and may form the basis of a fictional world's religions.

Have a good example of a fundamental mystery in a fantasy or science fiction story? Leave a comment and share with us!