Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hundredth Post: Retro Retrospective

I tend to not tag my posts. I also tend to write about old-fashioned things (about ten percent of my posts, apparently). So, for the hundredth post on this blog, I hereby give you a collection of my old-fashioned blog posts to date. A sort of retro retrospective.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why Physical Books Beat E-Readers

My bookshelves are beyond full. I've got books in front of books at my normal home, and a couple shelves that are full at college. I don't look forward to when I graduate and have to combine those sets of books. Yet, I contend that physical books are superior to e-books and e-readers.

First of all, physical books contain history (as a quality, not necessarily as the content). That's why used-book stores feel like magic. Somebody owned, read, and probably loved those books previously. Some of those books were gifts from one person to another. Some contain markings, names, or dog-ears. You don't get that history in an e-book. When you buy a new book, you start creating that history. You'll remember buying it, where you were when you read it, or things people said to you when they saw you reading it, every time you pick up that copy again. Items have associations. And, items have imperfections that are gathered over time. When I pick up my well-loved copy of Carrie Pilby, it's obvious that it's been read over and over, by me and a few people who have borrowed it from me. E-readers have far less room for associations.

Books also look lovely on the shelf when you're not reading them. Granted, the e-reader takes much less space, but the book-filled shelves can make you look more educated to people who come over. Plus, if you're an out-of-sight, out-of-mind kind of person like I am, it helps to have the books in constant sight, reminding you to read them.

The feel of books is very important to me as well. To begin with, I like that different books feel different. Why should my hands respond the same way to both a textbook and a small paperback novel? The Complete Works of Shakespeare should feel more daunting than Artemis Fowl. Also, some books have strangely-cut pages, some have fancy embossed titles, and some leather-bound books have special leatherwork in the spine. Real books are tactile. E-books are not.

Related to the ability to touch the outside of the book is the ability to peruse the book itself by turning paper pages. I do appreciate the ability to run my hand over a page, to flip pages in search of something, or to look at the top of the closed book to see how far my bookmark has traveled thus far - a measure that means more to me than the precision of "425/550 pages" at the bottom of a screen. I'll grant that there's convenience, portability, and a considerable cool-factor to the e-reader, since it lets us carry a library in a purse, but I just can't give up the paper.

If you're not a sentimental old coot like I am, then an e-reader is probably for you. Except that if there's an Alas, Babylon-style incident and we have no electricity for ages, you'll have maybe a week of battery power before you have nothing left to read, either. Even if you have no time for entertainment, what with all that surviving, when we no longer have Internet access we'll need certain factual books to help us survive - except that if you had any, they were all digital. And that would be terrible.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

6 Reasons to Plant a Tree

I'm no eco-hippie. Let me start there. Besides a preference for being barefoot, I have little in common with the eco-hippies. However, I like plants. I like flowers and trees and the smell of freshly-turned earth and freshly-mowed lawns. So, I was pleased when my mother brought home a little baby tree from Ikea for me.

I'd had "Plant a tree" on my bucket list for a while, so I was especially happy to be able to cross it off, but I never really had any reasons for putting it there in the first place. So, I shall now retroactively make reasons for planting a tree.

  • New plants are happy. It is delightful to plant a new plant. I love the combination of hope that it will grow into something lovely, and fear that it will die because of my foolish or neglectful hands. It is also healthy to grow plants, to be around plants, to put effort into nurturing plants and yet not have to worry about plants like you do pets. Plants are little uncomplicated centers of life. And they have such lovely shades of green.
  • You'll learn something about growing plants. Even if you are terrible with plants and the tree dies (or accidentally gets mowed), you'll learn something about plants, and what not to do with them. Gardening is very much a practice-oriented hobby. I used to be terrible at keeping plants alive, but I think I've learned some of the secrets. One of them is to choose easy plants.
  • You'll get to enjoy the tree as it grows. It seems fairly simple to take care of little trees. Water them, sun them, don't let the lawn guy mow them (perhaps start it in a well-drained pot and transplant it later), and you'll have a tree if you keep it up! Put in a little effort for the ongoing joy of your own personal tree. Even when it's a seedling, a tree is a pretty thing, and it is typically enjoyable to look at pretty things.
  • It's an exercise in selflessness. Face it, you probably won't get to enjoy much of this tree. By the time it's big enough to climb, you'll be too old to climb it without injuring yourself. It's even likely you'll move from this particular property and have to leave the tree behind, to be enjoyed by the folks who move in after you. So maybe your kids or your grandkids or the kids of the future buyers of your home will enjoy it. Grow the tree for them.
  • It's an exercise in thinking 4th-dimensionally. "Thinking 4th-dimensionally" is a Doc Brown phrase that refers to considering how something will be in the future, or how it was in the past, instead of only how it is in the present. In this case, when you see a baby tree, you should also see how it will look when it gets large. There is an extra challenge in this when Ikea doesn't bother to tell you what kind of tree they gave you.
  • You'll make an eco-hippie friend smile. Eco-hippies love when people plant trees.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Spoiler Alert: I Still Don't Have A Niche

Blogging advice sites and Ryan's mom have suggested that I find a niche for this thing. As if it's so easy to just choose a passion and then write about it twice a week until the end of time/the end of the Internet/the end of this life-chapter.

My thought process, distilled and rearranged into something pseudo-normal, has been approximately as follows:

I must have a passion. I'm a passion-having sort of person. I probably have so many passions that if I chose to write about just one, I'd start to miss the freedom to write about the other things, and then where would I be? I'd be unenthusiastically writing about passion A because I came up with a wonderful post for passion B which will never see the light of day. I just can't do it.

Of course, if that were true, you'd think all these posts about various passions would just keep coming to mind and I'd never be at a loss for blog topics.

Well, let's get specific. I like writing. That's almost a passion. I'm passionate about God. I like Leverage. I like tech. I like fantasy and science fiction. I'm interested in smart people and puzzles and smart-people things. Politics? No, I got jaded a while ago. At my old, old age of 20. Maybe I could write about nerdiness. Nerdyness. Nerd-ness. Or I could devise a goal, Julie and Julia style, and write about that. Just completely upset everything that my readers have been expecting for so long...which is, I suppose, to expect exactly nothing in particular and take what shows up. Maybe they like that.

I can't write about writing. That's too meta. I could write about God, the Bible, and Christian topics, except it's already being done all over the Internet, and by people who know better than I do. Anybody who wants to read regular posts of that nature hardly even has to step out into the Internet. So that's no. Politics is about eight times as "no" because it has a similar problem and also I hate it. Maybe tech, except that Gizmodo would make anything I do feel laughably piffling. I don't have any insiders who could give me bleeding edge tech for subject matter, and I have no way of coming up with truly new topics on my own. And with tech, if you're not new, you're essentially pointless. Or nostalgic. I could blog about old-fashioned things.

I could turn my blog into an outlet for short stories of the science fiction and fantasy variety. Ha. If I could come up with two of those per week, I'd be trying to sell them to magazines or compile a book so I could actually get paid for writing.

I could write a blog about Leverage. "This week's post will compare The Rashomon Job with Memento and the original Rashomon, and will discuss it in the context of nonlinear storytelling." This is starting to sound like a good idea. I'd better stop.

Maybe if I had a project, I could blog more easily. Why am I even blogging? Mostly for writing practice, and to prove that I can regularly write on a constant deadline for a long time. And because I get ideas for things and want to share them somewhere consistent.

Look at that bottle of white-out. I don't use white-out very often. Probably because I don't handwrite things very I COULD BLOG ABOUT OFFICE SUPPLIES.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mercenary - A Poem

I wrote this poem while I was a counselor at Youth Camp this summer. I haven't posted it yet, and I would like to share it with you now.


The Prince
, advice for despots, gives a word for hiring swords
Hire not one mercenary, for they'll take no man as lord
They will fight for any creature that provides them with a wage
They should not be trusted - this is what is written on that page
But the Enemy I know is a strategic one indeed
He will hire any fool to make the Christian soldiers bleed
And few mercenaries ever become loyal to his cause
But he keeps them his by way of chains and claws
Oh, at first it seems he'll pay a prize of stately size and weight
And he'll tempt you with some smaller sins, so you'll accept his bait
So the Devil gains a soldier, though the man is not aware
Is he loyal? Well, the Devil does not care
For the smallest sin is helpful to the war against our God
Which is why the Devil's method seems to us a little odd
"Go ahead," he says, "and try be good, it matters not to me,
I still will gain by your hypocrisy."
I quit your camp, O Prince of death, yes, hereby I resign
I long instead to fight for only He Who Is Divine
My service ends, I'm finished here, I'll do no more for you
No, not alone, but Christ will make the words I say be true
I will not be your mercenary, Enemy, I will not be
I take my sword and leave you, Satan - I have been set free.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Portrait of a Floridian Autumn

The high temperature today is eighty degrees Fahrenheit, which means jeans and a long sleeves or I'll be chilly on the way to class, especially if I walk in the shade. I have lived here too long to find weather in the seventies warm anymore. But, it is delightful. It is perfect. After a few weeks of regular rain, heat, and humidity, the air is completely breathable again and has been for a few days. I hold my breath daily waiting for it to cease, for the sun to become painful again, for the air to gain its signature Floridian moisture and stick awkwardly to my skin so that I am relieved to be indoors. It hasn't happened yet. It will. It is only early autumn.

The moment the weather starts to cool down after a relentless summer, I start thinking about Christmastime. Soon, the temperature will stop its inevitable teasing fluctuations and stay truly cold for a couple of weeks. I'll be able to wear gloves and scarves and boots all the time. For now, I'll stick to sweaters and flip-flops, or t-shirts and fuzzy socks. Odd combinations for odd weather in an odd location.

The trees are staying stubbornly green, of course. Around December, a few will unenthusiastically turn orange, and I'll still wonder why the others don't try. It is hard now to believe that there are worlds to the north where nearly every tree bursts into the colors of flame, dropping leaves for adults to rake and children to crunch. I have seen it, I have lived in it, and it is still hard to believe because it has been so many years.

I won't pretend that autumn here isn't nice. The flowers last a lot longer here, and the weather can be delightfully surprising, alternating between warm sun and cool breeze. Since the rain has become far less frequent, we live under a sky of dauntingly endless blue. We still have Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the new school year - all very important staples of autumn. I just wish the seasons would be a bit more obvious; I am not a fan of their of subtlety.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On Suspense and Solid Stories

"Of course, I'm being rude. I'm spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don't have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It's the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me." --the narrator, Death, in The Book Thief

The book I am currently reading, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, has a particular quality that I adore. Not only does it not rely on suspense, it deliberately flouts it. It tells you that something will happen, and then it deals with the details of it later. My first taste of a book that did this was Slaughterhouse Five, which completely throws suspense and linear story out the window. Among other things, the narrator keeps pointing out that someone named Edgar Derby eventually gets shot to pieces. The first time it is mentioned I found it almost appalling, but it soon became meaningless, almost humorous. Vonnegut regularly refers to him as "poor old Edgar Derby" as if the only thing that matters about his character is the fact that he eventually gets shot to death, and yet, as if the death hardly matters at all.

People generally like to avoid spoilers. I understand this to a degree. I have seen Fight Club, after all. The first time you see it, if you don't already know the twist, you see the story one way and receive a tremendous surprise. The second time you see it, you see the exact same story in a completely different way. It is a story well-crafted. However, there are plenty of cases where the so-called "spoilers" are essentially worthless, in that they don't change the preceding story at all. Consider my experience reading Harry Potter.

I wasn't allowed to read Harry Potter when I was younger. By the time I was in high school and the sixth book was out, my parents didn't care anymore and I was finally curious enough to try the series. I was still in the first chapter of the first book when my dear friend Casey said, "Oh, you're reading Harry Potter? In the sixth book, Snape kills Dumbledore." I didn't know who either of these people were, and by the time I did, it still didn't affect the story preceding the event. Poor old Dumbledore. But it didn't make a difference that I knew it was coming.

One of my main troubles with stories that rely on suspense, or that rely on the audience not knowing something, is that I like to re-read books and re-watch movies. If I like a story, I want to experience it again. Yet, if the foundation of the story is the element not known, then I can't possibly enjoy it a second time, unless I am a profoundly forgetful person.

Therefore, what I seek is the story well-crafted. I seek a story with good characters and with jokes that still make me giggle when I hear them for the thirtieth time. I seek a story with layers and small details, things I might not catch the first, second, or fourteenth time. I seek a story that takes place somewhere I'd like to go and can't, like Narnia or Middle Earth. I seek a story that tells the truth through fiction. I seek a film that is beautiful or a book that evokes beautiful images. I seek the stories that still come to mind even when I haven't read or watched them in ages. I seek solid stories with a solid foundation.

Of course, there are many things besides suspense that can destroy a story, for me. If it is told poorly, if most of the characters are awful, or if I can't relate to the premise, I likely won't be interested. But the issue of suspense, of the story that focuses on the end instead of "the machinations that wheel us there," is an issue that can bring any otherwise-decent story to its knees.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Human Rest Requirement

I find myself willing to contend that, when we have a lot of work to do, we need to take breaks and yet we don't need to take breaks.

I realize this makes little sense thus far. Do kindly humor me until I have explained.

Some time last weekend I had the awful realization that the list of things I had to do this week was monstrous. There were tests, there were assignments, and there were things to do for the club I run on campus. I decided that the best way to deal with the problem was to schedule my entire week, Monday through Saturday, to within a precision of half an hour, and then follow that schedule exactly.

It worked perfectly until I started to feel burnt-out. I had allowed myself about half an hour for each meal, and eight to ten hours of sleep each night. That seemed like enough rest, and I wasn't sure why I was feeling so fatigued. More baffling was that this occurred about mid-Tuesday.

I faced two major options: take a break, or suck it up and keep going like this for the rest of the week.

So, I watched an episode of Leverage, thereby giving myself a forty-five minute break for something frivolous and enjoyable. I then skipped an unnecessary class to do something more useful, and my productivity rose through most of the evening. I was also much happier.

Through the rest of the week, where I found myself finishing items early, or when I realized I'd allotted much more time for something than I would need, I permitted myself to cease working for a bit so I could watch shows or read books or otherwise chill out. My productivity and general mood were likely much higher as a result.

So, we need breaks. At least, I need breaks.

I also know that we can't always afford to take a break. I thought I would have literally no time this week, and I was wrong, but if I'd had just one more assignment due, I probably would have been in that situation. The other side of this human rest requirement is that we often can continue longer than we thought possible.

That is, we do not actually need breaks nearly as often as we think we do.

If I had pushed through Tuesday, Wednesday, and the rest of the week without a legitimate mid-day hour of uselessness, I probably would have been fine. Productivity may have decreased as I continued to fatigue, and I may have become quite unpleasant to deal with, but I would have survived. At some point, I might even have gotten used to it. However, if I kept going, I'm fairly certain I would have gone insane. I haven't tested the limits of this and I don't intend to.

So my point, I suppose, of this end-of-the-week stress-dump, is this:
  1. You do not need breaks as often as you think you do.
  2. You do need breaks more often than never.
Have a good week and see you on Wednesday!