Michaeline: The Power of Writing

"Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases" says an old poster announcing a U.S. Public Health Service Campaign. "As Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells -- Spread of Spanish Influenza Menaces Our War Production"

It’s said that the 1918-1919 Spanish Influenza pandemic killed more people than WWI. https://virus.stanford.edu/uda/ Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I have to share this piece of writing with you. It’s a Reddit post about how a foreign resident in China is dealing with food and cooking during the lockdown because of the coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak. 

National Public Radio (US) has an article on how the lockdown is affecting the lives of Chinese residents.  NPR reports that families in Wenzhou (a coastal city in China) have been told to stay indoors, and only send one person out every two days to pick up groceries.

The Reddit post does so much in a relatively small space. Redditor u/mthmchris explains how he and his partner are restricted to the apartment, and how the constraints in finding ingredients and the luxury of time have contributed to better cooking. There’s a brief reverie about the degeneracy of modern cooking, that he attributes to perhaps lack of time, especially now that he’s been living through a period of deprivation (although, not starvation) for the past few weeks. And then there are the dishes he’s made.

I suppose I’ve always been morbidly curious about “Robinson Crusoe” scenarios. So, it teases my imagination – what would I do if we were locked down on our farm with a COVID-19 outbreak in town? The post moves my sympathy for people who really are in the situation, it educated me, and taught me new things about the human experience. These are the things I would love to see my fiction writing do for people.

Japanese pork and pizza steamed buns in the package

This is what the steamed buns look like inside. (Photo: E.M. Duskova)

And in addition, I was inspired to try the fried steamed bun trick. I happened to have some ridiculously past-sell-by-date steamed buns in my fridge (three pork buns and two pizza buns). I sliced one into six slices (we have six people around the breakfast table, two who are semi-vegetarians, so feeding them the heels with almost no meat really worked out). I dredged them in a large egg, and fried them in a combo of olive oil and sesame oil. They were so delicious hot! I wish I’d thought to put some oyster sauce on them. (My husband came in late, when the last remaining slice was cold, so he just ate the other two pork buns zapped in the microwave.)

Japanese pork bun, also known as nikuman.

Pork bun in my kitchen, about to be microwaved. (Photo: E.M. Duskova)

For lunch, I’ll have the pizza buns fried with a drizzle of packaged Neapolitan spaghetti sauce (and that means pizza toast for lunch tomorrow!).

I doubt my stories are going to feed hungry people in countries around the world, but maybe I can do a little bit to bring some pleasure into other people’s lives. Maybe even some foreign resident in China, feeling a little homesick and weary, will read one of my shorts, and feel a bit better about life. Wouldn’t that be a nice full circle?

And since I’m spouting clichés (since I can’t really spout anything meaningful in the face of something like the coronavirus outbreak), every dark and terrible cloud can have a silver lining; every foul and nasty breeze can blow some good. I hope the whole thing is contained quickly.

(Link from caption: https://virus.stanford.edu/uda/.)

 

 

Pork bun slices in a skillet

Pork bun slices when dredged in egg taste like a savory French toast, but fluffier, thanks to the texture of the steamed bun. (Photo: E.M. Duskova)

Michaeline: The robots are taking our jobs!

Robot carrying grocery bags for a lovely young housewife; a bag has burst all over her stylish car.

Oh, no! Has the robot ruined dinner again? (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Ever since the term “robot” was coined in 1920 (popularized by Karel Capek’s play, R.U.R. — Rossum’s Universal Robots), someone’s been worried about robots taking over their jobs. A few years ago, there were some National Public Radio (US) stories about programs that could write news stories. (One here: https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/05/20/406484294/an-npr-reporter-raced-a-machine-to-write-a-news-story-who-won.)

I’ve read a few of these stories – honestly, there are only so many ways to report the weather on 90 percent of the days. Or to report on the stock market. In the vast majority of cases, you can randomly select a template, and plug in the numbers and adjectives for that day, and you have readable information.

Some artificially generated fiction can be strangely moving and seemingly full of thought. That’s because the reader is expected to do some of the work in fiction – she searches her brain for the source of allusions, or makes the connections that make the subtext clear. Is there so much difference between certain types of highly experimental fiction and vague robotic meanderings? As far as satisfaction goes, I think they both can deliver. Not every piece, of course. It’s Sturgeon’s Law that 90 percent of any genre is dreck. I think that goes for non-human writing, as well. Computers, over the short term, generally do better than an infinite number of monkeys plonking away on typewriters.

However, the inputs still matter. Today on Twitter, Janelle Shane shared some of her results from a neural net. Continue reading

Michaeline: February is a Great Month for Stories!

Doves driving an old-fashioned automobile bedecked with flowers (one dove has a letter in her mouth)

Ready? Set? Let’s fly into February! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

I often feel like January is a recovery month – it takes 31 days to catch up on the sleep I lose on New Year’s Eve, and I’m often busy trying new resolutions to improve my diet, exercise, career, housekeeping and writing practices, which in turn, leads to recovering from too much fiber, muscle strain, brain strain, dust allergies and . . . and luckily, no adverse effects from the writing.

February is full of fun little days that have produced big stories. February 2 is Groundhog Day, the day a small mammal predicts the weather and future happiness. I’ve discussed the movie Groundhog Day a couple of times on the blog, as a metaphor for re-writing, and a meditation about how a wretched character (Phil, the weatherman) re-invents himself as a being worthy of loving and capable of love.

February 3 is Setsubun, the Japanese holiday about driving out demons called oni and generally getting rid of what doesn’t serve you. The tradition is that you throw beans while yelling, “Demons out! Good luck in!” Then you pick up all the beans, and eat as many beans as your years on earth. Side bonus: the wise demon-exorcist will vacuum all the corners of the house so the beans don’t get dusty. The wily Hokkaido pioneer will use peanuts in the shell to Continue reading

Michaeline: Thoughts on Writing a Modern Villain

Wizard of Oz Illustration. Dorothy consoles the Cowardly Lion with Tinman and Scarecrow looking on.

Faking it isn’t a new problem. If you think about it, almost everyone in *The Wizard of Oz* was fronting. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Hugh Laurie discusses his role as a fake space cruise captain on The Graham Norton Show (aired January 24, 2020) while promoting his new TV series, Avenue 5.

He says: “That’s right. I am a fake. The captain is actually not a proper captain. He doesn’t really know anything about space travel and isn’t even American. He has absolutely no qualifications whatsoever.

“Because the premise is that what matters is confidence, is reassurance, is – the façade is what matters rather than the technical competence. And I think that is a pretty telling statement about the world in which we live.

“That fronting things out has become a more valuable gift than actually knowing how things work. And I think that partly accounts for the great anxiety that the world now feels. That we are now bossed by people who have the confidence without . . . or at least with much much less competence than the confidence – you know what I mean.”

“I hear what you’re saying,” Graham Norton says, tugging on his ear.

There’s so much I want to say about this clip, and so little space to do it in. So let me bullet point a few things, and we can discuss it at length in the comments. Continue reading

Michaeline: Review: From the Moderne Vampyre Genre

Accounting ledger in French which is also the cover of the book; title in Dynatape

*The Utterly Uninteresting & Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant* by Drew Hayes. (Image via Amazon US.)

I’m not a huge fan of vampire stories, but it turns out I really like the ones where Everyman (or Everywoman), the unspectacular and messed-up mortal, gets turned into a vampire. There’s just something about that juxtaposition of cool immortality with lingering mortal uncertainty that really interests me.

I loved the first few MaryJanice Davidson’s Undead series with Betsy, Queen of the Vampires – in the first book, Undead and Unwed, a former Bridget Jones-type gets thrust into the Vampire lifestyle after an accident. And What We Do in the Shadows is a sweet movie about vampire “sharehouse” in Wellington, New Zealand. (I’m referring to the 2014 film; I didn’t know about the 2019 TV series until now. See? Blogging has some great side benefits!)

Now there’s another vampire world I can add to my list: I just read The Utterly Uninteresting & Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant by Drew Hayes and had a lot of fun!

All three of these vampire universes share characters who are very much aware of the vampire tropes, and how they (as vampires) turn tradition on its head. They don’t want to be evil bloodsuckers, and their main focus in life isn’t their next meal, but trying to “live” an undead life with a degree of comfort – and they want to be better people.

Fred is particularly aware in many ways that he’s part of the Vampire Story. He thought he’d turn into a suave and effortlessly cool vampire after waking up under a dumpster drained of his blood, but Continue reading

Michaeline: Thinking About Safe, Inclusive Spaces

Hands from various backgrounds putting together a jigsaw heart

Image via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about making safe, inclusive spaces for everyone. I’m still in the theoretical stage, and I’m not sure if it’s even possible (or desirable) to have a space that’s 100 percent comfortable. A good discussion group does need some friction and I believe a little awkwardness is a good thing. But it’s not good when some people feel awkward or unseen repeatedly, while other people feel very comfortable most of the time. There’s got to be a balance, and there’s got to be a moderate road where everyone feels safe and like there can be a friendly resolution to arguments and discussions. Like we could all get pizza* afterwards, despite our differences in outlook and opinion.

First, what is the problem? Racism has been a huge topic in Romancelandia over the past few weeks with the blow-up in the RWA stemming from systemic racism and (I think) money struggles. But it’s not just about race – as romance writers, we’re very aware of the prejudice against and for gender as well. There’s sexuality (LGBT, polyamory, asexual) inclusion or exclusion. There are body issues, such as able-ism and weight-ists. And then there’s a wide range of issues involving the way the brain works, such as depression, bi-polarism, autism and even simpler things such as extroversion and introversion.

One of the things I came to realize over the past few weeks is that most of us want to be known as nice, and “good” girls or boys or people. We want to swim along in society, helping out others, or at least not hurting people, and not getting hurt. “You’re X-ist!” can be a real slam to one’s self-image – maybe not equal to the first slam of “You’re Other!” that the accuser may have originally felt, but still hurtful.

But saying, “this book is a fucking racist mess” is NOT the same as saying “you are a fucking racist mess.”

I know, I know. Book babies feel like children, and casting shade on one’s books can be very hurtful. But, it’s important to both frame things as “this action is X-ist” and also take the criticism as a critique about an action or behavior, and not as a personal judgement on one’s humanity.

Now, of course, if a pattern starts to manifest of X-ist actions and behaviors, people will probably be thinking, “Oh, Mx. X is an X-ist.” And they might be right. So, maybe the first step is Continue reading

Michaeline: New Year Visions for 2020

Girl reading a newspaper with glasses sliding down her nose, and a skeptical, intense look on her face

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Twenty twenty. I’m not sure about other countries (I know its different in Japan), but in America, perfect vision is 20/20. There’s also a famous news program of the same name that was a vehicle for the famous interviewer, Barbara Walters. The show used to be about investigative reporting and in-depth features – a role taken over by the new breed of comedian newspeople.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have perfect vision for the year 2020? According to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics website, though, only 35 percent of people have 20/20 vision without corrective measures. Figuratively speaking, how many people have metaphorically good vision? I would guess it’s a lot less than 30 percent, especially among writers.

I think we’ll stumble and fall in the dark and in our own ignorance quite a bit in 2020. But I also think we can find things to help us see better – we can light a candle, or find something that sharpens our focus.

And I think having less than perfect vision can help us sharpen our other senses – let us be more in the moment, checking the direction of the wind in our faces, and the smell of the surroundings.

It feels very naïve to be optimistic about 2020, but I can’t help it at New Year’s time. There’s such a fresh slate when the calendar turns. Why is that? It’s not a naturally occurring distinction. It’s completely arbitrary, and decided by us. Some of us will feel the same refreshing feeling of newness on January 25th, or during the moment of the Spring Equinox, or September 18th. Maybe the new year is a set of rose colored glasses that blurs reality – or maybe it’s a good tool to sharpen our vision for the future. I guess we’ll know by the next new year how it all turns out.

In the meantime, I wish all of you a very happy 2020.