The story of THE FUTURE.

I was asked recently (as I seem to be asked whenever I complain about my current career or lack thereof) what I would do if the normal constraints of family, friends, finances and talent were eliminated.  Usually I go with some sort of writing, but in this particular instance, inspiration struck.  I would be a wandering storyteller.  I would wander from town to town, sharing stories and telling tales and generally amazing crowds with my talented tale-spinning and imposing persona.  I would be just like the minstrels of old, except without the lute.

It seems, however, that the MIT Media Lab has beat me to it.  They’ve recently created a new ‘Center for Future Storytelling‘ with the express purpose of “transforming storytelling into social experiences, creating expressive tools for the audience and enabling them to embellish and integrate stories into their lives, making tomorrow’s stories more interactive, creative, democratized, and improvisational”.  Hm.  Sounds strangely like the minstrels of old.

But before you get huffy about a supposed ‘tech’ school going old-fashioned, keep in mind that they plan a wide range of virtual tools to be integrated into this ‘modern’ storytelling.  Key features to be newly included are ‘synthetic’ characters (go robots!) and new imaging technologies, both of which are supposed to make stories more interactive and adaptable to audience response.  Of course, all this new stuff doesn’t add up to a real, live minstrel.  But one day it might, putting me right out of the job i never had.

Fix everything, even broken hearts.

It seems my life revolves neverendingly around children’s stories.  The one I was reminded of today was called either “Mr. Fix-it” or “Mr. Fix-it’s Shop”.  Sisters, I’m sure you can help me here.  Regardless, the story focuses on a nice old man who keeps a shop for mending things – radios, violins, bureaus, tennis rackets – even the kitchen sink.  His sign proclaims that he can fix everything except broken hearts.  There’s a little girl in the neighborhood who comes in after school and helps out a bit and watches him work.  One day her doll falls apart, and she’s heartbroken, and Mr. Fix-it goes to work – replacing an eye here, making a new wooden arm out of an old baseball bat there.  Eventually the doll is as good as new, or better.  The little girl demands that Mr. Fix-it changes his sign, because when he fixed her doll he fixed her heart too.  It’s a nice story.

What reminded me of it, however, is a little less poignant.  MIT has new research out about using a biodegradable ‘scaffold’ to hold heart tissue.  The tissue plus scaffold could be implanted to fix congenital defects or as replacement tissue after a heart attack.  Eventually the scaffolding would be absorbed by the body, hopefully leaving the heart ‘complete’. Of course, even this newer version of scaffolding can’t do everything we want it to – we’ve made progress, but they’re still working on it.

I’m all for improving the health of our hearts.  The idea that in the future this technology will firmly be in place to the benefit of those I love and myself is reassuring.  Still, the technology needs to be coupled with an ounce of prevention.  Shouldn’t we be protecting our hearts just a little better instead of fixing them after they’re broken?

Both the articles about the new, better, strong scaffolding and the story about Mr. Fix-it are delightful reads.  But both give us a message as well.  The latter tells us of the power to heal we each have in our kindnesses and in our actions for the sake of others.  The former tells us that though science is a powerful tool, it is only a tool.  It can adapt to future problems we may have, but will never be a complete solution.  Only rarely will it fix a broken heart.

NaNoWriMo has begun!

November is National Novel Writer’s Month.  So far, I’ve had two days, both of them weekend days, to compose and I’m already sadly lagging.  I’ve written 2,958 words, and I should be at 3,334 words.  What does that mean for you, dear reader?  Most likely that in the coming weeks I’ll be ridiculously slack about posting things to my blog.  However, as recommended here, I may also begin posting extra-juicy story tidbits for your reading pleasure.  It seems like a reasonable idea…

Anyway, hope your Halloween weekends were grand!  For Gina, here’s a short tidbit:

For Halloween Mabel decided to be a unicorn. We don’t know how she stumbled upon the ridiculous idea. She had no predisposition towards that particular creature – I was the one who had collected them as a little girl. She thought it would be easy I suppose – get a white horn, wear a white outfit, and you’re set. Not thrillingly creative or corny, but fun enough for her. Mabel tended to stick to more traditional costumes anyway.

Of course my childhood interest meant I had read and researched and generally knew much of what there is to know about the mythical beasts, so I was able to ‘help’.

“Did you know that actually unicorns can be made?”

“No, but I really don’t think it’s that relevant to the costume.”

“Well, evidently the ‘horn’ of many animals, such as cows, is really a tooth that turns and grows upwards. If there’s some genetic variation or disease-related reason that one of the teeth doesn’t grow like it’s supposed to – poof, instant unicorn.”

“Where do you think I should look for a horn, anyway? The Garment District? Or would someplace like I Party be better?”

“It happens quite frequently among deer. Maybe it’s an issue of poor nutrition.”

“Really, Sammie, FOCUS. I need assistance.”

I smirked. “You could always just cut the horn off a stuffed toy.”

King Solomon’s Copper.

I’m not really up on my Biblical history.  This could be a flaw in my education, or perhaps just in my interest.  Somehow, the lineages of the Kingdom of Edom and when the Israelites were where don’t really pique my interest.  Despite this, occasionally I wish I knew a little bit more about the timeline, mostly in places where it would improve my knowledge of certain stories or would help in trivia games.

One of the areas where I have limited knowledge is about the ‘real’ reign of King Solomon.  This is probably partially due to H. Rider Haggard and various associated movies.  Why did the king bury bunches of treasure in a mine?  Who ends up dying as they leave?  Was there a previous lost love?  Is it a friend who is taken in the unfairness of African life?  Does a safari end in melancholy?

Well, archeology is trying to answer some of those questions.  A copper mine has recently been dated to the time of King Solomon.  It is possible that this mine, therefore, had some connection to the king and may even have been one of ‘King Solomon’s Mines’.  However, both the Bible (which is one of few written sources we have) and early archeologist linked the area to the Edomites at the time the site was dated to.  So to me this indicates that despite it being during Solomon’s rule, it was probably not under his direct control.  Edom was basically a vassal state, but I’m guessing that any mines in question would have been the governor of Edom’s, rather than Solomon’s.

However, that’s niether here nor there.  The real question is, how far will fact follow fiction?  In this particualr set of mines (which are probably not the only ones for an entire kingdom), is there any ‘buried treasure’?  or was that all relegated to other mines?  is there romance, or monumental loss, or ideal friendship that is about to unfold in this story of rediscovery?  And what about the Queen of Sheba?

The Graveyard Book

It’s rare that I get excited about a new book coming out.  It’s even more rare that I get excited about a book from an author I’ve never read.  And yet, here I am, excited.

Perhaps it’s the season.  Anything called The Graveyard Book seems somehow seasonally appropriate.  Perhaps it has something to do with the synopsis of the book, which reads like a children’s book.  I love children’s books, and I can see countless libraries shelving this one in the YA section.  Perhaps it has to do with the promotion tour for the book, which involves reading a chapter of the book in cemeteries and graveyards around the country, which I find moving.  Perhaps it’s the fact that each reading is accessible for free on the author’s website, meaning you can hear the whole thing before you buy it.  All pretty awesome stuff.

But wait, there’s more.  The author, Neil Gaiman, is also the writer of one Stardust upon which a movie was based.  A movie with a wonderful cast that I happened to enjoy immensely.  Although I haven’t read the book, the movie was delightful.  The plot was fanciful enough that I know I will enjoy other books by the same author.  I may not know his writing style (yet), but from what I do know, I’m sure it will be a delight.

Memory misplaced.

I like to go for long walks.  I like to go for long walks and discover secret things.  Some of the things are secrets of space:  the half-hidden trestle footbridge near the Belmont commuter rail stop, or the rocky and secluded outcrop of pines above a trail at McCormick’s Creek State Park.  Other secret remainders are more portable – the forgotten glove or shoe, a half-inflated dodge ball, the gnarled twists of wood and metal left from an old picnic table or porch swing.  Each secret is a story you will never know the entirety of.  Each place or object is a part of your own secret story, that you choose to disclose or keep hidden from the world.

There can be a sense of loss with these items.  Someone has a lonely glove.  Someone else may have lost the disposable camera that could have kept past memories fresh for them.  Others, with time and change, may lose their favorite space to think, or just to be.  Now however there are internet sites dedicated to the reunification of people and those things they’ve lost.  There’s something unique and inspiring to rediscovering these lost things, even for the discoverer.  Here, at last, is a chance to know a bit about what stories these things might hold.  It is a chance to know a portion of the tale of the lost notebook or the tale of the misplaced monocle.  And it gives the loser the chance to regain some moment of their past, or even possibly some useful part of their current lives.  It is something precious, whether rediscovered or found for the first time.

Wellfleets. Yum.

I like raw oysters.  Only since moving to Boston did I realize I like them.  In Indiana, oysters just aren’t as prevalent, and while I like seafood, somehow I never got around to trying them.  Now I love to hop up to Summer Shack after a long week and grab a pitcher of Fisherman’s Brew and a nice little selection of oozy goodness.  I generally try what they have on hand, learning the names of different types and maybe even something about the part of the coast a particular oyster comes from.

Wellfleets are pretty good.  The Wellfleet Oyster Fest describes them as ‘long and strong-shelled. Experienced tasters know that they are plump and clean with a distinctively good balance of creamy sweetness and brine.’  But I’ve never been to Wellfleet, MA, and didn’t even know they had a lighthouse, until now.

It is interesting to me the way local legend grows up around a particular event or circumstance.  It must have been true that someone in Wellfleet knew the fate of the lighthouse at the time it was moved.  The amount of effort it must take to move a lighthouse from one coast to another, even disassembled as some think it was, must have meant the local population was well aware of the movement, even if they were unaware that the lighthouse would eventually end up on Point Montara, CA.  Someone must have written the letters that are now coming to light as evidence of the movement of the lighthouse.  Local rumor may have eventually spewed forth the idea that the lighthouse was merely disassembled and not transported, but what of those ‘in the know’?  Is there some reason they would not want the town to know that their lighthouse was still being used (and is still being used today) somewhere else?  Or did the townspeople themselves simply prefer to allow the truth to fade into past and legend.

It is odd the ways truth and story blur in local tradition.  In Talcott, WV, it is often said that after his titanic battle with the steam engine, John Henry came home to his wife, had a quiet dinner, and passed softly in his sleep, his big heart finally giving out from the strain of that struggle.  In Ireland, Oisin lives to tell his tale to the future, perhaps even to Saint Patrick.  We are drawn to the poetry of the moment, and who would rather not see their beacon of light sinking slowly beneath the waves forever, rather than used for purposes not their own on some distant shore?

Deep Autumn

There is something enticing about the cusps of the year, the melding of summer and winter into one through the transition periods of spring and fall. Short little crocuses burst up from beneath the snow and ice, and even the trees pulse with quickening life, sap and rivers flowing rapidly, equally fluid. Even the sky melts into a sort of liquid spattering that falls gently to earth. The soil beings to breathe under the gentle rain, exhaling misty puffs smelling of last year’s leaves and the white crispness of newly thawed ground. It is in spring that we cast of the old layers – old life, old ideas, old desires – and attempt to do a spring cleaning of ourselves, reaffirming what is most good.

Autumn, the true depth of autumn, seems even more alive. The first edge of winter, hanging in the air, lends a sort of danger to the season, an alert crispness present at all times in the cooler temperatures as well as the quality of the air itself. The air becomes drier – the night skies, completely clear. It is in autumn that the stars shine down on us the most awesomely, like so many splinters of reflective broken glass. It is in autumn, with the nights growing longer, colder, and also more vivid, that we begin to understand who we are both as inviolate individuals and the complex interweaving of humanity that refuses to be untangled. It is in autumn that we begin to suspect our true worth to our fellow man, and to wonder at the existence of others.

As a lover of fairy tales, children’s stories, and literature, I was intrigued by this article on the relative value of different stories.  In an era of reality television and rampant blogging, what is the relative worth of personal opinion, truth, and individual experience?  Does the artfully crafted short story which make never be published or read by a wide audience, have more or less worth than the serial Japanese cell phone novel with minimal details and broad themes that will be read and reread by millions?  Who determines the standards of the writing craft, and what should be read as ‘serious’ writing?  Are there truly new forms, or are flash fiction and the aforementioned cell phone novel only the use of new technologies and realization of a shorter attention span?  Should we even be trying to create something new, or should we resign ourselves to doing what has already been done as well as we can?  Finally, with all the lives that have been lived before mine, what comparative worth does my perspective have?  Can it be crystallized and distilled for preservation?  Should it be?

The pillaging of children’s books

One of the weird movies that my sisters and i watched together (and my parents, my mom especially, were a little uncomfortable about ) was Toys. It’s a classic. What more can you say about a movie that takes a fantastical playground of a toy development company and uses it to say something about the relationship of children to war and the relationship of dreams and fantasy to marketability? But it got me thinking about toys generally – the lack of quality ones on the market that really let children imagine and the omnipresent need to sell more stuff.

This can most clearly be seen in the children’s book/movie/TV/merchandise-industrial complex. On the top ten list of highest grossing movies of all time (according to Wikipedia), three were what I would call children’s movies: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and Shrek 2. Half were based on books – the two Harry Potters, Lord of the Rings 2 and 3, and Jurassic Park. These numbers are not adjusted for inflation and include only box office sales.

I couldn’t find accurate numbers on related merchandise sales, but maybe we’re not jeopardizing our children’s development by flooding them with movies and related goods. Maybe parents are still reading to their children instead of plonking them down in front of Finding Nemo again. Maybe they don’t have 20 different lunch boxes, each for a different six months of the newest kiddie movie craze. Or maybe we’re simply taking them to more adult films, like the Pirates of the Carribbean.

In order to get a better sense of the scope of the commercialization of children’s literature, I took a short survey of all the kiddo books Corina and I could think of with associated collections of merchandise. These are collections, mind you, not just one or two items but rather an entire marketing campaign. We also used only those examples that started as books. The list follows:

Winnie the Pooh, Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley High, Magic School Bus, Goosebumps, Harry Potter, Peter Rabbit, If You Give Mouse A Cookie, Chronicles of Narnia, Golden Compass, The Busy World of Richard Scarry, Cordoury, Nancy Drew, Curious George, Dr. Seuss, Where the Wild Things Are, Berenstein Bears, Clifford the Big Red Dog, American Girls Collection, and A Series of Unfortunate Events. There are probably more, but we were trying to be at least somewhat rigorous.

Now I love books, and I especially love children’s books. And yes, it’s nice to occasionally bring a little bit more of that imaginary world into your own life. I mean, I was ecstatic when JellyBelly did Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans – how else would I get to experience a true-to-life taste of earwax without the unhygienic method of a finger in my ear? But still, do we really have to tear apart stories that are formative for many of use just to turn a profit? Should we reduce the quality of our literary efforts for the young just to church out another hardback to sell? I just remain grateful that the Marsh wiggles and other characters of The Silver Chair will remain forever unmarketable.

Tempus Fugit

The current market downturn can be seen as a shortage of lending, or the inability of businesses to get the money they require to do business.  Recently for myself there seems to be a shortage of time instead.  It seems no matter how little I plan myself, other people are always expecting me to do things.  In addition, even the ‘free’ time I have seems to somehow disappear.  The apartment is a mess, last night was the first time I did laundry in about two weeks, and I have about 50 secret projects I’m supposed to be finishing up while Mike is away.  Sometimes it has me asking myself why I ever say yes to anything, but I do like to keep busy.

The Latin phrase of the title and I have had an interesting history.  The first time I ever saw it was as the title of a short story for one of my roommates’ creative writing classes.  I knew that ‘tempus’ meant ‘time’ in Latin, but I wasn’t sure about the second word.  What could ‘fugit’ be?  Obviously, the Latin word for ‘fudge’.  I envisioned a weird dessert of those ancient concrete-aqueduct builders that allowed them to travel through time.  Yum.  When I was told that ‘fugit’ actually meant ‘flies’, my little daydream was further expanded.  Now I had time travel fudge that was self-propelled through the air.  What a great idea!

I never read the associated short story the title came with.  My friend Kate said it was boring, and I didn’t want it to foil my own fantastical imaginings.   I wonder what it was about?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go see if I can mess with my bosses’ picture using the free software I probably wasn’t supposed to download onto my work computer.  I’m a very busy person, you see.

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