Perspective and proportion in the modern era

Life is what you make of it. Literally.

At least, that’s the thought that’s been running through my head of late. I’m currently reading three books at the same time: “The Case for God” by Karen Armstrong, “Diaspora Politics” by Gabriel Sheffer (just a little light reading, you understand), and one of my all-time favorites, the complete “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams.

Why yes, it is an interesting combination.

I honestly don’t know how I ended up with these three together, but the end result is that it is occurring to me that there are very few absolute truths in the world. Everything we know is tied up in the lives we live and the worlds we inhabit, which can be infinitely different from those of others. In the second Hitchhiker’s book, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” (probably my favorite in the series), Adams really takes this concept home: we live in worlds that revolve around our own heads.

To show us this, Adams takes our hero (sort of), Zaphod Beeblebrox, the fugitive former President of the Galaxy, and puts him on the abandoned Frogstar World B, where he will be placed in the Total Perspective Vortex, the worst kind of torture in the universe. Here’s how it works: it shows you just how small and utterly insignificant you are to the functioning of the universe. Adams writes:

For when you are given just one momentary glimpse of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here”.”

…And into one end [Trin Tragula, the Vortex’s inventor] plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

Of course, Beeblebrox survives the ordeal (I won’t tell you how, but rest assured: it is hilariously Improbable). But the point is that we live in worlds were we are the center of the universe. We are naturally selfish creatures, and it’s not entirely our fault. We don’t have insight into how other people think or live or experience the world. We say, “walk a mile in their shoes,” but it’s not just about the shoes; people walk at different speeds and in different directions.

So how is this related to religion and diasporas? Well, I haven’t gotten though the other two books yet, but already I’m seeing that a lot of what’s being described is basically “the world according to [fill in group/community/country here].” They are not observable facts or objective analyses. When it comes to religion, this might not be so surprising because the most basic factor in a religion, the god, is unobservable. Religion by nature relies on faith to one extent or the other – of course, such faith can appeal to logic, but the appeal must be limited because the object of faith cannot be seen or experienced in a tangible manner. But what is really quite interesting is just how subjective and narrow history can be. You’d think history would be pretty simple: it either happened or it didn’t. The problem is that these facts are not created in isolation nor are they interpreted in isolation.

As a writer, I believe firmly in facts. There are things that happened, and things that didn’t. There are things that exist, and things that don’t exist (or at least cannot be proven to exist by current methods available). There are things that are true, and things that false. Furthermore, each individual has the resources to confirm said facts in a way that was not possible even 30 years ago.

This is important. In an era where many would rather have us believe “alternative facts,” we need to mobilize social media to establish truth from falsehoods and fact from fiction. But this requires a level of personal responsibility from each of us, to be honest, to be accurate, and to own up to mistakes when they are inevitably made, as quickly as possible.

Not everyone will meet that responsibility. And there will always be subjectivity in reporting, whether it’s in journalism or history books or academic papers, because we’re all humans and we’re by nature subjective. But the act of seeking out truth, the act of aiming for objectivity and acknowledging when we are incapable of it, is crucial. We have to try. Our sense of proportion depends on it, because even if we are just microscopic dots on a microscopic dot, we’re not microscopic to each other.

This post was adapted from one that originally appeared on my personal blog, Nadia’s Writing, now defunct.

Burn any incriminating documents: The power of the written word

I like to watch a show called “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Yes, I watch too much TV. Don’t judge me!

But this show is historical, so it’s practically educational! It’s like watching the History channel, if the History channel actually showed any historical programming. But that’s a post for another day.

So the show, for those of you with productive lives, uncovers the ancestral roots of celebrities. Some of the episodes are, frankly, pointless. Kind of like the celeb in question was pitched the idea and was like yeah sure, I’ll dig into my historical background just for the heck of it. Then they have to come to some sort of deep realization at the end of the episode.

(FWIW, @RobLowe, patriotism is NOT an inheritable trait. You cannot believe how much this annoyed me.)

Some, however, are actually quite meaningful and the person really learns something important about themselves (see, for eg., Christina Applegate’s episode, which could not have worked out better if it had been scripted. Julie Bowen’s episode was also quite the emotional rollercoaster).

One episode I thought was really interesting was the one featuring Sean Hayes. He starts out wanting to know why his father abandoned him and ends up going to Ireland to dig up his great-grandfather’s criminal record. I couldn’t help but think, poor great-grandfather Hayes, he traveled across the world to get away from that criminal record and all the people and situations that led to it, and here comes his great-grandson, who didn’t even know he existed until what, like two weeks ago, and is airing it out for the entire nation to see! Damn descendants!

It really is a testament to the power of the written word. We live in an era where everything we tweet or post lives forever and we’re constantly warned about the dangers that poses, but the truth is that anything you write down anywhere could haunt you even beyond your grave (which is ironic, since you should be the one doing the haunting. Geddit?).

Terry Pratchett writes about this a lot in his fantasy novels. The Wee Free Men, tiny aggressive little blue guys, are terrified of having anything written down because they’re afraid it’ll be used against them (this is not a paranoid thought given their criminal proclivities). The books in the library at the wizarding university have the power to “make fireworks go off in the privacy of one’s brain.”

So it’s not just tweets is the point I’m making here. I think we like to believe we live in a unique age that poses unheard of challenges when it comes to privacy and public image, and that’s not untrue in a sense. But ultimately, just as deleting a tweet often cannot kill it, apparently you have to burn down your local county records house before you leave the country if you really want to lose that criminal record. Hey, what’s a little arson after assault?

Please don’t commit arson. Or assault.

This post originally appeared on my personal blog, Nadia’s Writing, which is now defunct.

Never go with a guy to a second location: A review of Sofia Khan is Not Obliged

A good friend of mine recently recommended the book “Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” by Ayisha Malik. It was a book that had been on my radar for a while, so I took this as a sign that this was the time to read it.

Via goodreads

“Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” follows the trials of – you guessed it! – Sofia Khan, a Pakistani Muslim Londonite working a rather unfulfilling jobs as a book publicist. (A little self-insertion on the part of the author? You know where I stand on this).

Sofia inadvertently suggests writing a book on Muslim dating, such as it is, and gets roped into doing it herself. She gets an advance she can’t refuse, and signs up to an online dating site for people from the Indian subcontinent.

Meanwhile, Sofia’s preexisting love life presents recurring issues. A relationship on the cusp of marriage has recently broken down because of the boyfriend’s insistence that she live with his parents per South Asian custom. Sofia’s 30 years old, and she really liked this guy, and she struggles with the breakup even as she embarks on new dating adventures for “research.” It doesn’t help that these adventures are extremely disappointing. One man in particular is everything that is wrong with men as a group. He’s self-centered, noncommittal, aimless, looking to kill time with Sofia while he waffles through life. Unfortunately for our protagonist, he is also very charming (these types often are), and we spend a lot of very frustrating time with him.

While this is happening, we’re also introduced to Sofia’s family – traditional South Asian parents and her sister Maria, who is getting married – and her friends, each with their own romantic problems. Her coworkers also form a significant portion of her social circle, misconceptions of Islam and South Asian culture included, as well as aloof Irish neighbor Conall.

I thought this book was great! It was a refreshing departure from a lot of “Muslim narratives” out there, that tend to revolve around arranged marriages, government corruption, gender-based oppression, etc. This is just an average girl living an average life, and she happens to be a Muslim from a South Asian family. That obviously has it’s impact on the trajectory of the story, as it impacts the kinds of decisions Sofia and co. make and the way in which those decisions are implemented. But it’s not the crux of the story. Yes, it’s about Muslim romance, but the story doesn’t live or die on details like Sofia’s ex’s attachment to his parents or on her friend’s struggle with polygamy (a detail I personally found rather pointless in that it presented a very serious and controversial issue and then barely addressed it).

Ultimately, Sofia is a fun-loving, lighthearted working gal, faced with a life that becomes increasingly serious over the course of the novel: the book that needs to be written, the tension between her sister and her now-husband, pressure from her parents to just pick a guy already, etc. As these conflicts heighten, we see Sofia struggle to handle it all – her personality makes her, I think, averse to this level of seriousness. That nuance in the story’s development was something I really appreciated.

Overall, “Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” is a funny send-up of love, marriage, generational conflict, and the push and pull second generation kids are always balancing. It’s also a great example of the kind of Muslim representation that I personally would like to see more of. In fact, I’m quite looking forward to picking up the second installment, “The Other Half of Happiness.”

Have you read this book? Share your opinions in the comments!

An ode to Terry Pratchett on his birthday

Well, not an ode really. Just a blog post. A post to Terry Pratchett on his birthday.

For those of you who don’t know, famed British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett died two years ago, leaving behind a plethora of some of the best, funniest, most inspiring fantasy novels ever written – most significantly, the “Discworld” series.

I’ve mentioned Pratchett a few times on this blog, and that’s because he was a formative influence in developing my reading tastes and in understanding the interaction between politics and society.

My first introduction to the amazingness that is Terry Pratchett came in the form of the Discworld novel “Soul Music,” wherein Death’s (as in the Grim Reaper) granddaughter is forced to take on his duties while he contemplates the meaning of life, to the extent that he has one. As Susan Sto Helit takes up the Grim Reaper’s mantle, magical horse and skull rate included, she crosses path with a young musician who is meant to die in a stupid accident. As Susan struggles with the apparent unfairness of taking a young life in such a meaningless way, the man is saved…by music.

Then, he and his band invent Rock N’ Roll.

Via goodreads

To say that “Soul Music” is a rolickin’ good time is an understatement. This book is gold from start to finish.

“There are millions of chords. There are millions of numbers. And everyone forgets the one that is a zero. But without the zero, numbers are just arithmetic. Without the empty chord, music is just noise.”

– Terry Pratchett, Soul Music

From there, I was hooked. At time of writing, I’ve read the bulk of the Discworld novels and a few of Pratchett’s other books. The beauty of Pratchett’s writing is that it’s not just about the laugh. Discworld is a parallel to the real world, in many ways a mirror of it – its countries based on our own, its civilizations and cultures mimicking ours. And with that comes all the good and all the evil people create: racism (or speciesism, if you want to get technical), sexism, xenophobia, insulation, tyranny, money (which is a special kind of evil when amassed in too large a chunk).

[T]here…are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, follow any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin…without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no.

Lord Vetinari in Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett was the first person I ever heard ask: Who watches the watchmen? Who guards the guards?

These are two of the most important questions a society can ask itself. It goes to the core of what keeps societies intact: trust, in a system, in justice, in fairness. In the idea that if you work hard and stand up for what’s right, you will find those who will stand with you and you will prevail.

It’s an optimistic belief that too often fails to manifest here on Earth, but in the Discworld Pratchett’s acute sense of justice can prevail.

That’s what makes his books so great. They’re funny and deep, so you laugh as you marvel at the selfishness and deliberate stupidity of beings, human and otherwise.

So today’s the anniversary of his birth, so I wanted to take a moment to remember all the good times I’ve had on the Discworld, relive them, and say thank you, Terry Pratchett, for asking me the important questions, for making me laugh, and for inspiring me to want to write my own books.

And speaking of writing, I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from the man himself:

In my experience, what every true artist wants, really wants, is to be paid.

-Glod the dwarf in Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

Ain’t that the truth?

Arabic lyrics with Southern music: KUWAISIANA lead singer talks about his mashup of Arabic and indie rock

A while back I connected with musician PlusAziz, a musician of Kuwaiti origin based in New Orleans. I listened to some of his band, KUWAISIANA’s music – and let me tell you before we get any further that I am not a music buff by any means. But even I can tell when a song is cool.

Cover art for the KUWAISIANA Willow Show – courtesy PlusAziz

The interesting thing about KUWAISIANA is that it is envisioned as a mashup of jazz and blues music and Khaleeji (Arab Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, etc.) dialect singing. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I lived in the Gulf region for a decent chunk of time as a kid, and when I was there in the early 2000s, Khaleeji music was pretty much all there was to listen to on the radio. You didn’t get a lot of Egyptian or Lebanese songs until maybe 2004 or 2005.

As a result, Khaleeji music has a special place in my heart. The thing, though, is that it has a very specific, traditional beat to it. There’s an underlying drum rhythm that lends itself to traditional Khaleeji dance that exists in pretty much all my favorite Khaleeji songs, and it’s really not something you can recreate in blues music.

Naturally, therefore, I was interested in getting PlusAziz’s input on his band and why he does what he does.

What’s behind the name “KUWAISiANA”? (Is it Kuwait-Louisiana?)

Yes! It is Kuwait-meets-Louisiana.

KUWAISIANA, as a name or title, comes from the recognition of cultural parallels between Louisiana and my hometown of Kuwait. When it comes to music, both of their musical traditions evolved out of exchanges with foreign cultures coming together and forming something cohesive. The collective nature of a New Orleanian “2nd line” is, from an anthropological point-of-view, similar to the Kuwaiti “samri” or a Bahraini “jalsa.”

Both are also crippled by high obesity rates, poor infrastructure. These linkages are very subtle at the moment because the band is not even a year old, but this is the cultural trajectory I would like KUWAISIANA to work within.

New Orleans emerged as the turnkey solution for me when I was considering a next step after New York, where I recorded a debut EP as a solo artist titled SoHo Sprit (2014). I wanted to move to a “music city” in the American South because it’s a region I romanticized since I was a teenager. Oddly enough, the band was supposed to be a simple rock trio with me singing in Arabic. But the makeup of the band took a life of its own and I was suddenly dealing with seven other musicians who augment the sound and bring in different varieties of world music grooves. Luckily, I’m still rocking out in Arabic but the sound palette has undergone a poignant evolution.

What made you decide to start an indie rock band?

The short answer to that is music videos. Growing up in Kuwait, I would wake up around 3-4am to watch and record music videos on VCR. 16 tapes later, I was sold on the dream of forming a rock band. In particular, Smashing Pumpkins’ music videos were very compelling (visually and lyrically). After that, I would fall in love with a few other bands like Sigur Ros, The Mars Volta, Gorillaz, and Deftones.

KUWAISIANA at Howlin’ Wolf – photo courtesy PlusAziz

My musical intention in moving to New Orleans is to address the problem that Khaleeji music has virtually no presence in “world music” (a catchall genre which captures all non-Western music). The most prominent musical heritages in world music hail from North Africa, the Levant, Turkey, Iran, and India. Basically everywhere across the Middle East minus the Arabian Peninsula. These regions have set a standard that independent Khaleeji musical artists have yet to meet in my opinion.

I initially wanted to do a stripped-down alternative rock trio where I sang in my Kuwaiti dialect. In typical New Orleans fashion, I kept the door open for other musicians to join and now I have commitments from eight people, all of whom bring their own influences. My goal now is to try and sustain KUWAISIANA’s big band sound and tour around the US in summer 2017.

How exactly do you combine the style of indie rock with Arabic music? Who do you look to when you’re composing and writing?

 

There’s a ton of great bands coming out of Amman and Beirut who are combining indie rock and Arabic music in the best of ways; I’m not sure how / if I fit into that family. I would love to leverage maqam [a set of traditional melodic patterns commonly used in Arabic music] in my singing scales or Khaleeji pearl diving music ensembles, but that’s more long-term for me.

I’m less interested in Arabic music and much more interested in the Arabic language. When I work, for example, I may be watching Arabic content on YouTube. From Khaleeji TV shows and indie comedy shows to lectures and poetry recitations. This is what feeds me themes to think and sing about.

In terms of the tone of my music, I feel akin to other Kuwaiti creative acts, which have a cold sarcasm and dark humor about Khaleeji identity. You can find good examples if you look into the Youtube comedy series like Shino Ya3ni or the art exhibits of GCC Collective.

I use to have more control over my music when I worked alone, but now there are numerous influences at play in the band. My drummer plays a huge role in shaping grooves and we work as a team to identify what the song is asking for. It may be a Brazilian samba, afro-beat or any number of other ethnic influence. I hope that the band will evolve into a more democratic KUWAISIANA where I am not the only one driving decisions and shaping our songs.

Check out KUWAISIANA’s song “Murra,” sung in Arabic, and the English “Say Yea.”

Confessions of a chronic spoiler

I’m that friend everyone hates; the one who bursts out the ending of a long-awaited movie, or accidentally reveals a crucial plot point from a new book.

I don’t do this on purpose. It’s more like someone goes, “Have you read Half-Blood Prince yet?” and I respond, “OMG yes! I can’t believe Snape killed Dumbledore!”

It’s really not my fault – you can see from the exchange that it’s not clear that the person has not read the book yet. In fact, I would argue that it’s reasonable to assume they have read it, otherwise why would they ask? To see if it’s good? If you’ve gotten that far in Harry Potter, I would think you’re pretty committed to the series.

Clearly, therefore, I am blameless. But if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably already know this about me – pretty much every review I post has a decent chunk of spoilers, which I indicate for the unsuspecting reader’s convenience.

The thing about spoilers is: they don’t bother me. Yes, they make a joke less funny, or a death less sad (which actually is okay by me, I don’t like being sad). But when it comes to media consumption, I believe it’s all about the destination, not the journey.

Case in point: I am a huge fan of Agatha Christie, who is also called the Queen of Crime. This woman is a genius. No one can hold a candle to her, and I love me a good murder mystery.

(Side note: Has anyone here ever seen “Columbo?” Because O. M. G.)

Back on topic. Hercule Poirot is the best character in English canon, and Ariadne Oliver is ultimate self-insert parody character.

As a result of my undying passion for Christie and her writing, I have read her books repeatedly. They’ve already been spoiled: I know who was murdered, how, and by whom. But what I don’t remember is why it happened and how Poirot and/or Miss Marple figured it out.

(Yes, I have read other non-Poirot, non-Miss Marple Christie stories. They’re great too, but Poirot and Marple are gems without which the stories lack that certain je ne sais quoi.)

That’s the beauty of Christie’s writing. Watching the detective put the pieces together, watching the characters knowingly and unknowingly reveal the psychological intricacies that will inevitably lead to Poirot crying out, “Ah, but I have been such an imbecile!,” or Miss Marple launching into a parallel story based in St. Mary Mead. That moment, when you’re scrambling to catch up to their deduction, wracking your brain for that elusive clue that’s just blown the case wide open, and then sitting through the dramatic reveal. Even if you know who did it, the drama of the moment, the intersecting narratives, the details that were irrelevant and distracting, the ones that were crucial and revealing. Some of these details I remember. Some of them I begin to recall as the story moves along. Some I don’t remember at all. Some I discover with the second, third, and fourth read.

It’s an experience that’s never spoiled. Maybe it’s less dramatic, less tense, but it is no less exquisite for having been lived before.

So to all the friends I’ve spoiled over the years, sorry. Maybe lead with the fact that you haven’t read the book yet. Geez.

Does anyone know who the Flintstones are anymore?

I am not old. I want to put that out there from the start so we’re all on the same page here. I am NOT old. Unfortunately, television seems to disagree with me.

First there was the Sailor Moon reboot three years ago, which apparently was rather unpopular. I wouldn’t know – I didn’t watch it because the new character designs freaked me out. And yes, I have seen the manga, and yes, Sailor Moon was not exactly known for its accurate portrayal of the female body in its original run. I still don’t see why their faces need to be so shiny.

Her hair was not this plasticy-looking in the manga. Also her face seems pointier. Originally from Tumblr.

Back to the point: this year, Sailor Moon is celebrating its 25th anniversary. You know who else celebrated a 25th anniversary this year? ME. Sailor Moon and I ARE THE SAME AGE.

But here’s what’s worse: last year, Dragon Ball turned 30. This show, which, along with Sailor Moon, took up a pretty decent chunk of my childhood, is actually older than I am. And it also has the weird shiny character design.

All this I can live with. Sure, it’s been a solid 15 years since I’ve seen these shows (as a kid. As an adult, I’ve rewatched some episodes. If you’re interested, Toonami is airing the Kai version of the Buu saga, which thank God, because those seasons take an eternity.). But 15 years is not that much in the scheme of things. It’s also been 15 years since I’ve worn braces, 15 years since I started wearing a headscarf, 15 years since I put on my first pair of glasses. So big whoop.

But that’s not where it stops. Oh no! I recently watched an episode of “Teen Titans Go!” (yes, I watch a lot of cartoons. Let me enjoy my life!) where they parodied “Scooby Doo,” complete with a dogified Beast Boy, glasses-wearing Raven, and a masked villain(s).

Image result for raven as velma
Photo via YouTube.

You know when “Scooby Doo” first aired?

1969.

And it’s not only Cartoon Network that has it out for me. Disney’s getting in on the fun too. Did you know that the original “Beauty and the Beast” was released in 1991??? And “Mulan,” which is also getting the live-action treatment (which people already hate), was first released in 1998.

Here’s another one. Guess when the first episode of “The Flintstones” aired. Go on. I’ll wait.

Ready? The correct answer is 1960.

Turns out the Flintstones were the original Simpsons. And so in the 1990s, I was watching a cartoon that was already 30 years old. “The Flintstones” is basically my parents’ age.

Speaking of which, you know all those Flintstones Fruity Pebbles commercials on TV? Do kids today even know who the Flintstones are, or is it a “floppy disk is the save button” thing where they only know them as the guys on the cereal box? Do they even know the theme song?!

I’m not really depressed about the situation. It’s actually kinda nice to relive one’s childhood like this. But it is pretty weird to relive your childhood when you’ve only just become an adult. It’s also pretty jarring to realize just how much time has passed. Twenty years is a lot of time at the individual level, and it can be hard to remember that 20 years in the life of a young adult is not that much. If you were five 20 years ago, then you spent more than half of those years in school, which as we all know, Does Not Count.

So in conclusion, I will continue to watch cartoons, enjoy my life, and look down on kids who eat Fruity Pebbles but don’t know that the Flintstones are a modern Stone Age family from the town of Bedrock. Those fake fans.

I can’t stomach the Santa Clarita Diet

At the risk of being drawn and quartered, I’m going to confess to you, my faithful and loving readers, that I just don’t like the Netflix series “Santa Clarita Diet.”

I tried. I really did. I’ve watched six episodes over the course of four weeks, and I don’t think I can keep going. And I’ve figured out that it’s not the show, it’s me.

I completely understand why the show is so popular. It’s really funny – I’ve been in love with Timothy Olyphant since I saw him on Conan, and he’s actually the reason I started watching the show. Abby and Eric are great, and I’m rooting for Eric so hard! How can he be denied love when he’s so adorably awkward?

So yeah, it’s a funny show, and I laugh along with the rest of the internet world. I mean, the gifs alone:

But guys, it’s just so gross. So gross. I’ve never been good with blood. I couldn’t watch “ER” with my mom because the sight of people being cut open made me nauseous. I wait 15 minutes after the start time before I turn on “Law and Order” or “Bones” (which I’ve recently gotten into) because I don’t want to see bloody corpses. If I am so unfortunate enough as to catch a glimpse, I have to keep telling myself “it’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real” so I don’t get nightmares.

That’s just how I’ve always been, so the fact that I kept going through the “Drew Barrymore bites off Nathan Fillion’s fingers and then eats him” scene is frankly a breakthrough moment for me.

The thing is, it’s not that he didn’t deserve it. He was a creep and a jerk. But I can’t help but feel that being eaten is not really what society would call proportionate punishment. In fact, I can’t see that being eaten is proportionate punishment for anything. Yes, the showrunners are making a real effort to make Barrymore’s victims truly awful human beings, but, and this is where it gets weird for me, they’re really just actors, so they don’t deserve to get eaten – they’re also not really being eaten, but my brain for some reason is not processing that part quite as well. Probably it’s the sheer amount of blood being shed on the show that my brain can’t get over.

Another thing that’s definitely not helping is how much Barrymore’s character enjoys eating people. Watching her cheerfully make a smoothie out of a dead guy’s ear – just typing that sentence out made my stomach turn a little – is incredibly disconcerting to say the least. I am also not convinced that she wouldn’t eat her family if she was truly starving and their were no other options. When a girl’s gotta eat, a girl’s gotta eat.

So that’s where I’m at now, but that’s not to say I won’t revisit the series later when I’m feeling a little more up to it, if only to find out about that Serbian town that no one wants to go to. After all, “Gotham” is pretty violent but I’m definitely going to watch the second season…sometime. (Also “Gotham” may be darker than “Santa Clarita Diet” but it’s significantly less bloody. Just sayin’.) I’m also very excited for the second season of “Jessica Jones,” although again it took me a while to get through the show’s first season because it was just so overwhelmingly violent.

I think that’s part of why I’m struggling with “Santa Clarita Diet.” There’s already so much gore on television (by my standards, anyway) that I normally gravitate to comedies as a relief from it all. The last thing I want to think about when I’m trying to relax and enjoy myself is the brevity of human life, and I definitely don’t want to think about cannibalistic neighbors. My neighbors seem nice and normal enough, but then again, so does Drew Barrymore. She’s a real estate agent.

Creativity: Maybe she’s born with it

Creativity is, I think, something that everyone strives for. Not everyone is an artist or a designer or a writer (and not every writer is doing creative work), but in general, I think people like to see themselves as creative, whether that’s by thinking outside the box within their profession, or with a fun hobby. So the question is, are you born creative, or is it a skill you can develop?

According to an article in “The Guardian,” research shows that there are “creativity genes” which impact the way our brains transfer information between different lobes. Basically, the more connective pathways your brain has, the more likely you are to be able to see connections and patterns, and therefore the more likely you are to be creative. (There’s also some stuff in there about the sizes of lobes and fibers and so forth.)

Of course, there’s a nurture component as well: you can hardly see connections and patterns if you’re poor and starving, for example. Trauma also has a negative impact on one’s ability to be creative.

But going back to our original topic, can you learn to be creative? I think that everyone has creative potential, just not in the same areas. We tend to think of creativity as being the purview of artists, writers, and increasingly, entrepreneurs and those in the tech industry. But there’s creativity everywhere: NASA just discovered a bunch of new planets. I mean, true, they didn’t build them, but the idea of looking for other planets and in that specific place, not to mention all the technology and breakthroughs that have built up over decades to lead us to this discovery – if that’s not creative, what is?

I think creativity is a lot like learning styles. Musicians and voice actors probably have auditory creativity, where they learn by hearing and, more importantly, visualize in sound. I know that kinda seems like an oxymoron, but bear with me here. I’m a visual learner, I need to read something to understand it. If you tell me something, especially directions, I will forget them almost immediately. I have to write stuff down, and by write stuff, I mean write with pen and paper like it’s the ’50s.

But not only am I a visual learner, I am also tend to think in words (vs. thinking in pictures – most people use a combo, leaning towards visual thinking. I use a combo too, but a lot of my thinking happens in words). Example: when I read Harry Potter, I don’t imagine Harry/Daniel in my head running around the Forbidden Forest. Instead, I see a thought bubble with the word “Harry” in it, and that is basically the stand-in for the character in the imaginary world in my mind.

I see Hogwarts, but in a limited space. So for example, if Harry and co. are in the common room, I only see the table or couch they’re sitting on, with no connection to the wider space. Similarly, the Room of Requirement is in an empty hallway – it has no spatial connection to the rest of the school.

It occurs to me now that this limit of spatial visualization is why I’m so bad at directions.

The point is, given this information, it’s not surprising that my first love was reading and that my main creative outlet is writing. I like to draw and paint, but without specific instruction I tend to end up with random blobs (I can draw flowers though! Mostly because I draw them as blobs with a yellow bit in the middle). Even when I visualize something in my head, transferring it onto paper requires a stronger grasp on distance and proportion than I currently have.

However, we must ask ourselves which came first: visual text-based mental wiring, or the love of reading? Could the early introduction to books have set up my brain to receive and process information in word form? Or did I fall in love with books because my brain likes to receive and process information in word form?

“The Guardian” article would suggest the latter. I know that reading and reading and reading like there’s no next Tuesday has hugely improved my writing. In theory, that should be true for everyone. Creativity, I think, is more about what you’re willing to embrace and how you’re willing to embrace it (as determined, in part, by genetics), rather than a some-people-have-it-some-people-don’t ability.

 

If you write fiction, you’re probably self-inserting

If you’ve ever had the (mis)fortune to delve into the murky waters of fanfiction, you’ve likely come across a Mary Sue character: a young and beautiful women who is as close to perfect as possible and universally adored.

(Fun Fact: According to TV Tropes, the “Mary Sue” character first became a Thing in a Star Trek parody fanfic.)

The thing about Mary Sue (and her brother, Gary Stu) is that she is almost always an author self-insert. We wish we were perfect (and in a smolderingly romantic relationship with our favorite show/book’s main character), so we create this version of ourselves: beautiful, strong, kind, honest, talented – just all around amazing.

 

Which is fine. If you’ve ever written any kind of fiction at all, you’ve probably done the Mary Sue thing. Writing is, at it’s heart, an exercise in self-reflection, an attempt to understand oneself and one’s place in the world through the power of imagination. This, I believe, is a basic human instinct. When you dressed up as your mother in your long-gone (I assume, since you’re on the internet) preschool days, putting yourself in her shoes (literally), it was a kind of self-reflection. By pretending to be your mother, you entertain the idea that you will one day become your mother, a notion you will undoubtedly recoil from a mere 10 years later. But I digress. The point is, the urge to write a self-insert character is present in every writer.

It’s worth noting that not every self-insert character is automatically a Mary Sue. You might find yourself going in the opposite direction, highlighting and exaggerating the flaws you see in yourself as a form of self-flagellation, or perhaps as an attempt to reconcile yourself to those flaws. Perhaps you tend to insert yourself as a side character, someone in the background who’s main role lies in observation – kinda like you are in real life (which is not a bad thing, btw. More people should observe).

Or maybe you’re the narrator. Technically, all writers are the narrator of everything they write. Here, I mean this more literally. Your narrator is of  the all-seeing, all-knowing variety who does not merely recount the facts of the story but influences it’s path. Lemony Snicket, for example, laments the sad story of the Baudelaire siblings even as he commits to telling the reader every last harrowing detail. A form of grappling with control, or lack thereof, in Daniel Handler’s own life? I have no idea, but if I had to guess, that would be it.

Geez, what a downer.

Tom Holt’s “Alexander at the World’s End” has this kind of narrator.  Euxenus son of Eutychides is telling the story of his life in the court of Alexander the Great, after having lived a long life. He is now dying in a small outpost at the end of world and is telling this story to some unnamed young man, who stands in place of the reader. By reflecting on his life, Euxenus considers the myriad coincidences and random events that guided his life and led him to this, his final resting place, thousands of miles from his homeland. And perhaps, in a way, Holt is also considering the twists and turns his own life has taken. Or not. I don’t know, but speculating is fun.

How does one get their own talk show? Asking for a friend.

(Also, I highly, highly recommend “Alexander at the World’s End.” It is one of my favorite books of all time.)

One of my favorite authors in the world, Terry Pratchett, does this too, I think. If you look at some of his main characters – Sam Vimes, William de Worde, Moist Von Lipwig – they’re all provocateurs. They’re different people, of course, in different times and with different priorities, roles, and concerns, but they all have the same characteristic in common: they don’t accept the status quo, and it is ultimately that characteristic which drives their stories. Did Pratchett see himself this way? His books are very political in nature, especially for the fantasy genre, and draw deliberate parallels between Discworld and our world. If the pen is mightier than the sword, I would say that Pratchett wielded his pen in much the same way Vimes wields his badge or de Worde wields his printing press.

I want to end on this note: if you want to read a hilarious parody of a Mary Sue character, read George Macdonald Fraser’s “The Pyrates.” I read it a hundred years ago but I still remember it, and let me tell you, the only book I have ever laughed so hard at is “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Captain Ben Avery is literally the most perfect human man to every exist in the universe: women fall over themselves trying to get his attention, while he remains utterly indifferent. It’s not just Avery – every character is an exaggerated stereotype, all of which serves to take the story in the weirdest and wildest directions. (It also makes the plot a little hard to follow, but let’s face it, this isn’t the kind of thing you read for the plot). If you like insanity, you’ll like this.