The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, October 30, 2006

Two Conversations

Did anyone else catch the following strangeness?  Last week, (the 17th) on The Unit, there was a coming attraction for the next week’s show, in which Dennis Haysbert seemed to be having a romantic/sexual relationship with a slinky lady—not his rather frumpy wife.

The lady happened to be white.  Come the next week, instead of airing that episode, they aired a repeat. At the end of the repeat, they gave a glimpse of the upcoming episode…and it seemed to be one other than the aforementioned tryst.  Now, I’m not saying anything specific here, but it does seem a little strange to me.  Any information?
Two more conversations about torture.  The first took place at a Halloween party at Larry Niven’s house.  A young gentleman there works in military intelligence—I’ve known him since he was a sprout, and it’s been an honor watching him grow up, time transforming a gawky kid into a fine young warrior. 

Now, this young man (who might  well read this, and decide to chime in and offer his name.  I myself will not.) has worked in interrogation in Iraq, and I figured it would be stupid to waste the opportunity to ask his opinion of torture as an interrogation tool.

With a fervor I hadn’t expected, he  launched into an intelligent, and quite passionate explanation of a position he had been taught by his instructors, and had come to believe on his own: torture doesn’t work.  To put his explanation as simply as possible, (to the best of my recollection), it goes like this: the veracity of the “information stream” intelligence officers attempt to weave into a declarative web is poisoned by the techniques of torture, that this method produces a lower grade of information than other, less coercive techniques.  In addition, you turn the population against you, again reducing the flow of good intel.  And lastly, you corrupt your own people, horrifically.  If I’m misremembering, I ask that my friend write in and rap me upside the head.

One of the things he said was that there is a type of personality that really glories in the imposition of pain and control on others.  Nor surprising. I would also guess that there are times in social history when large groups of people want revenge on those they perceive as a danger.  And in this case, that revenge might actually DECREASE the chance of preventing future attacks.  But human nature is filled with contradictions like this.

As I’ve said previously, the apparently low level of efficiency or effectiveness of torture is quite surprising to me.  But the more I look into it, it seems my opinions about the efficiency of torture to extract valuable information was gained more from works of fiction than those of fact.    
I had another conversation, the next day, with a Republican conservative of long association and impeccable character.  She is supportive of the use of physical coercion.  When I told her what seems to be a consensus of the intelligence community and psychologists, she refused to believe it, offering some extremely torturous and purely theoretical scenarios designed to make it seem any reasonable person would torture.  All right, given the right situation, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was true.  But under sufficient pressure, most of us would go insane, as well—so the fact that people WILL do something, and justify it, doesn’t mean they should.

Because we feel “if someone put a blowtorch to my balls, I’d tell anything” is all well and good, but under most conditions, the world looks flat.  Doesn’t mean it is, and just because an imaginary, or roughly analogous situation would produce positive results is all well and good—but I’d expect a HELL of a lot more positive data if this was a road I wanted to travel.

Remember: it is statistically inevitable that innocent people will end up in custody, looking guilty as hell. That’s the way it’s always been, and probably will always be.  Be aware that any legal maneuvers placed in effect will control innocent flesh.  Inevitably.  When you make cold-blooded decisions about how innocent people will be treated, you place your soul in peril.

IF I believed that torture worked not just well but better than other techniques, and if for some reason I felt I had absolute knowledge that X had information vital to my family’s survival, I would probably risk my soul and rip someone’s fingernails out.  But with the kind of doubt I see here…and the risk of actually decreasing the results of the information gathering process…I think that this entire debate will be considered, in retrospect, far less than our finest hour.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Request on torture...

A Gore/Obama ticket sounds to me like the best bet in ’08 for the Democrats.  If it did well, they could then roll Obama into the presidency.  Clinton?  She feels like too much of a lightning rod to the Right.  Man oh man, do they hate the Clintons.  Whichever way things happen, that’s certainly going  to be a fascinating and important election.
A question on torture…I’ve yet to find an expert (a former torturer, retired military, psychologist, etc.) who says they find torture uniquely effective, let alone will name specific times and places historically when information gleaned thereby saved lives.  If ANYONE can point me to information contrary, please do.  Right now, I’m starting to feel that the only people in favor of torture have no fact-based concept at all of its efficiency, and (I suspect) want to hurt these people—it is a vengeance mindset.  But I’m willing to look at the data.  Understand something—I’m personally against torture on moral grounds (I believe it poisons the spirit, and erodes the very freedoms we are trying to protect) but I was surprised by the unanimity with which its supposed efficiency has been denied.  A little help, here?
Also glad to hear of the exit polling planned by major news outlets across the country.  Belief in the integrity of the voting process is essential to a Democracy.  Throughout our history, both sides have fixed elections, so this isn’t a finger at the Republicans by any means.  But power breeds corruption, and their power has been fairly unchecked for quite a while now—I would expect serpents to breed in those shadows.
Sending out shipments of the LIFEWRITING YEAR LONG today (I process those orders about once a week or so) and had a chance to thumb through the workbook.  It contains much of what I’ve gathered about writing over the entire course of my career, and if I’m not ashamed to say I’m impressed.  Know what?  It’s a good feeling to be offering good value.
Finished the first draft of my new horror script, and turned it over to Tananarive for her run.  I’ll say more about it as soon as it’s registered with the Writer’s Guild.  The concept would be very, very easy to steal…but I think it rocks.
I also finished the first draft of a short story “Trickster” for a Superhero anthology I was invited to submit to.  It’s actually part of a larger story I want to do one day.  Let’s just say it deals with the aftermath of a major alien invasion, and an aspect of such an invasion I’ve never seen discussed.
How interesting how things are going with Jason.  If I withdraw even a little time from him, or allow myself to get distracted during that time, it has an immediate impact on his behavior. Curiously, Tananarive’s time with him doesn’t have the same impact at ALL.  I never expected to see the “Alpha Male” effect so clearly, and it reinforces my sense that my poor mother did everything humanly possible to guide me, but I REALLY needed a man around the house.  Sigh.  Well, a guess sometimes Fatherhood skips a generation.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

From Rush to Bond...

Tananarive and I are getting into “Jericho” on television, at least partially because the premise is so close to “Devil’s Wake,” an idea we were pitching last year.  Well, it’s pretty close, except that instead of nuclear war we crashed the grid with an infestation of zombies.  There is just nothing like working months to set up a pitch meeting, getting there and seeing smiling faces of people who like your work, starting your pitch and having those faces change: “oh…we have something in production just like that.  What else do you have…”

And having nothing.  Never again.  I’m always going to have a “back pocket” pitch, something secondary but good.  ALWAYS, just in case.  Man, that was aggravating.

Do like “Jericho,” though
The Rush Limbaugh flap over Michael J. Fox has been interesting.  Yes, I think his comments were tasteless (accusing Fox of deliberately declining to take his meds) but then, Rush has never really been known for being in great good taste.  In the world of hyper-nasty politics that has existed for the last ten years or so, it was pretty predictable.  There are other things I’ve heard him say that I found more distasteful.  But here he seems to have tripped across a cultural minefield—Fox is much beloved.  In my mind, he had the right to appear without his meds, and in fact might easily have been accused of “fakery” had he suppressed his symptoms—the entire point was to bring home the human cost of Parkinson’s.  What’s fair?  What’s unfair?  In this instance, I’d say that my sympathy goes with Fox, but I understand why Rush bit at that bone. 

And I am greatly amused to watch him squirm at the national reaction.
One of my students continually cycles through shame and guilt in connection with her weight loss and relationship issues.  This good lady was raped as a teenager, and I think that the damage has gone so terribly deep that she cannot climb out of that hole alone.  Looking at her issue from the “Lifewriting” point of view, she desperately needs to have stronger, better allies—therapists, doctors, etc.  Right now, when she approaches weight loss, she is stirring up a real pitch-pot of night terrors.  I’d say she literally cannot lose that weight until she has more psychological support, and perhaps even spiritual guidance.

God in heaven, I hate rape.  No, I don’t think it’s as bad as murder (after all, death is usually the threat used to force compliance.  If it was really worse, that wouldn’t be an effective threat) but the damage it causes can last generations.  While I’d never want a death penalty for rape, if a woman hunted down and murdered her rapist  and I was on the jury, I’d be looking really, really hard for a way to find her innocent.
I think I’m going to be doing another NPR article, this one about Obama and the recent mini-flap about the spiritual/psychological integrity of black Americans opposed to recent immigrants from the Caribbean or Africa.

And here’s my real point: you can’t say that slavery caused enormous damage, and simultaneously say “we’re just fine, except for those pesky bigots.”  Can’t have it both ways.  If we were damaged, we carry those scars and they will effect our relationships, health, ability to deal with stress, belief in our innate divinity.  If we AREN’T carrying such wounds, then either slavery was just hunky-dorey, or blacks are Superpeople.  Sorry, but I’ve known entirely too many people abused in childhood, and the effects are crippling in adulthood.

In my mind, I see the effects of 300 years of bondage quite clearly.  Heck, economists say that the South needed 80 years to recover from 4 years of the Civil War.  Who really believes anyone could recover from 300 years of slavery, followed by another century of segregation, racism and Jim Crow, in just a few decades?  Give me a break.
Daniel Craig is starting to look pretty good as the new James Bond.  I’ve read two reviews of “Casino Royale” and both were glowing.  I am extremely stoked!
I fell in love with Bond in the first fifteen minutes of “Goldfinger,” back in 1964 at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater.  My entire nervous system went into a sizzle.  I’d never seen anything like that before, and to this day when I hear the James Bond theme I get goose-bumps.  Probably just that search for healthy male role models.  Hah!  I remember at the end of “License to Kill” when they had a disclaimer for tobacco usage.  Oh.  So it’s all right to jump out of airplanes without a parachute, but don’t light up a cigarette?  It is to laugh.

By the way, I’ve never considered Bond a misogynist.  He treats men FAR worse than he treats women.  The guy’s a misanthrope, and the movies have glossed over that.  He has no real human relationships with ANYONE.  Not much of a healthy role model, but my psyche still loves it, man.

I can’t wait.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Obama, Powell, and controversy

My thoughts that the non-American parantage of Barack Obama and Colin Powell might have influenced their emotional health has triggered some strong responses.  I would have thought my position was clear on this stuff: I consider slavery and its aftermath to have been the equivilent of 30 years of torture and abuse.  Take that person at age 40, and I doubt you have someone at the top of their game.  Still, all I was doing was musing on the respect and admiration afforded these two men, one of whom might one day become a serious presidential contender.

But here were some of the responses, and my answers:

“Just because Obama is black should not automatically trigger any guilt in white voters, unless the white voters have some reason to be guilty.”

Based upon history, there is incredible violence and pain in the relationship of black and white Americans.  And guilt is a common byproduct of being reminded of this.  My experience suggests that those with the least actual reasons to feel guilty are often the ones who feel it the most.

“"Yes, but the black-white thing goes very deep, and poisons things quite separate from the usual human issues."

So, issues of interest to black voters are not "human"?”
Neither are “male” or “female” issues.  We’re talking about a sub-set of the whole.
“Are you also saying that since Obama was not born of a black American woman, he would not rate as being of any value as a potential candidate for the office of president? Only as a son of an African can he have any intrinsic worth and value as a candidate for the highest office in the executive branch?”

You’re exaggerating for effect.  I point out that Obama and Powell, both with fathers from outside America, come from different emotional positions than the typical American black, and that that might be partially responsible for their popularity. 

“Are you saying that white people are so full of evil and hate that they cannot look past a black man/black woman-born child in America, who grows up to run for the office of president as something that is anathema to most whites of this country?”

Heck no!  They’re no better or worse than black folks. But Obama completely avoids the “descended from slaves”  position that I believe hurts black Americans terribly.  There is fear wired into our marrow, and fear often manifests as anger.  Few people, white or black, want to deal with angry people.

“Are you implying that native born black Americans are not worthy of being president of the US, only those whose parentage is not considered "black American"?”
I can only hope you’re kidding.  But in case you’re not, every additional damage is more weight for the psyche to lift.  I speculate that the advantage of fathers unscarred by America’s “peculiar institution” might have had special gifts to offer their sons.


Are black and white Americans so full of "poison" that there is no way they can work together on "issues" which affect ALL Americans: healthcare, crime, decent housing for the indigent, over-taxation and under-representation, the fight to find a cure for HIV/AIDS?”

I’d say that the legacy of slavery has poisoned the dialogue on a vast swath of issues.

If Powell's father was Jamaican, wouldn't there also probably have been a slave background? Or was slavery less culturally destructive in the Caribbean?”

I think Caribbean slavery was less culturally destructive, yes—in the sense that post-slavery, the ex-slaves were more able to create a culture of their own. Also, slaves in the Caribbean were (I believe) primarily under British or French rule, which means that they did not inherit the legacy of the American Civil War.  That insanely violent legacy, and the Jim Crow and segregation that followed, created a variety of negative responses, including insane amounts of denial and anger from Southern whites.

Blacks I’ve met from the Caribbean simply seem to have a deeper sense of themselves as human beings.  Not as deep as Africans, but certainly deeper than the average black American.

Green Room Advice

The election is coming up on us rapidly, and time for voter registration is ending soon.  Regardless of your political affiliation, please remember to participate in our democracy…I think we can all agree that the importance of active, informed citizens has never been more important.  Ultimately, we get the government we deserve.
Someone commented that Barack Obama’s father cut out on him, and therefore wasn’t there to pass information and empowering myths to his son.  Well, anyone who knows me would know I’d agree that an absent father is non-optimal (mother and father were divorced, and at this time I don’t know much about the circumstances of his leaving.  I cannot comment on whether I would personally consider this an honorable or dishonorable thing to do.)

What I can say is that if my father was absent, I would rather believe he was in Africa, descended from a noble line of warriors, than believe he was just another descendant of slaves.  To have one’s history dead-end in shackles is simply horrid.  I need to read more of Obama’s thoughts to know what he, personally thinks about this.

I’ll say another thing: I really believe boys need their fathers.  I have nothing but respect for widowed or divorced single mothers, and lots of empathy for those accidentally impregnated who decided to raise their children (although I might prefer that they give those children up for adoption to an intact family).  But I’ve known women who deliberately went out and got knocked up, because they felt it was time to have a child. 

I think that this is incredibly selfish.  I’d tell them to adopt.  But I have to admit that if I had the power to change the law, I would not make such actions illegal.  They just stick in my craw, and the number of times they later complain about the staggering work of raising a child alone…and when I watch those sons twisting in the wind seeking some kind of emotional limits or masculine center to their lives…it just makes me weep.
Well, I’m certainly glad George Bush was never in favor of “Staying the Course.”  What a relief!  Now, if only someone would arrest that impersonator I heard say exactly that at least a half-dozen times, we’d all be safe.  Wow.  Anyone who complained about Clinton’s  “I did not have sex with that woman” but not this is…well, let’s just say a very political animal indeed.
Looking forward to the new season of “24” (I just saw the first sneak preview, and it looks terrific.   It was kinda interesting on a recent news show when a Conservative from the Wall Street Journal stated   in defense of torture, that America wants Jack Bauer.  Wow.  I thought adults knew the difference between fantasy and reality.  Obviously, I’m living in a fog.
“The greatest trick the devil ever did was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.”—The Usual Suspects.
It’s taken me three days to recover from the weekend completely.  I really pour everything I have into my teaching, and Sunday was kinda weird.  I taught one workshop until noon, and the next wasn’t until six in the evening.  I sat around in the green room talking to the other instructors (always great fun!) until then, but wasn’t really able to eat anything decent until I got home.

While there, I had the chance to speak to a gentleman who is considered the best script reader in Hollywood.  I always like to dig out the gems from such people, and when he seemed receptive, asked questions.  He said that he goes through the script multiple times, but there are two things that he inspects most carefully.

1)     Does every scene further the action?
2)     Does every word in the script describe something either visual or auditory?  In other words, something that the viewer will either see or hear?

It’s amazing, but still common that people write scripts and tuck in all kindsa internal stuff, stuff about a character’s past or feelings THAT CANNOT BE PHOTOGRAPHED.

This instantly drops the studio reader out of the reality of the story, and makes them remember they are reading a script.  And that, my friends, means you just lost the sale.

I think that this might be one of the reasons I enjoy writing my books as scripts FIRST, and then flesh them out.  This ensures I have a very strong visual line to the story, holding the core of the meaning and emotion.  Then, when I add internal monologue, interpretations of facial expressions, kinesthetics, etc, I am building upon an already sound foundation.

But whatever approach you take, if you are working on something for television or film, this bit of “Green Room” advice should be taken to heart:  Every scene should advance the story. Every word should paint a picture, or make a sound. Believe it.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Morning Program

In preparation for a couple of new projects I’ve been hinting about, I’ve been getting up at six in the morning, to get my basic exercise and writing out of the way before Jason wakes up—8 to 8:30 is his time.

I’ve found that my mind won’t focus for the first fifteen minutes or so, and writing is difficult until the caffeine kicks in (I use a product called Mega Blast, which is caffeine plus the nutritional co-factors that make caffeine work.  Nice stuff!) and troll about the web a bit, waiting for the yawns to go away.

But then, when its time to write, I jump in to create text in Final Draft.  My initial plan was to create five pages a day, but when I did the math, that was just too marginal in terms of the work ahead.  Ten pages a day, on the other hand, will do just fine.

So the trick is to set myself up every night for the next day’s work.  This means reading (read 10X as much as you write), planning (asking myself questions germane to the next day’s text) and allowing myself to go to sleep thinking about what I’ll write in the morning.

Well, actually I vacillate between thinking about tomorrow’s work and repeating “I am” over and over as I spiral down into sleep.  The idea is to get my unconscious mind to crunch the data, preparing me for work.

Right now, I’m in sprint mode finishing a suspense script T and I will be pitching in November, after we get back from a working vacation in Antigua. 

The real point of this is to encourage you to look at the morning routine YOU adhere to.  Extrapolate it out over months.  If you do this every morning, will you increase your chances of reaching your goals?  If so, then fight like crazy to create that perfect morning.  Steal it back from the world, one minute at a time—it probably won’t be easy at all.

Trust me, I HATE going to bed at 10 pm.  The happiest days of my life revolved around a schedule of bed at 1am and up at 9:30.  Sigh.  Jason, if I didn’t love you so much, I’d…I’d…

Aw, nuts.  If I didn’t already love my baby boy, I’d fall in love with him all over again.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Obama for President?

The most recent issue of Time magazine trumpets the idea that Senator Barack Obama could be the next president of the United States.  Clearly, in terms of charisma, the man is a rock star.  And I like the fact that he seems to be a straight-shooters, who speaks plainly and intelligently on a wide variety of topics.  I’ll have to do more research to decide if I’d want to vote for him on more than a knee-jerk level.

But it’s interesting to note the similarities between Obama and Colin Powell.  Both were born to fathers raised outside America (Powell’s parents were Jamaican, Obama’s father Kenyan.  In other words, both men would have avoided much of the emotional poison that infects black American males. Obama’s father, particularly, would have access to tribal stories, lines of ancestry, and a sense of self completely beyond most descendants of slaves.  It’s not surprising that these two men are, arguably, the most respected black American males.

But could Obama be President?  I remember talking to a retired secret service agent, who knew Powell quite well. She said that when he was being bandied about as a presidential candidate, he received a volume of hate mail and death threats that the service had never seen before, and his wife pled with him not to run.

Would that happen to Obama?  Possibly.  I don’t know.  But people respond to him in an amazing fashion.  Possibly because he personally has no connection to the horrors of slavery, he is able to be the kind of black person whites love to love: intelligent, stable, responsible, optimistic, and not trying to trigger guilt.  This really, really speaks to my thoughts about the difference between hardware and software—Obama is running great software.  I’m going to look into him, and meanwhile, I’m sure I can trust my readers to send me links to articles elaborating on his strengths and weaknesses.
Saw “Feast,” the Project Greenlight horror movie directed by John Gulagher.  Well, it’s not the disaster you would have predicted watching the show, but neither is it very good.  There are continuity problems, some flat dialog and amateurish editing…and also some genuinely funny and scary moments.  And at least one (in the unrated version) that was so offensively over-the-top that I still can’t believe it.  Let’s just say that it involves Navi Rawit ( the hot math chick on “Numbers”) and an amorous monster.  Yow.  The movie’s “Plot” (so to speak) is as simple as it gets: a bunch of people in a diner are under siege by hungry, horny desert monsters.  One by one, they’re killed off.  If you liked “Evil Dead” you might get into this.  Otherwise…stay away.  For hard-core horror fans, a “B.”  All others—probably a “D.”
And I saw “The Prestige” last night.  Yummy.  Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in an actor’s duel.  Two magicians are locked in a battle of wits and hearts, triggered by a tragic accident early in their careers.  It’s a “how do they do that?” taken to the next level, a real, distinct treat for the eyes, and a smart, smart thriller.  There are several twists and turns that put a smile on my face.  One I saw coming.  The other I did not.  Both were perfectly fair, in retrospect.   This is fine, fine work.  An “A.”

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Nutrition and Crime. Interesting.


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More thoughts on this weekend's lectures…

More thoughts on the weekend lectures…

The SF/Fantasy lecture will be easy.  The basic principles are the same in all genre writing, but there are rules that govern the field of the fantastic.  I really like Heinlein’s basic principles of “What If, If Only, If This Goes On.”  After presenting them, we’ll talk about a some of the movies and books that have used them well—and probably a few cases where the creative folks completely missed the mark.

After that, I’ll touch on another Heinlein idea: That to really write science fiction, you should have a base knowledge that runs all the way from Physics to Psychology and Philosophy.  This is great fun, because the audience will always have folks who have no idea what I’m talking about, and think that SF is just slapping space-ships or a talking blob of ooze into a regurgitated soap-opera structure.

Ultimately, SF is generally about the collision of ideas and world views.  It deals with the nature of human consciousness and the cultures that consciousness has created worldwide.  To extrapolate outward to new worlds, it is best to have some grasp of the one we live in—and of its history.

Needless to say, it is probably impossible to create such extrapolative patterns without expressing your own view of the nature of man, the origins of thought and creativity, the innate perfectability of the human spirit.  Does one go with the Great Man hypothesis, or are waves of change more general and collective?

The politics in SF tend to be rather socially conservative (although they are often in denial about this), and narrow.  But within that narrow corridor some of the greatest ideas have been explored, expressed, and initiated.  It’s a worthwhile field to plow.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Advice from a dropout

So, I’m teaching SF/Fantasy, Characterization, and Plotting at the Screenwriting Expo this weekend, promoted as a “Star Speaker” based on audience reviews from the past two years.

You know?  I used to be excited about that, and  thought that such speaking might lead to something good career-wise.  Now I know better.  If I lecture, I’m going to lecture for the sheer joy of it.   Over the years, I’ve gotten to know several of the top “writing gurus” and there is an uncomfortable truth: none of them are actually writers.  In fact, most (but not all—there are some very talented exceptions) of them might be best described as FAILED writers.  I would equate this to centipedes who know where all their legs are, but cannot dance.  I can do both—and I think that when I teach, the light of my love for the craft really emerges.

To tell the truth, I’ve learned a huge amount from some of those “Gurus,” but I’ve learned a lot more from the teachers and friends I’ve had who were real, working writers.

What I needed more than anything else was a sense of what it would be like in the trenches.  Here’s a confession: I dropped out of college because my teachers couldn’t finish their own writing projects.  I was terribly afraid that their “failure attitudes” would infect me.

As I’ve gotten to know myself better over the years, I know that there was no reason to fear.  My mom had “infected” me with enough success-consciousness for three lifetimes.  But the fear of being unable to reach my dreams motivated me to make the biggest mistake of my life, and one I plan to correct.

This belief in attitudes ascendant over mere technique is everywhere in my teaching.  The very core of the LIFEWRITING YEAR LONG is the intersection of the Hero’s Journey and the Chakras—of characterization and plot.  That can be taught in ten minutes.  All I do in the week-long or year-long courses I teach is to anchor this attitude in the subconscious of my students, to give cross-referenced examples of how this works.

In fact, for the rest of my life, I think that all I’ll be doing in my writing is deepening my understanding of plot, characterization, and poetics.

That’s enough work for several lifetimes.  Personally, I only have 120 years to get it straight…

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Black Men In Cinema on NPR


my infamous (and to someof you, by now, tiresome) rant about black male sexuality on film just got broadcast on NPR.  Here's the link...

I NEVER thought it would actually air.  Wow!

Morning routine

I’m teaching three workshops at this weekend’s Screenwriting Expo:
1) Deep Characterization
2) Plotting
3) Writing SF and Fantasy

So since I have to run my mind in that direction for the next couple of days, I thought I’d crunch those thoughts up with a few other things floating around in my psyche.  You’ll get those thoughts soon.

1) I am possibly about to take on a gigantic project, one that could easily move my career to the next level.  Cool.  But also frightening.  The volume of work would be utterly intimidating if I let myself really think about it. 
The solution?  To change my morning “Golden Hour” to a two-hour stretch, from 6am to 8am.  During the 6-7 slot, I write a thousand words, or 5 pages of a script. 7-8 is my exercise slot.  At 8, I have to be available to Jason, who I take to preschool at 8:30.  From 9 through the rest of the day is various business, including creating more text, study, research, re-writing, business meetings and so forth. 

In the evening I set myself up for tomorrow’s Golden Hour, detailing the next thousand words or so.  This allows my dreaming mind to chew over the  task ahead, so that I awaken the next day ready to go.

Sleep time is 10pm. Sigh.  I could REALLY use another hour, but that’s just the way it is.  I need my sleep!

Jason and Nicki

I was asked a couple of days ago to comment on any differences between the way I’m raising Jason, as opposed to Nicki.

There are definitely some differences. 
1)     Nicki had a full-time Mom.  Toni, my first wife, was home with her pretty much until kindergarten.  It’s possible that his recent acting-out was just a plea for more focused time.
2)     I have my own insecurities, based on a lack of paternal involvement in my youth.  It is always possible that I overcompensate—want Jason to be more “macho” or something.  But I don’t think there’s a lot of that.  There just seem to be some basic differences.  Nicki would WATCH me working out, while Jason is more monomaniacal about imitating me.  Nicki was much more snuggly with me (and her mommy).  If I try to snuggle Jason and he isn’t in the mood, he’ll wriggle his way out, panting and grinning. 
3)     I am probably a little more cavalier about his risk-taking and skinned knees.  Maybe.  But I’m not sure there, either.  There were lots of risks I encouraged Nicki to take.
4)     Nicki certainly had more “girly” toys (dolls, etc.) than Jason has (can you say “action figures”?) but then Toni bought most of Nicki’s toys, so I can’t be held accountable for that.
5)     I probably spend similar amounts of time with Jason as I did with Nicki.
6)     Jason is going to be a tall, strong man—and therefore threatening.   He will have to learn to be very polite and controlled.
7)     I wanted Nicki to know how to defend herself, so a certain minimum amount of defense/martial arts was a part of her upbringing.  Jason will have more.  The world is not kind to men who cannot resist aggression, or be aggressive when the situation demands.  Men do not respect them, and women are less attracted to them.
8)     Jason is going to be ridiculously attractive—he’s a gorgeous kid, and girls already react to him strongly.  Weird to watch.  So he’s going to learn to have impeccable manners toward women, and I am careful about my voice and body language toward Tananarive when he is around.  I wouldn’t want him to mistake a playful mood for inappropriate hitting or intimidation.

Overall, everything I see suggests that men and women are about 98% the same, but that 2% difference is what attracts them to each other.  The 98% is what makes the relationship stable and lasting.  So I have to work on both his basic human qualities, and his specific masculine, aggressive, protective qualities. 

With Nicki, I just concentrated on her being in balance, and let her Mom concentrate on the girly stuff. If I’d been a single father, I would have enlisted the help of sisters, aunts, and female friends to provide her this energy.  If I was a woman with a male child, I’d enlist brothers, uncles, coaches and martial arts instructors to teach the proper use of male energy.

Monday, October 16, 2006

African-Americans post slavery

So I’m going to talk a bit about why I think some problem areas for black folks actually increased in the decades following the end of slavery.

To do this, I have to lay down some ground rules, and in some cases my reasons for them.
1)     I take the position that people are just people.  In other words, in general, the difference in performance between groups in America is due more to external circumstances than intrinsic capacity.  No doubt there are differences, but those who begin from that assumption almost invariably end up arguing that their group is superior, and I consider that to be, in general, self-serving b.s.  While I may be wrong on this issue, I’d rather be wrong from this position than the other.
2)     Slavery was primarily an economic institution, but it rapidly became an important social one.  Poor white southerners always knew that, at the very least, they were better than blacks.  What a relief, huh?
3)     The end of slavery was linked to a devastating, humiliating, disillusioning defeat. 
4)     Black people believed that if slavery ended, that this would be the beginning of a golden era.

     During slavery, individuals were brainwashed to accept their position. This brainwashing worked to varying degrees—but it’s reasonable to assume that anyone who failed to accept it totally either fled to freedom, or was captured, punished, or killed in the attempt.  When slavery ended, you had millions of people unprepared for a life of truly equal opportunity, even had it been available.  But it wasn’t.  Slavery was followed by a century of Jim Crow and repression, segregation, and resistance to the notion of blacks as fully fledged citizens—including hideous violence against those who tried to vote or stand up as proud, free Americans.

     In some ways, slavery and segregation “protected” blacks from the violence, fear and anger of the majority, in the ways that zoos “protect” animals who were perfectly capable of fending for themselves in the wild. 
Remove the bars, and those animals will do poorly indeed.  As I’ve said, if upon emancipation blacks had received white skin, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as bad.
But there’s another factor to take in—and that is that I look at damage to a social group to be somewhat analogous to damage to a single individual.  In other words, if you hade a 40 year old who was sexually abused for her first 35 years, wouldn’t you expect that woman to exhibit emotional dysfunction?  I would expect her body to be a shambles, her relationships to be in tatters, her ability to make a decent living severely inhibited.  Perhaps immediately after freedom, she would try to get a job, pretend she was a normal person…but after some months or years the wounds would overwhelm her intentions, and its time for serious, intensive therapy.

There’s no doubt in my mind that there was a black educated class in the decades following slavery, a class that felt that with the obvious shackles opened, blacks could march forward to equality.

But for that to have been so simple, and so true, blacks would have to be superhuman. You just don’t walk away from 400 years of slavery and subsequent oppression without limping. 

For the first decades following slavery, blacks were severely limited in where they could work or live.  Whites who coveted the old status quo had great success in limiting black access to power and wealth.  As communities did start to form, if they succeeded they often found themselves victim of violence and unequal justice.

(Back in college, I remember researching a paper concerning justice in America. The conclusion, which I’ve never seen disproved, is that if you hold steady for severity of crime and previous record, males, non-whites and poor people do more time than females, whites, and rich people.  To the degree that people obey the law because they believe it to be fair, this alone is enough to motivate many poor, black males to believe that they’re suckers to obey the law.)

So 1) as the legal barriers fell, racism went more underground.  It probably cannot be erased altogether, if part of its base is simply subconscious recognition of an “other.”  It will, I believe, diminish as America gets browner.

2) The damage went deep.  Deep.  Rape, torture and abuse a child, and they will be at risk for serious dysfunction as an adult.  There are problems in the black community that simply can’t be laid directly at external racism, including drug addiction, divorce and illegitimacy rates, college dropout rates, and some aspects of crime statistics.

But believe me, folks, being around smart, nice people who are also morbidly obese, in terrible abusive relationships and underemployed, it is very easy to see the damage of childhood expressing itself in an adult fashion.

But while a gap between black and white performance is real, it is interesting to note that African immigrants have an advantage over native-born blacks similar to those found in Asian and European immigrants.  This suggests to me that the PRIMARY problem is one of programming—the “software” being run in black communities. I can admit this, and hold black people responsible for correcting it, even as I know that they didn’t create their own software—these people were stripped of their names, culture, language, and religions.  They were told that their marriages were not sacred, their children not theirs to control, their bodies not theirs to protect, and that the men and women who owned them were closer to God than they were.  That the fruits of their labors were not theirs to keep.

When they left slavery, I believe they left with high hopes that if they accepted the lip service of the government, life would be onward and upward.  And after about three generations of constant pushing, I think fatigue set in.  Then the civil rights movement arrived, and galvanized things again.  The Civil Rights movement brought great opportunity, but also drove   racism further underground.  Hearts don’t change just because laws do, you know.

There was also another interesting effect: integration had at least one negative consequent.  When I was a kid in the 50’s, black neighborhoods were “vertically integrated”—in other words, both poor and wealthy black people lived in the same neighborhoods (more or less).  But after segregation ended, wealthy black people moved wherever the best property values and schools could be found.  Now, poor blacks didn’t have the example of the wealthy doctor or dentist down the street.  Now, you had poor people surrounded by other poor people—and the bottom-feeders who prey on poverty: pimps, drug dealers, bookies—who disproportunately represented “success.”

This is hell on your success software.  Just as fat people often seem to believe that their bodies disobey the laws of physics (trust me—I’ve had far too many disheartening conversations with otherwise intelligent people on this very topic), poor people have very little idea how money is accumulated and protected.   They tend to acquire and pass on beliefs that are actually antithetical to the accumulation of capital.

And this is part of what I’ve seen for the last thirty years.  In the period of the greatest opportunity that has ever existed for black people in this country, those left behind listen too damned much to those who haven’t made it, and justify their lack of success by saying “the white man won’t let you.”

Crap.  It’s crap.  Yes, there’s racism.  Yes, it’s harder if you aren’t white.  Yes, you don’t have as many resources.  But there is barely an area of human endeavor where SOME black people haven’t succeeded.  Model their behaviors and attitudes, and you’re way ahead of the game.

But SHOULD black people have done more of this?  While they are responsible for their lives, a lifetime of being around whites with far more advantages and still screw up those three vital areas, I have to blame this on human fear, laziness, resentment, and lack of clarity.

Whites, in the same situation, would in my thought exhibit the same problems.  Some of them would increase over the decades, as others decrease—but in my mind, rather obviously the overall health of the community has increased.

And will continue to if, as I believe, people are just people.  

Friday, October 13, 2006

Failure and "I am"

I drove to Tim Piering’s morning class today, thinking that I wanted to get something there that I could apply to my relationship with Jason.  Actually, I went to bed last night with that thought, and was eager to find some useful tid-bit.

And as always, he delivered. 

As I’ve said, the morning workouts involve a movement between physical techniques (drawn from karate, judo, boxing, etc.) and quotes from sacred texts concerning access to the “Mushin” state of mind.  Let me make it clear: I can enter “No-Mind” pretty fast in my writing, I’ve touched it a time or two in martial arts practice,  and I got no freakin’ idea how to get there as a father.  Hope springs eternal.

At any rate, much of it revolves around the “I am” meditation.  This idea is one of the interesting overlaps between Western and Eastern traditions, although the “I Think Therefore I am” of Cartesian philosophy is generally considered to be inverted in the East to “I am therefore I can think.”  Both are probably different versions of a single insight that can’t quite be put into language.  Those pesky philosophers!

At any rate, part of this process has to do with abstaining from inappropriate judgement.  In this state of mind there is no failure, for instance—although there are actions and their results.  The actions and the results are “what is.”  The concept of “failure” does not exist in the actions—it is added on afterwards, and reflects our values and emotions, not the events themselves.

To look at life this way is enormously freeing.  Fears of failure constantly hover over my head as a writer—I want so very much to be the best writer I can be, and “failure” in this arena would cost my family dearly, so it isn’t merely an ego thing.  But fear of failure will also keep you from trying new things, can cripple creativity.  You have to care deeply, but simultaneously remain slightly detached.

In the martial arts, if you are afraid of “failure” you will work out only with people inferior with you, and avoid even healthful competition.  This will keep you from reaching your highest potential, to be certain—and I’ve suffered more than my share of this flaw.  In a recent post where I spoke of sports films triggering memory of a time of deeper social integration between mind and body, the concept of football as a positive force was challenged.  I need only relate the number of times I’ve heard former players say that those years were the best of their lives—and these were often accomplished, healthy, admirable people.  Yes, it can be damaging to the body. But young men who play football feel that urge to bang bodies, to test their speed and power and agility and aggression against others. When this happens on the playing field, with appropriate equipment and coaching and refereeing, I consider this to be an extremely positive force.  In my mind, this aggressive energy needs to be appropriately channeled, not repressed.

In fact, I believe that any society that cannot produce a certain minimum percentage of these highly aggressive, pain-tolerant young (mostly) men, will die out.  That may not be true in the future, but it has certainly been true in the past, and seems to be true in the present.

But access to the contexts where a hyper-testosterone-flushed young man can test his body and heart to the limit is restricted to those who can handle the emotions of competition (fear, anger, etc.)  If you can’t, well…you will probably end up working for someone who has. 

And as for child-rearing.  Well, two weeks ago, while Tananarive was out of town, I lost my patience with Jason.  I was seriously upset with myself.  After all—Jason can’t control his bladder yet.  Why in the world would I expect him to control his emotions?  And here I was, letting myself get involved in his emotional drama.  I had to take a big step back, and found myself apologizing to a crying 2 1/2 year old, telling him that the problem was mine, and that I knew he was doing his very very best to be a good boy, and that I was going to make every effort to improve as a father.

When he falls down, it is experimentation, not failure.  It is an event, one of varying emotional value weight.   When I add my own “stuff” to it (I’m a bad father!  He’s a bad son! Etc.) It becomes so much heavier.

I have to merely see the thing as it is.

Thanks again, Tim.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Wednesday, October 11. "The Gridiron Gang" (2006)

The Gridiron Gang (2006) and other thoughts

Jason seems to be thriving—not a single really negative incident in a week.  Hmmm.  Well, we’ll continue the program and see how it goes.
Numbers came out today from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, stating that war casualties among Iraqis have topped 655,000.  Now, it is clear that they are using controversial techniques to come to this conclusion, and a previous estimate was released just before the 2004 elections, admittedly with political intent.  That is certainly reason to question their figures—and questioning those figures is exactly what we should be doing.

I’ve been disgusted with the lack of reference to such casualties in the mainstream media.   If these numbers are wrong, let there be an open discussion, with the administration presenting its figures and how they were derived.  Hunting for that data has been oddly difficult—one would think it would be clearly marked on official websites.  Unless, of course, this is information the rank-and-file isn’t really interested in…or would be awkward or embarrassing.
Another movie review: “The Gridiron Gang” (2006) starring The Rock, is another old-fashioned rouser about the redemptive powers of sports, as well as the human need to belong to a tribe.  The Rock plays a corrections officer at a juvie facility who uses Football to forge gang members into a cohesive unit, giving them skills and a perspective on life intended to increase their chances of survival and reduce the recidivism rate.  Needless to say, if it hadn’t worked they wouldn’t be making a movie about it.

But one thing that struck me as I was watching was the plethora of movies dealing with these issues, and their popularity at a time when   physical education programs are suffering across America—a fact at least partially responsible for our obesity epidemic.  I suspect that deep in our minds we remember that once upon a time we loved our bodies, explored the world with touch and taste.  That when we treat ourselves as if we are nothing but brains in boxes, that much is lost.

Sports competition can be demeaning and brutal.  But lack of engagement with the physical body, or lack of understanding of how vital competitive skills and team-building can be in life success, is much worse.  
I'll give "Gridiron Gang" a "B" for tight  football action, a decent story line, damned fine intentions, and the Rock's best performance to date.
Progress toward the “I am” within me has stopped: I seem to have hit a barrier, and it’s going to take some time to work through it.  The barrier seems to be composed of ego-stuff, fear, resentments, attachments, and just old emotional gunk.  But the exciting thing is that I’m not certain I’ve gotten this deep in this particular fashion.

My major tool is Physical Flow: that is, a rhythmic endurance activity that demands mental focus.  In my case, I’m using FlowFitII, the rather brilliant evolution of FlowFit created by Scott Sonnon.  Because it moves your body through every major movement arc and all basic flexions (the “Six Degrees of Freedom”), when you hit the “Second Wind” as you are doing this, you enter a space that one would ordinarily have to be an advanced yogi or martial artist to enter.  Note that I’m not saying that the performance of FF2 MAKES you an advanced martial artist or yogi. But there is a lovely “untangling” of mental wires, a lightening clarity to thought and motion that comes from such actions.

Much as Bikram Yoga’s hot room made a relatively advanced experience of yoga available to beginners, I think FF2 creates another, similar advanced effect.  I’ll certainly know more in a year, and I’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Slavery, sex, and rape

I was going to wait to address this one, but the reaction and comments of this reader are heartfelt, and doubtless are echoed by many, many others.  I wanted to be clear.
(I said) "Because there are slave narratives where women clearly felt that their relationships with an overseer or "kind" master were voluntary..."
The rest are reader comments, with my replies.
So, let me get this straight. And bear with me.

Are you saying that you are an apologist for slavery?
What does that mean?  That I think slavery was good, or kind?  Hell, no.  Do I think it is human?  Yes, I do—most peoples in the world have indulged in it.  The form it took in the Americas was much more vicious than that in the Mediterranean, however.
“Are you saying that just because a slave master was "kind", that makes his using the black slave woman or girl for a sexual toilet, for a sexual outhouse, was okay?”

Your language is too loaded to answer in this form.   But if a master was kind, and a slave decided to have sex with him, CLEARLY there is nothing optimal about this.  But the power differential alone does not make the situation what I would define as “rape” separate from any details about the interaction.  And I didn’t say it was just a matter of slaves having sex with their masters.  There were many other whites around—overseers, workers, customers, family friends, etc.

Let me be perfectly clear.  I think that slavery is perfectly predictable, given the power-hungry nature of human beings.  The institution itself is, I would think, a pretty decent definition of evil.  Those who supported it were, at best, turning a blind eye to the horror of the middle passage REGARDLESS of how “good” they were to their slaves.  Regardless of how the slaves might have appreciated or even loved their owners.

That said, the evil of a human being is at least partially determined by what is done in a given context.  Killing in wartime is not generally considered evil.  Torture generally is, however.  Owning slaves is a state of agreement with an evil institution.  The manner in which you treat those slaves determines your own level of humanity.

When I researched “Blood Brothers,” “Lion’s Blood” and “Zulu Heart”, my three novels dealing with the issue of slavery, I was surprised by what I found in the slave narratives.  That is, that about 20% of slaves felt they had been treated very well, almost like family.  About 60% were the stereotypical image of slaves: like indentured servants or migrant workers who cannot leave.  And about 20% was pure, grueling horror, evil in human form.

“ Are you saying that given the inhumane, subsistence-level living, non-medical, worked six-days-a-week, beaten senseless until you either died from the beating or were left in a crippled condition, made it okay to take the bodies of black women and girls, like they were so many animals without feelings?”
Hell, no.  And I would consider no one who treated slaves in that fashion to be even a fully human being.  But no accounts, by whites or blacks, Americans or Europeans, free or slave, suggest that even 50% of slaves were treated this harshly.  Most were treated about like farm animals.  But that 20% kept popping up—slaves who felt their former owners had been good, decent people. 

By the way—almost all of the slaves who were eventually allowed to earn their way to freedom were in this last group. 

“No matter how "kind' these sub-human slaveholders were, in the end they were what all slaveholders were: creatures who had no right to enslave and abuse the bodies of fellow human beings.”

No, they did not.

“Of course some of the black women had to barter their bodies for sex.”

If I was to be asked: “what percentage of black-white sex during slavery would I consider rape?” I would say somewhere between 70-95%.  If pressed for greater accuracy, I would guess 90%, without being able to justify that particular number.
The reader goes on to describe the substandard housing, diet, and sexual degradation suffered by slaves.  I agree that this was an all-too-common experience.  But remember something: I come from the position that no group has an exclusive on positive or negative behavior.

I wrote two books from the theory that if you switched the positions of black and white during the early days of America, you would get roughly equivalent behavior.  I’ve been criticized for this.

I’ve also said that if men were women, they’d act like women.  If women were men, they’d act like men—with all of the positive and negative implications of that.  And been criticized for it.

So be it.  But I find that attitudes of black supremacy are as distasteful to me as claims of white supremacy.  I stand against both.  And I don’t think that human beings are innately evil—although certain evil human behaviors are damned near a constant through our history.

Trying to make sense of it all consumes me, and from time to time I come to conclusions that are unpopular.  I can live with that.

But NOTHING that I say or think implies I think that black women behaved with one tiny speck less dignity or intelligence or morality than white women would have in the same circumstances, or whites would have if you changed position with blacks.

I am still left with the impression, based upon both direct testimony and my own view of human nature, the inhumanity of the institution, or the inevitability of abuse under its auspices doesn’t completely prevent human beings from reaching out to each other in even the worst of circumstances.  That power differential is problematic as hell—and some feminist theorists suggest that such a differential means that ALL sex between men and women is in essence rape.

I can’t buy that.  I don’t buy that all slave masters were “evil” even though the institution itself fits that definition for me.    And by their own words, taken after slavery ended, there was often (although not in the majority of cases) genuine affection and friendship between blacks and whites during this period. 

How often?  Damned if I know, but I’d be lying not to say it was there.  Understand something: I’m not saying “slavery was fine.  Get over it.”  I’m saying something more like “slavery was more horrible than white America wants to believe, but less universally horrible than many blacks think.  Its effects are devastating a century and a half after it ended.  And yes, get over it.  If I could push a button and reverse the relative positions of white and black I would in a heartbeat.  Since that’s not possible, my concern is: how do I get to the best world for my children and grandchildren?
“If they were so "kind", they would have manumitted their slaves.”

Of course, the very best of them (in my book) did exactly that.  Most people, black or white, just aren’t that good.  Most people pretty much do what the culture around them says is right.  They’re not good or bad…they just try to get by.


Rape does not always often have to be obtained with "force". And "threat of force" is oftentimes something very hard for many women to prove in court. Unfortunately many people still have the insane idea that if the man did not beat the woman senseless, drug her, hold a gun at her head, or hold a knife at her throat, then there is no way he could have raped her.

Which is probably why for every ONE woman who comes forward to press rape charges, there are at least TWO more who don't.
Yes, and the fear of retaliation.  And the family shame. And being forced to confront their attacker in court. 

Let me put it this way: if a woman is broke, and offers her landlord sex to keep from getting kicked out, however unfortunate this is, I wouldn’t consider it rape.  If on the other hand he threatens to throw her out on a technicality if she doesn’t sleep with him…I do.  Financial hardship forces people to do things they wouldn’t do otherwise.  But “voluntary” prostitution isn’t the same as rape, any more than a minimum-wage job, however demeaning, is slavery.

I’m not saying these are good things.  They are horrible things.  But I think a different word would have to be coined.

“Until people let go of the archaic belief that only "force" can be used in the act of rape (why do you think it's called "forcible rape" on the law books?), women will continue to be "raped" and not all of them will come forward to press charges.”

As I said, I think that a huge amount of this is the social shame attached.  I’ve probably spoken to fifty women who have been raped.  In almost every case, direct force was used or threatened.  I’m sure there are also indirect threats (I’ll hurt your sister), as well as cases where consent cannot be withheld (drugs, alcohol, insanity) that continue to test the definition.  A slave woman who cannot say “no” is clearly not in a position to withhold consent. 

One thing that surprised me in slave narratives, however, was the fact that women did sometimes say no, and fight back, and not be punished.  More interesting were the number of times a black male slave actually got into fights with overseers or others who tried to rape their women or abuse their children.  And some of them got away with it.  Again, this seemed to correlate with that 20% “treated almost like family” segment.
Again, I have no interest in being an “apologist” for slavery.  It was a brutal, demeaning, dehumanizing institution, and anyone who says different is blind to the screams of the enslaved.  But within it, there was a variance of behaviors—from demonic on the one side, to admirable on the other, with most being the big, weary lump in the middle: underfed, overworked, brainwashed, and beaten down.

I don’t deny that.  But I can’t deny either that lust, if not love, can blossom in some strange freaking places.

“Last King of Scotland” (2006)

Talk about a movie elevated by a single performance.  Absent the phenomenal work of Forest Whitaker as General Idi Amin, this film about a Scottish doctor’s unlikely friendship with the Ugandan dictator would be rather predictable (white man goes to African country, immediately enters the highest realms of power, sleeps with beautiful African women, is ultimately repelled by the savages, etc.).

But Whitaker’s performance…alternately funny, terrifying, heart-felt, warm, and fiendishly charismatic, is one of the finest film portrayals I have ever seen in my life.  No other performance in the film is even vaguely on the same level, and I’ve seen no other this year anywhere to eclipse it.  Stunning.

Anyone who knows me even slightly can well imagine my complaints with “Last King,” so I won’t go there.  The entire venture would earn an “Alert” banner if it weren’t for Forest, if, for instance, they had cast Micheal Clark Duncan as the dictator, they would have had a monster movie.  It is impossible to avoid an examination of the origins of this particular monster, who was beloved by his people even as he slaughtered them.  To this day, Ugandans seem divided in how they view him (according to film crew who shot there over a period of months.)

But “Last King” touches on the legacy of Colonialism.  When national boundaries are sliced through tribal homelands, and outsiders hand out power to tribal leaders who may have been at war for generations, it is easily understandable how things can go very, very wrong when said Colonial power leaves.  Ethnic fighting becomes horrific.  There are fascinating social anthropology studies on the patterns of violence following such actions, and they are grimly familiar.

Amin was the product of such action, and I remember hearing nothing—and I mean nothing—positive about him back in the day.  I heard FAR more positive things about Hitler, believe me.  And the fact that a film with Amin at the center is far more likely to be made than one about, say, Mandela, is heart-breaking.

But the fact is that I loved this movie, that at the core of it remains a classic, impeccable performance by an artist who has yet to receive his full due.  “King” has Oscar all over it—for both positive and negative reasons.  It reinforces all of the most negative stereotypes of Africa.  But it also touches truth about the resulting chaos when differential social and technological development collide.  And Amin’s tortured psyche is a perfectly logical place to experience this collision. 

Did this story have to be told through the eyes of a Scot?  Well, if you want the movie to be seen outside of tiny art houses and DVD rental stores, yeah, probably.  Remember that little problem with human perception we keep talking about.

But  there was real horror in Uganda.  And whatever you consider the origins, real horror currently stalks that raped and pillaged continent.  And “Last King” captures it in a manner oddly in balance with “Hotel Rwanda.”  Incredible film.  An “A.”

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Departed (2006)

Saw some good movies this weekend, and thought I’d catch up on my reviews.  First, Martin Scorsese’s fabulous “The Departed.”  This one is a real nail-biter, with generous gobs of sex, violence, and twisted father-son relationships set against the backdrop of Boston’s Irish mob-cop entanglements.  You see, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a young and up-and-coming criminal in the Irish mob.  Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, an up-and-coming cop committed to bringing down Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson, in a scene-chewing and extremely effective performance), who is Costigan’s mentor…

Or is he?  Because DiCaprio is actually an undercover cop, and Sullivan is actually an undercover hood.  Yep, we have a Tale of Two Moles here, two men committed to different sides of the legal line, with Nicholson as their surrogate father-figure.  Yow.  Man, this is tense stuff.  Both are also involved with a court psychologist (Vera Farmiga), which rachets up the tension a notch or two.

Adapted from an original Hong Kong films called “Infernal Affairs”  (which I haven’t seen), the movie plays like a baby.  The performances are terrific, the tension palpable, the plot implausibilities pretty much zip past due to the narrative drive.  Each of these guys is desperate to unmask the other, and it plays like that old Kevin Costner suspense film No Way Out, only on steroids.  I’ve never liked DiCaprio more, and Matt Damon’s performance is almost as good. Heck, even Mark Walhberg seriously rises to the occasion, as a tough cop on both their necks.  If you like crime dramas, see it.  An “A”


Sorry, but in a film that bandies about the “N” word so freely, to have only one black character, that character had better be played by an actor of power.  Anthony Anderson, as a cop named“Brown” (thank you very much), doesn’t fit the bill.  Surrounded by actors like Martin Sheen and DiCaprio, it requires a nuanced, focused performance to bring true humanity to a small role.  The casting of comedians and rappers in such parts strikes me as a subconscious avoidance on the part of the filmmakers—they literally don’t care if the characters are human.  They are just backdrop.

He is also obese (does anyone really buy the scene where Brown is jogging with the police class?), and dies protecting a white man.  If Scorsese is really oblivious to what this looks like, he needs to wake the @#$$ up.   

Friday, October 06, 2006


My recent post about the Amish killings painted a connection between a sick society and the sick actions of the people within it—that I felt it was a symptom of a general social dysfunction.  Something wrong is happening.

Now, to “blame” society for the actions of individuals within it is supposed to be a position on the Left.  So be it.  I’m not exactly “blaming” society, because society is created by the individuals within it, as well as acting upon them. But there is a very real and valid question lurking in there: how much responsibility does society have for the lives of the citizens, and how much individual responsibility must the citizens take upon themselves?

Anyone who knows me knows that I take, and advocate, full individual responsibility for our lives.  On the other hands, there are specific traumatic events (abuse, neglect, violence) that, statistically, seem to lead to sexual and emotional  dysfunction.  There are family dynamics that increase the likelihood of children born out of wedlock, illiteracy, drug addiction, and obesity.  And there are social factors that increase the chances of depression and disrespect for the law.

None of these factors absolve the individual of their responsibility, but I think that all of us understand that there is a point beyond which we need help.  This is one of the ongoing arguments between Left and Right…and there are moral and immoral people on both sides of this divide.

But watch how often those on the Left will take personal credit when they succeed, and how often those on the Right blame childhood experiences, alcoholism, or whatever when they have problems.

Hypocrisy knows know political affiliation.
So, the Path workshop went very, very well.  The next step is to prepare to create a multi-media product based on the same ideas.  It isn’t possible to precisely recreate the experience of the workshop, so we have to find ways to take advantage of a “distance learning” approach.  We figure that some combination of DVD, CD, and workbook will fill the need.  I’m thinking a 30 day program, with distinct day-by-day instructions, asking for a commitment of 1 hour a week minimum.  That sounds about right, even if I’m not sure how to break it up.
The last few days, Jason has been calmer and more cooperative.  The biggest behavioral shifts we’ve made involve turning off the television during meal time.  Hmmm.
“Concerning all acts of initiative, there is one elemental truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plan; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, Providence moves too.”—W.H. Murray

Closing out this week, I wanted to think a bit about this quote, which in one way or another has defined so much of my life.  God knows I’ve failed in many—if not most things.  But I was committed, and kept getting up over and over again.  Endurance and flexibility have kept me going.  And also commitment, defining my most important goals as essential aspects of my being. 

The risk of doing this is that if you don’t live your life according to your ideals, you begin to die a little.  The advantage is that concepts like “discipline” and “focus” become laughable.  You don’t think about it any more.  You just do it, day after day.  And if you live every day as if it matters, at the end of a year you look back and realize that you aren’t the same person you were at the beginning, and that you are that much further along the road you committed to .  And that is a terrific feeling.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Energy and the next year

Starting the process of research on an upcoming project.  Tell the truth, there are going to be a whole bunch of “upcoming” thingies, and the next year and a half will demand serious discipline and focus, as well as the highest energy I can muster.

Energy, and its appropriate usage, is central.  My general strategy is to get my energy level as high as possible, and then be very, very conservative about how I use it.

I look at the generation of energy as having several distinct aspects:

1)     Exercise.  Both aerobic and anaerobic: wind-building and muscle building.  Literally ramping up the metabolic engines, and then as strong as I can (strength was never my strong suit), so that the “stress” of just moving my body from one place to another never becomes strain.  Flexibility work is also important, as it implies interesting things about joint mobility and the capacity to relax under stress.  Yoga is great for this, and I’ll be doing yoga at home or in the studio every other day.
2)     Meditation.  Great for taking the brakes off, reducing emotional friction.  Centering is about seeing the spaces between the trees rather than the trees themselves. Makes for faster running.  Emotional flexibility is also vital, as it makes it easier to see the opportunities.
3)     Rest.  To bed by 10 at night, up at 6.  Because Jason is waking up earlier, I have to  go to bed earlier.  Sigh.
4)     Focus. Goals. My goals have to be exquisitely clear, and I need to remind myself of them every single day.  Why am I doing all of this?  To provide safety for my family, and to advance my most deeply held beliefs and dreams. 
5)     Diet.  I’ve cut sugar way down, but can do better.  Hoodia has helped me deal with carb cravings in general, but then I have to be certain that I “eat today for how I want to feel tomorrow.”  To keep track of my intake, and the results I get from it. 
6)     Optimal bodyweight.  I don’t want to carry any unnecessary flesh.  Just weighs me down.  So, I think that I’m going to land right between 170-175 and hold that for a while.
7)     Interlace my goals.  Each goal has to serve multiple purposes in my life.  Writing is a creative and career issue: Money is great for family, and also creates an open space to practice martial arts.  The time I spend with my family is important in and of itself, but also to re-connect with the flow of life, which empowers my writing and physical work.  And the exercising enables me to continue learning Silat and other arts, as well as giving me energy to keep up with Jason.


I wanted to thank everyone who had suggestions about Jason’s recent behavior issues.  Each and every one was appreciated.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Amish killings

The shootings at an Amish schoolhouse, in the same week as two other school shootings, troubles me deeply.  I feel that in some critical ways, America has lost its moral footing, its balance, and we’re seeing some of the fruits.

To me, violence and anger are always caused by fear, and fear has become such a dominating factor in discourse, government, and daily life over the last years that it has poisoned and negatively affected much that I love in this country.  Fear is a survival drive, but it also cripples.  The answer is love with strength. 

I am saddened.
Love and fear compete for the same place in our hearts.  To those who do not understand, compassion can seem weak. Seeking to comprehend the hearts and motivations of those who seek to harm us can seem like folly.  And if the seeker is afraid to stand up to tyranny, or defend his family, then such compassion might actually be a way to hide a sense of inferiority and fear.  “Can’t we all just get along” sounds one way if the speaker is afraid of conflict.  When a master fighter says the same thing, it is different—this is why the legends of the Shaolin priests, typified by the television image of Kwai Chang Kane, struck so deeply—a man of peace who can give you all the war you can handle.

I seek to be such a man, and to encourage such emotions in others.  I grieve for the families victimized by this poor sick man’s violent outburst.  I wish he had sought help, or, lacking that, simply had the presence of mind and heart to end his own life without harming others. 

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Hollow Place

The first two-day Path workshop is done, and for the first time, we were able to touch on everything I feel is necessary to really convey the message.  Make no mistake: the One-Day workshops had the data, but the kinesthetic experience is simply dependant upon a certain amount of time passing from beginning to end…a certain amount of group bonding (I still need to work on that!) and other factors.

I think it was fabulous, with the participants giving 110%.  I’m incredibly proud of everyone…
Drove home from San Francisco after the workshop.  Home at midnight.  Wow.  I’ll NEVER do that again.  I hadn’t really remembered how much energy I put into teaching, and was utterly wiped by the time I got home.  Finally ramped down and got to bed by 1:00 am.  Then…at 7:45 I got a call from Ellen Silva at  National Public Radio asking if I could head down to the studio to tape a commentary for them.  So…I dragged my dead carcass out of bed, drove to Culver City, did the gig.  Took Tananarive and Jason with me…given his recent behavioral problems, I didn’t want him to go to Day Care without some serious Daddy time.  Got home, took him to the park to play…then put him down for a nap.  Thank God, I got one too.  At about 2:30 we took him to Day Care, and the word is that he was excellent for the rest of the day.

“I am.”  That simple meditation…sitting and repeating “I am” again and again, is starting to bear some fruit.  I ordinarily meditate by concentrating on my heartbeat, and a thread of light up and down my spine.  But this morning, shifting between these and a constant repetition of “I am” I seemed to find a…hmmm…let’s call it a “Hollow” space between the words, between the breaths.  Between the heartbeats.  I’d never felt that space before, and am not quite certain what to make of it.  But it felt like the entrance to a deeper place within me.  Time will tell.