Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Life's a jest and all things show it ... and this title will not rhyme

I have a complicated relationship with poetry.

It started out well enough. Doctor Seuss, how I loved thee! Say what you will about them, I loved green eggs and ham. And Shel Silverstein could do no wrong, of course. I was secretly convinced that I did not have wavy hair—I had straight hair and a wavy head. (In fact, I do … but that’s another story.)

I think it was around the time I first heard “The Cremation of Sam McGee” that I figured out something was wrong. Or rather, when I tried to show it to my friends.

For those of you who are neither Canadian nor blessed with clever teachers, “The Cremation of Sam McGee” is a poem by the Canadian poet Robert W. Service, published in his book The Spell of the Yukon in 1916. (You can read the full text of it here.) The poem is a dark little affair. Two gold prospectors are mushing their way through the Yukon Territory on their dogsled, and Sam McGee (who was “from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows—why he left his home in the South to roam ‘round the Pole, God only knows”) announces to his unnamed partner that he is about to die, and that he has one last request. Being a native of a warm climate, he really hates the chill of the Canadian wilderness, and he begs his friend to cremate his body rather than burying it in the frozen ground.

Sam then dies … and the horror show starts.

The poem’s narrator lashes the corpse to his sled and sets off in search of a crematorium. As he travels farther and farther afield, as the rations get lower and lower and the dogs begin howling eerily, the narrator begins losing his tenuous grip on reality. He talks and sings to Sam’s corpse, and hallucinates that it “hearkened with a grin.” Finally, he finds the wreck of a steamboat jammed in the ice of a frozen lake, and decides that he can cremate the body in the boiler. In a frenzy of activity, he tears up planks from the cabin floor and sets the boiler burning. When the fire is high enough, he stuffs the corpse into the makeshift oven and goes for a walk to avoid the sizzle of cooking flesh.

SPOILER ALERT—if you don’t want to know what happens, skip the next paragraph.

When the narrator returns to the ship, he opens the boiler door to check the progress of the cremation—and finds Sam sitting there, “cool and calm,” smiling broadly and asking him to close the door. It is, he says, the first time he’s been warm since he left Tennessee.

My father owns a first-edition copy of The Spell of the Yukon. Having been born on an isolated atoll in Alaska, he’s long felt an attachment to Service’s poetry about the northern wilderness he doesn’t actually remember. I was probably five or six the first time he read me “The Cremation of Sam McGee” as a bedtime story, growling the stanzas in his basso-profundo voice.

I laughed myself sick. I thought it was the funniest poem I’d ever heard. I laughed at the howling dogs, the singing to the dead body, everything. When I was old enough to be trusted with his books, I took The Spell of the Yukon to school and read the poem to any classmate who would listen. To a one, they were horrified … and at least half their horror of that poem was based on my reaction to it. Anyone who read this kind of sick stuff, they declared, let alone laughed at it, had to be some kind of psycho. It was judgments like this that made me so amazingly popular with my classmates.

I pretty much quit liking poetry around high school, when I was informed that grown-up poets, beginning in the mid-twentieth century, basically never let anything rhyme. Rhyming was outré, I was told, the mark of an unimaginative poet. Real poets did their work with single syllables and obscure literary and cultural allusions. They certainly never wrote poems about singing to corpses. Well, if that was poetry, I replied, then poetry wasn’t for me.

And then I went and found myself in the middle of a story that required a lot of it.

One of my side projects when I’m not working on Masks is a story that takes place a few years after the end of a highly destructive SF/fantasy war … and the shadow of a murdered general looms large over it. Although he’s dead before the story begins, his influence over my characters remains strong. I wanted a way to get into the general’s head after his death, but just having someone find his diary seemed like too much of a cliché even for someone who writes about superheroes. I did want my characters to discover something he’d written, though … and then I remembered my father reciting Rudyard Kipling and Robert Service. Suppose the general had written a few poems, had them bound privately in a book and given to a few cherished friends … and suppose one of my characters, who robbed the man’s house on the day he died, still had that rare volume?

But of course I couldn’t write poetry. I had been told this many, many times. For one thing, I insisted on making everything rhyme.

But the world I was writing was not the world I lived in. Perhaps poems rhymed there. And besides, generals are not poets, at least not usually. A man with old-fashioned literary tastes might prefer something with some rhythm to it, some music. And I began thinking of some other poems in The Spell of the Yukon--dark and forbidding pieces like “The March of the Dead”, lonely ones like “The Men That Don’t Fit In,” touching ones like “My Madonna,” which I once used as the basis for a short screenplay that got me my best-ever screenwriting grade.

And I remembered a particularly affecting little piece called “Unforgotten”, which seems to be about Constance Maclean, the woman whom Service loved to distraction and who married another man:

I know a garden where the lilies gleam,
And one who lingers in the sunshine there;
She is than white-stoled lily far more fair,
And oh, her eyes are heaven-lit with dream!

I know a garret, cold and dark and drear,
And one who toils and toils with tireless pen,
Until his brave, sad eyes grow weary — then
He seeks the stars, pale, silent as a seer.

And ah, it’s strange; for, desolate and dim,
Between these two there rolls an ocean wide;
Yet he is in the garden by her side
And she is in the garret there with him.

And I thought, maybe I have something here after all …

Monday, November 22, 2010

Meet Rae and Trevor!

Well, electronically.

Once again, I find myself in need of a little online noise—traffic on the blog and Facebook page, people reposting and commenting on the trailer videos, etc. Once again, I can’t tell you why I need that noise, for the usual reasons. And once again, I’m willing to bribe you to have fun. Does it get any better than this?

We’re coming up on Thanksgiving, so Rae’s off school for the week (or maybe just playing hooky again—it’s hard to tell the difference). Trevor, of course, does not go to school except to tinker in the computer lab and eavesdrop on the guidance counselor’s office. Captain Catastrophe is visiting family back East, so his next nefarious plot will probably focus on TSA screeners in Atlanta, and therefore he’s not much of a threat to L.A. right now. The forces of evil are mostly either trying to get their Christmas-death-spree shopping done early or still putting the finishing touches on turkey-based death rays.

In short, my heroes are just a little bit bored. So I’m going to let them out to play with all of you.

For the next week, Rae, Trevor, and my other characters will be answering fan questions on this blog and on the Masks Facebook page. So if there’s something you absolutely have to know about the world of Masks, this is your chance to ask the source. Have you ever wondered where the hell Rae’s parents are, and why they don’t seem to mind her running around in the dark beating people up? You can ask her, and she’ll tell you. Or maybe you’d like to know what the Masked Rider does when he’s not delivering cryptic warnings and casually foiling robberies with spray paint. He’s got an answer for that, although you might have to get Nathan Fillion to translate. And Trevor’s got so many secrets I know you’ll have questions for him (How did he end up a superhero’s sidekick? What did he do for two years on the road? Where did the creepy voices in his head come from?), and maybe he’ll even give you a straight answer to one or two. The coyote will be available for questions, too, although of course you can’t always trust what a trickster says.

So if you’ve ever wanted to know something about one of the Masks characters … or even something about the world (Where did superheroes come from? Why didn’t new masks come into L.A. after the purge killed off the old ones? Do superheroes often fall in love with each other, or are Rae and Trevor an exception?), this is your chance.

To ask a question, leave a comment on this blog entry or a post on the book’s Facebook page (see the links in the column to the right), addressing the question to the relevant party. (Example: “Coyote: How do you stay ahead of Animal Control?”) I’ll get back to you with the character’s responses throughout the week. (“I iz wily. And I bitez thru truck tires.”) The best questions and responses will be reprinted in an interview on this blog later.

Now let’s make some noise!

Monday, November 15, 2010

What I learned from accidentally stabbing myself in the leg.

Okay, I’m an idiot, I’ll admit. I grew up around knives, I am cautious in the extreme, and yet I failed to pay attention for a couple of seconds and managed to stab myself. You may all laugh; in fact, I’ll be leading the laugh-in, because I showed up at the ER Sunday morning having changed my shirt for the occasion. I wore the T-shirt I made for Halloween as part of my three-dollar costume. That’s right, I showed up to the ER with a stabbed leg and over a thousand pages of reading material (I hate being bored in waiting rooms, so I brought American Gods and Dune), wearing a T-shirt that said (NINJA). With the parentheses. The ER docs said it showed a healthy sense of humor about the whole thing, so at least that part of me is healthy.

So, to answer the immediate questions first:

1. My life was not in any particular danger. The stab in question was more of a poke with the tip of the knife blade, about as long as my pinky fingernail is wide and about that deep. It went into the meat of my lower thigh, not very close to the knee and not close to any major blood vessels. I managed to soak about a quarter of a balled-up Kleenex with the blood before I got the thing properly dressed. After that, it took about five hours for a dime-sized area on the top of the gauze pad to turn pink. I only went to the ER at all because my dad took a look at it and said, “Hmm, I think you’ll need stitches.” (The ER doc later told me it would have been one stitch, tops, and not even that because I didn’t bother to come in until the morning after.)

2. I am not going to be crippled. I am limping slightly, mostly because I wear a lot of boot-cut jeans that are narrow in the lower thigh and knee, and therefore tend to rub the bandaged area. According to the nice ER docs, I did an excellent job of cleaning and bandaging the poke myself, and about the only thing they had to offer was a tetanus shot in case the knife wasn’t as clean as I thought it was. (It was my best knife, and I use it for food prep sometimes, so I clean it regularly with soap and water.) I got a flu shot while I was at it, because I hate getting shots and I figured there was no point in ruining two mornings when I could combine all the poking and stabbing into one pointy occasion.

3. I’m an idiot. We are in agreement on that. But I like to think I’m a classy sort of idiot, because once I figured out I was going to be limping all day, I began doing Martin Freeman impressions to amuse the friend who drove me to the ER. (The bandages I applied to stop the bleeding were tight enough to restrict the motion of my knee, which would have made driving … interesting.) Martin Freeman, for those of you not in the know, is the actor who plays the limping Dr. John Watson in the BBC’s excellent series Sherlock, and he spends most of each episode hobbling around after Sherlock Holmes, yelling at him to slow down and stop being a git.

And now, because one of my stupid human tricks would not be complete without a) a blog entry and b) an application to my writing, I’ll tell you what I learned from the experience.

First, I learned that I still remembered high-school health class and my time hanging around with EMTs well enough to cleanly and correctly dress a wound. (I was happy to relay this experience to my tutoring students today, ending the lecture with, “So pay attention in science class, kids, because you never know when you’ll get stabbed in the leg and have to quickly figure out whether you nicked an artery.”) I make a point of researching the real-world science behind my writing, so when Trevor sews up his own arm in Chapter 7 of Masks, you can be assured that the suture kit he uses actually exists and he’s doing it more or less right. It’s always gratifying when that research and background knowledge tests out well in the real world, although of course I’d prefer not to get stabbed in the process if I can help it.

Second, I learned that my freakish crisis reflex is still in place. I have no better way to explain it than this—I can dress a knife wound, but I cannot dress for a party. If I am invited to a friend’s party, I will stress out like crazy over what I’m supposed to wear and how I’m supposed to act lest it reflect badly on my friend. (I never care much about it reflecting badly on me—if people think I’m weird, it just means they’re perceptive.) But as soon as there’s blood, or screaming, or some kind of actual crisis involved, I get very calm and can usually handle things okay. I used to think that everyone was like this—and indeed, many people are—but it was fascinating to see the range of reactions from other people upon being told that I’d stabbed myself. A good half of them freaked right out, even after I told them that the injury was small and I’d taken care of it effectively. A client who had a meeting postponed due to the ER run seemed to think I was going to lose my leg. I, meanwhile, went all out cleaning and bandaging the thing because I’m not THAT stupid and infections are no fun, but I also took mental notes on what the inside of my leg looked like just in case I needed to know someday, and then kicked back and read comic books for a couple of hours while keeping the area elevated. Even putting on a funny T-shirt, however, didn’t seem to dent the general anxiety. (Interestingly, my brother calmed right down when I told him the bleeding had stopped, and the ER doc who looked at the injury wondered aloud why I’d even come in—until I told her I worked with kids and wanted to set a good example by going to the doctor when I was hurt instead of trying to tough it out.)

And third, leg wounds are absolutely hilarious. Really. It’s all a matter of perspective. So I feel quite justified in including a slightly morbid line of dialogue in the scene where Rae watches Trevor stitching up his gashed arm. When Rae looks uneasy at Trevor’s comfort with blood and surgical tools, he tries to lighten the mood by saying, “Hey, it could be worse. I could be amputating it.”

Rae laughs.

What can I say? They’re made for each other …

Monday, November 8, 2010

Would you believe ... ?

I have a weird, weird brain.

Case in point: I have laid out a sequence that will be the climax of either Book 2 or Book 3 of the Masks series (it’s still getting shuffled a bit) based entirely on this Jonathan Coulton song, “I Crush Everything,” about a self-loathing giant squid.

My sequence does not contain a squid. It may or may not even contain water. It is entirely about Rae’s relationship with Trevor. Nobody gets crushed, literally or metaphorically. And yet I tell you this—this song is note-for-note accurate to what happens in the sequence. No squid. No crushing. Probably no water. And yet it makes perfect sense, at least to me.

Peripherally, I have mapped out their entire relationship to a completely different JoCo song, “I’m Your Moon.” But the former planet (now dwarf planet) Pluto does not appear in my outline.

I defy you to figure out what either of these songs could possibly have to do with a superhero epic.

And while you’re doing that, I think I’ll go write some more …