“Do Not Go Gentle”

Apex Magazine’s “Holiday Horrors” flash fiction contest had 350 entries, but only one winner (and two runners-up). This story was not one of the latter–though it did make the final 20! Go read Charles Payseur’s, Clint Collins’s, and Inês Montenegro’s stories over at Apex. And if you’re still hungry for 250-word holiday horrors, read my story about an old year that refuses to yield to the new, below. I swear I wrote this before the election.


Do Not Go Gentle

by Rajiv Moté

Twisted and skeletal as a withered tree, the naked old man shuffled down the maternity ward hallway, sniffing the air like a starving wolf. Each exhalation was a wheeze. The satiny sash that only occasionally covered his unmentionables read “2020.”

Graveyard-shift workers and pacing fathers-to-be averted their eyes. They didn’t like to think of him. They could think of little else. They were resigned to waiting him out.

By the clock on the wall, they wouldn’t have much longer to wait—if the old man honored tradition. His bloodless lips twisted in a sneer.

An orderly wheeled a bed down the hall. New mother. Doting father, holding her hand. And the newborn. A satiny sash covered its shoulder, peeking over the blanket.

“Hello, 2021,” the old man wheezed.

He had visited the hospital the last three New Year’s Eves. 2020’s reign had warped and gobbled down four years already. Why not five? Twenty? He’d done so much. He had more to do. Everyone called him “unprecedented.” Nobody lifted a finger to stop him.

Inside their room, the new parents would stare, coo, and rhapsodize about the miracle of life. Baby New Year was a fresh beginning. Hope. But soon, the father would yawn so wide his jaw cracked, and insist that his wife get some rest. She would protest, feebly, but he would gently lay the infant in the bassinet and begin snoring as soon as he hit the pull-out bed.

Hospital rooms didn’t lock.

The old man licked his lips.

“Echo Archipelago”

Whenever the people of the archipelago became so irreconcilable that cooperation seemed impossible, a new island rose from the waves, as one had since their ancestors left the mainland.

The chain of schisms reached ever forward. Some feared that by forever fleeing conflict, they’d never learn to work together.

New islands rose for them too.

Plot Structure Lessons From WXR/SiWC 2020

I’m a long-time listener to the Writing Excuses podcast, and the pandemic this year forced their annual retreat (WXR) from a cruise ship to online, in conjunction with the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC). That made it both accessible and more affordable, so I attended. I was glad I did. I learned a lot about story structure in lectures from Elizabeth Boyle, Mary Robinette Kowal, Liz Palmer, and Dan Wells, and some new ways at looking at the emotional character of scenes from Tetsuro Shigematsu. This blog post is an attempt to distill some of the lessons into a framework for outlining.

As the instructors repeat (and perhaps belabor), these lessons are not the answer to how to structure a story. They’re at best an answer, and more realistically, a diagnostic tool. If a manuscript feels like it isn’t working, analyzing it per these structures can reveal where something is missing or weak.

In this post, I’ll show you how I’m using the structural tools in my process. I will typically free-write a First Lousy Draft that captures as much of the raw story idea as I have. I then start an outline template that unifies the Three Act Structure, the DREAM framework, and the 7 Point Structure. I slot my First Lousy Draft scenes into the outline, and look where I need to flesh out the plot. I’ll then use the completed outline to write a Second Less Lousy Draft that feels more like a complete story. Then comes the development and revision, which is beyond the scope of this post.

The Three Act Structure is a simple beginning, middle, and end, as follows:

  • Act I – the “ordinary world” status quo
  • Act II – the inciting incident and its repercussions
  • Act III – the resolution

The DREAM framework is an character journey as follows:

  • Denial – the character denies the need to change
  • Resistance – the character resists pressure to change
  • Exploration – the character explores a new concept of self
  • Acceptance – the character accepts the new self definition
  • Manifestation – the character’s new self effects external change

The Seven Point Structure calls out a progression of plot events, as follows:

  • Hook – the world before the change initiating the story
  • Plot Point 1 – the inciting incident
  • Pinch Point 1 – the pressure to adapt increases, the antagonist is revealed
  • Midpoint – the character is at the cusp of change
  • Pinch Point 2 – attempts to solve the problem fail, things get worse
  • Plot Point 2 – the “surprising but inevitable” solution is revealed
  • Resolution – the climax and denouement

Together, the three structures overlay this way:

I’ve organized this into my favorite outlining tool, Workflowy. You can see the outline template here. Let’s look at what kinds of things go into the outline.

Act I

Act I encompasses the state of the story before the inciting incident, roughly 10-20% of the text. This is where we establish the main character, the setting, and the theme. It’s also the place to seed promises of the main character’s growth challenge or emotional conflict.

This is also where it’s important to build reader interest. Is the character someone we want to read about? Is the setting interesting? Are tantalizing questions raised?

Denial

A minor challenge or question may arise, testing the main character’s desire to change. But the main character plants their feet. Peter Parker, even suffused with radioactive spider energy, doesn’t stop the robber because it’s not his job.

Hook

The Hook is where you establish what normal is, so normal can be contrasted with the extraordinary that the main character will be forced to enter. The character could spend a lifetime here in the normalcy of Act I, were it not for the entry into Act II, which is a one-way gate.

Act II

Act II contains roughly 60-80% of the text. This is where the main character learns of the story’s problem or goal, takes steps to reach it, and grows in the process. The main character cannot go back to the status quo of Act I, because of internal or external forces. Luke’s aunt and uncle have been killed, and he’ll have to sell his landspeeder.

Act II is a set of try/fail cycles to find the solution to the story’s problem. How many cycles? It depends on the story and the problem. A satisfying “Rule of Three” structure suggests two failures followed by a success. A harder problem calls for more cycles, an easier problem calls for fewer. And problems can nest–any given “try” can open up sub-problems and subplots that open and close like well-formed XML. The MICE Quotient is a good tool for structuring these plotlines, and is worth learning.

Resistance

The main character drags their feet, doing the minimum amount in response to the problem. This is Joseph Campbell’s reluctant hero refusing the call to adventure. “I can take you as far as Anchorhead.” The stakes haven’t yet hit to compel the main character forward.

Plot Point 1

The inciting incident happens early in Act II, and the main character’s world starts to change. The problem emerges. The need to change in response to the problem is what the main character resists.

Pinch Point 1

The main character’s resistance to change creates pressure. The try/fail cycle starts, and it starts in failure. The antagonist typically emerges here.

Exploration

Emerging from the failure of Pinch Point 1, the main character sees glimpses of how they must change, what they must become. This is where they “try on” a new identity, imperfectly, with failures that are also learning moments. The new hero begins to learn their powers.

Midpoint

The main character has reached a point of disillusionment and reflection. They may look at themselves in the mirror and ask “what have I become?” There is no going back to Denial. The character realizes they must change. They switch from reacting to the problem to confronting it.

Pinch Point 2

Everything gets worse. The main character’s proactive attempt to solve the problem has misfired. Darth Vader hands his son over to the Emperor, and the Empire springs a trap on Endor. Loki plays the Avengers against each other and Phil Coulson dies (-ish). The main character’s dark night of the soul begins.

Act III

Act III is the wrap-up, roughly the last 10-20% of the story. It’s time for the main character to definitively win or lose. There’s no going back to Act II.

Act III is where the try/fail cycles become try/succeed cycles, or if the story is a tragedy, they become failures from which they cannot recover.

Acceptance

The main character has gone from resisting the internal change to fully embracing it. Luke throws away his lightsaber and tells the Emperor he is a Jedi now–he has been tested against his father and cannot be corrupted to the Dark Side.

Plot Point 2

The main character has found the surprising but inevitable answer to the problem. Both external conflicts and internal conflicts may converge here in the same or connected answers. Tony Stark, who was only ever in it for himself, thwarts Loki’s plan by sacrificing (-ish) himself and saving New York.

Manifestation

If the Acceptance phase was an internal transformation by the main character, Manifestation is where that change is externalized. Armed with their new self-knowledge, the main character changes the world. In a romance, the characters’ change manifests as marriage. In The Matrix, Neo holds up his hand and stops bullets.

Resolution

The climax and denouement occur. The problem is solved, and the emotional aftermath plays out in a look at the new, transformed status quo. A visual “avatar” of the change, seeded in Act I, can be revisited here, like the reflection of the audience in the movie Cabaret showing figures with Nazi armbands at the end.

As I wrote this post, I realized there is a great deal more to say about each point in this outline. Tips and tricks and techniques that can be employed at each stage. But this is already a long post, and it’s a good starting point for writers looking to analyze their plots. Drilling into these sections separately may be the topic of future posts, as I practice and get more proficient in them. I hope this was useful, and helps you move your stories forward.

The Thing With Feathers

T. rex is the thing with feathers
That stands 20 feet tall
And eats 500 pounds of meat per bite
And never stops at all

https://imgur.com/gallery/rmad4

(Sadly, Tyrannosaurus rex and the larger theropods probably lost most of their plumage over the course of their evolution. Skin prints show no indication of feathers.)

T. rex were much bigger than their predecessors, having developed long legs that let them dash after prey. But large and active animals don’t cool down as quickly as smaller creatures. So as they got bigger, researchers think that the dinosaurs may have lost their plumage. “[F]eathers were too much of a hindrance to cooling off after a sprint,” Bittel writes. 

Smithsonian Magazine

The Wines of GPT-3

When I read the news that scientists had found chemicals on Venus that could be the product of microbial life, I joyfully tweeted a tasting note of a Venusian wine.

The wines of Venus have high acidity, but the atmospheric terroir crushes all tannic structure. They theoretically pair well with rich foods, but are instantly lethal in the smallest quantities.

@RajivMote on Twitter

This was noticed by science fiction writer and technologist James Yu, who has been playing with Open AI’s GPT-3 project, a machine learning system trained on a vast spread of text from the Web, and does a spooky-good job of generating text similar to prompts it is fed. GPT-3 fleshed out more wines from the solar system. The following are all machine-generated wine notes

The wines of Jupiter are thick and strange, they tend to leather and liquid smoke. The Jupiterians might be unaware of the best pairings, we don’t know, they don’t share.

GPT-3

The wines of Mars, the most common variety, show many faces–the lightest are floral and alive, the darkest offer complete obliteration.

GPT-3

Wines of Saturn, by contrast, are so dry they register only as flavorless astringency.

GPT-3

The most prized wines are of Uranus, and this is no great exaggeration. In its purest, most potable forms Uraanian wine is a kind of kerosene, redolent with the most gorgeously perfected nuances of coal tar. I write this knowing this will be lost on you, but you must believe me: you must make a point of tasting Uranian wines. I’ll have smuggled more along when next we meet.

GPT-3

But GPT-3 was just getting warmed up. It then generated the following passage that blew my mind and filled me with anger and envy that I hadn’t written it.

I once heard of a place where they made wine out of fermented time. Imagine the moment when you met your beloved for the first time. And then imagine a second moment when you met her again in youth, the first time you made love. And finally a third time, older still, when you knew enough to realize what you had perhaps not before: this was the person you would always love. The wine is made from these three moments: the sweetness of the first time, bubbles bursting in your chest; then two-hundred years later, or maybe two-thousand, when the bubbles have gone flat, but the love remains and you have become quiet and wise, and you know that you will always be at home; and every eight years thereafter, a bottle of wine with a slightly different taste depending on what has happened in the intervening years.

GPT-3

I asked James if he’d be willing to run a blog post I’d written, The Lost Wine Varietals of Atlantis, in the same vein through the API. It did not disappoint.

Dolorosa

Flesh and soul of the region. Latin and Italian grapes grown (while parched by months of hot sunshine on limestone and granite) in deep volcanic soils produce this hauntingly bitter, almost saline grape, incapable of making a lifeless wine. Aged Dolorosa cellars, like subterranean Roman ruins, are haunted by temple priests garbed in near-translucent white and sandals smeared with dust from the fields. When poured into a shallow basin of forty-four-degree, mineral spring water, it looses a pneuma of unmistakable minerality and purity.

Semillon Drewish

Green-tinted corpse-yellow surrendered-to-the-reaper–with-condolence-cake Semillon that, upon release from its chill, veers from straight kick in the teeth to lying on the floor laughing ’til you cry, then trying to leer up at you in a seductive, off-kilter way.

Fragranta

Overripe, vaguely rotten, and always sharp-tasting, wines from this grape result in at least five mercifully short-lived lactones. A tasteful after-dinner drink only after sipping 1,000 rounds of espresso, hot slivovitz, or beakers full of 65 percent ethyl alcohol.

Mathildenhöhe

A crisp, graceful(!) Riesling grows here, as graceful as the tall, slender edifice from which it takes it name. The wine could be used as a room deodorizer. The scent of lemon and lime, restrained here, is thrown into giddy relief when paired with the pepper, spice, tartness, notes of sauer-kraut that accompany German preparations of shredded raw pork studded with toasted fennel. It is a mistake to serve with German sausage drinking Strongbow on ice.

GPT-3

I’ve applied for access to GPT-3, but I’ve heard that users with commercial applications are typically favored, so I’m not holding my breath. But some of this magic may become available in James Yu’s and Amit Gupta‘s upcoming product: SudoWrite. It is a writing aid that uses GPT-3 to take things you’ve written and run with them, perhaps in unexpected directions. I’m eager to play. Soon the day will come when I’ll come up with an outline, a few paragraphs of text, and sit back and outsource my creativity to the machines.

“In Roaring She Shall Rise”

I’m thrilled to announce that my 500-word flash science fiction story, “In Roaring She Shall Rise,” won second place in the 2020 Escape Pod Flash Fiction contest! It’s a particular thrill to be published by a podcast. Hearing one’s words performed–in this case by Cast of Wonders editor Katherine Inskip–is a rare treat.

Please enjoy “In Roaring She Shall Rise” on Escape Pod.

Short fiction review-maestro Charles Payseur has some lovely things to say about this story and its Escape Pod peers in his Quick Sip Reviews.

Author’s Notes

How cool are cephalopods? Very cool. They’re intelligent problem-solvers. They have unnerving camouflage skills. Their genetics are different enough from any other sequenced creature as to be nigh-alien. And some species can edit their own RNA–the expression of their genes–to adapt in a way that takes other animals generations. There were so many things I wanted to include in this story, but couldn’t in the mere 500 word limit. I highly recommend reading Sy Montgomery’s zoological memoir The Soul of an Octopus for a dive into how strange and remarkable these animals are.

A couple of years ago, my friend Libby and I were swapping article links on the cool attributes of cephalapods when Atlas Obscura sent out a call for the invention of “climate change monsters.” I figured if anything was going to capitalize on global upheaval, it would be the smart, ever-adaptive octopus. My piece was too long for Atlas Obscura, but it became the perfect story seed for my entry into Escape Pod‘s Flash Fiction contest.

The title is a riff on a line from one of my favorite apocalyptic poems:

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

“The Kraken” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

While Tennyson’s cephalopod rose to die, perhaps the plucky octopus of this story has the ambition to inherit. Or to conquer. And if not her, perhaps her descendants. The ocean would always reclaim the land, eventually.

“Local Hero”

I’m thrilled to announce that my (tad longer than) flash story “Local Hero” is now live in Dream of Shadows Issue 2! The big Epic Fantasy war against the Dark Lord is over, and in the Black Land, the Orcs are living under occupation by their conquerors. But even a beaten people have their heroes and legends.

Read: “Local Hero” in Dream of Shadows, Issue 2

Author’s Notes

“Anthropologists will tell you that oral cultures understand the past differently; for them, their histories don’t need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community’s understanding of itself.”

— Ted Chiang, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”

When I was re-reading The Lord of the Rings with my daughter, I noticed an unexpectedly poignant scene in The Two Towers between two Orcs, Gorbag and Shagrat, sharing their dreams for once the war is over.

“I’d like to try somewhere where there’s none of ’em [Nazgûl, Shelob]. But the war’s on now, and when that’s over things may be easier. … But anyway, if it does go well, there should be a lot more room What d’you say? — if we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.”

“Ah!” said Shagrat. “Like old times.”

… “But don’t forget: the enemies don’t love us any more than they love Him, and if they get topsides on Him, we’re done too.”

Orcs with hopes and dreams? Imagine that! And I did.

The victors aren’t the only ones to write history. When the defeated survive, so do their stories, and where pride of identity is strong, those stories combine to form a counter-history, heretical to the dominant culture, cherished by the subordinated one.

“Local Hero” is about the myths that a defeated people tell about themselves, to themselves, to justify their own existence in the new world order. It’s about coping with one’s identity, when that identity has been vilified by history. It’s about the legend of the Orcish Captain America, and how even a mythological figure can inspire real action.

For better or worse.

EDIT: I wrote this story as I was reading news about monuments and symbols of the American Confederacy–about efforts of some to pull them down, and the efforts of others to preserve them. I have no sympathies with the desire to revise and romanticize the rebellion to preserve slavery. But I am struck by a culture’s impulse to rewrite its history to be a source of pride instead of shame. Then, this story was published right as the U.S. rose up to protest systemic racism after a policeman killed George Floyd. That put a different contextual focus: police brutality and righteous uprising. “Local Hero” is emphatically not meant as a metaphor for either situation. It imagines the future of Gorbag and Shagrat’s people after the War of the Ring is lost (from their perspective), and echoes of our history and current events are the vibrations of the real world that influence how we look at all stories.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Skywalkers

The Skywalker Saga—what we old-timers knew as Star Wars—is over. I refrained from adding my hot take on The Rise of Skywalker to the pile of hot takes because a saga that spanned 42 years of my life needs time to settle, and honestly, nobody cares about hot takes.

But I have been doing some deep thinking about endings, as I did for The Matrix, the Battlestar Galactica remake, Lost, Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time, and all the other long-form stories that I couldn’t binge. In all those stories there was time to speculate, to wonder, to consider what would be a good ending, and what would not.

In a writer’s reckoning, a satisfying ending is a function of the story’s structure. Structure, more simply, means promises and payoffs. In a Whodunnit, we’ll find out who done it. If a youth on a farm is dreaming of adventure or some undefinable “more,” we’re going to go on an adventure with significant stakes. If a cryptic prophecy hints at salvation or doom, we’ll see which it is. If someone loves someone else from afar, they’re going to get their shot. In short, something changes, and that change addresses the questions, the needs, raised at the beginning. That’s a story.

Whatever Lucas’s shortcomings are with dialogue, he’s a master of structure. (See this wonderful discussion of Star Wars Ring Theory.) Star Wars is the go-to exemplar to illustrate Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” monomyth, a structure that’s ubiquitous in adventure stories. Consider how the promises and payoffs build on each other in the two Star Wars trilogies under Lucas’s vision.

  • Episode IV: A backwater farm boy wishes for life of excitement and significance. He gets swept up into an adventure that ends with him harnessing a mystical power and striking a crippling blow to the evil Empire.
  • Episodes IV – VI: A farm boy, secretly the son of the galaxy’s most feared agent of the evil Empire, wishes for a life of excitement and significance. He learns to master his father’s mystical power, and instead of falling to evil, uses it to redeem his father and destroy the Empire.
  • Episode I: A boy with the potential for enormous power, is enslaved on a backwater planet. He is spirited away by a mentor who believes in him, and he is put on a path to stand against a mysterious evil.
  • Episodes I – III: An evil Sith Lord uses his mystical power to create an avatar of that power, a “Chosen One” of the Jedi establishment who oppose him. He corrupts the avatar into destroying the Jedi who oppose his rise to authoritarian dictatorship.
  • Episodes I – VI: An avatar of a great, mystical power is created by an evil Emperor to help subjugate the galaxy. He is redeemed by his own son and destroys the Emperor who created and corrupted him, freeing the galaxy.

It’s amazing how the story reinterprets itself and expands its own circuit, beginning as a hero’s rise and evolving into a full-on mythology of the corruption and redemption of the Force itself in human form. Anakin is alternately a tragic hero, a villain, a redeemed hero, or a demigod, depending on the scope. Luke is the hero, the instrument of the hero’s redemption, or a demigod version 2. And the Skywalker line itself changes from representing embattled heroes to a human incarnation of the Force itself.

But George Lucas envisioned his saga to be a trilogy of trilogies. I had heard those rumors way back when I was processing the shocks delivered by The Empire Strikes Back. So in the fourth decade of speculating about this story, with the franchise under new management, it was natural to wonder whether the concluding trilogy would stick the landing. And what “sticking the landing” even meant. 

If the Ring Theory analysis held, there would be arcs of Episode VII, Episodes VII – IX, and Episodes I – IX that built on one another. The Force Awakens gave it a promising start. 

  • Episode VII: A tech scavenger named Rey with a natural fluency in the Force waits for the return of her parents on a backwater planet. She is drawn into an adventure that ends with her harnessing a mystical power and striking a crippling blow to the evil First Order.

Looks pretty similar to the Episode VI arc, except Rey didn’t long for adventure. And the question of her lineage lingers. But with The Rise of Skywalker a mirror of the original trilogy forms.

  • Episode VII – Episode IX: A tech scavenger, secretly the granddaughter of the evil Emperor behind the First Order, joins a battle against the First Order. She learns to master her grandfather’s power, and instead of falling to evil, uses it to redeem the fallen Skywalker bloodline and destroy the First Order.

It’s a little clunky. The promise of Rey’s parentage is a red herring, along with the mutual gravity between her and artifacts of the past, like the Skywalker lightsaber and the Millennium Falcon. It’s fitting that Palpatine would be the final antagonist, as he was the one who set the Skywalker Saga in motion, using Shmi Skywalker as a Force Madonna. Supreme Leader Snoke was revealed to be a proxy for Palpatine (I mean, what else could he have been?), but Palpatine should have been more of a presence throughout the final trilogy. The First Order is indistinguishable from the Empire anyway, and if Palpatine were going to use a puppet proxy, why wouldn’t he choose a beautiful, charismatic form than something that just looks like the Emperor, smooshed a little differently and using a dumb name?

But more significantly, this is the Skywalker Saga, and whether you found this ending satisfying probably hinges on how you think of the Skywalker bloodline and the prophecy of the Chosen One. Palpatine used the Force to induce the midi-chlorians to create life in Shmi Skywalker. Anakin Skywalker was the Force made flesh—a mortal incarnation of the Force. The Jedi of the time even had a term for it: a “vergence” in the Force. They also had a prophecy around it: a Chosen One would be one such vergence, and he or she would “bring balance to the Force.”

As the incarnation of the Force merged its bloodline with human beings by having children, the poetically minded among us might suppose the Force acquired a human soul, capable of moral agency. There was Luke, trained by Jedi of the old order. There was Leia, untouched by both Jedi and Sith philosophies. And then there was Leia’s son Ben, trained by Luke in his own reconstruction of the old Jedi way, but corrupted by the Palpatine proxy. And then there was Rey: Force-intuitive on her own, offered training by the fallen Ben, refused but then grudgingly granted training by Luke, and finally trained by Leia.

But Rey ended up a Palpatine, not a Skywalker. At least by blood.

So what does the whole saga look like, in terms of promises and payoffs?

Episodes I – IX: The Force is incarnated as prophecy’s “Chosen One” by the machinations of an evil Sith Lord who seeks to corrupt him away from his purpose, but…

…but the Sith Lord’s granddaughter redeems the Chosen One’s grandson, and together they destroy the Sith Lord?

It lacks poetry. Yes, a Palpatine corrupted the Force incarnate, and generations later, another Palpatine redeemed it and set it free. And yes, at the end, Rey adopts the name “Skywalker.” But what about that prophecy about bringing balance to the Force? Did that just translate to “kill Palpatine and make sure he stays dead?” That isn’t satisfying at all. Especially since the saga seemed to be dropping clues about a deeper meaning, right up until the end.

  • Trilogy 1: The aloofness, arrogance, and lack of empathy of the Jedi order enabled Palpatine to divide Anakin’s loyalties, and it was a only a violation of the Jedi code—loving, marrying, and having children—that set in motion Anakin’s eventual redemption.
  • Trilogy 2: It is only when Luke defies Yoda out of compassion for his friends, and Darth Vader exposes Obi-Wan’s lies by omission, does Luke seek to confront his father with love. In the confrontation, his fear for his sister drives him to batter Vader into submission, but a flash of empathy makes him stay his hand instead of killing him. It was emotion that enabled Luke to turn Vader against the Emperor. And it hints at what a balanced Force could look like.
  • Trilogy 3: An untrained girl uses the Force like a natural, and seeks the last Jedi master for instruction. Luke says he was wrong, and the Jedi order was wrong. He says he must be the last Jedi. Rey intuitively reaches for the Dark Side of the Force, and Luke is terrified. All around the galaxy, more Force-intuitives begin to awaken, without any Jedi or Sith dogma. Rey uses both Light and Dark powers to serve her own purposes, remaining true to her heart throughout.

It really seems that the prophesied balance to the Force was going to be a union of the so-called Light and Dark sides, the disciplined head and the emotional heart, focus and passion. The final, encompassing ring could have elevated the mythic saga of I – VI to a statement about the human condition.

Maybe this would have been the story if we hadn’t lost Carrie Fisher. Leia, of the incarnated Force’s bloodline and free of the influence of both Jedi and Sith, could have taught Rey a third path. Or better still, redeemed her own son, not through combat, but through love. Leia, Yoda’s fallback “other hope,” could have been the key to ushering in an era of the Balanced Force that none of the others could imagine.

Episodes I – IX: The Force is incarnated into the human Skywalker bloodline to balance itself, and the Jedi and Sith war over their hearts and minds with their binary philosophies. The one Skywalker left unindoctrinated finds the truth of the balance.

That’s the sort of ending that would have satisfied me.

The Insufficient Language of Boredom

In these times of sheltering in place from COVID-19, the insufficiency of the word “bored” is especially pressing. It carries a connotation of indolence. Laziness. Consider: Children complain, “I’m bored.” Parents respond with a list of chores. The children’s problem is not solved, simply transformed into a less indolent flavor of boredom.

But also consider: A middle manager’s day is booked with back-to-back Zoom meetings, where she re-hashes the same talking points among multiple stakeholders. So boring. She hopes the next day will be different, and it is: she spends it approving expenses, vacation requests, and system entitlements; she fills out status reports and tailors the language to each audience to which she’s beholden. Bored bored bored.

Indeed, these are times that call for greater precision. The experience of boredom is multifaceted. Though any number of dimensions could be argued, I propose three:

  1. Unstimulated / Stimulated is mental engagement: intellectual, emotional, aesthetic.
  2. Unoccupied / Busy is the engagement of one’s time and effort.
  3. Discomfort / Pleasure is the basic component of emotional experience. Pain or pleasure. Aversive or attractive. Boredom is discomfort, of course, but let’s include pleasure for contrast.

The combinations of these dimensions yield emotional states that deserve their own vacabulary. These are some proposals. They certainly invite improvement.

Bored_Alternatives

I’m feeling bored if I’m experiencing unstimulated, unoccupied discomfort, like when I’m sitting on the sofa, with no motivation to attack anything on the to-do list, and feeling miserable about it.

I’m feeling relaxed if I’m experiencing unstimulated, unoccupied pleasure, like when I wake up with the alarm but realize it’s a weekend with no commitments but to listen to the wind howl outside while snug in my bed.

I’m feeling burdened if I’m experiencing unstimulated, busy discomfort, like when my day is full of pointless bullshit, the completion of which is a precondition for getting paid.

I’m feeling meditative if I’m experiencing unstimulated, busy pleasure, like when I’m driving, or stuffing dumplings, or doing something easily productive, and getting into the flow of it.

I’m feeling restless if I’m experiencing stimulated, unoccupied discomfort, like when my brain is bursting with ideas, I don’t have the means to act on them, and I’m frustrated by it.

I’m feeling imaginative if I’m experiencing stimulated, unoccupied pleasure, like when I’m caught up in daydreaming.

I’m feeling stressed if I’m experiencing stimulated, busy discomfort, like when I have engaging work, but way too much of it.

I’m feeling engaged if I’m experiencing stimulated, busy pleasure, like when I’m in the zone, doing something I want to do.

Any better adjectives? Any additional dimensions? Chime in. It’s not like you have anything better to do…

 

Last Christmas by Doctor Manhattan

“Last Christmas” by Doctor Manhattan, who does not perceive time linearly, but all at once.

 

“Where are you, Jon? When are you?”

 

It is December 15, 1984. I hear George Michael on the radio.

 

It is December 26, 2018. You are giving my heart away.

 

It is December 26, 1983. I am trying to console George Michael, whose heart I have given away. I tell him I understand. This is as yet a lie.

 

It is December 25, 2018. I am giving you my heart.

 

It is December 24, 2019. I am listening to a song George Michael wrote, understanding.

 

It is December 25, 2019. I am giving my heart to someone special.

 

It is June 14, 1983. I tell George Michael to stop calling me and write a song.