Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On Your Marks

I haven't touched the Philippine Blog Awards for a while now, to be honest. Their web site is up all over again, though, and their two-week nomination period is almost over -- everything closes up tomorrow, after which their judges get a couple of weeks to make their decisions.

One of the interesting developments this year involves the requirement of full blog ownership. Quoting the text on the web site's front page (with the emphasized phrase in bold):

The awarding is open to all Filipino bloggers who have full ownership of their blogs. This implies that blogs belonging to blog networks or corporate blogs cannot be included because of ownership rights. The awards therefore pay homage to "grassroots bloggers" who have built up their blogs from their own efforts.

This, of course, speaks truly. There are a lot more people, entities and organizations who use blogging applications nowadays (because it's free, natch), and I would imagine that we'd prefer to count only those people who post legitimate and informative journals on the web. If you're dedicated enough to your blog that you actually reserve and set up your own domain for it, then I figure that you should at least be recognized for your efforts.

All the same, however, I do feel for the excellent blogs out there that deserve recognition for their quality despite the fact that they're not necessarily self-owned. But I figure that the Blog Awards people know what they're doing here. And the requirement is right out there where everyone can see it, after all. Holding a contest to award the best speculative fiction doesn't necessarily mean that anything outside that classification is not worth reading.

What I would like to see, however, is a list of the judges for the contest. The judges are definitely a major consideration in any competition: You'll obviously need a bunch of people who have had significant exposure to the medium, or at the very least are well-respected and open-minded pillars of the community. Anyone who fulfills both qualities, moreover, would be excellent to have. But the fact is that you want to make certain that all entries for a contest will end up being judged on the proper merits.

The Philippine Blog Awards currently doesn't have a list of judges on their web site, and that worries me. Does this mean that it'll end up like the Fully Booked competition, where the judges' identities were only revealed when the winner was named (after which most of us wondered where Neil Gaiman's involvement was to begin with)? I figure that it's important to note the judges' identities well before the request for nominations even comes around: You want to know how the blogs are likely to be judged, after all, and how people will look at them many years into the future. You want a fair guess at where the expectations and the prejudices will lie, where the high points and the low points are likely to roost. You want to know if you're going to run into a 199-member Academy of Motion Picture Sciences, or if you're going to have to schmooze to a panel comprised of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell.

I just hope that the web site gets the list of judges up soon. I want to know what each of the entries are getting into. They could probably name any random bunch of people as judges -- say, Tori Amos, Mahatma Gandhi, and that guy who cut in front of you at the bus stop this morning -- and I'd be okay with that. I just want to have an idea of how they'll look at the entries this year.

With some luck, however, the awards will be a lot better this year. The web site certainly looks better, the contest seems a little more organized, and the sponsors finally seem to be coming in. After all, we don't want to see another undeserving person win the Blog of the Year award, just like some arrogant jerk did back in 2005. :)

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Sick, Sick Man

It's eleven in the morning, and I'm sitting at home watching the live telecast of the 2007 Academy Awards. Here's hoping that Scorsese finally takes the statuette home this time. :)

For anyone who's not in the know yet, I've acquired a job -- I start on Thursday this week. In fact, I've just taken a call from my new employer, who's already demanding to know why I haven't handed them a required medical certification document yet. (I haven't even started my first day and already someone's yelling at me. This doesn't bode well.)

I'll give you the same explanation that I gave them, I suppose, if only because it explains exactly where I've been for the past few days.

On Tuesday last week I got called in by the company doctor, who informed me that the physical exam I took in early February had come up with some very odd results. Specifically, they had detected abnormal levels of certain enzymes in my liver -- SGPT/SGOT levels that were ten times what was supposed to be normal. I was required to see a gastroenterologist, and I was required to do it as soon as possible.

Wednesday morning saw me being interrogated by said gastroenterologist. He asked me if I regularly drank alcoholic beverages; I said no. He asked me if I had been taking drugs of any sort; I said no. He asked me if I had any tattoos or piercings; I said no. (That was when he removed his glasses, gave me a curious look, and asked me if I was telling him the truth. I said, "No, I'm just a really pathetic young man.")

Given that he was seeing no reason for my accelerated liver enzyme levels, he recommended a battery of tests for me at a distant hospital. That's where I've been heading for the past five days, really: So far, I've literally gone through five different blood tests, two separate ultrasounds, and one inappropriately invasive prostate exam. If I wasn't there to take a new test, I was there to pick up some results.

The last of these results, by the way, arrived early this morning. So far all I can read from them is the fact that everything's normal except for some fatty deposits in my liver area; I'll probably wait for my doctor's appointment tomorrow morning before I draw any official conclusions. I'm only expecting to get a few cautions on what I eat, though.

My employer was less than pleased with the situation, although they were honest enough to admit that the situation was beyond mine or anyone's control. All the same, it'll probably take me a while to get my office access card. That won't get my first week starting off on a positive note.

The funny thing is that this comes right on the heels of the Chinese New Year; The astrologists have predicted a turbulent year for people like me. I'm not a superstitious man, though, and neither am I the kind of person who's inclined to believe in these things. If the universe is suddenly about to throw stuff at me, however, then I'd at least appreciate some sort of warning. :)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Perhaps a Small Gratuity is in Order

Sooooo... how much is a story worth?

I mean, when you get a short story (or any similar work) published, you have to expect some sort of compensation from the publisher. It's your story, after all. Unless you're actually paying that person or company to print your stuff, you have to expect something in exchange for your blood, toil, tears and sweat.

I've noticed that most publishers nowadays offer a per-word or a per-page rate -- or at the very least, some amount that can be calculated from the technical specifications of the work in question. Despite the fact that this does hold a certain sense, it doesn't address the question of literary skill or aesthetic value; By this method, you'd get the same payment in return for a literary masterpiece as you would a random assortment of words. (This is assuming that you manage to find someone willing to buy that random assortment of words, of course.)

In addition, there's also the question of exactly how much people would pay on a per-word or a per-page basis. Local publishers seem to offer extremely low rates in this regard -- the lowest I've seen being offered around here has been along the tune of five centavos (about 0.001 US dollars) per word. There also seems to be a lot of talk about companies that offer one peso (about 0.02 US dollars) per word, but this level of compensation sounds pretty unrealistic for a local publisher; I have yet to find any publications with such offers.

At any rate, I tend to get the equivalent of anywhere from 300 to 500 pesos for my short stories nowadays. This may not reflect the common trend out there, though; I may just be asking for less than my writing is actually worth.

There's also the odd publication or venture out there that offers a flat rate for writers' works. This is usually the case with serials or low-level anthologies, both of which tend to require a high number of submissions. If this is the case, then the flat rate usually doesn't amount to much (because there are plenty of submissions anyway), and not much attention gets given to the redeemability of the pieces in question (because the readers usually aren't very picky here). A good anthology in this category may end up paying better than the standard per-word rate, but you run the risk of your work getting lumped together with stuff of dubious quality.

One interesting practice with regards to compensation involves giving the writer some copies of the resulting publication. This is usually a pretty good deal when you're working with formal literary collections or high-level magazines: The copies usually add up to a significant retail amount, and most of us would probably admit that we'd have bought them on our own anyway. The catch is that only very specific ventures can do this sort of thing -- small publications don't have much worth in terms of retail to work with, and you'll probably want something more in the vein of financial payment from the more established companies.

Finally, there's the more romantic, idealist approach, where you give your story away without expecting any form of compensation at all. There's nothing wrong with this, mind you: I think that such idealism should be admired. However, I do think that giving away such "freebies" tends to be bad in the long run, if only because it seems to encourage literary devaluation. A publisher who doesn't pay for his writings tends to be more careless with them; The way I see it, if someone's willing to give me money or stuff for my work, then I'll know that there are far less chances of that person letting it go to waste.

Then again, if I had a choice, I wouldn't recommend any of these practices at all. The last time anyone asked me what I wanted in exchange for a certain piece of writing, I just asked for a nice dinner somewhere. That way, I figure that not only do you get to choose a place that will almost certainly give you your money's (er... story's) worth, but if your partner turns out to be a great conversationalist, then you'll definitely have a nice evening coming.


Monday, February 19, 2007

Write, Written, Wrote

Well, my submission to Psicom Publishing has been completed; I managed to dream up a passable plot sometime after Valentines' Day, then spent the latter part of the week trying to write down the three thousand words that would extemporize it. I finally completed the story somewhere around two in the morning last night, and then rushed it off via e-mail because I didn't want to look at the thing anymore. Hopefully some good comes of it.

The previous week's tribulations have dredged up a few old questions that have haunted me for a while now, ever since I started writing after college. I figure, moreover, that each and every author eventually has to ask themselves these questions as well: How do we come up with story ideas, anyway? What kind of atmosphere or environment is most conducive to this sort of thinking? And how, for that matter, does one encounter and escape the dreaded "writer's block"?

Every writer has a different way of looking at these questions. I have my own personal take on them, of course, but I've observed that there are plenty of other people out there who have asked themselves the same things and have arrived at different answers depending on their experience, their repertoire, or even their current lifestyle. I'll even go as far as to note that peoples' answers to these questions may change with time; I suppose that this is one of those things that writers constantly ask themselves, something that gauges how far you've gotten since the time you first decided to put words to paper.

"How Do You Come Up With This Stuff?"

I think that anyone's facility with plot ideas will stem from a single word: "Why?"

For one, I know that I'm the kind of person who constantly asks how things work. Throw me a math problem and I'll concern myself with finding a logical route to the correct answer. Raise a particular tenet of game strategy and I'll try to break down the reasons as to why it can be consistently practiced. Show me a nice piece of technology and I'll probably be taking it apart sometime in the future when you're not looking. I simply try to establish a chain of logical causes and effects for everything I see and experience.

As you would probably expect, this was hell for my immediate family. You should try explaining a few cultural superstitions to a logic-minded five-year-old kid sometime. It's the kind of exercise that literally drives you up the wall and makes it impossible to convince the kid to do anything. (Yes, my childhood was weird. Ask my mother.)

More importantly, however, I believe that getting down to the fundamentals of things allows you to see how they function at their basest levels. This brings about a kind of general understanding of things: Being able to explain how people think and react, for example, allows you to map out some basic areas of human psychology. From there, you can move on to an analysis of historical events (which are the products of human interaction), political theory (which deals with human governance), and many more areas that touch on the same dynamic. Everything in the world tends to be dependent on pretty much everything else; Knowledge is a matter of finding the common threads that link them together.

It is usually at that point when we end up asking a second question: "What if...?"

A good part of speculative fiction hinges on the "what if" question: What if you had a spaceship tasked with exploring the unknown parts of the galaxy? What if there was this entire imaginary kingdom that existed in the back of an old wardrobe? What if you had an entire fantasy universe where all the women wore skimpy armor made out of tinfoil?

I feel that having a greater understanding of the world allows you to speculate on possible places, scenarios and events -- stuff that might not generally exist in our limited perceptions, but which should logically make sense under the right circumstances. In that sense, a plot idea is nothing more than the answer to a "what if" question, supported and given life by the answer to the inevitable "why" question.

In short, if one manages to conceive a scenario and then proceeds to back it up with a logical progression of events... then one has a story idea, plain and simple. I'm not certain if there's much more to it, really.

A Deadening of Minds

The fact that you could cook up a story idea from a general understanding of your surroundings implies that there aren't any specific environments that are conducive to creativity. I believe that anyone can literally come up with ideas under any circumstances; They may not always be good ideas, but they'll almost certainly be ideas.

I do feel, however, that there are some environments that aren't particularly receptive to new ideas; Either they suspend logic or force it to shut down, or simply don't welcome creative thought in the first place. These environments will, of course, vary from person to person -- different people will be able to glean flashes of inspiration from different places, after all.

On my part, I feel that anything that rewards "brainless" thought should be avoided. Menial repetitive work is probably my number one offender in this regard -- it encourages people to run on autopilot with nary a divergent thought, after all. Entertainment media has tended towards slapstick humor and overemotional drama at some points, and I figure that anything that makes us laugh and cry without allowing us time to figure out why should be given a wide berth. (This, of course, is relative. If you see comedy routines and soap operas as worthwhile avenues for logical thought, then they probably work better for you than for me.)

Likewise, any forum that doesn't tolerate open-minded thought tends to be a problem. Any place that requires you to think as part of a crowd presents an obstacle to creativity, unless you're willing to stand out in such an environment. Any place where you get jeered at, unnecessarily criticized or shouted down isn't much help in the first place, unless you're using it to analyze the relevant aspects of human behavior.

Otherwise, you've got quite an open selection out there. I will go as far as to say that anything that relaxes or comforts me provides adequate fodder for ideas and allows me to think out possible plotlines -- I often walk around malls, play computer games, or hold conversations over Yahoo! Messenger. I avoid stressful situations (because they force me to think about the stress instead of causing my mind to wander), popular novels (because the ideas I gain from them are usually acquired by the majority as well), and even headphone-based music (because when I listen to music, I like to do nothing but listen to music.)

Of course, different people will have different sources of ideas. What we should recognize, however, is the fact that we can usually get these ideas from anywhere. It's just a matter of being able to open up our minds to the possibilities.


Most experienced writers I know do not seem to encounter Writer's Block at all. They simply write stuff, then write some more stuff, and then think for a while and just continue writing stuff.

Nevertheless, Writer's Block appears to be a sizeable problem among younger writers. There are just some points in a person's existence, they say, when you just can't think of anything to write about. There are just some days where you can't squeeze out a single ounce of creative thought regardless of what you do.

Now, I don't want to compound the sufferings of younger writers by insisting that Writer's Block doesn't exist. Neither, for that matter, would I want to insult the more experienced authors by insisting that Writer's Block is a real and distinct problem. So I'll toe the line on this one and explain my take on the situation.

I believe that there is only one relevant, fundamental truth here: Sometimes you just can't think of anything worthwhile to write. Maybe you've been working all week and haven't had the time to consider any good topics. Maybe you've spent thrity-six hours in front of the computer without typing so much as a single letter. Maybe all the ideas you have in mind have already been conceived by other people and executed in much better ways than you think you can accomplish.

In such a case, the only thing you can do is relax. You have to put yourself in a position to be inspired; Stressing yourself out trying to squeeze water from a rock won't help matters in any way.

One good alternative to the situation (especially if you're working on a deadline) is to write in "white heat". This refers to a single session -- perhaps two to five minutes -- where you simply scribble down whatever happens to be running through your mind at the moment. You don't care about grammar or tone or consistency for this one session; It's only there to provide you with ideas, or at least the ones you were fast enough to write down before they disappeared from your head completely. Once you're done, you simply read through the resulting mess, pick out one or two potential topics, and work on those.

So in a sense, Writer's Block doesn't formally exist... but we have to admit that there are times when we simply can't write. The problem isn't insurmountable, though. In fact, most experienced writers will have gone through such periods as well -- they're just used to figuring out how to get around them, that's all.

These are, of course, only my current observations. Different people will have completely different takes on these questions, and that's fine -- we each have our own different styles, anyway. For that matter, I wouldn't even bet that I'd hold exactly the same set of beliefs and observations five or ten years from now. Like I said before, it's a question of how we look at our writing and how it changes our look at the rest of the world.

Chances are that you're a writer yourself, I think. Otherwise you wouldn't even be reading this blog, or any other blogs in the first place. If so, you're eventually going to have to ask yourself these questions as well. You don't have to ask them right now, though. But do keep them in mind for some point in the future.

Retrospection should be part of the craft, after all. If we're going to want to be familiar with the way we write, then we're going to have to be familiar with the way we live, too.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Unused Draft

(Author's Note: I found this sitting in my archives the other day, and I have no idea where it's from or why I wrote this. Nevertheless, it's still a bit interesting to read...)

There was a tall man walking towards him.

Jimenez noted a couple of things from the start. The first was that the man was dressed in old-fashioned clothes. He wore a black suit with coat-tails, a beige vest of some unknown material, and a bowler hat that looked almost too large and too ill-fitting to be believable. The second was that the man looked almost exactly like Arturo Agoncillo, President of the Republic of the Philippines.

Truth be told, it was the second detail that convinced Jimenez that this was just a dream. President Agoncillo, after all, was a man who barely scraped the five-foot, two-inch mark.

“Hello, Johnny,” the Agoncillo-man said, stopping a few feet in front of Jimenez. “I’ve got something for you.”

Jimenez suddenly found that he was afraid. It was an unlikely feeling, especially knowing that he was standing before a tall man who was about a head shorter than him in real life. Jimenez noted, with indistinct senses, that Agoncillo held a black valise in his right hand, and he wondered what was inside.

“I’m not Johnny,” Jimenez finally told him. “That’s what you called my brother, and he’s long gone.”

It was the truth, of course. His elder brother was fifteen years in the grave, having eaten a hitman’s bullet in the prime of his political career. Jimenez never really knew if Agoncillo was trying to keep the dead man’s memory alive, or could never tell the two of them apart, or was just too stupid to notice. For some reason, he felt that it was probably all three.

Agoncillo opened his mouth to say something, only the sounds that emanated from it didn’t seem to form any words at all. Instead, a distinct hum filled Jimenez’s ears, and it echoed around and around the darkness until it seemed that the president-elect was screaming at him.

Jimenez found himself screaming back, only his screams were not screams at all. They were the whirr and clash of machinery, the sound of thousands of cogwheels all stuck together and beginning to break apart.

Agoncillo stopped screaming and smiled, reaching down and opening the little black valise.

And Jimenez suddenly awoke in a cold sweat.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Antaria: Visual Characterization

Back when I was working on Anito: Defend a Land Enraged, I was required not only to outline a general progression of events for the story, but also to put together a cast of characters that could be used throughout the entire game. After putting together a basic description of these characters (both design-wise and personality-wise), I was supposed to hand them off to a staff artist who would then produce the initial pencil sketches.

Considering that large-scale contemporary RPGs like Anito can often run into about a hundred different characters (or maybe even more), however, this task wasn't as easy as it sounded. I eventually resolved the problem by organizing the game's locales into four separate townships and then tackling their respective populations one by one, but it was still hard going at times. If anything, it even got a little harder once I found out that the game's resident artist was somehow turning all of my female characters into sexy, fanservice-oriented models.

Anito's been a long time gone, of course, and I've since lost pretty much all the character descriptions that were once tucked away in my computer. I probably still have a CD copy of them lying around here somewhere, although I'm too lazy to look for it at the moment.

In the meantime, I've mulled doing the same thing for the population of Antaria; There's the possibility that I can have the story cross over into a more visual medium, after all. In addition, there's obviously no lack of talented artistic ability out there, and I've always liked seeing other peoples' takes on the setting. On the other hand, however, I find it easier to express the setting purely through words at the moment, and I'll obviously need some time to get used to a visual approach. Moreover, why write up a visual description of each character when you can just feature them in a story? Why 'show' when you can just as easily 'tell'?

Nevertheless, I need something to occupy my mind while I screen possible story ideas for Psicom. Besides, it'll be nice to see who needs more screen time and who doesn't.

Kharandon Greybane
Male Galenic Noble, Master Healer, Political Representative
From: The Celebration, Of Memories Beyond, What Lies Beneath
Appearance: Early 30s. Kharandon is a man of average height and imperious bearing; His posture and mannerisms give people the impression that he's taller than he looks. Kharandon sports natural gray hair (which is a family feature), cut short in a formal, traditional style. He also wears a mustache that tends to bristle whenever he gets impatient.
Clothes / Accessories: Kharandon can most often be seen wearing formal white robes suitable for his position among the Galenic councils.
Demeanor: Kharandon Greybane is the kind of person who makes certain that things get done, and believes that he's one of the few people who actually keeps the Galenic sect running. He doesn't focus on background details as much as he focuses on pertinent ones. He collects reports and makes decisions for the organization of Galenic healers, and advises the indecisive Satine Whitestone on developments. He constantly despairs over how slow and inefficient things are, although he keeps these opinions to himself.

Rhias Swordcaster
Female Masquer Bodyguard
From: Knives, The Celebration, High Fashion
Appearance: Mid-20s. Rhias is slightly shorter than average height, with long jet-black hair tied back so as not to interfere with her movements. She is trim and muscular (the product of constant athletic training since childhood), and gives the impression of a coiled spring ready to give way at any moment. She never smiles.
Clothes / Accessories: Rhias always wears simple robes with little variance in style (an odd practice, for a Masquer), but which are highly conducive to quick movement. She shows a marked preference for black boots, for some reason. She conceals a generous supply of throwing knives in everything she wears (although these are almost never noticeable).
Demeanor: Rhias is tasked to protect Grandmaster Gallos with her life, and virtually never leaves his side. She has no goals or aspirations beyond this duty, maintains no friends and relatives, and takes no other orders. She sticks to Gallos so closely that some wonder if she's having an affair with him behind closed doors.
Notes: A few months before this blog started, I commissioned a piece of artwork from Jac Ting Lim for this character. I don't have any more copies of this piece from my end, though.

Female Metrian Apprentice
From: Amalthea, What Lies Beneath
Appearance: 20 years old, more or less. Amalthea is short and wiry, having explored a good portion of the Antarian terrain on her own two feet. She has thick red hair, which she ties up into a ponytail with multiple braids (think Lara Croft if you wish).
Clothes / Accessories: Amalthea often wears a long brown coat over her traveling clothes. She also has a tendency to pick up sticks that are lying around, if only because you can think of so many uses for a long stick.
Demeanor: Amalthea has this irresistible urge to head out and explore places, which tends to conflict with her studies under Atharus. If anything, she most represents the type of person who will go ahead and do something if you tell her otherwise. She maintains a healthy dose of cynicism over matters that don't change to the point of complacency, and is altogether willing to try a lot of new and different things.
Notes: David previously produced a piece of artwork featuring this character.

Female Vestal of Antaria, former Metrian
From: Of Memories Beyond
Appearance: Late 60s to early 70s. Lianesse is a short person (although it's more a product of age than anything else) who nevertheless looks pretty good for a septuagenarian. Her face is relatively free of wrinkles, save for those that turn up at the corners of her smile. Her short white hair is usually set in a very simple style.
Clothes / Accessories: Lianesse always wears the white ceremonial robes of the Vestal of Antaria, a symbolic position in accordance with the population's faith in the Aranist deity.
Demeanor: Lianesse is the grandmother figure who everybody likes. Her duties involve providing solace and inspiration to a religious population, but this honestly doesn't translate into a lot of actual work. She is generally pleasant and patient with people, she gets tired quite easily, and holds a lot of passion towards books, scrolls, and learning in general.

Male Unaligned Mage
From: Idle Conversation
Appearance: Late 30s to mid-40s. Auros is a scruffy-looking man with dirty blond hair and a perpetually businesslike expression. He is slightly taller than average height, and doesn't care if this combination of factors makes him stand out in the middle of a crowd.
Clothes / Accessories: Auros wears an old set of robes with a matching vest, both of which smell as though they haven't been washed for a while. He also wields a six-foot-long wooden staff, which he inherited from his previous teacher.
Demeanor: Auros is a self-made man, and makes this perfectly clear to anyone he meets. He prizes scholastic research above all other things, and despises the constant politics that suffuse the mage sects' everyday dealings. While he has friends, he chooses to hold no affiliations whatsoever. Nothing enrages him as much as anyone who insinuates that his services can be bought for money (despite the fact that he's willing to make a few small trades here and there).

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Five Days, One Story

As noted in a recent set of comments (from Vlad Gonzales, no less), I've been asked if I could submit something to Psicom Publishing's next speculative fiction collection. I find myself only too glad to toss something into their mix, as long as they feel that whatever I write will be up to the level of their other writers' works.

The only concern I have at this point, however, lies in the deadline. If I'm going to hand anything in, it's going to have to be by the end of next week. That'll give me only five days to come up with something that'll knock Psicom's socks off, or at least impress them enough to print it.

If I had run into this sort of situation ten years ago, it would immediately have given me a good excuse to pull something from an archived pool of ideas (as a lot of writers seem to do nowadays). I can't do that right now, however, because of two particularly good reasons: One, I lost a lot of data in my hard drive crash a couple of years back; and Two, I usually don't like using a bunch of old, stale, rehashed ideas. Besides, I've grown far too used to cooking with fresh ideas right now to literally start heating up a batch of TV dinners.

So now I have five days to come up with about four thousand words' worth of story, with little in the way of inspiration to guide me. That's a fair challenge, although I've been historically inconsistent with challenges like these. The last time I encountered a one-week-or-less deadline, I came up utterly empty. The time before that, though, I put together a nice five-thousand word epic on cybernetic zombies. To say that this is a will-he-or-won't-he situation is certainly an understatement.

If Psicom's willing to be a little patient with me, however, then I'll see what I can come up with. They do only want a relatively simple plotline that takes into account a bit of pop culture, after all...

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Eulogy: Anna Nicole Smith

Please bear with me. I'm questioning the logic of this post even as I'm writing it.

I write Eulogy articles in order to reference those personalities who I liked and respected in life. While I'm certain that the death of any human being would leave a significant impact on people -- most notably those individuals close to him or her -- it would take a special person to leave a significant impact on people who aren't even on the same level of proximity. There are many people who walk this green earth of ours, but there are very few of them who leave this world a great deal poorer with their passing.

Anna Nicole Smith was most definitely not one of those people. She was, frankly speaking, not even a person I liked, let alone respected.

Her claims to fame were, to be honest, quite dubious: She was a stripper, a model, a B-movie actress, and a Playboy playmate. She married a decrepit old millionaire who was over four times her age, and then engaged in an incredibly complex legal battle over his estate when he died. She lost her once-voluptuous figure by gaining a massive amount of weight, and then starred in a terrible personal reality-TV show once she managed to shed some of the excess poundage. She gave birth to a daughter, lost her son to a drug overdose, and gave a seemingly drunken performance in one or more awards shows. And in the most dubious of dubious ends, she met a lonely demise in a celebrity-themed hotel and casino less than one week before Valentines' Day.

In other words, I felt that Anna Nicole Smith's so-called claims to fame were little more than attempts at grabbing our attention, and they got stranger and stranger with each passing month. Her whole life seemed slavishly devoted to landing her face in the tabloid headlines as often as humanly possible.

In this way, I gave up long ago on finding anything redeemable in what she did. Every time I spotted an article on her in the morning paper, I turned the page. Every time her painted face or grating voice came on the television display, I reached for the remote control.

In the hours following the sudden announcement of her demise, I scoured the Net for any initial reactions I could find. Most idle netizens seemed shocked at her sudden passing, but it didn't take long before even the most casual observers began echoing the sentiments above. Hers, it was pointed out, was a life bereft of any relevant point whatsoever. She was nothing more than a pothole in the middle of the celebrity highway, a braying donkey in the middle of life's banquet. Now she was gone, and it was time to get on with our lives. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Ding, dong, the witch is dead.

And in the end, I found that to be one of the saddest things I've ever encountered.

It has been said that, for the dead, there is nothing worse than the realization that one has been forgotten. But I believe that this is wrong, that there is at least one other prospect where the dead are far worse off. That is the realization that, no matter how hard you tried to make it otherwise, people everywhere will remember you with nothing but hatred and revulsion in their hearts.

Anna Nicole Smith was found dead on a Thursday afternoon in a Florida hotel, and the first thing that many of us assumed was that she had finally wasted herself into oblivion.

She would not have wanted it to end this way. All she ever wanted from us was our love, admiration and attention. What we ended up giving her was a bunch of skeptical remarks and a lot of extremely incredulous stares. She thought we were laughing with her, when in reality we were doing nothing more than laughing at her.

And the tragedy of the whole thing is that she never realized why.

I never liked Anna Nicole Smith, much less respected her. To me, she was everything that was wrong with the American Dream, and in some cases even far worse than that.

She may have been a non-person in the long-term scheme of things, I suppose. She may have been one of the so-called potholes on the highway of life. But she was also a completely harmless woman who did things just to get people looking in her direction, and she doesn't deserve to be sentenced to an antipathic eternity just for that.

I still don't so much as pretend to like Anna Nicole Smith. But I don't pretend to completely understand her either, and when I finally realized that, there was nothing left but the fact that I felt profoundly sorry for her and her throwaway life.

We should never speak ill of the dead, no matter how far they might have fallen in life.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Blood Culture

The blood test during my physical exam this morning took a lot longer than expected. In the first place, the doctor was already preparing to draw his samples from my left arm when he realized that I couldn't lay stretch my arm flat on his desk surface. It wasn't that I was disabled, mind you -- just that I'm apparently one of the few denizens of the general population who can't twist his left arm into such a position. So we had to reposition everything for my right arm, and -- just as he was tightening the rubber hose near the elbow -- I couldn't resist a slight quip: "You'd better be careful, doc. That's the arm I write with."

I suspect that he didn't care much for the joke, because it took him two solid minutes to fill two specimen bottles with a fine, steaming sample of the ol' B-positive. I know that most doctors were already happy to fill just one bottle, but this was a particularly comprehensive physical exam regardless. The extra one was probably going to be tested for illegal drugs or unwarranted substances, or something. At the end of the entire procedure, he went straight to the alcohol-cotton-bandaid triplet with nary a word, and then called the next patient in just as I was rolling down my sleeve.

I consider it a point of pride that I'm not afraid of syringes. Admittedly, not many people out there have much of a phobia in that regard either, but when you see even a small portion of the population screaming and running away at the sight of a long sharp piece of sanitized metal, then you have to feel a little proud of yourself. I didn't even see it as much of a concern when I was a kid -- some doctor-or-other would just be taking a little bit of your blood, after all, and would only leave you with this weird metallic sensation in your arm afterwards.

And then there was the alcohol. I loved the smell of isopropyl alcohol, for some reason. It always gave me the impression of being completely cleansed of everything, even long before I found out that it killed germs on contact.

I realize that I've given a lot of blood samples over the years, if only because I needed to get tested very often for a lot of staple childhood diseases. I remember that the blood testing got so frequent that there were days in which I would get up at seven, crawl downstairs where a visiting doctor would be waiting for me, yawn all throughout the sampling procedure, then crawl back upstairs again and sleep till noon. I suppose, then, that it's no wonder that I have high expectations of every blood test I take, and that the entire process feels to me like a walk in the park.

What I find odd, however, is that I haven't voluntarily donated blood to anything yet. On the other hand, Type-B blood is relatively easy to find, and my relatives have yet to find themselves in a situation where an emergency tranfusion could save their respective lives. This could also be, however, merely because I'm a really miserly bastard who doesn't like giving anything away for free. Think of it as you will, I suppose.

Back in my first year of college, there was an ROTC Saturday when we entertained a number of Red Cross volunteers just before afternoon marching practice. I remember that these volunteers were conducting a blood drive back then, and I remember the ROTC officers announcing that anyone who stuck around to donate at least one liter of blood to the Red Cross would be excused from marching practice and could leave early for the day. Unfortunately, despite the attractive prospect of slacking off, I had an important exam the coming Monday, and I figured that I needed all the blood I had at the moment. (This logic turned out to be remarkably accurate -- every single person who volunteered one-fifths of their total blood volume didn't show up for school afterwards.)

A couple of years into my management career, I again found myself giving a blood sample inside one of the local hospitals. A friend's brother had taken sick with dengue fever, and his family was looking for Type-B volunteers for a possible transfusion. So I dropped by, flashed the card that (ironically) identified me as a blood donor, and went through the motions of having some of the red stuff extracted through a clean syringe. Thirty minutes later, however, the attending physician took me aside and explained that they couldn't use my blood at that time -- the sample had indicated an encroaching viral infection of some sort. (Which was true, actually. While I didn't encounter anything along the level of AIDS, I did run into a terrible cold the following week.)

I don't know where I got my blood donor card, to be honest. I think that it came about as a certification from one of the endless laboratories that were giving me my constant blood tests, more to assure future doctors that I was a Type-B (and proud of it!) than anything else. That the card can be used to assure people that there's nothing inherently wrong with my sanguinary profile just happens to be an added bonus.

Yes, I'm definitely not a hemophiliac, nor have I entertained any established foreign substances in my blood. In fact, I've long suspected that I lean towards the converse: My blood clots quickly and scabs easily. I hardly even get paper cuts, and that's a remarkable thing for a man who handles printer paper, writing materials and collectible card games.

The last time I ran into an incident where I bled profusely took place when I was ten years old: I slipped and fell on the edge of a wet swimming pool, and my left leg from the knee downwards felt like steak tartar for half and hour afterwards. The whole thing had developed into a sizeable set of scabs around two days later, though, and at the end of two weeks it looked as though the incident hadn't even occurred. It's amazing what contingency measures the human body has in place, I suppose.

Because of this and other similar run-ins with disease and injury, I've begun to feel more than a little invulnerable to these sorts of things. I will run into bad headaches, bad colds, and even the occasional bad accident every now and then, but I'll always expect to recover quickly. There are few things that feel better than the knowledge that you've just bounced back from something sufficiently debilitating, after all. And after a few days of rest, you'll inevitably feel bored enough to want to just get out and do something.

This was, in a sense, why I was wondering about the chronological length of my blood test this morning. Maybe the doctor was just taking his time, and maybe he just wanted to see how long it would be before I realized that the needle was still up my arm. Whatever the case, it was longer than any other blood test I've ever taken, and those results will probably show the same pieces of information that I've been encountering for my whole life: I'm a B-positive man, usually about as healthy as a good-sized horse and susceptible to a lot of colds. There's not much else to it, I think.

My writing arm is starting to feel a little numb right now. Maybe it's just complaining that the left arm got off easy this morning. Regardless of that or anything else, though, it's time to work on regaining whatever little blood I gave away today.

That, and it's time to sit back and wait for the next blood test. There are few other occasions that you can use as an excuse to stop and smell the alcohol, after all.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Why Do Zombies Eat Brains, Anyway?

A zombie is purportedly a dead person whose body has been re-animated... [Other] more macabre versions of zombies have become a staple of modern horror fiction, where they are brought back from the dead by supernatural or scientific means, and eat the flesh of the living.

The notion of zombies has been pretty here-and-there for me as a writer. On one hand, it's a powerful tool that can denote a substantial atmosphere of dread when used properly; On the other hand, it's become a generally overused element that doesn't immediately scare audiences as much as give them the impression of an uncreative concept. Much like the zombies themselves, they can either help or seriously hurt one's professional reputation.

I won't go into a detailed history and analysis of zombies here. To be honest, I located an astounding number of established references while surfing the web this morning -- some satirical, some questionable -- and I'm certain that a little bit of legwork should answer all the background questions you have about the undead phenomenon. At the very least, there's already a link to the Wikipedia entry up there, just underneath the title of this post.

No matter how many sites I visited, however, this morning's research failed to provide a concrete answer to the question that had been bugging me since last night: Why do zombies eat brains, anyway?

Most of the references I visited tended to agree upon a single zombie "stereotype" in modern media and entertainment. For one, the undead are usually re-animated corpses, or victims of a virus or condition that manifests in a similar appearance. Usually being of a non-cognitive, nerveless state, these stereotypical zombies invariably shamble around at a less-than-optimal speed. They prove resistant to environmental threats, physical pain or the dislocation of limbs. They may either be controlled by a single external intelligence, or may retain a primitive pseudo-bestial instinct per individual. They are particularly hostile to the presence of living beings, to the point of immediately attacking and killing any perceived targets.

That, and zombies eat living flesh. There's a bit of a logical disconnect here, to be honest: I suppose that every, er, "animate" being should have to have something to eat, yes... but modern media seems to accept the background notion that zombies are just as perfectly willing to eat beef shanks or pork slices when they clearly aren't willing to feed on each other. It's more a minor contradiction, though, than anything else.

What I don't understand, though, is why we play host to the perception that zombies eat brains so easily. It doesn't even exist as a fringe understanding, mind you -- despite the fact that very few comprehensive zombie references on the Net mention the undead's tendency for brains, there seem to be plenty of incidences of the association floating around. Do a search for "eating brains" on Google, for example, and you'll find that the vast majority of your results most definitely won't be centered around Fear Factor.

I suspect that the first vestiges of the zombie-brains association came about from Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead, the first movie to reference the neural delicacy. Return of the Living Dead, however, merely explained that human brains "ease the pain" of one's undead state, and includes no specifics on exactly how or why this happens to be the case. In any event, this explanation didn't quite carry over to the media-influenced public: We can put together a mental connection between zombies and brains, but for the most part, we don't know why this connection exists. In short, we simply don't know why we could possibly think that zombies eat brains.

Wil McCarthy's "Lab Notes" column at SciFi.com actually offers an alternative explanation, albeit one that was mentioned only in passing:
Now, zombies are clearly capable of breathing, because they can groan, screech and sometimes even speak, so presumably there'd be some oxygen coursing through the system... However... zombies have no heartbeat and can survive indefinitely underwater, and... they can continue attacking even if all their blood is drained out. This implies a very robust anaerobic metabolism, probably powered by the fermentation of fat. (This would also explain the particular hunger for brains, which are 60 percent fat by volume.)

To state that zombies eat brains for their proportion in fat is still kind of debatable, though: While it does also explain why living flesh is also a distinct part of their menu (they could be after all the fat deposits, after all), it raises the possibility of other, more convenient sources of, er, nourishment. Why don't they raid supermarkets, butcher shops and liposuction clinics, then? If their senses are heightened enough to sniff out the concentrated fat in a human body, then why not do the same for presumably larger concentrations of the stuff in a single convenient place?

A flurry of responses to the same question (asked by bryanboyer) in the Ask Metafilter ("AskMe") offer up a bunch of scientific hypotheses. These range from the physiological (Brains hold both glial cells and and a high cholesterol content, which may help replicate lost brain cells and maintain cell membrane consistency, respectively) to the psychological (It's an instinctive-agressive action for the undead to regain their own lost minds) and the sociological (Because dead bodies without brains cannot exist as zombies, the practice of eating brains helps regulate zombie populations). While these proposed answers are both extremely interesting and well thought-out at the same time, they don't directly reference the current scenario we're looking at. We're looking for a reasonable explanation that not only points out why zombies eat brains, after all, but why they would hunger specifically for brains, and why they adopt a ravenous, highly aggressive stance in doing so. Perhaps the answer actually lies in some combination of these proposals.

Then again, it could simply be that zombies don't necessarily go for brains at all (despite certain media-based attempts at convincing us otherwise), and that the zombies-brains connection is just a logical fallacy that sticks to our heads without explanation. It's possible, after all, that we retain this bit of knowledge simply for its remarkability without delving too deeply into its background. In that way, it's much like any chain letter or urban legend that we encounter: We've all probably heard that one should never consume both Coca-Cola and Pop Rocks at the same time for fear of death, for example, but we never have any concrete evidence as to why this is so. We just remember a Coke-Pop Rocks connection and think little more of it.

That, and I suppose that zombies will always be zombies. They may or may not have reasons for the things they do; It's not as though we can expect them to be about as cognitive as normal human beings, after all. Otherwise they might not even be ambushing people and attempting to eat their, umm... er... brains in the first place.

With that, I'll leave this question up in the air. Even if we do manage to come up with an explanation that covers all the bases, I suppose, we'd be left with no guarantee that it'll justify the opinions of the zombie-oriented public out there. People just seem to immediately believe that zombies favor brains for some reason; At this point, I'll say that it's altogether possible that we have no such reason at all to explain the matter.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Disclaimer: February 2007


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