Saturday, October 14, 2017

Moloch

The Bible records that the ancient Israelites would sometimes turn away from their God and engage in various forms of idolatry. One particular foreign deity which held a special fascination for the Israelites was an Ammonite fire god whose name was variously rendered as Milcum, Molech or Moloch. Devotees of this god would sacrifice their children by fire to gain his approval. Through various prophets, God warned the Israelites not to "cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Moloch," but many parents ignored the warning and performed this "abomination" anyway. It's hard to know what to make of this behavior; after all, what kind of parent would willingly sacrifice his or her child to a false god?

We'll get back to that later.

When I was a tween -- back in the era before the word "tween" had been invented -- I wanted to be a child actress. And frankly, I would have done pretty well on stage or in the movies. I was cute back then, short for my age, with expressive eyes and elflike features. I had a clear speaking voice, sang in tune, read well and could memorize long swaths of text easily. And I had a good understanding of how to interpret text effectively, especially for someone my age. When tryouts for the first movie-musical version of Annie came around, I was desperate to audition. I just knew I'd make a great Annie. But for reasons I didn't understand at the time, my parents wouldn't take me to the auditions. All I remember getting out of them by way of explanation was that they didn't think it would be good for me.

It took the better part of two decades for me to understand why my parents were so cautious about letting me audition for that movie. It wasn't because they didn't think I would do well -- indeed, years later my mom admitted that I was a talented little actress. But that was exactly why she didn't want me to audition. My mom was wise enough to see a few other things about me -- that I was an attractive, charismatic, sensitive, emotional child who had been taught to respect and obey adults. And she felt that such a child should be kept as far away from Hollywood as possible.

Now why would she think that?

Well, if you've been paying attention since the earliest days of the movies (and well before that, in vaudeville and other theater), it shouldn't be all that surprising. Consider this incident related by Shirley Temple, the most famous child actress of the 1930s: "One famous movie executive who shall remain nameless exposed himself to me in his office. 'Mr. X,' I said, 'I thought you were a producer, not an exhibitor.'" She couldn't have been older than her early twenties when this happened. Consider also Ron Howard, now a director and producer, who started out as child actor Ronny Howard in the late '50s and early '60s. If you go to the IMDb and track Ron's early TV show and movie appearances, you will see another name frequently popping up alongside his, quite often in an uncredited role: Rance Howard, his father. The elder Howard, an actor in his own right, did his best to protect his son by making sure he was part of the cast or crew in productions where Ron appeared.

And think of all those talented former child actors and actresses who have become walking train wrecks as adults: Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, Edward Furlong, Macaulay Culkin, Amanda Bynes, etc., etc., etc. -- or worse, all the former child actors who died of drug overdoses or committed suicide when their careers dried up because they were no longer cute, and hadn't grown up to be beautiful enough for the movies. Even those who make a successful transition to adult acting often go through a terrible patch to get there; Drew Barrymore admits she was a hard drinker and drug abuser who first entered rehab at age fourteen. (You don't have to take my word for any of this; Mara Wilson has written a bang-up article all about why former child stars go crazy on Cracked.)

I've been thinking about this subject a lot recently, as people like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and Roy Price enter the news cycle for the most notorious of reasons. Actors and other creatives are finally speaking out about a once-taboo subject: that the "casting couch" method of finding new actors is alive and thriving in the entertainment industry. And if you think the sexual predators hiding in the tall grass of Hollywood only prey on attractive, naïve adults, you've got another think coming.

Children who are the way I once was, with ambitions to act in films, don't know about any of the dangers of the Hollywood machine. They just want to be in movies. Such children, whether they know it or not, need wise, thoughtful parents who keep them as far away from predatory adults as possible. Just as parents are told to watch over their children in amusement parks because such places draw in pedophiles, parents whose children have Hollywood ambitions should be warned that no child should ever be left alone with an older actor, director or producer. It isn't safe. And no matter how famous your child becomes or how much money that child makes, it will never be enough to pay for the damage of having been fed headfirst into the Hollywood-chipper.

So, again: what kind of parent would willingly sacrifice his or her child to a false god?

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

This is a dog, or why SF is hard to write

As I've stated before, although I enjoy reading science fiction, I'm not very comfortable writing it for a number of reasons. One of them is that I don't have a sufficient background in the sciences; although I know some laws of physics, for instance, I don't really understand all their implications. But another reason is that well-written science fiction, especially SF involving alien life, requires the author to think as an alien might think. And that means trying to unlearn things almost every human being over the age of five has learned.

For instance: this is a dog.
(English Bulldog)

This is also a dog.
(Chow Chow)

So is this.
(Great Dane)

And so is this.
(Pomeranian)
Even though they have radically different sizes, shapes, fur patterns and colors, and even if you don't know one thing about breeding, you can probably tell at a glance that all of these animals are dogs. Humans and domesticated dogs have been companions for thousands of years, and it's common for humans to keep dogs as pets or as work animals all over the world. As a consequence, we almost have pattern recognition of dogs wired into our DNA.

Now consider this furry creature.
Is it a dog? Well, it's about the same size as a dog. It has upright, triangular ears, four paws with exposed claws, a long muzzle, and a long, furry tail -- all traits visible in some of the other animals shown above. But even people who don't know the name of this animal can say with certainty that it isn't a dog, and they're right. It's a common fox.

So how do we automatically know the difference?

And more to the point: how could an alien, with no special connection to either species, be expected to know the difference? How could an alien tell that the first four animals are all dogs, even though there are such striking differences between breeds; or that, even with all its visual similarities, a fox is not a dog?

This is what I mean by having to try to unlearn things. We are human, so we think like humans, and we tend to assume that aliens would relate to each other and to us as though they were humans too. But being human means carrying around a HUGE volume of knowledge and assumptions -- some global, some culture-specific -- that aliens wouldn't have had a chance to accrete. Instead, presumably, they have their own volume of knowledge and assumptions which might be quite different from ours. And trying to think like an alien -- to create an artificial set of knowledge, culture, behaviors and mores not completely based on human knowledge -- is hard. Our cultural assumptions and all the things we instinctively know keep tripping us up.

What do you think? Have you written any SF stories involving aliens, and if so, what are your tips and tricks to create a truly alien point of view?

Friday, September 29, 2017

Rituals

D
ID you know that certain types of rituals -- that is, certain deliberately-created activities repeated on a regular basis -- can foster greater feelings of calm and happiness? Rituals can be simple, like putting on classical music and lighting candles before a meal (the way my auntie does), or more complex, like baking saffron-and-raisin-studded lussekatter for St. Lucia Day (the way my grandparents did). The regular repetition of a well-loved ritual or tradition creates something to be depended on in an otherwise chaotic world -- which is probably why rituals help us feel calm and happy.

One of our family-specific traditions was instigated by Captain Midnight, quite a few years ago. He got up early on the Saturday morning before our church's semiannual General Conference, went into the kitchen and started making a big hot breakfast. Because Conference is usually broadcast on television and the Internet, it's a rare chance to curl up on the couch and experience a church meeting in pajamas. The combination of spiritual sustenance and literal breakfast spread made getting up to watch Conference a delight, and CM has taken it on himself to make Conference breakfast twice a year.

So if you stroll by our house tomorrow morning and hear the pleasant clanging of pots and pans, don't be alarmed. We're just engaging in a family ritual. A tasty, tasty ritual.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Conversations with a small tiger

One of the things about being a Soozcat is I have to get to have conversations like this:

Roxy: Oh hey, are those nachos? Are they for me?!
Me: Think about it, Roxy. This is a human-sized portion. I didn't put it on the floor.
Roxy (stretching up to bat at the plate with her front paws): For me! Chips for me!
Me: Plus, how many times have I reminded you that you're an obligate carnivore?
Roxy: Chips for meeee!
Me: Forget it! You cannot count that high! What is it with you and corn chips, anyway?
Roxy: Chips chips chips for me I NEED CHIPS IN MY LIIIIIIFE
Me: Tch. Fine, you furry little mendicant. Have a chip fragment. (tosses it to her)
Roxy: YAY CHIPS! (sniffs chip thoroughly) Nah, this one smells like feet.

Yeah, people think it would be fun to talk to animals. To that I reply, "Read 'Tobermory' by Saki before you wish keenly for that ability."

Sunday, September 17, 2017

How to host a Soup Night

We held another Soup Night here last night, and it seemed like most of the participants enjoyed the evening. (Sorry for the "pix or it didn't happen" crowd, but we were too busy making, serving and eating soup to pull out a camera this time.) We made three soups on this occasion: the ubiquitous Cinnamon Beef Noodles, Chicken Tortilla Soup, and Potato Cheese Soup. They weren't perfect -- I didn't fish the aromatics out of the CBN, so several people got star anise and cinnamon sticks in their bowls, and the Potato Cheese Soup was too salty -- but they were nonetheless well-received. People talked and knitted and sang and generally goofed off, and it was fun.


I've talked about Soup Night on several occasions on this blog, and it occurs to me that there may be other folks out there in the blogosphere who might want to put on a Soup Night of their own. It also occurs to me that a few friendly bits of advice on this subject would not go amiss. So here's what I've learned thus far:
  1. "Audition" soups before serving them. You should know that the soup you're serving is delicious and that you can make it successfully. So whip up a small batch well before Soup Night and taste-test it.
  2. Consider making at least one soup that handles special dietary needs. We usually make at least one vegetarian or vegan soup, and because some guests are celiacs, most of our soups are gluten free. Beyond that, we ask guests to inform us about dietary issues, so we can pick at least one recipe that meets their needs.
  3. Ask people to RSVP. You need a head count to calculate how much soup to make. We assume two bowls of soup for every guest, and plan accordingly. We tend to overestimate, because we don't want to run out of soup before the evening is over. (This is why we now own three huge restaurant-sized cauldrons for making soup.)
  4. Experiment to see how many guests you can host successfully. We have a small home, we aren't professional chefs, and we're both introverts, so the maximum number of people we can host here before everything descends into utter bedlam is 30. (FYI, last night was occasionally bedlam.) If you're an extravert with a big house and a tolerance for lots more people, you might be able to handle 50 to 100 guests. If you live in a little postage-stamp-sized apartment, you might limit your guest list to five friends. But do what works best for you.
  5. Pick different guests for different nights. Not all your friends and neighbors will have personalities that mesh well -- although sometimes two very different people will surprise you by hitting it off. When you compose the guest list, try to make sure that some of your guests already know and like each other, pick guests you think are likely to get along, and encourage people to introduce themselves. This should make for a comfortable, happy mood.
  6. Don't go overboard on the costs. Our Soup Night is, at its heart, a labor of love and some of the soups we make are a little pricey when they're scaled up to feed a crowd. But we don't hold Soup Night every week, or even every month -- so when it does come around, we can afford to make something special. And we usually make one soup that's economical but delicious, as with last night's Potato Cheese Soup. You don't want to spend so much and hold Soup Night so often that you get burned out and decide never to do it again.
  7. If guests offer to bring something, let them help. We ask guests to bring their own bowls and spoons -- it indicates the homey informality of Soup Night, it's a necessity since we don't have enough bowls and spoons to serve everyone, and it means we don't have to wash extra bowls at the end of the night -- but some guests want to contribute more. Last night many people arrived with contributions -- bread, dip, cheese and crackers, desserts, folding chairs and, in one particular case, a guitar. These kind contributions made it possible for everyone to eat lavishly (and to sit and enjoy the music). It's been our experience that once people attend and enjoy Soup Night, they want to help make other such events successful. Let them help!
  8. Don't serve alcohol. This isn't a hard and fast rule, and it's certainly influenced by the fact that we're teetotalers, but if you're not sure how all your guests will handle access to wine, beer or spirits, it's probably better not to offer them. At the worst, you don't want to be stuck cleaning up barf, breaking up a fistfight or calling a cab for someone who went overboard.
  9. Soup Night is for the cold months. We have tried holding a Soup Night in the middle of summer, putting all chilled soups on the menu. It was the most anemically attended event of any of our Soup Nights. Soup is largely perceived as a cold-weather food, so autumn, winter and early spring are the best seasons for Soup Night. (If you want a summertime get-together, try Ice Cream Night.)
This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you're the Hostess with the Mostest or the Dude Slingin' Food, and you've discovered some useful advice regarding Soup Night or similar shindigs, please bring your experience to bear in the comments.

Monday, September 11, 2017

TIMBER!

I don't think I ever put this up. Back in February of this year, after we'd had some spectacularly hard rains, several of the big trees in our side yard got wobbly and our landlord decided they had to come down. He was very nervous about doing this, so he had us leave the house before he started knocking them over with earth-moving equipment.

So of course, we had to get footage. Because reasons.

video
(You can fullscreen this video for complete tree-felling awesomeness.)

Bravo landlord!

By the way, we did try to evacuate Roxy-cat, but she could tell by our voices that we weren't calling her to do anything fun, so despite our best efforts her furry little butt stayed hidden under the bookshelf during this whole adventure. I just hope we never have a fire in here.