Look! Nature!

Hey blogosphere. Jacob here.

Dana’s post about butterflies inspired me to share some nature meself. I recently attended the launch party of Bird Fellow, and I must recommend it to anyone who has an interest in birds. The website is described as “birding services, social networking, and habitat conservation”, and presents as a way to identify birds and share your experiences with people around the world. The most impressive part, perhaps, isn’t even the photos, which are amazing by themselves.

OWLS!

Ahem. Right. Moving along.

The website is co-founded by David Irons, a man known widely in the birding community as a foremost expert in North American bird species, and considered simply the best birder in the state of Oregon if not the Pacific Northwest by many who share the past time.

But enough about the factoids, let’s look at some more birds.

Guys, this thing here ^ is called a Loon. Ha. Crazy loo-oh god why are its eyes red?! I think it just peered into my soul. And, finding nothing of interest, resumes preening.

This bird is apparently an “Old World Sparrow”. It looks rather Old World-y, doesn’t it? Like it would be perfectly at home with a monocle talking about the good ol’ days.
Anyway, it’s pretty cool, and a great resource to meet people in the birding community or to identify what kind of bird you saw in your backyard.
(All photos taken directly from the birdfellow site, (c) http://www.birdfellow.com and the appropriate photographers)
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Casting my line, seeing if I get any bites

Sorry about the title, I’m horrible handling fishing references, but both my father and grandfather are avid weekend fishermen and I feel an obligation to occasionally submit a nod to the sport of sitting in a boat in the rain and looking at the bright side of it all.

Ahem. Right then. Hello blogosphere, it’s Jacob with another out of the blue guest post.

I have an interest in a blog subject I was going to write about, but I wanted to test the waters and see if the readers had any interest. Taking a cue from the Academia series I wrote a few years ago, I wanted to blog a bit about my occupation, both from a technical and emotional perspective. I am a 9-1-1 calltaker and dispatcher, and over the last 16 months have gone through quite an experience. So I ask you: does anyone have any questions, thoughts, or interest in reading about my experiences? As always I offer only my humblest insights, with the fair warning that I claim to know little and I know far less than I claim.

If so, drop a comment, I’ll start sometime in the next day or three, with probably weekly submissions for as long as there is still interest in whatever I can find to say. If not, perhaps I’ll find a more interesting topic of discussion, or I’ll just sit quietly in the corner and let Dana get on with her own damn blog, thankyewverymuch.

Wellsprings of Inspiration III: Guest Appearance from the Past!

[Foreword]

When I was a wee lad of 16, I met our awesome host Dana Hunter in, of all places, one of those online writer forums that was all the rage before short-spoken birds and facial literature. I felt like I was in a shifty bar; a dingy, shady place where the real world threw back a few drinks and threw the bottles off-camera, because real men didn’t care about littering. It was almost like Luke entering Mos Eisley, with all the naivety I could fit into my farm boy shoes. And it was there I met Dana Hunter.

Dana Hunter, you are my Kenobi.

Ahem, er, sorry, my nerd was showing there for a bit.

So Dana found me, and we quickly high-tailed it out of the forum like the Falcon with a squad of stormtroopers on our tail (Last one, I promise). We went on to have long talks about our creative endeavors, but while I just talked about it, Dana actually had the guts to do something with it. Hence why she has a blog with thousands of posts and I have, well, not much.

The reason I bring all this up is that once upon a time, I was Dana’s co-blogger. I wrote a whopping three, maybe four, articles for En Tequila Es Verdad. Then I fell off the face of the Earth for a while. Well, I’m back, and I thought I’d introduce myself a bit as I step back into old shoes and walk along a path long forgotten.

I’ll try to throw something out here every now and then. At the end is a link to my own little corner of the blogosphere, that I’m currently using to work on my personal project.

A sidenote: My previous entries were under “Kaden”, a penname that once belonged to my main character who has since been renamed. The Elusive Muse (my corner) and all related posts will simply be under Jacob. And yes, I thought Kaden was cooler too.

So, without further ado, let’s go to writing…

Wellsprings of Inspiration
How Video Games Tell Stories
Books, movies, television shows, video games, board games, paintings, pictures, music, that quilt your grandmother knit for you that’s still in the closet, almost everything that surrounds us is about telling a story. And, really, you can find inspiration in anything. I’ve seen into the lives of my characters while watching a softball game. While listening to music. Overhearing two people in conversation. You can find meaning in everything, and story is about meaning. However, I’m focusing on a particular area.
Aw yeah. Video games.
My gaming career began around 1992-1993, a young spratling of about 3 or 4 years. It was Sonic The Hedgehog, and while it didn’t inspire me to do much other than run around in circles really fast, it was the start of what would be a brilliant gaming career.
The first real inspiration came from playing Chrono Cross, a masterpiece released in the late 90’s. The story was a bit convoluted, but I was at a young enough age I wasn’t paying that much attention anyway. It had 45 separate playable characters and multiple endings. You literally could not encounter and unlock every character by playing just once. You had to play it multiple times to fully experience it. Sadly, the copy I owned was flawed, with a scratch on the disc that prevented me from getting past a scene that you cannot bypass. So I never actually completed the game…though it remains one of my life goals to do so. However, it wasn’t the characters that made the most impact. Even though, at one point in the game, one of your party gets injured, and you have to make the choice to brave a dangerous swamp to find her a cure or, you know, don’t and go pursue the storyline on your own. This sense of having to make a choice in the story will come up later, so remember it.
Actually it was the music that inspired me the most. Chrono Cross has a wonderful score, and in particular the main theme, “Scars of Time”. This is, simply put, my favorite piece of music. From pretty much anything. Ever. And I like music scores. I love the Dragonheart theme, and if I can appreciate The Phantom Menace for anything it’s one of my favorite Star Wars piece. But Scars of Time…when I hear that, I hear soul. I see epic battles illustrated in flashes of light, I feel how it must feel to soar above the clouds.
But I digress. Somewhere along the line I was introduced to Metal Gear Solid, which reigns supreme as High King of Convoluted Plotlines. I can’t begin to explain the plot, but let me explain this: the main character, codename Solid Snake, is a genetic clone of a legendary super soldier, who throughout the course of the games repeatedly foils the plots set in motion by his other “genetic siblings”, often involving the use of various bipedal nuclear-equipped mech known as “Metal Gear”, for which the series is named. Nevermind that at one point you are lead to believe that the dismembered hand from his brother (Liquid Snake) has taken over the body of your ongoing nemesis, Revolver Ocelot, which is only possible because Ocelot’s father is a spiritual medium. Oh, and Ocelot’s mother is the mentor of the original Solid Snake of whom the main character is a clone of.
Oh, and there are cyber ninjas. Shit is crazy.
Incomprehensible story aside, the games actually have several plot lines that have continued to inspire me. In particular, the apparent antagonist in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is one of my favorite game characters to date. It would take too much space to get into the story, and it would be a disservice; you have to play it to understand. However, let me explain one moment. You are facing off against The Boss, the aptly named opponent you are struggling to face throughout the game. A former mentor turned traitor against her country, you are sent to kill the only woman Snake really loves. At the end of the final battle, she reveals all to you. Her sacrifice, and why she has done these things, and why you must end it here and now. She knows she is going to die. She knows you are going to kill her. It’s all part of the mission, one far grander than you ever realized, and you have your part to play. Here’s the kicker.
You have to pull the trigger.
In most games, climactic story-changing moments in the game are told through “cutscenes”, moments where you no longer have any control over what happens. Here, you have to consciously take the action. After playing up to this point, I literally stared at the controller for at least three minutes, refusing to continue. Eventually I did, because I had to, but it made the echo of gunfire that much more real.
Let’s take a step into another game, shall we? This franchise has quickly overtaken all others as my favorite game series of all time. For me, it is the epitome of what story-driven games should be. The series is called Mass Effect. A wonderful piece of science fiction, story-telling driven gameplay. You play the main character, “Commander Shephard”, a soldier of your own design. You choose if you are male or female, one of various backstory options, and a few different gameplay choices. Throughout the game you encounter humans, aliens, robots. Soldier, citizens, and creatures with intelligence beyond mortal comprehension. Yet the game is steered largely by choices you make. Some seemingly inconsequential – you can bribe a shopowner to get a discount. Give a fanboy an autograph, or tell him to go jump out a window. Let a criminal live to see justice, or take justice into your own hands. You were making these choices, and each had meaning. Near the end of the game, I was facing off against the main adversary, Saren. He was corrupt, taken hostage by the insidious mechanisms of a being who could influence your thoughts. For most of the game Saren is hellbent on carrying out the wishes of the one commanding him. However, based on the choices I made, the things I said, I was able to get through to him. Leading up to one of the final boss fights, I showed him that he still has a chance to make a difference and to fight back. Saren took his gun, put it against his head, and fired. It bypassed the entire fight. Unable to fight the influence, Saren decided to try to make his final stand, by removing himself from its control. A final sacrifice.
I almost dropped my controller.
You may be asking, Why are you boring us with this? We weren’t looking for a corporate sponsor. Hear me out, though. The reason these games are a source of inspiration to me is that video games, truly good games, succeed when they create experiences. That’s how they inspire me. Experiences. Moments in a story. Video games have a unique advantage over other mediums. Unlike movies, a game can take between four to over 30 or more hours of gameplay to complete. You are not restricted to 112 minutes to meet the characters, connect with them emotionally, and understand their choices. Books, of course, can go even farther and more in-depth, but video games also have the appeal of being a visual medium. While there is something to be said for painting characters in your mind with a good book, but in a game they can present scenes and ideas that are simply more difficult to convey in writing. And, above all, in video games you have a choice that you simply don’t with books or ‘teevee’ shows.
These choices are the defining moments when you realize a game steps over the threshold. When you have an emotional, personal reaction. In the sequel, Mass Effect 2, you are tasked with spearheading a suicide mission into enemy territory. You have to choose a squad leader to lead the second group while you lead the first. My choice was not made according to stats, or gameplay mechanics. Garrus was one of the characters from the first game, and the choices I made kept him by my side throughout the mission. I chose Garrus to lead them because I know Garrus, the way a Browncoat knows Malcolm Reynolds, the way a Tolkien fan knows the hobbits. It’s a choice based on experience.
It also helps that games like this are often accompanied with amazing musical scores and in Mass Effect’s case, stunning voice acting and camera work. Yeah, camera work. The way they “filmed” the scenes in mass effect give it a truly cinematic feel, as good as any movie.
As I start my own writing project, heading into the Great Unknown of writing fiction, I remember these games, these moments. That is what I want my readers to remember. I want them to remember the experiences. When, just for this one moment in time, they are doing more than just reading.

If I ever manage to accomplish this even once, I will call myself an Author.

Status Report

Ha, yes, still, um, y’know, busy.  I’d like to write up something very profound and meaningful, but I’ve only got a tiny window of time here, and so here’s what I’ve got for you: an explanation.

The magma chamber’s filled.  The volcano’s clearing its throat, a few phreatic eruptions here and there, harmonic tremors swarming, and let’s just say that it might be time to establish an exclusion zone.  In other words, I’ve got ideas bubbling up.  Which is why I haven’t even read Pharyngula in days, when I usually read it regularly every night.

A person standing outside looking in to my life just now would be a bit stymied.  All they’d see is a woman watching Doctor Who obsessively (finished Series Three, for those who are interested).  In between episodes, they’d witness me bouncing around the house talking to the air, breaking out in grins and gasps at seemingly random moments and diving for the nearest implement with which to move words from brain to page.  Or scrap of paper.  Or whatever’s handy.  The cat had better be glad she’s not bald, or she might’ve ended up as a notepad.

Sleep, when it’s possible, happens in a scant handful of hours here or there.

Things that normally would hold my attention go unnoticed.  Haven’t read more than a page or two in a book, just a few blog posts here or there, and I’ve even turned off Twitter a few times.  That’s extreme, that is.  That just doesn’t happen. It’s about this time that a psychiatrist who isn’t in the know might reach for ye olde prescription pad and suggest I get down to the pharmacy straightaway.

Writers, on the other hand, just would look upon all of this, shrug with a little knowing grin, and say, “Inspired, eh?”

Yep.

Every writer works differently.  We’ve all got various ways of kicking the Muse off her chaise lounge, snatching the grapes away and screaming, “Get a move on, you lazy git!”  For me, it usually comes after something of a dry spell, when I’ve spent a lot of time doing the busy work – researching bits, building bits of this world or that, or maybe just seeming to ignore everything entirely whilst I read blogs and books and – well, that’s very nearly the whole of what I do in winter when I’m not actively writing, actually.  Blogs and books.  Email a few friends (hullo, you!  Yes, I’ll get there, I promise, I’ll email you again before summer!).  For a time, it may seem like I’ll never write another word of fiction ever again in my entire life.  I start to question What It’s All About, Really and Am I Actually a Writer?  That sort of thing.  Inspiration does not come standard.  Sometimes, it doesn’t really come at all.  I used to freak out over that.  Used to panic and despair.  These days, I just shrug, say “Huh,” and take the opportunity to do other things.  Always feeling vaguely guilty, like I should be over by that chaise lounge giving the Muse a good kick in the arse, like I should be forcing it, but when I try, the Muse just gives me a Look that says my foot-on-arse action isn’t impressing her a bit, and the forced words are, well, forced.  Obviously so.  Horribly so.  And something in me feels like it’s broken.  So, when faced with those times when the magma chamber’s emptied and the volcano is dormant, these days, I just sit back and relax.

Because I know something will happen.

Might be a word, in the right place at the right time.  Or a couple of completely unrelated events, banging up against each other in my mind and fusing like hydrogen atoms in the sun.  Or it could be a book.  Maybe a movie that unlocks doors, throwing them wide open.

Or it could be a show.

And then what happens is that I go over and over and over it.  It’s not like it’s a choice, not really.  It demands my attention, grabs me by the lapels and pulls my face down to its face and screams from less than an inch away, “Listen to me!”  And all I can do is watch or read or ruminate over it continually.  Look at it from all angles.  Some bits will step front and center as the essential ones, and I study them.  There’s a reason why they got my attention.  There’s a reason why they’ve demanded I put my whole life on hold for them.  What is it?

That’s when the harmonic tremors start, and the magma chamber fills, and the volcano prepares to vent the heat of creation all over what had been, until then, a rather nice, quiet, and possibly even scenic life.

Other things get neglected while that goes on.  Food, sleep, friends, blogs, books, and quite often the cat, because it only goes on for so long before it’s done, the volcano goes dormant again, and then it’s back to the usual activities until the magma chamber fills again.

Which is all a long way of saying, I’m a little distracted right now, so I might be a bit neglectful.  Sorry ’bout that. 

Dana’s Dojo: Getting Emotional

Today in the Dojo:  How do you “show” emotion”?

An emotion is suggested and demolished in one glance by certain words.
-Robert Smithson

You would think that something as emotional as… emotion… would be easy to show.  And it is, until you actually get down to showing it.  Adjectives and nouns parade their wares, promising you how easy it would be to just use one of them instead of reaching for examples.  Why waste all those words describing somebody’s emotional state when there’s an easy shorthand?  If a character is angry, why not just say so?

Impact.

Allow me to demonstrate:

Dana was getting really irritated with the web page she was designing.

vs

Dana’s hands darted toward the computer as if to strangle it.  “Stupid clip art!  Why won’t you export?”

If you chose Example One as the stronger, please put down your pen and leave the Dojo.  You need to meditate on “modifiers don’t make an emotion stronger” before you’re ready to become a samurai writing master.

So we’re going to show emotion.  It’s got to be done.  No easy way out here.  Shut the door on those salesmen pitching “angry, love, happy, sad,” kick the purveyors of adverbs like “sorrowfully” and “joyfully” off the porch, and don’t even let their singsong “But wait, there’s more – just use a modifier!  I’ll throw in very, really and extremely for free!” reach your ears.

Tack a sign above your computer: “If it’s easy to write, it probably sucks.”

There.  Now we’re ready to clear the first major hurdle in showing emotion: How do you know what they’re feeling if you don’t say it?

First, let me just say that a touch of uncertainty isn’t a bad thing.  It’s life.  Your readers will have a better experience if you don’t bludgeon them over the head with the precise emotion your characters are feeling every time they experience one.  The story will feel more real if there’s a bit of ambiguity.  One of the true delights in reading is finding an author who’s willing to admit that half the time we don’t even know what we’re feeling, much less the person we’re with.

Of course, you don’t want to be too ambiguous or you’ll annoy your readers to death.  They’ll demonstrate an emotion, probably by scowling at your book, snorting in disgust, and then tossing it out.  Or giving it to someone they really despise while gushing over how emotive your writing is.

So how does your reader figure out what your characters are feeling if you don’t tell them?  Give them the same clues we use to figure out what people around us feel:

Actions


Expressions


Words and tone


Thoughts


What others say

  Think about it.  Your significant other usually doesn’t have to tell you “I’m angry.”  You’ve got it figured out by the time they tell you, and in fact probably respond with something like, “No, really?  I never would have guessed” in appropriately sarcastic tones.  On the opposite side, imagine if they’d been acting like nothing was wrong, face perfectly meek and mild, no raised voice or slamming cabinet doors, and they suddenly chirped, “I’m so pissed off.”  You wouldn’t believe them, would you?  Even if they’re so mad they’re homicidal, without evidence, you won’t take their word for it and their mood certainly wouldn’t raise your blood pressure. 

We want blood pressures raised.  We want the readers’ hearts to pound, and not in annoyance at us for explaining how everybody feels rather than demonstrating.  So we’ve got to take those cues and clues we use to negotiate emotional minefields in the physical world and translate them into prose.

Let’s go down the list:

Actions

Under this category, I’m including everything from what the character does to how they do it, with a lot of nervous tics thrown in.  Observe the following:

He rushed to the door.


He sauntered to the door.


He dragged his feet all the way to the door.

You got an idea of how this person felt just by the way they moved, didn’t you?  Context will define the exact situation and emotion: the first example could be eagerness, fear, or anger, but you know it’s not boredom (although he may be fleeing boredom).  The second example gives you the idea of a guy feeling smug, self-confident.  The last is someone who obviously doesn’t want to face what’s on the other side.  I didn’t have to tell you, “He dreaded answering the door.”  I showed you he did.

Simple, isn’t it?

So that goes with action and how that action is presented.  You can get across a lot of emotional information whether that action is complex or simple, just by the way you present it.

Nervous tics and habits can convey just as much.  You can go with something most people do – pace, twiddle thumbs, what have you – but it has even more impact when you establish a personal quirk of a particular character, unique to them.  Not that you want everybody to be a raging bundle of unique nervous mannerisms, excluding all common nervous traits, but a few personalized ones here and there enhance what you’re doing.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of this is in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  When Nyneave grabs her braid, you know it means she’s pissed and probably frustrated as well.  The degree to which she yanks tells us how angry she’s feeling.  Another of his characters drywashes his hands when he’s nervous.  When he’s really nervous, the drywashing becomes pronounced and there might even be a tongue touched to lips.  No need for Jordan to say, “Nyneave felt angry” or “Balwer was anxious”.  We know.  We saw.

Figure out what mannerisms tell us the most about a character’s state of mind, and use them.

Expressions

This is one of the hardest things to convey succinctly in writing, but it’s too important to ignore.  Our faces announce to the world what’s going on inside, even when we try to hide it.  Smiles, grimaces, batting eyelashes…  they’re common to us all.  We know what they mean. 

The challenge is to find a fresh way to say it.  You can only talk about smiles or glowing eyes so much before it gets annoying.  My best advice here is to look for subtle signals that might substitute for the obvious, support such things with other cues, and freshen up the description as much as possible.  The more you can personalize those expressions, the better, but keep it in check.  You don’t want to spend the next four sentences saying, “He grinned.”

Words

What we say and how we say it speaks volumes about our emotions.  You won’t have to tell your readers that one character worships another if you let the worshipper babble about the virtues of the worshipped for a paragraph or two.  Same thing with anger, love, doubt, excitement, fear… any emotion you can name causes certain words to emerge in certain ways.

For instance:

“I can’t believe he actually looked at me!  He looked at me!”


“I can’t believe he actually had the nerve to look at me like that.  Who does he think he is?”

Do I have to tell you that the first is breathless excitement, and the second offended anger?  I didn’t think so.

On the other hand, words may not convey the emotion they seem to.  Tone can change meanings entirely.  And you can convey a character’s tone without resorting to a lot of flowery adverbs:

“I’m not mad at you,” he laughed.


“I’m not mad at you!” he shouted.

Change one word, and you change the entire meaning.  This is one instance where I might let you get away with a dialogue tag other than “said.”  Just don’t abuse the privilege.

Thoughts

This can be much fun and extremely enlightening, especially if the train of thought clues your reader in to something the character doesn’t even realize.  It’s pretty easy to convey: the words, the speed of those words, the obsessiveness of the thoughts – all can lead your reader to the right conclusion regarding the emotion driving those thoughts.  It’s important to keep in mind a simple Shakespeare quote here: “The lady doth protest too much.”  If we’re trying to think ourselves into hating someone, there’s probably love there somewhere. 

What Others Say (or Think) / How They’re Affected

Having your characters comment on what others are feeling is usually more tell than show, but it can be effective when added to other clues.  It’s especially useful when the character in question isn’t demonstrating typical behavior for someone experiencing that emotion, or when you want to emphasize that emotion. 

One person’s emotions affect everybody else’s.  I’ve seen too many stories by established authors that tend to forget that.  Don’t make the same mistake.  If Johnny’s going off like a bottle rocket, don’t have Julie sitting there like wood.  She’s going to have some reaction to his rampage, whether it’s fear, annoyance, amusement, or satisfaction. 

So those are the basic ways and the basic rules.  Like so much else in writing, it’s not all that basic: what looks easy on the surface is damned tough in practice.  And now I’m going to load you down with a small armful of warnings.  (I know you’re annoyed because you’re glaring at me, and your foot keeps twitching like you want to give me a little kick.)

Emotion should be appropriate to the situation and the character.  I’m going to stress the latter, because everybody should know the importance of the former.  Emotion is a spectrum, and everybody will respond to the same situation with a different level of emotion and have different ways of demonstrating it, but they’ll tend to stay within the same spectrum: fearsome situations cause fear, enjoyable situations happiness, and so on.  But certain things change that.  A cop will show less fear in the middle of a gun battle than a prep school kid would.  That’s not to say the cop won’t be more afraid than the preppie – it could be quite the opposite, with the preppie also feeling some excitement over being caught up in something so Hollywood, while the cop’s feeling impending mortality because she recognizes the sound of an AK-47.  But the cop’s going to be keeping that fear contained, while the preppie might be screaming her head off, or scrunched into a silent ball, or anything but responding the way a trained police officer would.

It’s the character that’s most important, though.  If you’ve shown that preppie handling life-threatening situations with aplomb, and suddenly have her dissolve in helpless terror during the gun battle, your reader is rightly going to think you’ve pulled a dirty trick, or are simply incompetent, or just don’t care about integrity.  If your cop’s been through a dozen gun battles without turning a hair and during this one is too scared to think, much less counterattack, and there’s no reason for that reaction, you’ve got problems.  Your man-hater can’t suddenly be compassionate to one man just because you like him, too.  Your grumpy old geezer can’t randomly start singing in the rain and spreading love and joy among the masses.  Unless your character is a nutcase, don’t have them bouncing around emotionally without good reason.

If you do decide to have your character experience emotions entirely outside of what we’ve come to expect, you must show why.  Maybe in real life, we don’t know why our significant other came home happy and suddenly ended up snapping our heads off, but in novels and stories that’s a ticket to obscurity.  There’s a reason why people feel the way they do, no matter how unusual for them.  Present some explanation, or at the very least have the character involved or the people around him/her be as surprised and disturbed as we are by the unexpected.  The rule of thumb here: the more out of character and the more impact it has on the story, the more you must make sense of it.

Finally, remember that none of these things happen alone.  If someone’s nervous, they’re not only going to sweat; they might babble, pace, have obsessive thoughts, wring hands, look like they’ve swallowed an electric eel, and annoy everybody around them.  Mix and match as many as you wish, as much or as little as it takes to get the job done.

Emote away!

Why We Should Not Let a Semblance of Normalcy Silence Us

My mind’s still on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s near-assassination.  It’s hard to focus on anything else.  This has been one of the moments when the world changed, and a thin bright line separates before from after.

Life will return to a semblance of normalcy once again, for us.  Not for the families of the victims.  Not for the parents of a 9 year-old girl who won’t ever have the chance to live her dreams.  Not for the wounded, who will not only have the physical scars and possible disabilities to remind them, but emotional scars that are just as real.  Even if they heal completely, even if the shooting makes them stronger emotionally, they will never be the same.  There will always be a chasm separating then from now.  Walking into a grocery store will never again be a simple act for them.  The world has changed.  Same for the witnesses, who will probably never go through the ordinary motions of life without consciously or subconsciously waiting for gunfire.

Life will return to a semblance of normalcy, but we can’t forget.  We can’t ignore.  We can’t pretend this was a random act without further meaning.

We can’t pretend that it was just one lone crazy who acted out.  Vaughan Bell knows this:

For many, the investigation will stop there. No need to explore personal motives, out-of-control grievances or distorted political anger. The mere mention of mental illness is explanation enough. This presumed link between psychiatric disorders and violence has become so entrenched in the public consciousness that the entire weight of the medical evidence is unable to shift it. Severe mental illness, on its own, is not an explanation for violence, but don’t expect to hear that from the media in the coming weeks.

I encourage you to read his whole post.   It makes it that much harder to lay everything at the feet of insanity and be done with it.  And here’s a little more food for thought – what looks insane on the surface isn’t, always.  So don’t be comforted by notions that this was just some lunatic, that no one had any control over his actions, that no one could’ve predicted.  None of that is the whole truth.

Context has meaning.  Here’s an unbalanced man in a state where “There are guns everywhere here. The state government has made laws that make owning a gun as easy as buying a stick of chewing gum. People open carry into family restaurants here.”  In a state where hatred has metastasized. 

Not too long ago I was driving back from Phoenix, by myself, at night. I turned on AM radio to keep myself awake. There was nothing but right wing hate on. I listened for a while. I was sleepy. I have never heard anything like it before in my life. Most of it was local. Shock-jocks from Phoenix spewing conspiracy and hate. Guns, guns, guns. No taxes, no taxes, no taxes. Obama’s a muslim, Obama’s a socialist, Obama’s a terrorist. I wanted to vomit. I turned it off. I wasn’t that sleepy after all.

Juniorprof lives in Arizona, but the state he’s describing only vaguely resembles the one I grew up in.  It’s gotten so much worse.  And just lately, the right’s gone wild there: we all remember Arizona’s noxious immigration law, quickly followed by discrimination against teachers and the purging of ethnic studies, neo-Nazis turning Cinco de Mayo into a hate-fest… and on and on, until we reach the point where Jan Brewer finds it perfectly acceptable to slash funding for transplant patients.  Meanwhile, the NRA’s been going absolutely wild, screaming for MORE GUNS EVERYWHERE! on the same day over a dozen people were being gunned down in front of a Safeway:

As if it’s not bad enough the NRA lobbyist is quoted endorsing more guns in more public places, the merchants of blood and death want confiscated arms and bullets back in circulation instead of being destroyed, and getting more weapons on school campuses. I don’t get the sense the NRA is at all interested in pausing and reflecting on the death and carnage in Tucson, even if the Arizona Republic were to delay its story and take into account new facts that came to light after the story was submitted.

And, just like Republicans believe the answer to any economic woe is more tax cuts, I have the sneaking suspicion the NRA’s answer to this mayhem will be more guns.

Incidentally, the gun Loughner used would have been illegal under Clinton era laws, but since the assault weapons ban passed, mentally unstable individuals who believe violence is the answer are now able to buy high-capacity clips so as to maximize the death and destruction they wreak, and it is legal.

And any time sensible gun laws are proposed, the right wing goes apeshit.  And the rhetoric gets yet more violent, yet more extreme, yet more paranoid. 

Then those who have been spewing the violent rhetoric, dehumanizing opponents to previously unimaginable degrees, who have painted targets on those they disagree with politically and talked about “Second Amendment remedies” and piously recited Thomas Jefferson’s line about watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants after calling democratically-elected officials tyrants, then those people say, when someone takes them seriously, “This was a crazy person.  You can’t blame us for what a crazy person does.”

Because they didn’t put the gun in his hand?  (Although they might as well have done – they defanged any gun law that might have kept a weapon that destructive out of his hands.)  Because they didn’t literally tell him to go and shoot this Congresswoman and as many innocent bystanders as he could manage?  (Even though they paint crosshairs on their opponents, talk about them being “enemies of humanity” and hold up signs saying “WE CAME UNARMED THIS TIME” with the implicit threat that next time, the guns will come out.)  They can’t see the connection.  And before this happened, even with the warnings given by so many, maybe that’s understandable.  We can’t always predict what impact our words will have.  But to deny any responsibility now, to refuse any soul-searching, to have created an environment in which a Republican who wants to discuss these things honestly feels he or she has to do so anonymously, that’s reprehensible and irresponsible. 

How disconnected from reality do you have to be to say this:

“It is a very tragic event. Even more tragic is to blame Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.”

 Lockwood responded the only way someone can respond to such blindness:

These things are “even MORE tragic” than the simple fact of Christina Taylor Green’s cold, dead body? Not to mention the 18 other injuries and deaths? MORE fucking tragic?

And this is exactly the point. I’m sure the commenter didn’t even think about what she was saying. She was on autopilot. She has been conditioned by Palin, O’Reilly, Hannity, Beck, Boehner, Brewer, and on, and on and on, that merely impugning the wonderfulness of “people like them” is more tragic, a greater crime, a worse humanitarian crisis, than hundreds of thousands of people dying annually from lack of health care, than millions of children who are mal- or undernourished every day, than tens of thousands of homeless veterans for whom it’s well worth shelling out for showy car magnets, but not worth a nickel to actually get them shelter. I’m sure she is quite right that neither she nor her party’s leaders “endorse” democrats or other undesirables being murdered outright. However, she has been well-trained to understand that when, God forbid, such a thing happens, the appropriate response is to defend the righteous, stay calm, put it out of your mind, and walk cheerfully forward into the the world that is being re-shaped for the right people.

And that mindset is so far developed that, on Sarah Palin’s Facebook page, comments critical of Palin were removed within minutes.  But this comment was left intact:

a commenter posted the following at 18:12:

“it’s ok christina taylor green was probably going to end up a left wing bleeding heart liberal anyway. hey, as ‘they’ say, what would you do if you had the chance to kill hitler as a kid? exactly.”

even worse, further negative comments about palin were immediately scrubbed within a minute, but this comment was still left live on the facebook page.

Just for a moment, pause and consider what a warped worldview it takes to find criticism of Sarah Palin unacceptable, but the equating of a murdered nine year-old with Hitler, justifying her murder, fine to leave intact.

Maybe they’re just blindly following the steps.  A certain blindness is required to not see what’s wrong with a comment like that.

No, instead of soul-searching, too many are busy building walls.  Making excuses.  Pretending gunsights aren’t gunsightsAttacking the sheriff who had the courage to speak out:

http://embed.crooksandliars.com/v/MTkyOTYtNDMwMjM?color=bfbfbf

Too many on the right don’t want to have this conversation, face the fact that when your most powerful political leaders, your media stars, your respected allies are all dehumanizing, demonizing and implicitly calling for the murder of those who oppose you, you must bear some responsibility for the target a disturbed young man chose.  Look to the right.  Some have been courageous enough to speak out against the violence and the eliminationist rhetoric, but far too many are busy trying to paint the assassin as either a deranged lunatic who engaged in a random act of violence or as one of the hated and inhuman gay leftist commies.  Those in the middle of those extremes are busy howling that we shouldn’t politicize this.  But it is political.  There is no escaping that fact:

Shootings of political figures are by definition “political.” That’s how the target came to public notice; it is why we say “assassination” rather than plain murder.

[snip]

That’s the further political ramification here. We don’t know why the Tucson killer did what he did. If he is like Sirhan, we’ll never “understand.” But we know that it has been a time of extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery, including SarahPac’s famous bulls-eye map of 20 Congressional targets to be removed — including Rep. Giffords. It is legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between that tone and actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be. At a minimum, it will be harder for anyone to talk — on rallies, on cable TV, in ads — about “eliminating” opponents, or to bring rifles to political meetings, or to say “don’t retreat, reload.” 

I wish that last bit were true, but I’m afraid it’s not.  I’ve seen little evidence that those responsible for the bulk of the eliminationist rhetoric see anything at all wrong with what they’ve done.  They’ll continue to do it.  And it’s doubtful the media will do anything to prevent them, or call them on it, or imply in any way that such things are unacceptable in public discourse.

So it’s up to us.

Digby quoted Bill Clinton’s speech after the Oklahoma City bombing, and a bit of it particularly struck me as all the more relevant to today:

Well, people like that who want to share our freedoms must know that their bitter words can have consequences and that freedom has endured in this country for more than two centuries because it was coupled with an enormous sense of responsibility on the part of the American people.

If we are to have freedom to speak, freedom to assemble, and, yes, the freedom to bear arms, we must have responsibility as well. And to those of us who do not agree with the purveyors of hatred and division, with the promoters of paranoia, I remind you that we have freedom of speech, too, and we have responsibilities, too. And some of us have not discharged our responsibilities. It is time we all stood up and spoke against that kind of reckless speech and behavior.

Life, for the rest of us, will return to some semblance of normalcy.  But we can’t let that prevent us from discharging our duty.  The work will be long, and it will be hard, and we will suffer defeats, but we must make this country a place where eliminationist rhetoric once again has no place in public discourse.  We must work for gun laws that will prevent people bent on massacre from obtaining their weapons so easily.  We must work for a health care system that identifies and treats people with mental illness before they become such a danger to self and others.  And we must work to make sure that this country does not ever become familiar with political assassination.

Otherwise, what happened yesterday will not have been a wake-up call, but merely a prelude.

Some Beautiful Bits

It’s the Monday after a holiday, and we all know what that means: bleh.  So I figured you could all use a little beauty in your lives.

Back in November, Jessica Ball at Magma Cum Laude had a lovely post up on the Eternal Flame Waterfall. Our own George W. recently sent me this Earth Science Picture of the Day, giving us another view of that gorgeous, unique fall:

How awesome is that, right? 

Here’s another something awesome – Brian Romans got a glorious view of Niagara Falls on Christmas Eve:

Of course, there’s a lot of hydrology in the way of the geology, there.  Callan Bentley found some shots taken in a brief time when that wasn’t an issue:

How cool is that?  More here.

Right, then.  Now you’re fortified with some beautiful things.  Now you can go forth and conquer the universe – or at least, have another caffeinated beverage.