Saving Mr. Banks and Writing

I didn’t see the movie Saving Mr. Banks when it came out. In fact, I only watched it this week. I’m sorry I waited so long, as it is an excellent film. It’s about the making of Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins seems like a story for children, and I suppose the fact that P L Travers managed to sell a series of eight books about the magical nanny speaks to their effectiveness. But I’ve always gotten misty at the end of the movie, when they all go out to fly a kite. It’s just so wonderful that old Mr. Banks has finally seen the light and learned to break out of his shell and play again, or maybe for the first time. And no wonder, because as it turns out, there is a lot of truth in the story of Mr. Banks. He is based upon the author’s father, one Travers Goff (her real name was Helen Goff.) She took his name as her own, which says something about how much she loved the man.

He was “in a cage,” just like Bert tells the children in the movie. He never broke out, at least not before the consumption took him away. So, young Helen was left to try to redeem him all by herself. The movie is about her coming to terms with the real story behind Mary Poppins, and I won’t spoil it any more than to say that redemption did come. My thesis here is that the film works because of the genuine, heartfelt emotion that was written into it, both by Mrs. Travers and the Disney folks who translated the story on to film. In fact, that “Fly a Kite” scene is the exact moment when Mr. Banks, and by extension, Mr. Travers Goff, is finally redeemed. No wonder it’s such a wonderful scene: it’s real!

I look at the stuff I write and I wonder if I’ve put myself into it to that extent. Because I doubt if it will do well if I haven’t. This is the reason, I’m sure, that the #1 piece of advice for new authors turns out to be “only write stuff you want to read!” Sure, there’s craft, technique, word usage, all of that, but what it comes down to, I think, is whether or not your heart is in the story.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think that I have a kite to fly.

Foundation’s Friends

Stories in Honor of Isaac Asimov

Asimov was my first love of science fiction. My sister gave me a copy of the book Foundation when I was 11 or 12, and I was hooked. If you remember Han Solo’s speech about the difficulty of making a hyperspace jump in the first Star Wars movie, that was almost verbatim from Foundation. One of the coolest things about Asimov’s fiction is that he created a world that you could drop yourself into and forget that the real one was even out there. In fact, by the time he finished, he had tied up three of his worlds into a vast future history that is, frankly, one hell of a lot of fun to read. I was saddened when he died, because I thought I’d never get to see inside that world again. But, I was wrong.

Had I been paying attention, I’d have noticed that this book was already available at the time of his death. It was a tribute to a living author, and one well deserved. I’ve read only the first four stories so far, but they are, well, fantastic, amazing, and astounding. (Long-term fans will get that sentence. The rest of you, meh!)

The first story is about a girl who is a strip runner in future New York CITY. I mean CITY, as in the ones Asimov describes in Caves of Steel. A world where today’s New York is a sort of a bump on a log compared to the reality that is NEW YORK. In Caves of Steel, a detective names Elija Bailey is hired by “Spacers,” those who live on planets other than this one, to solve a crime. Elija comes from a world where paranoia about hygiene is rampant, and where robots are the common way to get everyday labor done. Spacers get colds, and don’t use robots. Our heroine must deal with those facts, and with her crime (strip running) as she learns some things about her world, her CITY, and the Outside. She even meets Bailey. Such fun! An excellent story, in a familiar world that is not the one we really live in!

The second story actually involves Thiotimoline! A practical use for it, and the solution to a difficult problem; a solution with cosmic implications! Thiotimoline is a powder that dissolves before you add water. The story of the powder was originally published in the journal Chemistry in 1948 as a bit of a joke. It reads like an actual thesis, which is what Asimov was also writing at the time. He got his PhD, we got two good stories. It’s a mystery with tongue firmly in cheek, just the way Asimov liked them. Just remember to resublimate your Thiotimoline before use.

The third story is another detective story, a tad grimmer, but still with a joking twist at the end. I think that if I’d been told that Asimov himself had written it, I’d have believed it. Somebody crossed a cabbage with, oh, no, I don’t want to spoil it, in case you haven’t read it. You should, you know.

And finally, fans will recognize the time that Gilmer sacked Trantor. This story is about the Second Foundation and how they deal with Gilmer. Right at the end one of them says something rather hubristic, and fans know the price of hubris, right? “What are the odds?” he asks. “Damned high!” we answer. Again, completely back into Asimov’s world. On Trantor, where you may recall “The Stars End.”

Well, I’m sorry I missed this book all these years, but at least I’m getting to read it now. Dammit, I like Asimov’s worlds, and I’m truly sorry that he had to leave this one.

Read it, you’ll like it!

Foundation’s Friends: Stories in Honor of Isaac Asimov

Edited by Martin H. Greenberg
Prefice by Ray Bradbury
Afterword by Isaac Asimov

Tor, 1989

No e-book, but still available at not outrageous prices used.

The Meaning of Life

Oh, Monty Python, where art thou? (“Wherefore” means “why,” in case you’ve ever wondered.)

The Python troupe did a whole movie on this subject. You can read about it on IMDB.   You should watch it, if you haven’t. I saw an collection of articles recently about what atheists think of the meaning of life. I am thereby inspired to put in my zero cents worth.

Scientifically speaking, life arises to reverse a localized buildup of negentropy. If there’s a meaning to life, I reckon that’s it. It’s an important job, although I have no idea why. It’s important because the laws of nature dictate that energy flows from a warmer place to a cooler place. Every time. The Universe hates a vacuum, is how it’s sometimes put. That means that all of the hot places are going to lose energy to all of the cold places, until eventually all that will remain is undifferentiated low-grade heat (and not much of that.) That’s entropy. Negentropy is organized stuff. The sun is a big ball of negentropy, for example. On most planets either not enough energy from the sun hits to do anything, or the sun’s energy is so fierce that it rips off bits of the planet (Mercury) or it’s so hot that the whole place is covered by clouds that reflect most of the sun’s energy away (Venus.) On Earth, the energy builds up at just the right rate to make stuff more and more complex. This is bad, because the Universe wants to get rid of negentropy, and organization is negentropy. So, when stuff gets negentropic enough, it starts using energy to replicate itself, and life is born. By replicating itself, life reverses, or at least balances, the buildup of negentropy.

That’s the scientific explanation. Doesn’t really explain anything, does it? ‘Cause you want to know why you’re here, right? Well, to help the universe do what it does. Why is the Universe here? Damned if I know! Nobody knows. But what I do know is that I’m gonna die, and you’re gonna die, and so is the entire human race, sooner or later. But I’m not dead now! Given the possible combinations of DNA that exist, and the odds of a successful impregnation reaching adulthood, it’s quintillions to one against any single one of us even existing! A quintillion looks like this written out in numerals: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000. I live in Vegas, where we deal with odds every day. Those are horrible odds, bub! But I’m here! And you’re here! And, in spite of the horrible odds against them existing, there are those who think we should fall on our knees and ask some god for favors? Great Gravy! What do they want? You’re here! You get to be a part of the greatest (and only, so far as we can tell) think that there is! You want faith? How about I think that the universe is proceeding as it should, and that my place in the process is assured? I don’t know what made everything happen. I do know that there are hundreds of religions appealing to some god or other, and that they can’t all be right. They could easily, however, all be wrong.

So, rather than waste my short precious life appealing to a questionable higher authority to make things okay, I’m going to enjoy my life while I’ve got it. And one thing I’ve learned is that the secret to happiness is to make other people happy! That’s not a commandment, just a rule of human interaction. If you make other people happy, you’ll be happier yourself. And this wonderful life, short as it is, will be better for everyone in it because you were here.

For me, that’s more than enough meaning, thank you!

Sophomores

I posted on Facebook recently to the effect that the OED should put, as their definition of “sophomoric” the word “Facebook.” Google’s definition is “pretentious or juvenile.” That’s not bad. Sophomores are called by that name because they know something alright, but they don’t know enough to know what they know, or more importantly, what they don’t know. And most of the opinions I see posted on Facebook are, indeed sophomoric. I don’t know if that’s bad, but if you want to know anything for certain, you don’t ask a sophomore. Facebook is sort of like Wikipedia, only worse. A place to start, maybe, but hardly definitive.

Lest you think I’m about to go on a left-leaning screed, let me start by looking at a topic that the more Liberal Facebook users tend to post about a lot. Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMO. I see a lot of posts asserting that Monsanto Corporation is evil because they genetically modify our food. Folks, every agricultural company on the planet genetically modifies food. If Monsanto is doing anything wrong, it has nothing to do with their GMO and everything to do with their insistence on preserving patents on a product which, by its very nature, will run wild. If there is a problem, and I say “if” because I doubt that there is one, it lies in not being thorough enough in testing the newly modified organisms for safety. All food should be thoroughly tested for safety; possibly by being fed to those who develop a new variety of organism (kidding, mostly.) Scientifically, there is no reason that an organism modified by gene splicing is any more likely to be harmful than one modified by traditional breeding methods. But the sophomores seem to expect that the genetically modified mosquitoes recently released in an effort to control mosquito-borne diseases, will inject “Modified DNA” in to their bite victims and turn us all into, well, I’m not sure. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? That is not how DNA works, as anyone who paid attention in 10th grade biology class could tell you. But the sophomores among us hear “modified DNA” and look at a chart about how it’s accomplished, and immediately leap to a completely erroneous conclusion.

On the Conservative side of Facebook, I find the example of Welfare Fraud. A popular view of people on welfare is that they waste money by taking drugs. The truth is that most welfare recipients are single mothers who can’t make ends meet on the minimum wage that is all they can get while being single mothers. That doesn’t stop the sophomores from deciding that drug testing for welfare recipients will save us millions of dollars. In fact, from July through October of 2011 Florida did test welfare recipients for drug use and discovered a 2.6% rate of drug use among welfare recipients.

Oklahoma Drug Testing Costs

This chart shows the results in Oklahoma. It cost the state of Oklahoma roughly $1300 per case discovered. Maybe that’s cost effective use of public money, but I doubt it. Certainly, it isn’t going to save a lot of money net. Again, the sophomores rule the day.

I could cite examples of all sorts of sophomoric pontification on Facebook, but I’m going to stop here. One of the things supposed to be taught in school these days is Critical Thinking. I believe that I can see a possible failure of the Educational Establishment, don’t you? Let’s start a Facebook campaign about it, okay?*

 

*That was sarcasm. I mean the opposite of what I wrote.

More About New York*

Well, not New York per se, but being in the humongous crowds on Times Square last week did inspire me to try to create a comedy routine based on how idiotic people are in large crowds. And in traffic. And in general.

What happens frequently in Times Square is a group of people, five or more, will stop dead on a street corner to discuss what they’re doing, where they’re going, all the tall buildings, all of that and more, and possibly, how to inconvenience the maximum number of people who would just like to cross the street before the light changes. Yep, they block several hundred people from getting on with their business, whether those people are fellow tourists (no native New Yorker would ever block a sidewalk in that way except in strict dire need) or Natives trying to go about their business. And for some reason, that is okay?

I believe that I understand why people from the sticks think that New Yorkers are impolite. I’ve always found New Yorkers to be the nicest people imaginable. They’re helpful, they’ll tell you what you need to know, if they know themselves, and they are sympathetic with each other and with visitors. But, they have things to do. The polite thing to do with public right of way in a large city, even in Las Vegas, is to use the public right of way as you need to, and then get off of it so that somebody else has a chance to use it. If you dawdle, you’re being extremely impolite. Extremely. So, since impoliteness begets impoliteness, the average small townie gets a lot of rudeness our of New Yorkers in return for the rudeness he or she is dishing out. Personally, I fantasized about picking up the offenders and setting them down in front of a bus! (No, I didn’t do any such thing.) The people who dawdle on Times Square without being impolite do it on the pedestrian mall that has been developed in the middle of Broadway. There are even tables and chairs out there if you want to sit a while and contemplate your next move. That’s where the Naked Cowboy, the costumed characters, the naked women, and anyone else with consideration for their fellow humans, who wants to dawdle, does their dawdling. Is that so much to ask?

For small town America, I guess it is.

*Sorry if I sound bitter. At least I can hope that the bit is funny!

Bienvenidos a Nueva York

On Times Square
On Times Square

There is one city in America which I think is more interesting than my home of Las Vegas. That being New York, the original home of, well, damn near . anything without avacados in it. The heart of New York is Times Square, which is a lot like the Strip but more compact. Also there are even more restaurants. Similarities also include frustrating crowds of tourists, traffic jams (NYC is worse) and women naked except for paint posing for pictures with tourists. Okay, Times Square has Vegas beat on that one. I didn’t get a picture. Sorry.

Here’s something else cool that we saw on Times Square:

I know that you know what this is
I know that you know what this is

You can see naked ladies anywhere, but this is special. It visits all over, but only infrequently. So, this is cool. But, believe it or not, Times Square is not all that there is to New York. There’s the Top of the Rock, from which you can see Central Park, among other things. To wit:

Central Park from Atop Rockefeller Center
Central Park from Atop Rockefeller Center

Central Park was begun before the Civil War. It is what makes life in Manhattan possible, basically. We also visited a bunch of museums, even the Museum of Sex, but I don’t have any museum pictures. I had to leave in the middle of a classic silent porn feature, so I’ll never know how that came out, but other than that, I liked the Museum of sex because I got material for a bit about bonobos. I won’t print it here, sorry..

The first few days the weather was about six degrees cooler than Hell, which made the subway about two degrees cooler than Hell, so we didn’t spend much time at the Brooklyn Flea, a famous flea market. If you like mid-century modern, you should check it out. And, before I forget, don’t pay for the New York Experience at 30 Rock. Lame-o.

Speaking of the subway, it takes about 45 minutes via express train to reach Coney Island from Times Square. Coney Island? You bet! We ate at this fine dining establishment:

The Original Nathans at Coney Island.
The Original Nathans at Coney Island.

If I speak only of the sausage, it was the best frankfurter that I’ve had in a very long time. Plus, while I normally don’t like cheese fries, Nathan’s are truly delicious. Then of course there are all sorts of shops, a huge retro looking arcade (that is not retro,) the Luna Park Amusement park, and a really nice beach. The most amazing thing is that Coney Island is in the very same city as Times Square. New York is one gigundus big city, I can tell you that.

We also went to Ellis Island again, but as none of our ancestors came through there, that will probably be the last time. Fascinating place, though. And we took a harbor cruise on a Clipper ship. Photos? Sure!

You get a better view from the harbor tour than from the Liberty Island boats.
You get a better view from the harbor tour than from the Liberty Island boats.
"Show me that horizon!"
“Show me that horizon!”

In spite of a less than perfect time on our last cruise, I kind of wished I was aboard that Carnival ship. Oh, the places they’ll go!

There are a lot more pictures, but I think this is pretty good considering I’m doing this in my Times Square hotel room.  As I said, New York is the one city that I find more exciting than Las Vegas. It’s about time for me to go home where I can unwind.

Drugs and Sanity

Or, I’m Mad as the Dickens, but I Guess I’ll Keep Taking It!

As if I had a choice. I’ve been blessed with ADD all of my life. It really is a blessing, but that’s for another day. My point is that I take a low dose of amphetamine salts every morning, by prescription. Last week I picked up a prescription from my doctor for 90 days worth (nice, that, and the legal maximum) and dropped it in in the mail. As of this morning, the mail order pharmacy which my insurance company uses had not received it. So now, if I’m lucky, I can get a ten day supply prescribed that I can fill locally. See, I have two days worth left, and it’s best not to run out. It’s hard to take delivery of something that hasn’t been shipped, you know.

The thing is, I have to visit my doctor every time for a new prescription. 90 days is the limit. You can’t just pop in any time to buy the stuff. People get upset, I guess, because college students abuse the stuff while pulling all night cram sessions before finals. And it is addictive (not at the level I use, but I’m told that it is.) So, in order to save people from themselves (apparently) laws have been put in place ensuring that a drug invented in 1886 is very expensive, even in generic form. I could probably get thirty bucks a capsule if I wanted to sell any. Which I would never do because I need them. I lost out on a job with the State Department once because they were worried that I might not be able to get the stuff wherever they assigned me to go. A legitimate concern, but one that could be eliminated by allowing me to take a two-year supply with me (the stuff keeps for ever if you keep it cool and dry.) But, the law forbids such a sensible thing. Thank you, War on Drugs.

More broadly, the reason infamous drug lord El Chapo is so rich is because of our policies. The things are either made from cheap chemicals, or weeds. (Cocaine is from a bush that grows wild in the Andes, for example.)  Because we distort the market for such things, we make them very expensive, and give bastards like El Chapo an incentive to murder and steal in order to be able to distribute what should be a cheap product. A motive to adulterate the product, also. Our drug policies make it inconvenient for those who need the drugs, and enrich a lot of very unsavory people. I’ll give you dollars to the untampered-with value of amphetamines that it also enriches a bunch of the people in congress, one way or another. Ninety 10mg capsules of amphetamine salts, a drug for which the patent ran out about a century ago, costs over $500.00. I pay a bit over half of that, but my insurance company is on the hook for the balance, which of course drives the cost of insurance up for everybody. And the illegal market is priced higher than that!

I think that recreational drug use is probably a waste of time at best. But that doesn’t mean it should be illegal. Sure, the results of drug abuse can be terrible, but not as terrible as the results of our War on Drugs. Murder, extortion, terror. According to the scare mongers among us, illegal drug money even goes to fund terrorists like ISIS. So, once again, why in the name of logic and reason are we still fighting that fight? Seriously, I want to know.

Writing Funny

A Fey Cow

Besides using a cartoon drawing of a goofy cow, writing funny presents a unique set of challenges. I like to write, you know that, but it turns out I also like to get up in front of people and tell jokes. You may know that too, but I discovered it only recently. But there is something you may never have considered about being a comic. That is, a comic is also a writer. You have to write all the time. Right now, I’m working on a YA romance, a chapter book involving some fourth-grade detectives (not that they’re low grade, they’re in the fourth grade,) and an endless series of jokes to be invented, refined, and worked into a routine that will, I hope, make an audience pee their collective pants. Or, at least get me hired at some corporate events. (My HBO special will be next year, of course.)

So, oddly it seems to me, every comic you see on television or in person is also a professional writer. In my case, I have never been able to get a serious point across unless I couch it in humor. Hell, I bet you’re bored right now, aren’t you? ‘Cause I haven’t made any jokes yet, have I? Well, be bored then. I charge for humor, after all. But my point is that every one of the comics, from Seinfeld to the guy at the club you dropped in on the other night when you were already too drunk to walk straight (we see you, you know,) writes something virtually every day. And he or she has to write something that’s funny! And that means studying what is funny. (That sentence certainly isn’t.) But, humor can be studied just like algebra, and that’s what comedians do. Can that be funnier? What’s the best punchline? How do I make it funnier? How can I add another punchline? And on and on.

I write regular stuff, so I’m hoping that by posting this about writing comedy I might help some of my fellow writers to appreciate the amount of thought and effort that goes into a comedy routine. I doubt that, just taken as a person, Lewis Black is any more angry than anyone else, but his anger schtick earned him a movie role as, well, Anger. And if you think Seinfeld is just a bunch of goofs kicking stuff around, I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. Seinfeld is a bunch of professionals who polish and analyze and polish and analyze and polish some more, until it’s funny enough for prime time.

Think about that next time you see or read some funny stuff. A whole lot of serious work goes into making it that way. Funny how that works, isn’t it?