Category Archives: Ramble

LOTR controversy is nothing new. It’s just the same old “old vs new” argument.


So — ooh, boy. We’re going to make a mistake here. We abandon the website for a year, then with the second post upon our return we wade into the waters of fandom, racism, and social media. Top shelf idea, there. It’s gonna be great.

Look, LOTR and criticism thereof sort of has this problem.

And the problem is that you have to measure anything LOTR against the films of the original trilogy.

Why is this a problem? Because the films were just so damned good.

Say what you will about the novels. (They were formative for me — I discovered them in high school, read them, loved them, and have re-read them a few times since.) And say what you will about the adaptations. (There were some things I disagreed with, given my knowledge of the books. Some things that just didn’t make sense to me then, though now that I know a bit more about storytelling and movies, we get it. (See: moving the encounter with Shelob from the end of book 2 to the middle of book 3.)) But good ol’ PJ did that rare thing with the trilogy: he caught lightning in a bottle. He brought to life on the big screen a story that for so many of us had lived only in our imaginations, and it was as good, if not better, than we expected. He brought new fans to the story who never would have read the books otherwise. Oh, and he changed the way Hollywood thinks about stories and trilogies and series and all that stuff (for better or for worse.)

(Sidenote: We don’t talk about The Hobbit films.)

And, well, now we have to (or rather, now we get to) live in the universe where all those things happened.
And like any good series or book or otherwise IP, What Comes Next will inevitably be measured against the standard of the original. (Which is never going to be favorable for the new stuff. You can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice. You can’t even catch it once. This is metaphor.)

We talked about this a bit back when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out and all the hubbub about that film (spoiler alert: the hubbub did not quiet down, it only got worse, and that’s all very dumb, but that’s not our focus today, please stay on topic). About how the longtime fans feel some ownership over the thing, so when the New Stuff comes and it’s not exactly what they remember and expect, they get upset. But it’s rearing its head again and we’re thinking about it again, and well, I’m back, baby, so we’re gonna dive in and make some sweeping generalizations.

So, the new series is coming out. We haven’t even had the first episode yet, but people are angry. They will cite any number of reasons for their anger, but what they generally boil down to is: Thing Does Not Conform To My Expectations For Thing. Dwarves and elves with dark skin, Galadriel in battle armor — these things did not exist in the original works of Tolkien and they therefore have No Place in the new Tolkien thing.

Rings of Power in Vanity Fair – characters behind those posters UPDATED |  Lord of the Rings Rings of Power on Amazon Prime News, JRR Tolkien, The  Hobbit and more | TheOneRing.net

And then, like clockwork, come the rebuttals and indignation from the other side. We’re not living in Tolkien’s time; we’re living in the 21st century, and representation matters. These stories belong to everybody, not just a bunch of white dudes. Say what you will about the response to the response, but it follows its own (entirely predictable) patterns.

We should point out, here, that there’s no simple answer to this problem, for reasons that will quickly become apparent, but it’s important as story-consuming people to think about these things, and what they say about us, and what we can learn from this, so that maybe (okay, probably not, but we can dream) we don’t have to keep having the same arguments over and over again.

The problem here is the same problem you have when debating a societal issue of any other stripe. Abortion. Religion. Gay marriage. Trans issues.

That problem is: both sides are right.

Let’s pick a spicy one, to make sure to offend as many people as possible. Abortion. One side says it’s the woman’s body, so it’s the woman’s choice, and they’re right. The other says all life is sacred, that every new life should have a chance, and they’re right, too. Gay marriage? On one hand, two people who love each other should be able to enjoy the benefits that society offers to the married just like anybody else. On the other, if marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman, then calling a same-sex union a marriage is, by definition, wrong. (Personally, I think we need to abolish the concept of recognizing marriage through government institutions anyway — theoretically we have a separation of church and state in this country. That would unmake this whole issue, but it’s largely moot these days anyway. History moves on and the arc bends towards justice, or so they say.) The problem is that we get all territorial and tribal and we take bad-faith shots at the other side’s arguments and call them idiots and knuckle-draggers and anything else under the sun, and we try to make that comment that’s going to go viral, and we can’t compromise. We’ve forgotten how, in The Discourse.

Well, LOTR is the same. Dedicated, lifelong fans are right. Tolkien’s works were written by a white dude without much consideration for diversity, and possibly (probably?) with some assumptions that might not sit well with our collective consciences here, half a century and more on from when he set his tales down. To change the texts, to introduce characters outside of that mold, is, in fact, to change the texts themselves. But fans who want more inclusivity are also right: that the texts don’t represent the world we live in now, that the stories have appeal for a broader audience and, as a result, it would be nice to have a bit more inclusivity than the books did in their original form.

And you can already hear the arguments from both sides. “Why not make new stories with more diverse characters and casting needs — why do they have to change this one that’s already out there?” Well, that might be a good point … but no new series is going to have the brand appeal that LOTR has. It just can’t. New stories are great — and coming out all the time, by the way — but they’re not LOTR, and they can’t be. And from the other side — “why do these fans have to be so closed-minded and racist? Why do they have to pretend like they own everything?” But they’re not wrong — the original series actually is written that way.

Is there middle ground to be found between these two viewpoints? Almost certainly not, because we’re too conditioned by our echo chambers to seek out the support of those on our own side while scoring points at any cost against those guys over there.

It’s a depressingly obvious and probably unavoidable cycle. It played out with Star Wars, it’s playing out now with the LOTR series, and it will keep playing out as long as there are fandoms and social media and the internet and, probably, people.

I don’t actually have a solution for this problem at the macro level, because the problem doesn’t get solved at the macro level. It comes from one-on-one conversations and the commitment of the individual to stop shouting “OTHER SIDE BAD” for a minute and actually listen to what’s being said.

Our society just isn’t built for those conversations any more. It’s built for quippy one-liners, mic-drops, and dunking on the other side. And it’s a shame.

Sidenote and disclaimer: the world we’re in is changing, and media and filmmakers are changing with it. If you are bound and determined that your old stories remain what they are and never get changed to adapt to the times we’re living in … I have some unfortunate news to give you. That may or may not be right, but it is a fact. And life is just easier when you accept facts as facts. But that’s a whole other topic.


The Sprout is a Better Writer than Me, These Days


We gave my son a journal about a year ago on his birthday.

He was all excited about it at first, used it a couple of times, and then didn’t do a thing with it for months. No big deal, add it to the piles of toys we get for the kids that suffer the same fate — new, shiny, all-consuming, then forgotten and cluttering up the house and in the way.

Then, earlier this week, the sprout comes to me and asks if I want to read something he wrote in his journal.

Uh, yes, obviously.

“You can’t read the whole thing, dad. Some of it is private. But I want you to read this one.”

The whole thing, eh?

So, I read it. And it was fine. The kid, at nine, has an eye for detail and a straightforward style that, while it’s not exactly compulsory reading, it’s at least as engaging as you could hope for from somebody his age.

But of course, I did what I wasn’t supposed to do. I flipped through some of the other pages. Not to read, you understand, but just to see what the kid has been up to. And he’s filled pages and pages with this stuff, some of it absolute fluff, some of it screeds about how angry his little sister makes him (how much can really be said on the subject? You might ask. Quite a bit, as it turns out), some of it pure creative whimsy. His little journal is over half full, and he’s using it more and more by the day.

And it’s endearing, for pretty obvious reasons, but it’s humbling, too. Here goes a kid of nine years just writing for the pure unmitigated hell of it, and meanwhile I, who fancy myself a writer, have been scared of my own shadow in that department for the better part of a year.

Which is not to say I haven’t been writing in that time. I processed some more edits on the novel I may never finish. I still write (almost) every day in a dusty WriteMonkey file that will never see the light of day. But it has been ….quite some time since I wrote anything outward-facing. (Check the date-stamp of my last blog entry here for proof. (This is a thing I personally will not be doing!))

“Scared of my own shadow” is pretty apt for just now having thought of it that way. And I don’t have a good reason; in fact anything I could say would sound like the antithesis of everything that the oeuvre of this blog seems to espouse. (Don’t feel like it? Do it anyway. Feel like it’s dumb? Do it anyway. Not confident? Cry more, and do it anyway.) I am my own best cheerleader, and my own most crushing disappointment. But at the same time, I can’t just turn off the notions that what I write is trite, or overwrought, or uninformed, or just plain bad.

But if a nine-year-old can do it…

I don’t know what it is, but lately I’ve had to deal with plumbing issues a lot. Leaks here, blockages there. And like … the thing with plumbing is, if it’s not catastrophic, it’s easy to ignore. But by their very nature, plumbing problems don’t get better with time; they get worse. The drip becomes a trickle becomes a gusher. The slow drain gets slower until it stops entirely. And how much time and resources do you waste while ignoring the problem? How much annoyance and frustration do you choose to deal with on a daily basis just to avoid the unpleasantry of doing the work to fix it?

And how much better would things be on the other side of doing that work?

Anyway, all this metaphor is just a pretty way of saying I have allowed my slow drain to become a clog and then a full-blown impacted blockage. Which is not a great place to be, but you can’t get anywhere, no matter how good your maps and your skills may be, if you don’t know where you are.

The other thing about plumbing is, the only way to fix it — really fix it — is to take drastic measures. Empty out the space under the sink, disconnect the pipes and snake ’em out. Tear out the toilet that won’t stop leaking and put in a new one.

Or to put it in more general terms, if you want the situation to change, you have to get off your arse and change it.

What does this mean for this site?

I dunno yet.

But I’m at least going to stop treating this blog like the mad woman in the attic (we feed her, but we don’t talk about her).

See you soon.


These Regulations Have Teeth


People are weird.

This is a mantra and a truism worth remembering as you navigate the world, because it explains a lot of human behavior. Well, it doesn’t *explain* it, necessarily, or in fact at all, but what it *does* do is it allows you to stop driving yourself crazy searching for a proper explanation for the crazy stuff people do.

I could do a weekly — or in fact, daily — or scratch that, *hourly* post with examples, but sometimes the proper subject just jumps right up and punches you in the teeth.

Which is apparently exactly what an unruly passenger did on a Southwest flight in recent days.

I’m sorry, this is the sort of thing for which there is no excuse that will convince any rational person to side with you. If you’ve been alive in the era after 9/11 (which, if you’re reading this, congratulations, you are), you know that violence on an airplane, of any sort and to any degree, for virtually any reason, is a one-way ticket to being grounded for life, AKA getting blackballed by an airline and possibly incurring federal charges for your trouble. Unless you’re literally fighting off a terrorist, if you go violent on an airplane, you will not be arriving at your destination today.

Yet according to this article, not only did this recent incident happen (a passenger assaulting a flight attendant to the point of knocking out teeth), but incidents like this are widespread. Per the article, in the last year over 2500 incidents of unruly passengers have been reported by airlines, including over 1900 of them over mask mandates.

Look, folks, this is entitlement, pure and simple.

Personal beliefs and conspiracy leanings aside, if the airline has a mask mandate, then the only way to get out of it is by having a doctor’s note or finding another airline. You don’t get a pass because you feel the mask is a limitation on your personal freedom, in the same way you don’t get a pass on a “no shirt, no shoes, no service” sign, or a pass on paying the toll for the express turnpike, or even a pass through your high school geometry class just for showing up. The mask is part of the price of admission in this exchange.

Being asked to wear a mask in this situation does not impinge on your freedom, is not a violation of your constitutional rights, is not the tyranny of the woke left. It’s a public health measure. And your willful refusal to comply bespeaks, among other things, an utter disregard for the wellbeing of all the humans in your vicinity, to say nothing of your willingness to embrace repeatedly-disproven conspiracy theories.

Listen, I hate wearing masks as much as anybody, for purely selfish reasons. They’re a bit uncomfortable, certainly in the summer months they make my face too hot, and they make communication a little more difficult — in that some people speak softly to begin with and they can muffle your voice, and they remove the vital element of facial expressions from our social interactions.

But none of that is worth throwing a fit over being asked to wear a mask. And none of that comes anywhere close to worth throwing fists and getting escorted (read: arrested) off a plane.

Then again, if you feel that strongly about the masks in the first place, maybe you’re just hoping somebody calls you on it so you can fire up some righteous indignation and maybe earn yourself 15 minutes of fame as the latest oppressed patriot on Fox News.

Which might be nice.

But you still won’t be flying again anytime soon.


Optimistic Nihilism


A student of mine just dropped an H-bomb of a term on me: Optimistic Nihilism.

This is not a term (and yeah, okay, it’s two terms, but … just … I mean … come on) I was familiar with before this, and I don’t know how, because it sums up my philosophy perfectly.

I’m an atheist, if you didn’t know, and along with that atheism comes the sense that there is no grand, divine purpose for existence — mine or anybody else’s, up to and including the entire human race. There’s no “reason” why we’re here outside of the fact that somehow life got started on this planet and after a few billion years in the martini shaker, we popped out the other side. Once you embrace that idea, it is a very short step indeed to come to the conclusion that nothing we do matters. One needs only consider this image, famously called the “pale blue dot”, from Voyager I as it flew past Saturn into the outer reaches of the solar system in 1990.

Voyager 1's Pale Blue Dot | NASA Solar System Exploration
For further inspiration/soul-crushing despair (depending on your predisposition), read Carl Sagan’s take on this picture.

When you consider that, from another vantage point, even a relatively close one in our galactic neighborhood, the Earth is nothing more than a speck, it is hard to see how human actions could make any difference at all in the scope of the universe.

This is hard to stomach, for some. So difficult is it, that Douglas Adams used it as a form of mental torture in a device called the “Total Perspective Vortex” in his Hitchhiker’s series. (Please to be reading it if you haven’t already.) The TPV, when entered by a victim, would immediately demonstrate to that victim their utter insignificance in the universe and reduce them to a babbling, psychologically disintegrated wreck.

So, there’s your nihilism. Nothing we do matters, our lives will come to nothing and those who knew us will themselves die and be forgotten, and none of it will make any difference.

I can’t make a difference on the scale of the universe, or the galaxy, or the solar system, or even on a scale as (relatively) small as our planet or our home country. But I *am* here, and I’m alive *now*, and I have other people in my life who I love and who love me, and maybe for the little time I have, I can bring some happiness to them and they can bring some to me. And we can make this life, which we all seem to be sharing (let’s steer away from the murky waters of solipsism today), a little less meaningless.

So there’s your optimism.

Optimistic Nihilism.

It’s got a bit of a ring to it.


The Training Wheels Problem


Our oldest took his first bike ride without training wheels this weekend.

He’s 9, which is old for that step I guess, but our house isn’t the most conducive to practicing bicycle riding and he had never been particularly motivated to pick it up, so it was no big deal … this year, though, he and little sister have the bug and we’ve been going to the local soccer field and doing laps in the parking lot.

(By the way, and just as an aside, the build quality on kids’ bikes is garbage. It feels like we can hardly go five minutes without a pedal unscrewing itself (seriously, what engineering genius threaded it so that it spins WITH the natural pedaling motion instead of AGAINST) or the chain jumping a tooth on the gear and falling off (that one I *might* attribute to the sprout’s bombastic way of “crashing” when he wants to stop…. he’s not exactly gentle on the machine).)

So we’ve been going out for several weeks, and they’re gaining in confidence, like they do, as he’s riding on the training wheels. And the training wheels are … they’re this double-edged sword, right? They keep you from losing your balance and falling over entirely, but they also inhibit the natural function and physics of the bicycle. (It’s impossible to take a sharp turn at any speed greater than a crawl, because on a bicycle you have to lean into the turn, and … well, the trainers don’t allow you to lean.)

This is the training wheels problem: they allow you to do a thing that you may not yet have the skill to do, but they don’t give you the full experience of the thing. If you lean on them too long, they actually stop you from getting better.

And I’m watching, and he’s getting surer and surer of himself, and I’m watching, and on this last pass around the parking lot, the trainers don’t touch down on the ground even once. So, okay, it’s time for those things to come off.

I tell him so.

He freaks.

I’m not ready, dad. I still need them. I’m gonna crash. I can’t keep my balance yet.

“You *are* ready, kid. I watched you ride a hundred yards without using them… you just can’t feel it. You’re ready.”

I’m not, dad. Please don’t take them off. I need to use them for a few more weeks.

This is where parenting gets weird, because you want to respect the kid’s wishes, and what’s a few more weeks? If it’ll make him feel better, what’s the big deal? But you also know things the kid can’t know — namely that these things are doing him more harm than good at this point — so what do you do?

In my case, I tell him.

“Nah, buddy. Next time we come out here, those things are coming off.”

He thinks it over.

Okay, well, if you’re going to take them off next time, can I try just once without them, with you helping me?

“What, right now?”

Yeah.

As the cool kids say these days? BET. I’ve got the ol’ crescent wrench in the van. I whip them thangs off lickety-split. His eyes get big as they clatter to the ground. (I don’t bother setting them down gently; I let them fall dramatically, and allow them to make a ton of noise, because I’m theatrical like that.) I walk the bike over to him.

“All right. Hop on. I’ve got you.”

Don’t let go, okay?

And here’s the lie every parent in this situation tells their kid: “You bet.”

He starts to pedal, I give him a little push, and immediately let him go. He takes off like a shot, loops around the parking lot. I jog to keep up, but it’s never in doubt; he’s 100% dialed-in. He zooms. He leans. He doesn’t crash, not even close. And from there, it’s a total reversal of energy:

Did you see me? Wasn’t that awesome? Did you see how fast I went? Were you watching me lean? I didn’t think I could do it, but then I did it!

This is not exactly a subtle metaphor. It gets re-used all the time, nowhere so heavy-handedly, or adorably, as in Onward, the most recent Pixar film to make me cry. Ian, the younger brother, is learning to use magic, but he lacks confidence along with knowledge. His brother, Barley, knows all about magic but can’t use it. The two need to cross a chasm, and this can only be accomplished by means of magic, so Barley convinces young Ian to try out a levitation spell with the assurance that he’ll keep a rope tied around the young man’s waist, just in case the spell fails. Well, the spell works, and the rope runs out of slack and comes untied, and Ian makes it to the other side entirely out of the safe grasp of his brother… and realizes, safe on the other side (okay, he falls a little bit because movies gotta complicate everything), that he didn’t need the support at all.

And this is the way, right? We use these safeties to teach kids how to do things, and then we slowly take the constraints away. This is education 101. Heck, it’s even how we do bowling with little kids now: those bumpers on the sides of the lanes? They’re just training wheels to keep you from throwing a gutter ball every time you take the line, to give you the kick of knocking some pins over, that dopamine hit to bring you back to the line and throw it a little bit better next time, until you don’t need them at all anymore.

We use training wheels, like we use all safety constructs, to keep ourselves from crashing too hard when we’re learning a thing… but who’s there to tell us when to take them off? When you learn new things as an adult, most of the time you’re learning them on your own. And maybe you put your own “training wheels” in place to one degree or another.

But if you want to really ride, you have to take them off sooner or later. Because we all know that riding a bike with trainers on isn’t really riding a bike. Somebody riding a bike with training wheels is capable of so much more.

Where, in our lives, are we relying on training wheels without even knowing it?

And what would we be capable of, if we just had somebody to take our training wheels off?

Child, Tricycle, Play, Drive, Bike, Bicycle, Toy

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