The fantastic familiar, as viewed from atop a hill.

There is a bend in I-94, just past Zeeb, as I head out of Ann Arbor, going west.

It marks the boundary of my territory—the area that I know best. I know that beyond Zeeb lies adventure.

There’s aways a landmark to border my territory. When I was younger, that border was a line of pine trees. They rose beyond the edge of our property, beyond even the edge of our neighbor’s property, because ours sloped down a hill, and then theirs sloped up a hill, and then there were the pine trees, and beyond them the sky. And somehow, even though I knew as part of me, that concealed behind those pine trees was a house or two, a private dirt road leading down to Textile, and some farmer fields, what I believed was that on the other side of those pine trees lay Narnia.

When I lived in Germany, the boarder of my territory was a tiny town called Altdorf. I could see it from my balcony, perhaps half a mile or a mile from the house where I lived. When I went walking, I walked in the territory between Altdorf and Holzgerlingen, amid farmer fields, with a few trees, some nice roads. I only actually walked as far as Altdorf once or twice. Never beyond. And although I remember Altdorf as being a pretty (if otherwise unremarkable) little town, I also remember it as a place I consciously, and for no particular reason, never went, simply because it was beyond my territory.

In Edinburgh, I remember first arriving and feeling the clostrophobia of only truly knowing a few blocks worth of space. My world felt so small. Eventually, my territory grew to encompass the distance in which I could comfortably walk in a large circuit in a single day: from my flat, to the Royal Mile, down to Hollyrood Palace, up Arthur’s Seat, down the other side, as far south as Blackford Hill. I used to sit on Blackford hill and look out toward the Pentlands.

And even though I knew that beyond the Pentlands lay Lothian, and the Borders, and England, what I truly believed—and to some extent still do—was that there lay Narnia.

The Extraordinary Heroism of Sir William Topaz McGonagall

Recently, I’ve come to love the idiom “put your money where your mouth is.”

Basically, it means “do what you say you will,” but I like to think of it in terms of stated preference vs. revealed preference.

If you aren’t familiar with those ideas, they basically mean “what you say you want” vs. “what you actually want as indicated by your behavior.”

i.e.: I say I want to become fluent in 12 languages, but I actually want to spend my free time reading about Taylor Swift’s style evolution on BuzzFeed.

Someone once suggested to me that a great deal of happiness depends on the gap between your stated and revealed preferences. So I set out this summer to close that gap in my own life by sending myself to Austria for two months to try to up my German proficiency. I set out three very simple goals for my trip:

  • Sustain myself financially through my freelance writing
  • Learn German
  • Don’t be miserable

It’s been a questionable two weeks: I’ve barely gotten enough work done to keep up with my deadlines, the German is foundering, and I’ve been fighting the usual uphill battle against crippling homesickness (which could take several blog posts in its own right, because it’s hard to justify feeling down when you’re in a gorgeous city and essentially living the dream).

In short, I feel as if I have set myself up for very public failure. It’s not a comfortable prospect.

All of which brings me to the titular hero of this post.

At some point during my Edinburgh years, I came across one of Scotland’s most infamous poets, Sir William Topaz McGonagall, fantastically titled “Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah,” who bears the distinction of having written possibly the worst poem ever to be published in the English language. It is impossible to read about Sir William’s life without developing a sort of fondness for him. The poor man was a godawful poet, although he somehow remained blissfully ignorant of the fact his entire life, despite often performing in front of crowds who were allowed to hurl eggs, herring, and stale bread at him during his recitals.

But the point here is: Sir William actually was a poet. He wrote poems. He staked his reputation on his ability, and he gained a reputation for being “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius.” But he was more of a poet than anyone else who spends their life dreaming of writing poetry and never actually doing it.

By all this, I don’t mean: “keep trying because if you put in enough effort you will eventually succeed.” Trying at anything would be a hell of a lot easier if you were guaranteed success at the end. What I do mean is: failure is better than not trying. And not temporary failure, either: total, definitive proof that you are bad at something you staked your entire identity on being good at is better than spending your whole life saying you’re going to be great at your supposed passion and then watching Netflix instead.

Granted, Sir William was also delusional, and perhaps would have lived a better life had he been more self-aware. But his poetry is a concrete fact of existence: he actually wrote it, which makes it more real than the conceptual poetry of those who say they will write poems but never actually do.

Stated vs. revealed preferences says nothing about the quality of the work you produce, the lesson is simply that you should either do the things you say you are going to do, or else you should stop saying you are going to do them. Do or do not.

And fail spectacularly if you have to.

Keeping my friends close

One day, a few years ago, I got on Facebook and found out that someone I knew and cared about had died.

We weren’t in close contact. She lived in a different country, and while I’d seen her a few months previously, we had barely spoken. There’s a small chance I might have seen her again someday. A much greater chance I would never have seen her again at all. And then she died, and even though it’s been over four years, some days I still get pretty down about it.

Without Facebook, I might never have known the end to her story. Some days I’m grateful. Somedays, not so much.

In the past, most of us lived our lives blissfully ignorant of the ultimate fate of our brief acquaintances. We had to work to maintain our distant connections. We had to really care in order to find out what happened to them. Now, our past relationships—however transient the connection in person—live on well past their expiration date. Until they don’t.

I recently culled my Facebook friend group for possibly the first time. My criteria was: if you died tomorrow, would I care?

I went from 498 friends to 473.

That’s a lot of people who could die and make me sad. But also a lot of people who have touched my life for the better. So I’m trying to make a habit of remembering why I keep these connections in my life. If I see someone’s shared an interesting article, or gone through a major life event, or liked my post, I take a few seconds to think about that one positive memory that keeps them on my friend list:

That class we took together.
The taxi ride we shared.
Those few months we were coworkers.
The drink they bought me which I never managed to reciprocate.

There’s a lot in the world to be scared about these days. A lot that can tear you down and rip you to pieces. So keep your friends close, and forget about your enemies.

action and identity

I wrote a blog post on “finding yourself” recently, and I discovered an interesting word exercise. Think about this:

When we define ourselves, we usually use a word construction that goes: “I” + present tense “to be” + noun.

E.g.:

I am a writer.
I am an artist.
I am a sister.
I am an adventurer.
I am a linguist.

I somewhat hate this passive, present-tense verb-of-existence form of identification. One does not verb anything other than “being.” Boring. Static.

We hang our essence on the peg of some other noun.

Try instead:

I write.
I draw.
I love my family.
I travel.
Languages fascinate me.

Doesn’t what we do say more about who we are?

What I saw from the sun in my window

A spider lives in my room.

It spun a thread across an unexpected intersection of wall and door and floor, a single, long strand which I walked through the other day without noticing, and now it drifts in the breeze of my fan, one end anchored to my carpet, intermittently catching the light as it sways in and out of visibility, like an impossibly thin nylon fishing line, adrift and lure-less in the ocean—a thing of distracting, ethereal beauty.

Book Review: The Floating Islands

Rating: 3/5

When I was 14, I started writing a fantasy story set in a world of floating islands about a boy who tries to stow away on a merchant ship, jumps overboard to avoid capture by pirates, and gets clocked over the head by his Amazonian future love-interest. Throughout high school my story morphed to eventually include more steam punk elements until I eventually shelved it as being too juvenile and requiring extensive edits to plot and character.

This is basically the book I wanted to write at fourteen.

Which is a wonderful thing.

It’s actually really nice to see a book that feels so appropriate for its audience as a light summer read (or a mid-semester read, for those us who burned through the assigned reading with time to spare). If you ever were into the video game Skies of Arcadia (which I certainly was at about that age, as my sketchbook could readily testify), this is suitably nostalgic.

My three criticisms:

1) The writing quality, at its best leaves you feeling whelmed. Not over- or underwhelmed, merely: whelmed.

2) Fails the Bechdel Test. I mean, maybe not actually: I think Areané argues with her mother about the latter’s expectations of her as a daughter, which is still tangentially about men. This is the only conversation of substance the mother takes part in for the entire book. She is almost the only other female character with lines. For the second two-thirds of the book, Areané is the only female character period. For how heavy-handed the author is in relaying the unfairness of a society that places rigid restrictions on people based solely on gender, she does an awfully good job dropping every other woman in her city.

3) A lot of authors seem to struggle to keep the dynamics straight between their different characters, and this is no exception. You, the author, might super like your main character, but you must remember to restrain that good will in the characters who have no reason to be so interested in your protagonist’s well-being. Also, the relationships between her male characters are not convincing. Men and women authors both struggle to accurately represent the opposite sex at times. I feel a decent number succeed, at least to a causally convincing degree. Not in this instance.

Book Review: Red Mars (Mars Trilogy, Book #1)

Rating: 5/5

Epic future histories make for some of my favorite reading, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s chronicle of Man’s initial colonization of Mars satisfies this itch entirely.

In Robinson’s universe, no single hero can control events on a massive scale: those with the hubris to try are swept away in the political and elemental forces created by their own short-sighted predictions. To be mildly pretentious for a moment, I would argue that he stands in philosophical opposition to Atlas Shrugged, not only in dismantling elitism, but through the intentional muddling of moral and ethical positions. There are better and worse characters, but the best are divided over painfully valid yet intrinsically opposed viewpoints. Not just one or two, but four or five or six.

Robinson’s writing varies in quality, or perhaps the wavering standards are meant to reflect the intellectual and emotional abilities of the rotating cast of third-person narrators. Mars, however, remains the focal point, and Robinson hits peak eloquence when describing the geological features and cataclysms of the planet. Prominent landmarks of the Martian terrain such as Elysium, the Tharsis Bulge, and the Valles Marineris fill such a central role that the plot feels no more than an excuse to allow the reader to witness the tremendous glory of a surreal and changing planet.

If you don’t want to travel to Mars by the end of this novel, you’ve missed the point.