A Roman Boat Trip to Nowhere

Most of us aren’t doing a lot of traveling these days, what with the pandemic restrictions. Some people are missing the travel experience so much they’re paying for flights to nowhere, but it’s good to be reminded that travel can also be a real pain—uncomfortable accommodations, bad food, rude fellow passengers, awkward schedules, and the like.

Travel could be just as difficult in the past, too. Here’s the Roman poet Horace’s description of an unintentional canal boat trip to nowhere to remind you of what you’re (not) missing.

[…] An hour went by in taking fares
and hitching up the mule. The vile marsh midges and frogs
kept sleep at bay; all the while a boatman, sloshed on cheap wine,
competed with a passenger in crooning to absent
girlfriends. At last, worn out, the passenger went to sleep
and the lazy boatman hitched the mule to a rock
to graze, then flopped down and snored.
When morning dawned we realized the old tub
wasn’t moving, not until some hothead jumped up and gave
the mule and boatman both a good thrashing about the head and hindquarters
with a willow switch. […]

– Horace, Satires 1.5.13-23

(My own translation)

Enjoy the pleasures of just staying home!

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Quotes: We Humans Need Cinema, as a Collective Experience

Director Denis Villeneuve (whom I know from Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) talks about the decision made by Warner Brothers to release their new movies concurrently in theaters plus their streaming platform in an interview with Variety:

“I strongly believe the future of cinema will be on the big screen, no matter what any Wall Street dilettante says. Since the dawn of time, humans have deeply needed communal storytelling experiences. Cinema on the big screen is more than a business, it is an art form that brings people together, celebrating humanity, enhancing our empathy for one another — it’s one of the very last artistic, in-person collective experiences we share as human beings.

“Once the pandemic is over, theaters will be filled again with film lovers.

“That is my strong belief. Not because the movie industry needs it, but because we humans need cinema, as a collective experience.”

This is a hairy situation. I fully agree with Villeneuve in that the theater experience—both movies and traditional plays, not to mention concerts of all varieties—was created with the physical presence of masses in mind, and, indeed, it benefits enormously from our physicality.

Technology has drastically changed how many things can be achieved digitally instead of physically. However, the fact has not changed that we are physical beings and crave physical experiences. There’s nothing quite like being drawn into a story and hearing the crowd around you reacting to it with you. (Think of sports events if you’re a sports fan.)

At the same time, however, I cannot but applaud the decision from an accessibility point of view. Personally, I literally understand and enjoy movies much, much better when I can access subtitling or captioning (and this is before the reduced hearing that’s in my family’s genes has really affected me; subtitles will only get more important for me in the future). And despite the theaters Erik and I usually visited in the Before Times being physically accessible, I have also visited theaters that aren’t, or theaters that have inaccessible bathrooms, or theaters that have bad seating.

Of course, one doesn’t have to have a disability or chronic conditions to enjoy streaming brand new movies. Coming from a large family I know herding kids in and out of theaters isn’t always easy. And there have been times I might have wanted to see a movie, but it would’ve meant slogging back out after a long day, waiting for a bus to take me downtown (or riding my bike in the wind and the rain) and all of it back again afterwards, so instead I stayed comfortably home.

There are a number of ways in which streaming content immediately on release day will benefit ordinary folks of all kind. At the same time, I do hope, most fervently, that movies made for the big screen do not disappear. For me, like for Villeneuve, they’re one of the major cultural features of 20th and 21st centuries.

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Quotes: The Rigid Rules of My Life Were Stories

This is a thought that’s very easy to pass with a shrug and an “Of course”:

“It was ironic, wasn’t it, Solís? I was not even aware that the rigid rules of my life were stories, passed on from generation to generation because that’s all we knew. Tía Inez believed it, and la cuentista before her did, too. And so, we gave every cuentista of Empalme the same rules, the same restrictions, and we held them down, and we forced them into a life they couldn’t possibly have chosen.”

–Xochital in Mark Oshiro’s Each of Us a Desert [original emphasis]

But it gets very different very fast when you start thinking of everything, absolutely everything, that’s involved in your daily life. Start with how you’re brought up, kindergarten, school, and on. Or travel a bit further away from your home, or are able to talk with a stranger who trusts you with their life story.

For instance, I’m pretty sure that the sweater I’m wearing right now is “supposed” to be a boy’s. I saw it in a second-hand shop, liked the colors and print, liked the size, liked the price even more, and bought it. It’s a sweater; it kept me warm and left money in my pocket as a poor student. It still fits my “supposedly” “wrong” shape well enough after all the years I’ve had it. Who cares who is supposed to wear it?

Twitter CatCafeLiverpool Cat Fits Cat Sits

If it fits, I sits… err, wears. Me wearing this sweater isn’t hurting anything or anyone. But, of course, little things like an article of clothing can symbolically stand for larger issues, and those, as we all know, can really be thorny.

Humans really are storytelling animals.

Oshiro, Mark. Each of Us a Desert. New York: Tor, 2020, p. 374-5.

Images: Each of Us a Desert by Eppu Jensen. Cat in a box via Cat Cafe Liverpool.

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Now It Is Time to Drink!

If you’re feeling celebratory today, here’s a little verse from the Roman poet Horace to put you in the right mood. Horace was celebrating the defeat of Marcus Antonius in the last phase of the Roman republic’s long-running civil wars of the first century BCE (although, for political reasons, focusing most of his scorn on Antonius’ Egyptian ally, Cleopatra). But you can drink and dance for whatever is making you happy today!

 Now it is time to drink! Now with liberated feet
dance upon the earth! Now the sumptuous
feast of the gods
can be spread, my friends!

Before this, the time was not right to bring the good Caecuban wine
up from the ancient cellars, not while the insane queen
schemed to bring death and ruin
to the Capitol and our state

with her foul throng of thugs,
drunk with vain hopes
of sweet
victory.

– Horace, Odes 1.37.1-12

(My own translation)

Enjoy!

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Quotes: A Human Being with Hope Can Continue on Far Longer

In The Light Brigade, what I consider her most mature work yet, Kameron Hurley gives her protagonist Dietz this monologue about hope’s role in shaping human behavior:

“There’s a huge mental release in knowing there is an end to pain. A human being with hope can continue on far longer than one without. Did you know those who are mildly depressed see the world more accurately? Yet they don’t live as long as optimists. Aren’t as successful. It turns out that being able to perceive actual reality has very little long-term benefit. It’s those who believe in something larger than themselves who thrive. We all seem to need a little bit of delusion to function in the world. That belief can be about anything, too. Could be a god, a corporation, a society, like our various militaries instill. A sense of belonging. Could be national pride. Or the desire to make the world a better place. Or see the world burn. Personal or political. But … something bigger. Something greater.”

– Dietz in Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade

We’re six to seven months into the covid-19 pandemic, depending on your definition of the epidemic start date in the western world. I could use some mental release right about now, and I know I’m not alone.

Alas, as far as we know, nothing specific is in the pipe to be released very soon. But there is hope!

Obi-Wan Patience

The good news is that by all accounts SARS-CoV-2 will respond to a vaccine. The bad news is that we need to wait and be patient, stay home as much as possible; and when we cannot, keep a safe distance, practice good sneezing hygiene, wear masks, and wash our hands.

Star Wars Stay on Target

Stay on target. Stay safe. We will prevail.

Hurley, Kameron. The Light Brigade. New York: Saga Press, 2019, p. 116.

Images: Obi-Wan Patience via Giphy. Stay on Target via Giphy.

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Quotes: I Like to Get Lost in a World

I’ve been struggling to put to words why I usually don’t like reading short fiction that much. Sean Guynes hit the spot exactly and succinctly:

“As a rule, I don’t particularly like short fiction. Before the gasps of heresy overtake me, let me explain: I like big stories, I like to get lost in a world, to become part of the milieu of characters the author is bringing to life. Short stories can offer this and many novels don’t.” [emphasis original]

– Sean Guynes at Tor.com

Bingo. I know that excellent short stories, novelettes, or novellas do exist. Indeed, I have read them, and even own some of the latter. It’s just that often there isn’t enough space to start appreciating the nuances of the world (or characters, especially) in shorter fiction.

At times, of course, it’s just a plain lack of skill on the part of an author, but that’s a whole another story.

Guynes, Sean. “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Part I: Le Guin’s Early Stories and Germinative Tales.” Tor.com, August 12, 2020.

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Quotes: Any Man Who Judges by the Group is a Pea-wit

We’ve been watching some Lincoln documentaries and movies plus various Lincoln-adjacent media recently. This LOL-worthy moment comes from the movie Gettysburg:

Gettysburg Pea-Wit

“Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit.”

– Sergeant Buster Kilrain in Gettysburg by Ron Maxwell

Context: union soldiers Sergeant Buster Kilrain (pictured) and Colonel Chamberlain were having a discussion on the racism that Black people experience. (Apparently this Kilrain is an invented character.)

Well, he put it concisely and politely!

I can’t say I knew much at all about the U.S. Civil War, but during this Lincoln spell of ours I have learned much, including about Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, and feel very co-proud—their resilience at Little Round Top really reminds me of the Finnish Winter War. Go, small northern states with obstinate, resourceful populations!

Image: screencap from Gettysburg (1993; directed by Ron Maxwell, based on the book by Michael Shaara, screenplay by Ron Maxwell)

P.S. In case anyone’s interested, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a surprisingly good bad movie.

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Quote: Something that You Have Longed For Without Hope

If something happens that you have longed for and desired without
hope, it is a blessing to your soul.
So it is a blessing to us, more precious than gold,
that you long for me again, Lesbia.
You long for me without hope; you bring yourself back
to me. What a red-letter day!
Who leads a happier life than mine? Who can say
that life has given him a greater gift?

– Catullus, Poems 107

(My own translation)

I think a lot of us now know what it is like to long for something almost without hope, even if it is not for the return of a former lover. One thing I have longed for this past spring is the long days of summer when the sun lingers in the sky and we can enjoy warm evening breezes.

Whatever it is you are longing for now, I hope this summer brings it to you.

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Quotes: Reading Books for Free Didn’t Kill the Publishing Business

By this writing, after the government relaxed some of the covid-19 restrictions / recommendations, some of my native country Finland’s libraries have already opened, and others are preparing to open.

My Finland Kirjasto in Helsinki

“I love a library. The idea of reading books for free didn’t kill the publishing business; on the contrary, it created nations of literate and passionate readers. Shared interests and the impulse to create.”

– David Byrne, musician and author

Judging by my family, friends, and social media bubble, the openings are very welcome, even though at this stage you can’t really spend time in a library yet (they’re only open for picking up materials, not for lounging or programming). Visiting the library is also at the top of my list of things to do after the Stay at Home Advisory is no more!

Stories are such a huge part of our lives, and we like to talk about them regardless of the shape they’re in. What remains to be seen is how moving increasingly towards digital media will affect physical libraries.

Quote attributed to David Byrne at The Guardian, July 17, 2015; found via American Libraries November / December 2015, p. 28.

Image by Eppu Jensen

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Quotes: Almost None […] Depict a Successful Transformation of Society

Cara Buckley’s 2019 article in New York Times talks about how environmental concerns have been depicted in some recent superhero and sci-fi movies. Climate change may have been moved to the back burner in recent news; nevertheless, in the beginning of the article there is a very important, timely nugget:

“Humans ruined everything. They bred too much and choked the life out of the land, air and sea.

“And so they must be vaporized by half, or attacked by towering monsters, or vanquished by irate dwellers from the oceans’ polluted depths. Barring that, they face hardscrabble, desperate lives on a once verdant Earth now consumed by ice or drought.

“That is how many recent superhero and sci-fi movies — among them the latest Avengers and Godzilla pictures as well as ‘Aquaman,’ ‘Snowpiercer,’ ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ ‘Interstellar’ and ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ — have invoked the climate crisis. They imagine postapocalyptic futures or dystopias where ecological collapse is inevitable, environmentalists are criminals, and eco-mindedness is the driving force of villains.

“But these takes are defeatist, critics say, and a growing chorus of voices is urging the entertainment industry to tell more stories that show humans adapting and reforming to ward off the worst climate threats.

“’More than ever, they’re missing the mark, often in the same way,’ said Michael Svoboda, a writing professor at George Washington University and author at the multimedia site Yale Climate Connections. ‘Almost none of these films depict a successful transformation of society.’ [emphasis added]”

Even though a pandemic is a very different kind of beast compared to apocalyptic-level climate catastrophes, the current covid-19 epidemic can surely feel like a devastation. I’ve certainly seen my share of panicky social media messages.

We’ve recently started re-watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and this line veritably jumped out:

ST DS9 s3 ep18 Distant Voices

“It’s just that… this year is a little different.”

Indeed—this year is different. Unlike good Doctor Bashir’s, though, our situation is a little more dire than turning thirty years of age.

Right now there’s no long-term data available, so any estimates of the long-term effects are guesses—at best cautious, at worst wild—but every opinion I’ve seen says the world will change as a consequence. And as a nerd, that interest me.

I can’t think of many speculative stories off the top of my head where the society has adjusted in a way that focuses on our shared humanity. On the contrary, most of them cannot seem to be able to find much good in human behavior during crises. Since social collapse at the beginning of a disaster is a myth, I’d like to see more stories concentrating on people working together. (That is my favorite kind of story for a reason, after all.)

There is one thing I do know, though, limited in scope as it is: I will be most seriously displeased if writers and producers of the future fail to learn from witnessing the amount of cooperation and outpouring of help people are providing not only their own communities but also strangers.

Buckley, Cara. “Why Is Hollywood So Scared of Climate Change?” New York Times, August 14, 2019.

Image: screencap from season 3 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, episode “Distant Voices”.

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