Mangling Spanish: A Beginner’s Guide

One of my new year’s resolutions was to improve my Spanish, and I’ve finally resumed my linguistic studies. How have I chosen to study? In the same way all great scholars do, of course.

I’m watching cartoons.

Specifically, I’m watching the Spanish language dub of Avatar: The Last Airbender, my all-time favorite show. It’s a wonderful way to study. Just hearing spoken Spanish again is working wonders for my vocabulary, grammar and syntax.

My studies have reminded me of the linguistic horror stories (or comedies, depending on your point of view) I’ve heard from acquaintances in my homeland of Ecuador.

For example, there was a gentleman who asked for sopa to wash his hands. He meant soap. He received soup.

There was a lady who tried to explain that she had been embarrassed by a pastor, and used the word embarazada because of its similarity to the English word embarrassed. What she announced by mistake was that the pastor had made her pregnant.

Another lady wanted to ride a horse without a rope attached to its bridle, and asked the owner whether she might have permission to mount his horse without the ropa. This greatly alarmed the owner, since ropa is Spanish for clothes.

My favorite story comes from the husband of one of my middle school teachers. One day a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to his door. He informed them in faltering Spanish that he did not care to hear about Jehovah’s Witnesses, and was baffled at how angrily they departed.

Only later did he realize that instead of calling them Testigos de Jehová, Jehovah’s Witnesses, he had mistakenly called them Testículos de Jehová—Jehovah’s Testicles.

Not every story is a painful one. A favorite of mine is that of an interpreter asked to translate the following joke into Spanish for an audience: “What did the ocean say to the beach? Nothing. It just waved.”

This awful joke, a play on words, works only in English.

That brilliant interpreter didn’t let that stop him. Without missing a beat, he translated the question into Spanish and answered it with a new punchline: “Hola!”

This Spanish word for hello sounds exactly like ola, the word for wave. That, dear reader, is pretty dashed clever.

I haven’t made any truly memorable mistakes in Spanish, but that’s all right. I’m already quite good enough at making a fool of myself in English.


This post was originally published on September 2, 2013. TMTF shall return with new content on January 19, 2015!

329. The Post of Resolutions Yet to Come

All right. I’ve reviewed my resolutions for 2014. What of the year ahead? What resolutions have I made for being a better, nicer, wiser person?

Here are my resolutions for 2015.

I will be more intentional in keeping my New Year’s resolutions.

Full disclosure: I make an effort at the start of each year to keep my New Year’s resolutions, and I forget by the end of each year whatever the heck it was that I had resolved to do. I often keep New Year’s resolutions by dint of trying generally to be a better person, not by remembering and keeping specific goals. In the new year, I’ll be intentional in keeping my resolutions—this one included!

I will work on my Spanish.

This is an old resolution, which I mostly failed to keep. My grasp of the Spanish language was never a strong one, and it has only weakened in the six and a half years since I left Ecuador. This will be the year I dust off my old Avatar: The Last Airbender DVDs, pop ’em in my laptop, and watch the Spanish dub of the entire series. After all, cartoons make learning fun bearable!

Spanish teacher

Yes, I will learn Spanish from this irresponsible cartoon twelve-year-old. Teach me, O bald one!

I will practice spinning an old broomstick.

A few people know of my talent for twirling old broomsticks like some sort of janitorial ninja. I haven’t really practiced this useless gift in the past few years. It’s high time I get some regular fresh air and exercise spinning my broomstick in the local park… even if it means little Amish children lining up in a neat, silent row to stare at me. (This really happened, and it was even more awkward than it sounds.)

I will have a more positive attitude.

I am a pessimist, and also a cheerful person. At the root of my paradoxical pessimism is the fact that cheerfulness and hopefulness are not the same thing. Beneath my silliness and sense of humor there is generally a negative outlook and an attitude of defeat. (It’s no coincidence that many humorists, from Mark Twain to James Thurber, were deeply melancholy men.) I will try in the new year not merely to be cheerful, but to trust, and to hope, and to persevere.

The face of a pessimist

This is truly the face of a pessimist.

I will research career options.

Despite having an English Education degree and a teacher’s license, I’ve finally admitted to myself that I don’t want to be a teacher—at least not in a US public school setting. Fortunately, there are other options open for someone with experience in English Education and a writing addiction. While I’m not planning to move on quite yet, this will be the year I figure out where I might go from here.

I will value prayer more.

I don’t value prayer enough. As an orthodox Christian, I believe it’s the single most important thing I do every day. However, in years past, I’ve made prayer just another item on my daily to-do list—and generally the first thing to be cut when I get busy. In the new year, I mean to honor God by honoring prayer.

Do you have any resolutions for the new year that you’re willing to share? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks for reading! If you have a moment, please check out TMTF’s charity fundraisers this month and make the new year awesome for a person in need!

303. About Storytelling: Temporary Death

Death is one of life’s few absolute certainties. Others include taxes and the fact that every person will, at some point, step in a puddle of water on the bathroom floor while wearing socks. Yes, life can be cruel.

Death is inevitable. For the most part, even fiction acknowledges this. What some stories don’t guarantee is that characters will stay dead. I’ve discussed how to kill off fictional characters, and even mentioned temporary death as a video game cliché, but I think it’s still worth taking a look at how characters in some stories recover from death as easily as getting over a cold.

There are endless possibilities for cheating death in fiction, going all the way back to classical mythology. In Greco-Roman myths, death was a literal place from which a surprising number of people managed to escape: Heracles and Orpheus, among others.

The past few decades have given us an endless array of methods for cheating death, especially in geekier media like comics, video games, and fantasy fiction.

Here are some of my favorites.

Be ye warned, here there be minor spoilers.

Time travel

How often dead characters have been restored to life because someone went back in time to rescue them! Thanks to the butterfly effect, tiny decisions in the past can have huge consequences in the future. Probably my favorite example of time travel resurrecting a dead character comes from Chrono Trigger, pretty much the greatest RPG ever made, in which characters travel to the exact moment of a man’s death to save his life.

Superhero comics

There is no single explanation for this one—comic book characters are revived in such a staggering variety of ways that I can’t even begin to list them all. A mutant’s seeming death triggers her evolution into a more advanced mutant. A superhero’s innate healing abilities pull him back from the brink of death. A villain fakes his death by a stupidly elaborate scheme. Really, the possibilities are countless.

Magic

When in doubt, magic is the ultimate deus ex machina. Magic is mysterious and inexplicable by its very nature. If a writer resurrects characters by magic, who is there to argue? Miracles, such as the triumphant return of Aslan or Gandalf, fall into this category, which also includes medicines like the chocolate-coated pill from The Princess Bride.

Supposed to be dead

What? I’m supposed to be dead? Well, this is awkward.

Technology

By technology I mean magic as it is called in sci-fi stories. Let’s face it: advanced technology and supernatural magic are practically the same thing in some science fiction.

Reincarnation

This metaphysical concept has been lifted from various religions and adapted to everything from Avatar: The Last Airbender to Doctor Who. (The Doctor’s regeneration is basically sci-fi reincarnation.) Characters may technically die, but reincarnation allows the narrative to bring them back.

Afterlives

This brings us to ghosts, phantoms, and other not-alive states of being. Again, even if the story considers characters dead, they’re still fulfilling the roles of living persons by lingering as spirits.

Fake deaths

This one annoys me. (All the same, I’ve used it more often in my writing than I care to admit!) When a character seems to die, the narrative treats them as dead… until they turn out to have been alive all along. Fake deaths generally cheapen the reactions of living characters. Responses like mourning, grief, and anger become less meaningful when they’re revealed to have been unnecessary. Besides, fake deaths are generally predictable.

I think temporary death is a valid storytelling trope, but I prefer death in fiction to be permanent. Death is more realistic, and carries much more weight, when it’s treated as an everlasting reality instead of a fleeting condition.

Anyone who knows anything about video games probably knows that Aerith dies in Final Fantasy VII. Partway through the story, this cheerful flower vendor is impaled by the villain. That’s it. There’s no resurrection, no last-minute deus ex machina. In the game, she is dead. The other characters mourn her… and so does any player whose heart isn’t made of stone.

Death is tragic. It often seems meaningless. However, in storytelling, that miraculous medium which makes all things meaningful, death matters—especially when it lasts more than a few minutes.

298. TMTF’s Top Ten Cartoons You Should Watch

I spend more time watching cartoons than any grown man should. Needless to say, I regret nothing.

The fact is that cartoons can be innocent, bright, smart, and funny. While the media is often jaded or cynical, cartoons are pleasant, and unapologetic about it. I appreciate them.

That said, some cartoons are much better than others. Today we’re listing ten of the best, because making top ten lists is what we do.

This is a list for Western animation. Anime (Japanese animation) is in a category by itself and deserves a list of its own. Someday, perhaps!

Discerning readers may notice that nearly all of the shows on this list are pretty recent, airing within the past decade or so. This is because I avoided cartoons until a few years ago. Growing up in Ecuador, I watched only the few shows my family had on tape. I mostly rejected cartoons in middle and high school, dismissing them as “too childish,” and only rediscovered them as an adult. (The irony has not escaped me.) Most of the cartoons I’ve watched are recent ones, which is why this list lacks any really old classics.

Let’s take a look, ladies and gentlemen, as TMTF presents…

The TMTF List of Top Ten Cartoons You Should Watch!

10. The Powerpuff Girls

The Powerpuff Girls

When an absent-minded scientist blends “suger, spice, and everything nice” to create perfect little girls, he spills an untested chemical into the mixture and produces the Powerpuff Girls: a trio of young superheroines who protect the innocent, defend their city from all evil, and attend kindergarten every weekday.

The show pokes fun at superheroes, monster movies, campy science fiction, and pop culture in general. Its playful tone and subversive humor are a blast. The Powerpuff Girls is full of charming little touches, from its hilariously incompetent mayor to the fact its greatest villain is a chimpanzee with an exaggerated Japanese accent.

9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Beneath New York City, in some dark, forgotten sewer tunnel, dwell four fearless fighters. They emerge at night to patrol the streets and protect the innocent. So what if these heroes happen to be turtles?

Nickelodeon’s recent take on the Turtles is refreshingly lighthearted and self-aware. It mixes the whiz-bang style of comic books with the stylish action of old kung fu films, holding it all together with some really good writing. The show never takes itself or its story very seriously… but then its protagonists are nerdy mutant turtles, so that may not be such a bad thing.

8. Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated

In Crystal Cove, a touristy town that proclaims itself the “Most Hauntedest Place on Earth,” four teenagers and their dog solve mysteries. These kids, who call themselves Mystery Incorporated, debunk the town’s “supernatural” phenomena as the tricks of frauds and criminals… much to the chagrin of Crystal Cove’s mayor, who wants the town to keep its spooky reputation. When Mystery Inc. is contacted by someone called Mr. E, they find themselves caught up in a bigger mystery than they can imagine.

I saw one or two older Scooby-Doo cartoons as a kid, and they were kind of terrible. Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated astonished me with its excellence. It has character development, a story arc that stretches across the entire series, and an entire episode spoofing the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Best of all, Fred Jones—who was a bland stereotype in every version of Scooby-Doo up to this point—is reimagined as someone cheerful, well-meaning, slightly neurotic, and endearingly inept. I honestly don’t think Scooby-Doo will ever manage to be any better than this show.

7. The Legend of Korra

The Legend of Korra

In a world divided among four nations, a messianic figure called the Avatar arises in each new generation to maintain peace and balance. Each nation represents a classical element—water, earth, fire, or air—and certain people can control or “bend” one of these elements. The Avatar is the only person who can bend all four. This time around, the Avatar is a short-tempered young woman named Korra. She must master her abilities and navigate the political complexities of her world to keep things from falling part.

I’m bending the rules with this one. (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.) The Legend of Korra is neither Western animation nor anime, but something in between. Its characters are nuanced and compelling. The action scenes are wonderful, and the animation is some of the best on television. Best of all, the world of The Legend of Korra is a magical mix of Asian culture, steampunk technology, and beautiful scenery. Korra would be much higher on this list, but it never quite achieves its full potential, and an even better show steals its lofty place… but more on that later!

6. Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack

When a young samurai from feudal Japan is flung by a demon into a post-apocalyptic future, he sets off on a surreal journey to return to his own time. The samurai’s travels take him from futuristic cities to lonely jungles, and he meets everything from aliens to crazy Scotsmen. Wherever he goes, the legend spreads of a brave, kind, noble warrior: the samurai known only as “Jack.”

This show is probably the most artsy on this list, and also the most cartoony. It brings together the zany humor of The Powerpuff Girls with elegant action scenes and measured pacing. Samurai Jack uses dialogue sparingly; sometimes whole minutes go by without anyone speaking. The visuals tell the story. The show is strange, stylish, and thoroughly enjoyable.

5. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic

My Little Pony - Friendship Is Magic

In a fairy-tale world populated by candy-colored ponies, a bookish unicorn named Twilight is sent to a small town to “make some friends.” After settling in and meeting the town’s eccentric residents, Twilight begins to understand the importance of friendship. She and her friends live, learn, and occasionally save the world together.

This is a show for little girls, and it’s kind of awesome. (Its fans are also pretty neat.) It has all the sentimental, sappy, twee nonsense one would expect from a show about magical rainbow ponies. It also has some great writing, solid characterization, strong moral values, upbeat humor, and charming innocence. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is a much, much better show than it has any right to be.

4. Phineas and Ferb

Phineas and Ferb

It’s a beautiful summer day, and stepbrothers Phineas and Ferb know exactly how to spend it: building some outlandish, impossible contraption in the backyard. Their older sister, refusing to allow such reckless behavior, tries vainly to get them in trouble with their mum. Meanwhile, in another part of town, an evil scientist tries to conquer the world—well, that might be overambitious. He’ll settle for the tri-state area. All that stands between him and its innocent residents is an elite secret agent… who happens to be Phineas and Ferb’s pet platypus.

Phineas and Ferb has been around for years, and it’s still finding ways to subvert its simple formula for each episode. It’s the most self-aware show I’ve ever seen, peppered with droll dialogue, clever gags, and catchy music. Among other things, the show’s evil scientist, the lonely and forgetful Dr. Doofenshmirtz, is probably the funniest character I’ve seen on television.

3. Dan Vs.

Dan Vs.

Dan is convinced that everything and everyone in the universe, from his neighbors to modern art, is out to get him. He won’t take it lying down! This jobless misanthrope will go to any lengths to get back at whatever or whoever he thinks has wronged him. Chris and his wife Elise, Dan’s only friends, are often dragged along on his madcap schemes for vengeance.

Dan Vs. manages to be sharp and satirical without ever resorting to vulgarity or profanity. Dan is hilariously unhinged. I wouldn’t want him as a friend, but from a safe distance his schemes are great fun to watch. One of the show’s creators compared him to Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, saying “I think of the Dan character as Calvin as a grownup, if his life had gone horribly wrong somewhere.” Dan shares Calvin’s paranoia, intelligence, ill temper, and absolute lack of common sense. Dan Vs. is smart, biting, and a joy to watch.

2. Gravity Falls

Gravity Falls

Mabel and Dipper Pines, twelve-year-old twins, have been sent by their parents to spend the summer in Gravity Falls, Oregon. They stay with their Great Uncle (or “Grunkle”) Stan, who runs a shady tourist attraction called the Mystery Shack. Although Dipper is disappointed to be stuck in a small town, he soon finds a journal detailing the supernatural monsters and mysteries of Gravity Falls. As Mabel and Dipper begin unraveling the riddles of this sleepy little town, Grunkle Stan, a gruff skeptic and shameless shyster, does his best to swindle the tourists who visit the Mystery Shack.

Gravity Falls has been called “gently twisted,” and I think that’s a good description. The show is equal parts funny, intriguing, heartwarming, outrageous, and weird. I would call it just a good comedy, except that it’s also packed with riddles and ciphers for fans to solve, and held together by a really compelling mystery. I’m not sure what exactly is going on in Gravity Falls, but I can’t wait to find out.

1. Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar - The Last Airbender

Before The Legend of Korra, there was an Avatar named Aang. When one of the four nations, the Fire Nation, wars against the others, Aang and his friends must stop it and restore peace before the world burns.

It takes a few episodes to hit its stride, but once it does this show never falters. This not-quite-anime predecessor to The Legend of Korra creates a world as beautiful and fully realized as Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and populates that world with a ridiculous number of memorable characters. Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t merely a kid’s cartoon. It transcends its medium to become as deep and gripping a story as any I’ve seen… while never losing the gleams of humor and silliness that made it fun in the first place.

O people of the Internet, what cartoons have you enjoyed? Let us know in the comments!

261. About Storytelling: Nazis

Nazis are bad. If you carry away one thing from this blog post, it’s that Nazis are bad.

Nazis Swastika

Protip: This is not a good design for interior decorating.

In fact, Nazis have become a handy shortcut in storytelling for representing evil. Need a bad guy? Make him a Nazi. No reader of books or viewer of films or player of video games thinks twice if Nazis die. They are evil. They are all evil!

There’s only one problem with this convenient idea.

Not all Nazis are evil—rather, Nazis are not all evil.

You see, people are complicated. No person—Nazi or not—is absolutely, one hundred percent wicked. No person is completely good, either. Bad people have virtues, and good people have flaws.

As satisfying as black-and-white moral struggles are in storytelling, they’re not very realistic. It’s hardly ever as simple as “good versus evil.” It’s usually “something versus a different something.” Even in cases of clear-cut good and bad, it tends to be “something mostly good versus something mostly bad.”

It’s hardly ever good storytelling to make the good guys perfect and the bad guys irredeemable. In real life, when does that ever happen?

Granted, it can work. J.R.R. Tolkien, who somehow managed to write great books while ignoring a lot of basic rules for storytelling, pits (mostly) good and selfless hobbits, men, elves and dwarves against orcs—twisted creatures damned to an existence of pain, war and cruelty. Tolkien’s black-and-white struggles work because they’re sort of symbolic. Orcs seem almost like Tolkien’s fairy-tale representation of absolute evil in his fairy-tale realm of Middle-earth. The villain, Sauron, is more like the concept of badness than an actual bad guy. (I should note that Tolkien did manage some morally ambiguous characters, such as Gollum and Boromir.)

For the most part, however, the best stories have good guys that are sort of bad and bad guys that are sort of good. Consider Avatar: The Last Airbender, the fantastic fantasy show. In its world, the Fire Nation is a lot like Nazi Germany. It attempts to conquer, exploit and control other countries: in this case, the Water Tribe and Earth Nation.

Guess what? The “good” countries have their fair share of bad guys. A psychotic criminal belongs to the Water Tribe. The Earth Kingdom is the home of thugs and thieves, not to mention a corrupt official and the merciless secret police under his control. The “evil” Fire Nation is populated largely by innocent, well-meaning citizens.

Iroh

The Fire Nation also has this guy.

Hayao Miyazaki also does a great job of creating morally ambiguous characters. Probably his best films in this regard are Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, in which the villains are… no one, really. Princess Mononoke has a bunch of characters fighting selfishly for their own survival and prosperity; they’re self-centered, but not really evil. Spirited Away has characters that seem bad, but when you get to know them you realize they’re just gruff and insensitive.

People are hardly ever all good or all bad, and conflicts are usually more complicated than “good versus evil.” Ambiguity and subtlety are invaluable assets for any story or character!

235. My (Old) New Year’s Resolutions

Twelve months ago, I made some new year’s resolutions. Did I keep them? Was this year of our Lord two thousand thirteen an epoch of marked self-improvement or abysmal failure?

Let’s find out.

These were my resolutions for 2013.

I will be focused, intentional and self-disciplined

For the most part, I kept this resolution. I occasionally wasted time, but less time than in years past. That’s an improvement, right?

I will finish the manuscript for The Wanderings of Lance Eliot

This… this was a resolution I couldn’t keep.

I will not be anxious, insecure or obsessive-compulsive

I’m still working on this one, but I made great progress this year. My anxieties and obsessive-compulsive tendencies were once debilitating struggles; they are now minor nuisances.

I will improve my Spanish

I worked a bit on my Spanish this year, but not as much as I had planned. My preferred method of study, watching cartoons in Spanish, was hindered by my laptop’s less-than-stellar DVD software. I’ll keep working on this one.

I will grow sideburns like the Tenth Doctor’s

The Tenth Doctor from Doctor Who boasted incomparable sideburns. Mine, though not as neat, weren’t bad. I consider this resolution kept, insofar as any mere mortal can keep an impossible resolution like equaling the majesty of the Tenth Doctor’s hairstyle.

I will take steps forward

I… sort of kept this resolution. I’m living in the same place, working the same job and generally living the same life, but I feel a good deal more assured and… well… grown up. For the moment, I believe I am exactly where I need to be.

So much for my old new year’s resolutions. What are my new new year’s resolutions? What are my plans for becoming a stronger, nicer, better person in 2014? Does anyone really care?

Find out next time!

208. Mangling Spanish: A Beginner’s Guide

One of my new year’s resolutions was to improve my Spanish, and I’ve finally resumed my linguistic studies. How have I chosen to study? In the same way all great scholars do, of course.

I’m watching cartoons.

Specifically, I’m watching the Spanish language dub of Avatar: The Last Airbender, my all-time favorite show. It’s a wonderful way to study. Just hearing spoken Spanish again is working wonders for my vocabulary, grammar and syntax.

My studies have reminded me of the linguistic horror stories (or comedies, depending on your point of view) I’ve heard from acquaintances in my homeland of Ecuador.

For example, there was a gentleman who asked for sopa to wash his hands. He meant soap. He received soup.

There was a lady who tried to explain that she had been embarrassed by a pastor, and used the word embarazada because of its similarity to the English word embarrassed. What she announced by mistake was that the pastor had made her pregnant.

Another lady wanted to ride a horse without a rope attached to its bridle, and asked the owner whether she might have permission to mount his horse without the ropa. This greatly alarmed the owner, since ropa is Spanish for clothes.

My favorite story comes from the husband of one of my middle school teachers. One day a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to his door. He informed them in faltering Spanish that he did not care to hear about Jehovah’s Witnesses, and was baffled at how angrily they departed.

Only later did he realize that instead of calling them Testigos de Jehová, Jehovah’s Witnesses, he had mistakenly called them Testículos de Jehová—Jehovah’s Testicles.

Not every story is a painful one. A favorite of mine is that of an interpreter asked to translate the following joke into Spanish for an audience: “What did the ocean say to the beach? Nothing. It just waved.”

This awful joke, a play on words, works only in English.

That brilliant interpreter didn’t let that stop him. Without missing a beat, he translated the question into Spanish and answered it with a new punchline: “Hola!”

This Spanish word for hello sounds exactly like ola, the word for wave. That, dear reader, is pretty dashed clever.

I haven’t made any truly memorable mistakes in Spanish, but that’s all right. I’m already quite good enough at making a fool of myself in English.

195. Faith, Hope and Tea

There was once an old sage named Iroh. His wisdom was tempered by many sorrows and crowned with a compassionate heart, an affable nature and a passionate love of tea.

Needless to say, Iroh is one of my heroes.

Iroh

Iroh may be merely a character in Avatar: The Last Airbender, a television show, but his wisdom has left a strong impression on me nonetheless. In previous posts, I’ve shared his views on the futility of regret, the importance of seeking insight from many sources and the value of accepting help from others.

“Life is like this dark tunnel,” Iroh once remarked as he and a companion walked along a gloomy underground passage. “You may not always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you keep moving, you will come to a better place.”

Earlier this year, I found myself in a dark tunnel of my own. The posts on this blog took a dismal turn, covering subjects like depression. Then, far ahead, I thought I saw a glimmer of light. A long, dark winter surrendered to the beauty of spring. The trees outside my apartment exploded into sprays of pink blossoms. I renewed my hope that things would get better.

Thank God, things have definitely gotten better.

I won’t go into all the details, but I will share a few of the things that have made a positive difference in my life in past weeks.

I’m back on a consistent schedule

After months of bouncing between daytime and nighttime shifts at two different workplaces, I have returned to my ordinary schedule at my usual workplace. Not having to invert my sleep pattern every few weeks is a great relief!

Speaking of which…

I’m getting more sleep

In past years, I assumed I needed about eight hours of sleep every night, and averaged between seven and eight. However, the aforementioned changes to my work schedule (and my consequent sleep deprivation) forced me to reconsider how much sleep I need.

I concluded I require about nine hours of sleep every night, and I have since averaged between eight and nine. That extra hour of sleep has made a huge difference. I’ve had more energy, and my waking hours have been more productive. Bouts with depression have been milder and less frequent. Getting more sleep has been a tremendous blessing.

I’m being more consistent in fulfilling commitments and goals

Instead of using fatigue or depression as excuses to be undisciplined, I’ve been more consistent in getting stuff done. The more I practice self-discipline, the easier it becomes. It’s satisfying and empowering—and quite a relief—to fulfill commitments promptly.

I’m trying to be pragmatic

I tend to be neurotic. My anxieties have anxieties, as Charlie Brown would say. These are joined by all kinds of insecurities, doubts and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I continue learning how not to get tangled up in all that wibbly-wobbly, feely-weely stuff, and how instead to live with the sort of simple, efficient pragmatism that comes from relying upon the grace of God: to win those battles with anxiety and insecurity by choosing not to fight them.

Which brings me to my final point.

I’m doing my best to live by grace

Yes, I write a lot about grace. I often struggle to understand that God not only forgives my sins, but bears with me patiently through my endless struggles with insecurity, depression and selfishness. No matter how dismal life seems, this promise remains: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Quoth Iroh, “You may not always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you keep moving, you will come to a better place.”

Step by step, I’m getting there.

189. Death

I work in a group home for gentlemen with mental and physical disabilities. Of these gentlemen, by far the most interesting was the middle-aged man called James Joyce.

(In this blog post, all names have been changed for reasons of privacy.)

James Joyce, who very pragmatically addressed me as “Man With Glasses,” suffered from extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder and one or two other psychological conditions. He also had a few physical problems, and—I can only guess—heart trouble.

He drove us all crazy with his manic behavior and cranky attitude, but James Joyce also made us laugh. A hot pink Disney princess poster brightened up his bedroom. He often warned me, “The Boogerman’s gonna getcha!” James Joyce constantly demanded all kinds of snacks, and occasionally pounded the floor with his shoe to kill nonexistent spiders.

More poignantly, he sometimes asked me, “Are we very good friends?” On one occasion, when I was particularly out of temper with him, he broke a long silence by saying in a still, small voice, “You’re nice.”

On a Monday afternoon a few weeks ago, James Joyce helped me mix up batter for corn muffins as I prepared supper at work. He later tried snatching a water balloon out of someone’s hand. It exploded and left him wet and squawking in indignation. When I left work, he was being as much of a nuisance as ever.

Early the next morning, James Joyce passed away of heart failure.

Death is a sobering subject. We’re reluctant to discuss it, and when we do we generally change subjects as quickly as possible. Perhaps the reason it makes us uncomfortable is that we know there is no getting away from it. Death is a guest whom no locked door can keep out.

I’m truly thankful never to have suffered the loss of a loved one. My family and friends are alive and well. My experience with death is mostly limited to killing off fictional characters, which is nothing. To claim I know something about death because I’m a writer is like pretending I’m an expert on literary scholarship because I’ve read a picture book.

There’s a common saying: I’m too young to die!

That’s idiotic. No one is too young to die.

Responding to that old cliche, I can only echo the words of an incidental character from Avatar: The Last Airbender and say: I’m not, but I still don’t want to!

In the end, however, I’m ready—not eager, but ready. If I today shuffled off this mortal coil, I’d leave some books unwritten and a dozen typewriter monkeys unemployed and many thousands of liters of coffee undrunk. It would be a bit of a disappointment for me, and a tragedy for the people who don’t mind having me around.

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?

I guess the sting of death falls mostly upon those left behind.

God rest your soul, James Joyce. I’ll always be wary of the Boogerman.

167. About Writing: Narrative Structure

Two brief personal notes: First, my ever-changing schedule has reverted to normal. For now, I’m back to working during the day and sleeping at night like an ordinary person. Second, my thanks to everyone who took part in Be Nice to Someone on the Internet Day! It’s totally happening again on March 4 next year!

This blog hasn’t had a proper About Writing post since… October. Ouch.

Let’s fix that.

Narrative structure is a phrase I use to describe the way a story is told: a catch-all term for those fun, creative storytelling techniques that make a story different.

There are many ways to tell a story. Most stories begin at the beginning and end at the end. Many stories use only one narrator.

These are great ways to tell a story, but they aren’t the only ones.

Consider the following story: A, B, C. Let’s pretend is the start of the story, chronologically speaking. That makes the middle and the conclusion. My story is linear: it happens in order.

What if I want to tell my story out of order? It could be B, A, C. The reader can be introduced to a story in progress, with earlier events in the narrative revealed through flashbacks and the conclusion at the end. I could even tell my story backwards—C, B, A—as movie director Christopher Nolan (who is famous for films like The Dark Knight and Inception) did in Memento, a disturbing yet excellent film about a man with short-term memory loss.

Let’s consider another aspect of narrative structure: perspective.

One of my favorite narrative tricks is to switch perspectives as I tell a story. Two stories I’ve posted on this blog, The Infinity Manuscript and Zealot: A Christmas Story, give each chapter from the perspective of a different character. As a writer, it’s refreshing to bounce from one perspective to another as the story unfolds.

Things get even more fun when stories use multiple first-person narrators with different voices. A single scene can be described or interpreted in many different ways. It all depends on who does the describing or interpreting!

Then there are side stories. I love side stories.

There’s a word I like in Japanese: gaiden, the romaji form of the word rendered がいでん in hiragana and kana syllabaries. (This is what Wiktionary tells me. I don’t actually know Japanese.) A gaiden is a side story: a narrative that supplements or completes another narrative.

Call it a gaiden or a side story or whatever else you like: it’s awesome.

Orson Scott Card published a novel titled Ender’s Game, in which a boy named Ender is trained by the military to be humanity’s greatest asset in an interstellar war. Fourteen years later, Card published a companion novel: Ender’s Shadow.

The later novel tells roughly the same story as the first, but Ender is no longer the protagonist. The spotlight follows Bean, a supporting character from Ender’s Game. It’s the same story from a completely new perspective: introducing new characters, expanding the role of familiar ones and introducing fascinating subplots.

By intersecting with the original story at key points, Ender’s Shadow greatly improves Ender’s Game while being a fantastic novel on its own.

Here’s a geekier example: one of my favorite games in the Ace Attorney series is the criminally underappreciated Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth. This game takes the two most important characters in the series, Phoenix Wright and his assistant Maya Fey, and relegates them to the briefest of background cameos. Supporting characters Miles Edgeworth and Dick Gumshoe become the protagonists.

The other games in the Ace Attorney series merely lengthen its story. This particular game broadens its story. By giving center stage to secondary characters, the game gives a delightful alternate take on the series… and proves its story is compelling enough to survive without its usual protagonists.

There are all kinds of clever narrative tricks, but I’ll mention just one more.

My all-time favorite episode of my all-time favorite television show is, without question, “Tales of Ba Sing Se” from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Up to that point, nearly every episode of the show follows a predictable pattern: a primary plot following the protagonists interweaves (and sometimes intersects) with one or two secondary plots following the antagonists. This narrative structure is simple and effective—and “Tales of Ba Sing Se” throws it out the window.

“Tales of Ba Sing Se” is a series of vignettes or character sketches. There are no great adventures, just glimpses of the characters’ daily lives. Some of these tales are funny. One character gets caught up in a haiku contest that seems suspiciously like a rap battle. Some of these tales are sad. One character visits his son’s grave to wish him a happy birthday.

Tragic or comic, these tales develop the characters and give the viewer a wonderful break from the plot-heavy episodes that come before. “Tales of Ba Sing Se” is a deep breath before the show plunges into a season finale: a chance to get to know the characters a little better before they’re swept off again by their adventures. I love it.

Innovative narrative structures can make a story refreshingly different, but they can also sabotage it. Not every story needs to be a gaiden told in a nonlinear way from multiple perspectives. Some stories are best told straight. It’s easy for a creative narrative structure to become a distracting gimmick.

In certain cases, however, a clever narrative structure can make a story brilliant.