Life Off Camera

Happy Eclipse Day—the first total solar eclipse in 38 years that we’ll be able to see here in the States! Some friends traveled to Carbondale, Illinois for this occasion since that’s the place where it can be viewed the longest.

Try as I may, I’m not always able to capture, via my phone’s camera, all of life’s amazing moments. Like the time aliens took over New York, but were stopped by the Avengers (thus freeing us to all have shawarma at the end). Or the time when the evil peace-keeping robot (what an irony) threatened to destroy the world, and the Avengers had to help out again.

Okay, those events happened on the big screen, instead of in real life.

But I can’t help thinking of last week when I witnessed a territorial fight between two male hummingbirds. I immediately thought of Jill Weatherholt, a blogger/author you undoubtedly know. Lest you get the wrong idea, I didn’t think of her because of the fight. Jill has shown me photos of the hummingbirds around her house.

I was seated near the balcony at the home of some friends after their hummingbird feeder had been refilled and placed on the balcony. The usual ruby-throated hummingbird soon landed on the feeder. Let’s call him HB-1. I mentioned “usual,” because one of my friends told me this hummingbird usually came to the feeder. But this day, a rival came too—HB-2.

Oh no, he didn’t!

Oh, yes he did!

Pretty soon, tiny wings beat the air even faster, while long beaks jabbed. After a bob and weave, HB-1 got the better of HB-2 and forced his rival to fly away. Sadly, my phone was nowhere near me at the time, so I did not get pictures.

Nor was I able to capture something that happened at a birthday party I went to recently. The birthday child was a little girl who turned one. Over forty kids were present. One of the games they played was one involving a box wrapped with about fifty layers of wrapping paper. The kids sat in a circle and passed the box around, each unwrapping one layer, hoping to be the one who reached the last layer. That kid would have the privilege of claiming what was inside the box.

The kids gave that box the care and attention a neurosurgeon would give a patient. Every time the kids thought they’d reached the end of the wrapping paper, still more layers would appear. Without knowing what was in the box, they were fully invested in solving the mystery of what was inside. I was the one tasked with picking up the discarded wrapping paper, so I didn’t have a free hand to snap a photo. But I loved the fact that the kids were riveted by a wrapped box, rather than some expensive video game. (Lest you think I dislike video games, let me admit to you now that I play them. Just sayin’.)

Neither of these moments has the awe-factor of a solar eclipse, I know. But life has these little moments of mystery and wonder—moments too quick or too powerful to capture on film. Like the time a two-year-old hugged me around my knees. Like the laughs I shared with friends last week. I’m glad I was fully present, enjoying those moments, instead of fumbling for my camera.

But I was able to capture this butterfly not too long ago. He sat still, allowing me time to photograph him (though I wish I’d managed a closeup).

What moments have you enjoyed recently that took your breath away, but that you weren’t able to record on your camera?

Solar eclipse image from Wikipedia. Avengers poster from nzgirl.co.nz. Hummingbird from free-background-wallpaper.blogspot.com. Wrapping paper from zazzle.co.uk. Monarch butterfly photo by L. Marie.

See You at the Movies?

Happy belated Father’s Day to all of you dads out there. My family and I went to see Finding Dory the other day as a combination Happy Birthday/Father’s Day celebration for my younger brother. A good time was had by all.

Finding-Dory-Poster

While we waited for the movie to start, my sister-in-law mentioned that it was the first movie she’d seen at the theater in over a year. Interestingly, Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Dory (and Finding Nemo), had a short clip before the movie began in which he thanked the audience for coming out to watch the movie; thus acknowledging that the movie-going experience is increasingly rare for many.

Andrew+Stanton+Premiere+Walt+Disney+Pictures+sketXu1LhUdl

When I was a teen and a younger adult, I hit the movies just about every weekend. I didn’t miss a major movie. But for five of the last six years, I can use one hand to count the number of movies I’ve seen at the theater. Last year, I saw more movies at the theater than I’d seen in years. I saw

 NEMye3g3VuXNQM_1_1   star-wars-the-force-awakens-poster

Jurassic-World-2015-movie-poster   MPW-102782

avengers_age_of_ultron_NEW_POSTER    Ant-Man-Movie-Poster

See? Not a ton of movies. For others, popping a DVD or blu-ray disk into a player was the extent of my movie-going experience. (Wish I’d seen The Martian at the movie theater. Glad I saw it on blu-ray at least.)

the-martian-poster

This year, I’ve seen Captain America: Civil War twice (took my niece the second time), Zootopia, and now Finding Dory. I hope to see several others on my list—like Doctor Strange; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; Suicide Squad; and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

zootopia-poster-01   captain-america-civil-war-movie-poster

A number of factors work against my desire to go to a movie theater: higher prices; films that are all style and no substance; and rude moviegoers. In one movie theater I attended, a group of teens talked loudly and ran around the theater until the manager threw them out—halfway through the movie. So I usually head to the cheap theaters, reserving the first-run experience for the movies I want to see the most. And I tend to see movies I really want to see, rather than take a chance on an unknown the way I used to do. (Same with books, sadly.)

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(By the way, many critics declared that Jurassic World lacked substance. Though the characters were underdeveloped (and some were downright annoying), the movie’s entertainment value made up for the lack of substance—at least for me.)

I miss the days when my good friend who lived next door, my brother, and I would look at each other and say, “Let’s go to the movies.” And then off we’d go without a second thought. Back in the day, Spielberg movies were always a draw for us, along with those of John Carpenter, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, and others.

I also miss some of the element of surprise. Nowadays, with incessant internet trailers that give too much away, and people blabbing spoilers on social media, you practically know everything about a movie before you walk in the theater. To maintain at least some of the surprise, I tend to avoid watching more than one trailer for the movies I’m determined to see at the theater.

Still another thing I miss is having a slate of movies to choose from with well-developed plots, dialogue, and pacing. Instead, we might get one good movie and several well-this-is-sort-of-okay-though-it-is-a-dumbed-down-adaptation-of a-well-known-book/inferior-remake/sequel-of-a-better-film. That’s why I love the adage at Pixar: “Story is king.” (They also have the twenty-two rules below.) I wish many studios believed that.

Pixar's 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling

How many movies did you see at the theater last year? What do you like or dislike about the movie-going experience? What movie are you excited to see this year?

Brooklyn movie poster from movieposter.com. Jurassic World movie poster from dvdreleasedates.com. Inside Out movie poster from movieweb.com. Finding Dory movie poster from screenrant.com. Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie poster from inquisitr.com. The Martian movie poster from flickeringmyth.com. Zootopia movie poster from film-book.com. Captain America: Civil War movie poster from shockya.com. Movie theater clip art from clker.com. Pixar rules from gsartfactory.blogspot.com.

Soft and Strong

007A glance at the label of the generic brand of bathroom tissue I use (yes, I dare to go there) got me to thinking. I can see the value of softness and strength in bathroom tissue. But as human characteristics, softness and strength seem like polar opposites, because softness is often equated by some with weakness. I take umbrage to such a notion.

My mom’s got the softness and strength combination down. You probably think the same thing about your mom. My mom’s a hand patter. If you’re miserable, she likes to sit beside you and pat your hand, telling you that everything is going to be okay. But Mom morphs into steel when she goes into battle mode. She’s quick with a handbag upside your head if you decide to break the law. Yes, there is a story attached to that statement, but I won’t go into it now.

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Kate Spade handbag—a classy way to hit someone on the head

I love the juxtaposition of softness and strength in the males and females who populate various fictional worlds. Yet I have very little interest in heroes or heroines who are only seen in one light—that of strength, whether they are viewed as purely cool, physically powerful, or hilariously snarky. I can’t sympathize with a character who completely lacks a soft side. I can understand if he or she desperately wants to hide the fact that he/she is vulnerable. But the absence of any discernible softness causes me to put a story down.

Even Captain America (played by Chris Evans) has a bit of softness beneath his rock-hard abs. Don’t believe that? If you saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) [SLIGHT SPOILER], remember the hospital scene when he visits Peggy (who has her own show now on ABC—Agent Carter)? [END SLIGHT SPOILER.] That scene caused even my jaded heart to melt. And I loved the scenes between Cap and Sam Wilson (the Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie), where they talked about their difficult adjustment to civilian life.

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Cap and Peggy

34529Here’s a great example of softness and strength from Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies. (For the plot, click on the book title.) The narration below shows what a character named Shawn thinks about a witch named Magrat who needs to rescue Shawn from some murderous elves. [SLIGHT SPOILER] Shawn doubts her ability to help until he realizes a fundamental truth:

Mum was right—Magrat always was the nice soft one . . .
. . . who’d just fired a crossbow through a keyhole. (268)

Shawn later learns that Magrat (who works with Greebo, a vicious cat described as “just a big softy” [269]) was extremely lethal, even as she “daintily” raises the hem of her dress to kick an iron-allergic elf with shoes bearing iron attachments. [END SLIGHT SPOILER.] Good stuff!

Because of the desire to portray heroines in a strong light and not as damsels in distress, sometimes authors (and I’m thinking mostly of myself) fight against bringing out a heroine’s soft side, hoping readers won’t judge their characters as weak.

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You might get the impression of softness when you see this cupcake. My plans to take over the world, however, might cause you to think something entirely different.

In the first incarnation of my novel, my heroine didn’t seem to have any flaws. She only mildly annoyed some of the secondary characters. Her inability to laugh at herself—to see herself as flawed—was a flaw on my part as the author. I had to start over with her and her story.

The first thing I needed to do was take myself out of the equation. While I hate to be ridiculed or abused, that doesn’t mean I should avoid writing a character’s journey that involves horrible bumps in the road. And while I like to be liked, a character who is liked by everyone isn’t a very compelling character.

One of my VCFA advisors once told me to pay attention to the way secondary characters act toward the main character. While that might seem elementary to you if you’re an experienced storyteller, that advice instigated an epiphany for me. The friction of interactions, often caustic, helped shape the pearl of a better character. Even more interesting, it provided the mixture of softness and strength I find compelling.

In what ways are your characters soft and strong?

Pratchett, Terry. Lords and Ladies. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Print.

Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter from somewhere on the Internet. Kate Spade handbag from thebusinesshaven.com. Book cover from Goodreads.