Plots and Plans

Human emotions are a swamp best explored in a sturdy canoe. Rock at your peril.
Human emotions are a swamp best explored in a sturdy canoe. Rock at your peril.

Daylight savings time begins tomorrow. Fuzzy accounting if you ask me.

You can’t legislate daylight any more than you can deny hoping rights.

But let’s put all that behind us, shall we? Today the sun is glaring on the icy snow and with any luck by next weekend we’ll be complaining about mud.

As a gardener I’m accustomed to these mood swings. One day everything is coming up roses, or cucumbers, whatever, and the next day little green worms have infiltrated the territory, black tiger mosquitoes have awakened from their brief winter nap, and there’s nowhere to hide from the scorching heat.

Yet on we go, planning and planting, plotting and scheming. It’s a bit like writing a novel. We start out standing, optimistic about our chances of constructing something just believable enough to hold together for a couple hundred pages yet adroitly sidestepping the festering ooze that makes reality such a weary slog much of the time.

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel “The Marriage Plot,” which deftly critiques the entire catalogue of traditional romantic fiction. From Shakespeare’s bantering couples to Austen’s repressed heroines, the standard model for a romance has long been: boy meets girl (or girl meets boy — let’s not quibble just yet), boy loses girl, boy and girl patch things up and marry, or at least commit to the possibility. Yet times have changed, and not in a daylight savings sort of way.

Divorce, rare and slightly scandalous at the dawn of the last century, is now utterly commonplace. Marriage itself is viewed as less essential to a satisfying life, and alternatives abound for those who prefer to march down a different aisle, or not march at all. In “The Marriage Plot” Eugenides explores the confusion and pain of three characters: two men and the woman they both love. Yet in spite of the best intentions and faithful efforts to treat each other with care and respect, their attempts to love one another are sabotaged by one of life’s many hidden hazards. When one of the characters develops manic depression, the rosy glow of romance turns murky with doubt and frustration. Happily ever after, not so much.

It’s a terrific book. All the characters are flawed, likeable, maddening, and still trying as hard as they can to do the right thing, in spite of the continuing difficulty of knowing exactly what that is. It made me think about how much the element of chance figures into every aspect of life. Some people really are born lucky. Some aren’t. But it’s what people do with the hand they’re dealt that defines who they are.

In “The Marriage Plot” the three main characters have one trait in common. They’re brave. They may run away for a time, but eventually they turn back and face the music, discordant as it may be. Sometimes in romance a little discord can be bracing. A clash of cymbals to rouse the complacent. It’s all in the volume.

There’s a rule in drama that if you show a gun in the first act it has to go off in act three. I get that rule. But I’m not convinced the writer has to kill a character in order to fulfill the prophesy. Nor do I think a marriage is essential at the end of a romance. But love? Yeah. No matter what, even if somebody gets shot and not everyone is happy, as long as somebody gave their whole heart to someone else and never regretted it, that, to my way of thinking, is love.

And you can take that to the bank and put it in your daylight savings account.


The Mage of Reason

Spock's mind was his super power.
Spock’s mind was his super power.

Logic never made much sense to me.

When I took it in college I was confounded by its rules and axioms. The so-called self-evident principals never resonated with me in the way that poetic flights of sheer fantasy always have.

In general, I’m a pretty gullible person. Just ask my brothers, or the guy who scammed $12 off me back in 1978 to pay for his bus fare to see his dying grandmother. Yeah right.

But arguments based on pure logic always woke the mule in me. Until a certain Starfleet Science Officer known as much for his pointy ears and greenish skin as for his brilliant analytical mind came into my life.

I never saw the original Star Trek during its three season journey through the wasteland of prime time television from 1966 to 1969. I was exploring other worlds myself back then. But in the summer of 1971 my brother Billy introduced me to the series, which was in heavy reruns and already gaining altitude in the pantheon of science fiction legends.

The great thing about reruns is that they allow a newbie to catch up fast. With Billy’s coaching I was soon fully engaged, a shy but enthusiastic Trekkie. I never went to a convention. Although I did stand in line to sit in the original Captain’s chair when the 20th anniversary Star Trek exhibition opened at the Smithsonian.

So, is Spock really dead? I mean, I know Leonard Nimoy died yesterday, and I’m saddened by this, although grateful that he had such an amazing life and eventually came to terms with his Spock legacy.

For me, Spock was always the one. I loved all the originals: Kirk with his over-the-top thespian shtick, McCoy with his irritable grit, Scottie with his mechanical wizardry and never-say-die pluck, Uhura with her poise and courage, and the playful Sulu and Chekhov.

But it was Spock whose gravity, credibility, and wry humor made me believe that sometimes a little logic can be magical.

Leonard Nimoy himself, according to reports and things he wrote in his 1975 memoir, “I Am Not Spock,” and later in the 1995 memoir, “I Am Spock,” came to realize that, illogical as it may be, the character of Leonard Nimoy had so much to do with the character of Spock, that the two “melded” in the minds of adoring fans.

As a lifelong romantic fool myself, I found the character of Spock the most compelling precisely because he always tried to resist irrational behavior, yet, because he was half-human, he was vulnerable like all the rest of us.

The truth is, humans aren’t rational. Yet we continue, some of us anyway, trying to make sense of this life, trying to assign reasons for the infinite mysteries that surround us. It’s kind of sweet. And that’s why, if I had to choose one Star Trek character to be my desert island companion, it would be Spock, the tall cool one. I’d mind-meld with him any day.

Go in peace Leonard Nimoy Spock. And thanks for all the fascinating years.

The Sap Also Rises

Cupid's aim is true at Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo.
Cupid’s aim is true at Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo.

A few years ago I swore off romance.

Enough with the sappily ever after, pie-in-the-sky, “don’t worry baby” baloney.

I gave in to the Dark Side. And was startled to find it was standing room only. Turns out you can’t throw a brick, or even a volume of Game of Thrones, without hitting some gifted young author gleefully cranking out dystopian fiction in which none of the characters expect to live past the age of thirty.

Ah youth. Wasted on the young, etc.

When I was younger I had a lot of untested ideas about the way things should be. I had dreams about the way things could be. But I always imagined that books — the kind with paper pages that whisper when you turn them — would figure into the scheme of things. I’m no longer so sure about this. Yet neither am I convinced that the future will be programmed by and for robots, and/or zombies.

The other night I watched Network, the landmark satirical film from 1976, again. It’s kind of stunning how well it’s held up. In spite of all the technological and social progress humans have made in the last 40 years, our sheer blinding stupidity and careless cruelty remain daunting obstacles in the way of any sort of real progress as a species. It remains to be seen whether we will destroy the planet before we wipe out humanity.

The biggest difference between the fictional society of Network, with its classic talk show call to arms slogan, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” and the modern Twitter-mad world in which we live, is that now people are free to rant and vent without opening a window to shout. They simply open Windows for Cranks and let it rip without fear of consequences, without even changing out of their pajamas.

Well, perhaps this is therapeutic for some people. But it all seems a bit childish and pointless, not to mention counter-productive. Anyone who really wants to change the world must, at some point, step away from the keyboard and engage with reality. And that, of course, is a lot like work. Not my best thing.

Anyway, after careful consideration, I’m planning to return to writing romance. Not that I ever really stopped. Although I did try to be dark and edgy, my heart just wasn’t in it. I hate sad endings. In my view, reality provides more than enough of those. Millions of readers enjoy reading tragedies. Legions of readers thrive on a literary regimen of gore and terror.

But seriously, look around. Reality provides all the grim horror and senseless sorrow you could ever want. What there’s a shortage of is believable uplifting fiction about humans finding happiness together in spite of the everyday zombies and vampires intent on draining the life out of everything .

Walt Whitman once wrote: “I stand for the sunny point of view, the joyful conclusion.”

That’s my plan for 2015. More romance, more hope in the face of the great wheeling darkness that surrounds our little world. I’m going back to basics: When a man loves a woman, and she, in spite of everything, loves him back.

Sound sappy? You bet. Love with no limits, when the going gets rough, when the repartee gets crabby, when the midriff gets flabby. No matter.

Let’s face the music and dance.

After Happily Ever

The hopeful sign will fade and fall off; the journey goes on.
The hopeful sign will fade and fall off; the journey goes on.

I broke up with Romance a few years ago.

I fired off a bitter post and threw out my romance writer magazines. I put away my childish dreams, having decided it was well past time for me to grow up. After all, my children had done it. Surely it was time for me.

And for the last few years I’ve tried to dwell in the dark and grim margins where the media pack lurches from one horror story to another, groaning and scrabbling like a horde of you-know-whats. I even tried my hand at writing a darker sort of fantasy, forcing my characters to struggle with problems bigger than a rip in the heirloom wedding gown.

But to my surprise, after a while, my characters rebelled. Oh they kept jumping through the hoops I set before them. They quipped and parried with the fell forces of darkness, because, you know, what choice did they have? But gradually, without my willing it to happen, they began to sneak off together into quiet spaces and cavort with each other. And I, being the permissive author that I am, gave them freedom to “explore their feelings.” And wouldn’t you know? In the face of all the gloom and doom, those kids were falling in love whether I liked it or not.

That’s when I realized that try as I might to quit the romance genre, I can’t escape the romance in my nature.

Yet I was born a skeptic. My parents told me my first word was no. However I think this might have been a misunderstanding on their part. I wasn’t saying no to everything. I simply wanted to make my own choices. And there is no choice more exciting, more personal, and more unpredictable than the choice to give your heart to another human. Talk about adventure!

The thing that repels me about Romance with a capitol R is the narrow definition of exactly what is romance. James Thurber once wrote a droll little book titled “Is Sex Necessary?” which described the ways in which men and women differ in their approach to romance. Thurber was never more brilliant than when delineating the vast mystery that exists between the sexes. Most romance novels make good use of this fertile ground. Yet the deepest vein of romance remains untapped until after both parties have passed the checkpoint of commitment.

Early romance, fed on wine and roses and carefree hours together, is a surface thing. It can be fun. But at some point, if it’s going to last, it has to be more than just fun. When the going gets tough, romance either grows deep, or drowns. Either way, it’s a stronger story line than Happily Ever After.

Because there’s always After Happily Ever After. And that’s where I plan to make my stand as a romance writer. Yet much as I admire Shakespeare and appreciate the poetry of tragic love stories, I don’t want to read them. Or write them.

So next spring, after I wrap up my fantasy series The Greening (which has been quietly turning into more of a romance than I’d anticipated anyway) my next book is going to be about love that doesn’t need diamond rings or champagne to keep it alive. It’s going to be about the burning hot flame of passion buried under the quietest mountain.

Because what matters most happens After Happily Ever After.