Circling the Drain: The Arc of Civil War

Each of the major Avengers (major here meaning headlining a movie) as well as several of the more minor ones, have their own type of story arc.

The Iron Man movies, and Tony’s parts in the Avengers Movies, have all, fundamentally been about Tony improving as a person. So, taking responsibility for the effects of his actions in Iron Man, sets him up to stagger through learning how to include and open up to people in Iron Man 2, and that, in turn provides the basis for the self-sacrifice he demonstrates in Avengers and then the more genuinely balanced teamwork he demonstrates in Iron Man 3. They kind of look cyclical, because Tony is a Mess and needs a lot more help than he generally gets, so that solving one problem typically just reveals the next onion-layer of dysfunction. But, overall, Tony improves as a person and emerges from each movie better than he started.

Thor’s movies are similar.  In each movie Thor becomes a little less solipsistic, and a little more integrated as a member of his group and his community and takes more responsibility for himself and his actions.

Bruce Banner reaches increasing parity and comfort with the Hulk with each movie, his story is essentially personal. In Hulk he only develops the ability to control his transformations right at the end of the film, and notably, he does that after running away from New York, and Betty Ross, in Avengers we see him use that, and ends the film deciding to stay in New York and be accepted by Tony, instead of exiling himself. At the end of Ultron, even though he leaves again, he does so with Hulk actively making decisions, not just being let out as a last-ditch option.

Steve Rogers follows a cyclical arc, he’s constantly stuck circling back around and around the same conflicts. Even in First Avenger which is his origin story you have him dealing with the loss of Bucky twice (three times if you count him initially shipping out), and having to prove himself as useful twice, first as the little guy then as the chorus girl. Then during Avengers he once again has to prevent someone destroying New York using the tesseract, the exact thing he was doing when he was frozen at the end of First Avenger, although with a different enemy and team to work with.  Then he fights Hydra and loses Bucky again in Winter Soldier. Age of Ultron then recapitulates Winter Soldier by forcing Cap to deal with internal betrayal by his allies, and fight Hydra, and Avengers by having him chase Loki’s sceptre.

Interestingly, Peggy follows an almost inverse path through Agent Carter. Although she’s not one of the core Marvel heroes, she’s an interesting point of comparison. She starts in essentially the same place Steve does in the final scenes of First Avenger, in a radically different setting, having lost the people closest to her, and having to prove herself, but spends the whole series gradually overcoming that and establishing new relationships and teammates and first regaining her old position, and then outstripping it.

One of the ways I think Civil War was very definitively a Captain America movie, rather than an Avengers movie, despite the big cast, or an Iron Man movie, although Tony is very prominent, is that it very much follows a Captain America arc, rather than an Iron Man one, or following the pattern of the previous Avengers ensemble films, where everyone is kind of following their own shape in tandem.

Cap is constantly being forced to relive old traumas, and in Civil War everyone gets sucked into his vortex.

Cap is losing Peggy… again. And losing Bucky… again. And having to fight the whole government… again. And having his team fragment… again.

Scott, who had somewhat established himself at the end of Ant-Man, is in jail… again.

Tony more or less loses every bit of progress he’s ever made, and is deal with being ‘the merchant of death’… again. Losing his parents… again. Having his relationship with Pepper fracture… again.

Bucky is being brainwashed and frozen… again.

Sam, who, despite his limited screen time, has consistently been a voice of optimism and an agent of progress is just up there to watch… again.

Wanda is being viewed as a monster and finds herself in the centre of a huge conspiracy courtesy of Hydra… again.

Natasha, who’s relationships with the group, especially with Steve and Clint, ends up opposing them, and is having her loyalties questioned… again.

Even with Bruce Banner out of the picture Ross is making trouble because he’s treating superheroes like equipment, creating essentially the same conflict he created in The Hulk… again.

Clint is doing ‘one last job’… again.

Rhodey is introduced in Iron Man as a quintessentially secondary character, all his actions are directed towards fishing Tony out of trouble and cleaning up after him, but through Iron Man 2, where he’s largely a foil to Tony instead, and then Iron Man 3 and briefly in Ultron where he’s working towards an entirely independent, although related goal, he’s gradually become more, established as having his own story line. But in Civil War he’s back to pushing Tony’s agenda, and dealing with the fallout of Tony’s actions…. again.

We’re put in the position of questioning what Vision is and what he’s capable of… again.

And of course, Zemo’s whole revenge quest, which he carries out while listening to that last phone message from his wife over and over, is fundamentally an act of re-enacting the same trauma he experienced, repeatedly, on other people.

The only two exceptions are Peter, who, since it’s his first appearance in the franchise doesn’t really have a previous trauma to go back to, although there’s a case to be made that resetting the Spiderman continuity by putting him in a fight full of older more experienced superheroes puts him back into his presumed prior role as ‘the little guy’.

T’Challa, is the only person who actively breaks out of the cyclical nature of the film. He begins the film seeking vengeance, for the death of his father (and, the Wakandans killed in Lagos, though not to the same deadly extent) but ultimately becomes the person to actively end the cycle of vengeful killing. T’Challa is the first person to vocalize the statement that Bucky is a victim, rather than a perpetrator. Even Steve, who has spent the movie defending him chooses to address Bucky’s role by saying that it wasn’t him, and that he wasn’t involved in Hydra’s use of the Winter Soldier. T’Challa also not only stops Zemo’s plan, but, by preventing Zemo’s suicide, he averts the death of the man who killed his father, actively giving up his own act of revenge.

Needless to say, I’m really excited for Black Panther.


Christmas Card After-Action Report

Why Was I Even Sending Christmas Cards in 2016?

This year, as I alluded to briefly in my NaNoWriMo after action report, I sent out Christmas cards with letters for the first time this year.

A card with a letter tucked into it. Only the edge of the folded letter, with an image of my face on it is visible. The card is a poem with a flower traced over it, backed on lime green paper

Here’s a demo version of the card design I used… unfortunately I didn’t think to photograph any of them in advance, so this version is made on terrible paper.

For about as long as I can remember, my mother has sent out a Christmas Letter, along with handmade Christmas cards to her extended family. Exactly what a Christmas Letter is supposed to contain appears to vary a bit, I saw at least one grumpy op-ed decrying them as an excuse to brag while I was writing mine, and another complaining that they are an out-dated and frivolous emotional labour sink.

In my family at least, Christmas letters have historically had a utilitarian purpose. They originate in a time when long-distance contact by phone or mail was tricky and expensive and so sending a nicely written summary of the goings on of the year, once a year, meant you could, at least, keep track of your family in a basic way. And they’re still good this way for people who either don’t like, or can’t get the hang of, Facebook. Far from being primarily about bragging, the 2014 and 2015 letters involved passing on news of deaths in the family.

My family finally extricated its collective self from a two-year long multi-crisis pileup this year. So, for the first time in a while, I was free of the crisis swamp and associated personal mental health issues, and had the time and energy to actually think about putting together the letters and cards. And I was looking a way to rekindle the social relationships I’d let lapse because I was too busy coping with things. I was also not faced with the prospect of spending a significant portion of my first ever letter recounting a set of deaths/personal/health issues. (For all that I defend these things as a non-braggy, my letter this year had a fair amount of bragging. I had a busy year and I took the opportunity to share a short list of Reasons I Love Montreal).

Like my Mother, an immigrant with her family spread across three continents (or a continent and two islands, depending on how you count it), I’ve also now reached the point where I have friends and loved ones I won’t see every year. So in addition to being a nicer way to reconnect than a facebook message, the letter and card are, for about half the card I sent, substituting for any kind of personal face-to-face interaction. And for those people, the added time and cost of a card versus an email totally paid off.

The Mechanics of the Christmas Cards

My Christmas Card/Letter format was basically a copy of my Mom’s; a handmade card with a personal note, and a typed form letter with a few pictures. In the end, I sent a total of 34 cards, and counting supplies, postage and printing costs, spent about 60 dollars.

I’d had vague ideas about Christmas Cards as early as the past winter, and I send cards for other reasons so I had designed and made a handful of cards through the year, but in the end, I wrote, edited and formatted the letter, and made 27 cards during November for a deadline of December 1st. International Christmas cards are best sent in the first week of December, at least when dealing with Canada Post, and staggered deadlines just seemed too complicated, so I was aiming to get everything done by that early deadline. And I did. All the cards were complete, in their envelopes by December 1st, and all the cards I initially planned to send by post were sent on time.

To cut down on postage (easily the most expensive part of the whole endeavour), I attempted to hand deliver as many of the cars as I could. This worked pretty well. I ended up originally mailing 13 cards, and successfully hand delivered 19 either directly or indirectly via friends.

I failed to deliver two cards, which I then had to mail after the fact, so they’ll be late, and I realized on about January 2nd, that I’d completely forgotten to make a card for a very old friend. Fortunately that friend doesn’t know about this blog, so he doesn’t have to know, and I’ll mail him one next year.

What Worked and What Didn’t

Overall, I had a good time and will be doing this again next year. I suspect next year this will actually be easier, if only because now I know how long things take, and how much I can expect them to cost. And I’ll be able to buy the right amount of supplies. This time I ended up running out of card stock right at the last minute, so a couple of cards are on slightly lower quality paper.

The major issue I hope to avoid, is having to make the majority of the cards in a rush in November, which was stressful and cut into my NaNoWriMo writing time. So this year cards are going to be my priority craft until I have a good stockpile.

The cost was also pretty notable, it was more than I expected. But I’ve cunningly come up with a new card design which will hopefully accommodate me using cheaper materials. Unfortunately, the primary cost is still postage, which I can’t do much about. Depending on my budget come November, I might also not include any pictures in the letter, to bring the printing costs down. I liked having the images, but its nice to have the option.

Reactions, Conclusions and Miscellaneous Navel-Gazing

I really like sending cards, and people seemed to like getting them, so it was kind of time consuming, but it was also very rewarding. This is the thing I think people often forget about emotionally laborious tasks like this. They have the potential to be thankless, but they also have the potential to feel really, really good.

Oddly, while it didn’t occur to me all throughout the drawn out process of planning, creating, assembling, mailing and handing out 34 cards, all of which went swimmingly, now that I’m sitting and writing about it after the fact, my primary emotion is regret that I never got to send a Christmas card to my paternal Grandmother, who died in 2014. My Grandma was utterly and frustratingly technophobic so communication with her (outside of actually crossing the Atlantic Ocean) was limited to letters, or long distance phone calls. So most of the cards I have sent, across my entire lifetime, went to her, but she never got a grownup Christmas letter from me, which I know she would have appreciated. I have no idea why I’m thinking about this now, but I am.

To end on a less sombre note, one thing that surprised me, is that if you hand someone a card and two page long letter, they will, it turns out, immediately drop everything and read it, instead of leaving it until later. Who knew?

NaNoWriMo After Action Report

[Warning: Contains non-ideally formatted graphs and a lackadaisical attitude towards statistical assumptions. I was using my NaNoWriMo output to learn how to use new statistics software, so the graphs were formatted and the tests picked to let me use as many beginner-friendly R functions as possible, not necessarily to give the most appropriate tests. Sorry.

Also warning: This is just unremitting navel-gazing about my writing habits. That’s all it is. Not sorry about that.]

Background for the NaNo Plan

This year seemed like my year for NaNo. I’ve spent the last two years stressed out of my brain, and couldn’t face it, but this year has actually gone well for me. I had my Candidacy exam (giant oral exam of doom) scheduled October the 5th so I came up the following scheme.

I’d finish my exam, spend a week or so recuperating and then have the rest of October to clear things up at work so I would have free time, and to outline and prep things for November.

The Original NaNo Plan

I’ve never finished a novel draft before, and I’m a slow writer, so I was always planning to do a modified NaNo to ease into it.

I settled up on the following rules:

  • – Write as many words as possible during November, aiming for 50,000
  • – Do not edit, just move onto the next chapter or the next project.
  • – You can start new projects if you want to (I’ve been trying not start new projects until I finish some of my open ones… it hasn’t been going well)
  • – Any and all writing projects count, journaling doesn’t count, internet comments don’t count and nothing written for work counts.

NaNo Goals

I didn’t come into the project with especially clearly defined goals.

Realistically, I knew I wasn’t going to manage 50,000 words. I figured 25,000-30,000 would probably be pretty good optimistic count to aim for, but I basically just came into it aiming to write as much as possible, however much that was. I actually wrote just bit under 22,000 words, so I wasn’t far off.

I didn’t have any specific ideas about writing every day or not going in, but by a few weeks in I decided that I really wanted to try and write every day. This I did manage. I have no daily word counts of 0.

My long standing, number one writing goal, independent of NaNo is to finish a long work of fiction. I didn’t expect to do this during NaNo. I did use NaNo to polish off a number of shorter drafts that have been hanging in partially completed limbo though. I count this as a partial success. I didn’t complete a long work, but I did complete things, which, I hope, is good practice in finishing stuff.

Actual NaNoWriMo Proceedings

Read more

Sure is a State of Being: An Every Heart A Doorway Review

I’ve finished Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, again (in my defense it’s a dainty little book, not even 200 pages). I love it. I have not one single negative thing that I can think of to say about it. I wish I could send a copy back in time to my teenage self, because she really could have used a book like that.

First off, take a minute before you start reading to really appreciate the cover art, because its wonderful.

Mechanically, it’s a great book. The pacing is great; tense, but not rushed. The world-building is incredibly lush, not only for Eleanor’s school and the general setting, but also for each of the students’ portal worlds, even the ones that only get described for a passage or so. The classification system developed to explain the different portal universes, plotted on two axes, virtue to wickedness and nonsense to logic, but peppered with minor directions like, rhyme, and linearity, is just plain fun. Its also very fan-friendly. Its deeply appealing for self-sorting (I’m high virtue, high logic, low linearity, how about you?) and its just begging to be used as an AU setting. The characters are wonderfully lifelike, diverse and brilliantly written. They all have immense emotional depth and even when I didn’t like them, I felt for them.

So, I’ve been looking forward to this book since I first heard the premise, because a boarding school for portal fantasy heroes is exactly the sort of story I would like, regardless of anything else. But when I found out that it had an ace lead character I immediately bought it in hard cover, instead of just getting a kindle version. Having actually read it, I now need a folio edition because a regular hard-cover just doesn’t express my love of this book sufficiently.

Not only is Nancy an ace character, she’s a fantastic ace character. She’s well developed and interesting and her asexuality is an integral and integrated part of her, but never subsumes her personality. I have nothing bad at all to say about her. I love her. I am deeply grateful to Seanan McGuire for writing her.

There’s one thing in specific, about the way that Nancy’s identity is presented that I want to focus on, the paragraph where Nancy first comes out:

“I’m asexual. I don’t get those feelings” She would have thought her lack of sexual desire had been what had drawn her to the Underworld – so many people had called her a “cold fish” and said she was dead inside back when she’d been attending an ordinary high school, among ordinary teenagers, after all – except that non of the people she’d met in those gloriously haunted halls had shared her orientation. They lusted as hotly as the living did. The Lord of the Dead and the Lady of Shadows had spread their ardour throughout the palace, and all had been warmed by its light.

It would have been incredibly easy to overlook that people might associate asexuality with an affinity for death, or to leave the clarification for later. But instead, the whole train of thought is cut off right away. No one gets a chance to ask if maybe Nancy’s sexual orientation is why Nancy was drawn to the Underworld, so no one has a chance to decide that the answer is yes. Its an incredibly deft way of dodging a nasty stereotype, and I really appreciated it.


Read more

Academic Politics in Numb3rs: A Millie Finch Appreciation Post

 So the subplot in Numb3rs Season 3 episode “Waste Not” is Charlie and Amita’s conflict with their pushy new Head of Department, Millie Finch. Millie Charlie and Amita’s relationship gets a good deal more friendly in later episodes, but in this episode in specific, its pretty hostile. Central to the conflict, Millie demands that Amita serve on the curriculum committee and Charlie serve on the graduate admissions committee.

This sounds like an annoying bureaucratic request, and it is. But its worth talking through the way that committees work in universities, because it’s a bigger part of Charlie’s character arc than you might think.

Read more

On A Fandom Terminology Gap

So there’s a lot of tropes and trends that exist either in media or in the fandom that surrounds it, that are problematic (term used here without irony).

And some of those things really are straight up problematic. Whitewashing and straightwashing characters and settings for example, is pretty much always unnecessary and gross. Characters who are based around ableist stereotypes (*cough* Sheldon Cooper *cough*) are pretty much gross wherever you find them.

And then there’s a lot of things that are “problematic”, not because they’re intrinsically bad, but just because they’re so overwhelmingly common that they’re drowning out all other narratives.

Read more