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Mr. Schilling, What is “Classic”?

There’s never a first time,
But a first splash
Getting all the writers wet
And excited
And we all start swimming it
Until we get tired of it…

But readers want more and more
Ripples over the water scape,
Riding lesser waves farther or
Following them back to the splash.

The heat sucks up vapor,
And when the sky cools
Drops into little splashes
All along the surface.
Kids hopping in the pools
And adults putting up umbrellas.

I’m trying to shape water into a tower
And blow freeze it into icy
Mirrors of my fears.

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I’d like to say that Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” deserved its Pulitzer Prize, but since I didn’t read the competition I won’t go that far. The prose risked getting too purple but had a lot of lovely phrases, and I really felt for the characters as the struggled along in a world running over them. Kavalier and Clay wrote about heroes verses villains, but Chabon’s characters are humans verses society. I don’t know if Chabon was playing up that contrast on purpose or not, but Kavalier seemed increasingly aware of and frustrated by the futility of fighting Nazis by drawing an anti-fascist comic book. The real life Aryan bigot is portrayed as quite a loser. The villains of Kavalier and Clay’s real life are the normal people, businessmen making more money off their art than they do, and politicians fueled by homophobia attacking their lives and livelihood. And yet, despite their normal abilities and problems, Kavalier and Clay manage to offer amazement of their own.

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After my brother and I left “Captain America: Civil War,” we had a discussion about why various characters picked the sides they did. Tony Stark was driven by guilt over the destruction caused by Ultron, a being he had unleashed, while Vision did not trust himself because he didn’t fully understand the Infinity Stone. Natasha wanted to hold the team together.

But we argued about Steve Rogers. My brother believed that his training and background should have led him to sign the Sokovia Accords because he would not go rogue. Either as a soldier or a world’s police officer, he would believe in a military organization or system of justice.

This argument holds true for Steve Rogers before “Winter Soldier,” but Hydra’s corruption of SHIELD would have disillusioned him about the virtues of submitting to an organization. The Steve Rogers of “Civil War” is a lot less trusting man than the one who joined SHIELD after being unfrozen.

I also believe that the super solder serum given him changed his biochemistry, making it harder for him to submit to other people’s authority than the average person. He was chosen for the super soldier serum because it enhanced people’s psychological as well as physical traits. Good people became better, bad people became worse. Before Rogers was given the serum, he said he didn’t like killing but did want to fight bullies, outsmarted other soldiers, and threw himself on a grenade to save other people’s lives. After being given the serum, self-sacrifice and fighting evil could well have become biological imperatives for Rogers. In “Civil War,” when faced with the possibility of his decisions to save lives being vetoed by other people, Rogers might have known he could not obey an order to not help people.

Long ago I had wondered to myself, could God have given people free will without the desire to do evil? Imagine if you, my reader, had no desire to hurt other people. It would simply never occur to you to hurt others, by word or deed. You want to have a happy life and helping others makes you happy. If that is what you want, would you feel that you lack free will just because you don’t want to hurt other people?

Amanda Marotte at Salon.com makes a well-reasoned counter argument, that Rogers is repeating the sins he accused Nick Fury of in “Winter Soldier,” that it was wrong for SHIELD to act without oversight or the guidance of democracy.

But who exactly is supposed to supervise the Avengers? If the UN supervises the Avengers, then any super power could veto the Avengers’ actions. So what if the Russians develop a super powered hit squad? Putin could instruct his UN ambassador to block the Avengers’ counter actions. If the superpowers do not have veto power over the UN decision to send in the Avengers, then what happens when the US government decides to take action against what they call a terrorist state but the UN thinks the action is just about oil interests? Could the Avengers be ordered into combat against the American military? And if the Avengers work for one particular country, they are even more likely to be used for national interests rather than the benefit of humanity.

But let’s say those issues were resolved by the Accords and a politically acceptable organization is set up to control the Avengers, one more democratic, transparent, and accountable than SHIELD. The Avengers were only given a few days to decide if they would abide by a set of regulations the length of “War and Peace” or retire. If I was an Avenger I would want a month with an international lawyer to help me read it.

Our laws are not well designed to deal with saints. Most people who operate on a higher moral plane are leading protests against unjust laws. Saint Francis and Buddha got away with it; Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr, did not. What separates Steve Rogers from the great moral exemplars of history is that most people who really have risen above normal human morality have been pacifists. Rogers is not a saint whose virtues are based upon philosophy or theology, but rather a perfection of selected but otherwise normal human traits. He is a paladin, not a practitioner of civil disobedience.

I realize that I could be accused of justifying Rogers’ independence by saying he is a better human being, but allow me to suggest that Rogers does have an extended responsibility to act. If I am walking down the street and I see a rape, I have a moral and legal responsibility to stop that rape because I am physically capability of doing so: I am a black belt and lift weights. I am not legally responsible to stop a gun man from holding up a bank because I am not bullet proof. By that standard, Steve Rogers has a much greater moral responsibility than the average human being, very much like Spider Man’s widely accepted moral guideline.

Steve Rogers’ most worrisome limitation is not his moral code, but his limitation of knowledge. How easy would it be for him to be fighting terrorists and accidentally maim a double agent, or perhaps ruin months of undercover work by Interpol, or mistake a training exercise for a real preparation for invasion? Nor is Rogers the only Avenger; Tony Stark and Bruce Banner more or less created Ultron behind Rogers’ back. I can only imagine what Tony Stark would have turned into if he was given a dose of that super soldier serum; he could have become John Galt, Don Juan, and Dionysus rolled into one package. Steve Rogers should have considered his own inability to control his fellow Avengers; his charisma factor is considerable but obviously not enough.

But what if we do submit Tony Stark to government control? Wouldn’t most governments turn him back into the arms manufacturer that he used to be? Wouldn’t most politicians want him to invent more superweapons? How long would it be before the United Nations would finally have the military ability to fulfil the fears of right wing conspiracy nuts?

So if forcing Rogers to submit his moral imperatives or Stark his technical genius to mere politicians is as problematic as letting them run free, then what is there to do? The Avengers and the supervising committee would have to be equals; both the committee and the Avengers would have to agree to any action. Either the Avengers or the committee could propose an action. This would limit the good the Avengers could do, but also limit their mistakes, and is probably the most just way to go about it.

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I've been slogging through the process of finding an agent. Stage one: read through the agent's section of an out of date Writer's Market. Stage two: go to the Internet for more up to date information. Stage three: submit.

I've been happier with my gym time. I've been using a variation of a three step program. First, do 5x5 sets of a heavy weight at a pressing exercise, then a pulling exercise, and then a leg exercise. Then do those same three at 4x8 at a medium weight, and then do them again at a light weight at 3x12. But my variation saves some time by only doing stages 1 and 3, and it still worked so well that I broke my college bench press record and set a new personal best for shoulder presses. I also like doing different leg exercises: dead lifts for the heavy and kettle ball swings for the light, for example.

I've also been watching a lot of "Third Rock from the Sun" on Netflix. I missed it the first time around because my ex-wife was against TV on general principles. They have no shame and it is often brilliant.

Good Bye Hanoi

This is my last day in Hanoi. I liked everything except for the work and I could gripe about the weather. I really can't teach children well and the job offers I had for adults bit the big one.

I made several friends who showed me around the city and chatted with me over dinner or tea. I taught a couple of them how to play Rummy and they picked it up fast. Some of them gave me gifts these last few days, and I was handing out books I didn't want to pack in my luggage to them.

Vietnam is a lot like China, but with a strong French influence that means a vast cafe culture and much better desserts and pastries. They also didn't have such a harsh Cultural Revolution so there are probably more temples, pagodas, and churches in Hanoi than there are in China (judging by personal observation). Vietnamese women also seem more independent than Chinese women in some ways, more willing to open their own small businesses or have children without bothering with a husband. It might have something to do with having a feminine-centered religion before Buddhism and Catholicism arrived. The cult of the Virgin Mary might be why Catholicism more successful in Vietnam than in China, but that's just a guess.

Whew

Update One: finished the rewrite of the novel I've been working on in spurts for years but finished in a mad rush in the last few months about college life in China. Four POV Chinese characters and one American POV character. Three kids trying to make it through college and a romance between a Chinese martial arts teacher and an American professor.

Update Two: finished the rewrite of a novel I wrote in five weeks. It is set in a magical version of the ancient Chinese occupation of northern Vietnam. The POV characters struggle against sexism, racism, the lies of scripture, and sometimes each other. Plus, two romantic subplots, a rebuttal of Lovecraft, and the answer to why Slayers are girls.

Update Three: I broke my college personal best for bench press by eight pounds. Not bad for a middle aged man.

Bus Trip to Thai Binh

I noticed some interesting things on the way to Thai Binh. First, the cemeteries we passed on the way are built like little fortresses to protect their dead from the effects of marshy land. We were also given free food called “Cay cakes” but were shaped like sticks and combined stick rice, carrots, and enough ginger to mask the favor of the other two. My friend and I were also the only people talking on the bus, but I’m pretty sure a couple of people were listening in to practice their English. Our bus was pulled over for over-crowding (people were sitting in the aisles on stools) and the driver paid the police the standard “fine.” I also think it is interesting that a two hour bus trip to another city costs less than a twenty minute taxi ride to work. Capitalism loves scaling upwards.

We saw so many churches and cemeteries from the highway that you could do religious bike tours from Hanoi to Thai Binh. I also saw a lot of places where the trees were in lines, I suspect planted to hold the ground in place.

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Stealing Milton for a Muse

It was the month of Halloween
When the curse of Heaven’s Queen
Lay upon the ambitious daughter of a farmer
And the scholarly son of a carpenter.
For the ascetic muses sang
And their choir bells rang
For the birth of the bouncing
Budding writer.

In his inglorious form
Which light did not forgive,
His body rejected vice,
His mind rejected lies.
The unwilling monastic,
The lost romantic,
The agnostic by principle,
The atheist by practice.

Say, Heavenly Muse, should not thy sacred style
Afford wealth, luck or the love of a good partner
Shall not ye grant unbearable talent
To one ye gifted infinite imagination?

My mind’s eye has soared
To dream palaces of dragons,
Over the battlefields of Ares,
Swam the sea of spirits
Light of heart enough to transcend.

Wielding pens of good intentions
To forge swords of great faith,
Telling truths through heroes’ speeches,
Villains’ quips, and Wizards’ rules.

See how far upon the eastern roads
I have travelled to ladies sweet.
Teaching ancient people our modern odes.
Stretching hands outwards to greet.

Only with queries fair
And synopsis intriguing
May I woo busy editors
And seduce wary publishers.

If my secular song
Will entrap your fancy long,
Truth will penetrate
The thick skulls of men
And love envelope
The bitter hearts of women.

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bleh

Having one of those days when the purposeless of my life is dragging on me. Here in Vietnam having trouble finding a job that fits me, trying to write a novel more on momentum than faith that it would ever get publishing, feeling I'm too old to get married. Ten years ago I had plenty of patience with life, twenty years ago I had plenty of confidence, but it just never sorted out and now I look forward and wonder, is it all too late?

I know intellectually that it isn't, but I feel my options narrowing. I know intellectually that there's no predicting the future, but on an emotional level I'm stuck with this "learned helplessness," that nothing I do will work out so why do stuff?
A friend of mine invited me to the Tet festival market place for all your festival shopping needs. Google maps said it was a half hour walk, but it turned out to be forty minutes, but my friend was stuck in traffic so she was late, too. It was built around a regular open market where you bought nuts, spices, and dried fruit in bulk and gift shops. Lots of red and gold decorations.

I kept looking around the buildings trying to imagine what the neighborhood was like when it was newly built; tall, narrow townhouses (now divided into apartments), no power lines, fresh paint, etc. An Aussie came up with some old coins he had just bought and he was trying to figure out if they were real antiques or not. I'm pretty sure at least one of them was fake, since it had "French Republic" in French stamped on it but was dated 1825, smack in the middle of the Bourbon Restoration (I admit to using wikipedia when I got home so I could give you the right name).

So when my friend and her friend showed we walked around a lot. I almost bought what I thought would be really cool Vietnamese wrapping paper for gifts but it turned out to be the tube for fireworks. That would have been embarrassing to get through customs. Then we sat down to eat wrap your own spring rolls, which was a nice experience even if my paper folding/rolling skills are rudimentary.

By the time I was walking home the sun was going down, so decorative lights were coming on, which made the same forty minute walk back just as interesting as the walk there.

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paulliver
Paulliver

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