The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

Paradigm-shifting. Should have been required reading for my philosophy degree. Beauvoir applies existential analysis to a real problem: the treatment of women through ages of male domination.

Her writing is clear and lucid throughout, whether elaborating the trails of a young girl approaching adulthood or demolishing arguments against legal abortion. This is philosophy at its best, digging past the concrete details of our lives to show the broken abstraction behind it all.

As someone who came into the book thinking men and women should be equal in all things, it’s still completely changed how I view the world. I had no idea of the scope of pressures women feel, starting almost from birth, to conform to an ideal of what it means to be female, an ideal that often prescribes their inferiority. There are so many traps to fall into, traps that keep women from achieving their full potential, many of which I can only see now, after Beauvoir has pointed them out.

It would be impossible for me to boil down everything I’ve learned from the book. But let me pull out three things that struck me:

  • When abortion was illegal in France, it still occurred (her estimate is one million abortions a year) but was much more dangerous. She describes one instance where a women waited in bed, bleeding, for four days after a botched abortion, for fear of being sent to prison.
  • In patriarchal societies, adolescence is much harder on women than on men. Teenage boys are given more freedom, so they can find their place in the world. Teenage girls have their former freedoms stripped away, so they can prepare for a life spent under their husband’s thumb.
  • Cultures that will readily grant some rights to unwed women (holding a job, owning their own property, etc) often strip women of those rights when they get married, and saddle them with a slew of new responsibilities. Thus so-called “family values” societies actually incentivize women to skip marriage and having children altogether.

Reverse Pomodoro

Still no working bathroom, no walls on the house, no ceiling in one room, and no fix for my failed root canal.

But I’ve managed to get the novel to 53,225 words.

I’ve hit my word count every day this week, by writing in the cracks: while my wife is getting ready in the morning before work, on my lunch break, while I’m waiting to be picked up after work. It’s only 5, 10 minutes at a time, sometimes less, but it’s somehow enough.

I’m pushing myself to write, even on my phone, even if I don’t remember the exact line I left off on in the book. It’s forcing me to keep more of the story in my head, sure, but it’s allowing me to move forward despite not having a solid block of time to work in.

I keep telling myself that the only way to fail here is to quit. So I’m not going to quit, even if it takes me another six months to get to the end of the novel. I’m going to finish it.

How to Remake To Kill A Mockingbird

Rewatched To Kill a Mockingbird this weekend. My wife had never seen it, and I hadn’t seen it years.

Apparently my memory of the movie is vastly different from what’s actually there.

For example, I don’t remember Scout’s older brother, Jem, at all. Ditto Boo Radley and his plotline.

In my remembering, the movie is basically Scout and her father talking about the evils of prejudice, then a courtroom battle where Atticus defends Tom — accused because of his skin color, and nothing else — then wins the case, and everyone lives happily ever after.

This is not what happens at all. The movie spends most of its time following Scout and Jem, not in the courtroom. Atticus loses the case, and Tom commits suicide by cop. Boo Radley emerges from hiding to kill another man, and gets away with it because the Sheriff lets him off.

It’s a dark, dark movie, that deals head-on with many of the issues of its time: segregation, the struggle for justice in the face of prejudice, the failure of our system of government to protect minorities against the depredations of the majority.

So how could it be updated?

We could shift the court case from race relations to a different battleground: reproductive rights.

The courtroom case is part of the fallout from a divorce. The couple had two children normally, and was in the middle of trying to have a third with the help of a fertility clinic when they split. The husband wants to keep the multiple fertilized embryos they have from their time at the clinic, while the wife wants to have them destroyed.

Who will get custody of the embryos? Are they property, and so should be divided between the couple? Or are they children, and so should be given to the parent that will best care for them?

To keep things from getting two cliché, we put the husband and wife on opposite sides of the abortion debate as well. The husband is generally pro-choice, but will be tempted to argue that the embryos are children, and so destroying them would be murder. The wife is more religious, and inclined to be against abortion. But she’ll be pushed to argue that the embroys are just property, with a monetary value that she could pay as compensation to the father, so she can dispose of them as she wishes.

Our “Scout” and “Jem” are the couple’s existing two kids. Through them we see the fault lines through the town: the anti-abortion protestors that gather into a mob at one point to try to burn down the fertility clinic, the pro-choice groups that can’t decide whose desires — the man or the woman — should trump the other, the judge that doesn’t want to end up trying two cases for the same divorce.

Our Boo Radley subplot is a woman from the poor part of town that has just discovered she’s pregnant. She’s not married, and the father isn’t around anymore. Should she get an abortion? In the southern town they live in, that’ll mean a long, expensive trip to the nearest large city. But keeping the child will mean an even longer, painful pregnancy followed by a very expensive mouth to feed.

The conflicts in this remake will push on multiple issues: abortion rights, women’s rights, the way the law treats the wealthy (the couple that could afford fertility treatments) differently from the poor (the woman that can’t afford to keep or get rid of the baby).

None of the solutions will be obvious or straightforward, despite the rigid way these issues are usually viewed. In fact, by filming the remake in black and white, we can visually undermine the simplistic approach that’s usually taken.

Even when we try to frame the events in black-and-white, we end up with nothing but shades of grey.

No Time to Wait on a Sinking Ship

I’ve had to compromise on my daily word count multiple times. First I slipped from 500 words a day to 500 words per weekday, taking weekends off. Then it was 500 words three days a week. Then 250 words.

Now if I get any words down at all during a day, I have to pat myself on the back.

Somehow I’ve managed to push the novel to 50,898 words.

Meanwhile, the house we bought is being completely rewired, most of the walls have had to come down and be replaced, the living room’s missing a ceiling, and I haven’t had a fully functioning bathroom for five days (we discovered a leak in the walls of the shower that meant we had to replace the whole thing: tub, surround and all).

Oh, and one of my root canals decided to fail after humming along quietly for ten years.

I’ve tried to tell myself that this’ll all pass soon, and I can tread water until things get back to normal.

But what if they don’t? What if this cascading series of crises is the normal? What if it lasts 3 months? 6? A year? Am I going to wait to finish till then? Am I going to hold back and make do when I don’t know what will happen next?

I don’t want to tread water. I want to take what I’m going through and pour it into the book, to turn these failures into something successful.

I don’t have any control of what part of the house — or me — falls apart next. I can’t even control my schedule enough to have a regular writing time anymore. But I can push myself to write every chance I get, to use marlapaige’s suggestion and write on my phone, write in my notebook, write anywhere and everywhere. I can finish what I’ve started, and I don’t have to wait.

How to Fix Jurassic World

What Went Wrong

Almost everything. Nothing makes sense: not the CEO that doesn’t care about business, or the way his employees in the lab can just hide information from the rest of the company, or the kids’ parents who shipped them off for a “family weekend” that didn’t include them. The plan to turn velociraptors into weapons is laughable, and the park’s lack of a plan to handle an escaped animal is criminal.

But the worst part of the movie is its treatment of Claire.

At the start of the movie, Claire is the hero. She’s a professional woman who doesn’t have time for children and knows it, who is struggling to find time for her sister’s kids — that were dumped on her, it’s clear she didn’t have any choice about the trip or its timing — and manage a multi-million dollar park, despite a CEO that doesn’t seem interested in business.

She’s surrounded by people that want her to give up and go back to a subservient female role. Her sister wants her to pop out some kids. Her boss wants her to stop caring about her job. Her subordinate (Owen) wants her to take his orders and his termination-worthy sexual harassment.

It’s clear that the movie wants us to find her off-putting at the start (they even dress her in white, for goodness sake, to emphasize her supposed frigidity). The intention is that as time goes on she’ll become more sympathetic, but only as she takes on a more traditional, more subservient, role: she takes off her outer clothing to expose her breasts (despite the chill of the evening), she accepts motherly responsibilities over her (frankly bratty) nephews, and she submits to Owen’s sexual advances.

But every step along the way is a loss of her agency. By the end of the movie, she’s the selfless, unambitious woman everyone wanted her to be, instead of the level-headed boss she was. She’s gone from hero to sidekick, from independent woman to love interest.

How to Fix It

There’s a lot that needs to change.

We’ll start with Claire. We gender-swap the company manager and animal trainer roles. Now Owen’s role — velociraptor-whispering wilderness bad-ass — is filled by a woman, and Claire’s role — overworking manager who’s lost their sense of wonder — is filled by a man.

The manager’s character arc shifts away from forcing an ambitious person to fit into a traditional gender role. Instead, the manager, in contact with the kids and the trainer, and getting to see more of “his” park than usual, rediscovers his sense of wonder. Through their adventures — which have to include some moments of peace and reflection now, instead of pure destruction and death — he reconnects with the reason he took the job in the first place. By the end of the movie, he hasn’t abandoned his career for a family, but the park’s creatures become more than just assets.

We also change up the villains, which will let us give the trainer the character arc that’s missing in the original version of the film.

The villains are animal rights activists that want to free the dinosaurs and return them to the wild. They’d planned to do the release at night while no one was at the park, but their leader (still played by Vincent D’Onofrio) convinces them to take advantage of the chaos of the I. Rex’s escape to move ahead of schedule.

Now instead of mustache-twirling military villains, we’ve got real people with real concerns — the treatment of the dinosaurs at the park, their restrictions on breeding, etc — that you could make sympathetic arguments for.

In fact, at the start of the movie, the trainer is sympathetic to their arguments, and perhaps has a fight with the manager about it. Over the course of the movie, though, as she sees the destruction caused by their actions, she rejects the activists’ extremism and comes to appreciate the balance between commerce and science that the park represents.

As for the CEO, we make him a Costa Rican native that was educated in the US before joining Hammond’s company. A real up-by-your-bootstraps guy, he cares about the business and making money, but he chose to build the park as a way of giving back to Costa Rica: the construction jobs, the tourist money, etc. Each one of the workers that dies is someone he knows, each one hits him hard because it’s one of his countrymen.

Finally, we need to change the kids. They’re no longer siblings, and they’re not here as part of a family “retreat”. Instead, the older kid is American and deaf, the younger is Costa Rican and autistic. Both are there as part of a therapy camp for disabled kids the CEO wanted to host.

The manager’s grumpy about the camp, since it’s more work for him. But the American deaf kid is his nephew; he got him into the camp as a favor to his sister.

As part of the camp, the kids are sequestered in a part of the park that’s herbivores-only. Within this safe zone, they can roam around inside the bubble cars as much as they want.

Most of the kids want to spend time outside of the bubbles, except for the autistic kid. He feels comfortable there, spends more time exploring in the bubbles than anyone else. This is how he finds a hidden route that leads to the velociraptor enclosure. He meets our trainer there, and develops a bond with the raptors.

He uses this bond later in the movie, when the raptors have turned against their trainer: it’s the kid that gets the raptors to back down, and gives the humans time to escape.

The deaf kid is too cool for most of the other kids — and can’t communicate with most of them, since he insisted on not having an interpreter — but the autistic kid finds a way to communicate with him using the HUD built into the bubble cars.

The two become friends. Eventually the autistic kid shows him how to get out from the confines of their camp, which is why they’re MIA when the I Rex vanishes, kicking off the trainer and manager searching for them.

It’s a lot of changes, but now we’ve got a movie where every character is sympathetic — even the villains — and they’ve all got story arcs that have them growing and changing over the course of the movie. And with the CEO knowing most of his employees, each death has meaning, each disaster is something personal. And since our antagonists are real people, causing real but preventable havok, we can end the movie with the park damaged but intact, having survived this attack, and the manager and CEO vowing to recover and rebuild.

We can do something that hasn’t been done in a Jurassic Park movie before: end on a note of hope.

Is This Progress?

Novel’s at 49,793 words.

I’m having to steal writing time from other things. Not set aside time, but literally steal, like jotting down a few dozen words while waiting for my wife to pick me up from work, or hovering outside the bedroom/office in the morning with my laptop so I don’t wake her.

It’s frustrating. I feel like I’m not making any progress, that I can’t build up any momentum. It helps that I’m trying to pants things a little more — easier to snatch time from other things for writing that way — but it also hurts, since without a larger plan of where I’m going I don’t have a way to track how far I’ve come.

I’m trying to be patient, to eek out what words I can until the house is in better shape. But we keep coming across problems in the house that need to be fixed — like the bathtub leak we found two days ago — that keep sucking up all my time.

I’m afraid; afraid that if I don’t get some sort of rhythm going again that I won’t finish the book. And I don’t want that kind of failure hanging around my neck.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Came out of this one with mixed feelings. Really enjoyed the first third or so of the book, but it turned into a slog about halfway through, when the focus shifted away from the monasteries. Almost broke off reading a couple times after that.

I did learn a few things about writing, though:

  • In a work this long, with this many locations, maps become critical. I got lost in the monastery, I got lost during the overland journey, I got lost in every location despite — or because of? — the descriptions. Even a rudimentary map would have helped anchor me in the world.
  • When introducing a new vocabulary, you need to be doubly-sure the reader understands those terms before they become critical to the plot. There was an entire section (the first voco incident) that had no emotional impact for me because I didn’t know what voco was.
  • Showing a different side of a cliché plot can be enough to make it interesting again. In the regular telling of this story, the avout would be on the sidelines, popping up only when things needed explaining to the other characters. But here they’re the focus, so we see the entire incident from their point of view, making an old plot feel fresh.