The last couple of days have been perfectly warm and yet not humid, not hot. It has felt as though Toronto had been lunging between rain and attempts at heat. And maybe that pattern will reassert– we can’t know anything about what the weather will do now – but I feel as if summer did have cat days, this will be them. Long, perfect for napping, lazy but not fully languorous.
Besides that, our cats are filled with wonder and delight because their favorite reality show, Adolescent Squirrels Leave Home! (season two) is currently playing in our front yard.
Sadly, they don’t have access to Raccoons invade local record Shop, playing just down the road at Kop’s Records on Queen Street.
Because I am interested in and writing about things like rationing, food security and small scale economies, I’ve also been watching a bunch of UK quasi-reality shows called Wartime Farm, Edwardian Farm, Tudor Monastery Farm … well, you get the idea. It’s a shared universe proposition, featuring a trio of archaeologists and historians who don period clothes and go work historical farms within Britain, using the technologies and techniques of the era suggested by the show’s title.
The Farm shows are a bit of a drift from our usual fare, which leans heavily to British murder mystery and period drama interspersed with things like the latest incarnation of The Tick and Fleabag, but Kelly and I have found them wildly compelling. I think I could watch people build improvise and tend kilns, making bricks out in the middle of nowhere, every day for the rest of my life.
Another appeal of the farm shows, besides soft research, is they underline very strongly how much wood a person had to have access to, and burn, to achieve any measure of comfortable living. Making charcoal for kilns, then burning the charcoal. Boiling salt to refine it. Smelting, blacksmithing, keeping water hot… I get that trees can be big and weigh a lot, but it’s a sobering look at resource use, a reminder that we still use all that fire and more besides—we just don’t see where it comes from.
One of the things I’m doing in the first weeks of my MFA program is a top ten list of TV shows, based pretty much on whatever criteria I want, with notes on what makes them interesting. Here’s what I came up with.
W1A –This comedy about the bureaucratic workings of the BBC is something I return to again and again because the dialog has so much verisimilitude and I kept seeing new things within the characters until maybe the 5th or 6th viewing.
Shetland—the vast majority of my current TV viewing originates in the UK and this show, based on a series of Anne Cleeves novels, is my front-running fave. This is the one that would change as soon as I developed a new obsession, but right now Doug Henshall’s Inspector Jimmy Perez and the Shetland Islands settings loom large. The construction of the second season was brilliant.
Quantum Leap—I love time travel. Loooooove it! I came to this years after it aired, when it was in rerun on the Space Channel. Many things about it do not hold up, but Scott Bakula’s performance as Sam Beckett and the compassion he brought to every leap still get me. What’s more, I’ve seen shows that try to copy this format time and time again, only to, in my opinion, fail: Tru Callingand Journeyman are two examples that come to mind.
Farscape–What fascinates me most about Farscape(Boomtownhas this too) is that even from the second episode, the characters and situations were established with a confidence and depth that made it seem like they were already in their third season.
Hannibal—There was a time when this would have been too gory and graphic for me, and I realized afterward that my bar had shifted. I like the dark humor in this, the fact that the first season in particular is a meditation on the nature of art and art criticism, as mediated through serial killers creating installations using murdered human bodies. Grim, yes, but effective. Also, as others will no doubt note, Hannibal is slashy AF.
Parks and Recreation– I am not much for sitcoms, but numerous people insisted that if I held on through S1, I’d love this, and they were right. Brilliant casting, good ensemble storytelling, and what I liked most was the attempt to create romantic relationships that lasted rather than building unresolved sexual tension indefinitely, paying off with sex, and then staging a spurious break-up.
Battlestar Galactica—the original. Cheesy and dumb, and doesn’t hold up, but I cannot pretend this was not formative for me: I still write a lot of fiction about genocide and fleets of ships on the move.
Veronica Mars– witty, good mystery construction, compelling characters, and I liked the Nancy Drew + noir mash-up. Most high school based shows falter when their MC goes to college but some interesting things happened in Veronica’s freshman year on this series.
Boomtown– non-linear storytelling, reasonably diverse cast, play with POV, great s1 arc.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer —I caught up with this a few seasons after it initially started airing, and rewatched it all again for Tor.com a couple years ago. It was one of the first shows that had online discussion groups breaking down every episode as soon as it aired, and I had to quit one such group to avoid spoilers. Because I did my rewatch in a fairly public way, it spawned after-the-fact discussion and analysis from many fans. As a side show to the actual show, there’s the ever-fascinating and still current public discussion of Joss Whedon himself. Is he a great writer or a hack? Is he a feminist or not? It’s all interesting.
The better you get at something, the harder it is to improve.
This philosophy–which I’m pretty sure I first encountered in a science fiction novel by Kevin J. Anderson, expressed there as the Law of Diminishing Educational Returns–has borne out with many of the skills I’ve pursued in a less than professional fashion. Yoga, photography, choral singing, and aikido all come to mind. You get to a certain point, and you’re somewhere between not bad and decent, and it’s clear that the amount of time and effort required to get up to impressive is going to ramp up in a big way.
Leveling with aikido is an especially on-point example, because each belt exam comes after a certain number of hours in the dojo, on the mat. That number rises… not exponentially, but significantly as one travels from white belt to yellow and upward.
I also believe that if you aren’t trying to improve, you’re coasting. And what is coasting, really, but a gentle drift downhill?*
I certainly don’t think I’ve stopped striving, as a writer, but I also don’t want to wait until I reach some hypothetical future where I’ve eased up, unknowingly. I’ve gotten very good indeed at a lot of things, and I’m proud of my accomplishments. And I’ve written a couple things lately that feel like new breakthroughs. I love breakthroughs. Getting better is an incredible feeling!
All of which means that now is a great time, for me, to greedily reach for more. And, specifically, to look for some coaching. It’s easy and necessary to cultivate self-sufficiency in this game–to follow your instincts and see where they lead you. But it isn’t a good idea to do that all the time.
To that end–and for a bunch of other reasons besides, most of which I’m betting you can guess–I applied last December to the UBC’s Optional-Residency MFA program for creative writers. (Wow. December. So long ago!) I was accepted in February, or around there, and quietly settled into a state of waiting to start school. This has been rather like existing as a chrysalis: neither caterpillar nor butterfly. Suspended animation.
Well… okay. I’ve been as suspended as one can be when one has books due, classes to teach, a new university bureaucracy to navigate**, and fabulous trips to Finland to first go on and then reminisce about. But I haven’t said anything while I was waiting, waiting, for this exciting new thing to begin.
Now the chrysalis is cracking: I did homework today for my Writing for TV class, and things officially get rolling on September 3rd. I’ll report in, as I’m able… in the meantime, I hope you’ll wish me luck!
*I believe this observation comes from Joan Welsh, but the Internet’s opinion is mixed.
**I’m telling people I’m now in a polyamorous relationship with three universities. Oh, the humanity!