Live Event Review: Diana Gabaldon Skype Session

Barring some spotty transmission of sound, tonight’s Skype session with Outlander author Diana Gabaldon was a treat–and free! Connecting from her Santa Fe, NM, getaway house (lives in Scottsdale, AZ) to our own Lake High School Performing Arts Hall in Uniontown, Ohio, the Goddess of Jamie and Claire Fraser chatted to upwards of 200 people.

To start the presentation, Diana skipped the most common questions avid fans know the answers to, such as how she started writing the first book. Instead, she shared highlights about book 9’s progress (Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone–finish date still unknown), her writing, research, and editing processes, her three main types of characters (“mushrooms, onions, and hard nuts”–see Part 2 of her reference book The Outlandish Companion for full details), and impressions from consulting on the STARZ TV show adaptation.

In her explanation of character types, she used the case of Mr. Willoughby in Voyager to illustrate how a character springs up like a mushroom. Jamie and Claire are onion characters, with layers that keep revealing more depth. Then, some characters she is “stuck with,” hard nuts such as history’s George Washington, as she writes her current book during the American Revolutionary War, and Brianna Randall, Claire and Jamie’s daughter who had to be born for the long-haul story to work.

Diana has to get to know such characters gradually as they reveal themselves to her. She also noted that she doesn’t “kill” characters; they just die and she, too, finds those events “distressing.” She depicts her role as more of a conduit or vessel through which her stories create themselves. While it is not a passive, or by any means easy, process, she works intuitively and must remain receptive. She uses the senses to pose questions that her imagination then helps her answer.

True to her science background, (former) Professor Gabaldon described her writing in terms of natural processes. She revealed how her scenes start from “kernels” (a vivid image, a line of dialogue, a certain ambiance, a physical object) and proceed by an organic process that she compared to both “growing crystals in the basement” and “a slow game of Tetris.” She “fiddles” until the pieces fit together just right.

Perhaps unusual for a novelist, Diana doesn’t write in a straight line or plan her books in advance; she works wherever the images come from and cobbles or, as some have said, “quilts” scenes together. From the beginning of her book making, she has combined the research and writing processes, toggling back and forth to learn more and make corrections as needed. Her research prowess has become legendary among fans. She also shared how each book ultimately forms a geometric shape. Dragonfly in Amber is like a barbell, anchored by a framing story on both ends, and Outlander has a series of three pyramids or triangles where tensions rise and fall.

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Diana Gabaldon, San Diego Comicon 2015

During the Q&A, I was blessed enough to be able to ask Diana a direct question about how the show is adapting the Jamie-Claire relationship. I talked to HERSELF face to face sort of! Whoa. Happy Birthday (week) to me indeed. She agreed with my view that the core bond of these central characters needs some attention and further development on screen, and she indicated the producers think so, too. Diana assured us that the first six episodes she has seen of season 3 are “great,” which brought cheers from several attendees including me.

Just turned 65 last week, Diana Gabaldon is an endearing blend of erudite, friendly, and oddball. This was my second experience of a live Diana Gabaldon video session. She’s very generous and engaged with her fans, a wonderful writer and natural speaker.

Our hosts ran a solid event, the lights and audience mics worked well, and, though we were dram-dry, there was ample, delicious homemade Scottish shortbread laid out near the exit. Mmm . . . buttery, flaky goodness.

In sum, read these awesome Outlander books, people, and if you can, catch a video chat session with Herself. (Preaching to the choir?) The STARZ show really is pretty great, and season 3’s coming up. Even more impressive, though, the books are an endless fount of riches with an essence that even the very talented team of show producers and writers is hard pressed to capture in a visual medium. Books and TV are distinctly different species of animal, but in the case of this timeless, time-driven story, each is fierce and beautiful in its own way, with something for just about everyone.

Sláinte mhath from this balmy winter’s night in northeast Ohio’s Outlander fan land.

The event was hosted by the Stark County District Library, sponsored by Lake Community Friends of the Library, and buoyed by Diana’s two signed book copies for two lucky trivia game winners (not me which was a-okay).

The Perfect-Pooch Parade

A sucker for the mixed breed, I can’t help cringing inside at the sight of enthroned purity, even as I’m drawn to watching the Westminster Kennel Club 139th Annual Dog Show (2/16 on CNBC, 2/17 on USA). The more dog shows I watch, the more I want to watch, and yet, as each event wears on, so grows the sense that I’m watching a travelling circus freak show.

I enjoy most of the breeds that perform, especially the leggier, larger, and what I consider to be more elegant specimens in the hound, sporting, working, non-sporting, and herding groups. Many of the terriers also make me smile, but I like very few of the toy breeds. In my curiosity, however, it is hard to look away.

As much as I like watching these beautiful creatures, I detest the way animal health and well-being seem to have been compromised long ago for the sake of handicapping aesthetics. Such tailoring has made Dachshunds and corgis prone to back problems, Shar Peis more likely to develop skin irritations, toys and some terriers so tiny and fragile as to break bones easily, and very large dogs subject to shortened lifespans.

Not to mention all the breed-specific genetic diseases of the organs and other inner workings. Meanwhile, the smallest dogs live tortuously long, high-strung lives under the weight of so many owners’ anthropomorphizing neuroses.

Incidentally, Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan has become my primary guide to wise practices with dogs, but my own dog’s health conditions tend to preclude full execution of Cesar’s Way. The main thing he always says is to project “calm, assertive energy” to establish and maintain a leadership role in your “pack.”

I do try, but I, too, treat my dog more like a fur baby than a dog at times. My husband’s even more guilty of that because the very sight of her usually turns him to absolute mush. She is his first dog and our first together. I had two growing up.

He and I both are more likely to laugh at poodle and Puli hairstyles than to appreciate the perfection of their fitness for outdated utilitarian or aesthetic functions. The Pomerian and Old English sheepdog are groomed to appear as if they each stuck a paw in an electrical outlet. The Shih Tzu and Maltese look as if they were, in fact, high-end antique mops or decorative dusters rather than living canine beings.

Pekingese breed, show ready

Pekingese breed, show ready. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Worst of all, though, in my opinion, the Pekingese seems to be a combination of a terribly course, low-end mop and an elongated tribble, without discernible limbs, tail or neck. As I am writing this, the Shih Tzu takes top spot in the toy group. At least it wasn’t the Pekingese again. I don’t get the craze.

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“Captain Kirk in a pile of tribbles,” photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The tiny sizes of the toy breeds alone make them look like rats instead of rat terriers or Chihuahua dogs. The poor Chihuahua–target of so much misguided, everyday owner popularity that generations of them have lived in endless, rudderless anxiety due to excess coddling, lack of discipline, and the resulting inability just to be a dog.

The tugs on the wire-thin leashes, the prodding, poking, and positioning of limbs and tails, and the back-and-forth and circling trajectories dictated by the judges–all these televised rituals of their handling in the show, while employing these ideal examples of the purity of their breeds with a sense of purpose, nonetheless degrade, belittle, and add insult to the injuries of the often disabling special skills of their breeding.

Aside from the opportunity of learning and of viewing the sheer beauty of the canines, when it comes down to it, I’d rather re-visit the mockumentary film Best in Show starring director Christopher Guest and company, which parodies how seriously dog show people take these things. As with any collector society turned obsessive, there is much to satirize.

The meticulous, yet highly subjective nature of the judging of these animals as the best of the best in their breeds, groups, and shows not only flies in the face of common dog-owner instincts and preferences (for instance, the golden retriever has never won a best in show) but also, due to breed stereotypes, restricts people’s sense of the quality and value of any given dog as a pet.

These factors combine both to weaken the genetic hardiness of dogs through excessive, subsidized, and poorly managed and imitated pure-breeding, and to warp pet industry, dog owner, and service provider perspectives of what constitutes a dog worth having.

I think the aspect that most bothers me about dog show competitions is how they epitomize the pursuit of perfection. As a self-proclaimed “recovering perfectionist,” I feel ironic (hypocritical?) pride at having learned the sacred truth that perfection is overrated and quite subjective.

Here is a Best in Show montage of the yuppy couple taking perfectionism and performance anxiety to counterproductive extremes with their Weimaraner’s “busy bee” toy. It also illustrates beautifully how these shows are more about the showers than the shown.

Nothing has taught me how overrated perfection is better than the love I have learned from owning and caring for a rescued “pure-breed” American Brittany. Our dog Elyse is hampered by multiple heart conditions, arthritis, blocked tear ducts, abnormally worn teeth, and excessively long toenails from too much time in a kennel which made the quicks very close to the tips and prone to bleeding during a trim.

She sports a shorter, more rounded face than the breed’s square-jaw standard, a sub-standard mini-model size, persistent hints of alopecia (hair loss) from heart worm treatment chemical reactions, and overused lady parts from being forced to produce litter after litter (we surmise, for her history is largely unknown). Together, she and I are saddled with her round-the-clock heart and pain pill popping, along with persistent, room-to-room separation anxiety.

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Elyse, our Brittany rescue

Elyse is far, far from dog show or dock diving or agility competition material (the poor thing has no social life, in fact), yet she is sweet and beautiful and quirky and mine, so that makes her perfectly imperfect to me.

At the same time, clearly I have my own set of particular standards for how a dog should look and be, and for me, there is no better pet and companion than the puppy dog.

Still, next time, give me an under-appreciated mixed breed, a.k.a. mutt. They are in many ways better for society, in both the personal and public spheres. They suffer from fewer genetic diseases, and we are less likely to (mis)judge them by breed traits. In my case, I would mainly seek an animal that is healthier upon adoption than Elyse was, regardless of pedigree.

Despite my dog-show misgivings, I will continue to record the events so I can be sure to see the pooches in action. If it has to be in a perfection parade of sorts, so be it. The strange affair pulls me into a state of somewhat disturbed fascination with a spectacle at once too questionable to embrace fully and yet too magnetic to resist.

I suppose in this way it is like a domesticated, gentrified version of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Increasingly, I watch. I just prefer the view from the beach to the one from the water. Whether resisting the physical peril of nature or its elitist manipulation, I am compelled to keep my distance.

Review: Dancing with the Stars Live

Dancing with the Stars @ Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park Hard Rock Live. Northfield, OH.  Sun, Jan 18, 2015.

Summary: Fun and funny, tech problems, bad seats, pricey. Three stars.

At the Hard Rock Live performance area at the Rocksino in Northfield, Ohio, seats were folded chairs welded to the floor and crammed together flat on concrete with only a small section slightly elevated for reasonably good viewing at the very back. I attended the matinee performance with an admittedly older, sleepier audience.

Two IMAX screens on either side of the stage displayed only the second half in entirety and only two numbers during the first half. In the gaps, many people could see only the tops of heads on performers at a dance show where a huge part of the point is to be able to see their feet. $77 was definitely overpricing for the lackluster venue and tech blunders.

The show itself mostly comprised dance numbers you’ve already seen if you’ve been a fan of DWTS for any significant length of time. With Alfonso Ribeiro as host, the evening was more entertaining than it would have been without him, but he was the only star from the show to be touring with the pros. Great dancing, highly skilled as always, fun energy.

A little too much talk and music playing–Mark Ballas on guitar and Valentin Chmerkovskiy on violin–when there could have been more dancing. A small group of dancers included three unknowns, two of whom were probably chosen to make you do a double-take thinking they were Bethany Mota and Janel Parrish (a cheap trick). They revealed the dancers’ names only at the end of the show.

Witney, Emma, Kym, Sasha, Keo, Val, Mark, and Alfonso were a joy to watch. I was under the impression Tony would be there, but he had already begun performing “Ballroom with a Twist” with Anna Trebunskaya and others, appearing in our area the weekend after our one-day set of two shows. Another couple of pros and a few more stars from the show would have made the experience more worthwhile. The “Ballroom” show was cheaper and probably would have been a better value experience.

Advice for optimal enjoyment: Look into your venue, read several reviews, and be sure you will be satisfied with who is slated to perform before laying down the cash. If seeing these folks live makes little difference to you, you might be better off visiting YouTube for past seasons’ dance numbers. Hard Rock Live at the Hard Rock Rocksino in Northfield, Ohio, is a venue not at all suitable for dance shows.

Favorite moments: Getting to see Val and Witney live. Val coming off stage down the aisle to greet an audience member. Alfonso and Witney performing their free style. Kym Johnson hosting three male audience members with boas dancing on stage.

Opening act: Alfonso and Witney dancing to Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” and doing “the Carlton.”

Bottom line: I give the overall experience a B- with a C- for venue and production and a B+ for the show.

Final thought: My favorite female pros number was from season 19: all in gold and white with fans blowing to Fifth Harmony’s “Boss.” The live show included a scaled-down version of the dance.

The World Cup: Never Final

The 2014 FIFA World Cup Final match plays today at 3:00pm EST, about an hour from now, at the Maracana stadium, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, South America, Western and Southern Hemispheres, Earth, our solar system, the Milky Way Galaxy. Here.

I’m told you can see the Milky Way, and its gradual tilt overnight, somewhere in the corn fields of Iowa, and perhaps in rural regions the world over. This way is a symbol of constant change and perceived constancy, a swirling path we travel within while ourselves rotating on an oscillating axis and revolving around a sun that rises and sets in this galaxy, just as it does on our planet.

Another setting, another rising have brought us to this day: A global, month-long sports tournament and exhilarating spectacle, recurring every four years for twenty World Cups, once again climbs to a pinnacle and, with the greater speed of gravity, descends to rest dormant–though beating and breathing–in the imaginations and emotions of the everyday lives of fans young and old, spectators old and new.

Courtesy of The Daily Mail - dailymail.co.uk

Courtesy of The Daily Maildailymail.co.uk

Yet the intense work scarcely hesitates, restarting the same process, until the next fourth summer in the Northern Hemisphere (winter in the Southern, as it has been in Brazil).

We live our lives by cycles, by seasons of all sizes and types, returning to familiar states of being, forever saying “so long” to others. A drilling down into the crust of this earth exposes the layers of cycles of our many pasts, in the bones of our ancestors, and some descendants, and in the strata of the living, pulsing planet.

What a rare and wonderful blessing, to feel the security of knowing one’s rightful place in time and space. So few living human beings may luxuriate in such a sense of rightness, and the feeling, like all feelings, is fleeting. How precious these moments in experience.

That they may be shared and collectively enjoyed from time to time amplifies the rightness into greatness, expands elation into rapture. Win or lose, we experience the unmistakable richness of high and deep emotion fused into an undeniable, unified energy.

Together–across the sectors and lines of city, region, country, continent, ocean, and hemisphere; through the boundaries of language, culture, neighborhood, street, household, stadium, and playing pitch–the unity of a common love of futbol, team, and player penetrates.