Widows of the Empire: The Southern Islands

As we continue hurtling toward release day for Widows of the Empire, I wanted to return to the issue of geography that we touched on a couple of weeks ago. In that post I talked about the geography of the Unari Empire itself, but this time I want to journey a little further afield.

Gods of the Empire all took place on the single, large continent that dominates much of Oiwa’s northern hemisphere. Aside from that one, across which the Empire sprawls, there are two other smaller continents to the west, sort of Australia sized. The nations there have formed the Western Alliance in the years since the Port Ambs bombing and Chakat’s becoming Emperor, as a way to check his global reach.

The southern hemisphere of Oiwa is an entirely different kettle of fish, as it’s composed entirely of islands. A couple of them are largish, but nothing so grand as to earn the label “continent.” As a result, the Southern Islands (as they’re generally referred to when lumped together) are wildly diverse and independent, without any of the kind of trans-national alliances you find up north. That’s allowed Chakat to roll in with ships and Imperial Marines and cause more than a little havoc in these islands without any real consequences.

Like Ruttara Key, not much more than a speck on the map in the far southern part of the hemisphere. Sure, it would be a perfect place for some of the Port Ambs plotters to hide out, but it was also home to hundreds of ordinary people just trying to live their lives. They saw their fishing boats sunk, their villages burned, and people indiscriminately shot for doing nothing at all. At one point no one on Oiwa had heard of the place. Not so any more.

The closest you get to an alliance to rival the Western Alliances is the Relevan League, based around the city of Releva. A commercial and shipping up in the northeastern part of the islands, it’s kind of the jumping off point for travelers from the north. It’s as large as Cye, but spread up and down the coastline instead of packed into a grid of urban streets and with clear skies, given the lack of industries. Of course, everything smells of fish which, as one observer notes, is “overwhelming.”

The Southern Islands are also full of small islands, not much more than rocks jutting out of the water, that hold unknown treasures, such as ancient lost cities. Or places like the Grim Islands, so named because there’s nary any vegetation or life on them, but they do provide a good hiding place for pirates and other rabble rousers.

Given that there are thousands of islands in the south, it’s not possible to chart all of them. That’s created a fertile territory for explorers, seeking to make their name and their fortune. One of the most famous is Stanley Glass, who has won renown for several discoveries in the Southern Islands. His finds are so spectacular that they let most people overlook the horrible toll his expeditions typically take on his crew. Long-term employment isn’t in the cards when you sail with Glass – so why is Aton so willing to sign on?

Widows of the Empire
Out November 10
Wherever fine ebooks are sold

Widows of the Empire: Excerpt

Continuing on with some posts about the upcoming Widows of the Empire, here’s an excerpt from the book in which Aton goes to meet a persistent potential new client and gets quite the shock:

Aton realized that he never really liked The Ferry. It was conveniently located in Cye, a good place to get business or meet someone, but it wasn’t the kind of place he liked to hang out. Aside from slamming down a drink after a job was over, he rarely came here just for the sake of it. Now, finally, he knew why.

The place was crowded. Not because there were so many people here, but because of how the room was laid out. The long, curving bar was enormous. Tables in the middle of the room were arranged haphazardly. In addition, the bare wood interior amplified every voice in the place. Even though there were only a handful of people here, the din was distracting. He was amazed he was ever able to conduct business here. He maneuvered the obstacle course of tables and chairs to make it to his old spot in the back corner.

While he didn’t miss The Ferry, Aton could admit to himself that he missed being downtown. The new house was lovely and bucolic, but it was also quiet and isolated. He’d grown up in Cye and was used to the noise, the crowds, and the occasional stench. It’s why he’d toyed with the idea of finding a small office somewhere nearby in case he needed to handle anything that came up in the city. Truth was, however, the only business he would do was with Laffargue, and that happened at the Voisine. An empty office was an expense that didn’t make any sense.

He had arrived half an hour early, supposing that Vesper wouldn’t show until their arranged meeting time. Whatever his talents, Vesper didn’t strike Aton as one who thought of worst-case scenarios and alternatives. Like a dog with a bone, he was relentless and driven, but not particularly creative. Being early allowed Aton to control the terrain, like a general pushing his troops to secure high ground before a battle. Maybe he was overthinking it, but better to be over prepared.

He passed the time scanning the crowd. It was like any skill, one he had to practice for it to be sharp when it was needed. There was part of him that wanted to find Okun there, although he had no idea what he’d say to him. He was here for work, after all, and maybe Okun would be, too. There would be no reason for them to just have a drink together. The issue never came up, as the big, bald man never made an appearance.

Aton was just about to start clock watching when he saw Vesper slip in the front door. He looked around a few times, less like he was trying to find Aton than like he was getting the lay of the land. After a moment he held the door open and a person walked in the door. Shorter than Vesper, shorter even that Aton, the individual was wearing a deep blue floor-length cloak with the hood drawn up around the face. Aton thought it was a tad dramatic, but everyone had their quirks.

Vesper led his client through the room, slamming his leg into a chair about halfway through.

Aton suppressed a laugh.

He reached Aton’s table and tipped his cap. “Mr. Askins, glad to see you here.”

“I made a deal, didn’t I?” Aton said. He waved at Vesper to stand aside. “So who is this mystery client?”The figure behind Vesper stepped forward and lowered the hood of the cloak.

“Oh, shit,” Aton said, deflating. “Ethyna.”

Widows of the Empire
Out November 10
Wherever fine ebooks are sold

Widows of the Empire: The Unaru & the Knuria

In the run-up to the release of Widows of the Empire, I wanted to highlight a few things about the world of the Unari Trilogy (for more background on the trilogy, the setting, and the characters, see this post I did before Gods of the Empire came out). Today, we look at the two largest and most important parts of the Unari Empire – the Unaru itself and the Knuria.

Being an empire, of course, the Unari Empire is composed of several disparate regions, all brought under Imperial rule. That said, there are two main ones that occupy a lot of the history of the Empire and the books in the trilogy.

The Unaru is, essentially, the original Unari Kingdom, composed of the areas around the Imperial capital of Cye. If we’re going to analogize to the Roman Empire, then Cye is Rome and the Unaru is the Italian peninsula. It’s made up of a fairly homogenous people in terms of culture and ethnicity with historical ties to the area and to the rulers who have sat in Cye for centuries.

The Knuria, by contrast, is a vast expanse of rolling farmland and rugged hills, without any real coherent cultural identity. Conquered during the expansion of the Empire, it has had second-class status ever since. If you remember when our heroes (well, some of them) wound up near a mined out bosonimum pit in Gods of the Empire, with its crumbling mining town nearby, you can get a sense of what I mean. Likewise, if you detect a bit of West Virginia in the Knuria you’re not wrong. It’s a breadbasket and extractive resource region of the Empire. Going back to the Roman Empire comparison, the Knuria is like the other parts of Europe that the Romans eventually conquered – culturally and ethnically diverse, brought to heel by force.

An aside here to say that, when I was conjuring up the Unari Empire, I was less inspired by Rome than I was by the Soviet Union. In a way, the Unaru is like Russia proper, the Knuria like the other Soviet republics – part of the USSR, but arguably separate states – and then there are other states that are within the sphere of influence. For the Empire that includes the states north of the Knuria, where some of our heroes found themselves in the second part of Gods of the Empire.

The Unaru and the Knuria are separated by two major mountain ranges. The smaller of the two, the Rampart Mountains, is north of Cye and forms the northern border of the Unaru (along with the related Rampart River). The much larger of the two, the Granite Curtain, is a huge range that runs most of the rest of the border between the Unaru and the Knuria. They’re basically impassable, a favorite hangout for outcasts and, once upon a time, gods.

Given all that, people from the Unaru look down on those from the Knuria a bit. It’s less an active discrimination than a deep-seated belief that the Knurians are just a little less developed, less civilized. It’s the urban/rural divide writ large, as there’s no place in the Knuria that can come close to Cye.

We see that a little bit with the contrast between Aton and Belwyn, our two main characters. Aton is a Cye native, an Unaru, who really hasn’t travelled outside the city (and the surrounding area) before his current work hunting down ancient artifacts of the gods. He’s “worldly” in the sense that he grew up in a large, bustling city. Belwyn, on the other hand, is Knurian, having grown up in the small lakeside town where, at the start of Widows of the Empire, she is imprisoned. That said, they both start their stories as a little bit sheltered to the realities of the wider world. They both get an education during Widows of the Empire in a way that, I hope, broadens and deepens the world they’re moving around in.

The bottom line is that the Unaru needs the Knuria and the Knuria needs the Unaru. They may not quite realize it yet.

Widows of the Empire

Out November 10

Wherever fine ebooks are sold

September Siesta

Not really, but I am going to be taking a break from the blog for this month. I’ve got some traveling to do, a couple of big work things, and the next draft of the final book of the Unari Empire Trilogy that all need attention this month.

When regular programming resumes in October it’ll be focused primarily on Widows of the Empire as we move closer to the November 10 release date. What do you want to know about the new book before it’s released? Let me know!

Weekly Read & Watch: Eight Men Out

I’m not a baseball fan. I don’t hate it – life’s too short to get worked up about other peoples’ pastimes – but it doesn’t engage me. It might be odd, then, that one of my favorite movies is Eight Men Out, John Sayles’ exploration of the infamous “Black Sox” scandal, when a group of Chicago White Sox players threw the 1919 World Series.

Of course, what makes the movie work so well is that it isn’t really a baseball movie. It’s a movie about labor relations, in which the ballplayers are exploited at first by the club’s owner, Charles Comiskey, and then by unscrupulous gamblers who don’t even pay the players what they’re supposed to. I won’t say the baseball stuff is secondary (there’s a good deal of on-field action), but it’s definitely used in service to something other than your traditional sports movie narrative.

The film is based on a book of the same name by Eliot Asinof that was first published in 1963.

I only just got around to reading the book itself, which is an interesting contrast to the movie. They tell the same story, but there are some interesting differences that arise from Sayles really driving home the political point of view he’s coming from.

What the book does better than the film, since it has more time to cover the story, is provide more context to what happened in 1919. For one thing, while the movie presents the Black Sox scandal as almost sui generis – a huge breach of sporting life – it turns out the gambling-related scandals were pretty common in baseball at the time. Granted, they hadn’t gotten up to the level of the World Series, but in truth this was the straw that broke the camel’s back rather than a singular incident. Indeed, one of the earlier scandals involved the Sox’s opponents in the World Series – the Cincinnati Reds.

The book also provides more context for what is alleged to be the prime driver of the players’ interest in the fix – that Comiskey was a particularly miserly owner. The movie moves a couple of incidents (involving avoiding paying bonuses) from 1917 to 1919 to help drive this home. While the book argues that Comiskey was a tight wad, it also shows that the rest of the owners weren’t much better. In the days of the reserve clause, where free agency didn’t exist and players were forced to play for basically whatever wages the owners offered, it was easy to be a tightwad. There’s also attention given to contract terms that allowed players to be fired with 10-days notice for just about anything (including getting injured), but they had no similar right to walk away. It’s not as if your best player could fuck off to another team when their contract was up. More than that, given that the country was just coming out of World War I there was a rational (if not completely honest) basis for owners to worry more about money. Being a professional baseball player then wasn’t much better than being a professional women’s soccer player is these days, complete with the side hustles. The movie focusing on salaries makes that easier to convey in a dramatic narrative of just about two hours.

For all that context there’s one area where I wish the book would have provided a little bit more. Having read the book I’m still not sure where gambling fit into society at the time of the 1919 World Series. The gamblers involved in this story are all pretty sleazy characters with connections to organized crime, but gambling itself seemed to be much more open and notorious than it would be in later years. There’s a recurring motif of entertainer George M. Cohan being close to the fix (although not involved) due to gambling that makes it seem not quite illegal – but maybe not quite legal, either? I’d be interested to know what society thought of gambling back then as a way to help explain the reaction to the fix.

The book also dives deeper into the aftermath of the series and the eventual exposure of the fix. The movie keeps a tight point of view on the players, while the book follows the journalists and lawyers who probed the series and the gambling that surrounded it (Sayles compresses most of this into a jazz-fueled montage). In particular, I appreciated the details on how journalist Hugh Fullerton (played by Studs Terkel who, along with Sayles himself as Ring Lardner, act as kind of a Greek chorus throughout) was roundly vilified for daring to suggest that something wasn’t on the level. History proved him right, of course, but that might have been cold consolation.

As for the lawyers – well, if baseball came out of the entire scandal with a damaged reputation, my profession didn’t exactly cover itself in glory. Some of the more melodramatic parts of the movie – grand jury testimony being stolen, outbursts in the courtroom – weren’t added for dramatic effect, it seems. At the eventual criminal trial (where everyone, players and gamblers both, were acquitted) the players were represented by lawyers paid by Comiskey who were more interested in letting baseball (with its new, all powerful, commissioner) deal with the matter than the courts. But my favorite bit of lawyerdom in the movie is when Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a federal judge named the first baseball commissioner, takes the job for significantly more pay than being a judge – but keeps his seat on the bench, anyway.

Where the book and movie differ most importantly is when it comes to the genesis of the fix itself. In the book it’s clear that the fix began with the players, who reached out to gamblers about the possibility of fixing the series. The film is a bit more vague. The conversation where it’s first broached by Chick Gandil and gambler Sport Sullivan starts kind of in medias res, with no real indication of who made the first pitch (so to speak). I think it lets Sayles maintain his exploitation narrative without sullying the players too much.

Ultimately, though, it’s important to consider that the Sayles movie is a narrative work of fiction, not history, and the Asinof book is now nearly six decades old. As compiled by the Society for Baseball Research, more recent evidence has emerged that cast some doubts over the story told in Eight Men Out. In particular, maybe Comiskey wasn’t the miser he’s been portrayed as being, although that doesn’t much matter in the end. The book, to a lesser extent than the film, is telling this story from the players’ perspectives and whether their complaints with Comiskey were valid in a wider context doesn’t mean they still weren’t motivated by them.

None of this makes the any less engrossing or means it can’t get at broader truths about America and its economic life. There’s truthiness to it, if not absolute truth. Just means it’s history, which is ever changing upon further evaluation.

Timing Isn’t Everything, But It’s Something

The Godfather came out in 1972, its sequel in 1974. I was born right in between, in 1973, which is to say I had no chance to experience these Coppola epics when they were fresh. In fact, it wasn’t until sometime 15 years ago or so that I actually managed to watch them. By that time I’d already consumed a good amount of mob stories, from Goodfellas to (most of) The Sopranos and many others.

It sort of makes sense, then, that I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by the first two Godfather movies (I’ve never seen the third). They’re really good, don’t get me wrong, but by the time I saw them a lot of what made them exceptional had bled through into popular culture. The idea of morally conflicted mobsters was certainly a trope by 2005 or so. Likewise, the stress of familial obligations in the mob operation had been done and done by then. This is no fault of the original films – it’s just that by the time I experienced them they weren’t as timely as they once were.

I thought about The Godfather while I was reading Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman.

As you might guess from the cover, it’s a superhero story. Why did it make me think of The Godfather? Because it came out in 2007 and I was reading it fourteen years later.

To give some context, the first MCU installment, Iron Man, came out in 2008. That same year is when The Dark Knight, the second of Nolan’s Batman movies came out (to be fair, we’d also had a few X-men movies). In other words, this book came out just as a huge chunk of the movie and TV landscape shifted to super hero stories. By the time I got around to reading it I’d consumed most (although not all) of them. And as a result, the book very much had a “been there, seen that” feeling to it.

Invincible plays out across two related points of view. One is Fatale, a fairly new cybernetic superhero who joins The Champions, a group of superheroes who have their own dysfunctional baggage (including a failed marriage between two members). That side of the story leans into that dysfunction and highlights the personal toll that being superheroes takes on each of them (from OCD to drug use and the like). It’s more personal and intimate than, say, The Avengers in the MCU, but it’s in the same league. There’s even a corporate element that reminds me of The Boys, although it’s not so cynical.

The other point of view is that of Doctor Impossible, who, conveniently enough, breaks out of prison for the dozenth or so time just as the book starts. He embarks on another scheme to take over the world, along the way diving into his own history as well as those of the heroes who have crossed his path over the years. What we get is a narrative in which the villain is fairly sympathetic, in that he’s a put-upon smart guy who channels his frustrations into evil. Again, this is pretty common these days in super hero properties. The era of the mustache-twiddling bad guys is a thing of the past, thankfully.

None of this has anything to say about Invincible as a book. It’s pretty good and darkly funny in parts (naturally, Doctor Impossible has all the best lines), but I can’t help but thinking that it might have felt really fresh in 2007 or a few years later. Today, sadly, it comes off as a bit tired. Is there anything Grossman could have done to prevent my reaction to his book? Not at all.

Is being timely something writers should worry about? Probably not. Certainly, if you were thinking of writing a book like Invincible today, you’d have to take into account how prevalent super hero stories are these days. One more similar story probably won’t attract a lot of attention. That’s a different discussion than trying to figure out how well something might age in the future. Unless you can predict what’s going to happen in years to come – in which case, why are you writing books? – it’s just not something worth worrying about.

Sometimes I see authors wondering about whether particular references – to pop culture things or news events – will “date” their work down the road. That always seemed very presumptuous to me, since it assumes anybody will be reading your work in years (or decades) to come. This issue is more of the flip side – how do you keep you work from being swallowed by general trends? You can’t – write what moves you and let the broader market sort itself out.

You can’t fight time – you can only hope to survive it.

Weekly Watch: The Suicide Squad

Fair warning – I’ve never been much of a superhero comic book reader. I read other kinds of stories in that graphic novel format, but something about the endless nature of most superhero titles – they go on forever, double back upon themselves, have alternate versions – makes them impenetrable. Aside from a few Batman titles I read in college, thanks to my roommate, I’ve not really dug into them. Comic book movies, on the other hand, I’ve consumed quite a bit and enjoy. That’s largely due to my wife, who, shortly after we started dating, informed me I had to be up to date on the X-Men movies so we could see the new one the weekend it came out.

Which is to say that all I know of the Suicide Squad (as opposed to The Suicide Squad – the article is important, just like that university in Columbus) is what I’ve seen on screen. What I’ve seen so far isn’t that great.

The first movie (from all the way back in 2016), simply called Suicide Squad, was a mess, going down in flames financially and getting destroyed by critics. I didn’t think it was horrible, but it wasn’t that good. It did get the basic point across, though – the Suicide Squad are a collection of super villains who do special, super dangerous missions for the US government on the promise of getting their sentences cut. Makes sense as the basis for a story about a group of bad guys, right?

The Suicide Squad kind of picks up where Suicide Squad left off, but only enough to get by. There are a handful of carryover characters, but lots of new ones and a new creative team to bring it all to life. Or death, really, since there is an awful lot of blood and gore in this movie. It’s of the “so awful it’s funny” type – kind of like Sam Peckinpah as filtered through Monty Python – but it wears thin pretty fast.

Aside from the gore, there’s lots of crass humor. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – some of it works really well. There’s a discussion between Idris Elba’s Bloodsport and John Cena’s Peacemaker about a particular juvenile insult that spirals into the absurdity of it so far it’s funny. Likewise, when another character says he can only kill if he pictures the target as his mother, that becomes a callback that goes from funny, to not funny, to funny again through sheer repetition.

But there’s not enough of that to go around, particularly for a movie that’s over two hours long. There are other quibbles, too. There’s a kind of bait and switch that happens at the beginning that is apparently hilarious if you’re familiar with the Suicide Squad comics, but if you’re not doesn’t make a lot of sense. Harley Quinn, who’s the most interesting character here (the only one with her own movie to build on), seems like an afterthought, off on her own for most of the time. And while there are some stabs at character development here and there, they’re pretty weak (the motivation for Bloodsport to do all this is laughably badly done).

But where things really go wrong is when the Big Bad shows up. The Squad’s mission is to take out a Nazi-spawned research facility in a fictional South American country. Run by Peter Capaldi’s The Thinker (picture his The Thick of It character sprouting vacuum tubes from his head – at least he gets to keep the cursing!) it actually holds a deep dark secret that the US doesn’t want the world to know about. Fine – it’s not like there isn’t some basis for that in the real world.

But the Big Bad secret is . . . a giant alien starfish? That kills people and controls their bodies by slapping tiny versions of itself over its face? Maybe that works in the pages of a comic, but on the big(ish) screen, it looks ludicrous. It would be a low-level Dr. Who baddie, at best. As the existential threat in a movie it just doesn’t work.

I’d be willing to look past that (I think) if the way the movie ended made any sense for the characters involved. Remember, these are super villains – largely killers – who are so dangerous they’re expendable. Yet, when the oversized aquarium dweller toddles off to destroy this imaginary country and the boss (Viola Davis, who is probably the scariest of them all) calls them home – they all turn into big damned heroes! That’s right, a movie about super VILLAINS ends just the same way as one about super HEROES! What’s so frustrating is they could have reached the same end (a big CGI-fueled battle with lots of collateral damage) and dealt with the “aren’t we the baddies?” issue quite easily, but instead it’s just lazy writing to get to the big finale. The great promise of something like the Suicide Squad in general or The Suicide Squad specifically is that it’s a great chance to take the superhero story conventions and turn them on their heads. These characters aren’t self-sacrificing do-gooders, after all. They’re not out to uphold truth, justice, and the American way (well, the first two, at least). They’re killers, they’re criminals, they’re immoral (or at least amoral) psychopaths. So why fit them into the heroic straight jacket? Have the confidence of you convictions and make them the sleazeballs they’re supposed to be. That’d be more interesting, at least.

In Praise of Gregg Berhalter

When Gregg Berhalter was announced as the head coach of the US Men’s National Team in 2018 that decision was not greeted with a lot of enthusiasm. Gregg’s managerial career consisted of a couple of non-descript years in Sweden followed by a solid run in charge of the Columbus Crew, losing MLS Cup in 2015 (at home) to the Portland Timbers. There were other big, international names that were allegedly in the mix, so this pick seemed underwhelming. It didn’t help that Gregg’s brother Jay was one of the higher ups in US Soccer at the time, leading to lazy charges of nepotism in Gregg’s hire. That Gregg had appeared 44 times for the USMT as a player, but never made the field during the World Cup where he was on the roster kind of said it all.

Gregg’s hire came in the shadow of the USMNT failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. His ultimate success will be judged solely on whether we qualify for the 2022 tournament in Qatar and, if we do, how well we do there. Up to this summer there hadn’t been a lot of meaningful games for Gregg to show fans what he can do at the helm. But, oh boy, has he had a very good summer.

Like everything else, the pandemic wreaked havoc with the international soccer calendar. League seasons that were suspended in early 2020 finished up later than usual that year, leading to the cancellation of major 2020 national competitions and the late start of the next club season. That season then got compressed so the delayed summer competitions could happen. So this summer has been packed solid with the Copa America and European Championships taking place on a year delay, not to mention the Olympics. And then there’s World Cup qualifying, which gets underway in September and will include schedules with three games played in two weeks (usually it’s only two).

For CONCACAF, the regional federation to which the United States and the rest of North and Central American and the Caribbean belong, its championship, the Gold Cup, was already scheduled for 2021. But the inaugural finals of the Nations League, a new tournament meant to fill in the gaps between World Cups and Gold Cups, was supposed to have taken place in 2020, but got pushed back. So, for Gregg and the USMNT this summer meant two games in the Nations League final, the Gold Cup, and then the start of World Cup qualifying, all with players who have been at it pretty much nonstop for the past year or so. Oh, and CONCACAF moved the Gold Cup back a month so as to not compete with Copa America and the Euros, pushing it into the preseason for a lot of European clubs.

Thankfully, Gregg had a plan. Step 1 – take the best team possible into the Nations League finals with the intent of winning a trophy. This would bet the core players, most of whom play in Europe. It would be the first meaningful chance to see them play together, in anticipation of a meeting with full-strength Mexico in the final. Step 2 – take a younger, mostly MLS-based team into the Gold Cup, with the intent of discovering roster depth that will help us when World Cup qualification begins, while giving the first-team guys some rest and letting them start preseason work with their club teams. Go as far as you can in the tournament, but don’t expect to win it, especially if we came up against Mexico, again. Step 3 – start World Cup qualifying with the strongest team possible and, hopefully, some momentum.

Well, as for Step 1 – this happened:

After a less than impressive semifinal win against Honduras, the US beat Mexico 3-2 in extra time to lift the first Nations League trophy. It didn’t go completely to plan – injuries kept the preferred Best 11 from playing together much – but you can’t argue with the results. Off to some vacation for most of those guys, on to the Gold Cup.

The Gold Cup was never going to be beautiful. The only real holdover from the Nations League roster was midfielder Kelly Acosta. More than a dozen players had appeared less than ten times for the USMNT. The guys called in from Europe were basically trying to make moves to new clubs. How much talent did this group have?

Enough to blow through the group stage, at least. By which I mean we won all three games, even if two of them were a lot closer than you’d like them to be. Rosters were rotated, players were given chances to sink or swim. Nothing convincing but, again, the results were coming. We were probably outplayed for large parts of the quarterfinal against Jamaica and the semi against Qatar (here as guests and reigning champions of Asia), but the result in the end was the same: 1-0 to the US.

But remember, the goal here isn’t necessarily to win, but to learn. What did we learn in all those games? That New England goalkeeper Matt Turner should be in the running for the top job when qualifying starts. That defender Miles Robinson and midfielder/defender James Sands are both worthy of the qualifying roster. The defensive depth we were worried about is here and it’s pretty good. The attack not so much (Matthew Hoppe’s enthusiasm aside), but we’re top heavy with attacking talent with the first-choice team. We’ve also learned that Gregg can make great use of substitutes – keeping in mind that FIFA is keeping 5 substitutes (as opposed the usual three) until at least the next World Cup is over.

But we want to win this thing, right? Over Mexico for the second time this summer? You’re damned right we did:

It should be noted that, due to injuries and Olympic duty, Mexico was missing a few first-teamers, but they had a lot more of their “A” team on the field in the Gold Cup final than we did. We won anyway. Was is pretty? No. Was is great fun to watch? Absolutely.

I’d like to say I was a Gregg booster from the beginning, but that would be a lie. I wasn’t as down on him as some other folks, but I wasn’t thrilled. As we waded through lots of friendlies with questionable roster selections and what not I wondered if he was up to it. Now I’m ready to buy in completely. Gregg might not do it the way I want him to, but his job is to get us back to the World Cup and regain are spot on top of CONCACAF.

We’re halfway there!

Can Anybody Write a Book?

A couple of weekends ago, scouring Twitter, I came across an interesting Tweet by a fantasy writer named Sara Scarlett:

I’m going to both agree and disagree with her here. I think that if somebody’s response to your news that you finished a book is “anybody can do that,” they’re an asshole and they are downplaying your achievement. That said, I think the truth of the matter actually is that anybody can write a book and it does writers well to embrace that fact.

First, we need to define some terms. When I say “anybody can write a book,” I don’t really mean any particular human on the planet. Some people, due to physical or mental limitations or educational deficiencies, won’t be able to read a book, much less write one. So, for “anybody” in this discussion, read “anybody who wants to and has a minimum skill set to do it.” That said, the “book” we’re talking about is defined pretty expansively – it doesn’t mean “good,” it doesn’t mean “best seller,” and it doesn’t mean “beloved by a small but passionate fan base.” It means a book – a collection of tens of thousands of words that tells a story. Leave quality judgments out of it.

With that said, it should be pretty clear that anybody can write a book. There’s nothing about writing a book that is inherently difficult – you put words on a page, you do that some more, and, eventually, you have a book. What matters most when it comes to writing is that you actually sit down and write. Orders of magnitude more people will start to write a book than will finish it, but there’s nothing mystical about the ones who finish – they just keep working. The same is true for any art, really – for most folks, it’s more perspiration than inspiration.

There’s another question, somewhat related, that I’ve seen elsewhere on the Internet, which is “can writing be taught?” This seems like a question with an obvious “yes” answer, but it hints at something deeper about creative endeavors. You can learn the skills necessary to do just about anything, but you still need the creativity to be able to do something interesting with it.

One time, my wife and I did one of those “drink wine and paint a picture” things, which we really enjoyed. I immediately analogized the blending of paints to create certain colors and effects with the way you blend and sculpt sounds on a synthesizer. I was enthusiastic that I could add this creative element to my arsenal – my wife even got me some painting supplies for Christmas. I never did anything with them. Not because I wasn’t excited by the process, but because the creative spark never came. I couldn’t figure out anything to do visually, the way I get ideas for stories or rhythms and melodies pop into my head. But could I bear down and crank out a painting? Sure, but would anybody care about it?

Ultimately, that’s why someone saying, “oh, anybody can write a book” can sound so hurtful. It’s usually said by someone who’s never even tried to do it, much less accomplished it, to someone whose passion, creative drive, and tenacity resulted in a work they’re proud of. They probably gave up time with friends and loved ones while working on it. They bled for it (metaphorically – I hope) and this is the reaction they get?

You know what? Fuck those people. It’s probably true that anybody can write a book. It’s also true that most people won’t even try. You did and you succeeded. Take pride in that and move on to the next one. Keep on working.

Getting Creative In Court

Lawyers, in general, write a lot in their work. I write even more, given that I specialize in appeals and other sorts of post-conviction cases. Over the two-plus decades I’ve been doing this, I like to think I’ve developed a good skill with words, with creation of sentences and paragraphs that convey meaning and argument while still being a pleasant read. The days of legal writing filled with “heretofore”s and meaningless Latin phrases (seriously, if you see any sentence with “inter alia” in it, cross it out and tell me how that sentence is any different) are long gone, thankfully.

Still, there’s only so much creativity you can squeeze into legal writing. For one thing, you’re limited by the realities of the facts in your case (particularly in an appeal) and you can’t really beef up the plot or characters of you brief to make them more persuasive. For another, you have to consider the audience. The truth of the matter is that judges (and their clerks) are busy, have countless things to read on a daily basis, and are interested in being persuaded as quickly and clearly as possible. An appellate brief is no place to play with the form of words and sentences, to be coy about meanings, or to roll out mysteries for readers to ponder.

That’s one of the reasons I started writing fiction, especially fantasy. What better escape from the horrible facts of real life cases than worlds where I get to make up anything I wanted to? Strange new worlds! Interesting creatures! Cultures and histories never before imagined! This is where my creativity gets to thrive, not in court.

Right? Maybe not, if I could draw anything beyond a stick figure.

Third Planet Sci-Fi and Fantasy Superstore is a comic book and related merchandise business in Houston. From the Google Street View image you can see that it’s a wide, one-story building next to a busy street. You may also notice that it’s next-door neighbor is a high-rise Crowne Plaza hotel that towers over the place.

Third Planet is suing its neighbors because . . . well, because there tend to be a lot of assholes staying there. According to a third (!) amended petition filed in state court, hotel guests frequently make use of the hotel’s open-air balconies and fire escape to “throw all manner of projectiles off those landings and onto Third Planet’s roof and parking lot. It goes on to describe one particular day:

On or about March 3, 2019, matters escalated to a new level of destruction. Hotel guests, residents, tenants, patrons, customers, or visitors launched at minimum fourteen large metal-canister fire extinguishers from the Hotel onto Third Planet’s roof and parking lot. The canisters landed on the roof with explosive impact. This caused significant compromise to the structural integrity of the roof. In sum, the roof was irreparably damaged.

The next paragraph simply says: “Then came the rain.”

Pretty compelling stuff, right? Nonetheless, according to the petition, the defense “has previously filed special exceptions, complaining that it could not sufficiently understand the claims and allegations against it.” So what does Third Planet’s counsel do? They write a comic book to lay out everything.

Over the next 13 pages, the comic tells the story of Third Planet, its bowling champion owner TJ Johnson, and the store’s history in Houston. As for those flying fire extinguishers? Well . . .

The whole complaint is here, with the comic part starting at page 6. It’s a bold brilliant move and, without knowing anything about the actual legal merits (property law is not my specialty), I hope Third Planet wins and wins big.

Bold as it is, Third Planet’s resort to visual aids in a pleading is not unprecedented.

A comment to the Volokh Conspiracy post that brought this to my attention pointed to an article from the ABA Journal in 2012 where a lawyer did something similar in federal court.

The case involved the United States’ antitrust complaint against numerous publishers for fixing ebook prices and an attorney wanted to file an amicus (friend of the court) brief taking issue with some of the Department of Justice’s positions. He originally filed a 24-page motion with a 29-page proposed amicus brief attached. The court said he could file an amicus brief, but it could be no longer than five pages.

Which he did, taking a more comic strip approach:

The comic complied with all the usual formatting rules for pleadings in that district (font size, margins, etc.), but that didn’t keep the US Attorneys working on the case from dealing with it without a lot of effort (and the settlement they were seeking was eventually approved). Still, it was pretty clever (you can read the whole five pages here).

Like I said, making your argument in pictures is a pretty bold gambit (easier to do when you’re not actually representing a client). If it works, it’s brilliant. If the judge takes offense, thinks somebody’s diminishing the process, it can be a disaster. Come to think of it, probably for the best that I steer my wilder impulses into fiction.