Wednesday writing wire - prehistoric edition

What I'm reading

A friend lent me The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence by Josh Waitzkin. The author was a chess champion as a child, and was the subject of the book and movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer". Later, he switched gears to become a Tai Chi master who eventually won the World Champion title in Taiwan, where Tai Chi is the national sport. The book is a combination of a memoir and self-help book. Waitzkin examines the learning processes involved in reaching world-class skill levels; he writes beautifully and articulately about concepts that can be rather abstract and esoteric. Some major points included the two approaches to learning (viewing one's skill as an innate ability that can't be changed, versus an ability that can increase via study and effort), investment in loss (you must be willing to lose if you want to learn how to win bigger challenges), making smaller circles (breaking down a complex discipline into its basic parts, and mastering those), slowing down time (when you've mastered "chunks" of ability and can call upon them in a way that looks quicker than the eye to your opponent), and making sandals (if you can't change the environment, learn to deal with it).

As the memoir of a pretty amazing human being, the book was really interesting, if a tad self-indulgent. As a self-help book, it's a misfire; there aren't enough concrete examples given that would help us mere mortals take his philosophies and apply them to our own lives. It's still a good read, and I'm glad my friend recommended it, as it's not the kind of book I would usually pick up on my own.

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I finally sprung for a tree book copy of Pre Historic Times, As Illustrated By Ancient Remains And The Manners and Customs Of Modern Savages, originally published in 1865 by Sir John Lubbock. Lubbock (1834-1913), was a banker and politician, but he is best known for his scientific contributions in archaelogy, anthropology and entomology.

 I love this portrayal of John Lubbock as a bee!

I love this portrayal of John Lubbock as a bee!

As a youth, he was tutored in natural history by Charles Darwin. Darwin's theories strongly influenced him towards a view of human knowledge, culture and technology as evolving in ways similar to how living creatures evolve. Although the idea of human culture evolving progressively from "savagery" to civilization isn't quite how we see things today, his work (along with that of Edward Burnett Tylor who published Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization in that same year) helped form the foundation of anthropology which was then a brand-new science.  

My interest in this book started when I read After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC by Steven Mithen (professor of archaelogy at the University of Reading), a global survey course in human history which draws upon archaeology, paleontology, paleoclimatology, and genetics. From a human perspective, enormous changes occurred in the 15,000 years covered by this book. As the last ice age petered out and the world began to warm up, altering the climate, the landscapes, the plants and animals, human beings changed too, leaving behind the hunter-gatherer ways they had followed for millenia in favor of pastoralism and settled agriculturalism--which would eventually give rise to civilization. To tell the story, Mithen took the unusual approach of introducing a fictional character, John Lubbock (a modern man named after the Victorian scientist). As he time-travels to archaelogical sites worldwide as an invisible observer, the fictional John Lubbock carries with him a copy of the book Pre Historic Times, and Mithen uses it to discuss how our ideas of the emergence of human cultures and civilization have changed in the last 150 years. Some readers thought the use of a time-traveling fictional character in a history book was weird, but I think it's a brilliant way to bring readers one step closer, to transform archaelogical sites from trenches in the ground full of bone fragments and stone tools into living places inhabited by communities of real people. I was captivated by this idea--and wanted to read the book within the book.

I had purchased an ebook version of Pre Historic Times, but the OCR (optical character recognition) process by which the ebook was produced, introduces many typos, weird characters and strange formatting in the text, which were annoying and made it kind of a pain in the ass to read. Fortunately there was a physical version available which was produced by scanning and digital enhancement of entire pages, rather than OCR. So I'm really stoked to have a tree-book version that I can hold in my hands--especially in case I ever have the opportunity to go time-traveling back to 12,000 BC or so.

What I'm writing

My writing has been pretty danged productive in the last week or so! There are a couple of short stories that I really need to edit--but I've been unwilling to break away from The Free City because I've gotten on a roll with it. It was always a source of trubble for me that I couldn't quite locate the emotional center of main character #1 the way I did with main character #2... but I think I have finally cracked that problem. Strangely enough, (part of) it involves making her more of an A-hole. I dunno why that approach is so useful for me, but it has worked for me on numerous occasions. When in doubt, make the character more of an ass, and somehow that renders them more believable, sympathetic and relate-able. To me, at least. Is it because non-assholic characters are boring? Or is it because I myself am an A-hole? 

Don't answer that ;-)

What else I've been doing / What's inspiring me right now

With Goruck Challenge #2 under my belt, I've started training for the Bataan Memorial Death March which is in New Mexico in March 2015. This 26.2 mile march is held every year since 1989 in honor of the American and Filipino soldiers who were taken prisoner by Japanese forces in 1942 and forced to march under conditions of incredible hardship and cruelty through the Philippine jungle. Thousands died along the way, and those who survived had to face a harrowing experience in a prisoner of war camp and being transported to Japan on unmarked ships which were sometimes unknowingly sunk by U.S. forces. Among the American POWs were members of the New Mexico National Guard, which is why the memorial march is in New Mexico. 

I found out about this event last March, and immediately knew I wanted to do it in 2015. As a ten year old Girl Scout in the Philippines in 1979 (Dad worked for the U.S. Embassy in Manila), I participated in a commemorative reenactment of the Bataan Death March. It involved about 65 miles of hiking (three 10-mile pre-hikes before we were even allowed to sign up, and then the  real hiking over 4 days). We also had to learn about the history and write a report before we went. So even though we were kids, we understood the significance, that we were doing this march to honor these heroes of WWII, and also the idea that we were doing a hike that was long and hard for us so that we could gain some inkling of what they had suffered. I remember that you were really supposed to be at least 11 to participate, but it was my last year in the Philippines as my dad was being transferred to Taiwan, so I was allowed to participate. It's still something I'm very proud of doing, and the reason I'll be going to New Mexico in March.