Crowds, Mobs and Battle Scenes

On a recent writing panel, one of the other participants talked about the difficulty writing a particular battle scene in a series novel. He said it surprised him, because, he thought, “all he had to do” was look at a scene that already existed in a previous book and write the same battle from a different POV. Simple, right? To his chagrin, not. Jean Marie, our moderator, commented that “in open battle, even five feet away, it’s a completely different fight.”

Battle scenes, crowd scenes, mob scenes… Usually I don’t have reason to write many of those, but in Book Three of the COPPER ROAD series, I needed a crowd scene. I want to stress, it’s a fairly orderly (large) bunch of people, not a mob. I had no idea how to do it.

My usual technique for connoting a chaotic situation in my fiction is the beloved jump-cut, switching points of view to show things happening in various places, all at once or close in time. This style works well for a panicked mob and would probably work in a genuine battle scene. The other kind of “crowd scene” I have experimented with is the party scene. I’m not a fan of parties, and I’ve only ever been to one really big party, and frankly, I’d tend to use the same technique there too.

(Frankly, crowds and parties always seem to be scores of small groups interacting in a conglomeration–not one big organism, if that makes sense. The exception is the audience at a stage play or a music venue.)

My scene, though, requires a character to address a crowd. Jump-cuts wouldn’t work.

We have seen a lot of crowds—and recently, mobs—on TV in nonfiction life as well as stories. Crowd shots in fiction often seem shot from above. As a writer, that really doesn’t help me. When I think of being in a crowd, I think—well, the first thing I think of is not enough air. I’m short. Crowds aren’t my favorite thing. When I get past that reaction, I usually observe that I can’t see anything, or if I can it’s patchwork viewed between the heads, torsos, arms and shoulders of those around me. It’s snatches of dialogue. Sometimes it’s the smells of various foods.

I have experience addressing large groups (not a lot, but some), and viewing a crowd from a dais or podium is a different situation. This was more like what I needed for the scene I was trying to write.

The problem was, I needed a slightly unruly crowd—again, not a mob. Yet. I’ve never addressed an unruly crowd. (Note: I’m not complaining.)

I think what I wrote works okay, but I’m left with questions. What techniques work best for writing a large group of people in some state of distress, as your character moves through them?

In a battle scene, assault may come from any and all directions, From above you may have arrows, bombs or mortars (or bullets). You may have attackers from every side. You may have dragons, who knows? There may be environmental distractions: smoke, flames, fog. Are you wounded? Can you easily tell your side from the other guys? Can you hear orders? Are there places of (relative) quiet/shelter?

Crowds are different, and they differ from each other. The mass scrunched up against the shopping mall doors at five AM the Friday after Thanksgiving is a different crowd than a group of people gathered to hear music, or a Woman’s March, or a demonstration. A post-disaster group gathering to get information is going to be anxious, angry, fearful. How does that manifest?

More and more, I’m forced to examine, in my own work, where I’ve been colonized by a steady diet of TV and film, and I write things as I’ve seen them in media, not as I’ve experienced them. Crowd scenes were an example of that. I had to sit and think about crowds I’ve addressed and those I’ve been in. In the one situation I was in where a crowd turned bad (it was a party), I found myself talking out loud, repeating myself. “I’m leaving, I’m leaving,” I said. It wasn’t a general announcement; it was a spontaneous utterance that I needed for some reason—clearly adrenaline-based. I can imagine a character doing that. It seems that in the insurrectionist mob that attacked the Capitol, lots of them were talking, repeating slogans. That might have been planned–or was it the same adrenaline-buzzed refrain as mine?

A friend of mine walked across the Golden Gate Bridge in 1987, with thousands of other people, to celebrate the bridge’s 50th anniversary. It was a joyous, peaceful crowd. When she talked about it, she talked in scraps; celebrities walking next to her, bits of music, overheard conversations—the bits of the whole. Is this how we all experience crowds?

As is always the case with fiction, the question isn’t just, “How do I make it realistic?” It’s “How do I make it realistic while it’s doing what I need it to do?” And I’m still working on that one.

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Angelby on AMC+

Xfinity On Demand offers, under the AMC+ menu heading, a “sampler” of shows from the Sundance Channel and a “horror” channel called Shudder. Shudder has expanded horror to include paranormal and supernatural shows that aren’t particularly scary, like AMC’s A Discovery of Witches. They include the first season only.

Angelby is a Swedish paranormal show that aired in 2015. There is, according to various reports, a second season in the works, or soon to be, although since this aired six years ago, I’m dubious. Fortunately, Season One is a complete arc that wraps up most plot points in a satisfactory way.

The show is subtitled.

Warning; spoilers.

Vera Fors is newly divorced. Her husband left her for a younger woman he met at the office. As the show opens, Vera loses her job at the same office, (because obviously). Feeling hopeless, she fills out a job match website profile. Instantly–I mean, before she can finish a swallow of wine–she gets a hit, for an office manager job in the town of Angelby.

Vera packs up her daughter Tova and her son Espen and heads off for the remote forest town. Her optimism ends with a crash–literally–when she hits a person in the road during the night-time drive to the town. Terrified, Vera covers the body with branches and goes on her way. The first day in Angelby, she brazens it out, but when her eccentric new boss takes her to a social event her second night in town, celebrating the NHL recruitment of a teen hockey player–the boy Vera hit–her guilt overcomes her and she confesses to Amos, one of the town’s two local police officers. Vera takes Amos and Torsten, her new boss, to the place where she left the body, but… (have you guessed?) the body’s gone.

Before the body is found (which it will be) the story slows down and introduces us to some of the townsfolk of Angelby. There’s Vera’s weird boss, Torsten,whose generosity–he offers Vera a vacant flat he owns immediately– raises all kinds of questions. Amos is married to the blind and bitter Yvette, whose blindness is not caused by any damage to her eyes or her optic nerve, but is described in the subtitles as “traumatic blindness.” Eva, the lone school-teacher in the one-room school, is classically witchy, with plenty of secrets. Torsten’s ex-wife, Britt-Louise, has a scarred face and makes Torsten electrocute himself. (He goes along with it. Yeah, it’s a weird relationship.) At the center of the secrets and weirdness is a strange, beautiful rock embedded in the earth, out in the forest.

(I loved the rock. It looked a little bit like a giant Doritos corn chip, stuck point first into the ground. I’m sure it was a prop, but it was imposing and beautiful.)

Part of the pleasure of watching Angelby was eye candy. Lots of scenes take place in the lush forest, and the various interiors were interesting. There are lots of images of flowing water, and two scenes with a cow moose. I also liked the characters, especially as the plot progressed and we realize that all the people (with possibly the exception of Rudi) are well-developed characters whose motivations we understand. (Oh, a second exception–I never did get the deal with Yvette.)

As the story progresses, Vera’s ex, Daniel, comes back on the scene. The body of the boy she hit is found, miles from the accident site, and a mystery unfolds when it is clear he wasn’t killed by the impact with her car. Gradually, Vera realizes that it’s not a coincidence that she’s ended up in Angelby, but she still can’t figure out why. Various people, like the brothers Jakob and Marcus, provide the viewer with clues about the Stone, and Vera, and it’s clear she has some kind of Chosen One destiny.

The town is weird and the the Stone clearly conveys power, for good or bad. The story concentrates for a time on Vera’s growth, as she puts aside her self-doubt and begins to grow into herself. The Stone-related plot gets more complex as we’re introduced to astronomical calculations, Egyptian artifacts and little blond boys on bikes. Basically, at a time of planetary convergence during a lunar eclipse, something important will happen, and Vera has to be there for it. The Stone radiates power all the time, we learn, and some people, like the murdered hockey player, have absorbed it along the way… with bad results. Is the convergence good or bad? Does the Rock dispense good power, or evil, or neutral, simply filtered through the characteristics of the person who touches it? Must Vera reach out to the Stone? Some folks say yes. Should Vera avoid the Stone at all costs? Some folks say yes. Does Vera, newcomer to Angelsby, have no right to the Stone, and should she butt right out? Some folks say yes to that idea, too. Some folks even change sides in the final few episodes.

Basically, the Chosen One destiny here is one of sacrifice, not a battle or a duel with evil. It’s not an accident that after Vera has an interaction with yet another enigmatic character and undergoes a trial by ordeal, she appears dressed in while all the time, instead of the regular mundane clothing we’ve seen up ’til then.

I will pause to extol the visuals again. This show is seriously pretty. The themes are complicated, with the needs of the individual versus the needs of the group a central one. At the very end, after Vera makes her choice, I ran into some plot logic I couldn’t quite get past. Vera sacrifices herself to change the timeline of Angelby, if I understood it right. It seems like the town moved, Marvel-Cinematic-Universe-style, into an altered timeline in which many bad things did not happen. One of the things that didn’t happen was the rape that led to Vera’s conception. In the new timeline, maybe Vera didn’t come along, which would be okay, if we hadn’t seen Daniel, Tova and Espen on their way to a funeral. Daniel hugs Espen and says, “Let’s go say good-bye to your mother.” This seems like a serious plot-glitch. (It’s in there specifically to show us something about Daniel and the kids, but still…)

As I said earlier, Yvette’s story arc made zero sense to me.

Oh, I forgot to mention the show’s truly funny character, Vivecka, the other cop. While Torsten is the source of many humorous lines, he is ultimately too tortured to be funny. Vivecka, who is a loyal, smart, observant cop, is genuinely quirky and funny, and she can be because none of the plot points rest on her shoulders. (Michaela Thorsen makes the most of this character!)

I think I see where a second series might go, but I don’t know it I’d go out of my way to watch it. Still, I enjoyed Series One.

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The Way We Live Now #15: Before and After Vaccination

Before vaccination, I:

  • Washed my hand with soap and hot water several times a day.
  • Wore a mask outside.
  • Ordered take out.
  • Completed two writing projects.
  • Wore two masks if I would be indoors around people, like the grocery store.
  • Observed social distancing.
  • Watched On Demand.
  • Rewatched The Magicians
  • Rewatched Killjoys one and a half times.
  • Rewatched Black Panther twice.
  • Kept up with people via Twitter, text, phone calls and email.
  • Put stuffed animals in the window.
  • Ordered gifts cards from restaurants and book stores.
  • Gave away some gift cards.
  • Carried hand sanitizer.
  • Applied hand sanitizer.
  • Rewatched Leverage.
  • Participated in the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference online.
  • Participated in an online FOGCon event.
  • Contributed to two Zoom panels.
  • Had a book published.
  • Walked in the park.
  • Ate hamburgers.

Now I have my one and done J&J jab! In the two weeks while I wait for full immunity, I:

  • Am completing the packet to renew my passport.
  • Wash my hands with hot water and soap several times a day.
  • Wear a mask outside.
  • Order takeout.
  • Am getting a third writing project (Book Three of the Copper Road trilogy!) ready to send off to my publisher.
  • Made reservations to stay at our favorite inn in Gualala, in October, 2021.
  • Wear two masks when I’m inside with people, like the grocery store.
  • Observe social distancing.
  • Am rewatching The Miss Fisher Mysteries.
  • Carry hand sanitizer.
  • Apply hand sanitizer.
  • Keep in touch using Twitter, Zoom, texts, phones and email.
  • Am planning to schedule a get-together with a group of fully vaccinated friends in Benicia, maybe in June.

Once I’m fully vaccinated, I will:

  • Wash my hands with hot water and soap several times a day.
  • Wear a mask outside.
  • Wear two masks indoor with people, unless I know every person in the space has reached full immunity.
  • Observe social distancing unless I know the person(s) is/are at full immunity.
  • Think about trips!
  • Carry hand sanitizer.
  • Apply hand sanitizer.
  • Plan a trip with a group of fully vaccinated friends to Sausalito or San Francisco.
  • Eat inside at a restaurant.
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Inclusive Pronouns

I read the Murderbot stories by Martha Wells. They’re narrated in the first person by a Security Unit (SecUnit). Spouse read Murderbot.

I “heard” the voice of SecUnit as female. Spouse “heard” it as male.

I read John Scalzi’s Lock In, narrated by Chris. Spouse read Lock In.

I heard Chris’s voice as female. Spouse heard it as male.

I read Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, which has a character who uses a gender-nonbinary pronoun, xe.  Spouse read Black Sun.

I assumed xe was female. Spouse assumed xe was male.

We found this out when we started talking about Black Sun and Spouse referred to the assassin/bodyguard character as “he.” When I referred to xe as “her,” he was confused.

This right here is the best demonstration I can think of for inclusive pronouns, and representation generally, in fiction. Anyone reading the work can identify with the characters. Half the population, either way, isn’t excluded automatically. We hear voices that sound like our own. We visualize people who look like us, in the way, for instance, I never could with one of my favorite reads from my childhood/teenage years, Lord of the Rings. I loved the fellowship. I admired Frodo. I worshipped Strider and Gandalf. And I knew for every minute that I was not included in this story. I was a shadow. Until Eowyn showed up, I had to invent a “shadow character” for myself, traipsing along invisibly behind the heroes I desperately wanted to be. And while Eowyn was cool and everything, she only gets a subplot.

Of course Lord of the Rings wasn’t about pronouns. It was about a larger worldview in which only males counted. This pronoun thing is part of that.

If you ever believed that “he” was a generic pronoun and “inclusive,” or that nouns like “Mankind” included women, go back and read the first six paragraphs of this post. Those words never included women, and we all knew it.

More and more, I’m coming around to the idea of gender-undifferentiated narrator, or a gender-neutral pronoun. It includes everyone. No one is a precarious exception anymore.

(And believe me, I do notice that even though all three of these writers took deliberate effort to make the gender of the MCs a non-issue, Spouse and I each defaulted to our conventional two-gender model. As I said, new habits…)

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Signed Copies!

You can buy your very own signed copy of Copper Road at the following bookstores:

Borderlands Books, San Francisco, CA.
Four-Eyed Frog Books, Gualala, CA

You can also find copies at Copperfields Books, Sebastopol, CA.
And Second Chances Used Books, Sebastopol, CA.

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Lady Guinevere’s Revenge

Lucy Blue is a fellow Falstaff writer. Since I’m working on a project set in the Jazz Era, I thought a 1920s romance might be fun to check out, and sure enough, she had one. Guinevere’s Revenge is a mystery romance, one introducing Stella Hart, a Hollywood film starlet currently visiting her mother, who recently married a British baronet.

Guinevere’s Revenge is a short book. It’s as much bubbly fun as a glass of champagne. It’s filled with funny characters, from the smart, flirtatious Stella herself, to her loyal step-cousin George, her much-married mother, and a fluffy lapdog, the Guinevere of the title. Guinevere, a Bichon Frise, is as much a character as any of the humans.

At the British country house, Stella’s visit rapidly becomes complicated. The American gangster’s son who is lovesick over her has followed her to Britain. To help Stella out, George pretends they are engaged, and his real fiancee Mavis plays along. All too soon, the weekend party finds the body of a stranger in the wood, and a classic country house murder mystery ensues. The story is filled with clever, smart-alecky maids, bold British gentlemen, and some hilariously dull-witted aristocrats. The mystery is interesting but the romance takes center stage as Stella wrestles with her feelings for George.

There are two murders, but the gore quotient is low. The emphasis is on relationships and clues. Stella is observant, quick-witted, and wisecracking herself.

Guinevere’s Revenge is the first book of a series, and lots of frothy fun. A lovely summer read.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment Carries Copper Road

A writing friend who went to high school with Spouse let me know that carries Copper Road. In fact, he ordered a copy from them. Oh, look; here’s the link!

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The Way We Live Now #14: Four Burgers a Year

In the past nine months, Spouse and I, together, have eaten about 34 beef hamburgers. When you divide that by nine, it doesn’t seem so high, until you realize that, pre-pandemic, our burger quotient was about four a year, total.

I’m emphasizing beef burgers here. I make turkey burgers once in a while and we have veggie burgers about once a week normally.

We don’t eat fast-food burgers. Generally, of our Olden Times 4-per-year burger was a restaurant burger, at a restaurant we knew made great burgers. And that wasn’t more than twice a year.

During the pandemic, though, in this particular area, we’ve drifted toward red meat consumption. Maybe it’s not a drift; maybe it’s racing up the on-ramp.

It started in mid-2020, with the idea that we would get take-out from our favorite local restaurants at least once a week, to help them stay afloat. (It also meant one day less of menu planning and cooking.) At first, as I recall, we were very good. I would order one burger, with no fries, and two side salads. We would split the burger. So virtuous. So community-minded. After a while, though, I started ordering two burgers. At first I’d eat half of mine and have the other half the next day for lunch or something ( or Spouse would.) And pretty soon, that wasn’t happening. Not only was I scarfing down my entire burger, but while I still ordered a side salad, I was also getting the fries.

I do think some of this came from a yearning for comfort. Burgers are comfort food. They also taste good. I think way too much of it is habit; it’s too easy.

Then at the grocery I found fancy Wagyu beef, conveniently packaged in exorbitant one-pound packs, and I started making burgers at home. The shared single burgers reduced our overall numbers–the decadent Wagyu burgers upped the numbers, and here we are at nearly forty in less than a year.

It’s spring now. Walks are beautiful. With the availability of vaccines, more things are opening up slightly, and I think it’s time we shifted our gratification to non-food things. Or different food things, at least. Vegetables are tender, sweet and fresh right now; maybe we can shift our focus to those.

As we head into the second quarter of 2021, I’m aiming us back at the old goal; between us both, four burgers a year.

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Daredevil: The Descent of Dex

Last week, in between revision sessions, I watched Season Three of Daredevil, which has been off the air for several years now. Chronologically, Season Three comes after The Defenders. I think.

I wouldn’t have been interested in watching it except Daniel Kane commented (a couple years ago) that there is a subplot involving a socialized psychopath, and the villain’s steady operation to “reprogram” him by destabilizing his life. This subplot includes the character Benjamin “Dex” Poindexter, (aka Bullseye in the comics) and Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin. (Is that right? Has Wilson Fisk always been Kingpin? I’m confused.)

Fisk is still played by Vincent D’Onofrio in Season Three.

I didn’t actually time this, but it seemed like Fisk was on screen more than Matt Murdock/Daredevil, at least in the first five episodes. Not a complaint, just a comment.

This season originally aired in 2017. While I was watching it, I realized that my sense of the show, now, is markedly different than it would have been then. If I had watched it then, I would have snorted with disbelief that anyone with Dex’s personal history could pass an FBI psych eval. Now, on the other side of four years of Trump, more and more police violence against a civilian populace, and the degree of overlap of 1/6 insurrectionists with law enforcement officers, I’m inclined to believe that the FBI eval screens in more psychopaths than it screens out. Anyway, I had nowhere near the problem suspending disbelief around that plot point than I thought I might.

No, this go-round Wilson Fisk’s habit of declaiming everything really bugged me.

There were two problems here. One is the voice D’Onofrio chose for Fisk. It was a choice, I get it, and it obviously worked on many levels. D’Onofrio is the kind of actor who doesn’t mind making himself grotesque for a part, even without makeup, and Fisk is a kind of grotesque, sheathing his brutality and his appetites in the finest white suits all the time. His harsh voice is a way of reminding us that all the delicately flavored omelets, art work and chamber music in the world will never make him fully human. I get that. It works. It still bugged me.

Wilson Fisk also never just says anything. He narrates it. This is a writing choice. (One exception in Season Three; in the prison dining area, he roars out “Quiet!” while he’s eating, a deliberate echo of Killgrave in Jessica Jones.)

But, seriously, the man’s a talker. When he is “working on” Dex, who at first is a loyal, if ruthless and murderous, agent, there is little interaction between them, but once he’s suborned the guy, there are phone calls. On or off the phone, Fisk declaims. At some point while I was watching, I drifted off in my imagination to an alternate universe where, instead of being Daredevil, this was a horror story with Dex as the Main Victim. Dex, a troubled FBI agent, is going about his assignment guarding a criminal who has turned state’s evidence and has been placed in a safe house while he is being debriefed. As Dex goes about his day…

SCENE: Dex’s apartment. Dex is obsessively washing his lone coffee cup.
Phone: Bzzt. Bzzt.
Dex: This is Dex.
Fisk: Once when I was boy, my father took me fishing. He was a brutal man, who rarely spent time with me. We went far out of the city to a distant cove, where in a dingy shack, a man with one eye sold fresh bait…
Dex: [Hangs up.]

SCENE: [Upscale bar where Dex is stalking Julie, the bartender.]
Phone: Bzzt. Bzzt.
Dex: Dex.
Fisk: I was a sickly child, with no friends. My father, a brutal man, mocked me. I disappointed him. My mother’s love was not enough to–
Dex: Stop calling me. [Hangs up phone.]

SCENE: [An alley where Dex, having staked out Julie’s apartment, is watching her eat pizza with a friend.]
Phone: Bzzt. Bzzt.
Dex: [Looks at phone.] (Whimpers.)
Phone: Bzzt. Bzzt.
Dex: (whispers) Stop calling me.
Phone: Bzzt. Bzzt.
Dex: [grabs phone] Stop calling me!
Fisk: Some time after I beat my brutal father to death with a hammer, my mother called me to her side. She was a frail woman who had never been able to confront him, but I felt that she loved me. She told me–
Dex: [Throws phone against windshield.]

And so on, until the story ends with Dex trapped in a chamber several sub-basements below any known sub-basements in some derelict building probably near the water because night shots with the reflection of city lights on water look cool. He cowers against wall, wild-eyed.

Phone: Bzzt. Bzzt.
Dex: (Screams)
[Camera pans to the shattered pieces of a cell phone on the floor.]
Phone: Bzzt. Bzzt.
Fisk: Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage. I have learned this in my lifetime. You cannot imprison a man behind walls or bars. My brutal father taught me this. Have I mentioned that my father was brutal? Anyway, where was I… oh, yes, you cannot…
Dex screams, screen goes black and credits roll.

Anyway, writing choices aside, one thing about Fisk/Kingpin that separates him from “standard” megavillians is self-insight. Fisk knows himself. He knows what he is (a brutal criminal, sure) but he know himself, in some smaller ways as well. I appreciated that. He certainly understands himself better than Daredevil understands himself. Matt Murdock should take a look at this. And he should just let his calls go to voicemail.

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Notional Space

A couple of weeks ago I headed down to the farmers market. I walked through the covered walkway that separates a row of shops from the large bank on the corner, and turned left by the noodle restaurant as I always do. To get into the plaza where the market is held, I suddenly had to walk through a restaurant, and I hissed in frustration.

Walk through a restaurant? Not really. The noodle place had put up a pavilion in the back, so they could serve outside (permitted by the tier we were in at that time). They hadn’t purchased the walkway, or blocked it–they were just creating a notional dining room. They weren’t even open that time of day. I still felt resentful as I walked underneath it, as though through no fault of mine I was encroaching on personal, defined space.

Last week I participated in the “FOGCon social” on Zoom and Gather. FOGCon did not try to put on a full-blown online convention this year; instead, they did two events and I was able to attend one of them. Gather uses an avatar and a virtual room to allow you to drift from one conversation to another. The graphics look like an early video game. The other option was Zoom breakout rooms, something I’m familiar with. The breakout rooms had names by themes, “What are you reading?” “What are you watching?” and the one I chose, “The Hallway,” which offered freeform conversation.

In the actual Marriott Hotel, some of my favorite conversations happened in various hallways (and at barcon). The breakout room was just a set of people on Zoom, but it had the feel of a “notional” hallway, a casual gathering place where we talked about pets, books, TV shows, crows and burial practices.

Once when I was a kid we took a picnic lunch to the beach. It was one of the rare days at the Sonoma County coast when it was clear, not foggy, and also not freezing cold. We had finished our sandwiches and were lying back watching the waves when a little girl came running after the ball her brother had kicked. She leaped over the corner of our blanket and grabbed the ball. Her mother appeared like she’d been teleported. “You say you’re sorry!” she snapped. “I didn’t raise you to be so rude.” The little girl hung her head and said she was sorry. My mom took the lead, graciously saying it was quite all right. All right? She was apologizing for jumping over the corner of our blanket.

Except that wasn’t really what it was. She had entered our notional room without our permission. That was the infraction.

Remember in the early days of Zoom, when people would “invade” other people’s meetings? That’s an invasion of space, right? Imaginary, virtual space designated for one group. A room. You burst into the wrong room.

In the USA we do a lot with rooms. Rooms shore up our identities. Some of us have walls covered with diplomas, certificates and trophies. Some cover a wall with images of family, some with works of art, some with both. The metaphor of a room works well for us because we think of ourselves as living our lives in rooms, maybe? Anyway, they’re much more than shelter from the elements or enemies.

With a Zoom backdrop, we’ve extended that “shoring up identity” to the virtual world.

I don’t have a point to make. I’m just thinking about the notion of space, and how it changes, and the notion of notional space.

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