Let’s Write About Sex, Part II

In an earlier post, I wrote that sex scenes in novels must serve primarily to advance the plot or themes or develop the characters, but “should still be hot.”

I take that back.

First, a few words on definitions: erotica and pornography (overlapping but non-identical categories) are distinct from other forms of literature in that they are intended, primarily, to titillate. A porno that doesn’t turn on its audience is a failure. A really hot porno is a success, even if it is otherwise completely ridiculous. The presence of sex–even graphic sex, even a lot of graphic sex–does not make something an example of pornography or erotica. The determining factor is the mission of the story and the way it can be fairly judged.

I’m aware that not everybody uses this definition, but for literary analysis (something a writer benefits from being able to do), it has a definite advantage; it reminds us that a sex scene in a novel should be judged the same way any other scene is. Does it advance the plot? Does it develop the characters or themes of the story? If not, it should be removed, no matter how hot it might be. Different kinds of stories should be held to different standards.

But, in my previous post, I said that sex scenes in non-pornographic novels should also be hot. I said that thinking that when a thing is described well, it feels like you’re there, so if sex is described well….

But that’s not necessarily true. For one thing, not all sex is sexy. Well-described bad sex shouldn’t seem very erotic. For another, watching someone else have sex might not be a turn-on, depending on context. The experience might trigger anger, disgust, confusion, or all sorts of other things. Finally, and maybe most importantly, human beings are complex and can have different experiences going on at different levels at the same time.

For example, imagine a couple having sex…and one of them suspects the other has been cheating. On a physical level, it’s working beautifully, but the suspicious one is having all kinds of complex emotions. The character IS aroused, but as a writer, you might choose to depict the scene in such a way as to focus on the emotional turmoil, in which case the reader might not find the scene a turn-on at all. And it would still be a good scene.

Consider that a scene in a novel can describe two people having lunch without making the reader feel hungry.

Consider also that there are a lot of sex scenes in movies that are not sexy at all. The difference is not one of graphic depiction, either. Compare the sex scene that occurs early in “City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold” with the sex scene in “Titanic.”

In Titanic, Rose and Jack are in a car parked in the hold of the ship. We know they are in the back seat together, that the windows fog up, and that they are sweaty and shirtless afterwards (we can’t tell whether they are wholly naked). In City Slickers, the Billy Crystal character and his wife get some rare time alone while their kids are out with friends, and they plan to use the time for sex, but he finds what he thinks is a treasure map that he doesn’t want to tell his wife about. They get under the covers together, with him on top, but he’s obviously distracted. He doesn’t want to have sex, he wants to look at the treasure map. So, after a few seconds, he says “I’m done!” and talks his wife into hiding somewhere in the house so he can find her for “round two.” While she’s hiding, he plans to look at the map.

Now, neither scene is graphic–if you didn’t know what sex is, neither scene would tell you. But the scene in Titanic could be a turn-on anyway. It evokes passion very well. The scene in City Slickers, despite being marginally more frank (the camera is on the characters while they are supposedly having intercourse, though they are under the covers), is not sexy at all. It’s funny and awkward. The difference is in how the two scenes are filmed and acted and what the emotional content of each scene is.

Degree of graphic detail, and degree of sexiness, are different variables, only loosely related. As writers we can decide, not only how much detail we want to show, but how we want the scene to feel. One book might best be served by decorous vagueness that nonetheless fills the reader with longing. Another book might best be served by intimate detail that feels procedural, scientific, or plain ugly.

Writers know all this, I suspect. I can’t possibly be the first novelist to discover what movie-makers so clearly already know. But when we discuss our craft, the topic seldom comes up.

And that’s too bad. These variables are tools, and we should discuss how to use them.

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By Any Other Name

I’ve written about naming characters before, relative to naming animals or other beings who don’t belong to any human naming convention–how I named the characters in my first book, To Give a Rose. But what about humans? What about human characters who are more or less from my own culture? That should be easier, right?


I often see authors talking about what kind of name fits a given character–a vindictive prostitute, say, or a hard-boiled detective. Of course, I know what they mean. Certain names seem to go with a human type. We think we know what people named Niles, or Bruce, or Vivian might be like, and of course our readers know, too. The vindictive prostitute shouldn’t be named Betty. Calling the detective Dave would sound funny. We need to manage the readers’ expectations, lest we fail to communicate our characters, right?

But let me put in a plug for another approach. After all, that’s not how most real people get their names. Nobody knows, when a baby girl is born, that she will grow up to become a vindictive prostitute, so they won’t know to give her a suitable name for that role.

Of course, Betty might well choose a different name for her professional activities, a point I’ll return to in a bit. And of course we know, as writers and readers, that the more obviously perfect names that some writers use (Charles Dickens is famous for this) are silly, and that is part of the point. And you might ask what is the harm in choosing evocative, even silly names for what everybody knows are fictional people?

Maybe not much harm, though I find realism a more interesting challenge (another point I’ll return to), but there is something to be said for challenging stereotype in our writing. Certain names belonging to certain characters is a stereotype, a habit of assumption that could cause us to misjudge each other in real life.

Is there a way to find our character’s names that avoids such short-cuts and, perhaps, offers us greater richness?

I confess I usually give my human protagonists names that just pop into my head. I might choose a name to honor someone I know (usually not the person I based the character on), or because the meaning of the name suggests something to me (even though the readers might not know the meaning), or because I like the sound. I’m a synesthete, meaning I have a strong association between colors and specific letters, so I choose names that have colors that match the way I think of the characters. I don’t expect readers to know or care about these colors (some are doubtless fellow colored-letter synesthetes, but synesthetes seldom agree with each other about what colors letters are), but they help me.

But for secondary characters, and increasingly for main characters, I’m starting to use a different approach, one that starts with considering what name the character’s parents would have chosen.

Consider age; name popularity changes over time, and new names enter circulation, so finding a plausible name for a character often starts with looking up a list of popular names for their birth year. If the story is not set today, bear in mind that the associations of some of the names will be off. For example, names like Mason, Jayden, Caleb, Mikayla, and Madison (for a girl) all sound like children’s names, but in a story set eighty years from now, those names will belong to old people.

Consider ethnicity. Different cultural groups have different naming patterns, a concept that applies not just to obvious ethnic differences, but also, to some extent, to differences in regional identity, socioeconomic class, and family origin. For example, I have no definite ethnic identity; I’m basically mainstream American. But three out of my four grandparents were the children of immigrants, so that if I had kids and wanted to name them after relatives, the Italian heritage would show through.

So far, we have two characteristics–age and ethnicity–that influence both name choice and character, but not in the way we normally consider. There is no personality type typical of an ethnicity, for example. Any kind of person can belong to any socioeconomic class or age group. And yet, these things do influence the assumptions, associations, and values of a person. For example, how old was your character on September 11, 2001? For Mason or Kayla, it was likely a childhood experience. For Jason or Jenn, it changed the course of their young adulthood. For Greg or Susan, that was the day they began to wonder if their almost-grown son might have to go to war.

Then there are family naming patterns, which are influenced by ethnicity, religion, and parental idiosyncrasy. For example, Jewish people don’t usually name children after living people, whereas Christian people often do. There might be a story behind a name–a name might commemorate a family tragedy (which the character must cope with), or perhaps the character is named for a family member as an expression of some parental hope (and corresponding pressure).

Again, none of this has anything to do with a character’s personality or job description, but it has everything to do with how they perceive the world around them. If you want to know what a character sees when he or she looks at the world, what music the person grew up with, what dreams they were taught to consider attainable, what associations they carry (Jane Goodall says she always finds the chimes of Big Ben scary, because BBC news radio broadcasts used to start with that sound, when she was a little girl, and so she heard that sound seconds before she learned her country had declared war on Germany and all the adults in the room became afraid), if you want to know all that about a character, you will need the very same information that tells you their name.

Finally, some people name themselves, or are named by others as older children or adults. These might be wholly new names, or they might be nicknames, or forms of a name (such as whether a man goes by Dave, Davy, or David). In either case, the name does suggest something of the person’s personality, or perceived personality–the difference matters. Does this name express who the person wants to be, or who others think the person is? And either way, there is a story behind it.

Caitlyn Jenner, for example, may be the oldest Caitlyn around. Her parents wouldn’t have given her that name even if they’d known at the time that she was a girl, as the name was not popular then. She probably named herself, but a friend may have named her. Either way, the name suits her, but it is obviously not a birth-name. It is a re-birth name, perhaps.

The point is that if if you name your characters by developing their backstories, you’ll still get a name that fits, but it will fit organically, not stereotypically, and you’ll get a lot more than a name.

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A Modest Proposal

I’m  a writer. I like being a writer. But…

The way the publishing industry works these days bothers me.

Once upon a time, in order to publish a book, you needed a pile of money up front. Unless you were rich, the smart thing to do was to sell your book to a publisher–they’d invest their pile of money in getting your book out, and you’d get a nice check (and, hopefully, some royalties).

Of course, the catch was that publishers didn’t want to risk their big piles of money without good cause, so first you had to convince them that your book would sell. A whole industry of literary agents developed around pitching books for authors. Many query letters were sent with self-addressed, stamped envelopes. But the good news was that if a publisher did take a risk on your book, they took a big risk, and would protect themselves as much as possible by doing everything possible to make your book succeed.

Let me repeat that; skilled and experienced people would do everything possible to make your book sell, and they wouldn’t charge you a dime to do it. Instead, they paid you for the privilege of trying to sell your book.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

These days, though, changes in printing technology have made publication extremely cheap. The good news is that self-publication is now extremely affordable, but the bad news is that publishing companies also find publication affordable, which means they no longer have much incentive to make sure your book sells. They’ll help you out some (I’m not talking about scam artists, here), but basically, they’ll leave most of the heavy lifting up to you. If you figure out how to market effectively, they’ll make money (so will you). If you don’t, they’ll try again with someone else.

I know this makes publishers sound like bad-guys, and that’s not my intent–my understanding is that there are other changes in the industry that are squeezing them pretty hard, too. The point is not who is at fault but what we can do to fix this.

We’re not just looking at a problem for authors, either. It’s a problem for society. It used to be that to get published, a book didn’t have to be good so much as saleable. Obviously, important but unpopular voices were silenced that way, collateral damage of capitalism, but since unsaleable books wouldn’t have been read much even if they had been published, the system didn’t do much harm. In any case, authors succeeded or failed financially based on how well they could write saleable books–and society got a steady supply of those books it wanted to read.

That has changed.

Under the new system, authors aren’t really paid for their skill and determination at writing, but rather for their skill and determination at marketing. At best, this results in authors having less time and energy available for writing, since they are busy serving as their own marketing directors instead–but far worse is when a good writer turns out to be a bad marketer and we never hear from them at all.

Do we really want, as a society, to limit ourselves to those cultural products created by people who happen to also be good at marketing?

Do we really want the creative people who cannot convert their output to clickbait to starve? Or to give up being creative all together? Creative people work on behalf of society. They make the culture that the rest of us depend on. And they won’t be able to do it if we don’t find a way to pay them.

Fortunately, there is a solution.

Actually, there are two, inter-related solutions. The first is that authors have to band together and help each other market.

Writer’s Guilds

I’m picturing a kind of professional guild or co-op. Membership would be open only to those who could pass a sort of written audition. Member dues would be payable in either money or labor (or some of each). As a member, you’d get a monthly dividend check, a marketing package, and training opportunities in both the craft and the business of writing.

The work of providing that package, offering the training, and running the guild would all be done by other members who were paying their dues through labor. The guild would also offer its services (editing, marketing, coaching) to non-members for a fee, in order to raise more money. The size of your share–and thus the size of both your marketing package and your dividend–would depend on how much dues you paid, so you could decide whether the guild would be a sideline for you or a major commitment.

Major benefits of the system would be:

  • A guaranteed steady monthly income (writers often go through feast/famine cycles)
  • Access to professional services even when you don’t have the money to pay for it
  • Professional development opportunities in all areas of your career
  • Opportunities for social connection and networking with other writers
  • The opportunity to make a living from writing alone, if you happen to be a great writer but bad at business (as, for example, the great Samuel Clemens was)

There could be lots of these guilds, each run slightly differently, according to the interests of its members. Perhaps some would focus on specific genres, or specific regions, while others would be more general. It would be fun.

Turning Publishing Upside-down

The guilds will still face the same problems that publishers now face–the internet and the dominance of huge distribution monopolies (Amazon, currently). It’s hard to make a living from writing when ebooks are available for 99¢ and the monopoly of the moment is offering pretty much everybody a bad deal on top of that.

It’s essentially the same problem that the music industry is facing–how do you compete with free and instantly available?

Fortunately, some musicians have found a strategy that works, at least for some of them: instead of depending on album sales, and doing live shows to promote albums, depend on ticket sales and use your cheaply or freely available recordings to promote your shows (and merchandise).

As writers, we will eventually have to make the same flip.

We will earn the bulk of our living by providing live entertainment–readings, dramatic stagings, lectures, and classes (depending on the nature of the book)–or by writing material that we then license to live performers to adapt. We’ll still sell, and sign, books at these events, and we may still sell printed copies to libraries and through bookstores and online store fronts (including Amazon, or its heirs) and we may also sell electronic copies for absurdly small amounts of money. Some few of us will earn significant incomes that way. But in a world where anything written or recorded is available for free to anyone, anywhere (legal or not), most of us will face a very cruel buyer’s market for anything but our own, irreplaceable, live selves. Most of us will earn most of our money, and spend most of our working lives, on tour, as many professional musicians do.

And who will organize these tours? Our guilds will, of course.

Looking Ahead

It’s true we’re not, as a society, ready for a performance-based literature. The market for such performances must be developed to the point where going to a reading means paying $60 and up for a ticket instead of buying a coffee and dropping your change in the donation jar.

It’s also true that the rise of a performance-based literature market will radically alter literature as a whole. We could lose some of our beloved formats, such as the full-length novel. But things change. We’ve seen the marginalization of once-popular forms before (epic poetry, for example), and the development of new forms. That’s ok. We can handle it.

What we cannot handle is a world where artistic creation itself (as separate from marketing) ceases to be financially viable in any form. That we cannot allow, and as the Internet inevitably transforms our world, we must take steps to create economic models that work for creative people–so they can continue to work for us.

So, in the short-term, let’s create guilds. We can start today, actually. Shoot me an email. We’ll brain-storm about mutual marketing, see if we can help each other.

For the longer-term, let’s look for ways to create a rich culture of performance-based literature.

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We Have Met the Enemy: He’s on TV

So, apparently nobody wants to employ Kevin Spacy anymore, after the man was credibly accused of assaulting a 14-year-old. I’m not sure how much this has to do with with people in the industry honestly not wanting him around, as opposed to a fear that he’s just not marketable anymore. In any case, he probably isn’t marketable, or at least not as marketable as he used to be.

I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for Mr. Spacy, but I am somewhat concerned for our culture.

I remember, some years ago, how adamant a friend of mine was about never reading a certain author I liked, since (according to her) he is an anti-Semite and a homophobe. I never found any suggestion of either in his work, so presumably his odious politics are expressed through other means. My friend simply did not want to read work written by a bad person. I don’t think she wanted me to read his work, either, though she didn’t quite say so.

Her comment–and its vehemence–struck me as odd. After all, I don’t read books because the authors are good people, I read because they are good writers. Does she honestly do anything different? Does she first vet the moral fiber of the author of any cultural contribution she allows near her mind?

It’s true that nefariousness on the part of a creative-type might viscerally put me off their work. What I know now about Bill Cosby does color my perception of his comedy–it’s not as funny as it used to be. And I have to admit I’d be unlikely to knowingly hang a painting by Adolf Hitler in my living room. There is a certain “ew factor.”

But “ew” isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a political stance. If Hitler’s paintings were available at a reasonable price in American yard sales (and if they were any good, which I’ve always heard that they weren’t), there’d be no good reason not to pick one up. It’s not like the sale could enrich him in any way. It’s not like the thing could harbor contagious Nazi-cooties. I might still pass, of course, but getting angry at someone else for liking the painting would be out of line.

In point of fact, there have been many major contributions to our culture made by people who were, arguably, bad. The Declaration of Independence comes to mind, given that Thomas Jefferson not only owned slaves, but also had children with one of them. History cannot tell us what Sally Hemings thought of the arrangement, but her consent, if she gave it, wouldn’t alter President Jefferson’s moral status much, given that Ms. Hemings had virtually no power to meaningfully refuse him.

Shall we expunge the Declaration of Independence from our national consciousness in order to show our disapproval of its author?

The issue isn’t just that the Declaration, specifically, is a national treasure. There are plenty of good artworks by questionable people that aren’t national treasures. The issue is whether we, as a people, really want to limit ourselves to only those cultural contributions created by “approved” or “orthodox” people? Is there to be a list? When the list is updated, will books written by those now considered enemies of the people be burned?

Do we really want to be that country?

There are limits of course, to arguments based on extreme cases. From sideways glances at loyal Cosby fans (“how can you still like him?”) to book burnings in village squares is a bit of a stretch. And yet the demand that art only come from the right sort of people is scary, and it is scary for a reason.

All this is not to prioritize art over morality. Criminals ought to be brought to justice, and if that means an interruption in their work, so be it. But even were Kevin Spacy to go to prison, American Beauty would still be a great movie. The reality is that human beings have multiple kinds of impact on the world. If some of those impacts are good and some are bad, and we have to deal with that paradox.

The other problem is that poor behavior is a lot more common than most of us acknowledge. An acquaintance of mine recently posted to Facebook words to the effect of “when will we, as a culture, realize that all men are guilty?” She was responding to fresh allegations of yet another celebrity committing sexual violence, so I assume she meant guilty of sexual violence. She’s wrong, of course, not all men are guilty (nor are all women innocent), but sexism, sexual violence, and sexual harassment are so pervasive that it’s hard to imagine that it’s easy to believe the innocent are among the minority–especially when you include harassment and minor forms of assault, such as the occasional un-asked-for pat on the ass. Add the entire spectrum of racist, homophobic, and other bigoted and hurtful behavior, and the list of the innocent must indeed be short.

The list of cultural contributions by the truly and wholly innocent must also be short.

All this, again, is not to excuse anything. We have a big problem, and we have to solve it, both individually and collectively, but we can’t do that by pretending that hurtful people don’t exist, that they don’t write novels, make movies, conduct scientific research, serve as president, or otherwise contribute to society.

All too often, they are us. And we have to deal with it.


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In Their Own Words

Should I write in first person or third person? It’s a question I see posted often in online writers’ group. Of course, the obvious answer is “it depends on the book,” or “it’s up to you.” Some readers, or some genres, have preferences for one or the other, but the choice depends on the author.

I’d add it depends even more on the character.

Not all fictional characters can tell their own stories–for the same reasons that not all non-fictional people can. Not that your narrator has to actually be a good writer, but the way the character communicates has to be close enough to good writing that you can write well without violating the character’s voice.

Your narrator also has to want to tell the story. The story told doesn’t need to be honest–you can choose an unreliable narrator–but the character has to want to talk about the content of your book.

Why might your character not want to talk?

The topic might be the problem. Up until a point, you can make an interesting story with a narrator talking in circles around some central, perhaps painful topic. In the second section of Three Junes, by Julia Glass, the narrator, Fenno, never does get around to admitting that he is in love with his friend, Mal, an omission that has everything to do with the story. But he does want to talk about Mal. He talks about Mal, and his life with Mal (they are neighbors), and this thoughts about Mal, and everything about Mal except that one, critical thing. But if Fenno had decided that his memories of Mal were simply too painful to bring up at all–and some people do respond to pain that way–there would have been no story, at least not in Fenno’s own words.

One of my characters, Zalman Mroz, won’t talk. Specifically, he won’t talk about his experiences during the holocaust, a reticence that casts a shadow over his entire family. Zalman isn’t published in anything yet, and he’s likely going to remain a briefly-mentioned bit of backstory in a group of books about one of his grandsons. The holocaust isn’t my story to tell. Yet the fact remains that if I did want to tell that story, I couldn’t use Zalman Mroz’s voice to tell it–because any voice that could tell the story would not be his.

And there is a related issue: who is the narrator telling the story to? You need not provide the answer to your readers–Three Junes does not say, nor does Catcher in the Rye, nor do many other excellent books with first-person narrators–but the fact remains, a storyteller implies a storylistener, at least in the imagination or anticipation of the teller. The relationship between narrator and who or what the narrator expects to hear or read the tale is one more relationship you, as a writer, have to keep track of and develop.


Because how a story is told depends upon who is listening.

Consider Andy Cote, Zalman Mroz’s grandson. Unlike Zalman, Andy does have a story to tell, and tells it to a student of his. But he is still reticent about certain things. There are experiences he considers too painful or too private to share with his student–to the point where I had to structure the book in a way that allowed me to break in periodically and talk about what Andy isn’t saying. If he were telling the story to his wife or grown daughter, he might divulge more. If he were writing his own story for public consumption, he would share much less. Andy does not narrate his whole book, just certain flashback scenes, and his relationship with his listener is well-explored for the reader, but if I had written the entire book in first-person, with him narrating, I would still have had to decide whom he is talking to and why. Otherwise, I would violate the character’s integrity by making him talk about things he wouldn’t talk about.

When you write in first-person, the story is filtered through the perspective of your narrator and through the willingness of your narrator to talk and through the relationship between your narrator and the reader (or whoever your narrator thinks is listening). Sounds complicated, you might say. Why bother, you might ask. Isn’t it easier to just settle for a nice, simple, third-person narrative with no particular viewpoint of its own?

Maybe, yes, though different writers have their preferences, and you might find first-person suits your skills and tastes better. But there is a thing a first-person narrator can do that no other form of narrative can; show while telling.

“Show, don’t tell” is one of those bits of advice that some writers take too seriously (treating it like A Rule, when it’s really a guideline), while others don’t take it seriously enough. Many people seem to interpret “show, don’t tell” as an injunction to be more descriptive, so they respond by making their language more flowery. That isn’t it. Telling with lots of purple prose is still telling. The best explanation I’ve seen is an example:

Telling: “The man coming in the door was very tall.”

Showing: “He bumped his head on the doorway as he came in.”

In any case, too much telling can indeed be stilted and boring. But what if your narrator likes to tell? Do you need to get a different narrator? Maybe. As noted earlier, a character who can’t tell a story well won’t make a successful narrator. But what if, while your narrator is telling, he or she is also showing?

For example, in one of my several works-in-progress, the narrator is, indeed, prone to telling. Near the beginning, in the middle of what on the face of it looks like an info-dump about the narrator’s father, occurs this line:

I once saw him pick up a little snake that had gotten into our house somehow, and he was so gentle with it, and so fascinated by it, that I wished I could be a snake, too.

What does that tell you? That Dad likes snakes. But what does it show you? That the narrator was not the object of Dad’s fascination and gentleness, and wanted to be. That is a message never delivered directly by the narrator, and is, in fact, in direct contradiction to most of the rest of the book, which idolizes the narrator’s father.

And yet it has everything to do with the story.

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Another Kind of Eclipse

In the wake of the total eclipse of the sun a few weeks ago, I remembered a day-dream of mine.

One of the things I do is to mentally elaborate on other people’s fiction. Occasionally the result is fan fiction (mostly short, and I haven’t published any of it yet), but more often I’m just thinking about how stuff works and what stuff means. It’s one of the ways I play, an enjoyable exercise for my brain.

Case in point–the movie, Avatar. For those not in the know, the basic idea of this film is that humans have a mining operation on another planet, called Pandora, which is populated by a very vaguely humanoid species of very tall blue people, called the Na’vi. The humans are treating the Na’vi very badly. A human man who came to Pandora as part of its private security force ends up joining the Na’vi and helping them fight back. The real high point of the movie is its CGI effects, which are gorgeous.

But let’s leave the plot and the characters alone, for the time being, and look at physics.

Introducing the Game

Pandora isn’t really a planet. This is never mentioned in the movie, but is made obvious by certain shots–it’s clearly a moon orbiting around a Saturnlike planet. In our solar system, our gas giants orbit very far out, but astronomers have found systems with gas giants near their stars. Apparently, Pandora is part of such a system.

The only other things we know about Pandora is that it is slightly smaller than Earth and has a thicker atmosphere that is dangerous to humans, that many of its animals and plants are much larger than those of Earth, that many of the plants glow in the dark, especially when you touch them, and that the biosphere is sentient and named Eywah.

The game I want to play involves attempting to explain these details without violating either the information provided by the movie or the known facts of how the universe works.

For example, how can the atmosphere be thicker than ours, even though the gravity is weaker? If Earth’s atmosphere were applied to a smaller planetary body, the lesser gravity would allow the atmosphere to expand and to thin, like a sponge released from compression. Yet Pandora’s atmosphere is thicker. How?

Obviously, it’s atmosphere isn’t like Earth’s. Either the proportion of gasses is different or there is an additional gas, but either way, the mix is heavier. If a different, heavier, non-reactive gas replaced some of the nitrogen, for example, the air wouldn’t be toxic, but breathing it in might conceivably trick the body into developing a poor balance of blood gases. That’s close to what we see in the movie. So far, so good.

Ok, Now, Orbital Mechanics

Now that you know how the game works, let’s look at Pandora’s astronomy.

Just to keep things clear, let’s name the giant Hephaestus, since in Greek myth, he is one of the deities who created the woman, Pandora. Also, let’s refer to Pandora’s orbital period–the time it takes to go around Hephaestus–as it’s month, and the time it takes Hephaestus to go around its sun as the year of both Pandora and Hephaestus. Pandora’s rotational period is its day, as with Earth.

There are a number of interesting aspects of Pandora’s astronomical movements. Playing around with these ideas led me to look up things online such as the diameter of the orbit of Jupiter’s moon, Callisto, the relative weights of Earth and Jupiter, and what happens if you don’t breathe enough nitrogen. Weird questions are the best thing for finding out new stuff.

Two things seem quite clear, though: Pandora experiences very complex tides; and Pandora has very long eclipses.

Let’s ignore the tide, since the characters of the movie live nowhere near the sea. But the eclipses are interesting.

Jupiter’s major moons have orbital periods from almost two to almost 17 Earth days. Pandora is likely somewhere in that range, because Hephaestus in its sky looks similar in apparent size to pictures taken of Jupiter from among its moons. Pandora’s day is also probably similar in length to that of Earth, for the simple reason that none of the characters mentions day length being odd–and Earthlike days are only possible if Pandora’s orbit is close to its system’s plane of the ecliptic (where eclipses are possible).

So, if Pandora has a month about two weeks long, it’s going to spend a few of those days more or less behind Hephaestus. How much of that time would actually be in eclipse would depend on the distance at which Pandora orbits, since planets cast cone-shaped shadows (that’s why on Earth totality is only about seventy miles wide–we catch only the small end of the cone). But it does seem plausible that Pandora has regular eclipses that cover the entire world and last least a day.

The most dramatic scenario would be a solar eclipse that began before dawn and ended after sunset, such that once a month you’d get a 36-hour night. But if the eclipse began during the day, what would that look like?

What an Eclipse on Pandora Looks Like

On Earth, our total solar eclipses owe their special, weird character to a cosmic coincidence; from our vantage point, our moon and our sun appear to be exactly the same size. As a result, during a total eclipse, the moon blots out the entire sun, but not the corona, so we get a black hole in the sky ringed by ghostly white fire. And since we do only get the tail end of the cone of shadow, the area of totality is not very big. You can see a rim of sunset colors from inside the shadow, and the sky does not fully darken. Totality doesn’t look like night. It doesn’t look like anything but itself.

Pandora wouldn’t get those same coincidences. Hephaestus looks much larger than the sun, so the corona would be covered as well. I suspect that if the entire planet were in shadow, the sky would be as dark as night as well.

One thing would not be different, though–on Pandora, as on Earth, you don’t see the eclipse coming. You can’t see a planetary body that doesn’t have sunlight on it, so the approaching moon–or Hephaestus–is invisible. The day looks ordinary. And unless you have specialized glasses, you can’t even tell anything is happening until most of the sun is blotted out. Even a little sunlight is enough to light up the world. The air just gets a little cooler. You’re not sure if you’re imagining it.

Then the day starts to darken, like a storm is coming. Or maybe there is something the matter with your eyes. The air is undeniably cooler, now, and there is something definitely and dreadfully wrong with the air–it’s going dark, even though the directness of the sun, the colors, everything, still shows you it is mid-day. There are no storm-clouds. Power bleeds out of the light, somehow. The day has anemia. Even if you know intellectually exactly what is happening, the metaphors are undeniable because the brain will accept every explanation for what it’s seeing except the right one.

You see the greater darkness coming–perhaps a cloud goes suddenly grey. Perhaps the land in this distance goes dim, if you have a good view in the right direction. Seconds later, it’s upon you.

You look up. It’s safe to do that now, the sun is gone, it can’t hurt your eyes anymore. You see the blackness, the ghostly white fire.

But because this is Pandora, not Earth, the black circle is not the size of the sun–it’s blotted out almost a quarter of the sky’s width. The far edge of it is indistinct, but the near side appears as a giant, black bow. The ghost fire breathes out from the side of the bow, silent, but it looks as though it should be howling, and then, after a few more minutes, it, too, is blotted out. The bow keeps moving. The sky darkens. You can’t see any hint of daylight on the clouds anywhere anymore. It’s still getting colder.

In a a few hours, the entire planet is under totality. The sky is as black as night, and all the stars are out, except that there is a hollow place, a black circle, which has no stars. If one of the other moons is in the sky, you might see it go behind the black circle, in which case you get multiple kinds of eclipses at once. Hours pass, and the circle with no stars gradually sets. You sleep. You wake. It’s still dark. The circle with no stars rises again. Then, gradually, the sky begins to brighten. All but the brightest stars are washed away. Sunrise, of a sort, blossoms on distant clouds, and the ghost fire leaps forth like a jet, like a flower, like the arc of a crown. Look away now, because the sunlight is about to leap out, and could blind you. A minute more, maybe two, and it is broad daylight. Give it ten or twenty minutes, and everything will look normal again, unless you have glasses. An hour after that, and even glasses couldn’t show you the monster that ate the sun.

You can expect this every month.

The Inconvenient Truth of Pandora

If you are a plant on Pandora, you have a problem; insects can eat you just fine in the dark, but insect predators, such as birds, have trouble finding them. Echolocation is no good for insects sitting flat against leaves. So every month, you get munched on for up to 36 hours straight, while you sit in darkness, unable to photosynthesize. What do you do?

You glow–especially is something (that might be an insectivorous animal) touches you. By lighting up, you help insectivores to help you.

If you are an animal on Pandora, things are easier. Presumably, you’ve either evolved the ability to function in the dark, or you can take 36 hours off from feeding. You will have to alter your behavior patterns, though.

If you are of the Na’vi, you also have a problem. How you plan hunting, warfare, and travel depends on when these eclipses are going to happen and whether any of the other moons are providing light at the time. It’s not enough to know an eclipse is due every 14 days, you have to calculate when it will begin and end to the hour, and where the other moons will be.  These kinds of calculations aren’t simple. You’re certainly smart enough, but learning complex math takes time and a certain type of mental training, which also takes time, and most of your people are too busy coping with an extremely complex environment to be available for any of that. What do you do?

Your tribe can nominate a single individual to learn the material, which is passed, priest to acolyte, down through the generations. Since the knowledge is critical to both hunting, war, and travel, this person can also be your chief. You also have another tribal specialist, the wisewoman whose job is to understand and commune with Eywah. What makes more sense than for these two, the secular and spiritual heads of your community, to be a mated pair? And since training must begin very young, a child of the couple is the natural successor of one, that child’s betrothed the natural successor of the other.

In fact, in the movie, plants do glow when you touch them, the war chief and the wisewoman are a couple, and their daughter is the future wisewoman and is promised to the future war chief.

The movie never tells us that the tribal war leader is also its mathematician, but it certainly seems plausible.

What’s the Point?

Do I think that all this was actually in the minds of the people who made the movie? No, I don’t think that, nor do I care–I’m not trying to be “right.” I’m just playing a game, and it’s not the kind of game you can win or lose. It’s just fun.

But I can’t play this game with all movies. Avatar is unusual in that thinking about the movie in this way yields implications that actually remain compatible with the movie. The Matrix, in contrast, has a premise that violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, so if you think about the movie too deeply you inevitably lose the plot. Most movies, even most “science fiction” movies, have the same limitation that The Matrix does. They are like those tempting confections made of plastic for display. No matter good they look, they are  ultimately unsatisfying. This is the distinction between ordinary science fiction, which violates reality for the sake of the story, and science-based fiction, which creatively augments reality, but never violates it.

Why do I write (and prefer to read) science-based fiction? Because I want to make you a cake you can go head and eat.

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So, there was an eclipse yesterday. And although I usually keep this blog pretty focused on my craft, there are so many people I want to tell my eclipse story to (I’m a writer: I write) that I’ve decided to share it here.

I figure, Annie Dillard wrote about her experience of totality, why can’t I?

First, let me say that if you haven’t been in totality yet, however weird you think a total eclipse of the sun would be, it is weirder than that. According to my friend, who read the relevant essay, Annie Dillard wrote that totality is to a partial eclipse what marrying a man is to merely kissing him—kissing generally comes before marriage and is obviously related to it, but in no way even approximates what marriage is like. Annie Dillard is precisely correct. Having kissed men and being married to one, I can say that the comparison in no way diminishes the worth of either partial eclipse viewing or kisses. Kissing is indeed a lovely thing to do. It is only that the other is so totally more as to achieve a difference of kind rather than degree.


Yesterday was also my fortieth birthday, an event I decided to greet with excitement, rather than the more traditional dread. After all, getting older is what happens as long as you go on living, and living is a good thing. Anyway, the increasing amount of salt in my pepper is coming in silver, rather than grey or white, and I’m going to look awesome with silver hair. And, I get a total eclipse of the sun on my birthday, so how cool is that?

I arranged to view the eclipse from Siler Bald, on the Appalachian Trail, with several friends whom I hadn’t seen in way too long. My husband couldn’t join us because of unrelated prior commitments, but I brought the dogs down with me—Una, the aging but still spry and cute beagle, and CurlyQ, the now definitely geriatric Lab/pit mix (she has a retriever’s thick, brown coat and fondness for water, and a pibble’s sweet loyalty and stocky, muscular body). Much discussion of logistics ensued, as you can imagine. We had initially assumed that Siler Bald, being a steep, two-mile hike from the nearest road and not well-known, would be an excellent but nearly secret viewing spot, but that was before a local paper spilled the beans. We decided to hike in two days early, to claim a spot, but then car trouble delayed us by several hours and we elected to camp at the base of the mountain and then go up only one day early. So we had a varied, if rather populous, little vacation on the mountain.

A ”bald” in the Southern Appalachians, for those not in the know, is a meadow on or near the top of a mountain. There are several of them, of varying sizes and shapes. Trees can grow on the balds, and would, except they are kept at bay by mowing or grazing. The balds predate European conquest, so while they were likely created by people, the record of why they were created has been lost. Some believe them to be a natural phenomenon, but my money is against that at this point.

Our first night was cold. I had not brought a tent, only a tarp I chose not to use, and the dogs had never slept out before without a tent. They were anxious, and barked at neighboring campers and especially the campers’ dogs through the night and then all morning. The thin-coated beagle shivered violently until I brought her in bed with me. Then we kept each other warm. The night throbbed with insect song, both like and unlike what I hear at home, and the stars shone spangled through gaps in the canopy as I fell asleep. By morning I was stiff and in pain in several different places (I am, after all, turning forty) but the light of the new day revealed wildflowers visited by bees and hummingbirds and a fascinating mix of familiar and, to me, exotic trees and shrubs, from northern species, like striped maple, to southern species, like great rhododendron.

After breakfast, one member of our party ran up the mountain to snag us a campsite isolated from other dogs (to prevent barking), and the rest of us moseyed slowly along at a pace CurlyQ could manage, taking time to filter water from a trailside spring and to admire mushrooms. Two miles, and close to three hours later, we arrived at the top, and CurlyQ lay down and slept as immovable as a rock until nearly dinner time.

Siler Bald itself is long and relatively narrow, climbing hundreds of feet from the high Snowbird Gap to the much higher summit, like a curiously isolated ski slope. The Appalachian Trail crosses the lowermost portion of the bald, and side trails run up to the summit and sideways to a separate, and much smaller and flatter meadow with a large and stately oak tree in its middle. We camped in the forest on the edge of that meadow. Around us, in the clearing, and up along the main bald as high as the summit, clustered other people’s camps, and hikers, children, and dogs wandered freely, finding and chatting with acquaintances old and new, reading books, and playing catch, in much the same way as they might have before a large outdoor concert, except this time the star of the show would literally be a star—our sun.

After another cold, yet much more comfortable night (I borrowed a hammock), I woke to a huge and distant buzzing shortly after dawn, the massed hum of flies drawn to dung, mosquitoes, and aerial drones observing the historic occasion. The festival went on as before, the tent city swelling as the day progressed until, by our count, there were over 160 tents and maybe a thousand people. The mood remained upbeat and friendly, and insects, birds, and the everywhere dogs went about their day like normal. The weather was hot, though pleasant in the shade, with intermittent piles of high, stormlike clouds.

There was no indication anywhere, except in the behavior of well-informed humans, that an eclipse was imminent, and yet the moon was already in the sky, invisibly, moving ever closer to the sun.

Remember that solar eclipses are caused by the moon blocking our sunlight. If you hold your hand, palm towards you, up so that it blocks the sun from your face, you’ll see it is impossible, from that position, for the sun to shine on your palm. In just that way, an eclipsing moon must be dark, hunting the blue day unseen, like some celestial shark.

But our clocks and our astronomers could tell us what our eyes could not; the day was special.

We packed up our camp and again sent up an advance scout to find a spot on the hillside and set up a tarp to shade us and to shield the dogs from all the things they might otherwise bark at. My friends, despite not having dogs themselves,  were excellent with mine, wonderfully considerate of their sweet but sometimes nervous doggishness.

We ended up a little more than halfway up the hill, our view encompassing at least a third of the horizon, the land stretching out below us like a rucked and rumpled nubbly green carpet, row behind row, all uninterrupted green out to the hazy distance. People around us talked and strummed guitars, talked about astronomy, and grilled aromatic meat over small campfires. A band of children battled each other with toy swords and worked together to create a network of tunnels and forts in the thick brush bordering the bald. A few enthusiasts set up telescopes and specialized cameras and cardboard camera obscura observatories. A nearly uninterrupted line of ever more people marched steadily towards the summit, looking rather like a train of porters hired on to some Himalayan expedition.

And the moon, invisible, approached the sun.

At the appointed time, we used our eclipse glasses to look at the sun and saw a little, seemingly inconsequential, chip on the side of the disk. Clouds massed across the sky and departed, eclipsing the sun in their more ordinary way, and we joked that our massed willpower would surely move the clouds away in time. Yes, I thought, but what about the will and the wanting of other people on other mountains? One person’s clear sky is always another’s shadow.

Another look through the glasses, and the chip had grown. The sun now looked like a cookie with a bite out of it.

Through the glasses, it is impossible to see anything but the solar disk, except for a vague luminosity, similar to those patterns of color and paleness that form and move behind closed eyelids in the red and personal dark. That luminosity might have been the corona, but it also might not have. Nothing else. Even the sun looked like a dull orange circle and no more. To look at clouds and trees and mountains and each other, we had to take our glasses off, and we spent more time looking around than up, both to save ourselves a crick in the neck and to avoid boredom. Nothing special, yet. Had we not been forewarned, we could not have known the bite out of the sun was even up there, let alone growing.

Eclipses are not like lunar phases. On the moon through an ordinary month, the curve of the shadow follows the nearest edge, so that a nearly full moon is missing a crescent of darkness, and the edge of that crescent grows flatter and flatter until a half moon has a perfectly straight edge. But the edge of eclipsing darkness never changes its shape, it is always curved, the edge of the otherwise invisible moon in front of it, so it is difficult to tell when half the sun has been covered.

Around the halfway mark, though, the air seemed suddenly cooler, though I wasn’t sure it wasn’t just a passing, random cool breeze. Then I noticed that the light of day had gone watery, like the sun in winter. Again, I wasn’t sure I wasn’t imagining it. But the edge was definitely off the day’s heat.

“Is it getting cooler?” I asked.

“Yes,” they others said.

“How much, do you think?”

“Well, it was supposed to be in the 80’s today, and I think it’s in the 70’s now. I’ve heard it’ll get to 65, like, just for a second.”

“I’m thinking,” said another, “whether I’d be able to tell anything was happening yet, if I was just out hiking and didn’t know about the eclipse.”

“If I was out hiking,” I said, “I’d notice. Because I’d be aware of the weather, and with the temperature drop, it feels like a storm is coming in, except it doesn’t look like it.”

It did look like something, though. The sun had shrunk to a thin crescent, and the light…it was hard to tell that it had grown darker, though obviously it must have, because the sunlight was still direct and still the color of ordinary daylight. And yet it was getting hard to see, as though there were something wrong with my eyes, or maybe there was some sort of thick, gummy substance darkening the air. That the darkness might be caused by a lessening of light the mind resisted, resisted strongly, because under normal circumstances, direct, mid-day sunlight and lessening illumination can never happen together. Yet here they were. Circumstances weren’t normal.

The festival was growing quiet, ordinary conversation ceased, whatever everyone on the hill had expected to be thinking and feeling being shoved aside by respectful, spontaneous awe. People spoke in whispers, neighbor to neighbor, or not at all. The temperature was still falling, each slight breeze cooler than the last.

My beagle stood up and looked around, alert. Our other dog, CurlyQ, did not react at all, simply slept the justified sleep of the ages, but Una was up and aware. And yet she did not look at the sky. She did not seem frightened, and she did not bark or bay. She just looked around. As a domestic animal, she was used to lights going on or off and sudden changes of temperature for no clear reason, but human behavior is literally her bread and butter, and she is exquisitely attuned to our species. I suspect she noticed the humans were acting strangely and wanted to know what that meant for her.

The denser crown up on the crest of hill clapped, cheered, and we did not know why. Could they see totality already as it came to meet us? Had they started “The Wave”? Had someone done a trick?

The passing clouds had long since stopped, paused, as though indeed by our wishes, for although a large cloud hung in the sky near the sun, it never passed over. It was thin and ignorable and so we ignored it. I’m not even sure it was there the whole time. Maybe it left or evaporated somehow.

“I’m starting not to like this,” I said, to no one in particular. Intellectually and emotionally, I was fine—fascinated by circumstance, glad and excited to be exactly where I was—but viscerally I felt a nervous nausea rising. The crescent had shrunk to a thin nail pairing of sunlight and the land around us had grown so dim as to be undeniable by even the most stubborn intuition, and yet the colors of daylight remained, though perhaps with a slight reddish shift, and the combination lent the scene a weird, hypersaturated darkness, a terrifying unreality, a camera trick for a monster movie, and not a very believable one.

“That cloud went dark!” I said, and indeed a large, puffy cloud low on the horizon had suddenly lost all its whiteness, becoming a pale, dull grey almost right before my eyes. Totality. I was looking at totality from twenty miles away as it rushed towards us across our planet’s skin.

“Three hundred, sixty-degree sunset colors!” someone shouted, and, yes, the clouds around as much of the horizon as we could see glowed yellow and pink around their tops and the surface of their woolly, piled bulges. The sky behind them had turned a smoky, pinkish orange. The land lay cloaked in dimness, range upon range, as far as the eye could see.

“It’s going!” someone almost shrieked, and I pointed my protected eyes upward to watch the arms of the crescent shrink and shorten, pulling rapidly into themselves, melting, the center swallowing itself, squeezed out, until….

There was nothing at all visible through my eclipse glasses. Complete blackness.

I ripped my glasses off, and a round, black hole hung near the top of a clear, midnight blue sky, pearlescent fire wreathing it, the pale, glowing flames undulating with barely perceptible, yet breakneck speed, each hundreds of times longer than the diameter of the whole Earth.

A few of the brightest stars stood out, but the land did not look like night. The horizon was still burnt orange, the clouds just outside the edge of totality still pinkish, and our hill itself was still bathed in full, albeit weird, color, the green and brown and straw of the recently shorn meadow, the green of the trees, the people and their multi-colored tents and sun shades crowding around in light incredibly still recognizably sunlike but dim as the land of the dead. It did not look like night. Even the brightest moonlight is not enough to allow the eyes to process color. It certainly wasn’t day, though.

One of our neighbors had started up a short eclipse playlist, and, predictably, the depth of totality was soundtracked by “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” a song I absolutely hate for its catchy and romanticized maudlin pain.

“I’m sorry you have to hear that song on your birthday,” someone said.

“It’s to be expected,” I replied, vaguely.

“Happy birthday!” someone else said.

“Thanks!” I replied. “Please don’t mind the fact that I’m sobbing.”

And I was. I was sobbing in terror, my arms tingling, my hands trembling, and yet I was not afraid in the ordinary sense of the word. I had no intellectual worry, not even any self-consciously irrational paranoia. Emotionally, I felt nothing at all, except a vague, eager curiosity. There was no fear, except I had all the involuntary physiological signs of a greater fear than any I had ever known. I learned later that the other people in my group felt wonder, or awe, or a great sense of beauty, but none of them felt terror, nor did I experience any of the enjoyable things they later reported. To feel a feeling, truly, the intellect and the emotions, as well as the body must be engaged, and while I had no fear, despite my full-body terror, I could feel nothing that was not fear, either.

People around us, all over the hill, were crying out in what sounded like shock and wonder, not everyone, just sprinkles and jets of sound here and there. Sometimes people clapped, though maybe that was later, it’s hard to remember clearly. Of all the hundreds of dogs among us that day, not one barked or howled or in any way acted odd. Wildlife had long since been frightened silent by the mass of humans. Of all the species present on Siler Bald that day, the only one I saw or heard acting strangely was ours.

I could not look at the sun/moon itself for very long, I found I could not quite trust that it was safe to do so. The thing so wholly looked like something dangerous, though, again, I was not really frightened by it, nor did I even really perceive it as a hole in the sky, nor was I appalled by it in a conscious way, and yet the only way to accurately describe the terrible singularity of it is as dangerous, as appalling, as a hole in the sky, a maw gobbling the world.

Not trusting that I could stare, and not wanting to miss the other parts of the show, I kept glancing between sky and land sky and land, sky and land. And every time I saw the land, it was that sickly, greenish dimness. Every time I saw the sky, the corona flared silent and silver above in a way that memory insists must have had a sound, a low, breathy roaring, or perhaps an ominous, long drawn-out chord, or an inchoate, wordless vocal track, singing.

I shivered, though whether from cold or from fear I do not know.

The cloud that had gone dark went light again, and someone shouted, “it’s coming back!” I looked up with my glasses and a speck, then a lump, then a crescent of light stood forth and grew rapidly. The world was day again, the clouds brightened rapidly to white, except for a darkness off in the other direction, behind the trees that I could not be sure I really saw, and then could not be sure was really gone.

The sun was still a mere crescent above us, the air must have been dim, yet in contrast to stark totality, everything seemed normal, and hundreds of people immediately began packing up their stuff and walking down the mountain, like the crowds leaving a stadium after a concert. We hung around a little longer, sometimes looking up at the sun or out at the brightening day. I walked over to the edge of the trees, something I had not taken the time to do as the crescent waned, and saw, as expected, crescents of sunlight like piles of giant fingernail clippings, cast by the pinhole gaps in the leaves above. I could make my own crescents by holding up the tiny gap between my curled first finger and the palm of my hand, like a constricted OK sign.

We packed up our stuff and headed out, intent on getting my friends home at a reasonable hour and maybe meeting with other friends in Ashville for a late dinner. On our slow, CurlyQ-paced way down, I used my glasses three more times to check the progress of the sun. That last time, it was almost whole once again, just one chip missing from the one side.

I have not used my glasses since, though I may, you know, just to be sure that the sun made it, that it’s really round again. A curious thing is that, looking back on the eclipse, even from less than an hour after totality had ended, I found I could barely remember it. The unreality itself seemed unreal, inconsequential, and I retained only fleeting snatches of disjointed memory, like a dream upon waking.

I do not feel utterly changed by the experience—I do not feel changed at all, except that now I am forty, rather than thirty-nine. The terror has been and gone, leaving nothing but shreds of largely intellectual knowledge behind. I have spent the bulk of today, when I could have been doing other things, writing down this account, stitching together those shreds of memory into a narrative, so I can remember and understand what the hell happened.

A post-script, which I hope will be funny at some point, is that we might as well have stayed on Siler Bald and watched the run return to roundness and then slept there, because our efforts to return my friends home last night—let alone to meet anyone for dinner in Ashville—came utterly to naught. The human response to the bizarreness of the sky was almost equally incomprehensible, and we’d underestimated it badly—as had tens of thousands of other people, as we all hit the same highways at the same time, trying to go home, and failing. It took us five hours to creep some sixty miles, and we made better time than some. Firefighters, their firehouse on our route and likely blocked in by the traffic jam, stood handing out bottles of water to unprepared motorists.  Cell phone calls to find a place for dinner proved fruitless, partly because cell service itself was patchy, since everyone was online at once, and partly because the restaurants we did call were running out of food. The line at a gas station bathroom where we stopped took forty-five minutes for a desperately dancing little girl to traverse. Long after dark, the ordinary dark of night, we still crept slowly forward, tempers fraying, when an ambulance, lights flashing, came up behind us. We all crammed ourselves down into one lane somehow so it could pass, and felt like weeping for the poor sick or injured person inside and their family.

Even after we escaped the jam, traffic remained rush-hour heavy even well after midnight. Every single hotel room but one was booked. Rest stops along the highway spilled over with cars, people sleeping in their seats because there was nowhere else to go.

And then our car—my car—stopped working. Its power to accelerate evaporated. This had happened twice before, once recently, once last year, apparently due to overheating, but this time we were running along fine in cool weather on a fast, nearly flat road. It’s coolant levels were fine. And the car would not re-start even after it cooled down, not until we’d waited over and hour and a half. Three hours later, it happened again, and this time we sat on the side of the road for almost four hours trying various solutions and mostly failing (this is how we know there were no hotel rooms available), until suddenly the car started to work again. Dawn was coloring the sky by the time we approached my friends’ house. Sun returning.

I am told the problem actually exists in the transmission. I am nine hours’ drive from home, without a reliable vehicle, and no clear certainty when I will get one.

I would willingly go see a total eclipse again.

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