Another Piece of the Puzzle Falls Into Place

So a few days ago I woke up around five in the morning with an idea how to make the scene work. I heard Dave stir next to me, and I said to him, “What if at the beginning the Astrologer is very serious and upright and proper, and only concerned about the oracles and geomancy and trying to figure out what it is that the gods want, but as soon as he gets to pretend for a while that he’s royalty, he starts flirting with every pretty young woman he sees and invites them all to come to this banquet that was just supposed to be for a few people?” And Dave groggily said “Ha!” and then rolled over and fell back asleep. That was enough of a positive reaction, though, to reassure me that it wasn’t just my imagination, that this was indeed the kind of comic reversal that would make the scene work.

Later that day I played around with the idea some more and realized that this plot twist also (a) gave me a usable character trait around which to start developing the character of the Astrologer, who had been a blank to me, and (b) solved a problem I was having with the end of the first act, as it gives the unexpected guest at the banquet a plausible explanation for her being there that everyone else will buy. This is the kind of serendipity that I think of as a sign that I’m on the right track. Sweet.

(A character I’m writing doesn’t seem to take life to me until I’ve found some kind of internal contradiction in his or her personality, which might for example be that he or she is torn between wanting two incompatible things, or as in this case having some element of hypocrisy, whether consciously or not, in his or her nature. For me, finding that contradiction marks the turning point where the character stops feeling to me like a pawn I’m pushing around to make the plot work and starts feeling like there’s a spark of life in him or her, something I can work with and build on.)

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Wisdom of the East

I have a text file of Part I of the Wilhelm/Baynes I Ching on my laptop, for when I want to throw the coins for the Yijing (which is pinyin for I Ching) on the go. The section for each hexagram starts with the name of the hexagram in Chinese, followed by the English translation that Wilhelm and Baynes gave it. The file for thunder over heaven, for example, begins

34. Ta Chuang / The Power of the Great

So I’m doing the preliminary work on a possible new project, another opera adaptation. I’m having some trouble seeing how to adapt a number about halfway through the first act to my purposes, and so I thought I’d throw the coins this morning to see if it might lead to some ideas. I threw heaven over water, and the file for that hexagram begins

6. Sung / Conflict

Not a very helpful reading (I mean, what did the Yijing think I was going to put in the scene, five minutes of group hug?), but you won’t find a much better description of what makes for a good opera than sung conflict.

Later: A few lines from the oracle for the one moving line in the hexagram were actually uncannily relevant, though in terms of describing the scene in the originally rather than helping me find the drama in it for my version:

Nine in the second place means:
One cannot engage in conflict;
One returns home, gives way.
The people of his [her] town,
Three hundred households,
Remain free of guilt.

The scene in question, in the original libretto at least, does in fact hinge precisely on whether the central character will go somewhere, and she does in fact give way and remain at home, so it’s neatly appropriate. The Chinese third person pronoun is neutral in gender and can mean he, she, or it, so the last sentence could refer to a woman as easily as a man. (Nowadays the three words are written with three different characters, but that’s a 20th-century reform.) Here’s Wilhelm’s commentary:

In a struggle with an enemy of superior strength, retreat is no disgrace. Timely withdrawal prevents bad consequences. If, out of a false sense of honor, a man allowed himself to be tempted into an unequal conflict, he would be drawing down disaster upon himself. In such a case a wise and conciliatory attitude benefits the whole community, which will then not be drawn into the conflict.

This is a fair description of the situation in the original libretto, but in my version of the story, as it’s unfolding, I think I want to flip it around so that the central character insists on staying at home even though the people around her are trying to persuade her to go someplace with them. That seems to be what has to happen in order to make the characterization and the situation work as I’ve been sketching it out so far, but I haven’t found a way to make it quite work in this scene.

It’s Rough on the Kids, of Course, but Nobody Said Life Was Fair

According to the New York Times, teen pregnancies are up for the first time since 1991, leading some to question whether the Bush administration’s $176-million-per-year abstinence-only sex ed programs are working. One doctor is quoted as saying,

Spending tens of million of tax dollars each year on programs that hurt our children is bad medicine and bad public policy.

Seems to me that this erroneously assumes that the goal of the programs is to reduce the number of teen pregnancies. I mean, come on, think about who we’re dealing with here. The purpose of the programs is to punish teens who have sex. If teen pregnancies are up, then the programs are working.