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The Pizza Hut Diaries

            I never made the choice to become a manager at Pizza Hut. That choice was made for me by a police officer at the intersection of RT 47 and Donald Barger Blvd in Glassboro, NJ, during the autumn of 1999.

            I started working at Pizza Hut a year before. I hadn’t wanted to get a restaurant job at all, after the bad experiences I’d had in the past. I had just recently quit a job at KFC, after a long, greasy summer that left me tired every day. I was sick of coming home smelling like food and covered in flour. When I got my first car, a bright green ’94 Geo Tracker, I decided I could expand my job options beyond the local restaurants in walking distance of home. I started driving around searching for quiet, clean retail establishments where I could fill out job applications. Since I had just started school at Rowan University, I expanded my search to the Glassboro area, hoping to find a job within a reasonable driving distance of school.

            I wouldn’t have walked into the Pizza Hut on RT 47 if not for the sign hanging out front: “Now Hiring Delivery Drivers – $10-$18/hour.” Having just come from a minimum wage job making $5.50 an hour, this was a huge opportunity. I decided to give the pizza place a shot. After all, I figured, I wouldn’t get all that greasy or smelly just delivering the pizzas, as long as I wasn’t stuck cooking them.

            Delivering pizza was the easiest, most profitable job I ever had. On an eight hour shift, I probably spent less than an hour actually in the store. The majority of my time was spent on the road. I got to drive around town with the windows down, the radio playing, the sunroof on my Geo flipped open, and my sunglasses on. I could stop at a fast food place or a Wawa if I didn’t have time between deliveries to eat at my store. I could hang out on campus when I delivered pizzas to all of the college kids. I got invited into frat parties when I delivered to them, and as the Pizza Man, I was always escorted to the head of the keg line. I accepted liquor and beer as tips, even though I was only 19. I rationalized my drinking and driving by telling myself that just having one or two wouldn’t hurt me. Luckily, I wasn’t drinking the first time a cop pulled me over during a delivery.

            The first time I ever got pulled over, in spring of ’99, I was speeding through Pitman, trying to get back and forth on deliveries as fast as possible. The faster I got back from a delivery, the more orders I could take and the more tips I would earn. Going 43 in a 25 didn’t seem like a big deal. I hadn’t realized at the time how much of my tips would be wasted when I had to pay a ticket. Luckily, the cop who pulled me over that first time took sympathy on me, and gave me a “failure to observe sign” ticket instead of a speeding ticket. The fine wasn’t too high (though it cost me that whole day’s tips), and there were no points involved.

            I told myself I would start driving slower. That I wouldn’t go more than five miles an hour over the speed limit. This decision lasted about a week, then I was back to cruising along with the top down, not a care in the world.

            I racked up the tips all year long, loving my job. I finished my first year of college, and kept on delivering pizza full time during the summer break. Some of the other delivery drivers left when the summer started, and only a few came back when the fall semester started. Summer was mostly dead, since the majority of our business came from the nearby college. When students can pay for pizza on their meal plan, the local dorms become a hot spot for deliveries. During the school year, I’d be taking six orders at a time to each dorm building. During summer, however, deliveries were few and far between. I spent a lot more time in the store, and started learning how to cook pizzas and take phone orders, just for something to do in between deliveries. By the time autumn rolled around again, I had been working at Pizza Hut for a year, and I had learned how to perform most of the tasks in the store. I could cook, do prep work, take care of customers, and even direct the other drivers on where they were going on deliveries.

            I was always eager to get back on the road, though. I’d pop into the kitchen for ten minutes, help the cooks get caught up, then be off as soon as a pizza came out of the oven. I never got another traffic ticket on the clock at Pizza Hut, but I also didn’t learn my lesson. I kept an eye out for the cops, slowed down on the streets I knew they frequently patrolled, and learned the timing of the local traffic lights so I always knew how much time I had to make a yellow light. I managed to avoid any trouble while I was on deliveries. As it turned out, however, the life-changing ticket came when I was off the clock.

            That autumn, I took an art class at Rowan. It was a required gen ed, a class I had no interest in whatsoever. It was also the only class I was taking that didn’t require a $60 text book. Instead, the art teacher gave us a list of supplies we’d need for our projects: paint and brushes, spray paint, poster board, and a pack of 3’x5’ index cards. I was trying to save money, and didn’t want to buy these supplies in the Rowan bookstore. I decided to shop around and look for a discount. When I thought about where I could buy the poster board and index cards, I remembered an office supply store one block away from my Pizza Hut.

            I headed straight from class to that store, heading through an intersection I’d driven through a thousand times on deliveries. As I was approaching the light, I noticed a cop in the nearby parking lot. Wary of getting another ticket, I tapped my brakes and wondered, How fast am I going? This decision turned out to be a crucial mistake, since a moment later, the traffic light turned yellow.

            I floored it on reflex, trying to make the light. I’d done this hundreds of times at this exact same light, and if I hadn’t hit the brakes just a moment before, I would have cleared the light fine. When the cop pulled up behind me in the office store parking lot, I told him, “I thought I’d make the light.”

            “You didn’t quite make it,” he told me as he wrote the ticket. “That’s why I was sitting there today. We’re cracking down on people running that light.”

            I got lucky again and was given a lesser citation, one that didn’t put any points on my license. I didn’t think it was that bad. I paid my fine and move on with my life. It took another three months after the ticket before the real consequences reached me.

            One day when it was getting close to Christmas, my Assistant Manager, Dave, pulled me aside with some bad news. “We ran your MVR,” he said. “You can’t deliver anymore.”

            I was confused, and protested. He explained. Pizza Hut has a rule. If a delivery driver has two “moving violations” within a year, they aren’t allowed to drive for the company any more. It doesn’t matter if the tickets had points, or what the specific violations were. Anything that happens while you’re driving your car counts. Unbeknownst to me, the management ran a check on every driver’s license, a Motor Vehicle Report, every six months. Mine came back flagged because of my violations.

            I entered a mild panic. I needed this job. Not because of my bills; I was only paying my car insurance and gas each month, and didn’t even have a cell phone yet. But I had gotten used to having spending money, and I have managed to save up $9000 over the course of the past year, money which I was setting aside for my future. The prospect of going back to a minimum wage job didn’t appeal to me. Not at all.

            I was considering what other pizza places in the area I could apply to, perhaps Domino’s or Papa John’s, when my general manager pulled me into the office. “We’d like you to stay,” he said. “I can use you as a cook, train you on the phones. We can work something out. Then in a few months, we run your MVR again, and if it comes up clean, you can go back to driving.”

            I considered the offer. I already knew cooking and order taking, though it would be a bit different doing these things full time. But I wavered; I liked my job, and I liked my coworkers, but I was only making $6 per hour if I lost my tips. When I hesitated, my boss offered me a raise, increasing my pay to $6.50. An 8% pay increase wouldn’t quite make up for the lost tips, but as raises went, it was a generous offer. I decided to stay, figuring if things didn’t work out I could still look for another delivery job someplace else.

            My schedule changed. I started working weekend mornings instead of nights, and I was trained in how to make pizza dough. I’d come in at 8 am to start mixing and rolling dough, and still be doing it until around 3:00 or 4:00 pm. My store was one of the busiest Pizza Huts there was, and we sold hundreds upon hundreds of pizzas each day. We even won two awards that year, for Highest Sales and Highest Sales Growth, beating out every other Pizza Hut in the east coast region.

            After finishing dough on the weekends, I was sent up front to help answer the phones, help customers, and cut pizzas as they came out of the oven. I also worked up front on weeknights, after I got done classes at Rowan. With how busy our store was, there would be at least half a dozen people behind the counter, just to take care of phones and carryout customers. Mostly, though, I stayed at the oven, cutting pizzas. This was a two-man job at our store. Our pizza oven had been replaced earlier that year, because the old oven had just been too small to keep up with the volume of orders we got from Rowan students. The new oven was a double-decker, triple-wide monster that fed pizzas through on a conveyor belt. At any given time on a busy Friday or Saturday night, there could easily be as many as 40 pizzas in the oven at a time, not to mention trays of breadsticks, wings, and garlic bread. If the person cutting pizzas didn’t keep up with the flow of cooked food coming out at the end of the conveyor belt, pans could get pushed off by the other pizzas coming up from behind. Slower cutters either had to pull pizzas out and set them to the side just to clear them out of the way, or else risk pans falling to the floor and splattering hot cheese and sauce everywhere.

            When I was cutting, I had a system to keep up with the flow. An assistant to my right would prep the box while I grabbed a pan with a pair of metal tongs. I had perfected the flick of the wrist it took to flip the pizza out of the pan and onto the cutting board in one smooth motion. I then hacked the pizza into six, eight, or twelve slices, depending on the size, using a blade the size of a Klingon Bat’leth. I then slid it into the box, and the assistant sent it off where it needed to go. He worried about whether the order was for dine-in, carryout, or delivery. All I did was cut.

            At any given moment, there could be anywhere from six to twelve pizzas nearing the edge of the conveyor belt. They would all have to be cut within thirty to forty-five seconds to prevent a backup. That left me, on average, about four seconds to cut each pizza. And I could do it; I was fast. I was like a ninja wielding the pizza cutter, focused on keeping up with the flow. I didn’t worry about customers, I just cut. I didn’t answer phones, I cut. I didn’t get to take a bathroom break, I just cut. This usually lasted from around 5:30 pm until at least 9:00 pm, when it would finally slow down.

            Over time, I started realizing that we needed to maintain a strict level of organization in the front counter area. Otherwise, we would never be able to keep up. There were half a dozen tasks that had to be done between 4:00 to 5:00, before the main dinner rush hit. The managers never had time to worry about these things; one would be swamped dealing with the delivery drivers, another would be helping the cooks, and another would be in the dining room, helping with customers. That left the counter crew alone, with no leadership. I had to step up. When I first arrived, I would set my coworkers on the various tasks that needed to be done: folding cardboard boxes for the pizza; stocking up on tin foil, wax paper, and those little plastic box supports; prepping sauce cups for breadstick boxes and ranch cups for wings; and making sure everything was clean and sanitary. My coworkers got so used to me asking them to help with such things that when I entered the store, they would ask me, “What needs to get done?”

            After awhile, they got so used to asking me what they needed to do that they came to me when problems arose. If there was a customer complaint, and no manager was around, I would have to deal with it. Often, this meant handing the pizza Bat’leth to my assistant, helping a customer, then rushing back to relieve the overwhelmed cutter as soon as I could. I started making command decisions that I had no authority to do, such as discounting a customer’s order when a mistake had been made. I had peeked at the manager’s computer password, and I used it myself when I needed to authorize a discount. By the time I started nearing my deadline, the date when my first ticket would no longer be on my MVR, I was essentially a manager in everything but name.

            Then one day, my boss asked me, “Did you ever think about becoming a manager?”

            I hesitated. The truth was, yes, I HAD thought about it. I thought that it would be a terrible idea. I thought that the managers were under far too much stress; over the past year, I had seen six assistant managers quit, two of whom had walked out in the middle of a shift. I also knew delivery drivers made more money than the managers. All I wanted to do was get back to being a driver, and back to making a fortune in tips.

            So when my manager asked me if I’d thought about becoming a manager, I said, “Well, I’ve thought about it . . .”

            A week later he pulled me aside and said, “Okay! I signed you up for the next management training seminar.”

            This would prove to be the beginning of the end.

* * *

            The training class was a two-day seminar that included all of the new manager trainees throughout the entire South Jersey region. After the initial training class, each trainee was sent for an eight week “hands-on” training period in a store in their home district. I was transferred to the training store in Berlin, working for Ted Hobbs, known throughout the local franchise as “Two-faced Ted.” During my first meeting with the other trainees at the regional training seminar, people had flinched when they heard I was being sent to the Berlin store.

            “Here are the words that come to mind when I hear the name ‘Ted Hobbs,’” one of the other trainees had told me. “Asshole. Scumbag. Two-faced. Pig.”

            I was worried, but decided to give Ted a chance. After all, it would only be for eight weeks, and only four days a week at that. On Friday nights I would be training in the Washington Township store, which was the store I’d be transferred to permanently at the end of my training. Working there one day a week was meant to help me get to know the new crew and how their store ran.

            The training in Berlin turned out to be worse than I’d thought. Ted Hobbs was a liar, a cheat, and a passive aggressive asshole. Most of my “training” days were spent making pizzas, mixing dough, and sweeping cigarette butts out of the parking lot; things I’d done as a regular employee, and things which didn’t teach me anything about how to run a store. I quickly realized that Ted was using me as “free labor”; my pay during the training period came from a district-wide training budget, not from Ted’s labor costs for his store. By scheduling me to work as a cook during his shifts, he could save labor costs by cutting hours from his regular employees. And since there were two other trainees there at the same time I was, he was saving himself about 90 hours a week in labor costs.

            At the end of the eight weeks of training—eight weeks I couldn’t wait to be done with—I had to sit down with the District Manager for a final interview. The District Manager, Rick, ran eight different stores in our area. He said that the final interview was his way of making sure he could be confident that I was ready to be a manager in one of his stores.

            We met in the newly built, but not yet open for business Pizza Hut in Deptford. I had to take a written test first, answering questions about what I had learned during my training. It was mostly made of multiple choice questions about how to handle certain customer service issues, how to react in an emergency, how to handle disgruntled employees, and how to reconcile problems in the daily cash count.

            After the written test, Rick asked me some questions to see if I was ready. Many of the answers I was able to quote almost word for word, having memorized them from my training manuals. I have a memory that lets me recall such things verbatim even years later. When Rick asked me what “L.A.S.T.” meant when helping a dissatisfied customer, I quoted, “Listen to the customer, Ask for more information, Satisfy their concerns, and Thank them for bringing the problem to my attention.” When he asked me what “C.H.A.M.P.S.” stands for, I quoted, “Cleanliness, Hospitality, Accuracy, Maintenance, Product Quality, and Speed.” When he asked me what toppings go on a Supreme Pizza, I rattled off the list, “Pepperoni, beef, pork, green peppers, red onions, and mushrooms.” I kept quoting everything with such accuracy that by the end of the interview, he had called me a Walking Procedures Manual. He also said that I was the strongest trainee to come through the new training program since they had implemented it a few years before.

            I remember thinking to myself, Yeah, because I taught myself. The rest of the trainees had to deal with this douchebag training manager. I couldn’t wait to be away from Ted Hobbs and his two-faced manipulations and illegal activities.

            As the interview came to an end, Rick said, “I think you’re ready. I’ll be glad to have you in one of my stores. But now I’ve got a favor to ask you.”

            I tensed up. Nothing about this experience so far had gone well. First I had been strong-armed into becoming a manager, then I’d found out Rick had low-balled me on my pay (I was only being paid $8 per hour when other starting managers earned $8.50), and then I’d been stuck for eight weeks of “training” with Ted Hobbs, who had disappeared for four weeks of it to go on paternity leave. I just wanted to go back to being a driver.

            “I know you’ve been working Fridays in the Washington Township store,” he said. “And I know you’ve gotten to know everyone there, and you were expecting to be working there when your training was done.” What I really wanted, but didn’t mention, was to be sent back to my home store in Glassboro. Rick didn’t like a manager to work in the same store they’d come from, since all of the other employees there were used to seeing you as their equal, rather than their boss. “But I’ve got a problem. We just lost a manager in the Clementon store, and that’s a much busier store. I really need someone there. Do you think you could go there instead?”

            I only hesitated for a moment. After all, by then I was used to being sent where the company wanted me without really having much say in it. “Sure,” I said. “If that’s what you need.” I hadn’t wanted to be a manager to begin with. They weren’t likely to send me back to Glassboro any time soon. What difference did it make which store they sent me to?

            I was completely unprepared for what was ahead.

            In fall of 2000, I was transferred to the Pizza Hut in Clementon, New Jersey. It was a sorely understaffed establishment. When I first arrived, there were already too few drivers, servers, and cooks, and only one dishwasher. They were also short on managers, which is why I was sent there. What made it even worse, however, was that the General Manager was leaving on sick leave only a week after I arrived. He had been in a bar fight some time before, and had to have surgery performed on his wrist (as I understood it, he had broken his wrist on some other guy’s face). For six weeks, my new store would be running without a leader.

            For the first couple of weeks, the only managers were myself and the Senior Assistant Manager, Carol. We were both working double shifts to cover the entire week, in a store that should have had at least four managers on staff. Two weeks into my time there, another manager joined our team, but like me, she was fresh out of training. Unlike me, she hadn’t managed to complete the training herself; Ted Hobbs has only taught her about 1/3 of what she needed to know, and she showed up on her first day with her training manuals in hand, expecting to finish them later and learn the rest on the job. Since the store was so short-handed, I ended up being the one teaching her most of what she had missed in training.

            People in the Clementon store often quit after they’d only been working there for a week, and I often yearned to be one of those people. There weren’t many left who had been there for any memorable length of time, though there were some that would always remain memorable. Arthur was one of them.

            Arthur was our dishwasher; the only dishwasher we had, even though the store was busy enough that there should have been at least three or four to cover days, nights, and weekends. Arthur had been the dishwasher there since before I came to work in Clementon, and as far as I know, he continued working there long after I was gone.

            Arthur was mentally handicapped. This made it very difficult to talk to him. He was, in many ways, like a child, even though he was a grown man in his sixties. You could hand him a stack of dishes and he would hold it, very carefully, with both wrinkled hands. He would carry the dishes in front of him as he took slow steps to the dishwasher, then set them down on the counter and lift each one, one at a time, to examine it. His mouth often moved and made a sound not quite like speaking, but more like the spark of communication you see in a child before they learn words. He could understand you well enough to follow directions, but working with him always took great care. He would never quite look at you; he always stood hunched over, his graying head bowed and tilted away from you as if he were trying not to be seen. I never knew quite how to talk to him. He was good at his job, though, and that was what counted.

            Working in this store was stressful for all of us, but it was hardest on Arthur. He sometimes had panic attacks. They usually came when the dishes piled up too high and he became overwhelmed. Sometimes the stacks of dishes were piled so high in the dish room that they formed a wall, blocking off all sight. I think Arthur felt trapped by that wall. He would pace back and forth, moaning and hitting himself in the head. We would have to clear the dishes out and give him time to relax so that he wouldn’t feel so trapped.

            The problems were worse on the night shift. The busy dinner rush meant a lot of dishes, usually more than Arthur could keep up with. He was good at handling the dishes without breaking them, but he needed to take his time, and couldn’t be rushed. Night shifts at a busy pizza place are always rushed. It certainly isn’t the place to take your time.

            We eventually moved Arthur to the day shift. Lunchtime was always slower, and he was better able to keep up with the work load. Of course, this left us without a single dishwasher on the busy nights, since any time we hired one they quit before long. Dishes would often pile up from 5:00, when we started the dinner rush, until midnight, when we closed. There just wouldn’t be time to send anyone back there before closing time, unless deliveries slowed down enough that we could send a driver back.

            It was for the best, though. Arthur was happier once he was freed from the stresses of the night shift, and it was easier for the rest of us not having to handle his attacks. Despite all of his problems, however, Arthur may have been the best employee we had. He stuck it out, through all the hard times. Unlike the other employees, he never called up and quit on us. Unlike me, he never walked out in the middle of a shift.

            I almost quit on the day Rick told me they were rearranging the districts. The company had promoted a new District manager, he said, and they were forming a new district for him to run. Each of the seven surrounding districts in the area was losing one store, dropping them all down from eight stores to seven, and those stores were being made into the new district. The store Rick was losing was the Berlin store. The one I had trained in. The one Ted Hobbs worked for.

            Our GM was scheduled to come back from his sick leave that week. When I asked where he would be going, Rick told me he was being transferred to the Washington Township store; the same store I was originally going to transfer to. Ted Hobbs was being pulled out of the Berlin store and sent to Clementon. After asking around and talking to some of the other managers in the district, I found out why: Ted Hobbs and Rick were best friends, and that was the only reason (so it was said) that Ted still had a job. Rather than leaving him to work under, and perhaps get fired by, another District Manager, he was being transferred to stay in Rick’s district.

            One of our servers came up to me the day the transfer was announced. “Am I going to have to quit?” she asked. “I’ve been here for seven years.” She had heard the same stories about Ted Hobbs that I had, and wanted to know if they were as bad as she’d heard. After working with Ted for eight weeks (well, four, since he was on paternity leave for half of my training period), I knew all of the bad stories about him were true. I didn’t have any assurances to give her.

            More people quit. We had to hire more replacements, and half of our crew was inexperienced and incompetent. I called my old GM from my home store in Glassboro, asking him what I should do. He told me to stick it out. “I’ve been trying to get Rick to send you back here,” he told me on the phone. “I keep telling him how hard it’s been to run this store without you here, how I need you back.” I told him I’d try to wait it out.

            On October 31st, 2000, I quit my job.

            I didn’t go Trick-or-Treating that day, not because I was too old for it (you’re never too old for Halloween), but because I was working the worst day of my career as a manager at Pizza Hut. I was stuck in a store with not enough help and too many customers. I only had one server waiting tables (the other three that were supposed to be there had called out). I only had one cook making pizzas, and it was her first week in the store. I only had one delivery driver (one had called out, a second just didn’t show up, and a third called me to say he was quitting because “he wasn’t making enough money”). I tried to call the Ted, who was coming in later to do inventory, to come in early to help. He refused and said “You’ll be fine.” That left just me, an exhausted, undertrained, underpaid manager, with three employees that ranged from incompetent to just not giving a crap.

            I unplugged the phone when the orders were rolling in faster than we could keep up with. Since the phones were down, an angry customer decided to come down to the store and scream at me in person, while I was holding a heavy stack of filthy dishes (we didn’t have a dishwasher either). I stood there, clutching a stack of plates and greasy pizza pans, and decided it wasn’t worth it anymore, doing this job for not much above minimum wage.

            I locked the doors, preventing any new customers from coming in and allowing those who left to exit through the main doors that could be set to only open from the inside, locking automatically behind each customer after they left. I gathered my three coworkers around me and told them, “I’m quitting. I’m locking everything up, counting the cash in the register so I don’t get in trouble for missing money, locking it all in the safe, and then I’m leaving.”

            The cook panicked, uncertain how to react when her boss said he was quitting on her third day. The driver just laughed (he was probably stoned). The server gave me a high five and said, “All right! I’m quitting too!”

            When the cook asked what she was supposed to do, I told her, “Ted will be here in a couple of hours to do inventory. Just find something to clean until then. You won’t get in trouble.” Ever since he’d become our new general manager, Ted had been manipulating the inventory counts to cover up losses and hide the fact that the store was losing hundreds of dollars a week in wasted cheese (most of which got spilled on the floor while the cooks were too busy to be careful).

            The server went back to waiting on the few remaining customers until they all exited the store. The driver went in the back to do dishes. The cook fumbled about, unsure of herself. I counted the cash, made sure to account for every penny, and locked it in the safe. I left a nice, nasty note for Two-faced Ted in the manager’s log book (the one that remains a part of permanent store records), letting him know just what I thought about him and his horrible managerial skills. He was also covering up cash losses from the register and manipulating labor costs to hide violations.

            I was about to leave when my server came rushing back and said, “Two parties of eight just walked in! What do we do?”

            Two parties. Eight people each. Both walked in the door at the same time. While the front doors remained locked from the inside, one of the earlier customers had unlocked the side door and exited that way. The side door didn’t lock behind someone when they left.

            I paused for a moment, considering it. I had already recorded my exodus on the managerial log. I was committed. So I shrugged and said, “I’ll go talk to them.”

            I walked up to the first party, clasped my hands before me in a very professional stance, and said, “I’m very sorry, but we won’t be able to serve you tonight. I’m quitting, and my server is quitting. So we won’t be able to help you.”

            A confused woman, presumably mother of the teens she had brought in, stared at me in shock and asked, “What? What are we supposed to do?”

            I shrugged and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you. Maybe if you call another Pizza Hut in the area and explain to them what happened, they’ll offer you a discount or some free food as an apology. Or my cook will still be here, maybe she can make you something. But I’m quitting, so I can’t help you. Have a nice day.”

            I then walked around to the other side of the dining room and gave the same speech to the second party.

            My server and I left, shook hands, and never looked back. The last thing I saw that night was the cook, on her third day, frantically trying to deal with sixteen confused and angry customers who wanted to know why the manager had just walked out.

            I saw Two-faced Ted just one more time, when I dropped off my uniform and picked up my last paycheck. He didn’t say a single word to me when we exchanged clothing and check, but I’ll never forget the look on his face.


The Crucible

I’m a big fan of Star Trek in all of its incarnations. The Star Trek series and movies have always had a unique setting, and there’s definitely something compelling about a cast of characters committed to a mission to “boldly go where no one has gone before.”

I’ve recently been marathoning the Star Trek series, and I’ve gotten up to Star Trek: Voyager. Voyager has some ups and downs compared to the other series. Any hardcore Trekkie has their own favorites among the series, and there can be some big arguments about which series is the best. Regardless of whether you love Voyager or hate it, however, it has some unique traits that make it different from any of the other series. One in particular is the Crucible.

Wikipedia defines a crucible as “a container that can withstand very high temperatures and is used for metal, glass, and pigment production as well as a number of modern laboratory processes . . . they can be made from any material that withstands temperatures high enough to melt or otherwise alter its contents.” In other words, it’s a big pot that can hold molten metals and other volatile substances.

In the case of literature, the crucible is any environment that can hold a volatile group of characters together to increase conflict. The starship Voyager is a prime example. The ship contained a mixture of two crews, the military Starfleet personnel and the rebels/terrorists of the Maquis. They were stuck together, 70,000 light years from home, and forced to work together without any outside support.

While Voyager sometimes under-utilized the potential for conflict, the principle of the crucible is a sound one that can be used in any number of situations.

In the book Stein On Writing, Sol Stein refers to the crucible as “A Key to Successful Plotting” (p. 94). The idea is to take a group of characters in a setting or situation where they either physically cannot leave (such as characters sharing a prison cell or stranded on a deserted island), or where “the motivation of the characters to continue opposing each other is greater than their motivation to run away.” Voyager is the former type of crucible, where the ship itself is a physical setting that the characters can’t leave. They’re stuck together for better or worse and they don’t really have much choice in the matter. The latter type of crucible can be a bit more complicated, however, since it is based more on the characters’ emotions and motivation.

I’ve been studying romance novels a lot lately, and a romantic relationship serves as a good example of a crucible. If the characters are in some sort of romantic conflict, they could end it by breaking up and running away from each other. The conflict will continue for as long as their desire to remain together is greater than their desire to flee the situation. This can create a complex emotional web if the characters have goals or motivations that are in direct opposition to each other. A simple example can be if one of the characters wants to settle down and have children while the other wants to travel and develop their career. These desires are in conflict, and they will remain so for as long as the characters stay in their relationship.

Other types of crucibles can be offices where employees are forced to work together even if they don’t get along, musical groups that have to get through performances even if they have creative differences, or investigators that have to put their differences aside while working on a difficult case. In each case, the crucible remains intact as long as all the members are highly motivated to their job, cause, or mission. If their motivation to escape each other ever exceeds their motivation to continue working together, then the business will fail, the band will break up, or the crime will go unsolved. This sort of situation can add another layer of tension to an already difficult situation. Trying to run a successful business, win the battle of the bands, or catch the criminal can already be difficult enough on its own without internal pressures tearing the characters apart. The more potential obstacles you insert into the story, the higher the stakes will be, and the more suspense you’ll create.

On a more meta level, writing a novel can be a sort of crucible in itself. There’s constant conflict in a writer’s struggled to meet deadlines, their issues with fear and self-doubt, the need to avoid plot holes and develop strong characters, and all the other complications that go into making a successful novel. That conflict will continue as long as the writer’s desire to get the novel written exceeds their desire to escape the stress and fear.

Hopefully that volatile melting pot of words ends up turning into something fabulous. Though you won’t know that until it’s finished.

Making Sure Your Characters Actually DO Something

I recently read the not-very-good-at-all book The Christmas Thief, by Mary and Carol Higgins Clark. I had quite a few complaints about it–the plot was dull, the characters didn’t grow or change during the story, there were too many characters to keep track of, and the conflict was contrived and ridiculous–but there is one main point that I’d like to discuss. The idea of making sure your characters’ actions matter.

The basic premise of the plot of The Christmas Thief is a modern-day story in a How the Grinch Stole Christmas style, where the crook Packy Noonan plots to steal the Christmas tree that is destined for Rockefeller Center in New York. Packy’s motivations are simple enough. Years ago he conned a bunch of rich folks out of millions of dollars, then he invested that money in a bunch of huge diamonds because it was safer than keeping it in the bank. Before he was arrested, he hid the container of diamonds in a spruce tree at a farm he used to work at. When he gets out of jail, Packy and his minions go  to Vermont to retrieve the diamonds from the tree so they can flee the country. But the twist is that people from Rockefeller Center are going to cut the tree down the next day so it can be taken to New York and decorated for Christmas. Packy cuts down the tree the night before so he can retrieve his diamonds, while the rest of the country wonders why anyone would steal the soon-to-be Christmas tree.

To me, this actually sounds like the formula for a pretty fun story. There’s a mystery to be explored when the investigators try to deduce who would steal the tree, why, and what they did with it. It’s the way the authors addressed these questions that left me dissatisfied.

I’m going to break down how this “mystery” was “solved” into three different categories of “Things the Authors Did Wrong”: Coincidences, Handouts, and Villain Mistakes.


The Christmas Thief relied on far too many coincidences for my liking. I could handle the coincidence that the one tree in the world with millions of dollars of diamonds in it was the one being cut down for the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, because that coincidence causes problems for Packy and escalates the conflict. What I couldn’t handle was how many coincidences were involved in the investigators “solving” the crime.

First, the investigators (a team of half a dozen people whose roles in the story were so blended together that I couldn’t distinguish them as individual people) happened to include one of the rich folk Packy conned out of millions of dollars before he went to prison. This woman then just happened to spot one of Packy’s minions while she was cross-country skiing. Then Packy just happened to go outside for fresh air while she was snooping around. Then the investigators just happened to bump into a kid who’d seen the kidnapped woman hanging around the cabin where Packy was hiding out. The investigators then rushed off to rescue the kidnapped woman, who was able to reveal Packy’s entire plan to them because she’d overheard it all while she was kidnapped.

At no point during all of this do the investigators make an important discovery on their own. They spend half the book sending around flyers with their missing friend’s picture on them without making any real progress. And they have absolutely no idea what Packy is up to or that he’s the one who stole the tree until the kidnapped woman tells them. So instead of “investigating,” the investigators wander around looking for their lost friend (who they don’t even know has been kidnapped–for all they know at this point she just got lost). The investigators don’t uncover a single clue on their own, they don’t deduce a way to find where their kidnapped friend is, and they don’t figure out on their own what Packy is up to. In fact, you could have cut the investigators out of the plot COMPLETELY and had the kidnapped woman escape on her own and call the police, and the story would have been exactly the same, at half the length. That’s right, it’s like a Sherlock Holmes story where the mystery could solve itself while Holmes just took a nap the whole time.


While the investigators are searching for their friend, they actually do learn a lot about what Packy is up to in Vermont. But not because of their own investigation. Clues are handed to them from outside sources without any effort on the part of the main characters.

On three separate occasions, one of the investigators (a reporter) gets a call from her editor back in the city. He tells her that when Packy skipped out on his parole, witnesses saw Packy getting into a van with Vermont plates. He tells her that Packy’s prison cellmate overheard him sleep-talking and muttering the name of the very town they’re in. He tells her about the flatbed truck police found, which Packy planned to use to haul the tree away. If not for the editor’s phone calls, the investigators would never have known Packy was in the area or up to anything suspicious. Really, the investigators didn’t discover anything on their own without someone else just calling them up and handing them the information.

I’d rather have seen the investigators coming up with their own ideas. Even if they then had to make a phone call to the editor to follow up on the lead, that at least shows the investigators getting a hunch and having it work out. That would be better than outside characters constantly bringing all the important information in.

Villain Mistakes:

Packy never would have been caught if he hadn’t been working with idiots.

Packy’s minions, Benny and Jo Jo, were basically Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Then there’s the poet Milo, whose house Packy and the gang were hiding at. First, Benny and Jojo come to pick him up in a van with Vermont license plates and skis on the roof, giving away where Packy was going. Then they leave one of Milo’s poems in the flatbed truck they were using for the robbery. Then they openly discuss their plans in front of the kidnapped woman so she knows where they’re going next. Then they use Milo’s car for the getaway, and the investigators recognize it as the poet’s car and know that’s who they need to follow.

I don’t expect a villain to have a perfect plan, but all of this was ridiculous. The investigators didn’t need to figure anything out on their own because the clues they needed were just dropped into their laps.

Characters in any novel need to have agency. Their actions need to matter. In The Christmas Thief, events just kind of happen on their own and the main characters are just along for the ride. A more effective novel would have made sure that each stage of the plot was driven forward by the characters, their decisions, and the consequences of their actions. A coincidence here and there is fine, but major discoveries shouldn’t come about by way of coincidence. They should occur when the main characters investigate and work hard to earn the discovery. Major plot elements shouldn’t be handed to the characters by outside sources. The characters should have to uncover them on their own. And dumb mistakes by the bad guy should never work out in the good guys’ favor.

Most of my favorite novels are character-driven. The characters’ actions should matter. The major turning points of the plot should either be victories the characters achieve based on their actions or failures based on their mistakes. They should be influential. If a character can be deleted from the plot without the entire structure falling apart without them, then they’re not doing their job. Make your main characters the threads that hold everything together. Make them actually do something important.

Raising the Stakes

I recently read the book Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. In it, Maass discusses a number of techniques that will make a novel more compelling, more memorable, and more likely to achieve higher levels of success. One of those techniques is raising the stakes: making sure that there is a lot at risk in your story and that the end results of the characters’ actions really matter in a way that has consequences and repercussions.

So how do you raise the stakes in your story? One of the first things you can do is to give your characters well-rounded lives, goals, and things to lose. A soldier is interesting. A soldier who comes from a long line of military tradition and a father who has high expectations of him is even more interesting. So is one with a child about to be born back home, a civilian job to return to, and aspirations for the future after being discharged. The more of these elements there are in a character’s life, the more reason the reader has to care whether or not this soldier survives the war.

There is also a difference between that character’s personal stakes, and the grander stakes for the rest of the world (such as who will win the war).

Maass suggests asking yourself, “How can this matter more?” and “How could things get worse?” He also says you should make your characters suffer.

Most writers I know rather enjoy making characters suffer. Most of my own stories make my characters suffer quite a bit as well. After all, the higher you raise the stakes, the further there is to fall. In a romance story, the high stakes come from the question of whether the main character’s relationship will succeed or fail. You can raise those stakes even higher with harsher consequences. What if, instead of just being worried that the main character and their love interest will break up, there is suddenly the risk of the love interest dying? Or the characters having to sacrifice their jobs, their friends, or their families in order to be together? When the characters have more at risk than just each other, the stakes are higher, and the potential suffering if things fall apart is that much worse.

Another fun way to raise the stakes is to add the weight of responsibility to a character’s  heart and mind. This is one of the reasons Doctor Who is such a compelling series. Many of the episodes already have high stakes, where entire worlds are threatened and billions of lives are at stake. But we don’t just watch to see these worlds get saved. We watch because the Doctor is a character with the weight of the entire universe on his shoulders. He feels personally responsible for everything that happens. Not because any of it is his fault. Not because anyone asks him to help. But simply because he’s the Doctor.

This takes the idea of raising the stakes, and instead of expanding those stakes outward, it takes them inward. The consequences your character might face don’t need to be world-shattering battles, epic wars, magical apocalypses, and situations where the fate of the universe is at stake. It can be something as simple as winning a spelling bee, and yet the stakes can still be grand and the consequences disastrous if the character takes the feeling of responsibility deep enough.

You can expand on this type of internal stakes by giving a character a personal code. Someone who refuses to compromise their integrity can be far more interesting than someone who is willing to cheat and take shortcuts. Especially if the character suffers for their choices when they refuse to give in. I discussed this idea on the blog awhile back when talking about character relationships and whether we should follow them to the end of their lives. Sometimes, stories that end in death can be the most compelling ones, and that death can resonate even stronger when it’s something the character brings upon themselves for a greater cause.

Imagine a politician who refuses to give in to bribery, even though it means she loses the election. Or a sports player who refuses to use performance enhancers, and has to deal with coming in second because they wouldn’t compromise. Or a soldier who values life so much that they refuse to kill anyone, even when defending the innocent. A struggle can reach new heights of tension and danger when a character’s own morals hamper them, and they know their path would be easier if they just did what they have to do. Or, take a character like Jack Bauer, who does do whatever it takes, but ends up losing everything, including his freedom, as a result of his actions.

Writing these kinds of characters can be difficult. But maybe, the harder it is for you to write, the harder it will be for the characters to win, and that means the stakes are high. Keep raising them, and make sure that your story is the most compelling that it can be.

Poor Persecuted Villains

Every story needs a villain. There needs to be conflict to drive a story, and that conflict can best be generated by someone who opposes the hero. In fact, that opposition can be carefully constructed to be the driving force behind your story. Consider the following advice from writer and editor Sol Stein, in his book, “Stein on Writing” (p. 82-83):

We are driven through life by our needs and wants. So must the characters we create be motivated by what they want. The driving force of characters is their desire.

. . .

Which brings us to the essence of plotting: putting the protagonist’s desire and the antagonist’s desire into sharp conflict. . . . One way to plan is to think of what would most thwart your protagonist’s want, then give the power to thwart that want to the antagonist. And be certain there is a two-way urgency: your protagonist wants a particular, important desire fulfilled as soon as possible, and the antagonist wants to wreck the chance of that happening, also as soon as possible.

This kind of conflict, created by having a hero and a villain butting heads because of incompatible goals, is common in many books. Sometimes it can be something grand: Frodo wants to destroy the One Ring, and Sauron wants to get his hands on the same ring. Other times it can be something simpler, but still of critical importance to the characters: In Misery, writer Paul Sheldon just wants to go home, while his “number one fan” Annie wants him to stay and write his next novel. Despite the book only having two characters throughout the majority of the story, it works because of their conflicting desires.

But here’s the problem: who gets to decide which of the characters in conflict is the hero, and which one is the villain? Can you always just tell who is the villain by who has the curlier mustache?

Image Credit: Princess Red via Flicker.com: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mogus/57114273/
Image Credit: Princess Red via Flicker.com: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mogus/57114273/

That’s hardly fair, and it tends to lead to a lot of biases and stereotypes. Sometimes villains can be very badly persecuted just because of who and what they are. It leads to all kinds of assumptions. Everyone assumes that someone with a goatee is automatically going to try to summon the dark forces of Hades to his command, and that someone with a mustache will be tying you to the railroad tracks to distract the hero while he runs off and completes his bank heist.

Stop the persecution of mustached individuals.
Stop the persecution of mustached individuals.

Why must these poor, misunderstood individuals be seen as the “villains”? Just because their goals and desires happen to conflict with the desires of the people we label as “heroes”?

I say we stand up right now, and fight against the unjust labeling of characters as either hero or villain, protagonist or antagonist. Do you know the root of the word “antagonist”? It’s the same as antagonizing. Would you like it if someone always called you antagonizing, just because you happen to use explosives and/or dark magic whenever you are trying to accomplish your–


. . . *ahem* Sorry, where was I?

The point is, we shouldn’t be so quick to label someone as the “villain” just because their goals are in conflict with someone else’s. Some villains are, in fact, quite misunderstood.

Consider this fellow, for instance:

Every last inch of him is covered in hair.
Every last inch of him is covered in hair.

Gaston is one of the most misunderstood Disney villains ever. Sure, he’s a bit smug. He’s kind of rude. He doesn’t wipe his feet. He killed Bambi’s mom. But is he that bad, really?

He isn’t trying to kill innocent little puppies. He isn’t tricking princesses into giving away their voice in a mad attempt to grab power. He isn’t plotting regicide.

Gaston doesn’t do anything like that. Up until the end of Beauty and the Beast, what does Gaston ever do? Let’s review:

1. He takes an interest in Belle, the smartest and most misunderstood girl in town. He could have any other girl he wanted, and there’s plenty of brainless girls swooning over him. But no, he doesn’t go for one of the three blondes in the low-cut dresses. He goes for the simple girl who everyone else considers odd. In fact, Gaston is the only person in town to show Belle any kindness or attention, except maybe the bookstore owner. Sure, his approach is a bit too smug and condescending, but he doesn’t realize that. He’s grown up in a society that praises men for strength and expects a woman to raise babies. Maybe, if Belle had told him she wanted a different kind of life, he would have respected her wishes and tried to be the kind of man she wanted. If you watch the proposal scene, you’ll see that Belle never bothers to correct Gaston on his chauvinistic behavior or give him a chance to change his ways. Instead, she knocks him into the mud! No wonder he was so mad after!

2. When Maurice, Belle’s father, comes in raving about her being captured by a beast, no one believes him. Who would? I mean, put yourself in Gaston’s shoes. Would you really believe a monster like that existed? Everyone in town had good reason to believe Maurice was just a crazy old man.

3. When they DO find out there’s a beast out there, Gaston and the others react in the way any person would. They seek to defend themselves against the perceived threat. Sure, Belle tries to say the beast is gentle, but she’s clearly suffering from Stockholm Syndrome after being held hostage for months. During that time the beast locked her up, refused to feed her if she didn’t follow his orders, went on multiple volatile rages (and frankly, Belle is lucky she didn’t get hurt when he was throwing furniture around in his blind fury), and he never told her that he was holding her there to trick her into falling in love with him in order to break the spell.

Gaston is clearly misunderstood. And hey, every guy in town would love to be him. He’s admired, he’s everyone’s favorite guy. So, sure, he’s a bit full of himself. Wouldn’t you be, if the entire town was singing your praises like that? Maybe Gaston isn’t as bad as we think. After all, it’s not Gaston who starts off singing about how awesome he is. His little friend, Lefou, starts off singing his praises. Can we blame Gaston for getting swept up in it?

Okay, so there’s that one little part where he schemes to have her father locked up unless Belle agrees to marry him. But I’m willing to chalk that up to a desperate man who’s gone down a slippery slope. He didn’t start off as a villain. He started off as a charming (if pompous) guy who became a villain because that’s the way he was treated.

This is what happens to our poor, persecuted villains. They get treated like criminals, and the societal pressures we put on them force them to take drastic measures. I think it’s time that we, as a society, stopped blaming these antagonists for the extreme things they’re forced to do in this Hero vs Villain world. I think we need to take responsibility and realize that we created these villains. They deserve a second chance.

Something at Stake

I mentioned in my last post that I would be working on some of my short stories for Arcana Revived in the near future. I’ve also mentioned that I was getting a couple of those short stories critiqued and workshopped by my classmates in my Rowan University graduate fiction workshop. I noticed a common theme during the class workshops, both of my own story and of others from the class, which seems to come up often enough to be worth discussing. It’s the issue of making sure your characters have something at stake.

This seems to be an issue that mostly relates to first drafts and works that are in their early stages of development. The idea is that no matter how interesting the individual events in the story are, the characters involved (most especially the main character) need to have something at stake. If they don’t have anything at stake, anything to lose, anything to gain, or any chance to grow, then their story may end up being pointless.

There’s a few different ways that this issue seemed to come up in the stories we workshopped, so I’ll go over each one individually.

The Stakes Aren’t Apparent at the Beginning

This seems to mostly be an issue with the stories that were actually the early chapters of a novel. The problem occurs when there are interesting characters in an interesting situation but with no apparent reason for them to be there. For example, one of my classmates was writing a story about a character who was being dragged along as a guide/sidekick/partner to the Spirit of Vengeance while they went on a quest to do . . . something.

That “something” part was what was missing. The section we workshopped (which was basically the first chapter of the draft) didn’t give us any reason for the characters to be on this “quest.” The characters were interesting (think Jay from Men in Black meets a ghost who has the same creepy powerful vibe as Agent Smith from The Matrix). The idea of traveling with the Spirit of Vengeance on some kind of quest was interesting. But in the opening we read, we didn’t know what the quest was or why it was important for the main character to be on it.

This mostly seemed to stem from the fact that this was an early opening draft where the author was still exploring the characters and learning what they were all about. It’s a common thing in early drafts. Sometimes it takes a while to explore the characters and learn about them. However, once you’ve done so, it may prove necessary to cut the early “exploratory” sections of the piece before final publication.

The Point of View Character Isn’t the One with Something at Stake

This is a different issue than the one mentioned above, where the “main” character of a story is just along for the ride. Some of the stories we reviewed had characters who were reporting on a lot of interesting things happening around them (happening to friends, family, or others), but who had no personal stake in the events.

As an example, consider what would happen if you took a story like The Hunger Games and told it from the perspective of someone watching the Games from home. You could have them watch every event that Katniss goes through, tell the exact same story . . . except the person watching wouldn’t be the one with something really at stake. Even if it were Katniss’s mother or sister, they don’t have as much at stake in the story as Katniss herself.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that a character has to be the most directly involved in order to be the point of view character. Dr. Watson was Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick, yet he was also the one telling the story. But he was directly involved in events and had a personal stake in their outcome.

The Stakes Aren’t Personal Enough

While my story, Next Spring, was being workshopped, some of the reviewers raised the point that the main character, Callia Gainsborough, didn’t have enough of a personal stake in the conflict as it was being presented. This is something that will be easy enough to fix during revisions, and the central cause was that the story focused a little too much on the supporting character, Ethan. Ethan’s role was meant to be minor, and his interactions with Callia in the story were meant to show how Callia would react to certain events. Yet since most of the story involved Callia merely reacting to Ethan’s actions and behavior, the result was that she didn’t seem to have much at stake for herself, her own needs, and her own character development.

The solution is simply to revise the story with a greater focus on Callia’s thoughts and emotions. There are issues that Callia is struggling with: the changes in her life, her loneliness, her need to find her place, and her as-yet-unexpressed feelings for someone she’s only previously been friends with. Focusing on these issues will give Callia more of a personal conflict to overcome (even if the conflict is mostly an internal one). Then, her interactions with Ethan simply become a catalyst for how she decides to look within herself.

The good news is that the basic structure of the story–the events that laid out from Point A to B to C–are already there. This will allow me to go back and add more depth to the character without having to alter the overall course of the story.

The Character Doesn’t Demonstrate Change

An important part of any story is having a character grow and change during the course of it. During a short story, this can be difficult, since you don’t have a lot of time to work with. However, a character can undergo a significant change in a short amount of time.

Sometimes the change is merely an internal one. For example, as I mentioned when discussing New Spring above, the conflict in the story is mostly centered around Callia’s thoughts and emotions. Simply coming to a decision, revelation, or other emotional triumph can be enough of a change in such a case. In other stories, the change might be more drastic, such as with my short story Radiance, where the main character Maria Vasquez undergoes an actual supernatural physical transformation. Then there are cases where a character grows up in some way by making an important decision that shows an embarkment into maturity. Or a character might make a significant life decision, and in a short story, the reader doesn’t always need to see what happens after that decision. Just knowing that a character is going to quit their job, or move to another state, or try to reconnect with their girlfriend might be enough of an ending (think of the ending to the movie Clerks, where Dante ends with the decision to fix things up with Veronica, but we don’t actually see him do so).

If a character didn’t change throughout the course of the story, it was probably because they had nothing at stake. The stakes of the story should be the catalyst for change. And if you see someone else besides the main character experience growth and change, that’s a good sign that the main character wasn’t the one with something at stake.

There’s likely other issues centered around a character having something at stake. Let me know if you can think of any. Because what’s at stake for me is becoming the best writer I can be.

Reflections on my Interview with Alexander Pierce

As I mentioned earlier, tonight I had an online interview via Twitter with a friend of mine, Alexander Pierce. He was gracious enough to spend some time talking to me about his views on sports and sports culture.

Since the interview was logged on Twitter, you can read the conversation starting here and under the hashtag #HRSI.

Alexander and I chatted online in a casual back-and-forth of tweets, which was part of the purpose of the online format. My goal was to keep things casual and try to keep us on equal grounds as much as possible. Along those lines, I avoided having any direct list of pre-planned questions, and mostly tried to ask him for more information about the specific subjects he brought up. It was interesting to see that he made some comments that were similar to my earlier twitter poll on sports culture, and to the in-person interview I conducted last week. For example, the subjects of sports as religion, as local and national identity, and as a highly emotional activity all came up during this interview.

The interview started off, not surprisingly, with some ice-breaking by talking about sports. When I first asked Alexander how he was doing, it ended up being the first thing that came up in natural conversation.

Alexander_Interview_1The conversation quickly moved into a discussion about the specifics of hockey as a staple of Canadian culture. Alexander explained a few things about how and why hockey is such a popular sport for Canadians.

Alexander_Interview_2Alexander_Interview_3Alexander_Interview_4Alexander_Interview_5We also discussed a bit about how sports can be a way for families to bond. This is a subject that has come up frequently in my research, how families use sports as a way to relate to each other and as a way to have something to talk about. It was similar to what one of my in-person interviewees, Brian, said about sports bars. He explained that sports is something you can talk to anyone about without causing anger or offense (as opposed to taboo topics like politics and religion). It seems that a similar principle is in place when people talk to their family about sports.

Alexander_Interview_6Alexander_Interview_7Alexander_Interview_8One thing that came up during this interview that hadn’t been touched on much in the others is the dark side that can come from sports fanaticism, including parental pressure and sports-related violence.

Alexander_Interview_9Looking over everything we discussed, I see some interesting connections between these various points. The conversation moved from discussions of national identity, to family bonding, to aggression and competition. Which makes me question just how strong those connections are. Are aggression and competition such an integral part of our family and national identity? When considering everything from sibling rivalry to economic competition to long years of war against other countries, it certainly seems that the answer is “Yes.”

This also makes an interesting parallel to what I’ve learned about the relationship between sports culture and Native American culture. If sports culture is so deeply tied together with aggression, violence, and competition, it doesn’t seem surprising that it would lead to conflict with other cultures. A conflict that seems similar to the long history of conflict and aggression that has been directed at Native Americans for centuries.

These comparisons between different types of violence certainly opened my eyes to some ideas about the causes of these conflicts. A culture that is used to such violence (and even cheers it on) seems unlikely to be willing to engage in peaceful negotiations with someone they perceive as threatening their identity. And since sports fans associate their team name with their identity, they may therefore show aggressive behavior towards someone who threatens that identity by demanding the name be changed. Furthermore, the same competitive ideals may lead sports fans to a “win or lose” mindset that detracts from the possibility of compromise or collaboration on a mutually beneficial solution.

As for the interview itself, I definitely found Twitter to be an effective medium. It allowed for a casual conversation that was easy to transcribe. It left me with some questions about how this aggression may be affecting the people it’s directed against, beyond the emotional damage it can cause, as discussed in my interview with Reverend John Norwood.

Hopefully from here I’ll be able to tie some of these concepts in with the academic research I’m doing on the subject. For example, I’ve read several journal articles discussing the specific causes of sports fan aggression and the volatile behavior it can cause. I should be able to make some good connections between that research and the concepts that came up in this interview.


Conflict and Aliens

My problem with alien invasion movies.

Most alien invasion stories have the same basic plot. Aliens appear, there is little to no attempt at communication, they start attacking, and it becomes a genocidal war for the very survival of all mankind.

For basically, like, no reason.

War is conflict, but in a good story, conflict cannot exist without purpose. In real life, war happens because of competition for scarce resources, breakdowns in the diplomatic process, perceived incompatible goals, political differences, and so on. There is usually a buildup of tension over many years before war breaks out. It doesn’t “just happen.” Except in alien invasion movies, where it does.

Some movies will handwave an explanation. Independence Day had one short scene explaining that the aliens were traveling the galaxy and stripping all planets they found of their natural resources. The Day the Earth Stood Still had a brief message about protecting the ecosystem. Yet others, like War of the Worlds or the horrible flop Skyline, have no attempt to even explain WHY the invasion comes.

Audiences don’t seem to question it. Likely that’s because it’s a long-standing trope that aliens aren’t going to be peaceful when they come here, because why else would they travel millions of light years to find us if not to start a tussle.

I’d like to see an alien invasion movie with more background and sense of purpose. A good example is Avatar (the one with the blue aliens, not the Airbender). Technically, it’s a “reverse alien invasion,” since humans are the one invading another planet. However, it has several aspects that other alien invasion movies lack, and I’m not talking about special effects or the moral message of loving the environment and respecting living things.

In Avatar, we start by seeing that humans and the Navi have had contact for some time. There was a school built, and attempts were made to communicate, negotiate, and find a common ground. Those efforts failed, and led to conflict (over “scarce resources,” one of the real life reasons I mentioned above). The war doesn’t start until like halfway through the movie, giving the audience a chance to see WHY it happened.

A movie like Independence Day, excellent as it was in terms of action and special effects, would have benefited a great deal by building to the conflict with more meaning and purpose. I’d rather see the aliens arrive and negotiate, with the full and honest intent (at first) of finding peaceful coexistence. I’m not talking about things like the TV show “V,” where the aliens faked being friendly but wanted to do evil things from the beginning. I’m talking about genuine negotiations that break down for a believable reason, whatever that reason may be.

The conflict, like all real conflicts, should have moral grey areas and reasons to see the good in both sides. Sure, it’s much easier to just say “the aliens are evil nazi conquerors and they all need to be stopped.” But in many real life wars, people on both sides want to avoid conflict (even if their governments don’t). I’d like to see civilian aliens protesting the war, wishing for peace with humans, and so on. Likewise, I want to see some humans as instigators, so that some of the aliens have reasons to see the humans as the bad guys. Give me an alien invasion movie where I can’t decide whether I want the humans or aliens to win, because both sides have merits and flaws. I don’t need to watch another “humans are the good guys and aliens are the bad guys” cliché flick.

Maybe there’s a movie (or better yet, a book) already out there with these themes, and I just haven’t seen it yet. I’d like to get my hands on one, though.

Maybe I’ll write it myself.

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