Ripples Crossing the Crescent Moon


The waxing crescent moon, as seen on the evening of 9 May 2016. Video taken using a Sony α6300 camera attached to a Celestron 11-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope.

Jupiter on 29 March


Jupiter as seen on the evening of 29 March. Video taken using a Sony α6300 camera attached to a Celestron 11-inch Cassegrain-Schmidt telescope, viewed through a 25 mm eyepiece.

Hummingbird!


Filmed at dusk at 25% speed, a hummingbird finishes its meal and flits away.

Beginning Astrophotography: Jupiter Ascending


Since I got my first telescope, I quickly discovered its abilities and limits, and I knew I wanted more. In fact, I wanted to be able to show other people what I saw, even if they couldn’t be there themselves. That meant learning how to do astrophotography.

I learned from reading online—and by using it myself—that my first telescope wasn’t suitable for astrophotography for a number of reasons. It was too light (being a large, empty tube for the most part), shifted too easily, not mechanized in any fashion, the Dobsonian mount was too simple, and I lacked any adapters to allow me to connect my camera to it. Taking a photo through it meant getting an adapter which would overweight the end, and so I’d have to constantly hold the whole thing still and counterbalance the weight, manually find and track to objects, and somehow manually follow the motion of things in the sky—with an altazimuth mount not designed for tracking, which didn’t have measurements, markings, or indices. To be honest, I was having trouble even finding objects in the first place, needing sometimes several minutes to track in on naked-eye objects (which would then flit out of view in seconds).

So I had to get a new telescope. I wanted something slightly more compact so I could carry it out to sites more easily, so I chose a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, which combines lenses and mirrors into a relatively compact body. I wanted to increase my aperture even more, so I looked for eleven-inch options and settled on a set from Celestron which combines the telescope I want with a computerized mount that can automatically find and track objects.

Celestron 11-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on an Advanced VX computerized mount

Celestron 11-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on an Advanced VX computerized mount

Putting all this together and learning how to use it has been a trial, but I’m getting better. It’s been cloudy here for weeks, so I’ve been messing around with it indoors learning how to align it and get it ready. A few nights ago, it finally cleared up enough to try it out.


Outside my backdoor, between the house and a nearby fence, there’s a sliver of sky through which the ecliptic passes, meaning I can watch planets rise and pass overhead. Recently, Jupiter has been rising early at night, right around the time the moon rises.

I took the pieces outside to the back walkway—tripod, mount, eyepieces, tube—and set up, switched on the mount, and did a quick alignment. Jupiter was low on the horizon to the east, climbing, visible as an unmistakably bright point. Once the tube was lined up close enough to see through the finderscope sitting on top of the main tube, Jupiter was obvious, a brilliant point surrounded by four smaller points.

I started with my largest (and least magnifying) eyepiece, the forty-millimeter one (giving me seventy-times magnification). It’s the one visible in the photo of the telescope above. Jupiter was clearly in view but out of focus, so I saw it as a large, diffuse disc with a large hole in the middle, the way light looks through a telescope which happens to have a large obstruction. In this case, the obstruction is built into the telescope, the center corrector mirror in the middle of the tube. I began focusing, and Jupiter came into view, no longer a point but a disc which was obviously wider than tall, with four points of light scattered in a line along the bulge. The shapes shifted and scintillated slightly as the air moved around.

This was my first time using computerized tracking, and I was so happy that the planet stayed in view rather than drifting just off out of view in a matter of moments. I found that I had to make adjustments after fifteen minutes or so, but these were pretty minor, likely because I didn’t do a proper alignment. When this happened, I could make them as fine adjustments with the handheld controller pretty easily, so it was so much less exhausting than my last experience. This automatic help made it easier to work on getting the best view I could.

Focusing in on a tiny object like a planet is a little frustrating because it’s plain to see there’s more detail there, but when you try to focus on it, you find yourself hitting a point beyond which it only gets blurrier again. Some of this is attributable to the limits of my optics, but most of it is due to the turbulence of the atmosphere, called seeing. From the ground, unless the circumstances are exceptional, atmospheric seeing limits the detail available to telescopes, meaning that more magnification usually doesn’t help.

Still, I tried. I brought out my twenty-five millimeter eyepiece, a shorter eyepiece with higher magnification (around 112 times). To my surprise, that gave me more detail this time. This proved to me that the tube itself was of higher quality than my previous telescope—or maybe just better seeing than last time. With careful focusing, I make out the cloud bands with my eye, and I thought I could even glimpse the Great Red Spot if I squinted. What I saw was a lot like the video I posted at the top of this entry (only brighter with more obvious moons).


I’ve never tried photographing a planet before, so I decided it was time to try now. I had found an adapter kit for my camera (a Sony NEX-6), so I took out the eyepiece and used the prime focus attachment, which essentially uses the telescope tube itself as a massive zoom lens, but without attaching any additional eyepieces. This meant no magnification beyond the tube’s own field of view, meaning that all the light the mirror was gathering was pulled into a small disc which shone too brightly to see any detail. Below is a picture showing roughly what this looks like.

Jupiter and moons

Jupiter and moons

After recording some pictures and video in this setup, I tried using an adapter that lets me use an eyepiece, getting me a lot closer to what I was seeing. I used the twenty-five millimeter eyepiece and the adapter to attach to the telescope, and after some careful focusing, I got several shots like the following one.

Jupiter at 112-times magnification

Jupiter magnified 112 times

To get this shot, I had to fool around with the camera a bit, speeding up its shutter speed to cut down on the light that was obscuring details. This one was exposed for only 250th of a second. The moons are no longer bright enough to show up except as pale specks seen on zooming in. I applied some minor processing to improve the clarity, but that’s all. Otherwise, this is just a single snapshot of exactly what I saw that night.

What’s next? My current Jupiter shots impressed me more than I’d hoped for, but because of seeing, it’ll take some tricks to get more detail and more impressive photos. I’m looking into image stacking software which will let me combine many individual pictures into a single, more detailed shot. I’ll need it if I want to photograph deep-sky objects like nebulae or galaxies. And I’ll need to improve at aligning my telescope so it can track more accurately. It might take until summer, but I’ll update here when I try again.

Who to Call When Someone is Having a Mental Health Crisis in Portland

Last week, I read a piece aimed at San Franciscans by a tech blogger who was so oblivious and insensitive that I got vicariously ashamed before the end. Soon after, I read another article that restored my hope—what San Franciscans can do when they encounter homeless individuals having a crisis.

Portland’s in the middle of its own crisis—one of dwindling housing and skyrocketing rates of homelessness which has led to a state of emergency. People sleeping outside in Portland now number in the thousands.

Despite Portland’s efforts in de-escalation training and its dedicated Behavioral Health Unit, the police may still not be the best option to call when someone is experiencing a crisis. The article I mentioned earlier does a great job of explaining why calling the police is not always the right answer.

Below I’m compiling resources to use in Portland if someone you know, yourself, or someone on the street is experiencing a crisis and needs intervention right away. I intend this post to be a living document—I may update it as I learn about more resources or make corrections. (The most recent update was on 22 Feb 16 at 16:47 PST).


Right now, the best resource I know of in Portland is the Multnomah County Mental Health Crisis Intervention service. They offer

  • crisis counseling by phone, with translation;
  • mobile crisis outreach for in-person assessment;
  • referrals to low-cost and sliding-scale services;
  • information on community resources; and
  • a no-cost urgent walk-in clinic at 4212 SE Division St, operated by OHSU and Cascadia Health, open daily from 7 a.m to 10:30 p.m.

Their number is (503) 988-4888, available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. (Their toll-free number is (800) 716-9769, and as of the time I write this, they can be texted at (503) 201-1351, a number which is monitored once a day.) Their page includes information on nearby counties as well.


Accessible through the above service is also the Multnomah County Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center (CATC) (direct number (503) 232-1099) which provides a temporary facility for people needing to stabilize from mental illness symptoms (provided by Central City Concern).


Cascadia Project Respond is a crisis service provided by Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, also available through the the Multnomah Call Center (same number as the first resource,  (503) 988-4888). Project Respond also works with the Portland Police Behavioral Health Unit I mentioned before, pairing officers responding to crisis with mental health professionals in situations where 911 dispatches officers to incidents involving mental health. (I must state, from my experience, officers may not always be accompanied by mental health professionals when intervening.)


Rose City Resource offers a smattering of resources—hotline numbers and explanations of rights—targeted at homeless people, and they print these resources as a portable booklet. They’re a resource provided by Street Roots which provides jobs for homeless and indigent individuals via the local newspaper and media they provide.


If you can’t look up or remember the above resources, Oregonians always have 211 at their disposal to find resources on the fly. Call it from any phone!

Decentering Self

In school, we learn two things about Aristotle. First, we learn that he was profoundly influential for millennia, and probably smarter than you. Second, we learn that he was mostly wrong about everything having to do with the real world.

It’s not hard to figure out why. He used a rationalistic methodology rather than an empirical one, meaning that rather than going out to examine and measure firsthand, he mostly explored the universe as a mental exercise. Unfortunately, this means he didn’t have enough information available to challenge his own biases in his worldview. He even believed that women had fewer teeth than men, which is demonstrably false.

There are numerous examples, from Aristotle and afterwards directed by his influence, for which his methodology’s flaws are made manifest as theories in contradiction of available evidence. For example, Ptolemy’s Almagest protected the Aristotelian geocentric worldview, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, by inventing epicycles to explain planetary motions which didn’t make sense otherwise.

I see the same willful ignorance play out today in discussions regarding equality, empathy, and justice. Without giving specific examples or links, I have observed two major problems with arguments I hear from racists, men’s rights activists, and others.

First, their arguments only make sense if they completely deny the evidence they hear which conflicts with their point of view. Men’s rights activists thrive on stories of false rape accusations. Racists need racism to be “over.”

Second, relatedly, they believe they don’t even need to hear others’ points of view to inform their worldview. In other words, it’s not necessary to listen to people of color to learn what they need about racism. They don’t need to listen to women to invalidate their discomfort or fears. They don’t have to listen to disabled people. It all makes sense to them, without the inconvenience of going into the world.

I can forgive Aristotle drawing the wrong conclusions about nature, but I have trouble with those who apply methods of rationality to the people around them. It’s leaping to conclusions. It’s judging a book by its cover. It’s hubris. Aristotle thought the world was the center of the universe because it just seemed that way. Do you feel like the center of your own universe?

We all need to take time to stop and listen. We need to make room for others’ feelings in our world. We need to decenter ourselves sometimes. Not always, but very often, kindness flows from doing so.

First Stargazing

Telescope detail revealing eyepiece assembly

I’d wanted a telescope for a really long time.

I guess I should say, I’d wanted a real telescope for a very long time. I had one as a kid, one of those small telescopes that leap to mind when you hear the word “telescope”: a long tube on a tripod tapering to an eyepiece on one end. I tried to use it, but I had no guidance. I don’t know much about that telescope’s provenance—at that time, I was content to know it came from Santa Claus—but it wasn’t the highest quality. The experience never worked out for me. All I saw through it were bright, blurry dots streaking briefly in and out of view.

Not long ago, I got really curious about what would be possible if I bought a new telescope today. It turns out, this is a huge hobby with a lot of writing about it online, and I had to spend weeks reading up before I knew what I wanted. I finally got something called an “Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope.” All my reading had led me to the conclusion that I wanted to set aside all other considerations in favor of the most power for the dollar. In terms of telescopes, that came down to things like focal length and aperture, so I didn’t get cool things like a tracking computer.

I thought it was going to take several days to arrive, but it came the next morning after I ordered it, and I wasn’t prepared for the ridiculous size. All that I said about aperture and focal length? That’s all size, and this thing is a bit silly in that regard. The telescope tube came whole, looking like a bathroom trashcan that grew up to stand nearly as tall as a person and with a large makeup mirror in the bottom. I spent maybe an hour putting the base together, on which I mounted the tube like a cannon.

I was pretty jazzed about using it right away, but I had to find a place and wait till nightfall. I asked around and looked online, and several sources mentioned a place called Stub Stewart State Park. My friend Shawna ended up coming with me, and it was just as well no one else joined me that night because the telescope tube alone occupied my entire backseat.

We headed out of town around eleven at night on the very same day I got it. I’d never been to this park, and even though it’s only about forty minutes out of town, the roads out that way dwindle quickly in size, and the darkness made it feel very remote and a touch creepy. So I was surprised when I ended up at a large parking area filled with cars in the darkness. It was actually a bit crowded, though so dark and moonless that I never did end up seeing another human. The spot was popular enough for astronomers that the bathrooms were lit with red bulbs, making the only visible edifice seem hellish.

Shawna helped me drag my telescope out to an area that seemed clear enough. I had done some research to figure out what things I might’ve wanted to look at, and it turns out all those things had set below the horizon by midnight, so I had no idea what to do from that point. I only had one eyepiece with me, a twenty-five millimeter eyepiece which gave me forty-eight-times magnification. Regardless of what all that magnification may have been suited for, that’s all I had to work with.

The sky, even without any aid, was striking. Without a moon or any light for miles, the Milky Way could be seen clearly spreading across the entire sky. Once our eyes adjusted, the sky was full, and it would’ve been worth the trip for that view alone.

I was really anxious to try out the telescope because I didn’t even know if it’d work or not—my childhood telescope had been a complete disappointment. I took out my phone and used an app to see what was around, and pretty soon I saw Saturn sitting some degrees above the horizon. Taking my phone down, I saw some fuzzy stars in roughly the same direction and had to figure out which one of these dots might’ve been Saturn. I made a guess and worked on aiming the telescope that way.

My aim was off at first, so I slid my telescope around till a bright yellowish blur was in view. While unfocused, it was like a fat, bright dot, but I noticed it had a bit of an oval shape, and that oval became more pronounced as I focused. When it finally became crisp, I noticed the oval had gaps in it. I was actually seeing rings, around Saturn.

It was an unimpressive speck and dazzling sight at the same time. What had first been a tiny dot as anonymous as the rest was now familiar and improbable at the same time, like spotting a celebrity. The magnification rendered it quite small, little more than a bulge with a ring-like shape around it, but it was hard to look away. I let Shawna look, to share it but also confirm that the thing I was seeing was actually Saturn: I had trouble believing I’d found it.

If I’d been alone and had thought to bring a chair, I probably would’ve just sat there and looked at it for a while, but we were getting cold and uncomfortable, and I wanted to see if I could find anything else. I instantly thought of the Andromeda Galaxy, so I pulled out the Sky Guide app and found it high up in the sky in the other direction. When I put the app out of view, up in the sky, I could see stars, but I couldn’t see Andromeda (which wasn’t surprising).

I didn’t really have a choice, so I put my telescope in the neighborhood where it was supposed to be and just started scanning around. This took considerably longer without a clear dot at least to aim for, but eventually a very large oval smear came into view. I tried focusing on it, but it didn’t improve much. I didn’t figure it out at the time, but here was another situation where my eyepiece was inappropriate, this time because it magnified too much. I was seeing only most of the middle portion, and finer details had been dimmed by the magnification.

So Andromeda was even less impressive a sight than Saturn, and somehow even more. Featureless as it seemed, it filled the field of view. Seeing another galaxy was more meaningful to me than seeing a planet or a star. Coming from so far away, Andromeda’s light is not just ancient but primordial. We on Earth can visit Saturn with probes, but we’ll never touch Andromeda. I thought of Edwin Hubble, spotting a Cepheid variable star there and knowing for the first time what an immense chasm of time and space lay between that “island universe” and us. Andromeda taught us just how large the universe could be, and I remembered this as I looked at it.

Before we left, we took a last look at Saturn—I couldn’t resist. Then Shawna and I started on the trip home, by this time very early Sunday morning. We shared an exhilaration from the experience. I know I have to do this again soon, and I don’t doubt Shawna will be willing to join me.

In the Back of the House

I got my first job at fifteen, going on sixteen. I worked for my hometown newspaper as an inserter, and as time passed, I began filling in occasionally as a “pressman.” Inserters were a collective bunch of old ladies (and me) who made spare money assembling the newspaper sections and stuffing in the ad inserts. When I got to help with the actual printing, it took the form of developing, treating, and bending the lithographic plates in preparation for printing. More often, I caught the papers as they rolled off the press to bundle them up for distribution. I also cleaned up, sweeping and trash takeout and the like, but I wasn’t good at it. I liked to take breaks to play my guitar at the back of the shop, so I think the editor-in-chief who ran things probably was annoyed as piss at me half the time.

There was no question I worked in the bowels of the operation. The real fun (and to the extent a small, rural paper could afford it, the real money) happened at the front of the building where the editor-in-chief and reporters worked. I passed through to gather up trash a few times a week. As I went, I admired the editor-in-chief’s ancient typewriter collection in his office. I enjoyed talking to the lead reporter, who loved Star Trek. The layout team’s work fascinated me, especially as they transitioned to digital layout from cutting and splicing pieces of paper together.

After my tour, I returned to the back, and I only heard from the front when it was time to go to press or when we had to stop the presses. We weren’t a separate world by any means, but we had a job to do, and that job was entirely a pragmatic one, keeping the machinery running and enabling the actual enterprise which paid us. Inasmuch as I felt like an important part of the whole, it was in a sense of responsibility toward the final product.

About a decade later, I stumbled across my current programming thing. Now I find myself at the back of the house again. The work echoes my first job sometimes—working on the machinery, keeping things running, along with other programmers and operations folks. This time the job comes with a dose of values dissonance for me. It feels like a wildly inverted amount of prestige goes to us, to the people running the machines, instead of the others who are closer to the actual creation (and the customers using it).

I’m not sure our perceived value is unwarranted—programming is hard. I’m more concerned about the relationship between the front and back of the house. It could be that we, as programmers and tech people, undervalue the people making the content and interacting with the customers. I see the skewed relationship when I look at inflated tech salaries. It makes itself evident in startups made up of all or mostly engineers. I felt it most acutely when I considered becoming a tech writer, only to be reminded it could derail my career and cost me monetarily.

I don’t think my observation comes with a cogent point. Maybe only that tech can’t be just about the engineering, no more than a newspaper can be only a printing press.

Functional Programming for Everyone Else

Functional programming has become a hot topic in the last few years for programmers, but non-programmers might not understand what we’re talking about. I can imagine them wondering, “Did programs not work before? Why are they suddenly ‘functional’ now?”

Earlier today, I was tweeting a bit about the challenge of explaining to family or primary school students what the big deal is all about. Even we programmers take some time to cotton on to the notion. I know I’d have to pause for a moment if someone asked me what Haskell offers over Python.

If you’re not a programmer and have been wondering what the big deal is, here’s my attempt to lay it out.


First, consider the time just before computers existed. By the 1920s, a kind of math problem called a decision problem led various people to learn how to investigate the problem solving process itself. To do this, we had to invent an idea we call computability, meaning to automate problem solving using small, reusable pieces. A couple of mathematicians tackled this idea in two different ways (though they each came to the same conclusion), and today we have two ways to think about computability as a result.

I’m partial to Alan Turing’s approach because it’s very practical. He envisioned a process that’s quite mechanical. In fact, we now call it a Turing machine, even though his machine never actually existed. It was more of a mental exercise than something he intended to build.

To solve a problem with a Turing machine, he would break a problem into a sequence of steps which would pass through the machine on an endless tape. The machine itself knew how to understand the steps on the tape, and it knew how to store information in its memory. As the steps on the tape passed through, one at a time, the machine would consult the tape and its own memory to figure out what to do. This usually meant modifying something in its memory, which in turn could affect the following step, over and over until the steps ran out. By choosing the right set of steps, when you were done, the machine’s memory would end up with the answer you needed.

Since that time, most computers and programs are based on this concept of stringing together instructions which modify values in memory to arrive at a result. Learning to program means learning a vast number of details, but much of it boils down to understanding how to break a problem into instructions to accomplish the same thing. Programs made this way would not be considered “functional.”

At the same time, another mathematician, Alonzo Church, came up with another approach called lambda calculus. At its heart, it has a lot in common with Turing’s approach: lambda calculus breaks up a problem into small parts called functions. Instead of modifying things in memory, though, the key proposition of a function is that it takes input and calculates a result—nothing more. To solve a problem this way, little functions are written to calculate small parts of the problem, which are in turn fed to other functions which do something else, and so on until you get an answer.

Lambda calculus takes a much more abstract approach, so it took longer to work out how to make programs with it. When we did, we called these programs “functional programs” because functions were so fundamental to how they worked.


Putting all this together, I think of functional programs as ones which do their jobs without stopping to take notes along the way. As a practical consequence, this implies a few odd things. The little niceties that come first nature to procedural programs—like storing values, printing out text, or doing more than one thing at once—don’t come easy to functional programs1. On the other hand, functional programs allow for understanding better what a program will do, since it will do the same thing every time if its input doesn’t change.

I think both approaches have something to offer, and in fact, most programs are made with a combination of these ideas. Turing proved neither approach was better than the other. They’re just two ways of ending up at the same result. Programmers each have to decide for themselves which approach suits best—and that decision problem can’t be solved by a program yet.

On Thematic Storytelling

When I reached ninth grade, I was dumped briefly in Honors AP English, and my teacher initiated us into the secret language of symbolism in literature. Writing was (and remains) important to me, so that class made a deep impression.

It was life-changing to find that many of the things I had read or had yet to read contained hidden meaning. Throughout the next several years, my intellectual and spiritual development involved understanding layers of meaning, their connections, and their implications—not only in the stories I enjoyed reading and writing, but also on my life and my understanding of my own existence and that of God. It was the first time I realized that works of art and literature had meaningful things to say about my world and not just their own.

That class tied symbolism into overarching themes, and themes are really what I want to talk about now. Themes were like secret messages; symbolism, the vocabulary; and stories were the paper on which the messages were written. We learned about themes and symbolism with an emphasis on connections to ancient mythology, the Bible, and fatalism versus determinism. For me, this skewed the significance of thematic content above all other literary content. I took away the idea that these stories had such powerful and important existential messages to impart that all other elements of the story only were included to support them. The only way I could imagine writing a story this way was to start with the theme, which would inform everything else.

Unfortunately, that misapprehension stunted my development as a reader and writer for years after. When reading, I got too analytical. When writing, I didn’t feel creative anymore. I regarded everything besides the theme—all the descriptions, characters, suspense, drama—as fluff. I didn’t know how to start at a theme and end up back at the same place that originally inspired me to write a story, and I figured doing anything else was frivolous.

What I described about my English class—mining literature for symbolism that may or may not even be there—seems to be a rite of passage. It’s probably attractive curriculum because it reduces reading comprehension into something rather mechanistic and testable. For whatever reason, I know a lot of people who had an experience in high school like mine.

I don’t think I’m the only person for whom this approach to storytelling presented a dilemma. The problem, as I saw it, is that writers either started with a story and later artificially incorporated symbolism, or they began with the symbolism and tried to wring a story out of it.

I remember Stephen King writing about precisely this issue in his non-fiction book On Writing. King said he tended to write the story first, and if he saw the potential to develop a theme, he would elaborate on that as he wrote and rewrote, polishing the theme until it shone through. The biggest takeaway I got from On Writing is that thematic aspects of a story are sometimes already there naturally, waiting to be developed.

He’s prolific and has taken lots of approaches to writing fiction on a theme. Some of his books, especially the earlier ones, didn’t bother. It’s difficult to come away from Christine or Cujo2 feeling like you missed a deeper meaning.

Other books of his swung in the other direction, incorporating lots of symbolism. Insomnia is the one that stands out for me. In On Writing, King describes struggling with the amount of planning he did in that book, and it shows. It’s full of allusions, symbols, and outright literal descriptions of the protagonist defying deities and struggling against fatalism. The Waste Lands directly describes symbolism via an English class, itself makes heavy allusion to T. S. Eliot, and uses nonsensical jokes (among other things) to symbolize a world losing its coherency and sanity.

After several years, I finally realized this approach made sense when I considered themes as an element of storytelling on the same level as other elements such as setting, plot, or characterization. Any story entails decisions about how to include and involve them and to what extent.

One example which springs to mind right away is Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question”, which contains almost no characterization whatsoever but whose plot and theme concern itself with nothing less than the nature of the universe, sweeping its entire breadth in space and time. In the same way, some stories naturally require elaborating on setting (think of worldbuilding in high-fantasy); others never allude to their setting at all.

This way of thinking about theme feels so right to me. It frees me from the problematic dilemma I described earlier, if only I apply the same kind of thinking about theme as I apply regarding, say, plot. For example, it feels natural to me to sketch out a story plot to begin with, letting each storytelling ingredient interact and complement one another, and then proceed to work out the details as I move along. The wholeness of the plot emerges as the work continues. Why can’t theme and symbolism manifest the same way? After all, it never occurred to me to let decisions about plot or setting paralyze me this way.

I also think it would be really interesting if high school English classes gave as much consideration to characterization or setting the way they do to theme. Maybe the thinking is that those things are written in an obvious way and theme is much more tied into the context and history of the writer. On the other hand, it’s easy to say that Stephen King writes about Maine because he’s from there without further examination, but does this efface a deeper conversation we could be having about why such a familiar and detailed setting makes his books work so well? If we have to read Catcher in the Rye in high school, is it more important to talk about what the ducks in winter represent, or should we be talking about what an immature hypocrite Holden is? Does Slaughterhouse-Five teach us as much about the historical destruction of Dresden as it does about how avoidable and pointless war is?

I guess my breakthrough is to realize all these questions hold equal consideration in my mind now and broadens the kinds of stories I enjoy and the way in which I appreciate them.

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