Do writers have agendas? Well, duh . . .

Recently I was accused of having “an agenda” in my books.

My very mature response to that was, “Well, DUH!”

Writers ALWAYS write with an agenda—a purpose. It’s WHY we write!

If you ever took a composition course in college, the first chapter in the textbook is all about “Writing With Purpose.” If you hated your English 1010 course, it was because you didn’t care; you didn’t want to write, you just wanted a grade.

But writers? We care. A LOT. That’s why we write. We don’t care about a grade; we care about getting out the word.

So when I was accused of having “an agenda,” I scratched my head a bit and thought, “Well, yeah!”

Doesn’t everyone?

Suzanne Collins didn’t crank The Hunger Games during a weekend because she was bored.
J.K. Rolling didn’t handwrite the Harry Potter series only because she was out of work and had nothing better to do.
E. L. James didn’t write 50 Shades of Grey because . . . You know, I really don’t want to go there. Scratch that.

My point is, EVERYONE who writes, creates, composes, produces, directs, sings—whatever, EVERYONE has an agenda. Creating art—especially a book series—takes months, but more likely years. We don’t do it because it’s only for fun. We do it because we want to make A STATEMENT.

Subtle or obvious; outrageous or timid; traditional or unconventional. I don’t care what writers or artists may say, we ALL have an agenda behind our work, which is the impetus that shoves us to create. writer agenda

You may not like certain entertainment because that “agenda” or “statement” doesn’t fit your mindset. I personally don’t like horror movies, hard rock music, or romance novels. None of them fit my mindset. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. They’re just not my cup of cocoa (because I don’t like tea, either).

Which leads to the next puzzler about my critic: they didn’t like my “agenda” for one of my characters. This character is a young woman who rejects an overbearing potential suitor in order to spend time with a young man she admires. They work together, they  fall in love, and they get married. They continue to work side-by-side in their business, and are thrilled when they discover they are expecting a baby.

Yeah, brutal stuff.

The critic stated that this wasn’t something they’d want their daughter to read.

Uh-huh.

Still scratching my head about that one.

For the world these characters inhabit, their behavior is completely acceptable and timely. [WARNING–POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD!] If my agenda-fearing-complainer is worried that the characters are young, the character’s parents were 28 years old when they married. It’s all balanced.

  • But maybe it’s because the young woman is still a teenager, but a very mature one who cares nothing about the world’s trends and fashions, but has been through hardship, knows her mind, and demonstrates that quite well.  (How many teenage girls in our world fit this description? Not enough, yet.)
  • Maybe it’s because her belief in the Creator, and her devotion to The Writings, help her deal with the disappointments she’s experienced. (God? Scriptures? In a novel? Isn’t that illegal or something?)
  • Maybe it’s because she, with her love interest, runs a farm and dairy which, again in the culture of the book, is a respectable and important job.  (I kind of thought growing food was a noble occupation in our world as well, but maybe not?)
  • Maybe it’s because the idea of having children makes her happy, because in the book’s culture women are allowed only two children and they are treasured. (Believe it or not, there are still people in our world who want to have babies, and nothing’s “wrong” with them.)

Really, all of THIS is “an agenda”?

Love and marriage and family and religion and working together are all somehow . . . wrong?

Well then, yes: I have an agenda. As I’ve stated before (especially here), I believe in love.
I believe in marriage between a man and a woman.
I believe in growing together as a family, in having children, in working and learning together.
I believe all these things are good and important, and I’m not going to apologize or back down.

Instead, I sit here shaking my head in astonishment that the world has gotten to a point that I have to defend such a radical way of life. And I always will, trust me.

In the meantime, here’s an abbreviated passage from late in Book 4, The Falcon in the Barn, which was likely deemed so offensive. (I’ve tried to eliminate spoilers, leaving instead only “hinters”.)

“I guess I’m just surprised,” Mahrree murmured as another two women whose children she used to teach took a circular route around her. “This has always been such a nice village—”

“A nice village?!” Jaytsy nearly wailed.

A dozen people trying to get around them moved even faster.

Mahrree stared at her daughter in surprise.

“A nice village!” Jaytsy announced sarcastically, glaring at a few more dozen who stopped in their tracks to see what Shin was erupting this time.

“That’s what my mother just declared: Edge has always been such a nice village. And I wonder,” Jaytsy said, her voice booming as far as her father’s as she addressed everyone who had ears, “exactly what village is Mahrree Shin remembering?”

People leaked out of market fronts to cluster in whispering groups.

Now Mahrree knew how her family must have felt when she stood up at the amphitheater: complete dread.

“Jaytsy, I really don’t think—”

Mrs. Briter gently but firmly brushed her mother’s hand away. “Surely Mahrree Shin remembers this village before it turned on itself to steal goods from those who died from the pox! Surely she remembers a village that appreciated its commander—”

Mahrree bit her lower lip and took a step back from her daughter. She’d seen that look before, in Perrin’s face. Jaytsy Shin Briter had something to say, and everyone was going to hear it.

Mahrree hadn’t realized before how much Jaytsy favored Perrin. Her dark brown eyes were wide with fury and her voice developed an authoritative quality that insisted everyone stop what they were doing and listen. Jaytsy carried the blood of the greatest officers the world had ever seen. Couple that with the fact that the generals’ descendant was also in the throes of expecting a baby, and it was a very dangerous combination indeed.

Mahrree took another protective step back. “Oh, dear . . .”

“—A commander who, on more occasions than you will ever know, put his life on the line to defend each one of you!” Jaytsy bellowed to the rapt and growing audience.

A few women broke away from the crowd and trotted purposefully down an alley.

Mahrree noticed, but Jaytsy didn’t, or she didn’t care.

“And this is how you repay the Shins for their years of sacrifice and dedication? By ignoring them? . . . A nice village? I’m looking but I’m just   . . . not . . . seeing . . . it!

Mahrree’s fists were clutched near her face in nervous fascination. . . . [As Jaytsy continued her rant, Mahrree kept] an eye on the growing crowd that was stunned silent. Villagers had subtly rearranged themselves, men in some groups, women in others. A few more women had slinked away and now Mahrree saw why: Chief Barnie was being reluctantly led to the market by a gaggle of outraged women. . . .

“Jaytsy, well said,” Mahrree hinted. “I think you’re done—”

Mrs. Briter’s chest heaved furiously as she turned her glare on Chief Barnie. Two women were pushing him into the open space, and his stuttering steps made it obvious he would rather have been anywhere else in the world right then.

“Mrs. Briter?” He cleared his throat and firmed his stance.

Jaytsy folded her arms defiantly in a Perrin-like manner, and Mahrree massaged her cheeks. If she weren’t so worried as to what might happen next she would’ve been bursting with pride.

“Yes?” Jaytsy said with so much malice that Mahrree marveled how Barnie still stood erect.

“Do we have a problem?” Barnie timidly asked.

“She’s debating!” a woman shouted from the concealing safety of the crowd. “There’s laws against that!”

Mahrree watched her daughter, praying her response would be appropriate.

Jaytsy’s hands moved to her hips. “A debate?” she shouted. “Barnie, do you see anyone challenging me? Talking back?”

The crowd couldn’t get any flatter as Barnie obediently glanced around. He shook his head.

“That’s right. Two people are needed for a debate. I’m just . . . delivering a free history lesson!”

That did it. Mahrree couldn’t hold it in anymore. She burst into a grin which she quickly covered with her hand.

None of the villagers dared move a muscle. Even the angry knot of women glanced at each other hoping one of them could think of what to say next.

“Now,” Jaytsy began as she bent down to pick up her bread bag from the ground. She didn’t move like an expecting woman but more like a general retrieving his dropped sword. “My mother and I will be shopping here twice a week when the shops open, and if anyone here has a problem with that, I suggest you arrive after we leave. Mother? We need to start dinner.”

DISCLAIMER~ This very offensive, agenda-laden excerpt is from Book 4, The Falcon in the Barn. Read at your own risk.

What do we think about?

Over the years I’ve become more judicious in what I read, watch, and listen to. Everything I take in effects my thoughts, which in turn alters my behavior. 

Maybe it’s because in the past few years my parents and sister died, and a dear friend is losing her battle to cancer, that I’m acutely aware that life is short.

I don’t have time–nor do I want to have time–to waste. Every day needs to be focused on improving my mind and my heart.

Hugh Nibley, in “Zeal without Knowledge,” summed it up best:

what do we think about

The more I’ve decluttered my mind (as I’ve been doing with my house) the simpler everything is. There really is time and space for the important stuff.

No men who Jaytsy cared about were interested in fashion or the theater. It was all fake and contrived, and unappealing.
But she knew what she did love, and it was glorious to no longer worry about the world’s opinions. She loved real things. Dirt on her hands and under her fingernails. Flicking insects off the corn. Filling wagons with potatoes. Braiding the greens of onions together. Measuring milk yields. Churning butter. Sampling cheeses. Looking into cows’ eyes.
~Book 4, The Falcon in the Barn

How I made a weeping angel (or, why I don’t host a diy blog)

All I wanted was a Dr. Who Weeping Angel for my front yard for Halloween. 

People are terrified of them. If you don’t know what they are, watch the episode “Blink.” (Try Netflix.) You don’t even have to know the first thing about Dr. Who in order to appreciate this episode. Weeping angels seem like innocent statues in parks and cemeteries, but when you blink, they move faster than lighting, touch you, and . . .

No, you don’t die. They send you back in time. For some reason, I love that idea and don’t find weeping angels scary at all. Unless they send me back to relieve 8th grade, then yeah.

Madison weeping angelBut otherwise, they’re one of the most terrifying villains, and you can readily recognize a Whovian based on their response to weeping angels. One year my oldest daughter in college at BYU in Provo, Utah, spent a few weeks making a weeping angel costume, then a few hours getting ready to wear it on campus. When she was a gray statue bustling from one class to another, she’d stop, cover her eyes, and stand perfectly still.

That’s when she’d hear, “Holy cow! That’s a weeping angel! Oh my gosh, nobody touch her! Is she real? Yeah, she’s real! Whoa. That’s like the greatest costume ever–no, don’t get near me!!!”

She said it was the best Halloween ever. A few Dr. Who costumed students tried to subdue her with their sonic screwdrivers, but we all know that sonic has no power over ancient time zapping angels.

Four years ago I made my kids t-shirts that read “The angels have the blue box” (watch the episode “Blink”) and this family portrait, which will forever warm my heart, sits in prominence in my living room.

Mercer weeping angels

(Great photo, Charcie Rebalkin of Milestone Photography)

Over the years my kids have invited their friends over to see episodes of Dr. Who, and whenever the weeping angels were featured, those teenagers were quite nervous walking home at night. Being the nice mom that I am, I’d see their anxiety and tell them, “Then RUN home! And whatever you do, DON’T BLINK!” Then I’d slam the door and laugh as they hurried home, their eyes watering.

Maybe that’s why my kids don’t have friends over very often.

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The cloak is also army surplus, and even though he couldn’t do a British accent, his “Are you my mummy?” was creepy enough.

Dr. Who is full of frightening references. Two years ago one of my sons wore his brother’s gas mask for Halloween (yes, we have an army surplus gas mask; doesn’t everyone?).  After he was done trick-or-treating, he sat on our front porch with the bowl of candy quietly saying, “Are you my mummy?”

Again we played “Spot the Whovian,” and found one very quickly. As I watched from the front window, a little boy happily tromped up to our front porch, but his mother had a nervous breakdown at our driveway.

“OHHHH. Look at the little boy in the gas mask!” (Her voice became an octave higher.) “Oh, very scary. Grab your candy, honey. RIGHT NOW! No, don’t choose something, JUST GRAB IT AND DON’T TOUCH HIM! Ha-ha-ha! Very good costume. GET AWAY FROM HIM!”

I love Halloween.

Especially when it doesn’t scare me, but scares everyone else. Weeping angels aren’t scary, neither are Daleks, which look like soda cans with toilet plungers, and can be foiled by stairs.

Nor are cybermen frightening, because even I can out-jog them.

(The Borg from Star Trek, however, are truly terrifying man-machines.)

 

The Silence, on the other hand . . .let’s not talk about the Silence.  Really.

 

BACK TO WEEPING ANGELS! Female Foam Head

When I saw this foam head at my local Joann’s, I realized her potential. I knew I was on to something when I bought a couple yards of gray fleece, and the young woman cutting my fabric asked the usual, “What are you making with this?”

“Ever watch Dr. Who?” I asked her.
“I love Dr. Who!”
Slowly I raised the foam head to the cut counter and said, in a quiet monotone, “I . . . am making . . . a weeping angel.”
The girl shivered in her green apron. “Oh!” she exclaimed in a higher pitch. “That’ll be . . . amazing! Here’syourfabric. Haveagreatday. NEXT!”

It should have been simple enough. Make a simple gray dress, put it on a framework of pvc pipe, paint her head and stick it on top, paint long gloves for hands, and attach wings.

016The head was easy enough. Using wood glue, straight pins, and rope, I glued on her hair, securing it with pins (foam doesn’t scream when you stab it).

Soon she had a lovely head of hair that looked like cut stone, especially when I coated it with a layer of exterior latex paint, tinted the same color as the fabric I purchased for her dress.

012 023 024

I added a braid of fabric for a headband, secured it with pins, then painted over the entire thing, and spritzed it with darker spray paint for a stone-like appearance.

050

(I thought she was rather pretty. My kids thought I was weird to keep referring to “her” as “my angel.” When I put her head in my bedroom for the night, my teenage daughter covered it with a cloth.)

Then I made the dress which, because I should have purchased three yards of fabric instead of two, kind of was a bit short.

037

(Excuse my son’s foot photo-bombing.) I cut a simple T, cinched in the waist, and put a braid of woven leftover fabric around the neck as a decorative touch, and also to try to camouflage the fact that I cut the hole for the head too big.

039

Then I realized the sleeves of the T were too wide (this ain’t no choir angel) so I cut those narrower. I’m not showing all the steps I took, because most of them were wrong. (That’s why I don’t have a “diy” blog. More like a “ddiy”–“Don’t Do it Yourself.”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, I couldn’t screw up the arms and hands too badly, right? I purchased long gloves from Walmart, and painted them gray with the very good latex exterior paint.

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Inexplicably, I thought it’d be a good idea to put the gloves on, then paint them.

Do you know what happens to thin gloves when they have a thick coating of very good paint on them, which then soaks through to your skin? I spent that night soaking my arm in the bathtub then scrubbed it with a washcloth for about half an hour.

Only later did I realize I should have put the wire skeletons I made inside the gloves, instead of my hand.

See? Aren’t these clever? 032

Of course, once the gloves dried, they stiffened to a nearly impossible form, so it was also nearly impossible to get my skeletons into them.

030

Theses are scary, all by themselves. Maybe I should just stick them in the ground, coming out of my forest.

That’s when I realized I should have put the wire in them FIRST, and then painted them. Sigh.  034

 

I twisted together 6 strands of wire for the arms to try to pose them, and it sort of worked.

043

Take off the arms at the shoulders. Give pipe sections to preschooler to use as guns.

Then my husband helped me make a pvc form out of 1″ pipe which toppled over by itself (we now have a green stake holding it up) and the arms were useless, so we pulled them off.

Now her body is only a T.

I ran the 6 strands of wire through the shoulder section of the pipe, and twisted the arms and their wires together. When the wind blows, she quite comes to life.

I put the dress form on the T and painted it with a coat of the exterior paint to make it stiffer, and followed up with spritzes of the darker gray spray paint.

046   048

It stiffened up the fabric rather well, and spraying darker gray into the crevices added depth.

005As for the wings I purchased foam core boards, and cut out a wing shape. Later, I discovered a razor blade is far, far easier than using scissors. I sketched on the scallop of the wings, then using thin plastic, I cut out the feathers and glued them on to the wings, trying to create a layered affect.

From the foam core I also cut another ridge for the top of the wing, trying to give that also more dimension. Again, I painted it all with the exterior paint and highlighted (or lowlighted?) it with the darker gray spray paint. 014009

As for attaching them? After much trial and error with wire, I just bought the strongest duct tape I could find and wire and taped them to her. When the wind starts to blow, I put her in the shed so she won’t fly to pieces.

After again many problems and issues, I finally got her together and placed in my forest. And, here she is: homemade weeping angel

All right, I admit she looks emaciated, ill-proportioned, and decrepit. Which, at Halloween, is actually a good thing.

My husband asked how expensive it would be next year to buy a mannequin and just paint it.
Or how good my skills were with acrylic and molds.
My teenage daughter patted me on the back and said, “Not . . . too bad, Mom.”
My teenage son, however, glancing it in the dusk of evening between the trees said, “Hey, that’s not bad!”

Guess who’s my favorite relative this week?

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When the sun’s setting, and you’re driving past it, and you glimpse it out of the corner of your eye for a brief moment, she’s pretty convincing! As with most Halloween decorations, it’s much better from afar than up close.

I’ve ordered this screeching Weeping Angel mask for her to wear for Halloween. (And I’ll paint it the correct shade of gray.)

That’s when I’ll unpin her hands from her face (remember, foam doesn’t scream) and I’ll extend her arms to touch the parents of trick-or-treaters and send them back to the horrors of 1969.

So if you come around my house, don’t blink!

005

We’re wasting ourselves

This morning while rereading Hugh Nibley’s essay “Zeal Without Knowledge,” I came across this quote from Arthur C. Clarke. While I don’t agree with everything Clark believed–he was a provocative philosopher in his own right–I do appreciate this:

arthur c clarke quote

In preface to this, Hugh Nibley wrote:

sin is waste

Drat.

Means I need to get off of Facebook again.

(And yes, I am working on Book 5, the title to be released soon.)

Why English as a major is dying

Some years ago I was hired on as an adjunct composition instructor at a public university in the Carolinas. (We’ll allow this English department to remain anonymous.) At the faculty meeting held a couple of weeks before school started, several agenda items had to be addressed. After the usual introductions, someone of importance stood up and announced, “First order of business: the censorship of the freshman reading selection!”

That caught my attention in what would normally be a dull meeting wherein I’d fill half a page of doodles.

Each year the university assigned a novel for incoming freshmen to read in hopes of having an “intellectual discussion” between students and faculty during orientation. (Nice idea in theory, but in reality it usually fails.)

Just days before our meeting, a few parents had objected to the book choice, citing its violence and a few questionable scenes. I’d never heard of the book before (again, we’ll let it remain anonymous) but according to Amazon it was a “coming of age” story about a college student who was hazed. Today I looked it up again to refresh my memory and saw that it never became a best seller since interest in it died off quickly. Its couple dozen reviews hovered around a “3” calling the book dull, unrealistic, and lacking substance.

Freshmen college students procrastinate reading this kind of stuff, especially in their last summer before college begins. 

Which likely explains why, just the week before they were to come to campus, freshmen students were finally picking up the book, not liking what they saw, and complaining to their parents.

Those parents then complained to the administrators, who, afraid of upsetting those parents who paid for their students’ tuition, agreed to pull the book as required reading.

Which in turn enraged the English department. “Censorship!” they cried.

It occurred to me that telling students they didn’t have to read a book (which most of them wouldn’t have read anyway) didn’t constitute “censorship.” No one was insisting that the books be destroyed, or planned to burn them in the commons area. They just didn’t want to read something that offended their sensibilities.

But no! insisted the English Department. This called for action! This called for a . . . for a  . . . STATEMENT!

I nearly guffawed at that, until I realized that the 60 or so faculty around me found that an entirely excellent way to Make a Stand.

Snickering quietly to myself, I then watched the most absurd display of bureaucracy. First, a committee had to be formed to write The Statement. That took half an hour, with several rounds of voting (my memory wants to say it was anonymous and with eyes closed, but maybe I’m just remembering “Heads Up, Seven Up” from elementary school), and finally a small committee was selected, and a chairman was decided, and times were set up for faculty to confer with them concerning The Statement.

(Not an actual self-portrait, but pretty darn close.)

I would have been bored silly—I was there only to pick up a copy of course policies and find out what text I was to use—had I not been so entertained by the seriousness of the process, the lengthy explanations tossed about, and the excessively self-righteous language used to tear down the self-righteous who didn’t like the book selection. (It was pretty clear which faculty helped choose it, and were personally offended.)

After that entire fiasco, which took the better part of an hour, was completed, the next item on the agenda was, How to get students interested in becoming English majors.

I know I snorted out loud then, but covered it with coughing or something, because just moments before I was thinking, “Why the heck am I here? Why did I ever once think becoming a full-time professor would be fulfilling? They’re accomplishing nothing of importance! And just look at my notes: I’ve written, ‘Get me out of here’ over and over! What 18-year-old, in his or her right mind, would watch these proceedings and think, ‘Hey, awesome! I want to be part of that!’?

The next excessively dull half hour was spent in another tidal wave of predictable “let’s have luncheons” (as if college students in this century do “luncheons”) and “let’s demonstrate how valuable an English degree is” (I was struggling to see how mine was useful) and “let’s have an open house” (seriously? An open house? To demonstrate what?).

At some point I probably blacked out from sheer boredom because I have no recollection of when or how that meeting ended. I just know that I wanted to leave, leave, leave.

Oh, and The Statement?

Five people spent two full days writing and rewriting it. And when they finished, they put a copy in each of our mailboxes.

Four pages, single spaced.

That’s no “statement.” That’s a constitution for a fascist country.

I tried to read it.

Really, I tried.

My master’s degree is in rhetoric, but I could NOT get through it. So full of jargon and big, scary words, and sentences that went on and on and on pointlessly . . . I couldn’t even understand the first paragraph.

The Statement Committee threw a new fit of fury the next day when the school newspaper wouldn’t print the statement in its entirety.
They wanted a “blurb.”
Hey, who didn’t?

The local newspaper wouldn’t even touch it. I’m sure they didn’t even know what it was about. I sure didn’t.

I stared at the monstrosity and knew, right then and there, that English as a study was committing suicide.

What happened to writing directly? Plainly? 

I wrote several versions of a statement in my head that day. One went something like this: The point of college is to expose ourselves to new ideas and experiences. We in the English department are disappointed that some of our incoming freshmen are choosing not to do so.

That’s a “statement.” Two or three sentences: something pithy, something tweetable.

Fortunately my husband was offered a job across the country, and just three weeks later I bailed out and moved far away from that stuffy soup.

Today Grammarly posted this cartoon below, which brought back those memories. I commented about my experience, and someone wrote back that he left an English site because it had become a “competition in obfuscation.” Amen! (By the way, “obfuscation” means “to confuse.”) 

Years ago I thought English was the pursuit of reading books and poetry, analyzing others’ perceptions of the meaning of life, and then sharing those ideas with others. The point, I thought, was to try to make life bearable.

 David Masciotra wrote in The Daily Beast,

“Any lover of literature . . . knows . . . it is the enchantment of experiencing life through the consciousness of another human being, albeit an invented one, and gaining unique access to the vantage point gained by entering the mind of its inventor.”

But that’s not what I’ve been seeing.

Instead, my (admittedly) very limited experience is that many professors in English departments try to prove their worth in ever-deepening holes of thought where no one really wants to go. I remember a student in my grad school classes who was unquestionably brilliant, and you could see our professors stiffen every time he opened his mouth and said, “I posit that . . .” What followed next would be a length of jargon and rhetoric that none of us in the class could follow.

In fact, I think that’s when I started doodling in the margins.

Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote this about college students in The New York Times:

“They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no.”

His point was to show that students can’t write directly, and even he struggles to state that directly.

This isn’t a new trend, either. In the 1990s, the late Denis Dutton hosted the Bad Writing Contest for professors, and many of the “winners” were English professors.

Steven Pinker believes academics communicate horribly for a number of reasons: trying to impress their readers, to prove they actually know something, and getting caught up in the language itself. But, mostly, he says,

“There are few incentives for writing well . . . In writing badly, we are wasting each other’s time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock.”

Yep. So glad my daughter’s majoring in nursing.

It took Mahrree a couple of weeks, but at the “bottom” of it all was a list she made to elucidate and disambiguate—
Clarify  what the Administrators were advising. Whenever she got stuck or tired trying to decipher the intricately convoluted—
Needlessly complicated language, she asked Perrin for ideas, and also received a few more insights from Shem. She discovered that the changes in instruction were only an advisement—for now. In the nebulous “near future” it would all be compulsorily mandatory—
Unavoidable.

~Book 2, Soldier at the Door