Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hm. Just Like the Books I Write

Chapter Something: Quietly Different

I want to climb that mountain, past the streams and rocks, up the airy mountain and past the rushing glen to find that meadow where that smug Sam Gribley squats and tell him, personally, to go to hell.

I read his book. It is one of the few that came with me. I thought I would find inspiration in the tale of a boy who left New York City to live in the wild of the Catskills. He could sail the Bering Strait, living off the land, that smug little man. But no. His family found him. His friends came for him, and he built a guest tree.

“Let’s face it, Thoreau,” said his friend Bando, an English teacher with enough sense to wander the wilderness during vacation but even more sense to stop wandering when vacation was over, “you can’t live in America today and be quietly different. If you are going to be different, you are going to stand out, and people are going to hear about you’ and in your case, if they hear about you, they will remove you to the city or move to you, and you won’t be different any more.”

It is not to be different. It is not to stand out. It is to be alone.

Alone with the thoughts, the crowds, the cities, the civilization, the drama, the things in my head.

Iapetus is sterile. Through the alchemy of chemical synthesis, I have oxygen and water, but there is no land to live off of, because the land is everywhere Mount Hebron dead. There are no hemlocks or walnuts nor cattails nor rabbits – I will not speak of the squirrels, nor of their tiny, tasty-looking mounts; I cannot catch them and I have no duck hawk to aid me. If I hunger for vitamins I have to take one of the carefully-meted pills I brought with me and hope, and I shake the begging bowl with the middle finger extended at the world I wish to keep at bay, that some poor sap will eventually send me more.

Quietly different.

We don’t have to leave home and crab sideways through a wilderness existence to be quietly different. Disco was quietly different, and that occurred in the crowds of the cities. There is more to be learned from Disco than from hermits, young Gribley. If we cannot be quietly different in our own heads, being quietly, defiantly different in the wilderness, whether the Catskills or the wastes of a moon of Saturn, we have no business being hermits. Protruding nails may be pounded down, the square peg shoved firmly into the square hole. But the nail can choose to protrude through the other side, and the square peg can be purple spotted with turquoise, not just a boring red.

There is more wilderness in the mind than in the universe.

Space is small; only the planets are big.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

He Ain't Heavy

We built the houses out of bricks, removing a brick here and there for a door or window, roofing them over with slabs of flagstone or travertine, always in abundance in a bricklayer’s back yard.

Sometimes we built them in a corner of the garden in the dry earth. We took sand from the sandbox and gravel from the driveway to create paths from house to house. We planted gardens of carrots and radishes and always forgot to water them, so the carrots died and the radishes were hot as peppered sunlight.

Other times we built them on the north side of the house, wedged between the lilac bushes and the weeping mortar in a microclimate where daffodils blossomed and moss covered the bare patches in the grass.

Other times we built them in the abandoned chicken yard, where weeds grew tall enough to hide our little houses in a rainforest of tumbleweeds. Through the forest we carved paths and built a stream, meandering past the houses and under bridges to a little scum-filled lake, where the debris of the village collected.

We built furniture for the occupants – crocheted teddy bears made my Grandma Speirs. We sewed clothing for them out of old socks. Once we made grass skirts for them and left them out overnight and found them the next morning, covered with worms eating the dead grass.

We don’t build those houses any more.

We’re grown up.

Our sister, always in charge, is now Dr. Davidson, teaching at a university.

There’s me. My bears reside on a shelf with my wife’s bears. Rather than build houses out of bricks – and I have some; bricklayers’ sons always do – I write procedures used at a nuclear waste dump.

And our brother. His bear, the oldest, faded from blue to grey and repaired several times by a grandmother long since dead of cancer, sits on a bed in the basement of our mother’s house.

He is in prison.

How life changes.

We think, at the start of it all, that if we build houses of bricks, the Big Bad Wolf will never be able to blow them down. It is a simple lesson. Build strong, and nothing bad can happen.

We built strong.

Oh, there were times – there always are – when we forgot, and in our houses, we built a wall of straw or sticks and invariably the Big Bad Wolf came, blew the wall down, and caused havoc. But we repaired those walls. Sometimes remembered to make them out of bricks.

But still. The Big Bad Wolf always comes back. He never gives up. And because we are at heart the little carefree piglets worried only about today, forgetting yesterday and believing tomorrow will never come, he finds chinks in the bricks and blows in his ill winds.

We built strong.

And our youngest brother is in prison.

He knows why he is there. We have inklings. Never the full story all at once, but glimpses. Pornography and lies about pornography and something about calls to a young girl in Maryland and Victoria’s Secret catalogs and hints and whispers of other things that led his wife to divorce him and to claim full custody of their three children.

That is how I deal with it now. A quick snatch, belched out in one breath, then back to the wooly world of teddy bears in brick houses.

No creature owns [vice] in the first degree,
But thinks his neighbor father gone than he

The words of Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Man.

And there are also secret combinations, even as in times of old, according to the combinations of the devil, for he is the founder of all these things; yea, the founder of murder, and works of darkness; yea, and he leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever.

The words of Nephi, in 2 Nephi 26.

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows where
But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.
And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.

The words of Bobby Scott and Bob Russell.

The prosecuting attorney said, when our brother was sentenced, that he was a manipulator. That he would tell us what he thought we wanted to hear. Because that’s what the addiction does. Or at least that’s what the devil tells him to do.

We all have our vices. The beams in our eyes we must remove before we can see clearly the mote in our neighbor’s eye.

We all have our flaxen cords.

We all have our burdens to bear.

But not alone.

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

The words of Jesus Christ.

I see the ragged teddy bear on the bed in Mom’s basement. He is worn, tired. Bleached by the years. But ready. Ready to play again. Ready to be loved and to love again.

Just as our older brother tells us. And just as the Big Bad Wolf is loth to hear.

Hold Please

I’ve hit a wall with “Doleful Creatures” and, since I still love the story and don’t want to ruin it, I’m putting it on the back burner for a while.

At this point I don’t know how long the hiatus might last. I have a Facebook friend reading it right now and she might be able to help me sort out some of the issues that have slowed me down at this point, so I could be back and working in a week or two. Or it could be longer. I might find the problems are a lot worse than best testing indicates. Or I might get delusional, store my own urine, and force Smithers to “hop in” to a model of the Spruce Moose.

I do still like the story and the characters, so hopefully I won’t be gone long.

Shooting at Wamp Rats

We might, after two weeks of frustration, have a fully functional battle station internet connection.

Teresa Aiekle, a local plant representative for Century Link, spent a good portion of her afternoon tinkering with things outside our house Wednesday afternoon and fixed a few things that might have been making our connection go crazy. Here’s what my wife reports:

We have a new “port” on our house, which I suspect is smaller than a wamp rat has something to do with connecting the phone line to the house.

We have a new, fancy DSL filter on the line connecting the modem to the world, so that’s fun.

Teresa also disconnected a random phone line that went from the junction box in the back of the house to who knows where on our property, which is where some of the DSL signal might have been going but maybe it was a neighbor’s phone line or something or a poorly-conceived attempt by someone in the neighborhood to steal cable.

All I know is as of now the crackle that was in our phone line is gone, and, hopefully, the Internet will be fully functional tonight. I plan to conduct some stress testing by finally logging in to my Origin account to play more than ten minutes’ worth of Sim City before the connection drops, which is what has been happening over the past few weeks. Unless, of course, this happens. I am dealing with EA, after all.

UPDATE: It appears if I hard-wire a connection, the internet stabilizes. Wi-Fi connection is still bad. Can't be our Wi-Fi cards, because they all worked fine up until a few weeks ago. To have three fail almost simultaneously and in the same way seems too much of a coincidence.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Designer Writing?

There is an irony when you identify design inconsistencies in a book discussing design. 

You’d think the author and publisher would try harder not to break the cardinal rule of having the illustration appear on the same page, or at least on the same double truck, as its first citation. 

You’d think the author and publisher would update a rather prominent acronym referring to an earlier title of the same book. 

And though it’s touted as a classic in the design world, it’s showing its age – particularly in the final chapters dealing with computers. There’s a treasure-trove of design-related complaints to be made in an updated version that I think the author should seriously consider. 

That being said, I still enjoyed the time I spent with Donald Norman’s “Design of Everyday Things.” 

His seven tenets of design still stand firm: 
  1. Use both knowledge in the world and in the head
  2. Simplify the structure of tasks
  3. Make things visible
  4. Get the mappings right
  5. Exploit the powers of constraints – natural and artificial
  6. Design for error
  7. When all else fails, standardize.
As I read, part of me kept wondering if I could use these design tenets to help my English students as they write essays. In a way, following these seven bits of advice when writing an essay seem to me as applicable as they do in designing objects – because it’s all too easy for the writer, just as it is for the builder – to come up with a terribly-designed object. 
So how could I apply this to writing? Maybe take them one by one. 

Use both knowledge in the world and in the head. 

All of us possess little bits of knowledge or opinion on a vast number of subjects. But when we go to write about things, we need to combine our internal knowledge and opinion with that from the outside world, not only to write a good paper but also to broaden and deepen our own understanding of the subject.

Simplify the structure of tasks.

Too often we see students over-reliant on the tried and true structures of what is expected in “good writing.’ While we want them to a point understand what makes writing good, we should also acknowledge that good structure doesn’t come in only a few rigid forms. I openly confess to my students that I rarely outline, for example. I use little structural tricks that work for me. We need to help them find the tricks that work for them. 

Make things visible.

Don’t leave things unsaid, the teacher says, or words undefined. If there’s a chance your audience won’t understand a word or a concept, find a different way to explain things. Use simile and metaphor as well as plain writing. Do what you can to make your subject visible to your audience. 

Get the mappings right. 

Writing to argue or to explain needs to end up with the thing argued or the thing explained. Writers should give clear direction for where they’re going, and then get there. If an audience expects something, take them there or have a damn good reason why you don’t – and explain your reasons to your readers. 

Exploit the powers of constraints – natural and artificial.

All writers have their weaknesses. All writers should strive to make their weaknesses their strengths. At the same time, all writers should know that if they struggle with spelling or punctuation, they – and their instructors – should not allow that struggle to overwhelm the underlying thoughts. Bad spellers can be good thinkers, and when we exploit our constraints to see where thought goes even when the eyes bleed, we’d be better off. 

Design for error.

Anticipate and analyze the weaknesses in your writing – and focus on those weaknesses as you revise. That’s a higher level of designing for error, going beyond the pedestrian grammar/punctuation. I’d rather see those kinds of errors, rather than errors in logic, which are much harder to fix. 

When all else fails, standardize.

Here, I mean voice. We want to hear you, the writer, present. We don’t want a formula. We don’t want a rote recital. Think about the best bits of writing you remember – it all has distinct voices coming out. Find your voice and standardize. 

This is, of course, just a rough-stab, off-the-cuff look. I’ll have to give this some more thought and revise, revise, revise. 

And a better question: Do we really need another x-point guide to writing? Probably not.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Poor, Poor Voyager 1 . . .

Breathless news! Voyager has FINALLY departed the solar system! No more solar wind! Only interstellar keggers from now on! 

Except, no. 

Again, except no.
Phil Plait, who sometimes brings the breathless to the breathless internet, is the latest of a long series of gun-jumpers who announce that the Voyager 1 spacecraft has left the solar system, only to retract that a few hours later because he misread something. 

I’m as excited as he is – well, that’s a lie; I probably don’t lie awake nights wondering if this has happened yet or not – so don’t get me wrong. I just know we’ve heard these kinds of reports on a regular basis for the past, oh, five years or so. 

I know the science is uncertain. But even folks like Plait can’t seem to get past the breathlessness of it all to realize that. Of course, Plait et al are writing off press releases and reports hyped up by PR folks hoping to get their science in the news, and, well, saying Voyager 1 has at last departed is more exciting than saying, hey, we’ve got another study that says it’s reeeeeeeal close. We’ve seen those studies since, oh, at least 2008. And they’re neat. Real neat. 

But we’re tired of reeeeeeal close.

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Voyager, just leave.

Microsoft, Nice Mapping.

It’s ironic that I should start reading Donald A. Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things” in the week I once again take up the struggle to install a video card in my computer. 

I thought at first, way back in January when the video card adventure started, that I had a bum card. In describing my symptoms to the card’s manufacturer, they agreed with my diagnosis. I sent the card back in for a refund.

Then, circumstances being what they are, I waited. Last night, about two months after my first failed attempt, I tried again with another, more powerful card. It met the specs of my computer – which with a 500-watt power supply and the necessary slot for the card – has what it needs to power the card.

Or not. 

Plugged the card in and nothing. Or, rather, the same symptoms as last time: No booting at all, just a blank screen. 

This time, the card came with instructions. Weenie, one-size-fits-almost-all instructions, yes, but instructions nonetheless. I followed them. And nothing. 

So to the Googleplex I went, not hoping for much. 

Until I found this – It is, as I suspected in January, a Windows 8 thing, but not an incompatibility, but a change in the computer’s fundamental firmware architecture that adds a completely invisible step to the process of installing a video card.* Part of the program the computer uses to invisibly regulate hardware has to be altered in order to let an aftermarket hardware – interior to the machine – be added. 

Frustration beyond belief.

Here’s where Norman comes in.

A bit of machinery, properly designed, should have visible means of communicating with its user. Buttons should have one function. Services should not have to be activated through the application of a complex bit of number-punching or button-pushing. And what visible signals the machine gives should make it evident what went wrong, or what isn’t working. 

As it is, the only indication I will have that tonight’s trick to install this video card actually works is if I can get dual monitors set up. Otherwise, I’m stuck at the black screen which tells me, yeah, something’s wrong, but darned if I know what it is.

Fixing this is simple – even to a non-computer guy like me. If the computer detects something out of the ordinary with its secure boot system, perhaps flashing a message to the user would be a good thing – and in the event it has to do with video cards, the message could be delayed until the user invariably restores the device to its original configuration and starts the computer up normally. The message could be: Oh, you tried to install something, and it didn’t work. Here’s what you need to do.

Or, it could be simpler: Just recognize the new damn hardware. 

That happened with my printers. I have a wireless printer which, when I turned on the new computer in December, connected flawlessly. Even the outdated scanner I have, after a driver update, connected just fine. I knew what to do in both cases because I’d done it before and got the expected result, as Norman outlines in his book. 

Trick is, I’ve also installed interior hardware, without a problem, with the positive feedback from the devices. I was expecting that with the new computer and the new video card. Not getting the expected result led me to several conclusions:  
  • Power supply, even the 400-watter replacing the 300-watter in the machine (which the video card specs said was okay) did not work. So I spent more money on a 500-watt supply and kept the 400-watter, simply because to return it would mean losing half its cost in shipping.
  • I’d done something “wrong” installing the card, so I reinstalled it several times, to no avail.
  • By reinstalling the card so many times, I had ruined it or the PCIE port in my computer. So off to the store goes the “broken” card, and I wait a few months to try again, only to fail again. 

Nowhere in this mess, until last night, did I even see this Windows 8 Secure Boot system mentioned. Oh, I had many people tell me to “change my BIOS,” which might have fixed the problem. But they assumed I knew how to do that. And nobody seemed to know how to do it on a Windows 8 machine. 

Fortunately, folks more persistent than I whittled away at the problem between January and now. Their action prompted HP – my computer’s manufacturer – to set up a (hopefully) helpful page to offer instructions to would-be card installers on how to do it properly. We’ll see how that works. The fix is getting more visible, but, indeed, is not visible if you’re there, on your own, twiddling your thumbs and contemplating sending yet another “faulty” card back to the store. 

*Note: I am writing this before I actually try the fix I’m about to describe, so maybe my attitudes will change. But I’m confident this will work.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

White in Philly -- But We Can't Say That

I started watching a CNN “panel discussion” on Robert Huber’s article, “Being White in Philly,” but had to turn it off after the first talking head felt qualified to talk on the subject after admitting he hadn’t read the article. 

I shut it off. I didn’t get to hear what the fired-up-looking fat black lady in the middle was going to say, or the other chubby white guy after her.

I wanted to read the article first. 

If you haven’t read it yet, read it. It’s less about being white or being black and a lot more about being decent human beings. It’s not about what one can or can’t say, being white on the subject of race. It’s not about being race-blind, either. 

It’s about this: 

Engage, Jen is saying-—engage people, connect with them, without assuming what their lives are like, or judging them. It’s good advice. Because she’s right—the gulf is so wide that there’s much we don’t know about each other. 

Jen meets a little girl, one of many at a neighborhood swimming pool. The little girl says she’s the luckiest girl in the world, because she lives right across the street from the pool. She points out her house – a beaten-down row.

She is warning me, with this story, Huber writes. I’d told her about driving up North Broad Street and how miserable I believed living there must be. There’s a certain arrogance in my judgment, Jen is telling me. I might not know what people are truly experiencing. 

As she was leaving the pool that summer day, Jen saw three or four older girls modeling her, with their hands out, teaching the younger ones to swim. 

Engage, Jen is saying-—engage people, connect with them, without assuming what their lives are like, or judging them. It’s good advice. Because she’s right—the gulf is so wide that there’s much we don’t know about each other. 

Huber continues: 

But this is how I see it: We need to bridge the conversational divide so that there are no longer two private dialogues in Philadelphia—white people talking to other whites, and black people to blacks—but a city in which it is okay to speak openly about race. That feels like a lot to ask, a leap of faith for everyone. It also seems like the only place to go, the necessary next step. 

Meanwhile, when I drive through North Philly to visit my son, I continue to feel both profoundly sad and a blind desire to escape. 

Though I wonder: Am I allowed to say even that? 

I see the same kind of thing where I live, though not race-based. It’s religion-based, with Mormons talking to Mormons and “non-Mormons” talking to other non-Mormons, neither group really understanding, nor wanting to understand, what the other group really thinks, or is like, or whatever. We have the same between Hispanics and whites. 

So the solution is to engage. And that’s hard, for a hermit like me. 

So I went back and watched the CNN piece. And watched four people dance around what Huber wrote. Only one good point brought up: Huber should have talked with some black folks – though how do we know that he didn’t – to bring some balance to the piece.

But these talking heads showed they were empty heads. Their ideas? Chubby White Guy No. 2 wants the magazine to “go back to what city magazines do best – best brunch features.” And the fired-up black lady said this: “Give us one more Rocky movie, that will make all the middle class white people happy.” 

Engage, Jen is saying-—engage people, connect with them, without assuming what their lives are like, or judging them. It’s good advice. Because she’s right—the gulf is so wide that there’s much we don’t know about each other. 

No, they don’t get it, do they?

Most everybody seems to have missed that point as well. From the talking heads dancing around the point to Huber’s fellow writers also dancing around the point but using sham deflection topics such as balance and journalism in which they can couch their answer: No, Mr. Huber, you can’t even say just that. There’s no engagement, at least among the people who “matter” in their own eyes.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Um, Poetry . . .

I've been a fan of Clark Ashton Smith's short stories since I was in elementary school, but only recently stumbled across this collection of his poems.

To be honest, I wouldn't bother. These poems are flat-out unreadable. And I'm not a poetry snob, or an anti-poetry zealot. I read quite a bit of poetry in any range of style. It's just that Clark Ashton Smith is no poet. Oh, he rhymes nice and all, and has got a good sense of rhythm. He falls victim to the poet's disease of having to pick big, complicated words when more ordinary words will do, muddling meaning and leaving readers alosh in a swirl of words that might just as well have been picked randomly from the dictionary. I read the specific Star-Treader poem a number of times and just can't hack through the obtuse language -- and I really tried because I really wanted to like this, given its author. I plow through a lot of books in a lot of genres, and only rarely find a book as unreadable as this. It's good for the Clark Ashton Smith fan's library, but as a curiosity, not as a good read.

Maybe I'm wrong. Here's the title poem from the book. Part of the awkwardness here comes from an underprepared reader, but a lot of it is just present in the awkwardness of the original writing.

So "The Soul of the Sea," one of the poems in this collection, is all right. It's almost like the subject caught Smith off-guard so he didn't have a ready supply of Thees and Thous and Thines ready to pile on like bricks. . . but still. Read on:

The Soul of the Sea

A wind comes in from the sea,
And rolls through the hollow dark
Like loud, tempestuous waters.
As the swift recurrent tide,
It pours adown the sky,
And rears at the cliffs of night
Upplied against the vast.
Like the soul of the sea--
Hungry, unsatisfied
With ravin of shores and of ships --
Come forth on the land to seek
New prey of tideless coasts,
It raves, made hoarse with desire,
And the sounds of the night are dumb
With the sound of its passing.

It's a good lesson in which a writer lets the form -- poetry, and I mean old, crusty poetry meant to sound old-fashioned and hoary and as if it were being read from an ancient scroll or something -- take over completely. Maybe the author thinks that's his or her voice, when it really isn't; it's just old conventions taking over while being handled by inexpert hands. I catch myself doing that oncie in a while and just have to back away, swiftly, to hit the delete button because no matter how much pounding or editing you might do on dreck like that, it's still going to be dreck. There's a reason old-fashioned things sound old-fashioned -- it's because they're old-fashioned. It takes genius to recreate that sound without making it sound terrible. Smith just doesn't have that genius.

Not that he's a bad poet -- because there are gems in this collection. Consider "A Sunset":

As blood from some enormous hurt
The sanguine sunset leapt;
Across it, like a dabbled skirt,
The hurrying tempest swept.

There, he nails it, because he wrote as himself, not as some mooning philosopher-poet trying to ape styles long since passed. You'd think someone who can write short stories as he does, with a unique voice that harks back to the old storytelling-around-the-campfire tradition, could see that he's failing to do so in his poetry. But we writers all have our blind spots, we all have our little tics and jigs that we can't see, no matter how far we've gone in the craft.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Those Little Notes

Helped our oldest child clean his room today. He handed me a big stack of school papers to put into the recycling bin. Because I, like Nanny Ogg, am a nosy person, I went through every sheet, hoping to find a gem. Found it in this one.

You know kid, you live in a house with two people who have masters degrees in English. We may not be able to help you with your algebra homework or teach you much about batting a ball, but we can get you to the point that an assignment in which you have to write paragraphs that contain six sentences (oh, the horrors!) will be a snap. We'll have you writing 100-sentence paragraphs just to spit your teacher for making you do such an assignment, and you'll be able to explain why a one-word paragraph is totally acceptable.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Another Try

Played around with the font a bit. I think this works better. Now, to go shoot my own photo . . .

Croissant de Quoi?

Disney has redesigned the mouse, as you can see in this new Mickey Mouse short, one of 17 the company will put out starting, well, now.

I'm disappointed.

The art, well, it's fabulous. It harks back to the old, original Mickey, stringy limbs and all.

The story? Not so much.

I've got to give Disney credit in the past for producing shorts that were a delight to watch not only for the art, but also for the story. If this storyline is indicative of the new Mickey, well, I guess I'll pass.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Bedtime Ritual

Me: Kids, I think you should put the books down. Is that so hard?

Kids: Well, no . . . and yes . . . Now it comes to it, I don't feel like parting with it! It's mine! I found it! It came to me!
Me: There's no need to get angry.

Kids: Well, if I am, it's your fault! It's mine. Mine . . . mine . . . My precious . . .

Me: Precious? It's been called that before, but not by you.


Me: I think you've had that book quite long enough.

Kids: You want it for yourself!

Me: BILBO BAGGINS! DO NOT TAKE ME FOR SOME CONJURER OF CHORES TO DO! I'm not trying to rob you. I'm trying to get you to bed.

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Breathing Together

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Breathing Together 

Jarrod flew home. 

He flew home?


But he was carried to the canyon by a hawk? 


With the murder behind them? 


And the murder returned with him? 

Yes. Subdued. They flew very slowly, some flying in circles around a small number flying closely to Jarrod. They didn’t call or scream. They came in silently. 

Where are they now?

They took Jarrod into the beeches where they nest. They all appear to be resting. 

And we don’t know what happened in the canyon?

No, sir. Our spy there was eaten. By a hawk.

I sense some irony there.

It’s possible.

What do we know? 

Next to nothing. The crows aren’t talking. Jarrod appears asleep. The crows are watching him closely. 

Can we get Lark or Mongrel to fly up to the canyon, to find out what’s going on? 

The marmot looked doubtful. I don’t think they’d do it. Lark is frightened to death of hawks, and she saw the one take Jarrod today. She won’t fly at all for a few days now, if she keeps to her habits. And Mongrel, well, you know Mongrel has split loyalties. What we tell him in confidence soon the whole world knows.

Get Aloysius. 

You expect him to go to the canyon? 

No, Father Marmot said. But I expect he knows much more than he lets on. Badgers may be wary of others, but they speak often to their own kind. Last I heard, there was a family of badgers living in the canyon. They may have spread some news.

The other marmot left on her errand.

Aloysius did indeed have news. 

Like to pull his feathers out they did, he said when Father Marmot consented to visit him in his own solitary hole. 

He was a bit disgruntled because, what with all the digging the marmots had done, they’d tunneled into his lair and, after profuse apologies and much shifting of dirt, left a bit of mess for him to clean up. Take years for that wall to heal properly, he muttered each time he passed the spot. 

They? Father Marmot asked.

Why the beavers – beavers still in yonder canyon, some of them cousins and descendants of those Jarrod got kilt. Crows took him up there for a confessional, you see, trying to make that Holstein pheasant feel a bit better about himself. Only it didn’t work, because the beavers were right bitter. They’d heard the stories. The oldest one, why, he’d seen the blood and heard the screams. And there’s a lot that don’t forgive in a hurry.

You’re slipping into the vernacular, you know.

Aloysius scowled. Just because they say I should means I can’t? That’s half-human thinking, that is. What they want me to do, well, I won’t do it – unless I wanted to do it anyway. That’s the law. 

I’m sorry, I beg your pardon, Father Marmot said. Please, continue with your tale. 

I don’t know how yonder Jarrod flew home, with all those missing feathers. See, that’s why the crows flew so close to him. He could barely fly. Apparently, a hawk got to him first, then the beavers. Would’ve been better off with the hawk; that would have been quick. Now he’ll continue in that slow death he’s known since the day the traps came out. Only he’s got more dirt in his wounds now, with that visit. Oh, the crows thought they’d be crafty, thought they’d find forgiveness for the bird up there. Not so. Not so at all, Aloysius cackled. 

Father Marmot made to leave. But thought, for a moment, to linger, to continue patching things up with the irascible badger.

Your cousins in the canyon, they do well? 

That they do not, Father Marmot, Aloysius said. Not dwelt there for more’n five years now. Don’t know where they went. Don’t care.

Then how do you have this news of the beavers – 

Aloysius smiled, looked at Father Marmot out of the corners of his eyes. 

Ah, that be my secret to keep, no question. That patch job your boys did, well, it’s all falling down on me. They used powder, not clay. They’ve got to come fix it again.

Yes, yes, I’ll send them. No, better ones, Father Marmot said, frowning. If I could know how you got your news –

Oh, suspicious, suspicious digger you are, Aloysius said. I have my ways. I have my ways. I listen to the creek, I listen to the birds, damnfool though they are. And I saw Jarrod wobble in on those stripped wings, with that bare breast. He looked nothing like the crows! Bare to the flesh. 

Bare to the flesh, he said again. Jarrod has fallen into a deep well, from which he will never arise.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cover Concept

Got a bit excited by this today: Ginned up a cover concept for Doleful Creatures. This isn't my photo; it's one I ripped off the Internet. Will have to do my own photography here so I don't make somebody upset. So you understand, this is just a concept. But I kinda like it.

Habitable Space on Mars? Oh Really?

NASA announced exciting news today: Its Curiosity rover, in testing Martian clay for chemical composition, determined that Mars was once home to conditions that could have supported life. 

Per CNN: 

We have found a habitable environment that is so benign, and supportive of live, that probably if this water was around and you had been on the planet, you would have been able to drink it. (Bonus: Photo 11 shows part of a feature scientists are calling the Snake River. Awesome.) 

Curiosity is drilling in a place on Mars called Yellowknife Bay, inside enormous Gale Crater, that could have been a lake when liquid water was present on the planet’s surface. The clay, Curiosity discovered, was formed in water with a fairly neutral pH, meaning it could have been hospitable to life similar to that found on Earth.

So pardon me if I say this: 


I’m not surprised at all at this discovery. In fact, I was expecting it. Given the advancing number and complexity of probes and rovers on Mars, frankly a discovery like this was only a matter of time. There’s plenty of geological evidence that some kind of liquid once flowed on Mars’ surface, so to discover it was potable water, at least in one spot, is not a surprise at all. 

Don’t get me wrong: That this has been verified is exciting news. Unexpected? Absolutely not.

The Democracy of Ebooks

If you’d have talked to me two years ago, you probably would have heard me say I’d never read an ebook in my life.

But, as you know, things change.

Today, though I still tend to favor printed books over their electronic cousins, I have read a fair share of ebooks. 

And I’m learning more from them than I ever would have from a printed book. Not necessarily as a reader, mind you – but as a writer. 

Part of it I chalk up to maturity, to an increased awareness of the raw mechanics of writing a good book, brought on by trying to write good books of my own. But most of it, I chalk up to the electronic medium itself, and the ease with which unpublished authors become published through it. 

Electronic books certainly have a more “You wrote it, you publish it” vibe. There are fewer gatekeepers – for both good and bad. It’s easy to tell, for example, that in writing her first book, J.K. Rowling had more assistance from editors than with her later books (or at least a lot less leeway with those first books). There are pauses for explanation in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone you don’t see as much in her latter works. 

Then there’s A Place Beyond the Map, by Samuel Thews, an electronic book I’ve just finished reading. Thews, though he writes a good tale, needs more of that editor’s subtle touch. And that need goes beyond the occasional use of passive voice, the misspellings (Thews has characters cheer “Here, here,” rather than “Hear, hear,” at one point; he also misspells the name of his enchanted land at least once) and into the trickier realms of characterization and pacing, which is where I struggle the most as well. In missing the little things, perhaps ebook writers miss the bigger things as well. 

Not to say that Thews is a bad writer – he actually crafts a good tale, but one that could have been better with a bit more help from a disinterested third party. Maybe what we need is a collective of individuals ready and willing to read, for free, each others’ books before they’re published, to offer critiques, advice; kind of like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or, more appropriately, the Inklings. Surely there’s got to be something like this around (NaNoWriMo has meetings locally; I should go check them out.) I did find this, where a former co-worker (published) writes. I’ll have to check them out.

Reading these published ebooks and noting their good and bad points helps me, as an author, recognize what’s got to happen in my own writing before I hit that publish button, which surely I will without the help of a publisher, likely without the help of a paid editor. A bit of “There, but for the grace of God, go  I.”

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Shenandoah

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Shenandoah

Why is it lately you never see a clean marmot? They’re always filthy. Caked in mud. Even after they bathe at the creek – which is filling with silt now, by the way – they’re never clean for long. 

Dunno. I seen ol’ Labrum. He couldn’t talk through all the sneezing – said he had dirt up his snout.

Maybe they had a collapse. 

Could be, could be. The rabbits say they’re moving a lot of dirt again. 

Not the life for me. 

They continued fishing in that curious way raccoons have, feeling along the creek bottom and around the rocks until they snagged a minnow or a hellgrammite as their eyes wandered from the forest floor to the treetops to the sky and beyond. 

Food’s getting scarce. So much silt in the creek these days, food’s movin’ south for clearer water. 

Aw, still plenty as far as I’m concerned. You’re just a glutton. 

From over a pile of rocks at the creekside opposite This and That, a marmot watched from a place of concealment. 

As the raccoons drew closer, he watched more steadily, paws ready on a long thin reed poking out of the ground. The reed rattled a bit as the marmot toyed with it. It was loose in the soil. 

This and That grew closer, still fishing, occasionally eating. 

The marmot watched. He began picking up the reed, dropping it, picking it up, dropping it, drumming rhythmically on a hubcap buried deep beneath the surface. As the reed tapped on the hubcap, another marmot watched and recorded the message the other tapped out.

A foreman poked his head into the tiny hole where the monitoring marmot sat. 

“Any news?” she asked. 

“No,” the other said. “Just the raccoons by the creek.” 

The foreman nodded, retreated. 

The marmots dug.

Those marmots not digging were hauling in wood. Not twigs or bits or branches, but great baulks of timber carefully tamped down vertical shafts or buried in horizontal trenches. 

Those marmots not digging or hauling in wood were busy at the spots where the timber intersected, tying them together with lengths of soaked rawhide, or feeding shorter bits of wood through short tunnels built to tie the vertical posts together. 

Those marmots not digging or hauling in wood nor busy tying timbers together worked in other tunnels surrounding the works, stringing bits of barbed wire into a net that would stop any other random diggers from coming into their chamber without bloodied paws and noses. 

And those marmots not doing any of that watched.

Far below, in a slowly-growing chamber, a knot of marmots worked on a scaffold, fixing pulleys and belts and bits of rope and chain stolen from local boys’ bicycles and gears and bits of wire and treadle belts where three marmots ran first to the right, then to the left, then back and forth again, changing direction, trying to throw each other off the belt, laughing when they did, cheering when they did not.

They still were trying to communicate with the Purdys.

But no marmot worth his or her salt goes forward without a Plan B. 

Aloysius listened, which was unusual. 

You need to lay off Jarrod. Now. You’re driving him mad. 

‘Tis true, Aloysius said. But he’s naught got far to go in that direction, given what he’s done. 

And that’s it, Magda said, flapping her wings impatiently in Aloysius’ face. You know he feels incredibly guilty about what happened to the beavers. Why do you have to keep opening up that old wound? 

Because, miss – and you can stop your flapping right now or I’ll break your scrawny black wings – the world deserves to be tole. If we don’t remember what he did, and nobody talks about it, well, pretty soon the dumb ones will have forgotten and the mean ones will have died and no one will be around willing to tell the truth about yonder fearful leader. And it will all. Happen. Again. 

It’s a pity badgers live as long as they do, Magda sighed.

Just as pitiable how short crows’ memories are. Now, if it had been the crows, not the beavers, decimated as they were, you wouldn’t be here defending that Holstein pheasant, admit it. ‘Course, you’d have had to fly in from a different murder entirely to hear the tale, because all the crows her would’ve been stone dead. 

We forgive and forget, we crows. 

That’s as may be – dammit, I didn’t just say that, did I? It gets under the skin, these expectations. That may be, Miss Crow, but we badgers never forget. It’s how we live so long. Show me a trap once, I never forget where the spring of it is. And damned if I don’t tell the offspring the trick of the trap as well, so I don’t have my nights and days haunted by the screams of those caught inside. 

I’m asking you as a friend, Aloysius. Please lay off Jarrod. The memories worry him thin enough. Hearing them repeated every day is making it worse. He hasn’t eaten in days, since your last rant. I’m afraid he’s, well, trying to kill himself. 

Humph, Aloysius said. If he went, then who’d be our self-appointed Conscience and Torturer? You looking for a new job, Miss? Murder getting too crowded and the treetops too boring? 

No, Magda said simply. I’ve seen the leader’s job, Aloysius. And I don’t want it. When one leads in this woods, love quickly runs cold and sour. 

It’s to cover the smell of the blood, Miss. 

Magda left Aloysius with no firm promise of good behavior, but she expected nothing less. Sometimes, planting the idea in the badger’s head was enough. It might take him a few weeks to mull something over, but he could come around. Or he could get smashed on the road by a dairy truck. Either way, Jarrod’s burden would be lightened. 

She found him where she left him, huddled in a ragged nest in the armpit of crossbraces at a cell phone tower near the forest edge. He said, in scattered recollections, that he’d made the nest long ago for a young bride who had disappeared the night of a fierce storm. He’d not visited the nest much since then, certainly not in the mornings after a rain when the air was clear and the sun seemed only a few minutes away with its rays burning through the morning fog. 

She found him there, singing softly: 

I long to see you,
And hear your rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away, we're bound away,
Across the wide Missouri.
She did not know what the Missouri was, nor this Shenandoah. And Jarrod sang it so softly, so quietly, there were times she scarce could hear the words over the whistle of the breeze in the crossbraces. But he seemed more restful after a good sing, more able to close his eyes and sleep a sounder sleep if he sang before he settled, so Magda would perch there nearby, downwind, listening for the song. Chylus came on occasion and though he could not hear the music, he sensed Magda’s reverence and remained quiet and solemn, perched next to Magda whose heart he could feel beating fast through her feathers.

And far below, nibbling grass at the foot of the tower, near a friendly black hole leading to the warm dark earth, a marmot watched, solemn as well.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Early Adoption Hell

As a fan of the Sim City game franchise since it first came out in 1989, I’ve read the reviews of the latest in the series with some trepidation.

Ars Technica, for example, trashed the game. In a series of what appear to be either tweets or text messages, Ars’ two reviewers, also fans of the game since its inception, took the game apart, brick by brick, pixel by pixel. They lament the change in gameplay – moving from creating the largest city possible to being limited, they said, to tiny little plots of real estate with all sorts of gorgeous greenery surrounding their cities that they could never annex and flood with roads, houses, stores, and factories.

I’ve got to say Ars’ review nearly turned me off. I’ve been a frustrated player of Sim City Social, EA’s Facebook-based game, where I experienced similar limitations (and repeated Flash crashes) that have left me frustrated overall with gameplay.

Then came Farhad Manjoo’s review over at Slate, and I feel like the new game is redeemed. Here’s what pulled me out of the pit of despair: 

There’s also now a fuzzier definition of what it means to “win” the game. “In previous SimCitys there was one implicit win condition: Manhattan,” says Quigley. “Even though it wasn’t stated as a goal, that was the goal most people assigned themselves—to get the biggest buildings and the maximum population.” In the new game, there are a number of ways to “specialize” your city in a way that might not require huge population density. You can create a place like Saudi Arabia—a city that mines all of its resources and sells it on the global market—or one like Monaco, where the economy runs on tourism and gambling, or Silicon Valley, pumping out electronics all day long. 

In other words, they moved the cheese. 

Winning past Sim City iterations came in two forms for me: Creating the largest city possible or (and this option came up only in Sim City 4) creating the most perfect, most realistic region possible. I could vary city size, yes, but always lurking in the middle of everything was the sprawling megalopolis that spread out to engulf suburb after suburb until, well, either my kids crashed into things or I got bored and started over in a new region. 

This new style of gameplay, by contrast, seems to be launching infinitely more challenges our way. Which is what we should expect. Why get another rote monster-city generator, monster-region generator, albeit with better graphics, when Maxis (or whoever the hell owns the franchise these days) can move the gameplay to a different level entirely, challenging fans in new ways? I guess if you want the old way, just stick with Sim City 4. 

I don’t have a copy of the new iteration yet; I’ve been waiting for release and now with tales of overloaded servers, I may wait a while longer just to see what happens. I think I will go use my discount coupon at Target to buy a copy this weekend, however. Just to see what the fuss is about. 

Here’s a reason not to rush, though. EA’s servers are backed up beyond belief with new players trying to play the game. Why, oh why did they have to choose an always (internet) on option for the game – especially one meant for single players? Can’t figure that one out. They should have an offline mode. Maybe I’ll hold off on my purchase until that happens. Will have to check my coupon.
And the user reviews are devastating, but in that typical internetty the sky is falling way.

You’re going to get a lot of hate spewed on the Internet no matter what you do, but it does indeed sound like most people are genuinely disappointed. I pretty much left the PC gaming world after the arrival of Sim City 4 – I don’t have a lot of time to play games, what with a full-time job, a part-time job, and a family – and it sounds like the landscape has changed quite a bit. The always-on the Internet thing sounds incredibly frustrating. Despite what Manjoo says about shifting the cheese, there’s no real reason the cheese had to be shifted so much to incorporate this much “social” element into what has traditionally been a solitary game. Forcing collaboration on folks not used to it is a bad idea. 

All of this, obviously, is hearsay as far as I’m concerned. I haven’t even purchased the game yet. Likely still will, but not right away. I’ll wait a while before taking the plunge.

Writing for Free

It is clear, folks, why I do not charge for the writing that appears on this blog: Most of it is krep. Well, if not krep, then easily-forgettable drivel or dribble, without long-lasting import (though I hope the novel excerpts that appear here in random form will some day be part of larger bodies of work for which people would be willing to pay me).

What’s not clear is why Matthew Yglesias at feels a professional freelance journalist should write for free (I’m sure Mr. Yglesias gets paid for his efforts at Slate). Here’s his piece.

While I agree with Yglesias when he says there’s “way more content out there for people to read than ever before,” I have a hard time believing his “good” reasons to refuse to write for free:
  • You don’t like writing. 
  • You’d rather spend your time writing-for-free for a different platform (your own blog rather than the Atlantic) 
  • You have an offer to write for someone else for money instead. 
He argues, however, “if you do enjoy writing and you don’t have a money-making opportunity, you should definitely be writing for free.” 

Maybe that makes sense for Joe Schmoe, Internet Writer, but hardly for a writer like Thayer. Thayer is far from a hobbyist.

Yglesias’ reasoning is credulous, especially when you read Thayer’s replies to The Atlantic when they suggested he condense an article he’d written for their use – for free.

It’s clear the individual querying Thayer from The Atlantic isn’t familiar with Thayer’s work. I wasn’t either – but a few seconds spent googling him makes it clear he’s not just a hobbyist blogger out there, screaming for exposure and ready to go belly-up when The Atlantic comes calling. Maybe Yglesias didn’t spend a few minutes with Google either, and doesn’t recognize that Thayer isn’t just some basement blogger. 

Some have called Thayer’s replies to The Atlantic as insulting – especially the insinuation that the magazine could follow the sleazy practice of having an intern repurpose someone else’s work from the Internet for free or nearly free, a la Judith Griggs. I counter by saying Thayer merely points out the new reality of writing, especially for internet-based writers, reflecting The Atlantic’s paltry offer of no compensation aside from “exposure,” which we all know is great and fun and fancy and all, but, when it comes right down to it, doesn’t pay the bills that are due today. For a professional writer like Yglesias to suggest that Thayer – or any writer “lucky” enough to be recognized as a talent by The Atlantic – write for free makes me question whether he is sane. 

I’m thrilled for any exposure I get as a writer, but I also have a full-time job as a technical writer and a part-time job as an English teacher because it’s those enterprises that are paying the bills right now and likely will pay the bills until the day I croak, exposure be damned. But I control the exposure here. And if someone comes calling, suggesting I write something for them, you can be sure I’m going to ask what their “fees” are right up front. And if they say ha ha ha, no fees, well, I’ll just keep on typing. For myself. 

This goes along with my ripening resolve to forego the “free” ebook ethos when I publish one of my novels in ebook form within the next year or two. Exposure is great, folks, but there’s nothing wrong in asking people to pay for it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Sam Vimes Emulation Mode

Some days, I need to remember that I’m a college English instructor, not Sam Vimes. 

Vimes, chief of police in Terry Pratchett’s fictional Ankh-Morpork, famously says this about himself in Pratchett’s novel “Feet of Clay”: 

"Oh, good grief," said Vimes. "Look, it's quite simple, man. I was expected to go 'At last, alcohol!', and chugalug the lot without thinking. Then some respectable pillars of the community" -- he removed the cigar from his mouth and spat -- "were going to find me, in your presence, too -- which was a nice touch -- with the evidence of my crime neatly hidden but not so well hidden that they couldn't find it." He shook his head sadly. "The trouble is, you know, that once the taste's got you it never lets go."  

"But you've been very good, sir," said Carrot. "I've not seen you touch a drop for -- "  

"Oh, that," said Vimes. "I was talking about policing, not alcohol. There's lots of people will help you with the alcohol business, but there's no one out there arranging little meetings where you can stand up and say, 'My name is Sam and I'm a really suspicious bastard.'"  

I’m kind of a suspicious bastard when it comes to grading papers. If one reads just a bit too good, I fling myself into Lady Cheaterly mode, thinking with a few deft trips into the Googleverse, I’m going to find where my student purloined the near-perfect essay. I know it paid off when I caught a student cheating at a high school journalism convention held at New York’s Columbia University. 

I generally find, however, that my students had done the work as advertised. In the particular case that prompted this post today, the student was an older student with more experience in the field than I first gave her credit for, who is also pursuing a major that makes the paper completely appropriate. 

So the plagiarism radar that went off got shut down in less than ten minutes. Thank heaven I checked a few things out before I launched the nuclear destruct codes. 

You might call it the benefit of the doubt. But this happens to me at least once a semester. And all of the time, I’ve found out, after a little detectoring, that my fears were unfounded. Still, there’s no little meetings for suspicious bastards like me and Sam. And that’s fine. I’d rather be suspicious and find my fears unfounded than go into this with a Pollyanna attitude that everything’s OK.

That Flamingo Moment

Sometimes as I read a book, I wonder where the author decided to go with it. In particular is Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Did he sit down and plot all that nonsense, or did he, as he started to write, simply say in his head “Alice is going to have a confrontation with the Queen of Hearts and meet a lot of weirdos beforehand.” I’d like to know.

I’d like to know as well where Carroll thought the book’s pivotal scene was, when things changed for the characters, when the conflict came to a head. Was it the courtroom scene? Was it the croquet game? Was it when Alice met the Duchess in between things at the croquet match? 

Not that I can compare to Lewis Carroll, but I feel right now I’m reaching one of those pivotal points in “Doleful Creatures,” where my imagined Carroll plotting method is coming up short. Thus far, I’ve had the humans in this story appear pretty unaware of what’s going on, but I’m to the point now both logically and in line with the story that that unawareness has to go away. How to do that, and still make this a fun story, I just don’t know. I can turn to the typical human attitudes of laziness and skepticism, and that’s what I may do, but I also have to inject an element of believability here, and I’m not sure how to do it. 

So, part of me wants to surge forward with this. Part of me also wants to shelve the book for a little while to see if some time/distance can produce some fresher perspective. I feel like Alice as she’s trying to learn how to play croquet using a flamingo as a mallet. Part of her wants to be expedient – hearing the Queen of Hearts shout for everyone’s head as they delay the game is a big part of it – but part of her wants to be methodical as well. At the end, she muddles through, using what lousy tools she’s offered. I have to decide right now if I’ve given my characters the proper tools to work with, even if they’re a bit floppy and mismatched for the task.