Sorting out the computer issues

My laptop is unhappy; the screen light keeps turning off. (This can’t possibly have anything to do with it falling out of my backpack last week. I had been distracted by my company at the time and didn’t take proper care as I zipped up.) I can make out the vague shapes of windows, but there’s no way to work on it.

I decided to finally bite the bullet and get the Intel-based Mac mini so I could use that while the old PowerBook is in the shop, and finally get an Intel version of Jer’s Novel Writer built and tested. Only problem is, there aren’t any Mac minis with the DVD burner to be had, nor will there be for a while. It seems there are none in the Czech Republic at this time, and one guy told me that Eurpoe is fresh out.

I did get a monitor, however, knowing I would need one for the mini when I finally got it anyway. I got it home a little while ago and set it up, and discovered that it even came with the DVI cable that matched my Mac’s Digital Video connector. Oddly, that cable could not be attached to the monitor. Yes, the monitor shipped with a cable that was completely useless without a DVI adapter. I have such an adapter, so no problem, but with the adapter, the regular cable that came with monitor works just fine also. Oh, well, another cable in the “things that might come in handy for some reason someday” bin.

So, I am back! Able to post blog entries and everything. Life is not perfect, however; unless I want to lug around the monitor, I am stuck at home until the laptop is fixed, and my seating position is a little torqued, as the new screen is next to the keyboard, rather than behind it. But if I send in the laptop for service, I won’t have anything. So do I bite the bullet and go computerless for a few days and then return to my carefree nomadic ways, or do I sit chained to my table until I can get the new machine, then sit chained to the table but at least productive while the laptop is repaired? Quite a conundrum.

2

Language Log is Ruining My Life

I mentioned before that I have added a link in the sidebar for Language Log, a blog that is the product of the musings of some (I am led to understand) pretty heavy names in the linguistics biz. That their writing is (generally) as accessible as it is interesting is a credit to them and a drug for me. It’s nice to find eggheads with a sense of humor.

Today I was drifting through the archives brushing up on profanity — how it’s encoded, and how it’s legislated, and what makes something taboo in the first place. Recently they have been posting comic pages that go “meta”, stepping outside the frame to look at just what is coming out of their mouths, as when Beetle Baily asks Sagre how a little flower symbol snuck into his invective. It reminded me of a time I actually laughed at The Wizard of Id:

PEASANT: I’m here about the job in the stables.
STABLE BOSS (holds out small object): What’s this?
PEASANT: Shinola
STABLE BOSS: You’re hired.

I laughed because a clean, family-oriented comic made a joke that was funny for no other reason than it made the reader think of the word “shit”. (It’s like saying to someone, “You’re full of something, and it’s not shinola.”) Certainly the lads in the stable refer to shoveling and various other animal waste-related activities, but this time, there was no escaping the shit — not the substance, but the word. The word is far more taboo than the offal it represents.

After that I read some stuff on recent debates about the nature of language. Some heavyweights in the field, including Chomsky (whose value to the science seems to be his ability to start fights), have proposed a definition for human language that damn near rules out Hemingway’s version of English. Some of those arguments were, admittedly, beyond me, but there is no doubt that my writing here, wandering and layered, a double-jointed drunkard lost in the desert (“recursive” is the word the wonks are all going on about these days), qualifies as human. The argument is that no other animal has true language, because other animals are not able to embed ideas within other ideas, and this embedding makes a language able to convey an infinite variety with a finite number of words. Or something like that.

Personally, I’m new to this game, and dangerously ignorant. As far as I can tell these arguments are all about the mechanics of the language, not what is done with it. If those guys asked me, the two distinguishing characteristics of humans are the ability to misuse tools and the ability to use metaphors. Other animals have developed primitive tool-using behaviors, but only people have invented screws and screwdrivers yet still pound screws in with hammers. Similarly, if you told Koko the gorilla, “You’re pounding a screw in with a hammer,” meaning she was going about something the wrong way, she would be confused because she did not even have a hammer. (Don’t give gorillas hammers. Trust me on this one.)

I’m pretty sure the folks in Language Log Plaza would consider the metaphor bit not to be germane to the current argument, which is OK for now as they are finding plenty of things to argue about already. But if they ever run dry, I’ve got a reservoir they can tap.

What a great job to have, where a major part of the job description is to sit around arguing about esoteric shit. To Koko, there is no shit that can’t be thrown.

2

Note to self

A crowded nightclub at 4am after a few hours of beers is neither the place nor the time to be stacking things.

2

As metaphoric as a lunchbox

Yesterday morning I came slowly out of the Land of Nod with a phrase resonating in my head: gaseous as Persephone. I toyed with it a bit, kind of liking the cadence and the classicalness of it. “She sat across the table, lost in the shadows, gaseous as Persephone…” Persephone’s got that whole underworld thing going for her, to boot. (She’s the first snowbird, finding a warmer place to spend winters.)

There’s only one problem with the phrase: it makes no sense whatsoever. Sure, I like imagery and metaphor as much as the next guy (maybe more), but Persephone was never reputed, to the best of my knowledge, to be gaseous. (Gassy, perhaps, if pomegranate seeds cause flatulence, but that’s hardly the image I was shooting for.)

Stooping to using nonsense like that is what we in the business call “putting on airs”, and writers do it all the time. Some are better at it than others; some can even make drivel like that into poetry. Those few only encourage a host of others to try their hands at it, and most of them suck. I’m sure I could go back and find plenty of times I’ve committed this very sin, but this time I managed not to. For that we can all be thankful.

While we’re on the subject, I’ve added a new link over in the “Blogs for Writers” section, to a place called Language Log. Warning: it cost me several hours of my life the other day. It’s a blog by a group of respected linguists across the US, created for non-linguists. Most entries are very interesting and well-written, and some are downright fascinating. The essays about Dan Brown are entertaining, as they look at his use of the English language. Although “gaseous as Persephone” isn’t linguistically horrible (or maybe it is — my ignorance of the field is staggering), I’m sure they would have something to say about it.

The first day of the year shorter than the day before

The days are long this time of year, and I like it that way. This far north it is common for people to go out before sunset and get home after sunrise. (Not for me, mind — I’ll leave that to the kids.)

I was in a chat with some piker pals yesterday morning, and one of them said “It’s all downhill from here,” which summed up my feelings as well. I may have mentioned it here, or perhaps in other writings in other places, but man is the only creature cursed with the imagination to ruin any good time. Three-legged dogs don’t think to themselves, “if I had another leg I could get to that ball faster.” No, they think “Ball! Ball! Ball! Whooeee!” When a cat is curled up in a sunbeam, it’s not thinking to itself, “too bad sunset’s coming,” the cat is just thinking, “waaaaaaaaaaarm.” Creativity and imagination are the bitter pill, as well as the source of hope.

Piker pal’s comment also reminded me of a story I wrote this spring. It’s not one of my better efforts (a bit too sticky-sweet for my taste), but it does describe how I feel about days like today. It’s been sitting on my hard drive in the junk pile, but here it is, for what it’s worth. The paragraphs about dark and light I wouldn’t mind working into a better story someday. The opening line is nice, too, but doesn’t fit.

The First Day of Spring

It started small, the way grand things do.

I was sitting on a park bench sipping my first beer of the afternoon, watching the people around me take advantage of the first truly beautiful day of the year. It was a false promise, I knew, a deception; more snowflakes would fall before winter was truly over.

Summer. It is not simply a segment of the year, not here. It is a gasp of air for the soul, before it is plunged back into the cold and the dark. Each summer seems shorter, the lift it gives diminished, and I know there will be a summer that is not a summer at all, and it will be my last.

A parade of cheery folks streamed past the bench where I sat. Some moved slowly — couples taking the same walk they had for fifty years — while others flashed past, here and gone in an instant — girls pushing themselves along on rollerblades, toned legs moving rhythmically, dodging dogs and children and grandparents.

“Need a refill?”

I looked up to see someone I vaguely recognized and I hoped she wouldn’t be insulted when I couldn’t remember her name. “Sure.” I reached into my pocket for some change.

She took my glass. “It’s on me,” she said. “I’m celebrating.” She turned and headed over to the beer window. I watched her walk and she seemed more familiar from that angle, as if she had walked away from me many times before. When she reached the line at the beer window she glanced back and caught me watching at her.

I wanted to inspect her as she returned, to see if that rang any bells, but that would have been difficult. Instead I looked out over the city spread below.

“Here you go,” she said, handing me my beer. “They raised the price this year.”

“I’ll get the next round.”

“Don’t worry about it.” She stood holding her beer, this woman who had been here before, who knew me, waiting for me to say something more. Finally she gave up. She took a sip and said with a beer-foam mustache, “Mind if I join you?”

I joked to cover my impoliteness. “It’ll cost you.”

“I’m sure it will.” She sat, not too close, not too far. “Na zdravi.”

Na zdravi” I raised my glass to hers, careful to make eye contact. Around here, toasting without looking the other in the eye is like a limp handshake. She met my gaze. Her eyes were green with golden flecks, and the corners were crunched just a little bit, like there was a smile just beneath the surface — the punch line to a joke she was enjoying telling.

“Aren’t you going to ask me?”

I hesitated, then remembered. “Celebrating what?”

The smile came a little closer to the surface. “It’s my first anniversary.”

“Ah.” I raised my glass again. “Happy anniversary.” It seemed a strange way to celebrate it, buying beers for guys in the park.

She sipped her beer and looked out on the city of a hundred spires. “This is the second-best bench in the park,” she said.

Whoever she was, she knew her benches, as well. “The lady with the plastic hat had already taken the best one when I got here.”

My benchmate smiled. “She’s back? Good.”

“She’s got a new hat.”

“I hope it’s ugly.”

“She’s outdone herself this year.”

She laughed, took a sip of her beer. “Aren’t you going to ask me?”

I thought for a minute. “Anniversary of what?”

“Of the first time I came up here. It was the first warm day last year. I started down by the river and hiked all over until I found myself up here.”

The first warm day. A sacred day, a day that doesn’t go on the calendar but is universally recognized. Not a national holiday, but a human one. “It’s my favorite day,” I said.

“Mine too. There’s so much promise; the air itself is telling us how wonderful the summer is going to be.”

I sipped. She was right, but it was also the first day I started to feel the summer slip away, sand though my fingers, lost and gone forever.

“You were on the other bench that day.”

“Was I?”

“Yeah. The sun was bright, but you were dark and brooding. You scared me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Then I caught you checking out my butt.”

“Uh…”

“I love it up here. I came back every chance I got, and you were always here, on one of these benches, adding a little darkness to the day.”

My beer was empty. I wanted to go get another, or find any reason to walk away from this conversation, if only for a moment.

“You think too much,” she said.

“Pardon?”

“You think too much. Nothing is simple for you. When you watch the sun rise you think of night, but when the sun goes down, you know the day will follow. You prefer the dark, because only then can you contemplate light without sadness. But still you take pleasure in the simple things, like sitting on a bench on a sunny day. That’s what I like about you, that you can be both happy and sad at the same time.” She took my glass and stood. “Aren’t you going to ask me?”

I looked up at her standing over me, waiting, expectant. “What’s your name?”

The punch line. The smile that used her whole face. “Allison,” she said. “I’ll get another round. It’s our anniversary, after all.”

I followed her with my eyes and I thought of the bright days ahead, and the winter that must surely follow.

My own World Cup scorekeeping system shows that Argentina is a bunch of babies

Just so you know, I use a bit of strong language in this episode. If the use of the word ‘pussy’ to denote ‘someone lacking the personal fortitude to participate in a physical contest of sport’ offends you, well, uh… too late, but maybe you should stop now. I’m going to use it again.

It’s halftime in the game between Norway and Argentina, and I care not at all who wins. But it’s on the TV here in the Little CafĂ© Near Home, and I am watching the game because the box with moving colors and sound controls me with substantially more power than it seems to have over other people. I decided as this match started, though, that I would put on my journalist hat and cover this game for you from my own personal angle.

I mentioned in a previous episode that Argentina was a bunch of ankle-grabbing, whining wimps. Tonight I decided to keep score.

Minute 12: The first Argentina player went down. Oh! The agony! Judging by the pain etched into his face, I thought we were facing a career-ending tragedy. Such promise! Such talent! Wasted, years of productive ball-kicking cruelly wrested from this young lion by a horrible injury to… well, that wasn’t exactly clear. While he gasped in pain, the team captain went over to consult with the coach, discussing strategy, I assume. The stretcher came out (more on that later), and after more delay (not sure, but I think he eschewed the stretcher so he could walk to the sidelines much more slowly than the stretcher would have done) he was on the sidelines, standing, while a trainer sprayed chilly stuff on his knee. Oh, man, the knee. That’s the absolute last place you would want to have an injury like that.

Thirty seconds of playing time later, he was back in the match.

Minute uh, let’s call it 15: Another terrifically painful injury, this time to an Argentine wrist, maybe. Not sure, but too horrible to allow the poor guy to stand, at least for a bit. No stretcher was required; play resumed eventually.

Minute 18: Argentine player Rodriguez was tackled hard but cleanly. He went down and rolled over, holding his ankle. No whistle. He looked around and hopped back up to his feet. Whew! Another horrible injury narrowly averted. (As I edit this at minute 55 the exact same thing happened again.)

And so it went. Twice a Netherlands player took all of five seconds to get up after a rough tackle. There were more Argentine-on-the-grass incidents as the half progressed, but in documenting the first ones I managed to forget the rest I had carefully catalogued in my sieve-like brain. It doesn’t matter; you get the idea.

Argentina may be the best team in this tournament, but they are also the perfect example of why this game will not work in the US as it’s currently played. For the Argentines, being a little pussy and rolling on the grass, crying to the ref for redress, is good strategy. For Americans, it’s just acting like a pussy. In hockey, you don’t have stretchers coming out just so players can’t delay the game as much by grabbing a body part and crying like babies. In hockey, the harder someone hits you, the more important it is to get up and skate like nothing happened. I haven’t watched that many games this cup, but I’ve only seen one player bleeding. He kept playing, got stitches at the half, and came right back out. He was on the US team. (In hockey, they do the sutures on the bench, between shifts.)

Soccer is the ball sport with no balls, at least when Argentina is playing. It’s crazy, because they really might be the most skilled team in the cup. They don’t need to pull this kind of crap. But they do. You know why? It’s who they are.

***
As a coda to this, I have to add that I have seen an increasing tendency in American sport for the players to go begging to the refs for a call. — this just in! Minute 61: Man, I think that guy is done for. He’s in agony! Oh, wait. He’s OK. Back to the diatribe — They don’t pretend to be hurt, it’s more of a big-mouth self-advocacy thing. Still thoroughly distasteful. These little prima donna bitches that play sports for big money seem to think they are entitled to a call, especially in the US — so don’t for a minute think I’m letting the American Whiners off with this assessment of soccer. My heroes are the ones who are a solid bruise the day after the game, but during the contest they gave nothing away. I like the guys who get their uniforms dirty during warmup.

Minute 66: A Nederlander took 15 seconds to rise from the turf. I think his thigh was stepped on, but I’m not sure.

Distasteful. I was disappointed to see players in the world cup (somehow I still associate soccer with class) performing premeditated ceremonies after a goal. Tacky, tacky. tacky. Class players cheer — they have every right to be happy, and I wouldn’t take that from them — they hug the guys who all helped create the opportunity, they thank the fans, and they go back to doing their jobs. Now, doing one’s job in sports has become a marketing opportunity, and you have elementary school kids working on their touchdown dances. Crass, lame, and shameful. My message to the kid wearing pads for the first time is the same as my message to the members of perhaps the best side in soccer. Play the game.

Play the game.

Well, THAT wasn’t the response I was hoping for…

A couple days ago, I dropped a line to Miss Snark. (Miss Snark is a literary agent who, with her own snarky and anonymous voice, answers all the stupid and neurotic questions that writers have about the business.) I had picked up a couple of comments here and there that writers living outside the US are more difficult for an agent to represent. More difficult means, of course, that the other manuscript that is almost as good gets promoted. So I dropped her a question about how early on I should mention that the difficulties cited don’t apply so much to me, as, really, there is nothing whatsoever preventing me from waking up breathing American oxygen the day after tomorrow.

The reply was less than encouraging.

Here is my question:

Dear Miss Snark,

Evil Editor made a comment the other day that made one of those question marks pop up over my head. I managed to get rid of it, but they keep coming back (usually late at night, keeping me awake with their eery luminescence and faint wood-burning smell).

Currently I am living outside the United States. Evil Editor mentioned in passing that he would consider that a strike against an author because the author would not be available to participate in book promotion. I believe you have also mentioned payment headaches when dealing with authors not in the US.

However, I am not only willing to spend time knocking about the US flogging my work, I’m looking forward to it. Also there would be no problem paying me in dollars and I would pay my taxes in the US.

I assume these things aren’t deal killers, but are they worth mentioning in a query letter to an agent?

And, an excerpt of her reply:

I’m going to tell you the honest to dog truth.
I hardly read the stuff that comes in from overseas cause I’m just so unenthusiastic about the headaches associated with a client that far away. You’d have to write something REALLY great to get over that hurdle.

While this is only one agent speaking, she is still 100% of the sample, and I think I have to deal with this. I see a few options:

  • Put a paragraph in my cover letter expressing that I am geographically disconnected and I’ll live in hell if it’ll help my career (I’d have some good literary company there, I think. It’s even more hip than Prague.)
  • Make all initial correspondence reflect a US address. Because it’s always good to start a business relationship with an intentional deception.
  • Move back to the States and live in Mom’s basement
  • Move to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and hope they don’t look at the address too closely, or wonder about all those stamps on the SASE.

I’m leaning toward that last option, myself. I could pepper my correspondence with y’all’s and references to Waffle House and whatnot, to reinforce the impression without actually lying. Plus, I hear they have nice beaches there.