We’re Not In Oz Anymore

I am in Kansas now, in a friendly town called Garden City. Man, I’m glad I decided to make the drive from Chama to Lawrence in two days. I’m tired. Cumbres pass seems like a long time ago.

Because I was making the trip in two days, I didn’t worry about getting an early start. Eventually I made my way down the dirt road to the highway, paused to slather on sunscreen, and turned the car north. Chama was quiet (no surprise there) and the mile markers ticked away the short life of New Mexico road 17. As I slipped across the border into Colorado the native american radio station was playing the blues. I reached the station at Cumbres Pass just as the train pulled in with a final chuff, pausing to rest and make sure the brakes were in good shape before the long descent into Antonito. I had no such worries myself and carried on without hesitation.

I made my way through the high passes, happy to see patches of snow, and then down through drifting cottonwood fuzz. In a villiage whose name I didn’t catch, I passed a small church, roofless, windowless, the two towers flanking the door echoing the architecture of old spanish missions. Within, people were gathering, setting up folding chairs for a noontime mass. I imagine that God had a particularly good view of the pious folk gathering below.

Once past Antonito the terrain became less interesting, and I had time to wonder if the cumulus clouds building on the horizon were going to be relevant to me. I wasn’t too worried, the thunderstorms build up their energy over the mountains, and roads prefer to go between the peaks. Eventually the storms would break free of their terrestrial moorings and wander over the plain, but it was early yet for that sort of shenanigans.

I approached the bank of boiling clouds, and sure enough the road found a gap between them — almost. Suddenly the air turned chill and a few big drops smacked against the windshield. There was certainly no need to stop and put the top up, however, that would have allowed rain to come in. I carried on and was soon clear of the storm. The thunderhead gave chase, but there was no way it was going to catch me.

Highway 10 between Hollister and La Junta is the sort of road where you entertain yourself by measuring how many miles the road goes without turning (ten miles, twice, but no truly spectacular straightnesses). La Junta was all I expected it to be. I wondered as I drove into town, whether one of the farms I passed was where my buddy John grew up. There was no plaque or roadside monument that I saw, so there was no telling.

Note to La Junta signage people: Take all the signs that say highway 50 that are on roads other than highway 50, and put them on highway 50 instead. When you put up a sign that says “to highway 50” you might want to follow that up with the next turn that is also necessary to reach the promised road. I’m just saying is all.

Beyond La Junta I passed through scattered farming communities, including Hasty, CO (speed laws strictly enforced). Then, Kansas. The ranch land gradually gave way to better soil and farms, and by the time I reached Holcomb the rolling hills were gone and one could reasonably measure the curvature of the earth by observing distant grain silos. I had plenty of daylight, but no interest in driving further; not long after came Garden City and the promise of hotel rooms with Internet access.

I checked in and the friendly desk attendant showed me where to go for a burger and a beer, marking my course on a map. I followed the (quite simple) directions and drove directly to a great big church. An error on the clerk’s part, or a hint? Only God and clerk know, but after some searching I found the promised bar, and here I sit at Jax Sports Grille (A winning place!), tired, annoyed by a salty baked potato (though the burger wasn’t bad), checking over which parts of my body I missed with the sunscreen (back of left hand, inside of left elbow, small spot on right temple) and which parts could have used more (almost everywhere else). Sometimes the key to a good drive is knowing when to stop.

The Moment of Truth

I’m preparing for a writing workshop right now, a place where people like me, people who love to write and would like to take it to another level, sit around and try to help each other become better at our craft. One must meet certain quality standards to be accepted, so the group is not spending its time on people who have a way to go to imagine actually getting paid to write.

So what we will be doing is this: criticizing each other’s work. The criticism may or may not be useful for the recipient, but in thinking about the writing of others we should each learn more about our own. In the short-story workshop, each the dozen participants has submitted three short stories. Now I am reading them all, and trying to come up with helpful advice and explanations for exactly why certain things don’t work. Already this process is changing the way I feel about my own work — sometimes for the better, sometimes… not so much.

I have not read all the stories yet, so there may be an exception waiting for me, but even if it’s not universal, the trend is certainly obvious. At the moment of truth, at the time when life is on the line, I’ve been reading a lot about the character’s actions, whether running or ducking or fighting or whatever, but nothing about their reactions. No heart beating out of the chest, no urge to scream, not even breaking a sweat. No blind panic or tunnel vision, and god forbid someone should pee their pants when an alien is kidnapping them. At the critical moment in the story, the tone becomes oddly dispassionate.

My own submissions for this adventure are, alas, also lacking in this regard, although to be honest I think I come closer than most. (It wouldn’t surprise if all the other writers felt the same way, feeling emotions that we all think are implicit in our work but are in fact in the writer’s head.)

When I give myself this better-than-average rating I intentionally don’t include one of my stories, a relatively fluffy bit that would not benefit from the protagonist peeing his pants. Only… actually, that would be pretty good. He’s the narrator and he’d never admit he did, except he’s under oath. He’s promised to tell the whole truth.

Dammit, even that story could benefit from a bit more viscera.

7-Mile-High Blues

Flying out of Las Vegas the plane made a long, slow turn to the east, for Albuquerque. I sat in 2A, a window seat on the left side, and watched as the ground gradually fell away, the works of man changing scale and becoming more abstract, the white lines of dirt roads like geometric scars on the desert surface. Hoover Dam slipped past, the sprawling lake it held back a deep blue against the naked rock that surrounded it.

The Grand Canyon followed, about the time the captain came on the intercom and in the chatty fashion that pilots have these days told us we were at our cruising altitude of 37,000 feet. A long way to go up, just to come down again an hour later. I studied the contours of the canyon, fractally serpentine, and thought of the rocks found at the bottom, a billion years old. A long time, no matter how you figure it. I started to get that feeling. The writer feeling.

It’s a peculiar sort of melancholy, hardly a sadness at all, that comes sometimes as a herald of change, a reminder that the world is in motion and so are we. It’s a feeling everyone knows, perhaps when you close the door and you’re alone in your new apartment for the first time, or when you say goodbye to a friend who’s moving out of town, or when you can’t sleep at night and the sound of the neighborhood turns mysterious, and the wind is whispering secrets of the past and future.

Saturday That Girl and I had a particularly good day, sharing a part of her life in a way neither of us had known before, and here it was Sunday and I was seven miles up, heading away from her at hundreds of miles an hour. Heading toward… heading toward an uncertain future, a future as a writer, a professional, part of a community of writers dedicated to working together to improve our craft. In just a few days I’ll be in Kansas, surrounded by the successful and the un-, talking shop and perhaps making connections and decisions that will affect the rest of my life.

It’s about time, after all.

Back?

Hey, remember me? I used to post my random thoughts and useless musings here. Things were pretty hectic there for a while, what with travel and malfunctioning computers and big projects and whatnot, and something (actually a few somethings) had to give. While things aren’t back to normal yet, at least the gods of technology are smiling and with any luck I’ll be back to regular posts soon. I’ve got a lot to write about and I miss doing it. Probably by the time you work your way down to this episode it will be moot, buried under other posts, but that’s the way things go.

The Emperor’s General

My backlog of things to blog about is getting embarassingly long, so this little rieiew will likely be short. (“He says that like it’s a bad thing,” the experienced readers among you say…)

The Emperor’s General by James Webb is a story that takes place primarily in the waning days of the second world war, and is told from the point of view of Jay Marsh, an aide to General Douglas MacArthur. The story has many layers as Marsh wrestles with balancing his blossoming career in MacArthur’s camp – one which he finds himself surprisingly adept at – and the love of a woman and the promises he made.

MacArthur’s occupation of Japan after the war was quite peaceful and successful, and this book examines some of the trade-offs that MacArthur made to ensure that stability. Some of those compromises were less than honorable, as he steadfastly refused to allow any of the Japanese royal family to be tried for war crimes, despite very strong evidence that they were intimately involved in the atrocities at Nanking.

Captain Marsh, who understands the Japanese language and, more importantly, Japanese culture, becomes a key go-between, an unofficial conduit of information between the Emperor’s men and the general. Marsh becomes increasingly disenchanted with the process as he realizes that guilt or innocence have nothing to do with who will be tried and who won’t. “There is no sin in Japan,” he observes, “only shame.” Several generals and politicians have been designated to bear the shame of defeat and the shame of the crimes committed.

Meanwhile, Marsh is in love with a Filipino woman, and I had to cringe every time he made promises that no matter what happened he would come back to her and they would marry. He won’t. We know that from the first chapter of the book. Something is going to happen and his most solemn vow will be broken. By giving us this foreknowledge, the author quite effectively casts a shadow of tragedy over even their happiest moments. There’s some good storytelling going on.

It’s also obvious that the author has done his research. Webb knows his military lore (he once served as Secretary of the Navy), and he has a good flair for bringing the historical characters to life, and providing a very well-rounded view of the historical incidents. This is another story that would benefit from a short list of suggested reading at the end, for those who want to learn more about the history without the encumbrance of a story narrative that must necessarily take precedence over fact.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

A New Application of Existing Technology

Sometimes the road to instant poverty is not in inventing a new device but in recognizing a new market for an existing one. (Actually, since you eliminate much of the research and development costs, the chances of striking it poor are somewhat diminished, but let’s not think about that.

One bit of modern gee-whizzery of which I am fond are noise-canceling headphones. These babies actually pick up the ambient noise around you and generate their own sound waves that cancel the noise out in the location of your ear canal. Pretty dang slick. The most popular place for the technology is on airplanes; it’s amazing how much of the engine drone is cut out by a good pair of noise cancelers. With the background reduced, it’s also easier to hear the people around you.

Pilots use noise cancellers all the time these days, but if I owned an airline I’d outfit all the flight personnel with inside-the-ear noise cancellers. Not only would they be able to hear what is being said to them better, but their ears wold be protected. That constant assault on their ears can’t be good for them in the long term.

So, the technology is without a doubt useful. Yesterday it occurred to me that if you wired up the headphones with a specific signal to cancel, that you could have headphones that virtually eliminated a very specific sound while allowing others to pass. There is one industry in particular that would benefit from such a boon, a group of men and women subjected to the same sound over and over, day in and day out, until it must haunt their dreams. I expect insanity is common among these people.

You know who I’m talking about already, don’t you? That right, ice cream truck drivers. I bet they’d pay a bundle to MAKE THAT SONG STOP! As a bonus, they’d be able to hear traffic and the calls of little children more clearly.

Chocolate Blob

That Girl likes to cook, and even more than she likes to cook she likes to bake (as I type this she is making banana bread). So last night after our evening feast (no exaggeration) as we were pondering what to do with the evening while my stomach handled the Big Slab O’ Meat, veggies, potatoes, and buttered garlic shrimp (I must point out that this meal was perfectly typical — I think That Girl’s plan is to fatten me up so I don’t fit through her door), she said, “You know, I have an urge to make something sweet.”

She gets these impulses from time to time, the need to express herself through food that has never been invented before. It seems to me that this is more than just a general idea that “this would be fun,” it is an actual need, much like I sometimes feel a deep need to write. Trust me, I have no intention of discouraging her culinary compulsions. “What are you going to make?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she replied, “but it will have chocolate dripped on top.” That was all I really needed to know.

Chocolate blobChocolate Blob, the next day. Refrigeration has stolen some of its glistening gooey luster, but it’s still mighty tasty!

A while later I was sitting at the kitchen table, reading, while That Girl bustled about the kitchen with confidence, mixing ingredients and soon after popping the results into the oven. Even at this point, she still wasn’t sure how the thing was going to come out; she had just whipped something up with chocolate and orange. While it baked she prepared the chocolate goo to spread on top.

As it baked we watched the cake-like product rise, and That Girl dubbed it “Chocolate Blob”. Soon it was ready. We sat down on the living room floor to watch cartoons and eat blob.

My conclusion: YUM! Praise blob! Blob is good!

That Girl’s appraisal: Not bad, but it will be better next time.

I look forward to helping with the research.