Dammit

It’s late. I climbed the steps to my rooms and as always scanned ahead for letters. They wait for me on the steps. Tonight as I ascended I caught the flash of white, and I rushed forward. There was an envelope there, artfully stamped. I didn’t have to pick it up to know that a rejection lay within. You get a feeling for that.

The Czechs are a precise people; when there is a lot of bad news they stack it carefully, so at first glance you might mistake disaster for misfortune. There was not just one envelope waiting for me, but three. I haven’t opened any of them yet, but I know what’s inside.

Two Secrets

Back when I played in band, the director passed out very simple arrangements of Bach and guys like that for us to warm up on. They were designed for the purpose, with long sustained notes so that those who were into that kind of thing could check their intonation. Nevertheless, despite their simplicity, when played well they sounded pretty nice.

My hard drive has a directory called “scribbles” cluttered with bits like that, things I wrote to get myself into a certain mood or just to explore a single moment or sketch a character. No big twists or surprises, no character development, just a few paragraphs that develop a feeling. Most of these derelicts aren’t terribly interesting, but now and then I write one that I put in the “slightly better” section of the junk drawer. I think now I’ll take those slightly better bits and put them here instead. Heck, I’m writing them anyway, I may as well get a blog episode out of them once in a while.

For example, here’s one from yesterday. Keep in mind that a polished final work is not the goal of the exercise.

The moment had to come, when the front door clicked shut behind her and she was back in her apartment, alone. The noise from the street outside was distant, only making the silence in the messy room all the more tangible. She stood, one arm holding the other, surveying a place that was no longer a home. It was changed, irrevocably; already the smell of Camel unfiltereds was fading, replaced by something else, something stale and dead.

Jillian had been waiting for this moment, tired of fighting through all the well-intentioned are-you-sure?’s and sympathetic smiles. She was sure — sure she didn’t want to be around any of those people anymore. People who pretended to understand but didn’t have the slightest clue, with their advice and empty assurances, people who couldn’t just shut the fuck up for a moment. Couldn’t they feel anything at all, these people? Couldn’t they see that she just needed some time to think?

She would be leaving soon. The only question was how far she would go. How far would the petty noise of all those people follow her, how far could their voices reach? There was one voice she could never escape, no matter how far she went, the voice she would never hear again.

She took another step into the room. The ash tray on the coffee table was overflowing, around it were empty beer bottles, Chinese take-out containers and pizza boxes. How many arguments had the clutter caused in the last two years? Two years! How had they not killed each other in that time?

Two years, and two secrets. Horrible, dark things, lurking, waiting to destroy. Jillian looked at the mess. Had Carla’s secret been written here all along, spelled out in alcohol and days on the sofa? Had she been slowly dissolving herself right before Jillian’s eyes, until the final act of dissolution was just another step in a long progression? Had Jillian ever truly heard her roommate’s voice, or had she drowned it out with her own?

Now there was only one secret. One secret, with nowhere to go, stripped of meaning, but heavier than ever. How many times had she tried to tell Carla, how many hints and clues had she left, telling her roommate that she loved her? How many nights had she jumped up from the sofa while they shared a blanket, watching a movie and munching popcorn, afraid of what she might do if she stayed? How many nights had she cried alone?

Had Carla been crying, too, on those lonely nights?

1

Insignificant Programming Note

Due to an administrative error, some votes in the current poll were misdirected to adjacent candidates. There really should be a Florida joke here, but none of them turned out funny. I will use my own voting powers over the next few days to restore the votes that were lost when I fixed things. It’s not like there were that many. In the meantime, you, the faithful electorate are encouraged to continue in the best ballot-stuffing tradition.

As long as I’m doing one of these programming note thingies, I may as well mention the new section over there in the sidebar. It turns out these days that actual strangers and folks we don’t know happen by, and I figured a little orientation might help them get a feel for the place. Plus, a friend and fellow writer recently mentioned that I should brag more, after he read “Serpent”. He said a lot of nice things about that story. So, I’m bragging more, or at least giving people a shot at reading my stuff, as long as it’s out there.

And Hey golly! That’s what the poll is about! I could have sworn I wrote some funny things for Piker Press, but the five candidates in the poll were the best I could come up with. One of those ought to go in the favorites list, just to give perusers a change of pace. But which one? You be the judge!

Miss America is Not the Problem

I am sitting at the Budvar Bar, basking in the glow of writing what might be a really good story. It might not be — a review and edit a few days from now will determine that — but right now I feel good about it. I’m not supposed to be working on short stories right now, but there are going to be days like this.

On the television is the Czech version of Miss America. The Czechs, still being old school, have no problem with the fact that being sexy is an important qualification. They know that people are tuning in to see hot women in small clothes. With that in mind, I considered the Miss America pageant. Its television ratings, apparently, are plummeting, and the event is caught in a hard place where they used to sell it with sex but they’re not allowed to do that anymore. Judging women by their physical appearance is now only done shamefully, in secret. By everyone.

It occurred to me that while the Miss America contest is getting less and less sexy, the US Congress is getting better looking every election. So while we cringe at giving some woman an ultimately meaningless title on the basis of her looks, we will not give a man or woman the power to declare war on another nation unless they look like a professional athlete or a model. It’s not that I care much about the idea of Miss America, I just wish we’d apply that same queasy skepticism where it really mattered.

The Perfect Dodge

I was invited to a party tonight. It promises to be a good one; it’s the 30th birthday of a friend who has been around for a while, and who as a result has plenty of people to invite to a shindig like this one. It’s at a shiny, popular bar somewhere in the center of the city.

I’m not going to go. It’s just not the right day for alcohol, noise, and forced gaiety. As the appointed hour approaches, I find myself sliding in the opposite direction, toward quiet introspection and the gentle melancholy that sometimes heralds better writing. Already I have a short warm-up mood piece I quite like.

Me blowing off a party is hardly noteworthy, but I’m pretty proud of the way I weaseled out of this one. I sent the hostess a message saying, “Would you forgive me for not coming to your party if I bought you lunch next week?” I explained that I was in a write-sad-things sort of groove.

“Perfectly understandable,” she wrote back.

So now I’m off the hook for tonight and I’m meeting a pretty woman for lunch on Monday. That worked out pretty well, I think.

O2 SUCKS!

O2 is my internet service provider. It used to be České Telecom, and back when I was dealing with a Czech company, things were working fine. (Note that this is contrary to all logic as we know it.) Now that ČT has been sucked into a giant pan-European company, my service has gone steadily downhill. Most of the time I’m still connected, but there is no DNS. If I happened to know the IP addresses of all the sites I wanted to visit, I’d be fine. (DNS is like a giant automatic phone book that takes text like jerssoftwarehut.com/ and looks up the string of numbers that identifies the correct machine on the Internet.)

In my setup I can enter an alternate IP address for DNS. I’d like to try that to see if it helps, but I’m not sure what to put there. Any of you techno-geek people know the IP of a reliable DNS?

Now if I could only post this…

Free Electricity!

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor to share with you the first whacked-out muddled invention of 2007.

My little apartment is heated with radiators; there is a unit hanging on the wall in the bathroom that heats water using natural gas, which it then circulates using an electric pump. The pump is starting to make a lot of noise; it’s only a matter of time before it gives out. While pondering the pump it occurred to me that it was too bad there was no way to use the pressure in the water main to circulate the hot water through the radiators.

In fact, it would be easy to do that, but you would wind up pouring a lot of water down the drain. I had just reinvented the water wheel.

But wait a minute, I thought as I stood in the shower, I already send a lot of water down the drain. Why can’t I make it do a little work for me first?

The easiest thing would be to put a little turbine and generator in the water main, so that it would turn every time I ran water. The downside is that the water pressure for the whole place would be reduced. But we don’t always need the water to be at full pressure — that’s why faucets have variable valves. So what if your faucet had a variable-resistance generator instead of a valve? You would adjust the rate of flow from the faucet by changing the resistance of the generator. You’d get the same control over water flow you do now, but you would be getting a little bit of electrical bonus every time you use water. Woo hoo!

My electro-faucet isn’t quite ready to market yet — I’m still working on the catchy name.

Gettin’ the Google On

As I pay more attention to where visitors are coming from (Have the Campbell Award judges come by? Have the Campbell Award judges come by?) I am once again bemused by the wide variety of odd searches that people type into Google and Yahoo, only to end up here. Go figure.

In the past I have obfuscated key words in these entries, in order to avoid misdirecting the search engines to here, rather than to the original page. This time, though, I’m just too lazy.

  • stacking haircuts – I’d much rather be stacking rocks.
  • “large breasts” embarrassing incidents – linked to an episode where I discuss the darker side.
  • cult in scotts valley – linked of course to the shocking expose that only this blog dared expose.
  • minimum sample size – I doubt the searcher was looking for thoughts on Czech TV, but that’s what he got.
  • girl with extra-arms – the Stories category page was buried way deep at match 190, but that was enough for this searcher to arrive here
  • soup boy – linked to an episode in which I describe learning of my first pro sale.
  • Budvar Barthe place is near home, and it’s cheap, to boot.
  • write without fear – it’s an important ingredient for success. Sometimes I almost come close.
  • half baked sex – and understandable misunderstanding to be misdirected here.
  • stacked rocks – maybe I’m just paying attention more now, but interest in rock stacking seems to be on the rise. On Menorca , they’ve been doing it all along.
  • laura k hamilton blog – misspelling the famous writer’s name got me a high ranking in this misspelled search. Linked to an episode that talked about the words that ended up here.
  • boobs lake mead – nestled among the predictable crap was the sleep-deprived story of my day as I traveled from Las Vegas to Mesquite, or more accurately, Through the Valley of Fire to the Bosom of Bobbi.
  • Bearded actorsEverybody’s searching for them!
  • bud light banner – I assume if the searcher wanted a banner advertising the product, he didn’t share my opinion about that vile substance.
  • i like to clean my duck of air and heat myself – I think I feel sorry for the duck. Linked, strangely enough, to the Eels category page.
  • How to write a writing questionaire – attracted by a mutual misspelling to my writing category page, where no help at all was to be found.
  • how tall is kareem abdul jabaar? – mentioned tangentially in a Pirates! episode that took me from a garden party in Prague to a hotel bar in England.
  • Buffalo Butts – imagine the dismay when the searcher found an image of the back ends of bison.
  • “pork sparrow” – there’s only one reason to search for that phrase, and that’s to answer the question “what the hell did I just eat?
  • can a blind man dream in color – I ask the same question myself in a pile of random stuff, but no answers are even offered.
  • sestina origin – that my explanation is the top match in Google is likely a disservice to the poetry world, but what can you do? Plus, I like my version.
  • wizard of id ; shinola – linked to an episode in which I ramble about (among other things) how profanity is encoded in the mainstream media.
  • menorca pigeons – the episode mentions pigeons in passing, but it really about life, death, larceny, and all that stuff.
  • two beers in japanese – linked to an old, old episode in which I enumerate ways to say “two beers“. Your favorite not on the list? Leave a comment!
  • lonely in adelanto – whatever the searcher wanted, I doubt he found it in this episode with a sexy title.
  • summer seems shorter – linked to an episode with a story that with a little work would be all right. The comments are the best part of the episode.
  • hankering for bud light – notable only because my episode called Bud LIte is Horrible was the second match out of 36,000.
  • stacking things on drunk people – Good sport! Linked here.
  • my first enema – the constipation mentioned here is metaphorical.
  • Ax Chop Elf – linked to The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy , which has axes, chopping, and lovely young elves, but is almost certainly a far cry from anything the searcher wanted to find.
  • Mount Mazma – once it was very tall. Now it’s not, but it’s very pretty.
  • big ass diverson – Yahoo! corrected the spelling and brought the searcher along with me to San Angelo, Texas, for some big-ass beers.
  • dont get mad get glad – I don’t get every role I audition for. One time it didn’t work out.

Notable also is that in the last two weeks there has been a surge of searches for suicidal squirrels. The searchers are in Western Europe, mostly Germany but also France and Italy. The trend seems to be spreading to Eastern Europe as well. The crack team of Squirrel Watchers at Muddled University will continue to monitor this trend very carefully.

A Good Night’s Sleep

I went to bed early last night. I just hit a point where I didn’t want to start anything, and the book I picked up was boring. So I punted on the whole idea of being conscious, put on some gentle tunes, and drifted off to the Land of Nod.

Naturally, since I went to bed early, I also woke up early. I thought about all the things I could do; a few last changes to the upcoming release of Jer’s Novel Writer, a way to iron out a part in Dark War, odds and ends like that. I also realized I was thirsty. I got up, drank a bunch of water, then made my way back through the darkness to my still-warm bed. I went back to sleep. Take that, to-do list!

So it was that I didn’t get up until some thirteen hours after I went to sleep, with only a brief interruption.

I feel good.

During my supplemental slumber I had a dream. It seems like an allegory, but it was only a dream. In this dream I was in a little workshop where an old man and a middle-aged woman were weaving a rug. They were at opposite ends of the loom; the old man was in charge of working the yarn, while the woman was singing a song. In the song were the instructions for making the rug, the pattern was determined by the music. “Ah, yes,” I remembered, “Native American cultures used songs to memorize the complex patterns of their rugs.”

She finished her song, but the rug was incomplete. There was a big section right in the middle still unwoven. Neither the woman nor the old man seemed terribly bothered by this; the old man seemed unaware that there was a problem, while the woman just looked things over and nodded. “I know what I can do,” she said, but I never learned what that was.

He Didn’t Trust Love Songs

He didn’t trust love songs.

They seemed nothing more than packaging — shiny boxes, painted with pretty girls and handsome boys clinging to their microphones and their machines of music, their faces contorted with emotion that threatened to crush their souls, to erase their very beings, performance after performance.

Empty boxes, empty of love, empty of life.

What could fit in such a small place? Certainly not love. Certainly nothing of depth, nothing with the size and overwhelming complexity of love.

Unless…

In dark times he would go to the places love songs could be found. They seemed harmless, these puffs of air, these confections of smoke and light, following each other in aimless circles. He listened, waiting for the mask to slip, waiting to glimpse the darker truth that lay behind the emptiness. Each love song is like the one before, but with each he feels closer to something.

Together, all the love songs, all the nothings, add up to a larger zero. The sum of all the boxes with their happy ribbons and and shiny walls is large enough to hold love, but there is something else there instead, the dread secret, the beast waiting to devour his soul. Some nights he could almost hear the demon whipering in the amplifier hiss, he could feel it watching him from flashing video screens.

There is no love; it is gone, lost, as if it never was.

He didn’t trust love songs.

The John W. Campbell Award

It also turns out that it doesn’t take much to be eligible, and unless the judges really, really like Memory of a Thing That Never Was (good reviews notwithstanding), my eligibility doesn’t mean much. Still, as the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction pointed out when he suggested I throw my hat in the ring, it never hurts to get your name out there.

The Campbell award is to recognize the best new writer in the Science Fiction market. I’m eligible to win for two years, which means it really kind of sucks I haven’t worked harder to get more work in higher-profile places since my initial success. Still, I have my own little space at Writeropia.com with a link to thise who are in the running for the big prize this year. I’m working on the bio over there (derivitave of my piker bio), and I’m adding links to some of the stories published at Piker Press that a judge might particularly like. Any suggestions of stories you liked are welcome; you can see the whole Piker list here.

So, it’s exciting, I guess, in a not very sort of way, that I’m in contention for this big prize. More important is what I do with this next year, as after that I won’t be ‘new’ any more.

The Bookseller of Kabul

The Bookseller of Kabul
is a work of nonfiction written by Asne Seierstad, written in a literary style. The author lived with the family of a fairly successful merchant in the months immediately following the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. For four months in the spring of 2002 the author was squeezed into the small, decaying, soviet-area apartment along with eleven family members. There was almost no furniture – if I understand correctly the Prophet Muhammad had no furnishings.

That spring was a time of optimism in Afghanistan, although as yet there was nothing concrete to justify hopes that the country would once again be a peaceful and prosperous nation. The merchant, Sultan, no longer has to fear for his beloved books being burned (those with pictures were most at risk; the soldiers who came to remove contraband material from his shop were themselves illiterate), and he no longer needs fear being labeled ‘capitalist’ as he was during Soviet times. There is still the threat of violence, however, and the city has been ground into poverty by war and drought.

Things were bad under the Taliban, but in 2002 they weren’t much better. Especially for women.

As a woman the author was able to learn of the life of the women in the apartment they shared. Had the author been male, he never would not even have been able to look at the unmarried women of the house, let alone talk to them. Sultan, for all his political modernity (he is very pleased that there are women in the government), maintains an iron rule over his family. It is he who negotiates a price for his daughters, marrying them to husbands they have never met. His youngest daughter is suffering from Vitamin D deficiency because the sunshine never touches her skin – in one of the sunniest places on Earth. His sons work long hours in his shops, so they do not have a chance to go to school or study.

Perhaps there are two sorts of women in Sultan’s world – those who work and wear western clothes, and those who follow tradition. The first group is somehow asexual, their behavior not an issue because they will never be part of a traditional Afghan family. While he respects those women, he is never going to allow that to happen to any of his family.

It is to be remembered that Sultan is a relatively prosperous man, part of the power he holds over his extended family is because of his success. However, on issues like the traditional role of a woman, I suspect if anything he is more liberal than many of his neighbors. It is that way, because it has always been that way. (Although the burka, the all-concealing robe and head gear, was not as common in earlier times.)

Makes me glad to be who and where I am.

The book was a good read, entertaining as well as enlightening. I started slowly, but the prose steadily pulled me in, until I read the last third or so in a single sitting. I am curious how things are going there now, after at least relative calm in the city for a while. Is the family prospering? Has reliable electricity and running water been restored? Are more women daring to show their faces in public? 

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

Back in the day, he was Fleeker

It seems that most places I’ve worked there’s been the designated guy who the rest of the office likes to pick on. It’s a combination of traits that lead someone into this position — an almost contradictory combination of a tendency to take himself too seriously, making sweeping pronouncements that he expects people to instantly see the wisdom of, while at the same time having his own sense of humor and willingness to laugh at himself.

Fleeker was that guy at Binary Labs. He was smart and hard-working, and he wasn’t afraid to make a bet that might end with him wearing a dress to work. Every office needs a Fleeker.

Eventually Fleeker went back to school, got his MBA, and is working now at some big food company in Chicago. The office wasn’t the same without him, but somehow we managed. I fell out of touch with Fleeker, so it was a bit of a surprise a few months ago when another former coworker sent me a link to (I think) a Wall Street Journal article. The article was about using the Internet to find love, and it started off telling about a Chicago guy who had been rejected by a major online dating service — apparently no small feat. In response this man launched his own Web site. I clicked on the link, and sure enough, there was Fleeker, in a particularly unflattering photograph.

That is the first thing you see when you go to SettleForBrian.com. On the site he does his best to lay out both the good and the bad about him, so there will be no disappointment later.

On valentines day this year the online version of the San Diego paper featured Fleeker. Apparently the full-discolsure method has yet to work magic, although there has been some interest.

I think it’s time to pitch in and help the lad out.

A big part of the site is a long list of pros and cons, listing his good points and his less endearing qualities. Looking over the list, however, I see a few omissions. Not necessarily pro’s or con’s but important Fleeker facts. Also missing, and much more needed, are testimonials. Naturally, in the spirit of things, the testimonials should also not sugar-coat the truth. Toward that end I’ll be sending a testimonial to Fleeker, for him to use as he sees fit. I encourage those who know Fleeker (or the new Brian version) to send in your own testimonials. I have no idea if he’ll use them, but it should add depth to the character he presents on his site. If he posts the testimonial there, I’ll slap it up here as well. (I had the testimonial up here for a couple of minutes, but then I decided to take it down until Fleeker had a chance to see it.)

Café Mia

I find myself in a very small place right now, a new (for me) little kavarna in fuego’s neighborhood. It is a nice place, warm, with four tables and three barstools. While it doesn’t have a fireplace, it does have a gas space heater that would probably be very pleasant to sit in front of in the event that winter were to make another attempt.

I am at the smallest table, with my laptop in my lap to leave room for beer on the table. (The tea was excellent, but I am starting to twitch.) In the wicker chair opposite mine, the bartender also has a notebook open in her lap. The only other customers are a pair of the bartender’s girlfriends; the very tall brunette is drinking espresso while the blonde sips her dark beer.

That’s it. Me, three pretty girls, and beer. This is a very good place to be.

My lucky day!

These things I know:

I will be in Dallas on March 7th. I intend to go straight from there to San Jose. There’s a Polkacide concert on the 10th in Oakland that I don’t want to miss. Jet lag and punk polka! Yowza! I need to be back in Dallas on April… um… 8th, I think. Road Trip Day will indeed be celebrated on the road.

I will be in Catania, Sicily, on June 19th.
I leave from Catania, Sicily on June 26th.

I missed out on the 50-cent round trip fare from Prague to Sicily and had to settle for the $5 rate. Of course, after all the airport taxes and other crap were piled on, the tickets ended up costing quite a bit more than that, but still it was just too cheap to pass up. I’m crossing my fingers that Mt. Etna erupts while I’m in the neighborhood (current status is orange, whatever that means). Syracuse is not far, and I’d love to hear other suggestions for places to visit as well.

When booking the flight to Dallas, I looked at the price, decided I could handle it, and went on to make the reservation. On the next page a notification came up. “This is your lucky day! We found a lower fare for that flight!” The amount saved: almost exactly what the tickets to Sicily ended up costing with all the fees and stuff. My lucky day, indeed.