The Good Life

It is sunset, or getting on that way; the sky is still light, but starting to show pink over toward the ocean. The koi are splashing happily in their pond (or at least they seem happy from here) and the sound of the waterfall is soothing.

That paragraph took about ten minutes to write; I thought I was out of the traffic lanes but several family members stopped by to say hello. I am at a family reunion, a gathering of friendly folk who have quite a bit if DNA in common — and the people who went and got married to them. There are a lot of Seegers here, and a lot of Jerrys, but I am the only Jerry Seeger.

The kids and the koi have developed a working relationship — the kids bring bread and the glorified carp eat it. It’s a relationship that brings satisfaction to both parties.

Only, as I typed the above, the elder of the younger set informed me, “we’re going to try to annoy the fish.” Which makes me wonder: Is the ability to be annoyed a measure of intelligence? Angry’s pretty easy, but it seems like annoyance might require a little more imagination. He’s going to do it again, I just know it. Oh! There! He did it again! I knew it! Damn that pisses me off!

The youngest of the young ones just showed me her stick. “Nice and sharp!” she informed me. Oh, to be young again.

What was I going to write about again?

A Late Easter Celebration

Were you to see That Girl and me crouching in front of the microwave, laughing like idiots while watching Peeps expand into large marshmallow spheres, you might at first be inclined to blame the second bottle of wine. However, last Easter That Girl had stocked up on Peeps just so we could nuke them. She wanted me to see the glory that is a Peep in a microwave. Glorious it is, my friends.

The yellow granulated sugar and graham cracker crumbs all over the floor the next morning, those you can blame on the wine.

Another Brief Message to the Gatorade Marketing Team

A while back, while on a road trip, I wrote a message to the boys at Gatorade. In a nutshell, I told them that all the flavors were silly, and many of the names of the flavors were downright stupid. To that I have this to add:

Lemon-lime and strawberry mixed together are awful. Making the result the same color as regular lemon-lime is criminal.

Thoughts while Sitting at My Desk

I am sitting in our office right now — I am at my desk and That Girl is behind me, working on a project of her own. This is a very satisfying way to be, for a wide variety of reasons.

First, of course, is the very presence here of a place called ‘my desk’, to be found in ‘our office’ in a home that also contains That Girl. The second satisfying thing is the presence of That Girl’s desk in the same office. Third, there is the fact that we are both able to be productive in this arrangement. (Your definition of ‘productive’ might not match mine — for instance I consider writing this blog to be productive.) So that’s all good.

It’s critical that we can get things done in this arrangement, as That Girl was laid off while I was out stomping around in Kansas. If you don’t count the whole “no money, no security” part of the equation, it’s working out pretty well. That Girl has been ramping up her online poetical presence, working to market herself and maybe even get to where she can support herself doing what she loves most.

I’m hoping to get to that place as well, of course. I’ve been spending the last week working on Jer’s Novel Writer. A recent operating system update made a few pieces work oddly. (Yes, that is a euphemism for ‘wrong’.) While I had the hood up I wanted to fix a couple of other issues. The software is nearly ready for release, better than ever, but that hasn’t left a lot of space in my brain for using the software for its intended purpose, which happens also to be my intended purpose.

Once I get this release out, I will be turning back to my writing (and, ideally, blogging). I have a whole bunch of things to work on. At the start of the week I thought, “I’ll get that bug fixed and then get one thing ready for submission per day for the rest of the week. Here it is Friday and there’s not much rest of the week left.

If I sigh really heavily, sometimes That Girl rolls across the office and gives me a hug.

Road Music

Is it just me, or is the dinosaur rock of my youth fundamentally superior road music? ZZ Top or Boston just seems to lift the car a little bit. I wonder if the loss of roadliness in modern pop music is a reflection of changing values in our country, the fading of the American Road Myth.

I figured if the road was anywhere in American music anymore it would be country, but you know what? If the sampling I found on various radio stations today is any indicator, it’s not. A couple of tunes displayed a sense of humor missing in other pop genres, but the road wasn’t to be found there, either.

Has America lost its musical road mojo, or am I just imprinted from my golden days of youth?

More Road

I write this in Kingman, AZ. When I set out this morning I asserted that today was about miles, gobbling up highway and not getting distracted by the little blue lines on the map. I even drove with the top up much of the day. To call the drive a success, however, I really should still be on the road, chewing up a few more miles. Tomorrow will be a long drive.

With the top up, it is still possible to have Road Trip Moments, and often music will play a larger role, due to reduced wind noise. As I hit the ramp from I-25 to I-40 the Who was playinig “Going Mobile”, and the Mountain Dew purchased at Santo Domingo was kicking in. Hell, yeah, baby, the po-lice and the tax man won’t catch me, I’m mobile.

Still, the freeway is a marvel of engineering designed to make travel boring, and it did its job admirably.

Somewhere around Gallup I was in the slow lane (being a fine, upright, law-abiding citizen), and I saw a white dog standing right in the middle of the fast lane, fairly well camouflaged. I was already aware of the BMW and the semi truck side-by-side behind me; things looked very bad for the dog. My plan: ease over closer to the dog and honk the horn, startling him into the median. Still not ideal, but better than where he was.

My plan had one major flaw: by the time I came up with it, I was well past the dog, and watching the drama unfold in my rear-view mirror. I didn’t really want to see a dog get smushed, but I couldn’t not look, either. The BMW driver didn’t see the dog until the last moment, and swerved toward the median to avoid it. The dog got a clue at last, and skipped away from the hurtling sport sedan — almost, but not quite, into the path of the truck. The last I saw, the dog was standing, straddling the white stripes as the truck blew past it. I do not know the end of that story.

I could have sworn there was a gas station just past Winslow that was relatively cheap. There isn’t. Yours truly was getting a little worried for a while. I turned off the Air Conditioning to improve mileage, and buy the time I found fuel I was One Sweaty Dude. I put the top down when I refueled, and turned off the music. It was having a tendency to drag me out of the story I have been playing with in my head.

Other than that, there’s not much to report from today’s travels. I now return to Mad Dog’s Dog House for dinner. I wonder if they’ll remember me from last winter.

A Long Ramble

Note: When you spend a long time driving, you have a lot of time to think of stuff. I pulled a few paragraphs out of this episode and put them in one of their own, but this is still one hell of a muddled ramble. Even without the Theology and sociology, we’ve got us some philosophy, a (somewhat disguised) treatise on storytelling, thoughts on agricultural practices, lovely, curvaceous roads, and lunch. Not in that order.

I slept rather late this morning, in a awkward position it would seem as my entire left arm was numb when I finally stirred. I lifted it and flexed it, enjoying the curious feeling while it lasted. How nice it is to be easily amused.

Awake, showered, ponytailed and behatted, coated liberally with PABA, I got the hell out of Dodge. One more life ambition checked off. I headed in the direction of Garden City. All around me food was being made. Big round fields of it stretched across the landscape, the radius of the circles defined by the length of the irrigation pipe. I heard the grumbling engines working to draw the water from the depths and pump it out to the thirsty plants. Sometimes I passed other factories dedicated to turning the vegetable food into meat food. The only exception to the single-minded devotion to food production was an occasional oil well. One way or another, it was all about energy.

I was well past Garden City when I started to wonder if that was the way I really should be going. Not so much, it turns out. At Lakin I made a course correction, crossing the Arkansas River and heading due south on Sunflower 25. The Arkansas was bone dry. As I went south the land became more sere, the spaces between the verdant circles greater and the uncultivated areas scrubbier. It occurred to me that, like the oil, the water would run out some day as well.

The highway was not crowded, and I was gradually catching up to an SUV. I thought I smelled burning rubber, and soon after a cloud of blue smoke came from the left side of the SUV. Only after a few more seconds did the driver hit his brakes and begin to move to the side of the road, the smoke getting thicker all the while. At first it was difficult to tell in the mirage of the hot pavement, but it seemed like something was separating from the truck. The something resolved itself into a tire, or at least the tread of a tire, a big rubber donut bounding across the road and into the ditch on the other side. The SUV pulled over, its naked, shiny chrome rim shooting sparks as it dragged across the pavement. The truck had super-low-profile tires on expensive wheels, and one of the tires had lost its sidewalls and gone off on its own. Important note to people who buy fancy tires like that: Check the pressure often. Those tiny sidewalls don’t give you any room for error.

Hugoton is an attractive little farm town, and I decided it would be a good place to break my fast. I stopped at Dominoes, which was doing a fair lunch business when I walked in. It may surprise you to learn that I was the only long-haired male in the place wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sandals. As any Czech will tell you, however, a friendly hello to the people in charge will almost always be returned in kind, and I found I had stumbled into a very friendly place. By Czech standards. The men in their blue jeans and shirts with snaps discussed offshore drilling and the price of oil (down nine cents), along with farm topics, and the waitress spent her time trying to drown me with iced tea. Ah, America! When I paid, she asked, “do you want some ice tea to go?”

I joined highway 56 in its dogged pursuit of WSW, across the Oklahoma panhandle. It’s the sort of road that people joke isn’t 100 miles but the same mile 100 times. One mile was different, however. At the side of the road was a cross, elaborately decorated. Someone had died there, presumably as the result of an automobile accident. I had to wonder, why there? Sometimes when you see a roadside memorial you can piece together what happened. A sudden curve or the end of a passing lane. You can see the threat the driver faced and understand it. Other times, like this time, there are no such clues, no such reason. It could have been any place along that road. But it happened there, at that mile, and that is where the story ends (or begins?), and that mile is forever changed.

I imagine there were people who asked, why him? after the accident. Perhaps there were clues, the driver’s own personal dangerous curves — drugs or alcohol or fatigue or cell phone. Perhaps not. Perhaps, just like that unlikely mile, there was nothing to mark that person for death. Someone else ran him off the road. He had a blowout. In that case, why him is just as meaningless as why there. There’s really now answer at all, no reason it might not be me next time.

Fuel in Clayton, and a decision to take the Cimarron-Taos scenic route. Not a difficult choice, really. I found myself on the sort of road small sports cars are made for, on the sort of day that convertibles are made for. (Note to drivers of big-ass pickup trucks creeping along at twenty miles per hour: If you see a bunch of cars behind you, just pull over for a moment. It’s obvious you’re not in a hurry anyway.)

How is it that Taos, NM, has near-perpetual traffic problems?

Now I am at the folk’s house, windows open, the temperature comfortably cool, thinking that I’ve spent way too much time blogging tonight (as I’m sure many of you will agree), especially since I have a story I thought up out there on the road that I want to start working on. That’s the thing about the road — you just can’t stop thinking of stuff.

Civilization, God, and Stuff

On the night stand by my head a bible rests, open and cradling the TV remote. It occurred to me that the specific page the bible was open to was likely not an accident. It was a message from the very friendly proprietor of Thunderbird Motel, words he thought might most help a wandering soul passing through. The bible was open to 2nd Chronicles chapter 6. It’s a fairly literary chapter, opening with King Solomon giving a sort of State of the Union address as he dedicates their new temple, the very first one Israel has ever built. The short version of that speech could be, “now we are civilized.” From wanderers with no strong central authority they had turned into city-dwellers, answering to a king.

The message then seems a good one for someone passing through a hotel room. Accept the Lord and have a place where you belong. Give up your directionless life. Become civilized. While I declined the offer, it was nice of the hotel people to remind that it was on the table.

My definition of civilization is, “the set of rules and behaviors that allows lots of people to live in the same place.” This differs somewhat from the dictionary definition, but I think my definition is more useful, since it deals with both the origins and consequences of civilization. When we are around others, we must be civil. For the past few days I’ve been wondering what comes after civilization. What happens when the benefits of a civil culture — security, getting big projects done, and so forth — are no longer needed? When I put it that way, it doesn’t seem likely to be a question we need to answer any time soon, but that hasn’t stopped me from contemplating it. I can imagine ways technology could replace any benefit of a civil culture. I’m working on a story in a place like that. Not Utopia so much, that just seems like civil culture taken to its greatest extreme. Something else. I’ll figure it out.

A Legal Recommendation

When a guy is trying to call his girlfriend after his Internet connection goes haywire, and he discovers that he has no signal, he should not be held responsible for damages when a “more bars everywhere” commercial comes on.

I’m just saying, is all…

Dodge City (and don’t you forget it!)

This morning I awoke feeling surprisingly fresh, considering “3 a.m.” and “Scotch Whiskey” were the two most notable factors when I went to bed last night. This morning was the last event in the Campbell conference — a get-together between the writers who won awards and (primarily) the writers from the workshops. It was very interesting hearing what the awardees had to say about how they got noticed, how they approached their work, and a variety of other topics. One thing I learned: It is very difficult to get a story into F&SF.

Interestingly, I have had a story in F&SF. Furthermore, it was revealed that Gordon van Gelder, the editor, almost never says that if a story is fixed he might reconsider publishing it. I made a note to self: Make the changes he suggested and resubmit “The Importance of Being Paranoid.” So, that made me feel good, to have cracked a market that other, better-known writers had yet to break into. I managed to keep my yap shut during the discussion; it would have come off as boasting to mention my success.

Another thing I learned: Even successful writers rarely make enough money to support themselves. I’m going to have to get more serious about turing Jer’s Software Hut into a business, I’m afraid. So it goes.

There were a few other tidbits, some good humor, and an overall friendly atmosphere. There were references to many names I didn’t recognize. Then it was over, and lunch ensued. Remember how I modestly did not bring up my good fortune with F&SF during the meeting? As we gathered for one last lunch together, I managed to drop my previous success into every conversation, even as a little voice in my head gently suggested that I shut the hell up. So much for modesty. And now I’ve told you. I’d probably tell the waiter at the family restaurant I’m in right now, but he’d only pretend to care.

Finally it was time for me to beat feet. I lingered long enough to not be actually rude about taking off without appropriate goodbye-gestures, then I slathered on the sunscreen, turned up the tunes, and pointed the car west and south, back the way I had come.

After artfully dodging the toll road between Lawrence and Topeka, I found myself on a stretch of I-70, notable for having quite a lot less truck traffic than my old friend Interstate 40. I let the radio spin in search of electric guitars, and a song came on that took me back, the way a special song will, to another time. I relived the time I first heard the song while carving the sun-dappled curves of a tiny road in the Santa Cruz mountains. Those were the days.

I prefer small roads, and I regretted missing the chance to get the hell out of Dodge on the way out to the workshops. Who knows how long until such an opportunity arises again? I left the freeway behind. Dodgeward ho!

The drive was unremarkable, the rolling topography of eastern Kansas gradually losing amplitude. Just outside of Dodge City there was a point just high enough to allow for an overlook at the side of the road, providing a sweeping vista of a vast feed lot filled with filthy cows. You really know which way the wind is blowing around here.

Now I am in Dodge, cheap lodging secured for the night (free WiFi but the people in charge don’t know the password — they’re working on it). Dodge city is proudly living in the past; everywhere you look are reminders of the wild and wooly cowboy days. The brick streets of the old downtown are nice, but the place is pretty quiet on a Sunday evening. Much of the town is quite shameless in its catering to tourists.

After a fruitless search for a local place to get a burger and a beer (there was one tourist-trap looking place with a packed parking lot that I chose to drive past), I am in the climate over-controlled splendor of Applebee’s (rhymes with saltees). Maybe it’s regional, but every meal I’ve had in this corner of Kansas (both of them) have been so loaded with salt that the meal was almost ruined. Hey! Kansas! If I want to bury the meal in salt, I’ll add it myself! There’s a shaker right on the table! Although maybe all Applebee’s are this way. Bleah.

It’s not really fair to say after such a short exposure, but overall I’d say Dodge city is well worth getting the hell out of. Tomorrow will be a success after only a few miles.

One Day To Go

Thursday evening. I sit now in a quiet bar near the campus of Kansas University. Man, I’m tired. The physical fatigue is one thing, but even more mental fatigue is slowing me down. My brain is full. I’m glad I did it this way; the two workshops are quite different. I haven’t had any real training in writing since high school, and probably I should have sought help from peers and professionals before now. I came to Kansas very comfortable in what I can do, and having no idea what the next step is.

The novel workshop is oriented toward works in progress; under the guidance of Kij (rhymes with midge) Johnson we worked together to shape ideas into well-structured novels. It was an organic process, and the novel I brought to the table was really more complete than was ideal. Massive changes to the story are par for the course. I have some work to do. The best part of the workshop is that through the discussions a great deal of the why of the craft comes out, things that are obvious once you hear them, yet they strike the grey matter accompanied by a choir of angels. So that’s good.

The short story workshop was a more traditional round table discussion, with each writer bringing three stories to the table to be critiqued by all the other authors in turn. After all the attendees hold forth, Jim Gunn, the leader, added remarkably incisive commentary, peppered with anecdotes from his sixty years in the business. During the workshop each author revises one story to be sent through the grinder again. The opinions in this group can diverge wildly, but each participant is expected to know what they are doing when they sit in the circle, and to be able to provide helpful (if sometimes painful) feedback on almost three dozen stories. Grace under criticism is a valuable asset, and I’m more than a little relieved that I managed to achieve that.

Kij had a formula for survival: Hours of Sleep + meals + naps >= 8. I didn’t hit that target very often.

So here I am, one session to go, brain full, tired as hell. I’m hiding right now. Not one but two conferences are coming to town this weekend, and our quiet workshop haven is being invaded by the hordes of people coming to talk about writing. It’s an important opportunity for me, a chance to make connections. But not tonight. There hasn’t been much alone time for me in the last two weeks, what with having a roommate and no other place to hide. I’ve been pretty good at being social so far; the other people are right friendly and I’ve had a great time getting to know them, but tonight I need a little time to myself. There is baseball on the television, the announcers are saying stupid things, the local pale ale is not bad, and the fizzing sound in my brain is receding.

The question, of course, is what I bring home from this shindig. My brain is full, but in the next weeks we’ll see whether I can install enough shelving up there to store most of what I’ve learned.

A Note About Comments

Holey moley doing two writing workshops at the same time can be tiring! Please bear with me during this time; I’ll get back to my ramblin’ ways soon. I hope.

Meanwhile, I just got notification that HaloScan, the company that provides the commenting service on this page, has been acquired. The notification was filled with Great Happy News (like features I don’t want automatically included), but did not mention any action required on my part to keep things going. At this writing, however, the comments system is not responding. Let’s all hope that the new company is using the wee small hours to move data to the new servers, and that things will be back to normal soon.

In the meantime, think of all the comments you would like to make, and save them up for the morning.

Let the Workshop Begin!

It’s the morning of the third day, and I’m still alive. That bodes well; one could extrapolate that trend over the duration of the workshop and conclude that I’ve got almost two weeks of life to look forward to.

Monday was my Big Day. I’m actually in two conferences, one in the mornings in which novelists whack on each other’s work, and one in the afternoon for short stories. The two workshops are run quite differently. The novel bash is a moderated discussion in which everyone participates in a guided discussion, working out rough spots in the story outline, brainstorming with the author. The author is then given specific goals to achieve over the next few days, to be shared with the rest of the group in week two. The format of the short story workshop is simpler but more direct—each writer submits three short stories before the workshop begins, and each story is critiqued briefly by each of the other participants and two leaders. At least one story will be revised and critiqued again in the second week.

On Monday, thanks to lucky scheduling, my novel was treated in the morning while one of my short stories was whacked on in the afternoon. Quite a baptism for someone who has never gone through this before. My novel is unusual in that it is much more complete than any of the others; the workshop is really more oriented toward working out kinks earlier in the writing process. I think this made people a bit nervous about suggesting too sweeping of changes. Overall, three comments stand out over a host of other useful tidbits: The dialog and language are excellent, the story is woefully lacking in setting, and my other materials do not sufficiently communicate the full scope of the work. There were many other suggestions as well, some relating to specific parts of the story, some relating to overall technique. I won’t give you the full list here; it is rather long and some of them I’m still internalizing some of them myself. Although there is the minor issue of deleting the first two chapters (and probably more). One comment in particular about establishing setting stands out as one of those obvious-once-you-hear-it things that can really raise my game. That alone was worth the price of admission, in my book. I still get excited thinking about the possibilities.

The process was friendly but rather stressful; it’s not easy to have your baby scrutinized that way. The instructor was a bit worried about my reaction, I think; seeing as I was new to this and all and that some of the changes would require a pretty massive rework. On the way to lunch she sounded me out, saying that my dialog in the part she read was the best she’d seen in a workshop in years, and that if she wasn’t confident in my ability to reproduce it she might not have suggested all those changes. (Or something like that; after the ‘best dialog in years’ part there was a humming in my ears that drowned out the rest.)

The afternoon format is more traditioinal for workshops, as I understand them. It is less collaborative; one person speaks his piece about the story in question, then the ball is passed on to the next. Critiques are necessarily short and of course are focussed on what cold be better about a story. There were some good stories that afternoon, heavy with symbolism and metaphor, commentaries on the human condition. Then there was mine, a short humor bit. As the other stories were dissected, I sat with a growing knot in my stomach. There just wasn’t enough in my piece to scrutinize like that. It was lightweight.

My moment came. The first person said, “This was funny, but…” and gave some constructive advice. The next person said, “I laughed out loud, but…” and also had some good comments. And so it went. Some of the folks were more critical than others, but no one tried to judge the story as anything other than what it was. By the end of having people tell me what was wrong with it, I was smiling, both from relief and from the knowledge that with some revision it’s a story a larger audience will enjoy.

So, what with all the good advice I’ve already received and the insights I’ve gained critiquing other people’s work, I’m glad I’m here. There is certainly something to be said for hanging out with other writers now and then.