Monday, January 31, 2011

Notes from the Train

Sunday. 9:03 AM The train has pulled out of the Eugene station under gray skies. The car is quiet with the exception of one small infant. The the wheel axles' whine raises from a low growl to a medium one and then it drops out of my awareness. Arrhythmic creaking takes its place, and we glide past roads and the backsides of Eugene.

I look out of my cabin window and into the lumber-, scrap- and backyards. The only clear boundary is what is what's on my side of the window, and what's on the other. Between the chain link fences, and the silver-brown posts holding up sagging tin roofs are brown mid-winter weeds. The tall grass is drab-olive; the short grass -- and moss, probably -- is emerald green. It's Sunday morning, so there's little to no activity; just evidence of industry.

On the other side of the cabin, flatcars, tankers and boxcars rest on sidings. In a trick of perspective, the trains on the near siding seem to be overtaking the farther ones. I wish that I had brought my Hazmat Bingo book, it would tell me what the numbers on the sides of the cars mean.

I see an RV graveyard. I see a sewage processing plant. I see people's backyards and porches. Briars are pushing down an old wood fence. There's a yellow lab howling outside the side door of a house as the train passes. Soon we are on the backside of a tree farm. I'm guessing they're poplars or maples or some other small ornamental tree. The vanishing point is lost in a twiggy blur of bare branches.
The tracks follow 99E out into pasture land. Sheep scatter from the train, galloping away from the tracks and into the rising mists. A little later the train passes the Alforth Cemetery.

9:38 Writing. I'm pleased that I'm sitting at a table with a power outlet. The only difficulty is that the keyboard is a little far from me. I'm not looking at the screen so I will not get motion sickness or a headache from bending my neck down. One of my friends, who is only a few years younger than I am, reminded me recently that as we get age, posture really does matter.

Looked out the window and saw a large dump truck: its bed up and an enormous pile of large orange-painted boulders behind it. The inside of the bed is orange, too -- a gradient of orange scraped onto rust-red metal; so that means that this is a regular job for the truck. What I want to know is, where do they paint large builders orange, and how do they do it?

Passing by a mound of something. I'm guessing it is some kind of very small land fill, and I wonder what stories could be told about the elf mounds of the future, filled with the waste of previous centuries. This is the fourth very large mound of dirt, steaming compost, or compost we've passed.

9:48 Albany. The train will be making a stop. The whine of axels falls back into my awareness as a low growl, and the creaking slows into swaying regularity. The growl reminds me of generators, and this gives me an image of a thunderstorm bent into and constrained by a circle -- circles we nonetheless only coast upon, as the passenger car provide no locomotive force.

Now we pass tanker trucks - I don't see any hazmat numbers, so I'll have to assume there's a 1203 on them. 1987 -- not sure what that means. Ooh! One car reads "Sulfuric Acid." I'm pretty sure we're supposed to evacuate a half-mile up-wind if one of those should catch on fire.

The train halts. I like the obelisk at the Albany station. It's a clock tower, actually -- more Italian Renaissance than Egyptian revival. In some ways it's a pity the train doesn't linger at the stations. Some of them have interesting Art Deco architecture from the 1920's and 1930's, and it would be fun to photograph the buildings' details.

The train starts again, and once again the elemental whine revs through my awareness. Presently we're passing by manufactured homes. One of them is painted orange and black, and has a very large black banner with bold orange letters proclaiming, "I AM ORANGE." I am not sure if this is supposed to be a football team rally cry disguised as a zen koan or not, and my mind instantly jumps to an image of Helen Reddy singing, "I am orange, hear me roar..."

10:17 White heron standing in a large puddle. A few moments later a red-tailed hawk sails over the green pastures with a mouse in its beak. It parallels the train's motion for a few seconds and then we've pulled ahead of it.

10:52 Between Salem and Portland. Completed a scene and am closing up for an early lunch.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Notes and Photos

In Eugene.

In Canby. Just saw another redtail on the wires. I've seen more wildlife on this trip. Had a lunch and am sipping Pepsi.

Squeee! I'm sitting on a throne! In a library! In it. Dressed as a Pegasus Ranger! O Bliss! O Rapture Unbounded!

! I've found a coffee table book with headings like "The Ideal Paleolithic Sanctuary" !

OMG! The Librarian just told me this was an Old Masonic Temple! I'm going to go sit on the thrones & read art history of angels books!

Changing Journals

Another one of those times has slouched closer: There are only four more blank pages left in the seven-and-a-half inch by five inch black sketchbook I am currently filling with words and pictures and plans. A new blank replacement, its virgin pages pressed together in solidarity, has already been purchased.

The first, once-white page in my old book has a date: October 9, 2007. Underneath are the following words: "If you find me / do not place me on the shelf / of forgotten dreams." Next to these words is a circle of dots around an arrow pointing at a star. The rest of page is scuffed but blank. Yes, it's high drama.

Before a friend gave me a new book with a leather, reusable slipcover, my previous sketch books would get beat-up -- sometimes falling apart before I could fill them. The black covers would separate from the spines. Or the magazines would hang on by threads; packs of pages waiting to come free with further handling. Now, the used books have battered -- but mostly whole -- spines, and the bindings still manage to keep the pages in bound in order.

I love the slipcover for what it does, but also for how it looks. It is thick brown leather embossed with a renaissance wood-cut of a sage peering underneath the heavens in order to glimpse the celestial mechanics beyond. Actually, that's not quite right -- when I paused to look, I re-discovered the sage is on the back cover. The front cover is a huge radiant sun rising over a sloping countryside; its rays seem to be pushing a moon and stars away. A button and lace act as a clasp to keep the book closed.

I open the book and turn through the pages; there's a map on page two for a story I wrote. There's a map of our back yard a little farther in. There are pages of fantastic alien temples, labyrinths, and notes from alternate histories. Geometry: Euclid's method for constructing a pentagon within a circle; a method for using a number of divisions of a circle's diameter to draw a polygon with the same number of sides; a reproduction of a small stellated dodecahedron from the Bascilla of St. Mark in Venice, attributed to Uccelo (1420). A detail of a faun from an old Roman sculpture from the MET. Steampunk spider diving bells. Robots. Fey women. Halloween costumes. Mostly in red, purple, or green ink; sometimes in colored pencils.

I wonder what Mark's sketch book would look like. He's better at freehand drawing than I am, and he likes to draw when he goes on vacation to help him remember details. So I imagine that his sketchbook would be filled with buildings and people he's actually seen, as opposed to mine, which is filled with things I've imagined.

My very first books were lined, spiral notebooks, and I'm pretty sure they were continuations of middle- and high-school classes. I switched to unlined journals because I wanted to have pictures without horizontal bars running through them. Over the years the content moved from journal entries to story imaginings. Quick pictures of fictional characters and maps to imaginary places help me to write about how the character moves, what they might think, and how they navigate through the story. Sometimes I'll imagine I hear the character saying things to me. This is good because it helps me to get into a character's head. It's also bad because it turns the story more easily into a talking heads story.

I flip through more pages and see when I got the patio furniture for Café John, and also what short story I was working on at the time. When I look at some of the dates I worry a little. Some of the characters have been waiting a while for me to tell their stories. I am reminded of a detailed maze for our yard -- never realized -- along with the calculations of how many linear feet of brick would be needed. That's a problem with making things up: sometimes what is imagined stays imagined.

I take the book out of the slipcover. Out falls a green plastic template for drawing straight lines, triangles, squares, circles and hexagons. I mostly use it for measuring and the straight lines. The other object that falls out of the book is a map. Judging by the train schedule written along the top, it's a map of New York City I made to navigate to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I smile and fold the map into the old book.

Then I place the slipcover over the new book. I will inaugurate it with a train ride to a museum's library, filled with books on art which do not circulate. I wonder what, if any, forgotten dreams I will find there.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Pegasus Ranger!

Well, ma'am... I was going to wear the Square Pegasus Pin on the outside of the wool great coat. But between all those buttons, there really wasn't a place to put it without looking... um... guady. And the pin is nickle-plated and the buttons are brass, so there's that mixed metals thing going on.

Luckily, I just happen to have a vest and bolo tie and a metal belt...

And green-and-silver rectangular glasses.

And did I mention the Silver Alien Detector?

Morning Discoveries

Well hmmm.  I thought I was going to have a cool picture of myself holding a really sparkly star, but this looks like I've been nailed to the wall with a holiday ornament.

In related news, yesterday's headache was most likely caused by bad ergonomics with the laptop.  Bother.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Coco Chanel Writing Moment

A little over a week ago, I was lamenting that -- despite one of my characters being a mermaid and the other being a kind of ancient Greek magician -- two of my characters were having the fantasy equivalent of a Socratic dialog.  The Mermaid was arguing with the Greek about the power of songs to endure being stronger than that of his written scrolls.  All this dialoging is great for getting inside of the characters' heads, but it's deadly to plot.

Tonight, during some recreational reading of Wondermark, I realized they were in fact, having a real-bonafide retelling of "Egyptian legend of Theuth" as told in the Socratic dialog The Phaedrus.

Did I mention that the story is supposed to take place around 300 BCE, in Greece?  Which, is, um about when the Socratic Dialogs were written?

Now I get to write "The Secret Aquatic Life of Plato"... or else I have to re-cast the story on a gas giant...  or something....

Self-Portrait of the Writer

The dutiful writer pausing before lunch.

Note to self: don't hold the cell phone intuitively when taking photos, because apparently you have bad intuition.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Fashion, Art, & Trains!

The Great Train Ride is on. I decided that, what the heck, the opportunity to write on a train and then go visit an art library with a funny sounding name and what looks like throne-shaped reading chairs only comes so often (and you know I want to write on a throne). So I've got my tickets.

There's just one problem; I don't know what exactly to wear.

You see, I've got this whole romantic fantasy about writing on the train - sort of The Orient Express meets Don Quixote meets the Moulin Rouge meets Girl Genius. Only it will be just me, gliding over the landscape and typing. I don't think there will be champagne, but there will be tea (or at least Pepsi).

Also, between the train ride, I have to traipse around city streets between the station and the Crumpacker Family Library. It will most likely be cold. And raining. So the current apparel options are:

  • The Grey/Green Cloak: PROS: It has a hood; it is wool. I'll have some leg coverage. CONS: Legolas? On a Train?
  • The Romulan Jacket: PROS: It has nice pockets. I like it. It says, "Business, but from the Future!" CONS: It's not very rain-proof; plus, Mark says it makes me look like a Lesbian Art Teacher from the late 1980's (Mark says this about a surprising number of my ensembles).
  • The Russian Army Great Coat: PROS: Dahlink! It's just what a spy would wear to make other spies think he wasn't a spy! Plus, it's wool. All the way to my knees. Accessorizes well with trains.  Also bonus! If I add my 21 foot long, multi-colored scarf I'll look like Dr. Who.  CONS: Missing buttons. No head cover. It weighs a lot, so if the weather is nice, I'll be encumbered. And sweaty.
  • The Leather Jacket: PROS: Waterproof. Uh, classic? I wont look like I normally do? Maybe if I added an aviator's scarf? CONS: Well, let's just say it looked a little more dashing on me when I was a little younger (and thinner).
  • Safari John with Vest and Tilly Hat: PROS: The hat functions like a hood without the Tolkien feel, not to mention the vest has a lot of pockets. CONS: "George, you naughty monkey; come down from there."  Plus, I will have to carry an umbrella. 

Right now I'm leaning toward the Great Coat because it maximizes weatherproofing with theatrical flair. We'll see; I will have to find some sort of button solution, which will require pushing needle and thread through some pretty heavy wool to re-attach three buttons.

And I really want some kind of hat....

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A New John Trope

I had a just put the finishing touches on a short story when it hit me what I had done.  Yes; I had the point-of-view character be a little girl, but I had also included her grandmother.  Previously written grandmothers from other stories raised their memetic hands and I realized I had another John Trope:  The Princess v. Her Grandmother.

The Princess is everything a little girl should be: smart, clever, pretty, and just a little manipulative.  Her Grandmother is all those things, too, but with extra added treachery experience.

I suspect that when this trope pops up I'm exploring the theme, "I'm doing what's best / This is for your own good."  When I have a little more time, I'll take another look what this trope is trying to tell me in terms of moral compasses and world maps. 

Looks like I need to add another square to the "John Is Writing" Game.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Story of Birthday Roses

Once upon a time in the very early 1980's, it was one of my friends, Tina Stewe's, birthday. 

The gang collectively thought that it would be fun to treat her to the Benton County Fair, and I agreed to be chauffeur.  It helped that I had access to my Mom's Chevy Impala Station Wagon ("Hop in my Chrysler, it's as big as a whale!")   The car easily sat nine: three in the front, three in back, and three in the way in the back (a backwards-facing rumble seat).

Anyway, because there was some bicycle grease on one of the way-in-the-back seats, I put a sheet over it (I'd gotten some grease on me after a recent family trip and I didn't want the same thing happening to one of my passengers).   And because it was Tina's birthday, I thought it would be fun to have roses.  In the car.  I should point out at this point that Tina was perfectly happy with her high school boyfriend (they married each other a few years later) and the roses were simply an effort on my part to add some ambiance to a fifteen minute car ride.  I set out to equip the car with roses.

In those days, Chevy Impala Station Wagons stored spare tires within the cabin of the car, way in the back, underneath plastic wheel well covers.  The covers  had a kind of built-in tool bin that collected dust, screwdrivers, pencils, and assorted car junk.  I cleaned the bins out, filled them with a little bit of water, put in a spiky flower trivet or two, and filled them with roses from the yard.  Viola! Everything's coming up roses!  And they smelled nice, too. 

The only bump in the evening was hit while we were traveling through Avery Park.  Literally.  I think between the speed I was driving, combined with the number of high school students in the car, caused a hubcap to roll off into the side of the road when I got to one of the park's many speed bumps.  We discovered it was missing when we got to the fairgrounds, but I couldn't find it when I went back to look. 

Tina and everyone had a great time at the fair.

So, the next day, my parents sort of obsessed about the missing hubcap and went to the dealer to get a replacement.  The dealer said something along the lines of, "Well, there's probably a hubcap with the spare..."  at which point the three adults discovered a rumpled sheet and floral display in the back of the car.

"Whoa," said the dealer.  "I've seen them [the wheel well cover bins] used for a lot of things, but this is the first time I've ever seen them used for this!" 

My parents asked me about the roses when they got home, but it took about two years for them to work up enough courage to ask about the sheet. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Café John January 2011

Hmmm. Maybe not quite ready for the tea season...

But it is 55 F outside.

Gasp! Frederic Edwin Church

Mark just pointed me to Church's home, Olana. I went to the web site. "Hey!" I said, "How come his stenciled stars looked Imperial instead of Country Cute?"

Then Mark used his campy Henry Higgins voice to read from one of his art books, Robert Hughes' "American Visions, the Epic History of Art in America," quoting Mr Church:

"A feudal castle which I am building under the modest name of dwelling house, absorbs all my time and attention. I am obliged to watch it so closely, for having undertaken to get my architecture from Persia where I have never been, nor any of my friends either, I am obliged to imagine Persian architecture, then embody it on paper and explain it to a lot of mechanics whose ideal of architecture is wrapped up in felicitous recollections of a successful brick schoolhouse or meeting house or jail."

And I knew that I had found, if not a past life, then at least a soul-mate. Mark added that Mr. Church was "poisoned by the heavy-metal colors he preferred, cadmiums and arsenic-based greens."

I did a quick internet search and came up with an elevation sketch of Olana. "Hey!" I said, "That's the castle on Rigel VII from the Star Trek pilot!"

Then I saw one of the rooms, the Court Hall: bronze cranes with curving necks standing on turtle-dragons, peacocks, elaborate tile mosaics, sumptuous curtains. "We must go there," I said, speaking as if from the depths of a prophetic dream.

"And that's just a staircase," Mark said.

Friday, January 21, 2011


Mark and I were having a conversation and somehow the Jontue perfume commercials came up. "Oh, I used to love those old commercials," I said. "That should have been Clue Number One [that I was gay]."

"You say that about everything," said Mark. "You have several 'Clue Number One's'."

After a few more exchanges, we agreed: there should be a list. And then, after some editing (Mark says to take out the things that were just "goofy"), the list got pared down. So here it is: The Official List of Events That Should Have Clued Me In (But Didn't):

1968: Saturday morning I would turn on Johnny Quest. Sure, I liked Bandit the dog. And the over-dramatic danger music was a plus, too. Okay, and the mechanical spy spider that tried to steal the secret of the para-power ray! But I think what kept me coming back every weekend was Race Bannon. Maybe it was the sharp red shirt with the buttons up the side. Or maybe it was the fact that Mr. Bannon seemed to lose his shirt about as much as...

1970: Captain Kirk. Okay; it's true. Seeing William Shatner's sweaty bare chest made me all tingly inside -- which was very confusing because I really had no idea what I was feeling and also all that tingling was a little overwhelming. I guess I was losing my sanity.

1971: There was something both frightening and oddly compelling about Burt Ward and Adam West on the old Batman TV Series; especially when they were tied up in Yet Another Crazy Super-Villain Trap. And now that I'm thinking about it, The Riddler's (Frank Gorshin's) body suit was doing something for me, too.

c. 1972: You remember the commercial for Irish Spring that starts out with two brawny guys wrestling shirtless? Manly, yes; and I liked it, too (but I didn't know why).

c. 1974: One Easter, I must have tried to watch The Ten Commandments in its entirety. Hot sweaty guys building stone monuments, dancing girls, hot sweaty guys rowing boats, the sybaritic splendor of Hollywood's Egypt, hot sweaty guys in kilts, armbands, chest straps and jewelry. "Oh Moses, Moses, Moses!" it made an impression. The movie became a yearly guilty pleasure every Easter -- for reasons I wouldn't figure out for decades (I mean, come on; Charlston Heston?).

1977:  Really not understanding what all the fuss about Cheryl Tiegs and Farrah Fawcett-Majors was all about.  But kind of liking Kate Jackson.

c. 1981: When describing a high school girl, "Oh, she's got pretty hair."  And meaning it.

c. 1983: Noticing that the kind of woman I was attracted to tended to be tall, thin, and not buxom.

c. 1984: During a Reed College Renn Faire, we were watching the old 1960's Batman Movie (Adam West and Burt Ward, again!)  An auditorium of Reedies started hooting when Lee Meriwether appeared in her Catwoman suit.  For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what everyone was carrying on about, and had to be informed just what upper-torso body parts Ms. Meriwether possessed which "looked sharp enough to slice bread with."   -- In a slightly related issue, it took me something like two years before it dawned on me that I was supposed to be drooling over Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine (really?).

c. 1985: In one of those "Oh My God! It Burns My Eyes But I Can't Look Away" moments, I managed to catch The Beastmaster while channel surfing. I think it must have been during a PBS pledge drive and we wanted to watch Dr. Who instead. In any case, I found myself mesmerized by Marc Singer (The Beastmaster, Dar). Somewhere in the second half of the movie, viewers are treated to an overhead camera pan of our shirtless (of course) hero traveling upside-down along the underside of a kind of chain bridge. For what seems like a slo-mo eternity we watch Mr. Singer pull himself (one sweaty arm reaches out, a mighty hand grasps a length of chains, oiled pectorals contract, and... repeat!) farther along the chain links while a chorus of half-crazed animal-men (minions of the the evil wizard) grunt and try to pull him off of the bridge and into their cages. Oh, -- was there? -- I think there was hot lava or hot coals or something under the bridge. I was kind of too busy to notice.

c. 1991. I had traveled across the state with some friends to a Neo-Pagan Gathering in Madison, Wisconsin. It involved a lot of driving, and I had harped during the ritual. We (and other travelers) were offered crash-space in a barn, which we reached at midnight. As we were shuffling about in the barn's loft, a Sweet Young Neo-Pagan Lass looked at me, looked sideways, looked back and said, "Oohh! Do you need a place to sleep?" I think there might have been batting eyelashes and heaving bosoms here, but I honestly don't remember. "Oh. Oh," I said. "No, my sleeping bag is over here. Thanks. Goodnight." Only after the lights were out and I was drifting off did it occur to me that I was supposed to say "No", and then she was supposed to invite me to share her sleeping bag, and then....

There. Now it's official. I'm sure there's a few things that I've left off of this list. And I want to emphasize that during the seventies, at least, these little clues were feelings I couldn't verbalize or understand, and they didn't go much beyond feeling a little short of breath or vaguely thrilled. Looking back, I'm trying to tease out where naivety gives way to denial.... and that's another blog post.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Danger Words

It's time for a new addition to John's List of Danger Words! These are words that make me pause when I'm reading and either wince, or channel my inner Iago Montoya and say, "I do not think that word means what you think it means." Yes; I want to be a language cop. Yes; these words bug me.

Ego: This is frequently used as a code-word for "a way of organizing sensory input that is undesirable." And by undesirable, the author usually means "white, masculine, industrial, and Western-European." When ego is used this way, it's usually paired with a phrase about being Zen or getting in touch with one's feelings. Sometimes ego is confused with or a code phrase for rational, logical, linear, analytical or mental; as in the phrase, "let go of your ego and just experience." Other times, ego is used instead of selfish or self-centered -- which is close, as the ego is a structure of the self postulated by Freud (along with the id and super-ego -- but somehow "he's so id-centric" or "she's an id-maniac" haven't worked themselves into the popular idiom the way ego-centric and egomaniac have).

Energy: Energy is the ability to change the state of matter. Light, heat, sound, and motion are forms of energy. Sometimes people will ask, "Can you feel the energy?" or comment "She sucks all the energy out of a room." It's a metaphor, like the "Light of Christ." Where people get in trouble is when they start thinking of the metaphors literally, and so we get "crystal energy," or "animal energy." I think the only way to cure the over-use of energy instead of words like energized, enthusiasm, euphoria or motivation is to declare a day "Energy Awareness Day" and make every sentence we use one that has a noun coupled with the word energy. Like, "I felt the shoe-energy surrounding my feet" or "Use the key-energy to unlock the door-energy" or "Only the mighty cup-energy will contain the morning's tea-energy."

Ridiculous: This does not mean broken or unworkable in an annoying way, as in "the security line at the airport was ridiculous." It means foolishness, silliness or stupidity that is worthy of derision and scorn. The Windows operating system is not ridiculous... Oh, wait. -- Anyway, just because you dislike something, it makes you angry, or it's inconvenient doesn't automatically make it ridiculous.

Primitive: Primitive means crude, simple, or unrefined. When I encounter the word primitive, I can hear Mr. Spock complaining that he has to build a piece of computer equipment with primitive tools. Somehow, between the Star Trek episode with Edith Keeler and now, primitive has become a code-word for "pure," as in the "noble savage or primitive" (hmmm, no cultural baggage here). I think folks confuse primitive with primal, meaning "closer to the source."

Awesome: I secretly like the 80's skater usage of the word, awesome; it reminds me of "kewl." However, does not mean something is great or really really good, nor is it an exclamation of approval like amen! Awesome means, worthy or inspiring awe, which is the feeling of being something small just a little too close to something humongous. Awe is a mix of respect and dread and wonder and is what you're supposed to feel when your confronted with deity.

There, now you can add these to the list of other words that bug me:  swirled (when describing non-liquid things moving in a chaotic fashion), pixilated (when describing something not seen on a computer or television screen), morph (when describing the transformation or metamorphosis of some non-virtual object), orb (my personal over-used word), and bloody (as in "bloody hell", used by non-English characters in a generic fantasy or pirate genre, or anachronistically by mediaeval English characters).

Do you have a particular word you think is overused or misused ?  Share it here!

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Litany of Writer's Despair

A couple of months ago, I had a "writing for writing versus writing for sales" conniption fit.  And then I did something soul killing; I indulged in envy and jealously and compared myself to my writing cohorts. To make a long story shorter, without further ado, I give you the Litany of Writer's Despair (Or Why Aren't I Selling As Much As My Friends Are?):

  • Possibility One: I'm lazy. I don't write enough, edit enough, and I don’t submit enough.
  • Possibility Two: I'm slow. See above.
  • Possibility Three: I'm distracted / thinking about too many things at once (Facebook, Twitter and -- um -- Blogger: I'm looking at you). See above.
  • Possibility Four: I'm stupid. It's not that I write bad stories, it's just that they're adequate. They almost but not quite make the brilliant twist connection. The prose asymptotically approaches splendor, brilliance, élan, majesty, portents, surprise, mystery, connection, portents, etcetera -- but will never get there.
  • Possibility Five: I'm insane. All my prose is just me mumbling to myself in a closed system that's short circuiting.
  • Possibility Six: I'm should be writing in a genre other than science fiction or fantasy short story. Like the memoir genre.  Or the technical manual genre.
  • Possibility Seven: The John Speculative Fiction Genre exists, but I need to somehow educate editors and readers in the finer aspects of reading a JSF Genre Story. (See Possibility #5)
  • Possibility Eight: The stories I write are the sorts of stories that were published in 1985 (but not today).
  • Possibility Nine: I can't write convincing characters unless they're me. Which isn't writing a story, it's therapy (see #4 and 5).
  • Possibility Ten: I don't really want to write; I just want to Live The Glamorous Life of the Tortured Writer (cue John Leguizamo singing "Nature Boy").
  • Possibility Eleven: I don't' really want to write -- I want to research!
  • Possibility Twelve:  A decade's worth of studying grammar, staging, character, setting, plot, dialog and cultural meaning have turned me into a lean, mean, critiquing machine.  I shouldn't be writing, I should be editing.

I'm sure that Starhawk would say something about the Self Hater at this point.  And I'm sure that David Raines would remind me that Pride, Envy and Jealousy are Deadly Sins.  I suppose the antidote to this litany is to quote The Fiction Writing Directorate Subsiste statim sermonem et scribe.

And now, back to work.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tiara of a Harkonian Princess.

Lately, I've been playing with Blender to make tiaras. Probably what I'm coming up with is closer to crowns. In a recent breakthrough -- both in the beta-release rotate function and in my understanding of Python string functions -- I've managed to manipulate multiple star shapes. This means that I will soon be able to make mathematically precise star tiaras!

It seems appropriate, therefore, to go back to source materials, like this 4000 year old tiara (on display in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's Egyptian Wing). What I like about this tiara is its level of detail and its mixture of animal heads and flowers.  This headpiece says it all subtly:  "My flowers are solar; my animal's horns are lunar -- I'm wearing the heavens as adornment."

I don't think I'm at the modeling animal heads stage of Blender just yet... but someday.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Touch Something

A long time ago, when youth was forever, I read a collection of essays by Jane Yolen called "Touch Magic."  The book shaped the way I think about story, and I find myself re-reading it every other year or so.  Recently I was skimming through it to try to find the source of the words in this blog's masthead: mystery, BEGUILEMENT, portents, WONDER, awe, CONNECTION, majesty, SURPRISE.  I thought if I could go back to the source, I would have a good starting point to talk about story and story critique.

Ms. Yolen does have a similar (shorter) list in her book, but it appears over the years I've changed some of the words when I adopted her list, or else my list is the offspring of "Touch Magic" and Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories." And it looks like I've gotten a little mixed up with the list from The Player: "Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mostly happy endings."

So much for sources...onto the critique process.

At the Wordos table, we do a lot of critique, and it is common for folks who are new to do "safe" critiques and focus on manuscript mechanics: syntax, formatting, and grammar. These are fine things to focus on, especially if critiquing manuscripts is a new pastime or you don't want to offend an older author.  Folks with more experience will look at and focus on plot mechanics and plot logic holes. This works well for stories that follow the seven-point plot form, less so for stories breaking out of that mold.

To get back to Jane Yolen's "Touch Magic," what I want to address is a story's heart.  A story works well when the reader discovers an Ah-ha! moment or when one of the characters (and by extension the reader) makes a discovery. A story's heart is bound up with the moral or message the story brings to a reader. Yes:  moral -- a tricky word to navigate.

One of the subjects in "Touch Magic" is how the storyteller is telling a truth about themselves disguised as a truth about the world.  And so my list:  mystery BEGUILEMENT portents WONDER awe CONNECTION majesty SURPRISE.  When a story works well for me, it reasonates with my list.  It shows how a particular character, and by extension the reader, find their place in the world through the choices they make.  Rather than publicly critique another's work, I'll make something up --

High above the world, the snowflake began around a grain of dust.  The wind buffeted it high and low, and from a hexagonal plate six triangular arms grew.  Heavier now, the snowflake fluttered ground-ward.  It fell onto the black mitten of Nell.  She brought her hand close to her once-young eyes, squinted at the crystal and saw silver crowns.  Good, but she must know more.  With her free hand, she fumbled her glasses down her nose and peered over the lenses.  White birds' wings entwined in frozen branches.  Before she could look longer, the snowflake melted from the heat of her breath and hand.  Nell knew her daughter would marry the old lord.  But she had seen no bells or flowers, no natal stars.  She hurried home.

-- This is just a start.  I can hear the critiques now, "The tone was distant," or "I wanted to know more about the characters, especially Nell."  And I'm sure that I've done something wrong with commas.  But the story can go on because the mother has knowledge about her daughter's future; and what actions she takes to help or hinder her daughter's marriage will not only reveal Nell's character, but speak to mothers' hopes, the nature of fore-knowledge, mother-in-law relations, and how the act of looking at the future "melts" it.

Yes; this story might not resonate with everyone -- and what story could?  But  a story spun poorly from this fragment will speak only to gold-diggers.  Yes, most parents want their children to marry well and produce grandchildren -- but that's not a deep truth.  (Oh, I'm going to get into trouble for using the phrase "deep truth," but let me defend myself by pointing readers to various market's guidelines and lists of worn ideas and say that it's harder to produce a resonate story starting from the ideas in these lists of don'ts.)

A well-spun story has a greater chance of resonating with a wider audience -- of speaking their truths.  Speaking an audience's truth gives them a glimpse at a world map, one that has a "you are here" arrow on it -- a map that helps them to navigate morals.

When I critique, sure; I want the main character to solve their problems -- but I also  to be awed by the majesty of the world.  I want to be filled with wonder and beguiled by mystery.  I want to be surprised by portents.  And I especially want the story to say something about how the choices we make transform the connections between ourselves and the world. 

And... okay -- I'll admit it -- a little well-crafted, artfully done sex wouldn't be so bad.  Er -- sex scene.  Scene.  Written.  Quick!  Someone, give me a fade to black!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ancient Mediterranean Defixiones

I told a friend I was working on a story set in the first century BCE Mediterranean. Part of my research for the story included an archaeological discovery of an ancient Greek merchant boat wreck. Nailed to the boat -- possibly by pirates -- was a lead curse tablet. Later, she loaned me some of her research books. Included in the loan was a book all about lead curse tablets, or defixiones.

Curse tablets are small sheets or strips of lead with magical inscriptions and figures on them. Most are folded or rolled and pierced with a nail. Apparently, the use of defixiones stretches (at least in the book) from 400 BCE to about 600 CE. The use was sometimes illegal -- banned both by Roman civic bodies and the Christian Church -- but that doesn't seem to have stopped folks from leaving bits of lead on graves, in wells, or buried under racetracks.

The person placing the curse employed a specialist: a scribe with knowledge of magical formulas to write them. Some scribes had a stock of them with blanks left for the target's name.

Defixiones imply that the magician is seen as someone marginal and powerful who mediates between the order of the civil structure of the polis and the chaos of the supernatural world.

A further implication is that throughout ancient Sumerian, Egypt, Greece and Rome the historic role of magic has has been to work against the established authority by placing tools -- for a price -- into the hands of the disenfranchised. Some of these people are the people with nothing left to lose: the slaves, second wives, and the accused. Some of them are, however, not so disenfranchised after all: envious land owners, charioteers, and theatre managers.

From a writing stand-point, at least on the long-term project that I'm working on, this presents a problem. I'm working on a series of stories set in an alternate ancient world. I want to have a different societal use for magic. Specifically, I want to explore two questions: what if magical technique were similar to or a part of the technique of using simple tools like the lever, the pulley or the incline plane? And, what if it were possible to build machines that were able to evaluate the calculus of morality? (Or, think of it this way: how can we build a scale like the one in the Egyptian Hall of Judgement, wherein a person's heart is weighed against Ma'at, the feather of Truth?)

From a modern standpoint, and one that vexes me as a Neo-Pagan, ancient curse tablets are the old-time flip-side to doing spells for sex, money and parking lots. Essentially, one goes to a specialist and pays them to prevent rivals from getting sex, money, or winning chariot races (the ancient version of parking spaces) leaving these resources available for the person paying for the curse.

The difficulty as a modern writing ancient characters is to have them think and react within their own time. My characters might not frame the following question “which is the most moral of spells: a spell to attract health, or a spell to bind sickness?” -- much in the same way I might not frame the question “Is it better to eat fruits and vegetables and exercise, or to wash my hands and wear a face mask?”

And, what exactly is the moral implication of Heron of Alexandria's steam top?

Okay, back to the manuscript.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Portland Train Fantasy

I was thinking that it might be fun to write in Portland. 

I could take the train, where-in I could look up from my manuscripts every now and then to receive inspiration from the landscape.  I would disembark the train at the quaint Portland train station, which is brick and has fossils in the marble lining the halls.  And then I would wend my way up to Powell's Bookstore and the Portland Art Museum (since this is my fantasy visit, my laptop weighs virtual pounds).  Perhaps a short visit to Moonstruck Chocolate between writing, art and books.  Then a snack, and it's back on the train.

Then I looked up the price of a train ticket.  It's cheaper to drive, by about $20.  So the question becomes, is it worth about four hours of not driving (and finding parking)?  And then I suppose if I'm really looking at the cost-effectiveness of this, I'd save money time and effort writing if I stayed home.

And actually, if I'm honest, taking the train to Portland is really an art excursion disguised as writing-on-the-hoof.  (Sigh, cue Dot singing, "Nah, I wouldn't like it much / Married men and stupid boys ...")  I guess I'll try the University of Oregon's art museum.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Star Tiara

After a hard day editing multiple manuscripts and installing Scrivener on several machines, there's nothing like kicking back at the end of a day and designing a star tiara.  Even if I do have to do the geometry by hand once I have the stars.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Post Christmas Style

The way that early January weekends fell this year, we hadn't gotten around to undecorating the Christmas Tree until January 7th.  I suppose that's not too bad, considering that we resisted putting the tree up until about the 20th.

While undecorating, we like to take a few moments to organize the ornaments. We've got Victorian (flower fairies, and 1890's Santas), and Celestial (stars and the Egyptian Horus), and Holly-Jolly (little mettle bells and green glass hearts), and Origami (paper doves etc. hand folded by Mark) and Goofy (The Christmas Gargoyle, Light-up Klingon Bird of Prey, and glitter encrusted flying pig). And the ornaments that may wind up on the Island of Misfit Toys.

And then we have The Country Cute Ornaments.

Mark won't let me call them "Homestead" or "American Gothic." "Arts and Crafts" would come close, except we're not sure if these ornaments are missing the art or the craft part.  "Little Old Lady" might be close, but takes too long to say -- and besides, we don't have any little porcelain owls, Beatrix Potter prints, or miniature garden gnomes. 

Usually, Country Cute ornaments look handmade from raw materials found laying around.   The wooden ones look like they were cut from a plank with a jigsaw.  Paper ones are made from recycled holiday cards or wrapping paper (canning jar lid optional).  They frequently feature a star, a heart, or a flower in their design.

The most unsettling thing, however, about the Country Cute Ornament is the gradual and horrible discovery I made:

JOHN (holding up small pine cone on a red ribbon): "Do we have a natural group yet?"

MARK: "No." (Uses Perky Voice) "That's Country Cute."

JOHN: "Oh, yeah; you're right." (Puts cone into Country Cute Pile. Goes to tree and holds up sand dollar with red ribbons): "Oh, this is nice."

MARK (secretly smiling): "Put it in the Country Cute pile."

JOHN (slightly horrified): "But, this isn't... (holds ornament over the collection)... oh! It is." (Goes over to tree, picks up African shaker things). "These are not Country Cute."

MARK (opening smiling): "Country Cute."

JOHN: "Augh! No! They are!"  (Looks confoundedly at the purple and green basket-weave design on the miniature shaker gourds)  "How...?"

MARK (turning up the Perky Voice a notch): "They're African Country Cute!"

JOHN (noticing a stain glass angel created by Mark's mother):  "What's this angel doing here?  I like your mother's angels."

MARK:  "John, that angel's holding a small, white ribbon rose!  (Openly evil in his perkiness)  "And John, you like Country Cute."

I looked more closely at the stain glass angel Mary made, seeing for the first time the rose for what it was, and then was struck by metal ribbon trim that was the angel's halo:  like a Barbie tiara, it had a heart in it. 

I turned to the brown Papier-mâché Solstice Deer (with pearl necklace), but it gave me no solace, being Gay Country Cute. 

Mark was right.  It was true.  I liked the Country Cute aesthetic.  Somewhere deep inside my fiber, I want to hang little red-painted, star-shaped pieces of plywood around the house.  I want to stencil sky blue bird silhouettes along the upper reaches of our walls.  And I want stain glass angels in the windows.

All I ask is this:  By all that's holy, please -- oh please -- don't let me slide into The Little Old Lady Aesthetic!

Augh.  I need to go get some lasers or chrome-plated gears or something...

The New Look (Again)

Okay.  I've fiddled with colors and fonts and the current blog design will have to do for now.  It feels clean, if not downright utilitarian, (sort of like a newspaper's want add section) and I'll have to see if I can add a few blocks of color or something.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011


Mark was looking at my blog the other day and found it... confusing. So I think it's time for a re-design. But first, writing.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

What Boundary Do You Invoke?

In late December, I created an art display in Second Life. Unless you have a way to connect to the internet, you could not have visited it -- and in the spirit of keeping my computer clutter down, I removed it shortly after New Year's. So I will describe it for you.

There is a virtual brick library building -- neo-Grecian style -- near an electronic shore. Near one side of the library, wind chimes hang in the eternal blossoms of a cherry tree. Pentatonic notes ring randomly over rendered stone benches. A short way away is a large, perfectly circular labyrinth marked upon the grassy slope above the shore. These things remain in place; what follows was the installation.

Floating waist-high in a circuit around the labyrinth's perimeter were ten words: "What boundary do you invoke with the words 'Merry Christmas'?" To enter the twisting geometric path one had to cross the whirling words' orbit.

The installation was not a critique of the Christmas holiday. Words delimit concepts -- even as they attempt to bridge them -- and the intent of the installation was to raise awareness of relationships during the Christmas season.

"Merry Christmas" is short for "I wish you a Merry Christmas," or "May God send you a Merry Christmas." Hidden in the December salutation (and valediction) are wishes, hopes and prayers for others.

The orbiting words were a reminder that we stand in a personal intersection of faith, circumstance, hopes and wishes -- and that two words, "Merry Christmas" are chock full of hidden assumptions about ourselves, others, and our relationship as wish- and prayer-makers to the world.

So, as Twelfth Night and the Feast of Epiphany approach, I ask again: "What boundary do you invoke with the words 'Merry Christmas'?"

Monday, January 03, 2011

Yearly Epiphany Musing

Epiphany is coming up. Every year at this time I think about the kind of graceless way I came out to my parents on the Feast of Epiphany, 1996.

Close on the heels of thinking about coming out to my parents is the process of coming out to myself. My orientation should have been obvious to me in 1976 (when I was in sixth grade), and again in 1983 (when I was a Reed freshman). Well, okay; now that I really think about it, Captain Kirk loosing his shirt in the late sixties and early seventies was compelling in a way that I couldn't articulate at the time. But, for various reasons, the process didn't really happen until 1993 (when I was 29 years old).

Over the years, various friends have mentioned, almost as asides, "Oh, John; we all figured you were gay." (The high school jocks jeering "gay-boy" at me and fellow dance class students don't count.) My response has always been between a bemused, "What?" and "Why was I the last one to know?" So this year I'm curious - when did you know; and if you knew in the eighties and nineties did you think I knew, or were you waiting for a moment of self-discovery, or something else ?

Sunday, January 02, 2011

First Hike of Mt. Pisgah for 2011

We went hiking today at Mt. Pisgah Arboretum. We set out around 1 PM; it was a little above freezing -- so the mud puddles in the shade were frozen and the ones in the sun were mushy.

One of the things I noticed was what Mark called the fruiting body on this teeny-tiny lichen. For scale, the green thing that looks like a vine in this picture is actually a strand of moss.

The sun was out and shining through the ferns which were growing on the oaks (so yes; I was able to stand while taking this photo).

At the end of the hike was the obligatory art shot.