Sunday, August 30, 2009

Marking Time

We mark the passage of time in multiple ways. The tickings of a clock, the turning of a page in a calendar, the number of candles on a cake. All of these are artificial, of course, as our divisions in the flow of time are largely arbitrary things. The turning of the seasons doesn't follow the days on the calendar, and things ebb and flow regardless of how we choose to designate their passing. We attempt to impose order on things that do just fine without us.

It's cultural, of course, this obsession we have with dividing time up into neat little categories that we can check off as they pass us by. Other cultures follow different divisions, mark the passing of the year differently, even the number of the years. We here in the West have imposed a certain order on the rest of the world, a certain clock and calendar, but beyond that (and some times in spite of that) the rest of the world moves on it its own way.

One of the things I learned while living overseas was that the concept of observing one's birthday, and making a big deal out of it, is very much cultural. Not every society does this, which to my mind was missing a great opportunity for cake and ice cream if not presents. But it's just not that big a deal in other places, and so the day goes largely unobserved, in favor of other ways of marking the passage of time.

There is also the passing of the seasons, which, I'm sad to note that it's not quite September yet and already there are Halloween items in the stores. I know Fall is just around the corner, and I look forward to it, but I refuse to gear up for the holiday two months in advance. Ditto with the Christmas season. I love Christmas, treat it like Scrooge after his conversion, but I am not going to start listening to carols before the end of November.

(Day after Thanksgiving, yes, but that's tradition, and when the tree goes up. Which, in my family, is how we mark the start of the Christmas season.)

So, as of today, it's been another year for me. And while if the rest of my year is as good as today I should be in good shape, in some ways it does feel pretty much like yesterday, and the way I expect tomorrow to feel. I mark the passing of this day, as do my friends and family, but really, the world at large takes little notice.

Which is perhaps for the best. I don't have enough cake to go around.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Chasing Tangents

As mentioned, I tend to procrastinate. It's not deliberate by any means... well, ok, sometimes it is because I just don't want to get started or finished or even be in the middle of whatever it is I am working on. Other times it's a question of having other things that I deem to be more important to work on - which can translate to "anything is more important than this is." And sometimes it's just because I have an insatiable sense of curiosity and go wandering off chasing down tangents and random thoughts.

Actually, that's a lot of the times, come to think of it. I have a tendency once I discover something new, especially if it's interesting or has the potential to contain lots of useless but otherwise fun knowledge. I confess to being something of a trivia junkie. Actually it goes beyond mere trivia into the arcane, esoteric, and downright utterly and completely useless for ninety percent of anything, yet still addictive. I can't even reasonably claim it's "research" for any particular story, because there is so much of it out there that I have taken the time to read about and/or look into that even if I was a prolific author I won't live long enough to make use of them all.

Of course, from time to time something I learn does wind its way into something I'm working on. There are also the odd ideas and plot lines or other story details that might be suggested. Mostly they tend to work into my stories in terms of the little details, nothing major, but those odd little bits that ground a work in the reader's imagination and makes the fantastical elements I'm weaving that much more real for my audience. Which only makes it worse, because then there is the little voice in the back of my head that says "you know, this *might* be useful someday" and so I keep going.

Mostly though it's about the desire to chase those tangents. To find out where something interesting leads, follow the threads (without unraveling them), and generally stuff my brain with a thousand more essentially useless tidbits. All because it's fun.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


This is one of those words that every writer knows, of course. I did learn recently that there was, at one time, a more literal meaning behind it, but at the moment the exact details of this elude me. Something in journalism, I think. Anyway, regardless of what it used to mean, there is it's current meaning. Which, again, every writer knows something about.

I hate them. I loathe them. I despise their very existence. And it should be no surprise that I am terrible with them. Not to say that I don't meet them, because except under extraordinary circumstances, I do. I also procrastinate, as I have mentioned here before, and so give me a deadline and my own natural proclivities... well, the two are bound to clash.

It's always been this way, even back in college. I would put my papers off until the last moment. Not completely, mind you. I'd have the research done in advance, my notes jotted down - no outline, though; never an outline - and that's where it would sit. Until the day before. When I would actually write. You'd think this would lead to poor results, but this was not the case. I routinely finished my assignments and earned a good grade.

Which only reinforced the bad habit I have of being somewhat cavalier about deadlines. I mark them down, I note them, then I forget about them. Until the last minute. You would think, after years of this, that it would have bit me on at least one occasion, but so far not. In fact, it seems to be a system for me. It's not a system I'm fond of, nor one I can recommend, but it does seem to work.

It does tend to add somewhat unnecessary stress to my life, and I admit this. I also admit it might be better were I not to put things off to the last minute, and get them done ahead of time. However, I just don't seem to be wired this way, and with very few exceptions have never managed to actually do this. It doesn't impact the quality of my work, doesn't keep my from fulfilling assignments, just - on occasion - leads to some late nights in front of the computer.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

We Are Not Creatures of Logic

In yet another example of the difference between theory and practice, it turns out that there's a reason the average person makes a lousy economist. We're not ruled by logic. Now, at least on my end, this does not sound like something that should have been a shock. I worked in retail, and I know how appealing that price difference can be, even if in the long term it works out to the same cost - or even more. Yet, perhaps also as another example of scientists have too much time on their hands, a new scientific study has confirmed that yes, we are economic idiots.

Now, I'm not turning this into an entry as to why we are, as people, on average, idiots. Because let's face it we are. Myself included. The only thing that keeps us all alive is that for most of us, our idiocy is short-lived and occurs in sporadic bursts, rather than as a full time thing. My concern here, though, is those theorists who somehow expect that we are not idiots, that we are creatures of logic, and that we base our actions on the logical best outcome.

In the case of the radio program I was listening to which inspired this post (the CBC's Quirks and Quarks) the economists in question were somewhat shocked to find that people don't always ask in their own financial self-interest. Case in point was being offered to split $10 1 to 9 with someone. Most people balked, wanting a fairer split. The economists say that people ought to take the $1, because fair or not it's better than nothing (and I agree, but I can use every spare dollar). However, human nature, or at least a sense of fairness that is probably more societal than nature, intercedes.

Likewise I got into a conversation with someone the other day about the failings of Marx. My biggest complaint with Marx's theories was the part in them where the leaders of the revolution, having overthrown the rich and ruling class (using that term I can say but not spell at the moment) and ascended to power themselves, are supposed to then hand it over to the people. It's a nice, logical progression of the revolutionary movement, and makes perfect theoretical sense to Marx. It does not, however, account for human nature in that most people, once they've taken power, aren't going to simply hand it back over.

Human beings are not creatures of logic. Aside from the grand scale of economics and politics, this afflicts/affects us in our everyday life. How many times do we make decisions counter to the choices we know, logically, we ought to make, because other factors intercede? How often have we done so today?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Corkscrew

This is a rumination on the little identifiable things that make us instantly recognize whatever it is that little thing is a part of, but which may, in their own way, be somewhat inscrutable. In this case, it's the corkscrew on the Swiss army knife.

A question to start with first. Has anyone who owns a Swiss army knife ever actually used the corkscrew to open a bottle of wine? I did, once, and have to say it doesn't work very well. It's a little too small, unless you have some super-deluxe model, and frankly the corkscrew on a decent sommelier's knife works a lot better. In part I think the fault for the Swiss model lies in it's need to fold away nice and neatly, but, really, in a survival knife, why do you need a corkscrew in the first place?

Or, for that matter, why is part of the standard issue equipment to an army - assuming the Swiss army knife, was, in fact standard army issue - a device whose sole purpose is to aid in the consumption of alcohol? Then again, they are Swiss, after all, so maybe a little wine after the field of battle was the norm.

Though when was the last time the Swiss went to war?

And yet, for it's seemingly little utility, it's on all but the smallest models, and I would go so far as to say that it would seem not only odd, but also somewhat amiss, were it not to be there in the first place.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


This is a first in what will hopefully be an ongoing series of entires, which will occur at irregular intervals. (If you were expecting something regular, clearly you've not been reading my blog very long.) It was inspired by a conversation held elsewhere about profiling lesser known authors. Now, granted, that conversation centered around the idea of well-known authors, and I'm hardly in that category yet by any means. Also, I don't know for certain that these authors are all that lesser-known, I'm simply basing this on the number of books my local library has of them, and whether I'd heard of them before the cover/title attracted my attention.

Yes, I judge books by their covers. If covers weren't important, they'd all be solid colors with nothing on them but the title and the author's name. Which, unless your Stephen King, you don't get.

For this first installment I thought I would highlight the twin works of Hal Duncan, Vellum and Ink. I'm using both books, because even though they are two volumes, they are essentially a single work, under the subtitle The Book of All Hours. Think Lord of the Rings only one book short. And without hobbits. Though, given the premise of the book, their are probably hobbits in there somewhere, the reader just doesn't encounter them.

It's a little bit science-fiction, a little bit fantasy, a little bit alternate-history, all rolled into one, dense story. And I do mean dense. Most of the time, I can judge how good a book is by how long it takes me to go through it. If it's taking me longer to read it than the time the library allots me, chances are it's because I've lost interest. With Vellum and it's companion novel, it's just because the story is a bit to wade through.

So this recommendation comes with a caveat: if Armageddon, nanites, angels (that are and aren't), Sumerian/Hebrew/Christian mythology, and an alternate history or two of the 20th Century (including one semi-steampunk), plus numerous science-fiction realms, through which a recurring cast of souls (not quite characters, but read it and you'll understand) find themselves wandering about before ultimately trying to save the world as we know it... if all that sounds like something you might enjoy, I recommend the book.

Just set aside the time to read it. It was, for me at least, somewhat slow going. It was engrossing, well-written, and the kind of first novel I can only dream of ever attempting (I'm just not that complex with my plots and I know it), but it was something I had to renew in order to finish. So if you're normally a slow reader, and your library does not have a generous renewal policy - mine's unlimited - you might want to consider buying it to finish it.

It'll be cheaper than the fines.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Woebegone Poet

Despite the fact that my first ever "sale" (which was, in reality, two copies of the mag and a promise of an eventual token check that never showed, presumably because the magazine went under) was a poem, I am not a poet. I can, if need be, attempt poetry and even write some, but it remains a struggle for me. I suspect that poets probably find the idea of a five thousand word short story as daunting as I find a fifteen line poem, but that doesn't change the fact that I am not a poet.

This was brought home to me the other day as I was listening to "A Prairie Home Companion" this weekend. They were doing a poetry show, featuring a collection of their poetry related vignettes. One of the guests they'd had on - whose "Marco Polo" poem I'd heard the first time it aired - was Billy Collins, national poet laureate. Before he read his poem "Ballistics," he talked about where the idea for the poem had come from.

As I listened to him, it dawned on me that this is why I am not a poet. I'm not saying I don't strive for a certain poetic quality in my prose, because I do, but that's not the point. If I see something, or hear something, or experience something that inspires me, that trips my muse, the thoughts in my head are not poems. They're stories, or articles (or blog entries) - something in prose.

For artists, I presume they see pictures. I've heard musicians say they hear lyrics or notes, depending. So this is something that probably should not have been a surprise to me, but as I've been reading a bit more poetry these days my thoughts had turned in that direction. I've been tempted of late to try my hand at another poem, if only because I think it's a good writing exercise, yet haven't come up with anything that is setting off the poetry muse for me. And despite that one sale, it's probably for the best. Because even if this little train of thought hadn't reminded me why I don't write more poetry, a quick look at some of my past efforts would probably have sufficed.

But if something does occur to me in verse, I will be sure to write it down.

Friday, August 14, 2009


There is more than one way to go home again. You can, as has been mentioned elsewhere by me, literally go home again. If you have understanding parents you might even be able to move in again, though that isn't recommended. (Also helps if you're on speaking terms with your parents and can stand to be in the same house with them when there isn't turkey, shiny presents, and copious amounts of alcohol involved. Even then, the relationship wears thin eventually.) Home is also a state of mind, however, and there are other instances when that feeling of being where you belong - which is what home is, at least to me - is so strong that you have that moment of literally stopping and recognizing how very much "at home" you are in that situation.

This was brought home to me (if I may mildly mix my metaphors) early this week when I walked into a local school looking for work as a substitute teacher. I didn't get the work, yet, but even though school isn't officially in session yet there was plenty of activity. Between the feel of being in a school again, and the sights and sounds that went with that, I realized how much I miss being in a classroom. It's been three years since I last taught a regular class, and being out of work and in a market where there's little else available, I've been kicking around getting back into teaching.

Within a minute of walking through the main doors, I knew I'd made the right decision. I had that sense of coming home, to a place where I belonged.

I get that from writing, too, especially if I've been away from it for a bit. There is that sense of being where I belong, only it's a much more ephemeral space - being primarily somewhere between my head, my fingers, and the keyboard. It was most profound when I started working on THE novel - that one work I think every writer has at some point. The one that's never quite finished, always being reworked, yet that can't ever quite be put down. (If you've never seen the film "Wonder Boys" I recommend it, if for no other reason than it captures the ethos of that last sentence beautifully.) It had been THE novel on my desk, so to speak, for almost fifteen years. Mostly gathering dust. And when I finally sat down to work on it again, to really work on it - so that it is, finally, finished and I can move on to the next one - there was that sense again of being where I belong.

Neither place pays the bills very well at the moment, which is one of the reasons I am pursuing teaching again. But I think even when I sell that book, I'd like to keep teaching. If it's the only book I ever sell, I can become the classic and cliched writing professor. The bitter one that everyone hates. Though I'd rather be the wildly successful one that everyone wants to take.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

That's Not Me

I've been given cause to reflect lately upon what can be both a good and a bad thing. Something I have noticed that seems to affect both the successful and not-yet successful among the writing community. And that is a lack of confidence, or more specifically, an inability to see ourselves as the others around us keep insisting we are. Despite repeated comments from others, in fact, who seem to see us as much more than we see ourselves.

I could probably psychoanalyze this by noting that, in my experience at least, most of the writers I know weren't the popular kids in school. We didn't have the swagger that came from being a star athlete or something along those lines - after all, pro sports pays better than being a writer, most of the time, though I think your odds of making the "majors" as a writer are far higher. Not to mention those kind of activities suck down a lot of the time those of use who write were using to put pen to paper.

Or, you know, stalking the head cheerleader. But that may have just been me.

While I certainly think that's a lot of it, there ought to come a certain time when we start acknowledging that all the people around us who tell us we're good - and who are no hacks themselves - may actually have a point and aren't all suffering from some mass delusion. Now, I say this, having found myself in a similar position, and more than once in my life. (Though that is mainly a result of the break in my life as an active writer more than any change in my own attitudes. I simply wasn't putting anything out there for anyone to judge.) Yet I am not reserving this condition simply for myself. I know a few others who, despite having been told repeatedly just how good they are, have trouble seeing themselves as that person with talent.

On the one hand, a certain amount of this is healthy. I think it helps keep you humble. This may just be my impression, having never met the man, but despite the astronomical level of his success, when I watch Stephen King in an interview or read his comments on the whole thing, there seems to be this inherent humility, as if he still can't believe it himself. As if, somewhere behind the millions of books, movies, and other things sold with his name attached, there is still the fledgling writer who tossed the draft of "Carrie" in the trash.

In part it's probably a result of being our own worst critics. Even after having sold for publication, there's still that nagging little voice that says this one isn't good enough, or this story doesn't quite work, or it'll take too long to find an agent, or sub to a magazine, or *something*. I am reminded that it is not a new phenomena, either, as Robert Louis Stevenson tossed "Jekyl and Hyde" into the fire. He then promptly rewrote it the next day - I think at the insistence of his wife, so perhaps the moral here is to marry someone with better judgement than ourselves - but not before he gave in to that moment of doubt.

Now, not everyone is talented. And there are more than a few instances of people with no real talent being propped up and continuing to write primarily because they're surrounded by people more interested in patting each other on the back than actually honing any real craft or talent. But, you would think, that after enough people who you *know* have talent, who have opinions that are valued and worth more than the empty air they're breathed from, have told you that you, too, belong in their ranks, you'd be a bit more confident about the whole thing.

Instead of sitting there, thinking, "that's not me they're talking about."

When it is.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Lights and OBEs

[A brief note before I launch into the actual subject of this entry: The radio segment in which I heard about this topic was broadcast originally on either the CBC's Quirks and Quarks or NYC's Radio Lab. I could look it up, but in this case I'm not going to not because I don't feel like it, but because if you're reading this and you are unfamiliar with either of these shows, you ought to check them out. They put out an hour show - each - once a week, they also podcast, and they have some of the coolest science segments on radio.]

So, the truth is out there now. (Yes, blatant X-Files reference.) Turns out that light at the end of the tunnel? Well, unless you're in the subway, it's not the A-train, and it's not the land of clouds and wings and harps, either. Before going any further, let me preface this by saying the following has nothing to do with a belief in life after death, or any religious system of belief, or anything of that nature. I, for one, have a firm belief that something of who we are survives the transition from life to death, and it's based on personal experience. ... Which is probably where some of you have now tuned me out as being slightly more whacko than you thought I was already.

For those of you still reading, there was a series of studies done, not just recently but going back to experiences of test pilots during the 1950's, where they have now been able document both that "light in the tunnel" you see when you're dying, as well as the out of body experience (known as an OBE in the paranormal parlance... at least I think so and will call it such to shorten my typing). OBE's were actually experienced by test pilots, not only in the planes themselves but also after performing tests in ground-based apparatus, so long as the pulling of heavy g-forces was involved. It was some of these experiences which also led to the development of the g-suit as a way to counteract the effects of pulling g's on the body.

Just in case you aren't versed in techno-geek, a "g" is the effect of gravity on your body. Normally, you're at 1 g. Higher g's, known as "pulling g's" can be caused by rapid acceleration, among other things. Lower g's, or negative g's create a less than 1 g feeling on your body. You can demonstrate this yourself on a swing. The little "blurp" your body does at the end of the forward upswing is where, for just a moment, you have a slightly negative g. ... and if I'm wrong, I'm sure some physicist out there will eventually correct me, but I'm pretty darn sure on this one.

It turns out that one of the effects led to the OBEs the test pilots had, as a result of some chemistry/blood flow thingy in the brain. Thingy is a technical term, trust me. The upshot of the study was that they were able to reproduce the effects, and figure out why they had happened in the first place.

Along with that, they also tumbled onto the "light in the tunnel" bit. And, again, were able to reproduce the triggers in the brain that set it off. Without having to kill anyone or bring them near death. Which I think is probably a plus during scientific experiments. Now, this whole set of experiments does some very interesting things, and says some very interesting things about the way our brains and bodies react (mostly our brains) and this is where I again plug the above shows and encourage you to go take a listen.

But it also struck me, that in validating the OBEs as something that does actually occur, in taking what was largely assumed to be a paranormal event and one of those things we laugh at in the tabloids, it ought to make us take another look from time to time at other things we might just flat-out dismiss. Even the light in the tunnel, though it doesn't lead to heaven, is in fact a real phenomena and, while on the one hand it is "just in people's heads" we shouldn't look askance at people who claim they've experienced it.

Also makes me wonder what gets proved next....

Monday, August 3, 2009


One of the things that comes out of moving is reacquainting yourself with the contents of your bookshelves - mainly because if you aren't planning on selling (excuse me a moment while I indulge in serious laughter) or donating them, there's nothing to be done with them but pack them up and take them.

(On a quick side note, I do suggest that, when you can, you donate books to places like your local library or other organizations that provide books for free. I managed to unload my shelves of a number of tomes that I simply had not read in ages, and was unlikely to read again, and in the process boosted my local library's collection. By eight boxes.)

On my shelves are some of the old stand-bys, of course. I have Shakespeare and Thoreau and Joyce - the latter of which I'll confess I've not yet read. I've got some non-fiction (mostly about either military history, gleaned from college, or dinosaurs, which have been a life-long hobby), some poetry, and a fair amount of other people's fiction, too. And while a lot of it goes together, in a way, there are those odds and ends that, when you put them on the shelf together, they just look a little odd.

Some of that is my own doing. I group things by genre, and then alphabetically. (Don't look at me like that, it makes things much easier to find than grouping things by, say, where you were in your life when you first heard them.) But there are those volumes that defy this effort at categorization. The "Tao Te Ching" for example... is that philosophy, or religion? Same thing for the "Tao of Pooh" (which I actually recommend as a decent introduction into Taoism). Other times it's just a question of having not enough of one to fill a shelf. I've got books on religion - enough to cover all the majors and some of the smaller - and some philosophy books - heavy on the Foucault and Nietzsche. But not enough of both to fill a shelf, and I figure they're similar enough to go together.

So I ended up with "The Art of War" next to "The Way of the Goddess." The former is something I bought on my own, the latter acquired from an ex-something. (Not quite girlfriend, not quite friend.) It was technically borrowed in exchange for two books on Egyptian stuff, one on their myths and another on hieroglyphics. I never got mine back... Which, come to think of it, has happened before. I seem to have bad track record on lent books. I don't really count it as a far exchange, especially for the lost book on mythology, but I confess the Wiccan manual is interesting.

It did, however, make for an odd juxtaposition, I thought. Nothing profound in that, or at least if there is I'm not seeing it at the moment, but just one of those things were, when you visit a person's home, their bookshelves can tell you a lot about them. In my case I'd think they'd just say I have diverse taste in books, but at the very least I'm never short of something interesting to read.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Luddite Lite: The Lawn Mower

Mowing the lawn is one of those chores that, now that I've moved into a new place, I have to tackle again. (Seeing as I seem to actually be developing a teensy-weensy following, that move is partly responsible for the lack of posts in July. My own faults bear the majority of the blame, though. Hmm... another entry in that topic, I think, would be warranted. There will be a couple of back-postings for July up here shortly, as I wrote things down elsewhere with the intent to publish them here. Notice how well that has worked out so far. Anyway, I digress.) I have discovered that I like mowing the lawn, which I'm sure my parents would be shocked to hear. Then again, it's been decades since I had a lawn I could mow, so that might have something to do with it.

I am not using a gas mower. There are a couple of reasons for this, starting with the size of my lawn. It's not the proverbial postage-stamp, but it's not huge by any means, either. With the gas mower it took me about 5 minutes for the backyard. That's quick and easy, but also loud, noisy, and courtesy of my nephew, smoky. That's point one against the gas mower. Point two is, it's a waste of energy. Not only mine, because the one I have is a bear to start, but just energy in general. Eventually I'll have to buy more gas for it, so there's also the money issue.

Instead, I have a push mower. That, thankfully, I didn't have to buy, because bizarrely a brand new one costs about as much as a small power mower. I don't understand that at all. After I finished mowing my lawn (took me about 20 minutes with the push mower, so yeah, it took longer, but I got exercise I wouldn't have gotten otherwise) I got to thinking: there's just some technology I think we could do without.

For reasons that should be obvious, I'm not against all technology. Or even most technology. But I think there are certain items, that have often become ubiquitous in our lives, that we just ought to chuck out in favor of a more low-tech solution. (My computer for pen and paper is not one of those. My penmanship is atrocious, and I'm pretty sure editors need to read my submissions.) I'm picking on the lawn mower because I prefer my push mower, but also because the neighbor's landscaping service woke me up earlier this week.

Truthfully though, I don't really think most people need a power mower. Certainly most lawns could be handled with a push mower, which would reduce pollution, increase exercise, and get people and their fat butts out of those monstrous riding mowers that they take about four sweeps across their lawn with. Even out in the country, where you see people with these vast expanse of cropped grass, I have to wonder: if they were only given a push mower, would there be less essentially pointless lawn, and more trees instead?

I confess I've never understood mowing a private lawn the size of a football field, unless of course you intend to play football on it. Which most people don't seem to do. No, they just mow it, probably spray it with chemicals, and spend far more time each week mowing it than they need to. I'd be willing to go so far as to suggest that using a push mower on a smaller lawn might actually save them time over mowing the whole thing on their riding mowers.

What does this have to do with writing? Truthfully, not much, other than I like the idea of a future where we've grown smart enough to dispose of some of this unnecessary technology in order to reap the benefits of a cleaner, healthier, and quieter world.