Monday, August 27, 2007

A Silence in One Ear

Aargh! I just managed to destroy one of my hearing aids. The audiologist had said that they're so tough that you could run a truck over them and they'd be okay. But apparently you can't drag a small refrigerator over them.

And of course it's no longer under warranty. That expired in March.

Gloom. They're just little pieces of latex with chips and wiring and stuff in them, but for people like me, they have considerable emotional importance.

I've occasionally wondered what it would be like to use just one of them. Now I'll find out. On the bright side, it should make it easier to tolerate those guys a few cubicles away who talk and laugh too loudly.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Black Coffee and Red Blood

That would make a pretty good title for a horror short story. However, this is just a brief, unpleasant reminiscence.

I was reading Bella Stander's account of her recent oral surgery, and I suddenly remembered having two of my wisdom teeth out when I was in high school. My father dropped me off at the oral surgeon's office, where they doped me up and did the nasty stuff to my mouth. In the process, I think I swallowed great quantities of blood; they didn't do much about suctioning that stuff out in those days, especially in small towns (Elkhart, Indiana, specifically).

Anesthetics and pre-op drugs have always affected me much more than the average person is affected, so when I came out of the drug haze and woke up, I didn't come out very far or wake up all that much. They called my parents to say I was ready for pickup and delivery back home, and they asked me if I wanted coffee. I never drank coffee back then. It used to make me sick. I said "Grgrgrglllg." Which must have sounded like yes. Maybe I actually was trying to say yes, not knowing what they were saying or where I was or what had happened to me. With cream? "Grglglkerjlglkj." They took that as a no. I gulped down a cup of the horrifying stuff, vaguely aware that it was the most awful liquid in the history of the universe.

My parents came, the adults got me into the back seat of the car, and we took off. I threw up a humongous mixture of coffee and blood all over the back seat. My father was furious but apparently felt that, this once, he couldn't scream at me. So he yelled at my mother instead, blaming her, which he very often did. "It's not her fault," I tried to say. "What?" "It's not her fault!" Probably sounded more like "Grergljlwkkkkkk!"

Ah. Boyhood memories.

Why is this on my blog? Well, where else does one put such stuff, nowadays? It'll probably show up in a novel eventually.

Monday, August 20, 2007

First Chapter of Time and the Soldier

Okay, so now I'm terribly serious. This is the rough(ish), short(ish) first chapter of TatS:


     The first blast came at dawn on February 8, 1945. Two men died in that instant. Everyone else was already dead.

     Other blasts followed. The windows of the central building of the huge complex blew out, and smoke billowed through the empty frames. A few minutes later, the windows in the wings of the complex shattered. The metal door of the main building began to melt within thirty minutes. Another thirty minutes, and the roof collapsed. Flames and embers shot high into the dry mountain air.

     The fire raged on, consuming the building and the dead. It melted the equipment those people had put together and tested so painstakingly. It ate wood and flesh indiscriminately.


     Twenty-four hours later, a man and a woman appeared in the smoking rubble.

     They stared in bewilderment at the remnants of the machinery they remembered so well. In front of the shattered machinery lay the upper half of a body. He had been a large, blond man. His face was undamaged and unfamiliar.

     The man who had just arrived brushed his shoe across the ashes beneath his feet, exposing part of a yellow circle.

     "Why is it now?" he asked.

     "Come on," the woman said.

     They made their way through the ruins, moving clumsily in their heavy coats. The remaining heat kept them out of some areas. The charred floor sagged and creaked under them. Remnants of walls collapsed suddenly.

     Hours passed. They found bodies, some burned to charcoal but some untouched by the fire. They were all dead -- of slit throats or bullets in the forehead. They saw no sign of the two people they were looking for.

     "He wouldn't be here," the woman said. "He left when we did. We know that."

     "But what about her?" the man said in despair.

     "I don't think she's here." She said that to encourage him, not because she believed it. "Come on."

     It was noon now, but bitterly cold, and yet they were sweating inside their coats. For a moment, they stood looking up at the cracked face of the sandstone cliff. Then finally they turned and walked away.

     The fire had changed them already and would change them again. It extended its effects beyond its own brief life, far into the future, changing men and women and their lives and loves forever.


     Eight years earlier and two thousand miles away, a dark-haired woman and her blonde daughter walked carefully along a country road in southern Michigan. The light was fading, catching the tops of the trees and the brilliant colors of autumn. The road itself was almost dark. They couldn't see the patches of ice, but they knew they were there.

     Across the road, invisible in the darkness between the trees, a man watched them.

     Absorbed in her thoughts, the younger woman drew further ahead of the older one. The watcher frowned. He had expected them to stay close together. This might be a complication.

     The mother called out, "Dolores! ¡Espérame!"

     The girl stopped and turned around. "Sorry, Mom. I was thinking about that job."

     "Good. You should."

     The girl laughed. She waited while her mother caught up with her.

     Right next to each other, the watcher thought. That's good.

     The headlights of a car swept across him. He threw his hand up to shade his eyes and stepped further back among the trees. He couldn't let anyone see him. He couldn't imagine what the boss would do if anything went wrong.

     The car roared around a curve, coming from behind the two women. It was upon them before they were aware of the car or the driver of them.

     The watcher held his breath. Perfect.

     Mother and daughter stood frozen in shock, caught in the lights, as the car rushed toward them.

     The driver seemed to be just as frozen. At the last moment, the car swerved toward the middle of the road.

     The watcher willed the car toward the mother and daughter. Hit them! Hit them!

     The driver almost made it past the two. But the big rear right fender caught the mother on the hip and threw her against her daughter. They fell heavily to the ground and lay still.

     The car skidded to a stop. The driver jumped from it and ran up to the two still figures. In the fading light, the watcher could tell that the driver was a well-dressed man. He couldn't see the man's face, but he read shock in the body language.

     "Oh, God!" the driver said. "Oh, my God!"

     He stood over the two bodies for a long time, hesitating. Then suddenly he turned and ran back to his car and sped off.

     "About time," the watcher muttered.

     All he had to do now was drag the girl's body into the woods, far enough from the road so that it wouldn't be found. Nature would do the rest.

     He walked quickly across the road. From close up, he could see that the mother was lying on her side. Her eyes were open and unmoving, and her skull was misshapen. Blood pooled under her.

     He turned to the girl. Fortunately, she had landed on her back. He bent down and slid his hands under her back and into her armpits and started to pull her toward the edge of the road. She didn't weigh much. That was good. There didn't seem to be any blood under her, which was also good. Pretty thing, he thought, looking down at her face. Too bad.

     She opened her eyes and looked up at him, confused. "Mama?"

     He jumped back, letting her shoulders and head fall to the ground. "Shit! I thought you were dead!"

     She struggled to sit up and managed at last. She held her arms wrapped tightly around herself. "Where's my mother? Who're you?"

     "She's back there."

     "Mama!" She was shouting, trying to get up, looking back at the still, dark figure in the road. "Mama!"

     "Listen, Dolores. It's okay. My name's Hank. I'm going to take care of you. It'll be okay."

     Except that it wouldn't be. This was a disaster. It wasn't supposed to happen like this at all, and the boss would be furious in that quiet, terrifying way of his.

     The girl was dragging herself along the road, trying to crawl to her mother. She was whimpering. She kept one arm tightly against her middle.

     Probably has internal injuries, Hank thought. She won't make it, anyway.

     But he couldn't bet on that.

     He sighed and shook his head. I hate shit like this, he thought. He reached inside his shirt and drew the knife from the sheath strapped against his chest. He stepped over to the crying girl and slit her throat.

     He waited till she had stopped moving and then, trying to avoid all the fresh blood, grasped the back of her shirt collar and dragged her into the woods, far enough that he was sure she wouldn't be found.

     He told himself that the fresh blood was good. It would attract animals all the faster.

     He felt sick.

     I need a drink, he thought. Gotta get my car and go back to town and find a bar or something.

     He pressed a spot behind his ear. "It's Morrison," he said. "No more Dolores."

     There were tough years ahead. There'd be more work like this. Eventually, in the future, there'd be a reward.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Opening Section of Time and the Soldier

I've decided to post the very beginning of TatS here, just in case anyone cares to critique it.

Please bear in mind that this is still a rough draft, and what I'm about to put up here might change. It hasn't been polished. It really is rough.

Okay, I'm delaying because I'm a bit nervous about doing this. Here it is, the beginning of the novel:


Gulp! Please be kind. I'm soooo nervous!!!

Massenet, Minneapolis, U-Haul, and Me

I was going to title this post something like "Cinderella and Me," but that might seem to imply that I think I'm Prince Charming, whereas I don't and I'm not.

Last Wednesday, Leonore and I flew to Minneapolis, where we began the task of helping Daniel and Becca (his fiancee) pack stuff in boxes and clean the apartment, preparatory to Daniel's move to Denver. A bunch of Daniel's friends had promised to show up to help, but none did, so it was us and Pat, a neighbor, who worked tirelessly and good-naturedly just because he seems to be a tireless and good-natured guy. Not to mention remarkably generous with his time. We picked up the U-Haul truck (17 feet, but it drove and handled like 100) on Thursday and started loading stuff into that, while continuing the packing and cleaning. I should clarify that Leonore did the cleaning pretty much all by herself, amazing me by her stamina.

We did take a brief break to go look at the fallen bridge. We went to the building on the campus where Daniel has been working this summer. It's right next to the highway, and the view of the bridge from the parking lot is ... well, excellent doesn't seem like the right word. Sobering. Disturbing. I felt ghoulish, going to look at it as though it were a tourist attraction. It's too fresh for that. Still, we went and looked and took pictures anyway.

We had hoped to be done on Thursday evening, but we weren't, so we continued on Friday morning. The original plan had been for Leonore and me to leave in the U-Haul on Friday at, say, 10 a.m. It ended up being just before 3 p.m. All in all, an enormous job, especially for so few people.

We got to Lincoln, Nebraska, where we planned to spend the night, at about 11 p.m. or thereabouts. We should have fallen into bed, but Doctor Who was on, and we couldn't miss that, so we watched it till 1 a.m. and then zonked out. It was an inferior episode, to boot. Daniel and Becca had planned to be on the road a couple of hours after us (driving two cars), but it took another 24 hours before they left Minneapolis.

We got to Denver yesterday evening (Saturday) and went to Central City to see Massenet's Cendrillon (Cinderella) today. It was the last performance of this CC Opera season, so at the end, there was an awards ceremony, and the audience was invited to join the cast and crew in singing Auld Lang Syne, which I thought was a nice touch. Not that I joined in. Being Mr. Tone Deaf, I never sing where anyone else can hear me, and even if I weren't tone deaf, I wouldn't have the temerity to sing in a building where opera is performed.

The opera has pleasant music, and it's a pretty good reworking of the fairy tale, touching in places. The staging was remarkable. Despite my new SuperHearing(TM), it didn't stun me the way the La Traviata did, but it's not that kind of opera. I did enjoy it far more than I would have BHA (Before Hearing Aids). Now I'm much more eager to go to live music performances of all kinds than I have been in a long while.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Violetta, You Slut

Er, courtesan, I mean.

We indulged ourselves today by going to an opera in Central City. It was La Traviata. More about that in a moment.

Interestingly, this is the 75th anniversary of the CC Opera House, and in their first season, in 1932, they did the play Camille, starring Lilian Gish, and based on the Dumas novel on which La Traviata is also based. Maybe that wasn't coincidence.

LT has always been one of my favorite operas. Is there anyone who doesn't like it? Anyone with a heart and a love of wonderful music, I mean? Heart-breaking soap opera! Heavenly melodies! Great ensemble pieces and duets and individual arias! What's not to love? Well, a bad performance would be not to love, of course. This, however, was an outstanding performance. The acting was excellent and the voices of the principals were stunning in both power and beauty.

I've seen other top-notch performances of LT, but this was the first live opera I've been to since I got my hearing aids. I expected to enjoy it more for that reason, but I didn't expect to be overcome, blown away, stunned, and add other over-the-topisms. I thought I loved opera before, but, wow, what I've been missing! From first note to last, I was in another world, more so than with any other musical performance of any kind that I can remember. There were moments when the music made me lightheaded and almost dreamily detached from reality. It hit my emotions in a surprising way, too. Why, sir, I tell you, sir, during the scene in which the elder Germont persuades Violetta to give up the love of Alfredo so that Alfredo's pure, virginal sister's young man won't reject her (TV soap opera, eat your heart out!), manly tears filled my manly eyes, sir, indeed, I swear it, sir, and some even spilled out and ran down my manly cheeks! In a manly fashion, of course. By Gadfrey, sir.

Oh, and the temperature up there was in the mid 70s, compared to low 90s in Denver. It rained quite a bit while we there. Come to think of it, always seems to rain when we go there, even when it's dry as a bone down here. I should add that we both love the rain, so that's not a dampener, ho, ho, but part of the delight of the escape.

And now I'm back in the real world.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Everyone Loves John Sousaphone!

"You've read the new novel by John Sousaphone, right."


"No? Jeez, I thought everyone snapped up his stuff as soon as it came out. You've read everything else by him, right?"

"One novel. It sucked."

"How can you say that? Everyone loves, reveres, admires, worships the novels of John Sousaphone!"

"Not everyone, obviously."

"But how can you not love, revere, etc. his novels? What don't you like about them?"

"The suckitude."

"No seriously. You can't just say that. You have to explain."

"I have to explain why I don't like his writing?"


"Okay. I don't like it because it sucks."

I've actually had conversations rather like this. In the most recent one, the other person got very upset and started using terrible language - words like "minimalism" and "postmodernism". I had to cover my tender, virginal ears. I explained that I considered the works in question to be bad writing because when I tried to read them, my reaction was to say to myself, "This is really bad writing." And that, I said, was the only ism I needed, the ability to recognize suckism. They sucked because they were filled with suckitude.

The Romans understood this. Or at least one of them (Cicero?) did. De gustibus non est disputandum. There is no disputing about tastes. Hear, hear! Why have people forgotten this?

Of course, the above conversation wouldn't happen if I had dismissed the works of, say John Grisham or Dan Brown instead of those of Sousaphone, the darling of the critics. If it had been Grisham or Brown, the other person would probably have agreed right away. "Yeah, he sucks. Terrible writer." But Sousaphone, anointed by those whose job it is to anoint, must be loved, revered, admired, etc. Maybe the other person feels that I'm attacking his taste and judgment when I call Sousaphone a terrible writer, and so he demands justification as a way of defending himself. Or maybe he distrusts his own judgment in comparison to that of the anointers and feels shaken by the dismissal. Or maybe he's simply outraged that anyone can call into question the wonderfulness of a writer whom the anointers have declared to be wonderful. I have no idea. I do know that if I read something and feel that it's bad writing, then it's bad writing, no matter what anyone else's opinion is.

Because it's all subjective. There is no such thing as an objectively justifiable measurement of the worth of art.

But that's another argument.

Friday, August 10, 2007

So this is what they do all day in MI5!

Good Things Happen to Nice People

See here.

Okay, so that doesn't work as a general rule. Too often, nice things happen to nasty people and nasty things happen to nice people. But it's nice to see it work the way it should every now and then!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Most Stupendiferous Military That Ever Was!

I keep hearing this from Americans, including other liberals who hate our foreign invasions and occupations just as much as I do. They seem to have a need, almost an obsessive need, to couple their denunciations of those acts of aggression and imperialism with the proud declaration that we have the most stupendous, magnificent, competent, highly trained, just-all-around-awesome military forces the world has ever known. Ever. Bar none. No exceptions.

Better than the Roman legions at their peak. Or the armies of imperial Spain or Napoleonic France. Better at sea than the British navy when it ruled the oceans or the Phoenician fleet that served the Persian empire.

Better than those! Yes! By far! Really! La la la la, I can't hear you, betterbetterbetter!

What the hell does this even mean? What's the metric? Such comparisons are meaningless. The only thing that's meaningful is a relative measurement - the comparison of a nation to its contemporary rivals. Moreover, this comparison has to include not just military power but a great number of other factors as well - economic, social, mercantile, industrial, and so on. As I remember, this is one of the fundamental arguments of Paul Kennedy's great book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. If I'm remembering correctly, that's also where I read this interesting thought experiment. Imagine a smaller ship of today's British navy being transported back in time a couple of hundred years, to the era when Britannia ruled the waves. That modern ship could wipe that old wooden navy from the seas and dominate the oceans all by itself (at least until it ran out of fuel). Does that mean that the modern British navy dominates the world's seas? Of course not. What counts is the comparison to contemporaries - today's British navy to today's U.S. navy, for example, or the British navy of 1800 to the French navy of 1800.

Nor is the magnificent virility of our stupendous ships erecting their huge cannons the only factor to consider. Or equivalently our utterly awesome air armada that can drop more tons of explosive horror on terrified civilians than anyone else ever could. We thumb our nose at the WWII Luftwaffe. Hmph!

In spite of that, we lost in Vietnam. We're losing in Iraq and Afghanistan. We would lose terribly if we invaded Iran. And imagine if we invaded China!

Clearly, enormous military force is not enough. Other superpowers have encountered that reality, often at the height of their dominance. There were always places where they couldn't dominate, where local conditions or conditions at home or a combination of the two delivered a much-needed kick in the imperial teeth.

Even if there were a meaningful way to compare our military forces today to those important ones in the past, and even if that comparison did indeed show that ours are more stupendiferous than even the best of those were in their day, so what? That wouldn't change the fact that we lost in Vietnam and are losing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It seems to me that the need to keep asserting our military supremacy over the rest of the world now and over all empires of the past has nothing to do with an objective assessment that we really possess such supremacy. As I said, that assertion would be pretty much meaningless and irrelevant. I think something much sadder and nastier underlies that claim.

We are the old guy who used to be the tough guy. You know the type. He puffs out his chest to disguise the fact that his chest is sagging and his waist is expanding. He waves his fists in others' faces while wearing loose shirts that hide the shrinkage in his biceps and shoulders. He blusters and swaggers and threatens and talks too loudly. He tries desperately to mask his fading powers behind a bullying display, hoping to cow the younger, tougher guys into acknowledging him as top dog. He can pull this off for a while. He has money and retains his position of authority, and for a while everyone else is fooled. For a while, he can fool himself, as well. But in the end, reality always asserts itself, and the old guy is pushed aside and ignored.

There's a period between being convincing and being ignored when the blustering display is embarrassing and a cause for scorn. I think that as a country we're just starting to enter that phase now. Perhaps that's why so many of are yelling ever more loudly about the astonishing stupendiferousness of our military.

I do wish we'd all stop. I don't want my country to be evil. I also don't want it to be embarrassing.

Bush protecting us from zombies

The wonderfulness of Youtube:

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Wanting Lightning to Strike

It's the monsoon season in Denver.

That's the North American monsoon, which in late summer brings water up from the Gulf of Mexico over the desert Southwest, triggering flash floods and washed-away SUVs in Arizona and, if we're lucky, rain in Denver. Unfortunately, we rarely get just rain. We get stupendous thunder storms, with blinding flashes of lightning and deafening cracks of thunder (especially deafening when you're downtown, and the thunder echoes off the highrise office buildings), and all too often violent, damaging hail.

A really loud storm passed over downtown this afternoon as I was leaving work for the bus. I used my umbrella, because it was raining buckets, but I felt nervous the whole way because of the blinding-and-deafening mentioned above. Lots of other nervous people scurrying around. I've read awful stories about people being struck by lightning. Many die, of course, but the survivors often suffer the strangest and most untreatable disabilities and lingering pain.

So no one in his right mind wants to be struck by lightning.

Unless he's a writer.

(Wotta segue!)

When we - or artists in general, or entertainers, or gamblers - speak of being struck by lightning, we're thinking of the brilliant light of success, the crack of, um, cash registers (okay, I'm reaching). In short, of fame descending from the sky like a slightly unnerving gift from the Olympian gods.

When I first started going to science-fiction conventions, I'd sometimes listen to panel discussions where the panelists were published writers who assured the audience that good work always gets published, that success is entirely a matter of quality and talent, and that luck is never involved. I had sold my first book, and selling the next two followed quickly and fairly easily, so I knew that they were absolutely correct. Lightning is simply not involved.

Then I had the rude awakening that awaits so many snotty young writers. My sales numbers weren't up to snuff, and my calls and letters (this was, gasp, before e-mail!!!!) suddenly went unanswered. And then I found myself looking for an agent and a publisher, and not having any luck. And that's when I realized: It is luck! Those panelists were just smugly mouthing self-serving claptrap.

And then I started getting published again, and I realized that it's only partially luck. And not all that much luck, really. No, come to think of it, it's really talent and quality, but it is true that even the talented quality folks can have rough patches.

And then once again ... And I realized that ...

And so on. The cycle repeated. Being published: luck is not involved! Can't get published: it's all luck, and mine is rotten, sob!

Anyway, I've settled on a balanced view in my battle-scarred late middle age. (Hey! CNN says that 60 is the new 40! Let's party! But not too vigorously.) It's a combination of luck and talent. There's certainly nothing novel about this balanced view, but I finally really believe it.

Just as with everything else, there'll always be the statistical outliers - people who can't write a coherent sentence but whose books are all bestsellers, and people whose work is brilliant but who can't get published. But still, you pretty much need to start with at least some talent, and you need to polish and nurture and train that talent, and you need to produce oodles of words, and then you need to contact every (good) agent in existence because that is the step that increases the chances that lightning will strike. That's the only way you can optimize the luck.

At least, that's my opinion now. If I sell Time and the Soldier and have a successful career again/after all, then it will be as clear as day that it's really all a matter of talent. Or maybe as clear as a lightning flash.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Bridge Collapse in Minneapolis

Horrible event.

Daniel left a voicemail message to say he was okay. He takes (took) that bridge to and from the campus. Today, he drove over it an hour before the collapse.

Update: I guess he must have said half an hour, not an hour. In his Live Journal, he posted that he thinks it was actually more like 10 minutes, and that he felt the bridge shaking as he was driving over it. When I told Leonore about that, she was even more upset than she had been at first.

Curiously, this sort of runs in the extended family. When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck San Francisco in 1989, causing, among other damage, the collapse of part of the Oakland Bay Bridge, the husband of one of Leonore's nieces (I guess that makes him my by-marriage nephew by marriage) was driving across the bridge, felt something, looked in his rear-view mirror, and saw the car behind him drop from view; he had just passed over the section that fell down to the level below.