The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

Going Number Two.

Stickers have been going up on signs on bus stops around the city. Apparently the Number 2 route isn’t the only one going down, and that’s a sad thing. Since riding the bus for me is a convenience it’s easy for me to complain, but what about the people who depend on the bus to get around? Whenever I see a route being eliminated I remember the Number 13 route that I once accidentally got on, back when the buses didn’t have signs with their route number and bus drivers sometimes forgot what route they were on. The Number 13 went down Murphy Road, an side street that curves around through the Sylvan Park neighborhood. Along it you’ll find a vegan bakery, a bagel place, an organic grocery, and the McCabe golf course where, in high school, I made a dismal attempt at joining the golf team, but that’s another story.
I still wonder who rode the Number 13–that one day I accidentally got on the bus was packed–and how they had to change their schedules. Parts of the Number 13 overlap with another route, and getting from that other route to Murphy Road is walkable, for those who can walk a mile or more.
The Number 2 partly overlaps with the Number 7, which I rode as part of my plan to ride every one of Nashville’s bus routes–so far I’ve fallen short, and yet it still bothers me that there’s now at least one less route to ride. The Number 7 goes through the heart of Hillsboro Village, an area that gets so much traffic it could use more buses, not less. The Number 2 goes around a side street, past the entrance to the area’s YMCA. Hey, don’t people who ride the bus also go to the gym? If you look at the schedule you’ll see it’s kind of an odd route that starts running at 5:34 in the morning then stops at 9:28, and only starts up again at 2:15 in the afternoon and stops at 6:49, so it’s mainly aimed at people who work the day shift.
I hope the people who used to ride it can walk.

Dear Emily.

Source: Emily Dickinson Museum

Dear Emily,

I went out with someone and we had a great time. I thought we had a great time, anyway: we had a nice dinner, we laughed a lot. We played miniature golf. I haven’t done that since I was a kid. I didn’t even know there were still courses around but he suggested it and I was enthusiastic. He seemed a little competitive about it but I was okay with that. Mostly we just had a lot of fun. The evening ended nicely, and I was certain we’d see each other again. Now, though, he won’t return my calls, texts, or emails. None of my friends can find any hint that I might have done anything wrong. If I did something wrong how am I supposed to know if he won’t answer?

-Ghosted In Gainesville

Dear Ghosted,

A narrow Fellow in the Grass

Occasionally rides –

You may have met him? Did you not

His notice instant is –

 

The Grass divides as with a Comb,

A spotted Shaft is seen,

And then it closes at your Feet

And opens further on –

 

He likes a Boggy Acre –

A Floor too cool for Corn –

But when a Boy and Barefoot

I more than once at Noon

 

Have passed I thought a Whip Lash

Unbraiding in the Sun

When stooping to secure it

It wrinkled And was gone –

 

Several of Nature’s People

I know, and they know me

I feel for them a transport

Of Cordiality

 

But never met this Fellow

Attended or alone

Without a tighter Breathing

And Zero at the Bone.

 

Dear Emily,

I have a coworker who’s needlessly critical. It’s nothing to do with work that she’s critical of. She criticizes my hair, the outfits I choose to wear to work. I brought in a jar I made in a pottery class and put it on the main table for pencils and pens. She didn’t know it was mine but loudly said it didn’t fit with the office “look” and put it on a shelf in the storage room. She does this to other people too. It’s not something the managers or HR can or should respond to but is there a way to deal with this?

-Fed Up In Phoenix

Dear Phoenix,

A Man may make a Remark –

In itself – a quiet thing

That may furnish the Fuse unto a Spark

In dormant nature – lain –

 

Let us divide – with skill –

Let us discourse – with care –

Powder exists in Charcoal –

Before it exists in Fire –

 

Dear Emily,

Our child’s teacher is terrible. He assigns much more homework than I think is appropriate (our child is in third grade), and one afternoon when I took my child back after school to pick up a book I found the previous day’s homework in the trashcan unmarked, like he didn’t even look at it. From what our child has said he’s also unnecessarily harsh and leaves them in the classroom unsupervised a lot. We’re going to move our child to another class but would it be overreaching to report some of this to the school board too?

-Educating In Edmonton

Dear Educating,

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –

 

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –

We can find no scar,

But internal difference –

Where the Meanings, are –

 

None may teach it – Any –

‘Tis the seal Despair –

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air –

 

When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ’tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –

Dear Emily,

I’ve been struggling for several years as a writer. I’ve had some encouraging results, but mostly I just seem to be hitting a wall. It also occurs to me that I’m never going to be able to make a living at writing; at best it’ll be a major hobby. That leaves me feeling frustrated and sad. Should I just quit trying and move on with my life, to see if focusing on my day job really makes me happier?

-Pondering In Poughkeepsie

Dear Pondering,

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

And who am I kidding? If you like it keep doing it. Writing isn’t a bad hobby and it’s cheaper than tropical fish and safer than skydiving. Who knows? You might get lucky and someday smartass high schoolers will go around singing your poems to the tune of “The Yellow Rose Of Texas”.

 

Piece Of Pie.

Even though summer’s almost over there are still some warm days left and a chance to revisit one of childhood’s simple pleasures: making a mud pie. The following is excerpted from the recipe book Get Baked: The High Art Of All Forms Of Pastry by Eunice Phelan.

How To: Make A Mud Pie.

Locally sourced mud pies are best but this may not be possible if you live in a coastal area or in parts of the American southwest where the soil is too sandy to adhere properly, creating more of a sludge than bona fide mud. In these areas, or if you live in a city and don’t have easy access to topsoil, try commercial potting soil. Its dark color and perlite can give your mud pie a nice chocolate cookie quality similar to Oreo or Hydrox. Commercial potting soil tends toward dryness, though, so check on local water restrictions.

For added appeal you can blend commercial potting soil with lighter brown soil, if you can find it. This blending is a very advanced technique that requires more patience, skill, and practice than most mud pie makers are going to have, but the results are worth it.

In much of the southeast you’ll find a dense clay-rich soil that’s a perfect mud pie base. Add enough water to give it a consistency that’s easy to shape but not too soft. You can always add more water but it can take hours or even days for any excess water to evaporate. Mud pies always benefit from being served right away and can be spoiled if it rains or if you just forget about them.

Once you have the right consistency place your mud base in a pan. I find a round 9-inch metal baking pan works best. Metal is prone to rust, especially if left outside, but holds its shape better than plastic. I find mud pies in metal pans also dry faster.

Once your pan is filled add finishing touches like a crimped edge and vertical cuts in the center. Garnish with leaves for color.

Serves 6-8.

 

Punctuate The Positive.

Review Of Punctuation Marks

.

Period -This simple dot was the first punctuation mark invented. It was created accidentally by medieval monks who tapped their pens on the parchment when afflicted with writer’s block, then eventually gave up. In British grammar this punctuation mark is known as the “full stop” because the British still communicate by telegram.

,

Comma-A dot with a tail dangling below the line of text the comma is used to divide sentence clauses, items in lists, and occasionally exhausted boxers.

:

Colon-Two vertical dots. The colon is the punctuation mark commonly used to both divide and indicate connections between two items or clauses, as in the case of analogies, and is also the punctuation mark most likely to invade an undeveloped territory and claim its resources.

;

Semicolon-A dot placed vertically over a comma. The semicolon is frequently used to divide sentences of clauses of the same or similar value. Although serving a slightly lesser function than the colon the semicolon prefers fair trade practices, and both punctuation marks should be checked regularly in texts aged fifty years and older.

?

Question mark-A curved line with a straight section pointing downward over a period the question mark indicates an interrogative even in the absence of words such as “Why?” or “Where?” An upside down and backward-facing question mark is placed at the beginning of interrogatives in Spanish because it’s a polite language that doesn’t want to spring a question on you when you’re not expecting it.

!

Exclamation point-This straight line over a period is used to indicate excitement, surprise, or emphasis. In British grammar this punctuation mark is known as “the boingy dance stick”.

or

Quotation marks-Essentially commas, but placed at the top of the text line, quotation marks may be either straight or inverted to indicate speech or conversation within a text. In British grammar only one quotation mark is used at the beginning and end of a statement, but in American grammar two quotation marks placed together are used, because Americans are twice as loud.

( )

Parentheses-Curved lines used to close off a section of text. The beginning of the parenthetical is indicated by a line curving outward to the left while the closure is indicated by a line curving outward to the right. Text within parentheses should be treated carefully and may be poisonous.

[ ]

Square brackets-parenthesis made of straight lines, also known as hard brackets or crotchets, square brackets are used in mathematical equations and parentheticals inserted by a computer.

{ }

Curly brackets-also known as moustache brackets these are for parentheticals written in cursive.

#

Pound sign-While traceable back to Roman times for a measure of weight this became a popular symbol for the British pound in the 19th century, although some computer keyboards recognized Shift-3 as £. Now popularly known as a “hashtag” it’s served with eggs and bacon.

&

Ampersand-This punctuation mark is used as a substitute by people who are too lazy to write out the word “and” but still have the energy to say “ampersand”.

*

Asterisk-This star-shaped punctuation mark is commonly used to draw attention to a footnote.

Dagger-This punctuation mark is for secondary footnotes and used to stab people who don’t read the first footnote.

Ü

Umlaut-Two dots placed vertically over a letter, the letter U in this example. The umlaut is the only punctuation mark that does not have a grammatical or phonic use; its sole function is to indicate Scandinavian death metal.

 

 

It’s Hard Out There.

It started a few years ago when breweries in the United States began to offer “hard cider” or, as it’s known in the rest of the world, “cider”. It caught on. People liked having an alcoholic fruit beverage made with a fruit other than grapes, and the convenience of having alcohol in their apple juice without having to go to prison or add their own alcohol since the combination of apple juice and vodka has the taste, smell, and many other attributes of butane. Soon pear cider followed, and although cider from other pomaceous fruits hasn’t caught on yet someone out there is cultivating medlars right now.

What did follow was “hard” versions of other beverages. “Hard lemonade” was soon offered, and then “hard orange soda”, quickly followed by “hard grape soda”, which caused red wine producers around the world to say, “Why didn’t we think of that?” until they tried it and realized they hadn’t tried it because it was terrible. There was “hard ginger ale”, and “hard iced tea” for people who wanted all the Southern charm of a mint julep without the mint or the julep or anything else except the alcohol. There was “hard cream soda” and “hard fruit punch” for people who wanted to combine all the joys of childhood nostalgia with a DUI. At some point someone started making “hard root beer”, or, as it’s known in the rest of the world, “what is wrong with you?”

Source: gifimage

Maybe it started earlier than that. The flavors of amaretto and Irish cream had been added to coffee for decades by people who wanted to combine the taste of liqueurs with being able to stay jittery all night. In the early ‘90’s a brewery west of the Rockies started making a beverage called “Zima”. It was very popular with a previously untapped demographic, guys who wore turtlenecks all the time, even though it was really just a combination of Sprite and vodka and had all the taste, smell, and many other attributes of sparkling butane. In chain restaurants glazes and barbecue sauces infused with bourbon and other whiskies became a staple and were slathered on steak, chicken, fish, and pork, which meant some nine-year olds who ordered the all-you-can-eat rib platter were able to combine all the joys of childhood with a DUI without the nostalgia.

As history has shown there is no idea so terrible that it can’t be made worse by marketing. Not content with “hard” sodas, teas, juices, sparkling waters, and milk, as well as milk substitutes made from soy, almonds, oats, rice, and eggplant, the industry started offering “hard” versions of other items. Salad dressings, pretzels, breads, peanut butter, mashed potatoes, garden gnomes, and pies had new labels indicating proof. “Hard cheese” took on a whole new meaning. Candy bars couldn’t be purchased without ID. Editorials suggested the Eighteenth Amendment hadn’t been such a bad idea after all.

Still the trend continued. It wasn’t until one morning in the shower when we opened a bottle of shampoo and were hit by the fragrance of aquavit that we looked at our shelves and admitted we had a problem.

 

When Life Gives You Lemonade.

Although summer’s heat isn’t diminished in the dog days the season is definitely winding down. The mornings are darker, and the sunsets sooner, which reminds me of when I was a kid. My room was at the back of the house and our house sat on the edge of a hill so that looking out was like looking down into a bowl. And some evenings or late afternoons throughout the year I’d watch the sunset, and watch how the sun moved to the south—meaning it didn’t really always set in the west, and I realized adults lied to me, but that’s another story.

Something else that took me back to childhood is the other day my wife and I were on our way home and passed a couple of kids with a lemonade stand in their front yard. We didn’t stop—I don’t think either of us had change and I’m not sure the kids could take a credit card unless we bought a lot of lemonade—but there were some people there so I hoped the young entrepreneurs were doing well. At the very least they were smart enough to stake out a corner lot, although they were probably lucky that it was just where they happen to live. It would be really embarrassing for a new startup to be shut down early by a guy yelling at the owners to get out of his yard, which I understand has happened to a lot of juice companies. In fact when I was four some older kids on the next street set up a stand selling Kool-Aid for a dollar a cup, which meant they only had to sell one to repay all their investors, but the operation was shut down because of lousy marketing. If they’d promoted it as an artisanal flavored water made in small batches by a fair-trade company, well, they still would have failed because this was the seventies, but at least they could have said they were decades ahead of their time.

What I also remembered was a few years later when my friend Troy and I decided to set up a lemonade stand in my front yard. I’m not sure why we thought this was a good idea, and the only reason we even got the idea was probably because the front yard lemonade stand is a classic piece of Americana even though lemons are native to southeast Asia and lemonade originated in India—although that could just as easily be part of its Americanness, a country that’s one big melting pitcher.

It was probably boredom more than anything else that inspired Troy and me. We weren’t all that interested in sales or even crafting our product, which I’m pretty sure was made from a powdered mix that had never been near a lemon. I’m not even sure we got the right mix, just that we got some powder that smelled lemony and mixed it with water, and it’s probably just as well we didn’t sell any because we didn’t have the insurance to cover the possibility of someone drinking laundry detergent. Our stand consisted of a dilapidated card table that I’m surprised could hold up the plastic cups, let alone the pitcher of lemonade, and a few years later it did collapse under the weight of a game of gin rummy.

We stood next to our stand in the front yard for hours, or maybe half hours, or maybe half an hour, before realizing that running a lemonade stand was even more boring than just sitting around being bored so we used the lemonade to water the maple tree in the front yard, and it only occurs to me now, writing this, that putting our stand in my yard was a lousy idea because I lived on a cul-de-sac and Troy lived on a corner.

At this point I feel there should be some wrap-up, some lesson learned, or mission accomplished, or deed done—something other than poisoning a maple tree which was hardy enough that it not only survived but turned the laundry detergent into a pest repellent. There’s really nothing to be said about our ersatz Norman Rockwell moment, though;  it was just something that we came up with on our own and did to spend a little time before we moved onto something else, which is what summer is for.

 

Measure For Measure.

Historically many measurements have been derived from the human body, which has caused some confusion because every body’s measurements are different and some are even known to change over time. It’s in part what prompted the creation of the metric system—that and no one could remember how many quarts are in a furlong, but that’s another story. Measurements derived from the human body are known as “anthropic” and here’s a brief review of some of them and their origins:

Foot-originally based on the human foot a “foot” is now standardized as twelve inches even though very few feet are that big. A unit of measurement of approximately this length was used by the Romans, and for a long time was adhered to as a standard by European cobblers.

Hand-Primarily used now to measure horses and other livestock and standardized at four inches, the “hand” is one of the oldest and most widespread units of measurement. The standard hand still in use today can be traced back to ancient Egypt.

Finger-Originally this measurement seems to have been used for small quantities of liquid in a container of a specific size. Although no longer in use it appears to have been set at approximately half an inch. It’s still used informally in high end bartending where patrons will sometimes request “two fingers of whiskey”.

Nose-Informally used in horse-racing the “nose” was used by the ancient Romans and measured approximately five and three-quarter inches. According to Juvenal this unit of measurement was derived from the Roman emperor Cochlea who was nicknamed “nasus limax”, usually translated as “conch face”.

Head-Although this measurement is no longer in use it remains in the present word “ahead” and expressions such as “to get ahead”. This measurement was approximately six and a half inches and chiefly used in determining short distances.

Arm’s length-Records indicate this measurement was approximately thirty inches and derived from the safe distance for holding a burning torch before “torch” became the British term for “flashlight” which you can hold right up to your face or stick in your mouth and puff out your cheeks to freak out fellow campers.

Elbow-Unlike other measurements used for length or distance the elbow was used to measure angles in carpentry. “To the shoulder” was a forty-five degree angle while “across the chest” was a right angle.

Hair or hair’s breadth-A very narrow measurement the hair was actually standardized by the Romans. Although infrequently used the measurement was based on a hair from the tail of a horse that belonged to the emperor Gaius Caesar and stored in the library of Alexandria.

Knee-high-Now informally used to describe small children the “knee-high” measurement was approximately seventeen inches and was primarily used to measure the ideal length of a single piece of firewood for a standard fireplace.

Penis-Nothing is known about this measurement except that it was always exaggerated.

Funny Girl.

A few weeks ago my wife and I went to the exhibit of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and other modern Mexican artists at the Frist Art Museum. It was pretty cool seeing some of Kahlo’s works in person. Until now I’d only seen reproductions in books and reproductions, no matter how good, don’t give any sense of the scale that you get when standing in front of the original, or the connection to the artist’s hand. And yet I wondered, what could I say about Kahlo, or Rivera, that hasn’t already been said by experts? I only took a few pictures—and in fact I was surprised I could since most museums don’t allow visitors to take pictures, maybe because they want you to buy the ones in the gift shop—because I was so focused on the paintings themselves.

To get back to that question of what I could say, after we went to the exhibit I read about a long distance runner who plotted out a run to draw a picture of Frida Kahlo using San Francisco city streets. And last December the city–excuse me, The City, as San Francisco, or “Frisco” prefers to be known–changed the name of Phelan Avenue to “Frida Kahlo Way”.

Source: SFGate

It was funny and reminded me that one of the explanatory placards for the Frist exhibit said that it Frida Kahlo were alive today she’d be “puzzled” by her status as an international pop icon. Yeah, I don’t think so. It’s true that Kahlo has gone from being a well-known artist in Mexico, but hardly known outside of it, during her lifetime, to one of the world’s most famous and popular artists, even the subject of the terrific movie Frida starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor, but during her all too brief life, even before she became known as a painter, she carefully cultivated her image—including that unibrow, which she emphasized with makeup. The exhibit even included a selection of Mexican dresses Kahlo wore, all with deep cultural meanings, and her paintings are often heavily layered with deeply personal symbolism. A funny thing my wife said was, “She was really beautiful, why did she make herself so ugly in some of her paintings?” There are a lot of possible answers to that—Rivera’s unfaithfulness and the bouts of extreme pain she suffered throughout her life might have made her feel ugly. She also had a wonderful sense of humor and I think that’s part of it too.

I may not be an expert but I don’t think the right word for for Frida Kahlo would feel about the symbol she’s become would be “puzzled”. I think the right word would be amused.

 

Summer Story.

Source: Wikipedia

A lot of different things influenced my dream of becoming a writer. One was the summer in my early teens read Fritz Lieber’s fantasy stories about his sword-wielding heroes Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser. One is the tall, burly, quiet type, the other is small and nimble, and they wander the world of Newhon, working as mercenaries or occasionally thieves, in their never-ending quest for a good time. At the time I wanted to write science fiction and fantasy. That evolved as my reading widened, and by the time I got to college I’d changed my focus to poetry, and now, well, I’d just like to be published, although there is some fun in amassing a record-breaking collection of rejections.

Lieber’s stories inspired me to write a series of my own, set in a faux medieval world with wizards and monsters and castles. Rather than a pair of heroes the focus of my stories would be a lone thief named Latham Poloniat. I’d created him for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign and he was, well, me, but with some extra skills and a name I’d made up while browsing the periodic table. “Latham” was shortened from “lanthanum”, or so I thought until I actually met a guy named Latham, but that’s another story. And “Poloniat” was from “polonium”, back before it made headlines for poisoning people. I just liked the sound of it and didn’t know then that Marie Curie discovered it and named it somewhat controversially for her homeland of Poland, but that Slavic connection is kind of funny to me now.

My series started and finished, or never finished, depending on how you look at it, with what I thought was a pretty clever story that would introduce Latham as a thief but essentially a good guy who’d rob from the rich and, well, at least he wouldn’t rob from the poor, but would tip generously and move on. The story was called “A Balance Of Power” and found Latham trapped in a small town ruled and terrorized by dueling wizards, Vanados and Thoros—more funny periodic table derivatives—who have each other in a stalemate. Early drafts started with Latham in Vanados’s castle, being made an offer he can’t refuse. At this point a little world-building was necessary, so in an aside I explained that magic, like electricity, could be lethal if conducted through the body, so wizards wore special medallions to draw the magic away, and also focus and direct it. A wizard without a medallion would be powerless, or overpowered. And all Vanados wants should be a simple job for an expert thief: steal Thoros’s medallion.

I thought I had everything I needed, but after a few drafts realized the conflict didn’t really set up the ending. The stakes weren’t high enough, so I rolled the opening back a bit to a dark and foggy night—stormy would have been overdoing it—and put Latham in the local tavern, chatting with his friend the bartender, a jovial guy named Dinoy. I have no idea where that name came from. They’re alone with the light-fingered Latham pulling his usual amusing trick of stealing glasses from behind the bar without being seen until one of Vanados’s minions—a shadowy, floating torso with an egg-shaped head and glowing eyes, none of which served any purpose other than sounding cool—enters to tell Latham the wizard is looking for a thief for hire. And here’s a minor flaw: it’s a bad idea to go around advertising yourself as a professional pilferer, at least in a small town where everybody knows your name.

What happens next has already been established, but, having accepted the job, Latham returns to the bar for one last drink, and confesses to Dinoy what he’s got to do. Dinoy tries to talk him out of it, reminding him that either wizard unchecked could wipe out the town, the surrounding countryside, perhaps the whole world. I didn’t realize it at the time but the magical standoff sounds like a vague allegory for the Cold War. Something else I didn’t realize is that committing grand theft wizardry would require time for careful, sober planning, and the last thing a professional thief would want to do is share his next move with a garrulous drink peddler.

Latham is on the horns of a dilemma, which, now that I think about it, sounds like a terrifying mythical creature, although the word actually comes from a Greek term for “double proposition” which sounds even more terrifying, but that’s another story. Anyway he’s stuck between risking his own neck or everybody else’s, so of course he immediately sets off for Thoros’s castle at the other end of town.

Some might want to quibble over geography since, as far as I know, there are no towns, especially small towns, anywhere that are presided over by two castles, but this is fiction and you can get away with anything in fiction. Besides you couldn’t have a fantastically powerful wizard living in a trailer.

Thoros’s castle, as you might have guessed, proved to be the most difficult part of the story. While I wrote at least a hundred complete drafts this was the act that changed the most. At first it was simple: Latham creeps into the sleeping wizard’s bedchamber, grabs the medallion, and slips away unnoticed. I know I just said you can get away with anything in fiction but this stretched the suspension of disbelief to its breaking point. Wouldn’t a wizard guard something so valuable a little more assiduously? Then I tried having Latham stab the sleeping wizard, but he was a thief, not a murderer, and it still lacked drama. I needed a lot of smoke to obscure the carefully arranged mirrors of the denouement. Vanados had minions so his brother should too, so Latham finds his way into the front hall of Thoros’s castle—torchlit, of course—and into an underground moat where he fights through giant albino salamanders and zombies. Then I scrapped the salamanders and had Latham duel with Thoros who, once disarmed and de-medallioned, is turned upon and torn apart by his own undead horde. This still seemed too easy; my idea of Latham was that he was someone who depended on brains more than brawn, and besides it seemed obvious that a rapier-wielding thief would lose in a brute force face-off against a powerful wizard. I needed Latham to escape, so I kept trying different things. Even fantasy has to abide by certain rules, and the main rule is that the hero’s journey should be difficult but not impossible. Here’s where I should have taken a little more inspiration from Lieber; Latham could have used a partner, a strongman who’d make up for his lack of stature and who could provide a distraction, facing down Thoros while Latham pilfered the prize. I’d conceived of Latham as a loner, though, so he was on his own and would have to find a way by himself.

Once out of the castle Latham’s journey across town is a bit of a slow point in the story but I wanted to take a little time to dwell on his thoughts. Behind every door he passed were real flesh and blood people I’d made up, and he has to live with what his actions would mean for their lives, but he continues on to Vanados’s castle. The wizard is overjoyed at his success, hugs him, performs a quick and easy spell to destroy Thoros’s medallion, and hands over a bag of a thousand gold pieces. I hadn’t delved deeply enough into the world I’d created to come up with a name for the local currency.

And now it was time for the wrap-up. I’d reverse-engineered the entire story from this conclusion in which Latham, a heavy bag of gold at his hip, sets off on the road out of town in search of his next adventure. Then, at a sufficient distance, he stops, pulls Vanados’s medallion out of his tunic, and smashes it with a rock.

It was supposed to be the first in a series, and I did have other ideas for Latham—a demonic plant, a sea voyage—but no matter how many times I rewrote it I never could get “A Balance Of Power” quite right. Eventually I’d scrap the idea, and all the copies I’d made as I wrote and rewrote it, and moved on to other things. For a long time I thought of the story as a failure. I assumed any “real” writer could knock out a similar story in a few drafts, while I kept tinkering and tinkering. Even retelling it here I’ve made some changes. Now I look back on it with a strange fondness. It’s like an old friend who taught me as much as a summer can.

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