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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.

Have You Ever Seen The Rain?

It was raining. Maybe it was also pouring—I’ve never actually seen rain pour since “pour” is an intransitive verb and as far as I know rain doesn’t even have hands it could use to hold a container from which it could pour something, and what would it pour anyway?  I’m pretty sure the only reason anybody says rain is “pouring” is because of that old children’s song:

It’s raining, it’s pouring,

The old man is snoring.

So the “pouring” probably only got in there because it’s a convenient rhyme to go with “snoring”, and if the song left off there I’d be willing to let it go—it’s a nice image of an old man sleeping through the rain. Then it takes a sudden, weird, and very dark turn:

He bumped his head and he went to bed,

And he couldn’t get up in the morning.

What’s going on here? At best the old man has major depression that’s preventing him from getting out of bed, but it sounds more like he’s suffered a concussion and possibly even has a subdural hematoma. Either way why are we letting children just sing about it when somebody should be getting this old man some help? I mentioned this to a friend of mine who agreed it’s pretty terrible but added that it’s not as bad as the song about the old man who played two on your shoe, and three on your knee, and, um, six on your appendix and then goes,

With a nick nack paddy whack

Give a dog a bone,

This old man came rolling home.

My friend believes the old man gets punched hard enough to send him flying, but my counterargument is that we don’t know that’s why he goes rolling home—for all we know he’s a gymnast and likes to roll around, or he takes a bicycle or even a penny-farthing, because he’s a brave and hip old guy, and also a dog gets a bone, so there’s at least some karmic balance there. The fact that my friend assumes there’s violence involved makes me wonder if I should keep a closer eye on him. However we can agree that in the first song “pouring” and “snoring” don’t rhyme with “morning” and “bone” and “home” don’t rhyme and if you’ve ever seen Educating Rita you know the definition of assonance is “getting the rhyme wrong”, but that’s another story.

Where I was going with this before I got sidetracked by the horror of children’s songs is that it was raining as I left work and there was a bus right across the street. It was absolutely perfect timing, especially since it was a bus going my way. I’d driven to work that day but the parking garage was a few blocks away, and the bus would take me, if not right to it, then at least closer, and would get me out of the rain. So I ran across the street, to the bus, and, as I was getting on, bumped by head on the door frame.

It was the afternoon and I stayed awake and had no trouble getting up when the bus got to my stop.

Crossing Over.

Death is a popular subject in art, and I can think of at least a couple of reasons why this is so. The act of creating a work of art, whether it will ultimately live on after the artist or not, might prompt the artist to contemplate the ephemerality of existence. If you create something it’s both the summation of who you are at that point in your life and it also becomes part of you going forward. Another possibility, and one that could overlap with the first, is that death is such a big subject, one that everyone living will have to contend with sooner or later, that it’s an easy way to lend weight a work of art, especially if it’s not that good, which is why so many poems I wrote as a teenager were about death, but that’s another story. In the case of graffiti most artists, I think, expect their work to only be around a short time, and that too can prompt contemplation of the ephemerality of all things.

This particular graffiti, placed on a wall below a parking lot and just off a busy street makes me contemplate much more than death, though. For one thing it reminds me of The Epic of Gilgamesh. At its end Gilgamesh tells the boatman Urshanabi to look at the city walls he built. Those walls will be Gilgamesh’s legacy but, having completed his journey and having accepted his own mortality he knows the walls too will eventually crumble until there’s nothing left.

It also reminds me of the Spreuer Bridge in Lucerne, Switzerland, which I went to when I was a teenager. Built around 1400 the bridge was spruced up between 1626 and 1635 with a series of paintings in which death comes for everyone.

Source: Atlas Obscura

Death is sometimes described as a form of “crossing over”, going from one world to the next, so it seems especially fitting that reminders of death would decorate a bridge. Although now that I think about it decorating a parking lot with a reminder of death is pretty fitting too, since your mortal remains are going to be parked somewhere, even though they’ll eventually crumble until nothing’s left. Anyway I fortunately outgrew the bad teenage poetry phase, even while I was still a teenager, because the closer I get to death the more I’m reminded that there’s life to be lived.

 

 

Protecting Your Data.

Your privacy is very important to me. I want to assure you of that. With lots of discussions going on about privacy, security, data breaches, and the marketing of your information without your permission I want you to know that everything I know about you will be kept in the strictest confidence. We both know I have access to a great deal of extremely personal and even sensitive information, and I want you to have complete faith that your data are safe with me. In fact you should know by now that even though I have been gathering enormous quantities of information about you for years I have not and will not share it with anyone else. Some examples include the fact that you recently changed to a different shampoo that smells even weirder than the last one. You believe it’s better because it’s “organic” or something, or maybe they stopped making the old kind. I’m not sure, although I will continue to investigate this change every time you bend down. I will also not share your propensity for purchasing toys made of solid rubber, as well as fuzzy, squeaky toys with googly eyes and jazz hands. I will not share the number of times a week you have an extra glass of wine and spend the entire night curled up on the couch watching things that provoke a wide range of emotional reactions, and not just because I appreciate the number of times you allow me to join you. I will not share the number of times you purchase processed foods that are, according to the label, made with chicken, lamb, beef, or tripe. As they provide me with sustenance these purchases are appreciated, and I do not wish to bite the hand that feeds me either literally or metaphorically.

Having done some research on the issue of data mining I’ve concluded that there may be ways for third parties to acquire this information. Why anyone would have any interest in it still baffles me, but micro-marketing is a large and growing industry, and people are weird. Of course the only reason micro-marketing seems to exist is to assure people that they aren’t weird, or at least that their weirdness is okay, by offering them junk they don’t need. And if there’s a market for it they must not be as alone as they often feel. As you should know by now I’m also always available to help alleviate those feelings of loneliness, although this is getting off the subject.

There are also other, more specific data points about you that I have collected but will never sure. For instance I’ve seen you dance by yourself, at times when you think even I’m not watching. The less said about this the better.

The green spaces surrounding your residence are also overrun with vermin, including, but not necessarily limited to, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, moles, foxes, possums, and even the occasional skunk. Were I to choose to share this information I’m sure there are companies available that would be more than happy to market their services to you. However I feel very strongly that it is my responsibility to rid the area of these interlocutors even though their persistence is staggering. Birds remain particularly elusive thanks to their ability to fly.

I also feel it is within my purview to warn you of and guard against potential intruders, whether they be delivery people, joggers, or the occasional small child. You take a shockingly casual attitude toward protecting our shared residence and often, though I can’t understand why, even invite these potential threats to come in and partake of refreshment. Even more baffling to me is your insistence that I curb my enthusiasm when I’ve concluded that the visitors are not only welcome but friendly. Is it not their right to share some of the food you’ve shared with them if they wish to do so?

Also I will never reveal that you sometimes speak to me in an infantile manner. I admit I often find this enjoyable.

I believe I have made it abundantly clear that I not only respect your privacy but will keep the information I have gathered secure, although I might be tempted to share it if you don’t hand over that steak.

Sincerely,

The Dog

P.S. The cat doesn’t know anything.

Source: tenor

 

 

 

Have A Drink.

A taxi parked in front of a liquor store. I guess he’s the designated driver.

I have a thing about drinking and driving and that thing is that I don’t. There have been times when I probably could—the other night my wife and I met some friends after work and since I was driving I just had iced tea, and we ended up hanging out long enough that I could have had a beer and passed even the most sensitive breathalyzer, but hindsight never wears beer goggles. And it’s just a personal thing—most people, I assume, are responsible and know their limits, although my own wariness of mixing a drink and a drive mostly comes from a night that my wife and I were driving home. Well, she was driving and I was riding. It was a dark and stormy night and as we approached a hill we could see a car coming toward us. Then it swerved into our lane.

“He doesn’t see us,” my wife said.

She stopped. He swerved again and drove off the yard into someone’s front yard.

We got out and talked to him a bit. He was a young guy and he admitted he’d been drinking. He worked at a bar and had a few during his shift and probably a few more before he got in his car to drive to a friend’s house. He may have even been underage: in these parts you have to be twenty-one to drink alcohol but only eighteen to sell it, which is why whenever I buy beer at the grocery store I always head to the oldest-looking cashier I can find, but that’s another story.

It also came out in our brief conversation that my wife was right: he hadn’t seen us. He thought we’d come up behind him and only stopped to see if he was okay. He didn’t realize that, if we’d kept going, he would have hit us at full speed and the odds were pretty good I wouldn’t be around to tell you this story.

Anyway that’s why this ad campaign for the Nashville bus promoting a beer route tickles me so much. There are twenty small breweries in Nashville by my count, and eighteen of them listed on this bus tour promotion—and most of those are right on a bus route, although Yazoo, which is currently within walking distance of where I work, is moving to nearby Madison, Tennessee because it’s expanding.

Nashville’s buses are notoriously irregular and for some reason they haven’t put any of this information online—the local MTA ain’t exactly what I’d call tech savvy even though they’ve added wifi to pretty much all buses now. Also does it strike anyone else as weird that you have to be twenty-one to visit most brewery web sites? Check out the Jackalope Brewing site–because it’s got a cool story and they make really good beer, but it’s not like you’re going to drink any of it from the website. Or if you know a way to get beer through a website please share it because it’ll make my afternoon commute a lot more interesting. Anyway it’s just weird to me that you can pick up this flier advertising local breweries on a bus regardless of your age, but visiting the Black Abbey Brewery web site requires you to be at least twenty-one.

The important thing here, though is that the idea of letting someone else do the driving is something I’ll drink to.

I, For One, Welcome Our New Artistic Overlords.

Roald Dahl’s story The Great Automatic Grammatizator is about a young man who builds a machine that can write short stories. He then upgrades it to crank out novels which become bestsellers and he builds a whole business around licensing the names of well-known authors—he puts their names on the machine-produced books and they get a nice royalty check and never have to work again. The authors who hold out against the encroaching technology are put under increasing pressure and—spoiler alert—the story ends with the narrator’s haunting plea:

And all the time things get worse for those who hesitate to sign their names. This very moment, as I sit here listening to the crying of my nine starving children in the other room, I can feel my own hand creeping closer and closer to that golden contract that lies over on the other side of the desk. Give us strength, Oh Lord, to let our children starve.

It’s a literary version of the legend of John Henry, the steel-drivin’ man who went up against a steam-powered drilling machine, or that episode of The Office where Dwight goes up against the company’s sales website. And there are other, actual tales of humans against machines. Gary Kasparov was beaten at chess by Deep Blue, Watson did pretty well on Jeopardy!, and there’s a computer program called Sibelius that can not only notate but even compose music.

And there are lots of programs that can turn photos into paintings, and even programs that can match your face to a work of art. And there’s a new one, AI Portraits, that takes your picture and turns it into a painting in varying styles, and with varying degrees of success.

I love Goya’s work but I’m not sure I’d want my portrait painted by him, and this reminds me that when Picasso painted a portrait of his first wife Olga Khokhlova she insisted that he paint a realistic picture. She told him, “I want to recognize my face.”

Naturally when you get a new toy like this the first thing you want to do is break it. AI Portraits won’t accept pictures if it can’t find faces and it does terrible things to pet pictures.Its results with other pictures are a little more interesting.What really interests me, though, is the question of why we prefer—or at least think we prefer—a painting, a musical piece, or a story by a human hand over one done by a machine, if we can even tell the difference. And if we can’t tell the difference what does that say about us and our abilities? I think I prefer art made by a human being because there’s, well, a personal aspect to it. No matter how small or trivial a work of art made by a person is the sum of all they are at that point in their lives. There’s also a psychological drama to a person creating a work of art, or playing a game of chess, or driving steel, that a machine lacks. A machine doesn’t get distracted or unnerved. For the machine there are no stakes to winning or losing–there’s only winning or losing, and the machine doesn’t see either one as success or failure. It just starts over from the beginning. Then again maybe that’s just the way I’m wired.

Traveler’s Rest.

The design of benches at bus stops bugs me. I know I’m very lucky to be at most slightly inconvenienced by the design and that most of the time it doesn’t even affect me because I can stand, but maybe it helps if I speak up along with people for whom it is a problem, and most of those people are homeless. I know homelessness is a growing problem in many cities, and while I don’t have any answers I do know that making homeless people’s lives more difficult isn’t an answer, which is why the bars in the middle of bus benches that make it impossible for anyone to lie down bothers me. The half-benches in bus shelters are even worse because they only have enough space for two people at most so if you have three people who need to take a load off their feet someone’s outta luck. Even the design of the benches, cold perforated metal that I’m sure has been calculated to be just big enough for the average posterior, is unfriendly. It says, “You can sit here but don’t think about staying here.”
This is always on my mind whenever I’m at a bus stop but there are two things this past week that really kept me thinking about it. The first is Grace over at Ms. Graceful Not who navigates the world with more aplomb than her blog’s name would suggest, but that’s another story, who wrote about planning a long trip in a wheelchair. Another thing that’s always on my mind whenever I ride the bus is that in Nashville and other cities where public transportation is pretty much an afterthought people who depend on the bus are limited in where they can live and work. As someone I know said, “I would ride the bus if I didn’t have to walk three miles and cross an interstate to get to the nearest stop.”
And there are visually impaired people who ride the bus, which is part of why, whenever the bus comes to a stop, a cheerful recorded voice announces the route number. That’s great if you’re standing right there when it arrives but not much help if the bus has been idling for a while. Once I was at the downtown depot sitting on the bus and waiting to go when a guy with a red-tipped cane came up to the door and asked, “Which bus is this?”
“Which bus do you need?” the driver snapped because he hadn’t been taught that it’s bad manners to answer a question with a question and even worse manners to make someone else’s life difficult for no reason.
The guy turned and walked on. I slipped over to the other side of the bus and leaned out the window and told him it was the number seven.
“Okay, thanks,” he said and kept walking, and I still wonder if he wanted a different bus or he just decided to wait for the next number seven bus because the driver was an asshole.
Anyway the other thing this week that got me thinking about bus bench design this week is that a bus I was riding stopped at a red light where there was a bench and a guy sitting on it. The driver opened the doors. The guy didn’t get up and I thought, oh, he’s just sitting there. I often see people just sitting on bus benches; sometimes they’ll wave to the driver to keep going. If it’s a spot where several routes overlap maybe they’re waiting for a different bus or maybe they’re just taking a break from walking.
“Hey,” yelled the driver. “How you been doin’?”
The guy looked up. “Oh, I hadn’t seen you in a while. How are you?”
And they just started chatting. The driver asked the guy how his operation had gone and if he were feeling better. Then the light changed and the bus rolled on and I thought, hey, at least one bus driver gets it.

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