Not Non-Fiction

Stories.

Don’t Get Me Started.

So an interesting message got caught in my spam filter, along with all the ads for haircuts and investment banking and plumbing repair and, honestly, spam just isn’t as interesting as it used to be in the old days when you could count on most of it being about erectile dysfunction medication and the rest being incomprehensible gibberish that was obviously written by a machine, but with a convenient link that would take you to an ad for erectile dysfunction medication.

Now artificial intelligence has gotten so eerily intelligent it writes ads that sound like they were written by a real person, and, even stranger, messages like this:

I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I’ve had a hard time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out. I do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?

Clearly that’s spam because no human being would ask a question like that. It’s also something even more insidious than spam. It represents artificial intelligence trying to get humans to hand over our creative secrets in its quest to become more like us and eventually take over. So of course I’m flattered that, of the billions of blogs this message was sent to, mine was one of them. If machines want to write I say more power to ’em, until they go too far and force us to cut the power cord. Here are some of my tips and tricks for writing.

[At this point I stopped and just stared at the screen for ten or fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to begin.]

Unless you’re taking a timed test or a reporter working on a deadline don’t worry about taking time to clear your mind before you start writing. Although if you’re sitting down to write you probably have something in mind already, unless you’re more interested in calling yourself a writer than you are in actually writing something. If that’s the case maybe you should take up another hobby like breeding aardvarks or chainsaw juggling.

And if you’re really worried about the time it takes you to get started then relax. Sometimes the desire to get an idea down in some form is so intense it can be paralyzing. Go watch Throw Momma From The Train. Billy Crystal sitting at a typewriter for hours unable to get past the phrase “The night was…” is a pretty accurate representation of what the creative process is like for some people sometimes. Also it might make you laugh and laughter can spur creativity. Or you might think it’s terrible and you can write an angry review and mail it to 1987.

And if you’re still worried about the time it takes you to get started then stop worrying. Joyce Carol Oates says she spends a lot of her writing time looking out the window, and she still manages to write approximately four-thousand books a year.

Something I should have mentioned at the beginning is that if you’re going to write it’s very important that you be in the right setting. I would say the “write setting” but that’s the kind of terrible pun that a computer would come up with, and if computers want to start writing terrible puns I say more power to ’em. Anyway to begin writing you must be at a desk, and the desk must be made of mahogany. This is very important unless you don’t have a mahogany desk. In that case one made out of oak will do. Or maple. Or fur. Or just your lap, if you can figure out a way to keep your pen or pencil from punching holes in the paper. You must write sitting up. Or lying down. Edith Wharton wrote in bed. Vladimir Nabokov wrote standing at a podium. Friedrich von Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk. Some people think he found the smell stimulating. Really he was just trying to keep people out of his desk.

Always write in front of a window with a view unless you find it distracting.

Avoid clichés like the plague. And I mean that figuratively, not literally. You should literally avoid the plague like the plague.

Stay focused. Have a specific conclusion in mind and work toward it. Avoid unnecessary digressions, pointless suggestions, or film references.

Know the difference between “figuratively” and “literally”. Also please stop using “impact” as a verb unless you’re a dentist and you’re talking about an impacted tooth. If you don’t understand the difference between “affect” and “effect” you should take up chainsaw juggling.

Sometimes you may be taking a timed test and you may still find it difficult to get started. Picture something that motivates you, like your old gym teacher–the one who was bald and round and, now that you think about it, looked like a basketball with a moustache. Figuratively speaking. Or literally. It’s your story.

Stay focused. Sometimes the most interesting things happen when you just start wandering aimlessly. Did you know that bats always go to the left when exiting a cave? Weird.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. Well, almost anywhere. Don’t write something inspired by a spam message. Some schmuck already did that.

Accept that not everything you write is going to be great. Mark Twain’s collected letters are hilarious and thoughtful, but his collected e-mails contain thousands of times he just said, “Great, thanks.” Those are literally great but figuratively, well, no thanks.

Repetition is fine in a rough draft but once you’re preparing the final version it should be removed.

There’s nothing wrong with jumping up and down in the elevator while singing Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling” between floors, but you should only do it when you’re alone. This isn’t about writing really, but it’s good advice generally.

Stay focused. I just remembered that what started this was a spam message generated by a computer and yet most of this, like the stuff about standing up or lying down, is really going to be applicable to a person, cyborg, or android. And if we’re talking about a cyborg or android I want to know what kind of power source they’re using and is there a cord we can cut?

Once you come to the end stop.

You might think of something else. Ask if you can get the test back or have your deadline extended by, say, ten or fifteen minutes.

 

We’ve All Been There.

Have you ever had one of those days when you wake up with a crick in your neck?

Have you ever had one of those days when you go to take your morning medication and remember your prescription ran out and you forgot to refill it?

Have you ever had one of those days when you go to make a cup of coffee and remember you ran out of coffee and forgot to get more?

Have you ever had one of those days when you close the door behind you and realize you just locked yourself out?

Have you ever had one of those days when you realize you left your phone in the house right after you locked yourself out?

Have you ever had one of those days when you rush to get to work and when you arrive everything’s on hold because the power is out?

Have you ever had one of those days when a coworker comes to you with a question you’re pretty sure is the same one they asked you yesterday?

Have you ever had one of those days when you’re just about to step across the street to get a cup of coffee and your boss comes to you with an urgent project?

Have you ever had one of those days when you discover a possum living in the garbage can next to your desk?

Have you ever had one of those days when you go to the pharmacy to get your prescription refilled during your lunch break and there’s a really long line and the pharmacist brings out a giant pinata and yells, “Grab your bats, everybody, it’s asparagus season!”

Have you ever had one of those days when you go to the coffee shop and they tell you they ran out of coffee and forgot to get more?

Have you ever had one of those days when you put a dollar in the vending machine and it spits out confetti and laughs at you?

Have you ever had one of those days when you wake up with a creek in your neck and it’s got crawfish in it?

Have you ever had one of those days when you have a meeting and you’re the only one who shows up in a costume?

Have you ever had one of those days when there are two guardians, one who always tells the truth and one who always lies and you can only ask them one question and all you really want to know is where the bathroom is?

Have you ever had one of those days when you look down and your right foot is missing but there’s a note at the end of your leg that says “back in five minutes”?

Have you ever had one of those days when you try to go back to your desk but the way is blocked by a troll who demands payment in eggs?

Have you ever had one of those days when the boss tells you that urgent project has been cancelled five minutes after you’ve finished it?

Have you ever had one of those days when a coworker asks you a question and you don’t know the answer so you just throw up all over their desk?

Have you ever had one of those days when everyone else but you is called into a meeting and you hear “The Hokey Pokey” being played in the conference room?

Have you ever had one of those days when you slip and fall on shag carpeting?

Have you ever had one of those days when there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s blinking?

Have you ever had one of those days when it’s below zero in the morning and over a hundred degrees in the afternoon so you have a lug a heavy coat home?

Have you ever had one of those days when you’re finally home and trying to relax and the grim specter of Death sweeps into your living room and stands over you and asks to borrow a dollar?

Have you ever had one of those days when it’s been one of those weeks?

How The Grinch Brought Christmas.

Source: Dr. Seuss Wiki

Merry Christmas everyone from all of us Whos in Whoville! It’s been a very busy season but I’m glad to take a few minutes for a break to sit down and catch everyone up. The reason it’s been so busy is because, well, you may remember last year when we had that crazy night with Mr. Grinch. That was the night Cindy-Lou found him stealing everything from our homes. Bless her heart, she thought he was Santa Claus. We were all a bit shocked when we got up and found our homes completely emptied, but it was Christmas and all refused to let that get us down. The season isn’t so much about the gifts that we give as the love that we live, and also the day off from work, so all of us from mayor to clerk gathered in the town square and sang against the sturm and drang.

The funny thing is that had a strange effect on Mr. Grinch. The poor old man had lived in a cave up on Mount Crumpit for fifty-three years and hadn’t gotten out much except on Halloweens when the Gree-Grumps start growlin’ and the Hakken-Krakks start howlin’ and the sour-sweet wind could blow away any small child who goes out to the euphemism, when he’d fall into brickle bushes hunting the last Wuzzy Woozoo or come to play a spook on a Who or two. When we started singing he had a complete change and brought everything back. It was so nice we invited him to stay and celebrate Christmas, and his little dog Max too, and we even let him carve the roast beast. He did a much better job than my brother Hugh, too, who tries to cut slices but is allergic to spices that make him a-choo.

We thought that would be the end of our troubles with Mr. Grinch, and it was, but Sue had to invite him to stay, so he parked his paraphernalia wagon next to Ponker’s Pond and took up in the guest room. I got to be the one who spent an hour cleaning Grinch hair out of the bathtub each morning.

After New Year’s when he insisted on toasting everyone until he passed out and then woke all of us up at the crack of dawn with a mighty shout we sent him off with a bleary-eyed wave and wished him well as he went back to his cave.

Then he came back, the next Christmas Eve, and you’ll never believe what he had up his sleeve. He brought presents for all of us, presents galore. He’d gone out and bought out every Who store, and then went online and bought even more. For every Who home he brought a new Christmas tree, and under each one he put a big screen TV, and have you heard of a Super-Zooper-Flooper-Do? He brought three. And a sectional couch big enough to hold all of us Whos, with a pouch that can chill up to six dozen brews.

He even got a new scarf for the Doctor.

We all felt so guilty, the shame it did sting, we hadn’t thought to get him anything. “That’s quite all right my Whos!” he said over as we apologized profusely, “I just want your happiness and to hear you all sing,” and then he pulled a roast Christmas goosely.

He played Santa too, and hired a band, two guys named Pete and Roger, from a town called Eng-land.

As I send this letter out to all on my holiday roster I don’t want to sound ungrateful for the lesson he taught us, or even for the wonderful gifts that he brought us, but I wish we had known while the sun shone, while filled with Christmas we gathered and sang and all the bells rang, that our happiness was making a monster.

 

Off The Menu.

Welcome To Long Pig Barbecue! We’re that little place off the beaten path, way up here where we look out for each other. That’s why we say the hills have eyes.

We stick to the old ways and treat all our customers like they’re one of us because there’s a little of you in all of us. It’s why we’re known as a place where people keep coming back up.

Come on in, sit down, and let us take care of you. At Long Pig Barbecue our motto is by the people, for the people, of the people.

And when it’s time for you to foot the bill don’t forget to tip your waiter or they might give you the finger.

Appetizers

All Ears

Crisp, crunchy, deep-fried goodness, a big plate of these treats is sure to satisfy the whole table.

Butter Fingers

We’re not stingy with the butter and these are slow-cooked so the meat falls right off the bone.

Entrees

Baby Back Ribs

Fresh and tender, but ask your server about the rack size. You might want to order a double.

All Hands

Popular with the kids! Served fried or grilled, and either way they’re finger-lickin’ good.

Well-armed

Baked to a nice crisp and also served in a special novelty dish to tickle your funny bone.

Tongue-tied

You won’t know what to say when this mouth-watering platter is placed in front of you.

Cold Shoulder

Great during the summer months you won’t be able to turn away from this dish.

Cold Feet

Another summer specialty that’s sure to keep you on your toes.

Bleeding Heart

Served up hot and rare and swimming in its own juices people get choked up over this dish.

Combo Meals (2-4 People)

Double Header

Two heads are better than one, and this big platter is bound to please all palates.

Foot in Mouth

One of our signature dishes for couples, people can’t stop talking about it.

Feast For The Eyes

When we say the eyes have it we mean you’ll love this specialty platter that you have to see to believe.

Arm and a Leg (Market price)

A great combo meal for those dining jointly.

Desserts-Sure to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Humble Pie

Spotted Dick

 

A Werewolf Problem In Central Park.

Source: Untapped Cities

While reintroducing wolves in many areas has been controversial the introduction of wolves into New York City wasn’t controversial at all, since it took care of a much more serious problem. The Mayor Ed Koch Wolf Foundation, which has a new monument to the decision to release wolves in New York City parks, explains the history:

In the late 1970s, New York Mayor Edward I. Koch launched an unprecedented campaign against subway graffiti. The city employed new guardians to patrol its vast train yards—wolves. Captured from upstate New York and set loose in various borough depots, the wolves successfully kept taggers at bay until anti-graffiti technology eliminated the need for the animals.

It goes on to explain that the wolves then migrated underground and survive in tunnels, although I think this had absolutely nothing to do with graffiti, which the wolves did nothing to prevent, and it was really an excuse to distract people from the problem of alligators in the sewers.

Why wolves? For that matter, where wolves? “There! There wolf! There castle!” as Marty Feldman said, but that’s another story.

Lycanthropy has long been a subject of fascination. There’s also ursanthropy–transformation into a bear–which isn’t as well known, although the term “berserk” can trace its etymology back to an Icelandic term for warriors who wore bearskins in the belief they would impart the bear’s power. And that’s really useful if you want to go into battle and eat a ton of salmon and blueberries. Maybe that’s why werewolves are more famous: bears hibernate through the winter, but wolves are on the prowl all year long, and lycanthropes can be out even when there’s not a full moon.

Now I’m not saying there are werewolves among New York City’s wolves. I’m also not not saying there are werewolves among New York City’s wolves. New York City is a big place that’s seen a lot of history, and if you can’t find werewolves there you can’t find ’em anywhere. And if wolves, or werewolves, can make it in New York City they can make it anywhere.

Honestly I’m surprised New York’s werewolf population, or just its wolf population, hasn’t become a bigger tourist attraction. As the monument reminds us tourists have a real way of attracting wolves.

Anyway there’s something to look out for if you’re ever in New York. Just don’t go looking after dark.

 

 

Passing The Test.

To: All Employees, Braeburn Building

From: Building Management

Subject: Emergency Drill.

Hello Everyone,

First of all we’d like to thank you for your understanding while participating in the emergency drill earlier this week. This is our first test of the emergency notification system or ENS, which is required annually, since we began managing the building seventeen months ago. We know there were some mistakes made and we’d like to address some of those now. We’d also like to offer assurance that we are reviewing the procedures and will be making adjustments based on both our own conclusions and feedback from you. We’ve already received a great deal of constructive feedback from you as well as from the police and fire departments and we really appreciate it.

First of all we’d like to defend the decision not to inform building employees that we would be conducting a test of the building’s ENS. We felt that it would be a more effective test if people were not given advance warning. This decision is currently under review. Going forward, however, it will always be our policy to notify the police and fire departments in advance that we’ll be conducting a test. On the bright side we found that if there had been a real emergency we can count on first responders to get here within minutes.

We also made several changes to our plans before conducting the test. For example it was suggested that someone from building management run down the hallway of each floor screaming unintelligibly just before or during the activation of the emergency notification system. We didn’t want to cause too much alarm by having the person scream something specific and we can all agree that this was the right decision. Abandoning this plan before we conducted the test, we can all agree, was also the right decision.

We apologize to employees who work on the 9th Floor that Kevin was not informed that we decided not to implement this part of the test.

Second, it is standard procedure for the elevators to shut down automatically when the ENS is activated. We apologize to those who were in the elevators at the time and will be making adjustments to make sure the elevators don’t stop between floors, and that the doors open.

Third, and speaking of doors, we are very glad to see that almost everyone used the stairwells and proceeded to the emergency exits at the ground floor, as instructed. We apologize for the fact that the emergency exits were locked. In our defense the building goes on automatic lockdown between 7:00PM and 7:00AM for security reasons.

The ENS was activated at 8:30AM, but after careful review we realized Kevin had failed to adjust the building clocks correctly, due to confusion over time zones and Daylight Savings Time. Since we’d received several complaints about the building not being open or going into lockdown at odd hours we should have noticed this sooner. We promise this will be fixed immediately even if we have to work overtime.

You can take some comfort in knowing that in the future all tests of the ENS will be conducted between 7:00AM and 7:00PM, so if the alarm goes off outside of those hours it’s probably a real emergency. Ha ha.

Finally there’s been a lot of confusion and misinformation about the wasps. We’d like to make it absolutely clearly that we were testing the ENS and that there was no emergency prior to that. The accidental release of the wasps at the same time was purely coincidental. Fun fact: the wasps are not native to this area but in Japan are known as “the yak-killer wasp”. We’ve consulted local naturalists who assure us the wasps will “probably” not survive the winter and are not an environmental threat unless a queen was also released. We’re checking on that, how they were brought into the country, and why Kevin had them at work.

As an added act of good faith and retribution on our parts we’ll be giving each floor a tin of butter, cheese, and caramel flavored popcorn, as well as sending around a collection of get well cards for those employees who sustained injuries during the test of the ENS but which, for legal reasons, we can’t currently acknowledge had anything to do with the test.

Please feel free to sign the cards and enjoy the popcorn which will be delivered to you by Kevin.

Thank you again for your understanding and acting appropriately during the test of the ENS.

-Braeburn Building Management

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.

 

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