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Thanks For Stopping.

The street in front of the building where I work is one-way which should make it safer, or at least easier, for pedestrians, but it’s really a crossing nightmare. I always look both ways before crossing which is just a good habit any time you cross any street but there’s also the occasional driver who will get confused and end up driving the wrong way. Or there’s the occasional delivery truck with a driver who’s too lazy to circle around the very small block and who barrels the wrong way down the street.

There have been a lot of efforts to make crossing the street safer. There have been crossing guards posted there, but only during special events because the cost and trouble of having a person there all the time is just too prohibitive. And most drivers and pedestrians seem to be smart about how they handle it, although I’ve seen a few cars accelerate when they see pedestrians in the crosswalk, and I’ve seen a few pedestrians step right off the sidewalk without looking to see if there’s any traffic coming. All of which tends to undermine my faith in humanity.

Another safety method that’s been added to try and protect pedestrians is the poles in the road. In Britain those are called bollards, although “bollard” to me sounds like a past-tense verb a delivery driver might use, as in “I really bollard through that intersection.”

There used to be six poles. Now there are three and three stubs. Drivers drove right over three of the poles, knocking them down. That probably did some damage to their cars and hopefully there were no pedestrians around at the time.

I’ve crossed that street more times than I can count and have never had a problem until the other day when I tripped over one of the stubs. It was the one right next to the sidewalk. I let out a stream of curses and it took me a minute to get up. Later I’d find I’d skinned one of my knees, through my jeans, and my elbow, tearing my shirt. At least it was close to the end of the day. And an approaching car stopped while I got up. A young woman who’d just crossed the street ahead of me turned and came back to make sure I was all right and could get up.

The sudden kindness of strangers in that intersection did a little bit to restore my faith in humanity.


The end of February through at least the first couple of weeks of March is a null time. There are no holidays. The days themselves have started to get long enough that sunlight no longer feels like a precious commodity. Snow still might fall, or there might be days when it’s warm enough to go out without a coat, even without a jacket, but it’s all fleeting. What was, just a short time ago, a newborn year has now reached an awkward age when it’s not a child but not a teenager, neither winter nor spring. And at times it feels like it will last forever.

That’s what I thought on a morning that was gray and cloudy with brief periods of sun when I went to my favorite coffee shop, a tiny place, wedged between a thrift store and what was once a Chinese restaurant, once a realtor, once a law office, all of it in a building that’s more than a century old. So much has passed through it, most of it forgotten.

The mercury was just low enough that my windbreaker was enough to get me from the car to the counter but I still wanted something to warm me up. So I ordered one of their Eclipse coffees. It was a drink they’d started making for the August 2017 eclipse—a latte topped with foam and dusted with activated charcoal and a creamy flower design.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the barista said, “we don’t serve that anymore.”

I was okay with that. I understand menu items come and go, and it seemed especially fitting that a drink named for a transient event. Eclipses, any astronomer will tell you, happen all the time since all objects in space are in constant motion. They’re special because most of us are, from a terrestrial perspective, fixed to one spot, so we consider ourselves lucky, or unlucky depending on how you feel about the day suddenly turning dark or a full moon disappearing, to be under one.

Instead I ordered a large red eye, a regular coffee topped with a shot of espresso, just the thing to get me in motion.  

Some Of This Has Been Said Before.

It’s hard to come up with anything original to say about plagiarism. It’s been on my mind because some magazines have now shut down their submissions because they were being flooded with AI-generated stories, most of which, it turned out, were at least partially plagiarized, because artificial intelligence isn’t very creative, and also had clunky, often meaningless syntax because artificial intelligence still isn’t very intelligent, although it’s only a matter of time before it becomes indistinguishable from the real thing.

It hits me because I have friends who are writers, some of whom had submissions in process at places that are shutting down and might now have to find some way to prove their humanity, or had stories they were working on but will now have to find other venues. As for the people who submitted the AI-generated stories—because they were real people even if they were submitting work they hadn’t actually written—some of them say, “I needed the money.” I find this really hard to believe. There are some publications that pay, and it is possible for a new writer to get lucky, but there are easier ways to make money, and if you were submitting a story for money, even if it wasn’t one you’d written, wouldn’t you at least read it first?

This also hits me because in high school I entered a city-wide writing contest. I didn’t win, or even place, but I assumed my story just wasn’t good enough. It was science fiction and it might not have even made it past my teacher who was one of the first-round judges and very vocal about how much she hated science fiction. When the winners were announced there was a lot of fanfare about how the first-place story was more than double the word limit but the judges all thought it was so good they let it pass. Of course they thought it was good. When I read it I was stunned that it was “Sled” by Thomas E. Adams, first published in 1961. It had been in my seventh grade English textbook. But by then it was too late to do anything.

In school I understand the pressure to plagiarize. I never did it, mostly because I took too much pride in trying to prove myself, but also, even pre-internet, I never thought I could get away with it. Even after the writing contest I didn’t think I, personally, could get away with it, and I wasn’t interested in trying.

In college I had a professor, Dr. Will, who taught philosophy and at the end of the term gave us two options: we could take the final exam or turn in a paper, but it would have to be a really good paper. He’d also grill anyone who turned in a paper to make sure they’d written it and understood the subject. Years earlier he had a student who’d failed every part of the class and who turned in a paper that started with the line, “Immanuel Kant transformed the hylomorphic distinction from an ontological to a noetic order.” Dr. Will offered the student a deal: if he could explain what that one sentence meant he’d get an A for the semester. The student flunked philosophy.

Being a very serious and dedicated student myself, one who’d done pretty well in the class, I, of course, opted for the final exam.

At the same time I was in that philosophy class I first read the short story “Who’s Cribbing?” by Jack Lewis. I won’t spoil the ending but it’s a series of letters between Lewis and various editors. His stories get rejected because, at first, they’re too similar to stories by another writer who died years earlier and whom Lewis has never heard of. Things get even weirder when what he thinks are his own original stories turn out to be word-for-word copies of ones the previous writer wrote.

It made me laugh even though at the time it seemed like a nightmare, especially for someone who makes a living as a writer, to be able to write anything original. Now, though, decades later, it makes me think about how “original” is a shifty term. The stories we tell each other are relatable because they’re built around common experience, and told in a shared language. Most stories are adapted from other stories, passed down and remixed or updated, but we still value the lived experience behind the stories. It’s because so much is shared, so much overlaps in our own storytelling, and the potential of losing what makes stories alive that makes AI so threatening. It’s also why it’s hard to say anything original about plagiarism.

The Kids Are All Right.

My greatest fear is that I’ll be useless in a crisis. Well, strictly speaking most fears are situational. Put me in a room full of ferrets and my greatest fear will be that they’ll collectively attack me. I realize a lot of people love ferrets and they think it’s weird that I’ll handle snakes but that I’m terrified of ferrets which are basically snakes with fur and tiny legs. And also large, sharp teeth. So I point out to my friends who love ferrets but don’t like snakes that I’m selective when it comes to ophidians. I won’t go near a ferret for the same reason I won’t go near a cobra. A ferret’s bite may be less deadly but it still has bigger teeth.

Now that I think I’ve built up the courage to get back to my first point I’ll proceed. The other night I was driving home in the dark and saw a couple of people standing around a ditch. Then, as I got closer, I saw a pair of feet sticking up from the ditch and it looked like the standing people were kicking someone. I was pretty sure I was seeing an assault in progress and every neuron in my brain fired with the same message: Keep going. This is none of your business.

So of course I stopped, backed up, and rolled down the car window.

In the faint glow from the headlights I could see the standing figures were a couple of tall, lanky teenagers with matted blonde hair. They each wore blue hoodies and jeans, and looked enough alike that they were probably brothers.

And then the person in the ditch sat up and I heard him laugh.

“Hey!” he yelled. I could see he had a blue hoodie on too and that he was smiling.

“Everything all right?” I asked.

“Sure!” said the one still sitting in the ditch. He laughed. Then one of the others said, “Yeah, we’re just messing around. Sorry if we scared you.”

“Sure,” I said, and I forced out a laugh too. “Thanks a lot!” And I drove on.

When I got home I was shaking. I felt like my heart was going to pop out of my chest. It was just some kids out for a walk, having some fun, but I couldn’t, I still can’t, shake the thought that I don’t know what I would have done if it had been something terrible. Would I have gotten out of the car? Rushed to help someone who needed it? I stopped but that was the very least I could do, and I can’t say what I would have done if it had been a real emergency.

The kids are all right. I’m not sure I am.


It seems like a funny coincidence that these pixel-character stickers have started popping up at the same time that there’s growing concern over AI-generated art, writing, and chatbots that quickly turn racist, sexist, or threatening. And not everyone’s concerned, which just makes the problem worse. Neil Clarke, editor of the science fiction magazine Clarkesworld, has just written a piece titled “A Concerning Trend” about the rise in AI-generated submissions. It’s bad enough that they’re getting harder to spot. He also says:

Yes, there are tools out there for detecting plagiarized and machine-written text, but they are prone to false negatives and positives. One of the companies selling these services is even playing both sides, offering a tool to help authors prevent detection.

Call me cynical but I don’t believe only one of the companies is playing both sides, and even if it is only one now it won’t be long before others get into the game too. If it’s profitable they’ll do it.

Also, and a little ironically, I tried a Google reverse-image search because there was something familiar about those pixel characters. They looked a little like some of the Space Invaders, from the version I played as a kid on my friend’s home Atari console, or like monochrome 8-bit Mario Goombas. Nothing turned up. They’re probably someone’s entirely original characters, which just underscores the point that there’s a person behind these stickers. Someone made them.

I never really know the intent behind the street art I find, but the one thing I always know is that there’s a person behind it. And I know I’m a person responding to it. The intent is, at best, secondary. Without people it wouldn’t exist.  

Twenty-One Attempts To Get The Windshield Replaced.

The van’s windshield had a crack in it. We called HourGlass Repair & Replace. This is the chronicle of what followed.

Appointment 1-The technician texted to say that according to his GPS he’d be arriving between 8:30AM and 9:30AM. At 9:43AM he pulled into our driveway and started getting ready. A light rain started. Because we don’t have a garage or covered driveway he said he’d have to come back when it was dry and would reschedule us for the next day.

Appointment 2-Three days later we had to call and make another appointment. Two technicians showed up unannounced at 10:10AM. After complaining for fifteen minutes about the cold they started preparing the windshield for replacement, removing side pieces. Then they decided it was too wet and cold to continue and left. They made a note to reschedule out appointment.

Appointment 3-Cancelled because of heavy rain. We had to call and reschedule.

Appointment 4-The technician arrived a day early when we weren’t home. No apparent repair work was done but he left a Vespa parked in the driveway next to the van.

Appointment 5-The technician, scheduled to arrive between noon and 3:00PM, arrived some time between midnight and 3:00AM. We awoke to find that he had removed the cracked windshield then reinstalled it backwards and left a note that said, “They don’t make Edsels like they used to.”

Appointment 6-Cancelled because of heavy rain. We had to call and reschedule.

Appointment 7-Cancelled due to unforeseen delays with other jobs. While taking the Vespa out for a spin I was pursued by a van belonging to a rival auto-glass company. I was unable to see the driver but could hear him demanding that I stop and give him kidney beans.

Appointment 8-The technician arrived at 10:05AM in an HourGlass Repair & Replace truck blaring “Bad Moon Rising”. After preliminary prep on the van windshield he discovered the replacement windshield was for a 1991 Yugo and wouldn’t fit any existing vehicle, including a 1991 Yugo. The appointment was rescheduled.

Appointment 9-The technician arrived at 1:05PM and took the Vespa.

Appointment 10-The technician texted us that he had to cancel our appointment because a manure spreader jack-knifed on the Santa Ana. We had to call and reschedule.

Appointment 11-The technician texted to say “time is a fluid and very relative concept”. At 2:35PM a rainbow-colored van turned into our driveway. The technician, with a bushy white beard and a t-shirt that said, “If You Remember The 60’s You Weren’t There” sat in front of the van contemplating the crack for several hours. After leaving he texted us to say he was unable to finish because “the banana peels were kicking in”.

Appointment 12-Cancelled for unknown reasons. Automatically rescheduled.

Appointment 13-The technician arrived around 8:00AM and was done by 8:30AM. Everything seemed to be fine until we discovered he’d removed the engine and replaced it with a cake decorated with “Happy Retirement, Carl!”

Appointment 14-Twelve technicians arrived at 2:30PM. Carl’s retirement party was a great success.

Appointment 15-Cancelled because of leftover cake.

Appointment 16-Some time during the night the Vespa was returned.

Appointment 17-The technician arrived at 10:15AM, removed the cracked windshield, and installed a new one backwards. He left without notifying us. We scheduled a new appointment.

Appointment 18-The technician arrived at 9:25AM in a Citroen BX. He wore a trench coat, a plaid trilby, and dark glasses. After telling me several times, “The pearl is in the river,” we both concluded he was in fact a character from a 1982 made-for-TV spy thriller in which downtown Poughkeepsie is used as a stand-in for Bucharest.

Appointment 19-The technician arrived at 1:30PM and removed the backwards windshield but replaced it with the one with the crack in it.

Appointment 20-The technician arrived at 10:05AM in an HourGlass Repair & Replace truck, loaded the Vespa, and departed, blaring Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Midnight Special”.

Appointment 21-The technician texted us to say that according to his GPS he’d arrive sometime between 8:30AM and 9:00AM. He arrived at 8:50AM. Replacement of the windshield took about an hour with a recommended wait time of four hours to allow the glue to dry. After he left we found a note taped to the inside that said, “Call any time you need us again.—Carl.”

Monday In The Park.

Now that it’s been almost three years since I first started working from home, and about six months since I started coming into the office one day a week, I’ve been reflecting on how much has changed, and also going back to some old habits. For six months now I haven’t gone very far from the office on my lunch break, mainly because I was still getting in the habit of being back at work, and it took a long time to get over an odd feeling that this is still not normal. Also, unlike the old days when the only way to avoid someone coming up and asking me work-related questions was to get out of the office now, even with a few people sharing the space with me, no one seems inclined to talk to me or to anyone else.

There’s also been the weather which hasn’t always been amenable to getting outside. One of the downsides of only being in the office on Mondays is if it’s raining or cold or there are giant aardvarks roaming the streets I’m not inclined to go out, or at least not to go far.

Last Monday, though, for the first time since I’ve been coming back to work, I did what I used to do at least once a week: I walked to Centennial Park. It was always a good way to clear my head, get some exercise, just generally put work behind me. My office is close enough to it that I can walk to the park, circle the pond where ducks and Canada geese paddle around, or stroll around the Parthenon, and make it back to my desk in less than an hour. A few things have changed. There’s a lot of construction going on now so, instead of just using the sidewalk to get there, I have to walk through a construction tunnel. I still cross at the same crosswalk where a music store used to be and now there’s a hotel. The flower shop, hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and drugstore are gone too. For now that whole block is a vacant lot. Something will go up soon.

At least Centennial Park is still very much the same. There’s still the pond with the ducks and Canada geese, and the Parthenon, and people strolling around the grass or jogging on the trails.

I had a lot of stress about coming back to work. I was unsure of where I’d work, or even where I’d park, and I still have the commute and the irregular elevators to contend with. The cubicle I called mine has been cleaned out, all of my personal items removed. The future is still uncertain. But I think making a Monday walk to Centennial Park part of the new normal will help regardless of what the weather is like.

Going Public.

A public proposal, like any grand gesture, can only go one of two ways: really well or really badly. That’s why there’s the saying Aim for the Moon. Even if you fail you’ll fall among the stars. Which, depending on your perspective, either means you’ll go out in a blaze of glory or you’ll freeze in the cold, dark void, taunted by tiny points of light that are many orders of magnitude more distant than your intended target.

The fact that it’s either utter humiliation or grand celebration, the Lady or the Tiger, is what makes the public proposal so romantic but also challenging both for the giver and the receiver. I feel especially sympathetic toward anyone getting a surprise, and very public, proposal because not everyone wants that much attention, even if they’re absolutely certain. And if they’re not absolutely certain…

At least this one went well.

These two pictures were taken about a week apart but I don’t know when exactly the affirmative was added. I like to think that the person who accepted didn’t take long to say so but I appreciate that they gave me enough time to document before and happily ever after.

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