Monday, February 2, 2015

A Martian Considers the Possibility of Church Life

What follows is a brief excerpt from my book, The Martian, the Angel and the Robot. By the time you would reach this point, the story takes some things for granted. So I’ll fill in the gaps. The three characters here are the title characters, Fred, a martian, Will, an angel, and Bob, a robot from a mechanical world. They are all strangers to Earth, masquerading as humans when they leave their house. The story describes alien views of day to day life. This is their first conversation about religion. It opens with a question from the martian, and he isn’t even certain what religion is.
“Should we go to church?”
“Excuse me?”
“Should we go to church?,” Fred repeated.
“Church?,” Bob asked, “where humans gather to believe in God?”
Will was as dumbfounded as Bob by the question. “Why can’t you believe in God right here?”
Fred looked back and forth at his friends. “I don’t know.”
Bob whirred slightly. Some minor part of his robot anatomy had slipped, so he let out some strange sounds from time to time. It seemed to embarrass him slightly. “Sorry about that. It’ll pass as soon as I tighten up the Q dials right.” He shifted weight and the whirring was quieted a bit. The moment, however uncomfortable, had granted him time to develop the pertinent question. As obvious as it was, neither he nor Will realized that it should have been the first words spoken in response to Fred’s unexpected query. “What makes you think we should go to church?”
“Mrs. White thinks we should go to church.”
“Mrs. White wants us to go to church.” Will was in his angelic form. This was not the first time the others noticed that confusion could dim his aura slightly. “Who the hell is Mrs. White?”
“We tend her lawn.”
“She’s one of your customers,” Bob said.
Will chuckled, “Well I don’t think they do that for anyone else.”
“Right. Sorry. Why does Mrs. White care if Will and I go to church? We’ve never met the woman.”

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Blunt Object of Compassion

I’m not used to doing things the way everyone else does. I never have. Sometimes the best thing to do is what no one else would think to do. Or say. I sometimes say things that are rude, but are also considerate. People don’t ask me my opinion unless they want the truth.
“Does this shirt look good on me?”
“No, not at all.”
I’m not rude exactly. I’m just blunt. Sometimes people need that more than anything.
Here’s a good example. It’s one that I have ready, because I had already considered posting this story. I will tell you that it’s entirely true. I haven’t even embellished it. I won’t tell you the man’s name, because his hardships aren’t anyone’s business. I will tell you about my small involvement though.
I arrived at his house to service his water softener and drinking water system. That’s done yearly, so I knew him. He was a customer I always liked to see. He was always so pleasant and charming. I would have thought him a stranger to any kind of bad mood. I knew I couldn’t expect that this time. I had already been told that this one might be difficult. The system was okay, but the customer wasn’t. His wife had died recently. That ‘recently’ is measured in months, but he was an old man and when a marriage has lasted as long as his did, the impact lasts.
I was prepared for that. I was going to handle it the way I usually do. I was going to avoid touching on the subject at all. Some people like to have others commiserate with them. Some are the opposite. Some people, after losing a loved one, want to be left alone. They don’t want your condolences. Hearing how sorry you are doesn’t help them. On the other hand, if it was clear he wanted to talk, I’d be right there. He would just have to make the first move.
He opened the door, stepped aside so that I get in, and said, “You know where it is.”
“Yes, sir.”
Then he moved off into the next room to glare at the television. He had always been one of the most likable people, almost cartoonish in his geniality. I know I said that already, but it bears repeating. That was gone. The tone of his voice reeked of hostility, not toward me, but towards the world. His movements showed pain. I expected that, but I didn’t expect the way he walked. You see, he didn’t walk. Old as he was, he sort of hopped and got handholds to move across his living room. He had only one foot. Now that I didn’t expect. I had been told about his wife. I didn’t know that he had lost his leg. It was strange to me because of the parallel. My own grandfather had just gone through the same thing that year. Grandma had died and he lost his foot to diabetes. It was so bizarre to see someone of nearly the same age in the same situation at the same time. Perhaps that’s what gave the instinct to say something a bit bold. I set down my toolbox, but I didn’t move off right away. “Uh, before I get started, I have to point out the elephant in the room, but you did have two legs when I was here last time, didn’t you?”
For a moment he stared at me open mouthed and wide eyed. Then he chuckled and I got to see that warm smile that was typical of him. “Yeah. Yes, I did. You know my wife died?”
“Yeah, I knew that. I didn’t know about the leg. When did that happen?”
He got up out of his chair and followed me as I went in to his kitchen to get to work. We kept on a conversation the entire time I was there. We didn’t discuss his troubles. We’d already gotten that out of the way. I can’t remember what all we discussed. Sports? The weather? The news? Whatever it was, it was just an ordinary conversation, but for him it was something special. I didn’t say so, but I understood. In his situation, everyone must have been tip toeing around him. He must have had constant sympathy. What he didn’t have, or at least what he didn’t have enough of, was just company. He wasn’t able to have an ordinary conversation with anyone who knew him. I didn’t care enough about his tragedies to dwell on them, and that’s what he wanted. After I was finished working upstairs, I had to go to his basement to work on the softener. He followed me down. His house was already set up for it, and despite his age, he was already talented at getting around on one foot. Even so, I’ve got to admit that I was surprised he would make an unnecessary trip down the stairs. I’m not that charismatic.
When the job was done, I didn’t leave right away. I kept on talking with the man for a little while. I wasn’t there long, I don’t think. I couldn’t really tell you if it was half an hour or if it was more. I didn’t time it. I do know that I walked into a house of gloom, and I left behind a smile.
That was years ago, but I’ll never forget it. It taught me something that I already knew. The wrong thing to say can be the perfect thing to say.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Definition of the World 'Literally' - Virtual 'Literally' is not Illiteracy, but it is a Casual Misuse of a Word

I don’t know if the title of this post is exceptionally clever, but it is a lot of fun to say out loud. If that title made this sound good enough to read, then, like me, you’re probably someone who has a solid opinion on the proper use of the word ‘literally’. Have you ever corrected anyone who has used the word ‘literally’ to mean figuratively? God, I hope so.
I guess this is my attempt at correcting every misuse of the word ‘literally’. That’s a waste of time, I suppose, but my time is my own to waste. I’ve looked up definitions. I’ve found quotations, some more relevant than others. The first will be a quote from President Dwight David Eisenhower :
“An intellectual is a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows.”
I don’t know that I would have considered myself an intellectual, but by Eisenhower’s definition I’m about to become one. I’m taking the time to carry on a one sided semantic debate with myself for the world to read.
What difference does it really make? Who cares if someone wants to use ‘literally’ to mean virtually or figuratively? Granted, it annoys the hell out of me, but not nearly as much as people who talk out loud in movie theaters or drivers who don’t use their turn signals. I have plenty of pet peeves to rattle on about, so why write about this one? It’s because, much to my horror, I recently discovered that I was on the wrong side of the argument.
I hate it when the word ‘literally’ is used to mean figuratively. “You should have seen his performance! He was literally on fire!” No he wasn’t. “We literally inhaled that pizza.” No you didn’t. “The kid is literally a monster!” Well, maybe, that depends on the definition of ‘monster’ more than the definition of ‘literally’.
If I were to correct anyone using any of those mistaken sentences, they could make a great defense by referring me to a dictionary. That’s right. The dictionary agrees that the word ‘literally’ can be used to mean virtually, or it can be used to add emphasis. A dictionary on my desk right now says so. It’s a Merriam-Webster dictionary from 1991. So not only has the dictionary defined ‘literally’ to mean virtually, that happened a long time ago. Literally. Just how long ago was the definition of ‘literally’ officially expanded? I don’t know. I’m not going to look that up, but it was over twenty years ago.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Beyond the Happy Ending

This is my first work of flash fiction. I’d heard the term, and had an idea what it meant, but I had to look it up to be certain. A work of flash fiction is a story too short to be a short story. It’s an hors d'oeuvres of prose. Opinions vary about how long flash fiction can be. One thousand words or less is a limit commonly agreed on. I find it hard to put together a work that brief. I hate to think what that implies if brevity truly is the soul of wit.
Flash fiction is sometimes accused to pandering to the short attention span. I suppose there’s something to that. After all, it took the internet age to make flash fiction popular. I think there can be legitimate advantages to it though. For a reader, the advantages are obvious. Even if you have the attention span to read novels of banquet length, a bite of candy now and then isn’t such a bad thing. For a writer, it provides an opportunity. It allows me to use story ideas that I would otherwise discard. This story, for example. I don’t think I could have done any more with it than I have, but it was still worth doing.
Beyond the Happy Ending
“Honey, I don’t mind you bringing work home, but when you come to bed you’re a wife, not an editor.”
“Huhn? Oh! No, Michael, it’s not that. Look.” She handed him a page.
It was a series of numbered sentences. He read some aloud. “‘I can’t live without her.’ ‘He’s the only thing I live for.’ ‘I would do anything for her.’” He took his reading glasses back off. “What is this for?”
“They’re lines from books we’ve published. They show up all the time. You’ve read those lines again and again.”
“Not as often as you have.”
She laughed. “Not just from the stuff I have to dredge through. It’s in books and movies and everything. And it’s crap. God, I used to love that stuff. I still would if I didn’t have to read it for a living.”
“Okay.” He read a few more. “‘I can’t sleep; I can’t eat.’ You’re right. I have heard that again and again. ‘He’s the thing that gives my life meaning.’ ‘She’s my whole world.’ ‘Nothing seems real when he’s not with me.’ Did you mean to alternate these from man to woman?”
“Kind of. That’s not what’s important. You can substitute he and she in any of them.  Michael, I can do better than that.”
“You want to write now?”
“I want to write some romance that doesn’t have any of that in it. It’s not real. Look at us. Why can’t there be a romance novel that tells our story?”
“I don’t want our story in print for other people to read.”
“No, not us specifically. I mean real love. I want to write a story about a couple who’ve been together for years, not days.”
He wanted to tell her it was a bad idea, but he was too curious. “How serious are you about this?”
“You can’t tell?”
“Of course I can tell. I get it. You want to write about what happens beyond the happy ending.”
“Oh, that’d be a great title. You think it’s a good idea then?”
In the moment he needed to decide, his head tilted nervously. “You need help?”
“Are you serious? Oh yes!”
They went to work the next day, and it lasted. They made certain to spend time dismantling every cliché they could. Carol complained, “They can’t live without each other? I don’t want to write that. I want to write about love, not need.” They set the rule that the love story wouldn’t include dependence. With that, the characters started to form.
That was just a start. Carol flipped through her notes. “‘Nothing matters without her?’ Oh god. And this one, ‘There’s nothing in the world but him.’ That’s not the way it was with us. You didn’t make the rest of the world invisible, Michael. You made it more real, more important. I started feeling passion for my life.”
 “I guess I am inspiring, at that.”
She laughed, “Go ahead and make fun, smart ass, but it’s true.”
As they went on, the story felt like a reflection. They were agreed that they wouldn’t write themselves, but the relationship in the story, it was the way they felt.
Michael said, “The can’t eat, can’t sleep stuff. That’s not good either. I hate the way people talk about desperation like it’s romantic. You don’t make me a nervous wreck like that. I’m more satisfied because of you.”
Pages kept flowing and platitudes kept toppling. “You know what I hate?,” he asked. “I hate that ‘she’s all I live for’ crap. Or ‘she’s all I ever wanted’. It’s love in a microscope. The rest of the world is still there even when you’re in love.”
Carol knew it. “Mmmm. The women say that too. Who would want to live like that? Your entire life revolving around one person? Michael, you’re not the only thing I live for.”
“God, I couldn’t take that much of you, Carol.” Before she could smack him with a pillow, he offered, “Love inspired us to become more, not less. Your career. You really took off when we got together, and I love it. I love it that I’m not all you have.”
“Yes,” she said, “and that brings up another. ‘I’d do anything for you.’ Michael, would you really do anything for me?”
“Hell no. A lot of things come to mind. I’d do a lot. Not anything, though.”
She wasn’t comfortable admitting it, but, “You’ve given up more for me than I have for you.”
“Hey, I don’t keep score. You’ve done plenty too. Anyway, I’m not like the idiots in these books. I give what I have to when I have to. I don’t do it just because I can. You never asked any more than I would give.”
Now that was romance. “Mm. We can use that. Never ask for more than your lover can give.”
In the end, they had a short, but meaningful story of life faced through love. There was no insecurity, no struggle for understanding. The characters did not have to overcome doubt. They did not have to come together, because they were already there. They were not afraid of the future. Life provided challenges enough for the couple. They faced those challenges together, and that was their story.

Her boss was hardly apologetic. “I’m sorry, Carol. I just don’t think it will sell.”

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Back in my day?

Am I that old? Is it possible that I’ve reached the point of believing that the past had more to offer? It kind of starts with the movies and then moves on to nearly everything else. I don’t go to the movies very much anymore. It all looks the same. There aren’t any movies that stand out anymore. Surely that’s just me. I have my doubts about that though. I hear it too often from other people, and not all of my own generation. Older or younger, a common complaint is that there aren’t any good movies anymore. Maybe it isn’t just me. Maybe the quality of our movies has declined.
It’s not just cinema. I don’t pay too much attention to current music. There doesn’t seem to be too much on TV worth watching. The books on bestseller lists don’t look like they have a lot of heart. I’ve even managed to walk out of my favorite comic book shop empty handed a few times. That’s the one that bothers me the most, but I’ll come back to it.
Music? I’ve always been very discriminating in my musical tastes. Eclectic, but discriminating. Even when I was in junior high I wasn’t singing the songs that the other kids were. So that hasn’t changed. It may be that American Idol has done some damage to our expectations, but it’s no worse than the days of payola that were so long before my time. In fact, the commercialism of today isn’t anywhere near as bad as it could be and has been, and I know it. So I guess I can set that aside. I’ll leave music out of it.
The movies though. When I check to see what’s come out, it’s surprising how often I decide to stay home. Sometimes it’s just that nothing at all looks interesting. Sometimes I see something that might do, since I can’t find anything else. I don’t want to settle for a movie though. I want to watch something that I can watch. It’s not that I won’t watch something that’s so bad it’s good. There are a lot of awful comedies and trite action films I’ve enjoyed. I guess that when I look now, even the films that are just light entertainment seem to lack any character. Take away the titles, and I wouldn’t know one from another. I’m not sure that it’s just me.
As I said, the worst of it is in the comic book shop. If you’re not a comic book person, bear with me for two paragraphs, because this is where I make a real point. I’ve always loved comics. I’m the kind of hard core true believer who knows that even if it isn’t real, that it damn well should be. That’s what makes it worthwhile. I know that there have always been a lot of terrible comic books written. That will never change. But I was always able to find something that sparked interest or at least curiosity. Lately, there have been times that I’ve walked away without a thing. There just doesn’t seem to be as much that I can believe in. How can that be? It’s obvious that comics haven’t changed. I have.
That’s the thing though. Comic books HAVE changed. That’s what makes this a question. I know it for a fact. Even if you’re someone who couldn’t name the members of the Fantastic Four, you probably still know that Marvel Comics and DC comics are the two big houses. I’ve given up on them both. When I do buy comic books any more it’s from the independents and smaller publishers. When I was asked recently why I don’t buy Marvel and DC anymore, I had an answer. “I tell you what. If either one of them can go six months without starting the next big cosmic-crossover, must-have miniseries event, then I’ll consider trying a few titles.” That’s what’s changed. There is always some huge story that requires you to pick up so many different titles that ordinarily, you might not. It’s a great marketing scheme, but the stories, and the art form as a whole, suffer for it. You see, they aren’t creating stories any more. They’re creating events. Big, overdone, unimaginative events that keep any ongoing series from telling its own story. These big stories are very marketable, but they don’t have the power that they should. Turning up the volume doesn’t make music better, it only makes it louder.
If that’s true, then the world has changed around me whether I’ve changed or not. I’ll admit that I’m not a modern man. I don’t use GPS. I don’t even carry a cell phone. Resisting those changes shouldn’t cause me to change my outlook on art and entertainment. And it hasn’t. Seeing what’s happened to my comic books, I know that at least one thing I have serious passion for has become something less. Could something similar have happened to the movies? To other art forms? Can it be that people are buying what’s being sold without caring about their former standards? I don’t honestly know if this is a real phenomenon or a bogeyman that I’ve conjured up. Certainly there is something to it, but is it as grand a threat as I’ve made it in my own mind?
Every generation has those who look back and bemoan the loss of their own time. I’m not doing that. I know that for certain. I was always an outsider, even then. It’s not that things were good and they’ve turned bad. It’s that things have become shallower, dimmer. Only if what I’m seeing is more true than untrue though.
It’s not that I believe the world has changed for the worse. In fact it’s the opposite. There are things that are new and terrible. Promiscuous texting might not be the original sin, but it is the latest one. Me, I’ve never texted in my life. But so much changes for the better. Most people don’t actually want to believe that, but I remember the kind of prejudices that existed twenty five years ago. We’ve progressed a great deal. Slowly, but it always happens that way. So many of our former preconceptions are losing ground. Even our technology has more to offer than to take from us. After all, I’m writing this for the internet right now. Living in the information age has changed our society for the better.

If there are some great changes though, there can easily be some that aren’t as welcome. I think that we might really be losing our stories, or at least diminishing them. That would be a tragedy. Our imagination and our dreams are precious. We can not afford to lose them or allow them to be devalued. I suppose that if there is any merit to my half hearted rant, it is to assure others. If, like me, you find fewer things worth watching, hearing, and reading, then you are not alone. Don’t buy what they’re selling. Let them earn our money and our trust by providing stories of worth or at least of character. There’s nothing wrong with living in that part of the past if there is more there for you to find.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Gerbils and Time Travel

I was at the public library the other day checking out books on gerbils. I hate gerbils. It’s not gerbils in particular that I hate. It’s rodents of all kinds. Some people are afraid of spiders or snakes. I’m not. I’m in no hurry to cuddle up to nasty critters like that, but they don’t bother me. Mice do. That’s completely irrational, and I know it. There are snakes and spiders that can do some real harm, but not mice. There is some instinctive response in my mind and body to the sight of a mouse. I can deal with it, but it isn’t any kind of fun. It’s not just mice. I hate hamsters and gerbils and anything else similar.

I needed a book about gerbils anyway. I sifted through several of them, looking for the ones that would suit my purposes the best. I set a small stack of them on the desk. The guy there asked the obvious question, “Buying a gerbil?”

“No. This is research for a time travel novel.” Blank stare. “Seriously,” I said. He didn’t ask any other questions. What could he say? I was satisfied with that encounter.

It might be that you’re wondering what in the world gerbils have to do with time travel. If you built a time machine, you’d probably want to keep that secret. So would I, and so would the characters in the story I’m writing. When it comes time to test it on a living subject, would you settle into it and flip the switch to see what happens to you? I know I wouldn’t. It happens in some time travel stories. It’s not even uncommon for a scientist to just throw themselves into mystery. In defense of these stories, the kind of time machine they build doesn’t always allow for a lot of intelligent experimentation. That’s not the case in my story. So the scientists who have developed the machines run a lot of experiments to find out how they work. Eventually it becomes time to test it on a living subject. What do you use? Not yourself, surely. An animal? But what kind? Gerbils are easy to get a hold of. Unlike hamsters, gerbils are awake during the day, so that’s one question solved. These scientists don’t want to stay awake at night to keep hamster hours. Gerbils it is.

That gives me a small problem. I know nothing about the behavior of gerbils. It’s pretty easy to cover that up by avoiding it. I don’t have to describe the scientists feeding the horrid little things, so I don’t have to know about it. What happens when it’s unavoidable? What would happen if a gerbil from the near future were to meet its present self? I don’t even know how normal gerbils interact. So I have to find out. I checked out several books about gerbils as time travel research.

It’s not the strangest thing I’ve had to learn for a story. My nail gun question was a lot of fun. While writing Sleepwalker, I needed to find out how plausible night time use of a nail gun is. If you’re fixing your porch in the middle of the night, hammering away at nails, your neighbors are going to complain. It’s not the loud sound so much as the constant bursts of obnoxious rhythm. Bam bam bam bam bam! That p****s off a neighbor during the day. How much worse is it at night?

You can’t check out a book on this subject. The only way I had of getting a real answer was to ask an expert. I didn’t know any nail gun experts. The likeliest place was a hardware store. There I was in the right aisle, staring at the nail guns, waiting for the question. “Can I help you with anything, sir?”

“Yes. Do you know much about nail guns?”

“Yeah.” He said it with that tone of quiet confidence. I knew I had the right guy.

“Well, I have no intention of actually doing this, but is it possible to use a nail gun to put together porch steps at night so that the sound of hammering won’t bother the neighbors?”

He thought. He thought very seriously for a moment. “Well, the compressor would make some noise, but if you were to put it inside, you could run the hose out to the gun.”

I asked a few other hypotheticals just to cover my bases. In the end, I accepted his wisdom. He never asked why I needed to know any of that even though I made it clear I wasn’t going to use a nail gun at night. My kind of guy.

The funny thing is, I don’t describe the nail gun use in the story. It would have just cluttered up the scene. The nail gun is mentioned later on, but never in context. I just wanted to know if it was plausible.

I went to a few other places to ask if this model of indoor/outdoor nail gun use was practical. In theory, it was. I have since learned that there are cordless nail guns, but I had my answer already. I have also had a few manly types tell me that it can’t be done the way I describe. Then again, others have told me it works. I haven’t managed to start a debate amongst tool enthusiasts. Maybe some day. I look forward to it.

Friday, June 6, 2014

I have at least one devoted fan who has never read any of my books. My sister Brandy is nine years old. She is brilliant, strange and intriguing. She is a world unto herself. To know Brandy is to love her, if you can keep up with her.
She is fascinated by my writing. Obviously she hasn’t read any of it. She may be brilliant, but she is also only nine. Even the things that wouldn’t be inappropriate are outside of her experiences. But she wants to be a part of it. She had the opportunity recently. She loves to draw, especially for other people. When she asked me what would make a good drawing for Dad, I told her to draw Nick and Herman. She knew who they were because she has heard us discuss the story. She needed a few details to work with. All I told her was that Herman was shorter than Nick and he has red hair. I also told her that she had to draw their car, Nick’s Siltrenne. All I told her about it was that it was colored red and white, it was an older car and that it was fantastic. Here was the result, a picture that Dad now keeps with his copy of the manuscript.

Not long after, Brandy wanted to draw something from “the book with the dolls.” After hearing me describe some of the characters, she put together a portrait of Lady Valerie and Caylee, along with Caylee’s friends, the three marionettes.

I’m currently writing a time travel story. To help with that, Brandy wanted to make some visual aids. I told her what I knew about the time machines so far. Anything sent through them is set on a platform, probably glass or transparent plastic. Of course there are dials or controls to program the machine. She drew several different versions, always from different angles. She had to redraw the best of them when I told her that the machine would likely have a computer keyboard attached to it. Here are some of her designs.

My favorite thing she has drawn for me recently is this one. She knows I love comic books and Captain America in particular. The drawing doesn’t mean as much to me as the words do though.