Archive | November 2012

Break neck

I just finished Jim Butcher’s latest book in the Dresden series, Cold Days, and it was a wild roller coaster ride, as they always are.

The structure of a Dresden novel is pretty simple: open with the classic “into pot, already boiling,” then keep turning up the heat, throwing ever more dangerous/painful/insurmountable problems at the protagonist, raising the stakes again, and again, until a final couple of battles, and a solution that you feel you should have seen coming, but usually didn’t (or if you did, you hoped you were wrong).

They’re fun reads. And it’s a good story-telling method with a long history. Most people meet Freytag’s Pyramid in beginning creative writing classes. Gustav Freytag developed the pyramid to illustrate a classic Greek five-act play. Few modern stories follow his pattern, collapsing several of his stages together. The basic outline: protagonist confronts problem, struggles with it through a series of events of rising dramatic tension, which comes to a head, then is resolved, and the reader gets some sense of closure.

The Dresden stories take a high octane action adventure approach to the story, with the escalation of the stakes happening faster and faster. It’s kind of like being strapped to a missle, and not knowing for certain where you’re going, and whether everything will blow up when you get there.

I’ve written a few novella- and novellete-length stories using that break neck pace, and it’s kind of fun. I’ve not successfully pulled it off in a novel, yet. In a novel you need several subplots, and I like giving the reader that sense of closure on each one. That means some of the tension gets relieved earlier in the story, instead of just continuing to pile on. Or writing an extremely long and complicated climax. And my novels are complicated enough, already.

And it just occurs to me, that may be why there are almost always two really big battles at the end of most Dresden books. I may have to try re-reading a few and charting out the sub plots.

Purely for academic purposes, of course. And to hone my craft. Not because I just read one fantastically fun story and the next one won’t be out for at least a year. It’s not like I’m addicted.

I can stop re-reading them any time I want…

Slow days

Colds suck. I hate the sinus headaches, the sneezing, the itchy eyes, and especially that “I can’t breathe” feeling.

Chest colds suck worse. There’s something especially disheartening about the soreness that develops in your chest after coughing. And coughing. The only upside is that getting the mucous in your lungs reminds you that the “I can’t breathe” feeling from a head cold is actually not that bad. You could breathe with the head cold, it’s just that breathing through your mouth constantly for several days feels awkward. But actually having mucous build up in your lungs forcing you to cough and cough sometimes before you can take a breath? That’s awful.

An actual bout of influenza sucks much, much worse. There’s the coughing, of course, but also the all-over body aches, and those days of fever where you alternate between feeling as if you will never be warm again, or sweating so bad that you just want to lay down in one of those giant walk-in freezers. I’ve only had the actual flu a few times in my life, and each time, I remember how much worse it is than the worst colds I’ve ever had. Those memories are one of the reasons I have been getting flu shots consistently for 20-some years.

Unfortunately, flu viruses come in many, many varieties thanks to constant mutation, and so annual vaccine can never inoculate you against every possible variant. Or, sometimes the variant you run into is close enough to the one you’ve either encountered before or that was in one of the shots, and so you catch it, but it doesn’t last as long as it might have.

This year I have gotten to be the proof that sometimes that shot isn’t enough.

I had the extra joy of getting an opportunistic infection on top of the flu: bronchitis.

I’m at that annoying stage nine days past the end of the fever, where most of the symptoms are gone, but I still have a bit of the cough, echoes of the body aches, and no stamina at all. Even with a convenient four-day holiday weekend where I got to sleep in and lay about as much as I wanted, I still feel exhausted after being up and about for only a few hours.

So I’m getting through my work days, being fairly productive. But then I’m like a zombie for the rest of the night.

I’m tired of being tired.

Sweet and savory

I love munching on olives while waiting for the big holiday dinner to finish. When I was a kid, there were always at least two kinds of olives out, usually away from the kitchen, often laid out with candy and nuts and some little napkins and tiny plates. It was part of “this food is to distract you and keep you out of the kitchen until the main event” table.

Depending on which branches of the extended family were present, the setting was referred to as either “the olives and pickles” or “the relish tray.” It was called a relish “tray” regardless of whether there was an actual tray. A real relish tray is a bit of glassware meant for a buffet table in a formal dining setting, which has separated compartments.

Sweet and Savory!

Relish Tray, Gene & Michael’s, Thanksgiving 2012

The relish tray’s heyday was before the 20th Century, when the only foods available during the winter months were those which had been canned, pickled, or otherwise preserved during the growing seasons. Home canned foods often are very bland, so pickled foods added bursts of vinegary or briny or sweet delight.

I didn’t know that as a kid. There just were always at least two kinds of olive, and usually sweet pickled beets and at least two kinds of pickles. And if this was the right branch of the family, most of the pickles were home-pickled produce. Grandma B. liked an even mix of savory and sweet choices. Grandma P. always had a lot of very spicy pickled vegetables. If Great-grandma S.J.’s pickled squash was in the mix, it was a very special relish tray, for instance. One year, Great-aunt Pearl (though now that I think about it, she was my Grandma’s aunt, so she was technically my great-great-aunt) had sent a jar or two of homemade pickled watermelon rind, and that may have been the best relish tray, ever.

It just doesn’t feel like a real holiday dinner, to me, if there isn’t a relish tray. If given half a chance, I’ll set out a spread of dozens of different kinds of olives alone. Even if it’s going to be a small group. Each vinegary, briny, and sweet morsel is a little bit of my childhood, coming back for a visit.

Soup to nuts

One of the first times I ever heard the phrase, “soup to nuts” my incorrigible Great-grandpa I. tried to convince me it meant that crazy people would think dishwater was soup. None of the kids in my generation ever called Great-grandpa I. “great grandpa.” He insisted we call him “Shorty.” No matter how hard my mom and her siblings and cousins tried to get us to call him anything else, we all called him “Shorty.” ‘Cause he told us to.

When Great-grandma heard him tell me the wrong definition of “soup to nuts,” she explained it referred to a fancy banquet-style meal, where you would be served soup first, then a meat dish, then a fish, and so on, until dessert and finally nuts. Shorty interrupted at that point to say he still thought crazy people were involved somehow. Otherwise, why would you need such a big meal?

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Grandma’s cranberry salad

One of the best parts of my childhood was growing up with a collection of truly kick-ass grandmothers. I say collection because in addition to my two grandmothers, all four of my great-grandmothers were still alive when I was a teen-ager (one lived until I was in my thirties).

My Great-grandma I. taught me how to make egg noodles from scratch, (which is the first step to making the World’s Best Chicken Noodle Casserole {which she also taught me how to make}), and that measuring cups are only guidelines. My Great-grandma S.J. taught me how to crochet, how to make biscuits from scratch, and how to listen in on the neighbors’ conversation on a party line (if you don’t know what a party line is, google it). Great-grandma B. taught me how to make ice tea with so much sugar, it was amazing the stuff would actually pour (and there is a secret, it’s not just about adding more and more sugar, although that’s an important part). I could go on, and on.

But during this time of year there are a couple things I regret never learning from my various grandmothers: I never learned Great-grandma S.J.’s heavy-cream-and-molasses sweet potatoes (I’ve found and tried some recipes, but so far, none come out right), and I never learned how to make Grandma P.’s frozen cranberry salad. I have recreated a close approximation, but it also isn’t quite right.

Every holiday when I get together with that side of the family, someone laments the absence of Grandma’s cranberry salad. I’m not the only one who has attempted to recreate it. Every version I’ve tried has been tasty, but it isn’t the same.

The funny thing is, that unlike most of the other dishes each of them was known for, this one wasn’t a really old recipe. Great-grandma S.J. once told me she’d learned how to make divinity from her own grandmother, for instance. It’s the reason she couldn’t write the recipe down, she’d have to show you. That had been the case with her homemade biscuits. When I make her biscuits I throw ingredients together and mix. If the consistency isn’t right, you add more of one of the ingredients, depending up how the consistency is wrong. It’s hard to describe. You have to experience it.

Grandma P.’s cranberry salad was something she started making when I was an adult. She’d seen it on a cooking show, she said, and just gave it a try. We know it involves canned cranberry sauce (the chunky kind), whipped cream, canned mandarin oranges, and some kind of jell-o. After that, none of us are sure. Or, more truthfully, we had contradictory memories. Some of us insist it had coconut, but others are certain it had marshmallows, for instance.

The thing that I don’t want to say to any of the family: I bet all of our contradictory memories are right. It fits right in with Grandma’s style of cooking. “Oh, I don’t have any shredded coconut? Hmmm, oh here’s some marshmallows, maybe they will be good…”

And probably the real reason it never tastes right, is because it’s missing the most important ingredient. The one we can never replace…

Pineapple Express

Statistically, the last two weeks of November are the wettest time of year in Seattle. Unlike much of the rest of the year, where it’s just overcast and damp most of the time, with random drizzles or showers here and there, the end of November is all about downpours.

The Pineapple Express is a nickname for a meteorologic phenomenon responsible for many of those heavy rains. Once the upper atmosphere’s streams switch to the winter pattern, it is easy for an atmospheric river to form running from the tropical central pacific right up at northwestern Washington. The result in the city is ponds springing up on sidewalks and streets. Drivers not realizing that they can’t safely follow other cars as closely as they were just a month ago. Cars kicking up roostertails ten feet tall and drenching pedestrians.

Still, I love the rain. Admittedly, I prefer to listen to it pouring down while I’m inside somewhere dry, preferably with a hot beverage. But I also like walking in it, hearing the raindrops drum on the hood of my coat, walking around the deepest puddles (and occassionally letting my inner five-year-old out and stomping to make as big a splash as I can).

I love the way the air smells and feels while the rain is coming down hard–different than the after-rain smell, not better, just different.

I love thinking about where these raindrops have been. Evaporated from the warm ocean surface, carried thousands of miles aloft on the jet stream, and now returning to earth. Where they will soak into the ground, some to be taken up by the grass and and evergreens, others to form creeks that flow into rivers and one day return to the ocean. They may then descend to the deepest trenches of the ocean, eventually encountering a steam vent or a submerged lava flow, which gives them the energy to start ascending toward the surface, again.

So, don’t complain about the rain. Go out there, say hello, and wish it well on this next cycle of it’s incredible journey.

One size fits none, part 2

I’ve been working on computers for an incredibly long time.

My first computer was from before the era of floppy disks. Printers cost about the same as a four-bedroom house at the time, so it wasn’t a tool I used for writing. It was a toy.

My second computer could have a floppy drive added to it, but it loaded programs by plugging cartridges into a slot. Reasonably priced printers had come into existence, then, but they were dot matrix printers that produced very low resolution stuff.

My third computer had a floppy drive built in. At the time I bought it, the first consumer-priced 1 megabyte hard disks were just coming on the market. Yes, I said 1 MEGAbyte. And it wasn’t the first consumer-priced hard disk, it was the first that was that large. Two friends of mine who both worked in electronics stores got into an argument in which one claimed that no one would ever, ever need anything that big, the other claimed that lots of people would. They both thought I was insane for saying that anyone would ever need more.

Computers were still primitive, in other words.

Let me describe the process for spellchecking a document on that third computer:

1. Insert boot disk into floppy drive, turn on computer, wait for it to load the operating system from the disk (about one minute).

2. Remove the boot disk and insert the word processing program disk into the drive. Type some commands, wait for the program to open (another minute or two, depending).

3. Type a document. Pull out the program disk and insert a data disk. Save the document to the data disk.

4. Pull out the data disk. Insert the boot disk. Exit the word processing program. Wait a few seconds for the computer to verify that the boot disk was there.

5. Pull out the boot disk. Insert the spellchecking program disk one. Type a command. Wait for the disk to load the spell checking program (this wait was for about four minutes).

6. When prompted, pull out the spellchecking disk one, insert the data disk. Pick the document from a list displayed. Wait for the program to load the document.

7. When prompted, remove the data disk and re-insert the spellchecking disk one. Press a key. Wait for it to scan the document (this wait was for about two minutes).

8. The program then would begin showing you chunks of text with incorrect words highlighted, and offer you the option to leave it as is, or re-type it. It did not offer suggestions for how to spell it correctly. Press a key to go to the next word.

9. When it reached the end of the document, it would prompt you to remove spellchecking disk number one and reinsert your data disk. It would save the corrected document, then it would inform you that you had successfully spellchecked words beginning with letters from A-M. Would you like to spellcheck the same document for words beginning with letters from N-Z?

10. If you said Yes, it would prompt you to remove the data disk, and insert spellchecking disk two. Wait for it to load the second half of the spelling dictionary (this wait was for about three minutes).

11. When prompted, pull out the spellchecking disk two, insert the data disk, pick the document from the list (That’s right! It didn’t remember which document was already half-checked!). Wait for the program to load the document.

12. When prompted, remove the data disk and (this is the tricky bit!!!) re-insert spellchecking disk ONE. Not disk two, disk one. Watch it load something from disk one.

13. When prompted, remove spellchecking disk one and re-insert spellchecking disk TWO.

14. Repeat step 8.

15. Repeat step 9.

Now your document is mostly spell checked. I say mostly because, let’s say during the second half of the alphabet sweep it found the work “spplication.” And let’s say you realized that it was supposed to be “application” and you went in to correct the spelling, but you accidentally deleted both the s and the p, so what you typed in to replace “spplication” is “aplication.”

The half of the spellchecker that was running at that time doesn’t know how to spell any words beginning with a… or b, c, d, et cetera, through m, right?

It wouldn’t tell you that you had replaced one typo with another in that case. It was a rare case, but it could happen.

So for a small document of say a couple thousand words, spellchecking was a complicated procedure that took about 40 minutes, all told. And that was if you didn’t screw up and insert the wrong disk at any of the dozen-plus times that you had to insert and remove a disk. Depending on when you did that, sometimes it meant starting all over again.

A second floppy disk drive made that process considerably easier, as there was less swapping out of disks. Unfortunately, a second floppy drive cost almost as much as the original computer had, so I didn’t get around to buying a second drive for at least a year after getting the computer.

In order to use that computer, you had to understand a lot more about operating systems, computer logic, and the hardware than the typical user of modern computers. You had to be comfortable typing commands like EXEC APWTR2 to start a program. Or to format text by pressing the ESC key followed by another key in order to turn on Italics, then moving to the end of the word, press ESC and a different key to turn it off. And programs had no What-you-see-is-what-you-get mode. You had to just take it on faith that: “I read ♦IThe Hobbit♦N in fourth grade.” would print out as: I read The Hobbit in fourth grade.”

Very few people would put up with that. I well remember the strange looks I would get from people when I was trying to explain the process of just getting the program going and writing a simple paper. They would look at their familiar typewriter and tell me the computer seemed like a whole lot of fuss to do a very simple thing.

And that’s exactly how I find myself feeling sometimes when talking to people about some of their modern gadget and computer choices. “Yeah, I had to root the device and sideload some patches to get it to work.” Or “This open-source program does everything your page layout program does… except use real fonts, or allow you to actually layout text and pictures on the page without hacking some of the configuration files, inserting a lot of extra codes, and experimenting for about a half hour per page. It almost looks the same, see?”

I understand that they’re perfectly happy working that way. I understand that it meets their needs. I understand that they think their own time isn’t worth anything. I understand that producing something that looks like utter crap doesn’t bother them.

Those things are their choices to make, and I wouldn’t dream of forcing them to do otherwise.

Now, if they would only allow me to do the same. Because my time is very valuable, and I’d rather spend it producing something I love than trying to make a poorly designed and under-powered tool do it half-assed.

Not forgotten

Fifteen years ago today I had to sign some papers.

Then a couple of nurses turned off the monitors, removed the respirator tubes, and turned off the rest of the machines.

I held Ray’s hand, and said “Good-bye.”

I’d been crying off and on for hours—days, technically (though I’d only slept a couple hours out of the previous 59-ish, so it seemed like one really long, horrible day).

I don’t remember if I cried again. My last chronologically-in-order memory is taking hold of his hand that one last time. My memories for the next few months are like a collection of shattered glass pictures.

He promised me he would stay with me for the rest of his life. And he did.

Grateful, not resentful

Many years ago, when I was either still attending university or during that first couple years after, while visiting my mom for one of the holidays, she handed me a manila envelope. “I was cleaning some things out, and I found these papers. I don’t know if they’re important, but it’s old school things I thought you might like.”

My mom is one of the people from whom I inherited my own packrat tendencies (which I have been fighting most of my adult life), so I knew if I looked at them while she was watching and decided they weren’t worth keeping, that she would retrieve them and hang onto them for years. So I always took whatever weird stuff she offered me and waited until I got home to review it.

The envelope contained about 20 sheets of paper. Two were report cards from different grades. Neither was an official end-of-term report card. Both were midterm “advisory” report cards. “Your child’s grade will probably be this if work does not change.” Most of the other papers were even less archive-worthy. Most contained no person information at all: announcements about an upcoming parent-teacher night, for instance.

But there were a couple that were revelations. There was a letter to my parents explaining that our family qualified to have a charity pay for my first pair of eyeglasses back in grade school. There were some papers related to a free lunch program during another part of grade school.

Until I read those papers, I had had no idea. I remembered, during those particular grades, that about once a month Mom would hand me a sealed envelope which I had to take to the school office, where I would be given lunch tickets for myself and my little sister. I thought everyone’s parents had to fill out a couple forms for lunch tickets. And I guess I just assumed there was a cheque in there, somewhere.

I knew that there were things we couldn’t afford. But other kids’ parents were also frequently saying, “We can’t afford that” or “When you get a job and can pay for it yourself, you can have a fill-in-the-blank.” So I didn’t think much about it. It never occurred to me that we were poor.

Of course, we couldn’t be poor! Poor people lived in shacks or in ghettos. We lived in ordinary parts of each of the small towns we moved to as my dad’s work demanded. We owned a car and a pickup truck. Poor people didn’t have jobs, or didn’t have regular jobs, anyway. They were always begging or looking for work. Or if they were “bad, lazy poor people” they were always waiting for their next Welfare cheque. My dad had a job. He’d been working for the same company for as long as I could remember, so we couldn’t be poor. We just weren’t rich, that’s all.

Certainly by the time I was in High School I had a much better idea of the broad spectrum of economic status that families inhabited. I understood that most of my childhood my dad had been “working class” rather than true middle class. But I also knew that the old lower, middle, and upper class division of economic status was a gross oversimplification.

And somehow, I had never figured out that we had taken assistance. I think the shock was mostly because of how hotly my dad frequently ranted about the evils of people who depended on charity. The almost stereotypical way he sneered at programs like welfare and food stamps because they “took money from hard working people.”

That attitude, which was frequently echoed by other adults in my community—especially at church social functions—had always seemed weird to me. During Sunday School lessons or the Sunday sermon, we would be taught that Jesus expected us to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and take care of the sick. Yet at the church potluck, people who actually took handouts were talked about almost as if they were in league with the devil.

Why the resentment? Everyone needs help some time. There should be no shame in needing a hand of any kind (I hate that cliche about hand-up vs handout) once in a while. The proper response to getting a little help is gratitude. And the proper response when you have been the one helping, is to tell the person, “if you want to pay me back, just promise when you see someone else who needs help, you’ll offer what you can.”

Resentment and condescencion corrupt and destroy the soul, leaving only emptiness behind.

Gratitude and charity do the opposite.

So, go feed your soul.

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