Author Archives: Jill

A Man Without Arms

NMALBbunyan_dennis

Now, there’s a lumberjack.

Not that long ago, I took a short writing holiday in Albuquerque when I had to travel there for other undisclosed reasons. I was supposed to finish my book entitled The Minäverse. I didn’t. When by “edit” one means write the whole damn book from scratch again, finishing becomes a task that is forever on the edge of the mirage horizon. But while I was there, the gravitational pull literally sucked me over to the May Cafe, a Vietnamese restaurant I frequented for the nearly twenty years I lived in close proximity to the Duke City.

My book has a twisted sports theme. Balls, being dangerous, have been outlawed in primary school sports, and there’s a conspiracy afoot that professional ball players don’t actually have them…or use them, I should say. If that symbolism isn’t 100% obvious to anyone who has his head half in the gutter, I don’t what is. Balls, however, haven’t been outlawed in society in general. Balls are simply highly suspicious. Arms have been outlawed, or regulated to the point that there’s little reason to try to obtain one.

To sum it up, kids don’t have balls, adults are highly unlikely to use them, and a baseball bat is the most dangerous weapon the average joe has easy access to, if by easy access one means he has only to fill out the fronts and backs of fifty sheets of mandatory paperwork asking him important questions, such as, has he engaged in porn, hetero, or gay sex in the last thirty days; does he want to; how many meds is he taking; how many does he want to access through the Homeland Security protocol for all meds to all citizens all the time. As I’ve been rewriting and deleting my first chapter all day today, I had a sudden flash image of the May Cafe.

It was one of those moments of quantum access into my own subconscious. If you don’t know about quantum magic, I’d suggest looking into it. That aside, the May Cafe has been guarded for years and years by a twenty-seven foot lumberjack, complete with beard and very, very big axe. Recently, the lumberjack lost his axe and arms in a storm. Nature defeated the giant, as Nature is wont to do. Sadly, and I’m sorry, Nature, the image of the lumberjack is greater than you are. Suddenly, I imagined a refurbished lumberjack rebuilt in the image of my hero, who is a New Mexico native, very large — though twenty-seven feet tall is pushing credulity — and the type of guy for whom shaving is a wasted effort, as he always has a 5 o’clock shadow.

So now it’s nearly midnight mountain time, and I haven’t rewritten the last spate of words I erased. What a crappy day. Honestly, it wasn’t bad, as it was my day off, and I had a nice walk with the dog and kiddos. Also, I wasted some pleasant time putting together an image of a hippy-looking Jesus surfer riding the Hawking radiation right out of a black hole to contribute to this nerdgram before I smacked myself out of it. But still. The angst. I can’t get over the angst of my never-finished book. At least I have a lumberjack in my head, though. At least that.

without arms

Oh my good Lord, he doesn’t have any arms.

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The Joy of Short Stories

It’s time to discover it again. I don’t mind novels. I’ve wasted a lot of time reading them over the years. But I’m not the daydreaming type. I don’t read to get lost in story worlds; kudos to the author who is savvy enough to get me lost, anyway. I read to get lost in mental constructs. I read for ideas, and it’s a lot faster to get to the author’s completed idea when reading short stories. For those who are daydreamers, short stories are conversely things of joy because daydreamers, as readers, can still immerse themselves in an author’s dream world without having to give up hours of their lives to do so.

As a writer, I can write my ideas (and dreams) into short pieces in a few hours, versus the months to years it takes me to complete the first draft of a novel. Because of that, I used to write a Christmas story every year or toss off a story when my novel-writing was frustrating me. I remember hearing at writing workshops that short stories were just as, if not more difficult to write than novels. That’s bullshit, really. Does anyone actually believe that? The details do have to be very focused in a short story; writing them is a good discipline because of that. Still, it’s much easier to keep track of the details when the plot is accomplished in under 10,000 words. The novel I’m currently finishing I wrote very quickly (in about a month), but two years later, I’m about to lose my mind trying to remember all the details.

There are a number of good short story magazines out there: there’s Sci Phi Journal, for example. Yesterday, I read this article on the Castalia House blog, which links to a journal I’d never heard of before called Cirsova. Of course, most of you know about friend Jessica Thomas’s Common Oddities. I have too many short story anthologies on my Kindle to link to — and, hey, I have one called The Jaybird’s Nest and other stories that has had few reviews and could use some more. If you click on the Common Oddities link, go to the second (Spring 2014) and read my story La ’tistic en la mente to get an idea of what’s in my book of short stories.

I haven’t written a short story in years, and it makes me a little sad. As I said, it’s time to rediscover the joy. Have a great day and week, as I may not post again for a while.

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Every Grain of Sand

Shot of Love, in my most un-humble opinion, isn’t one of Bob Dylan’s best albums. For a start, it’s short, and Dylan’s gems are usually found in a haystack of songs. But I’d forgotten about the last song on the album, Every Grain of Sand, until I heard it the other morning in the car. It was one of my favorite songs in high school; my dad must have bought Shot of Love at some point in my childhood. After all, it was one of Dylan’s post-conversion 80’s albums. The melody of the song is haunting when mixed with the lyrics and the vocals. I’m posting the lyrics, but I suggest you go find a copy of the song somewhere and listen to it.

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood [sic] every newborn seed
There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair

Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay

I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.

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Hugos 2016

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the Hugos because I honestly don’t care enough. I’ve read some of the work on the list; others I’ve not read. If I read fiction at all (becoming rarer), it will be spec fic; however, my tastes are eclectic and often bizarre. This is nothing new. The other day, when hanging around the house, I put on an old pink shirt my dad screen-printed for me when I was fourteen: the screen-printing design is composed of the repeated word eclectic done in calligraphy. He printed the shirt for me because it described me. Yes, it still fits. It’s one of those large unisex eighties t-shirts. All I’m saying is that my taste is not going to run in tandem with the accolades of the world, and far be it for me to judge the world’s tastes.

Oh, who am I kidding? I’m a judger. I’m a judgemental judging judger of the worst variety. That’s why I end up as an INTJudger in the Myers-Briggs personality spectrum. So I’m going to be a little judgmental right now. Some of the Hugo winning fiction is quite decent, in my judgmental opinion. But when I read the winning fiction in what I consider to be my favorite category, short fiction, my mind reeled. Cat Pictures Please is trite verging on banal. A couple of months ago, I read this review that calls the story “benign.” I agree with that assessment. The review concludes by calling the story “uncompromisingly nice.” I don’t agree with that, and I’ll explain why.

It’s a story about an AI who, rather than becoming malign, decides to help irrational people who can’t always be helped, in exchange for cat pictures. The story is benign because the writing is mediocre at best. It makes no attempt to play with innovative ideas. It makes no strides toward stylistic genius. The author doesn’t explain why the AI is accidentally sentient or why it prefers cat pictures above all else. She also makes little to no attempt to write in the voice of a highly rational AI, choosing instead an informal vernacular that sounds like a native speaker of English, not an AI attempting to learn a human language without human language acquisition parts in its “brain.” In fact, it rather sounds like the voice of an irrational human female who likes cats, which is why it doesn’t strike me as benign.

See, the AI helps people by meddling in their lives. The AI is a classic do-gooder that thinks it knows what’s best for a person — you know, what the person should eat, where he should live, whether he should come out of the closet and therefore live happily ever after (in the story, the man who comes out is a pastor with a family; the AI is irrational enough to not consider the possible fallout from the man’s decision). The AI determines that it is rational for people to, say, get flu shots and go into therapy for depression. In other words, the AI is like every other well-meaning meddler. It tries to compel humans to do what it considers best, without fully examining the ramifications or imagining the future consequences. However, the computer hasn’t figured out a way to force humans to do anything — so, again with the benign. It’s basically like that annoying friend everybody has (who undoubtedly has a cat) who knows what’s best for you. The utopia in your friend’s mind doesn’t actually exist and never will, which makes the friend, at best, a fantasist or a librarian and, at worst, a mentally ill social worker who wields her low-level power to persecute parents because they don’t buy the right brand of diaper.

Now, the story might have risen above the level of trite and banal if it had dealt with the irony inherent in the situation presented — you know, what I just discussed above. But it doesn’t. And that’s what good spec fic used to do. It used to be about examining the possible benefits and risks involved with a technological world, peering into dystopias and utopias, as well as exploring new possible worlds and other-worldly creatures. Science fiction used to grapple with ideas while taking the reader on an adventure. Instead, the Hugo winning short story of 2016 doesn’t want to examine itself at all. It wants to be nice, but doesn’t realize how nefarious its “uncompromising” niceness actually is.

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What Does It Mean to Be a Neighbor?

It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a neighborhood. Apparently, I lived rural for too many years before re-entering the world of neighborhoods. This is what I remember about having neighbors: they offered to help fix or give advice about the car. They came over for chats. They invited you over for dinner or to have coffee. They asked to borrow your dress because they were going out for a special date. Their children came over to play. You fed their children when they were over for hours, engrossed in summertime fun. They brought you dinner after you’d had a baby. It went both ways. They fed your children, and you brought them food.

What is it like living in a neighborhood now? The people don’t bother to get to know you. Instead, they make threats against you. They form a coalition against you because your son plays with a toy sword outside. They are ready to call the cops and tell them your son is playing with a weapon. They scheme against you. They steal part of your livelihood. They pound on your door and  make threats. They tell you they will shoot your cat. Their children never come over to play.

I’m not idealizing the past. Neighborhoods breed gossip, and humans stink as a general rule. However, the ugliness and unfriendliness seem to have morphed into a new breed. And everything I said in that first paragraph was true. I’ve had those interactions with people. Yet, I knew that neighbors did nasty things to each other even back then; the HSLDA archives are full of people calling CPS on their neighbors for ridiculous reasons ten or twenty years ago. Sometimes I just want to go backwards, though, to a time when it was okay — despite the propensity for some people to be assholes — to meet the family across the street without having them look at me with horror and suspicion.

 

 

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