Sunday, February 27, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Black History Month

So anyway I'm reading a biography of David Ruggles and -

What's that, you never heard of him? Actually you have if you've read one of Frederick Douglass's three autobiographies. He's the free black abolitionist who advised and assisted Douglass during the New York phase of his escape from slavery. I didn't know that either when I picked the book up. The title attracted me: David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City. I've been interested in the Underground Railroad since I was nine and first heard of it, and nothing is more attractive than a book about some aspect of an interest which is not generally covered.

The reason for this is simple: These books are idea factories. I'm only on page 79 and look what I've got:

Born free in Connecticut, Ruggles lived in an integrated neighborhood near the family of his parents' former owner and attended a school where one of the teachers promoted the idea that free blacks should recolonize Africa. Imagine a guidance counselor advising you that you can't expect to succeed in your country of origin and should, in your own best interest, go someplace else! A major conflict in the abolitionist platform was between those who called for an end to slavery and those who called for ending slavery by shipping all the slaves to Africa to Christianize it. This resulted in Liberia, a country whose history should be better known. Broadly speaking, black abolitionists regarded colonization proponents as part of the problem; a parallel between the colonization platform and the policy of relocating Cherokees from Georgia was explicitly drawn by them.

In his youth he got into trouble with another young black man whose family was less well-connected and who therefore got sucked into the prison-crime cycle, while Ruggles got off lightly and went on to be a sailor, storekeeper, and activist.

During the Revolution, Connecticut offered freedom in exchange for military service, and self-created a sizable population of black Patriots; in other colonies, the British were the ones offering that deal.

In the 1790s, barely 5% of Connecticut's white male population could vote; not much difference between being black and being poor white.

From p. 24: "In 1798, in a sensational moment, a mixed-race mob protected the eight-year-old James Mars from a Virginia slave catcher."

In colonial times, slaves regularly elected governors and kings in the spring.

Ship captains didn't check papers; a fifth to a quarter of coastal crews were black and seafaring was a good option for male runaway slaves as well as free blacks.

Under the 1808 Fugitive Slave Law and New York's pro-slavery judges, "kidnappers regularly came to the city and grabbed any black whose appearance resembled their quarry." If you've ever read a runaway slave advertisement, you'll know just how big a pool of people the descriptions would have opened up to this form of human trafficking.

Free blacks sometimes turned escaped slaves over to slave catchers for rewards.

Riots against slave catching were a regular form of resistance.

Consumer activism has a longer history than I thought; Ruggles advertised that his sugar was "free sugar," i.e. not produced by slave labor, and this was a selling point for abolitionist housewives.

"[White abolitionist Elizur] Wright chronicled the actions of Richard P. Haxall of Richmond, Virginia, who had taken a seven-year-old schoolboy, Henry Scott, off the city streets and hauled him before Richard Riker, the city recorder, who was about to condemn the lad into slavery. Wright intervened and stopped the proceedings even after Riker ordered the boy to jail until the matter could be settled...Wright then convinced William Goodell, Arthur Tappan, and a group of black citizens to bail Henry out and allow him to live with the Wright family."

In 1829, rioters drove a large proportion of the free black population out of Cincinnati. Those who left went to Canada and founded the town of Wilberforce.

July 1834 saw coordinated race riots in New York, with a mob attacking a meeting of free blacks to discuss abolition and spreading to sack stores, burn churches, and beat folks up. Various organizations blamed the abolitionists for provoking the violence. One white abolitionist bookseller, Isaac T. Hopper, was advised to take down his window display. "Hopper declared that he was not 'such a coward as to forsake my the bidding of a mob.' When a mob approached his shop intent upon ransacking it, Hopper walked out onto his steps and stared down the rioters, who then moved on without damaging his store."

The troubles with the national designation of themed time periods, like Black History Month and the International Year of the Woman, are many. Black history, women's studies, Latin-American culture, and so on are not separate things from the rest of life. We're all in this together. History and culture appear in most minds not as an integrated whole but as a series of high points, islands in a sea of normal, complexity cooked down to an easily-digestible simplicity that can be absorbed and forgotten. This is not useful, and for the most part theme periods work within this paradigm rather than upsetting it.

But one thing that is accomplished is, that librarians will pull out books like this one and put them on displays where patrons who aren't particularly looking to be enlightened have a chance to see it and be curious and get a taste of how the past relates to the present and how impoverished their public-school history curriculum was.

For my own part, interest in the complexity of history began with fiction, or with nonfiction packaged to appeal to fiction readers. I don't see enough historical fiction with black protagonists. When I do see it, it's normally based around the Civil War and slavery. These are of course interesting times; but other times, as the above indicates, were equally interesting. Because less familiar, I submit that the stories of Northern antebellum black people are even more interesting than those of slaves; or for that matter of Northern antebellum white people. Were you surprised to learn that Ohio had a sizable black population before the Southern Diaspora?

Yes, this stuff is hard to research. Yes, there's a profound discomfort inherent in examining how real people really behaved and spoke as opposed to how we want to arrange them into neat groups of folks we like and folks we don't like; and in seeing how little rhetoric has changed in America during its history. Yes, it can be hard to see your way clear to creating a protagonist with agency in social groups who have been systematically denied agency by the institutions of our democratic government. Those are all reasons to mine this nearly-untapped vein, not reasons to avoid it.

For an example of the possibilities, and the problems, of tackling such topics, I refer you to the remarkable, and remarkably uncomfortable, work The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, by M.T. Anderson. Totally worth the effort.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Pleistocene Kid in Alaska!

Woot! Bones of a cremated 3-year old and residential traces in Alaska, dated to about 11,500 YBP. This is huge, y'all.

How Sabertoothed Cats Yawned!

How a Smilodon Saber-toothed Cat Closed Its Gaping Maw

Not mentioned is the peculiar arrangement of the incisors, which jut considerably farther forward of the fangs than on other species, the better to grip and chew prey without snagging it on the fangs.

Megafauna are so cool.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

No Anonymity for Me!

So I skipped Tuesday on the grounds of feeling crappy, and then felt just as crappy Wednesday, and then I got a PM on one of my newsgroups from somebody saying she'd just realized I wrote The Ghost Sitter, her copy of which she had read till it fell apart.

Which puts a pretty high lower limit on how bad I can feel.

This is why I always post under my own name. No cute nicknames for me. I don't even understand the impulse, though probably I would if I didn't have so many roleplaying characters to provide me with alternate names and identities. I'm not nearly enough of a public figure for there to be any danger of somebody stalking me looking to have my babies, and if by any chance I get into the same forum as somebody who has read my books, or who likes my posts enough that they'd like to try my books if they know about them, I want them to be able to recognize me when they see my name. Conversely, anybody who thinks I make dull, long-winded posts (I'll cop to "long-winded") probably wouldn't care for my books, and should be able to avoid them.

It also acts as a brake on any impulse I might have to post in haste or share too much. If I'm not willing for it to turn up attached to my name in a random google search, I shouldn't write it down and I damn sure shouldn't hit "post."

Much better today, and the redbud's in full bloom. Goosegrass, however, is still winning the battle for my yard's soul.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Stranded

This post is dedicated to Lupe, Peggy, JoEllen, Kay, Ben, Jeremy at Brake Check on S. Lamar, Jose at the St. Edwards University Information desk, and all the people behind me on the road when Moby wouldn't stop turning; without whom my Austin trek would have been way too exciting.

Because of all these people, my story is not a candidate for a novel; but as I waited in Brake Check for the last adjustments so I could finally drive home I reflected on how a novel that started with a car that won't stop turning could develop. The driver/protagonist would need to either be cut off from the friends and sympathetic, professional strangers I was able to rely on, or opposed to relying on them for some reason. Since the show on the TV in the lobby at the time was America's Most Wanted, the first thing that occurred to me was that the driver had a body in the trunk; but that's an antagonist, not a protagonist.

(Or maybe not. A nimble thriller writer could keep you guessing on this subject, depending on the backstory of the body.)

Let's make the driver a teen. One of my difficulties was that I had no cell phone. (I suspect we're going to break down and get one shortly.) All modern teens have cells, so why would this one be without? I could make it a historical story, but this by itself suggests no plot. What if the teen is a runaway and has ditched her cell because she knew it could be traced?

That opens possibilities. Why isn't she afraid of the car being traced? Maybe she is. Maybe the car is stolen, so instead of proceeding on the assumption that she needs to take it straight to the garage, she proceeds on the assumption that she needs to risk driving it a little bit longer, at least till she can steal one that works better.

What is she running from? Or, more pertinently, who? Is she being actively sought? Does she have enough criminal savvy to rely on stealing a new car, or enough mechanical skill to diagnose and jerryrig a fix for the problem on this one? What are her skills and resources? What's in the car with her? Did the previous owner leave behind anything that would surprise her or affect her choices?

Is anyone with her? Does she, who has no one to rely on, feel responsible for someone else?

Where is she going once she gets mobile again?

I'm too tired to answer all these questions right now. But if I could, I'd have me a plot.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Another Austin Trek

Saturday morning I'll be driving up to Austin for the 2011 Austin SCBWI Regional Conference. This means I'll miss the Friday night reception with wine and cheese I couldn't consume, reading, bookstore where I couldn't afford to buy anything, and general schmoozing; also the breakfast of stuff I probably shouldn't eat. Part of the point of these trips is the schmoozing, but I can't afford a hotel right now and I suck at schmoozing so oh well. The site is located on the south side of Austin, so if I hit the road by a quarter after seven I should be in plenty of time for the opening remarks at 8:45. So tomorrow I'll get my stuff together, including emergency food, decide what I'm wearing, and obsessively plan the exact route - though it looks simple enough even for me driving solo to a new place.

I don't do many conferences for a variety of reasons. Most of them are geared more toward the unpublished, between health and economic limitations I need a really good pay-off in order to go to the hassle of traveling, and as badly as I sleep in my own bed at night I'm about 20 times worse in a strange one. Thank goodness I finally seem to have outgrown laughing jags, mostly. Used to I'd have one at least once per trip, which was okay if it happened in alone in a hotel room but problematic if, for example, I was at a banquet.

But everybody should do conferences relevant to their passion once in awhile. It can be hard, slogging away at whatever it is you love to do which the people around you don't, to keep the fire going; especially with creative pursuits in which gratification is routinely delayed and long dry spells without any external validation are the norm. You may or may not lose the impetus to create - that is, after all, the fun part - but it's just as bad to lose the impetus to treat your creation as it deserves, to go to the efforts that make it possible to get it out where other people can see it.

A long period without sales, awards, or feedback apart from "sorry, don't love it enough" gunks up the initiative like a hard freeze gunks up 100-year-old iron pipes. (Why no, we aren't recovered from the big freeze yet, thank you for asking; but there's pink on the redbud and spring is arrived.) Writers are by and large a bunch of shy depressives to begin with, continually feeling our inability to live up to our own standards - to write a groundbreaking novel a year, raise perfect children, be there for our aged parents, contribute our fair share to the household economy, cook delicious and nutritious meals for our loved ones, keep a clean house, and grow all our own vegetables. (Yeah, there's a little hyperbole there, but be honest with yourself - not much!)

When the people around us treat our work as a sideline, as they too often do (not my husband, thank goodness!); when our best work returns to us time after time; when the markets shrink around us through no fault of our own, it's easy to feel that the game isn't worth the candle. That maybe we should give up - not writing; never that - but trying to find a larger audience for the writing. Nobody wants it that badly. The vast chorus of literature, or whatever we're producing, is doing fine without us, and our voice would just be lost in it anyway.

And certainly there are good and valid reasons not to seek publication. I've said it here repeatedly - anybody who wants to write should do so. Creativity is part of our human heritage. We should all indulge ourselves in it as recklessly as we can, with as little self-consciousness or restraint as we feel when playing a game, or sunbathing, or birdwatching, or reading. It's easy, it's fun, it's natural. Selling writing, for most of us, is none of those things, and only those who want that larger audience more than anything else should put ourselves through the process. There's nothing wrong with writing for yourself, or your family, or your subculture with little renumeration apart from recognition, in that limited sphere, of the worth of your efforts.

But if you want something more than anything else, you should never stop trying to get it. You owe it to yourself to keep at it; and there's nothing like going to a conference of people who aren't sick of hearing you talk about it, who understand what you're saying before you're done, who have different apparent levels of talent, success, and luck but who are all facing the same discouragements and problems, to make you feel that yeah, you can keep at it.

Also - editors and agents go to these things. Editors who don't read slushpile will give special dispensations for attendees at conferences they went to, and you get a chance to size up the people who would be reading your work. This can provide a solid lead in the search for clues to where to send things next in which some of us are endlessly mired.

And although there's nothing wrong, per se, with private writing, consider how much poorer American letters would be if Emily Dickinson's family had never published her poems. Much about her literary estate was done wrong, but at least we have the poems. How many other brilliant artists through the years had families that discouraged them from breaking out of their personal boxes - their fundamental lack of self-esteem, their awareness of the disrespect they risked, their fear of failure or exposure or whatever gunk was stopping up their pipes - and then used their lifework as firelighters? How would the grand chorus of literature sound if we had those silenced voices to fill in gaps we can't even hear now?

Wouldn't it be a shame to be one of them, for lack of an occasional refresher?

So, I'm going to Austin, and when I come back I'm going to query the hell out of every single one of my dormant manuscripts and then I reckon it'll be time to look at Len and start revising.

That's the plan, anyway. Maybe I'll see you there. I'll be the one in The Hat.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Margaret McElderry


I just heard on my writing list. Margaret K. McElderry is dead.

I haven't seen her in years and can't claim to have been one of her nearest and dearest, but she bought Otto from Otherwhere from me out of the slushpile 30 years ago, and bought my next nine books, too, so she's probably the single most important person in my career so far. McElderry Books was the second place I sent Otto, because during the market research phase I discovered (by the simple expedient of looking at the publishing information on books I liked) that she'd published a huge percentage of the books I liked best and had consciously emulated, so she was the obvious market to try to break in with. It worked, too. Every one of those nine books was edited directly and thoroughly by her, with manuscript pages shipped back and forth in boxes. Very Old School.

I met her in person a couple of times, at ALA in town and one of the times I was in New York. She was like a fairy godmother in a pantsuit. I remember somebody got her to talk about her World War II experience at dinner at ALA. She was actively recruited to serve overseas, and was bewildered by it. She had to crawl under barbed wire as part of her training, but her war service primarily involved driving generals around. I wish I remembered more of that.

People ask me occasionally "what happened," why I stopped selling things to Margaret, and I never know how to answer. I don't think anything happened, really - except for Switching Well I was at best a midlister, after Simon & Schuster bought the imprint she didn't have as much autonomy as she used to, and I think my style evolved away from being a McElderry author about the time she had to cut back her direct participation and turn most of the work over to Emma Dryden. That's how things go.

You will read many more eloquent and meaningful tributes than this one about this woman. They will all be true.

Death sucks.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Temporary Detective

I've worked temps a lot in my life. Temps get a bad rap, both from employers and from employees, but I've always found them to be a great alternative to the soul-sucking day job. You can get a wide variety of experience from them, improve your existing skill sets, get an enlightening look at different businesses and subcultures (believe me, real estate appraisal is a subculture!) without getting mired in any of them, and - not a triviality - stretch out your unemployment compensation for quite awhile. One year, when my husband and I both lost jobs and had to look for new ones, between the two lost jobs, temp companies, contract labor, writing, and unemployment compensation we had 14 different tax documents with which to figure our income. Our tax guy looked at the pile of paper before him and said: "Y'all may have been unemployed, but you sure did work!" And it is a hell of a lot easier to drag yourself to a dull job on a beautiful day if you can follow the thought "I don't want to go to work" with the thought, "Maybe tomorrow I won't have to."

Of course, not just anybody makes a good temp. You have to be quick on the uptake; able to find your way around an unfamiliar environment with a minimum of direction; patient (because a surprising number of people who are supposed to train you have no idea what the woman currently on maternity leave did, why it was important, or how she did it); prompt; not easily intimidated by people, procedures, or technology; a good learner; capable of sustained attention; and not fussy. Even if you're on the books as an office worker, you may find yourself working in really funky office/warehouse environments reeking of stale smoke and old mechanical fluids, and you'll be more employable if, on the days you call in - and you should call in every morning so you're at the top of the company's list of people ready and willing to work that day - and they say that they're only getting calls for industrial work you can say in a convincingly chipper voice: "What kind of industrial work? It might make a nice change."

You know who else benefits from these qualities? Detectives!

In a lot of ways, the temporary worker as amateur sleuth makes a lot more sense than most of the ones out there. Temp workers are constantly thrown into unfamiliar environments, and many companies don't hire temps until long after they should have done so. The circumstances that require hiring a temp also create the kinds of stresses - personal, professional, and economic - that prompt folks to kill. If theft occurs on the job, who more likely to find the blame falling on her than the innocent temp?

It only takes a few murders for the audience to start asking "Why does anyone invite Hercule Poirot/Jessica Fletcher/Lord Peter Wimsey to go anywhere when they attract corpses like corpses attract flies? And why would anybody, planning a murder, not wait until after the famous detective had gone?" Generally we swallow this sort of improbability as a genre convention without which the story can't go on. But with a temp, the company generally asks for "a CPA who can type 150 wpm, can figure out the off-brand spreadsheet program the boss saddled us with, doesn't mind making coffee, and will accept minimum wage" not for "Peni Griffin." In fact, even if they are wildly satisfied with a temp and want her back, they don't generally remember her name, but ask for "the one we had last time, you know, the one with the glasses." Often, the boss doesn't tell anybody he's called in a temp till five minutes before she arrives; and doesn't think to call one until the middle of the day, when everything's hitting the fan and he realizes he should have made arrangements the night before. So of course the person who put cyanide in the latte machine doesn't know his nemesis is arriving in half an hour.

It's a great deal of fun to plot a mystery set in an office you're working in. Every job you're going to be hired to do as a temp will become mind-bogglingly dull once you've learned to do it, so you'll be standing at the copy machine listening to the guy with the cold coughing and the receptionist argue with her husband on the phone while somebody behind you complains about the people who always empty the pot and don't start a new one; and you'll pick your victim, his mode of death, his murderer, the full range of suspects and motivations, and plant a few clues, all with a serene smile on your face.

There's a lot of ways to kill people in a workplace. Restaurants (worst job I ever had was in the business office of a restaurant) are full of poison delivery systems and cutlery, but what about a little variety? Can you beat the wine steward's brains in with a bottle of bad merlot? Push a customer into the San Antonio River and then "accidentally" electrocute him? (It's way too shallow and well-policed for anyone to drown on the restaurant stretch.) Is there a way to kill someone with sufficiently hot peppers?

Offices take more ingenuity, but if you don't want to go with anything as obvious as stabbing with the scissors or the spindle you'll still have options. Send him into the file closet where the top shelf has been carefully rigged to give way at the crucial moment, dropping ten years worth of overstuffed file boxes onto his head and snapping his neck. Strangling with phone cords is a little old-fashioned, but what about computer cables? Can a laptop or company-issued cell phone be rigged to electrocute someone? Tamper with the brakes on the company car. Poison the person who's always stealing lunches out of the break room refrigerator. Stab someone with the prized twelve-point buck the boss keeps in his office.

Office/warehouses are death traps. Ask anyone who's worked in one. Heavy equipment. Overloaded mezzanines that shake when you walk on them. Huge ranks of storage racks housing God-knows-what. Bins and lockers plenty big enough to hide a body. Dumpsters emptied on a regular schedule that everybody knows. Refrigerated rooms with locks that can be jammed. Restrooms that never get cleaned and can be blamed for any amount of food poisoning. Safety codes that are ignored because the boss isn't going to let OSHA tell him what to do. Dark corners, dubious electric systems, non-climate-controlled areas that it's possible to get trapped in during extreme weather, employees who cut corners because they're bored.

Banks? I got one word for you: Vaults. I've worked in vaults. They're scary. So are the people who work in banks.

I will not go into motivations to kill one's bosses, employees, and co-workers, on the grounds that I might incriminate myself. Suffice it to say that I have never been in an office in which murder probably did not appear as a tempting option to someone at some time. It's the nature of modern American corporate culture, I'm afraid. I have been in a couple of workplaces that were so bad I had no hesitation in soliciting opinions on the best method of offing a certain person in a fictional work, and was feverishly urged to write the plot hashed out in the shared camaraderie of stuffing envelopes addressed to people who didn't care with mailings the recipients wouldn't read. I've even been in one office where a plot to murder - somebody - in a particularly gruesome way was suggested to me.

The urge to write this sort of book fades as one gets away from the workplace in question. The reason I never developed this idea has as much to do with the fact that writing a convincing mystery set in a particular milieu requires paying more intent attention to that milieu than I was ever willing to give a job as it does with the fact that I'm not really a mystery writer. I can get away with one-offs like The Treasure Bird and The Ghost Sitter, but a series detective, to satisfy the audience and succeed, must be both original and formulaic, with a high degree of structure obscured behind virtuoso presentation of eccentric, seemingly chaotic, detail.

But if you've been thinking of starting a series, and wondering what subculture hasn't been amateur sleuthed to death - consider the lowly temp.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Little Things

I wasn't getting anywhere with picking publishers and agents, or anything else much, for various reasons ranging from "well, the market's shrinking" to "freeze leaves chaos in its wake," so yesterday I opened up a market guide I subscribe to, found a market soliciting short stories on a theme, and drafted a story for it.

It starts strong, with dialog and what actors call "business" carrying all the exposition and characterization; and then I start talking and wreck it; but that's why it's called a draft. It clocks in at about 1600 words and the market's ideal length is about 1500, so in revision I'll lengthen it by turning all that second-half talking into dialog and business, and then I'll trim out all the words that I need but the audience won't, and then I'll send it in and sell it, or not. The maximum I can hope to make from the market in question is $150, or $17 less than we paid the handyman to replace the valve that popped off the downstairs plumbing when the pipe thawed; but that's a good word rate in this business, where some employers still pay Depression-era wages.

If I don't sell it to the intended market, even in the truncated world of modern fantasy short stories I'll have three or four more shots. But the most important thing is, that I started a project and finished it. The draft is one project, the revision another, and selling it is another. It's important to feed yourself accomplishments once in awhile, or your morale starves.

This is why we all write more works than we can sell. We can't control the sale of them, but we can get our dopamine fix writing them.

That's also why the crocheter in your life has made so many doilies. Nobody really needs more than two or three doilies; but once in awhile you need to make one in order to stay sane.

Anyway, if I'm going to make any progress with revision today, I'd better get started, as the painter is coming at 10 and I'm supposed to meet the designer at the plumbing place at 1. Busy day ahead.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Storm Stories

I didn't post yesterday because we weren't home most of the day. The person hosting the game offered to let us use his nice hot shower and we jumped at the chance, spending most of the day over there.

In any case an Idea Garage Sale on such a weekend is probably redundant. We all spent a fair amount of time looking at the weather maps, comparing our situations with those of others, and making narrative sense out of the natural chaos of the weather intersecting with the imposed order of human society.

Weather events like the one just past are not story events in and of themselves. They have no plots, no motives, no structure, and no resolutions. Weather is a setting element, not a plot element. Yet they can provide complicating factors and trigger plot elements for any kind of story. My own weather experience, absorbing as it is for me, has little inherent drama, but could be tweaked and ordered into service as the setting of a comedy in which the game, but impractical, homeowners improvised increasingly elaborate arrangements to meet the challenges the weather induced in their ramshackle old home. If we were the sort of people who gave dinner parties with consequences our situation could have created a nice little social farce.

But you don't have to go far in this weather to invoke tragedy. A toddler got lost from a trailer park in a nearby town Friday night - abducted, or wandered out and froze to death? Although I can't presently find a link for it, a local charity was told by the city to stop offering homeless people places to sleep out of the cold because they weren't licensed as a shelter; to the best of my knowledge, they told the city to stuff it and did so anyway. We had over 800 accidents here in town Friday, because we don't know how to drive on ice and we don't know how to get anywhere without driving.

Here's a setting for mystery writers: A snowed in airport. Thousands of stranded travelers. A murder. A McGuffin. A detective who isn't even supposed to be in this town, diverted from his original destination and existing in the same disoriented limbo as the suspects.

It's hard not to look at the satellite photos of the storm and not think in blockbuster terms. What are the military applications of weather control technology?

I'm too lightheaded and have too much housework to do to follow up on any of these ideas; but seriously, do I need to? What stories crossed your mind as you hunkered down in the storm?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Doing Dishes on the Stove

Our pipes froze. Not all of them. I can still get cold water in the upstairs bathroom. We still have gas and electricity, so by the standards of most of the country I am not suffering and I don't plan to complain about it. With a little applied imagination I can make an adventure of this; without it, at most I'm inconvenienced.

However, there could be consequences to skipping the dishes till the pipes thaw. Whereas my husband can eat factory-prepared food, I cannot due to the sodium content; and his immune system is the biological equivalent of a wet paper bag, so any utensils that come into contact with his mouth have to be clean or he'll get food poisoning. So I've spent the morning filling kettles and saucepans with water upstairs, moving them downstairs to heat gently on the stove, and doing the best I can to get us clean stuff for cooking and eating. I did this till my toes got numb, and now I'm sitting here with them tucked under the panel heater under the computer table. In a little while I'll go down and wash some more. I was hoping the warm wastewater would gently thaw the drain pipes in the sinks without bursting them, but so far it's just accumulating as dirty water.

It may snow tomorrow. I used to like snow, and if it comes will do my best to like it again. The last time we saw it here, as near as we can recall, was the Blizzard of '85, when San Antonio got 12" of snow overnight on Superbowl Sunday. We were living on the south side of town and my husband was supposed to work on Sunday, when the closest bus route wasn't running. We had access to two cars and had called every cab company in the phone book the night before, but in the morning one car wouldn't turn over, the other caught fire, none of the cabs came, none of the co-workers my husband called were willing to try to cover his shift, and he wound up calling the manager, who fired him. It was a crappy job anyway. We made snowmen and drank hot chocolate.

Now we only have one car, but we live on five bus lines. It's one of the reasons we live where we do. And I don't believe our pipes would have frozen, except when they leveled the back porch they had to take the skirting off and we said not to replace it, as we'll be doing the rest of the back porch work this spring and it would just have to come off again. We can use our fireplace now that we've had the chimney lined, and if it smokes a bit that's a problem as old as mankind. We can always play games, and dream up apocalyptic scenarios, or imagine how much worse it would be if we were pioneers, or prehistoric hunter-gatherers, or living in Minnesota. Except in Minnesota we'd know how to deal with snow and own things like storm windows.

It's all material.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Source Criticism of the Fortean Text

Status report: It's freezing cold, I can't feel my feet, and I got a Fortean Times in today's mail.

"Freezing cold" locally, from the perspective of my uninsulated house heated by 2 gas space heaters, is about 40 degrees, but right now I'm speaking literally, not hyperbolicly. I am a great deal colder than Texans like to be. I hate cold.

Cover story in FT 271 concerns source criticism of the account which gave us the original iconic look of El Chupacabras (I refuse to drop the S). According to Mr. Benjamin Radford, who has interviewed the eyewitness, Madelyne Tolentino is a sincere, earnest, honest person who conflated her memory of the monster in the movie Species, which she had seen shortly before and consciously compared to the chupacabras flap going on at the time, with whatever she saw and couldn't identify in 1995.

This is of course exactly the sort of thing that people do. It can also be argued - and if it were warm enough and early enough to sit here thumbing through my Forteana shelves I could find you examples - that the Cosmic Joker deliberately appears to us in familiar forms because - well, it's the Cosmic Joker, isn't it?

But humanity gets the last laugh, as chupacabras loses the terminal S and becomes conflated with Texas blue dogs.

You know how to tell fiction from fact? Fiction has to make sense and sooner or later all trails lead to the end of the book. Fact is under no such obligation. Fact is infinite and far less limited than fiction.