Friday, November 30, 2012

That Time of Year Again; or Why Am I Never Prepared for What Always Happens??

As Kitchen Sanitation Month draws to a close, I am faced with the reality that I still don't understand how the crisper drawers in my refrigerator are set up.

It looks perfectly simple when I'm taking it apart for cleaning, and then when I go to put it back not one bit of it makes any sense. The only thing I know for certain is that the holes on the sides of the frame fit into those little knobs on the sides of the refrigerator. That's the baseline. But once the frame's back in place - this part moves this way so this end must be the front, but if I try to put it in that way the glass won't lie flat and if I put it in the other way there's nothing to hook the ends into and the slots on the sides of the drawers should lock into something but there's nothing except this bit and in that case how does the drawer move at all? Every year I go through this. Every single year.

It's not just that I'm mechanically hopeless. Damon's much better at this sort of thing than I am, and when I enlist his aid he's soon as bewildered as I am. At the moment we have an arrangement that almost works, but one of the drawers sticks so much that we can tell something's still off. I'm hoping that, having gotten so close and slept on it, I can get to the "oh, of course, I do this to that and then everything fits" moment, which is also a yearly occurrence, as soon as I go down there and look. You'd think it'd get easier every year, but it seems to get harder.

This, of course, is what notes are for. Maybe this is the year we make some. But will we then be able to find them next time Kitchen Sanitation Month rolls around? All we can do is the best we can do, but I'm not convinced we've done our best on this one.

I'm sure nobody who reads this blog ever has problems like this. :)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Get Out of Your Way

I started noticing this with writers, or people who intended to be writers, or artists, or whatever. "I'd like to..." they'd say, and when I said, "Why don't you?" the answer was: "Well, first I'd have to..."

And it's never anything they actually have to do first. I totally agree that if you want to write about the sinking of the Bismark you have to do a big chunk of research before you do much in the way of real writing; though personally I'd count that as part of the writing process. No, it's first I have to get some sort of tool (artists are really bad about this) or take some class or get better at this other thing, or go and do something completely irrelevant. Granted, somebody has to pay the rent; but you're not at the soul-sucking day job 24 hours a day and you'll never get a break from it if you don't give yourself one.

But here lately I've noticed people doing the same thing with their play. Someone wants to run a certain kind of role-playing game, but doesn't have a finished map, or the entire society set up ahead of time, or all his NPCs detailed. Newsflash: the players can only be on one part of the map at a time, you won't have time to refer to your NPC notes in the heat of play anyway, and you can improvise better than you think you can.

Someone else wants to play a Sims game; but they don't have all the custom content they want for it and the thought of tracking it all down, or making their own, is exhausting. So? It's a solo game. You're the only one playing. No one's going to be judging what you do, except you. Yeah, it'd be cool if your Test of Time Challenge sims had complete immersion sets that really looked like Neolithic huts, Egyptian palaces, etc.; but you know what? No matter how much custom content you put in there, the sims are still going to roll inappropriate wants to buy electronic entertainment. And you could easily spend a year making stuff and still find, in play, that you want something you didn't think of, but never actually use the sabertooth tiger teddy bear that you sweated blood over. So why not relax about it, get what you can as you can, and make the custom content you feel a real need for when the need for it makes the process of doing so fun and engaging?

There's active fandoms out there documenting various games and commenting on those of others; but months can go by when bloggers appear only to say that they're so far behind with the documentation that they can't play until they organize their pictures, write up the story, and make a post. Nonsense. Of course they can! No one's obliged to document everything that happens, or anything that happens. Your audience will not cease to love you if you document three months of silence with three lines of summary text and plunge back into current events; and if they do, screw them. You're not playing for them. You owe them nothing.

You don't need to have the new glove in order to play baseball. Someone will loan you a glove. You don't need the perfect shoes to hike in; choose trails that your existing shoes can cope with while you're saving up for the good boots you want.

You don't need a new dress to go to a party - just change up your accessories. Anyone who judges you for wearing a dress twice is someone you don't need to associate with anyway. The people who matter most either won't notice, or will admire you just as much as they did the first time you wore the dress.

You don't need anybody's permission, and no one is setting these requirements except you. Set different requirements and get out of your way.

If you need somebody's permission - here's mine. Enjoy yourself.

If you won't, who will?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Roadside Bigfoot

I turn again to the Fortean Times; to the same page of the same Fortean Times as last week, in fact, as the quarter-column about the mechanical ape is preceded by Bigfoot coverage: about three-quarters of a column on Bigfoot sightings in, and a dubious YouTube video from, Ohio (not thought of as Bigfoot country by the mainstream media), and half a column on a practical joker in Montana dressed in a ghillie suit and trying to spark a Bigfoot flap being accidentally hit by a teen driver, then run over by the teen driving the car behind her. Which is tragic, particularly for the teens, who now get to live with the fact that they've killed a man; even if it was, arguably, not their fault. Being hit by a car has to be accepted as a natural risk inherent in the activity of dressing in camouflage and deliberately looming up from the side of the highway trying to scare people at night.

Nor are cars the only hazard involved in impersonating Bigfoot, particularly in a state like Montana where gun racks are standard pickup equipment; but that's probably why August was chosen as hoaxing month. People are a lot less primed to shoot large animals in August than in November.

This is all evocative enough, but the trouble is, there's no real implied plot here. None of the characters have any obvious connection beyond that fatal conjunction at the side of the highway and nothing was at stake in the masquerade except for a practical joke. In a sparsely-populated state like Montana, the odds are reasonable that all of the principals knew each other, at least by sight, but Westerners are accustomed to driving long distances for what would seem to be slight cause in more densely-populated areas, and he presumably chose a relatively well-traveled area to maximize the potential that his prank would pay off, so it isn't a given.

So if you're going to use these elements, you have a lot of work ahead of you still. Here's some sample questions to answer before you even sit down to write:

Does the accident have to be fatal, or can you get away with pulling that punch and telling a farce?

Is the accident the end of the story, or the beginning? If it's the end, then the story is a tragedy (unless the hoaxer was using a Bigfoot disguise to cover up a nefarious crime, which is contrived and melodramatic, but contrived melodrama still has its place in literature); if at the beginning, the story will be about the two teens learning to cope with what happened and can, therefore, have a happy ending.

Is there some useful mid-point for the event, the third-act turn, for example, in which the discovery of a Bigfoot hoaxer turns the entire plot to that point on it's head? This would require that the protagonists (presumably the teens) were dealing with some mysterious events, all of which have been assumed to be Bigfoot-related; but now that they know about the man in the ghillie suit, not only have they got accidental manslaughter on their consciences, a big chunk of whatever they were involved in is suddenly not explained by the Bigfoot hypothesis and they're on a downhill run to the climax.

What are the connections between the two teens, the hoaxer, and Bigfoot, either as a concept or as a real phenomenon?

What more interesting motives than tomfoolery or boredom might have prompted a Bigfoot hoax? Perhaps the hoaxer is not a mere silly joker, but someone trying to create a flap in order to hoist the local economy out of the dumps through increased tourism. Perhaps there's a real Bigfoot population and he's trying to protect it by drawing the attention of cryptid hunters to areas where it's not.

Does it have to be Bigfoot?

Does it have to be Montana? Sometimes an incident floating in isolation in the news can be snapped into place in one's own culture and location, and you know that, if that had happened here, it would have happened on such-and-such a road, the hoaxer would have been a member of a particular subculture, his motivation would have been thus-and-so, and the teens would have been on their way to the county line to buy kegs; and the rest of the story would roll out effortlessly from there.

This is why people think it's hard to get ideas. Getting ideas is as easy and pleasant as reading the Fortean Times. Developing ideas, now - that's work!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Baking

First off, I'd like to state for the record (in light of the recent Garage Sale about the guy who runs around taking stuff I like off the market) that I have never liked Twinkies and haven't eaten one for at least 30 years. So Hostess's failure is not my fault. And anyway you know somebody's going to buy up the rights and make an equally tasteless, nutritionless knock-off about the time the people who bought them all up decide it's time to dump them on E-bay.

Second, tomorrow being Thanksgiving, I'm baking today. Damon specifically requested that I make dilly casserole bread, which we haven't had for awhile because it's pretty high sodium, like all bread, and because I have trouble getting yeast breads to rise. When it works it's about as yummy as bread gets, though.

Since I'm not sure whether my trouble with bread rising is down to overbeating or to the ambient temperature in my kitchen - which is, counterintuitively, the coolest room in the house - I made two batches, one of which I underbeat, if anything. That one's taking its time rising, too, but it looks like I might have two decent batches of dilly bread. Which is twice as many as I need but what the family doesn't eat tomorrow the gaming group can eat over the weekend, and what I was afraid of was of having none.

I went very short of sleep last night, my head aches, and making even one batch was more of a chore than it should have been, but -

That's how you know when you're really engaged with a job. When you take pains over it, even excessive ones, even when your body is protesting, because you want to be sure it's done right.

If you're not doing that, you're doing the wrong things. Stop it, and do something else; or make up your mind to it, and do it right.

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: The Mechanical Gorilla

Sometimes, ideas just fall into your lap.

Fortean Times #294 arrived in my mail this week. In the "Strange Days" section, on page 8, is about a quarter column of story about how a man in Cambridgeshire, out walking his dog (there's dogs again!) found "a 15ft (4.6m) mechanical gorilla" with "a number of moving parts but a poor state of repair, with many of its components badly rusted."

The picture that goes with the news story is very sad, as is the treatment of the find as the discovery of a garbage dump in an inappropriate location. It's tolerably obvious that this is either (and I admit this is not likely) a deliberate pirate art installation or (and I think we can all agree that this is hands-down the likeliest option) the tragic remains of either the villain or the hero in a monumental battle of good vs. evil.

Also, somewhere in this is someone Japanese. Fifteen-foot mechanical gorillas are surprising in a British context, but routine, almost quaint, in a Japanese one.

Figure out which side the ape is on, and whether it's the same side as the person who built it - and whether the person who built it is an elderly mad scientist or a kid with big eyes and a small mouth - and you're underway.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: The Children of Active Duty

Today is Veteran's Day.

I'm an Air Force brat. All my bionotes start off like that. It's central to my sense of identity. So -

Why, when I sit here thinking about stories that connect those two things - the service brat identity, the holiday to honor service, do I come up blank?

I think it's because we didn't live on base. Okay, not quite true - we did in Alaska, which we left when I was six. But we stayed in my folks' hometown in Iowa during my dad's tour in 'Nam, and lived in town at our other stations. When I talk to other grown service brats (of which I meet no shortage, living in a major military city like San Antonio), I can tell that I missed out on a big chunk of the subculture by not living on base; a floating community of shared assumptions, conflicts, securities, fears, and structures. The caste systems in my schools had nothing to do with the serving parent's rank and had no built-in accommodations to the reality of frequent reassignments. I never had the same rulebook as the kids around me.

I'm not complaining about this. My parents had reasons to keep us out of that subculture every bit as good as the reasons other military parents raised their kids in it. If this is the origin of my tendency to stand forever on the fringes of multiple subcultures instead of immersing myself in them, so be it. If I trade a sense of belonging for flexibility, why, other people are trading flexibility for their sense of belonging, and that's fair.

But it does mean I can't write stories that reflect the world a large number of children in this world live in, and present that world to their non-military peers, even though I share an identity with them. And somebody really should.

What Service means to a service brat is that parents aren't in charge, the Service is. It means that Dad - or, with increasing frequency, Mom, or both - often isn't there; but that's nobody's fault. Authority is both larger and less personal for a service brat child than a civilian one; rebellion is a much more fraught emotion, with much larger implications, because you're not just rebelling against your parents or some vague Establishment. You're rebelling against the entire structure of the universe you live in.

I never rebelled. Never. My brother did and it was A Huge Problem. My sister, who was always the smartest of us, did a kind of end run around it. An on-base high school full of kids exercising those options must be a pressure cooker, even in peace time.

And when is it ever peace time anymore?

I know someone should write about this. All members of minorities need to be able to find their reflections in the fiction offered to them, and literature is the best, easiest introduction to minority viewpoints for mainstream readers. But I also know I can't. Somewhere out there is the service brat who can.

Please, get on it!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Gee, I Love Language

My husband passed on a library book to me, Kat Zhang's What's Left of Me. He explained that the premise is a world in which everyone is born with two personalities, one of which fades over time and eventually goes away. Except this time, it doesn't. "The story's narrated by the recessive personality," he said.

It is possible that, until this book was written, or even until we had this conversation, the term "recessive personality" had never been used before. It wasn't needed. But as soon as we needed it, boom, it came to hand, perfectly comprehensible to anyone who grasps the premise.

That is one good tool we've got there.
BTW, if you live in the US and are eligible, it's Voting Day! Have you done your bit to preserve democracy yet? Better get on it!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: A Really Crappy Job

So today was one of those days when you have lots of errands so they all take too long. At least Jason's Deli offered me an extra cookie.

The grocery store we shop in has had a product reshuffle. You know, when they consult the person who follows me around keeping track of what I like, find out what I've really come to count on, and replace it with something I can't possibly use. The big loser this time is flavored rice. I had two-three flavors of two-three brands that I could count on to be under 500 mgs of sodium per serving. Now there's one, and of course it's not the blessed wonderful one that somehow kept it down to 75 mgs. The new brands all have 600 mgs up. They discontinued my 200 mg artichoke pasta sauce (but I found the last five jars hiding behind the 700-mg four-cheese sauce and bought them all). They took away all my low-sodium salad dressings ages ago. I will soon have nothing left to eat when I'm too sick from the condition that requires a low-sodium diet to cook from scratch. Thank heaven for baked potatoes. (Now watch the GE foods people figure out how to grow a spud with the salt built right in, and replace all the real spuds with it.)

Anyway, you will have noticed a paranoid assumption in the preceding paragraph: the existence of a person who follows me around, tracks what I like, and makes sure it's not available anymore. Of course I know that's not really how it works. My tastes and needs fall outside the bell curve that creates the most profitable market for the gigantic corporations that run our economy, into the range of products that, though they may sell well, do not sell well enough to meet whatever profit margin the gigantic corporations are aiming for. So - no white blouses with breast pockets, no jeans that fit over my butt, no low-sodium convenience food, etc. If I wanted to be served I should have the common sense to be led by fashion and have a completely different body with completely different needs.

But it happens so consistently that it's not hard to indulge the paranoid fantasy. And of course it gives me a character. If there's a person devoted to taking away what I need, he (for some reason I'm convinced it's a man), has his own needs which must be served by the practice. He's doing it for a reason and he has some feeling about it. He's either working for the shadowy entity that controls all those gigantic corporations, or himself has so much clout with them that he can dictate terms. He must get something out of it - but what? Where's the profit in depriving me of that wonderful peach-applesauce I used to be able to get? Does he enjoy doing it? Does he resent me, because after all it's got to be a tedious job tracking my buying habits when I do so little shopping, or pity me?

I do not for a moment believe that I am particularly important in this scenario. I presumably have been chosen either arbitrarily, or for my ability to avoid the swelling middle of the bell curve and act as a kind of barometer of the unfashionable in a wide variety of consumer products. No, the center of the story is the man doing the job. He has to display a certain ingenuity at it, to avoid being noticed. I use a lot of cash (which some corporations seem to be trying to take away from me, too), don't buy much online, and use things till they wear out, so except for groceries I don't have a regular schedule. Even for groceries, though we go to the same store week after week, usually on the same day, we also make erratic trips to different stores to get different things. And yes, the stores at the more vegetarian-friendly end of the grocery spectrum do it to me, too - the store formerly known as SunHarvest recently stopped carrying my glucosamine, B-2, and worst of all, my chocolate-covered banana chips. But most of the time, I'm not buying at all. So this has got to be one of those nerve-wracking hurry-up-and-wait jobs.

I bet I'm not the only one being tracked, either. He may have two or three bellwethers to follow.

So the story could be one of those mid-century surrealist stories about the anonymity and pointlessness of the modern office job, some sort of Kafka riff in which neither the reader nor the protagonist is ever certain what's going on.

Or it could be primarily about his motivation to do the job. Presumably somebody is paying him; but is it in money? We tend to view money as the unit of value, but money is only meaningful in terms of the other satisfactions its possession enables. Does frustrating me in this way provide some other tangible benefit - prolong his life, perhaps? (But with a job so boring, with such weird hours, is that worthwhile?) Prolong the life of someone he loves - parent, child, spouse?

And, if he's working for another party and not somehow deriving his benefit directly from me, how is the coin he's paid in related to the way they profit?

It's all too murky. If I could find my antagonist's face, the rest of it would snap into place. But I tend to get bogged down in annoyance before I get there.