Thursday, January 31, 2008

Thumbs Up

There's been a discussion on some other blogs recently about's Top Ten reviewer program. Somebody published an article recently digging into what the program's about and it's a bit revelatory to realize that these people are apparently reading thousands of books a year and offering up reviews on the Amazon site. Yeah, right. From what I've seen, these reviews (as delineated by a Top Ten Reviewer logo near their names) don't offer very much, intend coming off mostly as an amateur trying to write something that sounds what a professional would write.

Be that as it may, this lead to the question of whether or not it is even a good idea to publish reviews on the site since a negative one could, in theory, adversely affect sales. In fact, in Ed Gorman's blog author Robert Randisi said that after arguing with Amazon via e-mail and getting nowhere, he refuses to patronize them. He uses the example of a grocery store selling peas who then puts up a sign saying they are bad peas.

This is valid, of course, but I disagree. In fact, I love the fact that there are reviews on the site. This discussion, though, has made me consider why. First of all, though it may have happened, I don't recall a negative review ever causing me to change my mind about a purchase. I can recall many instances where positive reviews helped me either decide to buy then, or confirm my decision to buy later.

I think there's a knack for reading reviews. A glowing review from someone I don't know means nothing to me unless their actual comments make sense. Likewise a bad one doesn't do much by itself, especially the ones by people who are upset that the book arrived two days later than expected. That's a bad book.

There are two things that I try to get from the reviews (and this excludes the ones by the infamous Top Tenners). The first is a general sense of how people liked the book, which I can then put with my own frame of reference to make form some kind of opinion. But I need that reference. If I were to go to a listing of Dean Koontz's books and all the reviews are marvelous, it would mean nothing to me because I don't care for the man's work. If I know nothing about an author or his previous books, the reviews may be interesting or not, but they probably won't be all that helpful.

The second, perhaps more important thing, are the references to other works or authors that the reviewers may bring up. Comments that refer to similar authors or books, or that provide background material that I didn't already know, are often very helpful. These often lead me to other books and other authors and have been a wonderful resource.

The frustrating thing to me is when there aren't enough reviews for a given book to absorb the aburdities offered by people who really don't have anything to say. The book "My Father As I Recall Him" by Mamie Dickens contains excellent examples of people with nothing to say exercising their ability to do so in a public forum. The book has a ridiculous star and a half rating thanks to a couple of people who condemn the book for its "style" while admitting that it would be enjoyable to people who liked that "style."

Speaking for myself, I find I do actually like things that are like what I like. And I'm proud to say so in this public place just because I can. Hopefully you'll find this useful, too.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cable Ties

I got a call from Time-Warner yesterday. They wanted to sell me the same phone service they've been pummeling me with commercials for three hundred times a night on every available station they provide. Not only is it repetitive, it's the SAME commercial. If you're watching a syndicated show or something where they've doubled the commercial breaks, this is really insane-making stuff.

We had TW as a cable and high speed internet provider in Florida. The cable was incredibly expensive and the internet service bounced like a yo-yo every couple of weeks; when this happened not only did I have to call customer service EVERY TIME, I had to escalate the problem EVERY TIME because the low level guys couldn't see the problem, and it was the same problem EVERY TIME. But then another company offered service in our fair city and we jumped because, really, we didn't think it could be worse.

And it wasn't. And our bill went down by half. Across the bay in Tampa they were still getting hosed because there was no competition but we were golden in St. Pete. When we moved to NH, I was happy to see the local provider was Comcast. Having no experience with someone is better than having bad.

Six months after we arrived Time-Warner took over. Aaargh. There have been stories in the paper how local businesses have had unexplained internet outages since the changeover. Hm, what a coincidence. So have we.

So this guy yesterday wants to know if I'm ready to save money with Time-Warner's new phone service. I'm sorry, I think, didn't you say you were from Time-Warner? With the nails-into-the-brain advertising? The high-ass rates? The unexplained outages? The digital phone rate advertised as starting at $39.95 a month? Did I mention that for the past week or so we've had two channels that no longer offer sound with their video?

I wanted to hang up on him or laugh or something similarly pointless yet slightly self-gratifying. "I wouldn't be interested," was all I said. He sounded stunned, incredulous, stupefied that I wouldn't even hear him out. But he didn't push it. If he had I'd have told him to imagine me on channel eleven or thirteen shouting at him with the volume turned up high. He'd have enjoyed the quiet.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Best Crab Meat Isn't Green

A few months ago, despite any possible PC ramifications in today's world, our boy Ricky went nuts over a set of plastic Crusader armor. It came with a chest piece, a sword and scabbard, and a helmet complete with face shield. He's a kid and guns and swords are cool and fun and work well in the cartoons. Like just about everything else on the planet, it was made in China.

There are a couple of messages molded into the back side of the chest piece that I find slightly disturbing. It's more literate (from an English speaking perspective) than those old Taiwanese or Korean electronics imports with instructions like, "Battery insert compartment A into."

The first message says: WARNING! THIS IS A TOY. DOES NOT PROVIDE PROTECTION. This is sensible advice. But then, in larger, much more obvious letters, is this, apparently offered for those who failed to heed the previous note: CAUTION: THE SIMULATED PROTECTIVE DEVICE WAS NOT SAFETY DEVICE AND OFFERED NO PROTECTION. MADE IN CHINA.

The first message appears a true warning, a caution against actually wading into battle falsely secure in the knowledge that the plastic armor would prevail against anything more diabolical than a light breeze. But the second message seems to be targeted to those who failed to heed the first. Or more accurately, their next of kin. Note the tense of the verbs in the note. This "caution" may be appropriate for the little plastic grave markers (also made in China) that I'm sure must be available somewhere.

Clearly China is taking over the world, and we're selling it to them by buying everything they sell. At least, though, they're warning us in advance of any armed conflict what not to wear.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Slow Millionaires

When I was growing up I knew I was a member of the "Me Generation" because people I didn't know (the media) told me so. The past few years I'm told that I'm a member of an "increasingly fast paced" society, that I demand "instant access" and that I should be able to "multi-task" (and ignore the fact that the more things that don't get my full attention when I work on them the more things I don't do as well as I ought).

So now I know I'm a self-centered octopus who no longer has a use for an answering machine because I'm always online. Maybe one day I'll bootstrap myself out of the Dark Ages and follow the media's advice. But in the meantime I'm puzzled by these recent prime time game shows that, rather than hype a manic jump-up-and-down shrilling contestant pool, we have laid back hosts, often seated, who wait for a contestant's response with no apparent time limit.

What? No buzzer? No time clock? This cannot be!

I think it started with the "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" show. I'd explain it but we've all seen it (and thought, man, how easy is this! Until that one question you don't know...) I'm not an expert by any means but I think this was followed by shows like Chuck Woolery on "Greed," "One Against One Hundred" with Bob Saget, and last night's jewel, "The Moment of Truth." This is where host Mark Wahlberg quizzes a contestant on answers they'd given during a prior lie detector test. With the contestant's significant other present, the questions are increasingly personal and voyeuristic and the contestant must reveal his answer and have it verified by the machine to advance. An inconsistent answer loses the game.

I felt like I was peeping in the window of my neighbor's bedroom while I was watching this, but that's beside the point. The show relies on heavy dramatic music, long pauses, and absolutely annoying commercial breaks to stretch out and/or manufacture drama rather than use loud noises, whizzers and joy buzzers to keep me tuned in.

Is this an improvement? It's certainly a trend. But how does it define the kind of person I am now? How do I reconcile this with the daytime "Price is Right"? Who am I becoming?

Boy, when you really need the media...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Lobster Boy

I re-read an interview with Charles Runyon where he says that after he's through writing a book, he feels like a "hollowed out lobster." Maybe that's been my hangover since finishing the last book. Maybe it's not so much a lacking as an emptying and after a few weeks, as with Runyon, whatever's gone dry begins to refill. I'm kind of feeling that way, and I'm hoping so. The writing business is discouraging enough without dragging unstable personalities into it.

I'm noticing good writing again: Ron Hansen's "Nebraska" had me marveling at his descriptions, his use of unusual but perfect adjectives and the evocative tone of the whole thing. I'm reading Stark House's "A Trio of Gold Medals" (which includes the Runyon interview and his book, The Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed - great stuff, as are the other two books included). Yesterday I was excited that the hundredth issue of Granta came in the mail. So I think things are being recharged.

In the midst of feeling encouraged, the Rara-avis list has had a few posts about the current state of the publishing industry. Someone makes the point that since whatever's going on has been doing so for the past twenty five years and probably shouldn't be thought of as transitory. Others point out that the average advance for a new writer is about four grand minus your agent's commission. This is not new news, and if you break that number down to an hourly figure for not only the writing but the pursuit of an agent, conference attendance, etc., it's not even pitiful.

So you ask yourself if what you're doing is worthwhile, is it realistic, is it fair to your family, and to your family's future. Who can answer things like that? Right now, my spine would likely not allow me to go back to a desk job and obviously precludes a manual labor one. In a way, I'm really kind of screwed and don't have a lot of options anyway. Plus, if I think about it honestly, I'd probably blow my head off if I had to go back to IT and the kinds of people that polluted its upper levels at the time I left.

The prospects for becoming a professional writer may be extremely bleak, but kinda sorta so what? Is that reason enough to pack it in? Because it's difficult? Books are still being written and published, the trick is to write well enough or entertainingly enough to crack that nut. I don't understand the people I've met who manage to write a single book and then spend years traveling to conferences trying to meet people whom they might sell it to. Write another one. Then another. Get better. At some point you should create something that demands to be published.

That's what I think, anyway. Maybe it's just because it seems too hard to walk away without actually failing at it first.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Kicking Yet, But Slowly

So it's been a week between posts. It's been a long, painful week between posts. The bad discs in my neck and the symptoms they invoke have been making me scream. The doctor said I could double my pain meds and increase the frequency so, may my liver forgive me, I did so sporadically for a few days. And while it helped the pain quite a bit, my body seemed to materialize liquid out of nowhere and sent me to the bathroom every fifteen minutes through the night.

I can't win. Are heroin addictions this difficult to manage? I have got to read that Miles Davis autobiography on the shelf.

Yesterday I didn't take and prescription meds at all. Not one handful. I did a number of spells on the massage chair and soaked in a hot bath and tried not to take off the kids' heads, even when they went through an unusual mean spell to each other. Our house guests from last week are gone, too, which means that I can let my eyes droop and my back sag and cry out loud without compromising the staid image they must surely carry of me.

This week two book reviews have come in on the first draft of the book I finished some weeks ago. Both contain very different critiques and now I have to weight the concerns before I begin the revision process, something I don't want to do until I have a better handle on the next book. Which is appearing ever more likely to be a sequel.

Which I don't really want to do but it's the book that's bubbling up most at the moment; I've written three thousand words of it and have notes for the next couple of thousand. The notes are a week or so old, though, and I haven't written the scene yet. And they say writers aren't disciplined.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Snubbed Article

I added the copyright notice to the page a couple of weeks ago so I could post things that I may or may not submit (again) for publication somewhere. Here is the winter hiking article I wrote with the Appalachian Mountain Club's (AMC) magazine Outdoors. They never replied. I can only imagine some intern steaming the postage stamp off the self-addressed stamp envelope I sent. I fixed them, though. I let my membership lapse. Really guys, it's okay to reject me but like Glenn Close told Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, "I will not be ignored, Dan." Stay out of the bath tub.

Here it is, comments are more than welcome:

They had my attention when one of the instructors walked into the conference room wearing nothing but polypro briefs and a natural hair shirt, full pack on his back, and trekking poles in his hands. I hadn’t expected this when I signed up for the AMC New Hampshire chapter’s annual Winter Hiking Series.

Not to worry, though; the demonstration was actually a very effective one on heat management through clothing layering. Like the rest of the presentations in the day long seminar, it taught me what I had hoped to learn when I registered. Sitting in the Joe Dodge Lodge at Pinhkam Notch in the shadow of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, I was learning how to hike safely in the winter time.

I hoped so, anyway. It’s easy to feel competent seated indoors in a climate controlled room with someone else doing the talking (or dressing), relating stories of hiking in twenty degree below zero weather with wind chills somewhere south of sanity. At least here my feet were warm.

The seminar was led by AMC trip leader Bob Humphrey, at once both gruff and personable, and leader of the program for the past eight years. The manual he and his co-instructors had written and assembled highlighted not only the individual concepts presented during the lecture but also mentioned specific brands and models of much of the recommended gear. This was a huge boon to me not just as a relatively new hiker but as a recently ex- Floridian. I knew winter as the season where we opened our windows and turned off the air conditioning. Obtaining gear to trudge through snow to the tops of the White Mountains was something completely new.

A key concept was the getting over of past textile prejudices. I grew up in the seventies disco age and lived to survive its inevitable cultural backlash. In college, natural fibers were the rule. Cotton was always good, wool was good but scratchy, and clearly nothing added class like a touch of linen. Now I’m introduced to epithets like “Cotton Kills” and shown the absolute importance of fabrics that wick rather than merely absorb. We used to mock people clothed in artificial fibers, demanding to know if said wearers were aware of how many polyesters had to die in order to make their pants. Without such gear, it appears, my safety during winter hikes could be in jeopardy.

The day following the lecture saw us head to the nearby 19 Mile Brook Trailhead where, dressed out in our three season gear and split up in two groups, we hiked up to Carter Dome and Mt. Hight. Along the way we’d stop for some in the field training as well as lunch at the summit as the thirty odd of us got to know each other better. It was a diverse group, including folks not only from New Hampshire but also from Maine and parts of Massachusetts, and spanning a few decades of different ages. What we had in common, of course, was a love of hiking and the White Mountains and a desire to keep the backpacks out when the snow started to fall.

Then it was back home and time for the gear acquisition phase. Humphrey had repeatedly told us that winter hiking wasn’t cheap, and he was right, especially when starting with almost nothing. He also made the point that hiking light was a concept that could get you killed in the volatile weather up here. Being prepared could save your life and I spent the two weeks leading up to the next hike figuring how to pack, carry and use my new gear.

Coming from Florida I didn’t even have long underwear let alone know what my size should be. Charts on the internet told me to order several pairs of mediums but starting with the next hike (up North and South Kinsman) I discovered that with each step advancing up any kind of grade the crotch of the long underwear was pulled uncomfortably lower. And lower. This resulted in a condition I came to know as “penguin crotch.”

One of my fellow hikers recommended L. L. Bean as a clothing source so off I went to their store in North Conway. In the Men’s section I picked up a new pair of size large polypropylene bottoms. I didn’t try them on until after I got home and the first thing I noticed was that they didn’t seem much different from the mediums. Then I went to pack for the Franconia Ridge hike. At the last minute I checked the label to make sure I was taking the right pair. Next to the word “Large” was a very distinct and discernible “Ladies.” I realized I had almost hiked up Mt. Lafayette wearing ladies’ underwear. Fortunately Christmas was coming up and I needed something for my wife.

We lost about a third of the class over the course of the program, which included hikes up Moosilauke and an Eisenhower/Clinton double header, mostly due to issues with pacing. Another valuable lesson was how much more work and time consuming hiking was in snowy and icy conditions and some folks just didn’t want to keep up. It wasn’t until the very last hike that we all would go as one group.

Periodically we’d stop for layering up or layering down breaks. We’d take this time to compare notes on gear and where we purchased it, learn where each other was from, and listen to Humphrey recite stanzas from “Alice’s Restaurant,” or how, rather than get married again he’ll just find a woman he doesn’t like and buy her a house. Sometimes, at these moments, the hikes seemed more like high school field trips than wilderness excursions. But that was okay; we never stopped learning.

There were many new sights and sounds among these winter postcard settings. Gray jays, seemingly always in pairs, would sing and entice us to offer trail mix from the convenient perches of our outstretched hands. Freezing trees made ominous cracking sounds, like glacial seracs in the Himalaya, under the gentle pressure of the lightest of breezes. Rabbit or perhaps fox tracks scored the snow in the lower elevations from spruce to downed tree, disappearing into the tangles of branches.

Somewhere over the course of the series the line between hiking in different seasons changed, or at least strongly blurred. What was undertaken as a means to safely prolong the time outdoors, in the mountains, became instead a means to a new end. Strapping on crampons and stepping into snowshoes, venturing out into the bug-less, crowd free wilderness became something more than the usual hiking only with more equipment. It became a thing unto itself, similar yet very much different. It leads me to a feeling I was never able to achieve as a lad growing up in Minnesota: there’s really no hurry for spring to arrive. I can do just fine in the winter.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


I have a problem. It's related to blogging and I don't know what to do about it. Essentially, I've been writing this thing since the end of 2005 and in that time I've endeavored to be as candid as good taste allows while relating my honest opinions. I've always said that while we're all unique as individuals, it's because of our particular combination of traits and what not that make us so. Each individual trait, though, is likely common to untold numbers of our fellow humans.

So if I have a strong feeling about something, I gotta believe that I'm not the only one. Expressing a point then becomes an intersection for common thought among strangers, something that can make us all think about things we may agree with but may not have thought of in quite that way. If reading a blog like this is entertaining, than this is probably why. Maybe.

Anyway, whenever I've reviewed a book or movie, or whenever I've discussed the work of a particular writer, I've justified my opinions even if it's been only to say that I don't understand the appeal, or that I don't appreciate the work. What I've never done and never would do is to assert that fans of so and so are insane and ought to have their brains or personalities overhauled by certified professionals. I don't read romance novels, and I don't care for the writing in any of the ones I've ever looked at. But I've never derogated the folks who do read and appreciate the work.

So I name names. I don't like Dean Koontz's writing at all. He may be a fine human being and someone I would treasure knowing, but the vital thing is that I don't transfer my taste for his work to anything else. I think James W. Hall's first two books were incredible; he then fell into a routine of writing books with what are to me gaping plot holes that place style over storytelling. As a human whom I've seen in conferences, I find him engaging and entertaining and charismatic and someone that I would like to know. But I can no longer get through one of his books. I could say similar things about any number of writers but I've probably made my point and I've turned half chicken.

I've written several blog entries about the exploding number of typos I've come across in recent years, one of which expressed deep disappointment in a volume of two reprinted out of print books that was so error filled I could barely get through it. While I was at it I believe I also questioned the, to me, odd choice of font styles for the cover titles. Some time after I wrote this entry, I wrote to the publisher about this and the upshot is that I have been doing proofreading for that same publisher. Recently somebody posted a comment to that particular blog entry and said that he wouldn't be happy with a book filled with errors like that and that I had saved him twenty bucks.

Ouch, kind of. While if someone told me about the typos before I had bought the book, I'd have passed, too. But the publisher is trying to stamp out the problem and I feel guilty for potentially costing them a sale. On the other hand, I've also prevented the birth of an unhappy consumer and there should be some value to that. (My response to this gentleman was to keep the door open on the publisher; the new books should be clean, and subsequent editions of the older ones cleaned up.)

But notice I'm not repeating the name of the publisher. I enjoy the small role I've had in helping some of their books come to print and I don't want to jeopardize that relationship. But I don't want to feel like a rat shirking in the dark and take down the entry in question. I'd like to think that if they read it they'd understand where I was coming from. They may read it and choose to mail me a letter bomb. I guess at this point I'd rather be nervous than feel hypocritical so the entry remains unaltered.

Author Ken Bruen says he won't say anything bad about another writer because the business is hard enough. At this point I'm still unpublished but if that ever changes I may start to agree with him. I really don't know. The other day I got an e-mail from the son of an author I've mentioned several times by name and it brought home the fact that when we do things like this, Google assures it's not done in a vacuum.

It makes me wonder, though, just how much I should feel like a bug under a log: what do I do when someone rolls it over and exposes me to the sun? I can't smile sheepishly and point to the guy next to me -- there's no one there. I'm torn between scurrying for cover (I'm not here to upset anybody, that happens enough accidentally) and standing tall in the light. Only then I'm waiting for the boot heel to come down. Ouch.

Monday, January 07, 2008

More Publishing Lunacy

I came across an internet discussion the other day on the "problem" of used books sales and how to combat this evil menace: change the law to require payment of royalties on books less than two years old.

Um, hello? Again, they're missing the actual problem: books are two expensive. Yeah, I know, I've said it before, but come on, this new proposal deserves a swift shotgun blast to the head.

The problem is NOT that two many people buy used books. The problem is that they can't afford to buy as many new ones as they'd like. I say "they" but I'm the poster child for this group. I buy new hardcovers from James Lee Burke and Dick Francis because I know I will like their books (I'm a die hard fan anyway; hopefully the books deliver). But with mass market paperbacks costing ten bucks (print obscenity here) and me not knowing whether I'll like Scott Phillips or not, I buy used copies from the internet. The practical alternative is that I really may not buy him at all. Books have simply grown too expensive to gamble on these days.

The music industry is an imperfect example in many ways but their mistakes can also prove instructive. Piracy, or what the industry defines as such, didn't make much of a popular splash until CDs crept up to the twenty dollar range. Guess what? I quit buying them before that but once it hit that milestone I declared that I WOULD NOT EVER pay twenty bucks for a CD. Welcome to the party, Blackbeard.

Unauthorized reproduction and distribution is a problem if the reproducer is doing so for money and/or if the recipient would otherwise be an actual buyer. In other words, if a copy represents an actual lost sale. Not all do. When I was in college ny friends didn't listen to the same kind of music I did. Several times I was asked to make tapes of albums that there wasn't a snowball's chance in Tahiti that they'd ever buy. What does this mean? Like the radio, the artist and the songs were promoted with play they would otherwise not receive. I made no money, no sales were lost, and the artist was "discovered" by someone new. Realistically there's a chance that this would lead to future sales. I think this situation is actually good for the music industry.

Used and remaindered books let me try an author at a lower entry price than publishers currently demand. If I become a Scott Phillips fan from his used books, there's an excellent chance I'll buy new copies of his later work. There are writers like Micheal Connelly that I'm only marginally a fan of, and I only buy his books when I stumble upon remaindered copies. If I don't stumble, I don't miss him.

Someone who really loses out is John Sandford. I'm enough of a Sandford fan to read all his books but not enough of one to buy them at their hardcover prices. His publisher has made the ridiculous decision to publish all of his mass market books in their new, "easier to read" we'll-screw-you-any-way-we-can inch-taller versions for $9.99. Like twenty dollar CDs, I will NEVER (I hope) buy a mass market paperback for ten bucks, especially not when there wasn't anything wrong with the inch-shorter eight dollar (and still too expensive) versions. And Sandford's so popular that it can be difficult to buy cheap used hardcovers because there are so many book club editions out there and the sellers often don't differentiate (I don't want those, either).

So this idea of royalties on used books is almost as screwy as the one about making poor quality hardcovers (so they'll fall apart and not have resale value) but it all seems to point me back to the same idea: if change is going to come to the publishing world (and there are a number of arguably good ways, i.e. losing the consignment system), as long as it will be perpetrated by the folks in charge now, the consumer will take it in the shorts. Ultimately this would just add fuel to the fire. Just ask the recording industry.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

I am (not necessarily) Smartacus!

I wished I had done better, especially since I'm home schooling our daughter. But I've got time...

JustSayHi - Science Quiz


The first house I ever owned was in Florida, in a small town called Zephyrhills famous to many for bottled water and to few for skydiving. It was a small house with only a single bathroom but it was new and my father unexpectedly helped me out with the down payment. The previous owner didn't actually live there, he just stayed there while he worked on the development of the subdivision. We took out boxes of blueprints when I moved in. Somebody told me he and his wife had been killed when a truck t-boned their sports car and cut it in half.

My house was one in from the corner. On the other side of me was a vacant lot where I eventually saw how they build houses in Florida: one day for laying pipe and pouring the cement pad, one day for stacking half the cinderblocks used for the walls, and another day for the second half. Then a day off, followed by the roof being installed and covered, then a day for doors and windows, and then a different crew to do the interior. I've forgotten just how many days it took from start to finish but it was just a week or so start to finish. As I walked my dogs through the neighborhood each day I saw the process repeated over and over.

In the corner house lived an older lady and her husband. They kept a giant RV in back, parked just off their concrete porch, and it was just about as big as their house. My yard was fenced in and I'd spend time in the postage stamp back yard throwing tennis balls for the one dog and filling in the holes dug by the other. This is when I'd see the neighbor lady. For some reason I never saw her in her front yard, just the back. And man, could she talk. She'd go on and on, not interested in hearing anything from me, but intent on getting out whatever it was she wanted to say. The sight of me was a catalyst for her to come over, stand by the chain link fence, and start going.

She seemed nice enough, and harmless, but once she started she couldn't break it off. I don't think she ever paused for breath, threw up a hand and said, "Okay, I'll see you later." She'd carry on to the point of making me feel rude as I backed slowly toward the house, a forced happy held on my face, finally escaping through my sliding glass doors into the kitchen. When she saw this a few times, she'd take the hint after a fashion and walk away on her own, turning her back to me and going to her own sliding door, but still talking the entire way as though we were still face to face over the fence.

I used to see her husband in town at the Publix supermarket. I don't think I ever heard him utter a syllable and perversely I would try to engage him in conversation as he sat on the bench just outside the automatic doors. Some days he looked asleep, or worse, his eyes closed, his body slumped to the side. The first time I saw him like this I was alarmed, and stopped in front of him, waiting at least for a reaction from any other shopper or bag boy or store manager. But no one was alarmed and somehow the man would make his way back home eventually, parking his pickup truck in his driveway and shuffling inside his house. He always wore the same faded set of suspenders. I tried to ask his wife once about his health and how ill he often looked while sitting on that bench at the grocery store but I don't think she heard me.

One day I noticed that the chatty lady didn't come out to the backyard so much anymore, and that when she did she sometimes didn't bother to crank up her engine and let loose whatever pent up small talk she'd manage to hold on to. This was a welcome relief from me until after a few weeks, when I noticed that I hadn't seen her husband for a while, that I finally realized what had happened: her husband had gone. I don't know what the cause was, or what may have instigated it, or anything about it at all. It's just that one day he was gone, and his widow grew gradually quiet.

One day she was gone, too. A car of strangers pulled into her driveway and was there for a week or so. First the RV disappeared. Then furniture and boxes of things were loaded onto a rental truck. And then, just like that, my neighbors were gone. There were no goodbyes, no regrets, no reminiscences, no personal contact of any kind. One day we were neighbors, the next day we were not. I don't recall that I ever knew her name.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year, Really

I'm amazed at how when I blog frequently I get what's for me a chunk of traffic, people who apparently come here and spend a few minutes reading, but when I let it slide for a bit, the number tails off to practically zero. It's probably some trick of the statistical tracking software but it's almost as if the readers know whether there's anything new here before they even come. Yet another of life's mystery.

So my bud from Denver came to spend Christmas with us. It was great having him and we did a decent job of running each other into the ground. The bad news is, my back is so fried, Melissa and I have slid back to staying up way too late after the kids go to bed, that our routine is completely shot to hell. Which means I STILL haven't gotten to that place I need to get to in order to feel good about writing the next book.

That hasn't stopped me from getting three thousand words down so far. Sadly, this is not what I want to do. I don't need or want or think it desirable to know everything, or even most things, about a book before I begin it. But I do believe there are a minimum of things I need to know in order to be able to stay out of painted corners, to have a story to tell that I can actually finish without getting bogged down with structural infirmities I should have seen coming.

And yet this hasn't stopped me. Perhaps the sad truth is that I still have a number of false starts and dead ends in me that have to get out. The idea makes me cry.

When I was a kid going through the shopping mall, there was (and is) a novelty store called Spencer's that we'd always go to. There wasn't anything I ever wanted to buy (fake vomit, dog poop, and whoopie cushions always seemed like better ideas for someone else to buy) but they had this cool area in back bathed in purplish black light. We'd go in there and see all the white areas of our clothing glow brightly in the dark. Apparently this was cool.

Anyway, they had racks of t-shirts back there and there was one I saw that cracked me up then and that I haven't forgotten since. It's a desert scene from a point of view just beyond two vultures settled on a cactus branch. Across from them is a scorching sun and below on the hot sand is a lone man, struggling to get somewhere. One of the vultures is turned to face the other one and he says, according to my memory: "Patience, my ass. I'm going to kill something."

And here I am, at the Vulture School of Desert Writing. Rather than answer the questions I know I need to answer, rather than figure out how to actually do that on demand, I have no patience: I'm going to write something.

This doesn't please me but I'm helpless. I don't think vultures are known for their self-control. And as writer Jim Starlin once wrote in graphic novel, "Some mistakes are too tempting not to repeat."

At least I can make sure I have plenty of water.