The Twin Black Demons of Chaos in Print

14 04 2014

With the release of Roberta Gregory’s True Cat Toons, the world can now know the story of Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth.
Cat Toons Cover

Roberta collects stories of remarkable cats (of course, we who have been owned by cats know that all of them are remarkable) and has brought her many years of cartooning experience to the project of illustrating them. Her drawings capture the essence of these cats and their people beautifully. She has been posting many of these to her website, bringing them to life. Her first collection, Real Cat Toons, consisted mainly of stories of her own cat, Pushkin. Her new book is full of the wonderful stories others have shared with her. Some poignant, some funny, all capture the real-life behavior of cats and their people.

NotDogBed

Says Roberta, “Everyone living with a cat (or several) is an amateur cat behavioral scientist who, I have found, is usually eager to share their insights with the world.”

AmusedDemonsNow she has released of book containing some of the classics from her website, as well as material never before published, including the story of my demons.

Born in Los Angeles in 1953, Roberta has been writing stories and drawing pictures pretty much all her life. Her father, Robert Gregory (who died in December 2003) used to write Donald Duck and other Disney comics while she was a small child at home. “From an early age I would draw dogs and cats and horses and write dialogue balloons above their heads, and then staple little comic books together and sell them to my family members, bless them!”

In college, Roberta threw herself into the feminist movement. She experimented with various styles, publishing in the college paper, and created “Feminist Funnies” in 1974. That year she sold her first story to the underground comic book, Wimmen’s Comix, Issue #4 (published by Last Gasp of San Francisco). She expanded the comic strip into a comic book of her own, Dynamite Damsels. “I think this officially made me the first woman to solo publish a regulation-sized comic book, but I don’t think I knew it at the time.”

She continued to write and publish comics, taking on an assortment of diverse and ambitious projects. (Check ‘em out; some still available.) 1991 saw the first issue of Naughty Bits, her long-running comic book series, which introduced the character of Bitchy Bitch.

BitchyBitchy Bitch … has become my most well-known creation, and the character of mine that the most readers seem able to identify with! She has taken many incarnations, from appearing in the comic book, to stage productions, to a weekly strip, and even a cloth doll (which is, unfortunately, no longer available) and from 2001-2003, Bitchy starred in the “Life’s a Bitch” animated cartoon on Comedy Network in Canada and Oxygen Network in the US.”

True Cat Toons is her latest project, one that I have had the honor of contributing to. From the book:

It began when the daughter of the farmers we buy our milk from came up to me holding a small, black kitten.

GraceAzi“Isn’t he adorable? Our cat had four of them, and they need a home.” I admired the kitten, but I already had 5 cats. The last thing I needed was two more little mouths to feed. Plus the vet bills, the stress of integrating them into the household — no, no, I could not bear the thought, the unspeakable horror of it!

But Grace was a good salesperson. She thrust the small thing at me. “Here, hold him!”

That’s when I saw it; those feet, those marvelous feet. Double paws, front and back. Then he looked up me and opened his mouth.

“Me!”

The demon sultan had spoken.

It turned out he had a brother, also black, also with the same huge double feet. Kittens are always better in pairs; they keep each other company. AskingForTrouble

Thus begins the tale of how I came to be possessed by two demons.  Roberta took my story and a few photos I supplied, and absolutely nailed it. I was thrilled. I think you’ll get a kick out of it, too, and with the other stories of Purrrzac, Tredgekatten, Inkwell, and the rest. A treasure for any catlover, because these funny and heartwarming tales are true.

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Me and my twin black demons of chaos, fully grown but every bits as adorably evil as they were as kittens.





Codswallop

31 03 2014

This is Codswallop. No, not what she said; claiming that she said it. Click on the image to find out why.

This is Codswallop. No, not what she said; claiming that she said it. Click on the image to find out why.

Sometimes there’s word that splendidly captures what it is you are trying to express. I was reading something that had me in a slow boil of mixed nausea and outrage. It prattled on with inflated self-importance, laying out a trail of utter arse-gravy with the expectation that I was going to nod and murmur, “How true!” I was supposed to take this bucket of delusional idiocy and embrace it as a brilliant revelation. I was speechless and writhing in my seat.

“Codswallop!” I exclaimed. My son looked up from his laptop curiously, sliding his headphones back from one ear.

“Codswallop,” I repeated. “This is utter codswallop.”

He nodded. “That’s a good word,” he said, sliding the earpiece back into place and returning to what he was doing.

And I thought, yes, it’s a very good word. It really sounds like what it means. It sounds like a load of loose dung hitting the bricks. There’s a feel to it like being hit with a cold, dead fish. It rolls out of the mouth in a most satisfying way. We need a word like codswallop to describe that with which we are confronted all too often.

Like so many marvelous things, we get this word from the Brits, who aren’t sure quite where it came from although they have a few, somewhat unlikely guesses. Whether it arose from the script of a 1959 UK TV series, or evolved as a slang term for an insipid soft drink, or came out of a rite of initiation not unlike Python’s fish slapping dance, “codswallop” has entered the vernacular to mean nonsense.

But by its very nature, “codswallop” feels like a much stronger term than merely nonsense. Nonsense can be harmless and fun. Children’s book are filled with nonsense, among the cream of which is Dr. Seuss. Collapsible frinks and Ofts who weigh minus one pound are good fun. I would not call the work of Dr. Suess codswallop.

No, there is an implication of something contemptible. Offensive nonsense. Distasteful, repulsive nonsense. Creationist rants against evolution are codswallop. The fabricated claims of Fox Network “News” commentators are codswallop (so are the fabricated claims of what Fox has reported – see image above). Campaign speeches are largely codswallop. Much of what bubbles and burps up onto your screen in a random search of the Internet is codswallop. (And on Facebook; again, see image above, which showed up in my Facebook feed. Doesn’t the lunatic fringe say enough stupid things without having to make them up?) “Codswallop” is a splendidly expressive alternative to “Bullshit” that you can use in a mixed audience.

Human beings have long been immersed in codswallop. We can’t help it. Our very excellent brain is skilled at reasoning, at pattern recognition, at imagining possible answers to complex problems and concocting plausible justifications for the things we believe. Unfortunately, without some means to fact-check what our bulging cortex comes up with, we end up with a great deal of faulty reasoning, patterns that aren’t really there, wrong answers and fond delusions. Codswallop. Fortunately, we have a way to separate the truth from the codswallop. We have developed critical thinking and the scientific method. And if we only taught two things in school, those two should be it. Armed with those tools, nearly everything else can be figured out.

Having armed my boys with critical thinking skills and a basic understanding of science (not to mention a firmly anchored moral compass), I feel no fear letting them loose in that seething pit of codswallop, the Internet. Because, aside from the porn and poop, there is a rich wealth of knowledge and information out there, different people and cultures to connect with, games to play, glorious dreams and clever creations to discover. It’s the hive mind, the connected uber-brain of humanity, and we are loading it up as fast as we can with everything there is to know. We are laboring to get all our great literature online, all our scientific knowledge, arts, music, and innumerable commentaries thereon and analyses thereof. I am unceasingly amazed and filled with joy at the ease with which I can do research, verify facts, and identify codswallop.

Never before have we had so easily at hand the means to ferret out the truth in any given controversy. And yet, bafflingly, so many of us choose not to do it.

Ironic though it may be, now more than ever, we need a word like “codswallop”.





Meditations on where I’d rather be

26 03 2014

"Please sir, my manuscript, I've worked so hard--" "Get in line Mr. Smith, there are 40,000 authors ahead of you."

“Please sir, my manuscript, I’ve worked so hard–” “Get in line Mr. Smith, there are 40,000 authors ahead of you.”

I am looking out the window at the frozen mud and dirty snow. A blue jay’s feathers ruffle in the cold wind. We are a week past the spring equinox but winter feels as solidly in place now as it did a month ago.

My chest spasms with the residual cough from a cold that knocked me flat for several days. It’s tough to work up the will to do much of anything beyond the essentials. Much less the ugly tedium of a task I loathe. I have a book to promote. I should be researching reviewers, pushing for readings and signings at bookstores and libraries. There are promotional opportunities out there that I ought to be pushing myself into. Advice is often confusing and contradictory (“You should never pay for reviews” as opposed to “There’s this fantastic service which doesn’t cost much and look at all these great reviews I’ve gotten!”). There are books and articles I ought to be reading on how to succeed. The thought makes me ill with debilitating lassitude.

So I crawl back into bed and hide.

I have published a book. It has been a reasonable success, considering it was put out by a small press that does very little to promote its authors, relying on the authors to do the promotion (see paragraph above). People have gone out of their way to say kind things about it. I should be pleased. Unfortunately I let myself indulge in this Capraesque dream that Archimedes Nesselrode would somehow become a phenomena through word of mouth, that sales would outstrip my wildest dreams and I’d be famous overnight. Dream big, reach for the stars, smack into reality and fall on your face.

But take heart — I have published a book which has enjoyed modest success. My publisher is looking over a second book, Awake Chimera, which I hope he will decide to pick up. A third book, Eloise and Avalon, is about to go out to beta readers for its first round of critiques. Waiting in a folder in my laptop are eleven other books, and rough drafts of half again more.  Eloquent evidence of my lifelong preference for writing over the dull, crushing misery of publication and promotion.

Lying in bed, a cat curled up next to me, purring, I think about all the work I ought to be doing in order to compete with the ocean of other books and authors out there. Hundreds of thousands of books, their ranks swelled by the growing legions of the self-published, all clamoring for reader attention. The competition is unimaginably intense. I have a choice. I can spend my time doing things I loathe, dreading each day as I claw my way through the literary mosh pit, spending money I don’t have to do what other authors do to get that edge and make those connections.

Or I can settle for obscurity. Take walks with the dogs, deal with the daily chores, plan hiking trips in the White Mountains, watch the birds at the feeders. Let my mind focus on stories and ideas. Let myself slip into the mind of a character and conjure worlds far away from this one. Create the Capraesque realities where the hopes and struggles of worthy people blossom into marvelous triumphs, sometimes just on a tiny scale, but that makes them no less wonderful.

I’ve made that choice repeatedly over the years, but I always feel guilty about it, because ours is such a success-oriented society. We count our worth by fame and income. Admiration goes to those who struggle and sacrifice and push themselves, who are smarter than the rest, more ambitious, clever, competitive and full of drive (and, let’s face it, just plain lucky). We are admonished to Keep Trying and Never Give Up. There is no greater shame than to be a Failure. Not Good Enough. A Loser. It’s always your own fault if you are. You failed, you didn’t try hard enough, you didn’t make the most of your opportunities. You are nobody, nothing, just ordinary, run-of-the-mill, small potatoes. Unworthy.

What a dreadful, miserable way for a society to be! In order for there to be winners, there have to be losers. A lot of losers. All treated with contempt for not being a part of the winning elite. By glorifying this elite we automatically condemn the vast majority of humanity. But the system is rigged. We set up five chairs in a football stadium filled with people. Even if every single person in the stadium tries equally hard, there are still only going to be five people sitting in chairs when the music stops. Five blessed people who are granted society’s permission to feel good about themselves while all the rest are dismissed with a shrug, advised to try harder next time.

So once again I give myself permission to steal away into the worlds of my fiction. I may be a writer that nobody’s ever heard of outside my own small circle, but why shouldn’t that be good enough? I am surrounded by people nobody’s ever heard of either outside of their own small circles. Each one of us has a right to a sense of self-worth and dignity, because if we all didn’t do our small, ordinary, insignificant part, there would be no context for the famous. There would be no “everybody” to have heard of them.

In the utopian society I imagine in Eloise and Avalon, there are no celebrities, no VIPs, no positions of privilege. Do you repair the streets and the plumbing? You aren’t a nobody. You are the somebody that everyone depends on. If you are good at cooperating and helping others, you are considered a success. Competitiveness is considered a character flaw. Inferior cultures waste their resources in struggles to trump one another, impoverishing the masses to heap riches and glory on the few. Efficient, advanced societies freely share their skills, information, wealth and credit for effort. Leaders and those who excel in their chosen endeavors are respected for their abilities, but not at the cost of respect for the rest. Ordinary is not a pejorative term.

We all have the places we’d rather be: The garden, the kitchen, the mountains, the lake. Right now I’d rather be just about anywhere that isn’t below freezing with a chill wind. But I’ll settle for here, with my laptop and my cat (trying, inevitably, to lay across my keyboard) crafting words and imagining worlds. Maybe I ought to be doing something else, but to hell with it. When I’m dead I won’t give a damn how much fame I’ve achieved, or not. Right now I’m alive and it makes more sense to be happy than to allow myself to be forced into misery trying to measure up to some capricious societal definition of worth.

Instead of reading that essay on how to leverage social media to promote my work, I’m a million miles and tens of thousands of years away, in the Eden monastery, with Eloise as she teaches the Thalesian philosopher monks the Old Earth names for the flowers in their gardens.

And that, I think, is a pretty fine place to be. It is, after all, why I became a writer in the first place.





Why I am not a Vegetarian

11 03 2014

veg murder

Being an unashamed Progressive Socialist Liberal type, I have a great many like-minded friends in my social circles. Among them are a fair quantity of vegans/vegetarians who have made their dietary choice on the grounds that, as they put it, “Meat is murder.” I understand their reasoning. I simply don’t agree with it.

It would be nice if that were the end of it, and we could agree to disagree without rancor. Unfortunately, as with many choices made on moral grounds, the folks making the choice feel that they are duty-bound to evangelize. Like religious folks convinced they have a moral obligation to impose their beliefs on the rest of the world, this creates a good deal of social dissonance.

I suppose I am guilty of the same thing. I believe in social equality for assorted “minorities”, such as gays, non-whites, and atheists. (actually, non-whites are rapidly out-growing their minority status, although they still lack a proportional share of power and opportunity). I approve of imposing on others my view that, for example, a dark-skinned person should not be denied a job because the employer does not like dark-skinned people. I believe I am working for the cause of justice by insisting that all citizens conform to my sense of what justice is in this case.

No doubt the proponents of anti-abortion laws, and even anti-gay laws, feel the same way. Similarly, animal rights advocates are driven by conscience to decry the horror of killing animals for meat. There is not much difference between an anti-abortionist waving photos of dead fetuses around in an attempt to ram home their point, and animal rights advocates waving around photos of animal suffering.

For the record, I am of the opinion that if you don’t approve of abortion, don’t have one, if you don’t approve of gay marriage don’t get gay married, and if you don’t approve of eating meat, by all means go cruise the produce aisle. But in a very real way, that is just slippery slope thinking sliding down to If you don’t approve of slavery, don’t own one.

So, what is a conscientious Progressive Socialist Liberal type to do? Throw up their hands and say, “Oh, it’s all relative, and defining moral laws is futile.”? I don’t think so. I think a very sound argument can be made for the very real and substantive difference between If you don’t approve of gay marriage don’t get gay married, and if you don’t approve of slavery, don’t own one.

It has to do with suffering. At rock bottom (and with only a few aberrant exceptions) all living things share in common that they wish to avoid suffering. If there is a universally acknowledgeable evil, it is misery. The reason those photos being waved around by the antis and the advocates are effective is because they depict suffering, and we all react to that (again, with only a few aberrant exceptions). This gives us a foundation off of which to work.

There is very little evidence that gay marriage causes any suffering (putting aside the anguish of those who disapprove of it), and substantial evidence that it does a great deal of good. Slavery, on the other hand, causes an immense amount of unambiguous suffering, and very limited good. So there.

Now, to return to the issue of vegetarianism. The eating of meat, something which our species evolved to do, has undeniable benefits in terms of nutrition. The moderate consumption of cooked meat is healthy and can be quite pleasurable. However, our means of supplying meat for human (and pet) consumption is appalling. Animal rights advocates do not exaggerate the amount of suffering that goes into factory farming. A direct deduction is then made: Because animals suffer, we should not eat meat. That, I contend, is not a valid conclusion.

What we should change is the way in which we raise and harvest meat animals. Suffering should be eliminated as much as possible. An animal should be allowed to grow, flourish, experience joy, and if possible, pass on its genes before it dies. That seems fundamental. In the natural world, that is about the best a creature can expect. There is no expectation of living to a ripe old age, and most creatures can expect to be killed by another creature for food at some point. This is the bargain Nature has struck with Life, and it has worked quite well for as long as Life has been around.

If the taking of life is an issue, then harvesting carrots is as much murder as butchering chickens. What makes the life of an animal more important that the life of a plant? Perhaps because it is conscious; an animal can feel pain and a carrot does not (as far as we know). Then that is the issue, not its life. We are back to suffering. If its death is quick and painless, then killing an animal is no more immoral than picking lettuce.

It could be argued that depriving a creature of life is depriving it of experiencing happiness. But how many cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens would be born if we did not ultimately expect to eat them? Granted, we could harvest their wool, eggs, milk, and so forth without killing them. Some would still be raised and given the opportunity to experience life. But their numbers would be much fewer. Is it better never to be born at all, than to experience a short but pleasant life? Is it more moral to allow pigs to go extinct, or to revert to a feral state where wild predators will do the killing instead?

Yes, we need to change our eating habits and expectations. Meat should not be cheap and plentiful. Its price should reflect the true cost of raising it humanely. Our farming methods should be sustainable and compassionate. Refusing to buy meat and produce derived from factory farming and destructive practices can help bring about change. I support that heartily.

But I am still going to eat meat. When we hatch a brood of chickens, we are going to collect and kill the roosters and they are going into the stew pot. Prior to this, they will have grown up pecking and scratching around the yard, being chickens, enjoying a life they would not have otherwise had if we did not raise chickens. If a farmer raises up pigs or cattle, lets them muck about in the sun until they come of age, breathing and playing and eating and otherwise enjoying life, then quickly and painlessly ends their lives, I will buy the meat he offers for sale.

There. Having logically gone over my reasons, I would hope that idealistic vegetarians no longer suffer under the misapprehension that my disagreement with them is simply a matter of willful ignorance or indifference to the plight of animals. My awareness is quite adequately raised, thank you. You may fancy yourself righteously superior to me if it pleases you. In that, you have much company among the religious zealots who smugly consider themselves saved while I will burn in Hell.

As for the rest of you, who grant the same respect to me that I grant to you even though we might disagree, let’s see if we can unite our efforts in other ways to reduce the suffering of all creatures. Goodness knows there’s plenty of it out there.





An Inconvenient Future

24 02 2014

Tiresomely classic, traditional titillation

Tiresomely classic, traditional titillation

Riding back from the Boskone convention in Boston, I got into a conversation with a writing colleague about NESFA (the New England Science Fiction Association) which puts on the convention, and the culture behind the con.  Those with long memories in the scene remember the Great Schism, during which a cosmic convergence of bad judgement and unfortunate circumstances led to Boskone being essentially Banned from Argo, or at least every respectable hotel in Boston.  To make an epic story short,  Boskone sobered up.  But elements of Boskone refused to stodgify, and Arisia was spawned.  In the years since, Arisia has characterized the progressive, partying, cosplay and gaming, wide-open new frontiers convention, and Boskone has come to symbolize traditional, serious, literary Science Fiction, discouraging parties, costumes, and only reluctantly letting vendors other than booksellers into the dealer’s area.

Arisia has exploded into a huge monster that sold out memberships this year and essentially takes over the hotel with 24 hour programming and a staggeringly broad range of panel topics and events.  Boskone is positively austere by comparison.  To be fair, the weather might have had something to do with it, but the difference in attendee traffic this year was stark.  Panel topics were much more limited, and discussions were often characterized by the phrase, “I can remember 50 years ago during the classic era of Sci Fi when…”

A distinct parallel exists between the NESFA and the greater SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America, although it does extend its membership to Fantasy and Horror writers as well) which has been racked with controversy over accusations of sexism, primarily as manifested in its choice of cover art.   The serious writing (and consuming) of Science Fiction has been historically dominated by Straight White Males, who naturally favor minimally clad busty Barbies in their artwork.  As diversity spreads in the community, it has been suggested that maybe this sort of titillation is no longer appropriate.  In fact, many folks, particularly women, are pretty sick of it.

The reaction in the SFWA bastion was predictable.   Like Straight White Males everywhere who see their traditions threatened, they began beating their chests and hooting with derision.  Who do these loud-mouthed broads think they are, stirring up trouble and challenging classic SF tropes?   Heck, they were happy to welcome women into the time-honored profession as long as the ladies knew their place.  Had to respect the way things were always done, not question authority, and for pete’s sake, don’t have a conniption over some harmless groping in the elevator.  Be flattered that you’re pretty enough for that august professional to want to grab a piece of your sugar.

In the latest embarrassingly apish display, we have insider Sean P. Fodera snarking at multi-talented, Hugo-award winning author Mary Robinette Kowal via a comment on sff.net (this write-up on The Daily Dot has the wretched details).  An outspoken and staunch critic of sexism in the industry, Kowal was accused by Fodera of hypocrisy because of photographs she posted on her website of her wearing a “diaphanous white outfit, posing on a beach.”   He went on to tag her as “phony”, Incompetent” and “arrogant.”

Diaphanous?First of all, Kowal has a perfect right to pose in whatever outfit she chooses, including knock-offs from Lady Gaga if the fancy takes her.  That doesn’t justify sexual harassment or make her a “phony” for demanding respect for herself and all other professional women.  But what makes Fodera’s rant particularly pathetic is its utter groundlessness.  The white dress in question was not only modest but about as transparent as the NSA.  Not particularly provocative unless you’re a Victorian prude shocked at the sight of an unclothed ankle.

While Kowal was VP of the SFWA, she dared to call out the perpetrators of incessant sexual harassment, much of it against her, and that made her a target.  Bad choice of target, though, considering the amount of respect Kowal has among members of the greater writing and publishing community.  The president of Broad Universe, an organization of women writers and publishers in the genre, wrote a piece that pretty much sums up the general response, that these nasty tactics are  “disgusting and unacceptable.”  Unfortunately, they are also completely understandable.

Consider what is happening in national politics.  Once women were property, their lives and bodies subject to male agendas.   Similarly, non-whites were kept in their place, and any gay who dared come out of the closet could be bashed right back into it again.   All that has been changing.  The Straight White Male elite is seeing their power base eroding, their privileges questioned, their traditions challenged.  The Other is demanding a place in the sandbox and a share of the toys.  They want to change the rules, innovate, and discover their own way of building sandcastles.  Whether it’s right-wing Republicans or SFWA reactionaries, the Establishment feels it was there first, it’s their sandbox and their toys, and they aren’t going to give them up without a long and bitter fight.  Classic SF or Traditional American Values, by God, the Old Guard will fight to the death to defend it from the forces that seek to destroy it.

It’s rather sad, actually.  Those poor bastards, digging in and flinging offal at their attackers as they defend the ramparts.  Conservative, traditional, sober Boskone continues to shrink, and Arisia grows wilder, crazier, and more colorful every year.  That’s how life works.  That’s the nature of democracy and diversity: Women, and the rich rainbow of ethnicities, genders and cultures, huge and rich, full of new ideas and inspiration.  Yes, and disorderly, loud, uncontrolled and unpredictable.  No wonder the Establishment feels appalled and threatened.

But even as they dig in deeper, enlightened members from within their own ranks work to welcome the inevitable change.  Jim Kelly, SFWA insider, award-winning writer of classic SF, and confirmed Straight White Male, sees the irony of writers who spent careers imagining the future complaining about the future they actually got.   He is among those who are working from the inside “to bring our organization into the Twenty-first Century.”

I wish Jim and those like him every success.  Those who ignore the future are doomed to be trampled by it.

[Fodera, by the way, has since posted a long-winded and somewhat defensive apology to Kowal, but an apology nonetheless, which she graciously accepted.]





How the Deuce did I get to be a Romance Writer?

9 02 2014

21214ValentinesEvent

This coming Wednesday I will be at the Public Library in Portsmouth, NH doing a program with four other Broad Universe authors. The theme of our presentation is “An evening with the authors: Valentine’s Day edition.” It’s one of a series of appearances being organized by the New England Chapter of Broad Universe.

I joined Broad Universe back in the days when I was virtually unpublished. My website was a lonely little corner of the Internet, rarely visited. My novels and most of my short stories occupied disk space, little more. I hadn’t started my gig with the Concord Monitor, and the idea of attending a big city convention terrified me. I had no idea how to go about breaking into one of the most competitive and crowded industries there is, the Writing Biz.

Broad Universe is an international organization of women writers of speculative fiction, which runs the gamut of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and all the shades of color in between. Members include big names and small, seasoned professionals and emerging unknowns. They organize parties, readings, and dealer’s tables at conventions, and events such as the one I’m appearing at on Wednesday. I must say, they made the difference in my career. Now my website is a busy place, I’ve had a whole host of short stories published and anthologized, I’m producing a monthly podcast, and hallelujah, my first published novel is loose upon the world.

When I joined BU I thought of myself as primarily a Science Fiction writer. Most of my work is based on real world science. Elder Light has the feel of epic fantasy, but there is nary a magic sword, crystal, wizard or elf in it. (Neither is it space opera, no rocket ships or aliens, but that’s another rant.) The manuscripts I currently have in the cue to be scowled at critically by potential publishers are both SF. My four most recently published short stories are SF. Yet here I am at a Valentine’s Day event, flogging a book which is classed as romantic fantasy. (I’m actually in good company — Phoebe Wray, who writes hard SF, will be sharing the stage with me.)

I realized that not only is Archimedes Nesselrode a romantic novel, but “Unbranded”, the short story I have coming out in NH Pulp’s Love Free or Die anthology (due for release in the merry month of May) is romance. I am in danger of becoming known for writing love stories.

Well, perhaps it’s a fair cop. The vast majority of my fiction does involve love stories, or at least relationship issues of some kind. All of them are quirky; some of them downright strange. A few of my love interests aren’t even human. There are speculative fiction elements in most of them. But not all of them. They aren’t quite literary, but don’t follow formulae. Damn it, trying to characterize my work is like trying to nail down Jello.

I guess I don’t really care how my work gets labeled as long as it gets read. I do worry though about disappointing all those folks who loved Archimedes Nesselrode and now are clamoring “for the next one.” Except for Elder Light, I don’t write series. Most of my books stand alone. And each is not quite like the others. Except for the romance angle. Alien world romance. Time travel SF romance. Real world quirky romance. Creepy Lovecraftian romance. Even in Elder Light, there’s that love angle, many of them in fact, among different characters over time.

I suppose it all boils down to my writing style: Un-dark and anti-dystopian, with touches of humor and a good deal of warmth. Technology is never more than a supporting character, so even my SF isn’t particularly hard. I want to stir folks up a bit and make them think, but not by skewering them viciously in the tender parts. I like gentle, I like thoughtful, I like fun, and my characters drive the story. I guess perhaps all that makes me a Romantic in the classic sense, but with a little more Science and a little less Drama.

Heck, I just write stories.  Call them whatever you like. As long as they get published, read, and appreciated, the labels don’t mean a thing.





Winter Camping — an exercise in survival skills

29 01 2014

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Ethan Pond, evening sky. [all photos courtesy Mary Jolles]

 

[Nick and Mary helped me achieve my dream of hiking and camping out in the wilderness.  But I don’t know if I’d be able to do what they did this past December during one of the coldest winters on record.  Here’s a guest blog by Mary Jolles, the recently retired principal of Colebrook Elementary, and one of the most seasoned women of the mountains I know.]

It was -23 F when we got up Saturday morning, but by the time my husband Nick and I met my nephew Moses at 11:00 am at the Highland Center in Crawford Notch, the temperature had risen to about ten degrees.  We parked at a plowed out area on Route 302 and hiked in to the Ethan Pond Trailhead.  The entire hike to the Ethan Pond shelter was three miles.  The trail had obviously been hiked about a week ago, but we had to break trail through about 8 inches of snow.  The first mile and a half of the trail was steep and it was hard struggling up the slope with our winter packs.  My great-niece Margaret, Moses’ older daughter, came with us, and was a real trouper.

Mt. Willey from near the bottom of the trail.

Mt. Willey from near the bottom of the trail.

If you go camping in the winter and expect to hike as far or do things as quickly as you’re accustomed to doing them in the summer, think again.  Everything takes longer.  Your body doesn’t act the way it does in summer.  You burn far more energy.  Even though you don’t feel thirsty, you become dehydrated.  Nick broke trail for a while and forged ahead of us, not looking back.  My nephew was concerned that Nick had marched away out of sight, and we talked about the necessity to stay together.  Yet about 30 minutes later, we caught up to him.  It was a lot more effort than Nick had bargained on, and I think he was a little frustrated with himself.  He needn’t have been– it was hard work for even Moses!   Later, in the shelter as he knelt to spread out his sleeping gear, Nick was seized with a sudden cramp in his leg.  The strenuous effort, combined with some dehydration, had overtaken him.

Then there are the little things, the little tips.  If your feet are cold, put on a hat.  Or drink some water.  Eat more often.  Don’t eat something sugary just before you go to bed.  Eat a piece of cheese, or a chunk of summer sausage, or a handful of nuts.  The extra protein and fat will burn in your body through the night, keeping you warm.  It is strange to think of one’s body as a furnace, but that is exactly what it is.  The furnace also has a circulating pump system to distribute the heat to all parts of your body.  If this system (which runs on water) is not kept primed, you won’t stay warm.  Hence the need to stay hydrated to stay warm.   So what if you have to get up in the night to pee?  It won’t kill you.  But hypothermia will.

Overall the hike in took us about four and a half hours, mainly because I needed to stop and rest frequently.  We reached the edge of the pond just as the sun was setting, and the sky was pink and red.  In the distance you could see the sharp edge of Whitewall Mountain, the ridge with Zealand Mountain, Mt. Guyot, and the huge bulk of Mt. Bond.  We had to work quickly to get all our gear out and set up before it got too dark, and tramp down the path to the outhouse.   Uncharacteristically, my stove would not burn properly, so Nick and I borrowed Moses’ stove to cook our own food.  Moses used snow off the roof to melt for cooking, as it was relatively free of spruce needles.
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The shelter is a very rustic, Adirondack-style building with a metal roof.  There are also tent platforms near the shelter, as this is a very popular site.  I can see why, since the pond–or lake, really–is scenic.  But the log book showed that no one had stayed there since November. There is a caretaker during the summer months, but not in winter.

Materials don’t behave or even sound the way they do in the warmth of summer.  Nick was astonished at how quickly residual water on the inside of the cap of his water bottle completely froze and he couldn’t open it.  My nephew advised him matter-of-factly, “Just give it a good whack on the floor.  The ice will break and the lid will loosen up.”  As I took my sleeping bag out of its nylon stuff sack and spread it out, I savored its soft synthetic loft.  I laid it out on top of my two sleeping pads (one closed-cell foam pad, one thin air mattress) and plumped it up.  Then I picked up the stuff sack.  Amazingly, it had stiffened in the cold air, and now crackled like a piece of paper as I smoothed it and hung it on a peg.  My felt pack liners had frozen to the soles of my boots and it took quite a bit of effort to remove them.  Even the thin leather upper of the boot refused to flex easily.

From the east end of Ethan Pond, very near the shelter, Mt. Wiley's cliffs loom in the background.

From the east end of Ethan Pond, very near the shelter, Mt. Wiley’s cliffs loom in the background.

Fortunately, thanks to technology, it is possible to sleep comfortably warm in a sleeping bag in the winter.  But what is not possible is to keep your face warm.  Getting used to a cool breeze on your cheeks all night long is somewhat difficult.  But it is possible, just as it is possible to get used to listening to crickets singing or frogs peeping all night.

Before going to bed, I filled my water bottle with hot water, slipped it inside a sock, and put it in my sleeping bag down near my felt pack liners.  This acted as a hot water bottle and really made the bag comfortable before getting in it.  My niece was afraid to put a filled water bottle in her bag, for fear it would leak.  That was fine. She is young and strong and didn’t need the extra heat.

We settled into our sleeping bags by 7:30 pm.  Moses and Margaret played cards for a little while, then turned out their lights.  Within five minutes of lights out, I heard mice stealthily exploring our packs.  They made soft little squeaks, as if they were whispering to each other! However, they eventually went away, and our food was undisturbed in the morning.  I saw many tiny tracks in the snow underneath the shelter.

The long night in a sleeping bag in the dead of winter is never fun.  It’s almost too long.  And then there is the obligatory midnight pee in the snow, your breath quite visible in the light of your headlamp, and the steam rising from the urine which has melted through the snow.  We had all drunk lots of liquid, fearing dehydration if we didn’t.  Returning to the sleeping bag, it takes time to warm up.  But I think we all slept.

Nick packing up in the morning.

Nick packing up in the morning.

Nick felt funny wearing his hat to bed, but wear it he did, and he was warm.  Moses advised us to put any extra items of clothing underneath us, between our sleeping bags and sleeping pads.  What a great idea!  In the morning my hat, mittens, snow pants and down jacket were perfectly warm when I slipped them on.  My felt liners I kept in the sleeping bag with me all night.  In the morning they were dry.  I had used my sweater as a pillow so it was warm, too.  Getting dressed, I felt perfectly warm and didn’t have to use extra energy to warm up after getting everything on.  Additionally, the water bottle I had kept in my sleeping bag all night was lukewarm, and felt really good to drink before breakfast.

In the morning Nick was mystified by the layer of dew on top of his sleeping bag.  Moses explained that we had been breathing all night under a metal roof, and the moisture had condensed on our bags.  After all, there were four of us.  It is hard to picture a winter night as having a dew point just like a summer night, but it does.

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Heading back down the trail.

Breakfast was a happy time.  We looked forward to our hot drinks and the hike down, which would go much more quickly than the hike up.  The temperature had increased to about 20 F.  The sun was shining with a thin overcast of clouds moving from west to east across the sky.  The snow-covered lake was beautiful, as were the spruce trees loaded with vast quantities of snow (the snow was deeper up there than down in the valley).   Behind us loomed the awesome cliffs of Mt. Willey.  Our trail was already packed out for us, and with slightly frozen snow underfoot we made better progress on the return trip.  We started out at about 9:45 a.m., and reached the parking lot at 12:45 pm.

I am glad we made this trip with my nephew, as he was obviously very experienced at winter camping and quickly took charge of getting things set up when we reached the shelter.  He was very encouraging to his daughter, patiently listening to her complaints and trying to fix things for her, but also not putting up with any nonsense.

All in all, one gains a new appreciation for heat, both in how your body produces it, how to conserve it, and how to manufacture it using a stove or a fire.

Mary and Nick Jolles

Mary and Nick Jolles








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