The Enchanted Hill

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The Good Life

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An elephant seal cow spends most of her adult life (they live about twenty years) pregnant or nursing. When a cow gives birth, the newborn weights about 65 pounds. She nurses it until it reaches about 300 pounds.  During this time, she loses about one-third of her body weight. When the “weanling” pup reaches 300-ish, she mates with the dominant male and then goes back into the water to start her 2500 mile migration south. Along the way, all the beta males who didn’t get a look-in during mating season are going, “Hey, baby! You lookin’ fine!” and “You want summa this?” And “Did it hurt? When you fell from heaven?”

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This, along with unconscious bias, is probably why very few of the famous a capella-grunting elephant seal tone poems are composed by cows.

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It’s cool to be an alpha male. Yessiree. At about five years old, you turn on all the guys you hung out with as a kid, and fight until one or the other of you loses. You win. Dripping blood from the numerous bites and tears, you have sex with somewhere between ten to forty females. From then on, all those loser males you beat up come slithering up the beach with bottles of wine, going “Hellloooo, Laydeez,” every time you go into the water for five minutes to grab a snack. You lose half your body weight by the time migration rolls around. Of course, you’re sixteen feet long and weigh 1200 pounds, but still. So you beat up the neighborhood and had high-volume sex (I was going to write, “had great sex,” but how do we know that?). You get horribly run down, try to swim 2500 miles, and probably you die.

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On the other hand, by the standards set by elephant seals (mate or get out) ninety percent of seal bulls are just big old losers.

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Is there anything good for anyone in this existence? Well, you do get to lie on the warm sand, in the sun, for hours and days at a time. That’s got to count for something.

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Joyland by Stephen King

Joyland is another mashup by super-author Stephen King; it’s part murder mystery, part ghost tale, part coming of age story. There is more than the usual share of King-isms, the gorgeous girl, the cute but tragic child, and a heaped spoonful of Summer of 42, but King’s ability to bring to life a region that he loves, plus the basic decency of the main character, Devin Jones, carried this one for me. I enjoyed it tremendously.

The story is set in the early 1970s. Devin is a college student, in love with a girl who does not love him back, and is about to betray him. He accepts a job at an independent amusement park called Joyland. Devin is tall, lanky and naïve, and all of those traits have an impact on his success at the park.  King does a splendid job of creating the people who live in the neighboring town, like Devin’s landlady. I spent a few weeks in a seaside resort town in Oregon once, and I would swear that same woman was my landlady. There is a “carny” aspect to the park, and some of the regulars are carnies, but every summer they hire a bunch of college kids.

 

There’s the ghost/mystery; a girl who was found dead years earlier in the park’s only “dark ride,” who some people think they see, reaching out for help, on the last leg of the ride. Devin and his friends Tom and Erin grow curious, but after Tom rides the dark ride, he gets quiet and edgy and doesn’t want to discuss the mystery. It turns out he has seen the ghost and it has freaked him out. Erin, Tom’s girlfriend, has a different attitude, and when Tom and Erin go back to school in the fall (Devin stays to work for a year) she starts to investigate and discovers that there may be more murders than just the ghost girl in the dark ride.

Then there is Mike and his over-protective mother. Mike is dying of a rare disease; he is a strange boy and he and Devin develop a friendship. Then there is the park. Devin has a talent for “wearing the fur,” the name for dressing up in a head-to-toe animal costume. Devin becomes a local sensation when he saves the life of a child choking on a hotdog, and garners the park some good publicity. Where the writing shines, though, is when Devin is in costume and the children respond to his enthusiasm. The homespun wisdom of amusement park life – already being challenged in the southeast by Disney – and carny wisdom is touching.

Needless to say, all the plot elements converge at the end. Mike is more than a sick little boy; he’s a gifted one, and there is, perhaps, more than one ghost. The mystery is solved and Devin comes to several realizations about life. Devin gets some nice fantasy-wish-fulfillment sex, but it’s balanced by the brutal accuracy of the break-up (or drift-away) by his deceitful college girlfriend. The story ends on a bittersweet note.

Less a murder mystery or a scary story than kind of a love letter to a place and time, written by one of the best American storytellers, this was a superb read.

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We’re All All Right

Chris Thornberg, founder of Beacon Economics, spoke as he does every year at the annual Sonoma County State of the County breakfast, hosted by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. After the obligatory patting-self-on-back remarks by a couple of elected officials, Chris took to the podium to tell us, “We’re all all right.”

California is steadily recovering from the great recession, Thornberg says, and Sonoma County is actually better than the state overall. He predicts the following:

  • Even with the end of Quantitative Easing, interest rates will stay low
  • Housing prices are increasing
  • Wine production is good.
  • California is a strong economy; Sonoma’s is stronger than the state’s.
  • The labor market is heating up.
  • The stock market is not a “bubble.”

 

Sonoma County added 4,000 new jobs last year and our current unemployment rate is around 5%; the state’s is 7%.

Housing has not rebounded the way we all would have liked, Thornberg says, in part because there is still a surplus of single family dwellings. The flurry in home-buying a couple of years ago was investor buying, not family buying, and did not lead to a need for new home construction. Construction used to be 6% of the national GDP and it still hasn’t reached 5%. There is a lot of construction work, though; a lot of it is remodeling.

Even with the dry cycle and water shortage, agricultural jobs grew by 8% in the county and we added 29 new wineries. (I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.)

Thornberg says consumer confidence shows in increases in consumer credit, a 5% increase year-to-year from last year. This shows that people aren’t afraid to borrow. They think they’ll still have a job in a year.

County payroll gains are up $250 thousand per month year-to-year from last year, and the job opening rate is 3.5%. Incomes show an annual rise of 4%.

All of this shows that we are finding our way out of the dark woods of 2007 – 2010, but Thornberg warns that Sonoma County’s problem is “lack of growth.” He thinks the county should be an economic powerhouse, getting the benefits of the Bay Area’s growth, and that our problem (said humorously) “is Marin County.” He believes the SMART project, a commuter train from Sonoma County to the Larkspur terminal and BART, will make a huge positive difference. Housing costs are cheaper in Sonoma, but with gridlock on Highway 101, it is not easy to get to the city. SMART will definitely help; the continued widening of the highway will help some.

This time I really did get up at an outrageous hour; 5:30. It was just like the old days; stumbling about in the dark so I don’t wake Spouse, putting on uncomfortable shoes, etc. Ah, good times. I ran into several friends from the office, and learned a few more things that are going on in the county:

Art Wrangler:

The county has hired a half-time manager to work with Sonoma County’s “creative community” to put our arts on the map in as big a way as our wine and food is. Her name is Nancy Glaze (sp?) and they would never call her anything as disrespectful as an “art wrangler;” that’s all me. One of her first tasks is he “Creative Sonoma Forum” November 12 at 5:00 pm at the Wells Fargo Center. I might even go.

Microbusiness Help:

The Access to Capital project and its micro-loan component are up and running. Call (707)565-6428 to see how your microbusiness (five employees or fewer) or small business might benefit from this, or from other tools the EDB offers.

Roads:

The county has spent $91.1 million on road repair. This is good if you live near one of the 100 miles of road prioritized for repair. Most of these are in Santa Rosa or on the 101 corridor. Since those are the population centers, this only makes sense. The ongoing Highway 101 project, funded largely by federal dollars, will top $2 billion by the time it’s done.

Trains:

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) is on target for 2016. It will run from Windsor to the Larkspur Landing ferry terminal.

 

 

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Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway; Tasty but Fails to Satisfy

A while ago I read Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. It was a new experience for me; far from a standard detective story. Although it is set completely in this world, it felt a little like reading New Weird. Sara Gran, the author, sets up a detective story that takes place in the eddies and air pockets at the edge of the mainstream. Claire DeWitt, for example, is an actual detective, but she became one when a strange book called Detection, written by a French detective named Silette, comes into her hands. Detection can’t be found online or in a regular bookstore, apparently; people stumble across a copy of it; in some cases it falls off a shelf at their feet. If you find the book, and read the book, you have been initiated into a strange fraternity of detectives, who treat the work almost as if it has a… well, not exactly spiritual, but at least metaphysical component. There are, maybe, a double-handful of Silette detectives, and Claire DeWitt is the best one in the world. We know this because she tells us so.

City of the Dead was set in New Orleans, a few years after Katrina, and is a story of love, loyalty, corruption and neglect. Claire got clues from dreams and random occurrences. She also did a lot of drugs. It was New Orleans, and that didn’t seem so weird.

But I’m writing about the second Claire DeWitt mystery; Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway. In this installment, Claire is back in the San Francisco Bay area, investigating the murder of an old friend and lover. Paul Casablancas was a gifted musician. It looks like he surprised a robber and was shot, but Claire doesn’t think so. This is the primary mystery, but the story also follows a mystery Claire and her friend Tracey (herself the subject of a mystery) solved when they were teenagers in Brooklyn.  Paul’s murder is not a who-done-it. Claire knows early on who pulled the trigger (and so, really, do we) but the story is about the how and the why. The backstory assumes much greater importance in this book.

And this book, really, is about Claire having another break with reality, as her mourning for her lost love takes her totally off the rails. Along the way the book is filled with interesting characters and strange after-hours clubs and “back rooms;” vintage clothing shops (all the women in the book wear vintage; we don’t know why). For, not comic relief exactly, but a lighter note, there is another mystery Claire is working on in Marin County, where a man who raises miniature horses is having them die. The horses are cute.

There was nothing really wrong with Bohemian Highway until the end. As she did in City of the Dead, Gran balances the backstory with the current mystery very nicely. Claire’s headfirst plunge into self-destruction is done very well, but I became bored with it after a while. And ultimately, because there was no real mystery about the killing, this book failed to satisfy on some level. Perhaps it was the final few chapters, which end on a cliffhanger and carried a miasma of desperation. “I know these aren’t selling well, but look! People will want to know what happens! Please, publisher, but the third one.”

I  recommend Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead easily. I say don’t be in a rush to pick up the second one. And we’ll see if there is a third.

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Food for Thought

I dragged myself out of bed at the outrageous hour of… okay, well, it was 6:45, fifteen minutes earlier than I usually get up. I showered, drank coffee, put on make-up and drove carefully through the curtain of ground-level fog to the village of Forestville, where Food for Thought was holding their Volunteers and Donors breakfast at the Oddfellow’s Hall. I qualify as a donor.

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From Calabash

The hall was a bit chilly, but the tables were set with festive green-and-white checked oilcloths and beautiful bunches of flowers, including cosmos. The coffee, from Sunshine Coffee, was flavorful. The Forestville restaurant Backyard, which specializes in “locavore” cuisine, provided frittata, field greens, roasted potatoes and fruit for breakfast. On our table, a little card gave us the name of the farmer whose eggs were used — and the names of the chickens who produced them!

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From Calabash, kale in the garden.

Diana and Fred, two Food for Thought board members, sat at my table, along with Rachel Gardner, and Shan Magnusson. Shan worked at West County Community Services for many years before moving over to Kaiser’s Community Benefit program. She says that it’s nice to be on “money-giving side of the desk for a change.”

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The breakfast served three purposes; to say “thank you” to donors and volunteers; to introduce new staff; and to introduce Food For Thought’s new direction. Since 1988, the program has provided groceries, fresh produce, and prepared meals to people living with HIV disease. As the treatments for  HIV disease have improved, people are living longer and dealing with the challenges of aging with a chronic illness. At the same time, funding diminishes as the public and policy makers perceive the disease as “taken care of,” because in many cases it’s shifted from “terminal” to merely “chronically life-threatening.” FFT plans to expand its services over the next five years; providing food and meals to people with other chronic illnesses.

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Amaranth, in case you were wondering.

In some ways, the program faces some challenges. FFT was born in the town of Guerneville, a town that had a high volume of AIDS cases in the 1980 and 90s and its office has always been in Forestville. It is seen, inaccurately, as a “west county program” because of its location ( 50% of its clients live in Santa Rosa). They want to be identified the countywide program they are.  Growth will have to be part of any expanded service.

The core of FFT’s clients are people living with HIV disease. Lots of them still face stigma and discrimination, and they are understandably concerned about an influx of people using what they see as their services, and judging them.

On the other hand, nobody else right now does what FFT does. When it comes to providing groceries and meals, they have it down. They will be adding a congregate lunch service at Food For Thought, beginning November 1. They are already reaching out to programs like Meals on Wheels (which has a 40,000 square foot industrial kitchen available) and Ceres Project to identify overlaps, gaps and places where they can help each other.

Ron Karp, the executive director of FFT, is a strategic thinker who will move forward thoughtfully and carefully into this new territory.

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Do We Need Libraries?

“Don’t get mad,” Spouse said, “but I have a question. Are libraries as important now as they were twenty years ago, with the internet and Amazon and everything? I know we love them, but do we need them?”

He asked this because we were discussing a ballot measure that would increase our county’s sales tax by .75 of a percentage point. That money is designated for library costs and staffing; the unspoken promise is that libraries countywide will reopen on Mondays if it passes. Since the town where I live as already added a topper to the sales tax, it could mean that in my home town, sales tax will meet (or break) 10%. That’s outrageous. It’s inconvenient for me and it’s painful for people who make, say, minimum wage.

Spouse’s question stopped me in my tracks. Instead of spouting off my immediate, emotional response, which would have been something like,”Of course we need libraries!” I said, “I’ll have to think about that. Then I thought about it, for two days. Really, with the internet at our fingertips, Google and Amazon ready to sell us any book some for less than a dollar, who needs a library?

Here’s what I came up with:

1. The Internet. Yes, it’s all right at our fingertips… unless it isn’t. Yes, there still is a digital divide. In west county, there are people who can’t afford the internet, and those who can’t get wireless or in rare cases even dial-up where they live.  With more offices laying off human staff and requiring people to do business with them online, the library is a satellite office for… well, everything. There is no other place where people can get access for free. (Another reason why libraries should be open on Mondays.)

2. Reference books. You want to talk about something that’s expensive? Reference books. While I know many of us have decided a quick skim of wikipedia counts as “research” these days, that is not a good thing. Even if, like me, you want to own your books, you might not want to buy every reference book on the American Civil War, steam technology, or Percy Shelley. And, speaking of unsung superheroes, reference librarians are awesome.

Once again you have a financial divide; it’s working people or fixed-income people, not hedge fund managers, who can’t afford to buy a $90 book because it’s got the best plates of Caravaggio’s work in it.

3.  About those books. Sure, Amazon will sell you a book for ninety-five cents. It’s just not the book you want. The best seller, in hardback, will still cost you more than $20 new. And more and more communities don’t even have the chance to buy that hardcover book because there are no bookstores where they are. Some of these are cities like Salinas, California, but many are small rural communities who count on the Bookmobile to keep them connected. Libraries are branching out and exploring digital documents and e-books, it doesn’t always have to be a hard copy. And it doesn’t have to cost you each time you want to read one.

4. Inter-library loan program. They can get you almost any book. Yeah, you might be on a waiting list, but they will get it to you.

5. Social meeting space with a purpose. Libraries have meeting space available; they often provide free programs about varieties of topics. They have roofs and heating. They are safe, comfortable places to go to read, to browse, to use a computer, even to visit.

6. Child care. Libraries and librarians hate this, and rightly so, but for some parents, in school districts that don’t have after-school care, the library is a safe place for their children to wait until they are off work.

Do we need libraries? It depends on our values. More and more, our values are shifting to a sort of eighteenth-century European style, where certain things; access, education, justice, and good health were available only to an aristocratic minority. The New World flavor of that is “a monied aristocratic minority.” If we are true to our stated values, as a democratic society, then some things should be available to everyone. A library is a delivery system for access, information, education; and a way to provide a voice for people who don’t have other avenues.

And let me spend one paragraph indulging my paranoid side. Large information corporations like Google and Amazon (and Comcast and Time Warner) would like us all to believe that they can meet our needs. We can all sit swilling fine wine at the local bar,  connecting with some scrap of data that we need from our smart device. We don’t need to talk to each other, we don’t need to ask questions, and we only need that tiny little scrap. For God’s sake don’t go looking for context, or follow some interesting point the first scrap of data makes.  Here, we’ll even funnel down your search options so you never see anything that might challenge you or upset you. They certainly don’t want you walking into a building filled with data storage devices that might shake up your view point or make you ask a question.

So, even though it does drive up our sales tax, I will vote Yes on Measure M. Do we need libraries? I’ve thought about it. My answer’s “Yes.”

 

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Update: Station Eleven

It’s nominated for the National Book Award, along with Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. Here is another great example of how the graphic technique can be used to tell any kind of story.

Anyway, Station Eleven. Go read it.

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The Book You Have to Read

 (Fair Warning: Despite my title, if you are someone who is terrified you’re going to get Ebola, don’t read this book yet.)

Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel, is a book you need to read. In a market cluttered with variations of the apocalypse and post-apocalyptic life, this one is the deepest and the quietest; the most poetic and the most literary in the best sense of that word. Yes, it’s a quiet, poetic literary “After the End of Everything” novel.

Station Eleven stretches out, backward and forwards in the story’s timeline, like an intricate spider web, and the enter of this delicate but strong narrative is Arthur Leander, actor and former superstar. Arthur had a huge movie career when he was younger. Now fifty-one, he feels his fame waning. At a performance of an unusually-staged King Lear, Arthur suffers a heart attack and dies. This happens in the first five pages of the book.

By dying, Arthur escapes that terror and panic that is only days away. An influenza strain, called the Georgian Flu because it was discovered in that country, is finding its way across the world, helped by pan-continental air travel. Jeevan, the young paramedic in training, and Kirsten, a child actress Arthur had befriended, are both present when Arthur dies, and both escape the flu.

Twenty years later, Kirsten, travels with the Traveling Symphony, caravanning (most of the actors and musicians on foot) from settlement to settlement in a recovering, post-high-tech United States. The Symphony plays classical music and puts on Shakespearean plays. Kirsten, now in her early thirties, feels at home with the Symphony. Things have settled down from the days of the flu, although the world is not safe, and people must do things they hate in order to survive. The two daggers tattooed on Kirsten’s arm attest to that. In a small town where Kirsten hopes to reconnect with two performers who stayed to raise their child, the Symphony comes to the attention of a leader who calls himself the Prophet and his henchmen. At first glance, this part of the story seems traditionally post-apocalyptic, and it is. Of interest, though, is the origin of the Prophet.

Station Eleven
moves back and forth in time, sharing bits from Arthur’s life, and following various people who are connected to him. We follow two of his ex-wives, his best friend, and Arthur himself. Absent from the story, but driving part of it, is his childhood friend Victoria, who lives on the island in Puget Sound where Arthur grew up.

Every primary character in the book, from before the flu or after, has some connection with Arthur.

Mandel is not particularly interested in the technology of survival and recovery. She is interested in the human spirit, the connections we make and how those connections nurture (or poison) us. The motto of the Traveling Symphony is “Because survival is insufficient.” This is taken from a Star Trek episode. Kirsten has adopted this as her personal motto and it is tattooed onto her arm. People walk hundreds of miles to perform Shakespeare, because survival alone is not enough. In an abandoned airport, Clark, Arthur’s best friend, creates a Museum of the Twenty-First Century to remind people of what life was like. Both Kirsten and the Prophet are inspired and guided by a strange, limited edition comic book (there were only two volumes, and only two copies printed) called Station Eleven, a study in isolation and humanity. Station Eleven was drawn and written by Miranda, Arthur’s first wife.

The book is beautifully written and often drily funny. Probably the people who will get the most enjoyment out of Clark’s pre-flu job, and the later discussion in the Museum, are people who have had a 360-degree evaluation or used some kind of management consultant. Jeevan’s stint as a paparazzo is funny but sad. I could probably write an entire column on his off-handed comment to Miranda about his job being like combat, knowing that later he will stay with his wheelchair-bound brother, an embedded reporter who was shot in Afghanistan.

The heart of the book, though, is Arthur. Arthur’s art may be a guiding light that travels, as he does not, into the post-flu future, but his acts of kindness toward an unhappy child actress are what survive. Kirsten is shaped in more than one way by her memories of Arthur.

Most post-apocalypse books don’t deal with the human spirit. While characters like the Prophet are common, the battle is usually for control, and the focus is military. In Station Eleven, what is most interesting about the Prophet is where he came from.

A solidly literary writer, Mandel still takes the time to think through, for the most part, what society immediately after a catastrophic die-off might be like. There is an actual story in the book’s present timeline, not just endless meditations on aloneness. At the same time, Mandel knows exactly what it is she wants to explore here, and does it thoroughly. Instead of trying to ring all the SF “bells,” she sticks to the story she wants to tell. I can’t recommend this book enough.

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A Stranger Comes to Town

In all of the various plots that comprise stories, two of the most common are 1) A Stranger Comes to Town and 2) A Person Goes on a Quest. Cory Doctorow used this fact in one of his best titles: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.

A writing acquaintance of mine postulated that every plot boils down to one of these two starting points. I didn’t think that was true, but it was a fun idea to play with.

Does it work with Shakespeare?

Midsummer Night’s Dream; Yes, it does, as two young couples inadvertently go on a quest.

Romeo and Juliette? Umm, no. Neither of the two titular characters are strangers in Verona.

Hamlet? Not really; Julius Caesar, not really either.

King Lear? Can we say Lear goes on a quest?

It works with Pericles. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

Other classics:

Robinson Crusoe? Yes, the main character left “on a quest.”

Let’s look at Dickens. Great Expectations; Pip’s encounter with a stranger changes events in his life.  Bleak House… well, it’s a stretch, unless the young heirs to Jarndyce and Jarndyce are both the “strangers in town,” and also two young people who have set off on a quest.

A Tale of Two Cities? Is Sydney Carlton the stranger? If so, then maybe.

Jane Eyre? Yes. Jane sets off on a quest when she takes the governess job.

Wuthering Heights? Can we count four-year-old, quasi-adopted Heathcliff as a stranger coming to town?

Basically, any book where the main character goes off to war fits in this category.

A writer who makes “a stranger comes to town/someone leaves on a journey” work really well is Stephen King.

The Stand, a quest.

The Shining, strangers (the family) come to town. Or, you can flip this one and say that the family goes on a quest to the Overlook Hotel, which ends badly.

It… “a stranger comes to town?” Not so much. Pennywise the Clown is not a stranger to Derry, apparently. The adults who return to their childhood home may count as strangers, because they have all changed. That’s sort of the point of the book, isn’t it?

The Dark Tower series is one long quest.

The point of “a stranger come to town” is that something is already jiggling out of true before the stranger arrives; otherwise, they would have no impact. I mean, right? You’d pour them a cup of coffee, give them direction to the nearest Best Western, and end of story. So, someone or something in the town needs something from the stranger, or fears something the stranger brings, or there is no story.

Quests by nature demonstrate a problem to be solved or a need to be filled. There is already trouble in paradise.The all-powerful One Ring must be destroyed. Someone must speak up for the town or the family in a place of power. An advancing army must be stopped. An alcoholic English teacher needs a job to support his family. Life in America as we know it has ended, and people must find safe shelter, clean water, and food. A young person has completed high school or college and feels incomplete and unsatisfied in the home town. An elderly person has lost all ties with the home town, or is drowning in grief, and must set out on a journey of healing. An engagement ends; a job beckons.

I’m a big fan of quest stories, but I like that occasional stranger coming to town too.

 

 

 

 

 

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