The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty won the Pulitzer prize in 1972 for The Optimist’s Daughter. This slim novel follows Laurel McKelva Hand in the days leading up to her father’s death and the week immediately following. The story starts in New Orleans but soon moves to the small Mississippi town that Laurel grew up in.

Welty’s prose is always a thing of beauty. She was probably born with piercing powers of observation but she honed them, paying attention to the moments in life that most of us rush over. She burnished those powers with a sense of the exact right word, and those show up again and again in The Optimist’s Daughter. I can almost say the whole book is made of small moments and detailed observations.

The book opens with Laurel and her stepmother Fay, who is younger than she is, at a doctor’s visit with her father. He has been experiencing some problems with his vision. The doctor is an old family friend who cared for Laurel’s mother when she was dying. In the context of a simple visit, the complicated relationships quiver beneath the surface.

“The excruciatingly small, brilliant eye of the instrument hung still between Judge McKelva’s set face and the doctor’s hidden one.”

The use of “eye” in that sentence is perfect; zeroing us in on what can, and can’t, be seen.

The surgery to re-attach the judge’s retina is successful, but there are complications. Laurel and Fay spend several days at the hospital in New Orleans (in the run-up to Carnival), and the fact that the two women dislike each other is underlined. Again, Welty captures perfectly the sense of both boredom and helplessness you feel at the bedside of a hospitalized family member, the complete sense of dislocation, going home each night to a strange bed. Laurel can hear Fay crying through the thin partition that separates them at their rooming house. Instead of telling us that Laurel can’t sleep, Welty writes this:

“The city took longer than Fay did to go to sleep; the city longer than the house.”

The story moves, with the judge’s body, back to Laurel’s home town and the house she grew up in. We see pre-funeral customs, the sort of mini-wake the townspeople hold around the coffin before it is taken to the cemetery. We hear the stories about the Judge, who was both beloved and a figure nearly of myth in this small town. Laurel reconnects with the group of women who were her friends since childhood; they were the bridesmaids at her fairytale wedding, and they are called “The Bridesmaids.” Through them we begin to see some of the changes that are overtaking the town; Laurel is the first widow (her husband was killed in World War II), one of her friends is the first divorced woman.

Mostly, however, this part of the book exists to develop the chasm between Fay and Laurel. Every woman Laurel meets in her home town tells her they don’t know what the Judge saw in Fay and imply that they if they’d seen “what was happening” they would, somehow, have put a stop to it. This is actually a witty and very believable part of the book. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Fay, who is from Texas, was not “worthy” of the Judge in the eyes of the town or Laurel, and the story itself disapproves of Fay.

Laurel has already survived the loss of her mother and her beloved husband; she has moved to Chicago and is successful in her own right as a textile designer, a fact that is not spoke of by her hometown friends, and acknowledged with resentment by Fay. Fay is outspoken about the fact that the childhood house is now hers and she will do what she wants with it; she clearly still resents the memory of Laurel’s mother, with whom she is constantly compared, unfavorably.

After the funeral, Fay abruptly decides to go with her family for a few days. Laurel assures her that she will be gone by the time Fay gets back. While Fay is gone, Laurel looks through the house for the bits and pieces of her past, and become acquainted with her own grief.

This part is lovely, but once again Fay is painted as a villain who has already gotten rid of things that were sacred to Laurel. Once Fay is gone, the house seems peaceful, but Laurel has a panic attack when she discovers that a bird, a chimney swift, has gotten into the house. In the midst of a huge storm, Laurel is chased through the house by the panicked bird. Once she runs into a room and slams the door, she can hear the bird beating its wings against the door. I didn’t know if I was supposed to understand that this was Laurel’s imagination, or if the story really wants us to believe the swift would do this. Later we discover that Laurel has a phobia about birds, but the whole passage with the swift was unsuccessful for me, unless, again, the frantic bird somehow represents the shallow, uneducated, “bad” woman that the judge brought into his house. It seems important that the bird in the house leaves soot marks on the wall and the curtains.

It comes as no surprise that the competent black housekeeper finally deals with the chimney swift. Once again, the depiction of a small southern town, good and bad, is thoroughly and economically drawn. Laurel herself is not depicted as perfect; she gets techy and nitpicky at the wake, trying to correct people who are talking story about her father. She is every bit as snippy to Fay as Fay is to her, and makes no attempt to see the younger woman’s side of things.

My problem is that the story doesn’t either. While Fay is vividly drawn, there is no attempt to elicit sympathy for her, or see her side of things. No pity is spared for the young woman who was taken up by a seventy-year-old solely because she had youth and energy; no pity for the woman stuck in a house in a strange town where everyone looks down on her. In case the reader might develop a sneaking sense of empathy, the story makes it clear that Fay may have done something to the Judge (inadvertently) that hastened his death. At the end Laurel discovers that Fay has ruined a wooden breadboard that Laurel’s husband had made. Fay ruined it through ignorance, using it as a base to crack black walnut. Like the chimney swift, Fay besmirched a sacred thing and left black marks on it. This is the point of Fay; she can’t have nice things because she isn’t worthy. And she isn’t worthy, it seems, because she is of a lower class than Laurel, or she is from Texas. I’m not quite sure which.

This treatment of the adversarial character affected my enjoyment of this book; not because Fay is the adversary; of course she would be. That dynamic is well established; but because the book condescends to her so badly. If this weren’t Eudora Welty, I would consider it fantasy-wish-fulfillment; a new author exacting revenge on a personal enemy by writing them into the book and then treating them badly. I think the town’s treatment of Fay, and even Laurel’s treatment of Fay, is accurate… and I even believe the character of Fay as she is written; I just wish the story would have treated her more thoughtfully.

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The New Copperfield’s

Copperfield’s Books has a new branch in the Marin County town of Novato. It opened on April 13. I was going to wait until next week to go visit it, but it’s a bookstore! Of course I couldn’t wait, so I drove down on Friday.

The store is located at 999 Grant Avenue, which has the benefit of being easy to remember. Grant Avenue is a nice shopping district. Take the De Long exit off 101 and head west. Turn right on Redwood, and right again on Grant. The new store is on your right in the first block. The store is easy to find. Parking may not be. I drove to the end of Grant Avenue, just past Scott Court, and parked in a small public lot next to a boarded up depot. That’s about four blocks from the store. You can also turn right on Riechert from De Long, and turn left into the public lot across from Whole Foods.

The store is a big square with a crescent bitten out of it, covered with a porte cochere. The place is big, as big as the flagship Petaluma store, or maybe a little bigger. It is very light and airy, having three walls of windows. The staff were hustling to ring up the lines of customers.

999 Grant Avenue

This particular day the shelves were spacious, one might even say a bit sparse. Orders came in late, and staff were busy learning a new inventory and point of sale system (this store is piloting a newer system). As one of the counter workers said that over the next week the shelves would become more “snug.”

This is facing the children’s section.

As it was, I managed to find $50 worth of books to buy, including one for Spouse.

I was especially impressed with the Non-fiction Current Events section; a lot of good selections there.

This store has a nice location. Along Grant Avenue I found several restaurants, including a Thai restaurant, several bars, a toy store, some cute boutiques, a few gift shops, and two places to get coffee drinks. A destination, in other words, and Copperfield’s fits right in.

 

The town is happy to see them there; I think I read that the deputy mayor is going to come read at Story Time. It’s the headline of the weekly paper, and the cinema across the street has a Welcome Copperfield’s on its marquee.

On the way home, I wanted to get off Highway 101 with its glut of traffic. I took San Antonio Road, south of Petaluma. It’s been four years since we’ve had a spring this green, and surrounded by the lush hills I felt like my eyes were thirsting for green, drinking it up.

 

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The Magicians: You Don’t All Get A’s, But You Passed the Final

I wasn’t sure about The Magicians, the Syfy fantasy series based on Lev Grossman’s trilogy. As you know, I am dubious of Syfy’s quality, even when they don’t actually produce the show (which they usually do not). The quality of Syfy movies has tainted their episodic productions in my eyes – even though they are now, brilliantly, using the absolute terribleness of their movies as a marketing tool! I applaud their insight.

I also wasn’t a huge fan of the first book. Entitled, magical twenty-somethings in New York City aren’t my demo, and I didn’t know what the show was going to make of that.

I watched the first episode and I liked it. I thought they were onto something. By Episode Three or so, however, it had fallen into a slump, and much like the middle of the first book, I was stuck with characters I disliked while they did boring things. I checked out for a while.

Fortunately for me, the show picked up again around Episode Six, when apparently it woke up and decided that while it owed its life to Grossman’s books, hey, wait a minute, it was episodic television! It could go off in some different directions! Once that happened, for the most part, the story settled in and got good. Then it got riveting.

Television shows employ a different style of story-telling than novels do; like anything, it means they can do some things better, and some things not as well. The Magicians series has not done justice to Alice’s story. On the plus side, it managed to make the character of Penny accessible in a way he never was in the book. The book was written in close third person from Quentin’s POV, and Quentin hated Penny. Therefore, we only saw Penny as someone who was hated. The TV show frees us from that. The writing is good, but I have to say 90% of what makes Penny engaging is the performance of Arjun Gupta.

Choosing to run the story of Julia, who did not get into the prestigious magic school Brakebills, in parallel with the story of sad sack Quentin, who did, was a stroke of brilliance, but unfortunately it was Julia’s story that dragged for a while. Her sparring with “hedge witch” Marina got old… but Julia’s anger at Quentin and the spell she flings at him led to one of my favorite scenes in the entire season; the Taylor Swift musical number in the asylum. That was simply awesome.

One thing Grossman wanted to do, in his trilogy, was question and explore the concept of the lone hero, the “chosen one,” and the dangers inherent in that motif. The show does that pretty well, although the need for a suspenseful, dramatic story arc squashes that discussion a bit until we get to the finale. In the show, the character of Julia rather than Quentin seems like the toxic hero whose questing, heroic acts rebound in terrible ways. Julia had that experience in the books too, but it played out differently than it did here.

The performers go a long way to making this show; Olivia Taylor Dudley captures brittle, brilliant lone-wolf Alice perfectly. Jason Ralph makes the unlikable Quentin plausible and almost bearable. I think Hale Appleton, as Eliot, steals the show for me, though. He takes a very standardized if not stereotypical character, the Languid Witty Gay Guy, and infuses him with real humor, loyalty and loss. And in the last quarter of the season, when Eliot begins to melt down, Appleton makes me believe every second of it.

(It’s a measure of the quality of both the writing and the performance that I actually shouted at the TV, “Why aren’t you helping Eliot? Can’t you see what’s happening?” while I was watching. That’s engagement.)

Stella Maeve, who plays Julia, has a harder time of it in many ways, but her occasional “you have got to be kidding me” facial expression often saves the day.

Secondary characters don’t fare quite as well, and this is a fault of storytelling, not the performers. When I can tell whether Marina is going to be vengeful bitch or a helpful ally simply by the thickness of her eyeliner, Houston, we have a problem.

I’m not sure they completely pulled off the one-hour-and-six-minute season finale, for a couple of reasons (the fixation with sperm is one), but they created real suspense that came directly from the motivations and actions of the characters. I’m still not all in – the stumbles along the way make me worry that this show could still turn into a slavering, demonic hybrid of Friends and Supernatural – but I am cautiously awaiting Season Two to see how it turns out. And I’m hopeful.

Congratulations! You all passed.

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US Soccer and the Women’s Team: Treat Them Like the Champions They Are

I don’t want to use the word ‘deserve’ in any of this.”–Sunil Gulati, President of the US Soccer Federation

Yeah, dude, and I can see why.”–Marion Deeds

Sunil Gulati, President of the US Soccer League, also told Sports Illustrated that US Soccer was “disappointed” in the EEOC complaint filed by five women’s soccer players. I guess the League’s feelings were hurt, perhaps in the way the players’ feeling might have been hurt when the League filed a suit against them, the first week of February.

The US Soccer Federation sued the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) first, trying to forestall any possible strike or boycott of the Olympics.

In its own fiscal documents, the US Soccer Federation projects $17.6 million in profits from women’s soccer in FY 2016/17. They project that the men’s team will bring in $9 million. The USWNT  is subsidizing the men’s team.

Gulati points out that the World Cup was in 2015 and the Olympics are in 2016. The women’s team qualified for the Olympics while the men’s team did not. After 2016, the women don’t have a big marquee event coming up for a while. US Soccer also thinks that any projection of income beyond FY 2016/17 have to consider the possibility of a men’s World Cup win.

Okay, let’s consider that for a moment. In 1930, the men’s US soccer team placed third in the World Cup finals. In 2002, they reached the quarter finals. In the most recent World Cup, they placed sixth.

The US Women’s soccer team has won the World Cup three times in a row, most recently in 2015.

Okay, I think we’re done with considering the possibility of the men’s team winning a World Cup.

Gulati argues that in the past four years, the men’s program out-earned the women’s, without providing figures. (The Federation’s budgets are available.) Television revenues, conveniently, aren’t broken out by program but are lumped together. It’s possible that over the past four-year period, men’s soccer earned more (because US Soccer charges more for advertising time on men’s televised matches), but it is well known that last year the women’s World Cup match was the most highly watched soccer match ever in the US, and also on Telemundo.

The US Soccer Federation states that more people go to stadium games to watch men than women; on average, 29,000 go to watch men’s games live versus 16,000 for women’s games. They glide over the fact that professional sports in the US don’t make their money from buttocks in seats, but from television viewers.

Gulati also really wants to avoid the use of words like “deserve” when discussing compensation, as he said outright in his interview with Sports Illustrated. He has a bit of a problem, then, because both the men’s contracts and women’s contracts use the word “bonus.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “bonus” as an additional payment of money “for good work,” similar in some ways to a reward… something you get because you deserve it.

The US Women’s Soccer Team, who won three straight World Cups, and who were the most highly watched soccer event in 2015, get some bonus payments (on average, $1350 per player per game) for games they win.

The US Men’s Soccer Team, who haven’t placed better than the quarter-finals since 1930, get additional payments for certain games just for playing them.

You show up, you play, you lose, you get a bonus. This is not a good way to “incentivize” winning. Apparently, using the OED definition, for men’s soccer, losing a game is considered good work.

The best site I’ve found for comparing apples-to-apples, not surprisingly, is fivethirtyeight.comThe New York Times has a nice open graphic connected to its story, but these figures were provided by the women players’ lawyer, so people might be a tad suspicious of them. You can also look at the US Soccer Federation’s own budget documents if you want.

Fivethirtyeight does a good job of explaining why the pay structures between the two program look different (women negotiated a salary and a severance package, men are paid by game) and also showing that even with that taken into account, men are paid more.

Sure, each program has its own contract and each was negotiated at different times, and probably that is part of the problem. The issue of revenues and bonuses is thorny, playing out against an inconvenient truth; Americans still don’t watch a lot of soccer, men’s or women’s. We usually watch the finals, if there is an American team in it. Certainly the whole “bonus” thing is complicated by an international organization, FIFA, that has become to the new poster-child for graft and corruption – and seems quite comfortable with its own sexism.

I’ve never understood the whole labyrinth of professional sports; how they claim to lose money while raking in billions, and soccer is nowhere in the same league as professional basketball, baseball or football. I’m coming at this as a lay person who does have some experience both with the negotiation process and with discrimination. And this looks exactly like sexism.

Are there a few simple things that the Federation could do, though? I think yes. Here are two, right off the bat:

Travel and Per Diem:

On airline flights, the men’s team usually (not always) flies business class, per Fivethirtyeight. The women’s team flies economy class.

For domestic venues, women get $50/day. Men get $62.50. For international venues, women get $60/day; men get $75. This shouldn’t even need to be negotiated; the Federation should side-letter both unions and bring these into alignment. And raise them all to the higher rate rather than trying to lower the men’s? Damn straight.

Bonuses:

Why do you pay a team a bonus for losing? I just don’t get it. Review the whole bonus structure for the women’s team and come up with a scheme that acknowledges their achievements.

*

Those two things would help, but what is really happening here is sexism.

Sunil Gulati is, to put it politely, tone-deaf when he struggles to diminish everything the women’s team has accomplished and when he blatantly fantasizes about that glorious future when the men’s team will win the World Cup. (Why should they bother? They get bonuses for losing.) When he neglects to mention that the Federation filed a lawsuit against the women’s players’ association first, in a pre-emptive move to keep them from possibly striking, he looks a lot – a lot – like a negotiator who  is trying to screw over his players. It’s not an accident that he looks that way. This is not a municipality or other jurisdiction trying to cover essential emergency services. This is soccer.

The message here, from FIFA on down, is that women’s soccer doesn’t matter; it only exists to bankroll men’s soccer. Instead of negotiating honestly, US Soccer dismisses the consistent achievements of the women’s team and indulges in what-ifs about the men’s team – because the men’s team is inherently more important, because they’re men.

Basically, US Soccer’s message is, “A losing men’s team is more important than a world champion women’s team.” If you think we can’t see that, Mr. Gulati, think again.

The US Women’s National Team has won three World Cups. That isn’t a fluke. They, not the men’s team, are champions. They personify what the Federation claims to revere; the best of the sport; the world’s best.

Treat them like the champions they are. And Mr. Gulati, please look up the meaning of the word “bonus,” and “deserve.” I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

 

 

 

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Wynona Earp; Supernatural with Girls? Not Exactly.

This is Syfy’s new offering based on the comic book written and drawn by Beau Smith and Joan Chin, published by IDW.  I caught the premiere. I’m sure many people will say (or are already saying), “It’s just Supenatural with girls.”

Well, yes and no.

Why, yes, I do rock this demon-hunting outfit. Thank you!

Wynona Earp is taking a bus home to attend a funeral. The bus breaks down, another passenger gets off the bus to go pee and gets eaten by a demon. Wynona goes after her, too late to save her, and fights off the demon (after the bus has left without her). In this sequence we discover that Wynona can see demons, she’s a fighter, she’s related to Wyatt Earp, and it’s her birthday.

In town, we soon meet Wynona’s spunky younger sister Waverly, get the tragic backstory of the sisters and meet the U.S. Marshall who is assigned to the “X-files,” Marshall Dolls. And then we start meeting demons. Several of them. And there are more coming.

Here are the obvious ways this show is like Supernatural:

  1. Siblings fight demons.
  2. Samuel Colt’s presentation Colt Peacemaker that kills demons.
  3. “People think we’re crazy, but this shit is real!”
  4.  “We’re country-folk. This is how we dress.”
  5.  “Hi, I’m a mysterious supernatural creature who may be an ally or may not.”

In some crucial ways, though, at least based on the opening episode, this show is different from the CW’s long-running buddy-soap-opera.

1) No significant other has to die in the opening episode to launch the character’s arc. (To be fair, a family member does die in the backstory.) No gorgeous blond pre-law boyfriends/girlfriends are set on fire, although Wynona does threaten her sister’s squeeze by mistake.

2) Things happen in the daytime. In sunlight. Really gorgeous sunlight, by the way, in some beautiful part of Canada. Unlike Supernatural, which seems to pride itself on shooting in the ambient light from the producer’s cell phone, Wynona Earp takes advantage of light that spills like golden syrup across its actors. And yeah, nasty demons can move around in the daytime just fine, thank you very much.

3) There are people in the world who aren’t white! Marshall Dolls is Black, and he is not the sidekick or the character who makes it through one ep to get killed off. (Well, maybe he will be, but I doubt it.) He is actually, already, a character with a style and a point of view.

4) Neither sibling is a psychopath. Everyone thought Wynona was crazy, of course, when she was younger, but the story makes it clear that she is still able to connect with humans. So, that makes her completely not Dean Winchester. To me, the show has more of a Lost Girl vibe, which, as it turns out, is no surprise, since Emily Andras, who worked on Lost Girl, adapted Wynona Earp for television.

It’s still early days, and Wynona’s “country wardrobe” is a little hard to get past, although Waverly and tough Aunt Gus both dress like regular people. The idea behind the demons is shaky (really shaky) but the line-by-line dialogue is good. I liked it; but I liked Supernatural through the first season, too. Still, there are enough differences for me to invest some time.

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Two Tales From a Table

It’s been two weeks since I’ve posted. I am adding a link to my long overview of FogCon here, but the joy and intrigue of conventions (or any trip) really, is in the “marginalia;” what happens at the edges, in the space between the panels, the exhibitions, the planned events.

Overheard at FOGCon:  “Mommy, are there people on the ceiling?” (We were in the hotel’s second basement, and this was a three-year-old’s question.)

Two Tales From a Table: Cardboard Nazis

Friday, before things got into full swing, I had lunch in A’Trio, the hotel restaurant. The restaurant has a number of tables for two, one seat a banquette and the other a chair, in a line. The table to my immediate right was empty and beyond that, at the corner table, sat a man and a woman, probably in their early forties, both white, both wearing FOGCon lanyards.

The man was talking. He wasn’t yelling  but he wasn’t talking quietly either, and I am a shameless eavesdropper (which is another description of a writer). And, I had my notebook with me.

He was talking about the dust-up with J.K. Rowling and her “North American Magic,” pieces on Pottermore, where she had globalized a Navajo word to mean all indigenous shape-shifters. Yes, the “skinwalker” controversy. There was a lot of discussion in the Twitterverse about it, and this man was indignant.

“As a writer and a worldbuilder,” he said, “I think she plotted the sensible course.”

The woman said, “I can see their point, though.”

“And there are people saying ‘It’s not her story to tell.’ Well, maybe it is. Maybe it is her story to tell.”

“I can see their point, though,” the woman said.

Apparently he couldn’t. I ate my clam chowder, pondered “skinwalker” as a general term for shapeshifters on the North American continent, and came to the personal conclusion that it was a bad choice. I’m not qualified to discuss the cultural appropriation aspect. As a “writer and a worldbuilder” myself, I can say it looks sloppy to me. It shows a lack of research, the way those bad Movies of the Week back in the 1970s shamelessly conflated Wiccan magic with “Satanism” without caring at all that it was complete soup, and you’d get lines like, “Cernunnos, it’s another name for the Devil.”

I tuned back in a few minutes later. He was still indignant on behalf of the richest writer in the English language. “It’d be like me… I’m of German extraction, It’d be like me saying that as a person of German descent I get tired of watching depictions of cardboard Nazis.”

Cardboard Nazis?

Not “cardboard Germans.” He wasn’t protesting that the German people are portrayed badly or two-dimensionally in the films and TV shows of the fifties and sixties. He’s worried about how the Nazis are portrayed.

Perhaps he was joking.

Two Tales from a table: Mothers and Sons

Sunday morning  I went down to the restaurant and ordered breakfast. I sat next to the table formerly occupied by the worldbuilder who disliked cardboard Nazis. The table was occupied, this morning, by a Black woman, probably mid-forties.  The rest of the dining room was taken up by young men in baseball uniforms, from the University of Utah, here to play. They were cleaning out the breakfast buffet, checking their phones, texting, and so on; cheerful, polite, and when did they start letting thirteen year olds into college? That’s what I want to know.

As I was finishing up it started to rain, and there is a skylight over the restaurant, so we could hear it drumming. I turned to the woman at the corner table. “I thought I was hearing rain in my room — I’m on the third floor,” I said, “but it was really the elevator.”

“The rain took me by surprise,” she said.

I asked if she were traveling for work or vacation, a family visit? She shook her head. “I’m here visiting my son,” she said, “He’s in the hospital.”

I hesitated. “Which hospital?” That sounds like a strange question, but if she said, “UC Med” or “Children’s Hospital,” that would tell me something. She didn’t. She named a local Walnut Creek hospital.

“He was in a coma,” she said. “But he’s getting better.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Was he in an accident?”

She shook her head again. “He was beaten.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“He’s getting better. He recognizes us, he blinks when he sees me. I read him the Bible. And I play him music. He has feeling in his feet and hands. They think he’ll recover.”

I asked her what happened.

They are from Florida, but he was a freshman in college here. He had 3.8 GPA. He’d gone to a party. He stepped outside to call his girlfriend. While he was talking to her on his phone, she heard voices in the background.

“Hey, where you from?”

“Florida,” he said.

“Well, you’d better get back there.”

He said to his girlfriend, “I’ll call you back.”

Witnesses said the three other young men jumped him before he could put away his cell phone. He hit his head almost immediately and was probably unconscious the whole time. The mother said that the his heart had stopped and he was probably without oxygen to his brain for about two minutes– the police detectives told her they had arrested the attackers, who had been questioned many other times for assaults. “Known to law enforcement” is the term. He had had no contact with them before they jumped him.

She and her husband were taking turns coming out from Florida, one week at a time, to spend time with him.

I tried to imagine that; your son in a coma, your life upended and the added disruption of having to fly clear across the continent every other week. And you can’t turn to your partner for comfort, because they are doing the same thing.

I tried to imagine being a young man, a good student, clear across the country from home, and having your life shredded in one night, at a party, when you had done nothing.

I told her I was glad that she had her faith, and her son had her. She talked a bit more, teary-eyed, but it was all good. He really was getting better.

I wished her, and him, the best. I think — I want to believe — that he will made a full recovery, or at least a good recovery, that he’ll go back to school, and that he’ll succeed; that the strength he develops to overcome this will serve him the rest of his life.

And I decided her story made cardboard Nazis seem a lot less important.

 

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Odds and Ends

I owe you all a post (or two) about FOGCon, the East Bay’s charming literary SFF convention. Here, at least, is a link to the website. The con is not large, the focus is largely literary, the hotel staff are friendly and it’s a great experience.

Here is a book you should be reading: The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar. I’ve linked to my review on FanLit. I do not give a lot of five-star reviews, but this is a five-star book.

My priority for today is to complete my Wednesday column, and my self-assigned deadline is Tuesday night, so that’s my priority. I hope to be back on Wednesday with the first of a few column about FOGCon.

Have a good day, and do good work. See Ya!

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FOGCon, Before Registration

There is no fridge in my hotel room. How can this be?

And there’s a TV on top.

Oh, yes there is. I forgot that the Marriott disguises its room-fridges as… other  things.


But why disguise them? Probably to add a sense of elegance… but I’d rather have a fridge than elegance.

 

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Hard Right

Here is a story I had a lot of fun writing. Ultimately, it’s not a successful story. I think the idea isn’t strong enough to carry the action — and I think the writing is clunky. And then there’s the ending. Other than that, though…

Its about 3200 words long.  I will be interested in your comments.

HARD RIGHT

I automatically calculated the trajectory of the pastry crumbs that sprayed across the table as I set down my fork. “Sorry. I used too much force.” The crust of Angela’s apple, sage and onion pie was drier than usual today.

Sebastian shook his head. “Don’t you always? It’s practically your trademark, Delilah.”

“No, it’s not,” I said, a little hurt. Echo was the brute-force girl, not me. I looked around. Across the room, six gray-haired women with fancy purple hats –red ribbons, feathers, faux gems — nibbled on Angela’s scones.

I didn’t know why Sebastian had chosen Mrs. Frothingay’s Tea Shoppe for facetime. I didn’t know why we needed to facetime at all. I looked behind me. “Where’s Krissy?”

“She won’t be joining us.”

I sat up straight, cold blooming in my belly. “Why not? What’s wrong?”

Seb held up a hand. “Nothing. I gave her another assignment, that’s all.”

“‘Assignment?’ What are you, the substitute teacher?”

I didn’t like facetiming without Krissy. She wasn’t one of us, the seventeen, but she was genetically engineered and could probably kill you with a bendy straw. I felt safe when she was around.

Seb turned sideways in his chair and chomped on his ever-present cigar. A chrome lighter gleamed in his hand as he lifted it.

“Hey,” I said. He paused. After a moment he set the lighter down on the table top.

“I thought maybe you wouldn’t want Krissy here while I reprimanded you,” he said.

“Reprimand? For what?”

“Destabilizing an entire currency. And embezzlement,” he said.

“I did exactly what you tasked me with,” I said. “I can’t help it if things mutate after they’re released into the wild.”

“I think you could help it. I think you planned it.”

I shrugged, implying that he was giving me too much credit. The thing was, viruses do mutate, infoviruses as well as biological ones. “Freehold’s not even a real country,” I said. “It’s a joke that got out of hand.”

“The joke that got out of hand is preparing to sue the United States, demanding the return of its money and punitive damages,” he said.

“Oh.” I hadn’t seen that coming.

“Do I have to tell you that it brings the Center into the spotlight in a way we’d rather not deal with?”

I turned the pink flowered teacup on its saucer. The Center wasn’t the center of anything. It was more of an offshoot, an appendage of a multinational called Nimbus. The Center provided law enforcement and security support to the Court of Nations, the Global Intellectual Properties Protection Unit, INTERPOL, INTERSEC and the United States government pro bono, in return for the member nations allowing Nimbus certain… leeway. Seb probably didn’t know that I knew all that. They weren’t as good at monitoring what we did between our tasks as they thought they were.

My virus had been perfectly designed for the Freehold task. It planted a sticky marker on Freehold’s currency and tracked each transaction, like the nanotrackers they’d used to chart snowmelt streams during the water wars, when I’d been a little girl. My virus tracked the transactions in two directions; downstream, to the offshore it was stashed in, and upstream, back to the initiating transaction.

It also siphoned off 0.001% of each transaction and offshored it in a Confidential Financial Entity in Nebraska.

In our defense; Freehold? They called themselves “the democracy without borders,” and “the virtual country.” They had their own currency. It was a virtual currency but it could buy actual things; potato chips, airplanes, shoes. The “citizens” of Freehold didn’t mind that other people found their currency useful; in fact, they liked it.

The “country” of Freehold touted its security measures. Its census was stored on an impregnable server; one that Abel and I had cracked like a walnut in fifteen seconds. Thirty percent of Freeholders called themselves Galtians and tax-warriors. The rest were who you would expect; fronts for groups with names like Manos de Luz, Grupo Ticotin, the Fleecing and Royal Investment Bank, Staymor Brothers Brokerage and dozens of cartels and terrorist units. The Court of Nations and the US had already used information provided by the Center — by my virus – to shred Grupo Ticotin, proving their ties to terrorists, arresting their leaders and more importantly, seizing their assets.

Angela bustled past our table, her floral sprigged apron rustling. The sugary 1960s pop music that usually filled the place – “I’m Enery the Ache I am, Enery the Ache I am I am” – stopped in mid-word, and Sibelius’s Concerto for Violins in D Minor started. Angela, a working-class Liverpudlian who had traveled half the world before washing up in San Jose, California, had never struck me as a big classical music fan, but what did I know? I didn’t get out that much.

“The easiest way to get out of the spotlight,” Seb said, placing his cigar on the table and fixing me with his Stern Professor look, “would be to return the skimmed money. Now.”

“I don’t know where it is,” I said.

“That’s highly unlikely,” Seb said. The late morning sunlight, filtered through the tall buildings in the business district, made a silver halo of his short hair, and cast pale bars on his blue Oxford shirt. I couldn’t see his jeans but I knew they were pressed and creased, and his shoes were dark, gleaming brown. Professorial Casual.

We hated Freehold, the seventeen did, but we loved the concept. We could make it work, a country for us, us and the grandmas, those original five first-gen relics, locked into their exo-skels with nanos to help control the drooling. They were part of us.

I shrugged. “Things mutate,” I said.

He snapped his head from side to side. It looked as if it hurt. “It’s an info-virus. You created it and you’re the best. Stop jerking me around.”

“Jerking you around? What is wrong with you?”

The violin concerto ended. A plummy-voiced announcer said, “Next, J.F. Edelmann’s Sonata for Piano in D.” The opening minor key chords started at a stately march, then picked up the pace.

Seb took a deep breath, held it, and sighed it out. I had seen him do that before, but not for a long time. “I’m under some personal scrutiny here, Delilah,” he said. “And some stress. Perhaps I’m not reacting well to it.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. I almost reached across to touch his hand. Almost. He had been in my life as long as I could remember, a jailer, a teacher, a father, but I rarely touched him. We rarely touched solos, any of us.

Solo humans thought of us binary; that standard, boring Western worldview. On those rare occasions when I was among solos, I tried to use their conventions, and talk about data-me versus phys-me, but it wasn’t like at all. A solo eating a scone doesn’t think of salivary-glands-me and taste-buds-me and digestive-tract-me, and I don’t think data-me and phys-me. There’s just a me. And we, we touch almost all the time.

Edelmann ended and the music segued into J.S. Bach, clean and pure. I checked the time. That Edelmann sonata was over eight minutes long. Had that much time passed?

“I don’t have complete control of the virus,” I said. “I don’t know where it offshored the skim.” Abel always snickered at the word “offshore.”

“I don’t believe you,” Seb said.

“Well, it’s probably Nebraska,” I said.  It was the current trendy asset-and-data haven, and Seb knew I knew that.“Why not just have Echo brute-force the banks until we find it?”

“And create an international incident?”

“You said it already was one.”

“Too many powerful entities offshore in Nebraska,” he said, with a shift of a shoulder that was almost a shrug. “We don’t want to upset them.”

He didn’t want to use Echo. Although she was the most powerful of us, she wasn’t always stable. Three years ago, the Russian President moved a bunch of troops to the Russian-Estonian border, for military exercises. He brought airplanes and tanks. Four days later he moved them back to Moscow without a word of explanation. That was Echo. But remember sixteen months ago, when the Mexico City Airport shut down for three days, stranding people, diverting flights, causing riots in the airport? That was Echo too.

I wasn’t brute-force, and I wasn’t a dark-knight like Abel. I was the smooth rounded stone that diverted the data-stream slightly, so that the council voted against war, or for trade expansion. I was the sprouted dandelion seed that split the crack in the sidewalk open wider. Unlike Echo, with her profound agoraphobia, or Abel, who looked like a first-gen in the exo-skel he needed to maintain his bulk, I was a walk-around. I could function just fine around solos, although I felt better when Krissy was with me.

Bach ended before I even thought to identify the piece. Debussy followed it, some lush, cloying piano prelude. What the hell?

Nimbus never measured success by volume, and that was a good thing. Of one-thousand-plus fetuses originally augmented in utero, nine had made it to adulthood, and five were still alive. We called them the grandmas. Through trial and error, Nimbus learned that introducing machine intelligence in utero was too soon. It took another failed generation for them to get it right, but eventually they built us. Our heritages, our ethnicities, our families didn’t matter. We assumed, with my brown skin and mass of curly black hair, that I was of Haitian or Dominican descent. Echo clearly came from one of the Chinese ethnic minorities, and Abel looked like a European-American mutt.

From what we could glean, my generation started with about three hundred babies. Nimbus started the treatments when we were four. Seventeen of us were functional, viable assets. Fifteen of us were female. Eight of us could walk around and interact with solos without drawing attention. I was one of the eight.

We all assumed that Nimbus had other Centers out there, with people like us, and that was how they had found the skim. China and Namibia, for instance, probably had their own. I wondered if that was what was making Sebastian so agitated.

“It’s your virus,” he said. “You can track it.”

“We were tracking it,” I said. “That was the point.”

Debussy sacharined to a close, thank goodness, and perfect tenor voices began a kantate. I didn’t recognize the composer, so I checked. Philip Heinrich Ehrlebach. Not common for a commercial station, even a classical one. The voices swept up, swooping and interweaving like the flight patterns of a group of swallows I’d seen once, under a bridge.

Sibelius.

Edelmann.

Bach.

“So you can track the skim. Right, Delilah?”

“You’re leaning on this pretty heavily,” I said. “Can’t you just pay Freehold back out of the Center’s contingency funding? No harm, no foul?”

“Do you know how much it is?”

I shrugged, although I did, to the last virtual cent. “How much could it be? It was one one-hundredth of one percent.”

“Of every transaction,” he said. “Every drug deal, every arms deal, every wash-and-spin cycle. I don’t think our contingency fund is that big, even if I did agree that we should shoulder the burden of your bad behavior.”

“Bad behavior, Seb? Really? Inventiveness. Initiative. That’s what you use me for.”

“Your initiative is problematic in this case.”

Your initiative is problematic. I imagined imitating that to Abel, later. Seb was definitely not having a good day.

Thinking of Abel brought something else to mind. “Dark-knight the banks,” I said. Nobody did clandestine audit functions like Abel. “They’ll never even notice.”

“No. No,” Sebastian sighed again. “That’s not a good choice.”

I just looked at him.

“You won’t be able to reach anyone right now,” he said, as I tried to contact Abel.

The Ehrlebach ended. Really? That had been a fast ten minutes. Voices swirled again, pure, clean, singing in Latin. Misere Meimisere mei… carrying it out, over again, ending with, Deus. Gregorio Allegri.

Cold flooded my body and I barely grabbed hold of my panic before it showed. I slowed all the automatic, autonomic reflexes that pounded at me, the bolting heart, the raging pulse, the surging security subroutines. I looked down at the table. Control mattered now, more than anything. I knew my life was at risk, just as I knew the next composer up would be Dvorak.

Debussy.

Ehrlebach.

Allegri.

I’d been hijacked.

“I told you,” Sebastian said. “We’re under a lot of scrutiny. We’ve locked things down.”

Antonin Dvorak’s From the New World Symphony No 9 started, the sweet, dark swell of strings filling the tea shop.

I nodded. “Sure,” I said. “That’s why you chose to facetime here, instead of at the mall.”

He nodded. I knew he would, even though there wasn’t any mall. I had just made it up.

“I didn’t realize anyone would get so upset,” I said. “I’ll show you where we offshored it, Sebastian, but not here. There are too many people. It isn’t secure.”

I watched him take a breath, ready to argue. Then I watched him reconsider. I was cooperating. To argue that the place was secure might make me suspicious. He swiped his autocard over the sensor and pushed back in his chair.

I stood up. My discipline was good. I wasn’t shaking. That was good, because I going to need all my discipline to make this work, and I was probably going to die anyway. My only hope was that there was a friendly out there, ready to catch me… the same person who had programmed the music.

“Let me recalculate the tip,” Sebastian said. He was stalling, probably while somewhere people were spackling in swathes of code like crazy to fill in the street and sidewalk, sectors they hadn’t planned for.

Clearly I was unconscious somewhere. I was hoping – gambling – that I was now in the hands of a friendly. Those were pretty long odds, almost as long as the odds that someone would notice a hundredth of a percent getting siphoned off of a financial transaction, when there were three hundred fifty six thousand transactions per second on a slow day. Whoever had snagged me still had access, but they didn’t have my physicality. That was why the entity playing Seb was pushing so hard.

I would have to do a right turn.

There was a good chance I would expire before I could restart myself. But it wasn’t just about me. It was us, the seventeen. I couldn’t lose our seed money.

I followed Seb out the door and turned right. “Let’s talk in the parking structure,” I said, walking ahead of him. The hardy rosemary plants looked solid, but I couldn’t smell them. So many tiny things. A pastry crust. Sebastian starting to light his cigar. “Assignment.” Why hadn’t I noticed sooner?

“Let’s talk here,” he said, stopping right outside the door. They’d used sat-footage and probably sec-cam footage, and here looked real. The street didn’t though. It looked… stylized, like a construct of a city street, which was what it was.

I turned right and walked away from him, slipping into the rivulets of data and shaping them into a parking structure.

“Delilah! Stop!” I heard the scuff of his shoes on pavement and broke into a run, charging up the gray concrete vehicle entrance into the empty structure. I ran for the exit, where a yellow bar blocked the path of vehicles, a yellow sign with black letters and a pointing arrow gave direction. RIGHT TURN ONLY.

RIGHT TURN ONLY RIGHT TURN ONLY RIGHT TURN ONLY RIGHT TURN ONLY

I turned right.

//[Bio//interface]//hardright

//Switch activated Y/N Y

//<hmi>// Registry Y/N N

//<hmi>//Redundancy Activate Y/N N

//<hmi>// Upstream handshake Y/N N

//<hmi> Confirm hardright Y/N Y

SHUTDOWN INITIATIED.

I noticed when my lungs stopped inflating.

I knew when my heart stopped beating. Blood moved through veins, blood slowed, blood stilled.

I acknowledged the depletion of oxygen to my brain.

It didn’t hurt.

I registered Echo. Abel. Someone else. Sector after sector of the thriving city of information, the sparks and flow of data that occupied part of my brain, closed down. The suburbs went dark. The city center flickered, dimmed, went dark, taking down into the dark anything else still in there when the hard right completed. It didn’t hurt.

Except for that crushing pain in my chest.

And that steady stinging in my arm.

Crushing pain in my chest. I fought, struggled, pulled in air that seared my nasal passages and throat with a bitter antiseptic taste. My eyes burned. “What the hell?” I opened my eyes and looked up at Krissy, who sat back on her haunches and pulled a wired patch off my chest, taking skin with it. She shoved aside the palm sized defibrillator that had pressed against my ribs.

She stared back, her brown eyes solemn, her brown hair swinging like a nun’s veil. “Delilah?”

I coughed and gagged. The world yawed and spun. I threw out one hand to steady myself until I attained equilibrium. I watched Krissy, and then I knew that it wasn’t just me. She was listing from side to side too. We were in a moving vehicle.

“Don’t try to sit up yet. You were in full cardiac arrest,” she said. Her hair looked clean as always, but her face and battle-suit were smeared with blood and something that looked like carbon. She pulled a monitor off my forehead. It didn’t sting as bad as the contact points on my chest had.

This looked right, smelled right and felt right, but I wasn’t completely sure. I reached out again, pinged Echo, and she responded. Pinged Abel. Pinged Krissy and watched the small smile appear.

“Yeah, it’s me, and you’re here,” she said.

“Seb’s really dead?” I said.

She nodded. Even though she had spelled it out for me, I felt numb.

“Ambush,” she said. “They had three snipers and new hardware that cuts right through reinforced plexi. It was a professional extraction. I couldn’t get to you in time.”

I nodded. My eyes burned, and not from the antiseptic fumes.

After a moment I propped myself up on one elbow. I lay on a gurney in the mostly empty space of a container truck. “Where are we?”

“We’re just outside Raleigh.”

“Weren’t Seb and I in…” I thought back. It was hazy. “Boston?”

She nodded. “They were committed to hiding you. We got lucky, though. You weren’t an easy hack. That gave us time.”

“How much time?”

“Three days.”

“Why didn’t you just have Echo tackle their construct?”

“They entangled you too well. We’d have lost you. And they were good. We only got in because someone was lazy and tapped a real music wellspring. Abel found the tributary and down-streamed in.”

I thought back to the tea shop. They had probably spent too much time designing the gray-haired women’s hats. “How did you find me? Get me out?”

“I have my ways,” Krissy said. “It wasn’t easy.” She smiled. It comforted me. “Can you sit up?”

With her help I managed to. “They’ll come after me,” I said. “They’ve got someone good.”

Someone like us, Echo said.

Krissy brought me a bulb of water and changed the IV bag attached to my arm. I thought back to Seb’s gestures, the deep sigh. The clothes, the cigar, those were easy, but… “Could it have been someone who worked with Sebastian?” I said. “Who used to be at the Center?”

That’s what we think, Echo said.

“Or still is,” Krissy said.

I chewed on my lower lip, thinking about Seb. I knew that soon I would feel hot, shaky, sobbing grief, but right now I still felt numb.

“I’ll need to report the virus,” I said. “I’ll say it mutated. We’ll have to let them recover some of the money, though.”

Abel chimed in. I downstreamed the funds already. Act like you found out about the skim when they were interrogating you.

“This was someone whose currency-stream is threatened,” I said.

Fleecing and Royal, Echo said.

The missing money tracks right back to them, Able said. Or it will in about…  now.

“Good,” I said. That would create a distraction among the citizens of Freehold. The Center would protect us, because we were valuable. We were assets.

I hated losing the money, though.

Freehold was a joke, but it worked as proof of concept. We’d already purchased an island in Puget Sound, and we would do it right.

It wouldn’t be soon, not now. There were logistics to work out, and money to be managed, and right now, too much attention. But we would be free.

Seb. Dead. He would have thought of me as a traitor, if he’d known. Still, I missed him.

I pushed away that thought. “Kirssy,” I said. “No more classical music. Ever.”

 

 

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The Writing Retreat

  1. We did our share of tourist-tripping and still managed to get writing done.

The lovely poinciana tree in Linda’s front yard.

Margaret and I managed to write, at least a little (she got more done than I did) each morning. Much of my writing was revision. I had brought a story for Marta and Margaret to comment on, as well as a story for the full writers’ workshop on Saturday (mainlanders participated via phone).

Marta, our writing teacher, arrived Tuesday evening. That was a challenge for her. The Mamalahoa Highway, which encircles the big island, runs parallel to Kilahuea Avenue. The connecting street to Linda’s house, Haihai, intersects Kilahuea. Unless you know exactly where to make a certain turn to get onto Kilahuea, you are doomed to drive back and forth on Mamalahoa like a 1950s fly fisherman searching for Brigadoon. Marta’s GPS was no help, and kept advising her to turn right at places where there was no right turn. Malicious GPS!

Fortunately, Marta is resourceful and she had a cell phone.

Linda, our host, in front of a miniature of a church made by her and another island artist.

On Wednesday morning we critiqued my story and talked a little about issues with our writing. We also helped Marta with an “elevator pitch” for her latest book, since she thinks she’s going to have a battle with her high-powered New York agent who (basically) wants her to turn it into a YA fantasy romance, which it is not.

This “elevator pitch” thing wasn’t an exercise, but it could be turned into one, and it’s a useful one; for your own work, literally to rehearse for agent speed-dating or something, but also as a technique to see what you think the essence of your story or book is.

On Thursday, Marta gave us a powerful exercise. We interacted with a piece of sculpture through a series of emotional filters – joy, anger, love, jealousy, delirium (a state of mind or condition rather than an emotion – and a fun one to try, and a difficult one!). We had two minutes for each filter. It was hard, but not as hard as Friday’s exercise.

This Victoria Whitehand sculpture was the focus of one writing exercise.

I didn’t do very well with the filter exercise, frankly, but lucky for me, I can revise. I turned the exercise into a piece of flash fiction in which a character whose relationship is dying shares her emotional states through her interaction with a work of art. It’s not a great story, but it’s a story.

For Friday, Marta had found four art images from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. We had a chance to look at the pictures beforehand. Then we chose an image and wrote a complete story… in fifteen minutes.

You want a challenge? This is a challenge. We both managed to do it. We both managed to do it twice. My second story was stale, in fact just a pale copy of a story I wrote last summer, but I really like the first one, and it’s morphed into a piece of surrealistic flash fiction that I’m calling “Strays.”

*

Molly, who greeted us joyfully every morning. Molly also visits people at a hospice program once a week.

The people, the location and the lodging all combined to support a genuine writing retreat, and I would be glad to do this again next year. Linda is an ideal host, and the layout of her house, with a private sitting room, is perfect for a small group. The addition, which is what Linda rents out, has three beds, but a fourth person could sleep on the futon in the sitting area. We colonized Linda’s part of the house because she has a beautiful koa wood work table, and one of us needed an electrical outlet. At the end of the visit, when Marta explained that we needed a longer table to work, Linda said she had two folding work tables. Those would have been fine in the sitting area. Maybe next year.

Fletch, a bit more reserved than Molly, also provided encouragement during the visit.

There’s also something about Hawai’i, at least about the big island, that feeds creativity. I think it may be the volcano. No, I’m not joking or working an extended metaphor; the big island, the youngest island in the chain, is creating itself daily, molten rock and minerals pouring up through the rifts and spilling out onto the surface, making new land. It’s hard not to be inspired by that.

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