It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Shopping

Bare limbed tree against blue sky.

Most of the autumn leaves have fallen.

Last week I spent four days Christmas shopping. I went to several different towns. It’s interesting how different an experience can be based on where you are. I thought I’d share.

Novato:

I went to Novato,  in Marin County, and did some shopping on Grant Avenue. I went there because my friend Brandy manages the Copperfield’s there. Brandy was not working that day, but her staff were knowledgeable and helpful. The store is large and airy (lots of windows, lots of light) and beautifully laid out. I especially liked the children’s section, which has a bright carpet on the floor and is very inviting. I only have one set of children to buy books for now, and so I’ve lost track of the kids’-book market; their children’s section has a lot of books faced out and several display tables, making it much easier to browse and decide.

Window display at Copperfield's, Novato

Window display at Copperfield’s, Novato

Young Adult is in a different part of the store, near Speculative Fiction. This is smart for several reasons. Young adults identify with the word “adult” in that phrase; lots of adults read YA these days and there is a lot of crossover with speculative fiction.

After I bought gifts there I headed for the toy store called Five Little Monkeys. They have stores in Albany and Walnut Creek; here is their website. Like many toy stores I’ve been in, this one was long and narrow with really tall shelves, which seems strange for a toy store. I’m sure the long-narrow bit is strictly about what the proprietor can afford for rent. The store was packed with cool things and popular things. I found a Lego toy I was looking for. Again, cheerful, if slightly harried, staff. It turned out their mail-out catalogue had gone out over the weekend, and they were flooded with locals taking advantage of discounts. It was great to see.

Isn't this building completely 1968?

Isn’t this building completely 1968?

There are about a hundred restaurants on Grant Street. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. There are lots, but I didn’t eat there, so I can’t recommend anything. I went on a weekday and found parking without too much trouble, but that may have just been good luck. There is no charge for parking on the street and there is a two-hour limit.

Grant Avenue has a definite “retro” vibe; the street feels like 1963-1974, even with the newer buildings.

The Lan-Mart complex houses Marisa's Christmas Fantasia

The Lan-Mart complex houses Marisa’s Christmas Fantasia

Petaluma:

When I go to Petaluma in December, it’s not only for Brian’s Comics and Copperfield’s; it’s about Marisa’s Christmas Fantasia, a year-round Christmas and holiday store. The first day I was there was a weekday, and while the store was bulging with themed ornaments, lights, tree skirts and gift figurines, it wasn’t crowded with customers. They had some unusual ornaments, and lots of pretty things. I was standing on the other side of the hunter-themed tree, which has stags-head ornaments, Adirondack chairs, plaid hunting jackets, and Santa carrying a shotgun. Two women were on the other side of the tree. “Oh, a shotgun-shell ornament,” one of them said, “That’s festive.”

Many ornaments in Marisa's Christmas Fantasia

Many ornaments!

I found present-topper ornaments and then went across the hall to the part of the shop that is more gift-based. I admired but did not buy a package of gift tags (and then later in the week I went back and did buy them).

I walked through the hallway  that comes out on Kentucky Avenue and walked up to Brian’s Comics, where I found the perfect comic collection for someone on my list, and I had good luck at the Petaluma Copperfield’s, too. I ate at Zazzle, which is where I always eat when I’m in Petaluma Old Town. And, as always, it was delicious.

Parking is free and there is a two-hour limit.

At the Knittery, I asked if I could photograph the yarn-winding machine and they said yes.

At the Knittery, I asked if I could photograph the yarn-winding machine and they said yes.

Here they are rolling a skein into a ball.

Here they are rolling a skein into a ball.

Santa Rosa:

Having had two pleasant and successful shopping treks, I shouldn’t have been two surprised that shopping in Santa Rosa was like entering a circle of hell. Not one of the really bad circles of hell, but still, definitely in the running. There were two exceptions: Shutterbug Camera on Santa Rosa Avenue had parking, and as always their behind-the-counter folks were friendly and could get an answer for any question I had. And, in west Santa Rosa the art supply store Riley Street was an oasis of peace and creativity. In between, however, was a city that does not recommend itself for holiday shopping.

I did not go to the downtown mall. I fought traffic to the north end of town, to Coddingtown, where there had once been a crafts store. It is closed. That is on me; I should have researched that. I drove even farther north to Joanne’s on Industrial Drive. They have put out most of their Christmas themed stuff, and while I didn’t find what I wanted, I found stuff that would work for what I wanted. Clerks were pleasant but the trip was not fun. Their store is huge, and their parking lot is huge but the location makes getting in and out of it more of a challenge than I needed.

I would love to shop Railroad Square and Fourth Street, which has antique stores, quirky shops, great gift stores like Corrick’s and Treehorn’s Used Books, and a nice Thai Restaurant called Khoom Lanna in Railroad Square, but Santa Rosa charges for parking, which means they will always be my last resort.

Before the month is out I will probably visit Sonoma, which has some great stores around the plaza. I can rarely afford anything there, but it’s fun to go look, and they all decorate beautifully. I’ll also go to Healdsburg, which is also pricey but pretty. Neither Sonoma nor Healdsburg charge for parking. Neither does Sebastopol.

Anyway, my trip to Santa Rosa was unpleasant, but I saved Riley Street for the end, and it was a restorative.

 

 

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The Marine Mammal Center

Rainbow with Golden Gate Bridge in Background

Rainbow with Golden Gate Bridge in Background

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving I went with a friend to the Marin Headlands. If it had been rain-free we planned to go to Hawk Hill, because the migration is in full swing and Hawk Hill is part of the flyway.

It was not rain-free.

We hit squalls of driving rain all the way down. It was a little stressful driving, but also reassuring and nostalgic. This was a cool day – temps about 57 degrees – with gray-white bundles of clouds and cold, driving rain that would beat on the car, or us, for ten or fifteen minutes, then fade, letting in sunlight. It was like the old pre-drought days, when we got rain in winter. I was cold but I loved it.

Golden Gate with both bridges, on a rainy day.

Golden Gate with both bridges, on a rainy day.

Traffic on 101 southbound was heavy, and traffic on the headlands, even heavier. After a little while my friend, who is also retired, exclaimed, “Oh! Saturday after Thanksgiving!” Yes, those out-of-state relatives who came for the holiday were going to get a view of the bridge come rain, shine, earthquake or typhoon.

To get to the headlands you can drive through Sausalito, or take the last exit southbound before the Golden Gate Bridge, which is what we did. The road up to Hawk Hill and the Bonita lighthouse was closed due to weather, so we went to the Marine Mammal Center. As it turned out, we could not have come through Sausalito because they had closed the tunnel due to the weather.

Welcoming seal statue at the Marine Mammal Center

Welcoming seal statue at the Marine Mammal Center

The Center is open to visitors from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. It is primarily a rescue center and hospital; it’s also a research facility and educational center. We paid for a docent-led tour, even though they told us they only had five “guests” at the moment and four of them were being kept out of sight of humans. Of those four, three would be disturbed by human interaction, and one had an eye injury; even the watery sunlight we were getting would cause her pain. In the front pen was a male elephant seal pup who had been brought in seriously underweight. He was being fed to get him up to weight (300 pounds). He was resting on a heated pad when we saw him.

An underweight elephant seal pup rests on a heated pad, waiting his next fish milkshake.

An underweight elephant seal pup rests on a heated pad, waiting his next fish milkshake.

Many of the animals they treat are pups. The steadily warming ocean has driven many varieties of fish either deeper into the water or farther from shore. This means mother pinnipeds and other marine animals must take longer to hunt for food for their pups, leaving the pups alone longer. Sometimes, they wander off in search of food themselves and wind up in places that are alien to them, like apartment complexes or restaurants.

Our cheerful docent described the “fish milkshakes” that the youngsters eat at the center; emulsified fish, milk (she didn’t say what kind of milk) with nutrients and vitamins added. They are fed via a large soft plastic syringe and a feeding tube. Later, young animals are taught to catch fish and before they are released, live fish are dumping into the large pool where they stay. Their release rate is good, and she said they don’t see a lot of animals come back.

They do, she said, get an otter now and then. Otters are transported immediately to Monterey Bay Aquarium, where the experts work.

The Center is also a research and education center.

The Center is also a research and education center.

Besides hunger, ocean trash, particularly plastic, is a major hazard for ocean mammals. They get many mammals with permanent injuries because a ring of plastic from a six-pack got onto a flipper or their neck, and remained there. Additionally, they rescue animals who escaped from sharks but have wounds; or escaped from boat propellers.

The center is also a national research center. Here is their website.

They take donations, they have a great gift shop. This is an informative and pretty outing if you live in the bay area. Afterwards, you can drive down and walk on the beach, weather permitting, or go to the Headlands Visitor Center. We drove over to the other side, just to get a look at the city and the Golden Gate Bridge, and that’s when we saw the rainbow.

Rainbow over the Marin Headlands

Rainbow over the Marin Headlands

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Field Trip!

I’ve never read an urban fantasy set in Vallejo, California, so I’m trying to write one. To me, if you’re going to write urban fantasy the urban center you choose must be vividly depicted, so I had to get to know Vallejo. I had my writer friend David Corbett guide me around and show me some kinds of places I needed, and since then I’ve gone back twice. The second time was yesterday.

The Shipyard's seal and badge.

The Shipyard’s seal and badge.

I can almost never get to Vallejo without stopping at Mare Island, and this trip was no different. Since Mare Island figures in the book, it’s a guilt-free stop. This time, instead of staying in the waterfront, Naval Shipyard area, I drove up to the Touro University and the golf club. That gave me a different perspective.

I went through the museum too, though, which I hadn’t done before. The museum is open most days, 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, and all weekends. When I pulled into the parking lot and parked, a group of young women, one with a stroller, one with a baby carrier, had gathered at the back of an SUV. They looked like a walking group. I made an assumption that their babies and toddlers were too little for it to be a school trip, and I never did see them in the museum. I do know that they stared at me, unsmiling, as I locked my car and walked past, and didn’t respond when I said good morning. Perhaps I was too old to be on their island? I was obviously some kind of “outsider?” It’s a mystery. However, I think these fit, unsmiling moms may find themselves in the book.

Exhibit about the Mare Island Hospital

Exhibit about the Mare Island Hospital

The museum docent, who was older than me, had no trouble smiling, asking me how my day was going, taking my $5 (plus I threw in a donation) handing me a brochure, and giving me the quick overview of the large space. She didn’t dog my steps, but twice when I stopped and looked around because I had a question, she materialized almost immediately. It could have been scary if it hadn’t been so helpful.

A few facts about the shipyard:

    • During WWII, over 9,000 women worked there. Many were seamstresses who made flags, sewed sails and repaired gas masks. Many were ship fitters, mechanics and welders. Some were nurses at the hospital.
    • The flag that made it up Mt. Suribachi at Iwo Jima was sewn on Mare Island.
    • The “Port Chicago Mutiny” actually took place at Mare Island. Although the explosion that killed 320 men (202 of them African American) took place at Port Chicago, on Mare Island the sailors charged with loading the munitions refused to continue until safety precautions were created. While 50 men were court-martialed and found guilty, the general strike led to a general integration of all ratings at Mare Island in 1946, two years before Truman officially integrated the armed services.
    • Mare Island designed and built the first guided missile submarine, the Grayback.
    • During WWII there was a shop in the shipyard that roasted coffee beans 24/7, because we will not let our brave men and women go into battle under-caffeinated!
Sign warning workers to wear their safety googles.

They really wanted you to wear your safety goggles.

After I walked through the cavernous building that holds the displays and a PT “swift boat” from the Viet Nam era, I drove out Walnut to Flagship Street and followed it down and around to Club Drive. If you stay straight on Club Drive you roll into the parking lot of Touro University. This used to be the base hospital, which was renowned for its orthopedic work. They also did psychiatric evaluations here. Now it’s a school specializing in osteopathy. Veer right, up the hill, and you’ll pass a US Forest Service office and come to the nine-hole golf course at the top of the gentle hill. There is a club with a restaurant (and, from the sound of things, a bar) up there.

 

Golf Green and view of the estuary.

Golf Green and view of the estuary.

Then I headed back to Walnut and followed it to the Mare Island Causeway road, over the bridge, where the road mysteriously becomes G Street. I turned right on Mare Island Way, passing the yacht harbor and club and the ferry terminal. I parked on Georgia Avenue, which is where much of my story takes place, across the street from the city hall, where I had an unobstructed view of this large sculpture provided by the Flying Lotus Girls. At night, a woman walking informed me, it is lit up and “it looks cool.”

Large sculpture outside Vallejo City Hall

It looks a little like barbed wire, or a thistle plant. to me.

Mural, corner of Santa Clara Blvd and Georgia St.

Mural, corner of Santa Clara Blvd and Georgia St.

A new mural is going up on this corner, Santa Clara and Georgia. This road was blocked off for repaving the last time I was here. It’s repaved now, and it’s good! Plus, nice mural.

Java Jax, an old gas station remodeled as a coffee shop.

Java Jax, an old gas station remodeled as a coffee shop.

I stopped at Java Jax and had a cappuccino, since Java Jax will be featured as a location. Then I walked up a block… Okay, well, I stopped at the Tortilliera Pinto and bought a pound of tortillas (about 30) for $2.50. The owner broke my heart by announcing that the next day they would be selling fresh tamales. (And I wouldn’t be there.)

Black and white tile, red vinyl pedestal booths at Java Jax

Fifties Malt-shop decor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I walked up to Virginia Street. (State-named streets run east-west, and county-named streets run north-south, and like every system, every so often there’s an outlier or an exception.) I walked past the Empress movie palace and the Masonic Temple Arts building. The ground floor is devoted to studios, and I think they rent lofts out on the other floors.

Empress Movie Palace

Empress Movie Palace

 

Masonic Temple Building, now art studios and lofts.

Masonic Temple Building, now art studios and lofts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Detail from front door of old Masonic Temple Building.

Door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By then I was practically back to my car. I got back onto Highway 37 via the causeway, which means I skipped I-80 and the bridge – not that I mind the bridge. It was a beautiful day, and the Napa River was a shimmering blue, but it’s a bad idea to take pictures when you’re driving.

After much mulling, turning over in my mind, cogitating and dithering over where my main character will propose a secret meeting, I have finally decided that it will have to take place on Main Street in Benicia. It’s only logical.

Porte Cochere and Ticket Booth of Empress Movie Palace.

The ticket booth of the Empress

 

 

 

Now I know where my main character goes for coffee, and where her ex-boyfriend’s art studio used to be. I know about antique shops with snarky names. I know how close the yacht harbor is from the art collective where my main character hangs out, and this is important because someone is going to try to abduct her from there and bring her to the yacht harbor. It’s coming together.

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Arrival: It Will Leave You With Lots to Talk About

Arrival is an engrossing, smart science fiction movie. Like most science fiction movies that are interested in science rather than chase scenes and explosions, Arrival is not about doing science, although the science is respected. It tells a story about the way science, in this case linguistics, could solve an important problem. The “problem” on the table is the simultaneous arrival of twelve interstellar vessels, and what the beings inside them want from, or for, humanity.

Amy Adams plays the lead role, Louise Banks, a gifted linguist. Louise has done work for the military before, so when the extraterrestrial “shells” show up, she is one of the people the military and the government reach out to. At first, Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker) will not agree to Louise’s conditions, but upon some reflection, he changes his mind and Louise is whisked off to Montana. Then, for the first time, she is taken into a chamber in the ship, and sees the beings who have arrived.

The film manages to be beautiful and somewhat minimalist at the same time. The central problem is, simply, how to communicate accurately with the squidlike beings called heptapods. In the background, we see scenes of global civil unrest, and the tension and suspense come from the reactions of other nations, specifically China, which is growing restive and more bellicose by the minute.

The movie, though, is about Louise, trying to make contact, dealing with grief and trying to decipher what is happening to her memory as her ability to read the heptapod language improves. Adams is the brain and heart of this movie, and her performance is more than equal to the task. There should be at least a Golden Globe nomination in her future for this film.

I have a quibble about the field of linguistics as it’s portrayed here. Louise, as well as being a brilliant scientist who studies language, also quite conveniently speaks several. That’s great and it’s needed to some extent for a plot point to work, but linguists study the mechanics (physical and cerebral) of language; they don’t have to be polyglots. I wasn’t sure this film pointed out that distinction.

Jeremy Renner also delivers a solid supporting performance as physicist Ian Donnelly, who thinks that the heptapod language might affect how the human brain perceives time. I wish this character had done a little more, and made more of a contribution to the—Hey! Who left this unevaluated assumption lying here? I just tripped over it!

Oh, wait. I think that’s mine.

Yes, it is mine. I recognize it now. Generally, in movies with male main characters, female supporting roles do very little. (See my comments on the Machel McAdams role in Doctor Strange.) I deplore this. At the same time, about halfway through Arrival, I started getting… well, almost a little itchy. A niggle of cognitive dissonance was bugging me and it was right where I couldn’t reach. After a few minutes I thought, “I wonder why Renner doesn’t do more in this film.” It was only later that I realized how thoroughly I have internalized the convention that Men Must Do the Most, must Save the Day, Be the Hero, Have the Breakthrough. Ian does none of that. His science is there to support linguistics, and his character there to support Louise, who is the center of the story. Ian’s role is perfect and Renner delivered an excellent supporting performance.

Is the film being “subversive?” Maybe. If so it is sticking closely to Ted Chiang’s source material, “The Story of your Life,” and possibly Chiang was being subversive. The role relationships worked great and I was interested in my own reaction to it. The failing here is with me, not the story.

The film lets you learn a little bit about linguistics (and physics) without lecturing; while clearly several aspects of the science in the story have been simplified or dumbed down, the film still lets the viewer think, and it’s a deeply touching story. The film is a little slow, which I liked, actually. See it with a smart person, and you’ll have lots to talk about afterward.

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Tourist Tip: Florence Avenue, Sebastopol

Figure and chicken on green tractor.

Sebastopol’s homage to local farming.

It’s getting to the time of year when family and friends visit, and we’re often blessed with beautiful weather. You can stay inside and watch football, but if you’re in or near Sebastopol you owe it to your guests and yourself to take the Florence Avenue walking tour.

Florence Avenue runs between Highway 116 and Bodega Avenue, also known as Highway 12, which runs east-west through town. Originally an ordinary residential street with a couple of nice Victorians on it, Florence began to mutate when found-object sculptor Patrick Amiot moved there. In a very short period of time, nearly everyone on the street had at least one Amiot sculpture in their yard. The neighbors take this pretty seriously; about ninety percent of them are lit at night. It is whimsical, fun, and I can pretty much guarantee that it’s not the kind of thing you find in every small town.

Totem pole; dog, Cat, Bird, Mouse

Totem pole.

Two owl sculptures

The Owls might be my favorite

Detail from Godzilla figure.

Detail from Godzilla figure (and how I felt after the recent election.)

The best way to see the works is to walk. It’s a short street. It’s also narrow, with parallel parking on both sides, which makes driving at best tricky and at worst helllish. It is the only drawback to the neighborhood. I recommend parking in the North High Street lot, next to the library and directly behind Copperfield’s Books, and walking up to Florence. The lot offers two-hour parking. Out of the parking lot, turn left on North High Street. Turn right on Bodega Ave and walk up to the next right turn. You will see the First Church of Christ, Scientist on the corner and Ceres Community Project (with an Amiot honeybee sculpture) directly across the street. For science fiction fans, the house on the corner of Florence and Bodega has a TARDIS in its yard.

Turn onto Florence and dig out your cameras and phones, because the statues start immediately.

Waitress

Waitress

Acrobats. This is a detail; there are three figures.

Acrobats. This is a detail; there are three figures.

These photos represent a sampler. You can see Amiot’s work throughout town, often commissioned by businesses. You can also buy an annual Amiot calendar at most stores in town (I know Fiesta Market carries them) but there is something to be said for seeing them in their three-dimensional glory.

I know I don’t have to say this, but I will. These figures are in the yards of people’s homes; regular people. You can get great photos from the sidewalk and street. Be courteous and respectful. And Enjoy!

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Doctor Strange; Opt for a Matinee

I liked Doctor Strange. I saw it in 3D, which means in my case putting those glasses on over my own glasses and (always) courting an eyestrain headache. I consider Doctor Strange worth the ache for its entertainment value, even if the story doesn’t hold up, after the fact, to close inspection.

I have only read one graphic novel with Doctor Strange in it, and it was Avengers 1602, or something… Neil Gaiman wrote it and Strange looked perfectly like a 17th century Spanish grandee. I think it was the combination of the cape and goatee. That gave me a misleading understanding of the character. I thought he might be British, and I thought that the surname Strange was chosen deliberately to echo the name of the British aristocratic family who were minor players during the Tudor era. They weren’t the high-stakes folks, just “regular” aristocrats trying to make a buck without getting thrown into the Tower of London. Still.

Imagine my surprise that Stephen Strange is as American as a Starbucks, a genius neurosurgeon who is too much like Tony Stark to be likeable. We watch him push around a couple of colleagues including the former girlfriend, then perform a miraculous bit of surgery that might hint that he has supernatural abilities. Then he drives while distracted, dumps his high-performance car into the river, and sustains serious nerve damage to his hands. No more surgery for super-surgeon.

I nearly wept. For that car. It was so young! It had so bright a future!

But… the comic-to-movie migration is a lot about visuals, and if you want an actor that looks like Doctor Strange just stepped out of a comic book, Benedict Cumberbatch is your guy. This is a perfect match of physical actor with character. I didn’t know Cumberbatch could do physical comedy (although that shouldn’t surprise me; he is talented and obviously has a strong work ethic), but the funny scenes are very funny. The character of Strange is not deep, as I said, but Cumberbatch makes that work throughout the movie.

You know who else looked perfectly awesome? Tilda Swinton, that’s who. Courting controversy in the bleached and gender-swapped role of the (formerly Asian male) Ancient One, Swinton plays a mystic teacher who humbles Strange and teaches him magic. She is great. Her casting still gives me problems, especially when the director himself said that every screenplay version with the Ancient One as an Asian woman conjured up “Dragon Lady” comparisons.  This is his failure of imagination and I hope he works on it in future films.

I’ll leave it at this: “Casting Swinton shows a lot of the problem of the studio thought process when it comes to non-white ethnic characters – and Swinton was awesome.”

Then, Mads Mikkelsen. He owned the role of the villain, the proud, angry former student of the Ancient One who turned away from the path of so-called righteousness and has wandered down a bad path. First of all, Mikkelsen drips intensity, and then… his facial makeup was imaginative and almost, for this kind of film, minimalist. Perfect.

Tied in the giving-great-performances-while-being-criminally-underutilized category are Chewetel Ejiofor and Rachel MacAdams. They’re both great. They both should have had meatier roles, and I would have been willing to give up at least two kaleidoscoping-cities scenes to get that. MacAdams plays the girlfriend/conscience/walking first aid kit and both the character and the actor deserve better. Given the trajectory of Ejiofor’s character, he needed much more meaningful screen time. In his case this isn’t necessarily more time; we needed scenes that revealed his character more.

And still… I enjoyed the acid-trippy 3Dness of it all. I loved the cape. I should perhaps be worried that the cape was my favorite character. While the magic is not supported or explained in any meaningful way (it’s “magic”) and the rules are arbitrary, the magical trick Strange pulls off to defeat the cosmic enemy –and there is one – tickled me.

I recommend seeing this at matinee prices. It works well to introduce Strange and the arts of magic directly into the Avenger movie story-line. And it’s gorgeous.

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Falling Water; I’m All In

(This will be a long one.)

Falling Water; a watersoaked-cherub

Falling Water

With four episodes under my belt, USA’s Falling Water is my favorite new show this season. I will not be alone in this, but I will be in a fairly select group, because Falling Water’s tropes are only going to appeal to a certain kind of audience.

The story is a science-fictional thriller, set in today’s world, about dreaming and some sort of communal consciousness. (I refuse to call it the “collective unconscious.”) Set in New York City, the show follows three characters, each of whom has a compelling personal life problem, who soon discover their dreams overlap – and who begin to appear in each other’s dreams. The story is not merely personal; there is global price manipulation of rare earth metals; a dream cult; numerous deaths and a sense that if commodities prices can be manipulated, so can many other things… like elections? National security?

faceless-Man

Faceless Man

The plots radiate out like a reverse-onion. We started in the center and are peeling back walls on our way out; the word Topeka; a dream experiment hosted by a mysterious billionaire; a child’s face; the death of a mysterious woman on her way to meet with the Belgian Ambassador to the UN, followed by the deaths of twelve people, each wearing green sneakers, in a suburban house; a hint of insider trading; a suicide; an explosion.

The show reminds me of the first season of Lost, back when I was completely captivated. Fortunately, we don’t have quite as many characters to follow, although more and more secondary characters are becoming important. Basically, though, our three; Tess, a trend-spotter and designer; Burton, the security manager at a Wall Street brokerage and Taka, an NYPD detective, are the people whose waking and dreaming lives we see the most.

Why is Falling Water working? Mostly, a high-end ingredients list makes this show. High quality writing is interpreted by a stellar cast with stunning visuals and intriguing/menacing sound editing, and it all feeds what is, so far, a compelling story.

The perfect mesh of character with casting:

Tess (Liz Brochere) confronts her demons -- with a pick

Tess (Lizzie Brochere) confronts her demons — with a pick

Tess is smart, strong, gifted and vulnerable. In her teen years she was institutionalized for a stretch. During that time, she is convinced she had a child although there is no evidence she has ever given birth. In her dreams, she is pursuing her son, now a six-year-old blond boy who likes to play catch with a green tennis ball. Lizzie Brochere’s delicate features with her huge anime-character eyes expertly capture Tess’s vulnerability and her strength. I’m not a fan of the super-skinny female actor, but Lizzie’s slimness adds an important waifishness to this role. Brochere delivers Tess’s lines perfectly, whether it’s a sarcastic throwaway about how she got into the dream study, an argument with her charismatic, controlling mother, or the sense of complete freedom and confidence she shows in her dreams. Brochere plays Tess as a somewhat muted character who delivers most of her emotional punches through nuance, and every punch delivers.

David Ajala

David Ajala

Burton works for a Wall Street firm. His brief, security, encompasses personal and cyber – basically he’s a “fixer.” Burton dreams of his relationship with a beautiful woman, a relationship that is broken and may be ending… if the woman even exists outside of dreams. He uncovers a scheme that looks, at first, like insider trading, and he is the first one to see the clue “Topeka.” We don’t know Burton’s background but it’s easy to imagine military intelligence or special forces of some kind, and David Ajala brings a fluid, observant self-discipline and control to the character. So much of the information revealed in this show is done visually, with little or no dialogue, and Ajala communicates a sharp intelligence and a hidden, wounded heart with one flick of his gaze, or one twitch of his lips. In Episode Four, watching him trying to decode the recurring dream sequence strategically was a sheer delight. In that same episode, watch Burton’s reaction when he walks into the blue corridor and does an environmental scan, and you will see just how fully Ajala has embodied his character.

Will Yun Lee

Will Yun Lee

Taka is a detective. Okay, I admit it, if I’d known nothing more about the show except that Will Yun Lee was in it, I would have checked in right there. I have liked him since he played Sara Pezzini’s ghost sidekick on the (admittedly disappointing) TV series Witchblade. Here is a chance to see him playing a lead, not a secondary character and not a villain. Taka is a cop who trusts his intuition, and in some ways is nearly as vulnerable as Tess. His mother is in a catatonic state and he visits her regularly at an institution; he talks to her and does nice things for her, and there is a love and desperation in those scenes that tugged at my heart. In cop mode, he makes connections and sees patterns that others really hope he won’t see. Will Yun Lee lets us see Taka thinking, sharing those patterns… and also lets us feel his sense of loss.

Exquisite visuals:

A show about dreaming should rely on visuals, and Falling Water glides on them. Images matter; they’re often clues, but even shots that don’t contain clues are beautiful and meticulous. The repeated images of Burton’s office building from the outside, in a canyon of steel and glass, mirrors the photo of the falling/flying man that matters to Burton (and, it seems, may matter to Tess).

Whether it’s the slo-mo swirl of Taka’s mother’s skirt as she dances in a dream, the gleaming cityscapes, the Italian restaurant or the shimmering cloud of ash that enlightens Taka and inspires Tess, the visuals are stylish, stunning and congruent with the story that’s unfolding.

Sound editing and music:

There is low-pitched rumble that indicates strangeness or danger that occurs at rare times throughout the show; just one more element pulling the viewer into this strange waking/dreaming world. Music is chosen well, whether it’s twangy blues or lush vocals during a dance.

Quality writing:

Line by line dialogue is well-done. This is a show stuffed with clues and it is hard to write that in a way that doesn’t feel clunky. These writers manage. In Episode One, an aside between Burton and a seeming-doofus trader named Woody, about how not to use your work cell phone, turns out to be very important indeed. The three-way argument with Tess, her psychologist mother and psychologist sister is loaded with information, tense and intense, and wildly believable – and I mean “believable” in the sense that I think one of these writers must have that mother as a mother.

They do a good job of using secondary characters – like Burton’s boss or the eccentric billionaire – to deliver exposition in a way that is palatable (even though we do think the billionaire is lying). Part of this, again, goes to the interplay of fine writing with able actors.

Mostly, though, the writers have convinced me that they do have a vision and a through-line. Falling Water gets compared sometimes to USA’s award-winning hit Mr. Robot, and I was a little worried about its first season, but it delivered. Falling Water delivers solid, thought-provoking entertainment.

I’m worried:

Could they still blow it? Absolutely. They could become fear-driven and aim for a cliffhanger ending as a superstitious attempt to ward off cancelation rather than trusting the story to unfold at its natural pace (staying true to the vision, in other words). They could do the Lost thing… whatever that was, which seemed to be adding everything including the kitchen sink into the mystery. That would sink Falling Water without a ripple. The scale of the show is one of its strengths.

I’m also worried about how Gibsonesque (Gibsonian?) Falling Water is. This is an odd worry to have, because the Gibson-like touches (I’m thinking specifically of Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History) are part of the joy of the show. Still, Tess and the Bill Boerg character are frightfully close to Cayce and Bigend, and the sense of the global price-fixing; a glimpse of the larger work that we might not see again—echoes a common Gibson theme.

So, the show could implode at a moment’s notice, but, somehow, I don’t think it will. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Links:

Full cast and crew from IMDB.

Show site.

William Gibson.

 

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The Curse of the Plot Monkeys

The term “archetype” has been adopted by agents, editors and reviewers to describe an underdeveloped character who acts solely according to the needs of the plot and not out of their own needs, fears and conflicts.

In other words, they’re plot monkeys.

One of the difficult things with plotting — other than the actual plotting — is figuring out reasonable reasons for why your character does something that advances the plot. For example, your character has to be kidnapped. To do so, he needs to open his door to a stranger without looking through the peephole. Why would he do this? The risk in making your main character do stuff just to tick off a plot point makes that character seem stupid or inconsistent. They become hard to like.

I just read a book where a woman character, who had just ended a relationship with the villain, had stopped his taking his calls. This was a reasonable reaction for a woman in her situation. Twenty-five pages later, though, the plot requires that the villain get important information, and find out where she is. Therefore, for no other reason, she not only starts taking his calls again, but blathers on and drops all kinds of hints and clues, spilling the beans at every opportunity.

Boom! She is instantly demoted to plot monkey status.

The main character in the project I’m working on free-wheels her way toward plot monkey status on a regular basis. I’ve set her up as someone dealing with the aftermath of trauma, which affects her decision-making, but that can’t be the excuse for every action she takes in the story. And she’s supposed to be pretty smart and very perceptive.

I really have to step back and ask myself several questions about nearly every scene:

–What does she want from the scene?
–What does she fear might go wrong in the scene?
–Is there information she doesn’t have, that would change the outcome of the scene, if she knew it?
Why doesn’t she have that info?

I don’t want to turn a secondary character into a plot monkey by having them say something like, “Oh, damn, I forgot to mention that once you get past the security system there are the five attack dogs.” There should be some plausible reason she doesn’t know things.

Here’s an example of a character who was no one’s monkey, who took an action that had catastrophic consequences; Nieska in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. Nieska has been sent to the tower of the local wizard to act as his companion. Against her will, the wizard has begun to train her in magic. When her home village is menaced, Nieska grabs a vial of potion she thinks will help. She risks her own life, and demonstrates courage, intuition and smarts to save the village, which she does. Unfortunately, she uses up all the potion doing so. Only then does she discover that the potion is rare and the vial she used up took 12 years to distill. Now there is none left and the enemy is regrouping.

Nieska is not stupid. She is impulsive but not terribly so. She is unlearned. Her ignorance and her education are a theme of the book. I didn’t roll my eyes when she used all the potion. I would have too.

Ignorance will only take a character so far, though, because after a while the reader starts to wonder why the character isn’t stopping to ask some basic questions.

In The Family Plot, by Cherie Priest, a salvage crew camps out in a seriously haunted house. After the first one or two incidents, you might start to wonder why the don’t just spring for a motel. Priest has prepared us for that; this is a desperate last-ditch job for the company, and the owner ran up all the credit cards to pay for it. Camping in the house is free; things are going to have to get very bad before this group pays for a room. And when things get very bad, they do change their plans. It’s just too late.

Plot monkey risk lurks everywhere. My personal clue that I’m demoting my characters comes when I’m saying to myself, “Where Character X has to leave her car unlocked so the villain can plant a hex pouch in it.*” Help! Character X is teetering on plot monkey status!

Why would Character X leave her car unlocked?

–She’s carrying in a lot of groceries?
–She’s emotionally distracted?
–She’s helping a friend who is using crutches?

It’s probably going to be the friend on crutches, and maybe the friend on crutches got injured when a previous attack by the villain ricocheted onto them. Then Character X might be feeling guilty. She rushes up to their door, and after all, it’ll only be a few minutes.

Your character could be a plot monkey if he is listening in on the gangsters, who are speaking Russian, on page 265, and he understands them perfectly even though there’s never been a word about him knowing Russian before then. You will make his monkeyhood worse if he says something like, “Oh, didn’t I mention that I speak Russian?”

She may be a plot monkey if a belief she hold to adamantly completely changes seventy pages later with no experiential or informational changes. On the other hand, if she appears to abandon her adamantly-held belief as soon as she finds out that her ex or her mother agrees with her, she may not be a plot money. She may just be shallow — or a brilliantly crafted character to whom we can all relate.

Think through your character’s needs and reasons. Motivations don’t have to be “logical,” just plausible. They must seem to be acting on their own, not driven in a forced march by an abstract plot outline.

*no hex pouches were used, or harmed, in the writing of this column.

 

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Strange California; It’s Funded!

Strange California is the themed anthology (can you guess the theme? Can you?) that accepted a story of mine earlier in the year. Payment and publication were all dependent on a Kickstarter campaign, and getting enough backers.  The Kickstarter ends on October 27, 2017.

We reached the minimum funding goal on October 25.

I was thrilled — I still am thrilled. The publishers pay professional rates and half the anthology will be stories solicited from established writers, in come case award-winning writers; Seanan MaGuire, Nick Mamatas, Juliette Wade and E Catherine Tobler to name some. So a story of mine will be in a book with stories by them.

I also felt even better about my story being accepted when I realized that half the table of contents was solicited manuscripts.

I want to talk more about this, especially about the power of both market research and networking. (I get no credit for research on this sale; a friend told me about the antho: a triumph of networking.) Right now though I just want to bask in the excitement. And say once again to all of you who passed the word along or backed the project, THANK YOU!

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The Double Standard

The 2016 MCWC Short Story workshop had a get-together on Saturday, in Oakland. Lori Ostlund, our teacher and her partner Anne Raeff hosted, and Blaze coordinated it. Blaze and Lori’s niece checked out venues and came up with the Double Standard, on Telegraph Avenue, which was perfect for the group and the weather.

If you’re in the 2400 block of Telegraph and can’t find the Double Standard for some reason, go across the street to the odd-numbered side and scan the even-numbered side’s roofline. Seriously. When you see the tops of two towering redwood trees, you will have located the Double Standard, at 2412.

This post will be mostly about the bar and Adventures in Oakland, and less about the reunion. I will say that we had thought Nyla, who lives in Port Townsend, Washington, was going to be able to attend, and we missed her; we missed Nancy who planned to attend but couldn’t make it. I would have been surprised if Doug had driven down from Fort Bragg, even in his high-tech car, and Hunter had to work. It was great catching up with the other writers. We had two picnic tables in the corner of the yard (under the redwood trees!) and there was some switching off going on so we could talk to everyone. Even so, I missed an opportunity to talk to Chivvis!

Traffic in Sonoma and Marin County was awful; once I got across the Richmond San Rafael Bridge it lightened up. Directions to the bar were excellent. I was stymied by a mound of pea gravel right at the corner of Northgate and Sycamore, where I had to turn. Good news, bad news; road repair for the city of Oakland (yay!); navigation difficulty for visitors (boo).

I parked in the 2800 block and was initially baffled by the parking spaces because they look like they’re in the middle of the street. There was a parking meter on the sidewalk; to the left of it a bike lane, then another narrow lane (street-sweeping?) and then the marks for the parking space. I nearly parked in the bike lane, which would have been bad. Next I had to figure out the parking meter, which took credit cards. It wasn’t that complicated. Parked and paid, I walked back to check that my car was locked when a Fit pulled into the space behind me. The driver waved at me, but I didn’t recognize her. She got out, a slender, elegant gray-haired woman a few years older than me. I still didn’t recognize her and that’s because I didn’t know her. She looked very pulled-together, kind of how I always imagined I would when I got old instead of how I do. “Is this the way to park here?” she said.

“I think so.”
“Does that parking meter work?”

 

“Mine did,” I said, at last recognizing a kindred spirit.

“I parked in the bike lane! But a man told me I’d get in trouble. How does the parking meter work?”

“I just did it, so I’ll show you.”  I helped her out, since having done it a minute and a half earlier I was practically a pro.

The walk down to the Double Standard was nice. There seems to be a line of demarcation at about 25th Avenue. Higher numbers than that, and the storefronts are empty. Once you hit 25th you start seeing cafes, businesses and bars.

The Double Standard is not fancy, but very pretty, and the back yard with the trees is perfect. They don’t have a kitchen but they invite in local chefs and eateries to provide a “pop up” kitchen, and a vegan place (Nono?) was serving wontons, lotus leaf wraps and tofu bao. I grabbed two orders of won tons for the table. The filling was mushroom; warm and savory. The wrapping was not twisted or tied in a little pouch as you often see, it looked more like a pastry or a wrap, and the dough seemed firmer than usual wontons. The did not skimp on the filling.There was a dipping sauce with them that I didn’t try, but others around the table enjoyed. The lotus wrap was mostly a savory sticky rice. Inspired, we got an order of bao for the table, but I didn’t try one.

Mimi sprang for dessert; pumpkin doughnuts with maple icing. An order was one large doughnut cut into quarters. She brought back two. The pastry had a crunch on the surface and was light and airy (the lightest doughnut I’ve ever eaten) with a subtle pumpkin pie flavor. The “icing,” dolloped on top, was about the consistency of crème fraiche, not overly sweet, with a clear maple flavor. Bits of caramel corn sat on top.

I had a sidecar, and it was delicious. The lemon juice had obviously been squeezed that day, and the proportions of brandy, triple sec and bitters was ideal. The bartender used a stirrer to taste the drink. I asked him if it wasn’t up to his standards, would he have thrown it out. Yes, he said. It didn’t have fancy “call” ingredients but it might be the best sidecar I’ve had.

Many of us had to get on the road, so the group broke up about seven. There was more foot traffic as I walked back to the car; the dinner crowd coming out, I guess. As I walked past a store front a Korean-looking couple, maybe in their fifties, came out. They were talking. A young black man was walking toward us. As he passed them, they pivoted and watched him. They watched him walk all the way to the end of the block (I know this because, of course, I did too.) Something in their body language said that this scrutiny was personal, specific to that man. I have no idea what it was about.

Anyway, I’d go there again, just not a lot, because it’s a drive. Still. If you’re in Oakland and want to spend an evening at a pleasant bar, check out the Double Standard. And if the weather’s good, sit outside!

 

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