Archive for August, 2010
You Are Here
I stopped counting after the eleventh tasting room in the three-block strip that is downtown Murphys. I counted one that isn’t open yet, though. Including that one (I did a recount on the way out of town Sunday) there are thirteen. Wine must be recession-proof.
Murphys is on Highway 4, heading east into the Sierras. During cold dry cycles it gets snow in the winter. In the summer, usually, it gets hot, into the hundreds. This particular Saturday, clouds rolled across the blue sky, and it was about seventy degrees. People were congratulating themselves, and each other, on what a great day it was. Murphys is a refurbished mining town, catering successfully to tourists.
When I first came to Murphys, there was a small bookstore called Mother Lode Books, featuring mostly used books. At some point, I don’t remember when, Mother Lode morphed into Sustenance Books. It expanded into the space next to where Mother Lode had been, and is taking the approach of post-internet independent bookstores in a post-internet world—expanding inventory to include gifts and specialty items.
Sharon and I went in . The one employee, Scott, was on a step-ladder doing something. I found a field guide I wanted, and about three other books in under five minutes. Then I walked over to a shelf that caught my eye.
“Nebula. Nebula award nominees, here on this science fiction shelf.”
He shrugged, still atop the step ladder. “I don’t know. I’m just the Saturday guy, not the owner.”
“You have the winner here,” I said. This was fascinating. I had talked to staff at two local Copperfield’s stores. You could do a display on the Nebula finalists, I’d said. And in both stores, staff had nodded. That’s an interesting idea, they had said, in a tone of voice I recognized; one that meant they weren’t going to do it. Now here were three; and an even weirder coincidence, the three that I had read. There they were, The City and the City, Boneshaker, and The Windup Girl.
I shopped a bit more and then went up to total up my purchases. Scott clambered down off his ladder and came to help. We were briefly interrupted by a very small boy, with his mother. The small boy came around the counter, his face solemn, and handed Scott a picture book with both hands, as if it were a sacred object. “We know you’re helping another customer right now,” his mother said, “but he wanted to give you that to hold.”
Scott said, as he rang me up, “Tell me again what was on that shelf so I can act knowledgeable when the owner gets back.”
“Nebula award finalists. And the winner,” I said, handing over money. “The winner is easy to remember. Windup Girl, and winner. Both start with W.”
He handed me my change. “Great,” he said. “She’ll be impressed when I tell her I know three finalists for the nebulous awards.”
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Sharon had an appointment back at the house, so I decided to stay and walk back. It’s an easy walk, a little over a mile. There were lots of new businesses open since the last time I’d spent time in town.
One corner has a storefront that has seen many incarnations. Right now it is Sierra Nevada Adventure. On each side of the door is a bench, put there by the city of Murphys. There are benches scattered along the main drive, an invitation to sit and eat your ice cream or your frozen yogurt or sip your coffee drink, and stay a bit longer in town because maybe you’ll spend a bit more money.
A man with a brown beard and a lumberjack shirt sat on the corner bench, holding a coffee cup and a pipe. As the breeze flared and shifted it brought me the sweet scent of his tobacco. He leaned back against the wall, gazing across the street. He seemed to be enjoying the weather and the people-watching.
I stopped next to the bench to sip my café mocha from Aria Bakery and try to get a good picture of the Murphy Hotel’s neon sign. People strolled past. One group went into Sierra Nevada Adventure. A few minutes later they came out. “I don’t understand how they’re still in business,” one of them said as they walked past us.
A minute or two later a young woman in a green top came out of the store, barged past me and said, “Sir!” The man on the bench looked around. I thought she might be pursuing a shoplifter, but she approached him. “Sir,” she said again, “I have really bad asthma. And—“ she swung her arm around behind her to point—“every time that door opens. . . . well, couldn’t you go sit on the bench by the gallery, where nobody goes?”
The man stared at her as though he were just waking up. Then, still sheltering his coffee cup against his chest, he held out the pipe and turned it upside down. No burning material fell out of it. It had been empty for the past several minutes. She was right, though, that the direction of the breeze would have blown the smell toward the door.
“Okay, then,” she said. She spun around and went back inside.
He looked away from her, to gaze across the street.
There is another bookstore in Murphys. Now, as a matter of fact, there are three places to get books. Maisie Blue is behind Alchemy, a specialized gift and yarn shop that also sells a limited and targeted supply of books; mostly chick-lit and mysteries. She is aiming at the book-club crowd and since she already pulls in the knitters that seems like a good strategy. I bought Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club from her.
The other bookstore is Murphys Books. This is a big, square unassuming space next to Sierra Hills Market, visible from the highway as you head up to Ebbets Pass. The bookstore owner here sells primarily used and remaindered books, but will special order anything. I don’t know his name.
He was standing outside his shop door with his face turned up toward the sun, enjoying the warmth and the breeze, clearly not lamenting the hundred-degree weather of the day before. A local woman came in right after me. While I was looking, she went up to the counter to pick up a book she had ordered. They talked for a minute about the road trip she had taken with her mother. I think she said they had seen Glen Beck somewhere, or maybe that she was disappointed they couldn’t stay somewhere (DC?) to see him that day as he had his rally. The bookstore owner said, “Oh?” “Yes,” and “Um-hmm.”
“I know many people don’t like him,” she said, “but he just seems so nice.” I wondered if she had met Glen Beck in person and if he had been nice. “People complain, but he’s just about history. He’s all about history.”
Yes, like I’m about neurosurgery.
“It’s just a different history,” she said.
“Well,” the bookstore man said, “He gets to have his say, just like we all do, right?”
“That’s what matters to me,” he said. “Just that we don’t get dogmatic. I’m glad you and your mother had a great trip.”
She left and I picked up a hardback copy of Longitude. After all this time, the Sig-O and I still haven’t read it. The book looked so new I thought maybe it was a reprint. I brought it to the counter. The bookstore man congratulated me on my find. “I bet it’s never been read,” he said. “Someone got it as a gift and gave it away.”
While he was ringing me up I looked around. Above the door, four posters ranged across the wall. Freedom of Speech. Freedom of Religion. Freedom from Hunger. Freedom from Fear. Beneath the text on each one there was an illustration, very Rockwellesque.
I said, “Wow. The four freedoms.”
“Aren’t those great?” He smiled, and his brown eyes crinkled up at the corners. “And they’re authentic, from the period. I bought a bunch of old books and there was an envelope to a credit union of the time, postmarked even. And those were inside.” He looked up at the wall and tipped his head to one side. “I should put the envelope up too,” he said. “Did you notice what was between them?”
I hadn’t, so I walked over to look. He had two posters, signed internment orders for Americans of Japanese descent. “I put them up there for a reason,” he said. “Because. . .it’s about history.”
“Because it was happening, it was all happening, at the same time?”
He nodded. “And it’s happening again, right now.”
“You mean in Manhattan.”
He nodded again. We talked about mosques and Manzanar. He said he thought it was all about history; that it wasn’t strange that we could have the Four Freedoms and the internment camps at the same time; that those are the choices we make when we’re frightened. We talked about how easy it was to give away or trade away our rights because we think we’re silencing, or controlling, someone else. We were talking about FDR’s Four Freedoms, as we stood underneath them.
I wished him a great weekend and left, wishing, for a second, that Glen Beck could have a conversation with him, because the local woman was right. It is all about history.
I just posted my response to this Nebula-award winning novel. Now I want to make a more personal comment about my reaction to the book.
One reason I comment on other books is that reading analytically helps me see what works and what doesn’t work in a story or a novel. Theoretically, I can then apply that skill to my own work.
I commented that The Windup Girl had a plot that was slack in the first half, and I found that to be a problem. Let me put that remark in some context. The draft of the novel I am currently working on has enough slack in the plot to host a double-Dutch jump-rope tournament.
While I was reading Windup Girl, and while I was drafting my post, I had two epiphanies; two places where scenes in my book that are fun but do not advance the story can be cut or at least condensed. One involves our heroes stopping to buy a black market car. At one point, something happened there that made that scene necessary; but now it isn’t. It’s about seven pages–I can cut it to one paragraph.
I would not have made that connection, tiny though it is, is I had not been looking at Bacigalupi’s novel through the lens of a tighter plot. Thank you, Mr. Bacigalupi!
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
Nightshade Books, 2009
There is a lot that’s good about Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl.
There is a lot that’s wrong with it, too.
The Windup Girl won the 2009 Nebula Award. I understand why. This is a novel of Big Ideas, a bold move and an interesting premise. Bacigalupi’s reach exceeds his grasp, but a flawed, risky work of art often has more value than a success that played it safe.
I recommend The Windup Girl but I didn’t exactly like it. I understand why it won the Nebula, but I don’t necessarily agree.
In a vividly realized Bangkok of the future ( 100-150 years from now) Anderson Lake, an undercover “calorie man” who works for the mega-conglomerate AgriGen, schemes to get access to the rumored Thai seedbank, believed to hold genetic material of vegetables and fruits long extinct, which the Thai are cautiously reintroducing. AgriGen and one or two other companies have a monopoly on the world’s seeds and grains; and their stock grows more and more susceptible to plagues and opportunistic viruses like blister rot. This bio-homogenization has led to starvation around the world. The calorie companies are in a constant race with the viruses, and constantly searching for new (old) material they can mutate and patent. Lake’s mission criss-crosses with the machinations of Hock Seng, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian refugee—a “yellow card” with precarious immigration status—and Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, a Thai folk hero who works for the Environment Ministry.
In this post-petroleum world, computers are powered by foot treadles and kink-spring technology creates mechanical batteries. Lake uses a kink-spring factory as his cover, and Hock Seng is the factory manager. Lake is on the trail of a new fruit he found in the market, and in the course of his search, he meets Emiko, the “windup girl,” a genetically engineered sex-toy, programmed to be beautiful and submissive, longing to be free. Emiko is a vat-grown geisha trying to be Pinocchio.
Other reviews, including this excellent one at Strange Horizons, have explored the weakness of Emiko as a character more eloquently than I can. She was not a plausible person to me. Her alleged struggle between genetic programming and her desire for free will never rang true. Despite the name of the book, the “windup girl” is not a very important character. She isn’t even much of a secondary character. Emiko is a toy to the characters around her who exploit her, and a tool to the author, who needs her to do one particular thing near the end of the book. Her apparent struggles, shown through the same interior monologue she repeats several times during the course of the book, are unconvincing.
This sounds as if it is a problem with character, and I did not find most of the characters to be compelling, but the real problem is with the plot. The first half of the book is slow, and the characters are passive. Things are put in place that are needed later in the book, but they are disconnected from the actions of our protagonists. The only exception is Jaidee. Jaidee’s actions have consequences and resonance, and that may be why he is the most memorable character, and seems to be the most effective, even when he fails.
In the first thirty pages of the book, Lake shoots a rampaging elephant-mastodon. This is a wild, breath-taking, suspenseful sequence. Then Lake does nothing much else for a very long while. He is supposed to be secretly looking for the origin of the mystery fruit. Instead, he hands them around like oranges. He goes to the bar where the foreigners—the farang– hang out, sips warm whiskey and complains about sipping warm whiskey. He could pretend to run the kink-spring factory, but if he did he would discover something, so he doesn’t. Hock Seng engages in a lot of interesting activities that highlight his growing desperation and his hatred of the White Devils, but do not advance the story.
This slack plot, so early in the book, when so many characters are being introduced, left me with too much time to think, to grow irritated with Emiko, who seems not tragic and noble but merely whiny. Despite her constant internal protestations that she would like to be “free,” the book slants her story in such a way that it is clear she does not want freedom. She just wants a new position, a better patron. Anyone would.
These problems continue for more than half the book. Suddenly, on page 207, a strong woman character emerges. Suddenly, betrayals happen. Suddenly, the streets are alive and dangerous. Suddenly, fortunes are reversed, and reverse again, and things start to happen. People get shot. Things explode. The book lumbers off the runway and wobbles into flight.
The book tends to read like three separate novellas that were broken into chunks and interleaved. The actions of our three main characters, all male, should create some tension and opposition for the others, and they don’t. Bacigalupi is primarily a short-story writer, with several stories written in this universe, and I put some of this down to inexperience with the longer form. There is enough here to reassure me that we will not see these kinds of structural problems in his later novels.
I will not, however, let him off the hook for the disparity in his treatment of his characters. The book is very brutal, with cruel deaths, beatings riots and massacres. The book has a lot of violence, much of which happens offstage or is described after the fact. A beloved (male) character is killed and his body horrifically mutilated. The reader discovers this through the safe, distancing veil of another character’s recollection. A mahout is crushed into jelly by the rampaging megodont, but we don’t see it. Losses in battle, stacks of bodies after a riot, are given a phrase or two, sketching in the horror without lingering.
The exception is the depiction of the twin rapes of Emiko. These happen almost as bookends, the first very early in the book, the second close to the end. We understand that rape is a nightly occurrence for Emiko. It is, in fact, part of the floor show at the club her master owns. The first rape scene is described in words that are intentionally erotic; water glistens on her naked skin like jewels, she bends like a willow, her breasts are described. As the two-and-a-half-page scene progresses the language becomes a little harsher but still eroticized. This is not accidental and not meant to be strictly salacious. The author is trying to tell us something about Emiko. Two hundred pages later, in the same club, Emiko is raped again. Again, the scene lasts two and a half pages, with exact, precise physical detail. The language is rougher here, and Emiko’s emotions are more consistent. Both scenes happen in real time, not softened as flashback or recollection. Emiko is not protected from the horror the way the male characters are.
The point of these two scenes is supposedly to show us the difference in Emiko’s reactions. In fact, the second scene is the catalyst for the thing Bacigalupi needs Emiko to do in order for the plot to work. Still, this much careful, attentive detail, and this much space, twice? It’s disturbing. If we had seen character growth in Emiko, if Emiko’s next act really were to assume control, rather than lose control, the second rape would seem a little less like pornography, and maybe the first rape would, too.
The Windup Girl is a book worth reading for the world Bacigalupi built, and the story he tries to tell. It was a bold move and an interesting premise. The Nebula judges, however, had another book with a unique world that was a bold move with an interesting premise. That book was Palimpsest. Palimpsest took chances, and it succeeded without the seams showing. So why didn’t it win? I have an idea. I think Palimpsest’s literary virtuosity intimidated the judges. Windup Girl is more accessible; an easier read.
So go read it. If you like war-games and boys’ club science fiction, you’ll like it better than I did. Get your conservative friends who don’t understand what the fuss about climate change or genetically modified food is all about to read it too. Then be prepared for a lively discussion that’s going to go on late into the night.
UPDATE: Jeremy Lassen of Nightshade Books left a comment below explaining how the Nebula winners are chosen. It’s not a panel; the entire membership votes. He thinks it’s unlikely that they all fled en masse from the terror of a literary novel and took refuge in a more science fictional book, and I certainly see his point.
It’s August in sunny California, so of course we dressed for the summer; the Sig-O had his shearling vest and I had a jacket and gloves. People had down parkas, sleeping bags, hats, gloves and scarves. This is how you dress to watch Shakespeare in the Park in my town.
The Summer Social, the Rep’s fundraiser, provided dinner and a play for $40/person. You got all the fine wine you could drink and a picnic basket that held a Caesar salad with chicken, a roll and Cowgirl Creamery (Redwood Hill Farms) goat cheese, an Asian pear and some grapes, breadsticks and a package of three specialty cookies. The baskets were donated by a local realtor.
Dinner, with wine and dessert, and a play, for $40 a person is a pretty good deal!
The odds are good, in a town this size, that we will run into someone we know. I saw Lonna and John Necker almost immediately. Lonna and I shared an office when we were staff trainers together about a decade ago. John ran his own electrical contracting business. They are both retired and I have run into them at other Rep shows. We ended up sitting with them at dinner. A little later the Sig-O ran into Bruce Nachtigall and his wife Pam. Bruce and the Sig-O had a Boy Scout connection. Bruce’s Kiwanis group sponsored the Sig-O’s troop and every year at the Apple Blossom Fair, the troop (and the Sig-O) would help out at the Kiwanis booth. For the Sig-O, this meant barbecuing chicken, nine hours a day for two days. Then he would come home and run his glasses through the dishwasher to get the grease off. No joke.
No beer! Last year Lagunitas provided free beer for those patrons who aren’t wine lovers. And yes, there are some. This year, none! This is a serious oversight that must be corrected.
Going Once. . .
Lee Farris, rodeo bull-rider and golf course owner in town acted as the auctioneer. Because of his rodeo background, he had real auctioneer experience. The auction seemed a bit sluggish compared to last year, but Lee’s auctioneer patter added authenticity. Someone spontaneously put up a $500 matching donation, and that spurred a flurry of waving hands. I think they made $1200 on that transaction alone.
At the end, an audience member asked Lee to auction off a round of golf, with him, at his golf course, and Lee agreed. John Necker nearly leaped out of his chair, he was so excited. And he won!
The Play’s the Thing
And then the play started. It’s A Comedy of Errors. Shakespeare serves up the dish that has become a staple for prime time one-hourdramas and daytime serial television—twins, separated at birth. This is Shakespeare, so he isn’t going to be a piker and give us one measley pair of twins. Oh, no. Two sets of identical twins are separated shortly after birth, one twin of each set being raised together as slave and master, unaware of their other halves. One set ends up in the commercial city of Ephesus while the other is raised in Syracusa. When the Syracusa master and man go to Ephesus on business, the fun starts.
I snuggled into my fleece jacket, rested my head on the Sig-O’s shoulder, sipped my Pinot Gris, and let the games begin.
When the big white letters on your canopy say “Information,” you get questions that are broader than just how to swipe your EBT card and get market tokens. I was being a “go-fer” for most of Saturday, but I ended up at the booth a few times. Here are the questions I got:
“Where’s the coffee truck?”
“How do I get to the Gravenstein Apple Fair?”
“Which way to the booth that has tamales?”
Fortunately, I knew all these answers.
We had 8 volunteers from an agency called VOICES (Voicing Our Independent Choices for Emancipation Support). This program was started by a group of young people coming out of foster care, in Napa County. They were worried about how they were going to make it with no support network, so they formed their own. A year ago VOICES opened a chapter in our county. These young folks staffed the crafts booth, took some market surveys that Paula wanted, and helped out with the ocassional random task.
At work, we had been wanting our local paper to carry a story on VOICES for a long time, but we had no luck. The agency had been profiled in the San Francisco Chronicle, but not our local paper. About eleven o’clock, I was standing with the reporter from the local, making small talk while I waited for Nancy to find Paula and bring her here, so the reporter could ask her a couple of questions. I was trying to oh-so-casually work VOICES into the conversation. I had managed to work it into the e-mail I’d sent inviting him. Finally I just said, “We also have kids from VOICES here.” (I’m old and everyone under 30 is a kid to me.) “It would be nice if you had a chance to—” I turned as I spoke, scanning the crowd for Paula, and saw Felix, one of the VOICES folks, heading straight toward us. I said, “Oh, look, here’s Felix from VOICES now.”
Felix was looking for Paula, but he started talking to Martin, the reporter, with no hesitancy at all. I was impressed, maybe even stunned. I’m always second-guessing myself, worrying that I’ve said the wrong thing, sure I sound like a blithering idiot, and Felix was confident and clear, his voice full of energy, no “Ums,” or “Uhs.” Martin was leaning forward, scratching notes, interrupting to ask questions, engaged.
Paula and Nancy came up. Martin gave Felix his card and said, “Call me next week. You want to catch me before I go on vacation.” He turned away to talk to Paula.
Felix looked at me, grabbed my arm, and said, “Was I all right? I didn’t screw up, did I?”
“See that guy in the red shirt, behind the chicken coops?” Paula pointed. “That’s Paul. Go get him and tell him to help us put up the canopies.”
I walked across the Vets’ Building’s parking lot toward the truck with the chicken-coops-on-stilts, where three men stood drinking coffee and laughing. The tall guy in the red shirt looked like the oldest.
I had gotten here a few minutes after seven am on this foggy Saturday, and, not seeing Paula, I sat in my car and watched the vendors set up the market. Pick-up trucks and vans rolled carefully into their Paula-designated slots. People piled out, or jumped off the tailgates, and pulled out tables, EZ-Up canopies and lug boxes of vegetables and fruit. Some tilted up temporary walls; others spread tablecloths or oilcloths. A couple of vendors with cooking booths trudged over to the building to get water or swung squat cylinders of propane into their booths.
Paul was going to help us assemble the Information booth for today’s SNAP (Food Stamp) kick-off event. I cut him out of the herd. “Paula told me to tell you that she needs your help.”
He scowled at me. It wasn’t a convincing scowl. “Do you do everything Paula tells you to do?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
As we approached our staging area, Paula slid three storage boxes out of the back. She looked earthy, like a hill-country grandmother in a literary novel; gray hair, not silver, yanked back into a haphazard ponytail, tanned face, deeply lined, blue eyes used to scanning the horizon. She immediately gave Paul orders. “Here, set this red one up right here,” pointing one flip-flop and scraping a line on the pavement with her toes.
“Why am I doing this, woman? I’m busy.”
“You weren’t busy. You were just bee-essing with your buddies,” she said.
“Paula, are you going to want to other canopy?” I said, starting to tug it across the tailgate.
“Careful, it’s heavy! Yes, we do need that one. It’s for Wendy.” She pointed to show me where she wanted it set up, and I continued to drag it out of the back.
Then Paula vanished. She did that a lot during the course of the day. It’s a gift she has.
“The only thing wrong with an EZ-Up,” Paul said as he and I tried to pull the aluminum legs apart and get the spacing right, “is the name.” The spidery framework stood with two legs planted on the areas Paula had marked, and the other two not quite square. “Now we have to put on the canopy,” he said. We pulled the red plastic cap down over the tops of the poles. Grommets had to be matched to screw heads about the size of nickels. Once the fabric was in place, I had to screw the head back on. Paul showed me how to use the head of my house key as a screwdriver. Now the red cover with INFORMATION printed in white letters was firmly attached, but the whole canopy stood about four feet high and the truss in the center nearly touched the ground. Paul clambered down underneath, crouched on the balls of his feet and pushed upward. In theory, the truss would rise and the canopy blossom open.
“I’m in trouble,” Paul said, wobbling back and forth. I leaned in and reached out for him, but he toppled backward, catching himself on one hand as if he were crab-walking, then letting himself go into a controlled fall and rolling to one side.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” he said.
We decided to telescope up the legs a couple of notches, and then the truss rose almost automatically and the thing unfurled as gracefully as a sensor array on Star Trek.
The second canopy, the older clunky one that I had pulled off the tailgate, took us half as long.
“What do you sell?” I said, as the button on the last leg of the canopy popped into place.
“Redwood boxes,” he said. So the guy who had helped up set up to announce the acceptance of Food Stamps at the market didn’t even sell an eligible item.I promised to stop by his booth.
The Doctor Chef Is In
I knew Wendy Kohatsu, MD, was a woman after my own heart when I saw her chopping an entire head of garlic for her cooking demonstration. Dr. Kohatsu is faculty at the residency program at the Santa Rosa Clinic, and a chef. She loves to cook and prefers low-fat, healthy and probably vegetarian meals. The theme she and her residents had chosen for market day was Food as Medicine.
“Is there anything you need?” I said. The folks from VOICES had shown up, eight of them. They were staffing the kids’ craft booth, but certainly one or two of them could act a gophers, and I knew Wendy wanted to reconnoiter the market to see what produce would be good in her creations.
“Yes. I’m supposed to have sixty dollars from Paula for food, and my minions are supposed to be here, but I don’t see them,” she said.
“Isn’t it nice to have minions?” I looked over my shoulder as I spoke and saw two young doctors from the residency program strolling toward us, name-tagged and clutching coffee cups. “ I think they’ve arrived. I’ll go find your cash.”
This took me on a round of the market, because Paula was about eight different places, and none of them were where I was. It’s that disappearing thing. When I found her, she had about thirty-five dollars in cash and sent me back to the Information Booth. I walked the length of the market again to the red canopy and found Nancy, who had changed into her pea pod costume. Nancy was not only the heart and soul of this project, in my opinion, she was also the quintessential good sport. Plus, she’s like a Size Two and looks good in a pea pod costume.
Nancy was surprised to be told that she had the money bag, but soon we found it. I gave Dr. Kohatsu her funds. The first thing she cooked, just to get the smell of olive oil and sautéed garlic wafting through the market, was a stir fry of dinosaur kale, white trumpet mushrooms and garlic. White trumpet mushrooms; I’d never heard of them before that Saturday.
And Why, Exactly?
From the early 1970s when the Food Stamp program was created until somewhere in the mid-to-late 90s, “food stamps” were actually paper coupons. There were a lot of downsides to the coupons; they let everyone behind you in the checkout line know you were using them (and many people seemed to feel that gave them the right to comment on what was in your cart); they were easily stolen, just like cash, and just like cash, not easily replaced; they were fragile and could be destroyed in a fire or a washing machine. States, counties and other jurisdictions had to transport and store the coupons as if they were cash, with armored vehicles and vaults, a sizeable expense. Food Stamp coupons were part of a criminal black market because some people would trade them, at a discount, for cash.
There was one good thing about them; since they were just like cash, people had no trouble using them at farmers’ markets.
In the 90s, everyone decided that electronic benefits were the way to go. Electronic benefits were more secure; and there was less potential for fraud and black-marketeering, and less stigma, at least in theory, at the checkout line. There was only one teeny-tiny drawback; most farmers at certified farmers’ markets did not carry Point of Sale devices, nor could most of them afford the $800 to purchase one. Farmers’ markets were cash-and-carry, and the new Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) was edged out of the markets.
Surprisingly, many low-income people who use food stamps don’t eat a lot of fresh fruits and veggies and they don’t come to farmers’ markets. They buy food that’s cheap and filling because it’s what they can afford, or what is available in their neighborhood. In my county, one of the most agriculturally diverse in California if not the United States, there are neighborhoods categorized as “food deserts,” where families cannot buy fresh vegetables or fruit. The USDA now lets certified markets become EBT vendors and accept food stamps, in an attempt to connect people with healthy food.
There is one machine for the whole market, and the business entity of the market is the vendor. If I participate in the Food Stamp program, I go to the red Information booth, I swipe my card and say, “I want to spend twenty dollars.” You hand me twenty one-dollar wooden tokens, unique to this market. Let’s hope I spend all twenty, and leave satisfied. Maybe I don’t. I come back at the end of the day with five tokens left over. I can ask you to load $5 worth of benefits back onto my EBT card. What you really hope I’ll do is hang onto the tokens, and come again next week.
Managing the Expectation
A lot of time and energy had gone into this “launch” event at the Santa Rosa market. There were fliers, press releases, radio spots, articles in the local papers. We connected with churches, clinics and Laundromats. A lot of energy, for one day, for a population that is disenfranchised, lacks transportation and is often passive. All along I had been saying, “It’s okay if we only get six families. If we have more volunteers than we have food stamps clients, that’s not failure.”
Paula brought $400 worth of market tokens. We thought that was optimistic.
We had thirty-seven swipe-card transactions. At ten-thirty, Paula was frantically running from booth to booth, writing IOUs to the farmers and collecting back the tokens, because we were running short. At the end of the day we had converted $618 to market tokens.
People stopped to watch Wendy cook. Children played the games and went on the treasure hunt. Kids would drag their parents to the booths that had apples, berries and fresh peaches; fruit was a very big seller that day.
It was a good day.
Now, how do we get them to come back?
This is apropos of nothing. I just think it’s one of the best photos I’ve ever taken. I get no credit for the way the tarp they had in the back looks kind of seipa toned, or the way a crease in it crosses the line of her bow exactly,or the inward, calm, thoughtful expression on her face or even the action of her bowing hand. It’s not perfect (there’s all the clutter in the lower left),but I love how she looks.
I paid extra at the conference to have a consultation with an agent. This is standard conference practice and really is the reason many new writers go to conferences. They hope they’ll find an agent. I came to MCWC the first time nursing that hope as if it were a flame in a windstorm. I met a wonderful, interesting encouraging agent who does not represent fantasy and science fiction, but told me to call her when I wrote something that wasn’t category fiction. Now I think that I’ll never find an agent at MCWC, but the consultations are still interesting—and, you never know.
I’ll call the agent Julie Faber. This isn’t her name, but she was a really nice person and I’m going to make fun of her, so, name-change. I was her last consult before an hour long break, just in time for lunch. Julie had wavy brown hair, drawn off the sides of her face with slim amber-colored barrettes. Before she struck out on her new career, she edited a well-known short-story magazine, and no, it’s not Glimmer Train.
We exchanged pleasantries. She asked which story was mine, and then said, “Oh! The dog bite story!” My story opens with a woman being attacked by a fighting dog.
“I’ve been bitten by dogs several times,” Julie said.
I thought, oh, great, let me just reopen that trauma for you.
“What I meant was, your opening is authentic and scary.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh, good. Thanks.”
“And I like your writing. I like the detail. You’ve got convincing characters with real problems.”
She picked up the manuscript and started paging through it. The pages made that shoop-shoop sound as they brushed against each other. Shoop, shoop, shoop. “But I had some trouble at the end.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. Usually, when a story fails, readers think the ending is the problem. “It falls apart at the end.” You hear that a lot. The ending is usually not the problem; it’s just a symptom. That could have been what was happening here, but I didn’t think so. I thought I knew what was coming.
“She, um, there’s a change in your narrative voice. A complete change. It’s very strange. Suddenly she’s a. . . does she change? Into a, a dog?”
“A wolf,” I said. “It’s a fantasy story. She turns into a wolf.”
“It’s a werewolf story.”
She peered at me, the way I peer at people when they’ve thrown a non-English word into a sentence—like je ne sais quoi—and I have to confirm that I heard it right before I can interpret it. “Oh. I wonder how I would know that.”
How, indeed. Here’s one way; you are reading a story about an ordinary young woman, only she doesn’t seem quite ordinary. She seems to have secrets. Then she transforms into a wolf. Then you think, “Oh, it’s a werewolf story.” That’s one way you could know.
Before I said that, or something less snarky but still snarky, she said, “I don’t read fantasy. I can’t understand it.”
I did not say, “No! Really?” And I did not say, “Sure you can! You don’t give yourself enough credit. Look how fast you figured out she was something in the canine family!” I don’t think I actually said anything.
The magazine she used to edit runs stories that go like this:
There is a man. He lives in an apartment. His apartment is dreary. The man is depressed. The man looks out his window and sees a foggy, dismal street. There follows a paragraph of breathtaking lyricism, describing the foggy dismalness of it all. The man is building a scale model of the Taj Mahal out of toothpicks. The man lost someone close to him; maybe an ailing parent, less likely a partner, most likely a child. The man remembers something surreal, like an angel hovering over the toothpick Taj Mahal. Sometime later, the story ends.
The angel is not fantasy, however. It might be psychological, or it may be symbolic, but it isn’t fantasy, because these stories are literary.
People like Julie have no trouble believing in situations where no one has to pay the rent and they can stay in their dreary apartment and build toothpick Taj Mahals, but cannot accept that a woman might turn into a wolf, because, that’s, you know fantasy, and they can’t understand fantasy.
However, there was more to Julie than I might have supposed, because she asked me where I would market a story like this. I told her. Then she said, “What kind of story can you write, in fantasy?”
“Any story you can tell in category fiction or mainstream, you can tell in a fantastical world,” I said. “It could be a mystery, a family saga, an adventure.” I tried to think of an example. “For instance, have you read Toni Morrison?”
She shook her head. “No.”
No? Nobel Prize for Literature Toni Morrison? Haven’t read her? I said, “She has a book called Beloved. It won the Pulitzer. One of the main characters is a ghost. That’s fantasy.” Less hopefully now, “Have you read Michael Chabon?”
She looked unsure, started to shake her head.
“The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. It’s a police procedure set in an alternate world. That’s fantasy.”
I did not say, “Shakespeare, ever hear of him? Midsummer Night’s Dream, that’s fantasy; The Tempest, fantasy,” because that would have just been mean.
I thanked her for her time and left.
Later I was whining to the others about this experience and Donna said, “That’s interesting. She was educating herself.”
So maybe this intelligent, personable young woman is not a complacent bigot after all, and is going to experiment with the world of fantasy. Maybe she’ll step off Main Street into that narrow, overgrown side alley. What’s the worst that could happen? The thing all the anti-fantasy bigots–that all bigots, actually, secretly fear; that she’ll grow to love it.