A Sip from Chalice

Here is a scrap from a work in progress, Chalice, a fantasy novel set in Seattle in the 1930s. Magic flourishes and booze is still illegal. Gabe is a blind tattooist who has acquired a set of magical tattoo needles that give him information via mental images. This section is a flashback to how he met his shapeshifter lover, Philippe. Definitely a case of lust at first sight, or not exactly sight. I hope you enjoy it.


It could have been only a day ago that he had pushed open the door to Pedro and Violet’s botanica, its bell chiming, and stood, inhaling the pungency of the dried herbs around him, mingled with the sweetness of lavender, mint and something slightly like vanilla. Underneath them all, the scent of lemon oil and moist earth. He knew from his neighbors on the waterfront block that the couple grew starts of some specialty herbs in the backroom. Traditionally, that space would have been a stillroom, but stills, even for herbs and essential oils, raised eyebrows and suspicions in Seattle. And, unlike him, they didn’t live in the backroom either.

“Help you?” the woman asked. Her voice was low-pitched, young, with the lilt of some accent of the American south. Gabe remembered hearing that accent from the war, but he couldn’t place it.

“My name’s Gabe Malek,” he said. He swept his cane in a shallow arc in front of him and advanced, holding out his other hand. “I run the tattoo parlor next door.”

“I’ve seen you. I’m Violet Solomon.”

“Pleasure.” He’d reached the counter, the source of the lemon oil smell. The woman’s grip was firm and soft-skinned.

The other magickers on the street had filled him in, in bits and pieces; she worked with her husband, or common-law at least. She was colored and the neighbors thought the husband was Spanish. There was a brother who came by most days and helped behind the counter sometimes.

He said, “I’m always looking for an antiseptic that burns less than alcohol.”

“I have a nice spirit of lavender cream.”

“I think a few of my clients have purchased it,” he said.

“A few. They’re sure proud of your tattoos. You’re an artist.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me, just repeating what I’ve heard.” From the faint clinking, she was fiddling with something underneath the counter. The needles showed him a chariot, a woman with a tall headdress driving it, plunging forward. That image didn’t quite match the voice, but he’d learned that those details didn’t matter. That was how the needles saw her.

Lavender scent danced around him. “I’ve never heard of a blind tattooist before,” she said.

“I don’t think there are that many of us.”

“May I?” She took his hand and guided his fingers across a cool, silken surface. The cream clung to his fingertips. “Maybe just the one? You?”

He smiled. “Maybe, at that.” He rubbed his thumb across his fingers. The cream was rich, but light. “You and your husband, you’re botanical magicians?”

“Pedro is, not me. I just do herbs.”

“You’re a curendera.” He lifted his fingers to his nose.

“Raised and trained by two of the best, if I do say so,” she said. “I have a couple other infection-fighting plant essences in there.”

“How much per jar?”

“Thirty cents.”

“I’ll take six jars,” he said. “I’m trying to place the accent. Georgia?”

“It is not!” She sounded almost outraged, but then she laughed. “Florida. St. Augustine.”

“I met some men from Georgia during the war. It’s the only accent I recognized.”

Jars clinked. “You were in the war? Is that how you lost your sight?”

“No. The eyesight was a trade for magic.”

“Magic.” Paper rustled. After a few seconds she said, “Worth it?”

“Ask me again later.”

“How long’s it been?”

“Twelve years.”

“Really, and you still say, ‘ask me later?’”

The bell on the door jingled. Gabe hadn’t paid attention to the steps on the wooden walkway. The scent, and the energy, was male and young. “Morning, sis,” the newcomer said, in a voice like the low notes of a cello. Gabe felt that voice vibrate in his chest, as if he were the instrument himself.

“Philippe, come meet our neighbor. Mr. Malek, the tattooist.”

“It’s Gabe,” he said, turning and holding out his hand. The brother moved lightly, nearly soundlessly across the floor, as if he were gliding. His grip, too, was firm, his hand warm where his sister’s had been cool.

“Pleased to meet you.” From the direction of his voice, he might be an inch shorter than Gabe, maybe two.

“He’s buying spirit of lavender.”

Gabe said, “It’s gentler on the skin than alcohol.”

“Most everything’s gentler than alcohol.” There was a hint of laughter in the voice.

“Little brother,” Violet said.

“Tattoos can sting, sometimes for days,” Gabe said. “Anything that soothes the skin is good.”

“Then why not try shimmer lotion?”

“Philippe!” Violet’s voice got a little high-pitched. “It’s perfectly legal, Mr. Malek—”

Gabe held up a hand. “I know the difference. Shimmer is great for easing pain. It’s just difficult to get.”

“Because people confuse it with that vile blood-magic shit they make with it,” she said.


“Violet makes a lotion and a gel that’s good for sore muscles,” Philippe said. “The dock workers use it, and the factory girls.”

Gabe pulled out his wallet. “Can I buy a sample of the lotion? And I need to pay for the lavender.”

“You can pay for the lavender, but I’ll give you a sample of the shimmer.” Her heels tapped away.

Warmth caressed Gabe’s right side as Philippe leaned against the counter. “I see you most mornings, walking back from the diner,” he said.

“I have breakfast there every day.”

“I stop in to help out here after I do my rounds for the grocer.”

“Green-grocer?” Gabe said, using the slang for a botanical magician.

The young man laughed. Gabe felt a warm shaft of desire shoot through him.

“Naw. Fruits and vegetables, mostly.”

Violet returned. “Here you go.” Paper crackled and Gabe reached out for the package.

“Let me.” Philippe moved, and the package was guided into Gabe’s hands. For a second, their fingers touched.

“Don’t be a stranger,” Violet said.

Gabe wondered, or hoped, that the brother’s gaze followed him as he left the shop.

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The Way We Live Now #2

Sebastopol’s AIM mail center is still open, because it is a mail pick-up for people. The counter person who mailed a book for me the other day said mail delivery packages coming in have tripled since the first week of March.

They are staffing the place with one worker. I don’t know how much longer they will be able to do that as mail-orders increase.


My neighbor a few doors down walks every day, to Graton and back, usually. It takes about two hours. She is a high-energy person (I know, she worked at Public Health before she retired and I met with her quite a bit), and she says she needs the walks to stay sane. The other day we talked — me in the front yard, her on the street. She wore cargo pants, a blouse and light jacket, an expedition hat with the sun-guard around the back, and a bandanna tied over her face. I said, “I like your mask.”

She said, “This is what I wear when I walk the Camino de Santaigo de Compostela. I call it my Camino get-up.”


Sebastopol Hardware limits the number of customers at a time in their store. The store has a lot of narrow aisles. It would be difficult, to put it mildly, to observe social distancing. The garden entrance is the official entrance and the east-facing door is the official exit. Employees with face masks and hand-sanitizer monitor each door.

The same is true of their “south complex,” the other building they have, which houses paint, sporting equipment, clothing and pet supplies. In that one, they have taped down In and Out arrows on the floor of the one door, where a masked employee stands guard.


Yesterday, I tried out a light industrial mask when I went into AIM and later to the grocery store. When I ordered from the meat counter, the butcher’s assistant said, “What?” and I had to repeat it. I couldn’t use my own bags for the groceries, even if I bagged my own. They are concerned about the virus being transferred from my bag onto a hard surface and potentially onto a human before that surface gets cleaned the next time.

Today I wore the mask with a scarf tied over it. It’s a work in progress.

It’s all a work in progress.


I have a small and growing stack of gift cards from restaurants and bookstores. I saw on Nextdoor the other day that I’m not the only one. Someone was offering them. I’ve offered them on Facebook and had one taker so far.

As far as books — personally, for me, an essential service — many bookstores are selling online or via the phone, and shipping. Here is an incomplete list.

Every one of these stores will cheerfully sell you a gift card, too.

All of these things work. Nothing works 100%. Everyone I encounter is doing the best they can do to stay safe and keep themselves safe. Things evolve and reverse as we learn more and as we watch the models of other countries and states. Some states are working together to pool and deploy needed medical equipment.

A tiny but loud minority says and does really stupid stuff. And neighbors are being neighbors, good bad, endearing and irritating. Proof that some things don’t change, even the way we live now.

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Motherland: Fort Salem. Kind of like a deflating party balloon.

Sometimes people have idea that must, in the moment, sound brilliant but just doesn’t work out. Like, “Cats, the Musical, with big-name non-musical actors and CGI!” or “Sweet potato pie, but with bone marrow!” This seems to be the case for new series on Freeform, Motherland: Fort Salem.

“It’s G.I.-Joe-style Military School, only with witches! And they’re all girls!”

Motherland: Fort Salem, which I am going to abbreviate as M:FS because that makes me laugh, is, to quote Freeform, “Set in an alternate America where witches ended their persecution and cut a deal with the government…” And then “follows three young women from training through deployment as they fight terrorist threats with supernatural tactics.” And most of what is wrong with the show is captured right there.

In this world the Salem witches had actual magical power. It’s not clear just what “government” they might have cut a deal with, since the historical witch trials took place in 1692-93. So, they brokered a truce with King George? Did they fight on the side of the British during the colonial rebellion, then? We don’t know but we guess not, because in the credits we see a painting of a witch general, General Alder (who’s still around) in a boat crossing the Delaware. Did the colonies achieve independence with the help of a witch army? Dunno. Maybe. Were there enslaved people in America? Dunno. Maybe. Was there an American Civil War? Dunno. Maybe. Is America post-democratic republic, and now a matriarchy of some kind? Dunno. Maybe. Probably.

Like this, but with chicks.

There are several African American women in the show, at various ranks. Abigail Bellwether is the scion of a military dynasty of war heroes and she’s one of the three MCs. Several aides to the general are African American. This is good, but more on what’s not good about that in just a bit.

Currently, the Witches of America are fighting a global war against an adversary that calls itself the Spree. That’s right. The Spree. And their primary weapon seems to be blue party balloons.

Oh, an update here – they are hate-filled blue party balloons. That’s very different.

Our three MCs are exactly what you expect.

  • Abigail, the legacy, carrying the burden of her military heritage. She will be horribly disillusioned.
  • Raelle, the rebel, who hates the army. She’ll be horribly disillusioned on a personal level eventually.
  • Tallie, the idealist and patriot. In films, this character is usually killed. Since Tallie’s an MC, instead she will just be emotionally tortured until her idealism and faith lie around her in shattered pieces. I’m just saying.

These are the same three characters we meet over and over in war movies, whether it’s boot camp, military school or some Pacific island where John Wayne has to make men and soldiers, or sailors, or whatever out of them.

One really cool thing about the show is the magic, which uses different tones, like song or chanting, to activate magic. Whoever is doing the vocals is great, and the harmonies create wonderful eerie moments. Like everything else in M:FS, though, this good thing highlights a really big gap in the world-building. Presumably, this alternate America was peopled when the Europeans got here. Where is the Native American magic? Where is African magic? There are, as I said, many African American characters, but only one “brand” of magic is used. It might be that this is military magic and other branches, like healing, forecasting, and so on draw on other traditions. And this leads to another worldbuilding problem. The entire witch community seems to be military; in fact, draft-dodging, if you’re a witch, is a crime. You don’t build a community on only one aspect, and certainly not an army, which needs infrastructure. I mean, come on, people.

The show seems to intend to address the inequities in its system using role reversal. It’s a matriarchy and men aren’t equal. They’re not subjugated, but clearly they lack privilege. And the Spree seem to be mostly disenfranchised witches, so plainly, if there is a terrorist army of such magnitude (they must have bought all the blue party balloons in the world, after all), there is trouble in Witch Haven Paradise.

All this may be moot. Freeform only had three episodes completed when we all started staying home, and there are no more in the pipeline right now. The show may lose its momentum completely. Of course, streaming may save it, but if it faded away like a deflated balloon, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

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The Way We Live Now #1

The Great Sequestration continues, as the world makes drastic changes to survive the coronavirus.

Sonoma County issued its shelter in place order on March 17, and they recently extended it through May 3. The “peak” of COVID-19 cases is now expected to hit in mid-May, which means that pushing out that peak (to have time to focus on readiness) has already bought us a few weeks.

In the first few days, I realized that “shelter in place” for me was a lot like, oh, say, a Tuesday. We are not gregarious people. On my own, I’ve been known to spend an entire day, or maybe two, going no further than the yard.

And in the first week, the local parks were open and you could walk. Back then we were still petting dogs if the owners permitted it, so you could have some social interaction. After the first weekend, when people thronged the parks and did not observe social distancing, that ended and the parks were cordoned off. I still walk, but it’s not as pleasant and I don’t see many people.

Humans are inventive creatures though and we’ve found various ways to interact. Some of these have come off the internet or the news, and some are things I’ve done myself. Some I’ve heard about from friends.

Phone and Facebook:  Of course, phone contacts and checking in on Facebook reassure me that people I love are well.

Songs of Comfort: On Instagram and Twitter, #SongsofComfort offers various videos of music, ranging from professional musicians to families and kids singing for us. You can also find it on the PBS Newshour site. Yo Yo Ma took this up when he saw some musicians performing on those platforms to offer something to people who are isolated and scared.

Live-Tweeting: I lovehate Twitter. I’m not even going to put the diagonal slash in anymore. What I love about it is how quickly you can check in with someone and offer encouragement, support or a resource. And some people are using Twitter as they always did, live-tweeting series finales of TV shows or watching movies together though far apart.

Vid-conference drinks parties: This I saw on Twitter (see?). A group of writers that met once a week for beers in their local watering home used video-conferencing to check in. Each person sat in their house with their beer and they all got caught up.

I did a variation of this with the Benicia Crew – a get-together, no beers.

Drive-by Parties: We had one of these in the neighborhood last week. A teenager was having a birthday, but couldn’t have an event, of course, so people drove by and honked and waved while he stood on the porch. The parents decorated the front window. Noisy, and no cake, but still… nice.

Social-Distance Barbecue: Karen and Brian live on a cul de sac and they are very close to their neighbors. They are no strangers to hardship. Three years ago the entire housing tract burned to the foundations. All the neighbors rebuilt, and they are back in their homes. In normal times, they had impromptu and panned get-togethers. Before the rules tightened, they had a “social-distancing barbeque.” Each neighbor wheeled their grill out into the front yard, they each cooked something for themselves, and they stood on the sidewalk, well apart from each other, and caught up.

Ringing the Bell:  Another friend told me a man in her neighborhood has a bell in his yard. (No, I don’t know why.) At 6 pm every night, he rings the bell. Everyone comes out and shouts greetings to each other for a few minutes.

Bears in the Window? People are putting plushy animals in their front windows so that children out for a walk have something new to look at.

Online Write Ins: Cat Rambo is using her Patreon and her Discord to host online write-ins. Yes, it’s video of people keyboarding or writing; but it imparts that sense of community that may be missing. There are many ways to do this; if you’re already using Zoom, it’s a natural. (I’m doing a version of this with Brandy but we check in by phone first, write, and check back in by phone.)

Pot-banging/Applause:  In a neighborhood in Madrid where a lot of medical workers lived, neighbors leaned out their windows at 8PM on Thursdays and applauded. It was for the healthcare workers. In the USA, there’s a movement to do this at 7:00 pm on Fridays. Our neighborhood in not dense, and I’m not sure it would work physically, but I plan to do it on Twitter with the applause emoji. (Some areas suggested banging pots instead of just applauding.)

This would work in our neighborhood is someone recorded it and posted it, but that someone wouldn’t be me.

What are you doing to keep in touch? How are you maintaining contact with your social groups? Please share.

Posted in Around Town, View from the Road | 2 Comments

Vagrant Queen: Oh, Dear

I’d been waited for Syfy’s Vagrant Queen, and frankly, the past two weeks I was waiting with higher and higher anticipation. Part of the crushing disappointment I feel may be an artifact of poorly managed expectations. I thought I knew what to expect, but they managed to bottom out below that.

I put part of the blame on Syfy itself. In the past five or six years, Syfy has sent messages that it wants to do good SF programming. They did three seasons of the brilliant The Expanse, and five seasons of The Magicians. Those were top-tier shows that hold up against anything the darlings of HBO, Amazon and Netflix are producing. Their second tier included a trio of shows (over time) that showcased great characters, good storytelling and excellent writing: Lost Girl, Killjoys and Wynonna Earp (still going strong after a two-year hiatus). Of those three, Wynonna Earp has the strangest premise and is the quirkiest, but still manages to work.

Based on that, I thought that Vagrant Queen, which was hyped in some circles as “having a ‘Killjoys‘ vibe,” would be that good. I understand about small budgets; both Killjoys and Wynonna Earp manage to turn that to their advantage by what they did with exteriors and settings. I thought Vagrant Queen would focus on the on-screen talent and the writing, which is what they did with Killjoys in particular. In Episode One of Killjoys, before I had any clue what was going on, I knew that Dutch was a badass, Johnny was smart and funny, and that Johnny had gotten them both into a big mess. I knew that Westerly, the moon they docked at, was also in trouble. I knew that so-called “code” of the Reclamation Agents was a big clue that corruption was rife throughout this planetary system. And that’s Episode One.

Vagrant Queen tries really hard to pull this off in their first episode. We learn quickly that Elida is the heir to a throne on a world where some ideological extremists pulled off a coup and deposed the royal family. A member of the Admiralty, the post-revolutionary body, has been hunting her down for ten years. But he finds her this time because “reasons.”(“I may have accidentally led them here,” one of her friends says. Ya think?)

Elida has been making a living as a scavenger. The Admiralty comes to the trading post satellite where she trades, and chase scenes, torture and murders ensue. We meet Isaac, who is or used to be Elida’s friend; Amae, a mechanic (shades of Kylie in Firefly!) who ends up joining the team, and Nim, a talking catlike being who might be a robot. There is a blue woman who is a royalist and wants to bring Elida home, and the evil Admiralty guy.

Nothing’s particularly new — Elida traps herself in a trash compactor, for instance — but it really doesn’t have to be if the characters pop and the dialogue sparkles. Sadly, neither of those things happens. The dialogue is terrible. Elida must say, “No no no no no,” in response to the Blue Woman at least three times. The dialogue is bad, but the acting is also pretty bad. Even Tim Rozon, who plays Isaac, seems to be having a very bad day here. We’ve seen Rozon play the not-so-good-guy hero Doc Holliday in Wynonna Earp, so we know he can act. Here, he delivers his lines like he got handed his script five minutes before he stepped in front of the camera.

I had trouble with the facial prosthetics. The proportions are off, and they’re concentrating on strange ears and horns as signifiers of other-than-humans. The point is, it’s bad enough that I noticed and it’s distracting me. One thing I do like; non-humans are the majority, at least in Episode One.

These distracting problems at first cover up the fact that Elida behaves stupidly in order to move the plot, and she’s got a nonexistent moral code. In the opening scene, she lets two rival scavengers get the drop on her in the most basic way possible. She kills the one who is trying to kill her, and then, after thinking about it, kills the other one, who is unarmed and no threat to her. The fact that they are both less human-looking then she seems to indicate that in the world of Vagrant Queen, some lives matter more than others.

I may believe that this is a frontier galaxy where life is cheap, etc. The story celebrates killing people with zero consequences. Elida has no moral code; why am I supposed to think she’s any better than the Admiralty? In fact, maybe the callous brutality of her family is what triggered the revolution. The opening scene certainly supports that theory.

Later she decides to fight her way past an Admiralty checkpoint and get to her disabled ship. That would be the ship that she can’t fly away in, because it’s disabled. The royalists find her and say, “Quick, come hide with us!” and have no trouble getting her onto their ship. This is because the only people who behave more stupidly than Elida are the Admiralty folks.

There are some action scenes with (probably) wire work and martial-arts- looking stuff that are pretty but too slow and don’t read as fight scenes.

You get the drift. Production values aren’t great here. The storytelling is familiar and pretty flabby, and so is the writing. Usually I give a show two episodes before I decide. I may have already made up my mind though. Vagrant Queen is just not working.

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Rough Draft Complete!

I finished the rough draft of the sequel to Aluminum Leaves yesterday.

It is a rough draft, but not that rough. Maybe it’s closer to a first draft. How about a 0.5 draft?

It’s called Copper Road and I’m pleased to report that some of the action actually happens on the story-world’s Copper Road, a caravan route.

I’m thrilled to have it all on the page, even if it is bit like bread dough that has risen and risen and is oozing over the sides of the pan. At least it holds together (I think) and it can be shaped.

What happens? Erin and Trevian must locate the portal that let the nasty pink parasites through into Trevian’s world. They hope to permanently close it. Things don’t always go according to plan, though.

Meanwhile, Trevian’s sister Aideen tries to hold her family and her family’s company together after her father has a serious accident, and someone stages a takeover of the company. Soon, Aideen is running out of options.

What can you expect? Here’s a list.

  • Ambushes and bandits
  • Flash floods
  • Enigmatic caverns
  • Two love stories
  • Parasites! Magic! Horses!
  • Double crosses and desperate plans
  • Boardroom skull-duggery
  • Old books and Hello Kitty
  • Chocolate.

See anything you like?

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The Portolan Project

One of the little joys of attending a convention is that I always learn something brand new to me. This year at FOGCon, on the Archive panel, I learned about Portolan maps. First drawn in the 13th century, portolan maps existed primarily to guide pilots safely from one harbor to another. Thus, they rarely mapped the interior of a landmass.

The idea of maps designed to guide explorers to a safe harbor caught the imagination of Mary Ann Mohanraj, who was one the Guests of Honor. She had already founded the Speculative Fiction Foundation. Having discovered portolan maps, she imagined a Portolan Project, designed to help emerging writers in the speculative fiction field navigate.

In the project’s own words:

“We’re also interviewing emerging writers from across the planet, developing a better understanding of the international speculative fiction landscape, and the challenges and opportunities for writers in both independent and traditional publishing. We have academics helping us build a searchable database of speculative literature, to make it much easier to find stories that are relevant to you and your own work. ”

This looks like a cool project. Mohanraj is a professor, a writer and an editor, and most recently published a beautiful Sri Lankan cookbook. Here is a link to the Speculative Fiction Foundation, and the Portolan Project.

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First Impressions

The across-the-street neighbor before this one sometimes worked in Mendocino County, on the house of a couple who owned a winery. He did finish carpentry for them. On the property was a large barn that housed three barn cats.

During the Camp Road firestorm, the couple lost some outbuildings, and part of their house was damaged. They stopped the improvements and planned to move away from the property. They made no plans for the barn cats. Neighbor had befriended one of them and he adopted her.

Barn Cat was a small cat, with greenish eyes and short hair with tabby markings. She had a slender body and long legs for her size. She adapted quickly to their house and yard, and to my surprise, mostly stayed in their yard, unlike Neighbor’s cute little dog Lola, who delighted in bolting across the street, yapping gleefully, every time she got out of the yard, regardless of whether a car was coming.

Barn Cat was a powerful hunter. Neighbor had a lot of pride in her for that. One time, when I led Lola back across the street to doggie-jail, we got to talking. Barn Cat sat near his feet, her tail curled around her paws. “She’s fierce,” Neighbor said. “She killed a crow the other day.”

“I, she, what?” I love crows, but my reaction wasn’t caused by favoritism. Circle of life, nature red in tooth and claw, yada-yada-yada. I just didn’t believe it. Crows are nervy birds and Barn Cat wasn’t even as big as an adult crow.

“Yeah. I went out in the backyard and she was dragging up a crow’s head and neck,”he said.

I decided that this I believed. She might have found or scavenged the corpse of a crow that had been killed by a hawk, or a raccoon, a car, or even died of natural causes.

A few days later I went out to put water in the dog dish by the sidewalk. The usual pair of crows had lighted on the streetlight post, the way they always did. Neighbor came out. Lola took advantage of the situation to race across the street and flopped down near my feet, tail wagging. The crows looked down, silent. Neighbor yelled, “Lola, get back here!” and came across the street, Barn Cat trotting at his heels.

The two crows immediately started alarm-calling.

Crows make lots of kinds of loud sounds. There’s the yelling they do when they see another crow. There’s the “Hey, there’s food here!” call. There’s a warning-off call to another crow, which seems to be mostly about status. There’s a low-pitched, almost growly sound I’ve heard a single crow make as it dive-bombed a hawk. And then there is alarm-calling, which you will recognize even if you’ve never heard it before. It is urgent. It is unmistakable.

As Barn Cat trotted over to Lola, the crows alarm-called and called. They danced on the lamp post. One flew into the next door neighbor’s tree, and the other onto the roof. They flew in a circle, alarm-calling, then took refuge in the redwood tree behind our house.

Those crows knew Barn Cat. Knew her, and knew she was a threat.

My opinion of the “killed the crow” story changed instantly.

The moral of this story is, first impressions can be misleading.

Posted in View from the Road | 1 Comment

The Food Service Conundrum

Obviously, I had a good time at FOGCon. Before I plunge into this post, I want to say again that the Walnut Creek Marriott is an excellent host to this event. I love the Marriott. One thing in particular that I love is that every hotel worker I meet, from the housekeepers in the hallway, to the valet parkers, to the front desk, are cheerful, friendly, and go out of their way to help me if I have a question or a problem.

But then…

The restaurant and lounge are called Atrio. Service at Atrio was strange, whether in the bar/lounge or the dining area. And, while this is going to read like a complaint, it isn’t really. It’s more of a puzzle to be picked at or worried over (the way a dog worries a chew-toy) than a complaint.

And that said, the conundrum of food service could be a problem for someone, depending on their schedule.

The lounge and the dining area are one large area, bisected by the actual bar which has tall walls to support a flatscreen TV and cupboards with lots of bar-related supplies. The same servers work in the dining area and the lounge. The restaurant also provides room-service, food to be picked up at the host station, and on-site banquets.

There was almost never a wait for a table at the host station. Whether I was with a group or alone, I was usually seated in less than one minute. It was after I was seated that things got weird.

Usually, once I was seated (again, regardless of how many at my table) it would take several minutes for someone to check in with me. Sunday morning for breakfast I was seated right away. I told the host I did not want the buffet and needed a menu. Then I started talking to the person next to me who was also at the Con. After about six minutes he said, “Has somebody been by? I didn’t see anybody.”

The host came by, frowned at my bare table, (no water, no coffee, no menu,) and went off to get me a menu. “I’ll have someone here right away,” he said, and about three minutes later a breathless server arrived, apologized and asked if I wanted coffee. I got my decaf pretty quickly, but it was another five minutes or so before she took my order. I should point out that more than half of the people I was watching were using the excellent breakfast buffet. There were three servers bringing out food, so the dining room did not seem under-staffed. Here’s the other weird thing; a server came up to me (not my server) with a plate and said, “Omelet and hash browns?” I said no and she went away. She had no idea which table ordered what, and plainly was trying to match the food to the table — as if they didn’t have a system for that.

That happened at more than one meal. “Pizza margherita and Atrio burger?” “Um, no, Caesar salad and chicken fingers.” “Oh, okay, sorry.”

Eventually I got my oatmeal that morning though. I was in no hurry, so it wasn’t a problem, but it was strange. And if I’d been scheduled for a 9:00 am panel, I might have left without my food.

As challenging as it was to get food, it could be even more challenging to get a drink in the bar.

Yes, that’s right. It was harder to get a drink. Where do food establishments make their profit? At the bar. Still, one afternoon, I was sitting with a good-sized group in the lounge. After ten or fifteen minutes, a server approached us and asked if we wanted something. There were six of us and one had ordered when he was alone, before we descended on him. We started ordering, and the person to my left said she needed her check with the drink because she had to leave right after. So did the person to her left, and the person to that person’s left. (They were all attending the same event.)

The server said she understood and went straight to the bar, where she got their beverages and their checks. When she came back, I said, “I would like to order something too.”

“Yes,” she said. “I’ll be right back.” She walked past the bar and into the dining area.

After ten minutes I got tired of waiting. There were two of us who hadn’t been served, so I got the other person’s order and went to the bar, ordered and brought back drinks. We were halfway through our drinks when the server returned. “Oh, I see you got drinks,” she said. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back.”

Is this just weird, or what?

I think, seriously, that she got grabbed to deliver some room service or help at the on-site banquet that was happening in another room. I think this is part of the problem; no one really has a station, and people get pulled off to go do other stuff. There is also a line-of-sight problem; if you are expected to serve in the lounge AND the dining area, you can’t see either space from the other space. Possibly, my drink server — okay, not-drink-server in my case– had three tables fill up in the dining area while she was trying to help us, and had to at least get orders in. And then maybe she had to carry around a homeless pizza margherita and try to find its table.

I’m writing this because food service has been an issue at each FOGCon I’ve attended.

Servers are routinely friendly and try to keep smiling when they interact with diner-wannabes. They look overwhelmed and harried. They are all good about trying not to take any stress out on the customer, unless excessive apologizing upsets you. They seem like a group of people trying to do their best in a chaotic situation.

As far as food goes, the hotel has a shuttle and there are about fifty-seven restaurants within two miles (okay, maybe not fifty-seven). An excellent deli and an excellent dim sum place are a ten-minute walk away. Both offer food to go. There is a Jack in the Box across the street. The hotel restaurant offers convenience, at least theoretically. And the bar is the traditional meeting place at conventions, so a bar is handy. Still, compared to the Marriott operation, the food service (which I’m sure is a different company) is noticeably poorer.

Again, this is not a complaint. It’s more that my atrophied manager-skill set is twitching. What’s the problem here? Is it systemic? Let’s analyze. Let’s brainstorm. Let’s resolve. And I’ll go up to the bar to get us a beer while we’re doing it.

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The Longer FOGCon Post (With Photos!)

I think I went to as many readings this year as panels at this year’s FOGCon. That suited me fine. Readings at FOGCon are uniformly wonderful and 2020 was no exception.

The first one I went to featured Daniel Marcus, who read an outrageous and hilarious SF story called “Jesus Christ Superstore.” You’ve read the title, so if I tell you it is set in Texas and includes a satirical use of quantum physics, that may be all you need to know.

Laura Blackwell

Laura Blackwell read, “The Wise and Patient Mother” which will appear in Weirdbook in 2021. The story takes a look at those who history has depicted as monsters. It’s about rage, grief and hope.

The first panel I attended was about Societal Defaults That Carry Into Genre. The participants discussed class, gender, race and skin color, but then they drilled down a little deeper, looking at narrative structure and underlying values. Garret Croker, guest of honor Mary Ann Mohanraj, Alyc Helms and Karen Brenchley participated and Lisa Eckstein moderated. It was a thoughtful discussion. As Eckstein noted during the panel, they could have talked about this topic for another couple of hours.

Dave Smeds
Dave Smeds

Later, Dave Smeds read the poignant beginning of a story about a grieving man and a “wind sister,” an elemental creature. The story had the tone and tropes of a fairy tale.

Garrett Croker
Garrett Croker reads.
Marie Brennan
Marie Brennan

Garrett Croker read from a science fiction story that was written in response to Star Trek, and more specifically, Picard, while Marie Brennan shared a section from a new epic fantasy trilogy she is co-writing with Alyc Helms, called the Rook and Rose series.

Later, when I read with Alyc, she read another section from the same work. It’s good fun, dripping with opulent clothing, class warfare, economic injustice, elegant intrigue, weaponized gossip, and silken flirtation. Book One comes out in November.

On Saturday, I was on the Archives and Genre panel, which ranged widely; actual archives and libraries, the differences of each, the value and necessity of the “lone” archivist who champions a writer or other creative. We toyed with questions of the How and the What, as well as who controls the archive and who has access. Norm Sperling shared some nice bits about the number of telescope archives he uncovered in his drive to collect them. Bradford Lyau studies in archives and has a science fictional archive of his own. Mary Ann Mohanraj talked about the funding for current libraries, and also about food and cooking archives. The seventy-five minutes flew by!

Michael R. Johnson and Daryl Gregory
Michael R Johnson and Daryl Gregory
Effie Seiberg

Daryl Gregory, Michael R. Johnson and Effie Seiberg read. Gregory shared a deeply emotional story about traumatic brain injury, guilt, neuroscience and free will. Johnson read a tense sequence from the second book of his military SF trilogy. MILSF is not my go-to but I liked the main character and the set-up of this piece very much.

Seiberg, who did not attend the convention for health reasons, participated via pre-recorded video with her sweet, funny and nearly too on the-nose retelling of Rumpelstiltskin with a millennial project manager who will give up nearly anything to keep her job and her health insurance. I’d read this story on the page and chuckled; with Effie reading it and doing the character voice for the magical goblin character, I, like everyone else in the room, was laughing out loud.

(l to r) Heather Rose Johnson, Vylar Kaftan (m), Marie Brenan, Beth Barany, Beth Plutchak
(l to r) Heather Rose Johnson, Vylar Kaftan (m), Marie Brenan, Beth Barany, Beth Plutchak

How Deep Do We Dig? Aka “The Research Panel,” featured Vylar Kaftan as moderator,  Heather Rose Jones, Beth Plutchak, Beth Barany and Marie Brennan. The topic was originally, “When do you stop researching?” and that got discussed, because several panelists acknowledged that research can be a tempting procrastination for them – but when you get a bunch of writers who love history and research on a panel, you’re going to learn about researching too. They also spent a few minutes on the vexing issue of how much to include in the work itself.

Heather Rose Jones provided a metaphor that I liked, from the tales of Ali Baba. Ali Baba, that consummate con artist, once set up a caper by borrowing a bunch of his mark’s baskets “to haul something.” He cleverly slipped one or two gold pieces into the weaving of the baskets and gave them back, leaving his mark to think he had hauled gold in them – so much gold, in fact, that he didn’t even notice when a couple of piece stuck to the bottom of the baskets. Research details can be like this – choose one or two vivid, accurate details and place them in your work; it evokes the world without you stopping the story to provide paragraphs of data.

Marie Brennan, whose first work was technically a “secret history,” also brought up the difference between that (where it theoretically happened in our world) versus alternate history, where you can make any changes you want or need.

Nisi Shawl was also unable to attend in person because of health concerns. She did participate in two of her scheduled events via video conference, and later stayed on the call to “hang out” virtually with a group of happy friends and fans.

Shades of Fear; Color in Horror, was not about skin color (although that came up); it was about the use of color to create a mood. Ramona Lyons moderated, Chelsea Davis, L.S. Johnson, and E.M. Markoff were the panelists. This was a very well-prepared panel that talked mostly about use of color in film, not written works. As a result of it I have two new writers to seek out; Johnson and Markoff.

I read at 9:30 on Saturday night, with Nancy Jane Moore and Alyc (pronounced Ah-liss). Nancy’s work in progress is inspired by Dumas and the musketeers. She shared an actiony, funny section that featured sword fights and knife throwing. Alyc read another selection from Book One of Rook and Rose, and I shared a little bit from the sequel to Aluminum Leaves. For so late on a Saturday night, we had a nice turnout, about twelve people.

FOGCon is always held the weekend of the time change, which makes me feel bad for early Sunday morning panelists. The Value of Hopepunk panel started at 10:30, which wasn’t awful. Alyc Helm moderated, and the panelists were Ian Hageman, Keyan Bowes and Elwin Cotman. Cotman and Hageman are both men of color and anarchists, and different flavors of anarchist, which was great for the panel. Bowes is from India and in her sixties, so she brought a different vibe to the panel. Elwin coined the phrase “struggle-punk” as a possible substitute for hope-punk, but Bowes said she felt “hope was the engine of the struggle.” This was another panel who had planned well for the topic, and another discussion that could have continued for another hour as far as I was concerned.

FOGCon offers writing workshops, usually on Sunday. An established writer is the workshop leader and each group has three writers. Work has to be submitted in advance so workshoppers have time to comment. This is a very valuable feature for writers at any stage! I skipped it this year because of time, but my writing friend who attended one found hers useful and validating.

All in all, it was a great weekend. I’m looking forward to seeing how next year goes.

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