Friday, October 24, 2014

The Wheels on the Bus

by Jean Roberta

Getting a formal education that includes diplomas is both a quest and a journey, similar to immigrating to a new country to find new opportunities. Just as my ancestors travelled from England, Ireland and Germany to America in the nineteenth century to escape from poverty and Napolean’s armies, my parents earned university degrees on scholarships to rescue themselves from the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II. The price they paid was the cultural distance that opened up between themselves and their working-class families.

Growing up in my parents’ intellectual household was like being the first American-born child of immigrants. Everyone else in my parents’ extended families thought I read too much and showed too little respect for authority and traditional values.

Going back to the world of my parents’ childhood was impossible. In any case, higher and higher levels of education seemed to be required just to get an entry-level job.

When I was thirty, the bottom fell out of my life. As a divorced mother, I moved myself and my child into a low-income co-op for single parents and discovered that the clerk-typist-receptionist jobs I used to rely on had largely disappeared. I had not been granted the Bachelor of Education After Degree that I had counted on. Sex work brought in quick cash, but it was hardly a long-term career. I finished the coursework for a Master’s Degree in English without much trouble, then worked on my thesis.

No one warned me that a writing project that was supposed to take one year or possibly two would stretch on to eight years. First, my advisor rejected my whole first draft and told me to start over.

Then the Faculty of Graduate Studies, in the person of the Associate Dean, a biologist I thought of as the “snake lady” (snakes were her specialty), began to threaten me with expulsion from the program for taking too long to finish. On a regular basis, I received warning letters which had to be followed up with in-person interviews.

Several times, I explained to Snake Lady that my advisor in the English Department had failed to give me feedback on my latest chapter for several months at a time. Snake Lady would point out that the professor was an esteemed academic, and therefore I had no right to imply that he was at all responsible for my failure to complete a thesis in time.

Once, I told her, “This situation is worthy of Kafka.” She was not amused.

Throughout most of a decade, I seemed to be wandering in a desert, seeking a route to the nearest oasis. I was terrified that my advisor and Snake Lady would simply kick me out so they would no longer have to deal with me. They could always justify their decision on grounds that they were defending the standards of the university against my inferior mind.

Then, one magical summer, everything fell into place. Someone must have lit a fire under my advisor, because he suddenly became available and encouraging. A date was set for my oral defense.

By then, I knew that universities are essentially late-medieval institutions. (The oldest were founded in the 1200s.) The way to prove one’s intellectual worth in such places is to joust with senior opponents, whose job is to play the devil’s advocate. If they couldn’t unseat me from my philosophical position, they would grant me a place in the Ivory Tower.

Even after eight years of revisions and delays, there was no guarantee that I would survive. My father was teaching in another department, but being a faculty brat hadn’t opened any doors for me.

I brought the latest version of my 200-page thesis to a typist who responded to my need for an absolutely flawless copy by telling me she used spell-check, which would screen out all typing/spelling errors. I knew it wouldn’t. Finally, she had finished typing the thing according to regulations, with a wide left margin so it could be bound in dark-red leather, with the title and my name to be embossed on the front cover. I had proofread it several times, and asked her to make changes.

Where I had explained that a certain couple in the novel under discussion had married for the sake of convention (the bride was pregnant by a former boyfriend), the typist had typed that they married for the sake of “conversation.” (That seemed like a good-enough motive, but it was not what I wrote.) I was not amused.

When I brought my bound thesis to the university for the examining committee to pick apart, I was travelling by city bus. I proofread the whole thing, page by page, one last time.

Ohmygod, ohmygod. The typist had substituted the word "form" for "from" in several places. Of course, spell-check hadn't alerted her to her mistake because both of them are standard English words. I had failed to notice this problem before.

I was so filled with adrenalin that I thought I could fight an actual duel. Or maybe I would just throw up on the sidewalk after getting off the bus, and this would be a prelude to further humiliation. I had never experienced such a bumpy, nauseating bus ride. I could feel the big, mindless wheels turning under me, following the same route they followed every hour.

Few people on earth seemed to care whether I was going to be chewed up and spat out by a committee of scholars. Certainly, no one else on the bus cared. Some of them were just going home from work, and had no interest in anything that took place in the university, that haven for the strange and the nerdy.

I felt like a doomed loner from literature: Hamlet, Joan of Arc, Jude the Obscure. I brought my thesis to the committee member who was waiting for it, and babbled an apology for the transposed letters. I probably sounded drunk. The prof didn`t seem concerned by the horrible typos, even after I had pointed them out.

When I entered the room of my ordeal, the committee seemed welcoming, and I took hope from that. After a discussion that went at a brisk pace and ended sooner than I expected, the inquisitors voted unanimously to give me a Master`s degree.

Over a traditional lunch in the Faculty Club, a member of the committee casually mentioned that my thesis was beautifully written. All the rest agreed, as though this fact were self-evident. I could have fainted.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Achievement Unlocked

by Annabeth Leong

I've been a gamer all my life, and so I'm trained to think of quests in very specific ways.

The way it works these days in video games, I run my character around and explore every nook and cranny of the world that's been designed. Quests are marked on the map with little arrows, or with exclamation points over characters' heads.

I want to think about the character I'm playing and whether he or she would be interested in doing the things that are offered. For example, would my goody-two-shoes mage, who turned his own best friend in during the prologue for breaking the Circle of Magi's prohibitions against forbidden magic, actually agree to help hide bodies for a shady organization based in the capital city? I'm guessing no, but I'm not incentivized to have that much integrity.

If I refuse the quest, I'll miss out on experience points, which I need in order to make my character more powerful. I'll also fail to get the achievement the game offers for helping out these shady people. (It's amazing how much motivation an animated plaque can provide). Besides, I won't get to discover that part of the game. The statistics that mark what percentage of the world I explore will wind up flawed. There will be conversations I didn't have, people I didn't kill.

There's also a great coldness to the way quests work in video games. Your character is assigned to save, say, five slaves from a dungeon. You run in, and the game has provided you with an abundance of slaves. No need to wait around or search too hard—there are plenty to choose from. You save your five, and then you get out, because anything else would be a waste of time. Never mind how weird and inhuman that behavior is if you think about it from a different perspective. (The web comic Penny Arcade famously lampooned this mechanic in the controversial strip, "The Sixth Slave." The core criticism in the comic is spot on, though I do see why there was trouble over the callousness of the humor employed to make the point).

All this, however, represents a twisted version of the true concept of a quest. According to my dictionary, a quest is "a long and arduous search for something." According to what I recall from Arthurian legend, that search may not lead where it was supposed to, it may not end when it's supposed to, and it may not be summed up neatly by progress bars, percentage points, and achievements.

Maybe we're not all heroes, but I think we're all on a long and arduous search to figure out what the hell to do with our lives, or if what we're doing with our lives is meaningful or satisfying or useful or positive in any measurable way. I've played enough video games that I think of this life quest in video game terms, even when that's destructive for me.

Let's talk about grabbing quests, for example. In real life, indiscriminately accepting every opportunity that comes one's way is a great way to waste a lot of time and obliterate one's sense of self. There is a part of me that wants to write for every anthology call I see, but what about the times when that's not right for me? Sometimes, that's because of personal reasons or because of my interest or lack thereof or because of my need to protect my own time. Other times, it's because of my beliefs.

A while ago, a publisher put out a call for an anthology that would sport a cover image of a woman with very serious thigh gap. I've read fairly extensively about body image, including a lot of really disturbing stuff about the current obsession with thigh gap. I was interested in the concept of the anthology and even started a story for it, but I kept feeling uncomfortable about that cover image. I imagined posting it on my blog and talking about how beautiful it was (because I do like cover art a lot, and usually make a habit of doing that). I couldn't stomach the thought. I imagined critiquing the thigh gap issue when I posted the cover, then worried I would be seen as unprofessional. In the end, I decided not to grab that quest. Maybe I gave up some gold (heh) or experience points as a result, but in real life I'm not going to get the 100 percent exploration achievement, and I care more about defining my character and values than I do about reaching arbitrary statistical markers.

It disturbs me how often the desire to grab a quest tempts to me to violate my own values for what is likely to be a very small reward.

I've got to think about who I am, what I really want, and what purpose I've got. I'm not a character in someone else's world. In a game, I'm missing out on opportunities for fun by refusing to do things. In real life, there are plenty of great reasons to refuse things all the time.

Achievements are another twisted thing. In video games, I'm wild for those progress bars and percentage points and little shield icons. I want to level up. I want a high GamerScore. I thrill to the sight of the words, "Achievement unlocked," and when my numbers reach X/X, I feel a real sense of, well, achievement.

As a writer, I've unlocked some achievements, too: Story publication. E-book released. Novel out in print. Story singled out on an anthology's back cover. Invited to contribute. As in games, some of the achievements are negative: Bad contract. Deep disappointment. Cruel review. Laughable sales.

I think, though, that this idea of achievements is what saps a lot of the soul from my writing. If I've achieved this thing, then I should feel this thing. If you've achieved this thing and I haven't, then you're beating me. If you've been struck by a negative achievement that I've managed thus far to avoid, that means I'm somehow cleverer than you.

That's not the person I want to be. I don't want to think that way at all. I don't believe in measuring my life in sound bites and neat, pat phrases. I don't really believe in simplicity, either.

What's been even more poisonous for me than the idea of achievements is the idea of measuring progress the way a video game does. Some writers put progress bars for their novels up on their websites, as if a novel is a file downloading at a speed of, say, 1,667 words per day. (With NaNoWriMo approaching, that example speed seems apt). I've learned from writing to daily word count goals, but at a certain point I learned I needed to let them go. I'm not saying it's okay to fool around and pretend to be working when I'm not. Writing is a lot of hard work, and I believe in putting in the time. I'm not a machine or a program, though, and I've done myself a lot of harm by expecting myself to work as if I am. I've done myself grievous harm by expecting my quests—especially the quests as personal as digging a novel out of the collective unconscious and seasoning it with pieces of my soul—to proceed in neat, measured ways.

So many of my expectations for myself and my quests amount to techno-babble. They're not true to what we really know of story, if we stop to think. They're not true to what our fairy tales tell us.

Writing is a tough act of balance. Me versus you. Fulfilling reader expectations versus delighting and surprising. Listening versus speaking (or reading versus writing). White space covered by black words, which need the space or they won't sing. Working toward goals versus allowing room for exploration and discovery.

I don't want to write for maximum efficiency, because there's no joy in that. I need forward motion, yes, but I don't want to see it as a waste of time if I stop for the sixth slave. A real quest involves a lot of time logged in the wilderness. There are many hours when the compass seems broken and the map seems to have been drawn for another land altogether.

Lately, my writing is changing, and I'm not sure how. I am trying to balance the need to keep working and fulfilling my obligations with the equally important need to let myself develop and search. The only way I know to survive is to keep the older, mythical concept of a quest in mind. The video game concept of a quest can be fun, but it provides so much false comfort, and all too often it reveals how hard it still is for us to simulate the deep truths of the world in which we live.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Great White Whale

By Daddy X

In 1970 a friend back east telephoned Momma and I, then living in San Francisco, saying he’d just rented an 18th century farmhouse in Bucks County Pennsylvania, out in the country near my home town. Would we like to come and live in another communal situation?

San Fran had been good to us for over a year and a half. We had our own place, I had a job downtown, and Momma’s health had somewhat improved thanks to the medical care at UC hospital. We probably wouldn’t have considered the move, but my boss at a major retailer was being investigated at the time for embezzlement and theft. Between the two of us, we’d relieved an international conglomerate of $20,000 worth of merchandise in my four months working there. I’d recently driven the guy, his wife and two kids, across the state line into Nevada. It was as good a time as any to get out of town, so we decided to sell everything we owned at yet another moving sale. Early on, Momma and I did that sort of thing regularly.

We flew back to an idyllic scene in the Delaware Valley near Carversville, Pa., living with two other guys—both rock musicians—and their rotating girlfriends in a historic Revolutionary War area. Washington had crossed the Delaware to engage in the Battle of Trenton, the acknowledged turning point in that famous rebellion, only a few miles away.

We didn’t own a car when we arrived, so transportation became tops on the list of things to do with our limited funds—before the stash got frittered away.

One day, driving around, I spotted a 1948 Chevy five-window pick-up truck for sale, newly painted white. The massive black diamond plate front bumper, 18 inches high, boasted three hard rubber projections. A description on the windshield stated the 6-cylinder engine was recently rebuilt, and that the beast had been used for years to push crippled vehicles around a mechanic’s lot.   

What’s this? Only $225? I’ll take it! The perfect vehicle to make a living with! At first, I was tempted to paint across that wide-ass bumper, in large white letters: “AIN’T GOT NO INSURANCE”, then thought again in a rare fit of pragmatism.

For months, I ran an ad in the local paper for ‘light hauling’, generating enough cash with the Great White Whale to keep Momma and I in rent and victuals, with the help of an ever-morphing succession of wandering hippies, musicians and various other questionable actors who shucked and jived through the farm that summer. Many of them never were very successful, and didn’t need much to get by either. My friends’ band, The Little Flowers, hadn’t had a steady gig since their year and a half run at the Night Owl in Greenwich Village. Back in the mid-60’s they’d opened for virtually every group to come through that venue.

Visitors who had made good and showed up at the farm, situated right between New York and Philadelphia, were folks from The Allman Brothers, The Doors, Tom Rush, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs’ entourage, Youngbloods, many of their roadies, groupies and inevitable and incestuous hangers-on.

After we got thrown out of that place, we moved across the river to another farmhouse, this time in Flemington, New Jersey. That’s another story. But suffice to say the first time it snowed laid the groundwork for a planned u-turn back to San Fran for Momma and me. It doesn’t snow here.

Good old California. We had the Great White Whale to get us back. It was a really dependable vehicle. Even in the cold and wet of the eastern winter, it started every time. That’s saying a lot for a six-volt electrical system. The three-quarter ton Chevy carried a wide bed and rode high above 17-inch wheels. Big industrial tires. The newly restored bench seat was a comfort, as was the knowledge that in low-low gear, I could pop the clutch (without pressing on the gas) and not stall the motor. The powerful monster would grind on and on.  

In my great wisdom, I charted a “southern route’ to avoid frigid February on Rt. 80, across the northern part of the country, through places like Denver in the Colorado Rockies. Hell, they call it the friggin mile-high city for chrissakes! No sir. We’ll take the southern route, thank you.

Despite what we’d heard about the south and what had happened to the Easy Rider guys. Get some kicks! Go across on Route 66. We may have been too smart for ourselves. In both Tennessee and New Mexico, the temps fell below zero F. overnight.  

There were luxuries the White Whale didn’t have. For one, it didn’t have a heater, radio, or a working gas gauge. Nor did the odometer register miles traveled. You sort of had to guess how much gas you had. We worked out a system where we’d fill up every three hours, no matter what the terrain or distance traveled. The vacuum-operated windshield wipers were somewhat less than efficient, and we managed to keep them going with sheer will. That and trying to de-ice the windshield by concentrating the combined heat from our co-joined minds. (That actually did work, I must say, even as skeptical as I can be of spectral folly. Some things we experience cannot be denied.) Our gallon jug of water froze.  The cat we’d brought along for the ride almost ditched our sorry asses, and for a time, we thought she had, but we found her up in the springs of that new bench seat. Momma’s feet still give her trouble from frostbite she incurred on that trip.

Due to the fact that the gearing in the Whale was so low, it topped out at 45 miles per hour. We’d be violating many states’ minimum speed laws on freeways, so we decided to avoid such thoroughfares for country roads whenever we could. It was still possible back then; I don’t know about now. Because Momma was in poor health for so long, she no longer drove, so the entire job would be up to me. 

Contrary to our predispositions regarding the south, we encountered wonderful people on the road, despite our appearance. Here we were, two sorry-ass long-haired hippies, far from home, freezing, our knuckles red, stiff and sore. Waitresses at truck stops offered coffee refills and called us ‘sweetie’. In Little Rock, Arkansas—an infamous symbol of civil unrest at the time—a gas station attendant gave us each an old pair of work gloves. 

For the entire drive I swallowed women’s menstrual pills, things called Dapersils, given to housewives of the era for relief from monthlies. First you were slammed with a combo of Milltown, an early, crude tranquilizer—mixed with some kind of heavy speed. Once taken, if the recipient could hold his/her shit together and not go unconscious from the Milltown, along would come this welling amphetamine rush that’d take over for five or six hours or so to keep a person wide awake. Ahem ... or so. Of course, these doses and effects could be adjusted to the rate warranted. For the entire trip I maintained a well-adjusted warp rate, perfect for the job.

And what a job it came to be, like a Zen exercise. I wound up driving the width of this country solo, accomplishing the job in three shots. I drove 36 hours, slept 12, another 36, slept another12, then 18 hours. I hallucinated deer, reptiles, Elvis Presley, and assorted spacey critters on roads across West Virginia, Arkansas and Oklahoma. I slammed the brakes to a screeching halt one dawn on a freeway winding through Albuquerque to avoid crashing into a stalled blue and white 59 Buick convertible (top down) that wasn’t really there. Albuquerque turned out to be a good time for one of those 12-hour naps. ;>)

Three thousand miles I drove and drove the Great White Whale, until she blew a head gasket somewhere below Paso Robles, about 200 miles south of our destination. That meant if I turned the key off, chances were the motor wouldn’t build the compression to start again. We limped into SF feeling like the Joads, busted head gasket blasting like she had no muffler, everything we owned stuffed behind us under the living room rug.

When we look back at such behavior, it can seem to convey a certain frivolity, a sense of ‘it don’t matter to me’ syndrome, perhaps an echo of the times. But if not for that voyage of apparent disregard for creature comforts, Momma X may not have rejoined with the U.C. California medical system.  In time they saved both our lives.

At least the Dapersils lasted. Got us here, partnered with that Great White Whale.



Monday, October 20, 2014

Questless and Restless

Sacchi Green

There’s something about being on a quest, having a significant goal and striving toward it, that’s beneficial to a human’s well-being. If we don’t face any real challenges (or any that have a chance of being within our power to meet) we make up games to fill that lack. Maybe the mental and emotional exercise involved produces endorphins the way physical exercise often does, and/or maybe it’s hard-wired into our psyches from prehistoric times when the essential quest was for food and safety and survival in general, and only those who succeeded passed along their genes. It’s potentially beneficial to humanity as a whole, too, if we assume (as I suppose I do) that the exploration and migration that led our ancestors to populate most of the world, and the many advances in agriculture and science and other forms of “progress,” are good things. (I could argue either side of that proposition, but I’d just as soon not do it now.)

Not everyone has the same level of this sort of drive, and sometimes, in those who do, it manifests itself in destructive ways. Adolescents (of any age) may do stupid and even terrible things in a drive to be noticed, to feel some sort of power in a world in which they feel otherwise powerless. Their quest is to matter somehow. Or people who have achieved great wealth may be so addicted to the “game” that they’re driven to accumulate more and more, by any means possible, no matter how much harm is done to others. Wars are often seen by one or both sides as noble quests for righteous goals, and by some individual participants as quests for glory. Exploration and colonization have led to great suffering and even annihilation of those whose lands have been colonized. Quests for revenge are by their nature destructive, and tend to go far beyond any possible justice. But the drive to explore, to discover, to achieve great goals, whether on a communal or personal level, still feels like an essential and beneficial human trait. (And not necessarily only human; animals sometimes quest for new territory, mates, safety, just as we do, but whether they do this for any reasons beyond harsh necessity, we can’t tell.)

But our topic this time is really meant to apply to individual, personal quests, largely our own, and I’ve clearly been avoiding grappling with the heart of the matter. To my own surprise, at this stage in my life I don’t think I have much in the way of personal quests to discuss. There were certainly things I wanted to accomplish, and there were things I did more or less accomplish, although they weren’t necessarily the same things. Some dreams will go unfulfilled—I won’t travel around the world and become intimately familiar with those “faraway places” I used to read about—who’s old enough to remember that song? But I value the travel I’ve managed to do, and keep up pretty well on what’s happening in the world as it is now, which is far different from the world I used to read about anyway. And I won’t write “deathless” prose, but I’ve had indications that my writing has touched and even helped a few people, and I’ve helped some beginning writers who have the potential to do far more than I ever could, so I don’t feel that my quest, if I can call it that, has been entirely in vain.

Okay, I’m done with the pseudo-philosophizing part. Let’s get down to what we do as writers. In the “rules” about writing fiction, the quest imperative goes without saying (but is said anyway, and emphatically.) The main character in a story must have a quest, something to gain, and the elements of a story must work together to forward, obstruct, and forward again that quest. Every aspect should have some meaning related to the whole. In erotica, the goal is usually a sexual one, although for me the best erotica includes other intertwined factors. Readers’ mileage may vary.

But I came across some very interesting speculation recently about the role of a writer. A friend on a discussion group called our attention to a NYT article about a study undertaken at the Yale Mind and Development Lab. Here’s a link: 

The study found that the majority of people, whether religious or atheist, believe in some sort of fate,  “defined as the view that life events happen for a reason and that there is an underlying order to life that determines how events turn out.”

They go on to say that this view only works when related to understanding the psychological perspectives of others: “This drive serves us well when we think about the actions of other people, who actually possess these psychological states, because it helps us figure out why people behave as they do and to respond appropriately. But it can lead us into error when we overextend it, causing us to infer psychological states even when none exist. This fosters the illusion that the world itself is full of purpose and design…In other words, the more likely people are to think about other people’s purposes and intentions, the more likely they are to also infer purpose and intention in human life itself.”

Hmm. Who is more likely to think about people’s purposes and intentions than writers of fiction? Another friend on the discussion group posed the question of writers being complicit in supporting this view of all life events happening for a reason. I, flippant as ever, responded that we writers get to be “gods and the creators of our fictional worlds. So of course everything in our stories has to have a reason--and that rifle hanging on the wall in the first act of the play had better be fired before the end. (Was it Chekhov who decreed that?)”

Upon further thought, I decided that we have to make our stories, our mini-worlds, have meaning and purpose and action that makes sense, because, as in playing games, people read fiction to fulfill a need for quests. If we don’t fill that need, they won’t read our work. Whether reinforcing beliefs that everything happens for a reason is harmful, I can’t say, but the need would be there anyway, so filling it may be a good thing. Fictional quests don’t always have to end well for the characters involved; the popularity of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books proves that. But the quest itself, the seeking, the striving, exercises psychological and emotional "muscles" that desperately need that stimulation. (On second or third thought, maybe the Game of Thrones world manages the trick of exercising those muscles and at the same time dispelling the belief that everything happens for a human-centered reason.)  

What do you folks think?  


Friday, October 17, 2014



Spencer Dryden

What does it say about my mental function when the first time I sat down to write this post I wrote Qwest? I guess I have been fully enveloped by marketing. ET phone home.
My first thought on quests was on big ones. I just spent a month at my adopted home of Summer Haven, Florida (USA). Summer Haven is on the Atlantic side between Daytona and St. Augustine. It turns out Summer Haven is very close to the place where the Spanish crossed from the ocean to the Matanzas River on their way to what would become St Augustine. Along the way they had to dispatch a French colony, more or less by murdering them. Later, they built a little fort along the river to guard this back door. The fort is still standing.
The Spanish conquest of the new world was certainly a quest in the classic sense. I would say romantic, but plenty of it is ugly by twenty first century standards. Next September, St. Augustine is celebrating the 450th anniversary of its founding. The king of Spain is coming. There are no indigenous people left to invite. But as I say, it's futile to impose twenty first century sensibilities on sixteenth century people. Besides they had God on their side.
Over the years, a glorious quest requires that God is on your side. Start with the Israelites and march through time.  Hitler thought God was on his side in his quest to reestablish the supremacy of the Arian race.  Putin is claiming that he is reestablishing Russia's Christian heritage in his quest to reunite the former Soviet Union. Saddest of all, God is apparently on both sides in the Middle East.
Yes I'm playing pretty loose here.
On further thought, I turned to personal quests. I have been on several personal quests over the last few years. I think a guy on a broken down horse charging wind mills with a chamber pot on his head is the proper image for my quests, but please indulge me for a moment. They have been transformative.
Our first son was born with a congenital heart defect. Thanks to the quests of many others in treating this most common of fatal birth defects, he has lived to early adulthood. We have always allowed him to pursue what ever he wanted to try, except (American) football. Among his many achievements, he became an outstanding goalie in youth hockey. He is certainly not the greatest goalie to have ever come from the hockey community in Minnesota, but he is, hands down, the greatest goalie ever produced by the Minneapolis Children's Heart Center. Never mind he's the only one.
Years later he had to have a pacemaker installed to correct irregular rhythm and to increase the pumping strength of his heart. About the same time he got interested in welding as a career. His cardiologist advised against it. A pacemaker could be disrupted by the Electro Magnetic Interference (EMI) that is emitted by a welder. Old guys with pacemakers are told to put the tools down.
That simply wasn't a good enough solution for me. I set out on a quest to find a way.  I went in two directions at once-investigating the claim that EMI induces pacemaker failure and looking for a way to diminish the effect of the ambient EMI by protecting the device. At the beginning of a quest, ignorance is your friend.
I won't bore you with the details. What amazed me, and I even amazed myself- a quest brings knowledge to your door. I don't have enough medical or physics background to even begin pondering the question, much less proposing a solution. I just kept asking, why or why not? I'd learn a little and then ask better questions. At one point I connected with a manufacturer in China, who shipped me some of their conductive fabric at no charge. I met, via the internet, some of the greatest minds in the new science of conductive fibers. I learned about electro-magnetism. EMI's effect on sensitive electronic equipment is nothing new. Solutions abound. Most involve some application of a 'Faraday Cage' which diverts EMI around the object to be protected. I envisioned a simple vest impregnated with conductive fibers. I researched advanced medical journals, communicated with makers of industrial clothing. Badgered cardiologists.
A quest isn't about knowing the answer or the outcome. It isn't even about asking the right question. It's about constantly asking better questions.
In the end I learned it was possible, but not practical, to construct the protective vest I envisioned. On the flip side, I learned there wasn't a singe incident where a pacemaker has ever been disrupted by a welder or any other environmental source of EMI. The pacemaker manufacturers who promulgate the stern warning against welding or exposure to EMI have done rigorous testing and found nothing. They scare the shit out of people for no good reason. If I had listened to them my son wouldn't have played hockey, or done much of anything else. Living in fear is not living.
Ironically, my son completed his training, then pursued a completely different line of work. I folded the tent on my quest with no regrets. I'm both smarter and wiser for the effort.
My advice: put the chamber pot on your head and charge that windmill. Maybe God will be on your side.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

This Road Is Forked

by Giselle Renarde

You can start close to your life, but that’s a starting place.
The question is, what’s the journey?

I spotted that quote on Twitter last night and it seem serendipitous. Lately, I've been thinking/fretting a lot about my writing career. (Have you noticed? I only blog about it every fortnight...)

All my life, I've always felt like I fit in. Even as the quirky queer genderfucked asshole I am, I've always been pretty comfortable anywhere I went. The schools I attended weren't clique-y. People were who they were and they liked what they liked and everyone was friendly. Peer-wise, I've led a pretty charmed life.

When I started my writing career 8+ years ago, I felt at home once again. Erotica authors were all so helpful. Coming from the business world, I expected everyone to care only about their own interests. That wasn't at all what I found. Furthermore, the erotica writers I met online were all... well, people like YOU: sex-positive, queer-friendly, kinky, open-minded, all that good stuff.

As many of you have noticed/commented on, our precious erotic fiction field has lately been conflated with/shoehorned into romance--a genre that doesn't much appeal to me even at its best and, at its worst, I find pretty problematic. Suddenly we erotica people have been tossed into a world that is not our own. Sure there's some cross-over between the two genres--erotica CAN end happily and nothing's stopping our characters from being in love--but erotica and romance are not the same thing.

I've often said that I came to erotica totally naively, and I'll repeat it again this week.  More and more, I'm starting to realize my writing career is a journey of discovery--a lot like life.  When I started writing, I was like a child: I wrote whatever pleased me and took gleeful pride in my work. I never thought about things like formulae or tropes. I never considered that readers might not want social commentary with their fiction. Never in a million years would it have occurred to me that readers would actively avoid a book because of a character's sexuality or gender identity or race.

I miss my naivety. I want it back. There are some things you can never unlearn.

And once you learn them, you have to make a choice: do I keep on truckin, writing the kind of fiction I love and believe in even if it's only read by five fervent fans, or do I whitewash my fiction and dull it down and create something that might sell a few more copies because it mimics what readers want... until they actually read it and realize this Giselle chick is MESSED UP and she obviously can't inhabit the mind of the average cisgender heterosexual female reader?

Phrased that way, the answer seems pretty obvious.

Guys, I feel like I'm in high school again--except it's a high school from American movies, where there are football guys and cheerleader girls and bullies and nerds and A-tables. My high school did not have those things. Honestly, I've never felt this way before. I'm a teenager for the first time in my life. Suddenly I'm at a crossroads and I have this really important decision to make: do I repress the real ME to fit in or do I say FUCK ALL Y'ALL and carve out the path I want to take?

Never mind. I think I just answered my own question.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"Time and the Maiden" ( A Story of a Voyage)

(Originally Published in Oh Get a Grip 2010 under the theme "My Dream Job", republished in the anthology "Coming Together Presents C. Sanchez-Garcia")

We move into the future. We look into the past.  We move into the future at different speeds relative to each other in space-time. The women walking briskly in the hallway are aging a fraction of a nano-second more slowly than I am in my hospital cot here in the burn ward. Relative to the speed of light, time slows down slightly for them as they are in a forward motion of some small speed.  At night, when one or another steals into my room against the rules, nervously closing the door,  finding me awake or coaxing me awake, we are aging at the same pace relative to the speed of light.  Never mind our increasingly vigorous motion in the little railed bed, because we are occupying more or less the same space when lying on top of one another, and space decides the speed of time. 
No matter who the woman is, at some point on the arrow of time she will sob into my chest, and violently tremble and in that incandescent instant it seems as though time has frozen its headlong plunge with the beating of our hearts.  Almost all of the women in this world, it seems, burst into inconsolable tears when they come. I find this charming.  Relieved and released by orgasm she will dry herself, dress, give me a grateful kiss (dreaming of babies) and skip wickedly into the hallway back to work, back into the forward motion into the future while I sink behind, drifting downstream into her past. 
Outside my hospital window it’s been raining and thundering tonight.   In the glass, I'd say about three feet away from me; I am seeing myself as I appeared in the past, measured in nano-seconds.  The light left my white gown and bandages and traveled to the glass in about five nano-seconds.  The glass reflected it back, and it returned to me another five nano seconds later.  This isn’t even counting the latency of optical perception, neural transmission and brain processing, all of which take infinitely longer than light.  I am eternally lagging behind myself like the tortoise in the past relative to my hare reflection racing ahead of me ten nano-seconds into the future. 
Compare this to something that happened last night when Head Nurse Paliamaiaknachuk rather took advantage of her status I think and woke me up for "some practical tests" and the complete and necessary harvesting of my semen with three condoms.  After disrobing and slipping under the covers she performed some vigorous tests of my stamina and rigidity and over the space of two hours got all of her condoms filled, leaving me a little worn out and sweaty. 
"I love to look at your face when you're ejaculating." she said.  "You look transported."
Oh, transported.  I could tell her about transported.  She has no idea. I suggested to her that if I must have my equipment so exercised I should have a bigger and more spacious bed.  She  almost tipped it over in her abandon a couple of times.  She said she would find something.
 While we lay in the afterglow with her cooing her big plans into my ear, I saw the constellation Orion the Hunter outside my window. The Orion Nebula, that lonely star that forms the scabbard of Orion's sword, suddenly glowed until it was the brightest object in the sky.  That would be a nova event I think.  Those photons fled their dying star one million years in the distant past.  Possibly at the very moment I was mounting the rough faced young girl, most likely genus Homo erectus, and pressing her hard into the flowers of an ancient African savannah while her clan looked on jabbering and chanting until we had consummated our act.  Though it was a million years ago for refugee rays of light, that event happened two days ago relative to my space-time. How time flies when you’re having fun.
At the moment last night as these photons were arriving at their journey’s end against my retina, Head Nurse Paliamaiaknachuk rolled on top of me, unwrapped condom number three and the sight was lost behind her bobbing shoulder.  About an hour later when she gave an ecstatic shriek and slowly climbed off of me, shattered and weeping with happiness, the sky was covered with clouds and has been since.
Outside my little window tonight the rain licks the glass.  Larry King in my old world, now long lost, asked me if the future could be changed.  I said to his audience that the future is changeable relative to the present, but fixed relative to the absolute.  I had hoped he would ask me what that meant.  He really should have.  I wonder where all those people are now.  Do they still exist somewhere in some parallel universe?
Outside the rain travels down the steamed glass in tiny streams.  A moving drop reaches a spot, hesitates, then jinks to the left.  Why does it go to the left and not to the right?  Why doesn't it go straight ahead?  Why doesn’t it stop?  I would have told Larry King the river of time has what Teilhard De Chardin called "omega points".  These are critical moments of change, for an individual or the destiny of a world, where the arrow of time meets a bend in the river or bumps up against a bit of karmic debris and history goes to the left instead of the right.   Why didn’t Larry King ask me about this instead of the lurid rumors about me and Angelina Jolie?
In Tunguska Siberia in 1903, something believed to be an ice fragment, most likely debris from the trail of Comet Encke, exploded six miles in the high atmosphere. A thousand square miles of uninhabited, mosquito infested tundra was leveled and burned in an instant.  That's not what is interesting to me. What is interesting is that if the comet ice had waited maybe three more hours to descend at cosmic speed, it would have ignited directly over a city on the same latitude as Tunguska.  The fragment would have exploded with the energy of a fifteen megaton thermonuclear weapon directly over the city of St Petersburg, where Vladimir Lenin would have been sitting over his morning tea at the very epicenter looking up.  Communism would never have existed. No Bolshevik Revolution. No Soviet Union.  No Joseph Stalin.  No communist China.  No Mao Tse Tung.  No North Korea.  No Cold War. No Viet Nam war. When a butterfly falls, mountains slide into the sea. 
That’s all gone now, I guess.  That’s the part I don’t know, and don’t really want to know, because I’m happy now.  I like this world better.  I like its people better, I would estimate about ninety eight percent female.  Here’s what happened.  Once upon a time, a very long time ago—there was this girl.
 The poor girl had been caught in quicksand.  I had been parked in the high atmosphere, out of the way of things, filming and observing, following the directives that had been given to me as a pioneer time traveler, dealing with technologies whose consequences could only be guessed.  I saw her fall in.  I saw her flailing.  She wanted so badly to live.  It was heart rending.  Anyone who observes nature in the wild becomes familiar and hardened to the sight of violent death.  But what man with a soul could see this young woman, and not want to save her?  To interfere with the way of things just this once?  After all I was working alone this time and who would ever know if I didn’t tell?  As her tribe watched helplessly for her to sink from sight, I descended from the clouds like a righteous god in a chariot, and jumped to the ground.  In an instant I tore off my shirt and pants and tied them together into a life line.  Naked, I threw her the end and pulled her out.
Those were simple times.  A sexually mature girl had only one reward to offer her champion.   By gestures and sounds the older ones made it clear that they desired me to take my reward.  I was ashamed and excited to discover that this was what I wanted too.  I lusted for her as terribly as ever David lusted for Bathsheba.  If the fall of a butterfly can knock down mountains, a grateful maid and a man with a raging hard on --Homo erectus indeed!—together can knock down worlds and steer them into strange trajectories.
A little while ago, Head Nurse Paliamaiaknachuk came by with a couple of her friends, wheeling in a larger and more accommodating hospital bed.  There is no jealousy in this world.  No possessiveness.  The human genus we inadvertently spawned between those slippery mud slicked thighs is more like that of social insects with a few male drones and not all of them potent, to several thousand fertile females each. Nurse Paliamaiaknachuk’s companions had never seen a naked man or a phallus.  They would probably never have a chance to see another in their lifetimes.  She invited me to give them a lecture on the facts of life and then perform an impromptu lab study for each, which I did eagerly.  I'm beginning to get a little sore down there.    Not that I’m complaining.
My last stop in time, before heading homeward, was to the end of the Cretaceous, about sixty five million years ago.  This followed immediately after my Paleolithic tryst, as I was assigned to do an atmospheric field study of the mass extinction event that had killed the dinosaurs.  I had basically been sent to measure nitric acid in the atmosphere and then get the hell out of there fast.  What I found was not the asteroid I had come prepared for.  I arrived in the midst of the vast coma of a gigantic comet, one of those rogue ice giants that drift in from the Oort belt which managed to get past the giant catcher's mitt of Jupiter’s gravity.  As the comet melted and disintegrated, it out-gassed mountain sized pieces of rock and ice which rained into the atmosphere, striking in a shot gun line from Mexico to Iowa to northern Russia.  A giant ice fragment clipped the time machine with its passing shock wave and cracked the hull, sending me into a spin.  I punched the emergency return system and rode the biggest piece back, the cabin filling with flames and poisonous smoke.
I came down somewhere in the neighborhood of what would have been Kansas, in a large field.  The kinetic brakes took the impact, instantly converting the lethal forward energy into a blast of pure light.  The wreckage was almost perfectly intact except for the system damage from the fire and I crawled out bleeding from second degree burns on feet and legs.  Then the women arrived.  The flash had been visible for a hundred miles.
The world population here is very small.  Due to the scarcity of precious testosterone, nation-states, war and violence are almost unknown.  Hell, Kansas is unknown.  The ecosystem is as pure and pristine in this matriarchal society as in that ancient savannah where two horny people suddenly diverted the raindrops of space-time from one track to another, taking all human evolution and its sordidness with it. Well done too, I say.
When Head Nurse Paliamaiaknachuk and her friends had taken their pleasure with me on my new bed, they told me about my tests.  My sperm count is extraordinary.  Nothing like it has ever been recorded.   The wigglies passed the hamster egg penetration test with the vigor of rapacious barbarian hordes.  The women doctors here like me. 
They have a job for me.  
In my old world, I had wanted to be a writer, but I lost hope along the way.  When the chance came to pioneer quantum displacement engines, I jumped on it.  Then I fucked it all up, literally.  In this world males are assigned fertility farms, to harvest and process their sperm for maximum reproductive efficiency.  It’s what males here are good for.  I have been assigned to several clinics and will travel to what I still call Japan as soon as my wounds heal. And then a kind of world tour to show me off. 
In effect I have been put out to stud. I like this place.
I think I’m going to like my new job. I think I'm going to like it very much.