Super? Bowl Sunday, Anyway

Kage Baker detested football. She wasn’t fond of most sports – except some classic ones she only watched at the Olympics – but American football most especially riled her. She wasn’t that fond of British footie, either, but at least it had the dubious benefits of being British and also an unabashed blood-sport.

Super Bowl, however, kind of amused her.

It was because we grew up and spent most of our lives living in tourist towns. She was used to the crowds of gaping visitors wandering around our haunts. One learns when not to go to the grocery store, the mall, the beach, Disneyland. We had t-shirts that said “Leave Me Alone. I’m A Native.” Growing up in Hollywood was especially bizarre – there were movie shoots to dodge, as well as the mindless hordes that flocked on Hollywood Boulevard. There were always tour busses, and crowds of lost foreigners, running one over. At Christmas and New Year’s and Super Bowl, entire marching bands could be found taking up all the seats in local restaurants.

Pismo Beach was just as bad. The entire summer was crowded with tourists, for one thing, and every 3-day weekend. The town had a population of 8,000 – but at those times, that would swell to 30,000. Super Bowl was especially crowded – every holiday rental house, apartment, and hotel room was full of drunken football fans. Their offspring and some females clogged the beach and all the shops and restaurants. A walk down any street during game time proceeded to the chorus of chimpanzee-troupe noises coming from the thronged rooms with television sets. Primate hoots and panting, man, and hardly a spoken word in ’em – we’d walk around and giggle at the primal carrying-on.

Living in Los Angeles, now, it’s a little different. That’s because I avoid the tourist areas, did all my shopping days ago, and there are no holiday rentals on my little residential street. Some of my neighbors are indeed having parties, so the howls and hooting will not be entirely neglected; but they’re the neighbors, you know? I can tolerate the baboons and chimps that actually live here.

My family is ensconced in the living room. The brother-in-law, Ray, is actually interested in the game; physicist that he is, he is happily figuring odds. He’s got no dog in the fight – he’s a Buffalo Bills devotee; and as we all know, Dear Readers, the Cigarette Smoking Man has decreed they will never go to the Super Bowl – so he can enjoy the spectacle and the mathematics untroubled. Nephew Michael and my sister Kimberly say they’re watching for the commercials. I’m not interested  even much in those, though I will run out when summoned to see Clydesdales  or people I know. (The Poxy Boggarts, who sang the deathless anthem “I Wear No Pants” for the 2010 Superbowl, are dear friends of mine.) I even have a bag of potato chips to munch, just to show willing.

2016 has not been a great year, so far. I’m fighting off the 2-out-of-5 flu strains this year’s vaccine did not cover. We spent a whole week replacing Kimberly’s and Ray’s water bed mattress – there are no longer brick and mortar water bed stores in Los Angeles, to my vast horror, and a long complicated adventure with Amazon Prime was  necessitated … as Kage also preferred water beds, I’ve never gotten out of the habits of how to deal with them, bu that doesn’t make it any more fun to drain and fill the damn thing through the bedroom window during a cold snap. We managed to finally get the roof repaired between rain storms, though; and of course it hasn’t rained since … I broke a tooth eating candy (Good ‘N Plenty), but my ankle is almost completely healed; so I figure I’m ahead on points.

It’s warm and clear here today; in fact, it’s 84 degrees outside. A week ago, we had frost until 10 in the morning. The garden has given up on cues and is doing whatever it damn well pleases. I spent a lovely hour or so out on the front porch, enjoying the new front garden – the xeriscaping has at last been completed, and it’s lovely. (More on that later). Now I’m indoors working on story ideas – I have had several these past few days – and getting a manuscript ready to send to my agent. Tomorrow, when it’s quiet, I will do my taxes and actually write.

Maybe 2016 will now consent to settle down and let me be productive. At the very least, I’m getting potato chips out of today, so that’s pretty good. Even the howls from down the street are distant enough to be sort of musical. Not a bad Sunday, at all.

Even, round the edges,  a little bit super.

 

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January 31st

Kage Baker – born June 10, 1952; died January 31, 2010.

It’s raining on and off in Los Angeles today; which is a nice thing, actually. I’m not doing much; mostly sitting still and reading. It’s a sad day. Not paralytic. mind you – Kage herself would not approve of that – but sad, nonetheless.

Uncomfortable, too. In a childish fit of self-indulgence yestreday, I bought a box of Good ‘N Plenty.  They tasted as good as ever, but I broke a back tooth on ’em. Now I have a busted molar; my dentist doesn’t open until tomorrow, and I can’t chew … so I’m hungry and toothache-ridden and embarrassed  as well as sad.

Kage would scold me. She always said my appetite for black licorice would bring me to a bad end. And, let’s face it, Good ‘N Plenty is not exactly the Dom Perignon of licorice candies … sometimes, one just craves the cheap stuff. And a lot of good it usually does one, too. Ah, well.

It’s a good day to pull the covers up over your head, and wait for the entire mess to end.

I think I’ll have rum and Coke for dinner.

2010 (almost)

2010 (almost)

1952

1952

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What You See Is – What?

Kage Baker always said, there are some days that are just weird. And she could always tell, right away, when they happened.

Usually, it would be the  people. Everyone would look odd – alien. There’s such a wide variety in human features that 50 kinds of aliens could be walking among us with minimal makeup – there are lots science fiction stories about that, some sinister and some funny. The main thing is that it’s damned hard to tell if a weird-looking person is a human person, you see.

That fascinated   Kage. The heritage of the human species is suspect, and as twisted as a spider web on LSD. Homo sapiens has bred with every cousin species of hominid it ever found, conserving genes better than a cartoon hillbilly. We’ve also survived at least 3 bottlenecks, where the breeding population got down to a few thousands. The result is that, at this point, there is less variation between any 2 human beings than in most other mammalian species. (Cheetahs are as bad as we are, though.) We’re all pretty much kissin’ cousins, if not outright half-siblings.

So it’s amazing there’s such variety, and that people  can look so different.  We seem to keep all the genes that regulate hair and eye and skin colour. And facial bone structure. And hands, and height …  Mutations rates are high among humans, too, producing little cosmetic novelties all the time. Some of them are horrific and kill us. Some are horrific – and don’t. The ones that are non-fatal and benign are unicorn-rare, and they all manage to contribute a little bit to make their hosts look like Grandad came from another planet.

When everyone we saw on the drive to work looked like they were hiding gills, or extra teeth, or surplus joints in their fingers, Kage declared it a weird day. All expectations were shelved, and anything could happen – a butterfly found in a closed closet when we got back from work. A package full of FREE BOOKS from a publisher. A 4-digit check, an exploding water heater, a VHS rental labelled Classic Looney Tunes and containing a tape of the reconstructed Lost Horizons. A power failure, and an evening of strange lights dancing out over the Dunes.

Sometimes, Kage announced we had driven right out of the Fields We Knew. That usually happened at night, after a nice dinner and some cocktails: but not always. She never liked getting off the road at unfamiliar stops along I-5, because it was more prone to happen then. We’d have to drive around to find the right road again, along back roads and game trails and narrow roads paved with abalone shells and crushed porcelain gravel made from toilets, all shining like silver in the moonlight. That even happened in our home grounds of the Hollywood Hills, or Griffith Park – usually near the Observatory and that damned peculiar tunnel they have there; or up on Lookout Mountain Drive.

You might wonder, Dear Readers, why I did it. Why did I agree that we were on a strange (really, really strange) road, and drive up and down Wonderland, and Crescent, and Oakstone, and Laurel Pass, trying to find our way back to Laurel Canyon Drive? Because I was lost, that’s why. I couldn’t find the streets we’d come up on, or find any that went back down. The only way to get out of the maze on the narrow hillsides was to turn where Kage pointed and drive where she said. Make of that what you will, Dear Readers.

I’ll admit, the cocktails at Trader Vic’s were good.

But still: sometimes the roads were weird. Sometimes the days were, and the people, and the animals glimpsed at the side of the road. Lyre-horned dew-lapped cattle with coats all swirled and spiralled with black, exactly like cave paintings – do they breed aurochs in San Simeon? I don’t think so … Enormous birds. Bright-eyed anonymous critters on the top of dolmens. Road kill animals so twisted, dried and dessicated you couldn’t tell what they’d been, or if they’d ever actually been at all.

Except they were there when we drove by them. Sometimes they were alive, too, staring at us wonderingly as we hurtled past. Once, on a narrow bit of road a half-mile above the Pacific Ocean near Muir Beach, Kage put her hand out the open window as we inched by the lop-eared, snow-white cows that were feeding by the side of the road, and laid her hand on one beast’s vast neck.

“I’ve touched the Cattle of the Sun,” she said in deep satisfaction. “It’s a weird day, all right. Take me home! I need to write!”

Strange times. Good times. But strange. And I miss them.

lascaux 2Lascaux cattle

 

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Getting Warm

Kage Baker hated being cold.

She also hated bundling up in lap robes or blankets, or retreating to the couch with a coverlet when it was a cold day. What Kage wanted was a shirt-sleeve environment in a perpetually tropical mode – about 80 degrees was perfect for her. Then she only had to wear a hoodie to achieve the perfect temperature; she loved her hoodies, and had lots of them in a wide palette of colours and designs.

Somewhere along the line, she had decided that the hoodie was one of the world’s perfect garments.

Kage didn’t retreat, didn’t surrender, didn’t fort up. Being cold bored her, and she would fidget and mope loudly and finally find something to do that would keep her occupied enough that she couldn’t tell if she was cold or not. Sometimes it was convincing me to take her out driving with the heater turned up as far as it would go; we’d often end up somewhere drinking Irish coffee.

The best place ever was the House of Shields in San Francisco, which might be the oldest bar in the City (Time is strange there, so the claim is not entirely clear.) Its  gorgeous bar was found in the basement of the hotel across the street, when the ruins were cleared after the Great Earthquake. The Irish coffee served there looks as chaste as a nun: a smooth layer of cream on top of a black, black, black well of coffee, in a glass mug: no floofy whipped cream. No ice cream, an American aberration some places. Bushmills. Sigh … wherever we were, we’d drink until the sugar and caffeine and alcohol had us gibbering and twitching. Then Kage would tell me horrible ghost stories as we drove home in the dark, until we were both in hysterics as we sped through the dark … ah, good times.

houseofshieldsIrish-Coffee1

Man, we were warm after that. Twitchy as weasels with hot flashes, but sure enough warm.

I’m much less susceptible to the cold. But as I’ve aged, it’s gotten harder to stay warm. In the last year, especially, it’s gotten harder and harder to stay warm. And when I’m cold, it hurts. The only solution has been to retreat to bed under mounds of blankets, and sleep.

Mind you, it’s getting better lately. The year 2015 was a black hole of chill and pain, and the best parts of it were while I was asleep under a pile of blankets and comforters. But 2016 has been doing better, even though we are now in the coldest part of the Southern California year. (Even here, we do get a cold part of the year. Frost, even.)

When I woke up this morning, I knew at once there had been a cosmic power failure. The sky was a cold, white stone arch – no features, no luminosity, no weather. Just the high pale ceiling that leeches heat out of your bones, where the sun is a featureless point source of cold light that just drifts along like a leaking balloon until it sets again. I got up, did my writing rituals, wrote a little; recorded the completely nondescript dreams of last night in a new, expectant-but-unsatisfied dream journal (where were you last night, Kage?), drank a lot of coffee.

It’s been one of those days when you ponder whether to drink your hot coffee, or pour it in your pants. I can feel a chill radiating out from the marrow of my bones – my shoulders are encased in strange, invisible ices, like a comet in the Oort Belt; I can feel the distinct crackle of eldritch hoarfrost on my bones as I type … you’d think, being as I have indeed achieved the status of fat old lady, I’d have adequate insulation to survive this season in comfort. But noooo … there’s a time and a place for everything, I guess. And that one is past.

I wish I could go out driving, and get Irish coffee, and have someone tell me ghost stories until I see things out of the corner of my eye. Lacking that – well, I’m gonna go pour some coffee, at least, and watch the X-Files for a while.

That ought do it.

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Erinyes, Mousai or Garlic Dills?

Kage Baker has been in my dreams a lot lately. Behaving rather strangely, too.

I wish I dreamed of her more often. But I don’t. Often, I have dreams where I know (in the dream) that she is around somewhere – I am usually trying to meet her, or find her, or somehow get to where she is … but I never do. And it’s usually while we’re trying to build for a Renaissance Faire, so there is a lot of around somewhere to hide her. Still, there’s a certain comfort in believing, even for the duration of a dream, that she is just over at Mullah’s, and I’ll catch up to her in a few minutes.

That’s something I dream about a lot. Also, that popular mainstay of sad stories, where you wake up and realize that someone’s death is itself a bad dream and not real at all: until you really wake up and find yourself 6 years older and Kage still dead. Oh, and you didn’t win the Lottery, either.

Lately, though, Kage has been a bit more literally visible in my dreams; and she’s been in a really peculiar mood. A few nights ago, I was hunting for her all over Faire – various friends kept coming up and advising me not to search for her, as she was angry at me. Now, a lot of the rest of this dream was arrant nonsense (like a dear friend in her Queen Elizabeth gown, driving Father Christmas’ sleigh from Dickens Fair through the summer streets of Chipping-Under-Oakwood), so I ignored everyone and kept hunting. But when I found Kage – she wasn’t angry, precisely, but she was too busy to wander around with me.

She was transformed, too:  much, much taller than me, and dressed in a tunic and skirt of russet silk embroidered with Celtic knot work and Greek keys. Her hair was cropped short and standing round her head like flames. There were  flames in her eyes, pupils like candles, and she wore boots of white stone, also all worked with knots and chains. There were chains of opals and padparadscha sapphires round her neck. She told me she had just sold a new novel that was going to be a marvellous scandal and a best-seller, and she was going through the Faire buying everything she had ever wanted with the advance on a gift card.

So she was busy, too busy to talk to me. She told me to get busy, too.

This has bothered me for days. The year 2015 was pretty much a dead loss for me, creatively, and I feel both guilty and persecuted about it. Am I making scary finger puppet shadows on the walls of my skull?

Maybe my unconscious has cast Kage as a Muse, annoyed because I’ve not accomplished much in the last year. Or maybe, against all odds – because I think she has better things to do at the moment – Kage is vengeful about my sloth and is kicking me to get my life back on track. Or maybe I just really have to stop eating kosher dill pickles late at night.

Last night, now … last night we were getting breakfast at one of those hotel breakfast bars where there are giant dispensers of various cereals and toppings for self-service. And Kage was encouraging me to sprinkle pearls and gems all over my Shredded Wheat. When I ate them, they were awfully crunchy and hard to chew – but they tasted like being 17 years old, like rose petals and sea foam and chrysanthemums in the rain …

I started my online screen writing class today. Tomorrow I am going to finish editing an old novel called Knight and Dei, and mail it off to my agent.

I wonder what I’ll dream  about tonight?

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Evolution In Writing

Kage Baker was a born story-teller. She revelled in catching and holding the audience, in transporting them to an entirely different world. It was the art and craft she was most proud of practicing.

She loved selling them, too. Not just because she liked the money and wanted to make her living by doing what she loved, but because it was the best way to keep the stories alive as well. Stories want to live, was her belief; they had to evolve and breed to survive. And living things survive better out in the fresh and open air than they do in a closet.

Also, Kage needed to tell her stories. She was compulsive about it. While she did most of her story telling via the printed word – because she could reach a larger audience than she could ever have endured to face in the flesh – she also loved recitation. Those who were lucky enough to share a campfire or a darkened inn yard with her know how she excelled at narration. She was a raconteuse of rare skill, when the fancy took her and she felt secure in her auditors. It was, Kage believed, the oldest and truest way to tell a story.

One her very first editors commented that her style was unusual, in  that it was more suited to stories being told around a fire. It was true; it was also a problem in getting her work sold initially, because it is not a common voice. Especially in science fiction, where a chill and polished metal tone of voice is often preferred. But it was hard to resist, that voice. It resonated with the oldest ears in the human mind, the ancestors who learned to pay attention to the stories told over the evening fire. What you learned, with eyes gleaming in the firelight and ears a’prick with wonder, might be the ultimate truth you needed to survive.

Fairy tales are still the classical repository of that knowledge. Despite well-meaning efforts to divest fairy stories of blood and gore and tragedy and fear, children like them that way: tension, at the very least, has to play a part in the story, or it doesn’t work as well. There’s no real risk in the adventures of Captain Underpants, though they’re undoubtedly good for instilling social self-confidence. But the chance that a wolf or an ogre or a troll might eat you: that grabs your attention. You need to believe that danger lurks in dark places; that step-parents can sometimes be dangerous, and not all strangers mean you well; that princesses can suffer and heroes can die and Happy Ever After can come with an expiration date … these are things kids need to learn.

It’s a matter of life or death. Fairy tales are where kids can practice with these situations and emotions, hopefully before it really is life or death for them. That’s why we still tell them the really old ones.

Recently, a group of linguists – from Durham University in the UK and Lisbon University in Portugal – published a report in the Royal Society Open Science Journal that claims to have traced some a classic fairy tales back through, literally, millennia. They say, for instance, that “The Smith and The Devil” may be 6,000 years old; smiths have been magic as long as men have used iron. “Jack and the Beanstalk” dates to 5,000 years ago; “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin” go back 4,000 years.

The study used phylogenetic methods more commonly used by biologists,  to  forensically investigate languages, marriage practices, political institutions, material culture and music. ( http://goo.gl/BF5MFY ) They looked back into Iron and Bronze Age word roots. They back-tracked the oral traditions that the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang used, to find the original scary stories. And they are old, old, so freaking, gloriously old

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking hard about the transformation of “Oh, False Young Man!” into a screenplay. Not that I think I would be allowed to write the adaptation, even if my talented and generous friend Jeffrey succeeds in selling the project to someone. However, seeing it in a proper presentation will (theoretically) improve its chances. So, on the advice of another dear friend (the splendid Mr. Tom Barclay), I have enrolled in an online class on screenplay writing. It’s taught by Steven Barnes, a writer of considerable skill and repute; and Art Holcomb,  comic book creator, screenwriter and playwright.

It’s a sort of forced evolution, of both me and the story. I’m very nervous, so I’m gonna sit next to Tom. And I will keep you posted, Dear Readers.

Besides. What Kage liked best about selling her work was that it was like the gypsies selling a horse. You could sell if over and over and over; dye the coat, polish the hooves, gives it blazes and stockings and spots and stripes; you could train it to leave the stable at night and come home to you. And then you could sell it again …

Kage would be delighted. And, I suspect, unsurprised.

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Automata

Kage Baker loved automata.

Her main love was clockwork things – wind up toys fascinated her all her life, and lots of them lived on her desk. (I have a wind-up yellow rook and a translucent squirrel on the desk right now.) When she was a kid, her tastes ran to wind-up robots and little metal dogs that did somersaults when wound up tight. She had a smoking donkey of which she was very fond, too; but I think modern morals have rendered those extinct.

Her favourite character in The Wizard of Oz was TikTok – the stalwart and virtuous Clockwork Man, imbued with common sense and bravery in the face of his own physical limitations (his spring was always winding down at awkward moments). Disney gave him an especially charming embodiment in Return to Oz, including beautiful lambent sea-blue eyes; Kage originally put him on the roof of the Emporium in Empress of Mars.

C3PO was, obviously, her favourite character in Star Wars.

She collected stories and photos of the automata of old; all those chess-playing robotic Moors – occasionally powered by clockwork, and occasionally by dwarves – and disembodied calligraphy-dispensing hands. Singing nightingales, crowing roosters, egg-laying ducks; blossoming plants, fountains of jewels and silk threads and wine: if it wound up and moved, Kage loved it. Player pianes, preferably with robotic piano players. All those maidens who sang and simpered and eerily applied makeup. All those medieval clocks, too, where Death and assorted burghers and woodland animals come out and dance for the hours; those fascinated her. The Delacorte Clock at the Zoo in Central Park – even though it runs on electricity.

Heron of Alexandria, in Kage’s opinion, was one of the finest mathematicians and engineers the world ever produced: because he built things that worked. Automata, moving set pieces, water dispensers, flying gods, levitating statues – Heron built special effect for the religious industry with such zeal and fervour that Kage could never decide if he was a mutant or a rogue Operative. She never settled on a story for him, because the field of his endeavours was so broad. And he did it without clockwork! Weights, levers, pulleys, pins and gears were all he had.

The Musee Mechanique in San Francisco, which is presently housed at Pier 45, was a place Kage visited whenever she could. There are automata there, of course, including Laughing Mabel, a life-sized fishwife who howls with manic glee. It also has a series of detailed clockwork pieces illustrating Hell, the Dungeons of the Inquisition, a racetrack, an opium den and a farm, and – Kage’s utter favourite mis en scene – “A Message From The Sea”, wherein vaguely Spanish military officers at an elegant ball are recalled to duty by an arriving messenger in a dinghy … she could stare at those things for hours.

Or at least until we ran out of change. They so enthralled her that several scenes in the Company novels and stories include scenes based on them, notably the Hugo-nominated novella “Son, Observe the Hour”. Kage studied the opium den for a couple of dollars’ worth of nickels to get that one set in her mind.

She loved the racetracks with little painted metal horses, too, as well as the  steel skeleton of a galloping horse there.

This fascination with automata was a little weird, since she had nightmares from childhood of waking to find clockwork beneath her own skin. I guess knowledge defeated the demons – the more she learned about clockwork, automata and robots, the less fearful she became. She finally laid the bogie to rest with her invention of the cyborg Operatives – although only after she reluctantly abandoned the idea of making them, too, run on clockwork. And I must admit, she had some hilarious ideas for where the keys went …

She satisfied that urge with the story “Oh, False Young Man!”, wherein the putative hero is an ingenious automaton. I’ve recently been asked to consider trying my hand at converting this one to a screen-play, an idea which appeals to me a great deal – though I’m not quite sure how to do that. We shall see. I may need to take a class or read a book or beg a friend for help.

In the meantime, I persist in soldiering on, at varying speeds and levels of success. I recently saw a photograph that pretty much sums up my condition right now: a sign on a vending machine that is still functional, if not obviously so …light inside

Takes a licking – keeps on ticking. It’s automatic.

 

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