Once More Into The Breach

Kage Baker loathed going into the hospital. She said frequently, during her last year, that she was sure that last year was a punishment for her refusing to go in whenever possible.

I doubt it; God (especially Kage’s God) is not that mean. It was just the way things fell out. And anyway, I sneaked her out three times, so she was hardly a helpless prisoner. She enjoyed the sneaking out: not only because she didn’t want to be in there in the first place, but because I – who have never minded a hospital stay – am slightly notorious in our small circle for going AWOL AMA …

Kage liked getting that achievement badge, too.

Tomorrow, it’s back into the hospital for me; but only on an outpatient basis this time. At least if everything goes as planned. I’ll have to get up early (groan) and report at 8:30, for a 10:00 procedure. And if all goes well, I’ll be home by early afternoon, safe in my lair and my extravagantly comfortable bed.

Just which procedure I’ll be undergoing is still somewhat up in the air. I’ve got 2 sets of admitting instructions, and each ones references a different surgery. This would be shocking to me, except that, while my surgeon seems a fine competent young man, his staff is clearly in left field and missing about half the batted balls – getting my pre-admission tests had me running all over Burbank and Glendale, when any one of the 4 facilities to which they sent me could have done all the needed tests.  So it’s a Surprise Surgery for me tomorrow morning.

One is a cystoscopy, which entails inserting a long tube and various instruments through my urethra and bladder, in order to perform unlikely acts on my ureter and kidney. The other one is a laparoscopic pyeloplasty, which involves a series of itty bitty incisions in my flank, in order to accomplish the same mad-scientist ends. I intend to make my preferences clear before they quite put me under tomorrow. Kimberly will be with me to back me up, thank goodness.

Both procedures are done under a general anesthesia, so I’m voting for the latter one. I’ve had the former and it hurts for days – I’d like to try something else and see if it’s any better. And I hate taking the same dull trip twice over …

I shall be in Verdugo Hills Hospital tomorrow, at least briefly. It’s a lovely and air conditioned place, though sparse on the aquariums to which I have become accustomed. Hopefully, I’ll not wake up thinking my head has been enclosed in one … I’ll send out a message when I’m home; which ought to be hilarious, as I shall be drugged to the eyeballs. (Kimberly will if I am incapable.)

At any rate, Dear Readers – let’s all hope for a renewal of health and energy, and a proper chastisement of my damned right kidney. Excelsior!



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The Sticky End of the Stick

Kage Baker loved having had adventures.

There was very little she liked more than having a good story to tell, and all our many adventures were eventually turned into stories. She told them at family dinners to make the nieces gasp and giggle. Others became vignettes in novels and stories; because, as Kage was fond of pointing out, Truth is not only stranger than Fiction, it’s a lot more amusing.

Our adventures on I-5 were an especially rich source of stories to tell. They were so rich, in fact, that one or two or three were initially rejected by editors as too absurd (Ha!). Also, they eventually left Kage with a deep and abiding dread of what could happen to us on that Highway Through The Twilight Zone. Luckily, an Orange Julius or a giant Foster’s Freeze chocolate malt usually settled her nerves.

Because, you see, she didn’t like having adventures. She liked them after they were done: when she’d found a clean bathroom and a cocktail with a glass rose on the swizzle stick, and an appreciative audience to hear the tale. Many’s the time I remember, as we staggered through some absurd disaster, her repeating through clenched teeth: “Well, this’ll make a great story … a great, great story …”

My plan last night was to leave Berkeley very early – or very late, depending on how you look at it – and drive through the cool night to make it to Los Angeles in time for a 10 AM doctor’s appointment. I like driving, and I like driving at night; and a run between the Bay and the Basin is simply fraught with nostalgia for me – I’ve spent so many Sunday nights racing hilariously through the Central Valley, crazy from a weekend at Faire. I can get home in any condition, through just about any disaster. I have.

Good thing, too. Armed with my usual snacks – Mentos and iced tea – I had the cruise control set at a Highway Patrol-safe 73 mph and was totally in the groove. Most of the traffic was trucks, most of which can be passed easily; you just watch them for sudden tire failures and amusing contents (a tanker full of a gazillion gallons of Circle K Polar Pop mix; another labelled “Live Trout”) and sail on singing to heart’s favourites like Oak, Ash and Thorn and Roberts & Barrand.

Then my transmission hiccoughed. I drive a stick shift, preferring the manual to the automatic; so when you pop out of 5th gear it’s a hands-on problem. I clutched, put it back, and went on. Then it did it again – and again. I’ve driven too many gradually dissolving cars to ignore a sign like this, so I reduced speed – which was handy when, around Panoche Road, I lost my 5th gear completely.

Well! Worse things can happen. They have. Electrical problems can be much, much more debilitating. All I had to do was plan how to avoid burning out what was left of my transmission, get over the Grapevine, and make it to Los Angeles in time.

I’ve driven over the Grapevine in so many different kinds of trouble … with hideously ill passengers. On flat tires and with strobing epileptic headlights. Towing VW vans twice the size of my car. Going uphill at 12 MPH because my fuel filter was clogged. Through flash floods pushing us gently across the lanes;  through brush fires with Kage hanging out the window yelling in excitement at the flames, risking setting her hair on fire while I sped through like a maniac … around trucks with loads of steel pipes falling like jack straws, and chemical toilets bursting on the pavement like giant stink bombs.

As long as I could keep my speed up to 55 and stay in 4th gear, I knew I’d make it. And I did. It was very exciting, requiring a certain amount of cold concentration and anticipating the speeds of vehicles ahead of you – because if you lose momentum on the upward grade of the Grapevine, you will never, never get it back, and you will end up crawling over the crest like a wounded snail. But I dodged the labouring trucks, and the un-labelled black tour busses with mysterious darkened windows (Gummint men, obviously) and the civilians out too freaking late to pay attention to the traffic. I missed the car crash/brush fire just north of Lake Casistas because it was on the North-Bound side and I was on the South-bound: I just slid on past and into the welcome actinic glare of the Los Angeles Basin.

So I made it home in time to get to the doctor’s – where they had messed up my appointment, and set me up on a day when the doctor was not in. Whoopee! A wild drive through the night for absolutely nothing! But I made it. There am I happy.

And I got a re-schedule for Wednesday, and my transmission is under guarantee at AAMCO. And I have had another adventure despite my advancing age, and lived to tell the tale!

Kage would have hated to be there. But she’d have so enjoyed telling everyone about it.

And I can dig that.


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Night Road At A Quarter To Autumn

Kage Baker was always a little apprehensive about the I-5 highway.

She liked it because it was fast, much faster than the 101 for long hauls between San Francisco and Los Angeles. She liked the scenery – it ran from bleak but beautiful to paradisial fields and orchards, but always right on the border of the Fields We Know: she was fascinated with how the Weird crept in over the verges of the road like fog.

But that same strangeness made her nervous. We and all our migrating Faire friends knew stories about people who drove off the road following a lit gas station sign – and ended up in a field of broken asphalt somewhere, vainly trying all the nailed up doors on a shell of a building in the utter dark … or went off on a side road toward the towns that only show as lakes of lights in the night, and never, ever found any town. They found themselves in artichoke fields or abandoned walnut groves, and had to sleep in their cars until the sun rose and the roads to reality came back again.

In the daytime, the Weird is largely confined to strange wrecks or dessicated corpses off to the side of the road. Or miles-wide sundogs, huge disks of rainbow light in the highest clouds. Hand-lettered signs for dubious fruit – NAVEL ORNGIS – PEECHES – PLUMBS – AVOCADES. The ever-popular RIPE CHEERIES. These are all things to make one giggle for a few miles; even now, when a lot of them have been replaced by even more badly-lettered signs castigating all politicians for poor water usage laws. MODERN DAY DUSTBOWL, howl some of the signs – apparently unaware that the prairie was ploughed up by diesel tractors, and the devastated Oakies fled in Model T’s.

But the signs are still entertainment, as long as one is determined to never, ever follow the paint-dripping arrows off into the fields … there are even honest-to-gosh gas stations I won’t stop at it, having once done so and found utter Weirdness was grinning behind the counter. I found a decapitated hare’s head jammed on a gas pump handle at one of those one Sunday night. And found another near the juncture with the 580, where the ladies room had no toilets: just half a dozen holes in the floor, with toilet paper dispensers neatly on the wall beside each one.

I left for the North this weekend when it was still technically night, and was clear of the Grapevine before the sun came up – all the way to Buttonwillow before the dawn hit me in the eyes. When I came down the North side of the Grapevine, in fact, there were still the phantom cities glowing on the valley floor in the blue ere-dawn; lakes and rivers of light, solitaire diamonds in distant squares of maybe-fields. By the time I left Buttonwillow, they had all receded into mystery and the view all around was dry fields and orchards.

I saw some odd things, though, before then. In one unplanted field, was what I first thought was a wrecked bus – then, as I passed it, it was clearly a small airplane. There was no sign of a crash, but it had obviously died by fire. The wings were shattered and burnt, the windows broken out. Looked like someone had lured a little plane off the road and then torched it.

And at a feed lot a ways North of the split between the 5 and the 99, I encountered a really vile stench. Not the usual stockyard smell – I’ve passed Harris Ranch often enough to know that. Wet straw, damp cows, manure: the homely stench of the byre, as Lord Dunsany described it. This was different, worse. Scary. It was a smell of old, cold smoke and stone dust, blood and a pervading stink of rotting meat. A siege smell, a battlefield smell. Nasty and choking and hair-raising, nothing you’d expect of cows.

Were the ghost cities of the Valley engaged in war Thursday night? Were night-time skirmishes and aerial battles taking place outside the lights of I-5? No one would notice, I bet; unless they ventured down a side road and a trebuchet-load of dead cows and rocks landed on their car …

Kage had good reasons to be wary of night on I-5.

I, however, will be on that road of surprises tonight – or very early this morning. And to tell you all the truth, Dear Readers, I rather like it. If I glimpse the troops of the Unseelie Court harrying Summer down the road to Autumn – well, I’ll hardly know who to cheer for. I’ve got acquaintances on both sides.

I’ll just make a note of it,  make sure my doors are locked, and speed South to home.


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Kage Baker loved music. Most people do, I guess. But Kage was one of those folks whose life required a soundtrack, and she worked hard at achieving that.

She said it was because of growing up with cartoons. At an early age, she became convinced that life needed background music – and since she grew up on Warner Brothers and King Features and Silly Symphonies and Fantasia, she had a strong inclination to classical music and peculiar pop songs. Saturday concerts and music hall; performed by willow trees playing harp on their own trailing hair, and elephants who blew cool clarinet jazz on their trunks.

When Kage was working, especially on a novel, the soundtrack was vital to her process. It often wasn’t anything that would have made sense on a point-to-point comparison – and anyway, there aren’t many time travel sonatas available. What was needed was some unique connection for Kage, wherein some melody found its true meaning in the story in her brain. I always understood why Tudor dance music was played a lot while she wrote Garden of Iden; but I never understood how the Police’s Synchronicity fit in. It did, though.

Once Kage had settled on whatever music was appropriate, she played that. Only that. Over and over and over … which was often a bit weird, but Kage’s OCD habits produced impromptu art as a matter of course. The Empress of Mars was written to the sound of Vaughn Williams’  Sinfonia Antarctica and Gilbert & Sullivan’s Princess Ida. Some of that makes obvious sense, but the rest remains a mystery. Even to me.

I need music when I write, too. I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s: we all need music while we work; it’s part of our shared generational psyche. I’m not as focused as Kage, and I’m also not as obsessive – I get bored. I like variety. The radio is cool, but you must risk getting a dud in the mix. Therefore the great joy of Pandora Online Radio, for which I must thank the tech-savvy Neassa, who turned me on to it.

I have an English Folk channel there, that rarely fails me. Sometimes it’s disastrous – it just gave me “Fotheringay” followed by some tripe by Van Morrison, of all things; and Jethro Tull has a habit of sneaking in … but that can be amusing. Pandora’s algorhithm, for example, sees a deep relationship between  “A Parcel of Rogues” and “Four Dead in Ohio”.

Sometimes, though, the mix is like standing target for a knife-throwing act. Some song will come up without warning that was one Kage and I used to sing: road music, travelling music, Faire music. Steeleye Span and Pentangle and Stan Rogers. I sing along by habit, and I usually break down midway through when the harmony fails to materialize. Kage sang harmony; she said a soprano, like me, needed to concentrate too much on just getting oxygen to come up with harmony. And she heard the harmonies naturally; her alto was a trellis of hot bronze where my colder, thinner voice could find the support it needed. Without it, I’m just kind of … shrill.

But the music is still important to the writing; even the music that is lined with razors. Sometimes I can hear her voice in it, and it gets into what I write. That’s worth it. It’s another sort of harmony, and if I don’t quite understand how it works – well, I didn’t understand how Mendolssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream evoked Alec and Captain Morgan, either: but it fueled Kage to write The Machine’s Child.

It’s all mysteries and harmonies. I cry when I hear Stan Rogers sing; and then I cry when I hear his brother Garnet sing because I can feel him crying as he sings. Me, I don’t sing quite as much as I used to. But I haven’t forgotten any of the words.

So now I’m off to raise the Mary Ellen Carter, I guess. That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men …



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On The Road But Off My Head

Kage Baker, as I have often observed, loved to travel. One of the great joys of adulthood, for her, was the ability to just take off at a moment’s notice – out the door and away on the first road we saw, to Wherever. North. Left. Thataway.

One of the things she wanted me to do, in her absence, was to continue that tradition. Take off and go see all our friends, she urged me. Spend a summer wandering around. See things. Camp. Couch surf. And I said, Cool.

What the sometimes-prescient Kage did not foresee, though, was that when she was gone, I would collapse like the One Hoss Shay: all at once, a universal breakdown. I’ve been shoring things up ever since, while trying to follow her instructions. All of her instructions – including that time-consuming one of writing. And that is going pretty well; new agent, new work being finished and published now and then, old publishers like Tor expressing cautious interest, new ones like Mondadori eager to publish foreign editions.

My health collapsing has kept me home. That’s helped. But it hasn’t done so well for the travelling goal. This year, I didn’t even make it to the semi-sacred writing retreat in Pacific Grove (sorry, Neassa – we’ll make it eventually.). The few things I have managed to do are a token annual appearance at Dickens Fair, and my occasional gigs as a cat sitter in the enchanted cottage in the East Bay …

At the moment, I am waiting for a decision on the fate of my right kidney. An unusually concerned  doctor decided to test my kidneys separately, to see if one was doing all the work while the other slacked – and yes indeedy, the right one is only operating at 28% capacity. The only reason my kidney function looks normal is because the left one is such a trouper. It’s a testimony to the success of democracy, and an indictment of what happens when part of the democracy decides to be a parasite … anyway, political metaphors aside, I am anticipating surgery soon. All that’s left to decide is what sort. My nephrologist seems to think my plan of removing the right kidney and feeding it to the cats is a bit over the top. And some of you, Dear Readers, have pointed out that it might be mean to the cats.

So I guess I’ll eschew the vengeance, but it still means that this Fall and Winter will be somewhat constrained as to travelling adventures. So, when my good friends Buff and DJ asked me if I’d like to escape the LA heat and come spend the weekend house and cat sitting – I leaped at the chance! In fact, I left Los Angeles at 5 AM this morning, and have for some hours now been happily ensconced amid the blackberries and the perfumed datura and the New Zealand flax, playing with blue-eyed Angel the cat and typing away.

Of course, I also leaped so energetically that I got up here and discovered I had  forgotten to bring my extension cord – a necessity when one does a lot of typing in hotel rooms and little old Berkeley cottages. I also forgot to sign up my new Buke for Internet access … luckily, all my many devices are linked and synched and actually talk to one another. Once I found my way to a Walgreen for a cord, I could plug in the Buke before the battery failed, and secure a network connection through my other toys.

And here’s the real reason to travel with a phone AND an e-reader AND a notebook: so you can augment your failing brain with the data banks you now keep, of necessity, outside the confines of your skull … Kage gave the Operatives a tertiary consciousness for memory storage out of wistful envy, because she resented the fact that her own brain was not directly upgrade-able.

Anyway: sudden flight for adventure successful! Cravings for the road being satisfied before I get benched for plumbing  maintenance! And it was an interesting ride North, about which I will probably write a bit tomorrow. In the meantime, I’m going to go see if I can get a few hundred words in on “The Teddy Bear Squad”. Or Marswife.

Mind you, in my mad eagerness to get out the door and on the road, I also forgot all my thumb drives. (Remembered my Writing Hat, though.) But I know just where I was on the stories. That’s a part of my memory I still keep firmly in my head.


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Portents of an Early Autumn

Kage Baker always mourned the end of summer. Not only was Summer her favourite season, she found serious drawbacks to the approach of Fall. A shirt-sleeve environment, for Kage, failed below 75 degrees.

When the crepe myrtles began to blossom, and back to school sales appeared everywhere; when the furnace breath of day grew into a cold draft on the back of the neck at sunset – Kage went around muttering like the end of the world was nigh. Plums were replaced by apples. Grilled meat went cold in the brief space between the barbecue and the plate. Iced drinks became redundant, and the festive paper parasols of Summer were supplanted by cold, glassy swizzle sticks. And even glass pineapples were insufficient to make up for darkness at 6 PM.

Kage had to work herself into appreciating the specific joys of Autumn. Turning leaves initially depressed her – until they fell in sufficient crunchy piles to jump in and crunch. She refused to look at Halloween candy displays until October 1st, so the September displays of Peeps were an affront to decency. Marshmallow ghosts and owls and jack o’lanterns and bats were poisonous no matter how much chocolate covered them; no decoration was permitted out of the boxes until the month went double-digit: not even the animated Monster Mash Ball with waltzing couples of Famous Monsters of Filmland 2 x 2 like a creeped out Noah’s Ark. Or the howling haunted pirate ship, with flashing red cannon …

Kage's Favourite Party

Kage’s Favourite Party

Kage's Favourite Ride

Kage’s Favourite Ride

And why am I so taken with this memory this right now? It is, after all, only September 4th.  But the whole pivot of the season has come vaulting into sight today. While perusing yarn at Joann’s Fabrics, I found the shelves were thick with bat socks, candy corn, owl lights, glitter skulls and a cornucopia of Halloween fabrics from cozy zombie-printed flannel to glittering slime-green tulle. And the weather has turned cooler suddenly.  And the camphor trees are showing scarlet leaves like exotic goldfish, while the mulberry trees are suddenly exposing bare white limbs shamelessly with every still-warm breeze …

I’m not sleeping. My brain, it teems with endless schemes. High time, too, Dear Readers; it’s been an indolent summer (not to mention occasionally semi-conscious) but abruptly, my energy level is rising and my brain is sputtering back to life. If past Autumns are any guide, this one is going to be early – and I’ll stop sleeping at night altogether, and pretty much be awake until next Imbolc. Long nights of creation, and then afternoon naps; fire in the brain and then narcolepsy as the leaves drift past the windows on the wet winds.

I’ve gotten a request from a lady who wants to translate Kage’s “The Green Bird” into Esperanto, of all things. And, most timely, I have a new/old agent, having returned with mutual relief to the haven of the excellent Virginia Kidd Agency. They inform me that Tor is making inquiries about an old story idea …. and I bet I have the notes. It may be a good season for Harvest Home, after all.

It’s my favourite season, you see. I can adjust in a snap to the orange and black banners, the green and purple glitter. Bring on the pumpkin lights, the eyes in the darkened bushes, the sourceless shadows of wings at the window! You can’t have too much candy corn, or marshmallow ghosties; never enough cold winds, or flaming leaves, or bare tree limbs stark and graceful against the frozen red flame of the early sunset.

I’m ready.


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Other Stuff. Happening Somewhere Else.

Kage Baker often used random Web surfing to ease her passage into productive writing.

Not to solve writer’s block. She seldom had that for more than an hour or so, and a ruthless hour weeding and pruning in her garden usually got her over it. The surfing was to fill idle time, or at least to fill the idle time she was insisting on taking. It was doodling, but because she spent the time ostensibly looking things up, Kage maintained it was work related. And she did get ideas doing it. And she shared out especially entertaining tidbits with Harry and me, for the general edification of the household.

Because sometimes even Kage just did not want to begin writing. This is a weird state, one that non-writers may never have imagined: you want to be writing – especially exciting scenes and big plot points- but you don’t want to start writing. All that drudgery of finding your place, and composing actual sentences, and explaining what gets the people with whom you are presently incredibly bored from Point A to Point B … it can appear, even to the professional and disciplined writer, as the most enervatingly tedious exercise since conjugating Latin verbs.

(Amā́bam amā́bās amā́bat amābā́mus amābā́tis amā́bant. Or, as we used to chant sotto voce, “I’m a bus, you’re a bus, she’s a pair of roller skates”. This is funnier if you have ever been a 15-year-old terminally bored Catholic school girl.)

I am not the most professional or disciplined writer to be had. Further, I am still dealing with the after-effects of antibiotics, while anticipating the effects of irradiation; my right kidney has to be lit up with gamma rays for the next test, to decide what do about it. My advice: Don’t make it mad – you won’t like it when it’s mad.  Personally, I already loathe the little sucker.

At this point, Web surfing is one of the few things I can do for amusement, as it mostly involves sitting still and wearing my magic writing hat. My Saturdays always include scanning an assortment of science aggregator sites – I’ve assembled a few goodies, and would like to share the best of them (ie, the ones that may produce stories) with you, Dear Readers.

For instance: did you know there is a sub-species of white bear that is neither albino nor a polar bear? It’s called the Kermode bear, and it’s a mutant variety of the black bear: a recessive gene produces the snowy pelt in about 1 in a thousand bears. But it breeds true, as you can see in this momma bear and her also white son. Look at the big brown eyes! They live in a bit of British Columbian rain forest. I found the article in Smithsonian Magazine:


Kermode bearsA rare sort of nautilus has been located off Papua New Guinea. It was only seen once before, 30 years ago when it was discovered: and has now been seen again by its initial finder. Nautiluses are cool to begin with, and this one has an interesting “hairy” slimy shell and apparently unique male genitalia … I think this means that some Company operative has been breeding hairy nautiluses in her modified bathtub for 30 years, and has now released them into the wild to be “discovered” and conserved.

Conservation efforts, covert or public, can lead to some strange habits. It appears that there is a direct descendant of the Ice Age Woolly Rhinoceros: the Sumatran, or Hairy, Rhinoceros. Yes, they are tropical; but yes, they are also distinctly fuzzy. Also, nearly gone; so all of them are now being given a special breeding reserve in Sumatra, to see if the species can be saved. Luckily, some of their breeding eccentricities have recently been identified; like, now we know that females won’t ovulate if they’re not near a male. And if they don’t get pregnant on a regular basis, they develop all sorts of fatal “female troubles.” And since there are fewer than 100 of them left … well, getting them close together has been a problem until now. Presumably, some other Company operative has been hiding the weirdest stud farm in the world, full of nymphomaniac rhinos …

See? Fuzzy rhino.

See? Fuzzy rhino.

And I found another example of my private theory on the current Sixth Extinction Event, currently decimating the animals of the world: HUMANS EAT THEM ALL. Here’s an article on a guy who found a 6-armed octopus while snorkeling, and whose first and only reaction was to bash its little cephalopod brains out and eat it. http://tinyurl.com/qjsj6mp  

Please note, he is not some primitive subsistence hunter, but evidently a First World type of guy.

Doomed Rare Hextapus

Doomed Rare Hextapus

Well, there you are, Dear Readers. Each of these articles has the seed of a story, and who knows what will come of them? Something will; maybe an expose of just how difficult it can be to maintain rare breeding stock in your apartment … and just think what the Operatives working for Labienus’ Plague Club must be going through, keeping Yersinia pestis positive marmots in their garages! Those things can run up to 20 pounds.

This is why it can be so very valuable to simply go wandering off on the roads of the aether, and see what you can find.

And at the very least, it’s a great justification for my screwing around.

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