Kage Baker possessed a will of iron. But even she hit dead patches. That’s when she would re-read Terry Pratchett novels one after the other, or watch silent movies. She’d play Monkey Island and Grim Fandango 14 hours a day; she would spend days reading gardening catalogs, or exploring telenovellas. Native Angelina that she was, she had picked up enough Spanish to enjoy the insane plots – they were much more fun than the ones in English.

I don’t have her adamantine will, her facility with languages, or her fondness for video games. I don’t like soap operas. It’s too hot for me to go out and garden. And Terry Pratchett is dead.

What I do when I am sunk deep in the Slough if Despond is read. I’m a not-especially-recovering word junky, and the printed page is always my final refuge. It’s about all there is to do during dead times.

Dead time. It’s not like writing block. It’s more like the Doldrums or the Horse Latitudes – inescapable calms, little fresh rain, excessive amounts of seaweed and sharks. It’s where ships founder under full sail, until mermen crawl over the railings to loot the dead bodies under the neglected canvas …

March has been a dead time for me. Numbering the reasons would just be more depressing. Besides, the month is almost over and I am finally beating my health back into something survivable (I think), and I don’t want to jinx the progress. Suffice to say, I’m sorry I’ve been silent and I will soon resume my activities.

After all, how long can the weather keep up 90 degree days in Spring? I’m sure I don’t want to know – I’ll just cling to the hope that the weather will break, the infant tomatoes will survive, the plum trees will set blossoms despite the damned Santa Ana winds. March will end.

Land ahoy, Dear Readers. Or maybe, and even better yet, that shadow on the horizon is the approaching mass of a clean spring storm, rich with rain and good strong winds …

I can always hope.

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Kage Baker would be very sad today. If she were alive … as she is not, she may be at the wrap party undoubtedly now being held for Sir Terry Pratchett in the Otherworld.  I’d be surprised if she were not.

Sir Terry died today – in England, at home, in his own bed, surrounded by his family. His publisher was at pains to state that he did not take the final measure into his own hands (despite an often-stated intention to do so rather than let Alzheimer’s get him) but died naturally. Because, you know, making your own quietus is, no matter what the Bard says, frowned upon in Britain …

People all over the world will be mourning Sir Terry today. I am. Probably most of you are too, Dear Readers. If anyone takes my advice, they’ve read his amazing work. If you haven’t, I conjure and abjure you to do so. It will be good for your soul, and your vocabulary. It will make you feel real things. It will get you preferred seating in the next life.

He was a good man and a good writer. He worked hard at his craft, achieving art: there’s no higher praise for a maker.  His books were strong and truthful, and based on a solid foundation of morals and ethics. They were also fall-off-your-chair funny, which  combination of virtues is one of the rarest gifts in the world. He’s one of the few writers Kage read for pleasure, and one of the few I keep to hand and re-read again and again. His books were my companions after Kage’s death. I guess they will be now, after his own death, too.

When Sir Terry was knighted, he decided he needed a sword. So he commissioned one – containing, reputedly, meteorite iron. He assisted the smith in its making, christened it in brandy, and then hid it carefully away. Because, you know, wandering around wielding a bare blade is frowned upon in Britain …

I hope they bury him with his sword in his hand.

There really isn’t much else to say, although everyone who loved him will be moved to try. The pain of loss and survival will make us cry out. None of us will be able to say it as well as he would – but, fittingly, his daughter Rhiannon came closest. Her announcement of his death was a work of grace and dignity:

Like his life, really; although to be absolutely word-perfect faithful to his voice, it should probably have included some mild British cursing. Buggrit! Millenium hand and shrimp!

Like that.

Sleep well, Sir.



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Stuck In My Head

Kage Baker was a redhead.

She had all the stereotypical (sometimes mythical) attributes of the classic redhead – even the fiery temper, though it was balanced and often camouflaged by her equally intense shyness. Her passion was channeled into her art, and into both furies and exhilarations seen only by her close family. Her skin was pale as paper and never, ever, ever tanned; she was madly freckled, from a childhood in the California sun before she discovered broad-brimmed hats and sun-screen.

Her hair wasn’t the frizzy orange curls so often pictured as “redhead”: it was not only a darker red, but more shades of it. Some strands weren’t even colours usually seen on human beings – maroon. Burgundy. Gold – not blonde, an almost metallic gold. Salt-white, even as a small child. The overall effect was one of a bright bronze, with a lot of copper in the alloy … and it was photoreceptive, too. In winter it dulled and darkened, but a weekend out in the Spring sun and it would be blazing like gold-backed mosaic glass.

It grew in big, soft curls when she was a baby. Her mother kept it short as long as Kage lived at home, because it was a major project to wash and brush; it was as thick and dense as copper wire. Kage tended to keep it brushed forward in what would have been bangs if it had been less thick – it formed a sort of quiff in front, and ended up looking like the old Irish glibbe style, which amused her no end.

When she turned 18, got her ears pierced and left home, Kage swore to never cut her hair again. Nor did she, until her brain surgery in her last year; aside from rare trims, she let it grow. It was waist-length in a year. She habitually had to flip it out of the way when she sat down, or she sat on it and half-hanged herself. The parrot used it as his personal abseil rope and playtime swing. Brushed out, it was 3 feet wider than she was. Sister Anne kept that bright braid, in memorium.

A true redhead, all Kage’s hair was red. It made her brows almost invisible. But when the sunlight hit her face, her eyelashes would glow red-gold. It made her eyes even more remarkable, because that was her one departure from classic redhead colouring. Her eyes were black. In strong light, they would show as a dark hazel – sometimes greenish, more often the same unique bronze as her hair; but usually, as black as her Indian father’s.

All her life, Kage was unusually sensitive to some kinds of pain. She was a pretty stoic person, ordinarily; but facial pains, cold temperatures and insect bites undid her. Painkillers didn’t work as well, or as often, or as long. Kage was ashamed of that, seeing it as a weakness or even some kind of hypochondriacal syndrome: but it’s actually accurate for a redhead. They’re wired differently from the rest of us:


“As it turns out, both of those are linked to a wider, far more complex gene than previously imagined. It’s not that redheads feel pain more – in fact, they feel a different kind of pain entirely. Redheads, for example, are more susceptible to toothaches and painfully cold temperatures- but they are entirely capable of withstanding more stinging and pressure pain than the average blonde or brunette. Additionally, in an incredible coincidence, they are better able to withstand the ‘fiery’ pain from capsaicin- AKA spicy foods.”

Kage was actually allergic to oxycodone blends: which made things very hard for both of us in her final illness. I learned to argue with medical personnel about whether or not to risk opiates on someone with terminal cancer. They really seemed sure Kage would end up addicted …. I wish with all my heart she had had the time to try. But once her oncologist told us she was terminal, she had barely a week of morphine before she died.

At least the morphine worked on the pain.

There is, however, no morphine for memory. And, as I wheeze and drip my cranky way through the end of a winter-long respiratory infection, this has been much on my mind. I am depressed. I am mean. I am sick of being sick, sick of coughing, sick of the universality of phlegm. I’m sick of the taste of throat lozenges – why does no one make any that taste like pepperoni? Or garlic shrimp? I have verified, however, that a couple of ounces of solid chocolate will stop a nagging cough – or at least make one pay less attention to it. Whiskey has the same super-distraction effect, at least until it turns traitor and joins up with my headaches …

The only escape I have found this last bit has been reading. That’s a palliative that goes as far back as age 7, when I first learned to read. But I am, slowly, getting better. The elderberry extract is finally making inroads on the dripping (thank you, Kimberly!) and I have begun to dream of writing again. I woke up this morning and could see the next page of Edges and Islands written on my pillow: in Kage’s ghastly cursive, which I can at least decipher. The next line will begin: “Ooh, look at her little neocortex!”

After all, ordinary painkillers work better on me. I need to use the gift of fate, and earn that relief.

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Will Your Phenotype Last Your Lifetime?

Kage Baker was an avid reader of magazine article titles.

That might sound a bit over-specialized, but when we were young you could actually find articles about general news topics in magazines – especially those in the checkout line at the grocery store. Nowadays, these are dominated by trashy celebrity-centric mags; who is wearing, eating or doing whom; who is crying their face-lifted eyes out over it; who is about to undergo a marital, gender or species change … but not when we were kids. Then, you could actually see things as diverse as Reader’s Digest Magazine and Scientific American right there by the gum and Life Savers.

Kage was always intrigued by titles like “Will Your (Organ of the Month) Last Your Lifetime?” and autobiographies like “I am Joe’s Thymus”. The latter cracked her up: she was inordinately amused by the literary conceit of assigning the first person singular viewpoint to an internal organ. Her list of complaints from Joe’s liver or kidneys or testicles was hilarious, as I recall … what amused her about the former series, though, was a common-sense observation. Yes, of course Joe’s vital organs will last a lifetime, because when they fail, he’ll die.

So obvious. And, to Kage, so blackly amusing.

Of course, the advances of modern medicine are making some changes in this scenario – prostheses, drugs, transplants: these all can extend one’s lifetime beyond the demise of one’s kidneys or pituitary. And as genetic information increases, we are also beginning to discover that what happens at the intersection of genotype and phenotype can undergo alterations during a lifetime. Some of these are so huge in consequence and meaning that they almost constitute metamorphosis.

Your genotype, Dear Readers, is of course your actual genes. I’m sure you know this – they’re the physical bits that program you to make all sorts of useful proteins, and that make you green-eyed or pigeon-toed or baritone or allergic to hazelnuts. Your phenotype is the way those instructions play out – which is why your eyes are a unique shade of green; or you are the first person in 10 generations of your family to have blonde hair; or you grow to be a foot taller than your parents, because improved nutrition allows you to express a hitherto-unused potential for long bones.

Genotypes work at different speeds, too. Your phenotype can, theoretically, begin displaying something unsuspected if you live long enough … and it’s rarely superpowers, alas.

Case in point: people die of different things these days than they used to.  They live longer, and the last dance is more likely to be with a strange disease for us than for our grandparents. People didn’t used to die of cancer as much as they do now, nor of Alzheimer’s nor of Parkinson’s. There are degenerative diseases that seldom got a chance to kill people, back when more people croaked it in their 20’s and 30’s. All life really promises any of us is a chance -just a chance, mind you – to breed before we die. If we live longer than breeding age, what eats us then is our own problem.

Kage herself died of a rare cancer; one not even known to exist in her own youth. Her oncologist could find only 27 cases of it in the literature, and most of the other women who developed it died, too. Something new. Something nasty. Something that Kage should have been spared by being run over by a horse or succumbing to quinsy or something old-fashioned like that. But the medical arts made it possible for her to survive a dozen things that would have killed her own mother or grandmother, and so live long enough for an unsuspected weakness in her genotype to manifest in her phenotype.

I guess it happens to most of us. If you’re paying attention, you notice. Not that does any good, but at least you know.

I’ve been famed all my life – and vain, too, I must admit – for being remarkably free of respiratory diseases. Despite smoking for decades, I didn’t catch colds or influenza. That has all changed in the last couple of years, and I resent it extremely. I’ve been suffering through bout after bout of some sort of lung and sinus crap since the week before Christmas, and I am tired of it!

I can’t take most decongestants, nor cough syrups. So I am now down to desperate folk remedies, like Mrs. Nickelby in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby, with her cold that lasts for 6 months … Kimberly has just begun supplying me with elderberry extracts, which is at least a harmless and potentially tasty palliative. My CPAP helps, now that I have my sinuses under sufficient control to stop sneezing into the mask – which is a horror show all its own, let me tell you. But this unending storm of sneezing, dripping, coughing, bleary misery is really getting me down!

It’s also Kimberly who nags me into posting a blog, Dear Readers; so we all have her to thank for my doing anything at all useful.

But it’s warmer here in LA than it has been lately; spring is coming, so maybe I will finally re-establish some respiratory parity. I am not impressed with the slow failure of my immune systems; and I’m not entertained by the new manifestations of my genetic heritage. It’s a pretty good bet that all my aging systems will, regardless of what happens, last my lifetime … for Kage’s favourite reason, if no other.

Aging is not a fun spectator sport. I suggest we all avert our gaze. And in the meantime, it’s time to proceed with life.

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People Watching

Kage Baker liked to people watch.

Sitting quietly somewhere, preferably with a nice drink of something to hand, just grooving on the passing tide of people – that was something she always enjoyed. It was something to occupy waiting time in lines, air port lounges, hotel lobbies; something to sometimes even go out specifically to do, sitting somewhere interesting like a mall or the Hollywood Bowl and enjoying the cavalcade.

There’s a Simon & Garfunkle song with a verse about it – “America” (which was always a sacred traveler’s song to us) … Laughing on the bus/ Playing games with the faces, /She said the man in the gabardine suit/ Was a spy./I said, “Be careful,/His bow tie is really a camera … There’s a classic Larry Niven story, too, the title of which I cannot GODSDAMNIT recall, about someone who subscribes to magazines about the sport. An interesting idea, in an increasingly crowded world. (Any suggestions, Dear Readers, will be appreciated …)*  **

We used to sit and wonder where people came from, where they were going. What kind of aliens they really were; because the variety of Homo sapiens phenotypes is such that dozens of aliens could walk among us and never be noticed. People whose complexions were peculiar, or whose bone structure was unique; or who, as Kage said “Averted their eyes from strange things, and stared too long at others.”

(There was a fellow who used to hang around Hollywood Boulevard when we were teenagers, whom Kage called The Werewolf of Hollywood (before Warren Zevon’s classic song, which subsequently became a favourite of ours) and he really did look like his genetics were of a lupine nature. Some sort of transient, I think, but a well-spoken fellow who somehow never scared even such a skitzy pair of idiots as we were.)

We especially enjoyed finding people who might be characters in Kage’s stories. Sometimes they were people she’d already written about; sometimes, they were suddenly a face she needed in to see in Byblos or The City In The Cliffs. We were adept at seeing Company Operatives drifting through the crowds in museums and art galleries; likewise demons and sorcerers who cropped up in theatre audiences, or a passing limousine … in Hollywood, damn near anything in the Known Universe can pass you in a Rolls Royce 3:4 saloon.

I had reason today to spend some time in a DMV office. Not for myself, but as chauffeuse for my nephew Michael, who is in the process of acquiring his driver’s license. The best way to do this is to make an appointment at a relatively outlying office; your travails will still exist, but not last as long. In poor Michael’s case, they were brief indeed; the State of California, despite having confirmed his appointment 4 days ago, had lost any record of it when we got there today. Another rite of passage peculiar to Los Angeles: go home and try again another day.

But while my stalwart nephew made his way fruitlessly through the maw of bureaucracy, I sat and watched the crowd. There are days when everyone you see just looks funny – there’s no explanation, but everybody looks like they took the the Friday afternoon ferry from Antares, for a weekend of gambling and shopping in L.A. I’ve no idea what tic in my brain causes this, but it used to happen in Kage’s brain too.

Today was one of those days. We were in the Glendale DMV office, and the entire crowd looked peculiar to me. I finally figured out what it was this time, though: their heads. All their skulls looked weird.

I’ve been spending so much time staring at Neanderthal skulls the past 2 weeks, gazing at Charlotte’s face and putting flesh on it, that the Homo sapiens model is looking wrong to me. They’re so … freakishly round. Like balloons, or melons, or Colorado guidance councilors – we really do look the way little kids draw stick people. One of the most disturbing aspects of the skull is its persistent verticality: Homo sap. heads go straight up and down, like boxes, or menhirs. It makes everyone look like a Lego minifig … where is the graceful double curve of the orbit? The high, winged cheekbones, the majestic slope of the brow? Honestly, modern heads are nearly square!

I’ve got one of those round heads, too, of course, but I can’t see mine. That makes all the difference. On me, as they say, it looks good; or at least I don’t have to think about what it does look like at all.

I’ve found a new way of being alone in a crowd, sitting there and staring at my own species with a stranger’s eyes. It was more fun when Kage was with me, seeing the same things and speculating wildly on their causes. But it’s all grist, as they also say, grist for the writer’s mill.

I’ll take that, too, as a gift from Kage.


*Really. If anyone can identify this story, it will ease a dreadful itch in my brain. Otherwise, I have to re-read every one of Mr. Niven’s short stories until I find it, which is going to take time …

** “Passerby”! It’s called “Passerby!” I found it in the first anthology I checked, the second story – All The Myriad Ways, an excellent compilation BTW, and I advise any and all to read it on general principles. And in the meantime, I found the name!

Itch satisfied.





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Edges and Island VI 2/25/15 II

Kage Baker is just about always on my mind. She slips away from me when I sleep, though – she’s immune to my attempts at lucid dreaming, and just will not show up when I try to call her. She was never one to be summoned …

She does show up in my dreams, though. It’s just that she’s in the background, or in another room, or I’m counting on meeting her somewhere really really soon and trying hard to get there.  It’s usually a dream about getting ready for a Renaissance Faire, and I’m trying to get the Inn set built – complete with some out-of-proportion addition like a mead hall or a bowling alley, and all the screw guns have dead batteries … oh, that horrible whine as a Makita winds down to nothing!

This is clearly a metaphor for the writing. Either Kage or my subconscious needs some lessons in subtlety.

shellStaring at Iris kept me occupied for a time, while the new grownups set up in my empty family cave. She was dressed like them (and me) in fur and leather; she carried in firewood and what I hoped were bundles of food, hefting as much or more than a grown man could. She was just so odd-looking!

As I sat by the fire – rapidly built up again by my benefactors – I became aware that I could feel Artur and Eiluned. I could feel their heart fires; and even more, I could feel them feeling mine. I’d only just begun to learn how to feel the heart fire – it enriched the grownups’ conversations, and made me feel safe when I caught the edges of it: but I wasn’t very good at it yet. It was how I was left behind, I’m sure – Momma and I couldn’t feel one another’s heart fires, because I was too little to do it right.

She may have thought I was dead. And I couldn’t feel her to track her. Babies have to learn to do it, you see – both to feel it, and to be felt.  First they learn to talk, but that’s just making noise. It’s the heart fires, the shared feeling among the People, that really makes us the People. I could feel it now from Artur and Eiluned as they moved about, smiling at me; it was the most wonderful thing I had ever encountered.

Iris smiled at me, too – she had teeth like a baby! – but I couldn’t feel her heart fire at all. I smiled back, though, because I was so happy to feel People near me again. And I knew it wasn’t her fault she was ugly. Still, between knowing my Momma was gone, and the continuing weirdness of my rescuers, I just slowly, unconsciously, started to cry. I didn’t mean to. But the tears filled up my eyes and rolled down my face, fracturing the fire into red streaks and stones in my vision; it felt like I was watching from behind a hot wet mask.

Eiluned came to me at once – I could still feel her; and I knew she could feel me. So when she sat down and put her arms around me, it was the most natural thing in the world to burrow into her and cry and cry and cry. Artur came and sat down beside us, until all I could feel was their two big hot hearts holding me close in the darkness behind my eyes. I could even tell that Iris was nearby – a little pale flame, like thin moonlight. But even feeling her was so much better than being alone.

Now came something we all encounter in our first few hours, all we rescued children. Some of us deny it, some dismiss it. Most of us take the memory and make it part of our personality foundation, integrating into the new person we become. They talked over my head: and while I couldn’t understand it then, I very quickly couldn’t forget it either. Their voices came clearly out of the fog that burned away my old brain, became one of the first clear memories for the thing I would become.

It’s that way for all of us. Sometimes what our rescuers say in those first few hours is all we remember at all of our pasts. It certainly stays more important than anything that happened to us before they found us. It is the Word in the Darkness, that becomes Light.


Caveat: the foregoing is the intellectual property of Kathleen Bartholomew. http://doctorzeus.co/                    materkb@gmail.com

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Teaser – 2/25/15 I

Kage Baker loved signs in the sky.

Literally. Los Angeles is a web of tourist attractions knitted roughly together with strip malls; the skies are full of signs. Sometimes they’re inflated, and tethered to tire emporiums or carpet warehouses – various amusingly phallic little blimps, bobbing 3 or 4 stories up with some company name pendent from them. Blimps are amazingly frequent, in fact, in all sizes. By day they are sky whales, too high up to give any real details but the fact of their existence; by night, they light up with argyle patterns and staring eyes and smiling lips, and usually urge one to reconsider one’s phone service carrier.

And still, even in this day and age, the most common form of sign in the sky is a simple banner towed behind a small plane. I’ve no real idea what they say, because usually they’re backwards or upside down, or too high up or far away to tell. Kage had no idea what they usually said either – it didn’t matter, she said, because the entire point was that there was a Sign In The Sky!

“It’s a message from God!” she would exclaim, enchanted by some obscure advertising banner two miles away and a thousand feet up.

“But you don’t know what it says,” I would complain.

“It’s a message from God,” Kage would say patiently. “That’s the entire point. What it says is irrelevant: it’s a sign that God is there.”

“This is how cults and crusades get started,” I would opine.

“Only by silly people. The rest of us wait for details,’ was Kage’s serene reply. “It’s prophecy TBA.”

“It’s says BUDWEISER!”

“Oh, ye of little faith … ”

It’s true that I lack faith as deep and solid as Kage’s was – in all sorts of things, including that God has something relevant to say via plastic sperm zeppelins and cheap beer. That’s all right, though. Miracles continue to happen whether or not I invest any faith in them; good fortune appears even when I am without hope. Today I got a little royalty check. The hummingbird that raised her chick last year outside the kitchen window is back on her cloisonne nest today. It rained 2 days ago, and will rain again 2 days from now.

And a little red plane towing a long yellow banner flew over me while I was fetching my nephew home from school. I don’t know what it said. But I think what it implied was Kage telling me to keep on working. So I will.


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