Other Plans

Kage Baker took, as part of her basic philosophy, the statement:  Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

She thought that was pretty much self-evident, in fact; so obviously accurate that it was largely overlooked, on a day-to-day basis. Who comments on the persistence, for example, of gravity? Nobody, because the way it works is a certainty. A common place. If it was known to fail and produce occasional, cataclysmic Earth-disolvement, it would be followed on the local news, she felt. You’d get a gravity reading, along with temperature and humidity and the likelihood of rains of frogs.

What attracted Kage to the precise description above was its concise brevity. (And the fact that it was written by John Lennon.) At any rate, she relied upon it as a core value, and really, really resented Life for being that way.  She worked with single-minded stubbornness to avoid the complications, delays and outright disasters that are the way this process does its dirty work. She succeeded in this to a fault.

It didn’t always work, but as the years passed it worked more and more, better and better. Kage had just about hit on the perfect balance to prevent Life (in general) from interfering with her life (in specific), when Life sent the big guns to the front. Kage’s intent ignoring of Life’s interference with her plans probably helped It along when it made Its big play – cancer got a deeper foothold in her body while she wrote. And wrote. And wrote. She couldn’t stop Life in its attack, but she sure as hell succeeded in ignoring it.

That year-long battle between two forces of nature – cancer and Kage – has left me somewhat paranoid. I’d been consistently strong and durable all my own life, until Kage died; the costs of that year all arrived in one big box, marked Urgent and Unavoidable. I’ve been grimly adjusting to each corporeal catastrophe as it’s happened, but every time I think that box is empty, something else emerges from the packing peanuts.

This last week has been afflicted with some sort of GI malaise, and a sinus infection; bellyaches, headaches, and absurd sneezing fits. They’re all minor problems, but they interfere absurdly with such necessities as sleeping and writing.  Really, who sneezes 20 times in a row? Nobody relying on a CPAP mask for night-time breathing, I can tell you that. It’s like being water-boarded, only with the air hose at a gas station …  can you sprain your epiglottis? Because that sure sounds like something I would do.

But, hey! Kage was right, as usual (and so was John Lennon, for that matter). Suddenly I’m fragile. It’s part of my New Normal. I just have to deal with it.

I don’t have to like it, though. I’m not ignoring these slings and darts – I saw what can happen when you do that. But I really do have other plans, you know? Life’s gonna have to bend, at least a little, or I won’t play.

So there.

 

 

 

 

 

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Heat Broken, Weather Fixed

Kage Baker considered it a great good fortune in her life that she was born in an English-speaking country.

It wasn’t chauvinism, or even patriotism; there are better ways to practice one’s patriotism, and she figured that paying her taxes and voting covered that pretty well. Nor did she despise other languages. She read at least 4, driven by her fondness for opera and insistence on librettos in their original language.

No, Kage liked English because of the variety it offered. As languages go, it is a kaleidoscope; a gem cut into infinite facets; a multi-tool with a thousand surgically-precise blades and a thingie for straightening arrows. You can twist it and turn it, treat it like salt-water toffee and clay and coloured inks. It’s mutable. changeable, violently alive and evolving constantly.

And she loved adjectives, with which English is lousy. She especially liked the way they can be converted into nouns. Sometimes you don’t even have to change the spelling. That’s especially handy for people like you, she would say to me. Since you couldn’t spell your way through a pack of cigarette papers. Which is sad, but true …

All of  these are attributes of why non-native English speakers often hate the tongue. It has no logical boundaries. It has few rules, and every one of them has exceptions. It has an enormous, redundant vocabulary. It advertises itself as a universal language, with no dialects, which is an unashamed lie: in Los Angeles, where we grew up, there are at least 5 distinct dialects among the native born, one of which is even gender-dependent – and that is almost unheard of among Western cultures.

There’s a T-shirt you can find at most science fiction conventions: English doesn’t borrow words from other languages. It follows other languages down dark alleys, mugs them, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar. Kage loved that shirt. I myself have gone through 6 of them over the years. I consider my wardrobe incomplete without one.

You can say almost anything in English. It might take you several words for some specific concepts that are only one word in their original languages – but you can combine enough of English to do the job. And if you wait a generation or two, the kids and grand kids will have converted that jury-rigged phrase into a single, efficient word. Then the folks back in the Old Country can have fits when the hybrid word comes slinking back over the border to pollute the Mother Tongue …

The hits just never stop, with English.

That’s why Kage considered herself lucky to be a native speaker. It was the best linguistic paintbox on the planet, and she always did love big paintboxes with lots of colours. Hues. Tints. Shades. Tones, pigments, stains, dyes. You know.

My mind started out along this interesting path when I woke up yestreday and discovered that the heat had broken. Which meant that the weather was fixed. It’s such an English language turn of phrase.

The weather is back to normal, the blissful autumnal climate soothing the fevered body of the Basin. It’s been cold at night! I’ve slept under the covers for the 1st time in 5 months, and even now it’s only 78 degrees here, with a breeze. We will have some more hot days here and there, but now they’ll be singleton rarities and not fortnights of triple-digit heat. Los Angeles is once more fit for human habitation; or, at least, for mine.

So … it’s a good time to go searching through my own word hoard, full of peculiar exotica. There are stories waiting patiently, and the first thing I need to find is the word for a weird kind of cloud I only saw once …

But I bet there’s a word in English for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Back Home

Kage Baker usually collapsed after a long car trip. Eight hours on the road is wearying, even when you’re the passenger. It’s hard on the navigator, too – especially any navigator who had to work with me – so just riding shotgun could be a little strenuous.

I usually ran around a while, once we were home. hyped on adrenalin and still focused on the long-distance horizon.  Which I have done, being back home; as well as petting all the cats, the dog and Harry the Parrot, all of whom claim to have not eaten in the week I was gone. Which I am pretty sure is a lie, because if it were true my family would be picked bones …

Anyway: my drive down from early morning Berkeley to late afternoon Los Angeles was interesting and free of traffic, Dear Readers. But I’m brain-dead tired, so I am going to go collapse and eat Pumpkin Spice Cream Sandwich cookies from Trader Joe’s. Even in this year where everything is being released in a pumpkin morph, these are uniquely delicious. I highly recommend them to you all.

Tomorrow: Dust devils en masse along I-5

 

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The Window

Kage Baker needed to be able to see the world while she wrote. She always had her desk close to a window, wherever we lived; the point was to provide a contrast to whatever world she was building on the pad or screen in front of her. All she had to do was turn her head, and some new vista filled her gaze – whether she looked out the window at the mutable sea, or back to whatever world was displayed on her computer.

It was the rhythm between the two that powered a lot of her writing, I think. Like a superconductor, one end in cold shadow and the other in hot sunlight; the difference between the two ends generated current. Kage’s brain was the superconductor.

And, of course, she was already well-situated for those moments when you simply must flake out and stare out the window. Sometimes the point is not to generate a damned thing, but to open the gates of all your senses and be overpowered. Kage’s self-control was such that she could enter and leave that state at will.

I’ve been infamous since grade school for being a total victim to windows. Many teachers tried to stop me from gazing out into infinity, to no especial effect … I am endlessly susceptible to the lure of what the sky is doing, but I was deaf to the call to attend the teacher. Books do the same thing to me; being, as they are, merely windows to yet other worlds. I’ll stare into the eyes of just about any distance, happily lost. Kage used that same energy to generate other worlds altogether.

Kage said that was half the trick to writing – you have to set your gaze on the world you’re creating, and see what’s to be seen. She said she sometimes got so far into the story that it was like her fingers were telling a story to her eyes – there was no communication between them that she could discern.  What the plot and characters did then was as much a surprise to her as anybody else.

I think most writers have a point or place or process like that. You can call it something trendy, like being in the groove; you can call it self-hypnosis, if you’re nervous about admitting you don’t always know for sure what the hell your mind is doing. But it’s your special place, where reality is what you say it is -or at least, it’s what it tells you it is …reality speaks in tongues, and you have to listen very carefully.

Kage could do this. It wasn’t easy every time, though, and there was lots of cursing, sighing and twisting furious knots into her hair. I had to un-knot her from her chair sometimes, or even get her fingers unshackled from the copper wire of her hair. But she insisted that this was one of the real ways she got into a story – staring off out the window until she could see something other than what was obviously  there …

And she was right, too. It is an excellent way, and it serves me almost as well as it did Kage. You just have to resigned to losing a certain amount of time to the sheer glamoury of the view – and the closer you get, to that contact point that frees the words, the stranger and more fascinating the world outside the window grows. You have to take what appears, too; there’s no menu, it’s cook’s choice …

It was grey here in Berkeley this morning, and a wind rising: not a chill wind, though, and the ceiling of cloud as high as a hall – flowing like liquid granite on a wind that smelled of warm grain. The cat vanished into the garden as soon as I opened the door, and has been stalking flower petals and insects on the air ever since, arching her back to the hands of the wind.

Rain is coming. The air carries its perfume like flags and banners.

Where I’m sitting, I can see out the dining room window, right on to the stand of New Zealand Flax that so fascinated me this early summer. In June, it was all stems of carved ebony, set with long scarlet flowers that looked like Maori war canoes. Since then, the flowers have bloomed out, and the black stalks withered and faded until they look like jasper spears, or long burnt bones … new leaves have grown up between them,  sword blades taller than my head.

This tableau somehow says Ten of Swords to me. When Kage read the Tarot – which she did, and well; her old deck with the Rider-Waite illustrations was worn as soft as flannel – she said this one meant Things can’t get worse. You’ve hit the bottom. And sometimes, fixing her black eyes sternly on me, in particular, You’re being a martyr again. Stop it.

Could be. Could be. I’m certainly given to late night despairs and stony intransigence. Kage sympathized, but she usually bent down only long enough to pick up and hand me my boot straps.

Rain is coming, on a wind as warm as flesh; the rain that the earth has been gasping for this last 6 months. Last year’s blossoms are rattling thorns in the wind, but next year’s leaves are already growing up around them. The grey sky is flowing like the grey sea, under a froth of bougainvillea petals and butterfly wings.

The world outside the window says wait fore the rain.

Wait for the rain, and the words.

 

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Meditating On Spam.

Kage Baker rather liked Spam.

Not porn, which must constitute at least 95% of all unsolicited email. Porn bored her, unless someone came up with something really weird and amusing – but no one ever did, really. Mass mailings are aimed at low common denominators, so not a lot of imagination is expended on any of them. Anyway, the porn was easily banned from Kage’s email by a few custom filters.

Sometimes a search would yield an outre erotic result, and that was always good for a laugh. I remember she got some hilarious stuff when researching miniature horses; and what you get with an unspecified search for “bears” is amazing. And, for her own amusement, Kage made a collection over the years of the various permutations of The Spanish Prisoner Scam that came her way over the aether. They came in from half the world, because apparently the main social problem among the uber rich is forgetting the odd 5 or 6 millions dollars in little backwoods banks.

I think it’s a form of W. C. Fields Syndrome, actually. He left bank accounts under false names all over the country.

A large majority of Spanish Prisoners these days are actually Nigerian. Or Somali – those folks have real staying power, you gotta give ‘em credit for that; it’s a shame they can’t seem to concentrate it on establishing a functional government. On the other hand, look at ours …

Kage was amused by most of the general crap that came in, too. There were countless millions of people anxious to have sex with her. She figured it was mostly because they couldn’t tell her gender from her name. More thousands were avidly ready to help Kage find her high school chums; anyone who succeeded in delivering on that promise would have sent Kage screaming into the sunset – she wasn’t willing to dive back into that maidenly sea.

But she liked looking at ads for clothes and shoes and steaks carved from exotic animals (Hey, look, you can get zebra!*) and carburetors that would let the car run on distilled water. Newsletters that promised a full expose on the lizard people now running the Tri-World Commission (What happened to the Jews? Did even the aliens dump on ‘em? Sheesh!) Bracelets of copper, molecular silver (As opposed to what – antimatter silver?), vanadium, depleted uranium, and hair from mummies: all guaranteed to cure some ghastly illness. Or maybe all illnesses; the spelling and grammar was a little wonky on these types of offers.

This sort of thing would rather cheer Kage’s morning perusal of her correspondence, especially as she never had to answer any of them. There’s nothing like an offer on discount breeding pairs of pygmy hedgehogs to bring a smile to your face on a grey day, let me tell you.

Kage was rarely on any chat sites or forums, and even more rarely did she leave or answer comments. So she seldom got the sort of spam that is particular to writers – a wide variety of people offering to help you make your writing better. Your blog or site is great, they tell you – except for the parts (most of it, in fact) that is so terrible it’s likely afflicting your readers with eye cancer … But! This person will improve it for you and triple your hits and make you rich! (This’ll only work if I can charge people to look at my site. Can I do that? Thought not … )

Then there are the people who tell you right up front they love your work, especially since they themselves cannot write. But! They have AN IDEA; which, for a modest proportion of the millions it will earn you, they will share with you. To these, Kage  replied: Run! Run like hell! Never EVER tell a writer your great idea! They will steal it! She usually managed to imply that most writers would also track down the innocent idea-purveyor, and eat their faces …

The other side of this coin  – and only barely spam – are the people who write and claim the writer has already stolen their idea. And they want their fair share. Because they just know that you have a cupboard made of solid gold where stacks of money earned by this amazing idea are selfishly concealed. These folks, whether truly demented or just really hopeful, were the smallest proportion of spam Kage got – because she was only a mod-list writer, after all. People like Steven King and J.K. Rowling get metric shit tons of this nonsense, and doubtless retain stables of snarling attack lawyers to deal with them. Kage had me; and while I’m not a lawyer of any sort, I really enjoyed the chance to be rude to some random idiots.

The one kind of Spam that Kage totally abhorred, though, was the kind that came in the pull-tab cans. The edible kind – though she would have argued with that assessment. Spam was a vital part of a Catholic’s child upbringing in the ’50’s, especially if your family was clinging to middle class with desperate hands. I grew up loving the stuff, and regarding it as a genuine treat. But when it was served – whether in lieu of “real” meat, or in speciality dishes with pineapples or bell pepper rings or grits or macaroni and cheese – Kage ate toast.

These days, I like to mince the Spam up fine and cook it in with the amusingly shaped pasta in thematic Kraft Macaroni and Cheese: dinosaurs, Vikings, bats and pumpkins, Spongebob Square Pants. Kage wouldn’t even try the Spongebob Square Pants! And she loved that show.

But I guess everyone has their limits. She went through an awful lot of Nigerian Prisoner letters, and laughing that hard that can stomp your appetite pretty flat.

And now, Dear Readers – I think I need to go out and see if I can find a can of Spam …

 

*Anything in this that is both italicized and parenthesized is a direct quite from Kage, by the way.

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A Vot’ress of Her Order

Kage Baker always told me – to be a writer, you must write. Just that – sit down and write something. Anything. Gibberish, if that’s all that comes to mind – it worked for James Joyce, she would always point out – and sense and a plot will eventually coalesce out of the murk.

But they for certain sure will not, if you don’t just shut up, sit down and write.

This simple advice (though not as simple as it sounds; no, not at all) can lead you to frustrated insanity. But, hey – so can trying to get the child-proof cap off the aspirin.  Persevering still works, though, whether you’re a born story-teller like Kage, or a late-come amateur like me. Nothing else will, either. Inspiration will never, ever alight on your hand like a bird in a fairy-tale; it’ll flash by on burning wings, enticing you, and never land at all. Unless you sit down and write. You’ll know you saw it, you’ll know it’s real and out there and you can cherish the glimpse in your memory – but it won’t come build its nest in your soul.

Unless you sit down and write.

I knew this instinctively when I was a child. Like Kage, I wrote all the time, then; some stories, but mostly poetry – scribbled out on anything at all, then carefully copied out clean in a series of 8 x 11 narrow-ruled notebooks. We all all have our distinctive rituals of completion … They are all somewhere in storage now, in a box; my poetry from age 7 to 57. The stories were converted to oral tradition, and used in the bonfires of brain-storming with Kage.

Somewhere in that process, I stopped writing things down. Even the poetry came less and less often, although as late as my 40’s it continued in a flood of frightening quantity and highly variable quality … I didn’t get tired of it. I didn’t forget how. I didn’t come to the mature realization that such things were not Real Life – I can claim with utter truth that I’ve never come to that realization about anything. No, I just succumbed to the temptation of living inside Kage’s mind.

We all do it, Dear Readers, with our favourite writers. Heck, even with frankly bad writers, if said writer can pull off the trick of carrying us away. Who does not harbour lasting affection for some piece of shlock because it drew us into another world when we really needed it? Now imagine you’ve fallen into the work of a writer you love, and you don’t have to wait for the next book to come out. No, not ever. Because you’re living in their mind, and they talk to you.

There must be writers who never converse with their families or agents or editors; who have no writing circle, no trusted critic, no Dear Readers. I mean, statistically, there have to be. I bet they’re rare, though. Most writers have sounding boards. Beta readers. Debate partners. I was Kage’s, and let me tell you – that was one E-ticket ride. For me, it was a case of sit down and talk – and I spent decades in an alternate universe that never failed to delight me.

His mother was a vot’ress of my order, says Titantia in Midsummer Night’s Dream, explaining why her changeling child is dear to her. I was a votaress of whatever order Kage was in, dedicated to the service of her Muse. Though it ended up me that was left with the changeling child. He clings to my hand and looks at me with his mother’s eyes, and it’s my work now to see him to man’s estate.

Anyway, that’s why Kage believed I could write; that, and all those ragged notebooks. Most of all, though, I think it was her firm conviction that there was more to say; if she couldn’t say it, I would have to take over. And – the other side of the coin – I was never going to say anything for myself unless she left me under a geas to do so.

Sisters are sneaky that way.

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Another Adventure

Kage Baker never trusted the Internet.

Not really. She adored the conductivity and the vast scope of its content – other worlds, right there at one’s fingertips! She felt it was the best device for the convenience of writers ever developed, at least until the fabled “thoughtwriter” could be invented by some kid at MIT or CalTech. Maybe even then the Internet would still take the crown, unless they found a way to let her surf with just her mind …

Kage would have loved to connect herself up to the Internet. But she still didn’t trust it. She was convinced it had no concept or programming for common sense, and she did not trust it to perform sensibly. There were too many things that induced it to go catatonic – too many tiny errors, glitches and eccentricities (many of them self-inflicted) that would induce the magical gates to slam shut on a user’s fingers. Usually just as that access had grown indispensable, too.

Back when everything was dial-up, the mere use of your own phone could choke off the Internet; there was only so bud bandwidth available. So Kage just dispensed with the phone for hours on end. I’m sure a lot of our friends and relations suspected this, and I will now admit it was true – to maintain her Internet connection, Kage simply unplugged the phone. I told her it would make no difference – incoming calls when she was in the Aether would get a busy signal – but she didn’t believe it. The risk was not worth it. The phone had to go.

Eventually, I had a second line installed.Then when the landline was re-installed, Kage refused to believe our cells could work as well – so we ended up with three phones, all with different numbers, and none of which she’d answer anyway when she was deep in research or writing. Nowadays, lots of people have indeed let their landlines go, expecting their cell phones and wireless modems to keep them connected to both the Internet and the sizzling unmapped territories of Ma Bell et al … Not Kage, she never trusted either of ‘em. Neither does Kimberly. They’ve got backups in place.

They may have had more to their caution than I originally expected …

This morning I awoke, and as usual turned on the Buke while I made coffee. I opened my current story; I went to check my email; I opened a tab for Pandora so I’d have music. I figure I got maybe 20 words written, 1 email read (but not answered) and heard the entirety of Mattie Groves before my system dissolved. You couldn’t really call it a crash; everything sort of slowed, and melted, and sort of dribbled away on a slow tide of defaulting electrons …

There I was, three projects in the air at once, and the gravity fails. All the priceless eggs I was juggling promptly hit me in the head.

For nearly an hour, nothing I did would restore the Internet connection. I searched through all the hidden files and programs, looking for glitches; I ran diagnostics, I scanned for fiendish malware. All I could find was the oft-repeated statements that my modem had been removed and a network cable was down.

Now, I don’t have any network cables; the Buke is wireless. And surely I’d have noticed if someone had managed to remove the modem literally before my staring eyes? The thing is contained within the scant body of the Buke! Occasionally, apparently for variety, the screen informed me it could not find the Yahoo address. That didn’t surprise me – it could not, at that time, have found its symbolic ass with both symbolic hands – but it bugged me. Because I don’t have a Yahoo account.

So there I was, lost in deepest, darkest NO SERVICE Land … low on ammo, the drinking water polluted, the sipping whiskey low, and my faithless bearers slipping away through the underbrush. I began planning a desperate drive out to Best Buys again.

Luckily, my dear friend Neassa turned up for a visit just then. She is a calm and brilliant person, and suggested many other channels for me to search. She also called up the Customer Service number for Verizon, my provider, so I could call and wail in despair.

My Buke is not a phone. Nonetheless, it has a phone number, because otherwise Verizon cannot convince its billing system that the Buke exists. Sadly, I could not find the phone number, because it is with all the copies of the Verizon bills in my email archives. And it was amazing how long it took to make the Customer Rep understand that.

While she hunted for some other way to identify me to Verizon’s system so a fix could be suggested by their technicians (my freaking name didn’t work), I found an interesting note in one of the files. Neassa had suggested I check in Properties. It referenced an “Internet button”. No, not the slavish Windows icon on the keyboard: a tiny LED button that should be blue – but was currently orange. I pressed it. It turned blue. My internet connection resumed.

I hung up on the Wait music at Verizon.

And thus I was saved from the haunted horrors of NO SERVICE LAND, by Neassa’s calm, sensible suggestions. I suspect I’ll never figure out how I turned the Internet button off – though. clearly, that is what I somehow did. And I had a lot of time to realize how deeply addicted I am to all my techno-toys. Indeed, how thoroughly attached most people are. Until we found that button, both Neassa and I thought it was perfectly reasonable to run out and spend a couple hundred dollars on a new notebook.. At least, once we got a map and an inventory list to display on one of our cell phones … little tiny screens, you know?

Man, Kage would have laughed. And reminded me triumphantly I told you so!

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