I Don’t Know Where I Am, But I Don’t Like It

Kage Baker used her writing as an anodyne for pain, a refuge from fear, an outlet for obsessions, a fun-house mirror for whatever was displeasing her with its general looks.

Twisting something into a Mobius curve can change its entire outlook on life.

There was, for Kage, no distraction as rich or successful as the unmarked paths through her  mind. She was able to wander there while ignoring not only the stress and discomfort of the daily grind, but the natural signposts put up by her conscious intellect. With a bit of concentration – or DE-concentration, I guess – Kage was able to be completely lost in worlds of her own making and never, ever be sure where she was going. And this always pertained, though she was scrupulous about making outlines and notes before she began a story; but once she moved to the rhythms of fingers and keys, all the careful directions and cartography went right out the metaphysical window.

She was usually surprised by where her stories went. She counted on it, in fact, and was never in a better mood than when she realized she had no more idea of what came next than the most confused of her characters. As long as the words kept flowing, anyway – when Kage found herself not only lost but without ideas, she became peeved. That’s when she would loll bonelessly at her desk, tying knots in her braid and whining that she wanted someone else to tell the story.

About the best I could do to help, at those times, was to throw ideas into mid-air and let her bat them out of the way like catnip mice. She may not have liked all my ideas, but the mere act of tossing them away would substitute for action. Sooner or later, her unconscious would be push-started into movement again, and she could resume her venture through her personal darkness with gun and flashlight.

This wasn’t boredom, you understand. When Kage was bored (which was rare, rare, rare) she watched The Wrong Box or played Monkey Island games. It was just when she not only couldn’t tell where she was, but had dropped the map on the floor of the car.

That’s where I am now. It’s not writer’s block. I know where my NaNoWriMo project is going, I am on track and in fact ahead of schedule; I’ve written more than 4,000 words on it today, which actually left me with at least one day’s work stored up against incipient famine. The plot … does not displease me. This is the rough draft, after all. The idea is to write at least 1,667 words every day, no matter how little sense they make. You just keep knitting on to the end of the scarf, adding whatever yarn comes to hand from your stash, and you worry about seams and selvage and colours afterwards. NaNoWriMo is not for cleanup.

No, my problem tonight is that it’s not making me happy. I am nervous, sullen, twitchy as a parrot on caffeine (and if you aren’t familiar with this phenomenon, Dear Readers, take my word for it that it’s ghastly). I have an urge to throw things. I want to leap up and down and yell insults at passing cars. I tried to pet the little black cat, and gave her an electric shock. I’ve taken all my requisite drugs, I have lots of coffee, there is chocolate available all over the house, my blood sugar and pressure are within normal tolerances. I’m just in a wretched, rotten mood.

But this happens, you know? It happens to all writers, except maybe AIs and Mr. Rogers. Since I regard it as a normal aspect of the arts and crafts of writing, that makes it fair game to write about it here. It won’t do any especial good, particularly for me, but maybe I can warn someone else to watch out for this mood. Be wary, Dear Readers, and all my sibling writers! It’s worse than a haunting. It’s the antithesis of a haunting. I would rather be haunted. Any writer would rather be haunted, than to be forging grimly on and taking no joy of the journey.

The movies and games that protected Kage don’t do anything for me. I’m going to go play some computer Mahjong. I’ll try reading – Stephen King, if I start willing whimsical; or my new book on the Toba Extinction Event 78,000 years ago. When my hands stop clenching, I’ll try some knitting. Eventually I’m going to eat something hideously thick with carbohydrates: fried chicken parts. Graham crackers with canned chocolate frosting. A masa and gin smoothie.

It’s the darkest side of writing.

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On The Outside, Looking Further Out

Kage Baker never indulged in any writing contests or seminars. The last class she took in creative writing was in high school, at good old Immaculate Heart High School.

Mind you, the teacher for that class was the inestimable poet Eloise Klein Healy, who became Los Angeles’ first Poet Laureate in 2012. She resigned the position in 2014, after a bout of encephalitis nearly killed her and left her with Wernicke’s aphasia. She is still a poet and she still writes; but she has learned a new approach to language in general, and her own voice in particular.

Neural recovery  from Wernicke’s aphasia is rare, and seldom complete. Ms. Healy, who was known to Kage Baker as Miss Klein and remained Kage’s favourite teacher of all time, managed the amazing trick with elan and grace. I recommend her post-Wernicke’s collection, Another Phase, if you are not familiar with her work. Heck, Dear Readers, I recommend all her poetry, but the 5-line poems in Another Phase are particularly cogent, a sort of re-constructed haiku that twists through  dimensions of unspoken but not inaudible meanings. Sort of haiku in a Klein bottle, ha ha.

Eloise Klein was a high energy, whirling dervish kind of pixie when she taught at IHHS.  I looked at her photos online tonight, and I can barely see any difference in the way she looked 50 years ago and how she looks today. The grin is identical. So is the haircut. Her hair was dark then, and I doubt that she still wears Laura Ashley smock frocks: I’m not sure she did even back in 1970, but it’s how I remember her. I may be conflating her with Mrs. Cano, a tiny termagant who taught English composition as a martial art; or with Miss Weber, who was an actually be-smocked art teacher. We had a wildly diverse set of teachers at IHHS in the 1970’s, including the more anarchic members of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary; none of them endeared themselves, or us, to the patriarchal Archdiocese of Los Angeles, but as a group, the teaching staff was exceptionally good at turning out independent, educated, empowered young women.

Miss Klein was enormously supportive and kind to Kage, and the fact that Kage eventually made a career out of her own writing can be attributed directly in part to her encouragement. She was everyone’s favourite English teacher, because she was brilliant and creative and compassionate, and imparted the joy of her vocation like the angular motion of a spinning top. She taught Kage to be truer to her own visions than to anyone’s expectations, but also to pay attention to spelling and grammar. She taught courage and fortitude along with the Oxford comma and the delicate art of the semicolon. Like Kage, Miss Klein was also left-handed, and so she never took Kage to task for Kage’s own ghastly handwriting.

I never had a class with her, which I regretted fiercely. Instead, I got an English teacher with braces and a lisp, who specialized in oral recitation; another who despised us for our intransigent insistence on being teenagers; and the aforementioned Mrs. Cano, who taught me that the reward for doing a good job was to get more work assigned to you. Oh, how I envied Kage her classes with Eloise Klein!

On the other hand, this cast of ladies did teach me how to learn on my own …

After Miss Klein’s tutelage, though, Kage could hardly be blamed for not feeling she needed more classes. Among the vital things she learned from Miss Klein was that to be a writer, one must write. That was the thing, and the whole of the thing: ideally, you got better at writing as you performed more and more of it, but the first thing was just to develop the irresistible need to write. In that, Kage succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. I think. She had some pretty wild dreams.

I am meditating on Eloise Klein Healy tonight because I have now spent 4 days virtuously working on NaNoWriMo. Kage never needed that kind of thing, as I said. Besides, she had so much to say, so many stories to tell, that figuring out what to write was never as difficult as figuring out how to find the time to write it all. The more she wrote, the more she needed to say. The more she needed to say, the more other people clamoured for her to write specifically for them. Editors plied her with ideas and outlines. Publishers requested adventures in new genres. Kage was able to live her entire life and never run out of stories. Eloise Klein Healy was the first person who lit that perpetual fire in Kage.

So, thank you, Miss Klein-that-was. You were not my teacher, but you taught her. And you did a damn fine job of it.

 

A Klein bottle is a two-dimensional manifold against which a system for determining a normal vector cannot be consistently defined. Its inside is also its outside. But it won’t tell you which is which.

 

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Still Smoking, But It’s Cool

Kage Baker loved the transformations of the seasons.

That’s a little weird for a born Angelina, as our seasons here in the Basin are often eccentric and usually delicate. But we native children of the place know how to discern them; by the time we hit adolescence, we also know how to laugh to scorn the tourists who don’t think we have any seasons at all. For your information, visiting ignoramuses (ignoramusi?), the Earth rotates on its axis here just as well as the Midwest or the East Coast; the nutation, or changeable angle of that rotation, precesses back and forth just as much for us as for you. The solstices and equinoxes still appear.

What Kage liked especially about the change to Autumn was the speed of the season. We can drift into Summer or Winter, on slow rising tides of warmth or ice. Spring often ducks back and forth between tender blossoms and ruthless frost. But Autumn – Autumn happens like a falling curtain, black velvet across the entire horizon, casting the world into shadows that stay, blue and cold as steel, halfway to noon …

The leaves fall off the trees, too, whoosh! Like a cartoon. Two days ago, our mulberry tree looked like the Queen of the May. Today it’s bare branches, and the exposed squirrels are in a panic. Kage liked that cartoon segue effect.

Halloween is usually the first cold night of the year, somehow. It’s one of the last where you get to run around crazily, too, as we were accustomed to do when we were children in the long, long summers. It’s the perfect pivot of night, the best of the two seasons, balanced on the knife edge of celebration and hysteria. Plus, there is candy.

The Trick or Treaters were a bit on the light side this year. The smell of smoke, the ashes on the wind, are appropriate stage dressing for Samhain, but not easy on little lungs. Parents seemed to be keeping a lot of the kids at home, and I’m sure the fires contributed to that; especially here in the South, where the fires didn’t really take off until Halloween night. Now there are fires in Brentwood, San Bernardino, Riverside, Santa Paula, Simi: only yestreday, a recycling yard a few miles from my house caught fire and burned all night. An automotive center went up today in Van Nuys, and I think it’s still smouldering.

There’s black smoke everywhere. Empty houses all over the city have been catching fire, 2 or 3 per day. I assume they are the victims of desperate homeless folks trying to keep warm through the nights. Those nights are suddenly, very suddenly, outright cold. There is snow in the mountains. It’s looking like a good year to stay away from Donner Pass – it can get … fraught up there, when snow comes as early as Halloween.

Of course, it’s been raining, sleeting, blowing and snowing all over the rest of the United States already. The storms, just today, dislodged a derelict boat on the rocks above Niagara Falls, a boat that had been hanging there for 101 freaking years. Yowza! All we’re doing here so far is burning to a crisp – pieces of our landscape won’t start falling down or washing off until it rains. If it rains, of course. That is in no way guaranteed, Dear Readers, here in the Dragon Hills.

And in the meanwhile, I am started right in on NaNoWriMo. I’ve met my goals for the first 2 days (ta da!) and even acquired a writing buddy. (Hi, Neassa!) I’m not exactly brimming with vigour and enthusiasm, but I have finally managed to kindle a low, slow flame in myself. Going up like cannon fire or flash paper seems contraindicated this year. I shall aim for embers, a fire I can  bank at night and blow back to life every morning.

That’ll give me time to find new fuel each day, before I am reduced to breaking up the furniture. Whatever burns, folks; whatever give light and heat now that the days are drawing down and down.

Oh, and that’ll leave me something to sit on while I write. Kage was always big on that, too.

 

 

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November the First, Again

Kage Baker had a list of television shows she absolutely would not miss , if at all possible. Some of them were a little peculiar, and some cycled on and off her necessities list: BBC specials, film festivals, favourite cartoons. She would often eschew watching anything at all, and just devote all her attention to writing. At least, until someone was rerunning Are You Being Served? or we had managed to find bootleg copies of shows like Blackbeard the Pirate or The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh: then, she’d just snuggle down in front of our electric fire and bliss out.

She always said that she absolutely could not manage to read or write AND watch films at the same time. It made her rather insane that I could, and did: not that I forced her to take holidays from writing so I could watch telly, but that I could read while Kage watched, and not get distracted. When there was something I really wanted to see, I would put on headphones and retreat to my room – there to glory in things like forensic procedurals and other goodies Kage found revolting.

Tonight I am watching television (well, mostly I am listening to it) while I work on NaNoWriMo. Since I entered by first entry last night just after midnight, it was essentially today – I have to wait until it’s either midnight and change again, or until sometime tomorrow after the sun rises, before I post there again. Otherwise, I’ll lap my self and end up going nuts within a day or three … better to just wait and do it in daylight.

Besides, there is now a fire about 5 miles from me, in a recycling yard. It seems well under control, but it’s the closest my family has been to any of the flames this autumn. It’s nervous-making, to say the least. I think I’ll just post a little here, polish some edges on My Zombie Story, and go to bed.

But I’m here! I’m working! Things are happening! True, some of them are burning but what the hell – work equals heat, matter is just thick energy, everything we think we see is a deliberate hallucination perpetrated by our senses on our brains. It’s all good.

Especially chocolate. See you all tomorrow, Dear Readers.

 

 

 

 

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Calan Gaeaf Hapus, Tachwedd Bendigedig

Kage Baker loved Halloween. So do I. So does my entire family, which is why Mike and Kimberly are taking turns manning the front door at my house as the hordes of small, sugar-intoxicated demons come calling for their annual due. I am not allowed to sit in the door, as I have a dreadful cold and it is damned chilly out there.

A week ago, the temperature was in the 90’s. Then we  caught on fire all over the state; now, half the place has freeze warnings in place. Ah, California!

It’s a slow year, probably for lots of reasons. It’s like rain – you can make a guess what any one year will bring, based on past years. But it’s only a guess, and sometimes the rains do not come. Sometimes the kids don’t, either. They are coming, but the crowds are small. We have one of those neighborhoods which attracts Trick or Treaters from far afield: Atwater is flat, family-friendly, well-lit and enthusiastic. And, of course, this year we have the added advantage of not being actively on fire. I fear some kids may be staying home this year, though, because so much of the LA area is smouldering – there are fires, and full shelters, everywhere.

Hard to trick or treat when you’re using your pillow case to carry all your clothes. And you can smell smoke in the air, which means the air quality is not stellar. Some parents may have decided that home-grown chocolate is better than bronchitis.

Nonetheless, we are fulfilling our end of the holiday bargain. No one who makes it out to quest for sweeties will go unsated here!

It’s also the Celtic New Year, which is still of interest to some people. The greeting that heads this blog is therefore Happy Halloween and Blessed Samhain. In Welsh. I know that it is fashionable to attribute Halloween to the Irish at the moment, but lots of Celts celebrated the New Year over the two-day festival of Samhain. Those of our ancestors who were Welsh just pronounced it differently.

In my opinion, though, there are few traditions scarier than that of being Welsh: an entire people whose name for themselves has been almost forgotten, except for what their invaders called them. Welsh means stranger. What they called themselves was probably Cymraeg; other than tribal or family names, which probably took pride of place. Not the most organized people, really.

Anyway. On the subject of disorganization (see how I managed that segue?) I realize I have neglected this blog for some time – so sorry, Dear Readers, but the year has not yet settled down into productive peace for me. I am rather counting on tonight to do that … in the meantime, beginning at midnight tonight, I shall embark on yet another year of NaNoWriMo – National Write a Novel in a Month. Fifty thousand words in 30 days! A minimum of 1,700 a day!

And, tonight at least, happy predation on the left-over Tootsie Rolls while I write. We all have our little rituals … mine involve beginning the exercise with a serious candy overdose.

I shall be a lot more steadfast in the next 30 days, Dear Readers. I promise. It’s a new year.

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The Flu Is At The Door

Kage Baker caught the flu every year. She usually caught it at Dickens Fair, in the seething crowd of happy travellers. Also, in the damp, warm depths of the Cow Palace, which is an incubator of joy, delight and unknown micro-organisms.

Kage always lamented the inevitability of her respiratory defeat.

But modern medicine has risen to the challenge. These last few years, I have religiously gotten my flu shot, and have thus been spared Kage’s annual bout with lung rot.

The only problem is that I am extremely sensitive to the vaccine. It’s only for a day or so, but during the hours right after my flu shit, I am a mess. And tonight’s the night, Dear Readers!

It’s not as bad as having influenza. By tomorrow, I will be fine. It’s an extra strong vaccine this year, though and so tonight … tonight I feel like a stepped-on snail.

I shall now retire and watch The Masked Singer. That show goes well with a fever.

Contemplate the good old nursery rhyme from 1918, Dear Readers, and have a good night.

This tired world is sighing now;

The flu is at the door.

And many folks are dying now,

Who never died before.

Not me, though.

 

 

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Nuggets That Inspired Kage

Kage Baker had few of the problems with inspiration that commonly afflict authors. She felt she was very lucky in that regard; she could find inspiration in almost anything. It took some discipline – Kage trained herself to pay attention to everything that crossed her mind; and to explore most ideas, no matter how silly they seemed initially.

The best case result was a story line. The worst was hours of entertaining conversations, on long summer roads and in long winter evenings. Sometimes she managed a grand slam and got both, coming up with characters and plots that became part of our lives for years. It’s how a scene originally inspired by the evening light on I-5 around 1985 became 8 Company novels, and yet was never actually included in a story until a one about invisible roses and Mendoza in the Tenderloin District; which I think came out the year Kage died … but we talked about that scene all the  years and miles in between.

The origin for the Company series in its entirety, as I have recounted ad infinitum, arose from a conversation over breakfast, about whence came all those lost and re-found animals, plants, musical scores, hominid fossils, royal jewels and works of erotica by unlikely authors. It was further informed by the new habits of graduate students, who have taken in recent years to mining for overlooked treasures in universities, libraries and museums. And just imagine how simple and yet how complicated it could be, to stash something in those narrow corridors of the Smithsonian that are famously crowded with elephant skulls and trays of beetles?

Also, Kage loved treasure hunts. She often plotted out the story line like a scavenger hunt, chortling at the mad twists, disappointments and false clues her hapless characters had to endure. And sometimes cursing at the changes her characters sprang on her in the process.

Kage wrote increasingly to order as time went on. However, even if she knew what the topic was, or whose oeuvre she was meant to be imitating, a story still needs a plot. That could make her nuts; she had to go digging through her chest of stored ideas to find just the right plastic doohickey to use as the center of a pearl. “Plotters and Shooters” arose that way, from a dislike of bullies and fanboys. A lesson for everyone, Dear Readers. Do not annoy a writer, especially at a Con; you’ll end up in a story in a weird costume

“Pueblo, Colorado Has The Answer” was partially inspired by a spate of PSA commercials on late night telly in Pismo Beach, about all the wonderful things for which you could send away for instructions from the government offices in Pueblo Colorado. It was kicked off finally, though, by discovering that one stalk of corn in our backyard garden had been laid down and shaped into a curve – Kage decided we had experienced a “crop bend” (we didn’t have enough corn for a crop circle) and the story just took off from there.

“Son, Observe the Time” was written out of her deep love of San Francisco, but the tiny grains of matter about which the fluid crystallized were our adventures trying to find Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, upon whose famous clock tower is a plaque reading Son, Observe The Time and Fly From Evil.  Also, the little old lady who finally led us to the church – she came out of nowhere to assist us, and promptly returned there. But before she left, we asked her for her name. “Oh, I’m Old Mary,” she told us, and vanished into the crowds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Wreck of the Gladstone” was the second story about Kalugin, the Company deep sea salvager and fervent lover of Nan D’Araignee. It was also the first story about Victor, double-agent Facilitator, foe of the Poison Club, and also the fervent lover of Nan D’Araignee. That turned out to be an immortal love triangle … but, ancillary characters aside, the story was based on Kage’s abiding fondness for Popeye the Sailor Man.  You can trace the classical arc of his birth between the lines of the story.

“Katherine’s Story” is about Kage’s mother. She gave birth to Kage’s older sister, Betty Jean, on October 30th, 1938 – the night Orson Wells broadcast War of the Worlds and scared half the country out of its mind. That included the Deep South rural hospital where Katherine had a breech birth presentation of her first daughter; her labour was delayed by the panic of the staff and the absence of the doctor, and Betty Jean was born with cerebral palsy. Most of this story is true. You get to figure out which parts those are.

“What The Tiger Told Her” was  visually inspired by PBS trailers for a Regency drama (probably The Aristocrats), and some television commercial for a dry cleaners that featured a tiger. I’ve no idea why, nor any memory of why the ads for the two aired at the same time. But the pictures fascinated Kage, and ultimately the story of a sentient tiger and a strange little girl was the result.

I also feel constrained by truth to reveal that among the nuggets that inspired Kage were: McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets. She loved them. They were cheap, and could be eaten in the car while discussing stories. Or at her desk, writing the stories. They led directly to our discovery of cans of compressed air, too.

There’s more, of course, and I may get into those as well. The workings of Kage Baker’s mind were strange and wonderful, and her ability to weave together bits and pieces into something new was always miraculous. Of course, when asked where she got her ideas, she took a lesson from Roger Zelazny (look him up, Dear Readers) and always told people she sent off for them from a P.O. Box in New Jersey.

Or maybe in Pueblo, Colorado. They have all the answers.

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