To all my friends, and to all of yours

Been talking with a variety of people lately and being reminded once again how complex life is, and how varied. That may sound obvious, but at any one time folks may be feeling everything from complete euphoria to the lowest of lows — a range I’ve had my experience in over the years. It’s been a full week on that front, and I’ve been reminded once again how it good it is to have people to talk to, to be frank with, and who keep your trust as you keep theirs. Just now, meanwhile, a couple of friends just sent around photos of their new baby Sophia, which has made me smile with a silly grin, because why not?

It can be a tough time of year in a way — for all the holidays and all the joys, it’s also a time of pressure and sometimes the pressures can build on yourself if you’re not careful, or feel like there’s no other way to do things. But friends are there for you if that’s the case, friends, family, everyone, even generous strangers who have had their experiences who will be happy to give an ear or share advice. Ultimately, simply put, you are not alone — none of us are.

About once a year I seem to post something like this — a message of gratitude and thanks to you all, whether I’ve known you for years or just a short while, because I learn and value so much from you all, and because you’ve all been very kind in a myriad of ways I can’t easily describe. I thank you all again, and know that you’re there for me as needed — and I hope I am for you as well. I do my best, and I know that you all have your many friends who are there for you in turn. It never hurts to thank them as well — and I am glad they are there for you, very glad.

Hope everyone is well. Tonight is a friend’s birthday party and it should be a great treat. If you’re not busy this evening yourself, call up and chat with your friends, drop them some lines, ask to speak frankly about things if you feel you need to, be an ear for them in turn, and get a chance to get some of the stress and concern from the day and the time out of your head and heart if you need it. You’ll be surprised at how much it means all around, and how much people value you for you. You wouldn’t have those friends in the first place if they didn’t, after all. 🙂

Colcannon, or an attempt at same

So the deal is is that this is some sort of Irish potato dish with kale, and I had potatoes and kale, so. There’s also leeks cooked in soy half-and-half mixed in, and the end result is a slightly more flavorful mashed potatoes, say. However, this batch turned out pretty bland, so I’d add more spice in the future to pep it up. Still, filling and the sourdough rolls helping make it a good enough dinner.

If you want to ride…

So tonight will be an interesting experience, to say the least. A good friend’s birthday party is happening and the highlight, after an evening of drinks and conversation, will be a screening of this film at the Nuart. And you can bet I’ll have some thoughts on that, even if horrified ones.

The trailer of the rerelease should give you a further idea of what’s up. Just.

I’ve just realized I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Stallone film in full. Well, here’s a way to break that trend, then.

Straight up, still

Partially as a reaction to all the NaNoWriMo work I’m indulging in some comfort reading by looking through my five volumes dedicated to my favorite all-time newspaper column, The Straight Dope. Written by Cecil Adams — if you accept things at face value, that is — the column’s been, as its tagline states, “FIGHTING IGNORANCE SINCE 1973, (IT’S TAKING LONGER THAN WE THOUGHT).” The other day a commenter on Balloon Juice made a random reference to how Cecil’s work was almost like a Wikipedia for its time, in a way, and that made think again about the joys of the column over many years now.

I first heard about the Straight Dope and Adams via an article in either Discover or Science, I forget which, in the mid-eighties — a good popular-science piece about the work Adams (or more accurately Ed Zotti, Cecil’s long-time ‘editor’) has done over the years answering all kinds of random questions, ranging from the genuinely curious to the flat out insane. Various other columns and features have existed to cover this general ask-anything ground but what got my attention as a sixteen-year-old wiseacre was the wry snottiness of the responses — this was about the same time I first got into the work of Ambrose Bierce, and while Cecil’s of a different breed, there was the same admirable approach towards BS and flummery, as well as general stupidity, on the part of the American public. Namely, don’t be a moron and put some thought into things.

I picked up the two books available at the time and remember entertaining my folks greatly reading appropriate questions and responses from it during a home-improvement project (quite why I wasn’t employed to actually help with the project is another matter, I guess they felt they wanted to handle most of the painting themselves, since it did involve the master bedroom). Soon thereafter I was off to UCLA and to my delight discovered that the column ran in the old Los Angeles Reader, so from there I was able to mainline his work for a few years. From there it was more books, an attempt at a TV show or two and finally a fully working website after a dodge into the weird world of AOL exclusive content (and remember when that could be said without being laughed at). It thrives to this day, illustrations still provided by the equally hilarious Slug Signorino, with a general online core of staff members helping the great man and his editor, and providing answers to all sorts of questions even while the entire run of the column has been made available through the site, often with further context and additions as answers find themselves subject to change (or questions no longer fully apply).

From a distance, the tenor of the times often comes through the older material — wisely and rightly, I think, the Cecil Adams persona took up an attitude that resonated with me, generally ‘left’ on political and social matters while thinking that most people tend towards their own brand of personal mythologies they won’t let go no matter how ridiculous they end up looking. A good example is this level-headed examination of the Second Amendment from 1995, for instance — plenty snarky as needed but also more cogently spelling out the nature of constitutional law on a tough issue than you’ll hear in a lifetime of NRA videos and mailouts from Handgun Control (or in an undergrad class on the US government, for that matter).

The humor is the key thing, though, and man, where to begin. If you have to pick a classic instance, here’s an exchange from 1985 that starts with nipple piercing, moves on to the sperm trees of Los Angeles and ends on a note about scholarly study regarding certain odors. Probably NSFW, shall we say. Of course, time provides more context and nipple piercing these days is rather less of an issue than before, which I certainly don’t mind. And that’s ALL I’m going to say on the matter, thank you very much…

I don’t regularly check out the site and I should — it’s still chugging along, though as noted the core joy of the site, that here at last was a place where all the strange questions could get answered, or the big cosmic ones, or whatever, has been inevitably changed with the Internet’s popularization and the emergence of sources of information like Wikipedia. But there’s always a place for informed snark, so long may Cecil and Slug and Ed, in whatever form, thrive.

Sunday in San Juan Capistrano

This past Sunday I ended up down in San Juan Capistrano, one of the more enjoyable spots in OC (though not without its problems). It’s been a long time since I actually visited the place so taking the opportunity to go down there with a friend (and catch up with other acquaintances who lived there now and/or came down as well from elsewhere in the county) made for a lovely day out. A couple of photos — and yes, there’s a petting zoo near the center of town:

A tree grows in SJC

Honestly, don't do stuff like this.

Guinea pigs all in a row...

Acorn squash salad w/cilantro, ginger and maple syrup dressing

VERY intriguing, this one. So the squash is halved and cooked for half an hour (375 F.), then cooled completely, scooped out and chopped up and set aside. Mix small amounts of olive oil, tangerine juice, cilantro, minced candied ginger, maple syrup, salt and cayenne pepper in a blender or something similar. Toss with the acorn squash, chill for an hour, serve over lightly dressed greens. Nice and very adjustable as desired.

Impressions of Hawaii

A little while back my mom asked me to write up some thoughts on the whole trip, as she was interested in my take. I sent that along to her along with some other things for her birthday yesterday (which sounds like it was a great one!) — with a lot of editing, as there’s a fair amount of personal stuff only of specific interest to us both in the original letter, here’s my thoughts in retrospect on a good experience that still provoked many questions:

“…Of course the whole reason why we went there is because of where you and Dad met, and that to me was probably the most pleasurable part of the entire trip. Without sounding too sentimental, it’s a rare gift to be able to see a landscape through the eyes of enthusiastic young people with the world open to them, and who made their respective decisions to embark on work and life in a route that ended up taking them to Hawaii, those wonderful isolated rocks in the middle of a vast ocean. I think not many families and people get to fully see things this way again, or at least in a way that combines appreciative distance, a rush of memories and reflections on what has changed and what stayed the same. All the overlapping stories – about where you all lived, your goals and dreams when you both came out, hanging around with other people, dates and then finally when you met and what you did then, as well as what we all did later as a family when we returned in the early seventies – was a treat. It made the vacation much more of a celebration than it would have been had we just simply gone to Hawaii for the reason than it was fun to go to Hawaii – there was something invested in all of us (even [my sister], though she was the only one without a direct memory) in the place. And not just for the simple reason that if you hadn’t met there I wouldn’t be around, which is one of those minor things I’m admittedly appreciative about. 😉

With that as a baseline, it meant that the whole time was a wonderful stretch of feelings, where retracing old steps that for [my sister] and myself were newer ones that had a different level of meaning than simply going “Oh cool.” That covered everything from driving along the windward side and just drinking in the sight of the green cliffs to wandering the Foster botanical gardens to just simply lazing and enjoying sun and shade and that omnipresent heat (but also the omnipresent breeze!). Enjoyable for itself and for those other reasons, and just for hanging around again together (but also for those moments of doing nothing and being by oneself – you know me!). It was also very interesting to hear and see the changes you described from then to now – how the central part of the island was now mostly empty and pineapple free, much to your surprise, and how the new highways and sprawl of Honolulu changed your memories of it, even as there was much that remained the same as before….

[At the same time,] the disparity between the impressions of paradise and what life in ‘paradise’ actually is proved extremely acute at times. In ways I don’t have to explain this to you, as people who live in Hawaii for any stretch of time must be aware of those differences too – you still have to wake up and make your living as you do, and while it’s easier in some respects it must be harder in others (I especially liked your use of the term ‘rock fever,’ because I too might feel a bit hemmed in if I had spent all my young years there – it’s no surprise to me now that so many of the students here at UCI who come from Hawaii do so because they wanted to literally get away for at least a while, and see what life was like in a drastically different psychogeographic setting, where instead of small and defined islands you have endless stretches of land and coast).

The parts that stuck with me the most were the parts that confirmed that life on the islands is like life most places – one of disparity. There were signs of poverty everywhere, even a block or two from our hotels, of people scraping by or fallen through a safety net. You could sense the crime rather than see it many times. The old suburb west of Pearl Harbor where you used to live made me think of many similar places in Southern California, down to the architecture, and made think of how ‘paradise’ must seem like anything but when you have little to rely on, where instead of beauty there’s grinding urban dullness, heat, a kind of mental oppression. The fact that’s where the oil ships come in to provide the energy that keeps the island moving seemed even more appropriate, it was like the necessary ugliness that helps keep the fiction alive (but more on that in a bit).

The part that made me feel the most depressed, in a weird sort of way, was the base we passed at the center of the island, with the businesses right outside the gates that I would expect – bars and cheap thrills, all the evidence of unthinking jingoism that eats away at an informed and aware patriotism. I remembered thinking to myself that we could be anywhere in America at that point, really – Oceanside outside Camp Pendleton, whatever’s outside a base in the Deep South – and how the humid heat and the distance of the mountain ranges reduced everything to a dull, sluggish trudge. It was weird to think of being in the middle of the ocean and then to being in a middle of an island where, if I lived and worked there all the time, everything would seem like a bit of a flat misery rather than, by implication, one of the most unique and remarkable landscapes on the planet.

So when I said earlier ‘keeping the fiction alive,’ it’s that there’s always going to be an image of Hawaii that seeks to trump reality. The idea of a place like the Halekulani, or any hotel on Waikiki or near the shore, is that you put everything behind you, literally, and imagine it’s all like ‘this,’ whatever this is – nothing but beaches and sand, heat and cool drinks, soft music and hula, that the whole sprawling superstructure of Honolulu and the 21st century, with all its ups and downs, continuing behind your back as you face the ocean, can be forgotten somehow, so long as the power stays on and the money keeps coming in. And I don’t mind this at all, it’s sometimes just a bit hard to square away everything in my head.

Which may make this a depressing note to end on! I should add by way of conclusion that in a way it’s no different from what one senses in life in general, that there’s parts in this world which may never be made better to anyone’s satisfaction in the end, that I am fortunate to have been born and raised in the situation I found myself, and that’s there’s a difference not only between ignoring and recognizing the realities of life, but between recognizing them and trying to do something about them, even if in a small way – which is what I hope I do, in all my different ways around life. That may seem rather ‘big’ to talk about when discussing the reflections of a vacation like this, but it’s how my mind is drifting right about now!….”

I can has a wisdom archive?

It’s amazing what you can find out. (It seems to be a very hamhanded attempt at ‘oh let’s get all the Wikipedia entries we can to link to our own little thing and call it a wisdom archive. Uh-huh.)

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End of November AMG update

NaNoWriMo and “The Torments of His Dreams” in reflection

So first I’d like to make this a general catchall point for the entire manuscript — here are the appropriate links to NaNoWriMo, some background posts and all 25 chapters:

NaNoWriMo itself

Decisions, decisions — especially on the NaNoWriMo front
NaNoWriMo prep part 1 — some family history
NaNoWriMo prep part 2 — a little more family history
NaNoWriMo prep part 3 — some more research background…and a title!

The Torments of His Dreams

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25

So having written it all — and like every time I do this, I finish up feeling exhausted and swearing I’ll take a break the following year — some thoughts, though these will feel a bit scattershot:

First, of course, this is a terribly rough draft and even looking back at the first chapters I see ideas and courses that were not fully developed as I’d initially intended, the rapid swerving of tone, small details that now loom larger and need more time to smoothly develop in importance and much more besides. It’s not deathless and was never meant to be — the whole point of NaNoWriMo remains to get something out to work with, not a permanent Great American Novel (or the like). It’ll be there to read as anyone likes for now.

Second, this is only intended to be the core of the first half of the book. I do have a conclusion in mind — a very specific one, as a matter of fact — and a general idea of how to get there. But I’m not going to put that on here as yet…or at all. After all, I would like to eventually develop this into a potentially publishable manuscript, and more so than some of the other things I’ve written I foresee strong possibilities with a lot more time and effort, as well as other factors beyond my control!

This said, my feelings on how this turned out are generally positive. The background and setting, as well as the language and especially the dialogue, are the weakest parts of the story in my eyes — my goal was to advance the plot rather than aim for a specific accuracy in what ‘the City’ (which is of course San Francisco but is intentionally never named) was like at the time, what the English of those who lived in that city at that time was like, and so forth. Doubtless there are a slew of anachronisms. But given the focus on the plot and how it evolved — and how this was intended less to be an exact explanation of ‘what really happened’ than an imaginative retelling of the scenario leading up to it (and next, what happened afterwards) — I think I did reasonably well. It’s the first time I’ve written a story where none of the main characters (in this case specifically the brothers and Thomas McMahon) were meant to be sympathetic, or at least entirely so. McMahon becomes more so a bit by default, but he is a boorish, boastful figure who gets tripped up a bit on his image and has to reconstruct it a bit — the shift is too abrupt for me and needs much more nuance. In the second half of the novel he’ll start meeting female characters outside the one milieu he feels comfortable with them in and that will be of prime importance.

As for the brothers, it was especially nice working with essentially not one but two unreliable narrators, and the admittedly straightforward (perhaps simply hamhanded) approaches to core parts of their characters were interesting to play with. That Richard aka Black Dick is never referred to in ‘his’ chapters by name is incredibly intentional, for instance, as is William’s endlessly convoluted sentences and utter self-regard, where in ‘his’ chapters no character literally gets a word in edgewise. Again, more work needs to be done with them both, much more, but it’s a fine start.

The psychological horror elements are in some sense a recasting of a general approach from my 2003 NaNoWriMo effort, but here given new forms, as well as an intentionally maddening unclarity. That may sound strange but the point is that even to me the exact nature of them should be left open to interpretation. I hate explaining too much and I hate horror stories that explain too much in turn as well. I have ideas and goals with them all that will come to the fore more with time — and there are other intentionally murky parts of the story I’m leaving up for grabs as much as possible. Hopefully, though, they all work at creeping you out just enough for now.

Finally, what then do I think really happened in that room when the brothers were alone? There’s still a half of a story to write, but to review the facts as we know them — after they emerged, William stabbed and Black Dick distraught, the latter first blamed a friend who lived in the building, then said it was all an accident. William persisted in claiming that the stabbing was an accidental circumstance during a quarrel, and initially claimed that he had stabbed himself. The inevitably romanticized portrait I have created about the two brothers probably bears little connection to reality — there’s no evidence that Black Dick was actually a murderer, nor that William was a literature-obsessed type (or an opium addict per se — instead, both brothers appeared to focus on shooting up). If I had to guess what did happen, I suspect it was a case where a fight accidentally turned deadly and both brothers panicked — Black Dick at the prospect of facing the death penalty in response, William at the idea that his brother, who I suspect he had a strong love/hate relationship with, would swing for it. But this still isn’t clear at all, and the guess I type here might change in my mind tomorrow just as quickly.

Either way, what I’ve just said is not, in fact, my goal for the ending of the novel. What that is…you’ll have to wait for. But in the meantime, please enjoy what’s here, all my caveats noted, and all input is welcome.