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Word Count Podcast 100

Humans of the Future

The Word Count Podcast – episode 100

Today marks the final episode of The Word Count Podcast, and I wish to thank Mr. RB Wood for giving me an opportunity to contribute a story to his 10-year project to bring free fiction to the masses. The stories are written from a monthly visual prompt and read by the authors. This month’s prompt (above) was “Humans of the Future.” (Earlier months covered humans of the past and present.)

“The Stones of Särdal” is flash fiction, a bit under 1000 words, and around 5 1/2 minutes of audio. My story is third in the queue and starts at 14:30.

As an experiment, I tried to write the whole thing in one quick burst. I think 95% of that draft made it to the final version.

My own inspiration for “The Stones of Särdal” comes from my family’s summer home on the coast of Sweden. I took certain liberties with the actual history and architecture because hey, it’s fiction.

Enjoy!

P.S. You can find my earlier story, “Burial Detail,” on Episode 82.

The Mucus Must Flow

I put on a medical-grade mask and drove into San Francisco today to get a checkup. It’s been over two years since my second surgeon evicted The Squatter, and what with all the events in my immediate family (plus the pandemic) I haven’t done any follow-up.

The good news: my left maxillary sinus appears clear. Not particularly irritated, and no suspicious new tenants.

It’s fascinating to look at the sinuses side by side (as it were) with a scope connected to an external monitor. The doctor gave her best guided tour of the right side (control) and the left (surgical site). Sinuses are weird: you go through a crazy forest of mustache and nose hair, and enter into a strange cavern that would challenge any serious spelunker. At least on the right side.

On the left, the whole of one turbinate is missing, and the remaining area has been fused and smoothed over, like a sheet of drywall you patched after your college roommate punched a hole through it.

From the perspective of the scope, my left sinus is an underground cavern that could accommodate guided tours every 30 minutes.

The downside of all that space is it creates a cavity that allows all the mucus to pool during the day. Believe it or not, your body is continually producing mucus, which it needs to keep the breathing passages lubricated and deter would-be invasive germs.

For folks with allergies, they get more mucus than needed. Same for very dry weather.

I don’t have environmental allergies. What I do get is a release of mucus when I hang my head in a certain way, especially later in the day. The right sinus has baffles and locks and customs official to stop that snot. The left… not so much.

The doctor said that I could explore some additional corrective surgery, but that would be terribly intricate and painstaking work.

Better just to irrigate and keep a box of tissues handy.

Either way, it beats having a tumor near my brain.

The mucus must flow.

Clearing the shelves again

When I added a smaller IKEA bookcase next to my writing/editing chair, I dedicated it to Mt. To Be Read: books I’ve purchased, picked up at cons, and received from well-meaning friends. [Note: you can stop giving me things to read. Seriously. A written recommendation is just fine.]

When I wanted to add some non-fiction history books I acquired from my father, I couldn’t find any space, so I turned to the “main” bookcase to see where I might put them. That was a challenge. The Billy bookcases, which fill one wall of my bedroom, is also nearly full, although it’s not all books. There is one shelf of DVDs, another for toys, and one for photos and toys.

So I thought it was time to cull. The problem is that most of the books have some personal meaning, or I wanted to re-read them (ha!), or loan them to people (hard to manage these days). There are also signed editions, novels from my instructors, friends, and college textbooks. Old friends.

But, really, do I need them? Of course not. And with all the truly great fiction being published every month, would I really want to go back and re-read some of this stuff from high school? Or loan a book with problematic characters (e.g., racist or sexist) just because it was a favorite? Again, probably not.

Perhaps it’s my father’s recent passing but I found I was able to fill up several grocery bags with books. I noticed a fair number of White Male Authors in the pile, and lots of Hard SF. It certainly entertained me on summer break from college, yet it pales next to the work I’m seeing today.

Even the novels of SFWA Grandmasters can age poorly. Into the bags you go.

In the end, I cleared enough space for the new books, and was able to reorganize the remainder so it’s easier to find stuff.

Don’t ask me about the Kindle.

Hospice 3: A Matter of Honor

My mother wasn’t the first woman to whom that my father proposed. According to the stories, he dated a lot when he left the army. Apparently it got so bad that my grandmother Ethel once pulled him into the kitchen and said something like, “And I suppose you’re not going to marry this one, either.”

His track record wasn’t great. I think at least 3 other women turned down his offer of wedded bliss before my mother broke the streak.

Fast forward to last year. A friend of mine was working at 23andMe, so I decided to get some DNA kits for the family and my mother-in-law, just for fun.

I posted my results as publicly searchable, and as it turned out, so had several of my American cousins.

Then my sister sent me a letter. An unknown woman had found one of my family on 23andMe, and the results predicted they were first cousins. That cousin reached out to my sister, who agreed to talk with her. The woman was adopted, and was interested in finding some family connections.

Her name is Honor. And her history was interesting. A sample:

  • She was born about a year before my oldest brother
  • Her birth father was listed as “German” in ancestry, tall, with black hair and brown eyes
  • Her profile photo showed distinct Schlosser characteristics, and
  • The clincher was her DNA – it shared a partial match with my daughter and a strong match with me

When my father was reminiscing about old girlfriends, my sister took the opportunity to ask about Honor. Did he remember dating a woman that fit her birth mother’s description?

O mais oui. He was completely clear on that. He remembered the birth mother, remembered dating her, knew she had gotten pregnant, and definitely remembered that the family wanted nothing to do with him. A bit later, my sister set up a Facetime call between Honor and (our) father. From all reports, it went well. He was glad that his “first” daughter was doing well and happy to make her acquaintance at the end.

So I have a half-sister. Have had one for my whole life but never knew about her until recently.

Not everyone is happy about this news, of course, but there isn’t a lot we can do at this point. At least the truth is out.

I wonder what else we’ll learn before the end.

Poetry and the Pandemic

I wrote “Seven Cups of Landfall” last year, well before we had any idea of the coming pandemic. The poem is not thematically linked in any way to the illness, or the Shelter in Place. In fact, it comes from a image I had for a story — seven cups lined up on a shelf, somewhere on an alien world. But the story never materialized, and the few lines that I wrote as part of a speech for one of the characters eventual became a seven-stanza poem.

That’s what writers do — we repurpose and recycle. If a character doesn’t fit here, then it might work there. And that cool visual that messes up the flow of a scene? Nail it to the wall of a new chapter.

The last poem I published was a lifetime ago, in 1994, when I was teaching English Comp 101 at community colleges in Tacoma, Washington. One of the faculty members edited a poetry magazine and asked the staff to volunteer some words.

My contribution was something of an homage to all those dead white guys I studied in college and forced my own students to read. It was, well, let’s call it derivative. I still enjoy parts of it, though, and it reminds me that I can achieve writer goals (“Sell a poem!”) even if it takes a long time.

Now I need to get back to making new words, and wearing my mask when I leave the house because a virus and human stupidity are trying to kill us all.

Wash your hands. Stay safe. Maybe read some poetry.

Another one escapes the trunk

Stupendous Stories Showcase

Writers have trunks, literal or virtual, which we fill with the unloved, the uncompleted, the unsold, and the leftovers. Stuff we liked, stuff we loved, stuff that for one damn reason or another never found a home.

Sometimes there are Very Good Reasons you don’t sell a story/novel. Bad prose. Unlikable characters. Annoying dialog. Other times… it’s just the Wrong Market or the Wrong Time or We Like it But We Won’t Buy It.

“The Carpetbaggers Ball” is one such story. I wrote it a *long* time ago, and it’s part of a series of First Person Who Isn’t Really Karl stories that could probably fill an anthology. This one had its roots in my decade in Los Angeles, and I was playing around with some of my usual themes: isolation, loss, music, and the 1%.

I received a lot of praise and encouragement, though the story soon joined the ranks of We Like it But We Won’t Buy it. It was a bit long, and needed a stronger arc for the MC. The basic premise (body swapping through tech) also turned off some people who thought that particular trope was mined out.

Fortunately, the editor at Stupendous Stories had a different opinion. He liked it, and wanted to buy it. Unfortunately, after he committed to the sale his own module of Mundane Reality™ threw some serious errors, and the publication went on hiatus (see The Almost Lost Year).

Fortunately for me, and the magazine’s fans, the editor managed to bring Mundane Reality™ under control sufficiently to produce a new e-pub (with print versions coming Real Soon Now). I downloaded a copy and re-read it to check for typos or other annoyances to correct in the next edition. Much to my surprise, I still liked “Carpetbaggers.” It feels true to the time I wrote it, and even resonates well now.

I hope you had a chance to download the free copy. If not, you can toss a few coins at Amazon and get one now. Or wait for the print copy.

The trunk is getting empty.

2019 – The Almost Lost Year

It’s odd thinking of 2019 as “last” year. So close to “lost.” Indeed, 2019 was almost a lost year in many respects.

I drafted this blog the other day but realized after 1,000 words that I was wandering. It didn’t help that I’m still fighting the flu/holiday crud. So let’s shift to bullet points, eh?

Major themes of 2019:

  • my daughter’s preparation for college
  • changes in my professional life
  • my aging parents
  • oh yes, that writing thing

The teen

  • Applying to college is HARD
  • There is research, online visits, physical visits, tests, more tests, essays, and auditions if you’re a theatre kid
  • Trying to balance all that while maintaining good grades is well, trying
  • Costs are insane. We’ve been saving since she was born and it’s still going to be tricky. (It’s also the reason I’m still working unpleasant jobs.)
  • Early on, we threw in the towel and hired an admissions counselor. It’s not the same thing as the Varsity Blues scandal.

While there are still applications pending, I am relieved to report that at least one theatre program has extended an invitation and some scholarship money. We won’t know the final outcome for several months but my wife and I can start thinking that yeah, maybe we didn’t screw this one up.

Day job

  • Started looking for a new job in mid-2018 following Kyocera’s corporate realignment and departure of my best friend on the team
  • Found a small, ninja-like team at Kaiser who were doing interesting things in WordPress and U/X
  • Abandoned regular employment for a new contract, only to discover that upper management had been working on a major reorg
  • In the space of a few months, my senior manager retired, my manager retired, the technical liaison quit, the marketing writer quit, and several contractors were eliminated
  • The two remaining folks from the original team had to re-apply for their jobs with a very secretive, inflexible, bureaucratic-worshipping cult based in Inda.
  • I started looking for work again in mid-2019

On the plus side, my new line manager is much more open to remote work, which has been a gift considering the situation with my parents.

The Elders

Back in 2018, the entire family got together to discuss moving my father into an assisted living facility. He was still pretty functional, despite multiple bouts of cancer and other age-related issues (he turned 90 that year). Unfortunately, he delayed the move, and his physical and mental condition deteriorated.

  • Last summer, he ended up under psychiatric observation following a low-key incident at his local ER.
  • Upon release from the hospital, he went into physical rehab, then into a memory care residence. The transition was not handled well.
  • The ensuing problems have meant a lot of time on the phone and driving down to Central California to deal with stuff.
  • My mother is also dealing with various age-related illnesses and can no longer manage the house by herself.
  • Fortunately, one of my nieces lives nearby and helps out a lot, but it’s not really her job.
  • My siblings and I continue to work to try to find a resolution for their separate housing and preserving their finances.
  • The holidays were stressful. Full stop.

Stress and Writing

  • Too often, I found myself tired or stressed or sick, and the thought of tromping into the word mines was overwhelming.
  • I didn’t publish anything in 2019.
  • I sold two stories to the same magazine (in 2018 and 2019) but the magazine’s publisher had his own family and job challenges, which delayed and delayed the issues. In fact, I’m still waiting.
  • I worked on a lot of stories but only finished one new flash piece for a contest.
  • Managed to send out lots of submissions, though, and received several encouraging notes from editors.
  • I participated in NaNoWriMo. That helped.
  • It also helped that I organized my first writing retreat — Write Here Write Now 2019 — in Baltimore. Some very patient, good folks showed up and put in words. We had some much-needed fun.
  • The Nebula Awards conference in Woodland Hills also charged the battery. Seeing Space X was very cool.

Looking ahead to 2020

  • More self-care. I had three separate, nasty bouts of flu/bronchitis/crud in 2019. I lost about a month.
  • More writing and less news. The political world is a spinning dumpster fire on the best of days.
  • More reading – so many good things by good people. Why not enjoy that?
  • Letting go. The teen has reached her 18th birthday and will be heading off to college. Time to stop worrying about the little stuff.
  • Dealing with the inevitable. One or both of my parents may pass away soon.
  • Tea and whiskey.

A quick note about NaNoWriMo 2019

Since my novelette/novel concept has to be completely replotted (and that’s a digression for another day), I’ve decided to use November — specifically NaNoWriMo — as my motivation to finish/edit/get to Beta readers 4 short stories. One per week! It’s like my own lazy Clarion workshop!

Included in the lineup is my short story draft from WriteHereWriteNow, a novella that’s been kicking my ass for mumble, mumble months, a fantasy piece, and an odd flash story that seemed really easy when I first conceived it but is now demanding a bigger trailer and top billing.

Good luck, everyone!

Nebula Weekend 2: Mentoring, Awards, and Bronchitis, Oh My

In which our Hero wrestles with Imposter Syndrome and Reconnects with Old Friends

Day 2 of the Nebula Weekend found me joining a host of brave volunteers for the second part of the Mentor Meetup. I was assigned two bright-eyed new writers and given 50 minutes to impart All The Wisdom. Poor kids. I opened the tap full blast, and between coughing fits, challenged them to attend a serious workshop (hello, Viable Paradise!), find tough beta readers, create a process, abandon the process, and overall keep the faith. This is art, dammit. No actual egos were harmed. I think.

I also sat in at the usual SFWA Business Meeting, which was much improved by the presence of Aliza Greenblatt, fellow VP16 alum and freaking Nebula-nominated person. (Sadly, she didn’t win, but I cannot believe this will be her only time on the ballot.)

For the afternoon, I caught a quick nap, hoping to quell my symptoms, and then did a couple of hours of KP duty in the Hospitality Suite, where I met more cool people and got to listen to John Scalzi’s philosophy on burritos (he’s a descriptivist, rather than a prescriptivist). He also confirmed the story of how he wrote The Consuming Fire in 2 weeks. Seriously.

Friday night was dinner with fellow writer and all-around good person, Rosemary Smith, purveyor of quality dinosaur stories. Rosemary helped me beta test Write Here, Write Now in Baltimore two weeks prior.

Saturday was full of special writer goodness. I attended the interview with this year’s Grand Master recipient, William Gibson, who related some pretty funny stories about his brief time as a screenwriter, and the fact that his last novel had to be completely torn down and rebuilt due to the timeline disruption caused by the 2016 elections. Later that afternoon, I helped schlep camera gear for the official photographer (the great Richard Man), who used me as a proxy for Mr. Gibson so the Grand Master didn’t have to wait while lights were calibrated. Turns out he and I share a similar build and hairline, although he’s a tad taller.

The Mass Autographing event gave me an opportunity to get books signed by William Gibson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Derek Künsken, Sam J. Miller, and Fran Wilde. I’m happy to report that Mary Robinette’s novel, The Calculating Stars, won the Nebula award for Best Novel later that evening.

My table at the Nebula Awards banquet ended up being relatively close to the stage, so I had a good view of the actual proceedings (although two excellent video screens provided full coverage). My table companions included another Viable Paradise alum (Aimee Picchi), a seasoned pro (Jeffrey A. Carver), and other volunteers, partners, and even a freshly minted writer who’d never attended any event before. Good on him. I don’t think I’d be that brave.

The awards featured a new category, game writing, which was very popular, and plenty of quality contenders for the usual fiction (short, novella, novelette, and novel). Happy to say that many works I read and enjoyed ended up on the ballot and a few of them even won.

I was too tired to attend any of the after parties, so retreated to my room for some light reading and much-needed sleep.

Sunday started off with a (slightly delayed) volunteer breakfast. This was Cat Rambo’s last year as SFWA’s President, and she graciously thanked us all for the continuing spirit of paying it forward. I got in a few more panels, including a thought-provoking discussion on gender and writing (with Futurescapes buddy Jordan Kurella), and listened with great amusement as several pros described their various personal writing habits and hacks. Some good ideas there.

My best friend Dan Malcor (with his new love, Cora) came up from Orange County to transport me back to the airport. Since we had a few hours, we decided to do a spontaneous trip to the Getty Museum. This branch of the museum wasn’t open when I last lived in Los Angeles, so it was a real treat. The weather was nearly perfect, and the view from the upper deck showed the Valley in all its springtime glory:

LA as seen from Getty Museum

Getty looking south

Due to the recent rains, the main gardens were closed, but the exhibits were open. We had a lovely time, and found this one example that we promptly dubbed, “Dude Christ”:

Casual Jesus portrait

The Savior Abides

Karl, Dan, and Cora

I get cultural with Dan and Cora

Eventually we had to trek back over the hills to Burbank, where a very late, very full flight brought me home. It’s a good thing I had upgraded my seating earlier, because even boarding early (in the rain!) I could barely manage to get my carry-on into the overhead bins. Very grateful the actual flight time was barely an hour.

Monday – ugh. Back at work, coughing. Less said, the better.

There were many other people I wish to thank for a great, affirming weekend, but I can’t remember them at the moment. You know who you are. I’ll buy you an absinthe next time we met.

Nebula Weekend 1: Space!

The 2019 Nebulas arrived at an interesting confluence of mundane reality — I was just coming off my Write Here, Write Now weekend in Baltimore, still dealing with bronchitis, and trying to change my contract to a new company so I could keep my current job (and applying for the same job as a full-time employee). It’s complicated.

Because I didn’t have any vacation time (the life of the contractor), I worked until the last minute, and picked up an early flight from Oakland to Burbank. However, what should have been a one-hour hop turned into something more due to unseasonable storm activity. The airline topped off the plane’s fuel in case we had to re-route, but the flight was overbooked, which meant they now had a very full, very heavy aircraft. The solution? Shunt the last-minute ticket purchasers (and their luggage) to another flight.

So I arrived later than I wanted, and took my carry-on to the shuttle to the hotel in Woodland Hills. Due to the nature of LA traffic, we used rough city streets rather than the freeway, and the driver had his phone set to squawk like a startled parrot every time he received a text.

He got a lot of texts.

My room wasn’t ready at the hotel, despite promises of early arrival, so I registered and picked up the bulging Bag o’ Books that comes with the conference. So many excellent and interesting things to read! I ended up storing my luggage (and my medication — oops) with the front desk because I had to meet up with my tour group for Space X.

Thanks to some local connections, the conference had organized a tour of SpaceX for some of the volunteers, and my name was picked. It meant a long drive through fabled LA traffic (which could have been much worse, to be honest) but we arrived with time to spare. (Unlike the second group, which took an Uber that apparently disagreed with Google Maps and got lost in a parking lot.)

You can’t take photos inside SpaceX, although they have one of their Falcon boosters in the parking lot for selfies. (Named after the Millenium Falcon. Of course.)

Inside the facility, there were fanciful travel posters for alien worlds, movie props (a suit from Iron Man 2) and more flat panels displays than a Las Vegas trade show.

There were also rockets. Engines, fairings, frameworks, nuts and bolts and strange valves, many of which were printed on site.

I was surprised that only a small portion of the shop floor was set aside as clean room space (for the Dragon capsules). Most of the heavy assembly took part in the open, much like the repair section of a high-end car dealership. The tour guide took us through a clearly delineated path, but you could literally reach out (past the safety rope) and touch an engine that might one day boost a satellite into orbit, or lift an astronaut to the ISS.

For me, SpaceX felt more like a big software company that also played with big hardware. The vibe was intense, but friendly, and there was a familiar tribal energy of We’re Doing The Cool Thing.

It wasn’t all geekery. The astronaut liaison related the story of her meeting with families of the test pilots. When one boy told her to “take care of his daddy” she recognized the heavy responsibility that she and the other employees shared. If they didn’t do their jobs well, people could die. It was sobering.

Elon Musk is doing some interesting projects in the world (tunnels? really?), but I truly hope that this venture succeeds. We really do need to get people off the planet, and it’s groups like this that are going to do it. Also, having cheaper worldwide internet service wouldn’t hurt.