Farewell, Buddhacat

When you get a kitten from the shelter, the animal’s date of birth is usually a best guess from the staff or the vet who examined the beast. There are exceptions, but unless someone witnessed the whelping, it’s an approximation.

Today is—we think—Decaf’s 4th birthday. We first encountered him at a pet supply store just before Valentine’s Day 2018, when he was a seven-month black kitten.

On his first night with us, Decaf almost escaped through an open front door. (Turns out he was hiding under the bed.) Eventually, he bonded to us and the house, and became quite a fixture in the neighborhood. He liked to walk us down to the corner, or around the block, doing his ninja routine behind parked cars and bushes.

At night, he often brought us offerings of gardening gloves (sorry, neighbors) and flowers, rather than dead animals, thus earning his nickname of Buddhacat.

A few days after July 4 this year (with all the fucking explosions), Decaf took a lot of long, quiet naps. Normally, he spent the evenings on the couch, and his days in or near my office chair. But this seemed a bit different. On July 10, Decaf went out after dinner and did not return for breakfast. His best friend, Chai (our newest adopted kitten) prowled the house looking for him, then disappeared into the neighborhood.

Chai came home late but Decaf did not.

He missed dinner the next day. And the next.

We put up posters and filed reports with the local animal shelters and neighborhood websites. Someone called me to say they’d seen him, but it was a hard moment when I realized the caller was talking about our other black cat, Chai. (Chai wears a blue collar. Decaf’s is red.)

As much as I hate to admit it, the great glove thief is probably gone. Someone evil might have taken him. He might have left us to die in solitude, as cats are wont to do. We don’t know. And that hurts. I would have liked to have added his ashes to the yard he loved so much.

Farewell, Decaf. You weren’t with us for very long, and we will miss you. Even the early morning wake-up calls and weapons-grade farts.

May you find your way to the Pure Lands.

BYOB (Bring your own bag)

This week when I went to our local Trader Joes to get a few things for dinner, the very pleasant crew member asked me if I needed a bag. I had a little Japanese fabric bag rolled up in my pocket, so no, I didn’t. “Great,” they said, handing me my basket so I could go outside and bag my groceries on the “isolation” tables set up there. As I left, the crew member said that next week they would start bagging my groceries for me. With my own bag, if I had one.

Cool, I replied.

My city and county has been opening up public activities recently, like a slightly confused butterfly pulling itself out of its chrysalis. I’ve also had my vaccination, and though I still wear a mask inside when other people are present, the situation feels different. Not normal, not by a long shot, but heading in the right direction.

I’m flying to the Midwest soon to help my daughter move out of her college housing, and I’ll admit that the prospect of sitting in airports or crammed next to potentially infectious strangers isn’t causing me to lose sleep like it would have even a month ago. Sure, I’m worried about traffic and getting everything packed into storage and making sure our reservations are set. Regular, run-of-the-mill sort of concerns. What I’m not particularly worried about is contracting a virulent disease and facing the rest of my life with limited lung or cognitive capacity, or worse, ending up paying for my daughter’s education with my life insurance proceeds because the hospital ran out of ventilators.

I’m not foolhardy. No vaccine is perfect and viruses mutate. I’m traveling just enough to deal with family business and then it’s back to walks on the local beach with plenty of space around me, and working online. DayJob is talking about a “Flex” plan of office space without providing any real details and timeline for contractors, so I’m probably safe for the rest of 2021 at least. If COVID is going to get me, it’s going to have work for it.

When I think back to my first visit to Trader Joes at the beginning of the lockdown (excuse me, “shelter in place”), the difference is substantial. On that day, I got up early and stood in line an hour before the store opened. There was no shade because the mall never imagined people would ever queue up alongside the parking lot. I was wearing a homemade bandana over a paper mask. My hands were sweating under my latex gloves. My heart rate and blood pressure were elevated, and I was hunched over with the weight of my ignorance. How was the disease really transmitted? How long until we could get treatments? Would there ever be a vaccine? Everything was just damn scary.

So I waited in line, trying not to fall into recursive negative thoughts, and hoped that there would be a shipment of bread (maybe) and enough toilet paper (unlikely).

I gave up after that shopping trip, and instead spent hours online trying to snag one of rare delivery appointments from Whole Foods, or Safeway, or Nob Hill Foods. Anything to avoid the lines and the people and the rising panic in my brain.

Now I can walk down to the store and pick up a package of eggs, or butter, or fresh lettuce, and wait a minute or two to use the self checkout. Or maybe there’s no one there and I go to the checker and smile out of habit, even though they can’t see that part of me.

It’s not how things were, nor is it normal. Things are different now. They are, all things considered, not bad. And getting better.

Let’s hope we learn something from all this. I’m trying to appreciate small details. Like bringing my own bag.

Grief is a ninja

Today was tough.

I had serious issues on a financial website that absolutely didn’t want to work with my security software even though it was just freaking fine yesterday. Took me an hour to resolve the problem and download the docs I needed for my taxes — just to learn that I wouldn’t get the deduction.

Then I spent another 90 minutes, plus two phone calls, trying to get through a government site so I could get the appropriate ID number to submit paperwork to an insurance company for my wife’s corporation.

DayJob was… well, DayJob. Three reminders from the Powers That Be to submit our timesheets appropriately and please reply to this email by 3 PM saying you read and understood all the minutia contained therein.

So when the cold rains starting whipping the house I thought I would take a break and walk to the post office to drop off an important letter. Almost lost my umbrella. Dropped the letter (missed the puddle, though).

On the way home, umbrella folded, rain soaking my pandemic mask, I was struck by a craving for an overly sweet Hot Butter Rum. Like my Dad sometimes made for me when I was sick. It probably wasn’t very good (made from a grainy batter in a jar, I recall) but in that moment, all I wanted was a fire, and a hot drink.

And my father.

The grief darted out from its hiding place and punched me in the solar plexus, then disappeared into the gray. I had almost forgotten it was there.

So I’m calling it a night. Going to make chicken soup, read a good book, and stare into the fire. I don’t have any rum but I have my spouse and several warm kitties.

Be good to each other.

Writing year in review – 2020

In spite of *everything* I published some fiction. And poetry. Considering where I was in 2019, this is pretty impressive.

The reality is that only one writing project was new. The others were either rewrites or waiting their turn in the publisher’s queue. Still, they made it out of the trunk, fought their way up the slush pile, and saw the light of readers’ eyes.

Started off with “The Carpetbaggers Ball” (Stupefying Stories Showcase – Book 1) – Feb 2020 – I was very happy to be included in this new imprint from the folks at Rampant Loon. One of my early cyberpunk efforts, given a new coat of paint.

Seven Cups of Landfall” (Dreams & Nightmares Vol. 115) – May 2020 – My first SF poem!

The Stones of Särdal (The Word Podcast) – Episode 100, Season 10 – Nov 2020 (story begins at 14:30) – I committed to contributing a flash story for this editor, and tried to do the whole thing in one go.

Sullied Flesh” (Speculative North, Issue 3) – Yes, I wrote a Hamlet story – Dec 2020 – My first publication in a Canadian magazine.

So my total is 3 stories and 1 poem, with another story going through final edits for a January 2021 release.

If you downloaded, purchased, or reviewed any of these publications/podcasts, THANK YOU!

This would be a lot less fun without readers.

The Artistic Tradition of Theft

My story “Sullied Flesh” is out.

Given that Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest writers in the English canon and Hamlet is one of his most-quoted works, it was inevitable that I would borrow liberally (or steal entire passages) from that play at some point in my career.

Here we are.

I sketched the bones of the story years ago. I think my brain said, “What if the only way you could get a theater acting job was to be a meat puppet for a famous actor’s performance?” Not an interpretation, or homage, or imitation, but the closest possible clone of that performance? You know, like having it plugged into your brain?

Of course, as a former English major I had to choose Shakespeare, which meant Hamlet. When I was a lad, the Big Three roles were Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. But you can only do the Danish Prince when you’re relatively young, so it’s the place to really boost your career. That’s where I put my main character, Girard.

My own experience trodding the boards is limited to some high school hijinks, and a few spear carrier roles in The Merchant of Venice. Still, I’ve spent enough time behind the scenes to see the potential for er, drama, and thus was born “Sullied Flesh.”

The story had a long, long road to publication. It was too long, the conflicts weren’t well presented, and as one editor noted, it required “an in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare to appreciate.”

I’ve had worse critiques.

Fortunately for me (and you), the lovely folks at Speculative North took the time to give me some on-the-nose feedback and several strong suggestions for a revision. Despite all the challenges thrown at us by Mundane Reality 2020 Edition, everything came together. “Sullied Flesh” escaped the trunk.

The whole issue (Vol #3) is free to download TODAY (Dec 19, 2020), so hurry yourselves on over and get some new words.


November musings

For a lot of writers, November is National Novel Writing Month. The timing is challenging, to say the least. Hello, Thanksgiving? This year, we also had the twin delights of Pandemic Brain and The Election That Never Ends.

I had other plans for the month, which were sadly derailed. Back in the before days, I had contracts for two short stories to be published at this time. Unfortunately, the other human beings involved had their own schedules and travails, so Mundane Reality™ decided I would have only a podcast this month rather than new print stories. Those would have to wait until December.

My month, then, was focused on writing. Not a novel (that’s another conversation) but writing. Specifically, writing every day. And I did it! I even managed to crawl over the 10K finish line, which is my best stretch ever.

Because of various life events this past orbit (child going to college, pandemic, father’s death, work stupidity), I had a fairly large number of open files in my WIP folder. I decided that I would tackle as many of those as I could (with a target of 4 Complete Things).

I finished Four Things, too. Three of the stories had been languishing in the WIP folder, and the fourth was a completely new idea that occurred during the month.

Special bonus: On December 1, after I declared my self-defined victory, I gave myself permission to take the night off. So what did I do? I wrote a brand-new flash story that was pretty darn good. It’s sitting in the submission queue of a magazine, along with three November’s stories. The fourth — the longest — needs some moderate editing. I was throwing down words hard and fast at the end and I suspect that several key scenes will be removed or replaced.

Bottom line: I managed to complete Five Things in 31 days. Not sure if they’ll find Forever Homes but at least they’re not sitting around here, eating my snacks and messing up my Netflix queue.

New fiction is coming soon. Really.

Saying goodbye to the cubicle (for now)

AKA 8 months and done

Last week I drove into the Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood to meet a friend for lunch (outside in the cold wind) and then head into my nearby office building to clean out my desk and cubicle.

Eight months ago, my team went from working remotely 2 days a week to 5 days as part of the Shelter in Place. We didn’t know how long we’d be gone, and most of us took only the essentials – laptops, peripherals, paperwork. We left behind coffee mugs, photos, tea bags, pens, and desk toys, like my bendable Pink Panther. (Side question: is a yoga toy considered an action figure, or a “steadily held pose” figure?)

For many years, my daughter would give me toys like this (and coffee mugs) and artwork because she knew how much I didn’t like going into the office. The truth is I didn’t like my job. The office was merely the embodiment of that. So she and my spouse did what they could to brighten up my desk/cubicle.

Last month, the Powers That Be at DayJob decided that IT group had no business renting three floors of expensive office real estate in the Bay Area, so they started canceling leases and ordered us to come and get our shit. We had to sign up for 90-min slots so we wouldn’t crowd the elevators or breathe on each other in the hallway. Everyone wore masks. It was all very civilized.

And it was still pretty weird. My cube was on the 11th floor, and between March and November a new skyscraper had sprouted up a few blocks away. Its rising skeleton was clearly visible from my floor’s conference room. Eventually, the new bilding will block part of the view of the Bay Bridge. Not that it’s going to affect me anymore.

I took this DayJob because my last company decided to move most of the web operations to Japan, and my manager and my technical support buddy at the next desk both quit to take other jobs. There didn’t seem like much future there, and the commute was a pain, so I pursued this gig.

Oakland was much closer to home (although in a more challenging neighborhood, to be sure). Once I arrived, though, my new department got shuffled in a re-org and two of the people who interviewed me quit. Then the contracting company changed and two more co-workers quit. Another one was fired.

I ended up in a team of 4 people plus several permanent “remote” workers whom I’d never met in person, including an inexperienced manager with a project list that seemed to change randomly.

So I had conflicting feelings about cleaning out the cube. On the one hand, it felt like leaving the job. On the other, nothing much had changed. I took my box of toys, tea bags, etc., my extra sweater, and drove home. Then I fired up my laptop and continued working.

When the Great Pause is over, I’ll definitely look into another DayJob. I think I’ve proved I can do the work without having to sit in conference rooms and shiver under the AC. I might end up doing something outside the Bay Area. Who knows?

It would be nice, though, to have the option of sharing a cup of tea with a co-worker who isn’t already living in the house.

The 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.


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, are 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.