Monday, December 26, 2016

'Tis the Season

"I'm sorry, could you repeat that?"
"Yes ma'am. I said it looks like you have elves."
"Elves?"
"Yes ma'am. About a dozen or so I'd suppose, th0ugh it's hard to tell for certain. They tend to keep out of sight, most times."
"Elves?"
"Yes ma'am, you heard correct. Right around Boxing Day we start getting the calls in. Looking for a place to nest down for the season, you know." He looked around at the home: brick and neat white cladding, two-storey with shutters over the windows, icicles dangling along the edge of the roof. Pretty as a Christmas card. "Yep. This is the sort of place they flock to, your basic elf."
That he parked in plain sight in the driveway was bad enough. Now this? What would the neighbors think? She lowered her voice. "This is a good neighborhood," she hissed. "The realtor said nothing about… infestations."
"Oh, it's a fresh bunch," he said. "Probably smuggled in on one of them Alaska cruise ships. Real problem up north, you know. But global warming… well, they're losing habitat."
She shivered in her robe, clutching her cocoa for warmth. The candy cane tinkled against the edge as she shivered. It had taken hours to roll them out and get the twists just right, and dammit, they were going to get used. Except they'd been disappeared. A few here and there -- easy enough to blame on the kids -- but then this morning, over two dozen, just vanished. And two empty cookie tins, out in the yard. And all the decorating sugar, gone. The gingerbread village disappeared without a trace. Rats, she thought. Or mice. And she called the exterminators, and they sent this… person.
"I'm really having trouble with this," she said. "You know, yesterday was kind of a busy day…"
The exterminator nodded. "Perfect time for them to slip in, you know. All the hustle and bustle. But you can't miss the signs." He'd showed her the gap in the basement wall, lined with leftover tissue paper like a paper wasp nest. The neat piles of cedar shavings in the corners ("Probably tinkers," he said. "Mind you lock up your tools.") And of course, the little piles of peppermints stacked neatly under the stair. ("Droppings," he told her. "Fresh ones. Still sticky.")
"Isn't there anything you can do?" she said. "A spray or something?"
"Oh no, can't spray," he said. "They're a Protected group, your basic elves. More'n my job's worth to cross that line."
She felt a headache coming on. "Traps, then?" she said. "What do they do for raccoons? My sister had a raccoon up the chimney in their cabin once."
"No good," said the exterminator. He was filling out a complicated-looking form. "Far too clever to fall for that. Most of 'em could build better, anyway. You can't get 'em by outsmarting."
"Well, what am I supposed to do, then?" she said. She tried to ignore the noises coming from the dryer vent. It sounded suspiciously like Christmas carols, being sung by tiny, childlike voices.
"Well," said the exterminator. "There's no guarantees, but if you get all this down and packed away, nature tends to take its course, if you know what I'm saying."
"But these wreaths are handmade!" she said. "White pine from Scandinavia! Hand-woven grosgrain! Blown-glass bulbs from Austria!" It was enormous, too, and well-lit. She made sure the whole neighborhood could see it.
"I understand, ma'am, I truly do. But there's nothing for it. They look well moved-in now. Maybe you'd have a chance with an artificial tree…"
"An artificial… we are not barbarians you know."
"No ma'am, sorry ma'am. I'm just saying that you've made it all so nice, it's no wonder they flocked to you."
"Flocked? You said it was six or seven!"
"I said 'probably' six or seven, but there's no way to be sure. Two tins of cookies and a stack of peppermints. You have any sort of chocolate in the house?"
"Cocoa powder, of course. Baking chocolate. I know the kids have some candy from their auntie."
"Make a list," he said. "And check it. Twice. Basically, you need to get your supplies down now, before the hibernation season. See, they fatten up good for winter, maybe wake around Easter for a snack, and then again at Halloween before their migration. That's your best chance. Make sure you don't bring out any decorations until at least December first. Maybe St. Nicholas' Day, to be safe. The last thing you want to do is give them an excuse to stay through next winter." He tore off the back sheet of the form and gave it to her in a mittened hand. "Giving that it's the holidays, this call's on me. Merry Christmas."
She snatched it from him. "Christmas was yesterday, and thanks for nothing," she said. She slammed the door hard enough to dislodge a few icicles from the roof.
"You're welcome," he said to the door knocker. From a vent down by his feet, he heard the sounds of jingle bells and laughter. Checking that no one was watching, he left a stack of cookies next to the basement window. Chocolate chip. Still warm. "See you next year," he said to the window. A pair of tiny hands snatched the cookies and disappeared again.
And laying his finger aside of his nose, he climbed into his van, and out the cul-de-sac he drove.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Unwrapping Ire, A Resolution for 2017

I always have trouble sleeping at this time of year. My long-suffering wife blames it on the very true fact that mentally I turn into a raving seven-year-old during the Christmas season (actual quote from me yesterday: "Why is there no Christmas music playing [in the living room]? How will Santa know we're ready for him?") It's anticipatory now, knowing what's waiting for my family under the tree and looking forward to the surprise, the laughter, and the inevitable meltdowns as we try to take our family through the motions one more time: the 6:00AM sharp commencement of activities enforced by the youngest child, the mandatory extra coffee and fresh cinnamon rolls required by the adults. This is life in a normal year.

Of course, 2016 has been far from a normal year.

With dread and anxiety, we're all hoping we can just make it through the few days we have left without some new bleak piece of news. I won't rehash all the terrible events of the year. I'm already sleepless, and there's no reason to get miserable before the sun has even risen. I'm sure you have no shortage of reasons to want to see the memory of 2016 dropped in a hole and buried as soon as possible. My more faithful friends say that this has been a year that Tests each of us, and I would not be surprised if that's the tone and tenor of the Christmas Eve service we'll be attending later today. But even they are struggling with the ongoing drumbeat of terrible things that happened this year, and which continue to happen. The horrible news and pictures from Aleppo leave us all haunted and feeling powerless, for example. Any cheer and seasonal joy we muster feels artificial and fruitless, honestly. This is the legacy of 2016 -- one ass-kicking after another, for those of us left who can still stand.

And here this gets political, especially United States-political. If you have the stomach for it, hear me out. Have some coffee and a cookie if it helps. I'll wait.

The political pendulum swings as always, and for a large number of American voters, we feel that we're now swinging in a very bad place, dangling over the very swamp infested with the worst sort of creatures. It's just One More Thing, and it's haunting and demoralizing. Social media drains directly into that swamp. The water's turned foul, and just keeps pouring in. It's easy to feel like you're doing something when you're fighting the current all day, and the echo chamber of outrage, dismay, and anxiety grows in sound and fury, if not significance. It's no accident that my nation chose a President-elect that can think only in easily digestable and resharable word-bites. This is where discourse has landed now. That haunted and powerless feeling is here at home, too. And this is what woke me up this morning. Not the promise of excitement in the next 24 hours, nor joy, nor breakfast with my loved ones -- the fear that we've all slipped into a place where everyone is yelling, and nothing is changing.

And then I realized the True Meaning of 2016. 2016 existed to Piss Us Off.

2016 showed us the frailty of life, the horror that man is still capable of in the name of "peace" and the throwback ugliness that still lies beneath the surface of voting populations of the world. And we have a choice, here, with about a week to go in the year. We can look to the turning of the calendar and pretend that all the terribleness is behind us and that 2017 cannot possibly be as terrible as 2016 -- and I admit, that's a high bar -- or we can be realistic, and realize that 2016 may have just been a warm-up for tough times ahead. Much as I'd like to believe it's the former, I'm steeling myself for the latter. I'm tapping into the despair of 2016 and planning to punch back in 2017, and I want to encourage you all to do the same.

IN 2017 I PLEDGE:

* To become a better-informed citizen by following local, state, and federal legislative activity
* To post my elected representatives numbers by every phone and to call, regularly
* To do the same with the office of the President
* Not to confuse "shares" and "likes" and "retweets" with direct action
* To donate blood as often as I can, and encourage others to do so

This year was terrible. Next year will probably be terrible, too. But I'm kicking back.

What do you pledge?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Pieces

So, my tenth Nano come and gone -- and quite a year it was, too. It reaffirmed my need to be team planner versus team pantser as I struggled to bring the two complementary story lines I had in my head together for a dance. But all was not lost, not at all: I uncovered details and backstory that had not even been hoped for in my pre-writing process, and amid all the rambling dialogue and word-padding, I've uncovered some potential bones for future work. I don't have a novel to show for the month, but I've got over 50,000 words spread across scenes and dialog that will be seeds for something bigger and better to come.

Now December's here, and I'm looking forward to really-and-truly having written every day of 2016. I'd like to say it's been easier as the year has gone on, but this has been a hell of a year to face with creativity. It's been anchoring and grounding, and more than a little therapeutic at times. And I've been doing it enough that the thought of "getting in my daily" is a sense of something I need to do instead of something I ought to do. It's become a vital piece in my life now, and I'm glad for the addition. Even if the output doesn't amount to anything, it's been good for me to work through. Fitting this year together has been like working a massive, at times frustrating jigsaw puzzle, and there have been points where I was afraid to look up to see all the work yet to do.

As always, I'm grateful for the madness that is the NaNoWriMo Typewriter Brigade, the collective crazies that insist on banging out their own creative pieces year after year, on manuals, electrics, wedges, or (shhh) AlphaSmarts. Literacy and creativity and the joy of making feels like it's in short supply this year, in a season of political divides, fear and doubt, accusations and blame. And more than a few creative minds were taken this year, and left holes in many of our hearts. It's been tough to spackle over all those cracks. Seeing the Brigade reform against all common sense is heartening.

I'm also glad for the relative normalcy of the typosphere, and its doged determination to keep growing despite all my shameful neglect. Social media seems to have turned largely into Antisocial Morass this year, so a cheery picture of a custom-painted Lettera or gleaming typebars or some truly dazzling typewriter art is a welcome smile. I'm glad we can all celebrate the little positive pieces of our lives, too. Thanks for being here, Typosphere, and if you're a Brigadier, too, thanks for jumping into the annual fray!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Time Lowers all Bars

By the anticipatory vibratings of my youngest child, I can only assume that Halloween is nigh, a night promising sugary riches in exchange for minor scares and occasional suburban mirages. (One year: a horse dressed as Pegasus being walked on a lead.) Finishing touches on costumes are being applied, reworked, and revamped. Pumpkins have been agonizingly rejected and selected, sliced and scooped, carved and positioned. Careful attention is being paid to playlists: blood-curdling sound effects before or after the Disneyland Haunted Mansion music, and how much Danny Elfman is too much? It's more logistics than most military manuevers. As a parent, I'm obligated to carry bags and flashlights and hoods when they get itchy, and masks when they are too hard to see through, and (very likely) tote umbrellas, too. My rate is one Reese's cup or mini Baby Ruth per block walked, payable at the stop sign at the corner. I think this is being more than reasonable. And sometime after we've all walked about two blocks too far, and the kids are cranky, and the parents' arms are tired, and at least half of the group needs a bathroom stop and/or coffee, we call it a night, say farewell, and close our eyes on October.

And wake to November.

Of course I'm NaNoing again this year, marking a decade of dubious novel-writing (or the writing of dubious novels.) I "planned" my first year on Halloween night, set off into November with high hopes, and came thisclose to a full crash and burn before the end of the month. I had high hopes and grand plans and good intentions, which was all but inviting Disaster and Doubt onto my laptop for thirty days. I had not then had the experience I have now: the knowledge of just how "rough" a rough draft can be, of the power of free writing, of both the pain and the pride of a good edit. Our family grew by a child, faced all the usual things young growing families face in a ten-year span, plus the outliers. I've learned to be more flexible in my personal life, less self-critical, more outgoing. I've tried to get back in touch with my creative side, and take better care of my professional side, too. And I don't know if I can lay all of that at NaNo's feet, but I put a lot of it there, for certain.

Facing a Big Scary Thing once a year has been like a booster shot for life. My family and I have faced Big Scary Things together in these ten years, things that we anticipated and things that we did not. I'm reminded of these when we pull the big costume bin out of storage every year and remember the Octobers past, the people our kids have been, and look to who they've become. I think about all our annual rituals and how they anchor us even when we're being tossed around, and I can appreciate the importance of keeping those rituals alive even when we'd Rather Not This Year. And this year especially, we've recited our mantra of This Too Shall Pass to help us keep perspective on what matters, and what we need to do to get by. Rarely will we ever get anything right on the first try, and rarely do we need to. A best effort is better than no effort at all, and it's possible to get through even the most overwhelming task if you sit down a little every day.

I'm way off on my usual planning routine this year, a fact I've bemoaned in the NaNo forums. Ten years ago I didn't think I needed to plan. Ten years later I believe it. The bar to winning NaNo is set very, very low if you think about it. It's just words, one after the other. It's not life. It's not even a walk down the block in the rain. But you can bet there's going to be candy waiting at the end.

Monday, October 3, 2016

MIlestones, Millstones, Rhinos and Hippos

Happy October, everyone, or "Inktober" for the artistically inclined, or "Pre Holiday Rush" for the retail oriented. The latter category includes my son, who has officailly joined the almost-full-time working world as he discovers his own path through life. That path now means staring Christmas full in the face for nearly the next three months as he's going to be surrounded by it at his day job. I have no love for the general commericialization of holidays, but hype at this time of year especially rankles me. It's pie season, in short. And who doesn't love lingering over a good pie? Recent shocking revelations notwithstanding -- i.e., canned "pumpkin" may legally be canned squash -- autumn is still my absolute favorite season, and adjustment move to longer nights and less sweltering days is a welcome one. Especially is one is prone to bake and consume pies, pumpkin, "pumpkin," or otherwise. I'm all in, pie-wise, and am not so eager to have that swapped out for peppermint-everything.

Can you tell that I'm blogging before breakfast today?

Of course, I also love October because for me and my Famously Flawed Writing Process, it's the kickoff of my NaNoWriMo prep season. This is the second NaNo I'm participating in since my personal pledge to Write Every Day, Dammit. Last year, I was still wrestling with digitizing/redrafting my 2011 attempt, and looked forward to October for a chance to stop and refocus. This year, I almost hate to put it down, even though it's still the same work-in-progress. I've found a good technology mix for the task: my AlphaSmart Neo for the original digitizing, and my tablet and bluetooth keyboard for the rewrite, plus some good habits about making backups. (Specifically I'm using a Belkin keyboard meant for mobile devices, which has its own supporting panel. I should do an entry on it.) The Neo, as Joe V. pointed out, is excellent for its distraction-free simplicity, at the cost of not being able to see much text at once. It's closer to the raw paper typescript than a finished product. Using the tablet lets me see about a page at a time, and get through more text at once, and having that context is important for pulling together coherent overall paragraphs.

So anyway, October. My Nano Rhino is ready, though it's not clear when he'll be starting. I do have a habit of over-planning things, and I may try for a more skeletal approach to the novel this fall. Perhaps I won't sketch out the daily writing as much as the overall big ideas, and save the specifics for November. I'm still due to dive into my notebooks and see what I've got going in there. And as I posted previously, having the known quantity of my daily rewrite chore is also keeping me mentally anchored in the face of personal turbulence. I want to see those characters through their own journey, I suppose, before I set them aside again and introduce more into my head-space. One can only juggle so much chaos. But the Rhino is itchy nonetheless. I think he may get a friend this year, a new addition to my menagerie of malapropisms. I'm keeping my eye open for a "Hippoplotamus" to join my writing totems: a creature that lurks beneath the surface, just showing enough that you know it's there, watching. One poke, though, and it erupts noisily and dangerously. You better be ready when the hippoplotamus decides it's had enough or when it's time for a snack. 

I wonder if they like pie?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Drafting Adrift

Just surfacing for air again, meeting my daily chore of writing, and feeling seven kinds of smug because despite having a very bad day yesterday -- or perhaps because of it -- I buckled down and reached the end of my 2011 NaNoWriMo draft: a long meandering through middle age, video games, love, life, death, religion, Las Vegas, and funnel cakes. It's kind of complex. It's also (surprise) kind of wordy, and it took me over a year and a quarter to finally get it into digital form, and another six months to get through that. That's the six months I just finished, and in that time there's been a few personal dramas and life changes. And maybe it's the old from-adversity-comes-strength maxim, but I still believe that some of this writing is the best I've done, at least on a micro scale. There's some turns of phrase in there that I like. I'm worried, though, that the entire mass is maybe less-than-readable. So that's the next draft. Get it all together in a file, and print/read/scrawl upon it, and try to get it in a steady state where I can ride out November.

November! It's closing in fast. I usually give up October to my pre-planning over-thinking super-outlining frenzy so NaNoWriMo can happen relatively smoothly -- thirty days of assignments, in essence, with the option to pop the chute and write randomness if I start feeling rangy, or heed the Master Plan if I feel at sea. I want to get this draft in before the next draft blows through and is added to the stack. I'm not worried about it, though. Right now I'm cruising along on the high of semi-completion, riding in the wake of a lot of hard work. I've made the pledge to myself to Rhino Every Day, and that has been an anchor in these turbulent weeks. There have been days when I found very little encouraging to look forward to, but knowing that the writing was waiting -- that I owe myself that time -- at least put a consistent button on the days. Life has been blowing around pretty hard this summer, so it's been good to have a tether, even if the other end is fastened to funnel cakes and video games.

I'm also finding out what sort of writer I am, by at least better-defining what sort of writer I am not. There's a pretty good chance that this November's draft is going to veer sharply away from the magical realism underpinnings of this novel. I'm not sure I have enough imagination to keep up with everything that Real Life can dish out. I'm looking forward to it, even though I don't quite know the hows-and-whens of my writing schedule this year, or even if I'll be able to Brigade it. The social acceptability of a typewriter on a commuter train seems unlikely. But the Rhino doesn't care about Real Life, just the Writing Life. Real Life can go blow on the wind, carried away on endless drafts.