30-minute write 10 January 2019

Despite vowing that I would write less this time since my writes are so long, I had also decided in advance to do a children’s story regardless of the prompt, to try another new genre. It ended up being the longest yet.

Prompt was: mixed emotions, from the Rolling Stones lyric “you’re not the only one with mixed emotions”.

 

Mixed emotions

Badger and Skunk sat on the grass and looked at the house. It wasn’t a big house. More like a cottage, with a thatched roof and a little garden with roses. The front door was bright yellow, and Badger and Skunk were looking at it now.

“Do you know who lives there?” said Badger.

“I do,” said Skunk, “I hear she comes outside sometimes.”

“We call her Food Lady,” said Badger, “because she brings food.”

“And you say she hasn’t been out lately?” Skunk asked. He was wearing his leather jacket, so it was hard to see him in the dark.

“No,” said Badger, tapping his claws nervously. “That’s why I asked you to come.”

Skunk had a reputation for helping when things were difficult. Among the animals, not everyone liked him. Some thought he was hard to work with.

“Who does she bring the food for?” asked Skunk.

“Well, it is supposed to be for her cat. But there is plenty left over for us.”

Skunk looked nervous. “Where is the cat?”

“Oh, don’t worry,” said Badger, “he sleeps all night. Not much like a cat at all, really.”

They were quiet for awhile. Then Skunk said, “Let’s look in the window.”

“I can’t get up to the window,” said Badger.

“No problem,” said Skunk, “I will climb onto the flower box.”

They cautiously approached the house, and crouched under the window. Skunk began to climb up slowly. An owl hooted, making Badger start.

“Can you see anything?” asked Badger.

“Yes, she’s there. But she doesn’t look well.”

“What do you mean?” asked Badger.

“Looks like she’s sick in bed.” Skunk had seen sick people before. They moved less. He liked it when people moved less.

“Oh, poor Food Lady,” said Badger. “That’s why she hasn’t come out to feed us.”

Skunk scampered down off the flower box. They crept back into the garden. They sat together and thought awhile.

“Perhaps we could do something for her,” said Badger.

Now doing things for people was not really Skunk’s sort of thing. People didn’t treat him very well. In fact, they tended to run away when they saw him.

But Badger looked very sad. Skunk thought maybe this was about more than food.

“What do you want to do?” said Skunk.

Badger thought a bit. “I’ve seen when people are sick, other people get them a cup of tea.”

“What’s tea?” said Skunk.

“It’s a drink with hot water. You put it in a cup and the sick person drinks it and feels better.”

Skunk looked at the door again. “Do you think it’s open?” he asked.

“Let’s try,” said Badger, and they carefully approached the door. The handle of the door was very high. Skunk tried but couldn’t reach.

“Let’s go round the back”, said Badger. Skunk wasn’t sure. Did he really want to help a person, when people treated him so badly? Was it worth all this trouble?

But Badger was sure, and was already headed into the back. Skunk followed.

The back door wasn’t open, but Skunk noticed a swinging door built into it. “That’s a door for the cat,” said Skunk, proud of his superior knowledge.

But Badger was ahead of him, going through the flap. He saw the cup already on the table, but wasn’t sure about what to do next.

“I’ve seen them boil water. You do it on the stove,” said Badger. He reached up, but his claws scraped the dial without turning it.

“I’ll do it”, said Skunk, and twisted the dial. It was the wrong dial. A flame went up on an empty burner, not the one under the kettle.

“Try again,” cried Badger, “or there will be a fire.” So Skunk turned it back and twisted another dial. This time the fire went on under the kettle.

“Now what?” said Skunk. He didn’t like that he didn’t know what to do. After all, he had been called in on this case. And he still wasn’t at all sure this was worth it just for a person.

Badger told Skunk what to do, so he got up on the counter, opened cupboards and looked at boxes.

“Which one?” Skunk asked. Badger thought a moment.

“Smell them,” Badger suggested, “Find one that smells like flowers or mint or something people like.”

“I have no idea what people like,” Skunk grumbled. He knocked a green box down to Badger.

“Yes, this is perfect!” said Badger. The kettle was making noise. “Oh dear,” said Badger, “we’ll both need to manage the kettle.” He began pushing a chair toward the counter so he could crawl up.

They carefully poured the hot water from the kettle. Skunk used his nimble paws to unwrap the tea bag and put it in the cup. They were very careful not to fill it too full, otherwise they couldn’t lift it down. As they passed it carefully, paw to paw to chair, paw to paw to down, Badger was very happy.

Skunk put the teacup on Badger’s back, and they set off down the hall.

The door to the room was open, and Food Lady was sleeping and sniffling at the same time. A low table was next to the bed. Skunk lifted the cup carefully and put it on the little table.

They sat for a minute, but they did not want to stay in the house. It felt so enclosed, so uncomfortable. What if someone else came in?

“People only like cats and dogs in houses,” said Skunk, “Can you wake her?”

Food Lady’s hand was hanging down outside the covers. Badger took his nose and nudged her hand. When they heard Food Lady snuffle and start moving, they ran. Back to the hall, down to the kitchen, and out the flap in the door. They ran all the way around the house and back to their spot on the lawn.

They saw the window, and the light was now on. Food Lady was sitting up. Now she was reaching for the tea, looking all around and smiling. She snuggled back down in bed, drinking the tea.

“Well,” said Skunk, “I guess that wasn’t so bad.”

“No,” said Badger, “it wasn’t.”

Running on empty: 30-minute write 3 January 2019

The prompt was, “running on empty”. I’m not as happy with this write as some of the others. It took me quite a bit less than 30 minutes and was too long and too technical for my listeners.

Running on empty

“I give up.”

That’s how he ended the blog post, the post he’d written in the “community”.

Was it a community, really? He used to think so. Back in the late 90s, the web had been an exciting place, a wild west. IRC chat rooms, images you had to size down to postage stamp size so Netscape could render them, the sound of the modem dialing.

It had felt fun, and dangerous. More than one late night had been spent in a chatroom recommended by his partner at work. He took on a new identity there. Although the room was called Sex Chat, hardly anyone ever talked about sex. There was some innuendo, some clever wordplay, but the participants lived around the world. The chances they’d ever meet each other was exactly nothing. He felt free.

The web arrived, and speed and capability improved. Web 2.0 meant you could not only read stuff, but post things others would see, even if you didn’t have money. As a teacher, of course, he didn’t have money. He found communities there, especially when he’d had that family crisis and didn’t know where to turn. There were many groups of former alcoholics on the web. Not crazy people. For a couple of years, he was supported and supported others.

Then Second Life had happened, a program that let you take on an avatar, a character. Lots of people chose a fox with a long tail, then spent Linden dollars dressing up and teleporting to other parts of the virtual world. He’d attended a teaching seminar there (the speaker was a dragon in a top hat), and wondered whether he could use the program to teach his students.

But he couldn’t manage it like he had the chat room. Controlling the avatar wasn’t easy. The learning curve was not only high, but embarrassing. More than once he’d trapped himself in a chair, or a swimming pool, and been unable to figure out which sequence of arrows to press to get out. Other avatars stood around. You couldn’t tell — could they see? Did the people behind them care?

He blogged about it, then about other things. He blogged about his job, though he couldn’t name the students, of course. He had to be careful, to say the right things, but as he realized how small his audience was, he stopped being careful. He joined a teaching “community” online, and was surprised at how hard he worked, how many hours were spent helping others with their teaching problems.

And not just that — they seemed to find the technology more difficult than he did. So he helped with that too. Till 2 a.m., sometimes. And he met some of these people in person. He went to the conferences, he became known, he was asked to do a TED talk. He talked about open publishing, open education, open community. He wanted everyone to share their work, their creativity, openly. Openly, of course, meant free. All his work on the web had been free. It was all about sharing.

Then TED was bought out by a corporation. His school was bought out by a corporation. The chat room, the community, now belonged to a corporation, which had started as a bunch of radical teachers, but had ended by offering shares. They didn’t care about him, or anyone in the community. All the open stuff he and his online friends had created, with their open licenses, were taken as content by the corporations and packaged. He found one of his own lectures, freely posted, inside a paywall system, being sold for $18.95 by a company he’d never heard of.

He knew the web was closing. It felt like a physical space to him, the home where he’d lived for over a decade. His vacation spot, his coffee house, his staff room. He wrote about it. He blogged. A few sympathetic heads nodded. Most people didn’t get it. He had two dozen comments a week, then a dozen, then three, then none. The web coalesced, like it was sucked in by gravity, like a dark star. Everything he posted was somehow owned by someone else: Facebook, Google, Apple.

And then it happened. The executive order. The emergency powers. He’d anticipated the corporate enslavement of the web, but not this. It seemed like the impossible had happened. He was asked, in forum after forum, what to do. He thought. He’d solved so many problems before: pedagogical, technical, personal. But he couldn’t solve this one. How could he fight national security? He couldn’t.

So on the now government-run forum, where panicked people were asking so many questions, where so many of them hadn’t seen it coming, there was nothing else to say.

“I give up,” he posted, and turned off the machine.

30-minute write 27 December 2018

The method tonight was dialogue, the prompt a first line: As soon as she walked in, she felt the tension. 

——

As soon as she walked in, she felt the tension. But looking around, it was just an ordinary bus station on an ordinary Sunday. She was there very early, because she didn’t want to miss her connection at Boston Logan, and the conference facilitators hadn’t helped make arrangements. Everyone else was talking a flight out of Providence. She had been going to do that, but decided the bus was safer.

The window on the bus company office had a shade on it, and clearly no one was there. No sign up, either, to say when they’d be back.

A man waited, but he had no bags, just a nice jacket, one of those long ones that went to the knees. She thought, “what do they call that? oh, yeah, a duster…”

“Some people call it a duster, but I don’t think it’s dusty, do you?”

She startled. “No”, she said, “it looks elegant. Like velvet.”

There was a pause. He smiled contentedly at her, looking vaguely familiar but in a way she couldn’t place.

“Were you here for a conference?” she asked, hoping she wasn’t supposed to know his name.

“No, I’m here for an appointment. How about you?” His voice was pleasant. More than pleasant really, almost seductive. But he wasn’t looking at her in any special way, so maybe it was just his natural voice.

“Oh, just going to Logan.” There was a pause. She looked at the shaded window. “Do you know when someone will be here? I’m not sure which bus I’m supposed to get on.”

“You were at the conference,” he said. “Why didn’t you go to Providence airport, like the others did?”

Oh dear, maybe he had been working at the conference, and she just didn’t notice him. Did he work at the hotel? Surely she would have remembered him, with those dark, dark eyes. He looked so familiar, but not from there.

“Um, well, to be honest, that little plane made me nervous, after what happened last week.”

“Oh, yes, the crash. That was interesting,” he said placidly. “Interesting” wasn’t the word she’d been expecting, and she must have looked perplexed. “Complicated,” he said carefully, “more than expected.”

She looked toward the office window again. “So,” he said, “you decided the bus was safer.”

“Yes,” she said, and wondered why she felt the tension again. Nothing was happening. No one else had come in to the station. A group of teenagers were visible outside, through the big windows. The sun was just going down, and everything was getting that grey twilight color.

Suddenly it occurred to her. He’d been at La Guardia when she had arrived three days before. That’s where she’d seen him.

“Wait,” she said, “didn’t I see you at La Guardia on Wednesday night?”

“Yes.” he said.

“Did you see me there? I think I saw you.”

“Yes, I saw you, and you saw me.”

It was coming back to her now. She had been so jet-lagged and distracted. She had seen him and had felt frightened, without knowing why. How could she have forgotten?

“Do I know you?” she said, her voice almost a whisper now.

“Yes, I think so,” he said, “We flirted once at an intersection in downtown Denver, and once in the hospital when you had an infection.”

The teenagers on the sidewalk receded from her vision, and the darkness seemed to be gathering inside as well as outside. Things were getting a little vague.

“It’s funny, I don’t actually remember, and yet it sounds familiar, and you look familiar.” He smiled gently, and looked almost sad.

“Did you know that I was afraid of the airplane, the one that went down?”

“Yes, I was there as they were boarding. I saw you leave the airport.”

“I wondered,” she said nervously, “why I couldn’t get on the plane. Then it went down.”

“Well,” he said softly, “I was surprised to see you.”

“Why?” she said, but no longer felt afraid, just very tired.

“Because our appointment wasn’t for New York. It was for Providence.”

He smiled and took her hand.

“And it wasn’t for an airport, or a plane. It was for a bus station.”

Good fences make good neighbors

Prompt: Consider Robert Frost’s poem about the two neighbors fixing the wall between their properties, where Frost’s sympathies are clearly with the one who doesn’t think they need the wall at all but the other insists “good fences make good neighbors”.

 

my neighborhood was funky back
when we moved there in ’89
the grass grew tall, the roofs were wood
the houses had a sense of time

it wasn’t perfect, not at all
I once put out a kids’ slide set
and got a note to take it down
a slight I can’t forget

but the woman two doors down would come
and we’d talk and have some tea
boys would run around and play
the trees were fun, the streets were free

and gradually the kids grew up
and went away to live their lives
the neighborhood got quiet then
people got older, people died

prices went up, but no one cared
because no one meant to sell
then my next door neighbor left
which sounded a starting bell

(she didn’t leave, to tell the truth
she fell when she was alone
when she was found, her daughter
had her put into a home)

her house was fixed up and flipped
with vinyl, tile, and white
the garage was automatic
and the lights came on at night

then aliens came, so young and clean
in groups, in little bands
their Lulu yoga pants so tight
their phones attached to hands

they started little park parties
and that was very nice
but as they kept fixing up their homes
and jacking up the price

the pace was changed
and now our homes looked old and out-of-place
what we had loved as funky
they saw as potential space

our fences had meant nothing
been replaced when someone cared
but now they were defences
so that we would be spared

the trees still free, the streets now crammed
with the fruits of financial labor
so much has changed that makes it much
harder to love thy neighbor

30-minute write 13 Dec 2018

Winter is coming

Winter as metaphor or winter as a season?

I never liked winter. I don’t like being cold, I never understood skiing. I need the sun, even if I’m staying inside. I live in California but I buy those full-spectrum light bulbs they get in Sweden. I hate my winter clothes, their bulk and heaviness. Ironically, a colour specialist once told me I’m a Winter. But I’m perfectly happy wearing black and red in summer.

In my home, the carpets come out for winter. The heat, recently installed, comes on. I desperately hang lights, and turn them on at 4 o’clock. I drink endless cups of hot tea, and wear fingerless gloves to bed to read. I don’t understand the people who complain that it never snows here. My father, who moved here from New York many years ago, has never missed the snow and never seeks it out. The only experience I have with snow is seeing it from far away, except for one year when we took the kids up to Julian to “see the snow” and my son nearly sledded off a sheer drop. This experience did not endear me to snow, and reinforced my hatred of winter.

I don’t like the grey, I don’t like the rain, I don’t like the shortness of the days.

But winter is also, of course, a metaphor. We have the winter of our discontent, and the ultimate winter of death. People die in winter. It’s a season of our life, the winter of our life. We celebrate spring as a relief from the fear of death. What’s funny is that one cannot know what season we’re in anyway. For all I know, I’m in the winter of my life right now.

As a child, winter meant the fog. Summers were intolerably hot, but the fog in winter chilled the bones. Sometimes it felt like there was no warmth to be found anywhere. The fog was a ground fog, the Tule fog, and it would settle into the valley, hugging the ground for weeks at a time. If you were lucky enough to leave town, you could look back from the Grapevine and see it lying on the valley like a heavy blanket.

The fog made it so you couldn’t see things. We joked at the blindness: it was so bad you couldn’t see — fill in the blank: your neighbor’s house, the tall building over there, the trailer across the street. But the scary times were when you couldn’t see the hood ornament on your car. One time, when I was in high school, I drove with friends up the valley to attend a wedding. On the way home, we pulled into a gas station to fuel up. Then we drove off, and less than a mile later realized we’d left the gas cap on top of the pump. We blindly turned around on the highway, which was terrifying in the fog, and went back, but we couldn’t find the station. It had disappeared in the fog.

So perhaps there is a place where metaphor and season combine, when the cold becomes both a tanglible sensation and an intangible fear. The fog surrounds us and isolates us, from ourselves and from each other. We drive off with the gas cap on the pump, hoping we won’t crash and burn because we couldn’t see far enough ahead.

I remember driving home from friends’ houses late at night, and seeing the only visible thing along the way: a digital clock on the bank. It told the time and temperature. 2:05 a.m., 24 degrees. A reminder, like a ghost. I was out too late, I was in the fog, it was below freezing. One night I drove off the road. No one else was on that road but me — it went across the farm fields. My car spun backward and slid into a ditch. It was below the level of the road, I thought — no one will see me. I’ll be out here all night.

But a truck came along, one of those wonderful Okie farmers I had never thought twice about. He had seen me slide off the road, told me not to worry, got out a rope, tied it to my car, and dragged me out of the ditch. I must have thanked him, but I don’t remember. I remember going on my way home along the cold and empty road, thinking how even in the winter, people are there, there to help. And that made winter less horrible.

Perhaps it is just that winter is a time of introspection. You can’t go anywhere, so you might as well read and think. The darkness may not be despair, it may just be quiet. Winter may be the season of metaphor itself, even more than spring, because it’s when we can think about all the seasons of our life, and wonder when in life we are.

First 30-minute write

Prompt: There’s a radio station that only plays when I’m alone.

 

The radio station that only plays for me has hits from forever, sound bites from work, and lots and lots of static.

Because it only plays for me when I’m alone, I can continue to believe in the album, the waltz, and Firesign Theatre. I can combine radical poetry and Alice Cooper. And most importantly, I can time travel. I can even time travel to places where the radio played for far more people than me.

During the 1930s and 40s, the radio was everything. It was the connection to the outside world for many households, particularly in rural areas around the globe. Radio developed national tastes. It also made possible instantaneous news, better than the telegraph or telegram because it was broadcast, better than the newspaper because it could be heard. And for those who created radio programs, it could be a mouthpiece and tool of social control.

The radio could also surprise. There is, for example, the story about Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. People tuning in after the opening explanation and commercial are said to have believed that the Martians were attacking earth. There were stories in the papers of people doing crazy things, especially in Grovers Mill, New Jersey, where Orson Welles had re-set the story.

So this radio station played in other people’s heads, and those who went crazy thought they were caught up in something terrifying.

But it looks like the story of panic was highly exaggerated, made up by media outlets to sell papers and magazines. It made people look gullible and uninformed, the butt of a bad joke. The radio that played for everyone could be manipulated, and the story of that manipulation could also be manipulated. There were many arguments about the power of radio, the potential for broadcasters to control people. Even after the days of FDR and Father Coughlin, radio continued to sway minds. In Britain, and her colonies, the BBC World Service offered educational programs on radio, in an effort to counter communist propaganda.

As television, and later the internet, developed, however, radio became antiquated and quaint. Radio stations still play, but now one can create ones own station, that only plays for you. And I have to wonder — is this also an effort at social control?

We’ve always had the ability to filter the information that comes in to us, to hear only what we want to hear. Don’t like it? Change the channel. But ironically, a vast amount of content has appeared along with the technologies that can filter it most effectively. We can now join with others who hear the same radio station we do, even if that station starts in our heads with conspiracy theories, hatred, and alternatives to rationality.

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, people take a drug called Soma, which keeps everyone calm and happy. There has long been discussion about which future we’re headed toward: the surveillance culture of George Orwell’s 1984, or the sedated complacency of Brave New World.

The new world of disaggregation, personalization, and customization offers a bit of both. It’s the radio everyone can hear, and it listens to us as we listen to it. The tables have been turned, as Orwell predicted. But in creating our own station, the one that only plays for us when we’re alone, we feel connected to the outside world. Because we’re only connected to the portion of the outside world we choose, we can live in Huxley’s Brave New World.

The radio that only plays for me when I’m alone soothes me when I need soothing, excites me when I want excitement, enrages me when I care to be enraged. In creating my own reality, I’m the DJ, the sponsors, and the publisher in the radio that only plays for me.