Category: essays

Political Donations

There was a time when, if I found someone running for political office that I liked, I would donate money to their campaign. Not a large amount. Maybe twenty dollars. The last time I did that was quite a few years ago. The reason I stopped, I told myself for a long time, was that I felt money should have no part in political campaigning.

You can stop laughing. I know how foolish that statement sounds. It seemed like a good excuse at the time, but it wasn’t the real reason I stopped giving money to political campaigns. The real reason was buried a little bit deeper. I discovered it this week, when I was considering donating some money to a particular campaign.

The more I read in the newspaper, the more impressed I had become with this particular politician. I kept thinking that maybe I should reverse my decade-long policy of not donating money to politicians. (Autocorrect just changed “politicians” to “pelicans” for some reason.) But something tickled at the back of my mind, and each time I thought I should do it, I hesitated. Last night, I realized why.

Phone calls.

The last time I made a donation to a campaign, I got put onto a list and began getting calls for more money, or for other candidates in different elections. I can’t stand those phone calls. At first, I’d be polite, and explain that I had given all that I could afford. But the people on the other end of the line got pushier and pushier.

“We can’t win without your help,” they’d say.

“Well, then, I’m sorry I gave money to such a poorly organized campaign that they can’t win an election because of someone who can’t give them an extra twenty dollars,” I’d reply.

Sometimes, the campaign workers on the phone would get irritated with me—the person who they wanted money from in the first place. Other times, they grew pedantic, explaining to me, in the simplest possible terms, the importance of an issue that was really far too complex for such simple terms.

The callers were point out all of the evil things their candidate’s opponent was doing, not realizing that (a) I can’t stand that type of behavior, and (b) I didn’t want to hear about the bad things their opponent was doing, but instead the good things that their candidate was doing.

Occasionally, they would provide a list of all of the things their candidate would achieve if I elected—and, of course, my donation would help to make that happen. These lists were so overly ambitious and vague, that I began to borrow a line that the fictional President Bartlett used in a debate in an episode of the The West Wing. “Give me the next ten words,” I’d say, “tell me exactly how they are going to do all of those things, and I’ll consider giving you the $20 you are asking for.” I could never get specifics.

Mostly it was the constant hounding and relentless requests for money that finally pushed me over the edge, and made me vow never to give money to a political campaign again.

Now, of course, seeing a worthwhile candidate, I’d like to donate a little money. But I still hesitate. Most likely, I won’t give the money. If there was a way to guarantee that I wouldn’t get a single call or email or mailing of any kind, I’d do it, but I’ve never seen a checkbox on a donation form that reads something like:

“Here’s $20 dollars for you to fight the good fight. Now never bother me again.”

If a form had an option like that, I’d donate the money.

Passing Through the One-Way Door

It is award nomination season in the science fiction and fantasy world. The Hugo award nomination period is open. The Hugo awards are awarded by members of the World Science Fiction convention. The Nebula award nomination period closes any day now. The Nebulas are awarded by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, an organization of which I am an active member.

This will be my second consecutive year without nominating or voting or either award. I have not made nominations because I have read almost nothing published in the science fiction world in the last couple of years. While I don’t feel like I have missed it, it bothers me because I grew up on science fiction.

Looking over the list of books that I have read the last couple of years, I notice that I started to drift from new science fiction in late 2013. I read Jack McDevitt’s Starhawk, and Gardner Dozois’s Old Mars anthology. Since finishing Old Mars in November 2013, here is the list of new science fiction and fantasy books that I have read:

  • The Martian by Andy Weir (7/5/2014)
  • Coming Home by Jack McDevitt (4/7/2015)

That is just two new science fiction novels in more than 2 years. In that same period of time I read a total of 89 books. But only two of them were new science fiction books.

My track record is even worse for short fiction. I cannot recall a single story that I have read in the last few years. This weighed heavily on me for a time. Many of my friends are writers, and I am hopelessly far behind reading their stories.

In early 2013, I began writing every day, a streak that I kept unbroken for 825 consecutive days. That this period of writing coincides with the change in my reading patterns is interesting. What is more interesting, is that the stories I produced during that streak had less and less of a science fictional bent.

The last three stories I sold and published were:

  • An alternate history about the Apollo program and baseball (and more about baseball than Apollo).
  • A piece of flash fiction about an agent meet-and-greet populated by zombies
  • A Sports Illustrated-like profile of a hall-of-fame baseball player, wrapped in the guise of a science fiction story.

See a pattern here? Not only have I been moving away from science fiction in my reading, I have been moving away from it in my writing as well. Not entirely away, but gradually. I see my friends continuing to sell stories to magazines like Analog, which has published 2 of my stories, and I think to myself, I should get back to writing good old science fiction. But my heart isn’t in that kind of story any more.

In 2013, I wrote my first novel. It was a far future science fiction novel, but in the end, though I tried, I couldn’t make the second draft work. It took me a long time to realize it was because it was no longer the kind of story I wanted to write.

I have a notion of the kind of stories I want to write these days. They are stories where the genre is incidental. It is the story that matters. This may be part of the reason why I have slowed down in my reading of science fiction: the science fiction in the stories has started to look like so much window dressing to me.

But there is another equally valid possibility. Years ago, when I first began selling stories, my friend, and fellow writer, Michael A. Burstein, warned me that once I started publishing science fiction, I might not enjoy reading it as much. For a long time, I told myself this would not happen to me. When it began happening, I forced myself to believe it was just a phase. Now, I am beginning to think it isn’t.

None of this means that I won’t write a story that falls into the science fiction category, nor does it mean that I won’t read science fiction books and stories in the future. But I feel like I have passed through a one-way door. On the other side of the door is the vibrant joy science fiction once gave me. On this side, is the muted pleasure I get on the rare instances that I read science fiction today.

Nontraditional Lullabies

When the kids were infants, I never sang them traditional lullabies. Instead, while feeding them, or rocking them to sleep at night, I sang them Bing Crosby songs.

I can’t recall exactly when or why I became a Bing Crosby fan. I think it was sometime in 1995. I walked into a record store in Studio City, where I lived at the time, and came across a boxed set of Bing Crosby music called Bing Crosby: His Legendary Years, 1931-1959. It seemed to call to me and I bought it on the spot, despite it being expensive for me at the time.

Bing Crosby: His Legendary Years

Twenty years later, I probably know about 150 Bing Crosby songs. His movies are among my favorites. It is a strange thing for someone who was 5 years old when Crosby died. But it served me well when the kids were babies.

When it was time to put them down for the night, I’d take them into their bedroom, and sit in the rocker we had in there. With the lights off, I’d cradle them in my arms, and sing to them. Sometimes, they’d fall asleep after a song or two. Other times, it could take an hour or more before they conked out.

I made a game of it. How many songs would I sing before they closed their eyes and fell asleep? Back in those days, I’d say things like, “Last night was great! A three-song night!” Other times, I’d croak, “Fifteen songs tonight!” On those nights when the kids just didn’t want to nod off, I tested my abilities by trying not to repeat a song, no matter how long it took for the kids to finally fall asleep.

On average, it probably took between six and ten songs before the kids finally slept. There was a core set list that most nights centered around. My go-to songs for a typical night were, in no particular order:

  • Whiffenpoof Song
  • Far Away Places
  • Dear Hearts and Gentle People
  • Sam’s Song
  • Gone Fishin’
  • Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral
  • Blue Hawaii
  • I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams
  • Trade Winds
  • I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Those ten songs could usually get me through the night, but sometimes, I’d have to dig deep with songs like:

  • On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe
  • The Road to Morocco
  • Be Careful, It’s My Heart
  • The Spaniard that Blighted My Life
  • Now Is the Hour
  • Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day
  • Sweet Leilani
  • Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)
  • Change Partners
  • It Might As Well Be Spring

To this day, the Little Man, who has managed to inherit my ear for lyrics and music, still know the words to songs like “Gone Fishin’” and “Far Away Places.”

For a long time, my knowledge of Bing Crosby songs, both popular and obscure, was useful mostly to entertain myself, and later, my kids. That changed last year. Knowledge of Bing Crosby came in handy in a surprising and fun way.

Our friend Melissa celebrated a big birthday and invited a bunch of her friends and family for a weekend celebration at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia. On the second night, she rented out a small local restaurant for a private party. The place was packed, the drinks were flowing, and everyone was having a blast.

Sometime well into the night, the music paused momentarily and was replaced by a brief musical band intro. At once I knew what song it was. I saw Melissa stand up to begin singing and dancing to “MacNamara’s Band” and I couldn’t resist. I got up, and in front of the restaurant full of people, the two of us began to sing, “Oh me name is MacNamara, I’m leader of the band / Although we’re few in number, we’re the finest in the land…”

We sang the whole song, from start to finish, and roared through the chorus, “Oh, the sun goes bang and the cymbals clang, and the horns they blaze away…” It is quite possible we were the only two people in the restaurant (or perhaps all of Hot Springs, Virginia) that knew the words to the song, and could sing them. I had a blast.

And I doubt that ever would have happened, if not for my desperation to learn more and more Bing Crosby songs to sing to the kids when they were babies. The songs served as untraditional lullabies, but they did the trick, and if I had to do it all over again, I would do it just the same.

Writers Anxiety Dreams

Last night I had my first-ever writer’s anxiety dream. Anxiety dreams are, as I understand it, pretty common. Many of us have woken in a sweat after dreaming we’ve arrived at a mid-term or final exam only to realize we haven’t studied, or done any of the required homework. Long after I stopped flying, I used to have pilot anxiety dreams in which I would take off from a controlled airport, only to realize that I never got clearance to take off.

But I have never had an anxiety dream about writing—until last night.

The dream went like this: I had found a piece of paper with some numbers on it. For some reason that made perfect sense in the dream, the numbers fit a pattern that gave me an idea for a story centered around the numbers. I wrote the story, and I suppose I published it somehow. Not long after, I began to receive photocopies of the original paper I found with the numbers on it. Over and over and over again, the photocopies came in, and I realized, with sudden horror, that I had used those numbers without permission, plagiarizing them, essentially, and that these photo copies were the revenge being extracted on my increasingly guilty conscience.

The dream went sideways from there, as dreams often do. I tried to find out who created the original so that I could apologize and explain the misunderstanding, but each time I had a lead, I lost it. I fretted with increasing panic that everyone would think I was nothing more than a plagiarist—a fate worse than death for any writer.

I awoke in the middle of the night to great relief that it had all been a dream. But I knew, as with most anxiety dreams, that although it was the first time I’d had such a dream, it would probably not be the last.

If you are not a pilot, you probably don’t get the stress of the pilot anxiety dream. And if you are not a writer, or artist of some kind, you probably don’t get the stress of the panic-inducing plagiarism anxiety dream. But I’ll wager that any writers reading this will shudder in fear and anxiety at the though of having such a dream themselves.

As to why I had that particular anxiety dream, well, I chalk it up to an unusually high level of stress. I don’t put much stock in dream interpretation. I see dreams as a memory function of the brain. That said, I do recognize that I tend to have these anxiety dreams at moments of heightened stress. This dream was a new wrinkle on an old theme, and it infringed on activity that almost always relieves my stress: writing.

How a FitBit Encouraged My Daily Walks

I try to walk every day. Walking is the only regular form of exercise I get these days, because it is all that I have time for. Most health authorities agree on the many benefits of daily walks. For me, the most obvious benefit has been a peace of mind. On days that I walk, I feel better, more relaxed, and more alert throughout the day.

I started taking my daily walks around the same time I got my first FitBit device in the spring of 2012. I became interested in wearable devices, like a FitBit, after reading Stephen Wolfram’s essay on “The Personal Analytics of My Life.” I am fascinated by data, and I wondered what some of the charts that Wolfram displayed in his essay would look like for me. I began a search for fitness trackers, and quickly settled on FitBit.

One of the criticisms of fitness trackers is that they discourage fitness as much as they encourage it. The focus is on a particular fitness goal (10,000 steps per day). Hitting that goal feels good, but missing the goal can stimulate strong feelings of guilt. Those feelings can turn discouraging quickly.

That isn’t what happened in my case. I was fascinated by the data I collected, and for the first year or two, I monitored the data obsessively. I started with the goal of hitting the recommended 10,000 steps/day. Then I upped it to 15,000/day. And for a long time, I achieved that goal regularly.

Over time, however, I found that I enjoyed the walks more than the numbers, and my obsession with the latter began to wane. Reviewing my blog posts in 2012 and 2013, you’ll find many more posts on my walking stats than you’ll find in the years since. What really matters to me today are the walks themselves.

At work, I try to get out at least twice a day. The most focused part of my work day tends to fall between 7-10 am. There are few interruptions. I try to avoid email. My goal during those hours is to complete the most important thing I need to get done that day. At 10 am, I go out for my first walk.

A walk around the block on which my office building resides comes to almost exactly 1 mile (just about 2,000 steps, according to my FitBit). I listen to audiobooks while I walk, which allows me to get exercise, fresh air, and read all at the same time.

I walk south to the corner, past an apartment building, and then turn west, for the most scenic part of my walk. There is part to my left and nicely landscaped apartment towers to my right. The street gradually curves to the north, and I find myself in a small retail district, with apartment complexes to my left and shop to my right. This is the single longest stretch of my walk. I walk to the far corner, and turn right, along a street that runs parallel to I-395. This is the least scenic part of my walk, and the only place where I have to pause, on occasion, for traffic. I turn one final corner and I am back on the street where my office resides, and halfway down the block, I return to my starting point.

I try to walk the block twice in the morning, and three times at lunch. It varies depending on my schedule and the weather, but for the latter, I will always try to walk so long as the weather isn’t overwhelmingly against me.

The 10 am time slot used to be inviolate, but my increasingly busy schedule has made it necessary to skip now and then. I always feel worse off on the days I skip walking, not because I am not capturing the steps, but because of the sense of peace that the walk gives me. It is familiar and comforting, and something I look forward to from the moment I wake up. On my walks I see familiar faces, I see how the neighborhood changes with the changing seasons. In the first warm days of spring, the sun feels delightfully warm on my face. In the first days of fall, the cool air is refreshing.

I suspect I would never discovered this particular joy were it not for the encouragement that my first FitBit gave me to get out and walk every day. In the last year or so, my walking has declined as my life as gotten busier, but I’ve also noticed a corresponding increase in my daily stress level. It is no longer the FitBit that encourages me to get out and walk. It is the knowledge—gained from nearly 13.9 million steps since March 2012—that I feel better when I walk every day.

There has been a pleasant side-effect to all of this. As I mentioned, I listen to audiobooks while I walk. I have read scores of books on my walks, and I am often reminded of the books as I walk. The light of mid-summer sun, as I begin a walk reminds me of the few months I spent listening to a 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Snow on the ground and my breath visible in the morning air brings to mind the early winter months when I listened to Stephen King’s Christine.

And my walks don’t stop when I am out of town. There are a few places that we go each year which have become so familiar to me that I look forward to the walks there as much as my morning walks at the office. Walking to the town in Maine that we visit in the summers is always pleasant. Walking around the circumferential bike path at my in-law’s is also pleasant, particularly because, despite being December, it is warm and sunny and gorgeous to look at.

A walk in the woods with the kids
A walk in the woods with the kids

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned, thanks to my FitBit, has nothing to do with how much I walk, how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed, or how many calories I’ve burned. The most valuable lesson is that I feel better on days that I walk than I days that I don’t. My stress level is lower, I feel more cheerful, and I feel more accomplished. That lesson has been worth the cost of the device, to say nothing of the 13.9 million steps I’ve put on it over the years.

The Perfect Storm

Last week’s blizzard turned out to be a perfect storm. Schools closed on Thursday, January 21, a full day before the storm was supposed to start, thanks to a dusting of snow on Wednesday night that everyone seemed unprepared for. Schools closed again on Friday, even though the snow wasn’t scheduled to start until 3 pm. When the snow began to fall Friday afternoon, it didn’t stop until early Sunday morning, and we ended up with over two feet.

Perfect Storm

Our kids’ school was closed for the entire week that followed.

That meant the kids were home. I was trying to work from home, but Kelly was sick, and that meant our usual task-sharing teamwork was out the window. Kelly stayed in bed to get the rest she needed, and I tried my best to keep up with work, and the kids, and the chores around the house. By Wednesday, cabin fever set in, not so much for the kids as for me.

Our cat had also been losing weight, and I grew concerned as the storm approached that if he got sick, I wouldn’t be able to get him to the vet. He made it through the storm, but stopped eating, and grew lethargic. I got him to the vet for an exam on Thursday morning, and it appeared that he was anemic and had an urinary infection that antibiotics and vitamins would take care of. I gave him the first dose of medicine Thursday evening. Fifteen minutes later, I went to check on him. He’d crawled under a table, and I wanted to bring him upstairs to our room. I pulled him out from under the table, and he didn’t resist. In fact, he had died. We broke the news to the kids Friday morning.

I can think of few times in my life when I have felt depressed. But by the end of the week, the perfect storm had gotten to me. I did my best to shake it off. We mourned for our cat. I did my best to keep the kids fed, and Kelly stocked with medication, and fluids. The Little Man raced in his first Pinewood Derby and returned to basketball Saturday morning. The Little Miss attended a birthday party Friday evening. I didn’t worry so much about the house until Sunday.

On Sunday, the temperatures were warmer, and much of the snow had melted. We could drive the car around the neighborhood, and do grocery shopping. Standing out in the warm sun on Sunday, I felt like Superman, recharging. I finally tackled the house. I dismantled the litter boxes. I vacuumed the floors, and cleaned the hardwood floors, and mopped the kitchen floor. I cleaned all of the bathrooms. I reorganized the cluttered pantry. By the end of the day, I felt more or less back to myself.

I am sure that in the years to come, the family will look back on this perfect storm with a nostalgic fondness—“Remember that time that we got 2 feet of snow, and were trapped in the house for a week!” But right now, I am just glad to have made it through to the other side. And still a little sad that our cat did not.

My Favorite Places in Los Angeles

I lived in Los Angeles from October 1983 through July 2002, just shy of 20 years. We moved to L.A. from Warwick, Rhode Island. The two places couldn’t be more different. A multiplex theater—the only one in the entire state of Rhode Island—had recently been built. It was in that theater that I saw Return of the Jedi earlier in 1983. Prior to that, we saw most new movies in Fall River, Massachusetts. Los Angeles contained Hollywood, and multiplex movie theaters were everywhere.

Initially, I was excited about the move. I was moving to Hollywood. I had only the vaguest notions of what that meant. But it was exciting nevertheless. I was also moving to a place where the weather was always warm; warm relative to New England winters, at any rate. Living in L.A. was a novelty at first, but one that quickly wore off. It wasn’t long before I found I really didn’t like L.A. My dislike was, in part, in no way L.A.’s fault. I discovered, for instance, that I liked four seasons. In Los Angeles there are only two seasons: Brown, and a brief couple of weeks of Green in the spring. I didn’t like how big L.A. felt. I didn’t like the Hollywood atmosphere for the town.

I moved back east in 2002, and now that I have been here for nearly 14 years, I have enough time and distance to appreciate some of the places in Los Angeles that I liked.

For about 8 years, I lived in Studio City, a suburb of the San Fernando Valley that sits astride the north side of the Santa Monica mountains. Studio City, and its neighboring town, Toluca Lake, felt different from nearly everywhere else I visited in Los Angeles. The houses were not crowded up against one another. There were quiet neighborhoods. The streets were not jammed with traffic. It was old Hollywood. I used to take walks that would take me past the house used in exterior shots of the Brady Bunch. Around the corner, lived the character actor, Jon Polito, and he would always wave to me as I walked by and say, “Hey fella!” Mike Farrell lived somewhere nearby and I would occasionally see him riding his Harley in jeans and a t-shirt.

Toluca Lake was another place I liked in Los Angeles. I’d often eat at the Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake. Occasionally I’d eat at the Marie Callendar’s there. It was not unusual to see someone like Bob Hope or Garry Marshall. Toluca Lake was a quiet Hollywood town. Walking through the town had a completely different feel than walking through Hollywood proper.

There were two great bookstores that I frequented. The first was Dangerous Visions on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. The other was the Iliad Bookshop at its original location in North Hollywood before it moved closer to Burbank. I could spend hours wandering around those bookstores.

I worked in Santa Monica. My office overlooked the Santa Monica Pier. I’d arrive at work early in the morning to beat the traffic. Around 7 am, I’d head out for a short walk, and I loved walked along Ocean Avenue and across Colorado early in the morning when there was no fog clinging to the Pacific ocean. Sometimes, me and friend would go running along Ocean Avenue in the evenings for exercise. There was nothing quite like jogging while the sun was setting over the ocean.

SM Pier

The commute was part of what I really hated about Los Angeles. I lived 20 miles form the office, but it could easily take 2 hours to get home in the evening. I had about 10 different ways I could go, but my absolute favorite was taking the 10 to the 405 to Mulholland. The 10 and 405 were terrible, but I looked forward to the exit ramp to Mulholland. There was almost never traffic on Mulholland. It took me across the ridge between Los Angeles and the Valley. On days when the Santa Ana winds were blowing, I could see clear across the Valley on my left, and clear into down Los Angeles and out to the ocean on my right. I’d take Mulholland to Coldwater Canyon. I loved that part of the drive.

Though I’ve lived in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area for nearly 14 years now, I haven’t found walk that I enjoy as much as my walk through the quiet streets of Studio City. Nor have I found a drive that I enjoy as much as the drive across Mulholland from the 405 to Coldwater Canyon.

Newspaper Style

One side-effect of the recent blizzard here in Northern Virginia was three days (so far) without newspaper delivery. Yesterday I resorted to reading the Washington Post online. I like getting the newspaper because it means the first thing I read each morning is not on a screen. I read so much on computer, tablet, and phone screens that I welcome any break.

This morning, I needed the newspaper. I walked up to the grocery store, navigated the icy parking lot, and picked up the Washington Post and New York Times. It was nice to sit on the couch and read through the newspapers with the sound of my neighbors digging out of the blizzard. I finished digging us out yesterday.

I prefer the newspaper to online news for several reasons:

  1. While it is not as timely as the instantaneous reporting that takes place online, there is more of sense of certainty in what I read. There has been time to check facts, for instance.
  2. I can read the obituary section and be fairly certain that if someone is reported to have died, they really have, in fact, died.
  3. The quality of writing in the newspaper is, generally speaking, better than instantaneous online news sources.

Actually, it occurred to me while reading both papers this morning that the newspapers—at least the ones that I read—have no real style to the writing. Stories in the Post and the Times adhere more or less to generic reporting style. They stick to the facts. The who, what, when, where are right there in the lead paragraph. I like this lack of style. It reminds me of Edward R. Murrow-like news reporting.

I get annoyed by articles that don’t follow this standard fact-reporting pattern. The more in-depth stories tend to deviate from this pattern, at least in the Post. I generally roll my eyes when a story begins something like this:

John Doe didn’t expect to be stuck in his car for eight hours when he left his job at Acme Corporation before the snow began to fall last night.

I suppose that the introduction of John Doe into the story is supposed to give it a more personal touch. If I wanted that, I’d watch Sunday Morning.

There are stylistic differences between papers, but they are superficial. The New York Times refers to every one as Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. I am used to seeing the obituaries in the Metro section of the Post, but the Times national editions has them at the end of the Sports section.

The writing itself in both papers is bland, but bland in this case is good. Like a textbook, the writers are reporting on the news, and the news tends to be a collection of facts, mixed with varying degrees of opinion. I am speaking here of news stories. Columns and columnists are a different matter. In a column, the writer’s unique style emerges. I have yet to find a columnist I enjoy as much as I enjoyed Al Martinez’s column in the Los Angeles Times in the early 1990s. As Martinez wrote in his last column (for the Daily News)

Good writing, as one L.A. Times publisher said when the Otis Chandler era came to an end, isn’t a requirement for newspapers anymore. My writing is just too ornate, too stylistic, too gothic and too soft for those who own newspapers.

Martinez wrote that three years ago, but I think it is still true today—at least in the big metropolitan papers.


The most devastating rejection I ever received came when I was a junior in college. I had been writing and submitting stories to magazines for about 9 months. I started a modest collection of form letter rejection slips, but already I thought of myself as a writer.

I was minoring in journalism and since journalism fell under the creative writing umbrella, I opted to take some creative writing classes as electives. One such class was a with professor Stephen Minot. I was clear from the start that I wanted to be a science fiction writer. Professor Minot came up in the literary fiction tradition. He was a fan of Raymond Carver. I can still recall him reading to us aloud Carver’s short story, “Boxes.” He could not seem to understand why I’d want to write science fiction. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would write literary fiction. I imagine many creative writing students have experienced this.

This course was a kind of buffet of writing lectures and exercises. One of these exercises was poetry. I have never thought of myself as a poet. I don’t understand most poetry, but I am much more comfortable with metered verse than I am with free verse. Naturally, our assignment was to write a free verse poem which would be critiqued by our classmates.

I wrote a poem called “Train of Thought” which was about nothing more than a train ride I’d taken once from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. In the middle of the night, as we hurtled through the desert, my brother and I were certain we could see wolves racing up to the track, and then running back, as if they were trying to chase the train. It was all in our imagination, but it kept us entertained. I wrote my free verse poem about that train ride.

When I got it back from Professor Minot, before the class critique, he was in raptures over it. I got an A+. I was surprised, but delighted to write something that the professor actually liked. I had been nervous about the class critique, and Professor Minot’s feedback boosted my confidence and made me feel good about what I’d written.

Up to this point, I’d collected perhaps a dozen rejection slips from the magazines. This included the science fiction magazines, but also magazines like Cat Fancy (“Cat Fancy does not publish fiction about cats.”) and Playboy. The thing about the rejection slips is that there was essentially an audience of two: me, and the editor or slush reader who rejected my story. No big deal. And, of course, I never took them personally.

The creative writing class critiqued my poem, and for the most part, they hated it. They tore it apart. Cheap imagery, clichéd, unclear. You name it, they said it, and the opinion was pretty much unanimous. I could deal with it. I was, after all, a writer, and I’d received real rejection slips from real magazines. It wasn’t the best critique but my ego survived.

When the last student had finished, Professor Minot turned to me, and in front of the whole class, said, “Jamie, having listened to what your classmates have said about your poem, I have reconsidered my own opinion about it. And I’m afraid I have to agree with them. It stinks.” I may be doing him an injustice here. He may have said, “It is terrible.”

The point is, he did this in front of the entire class. The class had no idea what grade he’d given me, only that he’d changed his mind about my poem, and that it was bad. That stung a little, but I smiled and sucked it up, and ultimately persevered in the class (and in my quest to sell stories). In all the rejections I have had since—whether from writing, job applications, you name it—the rejection I received that day from Professor Minot was the most devastating, and I survived it just fine.

I thought the poem I wrote for the class was lost forever, but it wasn’t. Poking around, I found it buried in an obscure corner of my file system. I reread it and I see a lot of what the class saw some 23 years ago when they critiqued it. But I believe it was the best possible poem I could have written at the time. I did not enjoy writing it, and I didn’t particularly enjoy the critique, so I haven’t written much poetry since. I am fine with this. It is important to know what you are not good at, especially when you don’t enjoy it.

In any case, here is the poem for which Professor Minot gave me an A+ on, and for which my creative writing classmates later convinced him that it was terrible.

Train of Thought

I watched closely and it followed
Though at a hundred miles and hour
I don’t know how —

Perhaps my weary eyes deceived me
Playing with the passing shadows
Of a sinking desert sun,

Which moved like a second-hand
To the clack of the tracks
Paining the desert sky
Plum pink and provocative.
I watched closely as the shadows loomed larger
And still
Caught a glimpse of its thick gray coat

Charging through the underbrush
With a billow of smoke
Puffing out its mouth from the cooling air

Which slowly darkened
With the sinking sun
Until I lost sight of it
Disappearing in the dusty shade.
I strained my eyes to watch the dark desert
For a single glimpse of what I saw,

That my eyes had not deceived me
With deserted shadows,

And the constant clack of the track.
And from the corner of my eye
I spied it, a gray coat silhouetted by a graying sun,
Peeking up from behind the passing brush

I could not sleep though the lights were out
And the stars
Were hidden above a mountain tunnel,

Where sounds grew louder
The clack of the tracks

And the howl of the whistle
Of the wolf —
But I don’t know how.

David G. Hartwell

David G. Hartwell had a profound influence on my life in science fiction three times.

The first time was in the fall of 1997. Up until that point in my life, I was not very widely read in the science fiction genre. I read deep within a very narrow band of authors. That changed over the course of a few days between September 19 – 23, 1997. I had a bad cold, and for reasons I can no longer recall, I picked up a copy of Hartwell’s Ages of Wonder at Dangerous Visions bookshop in Sherman Oaks, California, which was not far from where I lived back then. I stayed in bed with a box of Kleenex and Hartwell’s book. The effect that book had on me is best described by looking at what I read in the year leading up to it, and what I read in the month or so after finishing it.

Reading pre-Hartwell

And here are the books I read after finished Hartwell’s book about science fiction:

Reading after Hartwell

For the first time, I realized that science fiction a literary movement that went far beyond futuristic adventure stories. Since reading Ages of Wonder, my reading within (and without) the genre has been much more varied.

The second time took place more than a decade later. Kelly was pregnant with our first child, and I was nervous. I needed something to take my mind off the nervousness that I was feeling. Remembering what a revelation Ages of Wonder had been, I got a copy of Hartwell and Kramer’s The Hard S. F. Renaissance, and began reading. We traveled down to Florida that December, and I can remember sitting by the beach, unable to put down that massive book. I read, for the first time, such standout stories as “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress, “Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson, “Marrow” by Robert Reed, and many more. For the second time, Hartwell jarred my perception of science fiction, and what science fiction could do. By then, I had published a couple of stories, but it wasn’t until after reading that book, that I tried doing more with my own stories—and began selling to places like Analog.

The third time Hartwell influenced me was when I saw him on a panel or two at Readercon. He always came across as extremely knowledgeable, down-to-earth, and funny. He made it look easy, and that helped me when I started doing panels at conventions. I sat beside him on at least one panel at Capclave, years ago. I can no longer remember the subject of the panel, but sitting up there on the panel with him, I was distracted the entire time. I kept thinking, I’m sitting on a panel with David G. Hartwell!

All of this came to mind yesterday after receiving the sad news that David Hartwell had suffered a brain bleed, and was unlikely to recover. He has shaped modern science fiction and has influenced thousands of writers far more talented than I.

This morning my thoughts are with Kathryn Cramer, and David’s family and many, many friends.

7 Hollywood Memoirs

A while back I mentioned my reading for guilty pleasure. I enjoy Hollywood memoirs. I particularly enjoy audiobooks read by the author. I mentioned, back in December, that I was reading a Dick Van Dyke memoir, and that I hoped to get through few of these Hollywood memoirs while I was on vacation.

Since that post, I’ve finished seven Hollywood memoirs. They are:

  1. My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business by Dick Van Dyke
  2. Keep Moving, and Other Tips and Truths about Aging by Dick Van Dyke
  3. I Remember Me by Carl Reiner
  4. I Just Remembered by Carl Reiner
  5. This Time Together by Carol Burnett
  6. Even This I Get to Experience by Normal Lear
  7. My Happy Days in Hollywood by Garry Marshall

Something about each of these Hollywood personalities resonated with me. Experience has taught me that any memoir has to be taken with a grain of salt. Yet the personalities that come through in these seven books seem genuine. They display their good sides and bad. They are forthcoming with their successes and failures. And each and and ever one of the authors came across as down-to-earth. Perhaps that is because every one of the authors is at least an octogenarian. They are, as of this writing, all still alive, and all still active, and that can certainly have an effect on one’s perspective on life. Many of them are on Twitter. Carl Reiner and Norman Lear are virtually tied for being the oldest active celebrities on Twitter. After reading the memoirs I started following both of them, and it delightful to see them in my Twitter stream.

There is a natural evolution to the way I read the books. I started with Dick Van Dyke because he was the most familiar to me. Reading his memoir, made me want to read more about Carl Reiner, who wrote, directed, and produced the Dick Van Dyke show. Carol Burnett had ties to both of them. Norman Lear was mentioned numerous times in the volumes, and so I had to read his book—which was the longest of the bunch by far. And then, of course, there was Garry Marshall. I saw him once, entering a Marie Callendar’s in Toluca Lake near where I used to live. I was in the Marie Callendar’s at the time, and I thought it astonishing that someone of Marshall’s stature would eat in a place like that. Of course, I would have known better had his memoir been published 15 or 20 years ago.

One more thing resonated with me about all 5 of the people who wrote these 7 memoirs: they were all hard workers. Hollywood types are often portrayed as laid back, but not these five. Perhaps it is because of the time they came up in Hollywood, or perhaps it is because they are all multi-talented, but reading the memoirs made it clear that none of them sat back on their laurels. I am always impressed with people who can pack so much into their day.

It turned out that reading these memoirs was far more than a guilty pleasure for me. And I did not want it to end. So I’ve decided to keep it going, at least for a little while longer. I am now well into Tim Conway’s memoir What’s So Funny? My Hilarious Life.

Letters: An Obituary

I have been writing and receiving email for more than 22 years. When I got started with email, it was manageable. I could read every message I received, and respond to it on the same day. Today it is impossible to keep up. I used to try, and it stressed me out when I fell behind. I don’t bother anymore. I do the best I can and if things fall through the cracks, so be it.

Every now and then, writing and reading email makes me years for good old-fashioned letters. I can’t remember the first time I wrote a letter, but it is now probably close to ten years since I’ve written—or received1—one. I loved letter writing. My most frequent correspondent was my grandfather. His letters were always great, and together our letters formed a leisurely dialog that took place over a period of months or years. This is opposite the rushed, terse conversations that take place in email messages.

Letter from Grandpa

Email lacks voice, and attempts to inject voice in email are often met with disdain or confusion. In letters, one could find a voice of one’s own, and hear the voice of one’s correspondent when reading their letters.

My grandfather’s letters came in two forms: handwritten, and typewritten. The handwritten letters were illegible, and it took me hours to parse my way through them. Eventually, I got good at reading his letters, although it has been so long that I am a bit out of practice today. For some reason, his typewritten letters were written in ALL CAPS. He used the Royal Quiet Comfort DeLuxe manual typewriter that I own today to compose these letters. Though I never asked him, I suppose he used ALL CAPS because it was easier on his eyes.

Receiving a letter in the mail was a delight. Anticipation of a letter was also a delight. I don’t know about you, but I don’t wake up in the morning in anticipation of the email that I’ll find in my inbox.

It occurs to my that my kids are likely to grow up not knowing what it is like to compose a letter, or to receive a letter in the mail. Already, they skip the email step and, when they want me to check with Kelly on some point they are contesting, they say, “Daddy, just text mommy, okay?”

Today, the idea of sending a letter seems quaint. There was a time, a decade ago, when some friends of mine moved back to their home state of North Dakota. For a while, we carried on a correspondence through the mails, even though we could have done so much more easily through email. Moreover, we wrote our letters longhand. Perhaps half a dozen letters passed between us before the correspondence faded. Facebook had arrived by then, and we had another way to follow one another’s lives. Almost overnight letters became obsolete.

I miss letters, writing them and receiving them. But I feel lucky to have lived through the final phase of their existence as a tool for keeping friends and family abreast of the goings-on in one’s life.

Letters still exist, of course. They will never completely die off. Still, the only letters I get these days are from banks, all of which seem to be trying to convince me to refinance my mortgage at a historical low rate—which turns out, suspiciously, to be higher than the rate I am currently paying.

For these letters, I think we can all agree, the time has come to lay them to rest.

  1. The exception is holiday letters, of which I still get one or two a year.