Calculated Cuts

For some reason I can’t quite remember, I decided to count all my books. Of course, it was only ever going to be a rough estimate. I’m convinced the books move around when they so desire, just like the Rollright Stones, so you never get a true accounting. Still, I gave it my best shot. It was upward of 2000 on the first and second floors, but not counting the attic. In this book count, I didn’t count the electronic books. There are a few thousand more of those.

Now some of these belong to my husband who has a formidable science fiction collection. His collection includes many classics and some books that are truly awful. I, on the other hands, have a lot of mysteries. I’ve given away many of the ones I’ve already read, and some that are part of a series, I’ve borrowed from the library. When I used to fly a lot for work, I’d buy a book in a series, read it on the plane and at the hotel, then leave it behind for someone else.

It occurred to me during this exercise of counting books that a lot of the ones in my house I had never read, and some I had only scanned. So for the new year and here around my 70th birthday, I have decided it’s time to start making my way through the paper books at least, then consider giving away any that aren’t necessary references. So far I’m on my seventh gardening book.

I had no idea I had so many gardening books. I’m learning a lot, and kind of wonder why I hadn’t read these sooner. It could have saved me a lot of time, effort, and failure. One of the books that has really impressed me is Pruning Made Easy. These books have taught me that pruning isn’t just keeping the size of your plants under control, it’s increasing their productivity. You gotta cut to be kind. And you know where this is going, don’t you? Yep, editing writing has much the same effect. Not just cutting down on the hyperbole but making everything more direct and concise.

Now, I have to qualify this cutting down with the qualifier: I have been known to write like a scientist–just the facts without description, discussion, explanation, and all the other stuff that makes reading a story interesting. The trick in both pruning and editing is not to cut the good stuff or too much, but just the stuff that needs to be cut. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a good editor is worth their weight in whatever you’re willing to pay. The same can be said for a good tree surgeon.

So I’ve been pruning my blueberries (I was wondering why their yield had dropped so much), and anything else that can be pruned this time of year. I’ve been offering my services to a friend as a proof reader (he pays in barbecue). I’ve been doing some writing that I am editing as I go and again after it rests for a bit. I’m doing some indoor gardening and lots and lots of reading.

After the gardening books, on to the horse books. That may not be until well into spring. Did I mention I have a lot of gardening books?

Image: Tools by Marilyn Evans

In the Dark

I haven’t been able to write for a while. You may have noticed. Or not. I’ve been in the dark–the dark of winter, the dark of the pandemic, the dark night of the soul.

Winter has come with too little rain or snow, too much cold, too few encounters with my fellow humans. Over three hundred thousand people have died from the pandemic. My husband and I are refusing invitations, trying to be safe, trying to be responsible, though we so want to see our family and friends. The holidays should make it brighter, but this is the first Yule season without my good friend who was killed in the spring.

And I’ve been wondering about writing. Do I even like writing? Writers say they write because they have to. I don’t really have to. Anyway, it doesn’t seem like I have to. Am I really any good at it? Should I even be bothering? I had planned to work hard in November, but more than a week into December I still couldn’t get started. Is it time to just stop?

Still, in the darkness of this season of festivals of light, it’s not so very dark. I’ve sent cards and cookies and gifts, called people, stayed in touch by social media. I’ve gotten through my Buffy the Vampire Slayer binge watch, and it wasn’t as dark as I remembered it. I’ve been working my way through all my gardening books, because it will be spring again some day. There is a vaccine for the virus, and it’s already in use.

And the writing? I get a regular newsletter that has calls for submissions. One of my stories seemed like a good fit for a call. It was ultimately rejected, but had made it all the way to the final round. I got the nicest rejection letter I’ve ever had.That encouraged me to send it out again. Another one of the magazines, published four times a year, uses the same opening line for all the stories in that issue. The February issue’s opening line intrigued me. I wrote a story. I polished it, adjusted it, sent it to a friend for review, polished some more and sent it off. It was fun. I enjoyed the writing and the editing and the submission process. It might get rejected, but maybe, just maybe, I’m not done writing quite yet.

Maybe the darkness is lifting. We’ll see where I stand a week or two after the Solstice. I bet the world will be just a little bit lighter.

The Variable Muse

My muse can be a pain in the butt. Anyone who has a cat can sympathize—sometime around four in the morning, or some other equally inconvenient time, I’ll get a poke, poke, poke. Cats usually want food, to crawl under the covers, petting. string pulling—cat things. Muses want to tell you their ideas. The following is a nearly word for word conversation between the pain-in-the-butt and me. Nearly.

“Are you awake?”

“No.”

“Yes, you are.”

“I wasn’t until you poked me.”

“Yeh, but you are now. So, I have this great idea for a story.”

“I’m trying to sleep.”

“Yeh, but it’s a great idea. It goes like this.”

And off she goes. Sleep is a distant memory. Sometimes it really is a great idea—or at least it seems to be at four in the morning. It needs work. The details need to be hammered out. That takes thought and time. By six I’m up and writing. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But she is a persistent bugger. And if I ignore her, she gets huffy and doesn’t speak to me for a long, long time. That is a bad thing. A very bad thing.

She is extremely unreliable, my muse. If I court her and pursue her and beg her for her attention, she pretty much blows me off. Worst of all, she’ll sometimes show up when I’m having a party night, and if I’m drunk, so is she. She has great ideas. She pokes me. I write them down. If I am sane, I wait until I’m sober to look them over again. A drunk muse is not a dependable muse. Never, never write a story and submit it while drunk. That way lies embarrassment. Yes, I have done it. Only the once, and thank goodness the editor politely told me to take a flying leap. Otherwise I would have publicly embarrassed myself and her. My muse and I had a stern discussion after that.

I’m not sure where she gets her ideas. She might be stealing them from other writers. Maybe that’s where she goes when she’s gone for so long. Maybe she’s hanging out in a bar with other muses, trading ideas, brainstorming, eavesdropping. Sometimes I wish she’d steal ideas from a better class of writer. But I suspect it’s not her inspirations that are wanting but my weakness as a writer. She does her best.

Two nights ago she poked me. I did not want to be awake. She had this story. It was good. It was really good. I mulled it and chewed on it, wrestled it to the ground, beat it into submission, coaxed it, coddled it, and got it all written down. I waited a little while, then reread it and adjusted it. I sent it to a friend. He had great suggestions. I fixed it. Then I fixed it some more. Then I sent it away. It may flop. It might get published. But my muse, for all her being so annoying, really came through.

Now if she would just get back to work on the novel I’m currently trying to write. But like I said, unreliable.

Image: Muses partying. Source unknown.

Strange Past Times

Pandemics make for peculiar past times.  My friend, Chris, is making Viking grease horns for her needles and tying knots around bottles. Besides the usual writing and the more mundane gardening, I’m reading tarot cards and cataloging my weeds.

You may recall, I was the crazy cucumber lady last year; this time it’s tomatoes I’m inflicting on anyone who will hold still. I have promising cantaloupe vines, but the fruit seems to be slow to ripen. I suspect my impatience and not the vines is the issue here. 

This year for the first time, I have a butterfly garden. Among my guests have been a tiger swallowtail and a pair of monarchs. It’s also a favorite hiding place for the yard bunny.  I don’t usually realize she’s there until I water and she runs out, all indignant. I don’t mind deviling the chipmunks, but I really don’t like terrorizing the bunny. You know my opinion of squirrels.

My yard is really good at growing brush but the traditional edibles have been struggling. In fact, all the fruit trees in the neighborhood are bare. It will be a lean year for some of the creatures who rely on them. But you can always count on the poke weed to have fruit, little poison bombs the birds eat with impunity but that can kill a human (the seeds are the poison part). My chokecherry tree had a lot of fruit, too. The birds got all of it, but I don’t begrudge them. It makes lovely jam, but I have jam enough for now.

If you remember that the apocalypse I have always been preparing for is retirement, you’ll appreciate that I’ve discovered many of those weeds in my yard are culinary, medicinal, and otherwise useful. It’s weird how much we don’t use these days that in the past were the stuff of home remedies and the dinner table. But while chicory and dandelion root coffee may be interesting, I think I’ll pass for now. I’m not that desperate yet. Still, all this is useful fodder for writing. Especially the poisons. Always gotta love the poisons if you plan on writing mysteries. Did you know…never mind. Wouldn’t want to give bad ideas to anyone stir crazy from quarantine.

As for the writing, it’s had its ups and downs. Last night I wrote a really terrible flash fiction piece. In fairness, I was quite drunk. I’ve got to stop writing drunk. It may have worked for Hemingway, but I need all my wits to keep from embarrassing myself. If somehow that story ever escapes into the wild (it’s about taking a van to the apocalypse), promise me you’ll ignore it.

It’s being fun releasing a chapter at a time of The Gingerbread House. I’m making final edits as I go, and it’s good to revisit it from a distance. I don’t know how the experience is for the readers (drop me a line and let me know, if you are reading it), but I’m liking it even better now than I did before.

That’s how I’m doing. Now back to the tarot and my weeds.

Image: Butterfly garden. By Marilyn Evans

Plague Journal

As I’ve said before, my survivalist and prepping interests have always been to prepare me for the impending disaster, not of nuclear war or a solar flare or the zombie apocalypse–but for the disaster that will be my retirement. If I don’t manage to have enough savings or investments or social security to feed my husband, myself and the cats, the disaster will be right there in our faces. Turns out, the disasters have hit a bit sooner than I expected, so I’ve upped my timeline. Toward the goal of being less dependent on the world at large that is failing to provide, I’ve started by analyzing my yard. As Euell Gibbons used to say, many parts are edible. I’ve been amazed at the variety of medicinals and edibles merrily jumping out of the ground that most people would be dumping weed killer on. On top of that, the herbs I’m growing, especially basil, seem to cure everything. If I have food and medicine covered, what’s next?

Since I’m planning on being in quarantine until there is a safe and effective vaccine (for the sake of the at-risk people I might infect if I should get sick), I’m staying in and trying to keep from dying of boredom. I genuinely believe people can die of boredom. It’s caused me to leave more than one job. Our first line of news, education, and entertainment is probably the television followed closely by the computers and magazines and newspapers. But my greatest source of comfort is reading a book–paper, electronic, audio, it doesn’t matter. Besides, as so many writers have said, you have to read to write. I’m chest deep in reading material right now. My husband is slightly horrified at how many books I currently have piled on my desk. That happens when you’re trying to research more than one topic at the same time.

The library has a reserve and pick up service so, like your favorite takeout meals, I can carry out books I want to read. Right now, among others, I’m reading Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. While it was published in 2016, and covers Milwaukee, I figured it would be relevant to our times of people not being able to pay rent or mortgages. Even with eviction moratoriums, homelessness is coming. Already the park across the street from my house has more homeless people camping out in it. One has a dog. One has a scooter. I’m not sure what will become of them when winter comes. Maybe by winter things will be better, but that’s not the way I’m going to bet. I worry about these people a lot. As for us, for a retirement present, my husband paid off the mortgage. If we keep up the taxes and don’t have a tornado, earthquake, fire, or gas explosion, we’ve got a place to sleep.  The way 2020 is going, I’ll keep my fingers crossed, even though it makes typing tough.

Then there are family and friends, essential survival resources for sanity and humanity. My mom is in lock down in an assisted living facility. I call. It’s not the same as visiting. My neighbors are cautious about visiting at a distance. We chat across yards and streets. My friends post on Facebook. I’ve seen a couple of them in person, carefully after self quarantine when there was any chance of exposure. We chat on the phone or by e-mail. It’s not the same.

And finally, the other essential of survival, useful employment, to keep up my sense of self worth. I’m writing. Finally. The pandemic took several months away from me, but I’m finally writing again. I eased back in with non-fiction, but I’m working on fiction again. I’m posting The Gingerbread House as a serial on tapas.io, and I finally know what the sequel is going to look like. You may have noticed (or not) that I haven’t been blogging much. It’s hard to know what to say when you’re not writing and everything you want to say seems so bleak. But here it is, my current survival status. I hope you’re surviving as well. I worry about you. It’s what I do. And I write.

Image: Basil, a universal cure? By Marilyn Evans

Doing Good

In 1902, the Agriculture Department’s Chief Chemist, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, began what he called “hygienic table trials,” but soon the Washington Post reporter George Rothwell Brown came up with the name The Poison Squad. Dr. Wiley was attempting to prove that additives and adulterants in everyday foods were unsafe and unhealthy. In doing so, he took on powerful industries and their bought-and-paid-for government supporters. It took years of fighting, issuing reports, doing the right thing, but it wasn’t until Sinclair Lewis published The Jungle in 1906 that headway was finally made. Dr. Wiley’s story is told in Deborah Blum’s book, The Poison Squad, and in the  documentary based on the book (you can watch it in it’s entirety at the American Experience website https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/poison-squad/).

One of the many things that disturbs me is that over one hundred years later, the same excuses are being used to prevent doing the right thing. The arguments go: changes will adversely affect business, it’s too expensive, the people advocating for change are misguided radicals or alarmists, and other common protests. Special interests still buy off politicians, seek to cut funding to watchdog groups, delay, sue, ignore the law–whatever it takes to not do the right thing.

Writers have a unique opportunity to draw attention to bad behavior. Certainly journalists and writers of exposés do this, but writers of fiction sometimes make far more headway in capturing the attention of the public, raising awareness, and calling people to action. Sinclair’s novel was written to draw attention to the inhumane working conditions of the meat packing industry, but in exposing it his disclosures inspired  changes in hygienic practices. Science fiction writers have a long history of asking questions, proposing worst case scenarios, making us look at ourselves and the people we trust but maybe shouldn’t. Fiction puts us in the story so we can see the real costs of failure to do good.

I feel strongly that truth has great value, that lies once told take on a life of their own and can cause real harm. I believe doing the right thing s may sometimes be difficult but is never the wrong way to go. I am proud that my writing has been included in the anthology Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change. I am proud to be one of the voices saying, take notice, this is important, we need to act. It is my personal goal to always try to write with truth and compassion. Though I may not always succeed, I will always try to do good.

Image: The Members of The Poison Squad. THE U.S. FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION/FLICKR/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Why We Walk

My friend, Chris, used to read Lord of the Rings in its entirety every autumn. She stopped for a while, but is back to it this year, although she started later than usual and is reading it through the winter. The appeal to me of LOTR is the journey. I’ve always loved any story that involves a long trek on foot. I have the same passion for movies that depict grand journeys.

Sometimes the algorithms work, and Amazon Prime offers you movies like the ones you just watched that might interest you. That’s how I got sucked into watching several documentaries on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the Camino de Santiago, the Hayduke Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and others. What I’ve found interesting about the people who take on these really long journeys is why they do them. Often they are looking for something, usually wildly different somethings. Some are looking to escape, some to spend serious time inside their own heads, some are running toward something. I don’t think anyone who starts one of these great treks is the same person when the journey is done. All of them seem to find something, but it isn’t always what they expected to find when they started.

There was a time when I would have aspired to hike one of these trails, but old age and sin have taken their toll, so not likely in this lifetime. That’s not to say I won’t try something less ambitious–the Katy Trail, perhaps. Maybe I haven’t started one because I don’t have a good enough reason yet. Just walking to walk doesn’t seem like sufficient justification to ignore everyone and everything and walk for a couple of weeks, although a walk across Missouri in the spring seems like a pretty good reason all by itself.

Of course, I can’t help but make a comparison to why we write. I suppose there are as many reasons to write as to walk. The beauty of crafting words is perhaps comparable to scanning a spectacular vista. Spending days inside your own head, plumbing the depths might reveal the means and motives of a character. Writing for redemption, for amusement, for adventure, to find out who we are.

I’m not sure I’ve taken the really grand trek in my writing yet. In many ways, I feel like I’m still at the trail head. But as I write more, I think I’ll be moving on down the road, and perhaps some day, when I’ve reached a stopping point, I’ll have found something transformative. And when I do, I promise to share.

And speaking of writing, I’ve just read the final proof of my novella, “Wasting Water”, that is due out this spring in the anthology Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change. It’s been a long time coming, but finally seems to be on its way.

Image: Chris and Marilyn walking at Dragonfest in Colorado, 1999. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Only God Can Make a Tree

I’ve probably mentioned this before–when I was a scientist, I saw a tree as a living entity with a paleobotanical history, a structure, metabolism, reproductive cycle. In short, I loved it as only a botanist could. Then I learned to oil paint. Suddenly I had new eyes, artist eyes. Now I saw a tree as texture and light and shadow and a play of color that changed with the changes of the day. I had learned to love it as only an artist could.

But I have recently acquired a new addiction. I have discovered woodworking. I’ve flirted with it for a while, but with the aid and abetting of my husband, I’ve begun to acquire the tools, the patterns, the materials for yet another hobby. And I have begun to see trees in yet another way. That dead branch doesn’t have to be fire wood. It could be almost anything. I just never knew it before, I could never see with a woodworker’s eyes until now.

We all know knowledge is a dangerous thing. It makes us do crazy stuff. It opens worlds. For a writer, the fun part is often that once you know the things you get the joy of telling someone else about them. They say write what you know, but learning, research can lead to a whole new “what you know.” And once you know, don’t you have to share?

One of my favorite mystery writers, the late Dick Francis, worked with his wife who apparently loved doing research. Mr. Francis started writing his stories in the racing world, a world he knew well. But later he  and his wife took me into other amazing worlds, each one described in a way that drew me in, convinced me he knew what he was talking about.

Lately I’ve gotten a little crazy about learning new things. I’ve been experimenting with “going back to school”, but by way of home schooling. It’s like this: every day I spend an hour studying Spanish, an hour in gym class (exercising followed by yoga), then at least an hour writing (English class). Home Economics is all the cooking and other household chores. That leaves time for Science–watching “Nova” or some other appropriate video– then Shop when I do my woodworking. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish in a day if you’ve got a schedule. Not sure how long I can keep this up. I might become a drop out, but so far, I’m having a lot of fun.

I like having all these eyes. I like seeing things in a new way, and I like how old things, old friends like trees, become new again. The trick is the sharing part, sharing well and letting everyone else have the fun of discovery.

Enough English and writing. It’s time for shop.

Image: Sunset through trees. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Creating Legacy

I just finished reading Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik of Wired magazine and his wife, Monica Murphy, who has degrees in public health and veterinary medicine. The book is entirely fascinating, but one of my favorite parts was the description of Louis Pasteur and all his work with vaccines. I always knew Pasteur was awesome, but I never realized how totally awesome. His legacy includes vaccines for anthrax, rabies, and (with a significant contributions by Emile Roux) chicken cholera, not to mention saving the French wine industry, as well as establishing the method for purifying and protecting food that bears his name: Pasteurization. Add to this his establishing the Institut Pasteur and all that it has accomplished both during his life and since his death, and you can’t help but be impressed.

Within the same day of finishing Rabid, I came upon a story about J.K. Rowling and what is likely to be her legacy. Beyond the beloved Harry Potter universe she has created, she has donated hundreds of thousands of her millions to charities, especially those that preserve families and aid orphans. Being someone who knows what struggling to survive is like, she is giving back in a significant way. I contrast this with the probable legacy of another extremely rich person recently in the news–Jeffrey Epstein. I think that people will not remember him as fondly.

I’m not sure people think much about their legacies. In a television program I like a lot called “A Craftsman’s Legacy”, the host, Eric Gorges, asks each person he spends time with two questions: do you consider yourself a craftsman or an artist; and, do you think about your legacy. Some folks are conscious of what they are leaving behind. Someone who creates a body of work or has trained a lot of students tends to have an awareness of their effect on the world and that it will linger after they have gone. Some people think about their children as a legacy who will carry on their genes and names, their looks and maybe their mannerisms, perhaps even their businesses and skills. But whether we realize it or not, everything we do “leaves a mark,” and people don’t often act as though they understand that. Abuse often begets abuse as families of abusers can attest. Kindness and generosity, often the same. I see my father in my family members and hear his humor and turns of phrase. He was a man who loved his children unconditionally, and I’m happy to say I think that legacy survives in his children and in the people whose lives he touched.

I’m not sure what my legacy will be. Nothing from my days as a researcher is significant as far as I know, but at least a few people lived and didn’t die because of things I did in the lab. I have some writing, fiction and non fiction, that may last a while, for better or worse. I have had students, and they have had students, so I think that’s good. It’s hard to say what will survive after we are gone. I’m no Pasteur or Rowling, but I hope my legacy will balance on the side of leaving things better rather than worse after I’m gone. Maybe between now and when I fall off my perch, I can add to that legacy in a positive way. Best get on it.

Image: Stable dog (not rabid) at Harrowway House, Penton Mewsey, Hampshire, UK. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong

“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” Popular Mechanics (1949).

The wonderful actor, Rutger Hauer, died recently. I’ve loved him in so many movies, but Lady Hawke and Blade Runner are two my friends have been talking about a lot. In Blade Runner (made in 1982), Mr. Hauer plays Roy Batty, a replicant or bio-engineered being. The film takes place in 2019 Los Angeles. Some people are noting Rutger and his character, Roy, died in the same year. The film has flying cars, bio-engineered people and animals, and references to mining operations in outer space. Here in the real 2019, we don’t much have those things. Blade Runner was based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, first published in 1968. Dick’s version of Los Angeles was post nuclear war, and the story takes place in 1992, then in later editions, in 2021. So far, we’ve avoided nuclear war, and we still don’t have replicant pets, although cloning is making strides.

Sometimes stories of the future get it wrong, sometimes they get it right. Sinclair Lewis, in his 1938 novel It Can’t Happen Here, was probably thinking about Huey Long when he wrote his story of a potential totalitarian regime in America, but the satire bears an uncanny resemblance to the rise and rule of Donald Trump.  Orwell, Huxley, Wells, and Verne got some things right, perhaps more right than most other science fiction and futurist writers, but predicting the future and how we will live in it is hard. Some things we think will change don’t or do so very slowly, other things change at an unimaginable pace. Dick Tracy’s two way wrist radio, introduced in 1946, is a more accurate description of today’s technology than many science fiction stories of a similar era.

Even near future predictions can be tricky. Throughout the 1950’s, we all expected nuclear war, nuclear accidents, and the results these things would bring. We weren’t expecting global climate change. Now that we’re experiencing it, we may still get things wrong. In my novella, Wasting Water, I was expecting massive droughts throughout the United States. Instead, we seem to be having floods, followed by droughts followed by severe storms, excessive heat, excessive cold, and who knows what next? The droughts may come and stay yet, but it’s hard to predict. It would be nice to be right, but I wouldn’t wish that on my planet.

In 1949, it was hard to predict that computing would become what it is today, not a 1.5 ton machine, but portable, readily available, and ubiquitous. I often wonder what breakthrough will make the next unpredictable leap in technology, the next science fiction moment. It may be decades in the future, or maybe just around the corner. Perhaps we’ll get those flying cars yet. After all, we got our Star Trek communicators.

Image: Even with Abby standing on them, none of my computers weighs 1.5 tons. By Marilyn Evans.