Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Neal Stephenson on Writing

Structuring my life would be so much simpler if I never needed sleep. Then I would have time enough to balance paying work, essential writing, and relationships.

From SFSite:

With the Web, it's hour by hour, day by day. I would go crazy trying to track all those conversations. I prefer big projects that let you totally focus on them for a long time. I like the rhythm of being a writer. People leave you alone for a few years. When the book comes out, there is a big burst of attention. Then it's over and I can concentrate on another project. I usually take about two years to write a book. I like the sense of a large project.

And from his own austere web page:

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can't concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can't do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless.

Another factor in this choice is that writing fiction every day seems to be an essential component in my sustaining good mental health. If I get blocked from writing fiction, I rapidly become depressed, and extremely unpleasant to be around. As long as I keep writing it, though, I am fit to be around other people. So all of the incentives point in the direction of devoting all available hours to fiction writing.

Saturday, April 26, 2003

Hmm, Just Like My Cat

Gabriel. You're most like the ArchAngel of
Communication, in charge of things like
telephones, libraries, internet, and the 411
phone menu. You're organised and are not shy
about inflicting that organisation on others.

Which ArchAngel are you most like?
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Immortalized in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations

You are the Dead Parrot Sketch. Very funny, a bit
dark and definitely a classic.

Which Monty Python's Flying Circus Sketch are You?
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Uber-cool, circa 1999

I'm writing this in a coffee shop while sipping a raspberry mocha. The wireless card and the laptop are a major success with me. I downloaded iTunes 2 today, too, so I can take some mp3 disks with me on my trip East. (Plus a few movies on DVD.)

I realize I am a few years out of date on the high-tech stuff -- if I were really cool, I would have a 30-gig iPod and a TiBook running Jaguar or that monster with the 17-inch screen. But what can I say? This is as cool as I can manage. And I am genuinely happy being able to take my writing anywhere.

Happy is good. Let us savor it.

Oh, and this is the first entry into the blog from the new laptop. Well, new to me. Thanks to the magic of Craigslist, I found someone selling a four-year-old PowerBook well below market price. He threw in all sorts of goodies as well, including a wireless card, a couple of spare batteries, not one but two power cords, and a little fabric swatch to lay on the keyboard so it wouldn't damage the screen. It's an amazing machine, slim and light, and it means I can actually *write* during the Thursday and Sunday NaNoWriter sessions, and when I'm away from home or at other times when I want to take the laptop with me.

Also, because of the wireless card, I can at last get my own email from my own computer, instead of surfing the web and reading email from Michele's. All in all, a wonderful toy.

Friday, April 25, 2003

“Heaven, I’m in Heaven. . .”

One of the joys of Silicon Valley has been the local library system. Not only do I live within a few miles of a decent branch library, the catalog for the entire system is online. I can search or browse their website for a book, audiobook, movie, or CD. If it’s not available at my local branch (or even if it is), I can put it on hold, and they’ll let me know when it comes in. Nobody else can check it out while it’s on hold for me. I can renew books online, too, and check how much I owe in late fees. (A lot less these days, since I can renew books online.)

When I go to the library to pick up my books, I can check them out myself at a bar-code reader station. (Instructions are posted in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese.) The library is always busy with people of all ages, and I believe there are after-school tutoring and read-aloud times for kids. There’s a good ongoing book sale in the lobby. Plus, library users have access to computers for writing resumes or school papers or surfing the Internet. And of course there are terminals for catalog searching.

There is only one way they could have improved the system, as far as I’m concerned, and they have done it. Since I do a great deal of esoteric research, I’ve lamented my lack of access to a university library. I haven’t gotten in to Stanford Library or any of the other great universities nearby. Now, the San Jose city library system is joining forces with San Jose State University. In August, a new main library will open downtown, the first in the nation to be jointly operated by a city and university. And yes, ordinary people like me will get access to the luscious university collections. I can order those books online, too. This is heaven for a scholar. I can't wait.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Tuesday, April 22, 2003


In a little more than two weeks, I’ll get on the red-eye to Baltimore/Washington International (change planes in Chicago). And then for a glorious six days, I’ll be home. My whole family is gathering to see Grandma for Mother’s Day. We’ll be taking pictures of our five living generations, all in the female line: Grandma, Ma, my sister Lisa, my niece Christy, and her baby Jessica.

I want to spend time with my mother and sisters. I want to see my home landscape, to revel in the colors and shapes of the hills and fields, the smell of the dirt, the voices of the people. I haven’t been back East in nearly a year, since Michele and I went out for Rachel’s wedding, and we spent a lot of that trip in deepest West Virginia, which may be lovely but isn’t where I came from. A week at home will water those thirsty roots and (I hope) provide the inspiration to finish the novel — and yeah, maybe time enough to work on it, at least in my mind. And the rarest of gifts, time alone, away from work and away from everyone else.

I’ll have a rental car, so I will have the solitude and freedom I crave, as well as the chance to see family. And I’ll get to drive all over Eastern Pennsylvania, with excursions as far north as Ithaca (to stay over with Lisa) and as far south as Lothien, Maryland, where I will leave flowers at Diane’s grave. I’ve got a couple of disposable cameras, so I can take lots of pictures. I’ll take lots of cool music to listen to while I drive — and if I can find it, the copy of Roadside Geology of Pennsylvania I always used to keep in the car.

And after a week, I will gladly get on the plane and fly west again. I love Pennsylvania with an unreasonable, even ridiculous passion. My roots are there. I can no more help loving it than I can change the color of my eyes — it’s that deeply embedded, and tearing it out of my flesh would be like tearing out my eyes. But I love Northern California too, landscape, people, culture. Recently, considering the possibility of leaving, I’ve come to grips with the depth and ferocity of my commitment to a place I had never seen six years ago.

I am not sure I ever could leave here. It’s not the warm weather or endless sunshine. I love the cloudy days too. It isn’t even just the trees and hills, vividly beautiful as they are. It’s that somehow I am home here. My Califamily keeps me here, and my friends, my church, my sense that as a geek I’ve finally found a place where who I am is normal — a word I have never been able to apply to myself anywhere else in my life.

Although I was born there, I’ve always loved Pennsylvania as an outsider, with the heartbroken yearning reserved for the unreachable. I love California with the joyous certainty of a bride. It’s mine, and I belong here.

Friday, April 18, 2003

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Gathering the Scraps, Part Two

"If we understood the value of Sumerian cuneiform tablets to our past, as we do with oil getting us somewhere in our cars, I don't think this would have happened," Gary Vikan, who just resigned as one of Bush's cultural advisors. (He's also director of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.)

Yes, two of Bush's top cultural advisors have resigned over the looting of the museums. We promised to protect the cultural heritage of the place where civilization began, but we didn't. Instead, it seems professional art thieves were standing in line in Baghdad to get their hands on the solid-gold harp, the Code of Hammurabi, and the ivory figurines that are among the missing treasures.

Here are some photos of the murdered museum. The BBC has covered the issue in detail, including the Pentagon's admission that they hadn't even bothered to prepare to protect the antiquities. The commentary discusses why these artifacts (spelled "artefacts" by our British friends) are important.

Yesterday I quoted from a takeoff of Beowulf. Do you know why we even have Beowulf? The only known manuscript survived a disastrous fire at the aptly named Ashburnham House. Much else was lost.

Our cultural treasures embody powerful ideas, but all too often they are fragile to the touch. We need to protect them at every level: guarding the grand museum collections from armed mobs, defending the writers and sellers of dangerous works from censorship, arrest, and death.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Grendel's Dog, from Beocat

Brave Beocat, brood-kit of Ecgthmeow,
Hearth-pet of Hrothgar in whose high halls
He mauled without mercy many fat mice,
Night did not find napping nor snack-feasting.
The wary war-cat, whiskered paw-wielder,
Bearer of the burnished neck-belt, gold-braided collar band,
Feller of fleas fatal, too, to ticks;
The work of wonder-smiths, woven with witches' charms,
Sat on the throne -seat his ears like sword-points
Upraised, sharp-tipped, listening for peril-sounds,
When he heard from the moor-hill howls of the hell-hound,
Gruesome hunger-grunts of Grendel's Great Dane,
Deady doom-mutt, dread demon-dog.
Then boasted Beocat, noble battle-kitten,
Bane of barrow-bunnies, bold seeker of nest-booty:
"If hand of man unhasped the heavy hall-door
And freed me to frolic forth to fight the fang-bearing fiend,
I would lay the whelpling low with lethal claw-blows:
Fur would fly and the foe would taste death-food.
But resounding snooze-noise, stern slumber-thunder,
Nose-music of men snoring mead-hammered in the wine-hall,
Fills me with sorrow-feeling for Fate does not see fit
To send me some fingered folk to lift the firm-fastened latch
That i might go grapple with the grim ghoul-pooch."
Thus spoke the mouse-shredder, hunter of hall-pests,
Short-haired Hrodent-slayer, greatest of the pussy-Geats.

— Henry Beard
Moments to Savor

Maybe it won't be a moment. Maybe it will be a whole season. (Knock on wood.)

The Phillies are first in the National League East. They recently made thirteen runs in a single inning. They're pitching like angels. They're hitting like demons. They're winning games. Oh please oh please oh please. Let it last. Let them go to the Series. Or at least keep playing well.

Monday, April 14, 2003

Gathering the Scraps

The library at Alexandria. Angkor Wat. And now the Baghdad Museum. Now there is an attempt to search out the smashed and violated treasures — the ones we could have saved so easily, the ones we didn't bother to protect. Can the Code of Hammurabi fuel an SUV? Then don't waste manpower on it. That's the American way!

I don't know why I should expect anything better, anything different. But this loss hurts deep inside. And it points up an ugly truth: it's a lot easier to think of Iraqis as unwashed terrorists (even though they didn't crash an airplane into the World Trade Center) than as the cultured and thoughtful heirs of ancient Sumer. Rewrite history. Make them into barbarians. After all, we are.

EDIT: I know this is unfair, and that I'm doing exactly the same thing here as I'm complaining of — lumping people together and dismissing them as barbarians. I'm aware it was the Iraqis who looted the museum. I still think that if you destroy the rule of law in a country, you have the responsibility to maintain order and protect the innocent — which includes cultural treasures. They too are responsible, but responsibility isn't a zero-sum game. We're responsible. So are they. And yes, I do think the current American government is barbaric.

Sunday, April 13, 2003

Homemade Bread

Sometimes virtue is rewarded. Since I got out here, I've been teaching Michele an advanced course in the art of baking. She had the basics down, but she lacked my decades of experience and obsessive reading. My bread-baking career began when I was 10 years old. That's more than 30 years of kneading and shaping.

So all along, I've been getting to eat her wonderful loaves. And tonight, tonight her baking career reached new heights. She finally had a decent reliable oven to bake in, and the loaf that emerged tonight was flawless: crusty, light, chewy, flavorsome, a handsome braid crowned with sesame seeds.

Mmm, thank you, Michele. And thank you, dear landlord, for replacing the ancient dead stove with a new one that actually functions.

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

One Way to Handle Winter

My East Coast friends and family have suffered through a wretchedly cold, snowy, and prolonged winter. But now there's something they can do to ensure that spring will return: Sacrifice a TV meteorologist.

Does this count as human sacrifice?

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

I've Had a Secret. . . .

For the past two weeks, I have not been able to discuss what I'm most concerned about. That's why I've been neglecting this journal. Sorry for the secret-keeping. It wasn't my idea, and it bothered me a great deal. But here's the truth:

My company's name and assets have just been sold to its largest rival. All of us were laid off as of last Friday. Some of us (including me) have been kept on by the new owners under provisional contracts, but they're definitely temporary. (Four weeks, unless I get an extension.) There have been some hints that some of us may be able to work remotely, but it seems most likely that unless I would like to move to Utah, I can't go on working for this company.

Provo is out of the question, so I am job-hunting again. I'm getting great references from my boss here, and I'm looking for positions in tech writing, marketing communications, and my beloved publishing. Something will turn up, and in the meantime there is always freelance work.

In the good news, Paul started a new job yesterday; he was hired Thursday. I was afraid we were going to attain 100% unemployment in the household. Michele's job-hunting is going well; while she's home, she's dividing her time between looking for work and doing heavy-duty cleaning.

I've got a four-week contract, but that could end or be extended. Who knows?

Monday, April 07, 2003

Weekend Pleasures

Friday was Michele's birthday. According to her sister Rachel, it should be celebrated as a worldwide holiday — and I have to agree. Michele is, quite simply, wonderful: kind, intelligent, loving, wise, playful, generous, and loyal. I am so lucky to have had her in my life for the past five years and more.

We celebrated with a fancy dinner (cooked by the birthday girl herself, who is home right now, resting between tech-writing contracts). Salmon, mushrooms, rice, another vegetable I've forgotten. . . . and of course we bought her a birthday cake. Then the presents. A very pleasant evening.

Saturday we had friends coming up from LA. In the morning, we did housework, then I took an afternoon nap. When I woke, Jim and Linda were here, and we got to do some serious talking, since I hadn't seen them in a couple of years. A good supper (ginger chicken, asparagus with tamari sauce, rice, another birthday cake). We got to talking about holidays, and I reminisced about entertaining my in-laws at the last two Thanksgivings of my marriage. Suddenly I said, "My God, I am so happy I'm not married to him anymore!" Which means I've worked through the minor discomfort, the weirdness I felt when I discovered my ex had remarried. In the evening most of us watched a movie, but I needed some alone time, so I went and worked on fixing up my office.

Sunday morning a bunch of us went to breakfast. Then I took a nap and spent the rest of the day getting wonderful phone calls: from Gwen and Adrian, from Joe, from my mother.

Altogether a good weekend. And tomorrow afternoon I should be able to post about the exciting secret events of the past two weeks.
I Know It's Snowing Back East

Yeah, six to twelve inches, on top of all the other snow, ice, and snow they've had. Whereas here, I've watched sadly over the past week or ten days as the grassy hills have developed soft brown highlights, like the bright places where the patina has worn away from a copper statue. In a month or less the hills will all be lion-colored again.

Some other random California moments:

In a vacant lot in San Jose, being cleared for building, I saw a bulldozer parked next to a heap of trash: old fencing, weeds, brush, small trees uprooted. Scattered all over the ground: ripe oranges, brighter than the bulldozer.

The faults have shaped this landscape, bringing mountains, rolling hills, flat fertile valleys. The mountains to the west are always green with conifers — grand redwoods and Douglas fir. The long steep ridge runs north and south, with narrow hairpin roads leading up and over to the rolling land just before the sea. From across the valley or across the Bay, the mountains are deep green, fading to slate blue, smoke blue. On hot days from afar they seem transparent, a faintly darker section of the sky. Sometimes surfy clouds billow and break over them; when the valley is hot in sunlight, they are cool in shadow and cloud.

East of the mountains are high bare hills with chaparral in every fold and crevice, then lower rounded hills dotted with live oak. These beautiful landscapes look like Kenya to me (though I have never beeen to Africa). This is the fault zone. You can see the fault itself, a sudden rise on Page Mill Road in Palo Alto, just by the Hewlett-Packard building.

Then comes the broad, level Santa Clara Valley, once a forty-mile stretch of orchards (cherry, peach, almond, prune), now buried under housing developments, relentless traffic jams, and industrial parks. Then the marshes that edge the Bay, and the water itself, and the vast salt pans, abandoned now I think. The East Bay rises to sculptured hills, nothing like the jagged mountains of the west. They look like starched napkins carelessly dropped, lovely drapefolds of short grass.

The difference between the East Bay hills and the mountains that run down the Peninsula to Santa Cruz and beyond is not just water, though the East Bay is much drier. (Less rain, and the slow dripping sea-fogs give the equivalent of ten inches of rain every year.) The jagged ridges and ferociously narrow roads of the mountains are alien even to the steepest of the hills.

It's not the sunshine that keeps me here, nor the warmth. Cold has never bothered me, and I love cloudy days. But the shape of the land, the great trees (pepper, eucalyptus, oak, fir, redwood), the hills, the dark paths through woods, the soft woody scent of redwood. Oh yes, they would be enough to keep me here.

But that's not why the idea of leaving is so painful. This is a place where people like me are normal. This coast is traditionally home to outlaws, outcasts, geeks, people too weird to make it in places where normality is valued. Thank God that the Bay Area values other things. We have achieved critical mass here: enough weirdos to make a home for all the rest.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Quotation of the Day

"I think that was his plan, really, to show me not cutie-cakes but what you can find if you look . . . big, wonderful, warm girls who are just a hint upset about things. A smudge of abandon. . . round, wonderful girls with their edges ruined by life's little disasters, who remain solid and tough in their drive to feel good — to themselves and to you — and offer a vision of snug harbor."
Padgett Powell, Edisto

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

What Character from The Little Prince Am I?

Amazingly accurate.

You are the pilot.

Saint Exupery's 'The Little Prince' Quiz.
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Weather Update

Last weekend, while we basked in summer temperatures (it was in the 70s), everyone back home looked out on a vista of fast-falling snow, up to eight inches of the heavy wet spring snow that breaks your back when you try to shovel it. Today, we have beautiful heavy clouds, a brisk wind, and temperatures a degree or two colder than Scranton. There may be snow in the mountains down as low as 2500 feet, and hail was reported in Napa.