Choices and Chains

I was up at Ten North after the show let out last weekend, when a crew member made a comment.

“Oh my God, you’re my mother’s age! Is it freaky to think you could have a twenty-eight year old kid?”

I shrugged. “Nah. If I’d made more fun decisions in high school I’d probably have one, too.”

One of the Eumenides was serving drinks. “You say fun,” she said. “But I hear irresponsible.”

It wasn’t a dig, so far as I can tell. Well, the fun bit. I’m still not sure about the age comparison. But it’s definitely made me think this past week.

Most of the times I remember most fondly in life were … irresponsible, at best. It’s not a one to one equation. I was reasonably together for my wedding, and that was a good day. I could afford all the vacation spots I’ve been to. I’ve found a lot of fun in keeping myself fit and fed.

But the times I didn’t think much about the consequences of my actions are the ones that slink up against me, whispering fond remembrances.

I wasn’t an overly serious kid, but time changes things. Grades became important, moreso than playing. When I passed the age where everyone’s your friend, being liked became more important than being myself. Eventually, moving out of my parents’ house became important. Maybe moreso for them than for me, to be honest; but the end result made money suddenly important.

Responsibility aggregates. There should be a “grey” in that word, since that’s how I learned to wear it – a joyless, dreadful chain that others loop around your neck, your wrists, your heart until you start adding chains and locks on your own. Any suggestion that your responsibilities could be fun has been relegated to the realm of the pipe dream.

But since hearing that statement from a wise young woman, in the wee exhausted hours of a post-show confab, I’ve asked myself: How can I best break that cycle of tension? How can I find more fun in those choices I feel required to make – those choices that feel like chains?

Still thinking on that one, to be honest.

The Fear In Other’s Voices

There’s a bike path near my house that runs all the way to the Wisconsin border. Usually, I head in the other direction – it holds some real charm, such as the old gravel pits (wondrously massive, rusting conveyors and materials), the gentle sweep of Larsen Prairie, the bridges over brooks as well as eight-lane roads of standing traffic.

It also, however, passes through another area.  It’s essentially a camping site for some of the local homeless; or at least, that’s the impression that it gives. There are some half-abandoned sleeping bags tucked under bushes, and often a strong scent of urine.

It doesn’t bother me much – the path is well-travelled, and I’ve never equated homeless with predatory. But I’ve got well-meaning family members who get nervous when I take that trail, and they were forefront in my mind at the time. So last Saturday when I got in the saddle, I headed north instead.

That trail’s got many more steep hills (by the standard of an Illiboy) and its own kind of peaceful beauty through the wooded areas, which include a number of unpaved side paths that lead heavens know where. On my way back, I hear some voices from one of those paths, and decide to see where the paths led. I stop the bike to ask the travelers for directions.

Five teenagers, bless them. Babies, really. The boys shirtless in the sunshine, with sunken bellies and Gothic-script collarbone tattoos darker than their wispy mustaches. The girls with that fragile trailer beauty which never ends well for anyone involved, in stained crop-tops and beanies bedazzled with hemp-leaf symbols.

They’re skittish when I pull up out of nowhere and ask where the paths led, but smile a second later.

“Just woods,” the lead boy says. “More woods.”

“There’s a real serious hill, though,” one of the girls volunteers. “Getting your bike up it would probably kill you.”

“Where you going?” The boys asks.

“Nowhere,” I say, honestly. “Exploring. Enjoy your walk!”

“Have a good ride,” the girls chirp together, and we continue on our separate paths.

As I ride away, the voices in my head start scolding. I have an iPhone in my shirt pocket, half-visible in the sunlight. I have a nice bicycle, and a fat wallet. There are killing-steep hills all around me, and they’re young enough to chase me down if they want to, like young lean wolves after a stag grown fat with success. Why would anyone stop alone in the forest to talk to a pack of strangers? How can you be so innocent and blind?

But … it’s not my voice. In my head.

I recognize them all. Well-meaning, no doubt, and full of love. All they’ve ever wanted is to protect me, keep me safe from what they call my childishness, my naivety.

I’m privileged. I know that’s a part of this. I’m white, I’m male, I’m comfortably middle class. I’ve rarely had to consider my safety as closely as many others do, whether from police or from neighbors or, hell, from an entire fucking gender.

Too often I’ve lived afraid, though. I listen to the fear in other people’s voices as it squats inside my skull, and I fail to take chances on what I really want.

Riding back, speeding down a hill, going far too fast in the sunlight of May, I can listen to my own voice for a while. It reminds me of who I am.

I like going far too fast, and I like being on my own in the woods. I like meeting new people, even if only for a minute, to sketch them into my memory.

And yes, I like trusting people. My instincts through history have been pretty sound, in terms of warning me to leave certain people or places alone. I’m still here, aren’t I?

It’s good to hear that voice again. I understand why some would call it naivety.

But to me, it sounds a lot like life.

Hells Yes Hawaiian Chicken

Adapted from food.com.

Chicken:

Serves plenty.

  • Chicken thighs and breasts, as many as you need.
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 2 cups pineapple juice
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 4 tablespoons brown sugar
  • teaspoons garlic powder
  • 4 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard
  • So much ground pepper
DIRECTIONS

  1. Combine soy sauce, pineapple juice, oil, brown sugar, garlic powder, ginger, dry mustard and pepper in a saucepan.
  2. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Let cool.
  3. Reserving 1/4-1/2 c of sauce, pour remaining sauce over chicken breasts in a shallow glass dish or ziploc bag.
  4. Cover or seal and marinate at least 2 to 3 hours, or overnight, turning occasionally.
  5. Grill over medium heat approximately 6 minutes per side, basting with reserved marinade. Grill until done.
  6. Tent with tinfoil.

Pineapple Rings:

  • I whole pineapple cut into rings
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • Ghost chilis, to taste

Grill ’em up after the chicken is tented.

Black Rice and Lima Beans:

  • Follow the directions, honestly.

The Competitive Edge

I’ve been thinking a lot about competition lately.

I’d like to share a story from my childhood: When I was very young, the town we lived in held an Easter Egg hunt at the local park. This was in the mid-Seventies, the era of “Free to Be You and Me”. The concept of childhood self-esteem was just getting started. Our mayor made a brief speech, reminding the children that there were enough eggs for everyone as long as you only kept two or three. I remember my father patting my shoulder at that.

The father standing next to me told his son, “Don’t listen to that BS. Go take everything you can.”

What a miserable thing to do. Right? For eggs, of all things. It didn’t look to me like the family couldn’t afford a few dozen eggs at the supermarket. But there’s this grown man, telling his son to push other kids out of the way and take everything he can lay his hands on.

I’m sure he thought he was teaching his boy a valuable life lesson about being a winner. About being a competitor.

That’s not competition. That’s childish and selfish.

That viewpoint is not about winning. It’s about making other people lose.

But it’s the kind of competition most of us have been brought up to believe in, isn’t it? And that impacts many of us to this day.

I think writing used to be more competitive, before the internet and Amazon’s self-publishing mechanisms. When the marketplace wasn’t immediate and your platform was heard only as loudly as your publisher could trumpet it.

And I think in a lot of ways, that kind of competition was a good thing. Having publishers act as judges may have been difficult, hurtful, and sometimes prone to abuse, but it kept your goddamn dinosaur erotica at bay.

Being older than the internet meant cranking out my adolescent short stories in privacy, in my room, and sending them to Dragon and Argosy and Asimov’s. I never got published, but I often got good pieces of advice from people who, I presumed, knew what they were talking about.

  • Don’t try to tell three stories in six pages.
  • Your characters need to need something.
  • Your mis-use of tense makes my sphincter tighten.

Well, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.

Now there’s obviously still competition like that. I’m still not in Argosy, I’m still not with Tor. But to be honest, I’m not making a lot of effort in that direction right now.

That’s partly because my focus on work for Apocalypse Ink trumps it, but also partly because there are so many more places to publish online. Paying markets, markets which are the equal of the big magazines of my youth.

I’m going to tell you another story. In Junior High school, despite my feelings about competition, three things combined to make me join track and field: I liked to run, I knew I was fast, and I noticed that girls liked guys who played sports.

I spent about six months running races before I quit.

Because I never beat anybody. Because even though I improved my personal time in every race, I wasn’t winning. So I gave up.

I’ll say it again: That’s a pretty immature view of competition.

Today, I’m writing to beat myself, not anybody else. I’m writing to refine a skill, a craft. I’m writing to learn more about the effort of writing, and in the process, I’m learning more about myself.

That’s a competition I can get behind, because honestly, I know my competition’s weak points.

How does competition sit with you? Is it something you embrace, something you look for in your craft and your work? Or is it something you avoid as a matter of course?

Surprise Surprise!

My fictional characters don’t often surprise me, but when they do, it’s quite a surprise.

FAMISHED: THE RANCH has been rolling along well. My alpha readers have been invaluable, and so far things have been not simple, but at least reasonable.

Last week, though, my primary antagonist made something clear: He’s smarter than his cousins. I knew that already, but I didn’t realize how dumb my original outline made him out to be in this section. The plot as outlined required him to overlook something fairly obvious, and this character wasn’t having any of it.

It’s a good thing for the book! The story will be better for it.

It’s a terrible thing for my rapid progress.

I don’t turn on a dime. Flexibility is a known issue for me in all aspects of my life. I don’t like that, but I have learned to accept it. When plans change, I often need a bit of time to adapt.

The problem is, I don’t have a lot of time. By week 4 of this month my available time is going to be slashed until May, which means the first draft’s got to be done before then. I can edit, revise and adjust, but I can’t be wrestling with these fundamental plot points in April.

In traditional mode, I worried about this for a week in private, then reached back to the alpha readers for advice (something else I often struggle with). They were unanimous: The new direction is correct and improves the book immensely. They removed my last possible hope of sticking to the original plotline, bless ’em.

So I’m writing this post for three reasons: Firstly, I haven’t blogged in a while. Secondly, this is the only thing I’ve been able to think about for a week.

Finally, I’m hoping that writing about the issue publicly will result in writing through the issue when I’m next able to sit down.

How about you? When your characters present a surprise, do you seize it and run? Or like me, do you need to deliberate and figure out where the new path leads?

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