A Modest Retreat

I am on Cape Cod in the Mothership, on my first writing retreat of the year. I’m just going to be here a couple of days, because of other things I need to be home for. But it’s a start. Last night, the rains came. It started literally as I was arriving and getting set up at the campsite. Then it rained, and rained, and rained, right through the night. I got up this morning feeling pretty dank. Still, it felt good to be here. By the time I had a late breakfast ready, the sun was out, and I sat by the open door, taking it in. One thing I discovered is that it is quite challenging to do my morning exercises inside the Mothership; it was too wet to do them outside. Not quite enough room to swing and stretch and get down to do pushups. I came close to giving up, but in the end, I managed, with only a couple of scrapes and bangs on the head marking the limits of available space.

By coincidence, a couple of my brother and sister-in-law’s friends from the University of Miami are vacationing right here in the same town where I’m camped out. So we got together for dinner, which was delightful. As we waited for a table at a restaurant in Harwich, we saw this rainbow over the harbor. The colors were more vivid than I think I have ever seen in a rainbow, and I believe it’s also the first time I’ve seen a rainbow arc all the way from horizon to horizon, with a second partial arc thrown in for good measure. A good omen, I hope!

F&SF, Best of the Year (German 1981)

I’ve found a lot of things I wasn’t looking for, going through my office closet and filing cabinets. Foreign editions I’d forgotten about, or thought I’d lost, for example. One such was a single copy of this Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Best of the Year (German translation edition, published in 1981). Why did I even have this? I opened to the table of contents.

Right there at the top was my story, “Seastate Zero.” I had completely forgotten about this. It’s the only story of mine ever selected for a “best of the year” collection, and it was in German, and I’d forgotten about it. Holy cow, the memory is a tricksy beast. I can’t read it, of course, it being in German (and despite my allegedly having studied German as an undergraduate). Anyway, congratulations, self! Good job! Take a break!

The story was translated from the January 1978 U.S. edition of F&SF! Here’s what that issue looked like…

“Seastate Zero” is an underwater tale, an environmental warning of the hazards of ocean oil operations. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s a pretty credible foreshadowing of the Deep Water Horizons oil rig disaster of 2010. If you’d like to read the story in English, it’s included in my ebook story collection, Reality and Other Fictions, and also in the Audible edition of the same book.



So Much for Books—What About the Video Collection?

posted in: personal news 1

I love movies and TV shows almost as much as I love books. My collector’s impulse is not satisfied with mere streaming. So ephemeral! So we have a lot of media. I have long since transferred virtually my whole DVD collection to our Plex server, from which we can play anything we own at a click of a remote, or on a tablet or laptop, even when away from home. It’s been a couple of years since I accomplished most of that, and a lot of our DVDs are now in a filing cabinet in the basement. But what about the VHS tapes?

VHS tapes take up a lot of space. In our case, this includes a lot of tapes that represented work that I had done (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing, for kids), and especially work that Allysen did over many years of working in TV production. We had tapes of shows she worked on for WGBH/PBS, World Monitor on the Christian Science Monitor Channel, and more. I brought down an armload from the library and got to work.

Most people I know don’t even have VCRs anymore, but we still have one that lives and only occasionally strangles on a tape. We also still have a working DVD recorder, which can dub from VHS tapes. From DVD, it’s a simple matter to feed the recordings through the open-source Handbrake program on the computer and produce good-quality .mp4 files for upload to Plex on the 12 TB server. Well, okay, there are a few steps there. But I set out to get all of Allysen’s professional work converted and put on our server in time for Mother’s Day. And I pretty much finished it by then! Her work is now in a better format, and backed up several different ways, including to the cloud. (So is mine.) Bye-bye, space-hogging videotapes! (But do we have to get rid of the pristine VHS set of the original three Star Wars movies? That just feels sacrilegious.)

Here is a youthful and beautiful Allysen on camera on an educational show about aviation from the 1990s…

BTW, did I say so much for the books? As if. Allysen has been going through the many boxes of her mother’s books in the basement—many of them excellent history and art-history books. She’s been re-homing books like crazy. That may be even harder for her than the SF is for me.

Downsizing a Library—Ow! Ow! Ow!

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I’ve written before that we have been downsizing our dwelling in preparation for moving to the smaller first-floor apartment in our two-family house. This is partly so we will fit in the smaller space. But it’s also because, when we shuffle off this mortal coil as someday we will, we don’t want to leave a monstrous mess (or museum, depending on your viewpoint) for our kids to have to deal with. We are keenly aware of this, because Allysen’s parents did leave us with a treasure trove of things we don’t necessarily want to keep. They traveled the world over, and brought home artwork of all kinds, and brought home books of all kinds, and collected fine and idiosyncratic furnishings from many different countries. This is stuff not lightly to be thrown out, but way too much to be absorbed into our lives, much less our kids’ lives. We’re distributing what we can to family, but that in itself is a time-consuming process. Other things we’re simply trying to rehome, so someone else can enjoy them. It’s a challenge. (But it’s been made easier with the energetic and determined assistance of our daughter Lexi.)

And then we come to our own collections. Aiiee. Books! Getting rid of books from a personal library is painful. I attacked the SF/F shelves with sword in hand, mercilessly cutting books that I was pretty sure I would never read, or read again. Box after box after box of hardcovers, and shopping bag after shopping bag of paperbacks. It never seemed to end.

They all had to come to Allysen for vetting, and that’s when the process started wobbling. “This is a favorite of mine! We can’t—” “Okay, we can put it back.” “I haven’t read this one. Have I read this? I need to read this before I can say.” “Um, yeah. Just put it over there.” “Why are you giving this one away? It’s a classic.” “We have two other copies…” “And this?” “We have it in ebook. And audiobook.” “Hm, I think we need it in paper.” And so it goes. (My ideal is to have a massive ebook library that displays holographically like a print library, so you can browse the shelves and pull the books off and look at the covers and flip through the pages, but without the dust and the space limitations.)

Anyway, we managed to load up the truck with a thousand and more books, and off they went. Some went to the prison books program, some to the town library, some to More Than Words, which employs young people to rehome all kinds of things, some to Good Will, and some choicer selections still waiting to go to the New England Science Fiction Association. Nor are we done.

But answer me this: Why do the shelves still look full?

(Edit: If some important titles seem to be missing (e.g., yours, if you are a writer), they’re probably just in another bookcase. I mostly stopped buying print books about fifteen years ago, though, so anything published since then would be in my ebook and/or audiobook library.)

Some of the reduced SF shelves. If you can read the titles, tell me which ones hit a chord with you, especially you as a young reader…

My Previous Statement Is Now Inoperative

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Richard Nixon: “I am not a crook.”

Recently I posted that apparently much of my shortness of breath was attributable to a heart issue (an atrial shunt) that might be fixable. In the words of a famous (“I am not a crook”) crook, that statement is now inoperative. Well, not actually a lie. But further testing has persuaded my docs at Brigham Hospital that the shunt, while present, is not a significant enough factor to warrant the risks of heart surgery. Which puts us right back where we started: my lung issues are, in fact, lung issues and not something else masquerading as lung issues. In other words… never mind. This is a little discouraging, but at least I seem to be stable, and with the new exercises I’ve added to my morning regimen, I am oddly, in some ways, in better shape than I’ve been in years.

It turns out, by the way, that I may not have idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) per se, but rather hypersensitivity pneumonitis (HP), which is similar but different. Both involve fibrotic scarring of the lungs, but with different patterns visible on CT scans, possibly different causes, and maybe slightly different prognoses. I don’t really understand all the technical details, but HP may be produced by an inflammatory process, possibly with identifiable causes. The treatment is the same either way, and my doctors don’t consider it worth an invasive biopsy to nail it down. However…

A little while back, we had a professional air-quality scan done in our house. One finding was high levels of particulates in the air on the third floor where my office is located. The offending pollutants were identified as fiberglass particles and cellulose particles. Guess what kinds of insulation we have in the attic space directly next to my office. Right, cellulose and fiberglass. Could this be a factor in my problems? Maybe. To address it, we now have two HEPA filters running 24/7 in my office. We have plans to better enclose the insulation with Tyvec-style house wrap. (A similar condition exists in our basement. Hong, who often does work for us, has already started putting up the house wrap over the fiberglass insulation in the basement ceiling. Bottom line is, if we can remove air pollution that may be aggravating (perhaps even causing) my lung disease, it can only help.

All of this coincides with ongoing downsizing efforts in the attic and library and office, preparatory to moving down to the first floor apartment later this year. More on that next time.

Congratulations to the Winners! And a Good Reminder!

posted in: Nebula Awards, writing 0

The Nebula Awards were awarded a few days ago, and congratulations to all the winners! This year’s awards were noteworthy for the first-ever presentation of the Infinity Award to Octavia Butler, basically a posthumous Grandmaster Award. During the course of the ceremony, one of the speakers—I don’t remember who, unfortunately—made a point worth remembering. And that is that writing can be a very discouraging activity; but… if your stories touch even one person in a meaningful way, change one life for the better, then it’s worth it. You’ve done a good thing. I loved hearing that.

And then, after turning off the TV at the end of the awards, I went to my computer and checked my email. And almost like a gift from Heaven, there was an email from a reader—someone in another country, in fact—I won’t use his real name, but let’s call him Neal—writing to ask how things were going with the new book, because I was his favorite writer and he always recommended my books and he really wants to know what happens next. The dovetailing of those two moments could not have been more perfect, or more affirming. So, many thanks, Neal. Readers like you are the best!

Flickering Match in the Fog—Some Personal Reflections on Writers Block

posted in: personal news, writing 9

E.L. Doctorow once said: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” My version is: “Writing this novel has been like driving a car at night in the fog. With no headlights. Holding a flickering match out the window.” I’ve burned through a lot of matches on Masters of Shipworld.

This has been kind of a big problem for me. I mean, I’ve worked through blocks before. But this is orders of magnitude beyond any creative block I’ve previously experienced. Some of the reasons I think I know. I’m not going to discuss them all in detail here, because they’re between me and my shrink and God. But let’s just say that I see the compounding effect of a variety of things getting in the way of my creativity. Some are fairly obvious: recent multiple losses of a personal and professional nature, health concerns that I can forget only until the next time I take a breath (or get my O2 hose stepped on, usually by me), and the looming practical concerns of preparing for a move downstairs while also prepping for some major needed home renovations. I’m not sure how well I’d handle any of these separately. But cumulatively, I feel as if I’m surfboarding in slomo over the Falls of Rauros on the River Anduin.

It’s possible that that’s a mixed metaphor.

A recent conversation with my shrink (yes, I’m getting professional help with this) highlighted an interesting dichotomy in my lifelong patterns of work and play. At least I think they’re interesting; maybe you will, too. Bear with me while we rocket back in time.

In my teen years, I was a real grind at school, and I didn’t know how to loosen up and have fun. I did well academically. I wasn’t a sports fan per se; but on the wrestling team, I achieved a good record through dedication and determination, even though I lacked certain native attributes such as speed and upper-body strength. But did I have fun with the sport? Well… I achieved satisfaction in my accomplishments, yes, but truthfully, I was too tightly wound to have much fun. Okay, then, what about off the mat and outside academics? I enjoyed band (clarinet and drums) until I didn’t anymore. I definitely enjoyed reading science fiction and had a few friends (and teachers) I could share that with. But socially I was deep down an impossible introvert, and hopelessly shy around girls. A lot of what I did, frankly, was to apply my nose to the grindstone and not look up. Those were my high school formative years.

Come my college years at what is commonly regarded as an elite university, I flipped all that over. I realized I wasn’t enjoying wrestling anymore, and I quit. I realized that academically I was not nearly as smart as a lot of my peers, and furthermore, despite my love of science, I really did not want to pursue an academic or professional career in it. It was too specialized, and I was a generalist and a romantic at heart. Instead, I wanted to nurture my imagination that had been fed by science fiction and develop it into an SF-writing career. There was no good academic help available for that, so I was really on my own. The other thing I realized was that I wanted to stop being a grind and learn how to goof off and have a fun—a skill that most of my peers had mastered years before. I learned to scuba dive. I learned to drink and cuss and be rude. I became marginally less shy around girls.

In the years following graduation I returned to nose-to-grindstone, but in a different way. I applied myself to writing and getting published. (The other aspects of my life more or less flapped in the wind, as I had learned no marketable skills for earning a living, and my social life was going nowhere. I turned to things like substitute teaching, diving for quahogs, and sorting packages for UPS to stay alive.) That last part is parenthetical because my real point here is that developing a career in writing, for me at least, and I suspect for many writers, involved a supremely tricky balance of cultivating my own creativity and imagination with dogged work and perseverance in writing and rewriting and rewriting some more, and—finally—getting published. At first intermittently, and then on a regular basis. (Oh, in the meantime, I stopped being shy around girls and I married a real keeper.)

Jump to now, when the same requirements exist—to juggle free-thinking imagination with determined work—except that I have changed. I’ve experienced life, with, in particular, losses such as we all endure, such as important people dying on me, the aggravating possibility of dying prematurely myself, the seemingly limitless disintegration of decency and honesty in the culture I live in, and so on. I know it would be helpful to find a way to integrate all of that into my writing, and eventually the stories—maybe even the current project—will be better for it. But right now, the link between the imagination and the grindstone seems to have come apart in my hands. There’s a puzzle—or maybe a labyrinth—between me and where I want to go. I see pieces of it, but I haven’t yet figured out a workable solution. I will, because I have to. Coincidentally, as a part of downsizing, I’ve been reading the Zelazny Amber series—to decide whether or not to keep the books, which I’d not read before. His descriptions of walking the all-powerful Pattern are highly resonant with my impressions of the creative process.

In a different metaphor, I’m wandering in the wilderness and trying to find my way back to the path. It can be very discouraging. But discouragement is the enemy of imagination, so… take another deep breath and try to get back on track?

Why am I describing all this on my blog? Well, partly to clarify it for myself, partly to let you, my faithful readers, know why things are taking so long, and partly in hopes that it will offer solace to others who may be similarly struggling. (You’re not alone.) Anyway…

Sometimes readers who have to wait a long time for the end of a story become irate, if not outright disillusioned and cynical. I can understand that. But no writer does this intentionally or because they don’t care. If you’re one of my readers waiting for the rest of the story, all I can say is, please continue to be patient. I’m working on it. In order to do that, I’m working on me.

And I’m one hell of a difficult patient.


Happy Easter!

Easter roses

Happy Easter greetings to all of my friends and family! I hope you are gathered with people you love. And to my Jewish friends, belated wishes for a blessed Passover. And to those of you who are of neither persuasion, enjoy a gorgeous spring day! (Or autumn, depending on where on this big ball of wax you live.)

Allysen just set these roses out in our house.

A Shunt in Your Wicked Heart

In the doctor’s office, they call it a “communication” in the heart or sometimes a “shunt.” When I asked if that was another way of saying a “hole,” the doctor laughed and said, “Sure, if you want to call it a hole, it’s a hole.”

What we’re talking about is called a “patent foramen ovale (PFO)”—pronounced foh-RAY-mun oh-VAY-lee—a hole in the heart that didn’t close the way it should have after birth. It’s a small opening between the upper heart chambers, or the atria. It’s normally present during gestation in the womb but closes up during infancy—except when it doesn’t. Then it’s called a patent—or open—foramen ovale. That’s what I’ve got, and it turns out to be the cause of most of my shortness of breath when I’m exerting myself. What’s happening is that some of the blood that should be getting pumped to my lungs for fresh air is getting shunted instead to the left side of my heart and sent back out to the rest of my body. And then my saturation O2 drops.

We learned this during some recent tests: one where they did an echocardiogram while injecting micro-bubbles into a vein, and another where they ran catheters into my arteries to measure various parameters, while having me pump away on an exercise bike until I was gasping. They gathered lots of good data, I was assured. They thought I might have pulmonary hypertension, but I don’t.

What does this mean about the pulmonary fibrosis? Well, I still have it; that hasn’t changed, alas. But it’s milder than my breathing needs would indicate. The accusing finger points at my heart for that.

The good news is, this is something they can probably fix. First, though, I have to get scheduled for another test, to get clearer images of the shunt. If that goes as expected, then I’ll be, er, shunted to cardiology for the next phase.

Stay tuned. It should be exciting.

This is a railway shunt. Not really what we’re talking about.

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