Bikes in the Electric Era

I have a new e-bike! This is quite a change from my beloved Bacchetta recumbent, which has been my pedaler of choice for a number of years now. I acquired the recumbent as a solution to the backache that upright bikes seemed to inflict on me, and it’s been great. Here’s the recumbent…

But that was a different era, before I came down with this pesky pulmonary fibrosis, which makes me get short of breath before I can go a city block, and necessitates an O2 tank or portable concentrator on my back. But perhaps, I thought, I’ll do better with a bike with an electric motor, but which will still let me pedal as I am able or inclined to. And perhaps they’ve developed better saddles (seats) for bikes since the last time I bought an upright bike, forty or fifty years ago. Here’s the one I got…

It’s a Biria Electric Easy Boarding bike, very easy to step into. It has a powerful motor on the front wheel hub, and a good-sized removable battery under the luggage rack. It’s a Class 2, which I now know means that it gives you a boost automatically when it senses torque in the pedals, and it also has a throttle, which gives you an extra boost when you want it. You can just drive it on electric, if you’re tired. But in the auto-boost mode, it helps you while encouraging you to do some pedaling. It’s not quite a fly-cycle, but it does go zooom when you ask it to, up to 20 mph. I like it!

As I feared, though, the saddle that came with it was a butt-killer. And others available in the bike shop were little better. But spend enough time on Amazon, and you’ll find options. I tried two, both described as good for folks of an, er, older generation, or folks whose backs hurt on regular seats. (It seems there are a lot of people who fit this description.) This is the throne I settled on, called the Giddy-Up. Contoured memory-foam seat, much better than the stock seat. Red light on the back, powered by a rechargeable battery. They give you a 12-inch USB cable to recharge it. (Um…?) Well, the light doesn’t matter to me, because it’s blocked by the bike’s battery case anyway. And the bike has its own head and tail lights.

Here’s proof (sort of) that I rode it the seven miles to Lexington today. I cannot claim that it was butt-pain-free. I probably need to build up some tolerance, and maybe make further adjustments. I’ll let you know.

Happy Anniversary!

posted in: personal news 1

Jeff and Allysen celebrate 37 years of marriage

Yesterday was our 37th anniversary, and we celebrated with a lovely dinner at the Rowes Wharf Sea Grille, right on the Boston waterfront. Great meal, great setting, and wonderful to celebrate 37 fantastic years together. I was startled to realize that I was 37 when we got married, so I have spent exactly half my life together with Allysen. Amazing! Here we are, mugging for the camera.

My New Theremin

posted in: music, personal news, quirky 1

The other day, I turned 47—or maybe it was 74—I have selective dyslexia around this question. My loving family gave me something I’ve always wanted: a theremin! So I can make sounds like in Forbidden Planet (although apparently that movie, to my amazement, did not actually have theremin music). Well, maybe like The Day the Earth Stood Still. (Here’s a studio session with the theremin.) Or maybe I’ll even learn to make music. My wife never goes halfway on this sort of thing, so she researched and researched until she found the best theremin for a beginner, top quality, of course. This is a Moog Theremini, nicely portable and with all kinds of audio features, from the makers of the original Moog Synthesizer.

I don’t know how to play it yet. I mean, I can make spooky sounds, which is very cool. For now, I’ll promise to post a video in the future when I can do something interesting. Maybe an orchestral piece, like Once Upon a Time in the West.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a little Pink Floyd on theremin.

K-space for First-Time Travelers

Extremely intricate jigsaw puzzle that Allysen put together. Also, my trip logo.
This is k-space: Evocative music accompanies a twilight journey through landscapes of the mind… floating on a long voyage downstream through canyons, under towering cliffs, over rises of molten rock, through the depths of the sea and the starscapes of space. Faces loom and turn away or dissolve; some are familiar, and some are not. Some are reminiscent of the great statues of the kings overlooking the River Anduin in Middle Earth; some are weird aliens; some are family members. Soon the music gives way to another kind of song, the songs of blue and humpback whales. Spirit guides for the journey? More and more it has seemed that way. They are never seen but only heard, and sometimes their watery sounds give rise to the most unwatery of images.

The images are not the DayGlo posters of psychedelic space as I had imagined it, but vastly more subdued. I’m not even sure they can be called visions I have seen so much as images of the mind. Still, with practice, they have grown steadily more real. They range from near-photographic images of my childhood to SF art landscapes to Rorschach patterns and works of abstract expressionism.

This is not the k-space of interstellar travel, as described in my novel From a Changeling Star. Rather, it is the k-space of ketamine-assisted psychotherapy, or KAP. The home base: a couch, sometimes at my therapist’s office but usually at home, complete with blindfolds over my eyes, McDuff the dog (fellow traveler!) at my feet, a carefully curated playlist, and my watcher/transcriber seated nearby, taking down my thoughts and observations. The medium of interdimensional travel: prescribed ketamine, in the form of dissolvable lozenges. The goal: to acquire glimpses into the black box of my subconscious.

I’ve been doing this on and off for several months now—but for the last six weeks or so, almost weekly. Afterward, I write it up, for my own recall as well as for discussion with my therapist.

Ketamine (long used as an anesthetic) has seen growing use lately as a useful adjunct to psychotherapy, most notably in the treatment of depression. A family member had found it extremely useful in this regard, prior to my giving it a try as a treatment for creative block. My doses are produced by a local compounding pharmacy. I had to jump through all kinds of hoops to get medical clearance, in view of my pulmonary fibrosis. It does not seem to cause any issues.

It’s been a fascinating experience, although the first couple of sessions were disappointing, with little seeming to happen, either during or following. But gradually, perhaps because I was learning to relax into the experience, I began to see and hear more, and each session offered something different. Verbal prompts sometimes kick the experience in useful directions. The first handful of times, I was basically along for the ride, not saying much of anything, just trying to absorb whatever the journey had to offer. I was seeing images in multiplex, as though in several floating video windows. After a while, I thought, Why can’t I see this in full-screen? No sooner had I thought the wish than the image opened up to full Omnimax.

Most recently, I went interactive, talking about everything I saw, and even engaging in dialogue with some of the sensations. “What’s that, whales? Are you confused? Me, too. I need to learn your vocabulary…” Along with the interaction came an increase in emotional connection to what was previously a mostly intellectual observation. Connection is, I think, the key word for what I felt. I was teasing loose threads of emotion. I came out of that journey feeling energized and hopeful.

I said earlier that the goal of this was to acquire glimpses into the black box of my subconscious, with the ultimate goal to release blocked creativity. Am I doing that? I hope so. I’m at least shooting a current through that stubborn box.

On coming out at the end of one sojourn, I lifted the blindfolds to see a bristly looking alien creature peering at me from the foot of the sofa. I took a photo, but the wily creature manipulated the image to look like a Terran dog!

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!

posted in: personal news 8

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

posted in: personal news 6
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.

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.

1 2 3 4 5 54