Further Notes from the Creative Front

Retreat, Day 4. I’m feeling a bit more like my old self, don’t cha know. And I have, in fact, figured out a couple of important key points about the new story that had been eluding me. Which I think will help make it a story worth telling. I think.

Here are a few more pix. Yesterday, I biked the 6.5 miles to this railroad lift bridge, which was great. Then I biked back, into a stiff wind, which just about put me 6 feet under.

Today, I repeated the trip, except I drove to a park only 1.5 miles from the bridge, and rollerbladed the rest of the way. And then bladed back (into the wind, of course), which just about kilt me.

Cape Cod Railroad Bridge

I must either stop doing this or get into better shape. I rewarded myself with a gentle stroll along the Sandwich board walk down to the bay. After first passing this sign.

Okay, here I am at the actual shore.

I have to admit, I feel a little guilty enjoying myself like this, knowing what folks out west are going through. Oh well, tomorrow I head home!

Moving My Movies

It all started with Allysen looking at the shelf space my movie collection was taking up. Collecting movies and, to a lesser extent, TV shows, has been a hobby of mine for over twenty years now—especially since we got a Panasonic DVD Recorder back around the turn of the century. (That was motivated in part by the space taken up by the VHS tapes I was recording off cable; we knew DVDs were far more compact.) So now I have all these big binders full of DVDs I’ve burned, and that’s not counting all the commercial DVDs in their plastic cases.

“I know it’s your hobby and you love it, but can’t you put all those movies on a big hard drive or something? Then we could put books on those shelves,” intoned Allysen thoughtfully and a little beseechingly.

“Not that simple,” responded I instantly and a touch defensively. “How would I then play the movies on our TV?”

“Oh,” mused Allysen, frowning in pensive thought. “I never thought of that.” And she went off with a flip of her hair to do whatever women do.

(Actually she gave a heartfelt sigh and said, “Never mind,” and went off to ponder some other intractable household problem.)

Notwithstanding the obvious decline of my writing skills during the pandemic, I couldn’t let the idea, once broached, go without at least a little research. And soon I discovered Plex, the free media-server software that lets you do just what Allysen said: Put all your movies on a hard drive, and play them on your TV, using your home wifi and Roku or Firestick or whatever you stream with. You can even put them on a home server, and then you don’t even have to have your computer turned on to watch your movies.

Fast forward: We now own a little black box called a Synology server, and in the black box are two big, honking 12TB hard drives, one serving as a backup to the other. I’ve been gradually, over the past couple of months, using the free Handbrake app to rip all my DVDs into mp4 files, and saving them to the server. I’m maybe a third of the way through the DVD collection at this point, and those binders are going one by one down to a spare filing cabinet in the basement.

How did it take me so long to discover Plex? It’s amazing. It helps you organize everything, and pulls in poster art, descriptions, and similar data for each movie. It even cross-references the leading actors in your collection. You can stream your media on your TV, your phone, tablet, laptop—even when you’re away from home. And you can share it with your friends, and host “watch together” movie nights, with your friends streaming simultaneously off your server! That last we haven’t put to the test yet, but we hope to, real soon now. Oh, it can also do the same with your music collection and photos.

Plex logo

While we were at it, we cut the cord from Xfinity, but perhaps that’s a story for another time.


Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon!

I came back from walking the dogs and saw a wonderful triad of the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn—in a clear sky (by Boston standards), and right above my driveway. If I’m ever going to bring that beautiful Celestron telescope down from the dining room, I thought, this should be the time. So I limbered up with some back exercises* and lugged it downstairs. What a beautiful view! The Moon was glorious, Jupiter was spectacular, and Saturn was elusive. Finally I found it, though, with its rings tilted at a rakish angle. I texted my family, I phoned them: Get down here!

This is them, taking their turns at the scope.

And here is the worst astronomical picture ever: Jupiter and the Galilean moons, imaged with an Android phone held shakily to the eyepiece. I thought all I’d gotten was a blur. But when I checked later, I was pleased to see a recognizable picture of the planet! (The big blue smudge is an artifact. Either that, or it’s Neptune, photobombing my shot.)

In a world filled with wildfires, hurricanes, pandemic, and walking calamities in high public office, sometimes you just need a little piece of the cosmos to calm you down.

*Not really, but I should have. That thing is heavy.

How Are You All Doing?

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McDuff and Captain Jack

Generally my posts, if they’re not about things of general  or quirky interest, are devoted to telling the world what I’m up to. (Not sure the world cares, but nevertheless…)  But the longer this accursed pandemic goes on, and the political surrealism and all the rest of the anxiety about the world, the more I wonder: How are all of you doing?

I’m not a big Facebook participant or I’d probably already know. I don’t tweet or retweet or read tweets, and I don’t light tinders, nor do I gram anything in an instant. I used to like tumbling, but that was when I was young; tumblering now usually means I’ve taken a fall while rollerblading, and am grateful for all the pads I strap on.

Long way of saying, I don’t keep up much with social media, but I do wonder how all my friends and family are. HOW ARE YOU? Please leave a note and let me know!


Farewell, Book View Café! Hello, Treehouse and Faery Cat Press!

A few months ago, I withdrew from the writers’ coop Book View Café, in the midst of internal turmoil in the coop. I did so with great regret, because BVC had been a home and community and source of support for me for a number of years. I was the voice of Customer Support at the BVC bookstore, and VP of the organization. I began many friendships and working relationships there. (Most of those continue.)

Without going into detail, it was the kind of unrest that often occurs in volunteer-run organizations, where a lot of the work falls on a few, and people get burned out and frustrated and walk away. Disagreements in how things should run proved intractable, and the result was about half the members leaving. Many good people remain at BVC! I wish them all the success in the world. Do continue to check out their books!

Some of us who left formed another, much more informal group called Treehouse Writers, more to maintain social and professional connection than anything else. We are not trying to create a different BVC. We have a blog at https://treehousewriters.com.

About Faery Cat Press. One of my fellow Treehouse writers, Laura Anne Gilman, created Faery Cat Press as an umbrella group to pull in her own books and books of friends, partly as a way to purchase ISBN numbers at a group rate (they’re expensive, otherwise), but also to provide a more consolidated front where booksellers are concerned. For that reason, my newest releases now are listed (depending on where you look) as being from Faery Cat Press, or Starstream Publications in association with Faery Cat Press. But don’t go sending submissions to Faery Cat Press, because FCP lives in the aether, somewhere in the land of Faery! I can only go there in my head. For promotion and marketing purposes, I am and shall remain Starstream Publications.


Singin’ the Phone Queue Blues

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I have spent approximately half of my waking hours, for the last week, trying to get a brand new, but defective, clothes dryer replaced. It wouldn’t seem like it should be so hard. And yet…

Our downstairs apartment, recently vacated by Allysen’s mom and now inhabited by our daughter and her husband, needed a new dryer. We found just the right one at AJMadison.com, a compact GE Appliances model. It looks great! Just one problem: The drum smells like a skunk crawled inside and got hit by a car. The first (and only) test load of towels came out smelling like that same skunk. Not new plastic. Skunk. Angry skunk. Dead skunk.

When I contacted the dealer (after two hours in a phone queue), they stepped right up and said, “Hey, we’re really sorry! Let’s get you a new one, pronto.”

Hahahahaha! Of course they didn’t. No, they punted it to GE Appliances, who sent a tech. Who apparently didn’t have much of a sense of smell, because he said, “Smells like plastic to me.” And suggested I throw in some fragrance tablets to cover the smell.

Several long phone queues later…

Same technician came back. “Now I smell it!” he said. And made his own phone call (no queue for him), and got a replacement authorized. “You’ll hear from GE Consumer Relations [different from Customer Service] about getting a new dryer.”

Hahahahaha! Right. I called them and, after outlasting another phone queue was told, “Ah yes, your new dryer is authorized. Just one problem—we don’t have one in stock to send you.” But what about the dealer? Can’t you work with the dealer? They probably have some. “Sure,” says GE Appliances Consumer Relations, “we can do that. But we don’t see them in our system, so you need to call them and get their dealer account number, and call us back with it. Can do?” Yeah… sputter… right.

Phone queue…

A.J. Madison: “Yes, we have plenty of them in the warehouse, but we can’t send you one unless you call GE Appliances and ask them to email us an RMA. Then we’ll be right on it. Here’s our account number.”

Phone queue…

GE Appliances Consumer Relations: “Nothing in your case file here about an exchange. Who did you talk to, again?”

Consumer: “Aaaiieeeeee!”

GE Appliances Consumer Relations: “Please calm down, sir. We know just how you feel.” Do you? “Oh wait, I see here it says unrepairable. So, yes. We need you to reach out to the dealer and ask them to call our Customer Care department [not to be confused with Consumer Relations or Customer Service] to ask for an RMA. No, we can’t send the RMA. Only they can do that.”

Let’s cut this short, I cackle. I’ll call them myself.

Phone queue…

GE Appliances Customer Care: “We can’t talk to you. No no no. The dealer has to call us.”

#^^&#(! Phone queue…

A.J. Madison: “Oh very well, we can call them. But it’s 5:00 now, and everyone’s closed. We’ll call them first thing in the morning.”

And that’s where we stand. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this, besides buy local, it’s that GE Appliances is not part of the General Electric company, aka G.E. No, the appliances division, name and all, was sold some years ago to the Haier group in China. Sort of like Craftsman and Sears. GE and GE Appliances are not the same. Know what you’re buying.

Yeah, right.

Crescent Moon and Venus Over the Bike Path

Moon and Venus over bikepath

Captain Jack and I went for a little bike ride yesterday, to enjoy the pleasant evening. I found us riding straight into a breathtaking view of a slender, crescent moon, and bright Venus just above it. This picture gives just a hint. (What is it about stunning views of the sky in real life, and what you get on your phone camera—even a good camera?) Let’s zoom in…

Moon and Venus over bikepath_zoomed in

Here’s the captain, wondering why we’ve stopped.

Jack harnessed to bike

What’chu Lookin’ At?

What are you watching while you’re cooped up inside, practicing social distancing? Here at the Star Rigger Ranch, we decided to binge on movies about infectious disease outbreaks. What fun!

We started with Outbreak, which was entertaining if totally unconvincing. With Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, and Morgan Freeman, it at least had actors you like to watch. Plus, it had the Star Trek medical-miracle feature: the ability to synthesize a vaccine/cure within about an hour of discovering the secret. You go, Bones! (And I see The Atlantic just published an article about it. Great minds…)

Segue to The Andromeda Strain, which really had that 1960s SF movie vibe going, talky and lecturing. It was mildly entertaining, but reminded me why I’d never bothered to keep a recording of it. In the end, the people do nothing useful; the bug mutates and becomes benign. (Oops—sorry—spoiler alert!)

Next up was The Cassandra Crossing, which had this going for it: It’s a train movie, and I like train movies. Otherwise it’s ludicrous, being based on the idea that if you’ve got a train filled with people infected by a plague, the obvious thing to do is to send it over a failing trestle so that it will plunge with a spectacular crash into an uninhabited ravine. That’ll show those germs! (Dusts off hands.) Next problem?

Finally we come to Contagion, by far the most realistic of the lot. Also educational, terrifying, and depressing. Good if you want to learn how this coronavirus thing could go. Bad if you’re looking for diversion.

For diversionary purposes, Outbreak is the not-very-satisfying winner. But what movies have we forgotten?

What have you been watching?

Ready for Virageddon!

Freezer ready for VirageddonWith the world basically in lock-down against Covid-19, and the possibility looming of a two-week self-quarantine at a moment’s notice, I’ve been doing a lot of cooking. We now have a freezer stocked with my signature Fantasy Beef Stew*, Space-Time Chicken Stew**, chicken chili, Grillers Crumblies chili, chicken chili, and rat stew***. Not to mention lots of Trader Joe’s frozen foods. And cans of soup and tuna and makings of more chili, should we need it.

And—for this we are eternally grateful—water heated by the sun!

I hope you are all faring well in this time of trial.


*Inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
**Inspired by Fantasy stew
***My own version of ratatouille, with chicken or tofu, and no eggplant (p’tui).

Pucketa Pucketa POP!

First snow Dec 2019

That’s the backfire sound my new snowblower made today when I tried to use it in our first snowfall of the winter. The snow was pretty, no denying that. But it was also the kind of wet, hard-to-move snow that we get so often here in New England. I guess we got about a foot or a foot-and-a-half of the stuff. And I should have been ready with the new, gleaming, Ariens snowblower I bought on end-of-season sale last year. (And then sold my 40-year-old Toro, a big mistake.)

The new one ran fine last year! It ran fine every time I started it up during the off season. Until it didn’t, a couple of weeks ago. (I always keep our gas-powered equipment—mopeds, mower, snowblower—fueled with fuel stabilizer added, and run them periodically when they’re out of season. Works great. Until now.) I should have called a dealer right away, but I kept thinking, if I change the gas, run some carb cleaner through it, talk to it nicely, it’ll start working right. (Also, I was a little busy.) Nothing doing.

Also, by the way, this Ariens snowblower is one of the worst-designed machines I’ve ever used. That’s ARIENS, the company that makes ARIENS piece-of-shirt snowblowers with the name ARIENS on them, in case you wondered. Yeah, when it was running, it worked well. But it has no throttle, just one speed. It has no way to add oil without spilling oil all over the place. The dipstick is incredibly awkward to check. It has no provision for draining the gas tank. It has a totally stupid plastic key that you insert to run and pull out to stop, and heaven help you if you drop it in the snow. (Get a big piece of string before you run this bad boy.)

Fortunately, as I thought, I also had my new electric snow shovel that I bought last year to make shoveling off the deck a less cardiac-arrest-inducing task. So I got that out. WHIRRRzzzzzzzz. No. NO. Yes. It’s not working, either. The drive belt is slipping. Nonadjustable. Useless.

The shovel company is sending me new belts. We’ll find out what Ariens will do about a warranty repair on the snowblower, when it gets picked up at the end of the week.

I’m feeling a tad grumpy. And I miss my 40-year-old Toro.

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