Setting up my secretary

This has been a terribly frustrating weekend. I had a lot I wanted to do… too much I had to get done – but I have been spinning my wheels. First of all, I feel exhausted. A lot of that is because of the unending heat, I’m sure.

But mostly I feel energized by accomplishment and that has been in short supply. Too much time working on repairs and not enough getting things fixed. Candy’s laptop is hosed (yes, it is a Vista machine and yes, it sucks) and that is causing me all kind of headaches. I can handle one problem, usually, but when multiple screwups come screaming down at once it all coalesces into a hopeless shitstorm of helplessness… you get the idea.

There is only one little thing that makes me smile this weekend. I have been successful in getting my secretary set up like I want it and that is good.

I bought a secretary for my office room a little over a month ago and I’ve been working on setting it up as a writing station. It was good for using my pens and doing some note-taking and hadwriting, but I kept wanting to type up work and would have to leave the secretary and walk over to my laptop – back and forth. I needed computer access – without taking up much space and without taking away digital capability from anywhere else.

So I dug out Candy’s old Dell Latitude D600. It’s what? About seven years old now? That’s ancient in computer terms. We bought it off of eBay back in the day. It’s way too weak sauce to run Windows anymore, but I have Linux on it, and it chugs along, doing what I need to do. I drilled a hole in the back of the secretary for the power cord and it sits folded up, back in the shelving unit, out of the way, until I need to pop it out and open it up.

Since I want to use it for writing, I did some thinking about software. Maybe I’m finally turning into an old fart – but I still miss typing into a console-based word processor (I still think Wordperfect 5.1 – the old white-text-on-blue was the best environment for pure writing). There are plenty of console-based text editors for Linux, but no full-featured word processor.

I found through LifeHacker and a book from the library, Ubuntu Kung Fu, (don’t know what I found first) that I could install a little dos emulator and then run a free version of Microsoft Word for Dos from Microsoft, full screen, no problemo.

If nothing else, the idea of getting something free from Microsoft…. So I did the work, and there it is. Old-school. But it is pretty cool, really. It prints, it saves… no distracting Internet – but it even has text-based mouse support (that little square cursor jumping across the page). Easy on the eyes, no tiny delay while you are typing, no onscreen fonts, formatting… nothing, nothing between my fingers and the pure words.

My secretary setup

My secretary setup

Here’s my setup – you can see the old laptop up and running Microsoft Word for DOS. To the left, I have a stack of Moleskines (notes and such). Above that is a cubby with a bottle of Noodlers Black ink (for the desk pen), a box of 3×5 cards (hidden back in the shadow) and a few spare fountain pens (A white Pilot Prera and some Sheaffer Snorkels). On the right are the current writing books I’m working through and a Staples Bagasse composition book with a desk pen set on top. That’s an Esterbrook desk pen in the Eight-Ball base (bought the pen and base separately at Canton – put a new bladder and lever into the pen). These are common pens from back in the day, but they write really well and have interchangeable nibs. I’m using a 9314M medium stub nib in there right now.

Too Much Happiness

Cabbage

I'm afraid to grow up because sometimes it feels it will never be this beautiful again.

I couldn’t sleep last night and I decided to clean up my reading list a bit and finish something I had already started. It didn’t take long to set in on the last story in Alice Munro’s last collection of short stories, Too Much Happiness. This was the long story… almost a novella… that the collection was named after. Too Much Happinesswas addicting and I had to keep reading until I was done, no matter how tired I was or how soon the next day’s work would come.

Alice Munro is a brilliant genius. She is, in my humble opinion, the unquestioned master of her genre. If you read the plot summary of one of her stories, you will scratch your head – it will read as melodrama, or a series of random, unconnected action, or it will seem that nothing much really happens. Her mysterious skill is so great that when you actually read the test it makes sense, draws you in, and takes you on an emotional journey far from your pitiful little room where you sit clutching that tattered paperback.

If I could have one ability – I would choose to be able to do, whatever it is, that she does. She makes seamless connections where none should exist. There is a concept that art is the conveying of something that can’t be done any other way. And that is what Alice Munro does, that is her genius. You can’t really summarize or explain what she writes because it is art of such exquisite subtleness that it has a kind of Heisenberg Uncertainty about it – to explain it is to change it.

The collection has a series of her typical mastery. Thinking about it, I almost want to go read it again.

But that’s not what I want to talk about tonight. I want to discuss that last long story, because it is different than what she usually writes.

The long story, “Too Much Happiness” is the story of a woman traveling across Europe one winter in the last decade of the nineteenth century. She visits a series of people from her past and spends a lot of time on cold trains moving through dreary country thinking about her life.

As I plunged on I realized that this was a real person that I had heard of before. The woman was Sofia Kovalevskaya – the first Russian female mathematician. She had been rumored to be the subject of a Thomas Pynchon novel – though she ended up being only a minor character. A fascinating character with an unusual, varied, courageous, and ultimately tragic life. Given such a dynamic protagonist most authors, writers of lesser vision and talent, would have wrote of the high points of such a person, scribbling in breathless prose her struggles to become a woman of letters in a time and place this was unheard of – her arranged marriage – her wild affairs – her political involvement – her friendship with famous figures of the day: Darwin, Eliot (there is a passage in Middlemarch where her mathematical theories are mentioned), and Dostoevsky.

But Munro spends most of her words simply detailing her journey, the people that she shares her compartment with, the difficulties she has with the changing weather, languages, and currency she has to deal with.

And I don’t know how she does it… but it works. By the end you feel you know Sofia… you want to meet her… and most of all you care about her. The ending is devastating, but not unexpected. It is, after all, a life.

The final sentence notes that there is a crater on the moon named after Sofia Kovalevskaya.

And, that’s that.


Reviews of the Alice Munro Collection Too Much Happiness:

Too Much Happiness

Too Much Happiness

What I learned this week – July 29, 2011

Pulp Cover

Gratuitous Pulp Paperback Cover



Kurt Vonnegut

Eight rules for writing fiction:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

— Vonnegut, Kurt, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.


But I’m not complaining! You know why? Because the cardinal rule of dealing with negativity is: Don’t complain about negativity.

—Nathan Bradford, How to Deal With Negativity


It’s a shame my children are grown, because now, I finally have an instructional video on how to properly read them a fairy tale. Actually, if they had had the Internet when my kids were little (we had dialup…) I could have simply played this to them. Mounted an iPad on their crib (oops… no Flash… – mounted an Android Tablet on their crib) and let them watch to their heart’s desire.

Pretty good, huh. Still, though, I think it needs more cowbell.


Pulp Cover

Gratuitous Pulp Paperback Cover

Casting the Runes

The other night, I couldn’t sleep, walked out to the living room couch, and switched on the television. Hoping to find something relaxing I cruised the digital cable channels (a bad habit of mine) until I stumbled across a movie about to begin, way up in the five hundreds, that looked interesting.

It was called Curse of the Demon (British title Night of the Demon [better, huh]) and was supposed to be a minor classic of British horror filmmaking. Though it is very British in style, it starred Dana Andrews. Whenever I hear that actor’s name I think of the line from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes, but passing them used lots of skill“. I didn’t make the connection at first.

The Monster from Curse of the Demon

The Monster from Curse of the Demon

Thankfully, the movie didn’t take long to get going; in the first few scenes a man walking down a road at night is pursued by a demon that knocks down some handy power lines and then tears the poor victim to pieces. The final few seconds of the rubber mask looking thing was silly in a late-night television sort of way, but the first appearance of the demon was really excellent and chilling, brilliant.

The movie continued and it was good. Very well done, very British, dated a little, but not too much… just right actually. Exactly what I wanted to see. I was relaxed, watching when something really caught my ears. It was during the mandatory seance/hypnosis scene (Mandatory in all quality black and white horror films) when the man under the trance suddenly shouted out, “It’s in the trees… It’s coming!” It’s always fun when you unknowingly stumble across the source of a sound sample from a familiar and beloved piece of music. That clip, “It’s in the trees… It’s coming!” is, of course, the opening sample from Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love. Greatness.

After the film ended (complete with Hitchcockian maneuvering over a slip of paper in a train compartment and a final appearance of the demon as comeuppance) I was interested enough to do some snooping of my own. I found that the film was loosely based on a short story, Casting the Runes by M. R. James. That, of course, helped me realize that Dr. Frankenfurter’s lyric, “Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes, but passing them used lots of skill” was taken from the film/story.

I checked the Richardson Library and found they had a book of James’ short stories with Casting the Runes, so I checked it out. The short story is creepier than the movie, by necessity more trim and compact, with a couple of efficient horrifying scenes (the kid’s party, the mouth with teeth under the pillow). I later found an online version of the story here.

It's in the trees! It's coming!

It’s in the trees! It’s coming!

Late night black and white British horror movie, sampled by Kate Bush for her classic album, referenced in Rocky Horror, inspired by slick little short story sitting on my library shelf – one of the thousands upon thousands of unknown books… in the SF section no less. Now it’s time to go to bed.

A really well done YouTube Video Combining scenes from Night of the Demon with Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.

Japan Breeding Army of Godzillas!

All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.
—-Oscar Wilde
Strip for Violence

Gratuitous Pulp Paperback Cover - this has nothing to do with the rest of the entry.

One of my favorite writing techniques is what I call “Bad Poetry.”
It is what it sounds like. Write some bad poetry – and then see if you can use it as a basis for prose. Most of the time, you can’t. But every now and then it works.
It works because of the fact that it forces you to abandon your inner editor in the initial creative, first draft part of the process. After all, you are writing bad poetry… the badder the better.
It works for me in particular because bad poetry is the only kind of poetry I write.
Another, related source of inspiration is a collection of stupid tabloid headlines. Examples of a few from this web site:
  • DRUNKS FALL OFF ROOF AFTER BARTENDER DECLARES DRINKS ARE ON THE HOUSE!
  • FIRED ARCHITECT BURNS HIS BRIDGES
  • THE WAY TO A MAN’S HEART IS NOT THROUGH HIS STOMACH! SURGEON’S LICENSE REVOKED
  • Cat found with hoard of over 200 TONGUES! (What’s the matter? Cat got your …)
  • MAN POSES AS CPR DUMMY FOR WOMEN’S TRAINING CLASS
  • CAVE PAINTINGS REVEAL EXISTENCE OF PREHISTORIC INSURANCE SALESMAN!
  • EXORCISM CURES MONSTROUS ZIT!
  • GENEROUS KIDS SHIP THEIR UNEATEN PEAS TO STARVING CHILDREN IN APPALACHIA
  • I WAS ATTACKED BY MONGOLIAN DEATHWORM!
  • MAN CAN SEE ONE SECOND INTO FUTURE
  • HONESTY FALLS TO THIRD AS ‘BEST POLICY’
  • STUDY FINDS MOST STUDIES ARE STUPID
It's Only a Rabbit

Look, that rabbit's got a vicious streak a mile wide! It's a killer!

COWARDLY MATADOR ONLY FIGHTS RABBITS

  • GUY DIALS PHONE # ON TOILET WALL — & FINDS HIS MISSING MOM!
  • PIZZA WAS SERVED AT THE LAST SUPPER . . . and the pies were delivered
  • SPANISH ARMADA WAS SUNK BY UFOs
  • BLUES SINGER SUES SHRINK FOR MAKING HIM FEEL BETTER
  • AREA 51 IS REALLY STRIP CLUB FOR BIGWIGS
  • THE MOON IS HATCHING . . . and whatever’s coming out has big teeth, NASA says!
  • Couple sells everything to clone their dying cat
  • Hole in ozone layer is sucking world’s penguins into space, say scientists!
  • TERROR TOADS INVADING AMERICA’S TOILETS!
  • CONCRETE ENEMAS A BAD IDEA, DOCS WARN
  • GOTCHA! JEWELER INVENTS WEDDING RING THAT CHANGES COLOR IF YOU CHEAT!
  • MAN FALLS OFF ROOF – MOUNTING LUCKY HORSESHOES
  • WOMAN, 79, DIES IN MEATLOAF EXPLOSION!
  • HAGGIS HORROR!
  • ATTACKS BY GIANT SQUIDS SKYROCKET
  • HAITI SELLING OF ZOMBIES BUY ONE GET ONE FREE!
  • 7 CONGRESSMAN ARE ZOMBIES! (that can’t be right… only Seven?)
  • BELGIUM DESTROYED BY ROGUE ASTEROID & NO ONE NOTICES!
  • PEOPLE BLINDED BY ECLIPSE CAN SEE THE FUTURE!
  • JUST SAY NO TO AARDVARK MEAT
  • ALIEN SITCOMS ARE WORSE THAN OURS!
  • GIANT SPACE SPIDERS WILL SAVE THE EARTH! Webs can deflect killer asteroids, says NASA
  • My daughter is pregnant by her invisible friend!
  • HOUSEWIFE EXPERIENCES HALF-RAPTURE . . . & gets stuck in the dining room ceiling!
  • MULTIPLE PERSONALITY MAN CHARGED TRIPLE ROOM RATE!
  • RESEARCHER CALCULATES A SNOWBALL’S CHANCE IN HELL TO BE .000000000134%
  • MICROSCOPIC SPACE ALIENS INFESTING CARPETS
  • UFO ALIENS ABDUCTED MY CAT! Now frisky Felix is home safe — and has a gift of ESP, says amazed owner
  • WIFE USED HUBBY’S TOOTHBRUSH – TO CLEAN THE COMMODE!
I learned this technique at a poetry writing seminar years ago. We all pulled  little slips of paper with these headlines written on them from a box the teacher passed around.
My paper said, “Japan Breeding Army of Godzillas!” We were given twenty minues to write something. I wrote:

34. JAPAN BREEDING ARMY OF GODZILLAS!

The water boils
off the coast
as the men in Rubber
lizard suits
wash ashore and creep
up the slopes of Mount Fuji

They eat tender bamboo and strings
of seaweed
and their ragged
backbones glow with special
blue electricity

At sunset they dance
to ominous trumpet music
stomping in unison
and sing their monster song

And then they sleep
their giant growling snores
echo back across the ocean
like cinema earthquakes

The best-laid schemes

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
—-To a Mouse, Robert Burns

 

Furnace

Furnace

I had great plans for the weekend. I even wrote them down – a two page list in one of my Staples Bagasse Composition Books I carry with me always. Two pages! Who the hell am I kidding?

Well, of the projects I wanted to complete, I finished… hmmm… let me count… none.

On Sunday, around noon or so, I was trying to decide whether to go to the library and write (I have a certain table at the Richardson Library I like to work at – the library is open from two to six, which is a nice constrained four hour writing time – it’s shocking how fast the time flies) or to go for a bicycle ride. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and ride my bike to the library.

Table

My favorite table at the Richardson Library.

I made my preparations – packing my Alphasmart Neo (don’t want to ride my bike with my laptop), pens, notebooks, water bottles, clean shirt, towel, and such and sundry stuffins. I put my backpack on and went out into the blast furnace of the garage to get my bike. The front tire was flat.

I stood out in the sun behind the house, found the telltale little white spot where the thorn had penetrated, took everything apart (nasty little thorn, really), patched the tube, put it together, and pumped everything back up.

Maybe a half an hour. I was drenched in sweat.

I had calculated that I would be able to get to the library in the awful heat by moving quickly. The time I spent fixing the tire was too much, though. I rode about a mile and decided it was too risky. The temperature, the sun beating down, the still air… it was all going toxic. By the time I made it home I was beginning to get a little dizzy.

I am too old and way too out of shape for this. All I wanted to do was veg out in a dark cave of conditioned air. The bit of overheated exertion wore me to the bone. At that point I wasn’t even up to driving to the library. I rested a bit, went to eat with the family, and at sunset walked down to Lee’s last softball game. Once the sun is down, it’s a lot more bearable. I think the solar radiation beating down is worse than the superheated air.

I’ve complained about the heat already. And it wasn’t even bad back then, not like now. It’s always hot here in the summer, of course, but this is getting ridiculous. It wears everyone out – it is so hard to get anything done.

Deadlier than the Male

Deadlier than the Male

The only thing I accomplished was to read another bit of Pulp Fiction I had queued up. This one was Deadlier than the Male, by James Gunn. No, this isn’t James Gunn, the science fiction professor that teaches at my alma mater (yes, I took a class from him, but that’s a whole ‘nother story). This James Gunn seems to have not written another novel. Nobody seems to know anything about him. The book was made into a film in 1947 called Born to Kill – which I’ll try to find.

Born to Kill

Born to Kill

It’s an odd, crazy book. I wouldn’t say it was a good book, but it was something. The language is simple, but arresting. The first line – ”Helen Brent had the best-looking legs at the inquest,” pretty much sets the scene. Most noir pulps have a small number of characters, but in this one, every chapter introduces somebody new. They keep arriving faster than they are killed off… until near the end. With each fresh character the story splits until the plot is like a big twisted knot of desperation and evil, stretching from Fresno to Frisco. I had a bit of trouble keeping track of who was who, and a few of the participants seem to simply disappear from the book once their utility wears thin, but the book was short and the story tumbled forward picking up flotsam and jetsam from the sewer of human malice until it all crashed down into the last few pages.

Since I wasn’t up for anything useful I was able to get through the book in one day. Now, I have some more pulp noir stuff in my reading list, but I need to find something different, maybe even something a little uplifting. After reading this one… I feel sort of dirty.

Heat
Heat