Tuesday, February 10, 2015

that feeling up the back of your neck

So I'm fairly sure I got cased out on the street today.

I was walking through downtown Lawrence, on my way to the coffee shop, about 9 am before all the shops were open. Bright daylight, chilly, very few pedestrians. I cross the street from south to north, at the corner, and two guys cross from the opposite corner, from east to west. As they cross, one of them goes straight, but the other makes a beeline for me, adjusting to my trajectory so he steps up on the curb maybe two feet behind me, and then lingers there for three or four strides.

I did a 180 turn, maintaining my stride, looked him in the eye. He, of course, almost steps on me and has to skip to the side, with a grunt as if I were being annoying. "Excuse me," I said, and kept walking. I figure he's going to either drop back or stride ahead, but he kept pace with me, at the building edge of the sidewalk. We're watching each other from the corners of our eyes. I have on combat boots, a utility jacket, backpack. He's about my age, six feet, lean, dressed like a clean homeless guy. I check the shop windows but can't see his partner. I keep my hands in my pockets and slow my pace.

My kung fu teacher says, if you don't want to fight, act like you do. And I know from experience that if you act unafraid, they'll wonder what you've got in your hands, inside that coat. In any case, I'm not about to run from a predator when there's nowhere to go, anyway.

I'm pretty sure I bluffed him out. Because after a minute, he said, in a very phony glib voice, "So you up here for school?"

And I said, in my usual cold flat response to idiocy, "I'm not out here for conversation, thanks."

He says nothing. He drops back. I cross the street at the light, keep going. Didn't see them again. My pulse accelerated a bit, but that was all.

I'm not entirely sure what happened there, but it was definitely shady. And I thought again, as I walked home a couple hours later, what a sheltered life I have led, that I have so seldom had to deal with nonsense like that. Wish I'd gotten a better look at his partner.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

fun with racial slurs

At my last writer's meeting somebody questioned my use of the racial slur "cracker," so I got curious and did some new digging; new resources crop up all the time. I knew 'cracker' was pre-Civil War but didn't know it was pre-Revolution:



cracker (n.2) Look up cracker at Dictionary.com
Southern U.S. derogatory term for "poor, white trash" (1766), probably an agent noun from crack (v.) in the sense "to boast" (as in not what it's cracked up to be). Compare Latin crepare "to rattle, crack, creak," with a secondary figurative sense of "boast of, prattle, make ado about."
I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode. [1766, G. Cochrane]
But DARE compares corn-cracker "poor white farmer" (1835, U.S. Midwest colloquial). Especially of Georgians by 1808, though often extended to residents of northern Florida. Another name in mid-19c. use wassand-hiller "poor white in Georgia or South Carolina."
Not very essentially different is the condition of a class of people living in the pine-barrens nearest the coast [of South Carolina], as described to me by a rice-planter. They seldom have any meat, he said, except they steal hogs, which belong to the planters, or their negroes, and their chief diet is rice and milk. "They are small, gaunt, and cadaverous, and their skin is just the color of the sand-hills they live on. They are quite incapable of applying themselves steadily to any labor, and their habits are very much like those of the old Indians." [Frederick Law Olmsted, "A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States," 1856]


 (from www.etymonline.com a/k/a the most wonderful writer's resource ever)

Also, the less well-known and southern-specific "buckra"



buckra (n.) Look up buckra at Dictionary.com
disparaging term among U.S. blacks for "white person," especially a poor one, 1790, apparently from an African language; compare mbakara "master" in Efik, a language of the Ibibio people of southern Nigeria.



Once again, I'm struck by how American slang has about a billion derogatory words for "not-white," and specifically, "black", but not many that specifically disparage whiteness. Another example of how history, and language, are written by the victors.

H.

Friday, October 31, 2014

onward

Yeah, so, turns out I was right about 1) Curse rewrites and 2) Halloween gumming up the writing works. I shipped out the last costume yesterday afternoon, and this morning I got up and wrote a couple pages on a new chapter of the third Jacob Tracy book. Which is now titled Confounded Immortals, if you're playing along at home.

I'm pretty sure I know what's going to happen next. And that's such a good feeling.

Monday, October 13, 2014

applesauce muffnuts

Cronut, muffnut. Whatever.

I took a pumpkin donut recipe and from it made applesauce muffins. They are dense, moist, and fluffy, more like a coffeecake than a donut. Very good, not too sweet, kind of heavy, in a healthy-seeming way. If you use sweetened applesauce in the mix you will get a sweeter batter, but I like to keep the muffin itself only slightly sweet and then dust them in cinnamon-sugar, or ice them with powdered sugar icing.

  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 tsp Penzey's Baking Spice (or, 1 tsp cinnamon; 1/2 tsp each nutmeg & allspice) 
  • 1/3 cup butter, melted but not hot
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • pinch salt, if necessary
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup applesauce (I pureed some granny smiths I had in the fridge & added a dash of lemon juice)
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Stir together dry ingredients, sugar & spices.
In a separate bowl, stir together the wet ingredients, then add all at once to the flour. Stir together by hand until combined; batter will be slightly wet and not quite smooth. Pour into standard-size muffin tins (I got a neat 12 out of this recipe; the batter doesn't rise a lot so don't worry about over-filling the tins.) 
Bake 12-15 minutes or until they pass the chopstick insertion test. There is a LOT of moisture in these so they are still kind of squidgy in the middle even after they are done. Let cool in pan 5 minutes, then turn out onto cookie sheet if you intend to glaze/ice them. 
I brushed on some melted butter and dusted them with cinnamon-sugar.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

cosplay etiquette: maintaining perspective

Fair warning: this is probably the only time you'll ever see the words "country singer Trace Adkins" and "cosplay" together in the same blog post. I guarantee it's the only time you'll ever see me mention a country-themed cruise to Jamaica. So bear with me--I'm actually going to make a point about cosplay.

***

Back in January of this year, country music star Trace Adkins had a confrontation with a fan on a cruise ship where Adkins was supposed to be the headlining act. It's not clear whether Adkins lost his cool because he'd been drinking, or whether the persistent tomdickery of this single white fanboy (who was singing karaoke and signing Adkins-like autographs at the time of the incident) knocked Adkins off the wagon after 12 years of sobriety. But all accounts agree that it was a public, verbal dressing-down, and Adkins got off the ship and checked himself into rehab as soon as they reached dock.

This is the kind of story that makes me squirm for all involved, but after putting myself in both parties' shoes my sympathies are 90% with the celebrity. This fan was following Adkins around and pretending to be Adkins. Though I can't say whether any laws were broken, a good lawyer could probably make a case for likeness rights violations, stalking, and identity theft in a civil lawsuit.

Of course, all of us cosplayers and fan-art-makers are violating copyright to one extent or another, but at least we're mimicking imaginary people. To cosplay a living person and to show up at his shows… that's just creepy. 

(I know I'll be creeped out the first time I see somebody cosplay one of *my* characters. Think how horrific it will be when some dude appears at my autograph table dressed as Jacob Tracy and expects me to be his Miss Fairweather. I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.)

Now, how does this apply to cosplay, where most of us are playing imaginary characters? Well again it has to do with appreciating the line between reality and fantasy. We all get into cosplay because we like to imagine ourselves as another person in another place, but the sad reality is we're still living in boring old Kansas. Any time you stop playing the character and start presenting yourself as the character, it's a potential problem. And that particularly applies to meeting the actors and/or creators of said character. 

Look, you're already a guy/gal wearing a costume in public. If you go around acting like you really are in Rivendale or Hogwarts or the bridge of the Starship Enterprise people are legitimately going to suspect there's something wrong with you. So here are a few guidelines to know if you're taking it too far:

Scenario A. You're in costume and somebody asks you for a picture. You whip out your best hero pose, brandish your weapon, and snarl. Pic snapped. Cards exchanged. Back to being a guest at a con. All very normal.

Scenario B. You're in costume and some little kid calls you by the name of your character. You immediately fall into character, kneel down and talk to the kid and pose for a couple of cute pics for the kid's parents. You're on your best behavior, the kid's happy, the parents are happy, you feel vindicated. Kid goes on her way and you revert to being a guest at a con, only with a well-deserved sense of done-good. 

Scenario C. You're dressed as Wesley Crusher because you have the chance to meet Wil Wheaton! You're going to get his autograph and a pic and a handshake and WHEEE you'll be the bestest friends evah! Personally, I wouldn't do this. But I know people do, and I think the best approach here is to behave as normally as possible (i.e. Be Yourself) when meeting your idol. Say you like their work. Say their portrayal of the character inspired you. Probably best not to be too confessional here, and definitely don't try to trump the actors' performance with your own impersonation of the character. (I used Wil Wheaton as an example here because he's known to be super-welcoming to his fans. But still, I say, don't expect the celebrity to be your dancing monkey. Wil Wheaton is not your bitch.)

Scenario D. You're dressed as Lady X on the way to meet the creator of Lady X: super-hot comic artist/writer John X. Doe. Many creators love this, but some hate it. Do some research and approach your author accordingly. Again, if you're in costume, probably best to speak to the creator in your own voice, not try to impress them with how much you resemble Lady X and how well you know her back story and how much you'd love to pose for the next comic book and can he help you land the role in the upcoming movie. Not smooth.

Scenario E. There was a story about a year and a half ago about a teenager who was denied admittance to Disney World because her Tinkerbell costume was too accurate and the park management didn't want child guests thinking she was the 'official' Tinkerbell. This, to my mind, falls into the same category as the Trace Adkins cruiseship story above. There are appropriate times and places for cosplay. Don't infringe on the original's territory or you may find yourself bitch-slapped by an angry behemoth.

***

But Holly! you're whining, Why are you raining on our parade? Isn't cosplay just for fun? Shouldn't we  be allowed to have fun and make-believe? 

Sure. But keep in mind that your reality, and your rights to enjoy that reality, don't really extend beyond your own skin. When you start demanding that other people validate your reality, it gets uncomfortable in a hurry. 


ham and bean soup

Use a good quality, non-glazed, preferably uncured ham for this. I like Beeler's.

All measurements are estimated. Total cook time up to 4 hours. Prep time 30 min. Makes about three quarts, enough to feed a crowd or freeze for later.

You'll notice there is no additional salt in this recipe: the bouillon and the ham are quite salty enough on their own.

2 cups (1 lb) dried pinto beans
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 chopped sweet yellow onion (1 cup)
1 small shallot, minced
2-3 cups diced ham
2-3 tsp chicken bouillon powder (adjust to suit your salt preference)
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp white pepper
2-3 tsp dried parsley
1 tsp dried tarragon
1 tsp dried thyme
1/4 cup Dijon mustard

To prep the beans, put in a large stock pot with plenty of cool water. Cover and bring to boil. Boil 5 min, then turn off heat, leave covered on the stove 1 hour.

After an hour, drain the beans and rinse in warm water until clear. Add more clean water to more than cover the beans and return to stove on medium heat. Add all other ingredients, cover and simmer for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally. After about 90 minutes you can test the beans for doneness: scoop up a spoonful and blow on them; if their skins split and curl they are done enough to eat.

However, for a nice thick porridge-like soup and tender beans, let simmer another hour. I find 2.5 to 3 hours cook time gives the nicest texture. Stir now and then and add water in increments if necessary.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

on writer's block: the issue of flow

Back in my Critters.org days I used to roll my eyes when people said my writing "flowed" well. Because it's a fairly non-specific comment I was never sure what they meant; I thought it was one of those comments like, "It makes you think!" that really mean nothing at all and was just something that unschooled critters would say to have something to say.

Looking back, I think narrative flow was one of the things that I internalized at a young age, as a side-effect of being a prolific reader. I hadn't yet read enough amateur fiction to understand how hard that sort of thing is for other writers, and I hadn't yet dissected my own process to the point where I understood what I was doing and how.

But I've been going through a rough patch with this rewrite the last few months. Not the kind of block where one doesn't know what will happen next. The basic events of the novel are not changing, it's the why and how that I've been revising.

And lately I've had difficulty tapping into that machinery where the raw ingredients of characters, words, and situation go in and the lovely firm multi-textured scenes come out.

I can still write grammatical sentences that convey meaning, but the organic quality, the ability to submerse myself in the characters' heads and effortlessly transcribe what I see there, is lacking. My paragraphs are dry, lacking movement. The transitions between sentences feel clunky.

So I've been trying to read more, and specifically read more good stuff. I also picked up a book, How to Read Like a Writer, by Francine Prose, which specifically discusses the use of language.

Meanwhile there are a couple of mid-level writers in my writer's group who are working on this very issue. They, too, can put together grammatically sound sentences that convey who is standing where and what they are doing, but I have never found myself diving into their work and getting lost in it.

So I've been trying to diagnose some of the issues that enable or hamper "flow":

  • Description of setting—when, what, and how much. Tell us just as much as we need to know in the logical and helpful places. For any new setting, give a broad overview and then add in details as the characters interact with the environment. Point of view is relevant as well—whose eyes are we looking through? What's their take on the situation? How does their interpretation of events and surroundings reveal who they are to the reader?
  • Character blocking and perceptions—Mention when someone moves around in the room, and what they encounter when they do. Are they cooking breakfast? Making fishing lures? Knitting baby booties? Struggling to finish a project before the difficult client comes asking for it? Little bits of "business" within a scene help to set mood, establish a character's personality and emotional state, and describe the setting.
  • Dialogue—Is it natural and logical? or does it sound like the author is feeding the characters lines to move the plot forward?
  • Scene progression—Figuratively speaking, every scene should open with a question and end with the answer. In more concrete terms, something happens at the beginning of a scene that leads to another event, which precipitates another event, which prompts another, etc etc just like a row of dominoes. If you skip a domino the readers will think --wait, did I miss something?--and be jarred out of the story. Do this more than a couple of times and they will lose interest, having decided you are not a trustworthy guide on this journey. 
  • Plot progression—If your gaps in logic are particularly large readers will say the story has plot holes. You must show every step of the journey, or at least refer to events in narrative summary.

So, now I know what people meant when they said my work "flowed." Granted, it *is* an unschooled comment--a more seasoned critter would be more helpful by commenting on one of the issues above.

But still, to say that something "flows" well means "All the bits of the scene were in the right order and at the right pace, to such an extent that I forgot that I was reading." And that's a high compliment.

Monday, July 07, 2014

a scream in the night

I woke up last night around 3 a.m. and had to pee. This is a fairly common occurrence, and I took care of it without difficulty.

I should mention: we live in a 100-year-old house in which the bathroom is a tiny closet off the kitchen; its door faces the exterior back door, and is next to the bedroom.

I should mention also, I typically wear foam earplugs to bed, because the boy snores. It's probably not a good habit, but there it is. When I got out of bed, I took out one earplug and laid it on the nightstand, so I could negotiate the doors more quietly.

As I came out of the bathroom, in the pitch dark, I heard a sound that literally sent gooseflesh prickling down my spine and arms. It sounded like someone screaming. Like a fight, and someone screaming. It was slightly distant, as if coming from outside the house, and had a kind of doppler effect, as if it was close—like outside the kitchen door—and then moving forward, toward the street.

Friends, I was sure as could be that someone was being chased through the neighbors' yard and clubbed to death.

I took the other earplug out and took a step toward the back door, which put me in the doorway leading to the living room. The sound came again, but I couldn't zero in on it. I just knew it came from the east side of the house. I stood there for a probably less than a second, sorting through possible scenarios, which included domestic violence, drug deal gone bad, home invasion next door--where there is a cute little blonde soccer mom and three young children--and I was standing there stark naked, in pitch darkness, without my contact lenses.

Did I go for a weapon? Call the police? Put on clothes? I couldn't answer any of those questions until I knew what was happening, so: glasses. Confirmation. Find out what the fuck was going on. I went into the pitch-black bedroom and crawled over the bed, put my hand on the Sparring Partner's ribs. "Honey, wake up."

My tone got to him. "What?"

"There's somebody screaming outside."

"Are you serious?"

"I just heard it. Sounded like it was coming from the street." But I couldn't hear anything more, and with our bedroom windows close to the house next door, any noise from the street tends to get amplified. I grabbed my glasses and cat-walked through the house toward the front door.

Halfway there I heard it again: screaming. Sounds of blows, fighting. Sirens? Car engines? Even when you are awake in the middle of the night, panic and darkness can be very disorienting in terms of direction and distance. I thought, Why aren't there more lights on the street? Why don't I hear other voices yelling? People don't fight silently, ever. And I was hearing car sounds that suggested there should be flashing blue lights.

As I got closer to the SP's desk I realized the sounds were coming from the headphones he had left plugged into his computer.

He had been watching World War Z on Netflix, and put it on pause when we went to bed. But apparently Netflix had started running some little preview loop—like the bits of music/sound that get layered behind DVD menus—that consisted of running, screaming, fighting.

Lord Almighty. The release of tension was incredible. I was annoyed at myself and annoyed at the computer but mostly I was just glad nobody was dying and glad I didn't have to make some terrible decisions. By the time the SP walked up behind me I was nudging the mouse to close the browser window. "It's all right," I muttered. "It was just your computer." I did feel kind of stupid for not realizing it sooner. Maybe I would have, if it had been three in the afternoon instead of in the morning.

"Well at least you're still pretty," he said, which is one of our standard lines. He sounded relieved too. He put a hand on my bare back. "You're sweaty."

"I know! I literally broke out in a cold sweat when I heard it!" Some of the clich├ęs are true, it seems.

We went back to bed. I had a brief, minor attack of the shakes as the adrenaline wore off, and a sicker sense of dread as I realized that I probably wouldn't hear someone being murdered in the house next door—nor would anyone notice if I screamed my head off inside our house. We live in a little brick bunker.

What would I have done if there had been a murder taking place in my front yard? I'd like to think I would've thrown on a robe, grabbed a weapon and gone out there to disrupt it, at least. I was well on my way to doing so, and I woke up the SP with two thoughts in mind: that I needed him to verify the situation, and to call the police if necessary. I did not wake him up and say, "Go check this out," because that's not my style. I am more confrontational and damn-the-torpedoes than the Sparring Partner, possibly because I have a less realistic idea of my own physical vulnerability.

I train in martial arts and I take advantage of the laws which allow me to arm myself. I read tactical articles and books because they pertain to my research as a writer and to my safety as a woman. But it's all theoretical; very rarely does the average person get their mettle tested without actual bloodshed.

But almost the first thing I thought of—and what I'm still thinking of today—was how that actress from The Commish was attacked and stabbed in the street while everybody stood around and watched. I saw the made-for-TV movie of that years ago, probably while I was still in high school, and I pretty much made up my mind then and there that I would never be a bystander to something like that. I hope I never have to make that choice, but if I do, I hope I make a choice I can live with.

The irony of all this is, if I hadn't taken out that one earplug before leaving the bedroom, I probably would not have heard anything at all. But afterward, I was creeped out to realize—anew—how easy it would be for someone to break into our house at night and I'd never hear them.

I should re-train myself to sleep without those earplugs. And train the SP to put his computer to sleep at night.

At around 7:30 this morning it occurred to me to hope I hadn't heard a banshee. Because that's the way my mind works.