Very Clean

I was ten when A Hard Day’s Night came out. It played for about a year at the Village Cinema, four blocks from my house in Greenwich Village. The Village Cinema was a little art house, and while my mother was not against dropping the kids at the movies (I was 10, my brother was 8) especially during the summer when it was hot and there was air conditioning, she preferred to do it at the Waverly or the Loews Sheraton (both larger, with a larger, more supervisory staff to make sure we wouldn’t be spirited away). I think she found the Village Cinema–what was called an “art house” in those days, a little skeevy. In any case, neither my mother nor my father was enthused by the idea of taking us themselves and spending two hours watching what they anticipated would be a standard teen-pop-star movie.

Enter my Aunt Julie. Julie is my mother’s younger sister. She not only didn’t balk at taking us to the movie, she was delighted. By the time she came to visit we were in Massachusetts for the summer, so the three of us went to the Mahaiwe, the local theatre in Great Barrington, to see it. The rest, as far as we were concerned, was history. The three of us came home afterwards singing and quoting lines (“I now declare this bridge open…”) and within a week or two my mother, at least, gave in to the siren call of upbeat music and my aunt’s enthusiastic recommendation, and she began quoting from it as well. My grandmother called to ask me what the refrain of “he’s very clean,” referring to Paul’s grandfather, was all about. I saw Hard Day’s Night a good dozen times over the next year, and whole chunks of the dialogue moved into our household vernacular. Continue reading “Very Clean”

What’s New With Voyager 1?

 Voyager 1 is no Longer Sending Home Garbled Data!

This aging and still-valuable spacecraft has been exploring the outer parts of the solar system since its launch in 1977, along with its twin sibling, Voyager 2. They each traveled slightly different trajectories. Both went past Jupiter and Saturn, but Voyager 2 continued on to Uranus and Neptune. They’re both now outside the solar system, sending back data about the regions of space they’re exploring.

Voyager 1 flew past Jupiter in March 1979, and Saturn in November 1980. After its close approaches to those two gas giants, it started a trajectory out of the solar system and entered interstellar space in 2013. That’s when it ceased to detect the solar wind and scientists began to see an increase in particles consistent with those in interstellar space.

These days, Voyager 1 is more than 157.3 astronomical units from Earth and moving out at well over 61,000 km/hour. It’s busy collecting data about the interstellar medium and radiation from distant objects. If all goes well, the spacecraft should continue sending back data for nearly a decade. After that, it should fall silent as it travels beyond the Oort Cloud and out to the stars.

Earlier this year, however, the teams attached to the Voyager 1 mission noticed that the spacecraft was sending weird readouts about its attitude articulation and control system (called AACS, for short). Essentially, the AACS was sending telemetry data all right, but it was routing it to the wrong computer, one that had failed years ago. This corrupted the data, which led to the strangely garbled messages the ground-based crew received.

Once the engineers figured out that the old, dead computer might have been part of the problem, they had a way forward. They simply told the AACS to switch over sending to the correct computer system. The good news was that it didn’t affect science data-gathering and transmission. The best news came this week: team engineers have fixed the issue with the AACS and the data are flowing normally again.

The ongoing issue with AACS didn’t set off any fault protection systems onboard the spacecraft. If it had, Voyager 1 would have gone into “safe mode” while engineers tried to figure out what happened. During the period of garbled signals, AACS continued working, which indicated that the problem was either upstream or downstream of the unit. The fact that data were garbled provided a good clue to related computer issues.

This adapted article appeared in Universe Today. Click through for the full thing.

Caveat 9-Year-Old

When I was a kid my brother and I collected comic books in great quantity. Collected and read and re-read and read the letters columns and the ads, entirely uncritically. Until I learned better.

In those bygone days a company called Wilson Chemical advertised heavily in comic books, persuading kids they could WIN PRIZES and MAKE MONEY by selling Wilson Chemical’s Cloverine Salve (which was, as near as I can tell, petroleum jelly). There were pictures of all the fabulous prizes you could win, and very often there were little quizzes. It was implied that if you gave all the right answers to a quiz you would win some gimcrack item that caught your eye.

I love idiot quizzes. Still. The only thing that keeps me from clicking on the link to yet another “What Kind of Coffee Drinker Are You?” or “What’s Your Love Language?” quiz is sad experience and a little understanding of how the Internet works.

When I was nine I was singularly lacking in experience (and there was no Internet). I liked knowing the answers to stupid quizzes, and maybe I even wanted the pressed tin ring that was my prize for saying “Betsy Ross” instead of “Martha Washington.

So I filled out the form and mailed it in. Two weeks later I got a bulky package from Wilson Chemical with 12 cans of Cloverine Salve and a pressed tin ring that was even less impressive than I expected. I had no idea that I had entered into a business dealing; I put the package on the shelf and went and did other things. Until I started getting threatening letters from the Wilson Chemical Company and, shamefacedly, brought the whole concern to my father.

This could not have been the first time a kid had sent away for a prize and been nonplussed by what she received. The company knew it was advertising to children (there was a place on the form to put your age) and had been doing this for years. But my father rose to a level of magnificent outrage–and I recently found a carbon copy of his letter to Mr. George C. Wilson III of Wilson Chemical Company.

“I am returning to you under separate cover the package of White Cloverine Salve you so cleverly tricked my nine year old daughter int receiving.

I would have thought that this kind of shabby, old-fashioned medicine-man kind of obscure cure peddling would have been outlawed long ago…

…You are asking children to take advantage of their own and their parents good standing in their neighborhood … it seems to me to be nothing more than a business based on a folksy, neighborly blackmail….

From the careful phrasing of the stickers on your catalog I would assume that I am not the only irate parent who has returned the unsolicited package to you. The one package I am returning might previously have been sent to five or a dozen children in other families in this country. Each child would, as mine did, open the carton and the top can of your jelly to see what was there.

And yet you wish your product to be used as a medication to be applied to irritations, burns, and the minor cuts of shaving. You have no way of knowing if my child is now carrying an infection that can be efficiently carried to the neighbor of your next “agent,” and what better way to apply it, than directly into the minor irritations, burns, and cuts…

[He finishes] I will expect the cost of mailing this package back to you refunded to me and I sincerely hope never to receive any of your products in my home again.”

There is also a copy of the letter Mr. George C. Wilson III sent in reply, with a good deal of pearl-clutching about the notion that cans of Cloverine Salve might be sent out, opened, returned, sent out again, returned, ad nauseam. He didn’t actually say that they weren’t. He enclosed a copy of the form I submitted, “requesting us to ship on order of Cloverine Salve out to her on trust.” In the fine print, below the “Check Only Four of the Six Famous Americans” boxes above.

So I learned that 1) I should always read the fine print and avoid quizzes, and 2) that my father had my back. When roused to anger, Dad really was a poet of sorts.

 

Disabled People Love the Redwoods, too!

One of the joys of living where I do (Central Coast California) is how accessible the redwoods are. These are Coastal Redwoods, not the inland Sequoias, and they thrive in the ocean-born mists. They can grow to over 350′ and live over 3,000 years. We were heartbroken when Big Basin State Park burned in the 2020 wildfires, but redwoods are notoriously resistant to fire. New growth sprouts around burned trunks like a sprightly green beard. The park has re-opened, and its resilience is a reminder that all of us can enjoy these breath-taking forests. Big Basin does not, to the best of my knowledge, have disabled accommodations, but Henry Cowell State Park, Muir Woods, and many other parks, do! Check out this guide from Save the Redwoods:

Get your FREE Guide, A Disabled Hiker’s Guide to the Redwoods.

Even if this information doesn’t apply to you, there’s probably someone in your life who could use it, so please share it with your friends and family.

Many accessible experiences can be had in redwood parks, from hiking and camping to incredible scenic drives. Home to the world’s tallest, largest, and some of the oldest trees, as well as biodiversity found nowhere else, these special places offer inspiration and enhance the well-being of all.

Our new, free e-guide provides an accessibility overview of 15 redwood and giant sequoia parks. We are grateful to have worked with Syren Nagakyrie, the founder of Disabled Hikers. Syren visited parks this year to review accessibility using ADA/ABA guidelines as well as using their personal and professional experience to research parks.

Kitchen Interlude

I’m in the middle of a kitchen fit-out. As I type this, the tiler is preparing the wall, and his favourite radio show fills my workspace.

I’ve been waiting for this for over thirty years. The cupboards are almost done, and well over half of them are filled with my cooking equipment. Over two metres of shelf space (about six feet for the non-metric among us) is cookbooks and food reference books. I already have nearly three metres of food-related books in a nearby shelf in my lounge room. Finally, I will be able to find the books I want, when I want. I suspect this means that whenever I need to write about comfort books, for the next little while, I’ll be writing about food or food history.

What sort of books do I have? Everything from Apicius in Latin (with a facing French translation), through a history of potatoes, from Ancient Greek recipes to seventeenth century Polish, from food archaeology in the thirteenth century to food travels in the twentieth. French cooking magazines, a great many community cookbooks and Jewish cookbooks, and… well, lots. I’ve not counted them in recent years – five metres of shelf space is many, many books.

Also, someone stole some once, and I’m still aggrieved. A friend of mine has been gradually replenishing the community cookbook section from the stolen, which is a wonderful process of discovery. I used to have more community cookbooks from Victoria, which is my own background, but now they represent the far west. Next time she visits, I shall cook her dinner from some of the coolest recipes in the books she’s sent me.

Eventually, I’ll bring categories together. My old herbals and wild harvest books are scattered: Culpeper and Mrs Grieve need company. I have two modern cookbooks that recreate Medieval cuisine that I use all the time, then an array of similar books (with research problems, or no recipes) I use mainly for research. Do I store them together? Do I keep all books on food in the Middle Ages together, from the brilliantly insightful ones that I love, to the ones I love to hate because they claim everything and deliver errors?

I’ll not make firm decisions now. The tiler is doing the tiles today and I can’t cook until he’s finished. Dinner tonight is cold chicken sandwiches, made from ingredients that are living right next to my television. It’s camping, in a way.

Next week I’ll have access to everything, I hope, and after that… wait and see.

Right now, I have deadlines.

Ugly Baby

This post was written several years ago and published elsewhere.

A book is like a child: grubby, ill-behaved, beautiful, beloved.  Often all those things at the same time.  You finish a book and send it off into the world with the fervent hope that strangers will be kind.  Editors will not only recognize your baby’s beauty and charm, but will see past that unfortunate haircut and the scabs on her knees, and will want to teach it manners and perhaps pay for the braces and ballet lessons that will allow your child to be as loved by The World as she is by her parents.

Sick of this metaphor yet?  The thing is, even the best parent artist has blind spots.  For that reason, you rely on editors.  And art directors.  And book designers and proof-readers and on and on.  But even those folks can get, um, blinded by their own involvement.  The result can be a bad edit, a horrible cover, a well-intentioned marketing effort that appears to be aimed at an audience from Mars. Continue reading “Ugly Baby”

Auntie Deborah is Still Giving Writing Advice

Dear Auntie Deborah…


I wrote a story using another person’s characters, even though they said not to. Can I publish it since their book isn’t copyrighted?

If the author has published their story in any form, it’s copyrighted. That, however, is beside the point. It’s just plain unethical to do what you suggest. It’s a great way to make enemies in your genre and create a horrible reputation that will haunt your career, assuming you still have one after such a bonehead move.

Create your own characters. Write your own stories. Treat your colleagues and their work the way you would like to be treated. Pursue your career with integrity and generosity.

 

Are self-published books inferior to professionally published books?

It all depends.

Not that long ago, self-published or vanity press books were assumed to be of inferior quality, that is to say, unpublishable by “real” (traditional) publishers. There were exceptions, of course, but that was the conventional wisdom.

Today, however, many self-published books go through the same rigorous editing and quality standards as traditionally published books. Some genres, like romance, are especially friendly toward self-pubbed projects.

With modern publishing technology (ebooks, POD printing), there are many reasons why a pro-level author might want to self-publish, including:

  • Niche projects, like memoirs or family histories.
  • Series that were dropped by trad publishers but that have an enthusiastic fan following.
  • Well-written books that don’t fit into the NY “best-seller” model.
  • OP (out-of-print, rights reverted to author) backlist.
  • Great books that straddle genres or otherwise confuse traditional marketing/sales departments.

That said, many self-published books are dreadful. They aren’t good enough to attract the interest of an agent or publisher to begin with, they aren’t professionally edited or proofread, the covers are amateurish, and so on. The challenge for the reader is to sort out those books that are truly a wonderful reading experience.

Does reaching a certain number of reviews increase your indie sales?

The short answer is that nobody knows. Theories abound, usually to line the pockets of the “experts.” “Gaming” the Amazon system is a losing proposition. What might have been true 2 years or 6 months or last week no longer works — because thousands of self-published authors have tried it, thereby flooding the system with meaningless tweaks.

If you want to increase your sales, write a great book. Publicize it. Get stellar reviews on Publishers Weekly and the like. Write an even better book. Rinse and repeat. Even then, there are no guarantees when it comes to sales, but you’ll have the satisfaction of writing really good books.

My first attempt at a novel is a New Adult Romance novel using the Three Act Structure and I’m floundering. Help!

I’ve been writing professionally for over 35 years and this is what works for me: I noodle around until the story catches fire. Then I have some idea of: the hook, one or two plot points/reversals, the big climax, and the emotional tone of the ending. Sometimes I fall in love with the characters and they run away with the story. If I’m selling on proposal, I use that much to generate a synopsis. If it’s on-spec, I dive in. As long as I feel as if I’m flying or surfing the story, I keep on. I use things like structural analysis only if I feel stuck.

The thing is, and always has been for me (12+ trad pub novels, 60+ short stories, plus collections and non-fic), I go where the creative joy is. Anything else is a boring slog.

All this said, I write fantasy and science fiction, where fluid structures are appreciated. Romance is much more formulaic. Consider that your muse might be leading you to write a love story, not a by-the-numbers romance. Always, always listen to your heart. Continue reading “Auntie Deborah is Still Giving Writing Advice”

Critical I

Once I got reading under my belt, I couldn’t do enough of it–books, stories, cereal boxes, comic books. I gobbled up story like I was starving for it, initially uncritically, but fairly soon starting to think about why stories worked/didn’t work for me. In this I had a partner: my brother Clem. He and I amassed a comic book collection of perhaps 2000 well-worn, repeatedly read comics–most, but not all of them DC (the home of Superman and Batman). Clem and I haunted the smoke shop at the corner, where the new comics came in every… I think it was Tuesday… and conspired over which one of us would buy which. We took them home and read the them and then we talked over them. Clem, a far better artist than I will ever be, led the way in discussing the art. One of our favorite riding-on-the-subway games was to identify people who looked like they were drawn by specific artists. Continue reading “Critical I”

In Troubled Times: Tenaciously Hopeful

I first posted this on January 2, 2017, right after the presidential election. I’m putting it up again as a reminder of how important it is to take care of our mental well-being in troubled times.

Recently, I’ve noticed more articles on staying grounded in joy and hope, even when surrounded by fear. Perhaps such articles have always been part of the general social media discourse and I am only now becoming sufficiently calm to notice them. But I rather think (hope!) this is a trend. In me, it certainly is. After the initial rounds of fear and trepidation, the constant adrenaline wore off. I’m not naturally a person who enjoys being fearful; from my experience training dogs, I suspect it’s not an appealing state for most of us. Some, I suppose, enjoy the “high” of confrontation, even violence, but I’m not among them. Harming others and myself is not where I want to live my life.

I see also posts affirming commitment to action, often in terms of “We Will Fight On!” and I’ve been resisting the urge to jump on that bandwagon. (Also the “Organize the Resistance” brigade.) It all sounds so necessary, a matter of putting my money where my mouth is. And is just as unrealistic for me as remaining in that state of terrified fury.

As unhealthy.

I am not objecting to others following the paths to which they are led. Resisting fascism and protecting the most vulnerable are inarguably vital to our survival as individuals, communities, and a society. I am thrilled that people have the drive and knowledge to organize such resistance. I will be right there, cheering them on. But I won’t be in the forefront.

It’s taken me a long time, coming from a family of dyed-in-the-wool organizers (labor unions, radical politics, war resistance, etc.) to come to terms with not being one of them. Undoubtedly, seeing the cost to my family played a role in my reluctance. I’ve marched in my share of civil rights and anti-war demonstrations, written a gazillion letters, painted an equal number of signs. But it’s not where my heart is. I’ve seen the joy in the eyes of those for whom this is their passion, their “thing.” I want to hug them all and say, “I’m so glad you’re out there, doing this for both of us.”

The fallacy is that making the world a better place is an either/or proposition. Either I’m out there, making headlines by facilitating events of vast numbers for the people’s revolution (as an example), or I’m sitting at home, knitting while Yosemite burns.

The fact is, any social movement happens on many levels. There’s the outward, banner-headline, political level, one that often requires organization on a national or international level. There is a community level, supporting your neighbors, particularly those in need. Soup kitchens are just as necessary as demonstrations outside the White House, although they serve fewer people. Taking care of ourselves and our families is yet another.

Quiet, mindful actions that focus on compassion, justice, and unity need not be limited to small numbers. In fact, outward activism must be balanced by inner activism. We can all find where we are called to act along that spectrum, and we can move back and forth (or in and out, whichever image works best) with circumstances, experience, and energy levels. What a relief to realize I don’t have to pick one thing or level of involvement!

So what speaks to me right now is remembering joy. The year to come is almost certainly going to be full of occasions for grimness if not despair, so I don’t want to start off that way. I want to fill up my “savings account of hope” as much as I can, cultivating those people, places, and things that lift my spirits. I want to never, ever let go of believing we can survive this, kindness and persistence will triumph, and no matter how dark it may seem at the moment, love will win.

I refuse my consent to fascism. I also refuse my consent to despair.

I affirm that I will cling tenaciously – relentlessly – to hope, and I invite you to do so, too.

Thinking about lost culture again

Lost culture is exciting. How can something be exciting when we have lost it? Most times when we talk about loss, it’s in terms of the events that caused the loss. The political pressure, the murders – dire events that add up to big cultural losses. Yet, when a culture is lost because of irrepressible cruelty, it leaves traces. For years, I’ve been watching for such traces, to see how much we can know when remnants of a population have been forced away from their homes and when their lives have to be rebuilt from scratch. I don’t want to hear about horror. I want to find out what we can know about what was destroyed. I don’t look for the names of people: I want to know how they lived.

The first and most obvious relic is, in many cases, linguistic. I was just reading a study of eighteenth and nineteenth century Yiddish in Europe. It traced loan words from cultural areas such as food. Those loan words matched with a bunch of trade records and showed that there was a dynamic and strong Jewish butchers’ industry in the Polish-Lithuanain Commonwealth in the seventeenth century. These days most of the surviving descendants are in the US and may not even eat kosher, but some of the Yiddish has snuck into US English and so, in parts of the US, there is a memory of a life that people once led.

Other records come from the persecutors themselves. The records of the Inquisition have vast repositories of cultural information about Spanish Jews. They used it to technically prove that people were reverting to Judaism or had not dropped Judaism. While conversion to Christianity is by a claim of faith, the Inquisition demanded complete cultural change. Those who held religious power in the empire Spain led was key to maintaining that Jews were impure and that impurity carried down the line to children and to children’s children so people with Jewish ancestry had to be watched forever in case they shifted back to their ancestral religion.

The “convert, leave or die” ultimatum in Spain in 1492 left a lot of people, then, having to forsake family traditions and local customs. It was not safe to wash and wear nice clothes on a Friday, or to send for sweets made by your favourite Jewish confectioner, or even to eat salad on Saturday afternoons. It was possible to be burned alive if any of these small things informed the Inquisition that you were secretly Jewish. Because the Inquisition documented their research into what they regarded as lapsed converts, we know more about everyday life before 1492 as well as after it.

Another hidden aspect of culture is what happens when a whole cultural/religious group is suddenly missing: local culture changes to fill the biggest and most gaping holes. For example, in some places where Jews were sent into exile or mass murdered, the remaining Christian population would suddenly eat more pork. Why? I assume because it proved they were not Jewish and were therefore safe. Big cultural shifts have reasons. This is only one of them, but it’s a deeply-distressing one.

Let me finish on a less distressing note. Superstitions. Some superstitions are folk beliefs that have walked alongside popular culture and religious culture for a while. Others are what’s left when the framework and history for that belief or action is lost. I can imagine that, when we all have flying cars, people will still look both ways before crossing the road, because a hundred years of watching for regular cars instilled a habit so strong we mostly don’t notice we’re doing it.

What look like irregularities in a contemporary culture can tell us a lot about where that culture has been, historically. It’s not the core of my research right now. It’s something I keep an eye on. A lot of the lost elements of culture are the aspects that will bring a novel to life for readers. Understanding how they fit together and create living spaces for real people in our past also helps us write history into fiction more accurately.

 

 

Someone sent me to a story the other day because they knew I was interested in alternate Jewish history (because my most recent novel, The Green Children Help Out, has superheroes and alternate Jewish history) and that story rested all of its research on Christian views of history. The concept was a terrific one: what would happen if the relationship between Christianity and Judaism were inverted, with Christianity the minor religion. Making Judaism more Christian both culturally and religiously meant the story didn’t even come close to exploring the concept. The major players were changed, but the everyday culture was not.

It’ll be a while before I can write a novel using these historical explorations, unless I want to follow the path of the story I so dislike. Before I can bring my imagination to play and tell stories based upon hidden and lost history, I need to find as much as I can about the hidden and lost histories. It’s a marvellously fun trail, but the research is happening now. Old and trusty studies aren’t nearly as useful as conferences and conversations with those doing the research.