Saturday, January 28, 2012

Connections to the Things that Connect Us

My iPod tried asking out a woman we met on the street this week.
I was driving around my hometown of Pasadena, California, running errands at the time.  We were stopped at a red light.  I had my iPod hooked up so it could play through my car's stereo.  I've started learning Korean, so I had the Korean language track playing.  
While waiting for the light to change, an attractive Asian woman started crossing the street from my right.  Just as she was even with my open driver's side window, my iPod said: 
"Onul chonyoge chowa antushigesso yo?"  
The woman spun in the middle of the street toward me, a shocked expression on her face.  I stared back at her, not making the connection between her look of surprise and my iPod asking, in Korean, "Won't you eat with me tonight?"  
Then, the English voice on the Korean learning track said, "Now say, 'Ok.  At what time?'"  
Maybe my iPod was trying to prompt her reply.  It didn't work.  When she heard the English voice she laughed.  She nodded at me with a smile and continued on her way.  
Good try, iPod.  Better than I've ever done with someone I didn't know.  Better luck next time. 
I saw something similar on television this week.  The Big Bang Theory is one of my favorite shows.  I'm reminded of me and my friends in High School when I watch it.  If asked, I would put myself somewhere between Sheldon and Leonard as far as my nerdiness goes.  
Raj got a new iPhone this week on the show.  And he fell in love with Siri, the "intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator" that comes installed on the new version of the phone.  You ask it a question and it gives you an answer.  Raj could talk to Siri the way he couldn't normally talk to a live woman (at least not unless he's been drinking).  
At one point, Raj asked, "Will you call me 'Sexy'?"  Siri responded, in her computerized voice, "Yes, I will...  Sexy."  
And it will do it, too.  We tried in our office.  Several of us were talking and laughing about the episode when one of us called over a young lady who owned the new iPhone to see if it would really do it.  
"Tell me I'm sexy," the young lady whispered into the iPhone's display.  I wondered, Does the iPhone come with an app to help people that had self-esteem issues?  It probably does.
"I don't understand," Siri replied.  "'Tell me I'm sexy.'"  Maybe Siri needed some encouragement, too.  
I leaned over to her.  "I think you need say it differently.  Raj said, "Call me, 'Sexy'."  
"I don't understand," Siri said.  "Raj said, 'Call me, "Sexy"?'"  Maybe she didn't want her and Raj's relationship to be open yet.  
The young woman rephrased her request, and Siri caught on.  Siri first informed her that she hadn't updated her owner profile with her name.  She scrolled instructions on the screen on how to do that.  Then the owner needed to tell Siri how she wanted to be identified.  
"Hey, Siri...  Who am I?" she asked.  
"Is there something you want, Sexy?" came Siri's obedient request.  
I don't have a smartphone yet.  I want one, though.  I remember the first time I saw one in action I wanted one.  
It was at Comic-Con, the largest comic book convention in the United States, which takes place in San Diego each July.  I had met a number of fellow artists and writers that I had only known from online before.  The dealers floor was closing down.  There was a dozen of us standing on the sidewalk, talking.  We decided we would all have dinner together.  
We went the rounds of everyone's preferences and nutritional restrictions, and decided that we needed to find a Mexican restaurant that had a vegetarian menu that was within walking distance of the convention center that didn't require reservations for a party our size.  Yeah.  
I was just starting to think that I'd run down to Horton Plaza and get a burger on my own when one of our company pulled out her iPhone.  It was the first time I had seen one.  She bent over her screen and started typing something out.  In a moment she announced she found a place, four blocks up and two over, that matched all our criteria.  At my exclamation of surprise she showed me the map her phone was giving her to place.  
After a ten minute walk and a fifteen minute wait, we were all seated and placing our orders, which included tofu burritos.  Cool. 
I feel an attachment to my computers.  I have to take my Macbook with me wherever I go.  When I'm asked why, my reply is something like, "Just in case."  So far no one has gone on to ask, "Just in case...  What?"  
Just in case we're trapped in an elevator and our cell phones don't work BUT there happens to be an unprotected wifi hotspot on the floor just outside, I can send an email to someone to save our lives, how about THAT?  Huh?  
Oh, yeah...  You can do that with your iPhone, too, huh?  
The real reason I take my Macbook with me is because...  It carries my dreams.  Just like my iMac back home.  I'd carry it with me too, if I could.  All my stories are on it.  All my drafts and final submissions.  My plans for my novel.  My finances.  Everything I want to keep track of.  
I figure if (Knock wood that it doesn't) something were to happen to my apartment while I'm gone and my beloved iMac were lost forever, my valiant little Macbook would be by my side to help me carry on with all the important things in life.  
It's not just the "data."  I keep all that backed up, daily, on my iPod, as well as a USB stick drive.  The machines themselves have personalities now.  Like the way my iMac will sometimes "accidently" bring up iTunes when I've been writing for a long time to tell me it wants to play.  Yeah, you can say that the keystroke commands for saving a file and for bringing up my music player are close together, and that it's just the slip of some tired fingers.  But I know better than that.  Every morning, I stroke the keys, and the words flow from my brain, down my arm and into its display and storage unit.  
I can't go into greater detail.  What goes on between a man and his computer should stay there.  
One of the worse moments of my life was last August, in Reno, Nevada.  I was there attending "Renovation," the Sixty-Seventh World Science Fiction Convention, or "WorldCon."  On my second morning there I went to open my Macbook to start my daily writing session.  
It started to boot, then the screen flickered.  I saw an icon of a bomb with a fuse.  Not good.  The screen went black.  It died.  
If you had placed me on a desert island with a day's supply of water, I would not have felt more desperate.  I had backed up my work from the previous day, but...  What was I going to do?  How was I going to write today?  With a pen and paper?  Why not ask me to get back home to Pasadena in a covered wagon while your at it?  
I began to wonder If I had done something?  Should I have shut it down last night?  Had I not packed it carefully enough for the drive up?  Was my trusted friend gone for good?  
Fortunately, one of my smartphone carrying friends did a search.  There was an Apple Store on the outskirts of Reno, south of the convention center.  A fifteen minute drive down.  A ten minute consultation with a genius.  They carried my Macbook into the back.  No hospital waiting room felt so tense.  
It was good news.  A small clip holding a wire in place on the  power source had snapped, allowing the wire to come loose.  It was something they had corrected on later models.  They considered it a warranty issue.  It was fixed for free.  
I carried my Macbook back to my car and set it on the front seat.  I drove back over to the Starbucks where I had left my smartphone possessing friend.  While waiting for her come out, I gently rubbed the brushed aluminum cover of my Macbook.  
"Hey, buddy...  Glad you're doing OK."  My friend came out of Starbucks just then.  I put my Macbook back in my bag.  
I wasn't embarrassed or anything.  It's just that...  It was a private moment.  Right?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Letting the Ghosts Run Free

I don't sleep very well.  I used to sleep like a log.  Once, a few years after college, my roommate had to break down our apartment door when he came home from his waiter job after I mistakenly locked it in such a way that he couldn't let himself in.  After standing under my window and yelling at me to wake up and pounding on the front door, he finally just kicked the door hit, breaking the flip latch I had set when I got home from my job.  When he stormed into my bedroom, I was happily snoring away, oblivious to the problem I had caused.  
I don't sleep like that any more.  Part of it is age.  If I get a good six hours of sleep, and by "good" I mean I only wake up once before falling back to sleep, I count myself lucky.  Recently, though, it has been worse.  And it's because I keep getting this feeling that there is someone else in the apartment with me.  
It started after I reorganized my apartment.  Over the course of two weekends, during which I threw out about eight trash bags and four or five boxes of junk, as well as my old sofa, replacing it with something cushy I bought from Ikea, my place has been transformed.  I used to have pathways carved through the stacks of stuff allowing me to get to the places I needed to get: my bed, my bathroom, the kitchen, the TV.  Now I can walk in any direction I like without any worry about bumping into anything or knocking something over.  It's really something else.
I thought that this was the root of my recent insomnia.  The place didn't feel like my place any more.  It certainly wasn't the place I had been used to living in for almost twenty years.  It was like visiting some family member and being put up in the guest room.  One thing I noticed, in my bedroom's current configuration I can look through the bedroom door into the living room, something I couldn't do previously.  I kept snapping awake in the middle of the night.  My eyes would dart to the open doorway, expecting to see...  Someone, standing there watching me.  One night, the certainty that someone else was there was so great that I turned on a nightlight in living room and left it on all night.  First time I'd done that in decades.  
Then I remembered something my great-aunt once told me and I began to wonder...  Could it be, in my apartment's newly organized state, the ghosts were being allowed to run free in my place...?
My great-aunt Isolene was my grandfather's last living sibling when I moved in with him a few years after returning to California.  She lived in Pasadena, like my grandfather, in a retirement apartment on Villa, between Los Robles and Lake.  I would drive her around and help her run errands while I was living with Pops, which is what we called my Mom's Dad.  
"This is a retirement community," Isolene would tell me in her Belizean accent, every time I brought her home from cashing her social security check and buying her groceries.  "I only pay ninety-two dollars a month for living here, because I am old.  You could not live here, because you are too young yet."  Part of the routine of living there was that you had to flip a little panel on your front door every morning when you woke up to show the caretakers of the place that you were alive.  If the panel wasn't flipped, someone would come with keys to open your door to see if you were all right.  
My Aunt Isolene's apartment was a cluttered place.  It wasn't dusty or dirty.  She kept it clean.  But there were boxes and bags of things sitting on every chair and couch.  It was a maze of stuff.  You would have to walk around one stack of boxes, then dodge a chair with paper grocery bags stuffed to their top edge, just to get to her bedroom and her bathroom beyond it.  More than once I bumped into one of these towers of junk and was forced to catch it to keep it from spilling its contents to the floor.  
One time I wasn't so lucky.  It was after putting her cans of Chicken & Rice soup away, on the uppermost shelf.  This was at her insistence, even though she was about four foot eleven when she stood on her tip-toes.  I never figured out how she got her cans of soup down when I wasn't there to help her.  I was turning around to put the paper bags away when I ran right into one of her kitchen chairs that had two or three paper bags on it.  Everything toppled to the ground and spilled all over.  
"Oh, oh...  Help me, hon!"  Isolene lowered herself painfully to her knees to scoop the stuff up.  I quickly joined her.  "No, no, no..."  She reached out to take some papers from me that I was shoving back into the nearest bag.  "Here, here...  It goes in this one, hon."  
It was then, for the first time, I got a good look at what had been in the bags I had knocked over.  Photographs.  Really old photographs.  The newest ones looked like they were taken in the fifties or sixties.  Some looked like they may have been taken by some of the earliest cameras ever made.  
And I recognized no one in any of the pictures.  Furthermore, I couldn't see any connection the people in the photos could have with my family.  The one that caught me eye showed a black couple; the man was wearing an army uniform that looked it it was from World War Two and the woman was wearing a white dress, with a pillbox hat that had that a white rose on its brim.  The photo behind it was of a Chinese family.  The young men were wearing heavy coats, buttoned to their necks.  The woman was wearing a dowager princes style gown while seated on a heavily brocaded sofa.  The photo felt like it would crumble to dust at any moment and had to have been forty years old at the time.
"Isolene...?"  I watched my aunt closely as she organized the photos, putting them back into the smaller paper bags they had been in.  "Who are these people?"  
"I don't know," she answers.  "These belonged to people that used to live here."  
"What happened to them?"  
"They died."  She shrugged, like it was a common occurrence.  "When no one came to get them or their things, I take it.  Some of it.  Like this..."  She lifted a photo album, worn along its edges with a broken clasp, to show me before sticking it back into the bag.  
I looked around at all the bags of things there, filling her place.  It was a bit creepy.  It was sad, too.  
"Isolene...?"  My aunt started to struggle to her feet.  I stood, helped her up and righted the chair as I spoke to her.  "I've got some free time today...  How about I help you...  Put this stuff away or something...?  Give yourself more room..."  
"Oh, no!"  Isolene dropped the last bag on top of the others.  She pushed it down to make it stay, then pushed the chair back into the kitchen table, which was also piled high with bags and boxes, to lock the bags in place.  "If you did that, then they might come to get me!"
"The people who these belong to, hon."  
"But...  You said they were dead."  
"I know..."  She reached out and patted me on the air, as if I had just given evidence of being young and foolish.  "But they may come back.  They may come back for their things.  That's why I keep it like this, hon.  So if they do come, they they get lost amongst it all and they won't bother me."  
I looked over her head at the stuff in her place.  "It really IS a maze," I remember thinking.  If she was so afraid of these ghosts coming after her, I wondered, then why collect it in the first place?  
I never did ask my aunt that question.  A few years later Pops died from a lung condition that might have stemmed from his working for years for a large air conditioning manufacturer.  I remember people telling him he might have a case for suing them, but he refused to consider it.  "They gave me a job when I needed one," he'd reply gruffly.  "I was grateful for it then, and I won't 'done' them now."  
Isolene, a diabetic, stopped taking care of herself as well as she used to.  She moved in with Pop's widow, even though she hated the woman, once he was gone.  Her and all that stuff.  She lost a leg from gangrene and died shortly after.  
I thought about what Isolene had told me for the first time in years recently.  It was while I was laying in bed, listening to the traffic passing on Del Mar in the middle of the night.  While I was trying to figure out if the creaking sound I'd just heard was from the next apartment, or from my living room.  I figured if it was Isolene come back, looking for her lost stuff, then I should be OK.  After all, I was the one who put the Chicken & Rice soup on her topmost shelf for her, right?  
"Chicken & Rice...  That's nice."  Hearing her say that in my memory, as she had all the times I pulled the cans from the shopping bags, I turned over and finally dozed off. 
Next time I go to the store, maybe I should buy a can of that soup and put it on the top shelf.  Just in case.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Goals for the New Year

It may be a little late, two weeks into the new year, but I'm using my first blog entry of 2012 to put out what my goals for this year will be.  
First, I need to tell you that 2011 was a very, very good year for me.  Unlike most people, I was sorry to see it go.  I'm hoping to build upon my successes from last year in 2012.  To that end, I've selected the following as the things I would most like to do this year.
Half a Million Words
By the end of 2011 I had written 495,892 words.  I keep track of my daily word count in a spreadsheet, along with the time spent writing and the project I'm working on.  It wasn't until two or three days before the end of the year I noticed that I was that close to half a million words.  With all the holiday stuff going on, I wasn't able to schedule any extra time to reach that milestone.  So I decided to make it my goal for this year.  It comes to about 1,400 words a day, which is a bit more than my previous daily goal of a thousand words.  Obviously I tended to go past my daily minimum on a regular basis last year to be so close.  I think it's a very doable goal.  
Why pick this as a goal?  Why not say I want to sell a dozen stories this year, or that I want to get my novel published before 2012 ends?  Those are things I want to do, that I'm striving to do, but they are also goals that rely on other people in order to achieve.  One of the qualities I want in my New Year's resolutions is to make it something I can do on my own.  Focus on my own behavior.  Making sure I sit down every day and write a certain amount is entirely within my control and is the basis of achieving those other ends.  
A Blog Entry a Week
This one will be harder.  I was hoping to do this last year, but fell short.  I've already missed the first two weeks of this year as it is.  But that's not a reason to not give it a try.  A record of 50 "wins" with only two "losses" by the end of the year would be a good one.  
One of the problem I have with writing these blogs is my uncertainty over who might be reading them.  It feels a log like stuffing a message in a bottle and throwing it into the sea.  Another is figuring out what my purpose is in doing it.  "Everyone" says that, as a writer, I need to develop my online presence.  I need to use social media to build an audience.  I'm not sure what that means.  I'm still trying to get published on a consistent basis.  For now, I'm operating on the "Fake it until I figure it out" mode of thought.  As soon as I 'get' what I'm trying to do, I'll let you know.  
Submit One New Story Each Month
Another hard one that I've failed to achieve in the past.  But as with blogging, I'm going to give it another try.  
I want to be faster as a writer.  I'm not.  It takes me weeks to develop an idea to the point where I have enough to start writing about it.  It will take me two or three drafts, or more, to figure out what I'm trying to say and the best way to say it.  This frustrates me.  I remember something I once heard J. Michael Straczynski once said, that he strove to be faster than those writers better than him, and better than those writers faster than him.  I'd like to shoot for something like that, too.
I have looked at my process in this light and I think I've come up with something of a solution.  At least a way of tackling the problem.  What I used to do was work on something until it was complete.  Get the idea.  Develop it.  Write it.  Rewrite it.  Submit.  I would go on to the next thing.  
What I'm trying to do now is figure out how to keep several projects moving along at the same time.  This last couple of weeks I wrote out the beginnings of a couple of story ideas I've had in my mind for a while.  At the same time I'm writing the third draft of the opening of my novel.  In between I'm rewriting a draft of another story I finished some time ago to get it ready to submit by the end of this month.  It's a bit like herding cats, but I'm trying to keep a bunch of things moving forward in all their different stages at the same time.  That way there will always be something new to work on and something I've worked on ready to finish and send out.  Check back here to see if it works.  
I Want to Protest Something
Everyone is doing it these days.  Time magazine even named the Protestor their Person of the Year for 2011.  It seems like something to do.  
Seriously, though, there is a lot of stuff I dislike about how things are in this world.  I grew up in the sixties and yet I've never gone out and expressed my displeasure publicly over something.  Watching all that has  happened this year, and listening to the comments of other people sitting on the sidelines with me, makes me think that I need to take more of a stand from time to time.  
I Want to Volunteer to do Something
This is the flip side of wanting to protest something.  It's easy to point at something and say, "that's wrong."  It's harder to figure out what to do and do it.  The Occupy movement is a good example of this.  Do I think things are unfair?  Yes.   Do I think the wrong people are getting the blame, and that people more responsible for the problems are reaping the benefits?  I think there is truth to that.  Do I empathize with the people who are camping out and marching and carrying the signs that express these sentiments.  Definitely.  
Do I think it will make a difference?  That is where uncertainty creeps in.  In a way it's a lot like having an idea for a story and being a writer.  I've met so many people who have said they had a great idea for a story, but were worried about how to protect it so no one else would steal it.  Ideas are a dime a dozen.  Actually, if you bought a dozen ideas for a dime you were overcharged.  It's only when you convert that idea into something concrete, and work out whatever flaws it might have, that it becomes something of value.  It turns into something that can move other people, to laughter or tears, and maybe get them to do something, like buy the next thing you write.  
I don't want to just be someone who says, "I don't like this."  I want to be someone who does something to fix it.  I used to do things like this as a kid.  I want to try it again as an adult.  

I'm going to leave it there for now.  There are other things I want to do: Save more money.  Sell more stories.  Go to WorldCon in Chicago and Comic-Con in San Diego.  As well as more personal things.  But they are all things I've done before, or which are already part of the schema of my life.  The ones above are about changes I want to make in my doing that I think I need to do in order to get to where I want to be.  
2011 was a really good year, I thought.  I want 2012 to be even better.  As I posted on Facebook on New Years, I'm looking at 2012 as being something of a roller coaster ride.  We've just begun the long climb up.  I'd like to see everyone stepping off at the end year, dizzy and giggling, wiping our brows and saying on a laugh, "Let's do that again!"  
Happy New Year Everyone!