TT: The Writer from Wisconsin

April 24, 2014

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Page back one and enjoy a behind the scenes look at the process of translation. Then join me and Alan as we venture into realms twisted, weird, and utterly wonderful.

JANE: When we were discussing the various genres of SF and Fantasy a few months ago, I mentioned that a writer I particularly enjoyed was Clifford D. Simak. I was delighted when you said that you liked him too.

PInkness, Ghosts, Neanderthals, and Goblins, oh, my!

PInkness, Ghosts, Neanderthals, and Goblins, oh, my!

ALAN: Oh yes – one of my favourite writers. He seems largely forgotten now, but in his day he was a prolific and popular author. He made the mistake of dying just a few days before Robert Heinlein died and, in the fallout from that massive event, he passed largely unnoticed. I’m not even sure if his books are still in print. If not, they certainly should be.

JANE: I wanted to talk about Simak when we first mentioned him, but I got distracted and went off on a tangent.

ALAN: Isn’t that what it’s all about?

JANE: You bet!

I encountered Simak’s work back before I paid a lot of attention to who wrote the books I was reading. Books were their own wonderful things and the authors were incidental. Simak was the author who changed that for me.

Interested in time travel?

ALAN: Yes indeed. Time travel stories are my favourite stories.

JANE: All right, climb into the cabinet and swirl back the dials. It’s summer, sometime probably in the late 1970’s. I’m in my early teens and have discovered SF and F. Every week or so, my mom takes me and my siblings to the public library. There, we are permitted to take out as many books as we can carry. Because of this weight restriction, I have abandoned what was then called the “Children’s” section with its big, bulky hardbacks and gravitated toward the wire paperback racks. It is on one of these that I first encounter the works of Clifford Simak. After a while, I find myself deliberately searching for more. I finally run out of paperbacks. Then it hits me.

This is a library! That means it works like the school library! Up until then, I think I’d considered the public library as more a holiday place, not operating by library rules, if that makes any sense. I browsed, but never systematically searched. But now, my desire to read more Simak is heating my blood. I check the card catalog. I found Simak’s name, and bravely crossed the invisible line into the Adult stacks. I half-expected someone to pull me back from Forbidden Lands.

ALAN: I vividly remember my first excursion into the Adult Library. I think that for people like you and me, it’s a coming of age ritual, a rite of passage. Do you recall any Simak titles from your exploration of the Forbidden Lands?

JANE: I can’t say precisely which was my first, but I can remember an early favorite: The Goblin Reservation. It had everything: time travel, space travel, inventive aliens, goblins and their fey ilk, Neanderthals, and ghosts. It was a murder mystery, a tale of political intrigue, and, for those who insist that SF teaches nothing, it was also the first place I encountered the theory that Shakespeare did not write the plays.

I still enjoy it greatly. I could go on with more titles, but maybe I should turn off my time machine and give you a turn.

ALAN: Well actually I have a time machine of my own. (Wavy lines and eerie music…)
I was about twelve or thirteen. It was summer and my parents and I were on holiday at the seaside. I found Time Is the Simplest Thing in a pile of second hand paperbacks. I’d never heard of Clifford Simak, but the blurb attracted me and so I bought the book. I think it cost me sixpence, and it turned out to be the best sixpence I ever spent. I read the story with jaw-dropping amazement.

JANE: I haven’t read that one in years. Can you remind me a bit about the plot?

ALAN: Indeed I can. Earth has turned its back on space travel. The best they’ve ever managed is to send the minds of brave people out to the stars while their bodies remain on Earth. Shepherd Blaine is one such explorer. But on his latest trip, he encounters a telepathic alien which he describes as a pinkness. “Hi, pal!” it yells in his head. “I change with you my mind.” And it does. Blaine returns to his body with a bit of the pinkness in him. He immediately goes on the run – previous explorers to whom something like this has happened have been arrested and have vanished from view. They have been contaminated and they must be dealt with.

JANE: I remember! As soon as you said “pinkness” that did it. I bet you loved it.

ALAN: I was completely absorbed in the story. So much so that I never registered that my aunt and uncle and cousin had joined us for the day. Eventually it dawned on me that my cousin was talking to me.

“What’s the book?”

“Science fiction,” I mumbled, not lifting my eyes from the page.

“Who’s your favourite author?”

There was only one possible answer. “This chap,” I said, showing him the cover.

JANE: Have you ever read Time is the Simplest Thing again?

ALAN: I read the book again as an adult and I got a lot more out of it the second time around. It was still a gripping can’t-put-the-book-down story but this time round I realised it was an allegory about racial intolerance in America. People with paranormal abilities, those with a pinkness in their mind, are feared and ostracised by society. As Blaine runs and hides in the back blocks of America, the story fills with images of rusty, decaying small towns, angry mobs and the dangling corpses of lynching victims. This is a common theme with Simak – again and again and again his novels tell us that we are all in this together and that superficial things like a pinkness in the mind really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. And so all his books have the strangest companions working together in harmony. The book you mentioned, The Goblin Reservation, is quite typical in this regard.

JANE: Absolutely! But the best thing about Simak is that he never lectures. I think one of the things I love the most about his works – and that I think has had a huge influence on what I choose to write – is how size or shape or species are not an issue in what makes for friendship or alliances.

Even when he latches onto what for other writers might become a really conventional trope, this emphasis on character connection makes the story special. In his Fantasy novel, The Fellowship of the Talisman, what could be a typical ho-hum quest story becomes special because of the extraordinary group which ends up looking for a talisman that may or may not exist. Have you read this one?

ALAN: Indeed I have, though it’s not one of my favourites. I think I’m just biased against quest stories…

JANE: Sigh… The members of the quest start out seeming rather typical: Duncan, a young knight and his childhood best friend, Conrad, who is a burly warrior. Then there’s a wardog, Tiny, and a warhorse, Daniel, and a little donkey named Beauty. Mind you, none of the animals are magical or can talk, but that doesn’t matter. They’re members of the Fellowship. Along the way Duncan’s group becomes even more diverse… But I don’t want to spoil the story by going into too much detail. Suffice to say that they become a group so varied and interesting as to make a combination of humans, hobbits, elves, and dwarves seem positively conventional.
And the resolution of the quest is not at all what anyone would expect…

ALAN: Simak had a lot of strings to his literary bow. Let’s look at some aspects of his work next week.

Translation: An Art, Not a Craft

April 23, 2014

Last week I wandered on about the delicate balancing act that an author faces when deciding how much detail to provide on a particular subject. In the course of this discussion, I mentioned that I was reading a book on horses translated from German that contained equestrian terminology that I had not encountered before.

A Few Translated Works

A Few Translated Works

This spurred (yes, pun intended) an off-site Comment from a reader who is something of an expert on the subject of horses. She noted that she had never encountered – not even when she had been employed by German equestrians – some of the terms that I cited. We had a fun and lively discussion on the subject, and both concluded that translation involved a lot of decisions on the part of the translators.

Should these translators have noted that certain terms were more common in German equestrian circles than elsewhere? While this might have helped readers draw a line between areas of specialized knowledge, it also would have been a distortion of the original text – and one that could not be done with any confidence without the translators knowing precisely which English-speaking audience they were translating for, since British and American terminology can differ considerably.

My opinion — for what it’s worth – is that in this case the translators did their best. The collection they were translating was a series of short essays, meant to be read out of order, so they would have had to repeat their clarification over and over again. The book was clearly listed as a translation and even a mildly alert reader should have been able to detect that it was written from a German perspective, since the majority of the examples had a German cultural bias.

(Aside: I found this slant particularly obvious in the section on the horse in the Wild West, where the author the German author Karl May was given precedence, followed by the Franco-Belgian comic book character, “Lucky Luke.” John Wayne was mentioned in passing. Nothing wrong with this, just a strong indication of cultural bias.)

I have the good fortune to know several professional translators of literary works, and I decided to ask them for stories about the challenges they’ve encountered in the course of their work.

Rick Walter, whose recent translations of many of Jules Verne’s novels show far better than the stiff translations I encountered years ago why Verne was so popular and so influential, confirmed that even among “English” translators, different choices need to be made to reach specific audiences.

He offered me the following example:

In “20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEAS, penultimate chapter: one of the characters whips out ‘une clef anglaise’ to undo some bolts …

“– My SUNY Press translation renders the term as ‘monkey wrench.’

“ — William Butcher’s Oxford UP translation gives ‘adjustable spanner.’”

I’ve always wondered what a “spanner” was… Now I know what it means to “throw a spanner in the works.” It means to shove a monkey wrench in the gears!

But translators face far more delicate challenges than merely pulling out a dictionary, then plugging into the appropriate slot the appropriate term in a grammatically correct form. Cultures differ widely in forms of address or humor or swearing or myriad other things that, if translated literally, come across as stilted or just plain peculiar. The translator must constantly choose between being what I might call “accurate” in favor of being “right.”

I asked a couple of professional translators for examples of the challenges they have faced over the years. Tiina Nunnally, who became a Knight of the Norwegian Order of Merit for her work as a translator, said: “Translation always involves endless decisions, both big and small, and it takes years of experience to figure out how far to veer from the original without altering the intent and tone of the book.”

She continued: “So one of the biggest challenges — especially when dealing with fiction — is translating swear words. A few years ago I translated a Danish novel that was filled with profanities, and I had to make sure that all the curse words would have the same force in English as they did in Danish. In the Scandinavian languages, the strongest and most searing swear words all have to do with the devil — but the devil has almost no impact in English. Instead, all of our swear words have to do with God or sex or various body parts. So I had to come up with words that would have the same vulgar equivalence in English. The publisher sent the author (who had only a perfunctory knowledge of English) a copy of the translated manuscript, and he immediately sent me an irate email saying “What are all these ‘God’s doing in my book!” He had no idea that a ‘literal’ translation of all those epithets would have ruined his book in English… ”

(Aside: Look for Tiina’s work in Only the Dead by Norwegian author Vidar Sunstol, to be released this October.)

In translating Jules Verne, Rick Walter faced a different challenge.

“For me, the trickiest challenge is translating jokes. You wouldn’t know it from most of their English versions, but humor is a major element in Jules Verne’s novels-not only was Verne a chronic punster, his yarns are full of running gags, black comedy, slapstick, and social satire. Needless to say, these are the scourge of translators everywhere, and many duck the challenge altogether.

“One such mindbender is the witty tagline of Chapter 2 in Around the World in 80 Days. The French valet Passepartout has just met his new boss, a sedentary, robotic, anal-retentive Englishman named Phileas Fogg . . . and he marvels at the fellow:

“Un homme casanier et régulier ! Une véritable mécanique ! Eh bien, je ne suis pas fâché de servir une mécanique !

“A literal translation of the above would be: ‘A home-loving and regular man! A veritable piece of machinery! Well, I don’t mind serving a machine!’

“Well, I didn’t want to chicken out and skip the it; so, after hours of cudgeling my brain, I finally came up with: ‘He’s a homebody, an orderly man! A real piece of machinery! Well, it won’t pain me to have a domestic appliance for a master!’”

As these small examples show, the process of translating is rather fascinating… I wish I read another language well enough to read one of my stories in translation. It would be interesting to find out what I said!

TT: Hidey Holes

April 17, 2014

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Just page back one for a great review of Artemis Awakening and a discussion of the German Spotted Tiger. Then join me and Alan as we answer a riddle and tangent all over the place!

ALAN: Our discussion of landfills seems to have crossbred inside my skull with our discussion of British history to remind me of something. The idea actually popped into my mind back when we were discussing the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants under Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, and Elizabeth, but it popped out again as the discussion took a different path…

The Riddler!

The Riddler!

JANE: Is this a riddle of some sort? What do you get when you cross landfills and religious controversy? If so, I can’t guess. Tell me!

ALAN: Priest holes!

JANE: Oh, of course. Priest holes! Why didn’t I think of that? I always wondered if they were for real or simply made up for mystery novels.

ALAN: They’re real all right. I’ve been in one.

Religious persecution in England didn’t end with the death of Bloody Mary. When Elizabeth came to the throne, she reversed her sister’s policies and actively persecuted the Catholics. The religion was driven underground and many Catholic houses in England began to construct priest holes where itinerant priests could hide from Elizabeth’s forces. Clandestine services would be held in the houses when the coast was clear…

A school friend of mine lived in a house that dated from this time. It had a priest hole, which was a small enclosure carved into the sandstone that the house was built from. It was behind the fireplace and presumably, when a priest was hiding in it, the fire would be lit to camouflage it and to discourage the troopers from searching too closely…

JANE: That sounds seriously uncomfortable!

ALAN: Very much so. I was quite surprised at how small and cramped the priest hole was. There was barely enough room to stand upright in it and, when the fire was lit, it must have been very hot and uncomfortable. Also the priest would have had to be careful not to cough from the effects of the smoke. Coughing coming from behind the fire would have been a dead giveaway!

JANE: It certainly would have been. Although I don’t believe we have priest holes, as such, here in the United States, many houses in the eastern part of the country boast similar hiding places. Can you guess why?

ALAN: I presume that there’s some historical reason, but I truly don’t know what it might be.

JANE: The slave trade. Have you ever heard of the Underground Railroad?

ALAN: Oh, of course. Yes – I’ve come across references to it in various novels, but I never really understood exactly what it was.

JANE: Well, this railroad was neither a railroad (although sometimes it used it) nor did it run underground. Instead, it was a network of people devoted to getting black slaves out of those southern states where slavery was legal into the “free north” and often into Canada. In north and south alike there are still buildings with secret rooms, or rooms with false walls, or hidden basements in which the escapees could be kept protected from searchers.

When I bought my house in Virginia, the cellar was just a hole dug into the red clay soil. There’s no indication it ever was a hiding place (in my day it held the hot water heater and furnace), but if the entry had been hidden behind a wall, rather than made obvious by a door, it would have been a dandy “stop” on the underground railroad.

ALAN: That sounds exactly like the kind of scheme that was used in Europe during WWII. The various European resistance groups passed escaped prisoners of war and the survivors from downed Allied aeroplanes from one safe house to another, eventually smuggling them out to (usually) Spain and from there back to England. There was a wonderful BBC series called Secret Army which dramatised the story, and later there was an absolutely hilarious parody of the series called ‘Allo ‘Allo which took the story to such utterly ridiculous extremes that I find I can no longer watch the original series – my memories of the parody are so strong that the drama no longer works for me.

JANE: Oh! That’s a nice comparison. There’s an inherent drama in such situations. Since I grew up in Washington, D.C. – which was “free” but bordered by slave states – stories of the Underground Railroad had a real resonance. One of my childhood heroes was Harriet Tubman. She was slave born, escaped to free Philadelphia, but returned repeatedly to help others to freedom. She began with members of her own family, but expanded to help others.

She did this so often that she was known as “Moses.” She was also at far greater risk than most would be because she was subject to seizures and narcoleptic fits as a result of having been hit on the head with a weight. Nonetheless, despite not being able to trust her own body, Tubman kept rescuing others and was famous for having “never lost a passenger.”

ALAN: Isn’t it interesting how often women play such decisive roles in these kinds of things? Secret Army made much of this, in fictional terms of course. In real life, one of the heroes of the resistance was Nancy Wake, known as the White Mouse. I’m particularly fond of her because she was born in New Zealand. She wasn’t directly involved in the people-smuggling networks – she was far too busy fighting hard at the sharp end. Interestingly though, she herself was passed through the network to England in 1943 when the Gestapo were getting too close to her for comfort.

JANE: I wonder if women were particularly suited for such roles because of the tendency to underestimate them?

One of my favorite anecdotes about Harriet Tubman went as follows. Harriet Tubman was travelling on a train and saw two white men looking at her suspiciously. She realized they were comparing her to a “Wanted” poster. She picked up a newspaper and pretended to be reading it – terrified that she might have it upside down, because she couldn’t read. She heard one man say to the other “Oh, that can’t be her. She’s illiterate.”

ALAN: Thank goodness the 50/50 chance of getting it the right way round worked out for her!

JANE: Yes! I’ve told that story to many people and the reaction is always the same. In those days, newspapers weren’t as likely to be illustrated, of course. Today, the pictures would be great clues.

Well, this has been a classic Tangent in that we started with a queen and ended with escaping slaves… I wonder where we’ll go next?

How Much Is Too Much?

April 16, 2014

First thing… Artemis Awakening has its first major review. I hope you won’t mind if I share both it and my excitement. The review is from Publisher’s Weekly:

Spotted Tiger...  Really

Spotted Tiger… Really

“Centuries after a war shattered the star-spanning Empire, the planet Artemis is a fable—an artificial paradise lost to mainstream civilization. Archaeologist Griffin Dane is the first to rediscover Artemis, but his attempt to explore it in person leaves him stranded on the forgotten planet. With Artemis local Adara to assist him, Dane searches for remnants of high technology, treasures that might allow him to return home. Dane is not the only person interested in Artemis’s secrets, and, as he soon learns, his rival is unbounded by decency or law. Seeking only knowledge, Dane and Adara are propelled into the role of the planet’s protectors. Lindskold (Five Odd Honors)—paying homage to golden-age SF by authors like Andre Norton, Leigh Brackett, and C.L. Moore—offers familiar set pieces like fallen civilizations, mad scientists, telepathic animals, and enigmatic mechanisms bordering on the mystical, all filtered through a modern sensibility and polished prose. Embracing and building on tradition, the work is a promising series launch.”

A question I’ve been asked several times since I turned in “The Hermit and the Jackalopes” to Steve Stirling for his Change anthology is “What are you doing now?” The answer is, I’ve been recharging my creative juices.

One of the things I do to recharge my writerly batteries is read non-fiction. One of the books I’ve been reading is the lushly gorgeous Horses: Myth and Fascination by Susanne Sgrazzutti. The book has several sections, one of which is devoted entirely to the complicated and sometimes confusing terminology associated with horse coloration and markings.

I first encountered many of these terms in Marguerite Henry’s All About Horses, a book that was given to me when I was ten or twelve and which still has an honored place on my bookshelf. At the start of Chapter 13 the author says:

“If we are riding across country and meet an old friend on a new horse, how nice to be able to say, ‘What a beautiful buckskin (or sorrel, or flea-bitten gray)!’

“Or if we’re at the races, watching the entries parade to the post, how nice to be able to say, ‘I like the chestnut first, then the sandy bay.’”

Well, of course, I agreed with Ms. Henry. I wanted to know what made one horse a “chestnut” and another merely “brown.” Why was that horse a buckskin but this other one – so close in coloration – a dun? Why was one face marking a “blaze” and another a “stripe”? At what point did a stocking become a sock? Ms. Henry elucidated these mysteries and many others.

Later, I learned that terms for coloration varied according to region and culture as well. Terms commonly used in American horse circles such as “pinto” and “palomino” come to us through the Spanish who contributed so much to the language of the American West and later to American English in general. I remember being vaguely puzzled when in one of Susan Cooper’s novels someone is described as riding a “lion-colored” horse. When I sorted through the description, I realized that what she meant was a palomino.

Ms. Sgrazzutti’s provides yet another angle on this mystery. Her book was originally written in German and traces of the German terminology creep over. One example is that she refers to what an American would call an “Arabian” as an “Arabian Thoroughbred.” To most American horse fanciers, a “Thoroughbred” is a specific type of race horse. As Ms. Henry says: “to a horseman a Thoroughbred is always a horse whose ancestry can be traced directly to the Byerly Turk, Darley’s Arabian, or the Godolphin Arabian.”

Even more fun was discovering that the German color system was designed by one man – Eduard Meyer – in the 1930’s. For this reason, a grey horse is mold colored, while one with a wildly spotted coat is referred to as a “Tigerschecke” or “spotted tiger.”

Now, when I say this is “fun,” I suppose I should clarify. I find this a tremendous amount of fun because I find horses beautiful and interesting. Therefore, I find the language associated with them interesting. I must admit, I would not feel at all the same about, say, guns. I quite enjoy mysteries and thrillers, but when the writers pauses to lovingly describe a certain model of gun for no other reason than they want to, I get frustrated. (I feel differently if the distinctions have some value to the plot.)

I am fond of Steve (S.M.) Stirling’s “Change” books, but sometimes I feel as if I should have my dictionary of armor by my side when he starts describing what his characters are wearing. All those technical terms for types of helmets and breastplates and the like mean less than nothing to me. They actually make what his characters are wearing less clear than if he stuck to less accurate, more general terms.

Too technical a definition becomes worse than no description at all. Why? Because a description that relies on too specific a vocabulary may be the equivalent of saying “gobble-wibble wibble-wobble.” Don’t believe me? Let’s try an example.

I bet most of you would have no problem following me if I described a horse as having a “star.” You’d even position it correctly on the horse in question. However, would you understand what the difference was if I said the horse had a “flower”? Without context, would you even know where the flower was, or that it was a marking, not an ornament? Possibly not. Why? Because the term “star” as a marking on a horse has entered common usage. It’s dramatic to describe the hero riding into town on his black horse with the star on its brow. Less so if he rides in on a black horse with a flower…

But both are legitimate terms for equine horse markings that mean subtly different things to a horse fancier. (A star is more angular, a flower more a rounded blotch. A flake, by the by, is a very small blotch. All are located on the face. If elsewhere, other terms are used.)

How about “overo piebald” or “tobiano skewbald”?

A careful writer can combine accurate use of any sort of terminology by melding it with description, but this needs to be carefully handled. Take a look at the subtle differences between these descriptions.

“Marshall Kane rode out to confront the bandits on his chestnut gelding with the white stripe.”

“Marshall Kane rode out to confront the bandits on his ruddy chestnut gelding with the white stripe down its nose.”

“Marshall Kane rode out to confront the bandits on Flame, his chestnut gelding with the white stripe down its nose.”

The first is perfectly accurate and would tell someone who knew horses that the horse was reddish brown and had a thin white stripe on its nose. However, someone who didn’t know horses might envision a horse with zebra markings or a lightning bolt on its flank. “Chestnut” is descriptive – if you know what a chestnut is. If you don’t, it doesn’t immediate conjure “reddish brown.”

The second description bridges the gap between accurate terminology and description. The third uses the horse’s name “Flame” to hint at the coloration.

Which would I use? Honestly, I’d probably skip the term “stripe” (which describes a narrow white line; a marking, just to confuse matters further, that is also called a “race”) entirely and go for the more familiar “blaze.” I’d hazard “chestnut,” but find a way to slip in “reddish brown” when possible. “Dismounting, he placed a hand on the horse’s reddish brown shoulder.”

Let’s dance back to those German terms for a moment. What if I had a German character? Shouldn’t I use German terminology? Well, it could be colorful. (I have a mad desire to have some character ride a spotted tiger in some future book.) However, would it add interesting world-building or merely confuse my reader? How much is great fun and how much is too much? Whether describing horses or guns or types of food or whatever fascinates you, that’s something writers need to consider.

TT: Cycling, Again

April 10, 2014

Tah-dah! (Trumpet Flourish). Today Alan and I are happy to announce the 150th entry to the Sir Julius Vogel Award nominated Thursday Tangents. In hono[u]r of this occasion, we’re hoping you can solve a mystery for us.

Oh… Looking for the Wednesday Wanderings? Just page back one. I’ve an exciting announcement as to where you can sneak a look at the forthcoming Artemis Awakening. Then there’s a word that I have questions about…

Recycling

Recycling

JANE: Alan, in the “hols” column that started us off on this discussion of cupboards, cabinets, tips, dumps, and other rubbish, you mention that although you still use the term “tip,” the facility you were visiting had, until recently, been called a “landfill” and was now called a “Reclamation Center.”

ALAN: Everyone calls the facility a tip, but I think the city councils must have objected to the colloquialism because all the road signs pointing to the tip say “Landfill.” And once upon a time, that’s exactly what they were: just a great big hole you threw stuff into. Eventually, it filled up and got smoothed over and the landfill closed and re-opened somewhere else. But these days the tips are much more sophisticated operations than once they were, and now there is a genuine attempt to separate out the various items and reclaim or recycle whatever can be reclaimed and recycled. I find that very laudable.

JANE: I agree. One of the first Wednesday Wanderings I wrote was about a trip we took to the dump with a friend and my reaction to finding that it was now possible to drop electronics, for example, off where they would be recycled. This was in late January of 2010. I haven’t been back since, so I don’t know how the process changed. However, as in your part of the world, the name has been changed to reflect a new mission.

When I checked the phone book for listings, I started with the one for the Solid Waste Management department of city government. There I found a very amusing entry: “Residential Convenience Centers: See Landfills for List of Locations.” This seemed very silly to me. Why rename something by a term no one would think to look up? I prefer your term “Reclamation Center.”

ALAN: Ah, pomposity. Don’t you love it?

JANE: Anyhow, I went over to the “Landfills” entry and discovered that we have four places to dump or tip garbage or trash. Three are now termed Residential Convenience Centers but one persists in being a landfill, making me think it must be inconvenient.

I was a little surprised that you mentioned various things – jigsaw puzzles come to mind – that you tipped into the tip that seemed as if they might have some use left in them. If it were me, I would have taken those to a thrift shop. Do you have anything like that there?

ALAN: Yes indeed. Two large charities run them, the Salvation Army (“the Sallies”) and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (“Vinnies”). The outlets that you call thrift shops we’d call op-shops. I assume that’s short for opportunity shops on the grounds that the bargains they contain represent a great opportunity! A friend of mine who loves clothes has a lot of stunning outfits that she’s rescued from op-shops.

JANE: I love the term op-shops! It sounds like a place where spies would shop. Q would have a room in the back where scratched and dented espionage tools could be bought for a bargain. Acid pens that fire jam or smoke tablets that transform your car’s exhaust into a bright pink cloud.
ALAN: Shades of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op – maybe that’s how he outfitted himself. Or maybe we’ve both got far too vivid imaginations!

JANE: Too vivid? Us? Never!

We have a much wider variety of thrift stores here. The name “Goodwill” is practically synonymous with “thrift shop,” but other charities operate them as well. It’s quite possible to recycle gently used items this way and hope you’re helping some organization raise money.
I was curious. How is your recycling collected? You mentioned a while back that containers are supposed to be rinsed out. That’s true here, too. However, do you sort items or do they go into one big bin?

ALAN: The cardboard, paper, tins and plastic all jumble together in a big bin with a yellow lid (the council seems to be inordinately fond of yellow). The glass has a separate bin all to itself which is, unfortunately, turquoise. Each bin is collected on alternate weekly cycles.
When it’s the turn of the glass, a massive truck rumbles slowly up the street hotly pursued by very athletic men who pick up the bin and throw the glass into the truck, generating very satisfying crashing, smashing noises.

When it’s the turn of the other stuff, a different truck with a mechanical arm picks up the bin and empties the contents into itself quite quietly. I have no idea how they separate the elements out at the other end, but they must have some sort of system. There’s a threatening label attached to the bin which lists things that are allowed in the bin and things that are not. Dire penalties await those who disobey the instructions.

JANE: Interesting. Our system is similar in that cardboard, paper, cans, and plastic are all put into one large, bright blue bin. I’ve also wondered how – or, sadly, even if – these items ever get sorted and used or if we’re just going through the motions.

Glass is not collected at all. I heard this is because a sanitation worker (formerly known as “garbage man” or “trash man”) was cut very badly on glass. Glass can be dropped off at various places, which is a good thing, because glass is one item that recycles very well. A friend of mine briefly worked for a company that took used glass and transformed it via heat into a perlite-like substance that had various uses, including (if I recall correctly) being used in potting soil in place of peat.

ALAN: “Sanitation Worker”? Don’t you mean “Environmental Reclamation Technician”? Or possibly “Specialist Disposal Engineer”?

JANE: I like that! Almost Orwellian… But, go on.

ALAN: Here, the rule is that broken glass won’t be collected. We are supposed to wrap that carefully and dispose of it with the normal stuff that goes in the yellow council rubbish bag. The truck that they throw the recyclable glass into is covered over so that there is no possibility of “splash-back” causing injuries when the glass is collected and tossed in. They are really as safety conscious as they can be.

JANE: Many years ago, when I still lived in Lynchburg, Virginia, the city had a voluntary recycling program that worked very well. Neatly labeled dumpsters were placed in the parking lots of various grocery stores. It only took a moment to go by and pop recyclable items into the appropriate place. Then the city collected the already sorted items and distributed them to businesses that would turn them into something useful.

As I said before, I do wonder if somewhere there are conveyer belts where someone sits sorting all the things we dump into our recycling bin. If not, it’s just a scam.

ALAN: I wonder if one of our readers knows where we could find the answer.

What Does “Fantasy” Evoke for You?

April 9, 2014

As Spring springs forth, lots of interesting things are going on. Let me tell you about them. Then I have a rather odd question for you…

First: For the month of April, Tor Books is offering the e-book of Through Wolf’s Eyes for a discounted price of only $2.99. Even better, the e-book contains a teaser for Artemis Awakening. You can order this special e-book for a special price at: Through Wolf’s Eyes at Amazon or Through Wolf’s Eyes at B&N.

Can't "Beet" It!

Can’t “Beet” It!

Second: Remember the Cover Art contest I’m helping out with? (See WW 1-29-14 if you’d like to know more.) The gallery is up and expanding. Particularly fascinating for me are the wide variety of approaches the artists have taken. I’m going to write a short story based on one of the winning pieces, and I’m really glad I’m not one of the judges. It would be really hard to pick. Take a look at http://www.scienceandfantasyfiction.com and click on the Art Contest banner both for access to the gallery and for rules to enter the contest.

Third: Not nearly so artistic, but still very exciting news – at least for a gardener like me. This past weekend, we planted our first seeds of the season. We already had a soaker hose set to nurture the lilies that are shooting up at an amazing speed. Rather than waste water along the length that we’re not currently using, we put in a row of Easter Egg radishes and another of multi-colored heirloom beets.

We’ve grown Easter Egg radishes before, mostly because who could resist radishes that come in pink, lavender, purple, red, and white? It’s a bonus that they have great flavor, too. As for the beets… We first sampled this heirloom variety when one of Jim’s colleagues had surplus last year. In addition to the classic dark “beet red,” these include a brilliant golden orange and a white with pink rings. We’ve never grown beets before – mostly because Jim thought he didn’t like beets. He discovered that he does like beets. What he doesn’t like are canned or pickled beets. So, stayed tuned as the season unfolds as we discover if we can add beets to our crops.

Now, here’s a question. What does the word “Fantasy” mean to you?

The reason I’m asking is that, this past week, I wandered into a couple of situations where I realized the word “Fantasy” means vastly different things to different people. At a mixed genre writers’ meeting I was attending, Writer A mentioned that she wrote “speculative fiction.” Writer B, who writes mostly historical and mystery fiction asked: “What’s speculative fiction?” Writer A said something, but Writer B still looked confused, so I said (rather dryly, I fear) “It’s what academics call Science Fiction and Fantasy because it’s more dignified than admitting they’re doing work on genre fiction.”

Writer A said indignantly, “It’s not that at all. If you say you write ‘fantasy,’ people assume you’re talking about wizards and dragons. Speculative fiction is where agreed upon rules of physics need not apply.”

Writer B looked confused.

Now, I’ve read Writer A’s works. They’re excellent. They also have nothing to do with either dragons or wizards. If she really believes that when “people” hear the term “Fantasy” they automatically think that this is only fiction with wizards and dragons, I can understand her desire for another term. A good number of years ago, there was an attempt to popularize the term “mythic fiction” to cover the sort of Fantasy that features neither wizards nor dragons but still has magic and often a “mythic” feel, even if no myths are used.

Still… When I left the meeting, I found myself wondering if Writer A perhaps worried too much.

While I was still mulling over this interchange, Scot Noel, who is running the art contest I mentioned earlier, e-mailed to let me know the contest gallery had been updated. When I put in the link, my browser (a version of Firefox) tried to warn me that I might be entering a scam zone. After consideration, especially since I had not entered a link that specifically mentioned the contest, I decided that the word “Fantasy” had been the trigger and that in this case “Fantasy” did not have anything to do with either wizards or dragons, but rather “naughty” behaviors.

Leaving aside the question of whether genre categories matter at all… What comes to mind for you when you hear someone writes “Fantasy”? I’m curious about immediate images…. Do you think that the same images would come to mind for other people in your life? Your partner or your parents or your boss? Does the phrase “speculative fiction” say more?

Thanks! I’m always curious about what words mean – especially when that meaning contains more than can be embraced by even a multi-layered a dictionary definition.

TT: Squishy Realities

April 3, 2014

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Just page back one and read about the story that almost didn’t happen. Then join me and Alan as we take a look at why garbage, trash, dustbins, and even rubbish are becoming, well, so much rubbish!

JANE: Leaving the interior of the house, let’s move on to the larger containers used to collect all of the household waste material (other than recyclables, which is another matter entirely). Here, these are often called “garbage cans” or sometimes “trash cans.”   This is the sort of thing I always envisioned when reading British novels and encountering the term “rubbish bin.”

Trash Can?  Garbage Can?  Rubbish Bin?

Trash Can? Garbage Can? Rubbish Bin?

ALAN: That’s right. You may also have come across the term “dustbin” as well. It means the same thing. In my childhood, the men who emptied these bins were known as “dustbin men.” One verse of an interminably long skipping song from my youth goes:

Sam, Sam the dustbin man
Washed his face in a frying pan,
Combed his hair with a donkey’s tail
And scratched his belly with his big toe nail

No, before you ask, I have no idea what any of that means!

JANE: If I had to guess, I’d say that Sam was a very untidy fellow…

Here the use of the word “garbage” seems to be falling into disfavor. The plastic bags sold to line cans so that wet waste will not drip used to be called “garbage bags” or “trash bags.” However, I have noticed that the idea that these bags are involved with waste in any capacity is vanishing. The ones I have now are simple called “kitchen bags,” as if we are too dainty to mention why we need bags in our kitchens.

ALAN: We don’t line our recycle bins with anything. Paper and cardboard doesn’t leak and we are expected to wash the plastic containers before disposing of them. Kitchen waste etc. (the stuff you refer to as garbage) has to be put into special bright yellow, biodegradable bags that you buy from the supermarket. They are known as council rubbish bags. Any garbage that isn’t in a council rubbish bag will not be collected.

JANE: Do you put these “council rubbish bags” out loose or do they go into a container ofsome sort? Here everything must be put into a container, initially to keep animals (like roaming dogs and coyotes) from ripping them open and making a mess. More recently because “solid waste” is now collected by great big trucks driven by people who rarely, if ever, get out of their vehicles, the bins are crucial because the enormous trucks have enormous claws on them that pick up the bins.

I’m wondering because, if the bags went into a container, how would they know if you had the right ones or not?

ALAN: We put the bags out loose. They rarely get investigated by animals – it’s illegal for dogs to roam unaccompanied, cats would never lower themselves to do anything as undignified as ripping open a rubbish bag, and we have no wild animals that would be interested.

JANE: Dogs aren’t supposed to roam unaccompanied, but it still happens. I have coyotes in my neighborhood. I live very close to open spaces that provide the coyote with a nice natural habitat. They then commute down the concrete arroyo to the local golf course to hunt rabbits and geese.

Returning to garbage, even the grindy thing beneath my kitchen sink has undergone a name change. They used to be called “garbage disposals.” Now they are often called “waste disposal units.”

Clearly, Americans are distancing themselves from squishy realities.

ALAN: We just call them food waste disposal units, or just waste disposals. They are also sometimes referred to as “insinkerators”, but that’s actually a brand name that is starting to enter the language, rather like “hoover” and “xerox”.

JANE: Hey! The one in my kitchen is an “Insinkerator”! However, the brand name has not become “generic” here.

In the olden days, when furnaces were swept out and the ash put in special cans, these were called “ash cans.” When I was a kid, sometimes you encountered an older person who referred to “garbage cans” as “ash cans,” confusing the young to no end. I have often thought the use of the term “trash can” came from the “sound alike” element, much as “Bridezilla” references “Godzilla.” (See my WW for 6-26-13 if you want more on bridezilla and other neologisms).

ALAN: I vaguely remember my father using “ash can” for the thing he used to get rid of the ashes from our household fires. But open fires (and even solid fuel burning heaters) are now falling greatly out of favour for environmental reasons and I haven’t heard the term in years. However a little bird tells me that not only do you know a Lone Ranger joke, you also know an ash can joke. So come on, don’t leave me in suspense.

JANE: Right. Roger Zelazny told me this one, I think because he’d used the term “ash can” and I’d looked puzzled.

A boy asks a friend how he might earn some extra money. The friend suggests that the boy go into business emptying ash cans, then selling the contents. That way the boy could collect money both for the collection and the resale. The boy thinks this is a good idea and, equipping himself with a wagon, goes down the street yelling: “Get your ashes hauled!”

Do you understand why that’s supposed to be funny?

ALAN: No, I don’t.

JANE: Getting your ashes hauled was slang for visiting a prostitute, so, effectively the boy was advertising himself for sale. Roger thought this very funny. I, however, had to have the phrase explained to me, somewhat ruining the joke. Humor is so dependent on time and place…

ALAN: Still, that’s nicely put! We don’t have that phrase, but I rather wish we did. It’s very colourful. I did once hear someone talk about visiting a prostitute to “get his pipes flushed out” which I think is equally colourful, but it too is not in common use.

JANE: A good bit of earthy language, certainly. As we’ve developed this Tangent, I’ve been thinking about how we Americans certainly know the word “rubbish” but don’t use it much anymore.

Oddly, one place the word “rubbish” gets used commonly is in the phrase, “That’s a lot of rubbish,” meaning “nonsense,” but the word “garbage” or “trash” would never be substituted. “Trash talking,” in fact, has a completely different meaning.

ALAN: Yes, we’d use “rubbish” to mean “nonsense” in exactly the same way. I’m not sure we’d ever use “garbage” or “trash” though. Again, I am only familiar with the words from reading American novels. But what’s “Trash Talking”? I’ve heard the phrase, but I really don’t know what it means.

JANE: Hmm… “Trash talking” or “talking trash” means to boast or brag. There’s a sense of showing off and intimidation in it. When I first heard the term, the associations were of tough guys hanging out on street corners and, well, talking trash. Lately, it seems to have migrated into sports and other competitive arenas.

ALAN: I’m not sure that we have a word for that. Perhaps we need one; it sounds as though it might be useful.

JANE: It certainly would be better than soccer brawls… When you mentioned recycling bins earlier, that reminded me. I have a few questions for you on that and a related topic. How about next time?

The Story That Almost Didn’t Happen

April 2, 2014

I did it! Despite several times when I wasn’t at all certain I’d make it, I managed to finish the story I’d promised Steve “S.M.” Stirling for a forthcoming anthology of stories set in his “Change” alternate history series.

Jackalope

Jackalope

When Steve first asked me if I’d contribute a story to be due in March, I was a little apprehensive. March 1, as I knew all too well, was my deadline for turning in AA2. However, after Steve assured me that any time in March would do, I accepted. I have read many of the novels in the Change series and have enjoyed Steve’s innovative look at how different cultures might evolve if higher levels of technology ceased to exist.

Later, I was asked where I planned to set my story. I said New Mexico, because I really like New Mexico and because, as far as I could recall, none of the novels had ventured into The Land of Enchantment. After that, except for an occasional fleeting thought, I put the project out of my mind and focused in on AA2.

Well, for a variety of reasons, finishing AA2 took a bit longer than I had intended. I did make the deadline – I even beat it by a few days – but not with a lot of time to spare for thinking about other writing projects. About the only things I did toward Steve’s story was narrow down my setting a bit. I decided that the bulk of the action would take place in the malpais (that’s the “badlands,” for you there Easterners). I had some fun chats with my friend, Sally, about how various post-Change events would unfold but, still, most of my attention was elsewhere.

Then AA2 was in and I was free to start setting up this piece. My intention was to set the story immediately “post-Change.” I had a couple of reasons for this. One, there’s an inherent drama in crisis. Two, I was less likely to create a contradiction within the established history of the Changeverse. I’d decided that my story would be about a young man fleeing one of the urban areas for a refuge he knew about out in the badlands. Along the way, he’d pick up a few other people – including a woman with far too many cats and an interesting career. They’d reach their destination, only to discover that at least one other group had had the same idea.

Now, as those of you who’ve read my work know, I usually write from a fairly close character point of view. I’m perpetually interested in how the same events may seem very different when viewed from different perspectives. While occasionally I’ll write a scene that flows between points of view, usually, I break them up very distinctly. Not for me the omniscient narrative voice making ironical or anachronistic comments.

And this is where things started going sour. As I slipped into my main POV character’s perspective, I discovered something. I cannot write “cozy disaster.” (If you’re curious about what I mean by “cozy disaster,” check out WW 7-18-12.) As I slipped into my character’s mind, I was immediately assailed by his anxieties. He was thinking about his family, his friends, co-workers, even casual acquaintances. Ever heard David Bowie’s song, “Five Years”? There’s a part where the singer/narrator, having learned that the world will end in five years, begins a litany of things and people – great and small – that will soon be no more. My character’s thoughts definitely drifted along those lines.

Worse – maybe because I usually include animals in my stories and fully intended to do so this time as well – I found myself considering the sheer numbers of domestic animals that would die whether through accidental abandonment or nastier circumstances. The family dog, locked in the house, whose owners never come home. Tanks of fish suffocating because the pumps stop working. Birds and “exotic” animals who die from lack of appropriate diet or temperature regulation or…

Let me stop there. Suffice to say, I literally started having nightmares. These nightmares did not seem to be in keeping with Steve’s alternate history which focuses – in the tradition of Cozy Disaster stories like Earth Abides or Day of the Triffids – on the survivors, most of who seem to maintain a level of convenient amnesia about the ramifications of events that I, apparently, cannot.

Next time I talked with Sally, I brought this up. Sally has read all the Change novels. I hoped she might steer me in a productive direction. She surprised me. “You should use that. It’s powerful stuff.” When I protested that it didn’t seem to fit, she said, “I think Steve’s universe is big enough to take it.” When I talked to Jim (who has also read all but the last novel or so in the series), his response (without having heard what Sally said) was much the same.

Still, after numerous attempts to get around this problem, I realized that I needed to distance myself somewhat from immediate post-Change events. I decided to set the story a few years after. As I had continued my research, I had fallen more and more in love with the malpais. These “badlands” are the result of slow eruptions from seventy or so vents. By geologic timetables, some of the flows are practically new: only three thousand years or so.

Even better are the fascinating peculiarities that flourish therein. Compasses are unreliable. Small planes often have difficulty flying over the flows. Green “islands” called “kipukas” thrive, as completely surrounded by rough, hardened lava as any more normal island by water. Even in the midst of a New Mexico summer, where temperatures routinely top a hundred degrees, there are caves full of ice. Trees such as aspen, which normally grow further north and at higher elevations, can be found side-by-side with dry area plants like juniper and prickly pear cactus.

Culturally, it’s a fascinating region as well. Grants is the largest city. (This is by New Mexican terms, where a population of 8,000 is a city.) The pueblos of Acoma, Zuni, and Laguna are all nearby. The Navajo reservation is just west and north. Apaches also have ties to the area. The Spanish colonized the area. Anglo homesteaders did their best.  If the Change gave me nightmares, the malpais – despite its evil name – inspired me.

So I shifted the time a bit later, found a new plot (for which, sadly, both the lady with all the cats and another key character had to go), and got writing. I ended up with something over 15,000 words, so the inspiration was surely there. The darkness wasn’t entirely gone, but my main character and I worked on finding a balance between loss and life.

So now I’ve found a second type of fiction I can’t write. (The first one is romance novels.) Disaster, sure. Cozy disaster… Not so much. But I’m really happy with this story. It’s called “The Hermit and the Jackalopes” and will appear in The Change, edited by S.M. Stirling.

Even badlands can be good places, if they offer refuge for a shattered soul.

TT: Talking Trash

March 27, 2014

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Just page back one and offer your opinions on lists… Then come back and join me and Alan as we dig deeper into the gritty question of trash.

JANE: Last time you mentioned that when you and Robin did your “clear out” you took a lot of stuff to the “tip.” Based on the context, I guess that this is what we here would call a “dump.”

Waste Baskets

Waste Baskets

ALAN: I’m familiar with the noun “dump”, but only from American novels. We use the word as a verb rather than as a noun so we’d dump our rubbish at the tip. Curiously, we do use “dump” as a noun, but only if it is qualified with an adjective; so “rubbish dump” would be a perfectly acceptable phrase, where “dump” by itself would not. Of course, that would require us to “dump our rubbish at the rubbish dump” which is a technically accurate, but extraordinarily ugly sentence. Maybe that’s why we have the noun “tip,” so as to avoid such ugly constructions.
Mind you — “tip” can also be a verb. So I suppose I could tip my rubbish into the tip, if I felt like it. But that’s an ugly sentence as well.

JANE: I suspect – only suspect – that both “tip” and “dump” as nouns evolved from the verbs.

I think I prefer “dump” to “tip,” if for no other reason than the word always reminds me of a joke that, as a kid, I thought very funny. Are you familiar with the Lone Ranger as adapted for television and radio? Especially the theme song?

ALAN: Oh yes! The William Tell Overture. I have a record of Spike Jones gargling the tune. It’s hilarious and revolting at one and the same time. Anyway – tell me your Lone Ranger joke.

JANE: Right! Here goes…

Q: Where does the Lone Ranger take his trash?

A: (sung to the William Tell Overture): To the dump, to the dump, to the dump,dump, dump!

ALAN: Excuse me. I need to gargle so as to get the taste of that out of my mouth.
JANE: <giggle> This joke brings me around to another linguistic puzzle. You spoke of taking “rubbish” to the tip. Here, we’re more likely to use the words “garbage” or “trash.” There are even subtle differences in which would be used when.

ALAN: I never thought of rubbish as being a subtle concept. Please tell me; what are the nuances that separate these two words?

JANE: Again, remembering that American English has lots of regional variations and my definitions are based on being raised in Washington, D.C., by parents of Midwestern extraction, here are my definitions.

“Trash” seems to be more commonly applied to “dry” items like paper, plastics, cardboard, wood, stone, and the like. “Garbage” seems to imply either food items or items contaminated with food waste or other generally icky things. Therefore, a piece of paper is trash, but if you wrap a piece of chicken in the paper and the paper becomes soiled, then the paper becomes garbage.

I doubt there is a hard and fast rule, but it’s interesting to see these distinctions in application. The little containers used in offices or suchlike are called “trash baskets” or “waste baskets” or even “wastepaper baskets.” They are never called (to the best of my knowledge) “garbage baskets.”

ALAN: We call them wastepaper baskets as well, but rubbish bin is an equally acceptable term.

In recent years we’ve also started to make the distinction that you make between trash and garbage, though we don’t really have separate names for the different types of rubbish. It’s happened because of the growing emphasis on recycling things.

The city council now requires us to separate out all the recyclable stuff like cardboard and plastic and glass, and to that end, as a one off exercise, they distributed special bins to everyone for people to put the recyclable stuff in. Every place received one bin per title holder of the property. Mostly this worked, but there were some amusing edge cases. An enormous 500 bedroom luxury hotel ended up with only one tiny bin because there was only one name on the title deed. And a small 6 bedroom private hotel that was being used by a syndicate for tax avoidance purposes received 389 recycling bins, much to the consternation of the delivery man who couldn’t find anywhere to put them all.

JANE: That is amusing… However, you’ve generated another question. What is a “one off exercise”? To me this sounds as if you only had to use those recycling bins one time. Is this the case?

ALAN: The phrase certainly means “something that you do only once.” But in this case, it refers the actual distribution of the new rubbish bins to the households of the city, rather than to the use of the bins themselves.

JANE: Ah, hah! Now I understand.

ALAN: The distribution of the bins was very entertaining in its own right. A monster road train (a long multiply articulated vehicle) would roar down the street. Every so often it would stop and a team of men would jump off and deliver a bin to the front of each house. Since this was generally the most exciting (and noisiest) thing that had happened in the street for years, there were always large crowds of people, well-armed with mobile phones, to record the scene.

A newspaper story of the time tells of one of the bin delivery men who, for obscure reasons of his own, decided to steal a pedigree dog from the house he was delivering the bin to. Not unnaturally, the dog objected to being stolen and it wriggled and barked as the man dashed down the street with it clutched in his arms, running the gauntlet of iphones along the way. When the police turned up to arrest him, he expressed surprise. How had they tracked him down so quickly?

JANE: That was so funny I had to stop and read it to Jim. Real life is so much stranger than fiction, isn’t it! I wouldn’t dare put something as silly as that in one of my novels.

I actually want to come back to recycling, but I haven’t quite finished with garbage and trash… I even have another joke for you!

Before You Die

March 26, 2014

Here, life has been busy in a good way. I’m working hard on what’s turning into quite a long piece for an anthology of stories set in S.M. Stirling’s “Change” alternate history. My story is set in and around the New Mexico malpais, west of Albuquerque, south of Grants and Acoma. Now that I’ve found my way into the story, the writing is moving along nicely. Good thing, since the due date is the end of March.

Bucket's Lists

Bucket’s Lists

Promotional wheels are beginning to roll for Artemis Awakening. I’ll be coming out to California over the first weekend in June to sign at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego (June 6) and Borderlands Books in San Francisco (June 7). I’ll also have at least three signings in Albuquerque. Others elsewhere are possible. See my newly revised website, http://www.janelindskold.com, for details and updates.

This past weekend, I was browsing some book catalogs and noticed a trend toward books telling you about things you shouldn’t miss out on before you die. The range was quite wide: places to visit, movies to see, songs (or entire albums) to listen to, foods to eat, pieces of art to see, various activities to try… Sometimes the number was modest as in “10 National Parks to See,” but more usually it was a dramatic 100 or even 1,000 items. Sometimes, instead of giving a number, the book presented a “bucket list” (as in “kick the bucket”). In most cases, the word “must” (or something similar) was included.

I have no idea where this trend originated. Certainly, when we hit the year 2000 there were any number of lists offering expert opinions as to what had been the best books or music or works of art or whatever of the last century or millennium or, even, in really ambitious cases, since the dawn of human civilization. However, these were presented as the opinions of a person or group, usually one that claimed some sort of expertise on the subject. These lists were presented, briefly argued about (especially regarding rankings or what was or was not included), and then, forgotten. As far as I can tell, very few of the people presenting these lists made any attempt to force their lists on anyone else. (An exception might be the use of “best books” lists to inform school curricula.)

However, implicit in these “before you die” lists is a sense of urgency. Whether the phrasing is “must do” or “try,” the implication is that, if you don’t follow these guidelines, your life will have been wasted and incomplete. For the last several days, I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about this trend. Complicating the matter is an image I can’t get out of my head – that of a fellow actually trying to follow up on all these “must do” directives.

I see a person sitting on a sofa with a video game controller in his hand. (One book I came across was 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die). In the other hand, he holds a novel that he glances at occasionally. A big screen television is playing a movie. (A window inset in the screen displays the video game.) He has earphones on and is listening to music. When we pull the image back, we can see that he is sitting in a recreational vehicle, speeding through Yellowstone or one of those “must see” places. An array of equipment intended for some of those “things you must try before you die” can be seen scattered around. Finally, long lists with a variety of big, red checkmarks are pinned to the walls.

Despite the chaos in the above image, I also find something positive about these lists. Certainly, there’s something admirable about trying to do something with one’s life, rather than just drifting through. I always found the phrase “Thank God It’s Friday” (shortened to TGIF) rather creepy. TGIF implied that life was restricted to a minor percentage of the week – Friday evening through sometime on Sunday, when work once again loomed its ugly head. Songs like “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend” reinforce the idea that we live to the fullest only a short period of time. This is also embraced in a lot of “rebel youth” music that implies that life is over when you hit that big 3-0.

In contrast to this attitude, these “must do” lists seem a whole lot more positive. Maybe you’re working a dead end job but if, while you’re doing it, you’re listening to a wide variety of music or an audio book, or seeking out a special food, or planning a trip that will expand your horizons, then you haven’t put your life on hold. Even something as simple as signing up for a “word a day” list (as several of my friends do) seems like a neat attempt to get the most out of every day. In this context, “must do” or “must try” becomes a way of living a vital, examined life – especially if you don’t just listen or play or see for no other reason than checking something off your list, but think about what you’re experiencing.

So, do these “must do” books make you feel as if you’re missing out on life or provide guideposts on how to live it more fully? Do you end up feeling stressed and overwhelmed because of everything you could (or should) be doing? Do you want someone else to provide a list, because they’ll have fresh ideas or approaches, or would you prefer to design a list on your own?


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