Archive for August, 2010

Full of Hot Air

August 25, 2010

A sound like Darth Vader breathing over my shoulder interrupts the early morning bird song. Dogs begin hysterically barking. A shadow dims the light from the rising sun.

I look up over my shoulder (I’m out in the yard picking cucumbers), and see the looming shape of a hot-air balloon drifting to the east of me. It’s striped in shades of red, yellow, and white, the colors vivid against the pale blue of the early morning sky.

As I watch, the balloon drifts smoothly to the south, periodically hissing.

Yes. Everything you’ve read about the silent movement of hot-air balloons is perfectly true. However, what these picturesque descriptions usually fail to mention is that the burners that heat the air make quite a bit of noise – the Darth Vader hiss and gasp that I mentioned above.

Another thing that fictional depictions of balloon flights often omit, especially these days when hot-air balloons are becoming set pieces in highly fashionable (but not necessarily well-thought out) steampunk, is how dependant on the vagaries of the wind hot-air balloons are. The burners mediate the balloon’s rise, but not in what direction the craft will travel. That is all up to wind currents.

From late summer through early autumn, I can pretty much count on hot-air balloons drifting right over my house. This is because Albuquerque experiences a wind pattern called “the Box.” If the winds cooperate, a skilled balloonist can arrange to be shunted around the four corners of the compass. This doesn’t mean they’ll land exactly where they took off, but the Box does create conditions that make Albuquerque a premier destination point for balloon enthusiasts.

I am no longer astonished to see a hot-air balloon, but I am still delighted. After a while, you come to recognize locals. Some companies use a variation on medieval heraldry: adorning their fleet with different patterns worked in the same colors. One of my favorites is a rainbow caught up in a swirl like a Turk’s Cap helmet or a soft ice cream cone.

Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll glimpse a “special shape.” These are balloons elaborately constructed to resemble anything from a teddy bear to a dragon to a human figure, and pretty much anything else that can be filled with hot-air and expected to stay in balance when it rises.

One day, as Jim and I were out driving, we were treated to a full scale Cinderella’s castle drifting over Paseo del Norte. It hovered there for a long moment, framed by both sides of the six lane road. It’s a wonder there wasn’t a multi-car pile-up, because I’m sure we weren’t the only distracted drivers.

I hear dogs barking with that distinctive, frantic note that says the hissing, drifting aliens are passing overhead. I think I’ll wander out and take a look at who is hanging out in the sky.

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Soaked Lizard

August 18, 2010

A few days ago, I was working when thunder shook the air.

Sergei Drying Off

It was sunny out, but in New Mexico that means nothing. A heavily cloudy day can end up with no rain at all, while thunder and lightning can come out of an apparently clear blue sky.

I walked to a window, noted clouds to the southeast and went back to work. Sometime later, more thunder, this time with clouds and lightning brilliant enough to show even in daylight. I turned off the computer. Sure I have surge suppressers, but there are times that one is simply tempting fate.

Not long after, more thunder, more lightning, both powerful enough to convince the cats that they wanted to move under furniture. Rain came after. Hard and violent, a true “gully washer,” what our Navajo neighbors call “male rain.” It didn’t last long, but when it finished I went out to check the barrels under the downspouts.

The one on the northeast was full to overflowing and I took some moments with a bucket to shift some water out. When I moved to the southeast barrel, I discovered it wasn’t full. Inside, hanging on to the piece of bark I keep in the barrel as a sort of life raft, was a fence lizard.

He was hanging on only by his front feet and was miserable enough that he didn’t even wiggle when I picked him up and set him on one of the leaves of the Maximilian sunflower plant (technical name “Helianthus maximilian”; a narrow-leafed, perennial variety that flowers in autumn) growing near the barrel. Then I went off to check the other barrels.

When I returned I expected to find the lizard gone. Instead, I was surprised to find him still there. He seemed to be having trouble breathing and his eyes were half-shut. From this I deduced that he’d either already been in the barrel when the rain started and had barely made it to the raft or that the force of the rain had knocked him from the Maximilian sunflower into the barrel.

Either way, he didn’t look good. He hardly moved when I shifted him to a different leaf, one in a bit more sun (yes, the sun was out again and everything was steaming), but covered from above by other leaves.

I went back inside to my work, but I kept coming out to check on the lizard. I dubbed him “Sergei” for no other reason than that my current book on tape is a Cold War thriller and that was the name of one of the characters. (I’m quite aware the lizard was likely a female, but I’m not saying I’m logical).

Normally, a doused lizard comes back pretty fast, but by the time Jim got home from work that evening, Sergei was still sitting on his leaf. I was relieved, however, to find that he was becoming more alert. At first when I gently blew on him (thinking a bit of warmth might help), his eyes barely flickered.

Later, his head moved to check me out when I came around, but still he didn’t move. Later still, he had walked to a different leaf, but didn’t seem very robust.

Finally, at twilight, Jim came in from giving the yard its final shut down and reported: “Your friend has moved on.”

So I guess Sergei made it. I’d placed him where the birds (including the roadrunners, which are more like dinosaurs than you can believe if all you’ve ever seen is the animated version or still photos) couldn’t get him. There had been no sign of cats.

I wonder what Sergei thought of his experience: fallen, soaked, nearly drowned, but caring enough about preserving his life to hang on to that bit of bark with both front paws. Lifted out, moved to a leaf, still miserable, warm wind smelling of nothing like anything he knew.

Our voices, even though we talked softly, might have seemed like the rumble of returning thunder. Eventually nightfall and he felt well enough to make his way to wherever it is the fence lizards spend their nights.

Did he tell stories to the little ones? Did he wonder about his escape? Or was he just glad not to have drowned?

I don’t know, but I’m sure about the last. The image of him hanging on is imbedded in my memory.

Walking Away From It

August 11, 2010

When I’m stuck on what I’m writing, I walk away and go do something else, preferably something mindless, like chopping up vegetables for dinner or pruning or digging holes.

This is on my mind today because I’ve been plagued with something (probably pollen; I do allergies really, really well) which has been giving me headaches of various levels of complexity for several days now. I’m a bit frustrated because my usual solution for getting into my writing simply isn’t working.

Walking away from writing is a hard tactic to explain. Most Americans are taught to keep working on a problem: put one foot in front of another and we’ll reach our goal. For those writers who have only a limited amount of time in which to write (after the day-job, after the kids are in bed, whatever), this way of dealing with writing practically comes as heresy.

But the fact remains that, for me, staring at a screen or sheet of paper, trying to force the words, is the best way to make sure they’ll stay away.

Part of the reason for this is that I’m a subconscious plotter and my subconscious is notoriously cranky about being forced. However, if I get to work on something else, then the subconscious relaxes and often the words start flowing.

This has happened a lot to me but, there’s one occasion I think of as the perfect illustration.

I was writing Changer. The novel was well past the introductory chapters. Characters were on stage, problems were not only introduced but mounting in complexity. As they did, I began to be troubled by the question of why these people didn’t simply bop each other over the head. Instead, some of them had been frustrating each other for millennia.

To place this in context, this was in the day when Highlander was very popular both as a movie (which I saw) and a television show (which I never saw). In the universe according to Highlander, immortals seemed to have nothing better to do with their time and energy than murder each other. Seemed a waste of immortality to me, but as my characters began to suspect and doubt each other, I did wonder why several of the more annoying (Sven Trout, for example) hadn’t ended up dead long ago.

I sensed – that’s the only way to put it; you’ll simply have to believe me – that there was something more than caution staying their hands. However, I couldn’t figure it out.

So I shut down the computer and walked out the door to get my daily exercise. I was not even two tenths of a mile from my front door when the solution came to me. Words came rushing into my head. Images nearly drowned me in their intense complexity. I resisted turning around to get it all on paper. Instead, I went and walked my usual three mile route.

My feet probably did speed up a bit on the last few blocks. I hurried through the door, grabbed paper, and started scribbling.

Accord and Harmony, the differences between them, the differences between voluntary and involuntary compliance. Why people who viewed each other as enemies would cooperate – or at least find more interesting ways to undo each other than simple murder.

All of it was there, ready to be used but, if I hadn’t walked away, I don’t think I would have found it that day.

Over the years, I’ve learned to walk away, but I always walk back. If I didn’t, well, then I’d create a whole new problem, wouldn’t I?

Desperately Seeking SF

August 4, 2010

A few weeks ago, in an after-dinner discussion, our guest Alan Lattimore (not to be confused with the New Zealand Alan who often posts on this blog) expressed the following problem”

“It used to be that I couldn’t leave a bookstore without buying something. The last few times, though, I’ve left empty-handed. Part of the problem is there’s almost too much. The covers are so similar, too.”

Jim and I agreed. For us the problem is mediated a bit by the fact that I have several friends with whom I discuss books on a regular basis. (Sally, Yvonne, and Julie, you know who you are!) I also have a couple of pen pals who often mention what they’re reading. (Paul and Scot, stand to be recognized).

Finally, I work in the publishing industry, so I’m often trying something new, perhaps a book that’s up for consideration for an award or a work mentioned by a colleague. I also read a bit to keep up with works my friends have written.

One of my favorite reads of the last couple weeks was The Legacy of the Turquoise Knight by P. Andrew Miller. I don’t usually see small press publications (this one came out from Lyric Comic, a division of Finishing Line Press). These days, I also don’t usually read poetry, even narrative poetry. However, Andy is a friend and I wanted to see what he was up to.

What I was treated to was an amazing story about three generations of a family of superheroes, about the consequences of secrets, and, incidentally, a reminder that, before it became “work,” I really liked narrative verse. (By the way, Jim, who does not usually read poetry also liked this piece.)

So word of mouth is a great way to learn about authors and books. Alan and I both admitted that, had we not been friends with SF author Laura J. Mixon, both of us would have missed two great books: Proxies and Burning the Ice.

We both felt that it’s harder to find good SF (rather than variations of Fantasy), in part because fewer authors are writing the sense of wonder material that drew us both to SF (think Larry Niven, Poul Andersen, Gordon R. Dixon, Robert Heinlein, Jack Williamson), in part because the SF field seems to be more interested in being cutting edge and satirical rather than inspiring.

Or have we just missed the right books?

So how do you find books? Do you have any suggestions that don’t involve word of mouth or attending a club or convention? Alan is about to move to a rural area of Vermont, so those options are going to largely be out for him. However, he will be on-line. Are there any good discussion groups? Web-sites? Whatever…