Archive for April, 2017

FF: Drenched in an Idea Storm

April 28, 2017

Still writing and brainstorming rather than curling up with a good book.   Instead, I’m doing things like sitting on the ground, weeding, while my thoughts are in another world.  I haven’t even been listening to audiobooks as much as usual.

Kwahe’e Rocks!

When I have the foundations in place, reading will actually be productive because it will let my subconscious have space to work on the next part, but right now the subconscious is tumbling out all the things that have been swirling around.

Reminder!  I’ll be at Page One Books on Saturday, April 29th, between 3:00-4:30 taking part in a celebration of Independent Bookstores.  See my website (like below) for details.

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

A Wizard Abroad by Diane Duane.  Audio.  Book Four in the series.  She does a good job with doing novels that stand alone within a larger tapestry.

In Progress:

Whatever After by E.M. Tippets.  ARC.  About half-way through.  Quite fun.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs By Derek and the Dominos by Jim Reid.  As regular readers of this Fragment know, periodically, I read rock bios.  This is a bio of an album, with fascinating material on the various people who helped create it.


Back issues of Archeology and Smithsonian, because…


TT: Food of the Gods

April 27, 2017

ALAN: In your novel Thirteen Orphans, we are introduced to Your Chocolatier, Albert Yu’s Chocolate Emporium. It is described so sensuously that the smell and the taste waft off the page. How much of that is wish fulfillment and how much of it is personal experience?

Chocolate Flower and Thirteen Orphans

JANE: If dreams are wish fulfillment, then that’s where Albert Yu’s shop has its origin.  One night I had a particularly vivid dream in which an elegant older lady was making her way through a very high-end shopping mall.  Her destination proved to be an exclusive chocolate store.  The dream was so vivid I could smell the aroma of cocoa, even taste the small square of chocolate – maybe one inch to a side – that the old lady ate.

That’s how I met Albert Yu and Pearl Bright – and developed a desire for a chocolate that exists only in dreams.  I’m glad I was at least able to translate the sensation into words!

ALAN: Wow! That’s a powerful dream. I wonder if Kage Baker ever dreamed like that? Her novels of The Company are a positive paean of praise for chocolate. She analyses its charms in great detail and it was in her novels that I first came across the word “theobromine” which, it turns out, is the active ingredient mainly responsible for the effect of chocolate on the human mind and body.

JANE:  Ah, see, that proves you’re not a chocoholic…  I’ve known that forever.  Here in Albuquerque, there’s even an expensive chocolate shop called Theobroma.

Do you know that “theobromine” means “food of the gods”?

ALAN: I’d not actually noticed that, but once you told me, my (very small) classical education kicked in and it made sense.

JANE: See?  Classical educations can be useful!

As names go, Theobromine is certainly an improvement over “xantheose,” the original name for this particular alkaloid.  I tried to look xantheose up on-line to see what it means, but the search engine kept redirecting me to theobromine.

Eventually, I went and checked several of my elderly print dictionaries, including the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s New Third International Dictionary.  I struck out there, too, except to learn that “xanth” is a common prefix in the names of derivatives and compounds.

(Gee, I wonder if Piers Anthony knew this?)

Anyhow, you’re a retired scientist.  Can you tell me what xantheose means – if it means anything?

ALAN: Yes I can, sort of. The -ose suffix indicates that the chemical is a sugar. You’ve probably heard of sucrose, glucose, fructose and the like, but it’s a large family of chemicals and many other sugars exist.

Xanth, as far as I can tell, comes from the Greek Xanthos meaning yellow, so xantheose is, presumably, a yellow sugar. I suspect the name might have been changed to theobromine because actually the chemical is an alkaloid rather than a sugar, though the distinction is blurred. Many alkaloids contain sugar groups in their structure…

Alkaloid names tend to have an -ine suffix attached to the plant name that the alkaloid is extracted from (strychnine, for example, is an alkaloid found in the nut of the tree Strychnos nux-vomica). Theobromine follows this naming convention (theobroma is the genus of the cacao plant) but is itself a very misleading name because the chemical does not actually contain any bromine at all – even though the element bromine is approximately the colour of chocolate.

All in all, the nomenclature of this compound is really rather a mess, whichever name you choose…

JANE: Rather like chocolate itself…  Seems appropriate somehow.

Y’know, in those same “hols,” you mentioned that you had just read Piers Anthony’s second autobiographical work How Precious Was That While.  From your comments about it, I gathered that you had read his other autobiographical work, Bio of an Ogre.  Does he ever say where he got the name “Xanth” for his Fantasy world?

Did it have anything to do with chemistry or the color yellow?

ALAN: There’s nothing about the derivation in How Precious Was That While. I can’t really comment about Bio of an Ogre because it’s been many years since I read it, and I no longer possess a copy – it was a casualty of the Great Library Purge of 2014…

But getting back to chocolate for a moment – about a 20-minute drive from where I live is Silky Oak Chocolate. They have a cafe and shop where you can buy handmade chocolates and they also have a Chocolate Museum which tells the story of 3000 years of chocolate history. They have a huge collection of chocolate paraphernalia, including a 2,500 year old Mayan Chocolate pot.

From the descriptions on their website, I suspect that their stock corresponds rather closely to Albert Yu’s stock. If you ever come here for a holiday, I promise to take you there.

JANE: (suspiciously) Just take me there or buy me a piece of chocolate?  The latter would be delightful, the other would be torture.  Wait!  Except that I’m a grown-up and can buy my own chocolate.  Really, there are wonderful advantages to being an adult.

Count me in…  Now to figure out how to manage a holiday in New Zealand.

ALAN: You’ll love it as long as the weather is on your side…

JANE: That sounds ominous.  What do you mean?

ALAN: I’ll tell you next time.

Event and Eventful

April 26, 2017

This coming Saturday (April 29th), I’ll be over at Page One Books here in Albuquerque between 3:00 pm and 4:30 to help out as they join in the Independent Bookstore Day celebration.

Me at a past Page One event

Why are we celebrating independent bookstores?  Well, the folks at Page One explained this so well, that I’m just going to quote them.

“Independent bookstores are not just stores, they’re community centers and local anchors run by passionate readers. They are entire universes of ideas that contain the possibility of real serendipity. They are lively performance spaces and quiet places where aimless perusal is a day well spent.

“In a world of tweets and algorithms and pageless digital downloads, bookstores are not a dying anachronism.  They are living, breathing organisms that continue to grow and expand. In fact, there are more of them this year than there were last year. And they are at your service.”

This coming Saturday (April 29th), I’ll be over at Page One Books here in Albuquerque between there, ready to try and show you where to find just the book you’re hoping to find.  If I can’t, I’ll hand you over to one of Page One’s staff members.

Even if you aren’t looking for a specific book, I hope you’ll drop by and chat.  This is one of those rare events where I can just relax and visit – no panels, no scheduled events.   I hope you’ll come by…  Interested in a complete list of participating authors?  Look here.

Otherwise, this last week was marvelously busy.  I think we’ve finalized the cover art for the official When the Gods Are Silent e-book.  It’s pretty dramatic, in keeping with the trend I started with the cover art for the e-book of Smoke and Mirrors.

What?  You didn’t know that Smoke and Mirrors is now available as an e-book?  Yep!  It is.  Even if you already have a copy, this one includes an original afterpiece.   You can read more about the new e-book here.

I’m also immersed in writing a new novel.  The idea came to me a few weeks ago, hybridized with one I’ve been considering for the last several months, and has now taken over my creative brain.  I’m enjoying myself a great deal.

What next?  I’m really not certain.  There are a lot of variables in flux right now, so I’m focusing my sights on the immediate future, rather than investing too much energy in worrying about even a month from now.

Now, off to write.  My characters are about to…  Well, I’ll just need to start writing and find out!

FF: Reduction

April 21, 2017

A chance conversation led to an idea that seems to be becoming a new novel.  So, basically, I’m immersed in writing the novel I wish I was reading.  That means I’m not reading as much as I’d like.

Kel of the Irish Green Eyes

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith.  A re-read that, nonetheless, had me hooked.  A book that proves that knowing the basics of the plot is not a spoiler if the story is good enough.

In Progress:

A Wizard Abroad by Diane Duane.  Audio.

Whatever After by E.M. Tippets.  ARC.  Just started


Lots of articles and the like for research.

TT: Chocoholics Anonymous!

April 20, 2017

JANE: So, Alan, when I read your most recent “wot I red on my hols,” I noticed that you have recently had a birthday.


ALAN: Yes – having birthdays is a bad habit I seem to have stumbled into. I get older every year, damnit!

JANE: No matter!  I’m going to wish you Happy Birthday anyhow, so there!

We once did a Tangent on birthday celebrations,

so I am sophisticated regarding the customs of your alien land.  Today I’d like to discuss something much more serious: chocolate.

In your “hols,” you stated that your birthday banquet concluded with an enormous chocolate cake.  You seem to have enjoyed it with great enthusiasm.  However, many times you have stated that you do not care for chocolate.

What I want to know is how anyone can say he is indifferent to chocolate.

ALAN: Habit, more than anything else, I think. When I was a child chocolate (and sweets in general) were still rationed – a hangover from the war. Even when they finally came off the ration, they were still comparatively expensive. So chocolate in particular was a rare luxury which I seldom, if ever, saw.

JANE: That’s actually fascinating.  Do you remember when rationing began to loosen up?

ALAN: I’m not sure when rationing finished – sometime in the early 1950s. I don’t really remember it, I was far too young. It was just one of those grown up things that I didn’t understand. But I do remember having my mum’s ration book as a toy to play with. Presumably that was after rationing was over…

I also remember eating what was probably my first ever piece of chocolate. It was made to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, so I would have eaten it in 1953 or so. I seem to recall quite enjoying it. Indeed, even today if I happen to eat a piece of chocolate I do enjoy it. But I have no great urge to seek it out and I can, quite literally, go for years without having any chocolate at all.

Indeed, I ate only one small slice of the birthday chocolate cake. Other people consumed the rest of it.

JANE: I tremble…  Although we didn’t have rationing, my parents were much more likely to supply us with fresh fruit rather than candy.  And, believe me, that wasn’t suffering.  I still remember summer-warm peaches, plums, and grapes, fresh from local farms.

Maybe because of that, even though I can – and usually do – eat chocolate on a daily basis, it still seems very special.

Other than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I don’t really know much about English chocolate.  Tell me about something uniquely British.

ALAN: A common chocolate bar of my youth was Frys Five Boys. The bar was divided into five pieces, each of which had the face of a boy moulded into the chocolate. Each boy had a different expression on his face. A little bit of googling tells me that the five faces were Desperation, Pacification, Expectation, Acclamation, and Realisation – these presumably being the steps along the way to obtaining and eating the chocolate.

JANE: That’s rather weird – especially Pacification – I really can’t see how that fits in at all.

We didn’t have candy bars with faces on them, at least that I remember.  My favorites as a child usually involved nuts or coconut, and these remain combinations I really like.  For a while, I tried Three Musketeers bars, because they were thicker than your average Hershey bar – even a Hershey with almonds – but they really were too sweet.

To this day, when Jim and I are given a box of mixed chocolates, I get the coconut pieces, he gets the creams and cordials, and we share the rest, although, in fairness, I get somewhat more of the nuts, because he’s usually still working his way through creams.

Do you prefer milk or dark chocolate?

ALAN: I’m not sure I really have a preference, since I eat it so rarely. But I think probably dark chocolate because I don’t have a very sweet tooth.

JANE: I definitely prefer dark chocolate, although I won’t turn down milk chocolate, if it’s of good quality.  Sadly, many of the standards of my childhood – like the basic Hershey’s kiss or Reeses peanut butter cup – are now made with such poor quality chocolate that you can feel the sugar grate against your teeth.  I usually avoid these.  If I’m going to have the calories, I’d like to enjoy them.

ALAN: Since you are so fond of chocolate, I’m sure you must have a store of chocolate anecdotes…

JANE: Many, but there’s one that seems especially appropriate here.  Some years ago, when I was invited to be Guest of Honor at a convention in Wisconsin, the Guest Liaison asked me if there was anything special I’d like put in my room.  She seemed disappointed when I told her my drinks of choice were water and coffee, and asked if there wasn’t a special treat I’d like.

I told her that I usually started my day with a bit of chocolate.  To my astonishment, when we arrived, she presented us with a very large tin filled with homemade chocolate truffles: her own handiwork.  They were very delicious.  I still have the tin and whenever I use it, I think with great warmth of Heidi Oliversen and her talent and kindness.

ALAN: Tins are wonderful things. Robin has an old chocolate tin sitting in the back of the pantry waiting for just the right thing to be put into it.

I think I must have a slightly naïve view of chocolate. To me, it’s always been something solid that I chew and I remember being very puzzled to read about people drinking it. Drinking chocolate? What’s that? Is it just a molten chocolate bar? Eventually I did actually come across proper drinking chocolate, but I don’t like it very much. It’s very bitter, unless you overload it with so much sugar and milk that the chocolate seems almost to be an afterthought; which rather destroys the point of it, I think.

JANE: Ah, yes…  Drinking bitter chocolate is an indigenous American tradition.  It is often mixed with spices like chile which gives it an added kick.  There was great excitement in the archeological community a few years ago when some vessels from Chaco Canyon were analyzed and chocolate residue was found.  There was much speculation as to whether it was in common use or reserved for special occasions.

The few times I’ve had drinking chocolate, I’ve found the caffeine boost almost too much.  For someone who routinely begins her day with a cup of black coffee and four chocolate covered almonds, that’s definitely saying something.

ALAN: I have a chocolate related question for you, but I suspect the answer might be complicated. How about I ask you next time?

Opening a Vein?

April 19, 2017

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”  So said Ernest Hemmingway.

Where I Write

Actually, there’s some doubt that Hemingway actually said this.  Variations on this statement have been attributed to a wide variety of people for a far longer time than you might imagine.  These include sports writer Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith, poet Reverend Sydney Smith, philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and writer Paul Gallico (to provide a not at all conclusive list).

If you’re interested in variations on the quotation and where it might have originated, you might like to look here.

What I want to talk about is not the source or who said it first.  I’m more interested in the concept.  Do you need to be seated in front of a typewriter – or at least have some writing implement (computer, tablet, pen and paper) at hand?  Do you need to bleed to write?  If you do need to bleed, how much blood do you need to shed?

As with most statements like this, I both agree and disagree – but more importantly, I think that many people misunderstand what Hemmingway and the others who have made variations on this statement mean.

Let’s start with the simple part.  Do you need to be parked in front of your writing device of choice to write?  Yes and no.  I’ve done a tremendous amount of writing far away from any writing device.  Maybe “writing” is stretching the point.  “Composing” might be more appropriate – and that gets to the heart of what’s meant by “bleeding.”

The Hemmingway quote above apparently appeared first in a book published in 1973.  (Hemmingway died in 1961.)  It – and many unattributed variations of the same – link the physical act of writing (on typewriter, computer, or whatever) and the “bleeding” of composition so tightly that I believe the meaning of “bleeding” has become distorted.

An earlier version of the same quotation – quite possibly material Hemingway may have unwittingly paraphrased – came from then-famous writer Paul Gallico.  In his 1946 book Confessions of a Story Writer, Gallico wrote:

“It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.”

Note that although Gallico mentions “the page” and “good white paper,” his emphasis is not on the physical act of writing but on the emotional investment.  The really important statement is the first part of the second sentence.  This is so important that I’m going to repeat it:

If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells…”

Here it’s made clear that by “bleeding” these writers didn’t mean putting oneself through some sort of endurance trial.  They’re not talking about staying locked in place until you write your quota or do your homework or whatever metaphor you prefer.  Yet lately, on panels, on social media, I keep encountering the idea that what defines “real” writers is that they produce quantities of words on a page (or a computer file or whatever).  The question as to whether these words mean anything, whether they have any heart, gets lost in an emphasis on production.

I have several works in progress right now.  One of these is beginning to look as if it may be a new novel.  I’m in the exploratory stages now and so I’m not putting as many words down on the page as might be expected.  Instead, I’m busy bleeding…

This weekend I landscaped a portion of my yard.  (Go look at the photo.  Doesn’t it look pretty?)  While I was weeding, raking, prying up the roots of bunch grass with the tip of a shovel, I was also composing.  I was thinking about the six characters around whom the story appears to be taking shape.  Each of them have different goals.  Many of them have secrets.

But I’ve been thinking about little things, too.  The things that make me believe in the characters.  What will the chain smoker do when her cigarettes run out?  What will the knitter bring with her?  How do the three characters who didn’t plan on this turn in their lives feel about it?  How do those who did plan deal with disappointment?

When I think about these things, I’m not chalking up any word count or page count, but I am bleeding.  I’m also getting excited, looking forward to the time when I’ll get back to the keyboard and see how the words fit around the idea.

Meantime, I can enjoy the landscaping, rather than having frustrated myself by trying to come up with words for no other reason than I’m “supposed” to do so to be a “real” writer.

FF: Inside the Self

April 14, 2017

Quests tend to get sneered at these days but, as the books I’ve been immersed in this week show, the important journey is the one that goes on inside the self.  Without that, it’s not a quest.  It’s just a road trip.

Persephone Catches The Ravens

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Frogkisser by Garth Nix.  Audiobook.  Humorous fantasy sneaks in some serious thoughts about personal and social responsibility.  The setting is more formulaic than many of Nix’s other works, but certain twists – like the Gerald the Herald – news franchise gives a certain freshness.

Only the Dead and The Ravens by Vidal Sundstol, both translated by Tiina Nunnally.  Books Two and Three of the Minnesota Trilogy which began with The Land of Dreams.  This is truly a fantastic trilogy — in both sense of the word — an unlikely hero’s journey through which the cost of family secrets ripples as a tremendously powerful undercurrent.  I recommend for anyone who is bored by formulaic fiction.

In Progress:

Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith.  A re-read that, nonetheless, has me hooked.

A Wizard Abroad by Diane Duane.  Audiobook.   Just started.


I’ve started writing something new, so less time for reading.

TT: From Bokononism to Pastafarianism

April 13, 2017

JANE: We’ve been talking about religion in SF for several weeks now, tangenting off now and then into other topics as the mood takes us.

Cats Cradled

I will admit that until we had this discussion, I hadn’t realized just how much science fiction attempted to reconcile in one way or another religious or spiritual concepts and a future dominated by science.

ALAN: Yes – it’s been a bit of an eye-opener for me as well.

JANE: Courtesy of this discussion, some weeks ago I finally read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.  This novel  may be one of the most ambitious attempts to address questions of religion in a science fictional setting, given that in the novel Vonnegut creates an entire religion, complete with founding prophet, texts, and rituals.

ALAN: And he does it all in a very thin book! Other writers could take lessons from him…

The religion is Bokononism. The foundation of the faith is that everything about it is a lie. However the lies that define the faith (known as foma) are themselves harmless untruths that, if believed in and adhered to, will give peace of mind and lead to the living of a good life.

Central to the novel is the idea of a karass – a group of people who are cosmically linked. I strongly suspect that you and I belong to the same karass.

JANE: I like that idea.  It would certainly explain a friendship that thrives despite our having met only once and living on opposite sides of the globe.

Let me check.  Yes!  The key element of a karass is that the people within it are organized into teams that “do God’s will without ever discovering what they are doing.”  In Cat’s Cradle the narrator believes that the instrument of his karass (its kan-kan) is the book he is writing.  I guess in our case the kan-kan is the Thursday Tangents.

ALAN:  Quite right. Without the Tangents, we couldn’t-couldn’t.

JANE: Ouch!  Please, go on while I recover from that horrible pun!

ALAN: Any karass will always have at least one theme that defines it. This theme is a wampeter. Sometimes what appears to be a karass will prove to have no wampeter. The links between the people are superficial. Such a false karass is a granfalloon. Members of a granfalloon soon split up and go their own separate ways. Vonnegut uses Hoosiers as an example of a granfalloon. Apparently Hoosiers are people who were born in Indiana. Have you any idea where the word Hoosier comes from?

JANE: Absolutely not!   However, I will go look it up.  Before I do though, I think it’s important to stress that Vonnegut implies that granfalloons, rather than wampeters, are what most people use to define themselves.  These may be political parties, racial identities, or the like – but no matter how important these groupings may seem to be, without a wampeter, they are empty of divine purpose.

Ah, now…  To define “Hoosier.”  Hmm… This is interesting.  According to Wikipedia, even Hooisers don’t know what a Hoosier is.  I shall quote:

“Hoosier is the official demonym for a resident of the U.S. state of Indiana. The origin of the term remains a matter of debate within the state, but “Hoosier” was in general use by the 1840s, having been popularized by Richmond resident John Finley’s 1833 poem ‘The Hoosier’s Nest’”

ALAN: Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs! (That’s Yorkshire for: Gosh, that’s surprisingly interesting). Vonnegut himself was born in Indiana and so I suppose that he is therefore perfectly qualified to assert that Hooisers are a granfalloon…

JANE: Absolutely!  As you already mentioned, one of the most interesting things about Bokononism is that, unlike most religions, which claim to provide Truth, Bokononism freely admits that all its tenants are lies.

ALAN: That’s right, in Bokononism, foma are the lies that the religious structure is built upon.

We actually have our own real life foma here in New Zealand. It is the “Federation of Maori Authorities” (FOMA) which is a network of Maori business organisations dedicated to the pursuit of indigenous economic development. Which leads me to believe that this FOMA does in fact constitute a karass whose wampeter is economic growth. But if it is a lie, as all foma are lies, is it harmless? I suspect not, because the goals are real… The whole thing makes for a nice, circular irony something which Vonnegut, that most ironic of writers, would certainly have enjoyed.

JANE: But surely such a group would be a granfalloon, since clearly the goal is not to do God’s Will but mans’!

ALAN: You’re right! Gosh, I never realised that theology was such a slippery subject. Could this be a schism? Is it a heresy?

Vonnegut was so attached to the ideas of Bokononism that he later published a collection of essays which he called Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons.

JANE: We could keep going on the subject of religion and SF.  For example, I realized that I hadn’t mentioned how religion – most particularly the theme of God the Tester – grows to be an important element in some of David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels.  At one convention, I even met a self-ordained minster of that church, who held a service on the Sunday morning.

I bet you have other examples as well.

ALAN: Indeed I do. In real life (TM) Pastafarianism, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, promotes a light-hearted, satirical view of religion. Satire, of course, requires a firm basis of truth to be effective. And as with many of the literary examples that we’ve looked at, there really are serious concerns lying behind the jokes. The doctrine has distinct parallels with Bokononism.

Several countries have officially recognised the church. Ministers (Ministeroni) have been ordained and wedding celebrants appointed. The first legally recognised Pastafarian wedding in the world took place in Akaroa, New Zealand in April 2016.

JANE: Wow!  I know you and Robin have been married longer than that, otherwise I might wonder…

Now, even with our various jaunts off topic, we’ve been very serious for several weeks now.  We’re going to need to find something completely frivolous for our next Tangent.

Archaeology Inside and Out

April 12, 2017

Back in January, I had a request that I update you folks on Jim’s latest dig.  Since the project has now moved into Phase Two, I have accumulated some material that I hope will prove interesting.

The dig is located at the site of the former Judge Steve Herrera County Court Building in the heart of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  With the opening of the new county court building, this location is going to be turned to other uses.

Indoor Excavation

Santa Fe County has some of the most stringent regulations for archeological clearance in the state so, even though there has been a structure on the site, archeological clearance is required.  This is not as crazy as it may seem.  At the time this structure was built, local ordinances for archeological clearance were not in place.

Santa Fe has been settled for a long time – at least as we North Americans record human occupations.  The Spanish took up residence in the area in the early 1700s.  Various groups of Indians had been living there long before.  In fact, directly across Grant Street (to the east), there was a pueblo that had been occupied in the 1300s and 1400s.

A few years ago, when the Santa Fe Civic Center was being built, work was halted when construction crews encountered a large number of human remains.  The county was determined that this project would not experience similar costly work stoppages.  That’s why the attached picture shows members of Jim’s crew hard at work inside the building.

This wasn’t nearly as cushy a job as you might think.  In January, in Santa Fe, the temperatures were colder inside the building than outside, where the sun at least gave the illusion of warmth.  Holes were cut in the concrete flooring, so those doing the digging were forced into some very awkward spaces.  Since the usual stratigraphy couldn’t give any clue of where artifacts might be found, extensive screening was necessary to confirm whether or not anything was there.

After a great deal of hard labor, Jim’s crews confirmed that the area directly under the building appears to have been sufficiently disturbed that when the constructions crews move in they shouldn’t encounter any unpleasant or expensive surprises.

In addition to working inside in freezing weather, Jim’s crew had another interesting challenge.  SWAT police teams had been given permission to use portions of the vacant building for team training exercises, so for a day the location was a very surreal place, with uniformed SWAT officers racing around, while Jim’s crew kept out of their way.

Both Phase One and the ongoing Phase Two include outdoor work as well.  While the soil directly under the building didn’t yield anything significant, the outdoor excavations found traces of several of the uses to which the area had been put over the years.

Before we get into that, it’s probably a good idea to explain how archeologists go about digging an urban site.  Most of the outdoor areas were covered either by asphalt or concrete.  This had to be cleared away and the areas fenced, often stirring great (and not always polite) indignation on the part of county workers who found their long-time parking spaces were no longer available to them.

To clear away the asphalt and upper levels of dirt, a backhoe is used.  This doesn’t mean that the archeologists get to sit back and relax while the machines do the hard work.  In order that not the least artifact or trace of a structure will be missed, at least two crew members are posted to monitor the digging.  Monitoring is a job that takes both skill and intense concentration.  Whenever anything anomalous is spotted, the backhoe operator must be immediately stopped and a closer inspection instituted.   The backhoe is also used to make deep trenches to expose larger features, such as walls.

In the past, the site had been the location of a dormitory associated with a Presbyterian boarding school and, before that, a Spanish colonial residence.  As the digging began, evidence of the school showed up in the form of inkwells, marbles, and eventually a section of massive foundations of the wall.  The crew also found arrowheads, musket balls, bits of pottery, and animal bones that might have been associated with the school or the earlier residence.

One day, Karen spotted something white in the dirt.  Signaling the backhoe to stop, she jumped down and came up with a piece of bone.  When this was checked by the osteolgist at the lab, it was confirmed to be human bone.  This meant the police had to be contacted.  Given that the bone came from beneath what had been solid asphalt, in place for many years, the police decided that this was not evidence of a crime and returned it to join the other artifacts.

Once again, multiple uses of the building added a surreal element to the excavation.  This week, a unit from the Longmire television show was on site, filming a portion of a future episode.  On Monday morning, when Jim arrived at the site and walked to where he needed to unlock doors for his crew, he had to make his way through a group of actors being briefed on what they’d be doing that morning.

Everyone turned to look, obviously wondering if he was a late-arrived extra, already in costume.  Doubtless, they were trying to figure out exactly what part of the script called for a burly, bearded archeologist in realistically dirt and sweat-stained attire.

Phase Two is only just getting into its full swing, and is likely to go on for at least another four weeks.  After that, Phase Three will focus on the remains of another building associated with the school.  I’ll let you know what else they find.

If you have any questions, please let me know and I’ll pass them along to Jim and post his replies here.

FF: Interior Landscape

April 7, 2017

This week I seem to be immersed in stories where the interior landscape is as important or more so than the exterior.  Even the ostensibly lighthearted Frogkisser is about the contrast between the world as the protagonist would like to think it is, and how it really is.

Who Gets It First?

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Ancient Child by N. Scott Momaday.  Compelling,  well-written with a darkly ambivalent ending.

In Progress:

Frogkisser by Garth Nix.  Audiobook.  Humorous fantasy that nonetheless is sneaking in some serious thoughts about personal and social responsibility.

Only the Dead by Vidal Sundstol, translated by Tiina Nunnally.  Sequel to The Land of Dreams which I read a while back.  Psychological crime novel.


Continuing my re-read of my own When the Gods Are Silent.  Still feel as if I’m having conversations with a long-ago self, but I think I like her.