A Writer Considers Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey Series

One of the advantages of reviewing an older series of books is that unless your readers have been living under a rock, they already know the basic storyline: Dave Bowman and Frank Poole fly to Jupiter and HAL, their hyper-intelligent computer, tries to kill them.  Pretty straight forward, or is it?

When it came out in 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was mandatory viewing for anyone who grew up believing in the endless promise of space exploration.  At the age of fourteen, the graphics—cutting edge at the time—impressed me enough to read the novel.  I don’t remember whether I caught the inconsistencies between the two story lines at that point, in fact I’m sure I didn’t.  Critical literary analysis wasn’t at the top of my list.  For me it was just entertainment.

Recently I caught parts of Kubrick’s masterpiece on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and thought I’d like to revisit the novel—actually, the series.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I was actually unaware that Clarke had written a four book series.  Here are the novels and their publication dates:

There is no doubt that these books are, and will remain, icons in the halls of science fiction, so do not let any of my comments make you think that I have anything but the highest esteem for Clarke’s genius.  With that said, from a writer’s perspective, I want to point a few areas where his writing doesn’t really work for me:

  • Having a novel released after the movie. In his introduction to 2001, Clarke went into great detail about his collaboration with Kubrick.  He confronted the belief, held by many at the time, that the novel was written after the movie was released, and written to the movie plot.  This belief, although wrong is not entirely unnatural because the novel was released shortly after the movie.  In reality, Clarke fed Kubrick the novel as it was developing, but Kubrick changed the plot for the movie.
  • Writing the sequel to the movie instead of the novel. In Clarke’s Author’s Notes to 2010, he addresses this issue by stating that the sequel while fed by the first novel, takes place in a different universe.  This causes a problem for the reader, of course.  If you somehow missed the movie and/or skipped the Author’s Notes and jumped right into the story, there are areas that just don’t synch.  And, of course, that out of synch feeling would carry on through all the sequels.  In fact, had Clarke stuck to the original plot, 3001 might not have been possible.
  • Reuse of material throughout the sequels. Throughout the sequels, Clarke drew heavily on pre-published material.  For instance, 3001 contained whole pages from the previous three novels.  2061 contained whole portions from the previous two novels, and 2010 contained verbatim text from 2001.  This technique upped the page count, helped with consistency, and saved Clarke from creating more original content.  Personally, I believe it’s fully acceptable for a technical paper or thesis, but not for fiction.  As soon as I came to those chapters (yes, some whole chapters), I skipped over them and moved on, hoping for more original content.
  • A little science goes a long way. All four novels are, for the most part, built on credible science or scientific theory.  Clarke even included detailed references and notes at the end of each novel.  That’s what makes his novels science fiction.  They include science and scientific detail.  To my mind though, the science makes these novels cold—unless that’s what he intended.  Space isn’t exactly touchy-feely.  While I have been engrossed with science, especially physics, since I was young, in the end it just didn’t work for me in these novels.  Science-based fiction should inspire the reader to further research the themes and concepts from the story, without inhibiting the momentum of the plot.
  • The information is dated. There is always a certain amount of risk in tying the plot to a specific date in the future.  Eventually that date arrives and what seemed prescient in 1968, seems anachronistic in 2001.
  • Lack of empathy for the characters. I found it very difficult to empathize with the characters in these novels.  I really can’t explain why, other than to say that Clarke introduced some side characters and themes that he failed to adequately expand upon.  The universe Clarke created is about more than just Dave Bowman and Frank Poole.
  • The monoliths are straight-jacketed by the science. I will tread around this carefully, because if you haven’t read 3001, I’d hate to ruin it for you.  Let’s just say that I was disappointed in the explanation, descriptions, and capabilities of the monoliths and those who controlled them.  I find it difficult to believe that our understanding of the universe is so parochial as to believe that everything in it is governed by the laws we have defined.
  • An ending without a punch. As I finished 3001, I kept waiting for the brilliant finale, something that made fighting through hundreds of pages and thousands of words worth the effort.  Instead, it was just, well, the end.  Perhaps, after all the hype, I expected too much.

What Clarke did right, was to accurately describe the immenseness of the universe.  Perhaps that is the thing that makes these novels so special.

©Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh

Wearing Sneakers to Church

“Me and God have an understandin’,” he said. “He don’t put on airs and I don’t either.”

That’s how I feel, also.  Maybe it’s because I spent a dozen years in Hawaii and now live in Florida, but I can’t imagine any reason for owning, much less wearing, a tie.  A suit, forget it.  As far as church is concerned, I shouldn’t have to get all dressed up to talk to a God who created me naked.

Of course, I have worn a suit in the past for weddings and funerals, but it was always under duress.  And there have been some very special occasions where I have worn a tie.  For instance, I recently wore a tie for the engagement party of a young couple I am very fond of, but I did so with the promise of tequila and an open bar.  I was the unofficial official photographer for the affair and from the eight-hundred or so photos that I took, it appears that I had a really good time.

There is no tie without tequila!

But what does this have to do with wearing sneakers to church?  Well, everything.

When I was young, I first attended a Catholic Church, then a Methodist Church.  Both left me with the distinct impression that attendance was more about seeing and being seen, ensuring that the “church uniform” gave the right impression, than worshiping God.  Now don’t get me wrong, while I don’t approve of dressing for show, I don’t endorse “dressing down” simply to give the impression of meekness, either.  My mother tells the story of how, if he was going to the bank to apply for a loan, my Dad used to wear his oldest clothes in the belief the impression of need would somehow influence the banker to approve the loan.  The banker could see through the deception and so can God.

Maybe this is one of the those much touted “first world problems”.  In most of America, we actually have the option to present ourselves as rich or poor, simply to create the impression we believe will help us most.  I use the term present ourselves” because I don’t believe that, even in America, do we have the choice to be rich or poor.  Our station, our class, and our jobs are largely determined for us by forces that are beyond our control.

So much of what we do in this life is about creating an image of conformity, rather than living our lives to their fullest potential.  We are influenced by the expectations of our parents, our siblings and friends, our society, our jobs, and organizations we belong to (including the church).  To my mind, the only thing that should hold sway over us is that of the greater good of mankind as a whole.  Once every belly is full, every child educated, and every disease cured should there be time or effort expended to feed the ego of either man or god.

Until then, I’ll wear jeans and sneakers to church and resist putting on airs for the sake of placing myself above my fellows.  I will write what I want when I want without regard to the fickle trends that so easily influence the shallow and gullible dilettantes of our society.

©Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh

Road Trip — Epilogue

The end of the end, isn’t that what he said?  And he was right, of course.  The end of the end begins after the beginning, which is birth.  Every moment following that is the end of everything, on an individual level, on a global level—it’s all a matter of scale.

And this was the end of the end in its most universal sense.  Billions of years of evolution turned to corpses and rotting flesh.  In eleven days, the population of the world—humans and animals—had been all but eliminated.  A few stragglers survived, owing more to luck than preparation.  But who could have prepared for this, the world becoming a global feed lot?  The creatures, those perfect killing machines, weren’t the true invaders.  They were like predatory sheep, fattened for an otherworld market.

In a few days, full of humanity, the beasts would be harvested and slaughtered to feed the hungry masses aboard an interstellar convoy headed for a destination a million years distant.  Along the way countless planets would be colonized and harvested to feed the vision of an alien Moses.  Nothing else mattered to them but the vision, not the populations destroyed, not the evolution interrupted, nothing—but the end of the end.

And here, on this tiny insignificant planet, lost among all the other planets and stars that make up all the galaxies and solar systems and universes that are, life will undoubtedly continue—although greatly altered.  No doubt a few humans will survive.  If they are lucky, they may even procreate.  Chances of this are mathematically unlikely, because the world is a big place with many dangers.

And while some of the traditional terrestrial predators may be enjoying extinction, a new predator—the harvest was sure to leave a few behind—roams the earth with impunity.  It is highly likely that, just as man evolves, so will they.

This is not to say that this story is without hope.  The post-apocalyptic Bronx or Los Angeles or Miami may turn out to be the new Eden.  From it may arise a new race with new myths and legends and heroes.  And no doubt they will eventually ascribe the events of today with some greater purpose, such as the prescribed purification of humanity, attributed to the very will of God himself.  Well, God did say that he would never drown the world again.  He didn’t say a thing about predators from outer space.

***
Happy Halloween.  Sure, you can say that the story is derivative, as the theme has been written about by many more talented than I.  But it was short.  And written quickly.  And it was for a blog, for heaven’s sake.   But I hope you enjoyed it.

Now go out there and score some candy!

©Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh

Road Trip, Chapter 2

Death is not an easy thing, I think, and I know a few things about death, don’t I?  But this, this horror is beyond the pale.

I find you beside the interstate, still clutching the wheel, as if somehow even in death you would keep going.  But there is no ‘keep going’.  For you there is nothing.  Deathly gray, covered by oozing lesions, and sweat soaked with our own blood and urine, you sit there still and google-eyed.

In the passenger seat is evidence of another rider, a woman, perhaps your wife.  She is, no doubt, one of those who insists on being made-up, even on the road.  And there is evidence of it on the cup.  Behind her are two child car seats and related flotsam strewn throughout the car.  But the wife and kiddies are missing.  They have, no doubt, run off to escape this terrible thing.  They may have even left you to face your last minutes of life alone, abandoned except for the terrible thing growing inside you.

And what is growing inside you, I could see it almost as clearly as my own reflection in the mirror.  It has yet to burrow through to the surface, but it won’t be long.  I wonder if I should wait to greet it as a fellow death-bringer, or take the wiser course, which would be to leave before I, too, became infected.

I think I might wait, just a while, to see what happens.  After all, it isn’t often I have the opportunity to see that which might mean the end of all, birthed.  And by the end, I mean the end of the end.  How fortunate it would be to see this first hand.

But how could I be so fortunate?  I would have never expected it.  After all, although I am very good at what I do, I can’t say that it has brought any particular praise from the public sector.  I admit that there are those who have voiced a certain admiration for the planning and surgical precision of my work, but if I had earned some special affection in the hearts of my admirers, how is it that I am walking along the interstate with only the clothes on my back and a few dollars to my name?

Well, that doesn’t really matter now, does it?  We are where we land and we’d best make the best of it.  And where I’ve landed there is—oh, what’s that coming.  In the distance, a police car, so I think I’ll just move off the road for a bit.  I’ll let him deal with it.  That should be fun to watch.

The state patrol vehicle pulls up behind your car.  The man is big, tall and probably pushing two-fifty.  With all his gear on he looks even heavier.  He approaches your door.  He taps on the window, then looks more closely.  He steps back and I can clearly see the look of horror and disgust on his face.  I wonder, have the police been warned that people are dying from this? That would be awkward.  If so, it doesn’t appear that word got down to this man, because he walks around to the passenger door to peer inside.

If he had just backed off, gone to his car to call dispatch, and report what he had seen, things might have gone differently.  Instead, he climbs into the passenger side to look the guy over and maybe get some an idea of who might have been with him.  That’s all it takes to lure the thing out.  It is still growing and it is hungry.

I watch intently, even moving a little closer to get a better look.  I know that this is unwise, because if I was identified, my knife would be no match for his pistol.  But I’m not concerned.  I don’t think that this officer will be any threat to me.  Not today.  Not ever.

The man screams—a delightful and terrible scream.  No, it not just a scream, a horrible gurgling fear-filled shriek.  The car shakes as the officer tries to pull loose, to escape, but it is too late.  The thing, the fellow death-bringer, has burst forth from with you, tearing through your abdomen and chest.  It burrows deep into the officer’s chest.  Blood covers the windows, making it impossible to see.

After a few minutes, the car no longer shakes.  It is feeding, gathering its strength.  I move even closer, for a better look.  I think to myself, hardly an efficient way to kill.  I can empathize with the violence, but it is far too messy and wasteful.  On the other hand, it is only just born.

I am now standing beside the passenger door watching it as it feasts on the officer’s bones.  I recognize it at once, it is like a child—small naked and hairless.  But the eyes, the eyes betray a noble intent.  The teeth are like razors and the hands like claws.

Oh, I think, you are a darling demon.  You are what has been promised to me, what I’ve been waiting for.  We shall make a wonderful team, you and I.  It is no threat to me now.  Its hunger is sated, for the moment.  And there is a whole world to know the pleasure of pain in.  And you, my little one, will I teach to be the great hunter.  And together we shall usher in the end of the end, together.

Glorious, how glorious!  But there is a greater revelation yet to come!  The beast stares upwards into the sky and I realize that he is but the first.  For from the sky like a cloud, bursting with rain come tiny parachutes, lighter than air, much like a dandelion’s plumed seed.    From the cloud above floats down new life—and death.  By the hundreds of thousands they come, enough to blot out the sun.

I open my arms and cry, welcome!  I have taken so many lives, I think, but nothing like this.  I offer my flesh to these, the rightful inheritors of the world of men.  I only ask that I may live to join the terrible crusade against the horror that is man!

And I look into the first one’s eyes and understand, that the end of the end is now.

©Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh

Road Trip

We’re just a couple of weeks from my favorite holiday—Halloween!  What follows is something to get you in the mood, especially if you’ve ever harbored concerns about the cleanliness or safety of those rest stop bathrooms…

I think most of us have been there.  You’re on that road trip, and suddenly you feel it, that undeniable call that tells you that you shouldn’t have eaten Mexican at that little restaurant off the interstate.  But those little places, the ones crowded by locals, away from the factory fast food, are always the best, you’d said.  But this place hadn’t been crowded by locals and it was small and dingy and—

Ahead, you can just make out the sign—Rest Stop—and you hit the gas.  Only a mile now, but a mile is forever, with your stomach cramping and your colon threatening to explode.  And of course, you’re not alone.  The children are crying and your wife is in a panic at your behavior.  You can’t help it.  As much as you would like to calm them, one thing and one thing only demands your complete and undivided attention.

Almost there now.  You scream down the off-ramp and almost miss the turn into the Cars Only parking lot.  Finally, safely in a parking slot, you turn off the car, grab the keys, and bolt out the door.  Your wife’s pleas for help taking the children to the bathroom echo behind you, ignored.  Your entire gastric system is redlining, how could you possibly stop?

Up the sidewalk, each step filled with pain.  Up the steps and through the doors, then you stop.  One side of the bathroom is closed for construction.  The other side—mercifully, there is another side—and you pull the door open.

The entrance is blocked by a man with a shirt that proclaims in large red letters, “Go Dawgs!”.  You can barely see past him to the sinks and urinals.  There is a line of five men ahead of you.  you can also see that of the six toilet stalls, only one is operational.  The other five have large Out-of-Order signs on them.

You curse under your breath as rivulets of sweat flow down your face, and you have the growing fear that if you don’t get to the toilet soon, the toilet it may be a moot point.  You may have a greater need of a shower than a toilet.

But you wait, you have no choice.  And you wait.  And other men join the queue behind you, as the ones nearest the stall begin to grumble.  Their anger is palpable.  There are suggestions that the man in the stall must be reading a book, War and Peace, perhaps?

Then it happens, knuckles against the stall door.  No response.  Another rap on the door, this time more insistent.  It is answered by a terrible groan and a disgusting gurgling sound, like words stifled by some liquid.  But not water, you think, something other than water, thicker.  But there has been no sign or sound of vomiting.

It is obvious something is wrong here, and the men in line are actively trying to determine their options—go up the road, go outside, break open the other stalls?  A few made their decision and walked out, while others stood their ground.

And you think to yourself, maybe someone needs find out if that guy is alright.  Maybe someone should call 9-1-1.

“There must be someone here who can check on this guy, don’tcha think?” asked one of the men.  Someone said they’d go check, and disappeared into the night.

“Christ, what’s that smell?” asked another.  There had been an odor when you first walked in, but there’s always an odor in rest stop bathrooms.

From behind you, from beyond the door, comes a woman’s voice.  You can’t see her, but her voice is tremulous and old and filled with concern.  You catch a few words.

“William,” she shouts, “are you still in there?”

A man intervenes.  She explains that William is her husband and that he has been gone a long time.  She wants to make sure that he is okay.

You hear the name and shout out, “William, are you okay?”  No response beyond the groaning now.

“He’s not well,” she says.  “He needs a doc—“  Then she collapses.  You can’t see it, but you can hear her fall and the scurry of footsteps around her.

“We need to open that door,” you say.  “There’s a sick man inside.”  The rush of adrenaline has temporarily relieved the pain in your stomach.

Now a man pulls himself up to look over the stall door.  He falls back, deadly pale, and runs out the door.  A few others quickly follow him, but three stalwarts tear at the door until they can break it in.  When they do, their eyes grow large and their faces pale and full of terror.  Even so, you approach to witness their discovery.  And what they have discovered is death.

Upon the toilet, his pants around his ankles and his shirt stained with blood, is an old, gray, black man—his skin ashen, his eyes filled with blood and protruding.  Upon his arms and face are festering wounds, oozing a nasty, dark puss.  And now, the problem of a leaking anus is the least of your concerns, because you realize that now all the stalls are occupied.

You run past the men waiting, past William’s wife, dying on the sidewalk, and to the sanctuary of your car, where your wife has been waiting not-so-patiently.

“What was that all about,” she asks.

“Nothing,” you say, “the stalls were all full.”  And you drive off into the night, without giving further thought to the uncomfortable gurgling sensation in your lungs or the patches of dry skin, gray and broken and never seeming to heal.

© Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh

The fifth dimension of writing

So, last night was something different.  For the first time in a very long time, my wife and I broke out of our usual routine to go out with friends.  We started out the evening at Wabi Sabi, a Vietnamese-Thai-Sushi restaurant.  The place isn’t much to look at—the building has been iterated through a number of owners—but the sushi is outstanding.  An ice-cold Sapporo or Kirin Ichiban compliments the fare nicely and helps set the mood for an evening’s festivities.

And what could be better than board games with a liberal application of alcohol?  The game of choice to start out the evening was Scrabble Upwards.  If you haven’t played this particular version of Scrabble, it is played on a 10-tile x 10-tile board.  Play is like that of traditional Scrabble, but with the added component of multidimensional play.  Players are allowed to stack letters to make new words of existing words.

The stacking component is the thing, though.  It makes both play and and scoring more complex, especially while drinking a number of Dark and Stormys.   The Dark and Stormy is a rum-based drink that is as refreshing as it is intoxicating.  The drink’s name, of course, can’t help but bring to mind the melodramatic introductory phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night…” (learn the significance here).  In my case, however, it got me to thinking about how Scrabble Upwards applies to writing.

Plot developments are often linear, possibly with secondary plots developed, laterally, but within the same plain.  A truly rich plot involves not only developing primary and secondary plot lines, but developing plots that are fed from multiple dimensions.

Those dimensions include spatial references (such as north, south, east, west, or front, back, left, right) and temporal references  (such as future, past or before, after).

Spatial and temporal references account for what physicists typically consider four dimensional space (length, height, depth, and time).  But for writers, there is a fifth dimension (in other contexts referred to as the “fourth wall”).  That is the dimension that includes the reader, not only as an observer, but as a participant.

So, that seems like quite a leap, after all, a novel isn’t like a stage play or a movie, where the character can fire one-liners at the audience.  But, evidently, novels breaking the fourth wall are fairly common,  the blog Literary Kicks provides some background on the subject.   For instance, the blog references Kurt Vonnegut’s appearance as a character in his novel Breakfast of Champions.  For him it worked.  Clive Cussler inserted himself into several of his novels, which for me made them unreadable, bordering on literary narcissism.

So I’d be careful about doing that, plus you don’t want to interrupt the flow of the story.  If the technique is used well, though, it can add to the story, bringing the reader into the plot.  As I recall, Edgar Allen Poe used this technique in several of his stories.

Personally, I have been tempted to break the fourth wall to add explanatory details to a story, but have always hesitated because I thought it might threaten the flow of the text, sort of like stopping mid-thrust to explain to your lover the pros and cons of your technique.  Potentially a mood breaker.

So, how did we get from playing Scrabble Upwards and drinking Dark and Stormys to discussing multidimensional writing?  The link between the two is that the possibility of changing what has been previously established or accepted as the norm is within your grasp.

As a writer, you control what you write.  If you want to keep the story linear, go for it.  If you feel experimental and head off into the fifth dimension by breaking the fourth wall, jump in with both feet.  No one, other than you, can stop you from doing it.

© Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh.

Struggle, fight, but keep the story moving

Can I make a confession?  I have never suffered from “writer’s block”.  For all the fiction, non-fiction, intelligence reporting, and documentation I have written, I have never been intimidated by the blank page or empty display screen.

However, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have struggled with format, with wordsmithing, and trying to impose my will on that of my characters.  Over the years, though, I have learned that writing something is better than writing nothing.

In my current effort, a novel I have tentatively named ‘Clarice’, I am struggling with how to proceed.  Do I write the story to my other stories, continuing to create a sort of interrelated dystopian universe, or rework the eighty-two pages written so far to be something new?  The characters are fighting me on this.  They seem to know where they’re going, but they haven’t as of yet condescended to reveal their destination to me.  They have hinted that it will be a little town called Cartersville, Florida—but that’s another story entirely.

And while we’re at it, I chose the name ‘Clarice’ as a placeholder until I discovered the heroine’s real name—44,726 words later the name hasn’t changed.  The problem is that I can’t hear the name Clarice without immediately thinking of sweetmeats, fava beans, and a nice Chianti (Damn you, Thomas Harris!).

If you have a favorite name for a girl born into poverty in coal country, let me know.  I’ll have a talk with Clarice and she might agree to change her name to benefit the story.  Who knows?

So, how do I handle it when I’m struggling with my characters?  First of all, I don’t discard anything.  This way, if I need to, I can easily step back to an earlier version and keep writing.  Whenever I’m done writing for the day I save the current file with a unique revision name both to my local drive and to the cloud.

The next day, I save the file with  a new name and start working.  You can see from the image what I mean.  If you aren’t quite this disciplined, that’s fine.  I’m pretty anal about it after spending one career as an intelligence analyst and another as a  technical writer.

The point is to keep writing.  Write every day.  Write something.  Then fight your way through until you arrive at the story your characters want to tell.  Don’t worry about it being clean or being perfect.  There will be plenty of time for editing and finessing the mechanics.  The story is everything.  Without the story, you might as well leave the page blank.

© Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh

Before God

The first contact was quiet, obscure, and by any conventional standard quite unremarkable.  It required only a breath.  Whatever concept scientists, writers, and other visionaries of the ages may have had about the event, this wasn’t it.

I wouldn’t call it serendipitous, that first contact.  It was not, by definition, random or by chance, and it was not necessarily a happy circumstance.  Whether or not it was beneficial would be for later generations to decide.  But there was the fact that when contact did occur, it was carried on the wind to a child.  And that was the significant thing.

Children, especially very young ones, are non-binary. Binary thought is something children have to be taught.  Binary thought doesn’t come naturally to children, but it seems essential to adults.  The reason it is essential, of course, is that it helps adults establish the spatial and temporal boundaries in their lives.  Yes/no, true/false, in/out, black/white.  All ones and zeros.

The binary structure is carried on through all legal and religious paradigms.  Legal/illegal, saved/unsaved, living/dead, heaven/hell, start/finish, beginning/end.  To have a binary relationship, of course, there must be an incompatible opposite.  So if there is an alpha, there must also be an omega.

Furthermore, for whatever state we are in, we must have a beginning and an end, such as birth/death.  For this reason, the Bible begins with “In the beginning” and concludes with the end of the world.  In the same way, and for many of the same reasons, scientists developed the theory of the “Big Bang” and theorize about the death of the universe.  If the universe began, therefore it must also end.

Now besides having a compulsion to categorize their existence in binary terms, humans also share a compulsion to codify their categorization.  They did this first in the form of storytelling, then in writing.  So when they codified their understanding of the genesis of the universe, they rightfully attributed its design and complexity to something other than themselves.  This something other, they called God.

Because they knew that they weren’t capable of creating the universe, and they also weren’t capable of conceiving of an entity that was completely unlike themselves, the God they created was given human attributes.  God could be possessive, angry, jealous, creative, loving, gentle, forgiving, brutal, and even genocidal.  In other words, God is us.

And we look at the universe through the filter of “us”.  We search for planets like ours.  We hunt for alien life with characteristics from our own experience.  We have a difficult time conceiving of an entity or a space that is boundlessly infinite.  And yet.  There it was.

Lighter than breath and older than our universe, from before even God existed, it drifted down from the infinite cold of boundless space to find a mind that had yet to know its limitations.  From that moment, the girl was something more.

©Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh

The long weekend of Hurricane Irma

There is something comforting about seeing working traffic lights and being called into work.  Normalcy and routine in the aftermath of tension, stress, and physical discomfort can be a welcome thing.  Adrenaline in the face of hurricane force winds, rain, and flying debris can only keep you going for so long.

For any of my readers who have not endured a hurricane—and endured is the operative word—the experience is one that can’t be described in any meaningful way.  The genesis of the difficulty is that the experience is a very personal one.

Once all the preparations are done—boarding up the windows, stacking cases of water, and taking stock of food on hand—there is the waiting.  Waiting, no, there’s more to it than that, apprehension.  Imagine you’re trapped in a windowless box on a mouse trap.  You know that the box will be crushed, but have no way of knowing when, or if the whole box will be crushed or just part of it.  Oh, yes, and the invisible entity that triggers the trap keeps changing its mind about the how, when, and where of your impending doom.

Everyone deals with the waiting in different ways—anxiety, calmness, manic, anger, lethargy, and the list goes on.  Animals, reacting to changes in atmospheric pressure, exhibit many of the same characteristics.  How do I know this?  Well, this weekend my house contained four adults, thirteen cats, two rabbits, and three birds.  And that deserves some explanation, because that sort of sets the stage for this tale.

  • Four adults: Myself, my wife, my son, and his wife.
  • Eleven cats: My wife has seven inside cats and two feral cats. The feral cats live on our fenced in back porch.  My son and his wife have two cats.  Finally, two cats belong to friends whose vacation in the United Kingdom just happened to coincide with the Hurricane Irma weekend.
  • Three birds: my wife has two birds. The third bird belongs to my daughter-in-law.
  • Two rabbits: My wife has two rabbits that share the cat’s living space.

Fortunately, we no longer have the chickens, ducks, or an anti-social iguana.  If we did, I would have had to sleep on the porch and take my chances.  It is only recently, as a result of two heart surgeries, that my wife promoted me to the same level of care as the animals.

But I digress.  So, by Saturday afternoon, we were all in place.  Windows were boarded.  Power still on.  A/C blasting.  My son was casting Evil Bong, annoying his mother no end.  Winds were picking up, with intermittent rain.  Dinner was Chinese take-out.  The cats, especially the gray and white Sky, had begun to act strangely needy—perhaps prescient fear of a force they couldn’t possibly comprehend.

On Sunday, the winds picked up and brought more rain.  My Dewalt Worksite radio gave us the blow by blow both for the progress of the approaching storm and a new threat—tornadoes.  The northeast quadrant of a cyclone typically spawns tornadoes—and tornadoes, on the whole, are scarier than hurricanes.  Their devastation is localized, powerful, and uncontrollable.  The only way to prepare for a tornado is to not be where the tornado is.  And we knew that, hunkered down and awaiting the hurricane, there was no safe place for us to go.

All we could do is watch and wait and play a marathon game of Super Scrabble.  (Super Scrabble has twice as many tiles as regular scrabble.)  Sure, I know that the traditional hurricane game is Monopoly, just because it can kill an entire night to play, but we wanted something that would actually challenge us.  During the game, the power went off, then on, then off, then on, then at 8:30, power was down for the count.  By battery powered lights, we finished the game, but that was it.

Playing Super Scrabble by flashlight.

With the power, of course, went the Wi-Fi.  In the area we live in, on a good day, you get three bars of 4G by standing out at the end of the driveway.  In the house, under ideal conditions, one to two bars is possible, but during a hurricane?  The hurricane violated the easy availability of our technological connectedness.  The shared feeling of isolation was unspoken.  No updates for friends and relatives?  Not for hours.  Having ridden out hurricanes previously, we knew the drill though.  We switched our phones to ultra-power saver mode (pretty much just phone and texting), which would extend the battery to last from hours to days.  In the morning we would sit in our cars, charging the phones and trying to catch up on all the texts and notifications that amassed while the hurricane changed the face of Florida.

After the game, my son went to bed—and slept through ‘til morning—while the rest of us held watch.  We sat on the couches, reading, while the radio provided the soundtrack.  Reading was more like staring at the words on the pages.  We avoided each other’s eyes.  None of us wanted to show that the storm had dominated our concentration.  With the radio on, the noise from the talking heads gave us something to focus on other than the sounds from the winds slamming against the windows.

Around 1:30 Monday morning, we figured that the “core of the storm” had passed us to the west.  It was time to call it a night.  In the dark of the bedroom, my wife’s anxiety and apprehension burst forth from the facade of calm.  In the absolute silence of a house free of electronics, A/C, and other white noise, all that remained was the power of the storm pitting its terrible force against all too fragile windows, frame, and roof.

After a night of broken sweaty sleep, in a stuffy house without A/C, in a bed shared with cats, morning broke and the damage survey began.  Standing water by the road.  A few branches down.  A couple pieces of soffit missing.  No big deal.  But there was something else: besides no power, no running water.  The county Emergency Operations Center (EOC) had sent out a notification that due to broken pipes, when water was restored, it would be contaminated and unfit to drink or cook with, for several days.

While we did have plenty of drinking water, there are other things water is used for, like washing dishes and flushing the toilets.  Okay, so the dishes can wait, but the toilet not so much.  If you’ve seen the Ben Stiller comedy Meet the Fockers, you might remember the adage, “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down”.  It was funny when Bernie Focker (Dustin Hoffman) said it.  Not so funny when it is applied in real life.  Not funny, but necessary sometimes.  The good news is that, just as we were about to implement that rule, we discovered that just enough water was getting through to refill the toilet tanks.

Getting back to the waiting.  Without power, the refrigerator was off limits, especially the freezer.  My son had a butane camp stove to cook on—or at least to boil water for coffee or tea.  You couldn’t cook a meal on it, and if you did, you’d create dishes you couldn’t wash.  Enter the miracle of peanut butter and honey—not refrigerated and nutritious.

On Monday afternoon, the house was getting too hot, remaining too quiet, and I suggested that we go for a ride to see how my son’s house had fared.  This probably wasn’t the best idea, but we needed to do something.  By this point no one was in the mood for games.  We were all yearning for normal.

Just a clue, we didn’t find it.

Headed down I-95 south, we ran into a backup of cars we assumed were headed back to the Florida Keys.  Good luck with that.  Lines of power company trucks, many from out-of-state was a good sign.

Once we got off the interstate, there were several other hurdles to deal with.

  • Traffic lights were out and the concept of a four-way stop at the intersection seemed to elude most drivers.
  • There was flooding on some streets. Cars that became islands were testament to the inability of drivers to remember that if you can’t see the pavement, you shouldn’t attempt to drive on it.
  • Virtually everything was closed (hardly unexpected), except for Lowe’s and a very few gas stations.

When we finally arrived at my son’s house, the power was off and there was very little damage (some shingles, fence damage, but nothing structural).  That was good news.  As we went to pull out of his driveway, his outside lights flashed on, then off.  Surprised, we watched with great interest.  It happened again, then again.  Certainly that meant that the power would be there by the time they returned, right?

We rushed home, packed them up and they sped on their way to power, A/C, Wi-Fi, hot showers, and a home cooked meal.  That was the game plan.

The reality was that the flashing lights were just a tease.  The power wasn’t restored until mid-afternoon Tuesday.  It was a letdown to not have power waiting for them, but in the end they got what they needed most, a good night’s sleep in a cool house.

Tuesday morning it was back to work.  And now we’ve come full circle, with something that imitates normal.  Now I wouldn’t say that my experience is anything near that of someone in the Keys, taking the full brunt of a Cat 4 hurricane.  Amp what we experienced up by 100 and you might get it.

Since this is being posted, obviously, I now have power and life has begun to resemble some form of normal.  And normal allows me to consider the issues greater than my parochial situation.  Those greater issues, not surprisingly have to do with writing, and how this experience might generate something worthwhile—another story or another novel.

© Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh

And then I wrote some romance

Every so often I like to share what I’m currently working on.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m working on the manuscript for a story tentatively titled, ‘Clarice’.   I’ve got around 42,000 words so far.  While story development is slow, because I’m pulled in so many different directions, the story itself is coming along very nicely.

The characters are speaking to me during the day and whispering to me at night.  The width and breadth of action is increasingly expansive, the themes deep and meaningful, and the science—the physics—works to ground the story in realm of believability.

So here is a short extract from what I’ve most recently written.  I look forward to your comments and criticisms.

56

To say that Danny awoke would be a misnomer.  More correctly, Danny was awake.  Fully awake.  More awake than he had been in a very long time—however that might be determined—and that was good.  He wanted to be awake.  The smell of the leaves and the cool, crisp autumn air invigorated him.  For this moment, life was an enviable state to be in, and he wished he could make it last forever.  He was young and healthy and in love, with the entire universe waiting for him to achieve his destiny.

He was standing at the corner of Fifth and Main, with traffic humming by without a break.  And that was just so normal—people bustling down the sidewalks, cars honking, children laughing.  He was waiting for her, for Clarice.  This is where they met every evening after work.  She worked uptown, he worked downtown, and they met in the middle, just a few blocks from their apartment.

Danny paced at the corner.  He watched for her, straining to get his first glimpse of her.  That first glimpse would almost bring him to his knees, it made him so weak with love and wanting her.  He waited, afraid to look away—even at his watch—for fear that he might miss her, and that by missing her he might be lost to her forever.

Like a good soldier he stood his ground and kept his watch.  Then, from the crowd, as one might appear from a mist, there she was.  Tall, thin, and radiant, her long hair tucked under a knit cap.  She not so much walked as gracefully floated over the pavement.  At least to his eyes, there was no fault in her stride, there was only perfection in her walk.

As she approached, and his anticipation grew, he tried to remember when he first loved her, but he found it impossible.  It was like trying to remember his first breath or his first tear.  It just always was.  It was part of his being, and without it there was nothing.

When she arrived at the curb, traffic stopped.  He was sure it was for her that the traffic had stopped, that her stride be unimpaired, that her life be uninterrupted.

© Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh