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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My first series, compiled in a single e-volume, Any Tomorrow Complete, is selling again! That makes me feel good. It might not make me a millionaire (and from what I’ve seen of millionaires I’m not sure I’d even want to go there), but I’m stoked that a few valiant souls have decided to commit to the adventure.
If you’ve read any of my previous posts, I’m sure you’ll understand that writing a first novel is something akin to riding a wildcat on crack. To see your characters come alive in a form that you can share with others is both exhilarating and exhausting, and never to be taken lightly. The genesis of every word, every situation, every birth, and every death is the author’s own experience. And despite what the author may say or how far fetched it may seem in the context of the story line, everything written is revelatory.
But I’m not talking about him appearing in the last days and Armageddon, that’s all been done ad nauseam. What if he never came until today? What kind of a world would he enter into?
Think about it―no crusades, no holy wars, no popes, no puritans. How would that affect trade, technology, science, culture, philosophy, medicine, and economics? What about religion? Would monotheism have survived?
The basic premise of the Jesus story could still be maintained since the prophesies concerning his birth occurred long before he was born. He might still be born of a Jewish virgin in a stable in Bethlehem, but would there actually be an Israel for him to be born into?
No matter what your views are on Christianity, the impact that Jesus’s legacy has made on the world is undeniable. Whether that impact was for better or worse is your call, but the void created by the absence of Jesus would be remarkably pervasive. Virtually every aspect of modern life would potentially change. This might be the ultimate alternate history.
Whether you’re a writer or a reader, what you read becomes an element of the psychological sum of your parts. Consciously or subconsciously all the words, images, and emotions associated with what you read become part of you. They find a niche somewhere inside your mind and wait there, quietly influencing how you feel, what you think, and how you act. They don’t control, but they do influence. If you want to know what makes someone write what they write, look at what they read.
While I was writing the Any Tomorrow Trilogy, I remember especially during the rewriting process seeing parallels that existed between what I had written and stories I had read over the years. I didn’t set out to make a quest novel or a river novel or a dystopian novel, yet all those storylines are very clearly there. As you read through the Any Tomorrow novels, you might see influences from J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), Herman Melville (Moby Dick), Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness), Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), John Allyn (The 47 Ronin Story), George Orwell (1984), and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World). There are certainly others, many of which can be found on my Goodreads bookshelf (link).
What influences what you write? Have other authors influenced your writing style or themes? Think back. I hadn’t read Heart of Darkness since high school, more than thirty years ago, yet when I envisioned the Fellowship of Seven sailing up the Amazon, the dark image of Conrad’s Congo came to me. And did you pick up on the ‘Fellowship of Seven’? I struggled for months to find an alternate term for ‘fellowship’ because I thought it was too closely associated with Tolkien. To me, the word ‘fellowship’ immediately conjures an association with The Fellowship of the Ring. In the end though, I couldn’t escape it, ‘fellowship’ is the perfect term for unwilling companions compelled by an undeniable destiny who find their ultimate meaning in a world savaged by a nuclear and biological apocalypse. Other terms just don’t have the impact. I’m sure Tolkien realized it, that’s why he chose to use it. That’s why, in the end, I used it also.
I’ve said before that inspiration is where you find it. Inspiration can even be found in adventures provided for a nearly four year old. All you have to do is keep your senses open to the world around you.
Two Fridays ago, five of us, including my granddaughter, Hannah, boarded the catboat Freedom piloted by Captain Greg Le Sieur for a two hour cruise down the Indian River. A catboat is a sailboat with a sail well forward (towards the front of the boat), noted for its “simplicity, ease of handling, shallow draft, large capacity”, and typically associated with the northeast (link). With a good wind, the roughly ten miles round trip was an experience that set my imagination reeling.
It set off my imagination for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it was because I had never been on a sailboat the size of the Freedom. With such shallow draft, the motion of the boat and the experience of tacking to change direction was invigorating. Feeling the boat deftly respond to the movement of the sail made me think of other times, with sterner, stronger men setting out towards an unknown, uncharted horizon.
The river that evening was wonderfully calm and warm, so unlike my memory of the first time my father and I went out deep sea fishing off Rhode Island. The waters were neither calm nor warm. That early spring day was terribly cold and the seas were high. We were out for cod, but it was the flying fish and grown men turning green in the face of the rolling waves that I remember. It was then I first considered the conflict of man against nature, pitting intuition, skill, and guile against the pure intensity of the sea. Picture an image of the stalwart ship’s captain seeing beyond the horizon, reading the skies and seas.
I’m sure you’ve heard it before, the idea that humanity has a sort of primal link to the sea and that there is something almost genetic that calls us to it. Whether you accept that or not, water is a powerful symbol in writing. The sea, the ocean ― broad, primal, untamed, unknowable ― is a wonderful setting for action, conflict, and romance. Even more, under the surface could be anything. Think Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Melville’s Moby Dick, and even Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.
Rivers, in contrast, can be dark, confining, almost claustrophobic, because the two shores are always in sight, close enough to be threatening, and seldom revealing what lay beyond. On the other hand a river can be a highway of opportunity for the interior that lay upriver. Think Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.
Both the Amazon River and Atlantic Ocean play prominently in the second eBook of the Any Tomorrow Trilogy, Any Tomorrow: The Curse (not yet released). I won’t give away much right now, but let’s say that it features a dark and dangerous river, high seas, and a terrible, deadly storm. If things go well, I expect to release Any Tomorrow: The Curse for distribution in early September.
So what about you? Does a river or ocean feature prominently in your work? If so, is the sea as much of a character as the people you describe? How do you use the sea in your writing? Perhaps the sea for you isn’t the literal sea, but more symbolic, such as the “sea of humanity” or the desert is a “sea of sand”.
Maybe you just need a couple of hours with Captain Greg and open water to get inspired.
This weekend, instead of joining in the traditional American July 4th rituals of barbeque, beer, and shopping, I have undertaken to replace the toilet and floor in our guest bathroom. This is, of course, only the beginning. Replacing the mirror and light fixtures, regrouting the shower, and painting the bathroom will come later. Replacing the linoleum flooring with tile and the standard toilet with an elliptical one isn’t that big a job and should be finished by the time I return to work on Tuesday barring any unforeseen complications.
Well that’s very interesting you say, but what does this have to do with writing? The physical work has nothing to do with writing, however as I removed the toilet and stared down the drain pipe that leads to the septic tank I was struck with the strange significance that orifice represents for fiction. For instance, two Stephen King novels immediately come to mind, Dreamcatcher and It.
In Dreamcatcher, who can forget the terrifying toilet scene where Jonesy and the Beaver discover why Rick McCarthy spent so much time in ‘Lamar’s Thinkin Place’. Jesus-Christ-Bananas.
In It, what’s better than a sewer for the home of a pathological clown named Pennywise?
But why a toilet and a sewer? Wouldn’t the stories have been equally effective say, in a tub or a forest? I don’t think so.
The toilet speaks to vulnerability. There are few places other than at the moment of orgasm where humans are more completely vulnerable than on the toilet. After all, what defense do you have against something attacking from the dark depths down below?
The sewer speaks to the instinctual human fear of the darkness and unknown. Sewers are dark, damp, nasty, often maze-like places that give sanctuary to all sorts of evil, even clowns. But, of course, Pennywise was more than a clown wasn’t he?
So in the end we come to that bane of English class, symbolism. I’m sure you remember the pain of dissecting Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (one of my favorites), and Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. All these were tales that could stand alone with just the story, but look deeper and the symbology transforms the readers experience from just reading to understanding.
While I don’t want to go into this too far, I would like to approach one other aspect of symbolism, intentionality.
Was the symbolism intentional? Did the author consciously choose a character, place, or activity to represent something specific? Or was the symbolism unintentional, a product of the author’s subconscious. The character, place, or activity may have “just happened” during the book’s development without the author even being aware of it. It can happen. I’ve experienced this phenomenon and chances are you have, too. Look back at what you’ve written with a critical eye. You may find that it reveals more about you than you thought.
The mind is wonderfully complex and capable of taking us to places we could never consciously even conceive of. Writing is about giving the mind expression in a form that can be communicated to others. Our words reveal who we are even more than what we intend to say. Symbolism is just one tool we can use to make that intellectual connection with our readers.
With that said, I have to return to my primary job this weekend, installing a new tile floor and a new toilet. I certainly hope your weekend will be as much fun as mine.