REVIEWS

[The Night Shifters is] a fascinating ride. The voice feels a lot like Neil Gaiman. This is a huge compliment in my mind, and one not to be taken lightly.” - Melinda VanLone Reviews

Friday, September 25, 2009

Halfway


When you’re under 20, you think you’d rather commit suicide than get old, partly because you can’t imagine how you’re going to cope with looking wrinkly and grey, and partly because you have no freaking clue how much it actually hurts to croak. Since you also (usually) have no idea what the hell you’re going to do with your life, it’s hard to imagine that you may have another 80 years to do it.


Mercifully, your perspective changes as you get older. Your attention turns outward, you realize you’re part of a bigger picture, and you have friends, family, hobbies, and goals. It’s not the same for everybody, of course. Some people go through a midlife crises that causes them to try, in vain, to recapture their physical youth. Others are fortunate enough to realize that older people actually do have something in common with very young people. Our perspective is changing along with our bodies, very much like theirs is. Call it reverse puberty. Though you’re going out instead of coming in, the feelings you have are actually quite similar, and it seems as if you’re on the verge of an exciting, wide, mysterious world.



For me, those feelings became very apparent when I went on the road trip to Utah I wrote about in the previous two blogs. But it became even more so when I was hiking with my husband Ernie on my 50th birthday. I had forgotten it was my birthday, we were hiking simply because we had the day off. And we were excited about trying a new trail, Peralta Canyon Trail in the Superstition Mountains. It’s a gorgeous trek through a hoodoo-haunted canyon shaped by running water through breccia (volcanic rock consisting of broken rock fragments and volcanic ash) and welded tuff (super-heated ash and debris) from volcanic explosions millions of years ago. Since Arizona was underwater for a few hundred-million years, and featured lakes and rivers afterward, there is also some sedimentary rock to be seen. The water only runs after storms these days. The lower part of the canyon features a variety of lower-desert flora, including saguaros that must be at least 300 years old (it takes them 70 years just to grow arms). Since it was April, those old giants were blooming as we picked our way up the trail.


We were experienced enough by then to know we needed a gallon of water each and some nuts and Fig Newtons. And we took plenty of rests, mostly because I continually stopped to snap pictures. The hike should only take four to five hours if you’re just in it for the exercise – for us it would turn out to take seven. We climbed steadily, toward the upper-desert terrain at the end of the canyon. About halfway there, we stopped and surveyed our destination, then looked back the way we had come. Spectacular views both ways. And then it hit me. "Ernie, today is my birthday!"


The symbolism wasn’t lost on either of us. Halfway through the canyon and halfway through my life, I loved the view. And I was still climbing, still setting goals and trying new things. My mother has always done the same thing, and she’s 88. If anyone could get to 108, she could. This spring, she’s coming with us on another Utah road trip, and she plans to hike with us and see places she has only driven past before.



I’ve got new books to write, new designs to try in my home and my garden, new places to hike and explore, a new subject to study at the college level (geology) and in a new way (probably online courses). The big shake-up in the financial world may shake me loose from my old day job and into a new one (or several new ones). The changes don’t upset me. And now, instead of wondering how I can look younger, I’m wondering how I can stay healthy enough to do all of the things I want and need to do.
Fifty years is a long time. Lots of stuff may happen to change my mind.
But what the hell. I’ve got water and Fig Newtons. Let’s see what’s around the next bend.

Onward and upward.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Ernie's View


Ernie had his own take on the Utah road trip I wrote about in the previous blog entry. He saw things from an artist’s point of view. This posting features a few notes he took, along with some art he scribbled on the way. The hoodoos of Bryce reminded Ernie of tikis, so he invented a new form, the tiki-hoodoo.


Ernie: None of it seemed real until we were up in Northern Arizona, when all the structures along the roadside were trading posts and the mountains took on flowing, shattering shapes. Suddenly Phoenix, Glendale, the job, the routines that controlled our lives were far away. Possibilities were now wide open. Anything could happen.


When we stood on the Route 89 bridge that spanned the Colorado, Nora and I snapped away with our cameras – we were the two obsessed with taking pictures (though I was definitely the most frequent snapper – I think I took over 600 photos). Chris is a rocket scientist, he thought the bridge was pretty cool in and of itself. The river flowed somewhere between 100 and 200 feet below us, it was a little hard to tell the depth. I’m still wondering what caused the spooky bubbles – organic matter decaying?


As we continued into Utah, Ernie kept thinking like a painter.
Ernie: It was like wandering around inside a Max Ernst panting. Ernst painted many landscapes that resembled this geologic wonderland, most of them decades before he finally moved to Sedona.

The Red Rock country of Vortex Land is mild surrealism compared to Vermillion Cliffs on the Navajo Reservation. And this was just a warm-up for crossing into Utah. At first the rocks just talked. Then they sang. Eventually they sent out vibrations that echoed across the universe.



Those may sound like fanciful remarks, but I felt the same way. One of the reasons I took so many pictures was that I was trying to capture the whole experience. Looking at them reminds me what it felt like to be there. But I wish I could have made quality sound recordings of the places themselves – an odd notion, because it was the silence of those places that impressed me. You can’t record that. If you could, those recordings of CANYON SILENCE would sell like hotcakes.


The first Utah city we stayed in was Kanab. Here’s what Ernie had to say about it.
Ernie: We spent a couple of nights in Kanab, with its authentic and Hollywood cowboy memorabilia. From there we checked out Zion (where the bus driver warned us about the Datura AKA the Devil’s Trumpet AKA loco weed that grew all over), and Bryce Canyon, where we found out that the fantastic spires of rock are called hoodoos. A lot of tourists and park workers were speaking French and German, making it like a visit to Europe. At one point I overheard a family speaking French, and they turned out to be Asian.



I loved Kanab so much, I wondered if I might like to move there some day. It’s well-positioned for exploration of the National Parks in the area, from the Grand Canyon and Vermillion Cliffs to Zion and Bryce. I imagined driving to Zion for daily hikes. But when I set my weather function on my Cox home page so I could see how cold it got in the winter, I quickly realized it’s probably too cold for me. It’s perfect in summer, though. So maybe we could rent a place there for a couple of months . . .

We underestimated the time it would take us to travel Scenic Routes 12 and 24 on our way to our next stop, but the roadside scenery was fabulous.
Ernie: Our next stop, through some more fantastic landscapes, was Moab. There we stayed at the Inca Inn, run by a nice German couple. It was next to a Mexican restaurant that offered Mayan fare, and Lin Ottinger’s Moab Rock Shop and Fossils, where geologic treasures are guarded by a dinosaur covered with Christmas lights. Datura grew up through the decorative gardens in front of many of the businesses on main Street.



I think I loved Moab even more than Kanab, and that’s quite a lot. I confess, Lin Ottinger’s rock shop and the great Mexican restaurant next to it may have influenced me.
Ernie: From Moab we went to the Arches and Canyonland National Parks, where hoodoos spoke, and we learned about cryptobiotic soil, a living crust of bacteria and microbes that grow on desert dirt as the first stage to making it viable for plant life.


We were all very careful not to step on the cryptobiotic soil. And in Arches and Canyonlands we saw the two geologic features that I liked the best. In Arches it was Park Avenue (a place I think of as the Hall of Kings because one of the formations to the East looks like a pharaoh wearing the crown of Upper Egypt).


In Canyonlands it was the Sky Island viewpoint of the Colorado River. The scale of both of these views is really hard to portray in a photograph.
Ernie: From there we took more incredible scenic byways, as the signs called them, cross-crossing the Colorado River all the way to the state of Colorado, where we stopped at the Dinosaur Journey Museum and took a break among the mechanical dinosaur and fossil displays before heading through more crumbling mountains that grew higher and greener as we made our way into Denver.


Ernie’s reaction to the World Science Fiction convention was to feel inspired to get working on things again. That alone makes it worthwhile. Here are his conclusions:
Ernie: How could the WorldCon compare to geologic wonderlands? Science Fiction is another world. Another world in crisis. Another world in transformation. The short story still has potential, but New York has turned its back on that. I say it’s time to turn our backs on New York. Anyway, I’m determined to finish my fetal stories and set them loose to show the bastards how it should be done.

Denver is still another world. The 16th Street Mall is a great place for a convention to spill out into. Places to eat, characters walking the streets talking to cell phones or themselves. New and old styles of architecture, buses, and trolley cars create a 21st century urban experience, complete with Nigerian street vendors, homeless beggars, and tattooed youths.

Somehow I managed to find and talk to all the people I wanted to catch up with at the convention. I changed my mind about the short story market, decided to start making a go of it. Also, the editors at ANALOG and ASIMOV’S said that they’d rather have their magazines in the science fiction section than on the magazine rack. I told them that I’d get to work on it.

Em got an idea for a novel, she happily spent most of the con working on it. I looked at ‘Mars-A-Go-Go’ and found that it was not far from being finished. I need to work out an agenda for short fiction. I’ve also been drawing every day this vacation so far. The creative juices are flowing, and this wasn’t yet the end.

Ernie did a bunch of drawings during the trip, and he finished up some stories. He didn’t lose the energy he found on that trip, and I didn’t either. Now we’ve got a scanner, so he can post his art online. Our blogs and our Facebook pages give us new and better ways to connect with an audience. So the story has a happy ending – because it’s just the beginning!

Friday, September 11, 2009

On The Road

You don’t need to read Jack Kerouac to know that road trips can change your life. In August 2008, a road trip changed mine.


But here’s the thing, I’m not sure you can plan a thing like that. You can hope for it, and ever since the movie Easy Rider was released, plenty of people have. But me? I just needed a vacation. It had been years since I had gone out and actually seen a place, other than Disneyland. Not that I don’t love Disneyland, in fact I love that place as much as I did when I was a child, for no rational reason whatsoever. I love visiting Ernie’s family, too; they’re wonderful people, way better than I deserve. It’s just that when I was a kid, I used to visit wild places. And even as a kid, my soul responded to those places, my heart pined for them (even if they didn’t have pines). You know the religious feelings some people get when they’re in church, or looking at sacred art, or listening to the Mormon Tabernacle choir singing Hallelujah? I only get those feelings when I’m looking at a canyon.


When I was a kid my mom took us to Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon, and let’s not forget good old Oak Creek Canyon. But as an adult, I found it a lot harder to travel to those places. Or any places. Or to buy groceries and pay rent, for that matter, because I was a writer. Writers don’t have any money, so I had to get a day job. After that I was too busy working, and the years flew by.

Finally 2008 rolled around, and I noticed that WorldCon was in Denver. "Say," I remarked to Ernie, "wouldn’t it be neat if we drove to WorldCon via Utah and saw some national parks on the way?"
He agreed it would be nifty. And we managed to talk two friends into taking the trip with us, Chris and Nora. They were even willing to share a room when the rates were too expensive. So we picked our dates, and we plotted our course, and Nora called all the hotels to make reservations. Ernie and I began to take morning walks so we would be in shape to explore canyons, and finally the first day of the trip dawned. Chris and Nora drove up in a rented SUV Chris dubbed "The Battlestar Ridiculi," and we all piled in.

I should have had some clue what this was going to mean to me when I was almost too excited to sleep the night before. Jeez, how desperate for a vacation can you get! That morning I was in a daze, so happy I hardly recognized the emotion. And as we drove North on I-17 in the Battlestar, I thought, This is really happening! It wasn’t just something we talked about doing some day. We were On The Road.



As we turned onto Route 89, we began to pass some of the formations of Vermillion Cliffs, and the music from Ralph Vaughan William’s Double Piano Concerto started to play in my head. Yeah, I know, most people think of the Grand Canyon Suite when they see Arizona, and I don’t blame them. But Vaughan Williams wrote music that evokes beautiful desolation, and I think that sums up Arizona and Utah perfectly. We skirted those formations for miles and miles, rank after rank of them, and I didn’t need to read a book, didn’t need to play an album to be entertained.

When we crossed the Colorado River, we stopped at a convenience store to buy sun hats, and then we went onto the bridge to look down at spooky bubbles rising from the depths of the river, which moved very slowly there. The sun was just beginning to drop behind some mountains, and it shone on the Eastern stretch of the river. For me, standing on that bridge was like standing in a temple. I felt awed by the silence of the place, by the sense of incomprehensible age. I was also scared of the height, and fascinated by the massive, concrete bridge with its steel struts.



As we drove toward Kanab, Utah, I watched the light dying in the sky and wished the sun were coming up instead of going down. I haven’t felt that way since I was 10. And frankly, it’s a little nuts, because I really need my sleep these days. But that night, I just savored it. Pure happiness. And – dare I say it? Even better than Disneyland.



From that point forward, I knew my soul had just gotten a gigantic jolt, a charge that will last for the rest of my life. That first day we hiked in Zion, we visited Coral Pink Sand Dunes, we read all the roadside markers at the viewpoints and collected free literature. And I bought geeky t-shirts. The next day we drove to Bryce, possibly my favorite National park in the whole universe, and we hiked in the Queen’s Garden, Hoodoo Heaven. It was just outside Bryce that I was shooting pictures of clouds and captured the Cosmic Question photo I featured in a previous blog.


And even when Routes 12 & 24 ended up taking twice as long as we thought they would, I didn’t care. They took us through the Northern region of the newest national park, The Grand Staircase / Escalante. Once again, I was happy to just look out the window. I wish we could have seen Capitol Reef – we’re planning to go there in May 2010, but that night we hauled ass all the way to Moab, the wonderful town perched between Arches National Park and Canyonlands. What I saw in those wild places made me feel like a pilgrim in Mecca.



So I felt more than a little let down when we finally rolled into Denver for the convention. Though my buddies were so happy, I had to stop moping and enjoy nifty downtown Denver. And for a consolation prize, I got to see the rain going sideways because of a small tornado outside my hotel window. Cool!

By the time we left Zion, I already had the beginnings of a new novel in my head. By the time we left Bryce, I had begun to write a treatment for it. Every night in Denver I added more, and I had 100 pages done by the time we got back to Phoenix. I’m still working on the novel, but I have something important to do before I can feel confident that I can write it as well as it can be written.

I have to become a geologist.


I don’t mean a working geologist, but I have to study geology, both in college and out of it. I want to learn everything I can about the subject, because I love it. And I want to keep going back to those places that inspired me, and see new places, and see old places with new eyes. Ernie and I have started hiking in and around Phoenix now, we’ve hiked the magical Piestewa peak, right in the middle of town, a place where the world seems to go away. We’ve hiked Peralta Canyon Trail and we’ve seen Belly Button Rock (and I fell in some horse poop, but it was totally worth it).

That road trip changed my life. It revived a passion in me that doesn’t war with my other passions, that adds to them instead of distracting me from them. And maybe most importantly, it allowed me to realize my own version of religion. Call it Canyon Religion if you want. Not a woo-woo, New Age kind of Canyon, but something very, very old. Something you feel when you stand on that bridge looking down at the Colorado River, something strong enough to overcome vertigo and fear of spooky bubbles.

Hallelujah!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sowing Seeds In The Fall











This is for Robert C., whose pal in Mesa, Arizona is getting ready to try fall gardening ventures. I’ve learned a handy trick for sowing seeds into tubs in our desert climate. Cut up the plants that have pooped out for the year (or any plants you don’t want) and spread the bits and pieces over the area where you want to sow the seeds. Let the stuff dry up for about a week, then crumble it further with your hands. You don’t want to pack it too tight, let there be spaces for seeds to fall into. Then sow the seeds and water every two or three days. The mulch will keep the seeds in place so they don’t get washed around by the water, and will retain moisture so the whole mess doesn’t dry out too drastically between waterings. If you don’t have plant stuff to cut up, try straw. Stick a few Grapefruit-sized rocks in there too. You can aim the hose at them to diffuse the water stream.

Here are some photos of the tubs lining my front walk. The ones against the wall will grow sweet peas and zinnias. The ones on the other side will be full of larkspur, stocks, etc. Some of them will bloom from November to June. Others will get in at least three months of blooming . . .

Whoda Thunkit


When the bean counters at the brick & mortar retail giants look at data in order to decide what customer service protocol ought to be, there’s something they always fail to factor in. I’ll call it the Overly Helpful Approach. It’s a side effect of the slavish concept that the customer is always right, an attitude that seems logical on its face until you really examine the consequences of that approach. When you believe the customer is always right, you feel compelled to do everything that customer asks you to do. Once again, this seems logical. But in the field, here are a couple of things that happen.

Thing One: the customer wants everything for free. In the book biz, that means the customer returns everything she buys after she’s read it. Or she complains that she’s been mistreated, and therefore should get an item for free (which she will later return for credit). Or she’ll run your sales staff ragged finding books she wants and then sit down with them and jot notes or read novels all day, then leave them in an untidy pile for them to re-shelve. This is a common thing, and there is an equation to account for the losses caused by this behavior, but those actual losses are hard to track. No one is counting the loss of wages paid helping people who have no intention of buying, or the wear & tear of the particular books used and then ultimately returned as "damaged," or the loss of sales of items that might be purchased by other customers if someone weren’t reading them in a corner.

And now that the economy isn’t doing too well, and more people are pinching pennies than ever, customers are even more likely to commit theft-of-services. Likewise managers are terrified of offending any of them, so the freeloaders are becoming more confident and outrageous than ever.

Thing Two: you have a knowledgeable, well-trained staff, and people use them to research stuff they want to buy and then buy it somewhere else. One good example of this was the Listen-On-Demand service we used to have at the book chain where I work. For years, people could come in and ask us to open CDs so they could hear them. The logic was that once people heard this wonderful music, they would buy it.

Less than 10% of them did so – at least, from us. They demanded to hear albums, sometimes they even pretended they were going to buy them (they’d be returned to me at the end of the day in recovery), but they were actually using us to preview stuff they would then buy from discount retailers. Often they would be looking for obscure songs I would help them track down, or classical music they had no knowledge of, and I would tell them what it was and what albums it was on. I did this because they pretended they were going to buy it from us. Once again, this loss was written into the equation as part of the cost of doing business. But the actual loss was hard to track.

Now that my company no longer carries much music, in stores or on its website, this doesn’t happen too much anymore. But we do plenty of research for people in books they never buy from us. I had one lady walk in recently and say, "I’m looking for books to download to my Kindle. Can you recommend anything?"

I said no. "We aren’t connected with amazon, Ma’am, I can’t advise you what to buy from them."

"Oh," she was quick to assure me, "I’m going to buy some paperbacks too."

But she dumped every paperback I handed her after taking note of the title. Now people who want advice about books they intend to download from amazon are figuring out they shouldn’t tell us so, though they’re perfectly willing to use us for information. After all, it says INFORMATION right over the desk, right? So isn’t it our job to tell them what they want to know?

Meanwhile, we’re fighting to stay afloat, and our managers are scrambling to become MORE helpful. We’re so damned helpful, we’re downright obnoxious. We’ll pounce on you the moment you walk in the door, and when you actually do buy something we’ll brow-beat you into buying an additional item. Because we want you to come back, right?

I’d like to suggest something outrageous. The customer is NOT always right. Sometimes the customer is as wrong as he can be. Even if he’s not a douchebag, a crook, or a scammer, sometimes he doesn’t have a right to get what he’s demanding. He DOES have a right to expect courtesy, patience, and your time and attention. And he deserves to have you err on the side of customer service, to expect the most liberal application of your policies. He deserves the benefit of the doubt, that he should receive the best possible service in the hope that you’ll prove it’s worth it to shop at your joint. But when he proves to you that he has no intention of ever paying you for anything, that in fact he’s going to keep costing you money, his rights run out.

There’s one last cost that’s hard to track. Right now, the bean counters are trying to figure how they can charm, chide and cajole you into buying stuff. And that’s fine, but they also need to figure how to keep you from returning what you’ve bought. And at the same time, they have to figure the cost of bugging you too much, of pouncing on you and refusing to let you go until you’ve listened to sales pitches you didn’t want to hear and had additional items suggested ad nauseam. Those of you out there who actually buy stuff and keep most of what you buy have a right to complain if this bugs you. But please, don’t yell at the sales clerk. Ask to talk to management, or call them, or write to them. Make sure you tell them the sales staff did a good job, you just don’t like the policy. Mention that you like a peaceful, low-key shopping experience, not a song-and-dance routine.

Otherwise folks – if my employer survives the plague of freebee-demanders and the wretched economy, they’re going to decide we survived because we insisted on greeting you the moment you walked in the door, and addressing you by name, and suggesting additional items, and pushing the book du jour on you (without having the slightest clue what you actually like to read), and rattling off a long, baffling speech every time you call, and god knows what else they dream up. You actually do have an effect when you give them feedback about customer service.

Unfortunately, that’s another thing the freebee demanders have figured out. They have no qualms whatsoever about making demands, or about criticizing the staff that just bent over backward to help them find something. Since they’re willing to provide the feedback, they’re the ones who have the most effect on customer service policy.

And they’re not even customers.

Count that, Bean Boys.