Driving into the Future

The Jouley electric school bus, from Thomas Built

Had another article on alternative energy published the other day in Fresh Water Cleveland. This one’s on electric school buses, which, when you consider that most of these vehicles only run two short routes each day, actually make a lot of sense.

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Untitled Story, Part 10

[Began this story way back here]

***

February 18, 2036

“Open driver window.” At Agent Marcel’s command, the window to her left glided into the side of her transport. She looked into the security camera and kept her head steady as a sea-green light illuminated her face. The light vanished, and a mechanical voice from the camera welcomed her, as the gate in front of her transport swung open.

The transport rolled lazily along a path of crushed white stone, lined on both sides by trees that blocked all view of the sky. Agent Marcel had visited an estate like this once, to attend the wedding of a friend from college, but had been too caught up in the day’s celebration to contemplate the location. But now, riding comfortably in her transport on the way to a routine appointment, she imagined her client’s landscaping bill was higher than many people’s salaries. She also thought it odd how her client defended Extended Social Security, considering the impact ESS was certainly having on his taxes.

The pebbled path led to a large brick mansion, and the transport eased to a stop in front of the large oaken entry door. A Protobot emerged from its locker, and glided to the transport. “Thank you for coming, Agent Marcel.” She recognized the tone of the bot’s voice; it was identical to Katie, the young woman the agent had seen yesterday, which happened 46 years ago. “Mister Thorson is feeling well today, and is eager to see you in his study.”

The agent let the Protobot lead her into the mansion, through a marbled foyer with the largest chandelier Agent Marcel had ever seen, up a curved staircase so wide she would not have been able to hold both handrails, and into a brightly lit room. Sitting behind a mahogany desk was a man who, when she had seen him yesterday, looked a half-century younger.

Friday Fictioneers: The Signifying Leg

My leg has become my identity. Hobbling down the street, passersby here the distinct clatter of my prosthetic, and look down.

“Thank you for your service,” one of them says on occasion without looking up, like slaves terrified of addressing their master.

I no longer spare them. “I slipped under a commuter train, getting to work,” I reply. Nobody ever apologizes.

I may as well be invisible, save for my leg. If I could power it remotely, I’d send it on its own, and shatter the illusion of normalcy.

[Friday Fictioneers is a weekly photo prompt challenge. Join the fun!]

Review: Lies Will Take You Somewhere

I am a lazy reader. I’d actually do fine by any quantitive measure of reading (words/pages/books read, time spent reading, rate), but it’s absurd to evaluate the activity by a productivity yardstick, like you would for running or splitting logs. Reading is better evaluated in qualitative measures, such as how well the reader constructs meaning from a text, and its in this regard that, for as much education I have and as much time I spend reading, I believe I fall short. I don’t want to work too hard when I read; I have no interest in figuring out the hidden meaning of a character’s name, I get irritated when a conversation becomes so obtuse that I can’t figure out who is speaking, and if a story can only be appreciated by someone with an extensive knowledge of some discipline (take your pick — medicine, military history, philosophy), I don’t see why I should bother with it.

And I really hate plot holes, and unresolved mysteries.

Which brings me to Lies Will Take You Somewhere, the only novel published by the late Sheila Schwartz. The language of this novel rises to the level of poetry at times, and I can understand why Schwartz won numerous awards for her short stories. Whether she’s describing a character’s mood, showing a physical action, setting a scene, or even telling a joke, Schwartz can evoke a powerful visual image through her words:

This place is what Saul calls a monoculture, which to Jane has always sounded like yogurt, but she knows what he means.

She gasps as he tugs himself out of her without warning — the thick rope of him flopped against her inner thigh.

… the glasses smudged like he breathed all over, and his breath never dried.

… the lava of his anger cooling to stone.

… books sprawled face down on the carpet as if thrown there and concussed, barely breathing, …

The central conflict of the novel — a troubled marriage made more complicated through layers of deceit woven by both husband and wife — is also compelling, and while the plot twists are perhaps overly dramatic, the characters respond in ways that are very believable, and quite moving. I agree with her husband, novelist Dan Chaon, in his review of the novel: “Her fiction walks this incredible thin line between hilarity and despair, between the absurd and the tragic, between detachment and compassion.”

Yes, I enjoyed this novel. I just wish it didn’t irritate me so much.

I can’t describe what bothers me without revealing major plot details, so if you don’t appreciate spoilers, now’s the time to check out. Early in the novel, the wife (Jane) flies down to Florida to take care of her late mother’s estate. While there, she discovers several oddities, one of the most significant being the disappearance of a piano treasured by Jane’s mother. Meanwhile, her husband (Saul) receives the latest in a series of cryptic letters by someone claiming to be his mother, who disappeared when Saul was a child. Saul also is told about an affair Jane had chosen to keep hidden from him, and calls her in anger; when Jane attempts to purchase a plane ticket to return to Philadelphia, she discovers all of her credit cards have been locked.

So far, so good; the foundation for a intriguing tale has been laid. But then Saul calls again, and demands Jane return home — which she can’t, because Saul has frozen her credit cards, by his own admission. Has Saul lost his mind, or is he tormenting her? His motivation never becomes clear. In addition, no explanation is provided for the piano’s disappearance, or for the letters from Saul’s “mother.” These major plot developments are left as mysteries.

Did the author provide hints that a reader more astute than I would have perceived? That’s a definite possibility, but again, I’m a lazy reader, and when an author presents me with a significant mystery, I want a resolution that’s equally prominent. More plausible, though, is that these ambiguities are a message from the author about life’s uncertainty. We don’t get all our questions answered in life, the author appears to be saying, so why should I provide them here? If that’s the author’s message, I find it dissatisfying. Fiction is not mimetic; we have different expectations as readers than we do when acting in the dramas of our reality. True, fiction is also not mere escapism, but the insights it provides us should be a little more compelling. Life’s uncertain, so fiction should be as well — that’s an OK sentiment if you’re an avant-garde artiste, but it doesn’t work well for a storyteller.

The above ruminations may just be the frustrated sentiments of a lazy reader; I’ve been called worse. That being said, I believe “Lies Will Take You Somewhere” suffers from clear technical flaws that distract from its obvious literary qualities.

Life’s Current

One of the destructive myths about changing careers is that it’s all about you. Your decision, your talents, your initiative, your success or failure. In reality, the change has an effect on your family and friends, and your decisions are also influenced by them.

You’re also not the only one chasing a dream.

Three years ago, Arpita moved from her small state in India to Bangalore, the IT capital of the nation and a megacity of over 10 million souls, to begin her career. Having moved from a small town in rural New England to attend college in Chicago, I know her spiritual journey was greater than the physical. Nothing about small-town life prepares you for the energy, confusion, and danger of city life. But with the support of her family, newfound friends, and a nurturing employer, Arpita has found the success she had been seeking.

Arpita also uses a river analogy to describe her journey, and there’s a lot you can do with that metaphor. Rivers provide life, but contain a power that can be deadly if not respected; they follow a current that never flows perfectly straight; they can flow dreamily for long stretches, then suddenly erupt into roiling rapids.

I’m not sure where this river I’m on is taking me, but I know it will flow with the current of life. The going won’t always be smooth, but it will always propel me forward.

Review: How to Make a Living with Your Writing

Joanna Penn’s book was one of the first I read when I began to investigate writing professionally seriously. It was refreshing to review my notes from last year for this review, and realize how much of its practical advice I’ve been able to carry with me as I made my career decision. How to Make a Living with Your Writing didn’t convince me to go down this path, but it did help me realize my ambition, while difficult, could be realized.

There are a number of ways I could summarize this book, but I’ll go with a list of its most salient advice for novice writers like myself:

  • Develop multiple streams of income — Penn earns her writing income from multiple sources — blogging, article writing, nonfiction and fiction book sales, and public speaking, among others. At any one time, one or more of her revenue streams will run dry, yet other streams will help alleviate the drought. Of particular interest is her discussion of scalable and non-scalable income; work for hire (such as magazine and technical writing) pays only once and is non-scalable, while a nonfiction book or novel will generate revenue over the course of many months, even years. Penn states her writing income was 0% scalable at the start of her career, and a decade later had increased that portion of her income to 80%. That’s a career progression that’s ambitious yet attainable.
  • Nurture good work habits — as in any endeavor, its important to act like a writer before one can have success in the industry. Penn describes a number of habits that can lead to success — scheduling time to write, having a dedicated writing space, obtaining the right equipment, honing researching skills, joining writers’ communities, developing resilience to and appreciation of criticism. And my personal favorite, getting enough sleep. Over the past year, I’ve been dismayed at the number of times I’ve been advised (often by people with no involvement in the writing profession) that I need to get up at the crack of dawn every day and start writing if I wanted to make this profession work for me. That’s not how I operate; I can push on to way past midnight, but if I have to get up early to make a living, I might as well return to my somnambulant career in corporate IT. It is refreshing to read a successful author such as Penn argue that individual writers need to identify their own best working hours.
  • Come up with your own definition of success — Penn identifies many types of criteria for success — literary or commercial fame, genre fiction or literature, traditional book and magazine publishing or their online equivalents, working with agents and publishing houses or self-publishing. Penn has a clear preference for digital media and independent publishing, and argues the profession of writing is headed towards these trends, yet she also presents a convincing case for traditional publishing. Penn also describes a hybrid approach to book publishing: beginning as an independent, building your resume and readership, and then looking to get an agent and pursue traditional publishing. Penn lists the opportunities and challenges available to the writer, then lets the reader decide which to chose — or as she puts it, “your publishing choice is more a question of the outcome that you want to achieve and your definition of success.”

I’ve read several books about writing both before and after my first read of this, and I can’t say I’ve been more inspired by any other. In fact, I think it’s time for a second reading.

Untitled Story, Part 9

[At some point, I’m going to have a title for this story, which began here. But I’m not reaching that point today.]

Agent Marcel grabbed the notebook with both hands, and smiled with satisfaction. This was her third solo jump, and while her first two had been rated Successful since no timeline aberrations were generated, she had not accomplished the primary objective of either mission. The patronizing assurances of her commander (You’re demonstrating how time jumps can be performed in a safe manner — there’s nothing more important you can do for the advancement of chronological research) had done little to comfort her.

Holding this notebook, which had not been seen since this day in November 1990, lost for 46 years — this was proof that time jumps were not only possible, but could meet real objectives.

The agent leapt out of the dumpster, and after placing the notebook into her backpack, closed the lid, and engaged its lock. The stench of the garbage she had been wading in for the past hour still permeated her nose, so she kept to the shadows on the walk back to her hotel. At a few minutes past three in the morning, the building’s lobby was empty, save for the clerk at the reception desk. Agent Marcel waved to her as she passed quickly, relieved that her checkout would be fully processed.

She took the stairs up to the seventh floor, avoiding an uncomfortable conversation — or worse, a recognition — from a potentially shared elevator ride. Entering her room, she undressed immediately and showered, relieved to be free from the stench. She placed the clothes she’d been wearing into a bag, which she stuffed into the backpack, then dressed in the same outfit she had worn at the diner the previous morning. Wearing a business suit might seem odd for this time of the morning, but she had only brought two outfits for this jump; years as a missions assistant had shown her the importance of taking as little as possible.

Fully dressed and packed, Agent Marcel approached the door of her room, and retrieved the device she had used earlier that evening. A few taps on the surface, and a moment later a message — Scan complete. No anachronisms detected. She placed the device in the backpack, and went down to the hotel lobby, announcing she was checking out of room 712.

The clerk took her keys, then turned back towards a panel of shelves on the rear wall. She retrieved papers from the shelf labeled 712, and studied them a moment. “You paid a deposit, in cash?” Agent Marcel nodded, and asked for the balance. “Forty-three eighty seven. How would you like to pay that?”

Agent Marcel had already retrieved a wallet from her backpack. “Cash.”

“Very well.” As she waited, the clerk continued, “You know, they say in the future you won’t be able to pay cash for hotels any more. Credit cards, only.”

“That’s right.” Agent Marcel bit her lower lip. “I mean, yeah, that’s what I heard too.”

Moments later, the agent who would be born a decade later exited the hotel. It was a little after four A.M., and while the sky was no less dark than when it had been two hours earlier, there was more activity on the street. She knew she needed to act quickly.

She walked two blocks south, and located the alley where she had arrived twenty-five hours earlier. She stopped at the curb, as if looking to hail a taxi, and visually scanned the area. A passenger car passed, and turned into a side street; no pedestrians were on the streets; lights illuminated several windows, but she saw no one looking out them. She then hustled back into the alley, and when she was outside the street light beams, turned and ran.

The alley ended in a wooden fence. Agent Marcel retrieved her device from the backpack, and tapped in a command to perform another scan. Human activity detected nearby. She performed a deeper scan, which identified two people working in the adjacent building, which had no window or door to the alley.

It was time.

She secured her backpack, and tapped in the commands for the return jump into her device. With one last visual scan revealing no other immediate presence, she lowered herself to her knees, bowed her head until her chin touched her chest, folded her arms across her body — and pressed the confirmation button.

She fought the vertigo that always struck first, then the nausea rising in her stomach like a humid swamp. Pain stabbed through her closed eyes, and she held herself from yelling — this was not the time to be overheard, for a moment later, as a searing heat shot through her body, Agent Marcel would appear to simply vanish, as if she were nothing more than an image on a television screen that had just been powered off.

Keeping It Real

I’ve expressed my appreciation for Depression Comix a number of times — oh, here’s another — and today I’ll attempt to explain why I find these vignettes so meaningful.

At its best, comics can be a powerful storytelling format, especially when thought balloons are utilized effectively. Seeing character’s inner thoughts allows the reader to make additional observations on the dialogue, setting, and action in the narrative. Many mainstream comics have all but abandoned thought balloons, but they are an essential element in Depression Comix — and for good reason. Silence is a common side effect of depression; I know when I get down, I don’t want to talk about it, or anything else for that matter. And if I succumb to that instinct, my mood tends to become more acute, which makes me want to talk even less. It’s one of many vicious cycles that come with the disease, along with loss of appetite (I get depressed and don’t want to eat; being hungry makes the feeling worse, which further reduces my appetite… and so on).

Clay Jonathan, the artist of Depression Comix, often has his depressed characters not say anything to the people around them, or has them refrain from talking until the final panel. But in their thought balloons, these characters reflect on their experiences in a way they can’t verbalize to their friends and family. (Comic 394 is a good example of this technique.) This is how depression works — we can explain it to ourselves, but lack the power to explain it to others. By not forcing his characters to speak, Jonathan allows them the dignity of their silence, while still revealing the truth of their struggle.

In addition to being insightful, Jonathan is also a talented artist — his depictions of characters looking into mirrors, as in Comic 400, are visually stunning. And like any great cartoonist, he draws fantastic furniture. There’s a lot to like about Depression Comix, and I hope the artist continues with the site for a long time.

Untitled Story, Part 8

The diner closed at 10 that evening, as activity on the street outside diminished, many people having already left for downtown Chicago, others to their homes. An hour later, the streets were mostly quiet; a few hours later, quieter still.

At 2 AM, a solitary figure, face obscured by a hood, walked past the darkened windows of the diner, and continued down the street. Moments later, the same figure walked back, on the opposite sidewalk, this time slowing as it neared the diner, then passing again. Moments later, the same figure returned, this time more stealthily, sticking within the shadows until it reached the alley next to the diner.

It stayed in the alley a long moment, still and breathless, until finally beginning a slow approach to the rear of the building, stopping upon reaching a dumpster, its green paint peeling in the darkness.

The person in the hoodie checked the rear of the building, then reached into a side pant pocket and retrieved an object that no one else in this world would have recognized, because it would not be invented for another three and a half decades.

Slender fingers tapped the surface of the object, which glowed in response. The dim light reflected off the face of the woman Eric had encountered that morning. She tapped the device a few more times, and a message displayed: Scan complete. No activity.

She approached the dumpster, and lifted its black plastic top, only to have it stop suddenly after only an inch, as metal clanked on metal to her left. A padlock; the woman brought her device over to the lock, then tapped on the devices surface a few times. Chambers clicked within the lock; the woman drew the bolt down, and a moment later, she lifted the black top off the dumpster.

It was half full, this being a Thursday and trash collection coming on Mondays. The woman climbed in, forcing herself not to gag at the stench. Once inside, she retrieved her device again, tapping more commands until a message displayed: Object not found.

“Dammit.” The woman thrust the device into her pocket, then looked at the contents of the dumpster. The restaurant used black refuse bags, common for this era, and attempted to seal most. But bags would often become unsealed as they were tossed by staff into the dumpster; crates and cartons would be tossed in as well, often breaking the bags; at times, harried staff would toss unbagged garbage directly into the dumpster.

The woman heard a sound behind her, then felt something brush against her leg. She knew immediately what it was. Despite management’s frequent warnings that the health department would close the diner if procedures weren’t followed, the dumpster lid would be left open for long stretches of the day, and rats would enter freely.

The dumpster, in other words, was a complete mess. Decaying food was everywhere.

Sighing, the woman began sifting through the garbage, checking her device every few minutes. After an hour, she finally found what she was looking for — the red notebook in which Eric, earlier the previous day, had written the current date.

When to Jump: If the Job You Have Isn’t the Life You Want

In preparation for my recent career change, I read a number of books on the subject, of which I’ve only reviewed one so far. Was this lack of reviews due to a reluctance, almost embarrassment, to publicly acknowledge my ambition? Might be on to something there. In any event, there’s no better time than today to overcome that feeling.

Mike Lewis is a former venture capitalist who decided to leave his job and become a professional squash player. If reading that last sentence makes phrases such as mid-life crisis and white privilege come to your mind, I can’t blame you. While the confidence evident in every page of the book he wrote about his journey is assuring and necessary (this book is supposed to inspire the reader to make a bold decision, and hesitation is never a good source for inspriation), it comes with an alarming lack of humility, as if the author’s decision to follow his dream was a right he had earned. Many people dream of careers similar to the author’s, but most of those dreams aren’t as self-aggrandizing as making money playing an obscure sport, and many people simply don’t have the resources necessary to turn that dream into reality. When I walked away from the world of office work for the last time, a prayer of thanks sang in my heart for the opportunity I had been given, and for all the advantages of family, education, and wealth that enabled my decision; it is disappointing, and quite frankly disturbing, to never read a similar sentiment in this book.

However, the book does have its merits. The author conducted a great deal of research into his career change, and in sharing his discoveries provides a valuable resource for anyone contemplating such a move. The “Jump Curve” he outlines (in short — listen to yourself, make a plan, believe in your success, and don’t look back) is both simple and detailed, and I’ve found it helpful in preparation for my own decision. Of even greater value, though, are the dozens of interviews he conducted and which form the basis of the many first-person narratives running throughout the book. The author’s narcisstic journey might be off-putting, but the reader can relate to the people in these sidebar stories. The main narrative satisfies the intellect (how does prepare to make the jump?), but the side narratives give the book its heart (here’s evidence that people like us can do this).

There are also a number of memorable quotes throughout the book, some from the author, others from the side narratives, and others directly from outside sources. Many of these have stuck with me as I contemplated and finally enacted my decision:

[T]here’s a difference between crazy and stupid

[T]he best things in life lie on the other side of fear.

[I]f you bring forth what is in you, it will save you, and if you do not bring forth what is in you, it will destroy you.

When to Jump: If the Job You Have Isn’t the Life You Want is a niche publication, of interest solely to readers contemplating a change in careers. The author’s solipsism can be overbearing at times, but the advice it offers, especially from the anecdotes shared by the interview subjects, makes it a worthwhile read.