Month: January 2021
Before the pandemic struck I had been working two part-time jobs in my semi-retirement. I added a third when the COVID lockdowns began, and I realized today I hadn’t written about any of my occupations in a while. So here goes.
I work the fewest hours at the job that pays the most: technical writing.
A consulting firm about a half-hour south of my home hires me for individual projects, most lasting three or four months for about 20 hours of work per week. One project that began last summer, continued through the end of year, and should resume again in a few weeks involves writing standard operation procedure (SOP) and work instruction documents for the public service department of a nearby community. Water meter readings, garbage collection, snow plowing, filling potholes… all the routine tasks we take for granted and would have difficulty living without.
Aside from occasional site visits, I did all my technical writing from home before COVID. Socially-distanced site visits continued through last year, and I’ve continued working out of my home office, where I’ll certainly remain once we’re past this pandemic.
I haven’t stepped foot on the campus of my local community college since March, and probably won’t until the fall of this year.
The Writing Center has continued to operate as a virtual service. Students email us their papers along with the assignment sheet provided by their professors; Writing Center consultants then make comments on the electronic documents and then contact the students by email, phone, or Zoom/Webex. Every consultant believes we are doing more work now, spending more time with each student, than we had when students dropped in at our campus office.
Email is how I communicate with most of my students, at least 80%. I much prefer Zoom/Webex to phone calls, as I’m more comfortable with remote communication when I can see the person I’m talking to.
The major disadvantage to our remote support has been the lack of interaction with other consultants. In between consultations, it was rewarding to share ideas or discuss the latest Marvel movie with my peers. Aside from once a month Zoom conferences, that refreshing kibitzing is gone.
For the spring semester, the college has already cancelled non-essential campus services. No decision has been made yet about summer semester, but nobody has much hope. We have our fingers crossed for fall.
I look forward to sitting down at a table with a student. Hanging out with my colleagues again will be even nicer.
I continue working at for the curbside pickup service at the local grocery store. I have a lot to say about that experience, but as I’ve already gone a little overlong already I’ll save that last work experience for another day.
The Scholar and His Student, Part 1
Last month, a former lecturer at a prestigious university in the American midwest wrote an opinion column mocking the academic credentials of Jill Biden, wife of the incoming President. The essay drew a great deal of criticism for both its content and tone; the first sentence addresses the future First Lady as “kiddo,” a term some found patronizing, others insulting. The university that had employed the author up to 2002 immediately published a statement announcing it “strongly disagrees” with the views expressed in the column.
I received my undergraduate degree from that university, and during my time there took three writing courses from this lecturer, whom I’ll call Aristides, one of his literary pseudonyms. He was the first instructor to say my work had promise, and his being a professional rather than academic writer made all past criticisms seem pedantic and irrelevant. A decade later, while studying for a doctorate at a different university, I invited Aristides to serve as a visiting reader on my dissertation committee; he accepted. Somewhere in my disorganized collection of pre-digital photographs I probably have an image of Aristides and me on the day I defended my dissertation, the last academic document I’ll ever write. My wife probably took that picture. I’m probably shaking Aristides’ hand.
My prose came of age under his guidance. He’s a man I respect and admire.
But I wish Aristides hadn’t written that goddam essay.
There is a subtle yet important difference between an explanation and an excuse.
An explanation attempts, as objectively as possible, to answer the questions beginning with why. Why did a certain event happen? Why does this person or group of people hold a certain belief? Why does a certain cause always have the same effect? Explanations address everything from the mundane (why the sun rises in the east and sets in the west) to the unfathomable (why the American stock market is so robust during this uncertain time) all the way to the absurd (why some people believe the Earth is flat).
An excuse, meanwhile, is more an argument than a description, and often attempts to convince the reader that what might look or sound bad at first is really not so insidious. Your neighbor who says the Earth’s flat? He’s just a contrarian, someone who’s always questioning conventional wisdom. He’s not telling you the world isn’t round, but rather asking you to verify the facts that you’ve blindly accepted through the years. Well I’m pretty sure he’s not a pre-Columbian anyway…
Why did Aristides write that column about Jill Biden? I feel there’s three principal reasons, the first being his relentlessly sardonic attitude; if you’re easily offended by satire, you’d best give his writing a pass. Second, and perhaps most important in this case, is that Aristides is a largely self-educated intellectual, a proudly independent scholar whose disdain for professional academia drips from his Biden essay like puss from a wound. And third, Aristides is a political conservative who most likely saw an opportunity to needle the incoming administration in the pages of a periodical that consistently leans right.
However, before this train leaves Explaining and heads on to Excusing, I’m getting off. First of all, Aristides needs my support like a tank needs a kickstand. But more importantly, there’s not much I want excuse. The essay is entirely self-serving, revealing a lot about the author and almost nothing about its subject. It delivers its punchline in the first paragraph, and repeats the same jest with different words. It’s neither insightful nor funny, but rather spiteful and misguided.
The odds of Aristides actually reading this post are next to nonexistent. But if by chance he does, and feels his former student’s analysis has missed the mark… sorry, kiddo.
I have a lot more that needs to be written on this topic, but that’s enough for today.
Ending a Chapter, not a Book
I watched the presidential inauguration this Wednesday with my wife, who cried halfway through the ceremony. Hers wasn’t the only emotional response that day; the last four years have been tumultuous, to say the least.
Four years ago I wrote a great deal about the presidential election in the United States. Disgusted by the outcome and embarrassed at my naive analysis, I decided there were better topics for my blogging efforts.
Finally having The Fraud out of office isn’t going to inspire any political writing from me, but I do feel a need to bring this subject to a proper close. So here goes…
Civil unrest this spring kicked my butt off the recliner, and I spent an evening each week in the fall fighting racist policy. I resumed that work in December for the Georgia Senate run-off elections, and since I posted my stats for my earlier work, here are the results for my later work:
Total calls: 100
Left voicemail: 37
Not home: 25
Already voted: 12 (I wonder how many gave that answer to end the call)
Number disconnected: 8
Hung up or refused to talk: 7
Moved (i.e., wrong number): 4
Will vote: 2
Asked to be called back: 1
The political outcome in both November and January was what I’d worked and hoped for. While I can’t claim credit for a single vote, I do feel I contributed to record-setting voter turnout. I didn’t do much; all I did was make a few phone calls. But I acted in response to my values, which is where it starts.
Four years with The Fraud in the White House. He wasn’t as disastrous as I’d feared, mostly because he turned out to be as incompetent as he was daft. (The accomplishment of which he boasts, economic growth, was enabled by cranking up deficit spending. That’s not innovation; presidents have done this since FDR.)
The man who’s replacing him doesn’t inspire me. The next four years will see incremental improvements at best. The President’s 78, the Speaker of the House 80, the Senate Majority Leader 70… substantive change won’t happen until we get fresher minds in charge.
But knowing we’re finally rid of a lunatic who admires dictators, and clearly aspired to join that dark brethren, outweighs any ambivalence about the coming mediocrity.
The United States has survived an existential threat, and it won’t be the last. Our next would-be tyrant will likely be more competent and politically savvy. Those who value democracy can’t afford to relax. But at least for a moment, we can feel a little relieved.
Another in my ongoing series of reviews of literary journals and genre magazines.
Hypnos Magazine publishes two electronic issues a year.
What They Say About Themselves: “Founded in 2012, Hypnos Magazine strives to promote the best weird fiction in the vein of H. P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Arthur Machen.
Dismayed by the state of contemporary weird fiction and the lack of respect it has fostered, we seek to encourage bold, thought-provoking literature that looks beyond the vampires, werewolves, and goblins that have become the staples of the genre.”
Issue Reviewed: Volume 9, Issue 2 (Fall 2020)
Genre: Speculative fiction with an emphasis on horror
One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Narthex of the Damned,” by Lawrence Buentello. A college professor mourning the death of his wife begins studying her books on the occult, hoping to find some way to communicate with her. A refreshing take on the destructive power of grief.
Exploding Helicopters: Four Explosions. Consistently gripping narratives.
Profanometer:Dammit. Only one f-bomb in 130 pages. Rough language is used so infrequently that it becomes effective when it is used.
I’m finding the best way to keep myself from doomscrolling news of the pandemic and the increasing violence in my country’s capital is to find a project to work on.
One of the faucets in our master bedroom had begun dripping a couple of months ago. Last week was the day I finally decided to stop ignoring the issue. The faucet had shutoff valves at the inlet pipes, which meant I could work on the faucet without having to shut water off to the entire house.
After looking up the make and model from the remodeling invoice three years ago, I downloaded the installation instructions and began working backwards from the last step. To remove the lever I first popped off the decorative index and used an allen wrench to loosen the set screw. The trim cap came off fairly easily; not so for the cartridge lock nut.
It was then time to crawl underneath and remove the lock nut, clamp, and washer from the base screw. With the faucet free from its base, I then detached the hoses from the water lines and removed the entire assembly from the sink. The only bit of work I wasn’t able to do was to remove the hoses from the cartridge, which requires tools I don’t possess.
Now that the darn thing’s all in pieces, I’m working with a contractor to get a replacement unit from the vendor. Not sure how long that will take, but since my wife and I have a double-bowl vanity we can get by for a while without much inconvenience, so long as I remember to rinse the sink after brushing my teeth.
An entire post for this COVID-19 journal that says nothing about the disease. You can’t ignore the pandemic, but not talking about it doesn’t show ignorance but rather a determination to not let it control you.
“Where’s Donald?” demanded the ethereal presence of the woman known as Ethel in her mortal life.
“How should we know?” Stu replied from behind the cello. “It’s not like we can text him, being that we’re spirits.”
“He’s probably haunting his children again,” sighed Ellie at the microphone. “He’s into the literary tropes.”
“This band is nothing without percussion,” moaned Ethel, hovering over the keyboard. “Donald needs to be here.”
“Would you say,” joked Ellie, “that our band’s just a ghost of itself without him?”
Not wanting to hear any more bad puns, Ethel’s spirit fled the empty stage.
Feels good to have my first Friday Fictioneers story of the year posted.
After a few weeks off and a good deal of contemplation, I’ve decided to resume my reviews of literary journals and genre magazines. Many of the periodicals where I intend to submit my fiction still haven’t been reviewed, and while I’m no longer committing to a review every week, I hope to say a few words about most of my identified targets by year’s end. My first review this year takes me to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
London-based Litro publishes both print and online editions of its magazine each month. Each print edition has a dedicated theme.
What they say about themselves: “Since 2005, Litro has published works by first time authors through to Noble laureates. Litro is self-selecting for people with an interest in literature, culture and innovation, providing readers with an escapism a perfect read for those with busy lives and encouraging cross cultural conversations through the annual Litro World Series editions… Fiction should be enduring, not disposable, and as such Litro in print, is specially designed to fit in your pocket or bag we think of it as a small book of escapism.”
Issue reviewed: I read stories posted to the online edition that were previously published in Issue 175 of the print edition, which had the theme of Desire.
Genre: Literary Realism with speculative elements
One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Into the Pleroma,” by Ingrid Norton. An anonymous narrator in a post-apocalyptic world communicates with her dead lover in her dreams. The story says little about what caused the calamity, focusing instead on this one survivor’s attempt to continue living, which makes for a more effective tale. A clever take on Issue 175’s theme of desire.
Exploding Helicopters: Three Explosions. While there weren’t many action scenes within the stories, the situations and characters were compelling throughout.
Profanometer: Dammit. It’s nice to read writing which gets its grit from context rather than diction.
You’re ‘Avin a Risus, Mate – One A Week 2020
I could look it up easily enough, but I honestly don’t want to know how long it’s been since my last reblog. January’s always good for starting or resuming a good habit. jillyfunnell is an English poet with an engaging and lyrical voice. This particular poem uses some highly complex terminology with both grace and an intimate knowledge of her subject. A delight.
Inspired by the news that garden centres are dumbing down plant names
Please do not dumb down my acer grisum
It is not just a common garden dame
And expert tutors prudent, trained each horticulture student
to call each plant its correct Latin name
So, take care to prune the hamamelis mollis
Show respect for all magnolia cambellii
Give thanks for thick and glorious hedera helixa
and ensure tagetes patula does not die
Papaver’s still our emblem, in its Latin
and glorious it blooms and issues seed
Parodia formosa? Safe, but don’t come closer
This lonely species might well make you bleed
Which brings us to the sultry one called vanda
Get her name right when you sit her on your sill
And though naysayers say, no more flores on the way
With a bit of care, I think you’ll find she will
And don’t even think about messing with…
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I ran some errands today. A year ago, I wouldn’t have taken as much joy out of the experience.
Began with a haircut appointment. As she always does, my barber wore a mask the entire time, as did I (it’s the only time where I find over-the-ear loops preferable to back-of-the-head ties), and we were the only two in the salon at that time. Needed cash, so I drove up to an ATM and made a withdrawal. My wife had an order ready for pickup, so I ran out to that store in between going to our local butcher and shopping for groceries.
Simply getting out of the house was the most rewarding; I love my home, but occasional excursions make me appreciate it more. No word yet on when the library will reopen, and returning to the gym or fencing club won’t be an option for some time. Running errands is one of few opportunities I have to seeing these familiar walls.
There’s also the feel of the road. Cruising down a smooth path of asphalt; feeling the power and appreciating the sophistication of the machine at my command; hearing the soft hum of the engine under the radio’s music. Today’s experience reminded me of the long car trips I like to take in the summer and fall, excursions that stopped once the COVID-19 lockdowns began. Being able to satisfy my wanderlust will be one of the signs that lets me know we’ve returned to normal.
And I like being helpful. It feels good to be needed, even for small tasks. Getting several errands done at the same time also feels like the right thing to do in these inconvenient times.
I was out and about for only an hour and a half, and drove about fifteen miles. A year ago, running today’s errands would have felt like an intrusion. Today, it felt like a liberating holiday.