Saturday, February 2, 2013

Interlude IX

As readers of this science-fiction fiction blog you may have noticed that there's been very little science-fiction fiction to read lately. In an ideal world this post would remedy that but instead it's just a meander on what I've been doing lately instead of completing the current serial.

If you have any interest in what it's like being a fabulously not-well-to-do science-fiction author basking in the light of obscurity, read on. Otherwise wait for me to tweet something about Olympus Mons again because it probably means fiction has resumed.

And now, my so-called life:

The Korean man who runs the general store in my village doesn't pause the porno playing on his laptop while he checks my slot for mail (threatening letters, bills with exclamation marks, and so on). He has a dozen electronic eyes throughout and store and they all feed into the monitor over his shoulder but I don't dare let my eyes flit there. I don't want to see what the electronic eyes can see because it would be embarrassing if he were into something really degenerate. Even though smalltalk with him is only the ceremonial exchange of mumbled gibberish I hesitate to have it touch on gang bangs or pee drinking.

He nudges the wireless cash dealie at me so I check myself out. "Good movie?"

"Hruh, Portland," he says, "Lhasa apso fund bassoon."

I smile and nod and stuff my stuff in my pockets. All the while the little Korean people on his laptop keep sighing and moaning and straining through tinny little speakers.

I disappear into my parka hood. (Foomph.)

The small cracked-concrete plaza is clear but everything else is buried under a marshmallow coating of snow. There's more snow falling. I can barely see the village church. The postal lady is hanging out of her car telling a very loud story to people walking their dogs about how a local somebody is a so-and-so, her voice softened into artificial intimacy by the sound-absorbing properties of the freshly-fallen powder. I amble down the road in my giant boots (as my giant boots permit only ambling), dodge a drunken snowmobiler, and wander up the walk to the old schoolhouse, the tallest building in town.

The front door is iced shut so I open the side door and push inside. My children freeze in place hanging from the walls like gibbons. They stare at me.

"Oh," says the boy. "I thought you were going to the far away store not the close store."

"This is how we study?" I ask pointedly. "If this is the effort you're going to put in I might as well give up now and sell you to the gypsies."

They scramble back into their antique wooden school desks and straighten their papers importantly. The girl is reading about Rome, the boy about the equator. "Can this be my last page?" asks the girl.

"No."

I put lunch in the oven and wash dishes while I wait for my conference call. How is it that my children manage to use every dish in the house for the hour I'm in my study each morning? One plate per bite? I shake my head and rinse my hands, but I don't dry them well enough so my tablet goes on the fritz when I try to scroll around my pre-call notes. "Where did all the tea towels go, you reprobate leprechauns?"

My pocket rings. I extract the source and diddle its fiddles. Everyone welcomes one another into the conference.

"Dad?"

"Not now, son. I'm on a call."

"Do people get sick from the Tropic of Cancer?"

"No."

"Can this be my last page?"

While I participate in the call I wander from one desk to the other, looking over offspring shoulders and offering critical expressions as I tap on their work. "Spelling," I mouth silently to the girl. She rolls her eyes.

The people on the telephone are talking a lot while saying little, which can be the most challenging kind of material to stay tuned in to. I slap my hand over my eyes in order to attenuate the flow of local stimuli, and when I peek out my children are climbing the bookshelves again. They look at me guiltily and clamber down, tails between their legs.

On the telephone: "The issue is we really need to know exactly how precisely the creative product is going to look before we can commit to spending any money on it."

Me: "We have detailed sketches in the proposal, sir."

Client: "Yes, I understand that, but I'm not a creative person so I have a really hard time imagining what the final product would look like based on sketches alone. Is there something else you can provide us to help us see what you're seeing? Can you show us what's in your head?"

"Beyond sketches?"

"Right -- we need more specific detail than that."

"Like the level of detail you'd see in the final product?"

"Exactly."

"With all due respect then I think you'd need to pay for us to produce it. We can only show you actual virtual details by actually virtually actualizing them, if you follow me. No matter how you shake it, to show you something it has to be built first."

"Is there not some sort of computer simulation of the final product we could take a look at?"

"Sir, the final product is a computer simulation."

"Oh, boy. We may need to schedule another call to figure all this out. Like I said, I'm not a creative person."

I smack my own face repeatedly with the heel of my hand. My children stare at me. In a hushed growl I hiss, "Divisions of the globe! The Roman pantry!" I stab my finger urgently at their books. They sigh and turn to it.

When the call is finally over my business partner, Irish O'Fitz, calls me to debrief. I sort of listen somewhat as I check over the school work, then dispatch the boy to feed the endangered tortoise and the girl to bathe her tropical bird with the water spritzer. Irish and I set up our calendars to play footsie for the next call.

Next I force the children to sit still and simulate attentiveness for a quarter hour recitation from the King James Bible and then send them out into the wild land beyond our back yard to run the dogs while I ask Siri for some sort of theological explanation of what the hell we just read. I can hear the children bouncing down the stairs making their "God voice" at one another, shouting booming commandments.

"Lightest thou out of my way lest I turnily-diddly ye into a pillar of saltarino!"

"And it came to pass that he was a dork, and a dork is what he was!"

This buys me half an hour. I dash upstairs to my study, pushing through the hanging blankets and thick curtains that compartmentalize off the various areas of pioneer frigidity in the old schoolhouse. The spaces between the blankets are lit with white Christmas lights, lending great stretches of the house the aura of a really elaborate blanket-fort.

In my study I slap the spacebar. I answer as many critical email messages as possible before hearing the barking dogs and shouting children outside again. Once downstairs I learn that lunch is only slightly burnt. Extra sauce will cover that. Damn wiener kids will never notice.

"This tastes like ashes!"

"I want something else!"

"I will make you something else if you tell me about a typical supper for a Roman patrician family. And you -- which hemisphere do we live in?"

I make grilled cheese sandwiches served with olives and a scowl. My pocket keeps buzzing for attention. "Thank you for forwarding these assets period. I will review them shortly and get back to you with any issues by end of day period. Dictated but not read." I run upstairs and produce new work with fields and ropes and twists of simulated ink for twenty minutes and then run back downstairs to see how many olives are on the floor and how much cheese on the wall. "Were you two raised my wolves?" I demand.

"Yes," says the girl. "I'm a wolf on the Internet."

"It wasn't my fault the cheese did that. The cat made me do it."

"Can I have another sandwich? Mine was too dry."

I narrow my eyes. "You'd better be a generous tipper, kid."

I make another round of sandwiches while I direct the boy to feed dogs. "I've received the script and it seems like execution will be straight-forward comma, can you book what's his face to do the grunt work question mark. The Indian guy with the bizarre hair period. Dictated but not read." Plates from the drying rack, sandwiches from the stove, slapped on desks. "Bon appetit!"

"Can we watch something while we have lunch?"

"Documentary only."

"Awww. I want Popeye."

"No Popeye. Carl Sagan."

"Muppets?"

"It's Cosmos or nothing, you scurrilous dogs."

I queue up an episode of Cosmos from the video server. Once the familiar strains of the opening music sound the children forget about Kermit and Popeye and become hypnotized. Ah, televisual stimulus you save my ass yet again!

They eat. I sprint upstairs, again running the gauntlet of curtain apertures and cloth walls.

The rendering job I set up earlier has completed. I put the results on loop and sit back to catalogue everything wrong with the sequence, making notes on my tablet. Coordinate randomization scripts on the light sources and optical bric-a-brac are clashing, separating the elements when the camera gets too close. Noted. Camera yaw starts a second too early and blows the anticipation of the reveal. Noted. OpenGL rendering flaw marring two frames near the end where ink bloom elements are too close to one another. Noted. Dust-mote particle ambiance is too heavy-handed. Noted.

Email bleeps. This video's script has been suddenly reworked. All timings changed. Start over.

"Jesus Murphy Brown."

I crack open a beer and sit back in my comfy chair. I deserve a break. I look out of a dormer window over the plaza below cut by the shadow the old schoolhouse steeple. The snow has stopped. A couple of fishermen in full ice-faring regalia are regaling one another with hilarious anecdotes.

My study is lit by white Christmas lights, even when it's not Christmas. Because I think they're neat.

My desk is glass and must be free of objects and dust. So while I drink my beer I put objects away and shammy the whole deal. A clean office helps me do good work for some reason. I eschew decor beyond a stone statue of Shiva and two drawings: a piece of abstract expressionism from the boy after Kandinsky, and a very detailed version of a green Bobo-like robot from the girl. After me, I guess.

At the bottom of my beer the study is clean. I crack my knuckles and call up the current science-fiction serial. I read what I've already written to get into the rhythm of things and then settle in to add a few paragraphs. Something plot-advancing and nearly witty coalesces from scattered thoughts and crackles its way down my arms and toward my fingers...

"Dad!"

"Eh?"

"Dad!"

"Who?"

"Dad!"'

"What?"

"Could you come here!"

"No, you come up here."

"What?"

"Come upstairs to talk to me."

"I can't hear you!"

"Come upstairs!"

"Why?"

Damn wiener kids. I go downstairs and referee a disagreement over who has to use the tiny spoon for their dessert by introducing a new spoon from the drying rack. Dessert proceeds.

"Alexandria was the greatest city the Western world had ever seen," says Carl Sagan. "People of all nations came here to live, to trade, to learn. On any given day its harbours were thronged with merchants, scholars and tourists. This was a city where Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews, Persians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Italians, Gauls and Iberians exchanged merchandise and ideas. It is probably here that the word ‘cosmopolitan' realized its true meaning: citizen, not just of a nation, but of the Cosmos..."

The dog wants out. The cat wants in. Why are the children so resistant to bussing their own dishes?

I remind myself that my wife only has four more weeks left on her contract in the city before she's back at home, homemaking and homeschooling. I only have to make it through four more weeks. Just four. Four.

"Accommodating these changes will necessitate some fairly major timing adjustments which are going to domino through the rest of the timeline comma, so please quote the client at least two and a quarter days for those tweaks alone period. Thank you very much period. Dictated but not read."

My wife's mom texts that she needs groceries.

"Dad, what are we doing this afternoon?"

"Grocery shopping."

"Aww."

"I'll let you run around the store like maniacs."

"Yay!"

We all drive into town. The world is white. White trees, white fields, white roads, white sky. My battered little subcompact rumbles over the railway tracks.

"Girl: what's four squared?"

"Um."

"Sixteen?" ventures the boy.

"Eight!" she announces with confidence.

"Can we get McNuggets?"

"No."

The grocery store parking lot is crowded with cars cheek by jowl. The girl reminds me to use an app to mark my parking place so we don't have to wander around in the cold later trying to find the car. "You're fantastic," I tell her. "Just for that, you no longer have to learn about the Boer War!"

She cocks her head. "What's the Boer War?"

"Never happened."

We pause inside the threshold of the grocery store where I assign the children their seek and retrieve missions. They run away to different aisles. My mother-in-law prefers to push the cart so I just wander behind her, looking up from my telephone now and again in order to throw something into the cart. Every few minutes a child runs up with something for me to inspect. "Is this the cheapest one there was?"

"Oui, Papa!"

"Very well. Your next mission, which you must accept whether you like it or not, is to find and return to this cart three bags of two percent milk, or six if they're on special. Hup, hup, hup!"

(Yes, in my part of the world we buy milk in bags. I know it's weird. That's why I write science-fiction.)

All the while my mother-in-law is chattering away about things she's seen on television or heard about from spirits. She tries to buy some sort of unholy American cake-like sugar snacks for the children but I interfere, promising a drive-through at Tim Horton's for hot steeped tea in recompense. The children are only minimally mollified, fixing their expressions into dispirited scowls and trying hard not to laugh at jokes.

An app leads us back to the car, and the car to Tim Horton's.

"What's French for leg?"

"Un jamb."

"Who named a symphony for Napoleon then unnamed it when he changed his mind?"

"Beethoven."

"Who's the capital of Hitler?"

"Spain!"

"Alright, alright. Tell me your feed orders, you mouths."

When we get to the drive-through window the speaker crackles with a voice asking us to wait a moment, but it isn't live. You can tell because it doesn't respond to your response and because it doesn't have an Indian accent. Despite this everyone in line ahead of us assures the recording that they don't at all mind the slight delay. Habits can be hard to reign in.

"Can I take your order, sir?"

"Is this a real person now?"

"I am a real person yes."

"It's disconcerting when you play the recording. I thought it was you."

"It's just a recording, sir."

"You know, we always get the same thing here. Maybe I should make my own recording, and then I can just play my recording to your recording and the both of us can stay home and skip the whole thing."

"...Can I take your order, sir?"

We sip our teas. It's snowing again. The car slides around on the road a bit. "It's slippery," warns my mother-in-law. "I think because of the snow, at least mostly."

"Thank you."

The children carry her groceries in, then ours. We divide and conquer to scrub the toilet and sink and sweep the floor and pick up the toys. We separate the laundry into piles and then haul it upstairs for distribution to drawers. Whatever doesn't fit anymore we throw into the upstairs fireplace to help warm our labours. "Okay, now tidy up your room while Papa works a bit," I beg.

The children pretend they are wolves and make a den out of their covers. I eat an apple and do something tedious while watching an Andrew Kramer tutorial in a small window. It's an OpenGL renaissance these days what with all the heavy lifting behind done by the GPU. Suddenly there's fabric billowing everywhere and my computer doesn't even break a sweat. The future is a nifty time to make a living.

"Regretfully I cannot update the website address in the motion graphics until the end client has chosen a final domain in real life period. The placeholder is in place in order to show how the graphics will work once final content decisions are made period. Preview graphics cannot reflect content that does not yet exist period. Thank you for your understanding in this matter period. Dictated but not read."

The wolf children start howling. First the black dog upstairs goes berserk, followed by the somewhat muted sound of the white dog downstairs going berserk.

"Ça suffit!" I roar, cutting through the insanity.

Three animals look up at me and whimper.

"We're going swimming."

My car slides gracefully into a parking spot at the community centre. I would've liked to put winter tires on the car this winter but money. Still, I am an able automotive skater. The children pour out and scamper away. I wait to help my mother-in-law, who has a bad hip. We find the children again inside. My mother-in-law goes to sit in the old people bubbles with other members of the greatest generation while the children frolic upon me in the proper pool. "Swim, you wolves," I command. "Swim out your wolf madness so you can sit still at supper."

The boy surfaces and spits out water. "Can we eat Chinese?"

"Are you kidding me? I'm starting a startup, kid -- I've got no money to spend. Chinese food costs a fortune. I'm afraid we'll just have to go home and eat chicken-fried rice with soy sauce."

"Aww."

The children are rinsed and dried and clothed. We watch a basketball game while waiting for my mother-in-law. The boy says he likes basketball. I tell him it was invented by his fellow countryman James Naismith in the nineteenth century, and also that I am an exceptionally poor player of the game. "So if I learned to play I could win against you?"

"Easily."

This intrigues him. He nods thoughtfully. The girl tugs on my parka. "Can we get poutine on the way home?"

"No."

The sun is setting. The wind is kicking up the loose snow into mini-blizzards. Visibility is compromised. I rely on the display on my GPS dealie suction-cupped to the windshield to tell me where the dark country intersections are. I almost miss one and veer at a field but twist away at the last minute and find the real turn. The car Tokyo drifts in a wide arc to find its way to the lane. My mother-in-law takes a few minutes to recover. The children squeal then laugh.

We pull into the driveway at the same time as my wife. Her car stops properly while mine coasts serenely past until bopping its nose against the gate. She rises from her car with steaming bags in her arms. "I got poutine for everyone!"

"Yay!"

We try the front door but it's no good so we use the side door again. The children pile into their poutines with relish. I tuck ours under a tea towel and uncork a French Malbec. I pour the wine into a glass glass for her, and a plastic glass for me, because I tend to break glass glasses with bewildering frequency. We toast. "How was your day? Do you like the wine?"

She makes a face. "I don't know how people do it."

"Enjoy this wine?"

"No, I don't know how people work at jobs," she says. She is in the process of creating a plant-wide roles and responsibilities manual that catalogues and explains the day to day functions of each person in the office and on the line at a small factory. "Some of them are just paid on the low end of the scale for their skill and experience, but the pay of some of them actually puts them technically under the poverty line. Why would you keep working at a job where you're paid a fraction of a living wage?"

I shrug. "Because it's better than no wages at all?"

"Is that really the alternative?"

"It's important to cultivate a sense of insecurity in your workers, regardless of the reality. Otherwise one of them will get uppity and rock the boat. I think there's a series of a motivational posters along those lines. Maybe you could recommend the factory buy some."

"It's depressing to see grown people so craven in the face of obvious injustice."

"Yes, well, with all due respect that's why nobody would want to give you a job, dear. Try as you might you consistently fail to come off as somebody who'll take a lot of guff. And the economy is largely guff-based. You're trouble."

"I am trouble," she agrees. "The wine is pretty nice, actually. I like it. I want to see the bottle. Where's the bottle?"

"It is here, in my pants."

She rolls her eyes. "That may not be as romantic as it seemed during the planning phase."

"Uncomfortable, too."

After poutine the children sit on the sofa with our tablets. The girl socially pretends she is a wolf, spinning a real-time collaborative text adventure with other wolf children elsewhere in the Anglosphere. The boy posts sketches of his favourite Skylanders on a social virtual bulletin board a bit before playing some kind of a car-chase game with wailing sirens that inspires from us repeated appeals for lowered volume.

"Can I buy the game in this ad?"

"No."

"It's only four nine nine money."

"No."

"Can I have fifteen extra minutes of electronics time?"

"No."

The children fetch wood and brush their teeth and eventually crawl into their little beds. The boy's bed is full of popcorn from the previous week's movie night. "How can you sleep on this?" his mother wants to know, brow raised. He shrugs and says it doesn't bother him.

She looks at me. "You haven't done quality control on his bedding since Friday?"

"He didn't complain," I explain.

Their mother makes everything right again while I stand aside and shuffle the order of the books on the bookshelf. I take a seat on a doll's bed and flip through pages. When I look up again the children's beds look like beds do in magazines in movies -- pillow slips, no foreign objects, the whole deal.

She tickles their backs while I read some verse, first from e.e. cummings then from Michael Ondaatje. The room goes dark. They are kissed. A string of secret bedtime words is recited as we exit.

"Would you please make the light at Papa's desk on?"

"No. Good night, we love you."

"Could we leave the lamp in the library on?"

"No. Good night, we love you."

My wife dresses for roller derby practice. I take my place at the computer. I can eke out a couple more hours of progress before the day is done. I'd like to write some serial but my brain is worn out and limp, suitable only for more mundane tasks like updating the billable hours spreadsheets and making project notes for tomorrow. I check on the state of my backups, and the backups of my backups. Diagnostic runs of each volume chuckle in the background while I listen to As It Happens streamed from the CBC.

Fire crackles in the fireplace. The sky turns from white to blue to copper to black. New snow falls but it is invisible.

The frequency of my mistakes escalates dramatically. It's time to step away from the keyboard. I grab the next DVD from the stack and pop it in to be ripped, another incremental advance in my year-long project to digitize all my media and sell the original media vehicles to the pawn shop in town. Tonight my five-hundred and sixth movie accumulates bit by bit to the video server. (I like movies.) At midnight the video server will mirror itself to a volume independent of my general hourly system backups. Just in case.

In bed I read from Marcus Aurelius, because I find his thoughts soothing. I sip my wine and mark a passage to make the children wrap their heads around tomorrow. I am trying to stay awake long enough to get kisses when my wife de-derbies and climbs into bed but it is a losing battle...

Single parents have my respect. Primary care and work are not mutually friendly. I feel like life is a barbecue and I'm being rectally kebabbed. Nothing gets the attention it deserves.

Suddenly a really helpful idea for the current serial occurs. Though I am mostly asleep I feel around for my telephone. Mumbling:

"Remember the idea about how Claire and...the other girl...when they get to...got to review the girl's book report...forgot to do dictation with the boy comma shit. Forgot dish soap. Set a reminder to buy dish soap tomorrow. Or laundry soap? I can't...um, remember. And Irish still owes me that pipeline report, too. Fuck."

Derailed by a liquid brain, I give up and drop into dream.

Dictated but not read.


9 comments:

SaintPeter said...

As much as I enjoy your sci-fi, I think I enjoy your slice of life stories more. I still remember vividly a number of your (now unlisted) stories from your life with moderately fictionalized real personages. I do wish you could find a way to republish those in a way that would not be angering to real personages.

--

There are two aspects of your work that I find most enjoyable:
1) Your characterization is both subtle and delightful. You give us the sense of a person without relying on cumbersome exposition, but with hints and glances and oblique phrases. Your people seem REAL, even if they are clearly caricatures of real people.

They remind me of drawn caricatures - there is that way of capturing someone's face and personality in just a few lines that is somehow more real than a photograph. Your written character sketches are more real than real. I love that.

2) Your continued imaginative use and abuse of metaphor and simile, stretching the boundaries of symbolic language in a way that is both strange and pleasing. You don't rely on trope or cliche, except to subvert them. You use common words in uncommon ways that are inappropriate but correct.

Reading your stories or sketches is sort of like entering a fugue state for me. I start reading and am transported to a quirky "just so" world where nothing is quite right but all makes sense.

--

As always, I'm willing to wait for stories. You have to feed your wolves before you can write. It's like some hierarchy of needs or something.

Thanks for the story!

Mark said...

What SaintPeter said.

Your snapshots of your ostensibly real life are delightful not due to the content, but due to your skill with the pen and paper. Okay, so, the content helps some. I am not Canadian, and even less French Canadian, so I always see things in your narratives that are quite foreign to me.

Edward said...

Aww, I wish you could have been my dad! Or failing that I hope one day I can be even a half as good a dad as you seem to be.

I've been religiously checking back every couple of days for the next instalment, but you obviously have far bigger things to worry about right now.

Typed and re-read.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear SaintPeter,

Sometimes your comments are hard to respond to, because they are complimentary and not in the sort of empty platitudes way that can make convention-shaped stock replies appropriate. I've never been particularly good at responding correctly to complimentary feedback. My instinct is to let it pass unnoted, as if somebody farted, but I've come to understand that this can inadvertently project a malformed impression of my emotional reaction.

At any rate I'd like to say thank you very much.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Mark,

It's the death of that damn magazine that's to blame! Without that outlet for heartwarming local Canadiana I've found myself with an abnormal glut of the stuff in my brain left over from so many years' built-up momentum.

So, yes, upon reflection this has got to be the most Canuckustani thing I've posted ever -- there's ice-fishermen, immigrants who feel no pressure to learn English, community centres with warm pools in a cold winter, and bountiful quantities of chicken gravy and curd on chips (that's "poutine" for the uninitiated; we eat it in winter so we can freeze to death with a nice layer of fat on us).

Oh, right -- and milk in bags. Though I guess that's not strictly speaking Canadiana, as most other Canadians see that as messed up, too. I hear they do it in the Balkans. You know. That yogurt place.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Edward,

Keep the faith. The ending is come. And other endings due, too.

I worry that my kids are getting short shift lately since I've been very professionally preoccupied but luckily the missus will be back on duty soon. I know I owe them a puppet show I said we could write and build and shoot and upload to YouTube, because they both dream of being YouTube sensations. I've got to fit that into the next month somehow, too. Any story ideas anyone? 2-4 papier mache puppet characters maximum, no complex plots.

Yours,
Cheeseburger Brown

pso said...

The part about the blankets reminded me of the story "A Pail of Air" by Fritz Leiber:

http://www.baenebooks.com/chapters/0743498747/0743498747___6.htm

BTW, childrearing is certainly a lot of effort, but running your business is no less so. It's amazing that you can manage both at the same time to an acceptable degree.

Chester Burton Brown said...

Dear pso,

I will never forget first reading that story when I was a kid! A Pail of Air is definitely one of the indelible impressions that made me the storyteller I am. How nifty you should mention it, pso!

BTW, I've been trying to do both efforts concurrently since November, and I've got three and a half weeks to go. It's been a fairly brutal marathon of joy, wonder and hope. Being at the centre of the homefront is indeed awesome and rewarding, but it's a full time job; trying to stuff in a full-time job along with it is...nerve-fraying. I'm happy the end is coming soon, so I won't have to feel like everybody's getting short-changed at least a little all of the time.

Your,
Cheeseburger Brown

Sheik Yerbouti said...

What SainPeter and Mark said.

(there; that should satisfy your need to generate a stock reply)

Also, Star Wars Macbeth.