Speaker for the Dogs

“Dad, what does Bender say?” he asks me, fully expecting an answer.

I want to break into the chorus of “What Does the Fox Say,” but the coffee cup is already at my lips and I simply struggle to swallow. A-bear asks of me the impossible, fully expecting I’ll have the capacity to deliver. The possibility that I might not have the answer to this or any question never enters his mind. I am practiced at this, I can make up the difference.

My first boy, who is nearly 18 and soon on his way to college, wasn’t so much this way. With him I could do no wrong. At a time in my life when I made so many mistakes and failed so miserably my reputation with him remained golden. I couldn’t be tarnished and looking back that far I know that the reason I stopped screwing up had a lot to do with living up to his expectations of me.

“Bender wants your table crumbs, he says ‘give me all your cinnamon roll,'” I reply after chocking down a hot mouthful of java-juice. It burns on its way down, so I have a little trouble imitating the begging Bender, who table-sharks our local coffee café, with the appropriate element of Scooby Doo.

“No he doesn’t,” Aral replies with indignation, “he says, ‘Rut row, give me all your cinnamon roll.’ Ah ha ha ha ha!” He’s got his Scooby down, which is surprising since he’s only ever heard it from my mouth.

“You’re right, little cub.”

Time enough …

Last night I went to bed intending to get up early. I wanted to do some yoga. Maybe sit for a peaceful moment, listen to my breathing or the rain. I went to bed early and then didn’t sleep, staring out the window at the clouds, backlit by the city, as the rolled their way north. When I did obtain some slumber I had anxiety dreams. Seems even I don’t think I deserve a house on the island, because last night, while in the moving truck crossing the Sound, the ferry went down with all hands. And this morning there I sit, at the bottom of the Salish Sea, amongst all our household goods. Notably, my dog sits next to me on the bench of the moving truck.

Dreams are creepy sometimes. I don’t even know why I was in the moving truck. But the most lasting effect of that little gem is that this morning when my alarm went off, I simply turned it off and rolled over snuggling under the down comforter.

A-bear has asked me several times just this morning what dogs are saying, he expects that I’ll interpret their body language and translate this into words he can understand. Pepper jumping around at the front door? “Errrrmahgerd, I have’ta pee!” The Maltese walking down the sidewalk with its owner? “Can I have some kisses, please? Just little kisses.” The guy walking this dog wasn’t impressed. And Bender at the coffee shop, who perpetually orbits under the table sniffing around for a tasty snack.

My leitmotiv seems to be acting as Speaker for the Dogs. For this I am thankful, life couldn’t have blessed me more. And so, sitting at the café sipping my favorite cuppa, I’m going to give myself permission let go of my house buying anxiety. I’m going to, at least for a time, forget all my self imposed deadlines and write for the joy of it. I’m going to talk like Scooby Doo and make my youngest son squeal with glee. I’m giving myself permission to simply be that guy. Not the idealized person I imagine I should be, but the guy I actually am. The person the moment calls for.

Question of the Day

Yeah so this is now bugging me. A plotting decision for which I can see no real justification. In the movie Big Hero 6 the charters Hiro and Tadashi Hamada live with their aunt Cass. The backstory is that when Hiro was four their parents died. No real explanation beyond they’re dead is provided. Their aunt takes the boys in and loves them, sure enough, but I keep wondering “Why?” Why even include this in the early scenes of the movie at all?

Seems like an unnecessary complication in the development of Hiro’s story. Did the writers want us to believe that Hiro was already acquainted with the the prospect of personal loss? Is it possible that Tadashi’s death, a big brother who fills a parental role, might seem less catastrophic because Hiro also lost his parents. Maybe this backstory is developed in the comic book, which I haven’t read, and the screen writers just included this detail to maintain some sort of pluralism with that version of the story?

Guess that’s what a morning of editing might do to you. After seeking holes in my own plot for so long it actually seems like a little break to poke holes in other’s stories. Still a great story, a movie I really enjoy, but I can’t help but wonder why.

False Expectations: Guest Post

Okay, it’s done. It’s out there.

Last summer I met and got to know Jim Hines first at DetCon1 and later at GeekFanExpo. I had read his Goblin series previously when a friend turned me onto it (thanks Darren) and really enjoyed this underdog-fantasy. So, after the books and after spending some time in his company, I knew Jim had a way with words. But what I didn’t know was how much this guy cares.

Jim and I after Story Time at DetCon1

What I mean by that is that, if you’re sitting across a bar room table talking about what ever with him, you’ll soon get the impression that he’s really listening to you. Not just occupying the down time for his mouth by constructing his counter argument to what you might be saying. And not just nodding his head and letting your words bounce off his ears. Jim is an obviously phenomenal listener.

Near the start of the year he put out a call for essays to be included in the second of his Invisible series. He had previously brought together a variety of voices last year to talk about the “importance of representation in science fiction and fantasy” and he was doing it again. A wild hare took me for a ride and I pitched an idea for an essay.

Wild Hare Ride

At first, I thought I might write about the misrepresentation of PTSD veterans or maybe something from the point of view of a seizure patient. In the end however, I chose to talk about how popular military fiction tends to get martial life wrong. Really, really wrong.

You can find the essay on Jim’s blog, it was published this morning. It will be included later this year as part of an anthology. I’m hoping to hear some opinions on this topic because, like it or not, the martial myth is such a big part of the standard American experience. I’d love to hear what you have to say even if you disagree. Especially if you disagree.

Edits Are Off

This blog post is me celebrating the completion of guest blog post/anthology contribution which I just sent off to the editor. I’m still going to beat around the bush for a while because I haven’t been given permission to announce my inclusion on the project, but I will say that I’ve been super excited to be part of the effort and to be working with such a great editor.

I’ve decided that it’s important for me to somehow mark these little milestones. First, because when I get to the end of a project it feels like I should be congratulated. Writing is a solitary craft and thus there isn’t anyone to give you an “Atta Boy,” but yourself (pats-on-the-back and fair-spoken comments are welcome below). It’s also important to mark the completion of this project because it’s been a struggle for me to put my feelings down on the page. For this project, knowing that my audience is going to grow by an order of magnitude or two has been humbling. It makes me check and re-check my work, and there has been several points in this project development cycle where I’ve held onto the damn thing paralyzed with fear that people wouldn’t agree with my opinion.

This morning I woke up, took A-bear to the play area, and said “Screw that noise.” I was able to put all that self doubt and writing-specific anxiety in, if not the trash where it belongs, at least in a drawer where it didn’t bother me. A-bear has been performing toddler parkour stunts all morning, making friends, hasn’t gotten hurt, and will nap with a vengeance so I should probably claim that badge too. Life is good.

Can’t Pass a Turing Test

So Tess and I are trying to buy a new house, I may have mentioned this before. Internet access — specifically high speed access — is a big requirement for us. Between the two of us we’d have a very hard time getting any work done without it. Thus, for anything that gets put into the “serious” list we usually search out local high-speed internet providers in the area and confirm a) that they offer service at the address and b) that they can accommodate our bandwidth and throughput requirements.

I’ve accomplished this before with several companies, and in particular with Comcast/XFINITY. Perviously I talked to a guy named Ruhid and while it took him a bit he was clearly searching for an answer. Today, I had to do the same thing, but as you can see below, I was not able to answer these very basic questions.

Chris: Hi, I’m a live Comcast product specialist. What questions can I answer for you today?
Chris: Just type your question below.
Matt: I’m trying to determine what sort of speeds I can get for a house we may buy

[address of new house]

Chris: I’d be glad to check the Internet plans we offer in your area.
Chris: Do you mind if I ask a few question in order to give you accurate information?
Matt: sure
Chris: Just to check before we move on, are you a current Comcast customer or have you had Comcast service in your name within the last 120 days?
Matt: no and no
Chris: Thank you for considering Comcast!
Chris: To better assist you with our Internet plans, may I ask what do you usually do on the Internet?
Matt: mostly work, I am an author, my wife is a software developer
Matt: we also stream entertainment
Chris: Perfect! How many computers or gaming devices do you connect to the internet? Are any of them laptops?
Matt: most of them are laptops and I maintain a router for NAP purposes
Chris: We offer the Wireless Gateway which packs a router, cable modem, and voice adapter into one device. It allows multiple devices in the house to access to access the Internet at the same time with lightning fast speeds!
Chris: Just to check, do you currently have TV and/or phone service/s with another provider?
Matt: Thanks, I’m just checking access for potential issues at this time
Matt: yes we’re on community fiber installation right now
Chris: By the way, are you interested in Internet-only service? We currently have promotions for new customer for triple play bundles that you may qualify. Please note that you will be able to save more on the costs if you go with bundling up our services.
Matt: only internet please
Chris: It’s alright, just wanted to let you know the benefits of bundling our 3 high speed cable services.
Matt: I just need to know what if any service at this address
Chris: Based on what you’ve told me, I highly recommend our Performance plan. With Performance Internet, you will be able to stream high definition movies and TV shows easily, work online at home and surf the web with fast speed of up to 50 Mbps downloads with up to 5 Mbps upload.
Chris: How does that sound to you?
Matt: are you saying that the CP on Vashon island can support 50/5 Mbps?
Chris: The calculated maximum speeds of the internet plans vary from area to area (in most cases by 2 – 5mbps differences). The promotions show the “National” plan that is advertised the same, the everyday pricing shows the local area pricing and the speeds in that area.
Matt: that’s not what i’m asking, I need to know what the line to that address will support
Matt: can you answer that question for me?
Chris: May I ask what do you mean by saying “CP”?
Matt: the control plane on the far side of the network. If there is coaxial cable into the house, which COMCAST owns, then there will be a control plane somewhere in the neighborhood.
Matt: its your companies router
Matt: What I’m after is does Comcast service this address? If so, what kind of service can I expect?
Chris: Our high speed cable services run through our fiber optic cable network that’s why we’re not only fast and reliable but we’re also up and running, rain or shine.
Matt: that is precious
Matt: so you can’t tell me if comcast can provide service to that address?
Chris: We provide services in your area as I have checked on our system.
Chris: Our Performance plan is on promotion at $39.99 per month for the first 12 months. After 12 months, regular rate of around $66.95 per month will apply.
Chris: The lease for the XFINITY Wireless Gateway ranges from $8-$10 a month, depending on your area. Let’s move forward so that we can check on the Customize page.
Chris: Do you have any other questions before we place the order?

As this conversation got longer and longer the thought that Chris might not be a real person, kept occurring to me. When I finally closed the chat dialogue, that question was itching my brain something awful. It seems I’m not the only one who is walking around with a raging case of Comcast brain rash.

Now, I think it’s probably safe to assume that Chris was a piece of software answering support calls on the far side of our current service plan. If not, well then I apologize Chris, but you should know that you come off as the cross between an incredibly shallow intellect and a religious zealot with a cable fetish.

So moving beyond the frustration of not knowing about internet service at this address, my fascination with this situation is plainly apparent. There is a part of me that wants to go back to that pop-up chat window and troll Chris for a while. Ask him unusual questions like “I love cherry pie. What’s your favorite pie?” Then make rhetorical statements suck as “Nice weather we’re having.” I’d just leave it there to see if he’d recognize the conversation bait. I’d love to provoke a more satisfactory tell than his relentless insistence that my life would be better if only I chose a package deal and I’d like to determine the edges of Chris’ script. Looking up an address in a service database is way beyond him, but does he contemplate the complexities of relative humidity and precipitation?

The story I’ve been investing in of late is an attempt to examine quality of life, both from within a perfect simulation of reality, and outside the simulation where experience is real, random and often fractured. We’re not too far away from a day when the virtual representation of a thing will be as good as, if not better than, the actual thing. When the fidelity and clarity and ease of an animated fish swimming through virtual space in our living rooms exceeds an actual SCUBA adventure off the coast of Hawaii, where will we chose to swim?

I should probably write Comcast/Chris a letter thanking them for giving me a ready made subplot. After I finish this blog post I’m going to go outline a machine learning Guru living within the Lucid Landscapes Corporation virtual space. Either that or I’m going to take a break from living inside my own head for a bit and go work with my hands. I have a kayak that is nearly assembled.

Distraction

I spend a lot of time writing in coffee shops. Over the last couple of years most of the words I’ve committed have been written while seated in these sorts of places. Today is no different. I dropped A-bear off at preschool, and stopped off at my favorite local bean house.

The goal this morning was to write a short description of the various settings I want to include in the piece I’m outlining. I need eight to twelve when it’s all said and done. The novel involves a networked simulation and so the setting changes over the course of the story which means I can’t just say “simulation” and walk away. Each of these worlds needs to feel real for the story to work.

So I’m sitting here, banging away at the keyboard, trying like hell to imagine each one after the other. How do these worlds work? What feels real, what does not? It’s world building ad nauseum. I’m sitting here, periodically staring off into space because I need to imagine these settings when this couple sit down at the table next to me. He’s in his late 30’s, a little gray in his unkept hair, and a belly has sprouted under his chest. I think she must be a little older, she has long strawberry hair that she must curl every morning.

The guy is mansplaining everything and otherwise dominating their conversation. He’s doing so with authority while at the same time he constantly contradicts himself. “I’m a libertarian,” he says. In the next breath, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had government sponsored parenting classes like France?” He starts to riff on the VA and how he thinks it should be destroyed and forgotten. Veterans should know better before they join up to serve. It’s their own fault if they come back from broken places, broken. But then, “You know me, all I want to do is help people.” I’m floored when he trots out the Microsoft vs. Apple card like OS preference is still a thing. He looks over at my Mac and I can tell I’ve ordered Pepsi when he starts dropping “billg” into their conversation like he knows the Microsoft co-founder. This guy is a fraud, he knows it, but he can’t help himself.

The woman periodically chimes in, but says relatively little. I can tell that she’s practiced at holding her tongue. She does a lot of enthusiastic nodding on the rare occasion he says something that she agrees with. Her eyes get shuttered and she looks down at her hands, folded neatly on the table, when he says something so completely fallacious that my four year old wouldn’t have too much trouble picking it apart. From what little she gets to say, I gather she’s involved in mental health or therapy of some sort and my imagination races to keep up with her internal monologue. She’s taking mental notes, she’s keeping score. What the fuck could she be thinking about what this guy is spewing? I marvel at her patience.

Had I hair enough I’d want to pull it out. I cannot help but listen in on this train wreck of a conversation as it bounces down the cliff and into the river far below. It’s annoying, it’s wrong, and it’s just too fucking attractive. I’ve written down a measly five setting descriptions this morning, but my puppy sensitive nose is sniffing around story ideas at the table right next door.

We’re currently looking to buy a house (more on this later), and today it is plainly obvious to me that I need a distraction free space in order to increase my words per week. None of these novels are going to write themselves. Coffee shops work okay, but there is an element of chaos resident herein that keeps becoming a distraction. I’ve got another twenty minutes before school gets out and I should probably get back to my setting descriptions and plotting work. But I wanted to make a mental note of this moment time because I don’t want to lose sight of what I need in a place to live tomorrow when we go looking.

Slog for the Pay Off

I may have just discovered my least favorite part of writing professionally. Without a question it is outlining, specifically following the snowflake method. After getting neck deep into a number of stories, mostly novel length tails, where I get to climax and wonder “what the hell am I doing?” I’ve opted to take a new-to-me, and possibly more constructive approach to this tale. Following the rules, as it were.

I’ve completed the early steps to planning using the method. Right now I’m going scene by scene and creating an outline of this story. It feels very much like shaving my head with a cheese grater. Painful, unnecessarily painful. That said, the crux — the part of story telling I have the most difficulty with — is coming into focus. I can see that when I sit down to write this, if I persevere during this painful slog toward an outline, I’m going to have a much easier time of it. I’ve also probably saved myself an immense amount of time in re-writes and revisions.

The odd thing is that back when I was doing program management for major software concerns this was the part that I really enjoyed. Creating the battle plan was then much more interesting and enjoyable than the execution phase. So, while I take a break and look up from my outline, I’m left speculating on this personal change. Was planning major, integrated hardware and network platform solutions the most creative thing I could do when engineering and planning were my occupation? During execution there was very little for me to do beyond tracking forward progress and reporting that motion up the food chain. These were the BBB* times in my life back then.

My anticipation for the writing phase of this tale is growing. This is a good idea, a compelling story that will have popular appeal. And, perhaps more than that, I’m going to enjoy writing it. So maybe that’s the positive angle I need to take on this endeavor. The outline is increasing my desire to write the story. Get the outline done, get it done right, and I can and will write it.

* BBB: Bored Beyond Belief