Bleaker House – Nell Stevens

You’ve heard, I’m sure, of the distinction between “street smarts” and “book smarts”, which presupposes that someone who reads a lot or is good at math or whatever has absolutely zero common sense. Aside from the fact that it all depends on what books you’re reading – and sidestepping a lengthy side discussion about why a certain brand of heartland Republicans seem to think education is bad … this book kind of exemplifies this. Nell Stevens is obviously very book smart – but the fact that she actually survived this project she describes surprises me deeply.

Now, I’ve often thought that if I could only have a substantial chunk of time to myself, with no mundane work-sleep schedule to adhere to (meaning enough money to live for a few weeks or months or whatever without working), I could absolutely finish my book. (The times I’ve been unemployed don’t count, because between the time needed for job-hunting and the substantial stress of <I>being</i> unemployed undid the benefits of having free time.) (That’s my story, anyway.) It worked for another Nell, after all – Nelle Harper Lee, that is; her friends gave her an amazing gift of time, and I think it could be said she used it well. So it’s not completely ridiculous that Nell Stevens decided that what she needed in order to write her novel was three months, completely alone, on an island in the Falklands, about as close as you can get to absolutely zero distractions.

Except it is completely ridiculous.

She plans it out meticulously. She can only bring so much baggage with her, so she organizes reading matter, clothing – and food, because this island she is going to is uninhabited for most of the year – like the time of year she will be going (winter, inexplicably) – and the only food she will have is what she brings with her. And here’s where her lack of “street smarts” becomes dismayingly obvious. “It works out that I will eat 1,085 calories per day”, she says.

Per WebMD.com, it’s recommended that a woman aged 19-30 take in 2000 calories if sedentary, 2000-2200 if moderately active, and 2400 if active. And Ms. Stevens is very active during her time on this island, walking what must be miles per day. I didn’t make note of how much weight she discovered she had lost when she got home after the adventure – I mean, on Survivor they tend to lose about 10% of their starting weight, and that’s only 40 days, with some of those days being much more sedentary than others – but after only a few days even she recognizes that starvation does not lead to clear thought, and when higher brain functions are impaired it’s hard to write a novel.

So it’s not surprising that at the end of the quarter she does not have a novel completed. What she ends up with is <I>Bleaker House</i>, a sort of memoir/travelogue/picaresque story of her isolation and hunger, and how she handled it. And seagulls. All this is intercut with sketches from the novel-that-never-was, which seem to be well-written and have some life to them … but I can see how it died on the vine.

In the Goodreads summary words like “clever” and “deft humour” and “whimsical” are used to describe the book. Maybe I was in a bad mood when I read it, but I didn’t think the story of an extremely unwise and ultimately unproductive trip (though it resulted in this memoir, it did <i>not</i> inspire the author to produce 2,500 words of a novel per day) which … I’m sorry, it was almost criminally stupid. Whimsical is only a good thing if it doesn’t almost kill you.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

 

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Devolution – Max Brooks

I wanted to like this. I expected to like this. I pre-ordered it, after all, when Audible brought it to my attention, and listened to it soon after buying – I almost never do that.

(Beware of some spoilers later on.)

That was mainly because I thought World War Z was something extraordinary. It was also because the book description listed Nathan Fillion and Mira Furlan among the full cast of narrators, and that was an automatic buy for me. I was also looking forward to Steven Weber and Kate Mulgrew, and Kai Ryssdal and Terry Gross playing themselves – but the chance to spend more time with Mal Reynolds and Delenn? Priceless.

The third – distant third – reason was that I survived the Astonishing Legends series on the Patterson Gimlin film: six podcast episodes totalling fifteen hours and fifteen minutes. I’ve never been terribly interested in Bigfoot stories, but after that much conditioning it was almost automatic to click on a book about Bigfoot.

But I really did not like this. I disliked it enough that I returned it to Audible, which isn’t something I do often. It went beyond being a disappointment to, by the end, being something I actively hated.

It all started with, somewhat ironically, the narrator. Those names I listed above, among my reasons for wanting this? They had very little to do (though Nathan Fillion had I think the second biggest role; it was good to hear his ruggedly handsome voice, but he didn’t have a chance to show much personality). But the narrator voicing Kate, the author of the journals the whole thing hinged on, was Judy Greer, and her voice made me want to claw my ears off. It was the voice of an irritating teenaged girl, stopping just short of upspeak, a performance better suited to a quirky YA romance than the account of the gory Rainier Sasquatch Massacre. It got a little better when things started happening, but it was never a pleasant voice to listen to.

Even Terry Gross and Kai sounded more stilted than I expected. Between NPR and his podcast, I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of Kai Ryssdal (hence being on a first name basis with him), and this didn’t sound like him.

The fact that the main character herself was pretty unlikable didn’t help. Her situation should have evoked sympathy, but … sorry, no. If nothing else, she should have gotten her lazy SOB of a husband off his couch to help her bloody move. Any person, man or woman, who is physically capable of lifting anything and who lets someone else do all the work is a worthless piece of flesh, and I kind of hated her for going with that flow. She seemed afraid of him, afraid to poke the bear … but in this story he wasn’t a bear. Her trepidation around him made me expect him to have a hair-trigger temper, to explode into violence, whether verbal or physical – and that never, ever happened. He struck me as a kind of a surfer dude. Then, his turnaround was too abrupt. It made little sense. Maybe a POV from him would have been useful – don’t know. I don’t think I cared enough in the end. Her abrupt tumble back into love with him was a little hard to swallow, as well. Basically, both those characters – hell, all of the characters – were less than believable.

The plotting was the other main issue I had with the book, aside from the insurmountable narrator. I mean, the subtitle of the thing is “A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre” (and it’s by the man who wrote WWZ), so you know it’s not going to end up with Kate and company and a bunch of Bigfoots toasting marshmallows around a campfire. There will not be peaceful coexistence. The volcano eruption that sparked and exacerbated the whole thing was a kind of a surprise, but barely affected Greenloop directly, apart from an ash fall – it was purely a plot device. When the Massacre does finally come along in the story, it’s compelling and violent and horrifying and fast-paced … and at some point in the middle I remembered that this was supposed to be Kate’s later journalling about the fight. And the illusion completely popped. The language was that of a novel writer, not of someone trying to put into words something incredibly horrible that had happened to her. It was too immediate – and too coherently descriptive. If it had been presented as a transcript of an audio diary, then maybe it would have worked – but to sit down with pen and paper and actually write this? First of all, when?? This was a point against several of the entries – she’ll talk about how busy she is trying to do a hundred things, yet she takes hours out of her days to write in her journal? It would be hours – I’ve done it; I know.

Why did some of the community members try to cover up what was going on? What was the deal with the psychotic breaks of the two community leaders? What was the deal with the benevolent mama ‘squatch referenced in the guided meditation session in the beginning – was that supposed to be anthropomorphism? Or a depiction of what the creatures would actually be like if approached when not starving and desperate?

Why did Mostar insist that the preparations she and the Hollands start remain totally secret? It made no sense that here they were in a situation that was at best very bad, and at worst deadly; it made no sense that someone (Mostar?) didn’t just step up and say “OK, look. Whatever you think about the noises in the forest and animals and whatever, the deal is that the bridge is out, we’re cut off, and we’re pretty far out in the boonies. It will take time for people to get to us. It might snow soon. Right here, right now, bring out all the food you’ve got – all of it, because if the group finds out you’re holding back there will be consequences. We will pool it in the community building, and work out rationing. Pick all the apples from those trees – stop feeding the damn deer, please, and maybe shoot one of them. Go into the forest (as long as it’s safe) and look for edibles. And every single garage should have a garden going by tomorrow.” Why did the one woman keep back potatoes just to cook? Why <I>did</i> those people keep feeding deer when any moron should have been able to realize food was going to become scarce (given the chance)?

There’s a barely legible review on Audible which makes (I think) a good point: basically, that Greenloop had it coming. It’s a nice idea, bringing together a tiny community, a microcommunity, to live not just a carbon neutral lifestyle, but carbon negative. But these were, every one, people who had no clue whatsoever about living where they were. They were city folk, who couldn’t choose an edible mushroom from a piece of bark, who could never light a fire without a lighter, who expect to keep living in the wilderness as they did in San Francisco (or wherever). (Mostar being always an exception to all of this.) They none of them (including Mostar) had any real supply of non-perishable food, depending on weekly deliveries by drones and self-driven cars. But – what about mundane bad weather? What about <i>winter?</i> You can’t tell me that in the remote spot they chose for this tiny village that deliveries would be able to continue regularly. And it comes out in the course of the story that none of them – not one – has so much as a hammer. I mean, I’m the least handy person I can name, and I have a hammer. (Somewhere.) Somewhere I even have a Swiss army knife with a saw blade. And if I knew I was going to be moving out into the wilderness, with only five other homes within miles, only one access road, and beyond them only forest (and a volcano), I like to think I’d have the sense to at least have a book about survival skills. And a hammer.

AND it was pretty annoying that not a soul in the group knew even the basics of how all the smart home technology worked. Nothing. Again, these people depend on people from the outside to take care of them. I expected there to be something about the smart tech that would contribute to the massacre, but I was wrong. I kind of wish it had happened. It felt just a little like a Chekhovian gun that never went off.

And I just don’t understand the criteria for the choice of the six people or couples (plus one kid NAMED PALOMINO) –

(NO. SERIOUSLY. PALOMINO.)

– to inhabit this teeny tiny town. They are none of them the sort of person you’d see on Survivor, for certain; their idea of deprivation is not getting the right kind of quinoa. They are not ready for a two-day blackout, much less a volcanic eruption, much less an invasion by Bigfoots. (After many hours of Astonishing Legends, trust me: the plural is Bigfoots.)

All in all, there was almost no tension in the story. I mean, again, it’s in the title: massacre. The main issue in question is who’s going to die in what order. I mean, between that subtitle and the chapter openers and the buildup it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen and even when. There’s just no doubt. If Brooks had pulled out some kind of twist at the end – like “no, as it turns out, the creatures weren’t going to eat anybody and that first guy was killed because he tried to hurt one of the young and no, really, they didn’t eat them they were looking for help and, poor things, Kate lied or exaggerated or was mentally ill, look here’s someone else’s journal telling what really happened, turns out they all integrated together and are now living in the wilderness in harmony”… Or something – if anything remotely like that had happened, I would have been <i>so happy</I>. But it didn’t. There was a vaguely surprising revelation at the end – but that almost felt like a cheat, not a proper conclusion to the book.

I hated very nearly everything about this.

Except for Nathan Fillion and Mira Furlan.

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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I didn’t realize how long it had been since I read the Harry Potters. It seems I haven’t done a reread in about ten years – how odd. But first Audible made Stephen Fry’s narration of Philosopher’s Stone available free during this the Great Pandemic of 2020, and then I stumbled on a podcast which features the rest of them chapter by chapter (which can’t be legal, but I’m not questioning it.) And I enjoyed it all immensely as I worked from home. (I’ll come back to that if I ever get around to talking about The Deathly Hallows.)

I never really had a favorite book of the series; I thought I loved them all equally. Well, that’s changed – sort of. I love Philosopher’s Stone because it’s clever and vivid and the beginning of everything; I love Chamber of Secrets because it’s clever and vivid and better than I remembered (and better than the movie); I love Prisoner of Azkaban because it’s clever etc and still bright and happy for the most part (since we don’t really know much about what Azkaban’s like yet). Goblet of Fire became my favorite this year because the cleverness is ramped up, because the story is far more intricate than is immediately obvious, because I said “Oh!” several times while listening … and because it’s the end of so much. The last chapter says it: “The Beginning”.

Then again, Goblet of Fire is not my favorite, and in fact in many ways I hate it, for some obvious reasons. It’s the end of so much. It’s the beginning. The tone darkens so much that the silly goofy names for people and things start to feel like … like bows on a bullfrog, to jump ahead a book. Jarring. I’m a little glad I can’t remember exactly what it was like to devour these books when they first came out (as I did, I believe, starting three books in; I mistrusted the series’ popularity before that and resisted reading the hot new thing. Nitwit. When I did get hooked I was buy-as-early-as-possible-and-read-immediately hooked.) (I never did the costumes-at-midnight-at-Barnes-and-Noble thing; I just didn’t have anyone to do it with me, or I’m sure I would have.) (I read Deathly Hallows in one overnight binge. I was a mess when I was done, for so many reasons … but that’s another review.) To become fully invested in Harry’s growing bond with Sirius, to be shocked at Diggory’s death (the first major death of the series, if I recall correctly, or at least the first of any character in the story for more than a minute), the horror at the return of V- er, You Know Who … Even with a wonky memory, I was spared all that here: I knew all of that was coming.

Also, I had the dialogue and music from the movie in my head the whole time. I can still hear the inappropriately galumphing band music playing as Harry brings Cedric back to Hogwarts, and then stuttering to a stop.

But even being ready for everything that would happen didn’t mean I was, you know, ready. It’s such a fun book till all hell breaks loose. (Maybe that’s why it starts with what was actually the first death of a named character (and a POV character at that): Yes, Jo Rowling was telling the reader, you’re going to have fun here, but the whole time you’ll have this hideous first chapter lurking underneath.)

I wonder how much JKR had planned out when she wrote the first book. (I’m sure the answer is out there somewhere, and one day when I have time I’ll search.) There are seeds for all kinds of things, to the extent that I might go back and start over when, all too soon, I finish with Deathly Hallows. One small and simple thing I was able to see, having listened all but back to back to back, and which I love, was that the one little wizard in The Leaky Cauldron when Hagrid takes Harry in for the first time en route to Diagon Alley pops up again later and mentions the meeting. There’s a lot of that, and it’s impressive. Whatever else anyone wants to say about JKR, I don’t ever want to hear her writing denigrated.

Harry’s celebrity is handled beautifully from the beginning, and you can only imagine that JKR’s own fame colored how his impatience with notoriety and how dear hideous Rita Skeeter were portrayed. I’ve seen clickbait articles that seem to say Skeeter is Jo’s self-portrait in the book, but that seems too oddball to be true. These kids are growing up. Poor kids.

And I have to say it – Stephen Fry is irreplaceable. I love Jim Dale because he is the narrator from Pushing Daisies, and he’s an excellent narrator. But Stephen Fry is … superlative. And I resent the fact that pretty much my only option for hearing his narrations is illegal.

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Nineteen years

Hard to believe.

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Stealing the Show – John Barelli

This was a fascinating book, full of thing I love, like tales of art and of the inner workings of my favorite museum. But it felt like it should have been at leas half again as long. Several of the stories – and there were more than six, as described in the title, and they weren’t all of thefts – felt unfinished. What happened to the Banksy? (All the Banksys, really.) Why did that truck crash? Did the author ever try to locate and interview any of the culprits he talks about, to gain more information and insight – as he did when preparing his doctorate?

Another thing that bothered me – no, two – were – first, the fact that, especially toward the end, every time the author spoke in high praise of someone, I knew that one of the next paragraphs would describe their death. He really did seem to interact with a lot of people just a little time before their deaths. I can’t blame him for name-dropping – it would be absurd to not tell those stories – but the overall effect was a bit ghoulish. Or indicative that he brought bad luck.

The second thing was an overriding sense, almost a smugness, of “If I had been in charge things would have gone better.” September 11 might not have involved so much loss of life – or might have been prevented, I daresay, if Mr. Barelli had had charge of airport security. Princess Diana might not have died if he’d been in charge of her security. I’m not saying that’s not true – some of the smugness seems to have been well-earned. He seems to have been excellent at his job. I just don’t think it’s too helpful to indulge in this kind of Monday morning quarterbacking, and it’s certainly not enjoyable to listen to. Nor is it what I signed up for in a book subtitled “A History of Art and Crime in Six Thefts”.

On the whole, I was glad of the book. I love the Met; I love New York. I love a behind-the-scenes look at the former – even when I come away a little depressed that record-keeping used to be so nonexistent they could mislay a couple of Degas sculptures as easily as I misplace my keys. The narration was inflectionless, which was perfect for telling this story. I want more.

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All the Devils Are Here – Louise Penny

Wow, this place has gotten dusty. But – is it? *squints* It IS! It’s a book review! Will wonders never cease!! But I’m deep in hock to Netgalley, and I’d better start paying my way.

allAll the Devils Are Here – Louise Penny

Narrated by Robert Bathurst

I’ve gone back and forth between giving this four or five stars. On the “con” side is the fact that there was a maguffin in this book that I knew was going to be the maguffin from the first time it was mentioned. SPOILER: (I knew that little unassuming painting was going to be important immediately. That’s not me being clever or anything – that’s the point being obvious. Then when Gamache urgently needs to find something I came darn near yelling at the narrator “Look behind the picture!” Which wasn’t quite right for what he needed at that moment – but sure enough, later, there it was.) And at the climax of the story, when all the plotlines should have been converging into one exciting chapter … instead, it felt like beavers came along and built a plotline dam and held up the flow, and most of the excitement sort of trickled away. (That is a terrible metaphor. Désolé.) (That’s something that could be in either the “pro” or the “con” side of this review, depending on how you look at it – I have found myself muttering in my high school French several times over the past few days. Zut.) It was a high tension situation, with tension offscreen and even more tension onscreen (so to speak), and … it was a little boring, as Gamache tried to buy time and ask questions and the bad guys … answered them.

However. Whatever flaws there may have been in the execution of the plot, the characterization is what always wins the day in the Gamache novels. I love this family. Their troubles are my troubles while I’m reading or listening (I was listening). I love their in-jokes – they sound like my family at its best. I don’t want any of them to be hurt – and I really don’t want any of them to die. And there were moments in the finale that brought tears to my eyes. Whether they were happy or sad I won’t say, as that would be spoiler-y – but maybe they were both.

I listened to the first five books of the series through Audible, and a big part of the draw was the narrator, Ralph Cosham. I had heard that he passed away – but honestly I was a little surprised when I looked it up that that was in 2014, and this book was read by Robert Bathurst – because he was brilliant. I didn’t feel any sense of deprivation in not having the same narrator I’d been with for five novels. Which is absolutely nothing against Mr. Cosham – but absolutely praise of Mr. Bathurst.

The reason I have only listened to books 1-5 and now #16 of the series is that I found myself a bit gutted by 5, <I>The Brutal Telling</i>. I’ve bought myself others in the series, but just haven’t come back around to listening because of how that one went. But then I saw that a) Netgalley now has audiobooks, and b) one of the audiobooks available was a Gamache, and decided I’d take a chance on being spoiled for books six through fifteen. Happily, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. I now know about how Gamache’s family has progressed and grown, and I know how his career is going to pan out over the intervening years – but not in any detail: only enough to make me want to know the rest. It helped that this book was set in Paris instead of Quebec. The denizens of Three Pines were mostly out of the picture, so (SPOILER!) (apart from marveling that Olivier was out of prison?!) I know nothing about how they’ve fared since book 5.

On the whole, my logic is: this book made me cry (even if only a little – I could have let myself go, if there had not been distractions inherent to listening at work), therefore it gets five stars. I’m not unhappy with that conclusion.

I was unhappy – <I>very</i> unhappy – with Netgalley’s new app, which is THE only way to listen to their advance audiobooks. It was dreadful. It stopped randomly every half hour or so; the breaks between the chapters were either part of that or ludicrously long (over a minute for some). My whiny email to Netgalley Help got a perky mostly form response that there’s an update coming in a while which will supposedly fix things. We shall see. In the meantime, I’m cured of the “FREE AUDIOBOOKS!!!!!!!!!11!!” bug. But thanks, Netgalley – it was good to hang out with Gamache and his family for a few hours.

 

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Spoopy

The world is weird right now, and scary, with brief moments of beautiful high tension (the launch of Falcon 9), and I hate living in one of those moments when I feel compelled to have CNN on non-stop. So I’m going to tell a kind of silly story about something that happened a couple of months ago, because it was silly, and funny, and kind of great in a silly and funny way. And I don’t feel like adulting today.

I started watching Classic Doctor Who (on Britbox) a while ago, and was reminded how much I absolutely love the theme music. I went and found the First Doctor theme and loaded it on my phone as my ringtone, because in case you missed it I am a huge giant nerd.

So one night I was working on something online in my bedroom. After a while I needed to go into the next room for something, and brought my phone as I, alas, have gotten in the habit of doing. (I am one of those people now. *sigh* Never thought it would happen.) I was doing whatever I was doing, and then heard my ringtone. Odd, I thought – it’s late. Who could be calling? I looked, and … there was no “accept/decline” screen. No caller identified. No … call. Wha – ? While I was still staring at the screen, the music stopped, and suddenly from my bedroom I heard a weird, horrifying scraping thumping sound. I froze. That went on for a couple of seconds, and then – to my absolute horror – I heard a voice – a disturbingly harsh feminine voice – say “Why do you come now?”

I wouldn’t say my life flashed before my eyes, but I was petrified in several senses of the word. I’ve never had a paranormal experience. I believe in the stories I’ve heard from some people (though I am completely dismissive of a lot of others), I’ve always seemed to have the supernatural sensitivity of a teacup, but what else could this be? The house was built in 1899 – maybe the year I’d lived here at that point was as nothing to some … one … and she was only just noticing me  because I didn’t just come now and do I answer or just stand here like a rabbit hoping a fox doesn’t see me or try to run for it, where could I possibly go, what do I do – – ?

And then the Doctor replied “Who are you? We come in peace”, and I realized that I’d left the Britbox tab open, and my not-speedy internet must have just finished loading Episode  18 of Season 2, “Escape to Danger”. (It’s funny; Vicki says something before the Doctor does, but my brain must have been trying to catch up, because I don’t remember it.)

The funny thing is that in a Facebook group I belong to, someone posted a terrified video of her laptop undergoing an update, and … groaning, in a woman’s voice. And then singing. In German. It took several people and about an hour for the lightbulb to go off that the poster had been watching a German horror movie before the update, and somehow the sound was continuing while the computer was restarting for the update.

And that’s the story of my big paranormal experience. (Except for the banging on the wall last night (while I was trying to fall asleep after being dumb enough to start a kind of spooky book), when I’m alone in the house and it was about 2AM, but I’m going to go with wind and house settling on that. Yup.)

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Times more interesting

When I wrote those last posts, I referenced the purported Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”. Because things certainly have been interesting. Most of the planet experiencing the same thing at pretty much the same time, from fear and illness and death to toilet paper shortages … It’s mind-bending.

And then George Floyd was murdered by a cop, and chunks of the country have been on fire. I put on CNN last night, planning to just see what was going on and go watch something … fun? And I ended up leaving it on for hours. The CNN home base in Atlanta was literally under siege by protesters/looters/people who had no interest in George Floyd and just wanted to break and burn things – the reporters pointed out that nobody actually ever said the man’s name or indicated there was a reason they were throwing rocks and bottles at the police. Oh, and M-80’s. Dozens of police in full riot gear were held at bay in a side lobby of the building, while the glass that was the only thing between them and the rioters became more and more cracked and broken, and … it was terrifying to watch. Not as terrifying, though, as the video of George Floyd being murdered …

But what I actually sat down to write about is the fact that Elon Musk’s Space X and NASA are collaborating to launch American astronauts from American soil for the first time in nine years.

(This is probably going to be long and rambly, and my apologies if you’re only here for the book reviews, because that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. I’m probably going to noodle on this until the launch happens safely, and then just hold my nose and his “publish”. Sorry in advance.)

I don’t know if I’ve ever really written in this blog about how huge, how massive a Star Trek nerd I was when I was a kid. When Columbia first launched (April 12, 1981), I was … uninterested. It hurts a little to think about that. My mother and my aunt owned a little craft shop at the time (Krafty Korner) (I know) (at least it actually was a corner), and I’m pretty sure I was kicking back with a book at the front desk. I remember being bored with the whole shuttle thing. I was twelve.

But then around the age of sixteen I stumbled on Star Trek for the first time. Interestingly, I don’t remember what episode, but whichever it was it must have been a good one because I was instantly a Trekkie. I started hunting for anything I could find. And … remember, I’m old: when I was sixteen computers were still brand new, developing technology. (I didn’t get online until maybe 1999? 2000? I didn’t get a computer myself for years.) Imagine what I could have done with the internet as a brand new Trekkie …

I did ok, though. I found zines, somehow. I devoured the novels. I read books about NASA (and understood little, I’ll admit – science is the opposite of my forte). I asked my optometrist if there was any way I could be an astronaut (which – no, dear infant me, besides the fact that you were short, pudgy, unathletic, and backward in science and math, no: your eyesight was such that if your glasses broke on a mission you would die. So no spacesuits for you). I have a picture somewhere of me in a Spock outfit; I found a blue velour shirt somewhere and appropriated it (I hope I had permission), painted on the eyebrows, made a badge out of cardpaper and glitter, and made ears out of the same manila folder (they were pretty good, considering). I joined the Planetary Society and subscribed to Starlog. I was a massive geek before I ever knew it was a thing. (I was into The Lord of the Rings, too, but I never dressed up as a Hobbit; I think at the time there just wasn’t as much scope for nerdery in LotR.) By the time of Challenger, I was perfectly set up to be as devastated as it was possible to be without being related to one of the astronauts. I was heartbroken, inconsolable. I still can’t look at a picture of the vapor trails.

I’ve never been as good a space nerd as I am a Trek nerd. I don’t remember dates, I need prompting on astronauts’ names, I get fuzzy on mission names. It’s sad. It’s embarrassing. (I’m the same with the Civil War – except for the men I fell in love with through Ken Burns’s series, I need prompting on names, and I can never remember battle dates. I don’t know why it is.) But January 28, 1986 is unforgettable, and February 1, 2003. And also September 29, 1988, which was the first launch after Challenger, and also a friend’s birthday (I was envious). I admit, though – I didn’t watch every launch. I don’t know if I watched many launches. Maybe I was prone to the same ennui as, apparently, the rest of the country: space shuttle launches were (overall) so successful and efficient they became routine, and people were about as fascinated by them as they were by the the perambulations of the mailman.

In 2011, I had just gotten a new job with a metals distributor; when I interviewed for it, I made a comment of some sort about the logo on the jacket one of the interviewers had, because it featured the shuttle. I was apparently the only one to notice it. It’s funny – if you’d asked me an hour ago, I would have said I was in Florida at the time of the last shuttle launch (for training for that job), but I would have been wrong; it was January, so it was STS-133, not STS-135. Regardless, I was in a hotel, along the flight path, and I … didn’t ask anyone if I could go up on the roof, or even go out into the parking lot. I didn’t have the nerve; felt silly. In my defense, the launch was at 2AM or something, and I had to show up for training the next morning, but still – I wish I had. I had always dreamed of seeing a launch – that was as close as I was going to get. Ever.

Well, now, maybe not. For the shuttle, yes, but – as I’m writing this, the Dragon, the Falcon 9, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken (am I the only one having to suppress a little snortle every time they’re referred to as “Bob and Doug”? Just me being old? OK)  is supposed to launch in less than an hour. Oh, look, they were delivered to the launch pad in a Tesla. Because of course they were. This is really strange to watch (even beyond the Tesla). I hate the spacesuits. I really hate the black head-to-toe suits of the ground crew, with the huge numbers on the back – it’s like a cross between Darth Vader’s office staff and Doctor Seuss. I really really hate the fact that there’s a perky young woman on C-Span discussing the social media reaction to coverage, including … pictures of cats. I don’t care about the lame questions some twits someone somewhere has (“What is the hardest thing about going into space?” REALLY?) I don’t care how upset someone’s three year old was when the launch was postponed on Wednesday. This is serious. This is really, really serious. This is science. This is one of the most dangerous things a human can do. This is two men sitting on top of a stories-tall explosive. This is … this is a small step toward getting back on track toward … All right, I’ll say it. Toward getting Star Trek.

I miss being sixteen. Don’t get me wrong, it was horrible in a lot of ways – I realized every one of my friends was awful, left school, probably would have benefited from lots and lots of therapy … But I still had an optimism, a faith in humanity, that has eroded away to almost nothing in the decades since. (See above, murder of George Floyd.) I miss the possibilities. I had stars in my eyes in several ways, and I believed we could get to a point where we achieved a post-scarcity economy, as Mission Log podcast always said, where we could have a peaceful exploration-oriented Starfleet, where there would be little question that every new race we’d encounter would be met with open hands and hearts and … and …

And now Donald Trump is trying to create a new branch of the military called Space Force and our only access to space, and to the International Space Station which this country helped build, has been for nine years hitching rides on other countries’ launches. And now US space travel is in the hands of a private company. I don’t even know what the logistics of that are. And my neighbors’ kids are running around screaming outside, as usual, instead of being planted in front of a screen watching history be made. I kind of want to scream out the window.

(Not for the first time in the past two and a half months.)

The nerves are getting to me at ten and a half minutes.

I’m even really nostalgic for a couple of years ago when I thought Elon Musk was just a genius, not an unstable kind of awful genius who tweets almost as stupidly as the president and who would give his son a moronic name. I’d really like to be able to unabashedly admire him right now. (Where even is he? Shouldn’t he be there? You’d think he’d want to be there.)

A minute and a half.

Please tell me nobody’s going to say “Go with throttle up”. That ranks up there with the vapor trails.

Thirty seconds.

And

“Nominal” is a wonderful word.

Look how beautiful this planet is. From up there, at least.

The Falcon is meant to (and did! Beautifully!) land on a drone ship called Of Course I Still Love You?

Really?

God, life is weird.

And

All’s well. For a few minutes, everything is kind of great. I should quit while it still is.

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An introvert in quarantine

It’s funny wandering Facebook during this time. I belong to a silly number of groups (most of which stem from the podcast My Favorite Murder which … I haven’t listened to in a year or more, but I like the groups). Every day I see post after post by people who are cultivating sourdough starters, baking everything under the sun, starting new crafts, cleaning their whole homes every other day, and of course people who are bored. I … have not been bored. I’m still working the same number of hours a week, if not a bit more. The only time I’m saving is my seven-minute commute (the office is right down the street) and the time I would normally be spending visiting my mother (which I would prefer to be using that way). I just haven’t had boatloads of spare time.

Since I set up a (kind of makeshift) work area, though – something I never got around to doing in the whole year I lived here till then, I have gotten back into making teddy bears after I clock out of work. It’s something I’ve done since I was a kid; in high school, in home ec, we had to choose something to sew, and I made a unicorn. Which was stolen from the storage cabinet at the school. (They got me a new kit, and I think I still have that somewhere.) I remember making a bunny out of socks one day when I was home sick; then I came across a book on making bears, and off I went. They’re not exactly a huge moneymaker, but they are fun, so I’ve probably made well over a hundred over the years. But, as part of the same malaise I talked about in my last post, I hadn’t done much in a long time. I started two a while before we lost Samantha, and … well, I only just finished one of them last week. (I’ll get around to the other one shortly.) With an eye toward the craft fair Mom’s home has every year (they were supposed to have one … around now, I believe), I started making small ones last month, and I’m up to eleven now. (Well, ten and a bunny.) When the (laughable) stimulus check hit my account, I ordered about $200 worth of fur from Etsy, so that has been fun. (Seriously, though, who thought $1200 was an intelligent amount to give people? I’m still being paid, so while I was grateful for it, and it did go toward a very large grocery order (and a very large fur order), I didn’t technically need it. For people who are out of work, $1200 is an insult.)

And oh, look, I’m writing, sort of. That’s something, I suppose.

It’s a contradictory time. On the one hand, I am very grateful to still have a job. I really am. I’ve seen the unemployment numbers (which – come on, it’s hard not to think of the skyrocketing unemployment rate as a judgment from God upon a man who never stopped bragging about the low level of unemployment (which had very little to do with his term of office)), and I know I’m lucky to work for a company that provides an essential service (we’re an oxygen supplier) and for which I can work from home. But there’s a part of me that is very jealous of all those people who are bored. I covet the time all those people are frittering away doing jigsaw puzzles. I wouldn’t be bored if I did have time on my hands – there are books to read, books to write, a thousand podcasts and audiobooks to listen to and tv shows to watch, bears to sew, recipes to make, and drawings to draw. But I do know from experience that unemployment isn’t exactly conducive to creativity, any more than having a fascist racist mindless rapist in charge of the country.

(I have, in the past two months, watched more tv than I did in the previous fourteen months. I didn’t turn on my tv more than twice in 2019 (once to watch the Preakness Stakes), but now? I’ve caught up on Doctor Who (then got behind again), Game of Thrones, Call the Midwife, Endeavour, and probably a couple of other shows, and watched a lot of Midsomer Murders and West Wing. The latter is something that has to be taken in small doses, because I find myself randomly bursting into tears at the contrast between an intelligent, kind, thoughtful, learned, faith-ful (did I mention intelligent?) president who can swear at God in Latin … and … the pink-eyelidded thing who’s in charge here and now. The episode where Bartlet gave the State of the Union almost did me in.)

Another part of the contrariness of the Great Isolation of 2020 is … I’m an introvert. I talked a little about the strife in my office in the post I wrote a couple of days ago; a lot of that is a never-ending flow of noise. I never thought I had a problem focusing, until I found myself surrounded by people who never shut up. All day, every day, there’s one person over there who talks and laughs and laughs some more; over there there’s a group who never stops talking about where, when, and how often their dogs poop. (I love dogs. I love dogs more than people. Dogs don’t talk about how often their people poop.) People think nothing of yelling across the room. At any given time, anywhere from one to three people will be humming tunelessly along with whatever they’re listening to on their headphones (and this is a huge and hard-won improvement over the way it used to be), and if I’m really lucky that one person will be in who loves to sing like she was across a desk from Simon Cowell. And half of the people in the office are away from their desks at any given time, because they’re at someone else’s desk BS-ing. There are not-infrequent times that the place sounds like a bar at happy hour, or a fourth grade classroom when the teacher has stepped out.

Oh, and since there’s been a lot of turnover in the office, for the past several months I’ve found myself doing a lot of helping with other people’s work. And those of us in the billing office are expected to pick up any calls that roll over from customer service. And since customer service has been, shall we say, below par for a long time now, that’s been a lot of calls for a long time. Which makes it even harder to get my own work done – especially when, out of nine people who could and should be helping with rollover calls, only about two generally do. I have hated working customer service my entire adult life (because people are idiots), and the phones rang so much while we were still in the office I was beginning to develop a twitch and to hear ringing while trying to fall asleep at night. I hate that noise more than just about any other sound in the world.

So now, for the past almost-two-months, I have been sitting in my front room to do my work – MY work, no one else’s. I have heard my phone ring less than half a dozen times, and most of those were family or friends. Or a wrong number. I have been out of this apartment … maybe a dozen times, including getting the mail and packages and putting out the trash. I have put shoes on maybe six times. I have gotten in my car … three? times, including once to go wave through the window at my mother on Easter Sunday. I have spoken to maybe half a dozen people in person. I have never been so isolated for so long in my life – and I have loved every minute of it. In my head, I understand that most people don’t enjoy being unable to see people or go out. In my heart, I don’t get it. I can’t. As I said, I’m an introvert, and I was built for exactly this. I am what that meme floating around is talking about: I have been training my whole life for this. I can roll out of bed, stick my hair in a sloppy bun, and straggle in to log in to start work. I can put on an audiobook or a podcast (or a podcast of an audiobook) while I work, or if I’m doing something a little less demanding I can put the tv on. Or I can just have quiet. And it is quiet. I don’t mind the kids out playing in their yard (assuming they don’t have friends over) or the traffic noises or the sounds of people doing yard work. Oh! And while in the office I can’t even see a window (I used to be able to if I turned to my right and leaned back, but no longer), so I never know what the weather is unless someone says something – here I sit surrounded by eight windows. I honestly don’t know if there’s been more interesting weather in the past two months, or if it’s simply that I never get to see it.

I could go the rest of my life like this.

And I can tell you, when the office does eventually open – and who knows when that will be? – they will have to drag me back kicking and screaming. I am going to do everything I can to keep this. My blood pressure hasn’t been this good in a long time. That’s why it’s a contrary situation: everyone else is hurting; the isolation is stressful for most people; I grieve the business people who are losing money every day and the employees who couldn’t remain employed. Because the selfish part of me wants it never to end. Needs it never to end. All my life I’ve lived in a world built for everyone else, made for the extrovert. It’s a miserable experience. Extroverts don’t understand me any better than I do them.

I confess, there is, when I think about it, a thread of vindictive glee in my enjoyment of the isolation.

And then I feel guilty because of the people whose lives are being damaged.

But not that guilty.

It’s a strange time.

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Don’t touch your face

For the past few months (or is it years?) I’ve been constantly reminded of an episode of M*A*S*H, in which Margaret accuses Charles of having touched his nose in surgery. I can’t imagine why.

I also – for some strange reason! – keep thinking of Stephen King’s The Stand. Along with everyone else in the known world.

All of this is mainly so I’ll have a record in the future. Like the office issues I mentioned in the last post, I may not want permanent memorial to this Worst Year Ever, but … here goes.

Everything blurs… It was the Tuesday before St. Patrick’s Day (so March 10) that, after work, I went to see my mother – living at a nursing home here in town – to be turned away at the door: they had literally just locked the place down (in accordance with state guidelines) to all visitors. That brought it home; Covid-19 was here.

The reason I remember when the lockdown of the nursing home was is that on the following Monday, March 16, was the last day I worked in my office. I assume the higher-ups had some kind of plan before that, but it didn’t seem like it. Our IT manager was out sick (along with one of the two customer service reps (the other one also being sick but in), my manager, and two of the three women of what we call the Equipment Track team), so the IT intern had to step up and be a hero in – suddenly, it seemed – setting up six billers (two of them new hires who hadn’t even started yet), two collections people, and six people in accounts payable and receivable and third party billing (plus higher-ups) for working from home. I was last, for some reason (I didn’t mind), and I was there with him until nearly 7:00 as he tried to iron out issues (like trying to get a second monitor to work with the laptop, which never happened). And starting on March 16 we, the majority of the office, started WFH, while the equipment trackers and customer service were supposed to be social distancing in the office. We billers were planning to go into the office one at a time every couple of days or so to pick up paperwork (we have never been paperless. Till now). That didn’t happen: come to find out, one of the people who’d been out sick on the Monday tested positive for the virus. Next thing we heard, at least three people in the office tested positive, and one was hospitalized. So there was new scrambling to redefine what we were doing while self-quarantining for two weeks.

At the beginning of each month, once all the previous month’s paperwork is in, we billers have to get the invoices completed. Usually, all paperwork is in and processed by Equipment Track by the early afternoon of the first business day, and billers’ closing is supposed to be finished in five business days. (Doesn’t always happen.) Since not one but two of the ET team ended up testing positive, and one was in the hospital for an extended time and out of work until just last Thursday, everything was a lot harder; ET didn’t close until the sixth. It wasn’t a fun close. (It was also extra fun to ponder the fact that the hundreds of pages of paperwork I brought home to work on had all been handled by the girl who tested positive. Whee.)

I have not been impressed with my company’s response to this whole situation. Well, honestly, I haven’t been impressed with many responses to this whole situation; as I sit here writing this I can hear my neighbors out playing in the street, and they’ve had what sounds like parties every Friday and Saturday. (Complete with car doors slamming at all hours, so it doesn’t seem to be just whoever lives there having a good time.) But the only real contact the company has had with us has been an email that has gone out to everyone three times (the same each time, more or less) basically saying all the things anyone with half a brain should have already had drilled into them: wash your hands, stay home, social distance, don’t touch your face, clean frequently handled surfaces. Yes. I know. Oh, wait – there was one other email, early on, from the president of the company. It was in three parts. Part the first: good job everyone (thanks). Part the second: in so many words, you’re lucky to still have a job, you know (yes, I do know). Part the third: but we’re going to lose money in this whole thing (not according to the invoices I’ve processed), so we’re not going to continue matching your 401K contributions until it’s all over (… thanks).

I have to admit I didn’t behave perfectly myself. On that first weekend, I realized suddenly that I had very few clean clothes; I had the flu (definitely not the virus) in January, and got behind on laundry, since I don’t have access to a washer here at home. And then when I started hearing about non-essential business being required to close on the next Tuesday, I decided I needed to take a chance and go wash a load or two while I still could. I did the best I could – I left the house at 6:15 AM, avoided people, wiped down surfaces before and after I handled them, sat in the car while waiting for the washer and dryer to go – but I should never have done it. Particularly since – as I learned from a sign at the laundromat at the end of my trip – laundries were considered essential services. Welp.

One person who joined me in doing their laundry bright and early that Sunday morning wore a mask. Everyone else did seem to be trying to keep space between them, but only one or two other people went out to sit in their cars (it was still pretty cold). What shocked me, though, is that I had to drive by Wal-Mart on the way home, and it looked like Christmas Eve – packed. A couple of weeks later I made a careful trip to pick up bagels, and again passed the same Wal-Mart: packed, again. It was scary. Also scary: I was the only one at the bagel place to even try to wear a mask. I had a head scarf over my face. The two girls who worked in the shop and the two customers who were there before me? Nothing. For the hell of it, I drove by a local grocery store to see what things looked like, and there were very few masks in evidence. If they were controlling the number of people who went into the store, I couldn’t see it.

I have not been able to bring myself to go to the store. The whole order-online-for-contactless-delivery thing has been … interesting. One of the things that will go down in history about this pandemic is the remarkable difficulty in getting … toilet paper. There’s a special place in hell – or at least purgatory – for the scum who hoarded toilet paper at the beginning of this thing. I happened to luck out by having last year subscribed to a tp delivery service (called “Who Gives a Crap”, which, yes, is one of the reasons I did it, along with a weird level of annoyance at running out), so I still had enough for a few weeks and was guaranteed to be getting a box of fifty rolls before long. The first order I placed was a little alarming – I received about two thirds of what I ordered, none of the produce or meat or bread or dairy being available. (I got all the chocolate I ordered, though, and since I was stressed I ordered something like ten different kinds. So I’m good for a while. I may end up with scurvy if produce goes scarce again, but my chocolate addiction is covered.) (So: scurvy and cavities.) Oh, that one was supposed to be delivered between 11AM and noon, if I recall correctly; it got here around 8PM.  I’ve gotten a couple more orders since; the second one was difficult to schedule and there were quite a few outages and substitutions. The last one, a small order the other day, was quicker and more readily scheduled, so it seems the companies have been adding staff. I have to say, I’ve never been a huge fan of grocery shopping, but I kind of can’t wait to get back in the store myself; less the fees and the biggest tip I can manage and the fact that I ordinarily only buy what’s on sale and I don’t entirely have that option now – boy, are groceries going to seem cheap when I can go get them myself.

I’ve also never been a fan of having food delivered – I don’t like being waited on, and that’s the ultimate in being waited on, in a way. I always feel a little guilty. (And I have been consistently shocked to see people order pizza or Chinese or whatever during weather in which they wouldn’t go out themselves, but that’s another post.) But now it’s almost a virtuous act. I’ve gotten a few deliveries, and it’s kind of fun – especially not to have to eat my own cooking. Because I have not, unlike most of Facebook, been doing much cooking.

And that’s another post, I think.

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