A Few Things I Think I Think

That there are 37 shades of green viewable from my balcony, and I like almost all of them.

That it’s a fine thing, as Bilbo Baggins said, to celebrate one’s birthday. (Chocolate cake is a must.) My brother-in-law passed away at 40. My good friend disappeared (literally) at 47. If 42 marks mid-life for me, I’m okay with that.

That my kids will always be in good shape, emotionally and mentally and physically. My wife and I have tried our hardest.

That I’ll always be a writer. It picked me, and I can’t quit.

That one day, after our beloved cat passes away (many years from now) I’d like to own a tuxedo with a silly half-mustache, and name him Felix.

That the best movie of all time is “We Bought a Zoo.” It’s perfect in every way.

That brisket is my favorite cut of meat, and I need to learn to cook with Cotija cheese. Fish tacos, too.

That there will always be a special place in my heart (and mind) for my wife, Luanne.

That I’m lucky to have found such a great crew of friends for pickup soccer. They tolerate my erratic play and utter lack of skill, often with humor.

That the most mournful guitar play in the world belongs to Jerry Cantrell in Alice In Chains’ “Over Now.” The most mournful piano/organ piece belongs to Richard Wright in the closing of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” Makes me cry every time.

That 2017 isn’t going to be a mournful year for me. Neither will age 42. “Tempest Road” comes out this summer, and “Destruction” (thanks to heroine June Vereeth) is writing itself.

That a little depression here and there is nothing to fear. I am lucky.

That I still have plenty of time to help people, to be of service beyond entertainment.

That I will see orbital colonies in my lifetime, though Carl Sagan’s capitalist view of the idea is probably what will happen.

That I’m lucky to interact with people from all across the globe. I need more of that.

That when I see the kids’ half-finished Lego sets, there’s still time and place to dream.

That the best (or most sarcastic) line I’ve ever written might be, “Love hurts, Baby.”

That the world needs a cure for breast cancer much more than the iPhone 8 (or 18) or self-driving car.

That I should close these thoughts with the mantra I–and every school kid–should wake up to each day: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” –Dr. Seuss

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The Idiot

A funny (un-funny) thing happened the other morning. I unwittingly missed a contest-entry deadline (foolishly thinking any such opportunity could be the big one). “You idiot!” I said it aloud, without thinking, the only person in the house (not counting the cat). Why has that reaction become my default?
It’s become automatic. If Justin hasn’t screwed up yet this morning, wait a half-hour.
Really?

I’m about to turn 42 (not The answer to the Universe is 42 but Hmm, you’re approaching middle age 42) and still, daily, I call myself an idiot. Why? What is wrong with me? What is wrong with me that I have to ask that very question, What is wrong with me (sad echoes in a quiet house)?

Mistake-free Zone
Somewhere in my brain, not unlike Cloud Cuckoo Land from “The Lego Movie,” there’s this plane of existence where nothing goes wrong. Nothing I do will be incorrect, insufficient, or just plain wacky. I aspire, smoke-tendril fingers reaching for this plane, even though I understand it’s a laughably ridiculous and fictional place. There will never be a time in my life when look back on the last 24 hours and say, “Yup, that was perfect. Nailed it.”
(For those who don’t know, nothing will trigger ego-realignment more than parenting.)
So, I make mistakes–a lot of them–but my blunders don’t seem any more frequent than most people’s. Also, they don’t belong in the car-accident or forgot-a-kid-at-camp categories, so I’m usually the only sufferer of consequences (plus attendant headaches).
And yet, I’m still me. And I seem to have a problem with me.

Inside-Outside

Let’s be honest: most people’s natures are not easily seen. We don’t strut around the world like Alonzo from “Training Day” or the inimitable Hannibal Lecter or even baseball star Alex Rodriguez. In fact, reading books like “Gone Girl,” it makes sense that there’s been a bit of machinery at work, here. Subterfuge U. We’ll teach you how to talk and act like a witty, charming and intelligent modern male (pro women, organic kale, wage injustice, all that jazz) even though you’re an anxious fight-dodging mess on the inside. Cover it up, bury it deep, keep those quivering stripes out of sight, because nobody likes a dumbstruck waffler, you know. Oh, and that gift bottle of Reposado that costs two hours’ wages? Don’t freaking hesitate. Whip out that plastic like a smooth operator. Because life costs. Even if you can’t justify it and can’t deal with it, you gotta deal with it.
Fortunately, I happen to sorta like the person I am on the outside. He could use some streamlining and a better wardrobe, but his beliefs and hopes are aligned with the ones on the inside. He’s positive, fun to be around (much of the time) and laughs. Despite the current bullshit political mess in this country, he’s staunchly optimistic. That inside, on the other hand, could use some work.

Author Justin Edison after a run

How We’re Coded
Human psychology is incredibly complex. How we think and feel is almost a whole different ballgame compared to the hundred zillion amino acid chains we actually know to exist. Theories and studies and schools of thought run in this direction or that one. Occasionally, things are pinpointed–Eureka moment!–and then tried out on subjects. To me, it’s the non-physical nature of the field which defies true understanding. Engineers can disassemble a Boeing 747 into its 6 million individual pieces, and locate a flaw in part or process. We can’t exactly do that with a living person’s brain.
Closer to my understanding (very limited, I admit) is computer code. (Yes, I know so little about it, I’m likely to get nothing wrong and inadvertently raise the hackles of some developer eager to correct my flaws.) Somewhere back when the Modern Era (the Information Age) truly began, there was BASIC and COBAL (no, I don’t recall what either of those acronyms stand for, and it’s not really relevant here). From what I’ve heard, almost every computer language we have finds it roots in these two forms. So maybe pieces of those two code types still play a vital role in all the C#s and Pythons and so-ons of today. Is it too clumsy to compare the human psyche to them? (Just let me run with it, now.)
In that case, the source code for us, as individuals, would be all that emotional and intellectual input during our Formative Years. Everything since then–in my paltry understanding of psychology–would be built on that source code. Our behavior and emotions and personalities change as we grow and develop–switching to new code, morphing and re-writing and adding channels to increase bandwidth, etc.
But what about the original source code? From what I’ve read (again, limited) it stays the same. There’s no program (short of utter brainwashing) that would go in and strip out or re-write the original code. Therapy can add improvements or accommodations, or even ‘programs’ to counteract it, but doesn’t touch the original source code. Same goes for anti-depressants and religion.
Justin, We Have a Problem!
So, in a way, we’re stuck with who we became during our Formative Years. It’s beside the point to say that’s good or bad (and I’m an inadequate thinker on the subject). The matter isn’t even as simple as looking (through the fog of inaccessible memory) at what happens during the first five years of a person’s life. We’re not lumps of biological clay taken fresh out of a sterile barrel (pardon the rhyme). We come with baggage, the genes of our parents, and their parents before them. Manic depression runs in my family. Severe anxiety runs in my wife’s family. Despite our best efforts, these are truths which cannot be denied.
Is it any wonder I’ve tried to make sarcasm and laughter the Lingua Franca of my household? Something funny, something interesting, something sarcastic–every single day. Yup, something self-deprecating, too.
And yet, any time one of my kids says something bad about themselves–“I’m an idiot!”–Luanne and I pounce on it like tigers. C and E are not allowed to think that way. I know, from experience, that the more you say something about yourself, the more you believe it (with limitations). It is my hope that, by preventing C from verbalized self-deprecation, he won’t actually believe it. That enough coaching and encouragement and reassurance can steer him and his sister towards fruitful, happy futures full of positive choices. I don’t cringe when I wonder about his source code or her source code. As parents, though never perfect (“Cloud Cuckoo Land holding on Line 1!”) Luanne and I did the best we could.
Am I Right?
Have I done the best I could? It is one of the tragic shortcomings of the human condition that we cannot truly know what effect our influence has. We can guess and speculate, but there is no real certainty. We have examples of both extremes of incorrect parenting–from mass shooters (neglect) to the septuagenarian child in the Oval Office (spoiled). What about everyone in-between? How much finger-pointing is worthwhile? (In cases of violence, where these questions most-often arise, everything is in retrospect, anyway–the deed done.) In “Gone Girl” (spoiler alert) toddler Nick Dunne could not have gone up to toddler Amy Elliott’s psychologist parents and warned them, “You’re creating a monster by making her the center of the universe!” Life doesn’t work that way.
And while we can suspect something is wrong out the wazoo…that’s all it is: Suspicion. This seems like the most elusive truth of all. What do we really know about another person? What is truth? Certainty?
“How Would I Know That This Could Be My Fate?”
A week has passed since rock star Chris Cornell took his own life in a Detroit hotel room. Incredible, talented, passionate, troubled. Once again, an artist has departed the world prematurely. Once again, the rest of us are left with an endless string of questions that are simply, maddeningly unanswerable. At the core of these, I suppose, is how Mr. Cornell really felt about himself. We can’t ask him. Tragedy has already struck.
As a fan of Cornell’s work and of the Soundgarden song “Fell On Black Days,” I often hear the above line playing in my head. It’s haunting, it’s desperate, it’s real.
For myself, I think it’s best to focus on, and follow, other lyrics:
“So don’t you lock up
Something that you
Wanted to see fly,
Hands are for shaking
No not tying,
I sure don’t
Mind a change.”
[copyright Chris Cornell/Soundgarden]

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Review: The Secret Life of Bees

I really enjoyed Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel for a number of reasons. One could call it a “harmless” meditation on the bonds of motherhood or sisterhood. One could also say it’s a spiritual adventure which doesn’t belong to any particular denomination (the Boatwright sisters have their own Mary-centric denomination). Set in 1964, it’s also a statement on the Civil Rights Movement and our perceptions of equality (certainly relevant to today’s political mess and us-vs.-them societal questions).

More than any other reason, the book shines because it’s a kind of celebration of the power of love and the human spirit. With August Boatwright, adolescent heroine Lily Owens finds the mother she’s never had and a community (‘colored,’ gasp, honey farmers) she can belong to. After running away from an abusive, rage-filled bigot father (a South Carolina peach farmer) Lily and her African-American nanny, Rosaleen, find a Home in Tiburon. The great tragedy is that Lily can’t pursue love with Zach Taylor because of his skin color (it’s still South Carolina in the 1960s). But Kidd lets us know that the two will remain close friends and that Zach has a real future as an ass-busting lawyer, so it works.

“The Secret Life of Bees” is a rich story that never drags and never tries to reveal some shocking human truth that people haven’t thought of before. There’s something to be said for that kind of ‘simplicity’ and containment. As the story comes full-circle (in tidy, predictable fashion) and offers a few lessons about that other world (The South, 50 years ago) this is the kind of book that should probably be required reading in high school.

Selling Reality

“Ben Gerrard’s been on this earth for 18,913 days, yet he’s never shared a room with a man capable of tearing another person limb from limb.”

All right, shame on me for using a line from my first book, but it seems as good a place as any to talk about selling reality–the task that fiction writers must do best. (This is similar to world-building, as a writer must sell the reality of the world he/she builds. I’ll get to that in another post.)

The above line, from my debut novel Watching the World Fall, is about power and fear. The reality of the situation is that Ben Gerrard–a 52-year-old architect and former football player–has kidnapped a demigod of a college linebacker. MacReynolds Galtier is a famously huge man, 7’1″ and 310 pounds of quarterback-eating madness. Someone strong enough to push SUVs around certainly poses a mortal threat to other people–particularly an adversary. I may have made him a bit unrealistic in scope, but it works for the exchange of power and powerlessness at the heart of the story. Gerrard, my antihero, has numerous reasons to fear Galtier getting loose in his house.

 

How to sell it

They say “the devil is in the details” and that seems most accurate for fiction-writing. We have to get down to the granular level and put our reader in the room, in the character’s head. Sensory feedback is key. In Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees we’re withering in South Carolina heat. It makes you antsy and flattens you with exhaustion at the same time. In Krakauer’s seminal Into Thin Air, we are right up there in the so-called death zone, dizzy with fatigue and lack of oxygen. Any false step could mean a desperate rescue via ice axe or belay, or simply death.

My job, as a professional writer, is to put readers in that room, on that mountain. If you’re not there experiencing what my character experiences at that moment, then I haven’t done my job well. You’re not going to buy into their situation or their story. You may not even care what happens to them, which means I’ve lost you as a reader. That equates to failure.
Some examples
In the opening scene of 1984, poor Winston Smith recalls seeing a propaganda film in which a refugees’ boat was blown apart–it “went all to matchwood.” Along with sounding like a very British observation, Orwell’s detail (one of many) sets the tone of the hate-filled, tyrannical world. That Smith lives in Victory Mansions, a drab dump among a war-ruined city, is both satire and, simultaneously, un-funny.
Among Pat Conroy’s elegant details and yarns of The Prince of Tides is the vengeful joke played by the Wingo kids on the wealthy Newbury family. Hero Tom Wingo and siblings sneak a deceased, 200-pound loggerhead turtle into the Newburys’ master bedroom. They tuck it into the expensive bed, crank up the heat and flee. The Newburys don’t return for a few weeks. Conroy doesn’t need to explain exactly what a decomposing marine animal smells like. Anyone who’s experienced low-tide and can magnify that by a thousand–and confined to a room–will get it. Sure enough, the victims of this prank had to burn the affected mattress and sheets.
Mark Bowden’s brilliant Black Hawk Down–a non-fiction account of the 1993 U.S. Special Forces disaster in Somalia–is chock-full of grisly details. The reader is left with no questions about the results of modern weapon use on the human body. (The book should be, in my opinion, required reading for all soldiers-to-be and trauma physicians and nurses.) This is the reality Bowden puts us in–36 hours in war-torn hell. The rendering is so precise and gripping that we simply cannot leave until he allows us to.
Some examples of what not to do

I pick on Hollywood movies because, with mistakes, their examples are instructive. With a film, the director and producer are showing us exactly what we’re meant to see and experience. There’s no room left for imagination. Because of this, I feel their errors are particularly glaring. And for every “Hurt Locker” or “The Bourne Identity” moment of undeniable brilliance, there’s a celluloid segment where I’ve asked myself, ‘What was the director thinking? That’s not believable.’ And while nobody’s paying me $2 million to bring a story to the big screen, I’m nevertheless allowed to point out the occasional flaw (even if I didn’t pay any money to see the film).

In Michael Bay’s 2007 action film “Transformers” (the only one of the series I watched) there’s a scene where the Autobots (25-foot humanoid robots) are creeping around the hero’s neighborhood at night. Just to accept the reality for a moment, let’s assume each robot weighs as much as a full-sized excavator (50 tons plus). So, even if nobody’s outside walking their dog and nobody happens to notice the alien presence of huge, moving machinery down the street, we still have the issue of these things stalking about and not creating mini earthquakes.

I used to work at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (newspaper) on the Seattle waterfront. Train tracks ran right past the building, through Myrtle Edwards park and continuing north. When a freight car shifted at a small wrinkle in the track, the whole building shook. In fact, when the 2001 Nisqually Quake hit, I at first assumed it was an overloaded freight train coming through. So, in the film, audience members are expected to buy that these 100,000-pound metal creatures walking around wouldn’t crush the street surface, shatter windows and bring everyone outside wondering who dropped an aircraft carrier on Sleepyhead Lane?

In “Jurassic Park” sequel “The Lost World,” Steven Spielberg (yes, that one) commits a similar blunder. Through mishaps, the T-Rex, animal star of the show, makes her way off the cargo ship and to an upscale San Diego neighborhood (because palm-trees-and-pools cul de sacs are always located right beside a major shipping port). So now we have a gigantic animal (forty feet long) casually strolling through a neighborhood. No sounds of breathing or footfalls (from a twenty-ton creature) or panic-inducing vibrations. The area pets also fail to notice, except for the one family dog who halfheartedly barks (perhaps forgetting it’s tied to the doghouse). So the next time someone notices the T-Rex, its standing by the pool with (in what is supposed to be humorous) a doghouse hanging from its jaws (the canine having quietly become a late-night snack). This scene was, by the way, brought to us by the same director who’s ultra-realistic “Saving Private Ryan” showed the world what D-Day was really like. (I, for one, hear the beautiful audio of the soldiers under water every day.)

Now, us writers have a more difficult job of storytelling. It’s entirely on us, and we won’t get a lot of fresh eyes on a manuscript. I assume that if I don’t catch an error or an obvious lack of important details, no one else will before the book is published.


Going with those details

To me, one of the reasons writing fiction is so enjoyable is the selection of imagery and sensory tidbits that we recognize. My aunt recommended opening The Churning with “Tires popping on gravel.” It’s a simple sound that we can all relate to–the nearby arrival or transit of a vehicle–and it’s enhanced because hero Arman Hessabi cannot see anything at the moment. Soon, he also hears a strange hissing sound. When his hood is off, he finds this is a steam radiator, the kind that goes off at predictable intervals in an old-school building in February. (I had one such unit in my old apartment in St. Paul, a turn-of-the-century brownstone complete with a claw-foot tub.) Later on, when Hessabi eyes the locked door to the outside, it’s one of those old European types, two to three inches thick and as heavy as a heifer. Hessabi knows he’d sooner crumple his shoulder than bang his way through the door unassisted.

In Endgame, heroine June Vereeth and company are stranded on the icy world of P-75. It only made sense to me that other planets aren’t going to smell exactly like Earth. So, on P-75, an element called geridia lends a hazelnut scent and flavor to everything. The geridia particles in the atmosphere are also responsible for the sky’s change from light green to purple (in the span of seconds) at the moment of noon. Towards the climax, when the heroes remove their home-made crampons, Vereeth is conscious of less crunching underfoot, and of feeling a little less stable. While none of these details is as prominent as the mind-numbing cold or the presence of white (even the oceans have a whitish-green tint) it’s the background stuff that helps put the reader inside the adventure.

 

Obtaining reality’s building blocks

The creak of an old leather coat. The sandpaper texture of granite. Fragrant flowers. A huge, overfed dog lumbering onto your lap on the couch. Many valuable sensory scraps are easy to come by. Does the object in your character’s hand feel like wet mulch or a cat’s whiskers? While questions like this are easier to decipher, sometimes we have to research the stuff that isn’t relatively available.

Fortunately, we writers have an incredible tool at our disposal–the Internet. People are more than happy to share the bizarre, the insightful and most anything else that comes to mind. For example, I can warn readers not to make the mistake of eating uncooked shallots (whose acidic burn must be similar to horseradish). Thanks to my exceedingly generous mother-in-law, I can relate that humpback whales’ breathing sounds like wet tires rubbing. My wife, who’s spent plenty of time in the operating room, says the foulest smell on earth (and she’s smelled some disgusting scents!) is the burn of vertebrae being chiseled out via hammer during spinal surgery. So, if you need it, go find it.

The other invaluable component of the Internet is Google Images and similar. Almost everything is out there, and a lot of it hasn’t been Photoshopped.

A great white shark lunges for a chunk of meat by a shark cage.

[The above picture ran everywhere after it was first taken by a teacher in South Africa. I’m just borrowing this lousy copy for an example.]

For the vast majority of people, our world is dominated by what we see. It’s a great way to put us somewhere, to allow us to experience what the viewer is feeling. I, for one, am terrified of the charging shark in the above image. I can feel the water is cold and the cage’s steel bars are probably icy. But I’m more freaked out because I can reach out and touch the shark’s fleshy gums, to be followed by the horrifyingly quick pressure and pain of losing my arm. (A friend of mine once went in a similar cage off Capetown and got to pet the snout of a 15-footer. He was fine, but my heart races just thinking about that.)

This moment, just like the one depicted below, was real. A genuine great white shark was lunging after a tied piece of meat (probably horse, from what I hear) and probably well aware of the living creatures protected by metal bars beyond.

In this world-famous image, an Army photographer captures the moment of her death (and three others) when a mortar exploded during training.

[This famous photo, taken in 2013, also ran numerous places after first being published in a military magazine. Sadly, Army photographer Hilda Clayton and others were killed when a mortar detonated during training.]

It’s one thing to watch the flashy (or realistic) explosions occurring on a TV show or movie screen. It’s another thing, entirely, to view the above image or others and know that, yes, this is what a real bomb’s detonation looks like and people didn’t walk away from it. Training accidents happen all the time, with unchangeable results. The costs are real and the details are real. With photos like these, a writer has fewer excuses.
Ask someone
If you’re not sure about where to find the granular building blocks for setting or event, ask a friend. Lots of people can tell you what dog breath smells like, or the itch of a caterpillar on bare skin, or the quasi-savory flavor of burnt popcorn. A couple times every summer, a hummingbird investigates the pear trees bordering my yard. The quick fluttering sound of transitional flight is not unlike a cat’s purr or the vibration of a cell phone on certain surfaces or the shifting of a red wasp in August heat.
Is it a bowling ball rolling down the lane or a large man’s steady snore or a 747 lumbering over the clouds?
The fun part is, based on your character or tone of the story, you get to pick which detail to use. It’s a crucial part of the sell.

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Poem: Ode to a Traitorous Sink

What problem lies ahead, what foulness, what stink
From this traitorous sink
Clearing my daughter's clogged sink.
In silence and obstinance, it waits with a stare
Black-clogged with soap, toothpaste and hair
The complaints came a-callin’. The solution you see
Requires but determination to the nth degree
Clearing my daughter's clogged sink.
With parts dismantled, all open to eyes
Its secrets revealed, no great surprise
I cough, cringe and gag–how this job I despise!
My son’s sink–less vengeful, I again realize
Clearing my daughter's clogged sink.
I clear reeking gunk the color of night ink
Thanks, dear Daughter, and your Traitorous Sink.