A tentative blog to test the temperature.
Ten years ago I was writing several blogs on various subjects - F1 motor racing, Music, Classic Cars, Great Romances and, most crushingly, a personal journal that included my thoughts on America, memories of England and Africa, opinion, humour, writing and anything else that occurred. It all became too much (I was attempting to update the journal every day) and I collapsed, exhausted and thoroughly disillusioned in the end.|
So this blog is indeed a Toe in the Water, a place to document my thoughts in and on WdC but with a determination not to get sucked into the blog whirlpool ever again. Here's hoping.
Another meeting with my pee doctor this morning (I will have to tell him we should stop meeting like this). Not for anything really - just for him to harangue me some more about all the tests he wants to conduct on me. We have an ongoing duel on this score. I keep explaining to him that I can’t afford even one of the tests, and he tries to find ways to make them more palatable to me.
It’s a bit like a Martian trying to work things out with a Venusian. I speak a little Venusian and can understand the pressures on him to cover all possibilities. Not sure that he understands Martian very well, however. This is the guy who made the mistake of telling me that I don’t have to worry about prostate cancer (I wasn’t but he definitely didn’t understand that) because, if I get it now, I’ll be dead of old age long before it kills me. They give up being interested in PSA levels (whatever they are) when you reach the age of 69.
So I don’t see a need to do the tests, even if I wanted them done (I don’t - I’ve had my fill of being prodded and inspected through natural and artificial orifices at every turn). The truth is I’ve exceeded the biblical allowance for age (three score years and ten) by four years now and that’s more than I ever expected to make. Anything further is a bonus (or maybe a curse).
My pee doctor doesn’t believe me on that score, of course. He figures that I’ll get cold feet when the reality of death knocks on the door. I haven’t bothered to tell him that I’ve been there a few times already and yes, to some extent there’s a natural reaction of striving to hang on a bit longer, but one gets more weary as the years roll on. Rest gets more attractive with the passing days, especially when one considers the insane mess the world is becoming of late.
Hopefully, I’ll last long enough to complete an entry to Schnujo’s Whatever Contest "The Whatever Contest -- Now Open" , which should cover the matter of what happens to my portfolio in the ultimately inevitable occurrence of my death.
No doubt my pee doctor will continue to arrange for more duels in the future. In fact, that is more or less guaranteed, now that he has established communication with my ordinary doctor (who is from Uzbekistan and possessed of a boundless optimism towards the world - although I’m not sure that one is the result of the other). I can look forward to increasingly complex and cunning arguments as they collaborate on their strategy.
It’s almost a pity that they’re bound to lose in the end.
Or should that be “my end?”
Word count: 466
|Do You Want a Hammer With That?
I was very young, certainly well before my tenth birthday, when I discovered my mother’s collection of books. Being an avid reader for as long as I can remember, I proceeded to go through each one of them.
Presuming that they were the survivors of her youth, they were evidence of a surprisingly broad range of interests. Many of them were crime novels and books about true crime, and she had a number of suspense and romance novels too. Names like Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers became familiar to me, although I did not spend too much time on their books.
There was a collection of Shakespeare’s works and the collected short stories of O. Henry as single examples from the many genres represented by only one book. I was too young to know that I should be bored by Shakespeare and I devoured each one of his plays. His sonnets were included as well, but they had less of an impact on me.
It was O. Henry’s short stories that had probably the most influence on my later life, however. In reading them repeatedly, I learned what constituted a good short story, and I presume that it was this that made it so easy for me to begin writing short stories many years later.
The lesson was that, as well as being short, this discipline required a twist at the end of each story. I took this to heart and made sure that I found a twist to end each of my short stories.
Yesterday I discovered that there are more ways than one of providing a twist. I had, in fact been searching for a twist of great impact to end my tales, something that I now call “looking for a hammer.” But I had lately written a few that had tails that, although unexpected, were not as blunt as the hammer, instead being rather subtle and presenting the reader with a question. I wrote one of these yesterday and this is what made me realise what was going on.
It’s a strange little story and has an ending entirely unexpected. It left questions in my mind that I have pondered ever since. There are several interpretations of the tale that are possible, the most obvious of which is political (most unusual for me). And this is what rescues the thing from being disqualified as a short story, I think.
The hammer will give the reader a moment of enjoyment in the sudden reversal of assumptions in the story. This more subtle approach, however, gives the reader something he can take away with himself, something to consider in his spare moments and to reach his own conclusions about. It’s a lasting gift rather than a slap in the face.
Don’t get me wrong - I still love the impact of the hammer. But I have discovered an alternative that I may well use again in the future.
To illustrate all this, an example of the hammer method is this, a recent favourite of mine:
I can think of three examples of the other approach but here is the one I wrote last night:
Nothing like a bit of unashamed self advertisement, is there?
Word count: 539
|On Being a Hobbit
In real life, I am a miniaturist.
In my imagination, too, I realise. I have always seen other worlds in patterns on the wall or spots on a tarmac drive or rivulets in the gutters draining the rain from reality. My daydreams have been inhabited by the people who populate these tiny worlds.
This breaks through into the real world in the form of my various interests and pastimes. Most obviously, I once spent far too much of my free time in creating slot racing cars from scratch. These were accurate models of the real thing and, as time went on, they became more and more detailed as my obsession with perfection in miniature took over.
Today, at the age of seventy-four, I have realised another outlet for my fascination with the small. Over the past two or three years, my unconscious mind has directed me into the arena of tiny poems. I thought it was circumstance that arranged for me to become involved with the 24-Syllable Contest, and then Express It In Eight (lines). But now I see that it has been my propensity for little things that was at work all along.
I did not have to allow this gradual move into aggressively constrained poetry, after all. There was nothing that insisted I remain entangled with mini forms until the present. It’s enjoyment that has kept me churning out little poems, every day, for so long. Obsession has been in the driving seat and I am merely the vehicle.
What brought this revelation today was the decision to re-read all my offerings to Lilli Munster ☕️ 🧿 ’s Micro-Fiction Challenge (it didn’t take long - 100 words is definitely a microscopic short story). It struck me that I am going to miss this weekly challenge now that it is completed until Lilli restarts it in the future.
The plain fact is that I love this form of prose. It really is a challenge to create a situation and a story with a twist in its tail, all in the space of those 100 words. The possibility of creating a tiny gem is present within every start to a new micro-story. It’s my tendency to the miniature at work in me again and I’ve not been aware of it until today. Amazing that I’ve not noticed this before.
I’m not going to suggest that you have a go at this excursion into the realms of the tiny. That must be something you decide for yourself. We can’t all be hobbits, you know.
Word count: 420
|Never Kick the Habit
It is a dangerous thing to be kind to yourself. Forget all those self help books that say you have to start by loving yourself; be cruel and unforgiving, demand higher standards, never allow yourself to get away with anything. If you relax on anything, be certain that yourself will take advantage of it.
How do I know this? Well, despite the fact that experience has taught it to me countless times over the years, yesterday and today I had to learn it all over again. Sometimes I despair of myself.
It happened like this. Months ago, I established a blogging pattern of one post every two days; it's ideal for me, not too strenuous (which leads to creative exhaustion) and not too infrequent to keep the readers happy. And I've kept to that schedule, even on days when I haven't felt like writing. Good discipline, I tell myself; someone has to keep your nose to the grindstone or (I know you) you'll be off somewhere playing a game or thinking about nothing.
Yesterday was a blogging day. As usual, I turned up for work bleary-eyed and moaning that I really didn't feel like writing today, I need time to think, all these projects are too big for me, have a heart. Nothing out of the ordinary. So I paid no attention and set myself to work. I even fired up Notespad and saved an empty page as Blog160.txt. And then sat and stared at the page.
"I can't do this," I thought. "I really don't think I can do this."
It was then that I made my mistake. I relented. Take a day off, I thought, nobody will notice; and you always said that you'd take a break if you feel like it. Go on, it's not the end of the world.
So I did and, sure enough, no one noticed. Except me, of course. I should have known that I'd make myself pay for such a decision. Come this morning and the brain has a big sign up on the gate: Sorry, no work today. All employees at Crisis of Confidence Meeting.
"Oh great," I thought, "that's all I need. Now what am I going to do?" I sent some desperate pleas for help up to the meeting but received only a few complaints in reply. Nope, we're not up to it today; everything you think of is too difficult; why can't you invent some easy posts for a change?, that kind of thing.
It's the breaking of habit, you see. We don't generally recognize it, but habit is an enormous help to us in getting through our days. It saves on motivational energy and does a lot of thinking for us. Habit is probably the most important ingredient in ensuring that we keep ticking on through the days, doing the necessary, producing the goods. And I'd blown it with that one instance of giving in to myself. Now I just wanted to slob around the house, certain that writing was completely out of the question and telling myself that I'd get back to it tomorrow.
That word "tomorrow" is the beginning of the slippery slope, of course. It was "tomorrow" that got me into this mess in the first place. It's "tomorrow" today and I feel worse than I did yesterday. Desperately, I phoned the meeting again.
"Please," I said, "you've gotta help me, I'm in deep trouble here. If I don't post something today, they'll start to drift away and then we'll all be out of a job."
Well, they argued and complained but I kept at them and, eventually, they sent down Albert and Ben, the cleaners, to give me a hand. We sat down together and tackled the problem. All morning we thrashed various ideas around but we knew they were going to be too big for us without the brain to help. Things were looking grim but then Ben looks up with a mischievous grin on his face.
"What about a nothing post?" he said.
I stared at him. He had a point; it's been a while since I did the last nothing post. But even a nothing post has to be about something.
"A nothing post about what?" I asked.
"Simple, boss," he says. "Just write about having nothing to write about. That's what a nothing post is, after all."
"Yeah," says Albert.
"But I do have things to write about. They're just a bit too big for me at the moment."
Ben shrugged. "So, what yer gonna do, write nothing today again? You need to get the habit back."
"Yeah," says Albert.
Ben was right, of course. I had to produce something or things could only get worse. Write about nothing.
"Okay," I said, "we'll do it. But one thing, how about us doing an extra one tomorrow so that we're back on track?"
"Hah," said Ben, "have to ask the brain about that one."
"Yeah," says Albert.
"And another thing, boss. Why don't you get these posts done the day before so that there's none of this panic all the time?"
"Good idea," said I.
Fat chance, I thought.
Word count: 860
You meet a better class of people on a Greyhound. Apart from the fact that the Greyhound bus is traditionally the way to see America, it also enforces a camaraderie that cannot happen on an airline flight. Being strapped down into one's place within the sardine can that is the modern airliner tends to work against meeting any of one's fellow sufferers. And anyway, everyone is just gritting their teeth and longing for the journey to be over; no thought of human interaction crosses the mind on those slingshot rides through the upper atmosphere.
Not so on a Greyhound. A bus forces its passengers to unite in a common goal of endurance and resistance against the endless miles, the whims of baggage handlers and the desperate weariness of sleepless nights. As varied and random a selection of humanity as you may be, the long distance bus journey will reveal each one of you as a person with a story to tell.
Not that airline passengers are without stories; but these will never be known. The relative brevity of journeys by air allows us to maintain our protective cocoons of silence for the duration. The bus will break you down, like it or not.
The bus company is a willing partner in this process of erosion of interpersonal barriers. Almost invariably, the bus driver will be a stickler for the rules and make this clear from the beginning. No negotiation is possible; he has seen it all and will brook no dissension. And the penalty for any infringement, consisting of being left in some unfrequented stop in the wilds of Indiana, seems too awful to contemplate. The passengers will grumpily accept this, only sharing their rebellious urges in whispered comments when well out of earshot of the driver.
But thus begins the welding of disparate personalities into a united front against adversity. The baggage handlers complete the process. It takes only the first disaster to some hapless soul to ensure that one becomes paranoid about baggage. Everyone learns that their first priority at each stop is to watch what happens to their bags in the hold. Are you continuing on the bus to the next stop? Be assured that a baggage handler will remove your bag and try to put it on another bus. Are you changing to another bus? Better grab that bag and keep it with you; otherwise, it will stay resolutely on the bus and head off to parts unknown.
So at every stop a gaggle of watchful and jumpy passengers will form around the opened baggage doors of the bus. And, inevitably, tales of previous mishaps and near-misses circulate, bringing everyone together and creating new alliances.
Most of the travelers are young but all age groups are represented. And, once the journey has begun and seating arrangements been decided, unlikely pairings and teams emerge. As time and distance extend, some leave and others join and new mixes are formed. We are all grist to the Greyhound's mill.
And so the stories emerge. There is the young guy joining at Oklahoma City, already exhausted by the miles from San Diego and on his way home to Maine - from the south western corner to the north eastern end of the States, about as great a distance as it is possible to make on a Greyhound. A young African American with all the gear, trendy and hip, travels to Chicago to care for his father, desperately ill in hospital. A retired steelworker makes the short hop from Pittsburgh to Allentown, going home after visiting his girlfriend. And some good ole boys from Missouri swap lies of their exploits as they spread out on the back seats. All these and more, bound together by the need to be elsewhere, brought together by chance and co-existing in harmony as they travel.
Days and nights of movement follow, interspersed with occasional waits between buses, and the little community changes gradually as it crosses the face of America. Soon those who began the journey with you have disappeared, their faces replaced with others, and you begin to feel like an old hand, accepting your new role of intrepid traveler and occasional help for the newcomer.
Outside, America drifts past, always the same yet subtly different. The open plains give way to hills and mountains, the dry ranches of the south west to the hill farms of West Virginia. Great cities like St Louis, with its gateway to the west, that soaring arc towering into the sky, is succeeded by greater cities yet; and always the bus heads for the center where the skyscrapers crowd together as though huddled for protection against the vast emptiness of America.
Nothing prepares one for the sight of New York City at night from the New Jersey shore. Here is a landscape of bright lights rising to the sky against the dark backdrop of night; a landscape stretching around and extending arms to engulf one as we draw near. I am not one for great cities yet the Big Apple lives up to all its promises - from a distance.
I will say no more of the places I saw; this is, after all, a celebration of an institution that has receded from view as air travel becomes the norm. But the Greyhound bus remains as a reminder of its literary past. And still there are those who prefer it to the convenience and speed of flight; I met a tough little old lady who had plied the Greyhound routes for years and, though she complained as loudly as any other about the waiting and discomfort, she would not dream of going any other way.
Word count: 945
|A Romantic Thought
I read every newsletter that crosses my newsfeed. Well, at least give ‘em a good scan. Sometimes they ask interesting questions and, who knows, I might get interested in trying even the most unlikely genres.
This morning I was reading the latest Romance/Love newsletter when I came across a reference to a contest I’d never heard of before. It went under the title of Awwww - Romantic (I didn’t count the Ws but there were a lot of them). It’s probably impossible to read that title without hearing a voice saying the (alleged) words. Which makes it a good title as far as attracting its intended audience is concerned.
Normally, I would have passed on without a comment but this time I experienced a little revelation as I read the words. In my entire life, I’ve only written two stories of romance. The first was for a contest in WdC years ago and the genre was specified in the rules. And the second was only recently and was entirely accidental, the result of inspiration upon reading the requirements of a contest. To my surprise, it turned out to be very romantic indeed.
That gives an idea of how unlikely it is for me to have anything to say on the subject of writing romantic stories. Perhaps it was the proximity of my second romance that brought about my revelation from the Awww contest. Suddenly I realised what is wrong with the genre.
It’s in that business about attracting the expected clientele to the contest. I’m sorry and all that, but males never say “Awww” about anything. Which means that the audience that expression intends to attract is female. And that’s fine until you realise that men are just as romantic as women but in a different way. They would never admit to it but the fact is that all great fantasy (well, alright, most of) was written by males. The very genre was invented by males.
If not romantic, fantasy is nothing. It is entirely possible that the genre was invented to give men the chance to express their romantic urges. And who are the great romantic poets of the world? Mostly males, I’m afraid. It’s even true that many of the authors of the typical Harlequin romance are male, but they don’t make a big thing about it. There’s a conversation I would love to hear at a sophisticated cheese and wine party.
“So what do you do, Jack?”
“I write mawkish love stories for Harlequin.”
Can’t see it, I’m afraid. But I’ve mentioned the culprit now. Harlequin has captured the genre and turned it into what it is now. Which is fine from a commercial point of view. But it impoverishes the genre when the very mention of Romance/Love brings the image of their sentimental and formulaic output to mind.
That is unfair to all those creating more relevant and important work that should be classified as Romance but has to find refuge in more flexible genres. It may be time for the male writers to have a revolution and retake the ground in Romance that once was theirs.
Word count: 522
|How to Make a Spectacle of Yourself
My father was always a bit longsighted and wore glasses when he had to read something. Late in life, it became so bad that his arms no longer had the length necessary to enable him to hold the newspaper at reading distance. He solved the problem by bringing home one of those big magnifying glasses with a handle that legend maintains Sherlock Holmes used so much. It served well enough for my father and he avoided an unwanted trip to the optometrist.
I had the opposite problem as a youth - I was shortsighted. After holding out until my mid-twenties, I gave in and allowed myself to be measured, inspected and gauged for a pair of spectacles. They proved useful for such things as driving and watching television.
For a while, I did suffer the occasional visit to be retested and, inevitably, to have new lenses, and it was during one of these occasions that my optometrist mentioned that our eyesight tends to become longer and longer sighted as we get older. This cheered me up no end.
“So, in my old age, I should have perfect vision,” I suggested.
He looked at me with a sour expression. “It doesn’t work like that,” he said.
Being who I am, I thought about this for many years afterward. It just didn’t make sense that you could be shortsighted, then get longer sighted and not end up with better vision. And, after a few more years, I had proof that the blasted optometrist had lied to me. There was no doubt about it - I needed my glasses in fewer and fewer situations. In the end I gave up wearing them altogether.
They still sit forlornly on my desk, gathering dust and. perhaps, dreaming of their golden years, but they aren’t much use to me now, even if I were to wear them. My vision has changed so much that they actually make things worse, not better.
About a year ago, I ran into an unexpected problem. My eyes overshot. Instead of maintaining themselves at the ideal position, they kept getting longer sighted and I was no longer able to read the small print on all sorts of items. Ingredients on food especially are printed so finely that I would have needed my father’s magnifying glass to read them. Andrea became my goto when I really needed to read something illegible (what would I do without her?)
In the end, she got fed up and bought me some cheapo reading glasses. I’d always wondered how they could sell these over-the-counter, one-size-fits-all glasses. Now I discovered that they’re just small magnifying lenses. Suddenly I can read anything again and everyone is happy.
It’s the little things that make one truly content with life.
Word count: 461
|Thoughts in the Waiting Room
In the last couple of years or so, i have been vaguely concerned at the state of my memory. It’s never been brilliant, understand, but lately it seems to forget words more often than I find comfortable. You might have noticed that I know and use quite a lot of them. So this growing disappearance of the exact word at inconvenient moments is not only frustrating but also slightly worrying.
Is this the first sign of the ultimate decay of the old brain, I wonder. But it’s not really a matter of failing memory - it’s an instant and temporary thing. Very often it’s when I’m writing and I know the precise word that will fit the sentence when I get there. And, when I arrive and reach for the word, it’s gone. I know it was there seconds ago but now there’s no trace of it - poof, gone like the morning mist in the heat of the summer sun.
It’s annoying, to say the least. But I won’t just think of a substitute that means approximately the same. I have to use the word already chosen. Usually I define the word to Andrea and she runs through all the ones I’ve thought of until she hits the right one. And I know it as soon as I hear it, of course.
Sometimes Andrea isn’t immediately available and I have to sit and wrestle with the brain to squeeze the information out of it. It works occasionally and I shout out the word in relief. Which can be a bit disconcerting for anyone in earshot. But heck, I’m an old fart now and expected to be a little eccentric.
My worries about this apparent omen of decay in the noggin region was somewhat lessened in the last few days. There seemed to be a spate of old heroes from the past appearing on television and, watching them, I realised that I wasn’t so bad after all. Some of them look properly decrepit now and they all have lost those strong voices I remember from my youth.
There are reasons, of course. My generation had some pretty heady times in our early days and we weren’t too careful about recommended maintenance of the body. It’s really a wonder that so many of us have lasted this long at all. And I am definitely doing better than I really deserve.
So enough of this depressing concern for the future. Now that I think of it, I realise that I’ve always had this tendency to forget the exact word at the precise moment I need it. The instances are a bit more frequent these days but the brain still functions well enough. And I can think of five or six acceptable substitutes in a moment.
Not that I’d use ‘em, of course. Not on your sweet bippy (whatever that means).
Word count: 476
|A Charmed Life
Brad Nickel lived a charmed life. He became aware of this only gradually and it was only when he reached middle age that he began to believe it. It was true, after all, that he had suffered no absolute disasters in his life, experienced no catastrophes and not even broken a bone in an unhappy accident. Considering the terrible things that happened to other people around the world, floods, earthquakes, wild fires, falling off mountains and getting lost in endless labyrinths underground, Brad was not wrong to think himself somehow blessed with better luck.
In pondering on his charmed state, Brad began to develop a theory. Retaining a somewhat sensible attitude, he decided to call it the “It Couldn’t Happen To Me Principle.” While fully aware that this central premise to his theory is probably common to everyone, Brad still felt that there was some special aspect of his case that made it particularly true for himself.
There was, as anyone could see, innumerable instances of people thinking exactly those words before something did indeed happen to them. Such abrupt failure of the Principle in their cases only served to illustrate the peculiar nature of Brad’s own holding to the belief. Those few who managed to live an entire life without major misfortune or premature death must surely be gifted beyond the lot of ordinary humans. It was beginning to look like Brad was a member of this rather fortunate branch of the species that had nothing to fear from merciless fate.
Naturally, Brad suffered the temptation to try out his theory in practice. He could take up sky diving, for instance. That might be a reasonable test of his continuing charmedness. Or mountain climbing. Without ropes. Dare devil riding. On a motorised monocycle. Without a helmet.
He saw the trap well in advance. The test was a trick to get himself into a hopeless place before killing him off as recompense for his grandiose theory. He resolved to ignore such temptation to test the matter.
No, he would carry on just as he always had, living a normal life, not risking anything unnecessarily and avoiding pointless displays of his invincibility. The theory could best be given its full expression by merely being himself and accepting that he would never find himself taken to extremes beyond endurance.
At which point, one might expect to be told how Brad’s certainty was confounded by some ironic and apparently minor accident in his home or office life that developed into a huge and ultimately deadly problem for him. In only this way could Brad’s vainglorious hubris be taken to task and justice served.
Yet it did not happen. Brad lived on for many long years, dying at last of natural causes, in bed, in his ninety-fourth year of a charmed life. It is entirely possible that he was right, that there are some folk who, by choice of some unimaginable fate or perhaps just happenstance, manage to live lives untroubled by serious adversity and who leave this world never having experienced what it is to be homeless or dead broke or wounded in some permanently crippling way.
Life’s a funny old thing, you know.
Word count: 531