Pierophobia

I’m afraid of a lot of things, but I’ve only got one real phobia. It makes all kind of sense to be scared of falling off a roof or drowning or getting hit by a car, and these things do indeed scare me. Still, I’m able to get on with it.

Not when I’m on a high place with something moving around underneath me, though. I call this “pierophobia” because I first felt it when I’d walk out on a pier over the ocean, look down through the slats and hear the water breaking against the piles. I’d get so scared I couldn’t move. My parents and brothers would try to talk me out of my fear, saying things like, “Come on, those holes are only an inch wide! How do you think you’re going to fall through them?” But that’s the thing about phobias — they don’t much respond to logic.

When I was a kid, there was one place we went regularly on vacation where you had to climb down a rock and wood stairway down a cliff to the beach. We went there every year for a while. Going up the steps wasn’t too bad, but I was scared to death of going down them. As I got older, my fear actually got worse. One time as I was inching down, one step at a time, keeping one hand on the cliff for some sort of security, and I came to a place where snakes were slithering down the cliff face right next to me. After that I always walked a quarter mile down the highway to the beach’s main parking lot, so I wouldn’t have to go near that spooky staircase.

Nowadays the phobia gets me when I’m crossing a bike/pedestrian overpass. I hear the cars under me, see and feel their movement, and sometimes it makes me so scared I freeze.

That’s what happened this morning, on the way to the dentist. I got up the ramp okay, but as soon as I came onto the bridge over the highway I had to get off my bike and walk. It doesn’t matter that there’s no way anyone could fall off. The chainlink goes up far over my head; you’d have to go at it with a sturdy pair of wire cutters for about half an hour before you could possibly make a gap big enough to fall through.

Still, it scares the bejesus out of me. I don’t know why.

I hate plumbing.

All my life I’ve heard complaints and jokes about plumbers making too much money. I say, if people are willing to pay it, there’s a reason. Nobody wants to mess around under a sink. Even Dan, who was handy-and-a-half, hated to fix plumbing. I remember him grunting and swearing and having all kinds of problems when he replaced the kitchen faucet.

I thought I’d just need to change a washer, but when I got the sink handle apart, I could see the whole thing was a mess — all rotted away and crumbly. So I bought a nearly identical faucet and watched some YouTube videos.

It took me three days to get that old kitchen faucet all the way out. There were these plastic nuts on under the handles, holding them tight on the sink, and I had to lie on my back in the cabinet to unscrew them. Unscrew them, ha! They wouldn’t budge. The YouTube videos said to use a little lubricant if they were tight. I squirted WD-40 all over them and they still wouldn’t move even a little. I made a little progress by banging on one of them with a hammer, but even after an hour of that, it wasn’t any looser. Getting them all the way off at that rate would take days.

I called the local do-it-yourself plumbing house. “You can heat up a screwdriver and melt through the plastic, then pull it right off.”

“Heat up a screwdriver?”

“Yep, a hot screwdriver. It’s not real pleasant, but it works.”

“Hot screwdriver?”

We went through a few more rounds of me stupidly repeating “hot screwdriver” before giving up and thanking the man. How do you heat up a screwdriver? Wouldn’t it make a big melty plastic mess? Maybe get stuck worse than ever? I didn’t know. All I figured out was that if you say “hot screwdriver” too long, it starts to sound like a porn film.

So I turned up a burner of the electric stove full blast and set the metal ends of three screwdrivers on it. Back under the sink. Little chunks of lime flaking off the bottom of the sink basin, falling all over my face, into my eyes. Flashlight in one hand, weapon in the other, shoving that screwdriver into the plastic nut. Something — maybe plastic, maybe water — made a hissing sound when the melting was going particularly well. Made me feel like a dragon slayer.

I had to burn four gaps, two per plastic nut, then use the biggest screwdriver to chisel the things off. They didn’t come away easy. Even when just a quarter of a nut was left, it held onto the bottom of the sink. The smallest screwdriver, heated, pulled up a corner of it, then the biggest screwdriver jammed into it repeatedly until it flew off. I’d work at this for maybe ten minutes, then get out of there to wash all the flakes of lime off my face and get a drink of water. One fleck of lime got wedged into my eye and wouldn’t come out. But finally the last bit of the last nut came off.

After turning off the water valves and unscrewing the little hose thingies that go up to the faucet, I pulled the whole thing out of there, like a Medusa head trailing a couple really long snakes. The next day I took it down to the do-it-yourself guy to buy new hose thingies. Pulled that sucker out of my backpack, plopped it on the counter. Everyone who saw it looked pittyingly at the thing. The water spout held together with duck tape, the hose thingies two-parters that were way too long and covered with all sorts of colorful crud.

“Looks like somebody sat on it,” one guy said.

“Why are the hoses so long?” Do-it-yourself plumbing guy asked.

“The hot and cold water valves are on the wrong sides, so these have to be long enough to cross over.”

“Ah.” He just kind of shook his head, and said he couldn’t stock hoses that long because they’re against code, and sent me over to the hardware store.

Anyway, I finally got the faucet replaced, four days after I started trying to take it out.

Squirrel Walking Weather

We’ve had the loveliest summer until now, with highs most days in the upper seventies. Yesterday was the first time it was hot enough that the squirrels refused to scurry. I definitely saw squirrels walking down the street.

Of course the squirrels are as spoiled as we humans are; everyone’s griping about the heat, when all it’s doing is getting into the upper eighties. I feel sorry for Rowan, though. She’s one of our substitute psychics, and she has a a genetic disease called TRAPS which gives her severe flu-like symptoms in hot weather. So severe she ends up in the hospital. She can’t hold a regular job, and about half the time when she’s working at the store she either calls in sick or has to go home early. That must be awful.

Well, I finally did it: threw out a mostly full package of sanitary napkins. I haven’t needed them for about five years, it was just hard to throw away something perfectly good. They’re individually wrapped, and I only used a couple, but it seemed kind of weird to give them to somebody, and you can’t very well donate an opened package to a food pantry. Maybe I could use them to clean up spills, but if I haven’t done it in five years I don’t think I’m ever going to. I thought of leaving them in a public ladies’ room, but couldn’t think of a good candidate where they wouldn’t just get thrown away by the cleaning staff. So I finally just chucked them in the trash.

What do stories want?

Well, I wrote half a paragraph the day before yesterday. Only an exercise from Steering the Craft, because it would be pretty lame for me to read the book and not to do the exercises. I also wrote a review today, because I had to. Not “had to” as in someone was making me, but “had to” as in felt the need as the human thing which happens to live in my skin. So maybe I’m getting back to normal. It doesn’t hurt that someone just sent me money for a poem. At least I’m no longer mentally screaming “I hate writing!” every time I look at my laptop.

A couple weeks ago something inside my head just… I don’t want to say “snapped.” More like my desire to write abruptly committed suttee. Yes, I’d just gotten a disappointing rejection, but that only struck the match. The gasoline came came from the mounting feeling that it’s impossible for me to make any sort of progress, because I don’t write the kind of stories that get published. This feeling came from reading a whole lot of professionally published spec-fiction stories and really, really hating them. It’s like, if I can’t even navigate this stuff as a reader, how am I ever going to write it?

Some things I find hard to accept:

1) Many stories seem to go out of their way to confuse people. I love mystery, misdirection, figurative language, metaphor, and all that other good stuff. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about stories where the narration jumps around, as if you were looking through a jerky camera held by some self-important undergrad film student. I don’t mind being a little confused for the first page or two of a story, but I do not like having the rug pulled out from under me every time I start to find my footing. If I’m still confused by the end of a story, it just makes me feel stupid. I get the distinct impression that’s half the point of some of the professionally published stories I read.

2) Many stories are cold and nasty and violent without reason. I understand the world is full of nastiness. But to me, the purpose of filling a story with darkness is to explore that darkness, not wallow in it. Virtually every set of submission instructions warns writers not to include erotic or violent elements unless they have a purpose in the story. Okay, fine. Yet often, when I read the stories these publications actually put out, I find pieces that are plenty erotic and plenty violent, yet seem to have no real purpose at all. What conclusion is possible but that darkness is loved for its own sake?

3) Many stories aren’t very imaginative. I’m fine with deep characterization (though the phrase “character-driven” is starting to get on my nerves). But if that’s pretty much all there is to a story, how is it speculative? In several of the Nebula nominees I read, I had a hard time finding any speculative element. These were stories I enjoyed, for the most part; I just didn’t see how they fit into the field. Much worse are stories that use the same well-worn ideas over and over. Established writers, especially, do this. All the time. They either retread whatever sci-fi or fantasy elements that are currently being passed around from author to author and magazine to magazine, or else cannibalize their own ideas by writing the same type of story over and over.

I don’t think I’m capable of writing things I wouldn’t want to read; I’d be miserable even trying. I do enjoy writing for its own sake, to some extent, but it’s an awful lot of work. Is it worthwhile to draft, edit, and polish words just to print them on toilet paper and flush?

Maybe so. I don’t really know what to think. Writing it down helps some.

Oh, give that here and let me do it.

There’s a thread at Codex called “When do I give up on writing?”, but it’s lame. It turns out to be all about not quitting. About dealing with adversity, and perseverance, and putting on your Big Girl Pants and giving it one more try.

One post says to stop writing if you have something else you’re more passionate about doing. Lord knows I do. I want to watch television and drink. It won’t be easy. I have to get a TV. It’s complicated. I think you can’t anymore just buy one and plug it in; there’s some little box thing you have to use if you don’t have cable. Probably I should just get cable anyway. Then you have to decide what to watch, but that’s easy because I remember about the drinking part from when I was younger. Jack Daniels and Bacardi were both pretty good. Tequila too, unless maybe Bacardi is tequila? I don’t think so. Oh yeah, and Korbel. Korbel was good. Anyway, start pumping those down and you can just turn on the TV and be good with whatever. There’s also this show called Breaking Bad which is a relatively new thing, only I think not so new that it isn’t already over. I could watch that. But I’m sure there are all kinds of shows that are still on that would be better than writing. I could buy a TV Guide, if they still make those. And if none of that works out, pretty soon it’ll be football season.

If you google “quit writing,” there’s really nothing. Good reasons to “quit” writing they talk about are things like giving the story time to settle, or taking time for friends and family. Bullshit. That’s not quitting at all!

Even Writing.com has that motto, “Keep writing!” Expressed, preferably, with lots of (((hugs))) or whatever. Just another imperative to control you, like “Show, don’t tell!” or “Cheer up!” or “Stop picking your nose!” You nod your head guiltily until no one’s looking.

No one needs to keep writing. There’s bazillions of good reasons to stop.

- Everybody writes. People who don’t ever read are all like, “Hey, guess what, I’m writing a book!”

- Writing is very, very, very, very, very hard work, and at the end of it you’re lucky to see a cent.

- Nobody really gives a shit what you have to say.

- Underpaid/unpaid slush readers really don’t need another manuscript of yours to wade through.

- Form rejections shit all over your self esteem.

- Those other writing people deserve a chance. Writing less does them a favor.

- Writing is old-school. Pretty soon we’ll all have holographic glasses.

- Books and stories have no value. Anyone who, for some reason, still likes to read can get all the reading material they want for free. Here in Madison, for example, we have Little Free Libraries. Not Little Free Gas Stations, or Little Free Jewelry Shops, or Little Free Pizza Parlors. Only books are so worthless.

- What kind of hobby serves no purpose but to inform you how badly you suck?

- The world is full of thousands of better and less selfish things.

I can’t do this anymore. I can’t stand it anymore. Any word I write is just another banshee shrieking through my brain.

Crack of Doom

Today I served a woman with a cigarette lighter poking out of her cleavage. Another regular stashes a roll of hundreds. Lots and LOTS of women buy crystals destined for the twin towers. (“Would you like a bag?” “Nope, don’t need one!” [Plop!])

Kind of makes me wonder if anyone just uses their bra for boobs.

Crash! Bang! Meow!

We had sirens around midnight. Kid B and I were trying to figure out what was going on. A pretty intense thunderstorm was coming through, but no wind to speak of. The power would go out, then go back on again. I couldn’t get the weather to come up on the internet. Well, I didn’t try all that hard. Since everything looked okay, I went back to bed, and just lay there and listened to it for a while.

Then this morning I went for a run down by the lake, and, dang! I must have seen a dozen whole trees down, either broken off near the bottom or uprooted. Plus quite a few large branches, one of which had taken out the corner of someone’s roof. The homeowner was outside talking to a neighbor about homeowner’s insurance, so I guess everyone was okay. In some places everything looked fine, while in other places everything was a mess of downed power lines and trees and neighbors standing around talking.

All of this was between half a mile and about three miles from my house. I’m pretty sure a tornado actually touched down. Meanwhile in our neighborhood, everything’s neat and tidy.

On my run and subsequent trip to the doctor, I saw:

- A building blown down. The roof had slid off, pulling the walls down with it. It was a printing business in an old corrugated metal building.
- A trampoline (not a little kiddie one, a big one with a mesh cage) blown 50 yards into a park
- A car with a tree on top of it
- Uprooted power poles
- One power pole that had broken in half
- A streetlight sticking sideways out of the shrubs in someone’s yard
- Three park playgrounds with equipment destroyed by trees
- Four stretches of street blocked off so workers could untangle downed power lines from the wreckage
- A public canoe storage rack blown into the lake
- At one home, all the old house paint had somehow blown out of a storage area and into the street, and some of the cans had dumped into the gutter.

So, that was something.

And yeah, I did have to go to the doctor. I usually stay away from those kind of people. But I was brushing Scarlett yesterday and must have hit a bad spot, because she turned around and bit my hand. My right ring finger got a nasty gash, the pinky just a nick. But a few hours later I noticed the pinky swelling. So now I’m on antibiotics.

The doctor, who seemed to be a very nice and competent lady, says you don’t mess around with cat bites. Cats have a number of nasty things in their mouths that love to infect humans.

I seem to be able to type okay, but other things I use my hands for may be difficult, especially writing with a pen.

Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin

There are three men banging away at my roof right now. They’ve been at it for two days, and it doesn’t really look like they’re going to be done today either. This is obviously going to cost more than they quoted me. It could be a lot more. One of them, the leader, has a really scary mouth. His gums and lips are red and puffed up, so swollen they merge into each other. He says there’s a lot more wrong with my roof than what they’re fixing. He makes a red smile when he says that, even though it looks painful.

It’s very noisy – lots of banging, sawing, and strange noises I can’t identify. At one point I heard a crash, and it was a glass light fixture in the dining room falling on the floor. I don’t know why it didn’t break. I’m just glad I wasn’t sitting at the table when it happened.

At least they didn’t laugh at me about the roof repair that guy did last summer. I deserve to be laughed at for hiring that loser. That was so stupid I should lose my job, get kicked out of both Codex and Wyrm, and have my children taken away from me. If they weren’t both adults, anyway. But someone should come and take away my cats. Maybe impound my bicycle.

I kept working on store stuff for an extra hour I won’t get paid for, because I can’t concentrate on anything I really want to do with people up there. I know it’s stupid, but I just want them to go away. I don’t like strangers on my roof.

My cat is stalking me.

I was lying in bed and heard a THUNK against the door. This is a door you can open by pushing on it, without using the doorknob. Lately Mike has taken to bumping it open so he can get into my closet and sleep in a basket in there, usually knocking a bunch of stuff down in the process. I don’t encourage him to do this, but a lot of times I’m reading or writing and too preoccupied to deal with him.

Anyway, I was trying to sleep when Mike thunked his way in. I got up, tossed him out the door, closed it, and fastened the little deadbolt latch at the top. I could hear him thunking against it some more, even running down the hallway to thunk it harder, but I went back to sleep anyway.

When I woke up, he was back in the room again, having somehow made a hole in the door. When I unlatched and opened it, I saw he’d somehow brought a chair into the hallway outside. He must have climbed up onto the chair and clawed his way in. I covered up the hole with newspaper, sheet plastic and duck tape. I tried to get back to sleep, but of course it was no good. As I lay in bed, I could hear Mike rip through the paper and plop back down onto the floor of my room.

I’ve been dreaming more than I used to–once every couple weeks or so. Usually I only remember snatches and impressions, but this time it was freakishly realistic. When I woke up for real, I was surprised to find my door wasn’t even latched. I couldn’t stop looking for the hole, the chair, the cat-shredded newspaper.

Iditarod 42

This year’s race is why I love this thing.

Coming into White Mountain, the last big stop before the final 80ish-mile stretch into Nome, the first four positions were held by:

1. Jeff King, a 58-year-old guy with four Iditarod victories going back to 1981. A native of Northern California, he grew up close to Jack London’s house, now a historical museum. I used to visit there when I was a kid, too. He read everything by London, got himself up to Alaska as soon as he could manage it, and never looked back. He’s a very friendly guy, cracking jokes while he welcomes visitors to his kennel for tours. If he wins, he’ll be the oldest winner in Iditarod history.

2. Aliy Zirkle, a woman in her mid-forties, who finished second in both 2012 and 2013. She and her husband, Allen Moore, run a kennel and share the dogs (Or “dawgs,” as they’re universally called in mushing. It’s not a regional thing; mushers say “dawgs” whether they’re from Arkansas, California or Canada.): he runs the A team in the Yukon Quest, the other big annual mushing event of the year (which he’s won the past two years), and she gets them for the Iditarod. Aliy may be the most beloved musher of all time — she’s got a beautiful personality, is insanely in love with her dogs, and knows how to rock Facebook. If she wins, she’ll be the first female winner since Susan Butcher won in 1990.

3. Dallas Seavey, a 27-year old guy born into a mushing family, who won in 2012, making him the youngest winner ever. In 2013 he came in fourth running rookie puppies (not sure whether they were his dad’s or his own), which is just unheard of; top ten positions usually go to teams of veteran dogs, while the young dogs take it easy and get the hang of the trail. Dallas has his own kennel now, and it’s a strong one. Dallas, a former Olympic wrestler, is pretty strong himself. He’s known for mushing in running shoes, the better to run alongside his sled, to make things easier for the dogs.

4. Mitch Seavey, 54, Dallas’ dad. Mitch won in 2013, his second victory and eleventh top-ten finish. His dad was a musher, and all four of his sons are mushers. The Iditarod is pretty much what he does, and he does it awfully well.

So, they came into White Mountain in those positions, with something like an hour or two between them. There’s a required eight-hour stop at White Mountain. Usually, whoever gets there first wins the race. So Jeff took off an hour before Aliy as the presumed winner.

Boy, that would have been boring.

The route from White Mountain to Nome goes along the coast, part of it along a spit of land with water on both sides. It rained recently, so everything is covered with lumpy ice. The whole trail has been like that, and mushers have been dealing with slipping sleds, injured dogs, and crashes all week. Along the coast, the ice is interspersed with driftwood. Snow machines (as snowmobiles are called in Alaska) clear the trail and put down markers one time before the race; there’s no further maintenance to the trail. As it happens, this time, the lead mushers are running the final stretch at night.

The winds along that coast can be fierce, but this year they’re worse than usual, blowing at 45 miles per hour and gusting up to around 70. This is on ice, remember, with water on both sides. There’s just enough snow to blow all over the place and ruin what little visibility there was to begin with. The actual temperature is somewhere around zero, never mind the wind chill.

Jeff has a malfunction, and has to stop to fix it a few miles before getting to the halfway-to-Nome checkpoint called Safety. His dogs hunker down while he’s doing this, and by the time he’s ready to go they’re too cold to move. He puts his sleeping bag over them, lies there holding them, waiting for the wind to die down a little. But the wind remains lethal. He figures he’ll walk to Safety alone, maybe carry the dogs in one by one, but it’s just too cold; the dogs are in danger of freezing to death. He ends up accepting a ride from a snow machine to Safety so he can get help for the dogs faster, which disqualifies him from the race. The snow machines are blowing over too, and one rider gets blown off towards the water, but everyone survives. When he gets back to his dogs he’s just relieved to find them all still alive.

Meanwhile, Aliy has passed Jeff and his team without seeing them. She’s too busy getting beat up by the wind herself. It keeps whipping the sled sideways on the ice, which pulls the dogs off-course, and puts everyone in danger of getting blown into open water. Somehow she makes it into Safety and finds out she’s in the lead, but at that point she’s more concerned about keeping herself and her dogs from dying than with winning the race. She gets her dogs as comfortable as possible, then goes inside the roadhouse to drink coffee and wait out the wind.

She waits at Safety long enough that Dallas catches up. He doesn’t stop. He doesn’t even wait around long enough to find out he’s in the lead. Why? Because his dad’s behind him, and the last thing he wants is to lose to his dad. So he lets the vets have their required look at his dogs, then takes off out of there like he’s being chased by demons.

Aliy figures if Dallas made it through, the weather must have improved. It’s still brutal out there, but the winds have died down some from hurricane force. She takes off in pursuit of Dallas.

Dallas is running this thing like a maniac. He sees a light right behind him now and figures it’s his dad’s headlamp. Somehow his dad has caught up to him, he thinks, which means the old man must be running his dogs at an incredible pace. He’s going to get caught up at any minute, and he can’t let that happen.

At the finish line, Dallas comes into Nome running alongside his sled, looking over his shoulder as he sprints down the street and under the burled arch. As he catches his breath and goes to take care of his dogs, he’s still asking if he beat his dad. As far as he knows, Jeff and Aliy came in hours ago, and are sitting around somewhere enjoying hot soup while their handlers treat their dogs to steak dinners. It takes more than a minute for the finish line crew to convince him he’s won the race — in record time, at that.

A couple minutes later, Aliy comes in second. She made up some time on Dallas, lord only knows how, but not enough. An hour or two later, Mitch comes in third.

That. Is what I call a race.