J. Daniel Sawyer writes a lot of bizarre, genre-bending stuff, but this one takes the goose-stepping, pigeon-flogging cake. Inspired by an exasperated quote from Harlan Ellison (in response to the oft-repeated question all authors hate, “Where do you get your ideas?”), this story is reminiscent of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett at their zany best — with a liberal helping of Neil Gaiman-style darkness stirred into the pot. Sawyer gets bonus points for the eerily true-to-life representation of a pair of Northern California college bros, with all the emotional repression and immaturity that entails. A fun little read, and one of the more mind-warping things I’ve read this year.
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Clarke Lantham’s adventures often ride the edge of High Weirdness — Sawyer has half-jokingly referred to the character as his “nearly-paranormal investigator” — but when aliens steal a Martian meteorite from the California Academy of Sciences, it’s too far out-there for even a Weirdness veteran like Lantham to buy it. What follows is less like the X-Files than a James Randi debunking: Lantham doesn’t “want to believe,” doesn’t buy the aliens for a second, never mind that they were caught live on security camera. The question is, who’s doing the fakery, and why, and for whose benefit? And what happened to the meteorite?
The book unfolds with Sawyer’s trademark mixture of noir edginess, dry wit, and bizarre twists. Lantham’s head is a very strange place to be, with his sudden left turns into unexpected metaphor and bloody nightmares of seagulls gone berserk. By turns hilariously ironic, morosely self-flagellating, or seething with rage, Clark Lantham is Not A Well Man. Of course, one could probably say that about a lot of heroes, fictional and otherwise, and it doesn’t make him any less fun or sympathetic as a protagonist. Quite the opposite, if anything.
Joining Clarke on this escapade are a collection of junior and associate nutcases: e.g., a wealthy British conspiracy nut who’s convinced that aliens have ALREADY taken over the U.S. government; an eccentric old hoarder whose video editing expertise may be the key to figuring out the “aliens”; and Dusty, a fellow ex-cop turned CAS security chief and Lantham’s Jungian shadow. Chief among the subordinate loonies, though, are Lantham’s apprentice, Rachael, and Nya, the daughter of a former client and Lantham’s accidental ward. The relationships between Lantham, Rachael and Nya are the heart of the book, and the source of much of its charm.
Give credit where it is due, though: Sawyer doesn’t just know interesting characters, he can also weave a gripping mystery. There are enough red herrings in this book to provide a feast for the seagulls who haunt Lantham’s fevered dreams. Sawyer seems to have imagined every possible way that the meteorite COULD have been stolen, and about a dozen possible motivations, and Lantham wrestles with them all over the course of the investigation — all, that is, except for the one that actually happened. The resolution of the mystery is satisfying because I never saw it coming, and yet it made perfect sense. Well, as much as anything involving space aliens makes sense.
In his author’s note at the back, Sawyer explains how the Lantham mysteries have grown from a neat little 5-part series into a vast, tentacled beast that threatens to take over his brain (my words, not his). This can only be considered a good thing: not only are these some of the best characters Sawyer has written, they’re some of his best stories, too. For the last half of the book I could barely tear myself away from this thing. Clear your schedule, grab a comfy chair by the window, put your feet up on the desk, and dive in.
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This book was loaned to me by a fellow teacher who hailed from Scotland, where Richard Holloway once served as Bishop of Edinburgh for the Episcopal Church. Holloway stepped down from that position because of doubts about his faith; he didn’t feel like he could honestly continue serving in a position of religious authority when he wasn’t sure if he believed what he was teaching. There is a level of integrity to this that impresses me greatly, even though it also saddens me a bit.
Holloway set out to explore the topic of forgiveness from a secular or post-religious point of view, and I was immediately curious to find out what he would say, since the whole idea of forgiveness is so strongly associated with religious thought and imagery. Is there any basis for the idea of forgiveness if we take God out of the picture? If so, what is it? Where does this concept come from, and why does it hold such power in the human psyche? Is it possible to embrace a post-religious, or pan-religious, theory of forgiveness that does not depend on divine command as its foundation? Is there even any reason to do so?
Holloway addresses these questions from a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach. He does not set out to tell people why they MUST forgive, but to explore the ramifications when we do (or do not) forgive. At the heart of the book is a quote by Jacques Derrida: “There is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable.” Holloway explores this paradox from many angles, delving into the probable origins of the human qualities of empathy, compassion, justice, and mercy, and how the need for forgiveness and the need for justice have necessarily evolved side by side. Along the way he draws on the wisdom of such diverse voices as Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Hannah Arendt and George Steiner. He uses religious imagery and parables but presents them in a way that is sensitive to a secular audience, and with context that even many religious readers may not have heard before. His writing style is poetic and deeply engaging, and puts me in mind of C.S. Lewis at his best.
This is a short book — fewer than 100 pages — but an intensely powerful one. For the non-religious, it is a powerful exploration of forgiveness that empowers the reader to think about it in a way that makes sense in a secular humanist worldview. For people of faith, this book reveals common ground on which we can engage our fellow humans who do not share our beliefs, but who nevertheless must share our world; and it shows how forgiveness has an inherent value for humanity, beyond satisfying the commands of God. I think that the book’s greatest value, however, might be for those who have been raised in a religious life but subsequently lost their faith, because it shows a way to hold on to the best of what that faith has taught us within a broader, post-religious context that is not dependent on belief in scripture. I strongly recommend it for anyone who has never needed to forgive, or ever needed forgiveness … which, of course, is all of us.
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Death seems to be swirling around the perimeter of my world lately. A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine lost his wife to flu complications. That same day, another friend was trying to get out to visit her uncle on his deathbed. This week a third friend is traveling to Arizona to say goodbye to her father for the last time. And now this disaster in Haiti has left perhaps a quarter of a million dead, with more likely to follow them as hunger and disease take their toll.
None of these events has touched me directly. I have been unusually blessed throughout my life: the Grim Reaper’s visits to my personal world have been infrequent. Two of my grandparents and both of my parents are still alive, as are all of my aunts, uncles and cousins. The last person close to me whom I lost was my great-grandfather, scant months shy of his 100th birthday.
And yet I am not unaffected. I feel like I am one thread in the middle of a tapestry that is fraying at the edges. I feel someone pulling on the weave, snatching out threads and leaving those they were connected to alone, dangling, half-stripped themselves. My heart cries out at the pain around me — There must be something I can do! — but I feel very small and fragile, and the comfort I can offer seems paltry in comparison to the pain.
What can I do? Only what I can: Give what I am able. Help in the small ways available to me. Pray. Love. Offer solace. Encourage others to do the same.
It’s not enough. It’s a drop of water on an inferno.
But if all of us do what we can, those drops join together to become a flood.
The world is on fire, it’s more than I can handle
Tap into the water, try to bring my share
Try to bring more, more than I can handle
Bring it to the table — I bring what I am able
–Sarah McLachlan, “World on Fire”
Tonight I got home from work late — really, really late. 9:00 late. Today was Exhibition Night, the end of the Intersession period between New Year’s and the start of the spring semester. All of the Intersession classes focus on physical education or the arts; mine was cooking and nutrition, which sort of straddles the two (especially with the amount of walking we had to do to get to grocery stores, community kitchens and the like).
Our class cooked the food for Exhibition Night, but I didn’t get a chance to take part; I spent the whole day trying to get the class cookbook together, and eventually succeeded after THREE trips back and forth to Kinko’s. (Don’t ask.) Now, I enjoy cooking — it’s a very relaxing experience for me, most of the time — so by the time I got home I was ready to do some playing around in the kitchen for myself.
What transpired over the next hour was a perfect example of WHY I love cooking. The following more-or-less recounts my thoughts and actions in the order they took place.
1.) Look in the fridge for supplies. Hmm, there are those two chicken thighs I’ve been thawing out for a few days; I’d better use them for something now or I’m going to lose them.
2.) Pull out the chicken thighs, rinse, drain, squish out excess moisture. How can I cook these? Well, they’ve got a lot of fat in the skin and dark meat is pretty forgiving of high temperatures; I can sear the outside and then add a sauce and cook on low heat until they cook through. I have that jar of Bombay Simmer Sauce; maybe I’ll use that.
3.) Heat up cast-iron skillet to medium-high. Cover outside of the thighs with a very small amount of safflower oil, black pepper, and kosher salt. Let’s put the skin side down against the pan first; it’s a thick layer of mostly-fat, so it should crisp up pretty nicely when it hits the hot iron.
4.) Put chicken thighs in the pan, skin-side down. After 3-4 minutes … wow, look at that. The fat rendered out of the chicken and is coating most of the bottom of the pan. I’ve got enough hot lipid in there to saute some veggies. What can I use…?
5.) Quick search of the refrigerator and cabinets turns up onion, minced garlic, red peppers, and sliced mushrooms. Oooh. Okay, quickly, chop up half of the onion and throw it in there. (ow ow eyes burning ow) Flip over those chicken breasts, mix up the rendered fat with the onions to saute them nicely. Add the garlic a couple of minutes later; mix. Repeat for the mushrooms next, then the peppers.
6.) By this point a fair amount of moisture has cooked down into the pan, and we’re getting out of saute land and into stewing territory. Time to chop up some tomatoes — and yes, I have two Romas waiting for just such a purpose. (Chop chop chop.) Hmm, that doesn’t look like enough. I’ll add this can of diced tomatoes, too, after I drain out most of the juice into a mug. Mix in tomatoes and cover. Drink tomato juice. (Mmm. Lycopenes.)
7.) Somewhere around this point, I unconsciously shifted from “South Asian” mode to “Italian” mode. Maybe it was the leftover spaghetti waiting in the fridge for something to use with it. Maybe it was the fact that mushrooms and peppers didn’t seem very Bombay-ish. Maybe I just realized subconsciously that I had a jar of pesto I was waiting to try out. Whatever the reason, I put away the Bombay Simmer Sauce and opened up the pesto instead. Two heaping teaspoons, mix, mix … yeah, that looks about right. And I’ve got a ton of pesto left over for future experiments.
8.) Need green veggies. Spinach? Naw, I always do spinach. Hey, I’ve got this steamed broccoli left over! (Chop chop chop. Mix mix.) Cool, that’ll go well with everything else. Need time for this to cook down and for the chicken to finish cooking through; I’ll cover it and check back in 20 minutes. (Sets timer.)
9.) 20 minutes later … Wow, look at all that liquid. Even with all the tomatoes in there, the liquid is … GREEN! Whoa. Okay, gotta reduce this. Turn up the heat. (Bubble bubble bubble) There we go… (mix around, watching while liquid evaporates)
10.) 5 minutes later … Hmm. Okay, most of the excess liquid is gone, but this still isn’t looking much like a pasta sauce. Ahh, yes, my mom’s old trick for thickening sauces: tomato paste! (Opens up a can, mixes it in) MUCH better.
11.) Seasoning, seasoning … the pesto will have added a lot of flavor, but what can I do to spice this up a bit more? Garlic pepper, check. Fresh ground black pepper, check. Oregano, check. … That’s enough, I think. Don’t want a repeat of the Vegetable Beef Soup Incident. (mix mix mix)
12.) That chicken has GOT to get broken up now. Is it done? (Presses in spatula tip, breaks off a piece) Yep, it’s done. (Chops up chicken into small chunks, removes thigh bones, gnaws on thigh bones for excess meat) Ooh, hot hot hot … but TASTY!
13.) Y’know what this still needs? The same thing the world always needs: CHEESE. (Pulls out Parmesan/Romano/Asiago cheese blend, dumps in a liberal amount, mixes up)
14.) Moment of truth. Heat up some spaghetti noodles, spoon the chicken/veggie/pesto/chees
As you can see, the vast majority of the cooking process took place in a stream-of-consciousness, experimental way. Even *I* didn’t know what I was making, but I knew what things would work well together because of experience and an understanding of the science behind the cooking. The process indulged my creative side while giving my scientific side the chance to play backseat driver and analyze my own unconscious decisions, occasionally giving them a nudge when necessary.
I love the spontaneity of it. I love the feeling of spur-of-the-moment genius, using resources at hand to accomplish an unexpected goal — like sauteing veggies in the rendered fat of the bird that I’m in the process of cooking. If I’d *planned* that, I’d just be an educated cook following a procedure … but since I came to it on the spur of the moment, seizing on the combination of theoretical knowledge and serendipitous opportunity, I got to feel like something else:
A Mad Scientist.
I realized, as I was eating my latest creation, that Mad Scientists haven’t gone away in the modern era; we’ve just relegated them to culinary science, because that’s the one area where we can afford that kind of off-the-wall experimentation and inspired lunacy. Today’s Mad Scientist is the guy on Iron Chef who gets handed a tank full of lobsters and has to come up with four different dishes AND A DESSERT that all use those creepy little things in different ways. Genius in action, but safely confined to a realm where it can’t really do any harm.
I’ve long referred to myself as a Mad Scientist in Training. I never made the connection between that and my love of cooking, but it makes total sense in retrospect. I wouldn’t want the pressure that goes with being a professional chef, but I can still carry on my mad little experiments in the privacy of my own lab … I mean, kitchen.
And then, like all good Mad Scientists, I can test my formulas on myself and my friends.
I’ve been tagged by Chris Miller for the Sixteen Things meme, in which one is supposed to share sixteen random facts about oneself. So, let’s see here…
1. I love being tall. I’ve gone through life being self-conscious about a lot of things over the years, but my height is one thing I’m very grateful for. I can reach the top shelves in cupboards, control the projector on the ceiling by going up on tiptoe, and see over the heads of nearly everyone else in the crowd. It’s one of those things I have no control over, so I can’t exactly be proud of it - but damn, it’s cool.
2. I love planes, especially fighter jets. I used to build models of them as a kid, with my dad’s help. It’s one of the few really happy memories that I have of my childhood relationship with my father.
3. As implied by #2, Dad and I didn’t get along very well until relatively recently. In my pre-teen years I think he didn’t know what to do with me; my pastimes and interests were alien to him, as his were to me. Our relationship is much better now, as we have each grown to respect the other in spite of our (often dramatic) differences of opinion.
4. Knick-nacks on my desk: two beanbag animals (a seal and a killer whale); five D&D monster minis (including the Gargantuan Black Dragon); a model of Serenity; a dragon holding a letter opener shaped like a sword; a posable wooden mannikin; a beach scene in a bottle; a chintzy porcelain dolphin sculpture given to me by friends at work; a garter belt that I caught at a wedding (still waiting for that tradition to pan out); a headband decorated with strawberries (an in-joke present from friends); a stuffed Yoda; a bronzed bust of a mermaid, based on a drawing by Monte Michael Moore; and my Podcast Peer Award for Best Production.
5. I collect mermaids. Paintings, the aforementioned bust, books of fantasy art, images found online — I even ran a story contest once in which I commissioned stories about mermaids. I love ‘em. And, incidentally, I think that The Little Mermaid would have been ten times better if they’d kept the original ending.
6. I think I have a bit of gender dysphoria. Not enough to make me feel like a stranger or a prisoner in my own body, but enough that I find myself drawn to certain things that would be considered more feminine than masculine. This may be why I find myself drawn to using transformation as a theme in fiction; I’m very envious of the androgynes in my Metamor City setting, as they have the freedom to explore both the masculine and feminine drives within themselves without experiencing any sort of prejudice for doing so.
7. I’ve never tried nicotine or any sort of illegal drug. I used to enjoy reading about them to find out how they worked and what they did to the body, but I’ve never actually tried any of them. Of course, part of that may have been because I didn’t know anyone who could sell them to me during my younger, stupider days.
8. I sing everywhere. In the car, while out walking, shopping in stores, while cooking, in the shower, with musical accompaniment or without — if I’m not intensely focused on something else, chances are good that I’m singing.
9. I get really annoyed at writers who don’t live up to the potential of their premise.
10. Ten years ago I was an ardent opponent of “condoning” homosexuality in fiction. I even had a falling out with two of my favorite authors on the TSA-Talk mailing list because they revealed that one of my favorite characters was a lesbian. Now, I’m an ardent supporter of marriage equality and have written about several gay and bisexual characters in a positive manner. Channing and Feech, if you ever read this: I’m sorry. You were right, and I was wrong.
11. I did my master’s thesis research on water conservation in fasting elephant seal pups. Like many projects in biology, that sounds kind of silly, but it actually had significant relevance to a much broader field of study about evolutionary adaptations in mammals.
12. The proudest moment of my life to date: When I defended my thesis to my peers and colleagues at the end of my master’s program.
13. I have had a crush for years on Christian singer-songwriter Rebecca St. James. I’ve met her three times at various events, gotten her autograph on several items, and one time even gave her a gushy handwritten letter about what a significant blessing her music had been in my life. She still isn’t married, and there’s a tiny part of me that still holds on to the ludicrous hope that I could be the one she’s been singing about waiting for all these years. Which is kind of pathetic, since I seem to lose the power of speech every time I get close to her.
14. Favorite artists: Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell, Luis Royo, Dorian Cleavenger, Alex Ross, and (the oddball exception to the overall pattern) Phil Foglio.
15. I taught myself to play the guitar a couple of years ago, largely because I was the worship leader for our little church and had gotten sick of dragging my ginormous electric keyboard around. I find playing guitar to be very relaxing; there’s something therapeutic about it, and it allows my mind to enter a sort of Zenlike state that I can’t get into if I’m just sitting there.
16. I hate answering online surveys. So that should tell you how much I value our friendship, Chris. :-p
To carry on the meme, I’m tagging the following people: Dan Sawyer, Scott Roche, Dani Cutler, Kimi Alexandre, John Scalzi, Mur Lafferty, Arcturus Rann, Jenivi7, DanaeWinters, Rachel George, Cunning Minx, Heather Bowman Tomlinson, Victoria Folks, Robin Hudson, Philippa Ballantine, and Kitty Nic’Iaian.
Just in time for the holidays, here are some gifts for that special Metamorph in your life…
As I sit here, nearly all of my worldly goods are packed up in my car and trailer, awaiting transport to California. Tomorrow morning I set out for Chicago, my first stop, where I’ll be visiting with two of my fellow podcasters. Subsequent stops will take me to Springfield (MO), Denver, Albuquerque, and Phoenix, before finally arriving in the Bay Area on July 31st.
I’ve been busy over the last week and a half working on the reading for my REACH Pre-Service program. Last Saturday I finished The Disciplined Mind, which is an excellent book that I heartily recommend to anyone interested in education. I’ll post my thoughts on the book in more detail in a later post. Right now I’m working on Mastery, a book written by a former Army Air Force pilot and aikido instructor — the premise of which is that there is a distinct path to self-improvement that requires us to love the process of self-improvement. We have to embrace the journey even when we’re not seeing results, because the practice itself is its own reward. I can speak to the truth of this on a number of levels, particularly in playing guitar and writing fiction. I’m a bit more than a third of the way through the book and greatly enjoying it; I look forward to continuing to digest it over the course of my travels.
Once I arrive in Cali I’ll be staying with a friend in Palo Alto until my room in Berkeley becomes available on August 4th. Her house is quiet and beautiful and has a lot of space in which to work, which will give me a great opportunity to focus in on my remaining coursework and crank through it quickly and steadily. I haven’t been able to spend as much time on the coursework as I would have liked to thus far — my previous day job, which ended yesterday, and the work of getting ready to move cross-country have utterly devoured my time — so I’m looking forward to the chance to be alone with the books, with no greater responsibility than to absorb this material and prepare for the career that awaits me.
Today is my last day at the office, and my co-workers have decorated my cubicle with streamers and balloons. Folks have been stopping by all morning to ask about my new career and to wish me luck. It’s funny how often we stop to appreciate things — or people — only when we’re about to lose them. In this, I mean not only my co-workers’ appreciation for me, but my own appreciation for the people in my life here.
“All change is felt as loss.” My friend Mae said that on her blog recently, and boy is it ever true. I know that the life that I’m headed for will be more satisfying, fulfilling and exciting than anything that I’ve done in years, and I’m very pleased that I will be geographically close to so many of my best friends. But I haven’t spent the last four years in a vacuum, either. I don’t have very many people here in Michigan who I’m still really close to, other than my parents, but the ones I do have are all the more precious for their scarcity. In particular, Bryan, Sara and Andrea have become very dear to me, and it saddens me to know that I’m only going to see them once or twice a year now — unless they decide to join me out in California, which is more than I can probably hope for. I’ve had dear friends in the past whom I’ve grown apart from, and it’s always heartbreaking. I’m grateful that that didn’t happen with my friends in Cali — Joe and Sarah, Art and Steph, Stina, Heather, Christie — but it’s a persistent fear at the back of my mind: I love these people and I don’t want to lose them.
I don’t often say it in those words, because they make us uptight Americans feel all funny and awkward, but it’s true. I truly, dearly love my friends here, and it hurts to leave them. I don’t want to say good-bye. I want to take them along with me as I start my new life, to keep them close to me forever … but I can’t. They can’t live their lives for me — and I can’t stay here to live my life for them. And so we part, in the joyful hope of better lives for each of us and the bitter sorrow of knowing that our paths no longer run beside each other.
Dammit, now I’m crying. But then, Tolkien said it best: “I will not say, ‘Do not weep,’ for not all tears are evil.”
All change is felt as loss — even the good kind. A month from now school will start, and I’ll be fully caught up in my new life. Six months from now I’ll have settled into some sort of routine and will, I suspect, be very glad of the choice that I made to go. I keep telling myself that, as scary and often sad as this transition is, it would be far, far worse if the opportunity had never come. If I’d seen my hopes fall apart again, after so much time and money invested in trying to get this job … well. The sort of black despair I would have fallen into is not something anyone would have wanted to see. Things truly are better this way. This is good. This is right.
But today I will weep for the friends I’m leaving … because this new chance for growth doesn’t come without a price. And it’s a price I’m feeling very keenly today.
“Most certainly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” -John 12:24 (World English Bible)
I haven’t posted much on this blog lately. That’s mostly because I’m wrapped up in another blog, the one I have to do as part of my education training:
Much of the stuff discussed there will probably mean little to people who aren’t already part of the Reach Institute’s training program, but it nevertheless has to take priority right now, because that blog is actually school-work for me. Those of you who are interested in seeing the sorts of things that a new teacher is trained in may find it of value. For those who are bored stiff by such things, I apologize, and I hope to be able to get back to putting fun stuff on this blog soon. I definitely want to record my cross-country adventure when it happens, so keep your eyes peeled for my travel blog…