Freddy, The Cockroach of Perfection


I returned to a very quiet house from a family trip to the Pacific Northwest. It’s quiet because Cami and the kids have reunion duty in California while I pay the bills and tidy up a few stories for publication.

Saturday. The silence is deafening here. I can hear the thunder of our refrigerator and the steady tick-tick-tick of the mantle clock in the absence of exuberant children.

It’s almost quiet enough to hear Freddy, the dead cockroach. He’s on the floor of Cami’s office, begging for a fitting burial, legs up in the air, as poison (or starvation) takes its toll. I try to ignore him each time I check the parakeet, but he’s getting into my head. Did he just move?

On Tuesday he’s still there, and still dead, and now he’s invited a friend, also dead.

Those of you that haven’t lived south of Waco should consider yourselves lucky. There are few things creepier than reaching into a dark cupboard and feeling the skitter of cockroach feet across the sensitive part of your hand. That’s the feeling I get every time I walk past Freddy and wish my kids were here, because they love finding cockroaches. “Dad, you owe me five cents. I just cleaned up another one!”

Nobody’s going to clean up that roach.

On Wednesday I give him extra space, going outside to eat my Jimmy John’s sandwich. The 90 degrees Fahrenheit is a welcome change to my freezing office. The lizards are running across the deck, doing pushups and flaring out a big orange throat flap they use to get the attention of the opposite sex. Not unlike Facebook I suppose.

I relax into my favorite deck chair and enjoy the show, sitting so still that a lizard crawls up the plastic back and onto the collar of my shirt. Unaware of the passenger, I bring it inside with me once I’ve finished my sandwich. He sits on my collar for 20 minutes until the AC starts to cool him down. That’s when I feel the tiny little claws on my neck. For the split second before launch, all I can think about is Freddy and his dead buddy crawling about my neck. The lizard flies through the air and lands among the plants gathered for vacation plant care (another story).

After that, I sweep up the dead roaches. It’s not worth carrying that kind of burden.

I do this too often.  I shy away from things that irritate, intimidate, or feel unclear or difficult to me. Last week I made a comment on one of my favorite podcasts about Fantasy and Science Fiction storytelling, Writing Excuses. For several days my comment stayed in comment moderation limbo. In the back of my head I wondered: Am I not good enough to have my comments accepted? Did my website link offend someone? Was I supposed to do something differently? Eventually I made the effort to reach out to a few people who are familiar with such things. I’m not sure what they did, but within an hour, my comment had been accepted. It’s a small thing, but it reminded me that starting small is sometimes better than waiting until you can see the end from the beginning.

This struggle manifests in my writing. I don’t want to write anything down that’s not brilliant, so I chew on my pen cap or write seven different opening lines and discard them all. I’m trying to be perfect before I’ve even finished draft one. To combat this, I wrote a crappy post this week, start to finish. I slept on it, rewrote it, and sent it to my brother for a second opinion. I took hard feedback, and worked on it some more. Each time, the path became a little clearer, reminding me that sometimes the best advice is to start small.

Right now I’m working through the sixth draft of my novel Plague Runners, and I needed this advice more than ever. “Keep writing Ben. You’re planting ideas that won’t be ripe until tomorrow.” A special thanks to Diann Read and Peter Ahlstrom, who each encouraged me this week in their own way.

Call to Action:
Write a short poem about a preferred topic (lizards, cockroaches, or turnips?). Let it sit overnight, and then rewrite it. Ask a friend to critique it. For the especially brave, post the final poem in the comments here or on Facebook. I’m particularly interested in how your concept changed after a good night’s sleep.

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GENRE:      Steampunk
MARKET:    Young Adult
RATING:     10 Genetically-Modified Airships out of 10
SWEAROMETER:  World-Specific. Beautifully done.


I’ve been avoiding the steampunk genre for a long time, I’ll admit. The concept of grafting future technology into Victorian-esque settings has always seemed a bit . . . well, silly. Responding to a few pointed recommendations, I finally picked up an audio copy of Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld.

It caught me completely by surprise, and I enjoyed every moment of it. The book is about the Great War, but the Central powers wield imaginative machinery and the Allied powers meddle in massive genetically-engineered “beasties.”

The story maintains a lively pace, alternating  viewpoints between Aleksandar, an immature Austrian prince running from his political enemies after his father’s assassination, and Deryn Sharp, an exuberant girl who has joined the Royal British (air) Navy disguised as a boy. The exposition unfolds naturally amid the action, and the characters and setting are vividly rendered. I could smell the smoking flares and machine oil in Alek’s Stormwalker. I could feel the heartbeat of Deryn’s living airship, the Leviathan, as it lumbers through a strafing run, bleeding hydrogen. I could see the massive land dreadnoughts churning the snow beneath them and hear the thunder of their cannons. And the tension only heightens when these two worlds collide and Alek and Deryn meet for the first time. (Not to be forgotten, Westerfeld’s world-appropriate swearing  is spot-on. It fits, is fun for adults, and makes the kids laugh too.)

Leviathan is an experience. The whole book is alive. Perhaps it’s Alan Cumming’s Scottish accent: his spirited performance made me laugh and rewind for the exceptionally good bits. I’ve heard the print version doesn’t disappoint, either.  It may not have clever Scottish, English, and Austrian (German) accents, but it does have fabulous illustrations.

Read Leviathan if you like upbeat, quick-paced storytelling and hilarious dialogue. Read it if you’re ready for a change from classic science fiction. Start here if you’re looking for a primer on steampunk but haven’t had the nerves to pull one off the library shelf yet.

Skip Leviathan if genetic manipulation gives you the willies, or you’re looking for something with a dark, depressing ending.

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Personal Essay: Swimming Cell Phones

What drew me to Fantasy and Science Fiction as a child was its emphasis on possibility. You can slay (or tame) that dragon. You can destroy the ring. Good triumphs over evil. New technology forces us to grips with our shortcomings and helps us remember our humanity. Though both genres offer examples where this is NOT the case (I Am Legend, Richard Matheson and A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin), this focus has often pushed me to ask the question “what if . . .” in my own life. Why not challenge overwhelming odds?

“Why not try out for the middle school starting fullback position on the football team? Never mind that I’m 90 pounds, sopping wet.”

“Why not ask that girl out? So what if she is out of my league?”

“What if I audition for the high school musical? Who cares if I’m I a senior and have never taken theatre before?”

“What if I self-publish this story?”

My best experiences come from dreaming big and following through. So when your Nokia 5310 GSM goes for a swim, dream big:

Saturday, November 6, 2010
The lifespan of your average cell phone is longer if it doesn’t go swimming in Clearlake, which is exactly what ours did last week, and all our contacts with it. (Not my fault.)

On Saturday I decide to mount a recovery effort. I pack up the kids and some essentials—socks, flippers, flipper-booties, snorkel mask, trunks—and head on back to the dock. Just so you know, the mask isn’t to see better.  The bottom of Clearlake is actually buried in 8-inches of mud, oyster shells, and alligator droppings. It’s murky as all getout down there. The mask is actually for keeping the icy salt water off my cheeks and eyes.

I get all that stuff on, leaving the kids under a pile of clothes on the dock for insulation.  They promise me they’ll sit. Unfortunately, the water is colder than I’ve anticipated and they giggle and run for high ground when I thrash in the water. They settle down after I assure them I won’t splash anymore. By now I’m too numb. They resume their assigned tasks of watching for alligators, keeping my emergency towels dry, and not falling in.  Some of them shout helpful hints like, “You’re probably not going to find it,” and “I’m cold.”

I agree: it’s cold. I’ve only found a beer bottle. There’s nothing to see. It’s dark and cold down there and the only comfort is the fact that the mud is a few degrees warmer than the water. I climb up onto the dock.

“Get back in the water dad,” my five-year-old daughter, Eve, insists. She’s already said a prayer to help me find the phone, and she’s not about to let me give up. She uses her sweet-and-matter-of-fact-voice: “You need to look a little farther out.”

So I make a few passes a little farther out. I’m 8 feet under and about 10 feet from the dock now. The water is icy and the mud is still black. The oyster shells are still scratchy. I swim as low as I can and hold my breath. This isn’t very long, because my chest keeps shriveling up and forcing the air out of my lungs thanks to the cold temperature. It’s been 15 minutes and staying out any longer would be foolishness. A SIM card is not worth this. . . .

My hand brushes over something rectangular and hard, right where Eve told me to look.No kidding.

I get out and strip down to my trunks, ignoring the “NUTJOB!” looks from passing motorists.

Eve hands me my towel and I hand her the phone. “Hold it carefully,” I say ineffectually as the phone slides down the slanted dock ramp. Luckily, it snags on a traction rail. This time I zip it into the jacket that Carter (7) has reluctantly returned to me.

“I’m cold.”

“Yeah, me too. Can you help me carry some of this stuff?”

Olivia (3) hops around gleefully on the way back to the car. “You did it, daddy! You did it!” Eve’s carrying the wet mask. Carter’s got my pair of corderoys wrapped around his neck like an extra-long scarf.

After a short operation at home, it’s obvious that the SIM card works. I know because we put it in a somewhat drier, older model phone that we’d been using as kid bait for the last few years.

When my wife gets home she is shocked to see the old phone operating under brain transplant. “I thought that phone was gone forever!”

“Some of it may be,” I respond, “but the contact list isn’t.”

Dream big.

Nokia GSM 5310 (2)

Personal Essay: Lizard Bites Cold Man’s Tongue

July 3rd 2015

I caught a lizard today at work. He was sun-bathing outside Building 4S at JSC, ribs rising and falling peacefully, lazy eyes dipping shut for long seconds at a time. I stood in the warm sun and watched him for at least two minutes, watched his eyes dim and re-open.

I’d gone outside because my new office is bitter cold and facilities management is on their third attempt at getting things under control. The room was originally designed for handling the heat loads from a Shuttle Era mainframe computer, and I guess one guy in his mid-thirties doesn’t throw off that much heat. Getting to work is like a sad version of that opening scene from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood: I take off my nice black dress shoes and slip on thick pair of wool socks, soccer length. Instead of loafers, I use thick-hide cowboy boots. Mr. Rogers gets a comfy sweater, while I get a gray hoodie from Old Navy, followed by the black blazer once kept exclusively for important meetings with upper management.

Of all the government agencies, you’d think NASA could get environmental controls right, but we’re just as bad as the next. When we build an office building, we don’t build it like a spacecraft. We build it with the short game in mind. (Or we did in the ’60s and ’80s.)  While the walls are modular, the air handlers, thermostat controls, and ducting are not. Every time NASA re-orgs, the walls are reconfigured, and the thermostats creep farther and farther from the rooms they control. After twenty or thirty years, the temperature control to your office might be in the third floor ladies room (don’t ask me why), while the temperature gauge is in the second floor spacesuit lab. Spare no expense. . .

In my old office, people in the conference room next door used to come beg me to turn the temperature down.  “We’re roasting,” they’d say.

I wasn’t particularly understanding. “Deal with it, suckers. It’s only for an hour.”

Payback stinks. I like my job, but (Boss are you reading this?) my new office is a bit cold. Like cold enough to freeze penguins. At least twice today my co-workers asked if they could just leave their lunches since the fridge is almost full. Very funny, Patrick, and you other guy whose name I can’t remember.

That’s why I went outside to sun myself with the lizards. Call it kinship. I suddenly understood the temptation to lie in the sun all day and blink lethargically.  I watched him blink, and he ignored me because I was too cold to move. I noticed his eye pattern after a while: open for one second, close for three. The part of me that is still ten years old goads my more mature self:

Young Ben:   “Bet you can’t catch that lizard when he closes his eyes.”
Old Ben:         “I’m not as slow as I look.”
Young Ben:   “Yes you are. You’re practically decrepit. You have to sun yourself to stay warm!”
Old Ben:         “Shut up. I’ll show you.”

The next time the lizard closes its eyes, I put my right hand over him quickly and carefully, so he can’t run, and then carefully grasp him by the head with my left hand, between thumb and pointer finger.  Even so, he almost gets away, and he definitely isn’t happy about getting a cold hug from my hand. He opens his mouth wide, griping about the interrupted nap and trying to look ferocious. I notice patterns of blue scaling right under his eyes, and bring him up close to my face to watch his color change from black to greenish brown.

Young Ben: “Bet you can’t poke him in the face with your tongue.”

. . .

Have you ever tried to swear with a lizard clamped to the tip of your tongue? You’re better than that?  Good. ’Cause it’s pretty dang hard.

“Owthh! Thammmit!”

You can say whatever you want ’cause they will literally hang from your tongue for hours, grinding their tiny little jaws as you shout poorly-enunciated expletives. They. Don’t. Let. Go.

Every few seconds his legs would windmill a little bit to see if he could get traction. I gave him a good perch on my finger, but that didn’t seem to make him any more secure, so I took my finger back and gave him a little tug—not hard—but the tug  only pulled my tongue out farther.

I’m nailed to the spot, trying to breathe through my nose, imagining what might happen if someone comes out the back door at that very moment. My mouth is hanging wide open and my tongue is trying to waggle the lizard loose, and he’s holding on tighter for it, tail swinging back and forth. I can’t close my mouth either because I don’t really want the flavor of lizard underbelly in my mouth, and I wouldn’t be able to close it fully anyway.


A couple of odd thoughts cross  my mind: What would the pierced gentry down at Hot Topic say about this? I could try stuffing the lizard in my mouth and then approach them all casual like, “Tongue-ring? Yeah, thaths pretty cool, but beat thith!” and then unfurl my tongue-lizard with great pride.

Or even better, tell my seven-year-old to keep a straight face while I try to read her Green Eggs and Ham or Fox in Sox. Or one of my terribly serious fantasy stories.

What works in the end is a firm, steady grip on the little monster’s head and a steady pull. He doesn’t give up without a fight, but I do prevail, and we’re both happier once he’s scurried back into the bushes. Of course he probably told the story a little differently when he got home from work that day: “And that, you little lizards, is how the tiny dragon slew the giant knight!”

. . .

That’s another thing. Stories are usually better in retrospect, after a bit of self-examination, and that same reflection can give rise to interesting insights. DARTS is based on a dinner I had with some work associates after a Space Shuttle Quarterly Review.  RINGS came from my wife’s comment  that I had ended a late draft of DARTS wrong and my brother’s insistence that I had too much story for one story. Plague Runners (in editing) was born from seeing my then-two-year-old daughter put her tongue to the black rail of a moving walkway in an airport and watching in horror as it slid beneath her tongue for several seconds before I could yank her away. (Like father, like daughter?)

At first, these things frightened me, suggesting I was inadequate, but when I realized only my ego had been harmed, they drove me to examine more deeply and to see more clearly. Observation is the knack for seeing things right in front of you and thinking about them in a new light. “What would happen if. . .”

What’s something you’ve wondered about? Funny, strange things happen when you ask questions and look for tiny details. Things worth writing about. Try it. Stir the pot. Lick a non-venomous lizard. Tell me about it.

A different lizard