Miranda Rights for Parents

Olivia 24-7 Amalgam.jpg

“Anything you read can and will be used against you.”
-Any seasoned parent.

It’s been a while since I had a four-year-old at the house. It’s been a while since I walked into a room and felt the punch-gut fear that comes from seeing your oldest make a speedy get-away, smelling of smoke and clad in nothing but whitie-tighties and a cloak of guilt. It’s been a long time since I’ve pulled a smoking pillow or pink blankie from the top of a halogen lamp.

But I still remember the good old days, when the light was hazardous but the books were not.

Now, my kids are reading things they shouldn’t. The bills and alumni magazines piled on my kitchen counter. The books hidden in my closet. Or—most infamously—the copy of How To Negotiate With Kids left carelessly at the top of the bookshelf.

I suspect they’re skillfully applying these things against me, but since I haven’t read the source material, I can’t be sure. And all this mature content just falls from their hands into a giant, ever-growing pile of slush I’d love to read but can’t.

As a dutiful father, I’ve tried to provide kid-appropriate reading alternatives: Alcatraz versus The Evil Librarians, The Hobbit, and Calvin and Hobbes (sigh). But in spite of my redoubled efforts, they still manage to find the dangerous stuff.  For example, the other day I caught my youngest  reading Safety 24/7.

I’m told that kids like to try out adult stuff sometimes. “Don’t worry about it,” the experts say. “It’s part of growing up.”

Really? Safety primers for heavy industry?

And my nine-year-old daughter didn’t  “get bored and put it down.” Does this make anyone else uneasy? When a fourth grader can read and take pleasure in standard-fare management lit, shouldn’t we worry about the intelligence of the American management community? (Or maybe we just need to add more trendy business words to keep kids confused.)

She was still reading Safety 24/7 the next day. I know because she was walking around the house making annoying safety comments. In other words, I basically got to read Safety 24/7 twice, because I’d already read it for work. And I hate doing work twice.

When I took my kids in for an annual doctor’s check-up, the nine-year-old brought Safety 24/7 along for the waiting room, and she was on page 60.

Me: “I didn’t realize you liked that book so much.”

Daughter: “Daa-aad!”

M: “Seriously.  You haven’t given up yet. You must be learning something.”

D: “I liked how Kurt got the painter on the ladder to be more safe without saying something that would make the painter mad.”

M: “Anything else?”

D: “I liked how he got people to use the word ‘incident’ instead of ‘accident.’ That way they remembered to have responsibility.”

In this moment I realized we could have our own little safety teaching moment. I pointed to her bare—I blame California—feet.

M: “What about you? Do you know the risks of going barefoot into the
doctor’s office?

D, grinning: “There’s  always more risk this way, but I can mitigate some of
that risk by my increased awareness of the problem.”

Her words, not mine. I should probably be a little more careful about what books I leave lying around.

 

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Unexpected Book Reviews

Book Review-Ghost-Houses-Mote-lament-Three-Part

In August, I took an unexpected trip to Germany and the Nordic countries.  I hadn’t planned on going, but the stars suddenly aligned, and I found myself wrapping up projects and packing my bags for Hamburg.

I’ll save the details for another post, but spending time with professional writers got me thinking about some of the good books I’ve read recently, and want to emulate. I generally don’t review books I don’t like, so if you see it here, there was something special about it.

GHOST TALKERS
Mary Robinette Kowal
It’s World War I and the Allied Powers are taking intelligence reports  from the ghosts of dying soldiers. Pretty solid strategy until the Central Powers find out, and the cloak and dagger starts. This collision of ordinary and supernatural put a new spin on the themes of love and war. The entire story is enjoyable, but I particularly liked watching the deceased soldiers make their final report. The pathos of these moments—as the soldiers realize they have died and this is their last communion with the physical world—created a weighty texture for me, and begged the question, “What message would I send?”

THREE PARTS DEAD
Max Gladstone
Feels like science fiction, but is fantasy. Magical power is traded in contracts, and even the poorest villages rely on that power. When the biggest brokers fall, wielders “Craft” are called on to patch things up before nations tumble. But sometimes the contracts are complicated, and riddled with Craft-sucking parasites that don’t go quietly. Oh, and the biggest brokers of power are the gods.

The stakes are high, the characters well-drawn, and the plot is intricate and almost unpredictable. Gladstone borrows nothing from the fantasy tropes of yesteryear, except maybe the concept of “mostly dead.”

I especially liked the cigarette, though I don’t smoke.

PARTIALS
Dan Wells
Post-apocalyptic gene thriller for young adults. Partials is about surviving in a world where young adults aren’t the dominant life form anymore, about a disease that kills every newborn, and about the genetic experiment that doesn’t quite bring humanity back from the brink. There is an angsty teenager and the beginnings of a triangle, but even if YA isn’t your cup of tea, the story is pretty awesome. I’d recommend the beginning of the book for young adult readers, and the rest of the book for everybody.

LAMENTATIONS: PSALMS OF ISAAK
Ken Scholes
Reads like fantasy, but is science fiction… I think. Lamentations starts with the city of Windwir burning to the ground. Of its splendor and glory, only the mecho-serviteurs remain, caught between warring factions who arrive late on the scene to apportion blame and profit from the apocalyptic disaster. Magicked scouts (drugged men) move with such great speed and silence that skirmishes and battles are fought in the anticipated rush of wind and unseen tactical guesswork.  I enjoyed the character arcs for each POV, and the audio version’s multiple narrators. (I don’t usually enjoy multiple narrators. There’s something about that bass voice, though.)

HOUSES OF COMMON
Derick William Dalton
Houses of Commons felt like coming home. Ranyk works for an optimistic, government-run space agency hampered by red-tape and political interference. Ranyk just wants to do his job–terraform worlds for political refugees—but unfortunately, his entire team is caught in the cross-fire of conflicting conspiracies. And Ranyk’s crusty exoskeleton and sarcastic wit haven’t exactly improved the situation.

Some Amazon reviewers say Houses of Commons is “too smart,” but I really liked it. Not only was the humor right up my alley—“You named your helmet?  And its name is Helmut?”—but the science is plausible and the characters well-developed. I’d recommend Houses of Common to smart people, smart-mouthed people, and people who like NASA, xenobiology, and political intrigue. My one hang-up was the cliff-hanger ending. I’ve never been a fan of cliff hangers , but the brilliant sarcasm outweighs the discomfort of having to order the sequel.

MOTE IN GOD’S EYE  
Jerry Pournelle & Larry Niven
Landmark Science Fiction. Commander Roderick Blaine and the staff of INSS MacArthur are tasked with first contact to an older and more intelligent alien civilization. Inexplicably, these “Moties” have been stuck in their own star system for several millennia, despite the existence of faster than light travel (Alderson drives) and shields (Langston fields). During diplomatic exchanges, the MacArthur is destroyed, leaving Blaine and his crew on a political tightrope with no “good” solutions.

I loved reading The Mote in God’s Eye. Both humans and Moties demonstrate valid and persuasive competing interests. I liked both parties so much I found myself looking for a loopholes allowing each to succeed in spite of mutually exclusive competing interests. Many of the characters were equally complex, with several demonstrating both villainous and heroic agendas. I would recommend this story to everyone, but especially to those interested in landmark science fiction,  efficient storytelling, and deep conflict.

 

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Don’t Do Drugs, Kids.

Evidently I’ve been pushing myself too hard these last few weeks.  A few late nights ago I was trying to put down lines of dialogue (argument) between two characters in an upcoming Paladin’s Thief book.

I could feel myself slipping, my brain lying to me that I could close my eyes and type this last brilliant line without looking at anything. Or it might have been the medication talking. The Doc put me on antibiotics, heavy duty cough syrup, and some kind of prescription steroid meant to knock down the strep throat, the feverish sleep, and the general sense of temporal inadequacy.

“One more line? Of course I can do that. . .” I thought sluggishly.  “No need to lose this last important thought over a few droopy eyelids.”

The morning after my first thought was to get off the drugs. Nobody wants to read this crap:

“@hq5 ir 5hq5 loyql5y 3s53ne3e 5o 3veryone in this big world?”

With a  few minutes of soul-searching, I realized this is the exact phrase you get when you misplace your left hand exactly one row too high on the keyboard and type the following phrase.

“What if that loyalty extended to everyone in this big world?”

Moral of the story. Don’t do drugs, kids. Or maybe just quit while you’re ahead. Bonus points if you can guess whose line this will be, assuming it doesn’t get cut.

 

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Drugs Collage 2

He-Man Calvin / Tiger-by-the-Tail Calvin

Closet Secrets.

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My son found them in my closet, stashed  behind my least favorite dress shirts.

I knew, because I caught him trying to sneak them out.

“Those are mine,” I said.
“I just want to read them.”
“I know. That’s why I hid them in my closet.”

This is the kid who—as a six-year-old—singlehandedly  loved my entire Calvin and Hobbes collection into oblivion. There’s a reason six-year-olds aren’t supposed to be good readers.  The parts of the books that  eventually made it back to the bookshelf were only spared the rubbish pile because I couldn’t afford to replace them, and because a house without a Calvin and Hobbes book (or scrap pile, as case may be) is a house not worth living in.

So it was normal for me to hide my newly-purchased Schlock Mercenary books in the master closet. A guy should be able to read a book at least once before the cover falls off. And my plan would have worked if the meddling kid hadn’t noticed the mailer-receipt I’d carelessly abandoned on the kitchen counter. After the hunt began,  no room was sacred.

I’m not a big connoisseur of comics, but this one has stuck with me.  I’ve followed the online iteration for several years now. Schlock Mercenary delivers a sci-fi punch line in every strip, and it’s written and drawn by one of the smartest people I know.  And I work at NASA.

Incidentally, I got to sit with Howard Tayler  and his chief of staff Sandra for an hour at LTUE in February and plug them about the do’s and don’ts of quitting your day job. They gave me some good advice, signed the previously-mentioned closet copies, and told me random stories about bog butter and what it takes to maintain the creative genius under duress.

Interviewing Howard and Sandra Tayler was definitely in my top three for the LTUE conference. (Getting there  in a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr  ranks fourth.)

So there’s the setup.  I have a box of funny books in my closet from a funny cartoonist. I also now have a funny thirteen-year-old in my closet reading through the 700+ page collection because I told him the books don’t leave my closet until I’ve read them all. And while I still have a full-time job, he only leaves the closet to forage for Cheez-Its.

If you like medium-hard  (yes, I made that up) science fiction / space opera humor, check out Schlock Mercenary. The early cartoon drawings are “rudimentary,” Howard insists, but that makes them even funnier in my opinion, because I’m super mature.

I’m also super glad Howard quit his day job.

–Ben

Howard and Sandra Tayler1

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Book Reviews: Multiple

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It’s 1:00 am and the road is lonely. Steady white lines play out into the endless blackness ahead and behind. The siren song of humming pavement promises cool sheets and a ceiling fan, if only I’ll close my eyes and forget the steering wheel.

Fortunately, I’m wide awake.  I’m not just driving home from Memphis. I’m doing research.

Audiobooks are the best caffeine.

Chronicles of the Black Company
Grimdark before there was grimdark. Read this if you like fantasy protagonists who are decent fellows but happen to be working for the bad guy. And know it. And rationalize it. There isn’t a lot of moralizing here, but it was an interesting approach to the fantasy genre. Black Company is not as violent and bloody as contemporary grimdark.

Snow Crash
Big ideas. Big characters. A fascinating read about a virus that can infect both computers and humans, especially those who have internalized the binary language of machines into the deep structures of their brain (i.e programmers and hackers).  There’s a fair bit of violence and profanity, and some sex, so buyer beware. The story felt jerky and jumped around a little, but that may just be a feature of Neal Stephenson’s approach to telling the story. Listening to this one was definitely a plus.

Off to be the WizardSpell or HighwaterUnwelcome Quest
Nerd fantasy. Reality is just a big computer program, and we’re all a bunch of subroutines. Of course nobody knows this except the lucky few who stumble across the program’s Rosetta stone, an innocuous text file stored on random corporate mainframes across the globe.  And by modifying this text file, the lucky can modify reality. Need some money? No problem!  Want to live in 11th Century England? Allons-Y! Want to change your Pontiac Fiero’s coefficient of entropy and take it back with you?

These books are fun and irreverent, and put the jocks of sci-fi and fantasy in the driver seat.  Fun read. Even funnier if you’ve ever been a 13-year old boy, but aren’t anymore.

Consider the Fork
 This is not science fiction or fantasy. It’s Bee Wilson’s treatise on the evolution of the kitchen technology we take for granted. Cleverly written, it almost always kept my interest, except around mile three of a four mile jog. . . I especially liked the tips about judging the “doneness” of a steak and the discussion of how eastern cultures  (not western) invented disposable chopsticks because a piece of someone’s essence stays with the used utensils even after it’s been washed. (Ingesting a piece of someone else’s soul isn’t sanitary.)

His Majesty’s Dragon
My favorite book this last quarter is His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik, hands down. I am not a regency era expert (see my comparison of Jane Austen and J. R. R. Tolkien), but the banter  between characters, the careful phrasing, the pacing, and the social intrigue all felt very much like an Austen novel.  Then add intelligent dragons and the Napoleonic wars.  As with Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan and the general steampunk genre, I was dubious about this book. At first glance, mixing dragons and Jane seems like a stretch.

Or perhaps a pulled muscle.

But Novik’s style reduces the sensationalism without killing the magic. The characters have some depth, the dialogue is tasteful, and the action scenes are laden with layered meaning. The story sails by in a blink, and I didn’t bat an eye when my kids asked to listen in. Only the ending felt rushed, as if the regency muse stepped out for a tea break while Novik was penning the last few pages.

It’s 10:00 pm and small-gauge gravel sticks between the grooves in my running shoes, pressing into the pads of my feet.  Sweat drips down my face, my arms, and my everywhere. It pools between palm and mobile device. It coats the earphone cord I have to hold out of the way as I jog. Only an idiot runs this far in Houston.

But I have research to do, and a torn ACL to rehab. And miles to go before I sleep.

What books keep you awake at night?

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UNDIES and EDITS

Underwear

Every year, my family packs their bags and heads to southern California for the in-laws’ family reunion. There is whining about not having enough time to pack, people sneaking video games instead of packing, people wailing about missing undies, blankies, and swimsuits. Sometimes, one off-task child will come galloping through the bedlam, wearing another’s clean underwear like a jaunty French beret, taunting and just out of reach.

I’m not pointing any fingers. I’m just saying it happens. If your drawers aren’t in your drawers, they might be on someone’s head.

This year, though, I needed to be at work. I dropped Cami and the kids at the airport and waved them off. And despite a full plate at NASA, I’ve found myself with a bit of extra time. Here’s what I’ve been doing:

THE PALADIN’S THIEF: SHADOWCLOAKS
Book Four is well underway, with about 45% left to write on the 1st draft.  I’m really excited about the story and motivated to move forward on it every night when I get home from work.

Even more, I’ve noticed that my writing process continues to evolve. I wrote DARTS cold, start-to-finish on a whim and made improvements over the course of three years. I produced RINGS in three months, with a bare idea and a novella’s worth of backstory to start from.  By the time I finished RINGS, I’d also roughed in several important scenes for SWORDS, and had a holey outline (unwritten).

SHADOWCLOAKS has been very different. Its core concept sprouted as I was drafting RINGS and dreaming up SWORDS, and this allowed me to set up clues in advance. Unlike the first few drafts of DARTS, SHADOWCLOAKS naturally contains a novel arc and a series arc, and I’ve had to outline  more as the complexity and depth grow and the story components suggest recommend unexpected plot deviations. Whenever my outlining gets especially thick, descriptive, and prosy, I cut it from the outline and paste it into the main document, making little islands of story until they all start to join together. But more on outlining in another post.

OFFICE MONSTERS
I like funny things and funny people. Sometimes they like me back.  OFFICE MONSTERS has been distracting me from the stuff I’m good at, but forces me to think about different angles for storytelling, reducing word count, and looking for the humor in everyday situations.

So I’ve written scripts for 10-12 comics, and Marta is drawing and coloring them.

PLAGUE RUNNERS
I got my science fiction manuscript back from a potential agent.  It was his second review, but PlagueRunners didn’t make the cut. That stings a little, but I’ve only submitted it to one agent, and he read it twice and gave specific and useful feedback for improving it.

DARTS
Sometimes when I get home in the evenings, I’m too drained to write, but I’m not too drained to read aloud. Just need to dig out the Shure SM57 Microphones from the jazz combo days. Anyone interested in an audiobook?

SUMMARY
With any luck, I’ll be finished with the first draft of SHADOWCLOAKS before my family gets back from vacation.  And one other thing I’ve learned this summer:  Worrying about who will criticize or hate your project is death. Thinking about how behind schedule you are is death. Looking for underwear cartoons for your blog post is . . . probably not a good idea.

Above all, the best thing that’s happened this week (besides phone calls from California) has been spending afterhours on something I love. Being thankful for that time—productive or not—has made all the difference.

Be thankful.

 

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