Monday, April 30, 2012
"Z for Stats" was not, in fact, my cheat; gamers of a certain age might remember it as the last keyboard command from the Ultima IV Computer Role Playing Game. Today with high-resolution graphics, better input devices, and even better sound there are very few constraints on what a game-writer can do. Years ago we didn't have any of this, so game designers had to operate under constraints of technology including graphics, sound, and input interfaces. The remarkable thing is that many of them were still able to create an immersive gaming environment and a compelling experience within the constraints of the technology. In fact, I'd argue that working within those constraints created a deeper and richer experience than many modern games with fewer such limitations. Being restricted to keyboard commands, for example, means having to choose which 26 things you want a character to be able to do, and then trying to shoehorn them into the alphabet in a reasonable enough way that the player won't go scurrying for the quick reference guide every ten minutes. Some - O)pen, T)alk were obvious, while others J)immy lock or Y)ell "Giddyup" or "Whoa" (to make your horse go faster or slower) were certainly among the game's quirks.
What does all of this have to do with a writing or technology blog? The same concept comes up in writing. This A to Z challenge was all about fitting thoughts into the artificial constraint of the alphabet. Formal poetry, from sonnets to Haiku, is about fitting ideas and images into a specific meter and rhyme. These often require a specific kind of thought and care with each choice, leading to a very different work than one would have free-form. I very much enjoyed taking this trip through the alphabet with you, and likely shared a handful of things that I'd not have absent prompting from the alphabet. Was it, therefore, a success? I'll say yes.
Now that we finished the April challenge I'll step down from the daily schedule, but will be back later this week with either technology or writing. I hope some of you who found me through A to Z will stick around to see where we go next.
Friday, April 27, 2012
Remember way back at the letter 'N' I wrote about "Nightmare Fuel", Andrea Traske's daily photo-prompt exercise on Google+? I gave a shout-out to Matt Champine who e-published a collection - Cold Shivers, available on Amazon.com - of his Nightmare-fueled stories. Well, I seem to have posted too soon, as Andrea herself just published her own Nightmare Fuel collection over on Smashwords.
But Leonard, you ask, isn't this supposed to be the letter "Y"? And what areYarnmen? Yarnmen are, apparently, little men made of yarn. The particular yarnmen here are Andrea's other creation, and a promotion for the collection. If Andrea gets 100 sales by Monday night (two days from the writing of this post) she'll give one of these charmingly creepy figures to each of three randomly chosen customers. This is the kind of fun, grass-roots level creative marketing that makes small-scale independent book publishing so much fun. Is it scalable to larger marketing efforts without risking loss of authenticity? Probably not, but that doesn't much matter to me. I see the book, the process of daily prompts, and the giveaway all as a work of art. It's something that would have been inconceivable even a few years ago, but today we can each have our own publications, our own promotions which take advantage of our talents, and find our own audience. That's anything but a nightmare.
I'll see you Monday to wrap this up with the letter 'Z', in which I might cheat a tiny bit.
The first thing one notices about an XLR as compared to, say, the RCA plugs in the back of your stereo is that it locks into place with a satisying click. This does two things: first, it makes sure the connector stays in place. This is especially sensible in a permanent installation where there's no reason to remove it and you don't want people to have to re-connect and disconnect. Second is that there are three pins instead of the two you might have been expecting. (One professional tells a story about an applicant for a technical position who identified the three pins as "Left, Right, and Ground." To a professional, this is quite thoroughly and obviously wrong). It's called a balanced audio signal in that there's the signal, a ground, and an inverse of the original signal. Balanced audio is used to run longer distances than unbalanced because when the negative signal is flipped over and added to the positive, any noise should cancel out to some extent. This leaves you with a much cleaner signal than you'd get with unbalanced audio. XLR connectors can also be easily field-terminated by soldering (as can RCAs).
As an aside, if someone ever asks you how to wire an XLR, just remember this rhyme: "Two is hot, three is not." Pin 2 is +, Three is -, and one is the shield or ground.
With the growing trend towards digital video, consumer-type connectors have been invading the commercial world in the form of the now-ubiquitous HDMI. I've seen quite a few cases in which this cause issues, especially in the case of plenum-rated HDMI cables with very wide bend-radiuses. They have a natural tendency to pull out of connectors, especially given the fact that the cable might need to be twisted to align the connector correctly. There have recently been improvements, with locking HDMI connectors starting to come to market as well as field-terminatable HDMI connectors. The latter still requires special tools, special cable, and what appears to be a fair bit of patiences. It's a kind of solution the professional world is still seeking, but with HDMI the de-facto standard digital input and output it's a solution we will certainly need. (Yes, HD-SDI is a digital format which uses locking BNC connectors and doesn't have DRM built into it. It's arguably a better professional level choice, but can't send HDCP protected content, doesn't carry the EDID device identification codes, and is primarily used in broadcast applications).
I'll see you tomorrow for Y, as we run through the home stretch.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
It's "Take your children (formerly take your daughters) work day. My employer, AVI-SPL, invited us to participate with our children. Given the greater presence men still have in the workplace, part of me wishes this were still a day for just girls, but it's still a worthy idea to let our children see another part of our lives. I do think it's important for girls to see the workplace as an option for them and am very disappointed that they can't have something for themselves. To not allow special opportunities for girls is, in my mind, an ill-advised commitment to formal equality as opposed to actual equality.
As an AV project engineer, my actual work activity isn't all that much fun to watch. Most of my day is spent sitting at a computer drawing on a CAD program. We do have more "hands-on" parts of the operation with our in-house fabrication and testing, fancy equipment in a couple of video-conference rooms, and a sense of how we work together as a team to get our collective jobs done. Someone at AVI-SPL also came up with the clever idea of creating an "autograph" sheet for the children to get the signatures of all of our local employees. This was a nice way to make introductions and explain what everyone does. When I was young, the grown-up world of "work" was a complete mystery to me. It's nice to make it something else.
Was this a successful experiment? On the down-side, most people's schedules and situations didn't allow them to bring kids. In fact, aside from Chloe the was only other participant was our general manager's nine-year-old daughter. They got along quite well, but it would have been nice to have a broader range of kids to interact with. The best part? That it's a different kind of moment we got to share. Will it give her an example of what the workplace is like, give her inspiration to try her hands at the field of technology, or teach her any other life lessons? Perhaps not. But one can't mistake her pleasure in getting to take the trip into work with me, and mine at sharing a moment with my daughter.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
It's national poetry month. I'm more of a prose writer than a poet, but on can't let National Poetry Month pass without at least one stab at verse.
The inspiration for this poem was Tim Wakefield's retirement, leaving the Mets' Robert Alan Dickey as major league baseball's only remaining knuckleballer. I started imagining Tim watching on TV as the last knuckler pitched his last game, saddened that the lore isn't being past on. I find this image a bit more compelling. It allows for some more imagery (although the knuckleballer's typical square-cut fingernails are gripping a TV remote was a nice mental picture which I'm sorry to let go) and some more action.
So, happy National Poetry Month.
The Last Knuckleballer
Under the shadow of Mount Fuji
The last knuckleballer stands
his fingers tense, his nails square-cut
He throws straight and true,
not dancing, darting, diving.
His limbs heavy with the weight of years
his joints well-worn,
he's been on his way down the mountain for years.
He grasps again. Deep breaths.
The ball still too smooth
still too small.
Did the next throw dance? One little side-step?
Tomorrow he'll go back to the ballpark
back to his search for someone.
Someone desperate enough
to cut his fingernails square
in hopes that he can cross an ocean
and make a too-big cowhide ball dance.
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Monday, April 23, 2012
It has elements of a classic fish-out-of-water type of tale, but with Pratchett's keen understanding of relationships and social structures. And, or course, it wouldn't be much of a book if Vimes didn't find crime, old secrets to uncover, and wrongs to right against the poverty-stricken, much-abused goblin race. We end with the beginning of a new understanding as Vimes and Sybil lead people to the realization that there is more to the goblins than people had imagined. It's a positive enough message, even if a bit heavy-handed and obvious. What disappointed me is that Pratchett dealt with the same issues of racism and prejudice to much better effect in earlier works, most notably in Thud, which forced Vimes to reexamine his own prejudice against the silicon-based troll race. In Snuff we get very little of this kind of thing from any of the viewpoin characters; those we've come to know as "good guys" through the series remain good, and on the side of rightiousness. Any setbacks or obstacles are quickly and easily set aside, giving the whole book a quick, breezy feel.
There was one moment in which Snuff appeared to reach to be something deeper; while questioning a crime suspect, Vimes called upon something called the Summoning Dark - a malevolent presence which had lodged inside of him since events in the aforementioned Thud. In the earlier book there was real tension as to how this would effect Vimes and a bit of a surprise - although a satisfying one - in how he escaped it. Here there's no real repercussion or even a credible temptation. The Discword series is inccreasingly feeling like a series in which the author has too much affection for his supercompetent, super-honorable characters and is no longer willing to see them do anything wrong or have anything bad happen to them.
Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed the book while I was reading it. Pratchett remains as funny as ever, and as much fun. This one was just a bit of a letdown after the stellar highs we got near the middle of the Discworld series.
The first commercial AV installation in which I was involved was the installation of a 55" video monitor in a simple presentation system. During the delivery I got my first inkling of how the AV team is perceived; as an afterthought during planning, a nuisance at construction meetings, the scapegoatif things go poorly, and Santa Claus on the day video monitors are delivered. The operator in the freight elevator made a comment about the "big TVs" and asked which one was for his house. We smiled and chuckled. Then we got out of the elevator and the first person we saw made the same joke. And the next. And the next. What's very clear - and not at all surprising - is that people still love TVs. That TV is a radically different thing than it was even a decade ago and that what most people think of as "a TV" is not what I would call it doesn't change this.
You'll notice that I said we were installing "video monitors", rather than "TVs". To me, a TV will always be something with an integrated tuner. Otherwise, it's just a video monitor. (The thing in your living room? It probably has a tuner, but you probably don't use it. The monitor plus set-top box make a TV system, though, and that's good enough). While a large-format monitor is impressive, we've moving further and further from what the TV label we still affix to it stands for: watching TV.
I know sveveral people who have already "cut the cable" and more who contemplate it. Today we can pull content from the online services rather than have them pushed at us via broadcast. While that is exciting in terms of the number of choices offered, I find it sad for two reasons:
First, without broadcast - without TV as we once knew it - there's less exposure to content which we wouln't choose. THis might at first seem like a boon, but it takes away the joy of discovering something surprising. A bunch of years ago, for example, I stumbled on Project Runway and was, I will confess, somewhat hooked (oh no! My secret is out! Please don't judge me...). Were I choosing content to pull rather than selecting what came in via cable, I'd likely never have sought this out.
Second, there's an erosion of shared culture, even if it is low culture. When I was a kid, everyone watched The Cosby Show on Thursday evening. Everyone watched the last episode of M*A*S*H. There were dozens more things that, even if not quite everyone followed, enough did to create a shared experience. Now it's easier to find something more tailored to your tastes, but the tradeoff is one less point in common with your neighbors and co-workers.
So now when someone remarks on the big TV's I'm delivering, my only thought is that, alas, they are merely video monitors.
Friday, April 20, 2012
"Are there any girls, or is it all boys?"
We do have a few women in coordination and administrative positions and one female CAD technician, but that's all. All of the technicians, engineers, salespeople, and programmers are men.
The programming class I just took for Crestron had fifteen students, all men.
The class Biamp gave on their Audio DSP products had about fifteen students, all men.
Extron's AV technologies class had one female student out of about a dozen.
It becomes a self-perpetuationg cycle, that young girls who see certain fields dominated by men never picture themselves there, so the next generation is dominated by men, leaving a lack of role-models for the following generation of girls. Sometimes speculative fiction literature falls into the same "boy's club" mentality, in which the big names are all men. So, to remind us all that the world can be a more diverse place if we let it, I'll give recommend three female fantasy authors and highlight one work from each.
The Orphan's Tales, by Cathrynne M Valente (In the Night Garden and Cities of Coin and Spice)
Those who know me shouldn't be surprised to see Cat Valente topping this list; I find her to be one of the most compelling and original voices in modern fantasy fiction. She has a poet's ear for language and can weave intricate and complex plots. I could have picked many of her books - her middle-grade novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Boat of Her Own Making, her Russian fairy-tale interpretation Deathless, or her in-progress A Dirge for Prestor John trilogy, but The Orphan's Tales were the books that first introduce me to her. The story is about a young girl with a series of stories tattooed in tiny, tiny writing across her eyelids and in the creases of her eyes. After slowly and laboriously reading them with a magnifying glass and a mirror, she tells them to a young boy. One story leads into the next, like the tales in 1001 Arabian Nights, but they weave in and out of eachother with more complex interconnections. We sometimes see the same story from different perspectives, sometimes realize that what we think we knew was wrong. There's also a feminist subtext to the book, but not in an agressive or didactic manner. It's more that, although there are male protagonists, the stories are very largely women's stories. This is one of those books I cannot recommend strongly enough.
The Edda of Burdens, by Elizabeth Bear
(All the Windwracked Stars, Under Mountain Bound, The Sea Thy Mistress)
Shades of Milk and Honey
Glamour in Glass
Without a Summer (forthcoming) by Mary Robinette Kowal
Kowal doesn't have the impressive body of work that either Bear or Valente does (at least not yet - unless there are a whole stack of novels which I missed), but the trilogy beginning with Shades of Milk and Honey is an impressive effort worthy of a place on anyone's reading list. This trilogy starts off as Kowal's take on a Jane Austin-style regency romance. It's full of all the things that make such a book fun; secret agendas, love triangles, mysteries and, of course, literal magic in the form of illusionary "glamours" which can be used as performance, decoration, or misdirection. I discussed the second book, Glamour in Glass, earlier in this blog. The forthcoming Without a Summer will wrap up the tale, and take on the social and political upheaval of the early industrial revolution as well as focusing on the remaining family conflicts. I eagerly look forward to it.
The challenge of this sort of thing is that there are so many great writers I missed. I'll give an honorable mention to Jacqueline Carey's BDSM-tinged Kushiel's Legacy series (taking place in a sort of alternate France in which houses of courtesans worship the angels who walked the earth with the son of Yeshua and the Magdalene), and Kelly Link's brilliant short-fiction. I was also tempted to go back in time to the earlier work of the incomprably brilliant Ursula K Leguin, way back to the short fiction of James Tiptree, Jr or back a whole century to Mary Shelly's Frankenstein - which reads very well today for a hundred year old novel. Check them out. And the next time someone tells you that speculative fiction is a boys' club, club them over the head with a hardback copy of one of these.
See you tomorrow with another book review for 'S'
Thursday, April 19, 2012
In my professional life as a project manager and now a project engineer, I need to be cognizant of the "triple constraint": cost - time - quality. The rule of thumb is that you can maximize any two at the expense of the third: you can get something done better and faster if you're willing to spend more money on it, or sometimes better and cheaper if you allow a more reasonable time frame. Completing something faster and cheaper will inevitably lead to a drop-off in quality. One trap that it seems easy to fall into is mistaking "quality" for "customer satisfaction". The latter is, of course, the ultimate goal, but an unsatisfied customer is not always a quality problem and the hoops through which we jump to make the customer happy are not always a quality improvement.
The Project Management Institute defines "quality" simply as how close a product comes to its specifications. In other words, it answers the question: "Did you deliver what you promised?" If it works intermittently, is missing a feature, or otherwise doesn't meet the stated goals then you have a quality problem. More often, though, I've seen things like this:
"We've been using the videoconference system you put in for us last week. It's great, but I can't figure out how to send my laptop over the video conference."
*checks drawings* "The laptop doesn't go out over the video conference. Didn't you read the submittal drawings?"
"The whole point was to share powerpoint presentations with the other office. It's useless otherwise."
"OK. I'll fix it.".
This is not, of cour fixing a quality defect but adding functionality which was missed in the originl scope. The result will be more feature-rich and lead to a hapier customer, but nt be higher quality.
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Theo Kalomirakis-designed "home theater". The audio and video quality are suitably impressive, as is the completeness and flexibility of the control system.
There seem to be two philosophies to control system programming; there's the "configuration" type of setup favored by Extron which provides a simple set of icon- and menu-driven configuration tools to create instruction sets. The advantages of configured systems is that they're easy to set-up and require less specialization. The disadvantage is that they lack flexibility and sometimes create less efficient code than the lower-level method - writing code in a proprietary programming language.
Today's adventure involved System Builder - Crestron's simple configuration tool. Our instructor emphasized how powerful System Builder can be in the hands of someone with knowledge of how it works and a bit of creativity in use of global variables, conditionals, and other tools. Each student was assigned a neat little workstation with a Middle Atlantic console rack loaded with two processors (a Pro2 and MC3), a digital graphics engine, a lightbulb, and various dimmer switches, button consoles, and touch-panels. This let us experiment with simple tasks, such as linking a pair of RF dimmer switches, building touchpanel interfaces and an executable "X-Panel" to run on a PC or tablet.
I'm not walking away convinced that SystemBuilder is a replacement for the more flexible but harder to use Simpl Windows, but there appears to be room for both. It's interesting that Extron, with their emphasis on simple, configurable processors, is now releasing "Global Configurator Pro" which is much more complex and requires training prior to use while AMX, which was always one of the hardest to program, has just announced "Rapid Project Maker" - their answer to the configuration tools available for other systems.
There was even a chance for a sneak peak at the new CP3 control processor - not much more than a glance at the chassis, but we were told that, like the MC3, it will be capable of running multiple projects simultaneously. The long process of phasing out the venerable 2 series processors seems to be beginning in earnest, with a Pro3 expected sometime down the road.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Marketplace > For Sale > Sports/entertainment
Mets season tickets for the upcoming season. Looking to sell all home games in May (twelve games total). Great seats, but I simply won’t have the time.
I hope you enjoy them.
Marketplace.com > For Sale > Baby and Childcare
Breast pump, new in box.
Study after study has shown the importance of breast milk for babies’ health. Give your little one the best chance, and share the joy of feeding him this most nutritious and beneficial food. Even better, let your husband or partner help share in this important part of baby’s growth!
Marketplace > For Sale > Sports/entertainment
Mets season tickets. Looking to sell all Saturday and Sunday dates for the remainder of the season.
Date: August 2nd
From: Janet Benson
Subject: First steps
Thought you’d want to see the attached video. First steps!
I’m sure you’ll get to see more this weekend. See you Friday.
Marketplace.com > For Sale > Baby and Childcare
Baby shoes, never worn.
This is a pair of high-quality, handmade shoes in the smallest size, suitable for a baby two months old. Navy blue color may be best suited for a boy, but nobody will know what color they used to be after you have them bronzed.
Original cost $60, but will take best offer.
Monday, April 16, 2012
Some of the writers I've met on the Googleplus social network have taken to daily writing exercises, sometimes with photo-prompts. It's a neat way to get creative juices flowing, even if it pushing something out in one day doesn't always bring out my very best. The first one of these in which I participated (for about 4 days before I got distracted and wandered out of it) was called Nightmare Fuel, the brainchild of a writer going by the name "Bliss Morgan" who thought she could banish her demons by chaining them up with pretty words. There's currently a series of text prompts for poetry in the month of April (NaPoMoFo) and a series of erotic prompts planned for May.
Nightmare Fuel birthed one ebook anthology of macabre short fiction, Cold Shivers, by Matt Champine, available on Amazon.com.
My problem with these is that I tend to take the prompts very non-literally. It's a fun exercise, and encourages daily writing. Included is one of my completed NMF stories, along with the prompt; it's a quick trifle, barely a sketch which could grow into something else if I choose to revisit it. If not, there's value in putting words to paper, even if they don't do quite what you want them to.
The Time Between
Tom slouched through the door at half-past seven, shoulders bent and head down. His dropped his briefcase to the floor with a loud thunk and shrugged out of his jacket. “Honey, I’m home.”
Marta’s voice from the kitchen, “You’re late again. I ate without you.” Beeps from the microwave as he kicked off his loafers and walked into the kitchen. A quick peck on the cheek, grab the plate of spaghetti out of the microwave. He sat down at the kitchen table and began eating while Marta scrubbed pots, emptied the dishwasher, changed the dog’s water.
The spaghetti was still cold.
Tom got up for a tumbler, some icecubes, and a couple fingers of Scotch. Generous fingers.
“How was work, honey?”
“Fine,” between mouthfuls of spaghetti.
“You’re late again.”
“Sorry. Big case coming up. You know that. It’ll be like this for a while.” He spoke to a spot somewhere between his food and her back.
He chewed in silence for a moment. “You wouldn’t believe what John’s new secretary was wearing. I’m so sure she’s screwing him. Or will be soon.”
She shook her head. “Just make sure you don’t screw anyone there. If you do, you may as well just not come home.” A smile flickered across her lips for the barest second. “I’m going to bed.”
By the time Tom finished his food and got into bed, she was already sleeping.
He awoke before dawn, opened his briefcase to pack a sandwich and a bottle of water. The letter was still there. The letter he’d had to sign yesterday. The one that sat in his file. The one that said things like “performance must improve” and “could lead to termination.”
He looked back once at the bedroom door, then headed back out.
"Day 4" represents this being the third day of the NMF project, but I find it evocative on its own; if I return to this, it might come back. We shall see.
We're midway through the alphabet, at the letter 'M'. Earlier, (K for Knowledge base) I talked about how things which were core competencies in the AV field just a few years ago (analog video encoding) have become little more than a footnote. So what'll things look like tomorrow? We're already seeing the next changes, and it's one people are bringing from home: I suspect that, as time goes on, there will be a push to move more commercial video to mobile devices - mostly iPads and other tablets as these tools become more common. Streaming video to a server could be a simple way to distribute it to people working on mobile devices. Personally, I don't have a tablet issued by my employer, but on the job I use my personal tablet for
- Taking site notes
- As a digital video test source
- Adding site photos for a quick update/tech scope
Friday, April 13, 2012
Descending into the bowels of the earth!
And arriving at the penultimate stop before the train crosses into Manhattan.
Thursday, April 12, 2012
- Analog video encoding
- Analog audio
- Balanced and unbalanced signals
- Types of microphones
- Types of loudspeaker systems
- Basic environmental factors
- Appropriate displays for various scenarios
- Aspect ratios
- Cabling and connectors
- Twisted pair
- structured cable (shielded or unshielded twisted pair; ie, Cat5/5e/6)
- Digital Video
- TMDS (DVI and HDMI)
- Mini-packet (Displayport)
- Data Networks
- address layers
- Firewalls and other security concerns
- Digital audio
- Fiber transmission
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Today, for what's a stretch at the letter 'J', I'm sharing something from my growing junkyard, the scrapheap, the graveyard of fading dreams. These are stories I very much loved when I wrote them, but never found an audience. The following was a bit of an experiment for me. This came from the same period as the Drowned Hero story I shared earlier in this blog (has anyone guessed the character's obvious real-world inspiration? Or was it obvious only to me? But I digress...) What I find interesting about revisiting these tales is seeing the different directions I took while searching for my voice. I see some themes from these earlier efforts recurring, but I'd write them differently now. Still, I have some affection for these early fumblings; I hope you do as well.
Linen and Leather
by Leonard C Suskin
The invitation to the party – the fateful party where I’d first meet The Girl in Leather - came with a slap on my back and a nickname nobody ever uses for me. “C’mon Big Bill. It’ll be fun. Besides, don’t you need material for your novel? Plenty of material here. And, of course, plenty of girls. College girls, professional girls from the office. Friends of those girls and of their friends. And hey, I have the extra bedroom for you; it’s totally cool with me and totally private if you happen to get lucky.”
use it sounded grown-up to my young ears. Two decades later it’s still working for me.
It didn’t take much for him to convince me. I love parties. I love lurking in a corner and watching the mating dance as people flaunt, present, approach, withdraw, pursue, and perhaps capture. I love checking out how the young girls are dressed – or not dressed. Most of all, I love the sense of possibility. Everyone there is a potential new life-long friend, a new story, a hook-up, the love of my life. Anyone can be anything. A party is like the first blank sheet in a new notebook. Like the brand new notebook I had in the inside pocket of the white linen jacket I was wearing over a black T-shirt and my second-best pair of jeans.
Across the room at the party I saw her – The Girl in the Leather Pants. The pants were the first thing I noticed, black leather worn shiny-smooth stretched more tightly across her curves than they could possibly have fit the cow in the first place. The second part I noticed, the part that had me reaching into my jacket pocket for the little notebook I always keep for such observations, were the three pendants hanging from her neck, nestled in the curve of her breasts; A crucifix, a star of David, and a pentacle. As I set my red plastic cup down on a table to free my hand, someone jostled my elbow, sloshing lukewarm beer across my jacket. She caught my gaze as I flinched from the clammy caress of sodden linen.
Jon Williams stirred the simmering, stinking pot of sodden pulp which had once been a quite serviceable but worn off-white linen jacket (perhaps it had even once been white. It’s so hard to tell for sure). His fingers were sweating in the heavy plastic gloves, his arms aching, and the stench turned his stomach.
“I’ll bet Aleister Crowley never went through things like this,” he muttered under his breath, “and if he did it wasn’t over a hotplate in a community college basement.”
“’scuse me, but what are you talking about?” Jon turned to see the big-boned older-looking (she must have been nearly forty) woman stirring a stainless-steel pot identical to his looking at him inquisitively. She was his neighbor on the chipped-granite tabletop here in basement classroom B21 for an adult-ed class in “The Joys of Papermaking”. He thought her name was Beth something or other.
“Oh, sorry, I was talking to myself. You see, there’s this girl. In school. Madison Lee. And, uh…”
Beth smiled. “So she’s a hotty and you want to impress her?”
Jon shook his head as he pushed harder with the big mixing fork. “No, it’s not like that at all. She’s smart and witty and, I just want to know her better.”
Mixing shredded linen into pulp takes a long time, so they talked while they stirred. He talked about Madison Lee of the razor sharp mind, Madison Lee of the caustic quick wit, Madison Lee of the raven tresses and ethnically confused name. If Jon had any reason to hope it was that Madison Lee ignored the other engineering students (eighty-seven percent male, thirteen percent female) as much as she ignored him. About how he knew they’d be happy together if he would just have an opening.
“So, what was that about Aleister Crowley? Did you find out that she’s a closet Golden Dawn initiate-wannabe and you’re gonna impress her with a mad-cool homemade book of occult secrets?” her lip curled into a half-smile. “Do you know any occult secrets?”
“Taking notes on me? Are you some kind of stalker?”
I held up one hand, index-finger extended in a wait-one-minute gesture as I uncapped a ball-point pen with my teeth and, ruined jacket momentarily forgotten, wrote “comparative religion - occult secrets?” on a blank page in my notebook and then, with a glance from her tight leather pants to my sodden jacket added “linen and leather – light and dark, hard and soft women dressed hard man soft – sex”
I had more ideas, but that should be enough to jog my memory later. I was more interested in talking to her while she was still here; it would be likelier for inspiration to return than to have another visit from an angel in tight leather pants. The necklaces which had caught my eye were set in against an impressive backdrop of impressively uncovered cleavage, but I made every effort to look up at her eyes. Girls don’t like it when you stare at the cleavage, even when they do have it on display. Besides, it the eyes are the windows of the soul, and isn’t it more erotic to see a girl’s soul than her tits? Of course it isn’t.
“I’m always taking notes. I’m a writer.” I raised my mostly-empty cup to my lips, sucking down the foamy dregs of my beer as I awaited her response.
“mm.. that’s cool. But too bad.” She gave me a wicked smile with her lips and the corner of her eyes. “I’ve not had a stalker in forever. What kinda stuff do you write? Please don’t tell me it’s screenplays. Every loser and wannabe in the world thinks he’s writing a screenplay. You’re not, are you?”
I started to say “occult secrets”, but that might be too cute. I told her the truth about my current obsession – occult romances without vampires. I hate vampires.
The girl in the leather pants (who it turned out was called Liz) literally licked her lips. “Secret societies hiding amongst us, skyclad witches and intense brookding warlocks?” Her narrow tongue darted past sharp little teeth to lick wine-dark lips. “Intriguing. But I wonder if it would really be romantic.”
Liz tossed back the last of her drink – some kind of red wine that left a crescent-moon stain on her upper lip – then held up the drained plastic cup. “Well, I’m empty and should get back to my girlfriend anyway. Gotta make sure she doesn’t get too drunk and hook-up with the wrong guy.” She flashed that devil smile again. “At least not before I’m done with him. Good luck with the writing.”
“wait…” I tried to focus my brain trough the beer-induced fog. “wait. I need to show you the story when it’s finished.”
Liz raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Why me?” She gave him a flirty half-smile that told him she was exactly sure why her, but she didn’t seem to mind it.
“Because I’m starting it here. And I always like to share a story with someone who was there when I started it. It’s.. a tradition!” Well, that wasn’t quite a lie. After all, traditions had to start somewhere, right? An annual event was still annual, even the very first time it happened. Anyway, much to William’s delight, “a tradition” was enough reason to get a Liz’s email address beamed into my smart phone.
Now I just have to write something romantic and I’ll sweep her right off her feet and out of those leather pants.
Jon felt his ears heating up as blood rushed to them. He couldn’t believe he mentioned Crowley out loud – and that this woman knew what he was talking about!
“Uh, not quite. I’m an engineering student by day but by night, well… I’m kind of an initiate. An informal one.”
This was true. Jon had been obsessed with the occult ever since a really smart but reputedly druggy kid from his high school had shown up one day with a sharp knife hidden in his jacket, an upside-down pentagram around his neck, and wild-eyed stories about secret magical rituals. The druggie kid (whose name Jon couldn’t quite remember) had since moved on to different insanities, but the idea of magic had stuck with Jon, especially when he read of modern thinkers linking everything from quantum physics to Jung’s “collective unconscious” to the hermetic arts. “It’s not a contradiction” he concluded. “there’s real intellectual underpinning for this if one knows where to look for it.”
Beth smiled. “I never said there wasn’t. I still don’t know what it has to do with paper-making.”
So Jon explained. He explained how to him, being an intellectual mage, the grimoire or book of rituals was to be his most important tool. And how each part of it had to be personally connected to him and, hopefully, to the concepts and emotions that had lead him here.
“Last week I made a circuit of about a dozen used bookstores to see if I could find some love poetry to pulp or even newspapers from the date of her birth of mine. Luckilly, her birthday is on her facebook page so it was easy to check. You ever go to those places? They all feel cramped and old and they smell like mildew. Anyway, to make a long story short I got lost, had to change a flat tire, got lost again, and still couldn’t find any paper worth using. I eventually ended up at a second-hand clothing store where I found this great old linen suit. There was what looked like a beer stain on it, so I can imagine that the guy wearing it met a wonderful girl and was so caught up in her that he didn’t even notice that he spilled beer on his jacket and probably ruined it. So it’s the perfect material for a grimoire of love spells.” He pointed at the wooden frames he’d stretched metal screens across to mould the sheets of paper. “The frames for my deckle screens are from old slates I found in antique stores for the spirit of learning. Head and heart together. The whole thing should be perfect.”
Beth thought it was a wonderfully quixotic little project (Jon was so tickled that a woman at the papermaking class using the word “quixotic”!), and slipped Jon a calling card with her name, address, and email address in calligraphy so elaborately drawn that it seemed a waste to use it just it just to communicate. He told Beth that he found it lovely.
“I love the art of writing,” she said. “Aren’t the lines of pen on paper so much more personal, so much more sensuous than whatever you type on a computer?” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “You haven’t asked what my project is.”
Jon knew it wouldn’t be as interesting as a grimoire, but he asked anyway.
“Someday I’m going to finish writing my cycle of Lovecraftian erotic horror-poems and hand-print and bind them in a 16ht-century style illuminated manuscript. Each copy will be something special and unique, maybe to give a special person as a special gift.”
Jon didn’t ruin the mood by telling her what a stupid project it was to spend so much time on something that only one person would get to read. He busied himself screening his paper and setting it to dry.
and spent the next week staring at the slightly ragged sheets while he scribbled notes for his love rituals in the kind of marble composition notebook you buy for ninety-nine cents at a drug store. Everything seemed too obvious, too [[profane]], or both; dancing naked under the moonlight, saying a prayer over photos of her, anointing them with tears or blood or semen, it just felt trite. Internet searches gave invocations of angels, nature spirits, or Egyptian deities, none of which resonated with him. In a kind of desperation he called Beth. She was, after all, the only human being who knew about this project.
She sounded surprisingly glad to hear from him, that she’d stumbled across something that reminded her of his project. Jon was so stunned by her enthusiasm that he agreed to meet her for coffee before even admitting that he was stuck on the idea of how to write his love ritual.
My emails to Liz all bounced back, “unknown address”. Damn my beer-addled fingers for mistyping them into my damn phone! I thought it was “Lizzie472” at some webmail site, but could my seven really be a one? Or the four a nine? I tried all the combinations, but none of them worked. It’s too bad, because I was halfway through a killer esoteric, intellectual piece that would hopefully wind up being sexy as all hell too. I even wrote the thing wearing the linen jacket (with the beer stain that still wouldn’t come out) imagining her wearing it and nothing else after a long night of lovemaking.
I probably could have done a better job chatting her up at the party, but once she sees this… well, I know it’d be perfect for her. If only I’d gotten that damn email address right.
Jon screened his paper, set it to dry, and spent the next week staring at the slightly ragged sheets while he scribbled notes for his love rituals in the kind of marble composition notebook you buy for ninety-nine cents at a drug store. Everything seemed too obvious, too profane, or both; dancing naked under the moonlight, saying a prayer over photos of her, anointing them with tears or blood or semen or some combination of the three; it all just felt trite. Internet searches gave invocations of angels, nature spirits, or Egyptian deities, none of which he could imagine visiting him here in the big city. In a kind of desperation he called Beth. She was, after all, the only human being who knew about this project.
She sounded surprisingly glad to hear from him, that she’d stumbled across something that reminded her of his project. Jon was so stunned by her enthusiasm that he agreed to meet her for coffee before even admitting that he was stuck on the idea of how to write his love ritual.
Beth looked different in the coffee shop. Her hair was loose around her shoulders and her face seemed a bit more made up. When she handed Jon a flat book-shaped package wrapped in brown butcher paper he noticed that her fingernails were very short and cut square. Her hands were probably a bit rough. They got drinks – a latte for him and some absurdly oversweetened coffee and cream and caramel and sugar concoction for her. Jon opened it and was delighted to see an irregularly shaped scrap of leather which appeared to have been riveted to a six by eight sheet of stiff cardboard. “For the cover of your grimoire” she explained. Because Papermaking for Beginners didn’t cover leather binding, but a proper grimoire just had to have at least some leather in the cover.
Jon ran his fingers along the faded shadow of an old crease in the letter. It felt a bit like palm-reading. He wondered what stories it could tell. “Thank you. I have to admit, I was a little lost on how to write the love ritual. Maybe this’ll inspire me.”
Beth smiled. “Could be. It was a great jacket before I wore it out. And…” she glanced quickly around the room and leaned a bit closer before continuing, “I remember wearing it for at least one early spring date with an old boyfriend. And well…. He was eager enough to tear a perfectly good linen skirt nearly in half. Why can’t you men take a little effort with fastenings?”
Jon took a big gulp of coffee before answering. It went right past the back of his throat and set him off on a choking fit, spraying saliva and coffee all over the table. He blotted with his napkin and looked up. “uh… I’d take the time for a zipper.”
“I’m sure you would. Sorry if I embarrassed you. I just thought you should know… well, on that particular night I ended up going home in the leather coat and nothing else. If that doesn’t inspire you, I’m not sure what will.”
The conversation taled off as Jon imagined the scrap as a jacket, and pictured Madison Lee standing naked except for the rough leather on her soft, clear skin.
Sometimes fate succeeds where planning, foresight, and the ability to type a damn email address correctly fail. Which is just a fancy way of saying that I ran into Liz again at Slanderous Ink, the kind of low-class dive bar Bobby and his friends liked to hang out at.
The bar met the very highest of Bobby’s non-standards. Sawdust on the floor, wooden picnic tables that looked as if they’d fall apart if one stared at them too hard and, best of all, some unidentified draft beer served in plastic cups. Plastic cups! A treacherous, creaky wooden staircase lead to what I hoped was a cleaner downstairs room in which one could spend the liquid courage gathered at the bar getting a new tattoo. Glossy close-ups of garishly-inked body parts decorated the wall behind the bar. I found Bobby at the bar with a plastic cup of beer. I gestured at our surroundings. “I feel like I fell ten years back in time to a frat-house kegger where I don’t know anyone.”
Bobby slapped me on my back hard enough to rattle my teeth. “As if you’d ever been to a Kegger, Big Bill.”
We drank for a bit when I spotted Liz, tossing back a shot of what I assumed to be tequila. She was wearing jeans this time, but they showed off her ass every bit as well as those leather pants. I excused myself from Bobby to approach her, amazed that at this serendipitous real-life meeting that would have felt clumsy and contrived in a piece of fiction. I re-introduced myself as William, from the party.
“Who’s party? Oh, I remember… you were the artist, right?”
William smiled. She did remember! “Writer, actually.”
“Yeah, you didn’t look like one.” Her eyes flicked up and down, taking in his khaki pants, navy golf-shirt, and battered shoes. “Still don’t.”
“It’s not a look. It’s… it’s my passion.” That seemed like the right answer. “I’ve got this great modern-occult-romance piece I’m working on that I’d love to let you read. Remember? The one I was talking about at the party?”
Jon bought some leather conditioner to clean his new leather cover. He drilled neat little holes along the edges of his cover and the pages, found some red silk thread and painstakingly sewed the cover on with a Coptic stitch. The row of red knots looked daring, occult, and even a bit sexy next to the rustic leather cover. He cleaned his papermaking screens and discarded the ones that were too stained to clean. In other words, he did everything but actually write the ritual.
The answer came to him while he was honing the antique straight razor that served as his air-dagger. He drew the blade back and forth against the leather strop, tested the edge, then a few more passes before flipping the stop over to wipe the edge clean on the fine linen side. What if the whole point of making the book wasn’t to have a grimoire, but to marry the two components, the soft and the hard, the leather and the linen? Maybe he was already within the ritual and the only thing he need to was to complete it. But what to put within the pages? Maybe a story about why the leather and linen belonged together in the first place. He sat at his desk with the newly bound tome, a gull-feather he’d found on the beach, and a jar of ink. He sliced the end of the feather with his razor/magic knife, dipped it into the ink, and began to write.
It didn’t. Jon bought some leather conditioner to clean his new leather cover. He drilled neat little holes along the edges of his cover and the pages, found some red silk thread and painstakingly sewed the cover on with a Coptic stitch. The row of red knots looked daring, occult, and even a bit sexy next to the rustic leather cover. He cleaned his papermaking screens and discarded the metal screens on the ones that were too stained to clean. In other words, he did everything but actually write the ritual.
The answer came to him while he was honing the antique straight razor that doubled as his air-dagger. He drew the blade back and forth against the leather strop, tested the edge, then a few more passes before flipping the stop over to wipe the edge clean on the fine linen side. What if the whole point of making the book wasn’t to have a grimoire, but to marry the two components, the soft and the hard, the leather and the linen? Maybe he was already within the ritual and the only thing he need to was to complete it. But what to put within the pages? Maybe a story about why the leather and linen belonged together in the first place. He sat at his desk with the newly bound tome, a gull-feather he’d found on the beach, and a jar of ink. He sliced the end of the feather with his razor/magic knife, dipped it into the ink, and began to write.
show it to you as soon as I figure out how to get the two people together.”
She shrugged, muttered something vague, and bought herself another shot of tequila. The next day William realized that a smoother man would have bought her the next drink.
The third and final time he saw her she was literally waiting for a bus from New York to Philadelphia. She was there with another man and pretended not to recognize him.
At least he hoped she was pretending.
A week later he finally sold the jacket to a thrift store. He only got five bucks for it, but the real return was not having to think about the damn party every time he saw the Guinness stain. He did have a half a story out of the episode, but he probably would have to change the title.
He poured himself a cup of coffee, powered up his computer, and tried to figure out where these two people were headed.
Jonathan set aside his quill and blotted the paper. This didn’t seem right at all. The point of the story was to draw him to Madison Lee through sympathetic magic, not to spin a yarn of unrequited love that went nowhere in particular. This was feeling like more of an anti-love story. What’s worse, it was boring.
The next day in class Madison didn’t even seem to notice him when he smiled and waved hello on his way in. He was sure she usually did. The magic must be working to push her farther away! He called Beth again. She’d been such a terrific help through the process so far, Jon was sure she’d be able to come up with some kind of an answer.
She seemed interested. “Oh, a story? Could you email it to me when you get a chance? I’d love to read one of your stories.”
“That’s not the point, Beth. The point is that I can’t get the story to turn out the way I want it to. It’s like I keep writing myself into a corner in which the characters who are supposed to fall in love all end up hating eachother.”
“well… maybe it’s just working on the wrong person.”
Jon sat down as the blood rushes from his head. He somehow had an idea of where this was heading. “What do you mean?”
“well Jon… that jacket I gave you had really belonged to an ex. That’s why I cut it up. He’d left me for another girl. Maybe some kind of re-direction of affection is built into this. As I said… I’d really like to read your story. Could I come over sometime and see it?”
Without another word Jonathan hung up the phone. The next day he drove to a park to build a bonfire, and sat by himself for a long time watching scraps of linen and leather being consumed by flame.