Fixin fiction

Trying to work more on the bits about the people testing strange things in the desert. I like these people and want to get to know them better, but they’re crude right now. Maybe I need them to talk less, but the exposition voice feels too loud also.

The solution of course is just to write more. Clearly the whole crew wants it.

Fragment 2: Experiment in fiction continued

This is from the same story as the first fragment.

Bettye was a solid and stolid presence, round and brown behind a huge desk. Your first thought on seeing her was “medical office employee” and mostly she followed the stereotype. Her hair was short and cut short in the back with long bangs, what Skip called the “I need to see the manager” cut. Bettye made the place feel like a normal office sometimes.

Bettye’s verbal style was disciplined and unique. For example, if someone addressed her she would always respond with a name: “Yes, Gil?” Her vocabulary was limited, and often she would replace a word with “what-is-it.” Bettye’s Filipino accent was understandable but sing-song and sometimes comic to a native English speaker. Gil had worked in medical offices with Filipinos for years and would sometimes imitate the accent, which caused her to purse her lips and silently stare at her screen until he stopped.

Like most of us she’d learned computer skills from the bottom. She told us about coming from the Philippines at age 16 and getting a job with another immigrant running the computers in a dental practice. She knew nothing about I.T. but the owner assumed all teenagers were hackers, and she spoke Tagalog. That was enough. With some lies and panicked studying she bootstrapped and got good at tech support. A few years later she’d risen into system administration and then databases. Bettye was something of a wizard with big database systems. Skip said she lived in a flowchart.

Disdain for formal education was a shared value. Only Gil and Amelia had a college education, and neither of them had computer degrees. We would have got anywhere in government if it hadn’t been for the Program. National security projects are pragmatic. As Hatcher said, “I’d rather have freaks and get lead on the target.”

Bettye and Gil sat at opposite corners of the room which was a good thing. Forty feet wasn’t really enough. Gil poked, and Bettye more than anyone was the target. Her placid conservatism enraged him and her untrollable serenity made it worse. Amelia called him “Internet Guy.”

Gil’s fight-picking was monotonous. He’d poke at Bettye about religion, for example. “Priests!” he’d spit. “If they’re not diddling kids, they’re stealing and gaybashing.” After the fiftieth time we were all sick of his top ten, and periodically someone would tell him to shut the hell up. This satisfied him tremendously and he would sit up and do something on the computer with the expression of someone who had just won a bet.

It was a huge pain when Bettye and Gil froze each other out because they were our database people. About half our problems involved databases somehow and nobody else wanted to touch the damn things. Databases are the third rail of I.T. Gil had a manic genius for debugging and would throw himself into the nastiest problems for hours. If interrupted he would more than likely melt down and hold up his hands like a traffic cop, saying “STOP NOPE STOP STOP NOPE NOPE NOPE” until his supplicant left. In more serious mental states he’d do what he called the “Kermit flail”, arms flapping and tongue out like a seizure. All of us — even Bettye — had great respect for his skills and left him alone when he was submerged. Someone said he had been diagnosed with ADD but couldn’t take any of the useful meds because of an old drug conviction. Another sign that the Program wasn’t as picky as the rest of the government.

If Gil was our Kermit, Skip was the Cookie Monster. Skip sat nearest the break room and disposed of any food left longer than an hour. Bettye called him “the Vacuum” sometimes. His own diet was parasuicidal: fatty meat with hot sauce, generic cookies, Dr. Pepper. He attributed this to growing up poor in West Texas. Skip’s specialty was reporting. He had a talent for shaping data into narrative. He was also fast as hell. Skip typing sounded like hail and he wore out three keyboards in a year.

Skip’s reports were generally perfect. The Program followed Chicago style, but he rarely touched the manual. In theory Bettye was supposed to check his work, but her English wasn’t up to the task and there was no good reason to waste her time.

Skip did not react well to criticism, and in particular it was a bad idea to confront him with an error. He was always right, and if he wasn’t right he still was. One beautiful day Hatcher put his foot down over some small detail, a caption style or pagination. “You aren’t the boss, Skip. I’m the boss. If you’re going to contradict me all the time you’d better show some authority that isn’t just your opinion.”

“Chicago. Page 279. The footnote.”

Hatcher grabbed the manual and flipped to 279. After five seconds he slapped the book together, set it down, and walked out. The performance was not repeated.

Hatcher loved Gil, which everyone thought was odd. He’d call him “Boy Genius” and always asked him first if he had a technical question. It’s possible that Hatcher thought all manic rebels were geniuses. Or maybe he just liked the guy. Nobody resented this but it was at times hard not to laugh at Hatcher lauding the one person there who openly hated everything about the Program, the military, and America.

Actually Amelia might have shared Gil’s politics but she clammed up every time the subject arose. She was definitely the artsy tattooed woman with the indie music taste, but nobody ever heard her enthusing about a band’s social conscience. She focused on disliking things: making lists of bad art, explaining who’d sold out, trashing everyone’s later work. This was all very cheerful but entirely negative. Since nobody much knew or cared about her passions it was easy enough to agree or listen patiently. It’s not clear whether anyone ever saw her listening to music. She never worked with headphones on or carried a music player. If she ever enjoyed a piece of music it was in her suite and not at work. Skip speculated once that she got all of her delighted elitism from other people’s writing and hadn’t heard much music.

Like everyone else she was professionally respected. Amelia was a serious computer programmer, the kind who can write device drivers for new weird machines. Every piece of equipment with a chip in it ran her code: radars, optics, infrared sensors, even the little railroad that pulled things down the Slot. Amelia had worked at some startups but she dumped that entire scene after a few years of being treated like two-thirds of a dude, as she put it. In aerospace people were more grown-up and she’d come to the Program after writing GPS software so tight they put it in bullets. Another freak who put lead on the target. She had a tripwire temper when someone was sexist, but nobody blamed her for that. It was a bad idea to discuss her tattoos.

Well, how did they get here?

Here are some of the searches that led people to this blog since I started paying attention to that.

  1. Pigurines (#1!)
  2. medieval terms of endearment for children
  3. “mail order alien bride”
  4. what kind of chickens have a afro
  5. innsmouth community college¹
  6. pictures of philippine contemporary literature
  7. philadelphia phillies sex toy
  8. sexy german ladies
  9. beelzebub hunks
  10. selling smoke damaged furniture²

That’s all part of our world tonight.

¹Go Sea Devils!
²Change your life, change into a nine year old Hindu boy, get rid of your wife.

Annual Christmas Post

From E.B. White, 1952, in The New Yorker.

From this high midtown hall, undecked with boughs, unfortified with mistletoe, we send forth our tinselled greetings as of old, to friends, to readers, to strangers of many conditions in many places. Merry Christmas to uncertified accountants, to tellers who have made a mistake in addition, to girls who have made a mistake in judgment, to grounded airline passengers, and to all those who can’t eat clams! We greet with particular warmth people who wake and smell smoke. To captains of river boats on snowy mornings we send an answering toot at this holiday time. Merry Christmas to intellectuals and other despised minorities! Merry Christmas to the musicians of Muzak and men whose shoes don’t fit! Greetings of the season to unemployed actors and the blacklisted everywhere who suffer for sins uncommitted; a holly thorn in the thumb of compilers of lists! Greetings to wives who can’t find their glasses and to poets who can’t find their rhymes! Merry Christmas to the unloved, the misunderstood, the overweight. Joy to the authors of books whose titles begin with the word “How” (as though they knew!). Greetings to people with a ringing in their ears; greetings to growers of gourds, to shearers of sheep, and to makers of change in the lonely underground booths! Merry Christmas to old men asleep in libraries! Merry Christmas to people who can’t stay in the same room with a cat! We greet, too, the boarders in boarding houses on 25 December, the duennas in Central Park in fair weather and foul, and young lovers who got nothing in the mail. Merry Christmas to people who plant trees in city streets; merry Christmas to people who save prairie chickens from extinction! Greetings of a purely mechanical sort to machines that think–plus a sprig of artificial holly. Joyous Yule to Cadillac owners whose conduct is unworthy of their car! Merry Christmas to the defeated, the forgotten, the inept; joy to all dandiprats and bunglers! We send, most particularly and most hopefully, our greetings and our prayers to soldiers and guardsmen on land and sea and in the air–the young men doing the hardest things at the hardest time of life. To all such, Merry Christmas, blessings, and good luck! We greet the Secretaries-designate, the President-elect; Merry Christmas to our new leaders, peace on earth, good will, and good management! Merry Christmas to couples unhappy in doorways! Merry Christmas to all who think they are in love but aren’t sure! Greetings to people waiting for trains that will take them in the wrong direction, to people doing up a bundle and the string is too short, to children with sleds and no snow! We greet ministers who can’t think of a moral, gagmen who can’t think of a joke. Greetings, too, to the inhabitants of other planets; see you soon! And last, we greet all skaters on small natural ponds at the edge of woods toward the end of afternoon. Merry Christmas, skaters! Ring, steel! Grow red, sky! Die down, wind! Merry Christmas to all and to all a good morrow!


Let’s begin in the desert.

Shotglass was at the top of the wash, a rapidly spinning drum about a meter wide and protruding almost to the top of the weeds. Tongs  stuck out of the slanting east side just a little and looked like a stray bit of rebar. Olive and Onion were hair-thin wires squiggling the whole length of the Slot, as everyone called it, although it was supposed to be called the Bar. Anyway it was a desert dry river which had its own issues but we’ll get into that later.

There was a weird curved structure like part of a crane or a bridge, covered in a patina of rust, that jutted out of the rim of the Slot on the west side. That was Shaker. Shaker had to be at an exact angle and height pointing southeast or nothing would come through right, and it was nobody’s favorite.

The last one all the way at the bottom was Bitters. Bitters was a huge heavy son of a bitch concrete slab with 30 or 40 instruments embedded in it, pushed down into the rocky sands in a fiesta of yelling and swearing over two weeks. After that it was steady but we all remembered the install and hated the thing.

There were two boring radar antennas on the east and west ridges, a slow one east and a fast one west. We never named them because they weren’t in the Slot and we rarely even saw their data. So forget them. They weren’t part of the Barware.

There wasn’t much need to go down in the Slot except when Shaker went awry or one of Olive or Onion’s wires got cut. The wires were crazy strong but some desert animals are persistently insane so that happened every few months. Everything else just carried on.

The desert dry river situation was that the river wasn’t dry sometimes. Flash floods pushed stuff around once a year or so and afterwards there was muddy repair work and much discussion of the original decision making process until someone would tell us all to shut up.

About a kilometer out on all sides was an impressive fence. It was three times a person’s height and totally covered in razor wire, with spikes on top. Just inside and outside of the fence the No-necks drove around in Jeeps. The No-necks were heavily armed and had dogs, and some kind of sensors on the fence let them know if a coyote or idiot was bumping the fence. Fortunately there was no reason to go near the fence.

The Slot was booked up pretty tight. Something would arrive and go down or up the wash almost every Monday. The whole crew had to be in the shack for the day making sure everything in the Slot worked and recorded its data, and then go over the data for triple-C which was “Checksummed-Complete-Collected.” This just means that we had the right length of recording and it really had come from the barware in the Slot. As you can imagine in a shop like this there were way too many abbreviations like that.

All kinds of stuff would go through the Slot. There were a lot of trucks with covered payloads. Once there was a tank, and for a while it was a series of normal-looking cars and Jeeps. Helicopters might carry some lump-on-a-chain slowly at a precise height. Often very, very slowly which was a huge bore. Foot traffic was rare but we once had some soldiers carry an oil drum hanging from poles the whole way up. Doubt they enjoyed it, especially since it was July.

Everyone agreed about the weirdest one. A big semi truck showed up accompanied by guys in civilian clothing. The guys were all in big black Suburbans, obvious spooks. The truck was refrigerated, and a blast of condensation made everyone swear when it was opened. Inside was a glass-like box, almost as long and tall as the truck bed. It looked like a giant aquarium. They threw a white tarp over it right away and then we all had to help slowly slide it on to a trailer bed. The combination of paranoid black-Suburban guys and heavy moving work in the desert didn’t suit any of us. Then they dragged the trailer up and down the Slot four times behind one of the Suburbans.

None of us were really okay. What kind of person would live in a shack in the desert in the first place? Much less devote themselves totally to the Slot. Which brings us to the actual story here. Sorry for all the setup.

What’s the next article? You decide.

I’m covered in writer’s block like a wet sheepskin. Help me out. If I can pick one of the articles that have been bonking about in my head and stick to it, things will be easier. The poll below has a list of titles. Pick one!

I have no idea how many people read this, or how many of those are interested, but this will give my brain a shove. Thanks!.

If you can’t stand my writing, don’t want me to write, or are disappointed in the lack of “Surface to Air Missile” option, the comments are there for you.

Slavoj Žižek

I am fascinated by this guy, but a huge mass of shifting, pudding-like terminology defeats me.

Is there an introduction to his thought in baby talk for those of us who haven’t spent years reading Hegelian, Marxist, and especially Lacanian texts? I’ve always had a difficult relationship with philosophical and sociological jargon. The kind of writing where words like “motion” and “face” and “violence” turn out to mean “black walnut ice cream,” “Terry and the Pirates,” and “egg.” Until the next page, where they all mean something else.

If it’s worth it to nail down enough terminology in advance to read the Zizzer, what’s a good prep?

I’d really like to read more serious intellectual stuff. The jargon factor just stops me and leaves me flailing in the pudding.

Literature, it fails us now

Dale Peck body-slams cheap, decayed postmodernism:

…But as I puzzled my way through this and the rest of Moody’s books, I found myself looking not for the place in their execution or conception where they went wrong, but rather for something even prior and more primary: the wrong turn in our culture that led to Moody’s status as one of the anointed ones of his — okay, our — generation. In my view, the wrong turn starts around the time Stephen Dedalus goes to college in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and echoes all the way through Don DeLillo’s ponderously self-important rendering of Bobby Thompson’s shot heard round the world in the opening chapter of Underworld. Moody’s badness is a little less inexplicable if you look at him as the lowest common denominator of a generation of writers — and readers: they, too, bear some responsibility for the condition of fiction — who have long since forgotten what the modernist and postmodernist assaults on linearity were actually about, and as such have lost the ability to tell the difference between ambiguity and inscrutability, ambition and bombast; of writers who are taken at face value when they are being ironic and who are deemed ironic when they are telling it straight — assuming, of course, that they themselves know the difference. Assuming, I should add, that they actually have a subject.

He’s right even about writers I like.