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6.29.2010

Blockade Billy


Stephen King goes back to a well from which he has drawn some sweet water over the years. His novella "Blockade Billy," a first-person narrative from the perspective of an old third-base coach playing out the bottom of the ninth in a retirement home, captures the tone of such great King works as "The Man in the Black Suit" and The Green Mile.



First, the packaging. It's attractive. This is a Scribner 5" by 7.25" hardcover original. The titular character, a bizarre natural athlete with a penchant for blocking home plate, is presumably rendered in the striking artwork on the left.


The story is paired with his interesting short story "Morality," but still--I paid eleven bucks for this thing. But the packaging is part of King's appeal as a writer, I think. From his subscription experiment with "The Plant" to his release of "UR" for the kindle and his serialization of The Green Mile, King like to play with the medium. I give him credit (not unlike Joe Konrath, who is blazing trails of his own in the world of e-books) and hope he keeps getting creative.


King, who has commented that he wants his legacy to be a strong reputation for being an "American writer," does two things exceptionally well: render the creepy American small town and write old men.


William Blakely?


Oh, my God, you mean Blockade Billy. Nobody's asked me about him in years. Of course, no one asks me much of anything in here, except if I'd like to sign up for Polka Night at the K of P Hall downtown or something called Virtual Bowling. That's right here in the Common Room, My advice to you, Mr. King--you didn't ask for it, but I'll give it to you--is don't get old, and if you do, don't let your relatives put you in a zombie hotel like this one.


It's a funny thing, getting old.


So begins a story about deception and wasted talent. It's a keen, quick read--the baseball vernacular so spot-on perfect that it's a must-read if you love the national pastime.


Billy is immediately compelling. He's a rook out of nowhere, a seemingly perfect mimic of the people around him. He acts as a mirror for their own behaviors, reflecting back on them an image of themselves.


Think The Talented Mr. Ripley and you won't be far off.


This is a story that cooks through a month in the big leagues--a gripping look at a borderline Hall-of-Fame pitcher and the meteoric lifespan of a rookie phenom.


These things happen periodically in the bigs, of course. No, I don't mean folks capable of the type of thing Blockade Billy is capable of, but rookies who burn bright for a month and fade away. Jerome Walton and his huge hitting streak comes to mind. As does Matt Nokes and all those late-summer dingers a decade or more ago.


The climax and resolution were, ultimately, unsatisfactory. It felt rushed, and the care with which King described the ballgames seemed to diminish in the third act. I would love to have seen a longer version of the story, but the length is what it needs to be...


King fans will love it, overall. I did, and I am (a fan). I'm looking forward to his fall release, Full Dark, No Stars.

6.26.2010

Darkness

I thought I was pretty well-read in the horror genre until I dove into Darkness, a horror anthology edited by Ellen Datlow.

This book has been something of a revelation. Datlow's tastes in fiction--her diversity of story types and authors--is keen and instructive. I've encountered a number of really fine tales for the first time.

When I'm all finished, I'll give it a closer look. But, in the meantime, if you're looking for fiction of the type that insinuates itself into the back of your mind and stays with you for a time, then this is the book for you...

6.24.2010

Minor Distractions...

Huh...

  • Being a hosebag on the golf course is not a crime. I resolve to be kinder to these various douchebags...
  • The Baltimore Orioles are reliably frustrating. We just put five runs on the Marlins, but we only win 33% of the time...
  • "Blockade Billy" was not what I thought it would be. That said, it was a solid story and I give SK much credit for the stuff he's doing to stuff his wallet...
  • I miss my family. I really hope Jeanne and Lyla are enjoying Washington.

Signed off,

Captain Ripken (I have the con)...

6.23.2010

The Death of the Gulf is the Death of a Country's Dream

I specifically targeted Florida when I began to look for jobs in the first part of the last decade. I admired the wealth of literary riches that flowed from the state (John MacDonald is one of my favorite writers; it's time to re-read his catalogue, now that I'm out of material...). I envied the biodiversity of the state. I was enamored with the climate--I like the heat--and excited about the different types of wildlife we'd encounter.

When we weighed the options, we realized we'd be swapping sea lions for manatees and salmon for grouper.

And Florida has been everything we expected and more. The people have been friendly and accommodating. Our ability to get out and enjoy the sloughs and marshes and creeks and trails has been wonderful.

I can't think of much I like more than watching pelicans and ospreys dive after prey. It simply doesn't get old, and they feed for more than an hour. Up, up, up...high into the air and then WHAM! back down into the water like a heat-seeking scud. Those suckers rise, wings flapping, into the sky with writhing fish in their mouth, beating a trail for a secret place to eat.

It's just too damned cool.

And I love the vibe of this place. It's all about seafood and sincerity. People are upfront. The food is simple. We eat, liberally, of the bounty of the Gulf.

Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana are our kindred spirits. In fact, Mayport Village here in Jacksonville has picked up business as a direct result of folks fleeing the Gulf.

I think the American South is Americana. If you haven't lived here, I'm sure you disagree.

I also think you're wrong. This is the pulse of America.

But, as I saw in an article in the Florida Times-Union today, 70% of the country's oyster supply comes from the Gulf. The Pacific Northwest and the Northern Atlantic are working hard to keep up, but these beds down here are vast and they're productive.

It's oyster country.

Or it was. BP (and it's clear, when you look into the responsibilities of oversight in leasing, that BP is the culprit here) has fouled our environment for what will likely amount to be decades. With the exception of Georgia (and they'll get it too, later in the summer, when the oil gets into the Loop Current), all the states I mentioned above have been affected.

This is what's happening in Florida.

The scope and gravity of this disaster is staggering. Our communities will be dealing with these issues for years, if not decades. And it's all coming to roost on the shoulders of the President. I'm one of those Americans who is having issues with President Obama and his abilities to lead.

I voted for him, and I'd never been more energized by a political decision in this country as I was when he took control of the Oval Office. That said (and I still have confidence that the best is yet to come), he's been a disappointment. If he were up for re-election today, I don't think he'd make it.

President Obama can't go down there and plug the gusher. He can't click his heels and make the economy improve. But he can do much more. If you listened to his first (!) national address as a President, he never was specific on programs he would implement to take our country into the realm of energy independence.

Sure, there were 60,000 folks out of work as a result of the Obama Administration's ban on drilling in Louisiana (Gov. Jindal was stoked when it was lifted), but why didn't Obama discuss repurposing those same energies and resources toward investment in green energy? Why can't companies like BP diversify into solar (um, there is much sunshine here) and shift those workers and their efforts into those fields?

Why didn't he mention tax credits, along the lines of the first-time homebuyer credit, for folks to purchase the 2010 Chevy Volt, a fuel-cell vehicle that will be too expensive for folks like me, but is in my range with 8k of G-man assistance?

Obama needs to be bold. He needs to think in terms of specifics and deliverables. Change won't happen with his rah-rah rhetoric; it will happen with plans and outlines.

Here's the bottom line: we need to get off oil. I'll bike to work. I'll bike to the grocery store. I did it in Oregon and I'll do it in Florida. I'll work, with the aid of my government, on changing this culture.

I really will.

But we need specifics. And we need action. And we need resolution.

We need these relief wells yesterday, and we need the clean-up like we've never needed it before. We need Obama to step up and claim his legacy. If JFK's was getting us safely to the moon and back in ten years, why can't Obama's be to guide our country into the Green Economy with benchmarks and real goals?

I'm baffled, and I feel a little defeated. Tomorrow, when I am finished with work, I will run the Spanish Pond trail. I'll run the Timucuan Trail, up and down dunes and over the dust of oyster shells that have been on that land far longer than I've been alive. I'll end up at the birding platform, looking out over clean marshes.

But how long will that last?

How long will any of this last?

6.21.2010

The Length of a Summer Day

It's funny how time is so nebulous. I can recall those days of my youth, in both Pueblo, Colorado, and John Day, Oregon, when the day seemed to stretch for eons. I'd wake prior to 5:00 a.m. and my mom would get my sister and I off to swim team practice. We'd knock off before 8:00 and I'd be home and helping out around the house before heading down to the river.

Sometimes it was with friends but, just as likely, I'd head down there by myself. I'd head home for lunch (ham sandwich and a banana milkshake) and then return for an afternoon of catching snakes and crawdads and fish. Baseball practice called me away and then it was dinner with the family.

Seriously, those days were wonderful, but they seemed so long. I can distinctly recall wondering when life's pace would quicken and everything would get started.

Well, be careful what you wish for, right? There aren't enough hours in the day to fit everything in: writing, teaching, exercise, cooking, cleaning, family time--the days fly by and they run into each other.

That's particularly true for me in the summer, when I teach full-time at the college. I also serve on a number of committees (three hiring committees--we've got interviews Tuesday through Thursday of this week).

But in the winter, I can take a breath. I take off January and February and work just a few classes in March and April. Time slows and I'm able to produce more writing and spend more time with family.

Why mention this? Well, on this, the first day of summer, my wife and daughter are no doubt at the beach. My wife is taking a much-deserved summer vacation, and she's spending it with Lyla. They are heading to Washington this week to see Jeanne's grandparents (and the rest of her family), and then we'll gear up for some serious July family vacations (and swimming lessons!).

Lyla's out of daycare for the summer, so she gets our full attention. It's exciting.

I know those two girls are going to have long, lazy days. They'll go to the beach every day and spend the rest of the afternoon in their swimsuits, I hope, and they'll be able to share that time, charge their batteries and feel the freedom of unmarked time...

6.17.2010

Throwing Rocks at the Wastelands

Allen Houston, in his article "Neil Gaiman: Vampires and Werewolves Don't Belong in the Literary Ghetto," writes a remarkably shallow and juvenile blurb in chronicling an NYC reading by a number of the finest storytellers writing fiction today.

We're talking, among others, Walter Mosley and Jeffrey Ford here. These two writers have charted territory in the world of letters that will always belong to the greater atlas of creativity.

He denigrates an entire audience with hackneyed stereotypes, saying the "balding Goths, girls with jutting chins and faux punks were so reverent that I could hear the hum of the air conditioner."

Sheesh. Yeah, those are the only folks who dig books like Stories.

This isn't a review; instead, it's just another sloppy hatchet job on commercially popular writers (I sincerely doubt that there was any "belly-aching" from this group...) that trots out that old distinction between genre dreck and literature.

Quality is quality is quality, by the way.

Reading stuff like this makes me thankful that I make my home in the speculative arts...

6.15.2010

On Life and Love

John Wooden once said, "Don't let making a living prevent you from making a life."

The great UCLA coach, one of the last century's clearest thinkers, hits the nail on the head with that one. As is the case with many of his teachings, it's a simple ideology that seems to grow ever elusive as American culture progresses.

Yes, this is one of those sappy posts (briefly) lamenting what I perceive to be a shift in values--one away from a culture that admires substance and human interaction and toward one that feels increasingly materialistic (undoubtedly a form of substance, but not the form I choose to espouse) and isolationist.

Wooden also professed, in his later years, that the greatest human character trait--the one that might actually be our source for salvation as a species--is love. Again, very simple. If one possesses the capacity to love, one knows empathy. If one can love, then one knows compassion.

Love is a form of respect.

My life is busier now than it's ever been. I celebrated a birthday yesterday and, with a lot of miles on the odometer, time passes much faster. It just does. It's a cliche, and it's true. The days are shorter; there is less time to write, obviously less time to reflect in forums like this one.

But things are more rewarding. The days spent with my family, and in watching my daughter and wife grow together, are fuller.

There's more love.

The trick, then, is to learn how to spread that love exponentially. How can we tap into Wooden's ethos, one which proclaims that, "Passion is momentary; love is enduring"?

Sure, I get jazzed up for the short term things in life. I attack new stories and submissions with relish when I can; I love thinking about the time I might have at the beach this weekend, the jog I'll take later in the day or the time I might spend on the golf course.

But all of those passions are secondary to the type of love that Wooden is talking about. When it's all said and done, any writer's words will exist in the world. The work will have been worth it, hopefully, and it'll speak for itself.

Whatever that work is--be it architecture, teaching, law enforcement, raising children or making sandwiches--the work will speak for itself.

But the legacy you'll leave--the legacy I'll leave--will ultimately be the love we've shared.

If you've not read some of John Wooden's philosophy, here's an introduction. It's well worth your time to read his books...

6.11.2010

Dang it, Jeremiah...


I've enjoyed watching Jeremiah Masoli play quarterback and lead this team over the last two years. The transfer from San Francisco City College arrived in Eugene with a roster spot, a chip on his shoulder and a fifth-string billing. Injuries paved the way for the little tank to shine in Oregon's offense, and shine he did.
Jeremiah left a lot of defenders in his wake, staring up at the lightning yellow cleats of his bad-ass Oregon uniform.
Man, we look good...
But he was just as likely to lower the shoulder and put a hurt on you. Just ask the Oregon State Beavers about that after last year's Civil War.
But the man is tragically flawed. Have you ever had one of those friends that just can't seem to get of their own way? One of those people you like and admire, but they always seem to make the wrong choice?
I think that's Jeremiah. He went from Heisman hopeful to laptop thief to suspended football player to off the team.
Now, the Lane County D.A. is considering what to do about his probation violation. I think Jeremiah might be in for a bit of a correction in the near future...
It amounts to a sad situation for an athlete that used to be such an integral part of the University. I hope he can get this thing back on track. I never had high hopes for him making the NFL, but there are other places where he can earn a living playing football.
That is, if he can get out of his own damn way...
Go Mexico! Get your futbol on, boys...

6.10.2010

Time Passes...

Life is about choices, right?

It's about whom you spend time with, where you live, what you do to earn your keep, how you look out for the people that depend on you, when you decide to grow the hell up, how you choose to dance to a Marvin Gaye song, when you decide to jettison the baggage, how you choose to mediate the small stuff, where you look for guidance, how you understand your own faith.

Right? Maybe?

I'm at a bit of a crossroads. Straight ahead is best in the long run.

Right is comfortable, but status quo. Left is comfortable, but status quo.

I can stand pat; it's status quo.

So my choice is to move forward for the future or stand pat.

Is there really any question?

6.02.2010

Thank You, Ken Griffey, Jr.




My wife went to Target last week to pick up a few things for Lyla.



"I'd love a package of cards," I called. It was wishful thinking. Sometimes I get a pack, sometimes I don't.



This time I was lucky. I opened the package and only found room for an Andre Ethier in my shiny protective sheets. It's a bittersweet thing, opening a pack of cards without the prospects of pulling a Ken Griffey, Jr., rookie card out of the batch.



You see, Griffey's rookie year coincided with the absolute apex of the market for sports cards. When I was living in John Day, Oregon, back in my middle-school years, I spent all my disposable income on cards. When I pulled dandelions or pushed the mower for my folks, I calculated my wages in packages of Topps. Hell, I even ate that gum--it was like pepto bismol hammered flat, into the consistency of hardy drywall.



Those were great years. I had many wonderful friends in John Day. I had daily access to a very trouty river and a couple of trouty streams. I had soccer and swim team.



And I had baseball.



I love baseball. I'm a long-suffering Baltimore Orioles fan, and I love that franchise more than any other. More than the Trail Blazers. More than the Denver Broncos or the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Indiana Pacers.



But they break my heart every year. The only solace I have is to flip through my dozens of pages of Ripkens, Moras, Markakises, Mussinas and Murrays. I've got scads of O's in my pages--even the oldies from the late '80s, when the Birds tanked twenty-one games in a row to start the year and I got teased at school for wearing my Starter jacket with the Oriole stripes over the shoulders.



In that era, Griffey was the most exciting player out there. Cal was my favorite--no doubt--but nobody could equal the sheer excitement he brought to the field every night. The Big Hurt (Frank Thomas) was probably the best pure hitter, but Grif could do it all: run, catch, throw and smoke the ball out of the park.



He had style, that one. Come to think of it, I see a little Griffey in Jason Heyward over in Atlanta.



And we hunted his rookie card like Hemingway going after lions on the veldt. I remember splitting a waxbox of 1989 Donruss packs with Ben Boche, my best friend. We each got a Griffey rookie, thank goodness, but there were some tense moments as we ripped those packs apart. What if one of us had lucked out and got them both?



At any rate, Griffey has been a mainstay in my life. When I had surgery after breaking my kneecap while playing soccer in college, my dad and I had to wait in recovery. We passed the time (1995) by watching the greatest game in Seattle Mariners history: their extra-inning win over the Yankees in the playoffs. It was Griffey who slid across home plate for the win.



I couldn't get out of bed, but my pop and I had our share of high fives nonetheless.



I followed him in Cincinnati and I rejoiced when he returned to Seattle. I hear that he's going to live there full-time in retirement, and that he might join the club in the front office. That would be a good thing. He could be arrogant at times, but he's always cared about baseball. He's good for the game, especially having enjoyed so much success through the steroid era.



I record these disjointed memories here because I just read that Ken hung his spikes up tonight. One of the finest things about sports is aging with your favorite players, and being loyal to them down the line. Sports are monumental because they serve as mileage posts for our lives. The thing with Grif was, he gave me twenty years of those.



Thanks for sharing your gifts with us, Ken, and best of luck in your future with the Mariners.

6.01.2010

Raising Tom Chambers


In the first weeks of 2009, my wife and I lived in a state of eager anticipation. Jeanne was close to having our daughter, and she was excited about Lyla coming to join us. But she also enjoyed that special time of being a mother. It was uncomfortable and bizarre and lovely--that period of growth and gestation--all at the same time.
I had an idea for a story right around then, and a couple of different elements coalesced in a weird narrative: Martian parasites, the incomparable Tom Chambers (above) and (perhaps) the last woman on Earth.
I'd like to thank Michael Ray and Paul Clemmons for publishing my story "Raising Tom Chambers" in Redstone Science Fiction.
Stop by to read the magazine and thanks, as always, for taking a look at my work...