Mourning Dove

I have a weird Western called “Mourning Dove” in the anthology Principia Ponderosa, now available.

She rose and walked to the press. “My husband started this newspaper to compete with the other established dailies in town. Every one of them printed a single edition per day. He realized he could gain an advantage by running two editions every day, and jump the competition by putting a morning edition on the streets for folks to read while they ate their bacon. But publishing two newspapers every single day is hard work, and doesn’t leave time for much else. So he invented this press to write the morning edition for him.” She patted the metal. “Thing is, he went ahead and somehow made a machine that wrote news before it happened, saving him the trouble of having to write about it afterwards.”

Certain recent aspects of my personal life have entailed me staring through a telescope into my future and I haven’t always liked what I’ve seen. I asked myself, Would anybody really want to know what lay ahead if they could?

Principia Ponderosa is available for Kindle and in paperback. The art above isn’t the cover; editor Juliana Rew used it for flavor when she sent around her submissions call and I love its digital whimsy, located somewhere between deco and 16-bit.

Open Loops

Office Politics by Shag. Copyright is his, illustration reproduced for discussion purposes only, please don’t sue.

Over at Electric Lit, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats has an interview about his second novel, Universal Harvester, and his reliance on beta readers to provide “gentle reminders that I have to close loops” in his fiction:

There’s a scene where they’re editing video tapes, and originally there were cryptic labels on these canning jars that suggested something besides jam would be going into them — who knows what. Blood, or plasma, or whatever, right? It was creepy as hell, but you can’t plant that seed and never say anything about it again. You can’t. If I introduce something to the scene, I have to — at the very least — acknowledge that something has been left unknown there. I can’t just say something and never refer to it again … but the appeal of that is very strong and hard to resist.

I have to wonder if Darnielle is a Robert Aickman fan. Aickman wrote what he called “strange stories,” stories that aren’t horror and don’t always involve the supernatural but were intended to leave the reader unsettled, often via a lack of explanation or full context. This has given Aickman a reputation for being baffling, though this is an exaggeration; more accurately, the vitreousness of his work spans the gamut from dirty windshield to outright opacity.

Take, for example, his best known story (and for good reason), “Ringing the Changes.” It involves a pair of newlyweds — Gerald being much older than his attractive wife Phrynne — arriving in the small seaside town of Holihaven for their honeymoon. They arrive in late afternoon only to learn there is one night during the year when tourists most certainly should not visit Holihaven. By the story’s end it’s fairly clear what has transpired — there’s little confusion — though the motivations of some of the characters are oblique. Over and over, the townspeople chastise the owner of the hotel, Mrs. Pascoe, for accepting the couple’s reservation on that most notorious of nights. Why did she endanger her two guests? But they, and we, never hear a clear response.

It was so dark where Mrs Pascoe was working that her labours could have been achieving little; but she said nothing to her visitors, nor they to her. At the door Phrynne unexpectedly stripped off the overcoat and threw it on a chair. Her nightdress was so torn that she stood almost naked. Dark though it was, Gerald saw Mrs Pascoe regarding Phrynne’s pretty body with a stare of animosity.

A favorite visual artist of mine is Shag, aka Josh Agle. He’s well-known in tiki and mid-century modern circles; his paintings are populated by lithe women and dapper men drinking cocktails while spy jazz presumably plays softly in the background. But often his canvases also feature other, more inexplicable details, like anthropomorphic animals or sinister characters and scenarios. In an interview (which I can’t find now), Shag stated he likes creating ambiguous scenes in which full context is unknowable, thereby forcing the viewer to create her own unique narrative of what’s taking place inside the frame.

“Office Politics,” shown above, is a perfect example. The woman in the foreground carries a broken bottle, presumably to use as a weapon. But on whom — the man? The woman? Both? Meanwhile the other woman entertains the man with a puppet. But wait — the puppet is a pink elephant, a common symbol for drunken delirium (and a recurring motif in some of Shag’s paintings, most notably “Pink Elephants,” “Seek Help,” which he said was about him quitting alcohol). So does the puppeteer represent alcoholism and the broken-bottle woman sobriety, each vying for the man’s soul? There’s no wrong answer, and that’s the beauty of Shag’s work — he engages the viewer into a subjective experience. Two people can see the same painting and walk away with very different stories about it.

In college I took a drawing class in which I became fascinated with the concept of pareidolia — the phenomenon of the brain forming faces or other recognizable shapes and patterns out of random meaninglessness, like clouds. My final project consisted of a long scroll of paper on which I had quickly jotted hundreds of squiggly lines. Once the scroll was hung on the classroom wall, yes, I could see a few faces within the lines — though whether anyone else could, I don’t know.

When I discovered Aickman a few years ago, he helped ease my anxiety over open loops in my fiction, of tying every string’s end into an explicit, visible knot. It was OK, said Aickman, to leave things unexplained and let the reader connect the dots, even if the shapes created by those dots weren’t the ones I had intended. That designed pareidolia is something I have since resuscitated in my fiction: let the reader have his own interpretation. Maybe Aickman could work the same medicine on Darnielle for book number three.

Black to the Future

Over at Electric Literature, you can read about my childhood fascination with Marvel Comics’ Black Panther, and more specifically with his native land of Wakanda:

Black Panther is a hero in the Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark mold, a super-wealthy bachelor who uses science and athleticism to pound on bad guys. There are no secret identities — everyone knows who BP is: he’s T’Challa, the king of the African nation Wakanda, which is a mix of grass huts, deep jungle, and 1970s futurism.

The essay is a departure from my usual stuff, very loose and free floating, a sepia stream of consciousness about comics and growing up in a household where futurism was literally just laying around on tables or bolted to the roof. Whereas Panther’s color resonated with many black readers, it was the setting that captured my imagination, and still does: I nearly jumped out of my seat at the brief glimpses of Wakanda at the tail end of this year’s Captain America: Civil War.

As of this writing my essay has received 20 retweets and a dozen likes on Twitter, more than my book ever did, suggesting maybe I should write about pop culture more often. Unfortunately I’m poorly qualified for the job: I generally hate TV (some exceptions may apply), I can count the frequency I go the movies in a year on one hand, and the number of video games I’ve played to completion since 2011 tallies at exactly three. I love music but not being a musician myself I feel I lack the vocabulary to adequately speak about it. Which leaves book blogging, something I’m hoping to do more of in the new year.

Rereading my old BP comics within the full and complete context of “Panther’s Rage” has been gratifying, with Wakanda coming across as smaller than I remember (the sci-fi technology is largely confined to T’Challa’s palace) and yet bigger (more dinosaurs! snowy mountain wastelands chock full of yetis!). It’s interesting being at an age now where I can experience a phenomenon both as contemporary futurism and as retrofuturism. Something like Vernean steampunk will forever be out of reach as a potentiality and exists only for us as a quaint, even naive, vision of how things were supposed to be; but by simply living past tomorrow we can experience both the very real possibility and the hindsight of existing in what invariably turns out to be a different future. I was recently talking to my dad about the solar panels on his house, which are solely for heating water. When I asked him whether photovoltaic panels were available in the 70s, he told me no, not commercially — the technology was in its infancy. And yet as we spoke while driving through the streets of his town, we spotted several houses with PV arrays on their roofs. Wherever you go there you are, but almost never where you thought you’d be.

I’ll be there on opening day in 2018 when the MCU Black Panther movie drops, and I’m sure I’ll have many opinions about it. Maybe I’ll even write some of them down. Meow.

Short News, Struggling Scribblers Edition

Office in Small City by Edward Hopper, 1953
Office in Small City by Edward Hopper, 1953

Do your job. Electric Literature says writing is a jobeven if it doesn’t pay you as much as you wish it would.

[S]ometimes the money just isn’t there. If you are writing weird poems on a friend’s Tumblr page that only a handful of people will read, you can’t expect to be paid because there is no money being made. But if you are writing for, say, a big website that gets massive traffic, you should absolutely demand to be paid

I previously inked some thoughts on writers and rip-off publishers here.

“Should we always play it safe?” Barrelhouse has a great graphic essay on writers and writing.

File under Asylum, lunatics taken over the. Trumpkins swarmed the Goodreads page for author Laura Silverman’s latest book, inundating it with one-star reviews because she dislikes their clown prince of politics. Punchline: the book hasn’t been released yet — it’s still in copyedits. Allies responded with five stars to counteract the attacks; meanwhile, Goodreads lethargically removed the troll reviews. Silverman said the incident “scared me a lot, because they were taking it to the next level.” If it’s any consolation to Silverman, I wouldn’t worry about it affecting her career — that’s just another Tuesday for Goodreads.

Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Not Beautiful

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My boys and I built our first garden behind the garage of our previous house. We never had a bumper crop of anything there; the corn cobs were tiny, the carrots shrimpy. The best we did is a couple of pumpkins one year in time for Halloween.

This spring I built three beds at our new house. Unlike our last garden, I was less laissez-faire with my investment: I watered and weeded and shooed away deer and squirrels. The results were mixed. While the tomatoes grew more than five feet high, they never produced a viable fruit; friends complained they had worms in theirs, and my pal Christina warned me that birds will eat them during drought — and we’ve been in a drought since June. I have fifty feet of pumpkin vines but no pumpkins. We harvested one solid crop of arugula and basil before the cucumber plants took over the bed and blotted out the sun.

And the cucumber themselves? I never knew cucumber plants grew so large or aggressively. The exclosure fence around the bed became a trellis which they promptly scaled and summited with their tendrils. A little research told me they are distantly related to pumpkins, which explains the similar broad leaves and steroidal growth. The fruits grow like the balloons of a balloon artist, beginning as tiny gherkins on the vine then inflating from one end to the other. We’ve been eating cucumbers in our salads all summer, minus the edible wax of the store-bought variety.

On Monday I clipped the last half-dozen from the withering plants. In each case I had left the fruit attached to mature a little longer as it had some odd disfigurement I hoped would go away: a kink in the hose here, an uninflated finger there. Finally I acknowledged I had to harvest them or they would rot on the ground. They taste as great, warts and all, as the model cukes.

But if I was selling cucumbers commercially, these ugly ducklings would have wound up in the garbage. In the European Union about 30 percent of food grown by farmers is thrown away because it looks weird, even though it is unspoiled and perfectly edible. That percentage is comparable to the amount wasted by the US and other nations around the world. Back in 2014 my friend Baylen Linnekin interviewed Maria Canelhas, a representative of the organization Fruta Feia (“Ugly Fruit”), which fights against food waste. Canelhas explained the EU regulations behind it:

These rules basically group fruits and vegetables into classes, depending on the size, colour and other appearance characteristics (such as stains on the peel). Regarding fruits, you have class “extra,” class I, and class II, and each of these classes have a minimum size, that’s determined by the calibration standards. On another hand, you have classes grouping fruits according to their coloring. Regarding vegetables, you also have classes that group them according to their size (minimum calibration) and colour.

So what happens is that consumers started to prefer fruits and vegetables from the class “extra,” class I, or class II with high calibrations. When noticing this trend, distributors and supermarkets started to buy from the farmers those classes only, leaving the others out. This explains the difficulty that farmers are facing trying to sell these fruits and vegetables, resulting in a huge amount of food waste. Nowadays, distributors and supermarkets aren’t buying the less appreciated classes, so consumers don’t have the choice to buy them, because this food isn’t even arriving on the market.

Not so coincidentally Baylen has a new book out tomorrow about how smarter government regulations would reduce this kind of waste and encourage sustainability.

Biting the Hand That Feeds UsBiting the Hands that Feed Us introduces readers to the perverse consequences of many food rules. Some of these rules constrain the sale of “ugly” fruits and vegetables, relegating bushels of tasty but misshapen carrots and strawberries to food waste. Other rules have threatened to treat manure—the lifeblood of organic fertilization—as a toxin. Still other rules prevent sharing food with the homeless and others in need. There are even rules that prohibit people from growing fruits and vegetables in their own yards.

Blurb writers John Mackey and Joel Salatin can’t both be wrong! I’ve already pre-ordered my copy, which I can’t wait to read while munching a gnarled-cucumber sandwich. Have you? UNSUBTLE HINT: CLICK HERE.

Update: Baylen goes into detail about ugly vegetables and American food waste in an interview with HuffPost, stressing the need for both laws and consumers’ expectations to change:

The regulations the USDA and EPA have established make wasting the “ugly” fruits and vegetables often times easier than actually picking them at the farm and trying to sell them. The government’s at fault there, full stop. But it’s also incumbent upon consumers to change their behavior and recognize that.

Beer and Loathing

Justin Fleming, co-owner of Kelly Green Brewing Co.
Justin Fleming, co-owner of Kelly Green Brewing Co.

I have a story at Atlas Obscura on how state licensing in New Jersey allows microbreweries to circumvent municipal liquor laws. The result: beer in my historically dry hometown of Pitman:

Drinking alcohol was never really illegal in Pitman–you just had to cross the town line to get it. While the state regulates alcohol in New Jersey, municipalities control the issuance of liquor licenses. Pitman has never issued licenses, resulting in an orbit of bars and package-good stores just outside the border. But in 2012, New Jersey amended its laws to allow microbreweries to sell their beer for consumption on the premises. Since these brewery licenses come from the state government, the microbreweries don’t require a local license to operate. In other words, they don’t actually need the town’s permission to make and serve beer.

Pitman is an odd place. Economically depressed, in my lifetime it’s never been able to capitalize on its main asset, which is its compact and navigable downtown. A big reason for this has been its pigheaded refusal to allow restaurants to serve alcohol. Pitman was commercially successful in the 1950s and 60s but when nearby malls began sucking shoppers away to Glassboro and Deptford, Pitman refused to adapt. It’s perfectly laid out to reinvent itself as a dining destination (something done by the Connecticut town I now live in) but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to entice quality restaurants when they can’t pair an IPA with a crab cake or a bottle of red with a steak, so instead Pitman’s downtown is a motley of pizza parlors and takeout joints which cater solely to locals, rounded out with thrift shops (I counted three) and other low-rent stores. If you’re from out of town, there’s no reason to visit Pitman — you’re better off going to Deptford mall-land and eating at a chain restaurant because at least you can have a drink on a Friday night. I mean, it’s not like a French restaurant is suddenly going to open in Pitman.

At least until Kelly Green arrived. The hesitancy that has hobbled Pitman for decades — one leg stuck in Glory Days, the other in economic reality — seems to be fading. One fourth-generation Pitmanite said to me, “I think Pitman owes its values to being dry.” Some values they are, too: few jobs (especially for teens), reduced assessments, diminishing property values. When Pitman began, temperance was rationalized for social reasons, as erroneous as those were; but now it has become a thing-in-itself, something justified because it’s always been. I’ve read enough newspapers and documents to recognize there was a problem with alcoholism and drunkenness in 19th-century America, although it was never the root of evil the Carrie Nation crowd believed it was — rather, it resulted from the grinding conditions of the time. Prohibition was a solution to an effect instead of a cause. Now we just keep it around for nostalgia’s sake.

Broadway Theatre, est. 1926, Pitman, NJ.
Broadway Theatre, est. 1926, Pitman, NJ.

Anyway, I love Atlas Obscura and I’m thrilled they pubbed this story. I had been a fan of AO’s encyclopedia for years before finally joining in 2013, pushed over the edge by inaccuracies and untruths in their entry for Pleasure Beach — somebody was wrong on the Internet and I had to fix it! Later I was surprised they had nothing on any of the ghost towns in the Pine Barrens (those could fill an encyclopedia all their own) so I added Batsto. Eventually I want to add a few more Nutmeg sites but in the meantime I check their encyclopedia before every trip. Since David Plotz came onboard, AO has been publishing news and features as well, and their wry editorial voice is an anodyne to most travel sites. You can find me over there as JDK.