Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Jiffy Pop Effect

Got a new story up at Fiction@Work. Baby Teeth. An early version of it appeared on this blog. It's a little cleaner now. I'm fond of it.

The novel rewrite is going well. About a quarter of the way through. Two chapters cut, one major character cut, and another seriously downsized.

What's making me feel good is how the surviving chapters are plumping up (I think of this as the Jiffy Pop effect; do they even make Jiffy Pop anymore?), even as I cut large chunks of the novel away. Stories, regardless of length, kinda harden after awhile. They turn brittle. You pick apart a sentence and realize your changes affect three other sentences later on. It's been too long, there's too much distance. Happily, the novel is still alive, still reacting to changes, still capable of surprising me. New character details, new plot points, more dialogue. At one point two characters just started talking to each other at the end of a chapter. I let them. I'm glad I did. I learned from them.

A concession I am making to the marketplace is to give the couple in the novel a more traditional love story. I'd strenuously avoided that during the first two drafts, as I felt it was important thematically for the two lovers not to communicate well, to show their interactions as stumbling and incomplete. I realize that's not a very satisfying experience for the reader.

Now I'm beginning to see how to approach the theme of disconnection from the other side, by showing those rare and meaningful moments when they do connect as a contrast.

The Copenhagen Suborbitals attempted manned space flight last weekend was a scrub, but they vow to continue, and launch next year. They designed their own rocket, their own submarine, their own floating launch platform. They'll figure it out.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Life Imitating Photoshop

This looks like a badly Photoshopped picture, but it's real, and required a half an hour of Hubble telescope time to get enough light to resolve the image. It looks like a ghost of a dead galaxy. Sadly, it is not. It's the result of the death throes of a carbon star, throwing off material, and because it's orbiting another star the ejected material comes out in a spiral. Think of a rotating sprinkler head to visualize the effect.

What I like about the picture is that it looks like this, another example of life imitating bad Photoshop. But this spiral was caused by entirely different circumstances: a missile launch gone bad, spewing fuel in an exact spiral. I love the recurrence of certain basic shapes and patterns in nature. Spheres and discs, spiral arms. The golden mean. Fibonacci numbers.

Thanks to APOD for the pic.

We went to a campground with Tolstoy and the boys this weekend. We have a recent habit of arbitrarily choosing Colorado campgrounds, showing up, seeing what it's like. This time the campground was maybe 300 yards from the Interstate. You could see a McDonald's sign and three different motels from the tent. You could hear the dull throb of traffic day and night.

Still, it's hard to be unhappy while camping. We had several ponds and a rubber raft to play with. We saw an egret, a HUGE heron, several killdeer. The campground was formerly a series of gravel pits that were filled with water and turned into a wildlife refuge. Traffic noise notwithstanding, it's hard to argue with the result. And a gorgeous Saturday night sky, despite the lights: Jupiter anchoring one end, Venus and a thin crescent moon anchoring the other, and Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Sagittarius and Scorpio spread out on the canvas between them.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Forge of Memory, pt. 2

Memories rarely stick when you think they will. You can't make them stay. They do or they don't; you aren't allowed into the decision. They're ornery that way. It's a neural hat trick, which events stay embedded in the folds of the brain, which get discarded. It's alchemy.

I remember few Christmas mornings. You're supposed to, of course, that's where the emphasis goes, what all the commercials point to as the most important moment. It's what everyone prepares for, when everyone takes out the camera. Why some families spend hundreds of dollars on presents and decorations: to make a perfect family memory. But it doesn't work, not very often. You can't force a memory. They do what they wanna do. Like I said: ornery.

My Christmas memories are of being on the roof putting up Christmas lights in the weeks beforehand, of playing with Play-doh in the languor of the days after. Of wondering what the giant present hidden in the closet is. Of watching my sister open wrapping paper with the cat's claw so she can see what the present is, yet preserve deniability by blaming the cat.

Toys breaking, I remember. Arguments, I remember.

Several years ago, the girls and I were putting up Christmas lights, and a deer wandered onto our block, elegant, unhurried, strolling from one lawn to the next. I called the little Hux out to watch. Then boom!, a backyard dog began to bark, the deer vanished in a series of leaps, pogo-ing away, all four legs pumping at the same time.

It's a reindeer, said the eldest. It's flying!

That, we've all remembered.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Forge of Memory

The State Fair dominated the week, beginning with the parade on Saturday morning, ending with the way-past-bedtime stroll through the midway Friday night. I grew up going to the Iowa State Fair (as well as various county fairs), and now, decades later, the best bits are pretty much unchanged. The Tilt-A-Whirl (the girls ran to hux afterward yelling "Daddy didn't puke!" which would make an excellent tee shirt). Six separate rides on the bumper cars. Corn dogs and funnel cakes. Sheep and cows and roosters and petting zoos, yada, yada, yada.

The memorable piece came at the very end, and was memorable primarily for what did not happen. Friday night was packed, and the line for the bungee jump was long, so we saved it for the very end. Took over an hour to get to the front, and you'd expect that to be a recipe for full tilt whining and are-we-there-yet level boredom. And yet. The bungee jump itself was almost an afterthought. Three girls were in front of us, and our girls talked and played with them the entire time. It helped that the eldest was fourteen, making her a Rock Star in the eyes of our own girls. Helpful as well was the summer night, the hint of the coming fall in the air, the bright lights of the midway, the flirting teenagers, the smell of the corn dogs and the funnel cakes, the clamor of the sideshows and the crowd and the creaking machinery. They all conspired to push the moment out of the ordinary, into the bright alchemical forge of memory.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Copenhagen Suborbitals

Copenhagen Suborbitals is trying to put a man into space this weekend, by launching their very own rocket on Saturday. It'd being launched from a floating platform also of their own design. The floating platform is being towed into place by the Nautilus, a submarine also designed by these guys. So, to recap: their own rocket, floating launch platform and submarine. Clearly, a creative bunch. Nemo would be proud.

Copenhagen Suborbitals is a non-profit group, entirely funded by donations. Go visit their site. You can give them some money, or at least buy a very cool t shirt, like I did.

My favorite aspect of this is that they named the rocket Tycho Brahe, one of my favorite astronomers ever. Tycho had a silver nose, as his actual nose was cut off in a duel. He made incredibly accurate measurements of the stars and planets, and their positions in the night sky, but never concluded the Earth revolved around the sun, choosing to instead cling to his own theory that the Earth was the center of things, and the movements of the planets could be explained by "epicycles," or circles within the orbits. After his death his assistant, Johann Kepler, took Brahe's results and pretty much nailed down the heliocentric solar system model, by deducing the heartbreakingly elegant three laws of planetary motion from the data.