Sunday, January 5, 2014

Pox in Knox

Just a quick note to let everyone know that the first of my Green Eggs and Horror stories, Pox in Knox, is now available on the podcast, and as an added bonus, the story is read by my son!

Go on, check it out!  And if you like what you hear, say it to someone.  Post a link, write a review, take out an ad in Variety.  I'm not fussy.

Of course, if you like what you hear, you could also get your own copy of the book, in ink or pixel!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Like Green Eggs Aren't Scary Enough to Begin With?!

It wasn't all that long ago that Pete came up with the idea.  It was back in January, and he just threw it out there: Seussian horror stories.  I don't know if  he expected anyone to take him seriously, but right away, something went "click" way in the back of my head, somewhere between those warm and squishy childhood memories and that place where "warm and squishy" means something else entirely.

I think I had my first draft finished in about two hours.  It just sort of fell out, pulsing and oozing on the floor.  You know, all warm and... yeah. Annnyway...

An early cover idea
Somewhere along the way, this shifted from "messing around with a fun idea" to "hey, this could be a for real book!" and Green Eggs and Horror was born.  I not only got the chance to include two stories but to do the cover art.  And I get to read for the podcast as well, but more on that when one of my episodes come up.  

I'm not throwing this up just to shill - I mean, I am going to shill, and remorselessly no less - but I've got to say, this has been a lot of fun.  Pete invited me in on most of the process, and this was my first experience on this side of the anthology.  My anthology experience is more along the lines of "nope, no reply today" variety.

And - as I am a man of my word - now for the shill: if you're so inclined, the book is up on Amazon now (Green Eggs and Horror on Kindle), and you can follow the link on the Green Eggs and Horror website for a copy printed on genuine imitation truffula paper.  And just to prove that it's not all about the money, every story in the book will feature on the free podcast.  Episode 1 is up now with a story called Passenger by Christopher Banyas.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The High Cost of Savings

You know you're middle aged when conversations about home improvements start to sound interesting.  

In my defense, it is slightly geeky, and I've always loved gadgets and gizmos, so this may not be entirely old-mannish.  But yeah, it's still pretty domestic.  

A friend of mine was talking at length about solar power.  Not so much a chat as a full on Q&A session.  Not in general, but in a practical This Is How It Works Right Here And Right Now sort of way.  He's done his homework, and he's very clearly a fan.

I was always intrigued by the idea, but to be honest, it was more of a That Would Be Kinda Neat idea than a You Can Really Do This And It Might Even Be The Smart Move thought.  It's not as if it's a pressing issue, right?  I've definitely got higher priority business to sort before I... um... pimp my... crib... izzle?  (Gimme a break.  Middle aged, remember?)

And to be honest, I wasn't all that sure solar power made a lot of sense in Ireland.  Apart from the cartoonishly gray skies, we're awfully far north, and that means we've got some pretty short daylight hours in the winter.  And since we're only generating during daylight hours, when we're most likely to be out of the house, how much would we really benefit?  It's a cool idea, but I'm not sure it's terribly practical.

As it turns out, that just ain't so.  The panels don't need direct sunlight, so the cloud cover isn't a problem.  And as for the timing, that's not a big problem either.  In the last few years, Ireland's done a bit of rewiring, and now you can sell electricity back to the grid, meaning you get the benefit even if you don't use the juice yourself.  For the typical family, solar pays for itself in about four or five years.  

Sounds pretty good.  Of course, the question came up: "Are you set up with solar?"  No it wasn't me.  I thought the question was kinda silly, given the way he went on.  I mean, this guy has compared prices, looked into grants, checked out just how DIY friendly the job is.  This are not the words of someone who decided solar just wasn't for him.

So yeah, I was a little surprised at his answer.  "No," he said.  "I can't afford it.  Saving money's just too expensive."

Talk about your conversation killers.  Between the actual panels, converter, two way electricity meter, the wiring, it takes an investment of a couple grand to get started.  And as he mentioned earlier, it's at least four years before the savings reach that level.  He can't afford that kind of cash, so despite knowing that he could run his house with an fuel free energy surplus, he's still using fossil fuel generated electricity.  

And that was my big takeaway from that conversation.  This country - and every other country, for that matter - is filled with people ready, willing and even eager to take steps that would reduce their own monthly bills, the global dependence on a dwindling fuel supply, and air pollution.   It's no magic solution, but it's a pretty good start, and painless to boot.  This is the right thing to do.  

But too many people can't afford to do the right thing, and the ones that can afford it won't really feel the benefit.  Face it.  If you can comfortably afford what can amount to the price of a small car, you aren't really going to notice the savings on your electricity bill.  The people who stand to benefit the most are the ones who have to decide which bills get paid this month.  Imagine what one less bill could do for them.  

I understand that Ireland does have grants available for solar panels, but the only information I could find was for solar heating, not electricity.  The heating, by the way, does need strong sunlight for full benefit, meaning it's not terribly practical.  But for what it's worth, that grant is worth €800.  Assuming the electric panels have a similar deal, that's just not enough make a difference for most folks.  

So for now, my friend the solar fanboy does without and continues to spread the word.  And I keep thinking middle age thoughts about my house.  

Friday, December 14, 2012

Thoughts on a Friday in December


I guess by now, you’ve seen the news.  Most likely, you’ve seen more of it than I have.  I stuck around long enough to hear about the man with motives I don’t pretend to understand, that he walked into an elementary school with several guns and used them to end thirty or so lives, many of them barely started. 

Every time this sort of story comes up – and it does seem to come up an awful lot, doesn’t it?  Every time, my instincts steer me straight to gun control.  Yes, I know.  “Guns don’t kill people.  People kill people.”  But people are killing people with guns.  Efficiently.  Guns provide people with the opportunity to kill a lot of people quickly and without much chance of retaliation. 

Guns are weapons.  They exist to make things dead.  If you don’t want things to die, then guns don’t make much sense.  We don’t allow free access to explosives, or poisons, or nuclear material because these things can easily endanger the public.  Taking away these tools doesn’t end violence or violent impulses, and just about any tool can be dangerous with the right combination of determination and ingenuity.  That doesn’t mean that we should make it easy.

But to be honest, I think I may be missing a trick here.  Sure, I do think we’d be better off with fewer guns.  Lots of countries around the world manage to get on just fine without guns, but if I’m being honest with myself, that’s only half the story. 

Still other countries manage to give the public access to firearms without daily reports of homicide.  There’s something different about the US, something that goes beyond availability and opportunity.  The gun may be the tool of choice, but the fact is that Americans choose to use their weapons on each other.  A lot.

The whole reason for firing a gun is to kill.  The only reason for having a gun handy is to be able to kill.  Call it defense if you like, but only in a “best defense is a good offense” sort of way.  If you want a genuine defensive weapon, get a shield.  Guns are for ending lives. 

Come to think of it, I have to wonder if the whole “defense” euphemism might have some bearing.  Defense sounds a lot more justifiable than killing, like it was him or me, like I had no choice.  We do it as a nation, we do it as a community, and we do it as individuals.  We soften the language to feel better about the choices we make. 

I’m not suggesting for a minute that all or even most shootings are in self-defense.  I’m suggesting we have decided as a culture that maybe killing isn’t so bad after all, and this is one of the ways we rationalize it.  So that defense mentality, that sort of him or me, ruthless dog-eat-dog mentality can justify a mugging or a vendetta just as easily as gunning down an intruder. 

Now, I doubt any of us is likely to relate to the man who walked into that school today, but the reason he was on the news today is because this is a man who decided that killing was a viable option, and he’s hardly unique for that. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

H2O 2.0

From time to time, I drink bottled water.

And yes, I do feel silly, thanks for asking.

Yes, I know that it’s just someone else’s tap water, no matter how many times advertisers mention clear mountain springs.  I know that the only requirements for entering the water business are a case of plastic bottles, a garden hose, and audacity.   I’m aware that I’m paying an 88 billion or so percent mark-up.  I realize that I’m adding to a growing pile of refuse that doesn't need to exist.

But when I’m out and about and I don’t want a hot drink or a waxy paper cup filled with carbonated high fructose corn syrup, when I just want something to make me not-thirsty, I don’t make a fuss.  I don’t stare pointedly at the sink in plain view right next to the stack of glasses or fast food cups.  I don’t point out that I want a drink, not a logo.  I cave in to peer pressure, to corporate pressure, to the likely disdain of the person behind the counter and lay down my money to pay for something I could have for free.

We've gotten to the stage that this is becoming a moot point.  Free water – in public at least – is very nearly a thing of the past.  Once upon a time, public drinking fountains were everywhere.  I couldn't tell you the last time I saw one.  These days, we have water coolers and delivery men with back braces with trucks full of oversized bottles, and we pay for the privilege, as if we never heard of modern plumbing. 

Even in the home, where there are no excuses, we still spring for “the good stuff” and leave the sink for washing dishes.  Or we run perfectly safe and clean tap water through a filter to make it gooderer, as if it’s substandard, as if it’s not suitable for drinking unless money changes hands. 

So I play along and I buy the stupid bottle, the one that might as well say “Free water inside”, because I’m not buying a drink.  I’m buying a brand name. 

I’m an idiot, but for whatever it’s worth, at least I’m not a thirsty idiot.

Monday, October 22, 2012

This One's For You, Donn

I met Donn at my father-in-law’s funeral.

When you’re an ex-pat, it becomes impossible to avoid eavesdropping on your native accent.  That familiar twang cuts right through the murmur of the local crowd and parks itself right in your ear.  So when I heard that American accent behind me, I couldn’t help but listen in. 

He was chatting with another of my father-in-law’s friends who happened to be in the insurance trade, asking about the ins and outs of driving in Ireland.  Did he need to get an Irish license to drive over here?  Did he need to get a license to buy a car over here?  Could he get insurance on a US license?  Questions met with little more than head scratching and brow furrowing from a man who didn’t come across much in the way of transatlantic business. 

Naturally, I chimed in.  I’d asked the very same questions not that long before, after all.  So I was able to give him some solid advice and confidently answer all the follow-up questions.  We got to talking, after the funeral, and again when we decided to meet in the pub the following day.

Donn first met Padraic (that’s PAWrick, my father-in-law) years before thanks to a shared love of Irish history.  In particular, Donn was interested in Sean MacEoin, and when he found a book by Padraic on the subject, he decided to reach out to the author.  It was the beginning of a great friendship, a contagious friendship that drew in their wives, children and even grandchildren. 

I’d heard about Donn and his wife Susan, knew about their regular trips to Ireland, trips that included visits with my in-laws, but I never had the chance to meet them while Padraic was alive.  And of course, I never heard any of this from Donn’s perspective. 

When we met at the pub, Donn came armed.  He was loaded with pictures and books and documents, each with some connection to Padraic.  Each was an artefact, a record of some profound moment in history – national, personal or otherwise – and he recounted the story behind each with unguarded, wide eyed enthusiasm.  And when he came with me to visit my mother-in-law after, he told the same stories again, with the very same passion and excitement.

Donn was, perhaps as much as anything else, a packrat.  He collected memorabilia, books, letters, photos… things.  More than that though, Donn collected stories.  He treasured the significance of objects, the human connections, the story behind the story.  This was the passion he was so eager to share with us, that day and in the years to follow. 

Donn and Susan continued to make annual visits to Ireland, visits that always included us.  I never saw Donn more than once a year, and when the timing didn’t work out, we wouldn’t see each other at all that year.  But I always looked forward to their visit, always wanted to spend the day in what was invariably great company and great conversation.

Their visit this last time was especially poignant.  It was the first since my mother-in-law died last spring.  It was also his 65th birthday, and it was a brilliant night.  We ate and drank and yammered away the night, and even though they stayed later than usual, the end came too soon.

Donn passed away this weekend.  I miss him.  I wasn’t expecting to see him for nearly a year, but I miss him. 

I wish I had words for Susan that could help, that weren’t so uselessly trite.  I wish I could put a bow on this, offer some perspective, some comfort, some way of making his absence less of a hole in the world. 

Maybe the best I can manage is to take a leaf from Donn’s book, to revel in the connections, and to tell this story the best I can.  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Humans Need Not Apply

Remember all those World’s-Fair-Home-of-the-Future-brighter-days-techno-daydreams? Those black and white sci-fi B-movies where some reassuringly Brylcremed gentleman who kept his cigarette case in his lab coat pocket described a new utopia where technology paved the way for a life of peace and leisure (usually just before everything went all monster shaped and spoiled the whole afternoon)?  These were already the stuff of nostalgia by the time I showed up, but the dream lived on, and you know what, gang?  

We did it.

Welcome to the future, kids.  Hope you brought something to do.

The dream came true.  We've taken huge strides in our pursuit of the easy life, a life free from labor.  We work faster and with better results than at any time in history, all because we've done our level best to make work a thing of the past.

I can remember hearing nervous rumblings of now-what worry as far back as the 70s.  Robotic assembly lines worked faster and more reliably than people, without coffee breaks, sick days or those pesky human rights to contend with.  Unions weren’t exactly abuzz with possibility.  They were scared for all those manufacturing jobs, and as it turns out, with good reason.

That was about the same time someone figured out that people were willing pump their own gas if it meant saving money, that cheap beats good as sure as rock beats scissors .  No-frills labels started showing up in the grocery stores.  Superstore savings won out over Mom and Pop service-with-a-smile.  Everyone was looking for new ways to shrink that price tag and pump up profits.  

Turns out one of the easier corners to cut is man-hours.

Skip ahead.  These days, online shops are beating old school retail bloody, and store clerks are an endangered species.  If one central customer service center can handle those few customers unable to make their purchases, if one warehouse can ship anywhere in the world, why would anyone want to mess with all those retail outlets and all the headaches of stocking and staffing the same shop over and over again in town after town?

We're not losing every job out there.  We aren't becoming slaves to our robotic masters.  That’s not where this is leading.  There will always be some need for some human effort and oversight, but we are getting much, much more efficient.  We can meet higher demand with fewer man-hours, and we're only going to get better.  That means that, as we go on, jobs are going to get harder to come by. 

The upshot is that manpower is cheaper.  There are more man-hours available for sale than there are jobs to fill those hours.  Great if you’re running a business, not so much if you’re running a household.  It takes more time at work to pay the bills, never mind disposable cash or savings.  When there just isn't more work available, folks have to make do with less. 

Business owners are likely to tell you that labor is still too expensive, and it may very well be that the price of hiring someone has gone up where you live.  To be honest, I haven’t the faintest, and that’s not what I’m talking about.  

I'm not talking about what the employer pays out.  I'm talking about what the employee gets for an hour of his work, about how many hours it takes to fill the fridge and keep the lights on, about how many hours it takes to stay afloat.

Once, families were able to live comfortably on the sold time and effort of one family member.  For most of us, that’s never going to be possible again.  It takes more hours these days to meet the bills, never mind disposable income and savings.

And since we’re talking about a consumer-based system, fewer man-hours means less money in consumer pockets, which means less demand.  It’s going to be harder to keep the system ticking over as we go on.

This has been building for a while, but we've managed to keep this trend at bay by creating new demands (cell phones, anyone?), and with a reliance on disposable goods (cell phones, anyone?), but we can’t rely on new gotta-have-‘em trends to keep feeding the system forever.  How many times do you honestly think the public will be willing to repurchase the same song in a new format? 

It seems unlikely to me that this trend will reverse.  Business owners will only create jobs if they can’t meet demand with the workforce available.  That demand requires customers willing and able to buy.  If we strip mine the workforce, taking maximum production for minimum cost, that population won’t be able to fuel a consumer market.

We’re heading for a post-employment world, where time and effort no longer have enough value to draw a livable wage.  We’re coming to a place where we need to find new ways of valuing ourselves, ways that don’t involve trading cash for work.  I have no idea what form that new system will take, but I do know the current system can’t hold on forever.  

For what it's worth, looks like we'll have plenty of time to figure it out.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

That Nameless Dread

Oh, hi! It’s . . . um, you.

Okay, I have a confession to make. I have no idea what your name is. 

Not an inkling.

Yes, I’m aware that you introduced yourself ages ago. I know we spoke at length, and as I recall, two people greeted you by name as they walked by. I know you had that rhyme, or that little alliteration thing, very clever and oh so catchy, making your name nigh impossible to forget.

I got nothing.

For what it’s worth, you’re not alone.  I forgot just about everyone.  I remember maybe six names from high school.  Tops.  I’ve worked with people side by side for years without ever learning their names.  A few good friends managed to stick, maybe a face or two from this job or that town every few years.  That’s it.  If you’re not one of those people, I have no idea what to call you.

And believe it or not, most people never notice.  

You talk with folks, say hi, chat about the weather or the kids or Sports Team X. Maybe you say the other person’s name, but if it doesn’t come up, who’s going to notice?  I’ve successfully gone years without anyone realizing I just don’t say say names.

Once in a very great while, someone works out that I never picked up that name years ago when introductions were first made, but most often, people come and go out of my life none the wiser.

I don’t know why names in particular refuse to lodge in my memory, but I do have a theory.  You see, I bounced around a lot over the years.  

A lot.  

Currently, I'm living in my thirtieth home and my third country.  Before I finally settled here, my record in any single residence was three years.  Come to think of it, I think my record for any single town was three years.  It took me over thirty years to put down roots that took hold, and even then, there was still plenty of bouncing around on the work front.

So every few years, my life gets a brand new supporting cast.  Maybe a few familiar faces stick around for continuity, and there might even be a surprise cameo from way back in Season 2, but for the most part, it’s a reboot.  New place, new people, with next to no connection to the past.  

Maybe I just filled up on my quota in my youth, meeting all those kids, classrooms at a time.  Maybe you can only hit the reset button so many times.  

I’m not trying to make excuses, but I really do want to understand how this blind spot formed.  Generally speaking, my memory’s pretty good.  I can pull some pretty arcane trivia from Whence the Sun Don’t Shine.  Quotes, useless factoids, pop culture references.  That sort of thing.  But it seems that my brain stopped trying to hold information that - judging by all previous experience - will be irrelevant in a few short years. Maybe even less.

And so, sorry, but I probably don’t remember your name.  

Unless of course, we’re online. I'm actually pretty good at remembering names when they're staring back at me in Facebook blue.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

(Fool's) Gold Is Where You Find It

A while back, M'Boy came to me saying he wanted to write a story but didn't know what to write.  So we invented a game.  We would each draw a quick picture which we would then trade.  Then we'd have to write stories about what we saw.

For any writers out there struggling with writer's block, 7 year olds come highly recommended.

Today, we were at it again.  This time, he was trying to steer me into a superhero battle with a picture of Iron Fist. (Yeah, I know, most of you never heard of the guy.  Just work with me here.)

But one of our ground rules is that we get to write whatever we want as long as we use the picture as a jumping off point, and to be fair, we both have a knack for being more than a little contrary when the mood take us.

So I didn't come up with a battle royale with a four-color hero and  techno ninjas across the skyline of Manhattan.  Instead, I let my imagination wander.  

It should be noted that when you let your imagination wander, it may very well get lost.  Consider yourselves warned.

Once upon a time, like last Wednesday, these evil aliens snuck up on the Easter Bunny and stole his basket.  They got everything: cards, keys, phone, and of course all that chocolate.  Fortunately, they only got three eggs, because... well, you know, you shouldn't keep all your eggs in one basket, especially on the street.

When Jeff - oh, that's the Easter Bunny, Jeff - when he realized what was happening, he chased the aliens.  Rabbits are pretty quick after all, but the aliens ran into Jeff's home and locked the door.  

Well, Jeff banged on the door and shouted, but let's face it.  He's a rabbit, not a big bad wolf, so there wasn't a whole lot he could do.  In the end, he just wandered off.

A while later, there was a knock at the door.  One of the aliens poked an eyestalk through the letter slot and saw a grouchy, slouchy pizza delivery guy.

Now, aliens like these aren't all that crazy about chocolate, and they think eggs are kind of scary.  Don't ask me why, they just do.  But they sure do love pizza, so they opened the door.  Splat.  The pizza dropped on the doorstep, and the aliens all crowded around to slurp it up off the ground.  

Then they heard a slam and a click.  Sneaky Pizza Man Jeff had them locked out.

They really should have left then, but the pizza was just that good, so they kept eating until the police came and hauled them off to Holiday Jail.

The End

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ninja X

So, as it turns out, Li'l Me's not only a storyteller, but he's already got an eye on getting published.  He asked me to help him put together a story today, and when we finished, he asked if I could help him put it online.

Which I can.

This tale comes to you from the mind of my 7 year old son, with only minor editing on my part.  I helped with the spelling and asked a few questions along the way, but the rest is all his.



In a land far, far away there lived ninjas.  They were in a war with Zorgon and his skeleton army. 

The best ninja of all was Ninja X, but he was on a secret mission to destroy Ninja XOX, a skeleton ninja with darkness in his bones and rage of terror.

The ninjas attacked Zorgon’s castle, but they were falling quickly!  The skeletons were too powerful!  Someone had to help them.  Who could save them? 

Luckily, there was one ninja who hadn’t fallen.  Ninja Nine, the lightning ninja!  The power of the sun gives him lightning powers.  Ninja Nine killed all the skeletons in the blink of an eye, but his ninja friends rose from the dead.  Ninja Nine was surrounded, but he saw something that could help him: the skeleton ray!

The skeleton ray was a huge laser that could make people rise from the dead.  Zorgon must have used it on his friends.  Ninja Nine saw it just outside Zorgon’s castle gate. 

As he ran over to it, he got grabbed and thrown into the dungeon.  He had lost! 

But suddenly, he remembered his lightning sword.  The lightning came out and broke all the bars of the cage, and he escaped. 

But then, the evil skeleton ninjas saw him as he escaped.  They came charging at him with their magic abilities. 

Suddenly, Ninja X came charging through the doors.  Ninja Nine and Ninja X worked together to defeat them and used the skeleton ray to turn them into humans again.  Then they went to Zorgon, and the biggest battle of their lives.

They found Zorgon waiting for them in the throne room, sitting in his chair with his magic sceptre. 

“Ha ha ha!” laughed Zorgon.  “You cannot defeat me!  I am the most powerful of them all!”

“No you’re not,” said Ninja X.  “We’re going to kick you in the face!” 

Zorgon waved his sceptre, and all the ninjas except Ninja X got thrown to the wall and couldn’t move.  They were trapped!

Ninja X threw all his ninja abilities at him at once: fire, water, air, lightning, earth, and even the power of darkness.  And then Zorgon had fallen. 

The ninjas had won and Zorgon was never to be seen again.