Last of the Good Proctololgists – flash fiction

Sheila found her husband sitting at the table on the back patio. His face was ashen and he stared off into space. His mouth hung open a bit. His iPhone sat face down on the table.

“What’s the matter, Mike?” she asked. “You look like somebody died.”

“Worse,” he said without taking his eyes off the space before him. “Somebody retired.”

“That’s worse than death?”

He gave a little shrug. “Maybe not worse, but just as bad.”

Sharon sat down across the table from him. “I see. Was it expected or did it come out of the blue?”

“Came out of the blue, to me anyway.” Mike’s eyes fell toward his phone. “I called to make my colonoscopy appointment today. They told me Dr. Mullens retired.”

Sheila let out an exaggerated breath. “He’s probably not a day over 75 either. I can’t believe he would do this to you.”

Mike nodded his head ruefully. “I know. Left me in a pretty big lurch.”

Sheila leaned forward. “Mike, honey, I’m sure there are other proctologists in town.”

“There are,” Mike replied. “I checked. There are exactly three other proctologists in town, and not one of ‘em worth a damn.”

“How do you know that?”

He stared at his phone. “I looked them up online. Horrible reviews all around. Not a one of ‘em rates more than two and half stars.”

Sheila sighed. “Some days I regret buying you that smart phone. The kids tried to tell me you’d do better with a Jitterbug.”

“Well, maybe I’ll just quit the colonoscopies. At a certain age, what does it matter anymore? Something’s bound to take you out soon anyhow.”

“Mike, you’re 55. It’s a little soon to surrender to old age. You’ve got to get the exam; they found three polyps last time and you have the gene in your family.”

Mike made a muted motion of throwing his arms up. “I don’t know how I can get it done now, with Mullens abandoning me. It’s not like we’re in New York City or someplace, where they got a proctologist on every corner. We got three, and two of ‘em almost killed somebody, according to the accounts I read.”

Sheila picked up his phone and began tapping on the screen.

“What are you doing?” Mike asked.

“Looking up flights to New York.”

Mike reached out and swiped the phone from her. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not riding a plane to my colonoscopy.”

Sheila tilted her head a little. “Then you got to go to one of them here.”

“But they’re butchers! If I’m gonna die from medical malpractice, I want it to be during brain surgery or something. I don’t want to go from an ass wound.”

“Well, what about the one who didn’t almost kill somebody?”

“Has a horrible bedside manner. He’s callous and rude to patients.”

Sheila pursed her lips. “So, he’s a real asshole?”

“Exactly.”

“Sounds like the perfect guy for the job.”

 

 

George Washington abbreviated

Hello History Buffs! For my next trick I will attempt to summarize an 800 page biography in 600 words. Here are my takeaways from Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow.

The oddity about George Washington’s rise to prominence was the peculiar way stepping stones fell in his path. The young Washington seemed always to be losing a relative to an untimely death. Each time, it left him with more money and a greater position in society. If it had been a less trustworthy person, I’d  have grown suspicious. In his case, I concluded Washington was the hub of a circle of people who were significantly wealthier and unhealthier than he was – until they all died and he got their stuff. Then, they were just that much more unhealthier.

Washington made hay with the power he inherited, but all the stuff didn’t do him much good. Southern planters, for all their apparent wealth, were chronically in debt. Washington, with all his land holdings, inheritances, and whatnot, was not immune to this condition. He could have been the poster boy for it.

Who doesn’t love getting lots of big packages in the mail?

Washington’s habits kept him in debt. He had a taste for nice things. He was forever ordering crockery emblazoned with the family crest. He needed a new uniform for every camping trip and dressed all his attendants alike, as if they were bridesmaids. He kept up the décor like the Mother of His Country.

Washington was often unavailable to manage his own finances. Sacrificing his time to go fight the French, the British, and almost the French again, he had little time to spend maximizing his personal profits. Between running an eight-year revolution and serving as a two-term president, Washington was forced to leave his personal estate to managers less interested in his bank balance than he was.

George Washington could tell a lie. Washington lied in the way normal folks lie. He fibbed to protect his reputation. When a man of sound judgment makes a poor choice, he may feel pressure to fudge on the circumstances, as Washington did in his early military career. Washington also told white lies to smooth over differences with colleagues and to avoid moral dilemmas, like being a slave owner who wished he could be an abolitionist, if he could do so without inconveniencing himself.

The best thing about Washington’s lies are the ones he wouldn’t tell. He wasn’t tempted by the big, political lie. He didn’t spread lies about political foes, although he was the victim of many smears. He left it to his successors to bring official dishonesty to the presidency, which they lost no time in doing. Washington seemed more interested in setting a high bar for the presidency than in getting what he wanted at any cost.

Washington was an ambitious self-promoter. In a country full of ambitious self-promoters it was fortunate the one who rose to the top at the crucial moment was a rare man who, having gained power and fame, was content not to corner the market on it.

George Washington didn’t have the most brilliant mind of his time. He had something more important; he had wisdom. He knew where to turn when he needed help from one sort of genius or another, and he carefully considered something geniuses often overlook: tomorrow.

George Washington wasn’t a perfect man, but he was the perfect man for a particular time and place in history. It is hard to imagine many men who could have made a success out of the losing proposition that was the American Revolution. What other man, standing at the precipice of unlimited power, would have used it so benignly and handed it off so willingly?

Tombs of the ancient dreams

It seems appropriate that my last post was about the people in olden times who wrote novels before the age of word processing.  I made a discovery since then that makes me feel closer to them.

I was searching through a drawer, looking for some object of modern usefulness when I came across a stack of these, tucked into the back corner.

A trove on ancient parchments.

For those too young to recognize this object, it is a floppy disk. It is an object used to store electronic data before the advent of thumb drives and the Cloud.

It is not floppy. Its predecessors were wider, thinner, and floppy. I remember using them too. This ultramodern version is much more durable than the floppy floppies, and likely holds a lot more data, upwards of .1% of what our smallest storage devices hold now, I would guess.

The handwritten notes on my disk labels indicate this group was used between 1999 and 2003. Knowing me, this was probably long after civilized society had given them up. It doesn’t seem like these artifacts could belong to this century at all.

Maybe someday somebody will invent a machine to read these things.

Even though they don’t hold much by today’s standards, words don’t take up much electronic space, so they represent a fair amount of work from a young writer seeking his way. Some of the files they hold were eventually published, but only after years of rewrites. Other files represent work relegated to storage as bits and bytes.

I think I have versions of all these files saved in more accessible places, even though I may never revisit them. I do this for my descendants, in case I become posthumously famous and they need to use my discarded scraps to raise income. With a little industry they may discover these files: “Look, here’s some crap Gramps wrote when he was young. He clearly never meant it to be made public, so we should sell it to a publisher.”

I adore my enterprising great-great-grandchildren, but they should know, before they start counting their chickens, all these novels and stories were written in WordPerfect. My sharp eye for the future of technology determined this format would drive MS Word to extinction as it became the dominant platform with its many advantages.

But I’m sure, in the genius future, there will be a way to convert immature writing from WordPerfect files into cash money.

In the present, I’m not famous, which proves I don’t know how to convert any writing from any file into money. These disks harken me back to those heady days when I thought maybe someday I would figure that out. The amazing thing is I’m still trying to solve that puzzle. It seems some of us don’t know how to let it go and grow old gracefully.

O Pioneers!

You know who had it rough?

Pioneers.

I mean, traveling through strange lands without so much as a highway rest stop; building their own houses out of sticks, mud, and whatever forest parts they could chop to fit; having to live with their entire families in one or two rooms, with no escape from the children – that sounds horrible.

We say, “I’m going out for a beer.” They could only say, “I’m going out to be attacked by a bear.”

But this is a writing-themed blog, so in literary terms, you know who had it rough?

Pioneers.

I’m speaking of all the literary pioneers who wrote books before the age of the word processor. It’s a wonder books were written at all. Up to about the Mark Twain era, they didn’t even have typewriters, and even typewriters seem like some sort of torture device to the modern writer.

Munitions workers count typewriters to be shipped to Europe and dropped from bombers over Nazi Germany.

If I had to write a novel with a pen, it would be the length of a post-it note. That’s when my hand starts cramping. I suppose I could write one post-it note’s worth per day. I can fit about six words on the standard post-it; upwards of three of them are legible.

I guess the literary pioneers had tougher hands than I do. But it’s not just the physical aspect that amazes me. How do you cut and paste on notebook paper? Yeah, you can cross out a word and write a new one overtop, but what happens when you’ve got to move paragraphs around? What happens when you made a continuity mistake five chapters ago and you’ve got to rework all that plot? I think I’d rather build a house out of sticks and mud.

Here’s another thing to think about. Back in the day, many novels appeared as serials in journals. I don’t know the details of this process, but I have a suspicion they wrote the chapters as they went. That is to say, chapters 1-5 were already printed and read while chapter 6 was being written. Imagine writing a novel where you can’t go back and fix the stuff that doesn’t work anymore with the direction you want it to take. You’d have to have a pretty clever mind to make it all mesh without the Delete button.

I’ve been known to have some fun critiquing classic fiction – you know, picking on people who are too dead to defend themselves, because that’s the way I roll.  Beneath those playful jabs is a reverence that inspired me to read all those classics. Can they be wordy and meandering? Yes. For all that, they are still amazing accomplishments. Give me only a pen, paper, and some friends with typesetting equipment and maybe I would become accomplished enough to get mauled by a bear.

I’m not saying my reverence for the literary pioneers will stop me from poking fun at them, but my sarcasm is forged from love. Just ask my kids.

 

 

Why you shouldn’t write a novel series backward

For starters, you probably shouldn’t write a single novel backward. Novels are kind of long for that sort of jiggery-pokery. Short stories are fine. I’m all for writing them backward. They are small enough to see from all angles in your mind. A novel series is like a train of trailers hitched behind a truck – tricky to drive backward.

I’ve documented how I got in the awkward spot of writing a series backward, or at least from the inside out, in previous posts. Here’s the back story for those who missed them.

I had a novel that was too long, so I decided to divide it into two books. This seemed like a good idea for a while, until it became clear that my two books would have to be three.  The third book would need to consist of a bulk of new storytelling in between the other two. At the time of my last update, I had finished drafts of the two outside books and was staring at the daunting prospect of building a bridge book that would fit together with the books on either end.

The whole story:    Update1    Update2    Update3

Now that I’ve got the support beams in place, to the tune of about 130 pages of new middle, I’m staring at the prospect (and you may have guessed this if you read the previous updates) of splitting the middle book in two, giving me a total of four books.

This is not what I wanted, and it’s possible that I may be able to hold it to three, but with each passing chapter, four becomes more likely. After 130 pages, I still have lots of ground to cover. If I could do it in another 130, that would wrap things up in three books. I begin to doubt I can.

Make sure the bridge is finished before you drive your series backward over it.

Why is four books bad? In a perfect world, it’s not. But in a perfect world, I would be writing these books in order. In a perfect world, I might even have the resources of a publishing company behind me.

From the writing standpoint, four books is no problem. As I progress, my confidence in my ability to tie four books together into a viable series grows. I can tell the story.

The headache comes after the writing. Taking a single novel from manuscript to book is a difficult task for an independent author. By the time I am done with all my patchwork writing, I could have four books to shepherd through that journey. Because I am not writing them chronologically, they must all be written before any one of them is finished.

Arranging for editing, covers, layout, etc. of four books in quick succession is crazy daunting. True, I would have to eventually do all that, even if I wrote them in order, but in that case the production pieces would be more staggered, with writing time in between.

I know it amounts to the same thing in the end, but it looks like a huge wall to get beyond, rather than four separate, manageable walls.

Nevertheless, I’m the one who put this train into reverse gear, so I ‘m the one who has to bear down and figure out how to keep it on the tracks.

Leave you writer’s block in the box it came in

I have two blogs, and lately I’ve been slacking off on both of them. I haven’t had the inspiration for topics at the same pace I had before. Is this writer’s block?

Writer’s block is a common theme among bloggers running low on steam. I’ve been around long enough to see a lot of good bloggers come and go. Were they all overcome by writer’s block?

I don’t truly know what writer’s block is. I guess nobody does. It seems to be a catchall phrase for those moments when you just don’t have enough idea to wrap a meaningful layer of words around.

I don’t know about writer’s block, but I have certainly suffered from blog fatigue. Both my blogs are targeted to specific subject areas. This blog contains three types of features: fiction, essays about writing, and my own skewed perspectives on pieces of classic literature. That’s not a very broad subject area. It can take some time to come up with new ideas within those guidelines.

In the early days, they would put all the bloggers in one big box and make them write their way out of it. Conditions have improved since then.

This doesn’t mean I don’t have subjects I could easily knock out 500 words on. They just might not be appropriate subjects for my niche blogs. I could write plenty of pages on my unfortunate habit of getting stuck behind a pastel colored Prius on my drive to work. I think up lots of colorful phrases as I am forced to drive 15 mph below the speed limit in my frustrated attempts to be a prompt employee. I could probably even create my own Trapped in Prius Hell blog, with a special tab dedicated to the handful of truly noble Prius owners who are saving the world without making the rest of humanity late for their appointments. Yeah, I know a few of these rare gems.

Alas, even this would play itself out over time, and I would have to expand the scope to include overcautious Subaru drivers or be tormented by the steady decay of writer’s block. Incidentally, my 2007 Hyundai was not built for safety and will probably explode into a fireball at the slightest bumper tap, so don’t make me slam on the brakes unless you want all your clever bumper stickers singed.

Maybe writer’s block should be called writer’s box. It’s not that you’re blocked from writing; you’re just trying to write inside the wrong box. I’ve been making good progress on my novel series, but when I climb into the blogging box, it’s slow going. Instead of banging my head against the sides of the box, I climb out of the box and go play novelist for a while.

Sure, I’d like to get back to blogging as frequently as I used to, but if my imagination wants to tend toward novels right now, I’m going to make hay while that sun shines. It’s not so important that I take a break from one medium. What’s more important is I don’t go on hiatus from writing altogether.

Machines are Patient – flash fiction

The engineer tapped his power transmitter, causing lights to come on for the first time in a thousand years. “Welcome to the last outpost of human civilization on Earth,” he told his companions.

“What is this place?” the reconnaissance party commander asked.

“It’s an underground control bunker,” the fleet historian answered. “It controlled all the nuclear missiles for this alliance. At the outbreak of war, the other alliance struck first. For some reason, still unknown, this alliance never fired its missiles back. We suspected it was because their command and control was knocked out. But as you can see, this facility’s only blemish is a thousand years of dust.”

“What they didn’t realize was that it would only take one side’s bombs to make Earth uninhabitable for centuries,” the engineer added.

The men considered the control center, with its ancient machines shrouded in a pristine layer of dust. “It’s a miracle we were able to get a foothold on Mars before the End War,” the engineer volunteered. “Otherwise this would be the last symbol of humanity left in the universe.”

“It’d be a sorry grave site for human civilization,” the historian said.

“We’re back to stay, now,” the commander assured them. “The surface has regenerated into a paradise. It has all the resources we were running out of on Mars and so many more. It was a good decision by the Council to bring everyone back.”

The men walked among the rows of machines that hadn’t seen light or life in centuries. The commander stopped short. “Look here,” he exclaimed, “there’s a light blinking on this machine.”

The others joined him. The engineer dusted off the console. “I believe that’s a printer,” he said.

“Exactly,” the historian agreed. “They used it to write onto a material called paper.” He pointed to a row of file cabinets. “Those closets are probably full of writing on paper. It was very inefficient.”

“Look, the screen is glowing.” The commander pointed to the small screen on the printer console. “It says something: ‘Paper jam in feeder tray.’ What’s a feeder tray?”

“It’s giving little picture instructions,” the engineer noticed. “The feeder tray must be this thing.” He pulled out the tray as the picture instructed.

“One of the papers is in crooked,” the historian said.

The engineer removed the flawed paper. The picture told him to close the tray, so he did. “It says, ‘Press OK button’, oh, I see it.” He pressed the button.

The men jumped backward as the printer sprang to life. It spit out printed sheets of paper on top of the ones caked in dust.

At last the printer stopped. They heard its motor ebb into silence. The historian picked up the topmost paper. All three examined it. “It looks like a list of coordinates of some sort,” the engineer declared. At the bottom of the page were the words, “End Report.”

The commander tapped the engineer on the shoulder. He pointed to a nearby machine. “Hey, is that other screen lit up under all that dust?”

“Let’s see.” The engineer wiped away the dust from the monitor. Words flashed on the screen. All three stared at the monitor as the engineer read aloud: “Target report printed successfully. Launch sequence initiated.”