Happy New Year 2018

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What’s that, you say? It’s not even October yet? No, you must be mistaken. 2017 was a terrible year and, on my friend Aimee‘s advice, I’ve decided it’s over. Let 2018 be marginally better.

2017 was a bad year for many, many, many, MANY reasons, both local and global. In my personal sphere, my cat, who had lived with me for 19 years, was given two months to live in March. She died in May. In July, my childhood best friend, who was three months younger than me and whose triumph over leukemia was short-lived, died suddenly just a day before starting her next round of chemo. In early August, my uncle who I love very much and who I’ve been closest to of all my aunts and uncles, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He is in hospice and has perhaps a few days left. I said goodbye to him today.

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I concur.

So yeah, I’m done with 2017, and given everything, I’m sure you’re done with it too.

Let’s see. What are my new year’s resolutions? I had a shorter time this year to achieve my goals than in previous years, but that’s okay. Let’s be real, I wasn’t going to reach my goals anyway. Here were last year’s goals:

  • Write an average of 500 words a day (for real this time)—Haha no, I didn’t achieve this. This is hard to judge, since I’ve stopped keeping track of my daily word count, but looking at what short stories I’ve finished, I’ve written a total of roughly… 34,200 words? I’m pretty sure I’ve written more than that, but not a lot more, so let’s round it up to 35,000. Divided by the 260 days of 2017, that makes about 135 words per day. That’s miserable, but a lot of my annual word count comes during Nanowrimo and oddly 2017 didn’t seem to have one of those, so I’ll cut myself some slack.
  • Finish and polish all 37 short stories that I started this year—Noooope.  I finished two of the 37 short stories. However, one of those turned into a novella, and I’ve picked away at a number of them, and I started a couple fresh new short stories. AND I sold two short stories, so that’s pretty decent.
  • If I don’t blog more often than 2016, at least don’t blog less—I wrote 19 blog posts in 2016. This posts makes an even 10 in 2017. So, goal failed.
  • Average of 7,500 steps per day—I stopped wearing my fitbit at some point because the band is uncomfortable, but I can tell you I did not walk nearly enough to reach this. I am a sedentary person.
  • ONE PULL UP. JUST ONE.—No.
  • Draw more often. At least once a month?—I did not draw once a month, but I did a little bit of drawing, and I also started a new hobby of composing music, so I’ll count that as a win.
  • Finish that cross stitch project from last year—Ok, technically I did achieve this one. I just need to fix one thing on it though, so that’ll probably take me another year. And I started a new cross stitch project that I have not yet finished.
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The MBMBAM show was one of the highlights of the short-lived 2017.

GOALS FOR 2018:

  • Write a novel during at least one of the two Nanowrimos that 2018 is projected to have, assuming 2018 doesn’t go poorly and there’s another schedule change.
  • Finish 5 short stories. Ideally more, but at least 5.
  • Compose more music. Say 5 more songs, just to quantify it.
  • Get a Y membership and start taking classes again. There’s no joiner’s fee this month, and I’ve been holding off because I’m morally opposed to the joiner’s fee and also I’m very lazy, but now I have no excuse.
  • Start rock climbing again, once I start getting active.
  • Start jogging again.
  • A SINGLE PULL UP.
  • Ideally I would say “sell at least one short story” but that’s not within my power, so instead I’ll say my goal is to make sure to have at least one story out on submission at all times. Don’t let that ball drop.

There. My goals are in place. Happy New Year, everyone!

 

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WXR17: Water, Water Everywhere

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Narodovolets D-2 submarine in St. Petersburg

There’s a group of us in of a WWII submarine museum in St Petersburg, Russia. Across one wall is a glass cabinet full of miniature models of submarines from the first ones built in the city straight through the modern day submarines that are still in use. “Russia recently announced the largest submarine in the world,” our tour guide translates from the museum docent’s lecture. “It displaces 24,000 tons.”

“For reference, our cruise ship weighs 138,000 tons,” says Howard. “Much bigger, but doesn’t have nearly as much firepower.”

“This submarine has twenty ballistic missile launches, each of which can hold ten nuclear warheads.” A pause. “We hope we never have to use them.”

Howard: “We hope so too.”

Everyone in the room shares a dark laugh. If Russia ever does have to use those nukes, we all know who they’re going to use them on.

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The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen

Our tour guide in Copenhagen is used to giving tours in German, and is a little rusty with her English. Many of her anecdotes about Copenhagen history end with “And I…forget the word.” I don’t think there’s anything lost in translation, though, when she tells us that the Little Mermaid statue, having been moved further out into the water for its own protection, is easier to take photos of now that it isn’t “covered in Japanese.” Later, while our bus takes a sharp turn in the middle of the city, we crunch into a post and have to sit, parked diagonally across the entire intersection, blocking all lanes of traffic, while the driver gets out to inspect the damage.

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn Old Town

Dea is our tour guide in Estonia, and she speaks with a dry humor and an accent that turns her words up at the end.

“To the right we have the war memorial,” she says as we approach a bare concrete structure with a sharp tower sticking straight up into the sky. “We call it ‘the grave of Pinocchio.'”

Later, going through the city, she points out the Hotel Viru, where foreign visitors to Tallinn were required to stay during the Soviet occupation. “While it was being built, the KGB would sometimes dismiss all the builders for the day and bring in their own builders. There was a whole secret floor inside the hotel. We would say that it was made of new ‘microconcrete’—fifty percent microphones and fifty percent concrete.”

On our way to the old city, we pass a different tour bus just starting the same route despite leaving the ship at the same time and she is quietly proud of our efficiency. “We’re making great time,” she says.

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Changing of the guard at the royal palace in Stockholm

The guide in Stockholm gives the tour in perfect English and German, switching smoothly from one to the other, since our group is half and half. He walks us around cobblestone streets, taking us down the narrowest road in Europe and showing us Stockholm’s tiniest statue. At the palace, he tells us that the changing of the guard happens at noon, but we won’t want to see it because it’s too crowded and hard to see. Instead, he shows us where we can stand to get front row access as the guards come in on horseback, led by a band. When they come through, they’re so close that the horses nearly step on our feet.

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Icebar, Stockholm

The Icebar in Stockholm is a small, refrigerated room in a hotel. We’re each given heavy ponchos with attached mittens, and we have to wait in line for the previous group to come out before we can shuffle into the airlock. Everything in the bar is made of ice, from the walls to the furniture to the glasses. All of it comes form the Torne River up north. The bartender serves vodka and lingonberry juice, and when we’re done with our glass, we can slide it down an ice chute into a warm water bath.

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Øresund Bridge

On the way to and from Copenhagen, we pass under Øresund Bridge, the longest bridge in Europe. It’s eight miles long and connects Sweden and Denmark. Our ship barely fits under its highest point. On the night we’re meant to pass back under it, I head up to the highest point of the ship we can reach without being in first class. When the bridge skims by overhead, just six feet over our smokestack, everyone cheers.

 

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Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg

They tell us not to smile when we go through passport control in St. Petersburg. Smiling makes us look suspicious. Putin just threw all the American ambassadors out of Russia a couple days before we arrived, and we want to be as inoffensive as possible to make sure we make it out of the country. I make it through fine by looking as bored as possible, but many of the men in the group are asked if they are American soldiers. In the city, though, they’re not nearly as strict about making us stay with our guides as the ship had made it seem. Our guide, Konstantin, takes us through the Metro and the subway train nearly leaves without half of our group.

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Several days on the ship, the doors leading to the outside deck have chains across them and signs warning about high winds. This isn’t really an issue until the final night of the cruise, when I’m trying to find my way to the farewell cocktail party. It’s set in the Liquid Disco, which is on the 16th floor of the ship and which is only accessible by one elevator. I choose the wrong elevator and come out on the fifteenth floor into an incredible wind. I’m wearing high heels, which doesn’t help as the wind nearly slides me down the deck. Luckily the ship has glass walls at strategic places along the deck that block the wind and allow you to open doors without them being ripped from your hands.

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On the ship, the head waiter keeps track of my milk allergy. Every night, I order my meal for the next evening. They don’t actually tell me which meals can be made without milk, so I choose the things that look easily modifiable. One night the head waiter calls me on it and says I can choose whatever I want. I don’t have to choose stuff I don’t want just because it’s easy. Just tell him what I want and they’ll do it. I tell him I want the tortellini. He hesitates. “We can’t make that,” he says finally.

The first few days, they give me some fruit for dessert, since obviously all the other desserts have milk in them. Then one night the head waiter shows up with three packages of Italian desserts, the kind you might buy in a gas station. They’re dairy and gluten free and they’re pretty terrible–basically made of pressed powder that falls apart when you touch it. After that they get a little more experimental, giving me meringue or jello or even some apple pie without the ice cream. On the final night they give me a fancy tart with meringue. Someone has written “lactose free” on the plate in raspberry syrup. This is actually very concerning, since lactose isn’t the problem, but hey, at least they tried.

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We stay another day in Kiel, Germany when we get off the boat. The day is warm and gorgeous, but I end up napping through most of it. In the evening we head up to Deck 8, the hotel’s rooftop bar, and we’re just in time to see our ship pull out of the Kiele Fjord for another cruise.

Writing Excuses – the video feed

Out of Excuses from Bennett North on Vimeo.

I put together a lot of the footage I took on last year’s Writing Excuses Cruise and Retreat into a short (perhaps too short) film just so I would feel like I’d done something with the two hours of video I’d taken. During the process I discovered that a) I REALLY like time-lapse videos and b) I hadn’t recorded myself in any of it. So enjoy a lightning fast visit to the western Caribbean, only nine months late.

Oh, and as for that clip after the credits—I stuck it in there because I found it amusing, but in retrospect, I don’t think it’s clear what it really is. When we landed in the Bahamas, it was an idyllic setting with clear blue skies and turquoise waters and seagulls crying and palm trees swaying. Then I realized that all those seagull noises were actually being piped in over the speaker, either to add atmosphere or to scare away real birds or both.

I also was unable to include a couple clips of the Creepy Baby Room across the hall from my cabin. It was a door marked Employees Only, behind which came the constant, distant sound of babies screaming. On the last night, when I brought my camera to record the sound, there were no babies, but only the faintest noise of a music box lullaby. I like to imagine that those noises were also artificially piped in, perhaps to scare away real babies.

My Kitty, RIP

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We got Skittles in October of 1998 from a family who was overrun with cats. We actually intended to get a different cat, but when we went to visit, the cat we had picked out was skittish and unfriendly, and we already had one of those. Then Skittles came bouncing into the room with a handful of other kittens, and she was the one we went with.

She was named Pumpkin at the time, but our other cat was named Snickers for reasons I can’t remember, so we renamed her. She was as different from Snickers as she could possibly have been: she loved people and loved having her head scratched and sitting on people’s laps. She would start purring when I walked into the room. Later, she was the chunky, ungraceful one while Snickers was lithe and could leap six vertical feet in the air. The only thing the two cats had in common was that they hated each other.

She taught Snickers how to make eye contact with us when she wanted something, which was a skill Snickers never would have figured out on her own. She also taught Snickers how to purr, although Snickers never got the hang of that very well. She learned how to open cupboards and was adept at prying the lid off the can of treats. She was fiercely territorial and would fight any animal that strayed into our yard, including the poor golden retriever next door who just wanted to be friends.

Once, when she was still quite young, she had an unfortunate accident with our garage door. She liked sitting on top of the minivan while it was in the garage, and apparently one day, while the garage door was open, she climbed from the roof of the minivan to the shelf made by the garage door. When I hit the button to close the door, she panicked and tried to escape, but got her foot caught in between the slats and ended up dangling by her hind leg from the middle of the closed garage door. It was only luck that I heard her crying and went out to investigate. It was also luck that she didn’t break her leg. Frankly I’m not sure how she managed that one. Decades later, she still was terrified of the garage door, although I don’t think she remembered why.

Another time, she cheerily went to greet a neighbor of ours who was watering his plants. She was so friendly that he decided this meant she was rabid, so he sprayed her with the hose. She fled into his garage (again with the garages) and, not knowing she was in there, he shut the door. We searched for her for three days. Finally the neighbor opened his garage door and found her. She hissed at him and he phoned us, saying she was rabid and we should get her before he called animal control. Of course she was more than happy to see us and gratefully went home.

In later years, she tormented Snickers. Rather than wake us up to get her breakfast, she would settled into Snickers’s bed when Snickers got up in the night to pee. Poor Snickers, who by this point was suffering dementia and arthritis, would wander the halls meowing, begging for help at evicting the other cat from her bed. Skittles didn’t particularly care about the bed; she just wanted someone else to get her breakfast.

When Snickers died at age 19, a dramatic change came over Skittles. Maybe she had considered Snickers company, even if she had hated her. She was suddenly lonely. It became apparent that at some point she had gone mostly deaf and mostly blind, and was also suffering from arthritis. The other cat had been so old and bedraggled that Skittles seemed young by comparison, but now it was clear that Skittles was almost 18 years old. I started letting her sleep in my bed, even though I was allergic, because I felt bad for her. Claritin became my friend.

She became desperately clingy, which is apparently something that happens to cats when they get very old. If I was home, she needed to be within three feet of me. Ideally she would be on my lap, but she would settle for my keyboard. I set up a cardboard box on my desk so she could sleep on it and not bother me. When I got my standing desk, I had to drag the desk chair next to me so she could sleep on that while I worked. If I went away for a weekend or, worse, when I went to Ireland for a month, she got deeply depressed and stopped eating.

She also got very talkative. She would meow when she walked into a room, or when she saw me for the first time in a while, or if I touched her. Sometimes, when she was lazy and didn’t feel like making a full meow, she would kind of huff and nod her head at me. She would still start purring at the sight of me.

In March, we took her to the vet because she had stopped eating. By this point she was down to 6 pounds. At her prime, she had been 12 pounds. It turned out that she had a tumor underneath her tongue that was making it hard for her to eat. Since she hadn’t had it in December at her last check up, it was clear that it was growing fast. The vet gave her 1-3 months to live.

It seemed impossible. She was still so vital! She was happy! She took her painkillers without a fuss. Surely she would last longer than that. And for the first two months, she seemed fine.

Three weeks ago, she stopped grooming herself and stopped being able to pick up food. She could only eat if you hand-fed her tiny bits that she could swallow without chewing. She straight up refused to take her painkiller no matter how well we hid it.

Two weeks ago, we decided it was time. We gave her all the treats we could over the next two days, and on that Thursday we took her to the vet. Her tumor had grown so much she couldn’t use her tongue, and she was down to 5 lbs. It would have been cruel to make her continue on.

It was so hard. I can’t tell you how hard it was. I’m 32, and she had been around since I was 13. She had been my constant companion for the last couple years. We knew each other so well that we could practically read each others’ minds. Even on Thursday she curled up happily in the crook of my arm to nap. I know she would have soldiered on to the bitter end because she had no other choice, and I felt partly as if I had betrayed her by making that decision for her, but I also know that she probably only had another week or two, or at most a month, before the end was inevitable, and it would have only gotten worse. I hate that it had to happen, but it had to happen. I will miss her.

I love you, my darling. Good night.

April showers bring face-melting pollen allergies

I tweeted about this a while ago but didn’t blog about it, so here: My short story, “Smooth Stones and Empty Bones,” is available in the Event Horizon 2017 anthology of authors eligible for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. You can download it for free up until mid-July. Check that whole thing out, because it’s 800 pages worth of awesome stuff. For FREE.

And more exciting news: I just sold a story about cannibal bandits in the weird west to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. You’ll be the first to know when I hear the actual publication date. Beneath Ceaseless Skies is SUCH a cool magazine, you guys.

So what else has been going on in my life? Mostly marshmallows. Marshmallows and head colds.

Marshmallow project

My Easter project: who knew that marshmallows were so messy?

I’m home sick for the second day in a row, and I guess at this point I have to admit that I’m actually sick and it’s not just pollen allergies, although to be honest it’s probably some combination of the two. I hate being out of work two days in a row but I’m at the nose-faucet stage of the cold and it’s just miserable to be in public with that, especially on a cold, rainy day like this.

I disassembled my standing desk setup and once again have a sitting desk. This feels a bit like a failure, since I really liked my standing desk and felt it was much better for my back. On the other hand, when you have as short an attention span as I do, the ability to walk away from your computer without a second thought really isn’t a bonus. Getting up from a desk throws a physical obstacle into the path between the twin thoughts of “Ugh writing is hard” and “Hey, what’s in the fridge?”

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It’s stuff like this that’s making me a snot otter right now

Speaking of, it’s time to dose myself with hot chocolate and pseudoephedrine. And marshmallows, obviously. So, so many marshmallows.

Spring has sprung

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A friend of mine is organizing a steampunk festival in southeastern Massachusetts for Halloween weekend of this year. If you like steampunk, are free October 28th, and can make it to Attleboro, Massachusetts, I highly recommend you show up! It’s a free event and it’s shaping up to be a pretty awesome day. I’m on the board, but even if I weren’t, I would be all over this festival.

 

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I name my songs/albums based on whatever random word springs into my head when I’m saving the file.

Second bit of news: I’ve been playing around with making music and posting it to my Soundcloud page. I can’t remember if I’ve ever mentioned it on this blog before, but it’s a thing I do. I post new stuff up there every so often, and my most recent work, The Hunger, is my first piano composition. I’m quite proud of it. That one’s inspired by my current obsession, The Adventure Zone podcast, but all the others are just the result of noodling around in GarageBand.

 

 

 

Finally: I’ll be attending the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat again this year, since I couldn’t resist the lure of the Baltic Sea. I’m getting very excited about it. If you’ll be attending, let me know!