Just in case the person or persons responsible for all the phishing emails that are coming through the email account associated with this blog are actually reading me, I’d like to alert you to the fact that I’ve send every one of your emails, suspicious attachments, headers, and all to the companies you’re pretending to be affiliated with.
I admit you’re a step up from Madame Bongwire Johannson whose late husband left me $50,000,000, but only a step. The one purportedly from NACHA sent from an address written in Cyrillic… kinda stupid. Then there was the KeyBanc one from “Cedric Keller,” and today’s ADP payroll email. Those are the three most recent, the ones I’ve actually kept track of.
Pay attention now: I DON’T OPEN ATTACHMENTS UNLESS I ALREADY KNOW WHATS IN THEM. My friends should be aware of this too. Send me a “Wow this is SOOOOO weird” attachment and I’ll nod and say thanks but I won’t be looking at it.
Look, I have NO MONEY. None. You probably have stolen more than I’ve got. So you really need to go away now.
When I was a little girl, living about two blocks from this corner, the Buffalo occupied the corner space, the place that is girded by that neon sign that says “BUFFALO – SODAS – BUFFALO’S OWN MADE ICE CREAM” If I remember correctly, it had ten old, high-backed wooden booths with black marble-topped tables, and jukeboxes affixed to the wood-paneled walls at the center of long, tiled mirror panels. There were coat hooks on the posts between booths. At the very back there was one long table for big groups, with a long booth on one side and bentwood chairs on the other. The floor was tiled in black and white hex tiles with black grout that had probably been white originally.
There were two wooden phone booths on one side, next to a long candy counter which had ceased to be used for candy before I was born. I think they had stuffed toys displayed there, but it’s hard to remember. That was where we’d line up to wait for a booth, so it was just as well nobody was trying to do business there. Across from the defunct candy counter was a counter with stools. That was where the magic happened, with freezers, pumps for the various toppings, mysterious machines, a big vat to keep the hot fudge sauce hot, stacks of glasses and dishes, and soda water spigots with pull-down handles that always fascinated me. We almost never sat at the counter. When we did, I felt like I was being let in on a huge secret as I watched the soda jerks work their magic
My parents and I went there about once a week. It was one of the only places where my dad was willing to stand in line which is a testament to their ice cream. Yeah, you could get sandwiches, too, but we went for the ice cream and so did most of the other patrons who would stand in line out the door and down the block on a hot summer night. Once you got a booth, you’d give your order to a high school boy who never wrote anything down (hoping he’d get it right; he usually did) and fed a quarter into the jukebox for three plays.
I usually ordered a chocolate a la Boston soda. I don’t know what made it Boston style, but I do know I loved it with a passion that endures to this day. My dad was a soda man, too. My mom liked her banana splits. When I got older, I wanted to try some of the “creations” like the “Hubba Hubba” but my folks always said they were too big. I never did try the Hubba Hubba, but I remember I did try the “Chop Suey – Not Chinese or with celery.” I can’t remember if I liked it. Mostly if I wanted something really fancy, it was hot fudge. That was when hot fudge tasted like… fudge. It doesn’t anymore.
I loved their malted milks too, so thick your spoon would stand up in them. Since the advent of high fructose corn syrup sweetened chocolate syrup, shakes and malts haven’t tasted the same. And I still remember the packet of cookies that came with them. One Nabisco butter cookie and one Oreo wafer. No cream filling, just the single wafer.
Later they expanded. They took the space behind and the one to the west. They did all the carry outs from the rear, and the new dining room area was relentlessly modern and I never liked it all that well. But every year, on the last day of school, we went there for lunch and hung out for the afternoon the way adolescents had done, probably since the place opened.
Later they opened a bar and grill, but I never went there. I’d moved out of the area and going there wasn’t as much fun as it used to be. Then Shell bought the property and tore the building down to put up a service station so there’d be three corners with gas stations at that intersection. What a boost to the neighborhood! I’ve had a grudge against Shell since 1978, when the parlor closed
There have been other ice cream parlors in the Chicago area, Chicagoans love their ice cream. There’s even another Buffalo out in Buffalo Grove, owned either by the same folks who owned the original, or by relatives of theirs, I’m not sure which. They have a lot of the same ice cream creations, like the Hubba Hubba, and there’s a Boston shake, but no Boston sodas. But none of them come close to the Buffalo for me.
I can still remember being sent down to buy a pint of hand-packed ice cream, and I can remember how good it tasted. Most ice cream doesn’t taste that good anymore. I remember how beautiful the place was with its dark wood paneling and warm incandescent lights. And the crazy thing is, I can still remember how that place smelled. It was a cool, dark, ever-so-slightly sweet aroma that seemed to float around you as you walked through those double doors on the corner.
Like most of the other great things about my childhood, it’s gone forever. And like those things, I miss it. I miss its magic.
Writing, I mean. Why do I — and apparently a whole lot of other writers — need to be prodded into actually going about the business of putting words on paper? Why do I spend so much time gathering writing memes about how hard it is to write, and how I should be writing, and how to write, instead of actually writing?
I spend a lot of time over games of solitaire or Cubis, letting ideas marinate, trying to work out plot points. I spent most of yesterday doing just that. And yet it’s easier than it was; still slow but easier. Ideas come more often, plotting becomes smoother, characters are chattier. I have a plot for a short story roughed out today, right on the heels of sending the previous one out to a magazine. I actually have two things submitted right now, and I think that’s a first for me.
Probably what I’m saying here is that the paperwork is always there but you get more used to it. It becomes easier. So for what it’s worth, here are a couple of… not rules necessarily, but things I’ve learned about my writing. Maybe they’ll help yours.
You have to have ideas before you can have ideas. You know that old joke about how the most common question asked of writers is “Where do you get your ideas?” Well there’s a reason for that. Ideas are hard. Either they don’t seem good enough, or they’re too big, or too small, too derivative or too weird. They drag their feet and thumb their nose at you and don’t give a damn that you actually are prepared to sit down and write. They hide under the sofa or in cupboards, and can often be found in the shower, sucking up all the hot water. My point here is that you have to get into the habit of having ideas. Have a few, work with them. More will come to you and beg for food. Eventually you’ll have flocks of them chasing you around the field, trying to get your attention.
Don’t rewrite until you’ve finished the story. Yeah I know you have to read back a ways to know what you were saying before you can pick up the thread again, but for the love of all you consider holy, resist the urge to read from the beginning and correct mistakes. Because I promise you that you will end up rewriting the beginning of your story a hundred times and then race through writing the end because you’ve gotten sick of it. Just don’t do it.
Don’t tell your whole story to people. Once you’ve told it, however imperfectly, you’ll lose some of the urge to make it concrete.
Pay attention. Take notes. Ask questions. You have to engage your brain and your senses if you want to write.
Read. A lot. All the time. If I have to explain this, you’re not a writer. Go do something that will earn you a lot of money, and stop pretending.
These points won’t necessarily make you a better writer — I’m not remotely qualified to teach anyone that skill — but if you take them to heart you might just get something down on paper for a change. Give it a shot.
Yeah I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. Unless you’re twelve, of course, and haven’t figured out that the friends you’ve got now are friends of proximity who, in twenty years, will be people you once knew, whose names and faces you barely remember. If you are twelve, or you think that your grade school friends will be with you forever, let me let you in on a fact of life: Unless you and your childhood friends never change, never grow, never really mature, you probably won’t have anything in common with them by the time you hit thirty.
There are always exceptions. You might be fortunate and find a lifelong friend who shares enough with you that no matter how you both change there’s still a strong bond between you. I don’t really have any friends left from those days. My oldest “friend” stays in contact rather peripherally, but I find that whenever we have even a ten minute conversation she annoys the piss out of me. It’s not so much that we’re different people now, and don’t really have anything in common. She’s been married and divorced, raised a child, and turned to Jesus. I’ve done none of those things. I respect them all, but don’t share them. Alas, I get the feeling through both subtle and not-so-subtle hints that she doesn’t respect my choices. I once had occasion to say to her (during a conversation about why she didn’t let the kids in her class read the Harry Potter books because they were about witchcraft) that I didn’t see that reading had harmed either of us. Her response? “You read more than I did.” I’m really trying hard not to take that as a cut; either way I was amused by it, which pretty much means that I don’t care what she thinks.
But more than that, it’s the you’re-not-a-good-friend messages I get from her that annoy me and make me dig in my heels. Last time I ran into her, in an effort to be friendly, I said, “You should stop over some day.” Her response was along the lines of: I will when you’re ready to call and invite me. Okayfine.
Maybe I am a bad friend. Or maybe I just know that if we were in the same room, there’d be nothing to talk about but the past, and I’m WAY over that. I’ve never been to a high school reunion. When asked why I explain that if I could think of ONE person I would see there who I 1) wanted to see and 2) couldn’t see any other time, I’d go in a hot minute. Couldn’t think of one. I have one friend left from high school. I actually count her as my oldest friend. The others are all acquaintances now. People I used to know before I became me.
Fandom and the internet has opened up a whole new arena for friendships. Meeting people long distance allows you to get to know their minds before anything else, and while I used to think this was terrific, amazing, a way to get to know the real person without a lot of baggage, now I have to confess that it’s not as great as it sounds. The thing is, you can get on with someone like crazy online, but if you end up in the same room, sometimes there’s just nothing. Dead air.
Then there are people you don’t get on really well with long distance, but in person? Man it just sparks, it’s exciting, you have tons to talk about and you just love being together. The thing is you just never know how it’s going to play out until you give it a chance. Or in other words, some people are better at a distance or in very small doses.
Friendship is probably as much chemistry as romantic love is, and there’s simply no accounting for why it works with some people and not with others. Yeah you have to have things in common, but there has to be some sort of spark, some sense that the two of you are more fun together than you are individually. You have to trust that a friend, whether long-distance or in-person, will make you laugh, offer sympathy when you cry, and that you’ll usually have something interesting to say to one another. Not always, sometimes a friend is someone you can be silent with and it’s not icky or uncomfortable.
A friend is someone who you can be apart from for months or years and when you get together with them again, it’s like no time has passed. I’m blessed with friends like that, both near and far. So while I do think friendship is an odd thing, I think it’s a wonderful thing, too. Everybody needs friends. If you don’t have them you end up being the guy who shoots people from the clock tower. The one who “keeps to himself.”
Boilerplate is an ambitious book, rich with detail that makes the story feel about as real as anything you can get from a history book. Guinan and Bennett have constructed an alternate history which lies so close to the real thing that I promise you you’ll be checking Google and Wikipedia to see if what they’re saying is true or not. I’m still not entirely sure that Boilerplate, the robot, didn’t exist. He appears, Zelig-like, in photo after photo with historical figures and yet blends into the background as if he was nothing very much out of the ordinary. The main reason for the brilliance of this book is the deft way the visuals are handled. The text itself is a bit dry, though it does have a history-book feel to it which works well under the circumstances. If pastiche was the intention, then it’s well done.
But the book isn’t just a wonderful fantasy. Folded into the history is a pointed commentary on subjects which are still pertinent a century later. Boilerplate is a mute witness to to early movements for workers’ and women’s rights. It fights alongside the Buffalo Soldiers and sees action in the Philippine-American War, Spanish-American War and WWI, fighting both in the trenches and with T. E. Lawrence, in Arabia. While the narrative never becomes preachy, only a fairly obtuse reader could fail to understand the point of history as it’s presented here. This is not a book likely to appeal to people whose beliefs run to the right of the political spectrum.
“Robot”, a word not in existence when Boilerplate itself was supposed to have been created, derives from a word that means “forced labor.” (Karel Capek, R.U.R., 1920) Even the name, “Boilerplate” suggests a kind of non-existence, something that only serves as a model for the real thing. Created as a replacement for soldiers, Boilerplate is intended to save lives in time of war. Sadly, what he foreshadows is mechanized warfare, increasingly removed from human concerns. There’s a nice tension between our knowledge of what Boilerplate represents, and his thoroughly anthropomorphized features — his human form and a face that registers perpetual surprise, between his utter lack of personality and the concern his creator feels for him as he strides into battle.
The questions raised by this book aren’t easy ones, but they’re raised in a way that does allow us to choose the level on which we read. Boilerplate is still a ripping fantasy adventure.