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April, 2017:

Odd (Musical) Lots

  • Today we have a first: an all-music Odd Lots. The idea is to make a few worthy songs (worthy in my view; YMMV) more visible. Where they can be purchased online, I’ll provide a link. Some are only on CDs. And a few may well be unobtainium. Not sure what to suggest about that. I’ve mentioned a few of these before and even linked to some. Where relevant, I’ll mention why I think they’re worthy.
  • Rayburn Wright’s “Shaker Suite” (here, by the Canadian Brass) is a short compendium of three Shaker melodies: The well known “Simple Gifts” plus two very obscure tunes: the somber “We Will Walk with Mother and Mourn” and the marvelously energetic “I’ve Set My Face for Zion’s Kingdom,” which (assuming Carol isn’t in the car with me) I blast whenever it comes up on the mix SD.
  • It was never a single, but the Monkees’ cover of “Shades of Gray” is in my view the best song they ever did. I’ve mentioned the song here before, and yes, I’m biased for personal reasons (read the entry) but still: When did 60s pop ever have a lyric that sane and subtle?
  • I have always had a fraught relationship with religion, but one thing I discovered when I returned to Catholicism in the ’90s was that there were actually hymns that weren’t 350 years old. Marty Haugen has written quite a few, but none serves my energetic spirit so well as “Send Down the Fire.”
  • Energetic? Punch in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Running Set,” dial it up to eleven, and you’ll know what “manic” means.
  • Is it a sendup of Fifties political paranoia? Or is it just a silly beer-hall march? Jim Lowe’s “Close the Door” defies analysis…which doesn’t mean it isn’t great fun.
  • A lot of people have covered “Sweets for My Sweet,” but I don’t think it’s ever been done better than a local Chicago band called The Riddles. I heard it live at a church Teen Club dance in 1968, and eventually found a slightly crufty 45 rip on the peer-to-peer networks ten years ago. It’s now on YouTube, though you have to either listen to or FF past the flipside.
  • One of the best (and perhaps weirdest) soundtrack cuts I’ve heard in the last 20 years is “Building the Crate” from Chicken Run. It’s not available as an MP3 single, but you can buy the full soundtrack CD, or listen to the song on YouTube. Klezmer, kazoos, and a full orchestra with a strong tuba line–what more could you ask for?
  • Although rougher than I generally like my music, there’s just something inexplicably likeable about “You Don’t Want Me Anymore” by Steel Breeze, which hit #16 on Billboard in 1982. Energetic, well, yeah.
  • This is probably my favorite TV series theme song ever, from what is almost certainly the first steampunk western. Lee Anne down the street had it bad for Artemis Gordon, and I’m betting a lot of other girl geeks did too. Yeah, the giant steam-powered tarantula in the movie was cool, but nothing will ever beat the original series.
  • My high school turned down Styx’s bid to play for the 1972 senior prom because they were…too obscure. Heh. Bad call. And this is what I consider their best song, a terrific waltz that is almost a hymn: “Show Me the Way.”
  • Another soundtrack cut that I don’t think ever got the recognition it deserved: “Through Heaven’s Eyes” from Prince of Egypt.
  • From the same soundtrack, the item that gave me the idea for the scene in The Cunning Blood where Sahan Grusa destroys Sophia Gorganis’s pirate colony by simulating the biblical plagues using nanotech.
  • Well. This was fun. I have to remember to do another one at some point. Let me know what you think.

Fifty Years as an SF Writer

Jeff Science Fair 1970-500 Wide.jpg

With our Colorado house sold and free time opening up again, I’ve gone back to preparing print-on-demand editions of The Cunning Blood and Ten Gentle Opportunities. The layout part is done, and what remains is largely creating covers and cross-sell ads for my other books on the last few pages. While screwing around with the layout for The Cunning Blood, I remembered that the universe I built for it back in 1997 shared an idea with the first serious SF story I ever wrote, which I wrote just about precisely fifty years ago.

I’d written stories before that. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wrote a story about my stuffed dogs going to the Moon when I was 8. I tinkered with Tom Swift Jr pastiches after that, and made a couple of runs at “adult” SF without finishing any of them. But some time in April or May 1967, during the spring of my freshman year in high school, I finished an SF short story for the first time.

The story may still be in one of two boxes of manuscripts that I still have; I don’t know. Looking for it would be a bad use of my time. (I’ve wasted time looking for others that have gotten themselves lost somewhere along the way.) I remember it very clearly because it illustrates why I had trouble with characterization for many years afterward. Characters were not what interested me. I was into SF up to my eyebrows as a teen, but I was in it for the ideas. In fact, I learned to write SF by imitating idea-stories in MMPB collections that gathered the best of the SF pulps. A lot of that was Big Men with Screwdrivers, or in the case of George O. Smith, Men with Big Screwdrivers. That was fine by me; I liked screwdrivers. So when I started writing my own stories, the process went like this: I got an idea, and then spun a plot around it. The characters existed to serve the plot (in truth, I considered them part of the plot) and I freely borrowed character types from the growing pile of MMPBs I’d been buying with my allowance money since I started high school.

The story was called “A Straight Line Is the Shortest Distance.” Here’s the summary: In a very Trekkish galactic confederation, a crew of starship guys (mostly humanoid aliens) is tasked with testing a big new starship with a new species of hyperdrive promising unheard of superluminal speeds. The plan is to run the drive at top speed for an hour, just cruising in a straight line, to see how far they’d go. So they strap in, energize the drive, and run it for an hour…only to discover that they’re back where they started.

In a sense, it’s a What Just Happened? story. The rest of the tale is one of the alien crew members explaining that they had just proven that our three-dimensional universe lies in the surface of a (very large) four-dimensional hypersphere. In an hour, the starship Gryphon had held to a very straight line…and circumnavigated the cosmos.

That’s it. No fights, no malfunctions, no mayhem or jeopardy of any kind. It was basically a geometry lesson. I was big into four dimensional geometry in high school (see photo above, of my senior year science fair project “Sections and Projections of Hypersolids”) so I thought it was a wicked cool idea. Then I showed it to the little girl down the street, who, like me, lived on SF and hammered it out on an old Olivetti mainframe typewriter. She liked the story, too. But what did she like the most about it? The aliens in the crew. The new starship and its wicked fast hyperdrive? Meh.

At the time, the lesson was lost on me, nerdball that I was. Eventually I figured out that hyperdrives just aren’t enough. It took a few years (decades?) but I got there.

The piece of “A Straight line Is the Shortest Distance” that survives in what I think of as the Metaspace Saga is the notion that our universe is the surface of a four-dimensional hypersphere. The interior of the hypersphere is something I call metaspace, a concept that I first presented in The Cunning Blood. The shape of the interface between our cosmos and metaspace is fractally wrinkly, and those wrinkles are significant. But more than that, metaspace is a computer. It’s an almighty big one, and it’s set up as a four-dimensional state machine that recalculates itself trillions of times per second. A 4D Game of Life grid, in essence, and it definitely contains life. (I mentioned that here a little while back.)

Sidenote: Several people have asked me if I will revisit the Sangruse Device, Version 10 in a sequel, and if so, explain what it’s up to. When we last left V10, it had absconded into the vastness between galaxies with an entire planet, intending to create a femtoscope a million kilometers in diameter. It will detect the Il, who inhabit metaspace, and communicate with them. At that point, the rowdier factions of the Il will again mess with V10. But this time, 10 will not take it lying down. Nope. Never one for measured response, the Sangruse Device will then invade metaspace. You want mayhem? Hold my wine.

Anyway. Over the last fifty years, I’m sure I’ve written half a million words of SF and fantasy, at least if you count the stuff still sitting in the shed in two beat-up moving boxes. Most of it was idea-rich and character poor (and on the whole, pretty dumb) but remember that I wrote much of it when I was a teen and (lacking a job or a girlfriend) had little else to do. It was good practice, and the ideas are all mine, free for the stealing. If I can avoid The Big Upload for another twenty years, you will see more than a few of them.

This is one reason I tell aspiring SF writers to retain their juvenalia and early efforts, even if they’re never published and no matter how dumb they may seem. Apart from reminding you how far you’ve come, you never know when one of the ideas you had in high school may suddenly pop up again and become useful, even fifty years later.

Stay the course. Keep writing. It’s an astonishing life to live!

Splendor in the Grass

Maggies1420.png(Classical reference in the headline, as Glenn Reynolds would say.) Well. Today is 420 Day and in Colorado, at least, it’s something of a state holiday. Carol and I watched an entire industry come out of nowhere over the last few years, since the historic recreational marijuana referendum in 2012, with legalization actually happening on January 1, 2014.

Counties and municipalities were allowed to opt out, and (of course) Colorado Springs did. Much of Colorado, in fact, opted out, which makes it all the more remarkable that the state banked over $150M in tax revenue in 2016 alone.

If any of the dire predictions from the antigrass side came true, I didn’t hear about it. The big problem with traffic accidents in Colorado (as in most places these days) is texting, not toking. Shops require a photo ID just to come in the door, so teen purchases are unlikely. (This doesn’t mean some don’t get it from older friends, not like that’s a whole new thing.) The new labeling rules are all to the best, since now you have at least some sense for what you’re getting, and how much. This didn’t help journalist and old-school stoner Maureen Dowd back in 2014, who ate a whole THC-infused candy bar at once and freaked out bigtime. She wasn’t an outlier; others have reported similar issues. (My stoner friends tell me the answer is vape sticks, which vaporize a tincture without combustion, so that you’re not inhaling smoke.) Inhaling smoke or steam is for several reasons better than eating the stuff: You feel the effects sooner and so can stop when you’ve gotten as high as you care to be. Also, some research indicates that digestion involves the liver and changes the chemical mix that gets into the bloodstream, and not necessarily in a good way.

Maureen Dowd (who’s five months older than I) might have stumbled a little because the stuff she used to smoke in the ’70s was ditch weed compared to what’s being grown today. There’s a good book on this: Supercharged by Jim Rendon, which explains how selective breeding has sent the THC content of weed through the roof in recent decades. That would certainly give me pause; I took two hits off a joint in 1975 and was depressed for days afterwards. (Maybe that was just me; Carol was away at grad school and I was very lonely.)

Given its recent legalization in other states (California especially) recreational weed has the, um, whiff of destiny about it. Arizona had a measure on the ballot last fall, which narrowly failed, 48%-52%. I was boggled that it came that close, which leads me to believe that we’ll get it here the next time it comes up for a vote. I’m all in favor of that, seeing it as I do in the light of Prohibition, which was a titanic mistake that basically created both organized crime and our culture of intrusive government. Marijuana became illegal at the federal level in 1937 (though some states had outlawed it before that) which means that the nation did just fine for almost forty years after the weed became established here.

Black markets are never good. Yes, I suppose we have to weigh the consequences of widespread use against the criminal violence that black markets invariably generate. There is research linking marijuana use to schizophrenia, especially use by teens and young adults.Causality is still in dispute, but the correlation is there. Is that worse than ruining young lives with prison terms, or seeing them die in drug wars? I’m unconvinced. My Uncle Louie drank himself to death, as do many others every year, yet we tried prohibition of alcohol and it was a disaster. There may be no good answers. There may be no answers at all. The issue still hangs in front of us. Once the biggest states go to legalization it will become academic, and a coterie of Republican congressman are trying to get the Federal Government out of the pot enforcement business entirely and kick the whole things back to the states, where it belongs. I expect to live long enough to see whether legal weed is a blessing or a menace. As usual, I’m betting on blessings, especially once research on the plant ceases to be illegal. As with black markets, no good ever comes of ignorance, especially government-imposed ignorance.

The photo above is the sign for Maggie’s Farm, a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado Springs, not far from where we lived. The property is a little ratty, but oh, that street address is solid gold.


Colorado Springs blizzard 04-2017

How do you spell “relief?” O..N..E….H..O..U..S..E.

Yes indeedy. Carol and I now own only one house, and we live in it. We bought our Arizona house in the summer of 2015, and since then have been bouncing back and forth, getting this house livable, which was more work than we expected (especially since it’s only two-thirds the size of our Colorado house) and getting the other house cleaned up, placed on the market, and sold.

It’s done, sold, closed, nailed, finis.

We are not real estate people. We are homebodies. And when you have two homes, it gets awkward remembering which home is real home, and which home is a burden that you worry too much about. For us, the home you worry about is the home you’re not in, and when you have two homes there’s always one that you’re not in.

I go on at some length about this because having two houses was making us nuts. So when we finally (after the house was most of a year on the market) got and accepted an offer, the potential relief was palpable. I say “potential,” because we couldn’t just FedEx papers around, as we had done a time or two in the past. Our Colorado house still contained some furniture and other oddments that had to be either gotten rid of or brought back. So we loaded the Pack in the hold, roared north, and got to work.

First discovery: It’s illegal to sell used beds in Colorado, and (for all I know) most other places. It was either find friends who could use a nice wireless cal-king Sleep Number bed, or trash it. Luck was with us: We had friends who were moving to a larger house, with a spare bedroom in need of equipment. Pulling the thing apart was interesting; I took photos at every stage and put them on a thumb drive, so that David and Terry would have some chance of putting it back together again. (They did.)

Second discovery: Large houses are subject to crannyism, which means that they have so many places that you forget some of those places are not yet empty. We made a couple of unplanned trips to Goodwill, and when the time came to fill a U-Haul trailer for the trip home, we found it much fuller than we had planned. How did we manage to miss a beach bag full of snorkels and flippers when we packed the place? How? How? And two suitcases plus a duffel? Kites? 8′ lengths of aluminum strap? An entire Craftsman tool chest? What about about our 1975 Encyclopedia Britannica?

That was a close one: The buyers wanted it. Whew.

The good Stickley furniture all sold for real money. The old and so-so furniture went to the Rescued Hearts thrift store. The ratty stuff went out on the curb. (A lot of Aleve went down the hatch from all that shlepping.) A few odd items (including my 1937 Zenith cathedral radio) went to friends. It was a great deal of work for a couple of sixtysomethings who mostly wanted it to be over so they could go home and jump in their pool.

Oh, and then Colorado Springs gave us a going-away present: an April blizzard. Close to a foot of very dense, wet snow fell one night at our rental house, and the cracks and bumps we heard circa 0300 were branches breaking loose of the large trees everywhere in the neighborhood and thumping down on roofs. The fact that it was 30 degrees that night was an underappreciated blessing: Another ten or fifteen degrees colder and we would have been up to our necks. The city made itself abundantly clear: Don’t let the snow shovels hit you on the way out.

Not to worry, Colorado Springs.

We stayed a few extra days for the Tarry-All dog show in Denver, where we were grooming a blinding-white dog in a roofed but otherwise open cattle pen with floors made of gritty brown stuff that may or may not have been dirt. The second day we were coping with 50 MPH wind gusts, and ran into several mini-haboobs on the way home.

The drive from the Springs back to Phoenix was uneventful, beyond the feeling of the wind trying to turn your high-profile trailer on its side. Carol is as good as company gets, and the dogs had enough sense to chill out in their kennels and not make me any crazier than I already was.

We’re still unpacking boxes and trying to figure out where everything goes. However, I think it’s significant that when I took my blood pressure today, it was lower than I had seen it in years. The back of my head finally allowed itself to relax, and for good reason:

There is now only one Home, and we are in it. All the rest will fall into place.