Wednesday, June 24, 2009

It's the smell

If there is such a thing.

I took a semester off from college to -- you guessed it -- backpack through Europe. One of the things I remember so clearly from the green wilds of northern Scotland was a distinctive smell.

It was tarry and dark, slightly burnt and slightly sweet, and I always assumed it was burning peat. Later I suspected it was the distinctive tang of a coal fire. Once in Albuquerque I walked past a building that was receiving new hot tar on the roof, and smelled the smell.

Another time (more recently, though not this week) in London I walked out of the British Museum and through a cloud of steam from a hot dog vendor on the sidewalk. The steam had the smell! Or almost did: he can't possible have been running a coal-fired hot dog cart. I hope.

Anybody have any idea what this smell is? I come across it so rarely that when I do I'm instantly transported back to Scotland, and a host of other memories come crowding in.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

In London

Night falls late here, in the high latitudes, but fall it does: the last of the golden light licks from the buildings and all is shadow and blue. The buildings sparkle with white and yellow lights, sodium arc, halogen, blue-white headlights and high twinkling jets coming into Heathrow, thirty miles west.

I had just finished a "thank you" contest with a nodding room service steward.

"Thank you, have a good evening."
"Thank you, you as well."
"Yes sir, thank you."
"Yes, thank you."
"Thank you."
"Thank you."
"Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you." With this barrage of gratitude he stepped backwards out into the hallway and was gone. I went to the window to close the blinds against the night; hours of work and laptop and typing remained.

But there was something. A shadow like a splot of black paint, or a cloak, wrapped around the corner peak of one of the high buildings. I had to stand in the corner of my room and even then crane my head sideways against the window to see.

It was too dim to see: not yet dark, no longer twilight, and blue shapes and after images swam in the air as I tried to squint at the thing on the building.

It fell, or detached. Or released. That I saw. I know I saw it let go. I saw.

And it fluttered a story, two stories, a flapping rag, a car-sized flutter of darkness. And it broadened and the plunging fall slowed into a low swooping curve.


The window rang when my head jolted against it. Suddenly I felt exposed: a bright-lit hotel room looking onto a dark city, and I reached behind me to switch off the light. When I looked back I could see nothing for a moment, and then far movement against the blue-dark sky. Long wings flapping, heavy wingbeats like a vulture or a heron, though no feathered thing ever grew this big.

Close the curtains. Make sure they're closed. The phone still works. Turn on the lights. Turn on the TV.

Do not look out the window.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Vines of Neglect

Last night I dreamed that I went to the garage to look at the boatbuilding project. Not to work on it -- there was no time -- only to look at it. Dust and mildew had coated everything, and I couldn't remember how long it had been since I bent over the plywood and bronze screws. Days? Years?

So much time had passed that thumb-thick creepers had twined in through the doors and were growing around the building jig, the frames opening like pleading arms, around the legs of the dusty workbench.

Old. Forgotten.

I'll get back to it, but there is work to do elsewhere yet. Revisions of Book 1. The lying fallow of Book 2. Patience, I tell myself. Patience.

This latest revision of Book 1 was fairly hefty, with a few thousand words added, and a subplot firmed up and made, I hope, more relevant. I'm starting to forget about Book 2, which is good.

What were those characters' names again? What happened when? Perfect.

With any luck I'll finalize the Book 1 revisions this week, and can then turn my attention to Book 2. And the boat.

Patience. Patience.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Somewhere there is a tree bending in a wet gale, under a sky strewn with racing clouds and the bad light of a lunar eclipse. Somewhere a road limns halves of the horizon, rising like a hawk's trajectory until it disappears in the shimmering heat. Somewhere things that look like men squat in caves and clack their yellow teeth at the sun.

Somewhere a spider clamps its bony arms around a moth; the fluttering of the moth slows to a beat and is picked up by the fluttering glow in far storm clouds.

Somewhere an oak tree has grown around a fist of bones. Clutched in the fist is a tiny wooden doll, and painted on the doll's white face are two dots and the thin line of a mouth.

Somewhere on a marshy beach, under the singing air, the sand dimples, cracks, and falls in on itself to reveal a smoking hole that smells like wet wool.

Sometimes, when you're not looking, the stars twitch into new positions, just for a moment. Bats and night frogs blink and go about their business.

Somewhere a wagon filled with rugs lumbers to a stop on the side of a rock-strewn road and under a sky that is so blue it would make your teeth ache. A crow is released into the air. A rabbit is released across the plain. And after a moment, a gloved fist emerges from the swaying wool curtains. Gripping the worn leather with yellow, lizardlike feet and hooked talons is a hooded falcon. The hood is released and the bird climbs into the bright sky, watching both crow and rabbit.

It dives.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


I haven't posted in a while because all I've been doing is revise. Revise, revise, revise.


Revise: revise; revise (revise) ... revise.

And while it sort of feels good to sharpen, rework, question, tighten, polish ... it does get tedious and it is slow. So exceeding slow.

In some cases "revision" just means confirming that I'm happy with what's already there. More of a questioning. But in other cases there are scenes removed; characters enriched; motivations pulled like deep-rooted molars from my head and carefully inserted into the story so it all. makes. sense.

It is slow and hard but it does seem to be better. But O how I ache to break open the seal on the first draft of the next book, which has been lying dormant for nearly two months now. Soon, precious. Soon.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

It IS Possible

Steve Earley, who built a boat to the same design I am building (a John Welsford Pathfinder), recently returned from a week-long cruise with his friend Bruce.

Now, I visit their blog regularly because it's great to see pictures of a completed boat. And a little surreal, since mine is only half-framed in the garage and looks like a dinosaur skeleton. But now that Steve and Bruce are posting photos and commentary from their cruise along the shallow bays of coastal North Carolina, I am more inspired than ever!

This is exactly what these boats were designed for. Click on over and you may be as entranced as I am. Great stuff, guys.

There's a lot of building left to do but Steve's photos make it all seem possible.

But wait, there's more! Perry Burton is nearly done with his Pathfinder after less than a year. I am embarrassed to say how long I've been building mine. He has great photos and building tips, as well as helpful how-he-did-it details that I've gratefully used in some of the trickier moments of boatbuilding. I wish I knew more about sailing around Newfoundland, but other than seagulls and Great Big Sea, I am sadly ignorant.

Presumably one solution, once I've done with my boat, is to trailer it up there and find out for myself. Or sail it.