Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Small Craft Warning

Got a call this morning from Steve Earley -- he and his friend Bruce made it to Rock Hall, MD after several days of small craft warnings coming up the Chesapeake Bay.

I sit here in my office and watch the trees fluttering and swaying under a bright blue sky.

Steve's sailing a Pathfinder, the same boat I'm building, so when I head up to the Mid Atlantic Small Craft Festival this weekend, I plan on taking loads of pictures and -- even better -- seeing a completed boat! A far cry from the dusty skeleton in my garage, but still very, very inspiring. Can't wait.

I've sailed in small craft warning conditions before -- that's the meteorologist's code for "awesome sailing conditions" and the boat pounds through glittering waves, swaying and tilting. You're going so fast that when you trail your hand in the water it feels hard, like you're slapping a wall. Everything is wet and breathless and happening very fast.

Wait a second, that sounds like ... something else.

I'm beginning to think that my other hobbies and loves are simply lesser replacements for sailing fast in a good boat. Running brings me into the outdoors; biking adds the element of speed. When a thunderstorm cracks open the sky and I stare at the churning clouds, it's sailing I'm thinking of. When I visit the beach I stare out to sea, thinking, watching the waves.

And days like this I sit inside, gnashing my teeth and savoring the strange little boatbuilding cuts on my fingertips. (Did you know the back of a saw can cut you?)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Footwell progress

What's that, you say? A footwell? Boring? Never! The footwell is where you put your feet when sitting in the boat.

It's where sunblock gets tossed, where a sponge (on a cord, always on a line) swipes the painted wood so your feet stay dry, where you stash a wine bottle or a cold beer at the end of a long trick to windward. Where you check the compass course and hope you've accounted enough for the powerful tide sweeping out of the vast Potomac. Where you kick up your feet and daydream on a long downwind run.

It's the boat's cockpit. Where the magic happens.

With the frames in, "all" I have to do is add in the sides. These are the fronts of the seats, where -- if you were a small doll with very short legs -- you'd drum your heels when sitting and draw the ire of the captain.

The tricky (and best) part is: the boat's bottom is gently curved up. The front and back edges of the seat fronts is at a strange angle due to the angled frames. And the top is also curved, almost but not quite at the same arc as the bottom. Solution? A pattern! Here are two views of the pattern, clamped in place on the starboard side of the cockpit.

The thick frame on the aft edge -- the Legendarily Difficult Frame 7 -- is different to starboard because it's where the outboard motor clamps. In fact, the alignment of that F7 onto the bottom was so precise I snapped a picture. Freakish accuracy like this is all too rare:

This is the centerline of the frame (labeled "AFT" so I don't install it backwards) and the centerline of the bottom. The pencil line is about 0.5mm thick. Yeah!

Lastly, the view I treat myself to at the end of each boatbuilding session: the frames up, the shape of the boat beginning to take shape. Inspiration....

The front of the boat is out of the frame to the right, but you can see the centerboard well, the frames, and the bottom, as well as all the holes for ventilation.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Animals Gone Wild

Another one from the NY Times, fast becoming the premier weird-animal-fact-discoverer. Evidently, fanged, bird-eating frogs have been discovered in Southeast Asia. ***SPOILER ALERT*** It's actually Dracula.

Frogs that eat birds? No, thanks. That's almost as bad as spiders that eat birds, wasps that paralyze and lay their eggs inside live tarantulas, and eagles that eat monkeys. I guess you could have a gruesome circle of life: Frog and spider team up to catch bird; bird escapes and goes off to eat monkey; spider is attacked by wasp and becomes horrible paralyzed living nursery for wasp larva, which consume it as they grow and eventually eat their way out.

"Circle of life" may be an optimistic term, now that I think about it. Circle of Painful Death And Sometimes Crippling Fights For Survival doesn't have the same ring to it, though.

Seriously, once you start thinking of humans as prey, poor wee naked monkeys with neither claws nor fangs nor defensive stings (most of us, anyhow) things move into the crueler perspective already shared by the rest of the natural world.

Would my two housecats stalk, kill, and eat me if I was smaller? No doubt. After which they would probably have a hurking fit and barf me onto a section of rug (never linoleum, oh no, they aim for carpet).

Yesterday I encountered further signs that animals have Had It Up To Here. First, as I was recounting my tale of near-gut-exploding terror at work, one guy noted that he had actually run into a deer while jogging.

Was the deer stupid? Nearly blind in the darkness? Or simply ... waiting?

RUNNER: Is that ... a tree branch? A shadow? What the...?
DEER: Oh, step on, mofo. Let's dance.

Then, after work, I was biking up a cruelly steep gravel road when I rounded a bend and saw a fat copperhead snake S-coiled in the road. I noted the location (left turn, powerlines, steep camber) so when I returned, racing downhill later, I wouldn't run it over.

But on my way back down, it was gone. Spooky!

Next week: enough with the animals, already. Boatbuilding and writing galore.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Spin, my spiders. Spin like the wind!

The NY Times had an article yesterday about -- ready? -- Madagascar Golden Orb Spiders harnessed to tiny silk-extracting machines. The silk is spun into golden thread, which people have then woven into beautiful and costly tapestries.

Unfortunately, when I read "spider harness" I picture a tiny warrior in a Roman chariot, being pulled by an armored war spider. This moth uprising will not stand! To war, my arachnid brothers! Maybe partly due to -- ready? -- cat armor I saw on Laini Taylor's blog. Very cool, though I imagine the martial effect might be lost when the armored cat decided to sit down, raise one armored leg behind its armored ear, and lick its po-po. (First rule of Cat Club: Always stay clean.)

It gets me worrying about the spiders, too. What if, once they realized what they could do as a group, they gave up on gallery-ready tapestries and instead spun a giant web? They're already the size of bats, so I have no doubt that a web as big as, say, a trampoline would serve to hold an entire kindergarten class. And then the golden killers would scurry across the thread, gnashing their spidery jaws and squeaking their horrible spider language.

Where was I? Oh, right. Art from spiders.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


This time of year, when I step out the door for a run at 5:30AM it is DARK. And even more so when it's overcast and there's no moon, like this morning.

I have been startled on runs before. A mailbox or a trash can slowly looming out of the murk can appear to be a dog, just standing there, watching me. Or a deer can crash through the woods and gallop, hooves clicking, across the road, giving me a little jolt. Often branches lie in the road pretending to be snakes.

But what happened this morning surpassed all that.

The trouble is, writing fantasy means I get to / have to think about things like Baba Yaga and her house on chicken feet, or what a spider might feel like skittering down my throat (another worry: gulping down a glass of water at night without first checking that a spider is not floating in it!), or whether a goat standing alone on a dark road, grinning, is frightening, or whether there's an old man with long fingernails under my bed. Crows with smoke leaking from their eye sockets. Something in the air too big to be a bird. Poetry scrawled in tiny letters inside a rat den. The smell of rotting fish inside a cave. You see, I can't turn it off.

This is what happened today on my run. It was so dark that all I could see was a dim belt of grey above me, where the trees open to the sky, and an equally dim belt of grey below my feet. Everything else was that black, black, almost vibrating darkness of zero light.

I ran up what seemed like the middle of the road, trying not to think about dogtoothed clowns and old women giggling insanely -- you know, normal running thoughts -- when I glimpsed something in the darkness in front of me. RIGHT in front of me.

In less than a second, the following thoughts flickered through my animal brain like lightening:

1) That's a dog or a deer. Scary, but no problem.
2) It's not moving like a dog or a deer. What is it?
3) It's my height and flailing its arms and legs.
4) It's coming right at me OH GOD WHAT IS IT?

You know the sound you make when you open a drawer -- to get a spoon, say, or your keys -- and there is a spider that you nearly grab? Sort of "Unnhhhh!"

I made that sound and leapt out of the way of what turned out to be ... another runner, who was just as scared as I was. However, what scared him was the near-collision, whereas I was worried about face-eating demons who would take me back to their master, the bloody-faced old lady who lives in a dead tree and sends her scaly children out each night to bring her their prey to toy with.

The phrase "a chill went down my back," is an understatement. I shivered from the back of my head, down both arms, and down to my calves, a breath of ice that I expect was every hair trying to raise itself up as if I were a startled cat. Fight or flight is a difficult decision when you're already running directly at the problem.

I wanted to explain the strangled groan I had emitted, so I remarked in a shaky voice, "You scared the crap out of me!"

The rest of my run, thank goodness, was uneventful.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sennen Cove

One of the places we visited during our Cornwall trip in June was a tiny village called Sennen Cove, tucked into a rocky concavity on the coast of Southwest Britain. When we were there it was overcast and breezy, though we were in shorts and long-sleeve shirts, and we scuffed along the cool sand and wondered about sunburn through the clouds.

Today's weather report (I love the Internet) for Sennen Cove is 70 degrees, mostly cloudy, a gentle onshore breeze. And when I do an image search I find beautiful shots of turquoise water, corkscrew narrow roads, rocks at low tide. Postcard stuff.

But Sennen cove is also the handwritten "Open" sign on an empty snack stand, staffed by solicitous matronly types who cluck happily at American tourists who haven't yet had a cream tea. The tables are faded plastic, and you go up four steps to the restroom, past a mural of a larger-than-life mermaid.

Or the ancient tavern you have to duck your head to enter, warm and cheery on a cool day, with uneven tables and a surprisingly large menu of sandwiches and good beer.

Or the old man, striding along the beach in galoshes as if he could walk over or through anything, led by a bounding dog that leaps over the rocks as if he were a mountain goat. Sure enough, you blink and in what seems like seconds both man and dog have scaled a small cliff and are cruising through a slope of gorse twenty-five feet above the beach.

Or the surf shop with a whiteboard listing water conditions. Or the complicated bus schedule. Or the round souvenir shop, still full of chest-height spokes. Or the surprising taste of cold Coke on a cold day. Or clutching a paper bag of postcards or maps or books or vases, the brown paper wrinkled and folded and now beginning to tear through at the corners. Or the bright purple seats on the bus, where you huddle below because going up to the open "upstairs" would be unpleasantly cold and rainy.

On and on. Even a few hours can result in such a rich bouillabaisse of images, smells, and sounds, that if you're in the right frame of mind, or the right place, they come flooding back almost unbidden.

There is so much to tell.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What a fascinating, modern age we live in

It's funny how after something is invented -- a blender, the Internet, whatever -- that we get so used to it we can't imagine life without it. Yet somehow we survived for many years doing just that.

Life before the Internet? I think I can remember. We all lived in caves, right? I think my dad worked at a quarry and slid down a dinosaur at the end of the day.

What seems even stranger to me is the fact that we (I) didn't even yearn for the Internet before we had it. Oh no, I was perfectly happy with my printed books and actually visiting the library in person and writing letters and talking on the phone. It didn't seem like I was missing out.

Maybe that's how it was before the printing press. Could it be that most people, when they weren't being repressed or plowing icy fields (for some reason my image of the Middle Ages is hunchbacked, ancient thirty-year-olds groveling through ice and mud while the stern manor home rises in the distance) simply never thought how nice it might be to have some form of accessible printed books?

I guess what I mean is: accurate relativity. It's tempting to look at those who came before and wonder if they knew how much they were missing. In most cases that's not quite the right question, because they weren't "missing" anything. (Except maybe a good set of insulated clothes and a toothbrush for the medieval peasants.) We don't just invent products, we often invent the need for those products.

Which is why it's such a funny, perspective-inducing moment in the Master and Commander film, when Jack Aubrey looks at a hand-carved model of a ship in astonishment. Referring to some slightly different underwater shape, he remarks, "What a fascinating, modern age we live in."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ray's Sting and Squid Ink

It's been so long since I worked on something other than The Book, so I was glad to read this week's Sunday Scribblings prompt. Though I couldn't fully pull myself out of that world I've come to know so well. Enjoy!

Ray's Sting and Squid Ink

When the door blew open the fire guttered blue -- sea salt in the driftwood -- and all the candles bent their heads to the chimney as if in agreement.

“Close it! Hell and death, close the door!”

Someone, a latecomer who could find no seat by the warm fire, kicked the wooden planks and the door shut with a gust of snowy night air. Everyone in the Ragged Sailor that night heard the storm pounding the walls and mumbled a blessing into their cups that they were not at sea. Some discreetly touched talismans, secreted in deep pockets and warmed by their skin. Others traced patterns in ale puddles on the table, then rubbed them out with their elbows.

“As I was saying,” said Young John, a shriveled raisin of a man whose father, Old John, had been dead for forty years, “As I was saying, we all know the names of the seventy three stars to steer by, in winter and high summer. But in the Far Countries the stars are different.”

“Diable!” came the shouts, Morris’s loudest of all. He knew Young John loved this, loved the skepticism of the sailors and fishwives that crowded the dark little alehouse.

“Never!” cried Young John. He pounded his empty glass on the table and gestured for another with his other hand, fingers fluttering from ragged wool half-gloves. “Never! The fish walk on land, women have three, have three ... never mind. Men write books on their own skin. Aye, they do so, Arlen, so shut yer mouth.”

“You can’t live without skin. How do they get if off?” Morris called. This was one of Young John’s better performances. And three of what, anyway?

“They write on themselves. The ink stays.”

“What do they write, then?” someone called from the other side of the room.

Young John paused, his glass halfway to his lips. He beamed over the rim at them. It was so quiet Morris heard the rap as Young John set the glass down.

“They write,” he said softly. Everyone leaned forward. “They write of a strange land, far far away, where people gather in pubs at night, and warm themselves, and enjoy drink and story while the wind howls outside.”

People were groaning before he finished. Someone threw a roll, but Young John ducked happily.

Morris turned to go. It was late, and he was expected early at the smithy to start the fires of the great forge. As he passed the latecomer who had shut the door, the man’s arm shot out and gripped Morris’s wrist. The strength in his fingers was so great that Morris’s surprise turned immediately to pain.

“Wait,” came the voice, and the hand released its grip. Morris saw that the skin was dark with ink, so filled with lines of writing, arabesque script and ornate letters and half-seen sketches of strange beasts, that it was nearly black.

“Wait. He tells no lie.”

Morris swallowed. “Skin ... writing?”

The man nodded, though Morris couldn’t see his face. “Squid ink and a ray’s sting. I bleed for every word.”

The alehouse had returned to its normal hum of conversation, calls for drink, the crackle of the fire.

“What does it say?” asked Morris.

The man draw a long, curved object from a chest pocket. Morris recognized it immediately. The whip-thin tail of a stingray.

“I will tell you,” the man said, reaching into another pocket and placing a small vial of night-black ink on the table. “But for every word I read, I will write one on you.”

Morris stared at the vial, his heart thumping. “How ... how did you get yours?”

“I was curious.” The man slowly rolled up his sleeve to reveal a knotted forearm nearly as inked as his hand. “I was so very curious.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Back again. I mean it, this time.

Okay, I'm back after a week's vacation in Sunny! San! Diego! How many times this summer have I "come back"? I think I've travelled for four weeks, two of which were vacation, so I can't complain. But I will, precious, I will.

This time it was a week of stuffing myself like a Christmas turkey (except with homemade bread), sailing, biking, swimming, toddler-hanging-out-with, eating, and even some editing. After lugging my nearly 400-page manuscript, crumpled with edits, through three airports, I spent a healthy few hours typing in edits. Then printing. Then viola*! Draft 2 is ready!

Printed single-spaced and double-sided, it became much more manageable. And this time I remembered page numbers, so it's easier to keep track of things when it goes sliding off the coffee table or couch.

Is it good? Is it good? After much time writing, editing, and pondering, I have this answer. At the risk of getting a big head: Yes. It is good. Or at least, I don't hate it, which is the writer's version of "good."

I took more risks. Held less back. Tried to be less self-conscious -- which, I'm learning, sometimes means holding back** instead of self-consciously indulging in "writerly writing." Writerly writing comes out contrived or overdone, anyway, and it's a nectared trap I fall into too easily.

But. It's done, first readers are taking a look, and now I'm faced with an odd question: having completed three books, do I focus on querying or revising? And which one?

The impatient part of me says: query the ready one! The wise part of me says: query the better one. Trouble is, the second one's better and it's not ready.

O Impatience, thou frisky and lilting voice! Trouble me not with your beguiling schemes!

I know it's "voila." "Viola" makes me laugh.
**Edited: This may seem like a contradiction, but what I mean is this: I held back less of the story. The florid prose, thank goodness, I DID hold back.