Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year’s Eve 2016 Ruminations and Resolutions

The Ventures’ interpretation of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” bracketed by the opening riff to The Champs’ “Tequila,” plays softly in my office. I’ll have to get a disc ready for the New Year tonight, but if I’m enjoying Christmas music nearly a week after Christmas, it’s not because I’m crazy. Just lucky.

For one, I don’t work in retail anymore. I’m not in any environment where I have to listen to stuff I’d rather not hear. Given my location in Colorado’s high, remote San Luis Valley, where no broadcast television dwells, I was also spared the commercials. (I saw a few while watching my favorite network TV shows on streaming. Once the mid-season finales were done, so was I.) I was far removed from the crass overkill that kills Christmas for so many people. 

Among the many things that died in 2016—and, in this case, most heartily deserved to die—was a harebrained idea I’ve entertained since Christmas 1983. I’d had a wash of a Christmas that year with people who....well, no sense in competing with everyone else’s stories. I’d gotten it into my head that I would write the ultimate book on Christmas. I would review all my expectations for the season, and compare them with the general expectations (I guessed) most people have, and work out a resolution for everyone. I would save Christmas for all of us poor orphans of the heart out there.

I was 22 at the time. What was forgivable on account of youth became forehead-slapping stupid in my early to mid-50s, when I revived the idea. After dancing around it one more time this season, I’ve come to my senses. 2016 has been very good to me in this regard.

This is not to say I’m giving up writing about Christmas. I’d like to know myself what my fascination is with the season. I’m simply not going to get an entire book out of it. I certainly don’t propose anymore to help anyone else out with something I’m still working out for myself.

So here we are on the cusp of another turning of the year. Yes, I have my resolutions to follow through with. As with my more successful resolutions of years past, I’ve already gotten a head start on them. No cold starts in the morning for me on 1 January.

I wonder what this young lady would say
if she could see 50 years into the future.
I’d go into all that, all I want to do with me, this blog, and my writing in general, but that’s enough self-indulgence on my part. It’s best one keeps such things to oneself. Abandon all notions of your family/friends/audience holding you accountable. If you can’t hold yourself accountable to yourself, that’s your problem right there. I know, for I have been that sinner. 

Whatever it is I’m doing, if things are looking better by this time next year, you’ll know I was successful. 

You’re no different from me. Show us, don’t tell us.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Christmas 2016 After-Action Report

Reconnecting with Christmas by reinventing and rethinking years of approach. I’m pretty sure that’s the moral here. Hoo-wee, it was cold. 

Shortly after nightfall on Christmas Eve, it became clear we’d all need time on Christmas Day to re-combobulate from the hangovers we were sure to have in the morning as my adult daughter and her friend prepared for their three hour ride back to Colorado Springs that same day. My wife and I agreed it made sense to open the gifts after midnight, so that everyone could sleep as long as they needed in the morning. 

And so it was that over half a century of tradition was kicked to the curb in one easy decision. Nor did we play Vince Guaraldi’s piano lounge jazz soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, as my wife and I have done while opening the presents for most of the Christmases we’ve been married since 1990. It never occurred to me to put it on. 

Your humble author clowning with
the 30 lb kettlebell Santa brought him.
If I’m throwing 25 years of tradition out the window, what’s another 30? It’s 2016, after all, that annus horribilis that’s taken all our favorite singers and musicians and celebrities. Yet even the loss of my personal favorites became so much background noise to me as I watched my son wind up his eight-year Civil Air Patrol cadet career, purchase a car, and then move out, a young man on his own. We put the house up for sale, while searching across Colorado for a new place before settling on Big Pink in the San Luis Valley. We were cooped up way too long with our cats in a small hotel room before closing on Big Pink, then got jacked around by the moving company before spending all of our former house sale proceeds rewiring the place, fixing the leaks in the plumbing, etc. 

It’s been a jam-packed year. The changes were big, the changes were permanent, and, like most of those celebrity deaths everyone’s wailing about on Facebook and Twitter, they were due to happen. 

I’m relieved to say this is finally sinking in. It’s taken the entire year, but I’m so grateful to be free of this hateful, paralytic melancholy, I don’t care. It was my own private little Christmas miracle, a gift I accept with open heart.

After midnight, we gathered around the tree. My daughter’s friend, bless her, delighted in putting on the Santa hat and doling out the gifts, then photographing us as we opened them. It didn’t feel the least bit strange doing this before bed on what could still be technically called Christmas Eve. The decision justified itself many times over in the morning, as everyone got up when they wanted on Christmas Day. We enjoyed coffee, and a modest, but tasty meal of baked ham, homemade macaroni and cheese, and cranberry sauce, before my daughter and her friend slowly got themselves together for the long ride back to Colorado Springs.

My wife and I shared a moment (actually several) of deep sadness watching our daughter go, and as we held each other in glorious wintry white Christmas light, I resolved to smash another tradition. Namely, this morbid business of me having to stop and compose myself every fifteen minutes because it seems the veil between me and everything that overwhelms me with grief is somehow thinnest this time of year.

I’ve justified this with my “we exclude nothing!” takeaway from Charles Dickens’ essay, “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older,” that grieving for absent loved ones is natural to our observance of the season. Yet I found myself choked up, not over absent friends and family, but over the most maudlin and useless things. I’d rather not go into detail; it’s embarrassing to think about. Suffice it to say I’m working my way past this madness that has marred so many otherwise fine Christmases for me over the years. 2016 hasn’t been a total wash.

My wife spoke with her mother over the phone. We both spoke to our son, who was happy spending the time with his girlfriend and her family in Colorado Springs. Later, we took a walk around the block to see what was going on in downtown Monte Vista as the last light of Christmas Day left the sky. The traffic was heavier than I expected on US 160, but it was otherwise quiet. The severe cold, magnified by the snow blown in the night before, ensured that one block was as far as we were walking. We returned home and settled in for the evening.

There was no let-down. It all felt the way it was supposed to be. I worked on cleaning out the spare bedroom while listening to music. I caught a few Christmas tunes while bopping between the attic off my closet and the spare bedroom. All the ones I needed.

It was a good day, and a fine Christmas.
See you next year?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Santa Claus Deathwatch

Last call for
castles & bunnies

percussive play with
tiny blue men scattered 
across hardwood battlefields 
seem more

grown-up than
knights & their
swords which don’t
stand a chance against
heavy artillery with
air support

The knights & bunnies have 
held out for longer than I 
thought but my son is 
very much my 
son for I’ve 

stumbled upon him more 
than once talking back to his 
talking teddy bear as if that 
might sustain the magic 
a little longer

it’s no use, of course
the jolly old elf
breathes his last
this Christmas

& it’s past time I
pushed him into

From the forthcoming collection Nymphomagic Electroshock and Other Middle-Aged Complaints.
Copyright © 2005, 2017 by Lawrence Roy Aiken.

More Notes on the Last Month of a Difficult Year

Changes, passages, endings...I can’t wait for New Year to bust these next moves.

I left off my last post without answering where I was in the process of finishing THE SAGA OF THE DEAD SILENCER series. The process requires, first, that I go line by line through Bleeding Kansas and Grace Among the Dead. I’m not only on a quest to rid those two volumes of all my new-guy mistakes and narrative tics beginning from 2012, I’m homogenizing the tone and character of the three book-wide narrative.

Most of all, I want my hero Derek Grace, and the people he grows close to despite himself, to make sense. It may be a zombie action novel, but it’s my zombie action novel. I want a clean read, all killer, no filler.With everything nice and digitally remastered for 2016 writerly skill levels, I may undertake repairs of the flawed half-manuscript that is The Wrong Kind of Dead.

So where am I in this process? I finished the rewrite on Bleeding Kansas a week ago. I’m still psyching myself up for the dive into Grace Among the Dead.

There. I said it. Cue photograph of tranquil winter scene.

Oh, better make that two. Sunrise...


It’s even worse than you think. Every day while at the Hotel Purgatario in Colorado Springs from 13 June to 13 July, I opened up three windows in Word. One for each novel.

Every day nothing happened. And upon leaving the Hotel Purgatario and settling into Big Pink, obviously nothing much happened after that.

Why? I don’t know. I just couldn’t get moving. Couldn’t focus. Or maybe just wouldn’t focus. I told you; I don’t know.

Somehow, a month ago, in the course of opening up a few beers at night, I opened up Bleeding Kansas. And I ripped through it in maybe two weeks. It happened just like that.

Otis, glowering balefully from the left background, says, “That’s not precisely how it happened.”

Otis turns his head in disgust as Luna chimes in, “Yeah, tell ‘em the truth!”

Actually, “ripped through it” isn’t precise. It wasn’t quite “like that,” either—although, relative to the rest of this year’s barren calendarscape, it was. 

I stopped and started on the rewrite. It did not escape my attention that I worked better at night while drinking beer at my desk. I may yet do a fundraiser along the lines of paying for all this beer that makes this productivity happen. It should inspire a lot more happy generosity than, “These home improvements necessary to our survival this winter are driving us back into the debt spiral we sold the last house to escape! Please help!”

So I figured out what got me in the proper mindset, and I pushed through. After all this time, in my gut of ripped-out zombie guts, I know Bleeding Kansas is the book I need it to be. Having scrubbed it top to bottom and back again, and then again, and again, L. Roy Aiken’s Bleeding Kansas is good to go for the ages on anyone’s list of Better Than Average Zombie Apocalypse books.

So what about Grace Among the Dead? When will The Wrong Kind of Dead be finished?
“Go on. We’re listening.”

I had a feeling it would be like this. One thing finally breaks free, then another, then another, like obstacles in a debris-choked creek breaking away and washing downstream. Things will get done in a period very short relative to the rest of the time I’ve been inactive, although the quality of work will be representative of everything that’s been stewing in my head and heart since. The time will not have been entirely wasted.

Also, the work will still be kind of stop-start, but with far shorter intervals for the stopped parts.

In other words, I’ll have to get back to you on this. In the meantime...

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Notes Towards the Middle of the Last Month of a Difficult Year

It’s one of those “State of the Apocalypse” rambles where I talk about stuff, thangs.

It’s beginning to look a lot like...winter.
I’m always looking to the southwest, as that appears to be where most of our weather comes from, especially the snow. Green Ridge/Greenie Mountain are somewhere behind that lowering cloud bank.

The temperatures in the high alpine San Luis Valley are taking their time ratcheting down to their famous below-zero Fahrenheit levels, for which I am grateful. We installed a wood pellet stove downstairs that heats the front end of the house just fine. Somehow, though, the heat either doesn’t rise (unlikely), or (very likely) dissipates through the many leaks in this indifferently maintained century-old Victorian before it even mounts the stairs.

We have two gas furnaces, one that works well enough to heat the mud room and the kitchen, and another that mainly seems to blow cold air into the main house, despite multiple calls to the furnace guy. With the aforementioned wood pellet stove, plus a portable kerosene heater I run in the main bedroom, plus another kerosene heater in my office, we have no less than five sources of heat barely keeping this place warm.

By “barely,” I mean the temperature at best downstairs approaches 65. We’ve set the thermostat on the main gas furnace to 80. Yet it hasn’t been so much as 70 degrees downstairs since August. (NOTE: In the San Luis Valley, nighttime August lows can dip into the high 40s F. It’s actually not a good idea to leave your windows open at night, even if it was 80 degrees F throughout the day. I learned this the hard way my first week here. Never again.)

Since we put the electric mattress pad on, however, I’ve been able to forego wearing sweats to bed, but it’s still a chilly wake-up. With all these energy-intensive heating units at work, I imagine a large utility bill, along with all the money spent on the side for wood pellets and kerosene.

Reckon I should write faster, right?

Speaking of writing...I’ve had a few inquiries on the status of the third and final book of THE SAGA OF THE DEAD SILENCER
Look, cats! D’awwww....

Funny story. I started writing this post on 3 December. I got to the sentence immediate above the above photograph and stopped cold.

I honestly don’t know how to tell you. I’ll just have to tell you.
(Takes a deep breath.)

Aside from the drama of selling a house to pay down years of accumulated debt, searching for another house as near as possible to our old one (at least within the same state), dealing with the logistics of moving 200 miles, getting an indifferently maintained century-old house up to 21st century code, keeping it warm in one of the most notoriously frigid locales in Colorado, if not North America...I’d talk more about my depression and anxiety that have put me out of action for weeks into months at a time, except I’ve noticed just about everyone’s anxious and depressed on the Internet. I’m also aware that there are people out there who wish they had my problems. No one wins competing in the Oppression/Depression Olympics. I only mention this because my mental malaise has been a major factor behind my work stoppage. 

One day at time. It’s all I can do. As a far worthier depression sufferer than I once put it, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Only six and a half months until summer! We’ve got this!

As far as writing The Wrong Kind of Dead was concerned, however, maybe I should have quit it once the narrative went off track. I was writing on it clear into May, but I knew as far back as January that the dynamic between Derek and Agnes and Elyssa was wrong.  How the Family Grace got into the Jackson Redoubt rang false, and a major emotional beat and series-unifying event didn’t work at all.

Still, I kept writing. After all, it’s better to write and change it later than to not write at all, right? As it turns out, I’ll have to go through all the stuff I’ve posted already for the book and pick a point in which to cut the rest off off and strike out on fresh sheets of pixel. There are a couple of scenes I can still use, but, as I learned with Grace Among the Dead, it’s faster and better to write those scenes all over again from scratch than to try and force them into harmony with the tone of the new narrative.

Another problem I noticed is that, as the series has been written over a period of four years, the change in my writing style has become noticeable enough to be distracting. I’ve known all along I would have to plow through Bleeding Kansas for a third time (there are actually three different editions, including a German language one) and take out the remainder of the rookie errors. Then I would have to take on Grace Among the Dead, which is an even bigger mess. 

Then, and only then, would I be able to plow forward with the rewrite of the first part of The Wrong Kind of Dead before finishing it.
As the poet observed, the days run away like wild horses over the hills.

So where am I in this process? It’s not a simple answer, and this post has gone on long enough. I’ve got to get back to work. Suffice it to say I’m happy to have this much behind me now. It’s better than the big fat nothing I had before. 
There’s this, too.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

November’s Leftover Cats

...are prepping for their first Christmas at Big Pink.

I’m always taking happysnaps of these furry kibble bandits, looking for a theme to tie them together so I’ll have an excuse to post them. The notion of “leftovers” absolves me of such issues. So we’ll start with this fine photo of Lily the Puff atop my PC tower, looking away into eternity. Or at the bug outside the window.

Then we have our midnight stray out of Monte Vista and this blog’s biggest star (other than my zombies, of course), Miss Bella Luna. Her “Sixteen Views of a Kitten on My Lap” shoot was one of my most popular posts this month. This photo is in another light, namely, the one behind my desk, as the sun is down.

Making the bed in the morning often involves inconveniencing two or more of the Five Fluffies of the Apocalypse, as they like to make camp where our warm bodies were. Here, we see Jack and Luna giving me the stinkeye while elderkitty Otis snoozes on.

Luna is already the size of a normal-sized cat, which means, like our other cats, she’s going to be bigger than normal-sized. Here, she shows off her remarkably symmetrical markings. I like how her stripes become leopard spots on her belly. Jack provides the yang to the yin, or whatever, in this shot.

Here’s Jack, proving once again what a unique challenge it is to photograph a black cat. I’ve got so many shots of him sitting thus on the arm of my chair. This overexposed shot is the only one that reveals his eyes.

I wish this was better focused so I could make a proper meme of it. Cats always look like they’re about to take someone’s head off when they yawn.

“Okay, everyone go home now. Time to get ready for Christmas!”

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past, Present, and Future

Special 2016 “The Year Everything Changed” Edition

My favorite of the two liquor stores in Monte Vista, its windows painted by local artist “E. Sprouse Rowe,” whose work I’ve seen in Del Norte and Alamosa. She’s basically the designated window-painting artist of the lower-mid San Luis Valley.

I came close to hating it. My personal Imp of the Perverse really wanted to hate our first Thanksgiving in Monte Vista, if only to justify my depressive foot-dragging and sour temper since we left Colorado Springs for “Gilligan’s Valley,” as I’ve taken to calling the San Luis Valley when aspects of remote, rural small-town life clash with my long-ingrained suburban, get-it-when-I-want-it sensibilities.

This two-person table-setting looks much less lonely
and sad with the light behind me, but lonely and sad
is what I’m aiming for, so cue the sad violins.
It was bad enough we were doing this without our children for the first time since 1993. When it became apparent I had no convenient streaming options for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from NBC, I nearly went over the edge. The parade and the dog show that followed had been tradition in our household for years.

But this is 2016. We now live in a remote rural valley in southern Colorado, where no broadcast television exists, and the Powers That Be at the major networks still haven’t thought to stream their network signals live on the Internet, commercials and all, like radio stations have been doing for over 15 years already. Which is to say, no shade on the SLV, but what’s up with corporate America being unable or unwilling to support a non-infrastructure intensive, no-brainer way of further exposing its advertisers?

Dinner was still hours away—bless her heart, my wife went ahead and made the full turkey with trimmings for the two of us—so I stomped upstairs, and, sure enough, the show I wanted to watch was trending on Twitter. I saw photos and animated .GIFs and film clips. And it was then that I realized something.

Our table setting from the other side. Lighting is everything. Well, that and perspective, A new color of paint on the wall would help tremendously, but that’s another can o’ worms. We’ve only been here four months.

All I was missing was another year of rolling my eyes and walking out of the room for most of the first hour while the intolerably fey and cheesy Broadway musicals promoted their overpriced product. I’d enjoy the Rockettes for the three minutes they were on near the top of the next hour, then continue to bring in the Christmas tree and decor boxes from the shed until dinner. I’d get a kick out of watching the marching bands from the high schools out of flyover country, knowing how much these kids would treasure the memory of their 30 seconds of fame the rest of their lives as they put on a show they’d worked all year to perfect.

Santa Claus closes out the parade, and, hooray, it’s Christmas. Well, I missed all that this year. Christmas is still coming, of course. Depending upon their work schedules, my children might not be here for that, either. It is what it is.

It’s ironic when I consider that the TV was on mainly to give us something to talk about when the children were in the house. Over the last couple of years, we even got into eating dinner with the dog show on, and commenting on the breeds we saw. As if we didn’t have any other way to connect. So wrong, right?
The brine recipe my wife used this year let her get away with brining the turkey for only 12 hours instead of the usual 24. The white meat was deliciously tender and moist.

We no longer live in that house, we no longer live in that town, and our children are on their own, no longer living with us. So if I never see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the following dog show again, it’s just as well.

It’s 2016. This is how things are done now.

I was nearly in shock at how readily I accepted this. Not entirely fatalistically, either, although fatalism is a necessary component of said acceptance. Apparently, I’m turning a corner. Hooray for me.

As my wife and I sat down to eat, it was inevitable that we would speak of our gratitude for raising two children who grew into lives of their own outside our house. They’ve got copies of the housekey; they can let themselves in anytime they want. If they’re 200 miles and three to four hours away, depending on which mountain pass they take to get here, it’s important to remember that there are others who wish they had our problems. Their children could be deployed overseas with the military, or absent in other ways that don’t involve mere time and distance. 

Of course, as I must remind myself every day, there are all the single people out there. I was one of those for the longest while, until I was nearly 29. Even then, it took a few years before we could recover the holiday, and make it into something we should have known we’d miss later.

As we took our customary post-Thanksgiving dinner walk, I looked at the light gilding the trees and the houses of my new town, and was immediately reminded of Thanksgivings past.
For Monte Vista is a small, poor town, and can only afford to wish you one happy holiday at a time.

As with Halloween and Christmas, there comes a time when the holiday loses that special thrill it once had for you as a child. Being the morbid sort I am, I thought back to when that likely happened. Age 21, 1982. After that year, the elderly aunt and uncle whose farm we visited for dinner were too elderly to handle entertaining all of the families that gathered to visit. Most of the cousins weren’t coming up anymore, anyway, as they had girlfriends, and were taking dinner with them.

We had Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ condo after that, but it was never the same. The families never came together again. The elderly aunt died, my mom died, and that was it altogether for my immediate family. 
A sun dog I struggled to get a decent photo of.

One by one, the elders fell away. Memories of them still alive came vividly to me as I saw the late autumn light blaze its final glory over Thanksgiving 2016. It may have been 2016, the gosh-wow 21st century they never lived to see, but the timelessness of the light brought them all back. I could imagine them walking and talking, my step-grandfather stopping to wonder at the old churches and buildings in this old farm town, not terribly dissimilar in appearance and attitude from Hartsville, South Carolina, in the early 1970s.

Naturally, it occurred to me that my wife and I are now the elders on the fade.
Second Avenue facing east in Monte Vista, on the way to what we’re now calling home.

Well, that’s the least we deserve for not dying young. If our children are not here with us, it’s because they have jobs and significant others. They’re healthier, happier, and better adjusted than I ever was, spending Thanksgiving drinking alone throughout the remainder of my 20s, with no sense to do things any differently.

I watched the red streaking the sky just like it did as we drove home from Hartsville, South Carolina, in 1968, or 1973. Of course, it’s Monte Vista, Colorado, in 2016. And I’m thankful for another fine Thanksgiving.
Part of the reason for the walk is to make room for the pie when we get home.

POSTSCRIPT: The supposed madness of the Official Start to the Christmas Shopping Season was over the hills and far away from Monte Vista, so we were thankful for that. My wife spent Saturday playing search-and-destroy with the caulking gun on air leaks around the house, so I insisted on taking her out to eat at our favorite restaurant in town. Minutes after we arrived back home, my daughter drove up with a friend of hers from Colorado Springs. They had to drive back in the morning, but the night was spent with music playing, loud talk and laughter. We awoke to snow on Sunday, but my daughter and her friend were able to drive safely out.

My belly, heart, and now my weekend are full. For better or worse, come what may, Christmas 2016 is on. Here’s hoping your season is going well. We only get so many of these.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Winter Comes to Colorado

It normally comes a full month earlier. 

When I lived in Colorado Springs there were years I could run out the door to Frontier Park north of my house, and quite literally watch the season-changing front roll in. It’s dramatic like that here in Colorado. It doesn’t always snow, but once that fat gray bank of clouds fills the sky, that’s it. It’s cold, and that cold is here to stay until Memorial Day.

I don’t know the whys and wherefores of this late season and don’t much care, as it was a relief to have as much time as we did to get Big Pink ready for the famously harsh San Luis Valley winter. The clouds and wind blew in during the night, so I didn’t see the change when it came. The winds were strong enough to rock our century-old Victorian, though.

Then came the snow. It would blow in hard, then calm down. Then the wind would gust back up, and another snow squall would pass over us. As of Thursday, 17 November, Winter 2016/17 was on.

Like a lot of Colorado snowstorms, however, this weather event was fleeting. What was gray and white at 11 a.m. had cleared off by 1 p.m. At 2 p.m., everything in the yard had melted except what was in the shadows. Note the straight lines of the snow to the left of the garage. Even the patch to the left of the wheelbarrow was in the shadow when the sun came out. 

The snow melted off, but the cold has remained. Our days of highs in the 50s and 60s F are done, and long single-digit nights are in the immediate future. One thing I’ll say about the cold in the San Luis Valley, it lets you know exactly where the air leak is around your windows. We have some busy days ahead with the caulking gun.