Random thoughts on a crummy February afternoon.
When you become a writer, and you start writing things, they come true.
You say, "I just thought of a phlegm-based species of aliens who are mistaken for snot and wiped off the nose of the President of the United States and killed in the presidential autoclave. This isn't going to happen, owl boy."
I reply with two things:
The world is stranger than it seems.
When I met Bill, he had already written thirteen books that had been published. Most of them were natural history sorts of books. Books about the desert. A couple of them were books of poetry. Books that had something like twenty words each on otherwise blank pages.
I never asked Bill about the poetry. I think he'd say that it was quality over quantity, without the slightest hint of disdain for my ignorance. He's written lots of quality poems about the desert, which is where he spent a lot of his life.
He rarely shows disdain for anything.
Bill Fox stands about six feet tall. Probably weighs in around one ninety. Has a bright, contageous smile. Walks with in an assured gait, his toes splayed outward slightly as if he's spent a lot of time on horses. I have more gray hair than he does, even though he's older than me by about seven years.
Before he became a writer, he was a stunt man in Hollywood. (He's been killed by a couple of James Bonds.) Before that, he was a mountain climber, which didn't pay as well.
He likes Grey Goose martinis. If you're out to get drunk and morose with a professional writer, I can't think of anyone better than Bill.
Before I left McMurdo on my first trip to Antarctica, I sat with Bill in Gallager's and swilled beers while he tippled a couple martinis. He gave me a reading list.
Somewhere in there we were talking about women and sex and all the stuff drunken Antarctican males are liable to talk about before they come back to the real world and can't speak with any degree of specificity lest they violate the cardinal rule of travel misbehavior: "What happens on the blah, stays on the blah." Sailors have their version. Substitute the word "ship" or "tour" for "blah". Soldiers have theirs. International businessmen have theirs. Vegas gamblers. Horse traders.
No different for Antarcticans.
He was explaining the mechanics of connubial relations in the field, which had I been versed in two days earlier, would have netted me a check in the box next to the term "marital infidelity in life threatening situations" on my list of "Things that COULD happen before I die that I may never get away with."
Truth was, having never been camping in my life before Antarctic survival school, I simply didn't comprehend that modern extreme-weather sleeping bags were constructed so that they could be zipped to other sleeping bags, doubling their size irrespective of whether or not they might contain other people, the theory having something to do with preservation of heat, which was where a newly made female friend of mine was going with the discussion after everyone else had trundled off to their tents for the evening, "friend" being an interesting word in this context.
I think I told Bill, "You're kidding," and blushed, both for the embarrassment of now understanding the reputation I had unexpectedly earned on the ice of being a "saint" (everyone talks about everything down there, and only a saint would have turned down Tina the physician-cum-bio-technician, which over the course of the entire 2001 season, only this saint did, and unknowingly at that) and for the late-breaking realization that my geographic adventure had been wrought with as much potential for carnal misbehavior as attending Ron Jeremy's bachelor party.
Somehow I'd missed all of that and I was feeling about as inexperienced and rube-ish as one could be made to feel when he pulled out his notebook, scribbled on a page, then tore it off and handed it to me.
On it was written:
I folded the paper and put it in my wallet.
Bill said, "The stuff you've written in your log may be some of the most important stuff anyone's written about the modern Antarctic program. Read these books. Then write more."
After we both came home from the ice, I met Bill a couple times. riverrun and I went to the Getty museum in L.A. and met Bill there. Bill was working through his Getty fellowship, and had just been awarded a Guggenheim. He was pretty much set for money for a while. There were at least two more of his books coming out, one about Antarctica.
Once, I drove with Bill to San Diego to meet some mutual friends. I was not generally a reader of novels, which he knew. But by then I'd read the books on Bill's list, if only because I was unemployed at the time and there was little else for me to do.
"How the hell do I make myself write like that?" I said to Bill as we sped down the highway between L.A. and San Diego. "That Mark Helprin. That Winter's Tale. It has to be the best book I've ever read in my life. I don't think I'll ever write anything again." I was lost in the Moliere-ish self-pity all attempted artists feel in the shadow of the masters. Every time I hear Billy Joel or Rick Wakeman play piano, I swear off keyboards for another lifetime and curse the day I tried to play.
I knew I could not, and would never write as well as a guy who invents a culture of pirates who live in Bayonne, horses that fly and bridges made of rainbows--the love of your life fording frozen rivers and climbing sky-scraping pressure ridges to get back to you while you try to remember the color of her eyes, and then scream to no one from your bed in the nothing of night, filling the blackness with the fuel of your desire--"Blue, blue her eyes were blue."
"I can't write that stuff, Bill."
"Do you realize you started your last three sentences with the same pronoun?" Bill said, or something like that.
Bill was awarded his Guggenheim fellowship and got a spot on a NASA team trying out martian stuff up on Devon Island in the arctic. Apparently, the arctic is just like Mars except for the air and the temperature and the polar bears and the liquid water and the air chemistry and the satellite TV and the GPS'es and Iridium telephones.
There were also big differences between the arctic and antarctic programs. Big differences between the way NASA ran its projects and the NSF ran theirs. For instance, Antarctica doesn't belong to anybody and the bars there are run by the US federal government, and Devon Island belongs to Canada. As far as I know, Devon Island is strictly BYOB.
He was writing books about all of it. I was unemployed, but destined to become employed again in the Silicon Valley money printing machine. I'd a taste of the life that would net me adventures and the opportunity to write about them. But Bill's kids were already grown up, and lacking Mark Helprin's talent, the chances were small of my making enough money to send my kids to a community college, much less a university.
Bill raised his eyebrows, or did the verbal equivalent from behind the wheel of the car. "You gotta decide what you want to do in life. Then do it." Which sounded reasonably obvious to me. If I wanted to be a writer, I would have to do it, rather than think about it.
"Have you thought about what you want to write about?" he asked me.
"I was thinking something like a sort of psychic adventure. You know? Kind of like National Geographic meets The X-Files." After a moderately long silence I added, "It would be fiction."
"Of course," Bill replied, now breathing. Guys who write about science for the National Science Foundation have to be careful. Dabbling in parapsychology is frowned upon as the first steps toward one's demise in the throes of an incurable psychosis.
"I'm putting together an anthology of Antarctic writing. Maybe you want to contribute?" he said.
I told him I did, and I would.
The book list is still in my wallet.
Back in the old days I met a writer named Diana Gabaldon who had just sold her first novel. She was an ecologist from Arizona. She helped me with a lot of story ideas, and I helped her negotiate her second book contract, giving her advice via e-mail.
One day when I was doing that, I pulled into a parking spot at work and a Porsche pulled into the space in front of me. Unlike most Porsches I've seen in California, this one had a front license plate. The plate said DIANA.
That day, when I was talking to Diana via e-mail or an early form of chat that existed on Compuserve, I mentioned the Porsche and the plate.
She said, "Oh, that's interesting. I just started writing a police procedural and I cast you as a smarmy Porsche salesman."
"You think I'm smarmy?" I said, as dejectedly as I could via text messaging.
"It's just your name," she replied. "It's perfect."
I'd never actually read any of Diana's books. They had flowery covers and pictures of women in flowing chiffon gowns swooning in the arms of large-chested men with shoulder-length hair. They weren't something I could be seen reading, but I knew her well enough I felt I owed it to her to understand what she was writing about.
I ripped the cover off Outlander and brought it with me on a trip to Grenoble, France. I got to the part about the oral sex sitting in one of the airport cafes, sipping an espresso. It was one of the single most libidinous things I'd ever read. Sheer genius.
It involved teeth. Teeth are usually left out of the whole oral sex equation, for what most people would consider good reasons. What the hell made her think of that?
She told me it was something she'd dreamed up with an old boyfriend back in her college days. It hadn't been real popular with anyone other than him. Even her husband.
I mentioned I'd never experienced it, feeling a bizarre electronic sense of intimacy I couldn't explain. Writers talk about these things, apparently.
When I got home from the trip, without any prompting, I managed to experience the teeth sex situation. What went through my head was two things:
- Thing 1: This is really weird, I was just talking to Diana about this, having read about it in her book
- Thing 2: This pretty much sucks. How do I get it to stop?
And so on. By now Diana has sold five or six New York Times bestseller list novels about a sci fi-ish Scottish historical romance, and I'm still talking to writers about books. Last time I conversed with her electronically she said she was getting tired of writing these "Jamie" books, but nobody seemed to want to read anything else from her. The police procedural went nowhere.
I recently sent a note to her agent. She'd introduced me to him years ago. As my agent is now dead, I thought it might be possible to induce him to pick me up as a client.
Turns out, he's not dead, but nearly so.
Kurt Vonnegut would say, "So it goes." But I'm not him.
When Bill got the story I wrote for his anthology of Antarctic writing, he asked me to rewrite it. It was a story about ice love.
Antarcticans are not known for their ability to form any sort of long-lasting relationship. They're generally unmarried or divorced or nearly so. They have lots of painful adventures in their histories. They seem to dissolve if they stay in any one place too long. Sort of like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle for human beings. The more you try to pin one down, the faster they move.
My story was about a couple at the point of breaking past the relationship barrier. And just when you think they're going to do the obvious, split for good, the guy goes off and writes the girl's name in the side of Mt. Erebus by scouring a big track with a snow machine. It gets him kicked out of the program. He waits for her in New Zealand. When she deploys north and they meet, they realize they're each the true love the other has waited for. But the Heisenberg principle of humans is stronger than they can bear. They get on different planes at Christchurch airport, and never see each other again.
The end. I never rewrote it even though I told Bill I would.
I don't know what happened to the anthology. Maybe it's published.
The first time I saw a ghost I thought it was smoke from somebody's cigar. The air was full of that sharply aeromatic smell of burning leaves, and a puff of luminescent smoke drifted from one room to another in the old English hotel.
"Did you see that?" someone said.
We four were sitting at a table in the lounge, sipping at snifters of Gran Marnier, watching a log burn in the fireplace. It had been a long day of work. We'd been with a customer since eight in the morning. It was midnight. I still had my tie on.
I said, "What?"
"That was a ghost," Linda said.
"That was smoke," I said.
"No one's smoking."
"Sure they are. I smell it."
The innkeeper walked past. He smiled and picked up the empties. "Did someone see old George?"
"Old George?" Charlie asked.
"Our resident spook. He's harmless, though you may find your shoes hanging from the coat rack in the morning."
We all smiled at each other, knowing full well there was no such thing as ghosts. Especially on business trips, which were all business no folklore.
The next morning, after sleeping well, we departed the inn and flew home to the United States.
Some ten years later, Linda and I were having lunch at a bistro near my office and she confessed she'd waken up that morning and found her street shoes hanging on the coat rack in the corner of the room. It'd scared the daylights out of her.
"So what am I supposed to believe?" she said to me. "Either that bastard hotel manager came into my room while I was sleeping and put my shoes there, or a ghost did it."
"Pretty creepy either way," I said.
"Pretty creepy, is right."
"Unless one of you guys did it."
Wasn't me. I'd got up that morning and found my sneakers on the pillow next to me.
"I always figured it was you guys and didn't want to give you the satisfaction of saying, 'got ya.'"
Her eyes as wide as saucers, Linda said, "Ooooh. Creepy."
These people I know are having trouble conceiving children. They've been trying for fifteen years. This is their last hurrah. They're trying invitro fertilization to the tune of $25,000 US a throw. This is their third attempt.
They're as nearly mentally bankrupt as they are fiscally at this point. The stress has driven them to illogical behavior. They live like hermits. What once was a vivacious couple, is now an unfortunate pairing of desperate humanity.
My publisher--and I use the term loosely because even though I'm under contract and have produced a book, I have zero confidence in the possibility of its publication--sent me the e-mail address of a person who does miracles. For free. Send in your picture, get a miracle.
He knew I had circulatory problems and was on medication for cholesterol and high blood pressure so he suggested I contact the miracle worker.
Something felt inherently wrong about that. If this person could work miracles, wouldn't it be somewhat immoral for a person to ask for miracles for himself, especially when there were people out there in a lot more trouble than me. At worst, my heart will stop and I'll die rather uneventfully. At best, I've got a lot more years. Either way, if there were miracles to be had, I felt I should get them for the other people I know before dipping into the miraculous cookie jar myself.
The miracle worker said she'd never dealt with infertility before. Mostly, she was curing people of cancer and other fatal diseases. But she'd give it a try.
Yesterday I got an e-mail from one of the infertile couple. They'd gone for routine test for what will be their IVF procedure, irrespective of success.
The past two times they've got to this point, the important numbers the docs were measuring were 192, and 12, and I can't remember what they mean. In normal people, those numbers would be 1200 and 15.
Yesterday, for reasons no one can fathom, the woman's numbers were 1500 and 18. It's as if her entire reproductive system has been kicked into normalcy after some 20+ years of atrophy. It's as if she was never infertile. The doctors are not "astounded", but they've expressed some surprise. These results are not typical, and they have no idea if the good situation will hold.
Surprised and cautious, is what they are.
I have not told the couple about the miracle worker, who says they will have twins, a boy and a girl. She says she has met the girl spirit, who is waiting for conception to descend into the flesh. She has not met the boy yet, because he's deciding if he wants to be born or not.
Kurt Vonnegut would say, "So it goes." But I'm not him.
I have written a book about Antarctica. It's about a couple who are soul mates. Like true soul mates, they're inexplicably drawn to each other, but the more they're together, the more they inexplicably hurt each other. And so they part.
In their lives they meet and separate three times, until the final meeting that takes place in Antarctica.
Down there they meet a group of people who are all sharing dreams. Of course, the National Science Foundation looks down upon dream sharing, and so it's never spoken of in public.
So these people meet in secrecy and try to decode the common dream they're all having. One of the group is a metal worker. He fashions a peculiar medallion out of scrap metal, and gives one to each of the dream sharers, who wear the medallion on a string around their necks.
Before I wrote the book, I'd never seen anyone wearing any sort of funky metal medallion.
This last season, there were a whole bunch of people wearing a similar medallion. You could see it when they were indoors minus their big red parkas.
I asked one what the medallion meant. She said what one of my characters would have said, "Oh, it's just something one of the heavy shop guys dreamed up for MAAG," MAAG being the annual art show & exhibition held at McMurdo every year.
I didn't ask her about the dreams.