New story: “Routed” (Creative Non-Fiction)

Routed

I often notice the people who ride the bus with me, just like I’m sure some of them notice me. Not everyone does. Some people fold in on themselves like an origami bird when they go out in public, seeing only their own devices, and out of habit, their stops. We all follow the code though: you keep to yourself. Don’t talk too loudly. Don’t take up more than one seat (two, if you have groceries, and the bus isn’t crowded). People who don’t respect the muffled quiet of the commute get away with it, of course, because when you follow the code, you’re not going to break it by speaking up, but we notice.

Halfway home from the store, the bus stopped for five minutes of scheduled break before the route number changed. If you’re going up the hill, there’s no point in getting off the bus and then back on, so the drivers let us sit until it’s time to go again. A man, with long greasy graying hair, wearing a dark grey sweatshirt, Cornell hat, aviator glasses, and jeans, plus a heavy-looking backpack, pulled the bike rack down from the front of the bus with a loud clank. He situated his bike, then boarded. Loudly, he asked, “Anyone got anything for sale?”

No one replied. Few looked at him. The bus was not crowded yet; we were waiting at Green St, in front of the library, for more passengers. Our driver was off getting a drink from the nearby coffee bar.

“Any chips?” the greasy man asked, voice still booming, as if the half dozen people sitting quietly on a standard-sized city bus might not be able to hear him. He sat down on a bench near the front, next a middle aged Latina wearing a red t-shirt and red plastic sunglasses, who scooted over a few inches, moving away from him as far as the seat would allow.

“I’m hungry,” he said, leaning toward her, by way of explanation. He wasn’t so loud this time, and he mumbled. She nodded as if understanding, with the half smile we women use to acknowledge people we wish would stop talking.

The man took off his backpack and set it on the floor with a tired thump. He scowled, looked around at the other passengers, and shook his head. We had failed him by not having food to share with or sell to him, and he would not forget it.

The bus driver got back on, and checked his machine to be certain the greasy man had paid the right fair. Satisfied, he let a few other people on, cheerful enough, though saying little more than everyday bus pleasantries. We gained a dozen Cornell kids as we rode up through Collegetown, where the scent of lunchtime restaurants landed in my nose and inspired my belly. The man said nothing, but his expression made it clear he’d noticed the same smells.

Our numbers diminished as we wound through campus, releasing students into the bright September afternoon one stop after another. The man stood for a moment as we passed the century-old Theta Delta Chi fraternity house, but sat down quickly again. He had perhaps two days worth of scruff on his computer, and his tanned face was sparsely but deeply lined. After the Thurston Hall stop, there were only six of us left on the bus, including him.

On holidays the bus takes a slightly different route than I’m used to. The change in route number is clear but I forget anyway, just enough that I wonder once or twice if we’re still going in the right direction. At Jessup, we lose the last student, and the red-shirt woman starts up a conversation with the young black girl across the aisle. She had purple hair and was going to the airport; the man leaned in, trying to grab a piece of the conversation, but neither women had any more to say, and he leaned back into his seat.

At the cemetery, the landscape became familiar to me again. I always know my relative distance from a graveyard.

The airport girl gets off at the pharmacy stop, which means she’ll have to wait an hour for the next bus if she wants to catch her flight, and I realize then that I may have misheard her. Who goes to the airport without luggage?

It’s not until we–my son and I–get off a few minutes later that the hungry man notices our grocery bags. We stepped off onto the warm asphalt as he opened a window and shouted,

“Hey, you have food!”

There are two cars idling behind the bus, and I’m surrounded on all sides by apartment buildings, but the bus isn’t moving.

“Ingredients,” I called back.

He shakes his head at me.

“Flour,” I said loudly as I raised the translucent bag containing 5 pounds of unbleached white. The noon sun beats down like a spotlight of discomfort. “It’s for baking.”

Whatever response he had was lost as the bus trundled forward, leaving us behind. The cars pass. A wispy cloud drifts in front of the sun. We head home, flip flops smacking against the new parking lot, to our little apartment, where no one has to notice us at all.


I wrote most of this as it happened on the bus today, and finished it when I got home. It is nearly entirely true, but it’s the way you tell a story that makes it creative, I’m told, though if you tell it well enough, it somehow diminishes the part that’s real. (Personally, I think the real parts are what make fiction work best.) As always, comments are appreciate. Thanks for reading!

Dear Writers: Let’s talk about the history of food (& November is Cake History Month!)

Food history is an interdisciplinary field that examines the history of food, and the cultural, economic, environmental, and sociological impacts of food. Food history is considered distinct from the more traditional field of culinary history, which focuses on the origin and recreation of specific recipes. – Wikipedia

As a sociocultural art historian and an avid foodie, food history fits neatly into the venn diagrams of several of my interests. It’s not just finding out which cultures ate what foods, and it’s more than a desire to recreate certain recipes. If you know how a society gets dinner on the table, you know whether they’re more hunting- or more agrarian-based. You know whose job it is to cook, and who isn’t allowed to. You know whether your chef has to spend hours a day focused entirely on feeding herself and her family, or whether food is so easy to get that some folks take it for granted. How involved is your cook in the growing process? Are some foods prepared in advance? Is there refrigeration and canning and chemical preservatives, or does everything need to be eaten shortly after acquiring it so it’s not wasted?

As a writer, knowing every step of the culinary process tells me who my characters are. As a reader, details (or the lack of them) about your culture/character’s food journey tell me whether you’ve done your research. This is especially important in “historical” stories (whether fantasy or alt-history lit) and science fiction that is set outside of our current culture or time. If you’re writing about the here and now, you can get away with not talking too much about food unless it impacts the story you’re telling; if you say your main character grabbed a quick bite at a drive-through on the way home, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what that means, how that food got to your character.

But if you’re writing about a time and place removed from what your reader knows intimately, the plausible creation of your character’s food journey is just as important as the politics, gender/sexuality, parenting, and education invented for your imagined culture. Food–and especially the lack of it–builds kingdoms, starts wars, elevates your citizens, or keeps them oppressed.

This probably matters most when you’ve based part of your world-building on existing times and places. If you set your story in ancient Mesopotamia, for example, say in the major city of Ur, you should know:

  • they wrote cook books, and had recipes for over 800 different foods, plus everyday access to maybe 1600 different foods in their markets and kitchens.
  • that women were the cooks at home but important chefs (temple chefs, royal cooks, the culinary artists employed by the richest members of society) were usually all men.
  • they grew wheat and barley, grapes and figs, olives, melons, apples, eggplants, beans, lettuces… they raised sheep, goats, and cattle.
  • they brewed beer, and also used fermentation to leaven breads and cakes; grapes were used to make both raisins and wine.

So your characters in this story, set circa 3000 B.C.E., either ate a diverse spread of foods on a daily basis, and were part of a rich food-making culture, or they were somehow outside of that, and their lives involved a substantial amount of awareness that they could be eating better. Just from knowing what their food potential was, you know all of that.

Same is true whether you set your story in a version of Revolutionary France, colonial South Africa, the Phillipines during WWII, or during the breakfast hour in northern Thailand, last week. Food is culture.

My birthday is at the end of November, so I’ll be dedicating this blog to the history of cakes all through that month. Cakes because it’s my birthday month! And I like cake. But more importantly, by choosing one type of food to start with, we can begin to talk about food history and everything that goes with it, in a focused way.

I’ve already started trying out recipes and writing posts. I’m going to start with a basic history of cakes (including definitions), then start off with a recipe for temple cakes of Ur. I’ll go through evolutions in wheat, leavening, and ovens, as we make our way through unleavened fruit cakes into beginning pastries, through politics and colonialism and the economic factors that influenced recipe design, into the advertising behind certain early 20th century cakes and the psychology of cake decorating in the 1950s, before ending up with a couple of posts on cake mixes and novelty cake molds. Each recipe post will have pictures and instructions, as well as my notes about the sociocultural importance of the featured cake.

My Patreon subscribers will gets advance notes and previews all through September and October, but everyone will be able to read these posts for free as they post each day in November. (Want to kick in for ingredients? My PayPal is here. Or, you can check out my Amazon list for basic cooking tools which would help me make all the things.)

I’m really excited to start this discussion with, to share my love of food and my academic studies with other writers and readers. Please feel free to ask any questions!

And thanks again for reading.

If you write near-future SF, you should care about “Design and Construction Week”

Every year I check out what’s new from Design and Construction Week, a home building expo that’s like the mid-20th century’s “House of the Future”, expos except the most of the exhibits focus on products made and used in houses now. A lot of the “luxury” items–same as with personal tech like cutting-edge phones and computers–are too expensive for the average person now but will be affordable in 5 or 10 years. The construction materials will be phased into building over the next 5-20 years, as people build new or renovate. So, if you’re writing a story set 10, 20, or 30 years into the future, the innovations that were featured in this year’s show will probably be “everyday” to the characters in your story.

It’s got two parts: International Building Materials, and Kitchen & Bath; if you missed it when the show was running, HGTV does a recap, and you can find individual exhibitors by doing a quick Google search. There’s YouTube videos, too. Plus, KBIS (the interior portion of the exhibition) has a gallery of recent products here.

Some new items I might use in future stories include:

FUTRUS Patient Room 2020 In Corian®

Dupont’s Corian series is taking durable/low maintenance countertops in new directions, literally. Their online gallery is here; be sure to check out their “commercial” looks for more inspiration, as well as the rest of their site. Things to keep in mind: Curving walls, seamless waterfall counters, built in cubbies and racks, wireless charging stations hidden under a surface that looks like marble, granite, or wood.

Virginia Tech’s FutureHAUS Bedroom and Home Office of the Future is all about smart tech and multi-use small spaces. It uses RFID tech to track your clothes, so you always know what’s available to wear, has movable walls to adapt your living space to varying needs, interactive surfaces to create a home office from nothing more than a hi-tech table… Things to keep in mind: your voice commands everything in the space, and all surfaces are available for work/entertainment uses (imagine a TV in the ceiling, the wall is a computer, the floor can weigh you).

LT-2D3D Laser Templator brings precise laser measuring to home construction, which means it’s one step closer to being affordable for a wide array of uses. Imagine every crime scene investigator could push a button and have an immediate, accurate, scan of each object (and body?) in a room. Criminals create instant scans of buildings they’re casing. Museums digitize not just exhibits but the placement of those exhibits within the museum space, so distant viewers can experience the entire scene just as local visitors would… Right now, this technology is too expensive for every day use, but some day soon, it won’t be.

(Click on the images to see larger versions.)

Are you 62+ and live in the US? Get a National Parks pass now!

Image courtesy of the Sacramento Bee.

Dear US friends age 62 and over: Do you already have a National Parks pass? If not, now’s the time to get one! It gives you access to 2,000+ national parks for the rest of your life. (The lifetime pass will not need to be renewed.)

August 28 2017, the price goes up to $80, but right now it’s still only $10 if you can get it onsite, or $20 if you do it online/by mail.

This is a list of all the sites, so you can see if there’s one close to you: https://store.usgs.gov/s…/default/files/PassIssuanceList.pdf

And here’s where to order it online: https://yourpassnow.com/Park…/…/senior/SeniorPassInfoCollect

The pass admits you and everyone in your car (or 3 other adults) so you can use it with your friends, grandkids, etc. This is one of those things where you might not use it right away, but it’s better to have and not spend another $70 later.

El Capitan in spring by Chris Migeon, via http://www.yosemite.com

Please tell your friends! Our National Parks are a tremendous resource, which our current administration is trying to dismantle and sell off to private companies. The more we use these parks, and show our support for public spaces, the better chance we have to protect at least some of them. I grew up near Yosemite, CA, and made some of my best memories there. I want everyone else to have that same opportunity.

Have you read my short fiction collection, WOMEN AND OTHER CONSTRUCTS? It’s free!

Published in 2013, Women and Other Constructs includes six previously published tales, plus two new ones, and–just for fun–a sonnet about a murderous robot. The “Introduction” talks about the broader themes behind the book, and “About the Stories” gives a quick look at what inspired each of them. I assembled the books myself: print layout, ebook creation, and designing the cover. It’s not long, just over 20,000 words, but it best represents my work to that point, and though I’ve evolved a bit as a writer since, I still love these pieces.

Table of Contents:

  • Introduction
  • “Mrs. Henderson’s Cemetery Dance”
  • “Letter From A Murderous Construct and His Robot Fish”
  • “Annabelle Tree”
  • “A Cage, Her Arms”
  • “Call Center Blues”
  • “Mitch’s Girl”
  • “All The Right Words”
  • “Monsters, Monsters, Everywhere”
  • “About the Mirror and its Pieces”
  • About the Stories

You can see what other folks thought at the Goodreads page for the book. (Liked it? Please leave me a review.)

Download a bundle of all 3 ebook formats, here, or individually: ePubMobi, or PDF. You’ll have to “check out” but there’s no charge, and no financial information required.