As happens occasionally, Mewhinney has gently prodded me to take a whack at the weekly Daily Post challenge, and welcoming any encouragement that I receive, I thought I might give it a whirl. Fiction is a funny thing for me, as I read very little of it. Most recently, I adored Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and I am excited for the third volume. This is an aberration for me. I am drawn to hulking non-fiction works, and I was just joking with a friend about how on my honeymoon I sat on the beach next to my lovely bride, she with a stack of crime novels, and I happily immersed in Holloway’s fascinating Stalin and the Bomb. When I was noodling around a few ideas for this (which is against the spirit of flash fiction, I guess), I realized another heavy dose of fiction in my life is Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, so I need to be careful about not letting any Minnesota Lutherans creep into what I write.

I have previously alluded to something I call, for lack of a better term, writer’s block. I have it in my mind that this blog be a place of constructive writing, and have tried to steer clear of rants and whining. Yet much of the material I start to write recently seems gravitationally drawn towards a negative slant which I do not like, so I have left  a lot of it to molder in various drafts I doubt will ever see the light of day. I am not going to delve into why this is, but it is part of why things have been so quiet around here. I wondered if flash fiction might not jump start things, but a few false starts suggested to me that the vapor lock remained in effect. Then I wondered if I might not trot out a modest homage, drawn from a favorite fiction indulgence. Permit me to turn to Spaceman Spiff, one of Bill Watterson’s great inspired creations in his Calvin & Hobbes works.

By the great Bill Watterson

Spaceman Spiff peered around the edge of the airlock. Reassured by the silence, he crept into the docking bay, noting the blast damage from the assault. Crossing the room quickly, he knew he must destroy the flagship before the aliens could learn anything from its systems, and that required removing the shielding from the reactor. He unfastened a service panel, lowered himself into the conduit that ran the length of the ship, and hurried aft. As he passed the belly turret mounts, his heart stopped when he saw two of the creatures examining the guns. As the closer beast started to call out, Spiff raised his laser, squeezed the trigger twice, and both lizards collapsed to the floor. Hurrying on, Spiff reached the engine room. Fishing a key out from around his neck, he slid it into a red circular fixture on the control panel and turned it three deliberate rotations until the lights on the panel began to pulse urgently. With five minutes until the release of the plasma core, Spiff raced back towards his shuttle craft. He neared the ladder under the docking bay, just as the ship lurched with the first small blasts from the crippled cooling system. Heaving himself onto the main deck, he spotted four aliens approaching. Two of them drew and fired as Spiff leapt across the corridor and rolled behind the cover of the hatch. Sprinting for the airlock, he slammed it shut and mashed down the emergency unmooring switch. The craft jetted away from the flagship, and Spiff could see explosions rippling across the engine housings. A blinding white flash engulfed Spiff, and for a moment all seemed lost. Debris rattled off of the hull as the shuttle accelerated away. He opened a channel to HQ and calmly reported “Mission complete.”

Fifty Words

Inspired by Mewhinney (and her artistic progeny), and triggered by this week’s Daily Post Challenge, submitted below is my modest lunch break effort at the curiously challenging task of writing a fifty-word story.

From Wikimedia

Treefrogs chirping above me, I skulk down the hill in the moonlight. My companion hisses in its cage, a possum extracted from my basement. Crouched on the riverbank, I release it. A moment’s hesitation, a final malevolent glare, and then the dignified scurry. The rustle recedes, followed by welcome solitude.

Better lucky than smart

Thalia

Years ago, I had the pleasure of having a group of friends with whom I took a wonderful writing class. At the time, we spoke about every aspect of writing we could think of, and given how personal a discipline writing is for so many writers, the class brought us together in powerful ways, forging a number of friendships I still lean on more than twenty years later. One aspect of writing we talked about was the age old idea of a muse. At the time, my writing took the form of history papers and newspaper articles, so I discounted the idea of a muse, as necessity served that role for me. Fast forward more than two decades, and I see the appeal of a muse far more vividly now. My writing these days tends to be emails, cover memos, and if I am lucky a few paragraphs that might finagle their unattributed way into the Congressional record, but none of it is at all personal, and very little of it is remotely compelling. It is a different kind of necessity, but necessity all the same that brings my fingers to the keyboard. Thus I was caught off guard when one of my dearest writing class friends (and a stellar writer in her own right) tagged me with a writing assignment today. I will leave it to deeper muse musers than myself to determine if my friend is in fact a muse herself or instead a proxy for one, but all of a sudden I find myself confronted by a Daily Post challenge to write about Valentine’s.

One approach to this topic would be simply to take stock of the awkwardness of middle and high school Valentine’s Days and shudder. I think of my senior year in high school, and the two Valentines I attempted to navigate, and there is even more to shudder over. Both of the objects of my affection then were ill chosen, and the fact that I decided the way to handle that was to juggle two – good grief. It will shock no one reading this to learn that that arrangement ended badly. Moving into the first year of college, I spent Valentine’s playing Tetris with my would be Valentine, as I could not fathom how to escape the dreaded friend zone (a term that did not exist then). Sophomore year I took leave of my senses and sent a dozen roses to a woman I barely knew, but rather than see any romance in this grand gesture, she fled in horror. Swing and a miss. Junior year I reveled in a happy Valentine, gloriously ignorant of the whitewater that lay ahead of me. I cannot begin to recall where in our on-again-off-again yo-yo of idiocy she and I found ourselves for Valentines a year later, and the year after that we were still mired in the same cage match relationship. My learning curve can be embarrassingly flat sometimes.

Sometimes though, there is truth to the saying “it’s better to be lucky than smart,” so permit me to wax rhapsodic about my sublime Valentine of nineteen years. A friend of mine had mentioned a new colleague of his to me, a pretty young teacher new in town. As they were both in my hometown, and I was living in D.C. at the time, I regret to say my first response was to suggest my friend ask her out. When I met her a few weeks later, she recalled immediately how we had met glancingly in college, as I had roomed with a high school beau of hers. Since it is bad form to pay attention to your roommate’s ex, I also regret to say I had not focused on her as I should have when we first met. It only took a brief conversation with her for me to pull my friend aside and take back my suggestion he ask her out. She and I saw each other several times over that fall and winter, but both of us were disentangling ourselves from prior long-distance connections, so those impediments and the more than a hundred miles between us complicated my sense of how best to proceed. Still, we exchanged letters and phone calls, and I found more reasons to spend weekends back in my old stomping grounds. I wish I could say that this led to a lovely, if unoriginal, first Valentine’s day spent idling over a candlelit dinner, proffering heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, and reading sonnets. Instead, the enduring memory of that day is a spectacularly expensive long-distance call (yes, I am that old) that meandered comfortably for many hours late into the night. cake cuttingWhile it was not even an exchange of sweet nothings, our talk ranged easily over a lot of conversational terrain, and it set the stage for our first proper date ten days later, a date that started our courtship that led to our engagement just nine months later. We have shared numerous lovely Valentine’s Days since then, but the unexpected pleasure of chatting late into the night (a worknight, no less) with a dazzling new friend will always stick with me, as it is a rare treat for Cupid to fire so many arrows in such a short span of time. I am sure my description does not do this justice, but you will simply have to take my word for it. Since then, I have been continually amazed at, and blessed by, her loving kindness, her deep well of patience, her tireless will, and a thoughtfulness that shines on me and my children every single day.

I know as I write that last part that she will not see herself in that list, which reminds of a wonderful song, which was itself passed on to me by a friend from the same writing class I mentioned at the start. (It is written and performed by David Wilcox, although it features an ending portion by Bach. If you do not know Wilcox, you will be glad you took the time to learn more about his music. Start with Eye of the Hurricane.) I think it is a fitting reminder of the power of love – and of a love affair – to grow, bind together, enrich, endure, tolerate, overcome, renew, and sustain.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/200107/01%20Burgundy%20Heart-Shaped%20Medallion.mp3]

So now, to answer the challenge posed by my muse, you have a sense of my Valentine’s story. Poor ol’ St. Valentine’s Day sometimes gets a bum rap, as it is lashed to the complicated topic of love. We should not be surprised a day devoted to romantic love is fraught and prone to failure. Figuring out romance is complicated, and ultimately requires actual love. My magnificent Valentine and I slog through a lot of unromantic moments these days, as three wonderful children and life’s various commitments do not offer many occasions for candlelit dinners, proffered chocolates, and sonnet reading. I certainly wish I was better able to offer her more Hallmark moments and less time spent chasing after our surly children and shoveling out the house. She deserves more moonlit garden strolls and impromptu weekends in Paris. Looking back over the range of Valentines I have experienced, as much as my toes curl in embarrassment over the dumb ways I spent so many Valentines years ago, I would not change a single one of them for fear of not ending up right where I am today. I wish for you the same conclusion to your Valentine’s story.

Happy 2014

I suppose I must start with the obligatory apology for the long pause since the last post. Life gets very full, and the run up to Thanksgiving, followed by Christmas and the many events that surround that, swallowed up the last two months.

If I were somehow smarter about just writing some funny, small snippet and posting that here, perhaps that would be better than the long pauses. Yet I find that mildly amusing, throwaway observations are so much better suited to chit-chat with my friends on Facebook and they do not seem to fit here.

I do have five or six draft posts I have been kicking around, and I plan to dust a few off and post them here going forward into the new year. I enjoyed the last few months of writing more frequently here, and a kind number of you have been very encouraging about asking for more, so I will try to serve up some more regular offerings. A number of other things are frustrating me mightily in the day-to-day, and I find it hard to set them aside and focus here. Some writers clearly turn to writing as an escape, as therapy, or as procrastination, but of late I have found it easier to write when other things seemed nailed down, and they just do not at the moment.

If anyone ever cared to offer any thematic suggestions, I have been known to take suggestions, so feel free to speak up.

Best wishes to you all for a healthy, safe, happy, and fulfilling 2014.

What twenty-five years can do

The way military capabilities are used today is remarkable. Last month the United States basically blew through the entire fixed air defense infrastructure of Libya with the vast majority of combat power being provided by a single submarine: USS Florida SSGN 728. If someone would have suggested to Ronald Reagan in 1986 that instead of a carrier air strike, “well [sic] defeat the vast majority of the Libyan defense infrastructure with a submarine,” that person would have been laughed out of the room and called a clown. And yet, that was only 25 years ago.
via Information Dissemination: Observing Modern MSO Squadron Operations.

Grumman F9F Panther, in Lego



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Originally uploaded by John Lamarck

Arguably as detailed as any Lego model I’ve seen. The accurate jet engine and the squadron markings make this perfect.

Moynihan Station receives $83 million grant

Despite my recent slow blogging, I cannot ignore a big development in the New York Penn Station/Farley Post Office/Moynihan Station morass, which has been a recurring topic here at Quod Ero Spero. Past posts on this topic have highlighted Amtrak’s amnesia over its involvement in the project (and its rejection of it under David Gunn), linked to the Municipal Arts Society’s (apparently formant) site advocating for Moynihan Station, examined the whereabouts of the old station’s original stone eagles, looked at the lobbying budgets of the developers associated with the effort, noted a refutation of the idea that the death of the original Penn Station gave birth to modern preservation efforts, presented an overview of the then-current efforts to develop the Farley Post Office, lamented the delays and cost-increases imposed by New York’s political inability to execute this project, noted Sen. Schumer’s desire to shakedown Amtrak for $100 million, remarked on Amtrak’s oddly pivotal role in this whole mess, been amused by the unspeakable nature of the Farley effort, compared the inept, 16+ year public effort to build a station with the original, successful six-year private effort by the Pennsylvania Railroad, contrasted the Farley effort with NJT’s own troubled-yet-nonetheless-advancing effort to build a new tunnel under the Hudson, terminating in a deep, controversial, commuter-only station, and discussed the all-New York cabal behind Amtrak’s decision to rejoin the project in September 2009.

I provide the above summary to ensure that you, gentle reader, come to this week’s announcement with a full sense of the last few years’ developments as they relate to the Farley/Moynihan effort.

On Tuesday this week, New York Senator Chuck Schumer announced that the Moynihan Station project had received $83 million in grant money from Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER). Grrr. Further news emerged from the Friends of Moynihan Station group, run by the late Sen. Moynihan’s daughter, which explained what the grant covered: building two new entrances to Penn Station’s platforms from West of Eighth Avenue through the corners of the Farley Building; doubling the length and width of the West End Concourse; providing 13 new “vertical access points” (escalators, elevators and stairs) to the platforms; doubling the width of the 33rd Street Connector between Penn Station and the West End Concourse; and other critical infrastructure improvements including platform ventilation and catenary work.

In comments quoted in the New York Times, Sen. Schumer went further: “The money is there for phase one, and every major hurdle has been cleared. This was the last step, not the first step.”

Really, Chuck? This project has been percolating since 1994, has seen its scope go from roughly $450 million to $1.5 billion, and you believe that a grant that amounts to approximately 5% is the last step? The New York Department of Transportation has pledged $14 million to the project, and apparently the Port Authority has committed to some as well. There’s still going to be a lot of passing the hat ahead of them for these agencies to get from well under $200 million to the full $1,500 million for which they are aiming.

Still, Wednesday saw Governor Patterson charging the Empire State Development Corporation with managing the project, and heralding a signed memorandum of understanding with Amtrak president Joseph Boardman. Just what Amtrak and the state of New York understand was not clear from the Governor’s statement, but it seems to cover cooperation with the construction involved in Phase I.

I should not let my skepticism confuse the fundamental issue here, which is that I think this is a good project that should proceed. I just marvel at the pace, cost, and political nature of this effort. Yes, how could it be otherwise in the heart of New York city – I know. Yet doesn’t it take more nerve than you thought anyone actually had for Schumer to look at this tiny down payment and declare it the “last step?”

Here’s hoping he’s not just arrogant, but prescient, as well.