Warm Hands, Cold Beer

Microbrews got popular, then overdone, then commonplace. Jimmy never tried one, even though they'd have to be better than the Bud on tap. Thing was, though, he knew he could manage a mug of draft by slipping his hooks through the handle.

The microbrews came in a bottle, and Vic served them in tall, straight glasses. Jimmy had tried at home, but he couldn't manage to lift and pour from a bottle. After too god-damned many years of practice, he was about as good with the hooks as he was going to get. He could dress himself, shave, and keep himself clean. Beyond that, he had to live within his limitations.

Ask Vic to pour his beer for him? Jimmy may not have had any hands, but he still had self-respect. So, he drank what was on tap - Bud and sometimes Guinness. He cast sidelong looks at the bottled beers Vic set in front of the other patrons. Beers with strange names like Sierra Nevada Porter, Blue Moon Belgian Ale, Fat Tire Lager.

The bar had a signboard with a dozen different beers on it, crazy sounding stuff that Vic played around with. He'd started it during the height of the microbrew bubble, kept it up when it paid its way. Smart guy, Vic; he wasn't afraid to take an angle if it wouldn't piss off his regulars. He'd get in eight or a dozen cases of something, and if it sold OK, he'd bring it back.

Mackeson's Triple Extra Stout, Burning River Pale Ale, Crocodile Village Wheat.

Jimmy read the names, examined the labels on the display bottles, then moved over to the bar so he could sit and drink his draft beer. There were times, usually in the small hours of the morning but sometimes sitting at the bar, when Jimmy sort of wished he'd been killed instead of just maimed in that attack. Vic always gave him a free one on Veteran's Day, a twenty ouncer of his "favorite", Budweiser. He pictured getting a Memorial Day tribute instead, somebody lifting a glass in his memory. It would be something dark and exotic with thick foam, something with some weird kind of flavor that shouldn't taste right in a beer, but does.

He sat on his stool, knowing that Vic would have seen him coming, and have his Bud waiting for him. Instead, Vic's new bartender, Alicia, set a regular beer mug in front of him, opened a bottle and poured out a golden brown beer.

"Hiya, Jimmy. I'll get your usual for you in just a second, but could you do me a favor? Could you taste this, on the house? Vic says it tastes like Bud, only better. I think it doesn't taste anything at all like Bud. You're our resident expert on Budweiser, so what do you think?"

For a long time, Jimmy looked at the foaming mug, at the empty bottle - Third Coast Golden Lager. Her hand was flat on the bar, her fingernails trimmed short and painted a reddish shade of brown. He reached for the beer. His grip on the handle was firm; hooks don't shake.

He set his lips to the thick, aromatic foam, and sipped, then drank quickly and deeply, as though someone were going to take it away from him. He set the empty mug down and let the flavor of the beer roll around his mouth. Amazingly, it also had an aroma that was practically a flavor all by itself.

"So?" she said. "How was it?"

In her eyes was understanding. She knew. However it was that she knew, she did.

"It didn't taste at all like Bud," Jimmy said. His voice was more choked than he thought possible.

She smiled and put some paper napkins in front of him, in thick stack, easy to grip.

"You've got some foam on you, Jimmy. These micros leave a mustache." She turned her back to fuss with something behind the bar, giving him a chance to do something about the tears that had started up.

After a moment, she turned back and said, "We've got a bunch of different ones, in case you ever wanted to give another one a try. They taste just as good in a regular mug as in one of Vic's fancy pub glasses."

Jimmy sat for a moment, then said, "Sure. Give me something good. Surprise me."

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Working on a Saturday

The problem with doing lots of yard work on Saturdays is that it gives you way, way, WAY too much time to think of all the reasons why you will never succeed as a writer, even if you set the bar for success really low.

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#FridayFlash: Problems with the T.P.S report

"You wanted to see me, Mr. Ahern?"

"Yes, sit down, Wallace."

"Thank you, sir."

"I'll come right to the point, Wallace. Less than an hour ago, the Regional Director sent your team prospectus to me for my opinion."

"But I only just... I mean, he sent it to you? For your... opinion?"

"Tell me, Wallace, what is this?"

"It's our team prospectus, sir. A near-complete draft, which I fully intended -"

"And what, may I ask, is a 'near-complete' draft? Is it finished or isn't it?"

"Well, sir, the essentials of the plan are in place, but some of the specific details could be tweaked slightly so as to -"


"Um... sir?"

"The final version of the prospectus for your team was due by close of business yesterday."

"Yes sir."

"But you didn't turn this in until this morning at 7:00, correct?"

"Ah... no. No sir. We didn't make yesterday's deadline. I delivered this draft a couple of hours ago, in time for the Regional Director to see it this morning."

"You say 'we'. It was to have been written by your Project Leader, David Jakes, with input from the rest of the team."

"Yes sir. That's how it's supposed to work, sir."

"But in fact, you wrote this, didn't you. Your Project Leader assigned the job to you?"

"Um... he asked me not to say anything about that, sir."

"And did he suggest some form of compensation for you quietly doing his job for him?"

"Sir, I -"

"A bigger office? A raise? A promotion, perhaps? Even though none of that is within his power to grant?"

"Sir, I just wanted to... well..."

"I know, Wallace. You just wanted get ahead by doing the job properly. Tell me, did Mr. Jakes review this document before you submitted it?"

"Yes sir. I sent it to him when I finished it at 4:30 this morning. He said he'd be up waiting for it."

"At 4:30? You mean you pulled an all-nighter to finish this?"

"Mr. Jakes didn't give me the assignment until last Thursday. I've been working night and day for a week to get this done. As it is, I only just missed the deadline."

"Writing these prospectuses typically takes two months. Are you telling me you put this document together in a week?

"Yes sir. I did."

"Did you review it before you sent it to Mr. Jakes?"

"Um... yes. I mean, yes, I did, but I'll admit I may not have had the freshest eyes to read it with. It's a big document and I was a little punchy before I sent it to him."

"And did he review it?"

"He responded by e.mail at 6:45 to say that he'd read it and that it looked fine. He told me he'd be in a little late this morning, so I was to print off a clean copy for the Regional Director. And... that I should sign his name on it."

"Which you did not. The signature line for the Project Leader is left blank."

"Yes sir. I... didn't think I should... I mean, this is a formal prospectus, and I..."

"I see. Wallace, when the Regional Director came in this morning, his secretary handed this to him. As it was separate from the other prospectuses, she thought that it had been set apart for special attention. Here, take it. Bearing in mind that you wrote it and Mr. Jakes approved it, ostensibly after reviewing it, I'd like you to turn to page 87. That's Question 6, Part 4, dealing with human resources and project management. Take a moment and look it over. You don't need to read it aloud, but just re-read it."
4a. Describe the human resources available for the project. [FIX ALL THIS LATER BEFORE GIVE IT TO JAKES]

Human resources: The project consists of six team members: Mr. Cynical Burnout (Project Leader), Mr. Ambitious Unappreciated, Ms. Lazy Dumbass, Mr. Retired-In-Place, Ms. Fresh From University and Dr. Arrogant Primadonna. The project also serves as a vacation youth hostel for a rotating staff of useless interns, including (at the time of writing) Ms. History Major, Ms. English Major and Mr. XBox-360 Major.

4b. Describe the overall management approach.

Management: The project will rely on the 5-S management system: Sit down, Shut up, and Stay on task or I'll kick your aSS. The collaborative nature of this system serves to leverage the skills and abilities of Mr. Unappreciated to cover the deficiencies of the other team members. To facilitate efficient information sharing and increase productivity, staff meetings will be held monthly, semi-monthly or never.

4c. Provide a basis for demonstrating how the project team functions and makes decisions.

Decision making: Decisions will be made in secret by the Project Leader, who will then putatively empower the other members of the team by giving them a chance to express meaningless opinions and get into futile arguments. Courses of action which further the goals of the Project and which foster a spirit of collaborative effort will be mutually decided upon. The Project Leader will then do whatever will best serve his immediate and/or long-term career goals.

4d. Describe the evaluation plan to track outcomes.

Evaluation: The progress of the project will be monitored and evaluated primarily by wiretapping and eavesdropping. This will include IT-based evaluation tools, such as hard-drive mirroring, keystroke snooping and interception of e.mail. Where this is not possible due to electronic countermeasures and/or restraining orders, The Project Leader will use Project funds for bribes and payoffs for informants. These expenditures will be leveraged, as these informants will also serve a strategic role as targeted rumor-mongers. As per standard practice, the annual reports will be prepared by Mr. Unappreciated. The Project Leader will then edit them into the usual tissues of self-aggrandizing lies, relying on misdirection and innuendo to obfuscate the lack of activity from the other members of the team.
"Did you write that, Wallace?"

"Ah, sir, this was, ah, obviously intended as a placeholder text until I could revise it. Which, it would appear, I, ah... failed to do."

"Wallace, I'm not going to ask you if this is an accurate picture of how you see your project functioning. What I am going to do is ask you to come with me."

"Sir? Right now?"

"Yes, Wallace, right now."

"But can't I... I mean, can I have a few minutes to go clear out my desk?"

"Clear out your desk?"

"Yes sir. I mean... aren't you going to...?"

"Fire you for being such a god-damned idiot? No, Wallace. We're going upstairs. After reading your little report, the Regional Director wants to get your frank assessment of your project. We've been trying to get rid of David Jakes for a while; his instructing you to write the report is almost enough by itself, but directing you to sign it for him will tip the balance."

"Sir, I never meant -"

"I know you didn't. Just tell the truth about what happened. A bit of warning though, Wallace. When he hears that you wrote this in a week, I imagine he'll make you the new Project Leader so you can clean house and manage your bunch of misfits while you implement this prospectus."

"I... I..."

"Good luck, Wallace. You're going to need it."

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How to quit

Interesting blog post from TMF Project on quitting:
If something doesn’t make sense for us, then retreating once we’ve started isn’t a sign of flightiness, unreliability or commitment phobia; it’s a sign of wisdom.
It's a thought provoking post. Go check it out.

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Just Enough Power - 9

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Simon assumed the room was bugged, possibly under micro-cam surveillance as well. His anger was mounting, but he kept his breathing steady, making the sounds of a sleeping man. Under the coverlet, he gripped the phone that Shiowshu Chen had slipped into his lunch, considering what to do with it. No, that wasn't really true. He already knew what he was going to do; it was just a question of taking that step. Once he turned it on and sent a message to Lonnigan, he'd be placing himself in someone else's power, that much was certain. What was entirely uncertain was the nature of the bargain he was about to strike. The more he thought about his situation, the way he was being led around and the straws he had to clutch at, the more furious he became.

Dreams are the stepchildren of desire, Simon thought. Lying awake in the darkness of his room, he forgot where he'd first heard that phrase. Deep sleep was the product of serenity and a clear conscience.

No small part of his anger was directed at himself for his hesitation in the face of a decision. Things had been so stable in recent decades that he always got what he wanted without taking real risks. A risk-free life meant a life without fear or desires, and therefore without dreams. Since his imprisonment by Meng-Shiu, he'd been forced to realize that he'd grown soft, so pitifully soft and weak that it disgusted him. As a young man, he'd dreamed every night. His unconscious hours were full of images of power and dominion over his enemies, over his friends, over women of every color and shape - the usual simple stuff of fiery youth. Those dreams were a delight, a goad to his waking efforts.

Later, as his aspirations grew more complicated, he understood his dreams less and less, and came to resent them. Simon never doubted that his dreams were oracular, and that they contained the truths he needed to succeed. It was the confusion of them that was such an affront. He was long past forty before he came to appreciate the subtleties of reading the entrails of his own mind. It allowed him to develop his skill at seeing the hidden machinery in other men and their actions. There was no small measure of irony that he was far better at achieving the dreams of his youth once he embraced the dreams of his middle age.

After he turned eighty, when he finally knew what he wanted and how to get it, he essentially stopped dreaming. Decades went by, complacent, orderly years where he would sleep out his night hours, peaceful and uninterrupted. He'd managed to convince himself that dreams were for the young, and that he, at long last, had finally become just another old man. How could he have been so blind? Why didn't he see that his empty, blank nights were as much a message as the others?

He held the illicit cell phone and thought of the two years since Meng-Shiu took over as head of the Organization.

Just another old man? Nonsense. If he'd been more honest with himself, the truth of the situation would have been more apparent, if no more palatable. When Qing-Mei died, Simon could have seized power, but he'd spent too many years as an adviser, a lieutenant. It was the perfect role for his talents and temperament. Faced with the chance to step out of the shadows and command, his own detailed self-knowledge told him he wasn't the man to lead the Organization. Meng-Shiu had been energetic and ruthless enough to step in and consolidate control, but had been unwilling to let Simon help him run things. After just a few months, it was obvious that the Mouse was the wrong person for the job.

It took a punch to the face and a week of shitty food for him to figure out who the right person was. Simon turned on his side and brought the cell phone up so he could see the blank screen as his head rested on the pillow.

All the formal training he and Qing-Mei had given Lonnigan had been to mold her into a weapon. Even after it was obvious that she was capable of so much more, he'd allowed himself to be blinded by his prejudices and assumptions. Stupid old fool, he thought. Instead of prepping Lonnigan simply as a killer, and then as a means for his escape, he should have been prepping her to take over. All the discussions of strategy and tactics that she'd sat in on, quietly observing and asking those tricky questions of hers. She knew as much about how to run an Organization as any three of the other members of the inner circle; why hadn't he thought of this sooner?

Because she's a woman, he told himself, and you are just as much an idiot as Meng-Shiu. You're just more polite about it.

Fine, it was a mistake. Now what? They hadn't captured her, and she hadn't come in on her own, either hot or cold. She had to be planning something. It was unlikely that she'd just walked away, not with the bulk of her retirement money wrapped up in Organization accounts. Gone freelance? Eventually, but if he knew Lonnigan, she was getting ready to come in here to tear the place apart in a rescue attempt, and probably so she could kill Meng-Shiu as well. Killing the little shit was fine with Simon, but did Lonnigan see the alternative to destroying everything? Could he make her see it before she set her plans in motion, whatever they were? But how? None of the message codes he'd set up with her covered this kind of complexity.

The phone was certainly tapped; voice and datastream were compromised. As soon as he turned it on, they'd be tracking him. Still, whatever he was going to do, he had to do it soon. She could be on her way even now, he thought.

Like as in a dream, the solution came to him. He smiled to himself and turned the phone on. When it established a connection with the network, he logged onto one of his dummy e.mail accounts. With his teeth bared in the darkness, he started composing his message.

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Happy Anniversary, #FridayFlash

It's the one year anniversary of #FridayFlash, the weekly posting of flash fiction organized by Jon Strother. In honor of this, Jon undertook the huge task of finding all of the debut stories for the year and compiling them here over on his blog, Mad Utopia.

I blogged recently about what #FridayFlash has meant for me as a writer. My first #FridayFlash story was "Nearer Comes The Moon", but the first story I listed in Jon's collector was actually my third story, "The Death of Lee Harvey Oswald".

It's a blast to go back in time and take a fresh look at some of these stories.

Thanks, Jon, and Happy Anniversary!

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The Empire Strikes Back - 24 years later

The second film in the original Star Wars trilogy - The Empire Strikes Back - was released 30 years ago this week. The first time I saw it was 24 years ago, on my girlfriend's VCR.

I'd seen the original Star Wars (none of your A New Hope crap, please... the movie's name was Star Wars) and the third episode, Return of the Jedi in the theaters, but hadn't seen Empire Strikes Back when it was out, due to an unfortunate combination of circumstances. By the time it came to second-run theaters, circumstances were still unfortunate, so I missed it entirely.

Of course, the salient plot points and the big revelation, that Darth Vader was Luke's father, quickly leaked out. It all passed into knowledge so common that Johnny Carson was making jokes about it on the Tonight Show. Still, a lot of what happens in Return of the Jedi makes very little sense without having seen Empire Strikes Back.

With the invention of the VCR, I might have had a chance to see it, but anytime I suggested it as a rental, the idea was shot down, as everyone around me had already seen it 893,402 times. After a few years, it slipped down on the priority list of things to do. It wasn't until 1986 that I had a solid chance to see it, and in full context, when my girlfriend suggested we rent and watch the whole trilogy. Her parents were going out of town for that Friday night, so it was perfect occasion for a long evening watching movies.

It had been a long time since she had seen Star Wars in the theater (and she'd only seen it the one time), so we watched the tape and enjoyed the first movie. When it finished, we made some more popcorn while the tape was rewinding, and then started in on Empire Strikes Back. I was quietly thrilled that I'd finally get a chance to see it, and fill in the gaps in my comprehension of the story.

However, in contrast to Star Wars, my girlfriend had seen Empire Strikes Back more recently in the theater, and had seen it at least 20 times when it was out. I don't know why I was surprised by what happened next, but I was. Shortly into the movie, she started to hint, gently at first, then with increasing vigor that she had an alternative suggestion for how we might occupy ourselves that Friday night, alone together in her house.

Warning: here begins a tale of woe and heartbreak.

The term "geek cred" had not been coined in 1986, nor was there much value in the concept behind it, viz. that there is nobility in a devotion to sci-tech esoterica that supersedes all concerns of conventional society. As the intricacies of subcultural memes were unrecognized at the time, what happened next was an expression of the values of a more straightforward, if less forgiving age.

Which is to say that a healthy 17-year-old male who tells his healthy 18-year-old girlfriend, however diplomatically, that he'd really rather watch Empire Strikes Back on said girlfriend's TV than neck and screw with said girlfriend's semi-naked body is just asking for an ex-girlfriend.

Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. I have been accused of being many things: arrogant, foolish, opinionated, and much, much worse. However, no one has ever had occasion to call me stupid. To make a long story short, I turned off the TV myself, to focus on more immediate matters. When I left to go home, I took the tape she'd rented, with promises to take it back to the video rental place the next day. (We never did get around to watching Return of the Jedi.)

After a few hours sleep, I watched Empire Strikes Back alone at my house before I had to go to work. Gaps in my knowledge complete, I returned the tape.

So, happy 24th Anniversary, Empire Strikes Back! You still make very little sense to me, and I can never watch you without feeling like I should turn you off just as the Millennium Falcon enters the asteroid field.

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Science fiction

How do I feel about having written a science fiction story?

Good, thanks.

Since the best part of that story was the dialogue and the gory attack sequence, that should tell me something about where my strengths lie, no?

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#FridayFlash: Grow, garden, grow

Grow, garden, grow

by Tony Noland

Behind neutron-infused molybdenum crystal, thin purple fronds trailed from scaly dark brown stems. Almost two meters tall, the plants were odd looking, but not ugly. The bright lights above the big tank gave each leaf a slightly iridescent sheen, like a butterfly's wing.

"What's so special about these things? They look like dwarf willow trees." Mechanic's mate (3rd class) Tyr Haarfansen was close to the glass, his nose almost touching it. "Why's the tank so massive? Are they valuable?"

Gravitic drive technician (3rd class) Solly Reynollt said, "They must be. I heard Professor Kenndaarek talking to the XO, said that they were some kind of unique species or something. He said they pre-date people, so they must be really old."

"Pre-date people? Hang on, do you mean they pre-date people in this sector? That would make them hundreds of years old! He must mean from when we found this planet thirty years ago. Either way, they don't look that old."

"You got me. I've heard about these Japanese trees, bonsai or something. They can be fifty or a hundred, even two hundred years old and still be only the size of a little potted plant. For rich people, it's a big deal to have one, shows you're cultured. Anyway, all I know is, I was eavesdropping in cargo bay five a couple of hours ago when they were unloading the tank from the shuttle. The exec didn't seem too happy about having these on board. There's a whole political thing mixed up in it." Solly leaned closer to the glass. "The Professor is supposed to make sure they get safely back to Earth. From what I heard, they were a gift from the head of the local government to Emperor Yaablik. The Ministry of Culture is gonna set up some kind of special display for it at the Kew Gardens Botanical Research Center outside Old London."

"No kidding?"

"Yep. I heard that once the display is done, this planet's king or president or whatever will go visit Earth to tour the gardens and sign a treaty. Some kind of diplomatic thing, unity of worlds, interspecies friendship, all that crap."

"In exchange for which the locals are going to give us yttrium mining rights and let us set up a naval base on their moon? These must be some special plants!" Tyr said.

Solly shrugged. "Whatever they are, they must be pretty damned valuable. They came on board inside this locked tank. I don't know if it's because they're so old, or if it's because that makes them rare, or what. All I know is, the Professor told the exec to make sure nobody touched them, because they're unique and they pre-date people."

Tyr was examining the locks on the tank. "Valuable, huh?"

Solly recognized the tone of voice. "Tyr, don't even think it. For one thing there isn't time; a duty shift is due in here soon. Besides, you know how much trouble we'll get into if they find out we were messing with these?"

"What are they going to do? Put you in the brig again? Bust you down? There's nothing lower than 3rd class, dummy." Tyr returned his gaze to the plants. "I bet some rich guy would love to have one of these. I read that you can regrow an entire plant from just one piece of leaf, that it's even easier to clone plants than to clone animals. Look at all those leaves; every one of those plants must have hundreds of them hanging down. We just take one leaf from each one, and nobody's the wiser."

"And then what? You don't know anything about plants. How are you going to keep it alive until we get to Earth?"

Tyr said, "I don't know, put it in a glass of water or something. If it dies, it dies. I know a guy in Brisbane who'll pay top dollar for something like this, even dead tissue. Live would be better, but as long as he can extract the DNA, he's good for a couple of hundred." Tyr took a jury-rigged electronic probe out of this pocket and held it up to the lock on the tank.

"Well, hurry it up, will you? Seriously, Tyr, they're supposed to be down here to inspect the things any minute."

Tyr, working the controls of his probe, didn't respond. After a moment, the lock beeped and slid apart. Grinning, Tyr exhanged the probe for a multi-tool, which he opened to a pair of scissors. He opened the tank and leaned into it, sliding his tool into the mass of fronds of the closest plant.

With a rustling snap, the fronds wrapped around his arm and yanked him forward. He fell face first into the waving leaves. Tyr screamed as blood spurted from his arm, then fountained outward from his face and neck. The leaves wriggled, sawing their sharp edges into his flesh. He reached up with he free arm to fend them off, and it, too was enmeshed in the slicing fronds.

Solly shouted and grabbed Tyr's legs to pull him free, but let go almost as soon as he had started to pull. Fronds had whipped forward, lashing at his hands. Two of the little trees were working together to drag Tyr's struggling, muffled form into the tank.

The other eight trees were pulling themselves out of the soil and climbing toward the open tank door.

Solly turned and ran toward the hatchway of the storage room. It opened before he could reach it. The Professor stepped in, speaking over his shoulder to someone. They turned to face the screams from the tank, saw Solly's terrified face. The newcomers fell back as Solly pushed forward, shoving past them to run away. They all fell in a heap into the corridor. One of the crewmen scrambled forward and slammed the hatch closed just as a waving, crackling mass of fronds reached for the door.

The Professor shouted, "Flood that compartment with carbon tetrafluoride gas! If we don't get them back inside the tank, they'll start tearing through the bulkheads. I only hope this doesn't harm them, or the treaty will be blown!" He turned on Solly. "And you! What the hell were you doing? They were locked up for a reason, you idiot! I made it abundantly clear to your executive officer that no one was to touch them because they predate people!"

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Poetry chain: Early Spring

Early Spring

Cooking hot dogs when I wanted ribs
Drinking pink Chablis from a screw-top
Damn kids left me with just the nibs
Too much wine, can’t go back to the U-Shop.

Getting late, call it quits, corner bar for a pop.
Barman says, "Where you been? You look down."
I says, "That whole barbecue was a flop.
Made me look like an ass fooling ‘round.”


Back in April, Linda Wastila invited me to have lunch with the cool kids (metaphorically speaking). What she proposed was that a collection of writers and poets - Linda, Mark Kerstetter, Michael Solender, Laurita Miller, Robin Stratton, Doug Mathewson, Paige Von Liber and myself - would write a set of collective poems.

Each of us were to come up with the first line or stanza of a poem, then pass it along. Each person would in turn add a line or stanza (or couplet or quatrain or whatever), and pass it down the chain. By the time it came back around, it would be a complete poem. What you see up above is a slightly edited version of what came back to me. I tried to stay true to the intent of the other poets who helped created this, while nudging it into a smoother flowing shape.

After it was all done, Linda asked me for my thoughts on the process, and about poetry and writing in general. I have to say, it was a fascinating exercise; it made me think about poetry more deeply than I think I ever have.

I take away two big things from this experience:

1) I can now say things like "the other poets", including myself in their company of lyricism and insight with a reasonably straight face.

2) My poetry is not meant to drape itself over a cup of sorrows and passion. Either my soul isn't deep enough to achieve that kind of verse or I play my cards too close to the vest for it.

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Guess what?

I'm too busy to write a cogent and insightful blog post.

Funny, that.
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Poll: genres, writing and consistency

WARNING: Contains ruminations about writing, talent and what a writer owes his audience.

This week's #FridayFlash ("The Killing Song") is quite different from last week's #FridayFlash ("Mother's Day").

I've gotten some interesting feedback on both, comments here and on Twitter that were thought provoking. What is talent? Do you owe something to your talent, as you might owe something to your readers? Was I wasting my abilities on these pieces? Was I slumming in being soft and sentimental? Or was it when I was being dark and horrible?

Why is McDonald's so damned popular? Not because the food is all that great. It's because every time you go there, you know exactly what will be on the menu. Reliability and consistency are what they sell. 90% of their menu is the same as it has been for the past 50 years. Don't want to risk getting a distasteful meal? Go to McDonald's (or any chain-clone like Olive Garden, TGIFriday's, P.F. Chang's, etc.).

At the other end of the scale is 4 star restaurants, which are expected to be reliably excellent (although the one time I ate at Chez Panisse, the meal was only OK, the wine was hideously expensive and there were cobwebs in the corner of the ceiling). They might have the same menu for 50 years, or they might change half the menu every year, but you can rely on everything being terrific.

Why do so many new restaurants fail? Because they misjudged the market for Asian-Swiss fusion vegan, or Cajun-Polish brauhaus? Anthony Bourdain says that many restaurants fail because of inconsistent quality and they keep switching the menu around. Customers never know if what they ordered is going to be any good. Since the cost of a bad meal is a wasted evening (and wasted money), repeat traffic falls off, and new traffic stays flat because the place gets a reputation as a risky place to eat, a crap shoot.

I don't charge anything for this fiction I put up here. There's a core of repeat visitors who generally like what I do. Maybe not all of it, but in general. You spend a bit of your time here, the only real commodity any of us has. What does it do for you as a reader when you come here and read something you really don't care for? Maybe it was well written, but you still didn't like it. What do you do? Trust me that next week will be different and perhaps more to your liking? That calls for a lot of trust, doesn't it? I'm not a 4-star restaurant (not yet, anyway). Or does this blog become one of those that a lot of people "used to go to all the time, until it changed"?

Some people really liked the soft and sweet "Mother's Day", others disliked it. Some people were really put off by the grim and dark "The Killing Song", others liked it so much they went back and picked up my RSS feed of recent posts.

If I were to stick with one style of writing, many of you would stop coming. Sad fact, but there it is. The flip side is that I expect that the audience for that style of writing would grow.

So what do I do with everything that is NOT that style? Stop writing it? Not likely. Start separate blogs under various pen names (and perhaps Twitter accounts) for each style of writing? I don't have time for that approach, and each one would only get updated in a timeslice manner. Limit myself to sweet and touching on Mondays, noir and brutal on Tuesdays, funny and irreverent on Wednesdays, thoughtful on Thursdays, mysterious and atmospheric on Fridays?

Again, not likely.

What do you think? Is this the sort of thing to have to map out in advance, or should I just keep stumbling along, doing what I've been doing, i.e. playing it by ear?
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#FridayFlash: The Killing Song

The Killing Song

by Tony Noland

As he was waiting, the boy sang the Killing Song to himself. It always made him feel better. It was a quiet song, with no drum solos or fuckin awesome guitar. It was quiet, and it was just his own voice. He didn’t sing out loud, of course, even though Daddy wasn’t home. He never sang out loud because that made Daddy angry. It was just his own voice where Daddy couldn't hear.

The real Killing Song had a lady's voice. He knew deep down in his soles that when he died, she would be there, and she would be nice. He only heard the Killing Song once, the time he messed with the fuckin stereo with peanut butter on his fingers. He was playing with the buttons, turning the volume up and down and changing the station. Daddy came into the living room and smacked him so hard he hit his head and knocked over the CD case when he fell. The goddamn mess made Daddy even madder and Daddy kicked him where the sun don't shine and he threw up cause it hurt so bad.

And even though he thought Daddy would get really mad at the throwup on the floor and especially on the CDs, he didn't. Daddy just stood there, looking down at him. He wasn't even yelling. He was just watching, which was kind of scary by itself. Any time the boy remembered the Killing Song, it was always mixed in with that terrible pain in his belly, because as he lay on the floor throwing up and throwing up, even where there wasn't any more throwup in him, the lady sang and sang on the radio, like an angel.

It was so different than regular music like on KDRJ ninety two seven the home of classic rock. It was just a lady singing about killing and it was beautiful. Some regular songs sang about killing and death, but he had always gotten the impression that the angel of death was a scary man with tattoos who used to be in the fuckin army. It was hard to tell exactly, though, because the people in regular songs always screamed and shouted and it was hard to understand them. But the Killing Song lady was clear and sweet.

He wasn’t sure he heard them all exactly right, but in the repeated part the lady was happy, peacefully happy about being killed. The boy liked that. The things around him in the real world were always so confusing and scary. When Daddy said, "I'm gonna kill you", he didn't mean really kill kill, he meant hit or use the belt. To really kill kill was to make somebody die. The Killing Song made him realize that it didn't have to be scary. It didn't have to be bad. It could be gently, nicely, softly.

From then on, whenever Daddy got mad and hurtful, even really hurtful, the Killing Song would be there for the boy. He knew that if he were to die, he wouldn't have to hurt anymore. And that would be really great.

Last night was bad. Super bad. He didn’t mean to break the lamp. His back and legs ached from the belt. It was thinking about last night that made him decide that it was time to die. He was scared when he took the red pills from the top shelf of the medicine cabinet. Daddy saved them for parties, and he called them magic beans. The boy knew he needed to be brave. If it didn't work and he wasn't dead when Daddy came home, then Daddy would fly into a rage about them, and that would be super bad all over again. He was so scared about that, he almost fell climbing down.

He knew the pills would kill him because at a party once he overheard one of Daddy's friends say that they should give one to the kid. Since there were no kids at the party, he knew they were talking about him. He made himself small in his closet and stayed very quiet so they would forget about him. He was afraid of the man who wanted him to take one of the red pills. One of the other men said, no, it would kill the kid, so in the end they didn't give him any.

The other man had said that even one would kill him. He didn't dare be still alive when Daddy came home, so to be absolutely sure about it, he took ten of them, one after the other with little sips of water. The pills were small.

One thing he didn't expect was the burst of pain in his belly. It was so bad it made the Killing Song spring into his head. It was like he was punched and it made him want to throw up. He didn't cry. Only babies cried. But he clenched his jaws so he wouldn't throw up cause the throwup would have all the pills in it and they had to stay in his stomach to kill him. He got even more scared. He thought this would be a softly kind of dying - was that not true? He felt like somebody was grabbing his stomach and twisting it from the inside. Twist, twist, twist, four, five, six but on lucky number seven it wasn't so bad and by number fourteen or fifteen the twists weren't hardly bad at all. And he didn't have to throw up anymore. He felt very tired and floaty and strange.

He lay on the carpet and sang to himself. He got dizzy and sleepy and he sang over and over as he waited to die. The lady from the Killing Song joined him and she smiled as she touched him, strumming his face with her fingers.... filling his life with the words....killing me softly with this song, killing me softly... with these words... killing my whole life... with this song.... killing me softly.... with this song...

Everything got all sparkly, then darkened... cold, then hot, and then very cold again. And as the room got quieter and quieter, he sang the Killing Song. La la de dah, la de la dahhh…

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Poetry last week, poetry next week, nothing today

Last week, I put up a poem for Mother's Day. Next week, I'll post a poem that I wrote in collaboration with several other poets, under the guidance of Linda Wastila.

But today, I post nothing, because I am drowning in work.

There once was a writer named Tony
Who thought of himself as a phony.
"Pass for a poet?
As though they won't know it
is naught but a pile of baloney!"

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Just Enough Power - 8

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"Can I get you anything else, Mr. Simon?"

"Actually, yes there is something. I have some errands to run in the city. Could you please have the Mercedes brought around? The gray one."

The young man winced slightly. Simon picked up the spoon from the tray and sighed.

"I'm sorry, Shiowshu. I shouldn't have said that. This has been a difficult week."

"Yes sir. I'm... I'm sorry, Mr. Simon."

"I'll tell you what I would like. I'd like something other than soup and sandwiches for my meals.This captivity is humiliating enough without Meng-Shiu enforcing prison kitchen standards on me."

"I can ask, Mr. Simon, but Mr. Tong spoke to the kitchen staff directly."

"Why? What is it about a steak that he finds objectionable? Would an omelet or some lasagna be less threatening?"

An odd look of amusement and respect came over Shiowshu's face. "After you were, uh, brought up here, Mr. Tong spent some time reading some of the old family records, learned some things about you. They made him think it was best if you didn't have access to a knife, or even a fork."

Simon's eyebrows lifted in surprise, then his eyes grew distant as he thought back over long, long years. Knifework had been a specialty of his when he was out in the field, it was true, but....

Ah. Seattle. His wrinkled face smoothed into a smile as he remembered Seattle. That fight had broken his left collarbone and the little finger on his right hand, but he'd finished the job. He smiled at the mental image of Ricardo Argento flailing, hopping around the room, trying to remove the fork from the back of his neck as the blood sprayed across the walls. Simon refocused on the present.

"That was a long time ago, son. Does he really think I'm that dangerous now?"

Shiowshu shook his head. "He thinks... that is, I don't know what Mr. Tong thinks. He doesn't confide in me." His expression had returned to the careful neutrality of someone playing a game. Simon had noticed it almost instantly when Shiowshu had brought the lunch tray in. What was he playing at? Where was this going? Shiowshu continued, "He just said, no kinves, no forks, no chopsticks, nothing edged or pointed."

Simon held up the spoon. "Isn't he afraid I'll sharpen the edge of this, and slash my way to freedom?"

"He thought about making us give you plastic spoons, but..."

"But what?

The moment stretched out in silence. Shiowshu looked at the spoon, his own shoes and books on the wall before answering.

"He thought it would make him look afraid." His gaze met Simon's. "That's why he let you have a metal spoon. To show you that he's not afraid of you."

Shiowshu's face was thin, with a flat forehead and a narrow chin. Although he looked like a Talent, with the sunken cheeks and bony hands that came with calorie-hungry psionic organelles, Simon knew it was just an act. He'd read Shiowshu's file, understood that he had the skeletal face of a Talent because he forced himself to stay on a restrictive diet. Looking like a Talent was sometimes as good as actually being a Talent when it came to enforcement work. It was hard to deliberately starve yourself just to get an edge. It required will and self-possession. Strength of character. Drive. Ambition. Simon saw these traits written in the blue veins on the young man's neck.

"Enjoy your sandwich, Mr. Simon." Shiowshu turned and walked out of the room. The gunman in the hall closed and locked the door after him.

Simon looked at the tray. Coffee, potato chips, beef barley soup, a turkey wrap and a chocolate bar. He picked up the wrap and unrolled it. Folded in the lettuce was a small cell phone.

He pocketed the phone without turning it on and re-rolled the wrap around the lettuce and meat. Sipping his coffee, Simon considered the odds. Shiowshu Chen could be trying to help me, he thought, because he's dissatisfied with Meng-Shiu and wants to see me take over. Or he wants to use me, then kill me and take over himself. Or he's working for Meng-Shiu and is hoping to curry some favor by tricking me into calling Lonnigan in. Or he's just a messenger puppet for one of the other people in the Organization, in which case he could be turned if I play him carefully enough. Or...

With thoughts swirling, Simon thought and planned as he ate his lunch.

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Wiswell on Exposure

John Wiswell has a terrific piece up today about #FridayFlash, as a
community, a venue and a support group.

It's a terrific piece, not least because it's insightful and well-written.

Go check it out:


Follow me on Twitter: @TonyNoland

#FridayFlash: Mother's Day

Richie pulled into one of the last spots in the lot. It was furthest from the loading dock entrance, naturally. The hard snow squeaked under his boots as he got out of his car. It was supposed to get up to 10 degrees today, but now, hours before the sun was due up, it was more like 10 below.

Another couple of minutes and he'd be late for his shift and that bastard Tollofson would write him up again. Still, Richie had to take a quick look at the engine. That screeching sound out on the highway did NOT sound good.

He popped the hood and saw the cat. He practically fell jumping back, would have fallen if the damned thing hadn't been dead.

The guys at work told stories about such things, but he'd never had an animal crawl into his car. It must have been looking for a place to sleep, and a warm engine block fit the bill.

Stupid cat, he thought. Why'd you have to do something like that? I didn't mean to start the day by hurting anybody.

When the cat lifted its head and mewed, he jumped again. It was in pain. Pain? Damned thing should be dead! It was then that Richie saw the rippling convulsions along its side, the straining of its legs.

Oh for God's sake, cat, don't you have any sense at all? Give birth on top of my engine? The fear of the drive must have done it, started the labor.

Richie stood, watching the cat for a moment. Then he opened the trunk and got out a work blanket, walked back to the hood and tucked the damned cat in. He closed it tight to keep the engine block's heat in.

He looked at his watch, swore, and ran for the door.


Mother's Day Blog Tour

Mother’s Day – Twitter Chats Blog Tour

Welcome to the Twitter Chats Blog Tour, organized by Mari Juniper at Mari’s Randomities and Anne Tyler Lord at Don’t Fence Me In. Today's theme is Mother's Day.

You'll be traveling with us through the blogs of some of the fantastic authors and writers who participate in our weekly -- funny, entertaining and educating -- Twitter chats. This tour will feature writers from #writechat, #litchat, and #fridayflash.

You will be directed to your next stop at the end of this post. Please feel welcome here, and have a happy Mother's Day!


This is a celebration of a mother whose dedication and faith set the stage for one of the most influential people in the history of Western thought and civilization. If she had been a less attentive and caring mother, the world would be a very different place today.

Dedication: to my mother, my mother-in-law, the mother of my children, and the mothers of my nieces and nephews. I love you all.

Note: This will be much better if you read it out loud. Go ahead, no one's watching you.


Don't Give Up On Him, Ma

by Tony Noland

There once was a woman of Rome,
Who lived in a difficult home.
Monica’s spouse,
Patricius (that louse),
Would bellow and scream, all a’foam.

Husbands in that brutal age
Would violent tempers assuage
By striking their wives
With sticks (or with knives!)
Thus venting and spending their rage.

But unlike the wives all around,
Monica, standing her ground,
With Christian respect,
These rages deflect,
‘til Jesus Patricius had found.

She bore him two sons and a daughter,
Two of whom went as they ought to.
But her younger son
Wanted nothing but fun.
He went for the wine (not the water).

Monica wept and she plead,
That her boy would stop taking to bed
Girls of loose mores,
Those trollops and whores,
Symptoms of life, badly led.

She went to the bishop to ask
His help with bringing to task.
Ambrose said, “Wait;
Augustine’s fate
Is not to live slurping a cask.”

When Augustine’s mistress departed,
The young man was quite broken-hearted,
The mother said, “Boy,
Come into God’s joy,
From Him you will never be parted.”

At Monica’s pleas, never slaking,
Augustine, reverent and quaking,
Did kneel at the font,
Baptism, his wont,
Arose, great work undertaking.

So did this mother devoted
Give life to a scholar so noted.
St. Monica’s tears,
Her sorrows and fears,
Can sing triumph, with voice all full-throated.


Thanks for stopping by! Your next stop for the Mother's Day Twitter Chats Blog Tour is How Did You Get There, hosted by Kristi Thompson. Feel free to read and comment at any of the stops on the tour!

You say you want the complete list of participants and their Twitter handles? Say no more!

Anne Tyler Lord of Don't Fence Me In -- @annetylerlord (co-host of Twitter Chats Blog Tour)

Mari Juniper of Mari's Randomities -- @marirandomities (co-host of Twitter Chats Blog Tour)

Jon Strother of Mad Utopia -- @jmstro (creator of #FridayFlash)

Carolyn Burns Bass of Ovations -- @carolyburnsbass (creator of #LitChat)

Marisa Birns of Out Of Order Alice -- @marisabirns

Jemi Fraser of Just Jemi -- @jemifraser

Deanna Schrayer of The Other Side of Deanna -- @deannaschrayer

Phyl Good of Bookishgal -- @kashicat

Laura Eno of A Shift In Dimensions -- @lauraeno

Susan Gottfried of West Of Mars -- @westofmars

Tony Noland of Landless -- @TonyNoland

Kristi Thompson of How Did You Get There --@howdidyougetthere

Angie Capozello of Techtiggers' Soapbox -- @techtigger

Donna Carrick of Donna's Blog -- @donna_carrick

P.J. Kaiser of Inspired By Real Life -- @doublelattemama

Happy Mother's Day!

Interviews and links

Today on ErgoFiction:
Cathi Payne (@WA_side) is one of the many webfiction-crazed readers out there. I interviewed her about her reading habits, her thoughts on webfiction, and more.
Some great thoughts and links to some terrific serials online, including (ahem) "Just Enough Power".

I'm glad you're enjoying it, Cathi!

Just Enough Power - 7

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"Piss off, Kim. I'm nobody's tool."

The three other men paused at her response, even stopped chewing as they glanced uneasily at Sung Bo Kim.

Perfect, thought Lonnigan. If Kim's own people are afraid of him, then he's got the balls for an all-out war. She crossed her arms and sneered at him. It was an unbelievable stroke of luck that he wanted the same thing she did, to take down Meng-Shiu. It was the use-Lonnigan-and-kill-her-afterwards part that she wanted to avoid.

Kim said, "Who are your parents, Ms. Lonnigan?"

"Don't threaten me."

One of the thugs snorted. Chained to the floor by the steel collar and dressed in booties and pajamas, Lonnigan knew she didn't make an imposing figure. However, she also noticed that none of them had come within twenty feet of her. Even now, they had some respect for her abilities; respect for her as a potential employee was what she needed.

"I don't threaten, Ms. Lonnigan. I already know you were orphaned at the age of five, educated and raised in the household of Qing-Mei Tong. You dropped out of Yale to work for him. You rose quickly in his organization, first as a courier, then as collector, enforcer and so on. You found your niche as an assassin."

"Looks like I have a fan club - I'm flattered."

Kim turned to his men and held out his hand. The Talent stooped to retrieve something from the cardboard box on the floor, handed it over. Kim tossed it to Lonnigan.

It was a big hot dog, loosely wrapped in foil. The smell of meat and salt prompted her stomach to growl loudly. Ravenous, she held it out, made as if to drop it to the concrete.

"If I finish this conversation by deciding to kill you, Ms. Lonnigan, I'll do it from over here. It won't matter if you've eaten first."

"You think you can buy my loyalty with a hot dog?"

Kim smiled. "It's a start."

She looked him in the eye, waited for something else, some superfluous observation about the helplessness of her situation. The silence stretched, broken only by the sounds of Kim's men, who had resumed eating. A moment more, then Lonnigan unwrapped the hot dog and ate it in four bites, chewing open-mouthed in her hurry to get it down. She'd considered, then dismissed the idea that it might be drugged or poisoned. If they wanted her, dead or otherwise, they didn't need to get fancy.

"I respected your former boss, Qing-Mei Tong. Though we had our differences of opinion over the years, he was a man who knew when to compete and when to cooperate. The various organizations enjoyed relative stability for many years. Periodic changes at the top of one family or another upset the dynamics in different relationships, of course, but we were always able to work things out." He put his hands into his pockets. "That is, until Meng-Shiu Tong took over two years ago. Tell me, Ms. Lonnigan, are you accustomed to hearing unguarded opinions expressed about your boss?"

She shrugged. "He's my boss."

"He's also a greedy, short-sighted, brainless prick."

Lonnigan scowled. "He's my boss," she repeated, "so watch your mouth, Kim." That was enough defense of him, she thought. She had to make Kim work to win her over, but not too hard.

"He's out of control and I'm going to take him down, Ms. Lonnigan. The Jade Prince built an impressive, tightly-run organization; in time, the Mouse will piss it all away, but he's still too strong. I can't wait for him to screw it all up completely before moving in. That task will be made easier with inside knowledge of Meng-Shiu's operational details."

"So you honestly believe you're going to penetrate straight to the heart of the Tong organization just by using me?"

"You, and a few other key individuals."

"Others? Bullshit. No one has gone missing from my organization; I'd have heard about it."

"Ah," said Kim, "I thought you enjoyed a more central position than is typical for assassins. That information makes you valuable to me. Not irreplaceable, but valuable."

Lonnigan flushed. "Who else have you kidnapped?"

"I haven't kidnapped anyone else, Ms. Lonnigan." Kim looked at his watch. "Let me make your options plain. Option one: you throw over your loyalties to the Mouse and agree to work for me as I take over the Tong organization. Once my control over it is stabilized, you'll remain in my employ."

"And the other families will just stand by and let you launch a war?"

"Don't presume to lecture me on strategy or tactics, Lonnigan."

"I'm the one who did the Acrobat," she said. "You must know that. Why should I trust you?"

His face darkened, but his tone was level. "Because I haven't killed you already."

"And Option Two?"

Kim held out his hand and the bandaged man passed him a gun, one of her own Sig-Sauers. Kim checked the slide, and held the gun at his side. He looked at his watch.

"There's no need to get melodramatic," said Lonnigan. "Since I work for you now, can I have another hot dog? I'm starving."

She let herself grin very slightly as she ate.

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Hashtag for serialized fiction

After some discussion today with some writer friends on Twitter, the idea of a unique hashtag came up. This will help to tie together different serials, giving interested readers an easy way to find them. It would function in much the same way that #fictionFriday, #FridayFlash and other hashtags work.

The hashtag is #TuesdaySerial.

On Tuesdays, participants will tweet to announce new serials, or new episodes of ongoing serials. These don't have to be posted on Tuesday, but this would be a day to publicize them.

As this was getting kicked around on Twitter, I get the sense that 140c isn't enough for people to express thoughts about it. So, consider this an open forum for comments, discussion, consideration of logistics, etc.

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