When I wrote about a pandemic

Well, sort of.

Portal is about two kids getting trapped in an alternative universe. The universe they ended up in was like ours, but a couple hundred years behind us technologically. I set it up that way because I wanted a bit of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court feeling to the novel — the kids had to figure out how to make do without modern inventions — no cars, no planes, no electricity . . . But then they use their middle-school knowledge to actually make a difference.

But why was this world a couple hundred years behind ours? I didn’t exactly have to explain this; my premise was that anyt event could split off another universe, as in Everett’s many-worlds theory. (Did I ever mention that I once saw his son perform at the Somerville Theater? I digress, however.) But I thought it would be an interesting plot point. So early on in the novel I had the kids figure it out: native Americans had a horrible disease (I called it drikana) that the first European explorers brought back with them. And it devastated Europe, the way that, in our world, smallpox devastated the Americas. The story of Guns, Germs, and Steel in reverse. Eventually Europeans built up immunity to the disease, but in the meantime the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were delayed, and so the world the kids found themselves living in was still primitive compared to ours.

And of course the kids had no immunity to drikana. One of the kids comes down with it, and both end up quarantined, wondering if they will survive. Much drama and pathos ensues.

Having used this plot element in Portal, I didn’t trot it out again in its sequels, Terra and Home. But this nagged at me a bit — if I wanted this bit of realism in novels (that otherwise weren’t realistic in the slightest), I really should have had the threat of disease be a pervasive concern whenever you traveled to another world. If I were writing these novels nowadays, this threat would have loomed a lot larger, I’m sure.

What do writers write about now?

As the quarantine approaches infinity days long, I keep staring at the novel I’ve been working on, and I keep not working on it. Life seems to have passed it by, turned it into an artifact of a now forgotten world. Even though it’s, you know, science fiction.

I was also reading a well-received novel about life in modern Manhattan called Fleishman is in Trouble. I found it unbearable and gave up about a third of the way through. These people didn’t have real problems — they had no idea what was about to hit them.

And I wonder about TV shows. Grey’s Anatomy has been chronicling the lives of hot, horny doctors in Seattle for about a hundred years. They’ve dealt with ferry accidents and tornadoes and hostage situations and just about everything else — except what hit Seattle in real life a couple of months ago. How are the writers going to handle that? (How are they even going to film a TV show?

These are stupid things to be thinking about, I know. But the smart things to be thinking about are kind of, you know, terrifying.

Stay safe!

New Year’s resolution on playing the piano

When I returned to playing the piano a couple of years ago, my vague idea was to broaden my repertoire of classical pieces. I’ve done that at this point. I’ve gotten reasonably up to speed on maybe three dozen pieces by Brahms, Schubert, Chopin, Bach, and Debussy. I haven’t tackled anything extremely difficult, and I don’t bother memorizing anything — it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort, even though that’s what you need to do to really master a piece.

This yearI want to be able to sight-read chord notation, something I didn’t learn at all when I was studying the piano as a kid. I’m reasonably good at sight-reading standard musical notation, but show me F-7 and I have to pause to work out the four-note chord this represents (F-A-flat-C-E-flat). Learning this isn’t hard; you just have to stuff it into your brain and fingers.

The way I’m doing it is by using a web site, http://www.pianochord.org, which shows you all the chords laid out on the keyboard, and The Real Book, a book that contains hundreds of songs with the melody shown in standard notation and the accompaniment shown in chord notation (these are apparently known in the music biz as lead sheets). If I can’t work out a chord, I go to the web site (which is displayed on my iPad Mini next to the sheet music). After a few weeks, I’m going to the web site less and less. Now I just have to get to the point where I don’t have to work them out — I can just look at them and play the notes. I’m there with most of the common chords — C7, Cmaj7,G7… Eventually I’ll get there with the rest of them.

Theoretically, the eventual goal of being able to sight-read lead sheets is so I can improvise a left-hand accompaniment to a melody, based on the chord structure. There are books you can read that will teach you how to improvise. And then I can join a cover band, or get gits playing solo in bars where Ican take requests from the inebriated customers: “Hey Rich, play ‘Misty’ for me.” Not sure I’m gonna get there. But I can dream, I guess. “Misty” isn’t actually that hard.

“You can’t chop your poppa up in Massachusetts”: Visiting Lizzie Borden’s House

I don’t think Lizzie Borden ever worked a day in her life, but we decided to spend some time on Labor Day Weekend touring her home in Fall River, Massachusetts.

The furniture in the house isn’t original, but other details, like the woodwork and the radiators, are. Here is some sheet music (obviously not original) on an old spinet, beneath a portrait of Lizzie looking like she’s staring at a ghost:

I can play that music!

Here’s my beloved wife happily clutching a fake ax on the the spot where Lizzie’s father was hacked to death while he napped.

Here’s the view Lizzie and the maid Bridget had into the room where Lizzie’s mother lay on the floor after having been hacked to death earlier that hot August morning:

The tour was fine — the guide was knowledgeable and delivered the required corny jokes pretty well. So, whodunnit? (I read a book about the case in addition to taking the tour, so I’m an expert.) Lizzie had motive/means/opportunity. She almost certainly lied to the police about some things. She acted oddly in the days before the murders. Whoever did it almost certainly had easy access to the house, since the murder weapon was found hidden in the basement. (We know it was the murder weapon because the blade fit perfectly into the wounds. The police demonstrated this at the trial by producing Mr. Borden’s skull and showing the fit, causing Lizzie to faint.) But…

Lizzie was an exemplary citizen. She learned Mandarin so she could teach Sunday school to immigrant Chinese children. She was active in the temperance association. She founded the Animal Rescue League of Fall River. Also, the motive is a bit fuzzy, as is the opportunity, given the timeline of the events that morning and the fact that the maid was working in the house. It’s not at all obvious to me that the jury got it wrong when they acquitted her after deliberating 90 minutes.

I dunno. I probably need to read some more books.

Books from the attic: “The Secret Warning”

I’ve got lots of Hardy Boys adventures. I grabbed this one from the top of the stack.

Everybody knows about the Hardy Boys — the great teenage detectives and sons of the well-known detective Fenton Hardy, from whom “they had inherited his unusual keenness and with that his uncanny ability for solving mysteries.”

This case has to do with a couple of ruffians who have it in for the boys because they inadvertently scraped the ruffians’ boat, who team up with an evil guy who runs a diving/salvage company. Along with their chum Chet, the boys have to drive to Bailey’s Landing to recover important papers that their father idiotically left in his suit jacket that someone borrowed. In Bailey’s Landing they end up having many underwater scrapes as well as a multitude of secret warnings left in their hotel room, all of which are obviously left by the two ruffians or the evil owner of the diving company.

Like Tom Swift, Jr., the Hardy boys have a famous father, a mother who is a cipher (Why does she let her children stay in Bailey’s Landing week after week, where they are threatened with death pretty much every day?), and an amusing chum (Chet is fat! He thinks about food all the time!). Tom Swift, Jr. and the Race to the Moon is bad, but it’s kind of funny in its badness. The Secret Warning, on the other hand, is just bad. There’s no continuity to the plot, no attempt at characterization beyond chums and ruffians, and the requirement that every chapter has to end in some kind of climax leads to a succession of random emergencies: Watch out, Frank — the ship’s anchor has come loose and is heading straight for you! Oh no, where did that octopus come from, and how can we possibly defeat the sea monster!

Growing up I loved these books. I’m kind of disappointed in my childhood self.

Books from the attic: “Hoop Crazy: A Chip Hilton Sports Story”

Growing up, I loved the Chip Hilton books. Unlike the Tom Swift Jr. and Hardy Boys books, they had a real person identified as their author — Clair Bee, a well-known college basketball coach back in the 1940s. It seems pretty clear from the level of coaching detail in Hoop Crazy that he actually wrote the book.

Chip Hilton is a sports hero — like Tom Swift, he is blond, crew-cut, and lanky. Lankiness is apparently a requirement for these heroes. He lives in Valley Falls with his widowed mom and works at the drug store to earn money for his college fund when he isn’t playing sports with his chums Soapy and Speed and Biggie and Red.

It’s all pretty idyllic, until the stranger shows up in town.

Valley Falls is a one-industry town: pottery. The stranger knows something about pottery, and he needs money. So he decides to swindle the owner of the pottery plant, using formulas that he steals from a locked file cabinet in Chip’s basement. (Chip’s father was the head chemist at the pottery plant until he died saving a woman’s life in an explosion at the plant.) Whatever. This part of the novel is ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the stranger roils the hoop-crazy town by advocating the one-hand shot instead of the approved two-hand set shot. This is all very quaint. The book was published in 1950, and within a few years both of these shots would disappear in favor of the jump shot. Anyway, the one-hand-shot craze divides the town, wrecks team chemistry, and jeopardizes their chances of repeating as state champs.

OK, that’s also pretty stupid. But there’s also a subplot about a shy colored kid who just happens to be a better basketball player than anyone in town except Chip. How do the other players react to him? How does the town react? And the opposing teams? What happens when the Valley Falls team travels to play Southern and the kid isn’t allowed to stay in the hotel with them? This subplot comes out of the blue, and it’s actually pretty terrific. The author doesn’t know how to characterize a colored kid, who is treated as a saintly cipher. But everything else rings true, at least in the context of a Fifties YA novel.

Spoiler alert: What’s also interesting is that Valley Falls loses the big game. So we are taught a lesson about sportsmanship and accepting defeat gracefully.

Anyway, I was impressed.

Books from the attic: “TOM SWIFT in The Race to the Moon”

We were looking for something in the attic and came upon a stash of books from long ago. Tom Swift Jr., Chip Hilton, the Hardy Boys… This one is from 1958.

Tom Swift is in a race to the moon against his rivals, the evil Brungarians. “We’re not going to let any hostile country like Brungaria beat us to the moon!” Tom’s buddy Bud Barclay remarks grimly.

But Bud is worried. “How are you going to beat ’em in this space jalopy?” he wants to know.

Bud, who is kind of an idiot, is unaware of Tom’s Swift repelatron, which will drive his space ship forward by pushing back against the Earth or the sun or what have you.

Needless to say, the Brungarians have many dirty tricks up their sleeves, but I’m pleased to say they’re no match for young Tom, with his blond crew-cut hair. Genius boy is how Bud often refers to him. If my pal called me “genius boy” I’d sock him right in the jaw. But Tom doesn’t let anything bother him, even when the Brungarians drug him and steal his secret plans or he’s running out of oxygen in outer space.

Comic relief is provided by the cook, Chow Winkler, who says stuff like “Brand my skillet, I don’t savvy a word you’re sayin’, but it sure sounds bad!”

Two girls show up, Sandy and Phyl. Phyl has long dark hair and laughing brown eyes and is Tom’s favorite date. Sandy is Tom’s sister and is paired off with Bud. They are there to remind the boys of the big party that evening. Of course, Tom had forgot, what with the Brungarians and the repelatron and all, but they forgive him. Needless to say, there are many crises that night and he never does make it to the party.

Of course I have left out a lot that happens in the book’s 180 action-packed pages. Every chapter ends with some amazing crisis that genius boy is going to have to meet. And meet them he does.

One strange detail: halfway through the book Tom’s space jalopy is christened. It’s name: Challenger. Not sure what to make of that coincidence. Anyway, stay tuned for more great adventures from my attic.

Killing Commendatore

This is Haruki Murakami’s latest novel. I’ve liked Murakami’s work in the past, but not this one. Am I tired of him and the weird worlds he creates, or is this really a bad novel? It’s got something to do with the artistic process and the power of metaphors and such. A bell rings in a hole where no one can be ringing it. A character in a painting comes alive. A painter saves a girl by going on a journey to a strange underworld.

Well, that all sounds promising, doesn’t it? But none of it worked. I kept waiting for explanations, even dream-logic explanations, but they never came. Why did the painter have to go to the underworld? Don’t know. The girl was hiding in a neighbor’s house the whole time, and she snuck out when the cleaning people left the gate unlocked.

And the author leaves no stone unturned when it comes to using cliches. Did Murakami use them in the original Japanese, or was this the fault of the translators? I don’t really care. The novel was painful to listen to, although the narrator was great.