On the Nature of Fun by Guest Blogger Jim Proctor

Today, I’m pleased to welcome Jim Proctor to my blog. He’s the author of a novella (“Made in the Stars”) and two novels (The Last Steward and Veronica Phoenix). Veronica Phoenix is his latest, and I loved it! You also should check out his Facebook page, especially if you’re an author looking to connect with one of the most helpful fellow authors on the planet. So, without further ado, a few words from Jim on painting a cinder block wall.

Would anyone care to guess how much fun painting a cinder block wall is? Anyone? What’s that? Did someone say “Zero”. That’s a good answer, and it would have been my answer until this morning. In the movie “Freaky Friday” the teenage girl (Lindsay Lohan) calls her mom (Jamie Lee Curtis) a Fun Sucker because “You suck the fun out of everything!” Personally, when I hear “fun sucker” and “Jamie Lee Curtis” in the same sentence, I get an entirely different idea of… never mind.

Painting a cinder block wall is negative fun. The activity is a fun sucker. It gets into your mind and begins sucking away the fun. But it doesn’t stop when it has sucked up all the fun you might have had while painting. No, it sucks away even your memories of fun. By the time you have been painting for an hour, you begin to wonder if there is any point in continuing to live. By this point, if you are lucky, the paint fumes are already killing you.

I am painting the cinder block wall of the basement of my parent’s house, trying to get the place ready to sell. After finishing the first coat, I dragged out the shop vac and began vacuuming all the cobwebs hanging from the overhead joists. Do you remember the scene in Lord of the Rings where Frodo walks into Shelob’s lair and the place is full of cobwebs. Frodo keeps getting caught in them. That is what the basement looked like. There were a lot of very unhappy spiders when I finished.

When I go back, the wall will get a second coat. Then I will move a few things and start on the next section of wall. Once I get a solid base of the UGL Drylock Supreme, I will break out my Wagner Power Painter and shoot a layer of Kilz primer over it, and then maybe a layer of white latex. Yes, lots of fun.

I’ve Lost my Voice!

A writer’s voice is a combination of style, phrasing, and flow. It is potentially the most useful tool in the writer’s little pencil box. Some writers possess a voice so easily identifiable that all an astute reader needs are a few sentences to name the source. And voice does not manifest in fiction alone; with the possible exception of newspaper reporting, it can exist anywhere that words are brought together to tell a story.

Now, enough of defining voice. This is a personal story. This is not a training session on how to find your voice. (The way to find your voice is to keep writing until you find it. That’s it. Moving on.)

Several months ago, my brain began doing a rather odd thing—probably brought on by one or more of a few stressors which I won’t go into here. My brain began applying a sing-song inflection to everything I thought, everything I heard, everything I read, and everything I wrote. All words strung together in any perceivable manner turned into this kind of chant in my head.

At the time, I was working on the first draft of the third and final book of my series, Lisen of Solsta.  In first draft, my brain’s affliction was active but did not harm the text.

(And, so you’ll know, I ran this past my psychiatrist recently, and he deemed it a passing problem, likely stress related. But he’s not a writer; what does he know?)

A week ago, I moved on to second draft, and I found myself fighting the work but not knowing why. Last night, a painful epiphany hit me like a hammer. If I can’t perceive my writing as anything more than a sing-songy mish-mash of words, how am I going to find the flow? I mean, there’s singing and there’s sing-songing. The former allows words to soar; the latter, a pain in the ass. If I can’t tell if a sentence or a paragraph flows, what the hell am I doing writing at all? Needless, to say, a great many things got thrown around my office last night. Sigh.

So if anyone has dealt with something like this or knows someone who has, let me know. For now the plan is for me to let the writing go for a little while and let my poor, aching brain rest and hope to God (hear me, God?) that the little chanting person in my head moves on to some other soul and lets me have my mojo back. I am a writer, damn it! And Lisen’s story needs an ending.

Thank You for the Music (A Father’s Day Orchestration)

I’m sitting here tonight doing what I do nearly every night—listening to symphonic music on my Walkman while I write. And as I was writing and listening, I grew aware of my highly trained ear and its evolution. At the moment, it’s the soundtrack to the Sci-Fi* channel’s Children of Dune, the first cut, “Summon the Worms.” The piece begins softly with mournful strings and then begins to build until the strings and brass play point and counterpoint back and forth on the same theme. And then it bursts wide open with the tympani leading the rest of the orchestra into the billowing centerpiece. I play it over and over again because it, quite simply, makes my body tingle.

When I was in elementary school, my father would sometimes take me to his weekly orchestra rehearsals. He belonged to the local community orchestra which put on maybe three or four concerts a year. I would sit at the back of the rehearsal hall at the local high school with him and rejoice in the music that surrounded me. He played percussion. If it wasn’t brass, strings or woodwinds, he was your guy (except for piano and harp, of course).

The Pomona Valley Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal  circa 1958

My very favorite instrument he played was the tympani—the big copper kettledrums. I loved, and still love, that deep-throated pounding sound, almost like the beating of a heart. You have to tune those, you know. There are usually two or more in the orchestra, and they’re tuned to different notes. Each time before my dad would perform, he’d spend many minutes with his ear within millimeters of the drumhead tapping it lightly with the padded tympani mallet, and as he did so, he would turn one tuning screw a skosh clockwise or counterclockwise to get the desired pitch. (The drums typically have a range of a perfect fifth, according to Wikipedia.) And then he’d repeat the process with the other one. He loved those drums, but they didn’t belong to him. The school district owned them.

The orchestra from my father’s point of view

Dad would also let me sit with him during performances. That’s when all the hard work week after week came together in a perfect whole. I would sit on a chair just like his chair—an angelic-looking little blond girl—and watch and listen as the orchestra gave life to black dots on paper. I learned to play the piano starting in first grade, moved on to accordion and then violin along the way, but I believe that the greatest music education I ever got was sitting in that orchestra absorbing the contribution of every instrument alone and then together. I can tear “Summon the Worms” apart and appreciate its soaring due to the time I spent sitting at the back of that orchestra.

My father, my younger sister and
myself in a publicity photo for the orchestra.

So, to my father who’s been gone for nearly six years now, I say thank you. Thank you, Daddy, for the music, all the music. My life would falter were it not for my love of music. And while rock-and-roll is great and I love it dearly, it’s the magic of an orchestra that never fails to take me places I’ve never been before.

*That’s what the SyFy network was called when the miniseries first aired.

Worthy Women of Courage

I’m pissed.  A few days ago I wrote a lovely piece about my father I intended to upload this weekend.  I’ll still upload it, but I’m pissed and I need to tell you why.  Several months ago I allied myself with a group on the internet and Facebook called Ordain Women (OW).  I’ve written about this before and about my concerns if the general authorities of the Mormon church decide to come down hard on these women.

The war has begun.  On June 8, 2014, Kate Kelly, the founder of Ordain Women, received an “invitation” to answer charges of apostasy (see NYT article here).  Likely the evidence will include the belief on the part of the church that Ordain Women and its members and supporters are directly questioning the authority of the “divinely” inspired leadership of the church.  The fact that these women always speak softly, dress in their Sunday best whenever they perform some sort of public action and only ask that said leadership ask God the question “Has the time come for women to be ordained?” means nothing to these men in charge.  They see these women as questioning the laws of God.  The LAWS of GAWD, for heaven’s sake.  (And remember that this is a church that was founded on the principle of “ask and it shall be answered.”)

Silent vigils are planned for the day and time this “disciplinary council” is scheduled to meet (June 22, 7 p.m. ET).  Sister Kelly, who, as an attorney, knows how to answers these fools and refute their charges, will not be present.  Knowing that Ms. Kelly has just moved from Virginia to Utah, her “former” bishop has ordered the meeting to take place in Virginia in a ward (a small community of church members) to which Ms. Kelly no longer belongs and to which she will be unable to travel (especially at the tail end of a weekend).  She will be allowed to send a written statement, but no phone or internet will be allowed.  Either show up or shut up.

To the wonderful women of OW who are reeling from this betrayal, I say, be strong.  Be not afraid.  I don’t believe in God as you perceive him, but I believe that there’s something out there which, when petitioned, will send you the strength and courage you require.  The bigwigs of Mormondom may have fired the first salvo and the wounds may feel deadly, but the recognition you seek as human beings of equal value to me is a worthy cause.  I know that often one of you will quote a line or two from “Come, Come Ye Saints,” but I choose to end with words from the Finale of Les Miserables.

“Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!”

Sunset Boulevard (not quite)

I’ve taken a journey.  Haven’t quite returned yet, but I thought I’d drop by with a postcard to explain my extended absence from my blog.

This journey began 50 years ago.  I was 14 at the time. My mother had decided to find the family a new, larger house, something we could still afford on my father’s salary. She figured $20K would be about right. So she perused the ads in the paper and found a realtor to help her, and that realtor found a beautiful Spanish style house up in the hills above our little town to the east of L.A. It was a bit out of our price range–$40K to be precise. But my mother fell in love with it, had to have it, and my father could never say no to my mother, mostly for fear of getting his balls ripped out of their sockets. So…we  bought it, talking the sellers down to $38K.

She was amazing, this house.  I’ve described her previously. Here’s a picture of a painting my father did of her in her heyday.

Painting of Norma

In need of some work, but filled with little amenities you’d never find anyplace else. At the height of my romantic teens I ended up with a balcony Juliet would have envied. All the way to the right of the painting, over the windows to the kitchen and breakfast nook below my bedroom. I was happy there, for a time, but eventually at 20 I moved out to my own life (a story for another time).

Fifty years on, parents both gone for more than three years, and my sister and I finally put the poor rundown lady on the market. We couldn’t take care of her, and she was devolving into the Norma Desmond of residences, just waiting for her close-up, Mr. DeMille.

Selling real estate is a bitch. I suspect purchasing is as well, but I’ve never been there. We ended up with an agent who, thank the fates who brought her to us, guarded our interests like a bulldog. She posted the listing fairly late into a Friday night, and within 15 or 20 minutes, we already had an offer $15K above asking.  It was an as-is, cash-only listing.  We knew no bank would take a chance on Norma’s plumbing or roof, much less everything else that was wrong with her.

By Saturday morning two agents insisted on seeing her that very day. By Saturday afternoon, an impromptu open house had ensued, and my sister (I had to work) was escorting dozens of people through the place, filled with animals and trash and heaven knows what else, and many of them expressed an aching to own her, restore her, love her like we do.

Sunday brought the news that offers had risen to $50K over asking.  Unbelievable. Monday we’d reached $120K over.  Wow.

A series of small complications arose on Monday and the highest offer was rescinded, leaving us with another $105K in excess of asking price, and that’s the one that we chose.  That’s when the rollercoaster of offer, addendum and counter offer ensued, after which we entered escrow.

I’ve decided every time a house goes into escrow, another tree must die.  The paperwork is unending, with faxes heating up telephone wires. Not to mention the amount of gasoline consumed by the real estate agent as she dashes between office and client home to get “just this one last document” signed. Does it really have to be all this tough?

In the meantime, since this was all part of a trust and since I was no longer speaking to the lawyer who’d drawn it up, we had to get an EIN for tax purposes and open a trust account at the bank, then provide a deposit slip (non-existent, hence a letter on letterhead had to make do) for wiring of funds into the account when escrow closed.

But escrow didn’t close. Not when it was supposed to. Took an additional four days to get there.  We even had to put the buyer on notice, a buyer whose wife had apparently wanted the house for some time.  (They had submitted the original offer.)

So my life for the last month or so has been filled with: call the IRS, call the accountant, sign papers for hours and hours, and a plethora of other seemingly meaningless busy work all designed, I believe, to keep me from concentrating on the thing I’ve just retired from my equally meaningless job to work at full-time—writing.

I’m nearly back now. Distributing the funds remains, and I dread working out all that math, but I will.

And in the meantime, our agelessly beautiful, aged Norma Desmond awaits her resurrection. Knowing she will shine for the neighborhood to see and to marvel at was worth everything.  Oh, and the cash helped, a little.