Monthly Archives: July 2013

Motley Microfiction: Around the World

Around the World

Too late. The world’s best scientists missed the asteroid barreling towards the Earth.

You got your typical panic, of course: rioting, looting, debauchery. Then at the last minute, a miracle: it whiffed past the atmosphere, causing nothing more than massive worldwide flooding. The planet rejoiced.

But just as reconstruction began, the same asteroid was spotted catapulting back from whence it came! The wailing masses packed into churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples to pray for deliverance.

Inexplicably, the asteroid jerked to a stop, rolled 20,000 miles sideways, and zipped sunwards.

Satisfied, God pocketed his yo-yo. Such piety could last millennia.

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View from one end of Eros across the gouge on ...
Perhaps this asteroid’s behavior isn’t as random as we thought! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After such a heavy post yesterday, I decided we needed something playful today! This story came out of a long drive with Jason last week. On Jason’s blog, the end of the world’s turned into an ongoing theme in his series about movies, mainly because we’ve indulged in a months-long movie fest we fondly call the “Summer of Sci-Fi”. I’ve touched on apocalypse scenarios a couple of times as well.

This is my take on a supernatural asteroid apocalypse resulting from divine yo-yo usage. I had fun trying to describe how different yo-yo tricks would look from the poor people of Earth. Did you recognize any of them?

Bill Nye recently released a fun talk about what Earth could do if an actual asteroid were on a collision course with us. Check it out! It’s been delightfully animated, and it involves “laser bees”, which might just be the best thing ever.

What’s your favorite apocalypse scenario, in a book or movie or otherwise? Writers, have you ever written your own apocalypse?

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Creeper Guy Revisited: You’re Always the Hero of Your Own Story

English: A stereotypical caricature of a villa...
You always know the villain by the awesome mustache. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I want to share some thoughts looking back on my experience with my neighborhood stalker (a.k.a. Creeper Guy) two months ago. As always, if you’d prefer to stick with the flash fiction, no hard feelings here. Check back tomorrow or browse the archives.

Let’s start with a familiar story. It’s about a hero, a villain, and a damsel. The villain’s of the mustache-twirling variety. Because he has it out for the hero, he’s captured the damsel and tied her to the train tracks. The hero somehow learns of this plan, hops on his horse, and rides to rescue his lady.

In the distance he hears the sounds of the train whistle growing louder and louder. Does he get there in time? Of course! He’s the hero. He jumps off his horse, duels the villain, and unties the damsel just moments before the train whooshes past.

It’s a classic story, and a good one. And the perspective matters. As readers, we see through the eyes of the hero because that’s the perspective I told the story from.

But we reflexively do this all the time. You are always the hero of your own story. When we hear about a dangerous situation, we imagine that in similar circumstances, we’d outsmart the bad guy and save the day.

Take my Creeper Guy story. While I received an enormous outpouring of love and support, I also received well-intentioned comments like this:

“Show me where he lives, and I’ll beat him up if he bothers you.”

“If someone ever came after my family like that, I wouldn’t think twice about shooting him.”

“Shame on you for not calling the police sooner. You should have called a long time ago.”

“I’ve never run into crazy guys because I always run with my dog/with a friend/at the park/etc.”

In all of these statements, the person casts themselves in the role of the hero within my story. They presume that, given the same circumstances, they would have made a different decision that would result in a more victorious outcome. My actions (specifically, the months and months of inaction that preceded my eventual phone call to the police) don’t make sense. That’s not what the hero does. The hero is bold, decisive, and in control of the situation. The hero beats up the villain and saves the girl.

English: Poster for The Perils of Pauline (1914)
The damsel’s in a default state of fear. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But let’s revisit the story again.

She’s minding her own business, overpowered by a stranger whose intentions are inscrutable. She’s restrained. She’s lying on the train tracks while her kidnapper looks on and laughs. She hears the whistle of the train approaching. All she can think about is that she’s about to die. She would do anything to get away, to hide, to rewind time to that point in her life just hours ago (a lifetime ago) when mustache-twirling strangers only existed in the movies.

You see where I’m going with this.

Being a damsel in distress is inherently disempowering. It’s a role defined by helplessness and limited options. In my experiences with Creeper Guy, it really bothered me that this jerk could singlehandedly terrorize me into not running for weeks at a time. He had all the power. It’s a sick feeling. Whenever I had a run-in with him, I’d be afraid to check my own mail for days afterward, lest he be out there in his car, waiting. It’s the “flight” portion of the “fight-or-flight” response.

Remember: I’m exactly like you. I’ve had fantasies all my life that if anyone messed with me, I’d put them in their place. But when the reality of several tons of metal comes barreling after you, you run. You hide. You don’t want to think about it. You want to go back to that time in your life when your neighbors were harmless, when stalkers only showed up in the movies.

So what changed?

I already told you, remember? It was Connor Choadsworth: In Search of the Mongolian Deathworm.

Frank Bernard Dicksee. Chivalry
Me, Creeper Guy, and Connor Choadsworth. Hint: I’m not the damsel this time. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am dead serious. Here’s the secret, the essential difference between the damsel and the hero: The damsel runs from danger because she doesn’t want to die. The hero runs towards danger because he doesn’t care if he dies. He has someone to fight for.

There’s a world of difference between fear and anger. Fear paralyzes. Anger empowers. As I sat at home staring at my iPod that day, I felt overwhelmed by the injustice, that this jerk would ruin my favorite episode of one of my favorite podcasts… well, you gotta draw a line somewhere. Wanting to defend the honor of Connor Choadsworth provided just enough rage to change my “flight” into “fight”. Having someone to fight for transformed me from damsel to hero in an instant, and heroes have options. Heroes are able to take action. So I did.

As a result, I think I better understand why people behave the way they do under stress. More importantly, I can silence the voice in my head that tells me that given the same situation, I’d do it differently. Just because I want to cast myself as the hero doesn’t mean I’ll have that option. Circumstances dictate so much. Who can know for sure what you’ll do until you’ve lived it?

For example, as the Trayvon Martin case has unfolded over the past few weeks, I found myself profoundly overwhelmed with its parallels to Creeper Guy. A pedestrian in his own neighborhood, being followed by a neighbor in a car whose intentions were unclear. The fear, the sense of danger, the inherent physical imbalance between vehicle and foot traffic. And if Creeper Guy had left his car and come after me, what would I have done? I have a bittersweet admiration for the young man who, being braver or more reckless than I am, rejected the role of the damsel outright. Hero or villain? Let God decide, but I can empathize.

The line between these roles is a thin one. We never know what role we’re going to play until we’re playing it. One can transform into another so easily with just a change of motivation. Maybe the best we can do is to be conscious of these roles, and do our best to understand each other accordingly.

Do you usually picture yourself in the role of hero when you hear other people’s stories? What should we do about it, given it’s so reflexive and automatic?

Motley Microfiction: The Rescue Party

The Rescue Party

On the cancer ward, no one really sleeps at night. It’s the lights. It’s the click and whir of the machines interfacing with your heartbeat.

On the cancer ward, we’re staging a rescue. We’ve bagged some rats. We’ve named them, tamed them, and taught them to dance. We’ve got beer. We’ve got chocolate cookies with bacon. And we’re coming for you.

The elevator doors will open. The rats will roll out like a carpet. We’ll charge from the rear. There’ll be rioting. There’ll be property damage. We’ll probably wake up in jail.

It all goes down at midnight.

Get ready.

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North American cover art for PC
Imagine this movie, but with nurses instead of chefs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s link roundup is being postponed until tomorrow due to computer problems. Until then, enjoy today’s piece. It’s a fun  little bit written for my friend who just got her bone marrow transplant and her daughter TJ (one of my best friends) who is camped out at the hospital with her during the recovery process. Word on the street’s that the doctors are happy with the recovery process so far. Here’s hoping, my friend, that it’s better every day from here on out!

In the meantime, I’ve cooked up this little rescue plan in case there’s a need for emergency chocolate in the future. It’s rats carrying bacon-chocolate cookies! What else do you need?

Hope you guys are having a good weekend. What are you looking forward to in the upcoming week?

Medical Microfiction: Multicellularity

The Multicellularity Defense

The papers called Eddie the “Monsoon Killer” because he liked to bathe in the blood of his victims.

Really. He had an extra hot tub installed just for that purpose. At five quarts of blood per person, he racked up quite the headcount.

Eddie spent 10 years in lockup while they tallied the bodies.

Just what he wanted.

Court Day arrives, and in strolls Eddie. He denies none of the evidence but claims innocence anyway. Calls it the Multicellularity Defense: “We’re just made of cells, and cells don’t live long. All my guilty cells are dead. Therefore, you must acquit!”

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Cell Biology
Cells all on the same team. (Photo credit: ex_magician)

You probably know today’s word, multicellularity, but do you ever stop to think how dang strange it is that we’re walking colonies of cells? And that these cells are always dying off, and yet somehow we don’t completely lose our sense of identity when they do?

Most life on Earth gets only one cell to live. For the bacteria, archaea, and protists among us, life begins with one cell and ends when that cell dies. If you’re lucky, you get a chance to divide before that happens, thereby passing on your genes to the next generation.

Multicellular organisms like ourselves get to live longer than that. If one cell dies, it’s not the end of the world. We go on. Most of the cells in our body get replaced on a rolling basis depending on the cell type. Red blood cells kick along for about four months, while skin cells get a few weeks to live. The nerve cells that make up the brain have the longest lifespan, and can last up until your death.

That means it’s only fair to convict Eddie’s brain of the crimes. Don’t punish the poor, innocent epidermis though!

As an added Easter Egg, did you guys catch the reference to the Chewbacca Defense at the end there? You must acquit!

Medical Microfiction: Phantom Limb Syndrome

Redrawing the Map

He had a full tank, a thousand in the bank, and a newly acquired degree in psychology. With nothing to lose, Arnold hit the road for Canada. He dreamed of an expatriate lifestyle: getting drunk abroad, meeting exotic women, and other Hemingwayesque fantasies.

But when he reached the border between Montana and Saskatchewan, he found a steep cliff abutting an endless ocean. Where had Canada gone? He sped up and down the unknown coastline looking for a clue. As the sun set, Arnold found a solitary billboard overlooking the place where Canada had been:

Dear America,

Sawed off!

Cheers,

Canada

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Canadian flag.
Canadian flag. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s a terrible, terrible pun at the end. I apologize for its sheer awfulness. Or is it awesomeness? I’ll leave it for you to decide.

Phantom limb syndrome is a perception of feeling in a limb that has been amputated. A person experiencing this syndrome may feel as if the missing limb is still there and functioning normally. Most commonly, the person will experience pain, often severe.

English: Author: btarski Date: 6/23/06
The sensory homunculus shows how the brain organizes input from your body parts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It happens because the brain rewires itself after an amputation to make up for the lack of nerve signals that usually come in from a particular body region. Unfortunately, the regions of the postcentral gyrus responsible for collecting signals from the limbs are located near the regions for the face. That means for people with phantom limb syndrome, touching different areas of your face can make you feel sensations on your phantom limb.

Today’s story is an illustration of phantom limb syndrome from the brain’s perspective. Arnold has never been to Canada, but he’s certain it’s right where it should be. After all, he’s still getting signals from the region. It’s not until he drives all the way to the border that he realizes the truth: that Canada has been gone for a long time, and somehow he never got the memo. In the same way, a person who has experienced amputation will receive nerve signals that make the limb seem like it’s present, but in reality it’s gone.

Moral of the story: if you’re going to Canada, call ahead first.

Friday Fictioneers: Thunderheads

Thunderheads

“What do you see?”

Cumulonimbus capillatus. Thunderheads.”

“That’s not what I meant. Be creative. Ducks, castles, that kind of thing.”

“Please explain, sir.”

“You’re supposed to invent things. Their children imagine shapes in the clouds that resemble objects or animals. It’s a game. I’ll demonstrate. See that bulge over there?”

“Yes, sir.”

“It looks like a flying saucer.”

“It is a flying saucer, sir. That’s our ship.”

The commander sighed. “You’re right. I struggle with the local customs too.”

“Sir?”

“Yes?”

“It’s a shame, isn’t it? What we’re about to do?”

“Exterminating them? If it bothers you, pretend they’re ducks.”

Today’s post was written for Rochelle Wisoff-Fields’s weekly “Friday Fictioneers” flash fiction event. The challenge is to write a 100-word story based off of a photo prompt. I hope you enjoy! I always love receiving constructive criticism, so feel free to let me know what you think.

Medical Microfiction: Keratinocytes

The Little Dutch Girl

“We’ll draw straws. Long straws stay. Short fixes the hull.”

“Sounds fair.”

Olga proffered a fistful of sticks to her crewmates. Hal, Zarina, and Ken drew one apiece. There was a sharp intake of breath as they opened their palms.

Olga grimaced. “Guess it’s me. Let’s roll. We’re losing oxygen.” She stepped over the airlock threshold. She scanned the area and gasped in surprise. “Wait. Where are the tools? Where’s my space suit?”

“Sorry, Olga,” said Zarina.

The airlock whooshed shut.

Hal shut his eyes as Olga’s body, distorted by the vacuum of space, plugged the breach in the hull.

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ISS science officer and flight engineer, astro...
When you go outside the airlock, don’t forget your space suit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I were a cell in the human body, I think one of the most miserable work environments would be the epidermis, also known as your skin. Your skin’s your body’s biggest organ, and one of the most important ones. It keeps the bad stuff out and the good stuff in and represents the boundary between the body and the environment.

Given that important role, it’s still a raw deal to be a keratinocyte, the type of cell that makes up 95% of the epidermis. Keratinocytes are born deep in the basal layer (the stratum basale) of the skin. There they spend a short childhood multiplying before they’re shoved upwards toward the surface of the skin. As they rise in rank, they’re cut off from the nourishing blood supply found in the deeper layers. Eventually they die off and are packed full of keratin, which hardens them and makes them waterproof. By the time they reach the surface of your skin, their dead bodies form a tough, waterproof wall that keeps all the living cells in your body protected from the outside world.

Keratinocytes are born to die. It’s a heroic deed, yes, but still a raw deal. Much like being thrown out of the airlock to plug the breach in the hull.

In case you’re not familiar with it, the title and inspiration for this story comes from an American folk tale called The Little Dutch Boy. In this story, a young boy becomes a hero by using his finger to plug a leak in a dike. Of course, the big difference between the boy of this story and keratinocytes is that the boy got to choose his fate!

In Praise of Beta Readers

St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writin...
St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writing: I’m sure he had beta readers, too. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love reading the Acknowledgements page in the back of a novel. It gives me a sense of the amount of work that went into making the rest of the book feel so effortless. While I’m sure there exist some rare geniuses that can churn out brilliant writing unaided, for the vast majority of writers, it takes a community to bring out the potential in a story.

Beta readers are at the heart of it.

I love beta readers. I love them even more than I love slush readers. Beta readers, the brave souls, volunteer to read your writing when it’s still too embarrassing to show in public. They donate their time and effort to weeding out character inconsistencies and plot holes, grammar errors and formatting problems, usually asking for nothing more than a thank-you and perhaps a beta read in return.

They can be relatives, friends, acquaintances, or even just random people you’ve met on the internet. My loose confederation of beta readers includes all of the above, and each one of them brings unique gifts and perspectives to bear on my writing.

I admire beta readers because giving good criticism is hard, maybe even harder than receiving it. I used to be a bit sensitive to criticism when I first started writing, many years ago. It was compounded by the fact that my first novel was, like most first novels, objectively awful. There was a lot to criticize. And yet, the handful of brave souls who read the whole thing were exceptionally kind to me. Kinder than the novel deserved. And yet I was still afraid of criticism because I was afraid it would compound my worst fears: that I was a hack, and that I shouldn’t be a writer.

Justice League - The Search for Hawkgirl
Beta readers are my own personal heroes.

It all changed when I started beta reading for other people. I realized that for every comment I made, there were ten that I kept in reserve. It is no kindness to nitpick a novel to death, especially when it’s in an early draft and likely to change. Beta reading requires both  courage and humility: courage to point out problems that the author may have overlooked and needs to be aware of, and humility in understanding that it’s not your novel, and you don’t get to decide how it should be written.

Writing is hard work, but you need criticism to improve.

So I started taking constructive criticism in a spirit of joy. When done well, criticism is a rare gift, an opportunity to learn what could make your writing more powerful and beautiful.

But you have to embrace it. You have to let your guard down and tell yourself, “No matter what they tell me, it’s probably something I need to hear.”

Champagne
I raise my glass to you, friends! (Photo credit: Sergey Melkonov)

So here’s to my beta readers! Without you, I’d still be using way too many italics, writing Mary Sues, merrily using all the adverbs, and forgetting to include small details like “setting” and “description”. Everything I write would be 20% longer while covering the same amount of plot. Most importantly, without you, I wouldn’t grow as a writer.

To Jason and my Dad, Jan and Wendy, Cyndyl and Caitlin, Joy, Lauren, Becky, Zig, and the many others who have helped over the years: thank you. Thank you for the gift of your time, honesty, encouragement, and wisdom. When I succeed, my small victories are yours as well. When you succeed, I celebrate your achievements. And if the day comes when I write my own Acknowledgements page, I’ll be proud to list your names in my own novel, right where they belong.

Writers, do you have beta readers in your life? What sorts of things have they brought to your attention that you’d never have noticed on your own?

Link Roundup 7-21-13

English: Leafcutter ant Acromyrmex octospinosu...
Leafcutter ant! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s the weekend! Here’s a few interesting links on science, medicine, writing, and more from around the blogosphere:

Someone finally explains the real strength of the Bechdel Test, as applied to movies and books. I’ll be keeping this in mind in the future when I write about characters whose backgrounds fall outside of the privileged arenas in society.

Io9 brings us video of the world’s tiniest protest rally, brought to you courtesy of Phylum Arthropoda. Video embedded for your viewing pleasure:

Speaking of adorable things, don’t miss Dreamwalkeramrita’s whimsical re-imagining of common text abbreviations as fuzzy little superheroes!

A portrait gallery of the elderly reflected in mirrors as their younger selves. I found these pictures haunting and beautiful.

All about vitamins, and why many of them might not be as helpful as you think. In the future we’ll spend a whole week here at Medical Microfiction talking about vitamins, thanks to the suggestion of author and reader CJ Friend.

Podcasts I Liked:

What’s going on in your blog this week? What caught your eye around the interwebs?

Medical Microfiction: Cimex Lectularius

The Locals Know

Whenever I move, I like to visit the local grocery stores to get a feel for the culture. Shoes side-by-side with the produce in Italy. Chocolate genitalia in Belgium. Whole aisles of spaetzle in Germany.

And then my job took me to an isolated logging town in Idaho. The local convenience store stocked an unusually large selection of pesticides and woodcutting gear.

“What’s the deal? Roaches? Wasps?” I asked the shopkeeper.

“Bedbug outbreak,” he said. “You’ll want some spray and a chainsaw, just in case.”

He sounded crazy; I laughed. So I was unprepared that night when my bed attacked.

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Fruit and berries in a grocery store, Paris, F...
Fruit and berries in a grocery store in Paris, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My story “Alien” and the conversation it provoked on home and travel has got me feeling nostalgic about the itinerant life. I have a travel ritual where I hit the local grocery store as soon as possible when I go to a different country. It’s fun to see the similarities and the differences between what I normally experience and what my counterparts abroad experience when they sit down for a meal.

 I was in a grocery store when I first learned the meaning of the term “culture shock.” Shortly after my family moved from Italy to Georgia, I visited a Super Wal-Mart for the first time. If you live in an area without these suckers, let me just say they’re huge and they sell almost anything you can imagine, from groceries to furniture to garden supplies. The visit happened just a couple of days after we’d moved. I remember standing in the toothpaste aisle, heart racing and in complete shock because there was a whole aisle devoted to different kinds of toothpaste.

Crest toothpaste Purchased Feb. 2005 in Atlant...

What did it mean? Did these people just stand around all day brushing their teeth nonstop? How was I supposed to decide which type to buy? Toothpaste is toothpaste, and yet each box on the shelf bragged about being better than everything around it. My heart raced, and I realized I was hyperventilating. I wanted to go somewhere quiet and pretend like I was back in Italy, and this was all just a bad dream.

Visiting the local grocery store can be fun or terrifying, but it’s always worth your time.

English: Cimex lectularius the Bed-bug
A bed bug outside of its normal habitat: your bed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cimex Lectularius is the scientific name for those most unwanted of sleeping companions, the bed bugs. Medically, bed bugs cause some mild problems for their human hosts. They can cause allergic reactions with their nasty little bites, anemia from the blood-sucking, and psychological distress because, well, you’ve got bugs crawling all over you at night.

Bedbugs have been making a comeback over the last decade here in the United States because of a combination of factors. Firstly, they’ve developed resistance to many of the insecticides that used to kill them. Other pesticides used historically have been found to be harmful to humans and/or the environment, which further narrows our options. Add to that increased world travel, and like any pest or illness, bed bugs seize the opportunity to colonize new places.

The important thing is to be prepared to deal with local issues when you travel, be they bed bugs or, um, bed bugs. Just pay attention to the grocery stores, and you’ll know what to do.

What are your traveling rituals? Do you like to hit the grocery stores too? Have you ever experienced culture shock?