Now What?

Saturday, I couldn’t figure out why my ability to focus seemed to have gone out the window. I’d gotten the edits for the next Merchant book in, those that had already come in. I’d finished the d’Vosges story draft. Day Job was pretty much wrapped up aside from one admin thing that had to wait on a third party. So why was I staring at a story, unable (or unwilling) to buckle down and write? I had a similar problem reading. I have a thick TBR stack to get through this summer, and sitting and reading for more than a chapter at time seemed impossible. I had too much energy, or I was fighting to stay awake.

The weather played a role. We’ve gone from drought to flood. Literally flood, as the Canadian River is reaching levels not seen in over 25 years, and other streams are bursting their banks and causing major transportation snarls as well as inundating homes and businesses (Hereford, Texas and Rita Blanca Creek did not get along well this past weekend.) Palo Duro Canyon state park has had lots of flooding and road closures, and the hiking trails were also closed because of wash-outs and mud. Lakes that people assumed were empty forever abruptly have water in them again. This is great, but it also gets old if you are not used to daily rain and high humidity. The constant grey and other people’s worries were chewing on me.

Part of it is trying to sort out transportation to and from an event. In the big scheme of things, it’s a very minor concern, but it’s still there.

Then I realized the problem. A chunk of my feeling scattered came from the lack of urgent deadlines and pressure. This spring has been odder than usual, for a host of reasons, most of them far outside my control. Everyone around me was running at flank speed from April 15 until this past Thursday, or so it felt. As event and deadline piled on each other, tension got higher. Some things happened that left grumbling, muttering, and frustration in their wake, mostly because it was a case of “Oh please, not NOW. I have no time to deal with this.” Except my associates and I dealt with it. That’s what grownups do.

And then it stopped. Everything stopped. No more race-stop-race. Welcome or unwelcome, everything wrapped up. There was no gradual taper down as often happens, no steady slowing. Instead it just ended, period. That’s … odd. And so I found myself without a looming deadline, without stacks of incoming and outgoing pages. No outside pressure remained. I stared at the screen, thinking I had to be doing a lot of something else, or fighting off a nap. (The cool, humid, grey weather wasn’t helping that bit.)

Once I realized what the problem was, or rather, the lack of problem, I pushed through and got things done. I can force myself to get back into the habit of concentrating. But it still feels odd not to have an external deadline trying to run me over.


Speed, Skill, and Age

A friend of mine and I were discussing a musician colleague of his, and one of the third-party’s compositions. The runs up and down the scale are brilliant, but my friend does not do them as fast as some. He’s not trying to show off, but to be precise and do justice to the piece.

That led to mutters and grumbles about people who think that certain pieces *coughOrangeBlossemSpecialcough* are a race to get through. Especially some Baroque and classical compositions that are *coughWidorToccatacough* used as encores or to show off with. “You lose the power,” my friend sighed. I looked at my notes on the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and agreed. It’s not a race. You have to be steady and precise. Bach is not Brahms or Durufle, where you emote all over the place and can mess with the tempo. Baroque is different.

Then we switched to grumbling about weather changes and mileage. My friend lamented a composition that he’d played frequently in his younger days, but now required checking the forecast before attempting. Otherwise, his arthritis made it too painful and messed up his finger pressure on the instrument. He’s at the point where his physical ability has peaked and is starting to fade a little, even though his knowledge of his craft and its history is still growing. We come from different musical traditions and instruments, but I love listening to him talk about technique and styles, because I always learn something I can use on my own instrument(s). He thinks he’s got four or five more years left, then he will have to retire because his hands and neck will have reached the point of interfering too much with his craft. He’ll still play for his own pleasure, but not as a career.

I do several activities where smoothness has to come before speed. Keyboard music. Vocal music. Shooting. Fencing (sword, not barbed wire). Carpentry. Yes, it is fun sometimes to see just how fast a choir can get through “And He Shall Purify” before the last vocalist crashes and taps out. Or to race through the Toccata of the Toccata and Fugue at top speed, leaving wrong notes scattered all over the place and not caring. But that’s after you already know the piece, know it well, and are funning around. More often, the instructor or conductor will hold you back, insisting on precision and smoothness. We’ve probably all heard choirs who accelerate through the “Alleluia” chorus, leaving the orchestra or pianist/organist two pages behind.*

My voice has peaked. I’m still gaining skill in technique, but I will soon lose more and more of the upper register. That’s what happens with ageing. Since I’m already a switch, meaning I can sing soprano 1, soprano2, and alto 1, in a year or two I will stop worrying about the high Bs and Cs. Right now, high B-flat is the effective end of my register. Yes, I can go higher, if all the stars align, and sound good. Not coluratura or bellcanto good, but “dogs don’t howl and people don’t flee” on pitch and clear. Given the damage I did to my voice when I was a teen, that’s amazing in and of itself. But time passes, and my instrument is not as young as I want to think I am. Technique can only balance time for a while.

There are people who can maintain peak skill until they die. There are people who should have quit a decade before they finally stop (or the Grim Reaper taps on the door.) Frustration is when the mind, ear, and heart want to keep going, but the joints get in the way.

*It usually traces back to the “For the Lord G-d Omnipotent Reigneth” section, and clipping the eighth-notes too short. That leads to shortening the quarter notes as well, and then it’s off to the races!

Garden Adventures

As of Friday morning, RedQuarters has gotten over six inches of rain in the month of May. That puts us over the yearly average (Jan-May), and suggests that the long-awaited El Niño is at last arriving. Rain is great for the plants, better than sprinkler water, in part because it falls more evenly, and in part because it doesn’t have all the minerals that city-water brings with it. The roses have really hit their stride, in part because of the cooler weather. Instead of the low 100s like last year, we’re back in the 50s-60s. And wet. On Friday morning, after a 2.5″ overnight rain, I could see water in the playa lake on the way to Day Job, and heard the frogs (toads) singing for the first time in two years.

And saw a mosquito. Alas.

At long last, Firesprite has finally settled in. I’ve been watching this rose for over five years, and this is the first time it’s bloomed like this.

One of the Knockout™ roses. They are almost Alma proof, except for the yellow ones. No yellow rose really likes RedQuarters.

None of us can remember what the sprawling red rose in the foreground is. Gertrude Jekyll™ is the one in the back. That central cane is eight feet tall. So are some of the side canes. You don’t want to be around that plant in a high wind. Trust me. We have three of them, all over twenty years old and still going strong.

Gertrude is from David Austin Roses. They have a terribly dangerous catalogue. Dangerous because it tempts you to buy things that might not do well in your area, despite the official zone. Hybrid teas, for instance, do not do well in the Panhandle. Anything grafted is also a potential problem, at least at RedQuarters. The rose place in Tyler, Texas is safer for us, sometimes. And there’s the occasional, “It looked good at the nursery, so let’s give it a try.” Some of those have been great. Others? Nope. And at $35-50 per plant, the experiments are getting a wee bit too spendy (as they say in the Midwest.)

Why we put up with being attacked by Gertrude Jekyll™. The flowers have a magnificent scent, and are so beautiful. And did I mention that once established, the plants are hardy?

The snails have not emerged yet. Once they do, DadRed and I will spend up to half an hour every morning tossing them into the street or the alley. Nothing eats them, alas. They are toxic. We do use slug/snail bait, but some always manage to avoid the stuff.

Underrated Things

Dorothy Grant and I were text-chatting about the weather (chilly with steady rain from 0545-0700 the next day), and the pleasure of being inside and dry, or at least of not being out in very cold rain, drenched to the skin and staying wet for several more hours. Dry socks are a critical part of the equation. Cold, wet feet make everything else miserable.

Hot water on demand, especially clean hot water on demand is also underappreciated by people who have never been without access to that blessing.

Food that is available when you want or need it, and that you know is safe.

Access to books, all kinds of books, new books and old books and cool random books, fiction and non-fiction.

A firearm or sword hilt that fits your hand and that doesn’t bite. Or really, any tool that fits you and the job both.

Cars that start when you need them to, and that can hold what you need them to hold.

A really nice pair of sturdy, warm gloves that fit your hands. Ditto shoes. Well-fitting shoes are woefully underrated by people who have not found a pair yet.

Vanished Local Traditions

It’s a running seasonal joke among long time residents of this region that ever since FunFest stopped, the weather’s gone to heck. You could guarantee that FunFest weekend would bring lots of rain. I remember helping run my church’s fund-raising booth in the rain. Since the booth involved water games, rain from above was sort of a moot point. FunFest happened on Memorial Day weekend, which is roughly the peak of thunderstorm season anyway, so the association wasn’t entirely wrong. The event ended twenty years ago and more, but the half-joking comment continues among those who know. We are growing fewer every year, but we still joke.

Certain rodeos have disappeared from the prominence they once had, and other national and international rodeo and Quarter Horse events have taken their place. The Tri-State Fair split off the fair side and the “tractors, farm equipment, ranch equipment, and other cool stuff” side, which now takes place later in the year. I liked oogling the huge combines, tractors, the portable calf chutes, and other things, as well as watching the livestock judging, looking at the giant produce and fancy quilts, and eating deep-fried-mystery-food. I understand the commercial reason for the change, but I miss being able to do everything on one visit.

The end of summer, back when, was the Amarillo Symphony having an open-air concert on Labor Day weekend. It was held out at the science center, which was located out past the edge of civilization, almost. If the fireworks caught a bit of grass on fire, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Then civilization expanded and surrounded the science center. Since burning down buildings is frowned upon, fireworks and the concert came to an end. The concerts might be having a bit of a revival, now downtown at the not-a-ballpark*.

I get the sense that major community events have become more professional and less volunteer-run. I suspect changes in liability rules, the need for someone with the knowledge of all the applicable regulations, and the ageing of the prime “let’s all chip in and do something” group have something to do with it. Part of me misses the old, rougher on the edges seasonal markers. I also acknowledge that it would be very, very difficult to bring them back in today’s world. The population of the region is also changing, demographically and culturally.

Things are as they are, but nostalgia still seeps in. Although, this year, we might get rain over Memorial Day, just for old sake’s sake.**

*When the structure-with-sward downtown was being sold to the city, it was vehemently “not a ballpark but a multi-purpose event center.” It has four bases, a mound, an infield, outfield, and scoreboard. Ahem. Quack, Quack.

**Well, El Nino is playing a role too.

Sci-fi and A. I.: or These People Don’t Read or Watch Fiction, Do They?

Back when I was in grad school, I was listening to the NPR news on the way to class, and heard a story about the military meeting with ethics profs to discuss using robots in war, notably autonomous robots. There was some mention of concerns about “rogue A.I.,” and I grinned a little as the closing music clip came on. It was the theme to the first Terminator movie. (That’s also when I discovered that my Advisor didn’t know about things like Terminator. I was mildly surprised.)

I’ve been listening to the last month’s breathless reportage about A.I. and what it can do and how it will eliminate jobs (for what, the tenth time already?) and how perhaps the singularity is coming soon and so on and so forth, and how A.I. will do it all. First, it confirms my belief that 99% of journalists don’t know anything about computers. How to use programs, yes, perhaps, but not how the things work and the basic way programs do their thing. Second, I get the sense that these people have never, ever read dystopian techno-fiction or early cyberpunk, or watched things like Terminator or that TV show for kids (with the interactive way to shoot at the bad robots on the screen.)

Very early on, Isaac Azimov developed the Three Laws of Robotics, and used various short stories and then novels to explore the ramifications of that. the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey guaranteed that no one of a Certain Generation will use “Hal” as a key term for a voice-activated system, unless they are warped. Really warped. When people started talking about how wonderful it would be to have computers in our minds and cybernetic augmentations to our bodies, along came the Cybermen from Doctor Who. And a few other things. All are about computers that got a “wee bit” out of hand, and either decided that humans were superfluous, or that humans were actively antithetical to the computers’ needs and should be eliminated. The Cybermen traded physical survival for their humanity, with really bad results for everyone else around them.

I tend to be untrusting of technology in the first place, so I latched onto the dystopian-technology stories. Yes, computers and bionics and other things could do wonderful things in fiction. But … I’ve had computers die at awkward moments. I’ve had GPS systems get migraines when I really needed them (in the weather, when my hands were full of “first fly the plane”, just as the last ground-based beacon went out of range.) Computers are literal. Yes, we program them to deal with hundreds of variables, and some models for things look very good. But we programmed them. And truly complex systems? Go look at the percentage of success retrocasting weather and climate using climate models and supercomputers. I’ll wait.

So when the latest breathless “A.I will revolutionize writing! It will make cover artists obsolete! It will replace humans for [whatever,]”, I don’t believe them. Artificial intelligence programs are still programs. They adapt and process data quickly, but thus far, they can’t make the leaps people do. They can improve, as MindJourney has with anatomy (although human hands are still a challenge, among other things), but those are programs with inputs and patient corrections. ChatGPT likewise, and as people play with it, it becomes obvious that it can’t analyze literature worth a fig. It is programmed to have a certain bias and to have blind spots, because it’s a program. It’s a creation of humans who want it to have a bias.

Computers and robots work for some things, like delicate and repeating tasks (welding certain things, taking burger orders.) If you have a limited range of parameters, computers and robots are great. “Two beef patties, no lettuce, white cheese, no mayo, and a medium fry” the things can deal with, as long as a person is around to make sure that the right patties went into the hopper and that the other things are where they should be. Writing ad copy? Perhaps, since the psychology of advertising is fairly well known, even if it is not always aimed properly, as recent misadventures have shown.

Aritifical Intelligence dealing with weapons? Autonomous police robots that are programmed to deal with violent crime? Ah, I saw Robocop. I’ve read a few other things too. What one person can program, another can hack and reverse. Or too many variables will overload the system and it will react in ways the programmers didn’t anticipate. You know, like the in-flight computer that did a reboot after the plane experienced turbulence outside the program parameters. The software designers wanted to save space, so they assumed that he plane would never exceed X degrees of bank, Y degrees of roll, and a certain ascent-descent rate in cruise. The plane did (ah, CAT, how I hate thee) and the pilots became passengers until the system rebooted. Rare? Yes. Bad? Very yes!

A. I. is a program, or at least all the A.I. stuff I’ve seen and heard of to date are just programs. They process data quickly, and seem to think, but they don’t. Yet. I still have doubts about them. I’ve read sci-fi. I know what people are like. Terminator is just one possibility.

Putting Holes in Paper

I needed a break, I had a good-sized time gap between tasks, and the stars aligned. I packed my kit into my vehicle and went to the range.

One PM-ish on a weekday is a good time to go shoot. There are few or no other people putting holes in paper, so I’m not restricted to what I jokingly call “revolver corner,” the far right end of the row of bays. I don’t mind that slot, but I prefer to be elsewhere. Not with my back to the door, but elsewhere. I often get that slot because the guys shooting semi-automatic pistols don’t enjoy being pelted with their own rebounding brass as it hits the wall and comes back to visit.

My usual target was sold out, so I tried a slightly different one. It is still four pair of little bulls-eyes, but is simpler. I like the small, multiple targets, because it forces me to use a slightly different stance for each target. Better to shoot a more difficult round in practice than get surprised if I ever have to use my firearm in anger (rabid dog or other animal, for example.) I got my pistols and the ammo out of the range bag and stowed it in the proper shelf, mounted the target and sent it out to 4 yards, triple checked “eyes and ears,”* and started work. After observing my problem of the day (pushing, so my shots went a little high and to the left), I dug in to work. Two shots and check, two shots and check, two shots and check and reload.

Nothing existed except my hands, the pistol, and the targets. As I grew more tired, I shifted to a pistol with less recoil. I hurt, I was tired, and slightly hungry. In other words, not in perfect condition. That’s realistic, especially the wrist pain. I’d deliberately left my brace at work, because Murphy’s Law says I’ll be tired and sore if a rabid animal ever gets close enough to be dangerous. Shoot, study, adjust. Shoot, study, reload, start over.

I worked for almost an hour. When I called it a day, my right wrist hurt a great deal. I was tired. I had no tension in my shoulders or neck, because I’d been thinking about nothing but shooting. Things improved as I put holes in paper. I can’t think about anything else and shoot safely. I’m aware of my surroundings, but I don’t worry about what’s going on outside of the range. It’s almost a form of meditation, clearing my mind of anything except what my hands and body, the revolver, and the rounds are doing.

It was a good day.

*”Eyes and ears” means eye protection and ear protection. The range prefers full muff hearing protectors when we’re shooting, although I think the smaller, noise-cancelling ones might also be OK. The point is safety from loud sounds and flying brass (or worse).

Meditations While Doing the Wash

Why do turtlenecks only tangle with flannel and not with each other?

Does flannel ever stop filling the lint trap?

One pair of blue jeans will stain three separate loads of whites, especially white cotton.

White knee-high trouser socks will absorb dye from anything, even things that don’t stain other white clothes. Strange.

Is it possible to do a load of bedding and NOT have things end up, still damp, in the corners of the fitted sheets? Even when using corner clips to prevent this?

The Hawks are Back!

OK, spring is official. The Mississippi kites have returned to RedQuarters. On Monday evening over 40 of them were circling, then dispersing to find trees and roosts for the evening. It’s the first I’ve seen of them this year, and it is earlier than last year. Oh, and the first buzzards have also arrived. They are met with less rejoicing by the people who live under them.

The Mississippi kites usually arrive between May 1 and May 20. When varies from year to year, depending on temperature, insect availability, moisture, and who-knows-what. Unlike a lot of raptors, they are somewhat gregarious, meaning that they hang out together and travel as a group. No, they are not more social. More anti-social in fact, if they have a nest in the area. I’ve been buzzed twice and thumped once. Happily, the latter was 1) with fisted talons, 2) on top of a lightly padded hat. They will claw you up pretty badly if you get too close to their nests.

They eat bugs, and around here start with the miller moths, then shift to the locusts. They generally depart in early to mid August, after the chicks are ready to migrate.

Source: I’m amused that the site says their calls are rarely heard, because we hear them frequently. Also, I’ve seen their pre-mating fights, with the males in a talon-to-talon clench. They’re fierce. The one above is a male.


As with most raptors, the female (duller colored) is larger than the male. I tend to see the males more often, since they are out and about when I am. Plus they’re more distinctive. Since the kites eat bugs, they and our local sharp-shinned hawks get along fine. The owl, when he’s around, is here in winter, after the kites have departed.

Colorful Bits

Columbine, or actually aquilegia, since it is not blue and white. Aquilegia is the proper name for a group of distinctive flowers that have hooks on them that look like a raptor’s talon. The blue and white sort, the Colorado state flower, is probably the best known. The solid yellow kind seems to be the hardiest, most aggressive, most favored by the birds, and most prone to take over the world.

Yes, the solid yellow dominate my gardens despite my best efforts, out-competing the fancy colored kinds and eating entire roses. How could you guess?

However, since hope springs eternal and memory is short, guess what came home from the regional native plants nursery?

The above is a columbine, per the colors.

I’m partial to the flashy red below.

Aquilegia around here need part shade, cool roots but not too cool, water, and amended soil to bring it down from “the PH of bleach” to “still not acid, but not bad.” The plants are toxic, so please don’t put them in salad or nibble as you weed. They self-seed, some more so than others [glares at the yellow ones]. Birds will also spread the seeds [see earlier glare].

The following is NOT a mutant aquilegia, but one of the first of the Knockout™ roses to bloom. They took a beating over the winter, and are slowly returning to wakefulness. We lost eight roses, a mock-orange*, and the usual smaller plants. The alternations between hard cold and overly warm, all without moisture, stressed the plants past the point of no return. Which explains the eight roses-in-pots waiting on the back patio, all of which need to be stuck into the ground.

*The mock-orange was pushed. We told the contractor building the new raised beds “protect the mock-orange.” We told the foreman “protect the mock-orange.” Dad and I went out to find the mock-orange tossed on top of the fill dirt with the roots exposed and drying. We tried to nurse it along for the past two years, but this winter terminated it. Imagine the plant below, but bigger, and weeping like a willow. That’s what died. Grrrrrrr. It had branches as thick as my wrists. Grrrrrr.