Blowing off Steam

For those who don’t know much about PC gaming, Steam is an online service that provides copy protection, game e-tailing, and probably does other stuff as well.

I wouldn’t know for sure. Way back when Valve was announcing a game called Half-Life 2, there came an announcement that one would also have to use a service called “Steam.” One would have to permit one’s computer to phone Steam to validate one’s non-piracy right to play the game; not just upon install, but all the time. I had loved the first Half-Life to the level of remembering specific moments in the story and how I’d handled them. I also am not prone to automatic acceptance of pretty much anything. Me being me, I took at look at that and said: “nah, ain’t doing that, don’t need a game that badly.”

Most people did not take this stance. Most people just accepted the concept, just as most people accepted debit cards and juice bag drinks. I did not just accept it. And over time, I have come to understand that it means the end of my buying new PC games. When my old ones will no longer work under new systems, I just won’t be a gamer any more.

It wasn’t about unwillingness to buy. I don’t mind paying for software. I do mind the idea of having to keep spyware running just to play a game. For my OS and applications, it’s one thing; I hate it (oh, trust me, how deeply I hate it), but the price there would be my livelihood (and yes, I realize they know that and that’s why M$ does it, and yes, be assure that I take time to take that as personally as possible). I can be forced into it for a word processor, though I’ll remember that they did that. I can’t be forced into it for a game.

Thus, no Steam for me.

It ripples outward. I kept taking PC Gamer for quite some time, and would have continued, but now they no longer list in reviews whether a game uses Steam copy protection. When last they did, most games seemed to use Steam, so I infer that Steam is now assumed and thus needless to state, like “requires monitor.” With that, PCG lost its relevance to my world, and it’ll join about ten other print mag subscriptions in the recycle bin.

It’s not the only area in which I’ve done such a thing. There is increasing social pressure to own a “smart” phone, a device I consider mostly loathsome and unusable, not even very good for the basic purpose of speaking to others. For example, if someone under 40 organizes a meeting nowadays and creates an event on Facebook, and at the appointed time the venue turns out to be closed, the organizer will not post a sign on the closed door. The organizer will update the Facebook event, taking on faith that everyone checks Facebook from his or her phone. If you don’t, you’re left out. I realize that this will see me left out of a certain number of social events.

Once, I might have minded. Now I simply ask myself what I am really missing. That’s not sour grapes, but experience. An event with a bunch of people with smartphones will probably lead to the barbarism of a bunch of people staring down at their groins, madly “checking in” and posting Instagraphs (whatever they are), and making sure the whole world knows their status. I wouldn’t be a good fit anyway. At a group gathering, if I don’t mute my cell phone, you know that either something very important is going on, or I forgot, or I have so little regard for the value of the gathering that it’s valid to ask why I’m even there.

At some point during such obstinacies, the original issue becomes less important than the obstinacies themselves. No, I won’t take a debit card, even if I could see rare applications for it. Why? Because by now, debit cards can go to hell for their own sakes; I’ve enjoyed boycotting them for at least twenty years, and I see no reason to abandon the fun.

I don’t have phone conversations with disembodied voices, either. I will press numbers, but I will not speak understandably. Companies and government need to continue to hire human beings to do business with other human beings, and I’m not going to make it easier for them to get rid of more human beings. Making it harder for me? Okay, we can play that game. I view human interaction as important, and worth some invested time in order to foster.

It might seem like I have a fundamental aversion to new ideas. I don’t. I just have a fundamental aversion to new ideas that are pressed or forced upon me, especially when it’s one that is mainly for the forcer or presser’s benefit. Please consider that clause carefully. That’s my complaint about Steam: it’s there so that it can send information from my machine. That does not benefit me. That benefits game companies, maybe, but I’m not here to benefit them; therefore I’m fine if they go to hell. Same with smartphones. To me they look like a tiny chiclet keyboard and unusable screen at data rates that bloat up faster than a dead steer in August. Seems like $500 to begin the suffering, then $100+ per month of ongoing suffering. Go to hell, not doing it. Automatic bill pay? Seriously? Let me get this straight. I’m to let them take money out of my account without even reviewing the validity of their charges? What if they make a major mistake? You’re saying I should trust the company to do the right thing and be honest? Yeah. I’ll get right on that. I think I’ll be the one making decisions about who gets paid with my money, thanks.

I don’t look down on anyone who chooses to accept situations that I have rejected. I do think more highly of anyone who stopped and thought before making that acceptance. Can’t live without gaming, and decided to kneel and accept Steam? At least you thought. At least you did not just kneel by reflex. That’s really all I advocate: accept it for a considered reason, not just because a corporation ordered you to do so.

In the end, there may be more isolating choices, and I’ll have to decide what’s worth it to me.

I know one that is not, and it is Steam.

Removing stickers, fossilized or not, from books

Different people love books in different ways.

My mother first immediately broke the spine of every paperback she read. That way, she said, she didn’t have to worry about that any more. To me, that’s sort of like becoming a heavy tobacco and alcohol user so that one won’t have to save for retirement, but they were her books. Long as she kept her Visigothic, mutilating ways off mine, we were fine.

Some people keep no books, giving them all away. Some keep a selection, for show or rereading. Some have gone over to e-readers. Most people, I think, do not much care how much wear and tear they put on books. I believe this because of the condition of the used books I buy: creased covers, dog-eared pages, cracked spines, and probably body fluid stains.

Many have bookstore price stickers or remnants thereof. In many cases, someone brutally clawed at the sticker without much luck, leaving lots of nice divots and grooves. Sometimes there are three labels, one atop one or more others. Sometimes they are on the spine, which creates delicate circumstances; without special care, peeling the label may rip off part of the spine. ‘Used’ labels from school bookstores are always on the spine, and it’s not strange for them to be fossilized. It’s not strange for any label to be fossilized. The gum eventually hardens.

It’s not that my soul is crushed by the damage to a thing (though I think it’s pretty shabby to abuse a book, in my heart of hearts). It’s that I like to maintain valuable things in good condition. Books are valuable things. And for that reason, I’m going to take any sticker on a book as a personal challenge. I have now developed an improved method for this. Considering the demographics of my readership, there is a reasonable chance some will find this interesting.

First, gather supplies and books. I would practice on beat-up used books. Supplies:

  • Books with labels or remnants thereof
  • Bottle of Googone
  • Paper towel
  • Q-tips
  • Scissors
  • Some form of protection for the work surface, if needed, like an old plastic placemat
  • Plastic bookmark, or some other plastic potential scraper suitable for gentle work
  • A little patience

Method:

  • Examine the first book for stickers. Locate all, including all remnants and gum residue.
  • Make at least one gentle effort to peel off each sticker without help. New stickers may well come off. Some will leave residue.
  • Rip off a paper towel just so it’s handy. Cut a piece of that the size of the label you want gone, or slightly bigger.
  • Set the piece over the label and drip the Googone onto it. The idea is that by having the piece in place, it doesn’t all run off–Googone is thin.
  • Repeat for any other labels on the same exposed side of the book. Drip a bit more Googone on the paper towel piece, now and then–it evaporates, and if the label is paper, keeping it soaked is how you get the solvent through the paper to loosen the gum.
  • It can take some time to soften up completely hardened gum. You can test with the plastic bookmark (works better than fingernails). Most labels loosen up after several minutes kept soaked with Googone. Once you loosen it, you can q-tip some more Googone onto the residual gum.
  • If the label is plastic, this is going to take a while. If it won’t peel safely, use just a little Googone all around the edges, and wait for the stuff to eat away at the gum until you can peel up one side a bit. Then q-tip a little more on, wait, peel, q-tip more, wait, peel, etc.
  • Eventually, all labels will come off. Baste the remaining residue with Googone, then use the rest of the paper towel for a vigorous rub of the whole surface. If some got on the pageblock, or there’s a stain, don’t worry; it’ll evaporate. Give it a day or so to do that. The book will not smell like that forever, but a week or so is not odd.
  • Enjoy the original color of the cover, because on a used book, the uncovered area will be darker than the faded remainder.
  • Take a moment to scoff at their feeble labels.

If you are concerned about safety, wear those thin kitchen gauntlets and eye protection. I’m not, but I’d never encourage anyone not to. Googone has a very strong orange smell and is a petroleum distillate, and can be persistent, so I try to do this somewhere that won’t be a problem. I do make a point of washing my hands very well afterward, and that can take some effort before my hands no longer smell like this stuff. If you are concerned, the company website has Safety Data Sheets in .pdf.

The company’s website also indicates that they have a spray gel, and that may yet be a better method. I’m so cheap that I probably won’t consider it until I’ve used up my current supply of the original. They’ve even got a package they bill as the sticker-lifter, so the Googone people know their customer. Haven’t tried that one either.

Now if only I can figure out a way to fix cracked spines.

It is nonsensical to expect shame from those who have none

Spanish has a beautiful word: sinvergüenza. It means “shameless,” but is culturally loaded. (Don’t make the mistake of thinking it changes by gender; it is a compound word, “sin vergüenza,” or ‘without shame’; thus as an adjective it retains the same form regardless of the noun it modifies, and if a noun, is the same whether describing a shameless man or woman.) To articulate it correctly, remember that the trema (two dots) over the U means to pronounce each vowel: seen-vair-hu-en-za.

In most Spanish-speaking cultures, one’s personal honor is an important thing, which may require actions or non-actions for the sake of preservation. A sinvergüenza is a person whom dishonor would not restrain, a person who has placed him or herself outside shared cultural values and ethics. It occurs to me that this useful word can help nice people to understand some of the assholes we deal with.

I began to think about this while reading a thread on my local Nextdoor. A salesperson or scammer came to lady’s door and knocked. While waiting for an answer, he muttered profanities. We know this because her video camera recorded him in full glory. Several responded to say they had seen him, or that he had come to their doors and behaved with anger and rudeness. Everyone was surprised and outraged.

My theory as to why they were surprised: they had ignored the most obvious clue. The guy was sinvergüenza. How did we know this? Because he was knocking on doors, even those with NO SOLICITING signs, intruding on people’s private property in order to bother them. It’s the same mentality that sends spam, or makes scam phone calls. All those who do these things, which a decent human being would be ashamed to do, are lacking in shame. If one is impervious to shame, a key moral restraint is not in place, and thus all behaviors are permissible (in that person’s mind) and all other persons are required and expected to tolerate them. If other persons do not tolerate the bad behaviors, those said other persons are intolerant, mean, wrong, bad. It all comes back to the statement of policy: “I may be an asshole, and you may not object. If you do, of course, I single you out for extended assholery.”

I recall one time back in Kennewick, I happened to see a guy snooping around our vehicles in our driveway. I went outside with the sjambok (not brandishing it) and asked him just what the hell he was up to. He was handing out flyers for a hypermiler event sponsored by a Toyota dealership in Yakima. He then proceeded to evangelize me on hypermiling. I told him frankly that he was being creepy and had better get the hell out of there. The verbal altercation deteriorated to the point where I had to advance with the sjambok. I laughed when he talked about ‘threatening me with that stick.’ (He’s lucky he didn’t turn around and put me in a situation where I worried for my safety. That thing feels like boiling water hosed onto the skin.) Here’s the point: to him, it was perfectly fine to pull into my driveway, start snooping around one of our cars unannounced, then behave as an asshole when told to stop. A normal person would be embarrassed to behave this way.

We see it in email spam. A friend of mine wrote, this very day, about an email exchange with a marketer. After his third email, she told him her firm wasn’t interested, and to stop mailing her. His response was that she could have said so the first time. Point being: to him, as a shameless person, sending repeated emails was just fine. Thus, it was her fault she got them, because she did not opt out. Every couple weeks or so, I find myself on some unwanted mailing list. If it persists, I reply telling them to remove me. They often tell me to use their unsubscribe link. See what they did there? They intruded upon me unasked for. If I wish it to stop, I am expected to do work. Asking them to do work to correct their own wrong work, that makes me a very mean person, and unkind. They assume that their initial contact was perfectly legitimate, and it was not.

The area where this is most punishable is U.S. Junk Mail, because most days someone sends a business reply envelope that gets to hold all the day’s junk. It’s still wrong, because I’m still asked to dispose of it in some way, but at least I can dispose of it by sending it to a junk mailer for disposal.

I realize that most of you are fundamentally nice, decent people. You get surprised when bad things happen, because you do not do such bad things, and you wonder how anyone could. Thank you for being as you are; you are appreciated. I’m here to help you. And it’s simple:

THEY ARE SINVERGÜENZA. They have no shame.

They don’t play by nor care for your rules of courteous conduct. Because you impose those rules upon yourself in dealing with the shameless for longer than they deserve, they bother you longer and behave more rudely to you when you voice objection. They may go away when threatened, but they will not act as you would. If you had done what they did, you would walk away wondering what had become of you. They will not do this. They are already on to the next mark. Nothing you said hurt them or caused them to reconsider their actions. They are not like you. They lack shame.

You did not have to allow this. If you were to realize that a sinvergüenza action is the marker of a shameless person, you would not make nice with him. You would respond in the beginning as if this person were unworthy of courtesy. In most cases that might mean not answering the door; it might mean toying with telemarketers; it could mean refusing to answer nosey questions; etc. But you already have the person’s personality marker.

Because only a shameless person does in such a way.

Compilation release: The Unusual Second Life of Thomas Weaver

Some of you have probably read my posts about the six-part serial release of this story on Kindle. The plan all along was to assemble the pieces into a novel-length story, and this has now been done.

If you’ve been following Shawn’s work–and his sales suggest that you and others might well be–you may remember his Second Chance short story series, later stitched together into a book. This time, he decided to plan it that way, which is not to say that he planned it to any great degree. Quirk of my character: there are some words I so deeply loathe. There are so many, in fact, that I don’t tell people about them, because I know that most people consider it the height of amusement and wit to torment one ever after with the disliked word. Here are a couple of in-crowd writing slang terms I don’t mind saying how much I hate: “plotter” and “pantser.” A plotter is someone who plans the whole book out in advance, like Dean Koontz (his plots feel like a college basketball tournament bracket). A pantser is someone who writes “from the seat of his or her pants,” in other words, just improvises. Both terms reek of writers’ workshop banter and writing-oriented message boards, about which I will say no more for the moment. The terms say: “We’re cool, we’re writers, this is the club lingo.”

I’ve never been a joiner.

Shawn considers himself more of an improvisational and spontaneous writer (and yeah, I like that term better than the slang) than I do. I see his style as right down the middle. He begins with an overall concept of story arcs to realize, but comes up with most plot twists and major events as he goes along. Doing this in serial form is interesting to edit, because it’s all developmental. That’s how our process went. Shawn would tell me what he figured to write for the upcoming installment. I would:

  • Notify him when a plot choice was about to limit too many future options.
  • Remind him when his time travel/supernatural aspects were getting too loopy, or too convenient, or too distracting.
  • Offer solutions or alternatives to unworkable stuff.

In short, I would throw myself on any necessary grenades (to borrow his rather colorful description from the acknowledgements) to make sure their shrapnel didn’t shred his story. Then we would debate. Most of the time, I would win the debate because I very rarely defend an editing position with shield and body, and only when I feel it’s crucial. If you’ve always imagined an editorial relationship that involves repeated shoutfests, all I can say is that I don’t have those. I am not emotionally suited to regular squabbling, and I don’t stake out a position just to get a ‘win.’ My style is more collaborative and cooperative. If I tell Shawn something doesn’t work, I have just signed on to help him devise a better alternative. And while Shawn loves to tell the world about the scorpion stings he finds in the margin comments, he does not emphasize the fact that the comments also contain compliments. When the author goes yard, I believe s/he should know it, and I don’t hold back.

This series had plenty of those moments, as well as those where I dug trenches, constructed gun emplacements, prepared to rake the beaten zones with interlocking fields of fire, and pre-registered artillery targets. If I did a lot of that, I think it would devalue the concept of defending a fervent recommendation. They can’t all be fervent, or there is no fervency.

One area that did not affect me as much, but that did affect a great many readers, was the theme of animal cruelty. A number of Shawn’s loyal readers wrote to him (or in one case, to me) to ask for a spoiler on one particular outcome. If the outcome went a certain way, they wanted to know, so that they could stop reading. I am like that with movies, but never books. In fact, I am so affected by movies that I mostly just do not watch them. For the record, if you buy and read the book, and you reach a point where you believe that you cannot continue without knowing the outcome of one particular situation, take my word that the worst does not happen. It is safe for you to go on.

In the end, I believe Shawn has created a work that reads better than nearly anything you’ll find on an endcap, or “bestseller” aisle. Want to have fun? Next time someone calls a book a “bestseller,” ask what the supporting sales figures were. There won’t be any. “Bestseller” is not a status conferred by quantity sold. It is a status confidently predicted by the purchase of prominent product presentation at retail. The cart goes squarely before the horse. In my view, it is always moral and ethical to mock such shenanigans. If anyone calls you on this, send him or her to me.

Letting the comedy speak for itself

It’s not easy, to go by the many writers who can’t get it right, but it’s one of the most important talents in storytelling. Unless a book is a comedy book, one does not need to make an effort to be funny, nor to announce that something is supposed to be funny. The greater skill lies in letting the humor speak for itself. If the situation is comical, be assured the reader will appreciate the opportunity to make that observation herself.

I thought of this while having a cigar on my back patio, listening to children frolic in the pool at the neighbor’s to the southwest. Children having fun, without trashing your place or deafening you, is a situation I find most uplifting. As I did so, I read this passage from Tim Severin’s Tracking Marco Polo. Our travelers are in Afghanistan in 1964, having ridden from Venice:

“…Another point we had to tackle was that we still had no idea how the Marco Polo Route Project was going to get back to England. The University Year began in three weeks, and between us we mustered £40 and one very exhausted motorcycle.

“This unhappy machine was in a state of near-collapse. All the lights had long ago since been shattered; the front brake functioned only very feebly, while the rear brake did not work at all; the gear lever had been snapped off; both wheels, as well as the handlebars, were badly out of alignment, and the shock-absorbers were partially disintegrated. The once proud BSA had been thrashed into a foul mass of dust, dents, and miscellaneous pieces of grass rope holding it together. In order to change gear, the agile driver was forced to bend over and rummage around by his right foot for the sheered-off stub of the gear lever. To slow down, the passenger had to assist by dragging his feet in the dust, and at any speed the cracked steering arms exuded a fine spray of oil. The only consolation was that with the machine in such a decrepit condition there was no likelihood of it being stolen, for Stan was the only person who had the strength, experience and foolhardiness to coax the wreck into motion.”

See what Severin did? The bike is funny. All he had to do was describe the details, then cap it with the observation about its immunity to theft. One pictures the rider and passengers doing and enduring, and one likely laughs.

Here is another example, more recent, from The Energy Shift by Dr. Ritu Rao. Ritu has written one of the smartest and most accessible self-help books I have yet to read. As I edited it, I was ruthless in eradicating many situations where she tried to be funny, and told her rather bluntly that when she tried, it did not work. When she let the comedy of the situation speak for herself, it succeeded in fine form, as shown in this passage:

“Kevin came as a guest of another friend, didn’t know anything about me or my book, but stood first in line to get a copy and a picture. We eventually became friends.

“A couple of weeks later, while I was having a really crappy day, I received a message from Kevin. He said he was trying to eat better, and because of something he’d read in my book, he was able to skip eating donuts at work. He was super excited about it. He said he walked right by them, and called it a win.

“Some people in this world are saving lives in the jungle or making prosthetic limbs for the physically disabled. I helped someone skip a donut.

“As trivial as that was, his message made me smile.”

You see what she did there, I trust. In the process of illustrating a point, she presents the relative smallness of her achievement. Rather than belabor it further, she continues to describe the value of small, helpful decisions that make us feel good. This leads to getting her point across with comedy as a welcome side effect. This is what we get when we let the funny be itself.

Both of these are non-fiction examples, but the guidance applies to fiction as well. If you have set up an inherently funny person, scene, or situation, all you have to do is keep storytelling. The reader will find the humor. Too much belaboring reminds one of sitcoms that use laugh tracks, in my opinion a sure sign that the producers feel that the humor will not speak for itself. If it was that funny, they wouldn’t need to tell us to laugh.

You don’t need to tell the reader to laugh. Trust her to make that decision, and get on with your tale or exposition or whatever.

How really, really, really not to get your book reviewed

Lately I’ve had a rash of review requests that seem to emanate from a website about African American books. The fact that the books have AA themes is neutral to me; for me, the key question of interest is the genre and quality of writing. If it’s high-quality travel writing, for example, whether it is AA-themed or not means nothing; I will want to read it. If it’s religious YA, likewise, whether it has an AA theme or not means nothing to me: I wouldn’t have a reason to read it.

Most of the applicants are receptive to my typical reply. I explain that I’m not sure how the website got hold of my email, but that it was not my doing, and that I’m more concerned with genre and quality than with ethnic composition. And that I do very few book reviews nowadays, and that the applicant’s book as described doesn’t fall within my areas of interest. Nevertheless, best of success with your literary endeavors. Most authors respond with respectful thanks.

Two weeks back, I got duplicate mass-mailed emails from one Paula Wynne, asking if I were still interested in reviewing AA books, and proposing that I go edit my profile. I replied in my usual way, did not hear back, and figured that was the end of the matter.

It was not. Four days ago I received another mass mailing from Ms. Wynne, complaining that I had not opened her recent emails (I’m interested in how she would deduce that), and asking if I wished to remain on her contact list. I was again directed to update my “reviewer profile,” or offered an unsubscribe link.

Here’s my theory on unsubscribe links: I can validly be asked to use them only if I initiated a subscription in the first place. Thus, if someone else added me, I’m not jumping through hoops. I will simply tell them in the clear: yes, unsubscribe me. That is not what they expect. I don’t care. So in response to this email titled “Do you still want to hear from me?” I answered: “Won’t be necessary, thanks.” I figure that’s clear enough. For Ms. Wynne, doesn’t seem it was. She responded by saying that I had sent her an email with no text, and what did I want to do?

This had gone quite far enough. Figuring things needed spelling out and repeating, I said:

“I wrote something on the email; please look below “Do you still want to hear from me?” in the quoted emails.

In short: I never requested to be subscribed to this list, it appears my name got there due to an entry on a website that I did not myself initiate, and therefore I most definitely do desire to be unsubscribed from a situation that in no way reflected my will. I responded to your original email to explain the situation and did not receive a reply (normal when one has inadvertently disturbed a person), so when it was obvious I was still on the list, assumed that this was one of those lists that ignored common civility. I’m heartened to see that this may not be the case.

In any case, let me reiterate that I wish to be removed from this involuntarily ‘subscribed’ list.”

Of course, rather than offer a fairly dumb reply, it would have been better to simply unsubscribe me in silence. Instead, I got:

“Thank you Kelly, you won’t be contacted again.”

How’s that? Addressing me by last name, like we’re boys on a junior high school bus, and misspelling it into the bargain? If she was out to piss me off, I guess she can count coup.

Lesson for self-published writers is:

if you send mass review-soliciting emails based on some source website, and;

if you are politely told “not interested, thanks, but good luck,” and;

if you can’t take that as guidance and just go away, and;

if you then must have it spelled out for you, as if you were a child, then:

whatever you do, do not turn around and address this person whose time you have wasted, who could get irritated enough to give you publicity you would not desire, in a way that will convey your contempt rather than your respect.

Really, seriously, for true, no joke, don’t do anything that stupid while promoting your books.

A boy and his telescope

Some time ago, there was a terrorized, traumatized early teenage boy. He lived in a small industrial town, in which he did not fit, and he was socially awkward on top of that. For seven years, he would be the prime target for every form of social mistreatment that the minds of teenagers could imagine. This would leave him with PTSD, to the point where it would be perilous to come up behind him or surprise him with even a pretend threat. The experience and aftermath rewired his brain, as PTSD does. Its effects would haunt him even as his hair thinned, then faded to silver and white.

Few of the boy’s peers shared any of his cerebral/nerdly interests, and none shared his interest in astronomy. The town’s river valley was not an ideal region for stargazing, but one takes what one can get. On his eleventh birthday, his parents got him a new Sears, Roebuck 60mm telescope. The literature billed it as a 350x (with Barlow lens), including an image erecting prism, spotter scope, solar projection screen, and right-angle lens. Three eyepieces, from about 35x to 175x.

The telescope opened up an amazing world, though it also introduced the boy to the concept of deceptive advertising. The Barlow lens, which was supposed to double the power, ate up too much light to be useful at night. The image erecting prism and right-angle lens, at least, worked as advertised. It was only a 175x altazimuth mount telescope, without an equatorial mount or other bells and whistles, but for him it was great. On any clear night, the boy would be out there getting a closer look at the Crab Nebula, Saturn’s moons, the Andromeda Galaxy, the gorgeous array of tiny electric sapphires known as the Pleiades, the surface of Mars, and many more.

A nearby observatory was always willing to help when he phoned them to ask where a planet was, since he lacked those resources himself in pre-Internet days. By the time he was ready to graduate and leave the hellhole forever, he could always identify the planets unassisted. Jupiter? If it’s brilliant white, brighter than any star, and isn’t at sunset or sunrise (if it is, maybe it’s Venus instead), that’s all it can be. Mars? Like Jupiter, not quite as brilliant, and distinctly reddish. Saturn? About like a very bright star, but doesn’t flicker like one, and yellowish. Even a binoculars would show its rings, like a little flying saucer, but the telescope showed them in full clarity.

Life happened; college, graduation, underemployment, marriage, life crises, moves, healing, bereavement, surgery, technological advances. In spite of the PTSD, he gained enough perspective not to dwell upon the horrors of the past. With help from his wife, he overcame much of his social awkwardness; group events would still be work rather than play for him, but the man-once-a-boy would at least walk away from most such events feeling he had not embarrassed himself. And through almost half-a-dozen moves, the man still had his old boyhood telescope.

The man had always taken good care of it. He still had the documentation from Sears, Roebuck. It lacked only one small bolt to hold in place the little lamp on the accessory platform. A trip to Ace hardware, some lens wipes, and it could be ready to go. But there was a problem: it was forty years out of date. He would never again use it, and deep down, the man knew this. He was of an age when excess things were becoming impediments, especially fragile things–however beloved–that he would never use and enjoy. If the man wanted a telescope, he would buy an excellent modern one for the price of four or five hours of his labor.

The telescope, an old friend from the bad days, needed to begin doing someone some good. The man advertised on Craigslist for a deserving family with a precocious child, but didn’t advertise in the free section even though the telescope would be free of charge. The free section was the haunt of people who would happily say anything to make a gain. Other than a couple of kind comments, the man received no responses.

Then it occurred to him to phone the nearby elementary school. It was a STEM school, in a state where public educational funding was parsimonious. Would they like a telescope in good working order? Why, yes; yes, they would!

The man gathered together all the telescope’s parts, checking to see what might be missing. He loaded them into his vehicle, and went to meet the elementary school’s vice principal. She was excited at what the telescope might mean to her young charges. She explained that it was a high mobility school, that they typically saw a child for two years at most due to short apartment leases. She asked whether he would mind assembling it, and as he put it together for the last time, the man assured her that even a couple of good educational years–like those he had enjoyed in early youth, before his parents had moved him to the small town where he had been given the telescope–could get a child through ten years of hell. He held back most of the worst parts, but told the vice-principal enough about how hell looked that she got a little misty.

When it was assembled, and time to go, the man felt his own eyes watering. He laid a hand on the telescope’s white side, undented, unscratched, and cared for all these years. “See you later, old buddy. Teach the kids.”

It wasn’t the parting from a thing that made the man’s eyes moist. It was the memories the telescope had meant. It had been a rare thing of joy in a time with few joys.

He shook the vice-principal’s hand, thanked her for her time, accepted her polite thanks, looked one last time, and finally walked away from his old friend of the hardest times.

Sometimes, he thought, one has to give one’s old friend a chance to make some new friends.

Blogging freelance writing and life in general.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 155 other followers