Friday, April 03, 2015

Another Moment at a Light - Good Friday Edition

The Scene: The corner of Carondelet and Wilmot, one light south of St. Michael's. I'm driving my elderly Kia. My friend Kevin is beside me. The light is red. Also stopped at the light is a pickup truck with two guys in the cab. Their passenger window is open, as is my window. The truck's passenger gestures to get my attention.

TRUCK PASSENGER: Got any weed?
KAREN: No. I just came from church, dude!
PASSENGER (laughs): How was church?
KAREN (not about to explain the intricacies of serving as acolyte at a High Church Episcopal Good Friday service): Good.
PASSENGER: Did you pray for me?
KAREN (not about to explain that the dude is bound to qualify under at least one of the petitions prayed during the service): I will.

When I got home, John was watching The Big Lebowski.

God bless the doper at the light!


Friday, February 20, 2015

Lost and Found at the River's Edge

Art by Sherlock.
This morning I wrote a rant about revising Heirs of Mâvarin.  I wrote it as a series of tweets because I am trying to cultivate my Twitter presence a bit, after a photo I posted from Gallifrey One went viral last week. But for those of you who know about my decades-long struggle with the book, here's a bit more detail.

The whole point of Heirs is an exploration of how changing perceptions of who you are - which may be arbitrarily imposed on you - affect who you actually become. If you're told that everything you knew about yourself was a lie (real world equivalent: learning at age 16 that you were adopted and your original name is Mabel, or that your mother had an affair and your real dad is your Mom's friend Bill), how does that change your priorities and your sense of identity?

So Del and Crel learn separately that they are hidden royalty, a fairly common trope in fantasy, except that in many books the character either knows the truth all along (e.g. Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings) or gets the change of status at the end of the book (e.g. Shasta/Cor in The Horse and His Boy). Heirs is supposed to tackle the psychology of that change in status, which parallels Rani's journey of self-discovery after learning he is a monster (specifically a tengrem) and the son of monsters.

But here's the problem. For all these years I've had Jamek, the twins' supposed uncle, tell Crel the truth about herself the morning after Del runs away. That gives her three days of story time to react to the problem before Del learns the truth from Shela, although he's had a day and a half of entertaining the possibility. With my 150,000+ word novel now broken into three books, the first volume lacks a proper climax unless the twins learn the truth at the same time toward the end, preferably with some physical danger thrown in. This has the added bonus of the reader possibly being surprised at the same time as the characters, instead of being told something the reader knows already. (Mind you, the savvy reader will probably figure it out before the characters do, but there's a self-congratulatory aspect to that which can be almost as good as the surprise.) So everything Crel thinks and says for most of the book needs to change. That's kind of exciting, and necessary, but it makes for a big mess!

Last night I was at a meeting of the Tucson Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers group, which currently is in desperate need of more people who will actually show up. My friend Jan wanted more excitement and emotional reactions to events, more personal danger, and more direct involvement by my main characters. I disagreed with much of what she said, but it was very clear to me that the plot structure of the first third of the story does not work as a stand-alone novel. There are lots of trilogies in which the first volume is not a complete, self-contained story, but it should at least end with a bang and a resolution of sorts, while setting things in motion for the next book. As it stands now, Heirs of Mâvarin, Book One: River's Edge pretty much ends with a whimper. Crel meets a boy, and Del decides to continue his quest. Well, of course he does. Yes, he has to escape from a trap in the house at Liftlabeth, but that's a mere flourish.

But if Jamek lies to Crel again after Del runs away, then instead of thinking about being the princess while traveling to Thâlemar, Crel spends that time sussing out that Jamek is hiding something, and deducing the truth from hints dropped by tricky old Fayubi. She figures it out the same morning that Del does, and that becomes part of the payoff for River's Edge. I think that's right and necessary, but it completely changes her perspective in what she says and does. It also takes away the one thing that makes my use of the hidden royalty trope less of a cliché. Still, the second and third books will still get to explore the psychology of it all, and this time Crel won't have the advantage of a three day head start on the truth.

Another suggested change, along with several other suggestions I rejected, was to get Del into the action a bit on Day One of  the story, aside from his cameo in the opening scene. That makes sense for his character, since he starts out as a Tom Sawyer to Rani's Huck Finn, always getting in scrapes until events start him on the road to maturity. So last night, when I should have been sleeping and recovering from my cold, I wrote a scene in which Del and Crel argue about Del taking a break from mucking out stalls. It's a decent character bit but it tells us nothing we don't learn elsewhere, and it ends with Del defiantly leaving the stable anyway. My friend wanted me to have Del witness either the end of Rani's fight with the tengrem (somehow without seeing exactly what happened to Rani, the central mystery that drives the plot for another 20 pages), or the body being pulled from the river, with Del thinking it's Rani until later that night. But having him see something and not really see it doesn't quite work, especially since the very next scene reveals that the body is that of a stranger. There isn't any place Del can go on Day One that tells him or the reader anything useful, while holding back other revelations for later. If he can't do anything that advances the plot, he's better off mucking out stalls, with Crel blackmailing him to keep him out of trouble. And I'm not sure we need to see that on the page.

It should be an exciting, frustrating couple of weeks while I sort this all out!  If you have been one of my beta readers, or would like to be, let me know whether you'd like to come along on my journey of rediscovering my characters in the service of a new, improved story.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Round Robin: The Last Goodbyes, Part Three - Farewell to Manlius

In my previous two entries, Home Again: Part One and Round Robin Challenge: So Many Goodbyes, Part Two, I covered part of my response to the last-ever Round Robin Photo Challenge: Goodbye. I told you about the death of my only brother, Steve, and my trip east to arrange his funeral and burial. I've been saying goodbye to Steve for over a month now, taking care of all those arrangements you don't think of until a loved one dies with no money and no will.

But that's not the only goodbye that's been on my mind recently. Getting Steve into a cemetery in Dewitt, NY meant that I got to go "home" to the Syracuse, NY area, a place I had not visited since a brief stop to see my Dad in February, 1986. I was born in Syracuse, lived in Dewitt until I was four, and lived at 4967 Fayetteville-Manlius Rd, Manlius from the time we left Dewitt until I moved onto campus at Syracuse University. The house was sold that summer in the wake of my parents' divorce. The year was 1976.

Here is a picture I took of that house in 1971. I've tweaked it a number of times over the years.

After the burial, I drove John, Steve's friend Sharon and myself to see some of the sights in Manlius. I knew it had changed a lot since I grew up there.  I figured that the trip to bury Steve was probably my last chance ever to see my old home town, so off I went, with John and S. as my captive fellow travelers. My cousin Vereene tagged along in her own car.

I've always had a complicated relationship with Manlius. It's a place a many bad memories for me - but lots of good ones, too.

In the first of these entries, I identified this photo as my grandmother's old house on Pickwick Drive in Dewitt. It isn't. Apparently I didn't photograph that house. No, this is the old house on F-M Road.

From there we went on into the Village of Manlius, about a mile away. When I was a kid, I took the bus to school, but sometimes I walked home for one reason or another. Across the street from Manlius Elementary was Temple's Dairy Store, which sold penny candy. Tootsie Rolls, fireballs, candy straws and root beer barrels were a powerful inducement to take advantage of the crossing guard's presence and go buy a few treats. Temple's was also a frequent stop for my family, especially in the days of Sunday Blue Laws. Temple's was open on Sundays so one could buy bread and milk, and my two favorite kinds of doughnut: "headlights" and "tail lights." The place burned sometime in the past year or two. Sad.

Our first stop in the village was at the legendary ice cream stand known as Sno Top.  Started in 1957, it was where I used to go for a "twist dipped in cherry," and its menu has expanded to an amazing selection in the years since then. It was only steps away from Manlius Elementary (now long gone), the P and C supermarket (also long gone) and not far from the Swan Pond.  Memorial Day was never complete until I had an ice cream from Sno Top after the annual parade. Open seasonally (people don't tend to buy ice cream when it's 11 degrees and snowing), it always had a sign up all winter, "Watch for our humdinger opening next spring!" On my probably-last-ever visit to Sno Top, I was tempted to get my old "twist dipped in cherry," but opted for a Dole Whip, a favorite treat of Disneylanders who visit the Enchanted Tiki Room.

On the glass wall on one side of Sno Top, along with a calendar of special flavors, an ad for Sno Top T-shirts and caps (I got one of each) and other notices, was a series of photos about a factory building that still stands across the street from Sno Top, just north of where Temple's used to be. When I was a kid it was called Stone Machinery. Foolishly, when I was in first to third grade I thought they made machinery of stone! The one thing I knew for sure at the time was that Stone Machinery let off a siren at lunchtime that we called the "noon whistle." It could be heard all the way to my house. It was also used to summon the volunteer fire department.

According to the info up at Sno Top, the Stone Machinery building was originally Remington Foundry, circa 1825, which made plows and reapers. Over the years, under different names and ownerships, they made faucets for molasses barrels, sleds and the Yankee Flyer, knife blades, high speed cutting tools, some of them diamond studded (so Stone Machinery did make machinery using stones!), and eventually flameless candles. The factory currently stands empty, but at least it's still there. In one of the photos shown above you can see the Lincoln-Mercury dealership next door to Stone Machinery, which belonged to one of my neighbors on F-M Road. That's not there any more, either.

Fayette Street, where Sno Top is, dead ends into the other main drag, Seneca Turnpike. It was nice to see Manlius Cinema still there and showing movies. Growing up I saw at least three films there: The Incredible Journey, a terrible Disney film called The World's Greatest Athlete, and Woody Allen's Bananas. Describing a scene from the latter film to my friend Joel resulted in my parents making a rule not to close my bedroom door when there was a boy in the room. Manlius Cinema is now an art house of sorts.

A few doors down from the Manlius Cinema used to be Weber's Department Store, a three room establishment I used to visit often. Nowadays, one third of it is a cupcake shop, and the rest is a restaurant that serves wood-fired pizza. They were just opening up when we stopped there for a late lunch/early dinner, sitting at a wrought iron table outside.

Here is the inside of the restaurant, where a band was setting up to perform later. The room on the left was where Weber's used to sell clothing, especially underwear, jeans and, early on, girl scout uniforms. The room on the right was for greeting cards, china animals, Breyer Horses and (I think) candy. The room that is now a cupcake shop was for school supplies, a few toys and other items. That's where I bought my mom some Evening in Paris cologne sometime during elementary school.

After dinner, I quickly tracked down St. Ann's Church but didn't linger. It was a long and dangerous drive back to Cleveland, through construction and heavy rain on the New York State Thruway, which had nearly invisible lines between the lanes at times. The next day we shipped home some of Steve's stuff and ours, dropped other stuff off at Goodwill, bought a carry-on bag, returned the rental car, flew to Phoenix and drove home. Long day!

Back in May, 2004, the early days of my first blog on AOL, Musings From Mavarin, I wrote a piece called Seven Ancient Wonders of Manlius, NY. I got email about that entry for years. I followed it up with a bunch of school reminiscences in August 2004 and an entry called Manlius On My Mind in August, 2005. AOL Journals are long gone, but the entries still exist on Blogger. When I got on Facebook, I connected with a number of former classmates, most of whom were no more than acquaintances back in the day. And that's okay. Somehow, this social media stuff keeps me connected to a place I never expected to love, and will probably never see again. Farewell, Manlius!

Now, here's a pop quiz: what was the first topic for the very first Round Robin Photo Challenge? It came from this email from Carly:

Hi Karen  
I think for your photo challenge I would like to see you photograph your hometown. The place where you feel your best. A favorite coffeehouse or restaurant, park...wherever you find yourself feeling really good. Or to be different maybe a place in town you have always meant to go, but for some reason just never found the time. Any place. A clothing store, grocery store, theater...let your imagination run wild here. I can't wait to see what you come up with.  
Love, Carly :)

Unable to go to Manlius for this, I instead posted several days of pictures from Mount Lemmon outside Tucson, and followed it up with a few entries about Arizona souvenirs. It's fitting that tonight, on my last response to the last Round Robin Photo Challenge, I finally get to post pictures of the "real" hometown.

Please see the list below this one to check out the other Robins' entries, one last time. And many thanks to every single person who ever posted a Round Robin entry over the past 9+ years.


Linking List
as of Monday, October 14th, 12:35 AM

Karen Funk Blocher - Posted!
Outpost Mâvarin

Freda - Posted!
Day One

Ellen - Posted!
Ellen's Phlog

Carly - Posted!

Sylvia D. - Posted!
SMD Paper Arts

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Round Robin Challenge: So Many Goodbyes, Part Two

(This is sort of a continuation of my previous entry: Home Again: Part One)

For the last-ever Round Robin Photo Challenge: Goodbye, I asked people to post pictures that convey the theme of saying goodbye - to a person, a place, a stage of life, even to this meme.  As you probably know by now, my brother Steve died on Saturday, September 6th, so I have been saying my goodbyes to him. Beyond that, my trip back East for his burial included a little side trip to the town where I grew up, a place I will probably never see again. And finally, I should say a proper goodbye to this meme, which has been part of my life since 2005.

This is the last picture I took of my brother Steve when he was alive. It was December, 2012, and we were in Wilmington, NC. My stepmother had died six months earlier, and it had become evident that my Dad could no longer live safely in his condo, even with round-the-clock unskilled home care. He had been in the hospital in November and almost died. So we four heirs - Steve, my two stepsisters and I - had gathered to make decisions, sign papers in a lawyer's office and close up Dad's place, taking an equal share of its contents and selling the rest to pay for Dad's care. This picture was taken as we visited Dad in a rehab facility. I don't think Dad knew who Steve was that day.

As for Steve, he had spent a good chunk of 2012 in hospitals and a rehab facility himself. He suffered from heart failure, kidney trouble, sleep apnea and edema. The spring of 2014 was sort of a rerun of Steve's 2012 troubles, with a serious leg infection (cellulitis with a bit of gangrene) as an added bonus. But he came through ICU and many rough moments, did his rehab and eventually got to go home. He even had a cataract operation. He was nervous about it before hand, but delighted with the results.

Here is the last photo Steve took with his Canon EOS. At the end, he was sitting in his apartment, enjoying his newly-restored vision and waiting for a pacemaker operation that never happened. Meanwhile, he used his great camera to take pictures off of the TV. 

This was the view from Steve's balcony. We grew up visiting Lake Ontario every summer, with occasional trips to Cape Cod or some other beach spot. I know he loved listening to the waves crashing into the shore of Lake Erie.

Anyway, we all thought he was doing very well, but on September 6th he fell in his tiny bathroom. He managed to call 911, when when the EMTs arrived he had a heart attack in front of them and died. It became my responsibility to fly to Cleveland, arrange for his funeral, sort out his papers, dispose of his furniture and other possessions, and arrange for his burial in Syracuse before returning to Cleveland for the flight home. And that is what I did. I also wrote a brief obituary:

STEVEN ERIC FUNK was "born in Bethlehem" - Pennsylvania, that is, to Frank E. Funk and Ruth Anne Johnson. Steve grew up outside Syracuse, NY, where he earned a Bachelor's degree from Syracuse University. A computer programmer-analyst, he also had a lifelong love of Turkish Angora cats. Heart disease led to several hospitalizations before his death from a heart attack after a fall at his home on Saturday, September 6. Steve is survived by his father, his sister, Karen Funk Blocher (husband John) and numerous cousins. In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to the National Wildlife Federation or the cat shelter of your choice. Funeral Mass was Saturday, September 13, 2014 at St. Francis of Assisi Church, Gates Mills, OH. Interment was Monday, Sept. 15, 2014 at St. Mary's Cemetery, DeWitt, NY. Buried next to his grandfather, Ambrose Alexis Johnson (1891-1950). Please sign obituary guest book on

Here is a Google+ "story" that covers my trip Back East in detail. Warning: it contains a few shots taken at the funeral home, and a few taken at the burial.

Beyond all that, Steve was my big brother, my friend and protector when I was young. Later in life I mostly tried to return the favor. Seven years my senior, at one point as we were growing up he liked the idea of having me call him Jem while he called me Scout. We both read To Kill a Mockingbird that year. Occasionally he even let me hang out with him and his friends. If my parents were fighting, he tried to cheer me up by playing with my stuffed animals. 

As an adult, Steve lived far away from my parents and me. In fact, the four of us lived in four different states, hundreds or thousands of miles apart. Steve did his best to hang onto family connections as best he could. He was the family genealogist, and he kept in touch with Dad's sisters (particularly Aunt Marie, the only one who is still alive) and our cousins. Politically, he drifted to the right as I drifted to the left, which made for a few uncomfortable emails.But there was never any doubt that we loved each other. He was my brother! My only sibling, irreplaceable.

Steve believed in the Rainbow Bridge idea, the story that dead pets hang around in a beautiful meadow, waiting to be reunited with their people when they die. If anything like that is true, Steve is hanging out with a number of beloved cats about now.

I have at least one more entry to do here at the Outpost to finish up, probably two. I'll get that done on Monday, and make my rounds. Meanwhile, check out the other Round Robin entrees:

Linking Listas of Monday, October 14th, 12:35 AM

Karen Funk Blocher - Posted!
Outpost Mâvarin

Freda - Posted!
Day One

Ellen - Posted!
Ellen's Phlog

Carly - Posted!

Sylvia D. - Posted!
SMD Paper Arts


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Home Again: Part One

Where is home? Is it this house, where we've lived for about twenty years, only to frequently revisit the question of whether to fix it up or move to a better house? Is it Tucson, Arizona generally, where we've lived since 1986, after driving around the country looking for someplace it wasn't winter? Do we go back to Manlius, NY, where I lived from age 4 through age 18, or still further, to Dewitt, NY, where I lived before Manlius?

Whichever option you choose, I've been there this month - plus Ohio, a state I lived in from 1979 to January 1986. I didn't get to Columbus, where I actually lived at that time, but still. Ohio.

This was not some lighthearted nostalgic tour. Well, it was toward the end, a bit.

This was me arranging my only sibling's funeral and burial.

I'll have a proper write-up about Steve in two weeks, as part of my last-ever Round Robin Photo Challenge entry. For now, I'll just point you toward his obituary, his listing on my family tree on, his Find A Grave listing and his Facebook page. I've put in a bit of time today, adding listings and photos and facts. None of those web pages tell the story of my trip, though: the slog through flooded streets to get to Sky Harbor Airport, the rescheduled flights, heartbreaking days spent sorting papers and disposing of medical equipment, and so on. I'll get to all that later. Some of it I've already mentioned on Facebook and Google+.

But after the funeral in Gates Mills, Ohio and a seven hour drive through an unreasonable number of construction zones to Dewitt, NY for the burial, I did insist on going "home" for probably the last time.

First stop: the old house on York Road in Dewitt.

I'm not sure this is the house Steve picked out years ago as being the right one, but it's the one that matches my memories. There's an odd-shaped architectural detail over the door that I found intriguing, even at age 4. The house used to be white with black trim, I'm pretty sure.

Second stop: Pickwick Road.

Again, I was mostly going by my memories from childhood, but my source confirms: this was the house my Grandmother and Aunt Flora lived in in the 1960s, before moving to Fairfax, VA. The house used to be red. My grandmother, Flora Missellier DuFour Johnson Ballantyne, was a real estate agent who ran for Congress twice in the 1940s. She also once stayed at the same flooded hotel in Venice as Thornton Wilder. Her Cream of Wheat wasn't lumpy like Mom's, and consequently wasn't as good. She kept dog biscuits in her kitchen for the Cocker spaniel next door, Candy. Candy once got so excited that she accidentally tried me to a tree in the neighbor's back yard.

My aunt, Flora M. Johnson, was an engineer who lived briefly in Guam and later helped to design the Interstate Highway System before retiring early due to migraines. She gave up a child for adoption, a fact I didn't learn until the mid 1970s. Her daughter did not learn her relationship to Flora until well after that. I finally got to meet my cousin Vereene at Steve's burial, which is the main reason we made a pilgrimage to this house.

Next stop: Manlius. But not tonight.


Saturday, August 09, 2014

Round Robin: These Eyes

For the Round Robin Challenge: Where'd You Get Those Eyes?, I asked to see  "one or more close-up photographs of any eyes you like." I have a mixture of old photos and new to show you, although I'm running a bit late in posting them. Apparently the latest update to iTunes did something nasty to my firewall, and neither Chrome nor Firefox would let me online until I found a way to fix it!

So anyway, here are the latest, not necessarily the greatest:

Cayenne: one eye has a scar beside it that predates her coming to us. The other has a mole that the vet will remove if she ever has surgery for some other reason. It's not worth the expense otherwise.

Kito: I'm frequently asked whether he is blind in that pale blue eye, and some people even think it's a glass eye! Nope! Some dogs just have two different colored eyes, both fully functional. The trait is called heterochromia.

Karen: Note the scar above my eye, an artifact from my header into a sidewalk a year ago.

And here are a few shots from 2006:

 I must have been tired. As usual.

 An edit to turn myself into an alien. I tweaked it a little bit tonight.

And finally, here is a shot from an eye exam in 2008. This was probably when I was told that I was at risk for retinal detachment. I had a retinal tear in June, 2013, but I don't seem to have photographed anything but the eye surgeon's waiting room on that occasion. That was a scary weekend!


Linking List
as of Saturday, August 9th, 1:40 AM MST

Karen - Posted!
Outpost Mâvarin

Carly - Posted!
Ellipsis Karen

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Round Robin: About the Monsoon!

When I posted the topic for the current Round Robin Challenge: About the Weather, my part of Tucson had just had its first big monsoon storm of 2014 on Sunday, July 13th. How big? Take a look:

The Arizona monsoon is a seasonal weather pattern that starts in mid-June and runs through September. It accounts for the vast majority of our 11" of average annual rainfall. The monsoon used to be calculated as starting on the date certain conditions were met, based on dew point and other stuff I don't understand. Nowadays it has an official start and end date, but this year the actual weather conditions arrived July 3rd, which is about average.  With climate change and all that, we've been in drought more years than not in the last decade or two, with monsoons that fizzled out without dumping all that much rain in the city itself.

But the storm that Sunday was a good one. Here is the view through my windshield as I sat in the parking lot outside my dad's place.

When I reached the street, I found some rather interesting debris.

I drove from my Dad's to Pantano River Park, to see how much water was in the river. Most of the time there is none. On that late afternoon, there was the most I'd seen in several years.

There is a wash (a usually-dry creek bed) in my neighborhood called Alamo Wash. I've photographed it a lot over the years. Here is my attempt to paste together two photos so you can see the whole scene that afternoon.

Tucson has something called a Stupid Motorist Law, designed to discourage people from driving through washes when they're full of swiftly-running water a foot or more deep. That is quite enough to get a car and its driver in deep trouble. People have actually died! So if someone is stupid enough to drive through a flooded wash and then need rescuring, the city charges them for the service. On that Sunday afternoon in the Terra Del Sol Neighborhood, no one was taking that chance, at least not where the wash crossed Betergeuse behind the high school. The cars you see above were mostly parked. One of them turned around, and so did I.

 Now, was there another way through, where the water wasn't so deep? How about this way?

No, I wasn't willing to chance it, although I did see a truck do it. Over by Terra Del Sol Park, it was just as bad as over by the high school.

Here, too, it wasn't safe to drive through. As I drove around, I saw a lot of neighbors out and about on foot, enjoying the post-rain 74 degree weather, down from 100+. The fact that power was out in some homes may have had something to do with people being outside.

I went back out to a main road and found another way home that did not involve crossing a wash. Then I took the dogs for a walk. Cayenne, who is afraid of thunder, was not overly concerned as I managed to photograph distant lightning.

Now, other than having to comfort Cayenne, I really enjoy monsoon storms. They're dramatic, they don't last long, and we always need the rain. But as I was driving home the next day, I was reminded that it's not all fun and games. Down on the corner, my neighbors were looking at the tree in their front yard, half-destroyed by a lightning strike. Even at that, they're lucky. At least two neighbors have had major roof damage in past years when a tree fell on their houses.


Be sure to check out all the Round Robin entries this week!

Karen - Posted!
Outpost Mâvarin

Ellen's Phlog

Carly - Posted