I might be a bad person: Doll in the Hall, escalated

So my sister posted on Facebook about a creepy October version of that stupid Elf on the Shelf crap called “Doll in the Hall”. The idea is you take a creepy doll that already seems haunted and move it around the house each night. If the kids throw it out, you put it in bed with them.

My first thought was: How could I make this worse? Then I thought of some ways.

  • Leave the doll in place; change its clothes.
  • Leave everything else the same, but different doll.
  • Keep identical backups if one gets destroyed.
  • Deploy a remote-activated sound box, hidden near the doll’s location.
  • Suddenly: two dolls.
  • Pose the dolls like they’re plotting something over the course of several nights. It should look like they’re playing regular games, almost, with something a bit “off” like scissors sitting on a Monopoly board or Jenga tiles arranged like a pyre.
  • Then go back to normal but with a secondary doll, leaving the primary’s whereabouts a mystery.
  • Set up a fake phone contact and have someone send a message from the first doll. (Doll in the Call!) The message should be totally innocuous.
  • Now no dolls, for several nights.
  • Multiple dolls, all staring at the bed from different places around the room.

This would actually be funnier if you did it to an adult.

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Unlimited chutzpah

So this was a thing that happened today: Verizon aired a commercial gushing over how wonderful their service is to first responders. Which would ordinarily be good, but this is like six weeks after they got caught throttling first responders dealing with wildfires in California.

There are politicians in Chicago who would blush at that.

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Ramen experiments: mushroom bouillon

Before I went on vacation I was browsing Amazon and found an interesting item: mushroom bouillon, which appears to come from a company in China called Totole. The reviews were decent, so I thought I’d give it a try the next time I made hot ramen soup. I ended up ordering it the week after I got back, and it arrived Sunday. Then Monday came in cold and rainy and miserable, so I thought: why not?

So I started on the basis of my ultimate chicken & egg ramen recipe, but forgot some of the specifics. Therefore I forgot to include garlic at all (which I guess was okay, because I wanted to try out the mushroom flavor), and while my intention was to substitute the mushroom bouillon for the chicken I used half as much. So that was kinda dumb.

Now the good news is, the mushroom bouillon is indeed nice, even with only 1 tsp. instead of 2 for the 2 cups of water. (In my defense, there are no English instructions on the cannister.) The main ingredient being MSG, I could taste that part right away, but it definitely went beyond merely adding MSG. However, unlike the Herb-Ox granulated chicken bouillon I favor, this stuff was not salty at all. I had to add salt to taste afterward, and it took a while to get it right.

The new stuff was good enough that I think I’d like to try adding a teaspoon of it to my existing recipe without cutting the chicken bouillon at all, just to throw in extra savoriness. However, I’d also like to try going straight mushroom again, but with some changes.

  1. Throw the garlic back in.
  2. Use 2 tsp. of the bouillon, not 1.
  3. Add 1 tsp. soy sauce. If not enough, try 2.

For soy sauce I really enjoy La Choy, because it’s a nice salty one that still adds a lot of good flavor. Kikkoman is good in a very different way, but so different that it’s never my first choice (but for teriyaki, always first choice). So I suspect my favorite brand will add the salt that’s missing from the mushroom bouillon without my having to add any extra salt directly, and this could create a really interesting flavor.

Next up on “Bad ideas I got from browsing Amazon late at night”: beef tallow.

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Even grayer

Right after my last post, I went up to Canada for vacation. This was my first time going in September, and it was a different place (same lake) and a different experience. I had gotten used to the rather warmer temperatures of summer, so when it turned cold halfway through the week that was a big change; I went out on the lake, but only a couple of times. It’s also different because this was the first time we didn’t have any other friends or family staying in other cabins at the same time, so it was just a small group. Very different. But I enjoyed the trip quite a lot, even though for the life of me I still can’t figure out why Canadian pay-at-the-pump systems ask you to pre-authorize a certain maximum charge instead of just letting you pump gas.

Since I got back, I’ve been catching up on work stuff, but I’ve also been busily revising Gray Area. This is a difficult process, but so far the rewards have been amazing. Just the little bit I’ve already changed, and it was mostly a matter of inserting small amounts of new stuff, has already made this a much better book.

I’m still working through the smallish changes, but then I’m going to come up on the biggest and I’m really not sure how I should proceed. The simplest option is to let this suggestion go, and leave it as-is, but I think it’s too good an idea not to try. The next easiest for me, and the one that makes the most sense without upending my narrative, is for the protagonist to guess at something that’s revealed at the end. The hardest would be for that reveal to be made openly, which would introduce sweeping changes. And I’m not actually sure if the suggestion was meant to be the easier way or the much harder way. My gut is telling me to go for the middle road, because I can still squeeze some interesting mystery out of it without my having to rewrite huge amounts of text. (I will however still have to look over huge amounts of text and make changes to anything that contradicts the new format.)

During the middle of this week I didn’t sleep very well; for two nights in a row I had intense dreams that felt like they kept me from sleep. It felt to me like a mix of health problems—because allergies have not been friendly to me lately—and generalized anxiety. At that same time my wife and I were embarking on a big investment, but I didn’t think I was anxious about that and I still don’t; yet I can’t rule it out as a factor. Another factor was definitely that I left for vacation with my code in a state where I wasn’t fit to release, and I was upset about not getting out a new release this week too; some of those dreams were code dreams, which are incredibly uncommon for me. But the third and maybe one of the biggest factors was, I think, that the head space I’ve been diving into for Gray Area is one of hatred, violence, and self-doubt. If that doesn’t make a man anxious, I wonder what can.

I think I’m gonna get an excellent book out of this process. But boy am I gonna have to back off of it well before November, because I need to get in a wild and wacky state to handle the next Paranormal Curio book and time is passing fast.

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Book in flux

I’ve recently had the privilege of getting some excellent feedback on Gray Area, which I’d like to get released at some point. This is the kind of book where I really needed feedback, though, because it raises such huge questions and the goal is a book where readers might still be questioning how they feel about it a long time after it ends.

Having another pair of eyes really helps, especially when it comes to blind spots and oversights. Things I didn’t see on my own become a lot clearer when highlighted by a thoughtful reader, especially when it’s things I missed—and holy cow did I miss a big one. I’m taking those notes seriously, so I’ll act on most or maybe all of them. (For a couple I still haven’t figured out how they’d work, but they’ve got me thinking in some new directions which is a good thing all on its own.)

One of those changes involves changing up fully half of one of the two main story arcs, and I’m still trying to figure out how radical a change I can commit to there. This concerns a big reveal that currently happens at the end, and it’s been suggested that it should go in the middle instead. I tend to agree, except there’s an open question of whether that reveal should be complete—fully in the open—or if it should be one-sided. I’d prefer to go with the one-sided option, because that gives me the hope of making surgical changes that will still have a big impact but not require ginormous swaths of new text. The full open approach means basically the present-day portion of the last half needs to be redone to a much larger extent, and I don’t know how I feel about how the truth being fully out would alter the dramatic tension.

Most of the rest falls into the category of tweaks: especially at the beginning where the character arc needs a softer slope, a much more measured approach than is currently shown. I rather suspect I fell into the trap of sticking with the momentum of the original short story in that section, and I couldn’t get past that in my head. Beyond the beginning, there are opportunities to sprinkle some other ideas in that would help sand down the sharp corners and also fill in a few gaps I didn’t realize were there.

This will be an interesting project. The catch is, NaNoWriMo is coming and I want to be totally done with this—or else I’ll need to put it down for quite a while—before November. Preferably it should be a decent amount of time before November so I have a bit of a mental refresher.

During NaNoWriMo I’m going to continue the Paranormal Curio series, and I still have only a handful of ideas to throw at it. But I hope I have enough to come up with a strong narrative. The working title for the next book will be revealed in November.

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A Fair story

The Great New York State Fair has come and gone again, and as always I’m sad to see it go. I had wanted to go in a lot more than I did this year, but one factor stood solidly in my way: the heat. I went in for dinner briefly on the first Monday and it was so hot and humid I couldn’t handle it for more than an hour and a half. This past Saturday was another hot one, and it ended up being my last day at the Fair. I heard they surpassed all kinds of records on Labor Day, but good gads it was too hot. I have never done well with heat.

But this is not a story of this year’s Fair. This is the story of why I gave up rides on the midway.

Let’s jump back in the wayback machine to the magical year 1993, fully 25 years ago now. I was 16, and that year I worked at the milk bar. If you’ve never seen it, the Fair has a venerable tradition in which within the Dairy Products building, there’s a bar that serves milk (regular and chocolate, and in the distant past other flavors like orange or strawberry) for a quarter. It’s just a little cup of milk but people love it.

Some days I’d work the front side facing the building interior, and some days I’d work the back by one of the building entrances. In front you’d get to see more of what was going on, including the daily entertainment (not always a good thing), but it was incredibly hot. In back you could get a nice breeze, especially when it rained, but you had to contend with a loudspeaker (thankfully gone now) repeating dairy industry jingles. On breaks I went to my mom’s office which was nearby, where I could sit in air conditioning and got free Pepsi or Mountain Dew; at lunch I’d grab a hot dog for a buck at Twin Trees which has a stand right outside the milk bar entrance, and then walk to the office. I did a lot of reading.

I had one day off during that Fair: the second Friday, student day. I ended up still going in, but as a reveler, and my cousin who lived in Rochester joined me for the day. He’s about two years younger than me.

You’ll recall I said this story is about rides, so hopefully you’ll forgive the digression on the milk bar business. (The bad karaoke and the country bands I endured are another story for another day.) Let me explain about the rides: My family never had a lot of money growing up. My sister and I hardly ever got to go on rides, except some special times. Once we had a pass we could use for free rides, because a family friend was in turn a friend to the people who ran the event. But for a few years before and after ’93, we had access to cheap ride ticket books. For several years we were in that sweet spot when we could afford to go on all the rides we wanted, and didn’t have that little voice in our heads yet (or in our stomachs) that said we should pace ourselves. It’s like that feeling when you get to be an adult and have your own money, and for a brief few years you can buy all the cookies but can’t see a reason not to.

So on that fateful day in ’93, my cousin and I went in and toured the Fair. I hadn’t gotten to see a lot of it, really, because I’d been at the dairy building most of the time. We looked around. We did rides. We bought stuff. We ate. We did rides. And it was somewhere in there that we encountered the dreaded Tilt-A-Whirl.

As a kid, rides on the Tilt-A-Whirl never went long enough. In theory you have some control over how you swing, but the rides always seemed to last like 30 seconds and by the time you figured out how to really get your whirl on, it was over. This time was not that time. My cousin and I were darn near the only people on the ride at that time, for whatever reason, and the operator was generous to a fault and gave us the ride of our lives. We had time to figure out how to maximize the swing we got out of our pod, and it seemed like the ride went on for something like 15 minutes. It was probably more like 5-10. But I do believe that nobody else in the history of the world has ever experienced such a deep and fulfilling ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl as we did that day.

Unfortunately, as soon as we got off we both realized we’d made a hideous mistake. Motion sickness slammed down on us like an anvil.

We tried to fight through it. We drank a little something. We sat. Eventually he suggested we try going on the ride with the swings that dangle, because that only goes around in a simple circular motion and it might be pleasant, possibly resetting our equilibrium a bit. I took him up on that, and to my surprise, I think it did help a little. We had a nice easy swing and when we disembarked, I felt somewhat less horrendous than I had. My cousin wasn’t so lucky: as soon as we got off, the pizza and curly fries he’d had earlier made a break for it. Some of it splashed on my shoe.

After that, rides weren’t the same. Even with a year of distance, I found rides were too prone to cause motion sickness. I could do a few simple ones, here and there, but my interest fell right off a cliff. I literally no longer had the stomach for it. Thankfully, I discovered more wonderful Fair foods after that and found I had a stomach for those instead.

And my cousin? He’s a pilot now.

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Flash fiction: Cotton Eye Joe

Now and then I see interesting posts on the subreddit /r/WritingPrompts. Today I saw one that was too good to pass up: After he ruined your relationship, you finally come face to face with Cotton Eye Joe. I knew I could have fun with this one. I posted on the thread, but I’m crossposting it here, just because.


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