CLANK Goes the Essay

A few hours ago, I finally received a piece of paper that was stamped, scribbled on, and finally wrapped in plastic. My Chilean driver’s license. I can now drive in Chile without fear of getting stopped by the Carabineros and having to explain that I’m not actually allowed to drive. I have a hard time talking to police in my own language, let alone Chilean Spanish. I don’t like talking to anyone in a uniform. Even a McDonald’s uniform puts me in please-and-thank-you mode. And they don’t have guns (yet). Since I arrived in Chile about 5 years ago, I haven’t driven much, hardly at all. Once my wife, Fernanda, and I realized we were staying in Chile longer than the planned two years, I entered the guts of the bureaucracy that would eventually end today. The process took about 2 years to complete. I feel like I was eaten by a gargantuan Kafkian giant and this morning, I finally dropped from its anus. A newborn. Staring up at the sun of legal driving, shading my eyes, thanking the powers that be that I can finally take my garbage to the recycling and buy vegetables by myself. It is something like joy, if joy was kind of dull and uninteresting and boring. Because after all, driving for an adult is mostly about running errands. When you’re young, it means freedom. You go to the city. You drive to visit friends. You go to the beach and there’s laughter and running around. When you’re middle aged, it’s just a faster way to finish your list of boring things that need to be done. Can’t wait to get my license so I can drive to the dentist for that tooth extraction. Awesome.

Continue reading “CLANK Goes the Essay”

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The Blooming

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An avid birder from Australia was the first to notice them. She was visiting Peru on a tour and saw them through her binoculars. Unlike their close cousins, these swallows had bright red patches under their eyes. The tips of their wings were silver. They burrowed into cliffs on the shore of the South American country, hundreds of them. No one had seen the like of them before. The world of ornithology was stunned. A spokesperson from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York tried to explain the shock by saying it was like waking up and finding another room in your house had appeared overnight. Other than the hundreds of birders who flew to Peru to see the new species of swallow, the story was entertaining and no more. Some good news in a world full of bad news. The Red-eyed Swallow became a symbol of hope, at least to some. Scientists, however, were confounded and shocked.

On the coast of Maryland a few weeks later, crabs began to appear on the shore. They were bright purple in color with orange claws. Their eyes protruded slightly from their shells. An iridescent marking on their shells looked suspiciously like the mathematical symbol for pi. Others interpreted the symbol as a cross. Others as a crossed heart. Still others likened it to the face of Mary, mother of Jesus. But Pi crab caught on, and although its proper name was the Orange-clawed crab, no one recognized it as anything but the Pi crab. The new species came in hundreds. They steamed great pots of them and made crab cakes and kept their mathematical shells on desks to marvel and reflect upon.

Zebra dolphins were seen in the Mediterranean. They were striped black and white, as their name suggests, and they swam in pods much larger than normal dolphins. They were smaller than many dolphins, about the size of a German shepherd, but they leaped from the water with great alacrity. Some of their super pods had as many as a thousand individuals. They followed ships and boats, streaking through the water playfully.

The dagat appeared in New Zealand, a creature somewhat mixing the qualities of dog and cat. It was large with a pronounced snout, but had smooth, tigerish fur. Its eyes were emerald green and could be seen glowing in the forests at night. It gave out a bark when threatened, but also could be heard purring in the trees when the sun was pleasant.

In the Antarctic, photos came of a bird something like a penguin, but with the ability to fly over the water for very brief periods by super extending their wings and gliding. They also lacked the black and white tuxedo look of their penguin relatives. Instead they were lavishly colored with crimson heads, a sapphire blue chest, and green wing feathers. Their tail feather also trailed long feathers like a bird of paradise that terminated in two puffs of orange. It was called the Skimming Penguin.

Soon came the lorat and the pichami. There was also the bickurat and the red-winged sparrow. From South America came the Great Llama, nearly two times the size of its cousin, who moved in herds, eating not only cactus flowers but the leaves of acacia plants, like goats. There was the Southern Cheetah of Africa and the Panchera Tiger, which was described as like the Bengal Tiger but half the size and living in colonies of dozens, lounging in the trees and glowering down at all with baleful, threatening eyes. An infestation of magrats hit Iowa, packing corn in their kangaroo-like pouches. A mosquito whose bite injected a powerful soporific into their prey appeared in Maine and New Brunswick, creating hordes of people who flocked to the state to be bitten. It was claimed the sleep the mosquito produced was so profound that you woke up feeling as refreshed as a newborn. The occasional case of malaria was an annoying side effect. In the Sea of Japan appeared a whale as red as blood with a dark face who was as aggressive as its cousins were peaceful. They were named Bull Whales and became a serious nuisance for safe sea travel in that part of Asia. Bull Whales were known to capsize smaller boats and to cripple larger vessels by purposefully ramming themselves into propellers like kamikaze pilots. Woe to the swimmer near a Bull Whale! They were known to grasp a human in its jaws and drag them down into the profundities of ocean until they either drowned or their lungs collapsed from the pressure. The Pacific now teemed with blue-bellied anchovies that suddenly appeared off the coast of Chile and were soon seen as far north as San Francisco. In the Arctic swam the cycloptic eel, a strange one-eyed eel who congregated in seething masses of hundreds of thousands, fattening ecstatic Polar Bears.

In a period of a decade, scientists described the appearance of nearly six thousand new species. They seemed to appear every day and from every corner of the Earth. Popularly it was known as the Bloom. Evolutionary biologists were at a loss to explain it. Ecologists were baffled. Scientists all over the world worked day and night to find the explanation. Samples were taken and studied. Specimens were tested. DNA was separated and examined. One scientist, Gertrude Havelock, from the University of Iowa, put forth the Theory of Hyper Fecundity. She argued that following every era of mass extinction there followed an equal era of new life, new species. Now, because of the loss of biodiversity all over the world because of humanity, a new era of Hyper Fecundity was beginning, and it was happening much, much faster than any scientists would have guessed. A generation of scientists spent their lives studying the Fecundity with little results.

The Vasari emerged from Canada, but where exactly they originated was a mystery. They were taller than us, swathed in the white and golden fur of the Northern Mammoth, which had appeared a decade or so before. Their long, lithe arms carried slim rifles forged from steel. Their round eyes, larger than ours, were as yellow as the sun and just as bright. Their cheekbones were larger, their faces slimmer. Their skin changed color with the daylight so that they were light in the morning, dark in the full daylight, and light again at night. They were not separated by gender and each Vasari gave birth when he/she wished with a partner who likewise wished it. They spoke carefully in several human languages and one of their own, a language like waterfalls accentuated with pops and snaps. Their own language they would not share and linguists could not learn. They came in hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. They built their own cities in the North. Soon there were millions of them in Canada and Russia and Greenland.

A new world had arrived. The billions of us left found themselves in a world they did not recognize, full of creatures as strange to them as aliens. In our hearts, we felt the end of things. But it was not ugly. There was relief in the end that we would leave an Earth even more beautiful than the one we inherited. It was easy to surrender our desperate grasp upon something which always refused to be owned. With so much new beauty in the world, it was not difficult to die.

Like the penguin, we too learned to fly, to skim the waters of a place that had once been ours and then dive into the darkness.

 

 

The Dream of Crossed Paths

 

Occasionally, I will post short stories to my blog. I hope you enjoy!

 

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The Dream of Crossed Paths

 

Although we are a people who have never seen the sun, we dream of it. In our dreams, the sun is bright yellow, sometimes red. From it falls an orange light, a soft warmth like a gentle fire on its last coals. We bask under it naked, with no fear of attack from the darkness. The light is everywhere. We are swimming in it. Immersed. But our dreams are fantasies of the light. We only have the image of the sun from ancient stories. We tell and re-tell our heritage. We speak of the sun and we dream of the sun and we ache for the light.

Continue reading “The Dream of Crossed Paths”

Anne of Grey Gables

About a week ago, I was writing an author interview and was thinking of my answer to the inevitable question: what is your favorite book? I don’t have a favorite book. I have many books that I love. Many books that I return to, many that remain with me after many years, strong, fierce books whose characters have etched themselves into my mind. When I was thinking about this, the book Anne of Green Gables came to me. I had been watching the new Netflix series “Anne with an E,” and it made me remember how powerful of a character is Anne Shirley. She is certainly one of literature’s most vivid characters, alive, imaginative, proud, and supremely decent.

That is why I wanted to take this time to forget about my own book and concentrate a little on a review of “Anne with an E,” the latest iteration of one of literature’s great creations, Anne Shirley. I want to start with the things I love about the show, and then talk about what I believe must change if this show is to be as good as it can be.

Continue reading “Anne of Grey Gables”

The Landscapes of Publishing

 

I’m happy to say that on May 17th, 2017, The World Without Crows went live on Amazon. It’s now available, finally. Over the past few days since then, I’ve been constantly writing, constantly clicking links, constantly trying to get the word out. I spent a blistering three days writing bloggers asking them to review the book. Now I’m settling back, thinking of what else I can do.

Writing is a good time, isn’t it? You get to know a story, your setting. You explore your characters, you get to wonder about the world, maybe discover a few things on the way. It’s like a hike in a wilderness that no one has ever visited.

Then there’s marketing the book. This is like going from a calm wilderness with calling birds and idyllic scenery to some vast, urban landscape, chugging away with pollution and noise, billboards flashing, people huddled together against the cold under blinking fluorescent lights. Into this landscape you walk, going up to strangers, saying, “Hey, read this,” or “Hey, this is only 99 cents.” And they shake their heads so you walk on, uncertain, maybe pulling your coat closer to your body. Then it’s off to the next group of people, trying to avoid the guys in trenchcoats, saying, “Hey, I can do that for you, only 50 dollars.” And you turn your face away and keep walking. It’s a jungle out there, baby. You’re going to die. Continue reading “The Landscapes of Publishing”

A Brief History of “The Island”

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I am launching my new book in a matter of days. I thought this would be a good time to talk a little bit more about the book here.

The World Without Crows started life with the working title “The Island,” a title I wouldn’t give up for a long time. “The Island” began as the confluence of several ideas that had been bouncing around my head separately for a couple years. I’d always wanted to write a book in which there’s a lot of hiking. That’s not much of an idea, and that’s why it just flitted around my head, not landing anywhere, just flying from one place to another. Another desire was to write a book in which the protagonist played pen and paper RPG. A gamer, of the old fashioned type. The kind of kids I knew growing up who argued over the rules of the game more than they played it. I never thought these kids had seen justice in print or movies. They are always portrayed as incredibly socially awkward. Some of them were, it’s true, but they were also very intelligent, curious, and were all around decent people. Now they are professors and lawyers and judges. I have no doubt that hidden in the back of the closet of more than a few influential people is a ratty old copy of the AD&D Player’s Handbook. I wanted to tell THAT story. The third major idea was something apocalyptic. These ideas just trotted around my head independently for a long time, like horses in different fields, happily chomping away on the grass without being aware of each other’s existence. Until one day I woke up in the morning thinking that each idea was no good alone, but together, they might have something to say. For some reason, while I slept, the horses all gathered in the same field. Continue reading “A Brief History of “The Island””

Total Creative Control

I am about a week away from the launch of The World Without Crows. I am also sick. Not real sick. Sick enough so that everything is a little more of an effort. And I get tired walking around the house. This isn’t the best of times to be sick, damn this cold, but as they say in Chile, es lo que hay—that’s the way it is.

So far work on the book has been a mixture of pleasure and annoyance. I really enjoyed designing the book, especially the chapter headings. At first I thought I might do a heading based on the red dotted line of a trail map, but it didn’t work out the way I hoped. I ended up with a plain, but very nice chapter heading. I also tried to get a nice design for the punctuation that marks a strong break in the prose, called, interestingly enough, a dingus, but in translation to the Kindle, the dingus was reduced to a dash. In the future, I think I will use a shrunken * for this punctuation, which I saw used in the Kindle version of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars and thought worked very well. (Very good read by the way).

One of the things they always say about independent publishing is that you have total creative control. As if that’s a good thing. The secret is that some things I’d be quite happy in letting other people have some control.

Book design, while interesting, takes up DAYS of your time and also, because I’m not an expert, a lot of this time is wasted doing things that won’t matter, like, for example, picking the perfect dingus and ending up with a dash. I really respect people who design books. It’s not easy and takes an eye for detail, but, more than that, I think it takes a lot of experience. I’m happy with the design of the book, but I recognize it would have benefited from an expert’s touch. (If you want to see a screen shot of the first page, zip over to the Facebook page for The World Without Crows). In the future, if I have the resources, I will try to find a book designer who I like to work with. It seems a wonderful thing to be out of my control. Continue reading “Total Creative Control”

The Emblem of Solidity

I wrote this a year ago about the tsunami that struck Chile in 2015. I’m happy to report that many of the businesses and houses that were destroyed by the tsunami have been rebuilt, most of them better than before.

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A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid; – one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced. Charles Darwin, writing about the 1835 Concepción earthquake

On the night of Wednesday, September 16, 2015, the parties for the Fiesta de la Patria had already begun in Chile, the thin country that stretches like a spine on the west coast of South America from Peru to Antarctica, bordered on the east by the Andes mountains. Chile celebrates its independence from Spain on September 18th. My wife and I were preparing for the party. The whole country gathers in different fondas, any place that hosts a party, to fly kites, wave Chilean flags, and eat grilled meat and sausage at asados, Chilean BBQs. My Chilean wife, Fernanda, had come home from her last day of work before the long vacation, and we were sharing a beer to celebrate and relax. The next day, early in the morning, we expected our first guests from Santiago. Our own fonda would start then and continue until Saturday. There was a fridge full of food ready to be consumed in concert with beer, wine, and pisco, a Chilean liquor made from distilled grapes. We had practiced the cueca, the Chilean folk dance that accompanies the 18th like ketchup on fries—or, to be more Chilean about it, avocado on hot dogs. There was a bag full of napkins, tablecloths, and banners, all a variation on the theme of the Chilean flag. The party would last several days. Chileans don’t mess around when it comes to their Día de la Patria. Continue reading “The Emblem of Solidity”

A Necessary Biography

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On January 1, 2013, I stepped onto a metal machine in Toronto and I stepped off it in Santiago, Chile. When I left Maine, there was a fresh covering of nearly a foot of snow. In Santiago, it was summer. Hot. I had to change clothes in the airport for the journey north to La Serena. I really didn’t know much about Chile. My Spanish was non-existent. And the landscape was like another planet to me. Cacti and stone and the occasional goat. We stopped on the way and I had my first of many empanadas in Huentelauquen, famous for its cheese. I really knew nothing about Chile or Latin American culture. Continue reading “A Necessary Biography”

First blog post

So this is a blog. More precisely, it is my blog. To be honest, I didn’t think people were writing these anymore, so I didn’t think I’d be writing one when I woke up this morning. My name is Ben (hence The Blog of Ben). Nice to meet you. I’m an independent author living in La Serena, Chile, and I’m planning on self-publishing my next book, The World Without Crows in the next few months or so. Continue reading “First blog post”