A food influencer I follow on Instagram and Tik Tok has in fact influenced me. I have been thoroughly influenced into buying Bonne Maman’s Advent Calendar.
If you have never heard of Bonne Maman, it is a jam/jelly brand that’s pretty common in most grocery stores. It’s like a nicer Smucker’s.
When I went to order this back in December, it was actually on back order and said it wouldn’t be arriving until January. This was fine by me since I don’t really mind eating festive things after the festivities have passed. I did think that it should be on sale if that was the case, but it was still the full fifty dollars.
One thing to know about me is that I simply love the idea of advent calendars, and am a huge fan of them in theory. In execution, however, I have been severely disappointed by basically every advent calendar I’ve ever bought (I’m looking at you, Williams Sonoma Baking Advent Calendar).
This one, though, is the epitome of what an advent calendar should be. Twenty-three one-ounce jars of different flavored fruit spreads, and one honey.
Look at that consistency! All jam, no bullshit (and one honey).
It unfolds like a big book into this!
So I started punchin’ the numbers.
Since there are 24 items in the calendar, I decided to just do four at a time. That way the posts aren’t too long.
So here’s days 1-4:
We have Rhubarb-Strawberry:
Orange, Yuzu, and Grapefruit:
And finally, Mirabelle Plum and Linden Blossom:
I decided to try these on toast. The bread I used is Pepperidge Farm’s Farmhouse Butter Bread, which is just a thick white bread I buy from Kroger. I also like their Honey White and Sweet Hawaiian, though.
I toasted two pieces, then cut both pieces in half and spread each with a different jam. Admittedly, they all look pretty much the same.
Upon trying the Rhubarb-Strawberry, I was shocked to find that it didn’t really taste like much. It was very mild in flavor, and I didn’t feel like I was getting any rhubarb from it. It was more just like a weak strawberry.
Next was the triple citrus one, the Orange-Yuzu-Grapefruit. I was actually excited to see that yuzu was included in this one, since yuzu is a flavor I pretty much only have when I try Japanese snacks. Sadly, though, I wasn’t a huge fan of this one, as I don’t really like grapefruit, and it was definitely grapefruit heavy. It was too bitter for me. Also, this spread in particular was very liquid-y, so much so that I almost switched to a spoon to spread it instead of a butter knife.
Following that was the Apricot-Peach, which I kind of thought would be my favorite, as I love peach jam. However, it ended up tasting a lot more like apricots than peaches. I suppose that’s why they put it first in the name of it, but wow was it apricot-y. I prefer peaches over apricots, so that was a bit disappointing, but it was still good and fairly sweet overall.
Finally, the Mirabelle Plum and Linden Blossom. I’m pretty sure I’ve never had linden blossom before, so I was interested to see what kind of flavor that would bring to the table. The answer, as you might have guessed, is floral. This jam was sweet and floral, and really quite pleasant. I enjoyed it a lot.
After trying all four of them on toast, I thought to myself that there was no way the first one was really that weak. It had to have been the bread dampening the flavor of it. So, I tried all four again with a spoon. Nothing between me and the jam, just pure flavor.
This made a world of difference. Everything tasted better, and things like the rhubarb and peach finally came through where they really didn’t before. However, I feel like trying them plain isn’t really doing anyone any favors, because you’re most likely not going to eat the jam plain. It’s important how it tastes on bread, because you will probably be eating it on bread, or on something else that might dampen the flavor of it compared to just trying it straight out of the jar.
Anyways, there’s the first four! Which looks the best to you? Have you ever been disappointed by an advent calendar? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!
One advantage writers get when they work in different fields of writing is more tools for their professional toolbox — but as James L. Cambias points out in this Big Idea for The Scarab Mission, not every skill is directly transferable from one medium to the next, and learning which tools this is true about is part of the trick.
JAMES L. CAMBIAS:
My standard bio identifies me as a “writer and game designer.” Some might wonder why. It’s been nearly seven years since my last major game product came out (Weird War I from Pinnacle Entertainment Group, if you’re a completist), while in that time I’ve published four novels and a couple of short stories. Oh, sure, I have put up a couple of little self-published game products on DriveThru RPG, but when I go to my office or the nearest coffeeshop to “get some writing done,” it’s fiction I’m pretending to work on, not games.
Yet I still “identify” as a game designer for the same reason I also mention that I’m from New Orleans, even though I’ve now lived in Massachusetts longer than in Louisiana. It’s where I came from and part of who I am. My first paid writing work was a Car Wars article for Steve Jackson Games, and from 1991 to 2000 my primary job was cranking out adventures for game company house magazines, and then full-length game supplements for GURPS, HERO Games, Rolemaster, In Nomine, the old Star Wars and Star Trek roleplaying games, and Castle Falkenstein.
For a time I called myself the Destroyer of Game Companies, because every time I got into discussions with a publisher about a major game project, that was almost inevitably followed by the announcement that they were going out of business.
I learned a lot about the craft of writing. When I started, my chief advantage over other fan writers was an ability to research things using my wife’s access to academic libraries (no Wikipedia or Google Books in those days of dial-up Usenet). A side gig as a proofreader also meant my copy was very “clean” and didn’t need a lot of editorial attention. (As a side note, the only result of my attempt to set myself up as a freelance copy-editor for game companies was that one publisher got insulted when I sent him a markup of one of his print advertisements highlighting all the typos and grammatical errors.) Game writing gave me the chance to experiment with narrative voices, sentence structures, and creating imaginary worlds.
However, when I started writing fiction, my game experience wasn’t as big a help as I had thought. I could produce decent prose . . . but everything I knew about storytelling was wrong.
See, in games, the characters generally follow an upward trajectory. They gain resources, abilities, allies, and a better understanding of the game world. They learn to defeat tougher enemies. It’s a pretty decent metaphor for adolescence, which is still the prime age for getting into gaming.
Whereas in fiction, a character who goes from strength to strength is kind of boring. We want to see our heroes endure hardship, make sacrifices, get stripped of their powers and assets and status until they have nothing left but their own wits and courage. I had to learn to do that.
Yet there is still an influence on my fiction from games, and I cannot deny it. In my fantasy novel The Initiate, I deliberately set out to write about a character who does “level up” throughout the story, gaining magical knowledge and power as he battles his way up through a secret hierarchy of evil wizards. The trick is that he is constantly giving up his humanity as he does so, getting more and more like the villains he opposes.
It also doesn’t take a genius to see an influence from games on my latest novel, The Scarab Mission. It’s about an oddball crew of treasure-hunters exploring a ruin full of enemies, deathtraps, and hidden dangers. Sound familiar? All it needs is a map gridded off into ten-foot squares. Sure, it’s a derelict space colony rather than an underground complex, but I know a dungeon crawl when I see one.
But I haven’t forgotten my lessons about storytelling. The characters in The Scarab Mission may acquire loot and defeat traps, but they also need to make sacrifices and hard choices, and by the end are reduced to their personal essentials. My protagonist Solana has to defeat her nemesis without any “magic items” at all, despite living in the Tenth Millennium when magical-seeming technology is more common than dirt.
Game writing helped me make it as a writer, and I’m never going to give it up entirely. I still run a weekly roleplaying campaign. Lessons from gaming are useful in fiction — and some tools of fiction are valuable in gaming. But they are distinct genres, if not entirely different art forms, and must be approached on their own terms.
The Scarab Mission is probably the closest thing I’ve written to a “game novel,” but it’s definitely a novel, not a roleplaying game. I hope you all enjoy it.
I heard this odd song in an animatic on Tik Tok, and I’ve been listening to it multiple times a day since I first heard it a few months ago.
I have no idea what it’s about or really even from, but here it is:
And here’s the animatic! I had been following this artist’s progression of the animatic for months and this is the final version:
Freaky, right? I’m so curious as to what is going on in it, but I enjoy it even without really understanding it.
Most people I show the song to aren’t as big of a fan of it. My dad says it sounds like community theater singing Bohemian Rhapsody.
What do you think of it? Kind of catchy, no? Strangest song you’ve heard today, perhaps? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!
In this photo you will see, from left, my great uncle Roy, my grandmother Jean, and my grandfather Mike. This would have been taken during World War II so my grandmother and grandfather would have been in their early 20s, which makes this officially the youngest I’ve ever seen them in a photo. The photo was sent to me by a relative who guessed I would appreciate it, and they were right, I do. I especially appreciate the picture of my grandmother, as I have fewer of those than I do of my grandfather, and I have almost none of those. Also, look at the way she’s looking at my grandad. That’s a definite “admirin'” look, there.
One thing this picture confirms for me is how very little of my looks I’ve received from the Stannard/Scalzi side of my genetics. I look nothing like either of my grandfolks, and very little like my father, whereas my mother and I look rather a lot alike, as do Athena and I (she got Krissy’s height, hair and attitude, which, honestly, is a good division). It’s my sister Heather who carries the Stannard/Scalzi look, and her kids sort out about 50/50 on the matter.
What I get from that side of the family is a quick wit and a certain stubbornness, which I admit, has been more useful to me in life than my looks. So thanks, Mike and Jean, for that.
Welcome, everyone, to a new series I’m starting here on the blog! I’m calling this series “Close To Home”, and it’s purpose is to feature small businesses in the area, much like Small Business Saturday. This series differs from Small Business Saturday, though, because it’s going to be only eateries. I’ll be going to these local places, trying out their stuff, and showcasing them to y’all, so you can see these potentially hidden gems in our small rural towns.
Now that you know what you’re diving into, let’s get started with the first restaurant of the series: Boscoe’s Place.
Around where I live, it can feel like there’s not much to do or see, or like there’s not many options to choose from when you want to grab a bite to eat. This makes it especially exciting when new places open up in our small towns. This was certainly the case when Boscoe’s Place opened in Covington, the town neighboring mine. The opening of it had been greatly anticipated, and for the past year it has been a hotspot for locals.
I drive past it almost daily, so I figured it was time I gave it a shot, and show you all this “doggone good food” they have.
I went on a Friday night at dinner time, so it was decently packed. Every table was full, but I only had to wait about twenty minutes for a table. I was glad it was busy. I like to see small businesses get good traffic.
Not only is the menu full of dog-related puns, such as their y’appetizers and ‘lil pups menu, but they even have Yappy Hour!
This is because of their namesake, the late Boscoe. The restaurant name gives tribute to the owners’ companion, so his memory may live on in everyone that visits.
I decided to go ahead and try some of these y’appetizers. First up was Boscoe’s Cheese Snacks:
While normally I don’t order cheese sticks from restaurants because they’re largely unremarkable, Boscoe’s cheese sticks are a little different, as they are wrapped in wonton skins.
After breaking one in half to reveal a rather impressive cheese pull, I dove right in and was met with a hot, crispy, cheesy, delicious bite. It was garlicy, buttery, parmesan-y goodness, made even better with a dip of the zesty marinara.
These were a super strong start to the meal, but I still had another appetizer to get through.
Here we have Boscoe’s BIG Pretzel. The description says it might be the largest pretzel you’ve ever seen, and honestly I think they were right. This thing was massive, and served with a spicy mustard, stone ground mustard, and a hatch chili queso.
The pretzel was soft and fluffy, and pulled apart easily into perfect dipping-sized bites. The spicy mustard was definitely not my cup of tea, as it had the capability of clearing your sinuses without offering much flavor in return. I am a lover of stone ground mustard, though, so I’m glad that was included. As for the queso, I was worried it would be too spicy for me (y’all know I’m a baby about spice), but it had just a small amount of kick, and was really creamy and warm! Overall, another great appetizer.
I figured I’d try a drink to get the full experience of this place, since they do have a whole bar, which they also have seating at.
I got a Lemon Drop, which I had no idea came with edible gold glitter in it:
It was so pretty! I absolutely loved the presentation of this drink. As for taste, I will say it was on the strong side, but at least you get a lot of bang for your buck.
Moving onto the main courses, here is their Caesar salad with grilled chicken:
While this salad is pretty standard, you can’t go wrong with a classic. Crunchy croutons, fresh greens, moist chicken, all in all a solid salad.
Of course, I had to try a burger and fries. Here we have the Bruschetta Burger:
A patty topped with bruschetta, balsamic, onion, lettuce, tomato, and a toasted bun (pickles served on the side).
This burger was seriously delish (though I did take the onions off). The meat was cooked perfectly, the balsamic was present but not overpowering, and the toppings were all fresh. Plus, the toasted bun made a world of difference, adding more texture and better flavor overall. The fries were pretty good. They were crispy on the outside and softer on the inside, but not really seasoned at all.
I noticed that there was no dessert section on the menu, and I asked my waitress if they had any desserts. She said they did, but no one really orders it, and it’s not on the menu. I asked what it was, and she said it was fried dough with powdered sugar and your choice of caramel or chocolate. I asked if it’d be okay to order it, since it was technically off menu, and she assured me I could. I got it with caramel.
I really can’t understand why this isn’t on the menu, because it is so good. It’s warm and crispy, topped with whipped cream and drizzled with caramel, what’s not to love? Plus, it’s easily shareable. I definitely had one too many slices of this thing.
After all that, it came out to about seventy dollars (before tip). I think that’s a pretty decent price, all things considered.
The food was awesome, the service was great, the prices are good, and the drinks are strong. I definitely recommend checking Boscoe’s Place out, and don’t skip on the secret dessert.
What looks the best to you? What drink would you try? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!
September 13, 2023 will mark the 25th anniversary of Whatever, the blog you’re reading right this very second, so I thought it might be fun and interesting, every 13th day of each month of 2023, to write a piece reflecting about the site, my life and anything else regarding the last twenty-five years that might come to mind. I did a similar thing five years ago with the 20th anniversary of the site, some of you may recall, with a series called “20/20,” in which I wrote twenty pieces during the month of September, about life in 1998, when the site started, and life in the then-present of 2018. For “Whatever Twenty-Five” I’m going to try to avoid going over the same ground as I did with those pieces, although there will necessarily be at least a little overlap — it’s the nature of retrospective essays. But aside from anything else, five more years have passed. There’s more to muse on. Roughly 20 percent more, in fact.
I will say that twenty five years ago today, January 13, 1998, I had given no thought at all to writing what would become a nearly-daily chronicle of my life, and one of the longest-running personal sites on the Internet. On January 13 1998, I was still gainfully employed at America Online, at the time the world’s largest online provider, where I was the company’s in-house writer/editor. I was specifically in a group that was in charge of doing special events on the service, and being a “fire-team,” as it were, when something needed to be addressed sooner rather than later. In practice, however, I ended up being a company-wide resource, the person all the groups came to when they needed some writing done.
Which was cool in one sense — it kept me busy — but also meant, as I’ve noted before, that when my group was dissolved, no one wanted to put what was a company-wide resource (me!) on their department budget. I became a layoff of one, which is a kind way of saying I was fired, but nicely so, since AOL kept me on until my next vesting date so that I could cash out some stock options as I walked out the door. Those stock options paid for a house, so, uh, yeah. It was relatively soft punt rather than a hard bounce.
I’ve talked before about how being laid off from AOL affected me emotionally and otherwise at the time (spoiler: really badly), so I’ll skip that part of things this time around, and instead focus on one practical aspect of it: Now that I was laid off, my primary email address, tied in as it was with my AOL employment, was going away. Now, I could have just gotten a different AOL address (and, in fact, I did), but before I had been at AOL I had actually had my own Web site. It made sense to me to have my own web site again — and not just my own web site, but my own domain, so that I would never have to change my email address ever again. Scalzi.com was registered on March 4, 1998, and yes, since then I have never changed my primary email address. So well done, me.
The astute amongst you will note that there are several months between March 4 and September 13. What was on Scalzi.com between those dates? Well, mostly, it was an archive of writing that I had done up to that point. The archive served both as a place for me to easily access my own writing, and also, and more to the point, as a place for people who might hire me for freelance work to access my writing as well. Having been laid off, and feeling deeply burned and raw by the process, I decided to go to work for myself rather than to work for someone else, and then just get laid off again. So here was a site, showing off what I could write.
It worked, sort of. It got occasional visits and I did get some work from it. Mostly, however, I got work from former co-workers, who had left AOL for whatever reason, and when their new company needed a writer or editor for something, remembered that I existed and rang me up. There was an upside to being the only writer a bunch of tech folks knew personally! I would say ultimately eighty to ninety percent of my freelance business came from people who knew me from AOL, or (slightly later) referrals from companies I had done business with. Having the web site didn’t hurt (among other things, it had my contact information), but was probably not the business magnet I had expected it to be.
Around this time, the earliest stirrings of what eventually would be known as “The Blogosphere” were underway; tech people were migrating .plan files onto web sites, journalists, some laid off and some bored, started populating their own places online, and nerds and/or academics who had previously collected themselves on USENET started putting together their own personal outposts. These were not blogs, yet; they were called online journals or online diaries, or just “web sites.”
I started making the rounds of several of these sites, and was particularly taken by the one at lileks.com, run by James Lileks, a syndicated columnist I had read back when I was a columnist myself, and whose style I enjoyed and admired. He was writing on his own site every day, and I was all, oh, hey, I could do that, too. After all, one day I might be a newspaper columnist again; might as well keep in practice.
So, on September 13, 1998, I started writing Whatever. What was the plan? There was no plan! And to my credit I was upfront about it: the site is called “Whatever” not in honor of the dismissive Gen X expression but in honor of “I’m writing what comes into my brain, and what I feel like writing about.” Which, to be sure, is how the site continues today, nearly a quarter of a century later.
There have, mind you, been changes. Over the years the site has gained some regular features, most notably the “Big Idea,” which was created to help other writers promote their latest work. Whatever is also no longer a solo enterprise; my daughter Athena contributes regularly, and covers topics I would never think to cover because — hey, get this! — she’s her own person and has her own interests and life experiences. Also, of course, in the space of 25 years as a writer, I have changed, a subject which I suspect I will come back to more than once as I unfold this series over the course of the year.
I’ve mentioned before and will undoubtedly mention again that writing on and in Whatever has become, unexpectedly, my life’s work; not the work I get paid for, nor the work I am best known for, but the work that has been persistent and ongoing. When I started it I had no children and had written no books and my life was in a very different place, professionally and spatially, than it is now. So much of the literal day-to-day of my life is recorded here, in millions of words across two-and-a-half decades. As (also) mentioned earlier, it wasn’t really planned to be this; it wasn’t planned to be anything. It just is, and was, and probably will be, what I write because I want to, until I can’t do it any more.
Some of you have been reading this almost from the beginning; I’m glad you’ve stuck around. Some of you may have just started coming to the site; I hope you’ll continue to come by. For both these groups and everyone in between: Thanks. 25 years is a long time to do a thing, but it doesn’t feel like it’s been a long time. It just feels like what I’m writing today.
That’s the secret to Whatever, I suppose: I just keep showing up and putting words into it. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.
Someone from the internet was in a generous mood for the holidays, and sent my family a box of popcorn! Specifically a variety pack of popcorn from Fireworks Popcorn, which comes with these nine different popcorns:
Here we have High Mountain Midnight, Orchard Blossom, Sunset Fire, Red River Valley, Autumn Blaze, Baby White Rice, Savanna Gold, Harvest Blend, and Wisconsin White Birch.
I’ll be honest, I don’t really know anything about popcorn, and I never considered the possibility that there could be varieties of it. So, after seeing this variety box, I decided to see what exactly the differences were between all these popcorns by taste testing and comparing them.
I have decided to do three at a time, making for a total of three posts since there’s nine varieties. For this post, I tried Autumn Blaze, Red River Valley, and Baby White Rice.
I was excited to try the Red River Valley one, as I’d never seen red popcorn before. The Autumn Blaze was also pretty looking.
Before we dive in to the cooking and taste testing, I just want to say thank you to the person that sent these along! We really appreciate your kindness! ‘
So, I decided to cook all the popcorns in the same type of oil and in the same pan to get consistent results. I used Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and a small pot with a lid, and followed the instructions on the bottle, which say to add 1/3 cup of popcorn to 1-3 tbsp of oil (I used 2 tbsp). I did not add any salt or butter, I just tried everything plain. This was also my first time ever cooking popcorn on the stove!
For each popcorn, I would say it took about ten minutes before it started popping, and then once it started, it only took about three minutes for it all to pop (give or take a few kernels).
Up first was Autumn Blaze:
I thought it was neat you could clearly see which pieces were which color as a kernel.
I noticed that this popcorn was like, oddly small.
After I tasted it, I thought that it was extremely neutral. I’m not saying that it’s bland just because it’s plain popcorn or something, I really mean it has a very neutral flavor. It tastes like the poster-child for popcorn. I think this would be a good popcorn to turn into kettle corn.
Following that, I whipped up a batch of the Red River Valley popcorn:
Don’t ask me how or why, but somehow there was a lot more of this kind of popcorn! It filled the entire pot, where as the previous variety (and the next variety) only filled the pot halfway with popped corn! I couldn’t even fit it all in the bowl.
For this one, you can really tell that this was the red variety, as all the popcorn is dark in the center, giving it an almost burnt look.
This was the moment of truth for me. Was this popcorn going to taste the exact same as the previous corn? Or was it possible for popcorn to have different flavors?
The answer is, it was actually very different. I couldn’t quite place it at first, but I settled on that this one had a richer taste, and a bolder flavor that made itself much more known to your taste buds.
I actually preferred the more mild flavor of the previous corn, this variety tasted a bit too much on the robust side.
Finally, the Baby White Rice:
This one looked the most normal, with its uniform light brown centers.
I was surprised that this one turned out to be my favorite. It had a mild flavor that was something more than the neutral-ness of the first one, but much less than the robustness of the second one. This one just screamed movie theater to me.
After tasting all three, I wanted to see if the website had descriptions of the popcorns, and if my judgements of them had been in line with their descriptions.
Lo and behold, I found a characteristics page, and a whole comparison chart. I had been right on the money with saying that the Red River Valley one had a particularly rich/deep flavor compared to the other two mild ones.
And the characteristics page even mentioned that their popcorn is so small because large popcorn is less flavorful and has a Styrofoam-like texture!
Anyways, that’s three down, six to go! I think out of the six left, I’m most excited to try the Orchard Blossom popcorn, because it’s pink! Who doesn’t want pink popcorn?
Which one of these three sounded best to you? Are you a fan of kettle corn or caramel corn? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!
Real life experiences from authors’ lives often inform their fiction. In the case of Mary Baader Kaley, her life experience, and the life experience of someone she loves, lives at the heart of her novel Burrowed. What is that experience? Read on to discover.
MARY BAADER KALEY:
My husband and I belong to an exclusive club we never meant to join. We are the parents of a special-needs child who will be fully dependent on us for the rest of our lives, because our youngest of three children was born with a brain malformation. Based on the parts of the brain involved, doctors surmised something impacted his development around my eighth week of pregnancy when I was very sick and hospitalized. Looking at him, you can’t see the malformation, but you can’t miss his secondary diagnosis: autism.
He’s fifteen now.
The seed of what would become Burrowed began to take root when he was three—after he began to sleep more than a couple of hours at a time and the fog of sleep deprivation began to lift. I wondered what it would look like if everyone had some sort of disability, and an entire world grew from there. Some people in this world must live underground because they’re too sickly and weak to be exposed to the general population. Everyone else is healthy enough to live above ground but suffer from debilitating conditions of their minds. I wanted to explore how people with various disabilities are treated. Is it possible to see a person for his or her strengths rather than isolate them for their defining difference?
And to bring this back to the real world, another question arises—how can non-disabled people make a difference for someone with a disability? The answer couldn’t be simpler. We can have that person’s back.
After our son was born, neurologists were keenly interested in his malformation—not to treat it but rather to diagnose exactly what type of congenital disorder it might be. A Dandy Walker variant? A strange presentation of Chiari IV? Different doctors had different opinions. Frankly, it didn’t matter.
We were sent to geneticists. The specialist summarized all the different panels of DNA analysis they could run, the costs of each, and the types of mutations that could be found. I stopped her, asking, “Will knowing any of these mutations help my son?” I didn’t mean to be rude, but my child had been prodded and poked so many times already. She replied it wouldn’t help him. From that point on, we made sure any further testing or medical appointments for our son would have one goal in mind: to help him with his actual medical issues or his development in reaching his full potential. Period.
We had bigger questions, like would he ever walk? Talk? Ride a bike? Dress himself? Well, yes, he eventually did these things on his own timetable—he can walk, skip, and run. He can ride a bike with training wheels, and he can dress himself (albeit in dial-up internet speed). And after a lot of help from wonderful teachers and therapists, he can speak. No one would mistake him for an effective communicator, but he can get his point across when he wants something (usually his iPad or a snack). And he can recite every word of his favorite shows by memory, in the voices of each character. In truth, he makes us laugh every day.
Social boundaries will always be an issue though. One day when he was about six, we were standing in line at a fast-food counter and the person in front of us just received his tray of food, turned around to find a seat, and my son grabbed a few French fries from this man’s tray faster than I could react. No sooner were the fries in my son’s mouth when he reached for more, and I had to hold onto each of his wrists to stop him. The man’s eyes opened wide with a what-just-happened expression. I apologized profusely, stammering something about autism.
Thankfully, the man was understanding, nodded, asked me not to apologize, and walked off joking, “I shouldn’t have these fries anyway.” Honestly, I fought tears—not from embarrassment but from the fact that this man was so cool about everything. Not everyone was. Other people threw us side-glances as if I couldn’t control my own child. Yet the guy with a few less French fries than he paid for? He had our back.
Hands down, my biggest fear for my son relates to the distant future when both my husband and I are gone—who will have his back then? We’ve made plans for him, drawn up legal documents, etc., but no one can guarantee these things will work out. It’s hopefully a long way off, but this fear is an icy whisper that sneaks up on me every so often.
Even now, though, there are times we’re not with our son to fend for him. He goes to school, he goes out with sitters or with other family members. What happens if he snatches someone’s food and the person isn’t as cool as that guy with the fries? What if someone doesn’t like the behaviors he exhibits as an autistic person? He’s got zero ability to spout off a clever retort or defend himself against the blandest of bullies. In short, if someone wanted to hurt him, they could. And make no mistake: my son absolutely knows when he’s being teased or bullied.
Every flavor of disability exists in this world—and for the most part just like anyone else, these people chug along within their daily routines with their families and friends who look out for them. Sometimes though, they could use a little help. Small kindnesses. Maybe a few fries.
I have to trust that other people will be there for my son when I’m not around—from his underpaid teachers, school aides, and therapists—who we adore. And still, there are unnamed others, people I won’t meet but he will come across who, like French fry guy, decide to have my son’s back.
From the deepest depths of my soul, I thank each and every one of them.
Our afternoon today was interrupted by a knock on the door and a young man standing on our porch. He had come to inform us he’d made a bit of a mess of our yard, down by the road. What happened was, it has been raining more or less constantly today, and the young man’s truck hit a patch of water on the road, hydroplaned, and then went into our yard.
Actually, there was more to the story, as the picture at the top of the piece here suggests. At the lip of our yard is a bit of a ditch, put there to channel water during really heavy rains. When he hydroplaned, it appears that his truck slid into the ditch, hit the incline of it pretty substantially, and then flew a truck length or so before it came back down into the yard. And yes, indeed, the young man made rather a mess of the lawn. And, probably, his truck.
Personally, while I appreciated that the first impulse of this young man was to drive up and admit to tearing up our turf, I wasn’t especially worried about the yard. It’s grass and dirt; we can replace and reseed it and put the roller on the lawn tractor to flatten it back down, and it’ll be fine. I was more worried about him and asked him if he was all right. He said he was (he also said he wasn’t sure about the state of his truck, however). That being the case, I told him that in that we were all good. Accidents happen. If the only damage is to a yard and a truck, we’re all ahead of the game, here.
The moral to this story, if there is one, is that honesty really is a good policy, and also, please be careful on rain-slick roads, because they will absolutely mess with you. Slow and steady gets you home, folks.
While it’s true that Phantom of the Opera is leaving Broadway, author Jen Comfort is here to bring a modern, gender-reversed version of it to your reading list with her newest rom-com novel, Midnight Duet.
“You know how the 2019 theatrical release of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats was a visual, conceptual, and financial travesty of colossal purr-portions? Hear me out…”
It’s late 2020. My debut book hasn’t even hit shelves yet, and here I am–unreviewed by critics, untested by audiences, absolutely zero clout to my name–throwing utterly ridiculous book ideas at my editor with the outsized ambition of 2015’s Pizza Rat (may he rest in piz.. za).
“What if I did that with Phantom of the Opera, except the Phantom is a woman, the ingenue is a German hair metal frontman, and it’s a contemporary rom-com novel set in Vegas?”
Context is key: in late 2020, I’d been unemployed from my restaurant serving job for seven months, the world was burning down in figurative and literal senses, and I’d spent a great deal of time with only my imagination and my cats for company. I wouldn’t say I was going insane, per se, because that does a terrible disservice to people with real mental health problems, and they’ve already gotten enough disservice from our country’s abysmal healthcare system. I’m simply suggesting if I lived in the basement catacombs of an opera house and had dedicated my life to ensuring the establishment’s musical and theatrical success, and then that opera house were purchased by two ding-dongs and a rich muppet who wouldn’t know performance art if it accidentally landed on them like a one-ton chandelier, and then the love of my life abandoned me for said muppet and the ding-dongs ruined my theater in the way (insert director of your choice) ruined Star Wars… well, under those circumstances, the Phantom’s melodramatic rampage of terror isn’t entirely unrelatable, is it? Whomst among us, etcetera, etcetera.
I didn’t expect my editor to say yes.
Many times, while I was writing Midnight Duet, I wished she hadn’t. Because at the end of the day, I was tasked with writing a contemporary romance novel, which is a genre with a strictly regulated plot structure and tone. A rom-com should be voice-y and funny, full of delightful secondary characters, and host a plot laden with zany mishaps yet bound the confines of modern reality.
And then there’s The Phantom of the Opera–a musical set in 1870s Paris, about a mask-wearing, cape-swirling, possibly-magic-wielding anti-hero who lurks in an underground chamber with a pipe organ (how did it get down there? No one knows and no one cares) and an inexplicably endless supply of candelabras. There’s murder, fire, mystical mirror seduction, and a heroine who doesn’t see a problem with any of this, because her purpose in life is to be hot and good at singing, and good for her.
And as ridiculous as it all sounds, this is exactly what POTO fans love about Phantom of the Opera–the extra-ness, the over-the-top melodrama, the more-is-more approach to costumes, set decor, and song composition.
There’s nothing I despise more than a remake that’s worse than the original. It’s downright disrespectful. If I was going to write a true homage to this masterpiece–and that’s exactly what my inner, 14-year-old goth girl aspired to do–I had to construct it in a way that did justice to the sheer vibes.
Problem: Where in Pizza Rat’s unholy name am I getting Phantom of the Opera vibes in our contemporary world?
Answer: Vegas. Duh.
Problem: Why is Erika–our female phantom–so goddamn melodramatic?
Answer: She’s a theater major, a former Broadway star, and a diva of Mariah Carey proportions. And like a proper anti-heroine, no one in Manhattan actually liked her, which is why, after a face-scarring accident (naturally), we find our disgraced diva wallowing in self-pity in the Nevada desert, where she’s tasked with saving her family’s Gold Rush-era legacy from a familiar rich muppet. She needs money, so she rents her opera house to Christof and his band, Nachtmusik. (If you’re wondering whether that’s an on-the-nose reference to Music of the Night–of course, it is. ALW doesn’t believe in subtlety, and neither do I.)
Problem: Christof–our up-and-coming vocalist–is a modern musician. Why on Earth would he–Answer: Glam rock. Look, I love the Scorpions, and if there’s any musical style that fits with the words “dramatic” and “extra,” it’s glam rock. We’re making this whole thing work, Spinal Tap style.
There’s no way* to replicate the “anything is possible!” creative energy of 1986, when The Phantom of the Opera was conceived for Broadway. (*In this economy? No one can afford that much cocaine.) But I did re-write approximately 80% of this book in the final weeks before my deadline in what I remember being a sleep-deprived marathon of chocolate-covered pretzels, coffee, and desperation fueled by a terrible sense of having dug my own literary grave. And by all that was unholy: if I had to be buried in that grave, my coffin would be bedazzled in black sequins.
When I describe this book now, I call it a “loose collection of atmospheric goth vibes and horniness,” and I believe it is that.
It is also, I hope, a fitting tribute to the musical, which will finally close in April after 35 years of atmospheric goth vibes and horniness.
It’s too bad ALW never wrote a sequel. But like the Phantom’s love for Christine, my love for ridiculously over-the-top romances will never die.
Recently, a reader of this blog reached out and asked if they could send me a box of old cookbooks from their 96-year-old grandmother’s collection. Obviously, I said yes, and a few days later these bad boys arrived!
Before we dive into what all we have on our hands here, I just want to take a minute to thank this very kind person for sending these to me. Not just sending them, but thinking of me in the first place. It is genuinely so nice they saw these and thought “you know who would like these?” and then went through the trouble of shipping them to me, and even included a lovely letter talking about their grandmother (who sounds like an awesome lady, by the way).
This is the third time a reader has sent me old cookbooks, I wrote about the first time, and the second time the person mentioned they didn’t really want to be acknowledged for it. All this to say, I have some very thoughtful readers, and I really appreciate all y’all being so kind.
So if the sender is reading this, feel free to say hi in the comments, I just didn’t know if you wanted to be named in front of everyone!
(Also in the letter, they told me that I should wear a mask and/or be outside to look at these books, but I did not heed the warning, and I regret it because I inhaled a LOT of 75-year-old book dust and sneezed several times (not on the books.))
Moving on, here we have ten different cookbooks, most of which are from the 40s and 50s.
Starting from the top left, we have The ABC of Canapés from 1953. I had never heard of a canapé before, but apparently it’s like fancy mini toasts! It just so happens mini toasts with fancy toppings is one of my favorite things in life! One interesting thing about this book is that it really does have like, the ABCs.
“Cost is no object when you serve caviar, but sardines and ketchup are tastier by far.” Now that is some clever rhyming if I do say so myself. But yeah, this one was super interesting.
Next we have Good Meals and How to Prepare Them: A Guide to Meal-Planning Cooking and Serving. This one is a first edition all the way from 1927. Truly remarkable! Just looking at the spread of books, you can pretty much tell it’s the oldest one among them.
Following that is The Second Ford Treasury of Favorite Recipes From Famous Eating Places from 1954. That certainly is a mouthful of a title, but a unique one, undoubtedly.
After that is one simply titled French Home Cooking from 1956, and immediately following it is The Art of Italian Cooking, which I couldn’t really pinpoint a super clear date for this one, but here’s the page I usually get that info from if any of you can help me decipher it:
Starting the second row, we have Dinner With Tom Jones: Eighteenth Century Cookery Adapted For the Modern Kitchen from 1977. This one had a super cool dedication section:
You can actually see the pen ink from the other side of the page, in which I assume a friend of the grandmother left her a note telling her to enjoy the book. The grandmother’s name is actually written in a few of the others, as well.
Next up is Trader Vic’s Book of Food & Drink from 1946, which also has an awesome dedication section:
Following that is The Standard Wine Cookbook: A Practical Guide to the Use of American Wines from 1948. Of course I had to show this one to my boss at the winery, because how cool is this?!
Completing the second row is The All New Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook Complete and Unabridged from 1959. I actually have another edition of the Boston Cooking School Cookbook, specifically the 1945 version with the hardback yellow cover I got from my neighbor’s/kindergarten teacher’s garage sale.
And finally, we have an appliance cookbook, which are honestly some of my favorites (like my 1927 Electric Refrigerator Recipes and Menus). Here we have 340 Recipes For the New Waring Blender from 1947. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know blenders came out in the 40s. I’ve never even heard of that brand of blender. I was curious if they were still around, and Google proved useful in showing me that they are alive and well it seems!
I found this one particularly interesting because not only can you make fruit soups:
Or cream soups:
But you can make a whole five course dinner! For TUBE FEEDING!
That’s right y’all, if you’ve got a hankerin’ for lamb and vegetables but have your jaw wired shut, fear not! I mean really, who doesn’t want blended salad for dinner?
Also, I absolutely love the sexy nurse blender. Truly the cherry on top of this blender book.
So, there you have it! A quick look at these awesome books, sent by an awesome reader.
Which one are you most interested in seeing more of? Would you try blended salad? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!
Science fiction is just that, a blend of the science we know, and the stories we wish to tell. The mixture of these two aspects was especially important to authors Nancy Kress and Robert Lanza, who co-authored their new novel, Observer. Read on to see how they wove science into story.
WHY I WROTE THIS BOOK INSTEAD OF SOMETHING ELSE
You there, sitting in your chair reading this on your computer with your phone beside you in case something interesting turns up on social media—you believe that chair, computer, and phone all exist, right? Are solid and stationary, at least until you chop them up or move them? What if you’re wrong?
Caroline Soames-Watkins also believed that the world around her existed, solidly and for a long time before she was born—until she learned different. Caro, the protagonist of my novel co-written with Dr. Robert Lanza, thought she had the world figured out. Not her personal world, which is in deep trouble due to a beloved sister in financial trouble, a predatory boss, and a vicious on-line attack that loses Caro the job she’d worked so hard for. But Caro thinks that at least she understands how the material world works and how her consciousness operates within it. Then, from desperation, she accepts a job at an off-shore research facility run by a Nobel Laureate great-uncle she has never met.
The ideas behind Observer are Robert Lanza’s. An eminent scientist who led teams that cloned the first endangered species and did ground-breaking stem-cell research, Bob Lanza has also formulated biocentrism, the belief that life and consciousness created the universe, not the other way around. His non-fiction books put a foundation under that startling claim. They start with hard science in “our” world, beginning with the famous two-slit experiments, in which the presence of an observer affects the path taken by a sub-atomic particle, and move step-by-step into cutting-edge science about quantum entanglement, the multiverse, the paradoxes of time, and the nature of consciousness itself. The universe did not spawn consciousness; consciousness created the universe.
When Bob approached me about embodying his ideas in a novel, I was intrigued. Science fiction speculates on the intersections between humanity and everything else, and these ideas suggested very large-scale intersections. And I had always been interested in the behavior of consciousness, my own and everybody else’s (in some circles, this is called gossip). But in addition to being intrigued, I was also skeptical. On the one hand, could science support the idea that consciousness creates the universe? On the other hand, wasn’t this just recycled philosophy 101 according to Irish philosopher George Berkeley, among others? On the third hand (SF allows as many hands as you wish), wasn’t the idea of multiple universes just a currently popular gimmick to allow a stalwart hero to frolic through fantasy settings?
In order: Yes. No. No.
The major obstacle, Bob and I agreed, was going to be how to present and pace the science without interrupting the story more than necessary. Biocentrism is a complex theory and we didn’t want to oversimplify it. It’s important, for instance, that readers grasp the current, on-going experiments in applying quantum-level physics to the macro-world. But neither did we want to turn a novel into a thinly disguised scientific treatise. A novel is, foremost, someone’s story. Caro experiences loss, death, love, and the sometimes wonderful, sometimes painful intricacies of human connections.
Getting all this into a novel took many iterations. I wrote a section; Bob and I discussed it for plot, pacing, and scientific accuracy; we decided where the book should go next; I rewrote. This went on for two years. It was important to both of us to explore the impact of biocentrism not only on Caro, but also on other characters of various temperaments, and on the larger society. Some of those impacts are negative, because science inevitably leads to technology, and technology can be exploited and abused. The day humanity learned to control fire, arson became a possibility.
An additional initial difficulty for me was that Caro is—or was well on her way to becoming before a certain night at a certain party—a neurosurgeon. I am not a neurosurgeon. I am not a doctor of any sort. So before I even began writing, I read four memoirs by neurosurgeons, taking notes and absorbing this (to me) alien world. I discovered what actual doctors think about the dangers and rewards of their profession. I discovered the range of neurosurgery, from the “easy” removal of a meningioma conveniently located outside the brain and away from major cerebral arteries and veins, to the long, risky operations battling multiple traumas or deep-seated glioblastomas. I also discovered that some neurosurgeons write much better prose than others.
Observer is my first collaborative novel. Writing it was exhilarating, frustrating, eye-opening, and when it was finished, my view of the universe had shifted. Eminent physicists like Stephen Hawking, Max Planck, and Neils Bohr, to name just a few of many, have said that consciousness is intricately woven into the very fabric of the universe. As Caro, an ambitious and practical woman, moves through her adventures in friendship, danger, love, and surgery, she experiences first-hand the truth that those physicists already knew.
Yes, the third installment of the New York Times best selling Dispatcher series will soon be available in a signed, limited hardcover edition from Subterranean Press. If you don’t know what that means, it means that every copy of the book will be signed by me, and that we’re only making a couple thousand of the print edition, so once they’re sold out, they’re gone. So if you want a print version, you should go ahead and pre-order it now. If signed, limited hardcover editions are not your bag, there will also be an ebook version, not signed (sorry) but also not limited, so everyone can get one of those.
Also, the super-cool cover art? Michael Koelsch. He’s great.
A little over a year ago, I started playing a video game called Stardew Valley. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a super cute game in which you inherit a farm in a village called Pelican Town. After moving to the farm, you spend your days farming crops, tending to animals, fishing, foraging in the forest, crafting items, building friendships with the townsfolks, and exploring. There’s also mining and combat, but it’s largely avoidable if you’re going for more of an Animal Crossing vibe rather than a Minecraft vibe.
Anyways, Stardew Valley has a rather large fanbase, and with this comes a wide variety of ways that people play the game. There are some people that only care about crops, and won’t really bother doing things like exploring or fishing. Some people want a lot of combat, so they’ll traverse the mines in search of a fight, and not really care about making friends. Others try to complete things as quickly as possible, like leveling up, maxing out friendships, and basically climbing the ladder of success ASAP.
If you go on YouTube, you’re bound to see countless videos telling you “here’s why you shouldn’t waste your time planting cauliflower”, or “the BEST person to marry”, or “how to unlock this without having to do all this other stuff”. Basically, there’s a lot of videos telling you how to make the most money, as quickly as possible, and be the most efficient at everything.
But, is that really the point of the game?
The whole message of Stardew is laid out for you in the very beginning of the game by the grandpa that leaves you the farm: “There will come a day when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life, and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness. When that happens, my dear, you will be ready for this gift.” The gift of course being the farm, which he tells you to go to and in doing so make real, human connections and reconnect with nature.
Now, don’t get me wrong, video games are meant to be enjoyed, so there’s no right or wrong way to play them as long as you’re having fun. But Stardew feels like the one game where we shouldn’t necessarily be grinding so hard to get everything done as quickly as possible, or short ourselves of some of the experiences just to make extra cash.
Stardew intentionally feels like it’s made to be played slowly, or played in a way that lets you enjoy the process of getting to the goal. There is joy in the simplicity that comes with watering your crops, not just joy in the selling of them. There is joy in the process of making friends, not just in receiving things from them once you reach a high enough level.
And yes, while you can do things like buy a machine that picks up all the eggs in the hen house for you, is there not a smidge of fun to be had going around and picking the eggs up yourself? Is gathering up the eggs a waste of our time in the game? In real life, even? Maybe. Maybe not.
When I originally started playing, I told myself that I didn’t want to use the wiki at all for help. I wanted to find out everything myself, and not ruin any of the “discovery” aspect of the game. But then I started gifting people things I found in the forest, like daffodils, and… they wouldn’t like it. And this genuinely made me sad. I found this daffodil, and it’s so pretty, and I could’ve sold it for 30 gold, but I saw you and wanted you to have it, and you don’t like it?? What’s wrong with it?
So, I started looking up what things people did and didn’t like on the wiki, so I didn’t have to feel such a sad sense of rejection, and also didn’t waste my items on people that didn’t like them. This was the start of my fall into the “looking everything up” mentality I was trying so hard to avoid.
Specifically because I wanted to romance a character named Sebastian, and I couldn’t figure out to get the cutscenes with him after leveling the hearts up. I had to look up how to trigger the cutscenes, even though they’re supposed to be something that you figure out on your own throughout playing the game.
If I had been patient, and not tried to be with him literally as soon as humanly possible, I probably would’ve figured it out eventually, but I didn’t want to wait potentially years to romance him. But isn’t that how romance is supposed to go? Aren’t you supposed to like them for a while, occasionally give a gift, and once in a while have a special moment (cutscene) with them, all leading up to actually dating/marrying? Instead here I was chasing him down all hours of the day, spamming giving gifts to him to get him to like me ASAP, and looking up how to have these nice moments with him.
Am I taking a game romance too seriously? Yeah, what else is new?
Anyways, the romance thing isn’t my point, my point is that I kept looking up everything in the game, and left none of the fun of exploring or discovery to myself. Nothing felt organic, I was just doing specific things I’d read online to do to get a certain result. Where’s the fun in that? The joy of actually playing the game?
So, I took a break from the game after I finished my first year (the years consist of Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter). I just started a new save file a couple weeks ago, and I actually forget all the stuff I looked up before. I forget if Caroline likes amethyst, maybe I’ll try gifting it to her and see what happens? I forget if potatoes or cauliflower sell for more money, maybe I’ll plant both and figure it out myself? I forget if chickens are more profitable in the long run than cows, maybe I’ll just have both and give them all names and get five hearts with them anyways? And maybe I’ll enjoy the game even more this time around.
If you’re someone that enjoys playing Stardew in a way that gets you what you want as quickly as possible with as little time wasted as possible, that’s great, and I’m genuinely glad you enjoy the game. If you’re someone that only plants a handful of crops a season, has never been in the mines, and spends most of their day picking daffodils in the forest and giving them to people that don’t like them, that’s good too!
There really is no wrong way to play, and I’m tired of these videos and narratives that say I’m wasting my time or not making as much money as I could possibly be. I want to play how I want to play. And I don’t want to feel like I’m missing out just because I had the potential to make 50 gold instead of 30 gold, or because I married someone that has less benefits than someone else. I’ll figure it out, eventually. Maybe it’ll take a while. That’s okay.
Smudge and Charlie were playing around this morning, and at one point, Charlie was playing in a manner I thought was maybe a little too rough, so I told her to back off. She came up to me to apologize, at which point Smudge launched an unprovoked attack on her butt. So I said to Charlie, “You know what, forget what I said, go eat the cat.” Charlie then gleefully rejoined the fight against the surprise-butt-attacking feline. Life at the Scalzi Compound on early Saturday morning.
Sugar speaks for the entire household today; it’s been a day of a whole lot of nothing. Part of that is due to at least one member of the clan being under the weather, which necessitated a lot of rest, and everyone else just going along with the vibe. Don’t worry, we’re all fine, it’s nothing that doing nothing won’t fix, probably. I think of it as taking an advance on the weekend, is all.
How was your Friday?
You may recall that we purchased the house next to The Old Church, which was in poor repair, with an eye toward bringing it down and doing other things with the land. Today was the day it was torn down; here is the wreckage. It will not, I promise, be there long. But while it is there, it certainly looks dramatic.
My ridiculously talented pal Pamela Ribon, who came up with me in the (now very) old school “Online Journals” community, and has made a name for herself writing novels, humor, television and some animated films you have heard of, has an animated short titled My Year of Dicks, which follows a teenage Pamie in her quest to lose her virginity in early 90s Texas.
It’s as funny and awkward as you might imagine, and it’s done pretty well for itself, including making it to the Oscar Consideration Shortlist for Best Animated Short (i.e., the penultimate step before the actual list of nominees, which will be announced later this month). It’s now available for viewing online (I’ve embedded it above), and I really suggest giving it a look, as it’s delightful, and I’m super proud of my pal, and everyone involved with it.
(Also, if you happen to be part of animation wing of the Academy: Hey, give it some consideration for your final ballot, please and thank you.)
Actually a fair amount!
Best Novel: The Kaiju Preservation Society, Tor Books, March 2022, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor;
Best Novella: The Dispatcher: Travel By Bullet, Audible Studios, September 2022, Steve Feldberg, editor;
Best Short Story: “Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager” (April 2022) and “End of the Year PR Missives From Scrooge & Marley” (December 2022), both published here at Whatever;
Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form): “Three Robots: Exit Strategies” (May 2022), written by me and directed by Patrick Osborne, Episode One, Volume Three of Love Death + Robots, Netflix.
I think that’s it? I guess technically The Summer EP is eligible for a Grammy in a category or two, but let’s just say I’m not waiting up nights for that.
I have mentioned this before, but I suspect that this year will be an interesting one for science fiction awards because the Worldcon is taking place in China this year, and both that, and the so far lack of ability by any one in the US or western Europe to register for the convention, is going to have an impact on the Hugos and who and what gets nominated. I would not be terribly surprised to see substantially fewer English language works as finalists this year. This is in itself not a bad thing if it happens — a Chinese worldcon probably should have Chinese work represented in the finalist lists — but I do think it’s a thing for Anglophone writers to keep in mind for this year.
In any event, if you’re nominating this year, this is the stuff of mine to keep in mind. Thank you!