Excessively close encounters of the cyber kind

I got the tracking suit from my cousin Tiffani who was always too helpful.

The package arrived at my front door one morning. It was brightly wrapped in pink and yellow evaporative paper. When I lifted it from the doorstep, a tinny voice announced, “Dress for the future.” A nanosecond later it changed to, “Track with fashion.”

When I set it on the table, the outer wrapping dissolved, revealing a turquoise pantsuit. The color was attractive, the style current without being obnoxiously trendy. Maybe Tiffani had done something right this time.

“Congratulations,” the tinny voice blared. “You have a unique experience ahead of you! Your tracking suit will help you record your food intake, exercise, heart rate, blood sugar level, menstrual cycle and emotional state. It can warn you of impending PMS mood swings and dangerous glycemic imbalance.”

Then came the usual warnings about the possibilities of excessive egocentrism or walking while distracted. But the instructions seemed simple enough.

I was still wary. What would it look like on me? Would everyone stare at me as I walked in my neighborhood?

With that in mind, I removed my sleepshirt and slipped on the trousers. They molded to my hips and waist, the style allowing for my rather oversize butt. It looked good, I had to admit that. The shirt jacket was just as flattering.

Activating the holo-screen, I examined the result from all angles. It made me look slimmer. The color complemented my dark hair and tanned skin. Yes, I liked it.

Following the directions, I enunciated, “Tracker on.”

I heard a murmuring in my ear. “You are doing well this morning. Your weight is 55.2 kilograms, within acceptable norms, although at the outer limit of the bell curve. Your blood sugar is 104. Your blood oxygen is at 96%. What are your plans for the day?”

I described my usual program of reading the news, answering digital mail, working on my latest novel, then taking a walk.

“You should think about exercise first. It will increase your blood oxygen level and cardiovascular strength.”

A minor change. I could cope with that. I waved open the door of my house and stepped outside. The door closed and locked automatically as I set off at a brisk pace down the walkway.

I strolled the streets of my neighborhood, enjoying the soft spring day. The sun shone off new green leaves, the air was scented with hyacinths and damp earth and birds chirped merrily above.

“You will benefit from increasing your pace. It will consume more calories and provide a better blood flow,” the voice intruded.

It was right, of course. I upped my pace even though my heavier breathing interfered with the happy sound of the birds. As I passed my favorite clothing store, I glanced at my reflection in the window.

“You really should not slouch like that,” came the voice. “If you stand straighter, you will look even better, which will improve your mood and make others admire you more.”

The voice was beginning to sound like my mother’s. But I had to admit it was right. I pulled my shoulders back and sucked in my stomach. I lost the scent of hyacinths.

I reached the turnaround point in my walk and crossed the street. The sun on my back was pleasantly warm. In spite of the uncomfortable stiffness of my shoulders and the tension of keeping my stomach flat, I enjoyed the feeling.

“You are beginning ovulation,” the voice returned. “Now would be a perfect time to think about having a child. You are now 36.8 years old and nearing the end of your optimal reproductive window.”

This was getting annoying.

“If you wore a bit of makeup and socialized more, you could encounter many possible mates who could provide the requisite sperm.”

I ground my teeth.

“You know your mother would like a grandchild, and your cousin Tiffani already has two offspring. An infant would contribute greatly to your well being and make many people happy–”

“Tracking off,” I muttered.

“This device cannot recognize that directive,” it droned.

The sun wasn’t pleasant now. The chirping birds hammered at my head, and the smells of spring were making me nauseous.

“Your appear distressed. You should consider taking a mood elevator when you return to your domicile.”

I should consider ripping off this goddamn suit and burning it, is what I should do. “Shut up.” My voice was louder.

“Your heart rate has increased to disturbing levels. Your breathing is irregular. Perhaps you should–”

“Shut the fuck up!” I shouted.

Several other pedestrians stopped and stared at me.

“A regular workout at your neighborhood gym would help regularize your cardiovascular system. Perhaps you should¾”

I ran the rest of the way home.

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Interview with Author Roxanne Smolen

Interview with Author Roxanne Smolen.

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We don’ need no stinkin’ rules!

I’m not good with rules. I’ve been trying to write a page of dialogue for my new work-in-progress, Lessons in Space, and I keep getting hung up.

Some of them are easy. Always put the words between quotation marks, unless the communication is telepathic, subvocalized or expressed in some other way, like light waves or odor. Try to show the speaker’s tone of voice in the tag. You could use an adverb to tell emotion, but it isn’t as strong. Make each character’s “voice” distinctive.

The one I always have trouble with is the injunction to place tags (identifiers) before or after the character has spoken rather than in the middle of the speech. For example:

Dilbert shouted, “That’s a piece of crap!”


“That’s a piece of crap.” Dilbert’s shoulders slumped.

These show, rather than tell, something about Dilbert’s character, and don’t interrupt the flow of his words.

A hard and fast rule, right? But let’s examine it. We all know that there are times when we pause as we speak, perhaps to emphasize a point or hunt for an exact word. Sometimes, we can indicate this in writing by using ellipses. For example:

“That’s. . . a piece of crap,” Dilbert announced.

But if we really want to emphasize a point, wouldn’t it be more dramatic to do it this way?

“That,” Dilbert announced, pointing at the painting, “is a piece of crap!”

Here, we reinforce that Dilbert is an arrogant, opinionated individual who is used to being listened to.

If used sparingly, breaking the speech with a tag can be quite successful. But it violates the rules.

Everyone needs rules, writers of fiction included. We have to check our spelling, and obey most of the rules of punctuation and grammar. Without these guidelines, we can’t communicate effectively, and our readers would throw down our books in disgust.

However, as fiction writers, we are accustomed to weaving words to create a mood or define a character, as deftly and succinctly as possible. We might use an otherwise unacceptable spelling of a word to indicate an accent. A lizardman from Omicron VI would need extra esses to illustrate his hiss, and a Klingon growls his rrrrs.

Maybe insert a sentence fragment. We could even string letters together to show an alien language, make up futuristic slang, devise unique ways of indicating non-verbal communications like snorts or sniffs.

I believe that if we allow ourselves to slavishly follow the rules, we will limit ourselves too much. We have to allow ourselves some freedom. Perhaps, sometimes, the laws of good writing lead to the loss of good writing.

I know others will disagree, and I welcome comments.

Use of commonly accepted grammar and spelling optional.


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“But, officer, I really wasn’t. . .”

In 2013, police departments all over the country started cracking down on driving infractions. Driving while impaired took on new meanings as phone conversations and texting were added to the list of distractions. Then it was discovered that daydreaming while driving was almost as dangerous. And so, many years later. . .

I saw the flashing blue lights in my rear view mirror, and obediently pulled over to the side of the road. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong. I hadn’t been speeding, or weaving about. Nor had I been phoning, texting, drinking coffee or engaging in sex.

The trooper who emerged from the black and white was obviously young. And big. The dark wraparound glasses that hid his eyes looked too large for his face. His expression, however, was grim.

I fished my phone out of my bag as he approached and called up my license and registration. Then I gestured to the sensor that controlled the window. The glass lowered silently.

When he stood at the side of the car, towering above it, I handed the phone to him. “What was the problem, officer?” I asked pleasantly.

He took his time syncing my phone to his handheld scanner. When he handed it back to me, he said, “You were daydreaming.”

“No, honestly, sir, I wasn’t.”

“According to my brain scanner, you were actively engaged in an activity involving the creative nodes of your cerebral cortex. That is daydreaming.”

For a moment I was silent. “But the law against driving while daydreaming isn’t due to take effect until–”

“No, ma’am.” His voice was not loud, but authoritative. “It was rushed through. It took effect today. The new law against Driving Under Daydreaming, was pushed through.”

“But I’m not a DUD,” I protested.

“The scanner doesn’t lie, ma’am.”

“No, honestly. I was planning. Thinking. I wasn’t involved in a first-person fantasy world.”

He stood there, broad shouldered and implacable, and didn’t say anything.

“Look,” I said, leaning out the window, “I’m a writer. I was outlining my next book.”

He unbent enough to look at me. “A writer? What do you write?”

“Science fiction. Y’know, space ships, robots, like that.”

“Hmph. Never read the stuff. Were you inhabiting the world you were creating?”

“Oh, no, officer, we writers can’t do that. We have to remain objective. Honest.”

“Well, you WERE distracted. You know that while you are driving you must concentrate on the road, and not on anything else.”

“I’m good at multitasking. I’m a writer. I have to be.”

He unbent more and took off his glasses. “The law against driving while multitasking is still in committee. The Driving Under Multitasking Brainwaves, or DUMB, hasn’t been passed yet.”

I had a brief vision of a bleak future in which any kind of brain activity while driving was outlawed. Where there was nothing but the blacktop and the white line in front of you. Oh, well, I thought, there would be a lot more business for yoga instructors and meditation gurus.

It might make people focus their minds, force them to take a vacation from the billions of distractions that surrounded them. Freed from the constant drain on their energies, they could devote their time to philosophy and art. There would be an explosion of creativity not seen since the Renaissance.

It could be the rebirth of civilization.

The young trooper had returned to his stiff-backed stance and was busy punching something into his scanner. “I’ve issued you a warning, ma’am. No ticket this time.”

“Thank you, officer. I think I can assure you that my mind will not be at all involved the next time I’m behind the wheel.”

“That’s good, ma’am. Remember, road safety is up to you.” He turned and marched to his vehicle.

What a good character he would make for my upcoming novel, I thought. A fine robotic member of the law enforcement community. Or perhaps a young man conflicted about his profession. Or not conflicted. Or actually make him a robot–

I shook the ideas from my head. No more planning while driving, I decided, no more multitasking.

And so, resolving never to think behind the wheel again, I drove off.

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Sombre Meditations

Autumn always surprises me.

Daylight slowly shrinks,

Nights are cooler,

Colors leach from the ground

As the flowers slowly fade.

And suddenly the trees are flame,

An astounding event

Like the sight of gray hair in the mirror

Or sagging papery skin.

I walk through the artist’s palette,

Wondering at the colors,

Breathing the crispness of the air.

This is just the third act,

A different scene

Neither feared nor resented,
But relished for its own joys.

Winter is inevitable

And I will approach it

Strolling through trees on fire

And inhaling the cool air

Of autumn.


I guess it’s natural to think of the end of things as fall settles in. But it doesn’t have to be in a negative or morbid sense, but rather in the context of wheels and progressions.

My preoccupation is furthered by the presence on the Massachusetts ballot of a “Death with Dignity” proposition. It would give the individual the right to decide when and how to die, and would ensure that any assisting physician wouldn’t be prosecuted. I think it’s a wonderful idea.

How reassuring it would be to know that pain and suffering wouldn’t be drawn out. That a painless, quick method is available. I don’t mean that the decision should be an abrupt one. You shouldn’t make the leap to end it because you were dumped by your boyfriend of the “wrong” person won the election.

But when you come to the end of things, when, through illness, decrepitude or, perhaps, the feeling that you’ve seen everything you’ve wanted to see and done everything you’ve wanted to do, you know it’s time to end it, you should be able to do so. Further, there should be no worry that anyone helping you in this decision is going to suffer.

In the novel I’m writing now, which takes place in the 26th century, people live nearly 200 years. Rejuvenation treatments are standard, so no one ever really grows old. However, when individuals decide that they have had enough, they can Terminate. There is a party, attended by all their friends and loved ones, to celebrate, and they are then allowed to fall asleep. It’s very civilized and humane.

Even Albus Dumbledore described death as “really. . .like going to bed after a very, very long day.” I would like my end to be like that.

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Atumnal Musings on Serenity, Politics and the Future

On this glorious October day I walked down to Lake Pontoosuc and sat in the Donut Man’s gazebo as the sun started dying over the hills to the west. The wind turbines spun hypnotically, the tiny indigo waves annihilated each other. It was serene.

The words came back to me: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Serenity. I find it difficult to come by today.

Okay—accept the things I cannot change. Governor Romney may be elected President. If that happens, there’s nothing I can do about it. But I fear for my country should that come to pass. I fear for the vulnerable millions who will walk the wire without a net. I fear for the thousands of young people who will suffer and perhaps die when the saber rattling isn’t enough. I fear for the women whose ability to decide their own course of health treatment will be taken away. And I fear for the land itself that will be harmed when regulation is abolished.

I don’t fear for myself. I’m sixty eight years old. Barring a true cataclysm, like bloody revolution or all-out nuclear war, I’ll probably be fine. But the generations that follow, whose education will be compromised, whose health care will become so expensive that only a handful can afford it, whose dreams will never be fulfilled—they won’t be fine.

Which brings us to the things I might be able to change. I truly believe that this dismal future may be averted if President Obama is reelected. I can do a little to try to bring that about. I’ve already given quite a lot of money to the Democratic campaign. I can also talk to friends and acquaintances, in fact anyone who will listen, to try to persuade them of my view. I don’t have the physical strength to go door to door, as I did four years ago, so I’ll have to settle for talking to people nearby.

Risking confrontation takes courage. But it’s worth it if we can keep the conversation civil. That sort of give and take is another thing that seems to be in short supply today.

It also takes courage to throw off this gloomy, dystopic view of the future and once again invest in the belief that this country will not just survive, but thrive. That it will become great again, not as a superpower, but as a beacon. Because we are a heterogeneous population, we are uniquely able to show that people can coexist in mutual respect.

With that vision overlaid on the lake, the hills and the turbines, I find serenity. I can’t achieve it by myself, but I can believe in its existence.

For now, that’s enough.

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Is 15 Minutes Enough?

I created a website.

Everyone (that’s with a capital “E”) said that I should do it in order to increase sales of my books. For a while I fought the idea. Somehow it seemed so patently egotistical.

But Vistaprint offered a free trial (and we all know how those work out!) for a month, as well as step-by-step guidance in constructing the pages. It was a “sign” that it was time.

So I embarked on the task of establishing a site. It was easier than I’d thought. Vistaprint did a good job of breaking down the task and directing the neophyte. I have to admit, I had a good time doing it.

When I’d finished, I sat back and admired my work (doing stuff like this does tend to be a bit egotistical). And being able to take a breather now, I tried to dissect my motives. Why had I gone to all this trouble?

Why, to increase book sales, I slyly answered myself.

Humph! I replied. Why, when you take into account the cost of maintaining the site, you’ll have to sell about a hundred books a year to make up what you’ve spent. C’mon. Why did you do this?

Urged on by my carping superego, I delved deeper into my motives.

Perhaps it was egotistical. Maybe I was trying to extend my fifteen minutes to half an hour. Like wearing a red ball gown to a dance where all others my age were wearing pastels (how many of you get the reference?), or sitting in the front row of the classroom to catch the eye of the handsome young professor.

Then I considered the pains I’d taken to link the site to this blog. I want people to read my postings, and not just (I hope) for reasons of vanity. Some of the ideas I write about are important, and could generate discussion. If readers look at me for that reason, I feel I’ve accomplished something.

Which brings us, as these musings often do, to politics.

Why are our current crop of candidates expending their energy and money trying to get elected?

I believe you have to have a pretty strong sense of self in order to run for office. Otherwise, the arguments against what you believe in and negative advertising would be devastating. So is it simply self-aggrandizement that spurs on our would-be leaders?

I hope not. We don’t need people who only want to preen and posture in the spotlight. We need those who have the smarts to understand what’s going on and make decisions that will solve, not worsen, the problems.

Like climate change. And drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the problem of national debt. And poverty, access to quality health care, international relations.

We can’t afford battling egos. We also can’t afford a plutocracy in which money, controlling communication, decides elections. I know we’ve seen the “dumbing down” of America, but I can’t help believe that can be reversed.

We need leaders who won’t talk down to the electorate, who will make the decisions that need to be made and explain the reasons for those choices. As a teacher I learned that youngsters can rise to levels of expectations. They can finish the school year with a better handle on the world than they started with.

But in order to do that, you can’t just “strut and fret your hour upon the stage.”

You have to lead.

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