Life Memories: Traveling Terrors

On Dec 13th at 9:45pm I got on a plane to London.  As of 15 minutes before boarding (a 30 minute delayed boarding) the seat next to me was still showing as empty.  My first trip across the Atlantic ocean and to a city I’ve studied and read about all my life… Eight hours couldn’t go by fast enough.

Get on the plane and just before take-off they wheel a wheelchair down the row.  My heart sinks a little, that seat beside me is the only empty seat I can see.  Sure enough, two flight attendants help a young-ish (30?) woman into the seat next to me.  We soon begin to taxi, the woman next to me is restless and wiggly.  I pull out my headphones and watch the hilarious safety video.  An occupied seat will not ruin this trip for me.  I took my sleeping pill (it would be 11:30am London-time when we landed, so sleep was important) and tried to get some rest.  As soon as the stewardesses began moving, the woman beside me complained – she needed two seats.  I couldn’t understand her english very well (the stewardess practically had her ear at the woman’s mouth to hear her) but I gathered she had been in the states to have medical services (surgery maybe) and was now flying home. In pain. Yikes.  There were no other seats on the plane (maybe in first class, but… they didn’t want to bump her up there I guess).

This was one of the worst flights I’ve been on.  Oh, the flight itself wasn’t too bad.  The stewardesses though were somewhat less-than-polite.  About 2 hours in, one woke me up to ask me if I was in seat 36A (really?) and practically threw my low-sodium meal at me. My seat companion wriggled, moaned and jabbed the entire flight.  Ok, she was in pain and I wanted – desperately – to be polite about it.  But how many times is she allowed to jab me with her elbow? And not even apologize (or hell, acknowledge she invaded my space, woke me up, and hurt me).  She insists she can’t walk when we land (lie btw, she went to the bathroom once).  But no, no she can’t walk to the front of the plane to get to the wheelchair, it must come to her.  And because I’m next to the window – I’m trapped on the plane until it’s empty enough to get the damn wheelchair up the aisle for her (she apparently can’t even move over to the now-empty seats across the aisle).

So I get off the plane tired and cranky. Heathrow airport is about as bad as O’Hare for distances.  They apparently don’t believe in putting things anywhere near each other, so you walk what feels like miles with nothing to look at except super-sterile walls (at least O’Hare has art).

Because I was the last off the plane, customs is already a disaster when I get there.  I wait. And wait. Get through and it took so long, my luggage has been pulled off the roundabout and set aside.  I finally find it and follow the signs to the train station.

I get my train ticket from a woman at a window and go down to the platform.  I get on the train and there is a seat! one over from the luggage area.  A woman is sitting right there by the luggage space. No luggage.  Just sitting in the end-seat because well…. she likes it there?  And seriously, you’re coming from the airport with no luggage, why would you sit there?  Because I have the all-direction wheels on my luggage, I can’t just prop my bag and sit down.  I have to hold it in place (could totally do so sitting next to it…)  So I end up standing.

It’s about 30 minutes to the station where I’m going to have to change trains, South Kensington.  I get to the new platform (oh and London doesn’t believe in elevators in a lot of stations, so I’m dragging my 27 lb suitcase up and down stairs) and am just trying to figure out when my train will come when the overhead speakers begin talking “Please evacuate the station.  This is not a drill. Please evacuate the station.”  Seriously.

The station was evacuated because of a small fire. They literally closed and locked the gates and told everyone to go about 3 blocks to the next station.  Ok, it’s only 3 blocks, I can do that. Luggage and all, I cart the three blocks (I swear it felt like 10!) to the station. I get there and…. my card won’t work. It won’t let me into the train station. Ok, maybe its because I wasn’t allowed to swipe out at South Kensington (you know, something about evacuating because of fire they didn’t want people spending time swiping). I go to the teller and tell him my card doesn’t work.  Apparently, I don’t have a train card.  Just a bus and tram card. How the hell did I get here?!? It let me on the train in the airport! Oh, and the machines at this station aren’t working to allow credit cards, so he’ll need me to pay in cash.  It’s £5 more than I have in cash. Seriously.

So Sunday afternoon in the middle of London, I have to find a place I can get cash.  Banks are closed (Sunday).  The little cash exchange place doesn’t have an ATM and doesn’t do it.  Mind you – i’m lugging my luggage. About a block away I find a post office with an ATM.  I put my card in.  It says no.  I try again.  No.

I have to call my card company (thank god I have T-mobile and can do this) to say yes, that note I put on the account saying I’m in London – yeah this totally means I’m using my card in London starting on that date I told you I would be!!  Try my card again and still no.  I go to the teller and pay the ~$5 fee to get some cash.  Go back to the station and give the man £5 and get my train card.

Get to Paddington station. My hotel is less than a block away and I get to it exhausted, hot, and more-than-ready to stop hauling my luggage (the phrase “quivering muscles” applies). They don’t have my reservation. I pull up my email (Thank God for T-mobile) and give them the exact reservation number. Oh, your credit card was declined so that “reserved” on the email is just a lie. I very seriously considered letting myself just burst into exhausted, frustrated tears at this point. I think the guy could tell. Fortunately, they have a room. It actually is cheaper than what I booked for.

I finally get to my room and get to stop carrying everything everywhere.  It’s 4:45pm London time.  I landed at 11:45.  All I wanted to do was sleep.  But I knew if I went to sleep this early, I’d regret it.  So I force myself out of the room and go across the street to the little “Fish bar”.  It’s bland, dried out and they don’t have any condiments (seriously, they apparently were out of ketchup. At this point I’m pretty sure it’s because I decided to eat there).  I sit there and eat it anyway, too tired to fight it and still wanting to cry (again, pretty sure this guy could tell because I think he charged me for a cheaper meal than I ordered).

I think I was in bed by 8pm.  Basically, it was the worst combination of travel-disasters-all-in-one-day:

  • Airline: horrible
  • Trains: meh at best
  • Transfer points: FIRE!
  • Hotel: Off the reservation
  • Food: Deprived
  • People: Mixed bag

Fortunately, the rest of my London trip was much, much better.  Like, amazingly better.  But that’s a different post.

Writing: Thoughts on magic systems

As a fantasy and sci-fi writer and fan, I spend more time thinking about different magic systems than I probably should. In every system I design for my worlds, I like to answer several questions to myself:

  1. Are people equally equipped to access or utilize magic? (example: if the system is based on alchemy than the limiting factor would be the character’s ability to get raw materials)
  2. If there is inequality (mage A is stronger than mage B) what determines their relative strength? Genetics? Luck? Dieties? I get it, my protagonist might be the strongest mage, but why?
  3. Where does magic come from? Is it a limited resource, and how does it reproduce?
  4. Are all mages/magic users good at all types of magic or do they need to specialize in something?
  5. Does magic have rules for how it impacts the natural world? (ie: how does the presence of a dryad affect the forest)

Sometimes I wrestle with one or more of these questions throughout the novel.  Sometimes things start clicking pretty quickly.  It depends on the piece, sometimes answering question number 3 fills in questions 1 and 2 immediately.

Example system:  Magic is based upon the idea that all magical life lives within a sphere.  This sphere is made of three axis-es: the first axis (y) is chaos and order.  the second axis (x) is good and evil.  The third axis (z) is reason and instinct. When I first started planning this, it was x and y (chaos>order and good>bad).  Unicorns have incredible power because they are far from center – very good and very chaotic. Ah! The closer to centered, the weaker in magic someone is.  That is why most humans and elves have low magic power.  Which also is why mages who focus on order and intellect can grow in strength.  as they move further from chaos (whether good or evil) they become stronger.

But that didn’t feel like it was enough.  There is a big difference between a unicorn (good chaos) and a tengu (Japanese bird demon – bad chaos).  Both of them work on a chaotic level yes, but tengu are also smart – and unicorns (at least as I’m using them in this world) are not. At all. Unicorns work on instinct. So there is another level – do they think it out or do they do it because they don’t know any better?  -Hence I added reason and instinct. Mages are also smart, and smarter means ALSO more power.

Still with the idea that the further from center someone is, the stronger their magical gift. And yes, movement can happen within a lifetime. So if someone goes through total hell, for a time they may have access to magic – instinctual or on purpose – because they’ve been moved towards chaos.  A lot of times when people go through terrible life circumstances (war) they get instinctual chaotic magic beginning to work around them.

Tapping into chaos magic (using reason) would be harder – but think of like water divining. Using a stick and “wandering” the magic user is reasoning on the chaos inherent in water and past experience.

It’s rare that the reader sees the full depth of my magic system.  I love to write the data-dumps to explain it, but it is considered poor form for the writer to explain things to the reader.  So I sometimes draw diagrams, write it out in separate documents for myself.  Basically, I data-dump in my own ways and then feed the most important pieces to the reader – if they even need to know it.  In the above example, the protagonist is incredibly powerful because she is actually a chaos magic weilder (because of a unicorn, hence they were so important in my example). The character never learns the matrix. The magic matrix isn’t really part of the story.  But I know it.  and when I create a character with magical skills, I place them on the matrix.  When they start moving through the story because of growth or development, I consider how their changes will affect them on the matrix.  Including the main character.

Miss Manners: Listening and Replies

It happens to me probably once a day – someone replies to what I said and I think “did they even hear me? Or did they not understand?”  I end up with a lot of self-doubt because of this.

Let’s look at a few scenarios:

  • I’m at a drive-through and say I have a coupon. The employee responds with “ok, your X combo is $$$”
  • A friend posted on FB a link to an article of a conservative complaining that “liberals” don’t listen
  • A friend posted on FB where a liberal was complaining that conservatives were closed minded
  • Tech support hears the first two words out of my mouth and starts trying to tell me what’s wrong
  • Customer Service asks if I need anything and turns away before I can answer
  • Customer Service asks “how are you today” and when I say “I’m pretty good” they walk away again

Any of these sound familiar? Anyone else ever start seeing red when one of these happens?

In our life of “hurry up!” and “that’s SO last minute” (which is SO last decade, I know) we need to stop and really LISTEN. This is a manners thing I think a lot of people have stopped doing. Especially on some of the highly emotional topics like politics, rights, and religion.

When I was a child, my mother made my siblings and I “swap” arguments when we couldn’t solve things ourselves.  In order to get our way, we had to argument the OTHER argument.  We usually ended up compromising as we realized the other person did indeed have valid points of view. Try this sometime, take the point of an issue which you totally disagree with.  Do your research (yes, this sometimes means wading through things that make you crazy) and try to formulate the argument AGAINST your point of view.  Make the argument you could buy to win yourself to that side of the argument.

Most of these aren’t arguments though, it is people just not paying attention. When you have someone in front of you – stop trying to form your reply and pay attention to them. Your first sentence should then be “I hear you saying…” or “I understand your point of…”

The customer service ones are just poor customer service from employees who have things they would rather do than form a personal connection. I know this isn’t all customer service, and I’ve had positive interactions – but they seem to be rare and unique.  Think about the places you choose to shop. How much is it the service?  Think about restaurants – how many good experiences were because you had an awesome, friendly, attentive server?

Customer service is a microcosm of the larger problem. I would love to do a 30-day-listening challenge, but I don’t think it would work as well as the 30-day gratitude challenges I’ve seen people do.  I DO challenge people to stop and listen. Listen to the side you disagree with. Make their argument so that you would turn sides. Try it. I challenge you.  Pick a topic and take the opposite side from your normal stance.

True manners is believing other people have a right to have an opinion, even if you think that opinion is entirely wrong. Giving the other person the benefit of the doubt that they are a person with valid points is the polite thing. I know – it’s practically unAmerican to say that someone can disagree with me and not be a horrible person (or not a person at all).

Short Story: Christmas Zombies

Somehow the zombies are worse around the holidays. I can’t explain why. I mean, I live in Atlanta, which is known for our bad zombies.  When I go to other parts of the country for trips and they talk on the radio about their zombies, I look around and just have to laugh.  What they consider a horde we call a good day here in Atlanta!

I creep around 285, growling at the shamblers who are in my way. I really wish these zombies would just get out of my way so I can get home. Tonight we’re having the relatives over – not my relatives… well I guess I married into it so I can’t complain too much.  But I will complain to myself here and now.  In my car, I will rant and rave.

There are two types of zombies that are especially obnoxious – the shambers. Those slow-moving-always-in-the-way zombies that are EVERYWHERE.  They don’t seem to go anywhere and they just get in the way.  Singly they are easy enough to get around, but they love to herd up and make everything just STOP. All you can do is scream and wail and try to weave through them. Sometimes easier said than done.

Then there are the blockers. I swear these zombies do it on purpose. They see you coming and just – Pop! – suddenly in front of your car and seem to read your mind. When you try to go to the right – they go to the right. You go to the left – they go to the left.  Not as slow as a shambler, they wear away at your patience.

My patience is nearly done today.  The shamblers really come out during the holidays. I know, I said it before. I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face.  Today was full of shamblers and this one terrible blocker. I just could not get around this zombie!  As I pull into my neighborhood I heave a sigh of relief.  Almost home.

I pull into the driveway to see the shambler I nearly went full-on-road-rage on –  in my driveway.  That blue hatchback with a bumperstick that says “My child is a super star at Forest Academy”… there’s a zombie in my family.