You sit out at the end of the jetty, several hundred feet from shore. A drink in one hand, perhaps, and a cigar in the other. The ocean stretches in front of you; not just as far as the eye can see, but as far as the mind can wander.

The sun dips, touches the horizon. Fire in the sky, and in the clouds. The ocean turns from blue-grey, briefly, to molten metal. You can’t break yourself away; you continue to stare blankly, to watch and absorb the closest thing this world has to infinity. There is nothing in front of you but water. Intellectually, you know that a few thousand miles away you will find islands and peoples, but there is no room for “intellectually” when you’re staring out over the edge of the world.

No, when you’re looking out into that infinity, there is nothing in your universe but sunset and water and thought. Memories and dreams…a certain emotional distance from the world itself…and the “knowledge” not that you are at the end of the world, but that you have everything in front of you.

Erm, I may have done that once or twice.

The ocean, the “knowledge” of living at the edge of the world, and the endless sunsets that wash over the water, are about the only things I truly miss about Southern California. The peace, and the rather unique trains of thought, that come with sitting out at the end of that jetty…or on the deck of a ship at sea…or just on the beach, with a building bonfire behind you and the sunset in front… For all of those things, that feeling of possibility is the same, that feeling of the infinite.

I’ve lived in the east, as well. I’ve sat on Cadillac Rock and watched the sun rise, felt the first rays of anyone in the US. It’s not the same thing. While sunrises have that feeling and connotation of hope, and the promise of the day (and times) to come…it’s just not the same. Not to me. It doesn’t have the same feeling of being on the edge, of staring out over…well…everything.

I have, you may have guessed, a thing for “infinities”. They are powerfully attractive…and, just as much, they are terrifying. They remind you just how small you really are, and just how insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Oh, my times watching the sun set were not terrifying — those times kept the infinite at arm’s length. But those times are not all…

Swimming in the water, laughing and half-drunk. Three of us, as playful and immature as only (relatively) care-free guys in their mid-twenties can be. Almost a hundred miles away waited the harbor, and the restaurant where we would meet others to recount the successes and failures of a weekend spent deep-sea fishing.

Two others waited on the idling boat, a safety-net that half-drunk twenty-somethings don’t usually worry about. A joke, then, in their eyes: the idling engine engaged, the prop allowed to spin slowly and edge the boat away.

It took a few minutes. A few minutes of play and stupidity above the huge kelp-banks at the edge of the continental shelf. A few minutes, then I was stone cold sober. A few minutes, then I was more terrified than I ever have been. It couldn’t have been more than a quarter-mile or so, but the boat looked like it was halfway to Hawaii. The knowledge hit me — the very real, very close knowledge — that I really was hanging over infinity…that infinity wasn’t at arm’s length, but was right under my unsupported feet.

If you don’t know the Pacific Ocean, just past the continental shelf you go from a depth of a few hundred feet to twenty thousand

And I could feel every single one of those feet under me.

That was infinity closer than arm’s length. That was infinity’s ability to terrify.

Both ends of that spectrum are important: the warmth and the terror. Both ends come in to play in writing; have to come in to play in writing. As writers, we talk a great deal about “agency” — about our protagonists’ (necessary) ability to make their own choices, and to impact their own surroundings & situation.  But, even with all of the careful plotting and characterization, even with all of the agency and planning, you have to leave room in your writing for the infinities. You have to leave room for your character to sit at the edge of the world and wonder…and, just as much, you have to leave room to hang helplessly above the edge of the world and fear…

The Smell Of The Fire

Earthquakes and riots.  Drought and pestilence.  Poverty and wealth, violence and isolation, all within blocks of each other.

I grew up in Southern California.  It is not the land of paradise and dreams that so many have tried to portray.  It is, in all honesty, a place I am happy to be from.

But you know what is worse than those ills I list above?  Fires.160724140455-01-ca-wildfire-gettyimages-579388882-super-169

‘Quakes may represent more raw power, may represent Nature near her strongest, but they are…well…expected.  They are simply part of the natural order of things.

Fires, though?  Fires are worse.  An out of control wildfire is chaos at its worst.  It is almost a living, breathing thing…and is the closest I can come to a true “supervillain”.  You cannot help but anthropomorphize a fire that is threatening you…okay, at least I can’t.

There is an inevitability to a wildfire, a creeping destruction that is as inexorable as it is unavoidable.  What is even more terrifying is when the fire, at its worst, seems to follow you.  I have been evacuated from a handful of fires over the years, and each time the fire shifted and forced me into a second evacuation.

Take a moment and picture that scene: you have to move again in the middle of the night…you have to explain to confused and scared kids — and confused and scared adults! — just why it’s time to leave again.  At that point, the fire isn’t random chance, it’s pure malevolence.

I even “trained” — years and years ago, as part of a high school summer vocational program — in forest fire fighting.  To learn and understand the physics of the fire, and the matrix of temperature and terrain and time…that didn’t help.  Not a bit.  Hell, it made the fire worse, because I understood the inevitability of the whole damned thing.

aHR0cDovL3d3dy5zcGFjZS5jb20vaW1hZ2VzL2kvMDAwLzA3Mi82NDUvb3JpZ2luYWwvdGhvbWFzLWZpcmUtZnJvbS1zcGFjZS5qcGc=Over the last few days I’ve been watching California burn.  Watching and remembering.  Remembering those times I had to evacuate.  Remembering sitting on my patio, watching the glow of a fire grow nearer, and debating if it was time to leave.  Remembering the ash covering my car.  Remembering the panic of the neighborhood, and the fear that was as thick in the air as the smoke.

Do you know what really sticks with you?  Beyond the fear and dread, I mean.  What sticks with you is the smell.  We’ve all smelled campfires and fireplaces…many have smelled the smoke of a house fire.  But a wildfire?  That has a stench all its own.

I will never forget that smell.

My heart goes out to those Californians living through this literal hell.  I know the feelings, and the fears…and the knowledge that there really is nothing you can do.  You are at the mercy of the weather and the terrain and the fuel.  You are at the mercy of a fire that wants, seemingly, only to destroy.

To put this in terms of writing: there is no agency here.  There is no possible agency here.  These “characters” have no choices to make that can impact the crisis.  They have no ability to change things.  They have, in fact, only one choice to make: stay or go.  That’s it.

The crisis of this story will move and resolve no matter which they choose…and that powerlessness, as someone who has lived through it, is the worst thing of all.