Young fathers.

Last night, Mac and I drove to Portland to catch Depeche Mode in concert. He’d intended to take his wife, but they had a miscommunication about dates. Turns out Pam’s in China right now haha, so Mac took me instead.

The Depeche Mode concert was fine. It was just what you’d want from them. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was fun. I mainly listened to their early stuff when I was young, so I was hoping they’d play some of that. They only played “Just Can’t Get Enough”. Still, I knew more than half of their setlist. (As an example of the Depeche Mode music I loved when I was younger, here’s “Leave in Silence” (live in Hamburg in 1984) and “Any Second Now”. )

The real revelation of the night, though, was the opening act: Young Fathers.

Wow. Wow. Wow.

I’d never even heard of Young Fathers before we got to the arena. I expected them to be a forgettable opening band. They’re anything but forgettable. If I were forced to describe their sound it’d be: poetry and pounding drums. What do Young Fathers actually sound like? Like this.

That’s a pretty good representation of what we heard last night, with the difference that this band is much better live. (Believe it or not, there’s a lot about Young Fathers that reminds me of early U2, and the “better live” thing is one of them.)

Young Fathers play driving rhythmic anthems with deep thrumming percussion that fills the entire arena and soaks into your soul. I’ve never seen a band that’s almost entirely percussion-driven before, but Young Fathers are. When they do use traditional instruments (bass guitar, keyboard) it’s purely for rhythm. There’s no melodic instrumental line. The melody comes from voices only.

If you have a good set of headphones (or a good sound system connected to YouTube), watch the video to “I Saw”. It’s…wow.

I’m going to stop talking now and just share amazing videos of the group in action — let them speak for themselves.

Here’s a twenty-minute live performance on KEXP radio in Seattle:

And here’s the Young Fathers NPR tiny desk concert, which features a more tone-downed sound (because you can’t really cram three drums into the tiny desk space).

Lastly, here’s a full hour-long concert performance from Young Fathers. This will give you a taste of what I experienced last night. But again, nothing can compare to feeling the deep, powerful thrum inside your soul from the rhythm and percussion.

The only song I can remember that sounded remotely like this band is “I Can’t Break Away” by Big Pig.

Wait. I guess The Hu’s “Wolf Totem” sounds vaguely similar too. (The Hu are — and I’m not kidding — a “Mongolian folk metal band”.)

I have no idea how to describe this kind of music, but I love it. I want to find more of it. It very much fits a state of mind I get into sometimes. I find it powerful and motivational.

p.s. The title to Young Fathers’ second album is amazing: White Men Are Black Men Too.

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The Smell of Love

Here in Corvallis, our friend Michael is a fan of perfumes. He’s a scent collector. He watches perfume YouTube videos, makes vacation excursions to buy perfumes, and otherwise educates himself on the subject. His enthusiasm for scent is contagious.

Recently, Kim and I have met with Michael (and his wife, Rae) for a couple of perfume-sampling sessions. We spray samples on swatches and pass them around, then talk about what we get out of each scent. It’s more fun than you might think. And it has, in fact, led both me and Kim to order a variety of perfume samples for ourselves. Over the past six weeks, we’ve slowly been working our way through a variety of scents to discover the ones we like most.

Anyhow, the last time we got together to do this, I mentioned to the group that once (long ago) I had written a short story about a man with a heightened sense of smell. This was back when I took writing classes at the community college, back at the very dawn of the internet. “I think I have the story somewhere on a hard drive,” I said.

“I’d love to read it,” Michael said. “If you can find it.”

It took some hunting, but I did locate my story. Looking at the file information, I completed this story on 27 October 1998. The ancient Microsoft Word document was a bit of a mess, but I spent two hours massaging the formatting (and making some minor edits) and have now reconstructed “The Smell of Love”. (I also call it “The Scent of Love”. I never could find the right word.)

I enjoyed reading this far more than I thought I would. I was worried that it’d appear clumsy to a J.D. now 25 years older than when he wrote it. It doesn’t. The writing is surprisingly sharp. Better still, the story is entertaining. It’s filled with hilarious (to me) in-jokes and references to things that were important to me in 1998: cats, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Black Adder, superheroes (the protagonist is, essentially, a super-villain and was meant to be from the start), and so on.

Anyhow, I’m not going to ramble on because I’m about to the post the entire story, which is relatively long (about 6000 words). I will offer one warning though that seems appropriate for 2023 but wasn’t needed in 1998: The story is filled with (deliberate) misogyny. The main character is supposed to be a dick. And he is, as you will see.


The Smell of Love
by J.D. Roth

28 October 1862

Dearest Uncle,

How can I convey to you the strangeness of these past two days: the torment in which I have lived, the frightening nature of my dreams, the bizarre quality of my waking hours? You would not believe me, even should I give this nightmare words.

Where shall I begin?

You are already intimately acquainted with the details of the tragedy that befell me in my youth, but perhaps it would ease my mind, and allow me to more clearly express what follows, if I touch upon my origins. Forgive me if I tarry upon history with which you are only too familiar.

My youth was a happy one; my mother and father were devoted to me, their only child. We lived at Westbranch, on the outskirts of the county and, as a result of Grandfather’s vast fortune, lived a life of comparative means. The proximity of your own estate, Uncle, was among the great pleasures of my youth. I cherish memories of days that our family spent with yours. You were kind hearted, and quick with an explanation or a loving word, and Aunt Dora’s voice filled the halls of your home with song, morning and evening.

Upon my tenth birthday, you made a present to me of a canvas and oils. For a child yet unexposed to the city, this gift reeked of the cosmopolitan; I adored it. I took to the canvas with enthusiasm and, though my initial attempts were as shoddy and misguided as one might expect from a child, I began to develop an uncommon sensitivity to color and texture.

My parents were only too delighted to keep me supplied with the materials of my hobby, and in all ways nurtured my blossoming talent. While other boys around Westbranch left to school, preparing to become barristers or clerks or ministers, I remained at home and filled my days with silent hours before the easel. I had selected a wholly different path for my life, with the complete support of my parents. Whatever time I could spend with my art, I spent with it, and I began to display definite talent.

Do you remember the first canvas which brought me notoriety?

Father had, in a moment of whimsy, placed a painting of mine, of which he was particularly fond, in an exhibition under his own name. The opening occasioned my first journey to the city. I was awed by the experience. I marveled at the architecture of the cathedrals and the Parliament buildings, gazed with interest upon every variety of person on the seething streets, and found myself transfixed by the intricate web of interaction that bound the city together. The sights, the scents, the sounds: it seemed another world entirely.

The gallery itself was ornate, fabulous beyond anything I could have possibly imagined. Great stone columns abounded, and the walls seemed gilded in gold. We wandered the hall, perusing the exhibit, and I was washed in the beauty that had been produced by the hands of men.

We stood before my painting, anonymous, and we listened as others commented on the canvas. I had depicted a simple impression of a workaday scene in the village marketplace. Without fail, those about us praised the work for its depth of perception, its candor, its subtlety. This was surely the work of a significant new artist, they said. When the exhibitors chanced to learn that the painting was actually the product of a twelve-year-old boy, I was hailed as a prodigy. I felt the passion for my calling burning inside; I was sure this was how I would spend my life.

Such joy as I found in my art is difficult to convey. It was my morning, my evening, my all. My eyes were filled with the colors and textures and shadows of the world around me, and for the next two years I produced a series of canvases which drew universal acclaim. Perhaps I was received kindly for being but a boy, but I truly believed what the critics said: I had the makings of a master.

Then, my world was destroyed in a single night, in a torrent of smoke and flame, as our home was consumed in a blazing inferno, the fires of hell itself. Though I escaped with my life, my eyes were seared so severely that I was blinded; but of greater loss were the deaths of my parents, both destroyed in that damnable fire. You lost a sister, Uncle, but I lost a family.

Knowing how much of the world my eyes perceived, can you then imagine the absolute terror I experienced at the loss of my sight? Can you imagine how it feels to wake into a world of darkness? To leave a world in which light and color and shadows play an integral part of your life? To find yourself immersed in the blackest black? It was a nightmare beyond my worst imagining.

I had been a prodigy, a promising artist who using the infinite variety of colors and textures of nature to convey my personal vision. I was but a child, unprepared to cope with the trauma of having the very purpose of my life stripped from me so suddenly. I lost my mother. I lost my father. I lost my art. Without my vision I was isolated, severed from the world. My body was numbed, and my senses were dulled; I felt little, I heard little, I tasted even less.

My world collapsed around me that night. Now I fear that it has now done so again. Once more, I cry for help from within a hellish inferno. Could you twice prove to be my savior?


You know, dear uncle, I spent months in despair. I was disconsolate. My nights were spent in darkness; my days were no brighter. My future had once lay before me like a glittering path to the kingdom of heaven. The world was mine, and my natural gifts, come unbidden, were the keys with which I was to unlock the door to this paradise. Now that future was lost to me, and I to it.

During the weeks following the fire, I did little more than lie in bed, lodged safely within the walls of your home. I did not eat. I would not talk. My only pleasure was derived from your presence. You came in the evening and read to me, with Aunt Dora singing by your side. Do you know that your voices filled me with the only measure of hope in my life? Here was my beloved uncle, reading to me from the Thackeray or from Defoe. Here was my aunt, her sweet voice lifted in song, almost rescuing my flagging spirit.

The two of you replaced, if only to a small extent, the joy that was missing from my life, and provided some semblance of family.

I remember clearly one Saturday several months after the fire. I was dejected as ever, but you proposed that we take a stroll through the rose gardens. I agreed. You led me outside, and I recall the shock of the sunlight on my skin. After months spent indoors, the sunlight burned with furious intensity. As we walked through the rose gardens, I found that although I could not see the yellows and pinks and reds about me, I still experienced some portion of joy through the myriad fragrant blooms.

Though this walk was, indeed, an important event in my progress toward recovery, the depths of my despair had not yet been reached.

I remained despondent, suicidal. I thought that perhaps the best thing for me, and for you, would be to take my own life. Does it seem possible that a fourteen-year-old boy could sink to such despair as to end his life, to curse his soul to ever-lasting damnation? It made no difference to me; my life was already a living hell.

One night I reached the nadir of depression and, while you slept, and after the servants had retired for the evening, I stole into the kitchen. I pawed through the cabinets and the drawers until at last I found a sharp knife. After standing for a moment by the kitchen fire, I stumbled to the table, slumped into a chair.

My hand trembled as I drew the blade across my wrist, applying a gentle pressure. I considered my dim expectations. Had I anything to live for, without a family, unable to practice my art? I decided not. Slowly, I began to draw the blade across my wrist. I pressed firmly and felt the tip of the knife pierce my skin and then, quite suddenly, I could _smell_ the blood.

I hesitated.

It is completely true, though it may be difficult to believe. I could smell that singular drop of blood that rested upon my wrist. What’s more, I felt it, too: that solitary drop of blood. My mind had awakened, as if from a fitful slumber. How could I possibly both smell and feel something so minute? Perhaps I imagined it? But, no! When I drew a finger over the drop, I felt it smear. When I put that finger in my mouth, I tasted the bitterness of the iron, the sweetness of the sugar.

I breathed deeply, inhaling the vapors of the kitchen. The sharpness of the fire stung my nostrils, and I was flooded by myriad odors of meals long since served: I smelled the tang of cheese and I smelled the juices of savory roasts. Above all, I smelled the sweet scent of an apple pie, not from some dinner long since passed, but here! Now! Somewhere in the pantry!

I rose and, without using anything else to guide me, my nose led me to the pastry. I feasted upon it! Its smell! Its taste! Its texture! All were exquisite, like nothing I had previously encountered. I was near a pitched state of religious ecstasy. After months without an appetite, I was ravenous. I devoured the pie entire.

Then I heard (from the distant servants’ quarters!) a high and pretty laugh, like bells, and Mithaug’s woody voice. I was enveloped by sensations of which I had never been aware. Without using my hands to guide me, I navigated from the kitchen to my bedchamber. As I sat upon the bed, I felt invigorated, suddenly more alive. I sensed that I did have a future; I had a gift that had previously been unrecognized. From someplace within me, the same source that had allowed me to employ my vision to produce my art also allowed me to experience my other senses more thoroughly.


You are aware, dear Uncle, that I have been able to accomplish feats that seem remarkable considering my circumstances, but you know a mere fraction of which I am capable. You know, for example, that I can write with a clear, legible hand, my blindness notwithstanding. Have you ever stopped to wonder how? Like everyone else, you assume that I possess some strategy that allows me write despite my lack of vision, and you are correct, but if only you knew of what else I was capable.

I can best illustrate the difference in our modes of perception through the use of an example.

You must remember the cat which Aunt Dora gave to me some years ago. I suspect that you held the cat as a member of a class of visual objects with which you had very little other sensory connection. By this I mean that your interaction with the cat was strictly visual in nature. You watched her movements, you noted the quality of her fur, and the manner in which she groomed herself. Perhaps the cat occasionally made an impression on your other senses (you must have surely stopped to stroke her fur, likely causing her to purr), but she existed for you primarily in a visual realm.

Did you ever consider how I perceived this animal? How much more must I have noticed about her with my gradually heightened senses! I had no means whereby to view her: she was to me without visual qualities. She might just as well have been a common calico as a proud Siamese for all that my eyes could perceive.

How much more I knew of her from my other senses! Her movements were to you nearly silent, imperceptible. Perhaps from time-to-time you noted the click of her claws across the marble tile, or observed her plaintive wail at feeding time, but you surely missed the absolute cacophony of noise this creature produced.

When she walked, the cat’s hairs brushed against each other and produced a soft swishing sound like grass in a summer wind. When she licked her fur, it was as if I heard clothes on a washboard, and when she walked she sounded as the horses’ hooves on the gravel drive. Her purr was like thunder.

Touching her produced a similar flood of sensation. Her fur was as silk, but her skin as crevassed and porous as canvas. When she licked me, my skin burned from the abrasions of her tongue, and her claws, which in one respect felt as smooth as ivory, came to a point every bit as sharp as one of aunt Dora’s knitting needles. Hew wet nose was as slimy as any pond frog I have ever touched.

Did you ever notice how the cat smelled? The dewy, dampness rising from her on an autumn morning? Her fleshy breath when she had devoured a mouse or a bird? Were you aware that she had her own personal odor, the same as any other living creature?

Now perhaps you begin to understand what I am attempting to convey.

You, and everyone around you, lives in a world filled with visual stimulation. I was once a member of that world (and if I still was I would not be in my current predicament!), but I now live in a world outside your experience. I have spoken with other blind men and find that, though they too have some degree of heightened senses, my abilities are beyond what they have acquired.

Do I sound arrogant if I say that I believe that I have, in some fashion, transcended mere humanity? I have! I know and feel more than any man that I have ever met! I have become closer to God. But this blessing has become my curse.


I may safely omit the next six years of my history. You need no reminder of how suddenly my disposition changed. Despair became foreign to me, and I believe that I was soon once more the happiest child in the world. You and Aunt Dora treated me as if I were your own son. Though nothing could assuage the pain of losing mother and father, I loved you as if you were my own parents. In time, I was sent to school where I adjusted to life among my peers reasonably enough. My marks were excellent and earned me a place at the University.

Life at the University has been pleasant, although I find the company of my fellow students detestable. They are, on the whole, a dull lot concerned with dull matters. Their focus is not on their studies, but on women and drink. If I could conceive of a more appropriate means whereby I could attain the knowledge I desire, I would leave the University in a moment. I find respite in my rooms on Water Street, however, and have secluded myself from the world. My only companions have been Rochester (a friend from my days as a schoolboy), and a long succession of tutors.

Obviously, I am perfectly capable of writing; my sense of touch (with assistance from my hearing) is sufficient to allow me to reproduce a passable script. However, I am not capable of reading. I have found a few volumes published using the Braille System of lettering, a system developed expressly for the blind by a gentleman from France. However, the selection of books published using this method is severely limited. I must, instead, rely upon a tutor (or assistant, as I prefer to call him) who reads to me from the books I have at hand: not just the volumes for school, but those incidental books that occur to me, and the books I want read for pleasure.

Finding a reliable assistant has proved to be a miserable task. Rochester fills in capably when I am between assistants, but he has his own studies to attend, and I do not like to use his time in such a fashion. During my three years at the University, I have hired no less than thirteen assistants. Only one has proved to be able to the task. It is of her that I write this letter, this most terrible confession.

The long line of assistants was perhaps inevitable. Anyone willing to hire themselves for such a position is likely to be ignorant themselves, thus unsuited to the task. A sort of a double-bind, I am sure you will agree. I am willing to tolerate a number of faults in a person under my employ, but one must draw the line somewhere; there are certain behaviors one cannot abide.

My first assistant, Edmund, was a thief. He mistakenly believed that it was possible to steal from me despite my presence in the room. Perhaps his ploy might have worked with another blind man, but it failed with me.

Though Edmund was the only thief that I have had the misfortune to employ, the other assistants have each had shortcomings. Baldric had halitosis that might have killed a rhinoceros. Melchett stuttered, and he had a polyp so that he was always hiccoughing, an unceasing annoyance. Percy babbled incessantly about the merest trifles of his day: his maid, his lunch, his walk through the park. Of the assistants that I could bear, none remained with me longer than three months, despite my offers to increase the handsome wages that I already paid them.

Then, Uncle, last Spring an unfortunate event befell me, masked in the guise of joy. My landlady, Mrs. Bennett, came to me one evening, during a period in which I was without a tutor, and asked me if I might be interested in allowing one of her relatives to fill the position. I readily agreed (as I was dreadfully behind on my reading) and agreed to meet the her relative the next day.

Mrs. Bennett appeared at my door as promised the following evening. I greeted her, and I sniffed the air and listened in an attempt to discern some first impression of this prospective assistant. I have found that a person’s body odor is a clear indication of character; the rhythm of a man’s heart and lungs are equally revealing.

Some men may seem, on the surface, fine up-standing citizens, but on closer examination, they reek of evil. Once at a party, I met a banker, introduced to as one of the greatest men in the country. He smelled of death. His fingers bore the taint of blood and his breath was heavy and quick. I learned the following week that he had been arrested for the murder of a business partner, a murder which he had committed the very evening of the party.

As I greeted Mrs. Bennett, I inhaled deeply in an attempt to divine the character of the man who accompanied her. O Uncle! Such confusion! An overwhelming passion that sprang into my bosom: there was no man before me! Before me stood a woman, a young one, by the sense of her height and the quickness of her heart. She smelled of rose petals, and of cinnamon. I felt her warmth. I was overcome.

“Who is this young man which you have brought for me,” I asked Mrs. Bennett, having recovered my senses enough to conceal my foreknowledge of the applicant’s sex.

“Begging your pardon, sir, I bring no young man. This be my niece, Catharine. I hope that she will be sufficient for you,” Mrs. Bennett said.

I was still too overcome by surprise and emotion to protest the unsuitability of this proposal. What did a young woman know of literature and history and other arts? I was too tongue-tied to argue. This is what the other men at the University felt: the clash between love and knowledge, between the body and the mind. I checked my passions and found the strength to answer.

“At this point, madam, I am desperate. I was, of course, expecting a young man. However, I will give this, this Catharine an opportunity to perform the duties. I cannot be expected to pay as I would for a young man. She cannot possibly possess the same skills.”

“Of course not, sir. As you say,” said Mrs. Bennett. She hesitated.

“I will leave you two to them books then,” she said, and she left the room.

I found myself alone with this exquisite creature. For some minutes I could say nothing. I made a show of busying myself with some work or other at my desk. When I had quite had an opportunity to compose myself, I addressed myself to her.

“Have you an understanding of history?” I asked.

“I have,” she said, and her voice was like a rippling brook. “Do not judge me to be as ignorant and unlearned as my aunt. My father was a member of Parliament, and I have been educated at Lockwood under the supervision of Miss Maria Temple and Mister Brocklehurst. I graduated at the top of my form. Had my father and my fiancè not have been killed in a shipwreck, I should be happily married.”

Her voice turned colder as she added, “Do not pretend that I enjoy this particular misfortune that has befallen me.”

I loved her instantly.


Catharine’s initial animosity dissipated over the course of the next two weeks and she became tender and attentive. She read to me for hours each day and was, in every way, superior to any of the assistants that I had previously hired. Her voice was delightful, and she read with such a flair that the texts were emphasized and clarified, and I was able to grasp meanings that might have otherwise remained hidden. Kant and Descartes have never been imbued with such life!

When the Spring term ended I decided not to return home, as you may recall. Though I dearly love your company, Uncle, how could I possibly forgo the opportunity to spend more time with this heavenly creature?

By June we had become quite amiable, even familiar, such that I felt that the time was proper to declare my love for her. We had, on occasion, strolled through a nearby park and sat by a brook for a picnic lunch. It was on such an occasion that I proclaimed my love for her.

To my surprise, and my delight, Catharine — my Cathy! — returned the affection. I fell upon her with my kisses, and she kissed me passionately in return. I felt the flushing of her cheeks and heard the quickness of her breath, and I knew that she returned my love; but the time and the place were inappropriate for such a display of affection. In our haste, we repaired to her room instead of mine.

Mrs. Bennett had retired for the evening and Cathy exhibited none of the inhibitions I had expected. I fell upon her and smothered her with my kisses. I protested my love for her and told her that I could not live without her. I told her all manner of nonsense such as might be expected by a young man off his head with passion. Would she not be my wife, I asked her, and, Uncle, she agreed!

We could not contain ourselves, we were firmly in the grips of passion, and the consummation of our love was sheer delight: her breath was like roses, her skin was delicate like mountains of silk, her voice that of a wild animal. When it was finished, we lay naked together upon her bed, telling stories and laughing. She told me how happy she was to have found me and I told her that I could not imagine life without her. The inappropriateness of our behavior never occurred to us.

It was at this time that I confided in Cathy my extraordinary abilities. I explained to her that though I was blind, I could ‘see’ better than most men whose eyes functioned. She laughed, and I could tell that she did not believe me. I continued to boast and I offered to prove it. She stood, and I sensed her naked body gracefully pacing, tracing her finger over the objects on her bureau. At last she laughed and said, “What am I holding in my hand?”

I concentrated. I shut out all of the noises around me and directed all of my attention in her direction. I felt the gently patterned movements of the air as she waved her hand about, and I smelled the delicate particles of pollen. I knew that she held the flowers that I had brought for her the previous week. I told her so, and she laughed, though I could sense that she was surprised.

She moved to another cabinet, and I heard (and felt) her open the top drawer. She hesitated a moment and then asked me again, “What am I holding in my hand?”

This was more difficult, but again I focused my attention on the object she held in her hand. The temperature of the air had dropped, if only slightly, from the direction in which she was standing, indicating that whatever was contained in the drawer might be composed of metal. I detected a faint odor of sulfur, too, and when she had opened the drawer, I had heard the slightest sound of metal scraping metal.

“You have a pistol,” I said.

She laughed, and told me that I was wrong; she was holding a mirror. I laughed, too, though I was certain that I was correct. Perhaps she had been holding a mirror, but I was certain that she kept a gun in her drawer, perhaps a memento of her departed father. Regardless, Cathy was disconcerted. My demonstration had not had the effect I intended. Nevertheless, I dressed, and then crept upstairs, happy, failing to realize that the evening had been the start of my ruin.


We spent the most pleasant summer together.

Since complete veracity regarding my abilities now seemed unwise, I decided to share my delight in the sensuous and the sensory in other ways. If I could not convey the minuteness with which I could experience the various senses, then I decided to paint a broad picture for my beloved Cathy.

I took her to concerts, and we dined at great meals together. We wandered through the city’s rose gardens, and spent afternoons basking in the sun. We strolled the countryside, swallowing the rich scent of the earth and the fields and the farmyards. I shared the immense sensory pleasures that are possible even to those with normal sensory perception.

Uncle, how madly in love I was!

I believed that the world could be no better, and I believed that Cathy loved me in return. Though I looked forward to the resumption of my studies in the autumn, I also looked forward to their completion, so that I might wed my beloved, so that we might erect a household.

I made grand plans and related them to Cathy endlessly: We would be married soon after my graduation. I would write to you, Uncle, once the final year of my studies had commenced, and I would convey to you my intentions. With your blessing, we would hold a lavish wedding on the grounds of your estate, to which we would invite every person we had ever known, both the wretched and the sublime. Then we would attach ourselves to a small cottage near the edge of the city, and I would begin my position as professor of history at the University. Cathy would tend to the housekeeping and raise a small family. She had aptly demonstrated her ability with both words and numbers, and I had no doubt that she could manage a household capably.

When I resumed my studies at the University this autumn last, dark clouds (if I may be excused for choosing such a visual metaphor) appeared in our sunny relationship. The discontent I had sensed in Cathy became more pronounced; she began to change. I realized that she was no longer devoted to our love.

Cathy’s once gay voice became tainted with impatience as she read to me, as if she there were some other place she would rather be. She smelled altogether different, too: times that she had once smelled fresh and clean, she now smelled musky and earthy. In our close, passionate moments (which became more infrequent) I sensed notes of the raw countryside beneath the cinnamon in her cologne. She no longer wore her finery when we were together, but instead wore common frocks, as if I were a daily chore.

Twice, though, when I happened upon her during afternoon walks through the city, I touched her arm and could feel that she was wearing a silken gown. In short, I began to suspect that Cathy’s love for me had faltered and now belonged with another man.

Uncle, the past two weeks have been a hell such as you will not believe!

Last Friday, I resolved to return home early, that I might confront Cathy regarding my suspicions. It was cold and raining, and my senses were duller than normal. I had difficulty navigating the muddy streets and was twice nearly struck by a coach or carriage.

As I approached the house I found myself discomfited by the barely perceptible sounds of laughter beneath the patter of the rain. I quickened my pace and soon reached my destination. No cat was ever so stealthy as I, creeping into the cottage. I made my way to the rear of the house, and I could hear two voices behind Cathy’s door: the voice of my own beloved, and the pounding laughter of a man. My face burned and I shook with anger.

In red-hot fury, I burst through the door. The lovers sat bolt upright, and I could feel the air rush against me as they pulled the bedclothes about them. His guttural voice rose in question, but Cathy’s hand flew to his mouth, muffling him. As if she could possibly hide his presence from me!

I could smell him! I could hear him! I could feel him! I could smell the two of them, entwined; the smell of love was everywhere in the room, so strong I could taste it. My senses were filled, operating at a capacity that they had never before achieved.

Cathy’s voice was thin and reedy from fright as she greeted me, not the voice of the woman I knew and loved. Her flesh was hot, and the air was warm from the energy of their love-making. I could smell the sweat of her, and I could feel the tension in her neck. The man, hulking and hairy (I could hear the thick hairs of his body bristling as he moved), slunk off the bed and grabbed for his clothing. His breathing was heavy, and I could sense that he was large, muscular. He carried the odors of grass, and of dirt, and of the shit of cows and hogs. Cathy, making love with a common farmhand!

I boiled in rage. I shook uncontrollably. I leaned against the bureau for support, and it was then that I remembered. I opened the drawer and I reached, without hesitation or fumbling, and withdrew the pistol.

Cathy gasped and began to plead, but I did not listen. I took aim and I shot the cur. No sighted man ever fired such a perfect shot; I hit him squarely in the chest, I am sure. He staggered once and then fell to the ground in a great cascade of noise. The reek of the wound was nauseating.

Cathy shrieked. The sound was so piercing, so deafening, that I found that I must be rid of it. I threw the gun to the ground, and I fell upon my beloved. Her body burned from the just-interrupted passion, her skin soft and fiery. Her breath smelled of roses. She whimpered under my weight, and then she shrieked again.

O Uncle! Can you guess what I did next? I could not bear the sound in my ears and I could not bear the thought of this man with my Cathy and I could not bear the thought that my love was gone and I strangled her, Uncle. I put my hands around her throat, and I strangled her. I crushed her, and her hot skin burned my hands, and her gasps made me weep (how I cried!), but I kept hold til she made no more sound.

As I stood in the silent room, I found my senses had been shattered. My ears were deafened by the pistol’s explosion, and my nose stung with the burn of the powder. My tongue was thick with the taste of the smoke and the blood, and hands fingers throbbed from their horrible deed. I stood senseless. When I finally grasped the enormity of my crime, I fled, blindly, clumsily, to my rooms.

Now, Uncle, you know of my crime. With my own hands I have killed my only beloved.


I fear that I am no longer fit for this world. What am I to do?

I have packed some few belongings, only the barest of essentials, and find myself lodged in a small inn not far from the city. I know that I am now a wanted man, sure to face the gallows. Worst of all, I am pursued by my own demons. What is to be done, Uncle?

Please, I beg of you, you must see me and help me to repair this situation, if reparation can be made. Whatever comes, I beg you to understand my actions. I make this full confession only to you, dear Uncle, as you have always been so kind and understanding.

I am desperate. I am blind. It is only with great difficulty that I have been able to write this letter. What was once so easy is now nearly impossible.

I am blind, Uncle! I cannot see.

Your Nephew, Jude.


And there you have it: This is the sort of writing I was working on at the dawn of the internet age. It was at around this time that I was posting my first blog entries. I took one more writing class after this before devoting my entire attention to writing online. So, in a sense, this is a look at a possible alternate path for me if I hadn’t decided to make blogging my focus.

It might be fun to write short stories again. This one was certainly fun for me to read.

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Abstract art.

Have I truly not published anything here in November? That’s crazy! I guess it’s because my November so far has been packed with friends and fun. I haven’t had time to write.

I continue to enjoy my watercolor class. Like, I really enjoy it. For a hobby/art I never intended to explore, I’ve become surprisingly obsessed with it.

That said, I missed class last Thursday in order to fly to Austin, Texas. I spent the weekend hanging out with F.I. friends (Marla, Bianca, Michael Robinson). We ate and drank and rode scooters around the city. (More about the scooters in the near future.) But I wasn’t in class to get the assignment for this Thursday.

On Tuesday, I asked my instructor what the homework was. “Something abstract,” she said.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Oh, you know. Take something from real life and paint it stylized.”

I spent several hours thinking about what I wanted to paint, but couldn’t come up with anything. Then I thought, “What if I paint a concept instead of a thing? That’s abstract!” And like that, I was off to the races.

I grabbed a bunch of random stuff I had downstairs in the library (which is doubling as my art studio right now). I used some thing tape to lay out a grid pattern on my apper. I took some circular “garage-sale dots” and placed them mostly randomly in the grid I’d created. Then I realized that I could use the dots to tell a meaningful story, so I re-arranged them.

Once I had my resists in place — a “resist” is anything that blocks the paint, preserving the white of the paper — I had to pick my paints. I have a book specifically about watercolor paints, and it contains a helpful chart of where each pigment rests on the color wheel. Playing with that, I realized that for my composition, I wanted to use the standard ROYGBIV spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. I sorted through my paints to find some pleasing hues that I hadn’t used yet. (And I threw in a black.)

After 3-1/2 hours of planning and prep, I set to painting. It took five minutes. This was the result:

I liked the idea of this, but I didn’t like the final product. I made another pass. I spent about thirty minutes setting things up again, then painted this:

Better, but still not what I wanted. I realized that the vertical orientation made the painting look like a page from a comic book. As a comic-book nerd, I liked that. So, I switched back to vertical. Also, because of my theme (about which I’m being very secretive, sorry), I decided I wanted intense colors, so I squeezed out more paint from the tubes. I ended up with this:

I liked this. A lot. In fact, this is where I stopped. It was exactly what I was trying to express. The one downside is that I’d run out of my thin tape, so I had to use wide tape down for most of it. Not ideal. Still, I took this to class.

My abstract art was the only thing that looked remotely like this. Everyone else took something from real life — a couple under an umbrella, a bunch of carrots, a tomato — and abstracted those things. I was the only one who abstracted a concept and tried to tell a story. All of the paintings were fun though. We students enjoyed the assignment.

On Thursday afternoon, I bought some more thin tape. I did a final version of my abstract painting that looked like this:

Perfect! This is the story I wanted to convey.

When I showed it to Kim, she had some feedback. “I still don’t like those dots,” she said. I haven’t even told her what they represent. Like I said, I’m, being secretive about the theme of this painting…but each dot means something and none of them can be removed. “I think maybe you could keep one dot. It would look like the rising sun! Also, I’m not a fan of the grid. I know you think it looks like a comic book, but I think it’d look better without them. But you know what I do like? This blue in the lower right. It looks like roots sinking into the earth. In fact, the whole thing looks like a sort of landscape.”

Huh. When I looked at it through her eyes, I could see that she was right. If I removed the gridlines, it really might look like an abstract landscape. I went downstairs to make another attempt.

Okay, okay. This had promise. I didn’t like the alcohol dots, and I wished I had used more saturated color, but I could see how this might look cool. I set everything up again and made another pass. This was the result:

Nice! Almost there. The paint had been too thick on this pass, so it didn’t want to bleed as much, especially at the bottom. Plus, I ended up with two globs of chunky paint on the paper when I was finished. I had to fish those off. (You can see the spots they landed, though, in the green and the blue on the right.)

I decided to make another pass. So, this is what I painted last night:

It’s not exactly what I want, but I have to stop for now. I ran out of my purple paint. I’d used an entire small tube (5ml) of Daniel Smith’s Moonglow in order to produce these seven paintings.

When I showed the final two paintings to Kim this morning, she really liked them — especially #6 (the one with the thicker, more intense colors). I feel like I’m finished with this for now, but might revisit in the future. The more I work with this, the more I understand how to achieve the effects I want. (I particularly like the crystalline formations that result from the table salt. Very nice. Looks like organic creatures or plants!)

This project made me realize why art can be so expensive sometimes. Here are my material costs for this project:

  • About $15 for paper. (I used seven sheets of good quality paper. It costs just over $2 per sheet.)
  • About $7 for the tube of Moonglow paint.
  • An unknown amount of money for the other paint. But if we were to assume seven colors times $7, that’d be $49! Plus maybe a buck for the black paint I used. So, that’s about $50 in paint.

My total cost, then, is somewhere on the order of $65 to produce these seven pieces.

Now, admittedly I’m using an unconventional watercolor style here. Watercolor paint is meant to be used sparingly. In 99.9% of cases, your pigment is very dilute when applied to paper. I was trying something…experimental. But still. My point is that art can be expensive because it takes time, money, and creativity to produce. (At this point, I probably have eight hours into this project.)

I enjoyed creating these abstract paintings. Every other painting assignment we’ve had has been pretty specific. Paint these birds. Paint a winter landscape. Paint a jellyfish. And while it’s true that I’ve done a couple of projects for myself, they were all based on existing works. This was the first time I’ve conceived something of my own from start to finish. All of this is out of my head. None of it is based on anything else. I’m proud of that.

The best part? I’ve discovered a couple of new techniques that excite me. I really like the intense colors, even though I know that’s not “proper” watercolor technique. And I especially like the comic-book style panels. You can bet that I’m going to return to this concept again and again and again.

I’m eager to go downstairs and paint, but I don’t have time today. I’ve got other projects that need to be completed. But I’ll get some more painting in soon. Our next assignment is to paint a still life of fruit.

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Watercolor meadow.

It seems strange to think that I’ve reached the end of my fifth week of watercolor classes. The time has passed quickly. At last, though, I’m beginning to feel like I can do something besides “childish scrawls with crayons”. There are still plenty of those, no doubt, but every so often I create something that I like. The last painting I’ll share today is something that I like.

I missed last week’s classes because I was in New Orleans for Fincon 2023. I took a small travel watercolor set with me, but I didn’t use it once. I was too busy having fun.

Returning home, I wanted to follow the written assignment from my instructor, but I was just too tired to go downstairs to paint. No worries. Because this is a community ed class, it’s very very chill.

At Tuesday’s class, we learned how rubbing alcohol interacts with water and pigment. We have homework to use these techniques to paint dandelions, but we also practiced in class. For the first time ever, I like my in-class project enough to share it here. (Usually my in-class projects are a mess because I’m learning some new technique.)

Here are some dandelion puffs created using masking fluid as a resist. It’s tough to tell, but there are some “blotches” on the background wash that were created using alcohol in a mist sprayer.

[painting of dandelion puffs against colorful background

This piece took maybe 30 minutes of in-class time. The bulk of that time was working with masking fluid.

After Tuesday’s class, I tried to parse the written instructions for Thursday’s assignment. Because I’d missed the class where my instructor (Vikki) explained things, I had to guess at some of what she wanted. (The written instructions aren’t complete. They’re meant to be a reminder of what she covered in class. Kind of like a technical challenge on The Great British Baking Show, if that makes sense.)

What Vikki wanted was a sort of abstract piece with simulated trees. We were practicing negative painting, which is where you paint around your subject instead of painting it directly. The other students created stylized rainbow-colored pieces. I created this literal grove of trees.

[painting of a deep, dark woods]

This piece took three hours to produce. I also spent three hours working on a (failed) test version that taught me a lot about how to make a second pass. I did use negative painting to produce this, but then I went back and filled in details on the trees. I don’t think we were supposed to do that.

In any event, I do not hate this. It looks less like childish scrawls with crayons than previous efforts. Now it looks like “adult scrawls with crayons” haha. (One of my fellow students really liked this, though, which was edifying.)

As a side note, I’m a little shocked at how much like me this piece looks. What I mean by that is my “art” — anything visual I’ve ever produced — has had a specific look every since second grade. This has that look. It’s very clear in the shape of the trees. I always find it interesting when certain artists have a certain style, and I’ve wondered whether that’s deliberate. I’m beginning to think the answer is “no”. It’s just how they draw or paint or whatever. I didn’t deliberately set out to make “J.D. trees”. It’s just how I make trees.

One issue that I’m having is that my tonal values are all relatively flat. Everything tends to be very, very dark. That’s part of what gives me my “childish scrawls with crayons” look. I’m trying to get a range of values in my paintings, but I’m mostly failing.

Because of this, I decided to do my first independent project. I took four hours Wednesday morning to follow along to this YouTube video about painting foreground flowers.

Although this woman is painting…thistles? imaginary flowers?…I thought I could work on painting dandelions instead. So, that’s what I did. And for once, I was able to get some tonal variation!

[painting of a meadow filled with flowers]

This piece took four hours to produce. It was my only attempt.

Sure, there could be more variation here, but I’m not displeased. In fact, I like this. What’s more, working on this gave me some confidence that I didn’t have before.

You see, I’ve been watching a lot of watercolor videos on YouTube thinking, “I’m so far from being able to do that.” This was one of those videos. I watched it and dismissed it as too advanced. But then after learning how to paint dandelions, I got to thinking I ought to at least try it. So I did. And the results were great!

Now I want to go back and revisit some of the other YouTube projects I’ve liked. I want to see whether I can get close to what the artists are doing. I just might be able to.

Kim is gone all day today (Friday) and Sunday. Translation: I have a lot of time on my hands to work on watercolors. I think I’m going to drive north to McMinnville this morning to visit The Merri Artist once more. (I want to try some different watercolor paints.) But once I get home, I’ll descend to my basement studio, crank up 1989 (Taylor’s Version), and get to painting.

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Fincon? Funcon!

Well, it’s taken two nights of extraordinary sleep (13 hours and 11 hours, respectively), but I’ve recovered from last week’s trip to New Orleans. I made the journey with 1500+ other money nerds to attend Fincon, the annual “digital marketing event for anyone creating personal-finance content”. (We used to just call it a money bloggers’ conference. That’s how I think of it still. I’m old.)

As I do every year, I flew in early. Although the conference generally runs Wednesday to Saturday, I’m always at the hotel from Sunday to Sunday. I treat this as a mini vacation. Besides, I really really really like the quiet time at the start when there are only a few people around. It’s my favorite part.

This year’s trip got off to a rocky start. Corvallis is midway between the Portland and Eugene airports. Portland takes maybe ten minutes longer to get to and offers more flights for less money, but it’s also a frickin’ hassle. The drive to Eugene is pleasant and the airport has six gates. It’s a joy to travel to and from there. The downside? Well, the downside is sometimes — as for this trip — I have to get up at two in the morning to catch my flight. Ugh.

No worries. By flying in a couple of days early, I had a chance to recover from the lack of sleep.

[photo of New Orleans street art]

Let the Good Times Roll

“I’m going to be good,” I told Kim before I left. “I’m not going to drink very much, and I’m going to watch what I eat.”

WHY?” she asked. “You’ll be in New Orleans with your friends. Just do what you want for a week.” Still, I was resolved to exercise restrating. That resolution lasted for the one day that I was by myself. On that one day, I exercised for ninety minutes, drank no alcohol, and ate relatively healthy food. As soon as people began to arrive, though, all of that was out the window.

Because, let’s be honest, New Orleans has great food. It’s one of my favorite food cities in the world.

The good food started Monday night when a small group of us wandered around the city and ended up at Herbsaint. We were woefully under-dressed compared to the other patrons, but we didn’t care. We had fun and the food was good. (Turns out, Herbsaint is a highly-regarded New Orleans restaurant. We picked it purely by chance.)

[my autism self-test scores are high]

At dinner, Ashley and I talked about autism. My doctor has been asking me to see a therapist to talk about “childhood trauma”. I’ve told her that I don’t remember any childhood trauma. “That’s why you need a therapist,” my doctor says. She’s convinced that my collection of symptoms is indicative of childhood trauma, and the reading I’ve done supports this conclusion. Anyhow, Ashley suggested that I complete the RAADS-R self-report questionnaire, which is designed to detect adult autistics. I didn’t know what to expect.

While taking the test, I sent Ash a series of complaints about the questions: they’re vague, they’re worded poorly, they don’t have clear answers, etc. “I think complaining about the questions is a big indicator,” she said. Sigh I scored a 90 on the inventory. According to the website, “A score of 65+ indicates you are likely autistic.” Apparently, I am likely autistic. Is anyone shocked?

That said, my score of 90 is well below the average score for autistic folks (around 150). In fact, my results for three of the four areas tested were just at the minimum threshold for autism. But my score for the fourth — “social relatedness” — was closer to autistic average. I struggle in social situations. No news there!

“This doesn’t surprise me,” Kim said when I told her. When I got home, she’d made a list of my habits that she considers in line with autism: hyper-fixation, inability to read social cues, etc.

Okay, back to Fincon.

On Tuesday, a group of us old-timers — Ashley, Miranda, Larry, Tom, and me — walked down Decatur into the French Quarter to have lunch at Coop’s Place, a hole-in-the-wall that some locals had recommended. It was fine. That evening, a very large and loud party of Fincon folks ended up at Felix’s. Again, the food was fine, but it was here that two notable things happened.

  • First, Miranda single-handedly set off the decibel alert on my watch. This was the first of three times that she managed to do this. Wow!
  • Second, I met the energetic Allison Baggerly. Allison has been coming to Fincon for several years, but somehow I’d never met her until now. (She has a story of briefly interacting with me in Orlando in 2018, but I don’t recall the encounter.) Allison and I ended up spending a lot of time together this year, and I’m glad to add her to my circle of friends. But we have very different energies haha. Sitting with her at dinner was…overwhelming. She grilled me about my current quest to de-google-fy my life.

I spent much of the next day turtled in my room, but I did come out for food.

[Allison Baggerly!]

Jewel of the South

On Wednesday morning, I had breakfast with long-time friend Andrea Deckard. Andrea and I met in 2008 when she, Toni Anderson, and Erin Chase started Savvy Blogging Summit in Colorado. That was my first-ever speaking gig, and it’s weird to think back to that time. I was a completely different person. The J.D. of 2008 is almost a stranger to me now. Andrea and I ate at Ruby Slipper just around the corner from the hotel. For two hours, we talked about our respective challenges with mental and physical health. Good bonding time, as always.

After breakfast, I retreated to my room for some downtime. In the afternoon, a group of us ventured down Bourbon Street to the vampire speakeasy. We sipped drinks from blood bags and petted the resident cats while laughing and enjoying each other’s company.

On Wednesday evening, our not-so-secret mastermind group got together for its annual Fincon dinner at Coterie. The restaurant was unprepared for us, and I’m not sure why. But they made it work. The food, drink, and conversation were good, although the space was cramped. (Someday, I’ll write about this not-so-secret mastermind. It is highly controversial in the Fincon community.)

After dinner, we wandered through the raucous streets to the 49th best bar in the world, Jewel of the South. Our verdict? The drinks were indeed damn fine but the service we received was shitty af.

We arrived at about 9:30 and sat outside in the courtyard. We were friendly with the waiter, but he was cold as ice toward us, refusing to utter even one word in response to our attempts at conversation. The place closed at eleven, so we didn’t feel like we were pushing politeness with time. He just wasn’t into us. I ended up paying the bill (everyone else sent me cash) and I left a very small tip. I never leave small tips. I’m usually a generous tipper, but this was easily the worst service I’ve received since before COVID so I felt zero remorse. In retrospect, I ought to have tipped nothing.

But, yeah. Jewel of the South has great drinks and probably has great service in most cases. Check them out when you’re in New Orleans.


Throughout Fincon, I spent a lot of time lingering in the lobby. It’s my favorite part of the event. I enjoy randomly bumping into people and catching up on life. There’s magic in the ebb and flow that comes from bumping into friend after friend after friend.

On Thursday, I met Todd Tresidder for our annual breakfast. We put our name in at Ruby Slipper, then wandered around the French Quarter until they were ready for us. We had a long conversation about aging (Todd is 62, I am 54), fitness, and more.

In the afternoon, Paula Pant and I were guests on the Mile High FI podcast. Host Doug Cunnington asked us about sabbaticals and career breaks. Paula recently took a year-long hiatus to complete a prestigious journalism program at Columbia University. I, of course, am trying to be retired. Paula is diving deep into her business and is full of ambition. I am explicitly trying to be non-ambitious as I pursue the zen-like state of simply enjoying the moment. Fun contrast.

[photo of me and Paula during our podcast interview]

In the evening, Paula hosted a small group at Calcasieu to celebrate her 40th birthday. This was easily the best meal I had during my time in New Orleans, and it must have cost Paula a small fortune. (Thank you, Paula!) I sat next to Crystal Hammond, who is one of the most fascinating people I know. I’d like to get to know her better.

After dinner, I ignored the barrage of texts asking me to come sing karaoke. Trust me: Nobody wants to hear me sing. Nobody. I was in bed by midnight, and I’m glad I made that choice.

Letting Go

On Friday morning, I mostly turtled in my room. I did have a nice chat in the lobby with Ryan Guina, though. We ran into each other in the Starbucks line, then sat and sipped our coffee while solving all of the world’s problems.

I came out of my shell to have lunch with Julien and Kiersten, two of my favorite folks. There’s just something I love about their perspectives and our conversations. We chose our restaurant at random, stumbling into Lufu Nola, a sort of up-scale modern Indian place. I’m excited that Fincon is in Atlanta next year. That’s where Julien and Kiersten live, and I’m hoping they’ll show me one or two of their favorite spots.

After lunch, Rocky Lalvani and I met for our annual pow-wow. Last year, Rocky was responsible for helping me to find my “center”, as it were. He introduced me to Marissa Peer and her admonition to believe “I am enough”, which was what I needed to hear at that moment. It carried me though the end of my shitty 2022. This year, Rocky told me about Ally Boothroyd‘s yoga nidra meditations on YouTube. We chatted about aging and spirituality.

Each year, it seems that my Fincon has a theme. I know it’s simply my mind parsing events and conversations to create connections, but I like it. This year, that theme was the importance of letting go. I had so many conversations with people who are doing just that. They’re learning to let go of things. Or, in my case, I’m embracing the tao-ist idea of wu wei, of “effortless action”. To me, this means letting go of preconceptions and expectations, drifting with the flow of “the universe” (which sounds more woo-woo than I mean it), not fighting what life seems to be pushing me toward. Anyhow, I was shocked by how many of us are in similar mental places. Is it because we’re aging? Because we’re having similar reactions to the state of our culture? Both of these things? I don’t know.

After chatting with Rocky, I joined a large group for drinks at the carousel bar in Hotel Monteleone. Somehow we missed the hostess station and slipped our way to a large open space in the back of the bar. (Seriously, we didn’t even see the hostess was there.) We managed to bypass a huge line. The drinks were excellent — I had the Mezcál-cased Oaxacan Midnight — although the space was loud. But not as loud as Miranda on her own. 😉

[photo of our group at the carousel bar]

In the evening, I was pleased to run into Tanja Hester and her husband Mark. Tanja is a mind bomb. Every time I chat with her, my brain feels like it’s ready to explode. I keep telling her that I wish we’d known each other in high school. She’s exactly the sort of person I connected with when I was younger (and now, it seems). Anyhow, Tanja and I have a shared love of pens and paper and other office supplies — as does Allison, apparently — but this year I was surprised to learn that she’s spent the last twelve months taking art classes, just as I’ve started to do. She showed me her progress over the past year, and I’m impressed. Her stuff looks great! I should have asked to purchase something from her. I want a Tanja Hester original.

Closing Party

Saturday was the final day of Fincon, and thank goodness. I can only take so much fun!

In the morning, Miranda and I were joined by Sarah Li-Cain (and her roommate, Jen) for a three-mile walk down Magazine Street to the Graden District. There we met several other friends for a guided food tour. It was a blast. Delicious. Cozy. Fun.

[Photo of our food tour group]

Miranda and I walked the three miles back to the hotel with full bellies, where we joined a handful of folks (Jim Wang, Ashley Barnett, Allison, etc.) in the lobby for a long afternoon and evening of laughter and conversation. The highlight of the evening was the two-hour Halloween parade up and down Canal Street. It passed directly in front of our hotel, where a bunch of us gathered to watch the show. Eventually we all migrated upstairs for the Fincon closing party, the only official Fincon event I actually attended this year.

That’s right. I paid several hundred dollars for a ticket (and a couple of thousand dollars for food and lodging) to attend a conference where I didn’t actually do anything. All I did was eat and drink and hang out with friends. And you know what? It was 100% worth it. I’d be happy to do it over and over and over again.

For many of us who attend Fincon, this is our second family. Over the years, we’ve spent a lot of time together. We text and email each other year-round with jokes and questions, etc. We have regular calls with each other. We go into business with each other. More and more, we go out of our way to spend time with each other when traveling. Sure, we live in cities across the country (and the world), but we don’t care. We share so much in common. Like autism, apparently haha.

Here’s the remaining few who have attended every Fincon:

[photo of the eleven of us who remain]

Going Home

I woke early Sunday morning to make a harrowing taxi ride to the airport. I’m not joking. The driver was erratic in a sort of South American kind of way. (If you’ve ever taken a taxi in Lima or Quito, you know what I mean.) On the drive, we witnessed two strange things:

  • A motorcycle flying down Canal at probably 120 miles per hour, running all of the lights at four in the morning.
  • A junkie on a bicycle who ran a red light and got clipped by a car. Dude seemed to be okay, but my taxi driver wasn’t about to stop to check. He had lanes to weave through!

On the flight home, I watched an entire season of Survivor at 2x speed. It was the only thing I had the mental power to focus on. I was so tired! And that’s why after I reached Corvallis, I slept 24 out of the next 36 hours.

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My obsession with the music of Taylor Swift is no secret. I’ve been fan for more than a decade. I think she’s one of the great songrwiters — not just of her era, but of all time.

I think the best way to demonstrate the quality of her writing is to listen to other performers cover her songs. Swift is a decent singer but she’s not great. She wasn’t very good at the start of her career, but she’s put in a ton of effort to improve, and her voice has become much better with time. Put her songs into the mouths of others, though, and you can really hear why people are drawn to her music.

One of my favorite things over the past two years is listening to real musicians (whether famous or real-life amateurs) talk about how much they appreciate her songwriting. Kind of cool.

Anyhow, I’ve been building a YouTube playlist of Taylor Swift covers for the past couple of years. Recently I added Sabrina Carpenter’s version of “I Knew Your Were Trouble”, which Swift herself has shared and praised.

It occurred to me that now that I’ve resumed writing at Folded Space, it’d be fun to share some of my other favorites from my playlist. So, that’s what I’m doing today: sharing my favorite Taylor Swift covers. (Note: I’m only sharing my very favorite covers here.)

One, two, three, let’s go bitch!

First up, here’s “I Did Something Bad” by Shoshana Bean and Cynthia Erivo.

Here’s a hard-driving version of “You Need to Calm Down” by Halocene.

And a stripped-down version of “Clean” by Sara Bareilles. If you want to skip the preamble, jump to 2:24. This song gives me chills no matter who sings it. It is so so good.

“Red” covered by Fifth Harmony.

I really like this cover of “All Too Well” by Jake Scott. But then I like all covers of “All Too Well”. (Yo, Swifties. Here’s Jake Scott singing this live with a guitar instead of piano.)

“This Love” by Nicholas Connell. This is over-produced, but then the original was sort of over-produced too. That’s what makes it so ethereal.

Another rockin’ cover is this version of “Anti-Hero” from Our Last Night. Warning: Gets a bit screechy haha.

“Delicate” by James Bay.

It’s surprising how many punk/hard-rock covers of Taylor Swift songs exist. Here’s another one: “Blank Space” from I Prevail.

“I Know Places” covered by Vance Joy.

Here’s an orchestral cover of “Enchanted” by Joseph William Morgan. So pretty! As a sort of aside: I suck at singing, yet am often in a situation where karaoke is an option. I want to learn a TSwift song that I can sing passably well. I think “Enchanted” would be fun/funny to learn.

Okay, I’ll stop now. Because I could go on and on (and I will).

I should mention that my playlist also includes Taylor Swift covering other people’s songs. Those are fun too. For instance, here’s her version of Vance Joy’s “Riptide”.

I should also note that one of my many ideas for fun websites is to create a TSwift songopedia of sorts, where I make a page for each TSwift song, then collect all available versions I can find of it. I have so many other things going on right now, but if I resolved to do one page/song per day, I could get this done in a year. And it’d be fun!

As a footnote, Larry sent me a funny Instagram post this morning. Blogging J.D. is pretty good to keep his Taylor Swift somewhat quiet. Real-life J.D. is less good at this, which makes this short especially funny (and apropos).

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Watercolor eggs and trees.

I’ve finished my second- and third-ever watercolor paintings. These are both assignments for my “Jump into Watercolor” class. I’m not unhappy with either of them, but I’m not happy either. I liked my jellyfish better.

First up, we were supposed to paint three eggs. This painting was an exercise in the value of light, shading from light to dark.

[a still life of three eggs]

I’ve been learning how to do a background “wash”, and this is the biggest one I’ve tried yet. Basically, you wet a piece of paper, then you gradually apply color to it from top to bottom. Ideally, the wash is even (unless you deliberately want it otherwise).

I can actually do an even wash in small areas, but this was a 9 inch x 12 inch piece of paper with areas “cut out” for the eggs where I didn’t want the wash. It was…complicated. My results are also complicated haha.

Anyhow, I got the wash mostly even here, although I felt like I was racing against time. I had too much water and not enough pigment at first. As I was fussing with things, the paper began to dry, which was problematic. Also, the right side was fussy. You can see where I tried to fix a problem on the right…and only make it larger and more problematic. Oh well. It was a learning experience.

I thought I had a method to shade the eggs — and I still think it was the right method — but I struggled to blend the pigment evenly. My color gradation has sharper lines than I want. I wanted something subtle. Still, not bad for the second painting I’ve ever done in my life.

Next, we have a painting of aspens against a landscape.

[a landscape featuring aspens against a backdrop of trees and mountains

I’ll say straight out that I’m pleased with my aspen trunks. They turned out far better than expected. Best work I’ve done yet with watercolor. Also, I like the wash for the grey sky. That is what a wash is supposed to look like! Even color.

I also like parts of my trees and mountains, but only parts. I learned a lot while putting this together. Sometimes I should have waited for the painting to dry before moving on; other times, I ought to have moved to the next step sooner while the previous layer was still wet.

In any event, I feel like my trees and mountains look kind of big and chunky, as if I drew them with crayons. Plus, my colorful trees in front look as if they’re just evergreens with leaves haha.

Again, though, not bad for painting number three in my “career”.

I’m really enjoying this process. It gives me a productive focus and outlet. I like it so much, in fact, that I’ve bought a small travel palette and some travel brushes. I intend to take my watercolor travel kit to New Orleans next week. Let’s see if I find time to get some practice in!

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Dave’s den.

During a break in the rain this morning, I took the dog for her walk. As always, she sniffed for squirrels. I relished in the renewed green around me. Summer has faded in the Willamette Valley, and the return of the rain has made everything lovely and lush. I had stopped to look at a Little Free Library (as I am wont to do) when the old man across the street hollered, “Can I meet your dog?”

Tally wagged her tail in agreement.

“Sure,” I said. We walked over to the old man’s driveway so that he could pet her.

“I’m Dave,” said the old man. He was tall and gaunt with papery skin and liver spots on his face.

“I’m J.D.,” I said. “David is my middle name.”

“Want to see my trains?” Dave asked, motioning to his garage.

“Sure,” I said. Dave led me up the driveway through his open garage door. The entire space was packed with model planes, trains, and automobiles. But despite the density of toys, everything was orderly and neat. It was clean. Dave also had a fine collection of military memorabilia on display. I’m not actually interested in this stuff, but two things prompted me to stop for a visit.

  • First, even after sixteen years, I continue to practice the power of yes I first wrote about during the early days of Get Rich Slowly, back when it was a new concept to me. Over the years it’s moved from an abstract idea to a sort of guiding principle. If somebody asks me to do something, I usually say “yes” (unless that something violates my personal ethical code).
  • Second, Kim and I have been making a deliberate effort to meet more people in and around Corvallis, especially neighbors.

Stopping to chat with Dave seemed like a worthwhile detour. He’s a friendly, chatty old man, although I suspect he’s struggling with his mental faculties. I like him. He talked almost non-stop, rarely pausing to let me get a word in unless he had a question. I was okay with that. Dave was entertaining.

Dave’s Garage

We spent five minutes touring the stuff in his garage. He showed me his model train — HO scale — and some of the special railroad cars of various gauges that he had on display. Below a bunch of military memorabilia, Dave had made a spot four large train cars carrying tanks. He saw me looking at his medals and uniforms.

“I was in the Navy,” Dave told me (although I might have the branch of service incorrect here). “Got out in sixty-three.” That was right around the time Kim’s father was entering the Navy and my father, a conscientious objector, was starting his stint doing laundry for the armed forces in Portland.

“We’ve been in this house for 52 years,” Dave told me. “Care to guess how much we paid? $17,000! And it’s waterfront property,” he chuckled. He was referring to Dixon Creek, which runs along the edge of his lot.

“I’m embarrassed nowadays to admit we paid so little,” Dave told me, “although it didn’t seem so cheap in 1971. The place across the street [where I’d stopped to view the Little Free Library] just sold for $600,000. Can you believe that?!”

“I can,” I said. I didn’t tell him how much we paid for our place two years ago. And I didn’t explain to him how I’ve come to believe that home prices and home buying are merely an exercise in accounting.

“Are you retired?” Dave asked me.

“I’m trying to be,” I said.

“You look awfully young to be retired,” Dave said. “I’ve been retired twenty years. I retired at 65. That means I’m 85 now.”

“I am a bit young to be retired,” I said. “I’m 54.” I wrestled with the dog’s leash; Tally was sniffing under tables and around boxes. She liked Dave’s garage.

“Good for you,” Dave said. “Do you want to come inside and see my den? The dog can come.”

Dave’s Den

Tally and I followed Dave into the house, through the kitchen, and down the hall. “This used to be one of the boys’ bedrooms,” he said, then told me about his children and grandchildren. As he talked, I looked around. Dave’s den was filled with treasures: more model planes and trains, stacks of World War II books, and shelves lined with war and science-fiction movies. In the middle of the room, facing a television, sat a comfortable black leather recliner.

Seeing this room, and listening to Dave talk, flooded me with memories. A wave of nostalgia washed over me. Dave reminded me of the old men I knew when I was young. In the 1970s, it was not uncommon to meet older guys who had served in the military at some point, and who had let that experience direct their interests in civilian life. Like Dave, they watched war movies and read war novels. They built model jet planes and tanks. They collected uniforms and medals. My mom’s father, for instance, flew a bomber in World War II; he too had an interest in military memorabilia.

Dave showed me two enormous model railcars displayed on a shelf. “When I bought those in Wenatchee, they were basically scrap,” he said. “I restored them. I don’t know what gauge they are. They’re big. The number on that car is the street number of my childhood home in Seattle. The number on this car is the street number for this house. We’ve been in this house 52 years. Can you believe it?”

Dave repeated a lot of info during our conversation. As I say, I suspect he has memory issues — and maybe more besides. He remnains a charming, engaging person though.

“I like your set-up here,” I said, pointing at the chair and TV. “It looks cozy.”

“That’s where I watch my movies,” Dave said. “I watch a lot of war movies. And science fiction movies. I especially like zombies. Do you recognize that character?” he asked, pointing to a toy on a shelf.

“That’s Groot,” I said.

“Right,” he said. “From Guardians of the Galaxy. I paid $1.50 for him at the McDonald’s in Philomath. For that price, I figured why not?” That’s another habit Dave has; he knows where he got everything, and he likes to tell you about it.

Dave’s Kitchen

As we walked back through the kitchen, he stopped to point out several large pieces of furniture. He told me their origin, including when he bought them and where. “That’s where my wife watches TV,” he said, indicating the television in the living room. “She likes those women’s movies on Hallmark and Lifetime,” he said sotto voce. “I prefer zombie movies.”

“Your house is very comfortable,” I said. And it is. It reminded me of the cozy ranch homes my friends lived in when I was growing up during the 1980s. And no wonder. It occurred to me that Dave was the same age as the fathers of my friends in high school. I’m the same age as his kids. If I’d grown up in Corvallis instead of Canby, it is possible — likely, even — that I would have spent time in this house. No wonder it felt so familiar. It reminded me of my youth because it was my youth.

“We bought the house 52 years ago,” Dave told me for a third time. “But it didn’t look like this. We’ve had the kitchen remodeled since then, and we added on this living room to expand the house. It’s been a fine home. Someday it will belong to my boys.”

We walked out through the garage, past Dave’s trains, and into the driveway. Tally sniffed for squirrels.

“Did you see my palm trees?” Dave asked. “You might not notice them from the road. We planted those trees 47 years ago. My oldest boy was five. We moved into this house 52 years ago, and we planted those trees five years after we moved in. They’re protected from the north wind, so they’ve survived. Now they’re big enough to have acclimatized.”

Tally was tugging at her leash. She was impatient. A pit stop like this wasn’t part of her doggy plans. There were squirrels to find. “It was nice to meet you, Dave,” I said. “Thank you for showing me your trains.”

“No problem,” Dave said. “Come back anytime. You have a good walk.”

And we did.

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The wages of fear.

I decided to watch a movie last night, but which movie? There are so many that I want to see! Instead of choosing something from my watchlist, though, I decided to browse the $5 sale movies at iTunes.

I feel like most of the $5 sale movies at iTunes are “junk” films, films I have zero interest in seeing. But every now and then, I find a gem. Last night, I found a gem: Sorcerer, the 1977 thriller from William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection).

I first read about Sorcerer last spring. It’s notable for two reasons.

  • First, it had the unfortunate fate to open soon after Star Wars in 1977, meaning it was destined to be forgotten.
  • Second, it’s a remake of the 1953 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, The Wages of Fear.

When I read about Sorcerer and Wages last spring, I vowed that someday I’d watch them as a double-header. Last night, I did that — watching the remake first, then the original.

Both films share the same basic story: Somewhere in Latin America, a group of colorful characters live and work in an impoverished oil town. Things are gritty. People have no money and are willing to do anything for work. The first 45 minutes of each film explores this set-up with no real plot progression. It’s basically “life in a squalid company town”. The Wages of Fear does this part much better than Sorcerer.

For some reason, Sorcerer finds it necessary to show us the back story for our four main characters. Why? Why do we care? We don’t, and these backgrounds play no real role in the story. The intro to Sorcerer comes off as disjointed and irrelevant.

The intro to The Wages of Fear, on the other hand, is much more effective at imparting its setting. The film is ostensibly French, but it shifts from French to English to Spanish to German in a fluid fashion. (It’s kind of like the way Everything Everywhere All at Once has an effortless blend of English and Chinese. It works.) This intro is low-key amazing. It’s interesting to see such a diverse cast of background characters (black, brown, white, what have you) all relating to each other in a natural way. Wouldn’t have happened in an American film from 1953!

In both films, the central crisis is this: An oil well has caught fire and the only way to extinguish the inferno is with a nitroglycerin-based explosion. The trouble? The nitro is hundreds of miles away across nearly impassable terrain. The company’s solution is to offer a large reward for whomever can make it through with the explosives. Sure, it’s probably a suicide mission. But if everyone dies, it doesn’t cost the company anything. If the mission succeeds, then the price was worth it.

The second half of the story is very different than the first. The first half is all getting to know the setting and the characters. The second half is all thriller as our four main characters travel in two trucks, trying to reach the distant oil town in order to collect the big bucks they so desperately need.

Here I feel like Sorcerer is far superior to The Wages of Fear. I know that critics adore the last half of the original, but I didn’t find it that compelling. This probably reflects the fact that I’m jaded by 50+ years of action-adventure films. My standards for this sort of thing are very high. The Wages of Fear seems pretty tame. Mostly.

Sorcerer, on the other hand, does a damn fine job of building and sustaining the tension. Here, for instance, is my favorite — eleven minutes featuring two harrowing bridge crossings above a raging (and rising) river. Remember: these trucks are loaded with nitroglycerin and they could explode at any moment if there are any sudden shocks.

I think one of the big reasons this is so effective is that we, the audience, know the film isn’t cheating. This is clearly all done on location with real actors and with practical special effects. Sure, there’s Hollywood magic going on, but it’s not the super-fake CGI stuff we get nowadays.

Today, scenes like this are much less exciting for me. We know they’re done digitally. They’re filmed against a green screen on a sound stage and there’s zero jeopardy involved. There’s no real sense of danger.

Anyhow, I enjoyed both The Wages of Fear and Sorcerer. They’re both good. They both could have potentially been great, but they have their flaws, including very strange sequences near the end of each film. So bizarre. In any event, either (or both) is worth seeking out simply to enjoy the quality of filmmaking during the good parts.

One final note: The story here isn’t overtly political or anti-capitalist, but the “bad guy” is pretty clearly the company. The company is willing to risk the lives of several employees in order to save a bunch of money. In this regard, the company reminds me of The Company in the Alien films.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to rewatch that bridge-crossing scene again.

p.s. I want to write this down so that I remember it. Just a couple of minutes before the bridge crossing, there’s a short bit where the Roy Scheider character reaches a fork in the road in the middle of the jungle. There’s a sign with an arrow, but it’s been knocked to the ground so it’s unclear which direction to go. That’s how they end up on “the wrong road”. Steven Spielberg clearly re-used this as a gag when Nedry is trying to smuggle the dinosaur eggs during the rainstorm in Jurassic Park. This is one reason I like watching older films. You find references you never noticed before. Cinema is full of in-jokes like this.

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Watercolor jellyfish.

Well, after years of talking about making art, I’ve finally made some art. Yesterday, I finished the homework for my watercolor class. I painted a jellyfish.

This project was fun because I got to put into practice various methods I’ve learned about during the past two weeks. Mostly, though, I tried to turn off my brain and just see the jellyfish, you know?

Our instructor recommended we use this photo from Unsplash as our reference, which I did:

[reference photo for my jellyfish painting

Yesterday morning, I spent about thirty minutes making a small study as a sort of proof of concept. (I guess that’s probably what a study is intended to be. I’ve never thought about it before.)

[my small jellyfish study]

I didn’t like my colors here, and I didn’t like how I messed up the background wash by fussing with it too much. So, I made some changes for my full-sized piece. The biggest change I made, though, was that I just went for it. I didn’t overthink anything. Once I started painting, I kept on painting until I had to pause to wait for the paint to dry. So much better to do things this way!

My end result isn’t perfect (in that it doesn’t completely match my vision), but I do like the outcome.

[my full painting of a jellyfish]

I think it’s funny that you can see certain problems in both the study and the final painting. I really wanted to add some black (or Payne’s grey) to darken the edges of the jellyfish, for example, because the reference photo has some dark spots. But every time I tried to add darker pigment, I just messed things up. Oops. They’re less messed up in the final version, though.

I’m not really complaining. For a first painting, I like this fine. I’m especially pleased with the adjustments I made to the color palette from the study to the final product. I didn’t like my colors in the small version, so thought a lot about how to mix things up. This painting is the result of eight hours of class time, maybe another eight hours of YouTube videos, and eight more hours of messing around with paint on my own. In other words, this the result of my first full 24 hours of watercolor exploration.

I didn’t intend for watercolor to be the gateway medium to my foray into art. I didn’t choose watercolor; watercolor chose me. But I have to say: It’s a hell of a lot of fun. It’s allowing me to exercise a part of my self that hasn’t been exercised since grade school. I look forward to starting my second project later today. My next assignment is to paint a still life of three eggs. It’s much more difficult than it sounds…

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