Did Balzac Really Drink 50 Cups of Coffee a Day? — The Airship


I found the post below on French novelist Honore de Balzac’s alleged coffee-drinking habits last night when the SO and I were texting about headaches. She had a sinus headache and I recalled how often as a kid I had bad headaches fairly frequently. As I thought back, many of these headaches probably came as a result of caffeine withdrawal. I became an addict early on, probably around age 4 or 5, when my grandmother would dilute a cup of coffee with cream and sugar and let me dunk cookies — usually Nilla Wafers — in it. From there I extended my addiction to sodas (Cokes, Dr Peppers, Big Red) and iced tea.

I thought about this essay this morning when I was sipping on my third cup and reading, or rather, trying to read—the caffeine was doing its job, making me jumpy and making it hard for me to concentrate on the words on the page. This morning I couldn’t imagine how Balzac could have drunk 50 cups, much less three, per day and still write. Then again, I went to my computer and did some writing, adding a page to my much-neglected novel.

Anyhow, again, I hope you check out this post on Balzac and coffee. A debate about coffee and Balzac: http://airshipdaily.com/blog/01282014-balzac-coffee


Essaying on Fear


Fear. What does it mean to fear something? Used as a verb, at one time, and a very long time it was — post-Hastings — it meant to frighten or feel fear in oneself. Used as a verb, it comes from the Middle English word feren, which evolved from Old English’s  fær, which might beg the question: if words and language evolve, are they naturally selected?

While that’s old-school, it’s not hard to see the frightening leap to be afraid of something, even something you expect. You might be afraid to get up when the alarm on your phone rings because it means another day’s drudgery at work. Or still asleep, a door creaks, pushed aside by the cat, or a branch scratches against the windowpane above your bed, and you wake startled, heart hammering. Under the covers you squeeze into a fetal ball, eyes closed, because what if that noise wasn’t a branch or door hinge in need of WD-40 and a cat in need of a scolding? What if it’s some meth-addled cretin looking to score a video game he can pawn for his next fix? Or what if there really are monsters under your bed? Just make them go away.

But, it seems a leap of faith to find yourself in Godfearing reverential awe of God. That’s what it means to fear God. Though most people seem to think the deity is something to cower from lest blessings not befall upon your house, and rather your house fall upon you. Ask Job about that.

And that’s what it seems we fear the most — the house falling in on us no matter what. It’s what I’m afraid of, sometimes, or rather its among my many fears — fear is now a noun, the naturally selected necessity in our emotional bank to alert us to danger. Useful on the savanna when a lion is stalking us, or when our Spidey-sense tingles when our enemies have set up an ambush. I like the idea of Spider-man’s Spider-sense, a hero’s enhanced sense of real danger, not the irrational stuff that usually gets to us, the stuff that has the house caving in no matter what.

I can see in myself the tiniest bits of this irrationality, as when the other day driving home from a freelance assignment I was listening to my favorite sports talk radio station out of Dallas and one of the hosts was reading ad copy for a car maintenance shop. The only words I heard were “flat tire”.

“Shut up,” I said. I didn’t want to hear about flat tires while driving. I especially didn’t want to hear how costly tire repair could be. Not then.

Afterward, I kind of snorted a laugh. I had just spoken to a disembodied voice coming from my car’s radio, as if the radio host were next to me in the front seat. I didn’t want to hear about flat tires or anything costing money at a time when my belt is cinched so tight the belt has creditors making harassing phone calls to me.

But that irrational fear seems with me all the time. As silly as it was to argue with a radio ad,what I really didn’t want to do was jinx my subconscious mind and somehow create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hearing those two words was bad mojo. It was like repeating Lord Voldemort and Beetlejuice.

Bad mojo — I need less of it. And maybe by writing about it — maybe I’ll exorcise that fear, beat the mojo, cast it out like I was a curandero, make my tire invulnerable to any costly repair. Should I rub an egg over myself and draw the evil out with it? Might as well blow smoke in my face, too, for all the good it will do.

(Cough. Cough.) So, fear. Look how irrational it is to fear things. But my alert system seems as if its at DEFCON 1 lately without any evidence the missiles are in the air.

One pop-psych self-help book I’ve read calls what I’m experiencing “Waiting for the axe to fall.” To sum up the author’s argument: I should embrace the fear, stroke it like you might the cat. But, have you ever tried to pet a cat that’s afraid of you? It either hisses and bares its fangs to frighten you away, or even more sensibly, retreats and hides under the bed.

Still, I think I understand what the pop psychologist means: perhaps a better word would be managing fear. Another bit more reputable pop psych writer Martin Seligman — in his book Learned Optimism, he at least outlines his research and shows how he came to his conclusions — suggests an evidence-based argument with yourself, a to-be or not to-be moment I suppose, with fewer outrages against the slings and arrows Fortune throws at us.

Maybe, though, we need the outrage, the anger, especially when Fortune, as it often is, out of our control?

Meditation helps — and it too has been embraced in a pop-psych positive thinking way. Sitting and practicing mindfulness meditation, in which focusing on the breath helps you focus on the thoughts you have moment by moment and still them, has helped stem fear sometimes and made my mental focus somewhat better. And a deep breath can quench butterflies or slow anxiousness, say, before a job interview or speaking publicly. But, it’s no cure-all.

Like the other methods, it’s a tool to quiet the mind when we’re ready instead to talk to sports radio hosts as we drive.

But genuine fear of the axe falling is real enough, not irrational. It’s a necessity. I have to take up the slings and arrows courageously and act, knowing that success may or may not be guaranteed. I have to have the determination no matter.

Since this will probably go up before the Fourth, I was just reminded, while listening to a speech of Barbara Ehrenreich’s on Optimism and the cult of positive thinking, of the courage and determination the Founders took: by signing the Declaration of Independence they committed an act of treason against the crown; they could very well have died and some did just by signing their names to that document.

There’s a real reason I think we need fear. It’s not just to caution us to the dangers of the roaring lions around us — and there are plenty here in the U.S. from the top down ready to rend our society further apart — but to remind us nothing is guaranteed. Still, we have to have courage to resist and take action not only politically but personally.

Our best fear quencher is testing reality, perhaps embracing it even when its claws are out, or especially when its claws are out, and embrace and accept what we find under the layers, without embracing magical thinking of any sort that says the world will be a better place if we just think it so.

— Todd

Free Fiction Friday: About Jake

About Jake is the first science-fiction story I’ve ever published, though not the first science-fiction story I ever wrote. That story is out making rounds at the moment.

“About Jake” appeared online in Bewildering Stories No. 649.

About Jake

“Our baby has slipped into a coma.”

I stared at a stain on the waiting room floor.

“Van? Van! Did you even hear me?”

At the sound of Zelda’s voice, I snapped from my reverie, glanced up. My wife stood at the entrance of the nanosurgery ward like an apparition.

“Van? Are you all right?”

I shifted in the hard plastic dreamsicle-shaded chair. “What about Jake? What have you heard?”

“Baby, I just told you. He’s gone into a coma.”

“When?” I reached up to touch my wife’s arm.

She stepped back from me and looked down the hall. Her jawline was clear and taut, and her cheeks were sunken. A muscle twitched and rolled her lip up in a sneer.

“When,” she said without looking at me. “You’re asking how long he… he…” The words got caught in her mouth. She coughed and looked at the floor.

“How?” I said.

She didn’t say anything.

Bent over in the chair, with elbows denting thighs, I clasped the back of my head like a soldier surrendering and swallowed hard to force back tears.

“It was supposed to be a simple procedure,” I said to the tiles. “It wasn’t supposed to hurt him at all.”

This wasn’t what I wanted for my son. This wasn’t what I wanted for our family when I had agreed to surgery. I wanted a moment with him, just one, with whoever was locked inside his mind.

The surgeon had told us the procedure would be simple: a pinprick behind the ear with a microlaser, and then into the cut she would inject a swarm of biomimetic nanobots. These bots would find their way to Jake’s brain to reconnect misfiring neurons, the cause, it seemed, of any number of neurological disorders, including the type of autism that afflicted him.

My wife, her cheek pressed against the wall, reached out to touch the window. Her fingers splayed over it. She held her hand there for some time before gravity pulled her arm limply to her hip.

“Except everything was supposed to be perfect afterwards. Wasn’t it?” Zelda regarded me again. There was a barely perceptible streak in the mascara on her cheek where a tear escaped.

“It was, though. For a little while,” I said.

An hour after the surgery, Jake recognized us for the first time in his life; before, he had been unable to distinguish between minds separate from his own. I thought we had everything then.

“Mommy? Daddy?” His voice was powder-soft, but he looked at each of us in turn and smiled. Zelda and I embraced him and the two of us wept while Jake chattered our names and poked us both as he repeatedly identified us.

* * *

“So, what do we do now?” My wife turned away from me again and stared through the large picture window. “Just hold onto those memories? That will make everything all right? Is that how you see it, Van? For once, for a few minutes, you get to see your son as normal. That’s what makes you happy.”

“That’s not what I said.”

“That’s what this whole thing’s been about, Van. Making you happy.” She reached up and touched the window again.

“It was to make all of us happy, Zel. All three of us. You, me, Jake. All of us.”

She had her part in this decision, too. Van, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life babysitting him, she said. I want my career back.

She had left her job as a newscaster to have Jake. Any number of times she told me she was ready to go back to work.

It made sense. Jake was difficult at times, more than a normal kid. The unassailable tantrums when you moved a toy car out of its lineup. The inability to talk beyond simple sentences and mewling at age six. The costs of speech therapists, doctors, special schools, etc.

She told me more than once she wished Jake would disappear. I get it. I really do. I went through this. I think my parents wanted me to disappear. They “fixed” me, my low-spectrum Asperger’s. Gene mods, when gene mods were medicine’s cure-all.

I have the surgery scars in my abdomen to prove it. DNA from my dad’s gut neurons to alter mood and the tics in me that made me line my Hot Wheels up in perfect parades and throw tantrums when chaos came. Just like Jake. Only I could talk. And I was cured.

Six months after surgery, I showed no signs of Asperger’s. I passed fourth grade in “normal” classes. Became an ‘A’ student. Then a four-oh GPA all the way through an MBA. Five years out of school, an executive at a financial consulting firm. Instant success.

Except for Jake. Gene mods don’t change heredity, despite expectations. With Jake, I had failed. And now my son was suffering for it.

“You think Jake’s happy now?” Zelda said.

I stood up and started toward her. “Like you give a damn.”

Without looking at me, she flinched and walked away from the window to the end of the hall, where she disappeared through the two wide doors that led into Nanosurgery.

The shadow of a cloud moved past the window over me. I stood alone in the hallway staring at the doors as they shushed closed.

* * *

Zelda and I stood in the cramped room at Jake’s bedside. A ventilator pumped him air. His brain was rejecting the new neural connections.

We stood on either side of the bed holding his hands.

“See how normal this is, Van?” Zelda said. Her voice was toneless, as it had been earlier when she came out to tell me Jake had slipped into a coma. “This is your neuroscience miracle.”

She stroked Jake’s limp fingers.

“You don’t have to say anything,” I said. “Please don’t say anything.”

She stood across from me near the window, and couldn’t see what I did: a pink mix of blood and urine rivered through our son’s catheter and emptied into a plastic box at the foot of his bed. His kidneys were failing. He was dying.

I let go of his hand to ring the nurse.

The nurse came in and I turned to him and pointed at the almost full plastic box. “He’s dying. That means he’s dying, doesn’t it?”

The nurse placed his hand on my shoulder. “Why don’t you and your wife take a break? You both need some rest.”

* * *

Zelda left the room. I wanted to follow her, but stopped. It was clear by the way she shrugged away from me that she wanted to be alone. So, I left her alone.

I rode the elevator down to the first-floor cafeteria. It was dark and empty, except for the brightly lit snack bar. A woman stood behind the register, staring blankly past me into the hospital’s wide open lobby. I went up and asked her where the coffee was. She nodded at the urn behind me. I poured a cup, paid for it, and looked for a place to sit where it wasn’t too dark.

Above the table where I sat, a wall-mounted TV was playing an infovid about the signs of a stroke. I tried to follow it as I sipped my coffee, but all I could get through was the first bullet point:

Numbness or weakness in your face, arm or leg, especially on one side.

Then I lost my concentration. A surgeon in scrubs came in and also bought a coffee. The TV was playing several different programs on a continuous loop, each on a different disease and how to recognize symptoms. When I looked up from my coffee again, it had looped back to the stuff on strokes and the surgeon had left. I knew I had to get back. I dumped my coffee in the bin and waved to the woman at the register.

Upstairs, Jake’s nurse met me in the hallway.

“We just tried to get you on the PA,” he said.

Reflux burned up my esophagus. “Why? What’s wrong?”

“Jake. It’s about Jake. Something I can’t explain.”

He led me to Jake’s room. My wife was there. So was the surgeon. Something dropped inside me at the sight of them. I resisted the urge to go back out into the hallway. To run. To go have another cup of weak coffee in the cafeteria and wish it all away.

I thought my wife was smiling, even though her eyes were red-rimmed from crying.

They looked at me as if they wanted to yell “Surprise!” but Jake wasn’t getting up. He was lying stiffly on the bed, the ventilator rasping as it was before. Clearly, nothing had changed.

“Never seen anything like it,” Jake’s doctor said. “Totally unexpected results.”

I stood, puzzled. “It’s OK. You can tell me. He’s going to die. I know that.”

I looked at my son lying on the bed as if a corpse already. A shimmering, creamy gray tear oozed from the corner of his eye. I turned away and looked at the doctor.

The doctor pointed at the tear. “There, look. See. It’s happening again.”

Whatever the stuff was, it was no longer a teardrop. In a matter of seconds, it had transformed into a shiny film-like death mask over my son’s face. I grabbed the doctor’s shoulder. “Make it stop. It’ll kill him.”

“I can’t make it stop,” she said. “I don’t want to make it stop. And if I make it stop… that’s what will kill your son, Mr. Hogan.”

I let go of the doctor’s shoulder. The substance crawled over Jake’s neck. I couldn’t stand watching any more and tried to focus on my wife.

Zelda stood enrapt, her cheeks shining with tears, as if this moment were an altar call. I couldn’t help but think I saw her body sway. Then I closed my eyes, knowing that was the only way I could keep from staring at my son.

But I felt compelled to look at him. This stuff… it was encapsulating him. He was disappearing. Just like Zelda wanted.

I glared at my wife, then at the doctor. “Do something,” I said to the doctor. “Now.”

“I can’t,” she said.


“They’re protecting him.” This was my wife. Her voice startled me.

I gave her a look. “They?”

“Your little robots, Van.” She glanced at the doctor. “Could you explain to my husband what’s going on? What you said to me?”

“It’s pretty amazing,” the doctor said.

“Please just tell me,” I snapped. “The last I heard, the ’bots… his brain rejected them.”

As the stuff kept growing over Jake, the doctor explained what had happened: the ’bots were rejected, but not by Jake. By a tumor.

“A tumor? How in hell do you miss a tumor?”

“Van, please.” Zelda touched my arm. Childlike, I jerked away from her.

“This stuff,” the doctor continued, “it’s sort of making a chrysalis around Jake. It’s multiplying, growing inside and out, trying to isolate this tumor that’s lodged itself on Jake’s brain with tendrils. That’s what the CT Scan showed. At the same time… Well, we don’t know what the hell’s going on. In truth, as far as I can tell, we don’t really know what the ’bots are doing.”

“Jesus,” I said. “Then what? What do we do?”

The doctor shrugged. “I don’t know, Mr. Hogan. I really don’t know.”

The room filled with a buzz like a swarm of bees. Jake was covered by a luminous mass. I shuddered.

The luminous mass swirled like a tropical storm on a radar screen. Underneath it I could make out traces of my son’s body, his face, his mouth: his lips curled into what seemed a smile.

“So, is he dead?” I asked the doctor.

“All vitals are normal,” the doctor said.

I glanced around. Zelda stood entranced by something flitting about her mouth like dust motes.

Warmth radiated up my forearm. My body tingled as if jolted by a static charge.

Then Jake’s body shimmered as if caught in a staticky gold lamé wrap. This thing had consumed him. All that remained of my son was a pattern of energy.

“I was so wrong about this,” I said. “Wrong about it all. I should have let him live as he was.”

I’m here, Daddy. The voice was powder-soft. Where, exactly, it was coming from, I didn’t know, but it was Jake’s. It seemed to sift underneath the fading bleats of his heart monitor like the soft ring of a xylophone. Come with me. We can play.

I reached out for the voice and felt as if I was suspended between stars, a ribbon of consciousness touching two worlds.

I listened to Jake’s voice, a child’s voice. It drew me to him. Zelda listened, too. I reached for her hand. She took it without looking at me.

Jake was as he should be, whole, alive, and given a voice.

The ’bots formed around us as Zelda and I walked toward Jake, this new child, this new life. We seemed happy, a family, once again, stepping from one world to something new and wondrous.


Free Fiction Friday: “The Arc of the Cosmos”

Today, I’m starting what I hope to be a regular feature: Free Fiction Friday. On Fridays, I will post either a previously published piece of fiction or something fresh I think you might like. Below is my first ever piece of published published fiction. “The Arc of the Cosmos” began as an exercise in which I followed a  prompt in Josip Novakovich’s invaluable book on writing, Fiction Writer’s Workshop. The prompt suggested writing a story from a dream. So I did. It’s a pretty accurate rendition of the dream, although I’ve never owned a dog named Punchy. “Arc” is also the first story of mine ever accepted for publication, and was published online April 29, 2003 in the webzine Pindeldyboz.

The Arc of the Cosmos


Swinging his father’s putter, Jack kept whapping the tennis ball, trying to get it up the wheelchair ramp. The ball would roll about a third of the way up before curving and falling over the edge and onto the carpeted step. It was like a miniature golf course. Except he was inside his house.

He tried once more. Of course, he should have tried using a real golf ball but that could break something and his mother would kill him if he broke something. He set the ball at the bottom of the ramp, looked up the length of the ramp to the carpeted hallway and saw the edge of the wall where he wanted to bank the shot so it would roll into his room.

After whacking the ball with more force than the last time, he watched it zoom up the ramp. It made it! It made it! It kept rolling, heading almost precisely where he’d aimed it. Inches from the wall, however, Punchy darted from the shadows of the hallway, her slobbery jaws intercepting the ball before it could make its bank into his room.

“Punchy, no,” he shouted. “Bad dog.” He dashed up the ramp and the dog scrambled away from him, twisting in the hallway until she was bounding down the steps and into the living room where she skittered across the slick tile.

Her haunches gave out from under her and she banged into the fireplace with a yelp.

Jack chased after her and went to all-fours when she fell and crawled over to her to make sure she was all right. There were enough injured animals in this household with his mom all banged up from slipping on the ice last month.

He ruffled Punchy behind the ears and the dog sat up and nosed his face and began to lick him. “Off me! Off me!” He struggled to push away the dog’s heavy forepaws, when suddenly the dog’s weight shifted away from him. In the middle of the living room floor was a glint of yellow. The tennis ball. “No Punchy! Stop it. My ball. My ball!”

But the dog had already snatched the ball in its slobbery jaws.

By the time Jack had scrambled up, Punchy’s snout had jutted into the air, the ball lifting in an arc, and then falling away from the ceiling, dog spit flipping in silvery droplets from it. One of the droplets connected under Jack’s left eye. “Yuck!” He wiped away the spittle. “Stupid dog!”

The ball spattered against the tile, bounced again in an arc, twisted and fell with a dusty thump into the fireplace.

“Shit,” Jack said. Heat rimmed his ears when he realized what he’d said. Cursing was foul. His mother would beat him for sure.

No time to worry, however. The dog had already started for the ball. He leapt and tried to grab her collar, only to crash against the hard tile, sharp stings needling his elbows and the backs of his legs.

Ashy tendrils curled around the fireplace where the dog had landed. She was snuffling in the ash and soot for the tennis ball.

From down the hallway his mother hollered, “What’s going on in there, Jack?”

Jack bellowed, pains knifing his arms and legs.

He had crashed like this once before. On the gravel road behind his house. His bicycle had caught a big rock and slung him over the handle bars and he smacked against the road. Then he had to have stitches for the cut above his eye. He hadn’t ridden his bicycle since, afraid to crash again.

Everyone was afraid to crash. His mother talked about how scared she was lying out on the patch of ice after her crash, unable to move, trying to call for help, but not finding her voice. Her hip didn’t pain her until after they’d gotten her to the hospital. The cold and shock must’ve kept it from hurting, she explained to Jack. Now she was afraid to walk, because that could mean another crash.

Jack had watched when the woman therapist came to help his mother walk again. She would bawl when the woman tried to get her on her feet.

Pain pierced his thoughts and he screamed for help. Punchy stood over him, whimpering. His elbow hurt so much. He thought it might be broken. No one was there to help him. No one had been there to help him or his mother in a long time. When he had fallen from his bike, his father had been there to drive him to the emergency room so he could get sewed up. His father was gone, though, married to someone else by now.

What could he do? He stared up at the ceiling, tried to focus on the fan churning above him. The fan whirled like the cosmos, empty and black, nothing out there, nothing to hear him cry in pain.

Feeling began to come back into his legs. A few minutes later he was able to sit up. He knew then he’d have no one but himself to rely on.

Down the hallway his mother shouted, “Jack, are you all right? Jack?”

“Yes, Momma, I’m okay,” he said. His legs were wobbly, coltish, but he could stand. Punchy nuzzled her ash-dusted snout against him. “I think I’m going to be all right.”







The Gunslinger, The Road and Mobile Apps

So, it’s  been a long time since I’ve posted here, and today marks something new—trying out the WordPress app. 

But, let’s move along. This week, I started reading Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. The decision to read it followed watching the movie with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, an OK movie, despite faltering at the box office. It one of those movies that probably would work better as a TV series, and I understand that’s in the works.

If you’ve followed this blog for some time you might be surprised I haven’t read the novel beforehand.  But, I haven’t read much Stephen King at all. Something I hope to remedy. 

I like it, it’s bleak desert setting with a blend of fantasy, Western and science fiction. The gunslinger himself is the quintessential Western movie hero, like Clint Eastwood’s nameless rider. Then of course you have the fantasy quest trope with the gunslinger in pursuit of an evil wizard and seeking the secrets of the Dark Tower.  King hints at Arthurian legend.

What strikes me, however, is the sort of understated prose and the story arc’s similarity to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. There are moments when I think of that bleak novel, and I wonder if McCarthy read King. It certainly feels like it.

Just some random thoughts for now.

Until next time…