The End of the Caterpocalypse

Caterpillars are fascinating in the singular, disgusting and devastating in the plural. I don’t believe it was technically a record year for the number of gypsy moth caterpillars, but they ate enough leaves to transform large areas of Southern New England into leafless wasteland. Driving through some of those areas, I began to think, “An actual apocalypse could start out looking like this.”

We’re in the final days of The Caterpocalypse*. The caterpillars are basically all gone now, but their effects remain.

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All those leaves are caterpillar food. Maybe the childrens book The Very Hungry Caterpillar isn’t so cute after all.

Comparing those bare trees to an apocalypse was kind of a dramatic thought. But then, it was a dramatic sight. During the weeks that this happened, I wasn’t online much, didn’t have many hours at either of my jobs, and didn’t really leave home a lot either. I hadn’t seen any news of the caterpillars at all. I was basically a writer-hermit, and it was a shock when I went to visit my parents and saw thick shag carpets of gypsy moth caterpillars trying to climb past barriers of cardboard and duct tape.

It started with the noise: the sound of rain falling when there was no rain. My brother informed me that this was the sound of caterpillar crap falling from the trees. I didn’t totally believe him; in my head, I filed what he had said in the same space as urban legends. And yet, every time I heard that noise, I couldn’t shake what he’d said. It kind of made sense, and well, my car was covered with little black dots that had to have come from somewhere.

The annoying and disgusting aspects of all this presented themselves first: caterpillar droppings, difficulty eating outdoors, lack of shade from the hot sun, rashes from the caterpillars. I cheered on my chickens as they cleared the caterpillars from the area surrounding their coop. They ate so many that they got tired of them. But the possible consequences of the situation occurred to me soon after. What if the leaves didn’t grow back?

The trees would die.

I told myself that it’s probably unlikely that we’d have a legitimate ecological apocalypse. But then, things like that do happen. My line of thinking basically boiled down to, “It can’t happen here.” But of course, it could.

Right now, I’m reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. His discussion of social epidemics starts with a discussion of actual disease epidemics. What’s scary is that not a lot has to change for an existing disease to expand massively into an epidemic. I know caterpillars aren’t the same as diseases. There’s an entire ecology affecting their population. But maybe just some tiny change, in some coming year, would be enough to tip caterpillar leaf consumption from large areas of leaf cover to all the leaf cover. This year, a dry winter was apparently enough to inhibit the growth of a fungus that balances the caterpillar population.

“Will the leaves grow back?” I asked my uncle, a gardener and former biology teacher, and therefore An Authority on the Subject.

They would, he said, but it didn’t shake the unique sense of unease that comes from walking under winter branches on a 90 degree day.

We’re in the final days of the Caterpocalypse. Sometimes, I drive through the bare areas and I see the spring leaves starting to pop in. It’s not as disorienting as bare branches, though it is definitely strange, and I assume there will be other consequences of this.

There are a lot of moths out.


*The main thing that inspired me to write this post was the fact that I hadn’t seen any news articles use the term “caterpocalypse,” which seemed like kind of a waste. It’s much less of a stretch than “snowmageddon” was, though it could look as though it’s referring to a tragedy involving a catered event.

Decluttering alternate universes

Trying to get rid of clutter isn’t difficult because throwing things in a cardboard box is beyond the skill of the average human. It’s difficult because it’s not about getting rid of items, but rather about destroying alternate universes.

A bunch of beads and wires aren’t craft supplies you never used. They’re an alternate universe in which you wear badass wire jewelry that you’re too much of a diy punk to just buy from someone else. And in this universe, you don’t do that thing where you kink up the wire and then throw it back in the drawer because now it has a bunch of little micro-bends.

An old school ID from a school that you didn’t actually attend is an alternate universe in which you did go there. You transferred of your own volition, and felt good about it, and had different (i.e., actual) job opportunities when you graduated, and things are better in that universe.

messy apartment

This is an alternate universe in which I never moved out of my messy old apartment. It’s not just some picture of my old apartment, ok?

I’m looking at a pile of crap on my desk right now. There are only a few things that can simply be put away without dramatics and wishful thinking. Everything else is an alternate universe, even if it’s not one that’s a major divergence from the established timeline. What kind of person, besides nihilistic madmen on Doctor Who, has the heart to go around wantonly destroying alternate universes? And the simple alterna-folk who live in them?

I can understand why books and articles on decluttering are so popular; I just sat down to clean my desk, and instead started to write about thinking about cleaning my desk.

The problem is that, from what I’ve seen, a lot of this advice is based around dubious mental tricks. You can see them in any women’s magazine in a dentist’s office.

Sally from Nevada sends us the following decluttering gem:
I like to get together with a friend and pretend I have terminal eyebrow cancer and need to sell all my wordly possessions to pay for an experimental Himalayan salt treatment. What would I still keep? What would I “sell” her to save my eyebrows?

Even advice like “Throw out anything you haven’t used in the last six months” is a mental trick. It imposes an arbitrary standard that has nothing to do with why you own a particular item, why should or shouldn’t get rid of it, and why you’re not going to. It also doesn’t make much sense if you apply it to tools. You might not use your precision screwdrivers frequently, but it doesn’t make any sense to throw them out just because your glasses or computer haven’t broken recently.

It’s tough to say goodbye to something that represents a possibility, even a possibility long past. I don’t have a handle on that at all, but I think the key is in keeping the things that are keys to places you still need to go from time to time.

But I also think that even your alternate universe self has alternate universes to destroy. Maybe one of them is yours.

Flufforaptors: on having baby chickens

Baby chickens turned out to be fascinating, and I didn’t expect that.

Baby chickens in a box

Classic milling-around-before-we-do-something-insane baby chicken behavior.

Despite being on board with keeping chickens as part of a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle, I’ve always kind of viewed chickens as fairly dull farm animals.  To be fair, I had spent very little time around flesh-and-blood chickens. That just changed. My partner and I have had baby chickens for nearly a week. We’ve spent much of this time suffering from something called Chicken Hypnosis, because that’s what we named it. Chicken hypnosis occurs when you try to do a thing, but are unable to because you walk by the chicken box and end up staring at their antics for twenty minutes.

After five days of Acute Recurrent Chicken Hypnosis, we’ve learned a few things about baby chickens.

Baby chickens are baby dinosaurs.

The idea that chickens are descended from dinosaurs is something I’ve heard people talk about a lot the last few years. Within a few hours of having chickens and watching how they move and function, my partner and I agreed. They are totally dinosaurs. He nicknamed them Fluffosauruses, because they are indeed adorable, fluffy, vicious little monsters. I like Flufforaptors, because they do kind of move like velociraptors.

Of course, this is all kind of dubious. We can watch the chickens and say that they move how dinosaurs move, but our idea of how dinosaurs move comes from Jurassic Park and various documentaries. And for all I know, they based their ideas on how dinosaurs move on the movements of living birds.

Baby chickens are fast.

Back to that velociraptor comparison. For some reason, I imagined that baby chicks would bounce around like fluffy little anime monsters. Maybe I didn’t actually know what chickens were before we got them. I didn’t even realize that I’d imagined them moving this way until I saw them dashing across their living area, tearing up the mulch behind them with their little talons. Once their wings started coming in, they began to use them for extra bursts of speed. Which is so cool to watch.

Baby chickens do not give a shit that you named them.

Or at least that you named the three of them you can tell apart from the others. Maybe when they’re older, they’ll learn what their names are. Human babies take awhile to learn their names, after all. But I also think that chickens just don’t give a shit. You named us Suntop, Redbeak, and Chickotay*? That’s beneath us. We’re the scions of dinosaurkind, and we’d basically eat you if you weren’t three hundred times our size. Or something. We’re chickens. Counting isn’t our forte.

Baby chickens are a mosh pit.

The chickens sleep in a clump, something I’m told they’ll do until they’re older and learn to roost. At various times during the day, they nestle into clump formation and take what I can only assume are power naps. Other times, they’ll bundle together and just kind of mill around. Then one of them will jump into the group and disrupt the whole thing, and basically, it turns into a mosh pit.

awful baby chick illustration

It also does my vector graphics skills no justice. I want those five minutes of my life back.

Finally, this picture does baby chickens no justice.

They may have been little balls of golden fluff for the first couple days, but they still had cold reptile eyes and pointy little talons. Like many of my favorite creatures, both real and fictional, they are both cute and vicious. Chickens in a yard tend to eat bugs. At two days old, they ate** a bunch of ants I kidnapped for them from the garden. Any sort of cartoony illustration of Easter chicks is really just a caricature. Especially if there’s a bow involved.


*Speaking of Star Trek Voyager, chickens can live longer than Ocampa.
**Or at least brutally murdered.

Brainstorming Story Conflict

In my last post, I went over some of the issues with trying to plot an entire novel in an hour, when you don’t actually need to. That’s kind of a niche problem to face, but I help run National Novel Writing Month events in my region of Massachusetts, and we have a planning workshop with limited time. While I think the Random Rapid Plotting exercise has its uses, I didn’t want to use it for our NaNoWriMo group’s Novel Planning Workshop a second year in a row.

Last year, I created a second plotting exercise. This one has been a lot more useful to me, and went over well at our group’s Novel Planning Workshop. It also combines three of my favorite things: lists, index cards, and rolling dice. While it is designed to be done in an hour, to fit into the workshop, it’s also a good exercise to pick up during the writing phase to generate more conflict.

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Index cards multiply like gremlins, except that throwing water on them also makes them soggy and useless.

Our group’s twelve-hour Coffee Crawl and Writing Marathon is tomorrow. I need all the conflict I can come up with to get through that, so I’m going through the exercise again in preparation.

The Conflict Brainstorming Exercise is exactly what it sounds like. You quickly write down lists of characters, attributes, places, and events. You brainstorm them if you don’t know them already. Then you roll a die a bunch of times, and do some freewriting about potential conflicts. Some things won’t stick, but it’s still a handy way to find conflict from all areas.

This year, I found out that the Conflict Brainstorming Exercise is also good for finding where you have holes in your story. I’m rewriting my very first NaNoWriMo novel (from 2007!) because I know there’s a story I love buried under a bunch of nonsense with a useless second protagonist who had no business being in the story. Stars Fall Out is now also the backstory of a character I’ve written a lot about elsewhere. That means that the world and the antagonist both changed. Trying to write those lists in three minutes showed me where I needed to do more thought work.

If you want to try your hand at the Conflict Brainstorming Exercise, download it here.

The Storytime Blog Hop

bloghopIn a little over a month, on August 26th, the Storytime Blog Hop is coming.

What manner of Internet nonsense is a blog hop? I can hear you ask. Because I’m in your thoughts, thanks to the dark magic of internet cookies.

Remember the web rings of old? If not, pretend I never mentioned them. A blog hop kind of reminds me of that. Except, it’s also like a pub crawl, without the irritation of leaving your house. And without the alcohol, unless you provide that yourself.

What happens is that, on August 26th, I will post a short story, along with links to stories from other writers in the blog hop. None of them will be very long; some will even be flash fiction.

All the stories will be somewhere in the genre of speculative fiction—fantasy, sci fi, horror, or any crazy cocktail of those three. We could have anything from woodsprites to lasers, clockwork dragons to genetically engineered tentacle beasts. All of the above, even.  Stories in the blog hop will be somewhere in the realm of PG-rated.  No graphic sex or violence.

My own story will be about a powerless noble in the frigid city of Yauglesk, a place where an uneasy two-hundred year occupation is beginning to falter.

So, stay tuned for that. And also for the potpourri of upcoming blog posts, about things like pudding, typefaces, artwork, and monsters.

Paper robots

The internet failed me.

This was back in the Fall of 2013.  I co-organize events for my local NaNoWriMo region, and our group often hands out mini-mascots at our events, things like toy ninjas, army men, and pom-pom bunnies.  That year, I wanted it to be paper robots.  I didn’t think I’d have any trouble finding instructions for such a thing on the internet, but nothing came close to what I had in mind.  Everything was either too flimsy, too labor-intensive, or kind of ugly.  Or, all three.

While these appear to be the most awesome paper robots on the internet, making twenty of them was out of the question.

What I wanted was a cute paper robot that could survive a knock from a gift bag granola bar, one that would take me less than an hour to make.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m sure I was visualizing the little robot from Machinarium.

So, because the internet failed me, I devised my own means of creating a paper robot.  I went through a couple prototypes, then got what I wanted on the third try.

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Cookiebot doesn’t give a crap about the steel cut oats. Mostly, the container serves him as sort of a missile silo.

Cookiebot has an electroshock arm that extents from his body and zaps anyone who tries to steal the cookies*.  Including me, and they’re my cookies.  It’s kind of like in Super Ducktales when Bulldozertron or whatever it’s called guards Scrooge’s money bin, and no one can get into the money bin until Gizmoduck defeats him.  Only, I don’t have a Gizmoduck in my life, unless you count throwing Cookiebot on the floor and stepping on him.  But I wouldn’t do that, because he’d probably crawl away in a squashed bundle of spider limbs and have his revenge while I sleep.

Which is all to say, I made a pdf guide explaining how to make the robot.  It’s light on pictures, so I hope the text suffices.  The robot takes about 30 minutes.

You, too, can have a Cookiebot in your life.


 

*Not really.  If I knew how to make something like that out of paper, I would be leading a very different life.