Making a Mac Useful, Part 2: Why an New iMac?

June 1st, 2014

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Ok, why an iMac? Why Mac OS X at all? “Because they’re easy to use?” After looking at my list of “prep my Mac” todos, I say to that … ha!

However, despite that, I find Macs are just about the easiest to use of the mainstream operating systems (the others being Windows and Linux), but I’ve been computing for a long time and have acquired many quirks – or, more charitably, special needs. Some of those needs are just my druthers on how I want the computer to run, and other needs are vital parts of my workflow for which, if the computer doesn’t do its job, I literally have to go find another machine to get the job done. And I don’t like doing that – so I’ll spend a week or two beating a machine into shape if it means I can flip the thing open for two or three years and just have it do exactly what I want.

Well, then, why not beat a Windows machine into shape? For the record, I find Windows slightly more usable than Macs – no joke, and I’ve been using both for decades – but Macs are more reliable, more internally consistent, and most importantly, better integrated with UNIX. I’m a web and research software developer, and the standard OS in my part of the world is the UNIX variant called Linux – but Linux isn’t very reliable when running other software I need, like Microsoft Word, Photoshop or Starcraft. Alternatives like Cygwin make Windows more UNIX-friendly, but barely; whereas Mac OS X is built on top of UNIX.

That leads me, inexorably, to the Mac. As I said before, other alternative operating systems, like ChromeOS or Android or iOS, don’t run the software I need for work work, writing work, or pleasure – and cloud alternatives like Google Docs simply don’t count as they lack required features or – wait, why I am I even defending this? Microsoft Word runs on Mac and Windows. Photoshop runs on Mac and Windows. Alternatives to these programs are largely a joke, and that’s coming from someone who uses them – a lot. (I’m using Google Docs to write this note, in fact, and I’m also familiar with and use OpenOffice). If you can’t run Word or Photoshop well, reliably, you can’t play. And that leads me to Mac and Windows. And UNIX, inexorably, pushed me to the Mac.

For my personal use, I need a computer I can easily carry around with me that has at least a half-terabyte hard drive (to hold ALL my relevant files), a good processor, lots of RAM, and a decent-sized keyboard and screen, all in a lightweight package that won’t throw out my back when I put it in a bag. That led me to a maxed-out 13 inch MacBook Air, and it’s served me well.

But for my central home server, the computer to which the primary house printer is attached, I need something more. I need a much larger hard drive – a terabyte or more – so the computer can simultaneously serve as the Dropbox / Google Drive remote backup of my laptop computer, and also have more than enough space left over to hold archives and mirrors of my older computers and copies of my wife’s computer files. Something zippy, good for both game playing and programming and especially Photoshop / Illustrator, so the computer could serve as an editing bay for my comic book art.

I briefly considered the new Mac Pros, which are gorgeous machines. But when I buy a desktop PC, I do my very best to “max it out” so that the machine will last as long as possible. A maxed out Mac Pro with screen came in at something like ten thousand dollars – enough to buy a new maxed out iMac, a new Windows 8 touchscreen PC for my wife, a new backup solution, a storage shed out back, and some very nice dinners at Alexander’s restaurant.

Now, there are drawbacks. iMacs aren’t really expandable. They’re also a bit behind the times, UX-wise: iMacs don’t have touchscreens. That’s a shame, but, on the other hand, it isn’t particular to iMacs: Apple overall isn’t really ready to support touch screens yet. There’s a claim that they’re not useful yet, but I have a Windows 8 laptop as well, and I’ve used a Chrome Pixel and an ASUS Transformer Prime, and I can tell you that you get used to the idea that you can manipulate objects on screen really damn fast. However, that means if you want a touchscreen, you’re going to have to get a Windows 8 machine or an Android machine (yes, you can get full-sized – I mean, 19 inch – Android all-in-one PCs [ http://shop.lenovo.com/us/en/desktops/essential/n-series/n308/ ], but I cannot yet find a full-sized Chrome OS touchscreen PC). Honestly, I’d rather have the applications that I want at this point, so Mac OS X is my only choice for now.

So an iMac it is: Microsoft applications, a UNIX base, and a price that fits.

Next up: the physical setup.

-the Centaur

Pictured: an Apple iMac 27 inch, a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000 keyboard, and a towel serving as an ersatz cat bed, sans cat.

Making a Mac Useful, Part 1: Why Are You Hitting Yourself?

June 1st, 2014

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OK. This is going to be a deep dive, and it may take some time: I’m going to review the unbelievable list of tasks necessary to make a Mac OS X system usable for my daily work.

Now, this isn’t particular to Macs, nor even particular to desktop systems. Usually, when I get a new desktop or laptop or tablet or phone, I’m up and running in a few hours – sometimes, a few minutes – but for the next several weeks, I find myself cursing as I realize yet another program or setting hasn’t propagated over to the new machine.

That wouldn’t be much of a problem … except I do most of these tasks when I first get a machine, and I don’t update my machines often. I update phones roughly once a year, and laptops twice every few years – twice, since my work MacBook Pro and my home MacBook Air get refreshed on around the same schedule. While it’s easy to remember to toss a half dozen apps onto a phone and tweak a few settings when you get it, the more complex configuration tasks for a desktop operating system, sometimes involving multiple steps and research, are something that slowly evaporate from my memory over two or three years.

This is the kind of problem that the Chrome OS by Google is designed to solve: a system which ties all your configurations to your account, so if you toss your laptop into a wood chipper, you can get a new one and pick up literally where you left off. Unfortunately, a browser only operating system really doesn’t work for me. I am primarily a producer, not a consumer, and my daily work environment is filled with programs like Word and Excel and Photoshop and Illustrator and Acrobat and Ecto and Python and Bash and J and Aquamacs and Vi and Eclipse and MAMP and Gimp and so on and so forth.

So I’m more than willing to put up with this once or twice every two or three years. Hopefully, by blogging about it, I’ll get a better grip on the process, and so next time, it will be easier.

SO I got me a new Macbook Air with a half-terabyte hard drive, and planned to make this tiny aluminum wedge into my primary computer, replacing both my old MacBook Pro “server” and my MacBook Air mobile writing computer. I began configuring it, writing the list of tasks down, expecting it to take a page or so.

Ha!

That list rapidly spiraled out of control, so I never started that blogpost, even though I got the new MacBook Air configured so well it did indeed become my primary machine. I carry it everywhere, use it for everything – well, almost everything. It was missing only one critical feature: a connected printer – natch, it is a lightweight laptop.

I do have a Canon MX870 multifunction printer-scanner-copier hooked up to my old MacBook Pro, but that MacBook Pro was getting so long in the tooth that I was afraid to turn it on, and when I did so Chrome complained that it couldn’t update because my OS was unsupported and Apple complained that the OS was out of date and my neighbors complained because every time I moved the mouse their TV flickered. So, I decided to bite the bullet and replace it, ultimately with a shiny new iMac.

Which brought me back to this list.

Now that I’m doing this process twice, in close succession, I have the opportunity to find out what’s really necessary, and can see where I’ve missed steps. I’ve broken this list into two parts – one very, very long document in which I am documenting, for my own wordy gratification, ALL the tasks that I have to do to make this new Mac useful to me, and then this series of bite-sized articles, which breaks that apart into small logical chunks. By the time I’m done, I’m guessing there will probably be a dozen articles in this series on Macs alone – not counting setting up Windows boxes, or phones, or the work I’ve had to do on my development environments.

To some, this might seem not just a deep dive, but off the deep end. But there’s a dual method to this madness.

First, having this information on the Internet makes it searchable. Many a time I’ve followed a set of directions related to some computing task and found them nearly useless, and only by piecing together clues from half a dozen different pages online have I been able to, somehow, adapt a solution to the problem. (I have no idea where I might have picked up that problem-solving strategy).

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But often the information is not available at all. Even doing this blogpost on the new computer required doing several tasks which were simply not documented anywhere. That’s a blogpost for another time, but hopefully, putting this information up there will help change that.

The second reason for documenting this so thoroughly is to put, on record, how difficult it is to use even the easiest of the modern desktop computer operating systems (again, excluding Chrome OS, which does not (yet) compete in feature parity with standard desktop operating systems). I’m a computer scientist with a PhD in Artificial Intelligence who currently works with four different operating systems, and I’ve got thirty-five years experience working with dozens of different kinds of computers – and if I have trouble with some of these tasks, what hope does a non-specialist have of fixing their brand new shiny money-burner when it decides to become non-functioning, or, more insidiously, simply fails to work as expected, in some subtle and hard to debug way? As my wife says, there’s no hope: she claims the typical user needs to hire someone to help them out, and that’s why the Geek Squad does so well.

Maybe she’s right. But, I hope by putting some of this information out there, I either help some poor shmoe just like me solve their problem … or convince an operating system designer to start thinking energetically about how to make the problem just go away.

-the Centaur

Next up: why pick a (new) iMac?

It was a good weekend …

May 28th, 2014

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… and not just because I sold 22 copies of my books at Clockwork Alchemy. Though that was a big part of it, the sales themselves aren’t what really mattered to me; it was that 22 copies of my books are in people’s hands, and they were in people’s hands because for the very first time, I had an author’s table.

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For the four days that I sat behind that author’s table, behind a fort of my books and my postcards and my wife’s steampunk gears and shelves and even a small tiger, I became part of a community of people – and not just even the wonderful people at the Clockwork Alchemy author’s alley, whom I hope to see again for years and years to come.

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No, I became a part of the broader community of science fiction authors, connecting with their readers through science fiction conventions, the way I myself first really connected with the science fiction community, after many years of reading alone. I’ve been a published author for years, and written in a small community for longer, but now I feel connected as never before.

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This is a new level of interaction, a new level of connection, a new opportunity for a whole family to create an author’s delight by buying their books and holding them over their heads like mouse ears. Somehow, everything feels more real to me, and I am more inspired than ever before to keep writing and to get the ideas in my head out … and into yours.

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I hope we both enjoy it! God bless,

-the Centaur

Sunday’s Events at Clockwork Alchemy

May 24th, 2014

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Today’s talk on Real Women of the Victorian Era, led by the redoubtable T.E. MacArthur, went well. In a weird bit of synergy, an audiobook I was reading, Victorian Britain in the Great Courses series, had a section on Florence Nightingale which was not just directly relevant … it played just as I was driving up to the hotel. Perfect.

Tomorrow, Sunday, May 25th, I will be appearing on the panels Avoiding Historical Mistakes at noon in the Monterey Room (it is rumored that Harry Turtledove will be on the panel as well) and Victorian Technology at 2pm in the San Carlos room (not 1 as I said earlier), and giving a solo talk on The Science of Airships at 4pm also at San Carlos.

The rest of the time, I will largely be at my table above, which will look more or less like you see it above, except I may be wearing a different outfit. :-D

-the Centaur

I Have Landed at Clockwork Alchemy

May 24th, 2014

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I have landed at Clockwork Alchemy. (Technically, I arrived yesterday). In 11 minutes, I am appearing on a panel on Real Women in the Victorian Era, even though it is not listed on my personal schedule.

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Oh, and I almost forgot: this is my very first booth of my own!

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More in a bit…

-the Centaur

The Weird Experience of Marketing Yourself

May 21st, 2014

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This Memorial Day weekend, I will be at the Clockwork Alchemy conference, appearing on three panels (Real Women in Victorian Times Saturday at noon, Avoiding Historical Mistakes Sunday at noon, and Victorian Technology, Sunday at 1) and giving one talk (my old standby, The Science of Airships, Sunday at 4).

Since I won’t be at my table the whole time, I decided to print up a series of postcards for all of my books using the service at Moo.com, which I and my wife have found to be great for printing customized business cards with a variety of artwork on the cover. I decided to do one for each book, showing the cover on one side and a blurb on the back.

But then I discovered that, just like for the business cards themselves, while you can have many different covers on the front, you get only one choice for the back. So what should go on that single back cover? What should it market? Then I realized: I don’t have a book coming out right away. These cards actually have to market … me.

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Ulp.

More precisely, the cards have to market my work. But I’m not a single-series author; I can’t (yet) pull a George R. R. Martin and just say “author of Game of Thrones,” especially not at a steampunk convention when my most prominent series, Dakota Frost, is actually urban fantasy. “Anthony Francis, author of Dakota Frost – who? Author of what? Ok, fine … but why is he here?”

So I have to list not just one series, but all of them, and not just list them, but say what they’re about.

After some thought, I decided to use some of my own comic art that I’d previously used on my business cards as a backdrop, but to focus the content of the cards on my writing, not my comics (sorry, f@nu fiku and Blitz Comics … there just wasn’t enough room on the cards or poster), unifying all of my books under a theme of “The Worlds of Anthony Francis”. I feel like breaking out in hives when I write that. It sounds so damn aggrandized and pompous. But strictly speaking … it’s accurate.

One of my worlds is the fantastic space of the Allied universe, where genetically engineered centaurs hop from world to world like skipping stones in the river (collected in the anthology STRANDED). Another is the hyper-feminist alternate history steampunk adventures of Jeremiah Willstone (collected in the anthologies UnCONventional and DOORWAYS TO EXTRA TIME). And yet another is the world of Dakota Frost, Skindancer, and the magic tattoos she can bring to life (FROST MOON, BLOOD ROCK, and the forthcoming LIQUID FIRE). And I hope you choose to read all of them! Enter the worlds, indeed.

But if I want people to read them, I need to tell people about them, in terms that make people, I dunno, actually want to read the books. Normally it’s a publisher who writes that copy, but they’re generally marketing a book, not me. I don’t yet have a publicist, and even if I did, the entire point of me is to do as many of the tasks of creative production myself as is practical, so I can speak at least quasi-intelligently about the process – case in point, the graphic design of the postcard above, which will be a blog post in its own right. But this isn’t about that part of the process; it’s about the feeling.

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One thing I’ve learned is that no-one knows that you write unless you actually tell them about it, and no-one buys what you write unless they know it can be bought. SO I have to do at least the first stab at this all by myself (not counting help from cats). I have to try to summarize my work, to bite the bullet and actually sell it, and to package that sales language up in ways that get it out to people – starting with a series of postcards to put on my table. And oh, yes, to blog it: to finally lift my head far enough above the waters to shout, yes, world, I am here, and no, I don’t need a life preserver: I need you to buy some of my books.

It still feels weird saying that.

I guess I’ll have to get over it.

-the Centaur

Pictured: the back of the postcards I printed for my table, featuring my own art; me, in a potential author publicity picture; and Gabby, helping me organize my book files and promotional materials.

Victory again, my friends

May 2nd, 2014

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SO yet again I’ve completed a challenge to finish 50,000 words in a month … this time the April Camp Nanowrimo challenge. My goal was to write 50,000 new words in the 4th Dakota Frost book, SPECTRAL IRON … and as of April 30th, I did it:

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Normally I write a lot about how this happened, bla bla bla. But the big thing that happened with this month is that it has gotten me ahead of the game for a change. I’ve had breaks, of course, in the past year and a half, but no matter how easily I breathed, I always had two almost-finished novels hanging over me (LIQUID FIRE and CLOCKWORK), and chunks of several more half-finished novels waiting in the wings (HEX CODE, SPECTRAL IRON, and MAROONED).

Now both of those books are at the publisher, my editor and I aren’t going to talk until after Memorial Day … and I, for once, feel like I’m starting to get caught up.

If you see me wielding a stick, it’s to beat off new projects with.

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The last thing I learned is that I can basically write 50,000 words of rough draft material in approximately 20 days, and that’s with having serious work responsibilities and personal responsibilities I have to put first. It’s a push, but it isn’t an impossible push, and that means I can seriously start looking at other projects and start figuring out where to wield that hammer.

First up, the frontispiece for LIQUID FIRE. Then, my upcoming talks at Clockwork Alchemy. Oh, and the next version of Blitz Comic’s Survival Guide. Lots of projects … but all were on the plate before. Now I just no longer have a giant sword of Damocles hanging over them; I instead have Thor’s hammer, ready to strike.

-the Centaur

UPDATE: actually, first up, was an image for Blitz Comic’s Free Comic Book Day Creator’s Kit. But that’s still Blitz. So it’s OK.

A 2 meter exhaust port just beneath the main port

April 27th, 2014

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I had decided to take out Aprils to do do Camp Nanowrimo, but as you can see, this was thwarted by my work to finish LIQUID FIRE, which spilled over into the beginning of the month. So since then, I’ve been racing uphill to try to get back on track … and as of a few days ago, I think I can at last say I’m almost there.

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What’s even more amazing is that I was able to keep up this pace even when I was out for Easter … and THEN after I caught the cruds on the flight home and ended up spending two days out sick. And it wasn’t even crashed out sick, either; we had some internal deadlines at work that I needed to keep moving forward, so I spent most of my sick days working from home, sitting on the front porch bundled up in a blanket with my work laptop on my lap, trying to massage a tricky chunk of data through our pipelines while I watched surreal scenes unfold around me, like one of our elderly neighbors getting taken to the hospital.

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But I’ve grown good writing in the margins, over lunch and at dinner, whenever I can, in the corners. (I’m writing this blogpost at dinner at a nice Irish pub right now, itself squeezed in between afternoon writing group meetings and Sunday evening prep for work). So I was able to, somehow, put in my time each day massaging that data, then still spit out the chunk of words I needed, and not kill myself, or at least not make myself any sicker than I was. And by the end of the week, we had the candidate chunk of data we wanted, I had the words I wanted, and I was out a lot of cold medicine and cough drops.

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The weekend was even better for me, with a great swathes of time spent Friday late night, Saturday afternoon and Sunday lunch and early evening chasing that 2 meter exhaust port just below the main port. Allmost there … now I’m just 300 words away from begin caught up. Hopefully, I’ll close that final gap late tonight. Wish me luck!

Oh yes, an excerpt:

“Dakota,” Terrance said, not turning his head towards me, eyes guiding the pointer on the screen. “When you guys go back to see this,” he said, reaching his head aside to puff at his air tube to rewind the footage, “I so want to be there.”

My heart fell. I didn’t think it was safe to take a quadriplegic into a war zone. But perhaps that was just me trying to shield him; we could work the security arrangements out. I opened my mouth to warn him of the risks, but just then, he puffed, and the video played.

“There,” Terrance said, the red crosshair of his eye tracker active again. “Watch for it!” At first I saw nothing, and grimaced as my yapping mug nattered on. I was rapidly growing tired of seeing this. Then the black form moved behind me—and in the red circle Terrance had laid out with his eye tracker … I saw the tail of my Mohawk brushed aside.

“Jesus!” I said, fear clutching my heart. “It touched me!”

Oooh … buggedy.

Now let’s blow this thing and go home!

-Anthony

Getting Some Traction on SPECTRAL IRON

April 21st, 2014

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It’s been hard getting back into SPECTRAL IRON – the beginning of the story is a smoothly progressing freight train, but about a third of the way through, the story went off the tracks — not because there was anything wrong with the ideas, but because they lacked the right organization. I had to move many, many chapters around before I got the overall structure right.

Then, I found that I’d done “tricks” to speed up the narrative—scene changes, description, shifts of scale—which work great when a story is complete, but in early drafts just distract from creating what John Gardner called “the vivid continuous dream” of fiction. National Novel Writing Month material, for me, must be like that dream, continuously moving forward from point to point.

Often, if I was willing to just “dethrone my darlings” I could make progress. The old writer’s advice to “kill your darlings” is something I have a love-hate relationship with, but in this case, I interpret “darlings” as a great turn of phrase that started a scene or chapter in the early draft—but which I found were getting in the way.

Usually, when I couldn’t go forward from the next unwritten part of the scene, it was because the darling, while it sounded cool, glossed over too much. To fix the problem, I generally didn’t have to delete the darling; I just instead demoted it from its privileged status of starting a scene, rolled my mind back to the point just before the scene break, and asked: no, seriously: what would really happen next?

Thinking very closely about how characters would react to a life-changing event, in the next hours or minutes or even seconds after it happened, is something that produced (for me) more real, honest, and compelling reactions—and, usually, created a far more solid framework for all the scenes that followed, enabling me to think about them clearly and write more quickly.

This strategy has been working well for me, and today it really has started to pay off. I’m getting back on track at last.

Oh, yes, an excerpt:

“No,” Nyissa said, delicately picking up one of the gumdrops with her chopsticks. She gingerly put it in her mouth, sliding it past her fangs with the white ivory prongs, closing her mouth—then her eyes closed in bliss. “Ahhh. You’ve cultivated a different set of skills.”

“Beauty is a skill?” I asked.

“Dakota,” Nyissa said, smiling at me mirthfully. “You are beautiful, but you’re not trying to be beautiful: you’re trying to be a butch badass biker. You wear leather, and a Mohawk, and actually ride a bike, even a fuel efficient one. Your whole outfit says: don’t mess.”

“It’s supposed to say, check out my tattoos,” I said.

“It does say that,” she said, though today my arms were covered with the sleeves of a turtleneck. “But hairstyles and transport are more serious choices than a coat. You’ve cultivated a whole set of lifestyle skills to project a butch image, down to your manly handshake.”

Now I covered my face with my hand. “Ah, I’ll never live that down.”

“I, on the other hand, am a vampire dominatrix,” Nyissa said. “I lure men and women to my bed with my beauty and the promise of a mixture of pleasure and pain. That, too, is a set of lifestyle choices—down to my quite extensive wardrobe, and the shopping that goes with it.”

“Your success at that,” I said, “has a lot to do with your physical beauty.”

“Yes, but, you don’t need a great body to look hot,” Nyissa insisted. “It’s all about your sense of style. You need to project the aura that you’re fuckable. Not dressing in a way that asks or offers sex—but how you show off your body shows you know what sex is, and how to do it.”

I was staring at her. My jaw was dropped. Nyissa slowly raised her chopsticks, taking them in her mouth with a sly smile. She cleaned them between her fangs with a lick of her tongue. Then she leaned forward and touched them beneath my chin, closing my mouth.

It occurs to me that the art of finding an excerpt which is interesting, yet reveals no plot points, is itself a skill. Hopefully I’m doing it well.

-the Centaur

Weather spotty with increasing chance of progress

April 17th, 2014

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Overall I’m making some progress, but each day has its ups and downs. Today was one of the downs (more because I spent a great deal of the day cracking a problem at work, then following up with a nice dinner date with my wife), but hopefully I’m going to get caught up over the next few days and through the weekend, when I’ve got some long plane flights to write on.

No excerpt: a lot of reorganizing today to get pieces in place so the story flows forward smoothly. I do write out of order, quite a bit, but the pieces must all make sense in order so that when I sit down to work on one the past concepts all build to and constrain the current moment, and the current moment supports the future concepts going forward.

Oh, okay, maybe one excerpt; I may have actually shown this before, but now I’ve written up the backstory for this:

“Here, Cinnamon,” I said, reaching for her with the Santa Claus cap. “Wear this—”

“No,” Cinnamon growled, jerking away. “I ain’t wearing no Santa Claus shit.”

I blinked. Most children I knew loved Santa Claus. Loved Christmas. So did most people, for that matter. Sure, I knew a few grinches, but not even they would have turned down a Santa Claus cap, much less snarled and swatted at it. This was something more.

“I’m guessing,” I said gently, “it isn’t disgust at his square fashion sense.”

“New word’s jank,” Cinnamon said, wrapping her arms around herself, turning away.

I put the hat down and walked out onto the porch, sitting on the sofa, stretching my long arms out over its back and my long legs out to the bottom rungs of the bannister. After a minute, Cinnamon joined me, curling up next to me, leaning her head on my shoulder.

“Sorry, Mom,” she said. “Santa Claus is a son of a bitch.”

That is all for now.

-the Centaur