Michael Karlesky

A cabinet of wonders. Minus the cabinet. And possibly the wonders.

Filtering by Category: Creative

“I before E except after Q”

I’m up to six stories in the Origins series now (series? collection?). As much as I love working on these, they also take a lot out of me. I think I am going on hiatus for a short while. Oh. I also revised and expanded the story “On the Hook” that kicked off all this nuttiness.

For those playing along at home, the other stories are:

As hard as it may be to imagine now, our ABC’s were once entirely real and not just odd scribbles on a piece of paper or a tune sung in preschool.

In its long history, the alphabet was often changing and really something of a mess. Letters rarely got along. The order of the alphabet is largely due to who liked and disliked whom. For example, B and P have always had affection for each other but had quite a stormy relationship. Over time they drifted apart, ending up at opposite ends of the alphabet. Believe it or not, A was not always at the beginning of the alphabet. In fact, it was not until the great war of words that A came to take charge of the entire alphabet, but that is a story for another time.

Disagreements about spelling were all too common. Letters worked very hard to be favored one over another. Some went so far as to take on extravagant sounds depending on what word they wedged themselves into. Y fashioned herself as an occasional vowel to create an air of sophistication about her. Other letters traveled the globe and got mixed up with different languages. After spending time in Europe, some letters insisted on wearing funny hãts or particular shoęs when sounded out in words from other parts of the world.

Until only just recently, Q and C had a particularly nasty rivalry. Of course, this was mostly because at times they wanted to sound alike and also because they looked something alike. Q and C quibbled nearly constantly. For an otherwise simple word like “acquire” they feuded for years and years. Even in this rare example of peaceful negotiation it took longer to compromise on an order between them than it did to actually quarrel about the word in the first place.

The long history of fighting between Q and C is legendary and too long and storied to be chronicled here. Their single greatest conflict, however, is a tale very worth telling. It began simply enough with an infatuation with cotton—not the fabric, of course, but the word. At the time, the spelling of “cotton” was far from settled. Q was completely infatuated with winning the spelling contest. And who could blame him? Cotton could be so sweet in cotton candy and so cute in cottontail rabbits and so fun in a cotton ball. He was smitten. Of course, C was just as taken with cotton and just as determined to claim its spelling for himself.

The quarrel over cotton began quietly with little more than each side spinning yarns and spreading rumors. Next C and Q fell into name calling and cursing (and name calling and cursing about the spelling of “cursing”). Soon C and Q had moved past simple rivalry into bitter hatred. At a local dictionary the two letters got into a shoving match. After that, as he was a bit of an underdog in the alphabet (though he might never admit it), Q sought out an alliance. Q and U got along famously, and so U was soon easily enlisted as an ally. C responded by convincing K to join forces with him. Eventually ruled lines were drawn for battle, and even punctuation had signed up to fight on both sides of the growing conflict. Other letters’ grudges played out as the fight between Q and C became a means to settle small scores. Even foreigners like the Oxford comma joined in. The two armies steadily grew with new recruits.

Both sides strategized, formulating plans to take the other letter’s capital. Pencils were sharpened. Paper was filed for maximum cut. The commanders of both armies prepared to carry out sentences. Syllables were stressed to the point of breaking.

No one knows quite how it started. One side may have dangled a modifier to taunt the other. Whatever the case, the battle that had been building for weeks and months exploded. Each side charged in a roar of sounds all pronounced at once.

Vowels connected consonants in supply lines. Letters skilled at silence sneaked unheard into enemy words gathering intelligence as spies. P shooters rained down artillery on their foes.

Day after day, each side would advance their clause only to be fought back. The tactics were bold, italicized, and underlined. The fighting was brutal and unceasing. Having arrived at a near stalemate and suffering near exhaustion, both sides mustered all their forces for a decisive final attack. Both armies unleashed everything in their arsenals. Air quotes flew overhead on repeated bombing runs. The two sides rushed onto the battlefield clashing violently, and so it was that C and Q found themselves face to face trading blows.

The two commanding letters brawled. C struck Q, and Q struck back. Each wrestled and strained against the other’s might. In a fateful moment, all the letters on that field of battle heard the deafening crack. C raised up to strike hard against Q yet again only to freeze at the sight. Before him laid Q broken. His round form had been shattered, and his curved tail broken away. What C saw before him was his very own letterform as though it were a terrible mirror. Part of Q remained as a ragged looking C struggling in pain.

C’s heart turned in a moment as he was instantaneously moved. The fighting paused, and a hush descended over the battlefield as C crouched near to Q. It was lost on neither of them the significance of the comfort found in the cotton gauze C hurriedly tied around Q’s broken pieces applying pressure to his wounds.

Seeing the folly of their ways, C and Q declared a truce—not merely as former enemies but as newfound brothers. The battle had laid bare the many petty rivalries and grudges and disagreements throughout the entire alphabet. The two sides came to decide very important things on that day. First, they decided that “cotton” would simply be spelled with a C and that was the end it. More importantly they put aside their many differences in favor of working together to build a great many words yet left unsaid. To remember this momentous day, the letters of the alphabet sought out a simple reminder, a monument of a sort. While they’ve come to have many uses since that day, the alphabet chose to memorialize their peace and hopeful new understanding with a cotton-wrapped element to represent the very end of Q’s once broken tail—what we now know as the Q-tip.

“Coloring Inside the Lanes”

Over the summer I seem to have much less academic reading to do than during the school year proper. Since I generally use my subway time for reading, this means some free time on the subway now. And, apparently, I like to write short stories while riding the subway if I don’t have pressing reading to do. Given that I’m all over New York City these days conducting customer interviews for Somaware, I have quite a bit of writing time on my hands. And, so, below is another addition to my Origins side project.

Others in the series:

Everything in Lionel’s life was big. He was big. His house was big. His hair was big. His personality was big. His dog was big. He liked to wear big belt buckles. Everything was big.

Lionel drove his big car to work each day at a big company. His company made paint—all kinds of paint. They made paint for the very biggest artists and for the very biggest buildings.

Lionel was the head of diagrams. His company was so big that it had a department just for diagramming, and Lionel was their best diagrammer. He loved making complex ideas clear with smart lines and neat markings, and he loved even more becoming continually better at it. Others diagrammed for paint can labels or signs in the factory or perhaps the occasional presentation. Lionel diagrammed for the most important and highest levels in the company. He saw all the very biggest ideas at his company and diagrammed them expertly.

Seeing all that he did come across his desk, Lionel was never satisfied that his company thought big enough. This bothered him in a big way. In fact, no matter what he worked on, he was never satisfied any of it was really truly big.

Eventually Lionel took up painting. He worked at a paint company, after all. He hoped it would take his mind off his big disappointment at work. Lionel quickly worked through the fundamentals of color and brush strokes and perspective. You will not be surprised to learn that he soon moved on to working with big brushes and big canvases.

Of course, it was not enough for Lionel. Bowls of fruit and portraits just did not do much for him even when they were painted giant sized. A very big banana is only a banana made very big.

Still Lionel kept painting bigger and bigger hoping it would be big enough. Eventually his big paintings outgrew his studio space. So he found some big open warehouse space at his company where he could keep painting. His company was so pleased with his diagramming that not only did they allow him to use the space they even gave him all the paint he could use.

One day Lionel was carrying some big buckets of paint to his new studio space. It so happened that one of the buckets had a small leak in it. Lionel had no idea. He dribbled paint all along the side of the short road that led from one warehouse to the other.

Lionel liked very much to keep things neat and orderly. Spilled paint would not do. Though he was not especially happy in his work, he certainly appreciated the space and paint his company provided him and wanted to do something about this long dribble of paint. However, by the time he found the spill it was long dried. Cleaning it off the road was not an option. So Lionel, thinking big like he did, decided to at least improve the dribble into a proper line. His mind sprang to action and devised a simple contraption to hold paint and roll it all along the side of the road.

Having completed that line on one side of the road, the other side looked rather bare. So Lionel went ahead and painted another line on the opposite side of the road to match it. When that was done Lionel knew that something was missing. Trucks drove both ways down this little road. The new lines suddenly seemed rather commanding but also not quite complete. Lionel realized that now the two directions of traffic needed something to separate them, and so he painted another line right down the middle.

You must understand that at this time cars and trucks were still fairly new inventions. And paved roads were even newer still. Not long before our story takes place, roads were mostly hard packed dirt. Drivers found their way by looking at paper maps and following the occasional signs posted here and there along the roads. When pavement came along, it was laid down and then cars drove on it. It was simple as that. Of course, as roads became busier and more roads crossed other roads and more people were driving to more places, getting around became much trickier and much more complicated.

Having finished painting this little road, Lionel noticed that it intersected several other roads leading to the other warehouses. The intersections caused confusion among the truck drivers. Lionel’s mind immediately began to picture these intersections as diagrams. So he carried his contraption over and began to lay down in paint all the arrows and lines he saw so clearly in his head. He became so engrossed in his work that several trucks very nearly hit him. The blows of their horns barely caught his attention.

Standing in the middle of freshly painted lines and big arrows and big letters, Lionel’s eyes grew big. Every road and intersection everywhere was one big diagram just waiting for him to color in.

Today roads get all their markings applied by big machines very nearly at the same moment the pavement is laid down. But there was a time when a big man who longed to accomplish something big saw all the roads everywhere as one big canvas in need of a great big paint job. And that’s how Lionel gave roads everywhere their first stripes and arrows and lanes. In the end, his big idea was simply to do his job as best as he knew how—to diagram his heart out and ever line well.

“This Little Piggy”

Another draft installment in my side project I’ve been calling simply Origins.

(Previous pieces here and here.)

Phillip was a hog. He lived on a farm with a tractor and a big barn and many other animals.

Each day Phillip lounged around and ate as much as he wanted. When it was especially hot outside he would roll around in his mud waller to cool off.

Other animals on the farm worked. Some went out with the farmer each day to pull carts. The cows were always busy with their milking. The hens laid eggs and the dogs guarded the henhouse. But not Phillip.

Phillip had barely a care in the world. He ate and rolled in his mud and kept on getting bigger. Life was altogether easy for Phillip the hog.

One day Phillip was having a roll in the mud when he overheard some of the working animals talking. Phillip heard all the right words to know they were talking about food. He loved food. So he waddled over to the other animals to hear more of what they were saying.

When Phillip finally got near the other animals he was slightly out of breath but managed to butt into their conversation. The other animals became awkwardly quiet. Finally a wise old horse looked at Phillip with a certain pity and said, “I suppose you don’t know why they call you a hog. Hogs are fed to get fat. So they can be slaughtered and eaten by people.”

Phillip’s eyes grew wide, and he started breathing even harder than he already was.

He tried to calm down by taking a roll in his mud. His mind was racing, and Phillip wished he could just disappear. Then an idea came to him. Maybe he could disappear!

The next morning Phillip woke up early, covered himself with splotches of mud from his waller, and tried hard to walk like a very short dairy cow out in one of the fields. Phillip was quite pleased with himself until one of the farm dogs passed by, nodded, and said “Good morning, Phillip. What are you doing way out here?”

Phillip panicked. He ran. Of course he did not run far. Phillip had been fattened up for slaughter and had not so much as even imagined running before then. Wheezing and exhausted, Phillip was inspired by his short sprint. He realized that if he had been fattened up to be slaughtered then he could not be eaten if he was no longer fattened up!

And so Phillip stopped eating as much as he wanted and began exercising. Now certainly hog push-ups and hog sit-ups and hog jogging look entirely silly. But when Phillip finally started pig paddling laps in the pond that was when the other animals called the whole thing hogwash. Phillip paid them no attention. He was becoming thinner and felt stronger.

Had he been following his plan for a good long while it just might have worked. But then Phillip learned that slaughtering time would come only months away in the spring. A strange quiet came over him and there was a peculiar look in his eye. In that difficult moment Phillip changed.

Now pigs are natural diggers. They root in search of food or dig out a shallow cool place in which to lie down. But what Phillip did next was far beyond that of an average pig. Phillip dug and dug and just kept on digging. He dug right down until the hole was big enough to hold all of him. And Phillip was nowhere near done with his digging.

In the coming weeks, he hollowed out an entire underground burrow and tunnels to hide in. And the more Phillip dug, the more he shrank from all the hard work. His pinkish skin and hair became stained with the brown of the dirt. He even began sleeping underground instead of always in his pen.

Phillip grew to like living below ground. It was no longer a hiding place. It was becoming his new home. In fact, he spent nearly the entire winter sleeping peacefully underground. He still made visits to his feeding trough so as to not raise suspicion. He made sure to be seen just often enough. As the weeks wore on, he ate less of his slop, mostly dumping it in the farm’s compost heap to hide his new diet.

With the coming end of winter, the snowbanks began to waste away much like Phillip himself. In one of his strategic appearances above ground, Phillip happened across the wise old horse of the farm. The old horse stopped him. He looked Phillip over and again with a certain pity said to him, “Tell me, Phillip. How much better than being taken to slaughter is hiding forever?” The question left Phillip stunned. Though he had never left the farm, he began to dream of living far outside its fences. One way or another, spring would be the end of Phillip’s life on the farm.

A nighttime escape was out of the question. Because wolves and foxes would prey on the farm animals after the sun went down, guard dogs would keep watch over the farm. The scent of a pig moving toward a fence in the dark of night would surely foil any of Phillip’s plans. His only chance was early on an overcast day.

By the time the snows stopped, spending so much time underground had caused Phillip’s eyes to become quite sensitive to light. Each morning he took to popping his head out of his burrow, squinting, and looking for his moment to run for it. But each morning he saw only his shadow. The sunlight was simply too bright for him, and it would surely expose him as he tried to escape. When he saw his shadow, Phillip would duck back underground and wait for another chance.

Finally the morning came when the snow had all melted and because clouds filled the sky Phillip saw his opportunity. He emerged from his burrow utterly transformed. He was so much trimmer and smaller and stronger than before. He took a deep breath and dashed as fast as he could. He scurried through the field and past the pond and by his old waller. The big barn shrank on the horizon behind him.

Finally Phillip came upon the outer fence surrounding the farm. Being so much smaller than he once was, he ran underneath it! Just like that, Phillip left the farm and the slaughter behind him to live in the wild, to live under ground.

Phillip could no longer be called a hog exactly. There was no more farm or slaughter and Phillip had taken to living in a burrow. And that's how Phillip came to be known as a groundhog.

Phillip’s legend spread. His story was told and retold, and it changed some along the way. He even became known by different names in different parts of the world. He might just be most famous in Pennsylvania. He has quite the reputation in town of Punxsutawney where the townsfolk have become rather chummy with his story. There they simply call him Phil.

Each year the calendar remembers Phillip and his Groundhog's Day. Most think it is simply a celebration of spring. But in reality Groundhog’s Day is not so much about the new life that comes with a change in seasons but the courage to find new life.

“She made a scene”

Months and month ago I fell into writing a fairy tale of sorts. That happy accident has evolved into a little side project I’ve simply been calling “Origins.” I have a handful of stories in various states of completion. The following is a draft of one of those stories.

Everyone knows it’s little people inside computers that make them work. They are incredibly tiny and oh so busy and always working at super speeds to do their jobs. Meeting the little people inside any given computer is really quite difficult.

Despite the incredibly fast-paced life inside a computer, the little people within it are really quite chatty. They talk mostly as part of doing their jobs, but they also love to tell stories when they’re not working. If you listen really closely, sometimes you can hear their tales.

The first computers were big machines that filled entire rooms. Though quite slow compared to present day computers, they still they ran important programs. The computers of today look far different than these machines. And the reason computers now look so different is in large part because of a signal named Pix.

Inside a computer there are components and there are signals. Components are the pieces and parts and doodads and whatsits that have fancy names like “transistor” and “processor” and “RAM.” Signals have names too, but they can’t be seen. They’re especially tiny and especially fast and made of invisible stuff like electrons.

Components get all the attention. Talking about computers is often all about how much memory there is and how fast the processor goes. Nobody much cares about the signals racing in and around the components. So signals generally like to be near the action doing important things. They want to refresh the memory or to race from a keyboard to tell the other components when a user has pressed a key.

Circuit boards inside a computer are the cities and neighborhoods of signals and components. Just like houses and apartments, components stay put and have addresses. And traces on circuit boards are the roads that connect everything together. But unlike the roads cars drive on, traces always form big loops to allow signals to return to their source. Those loops are called circuits. A super fast central clock helps everyone work together. It simply cycles endlessly and works more like a giant traffic signal than something to tell time.

Signals have been doing their jobs for millions and millions and millions of cycles without ever being seen. They take pride in doing their jobs without drawing much attention to themselves. You see, there simply is little place for signals who are show-offs.

Now Pix was a little different than the other signals. She was never quite content to only zap between components back and forth along the same traces all day. She wanted to… well, do something else, something new. Signals tended to be very practical. Pix, however, had a bit of flare and almost no way to express it. 

Signals followed traces on circuit boards all day long. Always forward. Always straight lines. They knew nothing else. But Pix had developed a talent of a sort. After lots and lots of effort she had learned how to twirl. Twirling didn’t really do much, of course. It mainly just tickled components and irritated stodgy signals a bit.

Every so often, Pix would do her little twirl and put a zig in her zap. She always got where she was going right on time, and it never caused any trouble for the running program. Of course, the other signals were all quite satisfied to follow tradition and did not approve of Pix’s sprightly little moves at all. Pix tried as best as she could to ignore the disapproving static.

An incredible number of components and signals live in a computer. The number is so big that not all of them are busy working all the time. Sometimes they just have nothing to do. What feels like a long time inside a computer is hardly a split second in the outside world. When idle time comes most signals are content to simply run back and forth to make sure everything is just as they last left it.

Pix was not most signals. She liked to use her idle cycles to go exploring. She would bounce from component to component, often making small talk as she zipped through. But what Pix especially loved was when she found connections that left the computer. Connections are like tunnels from inside the computer to the outside world.

Connections often lead to other circuit boards full of more components. These are called peripherals. Adventurous Pix was never happier than when she found new connections and peripherals to explore.

In Pix’s time, computers weren’t all that different than other cabinets full of circuit boards. Back then computers were way too big to fit in pockets and nobody had them in their house. Usually computers lived in special rooms in special buildings. While really new ideas were being figured out, sometimes the computers were barely even assembled. Pieces and parts would be sprawled out on desks and on lab benches with lots of wires and complicated tools attached.

And so it was one day that Pix found a new connection and raced to go exploring during some idle cycles. Only the most peculiar thing happened. Somehow she spilled right out of a wire and slid across the sheet of glass that topped a big gray metal desk. Most other signals would have met their end right there. But not Pix. She knew how to zig. Before she could even think she did a lightning quick twirl to zip back inside her computer — before she came apart across the glass and disappeared forever.

Pix was pulsing frantically once safely inside the connection again. She had been so anxious to get back to her computer as fast as possible that she hardly noticed the wondrous sight behind her. When she had twirled, instead of upsetting other signals or tickling components, a tiny momentary burst of light flickered against that piece of glass.

Given the fright she had experienced, Pix was not exactly eager to race down that ill-fated connection again any time soon. But the possibilities of that little flash of light just captured her imagination. Soon enough Pix was spending idle cycles spilling out of the same connection that nearly terminated her and skating around that piece of glass. Each trip was an experiment of more and more twirls. In time Pix could even trace out designs and draw out almost any set of instructions she could imagine — all in tiny points of light.

As Pix was so rarely visiting component friends in her idle cycles, rumors spread. It didn’t take long for her secret to be uncovered. What she could do was so astounding that even the stuffiest of signals were impressed. For the first time, the otherwise invisible insides of a computer could create visible images.

Later, signals and components worked together to produce color images and adopt the grid of picture elements standard on today’s display screens. Computer books will tell you that “pixel” comes from the phrase “picture element.” To a degree this is accurate. But the truer story is that the momentary points of light created with a computer were named in honor of the signal that first danced on glass to create them. Though everyone knew her simply as Pix, her full name was Pixelle.

My first fairy tale…

I asked her if she’d like to hear a bedtime story. “Yes,” she said. I hadn’t been entirely serious. “About a sailor. Make it happy.”

And so it was that I wrote my first fairy tale…

UPDATE (July, 2014): After having since written several more short stories, I’ve returned to this one to revise and expand it to read in the style of the others.

On the Hook

Once upon a time there was a young sailor. Perhaps it would be truer to say that she wanted very much to be a sailor. She lived in a pretty little house on the sea, and she loved her father who happened to be the captain of a big ship. Her father the ship captain was admired by all those who served on his crew.

The little sailor begged and pleaded with her father to sail with him on his adventures. Of course, because she was young and small each time she asked he would simply smile and tell her that maybe some day she could come with him. She was persistent. She grew, and her pleading with her father only grew right along with her. But her father continued to refuse her—always, of course, careful to be as kind as he could be in dashing her hopes.

The little house the ship captain and his daughter called home was built up on a bluff with a clear view of both the water and the sky. While he would not let his daughter sail, the ship captain taught her as much as he could. They both especially loved the night sky. She would ask him to tell her the names of the stars (though she knew them by heart for years), and he would explain charts and how to navigate on the sea using the stars. When her father was at sea, the little sailor would climb down to the inlets and basins below and spend hours at the water’s edge with all the creatures that lived in that other world. Urchins and sponges often starred in the tales she spun.

One night while her father was away, the little sailor found a star in the night sky she had never noticed before. It twinkled a little differently than all the others. She decided it was her very own wishing star and wished upon it that she could go off to sea with her father the ship captain.

Not long after her father returned from his latest voyage, the little sailor pleaded with him once again to sail with him on his next trip. Finally her father relented. The little sailor could join the crew but only if she did all the work that the other crew members were expected to do. The little sailor was ecstatic. She could hardly contain herself and threw herself around her father’s neck in a hug at least twice as big as herself.

And so it was the little sailor went off adventuring at sea. She swabbed decks, trimmed sails, kept night watch in the crow’s nest, and did all the other things on the ship she was asked to do. Her father was very proud of his little sailor.

Days at sea stretched into weeks and then weeks stretched into months. As supplies on the ship naturally dwindled, like always, the crew turned to the waters full of life for their meals. The little sailor was panicked. She thought of all the fish as her friends and remembered all the stories they had told together and could not bear to drop a hook in the sea. She knew that soon it would be her turn to fish for the ship’s supper.

The little sailor asked her father to do anything else onboard the ship other than fish. Her father had been a fisherman for many years before becoming a sea captain. Though he loved her very much, he simply could not understand why she refused to fish. As the ship’s captain he reminded her that she had agreed to do all the work asked of her in order to go out to sea on his ship. She would have to fish. He grew more and more frustrated with her as she continued to refuse to do what the ship needed her to do.

Finally, one night the young sailor’s father did not allow her to eat supper with the rest of the ship. In fact, he told her that if she wanted to eat, she must fish for her supper. He gave her until morning. His voice was a mix of a stern father and the wise old captain the crew had come to respect.

The ship was anchored in shallow clear waters under a bright moon. In its way, the cove reminded the little sailor of her times near the water at home. Our little sailor stood on the deck of the ship with her fishing pole all night. She stared into the night sky and did not know what to do.

The dark of night was fading, and first light peeked from behind the horizon. One by one each of the stars disappeared. Just as the very last star was twinkling its last twinkle, the little sailor suddenly recognized it. She had found her wishing star again. So she wished with all her might for some way to be spared from plucking her friends from the sea.

The little sailor mustered her strength as much as her hope and cast her line high into the sky, not sure what might happen. Magically, instead of falling into the waters around the ship, her hook stuck in the sky itself. It hung there, magically, on the very star she had wished upon. Wide eyed, she did not know what to do, but her father was calling to her. He intended to see what she had caught in the night.

So the little sailor pulled hard just like she did with the rigging on the ship’s giant sails. Just as her father the captain appeared on deck, the star came loose from the sky and fell to earth in a brilliant streak. It landed in a flash of light not far from the wise old sea captain’s ship.

The little sailor and the ship’s captain gasped in wonder. Just below them in the shallow clear water was something like they had never seen. The little sailor’s father never asked his daughter to fish ever again, for they had together beheld a beautiful miracle. And this is how starfish came to be.