Monday, November 01, 2004

First Day

[Note: non-novel posts will be in italics]

Well, it was a long day today and I'm getting off to a somewhat slow start. I ended up just having mostly background stuff in Chapter 1, but hopefully it will get more exciting soon. The first thousand words took about an hour and a quarter (with only a little procrastinating in there). It'll be interesting to see how that changes over the course of the month.

Chapter 1

Seamus Gilbert had begun reading on his own when he was four, and for years it seemed like he never stopped. He was the first in his kindergarten class to be given library privileges (most kids had to wait until first grade) and the first to be allowed to start checking out the "bigger kids'" books, rather than staying in the kindergarten section of the elementary school library. Throughout school, he was consistently the only child in class to not only have enjoyed any assigned reading, but frequently to have finished it before it was actually assigned.

Teachers were thrilled about this of course, though as with many precocious readers, there was a social downside to it all. They worried that he spent too much time with his favorite books, and had more fictional friends than real ones. In third grade, he had traveled with Milo through the Phantom Tollbooth nine times in a row, whereas the only time he voluntarily ventured on to the jungle bars at recess was when they were empty. (Excepting of course, the time he accidentally got caught up in a game of Marco Polo, lost his grip in a muddle of sweaty, eight year old boy jostling, and ended up with his first black eye from hitting a bar on his way to the ground.)

This issue was accentuated by the fact that Seamus' parents divorced when he was six and a half, which meant that he and his mother had to move, which pulled him out of Pleasant Hill Elementary School and into another school district. Every few years they would move again, always within the California Bay Area, but always just far enough to switch schools. Seamus was slow to get close to anybody, and at most might have made one or two friends at any one place, but after the first couple of moves it just seemed easier to stick to the friends that he could carry around in his back pack, with all the interactions he needed folded between their covers.

This was not to say he was actively anti-social, of course. He was a perfectly pleasant young boy, but it was hard to tell, since he was so shy and always seemed more engrossed in his books or his own thoughts than in any thing anyone else might have had to say to him. Teachers could tell there was more to him, and would try to draw him out. But kids, whether in elementary school, junior high, or high school, just don't have the inclination for that sort of thing. And the fact that teachers liked him put them off even more. Who wants to risk being friends with a teacher's pet?

So as would be expected, Seamus made it through high school with fine grades and few friends. The majority of his graduating class headed to the local junior college, the rest to a nearby UC. Seamus was the first in three years to be accepted to Stanford from that high school, not that many people had even bothered to apply in those three years, of course. So after graduation, he parted ways with the rest of his class, not expecting to run into any of them again, or minding much if he didn't. King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes and Milo would come with him.

Stanford was a considerable change. Just being a bookworm wouldn't get you as far in that world as it had before, and Seamus quickly fell into a sort of respectable obscurity – getting by well enough academically, but not as anyone to particularly notice in a school of over achievers. And that was fine with him. He easily found a comfort zone where he could get acceptable results for an acceptable amount of effort. He knew that if he ever wanted more he could get it by working more, but it usually wasn't worth it. B's were fine.

Bookaholic that he was, some of his relatives were expecting him to major in English. Others dropped frequent and strong hints at the wisdom of choosing something more potentially lucrative, however, and combined with his distaste for actually writing about his reading, sent him into computers, firmly on the techie side of Stanford's techie / fuzzy divide. It didn't take long for him to rebound from that though, and straddle the divide as more of a "tezzie" (the polite term for it), and he gradually ended up in a generic sounding interdisciplinary field that sounded very intriguing without actually meaning much. He still told people he was CS when he didn't want to get into explanations involving symbolic systems and cognitive science.

Regardless of his effort budgeting, Seamus necessarily found his reading time withering in college, but managed to keep it up, sticking more to short stories than to novels. Ray Bradbury, Italo Calvino, Charles De Lint and Sherlock Holmes would all be squeezed in on weekends and the occasional spare hour that popped up here and there. Luckily, he also developed a taste for non-fiction as well, which made required class reading considerably less tedious. After graduation though, things instantly picked up, and he was soon back to his old habits of being in the middle of four or more books concurrently at any given time.

Oh yes, graduation. It came and went. The dot-com bubble had burst just in time for his nicely eccentric major to seem more suspicious than exciting and the job offers were falling out of the sky in more or less the same way that the sun doesn't. Seamus was moderately worried about this, but as he had never been terribly emotionally invested in the whole technology nonsense anyway, he saw it as a mixed blessing. Now at 23, he was living with a collection of five miscellaneous people just a mile from Stanford in Palo Alto, and taking various random jobs through different temp agencies to (barely) cover his modest expenses. He knew he'd have to figure out something more at some point, but there was no real rush about it.

Aside from his temp assignments, the one thing that regularly drew Seamus out of his house was the library. The Palo Alto downtown library was a joke – only open four days a week, and only during working hours. But the Menlo Park library, just on the other side of the creek, was another matter. Bigger, brighter, more comfortable, and connected to the entire San Mateo county library system, it drew Seamus in every week. And every week he'd check out a stack of books, some to be read, some to be browsed, or read in pieces. While he always read a prodigious number of books, he also always made a point of getting more than he could read. There was a rich sort of feeling to bringing home as many books as he could carry, and feeling rich without money is a nice thing to be able to do.

The Menlo Park library also housed Project Read, a literacy tutoring program attached like a small tumor to one of the less popular sides of the library. Seamus' first encounter with it was on a day when his Internet connection at home was down, and he was trying to find a place to check his email. (There was still enough techie in his tezzie-ness that he didn't like to go too long without checking his email.) The general library computers had to be signed up for, but that had an annoying wait and a time limit, but here in the back was Project Read's small computer lab – just a handful of iMacs that most people didn't know about.

That's where Gabriela found him.