Monday, February 22, 2010

Aaron's idiot-proof shepherd's pie: a recipe

I just made this recipe for dinner tonight. I make it about once every two weeks or so, because it's really easy, cheap, and it's impossible to mess up. In fact, it's so simple that after making it only once, I've been able to make it from memory every time afterward without referring to the original recipe.

You will need:
1 package instant mash potatoes
1 pound of ground beef
1 can of condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 can (14.5 oz) mixed vegetables
1 package of shredded cheese
1 onion

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
2. Chop the onion. Brown it and the ground beef in a large skillet. I like to season it with worchestershire and garlic powder, and whatever else is in my cabinets.
3. While it's browning, cook the instant potatoes in a separate pot. The amount you use should make 2 cups when finished (base your serving size on this).
4. When the onion and beef and fully browned, dump the cream of mushroom soup (do NOT add water to it first) and the vegetables (drain off any water first) into the skillet as well. Mix them together throughly.
5. Dump the skillet mixture into a medium casserole dish.
6. Spread the mashed potatoes over the mixture in the casserole dish. Spreading it thoroughly is by far the hardest part. Luckily, it's not essential to spread it perfectly.
7. Sprinkle the cheese over the potatoes
8. Put the whole kitten-kaboodle into the oven 30 minutes, until the potatoes are brown and the cheese is bubbly.

Awww yeah.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Most of the entries I post here are the result of a writing community that I'm a part of. Everyone in the community who wants to participate writes a short story based on a central theme given by the moderators every week. My favorite pieces get added to my "professional" (read: this) blog.

When the topic for this piece was presented, this was the first idea that came to mind. I've always been fascinated with science fiction, but not the flying cars and laser guns type. Science fiction with a touch of realism always struck a chord with me, partly because we're a lot closer to living science fiction now than at any other point in history.

This was a hard story to write. For the record, I hope that the technologies in this story are never actually created. Everyone in the world (that I've ever met) has body image issues, and if this story were ever to be reality, I can only imagine how much worse it would get.

"Different"- Aaron M. Smith
(written February 2010)

Abby wiped away her tears. She would not cry. She would not allow herself to cry. This was going to be the best day of her life. The day that her whole life would change forever. She should be happy.

She shoved her hands into the pockets of her rain jacket and squeezed the fistful of cash she’d brought with her- two years savings, since her sixteenth birthday. Any doubt she had would have to be left at the door. Steeling herself and taking a deep breath, she pushed opened the door to the clinic.

Of course, there was nobody inside. People didn’t work in buildings like this anymore. The only thing that greeted her was a huge mirrored elevator door. She read the guide on the wall: Appearance reassessment treatment, twenty seventh floor. She punched the up button on the elevator.

She tried not to stare at her reflection in the mirrored door, but it was impossible. Ugh, she looked awful. She’d worn the most shapeless clothes she owned in preparation for the procedure. While she didn’t look forward to having to replace her entire wardrobe, she’d never miss having to wear these clothes again.

Abby’s mind raced through the same checklist it always did when she looked at herself in the mirror. Too short. She barely came up to most boy’s chins. Things would be better when she was taller. And thinner- she hated her broad, wide hips, and she hated these jeans that made her look even larger. Habitually, she raised her sweatshirt up just enough to see her pale stomach. She wasn’t that big, but as short as she was and with hips like hers she looked huge. Ugh, and that skin. She was as white as a sheet. She’d be so much happier when she was finally bronze and pretty.

It had rained that morning, of course, so her mousey brown hair was frizzy and totally uncontrollable. She raked her fingers through it habitually to try to tame it, and then stopped herself. She wouldn’t even need to worry about it soon. She’d have straight, perfect blonde hair on the way home from the clinic.

The elevator continued to ding. Ugh, it must be stopping on every floor, she thought. The waiting was torture. She just wanted to get to the 27th floor, get the procedure done and be finished with it. Finished with everything.

She walked closer to the door in anticipation, looking at herself in the face to avoid looking at her body any longer. Her face was plain. Plain brown eyes, plain mouth. She leaned even closer to the door, her nose just inches from it now, so that all she could see was her eyes. Soon, she’d have blue, or maybe green eyes- she hadn’t decided on which color yet. Anything but brown.

Why couldn’t she stop the tears? They were running down her cheeks before she’d even realized she was crying- suddenly, a loud ding announced the arrival of the elevator, and she self-consciously backpedaled away from the door, covering her tears with a sniff and a rub of her eyes.

A woman was getting off the elevator. She smiled shyly, politely at Abby before stepping off and heading for the door.

Abby watched the women go. She didn’t realize her mouth was agape until after the woman had walked out onto the street, though Abby followed her through the large glass windows with her eyes as she walked down the sidewalk. She was short, with broad, feminine hips and curves that were noticeable even though she wore similarly shapeless clothing as Abby. Her wavy brown hair fell down her back in a sheet that was shiny even in the meager sunlight. She had round cheeks and a small, intelligent smile that caused her brown eyes to flicker with mirth. She was beautiful.

And she was carrying a folder that read “Appearance reassessment treatment: how to handle the first 24 hours.”

For a moment, Abby stood transfixed. The elevator door dinged again, and the doors slid closed. When they did, and Abby saw herself in it reflective surface once again, it was as if she was seeing an entirely different person. Nothing about her looked plain anymore.

She turned away from the elevator and ran, bursting through the double doors of the clinic and onto the street. To her right, the woman who just left the clinic was rounding the corner. She took off across the wet sidewalk, half slipping in the rain, and ran after her. She had to know one thing: What had that woman seen to make her choose that?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Quickie novel preview- "The Desert"

I know I say this a lot, but this time, I really know what you're thinking. This is the third novel teaser I've posted in this blog, and it seems to have ZERO continuity with the other two.

That's because it has zero continuity with the other two, which also have zero continuity between each other. The first was a novel that's semi-finished, but I want to have some real-live people read it and comment on it before I submit it to any publishers. The second is a novel I started a few months ago as a concept that's sort of on hold for a while (seeing as how I have no idea how I want to end the dern thing). This snippet is from a novel that I *gasp* thought out beforehand and *gasp* KNOW how it's going to end!

Yeah, I'm really thinking outside of the box with this one.
Okay, here it is! No title yet, sorry.


“Hey Troy,” he said, only a slight slur to his words, “Have you ever gone into the desert?”

I squinted at him, my vision blurred after copious amounts of transfigured wine. “What do you mean, gone into? Like, into into?”

“Yeah!” He cheered. “Like, have you ever crossed the wall?” He gestured to the edge of our outpost, where a man-high wall had been erected centuries before. Firelight from our campfire flickered across his round face. “Me an’ Tim did it the other week. Made it twenty paces before we turned back.”

“You lair, you ran back after twelve!” Tim called from outside the fire circle. The other men guffawed loudly as Branwen tossed an empty mug at Tim, missing him by a mile. “So Troy, now that you’re one of us, you’ve got to do it.” Branwen said.
I wasn’t scared. Not that I felt I should have been- I’d looked out onto the desert many times since I’d arrived, and we’d flown high up enough when I arrived to look far across the barren wasteland. It stretched so far, that I’d been unable to see the end of it.
Without a word, I stood and strode to the arched portico in the wall, to the hoots and hollers of my fellow soldiers. I stood in the doorway and looked out- only a tiny amount of yellow fire light from the campfire spilled out onto the sand, which was otherwise bluish in the bright moonlight. The sky beyond was the blackest black that I could ever imagine- it seemed to absorb whatever light would be cast into it.

The others around the fire began to chant my name. “Troy! Troy! Troy! Troy!”

I turned and gave a final, wide-toothed smile at the other soldiers. Then I turned and charged through the doorway into the wastes.

As soon as I crossed the doorway, I knew something was wrong with this place.

One step. Two, three, four.

After two steps, I could no longer hear the voices of my comrades on the other side of the wall. After three steps, the warm, golden light from the camp fire was swallowed up by the encroaching darkness. Four steps, and a chill wind seemed to crawl up my back.

Five, six, seven, eight, nine.

On the fifth step, the cold breeze ruffled my loose shirt, and I fought back a shiver. On step seven, something brushed at the edges of my perceptions. This felt different, though, like whatever had brushed me was inside-out. I ignored it.

Ten, eleven, twelve.

Something was wrong- something was very wrong with this place. I’d taken the twelve steps, so why was I still running? I stopped and tried to turn back, but I couldn’t. Something about the landscape in front of me was hypnotic, the way the horizon of blue met the endless plane of black sky. Nothing shone- there was no moon, no stars, nothing. It was impossible to tell just how far out it went, or if it was a mural painted on a wall right in front of my face.

Something in my body screamed for me to turn around, and I did- now I could make out a slightly different shape against the endless black and blue horizon, a small rectangle of yellow situated in a long ribbon of black. Instant distrust for the thing sprang up in me- it was unnatural, this yellow thing. It didn’t belong here, had no business in this word of dark and cold, with its strange flickering shape and odd rounded edge.

I started to back away from it. It almost seemed as if it was getting nearer, threatening to attack me, engulf me and devour me in its cavernous, horrible yellow maw. Yes, it was certainly getting closer now. Great glory, it was charging me! I spun around suddenly, as if to run. I had to get away from it, hide in the darkness somewhere before it could catch me.

Reflexively, my hand reached for the short sword at my hip, but my grip was weak with terror. I pulled the weapon from its sheath, but I dropped it- it spun once in the air before nicking my pants leg and then landing flat on the blue sand at my feet.

It took a moment, but sudden red pain flared in my leg, causing my whole body to itch and tingle suddenly, and I cried out in shock. When I looked up, I could see the yellow doorway of the wall, and a silhouette inside it, frantically waving its arms at me. A sudden chill seemed to surround me, creeping from all sides as if I’d been plunged into a deep, cold river. The hot pain in my leg snapped me back to reality, and a sudden recognition of where I was hit me like a punch in the gut.

I snatched the blade up and ran as fast as I could, stumbling awkwardly through the dry, powdery sand. A thousand things touched my senses then, cold things, wrong things. I reached out, involuntarily, desperately for magic, for something to help me, but was greeted with a choking, suffocating feeling, as if I'd tried to take a breath underwater. At some point I tripped, rolled over on my weapon and cut myself again, on the arm. The pain galvanized my mind and body, encouraging me with even greater urgency to get out, get out of the desert. I kicked my boots off as I stood and sped barefoot across the sand. Slowly it occurred to me that I was running much, much farther than the twelve steps I had taken to get out.

Finally, after what seemed like hours of horrified running, I staggered back through the doorway of the wall and collapsed into the waiting arms of Branwen, whose face was as white as my linen shirt.

“Tim! Tim, you drunk bastard, bring him something to drink!” he commanded as we settled by the fire. I kept trying to look at him, but my eyes just wouldn’t focus on any one thing. My vision kept darting around involuntarily- that horrible yellow thing that I’d seen in the desert had to be around here somewhere, didn’t it? Hadn’t I seen it in this direction just moments ago?

Then Tim pushed a hot mug into my hands, and I looked up into his ashen face.

“Great glory, you damn fool! What’d ya run out all that way for?” He swore, his voice cracking.

The hot drink wasn’t wine, but it was alcoholic. I sipped it and felt warmth seeping back into my arms and legs, causing my body to sting. I didn’t understand. I’d counted my steps, and then… I tried to remember, but everything that had happened beyond the wall was slipping away like trying to carry water in my bare hands. I moved to take another drink and winced.

“What the,” I said as I noticed the spreading crimson on my pants and shirt sleeve. I tried to look closer, but my vision was still blurry and my mind foggy, like I’d just woken from a long sleep.

“I said, what’d you go all the way out there for man!” Tim practically shouted at me.

“What are you talking about?” I rasped as I finished the drink.

Branwen and Tim hauled me up under my armpits, careful about my wounds, and carried me to the arched doorway in the wall separating our outpost from the desert. Branwen pointed.

At first I didn’t see in the darkness what he was pointing at. Then my eyes rested on two small specs, more than fifty feet into the shadows outside the wall.

I looked down and was surprised to see that I was barefoot.

Those were my boots.


Stay tuned for more to come!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

“Twilight” Review, Part III

Hey ma! Look, I did it!

I actually finished reading “Twilight”. It wasn’t exactly a difficult read, but it still took me two months to complete. Why is that? One would think that I’d attempt to finish it as quickly as possible, like ripping off a band-aid in one swift motion to minimize the pain.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Since my last review ended at the beginning of chapter 13, this review covers from that point (Bella first seeing Edward’s glistening skin within the grove on the mountain) through the heartwarming scene where Edward and Bella go to prom together Bella DOES NOT DIE!.

I don’t have a lot to say about the story as a whole because… well, there’s just not that much story. The first 375 pages can be broken down thusly: 50% uninteresting, mundane, day-to-day experiences of a teenage girl living in a tiny pacific northwestern town, 40% obsessive doting on a boy, and 10% actual conflict.

In pages 375-379, an antagonist is finally introduced. The evil vampire (or, I suppose, just “vampire” in this instance- no sense splitting hairs) wants to kill Bella and eat her.


Because he’s a hunter.

Yeah, but why?

Because he hunts.

But why her?

Because he’s a hunter.

This is all the justification given for James’ interest in Bella. I kid you not. A three hundred year old vampire wants to take this girl for the same reason that kid with the unibrow wanted to take your lunch money in 4th grade- because he felt like it.

The antagonist, the great conflict in the book, isn’t introduced until better than 75% through the novel. When it finally is, it’s presented in a caricature form that adds nothing to the depth of the existing characters. The antagonist is less than a secondary character- it’s a two dimensional cartoon. His motivations are vague at best, he isn’t given any dialogue until page 427, and his female cohort has ZERO dialogue (and seems to simply vanish without explanation or consequence). Worse yet, when the final encounter with the antagonist occurs, the reader is forced to miss out on it entirely! Similar to the way Meyer made us suffer through hearing about how Bella cooked her dad dinner again, we are forced to follow Bella into a coma while the action happens somewhere outside of her consciousness. We only hear about the final confrontation after the fact, secondarily: “After I pulled him off you, Emmett and Jasper took care of him”. That’s it.

Without a doubt, this was the most unsatisfying conflict resolution I’ve ever encountered in a novel.

But that’s still not the worst part. The worst part of my whole Twilight experience was… there was one point in the book that I actually found myself getting into.

In one scene, Edward’s family has taken Bella to hide her from the Hunter. The three of them are in a hotel room, awaiting information from the others regarding the Hunter’s status. At this point, I had to catch myself, because I was actually in suspense. Which begs the question: if Meyer is capable of writing a decent paragraph (and with work, I believe she could!), then why is she writing junk food novels full of paper-doll characters and dangerous misogynistic lessons?

The answer is obvious: She’s intentionally writing garbage.

My girlfriend posed this question to me: Would you deny a mother the ability to feed her kids? So what if her novel isn’t very good- it sold a lot of copies and let her provide for her family. What’s wrong with that?

Of course, no decent human being would deny anyone the ability to make a buck. However, when I think about writing a novel that I know is crap just because it would sell a bunch of copies, the writer in me cringes. Why? Because when novels like that rise to the top of the bestseller list, it cheapens our craft as a whole. It’s like calling Lady Gaga a composer or someone who plans a one of those soulless housing developments an architect. On the surface, it has all the elements required, but there’s something important, something timeless, artistic and deep, missing.

My greatest fear is that Meyer and her community of readers will come to regard “Twilight” as this generation’s “Catcher in the Rye”, an epic tale of teenage angst and cynicism that captures the spirit of American adolescence in a way that will influence teenage readers and writers for generations to come. If that ever happens, I may go the way of Salinger and hide in New Hampshire for the rest of my days. May he rest in peace.

Monday, February 1, 2010

"The Four Eyes"

This is the part of the blog post where I usually talk about my inspirations for this story, but... I have NO idea where this piece came from. Is it a thriller? Is it a comedy? Or is it something else entirely? Hopefully, if nothing else, it's entertaining!

"The Four Eyes"
Aaron M. Smith- January 2010

A loud bang! sound from behind me made me jump. I whirled around, gripping my purse in white knuckles in case I had to use it as a weapon.

An elated ten year old was receiving a huge stuffed hippo from a man in a pork pie hat, having just scored “Hercules” on the strength test. Another kid next to him was swinging an oversized rubber hammer; with a similar bang!, the lights on the gauge began to light up to indicate the child’s strength.

I nudged my glasses up onto my nose and chastised myself. You’ve got to calm down, Steph, I said. That old lady was crazy. All she did was scam you out of five bucks.

But then the image of the woman came back to mind; the tiny tent, the air heavy with the smell of incense and perfume. For five dollars, I’d asked her to read my fortune.

She’d held her hands over her crystal ball, staring into it as if she’s lost something deep inside its glass surface. After a few moments, I said wryly,

“So, do you see a man in my future?”

She glanced up, so suddenly that I jumped back a bit.

“Yes,” she said, her voice as cold and serious as the grave.

“Well, what is he like?” I’d already paid my five bucks, might as well get my money’s worth.

She looked away from me and turned her huge, pale eyes back to her crystal ball. Her oversized hoop earrings swung about as she glanced into the orb from all possible angles. A white silken veil partially obscured her ancient-looking face from my view.

“He…he has four eyes,” she murmured.

“Oh, I like guys in glasses. Okay, what else?”

“He… Oh,” she pulled away from the sphere suddenly and raised one hand to her face, covering her eyes.

“What?” I asked, now fully engrossed in the séance.

“Beware of the man with four eyes,” she cawed, sneaking another quick glance into the crystal ball. “It is hard to understand, there is so much chaos… and, red... so much red. All I can see is red.”

I pulled my white cardigan more snuggly around my shoulders. “What do you mean?”

“That is what the spirits show me,” she mumbled, her attention fully returned to her orb. “There is nothing else. The spirits have nothing else to offer.”

“What do you mean there is nothing else?” I felt my voice rise. “Was it blood? Was there blood?”

“Please, I have no more,” she said, pleading with me.

“Well, you’ve got to tell me! Am I in danger?” my voice cracked with tension; it was all I could do to force my anxiety back down.

“Please, you must leave, that is all I have.” She would no longer look at me or the crystal ball.

“Stupid carnies,” I mumbled, and continued my walk by the games of strength. A calliope of noises rattled and whistled all around me as I walked through the bustling evening crowd. “Stupid Tessa. Where the hell’d she go anyway?” I pulled out my cell phone and tried to call her again. Nothing. It was her idea to come to the carnival in the first place- I only came because I had nothing else to do. But now all I wanted to do was go home.

I remembered she wanted to go on the carousel- I hate the things, so I headed to the fortune teller’s tent, a decision I was regretting more with each step.

“Tessa, where are you?” I cursed silently. We’d ridden together- I couldn’t leave without her.

“Game of skill, miss?” someone said from my right- a guy wearing a striped shirt and glasses tried to hand me a water pistol from behind a wooden stand.


I turned and practically ran from the stand, heading in the direction of the carousel. Now I was noticing every guy in the crowd who was wearing glasses- the guy with two kids, the short man at the cotton candy stand, the old guy with the cane. The ever-changing spectrum of carnival lights flickered across each of their lenses, giving their eyes a mysterious, fey quality that unnerved me.

“Stupid fortune teller,” I said again, trying once more to drive down the slow panic that was threatening to rise from the pit of my stomach.

“Tessa!” I called, and instantly felt a flush rise in my cheeks. There was no way she’d be able to hear me over the commotion of screeching children, shouting teenagers, ringing bells, and various other carnival white noises. Shouting for her would only make me look like a lost child.

Geez, who knew there were so many people with glasses at the carnival? A teenager with black plastic Buddy Holly’s walked by, caterwauling with two others in identical frames. I winced at the series of loud crashed that came when a girl knocked over a stack of tin bottles with a softball. I tried again to shake myself out of hysteria, but it was no good. I had to find Tessa and get out.

Up ahead a series of brightly blinking lights chasing each other in a long train caught my eye. Finally, the carousel. I’d left Tessa less than ten minutes ago. She had to still be around here somewhere. I scanned the crowd milling about the carnival ride but didn’t see my short, blonde friend. Why couldn’t I have some tall, red-headed, easy to pick out of a crowd girlfriends?

“Stephanie!” Someone called from my left, near a series of snack booths. I turned sharply at the sound, and crashed into someone broad and heavy.

Something icy cold covered my chest, and I screamed in shock and fear. I back peddled two steps, purse clutched at shoulder height ready to bludgeon the next living thing to get too close to me.

Before me was a tall guy with dark brown hair, wavy about his ears. His deep brown eyes were wide with horror, his mouth hanging open.

“Oh my gosh! I am SO sorry!” he said, extending both hands to me the way someone might try to calm a rabid animal. “I didn’t even see you! Are you okay?”

I forced myself to breathe again. Nothing hurt. I hadn’t been attacked. A deep chill in my chest prompted me to look down at the front of my sweater. My white cardigan was covered in red slush, soaked straight through to my t-shirt.

I looked up at the brown-haired guy in front of me. He was holding a large Styrofoam cup. I could see the red inside of it, though I was wearing most of its contents.

“Steph!” I heard the voice again, and noticed Tessa running toward me from a nearby corn dog stand. “Oh my god Steph, what happened?”

“I’m sorry, it was an accident,” the guy with the cup said again, his face ashen. He unzipped and wiggled out of his hooded sweatshirt and handed it to me. “Here, put this on. Oh man, that cardigan’s totally ruined. I’ll try to bleach it, if you want. Man, I am SO sorry,” his apology was written all over his face.

Only then did I notice the deely-bobbers on top of his head; those little plastic headbands with springs on them that wobble around when you move. At the end of the springs were bright green light-up plastic eyeballs.

The guy with four eyes.

“Uh, what’s so funny?” he said, but I couldn’t stop laughing. “Look, you must be frozen. Let me buy you a coffee or something to warm you up?” He extended the sweatshirt to me again, his apologetic smile accenting a dimple on his left cheek. I took the sweatshirt gratefully and unbuttoned down to my t-shirt. I stole a glance up at him once I’d discarded the soaked sweater.

Hmm. His two real eyes were actually a really pretty shade of brown.