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Copyright 2000 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Tara K. Harper
September 1, 2000

In which TKH goes to Homicide School, and other things...


I suppose I oughten't to skip the previous half a year, but I'm going to--just too much, you see:  the forensics studies; two weeks of homicide school (fascinating), bringing down most of the 120-foot trees that were falling on our house, replacing parts of the roof that didn't survive the trees.. writing, writing, that sort of thing.  I will admit to what happened in the last three months, though.

I finished up that stint at the biogenetics company in Huntsville.  Things have certainly become automated since I did genetics last.  It's still fascinating, and to a great extent, the automation seems to be allowing people to focus on specific problems (diseases, conditions), rather than on the process.  Of course, the 'internship' ended up costing me a pretty penny.  My laptop died--a combination of viruses acquired from the files I was working on, to a hardware fault that required replacement of the entire motherboard.  Paid a fortune to have my other laptop shipped to me overnight, only to discover that it had not been checked beforehand to make sure it was working either.  So I ended up working for weeks on two crippled systems, moving from one broken application to the other to get the work done.  My husband's visit was mainly an attempt to try to rebuild the second laptop.  The other disappointment was that I didn't get to do anything in the labs this time; just write the research up -- which was fascinating, but I was definitely hoping for some hands-on work, not just interviewing time.  Still, the overall experience was a good one--in particular, working with two of the research scientists (much appreciation to Dr. Ernest Curto and Dr. Teresa Wilborn!) on leading-edge research.

Photos Copyright 2000 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

On a more personal note, I did get to watch the daily activities of my first wild groundhog while I was there (my window faced a little granite-strewn forest--not that I crawled around on those tempting rocks; the whole place was saturated with poison ivy). The little skunk family was cute, too, though shy.  The lightning storms were wonderful.  Hours and hours of lightning, and it seemed to go on every other evening.  For the best storm, I was lucky enough to be up on a 'mountain' with my aunt and uncle, who were camping that week.  I apparently disturbed my relatives a bit by running out into the storm-- they thought I was going to get electrocuted.  (I finally heard my uncle screaming at me through the wind and come in to reassure him; I did feel bad about grieving him so, but he made me stay under the rafters, and I felt like a caged cat, pacing that edge of platform, unable to see the whole sky).  <Shrug>  It was much better -- marvelous, actually -- to be out in the wind than cooped up beneath the rafters.  Storms taste different down there.  It's the torn leaves, I think -- gives the rain a different flavor.  -- And why would anyone want to hide in a windowless bathhouse with all those lovely ear-cracking, day-blinding, black-roiling, wind-whipping, tree-breaking spears of light?  The wind actually turned like an animal, snapping its head around to bite back at its flank.  It was an interesting sensation, on top of that mountain, to feel that shift, that almost shocking change.  One second, it was roaring so hard we had to shout to hear each other (85 mph, they said later).  The next instant, Sky took a breath two seconds long, and then struck over like a backhand.  Those around me--several of us were trapped under that roof, unable to get to 'more substantial' shelter.  Anyway, there was a pause, and sound returned, and suddenly the other two couples looked almost frighteningly serious.  Curious, I said, 'what does it mean?'  They said, 'the wind has turned.'  I could tell that.  And then it roared back at us.  Wonderful! -- for me, anyway.  They said my mother, years ago, was just as much an idiot as I seemed to be, running around in the storms.  Sigh.  My aunt and uncle, bless their hearts, were unfortunately disturbed enough to call back to Oregon afterwards and 'discuss' this behavior with my father.  I guess I'm still not old enough to avoid those ubiquitous talking-to's...  

I managed to get down off the mountain around dusk, dodging boughs across the road, downed trees, and massive signs and sheets of roofing that had been torn right off the buildings.  We lost power for a long time, of course.  Back in my 'home' office, I found it highly ironic to be working desperately in the dark by candlelight--that most primitive of light sources--on the last vestiges of power out of my UPS and latest-technology (and crippled) laptop.  (Okay, readers, now you know what I go through to finish a book for you!)

Along with the lightning all month long, the mortars for the Fourth were wonderful.  I bought the biggest I could of course.  I mean, my gawd, but they have fireworks factories back there!.  We took my loot out to a lake where I blew them up like Noah, two by two, beneath a crescent moon, over a purple-black, sparkling lake, with the stars as a backdrop for the fire.  I had a great audience, a fascinating group:  One of the genetics-robotics researchers and his wife (nuclear missile scientist originally from Istanbul), a geneticist from mainland China (intriguing and significant differences in culture), Dr. Curto (senior research scientist at the genetics company), two teens (one a Presidential scholar), and li'l ol' me.  Far-ranging, intelligent conversation, and they all liked fireworks--almost too much to ask. Although, I must confess, I've apparently corrupted the Chinese woman.  She's hooked on mortars now, and is planning her own show next year.

I did find that, being right next to Redstone Arsenal for so long, I just had to get in for a tour.  It became a challenge, you see, as soon I was told 'no.'  I've been through the NASA center there several times, sometimes on private tours that have been fascinating (Homer Hickham--thank you!).  This time, however, the 82nd Army division was testing and practicing on old ordinance, and they made the most lovely thumps at dawn and late at night.  It took a bit of doing, but I did get a tour and some very interesting information (my thanks to the public affairs office at the arsenal) of the arsenal itself--or rather, what's left of it.  Bent and battered steam pipes worming through the landscape, narrow graveled roads, toxic wetlands, and humps of camera/observation housings like muskrat mounds in the fields...  The building below is not typical--it's new, almost like showcase offices, while everything else was weather-aged, rough-faded, and somehow seeming tired of staying upright in the heat.

Photo Copyright 2000 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

While still in Huntsville, I finished the draft of the latest Wolfwalker novel, and to celebrate, we went out to buy a bottle of champagne, only to discover that you can't buy champagne on a Sunday in the town of Huntsville, Alabama, even if the bottles are on the regular store shelves.  As a consolation celebration, my husband went in search of pizza, which he proudly brought back at that hour of the night.  ....It had nuts on it.  And cinnamon.  A Hawaiian pizza with cinnamon and almonds.  Thinking that those white things were stem slices of mushroom, I pushed most of them off, but I missed one--and didn't think anything too terrible about it, since it was a mushroom, after all.  Did I mention that I'm fatally allergic to nuts?  So I took a bite, and, with all the spice of the sauce and cinnamon, it was a second before I realized what was in my mouth.  By then, too late.  The tingling and swelling started.  As we calculated the minutes it would take to reach the nearest hospital, I had time to make one desperate phone call to the pizza company, "...I need for you to answer this question immediately and honestly--this is not a joke; this is a medical emergency.  Are there nuts of any kind on your Hawaiian pizza?..."  And, "Why, yes, we put almonds on our pizza."  Gaack.  So my celebration for finishing the novel wasn't champagne, but a death-reaction which required me to spend the next day half-suffocating while the medication tried to compensate for the exposure to that slice of nut.

Life apparently thought that wasn't enough of a joy-ride, so I got the phone call that our closest uncle had died.  Then the researcher I was staying with, told me that every time I finish a novel, he loses a relative too.  After watching the various traumas that occurred that month, we agreed that Life isn't being ironic anymore, it's being downright sarcastic.

To top that off, three days before the internship ended, I found out that the grant that would have covered a genetic profiling of my brother's condition--one of the reasons I took that position in the first place (the trade of work for a life is always worthwhile)--the grant was rejected, and it can't be resubmitted for another year.  I figured, that was enough, and came home --- to a $2k truck bill for transmission and carbuerator, and a dog that now needs surgery.  When people asked me how the summer went, I found myself with one of those humorless, twisted smiles and a dry voice, saying, "It certainly was interesting..."  

Various other traumas continued to occur--deaths in the family, cancers, taxes.  My accountant sold his business to a man who got a heart transplant, so I had a few extensions filed, and ended up with a $24k tax bill.  To some extent, I feel like a cliche (nothing sure but death and taxes).  Perhaps I'm just at that age when Life begins to twist in on itself and then snap at all the knots.  Or maybe Life isn't even sarcastic anymore; it's just outright ridicule.

So I packed up the truck, the dog, and the notebook and fled up to the mountains.  Wandered around, watched the river, wrote a lot, and ran from the yellow jackets.  One of my favorite rivers (Metolius), and it didn't disappoint me -- all rushing white and misty in the mornings, and the moon so bright that I didn't bother to use the flashlight for night-walking for the first four days.  Did slip while carrying a rather large log on my shoulder (I badly needed firewood--the mornings were in the '30s), and gashed the skin a bit--bark is a lot rougher than it appears.  Either that, or my skin has become quite thin.  Or maybe I've become thin--weak in my perspective.  Life is interesting, after all.  And which would I rather have:  the calm, steady work towards a distant goal (which I really, truly, honestly do try for); or the headlong, half-tripping, face-slapping, skip-kicking plummet toward something unknown?  At this point, I don't think intentions count.  Life makes its own way, dodging and plunging, and all I can do is hang on to its cry-striped tiger tail and try not to lose my grip.

Copyright 2000 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.

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