Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 Accomplishments and 2014 Resolutions

Remember how 2013 started?  I do.  It started right on this post of mine, the January 1, 2013, missive in which I resolved to accomplish several awesome things.  That, incidentally, was the first post of my friend Cricket Walker's 365-day posting challenge.  You know, that challenge for which I was going to post 365 blog entries, one each day, in 365 days, thus creating a travelogue for the year I'd just finished traipsing across.

Remember all that?  Well, I do.  And now, watching the tail end of 2013 gallop past me like Secretariat with a jet engine up his butt, I'm pretty sure that "I blew it" is an understatement.

Don't go getting all soft on me, now.  I cut my professional teeth in the U.S. Army Infantry, where if you can't handle a "your performance sucked so much shit, you were farting pastures" in an after-action review, you aren't going to last long.  Granted, I didn't last long, but my anti-longevity wasn't due to thin skin.  

So anyway, first, I need to review all the stuff I didn't accomplish last year.  Then, and only then, can we get to all the stuff I'm not gonna accomplish next year.  Trust me, that's the best way.

Chief Blog Goal #1: post a blog entry each and every happy little day of the happy little year.

Nope.  Not really even close.  I was 115 entries short.  114, actually, once I post this one.  Oh, I kept up for quite a while, with one post for every day right up to the end of May.  That's nearly five months of consistent blogging, I'll just point out, and that ain't bad.  It's also 251 posts in a year, which really ain't too shabby at all, as blog activity goes.  It's also helped me see the importance of back material--many days my most-hit post wasn't even from that day.  Oh, and also, I doubled my total hit count.  All in all, not bad, then, but as goal attainment goes, it sucks big fat ogre toes. 

The rest of my 2013 resolutions:

  1. Write every day.  Nope, didn't do that.  Wrote a lot of days, and a whole lot more of what I wrote in 2013 was a whole lot better than the crappola I scribed in 2012, in my own less than entirely humble opinion.  Still: fail.
  2. Publish four books.  Nuh uh.  I got one, and then a boxed set.  That's it.  One novel and a marketing device don't equate to four novels in any realm.  I did press on quite a bit, with Elf Queen nearly ready to go and its successor's first draft done.  Still: fail.
  3. Take risks.  Well, hell, I did that the very first day, making crappy goals like this one.  I did some other stuff that can be considered risks, too, but--ah, hell.  Final score on this one: indeterminate.
  4. Operate smarter.  What the hell was I thinking with this one?  "Operate smarter"--really, big guy?  Okay, show of hands: who thought I was smarter this year?  Who thought I wasn't?  Yeah, I'm gonna fail myself just for writing this unmeasurable-as-hell, stupid goal down.
  5. Freelance each week.  Just--no.  The time I was spending doing freelance, though it made me a better writer, paid off in very small ways, while the time I have spent writing novels, embarrassingly for the freelance sites, is already paying off better, and will hopefully in the future pay off heads and armpits above the freelance rate of pay.  Smart fail, but fail nonetheless.
  6. Dozen short stories written.  Or, um, not.  Fail.
  7. Social network weekly.  Hey, I've played Facebook games weekly; does that count?  I think the main purpose of this goal was to pull my weight in APG, and since they and I are no longer associated, I'll just rate this one a nice big juicy ball of fail, okay?
  8. Move.  Now, this one makes me giggle in a way that would probably lead you to suggest that I need professional help if you were to hear it.  I did it.  I frickin' moved.  But.  The goal was to move into a house from the craptastic apartment we were renting.  Nowhere in there was I suggesting a journey of a thousand miles.  While I'm not saying it was bad that I moved to where I did, I gotta give myself only half credit for this one.  And half credit, on a goal, is--yes, you guessed it.  Fail.
  9. Exercise once a day.  Not even close.  If you strung 'em out it would probably be closer to once a month.  Big fat floppy fail there, with whipped cream and sugar on top. 
Okay, so now that I've proven the exercise, let's sum up.  I suck.  I either suck at setting goals, or I suck at achieving goals, or I suck at both.  You can't miss nine out of ten goals, though, and have a good year.

Wait.  Let me rephrase that, because it's patently untrue.  2013 was, in fact, a pretty dang good year for me.  I moved into a great job opportunity.  I met some great neighbors.  I accomplished more writing than I've ever done before, and a lot of it is sweet awesome sauce.  Heide's health continues to improve.  Jessa graduated from high school, and Vinny graduated from a college program.

I guess you can miss nine out of ten goals and still have a pretty dang good year.

Oh, yeah, and I got a Gandalf lunch box for Christmas.  That, and a TARDIS throw-blankey.  How many of you got a Gandalf lunch box or a TARDIS throw-blankey, hmm?  Pretty dang good year?  Nah, pretty dang great year!

Okay, so I've had a pretty good few years, honestly.  It's been a lot of cases of not accomplishing what I set out for, but what I did accomplish has made me happy.

So with all that being said, what should I vow to do in 2014?  Keep in mind as I ask the question that I haven't accomplished much of what I vowed in 2013, 2012, or other years in the past.  So--maybe--maybe I should just play the odds?  Since history tells me that I'm most likely not going to do what I say I'm going to do, maybe I should work it like this:

In 2014, I resolve to:

  • not INCREASE my income by any substantial measure.
  • not COMPLETE four novels that are rockin' good.
  • not BREAK THROUGH to world wide publishing success.
  • not ACHIEVE every goal I'm assigned at work.
  • not LOSE most of the weight that I've gained over the years.
  • not GET IN SHAPE.

Take that, Cosmos...

Now, we'll see whether I accomplish what I've said I would, or what I've said I wouldn't. 

To tell you the honest truth, though?  If I merely succeed in spending the next 365 bright and beautiful days under the sun with the love of my life, Heide, I'll be the luckiest man on the planet.  I can only hope, for your sake, my friend, that you have someone who brings the sweet awesome sauce to your life like she does to mine.

Goals or no, here's hoping you have a great, happy, and, above all, safe New Year!


Sunday, December 15, 2013

I Love My Shoelaces

Okay, okay, I really don't have any sort of weird fondness for the inanimate string-like objects that hold my shoes securely on my feet.  The title of this post is only slightly tongue-in-cheek, though, as it is quite refreshing to renew my relationship with said inanimate objects in addition to the animated appendages they serve.

There was a time, see, when I was in quite good shape.  I ran a marathon, a triathlon, and an iron man event, all while studying physics and electrical engineering.  I graduated from West Point, in fact, at 180 solid, muscular pounds, and though I certainly wasn't the greatest athlete to complete a course of study at the military academy -- not even really close, honestly -- I was still in good physical condition.

Fast forward to today, over twenty years later, and quite nearly a hundred pounds heavier.  There's several reasons I've let my physical condition go, but they're all pretty much just excuses at this point.

Oh, and I used to be flexible.  So flexible was I, in fact, that I had to stop doing quad stretches before I ran, because I'd always over-stretch and the subsequent run would hurt my knees.  Now?  Not so much.  When I started the workout regimen I've been on for the past week, I was surprised to find that I couldn't even do a quad stretch.  No, seriously -- I couldn't bring my left leg up high enough to grab the top of that shoe.

My overall shape -- round, it is -- has gotten to the point where "Oh, you graduated from West Point?" always sounds like more of a shocked exclamation than an expression of approbation.

As if that wasn't bad enough, just tying my shoes was an exercise in embarrassing exertion.  I mean, it was hard enough to do it before my ill-fated trip to Bermuda, but after breaking my collarbone and three ribs on my left side, that achievement was darn near an impossibility.  I went with slip-on shoes for months after, and only recently went back to tied-on shoes despite the effort involved.

Tying my right shoe wasn't too bad; I'd find a nice high perch and throw my foot up onto it, reaching down and deftly working the laces into a knot.  The left, though, was the problem.  I used the same perch, but in order to get that one tied I had to roll myself up into a tight ball, holding my breath tightly while I rapidly did up a bow knot with my quivering, bluing fingertips.  Once the shoe was tied, I sprang back up into a straight position with an explosive breath in.

It was downright embarrassing, really.

I'd had enough of it this last summer, but after buying a workout regime I got caught up in moving, changing jobs, and all that stress, and the disks lay on the mantle for months, gathering dust.  Besides, when I tried the first couple of exercise routines, my left shoulder still crackled and popped when I used it.  While it's fine for breakfast cereal to do that, it's alarming when it's your formerly broken shoulder.

Then, in early December, I weighed myself.  Two hundred eighty pounds, with zero clothes on.  Enough was enough, I decided.  After talking it over with the family I set out on a diet and exercise routine.

I started last weekend.  Oh, my, it hurt!  The pops and crackles were gone, finally, but the glutes and shoulders and calves hurt so bad for a while that I had a hard time climbing the stairs to the parking garage at work.  Even walking down the hallway brought enough pain that I grimaced with each step.

You know the good thing about workout muscle pain?  It's going to go away, one way or another. Either you work out through it, as I have, or you stop working out, and either path leads to less pain.  Besides, the burn of a solid workout is a good pain.  I used to enjoy it.

Turns out, I still do.

This weekend?  I've only lost a few pounds.  Now, that's pretty good for the start of a workout routine--those who know best have always told me that it's unsafe to lose more than a couple or a few pounds in a week. 

The best part, though?  I can tie both shoes without needing SCUBA equipment.  I can also do quad stretches once again, though still not nearly as quickly as I used to hop into them.

So yeah, I'm happy I started.  My Facebook friends know which workout regimen I'm talking about, because I've been mock-complaining about how insane this Insanity workout is.  Fact of the matter, though, is that it's perfect for me.  It's the younger cousin of P90X, which is a successful strength-building process, but Insanity is focused on cardio and sweating more than muscle building, and that's precisely what my fat tuckass needs.

So -- wish me luck.  That, and years of happiness in my newly renewed relationship with my feet in all their surroundings.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Art of Sarcasm

So there, I finished the first book of the 100 that I'm working at reading.  Technically, it's more like the fourth, because I recently re-read a couple of them before I discovered the list, and so I'm counting those as done, gosh darnit.  Whatever.  Regardless, Lord of the Flies is now read.  And--yes, it's good.  I see why it's considered a great novel.  More on that, and on the whole book versus movie debate, in a later post, I promise.

Next on the list?  An old friend, rather than a new discovery.  Like some of the other books on the list, I've read this one before, but unlike the others on the list, I've always recalled the reading of it with a certain degree of fondness and joy. 

It was one of the first war books I procured a copy of, and it was the last in that collection to go once I finally accepted that my private study of warfare didn't need to continue.  See, I went to West Point as a guy who'd already read nearly everything Isaac Asimov had published by that date, and I'd read many other sci fi works besides.  For the fun of it I'd read many of the older classics, including the biggies by Euclid, Marx, and Aristotle, and if I'd put nearly half as much energy into reading the books I'd been assigned in high school as I put into not-reading them, I'd'a had one heckuva philosophical base behind me. 

Then I got to West Point, and despite my continued fervor at not-reading the books that the English department decided I ought to, I discovered warfare as a topic.  The West Point texts, written by the West Point staff, weren't half bad at describing the battles as they happened, but I started devouring other great works as well: biographies, memoirs, non-fiction accounts, and even works of fiction.  The Brotherhood of War series was good, though it became repetitive eventually.  Tom Clancy got really big at about that time, and I enjoyed his stories. 

And then there was Catch-22.

Joseph Heller's masterpiece grabbed for itself a long-standing central space on my bookshelf.  Hey, there were many books that described military actions and activities.  Most of them pointed out how mankind hadn't really learned anything from previous warfare, or how we had and one side made the most of it.  Many other books told of people who fight.  None of them, though, made warfare or the people who fight it seem so--human. 

And it accomplishes that through the art of sarcasm.

An example:

"The colonel dwelt in a vortex of specialists who were still specializing in trying to determine what was troubling him.  They hurled lights in his eyes to see if he could see, rammed needles into nerves to hear if he could feel.  There was a urologist for his urine, a lymphologist for his lymph, an endocrinologist for his endocrines, a psychologist for his psyche, a dermatologist for his derma; there was a pathologist for his pathos, a cystologist for his cysts, and a bald and pedantic cetologist from the zoology department at Harvard who had been shanghaied ruthlessly into the Medical Corps by a faulty anode in an I.B.M. machine and spent his sessions with the dying colonel trying to discuss Moby Dick with him."

Even back when the only specialty professional language I knew involved military acronyms and words you might see in an OpOrd (er, "Operations Order," a five-paragraph thing of linguistic repetition and plagiarism and command and control wisdom), I found that paragraph to be hilarious.  Now that I'm much--well, um, just much--and I am familiar with the masterwork that is medical terminology, it's beyond hilarious.  It's stunning. 

Another thing that is stunning--and not in as positive of a reference--is that Heller didn't do it entirely by himself.  The 50th Anniversary edition contains something that my ancient, worn, and long-since donated copy did not: an introduction that I probably wouldn't have read at that time anyway.  Now, though, I do read such things, thanks not only to a certain degree of curiosity I have as one who's been-there-done-that-but-not-had-a-bestseller, but also in the hopes of learning something useful. 

In this volume's introduction is the meta-tale (a story describing a story) of how others collaborated to make Catch-22 the work of art that I believe it is.  Specifically, Robert Gottlieb, a man considered by many to be one of the finest editors of all time, sat down with the author to "piece together a jig-saw puzzle from a total of nine separate manuscripts."  Nine.  "Their collaboration was astonishingly devoid of friction.  Gottlieb was a genius, but Heller was an editor's dream, that rare thing--an author without proprietary sensitivity, willing to make any change, to . . . murder any darling." 

And there ya have it.  An author who'd spent seven years writing the original work, who was then willing to take a genius's suggestions to heart--and he wrote a masterpiece that was acclaimed critically by all.  Well, nearly all.  Well, okay--according to the introduction, it was actually panned by quite a few literary critics, folks who I'm sure have been blown sour raspberries by many now-famous authors. 

And now, I'm off to write, to finish constructing the true end of the novel I called "ended" just in time to win NaNo.  It's not really done till the loose ends are tied, though, and I still have some tying to do.  And then, perhaps, some time spent with Bombadier Yosarian is in order.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Memories Part Two

Today I wanted to continue on the topic from a previous post: memories.

I recently took the fam to do some diamond mining.  Woo hoo!  See, there’s a place in Arkansas called the Crater of Diamonds State Park.  Because it sits atop an ancient volcano, diamonds can be found on the surface; hence, the name. 

It is, according to advertisements, the only public diamond mine in the world. Heide learned of its existence years ago while watching Treasure Hunters.  To her bucket list was thus added a diamond hunting trip in Arkansas, then, in addition to a sapphire hunting trip in Montana and others.

Hey, it’s just over four hours from our new home in Memphis. We had to go.

Heide’s birthday is in November, and the weekend after is one of the easiest to get into the park with short notice due to its location between the summer – “high” – season, and the winter season.  Thus it was that a few weeks ago I put the plans together to enjoy a nice weekend away from the Internet and get our diamond-hunter mojo going. 

That’s all worth its own post.  This one’s about the drive there.

To get from Memphis, Tennessee, to Murfreesboro, Arkansas, you first take Interstate 40 west, driving across a tall bridge over the Mississippi River and then through Arkansas to Little Rock.  From there you jump onto Interstate 30 toward Texarkana. 

Somewhere between the Mississippi River and Little Rock it hit me: I’ve been on that route before.  It was over three decades ago, mind you, but suddenly memories of that particular stretch of road came flooding back. 

I was as excited by the trip back then as I was the more recent weekend.  Oh, this weekend we were heading out to find diamonds, and hopefully lots of them, but that other journey long ago was in search of a whole different type of gem: a gem of a lifestyle, one where the days were always warm and the nights always cool, one set in a land of milk and honey (or some might say fruits and nuts), one where Mom could start over in life from the safety of her mother’s home.

Specifically, this Mississippi boy was moving to California.  Technically, Mom was moving to California; I and my brother were along for the ride.  But what a ride it was.

I’d kept vague memories of Mom talking to truckers on the CB radio as we crossed over a towering bridge, and now I know that it was the I-40 bridge over the Mississippi.  That was one of the most exciting times on the journey.  It was just the second hour, for one thing – you know, honeymoon phase and all.  I hadn’t traveled much; I’d only been west of the Mississippi a few times, in fact. 

A grand adventure awaited, we were all certain.

It had to wait a little longer, though.  We pulled into Texarkana, which isn’t exactly a huge city, and smelled antifreeze.  That was, matter of fact, the first time I found out what antifreeze smelled like when it was outside of the engine.  We ended up overnighting there while waiting for a replacement water pump, but hey, nobody had included this teenage boy in the actual plans and so I had no idea it wasn’t a planned stop.  It was actually a lot of fun for me; I don't recall the restaurant across the street from the mechanic, but I do remember the nachos platter we ate there.  Similarly, I don't recall the hotel we stayed at that was also across the street from the mechanic, but I do remember how much fun it was to spend our first night of our grand adventure there.

New water pump in place, we went on to Dallas, where a set of cousins I'd never met awaited.  Home movies--what a kick!  They’d recently been to Hawaii, and we got to watch all the videos (done on VHS tapes, which were actually a very new thing, themselves, back then).  At the same time I met my second cousin, who’d been some kind of runner-up in some sort of beauty pageant, and boy, was she beautiful.  That led to a whole lot of conflicted agony as teenage hormones squared off against ingrained taboos: “but she’s beautiful",“but she’s my cousin.” 

We stayed a blissful few days in Dallas and then headed on to El Paso.  Again, I don’t remember much there but for the highlights, one of which was learning just how far you can see in the desert air.  “Yay, we’re almost to El Paso!” I remember crooning, and my mother explained that the map said we were still nearly a hundred miles away, and then she told me how it is that the desert makes that illusion happen.

Oh, I also remember how we locked the keys in the car at the restaurant in El Paso – Denny’s, I think?  I don’t remember the menu or the food so much, but I do remember how interesting it was that the first two people we asked for help happened to know how to break in to a car, both efficiently and effectively.

We made it to SoCal fairly straightaway after that incident.  And then came the boiling over – not the car, but the driver.  Ever watched somebody who’s used to cruise control follow somebody else who isn’t using it?  It’s not something you’d think would be that funny until you’ve actually seen it happen.  My mother nearly blew a gasket on the last leg of the trip.  We’d stopped off at my uncle’s house, and he led us the last 100 miles or so through Riverside and on in to Upland, where my grandmother lived.  Only, he didn’t have cruise control, and every time he sped up or slowed down my brother and I were treated to a few words that I don't recall knowing our mother was familiar with till then. 

Funny, isn’t it, the things we remember and the things we don’t? 


Friday, November 29, 2013

Interviewed Today!

Special news today.  I was interviewed by a writer friend, Aaron Speca, for his blog, and it was a whole lot of fun.

Go read it here:


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reading to Master the Craft of Writing

"The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who'll get me a book I ain't read." - Abraham Lincoln

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that." - Stephen King

I get it, I get it.  You must read if you're going to make a serious go at writing.  A couple of years ago, in fact, I was blogging about this--this commandment, I suppose.  Only it's not so much a commandment.  I mean, it's fun to read, right?  That's what got me into writing in the first place.  I enjoy reading stories, and I decided I could probably tell stories at least as well as some of those I'm reading, and so blammo, off I went.

Problem was, what to read?

My genre, of course.  I mean, that's obvious.  I write fantasy, and so I've read a lot of a lot of fantasy in my life, and especially over the past couple of years.  I wanted to really do my Dragon Queen series up right as YA fantasy, too, so I've been going back through the first few Harry Potters and the Percy Jacksons and the Pendragons and so on through the list of other successful YA fantasy series.

It's fun.  I love to read fantasy.  I love to write fantasy.

At some point, though, you've got to vary it a bit.

Why do I say that?  Well, there's only so much you can learn about mastery of the craft of writing, as a general thing, through reading commercial literature in a certain genre.  Whatever the genre is, it likely follows certain patterns and protocols--which, I must add, are what make it successful as a genre in the first place.  But to grow as a writer, you have to read other patterns and protocols, too.

It's like, I would suggest, the path to becoming a master builder.  A carpenter gets very good at building a type of structure when he works with that type of structure all the time, but that one area doesn't make him a master.  Instead, he'd have to study in lots of different regions of his craft.  Right?  And now that I've completely pummeled that horrible example to death, time to move on.... literary writing.

Oh, now don't go getting all "literary writers are snobs" on me.  There's nothing inherently wrong or snobbish about literary fiction.  Yes, it as a "genre" tries to smack-down at the deeper understandings of our human existence, and it does so at a time when many of us, if not most of us, really just want to read about two people kissing or fighting dragons or zombies, or, heck, maybe all the above at the same time.  I mean, hey, who wouldn't love that?

Still, there's something to be said for me taking the time to read over some classics.  I remember "reading" several of them back in English classes:

"You finished Crime and Punishment yet?"

"Yeah.  It's a crime that it was written, and a punishment that we have to read it."

"No kidding, man.  So did you read it, read it, or just skim it for what we need to answer the questions in the report?"

"Now, what do you think?"  *surreptitiously flashing the cover of a Cliff's Notes booklet*

"Riiiiiight.  Cool, man."

So not too long ago, prompted by the release of a movie that looked interesting, I re-read The Great Gatsby.  The plot, I found, was every bit as detestable as I remembered back when I'd read it the first time in eleventh grade.  That said, while there was absolutely no way this high school junior was gonna lose any cool points by talking about flowery language and, um, "stuff," this adult man did find himself enjoying the prose.

But there are, as I'm sure many of you already know, way too many "classics" to read them all.  Where do you start?

I was lucky.  Recently I happened across an article on the "Top 100 All-Time Best Novels," a list of the best novels published between 1923 and 2005, which is as close to "all time" as I'm interested in getting.  It was compiled by Lev Grossman, an author/critic whose book The Magicians I found enjoyable, and by Richard Lacayo.

Thus, I set a goal for myself: by the end of 2014, I would have all 100 read (or attempted to read; the memory of my assaults upon the deadly prose of Ulysses still haunts me).  Then I thought about that a little more--there are only about 400 days between then and now, give or take a few.  That's an average of 4 days per novel.  Some are fairly short, and if I did nothing but read I could easily get them done, but others are near the 1000-page mark.

Nope.  No way in heck.

Rule #1 of goal-setting: don't set goals that can't be met.

(Okay, that might not be Rule #1, but it's up there.)

New goal, then: have a significant chunk of the novels on the "Top 100" list read by the end of 2014.  And by "significant chunk" I mean at least a quarter, a goal that requires about one book per 16 days.

Goal set, then, it fell to me to find copies of the books.  Granted, I could just buy a copy of each, but--um, well, that's a lot of money.

I could crowd-source the attempt, I suppose, but it seems rather silly to ask others for money so I can buy a lot of books to read.

Then:  Hey!  The library!

Turns out Memphis has quite an extensive library system, and I was able to find all but a few of the books listed in their collection.  And yes, I was anal retentive enough to create a spreadsheet: title, author, location, and Grossman/Lacayo's main point as to why they picked it.  And then I created a color scheme: yellow means I've read it (recently) and green means I have it in a stack to be read.

List thus created, I started with the first book!  It's already nearly halfway done.  I'm sure you're assuming I started with The Adventures of Augie March, which is the first on the list--right?  Nope, couldn't find that one on my first trip to the central library.  Thus, I'm reading--for the first time, believe it or not, despite having seen the movie--The Lord of the Flies.

And yes, it's good.  Better'n the movie, in fact, a statement that should surprise no one who's ever read a book and seen the movie, both.

I'm going to enjoy this project.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Christmas Commercialism

There was a song I remember from my earliest years that celebrated the Christmas season.  I hope you'll indulge me a moment of nostalgia as I repeat the words to it:

"Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la, la la la la"

Sound familiar?  I remember not really knowing what a bough of holly was, and then once I found out, I didn't know why one might consider decking any halls with it, since "to deck" in those years referred to the act of punching some other guy in the face.

"Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la, la la la la."

Yes, indeed.  Jolly, I got.  I liked jolly back then.  Still like it a lot today, in fact.

"Don we now our gay apparel, fa la la, la la la, la la la"

Whoa, now, gay meant something really not-cool back in the 70's in Mississippi, but once it was explained to me that gay had an entirely non-sexual-orientation-related meaning, I was okay with that.  I mean, who wouldn't wanna wear happy stuff, right?

"Troll the ancient Yuletide carol, fa la la la la, la la la la."

My childhood mind glossed right over that line, still buzzing as it was on the word "gay," but it's the most interesting of the bunch, really.  Back then we didn't have "Yahoo Answers" to look up things like "What does 'troll' mean in 'troll the ancient Yuletide carol'?" and read the results as people go back and forth over whether or not the letter r belongs in the word.

Woo hoo!  Carol fight!  Carol fight!

*ahem* no, not really.  It actually is supposed to be the word "troll," from way back before that word referred to doing something ugly on the Internet.  According to the online etymology dictionary, the word "troll" began its life as a verb in the Germanic tongue in the 15th Century, when it referred to walking about, wandering. Which is, I have to point out, pretty much what you do when you go caroling, and even more so if some yummy wassail is involved.

Neat stuff, right?

So this morning, getting ready for work as I was, I heard a new, modernized version of the song on TV.  This one had the following catchy lyrics:

"Shop, shop shop shop shop shop shop shop, fa la la la la, la la la la."

Neat, ain't it?


I'm about as grumpy of a curmudgeon as they come.  I remember fondly a time when you wouldn't hear a Christmas carol, see a wreath, or get prodded to spend money you didn't have to get people stuff they didn't need, until after 12:01 am Friday morning of Thanksgiving weekend.  It was improper, it was gauche, to advertise for Christmas too early.

And now?  Everybody's doin' it.

Oh, I don't mind the TV commercials too much, unless/until they slaughter an old favorite carol of mine.  But "Black Friday," as it's been called forever (or at least since the 1960's) is now becoming darkly-gray Thursday as retailers open earlier and earlier in order to capture as much of the Christmas overspending cash manna as they can.

It's a practice that, to me, is just plain wrong.  Thanksgiving should be a day to spend with your family, if you have one, and/or friends, if you have those, eating lots of food and drinking lots of--um, drink--if you can afford it.

No, I'm not being sarcastic with that last bit.  I've been there, done that, bought the extra-cheap thrift store t-shirt.  Made the Thanksgiving meal out of cans that said "green beans" and "ham with water added" right beside a simple bar code.  Not for long, but I was certainly there in that economic demographic.  Back then, if my employer had offered me extra pay to work on Thanksgiving, I'd've taken them up on it in a New York minute, because hey, I needed the money.

So no, I have nothing at all against those who choose to work on Thanksgiving.  More power to 'em, man.

Further, I'm honestly not sure I have anything against the employers who choose to open their doors on Thanksgiving.  After all, if the demand wasn't there, they wouldn't be doing it.  Pleasing the customer is, after all, what drives the cogs of capitalism, right?  And as far as I'm concerned, as long as it's not dumping poison into my rivers or fouling my spinach with the latest strain of deadly microbe or making it so I can't afford to take my kid to the doc, I'm all for capitalism.  Yes, some of them Capitalists have fewer people on staff who need the extra money than they require on-site in order to maintain operations, and so they have to force workers to come in when they wouldn't have otherwise.  I hate that, but being an employer and manager myself I see the point.

So all that said, who should we really be cranky with regarding the invasion of our Thanksgiving space of cheerfulness and, um, thankfulness?

I think, the customer.  Frankly, until we get to the point where people aren't willing to spend Thanksgiving away from family standing in long lines in order to enjoy the chance to potentially win the purchase of an iWhatzit for a few bucks off the regular price, we'll continue seeing Darkened Weekdays creeping earlier and earlier.  Is that a problem?  For the employees who need the money and are happy for a chance to work for it, no, it's kind of a good thing.  For the ones who don't and aren't, it's not.

And for me--I guess I can stand to see a few more commercials that butcher my favorite Christmas tunes.  But don't expect to see me at a store on the fourth Thursday of November. 


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Memories -- of West Point Troublemaking

It’s funny, to me, how little things – a sight, an item, a sound – can bring back memories I haven’t had for years.

Recently, ferinstance, I was sitting at breakfast with my lovely bride and daughter, and I started fidgeting because I was done eating and they weren’t.  As luck would have it, I ended up holding my spoon and eyeing the salt shaker for no particular reason.  Suddenly I was transported back to a time when I was much more of a troublemaker than I am today: my years at West Point. 

Yeah, yeah, I know.  West Pointers are supposed to be disciplined automatons, the very antithesis of troublemakers, right?  Wrong.  We were all people, and all quite different once you looked beneath the grey and sparkly of our uniforms.  And hey, we were all college students, too.  Yes, West Point is declared every year to be one of the worst “party” schools in the nation by this poll or by that other one, and we grads are actually quite proud of that when it happens, but that doesn’t mean everybody there is a crispy-clean American version of Dudley Do-Right. 

As a matter of fact, very few of us met that description.  Pranks went on year-round, especially near special football games like the one against our naval brethren-at-arms.  We would regularly “rally,” or show our high level of football-fan spirit, by donning naught but jock straps and running around outdoors in the cold New York air.  Our being the ninth class that accepted girls brought a little hitch to that time-honored tradition, granted, but the girls neatly solved it by wearing black shorts under the jock straps and by putting shirts on over the important parts.  Still naughty, but not illegally so, it was.

Nearly everybody I knew there had at least a little bit of a wicked or wild streak, and some of us had more than a bit.  There was a “Century Man” designation for those who had over a hundred hours of punishment tours, and though I never earned that title I was always suitably awed by those who did. 

So you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with a spoon and a salt shaker, right?

Way back when I was at West Point, when dinosaurs roamed the Plain and when plebes (the freshmen) actually had it rough (sorry, Old Grad phraseology coming out there) we had to go eat breakfast.  We, the plebes, had to, that is.  The upperclassmen could go if they wanted, but none were required to attend so long as enough of them were present to keep us unruly Smacks in line. 

Breakfast, then, would find us sitting eight or nine plebes to a table along with one or two juniors or seniors who were always sleepily and grumpily sipping coffee and reading some sort of academic thing or another, getting ready for the day's more didactic activities.  That was a significant change from the regular meals, which everybody was required to attend and at which we sat two or three of each class to each ten-seat table.  Lunch and dinner were thus generally stressful events in a plebe’s life, while breakfast was more of a free meal overseen by upperclassmen who weren't quite awake and who didn’t really want to be there in the first place.

Two other items of note: the salt shakers were the round plastic restaurant variety, and the ice cubes were round tubes that fit particularly aerodynamically in the tea spoons that each place was set with.

And I was a burgeoning physics major.

It occurred to me one day that by laying the salt shaker over its side it became a smooth fulcrum for a spoon.  The spoon could then be used as a catapult for the ice cubes, whose tubular shape made them ideal for being catapulted.

I was sitting back to back with a girl I liked to pick on.  There was no particular reason for this other than her voice, which had a strange quality to it.  The honest fact was I came to both like and respect her as one of the best people, man or woman, I’ve ever met.  That morning, though, my little internal devil won the battle, and so I sized up the shot I needed to make to interrupt her breakfast.

Hey, man, both upperclassmen, at my table and hers, were doing their best impressions of sleeping in their coffee.  That little red guy convinced me I had a clean opportunity to raise some hell.

I took a trial shot.  The ice cube arced up and over my head and fell just behind its intended victim.  Close, but no cigar.  On the second shot, though, I proved my marksman status when the ice cube sailed over my head, came down just in front of hers, and landed right smack dab in her plate.


That pissed her off, it seemed.  I don’t blame her; I would’ve been angry, too.  Somehow I hadn’t thought quite that far ahead in my planning.  In her anger she took up the ice cube, turned around in her chair, and hurled it at me. 

And no, she didn’t throw like a girl.

Luckily for the contents of my cranial cavity, she missed.  The ice cube smashed against the wall next to my table, the clatter making enough noise to awaken the upperclassmen at the head of each of our tables, and then hoo, wee, the yelling began.  Boy, were we in trouble.  I think each of us got eight demerits and our first four hours of punishment tours.

At the time it was bad.  Years later, it was rather funny.

Oh – and hey, um, kids, don’t do as I did, okay?


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

I Don't Get It

I don’t get it.

No, that’s not true.  I do get it.  I wish I didn’t, but I guess I do.

What’s this mysterious it?  It’s hard to encapsulate into a word or two, so lemme ‘splain a little bit.

There are quite a few places to stay when you come to Arkansas to spend a wonderful day or more not-finding diamonds at the Crater of Diamonds State Park.  Some aren’t open in November; most, though, are.  As you’ve probably already guessed, also, some are quite cheap, some are very expensive, and others are right in the middle.

Which should I pick?

I narrowed it down quickly by asserting that we were bringing our puppies along with us.  One’s an old, old guy who we’re scared to leave by himself for a while, and the other is a young persnickety little girl who we’re also scared to leave by herself for a while, for an entirely different reason.  We don’t like to leave either of them in kennels, and generally having friends stop by to make sure they’re okay isn’t enough social contact for them, so we’re kind of stuck traveling with the little boogers.

That narrowed it way down.  The park’s web site has a long list of accommodation options, but specifying “pet friendly” reduces it to just a handful.  Then there's other qualities that are important to me, like "not outrageously expensive" and "not skeezy."  Having a way to prepare basic meals is nice, too, because that means we spend less of our hard-earned money on going out to eat -- or, at least, that we have the option of doing that, or not.

It ended up coming down to a choice of two, and ultimately I made the selection based on online reviews.  The place we were in had sterling reviews, and lots of ‘em, while the other place had some negative comments -- like "mold" and general lack of customer service.  Yeah, no, thanks.

Swaha Cabins and Marina it was, then, and I’m glad now that we chose it.  It was a nealry perfect place, with a beautiful setting and exquisitely-maintained cabins.  The bed was a little hard for my preference, but I do recognize that as a personal taste thing.  The full kitchen only lacked a dishwasher, at least until our daughter stepped into it. 

(don't tell her I said that)

They also have a book on the table for guests to leave remembrances about their stays.  I read it and – well, that leads to what it is that I don’t get.

Nearly every entry into the journal is a complaint.  This place, this idyllic set of cabins set up above a lake in the foothills of the Arkansas mountains, this abundantly well-reviewed (online, anyway) business, got panned in the actual reviews there on site. 

For what sin, you ask?

And I answer:  No WiFi.

No, I’m not kidding.  There’s no WiFi there.  There’s also extremely spotty cell phone coverage.  I received a butt-call from my stepson our last night, followed by a text apologizing for it, and I couldn’t return the call because of lack of signal.  It would be okay for a second, and then not, for a long while. 

When I first arrived I took some beautiful photos of the cabin and – well, you know, I kinda bragged a little.  I posted them up to Facebook.  Or, rather, I tried to post them up to Facebook.  The first two posted okay, and then the next four just sat in the queue trying to get through the then-closed digital airwaves.  I don’t know if you’ve ever done that with a smart phone, but you shouldn’t, because I let it spin and, over the course of about half an hour, I watched my battery strength indicator go from green to yellow to red. 

I actually had to turn it off and plug it in.

It was – liberating.  Hell, it was quite nearly orgasmic.

Look at the picture of the back porch.  I ask you this: would it be improved in the slightest by a WiFi antenna?

I wrote this sitting right there, in fact, right in that first visible green chair, typing on a laptop that was actually sitting in my lap, sipping coffee out of a real, non-styrofoam cup, and the only part of the great big world I was connected to was the one that contains wind and birds and crickets.

And I loved it.


Monday, November 18, 2013


Shhh . . . .

The quiet is almost surreal.

Only, it isn’t quiet.  Not really.  Off in the distance a raven calls.  The wind says hi, brushing through and rattling millions of tree leaves.  Against it all is the whisper of thousands of nearby early morning critters waking up: crickets, squirrels, songbirds.  It all makes for such a serene background to a writing chair and table.

An acorn drops onto the metal roof that overhangs my perch.  I hear it bounce down, a sound of irregular gravity-driven pops.  Then the thunk of acorn hitting wooden porch, and once again it is as quiet as the woods can ever be.

I recall, sitting here on the back porch of the cabin, laptop in lap and coffee cup beside, that the peacefulness of the back country is actually noisy, loud and -- well, and interesting.  For all of the volume, though, it is a completely different soundscape than what I’m used to in my normal life of cell phone chirps and IP-phone pages. 

This is the crazy symphony of the natural world; that isn’t.  This is the song of my youth.  I was raised in a different age, one where you had to find a phone line to make a call, where you had to have a dime and a nickel to coax a bottled soda out of the Coke machine, where kids had to make our own entertainment, and often as not that entertainment involved a lake or a patch of woods somewhere.  It was an age where writing this essay outdoors without invading nature’s song with the smackity-smack of typewriter keys would’ve required that now-antiquated stuff called pen and paper.

Both sets of background sounds change as the morning progresses.  Because I run a school, it’s noisiest just before 8:00 am.  Then, quiet, yet the sounds of the student crowd and college business crescendo back to a roar as the morning ripens.  Out here, it varies also.  The early morning chirps in the dawn hour have already given way to the quacks of the water birds now that it’s fully light.  Here and there, a man-made sound punctuates the wind.  The shot off in the distance reminds me of the presence of deer season.  A car door slamming shut nearby advises me that we’re not alone in the cabins.

This early morning drink of nature is exactly the refreshment my soul needed.  We came to find diamonds, and in a way we did.  We didn’t find any gemstones to bring back, which isn't surprising; only one out of every thousand or so visitors to the park ever does that. 

That’s okay.  For this morning, at least, I found exactly what I needed.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Remembrances of Panic

Since I waxed so fondly of panic in my last post, I figured I should include a couple of significant panic-related memories in this one.

There's a lot I don't recall about growing up in Mississippi.  Of course I remember being able to run around the neighborhood without locator devices or family radio or any such things--hey, it was many years ago in the South, and such activities were generally far safer than they are today.  At the same time, I remember being pretty much the opposite of affluent, to the point where our pastimes included using a broom handle to hit a taped-up wad of paper in a poor semblance of the sport of baseball, and also chasing each other around the neighborhood with BB guns to play war.

I remember having to walk to school.  Uphill.  Both ways.  Barefoot.  Kicking the dinosaurs out of the way, even.

More to the point, I vividly remember the first time I saw my mother lose control while driving.

It snowed.  Now, such an event was a rarity in and of itself in Corinth, Mississippi, but this time we got nearly a quarter of an inch of the white stuff, and it stuck to the ground.  My father was away from home, and our power had gone out, leaving my mother with two young boys -- I think I was somewhere around 10, which means my brother was somewhere around 4 -- and no way to prepare hot food.

It would have been a foodtastrophe, except that there was a Shoney's in town.

Bravely, my mother piled us all in the muscle car that she and my father loved driving (and that all northerners know is a horrible choice in the snow), and we started down the beautiful white streets (nobody else drove in the snow, either) toward the beautiful, distant building filled with warm coffee and pancakes. 

There's a hill in Corinth -- a famous one to Civil War buffs, at that, because it's where a fort was built since that's what you do on hills when you're in the military -- directly down the road from our old home, and it leads a long sloping descent into the actual town part of town.  The part of town, I will add, that contains such havens as a Shoney's restaurant and even a Piggly Wiggly.  In normal weather it would've been a fun hill for bicycling down, except for the extreme amount of traffic it carried.  On that snowy white day we had the whole road to ourselves, which was a good thing because about halfway down, Mom lost control.

She did all the typical stuff I described in my last post that mere mortals do when they lose control.  She panicked.  She stomped on the brake.  She started screaming something entirely foreign-sounding (no, I didn't mention that tendency of the panic crowd in my last post, but I should have).  Then, when physics finally ran its course and the car came sliding to a stop at the bottom of the hill, pointed sideways across the road, she told us how glad she was that we were all safe.

Then, we went to Shoney's.

It's funny that that's one of my clearest memories of growing up.  There's something about panic, the abject terror that takes over our entire souls for that brief period of time, that remains etched in our minds forever, isn't there?

I had a similar experience about a decade later, this time with my own hands wrapped around the steering wheel.  My West Point cadet company was holding our annual Christmas party, and for that year we'd scored the ski lodge.  It was a nice place, for sure, but to get there you had to exit the gates of West Point, travel down scenic highway 9W, and enter the ski hill's separate driveway.  Of course, only the seniors could drive their personal vehicles on post back then, and since it was too far for a comfortable walk, we used military transportation to get the cadets in our company to the party.

A deuce and a half it was, then.

At least, I think it was a deuce and a half.  The Army has two main cargo trucks, either of which can be seen in various movies pulling up to a group of unsuspecting civilians in a cute little villa and then disgorging dozens of camo-clad troops who've been ordered to kill.  The deuce and a half (slang for "two and a half ton") is the smaller one, as you probably would have gathered without prompting when I said the other one is called a five ton.  The differences between them, other than size, are subtle -- one has an exhaust can and the other just an exhaust hat, and so on -- and frankly I can't recall which model of truck it was on that wintry day a quarter century ago.

It was a standard transmission, I remember that much.  That makes it most likely (though not certainly, as my research since has proven) a deuce and a half rather than a five ton.  Again, not that big of a deal.

It was older'n dirt.  That was a big deal.  The truck had one of those steering columns that would swing one direction by a ways, and then the other direction by a different ways, and yet the tires would continue along the same track as though the steering wheel hadn't moved a bit.  It also had a fairly loose shifter path, which meant that sometimes you hit the right gear, and sometimes you didn't, no matter how expertly you maneuvered the damn long rod.

Hey, most of the trucks they let us cadets drive were like that.

So anyway, I don't recall why I ended up driving that night.  I do recall that there weren't all that many folks who would admit to having a valid military permit to drive the big trucks, and/or admit to having their wallets with them.  Whatever reason, though, I was the driver, and the required passenger was a plebe who, likewise, had drawn a short straw of some sort.

He and I will always remember that night together....

No, no, nothing like that.  We were just transporting the cadets of our company to the ski lodge from the barracks, that was it.  It took two trips.  Trip one was made with as little incident as possible -- no incident, in fact, if you don't count the constant harassment the driver of any such vehicle has to endure from the peanut gallery in back.  After a while I learned to not hear the "grind it till you find it" catcalls and the "easy on the shifting" growls, though, and so I didn't count that as incident.

Without incident, then, it was.

I pulled out of the ski lodge on my way to pick up the second set of cadets, my trusty TC (the plebe) sitting in his seat.  It was snowing, and it was dark, two factors that probably should strike fear in the heart of anybody driving an unfamiliar, cranky, old vehicle down a relatively unfamiliar stretch of highway, but hey, I was bulletproof back then.

I was bulletproof right up till I missed third gear, that is.  Then I did what most people would do, I like to think: I looked down at the shifter assembly.

As soon as I looked down there, though, I ended up steering the truck off of the highway.  I felt the right tires go thunk and drop to the gravel of the shoulder, and then I did what most people do in Loss of Control situations: I panicked.  In my panic, I completely forgot what I'd learned in my physics classes and yarded the steering wheel around to swing the big truck quickly back onto the friendly pavement.

The friendly pavement which was, I should remind everyone briefly, quite slick with new-fallen snow.

The truck spun a graceful 180.  It was -- it was beautiful, man.

Now, I've done 180's in vehicles since.  I've done plenty, in fact.  There's something special about a big old Army cargo truck executing that maneuver, though.  In addition to the panic, you feel kinda like a mash-up of Rambo with The Joker doing a waltz spin that would make Ginger Rogers proud.  I mean, it's a big truck.  It doesn't look that big from outside -- or maybe it does, to some people -- but from the driver's seat, it's huge.  And when it's spinning in relation to the rest of the world, well, now, that's panic, my friends.  Slow, graceful, elegant freakin' panic.

We did stop, though.  Amazingly, there wasn't a lot of traffic; all I could see were a couple of headlights way out in the distance.  I felt the bumper knock up against the safety rail in the middle of the highway, but when I looked later it hadn't even dented anything on the truck.  All in all, it was a moment of pure unadulterated terror that ended very, very well.

And that was when I did something really stupid.

See, the reason the "TC" -- the second person in the vehicle -- is required to be there according to safety regulation, is that anytime you back up one of those monsters you're supposed to have someone to regulate the flow of everybody else around so that you don't hit anybody. I knew that.  I'd been through Army trucker training, man. 

So I looked over at the poor plebe and told him to get out and regulate the flow of everybody else while I backed us up and around and got going straight again.

Hey, it was safety regulations I was following.  But really?  Later on I replayed the scene in my head, and watched the poor guy pull his fingers out of the dents that his panicked hands had clawed into the dashboard, then climb dutifully out of the safety and warmth of the truck cab to stand in the blowing snow -- with no light! -- stopping traffic so that we could turn around, I realized what a dumb and dangerous move that had been.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.  Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.

Yeah, okay, it is awfully damn funny, too, now that it's been years and nobody got hurt, but at the time, it was just dumb.

He did a great job, though.  He leaped right out into our headlights and took up a position that was a mixture between parade rest and stop -- you know, one hand sticking straight out, palm outstretched, in the unmistakable (when visible) pose.

Now, luckily once again, New York drivers are many things, but they're generally not stupid.  The ones behind us never even got close, as they'd obviously seen the tall lights of the truck do a pirouette move in front of them, and they wisely slowed way down.  It also didn't take me long to back the truck out, turn it around, and -- after waiting the moments it took the poor now-semi-frozen plebe to clamber back into the warmth of the cab -- drive off.

And I never looked at the floor board in a snowstorm again.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Out Of Control

It's been a week and a half now since I last blogged -- sorry.  NaNoWriMo has had me enthralled in its intensity.  I've been following along the synopsis I wrote, and now I'm thinking that I'm gonna force myself to synopsize every book before I write it.  Far from confining the writer as an outline does, I'm finding that having a pre-written synopsis close at hand frees the writer up to be creative while not having to craft the action plan at the same time.

For once, I've hit 30,000 words without an overwhelming feeling of being out of control, in other words.

Out of control is a bad place to be.  I recall numerous times during my years up in Alaska when I suggested that any driver's training course or test should include an exercise in being out of control.  It's easy in the winter -- just pick an empty parking lot that hasn't been sanded yet, get up to speed, and slam on the brakes.

Wheeeeee! *spin spin spin*

When/if you do that, you'll experience one of two reactions.  One, the one that the driver's manual claims to be the best practice, is to have your brain process the "hmm, I'm no longer in control" sensation and make sane, physics-sensitive adjustments to your driving practice.  Specifically, you should either remove your foot from the accelerator/brake area or actually apply a slight acceleration, depending on how far into the skid you are (I know you don't want to hear this, but experience makes a great teacher for which option to choose there).  At the same time, you should gently turn the steering wheel so that the only controllable part of the multi-thousand-pound projectile you're no longer actively piloting is aligned with its actual, physical path. 

That last is, I should point out, kinda like buying "insurance" in a game of Blackjack.  By the time the dealer asks if you want it, the odds are already stacked against you.  There's a really good chance that the dealer has the unbeatable hand, and all you're doing with "insurance" is hoping to minimize your losses.  

Same thing with steering into a skid -- the only reason we call it a "skid" as opposed to "driving" is that you're not going in any of the directions you'd prefer to be going.  On a directional path such as a road, and in particular when there's other traffic around, the fact that you're in a skid means that, odds are, you're going to end up somewhere you don't wanna be, and that eventual end-up will likely be bad.  Turning the wheels into the skid reduces the friction they're going through and gets them turning with the speed of the vehicle, in the hope that something miraculous happens and you, at least momentarily, regain control.  At that point, if and when it happens, you're much more likely to be able to pull back into an appropriate trajectory if you've already aligned your physics with the physics of reality. 

The other reaction is, I think, far more common.  Granted, I have no statistics to back that claim up, but I've seen an awful lot of accidents happen in wintry conditions.  That look on most peoples' faces just as they're skidding sideways through a red light?  Yeah, that's not the "I'm steering into the skid and removing my foot from the accelerator" expression, is it?  No, it's the "OMFG I'm skidding so now is the time to PANIC!" look.  

Along with that look comes a complete aversion to the principles of physics.  Instead of letting the wheels continue to roll with the car, our brains want control, and we want it NOW!, and that can only be achieved, of course, by coming to a complete stop immediately and instantaneously.  Physics says it ain't gonna happen, but our brain at that panic-induced moment of craziness says that it will, and that the way to do it, of course, is to stomp on the brakes harder than the Saints stomped on the Cowboys this past weekend.

At the same time, our knuckles crack due to the extreme force we're applying to the steering wheel, making sure we have a sufficient hold on it while it -- um, doesn't do much -- and then, while we're choking the hell outta the steering wheel, we always make sure to point it in precisely the direction we wish we were going.

The problem?  Wishful thinking ain't physics, man.  But panic doesn't really care, does it?

Hey, I'm not blaming.  I've been there, myself.  Most of us go through the panic phase the first one or two (or dozen) times we lose control.  Many of us also have strong enough psyches that we manage to forget completely about it later, as our psyche convinces our memory (and we hope our mouth convinces the police) that "nah, I didn't do anything that stupid.  I controlled that skid perfectly.  By the book, even."  

Panic is normal, both in driving and in writing, when we lose control.  That's why I've said it's so important to include that in driver's training (and probably, for that matter, in writer's training). That way we'll know how best to deal with it when it happens.

I know I had an important point to make about writing, but it was more fun talking about sliding around on the ice. 


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Happy Birthday To Me: A NaNoWriMo Update

Happy Birthday to me,
Happy Birthday to me,
Happy Birthday to me,
Happy--um, yeah.

Another year older I am.  I joke about being 29 for the 17th time, but frankly I don't want to go back to that age.  I like being in my 40's, as I (think that I) am much smarter and more resolved than I ever was back in my 20's or 30's. 

Speaking of birthday, it's my intent to spend most of it with my loved ones rather than writing today, but I still had to make some progress on the NaNo effort.  I didn't post an update yesterday, because I was so busy trying to bust out as many words as possible, but the planning beforehand seems to have made a heckuva difference. 

Here are my current NaNoStats (and they'll probably remain my stats through the rest of the day):
Your Average Per Day 5,259
Words Written Today 5,169
Target Word Count 50,000
Target Average Words Per Day 1,667
Total Words Written 15,777
Words Remaining 34,223
Current Day 3
Days Remaining 28
At This Rate You Will Finish On November 10, 2013

I'm glad to read about the finish date, but the fact is that I'm looking at this story to reach 90-100K rather than 50K words, so I'll still need most of November even at the pace I'm on.  Frankly, I don't see how that's possible, either; 5,000 words a day while working during the week is pretty tough. 

Still, I'm gonna try.


Friday, November 1, 2013

A Good Start

3700 words.

One day.

Not bad.

Okay, so there are some caveats to be granted.  It's actually only 3699 words, truth be told.  If anybody seriously objects, I can always go replace a comma with the word "and."  Also, to be honest, I've been planning the first scene for the past couple of weeks, so this has been mostly just regurgitating words I've already written onto the page.  Mentally, anyway.

Only, it's not that easy.  I can't recall specifically what I have been planning, any of the times I've been doing it in my head.  As sad as it is, though, that my memory isn't perfect, it's also a blessing to me.  Specifically, I'll end up creating a better scene than any of what I've done before, just because I've done it several times already.

That said, it's November 1.  I've started the NaNo effort, and I'm 3700 words into it.  46,300 words to go in the standard goal, and 86,300 words to go in my personal goal.  2000 words ahead of the normal daily quota, and 700 words ahead of my own daily quota.

Not bad by any account, right?


Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Excitement of NaNoWriMo Eve

What you're probably thinking is, "It's not NaNoWhatever Eve.  It's Halloween!"  You're right about the second half of that, of course, unless you prefer to call the holiday by any of its other names like Samhain, All Saint's Day, Dia de Muertos, etc.

To me, though, it's NaNoWriMo Eve.

Part of the reason for that is my rather dismal lack of interest in celebrating Halloween. First, I grew up in a really poor family in a rather poor area of a fairly poor town in Mississippi.  Thus, I don't know if they had all the fancy costume makeup and paraphernalia or not back then; my costume usually consisted of a sheet or some old clothes and one of those flimsy plastic masks.  Remember those?  They looked like they could almost be a likeness of somebody famous.  When you wore them, the first trick was finding a way to see through the itty-bitty eye holes, while the second was finding a way to breathe.  Minor inconveniences, though, compared to that dang cord.  The cheap elastic cord that tried to saw into the tops of your ears was always breaking, and when it gave in to physics it always did so with a loud plasticky thwap

You'd hear those thwap sounds, usually followed by a squeal of pain, around the neighborhood and know that somebody's mask just broke.  We all winced at the mental image of a mask sliding slowly down onto the kid's chest, the child too busy rubbing his sliced-open ear to worry about the plastic part.

This was also back in the days when people used to give fruit and homemade stuff instead of the safely-wrapped store-bought chocolaty stuff.  In fact, I was in the age group that is the reason people now usually only give the safely-wrapped store-bought chocolaty stuff.  Early in my Halloween career we started hearing the first horror stories about people putting razor blades and needles into fruit and candy.  Suddenly every little morsel we collected in our cheap, thin plastic pumpkin-shaped buckets was suspect and had to be double-inspected by Mom and Dad before it could be eaten.

But finally, eaten it was, and yay!  What a treat!  Chocolate for the entire night!

When I woke up the next morning, what a treat!  Stomach ache for the entire day!

So yeah.  Halloween: ththththffffffphphphphphphphphffffft.

NaNoWriMo: yaaaaayyyyyy!  Now there's something to get excited about.

First, this is the year I will extend my record into more Ws than Ls.  I know, 1-1 is hardly a historical record, but it's what I've got, and I'm looking forward to it being 2-1.

I'm also looking forward to turning out a decent book.  The first time I did NaNo, I started out on a story concept with no real plan, and I failed at about 23K words when I ran out of story concept to write.  This last time I started out the same way, and when I reached that magical point in the book (yes, five novels later, 23K seems to be my stumbling point) I just pushed through by adding more explosions, killing more people, whapping more words in.

I got to 50K last year, but that book is never, ever going to see the light of day.

This year?  I have a plan.  I actually have a five page synopsis of how the story is going to go, in fact.  Over the past few days I've worked out an opening scene in my head, and the critical scene where the protagonist meets the series antagonist is planned out and acted out and even voiced out, and so now all I need to do is--well, it's the writing.

Which, due to NaNo rules, I can't do till tomorrow.

Hence the excitement.

I can't wait for NaNoWriMo to begin this year.  But if you do have any extra chocolate, I won't mind a piece or two....


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Namaste-ed out

Long day, yesterday.

First came the "Namaste Day" event that my wife talked guilted me into attending.  See, with all of the writing and working, and working and writing, that I've been doing lately, I have to admit that I haven't been spending a lot of time with those who love me.  I also have always had a strong metaphysically spiritual side, though lately it's only evident once you chip through the thick, hard curmudgeonly shell.

Besides, she promised I'd have fun.

By the time we left, we were exhausted.  Unfortunately, we couldn't come straight home because we needed some cat food (which can only be picked up at the pet food store, thanks to special dietary needs of the littlest carnivore in the family) and a refill on meds for the daughter (which can only be picked up from the pharmacy) and hey, I wanted some beer (which can't be picked up at either the pet food store or the pharmacy) and so we had not one, and not two, but three stops to make on the way.  The thought, tired as I was, made me want to whine.

We managed to successfully make those stops, though, and with a minimum of whining, and so finally, exhausted, we pulled into our garage.

And there the neighbor was, outside, washing his car.

Now, first of all, I like my neighbors.  I like them quite a lot, in fact.  I've not lived anyplace where I've had such explicitly neighborly neighbors in a long, long time.  Yes, they're very Southern, and yes, they have just as many quirks as any other set of neighbors would have, but they make it clear that they sincerely care about having a good neighborhood and about their neighbors.  It's--well, it's heart-warming.

But not when we're tired.  Especially not when we're exhausted but yet there's no way for this curmudgeon to sneak a great big Jeep Commander into the garage without him noticing as he washes his car a narrow alleyway away.

Not, um, that I would do such a sneaky thing, but I have to admit that the thought crossed my mind.

Tired or no, I had a neighborly obligation to wander across the alley to say hi while the wife and daughter got everything from the different stores into the house.  But then, they surprised me by joining us outside.  As did the neighbor's wife. As did the other neighbors.  Before long, we had a full-on neighbor party in beach and lawn chairs in the alley separating the rows of homes.  Soon the sun went down, dragging the temperature with it.  Individually we all went indoors to pile more clothes on, nobody willing to call it quits before anybody else--especially not us, since we'd made it known that we'd come back home to the South from Alaska.

"Cold?  What cold?  I spent fourteen years in Alaska; this isn't cold.  Let me tell you about the time I was tromping through three feet of snow and met the grizzly bear tromping the other way--," is hard to say when your teeth are chattering, but by goodness I managed. 

Sheesh.  I finally managed to end it at about 10:00 pm.  Like I said, I like my neighbors a lot, but not so much when I'm cold, tired, and cranky.

What got me so tired in the first place, though, was an interesting experience.  Yes, I'd been dragged (though neither kicking nor screaming, I admit) to the festival.  Namaste!  I honestly hadn't wanted to go; instead, I'd wanted to sit and work on a book.  Heide pointed out, though, that being outside the house was what provided me with a lot of my writing inspiration, and she was absolutely correct.

Therefore, Namaste!  For those unfamiliar with the term, it means "I bow to the divine/light/whatever within you."  It's probably the most commonly-used term in yoga, ranking, as I suspect it must, even over the true building block terms of yoga which include "tadasana," "downward facing dog,"and "put your elbow in the other ear now." 

To be honest, I enjoyed my stay there, at least till I got namaste-ed out.  I mean, there's only so much 'bowing without really bowing to the divine in so many other people that I never met before' that an old cranky curmudgeon like me can take.  After a while, I was just plain tired of not-really-bowing.

That, and there are always a great many wonderful people to meet at these types of events, which means your "nice to see you" smile is always burning.  At the same time, there are always a few people there who creep me the hell out.  If you've been to one, you know what I'm talking about. 

Anyway, we arrived just in time to pay my entrance cost (ten dollars; the girls had already attended the evening previous and thus were already paid for) and head to the session on Automatic Writing.  It was an interesting session; a woman with vibrantly blue hair and sequined hat and scarf who identified herself as a Reverend lectured us on the process of asking an archangel for help answering a Deep and Important question and then writing the answer for 20 minutes.

Now, you know me by this point in the post, I hope.  If so, you're aware that the next thing I'm'a gonna say pretty much has to be snarky, or else the curmudgeon in me is gonna explode.  Still, as much snark as I could possibly apply to the situation, the fact was that the whole Automatic Writing gig worked when I tried it.  She set the timer, and I asked the archangel for help with a particular situation, and then I sat and wrote down some of the clearest thoughts I've had on the topic.  Impressive, that.  Was it the archangel I'd called for, or my subconscience, or the memory of all the episodes I've watched of Dr. Phil while spending time with my beloved one that brought the newer, deeper, richer understanding?  I don't know, and it doesn't really matter.  Point is, it worked.

Maybe Dr. Phil is the archangel? 

Sorry, that was snarky.

The next session was even more meaningful.  In it, the presenter told us (basically) that we get back from the universe what we put out into it.  Reap what you sow, yadda yadda, and all that stuff, but it made a lot of sense based on the negativity surrounding a lot of the move we just made and what has happened to us since.  Yeah, I know, duh and all that, but she had some useful techniques for transforming negative vibes into positive ones to send out into the universe.  The important fact is that I left with some great notes regarding how to react to negative situations in the future.

We attended a couple of other sessions that seemed a bit less useful to me than the others had, and then we listened to a couple of fairly young guys describing astrology in a way I've not heard it before.  If true, it puts current events into a light that, juxtaposed against past events in similar astrological circumstances, is interesting at best and alarming at worst.  It had to do with something I'd not heard of before called a "square"--yes, I know what a square is, silly, but not in this context.  I'll have to do my own research on it.

Was humorous, too, hearing them pronouncing the--well, the name of the  next to last planet. You know, Uranus.  "Your'-uh-nus" is how they said it, and it took me a sec to, um, square that with the way we were taught to say it in high school.  Finally somebody else asked a question about the "square of Pluto and 'your-ay'-nus'" and I thought I was gonna explode in childish glee.

I didn't, though.  My lovely bride has some elbows, she does.  Effective deterrence, they are.

All that said, by the end of the afternoon I'd taken in quite a lot more than I had thought I would, or could.  I was really ready to go.  I was just flat namaste-ed out.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Fictional Languages

One thing J.R.R. Tolkien was famous for was his intricate development of fake languages for his magnum opus, Lord of the Rings and the rest of its genre-creating set.  It was, indeed, a great story about some very engaging characters, and it would very likely have been a hit even without the linguistic effort he exerted. But he did exert significant effort.  Hey, the man created both Elf and Dwarf languages, each with its own runic alphabet.  How cool is that?

He was, from what I've read, a linguist at heart.  His day job was doing etymology for the dictionary, of all things.  I mean, I knew that somebody had to have done all the work required to tell me that "wunderbar" came from the root words "wunder," which means good, and "bar," which refers to a place to consume alcohol, but till I read Tolkien's bio I had no idea that somebody was a real person.  But it's true, he did it, and by all accounts he loved to do it.

He reportedly loved it so much that he probably would've been screaming at me for making etymological stuff up like I am wont to do (and just did), in fact.

Me, linguist?  Not so much.  I handled linguistics in Return of the Gods in much the same sloppy way most fantasy works gloss over the issue.  In my case I did it by inventing magical translating blocks for use in the library.  Cheap and cliched it might be, but it worked and it allowed me to get on with the interesting bits of the story.

In Dragon Queen I'm taking a little different path.  For the first book I'm shamelessly ripping off the entire Welsh language.  Heck, I don't feel bad about it either; after all, nobody ever writes Welsh(TM) and so I'm not actually stealing any intellectual property.  On top of that, I've always loved Welsh, what with its funky interpretation of the alphabet and the melodic pronunciations.  I was able to work some of the funkiness into the storyline, and the language's use presents some fun situations throughout the book.

Take, for example, the main character's confusion over the name of one of the animals in the story: is it Booboo or Bwbw?  The spelling that completely lacks vowels just plain doesn't make sense to the poor Mississippi lass who, despite her standing as a recent high school valedictorian, had to go through and complete both a primary and a secondary education with only English(TM) in her linguistic toolbox.

It's a little challenging for an author, this using a language that I don't speak.  I suppose that would've been easier for Tolkien--nobody can tell him he's got a declension wrong, for example, because he made it all up in the first place.  By definition, the way he does it is the right way.  But I'm using Welsh, which does, in fact, have standard rules, and not all of which I know. 

I'm only using it in little spots in the hope that I don't some day have an actual Welshman walk up and punch me in the face for language abuse.

It's possible, trust me.  The unintentional language abuse, I should add, not necessarily the face-punching.  I worked with a multilingual group in my multinational MBA Leadership course.  We had mostly Alaskans and Austrians in the cohort, but there was also a German who spoke--well, Real German (as opposed to Austrian German).  Most of the time we communicated in English, the course being held on the Americans' home turf and all. 

Toward the end we were required to create a leadership activity, and my group, twisted as it was (hey, it included me) decided to teach communication by blindfolding the crap out of everybody and making them do stuff. "The Blind Leading the Blind" was an obvious, if horribly cliched, name for the gig.

Thing was, none of the Austrians in my group were particularly motivated to translate the English instructions I'd written into their language, which was one of the requirements of the exercise.  So I took the project on. Only--I didn't speak German.  Still don't, neither Real German nor Austrian German.  Yeah, I can ask for a beer, or the restroom, or both, and with enough hand gestures can probably get across a request for schnitzel and fries, and so I'm not terribly worried for my own life if I ever find myself in Heidelberg again. But I'm certainly not "conversant" in the language.

Now, this was a while ago, back when Babelfish was a major site.  It was great; you fed phrases into the magical text box and told it what language to translate to, and CLICK!  The wizards within their web server would nearly instantly feed you back the translation.  For free, even!

I used Babelfish to translate the instructions into German for the Austrians.

And I sent the results to them.

And I heard nothing for a week.

When we were together next, I asked what they thought of my excellent translation.  They grinned and patted me on the head (verbally, not literally).  "No, really," I insisted; I wanted constructive feedback, after all.

Finally one of the uber-polite Austrians explained that what I'd written, in German, was actually, "The Window Coverings Leading The Window Coverings."


At least they didn't punch me in the face for language abuse.

This time, though, I want everything to be perfect--or, at least, accurate.  Thus I've spent hours triangulating phrases.  There are quite a few English-to-Welsh translating sites out there, and when two or three give me the same result, I know I'm close.  Then I spin the result back into the Welsh-to-English translators, and if it comes up right, then I'm happy with the word choice.  At that point, I run off to look at the Welsh grammar sites to make sure I've pluralized and declensed and conjugated correctly.

For the insults, meanwhile, I go directly to a Facebook friend who lives in Wales.  Yay for friends!  Yayyay for friends with strong insult mojo!

It's taken some effort and some time, but I think I've created something that will at a minimum avoid face-punching in return for language abuse.  I'm pretty happy about that.

For the second book I'm creating another language, though I won't spoil any plot points by saying why.  Because I'm trying to build in a certain mood, I'm actually picking the lower-hanging fruit from the Slavic language tree.  At least I have taken a couple of courses in Russian, and so I can read the alphabet and can declense that language with the best of 'em.

Yay for vodky vodkui! (see yesterday's post)

I'm still not interested in creating a whole new language from scratch, though.  Tolkien, I ain't.  Sorry.


Friday, October 18, 2013

On Learning Foreign Languages

"In one hundred years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching Remedial English in college." - Joseph Sobran

"The relationship between a Russian and a bottle of vodka is almost mystical." - Richard Owen

I love my Facebook friends.  Most of the time, that is.  Yesterday we ended up having two great big, long debates on Facebook.  The one on a political topic turned ugly, pissed everybody off, and didn't ever find resolution.   I swear, next election season I'm gonna find a way to make opening Facebook shut my computer down.  "Politics" and "social media" are the new opposites.

That said, we (including some of the very same people who participated in the political one) held a very civil and quite productive discussion on the first quote above.  It was wonderful.  Granted, the topic of the debate/discussion wasn't really anything dealing with remedial English courses; that part is too obvious, and too obviously painful (especially to those of us who work in college-level education as I and many of my Facebook friends do) to really put any energy into.  No, instead, the talk was on the topic of the efficacy of learning Latin and Greek in high school, versus the more "useful" languages such as, say, Spanish, German, or Mandarin. 

That was very interesting.  What good is it, after all, to learn other languages?  I brought up, and somebody else backed it up with an article that had a picture of the human brain, that learning languages is like gymnastics for a part of the brain that doesn't get worked out otherwise.  Yay.  Brain pictures--cool.  That wasn't my main point, though, nor was it Sobran's.

To get more personal with this point, I consider myself a pretty good linguist.  I've been told by editors that my prose is very "clean."  I'm kinda proud to say that comes with no more than the basic required composition classes in high school and college both.

I also learned Russian at West Point, though.  It wasn't because I necessarily wanted to learn Russian, nor was it because that was the only choice.  It was, rather, that I thought that the Russians would be the nation's chief enemy and thus it would be a good idea for an Infantry officer to know their language.  It would be "useful," in other words.

The sheer volume of wrongness in my assumptions there is incredible, but that's not worth discussing here.  Regardless of reason, I soon found myself sitting in a class trying to learn one of the most foreign of foreign languages.  I mean, they don't just flip the alphabet around a little like the Welsh do; they have a completely different one.

And they conjugate their nouns.

I know, every linguist reading this just gritted their teeth.  "Conjugate" is what you do to verbs, you're probably screaming at this post right now, right?  It's the process of changing the word, slightly or more so, in order to make it clear what the verb is saying.  An example, in English: I see, and you see, and they see, but he, she, or it sees.  Now, though, time has passed since I wrote that, and so I saw, and you saw, and they saw, and he, she, or it saw.

Funky, right?

Not nearly as funky as Russian.

For nouns, the process of modifying the word to make its place in the sentence clear is called declension.  Russians do it, in spades.  English does it, too, to a lesser extent; I'd just never really noticed.  For example, if you're going to use the third person male pronoun in English, you might say that "he received a new straightjacket."  But if it's something being done to the third person male pronoun, you should say "I put him in a new straightjacket."  "He" changes to "him," and everybody's happy, right?  Except, perhaps, for the guy in the new straightjacket, but he doesn't care about us, and we don't care about him, right?

(didya see all the declensing I did in that last couple'a clauses?)

That's pronouns, now, and it's the old basic subject vs. object discussion that we had back in grammar school.  Meanwhile, nouns change--a lot--in Russian, and all depending on how they're used.  Let's take, for instance, the only Russian noun I still remember after all these years: vodka.  If you're going to say that vodka tastes good, then it's spelled just like that: vodka.  Using, I should add, that funky Cyrillic alphabet, but let's not get too crazy.  If, on the other hand, you're going to say that the vodka drink tastes good, you've changed the noun from one that stands as a subject itself (nominative) to the case that describes another noun (genitive).  It's telling us what kind of "drink."

And then there's the dative case, which sadly has nothing to do with dates or with dating no matter how much vodka is involved.  No, the dative case is the formal way of describing the object portion of the subject-object issue I mentioned before.  And yes, it applies to both nouns and pronouns.  While English changes pronouns but not nouns: "she hit her in the face" but "the girl hit the girl in the face," Russian does both, because we need to know who's getting hit in the face in Russian no matter who is doing it to who--er, whom.

As a result, though in English we really don't give a crap whether it's vodka or a vodka drink waiting to be consumed, or even whether I drink the vodka, in Russian it's "vodka" or a "vodky" drink, and I drink neither "vodka" nor "vodky" but instead "vodke."

Yeah, you have to learn all that to learn Russian.

Yeah, I hated it.

Still, I'm glad I took the two courses in the language.  Why, you ask?  It's not because I'm anywhere near conversant in Russian.  I mean, yeah, I can now order a vodka if I'm ever over in Moscow ("Moskva"), but I could've probably managed that even without the courses.  They'd'a probably giggled a little at my wanting to drink vodka instead of "vodke," but after enough vodky vodkas are consumed, who really cares, right?

What learning the little bit of Russian did for me, though--and this speaks back to the original topic of the post--was taught me more about the language I speak, no matter which one it is.

By paying attention to how the noun is used, in other words, I've become much more knowledgeable--and cognizant of that knowledge, too--about nouns.  Same with verbs, as well as with other parts of speech that I've always flippantly tossed out in English but had to pay attention to while mangling them in Russian.

I think that if we required every high school graduate to have passed a full year of coursework in Russian, we wouldn't need nearly as many remedial English courses in college, is what I'm saying.

But that's probably just me.

Might need more vodkui, though.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

It's NaNoWriMo Time, Again!

"The world is a lot more fun when you approach it with an exuberant imperfection." - Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo

When I was the forward party in our move to Memphis in April I figured I'd get some writing done in my alone-time before the family got here; I was wrong.  I figured I'd get some writing done over the summer; I was wrong.  I figured by now I'd have several of my works in progress (WIPs) done; I was wrong.

What went wrong?  Life, to sum it all up.  I've posted before on how I learned to only keep one WIP open at a time--that lesson came after several weeks of extremely low production.  Plus this moving thing is, you know, stressful.

That said, I was ecstatic to claim to have finally finished Book 1 of Dragon Queen of Kiirajanna.  I'm querying agents sending out rejection invitations right now; hopefully it'll get out to the public sooner rather than later and the world will be treated to my story.  Yay!

So what's next?

Book Two, of course.

The timing is about as close to perfect as I could ask for in my imperfect world.  The Month With A Deadline (aka National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo) is at hand.  It's only a couple of weeks away, in fact.

There are two requirements to "winning" NaNoWriMo--not that you win anything physical other than a cool little graphic, mind you, but it's an esoteric feel-good kinda win.  The first is that you start with a blank page on November 1 and finish on or before November 30 with a complete story.  The second is that your story be "novel length," a fairly ambiguous measure that the folks at NaNo decided should mean 50,000 words.  There's nothing special about 50,000 words, nor is it really novel length in most genres, but it's a good minimum around which to build a deadline.

And, as I've seen, deadlines are what I need.

I've done NaNo twice so far.  The first time, in 2007, I didn't win; I started with a cool story concept that didn't have any ending I could see, and I got to about 27,000 words before I realized it was going nowhere.  I didn't have such good writing buddies back then, and so I didn't know any effective writing continuation techniques ("blow something up" being my current favorite).  So I quit. 

The next time, last year, I was determined to succeed.  I still entered the month, though, convinced that the seat of my pants (so to speak, of course) would propel me across the finish line.  It did, but only at the expense of writing a horrible, horrible story that shall never, ever see the light of day under its current structure.  Oh, I'll go back and fix it, the mess representing the next installation in Return of the Gods, but I decided then to do things very differently now.

And I am.  Doing things differently, that is.

Last weekend I sat and wrote a two-page synopsis for how I thought the story for my second book was going to go.  The good thing about that was the eye-opening effect of putting the bones of the story down on paper--I realized that it sucked.  When I'm writing a novel the long way I can always go back and fix the parts that suck, but when I'm trying to spin out an entire story in a month I don't have the luxury.

Thus it was that yesterday found me with the other parts of my creative team (my beloved Heide and Jessa) discussing the story over breakfast.  By the time we left I had a plot that didn't suck.  I wrote the synopsis today, all five pages.

I even named the bad guy.

I'm ready.

Bring it on, NaNoWriMo.