Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fifty Years Ago Today

Writing is an incredible activity.  On one hand, it's a method of seeking entertainment for the writer--lots of us write because it's fun, or because it feeds our souls, or some such.  But on another, much larger hand, it's been a writer (the orator or another) who has crafted some of the greatest orations in the history of the world, and also some of the greatest speeches in the history of the United States.

I'm reminded of that sometimes when I see or hear reference to great speeches of old.  For example, on the battlefield near Gettysburg where, in a mere three days, tens of thousands of Americans died battling each other over things that they, likely, couldn't enunciate, an embattled President of the United States stood and delivered a pre-written speech that, though intended to be a fairly minor event, is still today repeated by schoolchildren and adults. 

You know: the Gettysburg Address.

You know: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

And so on.

The reaction wasn't really surprising.  Those who sided politically with the President praised the speech.  Those on the opposite side panned it as the "silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States."

That last bit sound familiar?  Yeah, it could easily be the Democrats' response to most of George Bush's speeches, or the Republicans' response to most of Barack Obama's speeches.

Gotta love partisanism, right?

Speaking of partisanism, President Lincoln that day referenced a document he'd signed into effect on January 1, 1963.  You've probably heard of that one too: the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that declared slaves free.  In, um, the states that were fighting against the Union, some historians will remind us, because, well, you know, what he signed that day wasn't a Congressional action.  It wasn't a bill at all, actually.  It was what we'd call today an Executive Order, issued by him under his authority not as President but rather as Commander in Chief.

Yes, that's right.  Lincoln freed the slaves in the United States in much the same type of action that has had Democrats calling for Bush's impeachment, and today has Republicans calling for Obama's impeachment.  The authority, specifically, of the Guy In Charge, doing something he felt needed done.

That was right at a hundred and fifty years ago.  Jump ahead now: fifty years ago.  Today.  August 28th, 1963.  Over a quarter of a million people gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to hear Doctor Martin Luther King deliver a speech marking the emancipation of the Negro a hundred years prior.

It, too, is hailed as one of the greatest speeches in history.

I can't repeat it here due to copyright concerns.  That's okay--go read it here at BBC News, where they've done the work needed to obtain licensed permission to reproduce the speech in its entirety.  Especially, read down to the paragraphs that all begin "I have a dream...."  Really read those.

Keep in mind as you read them that, in those days, Mississippi and Alabama really were actively exerting effort to keep the black people segregated from the white.

We've come a long way, I think.  No, really.  There was partisan bullshit then, and there's still just as much partisan bullshit now (only now it's presented and promoted and propagated by entire electronic media networks).  But today I have black students sitting next to white students sitting next to students with other skin colors.  I expect them to all behave not as black students or as white students but--as students.  All around the nation there are deans who bear the same expectation as I.  That wasn't a general thing back then; now, it is.

Yeah, we still have problems.  You can't live for long in Memphis, or likely anywhere else in the deep South, and fail to witness the still-held resentment and anger on both sides of the color divide.  It'll take a while to get past all that, really--after all, slavery existed for longer than it has not existed in the colonies/states over here.

All I can really do about it, though, is to keep smiling at my black neighbor and my white neighbor equally, and treating them both as neighbors--not black neighbor, not white neighbor, just neighbor.

That, and I can honor the great speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, written extremely well and delivered fifty years ago, today.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Accomplishment and Reward

You have to reward yourself in life.

Several days ago I posted about how I set myself to writing and promised myself some beer after I finished 2,000 words.  I finished those words pretty rapidly, and enjoyed the beer.

Beer isn't all that I drink.  I also enjoy fine whiskey, though it can be a significantly more expensive vice.  That's why fine whiskey makes an excellent reward for the accomplishment of finishing a first draft of a novel.

Yes, I finished it.  This one's been on the draft list since we toured Disney World a year and a half ago, mind you.  At first I wasn't sure how I wanted to proceed, and then other things got in the way.  Then came a major move, and once that was closing out I had to figure out how to close the other drafts down so I could concentrate on this one.

But I did it.

There's something that is absolutely freeing about writing "The End" at the end of a novel draft and saving it to be printed.  No, I'm not talking about preparing to submit it to anybody.  It's a first draft.  By definition, almost, it sucks.  I mean, there's a good story in there.  But the first draft is like the first cut on a carving.  It's rough.  It doesn't look much like the finished product is going to.  The carver can see the end result in the chunk, mind you, but most everyone else is going to look at it and just see a chunk--of words, in this case.

But the chunk is done.

And I'm enjoying a fine whiskey tonight.  Tomorrow, it's back at it.  For tonight, though, it's a minor celebration.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

A (Late) Birthday Tribute To Ogden Nash

Hey, I'm always late for birthdays, anniversaries, and so on. I love celebrating Christmas in early January.  Thanksgiving--why not Friday or Saturday, eh?

So--yeah.  Happy Birthday, Ogden Nash.  He was actually born August 19th, but hey, the 24th is close enough, right?

A friend of mine, Carol Tomany, wrote a beautiful post yesterday that featured the little snippery quasi-rhymes that Nash was famous for, and it caused me to remember how entertained I can be, for long periods of time, reading Nash's work.

Here are some of his shorter pieces:

I test my bath before I sit, 
And I'm always moved to wonderment 
That what chills the finger not a bit 
Is so frigid upon the fundament. 
I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance 
Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

I think that I shall never see 
A billboard as lovely as a tree. 
Perhaps unless the billboards fall, 
I'll never see a tree at all. 

Beneath this slab 
John Brown is stowed. 
He watched the ads 
And not the road. 

A child need not be very clever 
To learn that "Later, dear" means "Never."

The Lord in His wisdom made the fly,
And then forgot to tell us why.

The truth I do not stretch or shove 
When I state that the dog is full of love. 
I've also found, by actual test, 
A wet dog is the lovingest. 
Sure, deck your limbs in pants; 
Yours are the limbs, my sweeting. 
You look divine as you advance -- 
Have you seen yourself retreating?
(one of my favorites, that one is)

Affection is a noble quality;
It leads to generosity and jollity. 
But it also leads to breach of promise 
If you go around lavishing it on red-hot momise.

I have a bone to pick with fate, 
Come here and tell me girly, 
Do you think my mind is maturing late, 
Or simply rotting early. 

Senescence begins 
And middle age ends 
The day your descendents 
Outnumber your friends.

Enter, breath;
Breath, slip out; 
Blood, be channeled, 
And wind about. 
O, blessed breath and blood which strive 
To keep this body of mine alive! 
O gallant breath and blood 
Which choose 
To wage the battle 
They must lose. 

He tells you when you've got on too much lipstick 
And helps you with your girdle when your hips stick.
(the perfect husband, right?)

(and speaking of husbands, some Nash advice)
To keep your marriage brimming, 
With love in the loving cup, 
Whenever you're wrong, admit it; 
Whenever you're right, shut up.

Hope you enjoyed!


Friday, August 23, 2013

The Importance of Plotting

What does it mean to be a pantser?

Good question, that.  I think, though, I should step back briefly and illustrate why the question came up.

Last night I was celebrating, and rightfully so.  See, I've known for some time that I'm capable of writing 2,000 words a day just as Stephen King--the other one--recommends.  Typically it's an all-evening endeavor.  I get home, chat with the wife and family a while, eat a tasty dinner, then settle down to writing.  Once I get my hands on the keyboard, then, I run through a myriad of writing-related exercises like moaning about how the next line just isn't coming to me, stretching my head back to check for cracks in the ceiling, checking in on my castle in my Facebook game to make sure no one has attacked, reaching down to give my puppy's head a scratch, hitting the "refresh" button on my e-mail once again, whining about the general unfairness of it all, and eventually, actually committing words to the virtual page.

Total time taken: a few hours, ish.  After, I always head off to bed completely satisfied over my productivity for the day.

Last night I turned the routine on its head with one simple act: I bought a couple of beers on the way home.  I then announced to the world (and my wife, which is pretty much the same thing) that I wouldn't drink them till I had finished my 2,000 words.  Suddenly I really didn't care whether or not my fake castle in a fake game had been fake-attacked.  It's all fake, right?  Instead of all the pre-writing stuff, I simply noted to Facebook that I was going off to write (e.g., closing that window), and then I went off to write, and then I came back.

Total elapsed time: approximately one hour.  And then another minute or two to pour the beer.  Rewards are sweet!

The time is significant because I hadn't to that point gotten an idea of how fast I can write given a steady effort.  It's not the same as the typical words per minute typing test; there, you're parroting someone else's words on the screen.  Creative writing isn't parroting anything.

I thought briefly, while I was celebrating the accomplishment of two thousand words, that if I could do two thousand words in one hour, why shouldn't I do four thousand in two hours?  Now hold on there, Bucky, I thought immediately after.  If I write tomorrow's words today, what will I write tomorrow?  And besides, the reward I offered myself was for two thousand words, not four thousand.

Consistency is key.

So I drank my beer, and I crowed a little on Facebook.  Then I got the question that led to today's query.  A friend of a friend, my friend said, is bad about starting books but not finishing them.  As a result, he's got lots of half-done manuscripts lying around (I'd presume in a virtual way).  What should my friend do?

Stockades, of course.  If you get the stockades configured right they should put the guy's hands in the right position to use his keyboard, and then you can either release him for food every few thousand words, or you can just move the keyboard for its safety and feed him right there with a spoon.

No, no, I'm kidding.  Mostly.  The way to deal with someone who starts stories but doesn't finish them must be far nicer and gentler.  Because, um, I was one.  I started Professor Kinder back in 2006, and it's my fault that he languished between the e-covers, his story unfinished for years and years before I brought him back a few months ago to finish his arc.

Because, you know, I have his arc.  Now, I have an arc.  I didn't have an arc, back then.

(That's an arc, not an ark.  There's a difference.)

See, that was a National Novel Writing Month attempt, my first thereof.  I'd read about NaNoWriMo.  I'd read No Plot? No Problem, which lays out the theme song of the month.  I thought it was okay, even good, to launch my way into a book without having a plot to speak of.

And it is okay, even good, in NaNoWriMo.  It's not, in book writing.  No, I'm not dissing NaNo.  I think that month stands for a wonderful opportunity for those who have never gone through the exercise of putting 50,000 words into an order that kind of approximates sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and even a story.  Just write, keep writing, and if you run out of story, you can just blow something up and make more story out of the splatters.

Problem is, winning NaNoWriMo is a psychological triumph, not a literary one.  There's a reason agents cringe and put out the "closed for December" sign the month after NaNo.  You can't--you shouldn't--you mustn't--write a book for publication without having a plot in mind for it.

But!  But!  But Stephen, you've said you're a pantser! come the objections.  Sure, I have, and I've also, in past blog posts, pointed to famous and commercially successful authors who are also pantsers.  It's one thing, though, to be pantser, and another thing entirely to refuse to do the work required to write a book.

See, a pantser is someone who doesn't outline.  At least, he doesn't outline at first.  I don't outline at first, though I find it a useful exercise to outline the story after it's written.  To me, outlining spoils the fun.  It's like writing the same story twice, and I'd rather eat fingernail clippings.  I've got three relatively successful novels out there, and I'm working on what I hope will be a fourth, and I didn't outline any of them before I wrote the drafts.

But see, here's the thing: an outline is a different beast from a plot.  A story, outlined or no, has a definite structure, one that no matter how creative you get in your writing you must not stray from.  It's not hard to stick with it, honestly; I mean, it's like this: a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  That's it.  A reader expects a beginning, a middle, and an end.  If you leave one of those out (especially the end), the reader will be perturbed with you.  On top of that, a reader expects certain things to happen in the beginning, and certain other things in the middle, and other things in the end.

It's really that simple.  That's the "three act structure" that they're always talking about, just with all the useful details stripped away because this blog post is getting too long.

If you're going to write a novel, it's up to you whether you wish to outline or fly by the seat of your pants. It's fine, really; whichever whacks your keyboard is the one you should pick.  But it's not up to you whether you plot your novel out first.  If you're going to eventually write "THE END" at--well, at the end; anyplace else would just be silly--then you're going to need to know what and where the end is going to be.

Your story, in other words, at some point must go from a cool idea to a plot.


Cool idea: a guy who handles elephants falls in love with the woman who's married to the circus boss.

Plot: a veterinary student's parents are killed in a car crash, so he flees the situation and joins the circus as an elephant handler.  He has a hard time with acculturation at first, but eventually he wins some friends.  He befriends the boss, who is an abusive alcoholic, and develops an attraction to the boss's wife.  Over time they come closer together in mutual attraction, and then....  (nope, not gonna spoil the plot for anybody who hasn't read this fantastic novel)

Make sense?  A guy who handles elephants falling in love with the boss's wife can go just about anywhere. Starting the book on such a shaky bit of work just about guarantees that Water for Elephants isn't going to happen.

(Yes, I picked the most successful--so far--example of a NaNoWriMo novel on purpose, thus showing that NaNos can be good, just not if you don't have a plot.)

To steal an idea from a satellite TV commercial: when you start a book with just an idea, you reach twenty thousand words and realize you don't know what else to write.  When you don't know what else to write, you make stuff up on the fly.  When you make stuff up on the fly, your writing turns to crap.  When you write crap, people make fun of you.  When people make fun of you, you stop doing what you've always dreamed of and go off to join the circus instead.  Don't go off to join the circus.  Start your books with a plot.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hitting My Word Count Goal

I bragged a lot on Facebook about how I plunged 12,500 words into my Work In Progress over the weekend.  It wasn't a personal record, at least not quite, but it was a pretty solid weekend of writing.  I did just about 7,000 words on Saturday, and on Sunday I put another 5,500 words into the story before I ran out of ideas for where the story was going to next.

Then, over the next few days, I averaged a mere two hundred words per evening.

What's the difference?  Well, it takes a couple of things to write: time, and stuff to write.  It's that simple.  It doesn't take a particular mood; I've written in good moods and bad, happy moods and sad.  It doesn't take a particular set of any specific physical stuff.  It just takes time.  And, let's not forget, it takes an idea for where you're taking the story.

I didn't have the latter on Monday evening.  I'd spent the time driving to and from work thinking about the next part of the story, but I hadn't come up with anything just yet.  So I sat, and I looked, and I went back to parts I'd already written and made them better.

Eureka! I shouted Tuesday morning.  I figured out how the main conflict was going to work best.  Yay!  Only problem was that the next couple of evenings I didn't get the time.  We had house guests from our old digs in Virginia, and I cherish their company.  So no, no significant amount of writing was accomplished.

They left today.  I got home this evening rarin' to go.  I had the time, and I had an idea where the story was going to go.

Oh, and I had beer.

It doesn't take everybody beer to write, certainly.  But positive reinforcement is one of the keys to any motivational exercise, and I've found beer to be a great self-motivator.  Thus, on the way home I stopped by the store and picked up a couple cans of my favorite stuff.  My favorite stuff that, um, comes in a can, anyway.  Hey, I'm in Tennessee, a state that defines beer as being less than 6% alcohol, which means that the magnificent Belgian ales are right out of consideration.  They can't even cross the state line.

That's okay.  Give me a good lager, canned or bottled, and I'm happy.  As I am now, I should add.

When I got home I sat the beers down beside me and went to work.  First, I closed Facebook after jotting a little note to my friends: "Facebook: I love, love, love you.  But there's a 2000-word-reward beer right over there getting warm, and the scene ain't gonna write itself.  Right?"

Then, I wrote.

The cool thing--well, one cool thing--about Scrivener is that you can set a word count target and then forget it.  It's not like MS Word where you have to keep the starting number in mind.  Whenever you want to know your productivity in Scrivener you just select the menu option for it, and blam!  Up comes a neat little box with a red, orange, yellow, or green bar in it.  Green, in this case, meant that I got to crack open a beer.

Well, I did.  Get the green bar, that is.  And then I wrote a couple hundred more words, just to be on the safe side (and to end in the proper middle of the scene, which is where you want to end if you want to make the next day's writing start more easily).  2,216 words, done.

And then I opened Facebook and crowed about the accomplishment.

The cool thing about doing it that way is that Facebook also has timestamps.  Thus, I could tell that I'd written 2,216 words in--wait for it.

Wait for it.....

Okay, you've waited long enough.  One hour.  Took me one hour of concentrated writing with a beer dangling by my nose to put 2,200 words into the manuscript, thus raising the overall word count to well over 60,000 in this manuscript.

Yes, it helps that I had a beer to look forward to (and boy, is it a'tastin' good right now).  Yes, it helps that long ago I put up with the pain-in-the-tush discipline required to train my fingies to type by touch at nearly 100 words per minute, an ability that now allows me to write pretty much whatever I'm thinking nearly as fast as I'm thinking it without worrying about the mechanics of getting the words into the document.

And, once again I say, I'm proud of my output for the day, and I can go to bed satisfied that I've done what I could to further my efforts as an author.

"Gee," I said to my wife tonight, "I wonder, if I can do twenty-two hundred words in one hour, what I could do writing full-time."

Wishful thinking, that is.  It would take a lot to replace my day job's salary, for one thing, and for another, I love my day job of college dean.  But there's something even more fundamental about how it wouldn't work as a purely multiplicative exercise, and that's the fact that even if I had all the time in the world to write, I'm still limited by the two things I mentioned earlier.  Time, yes, but also knowing where the story is going.  I can only create the story out in my head so far.

So, in the meanwhile, I'll just sit here, sipping my well-earned adult beverage, and in the morning enjoy rising and shining for my day job.  Because it's an awesome job, especially on a Friday.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Comcast Horror Story

Yes, my name is Stephen King.  I don't, usually, write his kind of story, though.  Horror, I mean.  Usually, instead, I make up stuff about dragons or elves or some such, and I call it fantasy.

Sometimes, though, I write about business and customer service and stuff.  Remember how I discussed the overall experience at Barnes & Noble a while back, and how that's what is causing their slow but steady demise as a retailer?  Yeah, that stuff is true.  Generally, what I talk about in the customer service arena is just a bad idea, or a bad implementation of a good idea.  A teaching tale, in other words.

Tonight?  Sorry, it's horror.  And--sorry for the length.  It's all true, though.

See, the problem was that (silly me) I wanted DVR (Digital Video Recorder) service in my home.  It shouldn't be that hard to do, really; plenty of folks have had that service for plenty of time.  So I (ignored what people told me about the local cable company and) called Comcast and set an order for DVR and a nice high-speed Internet service up.  I even gave in to the "go ahead and buy the modem and router" option because they promised a mail-in rebate for the entire amount.

Who wouldn't want a free modem and router, right?  Especially when Comcast charges $7 a month to rent the modem.

Once we'd established all of the services I'd called for they began their typical litany of up-sells.  You've probably experienced that routine, right?  For only so much I could also get this, or for so much else I could also get that.  I normally have lots of patience and just say no the requisite three times to everything, but I was calling from work and had a meeting to get to.

So I hung up.


That apparently cancelled the extra order for the modem and the router.  Nobody told me that, mind you.  They went ahead and charged my credit card for it.  Then, the day before the tech service visit, when I still hadn't received the order, I called and the nice lady told me that it would be on the technician's truck.  Hey, that was completely different from what the nice lady on the phone earlier had said, but the nice lady on the phone earlier had messed up my last name, my phone number, and my account number too, so I just went with the wisdom of the nice lady on the phone currently.

Only, the tech didn't have the router and modem.  In fact, he laughed at me.  Seems they only bring rental modems, and no routers.  Oh, and he also didn't bring the main thing I wanted: a DVR.  He said the warehouse was empty of them at the time, so he was bringing a nice little non-recording set-top box instead, and he'd call me as soon as the warehouse got one in.

He also, by the way, asked me to wait to call to complain/discuss till after the weekend, when the service call would be completed.  I should've clued in at this point that the whole Comcast customer service system was broken with a capital broke--but I didn't.

When I called several days later they said they'd send me a DVR box, or that they could send the technician back out for an additional fee.  No, I don't want an additional fee, I explained; I'd already paid for him to not bring a DVR box in the first place.  So they mailed it.

Oh, and they told me that the router and modem had been cancelled--by me, ostensibly--and refunded.  I checked my account, and sure enough a credit had been issued, for the amount I'd paid in the first place minus $10.  For, um, something.  Comcast couldn't tell me; that's a third-party vendor, you see.

It took a long while to get here, but finally it arrived.  I was really happy at that point and hooked it up to our TV, and--it didn't work.  I couldn't get a signal on it at all.  I "registered" it like I was supposed to, but when it still didn't work I called and waited for a technician.  Once I finally got one he had me go through and do the things I'd already done, and he also reset the box from afar, but he couldn't get that to work either.  Great.

He offered me the following options: a) he could mail another DVR out to me (keep in mind it had taken a couple of weeks to get the first one), or b) he could send a technician out--for, yes, you guessed it, an additional fee.

At that point I'd been on my cell phone with him for over an hour, and so I confess that I lost my cool when he added that, for an additional few bucks a month, he could sell me a service that would make technician service visits not cost anything.  I believe I said something about how I couldn't believe he was suggesting I give them more money for something that didn't work from the beginning.  I said it kind of loud and in a not-very-nice way, though, so it's no wonder that he apologized and beat his way backward off of the call very quickly.

So I switched.  I've been pleased with the other service (Dish), but I was annoyed that Comcast would send me a $200 bill--which grew somehow to $300 when I called Accounting, and is now apparently close to $400 for some reason, for a service that never really worked right.

I told the nice lady behind the counter this when I returned the equipment (after waiting for nearly an hour in line at the local service center).  She seemed horrified and gave me the number to accounting.  I almost felt bad for overreacting and canceling my service at that point.  Hey, I figured, somebody here actually cares that I don't think I was well-served as a customer.

So I called the number she gave me.  Nope, they can't do anything.  Can I talk to a supervisor?  Nope, can't talk to a supervisor.  What?  I've never been denied the opportunity to talk to a supervisor.  Sorry, Sir, company policy, can't let you talk to a supervisor.

I found an e-mail on Comcast's site for "The Office of Tom Karinshak," who is apparently the VP of making sure the customer experience is good.  Awesome, I thought!  I'll just e-mail his office with my concerns.  I did, and I wrote a long description of just how horrible my experience had been and how I hoped his office could do something, even something small!, about it.

Nope, at least not via e-mail.  But I received a call on my cell from an escalation person.  A call I returned, I should add, but nobody answered.  I left a voice mail, but after a day or so I ended up calling again, and again leaving a voice mail.  The escalation person called me back during a meeting, of course.  I called him back and got his voice mail again.

After a week of phone tag, his voice mail changed to a notification that he'd be out of the office for a week and a half.  Geez!  I sent an e-mail again, asking that somebody else call me.  She did, but of course it was when I had my phone on silent because I was in a classroom.  I called back and got a voice mail.  And, um, so on.

Tag!  You're it!

A week later I finally gave in and asked, on the lady's voice mail, if she could call my wife instead.  My lovely bride is normally available on the phone, so I figured that would be great.  It was; they connected after just a couple of days.  My wife filled the nice lady in on all the situation, and the nice lady said she needed to research and would call back.

A few days later?  She did call back.  To me.  She'd lost my wife's number.  I sighed and gave the number to her again on her voice mail.

Several days after that, the original guy finally called me back.  This time I caught him.  We discussed the situation.  Finally!  Someone who will--er, no.

It turns out, in a very non-appealable manner, that because I didn't have a technician called to my house (because it costs extra, remember, but the nice guy didn't want to hear that) I officially didn't have any problems with my service.  But I called tech support?  Doesn't matter; that's not proof of problems.  On top of that, he read off two "Pay Per View" movies that had been charged to the account as proof of acceptable service--really?  Wonder Woman?  Nobody at my house would order Wonder Woman on Pay Per View.

Nope, not appealable, because service is cancelled.  And I can trust their service to know that, order it or not, it was ordered by the boxes we had in our home. 

And he kept coming back to the 30 day service guarantee.  Folks, I hope and pray that if you ever hear that, especially from this company, you run as fast as you can.  They managed to drag the issues out to the point that it was over 30 days when I finally got fed up enough to cancel service.

So, apparently, the entire bill is my responsibility.  Service didn't work, but hey, there's no proof of that.

The horror story?  They have millions of customers they're inflicting this "service" attitude upon, every day.

Sorry, guys.


PS--please share.  Customer Service attitudes this horrible deserve to be broadcast.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Stupid Things

Have you ever been driving along, seen or thought of something, and suddenly realized just how stupid it really was?

Take, for example (I hope you knew I was comin' at this one with examples), the billboard I saw on my way in to work this morning.  At first, all I saw was a great big mostly-blackened banana.  Now, the first thing I used to think of when I saw bananas at that stage of their life cycle was "banana bread!"  I've had a lot of banana bread over the years, though, and it no longer excites me any more than fruitcake does, and so now all I really think of when I see said banana is "Eww.  Eww, throw it out.  Toss it out, and then take out the trash.  Then call the trash people to come by early to get.  That.  Thing.  Out.  Of.  My.  Life.



Once I got closer, I was able to read the text: "Everything gets old, including your shocks."  Say what? It's a shock absorber ad?  Now, granted, I don't often think of yummies when I think of my shocks, but I doubt a marketer wants me thinking of the opposite at that time either.  "Hey, I need to go to your business and--eww, gross--bad bananas--get my shocks replaced."


At the same time I was cruising--if you'll let me use that word to describe the act of driving very slowly on the Interstate entertained by my neighbor's radio and the brake lights of the cars ahead blinking on and off seemingly to the rhythm of the very loud rap song--okay, now, where was I?

Oh, right, cruising.  Ish.

It was the morning rush hour, and the mix of cars and semi trailers on the road where I-40 and I-240 meet always causes a bit of a slowdown.  As I considered it, though, I began to wonder who designed that interchange in the first place.  I mean, typically when Interstates meet, especially when one is a major national artery and another is a local city bypass, they do so following some fairly standard practices so that the non-locals on the road have a chance of not looking stupid and/or slowing traffic to a crawl.  This one, though, has a major on-ramp with two lanes of traffic merging onto the Interstate, both of which narrow down to one, and that one merges, has an "Exit Only" sign on it, and then ends (without an exit, as it happens).  Rifht after the merge, one highway heads to the south (left) and swings by most of the businesses, Graceland, and the airport.  Of course, it breaks off to the right, not the left.  The highway that continues through to the right?  No, it doesn't break left.  What goes left is an exit to a regular road.

What that exchange brings every morning is a flood of commuters coming in from the left-side high occupancy vehicle lanes way back before (the designations of which disappear well before this mess) merging right, the folks entering the Interstate merging left, the through semis who've been restricted to the right lanes now trying desperately to claw their way to the left lanes, and all the while everybody else is just dazed and confused.

Who designed that crap?

Memphis certainly isn't alone in such strange designs.  I heard all about how wonderful "The Fan" area of Richmond was--it was old, you see, and it was, um, stuff.  Why's it called "The Fan?"  Because it's proof that early Virginians couldn't make a road go straight for more than a mile or so.  And then there was the area of town my favorite bookstore was in, the "we don't have any on-street parking, but we have cool cobblestones."  Yeah, great.  I'll wave as I drive by on the cool cobblestones.

And because that bit isn't enough, there was the coaching I received on getting home most efficiently when I was a newbie to Richmond roads:
"Go down to Cary Street and take a right."
"But Cary Street doesn't go to my part of town."
"It runs around and through for a while and then becomes River Road, though."
"But River Road doesn't go to my part of town, either."
"But after it crosses the river and runs through a couple of parks and then changes names again, it does."
"So, over the river and through the woods, to Midlothian we go?  It ain't grandmother's house, but it's close enough."
No, I didn't make that up.  The road really does that crap.

Phoenix, Arizona, on the other hand, is laid out just about as intelligently as a city can be, I'd say.  Most streets run either north-south or east-west, and generally the only reason a major arterial road ends is a "terrain feature" like a big frickin' hill.  So, it's nice, and it makes sense.

Except for the Pima bridge.

When I arrived in 1992, fresh out of active duty, I got a job in north Scottsdale.  I lived in Mesa (the cheap area).  That meant I drove a long way north every morning, and a long way south every evening.  Given the generally north-south run of the roads there, I had a lot of great options for the commute path.  One, in particular, was special, though.  It seems that they were already planning for the mammoth highway 101 loop around the city (which now exists in all of its backed-up glory), to the point where they'd actually started it.  With an overpass.  In the middle of a field.  That I could see from the Pima Road as I drove to work.

"Why is there a bridge in the middle of that field?" I asked some co-workers one day.  It's the coming highway, you see....  Okay, but shouldn't they build the highway first, and then connect it over--um, whatever that bridge is built over?  Looks like a cow path to me, but hey, whatever heats your asphalt.

And then there was the driveway at the Arizona Department of Transportation building that sported a "One Way" sign at each end of the driveway.  Of course, the signs were opposite each other.  Once I'd been in Phoenix a while and realized what that degree of sunshine did to peoples' minds, though, I assumed they'd done that on purpose.

Ya gotta love it....


Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Exciting Bit About Writing

Okay, let's admit it: writing isn't terribly exciting as a whole enterprise.  We sit for hours, we look at our computer screens, we let our minds wander into whatever scene we're doing, and we try to make sure our fingers capture whatever it is that the neurons (the creative ones) come up with.  Meanwhile people all over the world are watching Doctor Who, or football, or they're playing frisbee golf in the park that's just a mile from my home.

What keeps drawing me back to it?

Money, right?  No.  I've sold a few books, made a little money, but overall it hasn't been a tremendous financial boon to the family.  Not yet, anyway, and though I certainly hope to some day be another James Patterson making millions of dollars a year, there's only one of him and there are hundreds of thousands of me.  I recognize that reality.  It's like winning the lottery, with just barely better odds.

Still, I play the lottery.  I play it despite the fact that I used to give my mother a hard time because "lottery is a tax on people who don't know math."  She'd smile and play anyway, and now that I'm older, and she's gone, I smile and play anyway, knowing math as well as I do or not.  I mean, compared to the other (real) taxes I pay, a ticket per drawing is minimal, and the potential payoff is huge, and so why not?

But playing the lottery isn't exciting.  It's just the lottery.

Writing for money isn't exciting.  It's just the literary equivalent of the lottery.

I'll tell you what's exciting, though.  What's exciting--what got me jumping out of bed this morning looking forward to starting my first cup of coffee and writing my first paragraph of the day--is the promise of worlds unknown.  Yeah, I know, that's what we say about reading.  The thing is, when I read something, it's a world unknown only to me (and to anybody else who hasn't read the book).  The writer already knows it--even more than I ever will, in fact.  The other readers already know it, at least to within a certain tolerance that is our personal imaginations. 

When I write, though, nobody knows it before me.  Heck, I don't even know it before me.  Nobody experiences that scene before I do.  I'm the first.

"You mean you don't know what you're going to write?"  Well, yes, pretty much.  Shocking as that may be to someone who's not done a novel-sized work before, it's the nature of the beast.  Even if you outline every scene, that's not the same as writing it word by word, sentence by sentence.  Writing it is learning it, experiencing it in every little detail.

Writing it is even more detailed, in fact, than reading it. 

For example, I woke up needing to finish a flight scene in the Elf Queen book.  The intrepid band of adventurers is in a tight spot (otherwise the book would be pretty dang boring, right?) and is rushing to get somewhere before they're cut off by the horde of bad guys.  Now, I know where they're going.  I know whether or not they're going to get there safely.  I know, for the most part, where all of the bad guys are and what they're capable of. 

Knowing all that I do about the scene as it unfolds is fun, but I also have to pick and choose.  I blogged a long time ago about "describiness," a trait some authors get into where they want to tell you about every blade of grass the heroes trod upon.  This isn't just scenery, though; it's action.  As the heroes in my scene rush to get to where they're going, how much action do I include, and how much do I leave in the wings? 

That's a constantly moving string of decisions the writer makes.

And the writer knows it all, but isn't revealing it.  At the same time, as the word count increments one at a time (as word counts always do), and sentences are formed (and sometimes partially erased to be re-formed) and paragraphs come out of sentences, the picture is drafted and re-drafted, moving along with the party through the greater storyline that I alone know. 

There.  That's the exciting bit about writing. 

In the words of the Tenth Doctor: Allons-y!


Saturday, August 17, 2013

How Long Should Elf Queen Be?

A milestone today!  I got up and started writing as soon as I had caffeine in my system.  I stopped for lunch with the fam, and then for a trip by the pet store for cat food, and then I went back to writing. 

It was thus that I truly reaped the benefit of having shaved down my Works in Progress from five to one.  I went into today knowing where I wanted to go, because I'd been thinking about it and it alone, and when I sit down knowing where the prose should go it leaves my fingies to just type.

And type they can!  Long ago I held the largely thankless position of editor of my high school paper, and I was one of the few people on staff who could type.  This was the days well before computers became a thing, and most of the other kids on the paper staff couldn't type, and so I'd get stacks of handwritten articles and have to type them myself before they could go to the typesetter.  It was, thus, a matter entirely of survival that I got my typing speed up to between "pretty fast" and "burn the keyboard up." 

I took my family to lunch, then, with 3,000 new words in the manuscript.  I finally took a nap this afternoon with 5,000 as my word count for the day, and that also took me over a milestone: 50,000 words in the book!

At the same time it did something psychologically significant: it proved that I can still turn out >5,000 word days.  I did that regularly on the weekends when I was writing Cataclysm and Ascension, but I hadn't seemed to be able to get more than 2,000 words no matter how hard I tried.  I did it, though.  I've since gotten over 6.000 in my word bucket for the day, and I still have more words and more time to write.

That milestone, though, brings up an issue.  I outlined the Elf Queen series to be a set of nine 50,000 word books.  Now, if you just said, "But Stephen, I thought you were a pantser, not an outliner!" you'd be correct, but I'm talking about the outline for the series, not just the book.  The point, of course, is to make sure that each book is a story, with protagonists and antagonists, unto itself while the series has an underlying theme and its own overarching protagonists and antagonists.

Think about Harry Potter.  In each book he was the good guy, with his trio of wizards, and Voldemort was the bad guy.  Yet each book had its own set of challenges, its own plot arc, and its own set of antagonists specific to that arc.  Riordan's series is like that, too--while you might be missing out on some of the original information if you just pick, say, book three to read, you'll still be treated to an entire story with a full plot arc.

So why did I pick 50,000?  Well, first, back when I was planning this out I was only half as experienced as I am now.  I had problems fleshing out the story.  Cataclysm, for example, was 68,000 words when I finished its draft, and it currently sits at 93,000 words.  Both the other two novels followed the same path, though Deception had a lot less growth involved, because I got better at fleshing out while I wrote.

But when I planned, my thought was that Young Adult books (which the Elf Queen is intended to be) are, according to such experts as Writers Digest, supposed to be in the 55,000-70,000 word length range.  That meant that by pegging a 50,000 word first draft I could slip the book right in where it needed to be.

And now, I'm at 50,000 words, and I'm not quite halfway into the story.  Uh oh!

That's okay.

I actually expect to cut some of this rather than the previous adding I've done, for one thing.  For another, I'm no longer thinking this will be Young Adult.  Yes, it tells the tale from the point of view of a young adult, but that doesn't mean the story will be aimed at that age range.  Fantasy, according to the same experts, needs to be in the 100,000-ish word range, and I'm headed right that-a-way. 

Bottom line, I suppose, is that a) I'm moving along once again, which is wonderful, and b) I'm right on par with where I should be in word count.

I'm happy.


Friday, August 16, 2013

The Day of Not-Blogging

Yet again, I am saying one thing and doing the opposite.  I'm blogging about not blogging, specifically.

The joyous not-blogged news I have to share is that the closing of the WIPs seems to be working.  The other day I closed four of the five works I have in progress in order to focus on the Elf Queen book, and since then I've been cranking out 1000-2100 words a night.  I've noticed a difference in my thoughts, too, as while I was driving from our branch campus today to present a training event, my brain was on the scene that I'm writing tonight and the follow-on events, honing the action and making sure everything fits. 

It's funny how that works.  It's good, how well that works, too.

So tonight I'm trying to let my fingies catch up to my brain, and so this is the short blog post I'm doing to tell you I'm not doing a blog post.

Really silly, yes, but that's kinda how I am.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

What Day Is It, Anyway?

So today I walked in to work thinking it was Wednesday.  Wednesday, again, of course, but that didn't occur to my coffee-deprived brain.  I eventually fed it some coffee, granted, but by that point I was pretty well convinced that it was indeed the middle of the week.

My brain works funny sometimes.

Hump Dayyy!

Then, after a flurry of activity, responding to stuff and doing stuff and signing stuff, I set off through the hallowed hall of the institution, only to run into a flock of new students.

Oh, right.  New student orientation.  Which happens on a Thursday, my now-less-coffee-deprived brain reminded me.

Oops.  Must be Thursday.

So I sidled up to a couple of co-workers who were also watching the activities of the new student flock in its native habitat.  Feeling comfortable, I confided in them about my former mistaken impression of the current day of the week.

One of them replied that he'd thought it was Friday.  Oops, again.

I'm not sure which is worse: assuming it's Wednesday and finding out it's really Thursday, or thinking it's Friday and finding out it's not.  I suspect, though, that the latter is more of a let-down.

So, now I'm home, and blogging, and in just a few hours it will, in fact, be Friday.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Strange New Land

A first installment of a story I'm writing as part of a challenge:

Robert peered at the unfamiliar landscape from the safety of his hiding spot.  The large rock he cowered behind wouldn't protect him from anything that might fly overhead or come at him from behind, but he was mainly worried about the herd of animals to his front.  Antelope?  Deer?  Elk?  Whatever they were, there were hundreds of them, and many of them had Robert-goring antlers on their heads.  That, and they were all headed somewhere fast.

And they were purple.  That part bothered Robert more than the horns; he'd seen creatures with antlers before.  Just--not purple ones.

He quickly removed his eyes from the surging herd to scan for--whatever, something, anything menacing--to the sides or overhead.  He didn't think anything was there, but he wondered how he would know menacing when he saw it.  The only thing normal about his new strange location was the rock, after all.  The grass, what little he could see, stood in clumps colored different shades of blue.  The sky overhead, meanwhile, was green.

How is that even possible? he wondered.  He vaguely remembered something from school about how the sky was blue because of something in the air.  The air was different here--wherever here was--obviously, but he was still able to breathe somehow.

Well, that was one good thing, anyway.

He turned his attention back toward the stampede to his front.  Slowly he leaned more of his body out from behind the rock he'd scrambled behind when the noise had startled him.  The animals didn't seem to notice him, which was probably another good thing.  They were larger than the deer he'd seen before, nearly the size of a small horse, and all speeding across the land with strong muscles rippling under their--purple--coats.

How strange.

He was tempted to leave the safety of the rock for a closer look, but then again something must have caused the large purple animals to stampede, and whatever it was might not react well to seeing an ordinary, unarmed human loitering in its lands.

The moment passed.  The herd continued, a few smaller members bringing up the rear, along the path that Robert couldn't quite make out.  As they left his field of vision the noise of their gallop drifted slowly away into the distance. Finally Robert found himself trembling to eerie silence, crouched behind the rock that now mocked his timidity.

"Well.  That was fun," he said as he straightened up.  "Great, I'm already talking to myself, and I've been here alone for all of fourteen and one-half minutes."  He chuckled to himself over his own joke, one that he knew would have fallen flat had anybody else been there to hear it.

He looked down at his clothes--yep, same jeans, t-shirt, and shoes he remembered wearing to the bar the night before.  He pulled out his wallet and inventoried the contents; he'd spent more than he realized on drinks, which wasn't a new thing, but it didn't look like anything important was missing.

Not robbed, then.  He didn't feel like he'd been--um, violated--either.  He wasn't even hung over.  He just didn't remember getting home, if he'd made it home at all, nor did he remember traveling to wherever here was.  Instead of the nice bed in his flat at 613 King Street, he'd woken up in a strange landscape to a strange herd of frightened purple fuzzy things.

"Okay, so this is a dream," he muttered.  Reaching across with his left hand, he found an exposed spot of flesh on his other arm and did what everybody did to wake themselves out of dreams in the stories.  "Ow!" he yelped as his mind registered the pain.  He looked around hopefully, and then shook his head.  Nope, same place.

He was definitely awake, though.

Robert walked back to where he'd been lying when the sound of hooves had roused him, hoping to find a clue.  There!  He spied a envelope, about the size his cable bill always arrived in, tucked under a nearby rock.  Hungry for answers, he ripped the top open.

Sorry, old chap, to do this to you.  It's for your own good, though.  You'll get home, in time.  I'd say trust me on that, but you wouldn't.  You probably shouldn't.  You'll need food, though, so I'll offer the following suggestions.  First, the small black berries you'll find in abundance are not only edible, they're quite good too.  You'll find a deep blue plant that usually grows to waist high up along ridge lines like the one to the north of where you're standing now.  It bears an orange flower that extends from the end of a blood-red fruit that looks like a cucumber.  The fruit doesn't taste anything like a cucumber, but it's good to eat regardless.  All the water you'll find, if you find water, is okay to drink, and all the animals are okay to eat.  If, that is, you can catch them.  You'll find a cache of weapons and tools, in addition to further information, about a full day's hike to the north, tucked in and around an old cabin beside a stream.  Oh, and you don't want to be out, especially in the valley you're currently reading this in, after dark, so you'd best chivvy along.  No, I'm not kidding.  Go, now, before the tigrons that spooked the herd find you.

"My own good?  Thanks a lot," Robert said to the nobody who wasn't around.  "Great.  Weapons and tools, a full day's hike from here?"  He sighed, having never hiked for a full day in his life.

"And what the hell is a tigron?" he yelled up into the air.

When nobody answered once again, Robert started walking north, away from the ridge line.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Killing Them Softly

It's been a while since I killed a character.  I kinda miss it.

Yes, I'm aware how twisted that sounds.  But it's true.  When you're writing a fiction piece, sometimes characters die.  Sometimes main characters die.  Sometimes, even, nearly all of your protagonists die and then you get to make new protagonists out of the survivors (just ask George R.R. Martin what that's like).

Fact is, writing is an emotional, creative process.  That's why some people love doing it so much that they'll--we'll--sit alone at keyboards for hours on end with no direct time-to-money conversion promised.  It's a labor of love, literally.

And then there's the death of a character.

Now, killing the bad guy off is something we just don't do.  It's not that we don't want to do it, generally.  I mean, sometimes we're awesome and create a bad guy who's actually a good guy with bad ideas or influences, or sometimes the bad guy is actually a natural process gone awry, and in those cases it's difficult to want the bad guy to die.  Usually, though, it's simpler just to have the bad guy be a truly bad guy (or girl, of course).  In that case, we of course don't like him, and we want to kill him, right?  But we can't, because then there would be no plot, and with no plot there's no story, and with no story there's no book.

Thus it is that we turn to the good guys for our killing exercises.  Sorry, good guys, but sometimes you just have to go.  When that happens, there are a range of emotions that flush over us.

I've even shed a tear when killing a character.  No kidding.

Now, there are genres where you don't generally see much character death.  Romance is one of those--if someone dies, it's neither of the main characters, because that would shorten the love scenes somewhat (unless, of course, it's a--well, eww, never mind).  Young Adult, too, is often a fa la la laaa laaa experience.

Yes, Dumbledore died, but the book series had stretched out of YA and into regular fantasy by that point.  And then, of course, there's the Pendragon series, the books in which D.J. MacHale kills off adults just to make the real protagonists squirm (not gonna say which adults, for fear of plot spoilage--if you wanna know who dies, read the books). 

Obviously, there's not a lot of character killing off in non-fiction, and for the obvious reason.

That, then, leaves fantasy, suspense, and horror.  Lots of character death in horror, there is.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Sticks and Stones . . . and Trolls

Wisdom from a children's nursery rhyme, right here:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me.

Oh, wait, no, that's the pop song version.  Here's the nursery rhyme:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.

Oh, wait.  Is that really wisdom?  It's wisdom in most aspects of our face-to-face lives, of course, but let's sit back and think about how and where many of us spend our social time these days.  Specifically: the Internet.  The World Wide Web.  Facebook.  Blogs (like this--and yay!).  E-mail.  Texting.  Faceb--er, I mentioned that one already, didn't I?  And now there are other versions of Facebook: Google+ for the groupically minded, Pinterest for the graphically minded, and so on.

Oh, and ebooks.

The old adage, which apparently first appeared in print in the U.S. in 1862 (labeled at the time as an old adage), is quite unerringly true, at least insofar as hurt is defined physically.

But should it be?

Should we merely dismiss the pain associated with emotional hurt?  Does it only count if we hurt because of a bruise or a broken bone?  Does it not also hurt to have an old friend refusing to accept friendship requests on online media because of words you had there?

Of course the answers to the above are all yes.  Unless I messed up and asked the question in a "no" sort of way, of course.  That said, I don't think you can disregard emotional pain as easily as the nursery rhyme suggests.

And then there's business.

The fact is that the Internet, and Facebook, and Pinterest, and so many other related sites, have made it possible for someone with a product or service to sell can rather efficiently bring a cottage industry to a customer base.  I'm evidence, personally, that you can bring a book to readers and make a little money in so doing.

Unless, of course, you piss somebody off.  That's where the "trolls" comment comes in.  No, I'm not talking of the under-the bridge monsters.  They moved en masse to the Internet and are all alive and well there, feasting on anyone unlucky enough to raise their attention.  I'm lucky, actually.  I've gone through a fairly controversial phase, on this blog and on other sites, with the end of my first attempt at being published, and nobody thought at the time to latch onto me and, through words rather than sticks or stones, drain my business's life blood dry.

Unfortunately that's all too easy these days, as some of my acquaintances have learned.  To post a "review" of a book you don't need to have ever bought or even actually read the book in question.  While readers may disregard the dumb reviews that are thus generated, the review and publicity sites don't; they expect a certain average review before they'll push your publicity, your sales, and your work out.

Again, it hasn't happened to me--*knocking on wood*--but I feel for those it has happened to, as I feel for the entire industry that is impacted by the cheapening of the review process.

And then there are the partisan screamers.  Today in the Facebook Indie Author group I frequent somebody linked an anonymous (of course) blog post titled "Why Indie Authors Still Suck."  No, I'm not going to grace it with the same link; the guy's already garnered a third as many visits as my blog has by posting incendiary crap.  Early on, he establishes his bias by saying "I work for a publishing house..." and then, rather than use that for credibility, he launches into a screed about how that's placed him in the position to see (non-Indie, by the way) authors being told to basically sit down and shut up and do as the publishing houses tell them.  He defines "publishing" in a way that only includes the traditional guys, and then when your method doesn't match his definition he says you're wrong.  And, of course, if you believe he's wrong, as he says at the end, then you must be stupid.

Gotta love ad hominem and pre-destined arguments like that.  Oh, and grammar errors.  For a normal blog post, I'm pretty lenient on grammar errors as long as they're not committed in my English class, but when it's written by a jerk who calls himself "Grammar Nazi Panzer General," I--well, heck, little ole' stupid me expects better than half-ass grade school grammar mistakes like run-on sentences. 

And what do the Indies do?  They say "well, he has a point.  Every Indie Author should make sure their work is edited."  Chickenshits.

Great stuff, that.  Scared of trolls, they are.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but sometimes words can hurt me worse.


For Love of Nothing

So my friend Carol Tomany got me to thinking about nothing the other day with her blog post on a similar topic.  Please, click the link, go read, enjoy her wonderful post.

But please come back after.

Now, I'm writing this thinking about nothing.  No, I mean really thinking about nothing.  Not as in not thinking, or as in thinking but having no subject of said thought, or as in that lie we often tell each other in response to the "whatcha thinkin' about?" query.

You know that lie, especially if you're a guy.  "Uh, nothing, honey," sounds a lot better (and safer) than "I just happened to be thinking about how large that other woman's breasts are."  I mean, we can't help it.  We're guys.  We think about....

Oh, um, never mind.  Let's get back to nothing, shall we?

It's safer.

No, really, think about it.  It's not hard to not think, or to not think about anything in particular.  There's just kind of a void there.  But to actually think about the void--now there's a perplexing thought.

We don't think about it much, do we?

Granted, it's not very exciting.  Nothing is--well, nothing.  It's not even exciting to physicists, which is saying something, about nothing.  It's the vacuum in space.  It's the area in between all the pesky little electrons and protons and neutrons that we're so interested in, physics-wise.  It's just nothing.

Going on vacation is the perfect time to ponder the meaningless of nothing.  I'm famous, in fact, for answering the question, "So what are you planning to do on vacation?" with an emphatic "nothing."  I've even been known to say it like either a curse word or the highest blessing available.  I'm going on vacation, and I'm doing nooooothiiiiiiinnnnnggggg!  Because, you know, my non-vacation life is so full of something, it's quite pleasant to think about doing absolutely nothing.

Thing is, I never really think about doing nothing.  Matter of fact, I never accomplish it either.  Nothing ends up being a tour on horses one day, and then a tour of caves and a lunch at a special place the next, and then so on and so forth, times three, each day for the remainder of the nothing-turned-something.  By the time I'm done with vacation, I'm so tired of doing so damn much nothing that I look forward to relaxing back into my regular routines.

Nothing, my tuckas.

Mathematically, nothing is at least kind of interesting.  It manifests itself in the whole, but not (usually) natural, number zero.  I know this--I used to teach the math class, and we had to spend way too long on the silly categorization of numbers.  "Natural numbers are those numbers you would count on your fingers if you had unlimited number of hands, while whole numbers include the number you'd get if you had no fingers."  Bah.  Who cares?

Mathematicians care, actually.  Especially mathematicians who are into the history of their field.  It's a pretty interesting story of how zero came to be accepted into the math systems of the world, since it wasn't at first.  Think about it--you've (I hope) learned at some point in your educational path that Roman numerals include an I for 1, an X for 10, and all sorts of other letters that meant a certain number.  What was the letter for zero?  Don't remember one?  There wasn't one.  It wasn't worth a symbol of its own.  When you absolutely had to have an entry of zero in a table (like in later years when you had to report to the Senate how many acres of Persian lands you captured) they'd just use the word for "nothing."

When positional notation systems came to be used, they found the need to identify the lack of inner quantities.  For example, in our current standard system--also known as "Arabic numerals", a label I've been wondering if people would try to change these days--after all, when so many Americans were angry with France over not invading Iraq with us, they wanted to change the French Fry to the Freedom Fry--now, where was I?  Oh, right--in our current system, the second digit is for tens and the third is for hundreds. What if you have 2 hundreds and no tens, as well as 5 ones?  It's 205.  Note the deft use of the circle-thingie in between the 2 and the 5 to indicate that there aren't any of what that digit represents.  In early systems, they just left the zero out, ignoring that it was an issue by just having a space there.  Nothing, in other words, to indicate nothing.  As people started writing sloppily, though, the spaces were challenging and so they started using slashes to indicate nothing, which is in fact something representing nothing.

Anyway--yeah, the topic of zeroes in math is an interesting one.

Then there's the matter of clothing, another area where nothing is interesting to contemplate.  Mark Twain observed, "So it is not nakedness that gives the sense of immodesty, the modifying the nakedness is what does it."  In other words, wearing nothing isn't such a big deal.  It is, after all, how we're born.  It's wearing something that isn't something enough and as a result makes us think of wearing nothing that is the issue.


Or--something.  About nothing.


Saturday, August 10, 2013

On Entertaining


Sorry I've been absent for a few days, both from here and from my normal games on Facebook, as well as from my writing of the Elf Queen. 

I've been playing Empire.  It's a classic game of conquest from back in the IBM 286 days.  I played it way back when while I was at West Point, and I recall spend most of the last half of the first semester of my junior year playing the game right up to a few minutes before the term end exam for a course was to start, then running away (it doesn't need pausing, being turn-based) and then returning to continue the game. 

Yes, I passed all my classes.  I might perhaps have done better had I not become an Empire playing fiend, but you could say that about many of my habits (such as not doing any homework that wasn't immediately necessary). 

Now, I've been looking at what it is that gets people really totally engaged in something.  When someone, for example, says "I couldn't put the book down," sometimes they're telling a little white fib to make the author feel better, but occasionally the book really does have that kind of hold on them. 

This, then, was an experiment (that's my story, and I'm stickin' to it).  What is it about engaging the person that can be replicated?

Is it technology?  If so, then Empire should not have grabbed me again.  Back in 1987-1988, it was indeed high tech.  Now, though, it's really completely not.  The screen only comes in one size, for example.  The map is in two colors: green, and blue.  My playing pieces are red pictures of what the unit is, and the enemy's pieces are all the same pictures in green.  When I tell a piece to move a certain direction, it literally just flips from one spot to the next, to the next.  The most high-tech thing about it is the white flashing of the pieces when combat happens.

And yet, it held me once again, over a quarter century later.


Part of it is the "fog of war" aspect.  As you're moving pieces, you're also discovering the world (that was, prior to your piece being there, entirely black).  It's also a steady action game, where pieces are always moving or ready to move or needing to be moved. 

Those two lessons, then, play directly into the process of writing.  It is possible, through careful plotting and writing and planning the reveals, to keep just the right amount of "fog of war" in a story to maintain tension.  I'm not talking about a complete surprise, by the way, not because it's not good, but rather because it's near impossible to pull off.  It's very rare that a book surprises me at the end, after all, and I still enjoy them regardless.  What I'm talking about is a narrative style that times reveals to plot points in a way that keeps the reader sitting there with his or her eyes in the book.

The other lesson has been covered in a great many of the books and articles on writing that I've read.  Keep the action going, they say--build the stakes for the protagonist and company higher with every page.  Granted, that's hard to do when you have to tell other parts of the story sometimes, but eye those parts skeptically and don't be afraid to scrap 'em if you need. 

And now, all of that said, I'm headed back to finish this dang game.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Cats and Grammar and Girls

"Ignorant people think it is the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain't so; it is the sickening grammar they use." - Mark Twain

"Devotees of grammatical studies have not been distinguished for any very remarkable felicities of expression." - Bronson Alcott

"This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put!" - Winston Churchill, I think

"Meow Mrow Mrrow Mrow Mrrowwww." - Our cat

Okay, so I'm quite tired, at the end of what was quite a long day.  Luckily I have beer.  Beer makes things better.

I have writing, too, and in that direction I will soon launch.

That said, I saw an article today that irritated me.  It managed that not-so-challenging trick by trying to explain to me how to write like a girl.  Girls, you see, interject a lot, finish each others' stories, speak with more description and more empty adverbs (like "really"), and finish more sentences with question marks.


I suppose I must bow my head briefly to Ye Olde Stereotype.  Yes, it exists, as the article I just described proved.  And it exists, most often (I suppose), because so many people hold it as truth.

So here's the question--do I write my Elf Queen (a late-teenage girl) as a stereotype or how I hear her speaking in my head?


Monday, August 5, 2013

Being an Evil Overlord

It all began when I, in jest (I think), scratched out the first word in my "Dean of Education" sign and replaced it with a couple of more fitting (at the time) words, thus declaring myself the "Evil Overlord of Education."

Being an Evil Overlord of Education has its good points and its bad, I'd say.  On the one hand, though you undoubtedly have plenty of minions (who are quite intelligent and devoted to their job), none of them are willing to dress up in overalls and sing the "Banana" song.  That's probably because they're quite intelligent and devoted to their job, of course.

On the other hand, an Evil Overlord of Education doesn't really have to destroy much physical stuff, nor do you have to actually kill anybody, to qualify for the title on a fairly regular basis.  Just doing normal Dean stuff is enough, it seems.

"Mr. Blutarsky, zero... point... zero." comes to mind.

That, and there's a remarkable lack of interest among those who might take your job in actually doing so.  Anybody who's been around a Dean for long realizes how stressful the job can be despite the fancy paneled office and comfy chair (yeah, right) and charming assistants.  Nope.  Sorry, man, you're stuck with it.  Unlike most evil overlords out there, your minions do. Not. Want. Your. Job.  Not with a ten foot pole.  Wouldn't even touch it with your six-pointy beanie.  Sorry.

That said, then, there's not a lot of reason for an Academic Dean-slash-Evil Overlord to follow Peter Anspach's Evil Overlord List.  That said that said, though, it's still fun to do so.  Take, for example, number 27 (no, I'm not going to copy them here--he's got a strong enough copyright notice on his site that I'm just not gonna screw with it, which is why I linked it just now).  My life-ending terror-inducing weapon of choice is the pen, and yes, indeedy, I carry two on me at all times.

Number 33, of course, is very, very useful to keep in mind.  It helps keep HR off your back and stuff, you know.  Not that I would think of doing something so politically incorrect in the first place, but--well, Evil Overlords must keep up appearances (unless HR is on site at the time, anyway).

Number 60 is important, too.  Granted, Evil Overlords of Education don't get any five year old advisors, but HR can suffice for that as well.

Unfortunately, I mess up Number 20 all the time.  Oh, well.  Muah hah hah haaaaa!

Happy Monday!


PS--no, I don't hate HR people.  In fact, I've liked just about every HR person I've ever met, which is part of their insidious danger.  I respect HR people, and any of you aspiring Evil Overlords out there should learn to do so, too.  HR folks will always be the Palatine to your Vader.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

With Ceremony

"Even the most understated ceremony involves a certain respect for ritual and pageantry." - Vera Wang

Sometimes, it's the ceremony that counts.

As an Academic Dean by profession, I'm certainly tied to that reality. The academic world is full of rituals and ceremonies, each having its own meaning, place, and importance.

One specific and extremely vital ceremony comes to mind: commencement.  I've worked in institutions with all sorts of traditions regarding the act of conferring credentials upon those who complete the requirements, and to many students nothing seems to matter more than the ritual of walking across the stage.  One institution, in fact, only held the ceremony once per year, and though graduates had their credentials conferred, along with all rights and privileges (and pretty pieces of paper), immediately upon completion, some still called me every week as we got closer to the commencement ceremony time. 

"Are we there yet?"

"Are we?"

I came to understand that ceremony's importance before I became a Dean, thanks to my service as student support coordinator.  It was a common thing the students would comment upon during my meetings.  Okay, okay, I get it....

One of the realities common with career colleges--and the practice is spreading among traditional institutions as well--is that the chief executive of the campus (typically called the President) doesn't always come from an academic background.  Often they're good strong business leaders who can effectively balance a budget and work within a world of restricted resources, but they haven't always taken the time to examine the rituals associated with academic life as closely as they should.

One institution I worked for, in fact, was like that.  Their ceremony, when I arrived, was kind of strange from an academic point of view.  So I changed it, adding the traditional ritualistic feel in which people say stuff that the graduates won't remember past the flipping of the tassels, and then the new grads all parade across stage to receive the honors they've earned.  Then comes the important legalistic part, where the head of academics (usually a Dean or higher) speaks on behalf of the faculty to the legal head of the institution (usually the President) and says "hey, dude, these students survived our crap, so grant them their degrees."

Okay, so it's not typically delivered in those precise words, but that's the general process.  Then the Prez says "yeah, sure, man," and everybody flips tassels from the right to the left and then head out en masse for drinky-winkies.

So at this institution, I rewrote the script, adding that part of the ceremony in.  Though it's not strictly necessary for a graduation ceremony, it makes the students feel like they accomplished something, and it makes the faculty feel important, and on top of all that it makes the chief executive feel like he/she has an important role, too.  It's the ceremony that counts. 

I did 'er up right.  I wrote the President's portion of the script so that it went something something something "and all rights, responsibilities, and privileges appertaining thereunto."  Go ahead, try saying that out loud.  I dare you.  That last couple of words are a tongue-twister. 

At rehearsal, she asked me if it was right.  Absolutely, ma'am.  You need to say that, ma'am.  It's the ceremony, ma'am. 

At the actual ceremony, she nailed it.  The whole phrase, including the last tongue-twisting couple of words, she enunciated perfectly.  Yay!  In fact, she smiled as we were done, and she shared with me how happy she was that she'd gotten the important words right.

Some day I'll have to go back and come clean to her.  Nah, ma'am, I made that crap up to see if you could and would say it.

There was a similar ceremony at West Point, back when I was there, when dinosaurs roamed the plain, when there was a seriously challenging fourth class system.  *ahem*  It happened at the end of the year, when the fourth class cadets, who had been known for the entire academic year as simply "Plebe" or worse, became upperclassmen.  Peers, ish. 

We would line them up by cadet company, and then the upperclassmen in that company would go through the line one at a time shaking hands and introducing ourselves by first name. Recognition Day, it was called.  It was a big deal.

Wasn't such a big deal to some of us when we went through it, honestly.  By that point we already knew what the upper classmen's names were, and we also had our own little pet names for them (most of which we'd never repeat in their presence even after Recognition Day).  It seemed--redundant.  Irrelevantly so, in fact.

Thus it was that my class, in my company, at the end of our sophomore ("yearling") year, all went through introducing ourselves as "Bob."  Guys, girls, everybody--just "Bob."  Hell, they won't remember the names they don't already know, and they already know almost all of our names.  Why not?

The Importance of Ceremony is why not.  I found out a couple of years later that that class group never, ever forgave us for that little prank.  To them, it was a horrible slight. 

Oops.  And I'd been one of the chief architects of that little pranky-wanky.  Sorry, guys.

It's important to do things the right way sometimes:

With ceremony.


Health Benefit of Bacon

"Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon." - Doug Larson

"I unfortunately still crave Chicken McNuggets and bacon, which is the meat candy of the world." - Katy Perry


I posted about the joys of bacon a few posts ago.  Well, okay, it was way back last September, but it still smacks (and crackles and crisps) true. 

Too much bacon is, I suppose, a health risk.  At least, that's what I've heard that they say--they being the mysterious cabal of medically trained experts who are somehow elevated to the position requiring them to tell us what to eat to be healthy.  You know--used to be the four food groups, now it's a pyramid.  Who knows, maybe next year it'll be a circle of some type that makes us healthy.

Anyway, they say too much fat in our diets is a bad thing, and since bacon has a lot of good ole' smoked fat in it, too much bacon must be bad.

I do, however, have a hard time saying "too much bacon is bad" without laughing at the inherent silliness of the statement.

I mean, c'mon--this is bacon we're talking about.  It's pure happiness in one slice of culinary perfection.  Yesterday for breakfast I had a slice of bacon with two eggs (fried, over medium) and potato casserole, and it was terrific.  Last night we grilled hot dogs--bacon flavored hot dogs, in my case, since they were a new product in the store--wrapped in bacon.  This morning?  Omelets.  Omelets, I should add, stuffed with cheese and bacon.

Hey, now, I combined the cheese and bacon with green stuff (broccoli) and with carmelized onion, so it had to have been healthy, bacon or no.

Besides, too much of anything is bad for us.  I've always heard that it's important to drink a lot of water, but it wasn't that many years ago that a woman made national news when she perished in a water-drinking contest sponsored by a local radio station.  Her cause of death?  Drinking too much water.

See?  Water = bacon.

On the opposite side of the issue is the importance of happiness.  Not long ago I read an account of a German medical study (had to read an account of it, since I don't read German well) proving that men who look at well endowed women's breasts for at least ten minutes per day are happier than others, and as a result they live longer.

My wife didn't buy it.  She's perfectly well endowed for my happiness, of course, but the thought of me staring at her for ten minutes per day kinda weirded her out, wedding ring or no. 

That notwithstanding, it's clear that happiness is a good thing.  Bacon makes us happy.  Therefore, bacon is a good thing.



Saturday, August 3, 2013

A Kitten Named Freya

I used to live in Wasilla, Alaska.  Life in Wasilla way back then wasn't always normal.  Okay, to be honest, it was rarely anything that could be considered remotely normal.  Leaving Christmas lights hung on the eaves all year long so you can see outside in the fall isn't normal.  Hanging bars of Irish Spring from your trees to keep the moose from stepping on your dogs isn't normal.  Getting almost to the end of your driveway, having just shoveled about a hundred feet of foot-and-a-half deep snow, only to have the snowplow fly by and blast you in the face with street snow, isn't normal. 

Naming your kitten after the Norse goddess of all things emotional--love, hate, war, the afterlife--that's not too normal either, I guess.  But hey, I did it.

I was looking for a feisty cat, after all.  For a while it was just me and my great big chow and lab mix puppy, and after I'd returned from three months of training out of state, it became me, the puppy, and several hundred shrews (the Lex Luthor of the rodent family).  I tried baiting the shrews with cheese and with peanut butter, and for a while the traps were effective.  After a bit, though, I figured out that I was just doing Darwin's work on the population, culling the less intelligent ones. 

So I got the feistiest member of the litter from a friend whose cat had just had kittens.  The little black fuzzball that pounced on everything--yeah, that's the one.  To reinforce it, I named her Freya after the Norse shaman goddess, leader of the Valkyr, and commander of half of the warriors in the afterlife.  Woo hoo!  What a badass name!  Go Freya!

She sucked at catching shrews.  I remember one night I was sitting there watching TV when a shrew decided it could cut a rug across my living room.  I looked over at Freya, who looked back at me with a "well, what do you expect me to do about it?" expression.  I happened to have a roll of duct tape sitting there on the end table (what Alaskan end table doesn't have a roll of duct tape on it?) and I flung it at Mr. Shrew.  My aim was true, and the population was reduced by one--stupid or slow, I'm not sure, but its genes were removed from the pool regardless. 

Freya would have nothing to do with the little corpse, either.  She ate cat food, not little furry things, she told me in very clear meows. 

Then Heide moved in.  With, of course, her kids.  And, of course, her Chihuahua.  I think Freya's word for Chihuahua meant something in the realm of "cat toy." 

I didn't believe it at first.  I mean, Freya was such a cute and loving little being when she was around me.  Sure, she sometimes decided to leap onto the chow/lab's back and ride Darby like a circus animal, but that was more entertaining than really dangerous or hurtful. 

She stalked the Chihuahua, though.

The "great room"--a common space in Alaskan houses--was the size of a dining room and living room all together, and it separated the kitchen (and dog food/water) from the bedroom (which was Chihuahua haven).  Poor Peco, the noble little guy, would make his run for a little bit of water, and he'd do just fine getting to the kitchen.  You could watch him prepare for the trip back, though--first, he'd look around the living room to figure out where his nemesis was.  Usually Freya would be laying, draped across the back of the couch, asleep. 

Asleep.  Uh, huh.  Right.  "Asleep" my tuckas.

Peco would make his first little dart back toward safety, from the kitchen opening to the dining room table base.  Freya wouldn't move, but the end of her tail would twitch.

Peco would dart again, this time to a chair a little closer to safety.


He'd dart to behind the love seat, and then peek out carefully to see what had followed him.

Nothing had.  Yet.  Twitch.

He'd maneuver around the couch system carefully, putting himself into position for the final break, the longest single unprotected leg of the journey.  Once he was satisfied that the coast was clear, he'd leap out from the safety of the couch, four-inch legs propelling him as fast as they could across the carpet.

But the black streak named after the Norse goddess of war was faster.

"Stop it!" one or both of us would yell as the Chihuahua screamed in terror at the impending doom presented by the cat.  Suddenly Freya was back on top of the couch, appearing to sleep peacefully, tail giving but a single twitch.

Sadly, Freya wasn't with us for long.  She developed a seizure disorder that was pretty traumatic to watch.  A cat in control of its claws is one thing, but a cat flying across the floor with four sets of little scythes flying is terrifying even to us humans.  We took her to the vet, who shrugged and offered us some seizure medication.

Cat seizure medication, at least in those days, couldn't be used as a preventative.  It had to be used during the seizure.  And, of course, it wasn't available as an injectible.  No, to administer the medication, you had to wade in between the flying blades, raise the poor creature's tail, and insert the suppository.

What kind of sick mother f person came up with that, anyway?  "Oh, hey, this seizure medicine, we can't make it too easy to administer.  Let's make it a suppository."

The condition eventually took her from us, but I'll never forget a little kitten named Freya.


Friday, August 2, 2013

Doing Your Own Thing Isn't Always Best

Subtitle: When Kalik Saved My Life

Once, several years ago, I took my then-fiancee, now lovely bride, on a cruise.  She'd just gone through the tragic loss of a close family member, for one thing, and for another, the cruise line just happened to call me at the right place at the right time with the right price.

I say "right price" because they were incredibly cheap inexpensive tickets.  I think, in fact, that for four days at sea from Port Canaveral to Nassau, Bahamas, and back, the cruise cost only about sixty or seventy dollars a day per person.  Who knew luxurious cruising could be so cheap inexpensive, eh?

As the time marched steadily closer I realized why the cruise tickets were so inexpensive cheap.  Living in Alaska, I was used to moose season, bear season, red (salmon) season, silver (salmon) season, king season, and even mosquito season, but I forgot all about one of the most important seasons of all: hurricane season.  We just didn't have those up there. 

As luck would have it, the storm hit and passed before the boat sailed, but the seas were still choppy as the rather large boat followed the even larger storm out to sea.

By choppy, by the way, I mean stabilizers-don't-do-any-good choppy.  We boarded to find the close-able, liquid proof flexible sacks commonly referred to as "barf bags" taped to every wall in every elevator.  We enjoyed our first evening's show in the ship's theater, watching the dancers bounce-dance bounce-dance bounce-dance down to stage left, and then dance-bounce dance-bounce dance-bounce down to stage right.  Bounce, repeat. We actually had to hold onto our drinks to keep them from slipping off the tables and spilling, in fact.

Whoo-whee, what a hard time that was.

It became disappointing, in fact, as we neared the Bahamas.  Freeport, our first stop, had suffered little, but that was just a quick stop where we got to go downtown to--well, the downtown--and experience a Bahamian market.  Nassau was the stop we were looking forward to, though, because they had snorkeling.

Yay, snorkeling!

There really is nothing quite comparable to swimming along in nice calm fairly shallow water, eyes protected by waterproof goggles, watching the multi-colored sea life toodle along beneath you.  It's peaceful, and it's gorgeous.

Unless you're trying to do it with a broken collarbone and three broken ribs, but that's a whole different story.  I think I'll title that one "Why I Drank Bermuda Out Of Rum" when I get around to writing it.

Anyway, we were really looking forward to snorkeling in the Bahamas, but as we drew close to the port in Nassau they gave us the bad news.  See, cruise ships have this incredible way of raking in lots and lots of money called "shore excursions."  These excursions are overpriced tours of the local attractions, but when you're only likely to hit a place once in your lifetime and you've always wanted to see a particular attraction, the excursion is generally worth the extra price since quality of the experience is overseen by the cruise line.


Anyway, there are several shore excursions in Nassau to go snorkeling.  They're all awesome, from what I hear.  I wouldn't know, because they all closed down on us.  Post-hurricane, don't you know.  Waves, don't you know.  Crushed dreams, don't you know.

Except one, don't you know.  One operator said he'd go ahead and take a group snorkeling.  Yay!  I figured this guy must really know what he's doing.  He must really be into doing his own thing, out away from the beaten path, and he must know someplace special to go.

I was wrong.

The someplace special to go that he knew was down the shipping lane that cuts through Nassau (great big canal, with beautiful mansions lining each side and huge rusty cargo ships in the middle).  Along past Atlantis, he pulled over to the side and cut off the engines.  Time to snorkel!

Eh, what the hell.  I was a swimmer in high school and at West Point too.  Couldn't be that hard to keep afloat with life jacket and all, right?

So, after the safety briefing (which consisted of "stay out of the channel" and "raise your hand if you get in trouble"), I found myself in the water.  I dipped my head down, and hey!  There was a fish!  Granted, it was about twenty feet down, but it was all tropical and pretty and stuff.

I kept my head down for a minute or two, watching my bright little friend darting around in the rocks at the bottom of the channel.  For that moment it was easy to forget that the skies were still overcast and the chill wind of the storm was still whipping.

Just for that moment, though.  I raised my head and glanced back at the boat, which in those few moments had leaped to about a hundred feet away.  At least, I guessed it was a hundred feet or so, because it was difficult to estimate the distance with four and six foot swells violently seesawing both me and the boat. 

Time to swim back, I realized, so I started out with the strongest crawl stroke I could muster.  It's difficult, though, to do the crawl stroke in a life jacket; your shoulders just don't have the room to do what they need to do.  That, and the thing rode up around my neck, which made me miss at least one "turn head now" motion, which in turn caused me to gulp down some yummy tasty saltwater. 


Still, I powered through the strokes as hard as I could, and finally raised my head again.  I'd made about a quarter of the distance.  I switched to my favorite stroke in high school, the breast stroke, since it's much easier to do in a life vest.  It's much harder to do in swells, though.  I got a few more good swigs of ocean water, and then I gave up.

Yes, I gave up.  Dammit, I was on vacation, which is not a good place to die from drowning.  Messy requirements on international remains transport and all....  I waved my hand at the boat.  They saw it, luckily, and after a minute or so one of the (many) ropes they were using to haul the other folks in came free.  It was tossed, and I gleefully (okay, I frantically) grabbed it and held on as they pulled me in to the boat. 

I felt like a king salmon looks after you've fought it all the way in to the bank for an hour.  Ugh.  Just take me. 

Luckily there was beer on the boat.  Kalik is a local Bahamian lager, and it's pretty good.  I had gulped in nearly half of the Atlantic Ocean, though.  Have you ever gotten salt water into your stomach and lungs?  It makes you feel pretty bad like your insides are about to shrivel up and die.  I collapsed onto the seat and barely managed a "muh humm" when Heide asked if I wanted a Kalik.  She (who had managed to snorkel and still swim all the way back in) became my heroine that day, skipping bravely over to the libations counter to buy her lover a beer. 

It was good.

I had another.

It was better.

It was then that I learned that a good solid beer makes an effective counter to the awful feeling you get after swallowing too much sea water.  I also, though, learned that sometimes doing your own thing isn't the best option.  Sometimes it's good to just go with the pack, especially when there's been a hurricane and your life is on the line.