Monday, June 18, 2018

A Facebook challenge comes to the blog!

Some time in late April, I did something I don't normally do: I accepted a challenge. Every day for ten days, I was supposed to list a record album that I still listen to. I had been seeing this happening for a week or two, and found it interesting to see what people I knew were listening to.

As I said, I don't normally do this stuff, but I did this one and it turned out to be kind of fun. So, for today, here is my list of ten albums that I still listen to. The format is Album title, artist, (year released). The list is presented in no real order.

The Beatles, The Beatles (1968). Better known as The White Album, this does go first because it represents my real entry into rock-and-roll. For the most part, I'd been listening to whatever was on the AM radio station my mother listened to. Hearing this at a friend's house in 7th grade or so got me into The Beatles--and rock music--big time.

Quadrophenia, The Who (1973). On Facebook, I listed Tommy in this slot, but on further review, while my friends and I listened to Tommy a huge amount, I actually listen to this much more often now. And the story--about a teenage boy searching for his identity against the backdrop of gang violence is the 60s--is a bit more relatable that Tommy.

London Calling, The Clash (1979). Fun fact: the song "The Right Profile" once helped me answer a Trivial Pursuit question, much to the amazement and disgust of all in attendance. That's Montgomery Clift, honey!

Anthem of the Sun, Grateful Dead (1968). "We mixed it for the hallucinations."--Jerry Garcia. Yeah, no shit. The band allegedly made the producer quit when Bob Weir stated he wanted "the sound of thick air."

American Beauty, Grateful Dead (1970). It's amazing how far this band developed in two years. There's a warmth and presence on this album that this band would never achieve in the studio again. "Box of Rain" may be my favorite song of all time.

Flood, They Might Be Giants (1990). The only band I can think of that has the audacity to reference Jason and the Argonauts, the Longines Symphonette, AND manage to work in the phrase "filibuster vigilantly" in a song...about a nightlight. These guys are all kind of fun, and they're still making quirky records like this.

The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, Traveling Wilburys (1988). The Osmonds. The King Family. The Jacksons. The Von Trapps. No list of great musical families is complete without the Wilburys. Listening to this album just makes me feel good, they sounded like they had a lot of fun making this. It's too bad only two of the brothers are left.

Bringing Down the Horse, The Wallflowers (1996). Lucky Wilbury's son fronts a band and shows he's got what it takes. Some great songs on this one, and still good listening today.


Astro Lounge, Smash Mouth (1999). I don't care if John Oliver said "All Star" is a "terrible stupid song," I like it. And this whole album is still fun to listen to.

The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd (1973). I was never into Pink Floyd back in the day, and while I'm not exactly "into" them now, this is one hell of an album. There's a reason it was on Billboard's charts every week for 15 years. Heavy stuff, yes, but great music.

Abbey Road, The Beatles (1969). Side two of this album may well be perfection.

It's probably telling that the newest album here is just short of 20 years old. The truth is, while I hear plenty of new songs I like, I don't really buy albums anymore. And when I do hear new songs on the radio, it's hard for me to remember who the artist is or what the name of the song is!

What about you? Are there any albums from "back in the day" that you still listen to? This particular Facebook challenge turned out to be fun, and it was surprising to see what turned up on other people's lists.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

When I started this blog all the way back in...holy crap, 2011? Really? Anyway, when I started this blog back in 2011, it seemed like you couldn't swing a dead cat around without running into a blogfest, a bloghop, or some kind of "award." Liebsters. First lines. Sad songs. First loves. Remember these things? Someone out there would start them, maybe create a nifty little badge, crib together some rules and start tagging people, and it would spread across the blogosphere like ink on a paper towel.

The rules on the "awards" usually followed some variation of the pattern: answer a bunch of questions about yourself and/or your writing project, tag a bunch of people, visit and comment on their posts. For bloghops, you would sign up at someone's blog, and on the appointed day, you would write about a specific topic and jump around commenting on as many posts as you could. These things could be fun (or they could be pressure-packed), they could be ways to meet new people with interesting things to say, they could be ways to get more followers.

Where have they gone?

I can't remember the last time I saw a bloghop aside from the Insecure Writers' Support Group. Likewise, the last time I think I saw anyone who had been Liebstered, it was at least two or three years ago.

When I started this blog back in (shudder) 2011, the blog was already being declared dead on a regular basis. All the cool kids were on Facebook. Or Twitter. Or Instagram. Platforms that I either don't know or don't like. But for a couple of years, anyway, the awards and hops and fests rolled on. I didn't always particpate--I'm not a joiner of stuff like this in general--but sometimes I did, and sometimes it was fun, and it was always interesting to see how people responded to the challenges posed in them. Is the lack of contests and hops and awards indicative of a dying world, or a more mature one that no longer needs these things?

In Stephen King's Dark Tower series, Roland the Gunslinger often noted that "The world had moved on." It conjures up an image of a place and people who are left behind, that time stopped carrying them forward. That is what it feels a little like, living in blog land these days, like one of those old western mining towns where the well ran dry and the mine collapsed and all but a few hearty souls lit out for the coast. Or maybe it's just this little corner of the world. This morning, I took a look at my reading list. Even after some recent pruning, I've got 52 blogs on my reading list. Of those, only 19 are active, and 9 of those are industry insiders. Where have all the writers gone?

Aside from the flight to Facebook and the like, one thing has happened is that bloggers seem to be collected at places like Writer Unboxed, Pub(lishing) Crawl and the like. Here, they get to post once a month or so, and while most of them have their own websites with a tab for their own blog, most seem to do their blogging either at these collectives or in guest posts for other collectives (often, coincidentally, when they have a new book coming out). 

I am curious about the people who no longer blog. Many of them left on a final post that said, in essence, "I'm taking a break, I expect to be back." My respons was usually, "Enjoy, we'll be here when you come back." I suppose that's part of why these people are still on my reading list: many of them felt like friends in the short time we read each other, and it would be sad to come back and find none of the old gang around, right? Leave no blogger behind!

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Bee and the Barr

Late last night, I gave in to an itch and rubbed my eye. I knew it was a mistake, but the eye had started itching madly right around the time Last Week Tonight started. Twice during the program I dribbled a little cool water into the corner of my eye, but it did no good: the itch remained. And though I knew the itch was the result of an allergy (I had cut the grass earlier in the day, and it was raining, and it's spring/summer), and though I knew exactly what was going to happen if I gave in, I stuck my finger in behind my glasses and rubbed.
Ahhh, such sweet relief! There is nothing quite so satisfying as scratching as scratching an itch. It's so...so...so. It's just so.

Here's the problem with this sort of itch, though: while it feels positively orgasmic while you're scratching it, it doesn't solve anything. As soon as I pulled my finger out from behind my glasses, three things happened: 1) the itch returned, as bad and insistent as before; 2) it now felt like a lash or something was stuck beneath my eyelid, even though I didn't have to check in the mirror to know this wasn't true, and 3) the phlegm factory in my head went into full-scale production mode, churning out mucus like Soviet factories cranked out tanks in World War II. I ended up taking Benadryl, and while it did the job, taking Benadryl at midnight means waking from a bizarre dream at 5:44 with no recollection of the alarm having gone off and a tongue that feels about as moist as the Mojave Desert. My head is clear of phlegm, but my brain is rather sluggish, which might explain this post.

The sad thing? All of this was predictable. I've been here before. It never ends well. Experience tells me there are certain types of eye itches that I must absolutely leave alone, and last night's was one of those. I knew it, and I reaped the consequences. But it felt so good!

Last week, Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee both scratched some particular eye itch, Barr in her Twitter feed, Bee on her show, Full Frontal. (If you've been living under a rock, Barr's tweet was a racist shot at a former Obama administration official, while Bee dropped a C-Bomb on Ivanka Trump) Barr was fired from her show before the day was out. Bee is still employed, though she has lost a couple of big advertisers. She is supposedly going to address this on this week's show. At this point, I'm guessing she'll keep her job, since the network (TBS) joined her in falling on the sword. Unless there's enough of a backlash.

What was Roseanne thinking when she fired off her 2 a.m. Tweet? What was Bee thinking when she dropped the C-bomb on air? I can't say for sure, but I imagine it was a lot like me with my eye itch: it felt really good until the entirely predictable--and avoidable--reaction.


Monday, May 28, 2018

Slow starts

True confession time: My wife and I haven't been current with a TV show since about the time Seinfeld went off the air twenty years ago. Up until then, the Magpie (and then the Catbird) was small enough to go to be at some ridiculous hour like 7 or 7:30, giving us time to actually watch prime time TV. When the girls got older and extended their waking hours, we didn't fill it by watching TV. We read and played games with them, baths, and so on. Later, TV was lost by going to school concerts, ferrying kids to plays and rehearsals, sports, friends, etc. The absolute death knell for current TV came when we decided to drop cable in favor of Netflix. Cable had gotten way too expensive and we only watched maybe four or five of the hundreds of channels at our disposal, so it seemed kind of pointless to keep.

This meant we missed things, of course, or that we saw things, but after everyone else. We watched The Sopranos several years after the show famously cut to black. We watched Breaking Bad and Walking Dead about a season behind, since Netflix wouldn't show last year's episodes until right before this year's episodes were due to air. It meant I had to try to recognize potential spoilers in Facebook without seeing enough to actually spoil me.

One of the shows I was aware of on the air that I might have liked to watch "in real time" was Parks and Recreation, mainly because I always liked Amy Poehler. It started its run while we still had cable, but got swallowed up by life and World of Warcraft. People would talk about it, tell me how good it was, but one thing I heard from several people: it starts slow. You have to give it about half a season.

A couple of years ago, I was alone in the house for a weekend, was in between writing projects, and hockey season was over, so I fired up Netflix and watched the first two episodes. I was not impressed, but decided to push on because the show reputedly got good halfway through Season One, and Season One was only six episodes long. I was still unimpressed. One chuckle per episode is not enough; who's got time for an unfunny comedy?

Several months later, I went back and finished Season One and started Season Two (Boredom is a powerful thing). And then? It clicked. I can't say whether it was the actors more fully inhabiting their characters, or the writing getting better, or that it was like hearing a crappy song that you hate over and over again on the radio until you're singing along like you're one of the band (okay, it wasn't that), but the show got good, and I watched it fairly regularly, and just finished the series over the weekend. Plain and simple, it was a quality TV show. But oh, that slow start!

Slow starts are not something writers can generally afford. TV shows can generally get away with a slow start. Some big hits start out with humble beginnings, it's really a matter of generating buzz and keeping advertisers and network executives at bay until that buzz brings viewers. A book, on the other hand? Slow starts are tough to overcome. It's amazing to me in some ways that I sat through probably about four hours of TV programming time until Parks and Recreation "got good"--one the other hand, I don't think I'd sit and read a bad book for four hours.

What's made me think of all this is I got feedback from two beta readers on my latest manuscript, a manuscript I have very high hopes for. The feedback was good; the news? Not so much. One of them noted that they did not feel particularly invested in things until about 40% of the way in. Forty percent! That's almost half the manuscript! The other said they read the last third or so "like my hair was on fire and the only way to put it out was to get to the end" (I love that!). The problem? The first two thirds. Ouch.

I have long known that I have a tendency to write stories with long, slow, ramp-up times. Writing coaches fill blogs and books with fun little graphs of story structure that look like mountain ranges full of foothills, peaks, valleys and gorges, to show how you should build your story. They look more or less like this:

Mine? It looks more like a wheelchair ramp on the side of a government building, and that's not good enough.

TV by it's nature is a passive activity. You sit. You watch. You react (or not). Books, however, are different. Though you are sitting, you are actively engaged. A TV show can get away with a bad start. A bad start for a novel is generally death, unless you have very patient readers. (Some are. I just finished Barabara Kingsolver's 2012 novel, Flight Behavior. It took me three attempts over as many reading sessions to get past page 10, but was worth it in the end.)

The good news for me is I've got feedback, I've got my manuscript, and now I've got the opportunity to make that ramp shorter, steeper, and more bumpy. On to revisions!

THIS AND THAT:
*Weather, vacation, and working too many weekends meant that I finally got to mow my lawn this weekend, about a month later than I would normally get the first cutting, and at least two weeks after it should have been done this year. It gave me the excuse to go look at my chestnut tree, and it's potentially taking off:

OK, so I got new glasses, but apparently my photo skills just plain suck. I took my first photo of the year on Friday (even worse than this), and this one this morning. The tree has definitely grown between Friday and today.

*With my favorite team out of the NHL playoffs, I was kind of rooting for Winnipeg, but they crapped the bed against Vegas. I do not want an expansion team winning the championship, but I really dislike the idea of the second coming of Raffi Torres (i.e., Washington's Tom Wilson) winning, and I still hold a grudge against Braden Holtby for 2012. On the other hand, I would really like to see Alex Ovechkin win so that it would shut up the whole "selfish player, bad leader, shrinks in the big moment" narrative that, for many people, is really a result of the whole "enigmatic Russian" bullshit. Plus, if Ovechkin wins, maybe we'll get a new commercial featuring the Ovech-head in the bowl of the Stanley Cup!

*F&$%@^g Windows! A recent update by Microsoft totally borked our home network. The problem? All my writing is on an external hard drive attached to my wife's computer--and that drive (the whole network) became inaccessible. After banging my head for hours, I think I've finally figured it out. If you're having similar problems (and if you're a Windows 10 user, you almost certainly are), what helps is to not just search stuff like "Windows update killed my network" or "can't access network after Windows update." Find the actual update/build number. This last one was 1803, and the article that helped me was found here. Good luck.






Monday, May 21, 2018

Airing it Out

One of the things I was very fortunate to do whilst on my blogging break was take an actual vacation, not just a vacation from the blog. My wife and I went to Las Vegas for a week, and stayed with her cousin. It was quite an experience, and I may share some pictures of it at some point, but today is not that day. Instead, I want to talk a little about air travel.

To get to Las Vegas, we had to take two flights. We flew from Albany at about 6am to Charlotte, where we met my brother-in-law (he was heading out there as well, and was the impetus for the trip). From there, we flew to Vegas. The magic of air travel is that you can leave Albany at six in the morning, spend something like ten hours in transit (we had a three hour layover in Charlotte) yet still arrive at Las Vegas at one in the afternoon. Wait, I guess that's not the magic of air travel as much as it's the magic of time zones.

I'm still new enough to air travel that I find the whole thing incredible. I mean, think of it: you're in a metal tube with 150 of your closest friends, and you're 35,000 feet in the air. Thirty-five thousand. It still boggles the mind. I understand the principles of flight well enough to understand how it happens, but it's still kind of magical when I get right down to it. And I love the perspective of looking down on towns and houses and cities, on forests and mountains and, in the west, canyons and deserts. A window seat is pretty much required for me; I don't know what I would have done on the five-hour flight if I hadn't been sitting by the window, because the sad thing is, the reality of air travel doesn't really match with the promise. Once you get off the ground and reach cruising altitude (35,000 feet!), the trip itself becomes kind of dull (on the flight out there, we ran into cloud cover from just west of the Appalachians to western Arizona. It opened up for the last forty-minutes or so of our flight, which did provide us some pretty good views). Seats are too cramped, the plane is really, really noisy, and those windows? Kind of small. I guess they have to be, but I would prefer a window that I didn't have to break my neck to see out of.

The thing that might be most amazing about air travel, though, is all the other stuff that had to be invented to support it. Baggage carts and carousels. The jet bridge. The pushback tug. Radar stations. To quote Sheriff Bart (Blazing Saddles):




Monday, May 14, 2018

And back again.

Hello, all!

It's hard to believe it's been over a month since I decided to take my break. I hope things have been well for all of you. They've been pretty good for me on the overall, though April in particular was a month run at breakneck speed, between work and personal stuff, which was compounded by getting ready to go on an actual vacation at the beginning of May.

The hardest part of being away is coming back. When I take time off (or when I'm home on a weekend), I rarely check work e-mails or think about work at all, and my mind doesn't start drifting back toward work in the last day or so of the break. Sometimes, this makes me feel guilty, especially when I come back to the office and find a roaring e-mail discussion amongst some of my volunteers that broke out over the weekend. Then, I tend to think, "This is something important to these people, would it really have killed me to spend a few minutes looking over this and weighing in over the weekend?" Probably not, but then again, the advent of the web and e-mails and texting has eaten more and more into our personal lives. It's not a matter of "I'm not getting paid for this time, so I won't do it" as much as it's "I just need to not think about this stuff for a while."

It's been kind of the same for the blog. Once in a while, I would think of it with a twinge of guilt, like, "I really should be writing something so when I come back to it I'm not scrambling around to produce" (kind of like I am now, hah ha). Unlike some of my other breaks, however, I never had one of those must-blog-about-this-now moments. I'm not sure if that's a good sign or not.

Wow, that's an inspiring way to resume the blog, huh? Let's chalk it up to vacation/hiatus hangover. Next week will be better. I don't know yet what it will be, but it will be better.

Thanks for coming back (or for stopping in, if this is your first time here). What's new with you?


Monday, April 9, 2018

Time for...

Yesterday morning, I spent a couple of hours drafting a couple of ideas for a post to run today. They weren't quite complete posts, though, because they never are. Even when I really, really work at pre-writing a post, when I sit down on Monday morning to get it done here on the blog, it's never as simple as a straight cut-and-paste job, or just retyping in the blog box what's in the Word box. No, the Word document tends to be a guide, and it takes a surprising amount of brain power to go from even a pretty good draft to a finished blog post. Well, here's where my brain power is at these days:


It's been like this for a while now: posting is never easy for me, but it's become increasingly difficult and that means it's time for a break. I was kind of thinking the entire month of April, but, well, last week was easy. And then you need a post saying it's break time, right? So, here's the official "I'm on break" post. I'll still be around, will still be visiting the blogs I usually visit, I just won't be posting here.*

I should also point out, it's not just the blog. For the last couple of weeks, I've been kind of dragging, my energy levels pretty much bottomed out. I suspect at least some of it is weather related: after having 60 degree weather in the middle of February, March has been shit, quite frankly, and April has not been much better, with limited sunshine and persistent, irritating snow. It's ten degrees outside right now. Ten! On April 9th!

At any rate, it seems like a good time to take a break, and recharge the batteries. The nice thing is, I've got a mini-vacation coming up at the beginning of May, one that is much needed, because April starts the crazy-busy season at work. I'll be back in mid-May, and I'll see you around the blogs in the interim. Enjoy my break!


*Which of course means in a week's time or so I'll have a burning, gotta post it now moment