Monday, June 30, 2014

Weekend Update

Greetings! I hope this Monday morning--or whatever time or day you read this--finds you well. Today is more or less random musings and updates, nothing especially well-organized.
-First, I created a 'Publications' page. It feels a little funny, doing this, but hey, I've got published works, I suppose I need to plug them! I hope to add more to it, though I'm not actively shopping short stories at the moment, focusing primarily on revisions.

-Revisions are going pretty well, though I suppose the proof will come further down the road. I got in some very good work Friday night and yesterday morning, so I'm pretty happy with my progress.

-Chestnut update!
The top 8 or so inches of the 'tree' is clearly dead at this point, however, we've got a shoot going that's now a couple of inches long. Its growing inside a translucent corrugated plastic sleeve. I'd love to pull the sleeve and let it grow free, but we've got deer--and a ridiculous number of rabbits this year. I may have to build a cage for it.

-Our writers' circle anthology is nearly sold out. We had a relatively small print run (100 copies) to start, but now we're down to...hmm, not entirely certain, likely in the teens. One of the group members is taking a bunch down to a big arts event this coming weekend, so we should make some sales there. Reprint? Maybe. Volume 2 next year? We'll see....

-Two weeks ago tomorrow (say what?) we did another reading at another arts group. I did not 'nail it' this time. I read too fast. I'll blame the heat--it was hell hot in the room, and part of me wanted to get done before all the sweat fell off my face and soaked my pages. A woman in the front row looked to be sleeping. I'd prefer to think she was visualizing.

-At our circle yesterday, we had a member from another writers' group in attendance. We do a prompt and write for 30-45 minutes. His group will use prompt words and write in ten minute bursts. They do 3 or so rounds per session. It's nice to have a new voice in the group. I'd consider going down to sit in with them but it's a half hour drive on Monday evenings. I might have to skip my regular group one week and visit the other--it's good to experiment.

That's about it for me. How was your weekend?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Liebster....Sort Of

Bonnee Crawford kindly tapped me for a LiebsterAward. List 11 facts, answer 11 questions, etc. I, however, got hung up on question #5: Was there a character from a kids' show that you were legitimately afraid of? Yes, yes there was.

Bozo the Clown. 

Now, before I get into the details, let me say this: I find the question really interesting. "Legitimately afraid." Was my Bozophobia a legitimate fear? In reality, no. Bozo never hurt me. He never threatened my family. He never came after me with a knife, never tried to drag me into the sewers to feed. He never did anything wrong. My clown fear was totally unreasonable, but it was very real to me, and thus legitimate.

I alluded to my Bozophobia a couple of years ago (Ten Things about...Me?), but I didn't give you the full story. In that post I stated Bozo the Clown was a favorite, even though I was afraid of clowns. The thing is, I wasn't always afraid of clowns.

When I was little, I loved Bozo the Clown. I used to watch the show all the time. At least, I think I did; I can't actually remember anything about it. I can't remember the sound of Bozo's voice, or the names of any other characters, or even if there were any other characters. I don't remember any favorite gags or skits, or anything about the show. Maybe I was too young to really remember any of that. It's a fact of my life that I just KNOW, you know?

I've never figured out what that logo is supposed to be.
I do remember this, however: Bozo the Clown came to visit a toy store near us and I wanted desperately to meet him. (And how great is this when you're a kid? A toy store—in walking distance!). So my father took me. And what happened? I didn't shake his hand, I didn't get his autograph, I didn't get my picture taken with him. IN fact, my only view of him that I do remember is from one end of an aisle where I peered around the racks of toys and games while Bozo stood on a little platform greeting some kids. I wouldn't go near him. I was terrified.

To this day I can't say why I was so frightened. Maybe it was that normal sort of fear people sometimes get when they meet a celebrity or idol (I wouldn't exactly qualify Bozo as an idol; he was never in Bobby Orr territory, but still: Bozo the Clown!): what if I say something stupid? What if he says something stupid? What if he turns out to be a complete asshole? It's funny, we want our celebrities and heroes to be just like us—until they are, then we think they're dicks. Really, however, I think what really happened is I caught a glimpse of Bozo in person and discovered this fundamental fact of life: clowns are fucking creepy.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Musical Monday: The Wheel

This song has been running through my head quite a bit these past couple of weeks. It could be that I'm in a particular mood lately (see last Monday's post), or it could be I've been listening to a lot of the Grateful Dead's 1976 summer tour, where this song was in the rotation quite a bit. Whatever the case, it's firmly lodged in my brain, so here's The Wheel, video complete with obligatory spinning hippies and appropriate intergalactic imagery.

I like the sense of inevitability this song conveys, though as someone in my midlate 40s, that's not necessarily comforting! Time marches on, whether we want it to or not, a point made a bit by the pounding drum. I've always liked these early versions of the song, with that lazy, liquid guitar that sort of floats over and above the more insistent rhythm section.

Well, I've run on more than enough here. I hope you all had a nice weekend. Last week, Bonnee Crawford tagged me for a Liebster Award--zip on over to her blog to see how she answered the questions, and what sort of torture she has in store for her victims. I'll give it some thought and save it for another time. Enjoy your week!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Phrase Nerd Friday: Drinking the Kool-Aid

"I'm not drinking anymore of Lou's Kool-Aid."--Mike Danton

Mike Danton was just a rookie when he uttered this phrase some time in 2002. He had played all of three games or so with the New Jersey Devils, suffered an injury, then refused assignment to the minor leagues, preferring instead to sit around and do nothing. Lou was (still is, in fact) Lou Lamoriello, New Jersey's General Manager. When Danton uttered this phrase, it was the first time I remember hearing it, but I knew exactly what he meant: he wasn't going to blindly accept and follow Lou's word, he was going to think for himself.

Since then I've heard "drink the Kool-Aid"--and used it myself--dozens of times, to the point where I've practically stopped thinking about it. Recently, someone said it and I thought about it--really thought about it--for the first time in a long time. "Drink the Kool-Aid" has long been in mainstream use, but I wonder how many people now know where it came from. I'm old enough to remember, and I think it's good to be reminded of it once in a while.

On November 18, 1978, 909 members of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project died in a mass suicide/murder in Jonestown, Guyana. The Peoples Temple was a religious group led by the Reverend Jim Jones, who moved his flock to Guyana in the mid 1970s to form a 'socialist paradise.' Whatever the original goals and intentions of the temple, things started to unravel as Jones' mental health deteriorated. Temple members practiced various scenarios should the CIA or other forces storm the compound, including mass suicide.

With hints of abuse and mistreatment of members filtering out, California Congressman Leo Ryan flew to Jonestown to investigate. Ryan and four members of his party died when they were ambushed at an airstrip while attempting to return to the United States. Later that night, the murder/suicide occurred. Most people willingly drank paper cups filled with powdered drink mix (it was widely reported to be Kool-Aid; however, it may have actually been Flavor Aid, or a mix of the two) and cyanide. Those who could not or would not drink it, such as infants, received it orally via syringe. Others may have received a subcutaneous injection. Jones himself died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Well, that's a cheerful story for the day, isn't it? Again, I think it's good to once in a while think about where these phrases come from. "Jump the shark" is much more cheerful, isn't it? Have good weekend, all.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Monday Musing: Penultimates

Spring is supposed to be the time of  beginning, a time of newness, yet I find myself looking at lasts. Last week, for example, the Catbird performed in the high school's spring concert, which is the last official performance for that group for the year. Both band and chorus directors acknowledged the seniors in their respective groups. As the seniors in the chorus took their bows, I had one of those 'flash forward' kind of moments: "Damn," I thought. "Next year, that's the Catbird."

Yesterday, the Catbird went to a graduation party. After dropping her off I went to the supermarket, where I ran into the mother of one of Catbird's classmates. Naturally, we got to talking about the whole end-of-year thing, and the whole I-can't-believe-our-kids-are-going-to-be-seniors thing and all that. I'm going to be having these conversations a lot, and I don't think they're going to get any easier. As we talked about how difficult it was going to be to send our children off to college, I thought, "At least you've got one more coming up; this one's my last!" I'm not trying to suggest sending your first kid off to the great unknown of college is any less...painful...than sending your last, but there's definitely a bigger sense of something closing down, of reaching the end of a particular stage of my own life. When the Magpie went off to college for the first time 2-1/2 years ago (!), my wife and I put one foot in a new, undiscovered world. We entered a transition zone of some kind, a zone with a very foggy landscape. Just about a year from now the Catbird is going to wrap up her last day of school, and we're going to put both feet firmly in the land of part-time parents, where the house will be empty, and there won't be the headaches of trying to figure out when those cross country meets are, or how we're going to get this one there and that one here at the same time. I will miss it. goes on, for now, and in the coming weeks, when we're tearing our hair out trying to work out the logistics of four people, four schedules, one car, I'll try to remember that it's coming to an end, and I'll try to enjoy it.

Friday, June 13, 2014


About a week ago, someone on another forum (not writing related) posted a series of funny pictures, peeled from a website. Here's one of them:

It's a sticker that you put on your luggage, the sort of thing that will cause, presumably, many a head to turn when you're wheeling through the airport. Looks like the sort of thing you'd see on Locked Up Abroad, doesn't it? There's a company that makes these things, and it's all in good fun. Here's another:

That will certainly get you some space in the airport, right? At least it isn't spiders. But wait, there's more. The company that makes these has one that has stacks of cash lined up neatly, presumably for delivering either of the above suitcases. Then they have this one:

A couple of people questioned the tastefulness of that last sticker; at least one person defended it as 'funny.' As for me? Well, I know I can see the humor, and I'm pretty sure there was a time in my life where I would indeed have found it pretty funny--probably when I was in high school. Now? Not so much. It should be noted the company that makes these does not have a matching sticker with a man stuffed in the suitcase. As for the people who do find it funny, I wonder if they would feel the same if it were an 8-year-old.

When I think about how I've changed over the course of my life, I often find it hard to pin down. In many, many ways, I don't feel any different than I did 30 years ago, when I probably would have found this suitcase sticker quite funny. Interestingly, that's where I find change can be most easily charted. This sticker? Not funny. In fact, it's quite troubling, given what's going on in the world these days.

That's it, have a good weekend, everyone.

Monday, June 9, 2014

That Was Unexpected

Yesterday, I was out mowing my lawn, an activity made slightly more difficult than normal by the fact that I haven't done it in two weeks for the front half and three for the back. The good thing is the it-grows-so-fast-it'-put-on-three-inches-in-the-time-it-took-to-read-this part of the season is over; I was able to get the front half done in a reasonable time, though the back half is still waiting. Ah, well.

I dutifully mowed around my dead American chestnut. I can't remember if I updated you on this, but a few weeks ago, I e-mailed the guy who gave it to me, asking if it was normal for chestnut trees to leaf out well after everything else. He confirmed my suspicions--the tree was dead, likely the victim of some small animal that burrowed in and chewed up the roots (this is apparently a problem for American chestnut saplings). Still, I could not quite bring myself to uproot the sucker. It wasn't taking up much space, it was easy enough to mow around, and the way I figured it, it wasn't hurting anything by being there. I figured I could give it the whole summer and if it was still dead in the fall, out it comes and maybe I could try again.

Out of curiosity, I peeked in the tube that protects the seedling from hungry deer, rabbits, etc.  And then....

Somehow, improbably, the little sucker is actually alive. I pulled the sleeve to get a better look, and this is what I found:

It's a start

Three little leaves, clustered out of one bud at the bottom of the seedling. The rest of it looks pretty dead, but that one bud is enough. I've seen trees that were blasted apart by lightning, hollowed out by fungi and bugs and birds until they were practically hollow, trees that have been toppled by wind or other trees, all still managing to grow and hang on to life. This little sucker was delayed, damaged by who knows what. It will almost certainly not grow straight, but that's okay. It lives. It's got a chance. It made my weekend a little bit better. What made you smile this weekend?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Love and Hate (of my words)

It is a sentiment held by many that familiarity breeds contempt. Indeed, there is plenty of reason for this to hold true. Quite often, a person we admire someone from afar turns out to be a total jerkwad when we get to know them. It's a bit of a letdown, to say the least.

I find my view of my writing to be different, however. While POWERLESS--the manuscript formerly known as BARTON'S WOMEN--was out on its first round submissions, I pulled PARALLEL LIVES out of mothballs. I've probably explained this before, but the couple of newer things I was working on have sort of petered out a bit, and I feel very strongly about PARALLEL LIVES (maybe too strongly; we'll soon see). And what happened? When I started reading it over--Blech. Yuck. This is HORRIBLE! What was I thinking?--you get the idea, I'm sure you've all been there before.

But I read it through and I made a lot of notes and I spent a good amount of time rewriting--and now I'm on the cusp of sending it off to Carrie to see what she thinks (commence nailbiting). By the time I got to the end of PL, I was once again in love with the manuscript, and again thinking, "This is good. Yeah, this is real good!" In this case, familiarity seems to breed esteem, not contempt.

Of course, POWERLESS came through a round of submissions and Carrie and I decided I should take another look at it and make some tweaks--and now I find myself reading it over and guessed it: Blech, yuck, this is HORRIBLE, what was I thinking?

I know that feeling won't last. By the time I'm working through this manuscript I'll feel much better about it than I do at this very moment. Part of it is the difference between reading with a critical eye and actually doing the nuts-and-bolts work of wordsmithing, which is infinitely more fun. Part of it is also because I know POWERLESS is good. As I worked through it last time before it hit the bricks in search of a home, I found myself thinking the same things I thought while finishing up PARALLEL LIVES the last couple of weeks: "This is good. This is real good!" It's really just a matter of becoming more familiar with it.

Familiarity with my manuscript seems to weed out contempt. How about you?

Have a great weekend, all.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Three Ps: Tips on Readings

I swear, this will be my last post on this sort of thing for a while (at least two weeks, that is; on the 17th, we're doing another public reading at another local arts center). At least this one is going to be useful--I hope!

Many people quake at the notion of reading their work in public. I do, too, and I'm a person who has pretty much made a living standing up in front of groups of people talking. Reading your own work is a lot different than walking around with a turkey vulture on  your arm, however; the bird is the attention grabber, the focus, and if you find yourself stuck for any reason, you can always say, "Wow, look at that, isn't he fantastic?" When you're reading your own work, there's no vulture to hide behind; there's just you, and your words.

Fortunately, you can take some steps to make the reading go well. It comes down to three Ps--Print, Practice and Posture. Here we go.

PRINT. This is probably the easiest step along the way. I recommend you print out a copy of whatever it is you're going to read. Double-spaced. Large font, if needed. The reason is simple: It's easier to read. The font is likely going to be larger than what's in your book. Double-spacing helps you keep your place--and gives you plenty of room for making notes (more on this below). In addition, printed sheets of paper won't have the same annoying habit that books have where they want to flip closed all the time. You don't want to have to wrestle with your reading material in front of an audience. One member of my writers' circle argued we should be seen reading from the actual book, and I saw his point, but printed document was the only way to go, as far as I was concerned. I'm glad I did.

PRACTICE. This is huge, and also fairly easy. Read the selected passage out loud. Several times. Read it alone, read it in front of a few volunteers. Many of you probably do this at some point during your editing stage because it forces you to see things in a slightly new way, and allows you to hear dialogue. Hearing the words in your head and hearing them with your ears are two very different animals. Practicing will show you where you need to breathe, where you want to pause for dramatic emphasis, where you want to stress a word or group of words. Breathing, by the way, is kind of important. You don't want to run out of air in the middle of a key sentence.

Practicing will also familiarize yourself with trouble spots and clunky word combinations. I had two particular sentences that gave me trouble in Katydid Nights. One of them was as smooth as custard when I read it in my head, but was like a spoonful of peanut butter out loud. The first time I read it out loud, I stumbled badly over it. By the time I got to my public reading I had been over it enough that I knew when it was coming and was prepared. The second was this line "...the beer makes a cold wet circle on your chest." For some reason, my brain kept trying to change it to "...the beer makes cold wet circles on your chest." On my manuscript, I took a red pen and wrote a big block letter 'A' over the trouble spot. Practice, make notes on your manuscript, and now we're on to the last big tip:

POSTURE. I actually started drafting this a week before the reading, and I was going to emphasize posture. Good posture--head up, shoulders square, back straight--is important for a couple of reasons. First, standing straight will take advantage of the natural resonance of your chest and lungs. You'll breathe better, speak louder and project more. With your head up, you won't mumble down into your paper, and your voice will sound better.

You will also look good. Standing tall (but natural--don't stand so straight and stiff you look like a guard at Buckingham Palace!), you'll look confident, and as 'Fernando' used to say, "It's not how you feel, it's how you look--and you look MAH-velous!"
Yes, I am once again dating myself, because I remember when this used to be a thing.

It is important, however. When I started drafting this, I did some searching to find a good scientific explanation for posture and resonance. I figured there was a reason vocal coaches worked with their students on posture that went beyond looking good, and I found some interesting links between posture and confidence. Most notable is this TED talk from Amy Cuddy. It's 20 minutes long, but well worth it.

For those who don't have the time right now, the Cliff's Notes version is this: standing in a posture of confidence can boost testosterone and suppress cortisol--in turn making us actually feel more confident. Keeping this in mind, while I waited my turn, I stood at the back of the courtyard in a confident posture. When I was introduced, I resisted the urge to head to the stage as soon as the 'emcee' started talking about me. Instead, I waited in the back and when she called my name, I strode forth (yes, that's how I would describe it) with purpose, determination and confidence. At the podium, I focused on maintaining good posture throughout my reading, and I believe it helped quite a bit.

I was nervous, yes, I will never not be nervous when doing something like this, but I felt good and read well. The three Ps helped me quite a bit. But wait, there's more! Here are a couple of other quick things, then I'll stop, because this is mighty long.

SLOW DOWN. Practicing will help you with your pacing, but the word of advice I was given many, many years ago by one of my first supervisors (or maybe it was one of my teachers in school; it's been a while) was to really focus on slowing down. When we're nervous we talk fast. When you speak publicly, I was told, go so slow that you think it's dragging, because in all likelihood you're really going faster than you think. When I practiced by myself, I had a nice pace. When I practiced with my group the day before the event, I got nervous, and sped up--never mind that I read to these people every. Single. Week. I still got nervous. Here's what I did to help myself (and this is another benefit of printing your manuscript):

I wrote it even bigger on page 1

And, last but not least: EYE CONTACT. You don't want to stand up there staring down at your paper. Look around. Make eye contact. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, all the efforts we go to to build an audience via social media can't compare to the connections we build up from direct connection. If you are doing a public reading, you have a great opportunity to make connections to actual people who may become fans, who may buy your books and stories. Take advantage of that opportunity. You'll also find support and encouragement in the eyes of people in the audience (yeah, you might find that guy in the third row with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face. Try to connect with him, too), and that's fantastic to see.

Oh, wait, and now the REAL last thing: if you make a mistake, don't call attention to it. Unless it's catastrophic, or you start to sputter and say, "Oh, crap, I messed up, wait a minute", most people will not notice. This I say based on many years of being sure I screwed up big time in programs, and having people say, "Huh? I never noticed." Stay calm, stay smooth, maintain that posture, and let the hours of practice take over. Have fun.

That's it. Have you ever done a reading of your work? What tips do you have?