Monday, October 16, 2017

And Here We Are Again

Stop me if you've heard this one before. A man holds a position of great power and influence. He's at the top of his field, the top of his company. He rubs shoulders with the rich and famous and influential. He is rich and famous and influential. With a word, he can make or break careers.

And he is a sexual predator.

This week, it's Harvey Weinstein's turn in the spotlight. Last year, it was Donald Trump's. Before that, it was Bill Cosby's. The list is long and it stretches back forever, and I can tell you this: in the coming weeks, Hollywood will almost certainly be rocked by reveals of other predators amongst their ranks. Producers, directors, stars, casting directors: I expect we're going to be hearing a lot about men who have been using their power to make women miserable (yes, there are tales of men being harassed, too, and that is terrible, but the board is tilted far the other way).

The question is, "What causes this?" What causes a man to decide that it's okay to greet a woman in a hotel room while wearing nothing but a bathrobe, or demanding she watch him shower, or masturbate in front of her? What makes a man think it's okay to make what is essentially a job interview into a quid pro quo, I'll give you this job if you give me that job kind of thing? Are these men--the Harvey Weinsteins and Donald Trumps and Bill Clintons and Cosbys and Louis Mayers of the world time bombs of predation that will go off sooner or later, regardless of where they are and what they do, or are they products of power, corrupted by knowing they have so much control over another person's destiny?

The good news--in as much as there can be good news in all of this--is that women are becoming emboldened, are starting to speak out. Now we have to figure out a way to stop this from happening in the first place.


Monday, October 9, 2017

Sorry to see you go, Tom

I don't remember exactly when I first heard Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. I do remember back in junior high school, having an acquaintance who was fast on the way to becoming one of my closest friends talking Petty up enthusiastically--along with other bands I had not yet heard of, like Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, and Rockpile. Shortly thereafter, I was walking around with the organ riff from "Don't Do Me Like That" on auto-play in my head.

I was not a fan the way my friend was--is, but I certainly liked what I heard. I saw Petty for the first time at Madison Square Garden in the mid-80s, backing Bob Dylan. The Petty & the Heartbreakers segment of the show was miles above the Dylan segment. (though Petty had certain vocal stylings similar to Dylan--hello, singing through the nose--the key difference was that Petty sang so you could understand him. Dylan almost seemed to go out of his way to be incomprehensible.) I didn't see him in concert again for more than twenty years, by which time the band was (incredibly) past thirty. And while the show never felt like some tired, "We're in it for the money here's a bunch of oldies for ya" thing (the band was promoting a new album at the time and played four songs from it during the set), you knew every song. And they were all good.

After forty years, Petty was apparently planning to call it quits on the major touring and was looking forward to spending more time with the family and doing...well, whatever it is rock stars do when they 'retire'. This usually involves a quiet period followed by an unexpected album and tour. Sadly, we'll never get to see that. Thanks for the memories and music (and those goofy appearances on It's Garry Shandling's Show).



In Other News...

Yes, I'm going to get political. The Trump administration continues using "religious freedom" as cover for its assault  on "others." Last week saw the announcement of new rules allowing employers to not offer contraceptives/birth control as part of health insurance based on religious or moral objections. Never mind that this impacts some 55 million women, and will likely result in a huge uptick in unplanned pregnancies and abortions (at least until the GOP finds a way to overturn Roe v. Wade and brings us one step closer to the Christian Sharia they seem to crave). Meanwhile, last week the Department of Justice has taken the position that civil rights laws don't apply to transgender people from discrimination at work.Now, this would be fine if  the DOJ's position was that Congress should take action to extend that protection, but what's the likelihood of that? And what's the likelihood that this Congress would do such a thing? Yeah, that's what I thought.

And, still sticking with politics--in the wake of the horror in Las Vegas this week, I have come up with a way to actually get something done on gun control: convince Trump that the second amendment was written by Obama. You'd see an instantaneous shift in the meaning of "Repeal and Replace."

Happier News...

Louie DeBrusk was a high energy, low-skill player in the NHL whose best season saw him score eight goals for the Edmonton Oilers in 1992-93. What endeared him to fans wasn't the 24 goals he scored in 401 games, it was his willingness to fight. DeBrusk racked up 1161 penalty minutes in his career, fighting 214 times.

Jake DeBrusk is Louie's son. He is not his father. A highly skilled player taken in the first round of the 2015 draft, Jake made his NHL debut with Boston on Thursday night, and provides a feel-good moment in a week that desperately needed feel-good moments (stick with the video):


A priceless moment.

One last bit of hockey news for my Australian reader(s): On Saturday night, Nathan Walker became the first Australian to play in the National Hockey League--and soon thereafter he became the first Australian to score a goal in the National Hockey League! Congratulations to Nathan! [EDIT] I meant to include this, but forgot: the Australian Ambassador to the United States is...Joe Hockey. No kidding!

That's all I got. Let's hope this is a better week. How are you all?

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Reading List, 2017 (Part III)

Amazing that we're into October already, isn't it? Here's the list of books read and completed between July and now--have you read any of them?

The Good Life (2006), Jay McInerney. Unintentional re-read. I did not like it nearly as much as I thought, and I can't remember what I thought of it the first time.

The Returned (2013), Jason Mott. A TV show was based on this, but apparently not the one I watched, which was French and based on a movie that had no relation to this except the title and the broad concept. It seems there's a bunch of films/TV shows/movies called "The Returned" that all have dead people coming back, not in a Walking Dead kind of way. I really liked this one.

Cancer Ward (1969 edition), Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The toughest part of reading Russian writers? The patronymic! Thus, everyone is Oleg Filimonovich and Pavel Nikolayevich and Ludmila Afanasyevna. Good book, though.

Into the Water (2017), Paula Hawkins. Strong follow-up from the author of The Girl on the Train.

Dream Hoarders (2017), Richard Reeves. Non-fiction work looking at the growing separation between the top 20% of Americans and the rest of us.

The Wild Palms (1939), William Faulkner. I reached the end and said, "WTF???"

Amagansett (2004), Mark Mills. Murder in the Hamptons, post-WWII. Ultimately disappointing.

The Winter People (2014), Jennifer McMahon. Promising start that kind of fell apart in the last third.

The Shock of the Fall (2013), Nathan Filer. Schizophrenia makes for unsettling but effective narrator.

There it is. Nine books read, one a re-read. I note that, aside from Cancer Ward, which was a monster, most of these books were pretty thin in terms of page count.

In other news

... I had a good weekend of working on the RiP (huzzah! This revision has been difficult)

...On Wednesday last week, our high temperature was 85. On Thursday, it was 65. Fall has arrived (though we've effectively had no rain for three solid weeks now).

...Hockey season starts this week, yay!

...Though the Bruins could be a disaster this year. Boo!

Finally, the song of the week. Neil Young's After the Gold Rush. What have you been reading lately?

 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Goldenrod and cross-promotion

I'm going soft today.

I'm been working up to something bigger,something more outraged, as the result of yet another maddening meme I saw on Facebook this weekend, but I'm not quite ready to go there and I don't want to start my week off with aggravation. Instead, we'll go with something a little more "feel good."

Locust borer on goldenrod
As you may or may not know, I write a monthly column for a local newspaper. It (the paper) publishes once a week; my column once a month. While I enjoy the work, it often causes me stress, as I regularly find myself scrambling to beat deadline. And, much as I do with this blog, I will frequently spend several days banging my head against the wall on a column, only to change topics at the last possible minute. This month's column was one of those. After struggling for the better part of a week with...well, I don't even remember what I was trying to write about now...I switched gears at the last minute and wrote about my favorite fall wildflower, goldenrod. You can read that here. (Quick note: local papers tend not to do much editing, except for the headlines. All errors, grammar mangling, and leaps of logic are my responsibility)

In the week or so since this column was published, I've had several people tell me they loved it. Four of them were people I know (though I did not walk up to them and say, "Did you read my column, huh, huh? What'd ya think?" These were unsolicited comments.); one of them was a random lady in the bank who must have recognized me from the picture that goes with the column. Seems I am not the only person who appreciates goldenrod. And, I have to admit, it's nice to hear these kinds of comments. The ego needs boosting once in a while.

I mention this not to toot my own horn, because I hate tooting my own horn, but because it's important to know that, even in this digital age, people still do read things like newspapers. And they listen to the radio. When my organization has a big event coming up, we make a point of going to the local radio station and going on air for a few minutes. The number of people who call or register for programs as a result is impressing. In fact, two days after the goldenrod column ran, I was representing the organization at a local timbersports event and was interviewed live on air. Literally five minutes, someone looked at me and said, "Didn't I just hear you on the radio?"

Maybe it's a function of where I live--a predominantly rural, media-starved county with spotty cell/wifi and cable service that still doesn't reach all areas. The point, however, is that if you are an author (or any kind of  business person), you shouldn't be sitting around waiting around for Terry Gross or The New York Times to call you. Start local. There are people listening, and reading.

 (Photo by me. The locust borer is a harmless beetle (harmless unless you are a black locust tree, that is; then it could be a problem) commonly found feeding on goldenrod in fall)


Monday, September 18, 2017

An Interview with Nick Wilford

Good morning, all. Today is an auspicious day. Not only is it my wedding anniversary (yay!), it's also the launch day for Nick Wilford's newest novel, Black & White. Nick has been a long-time friend of the blog, and his comments are always welcome. I'm pleased to have Nick here today to answer a few questions. Welcome, Nick!

Hi, Jeff! Thanks for offering to interview me on the release day of my book. It’s great to be here.

First, let's have the Nick Wilford biography as it will appear on Black & White.

"Nick Wilford is a writer and stay-at-home dad. Once a journalist, he now makes use of those early morning times when the house is quiet to explore the realms of fiction, with a little freelance editing and formatting thrown in. When not working he can usually be found spending time with his family or cleaning something. He is the author of A Change of Mind and Other Stories, a collection featuring a novella and five short stories, four of which were previously published in Writer’s Muse magazine. Nick is also the editor of Overcoming Adversity: An Anthology for Andrew."

Okay, now tell me something about you that doesn’t appear as part of your official biography.

Well, I really don’t do much in my day-to-day life that doesn't appear in that biography, but I once went to a party dressed as a woman in a youth hostel in a far-flung part of New Zealand. It was de rigueur though – all the men were required to do the same, while the women were asked to fashion an outfit out of bin liners. Now that I recall, the owner was a bit odd...

Tell us a little about Black & White and how you came to write it. Was there a particular moment of inspiration or was it a series that came together over time (or something else entirely)?


I never planned to write a series, I actually started writing the draft of Book 1 as part of NaNo 2012 (so it’s been a long time coming together!) It’s actually quite hard to recall that initial spark of inspiration, but it probably came from being a househusband and taking care of the cleaning at home (which is managed quite haphazardly in any case). I was thinking how much more time I would have if the cleaning took care of itself, or if there was no dirt at all. But dirt is probably quite necessary. I think the series shows that cleanliness isn’t next to godliness – it takes more than that to make a perfect society. And once I’d finished the initial story there were many things that had to be addressed, so the series grew from there.

I think in the best utopia/dystopias, while the societies are distinctly different from our own, they also reflect current society and culture. In what ways does the society of Whitopolis reflect our own world?

In probably quite scary ways, and I think some of the issues addressed may be becoming more timely by the day. There’s the insular attitude of Trump and his supporters, the mistrust of outsiders. In my story, the government has created a fictitious idea of the outside world to cover up its crimes. It’s taken to extremes, but if things carry on like this, I don’t know...

It certainly seems more plausible by the day. Some authors very deliberately choose names for their characters, either as a way to pay homage to certain people, or as a symbol of what that character represents. Is there particular significance to the names of your characters (Wellebury Noon, Ezmerelda Dontible, others)?

There is no major significance, I just wanted names that sounded intriguing and memorable. I mention him a lot, but Terry Pratchett was great at making up outlandish names that seemed to suit the particular character perfectly. Esmerelda is the first name of one of my favourite characters of his, Granny Weatherwax (a witch), so there is a nod there, I suppose.

Stephen King has suggested that it’s not until we go back and re-read our first draft that we discover what our story is really about. Did you have a strong vision for what Black & White was about from the beginning, or did it change? Did you discover anything about the story at any point in writing that made you have to rewrite or rethink or substantially edit?

Well, I started writing the first book during NaNo 2012, as I mentioned – nearly five years ago, so it’s becoming a little bit lost in the mists of time! But overall, I did have a pretty good idea of the basic premise, although many of the details came as I was writing. I didn’t know about the various predicaments the characters get into, so had to deal with those as I came up. The substantial rewrites actually came in with books 2 and 3, but I’m keeping those under wraps at this point!
 
I’m always curious about how other writers write. Do you have a set schedule for writing? A routine? Any particular writing idiosyncracies or superstitions or rituals you have to follow? AND, of course, are you a plotter or a wingman?

Yes, I do have a schedule that I try to stick to. I’m a dawn writer, or pre-dawn really, getting up at 4am – or 4.30 if I fancy a lie-in! It’s quite a magical time, with peace reigning all around, and once I get going, I can normally get into the zone. I work at home, but currently have set hours starting at 6am, so I like to get my writing done first. No particular rituals, but I do check social media first (five minutes max) and will invariably be found with a cup of tea to hand. I'm a wingman, for the most part, although I usually have a basic outline for at least the beginning of the story. It’s fun seeing where events take me.

Black & White is part one of a planned trilogy. When you started out, did you know it would be a trilogy? How much has the story changed since you started it? What are the challenges of writing when you’re somewhat restricted by what you’ve already written?

I didn’t know it would be a trilogy to start, but as I was getting to the end of the story it became clear there were many more questions to be answered than could be dealt with in a single book. It’s hard to say how the story’s changed since I started, because it became clear in the process of writing... but I always had the sense of an underdog taking on a big machine, and I guess that’s always been there. For the last part of your question, yeah, that can be tricky – especially for an imagined society with all these specific quirks and traits. I’ve taken to keeping a file with details of various things, including simply keeping track of the various names. Not everything stays the same, however, so there is still invention going on in books 2 and 3.

Q. When does Black & White come out? Where can we find it?

 It’s out today – huzzah! And can be found at all the usual locations:
Add on Goodreads

Thanks for dropping in, Nick. Enjoy your launch day and best of luck!

Thanks, Jeff! This was a lot of fun.

Title: Black & White
Author: Nick Wilford
Genre: YA dystopian Series #: 1 of 3
Release date: 18th September 2017
Publisher: Superstar Peanut Publishing
Blurb:
What is the price paid for the creation of a perfect society?

In Whitopolis, a gleamingly white city of the future where illness has been eradicated, shock waves run through the populace when a bedraggled, dirt-stricken boy materialises in the main street. Led by government propaganda, most citizens shun him as a demon, except for Wellesbury Noon – a high school student the same age as the boy.

Upon befriending the boy, Wellesbury feels a connection that he can’t explain – as well as discovering that his new friend comes from a land that is stricken by disease and only has two weeks to live. Why do he and a girl named Ezmerelda Dontible appear to be the only ones who want to help?

As they dig deeper, everything they know is turned on its head – and a race to save one boy becomes a struggle to redeem humanity.
Giveaway:
Enter the giveaway for a chance to win a copy of my collection A Change of Mind and Other Stories or a $10 giftcard! a Rafflecopter giveaway

Anyone have any questions for Nick? 
  

Monday, September 4, 2017

Swapped!

Some time in the middle of last week, while tooling around the Internet, I came across an interesting tidbit. Lord of the Flies was getting a remake.

William Golding's classic 1954 novel about schoolboys marooned on a Pacific island had been adapted for the screen three times, most recently in 1990, so I suppose it was due, and with society seemingly in a death spiral, maybe it even seems timely. But here's the new wrinkle: this time, it will have an all female cast.

Hollywood has gotten fully on board with gender-swapping. In addition to last year's Lady Ghostbusters and the aforementioned Lady Lord of the Flies, we're also slated to see Lady Ocean's Eleven (i.e., Ocean's Eight), Lady Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Nasty Women), and Lady Splash--yes, Splash. All these films have two things in common: they are remakes or based on previous films, and they are getting the gender-swap treatment.


But what will the girls wear?
Hollywood should be commended for finally realizing that women, who make up slightly more than half the population and have considerable economic power, might actually like to see themselves with leading roles in films that aren't just romantic comedies. Even after the box office disaster that was Ghostbusters, women are getting more opportunities to carry films. As Kelly Konda noted, "Progress for women in Hollywood apparently means being allowed to fail financially."  Of course, Wonder Woman's status as smash hit should help even more.

So, it's nice to see women getting more starring vehicles. The problem, though, is that we're apparently seeing remake upon remake upon remake (and in the case of Lord of the Flies, said remake is being written by two men). In a post last week on Writer Unboxed, Jo Eberhardt wondered why we can't see more original stories with women. Says Eberhardt: "Imagine, if you will, a world in which movie executives actually think female protagonists can be authentic characters in their own right, and not merely gender-swapped versions of popular male characters." Eberhardt suggests that, rather than a remake, Ghostbusters should have conceived of as a sequel. "...it's thirty years later, and the ghosts are back. New York needs a new team of paranormal investigators. Somebody call Melissa McCarthy." What fun! And if the film had been called Ghostbusters III, it might have avoided some of the "They're killing my childhood" hand-wringing.

Gender-swapping is a tricky business. I have done it twice now, both times after discussion with Agent Carrie. One of the projects was very early, say a dozen pages and a broad concept; the other was further along, though still in extremely rough form. What I found was that gender-swapping was no simple business. It wasn't just a matter of changing names and pronouns, and maybe throwing in a reference to a skirt or bra. Changing the character from a man to a woman changed everything about that character, which in turn resulted in far-reaching changes in the story. Whether I did it well or not remains to be seen, though none of the rejections on the RiP said anything bad about my female point of view characters.

I'm hoping the two men working on Lord of the Flies will not sink to lazy writing and stereotypes, that they will not merely change names (Ralph to Renata, Jack to Jackie, Piggy to Miss Piggy), pronouns, and costumes--and on that front, let's hope they also choose not to overly-sexualize with palm frond bikinis; these are supposed to be pre-adolescent kids here. Some have gone so far to suggest that a planeload of girls crash-landing on a Pacific island would never turn into Lord of the Flies, that they would find a way to cooperate and live peacefully and build a utopia. I don't buy that. In any society, there's going to be some degree of inequality, and where there's inequality, there's strife. The question is, how is it handled? With rocks and clubs and sticks sharpened at both ends, or some other way? A gender-swapped Lord of the Flies presents us with some interesting questions. Let's hope, if the film gets made, we see those questions explored.

What do you think about the Lord of the Flies remake? Have you ever gender-swapped your characters? How did that work out?

 UPDATE: Not related to this post, exactly, but maybe of interest to some of you: Agent Carrie is looking for entries in her monthly Query Critique. Check here for how to enter! Good luck!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Weekend Update: Summer's (near) end edition

Well, we've hit the penultimate weekend of 'official' summer and already we're seeing the signs of the winding down of the season: one of the big baseball camps in the area is already empty, already moving in the bulldozers and heavy equipment for what will almost certainly be another expansion. The big camp is still open, still fielding teams, but at this point, the big crush of traffic 'in town' should start easing off, at least during the week. I have a village parking pass that allows me to park almost anywhere without having to feed the meters, but what good does it do when there's nowhere to actually park? Well, that headache is about to go away for about nine months or so.

THE BIG EVENT last week was the eclipse. Did you see it where you were? I'm happy to say, the eclipse glasses worked. I got to see the eclipse (partial only, alas), and I got to keep my vision! It was not a productive afternoon. Round here, we saw a slight 'dimming' of the day, a slight change in the color, but it didn't get dark.

SOMETHING I FOUND AMUSING If you read my newspaper column I linked last week, I recalled how, as a child, I was terrified of going out on a day we had an eclipse, lest I accidentally look at the sun and go blind. There's a family that lives on the property where I work, with two small children. The kids' mother also babysits other children from time to time (including my bosses' kids). It was a hot day, and they were all going swimming, but the kids wanted to swim at the gym instead of the lake because they wanted to be inside. At one point, they came over to the office after the eclipse started: all of them with their eyes glued to the ground, all of them making sun visors out of their hands. I guess it's good to know that kids do listen! We did let them use the eclipse glasses, and they were blown away.

THE CATBIRD flew back to school this weekend (actually, we drove her). The house goes a little quieter.

ACTUAL REWRITING has now officially commenced on the RiP which means, naturally, I had a moment of inspiration on the WiP yesterday. I may have to put an actual door on that back room.

CHESTNUT It's been a while since I posted a picture of my favorite little tree, so I ran out across the desperately-needs-to-get-cut front lawn and took a picture. I need new glasses--can't see close up well enough to take a decent photo most times (I've always had horrendously bad distance vision; now I can't see up close, either). This is what it looks like today:

It's not the greatest photo. On the left is the chestnut today. On the right is how it looked at the beginning of June. Hard to tell from this image, but it is definitely bigger, and while the new main stem is leaning a little, it has actually grown to the point where it is taller than that original main stem (seen on the left side of the leftern picture).

FINALLY some music. What made me look up this song late last week? I'm really not sure. It is a rather disturbing piece, but what the heck. Ladies and gentlemen, Ballad of a Thin Man, by Bob Dylan. Enjoy the day, enjoy your week, let me know what's going on!

Bob Dylan - The Ballad of a Thin Man from Vasco Cavalcante on Vimeo.




Monday, August 21, 2017

Celestial Events and other things

Semi-random postings for this ecliptic day.

* As you may or may not know, I write a monthly column for one of our local papers. This month's column is on eclipses. Take a read!

* That column is not exactly a "How to" guide for safe eclipse viewing. If you want that, go here!

* A friend of mine gave me a pair of eclipse glasses last week. I checked them out, they meet the safety standards set forth by the American Astronomical Society (AAS), but I have to say I'm a bit nervous about using them anyway. Personally, if I were the leader of a terrorist network who really wanted to screw with United States, I'd get a bunch of people working in the factories where they make these things and have them damage the glasses. It's all about the long game!

*I was heartened to see that the giant rally in Boston was peaceful, in that no one was killed or even severely injured. Not heartened to see that counter-protesters were apparently going after the police., or that they instigated some physical altercations with people who were there to attend the rally. Hands off, people. It may already be too late, but you do not want anyone to be able to legitimately lump you in with the other side.

*Writing! There is writing happening! It's still of the 'scribble notes and arrows and circles all over the printed page' but it is writing nonetheless! I'm a little excited about this.

* There can only be one piece (well, two actually, but you really can't play one without the other, if you ask me) of music for today. From Pink Floyd's landmark Dark Side of the Moon comes "Brain Damage" and "Eclipse."


How was your weekend? Any plans to view the eclipse today?

Monday, August 14, 2017

Short thoughts on Charlottesville

I had two uncles who served in the Navy in World War II. Another flew a P-38 with the 8th Air Force out of southern Italy. Three of my friends had fathers who helped liberate Europe. Two of them swept across France and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. The other landed at Anzio and was wounded in action. All of them are gone now. I can't imagine any of them would be especially happy with what transpired this weekend.

It sickens me to know that Hitler's ideals are alive and well and living in the United States. It sickens me that thousands of racists, under the pretense of "protecting our history and heritage," were chanting slogans right out of Nazi Germany (and if you are honestly upset about the removal of a General Robert E. Lee statue, and you claim you are not a racist, fine. But don't march with the KKK, and don't chant "Blood and soil" and don't Sieg Heil your way through Emancipation Park). It sickens me that so many people feel so sure of their beliefs, and so comfortable in our current climate, that they will gather and march in such numbers. It sickens me that our president will not condemn them, will not call them what they are. At this point, all calls on him to do so are pointless. He's made his statement with silence and vague words.

Heather Heyer is dead because of Nazis, because of hatred, because of racism and bigotry. She's just the latest in a long, long line that almost certainly stretches back to near the dawn of humanity. Sadly, she won't be the last. I don't know how we stop it, but I know we must.

Monday, August 7, 2017

From the Department of "NOW I've Seen Everything"

Okay, first off, I'm going to admit that this is a blatant 'filler post' that has nothing to do with writing. The fact is, once again I was unprepared this morning, then got home late, had a late dinner, so here we are, with me trying to maintain something of a schedule. Then again, maybe you'll find something inspiring.

On the way home from work this afternoon, I heard this story on the radio. My first thought was, "Are you effing kidding me?" And let me tell you, my inner voice was not saying this in that "Wow, how cool is that?" sort of tone, but in tones that were condescending, snide, and snarky.

But I'll also admit the "Are you effing kidding me?" was quickly followed by another thought: "I'm going to have to Youtube that." And so, I give you three words that have no business going together: Dog Surf Competition. Enjoy.



And, in a classic example of falling down the internet rabbit hole, here's Kama, the surfing pig.



Ever surfed? Ever surfed with a pig or a dog? Tell us about it!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Writing and...Cold Cuts?

Last week, we picked up some cold cuts at the deli counter at the supermarket. Ham. Turkey breast. A little Swiss cheese. Tasty stuff. The ham was perfect, thin sheets you could almost see through. The turkey, the same, at least when the clerk held up a slice for me to look at an approve. It looked pretty much just exactly perfect. But when we tried to use the turkey to build a sandwich the next day, a funny thing happened: the turkey turned out to be the perfect thickness on one end, and a thin, shreddy mess on the other. Instead of being able to peel up individual slices, you could easily peel up half a slice, and then had to pick through the bits at the other end.

Having run a deli slicer at one point, I think what happens is all in the motion used by the clerk. You can exert more downward at the start of the slice, when your arm is closest to your body. As you push and your arm gets further away from you, you lose downward pressure on the meat, so the back part of the slice is actually thinner than the front half: thus, shreddy meat. Or slices of salami that look like someone's nibbled a bit off the end.

I've noticed (and perhaps I've written about this before, I don't remember) that, in terms of description, my writing is often a lot like those slices of turkey. For whatever reason, I tend to make my writing thick with adjectives and description at the beginning,. I pile it on, descriptions of people with knobby-knuckled hands and hair growing out of their ears, rooms with ankle-deep carpet and pine-scented paneling, deep backyards lit with fireflies at twilight. Whatever. In my RiP, my opening paragraph is five sentences long. Those sentences have enough adjectives for a page. But as I go, the adjectives drop out. Description gets lost in action, dialogue, emotion. The turkey becomes shreddy and thin.

In the case of the RiP, it may be because the passage in question was something I started in my writers' group, not knowing it was going to be the opening of a 300 plus page manuscript. In general, I tend to 'slice thick' on my short stories, I don't know why. It's possible that I use description the way musicians will run through scales as a warm up, or that it's how I find my way into what I'm writing. A lot of the description came out when I ran the manuscript through the Excess Word Removal Machine (pat. pending), but there's still an awful lot there. I thought it was necessary, but on my latest re-read, it still seems a little overdone.

What I can't quite tell is if the pattern persists through the rest of it, i.e., if each writing session starts off with the same slavish devotion to description. I don't think it does. It seems to me that, once I get through that opener, the description become more evenly distributed, and it may well be that it's because I spend between work sessions thinking about the project, writing it in my head.

In the end, I'm not sure how much of a problem this is, whether it's real, or just the sort of thing we doubting writers use to torture ourselves. Front-loaded description may or may not be a problem, depending on how loaded it is (and, perhaps, how predictable: George R.R. Martin's insistence on describing the clothing of every new character in the Game of Thrones epic became annoyingly predictable for me), and how well it serves the story. Maybe there are times where it's best spread evenly, like uniform slices of cold cuts, and other times where it's okay to be lumpy and uneven. What do you think?

And now, some music.

Given that it's almost August, that summer is winding down into the Dog Days, it seems appropriate to throw this little number in from The Who. Amazing that it's forty years ago. Amazing that Roger and Pete are still on tour (and reportedly quite energetic and sounding well). Watching old Who clips is a reminder of how crazed and chaotic they were, and how powerful:

Monday, July 24, 2017

"The Doctor is a--"

In 1974, Mel Brooks released Blazing Saddles, which is at once a brilliant and intelligent satire of racism and a typical, infantile Brooks film. In the movie, the Attorney General of some unknown state tries to force the residents of a town to sell their land cheap in order to build a railroad through it. After intimidation fails to work, the Attorney General convinces the governor to appoint a black man as town sheriff, reasoning that that will be the final straw. In the scene below, the residents prepare a welcome ceremony for the arriving sheriff (NOTE: one obscured very bad word):


I thought of this scene a lot last week after the announcement came out from the BBC that the role of the Thirteenth* Doctor on the iconic British television show, Doctor Who would be played by...gasp!...Jodie Whittaker, a...gasp...a w-BONG!

I don't travel in the squicky corners of the internet where Breitbarters like Milo Yiannopoulos live, so I don't exactly know what the reaction has been from that end of things--no doubt, it's not all that different from the initial reactions of the residents of Rock Ridge to the black sheriff in Blazing Saddles. The fact is, there are always going to be misogynists out there who oppose it on principle, and there are going to be misogynists out there who cover up their misogyny with, "Yeah, but canon!" Here's the thing: we're not dealing with Batman, or Superman, or Tolkien. Canon is mutable, especially for a show like Doctor Who, which has been making it all up as it goes along. The fact that the Doctor can regenerate at all was due to the necessity of replacing the First Doctor, when the actor's health wouldn't allow him to continue in the role! And speaking of mutable canon, I seem to recall that it was established that Time Lords only had twelve regenerations, and here we are on the Thirteenth* Doctor. The showrunners invent and bend and dodge to serve both dramatic purpose and to keep the money flowing.

The identity of the Doctor in terms of race, religion or gender doesn't much matter to me. What's important--to me--is that the show tell good stories with quality actors portraying all the roles. But I also recognize that as a white man, I've had the luxury of never really having to worry about it, and that I've never been under-represented. And when I see reactions like the one from the little girl in the embedded tweet in this this article, I realize how important it is to other people. (sorry, I'm not on Twitter, so I don't know how to embed that stuff; Youtube is my limit). To the  good folks at Doctor Who, I say "Huzzah! The Doctor is a woman!" Maybe I'll even start watching again.

What about you? Do you watch Doctor Who? What do you think of the new casting choice?

*As far as I can tell, John Hurt's "War Doctor" from the 50th Anniversary special should count as one, and then I'm pretty sure either David Tennant's 10th Doctor or Matt Smith's 11th Doctor kinda, sorta regenerated as himself (maybe they both did it), so we might actually be on more like Doctor 14 or 15 now.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Put a Bow on it

Yesterday (Sunday, the 16th), at pretty much high noon, I pushed back from the computer, the final chords of the Grateful Dead's spirited-but-sloppy "Scarlet Begonias" first set closer from July 16, 1976 still ringing in my ears, and said, "Finished." The latest WiP had been completed.

Not finished finished, mind you. In early evening I sat with my cup of coffee and made some tweaks to the final scene in the manuscript, then searched back a ways to make a couple of changes to an earlier scene that had to reflect that ending. Part of me wanted to wait until Revision, Phase One to make those changes, but it was on my mind there and then, so I did it. Officially, I guess, I didn't actually put a bow on it until just about 8:30 last night.

This one is currently a monster, 471 bloated pages, almost 138,000 words--yeah, I guess Stephen King really is an influence--but I tend to write long and do a lot of cutting during the revision. I believe the RiP was just shy of 400 pages and in the neighborhood of 116,000 words when I called it a first draft. That manuscript went on a crash diet and went out on submission last year a svelte 98,000 words. This story may well be bigger, but I should be able to get it down much closer to the 100,000 mark. For now, it's time to let it stew, and then I'll read it in a few weeks and discover just how bad it is. In the meantime, there's a RiP that has been too-long neglected sitting on my hard drive...

What about you? Do you draft big, or draft small?

EDIT: Just saw that Agent Carrie has the doors open for another Query Critique! If you've got a query you need help with, send her an e-mail and maybe you'll get a critique. See here for full rules.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Thoughts on the MOOC (Part II)

Well, look at that, me delivering on a promised post! I even went to the extraordinary step of pre-writing a good portion of this post; still, it's just past six a.m. on a Monday and my coffee's not quite ready yet, so there's no guarantee of actual coherence here.

When I wrote about this previously, I gave some idea of how the course works. I'll try not to repeat myself as I give my overall impressions now that the course is over.

It was pretty intense. The course began officially on May 15, with the first assignments posted about two days later. The final assignment was posted on June 22, with all course materials due on July 3 (July 4, for those of us in the eastern time zone). Because I started late, I was playing catch up from the get go, and put in a lot of work. I eventually did catch up, though I admit I also fizzled toward the end--I submitted my final assignment about two hours before the deadline.

I enjoyed the course quite a bit, despite what's going to come in the critique section, which might make it look like I hated the course! Positives included a lot of reading, widely. Each week our required reading assignments typically included one or two pieces of fiction and one or two piece of nonfiction (there were usually three readings per week). The readings were high-quality works of fiction or journalism, no wild esoterica that leaves you scratching your head and saying, "WTF???" There was also a long list of optional reads, though I confess I did not quite have time for getting into all of those (I wish I had). Each week, guest authors provided a video mini-lecture (typically 20 minutes long, give or take). Guest lecturers came from all over the world and included scifi authors, journalists, memoirists. It was a nice balance. The instructors themselves provided interesting topics for discussion related to the weekly topics. Finally, there was the opportunity to meet and read authors at all levels of the writing journey from all across the world.

Holy non sequitur, Batman! One of the other things I really liked about this? In the video mini-lectures, when the authors wanted to illustrate a point about technique or weaving in social issues, they referenced...books! Not movies. Not TV shows. Actual books. This may seem like a small thing, but think about the number of times you read a blog post and the author says, "For a really great example of characterization, watch Forrest Gump" (or something like that). It was refreshing.

Back to the course. There were problems. Some of these, maybe most of them, stemmed from the technology the course was built on. It was hitchy. Jumpy. On several occasions, I started to type in a comment and found that the first five letters on line one disappeared. Or I'd actually hit the post button, and my response would be missing the last half a line. If I clicked 'edit,' Instead of having my entire post there, waiting for me to re-type the first five letters or last five words, I'd have...nothing. I resorted to typing comments out in a word document and pasting them in. I also tried switching to Chrome, and it seemed a little better, but I don't like Chrome and I don't want to have to switch to Chrome. Firefox is still used by a huge number of people, and if you say this program works well on Firefox, you better make sure it does.

The other problem, and this was a big one, as far as I'm concerned, is that there was little actual discussion that I could see. Each week, the instructors posted thoughts for discussion, and asked for our thoughts/comments/experiences. But the interface itself did not really promote discussion; it promoted individual commenting. For one thing, you could not see all the responses to the main discussion, you could only see the last five. You'd have to click 'show previous comments' to get more. Also, on the few occasions where someone replied directly to a comment on the main discussion thread, you had to click a tiny little icon at the bottom to see the reply. Instead of a discussion where people responded to each other and freely shared ideas back and forth, what you had was more of a 'stop and drop' situation, with people stopping in, dropping a comment, and moving on. This is partly a product of the fact that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of participants, along with the fact that you got credit for posting and commenting. I think sometimes people were just aiming to do the bare minimum to get credit.

Along these same lines, course participants were able to set up their own discussion groups. I mentioned joining one or two of these. But again, there seemed to be very little actual discussion. Instead, when people posted assignments, they'd share them to the discussion groups and ask for feedback. (True confession: I didn't actually start any discussions myself within these groups, so I guess I can't complain)

Would I do it again? Yes, yes I would. Despite my complaints, I was exposed to a lot of different writers of all backgrounds, as well as a lot of different ideas, and some lessons on craft. I was able to revisit old works and new (the opening to PARALLEL LIVES got a workout here, as did both the WiP and the RiP), and anytime you are forced to think about your writing is a good thing, I think. I also met a few people who could become good crit partners/sounding boards/beta readers, and have already critiqued a piece for one of them.


This post has already gotten kind of long, so I will say farewell for now, leaving you with this piece of music from Pete Yorn. Though I have not heard it for years, it worked its way into my thoughts yesterday when I was sketching out this post. Enjoy, and see you next time. Please share your thoughts below!



Monday, July 3, 2017

The Reading List, 2017 (Part II)

Happy Independence Day (early) for my American readers! Happy Canada Day (late) for my Canadian readers! And happy [insert appropriate holiday here] for my [insert appropriate nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc. here] readers! Whew, I think I covered it.

Last week, I wrote about the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) I'm in, and the promise to finish that job is still there, but since the course is still technically open until tomorrow, I'll hold off until next week. And since we just closed the second quarter of 2017 on Friday (seriously, how is it July already???), it's time to share my reading material for the quarter, in case you find it of any interest. Here we go, in order that I read them. Some with editorializing, some without:

Feed (2002), M.T. Anderson. A future with wifi built right into our heads. Good concept, good book overall, undermined (for me) by the really annoying "teenage voice" of the protagonist/narrator.

Wizard and Glass (Dark Tower, book IV) (1997), Stephen King, re-read. This was always my favorite of the Dark Tower series, and a treat to read again.

Wolves of the Calla (Dark Tower, book V) (2003), Stephen King. Re-read, but it's been a long time.

The Song of Susannah (Dark Tower, book VI) (2004), Stephen King. Re-read. This is where King may have lost a lot of readers, as King introduced a new character into the series: Stephen King.

Fates and Furies (2015), Lauren Groff. Irony: I started reading this one right after my semi-coherent thoughts about time. This book made me question the whole premise of that post.

The Lifeboat (2012), Charlotte Rogan.

The Sleepwalker (2017), Chris Bohjalion. Both this and Lifeboat were interesting while being read, but quickly forgotten. And I'm a Bohjalion fan.

White Fang (1906, though the one I read was published in 1971 or so), Jack London. I think I'll be skipping Call of the Wild.

The Dark Tower (Dark Tower, book VII) (2004), Stephen King. Re-read, but it's been a long time (and I think I had only read it once, unlike some of the other entries in the series). Authorial insertion aside, this is a good read and a satisfying conclusion to the series. Does it make any sense at all? That would take many multiple posts.

That's the list. Three months, nine books completed, which is more than I thought, as it seemed like I went through long periods of not reading during that time. I suspect the fact that four of the books were re-reads (though only Wizard and Glass is a book I've read more than once) sped my reading up a bit. I'm also happy to say I'm still making progress on the WiP and even a bit on the RiP.

So--what have you been reading? Anything good?


Monday, June 26, 2017

Some Thoughts on the MOOC, Part I

Sounds like some sort of bizarre memoir, doesn't it?

A few weeks back, I believe I mentioned that I had signed up for a MOOC (i.e., Massive Open Online Course). The MOOC in this case was called The Power of the Pen: Writing Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction, offered through The University of Iowa's International Writing Program (that's a lot of words to name a program!). Though the course is technically still open until July 4, I'm in the final stretch and thought I'd share some of my impressions about it with you. Of course, time is short for me this morning, and I have pre-written none of this (of course), so this week I'll just give an overview of the course and next week, or the week after, I'll give more of my impressions on the course.

I've never done a MOOC before, so I have nothing to compare it to. Pretty much all of my formal learning has been done in a classroom, so this was a little different, and I liked a lot about how the course was structured. After signing up and getting confirmation, you were directed to a course outline and information page, which in turn was subdivided into sections, with each section being used to summarize how the course worked, how to access discussion groups, and an optional assignment that involved reading several short pieces and participating in discussion groups with course instructors. Also, there was an initial push to get participants to form and join their own discussion groups. After surfing through the (long) list (remember, I started a week and a half late), I chose to join the "Literary Fiction and Creative Nonfiction" group, which has twenty members at the moment.
I should probably re-read my User Agreement before posting this, but...

Each week, new content was posted, based on a specific theme, such as "Establishing and exploring identity and community." Content included usually three video lectures by an author (usually around 20 minutes each); three pieces of required reading, which generally consisted of one fiction, one personal essay or memoir, and one creative nonfiction piece; a menu of optional reads; instructor-led discussion groups related to the week's topic; and a writing assignment. Assignments would be uploaded, critiques given and received--and credit given.

Course credit was received for participation: upload an assignemtn, receive six points. Participate in one of the weekly, instructor led discussion groups, receive two points per comment. Provide feedback to fellow participants on their assignments, two points per comment. The maximum number of points was 100; passing the course required 74. (There are maximums in certain categories, so you can't get more than 32 points for class discussion or providing feedback; this is to push people into participating as broadly as possible, and not allowing them to get by just making a lot of comments) There is also a certificate of completion that can be received. This requires successfully completing the course, plus paying a $50 fee. Perhaps this looks good to agents and editors when establishing credentials; I opted for the cheap option.

So. I signed up, filled out my profile, and went through the course overview. At that point, it was time to play catch up. Next time, I'll share actual impressions of the course. That's all for now!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mental Health Day

That's what I'm on.

I work a lot of weekends. Sometimes, the work is just for a few hours, such as when I lead a nature walk for my organization, or take a table full of displays and 'stuff' to some event and talk to people all day. Other times, it's an all-day sort of affair, such as when we're the ones running one of those events. In the last three weeks, my Saturdays were as follows: nature walk on the third (only 3 hours worth of time, total), festival on the 10th (I was "on the clock" basically from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.), and a fundraiser beer pouring at a concert on the 17th, where I was "on" (and on my feet) from 3:30 to about 10:30.

I call this a mental health day, but it's also about physical well-being, too. The nature walk is easy: two miles on a mostly easy trail. The event and the beer pouring, however, were physically demanding, draining. Setting up tables, lugging our own display materials around, being responsible (okay, that's mental) for the smooth running of the event or for wrangling nearly 70 volunteers--that's draining. And depending on what's going on, I'm not guaranteed getting a Monday off for working a Saturday. Sometimes, you just can't swing it, and that's okay. We don't get overtime, but I've got a boss who is humane. As long as the work gets done and gets done well, we have the flexibility to take time when/where needed.

Long-winded way of saying there's not much of a post today. I'm hopefully going to catch up on my assignments for the online writing course I've been taking. Technically, I've already completed the requirements to 'pass' the course, but there's more to learn; it behooves me to complete all the assignments. The good thing is it's getting me going on my RiP again (Carrie will be glad to hear that!) and I may also have picked up another beta reader, hooray! Once the course is over, I'll try to sum up my experiences here. The University of Iowa will be running another beginning on July 17 aimed at poets and playwrights. Also, somewhere down the line I'll explain what the beer pouring fundraiser was (besides fun and exhausting!). EDIT: Oh, and maybe I'll add in my reactions to Wonder Woman, which we saw on Wednesday (Quick reaction: Really good film).

So, I'm out of here, hoping to write, relax, and just enjoy what will hopefully be a good day, weather-wise (had great, great weather for the beer pouring and Father's Day; got deluged last night). In closing, I'll leave you with this song that has been absolutely stuck in my head the last week and a half. Posting it on my personal Facebook page has done nothing to get rid of it, so maybe this will. I'm also pretty sure this same song got stuck in my head last year, too. It's got a great groove. Have a great week, everyone!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Monday Musing: No Real Theme Edition (and no political commentary!)

Random bits and pieces from over the last week, because I've been too lazy/busy to get an actual post!

-Penguins won the Stanley Cup last night. This was a good game, an entertaining series, and a lot more fun to watch in some ways without a dog in the fight. Congratulations to Pittsburgh on the win, and Nashville on a great series.

-In an era where coaching and systems have become so dominant, it's comforting to see talent as the deciding factor. Though the deciding goal wasn't some sort of rink-length, dipsy-doodling rush finished off with a diving backhander tucked up under the crossbar, Pittsburgh's overall talent superiority was evident in them having most of the really good scoring chances. It would be nice to see coaches fill out the bottom six forward lines with more talent over "grit," because the talent is out there.

-A couple of weeks back, I joined a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC; I think that's what the letters stand for) through the University of Iowa. The theme of the course is "Writing Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction" (I always want to hyphenate 'nonfiction'). It's been pretty interesting, good food for thought, good exposure to other writers. The 'discussions' we're supposed to be participating in, however, seem to be mostly individual responses to a question posed by an instructor instead of actual discussion. And there's a lot of quid pro quo critique going on. Of course, there are a lot of people in this course, with a lot of assignments being posted: how many can you read (and thoughtfully comment on) in a week?

-I used a piece of my WiP and a piece of my RiP for a couple of assignments and got some useful feedback. It also got me looking at my RiP, which means I'm actually one step closer to finally doing something with it.

-Downside of opening the windows to let cool night air in? Skunks. Last night, the smell just sort of wafted in, growing stronger and stronger, though it never quite reached eye-watering levels. Pepé le Pew was on the prowl!

-Hit the middle eighties yesterday. I think maybe we're clear of the threat of frost and snow--finally!

-Am I the only person who gets annoyed by this "Focused Inbox" thing that Microsoft is trying to shove down my throat with Outlook? Just show me everything and let me decide what's important, thank you very much.

That's about it for me, what's new with you?

 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Public Writing

When I was a kid, I loved to draw. I drew pictures every chance I got, and I was told by some tat I was pretty good at it, though in hindsight, I think I heard that mostly from my mother, so maybe I wasn't that good. Somewhere along the line, I stopped. When did I stop? More important, why did I stop? Drawing was something I enjoyed, though I can also remember ripping my paper to shreds, or scribbling out something so hard it tore jagged lines through the paper, and being so frustrated that the picture wasn't coming out the way I wanted it that it drove me to tears. Maybe that's why I stopped.

Photo © Teddy Llovet/Flickr/CC by 2.0
During the brief period where I liked to draw, I had no trouble sharing my work. I'd show it to my parents, my friends and classmates, my teachers. They could look at it when it was finished, but one thing I could not handle was having anyone watch me while I drew. I'd encircle my paper with my arms, hunched over like a hawk protecting its prey, nose nearly touching the paper. If I knew someone was trying to look over my shoulder, I'd stop. I just did not want anyone watching me do this.

Writing in public is different. I've written in public before. Sat down with my notebook and pen in coffee shops, on park benches in parks and right on Main Street. It's never bothered me to do it. Several years ago, I occupied a table in the back of a coffee shop for an hour or so every Tuesday evening for three months while the Magpie took a course at a local college. Maybe it was because I had a story I was working on, but I could shut out the conversations, the people passing by with their steaming lattes and overpriced pastries and it didn't bother me that people might scoff at me, the emobdiment of the "writing in a coffeshop" cliché. It never occurred to me that anyone would really even look at me--why would they?

Yesterday, my writing group met in a local coffeeshop instead of in our usual place, and it was different.  Awkward. Uncomfortable. Neither of us wrote particularly well, and he skipped both the out loud reading of a prompt and the out loud reading of our work, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it was the size of the table, which was far smaller than the ones we usually write at in our usual meeting location, small enough that we had to cock our notebooks at angles so they could fit without overlapping, small enough that, if we had both bent over to protect our work, our heads would have cracked together. Maybe it was the fact that this is a very local sort of space, where we were more likely to encounter people we know. But I almost think the reason is this: no one really  gives a single person writing in a coffeeshop a second glance. But two people? Two people writing in a coffeeshop is different. Unusual. Who writes together, after all? Two people writing together is enough to attract attention, while not being large enough to confer anonymity through mass. At any rate, when we were done, I think it was with a shared sense of relief as much as satisfaction.

I'm curious if any of you have experienced this. Do you write in public, and does it bother you? Does it make a difference if you're alone or in a group?

One other update for the week: On Satuday, I cut the grass, and stopped by to take a look at our old friend, the American chestnut tree. Here's how it looks.


Not a bad start! See you next time!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Whatever it's Called, it Worries Me

The world of the Grand Theft Auto series is populated with memorable...vehicles. Banshees and Bobcats, Sentinels and Schafters, Intruders and Inernus (Inferni?)--there are literally hundreds of cars, motorcycles, trucks, helicopters, boats and bicycles to steal in the course of the game, and these vehicles have more personality than the random citizens walking the streets of Liberty City. Car spawning, i.e., where these cars appeared, seemed to be rather random, though some models were more frequently found in certain neighborhoods. One thing I noticed when playing Grand Theft Auto III many years ago, however, was that certain cars would seem to be very rare when you were looking for one, but once you found one and started driving it, they'd be everywhere.

Some have suggested this is a glitch, but I've noticed it in every GTA game I've played, and I suspect it's just the game developers and designers having a bit of fun with us. Years ago, a friend of mine acquired what was then his dream car (and, indeed, this was a dream car for a lot of young men at the time): a Camaro Z-28. He loved that car. Once he got it, though, he had an unerring ability to see (and a somewhat annoying habit of pointing out) Z 28s everywhere. "There's a nice Z," he'd say, while we were on our way to a hockey game, or the mall, or a friend's house. And he had a great ability of finding parking spaces--you guessed it--right next to other Zs.

Psychologists have a name for this (of course, they do); I'm just not entirely sure if it's Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, frequency illusion, selective perception, or some variation of confirmation bias, but it seems to be rooted in our tendency to look for patterns, which in itself is probably rooted in some ancient survival mechansm from the days when we were swinging in the trees or seeking shelter in caves.


I'm thinking of all of this because of the recent shenanigans of Greg Gianforte, who won a special election in Montana last week for the state's only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. A few days before the election, Gianforte apparently body-slammed a reporter who had the nerve to ask Gianforte a question about Trumpcare. This follows on the heels of reporter Dan Heyman's arrest on May 9 for trying to ask questions of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Presidential Advisor Kellyanne Conway, and the forcible ejection of reporter John Donnelly from an FCC meeting on May 18. And, on May 2, a reporter in Alaska was allegedly slapped by a state senator.

There is no question that the tone has been set by our president. Whether it's calling into question the truth of everything reported (unless it comes from Fox, Breitbart, or Alex Jones), or using dangerous phrases like "enemy of the people," or suggesting to then-FBI Director Comey that he should arrest reporters for publishing leaked information, Trump has been waging war against the mainstream media for at least as long as he's been a candidate, and we're starting to see the results of that war.

Or are we? Maybe this is really just coincidence, or Baader-Meinhof, frequency illusion, selective perception, or hyper-sensitivity to what is potentially a serious problem, I really don't know. What I do know is that Gainforte's victory, combined with House Speaker Paul Ryan's weaksauce disapproval of Gianforte's behavior, and the continued rhetoric and behavior out of Washington concerning the press should set the alarm bells ringing. On this Memorial Day, it would do well for us to remember that the sacrifices made by so many over the last 241 years could be lost if we're not careful, and one of the first things to go would be the free press.


Monday, May 22, 2017

Semi-coherent Thoughts on Reading and Time

For the better part of the last four days, I've been thinking about time, and books, and reading. Last Thursday over at Writer Unboxed, Ray Rhamey posted the first page New York Times bestseller The Handmaid's Tale in his "Flog A Pro" column. If you're not familiar with it, in "Flog A Pro," Rhamey posts the first page of a current bestseller (minus title/author) and asks his readers, "Would you turn the page and keep reading?" There's a little doodad for voting and viewing the vote tallies, and Rhamey continues by identifying the book/author, and analyzing the opening, explaining his own answer. It's an interesting exercise, well worth the time, in my opinion.

Though it has been several years since I read The Handmaid's Tale, I knew by the second line that that's what I was reading. Apparently, Margaret Atwood's opening stuck with me over the years, and I voted 'Yes' to the question, "Would you turn the page?" and I commented as well my belief that the opening page was outstanding. At the time I voted, the overwhelming majority (though in an admittedly small sample size) was also voting the same way. Both commenters before me were similarly impressed.

Later in the day, I went back to see what others were saying, and found the tide had turned: the no's outvoted the pro's (at last look, it was 78-70 in favor of nay). And while those who bothered to comment still mostly extolled the virtue of Atwood's first page, several of them noted the book might have a hard time getting published or gaining traction today (The Handmaid's Tale was originally published in 1986 in the US), while a couple stated plainly that they did not like it.

And I'm fine with that, really. The fact is, not everything is going to please everyone, and Atwood's style is much more literary than the novels Rhamey usually features. But there was one comment that especially stuck with me (and it wasn't the one that dismissed the opening as "pretentious twaddle". Okay, maybe that one stuck with me, too). The one that has really stuck with me said, "Books 30 years ago could take their time and if I was on vacation maybe I would have continued but today? No time."

No time.

At this point, I can see a friend of mine raising his eyebrow, looking at me over the top of his glasses, and saying something like, "Last time I looked, we all have the same time. Twenty-four hours, right?" And it's true. We all have the same amount of time in a day, the same amount of time in a week. The only difference amongst us, ultimately, is how much time we have on this earth. That's the big unknown.

But what I find myself wondering, more and more, is what's so much more precious about our time now than thirty years ago? A lot of people read The Handmaid's Tale back when it first came out--enough to make it a bestseller, enough to get it printed in many countries, enough to help Atwood win or get nominated for a number of prizes, enough for it to get turned into a major movie in 1990. (For an intersting perspective on what the success of this book did/meant to Atwood, see this article). So, why did so many people have so much time in 1986, and why do we have so little of it to this day? As far as I know, we still have twenty-four hours in the day, right?

According to the website Reading Length (readinglength.com, and just know before you go my antivirus flagged it as 'suspicious,' though it seems perfectly fine), The Handmaid's Tale is 311 pages long, 96,000 words, and will take 6 hours, 25 minutes to read from end to end. Wow. In comparison, Cross the Line, the latest in James Patterson's Alex Cross series, is a whopping 400 pages, 124,000 words, and will take 8 hours, 16 minutes to read. In other words, the latest Patterson potboiler will keep you from reading more books than Atwood's. Which one don't you have time for?

Of course, the "no time" comment doesn't mean the person literally doesn't have time to read Atwood--we've all got the same amount of time in a day, right?--it could mean (probably means, in fact) this person just doesn't enjoy this style of book (and, despite my use of statistics, it probably does take longer to read a 300 page Atwood than a 400 page Patterson) And that's okay. Again, not all things appeal to all people, and quite honestly, I suspect most of the readership of Writer Unboxed leans away from literary fiction. But using time as an excuse rings a little hollow. We're already making a commitment of time by picking up a book. What difference does it really make if this book takes eight hours versus that one's six? If a person is an avid reader (and someone who is reading Writer Unboxed probably is), they're just going to open up another book once they close this one for the last time. Reading doesn't come down to not having time: it comes down to how you choose to spend the time.

Does it matter to you how long it takes to read a book? Do you feel an urge to burn through books fast, or are you okay with taking your time?








Monday, May 15, 2017

Weekend Update: Old Friend Edition

Waking up once again exhausted and unprepared for Monday. It's been that kind of a spring, and the weather hasn't helped much, with a lot of rain and colder temperatures than normal. Our little corner of upstate is normally a couple of weeks behind the weather I was used to growing up on Long Island, so the "lion" typically makes it's entrance around the second week of the month (which, this year, was when the big lake in our county finally froze all the way over for the first time, followed by three feet of snow); likewise, the April showers and May flowers are similarly late. This year, however, the April showers seem to have been saved for this past weekend.

The weekend started for me on Friday afternoon/evening, where we were, fortunately,  blessed with good weather, for the dedication of a boat wash station. What's a boat wash station, you ask? Exactly what it sounds like. It allows boaters to use a high pressure, hot water spray to clean off their boats before launching into a water body, and to clean off their boats before leaving one lake for another. The purpose is to help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. My organization worked with another non-profit and a local government to get funding for the construction of this boat wash, so I got to make remarks on behalf of my organization. We had about forty people on hand, which was not surprising. The man the boat wash was named after was just one of those people, the kind who left people smiling, the one who devoted himself to making his community a better place. My comments focused on the fact that, though I didn't know this man well, he always treated me like an old friend. It was a nice event, and a very fitting tribute to a good man.

On Saturday I wore a different hat at another event. This time, I was wearing my 'member of the Audubon Society' hat (and, perhaps more important, my 'spouse of an Audubon Society co-president' hat) at a bird festival event at a state park. This was the first bird festival for this park, and the weather was not at all cooperative, with rain throughout the day no doubt holding down attendance. The good thing is the parks people had put up several tents a few days in advance of the event, so it was relatively dry beneath (though the ground was quite wet; chairs would sink an inch or two into the soft ground when you sat on them). Not a whole lot of people came out, but the people who did were enthusiastic and very nice. And, I got to see an old friend:

Yes, that's Morty the turkey vulture. For those of you who don't know, my wife and I ran an environmental education business for a number of years; 'Morty' was (is) a permanently-injured bird we had in our care and used for programs. When we ceased operation, we transferred him and several other birds to a group in the region. I'm happy to say that Morty is this man's star attraction, and he very kindly let me hold him for a few minutes. Did Morty remember me? Hard to say. He didn't bite me, and he didn't puke on me, even though my bird handling skills aren't what they used to be. It was a nice visit, and good to see Morty doing so well and in good hands.

On Sunday, we watched Prometheus, which was a sort of prequel to Alien. I was not impressed. I think they tried to pack a lot of meaning into the story, but characters were poorly developed and behaved in ways that didn't make a lot of sense, the dialogue was terrible, and everything felt kind of rushed. Ah, well.

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