Monday, February 18, 2019

A wall, but not that wall

Way back in school--and I'm talking elementary school, mostly, so it was a long time ago--our teachers tried to impose a certain degree of structure on how we wrote. Whether it was an essay or a short story, we were introduced to the concept of writing and revision. We would write up a 'rough draft', get it back from the teacher with notes and corrections (a LOT of spelling and punctuation, and confusing of things like 'your' and 'you're', 'their' and 'there', and 'then' and 'than'), and then turn in the 'final copy'. At that level, I recall that 'final copy' was pretty much presented as 'copy your paper over but correct those mistakes when you do'.

Even back then, I was a bit of a wingman. I recall how I would sit at my desk, first draft to my left, fresh sheet of paper to my write. But instead of straight copying the first draft (with corrections, of course), I would rewrite almost straight out of my head. I was generally a pretty good speller back in elementary school, probably better than I am now, so I didn't make a lot of mistakes of that type. I did always have crummy handwriting, though, so maybe I had to write a second final copy to make sure it was legible, I don't know.

I can't say for sure why I did it that way. I guess it always felt write to just go from brain to page instead of from paper to paper. There's often a better way to say something than the way you just wrote it, right? It never really caused a problem. I don't remember getting any 'final copy' back from my teachers with the 1970s and 80s equivalent of 'WTF???' scrawled across it in bright red ink (we also used to have to staple our rough drafts to our final copy when we turned it in), so I presumably never changed things all that much, and maybe my teachers were just glad that I was embracing the concept of multiple drafts, I don't know.

I still do things this way. I'm on what is probably technically the fourth draft of my WiP. It went through two drafts before it went out to beta readers, then it went through another, and now it's going through a fourth and (hopefully) final revision before it meets the cold, cruel world of querying. It's gone well, and after a slow start, it's picked up speed. In the last week I've gotten through 95 pages and cut about 1800 words of excess verbiage. Yay, me.

Last Wednesday, I hit a wall. On opening the manuscript to where I had left off the day before, I encountered a 500-word section that brought me to a screeching halt. Unlike most of the rest of the manuscript, which has been through three revisions, this was something new, created by my head while I was supposed to be lightly revising the last time. In essence, I was looking at a 500-word 'rough draft' stuck in the middle of something that is third, fourth draft, maybe even 'final copy', and, like many 'rough draft' level items, it needed work. Badly. I know exactly what the passage is supposed to do, but after 30 minutes of trying to figure out how to make it do what I wanted it to do, I just cut the whole thing and called it a day. After close to a week of advancing 30 pages a day, I stopped on the same page I started on.*

I suspect this is what makes editing and revision so difficult for many people, including yours truly. There always something you can add, some better way to say something, some subtle alteration that can really make your writing pop. But every time you add something new to a manuscript, you're adding something raw, wild, unpolished, something that needs to be looked at again and fixed up to match its setting. I'd say one of these days, I'll figure out how to do this writing thing right, but I've been doing it this way since grade school. Seems like a bit of a habit.

*Oh, by the way, after dismantling the wall, I buzzed through 77 more pages that week, so it wasn't much of an obstacle once I decided it didn't need to be there.

Monday, February 11, 2019

One of those moments

My boss is smart.

She has a Ph.D. She's done research in aquatic biology, conducted wetland restoration work, taught at the university level, and now she's running the premier environmental organization in my region. She's got a quick mind, strong opinions, and makes friends easily. Because she works in a field that has been traditionally dominated by men, and because she worked in a hypermasculine environment (the Department of Defense) where she was not only "the only girl" but also younger by 20 years than most everyone, she developed a thick skin. She's not one to cry "sexism" or "misogyny" at ever turn.

But she has her limits.

Last year, she was asked by the director of one of our region's chambers of commerce to serve on a committee that would look at the energy needs of our county and try to come up with some solutions. She came back from her first meeting knowing she was up against it: most of the business leaders who were on the community have no love for environmental organizations, even one like ours, which is generally not a lawsuit-happy, jump up and down and scream, anti-progress, trees are more important than people kind of organization. Over the course of 50 years, my organization has been pretty good at being reasonable and finding ways to work with all sorts of people.

Anyway, she started coming back from these meetings increasingly frustrated. She was not being listened to. She was not being taken seriously. Her ideas were repeatedly shot down. She was being patronized. The committee chairman said, "You're like my crazy little sister." My boss, who is not one to see sexism everywhere and has worked in hypermasculine environments, takes it as a compliment. Meanwhile, the other women on the committee, including the chamber's executive director, sit back and say nothing and contribute little to the conversation.

After a series of increasingly frustrating interactions with this committee, my boss told our board last week that she wanted off. She was backed up by a 20-year-old intern of ours, who attended a couple of the meetings and said she couldn't believe the way my boss had been treated. One person on the board suggested it was because she's from an environmental organization, but it was pointed out, by the intern, that the committee several times accepted and applauded ideas that were put forward by a man on the committee (one who is actually working as a subcontractor....for us!) right after they shot down the same ideas. From my boss.

This young lady was shocked and outraged by the behavior she witnessed. Good for her, and I hope she keeps that outrage whenever she encounters it. My board? Not so much. "Welcome to our county," said more than one--including several women.

It was a real eye opening moment for me. Not to hear about the crap my boss has been taking--I've been hearing about it for the last eight months or so. No, it was the way it was shrugged off so casually by men and women on my board. Men and women who should know better. Men and women who should not accept this with a shrug and an easy comment. "That's the way it is," as Bruce Hornsby sang so many years ago.

It's funny how it hits home that much more when it's someone you know, isn't it? We can read all the stories we want about casual or institutional misogyny, sexism, racism, every -ism out there, but until we see it in action, until we see it bite someone we know, until we see how it is so casually embraced, I don't think it's possible for many men to really understand it on a gut level. Those of us who think we are enlightened, who wonder how this sort of thing gets perpetuated in modern times only have to look at that "Welcome to our county" comment to understand how it continues. I can only hope our young, outraged intern isn't having this same conversation with her board when she's my boss's age 25 years down the road.

Monday, February 4, 2019

A thought on my return from Washington, DC

This weekend, we visited family in Washington, DC. Aside from a few hours almost thirty years ago where my soon-to-be wife and I visited the National Zoo, I have never been there. On Saturday, we were fortunate to have good weather for our visit to the monuments. We started at Lincoln, worked our way through the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, to the Word War II Memorial, and circled the Washington Monument (it's closed for repairs, so you can't get closer than the path that encircles it). From there, we went over to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where we took a tour with a knowledgeable and personable docent (I recommend this; the museum is so big, it can be a bit overwhelming, as there's so much to see. What helped is we were the only people on the tour, so it was almost like a personal tour).

If you haven't toured the monuments before, I recommend it. DC is a funny place. To borrow a phrase from Jerry Garcia, "It's one of those places we've all been." (Though he was talking about Egypt) What I mean is that we see it on TV almost daily, as the backdrop to a talking head in the newsroom, in countless photo ops as Congresspeople stake their positions on issues. It's all over movies and TV shows. It's familiar, more so for me than places like Chicago or Seattle or Tucson. Those cities, I might recognize a landmark or two (well, maybe not from Tucson), but no city has been imprinted on my brain the way Washington, DC, has been.

What is most surprising to me is how big some of it is. Walking up the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, I was nearly overwhelmed by the sheer size of it, and the number of people who were there to visit. And, in truth, I was nearly overwhelmed with emotion as I stepped through the columns and found myself in front of Lincoln in his massive chair. I wasn't the only one. Though there was a lot of cheerful voices and some goofy posing, there were also a number of people tearing up, looking somber, almost grim. I was one of them. What I thought was, "We could use you today, Mr. Lincoln."

Indeed, that was the thought that ran through my head multiple times as we visited the monuments and museums. I found myself wondering if there is anyone in American politics today -- certainly not the man residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- who could inspire and lead in the way of a Roosevelt, or Lincoln, or Washington. And I am, quite frankly, embarrassed at the way we are abdicating our role as the world's leader, abandoning our allies, and ceding pretty much any claim (even if it was always tenuous) to the moral high ground. We've done a lot wrong as a nation over the years, but we've also done an awful lot right. I hope it's not too late for us to really be great again.

Entry to WWII Memorial; photo by me

Monday, January 28, 2019

Glow Puck is back!

Twenty-two years ago, the National Hockey League's broadcasting partner, Fox, broke out a technology that would revolutionize the game. After much work with the league to be sure puck integrity wasn't harmed, a micro-chip was embedded in the puck, allowing the puck's speed and (almost) exact path to be tracked; further, it allowed the guys in the control room to add effects: a hazy blue glow, a trail, a comet trail. This was FoxTrax. Or, as it has come to be known, Glow Puck.

The idea behind FoxTrax was, I guess, a good one. One of the chief complaints leveled against hockey since pretty much forever is that it's hard to follow the puck on TV. It moves too fast! It's too small! There are too many players! In truth, I can kind of understand this, and I try to be understanding. Just because have no problem following the action doesn't mean it's easy, it just means I've been doing it for as long as I can remember; I grew up in a hockey family, after all. Surely, this revolutionary technology would bring new fans flocking to the game?

It was panned.

Well, it was panned by hockey fans, anyway. Frankly, it looked stupid, added clutter, and was a distraction. Instead of being able to follow the wider play, the Glow Puck made it hard to watch anything BUT the puck. It reduced the game to a cartoon, or a video game. And it didn't lead to new fans flocking to the game. After Fox lost the broadcast rights to the NHL, the Glow Puck faded away, never to return (sadly, the other Fox innovation, the 18-minute intermission which merely allowed for three extra minutes of commercials, didn't).

And now it's back.

This weekend, the NHL introduced its much ballyhooed player tracking technology. Pucks and player shoulder pads have a chip embedded in them that allow sensors to know exactly where everything is on the ice at all times, how far apart players are, how fast everything is moving--and will allow the wonks in the control room to add effects: a blue trail to the puck, lines connecting players, bubbles over the players' heads. It will revolutionize the game, and bring in new fans by the thousands!

Or, not.

Now, there are some interesting things about this. It's interesting to see how fast players move. It will be interesting to see if Alexander Ovechkin can break 100 mph on his slap shot in game situations. It will be interesting--and sobering--when someone calculates the force of a Radko Gudas shoulder to the head of an unsuspecting player. But keep it off the ice, please. Keep it out of live play.

The funny thing about some of this, of course, is that it's less necessary than it was 22 years ago. We're living in the age of high definition television, where everything is rendered in exquisite detail. My smart phone has a better picture than the TV set I watched the 1996 All Star game on! We don't need puck trails, we can see it now! What we might need is better arena lighting and better camera angles, not more graphics.

Maybe this is just me being a cranky old man yelling "Get off my lawn!" at the clouds. Maybe the League and its broadcast partners will employ this judiciously, or make it available on special, 'enhanced broadcasts'  that you can pay extra for (hah, I might pay extra to get rid of it!). Maybe I'll get used to it, the way I've gotten used to advertisements on the boards, and all players wearing helmets and visors. Time will tell.

Do you like computer enhancements for your sport?

Monday, January 21, 2019

Word Nerd Monday: Ruggedized

Last week, while reading through a Request for Applications for grant funds put forth by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, I came across something completely unexpected. In a section describing what grant funds could be spent on, there was a line that read "...such as tablets that have been ruggedized."



I understood immediately what the word meant. Tablet devices are often used in the field by technicians to capture important data, but tablets are fragile things. A tablet with a hard plastic or rubber case, and maybe some kind of screen protector, would be able to withstand the rigors of the field. It would be able to get wet. And dropped. And bumped. In short, it would have been made to be rugged. Or, as they said, ruggedized.

But really, ruggedized? Not all that long ago, I think they would have described it as 'armored.'

The word made me laugh, because it sounded like the kind of word my friends would make up back when we were in high school. Ruggedized. According to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, the first known usage goes back to 1947, so it is a relatively new word, but a valid one. It just struck me as an odd thing to see in a grant application. Which is funny, because if I had seen the word rubberized, I would not have blinked.

On a side note, when we talked about it at home later, The Magpie suggested that Viggo Mortensen had gotten ruggedized to play Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings.

Yeah, I think she's right.

That's all for me for today. What about you? What are some of your favorite, odd words?

NOTE: Image is totally borrowed from Pinterest. I have no idea how Pinterest works, how to attribute to a creator, or even who the creator is. If it's yours, I will happily give you credit. Or take it down, if that's what you want. Just let me know.

Monday, January 14, 2019


David Pastrnak is a talented, All-Star right winger for the Boston Bruins who won over the fans in Boston from day one for moments like this:

...and for moments like this:

Pastrnak has developed into a tremendous hockey player. After joining the Bruins as an 18-year-old, he had two modest seasons, then broke out for two consecutive 30-goal seasons. This year, Pasta started out like a house afire, scoring seven goals in Boston's first five games of the season. He reached the ten goal mark after nine games, and had 17 goals in the first 18 games of the season. Pretty astounding!

But Pasta cooled off. The next ten games saw him score just three goals. It took another ten games to get his next three goals. And it's taken seven to get the next three. Currently, Pastrnak has 26 goals in 45 games on the year, an impressive total that has Pastrnak tied for 7th in the League in goals, out of almost 600 players.

Three goals in a 10-game span is an impressive stretch for the vast majority of NHL players; to do so over the course of a season leads to a solid, respectable 20+ goal season. While Bruins fans know Pasta is not going to score every single game, the hope that Pasta would provide Boston with its first 50-goal player since the days of Cam Neely dim a little with each game--though we also know that Pasta is capable of going on a hot streak and scoring, say, seven goals in five games, or 17 in 18.

Slumps happen. Top-tier goal scorers go through periods where, to paraphrase the late, great Bill Chadwick, they couldn't shoot the puck in the ocean from the end of a dock. Goaltenders spring leaks. It happens. The players keep working, and if the slump gets bad enough, they do crazy things, like change how they tape their sticks, or find a new pre-game meal or stop shaving or start shaving or wash the lucky socks. Eventually, the puck starts (or stops, if you're a goalie) going in, and everyone: the player, his teammates, the fans, are happy again.

I write about this because I am, perhaps for the first time since I started seriously writing, going through a slump. Yeah, I'm sure if I dug through the archives of this blog, I could find posts where I whine and moan about being in a slump, but this one feels different. Way different. I think I wrote somewhere around Thanksgiving that I had resurrected an old project, and it was kind of, sort of going well. Now, it's not. While I was home for 2+ weeks at Christmas, I wrote almost nothing. I would sit at the computer, stare at the screen, and type around things, if you know what I mean. No scenes. No characters. No sense of what comes next from where I was in the story. And in the two weeks since I've been back at work? I've written absolutely nothing, at least on this story (I did go back last week and rewrote an opening scene from some other, long-dead project of mine, but that, too, seems to be going nowhere).

Back when I used to participate in the Absolute Write forums, I would generally respond to people who would complain of slumps or block or uncertainty to "write through it" or "just write it." Got a scene that is really sticky? Write through it. Not sure if your hero should use the gun or not? Just write it--both ways. You'll figure it out. I still think it's generally good advice. The act of writing, of pulling words, sentences, scenes out of your head and onto a page, though it feels draining, also leads to filling. It leaves room for more ideas.The problem is, when I sit at the keyboard these last few weeks, there just doesn't seem to be anything there at all to work with. It's a bit disheartening, to say the least.

David Pastrnak might try to bust a slump by changing the color of tape on his stick, or finding a new lucky sweater. Maybe I need to try an outline. Or different writing music (or none at all). Or clean up my workstation. I'm willing to take ideas. What do you do to bust out of a writing slump?


Monday, January 7, 2019

Reading List, 2018, Part Final

Hello again! A week later, happy 2019. I hope all of you had an enjoyable holiday season. I was fortunate to have two plus weeks off at the holidays, owing to the fact that I needed to burn a bunch of vacation time before the end of the year, and that my boss, in recognition of all the extra hours we put in throughout the year, closes the office for the Christmas week. The downside of all that down time is that it's very hard to go back to work and get back in that groove. It was nice that last week was a three-day week, since we get New Year's Day as a holiday.

Well, like work last week, I'm going to ease back into the blogging thing by finishing off my 2018 reading list. To see what else I read last year, visit here, here and here. Onward! (Or, actually, backward!):

Reading List, 2018, Part IV (October-December):

Olive Kitteridge (2008), Elizabeth Strout. I get why this won the Pulitzer. Great book.

Full Dark, No Stars (2010), Stephen King. Whenever I have nothing new to read, I grab some King off the shelf. Haven't read this one since it came out, and it's pretty good.

The Bartender's Tale (2012), Ivan Doig. This was one of these books I saw on a list, like "20 books everyone must read by the time they're 50" or something like that. I was underwhelmed.

Elevation (2018), Stephen King. Surprisingly optimistic homage to Richard Matheson, though it wears it's politics like a MAGA hat. Or an "I'm With Her" shirt.

The Unconsoled (1995), Kazuo Ishiguro. I nearly put this down ten pages in following a three-page monologue by an old baggage carrier. I'm glad I stuck with it. Absurdist? Surreal? Yes and yes, and ultimately rewarding.

Capital (2012), John Lanchester. Also on one of those lists, and also underwhelming.

The Flicker of Old Dreams (2018), Susan Henderson. A mortician's daughter in a dying town in Montana. Very nicely done.

The Rooster Bar (2017), John Grisham. Way back when, I read The Firm, A Time to Kill, The Client and (probably) The Pelican Brief. Like everyone else. I don't know if Grisham's books were always like The Rooster Bar or if he just swung and missed with this one. Protagonists are not especially likable, and every character sounds pretty much the same.

Looking at the year overall, I read 34 books, which feels a little short. I went through a couple of periods where I didn't read at all for a couple of weeks, for reasons I can't remember. Of the books, 31 were fiction, 3 were non-fiction. Eighteen were written by male authors, 15 by females, and one by I-don't-know-they-used-initials. If pressed, I would say my favorite book of the year was American War, by Omar El Akkad, followed closely by Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout; my least favorite book was Catskill, by John Hayes, with The Rooster Bar a close second; and the most important book I read was Oops: Tales from a Sexpert, by Vivian Peters.

Quote of the Year: 
"Nativism being a pyramid scheme, I found myself contemptuous of the refugees' presence in a city already overburdened. At the foot of the docks, we yelled at them to go home, even though we knew home to be a pestilence field. We carried signs calling them terrorists and criminals and we vandalized the homes that would take them in. It made me feel good to do it, it made me feel rooted; their unbelonging was proof of my belonging." From American War, Omar El Akkad.

On to 2019!

What about you? Did you have a good reading year in 2018? What were some of your favorite books?