Friday, August 29, 2014


I'm in a cranky mood.

We all but ran out of coffee, so I'm drinking lo-test. I pop on Absolute Write and feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day--"How many pages should be in a chapter?" "Should I include a prologue?" Someone I've never heard of wants to be Facebook friends. My g-mail is getting spammed. Opening up blogger, I keep getting the 'Get the latest blogger buzz' crap instead of the list of blogs I might want to actually read. Annoyance after annoyance after annoyance. But mostly, it's the coffee thing that's bugging me.

Something really bugging me today is the way people are willing to screw around with words to make a political point. Or, more likely, to muddy the waters. Yesterday, someone on an environmental listserve I follow at work linked to a surprisingly-old story about Rob Astorino, the Westchester County Executive who will be running for governor against Andrew Cuomo (or Zephyr Teachout (yes, that IS her name), if the unthinkable happens in the Democratic primary next week) in November. I should point out, the folks on this listserve do not like Astorino. At all. Here's the lurid headline:

In Lawsuit, Independence Party Alleges Astorino Threatened to 'Decapitate' Leadership

A quick scan of the linked article reveals some potentially troubling things about Astorino. The Independence Party in Westchester County is accusing him of racketeering, conspiracy, wire and mail fraud—all serious allegations indeed. But what really seemed to piss people off the most is this quote from Astorino:

"Every enemy he’s made, every person he’s screwed, is now working with us to decapitate these two."

The story didn't get too much play on the listserve, but there's a guy around here, a very, very intelligent guy, who  featured a story about this on his own blog yesterday. He didn't talk about racketeering. He didn't talk about wire and mail fraud, he didn't talk about conspiracy. After a series of personal insults on Astorino, he said this:  "Threatening decapitation when journalists are being decapitated in Syria—for being journalists—is not a great way to endear oneself to the voters."

Really? That's the most important thing in this story? As I said, this guy is an intelligent guy, but I wonder if he has any concept of 'context'. Or hyperbole--which is ironic, considering the blogger in question is a hyperbole machine.  

For the record, I am not an Astorino supporter. I'm not particularly big on any of the candidates, for a variety of reasons which I will keep to myself. I do think this lawsuit is politically motivated--the statewide Independence Party has endorsed Cuomo, and Cuomo is running ads now that can truthfully say Astorino is being sued for conspiracy, racketeering and fraud. I'm not prone to conspiracy theories as a rule, but this one seems fishy to me.

I can't wait til election season is over.

NOTE: I feel it's important to point out two things about this lawsuit: first, it was dismissed last year and revised and refiled in June. Second, Astorino's comments about decapitation were made in 2013, more than a year before James Foley's execution.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Weekend Update: Congratulations to my Friends!

A long, long time ago, I started poking around the internet, looking for writing stuff: places that could help me improve as a writer, places that would give me information on where I could publisher--err, try to publish--the couple of short stories I had sweated out, and what to do about the ideas that were starting to develop in me, the things that seemed to want to become...novels. The long-dormant dream of being a writer had awakened, though I suppose it had never really gone away entirely.

Of course, the web is a big place and there's something for everyone here. No matter what your obsession, you can find it, and I found plenty of 'official' sites, like Absolute Write and NaNoWriMo and Writer's Digest, and I dove into those to help me learn. And I found the less 'official': the blogs. There are thousands of blogs out there, and of particular interest to me were the ones belonging to people who were like me: people who were writing with a dream in mind, the dream to become published authors. I followed some, and then decided to do my own blog, and some of us have been traveling on this rocky path together for more than three years already--it's hard to believe it's been that long. We've cheered for each other and commiserated with each other, we've come to know each other in that curious way that we know anyone on the web.

I am happy to say that three of my oldest friends from the blog world (well, let's change that, as they're not particularly old--three of the people I go back with the longest) have scored big time at the eFestival of Words Virtual Book Fair this weekend! Carrie Butler, Lisa Regan and Nancy Thompson each took home awards, and each of them were here almost from the beginning. Congratulations on your well-deserved success, ladies, and I wish you continued success!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Word Nerd Friday: Hoodwink

I was vowing that I was going to write something a little more serious today, but like much of the summer, this week sort of got away from me. Funny how that happens, isn't it? Meanwhile, maybe it was last week's post where I referenced driving around with boxed-up birds in the back of my van that did it, or maybe it's the fact that we're heading into election season, but the word 'hoodwink'/'hoodwinked' has popped into my brain, so I thought I'd share some interesting (I think) stuff about that word.

Hoodwink. It's a great word, isn't it? Nowadays, it means to trick or deceive someone (Hmm, now why politics make me think of that?), which is not especially nice. Yet, there's something almost benign or comedic to it, isn't there? "I've been hoodwinked!" Like bamboozled, which has similar meaning. Maybe it's the double o's in the word--they're kind of like googly eyes. Or it's the way it sounds. Say it out loud: hoodwinked. It sounds kind of harmless, though no one really wants to be hoodwinked.

Most dictionaries trace the word back to the 1600s, where it's original meaning was different. Back then it meant to blindfold, or cover someone's eyes (wink) with a hat (hood). And here it's easy to see both why it morphed into today's meaning and where it connects with birds of prey.

I have a friend who is a  falconer. He keeps several hawks and falcons and uses them for hunting. Falconry used to be quite popular, and was once referred to as the sport of kings. Now, the thing about birds of prey is they're really killing machines, and they're not especially sociable. Even birds that are raised in captivity tend to have an edge to them. When the birds are first being trained, or when they're being transported from place to place, it's important to keep them calm. One of the most effective ways to do that is like this:

Where'd everyone go?

The hood covers the bird's eyes but allows it to breath. Generally, once the hood goes on, the bird calms down. The boxes we used for transporting our birds had small holes that allowed air to get in and keep things cool, but little light. Keeping the bird in the dark, where it couldn't see, worked the same as the hood. Those boxes are frequently referred to as giant hoods.

My falconer friend told me once that the modern usage of hoowinked--to trick or deceive--arose from the fact that the hood essentially 'tricks' the bird into thinking it's night. I'm not sure about that one; it seems entirely possible that the archaic form of the word--to blindfold--came from the falconry practice and then changed. Either way, it's still an interesting word with an interesting history. Have a great weekend, everyone!

'Hooded' by Patries71, used under Creative Commons license

Monday, August 18, 2014

Weekend Update: Chestnut Edition

And so it begins.

The kids are clamoring for back-to-school stuff, and, in the Magpie's case, off-to-Japan stuff. They know how fast the next two, three weeks will go. The Catbird starts cross country practice today, the Magpie heads over the ocean (actually, we looked at the flight path; she spends very little time actually over the ocean; it's pretty wild) in 3-1/2 weeks. Meanwhile, when I got up and started writing this, the sky was ever-so-slightly less than pitch black. A couple of weeks ago, I could have sat outside and read easily at that hour. We're already seeing changes. Picking the Magpie up at work last week I passed a maple tree with a bright red shock of leaves. It was probably a tree that was under some sort of stress--damaged roots, disease, insect attack--but it's still a reminder that we're in the tail end of summer, not really the Dog Days after all. On Saturday morning, the temperature hovered just above forty.

Well, that's just the way the world works. On a happier, tree-related note, here are a couple of freshly-snapped picture of my American chestnut:

Not the greatest pictures in the world. The 'new' trunk is a little over 3" long, but it's got a nice set of leaves going. It's also got it's own little spider (not pictured) that has built a web in the protective tube above the future tree. Without that tube I have little doubt either deer or rabbits would have eaten this thing to the ground. We have a ridiculous number of rabbits this year. Oddly, I've also seen an unusual number of dead porcupines on the road this summer. Perhaps we're in a boom year for porcupines.

Writing-wise, I'm back on submission this week. Someone else (and I can't remember who it was; I read it on another blog but can't remember where) said, "The first rule about being out on sub is, you don't talk about being out on sub." So, as Forrest Gump would say, "That's all I've got to say about that." On another writing note, at yesterday's writers' circle, I turned out another short little piece that I like a lot. It's very short, 333 words as of its initial draft, but I think it could go somewhere. As always, the problem is finding it. Meanwhile, I'm hoping these bursts of short stories will help unjam one of the longer works I'm struggling with. I'm also hoping that now that I'm not thinking about the manuscript I can no longer talk about, it will allow my brain to really work over one of the other WiPs. I've had a few days recently where I turned out a couple thousand words on one of them, but it feels largely like spinning, hearkening back to this post from so long ago.

Hmm, that's about it for me. How's things by you? How was your weekend?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Lead Foot

True confession time: I have a lead foot.

I drive fast. Not as fast as Winston Wolfe ("It's thirty minutes away. I'll be there in ten."), but consistently fast. While I'm much better about it than I used to be--I no longer find myself doing 80 on the interstate, for example, at least not on purpose, and I'm very good about residential areas--I tend to find my own speed on the roads, which is usually 5, sometimes 10 miles per hour over the posted speed. Despite my tendency to speed, I consider myself a good driver, and a careful one. I can hear some of you arguing that I can't be a good driver if I'm speeding. Note, however, I do not do 60 in a 30 zone, I do not have to slam on the brakes every time I come to a stop sign or a red light, passengers are not thrown left and right when I turn. I don't tailgate or pass with abandon or weave in and out of traffic like I'm running the Daytona 500. I am careful--I merely like to drive at a speed I'm comfortable with, and I do pay attention to traffic and weather conditions, etc. So, if you're going to drop a comment bomb on me about it, save it. This post isn't really about speeding, anyway.

My big problem comes when I get stuck behind a slow driver. I grip the wheel, sit up straighter, and get rather agitated. I grumble a lot, and say things like, "Engage hover car mode...NOW!" or "Activate ground-to-ground missiles." I imagine my car zooming through the fireball (remarkably undamaged) like some action hero stunt, then fall back to a safe driving distance and continue to gripe. The person doesn't even have to be going super-slow--I want the option to travel at the speed I want, when I want. It's selfish, I know, but there it is.

Though I'm not entirely cured of this habit, I've gotten much better about this over the years, in a large part because of certain experiences I've had. In the not-too-distant past I traveled quite regularly with rather unusual cargo. On any given day I might be driving with a bunch of boxes in the back of my van, and in those boxes were birds of prey: a hawk, an owl or too, and I think most of you have seen pictures of Morty, the turkey vulture. Some days maybe I didn't have birds, maybe I had turtles, frogs and snakes. Toughest of all were the days I had coolers full of marine invertebrates like horseshoe crabs, snails and sea stars. On those days I would drive gingerly, cringing at every bump in the road, babying the van around every corner, slowing well before stop signs. I hate the sound of a bird losing its balance. Birds use their wings for balance, and when a bird flexes its wings inside a box, it could break a feather or injure itself. And I was terrified one of my coolers would tip over and send sea water and snails spilling all over my van. It kept me extra careful, kept me at reasonable speed, and sometimes I would see someone close behind my and think, "Yeah, back off, buddy, I'm carrying live animals here."

That experience has definitely helped me. Despite my fantasies about ground-to-ground missiles, when I find myself stuck behind someone doing 30 in a 45 mph zone I ask myself: what precious cargo is this person carrying with them? Or perhaps they have a mechanical problem with their car and they're taking it up to the mechanic's now, but they have to be really careful. Maybe they're sick and on their way to the hospital. Probably it's nothing like that. Probably, they're just some tourist gawking at cows, trying to figure out if they're on the right road or not, fearing the dreaded appearance of a New York cop, or maybe they're just not paying attention. The point is, I don't know. I can't know.

And that brings me around to my real point. The death of Robin Williams by apparent suicide has brought out a lot of commentary from a lot of people. Most of what I have seen have been expressions of shock and loss, and outpourings of sympathy for his family. It's also brought out its share of idiots who call him a coward, or call him weak and selfish. The thing is, we really don't know what he was driving around with, we don't know what kind of things were rattling around in his trunk. Slow down and back off.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Musical Monday: Someone Keeps Moving My Chair

There may be a quirkier band in all the land than They Might Be Giants--but I haven't found them yet. The song goes back almost 25 years at this point (cry) to their 1990 album, Flood. The video was made by an 11-year-old boy several years ago. It works, in my opinion.

In other news, hmm, let's see. Oh, big stuff, The Catbird and my wife depart today for a couple of days to look at a couple of colleges. Unlike the Magpie, who knew exactly what she wanted to study (and leaves for Japan in 4-1/2 weeks), the Catbird really doesn't know. That makes it a bit harder to know where to look. I'm hoping this trip will help her figure some things out.

Remember last week, when I wrote about how I wrote something that my writers' group liked, much to my disbelief? On Wednesday, having to wait for a couple of hours for a ride, I ripped out what has turned out to be a 10-page short story that I really liked--it's thoroughly unpleasant. It's currently out with the writers' group and a couple of other friends. I'm interested in seeing what they think of it. My wife did not like it; it made her uncomfortable, which was part of the point of the piece (interesting side note: Stephen King always talks about writing for your 'perfect reader'; he says his wife is that person. I seem to like to make mine uncomfortable).

Did anyone check out the supermoon this weekend? Saturday night, it was so bright it almost hurt to look at. And just now (well, when I wrote this, not when you read this) I stepped out with the dog and was surprised to see it up there still, very large, very bright. It reminds me of a line from Robin Williams many years ago, on some HBO special. He interrupted himself, looked off wonderingly as if he were staring up at the heavens, and said, "Look! The moon, like a testicle hangs low in the sky." I really have to wonder why some things stick in your brain like that.

Speaking of sky-watching, the Perseid meteor showers should be visible the next couple of nights. The extra bright moon may get in the way a little bit, but it's usually worth watching. We had a bit of cloud cover last night, so I'll have to try again tonight.

That's about it for me for now; how's things by you?

EDIT: As a rule, I try not to subscribe to Magical Thinking. As a kid, I remember my mother sometimes thinking she must have ESP because she'd be thinking about a person and they'd call. The question Mom (and no none, really) wants to hear asked is, "What about all the times you were thinking of that person and they didn't call?" or the equally-annoying, "What about all the people who called when you weren't thinking about them?" It's definitely fun to believe that you have ESP, or that there's some sort of universal fabric we can't see that ties us all together, you know? And there may well be such a thing, but I don't place a lot of stock in it.

Still, I find it odd that I mention Robin Williams here and fifteen hours later find out that he passed away. I remember seeing him for the first time as Mork from Ork on a Happy Days episode, and then, of course, there was Mork and Mindy (really, a show that does not hold up well at all, but Williams was brilliant). As a family we watched Mork faithfully, and when Williams had his comedy specials on HBO we watched those, too. The man kept us in stitches. I still have no idea how a man's brain can work as fast as his did; it always seemed to be a hundred yards ahead of everyone else. He left behind a great body of work and had a tremendous influence on so many people. He will be missed.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Chief Wahoo Converted

Last week, I saw a story on the web about a t-shirt that had gotten suddenly popular on several reserves of the Ontario First Nations. Here's the shirt, a parody of Major League Baseball's Cleveland Indians lettering and logo:

The t-shirt came to prominence when a member of the group A Tribe Called Red wore it in a publicity photo--and a festival the group was scheduled to perform at was threatened with a boycott because of the racist shirt. I wonder if the person or people calling for the boycott insists that Chief Wahoo is a loving tribute?

Is the shirt offensive? Not to me. Is it racist? I honestly can't say. It's mildly amusing, but certainly not as effective at making a point as this effort from the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) from 2001:

Part of the problem with the Caucasians t-shirts (which is illustrated by the NCAI hats) is that I don't know if there's really a 'one size fits all' slur that's going to cut white people the way an N-Bomb will, or the way a war-whooping Indian image does. They're too easy to shrug off: Cracker? I'm from New York. Redneck? Sorry, that's a farmer (and Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy somehow made 'redneck' somewhat fashionable among rednecks, at least based on all the t-shirts sold at the county fair over the last ten years). Honky? Last time I heard that was on The Jeffersons, and I still don't know what the hell it means. Those words really don't seem to hurt the average white American because it's too easy to say, "Sorry, that's not me."

I believe that most white people aren't malicious. We're just insensitive, which is born out of the fact that we haven't had to deal with discrimination on a level that really hits home. We haven't been subject to stop-and-frisk measures because or our skin color; found ourselves doing more time for the same crime as someone of another race; been forced from our homes and sent to live hundreds or thousands of miles away; or had a price put on our head by the government, which was certainly something I never learned when studying the colonial period in school, and may be where the term 'redskin' really comes from. As a result, it's hard for us to really understand. "Toughen up," we say. "Get over it already. It really isn't. We've made great strides in so many areas in the last hundred years, and even over the course of my lifetime. There's still a long way to go.

That's all for now. Have a pleasant weekend.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Monday Musing: It's Good? Really?

Sorry I'm late.

I do like to try to be consistent, but I overslept this morning and it was a crazy day where we all of us had to be out of the house early so something had to give and it was the blog. If you missed my 6:30 or so appearance, my apologies; these things happen. If you didn't notice...ignore this paragraph.

I had one of those days at my writers' circle yesterday. I wrote furiously for the better part of 45 minutes or so, filling about five sides of notebook paper in my hard to read writing. That's a lot for me; lately, I've been much more like a side and a half. Along  the way, I scrawled 'WHAT A LOAD OF CRAP!' across the bottom of page 4, partly because I had lost control of the piece—I kind of knew how I wanted it to end, but couldn't seem to figure out a way to bring it about, and partly because it just felt…wrong. It was good writing, I was pretty confident of that, but the piece just felt wrong on a content level. Still, it was nice to write with that…fury (yeah, second use of that sort of word, but it's appropriate); I haven't done it for a while. Carrie has the latest version of POWERLESS to look over and I've got two WiPs that just aren't grabbing me the way I need to be grabbed, so I've spent the last couple of nights sort of moving things around and doing a little bit of writing around trying to find my way back in.

So this piece was fun in that it was forty-five minutes or so of head down, nose to the paper writing, but when it came time to read…I really didn't want to. It just felt like something that was sort of …I don't know, stupid, but I read it anyway.

They liked it.

It wasn't in the, "Yeah, that was good, okay, who's reading next?" sort of way. They did like it, I even got a "You should submit that somewhere". Typing it up later, I could actually see the possibility—and I could see some ways to make it better.

Go figure.

DO you find that happens to you? Pieces that you think are drivel that everyone else likes? I'd almost think it's a form of self-defense, like "I really, really want people to like this, but I'm afraid they won't so I'll assume it's horrible, that way I can only be pleasantly surprised." The thing is, I don't usually think that way. When I have something in writers' circle that I really like, that I think is good, I get very nervous about reading, with a severe case of the 'jimmy leg.' This was a totally different feeling.

Anyway, my brain isn't working at 100% for this today, so I'd better go. Have a great day, see you on Friday, I think.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Phrase Nerd Friday: Dog Days of Summer

First, some music. I find this video strangely disturbing. Must be the make-up. Or something:

Unlike the song, the Dog Days are just beginning. But where does that phrase come from? Why 'Dog Days'? Glad you asked.

I have always thought of the Dog Days of summer as being that period in August, which, where I grew up, tended to be the hottest, laziest time of the year. It was laziest because it was always so damn hot, quite frankly. I never quite understood why it was called Dog Days. The explanations I heard often had to do with actual dogs--they start shedding (which mine is doing now; what a mess!), they sit around and pant, they go crazy from the heat. Maybe all of these are true, but the actual reason goes back to ancient Greece and Rome, and the name has little to do with real dogs.

In the northern hemisphere, the brightest star to be seen in the night sky in winter is Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major. Canis Major follows what is probably the best-known constellation outside the Big Dipper: Orion.

Ooh, fancy!

Orion is in the upper right of the image. I've always thought it looks less like a mighty hunter than a bow-tie stood on its side. Anyway, follow the three stars of Orion's belt down and you point almost directly at Sirius, the Dog Star, in Canis Major, conveniently located in the center of the image above. Sirius is the brightest star visible in the northern hemisphere at night, and also the closest at a mere 8.6 light years away, which means when we look up in mid-January at Sirius, we're looking at light that is 8.6 years old and has traveled a ridiculous distance to get here (remember the speed of light? That would be approximately 186,000 miles--per second. Don't try to figure out how far away it is, it will cause your head to explode).

The name Sirius comes from an old Greek word that means 'scorcher'. It's a safe bet that it's pretty hot there, as it would be at pretty much any star, and that brings us back to the whole 'Dog Days' thing. Back during those Greco-Roman days, Sirius rose at or about the same time as the sun in late July or early August, adding it's heat to an already powerful sun. This was believed to be the cause of the extremely hot days of this period of summer. If only Sirius could send some heat our way during the winter nights when it's high up in the sky!

Sirius no longer rises with the sun at this time (I can't remember why this is, and my brain is not quite functioning well enough this morning to do that last bit of research) of year. Today, it rose about an hour after sunrise. It will rise four minutes earlier each day, while the sun rises an increasing number of minutes later each day, until it eventually starts rising ahead of the sun. This will occur in another week or so.

There you have it. A quick and dirty explanation for the Dog Days of Summer. Have a great weekend, all.

Image from Wikimedia Commons