Monday, August 26, 2019

At Last: A Sequel I Can Get Behind

It finally happened.

Yesterday, Netflix announced that El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie will air on the the streaming service on October 11.

Aaron Paul, who played Jesse Pinkman on the original show for five seasons and reprises his role for this sequel, summed up my feelings pretty well:

"It's a chapter of Breaking Bad that I didn't realize I wanted. And now that I have it, I’m so happy that it’s there."
I've long been funny about sequels and prequels and even second+ seasons of very good TV shows. Our entertainment industry has a long tradition of not knowing when the horse is dead, or they don't care if the horse is dead so long as there's a critical mass that will pay to see it (though their motivation could also be like that of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom in The Producers). We end up with too many sequels or too many seasons of a tired TV show limping along, and we either forget what made it so good in the first place, or we just hope it will recapture some of the original magic, or we still somehow care about characters despite what second and third and fourth teams of writers/directors/creators turn them into.

But I have hope for this one. Not only because Breaking Bad creator, Vince Gilligan is really good at what he does, but also because the track record for television seems to be improving. After season two of The Good Place, I really didn't see how they could keep that premise rolling. They have. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has rolled right on. Season two of The OA was very good. And my most anticipated (and feared) sequel season, HBO's Barry, somehow managed to equal--and even exceed, at times--an excellent first season.

So, on October 11 I think I'll plunk myself down in front of the TV and see what happened to Jesse Pinkman. I'll be rooting for him, too, hoping he can find a way to shed the horrors he endured through five seasons of Breaking Bad.

How are you all doing?

Monday, April 1, 2019

Reading List 2019 Part I

Prepare to be underwhelmed.

The Crossing (2018), Jason Mott

Family Trust (2018), Kathy Wang

Unsheltered (2018), Barbara Kingsolver

It doesn't seem possible that I've only read three books. On my list, I note that The Crossing was finished on February 13, which means I read nothing at all in January??? I feel like I'm missing at least one book in there, maybe two, but I can't remember. I don't think I've had such a down cycle of reading, well, ever. Except maybe when I was a college student or the kids were very small. I actually am reading a book right now but it's not grabbing me all that much and there's virtually no pull on me.

And with that, I think it's also time to announce a break from the blog. I think of things I want to say here, but I don't put the work in until I wake up Monday morning and then? I just have no energy for it. So, we'll see if a month off gives me some new energy. Have a good month!

Monday, March 25, 2019

A trip to the past

Quite often, when we face an uncertain future or an uncomfortable present, we retreat into the safety of the past. Perhaps we look at old pictures or videos, listen to favorite music, pay a visit to an old haunt. We loll about in warmth and golden light, bathed in the memories of good friends, good fun, good food, good times. It can be nice to get away from the pressures of today and the gnawing fear of that space on the calendar marked 'tomorrow.'

But sometimes, even a trip to the past is not the sanctuary we're looking for. On a drive through the old neighborhood, you find the new owner of the house you grew up in has painted it a different color, built a garage on top of the garden, or cut down the tree you used to climb. The empty lot you used to play hide-and-seek on has a strip mall on it. The old elementary school is now a community center, an office complex, a senior citizen complex. Even the past can get run over.

This was illustrated clearly this past weekend when I took advantage of an offer from Blizzard Entertainment and dropped in to check on the world of the World of Warcraft, the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) that took our world by storm. My wife and I played over the course of about five years, from the mid- to late stages of the game's first expansion, The Burning Crusade up until about halfway through the Cataclysm expansion. I dropped out due to a combination of factors (I may have blogged about this before, but I don't remember): waning interest in the game, rising interest in writing, and technical problems on Blizzard's end that for a time made loading in and out of different zones frustrating at best, impossible at worst. To my surprise, I didn't miss the game as much as I thought I would (I missed the people, though; I was fortunate to fall in with a good bunch), which in itself says it was a good time to get out.

But I did miss it, and would find myself thinking about it with the hazy glow of nostalgia. So, when I saw Blizzard was offering a free weekend of play to inactive players (including a free upgrade* to just short of the most recent expansion, Battle for Azeroth, released last year), I decided, why not? It might be fun to peek in, get the lay of the land, and maybe have a little fun.

As you can gather, it was not all rosy glows and warm fuzzies. The game has changed, which I knew. The abilities I had gotten used to over the course of seven years of playing my paladin (and my warlock; can't forget him) were...there? Sort of? Some of them? I had to spend time rearranging the location of all my spells and abilities on my toolbar because some things were gone (Hammer of Wrath? Exorcism? Holy Wrath? Where are you?) and there were new things that I didn't even have a clue about how to use.

But that wasn't the worst of it. Heck, every expansion brings changes. The paladin I left alone in Stormwind was very different from the one who started out swinging a wooden mallet in Elwynn Forest five years before. No, the worst of it, the most disappointing of all was losing my name. Blizzard seems to have a policy that they'll keep your character forever, but after 2 expansions of inactivity? They'll release your name. And it was gone, just like that. I was surprised at how much it bugs me, even though I was there for a weekend, nothing more.

Actually, there was one other thing that bugged me.

When I left the game, I was in a guild. An active, chatty guild. Log into the game, and there would be a bunch of greetings in guild chat, a constant conversation running as background text like a CNN chyron, only instead of the news of the day, it was the news of the guild. Jokes, snippets of personal information, in-game accomplishments, requests and stories. More than the other people running around you in the game world, that guild chat let you know you were part of a community, not alone. And it was gone.

I know that some of the people I played with way back when are still in game, but I have no  idea if they're still on the same realm or moved off, or if they switched factions or started playing other characters. I do know the guild has been disbanded, and no one I knew was around, and that even if I did figure out how to play my character again, it wouldn't be the same.

At least I've got my memories.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Opportunity stolen

When I was a kid, I was spoon-fed the Myth of America. You know the one. It tells us that America is the land of opportunity. The land of the free. The place where anyone could become anything. Where a boy could be born in poverty in a log cabin, where he was so poor he had to walk to school barefoot, but where could still rise to be the leader of the nation if only he worked hard enough. That Myth. America was not perfect, we knew. We made some mistakes—slavery, for example. The long, dark period where women couldn't vote, for another. But given time, we always righted the wrongs, both here and abroad. Maybe it took time. Maybe it wasn't easy. But it got done. And anyone could be anything, if they were willing to work hard.

In a deleted scene from my currently on-query project, a character argues that America has become less a meritocracy and more of a feudal society, where wealth and opportunity is increasingly handed down from generation to generation, and people are more likely to become rags-to-riches stories by hitting the lottery or going viral (not always for the right reasons) than they are by studying and working hard. He points out the increasing entry of dynasties into politics (Kennedys, Bushes and, maybe, Clintons), sports (Hulls, Bonds, Mannings) and entertainment (Smiths, Coppolas), where wealth and power gained by parents have allowed the children to either pursue their dreams free of the fear of failure, or provide them with the leg up needed to succeed. Meanwhile, he notes, it becomes harder for others to gain entry into the club. Mobility, he says, is dead.

This idea seems to be in evidence all over. Statistics have suggested mobility in America has decreased over time. In his 2017 book, Dream Hoarders, Richard Reeves suggests that not only has upward mobility been stifled, so has downward mobility. Reeves argues that the top-most economic classes (in this case, the top 20%, not the fabled 1%) have constructed a glass floor to keep themselves—and their children—from falling out of the upper classes.That they are using their money and status and connections to engage in 'opportunity hoarding.'

After watching the 'college cheating scandal' blow up last week, this seems more evident than ever. If you have not been paying attention, a federal investigation turned up an operation in which parents paid a middleman to get their children into top colleges, either by cheating on college entrance exams or by bribing coaches into falsely recruiting the kids for their athletic teams. Said the mastermind of the operation, "I created a side door."

What boggles my mind in all this are two things: first, that the parents did not apparently trust in their own children's abilities to get into these schools (though after seeing the video made by daughter of privilege, Olivia Jade, maybe they were right not to trust her). Second, couldn't the gobs and gobs of money spent on getting their kids into school be better spent on, I don't know, tutors? Better prep schools? Test prep classes? According to a story in The New York Times, parents were paying between $15,000 and $75,000 per cheated test. Another paid $1.2 million—million!—to get their kid into Yale. Are these schools really that good? If you have that kind of money to drop on faking your way into school, does your kid really need that kind of education? Hell, if you're dropping a mil on Yale, why not set up an endowment or use it as seed money to outfit a residence hall with geothermal or something? Why not at least let that money benefit others as well as your own kid?

As a parent, I want my kids to have a better life than I had growing up (and mine was pretty good), and to be well-positioned for success as they enter adulthood. It is, really, what any parent wants. This cheating scandal, however, is a direct example of what Reeves called opportunity hoarding, taken to the extreme. We all recognize that wealth has its privileges. This is not a simple privilege. This is not just stacking the deck. This is outright thievery, thievery that denied actual deserving students of opportunity, an opportunity to be anything.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Yet another query post

And just like that we're back in the dark.

Among the many things to not like about the return of Daylight Saving Time is that, as I write this, sunrise is still 21 minutes away. Yes, it will not be dark when I start my drive to work. Yes, it will be lighter in the evening when I make my way home from work, but it was still light when most people were driving home, anyway. I can take solace, I guess, from the fact that the sun rises one to two minutes earlier each day, so by the time March is over, it will be light at this time. And I guess the other benefit to Daylight Saving Time is that we don't have the sun rising at 4:30 in the morning. But if they can do it in Alaska, I guess we could do it here.

Ah, well, I come not to gripe about Daylight Saving Time but to talk once more about queries. After the last two weeks of talking about querying, I'm finally querying. Hurrah! Querying is a funny beast. Right now, I have over 100 agents on my list, a mere drop in the bucket in terms of actual number of agents out there, but a good number to start with. My list includes BIG STAR agents at BIG STAR AGENCIES as well as just starting out people working for themselves and all manner of folks in between. All of them, however, have a track record, actual real clients, and a reputation that is not "Watch out for this scam artist!" or "I signed with them and sent my finished manuscript and heard nothing for two and a half years."All of them are people that, based on reputation at least, I can see myself working with.

The tough part now is figuring out the query strategy. Carpet bombing the agent world, aside from being exhausting (seriously--I did five yesterday and was shot for the afternoon), can be counterproductive. The simple truth is, though I've polished my manuscript, though I've vetted my query with people I trust, I really don't know how good either of them are. If either the query or the opening pages is flawed, what then? If I blast my entire list, I'm sunk (most agents don't like getting the same project a second time unless they ask for it or it's really, really revised).

My solution is to try to send out small batches of queries equally divided between agents who like pages included and agents who don't. I figure if I get requests for pages then the query is pretty solid, and if I get requests for additional pages/fulls from the ones who ask for pages included, then the query and the opening pages are pretty solid.

The only flaw with this plan? Well, two, actually. The first is small sample size. You can argue that three queries in each category is not really enough to draw conclusions from, especially when there are so many other variables involved. Maybe, despite their website, the agent has decided they don't want what I'm selling right now, or they have another client with a similar project. Or the dog eats their slush pile. Or they closed to queries right before I hit "Send." There are a lot of things that can skew the results when you're dealing with small numbers.

The second thing is the wait times. Publishing is a slow game. Odds are good that I won't hear anything from any of these agents for at least a week. Looking at Query Tracker, most of the agents I queried yesterday have at least a three week wait time between queries and responses. So we're back to the waiting game.

Hey, look at that, the sun is up! Time to get on with my day. How about you? Any particular strategies for querying that you employ?


Monday, March 4, 2019

Gearing for battle

It seems like almost every movie that includes some sort of battle--be it epic fantasy, war, even a sports film--features a scene in which Our Heroes prepare for the coming fight. We see Our Heroes gearing up for battle: sharpening swords, fletching arrows, shining armor, taping up sticks, lacing up the cleats, all while looking strong and determined and ready to carry the day. You've probably seen it so many times you don't even think about it!

Some time this week, maybe as early as tonight, I will step into the fray and fire my opening salvo in my latest battle to break into the world of the published. It will be a long fight, with many battles. How have I been preparing myself for this battle?

The manuscript: Like the armor Our Heroes wear, this has been polished to a high shine. Holes have been patched and repaired. Excessive bits that add unnecessary weight or could get in the way have been trimmed and removed. (Of course, me being me, i.e., a writer, just yesterday I thought of something I could easily add somewhere in the first thirty pages of the manuscript that would add just the right touch to the scene. This could go on forever.)

The query: Like the unending supply of arrows Legolas fires into unending legions of Orcs, my query is straight to the point.

The list: There are thousands of literary agents out there in the world. As of right now, I have over 150 on my list that could be a match. Almost every day, I learn of a new one. Good thing I have a Quiver of Endless Arrows!

Synopsis: What can be harder than boiling your story down into a 250-word query? A synopsis! It doesn't seem right, but the query letter is really just the hook--WHO is the protagonist, WHAT is her problem, WHAT happens if she doesn't solve it? The query needs to make the agent want to read. The synopsis, on the other hand, is the condensed version of the whole book, a reduced outline. I have somehow managed to create a single-page synopsis for my nearly 400-page manuscript, in case anyone asks. And speaking of things agents ask for:

Excerpts: Some agents ask for the first five pages of your manuscript when you query. Some want to see the first ten. Some want thirty, some want fifty. Some want 'the first few chapters.' Some agents want sample pages embedded in the e-mail, others want them attached as a word or pdf. To prepare for any and all eventualities, I have created multiple files with titles like PROJECT NAME--10, PROJECT NAME--20, etc. That way, I can just grab the right file whenever needed instead of having to go back into the massive manuscript and cutting and pasting (every time I select a large block of text in my manuscript, I have the near-paralyzing fear I'm going to inadvertently delete it all and not be able to get it back).

And finally: Something to help me forget I'm querying.

Actually, this is ideally the time to be working on The Next Thing. Usually, I've had the idea of The Next Thing right around the time I'm wrapping up The Last One. This time around, The Next Thing is not presenting itself. Maybe I've had too many of those martinis.

So, that's it,  that's how I've prepared myself for this latest round of the publishing wars. Many of you have elected to skip this step in favor of doing it yourselves. For anyone out there who reads this blog that isn't self-publishing, are there any items in your arsenal that aren't in mine? How do you prepare yourself for this battle?

Monday, February 25, 2019

And still another wall (and still not THAT one)

I thought I would be done.

When I posted last week, I thought I would be done by now. My brief wall notwithstanding, I was pretty certain I would put a bow on it and be finished by the time this post rolled around. I was wrong. You see, I hit another wall.

After finishing my post last week, I had to work despite the holiday, co-leading a snowshoe walk at a state park in the afternoon. It was cold, in the upper teens, and though it wasn't windy, there was enough of a breeze that, when we stopped in an open area, you could really feel the breeze cutting in. Still, everyone seemed to enjoy it. That night, I managed to work through about eight manuscript pages, crossed the 300-page mark. At the end of the evening, I had under 90 pages remaining.

I made the mistake, perhaps, of staying up to watch the Bruins on Monday. They were in the midst of a 5-game road trip and played in San Jose, 10pm start. The wild game (a Bruins 6-5 overtime win) ended around 1am, leaving me with five-ish hours of sleep before going in to work the next day. In general, I am not one who believes that being cold and/or tired makes you sick--germs make you sick. Viruses make you sick. On the other hand, perhaps cold and tired can suppress your immune system and help you get sick. It certainly seems possible. It might explain what happened next.

On Tuesday night, after work, after dinner, I sat down, opened the manuscript, and...nothing. I picked at a paragraph, rearranged a couple of sentences, felt so tired I could not concentrate at all. Unlike the previous week, this was not a case of me being befuddled by what I had written. I literally could not summon the energy to think properly about what I was looking at. For the first time in I don't know how long, I went to bed before 11pm. Theoretically rested, I went to work the next day. By afternoon, my throat was sore, my back was sore, and I had to face the facts: I was sick. No Bruins for me on Wednesday (another late game, this one in Vegas), no editing work, no nothing. I might have actually been in bed before ten that night, I don't remember.

I stayed home on Thursday. While a sick day can sometimes be an opportunity to make some progress, I didn't even bother. Sometimes, the body knows best.

The good news for me is that I recovered fairly fast. On Friday I was back at work--both the job and the manuscript. And over the weekend, I steamed through the manuscript. Last night, though I tried to make the last push to finish, I had to call it a night, just 14 pages short of the end. Tantalizingly close.

It's important to listen to your body. As much as we want to push on, there are times when the thing to do is to shut it down, give in, and get some rest. There will be another day.


Love this song. The chorus kind of sums up how I felt in the middle of this week!

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?