Archive for 2011

In Another Ten

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Lots of writers, even unpublished ones, like to dispense writing advice. I know this because I’ve been actively seeking it out for the past six months and… yeah. There’s a lot of it. I’m guessing much of it is dubious, because many of these people seem to write more about writing than they do about anything else and with so much advice out there, for free, there can’t possibly be much of a market for all this. But, as with all advice, the more you hear the more likely you will hear something useful which is why I keep listening.

That said, I’m about to drop what might be construed as writing advice. Oh, I’ve taken great pains to disguise it as a series of personal revelations, but if you don’t see through it as a kind of redirected offering to other people, then you don’t really understand how this whole blogging thing works, do you? But whether you decide this counts as advice or a cautionary tale or just the inane ramblings of a madman with nothing better to do at five o’clock in the morning than type words and then follow them up with more words until they either make sense and I delete them or I get sick of them and post them online for the world to mock, well. That’s up to you.

Basically what I have here are a short(ish) series of revelations I’ve learned about writing in the last 34 years. They amount to precisely nothing because I have had nothing published and have received only a few pennies for my writing in all that time. But they serve to remind me that there is a process to writing and it is ongoing. It goes back, for me, a very long way.

Lesson #1: Surprise Is In The Context

When I was in fifth grade (I think), I wrote a story for school. Maybe it was for school, maybe it was for a project put on by the library? I’m not sure. In any case, we were supposed to write and illustrate a story and, unlike a lot of our other assigned creative writing projects, I remember this one being pretty open-ended. I wrote a story about a gallant knight named Sir Lightfoot. There was a princess and a dragon. I don’t remember much about the plot (although I believe the book still exists somewhere, I think I’ve seen it floating around in some box or chest or something since becoming an “adult”) but I do remember that at one point the dragon has the princess held captive and Sir Lightfoot shows up and says some intimidating things to the dragon. In response, the dragon breathes fire on the princess.

I think I intended for it to be funny, the way morbidity strikes a ten year-old boy with a weird imagination as amusing. But I recall a lot of people were pretty shocked by this turn of events in my story. At the time, I recall trying to explain to someone (maybe a teacher, maybe a parent) that it seemed pretty natural for the princess to get cooked because if I were the dragon and I’d already lured the knight I wanted to confront to my layer with the captured princess, her purpose had been served. Why, I wondered, did the bad guys always leave the bait lying around to come distract them at a later, often pivotal, moment when they didn’t need it anymore? So in my story, the dragon kills the princess straightaway.

Now, for a more sophisticated storyteller, this would be a pivotal, possibly even subversive plot decision. But for me it was just how the story ought to go. I didn’t expect people to be shocked. Finally (and this revelation may have come much later), I figured out that it wasn’t so much that people were surprised the princess didn’t live to the end of the story, it was that a ten year-old was—somewhat dimly—introducing a pretty dark ironic twist to an otherwise classic narrative. In other words, it wasn’t that the dragon killed the princess when he had the opportunity, it was that I killed the princess.

Later on, in high school, I wrote (longhand) a serial story just for kicks about a vampire lady who seduces a teenage boy. In it, the boy’s chaste and pleasant girlfriend dies in what I thought was an exceptionally clever twist. Someone I showed the story to read past that part without a pause. I asked them if they had been shocked by the death scene.

“Not really,” came the reply.

“Why not?”

“Well,” they said, “for one: it’s you. You always kill everybody. And also, it’s a vampire story, so I figured everyone was going to die anyway.”

A jack in the box may startle a child once, but after they know the “Monkey Chased the Weasel” song gets to the part about “POP!” the clown shoots out of the lid, they don’t get startled anymore, because the context is lost.

The lesson here is one M. Night Shyamalan really needs to learn.

Lesson #2: Writers May Be Lazy, But Lazy Writers Invite Disaster

When I was in high school, I worked (well, “worked”) on the school newspaper. I was more than a bit of a tool back then. Shocking, right? Anyway, I did a bunch of stuff in that class that I now look back on and think, “What? Who was that idiot? Me? Really? Gah.” For example, I was given the opportunity to work on the humor section, which our instructor said was to be satirical. Honestly, I had no idea how to write satire. Still, don’t for that matter. But if I had been smart, and not criminally lazy, I would have researched satire and read classic examples (Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift) to get a sense of it. In fact, that’s precisely what our teacher recommended. I ignored him.

Instead, I spent a lot of time coming up with clever responses to the fact that one of my classmates got to put in his byline, “Editor-in-Chief,” while I had to put “Staff Writer.” I was technically the Managing Editor, something I thought should be reflected on everything I wrote. I comprehend entirely (now) that no one cares what business role you fill at the paper in a byline but at the time it seemed very unfair. So I put “Not Just A Staff Writer Anymore” as my byline. What wit! What a thumb on the nose to the authorities! I got away with it because the Editor-in-Chief (a guy I admired—and still admire, as a matter of fact) knew he could shove my piece in the satire section and no one would care because, let’s face it, the satire section was pretty sad. I realize now that I could have contributed to a teenage version of The Onion or The Daily Show, but again, that whole research thing got in the way. It should be noted, also, that I was possibly the worst Managing Editor in the history of school newspapers. Whatever managing I was supposed to do, I did none of it.

But that same laziness also got me into some hot water later on. I was helping with a piece for the entertainment section about local stuff for teens to do. I think we had little blurby reviews of arcades and hangouts and such and I decided to do a short bit about the local bowling alley. Now, let’s just pause to reflect that I was saved a heap of scorn in this by mere chance: While it was me who wrote the paragraphs in question, the bowling alley featured was owned by a guy whose son was both my friend and on the newspaper staff. Plus, there were a couple other writers on the byline since it was a collaborative article. So while the problem was entirely my fault, the blame got diluted a little. What happened was: I hadn’t been to the bowling alley in a while, probably something like eight to ten months at least. But I figured it didn’t matter because the place didn’t change that much with time—it couldn’t, right? So I wrote my review based on memory. And I wasn’t exactly flattering, either.

I could try to explain it by saying we were on a deadline (true) or that I didn’t have time to visit the bowling alley (not true) or that I meant to fact-check it later but forgot (partially true). It doesn’t matter. The point is, I never should have assumed anything and I never should have let the other authors put their names on something that I wasn’t fully confident about. I should have pulled my section, at least. What I really should have done was gotten off my lazy butt and done the real research.

Now, again, the owner’s son was on staff (possibly he had even collaborated on the story, I don’t remember for sure now) and it was more embarrassing for him that he had let it slip by than it was for the rest to be associated with me and my story. But the owner (my friend’s dad) wrote a letter to the editor saying that my bit was full of factual inaccuracies. They had upgraded the arcades, fixed some of the fees and improved other areas I criticized. Had we been there recently? the letter asked. Our instructor asked us point blank. Had we done the research? I had to admit, I had not.

We issued a retraction and felt bad and wiped the egg off our faces and ultimately it didn’t matter because no one read the paper anyway, but I won’t ever forget the vengeful creeping sense of shame and regret that came—and this is key—not with having written the piece, but in having been caught and called out on it. I recognized even then, as dumb as I was, that the only way to avoid having that kind of revealing insight into your human failings broadcast for all to see, was to not try to pass off fiction as fact. Perhaps if I’d learned a bit about passing off fact as fiction, I might have been a better satire writer, but that lesson would never come in time to be of any use.

 Lesson #3: Art May Be Subjective, But Writing Still Has To Make Sense

In my junior college days, when I was directionless and unwilling to grow up but felt like I wanted to achieve greater heights than my teenage idiocy had permitted, I carried around a notebook that I would fill with scribbles and poems and freestyle verse and handwritten lectures about the kinds of things that a guy who listens to too much Bob Marley and reads too much Stephen King thinks are really, really deep. I felt then that the words in the poems were only there to provide contextual clues to the theme of the poem, which was further conveyed by my hand-drawn typography experiments. In short, it was half the words and half the way the words appeared on the page that made the poems work.

Let me save you some time: The poems didn’t work.

I showed a few of them to my friends who were prone to being dazzled by “art” in the sense that we all felt if it was vague or incomprehensible but even hinted at depth or meaning, it must be mind-expanding and hold value. But then again, we listened to Metallica for the lyrics, if that tells you anything about the sophistication of our art appreciation. They liked it, said it was great stuff, man. Around this time I started noodling in a speed metal band with a guy I thought of and still believe to be a genuine genius. Now, he’s a tortured artist type in the classic sense but he’s also incredibly grounded in a reality that is more at home with the hard facts of life than I hope I will ever fully understand. At the time, he was writing all the music and lyrics and I was just chugging out power chords as a rhythm guitarist. I showed him one of my poems, saying it might make for some good lyrics. He read them and then handed back the notebook.

“What does it mean?” he asked.

“You don’t get it?” I replied. Protip: Whenever someone shows you something and then asks this question if you request an explanation, what they mean is, “I don’t know, either.

“Uh, no,” he said frankly. I like that about him: he has always been completely frank. “It just seems like a bunch of words randomly put together.”

“Did you take into account the way they appear on the page, man?” I asked.

“Who cares?” he said.

I didn’t have an answer.

And this was what I really learned: You have to be able to answer the question, “Who cares?” Even if the answer is simply, “Me! I care!” But the truth was (and is), even I didn’t care about my dumb, one-draft-only art poems. And if I didn’t, no one else was going to care about them for me.

A little aside about that notebook: I kept it for a long, long time. Part of me had a very hard time accepting this lesson, even years after I had learned it. I have found stuff I wrote in the past, later on down the line, and thought “You know, there’s a core of something interesting here,” or “Well, at least it’s got a decent couple of phrase turns in it.” I kept thinking that if I revisited that notebook often enough, eventually I’d find it to be full of hidden insight. What I finally realized a few years ago was that the insight wasn’t coming because it wasn’t there. I threw the notebook away. Maybe someday I’ll get a new notebook and try poetry again. But when I do, it will be because it matters to someone, even if it’s just me. Until then, I need to work on making words make sense.

Lesson #4: Writing Doesn’t Better Itself

There was a semi-recent period where I was a very prolific writer. When I first started ironSoap.org, for example, I wrote every day. That was my goal: Write every day. I achieved the goal and thought riches and fame and writerly superiority would follow close at hand.

It didn’t.

I wrote on this site then in fits and starts for the next few years, always thinking that if I could just write every day I’d eventually be an amazing writer. That was how it worked, so I thought. But I found some things weren’t really clicking. It was hard to come up with stuff to write about. It was hard when I accidentally wrote something good to maintain the quality. And it was hard to stick with it.

Two days ago ironSoap.org turned ten years old. If I’d decided to have a baby instead of start a website, that child would be as old now as when I learned my first lesson on writing. And in all that time, the time I was supposed to be using to become a phenomenal writer, I’ve only learned one thing: Just writing may be the key to being a writer, but writing alone does not improve your writing. Improving writing takes effort. The word I’m reluctant to say is “work.”

I’m allergic to effort. I seriously take a pill every day to combat this allergy (some people call it “coffee”). But in the last six months I’ve started dedicating myself to improving as a writer. Little steps, that’s what I’m working to take. I read grammar sites and listen to a grammar podcast. I research tips pro writers offer (and they loooove to offer tips). I read books about writing. I read books. I edit my work (that this is novel to me should tell you a lot about my “progress” as a writer thus far). I try to stay away from the TV. I keep notes of the ideas that pop into my head (thanks, Evernote!) and I try to keep an eye out for new ideas (sometimes you have to look for them if they aren’t just landing in your lap). I think it’s working. I have more ideas than time. I’ve finished a novel, a few short stories, and I completed NaNoWriMo last month (during the busiest month at work I’ve had in probably seven years, no less) which means I have 50,000+ words in a brand new story that I’m still developing.

And, amazingly, I now write every day. Oh, I don’t do it here. Not always. It’s scattered around. Some of it I’m even keeping, because maybe it’s worth more than a jettison into the void of the Internet. As in, maybe I could sell it some day, if I put some more elbow grease into it. But don’t get all jumpity for joy on me. I’m not a success. I’m not even a decent writer yet. But what it took me 34 years to learn is that if I want this to work, I have to work for this, allergy or no. Writing ability doesn’t happen (for me; I’m not trying to tell you what you can do) by magic, but for a long time I thought it would.

I guess I thought that having a blog and keeping it updated was the magic formula for becoming a great writer. It turns out, I was wrong; it took me longer than I wish it had to realize the truth of that. The formula for being great at anything, I suspect, is to work really hard at being great and when it seems like you never will be and you want to quit, redouble your efforts instead and work even harder.

Honestly, I kind of hate this lesson.

Ten Years On

Fifteen years after learning a valuable lesson about not being lazy, I still struggle to put some work ethic into my passion. One of my best novel ideas is one that requires a mountainous amount of  research work to pull off, which has prevented me from starting on it. I still hate editing and proofreading and rewriting. But: one step at a time, because the writing doesn’t make itself better, but the writer must. On the cusp of official middle age (at least by US Census standards), I examine my life and realize that the one constant, unflagging desire throughout it has been to write. That I haven’t spent the time in pursuit of that goal particularly wisely is frustrating, I admit. But I can either waste more time moping about it, or start now.

This isn’t some “good-by and thanks for all the fish” scenario. I’m not abandoning ironSoap.org. Having a blog is a nice outlet for dropping brain emissions now and then. But even if I did close up shop, I’d be happy with the ten years in here. I think my Time Machine experiment earlier this year revealed that I didn’t output a ton of worthy content in the good ol’ days, but that’s fine. I haven’t generated much worthy content in just shy of 35 years. Ideally, the good stuff is yet to come. If you’ve been here for the last decade: Thanks. The occasional comment and complimentary (or contrarian in some cases) response has made it worthwhile. If you’re newer: Sorry I’m not one of those daily bloggers that fills your newsreader with procrastination material, but I hope you stick around.

Who knows. Maybe the best is yet to come.

Christmas Blessings

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

My family and I are incredibly blessed. I’m employed and make enough that Nik doesn’t have to work—even in the two-income-mandatory Bay Area; we have a nice place to live, money for food, clothes, and a few modern conveniences; generally we’re all more or less healthy. I like to think I’m aware of how good we have it, and hopefully I express my gratitude for our good fortune sufficiently. I clearly understand that despite it feeling sometimes like we don’t have much extra, we don’t want for much, which I suppose is excess enough.

But I do know that I’m not really all that great about giving back. I want to give back, I desire to be a more charitable person, it just feels like a challenge when there is a growing toddler who needs new clothes every few months (in spite of regular infusions from generous family members), various debts that need paying off, future plans that involve additional children and maybe someday a down payment on a house and all those other first-world, middle-class things that seem very important when you sit in front of a spreadsheet and a checkbook and wonder how it’s all going to fit together in the end. Put it this way, it’s a work in progress.

And then, at various intervals, we come to holidays like Christmas or my birthday and I clench my molars together and stare at the numbers and think about trying to fit gifts and trinkets and tchotchkes into a budget so we can experience the magic of a holiday season that is somehow left over from a childhood it’s been frankly hard to leave behind. Then I think of other families doing that same routine, staring at my name on a gift list and wondering if getting me a DVD is worth not having a zero balance on a credit card or is worth making that jacket with the hole in the elbow last another month or two. It disturbs me, a whole lot. I think about the materialism of a season that should be about anything but trinkets and gadgets and I get a little angry.

It’s not that I dislike gifts, despite what Nik may tell you. I actually love giving and receiving gifts. I love the spirit of them, in that pure and idealized way that everyone talks about when gifts go awry: “It’s the thought that counts!” True. But what thoughts are we counting? Societal pressure to reciprocate? Eeny-meeny-miney-moe from an Amazon list? Gratitude that someone cared enough to brave the shopping mobs? There’s nothing inherently evil in any of this, it’s just—icky. I don’t want anyone to feel obligation to me. I don’t need any of the gifty things people could bestow on me. I used to look at my haul at the end of the Christmas season with a childish, greedy pride (we’re not talking decades past here, we’re talking in the last few years) but slowly I’ve started looking at those material things with a sense of sadness and guilt. Why am I getting so much—and so much I don’t even need—when others have actual wants? Why am I okay with people being generous just because it’s what’s supposed to happen? And, really, is it what’s supposed to happen?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a “Jesus is the reason for the season” kind of person or not, the notion of Christmas spirit as tied to materialism and gifting is regularly scorned but scarcely actually railed against in a meaningful way. I think in part this is because the idea of Christmases we hold as treasured memories in our minds from childhood revolve around those derided ideals of mountains of gifts. We can look at them from a child’s perspective and say, “There’s nothing wrong with a kid getting a little spoiled on Christmas.” I’d agree with that to a degree, but what’s our excuse as adults, then? I’m at a loss. Something in us maybe thinks the cognitive dissonance of deciding its okay for kids to get heaps of presents but at some point you outgrow it is a bit too much to take. Then again, no one thinks its weird to age past the idea of Santa Claus (actually, don’t even get me started on that mess).

The point is, the whole scene is uncomfortable to me in a way that I can’t even fully unravel. But I’ve decided something this year, and it requires some help on your part, dear reader. I don’t want any gifts this year. I’m dead serious about this. My wishlist this year consists of nothing and I don’t mean that in the “I don’t know what I want, so whatever is fine.” I mean, “Please don’t buy me anything.” I have enough stuff. I have enough videos and games and books and gadgets. I have enough material goods. I don’t need any more and I don’t want you spending your money on me. The best gift you can give to me is to keep your money. This extends to my birthday as well. Whatever it is you think I’m going to love, I’m sure you’re right, but I don’t want you to buy it for me. Tell me about it, if you must. But I’ll make the purchasing decision on my own. I don’t want gift cards, I don’t want cash, I don’t want baked goods or promises to spend your time and talents on me. I don’t want any of those things not because I don’t appreciate it, but because that’s not what matters to me. Think of it this way, loved ones, I have almost 35 years of experience in seeing how incredibly generous and wonderful all the people in my life are, I know it full well. And I’m grateful. So very grateful. But I’m letting you off the hook this year. So please, for me, this year—make mine nothing.

Okay, alright, I know what’s coming next. Doing nothing isn’t Christmas either. Fair enough. Here’s what you can do for me, if you insist. I’m talking to you die-hard Christmasers, here, you know who you are. The ones who can’t let it go, who think you’ll be betraying the very spirit of the season itself if you let me get away with this holiday void. Here’s what you can do for me: Send me an email and tell me one short story about something that happened this past year that made you feel blessed. Don’t go nuts, I’m not looking for a dissertation. Just a quick note. “I felt blessed this year because I was able to lose ten pounds,” or “I felt blessed this year because my kid gave me a hug and said, ‘thank you’ after their birthday party.” Tell me about the time you found a job after looking for months. Tell me how a friend came over to feed your dog while you were on vacation and cleaned your house for you, too. Tell me how you finally dinged level 85 in World of Warcraft, I don’t care, whatever it is, however you want to describe it. That’s what I want. Also, if you can tell me whether or not you mind if I repost your story and, if I can, whether you want your name attributed to it. Because if I get enough of these, I’ll collect them into a big blog post and put them up here after Christmas Day. Maybe it will make everyone feel that Christmas spirit a little without any of that icky materialism getting in the way.

Now, if you insist—if you absolutely cannot be swayed and are about to have a conniption if you can’t spend your money on something for me, here’s what I need you to do. Step away from the retail outlets, look away from the online stores and find a charity. Any charity will do, although if you want it to be something that is important to me: Children’s Hospitals, programs that focus on providing basic needs for children in poor countries and charities that use technology in clever ways to help those in need are the kinds I look to first. Then take whatever amount of money you were going to spend on some doo-dad for me and give it to that charity instead. Please don’t bring my name into it. I don’t need the donation to be made on my behalf, just make the donation. You don’t even have to tell me about it, although you can if you want. Please note this option is only for those who insist on making money a part of the holiday. What I really, really want? Those stories. Or nothing.

I’ve talked about this with Nik as well and she’s completely on board with the same routine. That means neither of us want anything this year, because we both feel we have plenty. But she does like the stories idea so you can forward your stories to her as well as me (same permission to post applies) and the email address provided below goes to both of us. If you want to share a story just for her, use her Facebook page or use ncfollett -at- ironsoap.org.

You can send stories using the following methods:

Email: hamilton@ironsoap.org (this goes to both Nik and I).
Facebook Message: http://www.facebook.com/ironsoap or http://www.facebook.com/mrs.ironsoap
Twitter Direct Message (if you’re into pithiness): @ironsoap
Or leave a comment below (this implies permission to post).

Or, of course, if you’re a Christmas card type of person, you could also include your tale of thankfulness in your card, as well.

Reading Analysis

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

I’m trying to read more. I think I mentioned this earlier, but it’s on my mind lately so I thought I’d expand on it a little. Most of my time is spent working or with my family. These are good things, reflective of my overall good fortune. These are things I want to do. But they are both also obligatory, necessary parts of a daily routine. When those things aren’t occupying my immediate present I have a long list of other things I am required to do such as chores, exercise, and various responsible-adult activities. Once those are out of the way enough for me to do something else, I try to carve out enough time for me to write a bit. Writing is semi-obligatory; it’s work that is not mandated by anything other than a sense of responsibility to my own passion for it and my hope that if I don’t let it stop it may eventually open a door for me somewhere down the road. Writing is fun but it is still work.

The tiny sliver of time left over is my leisure time. I have another long list of things I like to do with that time. Video games. Watching movies. Painting miniatures. Drawing pictures. Playing board games. Televised sports. And reading books. Of those activities, the only one that doesn’t carry with it any sense of guilt that I might be spending my time better is reading. There’s a hierarchy in there that I don’t fully understand, based on precisely nothing, such as feeling like video games are at the bottom of the list because they are largely solitary and demand a huge amount of time and money; board games are closer to books because they typically require social interaction but they do take a lot of time; movies are preferable to TV for some reason; and so on. Regardless of validity, I feel that I could do a lot worse with my idle hours than reading. Thankfully, I love reading and a couple of recent adjustments to the way I read has allowed me to finish a lot more books even with the limited time I have.

Before I even thought about it much, I was the kind of person who started a lot of books. If you asked me five years ago what I was reading I’d have a list of probably five to ten books I was “in the middle of.” I also felt that if I started a book, I ought to finish it. The simple change I made was to stop reading more than one (or really two, which I’ll get to in a second) book at a time. In order to do that, though, I needed to learn how to say “no” to a book that wasn’t working for me.

I have this tendency to read books sometimes that I feel like I ought to read, books that I should be able to say I finished. So from time to time I’ll pick up some stuffy classic or some heady nonfiction work and get about 25 pages in and set it down. “I’ll finish this later,” I’ll say. The multi-book approach works because when I set that book down and pick up another, I can say (to myself, mostly) that I’m reading both. This is, of course, fairly silly since you can’t effectively read two books at the same time. But if I don’t admit defeat on a book, I can perhaps not say when asked that I finished whatever book it is, but I can say “Oh, I’m in the middle of that.” That is often not really truthful. I told people I was “in the middle” of Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” for something like five or six years. Much of the time I was not reading it at all and I worked through it in bursts of about 30 pages before the dry style exhausted me. What I’ve learned is that if a book doesn’t work for me when I first try it, I need to set it aside and admit, “I’m not going to read this right now,” then pick up something else. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever read the book—I did eventually finish No Logo—it just means that thinking of myself as being in the middle of a lot of books mostly just means I haven’t found one I’m interested in actually reading to the end.

The other facet is really still in progress, but it involves trying to get past that same notion of reading things I should read as opposed to things I want to read. In my head, I read a broad range of books. I want to consider myself well-read, versed in a broad array of topics and capable of finding fascination in any number of styles, subjects and perspectives. In reality, I struggle more than I’d like with certain classic literature and there are some topics that are interesting but the books I’ve tried about them aren’t. When I’m reading for fun, I have to accept that I len heavily on novels. And a lot of those novels aren’t exactly the kinds of novels you’d be proud to have read. I’m talking about licensed World of Warcraft novels or perhaps airport dimestore paperback thrillers (I admit I’ve read most of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s body of work). So yeah, some of what I enjoy is a bit trashy but the way I see it, the trashiest thriller novel is still better for me to spend my time on than even the most cerebral television drama. For one thing, it helps sharpen my writing to read what others are doing with language, pacing, structure and character development regardless of their literary proficiency. For another, it requires at least some imagination to conjure the images in the book which is probably why snooty intellectuals never sniff at people to “go watch some TV” and though they may roll their eyes if you follow their advice to “go read a book” by grabbing the latest Dan Brown novel or a Harry Potter volume, I’m sure they’d grudgingly admit that it was better than the alternative.

What I’m slowly finding is that if I’m willing to give up on a book because it just isn’t working, and if I’m willing to try stuff I might not be drawn to because I’m not afraid of it being something I’m stuck with for the next several months or years as I torturously drag my way through it, I end up finding things I didn’t expect to enjoy. I didn’t think, for example, that I’d be particularly fond of a travel book by Bill Bryson. It ended up being one of my all-time favorites. I wasn’t sure I was going to like Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett, but I enjoyed it quite a bit and found it was an easy read. And I’m secretly proud of myself for having read each, because I learned something from both. They can hardly be considered trash.

So the curious thing is that by not reading a lot of books at once I find I actually read (as in finish) a lot more books and by not worrying so much about the cachet of my selections, I actually end up reading some pretty impressive stuff. It took me a while to get to this point and I may look back a few months further on and sneer at my current rube status. But for the time being I feel happy with the fact that I’m reading a lot and that I’m not missing much of the other things I used to spend way more time doing instead. And I’ve discovered that if you put your mind to it, you can find more time for reading in a day than you might think. For example, I mentioned before that I only read one book at a time but the truth is really that I read two at a time now only one is an audiobook I keep in my car. I only get to listen to maybe three or at the most five hours worth of it per week, but it’s easier and better at keeping me awake during the commute than radio or podcasts and I get to slowly pick away at a second book while I read the one I keep in my backpack. Since I can’t otherwise read when I drive and I can’t listen to the audiobook easily elsewhere, there is no conflict.

There are a couple of other small factors that have played a role in my reading resurgence. One is definitely Goodreads. I’m a stats junkie so being able to track my reading progress the way I track my music listening with Last.fm or my exercise with LoseIt is just something that clicks with me and motivates me. I used to do the same thing with Achievements on XBox Live or World of Warcraft so it feels kind of game-like. It also encourages me to write reviews of the books I read which aids me in considering what I read, something I think is important especially if I’m using the reading as a means of improving my own writing. The other is the Kindle Nik got me for Father’s Day this year. I’m not sure why it is, but I seem to read books much faster on the Kindle. I don’t use it for everything I read, but I look for deals on books I have on my to-read list and usually when I’m thinking about buying a new book (that is, one that I couldn’t get from the library or a used bookshop) I check for the Kindle edition first since it usually saves some money.

So in honor of all this reading I decided to go back and do a bit of analysis, just for fun, on the books I’ve read since about mid-2009 when I first started tracking on Goodreads. There are some gaps and missing books in there because as with all stats tracking and/or social media sites it takes me a while to get into the habit of using them, but it’s a pretty good representation of my reading activity for about two and a half years.

  • Total Books Read (May 2009 – October 2011): 50
    • 2009: 7
    • 2010: 21
    • 2011: 22
  • Genre Breakdown (some overlap in sub-genres may occur so don’t look for numbers to add up)
    • Nonfiction: 10
    • Fiction: 40
      • Mystery: 10
      • Fantasy: 9
      • Young Adult: 9
      • Science Fiction: 7
      • Zombies: 3
      • Graphic Novel: 3
  • Reading Time (I didn’t track start dates on every book so these numbers are very rough)
    • Average Time To Finish a Book: 10 days
    • Books I Read Fastest:
      • Death Match (416 pages; 2 days)
      • The Hunger Games (374 pages; 2 days)
      • Food Rules (140 pages; 1 day)
      • The Time Machine (128 pages; 1 day)
    • Books I Read Slowest:
      • The Zombie Survival Guide (254 pages; 69 days)
      • This Book Is Overdue (272 pages; 19 days)
      • Dune (512 pages; 33 days)
      • Devil In The White City (447 pages; 16 days)
  • Ratings
In this exercise I counted the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels as one single graphic novel because even though they are actually six volumes, it’s one continuous story and frankly it would feel like padding to say I read six books when there is so little content in each. I also read Chronicles of War which is a World of Warcraft anthology containing four separate books reprinted together in a single volume so I counted those individually as four books with four separate ratings. When calculating the average time to read a book I threw out any book that I didn’t have a definite timeframe for which significantly disqualified a couple of books that I started a year or more before I actually finished them like No Logo. But I think the 10 days book is pretty accurate provided I’m actually interested in and/or enjoying the book.
Interestingly, that suggests I should be able to get through nearly forty books a year and I set my goal for 2011 at 30 which I think is reasonable when you account for the odd anomaly like Dune (which I liked but wasn’t the most breezy of novels) and various times when other things slow down your progress. I’m not quite on pace to reach my goal this year, even at my average pace (at exactly 10 days per book I’d get up to about 29.5 books before December 31st). Then again, I set the goal in August or something without really calculating anything so it’s sort of arbitrary anyway. I suspect if I went for 30 again in 2012 and started from the beginning I could do it without much trouble.

A Follow Up Note

They are replacing my sine wave carpeting with something… else. I’m sort of sad.
Sayonara, Sine

Books, A List

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

I saw that in honor of World Book Night 2012, the WBN site is performing a sort of democratic top 100 books list where you choose you 10 favorite books and the votes are all tabulated to create the master list based on popularity. It’s probably nothing new, but I like that instead of “Editor’s Choice” style top X lists that, at best, include a small sample size reader’s poll alongside the “real” list, this one is all audience-based.

I contributed but the more I looked at my list the more intrigued I was about what it said about me that these were the top 10 books I picked. Naturally everyone is going to bring their own criteria to such an undertaking which is partially why it’s interesting at all, but my selection method was that I went for books that I felt had some sort of actual impact on my life or my perspectives and—this is critical—that each was a book I liked enough to read again. Maybe for chronic re-readers that doesn’t sound like much of a narrowing factor but I hardly ever re-read books. My thought is, there are so many books out there I haven’t read yet, I’d rather try something different than revisit one. Even one I loved the first time through.

Curiously I think this also means that some books I didn’t think I cared for at the time I may enjoy now; or that books I really liked once upon an idle hour wouldn’t stand the test of time. Still, if I have re-read or would actually consider re-reading a book, it must have stuck out to me as particularly noteworthy so it helped to narrow down a lengthy list of possibilities. I’m annotating the list here because as I mentioned I think this list seems to reflect a bit about me and perhaps my rationales enhance that reflection. As an aside, you can also view this list as “Top 10 Topics of Conversation With Paul (Provided You Don’t Care That He Never Shuts Up).” Also, these are in order (as best as I can remember) that I read the books, oldest to newest.

  • 1984 – George Orwell
    I read Orwell’s oft-cited dystopian nightmare in high school and despite having the haunting closing line spoiled for me with less than 25 pages left to go, it struck me as the rare kind of novel that I appreciated even at the time for its instructive value but also that such pointed social critiques and cautionary imagery could be incorporated into an otherwise interesting story. It was the first time I think that I truly grasped what fiction could do. Also, practically every human on this planet needs this book as a reference point or you’re unlikely to ever understand any serious debate about a government, privacy, liberty or the future.
  •  Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
    I’ve always thought of myself as a science fiction kind of guy, but when I was younger I think it was mostly just because I liked Star Wars and Buck Rogers and Metroid. Ender’s Game is kind of entry-level SF, but when I read it as a 19 year-old working at a mall bookstore, it cemented in my mind exactly why SF is awesome. Someone too clever for their own good pointed out that Ender’s Game appeals to nerds everywhere by being the geeky underdog equivalent of a fairy princess story to chubby little girls, and that’s true, but EG still has all the things that SF novels need to be great: A world you wish you could visit, a protagonist you can’t help but love, more than a few “neat ideas,” a sense of order and justice that appeals to those struggling with the genuine uncertainties of real life and an ending that is exactly right.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
    Honestly, I had no idea that narrative fiction could be truly funny until I read HGttG. I knew people could be funny in their writing because my dad used to get a lot of Dave Barry books that would get genuine LOLs, but the idea of being funny for reasons other than just comedy didn’t occur to me until I found Douglas Adams (also while working at that bookstore). This is one of those that I have read several times, and it’s still hilarious even when you’re prepared for the jokes. What I didn’t remember until after re-reading it a few years ago was that the story hidden in the absurdity is actually good, too. I’m not sure if the jokes or the story could exist apart from each other, but then again, I’m glad they don’t have to.
  •  Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson
    Right after I got married (12 years ago, yikes), I went on a journey into the heart of geek culture. As the Internet was exploding into popular consciousness, I was diving into the thought processes of the kinds of people who had started laying the groudwork for it (literally and conceptually) years before. As part of that nerd event horizon, I began to read books recommended by the kinds of people who wrote code that made the Internet function. I’m not talking about guys who started Google or Amazon, I’m talking about the guys who wrote the HTTP specification, who were instrumental in developing DNS. Those kinds of guys. Anyway, one recommendation that kept coming up was Snow Crash.
    Truthfully, I can’t tell if I love this book to death or hate it with a fiery passion. There are so many awesome ideas packed into it, even Stephenson himself couldn’t keep them contained. When you get within about 50 pages of the end and there are still amazing revelations coming that can’t possibly be fully explored in the remainder of the novel, you’re in for heartbreak. And the heartbreak is entirely Snow Crash’s end: Both that the ending is somewhat disappointing but also that it has to end at all. It’s not just great science fiction, it’s also funny, thoughtful, provocative and prescient literature. Read Stephenson’s description of the Metaverse, written in 1992, and then think about social MMOs like Second Life and, to an extent, Facebook and Twitter. You’ll see what I mean.
  •  Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut
    I read Slaughter-house Five in high school and thought it was pretty interesting but it wasn’t until I was a know-it-all aspiring bohemian twenty-something that I could finally get a real sense of the fatalism and the defense mechanism of wry humor in the face of life’s ceaseless absurdity that Vonnegut lampoons. I honestly don’t remember many specifics about BoC, but I know that it colored my whole perception (and, you can ask Nik for verification, made me an absolute pain in the neck to live with for the next couple of months as I cynically dissected all of modern society with what passes for my own meager wit). I only let myself read Vonnegut once every five years or so, just so I don’t become completely insufferable to everyone around me in a permanent sense. BoC stands out as the first time I felt like I really heard another person’s perspective on life and truly understood how someone who wasn’t me saw the world.
  • Watchmen – Alan Moore
    It seems almost trite to say Watchmen is one of my favorite books. I always liked comics and superheroes, but like so many other things, I never considered that kind of story could elevate into art and not just effective but valuable social critique. It goes beyond even being remarkable for being, essentially, literature in graphic novel form. The depths and layers of story that happen in this volume are like a self-contained class in genre deconstruction, multi-tiered storytelling and pacing. Here’s the true genius of Watchmen: Even without the poignancy, the emotional depth, the allegory, the social commentary, you’d still have a remarkably complete and well-crafted superhero story. What makes Watchmen great is that even without the parts that make it so great, it’s still great. The movie was okay, but I don’t know that it was ever something that was going to make the leap to another medium fully intact. It would be like a Watchmen novel: Ultimately, it kind of misses the point.
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
    Where Vonnegut first made me see the world from someone else’s perspective, Thompson in Fear and Loathing was first to show me that the more perspectives you have, the more you need just to hope to make sense of anything. Thompson also revealed to me that breaking rules, while never without consequence, is sometimes just the right thing to do. And Fear and Loathing gleefully destroys every rule it encounters: Thompson’s drug-addled prose flips a very considered bird to narrative structure and organization while also sneering derisively at the pretense of unfiltered stream-of-(altered)-consciousness; the descriptions of wanton recklessness, lawlessness and only the barest of perfunctory nods at responsibility and duty not to mention the way the novel revels in the dirty corners were all eye-opening. Those dirty corners aren’t just physical places, the dank mildews of seedy hotels and dusty niche sports, but also societal corners as far removed from proper civilization as can be. Fear and Loathing reminded me that books can be dangerous things, in the best possible sense.
  • Neither Here, Nor There – Bill Bryson
    A few years ago when I read this book I was operating under the following false impressions: One; non-fiction books were always dull. Two; travel books were for suckers who couldn’t afford to travel themselves. Three; examining facts is the most efficient way of  learning. Bill Bryson demolished all those impressions in one single volume. Neither Here, Nor There is lively, funny, artistic, educational and a worthy read regardless of personal travel experience. True, the book makes one desperately want to visit Europe (I would assume an effective travel book would do nothing less than inspire one to visit its subject) but Bryson goes well beyond that and details the purpose of travel, showing the necessity of broad horizons and experimentation outside the confines of pre-packaged tours. Bryson’s theory of travel seems to be “show up, try to blend.” He visits museums and landmarks and such sometimes, but about as much as a local might. Mostly he tries to get a sense of a place, to contextualize its history with its present and to think about what it means to him and how his presence in that particular spot is significant. The truth, it seems, is that wherever you are is always significant.
  • Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
    This is the book, when I read it earlier this year, that finally kicked me into gear to try in a serious way to write myself. Nabokov’s loathsome protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is drawn incredibly by Nabokov through nothing more than the power of his beautiful, poetic prose as inexplicably sympathetic. This is an astounding feat because neither Nabokov nor the narrating Humbert shies away from his detestable nature or actions. Neither are proud nor defensive of the monster that is Humbert and yet Nabokov is able to reveal the human beneath the cur and the result is astounding. Nabokov writing in his non-native English is a technical wizard, enviable in his seeming casual ability to paint a vivid portrait of a scene, a feeling, a subtlety in such a way as to be both beautiful and horrible by turns, or simultaneously. This is a writer’s book that showcases what writing can do and, for me, just makes me want to practice and practice until I come into the same zip code as the word-craft on display here.
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – Raymond Carver
    This is a book I read only very recently and while the few forays into Hemingway I’ve undertaken have never given me a true appreciation for minimalism (go ahead and laugh now, longtime readers), Carver finally did it for me. Carver’s ability to say volumes by specifically not saying something is wondrous to behold and his peculiarly dry, grim view of people, relationships and really the world at large are served so well by his genuflection to the reader’s ability to fill in the gaps. Some of the stories in this collection are fragments, barely qualifying as stories at all and yet the snapshots they create are in many ways like art: A single photo or painting can’t always execute a narrative but then they don’t need to. Carver’s writing is like the accompaniment to those captured moments and I learned from this book about the power of brevity.
    And yes, I can still hear you laughing.
So that’s my list. Like I said, I think it’s an interesting reflection of my own personality in a way: Lots of dark perspectives, lots of humor, lots of the fantastic. I did have to prune a few to make it to an even ten so here’s my short list of honorable mentions, just to round it out a little. These are in no particular order.
  • Blue Like Jazz – Donald Miller
    No other book before or since has permitted me to make huge leaps in my ability to reconcile my often conflicted thoughts on human spirituality and the role of God in our lives. Donald Miller’s introspective, often rambling account of his own spiritual journey is honest-to-a-fault, funny, insightful and in many ways beautiful. He actually helped me understand the very terrestrial nature of jazz music as well, and solidify the notion of altruism and how it can be practically applied. BLJ didn’t quite make the cut mostly because I don’t know that I would feel the need to read it again but it may be telling that I vividly remember long passages from this book better than some of the others that appear above. A great book regardless of its status in my top ten and one I’d recommend to just about everybody (regardless of spiritual orientation).
  • Moneyball – Michael Lewis
    Even though I’m a born and bred San Francisco Giants fan, I don’t have the sort of juvenile loathing of the across-the-Bay American Leaguers that are the Oakland Athletics some do. Unless they’re facing the Giants in the World Series, I guess. Anyway, I never really followed the A’s that closely but I paid enough attention that it was kind of cool to read a behind-the-scenes book about them. Then about 1/3 of the way through I realized Moneyball isn’t about the A’s or even really about baseball. It’s about solving problems that people think already have solutions. It’s about not accepting that closed systems have to remain closed. It’s about not listening to the old guard just because they exist. Moneyball is a well-written, strangely exciting book for what amounts to a pseudo-biography of an otherwise unknown ballplayer who did nothing more than keep a perennially underfunded ball club competitive just by thinking outside the box (scores). Moneyball barely missed the cut just because, like any moment-in-time nonfiction book, the real-life epilogue was so much more disappointing than the book’s finale.
  • Where The Red Fern Grows – Wilson Rawls
    I read this book in fifth or sixth grade and to date it is the only book that has ever made me have to put it down because I couldn’t keep reading through the tears. I’m not sure what it says about me that the death of two dogs moved me to tears where even the most emotional demise of a human in other books could not, but I know it says in part that this is a beautiful account of the relationship between best friends. Rawls’ tale of Billy, Old Dan and Little Ann and their raccoon hunting adventures is poignant, poetic and obviously more than a little sad. I left it off the master list because it’s one of those that I don’t know if I want to revisit not because of how it affected me the first time but because I’m afraid it won’t stand up. I kind of want my one truly emotional connection to remain untarnished by my now-adult’s viewpoint and that kind of disqualifies it from the list on a technicality.
  • The Odessa File – Frederick Forsyth
    Somehow I managed to get assigned this book in high school and was delighted to find that in spite of most assigned reading books being dull and plodding, this was a modern thriller with a spectacularly cool hero, a riveting mystery of a plot and, you know, Nazis. This is one book that fell off the list because I actually did go back and re-read it, fairly recently, and found that while it was still pretty good it wasn’t as devastatingly brilliant as I recalled it. I guess context was everything and while I still find no true fault with the novel, my memory elevated it beyond its status as just a really good thriller into this kind of idealized adventure. In truth, it’s more like The Da Vinci Code, if The Da Vinci Code was written by someone with a working command of creative writing skill.
So, what’s your favorite book of all time?

Time Machine: Birthday Bash, Home Office Feng Shui

Monday, September 19th, 2011

Originally posted March 10, 2002.

Birthdays for the Clinically Insane

Try to follow along: My wife’s stepmother’s stepfather had his 62nd birthday party today, which we attended. It was a pretty interesting event, mostly because Nikki’s dad has a pretty small house and there were a lot of people there. I’m not even going to try to go over the roll call. Trust me, there were more people there than most of us felt comfortable with. The catch phrase of the afternoon was “Oops. Can I get by you?

The truth is, I feel out of place at most family gatherings… including those for my own family. I am convinced this is a problem with me, and not gatherings or anyone’s family. But I felt a little more out of place because I knew that even Nikki wasn’t terribly familiar with this side of the family. Of course, they were all perfectly nice, but there’s just something odd about spending an afternoon with people whom you could easily go your whole life never even being aware that you had a distant familial connection with and be no better or worse off for.

A good example is Denny (Nikki’s stepmother’s stepfather, the one with the birthday, remember?) has a couple of sons who were there. Both of them were extremely nice, and the oldest had his wife with him. This is a woman that if I met under different circumstances (which isn’t actually completely unlikely, she’s a database architect in The City, which means I could bump in to her later in my career) I would have no idea whatsoever had any kind of distant relation to, through step-families and several layers of marriage. It’s people like this who are precisely strangers to me and yet I spend time with while people only slightly more closely related to me offer helpful “ice-breaker” commentary like “Paul’s a big computer guy, too!”

I know people have good intentions and in fact I appreciate the effort. It’s just a part of married life I haven’t gotten used to… It’s a feeling I can best describe as if everyone were trying to force me into their families with a giant human-sized shoehorn. It’s not that I don’t want to fit in, I just feel like saying, “Look, I’m an outsider, and everyone here knows it. I’m okay with that, and you should be too. Can’t we all just start shoving food in our faces to break the uncomfortable silences like real families do?” But somehow I feel like I might get kicked by my wife under the table for saying that right out loud. Instead I just hope everyone follows my lead.

Re-Arranging Furniture at 11:00 PM

The Computer Room, as my wife and I call it, was a disaster zone. This is where I spend the majority of my time and it was completely uncomfortable.

I have a nice computer desk with an overhead bookshelf, sliding file drawer, built-in tower hutch and CD rack. But I also have four computers, not counting Nikki’s. When it was just the Linux box and the Windows box plus the laptop and webserver, it wasn’t so bad. The laptop fits away nicely in a corner and the webserver wasn’t ever really suitable for everyday use anyway. Plus I didn’t need a monitor to work with it, I just ssh to it and administer it remotely. Finally I moved the webserver to ColoQ and was down to three, which was fine. Then I got the Mac, and for the first night I had it on a very low shelf that used to be our entertainment unit, but has since been used as a fax machine stand.

The fax machine got the floor but there was absolutely no comfortable way to use the Mac while sitting in a chair designed for adult human beings. But, I wasn’t going to complain. I had, after all, brought this on myself by accepting the offer to take the G3 and I didn’t want to suffer my wife with tales of woe about the computer room when it was 90% devoted to my junk anyway. Then she made the mistake of complaining about the set up.

She sat directly to my left, with her computer, a printer and scanner set up on a monstrous cast-iron desk I inherited from my parents when they moved. The desk is so old that it’s been dropped down a flight of stairs without any discernible damage, and it actually weighs more with the drawers removed. It is a huge pain to move, but it holds a load of equipment comfortably so I keep it around. But Nikki isn’t a fan of it because it’s too high for her 5’3″ frame to sit and type at comfortably and she got tired of me reading over her shoulder, which was easy since I could just turn my head and see what she was doing.

So a trip to Wal-Mart later we had a new some-assembly-required desk for her and a vague plan to rearrange the whole room. Unfortunately we started the project at about 9:00 PM so it was well into the night while I was banging with hammers and snapping measuring tape. Plus the grunting and dropping of computer equipment, yelling and slamming after getting shocked from the power outlet trying to plug in the 20 or 30 cords in the room and of course, the near-constant exasperated shouts at the cat, who was intent on exploring the insides of the cardboard box the desk came in.

I would have worried about our neighbors, but these are the people who I swear have built a Jai-Alai court directly above my side of the bed. At any rate we ended up with it so that the Mac is now on the cast-iron behemoth, along with the fax machine and the laptop. Nikki is now behind me when I’m working on the regular computer desk, so I can’t peer over her shoulder anymore without significant effort, which if history is any indication means I won’t be peering over her shoulder at all. She seems much happier.

Ah, social awkwardness. I spent a lot of my least socially awkward times—and I’m referring to times when I didn’t personally feel awkward, mind you—in high school. The distinction between then and now is that I was awkward and spent a lot of that time saying and doing incredibly stupid things, things which my brain loves to recall now every time I encounter some new person or some new collection of people, but at the time I was oblivious. With the mixed blessing of enlightenment at how dumb I can sound and act, I now paralyze myself into a minimal interaction mode which is, in itself, stupid and awkward. I often come across as aloof, sour, boring or irritable. I actually am all of those things, but I’m so afraid that people will judge me as being over-earnest, saccharine, insufferable or annoying (which I am as well, only I inflict those particular traits on the select few I’ve decided to be comfortable with), I go too far.

About a year ago I wrote this entry in response to a series of encounters at a funeral. What I was trying to say then was that, remembering a man who was outgoing and friendly, who took the time to care about other people, I realized that my issues in social situations were products of my own devise (way to make it about you, man!—I know, I know). I don’t think I care what people judge me to be, except that I judge myself first which is the same, at least in essence. I don’t want to be an annoying guy, telling myself, “I hate annoying guys who don’t have any interesting stories to tell!” Then I realize I don’t have any interesting stories to tell so I decide I won’t even tell an un-interesting one and in fact I won’t say anything at all. I’ve lost friends because I second-guess myself into knots like this and let distances grow where, perhaps, they didn’t need to. I wanted to say last year that I decided to just get over myself, to stop worrying about it so much. Turns out, it’s not as easy as all that. But I’m trying.With patience and help from Nik, who is everything in social situations that I wish I could be, I’m making an effort.

What I get from the entry back in 2002 is that I spend too much time over-thinking the nature of interactions. Does it matter in the least that I’m in a room with a perfect stranger under the auspice of a family gathering? Of course not. When people try to assist in breaking the ice with comments about shared professional work, that’s a gift they’re trying to give me. “Here,” they’re saying, “you really suck at this, so let me get the ball rolling for you. Maybe you’ll actually make a friend.” Instead of being grateful I go on a tirade about how weird it is to be talking to the person in the first place. And, of course, not making a friend.

Oh, and for the record, we don’t have any of those three desks I talked about anymore. In fact, the notion of a desktop computer for anything other than gaming or specific professional applications seems a little quaint to me now. Ah, progress.

The Prefix Pre

Friday, August 12th, 2011

I want to talk about language a little bit because I’ve been listening to a lot of writer-oriented podcasts lately, and some of them are even more language-focused than strictly writing. A few of my current favorites are A Way With Words, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips For Better Writing (also known shorthand as just “Grammar Girl”), and Writing Excuses. I could probably wax philosophical about each of these podcasts for paragraphs but suffice to say that if you have any interest in writing or language at all, you ought to give these a chance. Writing Excuses and Grammar Girl especially are very short by the standards of many podcasts I would listen to if I had the kind of time they demand (most gaming podcasts are 2+ hours per week), Writing Excuses aims for 15 minutes and Grammar Girl’s are rarely over ten. A Way With Words is an hour-long public radio show but it’s good enough to devote the time to if you like learning about etymology, quirks of language, regional dialects, grammar debates and so on.

It’s interesting to me that in spite of English always being my favorite subject in school and it typically being the topic I was most measurably successful with, I didn’t really pick up a lot of the technical, mechanical bits of English. If you think about it, English as taught in high school when I was there (like 15 years ago—gah) was really a combination of three distinct subjects: Writing (sometimes creative writing), grammar, and literature. Each component could be—perhaps ought to be—taught individually, but I presume for the sake of time they’re rolled together. The problem is that literature and writing take up so much time in an already cramped coursework schedule because you have to read the books, discuss them in class and then write about them. Often it seemed grammar and language mechanics got pushed aside. For example, I don’t recall ever learning that the the -ing noun form of a verb is called a “gerund.” Actually, when Grammar Girl mentioned it, the word rang familiar but I couldn’t have pulled the meaning out of my head with the jaws of life.

The more I listen up on these topics the more I realize that any success I’ve had with English has been an accident of practice and a head for words. That’s a thing, right? People say someone has a “head for numbers” all the time. It makes sense that someone could have a “head for words” and be able to string them together in aesthetically pleasing ways now and then even if they had no clue of the underlying mechanisms they employed. And that’s what I’m finding: Learning about language, I see things that I instinctively do trip up other aspiring writers, typically people much smarter than I. Not that I’m some writing savant, mind, but I’ve come to understand that when people say I wrote something well they unwittingly mean that I accidentally stumbled upon a sequence of words that did what I intended, as opposed to I worked really hard and applied a lot of comprehension to crafting a thought in writing. I feel almost badly about that because I haven’t worked very hard at understanding this writing thing (this from a guy who has been wandering around since he was ten proclaiming he wanted to be a writer).

Point being, I’m trying to learn and actually understand what I’m doing. I figure the worst outcome is that I understand what makes me a crummy writer and best case I get better and, maybe someday, I cause less stress-induced headaches for some editor somewhere.

But all this cramming of wordplay and grammatical information into my head also sends my head spinning into controversy mode and I start to dissect certain language-based pet peeves. One that I have was passed down from my dad, which is the use of the prefix “pre-” as a synonym for “previously.” Its most common application is in the word (which is seemingly universally accepted by dictionary writers as being legitimate) “pre-owned,” referring to a used car. You can also find words like “pre-built,” “pre-assembled,” “pre-filled,” or “pre-screened.” For the most part, you would know what these meant but if you think about it, they’re kind of pointless expressions, and it took a deeper understanding on my part of what the grammatical principles were to understand why I felt that way.

Consider for a moment the term “pre-existing.” The definition for the prefix “pre” is one of two things: Before, as in space (prefix itself, because it refers to a segment of the word ahead of the root) and before, as in time (pre-game, for example as it refers to the time prior to a game). Pre-existing then refers to time: Something that existed before the time in question (often contextualized as the time before applying for insurance and coupled with “condition” meaning a medical condition that existed before the insurance application was submitted). Using “pre-” on a noun, even a gerund, makes sense because it suggests either the time before the noun’s reference point or a space in front of the noun’s object’s space.

But using a prefix like “pre-” on a past tense verb is weird. Using the pet peeve example of “pre-owned” is ambiguous at best. Do we mean before in time? Usually, but my dad has a point when he says technically pre-owned could refer to any time prior to ownership which would really make the phrase refer to new cars: Cars that have never been owned (literally before owned). We don’t usually indicate “pre-” to mean “already” when referring to the time aspect of the prefix, otherwise pre-game would suggest a game that had already been played. Thus, pre-built means something that isn’t built at all and something that is pre-filled is actually empty. We don’t want to use phrasing that suggests a possible synonym when we want the antonym, it creates unnecessary confusion.

Now, a case could be made that the “pre-” in pre-owned refers to space, as if you were lining up owners chronologically and the one before the current was the pre-owner. I guess that’s semi-valid except that hypothetical line doesn’t actually exist anywhere and since we’re actually talking about the car and not the person who owned it we would then have to adjust the word to “pre-ownered” which is just silly because “ownered” isn’t a word at all.

What I think moves this from a mild curiosity into a full fledged peeve is that it’s wholly unnecessary because there are perfectly legitimate, unambiguous words already in existence that mean exactly what is intended, and usually we can just use the root verb to mean whatever the “pre-” is supposed to convey: An item that requires no further assembly isn’t “pre-assembled,” it’s simply assembled. Something isn’t pre-screened, when you get it, it’s merely screened. That’s the beauty of past tense verbs, they already include the temporal clue suggesting past action. Now, pre-owned is a little different because owned has a particular connotation in the context it appears most frequently: No car dealership for example would want to advertise that it was selling “owned cars.” It’s not inaccurate, but it gives the impression they’re running a stolen car store. The fix is simple enough by just saying what they meant all along: “previously owned.”

My opinion is that the “pre-” prefix in front of past tense verbs should be considered ungrammatical. Can anyone think of an example where “pre-” in front of a past tense verb actually clarifies the meaning? I’m interested to know if this bugs anyone else.

The Case of the Too-Good Photograph

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Callie turned two about a week ago and though I’ve been somewhat slack in keeping up with regular picture-taking of her with my good camera (I’m much better at capturing her with my phone, a device I’ve come to think of as my point-and-shoot), I did take the time before we took her to the zoo as part of her celebration day to snap a few shots of her in her very cute sailor outfit purchased by Nik specifically for the occasion. It came with a miniature version of the same dress, I suppose intended to be used on a doll, which we put on her favorite teddy bear.

As a side note, the teddy bear is named B.B., which stands for “Bear’s Bear.” We kind of cribbed a pet name for Calliope from my brother and sister-in-law who called my nephew “Joel Bear” when he was a baby; the context felt a little different when we began to use the term “Callie Bear” because it’s connotation seemed more synonymous with the sonically similar “Teddy Bear,” notably soft and innocent and sweet. “Joel Bear” was more boyish to my ears, highlighting his rolly-polly humor and conveying what I can best describe as a playful growl. At least that’s what they meant to me, although I did (and still do) feel a little twinge of guilt in using the moniker—not that even Scott and Sara’s usage was particularly novel—because I never wanted them to think we were copying intentionally, it was just one of those things that stuck, like when we were kids and we used to call the family dog (nee Sparky) “Stupid,” because it fit better than his actual name. Not that Joel and Callie are stupid! I’m digging a hole here. The point is, we’d often shorten “Callie Bear” to simply, “Bear.” Hence, “Bear’s Bear” or B.B. As with most very young sounding terms of endearment, I notice that Joel doesn’t get called “Joel Bear” all that often and even “Callie Bear” is starting to phase out of favor as she enters toddlerhood.

Pardon my digress. Anyway, of the lot of perhaps 15 photos I got before Callie lost interest, a couple were possibly usable but one was clearly the best of the bunch:

Happy Birthday!

Now, it’s not stellar. I forgot to comb her hair so I had to crop the picture closely and add a black halo to the image to hide the flyaway hairs, which also served to mask the fact that the top of the chair she’s sitting in was pretty obviously in need of a good dusting. But I fiddled with it a bit in iPhoto (man, I miss Photoshop!) and it came out pretty good. Mostly it works because Callie is incredibly photogenic, when she chooses to be, and she was downright cooperative that morning. I posted the picture on Flickr, linked to it on Facebook and we carried on with the rest of the day.

Nik, unsurprisingly, loved the picture. She decided to get some prints made of it to distribute to some friends and family commemorating Callie’s second anniversary. She used Snapfish, an online photo printing service, to order some prints for pickup at a local drugstore, hereafter referred to by the uncrackable codename of “Galwreens.” A day or two passed, and she was informed the prints were ready to be paid for and picked up. Bully so far.

It so happened that after a couple of conflicting doctors’ appointments yesterday which required me to come home from work a bit early, I had Callie with me while Nik was off taking a well-deserved break, getting pedicures with a friend and she had some errands that needed to be run: Pick up some prescriptions, grab a few items at the grocery store, and acquire the prints from Galwreens. Happy to help and spend time with Callie, I volunteered.

When we got to Galwreens though, the courtesy clerk (who was already frazzled from what I presume was a number of co-worker call-ins leaving the store understaffed plus an incredibly picky customer ahead of me in line who had her running laps to the store room looking for a very specific flavor of Starbucks brand iced coffee beverages) at first couldn’t locate the prints. I was about to leave, annoyed that I must have gotten the wrong branch or location or something, when she called me back. “Oh, here they are. I found them,” she said, a quizzical tone to her voice, pulling them from a side area closer to the register than the buckets of ready prints. She read a lengthy note attached to the envelope.

“Okay, great,” I said, pulling my wallet from my pocket.

“Do you have the release form, then?”

I paused. “The what?”

“The release form from the photographer. We can’t sell these to you without them.”

I laughed. “Dude, I’m the photographer.” She scowled.

“Okay, do you have the negatives?” she said.

More laughter from me: “No, these were taken on a digital camera.” I paused for a moment. “Does anyone actually bring in film negatives anymore?” I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when she ignored me.

“Okay, do you have the memory stick with the pictures on it?”

“Well, not on me,” I said.

She nodded with a particular smirk on her face that read, my but you’re a stupid one, aren’t you. What she said was, “Well if you go get that, I can sell these to you.”

“But it’s at home—and anyway, I don’t know that I kept the pictures on the card.”

She looked aghast. “You don’t have a backup stick!?”

My sarcasm gland was draining cynicine (that’s the serum that causes sarcastic people to descend into that fugue state where everything they say is tinged with contempt and derision; it’s the substance that is referred to when someone says a phrase was “dripping” with sarcasm) into my brain. “No, I have a 500 GB hard drive and a 2 GB memory card: My hard drive is my backup.” Mentally, I added, “You incompetent, judgmental grub.” After a second’s thought I added, “I can show you the picture on my computer.” My laptop was sitting in my bag out in the car. She shook her head.

“I’m sorry, you’ll have to take this up with my manager.”

“Okay fine.”

“He’ll be in tomorrow at eight.”

I sighed. “So he’s not here now.”

She shook her head again, firmly. “Let me give you his number.”

“Listen,” I began, “I’m the photographer here.”

She interrupted, “But it looks professional!”

Now, I could have been flattered. In retrospect, I kinda guess I am, but my annoyance was overpowering that. In the age of relatively cheap digital camera equipment, post-processing software that is affordable and often bundled with PC hardware, a wealth of information online about professional photography technique and no cost barrier to snapping away until you get the one good shot in dozens, how does one not come up with a picture that could perhaps be professional? Who gauges this anyway? Some random service clerk at a drugstore? Would they know professional photography from a set of photocopied buttcheeks? The clerk, who was also getting annoyed at this point, continued, “Look, we could get sued for thousands of dollars if we sold this to you and the copyright belonged to someone else. I could lose my job and frankly, I’m not doing that for you.” It was her turn to pause. “For the record, I believe you, but my hands are tied.”

I drew a deep breath and implored Callie to stop systematically dismantling a display shelf. She was remarkably patient and well-behaved throughout the entire exchange, which is more than I could say for myself.

“Okay,” I said, “Here’s the problem: I took this picture and you won’t sell the prints to me. But normally you wouldn’t be talking to me, you’d be talking to my wife. And she didn’t actually take the picture. So if she comes down here tomorrow morning and asks for our pictures from your manager, is there any way she’s going to be successful?”

The clerk looked me square in the face with cold eyes. “You’d have to discuss that with my manager.”

I moistened my lips and stopped Callie from opening several expensive “value” packs of AA batteries. “Alright, I guess I’ll leave without my own pictures then.” Atta boy! That showed her!

“Wait,” she said without a hint of enthusiasm. “Don’t you want the phone number?”

“Sure,” I said. For all the good I expected of it. She scrawled a number and name on the back of a discarded receipt and handed it to me. “He’ll be in at eight.”

I thanked her without sincerity and collected Callie before she could tip over an out of order self-serve photo printing kiosk. As I began to walk away I paused, remembering something. I made a few gestures on my phone, pulled up a website and called her back before she disappeared into the back room. “Look,” I said feeling this was my last chance, “this is my Flickr account. See? This is the same picture, and this is my account,” I clicked a link to show my profile page, featuring a picture of myself from a few years ago. Close enough, I hoped. She nodded but tempered it with a shrug.

“I’m sorry. Like I said, I believe you, but I just can’t help you.”

“Yeah,” I said pointedly.

Afterward I was pretty heated about the whole thing. I posted a short version of the story on Twitter and several people responded, appalled. A couple of people complimented the photo. Dr. Mac said he could understand how it would look like a studio shot requiring a release. Later, when I recounted the tale to Nik I ranted that it didn’t even make sense: If I had stolen someone’s copyrighted photo (which I didn’t, since I own the copyright) and was intending to make money off of it, isn’t that my liability for publishing copyrighted content and Galwreens is just a middleman? I mean, do we really want drugstore employees—no disrespect intended, my point is they are not trained in the incomprehensible warren of copyright law or they wouldn’t be working there—to be the gatekeepers of ownership rights?

This morning I did a little bit of research and it turns out that… well, I can’t actually tell you how it turns out. The rabbit-hole is deeper than I imagined and I already had a pretty good clue about how messy copyright laws are. The bottom line, from what I can gather, is that Galwreens and other places I haven’t dealt with like Wal-Mart are engaging in a bit of excessive CYA with their “don’t sell it without a release if it looks professional.” Despite a mention I found in a thread about a previous lawsuit leveled at Wal-Mart, I couldn’t actually find mention of such a case (though it could be because there is a lot more reporting on a case in which a family was reported for child endangerment when trying to get the ubiquitous “bathtub” photos printed, and all my search terms seemed to be too common with those stories). Some people made a reasonable case that reproducing copyrighted works is illegal and could open a door for lawsuits against photo labs who do so unknowingly, but again, the fear ought to be low there especially for photographs since Kinko’s entire business model operates on the principle that customers are responsible for what they duplicate, not the service provider who enables it. I doubt you’d have an easy time arguing that it’s less likely someone would violate copyright laws at Kinko’s than at Galwreens or Target’s photo kiosk.

A couple of articles on Techdirt mention the phenomenon, saying basically it’s hard to blame the employees who are probably threatened with loss of their job for not following a paranoid company policy and of course there are two sides to any contentious issue, as seen in this Flickr thread (dissenting comment starts here). And it probably shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that it’s mostly all about the money since printing photos is big business, one which everyone involved with wants to protect.

I should note that I don’t really hold Snapfish liable in any of this since they were merely the transport mechanism which provided Galwreens with our digital file. I suppose they get a cut of the profits from the drugstore for this service and perhaps they could have assisted by providing some kind of legally binding copyright form along with the submission which would have released the prints automatically, but that’s more a feature request and I’m reasonably certain they don’t have any influence over how protective the deliverers choose to be—even at the expense of their own profits. Because at this point it’s coming down to this: Galwreens will give me my photographs without forcing me to jump through ridiculous hoops to prove I took them or I’ll take my business elsewhere, right after I’m 100% satisfied that they’ve destroyed the prints in their possession. Because I am the copyright holder, and I get to say what happens with them.

Because I Said So, And Other Reasons

Friday, July 1st, 2011

The more experience I get as a parent, the more sympathy I have for my own forebears. I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t make it a habit to default to generic parental clichés too terribly often, but I heard the phrase “Because I said so!” often enough (possibly from other kids’ parents) that I formed a distinct disdain for it early on. It’s annoying as a kid because it’s a conversation stopper: You get chastised for something, you question the motivation and the response you get is a circular reference to logic by way of authority. Well excuse me for trying to understand you, parent! My suspicion as a child was always that adults didn’t actually even have a reason why something was forbidden or disallowed, their directives were based on an unknowable algorithm of random chance, whim and some inexplicable currency system on my part involving chores, cuteness and consideration for my sibling.

But as parenthood for me approaches its second anniversary, I realize that the problem isn’t that parent’s lack motive. In fact, the problem is quite the opposite: We have too many reasons, and they are too complex to describe in situ for each and every infraction. If we parents were to recount the entirety of our rationale for our various sand-drawn lines, we’d never get anything else done.

My daughter, for instance, has a bad habit of pushing back from the dinner table when she’s done (her high chair has wheels) and then propping her typically bare feet on the table. Since she stopped sitting at a tray-bearing chair some nine or ten months ago this has been an ongoing, near nightly battle. Now, my daughter has yet to master the plaintive “But whyyyyy?” Don’t think for a second though that when she drops her feet in response to a sharp directive from me and then immediately, before I even turn my head back to my meal, replaces her feet exactly where they were when I admonished her nanoseconds before that the message isn’t “Your instruction does not contain sufficient rationale to modify my behavior. Dad.”

Now, I suppose I could in theory offer her the following explanation:

Callie, sweetheart, you need to put your feet down because the table is a surface we eat off of and your frequently bare feet are typically dirty and therefore unsanitary which could potentially cause an entirely avoidable illness. But furthermore, even if the threat of disease weren’t sufficient reason, there is a base level of decorum and politeness which your foot-propping undermines, a sort of social malaise that indicates you have no respect for the meal, the others you share the table with or the effort that was put into the preparation of the food you just enjoyed. I’m instructing you to remove your feet from the table because it’s part of a broader effort to instill in you the notion of politeness, consideration for others and class which, ideally, will prevent you from growing into a horrific boor, a savage in conventional social settings who embarrasses yourself, those around you and not least of all us as your mother and father. We are tasked with imparting these principles on you and there is a broad range of general guidelines as well as specific rules our culture has developed which fall under the heading “manners:” They help to establish parameters of respect for your fellow humans and demonstrate that you are civilized, ascended from the bestial state that may, at this stage in your life, come more naturally. Right now you may not realize that us asking you to say “please” and “thank you,” that our insistence that we all sit down together and eat as a collective and remain at the table until everyone has finished their food, that our concern over where you put your unwanted food particles (i.e. not on the floor) and this oh-so-frequent request to keep your feet off the dining surface are all part of a much higher level project. But trust me when I say that you need to keep your feet off the table because no daughter of mine is going to be thirteen and at a friend’s house for dinner where that child’s parents—our contemporaries—watch in open-mouthed horror as you wolf down your food with your fingers as if it were some sort of feeding trough, loose a trumpeting blast of flatulence and a soul-rattling belch, kick off your shoes and cross your sweaty sock-funky feet on their rosewood dining table and demand dessert before this hypothetical host family has even settled in their seats. It is equal parts concern for your personal reputation and ability to normalize within society and deep-set desire to never have to receive a phone call (or telepathic hyperlink or whatever we’re using in the year 2022) from a fellow parent with that sort of reporting attached that causes me, here and now, to tell you for the six hundredth time to get. Your. Feet. Off. The. Table!

But let’s face it, I’d get about two sentences in and her gigantic blue eyes would puddle up with uncomprehending tears and I’d trail off and scoop her into my arms and whisper into her straw-colored hair that it was alright, everything was okay and Daddy would always love her. In moments where my frustration bubbles over she feels my angst and she expresses her remorse in the most pitiful fashion. In these moments I want to tell her: “Forget it, sweetness. Put your feet on the table. Drop those 118-decibel burps. Some cultures think that means the food was great! Toss your food wherever you like. Hey a food fight or two never hurt anyone, right? We could all stand to lighten up a little! Whatever you do, don’t look at me like I’ve broken your tiny, fragile heart with my words, okay?” I don’t want the puppet strings to show too brazenly in front of Nikki, after all. I usually settle on cradling her in my arms until the sniffles stop.

Then ever so gently, I set her back in her high chair, kiss her lightly on the forehead, and return to my seat where the next glance in her direction reveals that she’s propped ten small, filthy toes right on top of her plate and is grinning at me like Al Pacino playing Satan in The Devil’s Advocate with her hands folded behind her reclined head. And I swear her incomplete set of teeth are sharp.

Daddy and Daughter Sunday: A Photo Essay

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Nik wasn’t feeling great on Sunday and spent most of the day in bed. In an effort to give her some peace and quiet—and because I’ve been working so much lately I thought it would be a great opportunity to spend some time with Callie—I took the munchkin out for a played-by-ear afternoon outing.

Lately Callie has discovered the unparalleled joy of the out of doors. So much so that she actually spends most of her time indoors indicating that she would very much like to go out. It’s kind of like having a dog, if the dog could grunt and point at every point of egress the house possesses, over and over and over. So my first thought was that whatever we did needed to be outside and thankfully the weather was cooperating nicely. I also knew we’d want to have lunch sometime so I eventually settled on a downtown area a couple towns over which I thought I recalled having a nice park right next to the main strip with all the standard overpriced boutiques and kitschy little restaurants.

The first park I found wasn’t the one I had been thinking of, but it was kind of what I was hoping for, with a slide and toddler swings and stuff for Callie to climb around on, but I realized as I was driving that I’d failed to apply or bring any sunscreen. With the jungle gym equipment parked directly in the blazing sun I figured it may not be the ideal location so I followed my original instinct and went to the closer park only to find it was more of a bandstand area and while it had a nice little strolling trail, it lacked any actual equipment. Still, I didn’t want to waste the whole day wandering around looking for the ideal park so we got out and, in keeping with the theme, tried to roll with it and see how Callie did. She actually seemed to have a pretty good time.

If you have met her at all, you’ll know how fascinated Calliope is by dogs. The thing that I think made her the most excited, other than just the thrill of being in a new environment (and an outdoor one at that) was the plethora of pet dogs parading around, each of which Callie had to stop and admire or wave to. As we leisurely strolled across the bridge over the largely dry creekbed we came up to the bandstand area where, in the summer, the city puts on regular concerts. Callie seemed to like stomping around on the hollow-sounding wood and after a few moments she took a bit of a rest on the step before some kind ladies stopped by to be charmed by Callie’s magical grin.

Next I let her stomp through the grass, which she thought was pretty funny and we walked around, picking up sticks, examining leaves and—from a certain point onward—trying to convince Callie that just parking it in the grass wasn’t a long-term prospect.

At last I convinced her to continue along the path and we strolled around to the other bridge over the creek and around into the courtyard of an art museum that appeared to be closed. Outside though we found a statue of an artist on a bench that Callie found to be hysterical. I thought she was laughing at it so hard that it would be a great picture to sit her next to the statue on the bench. Of course, by the time I got her situated a woman walked into the courtyard with a small dog on a leash and Calliope completely forgot about the funny statue. Such is life with a toddler.

Next we gathered our belongings and took the stroller out of the car so we could wander up and down the main commercial drag looking for somewhere to have lunch. I’m such a fan of trying new restaurants but Nik’s choosy palate shies her away from branching out beyond the well-known unless she’s in a particular mood so when she can’t be with me I tend to make it a point to try something different. Maybe when she’s older Callie will be more of an adventurous eater like me and that can be something we share (signs indicate that, at least so far, she’s pretty open-minded about food). Or maybe not. But for now, since she’s beholden to my decision-making, I try to still go with something new to me without forcing my one year-old to endure Thai cuisine or Indian food with an unfamiliar culinary dictator (she’s too little to make her own ordering decisions). In this case I happened across an East Coast style pizza place I hadn’t tried and ordered us a slice to share. It was massive.

The pizza was delicious and we enjoyed people watching and making goofy faces at each other around bites of crust. When we left it was getting a bit late but I still wanted to give Nik a little more time to rest so we bumbled around a bit, checking out a little book store and enjoying the (indirect) warmth of the sun. After about an hour of window shopping and exploring we headed back and saw a little candy shop on a side street near our parking spot which we checked out. It was a pretty nice place if a bit pricey; we settled on a mini-Moon Pie (vanilla) for Callie and I got a Bounty bar which is pretty much a Mounds only with milk chocolate (in other words, an Almond Joy with no nuts).

The Moon Pie went over pretty well at first but she got tired of it fairly quickly and fixated instead on my candy bar, which was fine because I had basically the same reaction to the Moon Pie (which was the first time I’d ever tried one as well). As we headed out I reflected that in a real sense these are the experiences that parenthood is all about. It’s easy to think that the highlights of this lunatic endeavor are the big marquee events: Birthdays, “Firsts,” vacations, and so on. But in fact those coordinated and planned happenings tend to drown out the simple awe found in just being together with these amazing people materializing day by day, minute by minute before our eyes.

It was a day to treasure, and treasure I shall.

Time Machine: Lost Cats

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Originally posted January 3, 2002.

Last weekend our cat got out.

To most people, this probably sounds about as unfortunate as the fact that there is oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. Cats go outside, they come back.

Most people are not my wife. While I hesitate to say that she was “freaking out,” she did develop a permanent crease between her eyebrows. For Nikki, that’s even worse than if she had been screaming hysterically… the fact that she didn’t was more worrisome. This was bad news.

The problem is that our cat (“Dixie”) was a stray at our old apartment complex. She was very friendly (after a dozen or so free meals courtesy of Nik) and liked to come around our place when it was cold outside. Eventually Nikki was so taken with her that she just adopted the cat, took it in for testing and kept it inside. Of course, Dixie was an outdoor cat for a minimum of six months before we got her, so she still had some reason to want to go outdoors. Nikki read that allowing house cats out (even fixed ones) was cruel because of all the possible dangers that could befall a cat in the wide world (car tires and bored boys with sticks spring to mind). So Dixie became a sort of willing captive.

Then we moved. Since we had found the cat at the old apartments, we assumed she had either come from there or been a previous tenant’s cat (we suspect she had lived in the very same apartment as we were in, under the previous occupants). We weren’t sure what would happen if she ever found her way out into these new apartments. When she accidentally got out (a door that was usually closed was left open after a party) the concern my wife had was that she wouldn’t be able to find her way home.

So I grabbed my Mag-Lite and headed out to track her down. Husband as hero… it could work. We found her in pretty short order, but she didn’t want to come to us when we called. Food didn’t lure her (she’d just eaten less than an hour before) and she was too fast and agile to be caught easily.

Suffice to say that it was a long, wet night rummaging through bushes and mud in the furthest corners of the complex, chasing a stupid cat who didn’t want to come home. She found another cat to help her run from us, and after the 20th time I’d passed some poor sleeping person’s window, cursing and making odd cat-calling noises, I figured she’d probably just come home when she was hungry.

Nikki basically stayed up all night, alternating between doing patrols and watching the back door for her. I tried to sleep, but I had hurt my foot running around and in the end, I took the door guard and let Nikki catch an hour or so of sleep. In the morning, Nik was so convinced the cat was long gone or dead or something that she made up signs and asked anyone who’d listen if they’d seen the creature. Seconds before she was about to be written off as a missing pet, she wandered back home, muddy, wet, and acting as if it was all part of her normal routine.

Of course Nikki was both ecstatic and furious with Dixie, and weary from missing a night’s sleep. In the end, I’m glad the dumb animal is back. I like having her around, but I was more worried about Nikki. With it all over, I was able to relax a bit and laugh about it. But not too hard… there was something profoundly difficult about trying to comfort a worried and frightened Nikki about the loss of a cat.

Our collective relationship with the cat has grown far less significant in the years since this was originally posted. It’s pretty clear now that Nik was looking to fill a void for nurturing in her life and since we were still a few years off of our original time frame for children she contented herself with caring for Dixie. You can see that come through even here in this post.

We both have our fondness for her, simply as a matter of familiarity, but it was rapidly obvious that once Callie became a part of the picture Dixie’s place in our family would take a sharp turn toward the back seat. This has resulted in no shortage of guilt on my part and I think also on Nikki’s because we did accept the responsibility of having the cat as our pet but our priorities lie in providing the best environment for our daughter and that has clashed with our duties as pet providers. Early on in Callie’s life when Nik and I were frazzled, frightened newbie parents we talked quite seriously about trying to get rid of Dixie because she was having difficulty adjusting to the sudden lack of attention and acting out because of it. However, we’ve been pretty adamant about not simply surrendering her as that feels incredibly irresponsible and selfish. Not surprisingly, finding a good home for an 11 year-old indoor-only cat has proven next to impossible.

To Dixie’s great credit, she hasn’t ever seemed to blame Callie for her reduced station in the household and in fact as Callie’s gotten a little bigger she’s come to be exceptionally fond of the cat. Mostly Dixie has been patient and gentle with what can sometimes be a Lenny-like affection, though a couple of recent unprovoked attacks have us wondering again what is most appropriate for our future as cat co-inhabitants. Aside from the couple of outbursts the biggest challenge we face now is the sense that we’re not really doing Dixie any favors by essentially caging her into our confined apartment space and offering her sustenance. Neither Nik nor I feel like we have moments to spare offering the cat affection when we could be offering it to Callie instead, and thus far Callie is too little to really be providing the kind of attention Dixie is looking for. Plus we’re worried that the guilt that drives us to continue to provide food and shelter for her will eventually result in awkward decisions regarding the cat’s health as she inevitably ages. We operate on a tight budget as it is, with plenty of human health issues to be concerned about. It may not have been a worry when we adopted her back in 2000 as we both worked and had disposable income, nor even in 2002 when we didn’t have much income but had a young and healthy cat. As circumstances have changed, it can feel like a tightening noose.

In retrospect, I may have been better off encouraging her to escape off into the wild yonder when this post was originally written. But then, of course, I’d have missed the opportunity to crawl around in the mud for hours, risking arrest for stalking too closely to our neighbor’s windows in the dead of night.

Time Machine: Sickness, Work and Christmas Shopping

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Originally posted December 21, 2001.

I spent the last several days battling a wicked flu that has more stages than an Apollo space shuttle. Initially it was just a bad sore throat and some temperature control issues (too hot, then too cold). Eventually a nice bit of fatigue was added to the mix, followed by severe body aches and head congestion. By the third day the temperature issues had been replaced by a cough, and this morning the fatigue and part of the sore throat had given way to an incessantly running nose and fits of sneezing, usually when my hands are full.

I’ve felt like a walking germ all day and I’ve had to interact with far too many people. I’d feel badly for them, but I did have to get out of bed today, so it serves them right for not petitioning harder to make today null and void like I requested.

I was working on the Splendid Products web page until 4 am last night (not recommended for flu sufferers… sleep deprivation and sickness do not make a happy marriage) and dragged myself out of bed to finish the badly neglected pool route this afternoon. I still didn’t get in the pool truck until around 1:30, which meant that I wasn’t on the road back home until around 4:00.

Nikki was meanwhile waiting at home (cleaning and decorating with Christmas stuff… hey, shut up, we’ve both been sick and busy okay?) for me to return so we could get some shopping done. I had done some of hers Tuesday, but she hadn’t started on mine and the rest of our list was in danger of receiving IOUs. In the end we were out and about for almost six hours and managed to get some household products we needed and three gifts. When we got home Nikki hit the web and in about 45 minutes managed to basically finish the rest of the shopping. Odd that we didn’t do that from the beginning.

Meanwhile I have gone through two entire Pocket Pak® Kleenex© Brand pouches, about 40 cardboard-textured Burger King napkins, half a full box of pink Kleenex© Brand Facial Tissues and various assorted shirtsleeves, paper towels and old gas receipts in a vain effort to keep myself somewhat mucous-free. My nose is now the color and texture of road rash, and feels about as good.

I love winter. Merry Christmas.

I think this is the first post I made that had a couple of jokes I still like, which meant it was one of the first “funny” posts. I guess early on I talked about my work projects as if the people reading the site were supposed to know what I was referring to, which strikes me as pretty annoying now, like people who talk about friends you’ve never met as if they were mutual acquaintances. I think the mindset was that the original intended audience was simply me, the way any private journal or diary would be. The fact that it was publicly accessible seems to have been incidental and the presumption was that whenever I was going back and reading it, I’d remember what “the Splendid Products web page” referred to. It turns out I do remember that particular example, but others will turn out to be much more hazy.

It took a little while for the pattern to begin in earnest but this is the first example of the blog post titles being mini-lists which highlight my writer’s Attention Deficit Disorder as I jump from topic to topic. For whatever reason I tended to use groups of three. I’m not sure why three felt like a magic number, but this is where it began.

Time Machine: Odd Jobs

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Originally posted December 15, 2001.

So it’s been almost four months since I was laid off my cushy Graphic Artist position at a Coin-Operated arcade game manufacturing company turned Internet New Economy latecomer turned back manufacturing company. Or whatever. The point is, it’s been a while since I had a real office job.

I looked for a replacement office job, but that 18 month degree I got in Graphic Arts that made me a very much in demand web designer a year ago has made me a very much under-needed entry-level skill-deprived tech worker in a recessing economy. To help pay the bills I sort of stumbled into doing odd jobs for pretty much whomever asks me for some help in exchange for money. I’m helping one set of in-laws get their pool service business off the ground by cleaning swimming pools, lawns and rain gutters. I’m helping another set of in-laws with some actual web design work; I’m putting in more time as webmaster of a high-profile fan site for an actor and I’m holding open houses for a real estate agent on the weekends.

It’s very strange to go from getting nice consistent paychecks every two weeks to getting small personal checks in varying degrees of frequency. Really, I’m not complaining. I could be unable to find anything that brought in money. The weird thing is, I’m doing at least partially what I really wanted to be doing all the while I worked for the game company. That is, I’m designing web pages and working with computers on my own time, at home. I still have to do the pool cleaning, but it’s good for a guy who would sit in front of a monitor 24/7 if he could to be required to get up at least once in a while and move around, remind myself what the outdoors looks like.

It’s also strange how life throws you curve balls and most of the time you just close your eyes and take a wild swing. But you know, I’m starting to find that a good percentage of the time those blind swats connect at least a little, and sometimes that’s quite enough to at least keep you from striking out.

I mentioned to Dr. Mac a few weeks ago that I actually missed the dotcom boom/bubble. A lot of the nostalgia for that time comes from my being an undeserving beneficiary of the insane demand for people who could rub two HTML tags together rather than one of the fleeced investors who were hoping to get rich off of ethereal potential rather than, you know, business models and revenue and all that.

The odd job thing was incredibly stressful at the time and certainly wouldn’t fly for our family now, but in retrospect it was kind of an exciting time and the whole year that was to come would really serve to solidify the relationship between Nik and I since we didn’t have traditional careers to pull on our time and we didn’t have much money to engage in a lot of diversions so we had to learn to work together and lean on each other heavily for support (especially since at times it wasn’t clear what would be in store for me work-wise down the road and it definitely wasn’t obvious how we were going to keep the lights on and food on the table week to week). We sure made some mistakes as we stumbled through it (the pool cleaning service was a poor fit and an awkward transitional moment between the in-laws and myself, for example) but it turns out a lot of those blind swings don’t just keep the count steady at 3-2 but unexpectedly end up being the sacrifice bloop that scores the winning run.

The trick is to open your eyes when you’re done taking the rip.

Never Look Back

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Occasionally I have to remind myself why I don’t make promises on my blog. You know, things like “I plan to update ironSoap.org at least three times a week from now on!” Or, “I’m going to read a bunch of books I’ve been meaning to finish before I read anything else!

Yeah.

At the time I usually think, “Well, it’s going to be out there. Public. I’ll be more likely to stick with it because people will be counting on me.” However, if I’ve learned one thing from maintaining this website it is that no one in my mythical audience cares what I intend to do, or what I say I’m going to do. Very rarely a straggler will stop by—clearly lost on the information superhighway—and show some mild interest in something I am doing or have already done. But promises and statements of intent interest no one and inevitably end in shamefaced apologies from me because “Ball Dropper” is my middle name. Paul Ball Dropper Hamilton. Actually, that doesn’t sound good at all. Forget I said that. The point is, I’m not so much with the follow-through.

Well, there is one exception. That exception is ironSoap.org. To a degree, I mean. It’s not like there haven’t been lengthy lapses in updates and I haven’t been what anyone would call a consistent blogger in probably several years but, in fits and starts and with any number of format and direction changes, I’ve been manning the wheel on this ship for going on ten years now.

The very first entry on ironSoap.org came in December of 2001, which means that on 12/03 of this year ironSoap will turn 10 years old. That’s so old style guides permit me to use numerals for the year rather than spelling it out. That’s so old that in Internet years I’m officially a cane-waving codger imploring these smart phone-waving, social media driven, html5 toting kids to get off my virtual lawn. My first blog entry was done by hand-editing the HTML in vi right there on the server, uphill both ways in the cyber-snow. And I liked it.

Here’s what a much younger and far less mature me had to say back then:

You know, I think if I counted the number of journals I’ve started and vowed to keep current and multiplied that by the number of projects I’ve started and never finished and added to that the number of great ideas I’ve had but never done anything about and later forgotten and then had 0.01 cents times the sum of all that I’d be rich enough to hire some schlep to write my journals for me. I could even pay him to write some fascinating yet realistic sounding activities for the day to attract hordes of fans to my site to read about my daily exploits.

All that would be covering the truth, of course, which is that, being rich, I’d most likely spend most of the day playing video games on my obscenely over-priced home entertainment system.

And yet here I am again, promising myself that I’ll do better this time. I’d ponder about the significance of a consistent journal being a strong priority in (some) people’s lives and the desire to chronicle their existence. Perhaps I’d wonder if the difficulty many have in doing so is related to the fact that when enough time is available to write, there isn’t really that much going on and when we can’t find time to write is when we would find doing so most cathartic and others would find it most interesting.

I’d ponder that, but I have to go play some video games.

Well, things certainly have changed! I mean, ahem. Right. Anyway.

All the early blog posts from those first few days have been lost on the site as it currently exists, victims of some WordPress upgrade or another. A period of them have been lost forever, double victims of a corrupted database backup file. But I do have quite a few of the first couple of years lying around. My brother (you did know he was back in the blahgosphere, right?) has attempted to convince me to format them together into something like a book on a number of occasions, and I made some progress on that front before I dropped the ball (sensing a trend here?). Actually the problem was that I wanted to include some commentary that would fill in the blanks between those archived entries but I realized soon enough that those commentaries would be restricted to a particular time and place as well, possibly opening the door for future revisions to include comments on the commentary and before I knew it I was envisioning an endless loop of meta-discussion that would never be finished like some sort of punishment from a digital age Greek Myth and I had to go lie down.

But here’s my thought. And I want to make clear this is not a statement of intent nor should it be construed in any way as a promise, a commitment or anything that could lead to any type of expectation. I’m just thinking out loud here. As part of a celebration leading up to ironSoap.org’s tenth birthday I was thinking that I might occasionally post some of those old entries as sort of a “Best Of…” series. I’ve zero intention (note that there is a value only slightly greater than zero of doing any of this at all) of posting every one of the old entries. I mean honestly, most of them are along these lines:

So it was no more than five minutes after I posted the last journal entry that I figured out what was up with PostNuke. Apparently it requires cookies to be turned on to authenticate users (okay, I knew that) and I had cookies blocked from my localhost.localdomain (now I didn’t know that, and don’t remember doing that, either). Fixing the filter made the problem go away. I’m not sure if it’s going to work for me or not, though.

Riveting, right? I can’t possibly apologize enough if you suffered through all those updates the first time around, I certainly don’t want to subject you to them again. But there may be a few interesting nuggets that would provide some interesting decade-spanning dissection. Also, I could pretend to actually be updating the site without actually having to write anything new! On paper, it sounds like a fantastic idea.

But, probably I’m just going to go play some video games instead.

“Sometimes understanding is the booby prize.” – Neal Stephenson