Archive for the ‘Ramblings Off Topic’ category

bits and pieces

October 4, 2021

A photo from the archives. This is Harry the Heron. He stands in our backyard in suburbia though he had a nobler job once. I had first set him out in the shallow waters of the pond at Roundrock. (We have a small pond and a small lake there.) The idea was that it would attract other waterfowl if they saw one hanging out there. I don’t know if that ever worked. For the most part, any wildlife ran away when we arrived at our woods, and waterfowl especially. (Though a goose once had a nest on a tussock in the pond!) Anyway, one time we arrived at Roundrock and Harry was gone. I feared he had run away with the other waterfowl. We got out of the truck at the pond and checked around, and there he was, lying in the water on his side. Significantly, there were two punctures in his chest. My guess is that he was stalked by a bobcat and attacked. Once the bobcat figured it out, I suppose he took off. So now Harry resides in the comparative safety of our backyard (where I have never seen waterfowl either).

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We took out two ash trees from our backyard last fall. (Well, we hired someone.) Now that fall has returned, I revel in knowing that I won’t have to rake up all of those leaves this year. The cypress trees, however, have a bountiful crop of “cones” this year, which they mercifully hadn’t for the last two years. The cones themselves are spheres about an inch and a half in diameter and they’re not so offensive in themselves, but when they dry and break apart the pieces are sharp and sticky with sap. The dogs often bring them in the house stuck in their paws, causing them to limp.

This year our plan is to try herding them with a leaf blower. (I suspect it won’t work, spheres being good at ignoring outside forces.) I’ve been meaning to get a good leaf blower to use at the cabin; dry oak and hickory leaves against a wooden structure are not a good combination, especially with a neighbor to the west who practices prescribed burning on his land. So maybe we can have two uses for such a noisy machine. (I already have ear protection for when I use the weed whipper I have at the cabin.)

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Books read in September:

Silence is a Sense by Layla Al Ammar – The story of a Syrian refuge in London who has become mute due to the trauma she has suffered. She writes accounts of her flight for a local paper but hides behind an anonymous byline. A racist incident in her neighborhood sparks her into a more active life, and a medical crisis in her apartment block forces her to find her voice. A searing, unsparing work that I strongly recommend.

The Keep by Jennifer Eagan – A well-written novel that is framed within a frame and within another. The story itself is weird and almost Gothic, and it is all capped with a sort of epilogue that many readers found unnecessary and even unhelpful. I’d never read Egan before, but I likely will again.

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood – No, not The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth, which I love, but an actual Victoria ghost story (sort of) about a family legacy, jealousy, revenge, and various machinations. I pretty much worked out the twist at the end (as I noted other readers had who reviewed it). About one-third too long, it was compelling if you’re into that kind of thing, but I’m not sure what about it had attracted me.

The Game is Afoot, edited by Marvin Kaye – I had been picking at this collection of parodies, pastiches, and scholarly works about the great detective for months and happened to finish it on the last day of the month. Every bit of it is good, but it became much of a muchness and I found I had to take it in small doses. I’ve added it to my burgeoning shelf of Holmesian works.

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The world of podcasts continues to baffle me. I regularly listen to four of them now, alternating choices while on my treadmill (though often picking the one with the half-hour episodes because treadmill). For the most part I enjoy what I hear, and in a few cases I’ve pursued and read the works of the authors interviewed. (Though “interview” seems the wrong word for a podcast. I think “conversation” may be better. In one case I’ve learned at least as much about the host as about his guests.) I should probably up my podcast game and listen more and more widely. Maybe I even will.

thoughts on Substack

September 27, 2021

You may be familiar with an online publishing medium known as Substack. It began as a site where people in the know could publish “newsletters” about their topics, and subscribers would get an email whenever a new “issue” came online. While many of these newsletters are free, others charge a monthly fee — the minimum is $5, so $60 a year — to access the content. Consider that some of these “influencers” have thousands of subscribers and do the math. One of the biggest is posted by a man who writes about Chinese culture and politics.

So now creative people are joining Substack. Writers are posting their novels a chapter at a time as an alternative to traditional publishing. One of the newest celebrity members of Substack is Salman Rushdie, who will serialize a new work (and put it behind the paywall).

I had heard a very enthusiastic account of one person’s use of Substack on The Writer Files podcast. (Mostly half-hour episodes, which are perfect for my tolerance on the treadmill.) I checked on her subscriptions the other day and she has upwards of 1,200 people signed up. At $60 a year, she’s grossing $72,000. (Yes, Substack takes a piece of that, but what’s left is still hefty.)

A writer friend of mine is posting some of his short stories on Substack, though they are free. The thing about Substack is that if you want to charge a fee and make it worth your time and effort, you must have a substantial following of people who are willing to pay for the privilege. And to have that, you must be a hustler, a self promoter, someone who already has a name and a following. I am certainly not that kind of person.

Nonetheless, I am thinking about beginning to post to Substack. My novel One-Match Fire contains 23 chapters. which means I could serialize two a month and have a year’s worth of content. After that, I could post some of the stories I’ve written in that universe that are not in that novel to continue the content. Seems like a safe way to experiment with the medium. Maybe I could develop a following in that time. Perhaps then I could serialize a newer work (my impossible-to-publish metafictional stuff) and charge a fee. Then retire rich.

I know that Substack has gotten some bad press. It’s been accused of being a haven for right-wing crazies though I haven’t noticed such, and it seems easy enuf to ignore. There have also been some grumblings about the “advance” that Rushdie supposedly received for joining the platform. But I don’t see the logic in that. He’s going to get a bigger advance from a traditional publisher than a no-name would, and no one complains about that kind of thing. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems like a good and safe place to experiment.

So what do you think? Do you have any experience or cautions you care to share?

throwback Thursday ~ my journal journey

September 23, 2021

I haven’t made a post in this category in a while because I’ve been slacking in my journal journey. I think because I wasn’t finding what I wanted and was finding what I didn’t want, I lost some enthusiasm for the project.

I am through Journal #11 now and it’s mostly more of the same. But along with the many ideas for stories and novels, as well as the increasing entries for articles I was writing then, I also found more personal entries about my state of mind or my job (including job hunting).

My job in St. Louis (way back when) was dissolving because the company was taken over and being torn apart for assets. I found (and then recalled) that my job at the time I was writing in Journal #11 was also dissolving (because the company was being shut down by the government). Many of my entries then were about this and my thoughts on how to find my next job. I suppose the prospects may have been grim at the time because I was also recording my moods more frequently.

In addition, I was in grad school at the time. There are entries in there about interactions with my professors and instructors, including one who would later produce a video of mine about prairie fires that was shown on our local PBS station.

And my listing of books read continued on the back pages. I read through that list and I recall most of the books, though some have left no impression on me.

I’ll continue my journal journey, though it hasn’t proven itself very fruitful yet. Maybe some surprises will be coming.

bits and pieces

August 18, 2021

The photo above is from 2006 (click to embiggen) and it’s something we encountered when we were nearly to our little cabin in the Missouri woods. One of the property owners along the common road had brought this mobile home in to set up on his property but couldn’t get it up the hill (to the left, not in the photo). In fact, he high-sided it when he tried to cross a small ravine. The front and back ends of the trailer rested on the ground while the wheels in the center were suspended over the ravine. The trailer sat like that for months, perhaps years, until a very strong rainstorm came through and sent a torrent down the man’s road, lifting the trailer from its perch and carrying it back down the hill, depositing across the common road.

On this visit we managed to get around the trailer by bushwhaking in the scrub on the left. As I recall, matters remained this way for several months until one visit when we arrived and saw a large pile of crumpled metal on the side of the road. Apparently the owner had hired a big machine to come in and tear the trailer apart to get it out of the way.

Interesting to me about this photo is the hillside you see beyond the trailer. It is now densely forested with cedar trees. It’s only in seeing this that I realize how much change has taken place in our years of coming here.

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I’ve noted here that I’ve been listening to white noise during my writing sessions as a way to cover the sound of the heartbeat in my right ear. I began to wonder, though, if constantly hearing such a sound was good for my brain, and it seems that it is not. I saw a recommendation for listening to pink noise instead. (I didn’t know sound could be color coded.) White noise seems to be a muted roar while pink noise is more of a hiss. Apparently pink noise is a more complicated sound, which is better for the synapses. So I’m giving it a try.

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Absolute Write is back but seems a ghost of its former self. I had ever only gone to its forums to ask this or that or to see what others had to say about this or that. So far, it doesn’t appear that members have flocked back.

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I continue to work my way through my old journals, but I’m not finding any profound observations or insights. In fact, a lot of it makes me cringe, but I guess I can take heart in knowing how far I’ve come since then.

bits and pieces

August 9, 2021

My wife and I (and the dogs) snuck out to the cabin last weekend because we had a window in our busy social calendar (ha ha), and I had left something undone when last we were down there with the NYC grands two weeks before. My son-in-law and I had, with a good deal of not-by-the-book effort and ingenuity, managed to cut down a tree, but the chain on my saw was so dull (it was a Black Jack oak, which is a hard on a chainsaw, but also, the chain was already dull before we had started) that once we had it down, we couldn’t cut it into manageable pieces or remove the remaining stump. (I am trying to expand my parking area, so the stump needed to be removed.)

In the time since that visit, I took all of the chains in the bottom of my chainsaw container to the local hardware store to be sharpened. I found five of the greasy things, and now they are all sharp and ready for action. Should I face another job I couldn’t have finished before, I’ll be able to change the chain on my saw and finish the job!

Which is what I did last weekend. With the sharpened chain on the saw, I cut through the fallen tree and the stump in about five minutes. It was delightful. And then I took the saw to the tree the beavers had brought down below the cabin to cut up some of that. The saw performed admirably, but the operator did not. Rather, the operator soon grew tired from muscling a heavy, dangerous machine on sloping, rocky ground in the full sun of a day with a hazardous heat warning. I managed to cut up most of the visible parts of the fallen tree, so the view from the cabin porch is no longer spoiled, but the big, heavy parts await cooler days.

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So I continue to discover new features of Word that have apparently been pushed down from Microsoft. Among them is an Editor button that will give me a synopsis of the grammatical standing of the document I’m working on, taking off points for things like spelling, grammar, and conciseness. I ran it against a story I recently completed and earned a 95% score. It’s not a perfect system. I lost a point for using (correctly) the word “wife’s” — the possessive form — when the program thinks I should use the word “wives” — the plural form. A few things like that. I have a rough character who speaks the word “gimme” a couple of times, and the program doesn’t like that either. Plus, the first part of the story is supposed to be impressionistic, so it’s full of incomplete sentences intended to create images. I’m sure that hurt my score too.

I ran it against the 100,000 words of Obelus and got a (surprising) score of 94%. It found 322 spelling “errors” but I intentionally use the word “enuf” throughout, and it appears that the dictionary is limited since it flagged “Luis” (as in Jorge Luis Borges) and “raffishness.” It also didn’t like the word “shitty” but couldn’t suggest an alternative. There are 103 grammar citations, eleven conciseness violations, and two punctuation convention issues in Obelus, none of which I intend to “fix.”

If I were writing a high school term paper or some legal document, I suppose this feature would be helpful, but for creative writing it seems mostly just good for a laugh.

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There are prefixes and suffixes, and I learned recently of infixes. An example is “Mid-freaking-west,” a word I saw repeatedly in the latest Richard Russo novel I read (though he may have used something other than “freaking”).

Not sure how useful this tidbit of knowledge it, but there you go.

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For the past two years, the cypress tree in my backyard has not produced any cones. These things are spherical and drop on the ground, eventually breaking apart into sharp little pieces. We’ve had to pick these out of the dogs’ paws many times. And they are a chore to rake out of the grass. So we were glad to have a two-year respite from them. But the tree is full of them this year, and in a couple of months they’ll begin dropping.

I’ve read that oak trees do something similar with acorns. That the energy demand to produce a crop of acorns is so intense that the trees will often take a year or two off before doing it again. And then animal populations will cycle in a similar way since there is less mast for them to eat. (Nobody eats cypress cones that I know of.)

Our plan this year is to buy a leaf blower with the hope that it can dislodge the cones and their parts from the grass so they can be collected more easily. I’ll also be able to use a leaf blower at the cabin to clear fallen leaves away from the wooden structure.

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Books read in July:

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner – Have you ever read an older book for the first time and regretted not having discovered it earlier? I had known of Wallace Stegner for some time, but I had never read any of his novels. I happened upon this one at the used bookstore and decided to give it a try. The novel is about a lifelong friendship between two academic couples, which doesn’t sound like a compelling narrative, but the writing was flawless and the reading effortless. I forgot I was reading a novel when I was reading this novel.

The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck – I found this on a shelf in our house, and I suspect my wife had purchased it at some time. I’ve read a lot of Steinbeck through the years, but I had not touched this novel. It’s not one of his best, but it is a good reflection of his writing style, I think. Filled with stock characters who need to get in touch with themselves, thrust into a perilous journey in a rickety old bus. I suspect some of his characterizations would be considered outdated today. A movie was made of this novel, though I understand it’s not highly regarded.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf – I think I may have read this once before, but I’m not sure. This isn’t a novel to read for plot; there isn’t much of one. Rather, it’s something to be appreciated for rhythm and the blending of characters and viewpoints into a single, lifelong observation. I think this would benefit from several close readings and a lot of attention to the voices of the various characters. Woolf makes me think that I’m not trying hard enuf.

election day

August 5, 2021

We had a primary election here on Tuesday, and just as with the general election last fall, I worked the polls, giving a long day to my civic responsibility.

The process, the location, and even some of the volunteers were the same this time as last, but I was still required to take refresher training (fine with me). We also had to wear masks again, and many of the voters did too. The one difference this year was that we didn’t have to get to the polling place at 5:30 in the morning; we could wait until 6:00! (Fortunately, the early hours were not a problem for me, and the location was literally blocks from my house.)

Since this was a local primary, the turnout was expected to be low. Our location was forecasted to have about 330 voters through during the day. When we opened the doors at 7:00, we already had a line of a half dozen people, but that was great since it gave we five volunteers a chance to warm up.

We had three ballot stations, where voters make their selections, but one of them died on us about halfway into the morning. That created a bottleneck in the flow of voters through the stations, but even when voters had to wait their turns, they were always congenial, and several commented about how pleased they were that people were voting in a minor election.

Officially, we were supposed to transition through the stations hourly. At the start table voters were found in the data base and given their ballot. They would then be escorted to the ballot stations to make their choices. And finally they would cast their ballots at the final station that collected them. After this, they got the coveted sticker and were on their way. The greeting table generally required two volunteers. The escorting step needed two but often only had one volunteer. And the final station had one volunteer to help get the ballots recorded properly. Plus, one of the five of us was supposed to float, being the experienced “boss” of the process. She would help us when we got confused and discussed issues the voters raised as they stepped through the process. (There was supposed to be a sixth volunteer, but she ghosted.)

We found through the day that few of us could stay strictly with our scheduled duty. Because we were short handed, we were often filling in wherever there was a gap in the process. Thus I might check someone in and give them their ballot then escort them to the ballot station, only to hustle back to the start to escort another voter or check in someone since that volunteer was escorting a voter. We were multitasking, and while I’m sure I got a good cardio work out, it did make the time pass quickly.

We had the expected rushes early in the morning, around lunch time, and then after 5:00, but throughout the day we pretty much had a constant flow of voters, including lines at the hours when we expected to be dead. We bounced between tasks and did out best to keep the voters happy.

By early afternoon we had exceeded our forecasted number of voters. By the end of the day we came close to doubling what had been expected for our location. (And early voting had been underway for a week before.) Everyone was pleased (and exhausted) by the turnout.

In the morning, 7:00 p.m. looked impossibly far away, but by closing time I wondered where all of the hours had gone. Packing up took less time than I expected, in large part because a new process had been established, and I was home in time to have a beer and watch a little television (still as inane as I remembered it to be).

I will volunteer for the general election in November, which will be my third, so I’ll be seasoned.

bits and pieces

July 23, 2021

The photo above is from 2005 and shows the failure of my earliest attempt to plant selected trees at Roundrock. As I recall, I had been given two maple tree seedlings as a gift. They were scions of some famous maple tree in history, and they came with translucent tubes that would protect them and serve as mini greenhouses. You see what the local fauna thought of that idea.

Through the years I have planted hundreds of trees and fruiting shrubs in my woods and fields, but only the shortleaf pines have been a success. I attribute that to the steel posts and steel fencing I put around them to protect them and serve as mini greenhouses. (And even that is often not enuf.)

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Update on the feature in Word that suggests wording changes: this AI does suggest using the Oxford comma, so it’s not all bad.

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Our mild effort at downsizing continues. My daughter and SIL and three grands are in town from NYC, and she has been rummaging through the boxes in the basement, finding treasures she wants to keep and things she can cast off. Several large trash bags have made it to the bin, and several more large boxes have been packed and taken to the shipping office to be sent to NYC. When they drive home later this month, a bench will be strapped to the roof of their car that had served my family when I was a boy. I’m not sure why she prized that old thing, but I guess I’m glad it is finding a new home.

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On Wednesday I was stung by a wasp on my right ear. Today my ear is swollen and is noticeably larger than its companion on the other side of my head. It’s also still a little sore.

I can recall being stung by wasps four other times and each time it has been on my right ear.

alternate Pi Day?

July 22, 2021

Traditionally, Pi Day is observed on the 14th day of the third month, 3/14, because the mathematical value of pi is 3.14. Back in my running life, I would run 3.14 miles (basically a 5K) on Pi Day. Increasingly, Pi Day observations involve eating pie, which is sort of wrong and sort of right.

Another way to think of the mathematical value of pi is to set it as a fraction, which is 22/7. Thus the 22nd day of the seventh month could also be observed as PI Day, don’t you think? (And eating pie could also be involved.)

throwback Thursday ~ my journal journey

July 15, 2021

I continue to pick my way through my old journals. I’m up to #11 now, written in a notebook from Rockhurst College (now University) here in Kansas City in the last months of 1989. Beginning with journal #8 I had started using notebooks from colleges when my brother gave me one from Clemson, where he was attending at the time. Somehow I got one from the University of Nebraska at Omaha during this time as well. Not sure how that came into my possession.

I’m not finding much in the way of profound entries. In fact, I’m not finding anything profound. The journalling evolved in this passage from exclusively about story ideas to some musings about the state of my life or the world and then into notes I was taking for the feature articles I had begun getting published. For me anyway, there aren’t any rules about what should or shouldn’t go in my journals, so they’ve grown eclectic over the years.

I was also in grad school at this time, so some of my entries relate to that, and on the back pages the list of books I’d read reflects what I had been assigned in class. This is also the stretch where I began adding stickers to the inside of the front and back covers. Just tentatively though, with a few random stickers here and there. Today the inside covers are covered, and I collect so many stickers now that I put them on the walls of my cabin too.

I went on for pages and pages with notes about novels I would write some day, and for the most part I’m glad I didn’t. I think I was still searching for my subject and even my style. Would I write Thrillers? Mysteries? Science Fiction? Literature? Young Adult fiction? I was all over the board, and while I still don’t have a good grasp on my subject, I know what styles/genres I won’t be writing.

Oddly, I remembered having written extensively about a certain person I had worked with back in my St. Louis life, and these are the journals where those entries appeared. But it turns out I’d written far less about the matter than I thought. I also made far fewer entries than I would have expected about my move from St. Louis to Kansas City.

bits and pieces

July 13, 2021

The latest version of Word that has been pushed down to my laptop includes a feature that tags phrasing in documents to offer suggestions for improving it. This is more than just catching spelling errors or possible wrong word choices. This new feature suggests rephrasing of the highlighted text. So far, in all cases, the suggested phrasing is shorter and simpler. While this might be useful if I were writing a high school term paper or news article, it’s pretty much anathema to the playful narrative voice I tend to use in my stories and especially in Obelus.

For example, here is a sentence from Obelus that was cited: And he thought he could use some of that alive feeling at the moment, and not just because of the hangover. Word suggests that I change “at the moment” to “now” to be more concise, saying it would be clearer for the reader. The sentence is out of context, so it’s a bit unfair to use it as an example, but in context the character is pondering each moment in his so-called life, and I think my wording is exactly right to carry that point. Plus, my playful narrative voice. So far it hasn’t flagged any of my hundred-word sentences to make them more concise, but I’m sure that will be in a future upgrade. I guess my point is that this latest enhancement seems to be directed toward dumbing down the writing to make it more accessible to the lowest common denominator.

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The ponytail is now gone. It was never flattering; I don’t have silky hair that looks good on a person my age. I’m proud that I held out as long as I did since it meant staying out of a typically crowded and chatty place. Plus when I did finally get it cut, I went into the shop just as it opened, so there was only one other person present.

My hand still strays to the back of my head to touch the ponytail that’s no longer there. I think the experience of growing out my hair won’t be repeated (unless we face a new quarantine).

Anyway, civilized again.

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So I’m listening to podcasts, and some of them are very old (from more than ten years ago). In one I heard the participants discuss whether having work appear in a new-fangled online magazine was actually being published or not. Was it more legit to appear in a print journal instead? And the (tentative) conclusion at the time was that maybe it was good to appear online since so many more people would have the chance to read the work.

In more current podcasts (during and post-pandemic) the conversation sometimes turns to whether we should return to in-person readings at bookstores and similar venues. And the (tentative) conclusion is that doing a Zoom reading means appearing before so many more people than could have shown up at a bookstore reading.