Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Let us together

resolve to do the little but oh so important things better and more often next year. Let us

* tell often and with true feeling those whom we love that we do indeed love them

* take a deep breath and pause a few seconds before doing anything mean or in anger

* rush headlong into acts of kindness and love

* hug like we mean it--and mean it

* hide not our passions but share them like rainbows of flame lighting a dark night so others might find better passage

* be present to the greatest degree we can manage: taste each bite, consider each word, let each note carry us away, read so deeply we become part of the story, savor each moment

I hope you end 2008 at peace and with joy in your heart, and I hope 2009 brings you more of each.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Valkyrie

was better than most of its reviews, though ultimately and unavoidably somewhat unsatisfying, because we all know the assassination attempt on Hitler failed. Despite that handicap, however, the film did a better than decent job of building tension and even hope that the coup might succeed.

Kyle and I joined about a dozen other hardy souls who went to a Monday night late show to watch Tom Cruise in an eye patch, and no one was disappointed: Director Bryan Singer injured Cruise early and got us quickly to the patch. As it turns out, however, the missing right hand, two left-hand fingers, and eye patch were not the most distracting parts of his appearance. That honor went to his hair, which actually managed to help distract you from the fact that it was Tom Cruise.

I have to give Cruise credit for doing a passable job in the role. There were whole seconds where I wasn't completely aware it was Tom Cruise--which is rare in one of his films. The best performances, however, came from the large number of talented British actors, each and every one of which acted Cruise under the carpet. It was a pleasure to watch these characters come to life on screen and then, later, realize, wasn't that Eddie Izzard? Bill Nighy in a serious role? Kenneth Branaugh sure doesn't look healthy. And so on.

I can't recommend the film wholeheartedly, and I haven't yet seen any of the other holiday offerings vying for your theater dollars, but this one is worth a look if you don't mind already knowing how it's going to turn out.

Monday, December 29, 2008

When you want zombies

you want zombies, and hellspawn simply won't do. That was the lesson of last night's late-show screening of Trailer Park of Terror. The Amazon page for the DVD specifically refers to "hillbilly zombies," so Kyle and I quite reasonably assumed we'd get to see zombies. The movie otherwise sounded promising; after all, the undead shambling amuck in a trailer park could easily provide great entertainment value.

Instead, we watched a truly horrifying opening trailer-park bit, a sequence that showed more promise than the rest of the movie put together, and then the film devolved into a relatively standard almost-every-kid-dies slasheresque flick. The best parts were the trailer-park actors, who ate the scenery (if no brains) extremely well, and the moments of inspired trailer-park lunacy.

If you're a horror-film fan in search of a hit of something on the odd side, check out Trailer Park of Terror. If you're in the mood for zombies, though, give it a pass.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The scary part of this phase

Each phase of writing brings, at least for me, its own particular set of demons. The chief demon in the plotting stage is the big ugly of uncertainty: What if I can't come up with a strong enough plot? What if the concept I've been contemplating is no good? Most frightening, of course, is this one: What if I never finish figuring it out and never start writing again?

Once I'm writing a book, the fear changes to concerns about the quality of the work, but I know that if I slog away at it, I will finish. After all, I have an outline, so all I have to do is write my way through it. All I have to do.

In the outlining stage, though, I never know exactly how long it will take to crystallize the plan, much less to feel good enough about it that I'm willing to start the book itself.

Kyle remarked to me that anyone who reads my blog will know how crazy I am. I disagree. I think any reader will know how neurotic I am about writing--but being neurotic and being a writer have, in my experience, a perfect correlation.

Back to the happy days of contemplating the next novel.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The early days of a novel

A few folks have asked me what exactly I do on a book in these early days, before I'm actually writing the novel, even before I'm writing the outline, so I thought I'd try to explain.

The bulk of the time I spend on a book at this stage is simply thinking. I do this as much as possible, while driving, walking, sitting and staring into space, or anything else that permits free-ranging thought. I ponder what I know of the book, what I don't, and I try to let my subconscious shift from the last book into this one.

I also spend time reading, staring at pictures, and consulting any source that seems relevant to the work I'm creating.

Finally, I sit with a notebook and a pen, and I write notes, usually a dialog with myself. Maybe someday I'll scan some of these for a past book and show you; if you're interested, let me know. I will write notes about the flow of the book, potential scenes, and issues I'm facing. I'll ask myself questions, answer them, then dismiss the answers and try again. It's more or less the writing equivalent of talking to myself--but with a written record of the conversation and the good bits marked for later use.

From the outside, except when I'm writing in my notebook I'm sure I appear to be doing nothing. Trust me, though, it is work, and it's a vital part of the process.

And now, back to it.

Overthrowing Heaven is outta here!

I worked all night and fell, exhausted, into bed around 7:00 a.m. Before I did so, however, I mailed Toni (and others at Baen) the complete and ready to publish Overthrowing Heaven. With luck, she'll be offering it as an eARC sometime fairly soon, though I confess that I don't know the schedule.

When I started writing every day, I told Dave that after I finished three books I would give myself a day off.

He said, "No, you won't."

He was right. So, I spent chunks of today noodling on the big issues in Children No More. Write every day: that's the rule.

I'm psyched to be done with Overthrowing Heaven. Hurrah!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Merry Christmas!

I hope your day was good and brought you joy. Our friends and extended family gathered today for dinner (20 of us at a big makeshift table in the den) and gift giving, and it was great being with everyone.

I'm cutting this short, however, because I have a book to finish, and I should be done in at most a few days. Go, me!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Thankful

I try to remind myself regularly how incredibly fortunate I really am. With all the stress of daily life, I often forget this fact, but it remains a fact nonetheless. I won't list here all the things for which I'm grateful, because I'd still be writing come the New Year, but I will say that most of all I want to thank all the people in my life for making my existence richer.

Each moment affords us the chance to find joy, but it's up to us to take those chances. In my Jon & Lobo books, Jon often muses on this very topic when he is about to go through a jump gate aperture, as he does in this small snippet from the end of chapter 7 of Overthrowing Heaven.

The lavender edges of the aperture through which we were jumping filled the edges of the image. The center was the unblemished black of every aperture on every gate in the universe, the perfect absence of light. Energy passed harmlessly through the apertures as if they weren’t there. Matter, however, behaved entirely differently: Anything that entered an aperture emerged into another area of space, typically one many light years away. Each aperture linked exactly two points, and those points never changed. A single gate might have one or many apertures; the more connections to other systems, the more important a trade center the planet near that gate became. No one knew how the gates worked or what made them appear, but every time we found a new one, right nearby we always found a planet suitable for human life.

I’d jumped hundreds of times, and each time the experience moved me. A vital part of the fabric that held together the far-flung human species, the jump gates managed to feel both effortlessly natural and somehow deeply wrong. I wondered if early air travelers felt the same way about airplanes.

The ship in front of us vanished through the aperture, and its perfect blackness completely filled the display. All that we could see, everything in front of us, was impossibly pure nothingness, no hint as to our future, no evidence of material for creating that future, just an emptiness, and in the moment before we entered it I silently wished, as I always did, that what awaited us would offer hope and opportunity and the possibility of joy.

We jumped.
We're all jumping all the time, moving from one point in space to another, diving into the unknowable future, and the possibility of joy awaits us all. I hope you find it tonight, tomorrow, and in all the days ahead.

I'm tired of wrapping

but I'm not done, so I have to get back to it. You may be in the same predicament. If so, you have my sympathy.

To ease your suffering, I'll embarrass myself a bit by sharing with you two songs (the video component of each is just an album cover) by one of those bands I have no real excuse for loving: The Grass Roots. I imprinted on their music when I was young, and I still like it.





Feel better now?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Latkes as expanding universes

Last night, we enjoyed another of our extended family's holiday rituals: Gina's Channukah latke party. We chat, exchange some presents, and, of course, eat latkes. Team Latke--usually Josh, Mara, and Jennie on the fryers, plus Christy and Gina doing support work--turn a great many potatoes and vast quantities of oil into the deceptively small looking potato pancakes.

You learn how dense they are only later, when it's too late.

I ate two. Each year, I eat only two (with the exception of one very foolish time at which I consumed three of them and paid the price later). Each year, I learn anew that two potato pancakes that when stacked are no bigger than a single hamburger actually can expand in my stomach into something roughly the size and shape of a 1956 chevy standing on its end. They do taste good, though, which is why you have to be particularly careful about how many you eat. Now, over twenty-four hours later, I think they're finally done expanding, though I won't know for sure until tomorrow.

If you've never eaten a latke, definitely try them--but do allow an appropriate amount of recovery time.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Mint still rules

A group of eleven of us ate at The Mint last night, and once again I must report that the meal was superb. Chef Eric Foster created a tasting menu for us that was the most ambitious offering we've had in the Triangle area, and he and his kitchen pulled it off admirably. The visual highlight was a tangerine juice globe that covered a small portion of some of the best Ahi tuna I've ever tasted. The sous vide duck was perfect, everything duck can be with none of the usual drawbacks. I could go on and on, but I won't; just go eat there.

I should mention that midway through the meal I learned that Jeremy Clayman, the former Executive Chef, was no longer with the restaurant. I don't know any of the particulars about what happened, but I want to know where he landed so I can eat there. (Jeremy, if you read this, email me!)

The best line of the night came from our server, the redoubtable Thea (whose last name I do not give only because I do not know it), who said,

I've seen the things they can do to a squash in this building, and I'm not worried.
How can you not love a woman who says that?

Make up your own story about why she said it. I'm not telling.

On the last Saturday before Christmas, The Mint had multiple empty tables. I very much hope this place survives; if you live in the area, please give it your business.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pass three complete

I'm finished the third pass of Overthrowing Heaven. Though there's red ink on almost every page, the book is clean, cleaner than any previous novel at this stage. Overall, I'm surprisingly happy with it. I think it's the strongest book yet. It will not need a fifth pass. Once I key in these changes and rework certain key sections, I'll be done.

I actually hope to finish before Christmas.

That's a good thing, by the way, because I received the typeset paperback of Slanted Jack, and those pages are missing a key component: the teaser first chapter of Overthrowing Heaven. I need to get this book to my publisher.

And soon, very soon, I will.

It's Love Actually time again

Tonight, we watched this movie, as we do each year at Christmas time, and once again, I loved it. The relentless optimism is infectious and touching. At several moments during the film I am not (too) embarrassed to admit that I tear up and that my heart pounds so hard in my chest I can barely stand it.

I know there are bad people in the world, and more importantly, I know that even good people often do bad things for reasons they deem to be good. I firmly believe, however, that most of the time on most days most people are just trying to live their lives as best they can, to care for those they love, to do their jobs well, to be decent to others, to love and be loved. Love Actually celebrates the power of love in a form that is so clearly and unabashedly a fantasy that I cannot help but cheer for it over and over. As I did last year, I recommend it highly.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Handwritten notes

When I was growing up, my mother taught me that many situations required a handwritten note. Someone gives you a gift, you write them a note. You want to invite people to a fancy party, you write them all invitations. If you can't attend said party, you send your regrets in a handwritten note. You do so with the best pen you have on the best paper you can afford, ideally notes printed for this very purpose.

Almost none of these situations ever applied to our life. We received almost no gifts from anyone outside our immediate family. We were poor and did not throw fancy parties, nor did anyone invite us to them. Our pens were cheap, as was our paper.

The lesson, though, stuck with me, and at some level I still believe it. That's the reason that I am personally writing well over two hundred thank-you notes to my company's clients. The notes are brief, and my handwriting is awful, but they are handwritten, and that seems to me, given my mother's training, to make them both more personal and somehow better. After all, I email people all day long, but I rarely write notes.

I wonder, though, whether this belief is a passing fancy, a notion lost on generations younger than mine, or at least on the children of generations younger than mine. I certainly rarely bother to handwrite, even when I have topics of great import to cover. Email is my medium.

I do, though, appreciate the rare handwritten note I receive, and I suppose for that reason if for no other I shall keep writing these cards to demonstrate, in this small way, how truly thankful I am to our clients for their business.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Charnel House

As you can probably tell from the pictures I've posted of my office, I love books. I don't mean just their contents, the stories inside them; I love books as objects. A fine book is a beautiful thing, a wonder to feel and read and admire. If you're into books as fine art objects, you owe it to yourself to check out Charnel House.

Charnel House is a small press that publishes at most a few books in a year, usually and usually only one or two. Publisher Joe Stefko spares no expense in designing and assembling the limited and lettered editions of his books, and they are lovely. I just received the limited of Dean Koontz's Odd Hours, and it was love at first touch. The cover, the dimensions, the paper--everything about the book is beautiful.

Charnel House books are, by standard book pricing, insanely expensive, but if you consider them to be art, then they appear much more reasonable. If you've been considering treating yourself, you should give the few remaining volumes (most are sold out) a look.

Snakes on a plane

In a comment to last night's post, Fred asked if I'd seen Snakes on a Plane. I have to admit it: I did. Worse, I enjoyed that movie more than I hated it. I even own and have watched the DVD.

I told you I'd see anything.

I can defend my position somewhat. Though Snakes was simultaneously both more stupid than it should have been and entirely too serious about itself, it still had moments of great (if unbelievable) viewing pleasure: the two bathroom snake bites and the anaconda eating the amazingly rude man spring immediately to mind. Plus, the concept was great enough that even though this movie executed it badly, you still had to admire the basic notion.

From what Ed said in his comment, the concept of this Day the Earth Stood Still remake is so wrongheaded that as soon as you hear it, you know you don't want to see the movie. That's a very big and important difference.

And yet, after all this, I am still strangely tempted by Day....

Someone stop him before he buys a ticket!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still

I loved the original movie, and I still think it's underrated. I watched the trailer for the remake with considerable trepidation, but like everyone I had to applaud the casting of Keanu Reeves as a robotic alien; after all, the more robot-like the character, the better Reeves is at playing it. The new version even led at the box office this past weekend.

I just haven't been able to make myself go see it.

Understand: I'll go see anything. Okay, that's a lie: I gave Soul Plane a pass (though I'm now wondering if that was an error). For some reason, I am afraid this particular remake might make me so angry I would do something inappropriate in the theater, so I'm saving it for DVD viewing.

I do, though, hate that I'm not supporting an SF film. Maybe I'll talk myself into it if I take off some time over the holidays. If any of you have seen it, please drop me a note and let me know what you thought of it; I remain curious.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Two essential Christmas songs

I have a lot of holiday traditions. If you count all the traditions of my extended family, I have an amazingly large number of such traditions. I don't mind, though; in fact, I quite like them.

One of those traditions is making the time to listen to a few special songs--not your usual Christmas songs, but those that crack me up. Two in particular spring to mind.

The first is funny as long as you have a sick sense of humor. Check it out, and listen carefully; Steve Martin is hilarious.


The second may be funny only to those who have seen Love Actually, but that's okay; if you haven't seen that film, buy it now and watch it immediately. Most of the following video is not in the movie, but some parts are, and the performance by Bill Nighy as Billy Mack is wonderful. Enjoy.


Oh, heck, I know I said two songs, but we have to end with Bruce. We just have no choice. I saw him and the E Street Band do this song in 1984, and it was marvelous. This video is a great rendering. You gotta love Bruce and Clarence singing together.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Time to put on a tux

A long time ago, I swore that when I finally had to wear a tuxedo for an event, I would buy one. After all, it seemed to me, every man should own a tux.

Some years later, I was asked to be a presenter at an awards ceremony at the MGM Grand Garden, during COMDEX, of course. The gala affair--and it really was quite a production--was in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the microprocessor. I gave an award to one of the early important chips.

Yeah, I know, how much geekier could a guy get?

A tux was mandatory dress for male presenters, so, true to my word, I bought one.

I now seek occasions to wear it.

The thing about a tux is that you know you don't look as good in it (or anything, ever) as Cary Grant or Daniel Craig or Sean Connery or any of the many other Hollywood leading men who wore theirs with such style and who looked so good in them that the tux became the defining dress-up symbol for men. The problem is, once you're in a tux, you feel like maybe, just maybe you might have a chance to look like them.

As an entirely too fat, entirely too old guy with a white beard, I know I don't look good--but for no good reason, when it comes to putting on a tux, I keep hoping.

Tonight is the one night of the year I definitely wear a tux: my company's seasonal celebration (aka holiday party aka company party). I doubt I'll post any pictures (or take any), but I will wear a tux and for a few seconds, alone in my bedroom and away from a mirror, I'll wish again I could be as handsome and cool as, say, Cary Grant in Houseboat, and for just a heartbeat, I'll imagine it's possible.

One event, two reactions

When our plane landed in Portland, the flight attendant asked everyone on the plane to stay in their seats "while our soldiers returning home get a chance to be the first to reach Portland." Everyone complied, and the passengers spontaneously applauded as several soldiers walked down the aisle.

I had two very different, very strong, and immediate reactions.

I was happy that people were so supportive of our troops.

I was sad for my friend, David Drake, and for all the other Viet Nam veterans who came home to people spitting on them and calling them baby killers.

Both wars were, in my opinion, ill-conceived and wrongheaded. I did not and do not support either war. Both caused untold physical and psychological damage to our troops and to those who live in the countries where we fought. In both, however, the soldiers were simply citizens doing what they perceived to be their duty. They did the best they could in situations more awful than most of us will ever encounter, and they paid a huge price. The living are still paying it. They will until they die.

Consequently, though I want us to end this war as quickly as possible, I had no problem clapping for these returning Iraq War veterans. They've earned our support.

I do wish someone had done the same for Dave and the other returning Viet Nam vets. They also earned our support.

Friday, December 12, 2008

On the road again: Portland, day 4

I’m on the plane to RDU from DFW, and so far I really can’t complain about this trip. I was able to snag first-class upgrades for both flights, which meant I got in a great deal of work. The Big Red Binder and I continued our friendship, as I plowed ever closer to the end of the third pass on Overthrowing Heaven. I really want to send this book to Toni before Christmas, and given that the eARC has to go on sale sometime early in 2009, I expect she would like me to file it. I had a long layover in DFW, but I landed at the gate opposite the Admirals’ Club, which had great bandwidth today. As I said, no real room for complaints.
I did receive karmic retribution of a sort for an error I made in the same Admirals’ Club on the way to Portland on Monday. I was hustling to the restroom, talking on the phone, and thus stupidly walked into the women’s room. Fortunately, no one was inside, and I exited quickly--to the delight of several people watching my mistake.

Tonight, I went to use the men’s room and was in a stall when the restroom door opened and a woman called out, “Hello!”

I said, “I’m in here.”

The door closed.

Less than a minute later, the door opened, and the same voice said, “Hello!”

I said, “I’m still in here, and I will be for several minutes.”

The door closed.

About a minute later, the door opened, and a different woman rattled off a sentence in Spanish.

I said, “I’m still in here.”

Payback is a bitch, I suppose.

The pilot just announced that in about an hour we will encounter some significant turbulence, so if folks needed to move around the cabin, they should do so now.

It’s great to have something exciting to look forward to. Don’t worry, though; if you’re reading this, I made it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On the road again: Portland, day 3

Ramblings from a tired brain:

The hotel's Internet connectivity has slowed to a trickle, the bits flowing to my screen like drops of reddish water falling from a rusty spout in a sink in the kind of motels where they come to change the sheets after an hour. Either the Omni in Austin called here and told this hotel's AI to stop treating me nicely, or the available bandwidth crumbled under the weight of several hundred middle-aged male guests simultaneously downloading their favorite porn films so they can fall asleep happy. Eeew.

The world may be conspiring against me today.

Lunch was at a chain Tex-Mex place that should have been reliable but that instead was serving food from a chef whose wife absconded with his truck and his dog mere minutes before a meat salesman with a three-day-old beard showed up at his back door and offered him a great price on some gray looking chicken that happened to still have fur and cute ears. He bought the gray chicken, carved a few chunks, threw it under the salamander, and served it in my quesadilla. I'm still picking fur from my teeth.

Dinner was supposed to be the one big fun event of the day: a tasting menu at Sel Gris, which I have praised before. As we were heading out the door, the fine folks at Sel Gris called to tell us that they had just closed the restaurant for the evening. It seems their neighbors had decided to paint during the prime dinner hours, and the fumes from the paint were so powerful and so toxic that the diners and the staff were feeling sick. Their neighbors probably bought that paint from a sleazy guy who was selling it out of a box still covered in blood and fur.

I'm a helper, so I'm going to pass along this advice. If it's almost four in the morning, you've been up for about twenty hours, you haven't slept much in weeks, and suddenly the little bit of dirt under the nail of your right big toe takes on an unholy fascination, a force so compelling that you absolutely must get it out immediately, without hesitation, then do not--I repeat, do not--under any circumstances get a pair of new and extremely sharp scissors, stand naked on a tile floor with one foot on the ground and the other on the bathroom counter, start to use one blade of the scissors to clean out said dirt, catch sight of yourself in the mirror, realize in a flash of insight that perhaps this is it, the defining moment, the one at which you will later look back and realize it was indeed the instant at which you began the great downward slide into insanity, and in that split second of distraction punch a hole in the tender flesh under your toe. Just don't do that. It's a mistake.

Neither knowing nor, I must assume, caring about whether their speakers have toe injuries, the fine folks at Intel's Take Five video filmed three different segments of me yakking today. I don't have a clue what I said, but I guess I'll learn when they post the videos. Assuming I didn't reveal anything too incriminating, such as, say, my inability to clean my toes, then perhaps I'll post links to the videos when Take Five releases them.

For no good reason whatsoever, I feel the need for a romantic song I like, you know, the kind of song that has been true for at least a few minutes each time you've ever loved someone. Ah, here's one. Enjoy Patti Scialfa's "As Long As I (Can Be With You)." She's the bomb.

I'm out.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On the road again: Portland, day 2

I'm sick and tired of my own exhaustion and my whining about my insanely long work days, so I'm going to give it a rest for a few entries--or until I can't stop myself from complaining again.

Today's highlight was, as it often is on such trips, dinner. As we do most Tuesday nights we're in Portland, we ate at Le Pigeon, which long-time readers of this blog will know is one of my favorite restaurants. Chef Gabriel Rucker and the two other chefs work in an open kitchen in an intimate setting, and the food they produce is always a treat. If you can get a seat at the bar, grab it, so you can watch them work. We were lucky enough to sit there tonight.

Winter is truffle season, so many fine restaurants, including Le Pigeon, are actively using this sublime ingredient. Check out their dinner menu to see the several mentions of it. I was torn between two of the starters, the pork belly and the foie, so I asked Rucker for his advice. He said I could always order both, so I did. I know: what a pig. Indeed, I was, yet both were superb. The pork belly was crisp and flavorful, while the foie was perfectly rendered. I think two arteries sealed shut as I ate these dishes.

I also sought Rucker's pick of the entrees, and he chose the poussin, which I ordered despite its description's inclusion of the brussels sprouts, an evil little cabbage I generally despise. As happens with the best chefs, however, Rucker turned the little demon into an ingredient in a mix I quite loved. I'm not saying he's converted me into a fan of this nasty tormenter of children--far from it--but if he's serving it, I'll eat it.

We arrived at 8:00 for our reservation, and Le Pigeon was busy. Shortly thereafter, it emptied. When I asked Rucker if the economy was hurting them, he waved his hand to take in the empty tables. He said, though, that they would stick. I sure hope so.

If you're reading this and you live in or will be going to Portland, eat at Le Pigeon. Rucker and his team are too talented, too nice, and just too damn good for us to let Le Pigeon vanish. Long may it fly.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

On the road again: Portland, day 1

I can summarize the day's start in a very few words:

Lights out at 2:45.
Alarm rings at 5:30.
Even though I was on an exit row aisle seat on my first flight, working was difficult because we were so crowded. Still, I managed--but not as productively as I'd hoped. I ate lunch while eating at the Admirals' Club, and I worked the whole next flight, then for hours after I got here.

A high point was a walk to pick up soda and water at a local drugstore, because evening was tucking in the city and all the lights had come out to play. We strolled and drank 72% hot chocolate from Cacao, and the beverage and the sights were treats indeed. In a square downtown we walked by this enormous tree; for perspective on its size, note the buildings behind it. This is not a photography trick; the tree really is many stories high.

As I say often, magic really is everywhere.

After a lot more work, we had a very nice dinner at Paley's Place, which features a Beard winning chef, a wonderful cheese board, and a strong emphasis on local sourcing of ingredients. The biggest surprise of the meal was the tiny ball of sweet potato ice cream we shared. I basically hate the taste of sweet potatoes, but this ice cream was wonderful.

I've been up for about 24 hours straight (it'll be longer when I can finally fall asleep), and I've slept well under seven hours in the last two nights, so I'm going to crash now. I'm hoping for a gentler tomorrow.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Rough day ahead

Determined to beat back the budget box brigand, I worked until 7:15 this morning, slept about four hours, and got busy with the day. Walking two miles on a cold, windy morning certainly helped me wake up. I am pleased to report that the result of that insane night is that I have paid all bills and reconciled all credit card statements, with only one three-hour task remaining. I will tackle it next weekend.

I have to get up at 5:30 a.m. to begin the trek to Portland, and as is my wont I have not yet shut down any of my computers, packed, or in any way prepared for the trip. So, I will do that now.

I expect to be Mr. Cheerful on the plane tomorrow.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Deceptive tree heights

We went Christmas shopping today. We've been going to the same lot for years, and in what has become a family tradition, we always look for the biggest tree with a good shape. We like big trees, and the room where we put the tree has an angled ceiling that is quite tall on one side. This trip was particularly significant because it was likely to be the last time we got to pick a tree with Sarah there (though next year we may videoconference her so she can help choose--what geeks, eh?).

Before we made it to the edge of the lot, a monster beckoned us. Even leaning against a fence railing, it towered over the others. It was wide enough that it took three of us standing side by side, as you can see in this picture, to match its width.

In this picture, though, the tree doesn't look that tall. We honestly thought we could fit it in our room.

If you're wondering, by the way, why I don't pose for more pictures, this shot could help you understand. I look like an axe murderer who just lost his axe. I do not relax well or smile well for photos.

Anyway, to continue our tale, we then proceeded to debate the merits of purchasing this tree. Several things were going against it. It weighed hundreds of pounds and would not fit through our front door. It also would not fit in our rather enormous tree stand, because as you can see in this photo, the base of its trunk was roughly the size of an elephant's foot. (Yes, we have a yard-wide, forty-pound, reinforced steel industrial Christmas tree stand. I told you we like big trees.)

After much discussion, we all had to admit that we simply could not get this tree into our house. So, we abandoned it and went for the second largest tree on the lot, one that looked tiny by comparison. We like our new tree, but we left the lot convinced we had purchased a tiny little wisp of a Christmas tree and feeling like wimps who had boarded the Christmas tree failboat.

Then we set it up in our room.

It's the biggest tree we've had in a few years. As this picture shows, using roughly five-and-a-half-feet-tall (in shoes) Allyn for comparison, and with Holden deciding at the last moment to provide some width measurement help, this is a very big tree. I took this shot right after we set it up, so the tree hasn't fully spread yet. It will definitely be a nice, large tree.

I now have to believe that had one of our schemes worked, had we been able to hire a team of men with a huge truck to bring the other tree into our house, the thing would have been too tall to fit in our usual tree spot and way too heavy for our stand to support it. We could have fixed the latter, of course, by buying an even more enormous and expensive stand--and we were up for doing that--but short of removing our kitchen island and filling the entire kitchen with a tree, we would have been out of luck.

So, we were wise to go with the small tree that actually proved to be rather large.

The budget box is still kicking my butt

Yeah, the stack of bills keeps growing, and I keep doing other things--like work, writing, and trying to survive. This weekend, though, I will conquer it. I pretty much have to take care of it, because I leave for Portland very early Monday morning. One consequence of having to overcome this major hurdle, which will take about ten hours of work, is that I will not be writing long entries this weekend. Sorry.

For those following the progress of Overthrowing Heaven, Dave's given me all his input, I think it's fair to say he liked it (he'll correct me if I'm wrong), and I am continuing to plow ahead with my on-paper editing. I'm continually amazed at all the things I need to improve on this pass, but so it goes; the book will be better for this work.

Wish me luck as I climb budget mountain.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Rethinking my relationship with my car

I've now owned and driven a Prius for almost two months, and the experience is causing me to think differently about my car and my relationship to it. What's causing this change is not the fact that the car is a hybrid; instead, it's some of the tech in the car.

For example, the default for the central display is to show you your current fuel consumption. You accelerate hard, and down goes your MPG. Take it slow and easy, and you might keep MPG high. I frankly suck at this aspect of driving, and as a result Bill is kicking my butt in the MPG race: In cold weather, he averages around 47 MPG, while I'm at 38 or 39. I am, though, trying, and not just for the good of the environment; the display is encouraging me to try.

I've also found that I've quickly come to expect and rely on the way the Prius recognizes you from your key fob. You never use a key; you just keep the key fob on you. I put it in my pocket in the morning and never touch it again. Put your hand in the driver's door, and that door unlocks. Put your hand in the front passenger door, and the whole car unlocks. When you get out, you press a little black button on either door (or the rear lift handle, which will also recognize you and unlock), and you've locked the car.

In effect, the car has joined my personal network of devices--and I haven't even yet mated my iPhone to the car's Bluetooth speaker system!

Now, when I go to drive one of our other cars, they feel dumb; I mean, I have to insert a key. What's up with that?

In another example, I have for years been a militant fan of stick shifts. Not only is the Prius an automatic, it almost has no shift at all--just a little nubbin of a knob on the dash to the right of the wheel, like a vestigial appendage a creature no longer really needs. The car doesn't want you to shift, because it knows it'll do a better job--and the odds are that it's right.

Though I do sometimes still long for heavy metal, raw speed, and street racing, all in all, I quite like the car. It really is moving me away from being an active driver and toward being a passenger. After all, if it can do all this, why can't it finish the job and drive me to work while I nap or, more likely, do email?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bruce and Jon

Jon Moore, the hero of my current novel series, has a tie to Bruce Springsteen that I thought folks might like to know.

When I wrote the first Jon story, "My Sister, My Self," lo these many years ago, I was aiming for a sense of profound loss. The side of the Springsteen album, The River--and I was listening to an album, not a CD--that contained the song, "The River," echoed the feelings of loss I wanted. So, I put that side on repeat on my turntable and started on the story. I wrote the entire story, all passes, in two four-hour evening sessions, and I played the same album side the whole time. It emptied the house, but it faded into an emotional background noise that really worked for me.

I even used a quote from the song at the start of the story. I got paid something like six cents a word for the story, or whatever the going rate was at Asimov's at the time, and I had to pay Springsteen twenty-five bucks for the right to the fifteen words of his that I quoted; it's easy to spot the richer writer, eh?

I've listened to a lot of music while writing the subsequent Jon & Lobo tales, but I still recall and love that song and associate it with my first professional sale--and the first Jon story.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Initial thoughts on the iPhone 3G

On Sunday, I bought a new iPhone 3G and transitioned my mobile number to it. (Later that night, I reset the old one and gave it to Scott, who wanted to use it as an almost iPod Touch, in which role it works well.) Having now used the thing for a couple of days, I thought I'd give you my initial impressions.

First, I think it's a bit better as a phone than the iPhone, which frankly was a mediocre phone at best, a real C student. I'd give the 3G a solid B on this front.

The 3G data network is a definite improvement anywhere it's available. I still wish that Apple had signed with Verizon instead of AT&T, but what iPhone user doesn't? Web pages download faster, email is snappier, and the thing is just nicer to use. It does, though, still lose its email brain from time to time, at which point it tries forever to connect but can never get email from either of my accounts. Powering it down and back up will fix this problem, but that's an annoying issue I was hoping the 3G network might somehow help.

The most annoying aspects of the 3G are the omissions that it shares with all iPhones, such as no ability to cut and paste. Come on, Apple, get your iPhone developers working on the items users want most!

The transition between iPhones was also nowhere near as good as it should have been. I had to re-enter all my email account settings, none of my weather cities moved, and none of my stock settings moved. Surely Apple could have backed up and restored these settings.

Overall, though, I like it.

And now, because it's been a while, here's a Blue Rodeo song. Enjoy.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The oddest call I've had in a while

I rarely answer my home office phone, because most of the calls to it are from phone solicitors. I pick up the phone when the caller ID display shows me that someone I know is trying to reach me, and I also answer when the number is local, just in case it's a business or person trying to reach someone else in the house.

Today, I answered a call from a local number, and this is how the conversation went:

Me: Hello.
Female caller: May I please speak to Reginald Cooley?
Me: I'm sorry, but you have the wrong number.
Female caller: Are you sure you're not Reginald Cooley?
Me: Yes.
Female caller: Sir, are you one hundred percent sure you're not Reginald Cooley?
Me: Yes, yes, I am, and I'm going to hang up now.
Which I did.

From the sound of the woman, Reginald is in some kind of trouble, and he must be screening his calls.

That said, how desperate to reach someone do you have to be to ask a complete stranger not once but twice if he is sure he's not that person? Does this strategy ever work? If I were Reginald Cooley, would I ever break under the pressure of the second question?

...
Female caller: Sir, are you one hundred percent sure you're not Reginald Cooley?
Me: Now that you mention it, I'm not entirely certain. I might be Reginald Cooley.
Nah, I don't think so.

Reginald, dude, if you're reading this, my advice to you is simple: don't answer your phone--and please stop giving out my number.

How do you grow your readership?

At a lovely birthday celebration dinner tonight, a friend asked me this question. I've heard the same query from beginning writers and other friends, so I thought I'd give my answer here.

Short form: You don't. You write the best book you can, and then you write the next book.

Long form: Lots of writers will give you tons of advice about marketing yourself. I think they're probably right that putting in a lot of energy can help you sell more books. I'm just not convinced that they can help you sell tons more books. That's the publisher's job, and though you can indeed do many different things to help, I suspect most of them won't nudge the needle on overall sales.

I believe you can try to find a publisher that will promote you, because what a publisher can do for you--better bookstore placement, to name but one example--is way more important than what you can do on your own. The sad truth for most of us, however, is that publishers have limited budgets, too, and they have to invest their marketing dollars where those dollars will bring the greatest return. In addition, as newer writers we're hardly in a position to insist our publishers do anything.

As writers, there's really only one thing we can control: our work. I think that's where our focus should be. Hence the short form of my answer: Write the best book you can. Then write the next book.

I'm going to return to doing the first part now. With luck, the result, Overthrowing Heaven, will be a book that grows my readership. Regardless of the sales, however, I'll be busily writing the next novel and trying to make it the best book I can.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Transporter 3

I can blame only myself.

Everyone who had considered going with me bailed.

Craig D. Lindsey, a local movie reviewer whose opinions I generally trust, said it was boring. Rotten Tomatoes gave it only 35% fresh.

But I had to go. It's got Jason Statham kicking butt, driving fast, and showing all three of the emotions (angry, not quite so angry, and smiling as he tries to pretend he's not angry) that be brings to all his roles. It's got a hot car. It's supposed to have a hot love interest, in this case Natalya Rudakova. And, of course, on principle I have to support fu flicks.

So, off I went to last night's late show at my neighborhood atomic megaplex.

Sadly, my friends, Lindsey, and Rotten Tomatoes were all right: Despite a non-stop pace and plenty of action, it ultimately was rather dull. Statham certainly looked great, and the filmmakers found every excuse they could to get his shirt off. The fu was a bit too sped up for my taste, but it was interesting enough. The car stunts were entirely unbelievable, but that didn't stop the first two in the series from being more entertaining than this entry. Rudakova was a complete waste of screen time, with nothing in her performance or look to commend her, at least as far as I was concerned. I can't blame her, however, for the movie's flaws, because she wasn't doing anything in most of its scenes. The parts should have worked, but they really didn't.

I really wanted to like Transporter 3, and I didn't hate it, but I have to rank this as the most boring of a trio of movies and the one that should, sad to say, put the final nail in the coffin of this series.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Draft 2 complete

Late Thanksgiving eve, I finished the second draft of Overthrowing Heaven. I do the third draft on paper, so I had to print two copies of the 512-page manuscript: one for Dave's review, and one for me and the big red binder.

Of course, the toner cartridge died on my black-and-white printer.

Of course, the team that's supposed to make sure I have a spare of all supplies in my home office--a team of which I am obviously a member--had failed to do so.

Off I drove to the office.

Some time later, I had the two manuscripts. I gave Dave his copy yesterday. He has very graciously already started reading and has given me some small corrections and a nice characterization tip. Each of my novels has improved thanks to him, and this one will be no exception.

For those who are curious, the book is now over 134,000 words, about 15,000 words longer than Slanted Jack and easily the longest thing I've ever written.

I'm enjoying my third pass through it, though finding tons of things to improve and often scratching my head in wonder at my own sloppiness and stupidity. I suppose that's par for the course, though I do hate making mistakes and doing less than my best work.

Fortunately, that's why I have passes three and four!

Onward!

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope yours was good.

Mine was what it is most years: Dinner with family and extended family and friends at Dave and Jo's house. I do nothing beyond driving and eating, and I'm okay with that; I appreciate all that others do to make the meal special. We hang out, talk, eat, talk, take a walk, talk, rest, and then eat vast quantities of dessert (which always includes my personal favorite, banana cream pie). Each year is much like the others, and that is just fine with me.

This time of year, the weeks pass in a blur of traditional events and many gatherings with family and friends, and at times I fail to remember how very, very lucky I am to have such people in my life. Not today, though; today, I reminded myself multiple times how very fortunate indeed I am. I truly am.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A talk well worth watching

As long-time readers of this blog may recall, last year I was lucky enough to attend TED@Aspen, a satellite location that participated in the famous TED conference via a blend of mostly simulcast and some live local talks. I had a wonderful time, and I left with my heart and my brain overflowing. All the talks were good, and many were simply awesome, but one that stood out to me has recently become available online. For your enjoyment, here's a link to that online version. (I originally embedded it, but the video took so long to load that I couldn't stand it and opted for the link instead.)

Note that I refer to it as the online version; that's because the real talk ran much longer and included an amazing several minutes during which Zander got everyone at the conference to sing (phonetically) the German words to Beethoven's "Ode To Joy." I wish I could show you that full version here, but I can't; you'll have to come by my house to see it.

I watched this online version the night before last, and it hit me strongly enough that last night I dug out my TED Blu-Ray discs and played the full talk for my family. (Yes, I insisted Sarah and Scott watch. I do that sometimes.)

I hope you find it as wonderful as I did.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

You can pre-order Overthrowing Heaven on Amazon!

My friend Lynn told me about this. Check it out: You can pre-order Overthrowing Heaven here.

Not one to play favorites, I checked Barnes and Noble, and they don't yet offer it.

I also went to the Borders site, and that was a weird experience. You can search for the book and will get this screen, which claims to let you pre-order my as yet not finished novel, but clicking the pre-order button does nothing. Unfortunate.

Now that the book is available, I have a simple plan: If each person reading this entry gets a thousand of his or her closest friends / co-workers / students / enemies / dead people with active credit cards to pre-order the book, I might make a bestseller list. I would then do the happy dance on video. Isn't that a great deal?

Seriously, I know I shouldn't even pay attention to little things like this, and I do try to avoid them, but the moment I know they're out there, I obsess over them. What a big baby.

On that note, I will turn away from crass commercialism and focus again on the part of the whole process I can currently control: Finishing the book!

Because sometimes you just have to

I'm working on the end of draft two of Overthrowing Heaven. I'm closing in on it, and now that I'm so close to finishing this pass I know what I must play over and over: Jeff Buckley's cover of "Hallelujah."



Leonard Cohen wrote it, and I love his version, but for my money this Jeff Buckley rendition, the one from the album, not any of the live sessions, is the definitive one, the one you must hear. I chose this YouTube post, which isn't a video at all, just an excuse to post the song, precisely so you get Buckley from the ablum.

From the opening breath to the final notes, this song is pure and powerful and gut-wrenching.

What I love about this song is that you can listen to the words and spend as much time as you're willing to devote to it trying to decide exactly what Cohen meant--or you can simply let the sound of it, the mood of it, carry you away and feel it so strongly it overcomes you. No wonder the song appears so often on TV shows and is the subject of so many online postings.

Some songs hit me, reach inside me, and yank out a burbling sun of feelings, an ongoing natural reactor that is constantly on the edge of exploding. I can crank up this song, stand in the middle of a room, close my eyes, and work myself up to the point of almost unbearable emotion, body shaking, eyes squeezed shut, tears leaking.

Why would I do that?

Because life should be that intense sometimes, because art should hit us that hard, because I dream of writing sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books that smack someone else's heart around, that for a second let the two of us stand together in the searing, soaring fire of shared emotion.

It's true: I'm such a teenager still, all these years later.

You know what, though?

I hope I always am.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

is the sweetest foul-mouthed, dirty movie you're likely to see. Inherent in the contradictory nature of those adjectives is the contradiction that is Kevin Smith's body of work: It's fundamentally sentimental, a sweet-natured oeuvre dedicated to the values of (an extended and chosen) family, the old neighborhood, longstanding friendships, and so on. It's also potty-mouthed in the extreme, obsessed with the concerns of middle-school boys (from girls to masturbating to dumb jokes to superheros, in comics and elsewhere), and in many ways adolescent.

No wonder I love his work.

Zack and Miri explores two roommates who have been friends since kindergarten but never dated and who are now in such deep debt that their Pittsburgh apartment is facing winter with no power, heat, or water. Their debt is their own doing--like many leads in Smith's movies, these two are not the brightest and do not exhibit the best self-control--but it is still a very real problem. For reasons that the movie sells well enough, they come to believe they could make money by creating their own homemade porno film, and off we go.

The plot is entirely predictable; you know from the movie's name and the first two minutes with each character how it's going to play out.

I still loved it, in fact liked it way more than it deserves as a film evaluated by any objective standards. I think that's because, like Smith, I want to believe in a world where friends stay friends their whole lives, where they take care of each other no matter what, where the family you choose really is family in all the best senses of the term, where the notion of home matters, and where romance is always possible, if not inevitable.

I suspect most people will not like this film as much as I did, and so I have trouble recommending it broadly. At the same time, if Kevin Smith, in his frequent Internet trolling, happens to read this, I just want to say: Well done, dude, and you can come hang at my house anytime.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

If it's not tied to me

I can forget it. When I tell many people, including some who have known me for years, how absentminded I am, they often poooh-pooh the idea. Because I don't tend to forget much in business and other meetings, they assume I must be exaggerating.

I'm not. If something isn't attached to me, or if someone speaks to me while I'm going through one of my many reminder rituals, I can forget it.

Case in point: lunch today. I had to take Sarah to her violin lesson and hang out there for about an hour. No problem; I have reading I want to do, and I needed to call my mom. Last night, to make sure I wouldn't forget the book I'm reading, I put a pair of glasses in the book cover (I safeguard each book I'm reading in a black leather book cover), then put the book on my dresser. At the last minute, though, I realized I could still forget the book because it wouldn't be directly in front of me on the dresser in the morning when I was grabbing my stuff (keys, wallet, handkerchief, knife, etc.). So, I put my keys on top of the book.

This morning, I was running right on the edge of late, as usual. After my shower, I dressed quickly, started grabbing stuff from the dresser, noticed the keys on the book, took both of them, and left. I drove to the lesson, made my call and read, and then took Sarah to lunch at a place near our house. We ordered, the guy told us the total, and I reached for my wallet--which I'd left on my dresser.

You see, each day after I put my keys in my pocket I reach one more time to the dresser, for my wallet and comb. I'd reached one more time today, but I'd grabbed the book. The ritual part of my brain knew I'd reached enough times, so it let me leave.

I apologized to the guy who'd taken our order, apologized to Sarah, and drove us home. All ended well--we returned to the restaurant, repeated our orders, and enjoyed our meal--but it was a classic case of my forgetfulness.

If you're ever around me while I'm packing or getting ready to go somewhere, and I ask you not to talk to me, please remember this incident. I'm not trying to be mean; I just don't want to forget anything. I really am that absentminded.

A geek milestone

In the last century and the beginning of this one, I worked for Ziff-Davis. The particular words after the ZD part changed, but the company was always Ziff-Davis, and it was a technology media powerhouse. The flagship property, the unsinkable battleship of the fleet, was PC Magazine.

Ziff-Davis Media, one of the two companies with the Z-D at the start of their names, announced this week that PC Magazine was going all digital--meaning, it was losing money in print and doing okay online, so they bagged the print edition.

I know it's just another magazine to fall victim to the combination of the consolidation of the computer industry and the rise of Internet-based publishing, but to me it's a special loss. Though I never worked directly for it, and though I've had only a few articles in it, as a ZD employee I served it in many ways, and it was always the rock of the company. I wish it well in the online-only format, but I'm still sad to see the paper version go.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

On the road again: Austin, day 4

The chicken and the poodle died in vain.
Omni shower: 3; Mark: 1. ‘Nuff said.

While I was on the treadmill this morning, an attractive mid-thirties woman entered the small hotel gym, approached me, gave me her best winning smile, and asked, “How much longer will you be there?” I considered lying and stopping early, but only for a split second, and then I answered truthfully, “Seventeen minutes.” She left clearly peeved.

Jennie, who was on the other treadmill, later commented, “You notice she didn’t ask me.”

Are we men really so gullible as to give up something we want for a winning smile?

In general, hell yeah.

But not today, and not in a gym, at least not I.

I’m happy to be free of that hell-hole of a hotel and back home. I had an exit-row aisle seat on the short leg from Austin to DFW, and on the longer flight home I was lucky enough to get the bulkhead aisle seat. I used to hate the bulkhead row, because you have to put your briefcase overhead until the pilot turns off the seatbelt lights, but I’ve come to appreciate the one great virtue of those seats: No one in front of you can lean into your space. So, I was able to work almost the entire flight, which is exactly what I want to do when I'm on a plane.

Last year, I sent Toni Slanted Jack on December 5. I’m pretty sure I’ll be a bit later with Overthrowing Heaven this year, but I am plowing ahead on the novel. As always, I’m not at all sure anyone else will like the book, but I’m enjoying it, and that’s a lot, really all that I can make sure I do.

Still, I hope you like it, too, when you read it. Don’t all writers?

On the road again: Austin, day 3

The hotel is intensifying its hate campaign against me.

The bandwidth has turned from bad to teasingly bad: working for a few seconds, then cutting out entirely, then sending an entire message as if it were an actual broadband connection, and then sneering at my Outbox queue.

Not content to hurt me only while I'm here, the hotel has now contacted the Schlotzsky's, whose reliable bandwidth of yesterday is now a distant dream. Today, it cut out at a crucial moment in an email interchange, failing entirely, the network itself gone. Some may think it's a coincidence, but I know the hotel is behind it.

The housekeeping staff has joined the battle, too. Today, they stole a bathrobe; fortunately, one was in reserve. They didn't clean the room until late in the afternoon, when I needed to be working in it. I now have to check my towels for scorpions; good thing I'm vigilant.

On the water combat front, I'm sad to report that my shower has game. No longer content to behave randomly, it is now directly targeting me, staying warm until I'm fully under it, then cutting immediately to freezing and from there in mere seconds to scalding.

I hate this hotel. It hates me. I will beg for crash space from friends before I will ever stay here again.

Dinner saved the day by being an excellent time with client friends at Uchi, a sushi place I recommend enthusiastically. I would list for you everything the five of us tried, but I honestly can't remember it all. Suffice to say that we spent enough that as we were leaving the wait staff began dancing and singing that the recession was over.

The bandwidth issues this trip are costing me hours each day, so I must cut short this rant, take last night's coughed-up, slimy chicken and poodle, which we finally trapped, tack them to the floor of my room, and sacrifice them to the hotel's bandwidth gods.

If those demonic creatures judge my little critters to be tasty enough, perhaps I'll even get to send some mail.

Lucky me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On the road again: Austin, day 2

I hate this hotel. The bandwidth sucks, though I must give credit where credit is due: Tonight, it is only the worst I've had in a hotel in years, as opposed to last night, when it was effectively unusable. Still, my phone downloads email over the cellular (non-3G) network faster than my notebook over this hotel's supposedly broadband Internet service--which costs the usual $9.99 a day. I hate this place.

What made email possible was a mid-day two-hour lunch at Schlotzsky's, which offers free WiFi. Thank goodness for that place, or I'd never have caught up on email.

I ran into a Barnes & Noble right after lunch to see if they had my books and perhaps to sign stock, but they had only one paperback of One Jump Ahead, so I didn't bother the staff. They had filed it under "N", however, so I moved it to "V". Frustrating.

Back to the hotel. I don't drink coffee, and I don't drink tea; I use no beverages to jump-start the day. I depend on a long (if time permits) hot shower. Unfortunately, this hotel's shower sucks worse than its bandwidth. You have two settings: ice cold, and random. Given my need to wake up but my lack of desire for early morning pain, plus my goal of soaking a bit after exercising, I opted for random. Consequently, in the course of ten tension-filled minutes I experienced water so cold my genitals fled to my throat, thus strangling my screams of pain, and scalding liquid so hot I once pulled the shower curtain in front of me for protection and squealed like a little girl.

Perhaps I'll go for ice cold tomorrow.

The non-work high point of today was dinner at the truly exceptional Lambert's Downtown Barbecue. Though I could tell from the taste--and the server later confirmed--that they cooked their meat over gas with wood added for smoke infusion, a sin that would cause me to take an immediate dislike to most barbecue places (but one I commit at home from sheer laziness), here it simply made me all the more awestruck at the quality of their food. We sampled an enormous amount:

* deviled eggs with caviar
* housemade charcuterie platter
* side of macaroni and three cheeses
* pulled pork
* brisket
* beef ribs
* jalapeno sausage (not too hot at all)
* bread pudding
* fried chocolate pie with homemade ice cream (which Jennie deemed "too wee")

The worst was darn good; most was excellent by any measure. This place is now on my Austin must-eat list.

After dinner, like all good fat Americans, we waddled out to our giant SUV, squealed our way out of the parking garage, watching as our fuel gauge dropped faster than the altitude in the building, and ran over three pedestrians on the way back to our hotel. Getting out of the SUV so disturbed our distended guts that we each hacked up a small animal we'd inadvertently eaten in the course of our meal; where Jennie found a chicken I will never know, and my poodle skittered away before I could step on it and put it out of its misery.

I had to send my ass and stomach on separate elevators up to my room, where I'm now using the king-sized bed as a chair to support my enormous mass as I type this entry.

I'm so happy to be an American!

Monday, November 17, 2008

On the road again: Austin, day 1

The day began with the flights looking ominous: a middle seat on one leg, and no assigned seat at all on the other. Fortunately, being a lifetime American Airlines Platinum traveler paid off again, and both the upgrades I requested came through. Thus, I was able to work quite a lot on the first leg, and I was never forced to curl in my shoulders to avoid sharing body heat with a stranger.
The luggage pick-up was slow but not unusually slow, and the rental car pick-up was the same.

Then we hit the hotel: the Omni Austin Downtown. This place appears to be a nice establishment, and the room is fine, but the rest of the experience here has sucked rocks. The bandwidth is the worst I've experienced in a long time, our reservations were messed up, the reservation and wireless sign-up software systems use different rules (which I had to figure out, explain to their tech support, and get the manager to act on), and the staff seemed nice but clueless. I will not stay here again if I can possibly help it, and I cannot recommend this place.

To be fair, I must give the hotel this one excuse: It is full of attendees of the Supercomputing 2008 conference, SC08. I suspect at least some of the Internet performance issues have to do with the fact that this is one seriously geek-heavy crowd. That said, I wish I could move to another hotel, one where it didn't take 37 minutes to download 11MB of email or six tries and ten minutes to upload five messages, but I can't.

I continue to chug along on Overthrowing Heaven and hope to move soon from pass two to pass three--and for the first time to let another person (Dave) see it. I'm sincerely hoping it doesn't suck. I don't think it does, but at this stage of any book I can't trust my own opinion.

Time to unpack, then back to work. I hope each of you had a less frustrating day than I did.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Quantum of Solace: YES!

As I'd mentioned earlier, on Friday we closed our entire company for a few hours and went en masse to see Quantum of Solace. My verdict on the new Bond movie is in this entry's title; go see it.

Daniel Craig continues to remake the role, and he is definitively my favorite Bond. Even Connery, the previous best Bond by a large margin, could not deliver the blend of thug and sophisticate that Craig portrays. The director and writer continued the practice from Casino Royale of creating a more realistic Bond, one with real rage who both hurts others and suffers himself. That's not to say, of course, that the movie is anywhere near realistic; it's not, and that's fine. You still get the great stunts, the extraordinary locations, and many of the other trappings of a Bond flick. Still, if the Roger Moore movies with the Jaws character are at the far left end of the realism scale, firmly holding their grip on unreality, then Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace anchor the far right side, pushing Bond as close toward realism as anyone yet.

The best fight scene in the movie, by the way, was a small one, just Bond and another guy in a knife fight. It had the brutality, speed, sense of danger, and unpredictability of a real fight, and Bond's violent nature has never been clearer than during this battle.

Yeah, the title song does suck, and Olga Kurylenko proves yet again that Americans will accept any accent that isn't their own as being any other accent, but those are quibbles. I liked this movie quite a lot, and I heartily recommend it.

And the winner of the Zombie film mini-festival is

(drum roll)

Dance of the Dead. Of the four contenders, which we watched in this order

Zombies Zombies Zombies
Zombie Strippers
Dance of the Dead
Poultrygeist
Dance of the Dead was far and away the best. I can honestly recommend watching it for a fun time.

The worst of the crop has to be Poultrygeist, which even by Troma standards sucked rocks. It might have squeaked out a victory over Zombies Zombies Zombies, but it was 15 minutes longer and therefore significantly more painful.
On the UFC front, almost all the fights were good, and Brock Lesnar emerged victorious in the second round of a contest that he had largely controlled up to the point at which he TKO'd Randy Couture. Beating Lesnar will be an interesting challenge for ary heavyweight.

Finally, in my own three ongoing battles--the second draft of Overthrowing Heaven, catching up on the budget box work, and taming my work life--I am doing well, failing, and failing miserably, respectively. Still, I remain optimistic--and Monday morning before my trip, no matter what, I must trim my beard so I can be professional in appearance for my clients. Here's hoping I tame the wily budget box before then.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Zombies Zombies Zombies (aka Strippers vs. Zombies)

Do you know what I do here?

Yeah, you make crack that turns whores into zombies!
Kyle's visiting, so we're dipping into the zombie DVD stash for some late-night entertainment. Tonight's first (yes, we're doing another one later) blood-drenched choice was this fine waste of 82 minutes of our lives.

The film begins with a 3D zombie movie within the movie that exists only to make you realize that the actual film could have been much, much worse. The mere thought is staggering.

We then endure about 40 minutes before the first zombie appears. During that time, we get almost no nudity--which is a sin in a movie with this alternate title--and instead must endure that scariest of uses of screen time in a movie built entirely around terrible actors: character development.

Like we give a shit.

Seriously, folks, we all know that when you settle down to watch a movie with strippers and zombies, you want two things:

* strippers gettin' nekkid
* zombies eatin' folks
That's it.

Of course, there's always the possibility that I'm being unfair to the filmmakers. Maybe they set out to craft a sensitive drama about the relationship between prostitution, stripping, and zombies. Maybe the bad cafe scene's dialog was an attempt to bring to the screen a cinema verite discussion among a bunch of low-life mental deficients about the various ways in which society consumes us all and ultimately reduces all of us to zombies.

Maybe. But would it have hurt them to throw in more nudity and maybe a couple of zombies eating the cook and the waitress? No. You know it wouldn't.

I opened with the movie's best bit of dialog, but to be fair to this one, it did leave us all howling with pain-tinged laughter on many occasions. Bad dialog was as thick on the ground as blood.

I also have to give the movie credit for showing perhaps the rattiest cat I have ever seen. This critter was so nasty that Kyle speculated they must have glued lint to it; sadly, I think that was actually its fur. In the credits, we learned that the role of Scruffy the Cat was in fact played by Scruffy the Cat and that the film was in memory of Scruffy.

A fitting tribute.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Doug and the Slugs story

I'm still struggling to keep up with work, so I was planning to keep this short. A few folks have asked me to tell the Doug and the Slugs magic moment story, and it's short. Put those two facts together, and you get tonight's blog entry.

I should mention that to me a magic moment is when life presents you with something that feels magical. True magic, something that breaks the rules of science, is unnecessary (and probably doesn't exist). It's the feeling of magic that matters.

In late summer of 1988 (I think that's the date), I was visiting some friends in Toronto. Doug and the Slugs were playing at an amphitheater down by the lake, and we were lucky enough to get tickets. In fact, our luck was so good that our tickets were for the last row that the venue's ceiling completely covered; most of the seats were in the open. The day was lovely, not a cloud in the sky, so the uncovered seats and the grass were all covered by fans, and I regretted having paid extra for the unnecessary cover.

Tomcat Prowl was a relatively new album, so the band was playing a lot of cuts from it. My favorite, which I haven't found on YouTube or would have embedded here, was (and is) "Must Be the Rain." About halfway into the set, while taking a drink of water Doug motioned to the band to noodle around a bit in preparation for the next song. I recognized the opening of "Must Be the Rain."

When Doug first sang the words "must be the rain," the clear blue sky opened up and rain fell straight down. I got to stay dry but watch it. Except, of course, that when life presents you with that sort of opportunity, you can't ignore it, so I got up, ran out into the rain, and joined all the other concert-goers in singing along with the song.

Magic is everywhere, as I keep telling you, and it was in full force in Toronto on that flawless day for me.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A joyful noise

Tonight, I attended a performance of Handel's Messiah in which Sarah and Scott played with their school orchestra, the school choir, and four professional singers. I enjoyed the performance, particularly the familiar part at the end, because though you end up hearing that portion again and again, it remains beautiful.

Ultimately, though, I found the use of the adult singers to detract from, not enhance, the experience. Yes, they were there to improve the sound, and they certainly did that, but I would have preferred the emphasis be on the students. I honestly would rather have listened to four student soloists and an all-student performance simply so young people could be front and center.

My background in classical music is so weak as to be almost non-existent, so most of these performances are new or at least only barely familiar to me. I love watching the kids play, and I always think it's miraculous how good they are. Every time I attend a live musical performance, classical or rock or anything else, I learn again how much power live music possesses. It is a wonderful thing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Another crazy one

I'm going to keep this entry short, because tonight looks to be insanely late and tiring. I have a ton of work on my plate that I must finish before I can sleep, and I'm not yet through with today's writing.

The good news is that I should complete a few of the work things that are keeping my beard long. I'm determined to catch up and trim this damn thing!

I suppose it's also good news that I'm chugging along on the book and actually enjoying reading it. I hope you do, too, when I finally finish it and you get to read it.

To keep you amused, let me introduce you to another Canadian band I used to enjoy, an even more obscure one: Doug and the Slugs. These guys hailed from Vancouver and toured Canada for many years. They were strictly a garage-pop band, but they had some catchy tunes. Sometime, I'll tell you the story of a magic moment I enjoyed at the one live concert of theirs I was lucky enough to attend, but for now I'll leave you with this, the title track from one of their last albums, Tomcat Prowl. Not great music, but fun 80's pop, and a fit song for a hard-work day. Too bad at the end of this one all I'll do is crash.

Enjoy.

Things that piss me off

On the long list of things that piss me off, one phrase stands bold and tall:

We're only doing this for your protection.
When a representative of a company says those words, they are rarely telling the truth. Here's one of my special favorites:

We're changing your credit card number for your protection.
No, scumbag, you're doing it to save your company money. If anything happens to my card, per my agreement with you I have a maximum liability of fifty bucks. You're nervous, so you're going to inconvenience me and make me change my credit-card info on approximately as many Web sites as there are atoms in the universe.

Today, I got to hear this one:

This new vial test policy is only for your protection.
No, you lying piece of crap, it's not. It's to protect your medical practice from possible lawsuits.

Ah, not familiar with the vial test? Let me explain.

Once every three weeks, I give myself two subcutaneous allergy serum shots in my left arm. I've been giving myself these shots for about seven years, first weekly, then after a while every ten days, then after another while every two weeks, and now every three weeks. I'll probably be doing this as long as I live. I'm okay with that. Prior to beginning these shots, I had severe allergy issues and a major needle phobia. Now, I have neither. I chose to give the shots to myself to save that most precious of assets: time. The ENT office I use would mail me my serum, I would send them a few bucks for postage, and all was well.

Until the vial test policy. The braintrust at some national otolaryngeal association decided it was no longer safe to mail the vials. As one dipshit explained to me--and I am not making this up--terrorists might intercept the vials and do things to them. Why target McDonald's when you could steal my allergy serum from the mail?

Now, each time you change vials--which happens every three months--you have to go to the doctor's office and have them test the vial on you (or in my case, the two vials). They do what amounts to a scratch test, then make you wait fifteen minutes, then check the size of your reaction.

Of course, you're in the doctor's office, and you're using up a nurse's time, so of course they have to bill you. I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

I've been taking the same exact mix of serum without a problem for about four years. Not one problem. So, today I had the vial test, and the size of the reaction area on my arm exceeded their standards. The nurse and I then had this lovely interchange, which I am also not making up:

Nurse: Wow, that must really hurt and itch.

Me: No, I can't feel it.

Nurse: Sure you can. Just look at it. It must really be hurting and itching.

Me: No, honestly, I can't feel it. No pain. No itch. May I please have my vial?

Nuse: I don't know how you can stand it. Maybe if I show it to you in the mirror you'll realize how much it's hurting and itching.


It went downhill from there.

The next step was to dilute the serum and try again. The nurse drew from the same bottle and started to inject me. I suggested she might need to dilute it first, she tittered, and then she did so.

Fifteen more minutes of dead time in the waiting room.

My reaction was one half of a millimeter too wide in diameter.

No serum for me.

I begged.

They had a conference call; I got to hear only my nurse's end.

No serum for me.

Now, I have to come back in about a week--when I'm likely to be out of town--and repeat this process.

Oh, yeah: Of course they'll have to charge me the same fee again.

The serum is worth all this hassle, but I hate every moment of this process.

Good thing it's all for my protection.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

I am a great hairy beast

Remember my post on October 22, when I said I would not shave or trim my beard until I had accomplished three goals? Well, I'm still not done with them, so of course I have not shaved or trimmed my beard.

As you can see in this photo, the result of this unrestrained growth is that I am now a great hairy beast. (Yes, I know I also look like a psycho-killer fresh off a major hit of thorazine, but that's partly because I took the photo myself with my iPhone and partly because, well, I look this way a lot. Scary, eh?)

I have made progress. I've finished the first draft of the novel (and am well along on the second draft, which goes way, way, way faster than the first). I have done about half of the budget-box work. I have also completed four of the nine work goals.

I hope to finish the remaining goals by the end of this week.

To my surprise, a number of the women I know have said they preferred me with the longer beard. Though I normally bow quickly and easily to female opinion, in this case the excess facial hair is driving me insane enough that I will trim as soon as I can.

Until then, though, I will continue to morph into North Carolina's own Sasquatch.

Ten reasons I'll never have a job in the Obama administration

10. If someone asked me a question, I'd actually answer it. This behavior is death in any administration, Obama's or otherwise. Can you imagine me crafting debate responses? No way.

9. My stance on marriage: Not only do I support same-gender marriages, I support poly marriages. Any group of adults that wants to get married should be free to do so. They shouldn't blame me, though, for how it goes.

8. I'd raise gas taxes a buck a gallon to help pay for alternative energy development. We use an unfair amount of the world's gas, and we need to develop other fuel sources, so we should pay for it. I'd give a fuel credit to the poor so this doesn't become an unfair burden on them, but the rest of us would just have to suck it up.

7. I'd ask a Canadian band, Blue Rodeo, to be one of the groups that played at the inauguration.

6. A Federal law mandating the purchase and reading of my novels by every American student would probably be a bit much, but I wouldn't be above suggesting it now and again.

5. The media would find a way to see the contents of my DVD collection, and it would be all over. I mean, who owns both Blonde and Blonder and Poultrygeist? That's gotta be a crime in Mississippi or Alabama.

4. They'd never let me bring porn to the White House.

3. I wouldn't take any job unless I got to choose the White House music at least one day a week. What's the point of working there if you can't DJ the tunes?

2. I'd insist on UFC White House Fight Nights and an octagon in the building.

1. I'd demand that Thomas Keller be White House chef, and they can't afford him.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Guest blogger David Drake on the Republican party

I'm not a Republican and never have been. That said, for many years when someone asked me my political leanings, I would say that I was a social Democrat and a fiscal Republican. The latter description began to lose meaning under Reagan, and George W. Bush demolished any sense the words might have managed to retain. I mention this by way of an intentionally roundabout introduction to today's entry, a piece by guest blogger, friend, and leading SF writer, David Drake. Dave wrote the piece below, showed it to a few friends, and wondered in email about where to post it. I think it deserves exposure and offered to post it here. Dave decided to go for it, and for your consideration, here it is.

WHAT HAVE THEY DONE WITH MY PARTY?

The title comes from the question plaintively asked some months before the 2008 presidential election by a friend who's a businessman. Like me he's well on the wrong side of Fifty, and like me he was raised a Republican. I think we'd both describe ourselves as conservatives (note the small c).

Max Hastings, a right-wing British journalist, put it in a slightly different fashion when he noted during the campaign (I'm paraphrasing) that the Republicans had become the party of the poorly educated, superstitious, and rural. You only have to listen to one of Sarah Palin's campaign speeches to see that he has a point.

The Republican Party my friend and I identified with was the party of business. Republicans were neither exciting nor cuddly, but you could trust the economy to them and expect them to avoid foreign military adventures. We liked Ike.

In 1983 I became rewrite man for Newt Gingrich on the book which became Window of Opportunity. Newt is a very smart, very dynamic man; working with him was both an honor and an education.

In the course of our first meeting, Newt told me that he was going to engineer a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Thank goodness I didn't say, "Right, and pigs will fly," but I certainly thought it. I was colossally ignorant, though in 1983 most people would have agreed with me. The only smart thing I did during the exchange was to keep my mouth shut.

Newt continued to work from within to change the Republicans from a party of the elite and privileged (people like me, not to put too fine a point on it) into a real populist movement. In 1994 he achieved his end: Republicans took control of the House.

There has been quite a lot of movement since then, but not--from the vantage of hindsight--a great deal of progress. The House Republicans didn't seem to know what to do with their victory. Newt himself left the House and elective politics. His economic mantra had been, "Reduce the national debt." His majority spiraled into a wasteland of tax cuts and deficit spending.

The populist majority fell away, not so much in anger as boredom. Quite a lot of people dislike Bill Clinton, but very few would say that it was worth shutting down the government of the United States to delve into his sex life.

What remained isn't the Republican Party of Eisenhower (or Dewey and Taft): it's a populist fringe. It certainly represents a significant portion of the citizens of the United States, just as the Taliban represents a significant portion of the citizens of Afghanistan, but it isn't the business party, the Safe Hands party.

It's a party which has turned away from people like me and my businessman friend. And, though he worked with the fringes too in putting together his majority, I believe it's a party which is equally alien to Newt Gingrich.

It's a shame. I still like Ike.

Dave Drake

Thursday, November 6, 2008

How awesome is this: Change.gov

Go to Change.gov right now; I'll wait. Please do come back, though.

Back? Good. How awesome is that?

I know, I know: It could all just be a tech-savvy publicity stunt. But, even if it is, it's a huge turning point in the use of the Web by candidates, because it's putting in front of the public a ton of information, all of which will end up on Google (and other) archives and be forever searchable, about what they plan to do, the transition process, and so on. You can even apply for a job in their administration. (No, I don't expect that to work for anyone, but I like the token nod they make by putting up a form.) Sure, the site is a way for them to put out their spin on key topics, but the mere fact that so much data is easily accessible and easily commented upon by anyone who feels like it (such as myself) is, to me, deeply cool.

I couldn't afford the likely pay cut, and I am probably one of the most unemployable men any administration could contemplate, and I have no relevant experience, but if I could be a speechwriter for Obama, I might just have to go for it.

And now, for no good reason other than that you can never have enough wild nights, let me close by suggesting you go enjoy the Wild Nights song/video by John Mellencamp and Me'Shell NdegeOcello.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Maybe it won't suck - and a guest reminder from Lincoln

I'm chugging along in Overthrowing Heaven, rewriting as I go, sprucing it up, making sure everything works together, and I have to admit that there is a tiny chance the book won't suck.

The reason I feel this way is that I'm actually enjoying what I'm reading. Of course, I'm more than a little afraid that this enjoyment is the kiss of death, but I have no rational reason for that fear; it's just how I feel.

Last night left me exhausted, so I'm going to keep this short and go back to work. I have a book to make better and PT work to do.

Before I sign off, though, I want to remind everyone, whether you voted for McCain or Obama, whether you're still ecstatic or fearful of what's to come, that we are all Americans, we are all in this together, and it's now time for us all to behave as such. I considered making this point at greater length, but I thought it appropriate to let the end of President Lincoln's first inaugural address do the job instead.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Damn, Abe could write.

If you missed Obama's speech, go see it or read it now

You can watch it here on CNN.

You can read it here on CNN.

Consider doing both. An articulate President, one who can write and who works on his own speeches. What a thrill.

Consider this bit:

It drew strength from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on doors of perfect strangers, and from the millions of Americans who volunteered and organized and proved that more than two centuries later a government of the people, by the people, and for the people has not perished from the Earth.

He doesn't tell us who first used that phrasing; he assumes we know, as we should, as he should assume.

I'm still so wound up I can hardly stand it.

For now, for tonight, maybe for a little while, I simply refuse to be cynical.

Tonight, I don't just want to believe. I do believe. I believe.

President-Elect Barak Obama: Yes we can

Not once in my memory have I believed in a candidate for President--until now.

Not once in my memory have I heard a speech from a President or a President-Elect that was as powerful, as unifying, or as moving as the best Aaron Sorkin wrote for The West Wing--until now.

I grew up somewhere between poor and middle class, depending on the year. I started working when I was ten, right after my father died. I grew up believing that America was a great country where anyone, anyone, could through hard work and sacrifice make a great life for himself or herself. I've since come on many an occasion to doubt that dream, but at least tonight I believe again. With a President-Elect who realized that dream, a man with a name like Barack Hussein Obama in a post 9/11 world, a man who, like me, grew up without a father, worked hard, got a great education, pursued his dreams, and will now be our President, that dream seems real and powerful again. I'd lost some of that belief--until now.

Obama didn't squeak in. He won it going away.

His opponent, John McCain, gave a gracious concession speech that reminded me of why I had liked him in the past. Good for him.

Obama didn't gloat in his speech. He didn't take the easy route of rousing the already excited crowd to new emotional heights. Instead, he focused on unity, on the dream of what America can be, on the challenges facing us all. I could not have been prouder to have voted for him.

All of us in the U.S. now have the opportunity to unite behind this new President, to take on these huge challenges, and to overcome them, as Americans have for over two centuries. I truly believe we can, and I truly believe Obama is the right man to lead us forward.

He can do it.

We can do it.

Yes we can.

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