Friday, February 24, 2012

Blog Tag-I'm "It"

In general, I am not much of a follower of trends or fads.  One look into my wardrobe would make that abundantly clear.  This is especially the case with Internet “pass it along” kind of things. Nonetheless, something has come along that has grabbed my attention.  Caroline from the Big Book Little Book Blog tagged me in this little game where they ask eleven fellow bloggers eleven questions.

The rules, as I am told, are as follows:

  • Answer the eleven questions that were asked of you by the person who tagged you!
  • Make up eleven new questions and tag eleven new people to answer them!
  •  Let them know you tagged them!
  • Use a lot of exclamation points! (Okay, I just made this one up.)

It's your round at the pub and I've asked you to surprise me. What drink would you buy me and why?
A glass of ice water.  Surprise! 

Okay, take two.  I am not much of a drinker, but I feel that everyone should have a pint of Guinness in an authentic Irish Pub on St. Patrick’s Day at least once in his or her life, as I have.  This is despite the fact that it tastes like motor oil that has been wrung out of dirty sweat socks.  So, enjoy! The restrooms are over there, by the way.

If you had to spend the day as a character in a book who would you be and why?
Aragorn, from The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, was just a total dude from his first scene to his last.  Noble, brave, loyal, intelligent, and leader of a badass army of ghosts…what’s not to love? 

What was the last thing you read/watched that made you cry? (Real tears, preferably with snot bubbles!)
I am concerned that answering this question will cause me to have to turn in my “man card”.  Let’s just say that about five years ago, I had an elderly dog that I loved very much, but whose health was in decline.  At that time, I made the mistake of reading the terrific canine tome Marley and Me by John Grogan, which ends in the manner most dog books and films inevitably do.  ‘Nuff said?

I don’t DO snot bubbles, by the way.

They say that you learn something new every day. What was the last thing you learnt?
I learned that you should never, ever, no matter how friendly you are with her, remark to a very pregnant woman she is “as big as a house, in a good way”.  Never.  Not even once.  Trust me on this!

Marmite: Love it? Hate it?
It’s a British thing, so being a bloody Yank, I had to look “Marmite” up.  According to (really!), “Marmite is a nutritious savoury spread that contains B vitamins, enjoyable in a sandwich, on toast, bread or even as a cooking ingredient. You'll either love it or hate it.”  Considering that Marmite a) is actually a yeast extract paste with added vitamins, vegetable and spice extracts, b) is considered 100% vegetarian, and c) originates in Great Britain, then I’d have to say I am best suited for the “hate it” camp. 

I truly love you Brits, but you have to admit that your cuisine can be kind of suspect.  “Toad in the hole”?  “Bangers and mash”? Seriously?  If I ever go to the U.K., I’ll be bringing a whole suitcase full of PB &Js.

Which literary love interests would you snog, marry and avoid.
This response could be an entire blog post in itself, so I’ll it simple and brief.  Disclaimer: I didn’t put a great deal of thought into these.

  • Snog
  • Dr. Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. (Don’t judge me, people!  I have a thing for smart women and for blondes, and not often enough do the twain seem to meet.)
  • Marry
  • : An adult Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. (After  she’s graduated from Hogwarts, has a terrific, high-paying job in the Ministry of Magic, and can both support my staying at home to write tripe like this and keep me from getting destroyed by evil.)
  • Avoid
  • : Lady Macbeth from MacBeth by William “Crazy Willie” Shakespeare. (Wouldn’t you avoid that crazy chick too?)

What's your usual order from Starbucks/Costa?
It takes me a whole lot of mental preparation to offer a stranger cash in exchange something “tall and skinny”, for fear of being misinterpreted.  As it is, I go into higher-end coffee shops with intentions of ordering something rakish and sophisticated, but inevitably freeze, mumble “large hot regular with just creamer please”, and then pretend to become very interested in the napkin dispenser.  Meanwhile the barista is looking at me as though I just stepped off the set of “The Beverly Hillbillies”.  It’s hard to truly savor a $4 cup of java after a humiliation like that, so I usually get my coffee at the gas station near the interstate instead.

What is your oldest memory?
I remember sitting on my mother’s lap when I was three and she was pregnant with my first brother, feeling him kick and talking to her about the new baby coming.  At least, I think that’s what the conversation was.  I was three.  I might have been talking to her about whether dinosaurs ate cheese puffs.  It’s kind of hard to say from this vantage point many years later.  These days I’m lucky if I can remember what I heard on the radio five minutes ago.

Paperback, hardback or Kindle? Which of these is your favourite reading format and why?
E-books, totally.  I never thought I’d say that, but I am hooked.  I really wasn’t looking for one, but I got a Kindle for Christmas in 2010.  Once I started using it, getting comfortable with its features and its feel in my hands, I fell in love with it.  Since the Kindle stole my heart, I’ve read only four or five books for pleasure in paper formats.  The amount and variety of reading that I’ve done has skyrocketed though, thanks to the Kindle.

My major exception for e-books is instructional texts.  I still like to have pages to turn and margins in which to write for that kind of book. Plus, you can’t hide a comic book behind a Kindle in class. 

What is your favourite quote/saying?
“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.” 
~Polonius, from Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82

The speaker at my high school graduation was a favorite English teacher of mine, who made this the centerpiece of her address.  Yes, I actually listened to the speech and have remembered what she said after all these years.  Someone once told me I am the only person who ever paid attention to a high school commencement speaker.  That’s probably true, but I am glad I did.  I’ve always tried to “keep it real”, and I think that Mrs. Stone’s advice passed on from Shakespeare has been there in the back of my mind as a reminder to do so.

If you could bring back any TV show for another series (season) what would you pick and why?
There was an animated program from Japan adapted for American TV which I watched religiously when I was about ten called Star Blazers.  The show was on our local ABC affiliate every weekday afternoon at 4:30, and it was “appointment TV” for my friends and I.  Everything stopped when Star Blazers came on.  The program was an early Japanese anime series, created for audiences there in the early 70s.  It was dubbed in English (not terribly well) and brought to the States in 1979. 

In brief, it was a sci-fi cartoon about the crew of a resurrected World War II battleship that has been retrofitted to become the most butt-kicking spaceship EVER! They are on a mission to save the Earth by traveling to the edge of the Solar System to retrieve a formula that would save the planet from annihilation by radiation poisoning.  The catch was, they had to do it in less than a year, and some really nasty outer-spacey guys, the ones who radiated Earth in the first place, were constantly trying to thwart their mission by blowing them to smithereens.

I recently saw some original episodes online, and man, does it look CHEESY!  I didn’t notice that at all when I was a kid, but then again, a lot of things I thought were terrific in the late 70s would fall into the cheesy category today.  With the advances in animation technology that have been made, I am sure that the already-totally cool Star Blazers could become even better if it was remade in 2012.  Of course, if that ever did happen, my mind would again be blown, as would those of hundreds of thousands of other middle-aged guys who were once wide-eyed Star Blazers fans like myself in the late 70s.

My questions:

  • What would be your second choice for a book to take to a desert island, if your first choice was eaten by a beluga?
  • MacDonald’s or Burger King, if you had to choose, and why?
  • What was the last album (CD, MP3, whatever) that you purchased?
  • What genre would you love to be able to write well in, but have never attempted?
  • Would you eat green eggs and ham?
  • What is worse for you than bending back a fingernail?
  • Who do you admire that is not related to you?
  • What is an alternate name for your blog?
  • Where would you spend your dream vacation and why?
  • What is your rejected pen name?
  • Why did you decide to answer these questions?

Bloggers I am tagging:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Accidental Coffee

I am in possession of an entire pot of accidental coffee this evening.

Here’s the thing: I am not worth a tinker’s damn when I first get up in the morning, so I typically prepare the coffeepot the night before in order to avoid unpleasantness at dawn.  I do it every night, like clockwork.  And I did it tonight.  However, instead of hitting the “AUTO” button so it will start on its own in the morning, I accidentally hit the “ON” button, and then proceeded to leave the room.  A half hour later, I walk back into the kitchen to be greeted by a full pot of coffee.  

Accidental coffee.

Now this is the kind of problem that seems to always find me.  Specifically, a weird one.  What in the world am I going to do with a full pot of coffee at this time of night?

Drink this accidental coffee, you say?  Well, I suppose I could.  Only I have a heck of a hard time falling asleep at night if I drink any coffee after 3:00 in the afternoon.  And this is a pot that my father would say “puts hair on your chest”.  I planned to tackle the next chapter in the book I am co-authoring in the morning, so I made this pot using the so-called “good stuff” (i.e.-not the everyday brand I typically use), and it’s extra strong and extra large.  If I start guzzling java now, I’ll be awake until dawn and be a mess tomorrow.  Plus, I’ll have to run to the bathroom every half hour all night.

 I toyed with the idea of inviting some people over for accidental coffee.  The trouble with that is that it’s fairly late in the evening, and most of the people I would invite are home and settled in for the night.  They have work or whatever in the morning, and going out in the mid-winter cold to have something that will keep them up all night would be about as appealing as a root canal.  So that’s out.

There’s always the option of just dumping this accidental coffee down the drain.  I hate to do this.  You see, I come from a long line of people who subscribe to Yankee frugality.  It’s just not in my blood to waste this much coffee, especially a whole pot of “the good stuff”.  Plus if I did, I am fairly sure that somewhere in Latin America, Juan Valdez would shed a tear.  His burro probably would too.  I would have a hard time living with the thought of that.

I could get creative, I guess.  Maybe I could pour all this accidental coffee into colorful cups, put bright ribbons around them, set them on a decorative tray and take them to my neighbors’ house with a note of appreciation for their being such fine neighbors.  I’d ring the doorbell, set the tray down, and run away.  Then this accidental coffee would be someone else’s problem.  The thoughtful presentation and the kindness behind it would be such that they would have no choice but to take it in and drink it.  Trouble is, I have no colorful cups, bright ribbons, or decorative trays, and my neighbors aren’t all that terrific really.  Their dog tries to bite me and they sometimes play country-western music too loudly.  So that’s out.

The thought of setting up a roadside stand and selling it crossed my mind.  Briefly.  However, the market for accidental coffee sold on the side of the road on a quiet suburban street late on a Sunday night in mid-winter is not really a jumping one, even if the price was right.

So, it looks like I’ll have to compromise.  I’ll drink some of it, but not so much that I’ll be awake all night, and then dump the rest down the drain. 

Sorry, Juan

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Winter Un-Whined

A few weeks ago, I wrote at some length about my dislike for winter.  At the time, I noted how effortless it is for me, and many people I think, to slip into whining mode.  I personally find it easier to dwell on the negatives to emphasize the positives.  And it seems that our culture agrees.  Turn on the TV, and you’ll find it brimming with cynicism, condescension, and general gloominess.  This programming wouldn’t be so prevalent if it weren’t for one fact: it sells.

This is actually me, circa 1972.  My attitude toward shoveling hasn't changed much since then.

You’d think these would be halcyon days for someone like me with a longtime reputation as a sarcastic wiseass.  And I suppose they would be if my cynicism was a part of me that I was comfortable embracing. 

But I’m not.  Not really.  I’ve got a pessimist’s head, but an optimist’s spirit.  Admittedly, I let the cynical me have his way more often than I am proud of, but in this post, I am not going to.  I am going to write a counterpoint to my posting of a few weeks ago, and tell you about some upsides of winter, at least as they used to be.

I grew up the oldest child in a largish family in a smallish house, and many were the days when we kids were tossed outside to play and get out from underfoot.  This was before video games and DVDs, so when stuck inside my brothers and I could become bored and whiney nuisances in very short order.  Fortunately, there were lots of other kids living in our neighborhood, and their parents also subscribed to the “you kids go outside and play before I lose my mind” theory of child management.  Unless the temperature was well below zero or a hurricane of at least category three was sweeping through the area, there was typically a gaggle of kids in my neighborhood with some crazy plot brewing.  This was especially true during the snowy winter months.

Across the street from the house where I grew up is a large hill. It’s short but steep, and was the ideal spot for death-defying sledding.  Bear in mind that I was a kid while “The Dukes of Hazzard” was popular on TV.  Consequently, we not only wanted to go down that hill as fast as possible, but we also had a yearning desire to literally fly on our sleds.  Every winter we spent at least a third of our time there making and remaking snow ramps, sometimes at least four feet high, and another third coming up with outlandish and often dangerous stunts that all centered around the idea of hitting those ramps at top speed and going airborne.  There were many times when you would crash spectacularly and literally lie there seeing stars for a minute.  Then you’d somehow get to your feet, march up the steep hill, and do it all again.  We did this dozens of times in a single afternoon, for days and weeks on end.  Thank goodness young bodies are flexible and resilient, because ours were routinely put to the test on that hill.  Our sleds were not as flexible and resilient as we were however.  To this day, you can still find shards of plastic on that hill left behind from destroyed sleds.

As kids, we were constantly looking to get high.  Specifically, we wanted to be high up on a roof or in a tall tree.  The further off the ground we were, the happier we were.  Entire afternoons could be spent plotting ways to get onto a particular garage roof or into the higher branches of a tree in our neighborhood without benefit of a ladder.  Using a “borrowed” ladder was a possibility I suppose, but it would have been both too easy and too obvious.  The neighborhood adults tended not to be in favor of children on their rooftops, so a ladder would have no doubt raised their suspicions.

In the winter, tall banks of snow made it easier for us to get off the ground.  Oftentimes, they were high enough that we merely had to walk up them, give each other a boost, and there we were on a roof.  Of course one poor sap had to stay on the ground, because there was no one left to boost him.  Fortunately, there was one kid among us who was strong but not terribly fond of heights, and in return for giving us boosts, we didn’t razz him for being a chicken. 

Once we got onto the roof, there was only one thing to do after admiring the view, and that’s jump off of course. 

Most structures in northern climes are built with high, steeply pitched roofs to allow the large amounts of snow we get to come off easily.  In some cases, it was close to a 15 to 20 foot drop from near the peak.  Of course by the time jumping season came around, there was plenty of snow to cushion us.  The key to jumping off a tall roof into deep snow is to never, ever stick your landing.  Newcomers to the sport often learn this truth the hard way, and find themselves buried up to their armpits in snow, at the mercy of their friends to help them out of it.  And we usually did, after letting them squirm for a while.  As with many things in life it seems, bending your knees and being flexible were important.  Once you got the hang of it, backflips and somersaults soon followed.

In hindsight, it’s a miracle none of us were killed.  At the time, the danger barely crossed our minds.  Some of you might be thinking that nothing ever crossed our minds.

During particularly severe winters, which many of them were, the snow banks could become enormous.  While we kids would pitch a fit and carry on forever if we were asked by our parents to shovel a walkway or brush snow off the car, we thought nothing of digging into mountains of ice and snow for days on end, often with plastic shovels or our bare hands, constructing snow tunnels and forts.  By midwinter, the snow was pretty packed, and tunnels dug into them were pretty secure.  The coolest thing was when you could actually build a side tunnel off one that already existed.  We considered them “escape tunnels”, though we never really specified from what we would be escaping. 

The winter when I was about ten, we had riddled the largest snow bank in the yard with so many tunnels that we really couldn’t build any more without risking the integrity of what we already had.  Bored, we got the idea that throwing snow from them at passing cars would be fun.  Our tunnels were not easily visible from the street, though we had some small portholes that allowed us to see vehicles coming.  It was easy to see a car coming, decide if it was a worthy target, and fire away if it was.  We didn’t pack the snowballs very hard.  We didn’t want to do any real damage.   
In retrospect, it was an interesting sociological experiment, as we decided which vehicles to nail and which to spare.  Mrs. Johnson, the older lady who always had a bowl of candy close by when we around, was spared by unanimous vote.  Mr. Anderson on the other hand, a grumpy math teacher at the local high school, got bombed.  There was also a kind of unspoken understanding that we would not hit the vehicles of our own family members.

Needless to say, our snow sniper days did not last long.  Two days, and we were busted.  We made the mistake of hitting the truck of a man who lived up the street for a second time, a man whom my father had known since grade school.  He stopped his truck, then pulled into our driveway and caught us red-handed.  My father got an earful over the phone from him that night.  Our geese were cooked, and it was all I could do to convince my father not to have the plow guy totally dismantle our tunnel structure.

It was not all action and adventure in the winters of my youth, however.  One of the things I remember most fondly were the quiet times during a snowstorm, when I was either waiting for my friends to arrive or just after they had left.  I liked to lay flat on my back in the deep snow, while snowflakes fell onto my face.  It could get so quiet during a snowstorm.  Most people laid low during these times, and few vehicles were on the roads.  The newly fallen blanket of snow muffled most sounds that were made.  I remember listening to the sound of my own heartbeat and the barely audible taps of tiny snowflakes hitting my face and clothing.  Sometimes the wind would blow through the evergreen woods nearby, making a unique hissing sound that I associate to this day with those quiet moments in the snow.  Occasionally, a brave little chickadee would venture out into the snow from the woods nearby looking for some seeds in my mother’s birdfeeder.  In a snowstorm like that, you could hear the flap of their small wings as the passed by.  Curious by nature, it was not unheard of for a chickadee to land close to me if I stayed still enough.  I’d slowly turn my head to look at it, and it would cock its head at me as if I’d lost my mind.  I never had one land on me, but always wished one would.

So, no, I admit it, winter is not all bad.  It’s all in the perspective you take.  My days of flying through the air in plastic sleds and jumping off rooftops into snow banks are behind me (unless I want to take some medical leave from work), but there’s nothing stopping me from bundling up during the next snowstorm and flopping down in the snow to experience the beauty of it all.  Maybe the winters wouldn’t seem so long for me if I just took more time to listen to snowflakes falling and socialize with a chickadee or two.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Book Review: Asylum Lake by R.A. Evans

BOOK BLURB: The State’s second largest Psychopathic Hospital opened in 1917 on 600 wooded acres overlooking a small lake near Bedlam Falls, Michigan. Through its doors came the weak and the weary, the disabled and the discarded, the frail and the forgotten. But an open door is an invitation, and some visitors, once invited, are loath to leave. The hospital abruptly closed in 1958 under a cloud of mystery. It has remained empty and silent, save for the memories trapped both within its walls and far below the surface of the nearby lake that bears its name. At the bottom of Asylum Lake, the unremembered are growing restless. 

Brady Tanner is trying to outrun memories of his own. After the sudden death of his wife, Brady retreats to the small town where he spent the summers of his youth. But he soon learns small towns can be stained by memories…and secrets, too. As Brady is drawn into unearthing these secrets, as he discovers a new love in an old friend, he is also drawn into the mystery of Asylum Lake and the evil that lies submerged beneath its sparkling surface. What is the source of this evil – and what does it want with Brady Tanner?

I run hot and cold with so-called "horror novels", but for some reason was attracted to Asylum Lake by R.A. Evans. In essence, it is the story of a young journalist who returns to his hometown after tragedy befalls him, and becomes involved in supernatural happenings related to his late father and grandfather, a mysterious bracelet, and the abandoned insane asylum across the lake from his childhood home.

While there is no shortage of the requisite blood found in most horror fiction, R.A. Evans is clearly a smart writer, and builds a multi-layered story in Asylum Lake with characters in whom the reader genuinely becomes invested. Brady is a likable and believable protagonist, and the other characters are equally well-drawn. Evans makes great use of setting and effectively incorporates several horror motifs, especially "love interest/child/pet in danger". His pace is quick, but not frenetic.

I can always tell a terrific read by its ability to keep me up past my bedtime.  Asylum Lake did this for several nights. I highly recommend the book, and am looking forward to more from R.A. Evans.

This book was published in the summer of 2010, and the author is currently working on the follow-up.  His blog can be found here: