News of Concern

Originally published at Flametoad. You can comment here or there.

Here are some recent items worth following:

Viva la Revolution! – Remember a year ago when we were cheering the Egyptian revolutionaries and talking about how the non-political Muslim Brotherhood would finally be free to help provide relief for the common citizen? Let’s follow up and see how that’s working out, shall we?

But I’m Different – Our sitting President is a Constitutional scholar who campaigned on making the government more open and transparent, not to mention rolling back all the authoritarian measures cooked up by the mustache-twirling President Bush and diabolical God-and-Guns Republicans. Let’s follow up and see how that’s working out, shall we?

Voting for Truth – The IPCC has published alarming reports about the the state of our  climate for more than a decade. Each of the four IPCC reports include predictions on the catastrophic temperature increases to come, prompting never-ending clashes between the rational science-based believers and heretical skeptics.  Let’s follow up and see how that’s working out, shall we?


Finding Story Inspiration

Originally published at Flametoad. You can comment here or there.

Here in Texas a series of small cold fronts have finally broken the choke hold of 100 degree days that gripped the state. Now that we’re back down to more seasonable temperatures in the 80s and 90s, our thoughts turn to the time of ghosts and goblins (and candy!) drawing ever closer.

With retailers stretching their seasonal sales earlier and earlier, most of us in the U.S. started seeing Halloween decorations on the shelves in August. It’s a little hard to get into the spirit* of things after being pelted with pumpkin decorations at every turn for weeks on end. To help you restore some of that holiday fear**, why not pick up an anthology of ghost stories? In fact, let me suggest one anthology in particular. The recently released Haunted: 11 Tales of Ghostly Horror includes a story of mine- The Angry Stick.

This book has been a long time in the making, but the story even longer. I was approached by Matt McElroy of Flames Rising Press back in early 2010 about submitting an anthology story for consideration. Honestly, it was a pretty rough time for me. Ed and I were working like mad to put the finishing touches on Degrees of Horror, our big (and I mean BIG) Pinebox setting book for Savage Worlds set on the ETU campus. By that point we’d been running that particular marathon for several months. The last thing I needed to do was take on more writing work. Still, when opportunity knocks it’s hard to plug your ears.

The Angry Stick started as a thematic sibling to another project I’d started in 2009. That one was a sci-fi story (working title Mission Incomplete) that I’d started but set aside until I could figure out how to pull off the ending. I knew how I wanted it to end thematically, but I hadn’t worked out the actual mechanics of what the protagonist would do to generate the resolution I had in mind. The Haunted anthology story would be totally different– present-day ghost hunting had absolutely nothing in common with my sci-fi story. Yet as I cast about for ideas I came around to that same theme I had been exploring in Mission Incomplete. Apparently it was an idea that wanted out one way or another, and as elements clicked into place I saw how I could make the story work. The good news is that whereas Mission Incomplete lay, well…incomplete, the resolution on The Angry Stick came about much more easily. There’s something to be said for persistence and re-writing.

The protagonist in The Angry Stick is a seasoned ghost hunter who has been drawn to a pool hall in Pinebox, Texas by reports of strong supernatural activity. I had some backstory in which the protagonist got his start in Pinebox, but almost all of that ended up on the cutting room floor in favor of fleshing out other parts of the story. Those are the kinds of tough choices you have to make when you’re working under a word limit and I appreciate editor Monica Valentinelli’s wisdom on zeroing in on the more important parts. The story is better for her input.

It’s been more than a year since I wrote The Angry Stick and maybe 6 months since I turned in the final requested edits. With the benefit of time and experience, I recently picked up Mission Incomplete again. I’ve been polishing the parts I’d written two years ago and drawing closer to the ending I knew I wanted. Only, a few days ago I realized that what I’d originally envisioned (and pulled off in The Angry Stick) really didn’t entirely make sense for the protagonist in this situation. Now I either have to figure out how to re-frame things such that the ending is still logical or I have to come up with another ending that still satisfies the overall theme of the story. That’s okay though. I’m a writer. I have some ideas.


*See what I did there?
**And there?


Review: Rare Bird Alert

Originally published at Flametoad. You can comment here or there.

I was a teen in the 1980s. By then my paternal grandfather had passed away and my grandmother lived on her own. Without the responsibility of having to care for an ailing husband, she renewed her life by keeping busy with a variety of activities and friends. As time went on though, her eyesight declined and she felt uncomfortable driving at night. Thus, I became her companion—first in the passenger seat and later as the driver—on some of her adventures. As a teen, you can imagine that I appreciated some escapades more than others and as I got older they became more of a nuisance than a treat. Needless to say, now I cherish every memory and only wish I had more.

One of our standing dates was a short 10 mile drive to the tiny town of Harwood. I seriously doubt Harwood had a population in the triple digits at the time, but what it did have was an empty schoolhouse. Like many towns along the railroad connecting Houston to San Antonio, Harwood had once been a thriving community. The town’s lifeblood dried up with the decline of passenger travel by rail and the introduction of the Interstate highway a few miles away. This old, brick building was a monument to livelier times and boasted a handful of classrooms as well as a cafeteria with a stage at one end—perfect for a monthly bluegrass jam.

I took the bluegrass jam for granted, just as teens take nearly everything for granted. Some of the bluegrass musicians drove three hours or more to spend an afternoon and evening in a vacant building in a speck of a community just for the joy of jamming with each other. Even while groups took turn on stage (two songs per turn), other musicians would meet in the hallway or outside to teach each other new licks or just have fun. While some musicians came to the bluegrass jam as a group, just as many arrived singly and formed groups for the night right on the spot. Many months, the tiny schoolhouse was filled with 60 to 80 enthusiasts. Remarkably, there was no admission fee for the event, only a tip jar to cover the cost of renting the building for the day.

Cover for the Rare Bird Alert bluegrass albumAll of which is to say, even though my eyes were set on rock and roll as a teen, more than a little of that good bluegrass music made its way into my heart. Thus it was with a mixture of nostalgia, appreciation for good music, and a respect for Steve Martin (yes, THAT Steve Martin) that I picked up Rare Bird Alert. His banjo prowess astounded me even when I watched a video of his standup routine, and it seems that he has finally returned to a music he clearly loves. My reintroduction to Steve’s new work came through a YouTube video of one of the songs on this album, a funny “gospel” song called Atheists Don’t Have No Songs. When I earned a $15 Amazon credit for pre-ordering something else, I decided on impulse to give Rare Bird Alert a try.

I should also mention that as I near 40 years old, I fully recognize that I’m not in the record companies’ demographics. I rarely buy music anymore, preferring to listen to Pandora. When I do buy music, it is always digital. I made an exception this time for two reasons. First, Amazon’s credit excluded digital downloads, and second, a customer review noted that the liner notes took the package to another level. Now that I have the CD in hand I have to agree. Clearly a lot of production work went into the physical package, from the trading cards(!) to the liner notes. I usually couldn’t care less about liner notes, but the notes helped me paint a mental picture while listening to the songs with no lyrics.

I won’t comment on every song, but there are a few that really stood out for me. Yellow-backed Fly is a fishing song with a whole lot of simple charm. I could listen to it over and over. Steve Martin’s sense of humor comes out in Jubilation Day, a song about breaking up. The Great Remember is a beautiful song in which lyrics would have only served to gild the lily. The previously mentioned Atheists Don’t Have No Songs is also a fun, funny treat.

I’ve listened to Rare Bird Alert completely twice now, and it will probably be in heavy rotation as soon as I can rip it to MP3. My only complaint really isn’t a mark against the album as it is a statement about my preferences. Rare Bird Alert is a studio album and sounds like it. The recording and production are top notch, the playing flawless … yet there’s a certain zest that comes from jamming together that’s missing. That is simply the nature of a studio album versus a live recording, and it’s a preference I’m sure wholly influenced by many a summer night spent listening to live bluegrass jams. Regardless, I’ll definitely be adding The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo, Mr. Martin’s prior bluegrass CD, to my wishlist.


Some Perspectives on the Japan Catastrophe

Originally published at Flametoad. You can comment here or there.

First, an account from someone living in Japan.  The moral of the story is that disaster is something Japan has trained for, and in many ways they are better prepared for crisis management than most of us here in the US.

Next, the person above links to an explanation of how Japan’s nuclear reactors work and the safeguards in place. This is well worth your time to read. Even in the face of absolutely catastrophic disaster, the danger presented by the these reactors is pretty small. Educate yourself, then the next time you read a sensational headline ponder this:

I have been reading every news release on the incident since the earthquake. There has not been one single (!) report that was accurate and free of errors (and part of that problem is also a weakness in the Japanese crisis communication). By “not free of errors” I do not refer to tendentious anti-nuclear journalism – that is quite normal these days. By “not free of errors” I mean blatant errors regarding physics and natural law, as well as gross misinterpretation of facts, due to an obvious lack of fundamental and basic understanding of the way nuclear reactors are build and operated. I have read a 3 page report on CNN where every single paragraph contained an error.

Now let’s pray for the recovery of those affected in Japan, and if you’re so moved donate to the Red Cross.


Netflix Hates Me

Originally published at Flametoad. You can comment here or there.

Okay, for the record, let me say that I luuuv Netflix. (In a totally manly, platonic way, of course. Like how I luuuuv my Colt 1911 or my XBox.)  However, this morning while checking my feed reader I found out that Netflix didn’t love me back. Imagine my how crushed I felt when I learned that Netflix was treating me like just another cheap trick. How else do you explain this?

A screen shot of Netflix's RSS flood of more than 1000 dummy entries in their New Streaming Movies feed.

A screen shot of Netflix's RSS flood of more than 1000 dummy entries in their New Streaming Movies feed.

See, Netflix was kind enough to offer up RSS feeds (here) for things like New Releases, Top 100, and yes “New Choices  to Watch Instantly” aka new movies added to their streaming movie collection. However, now this morning they dumped more than 1,000 entries into the feed. And when I say more than 1,000, let’s just say I’ve been keeping my finger on the “page down” button a while now and that “1,000+” indicator you see on the left hasn’t budged. I could (and probably will) just tell Google Reader to mark all as read. The problem is that I have no way of knowing whether or not the last 500 in the list are legitimate movies or more dummies.

Also, WTH are these movies doing in the feed to begin with? For that matter, WTH is Netflix doing with them at all? Can you imagine someone getting paid to make these entries?

Really, Netflix get with the program and clean up your mess.


Something Positive

Originally published at Flametoad. You can comment here or there.

This week’s election left a lot of people frothing at the mouth, and their poor attitude put me in a foul mood in turn. I wanted to rant and rave… but there’s enough of that out in the world. The media does a great job of telling us what’s wrong with each other, but it sucks at spreading good news. I guess that means it’s up to me. Here are some good things happening in the world.

With all the angst over heath care (the government isn’t doing enough/the government is doing too much), doesn’t it feel good to know that Shriners Hospitals have been providing 100% free hospital care for children in need since 1922. These hospitals are funded entirely through donations and fundraising efforts (such as their circus) of Shriners International, a fraternal outgrowth of Freemasonry.

War is indeed terrible, if sometimes necessary. Our soldiers today can take small comfort that their predecessors in WWII and Vietnam were 3 times more likely to get killed in combat than today. Medical advances, such as the heart & lung in a suitcase and quick-clotting bandages mean that even grave injuries don’t have to be deadly.

The Great State Chinese Circus employs their own unique interpretation of Swan Lake.

Right here in Brazos Valley, my local Masonic lodge is sponsoring a free community pancake breakfast on December 4 at the Wellborn Community Center. We’re also accepting toy donations as part of a local toy drive.

Billy Coffey is like an alternate universe version of me. We’re about the same age, both come from rural areas, both work for universities, and both write fiction. Whereas I fell into writing RPGs in my early 30s, Billy wrote a novel. Snow Day: A Novel was released a few weeks ago to excellent reviews. I’m taking the e-book with me on an upcoming business trip. It’s uplifting to see dreams come true.


On Sensitivity

Originally published at Flametoad. You can comment here or there.

Very early in my marriage, my wife and I read Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Laugh if you want, but it got us through that first year. One of the take-away messages was that you can’t dictate your partner’s feelings. No matter how irrational or misapplied, you just can’t tell your loved one “You shouldn’t feel neglected/offended/angry/sad/whatever. You should actually feel ‘X’ because I’m actually doing/not-doing ‘Y’.” It doesn’t work like that. People feel the way they feel, rightly or wrongly. At best, you can help them work through their negative emotion and come out the other side. You don’t do that by telling them how they’re supposed to feel, you do it by guiding them to a resolution. Or, other times, the best thing to do is leave them alone and let them work it out on their own.

I’m reminded of this as I see discussions about the “mosque” near Ground Zero. Whether community center or religious shrine, it has the right to be there. It’s as simple as that. Our constitution protects us all equally and I’d have it no other way. However, I’m alarmed by the people who frame the protest strictly in terms of religious intolerance, ignorance, or bigotry. I realize that the media thrives on controversy and a certain amount of this frenzy has been whipped up to sell air time or ad space. I’m sure politicians love it because it deflects, for however briefly, the real injustice in how partisan politics is tearing this country apart. However, don’t forget that some–maybe many–people are genuinely hurt and deeply offended by the presence of this center. I find it grossly insensitive when I see people write “Oh, you shouldn’t feel that way.” Try saying that to your significant other the next time you have a disagreement and see how well that goes over. That one sentence marginalizes one’s feelings in a way that would lead a couple to divorce. No wonder this country is so divided! Rather than berating people for feeling hurt or betrayed, maybe we need to help one another deal with the anger and hurt that still hasn’t healed. Maybe we need to accept that for some, it is simply too soon.


Bruce Lee

Originally published at Flametoad. You can comment here or there.

Even though this isn’t really Bruce Lee (it’s apparently part of a Nokia commercial), it’s still a neat video.

I became aware of Bruce Lee when I was in junior high, which is probably when a lot of boys realize that karate is really cool. My best friend, my cousin, and I would buy and devour martial arts magazines featuring articles on Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. I have a lot of fond memories of hanging out with my friends and watching Bruce Lee movies.