…Then the Wind Kicked Up

19 Jan

So I mentioned that last weekend, I went camping. In January. In the desert. So after setting up my tent, enjoying my fire, I put it out and went to bed. Then the wind kicked up…

Now knowing it was going to drop down to 40 degrees F, I had this brilliant plan to create a cocoon to use my body heat to keep my comfortable. I brought A LOT of extra blankets. I had a tarp underneath, two tent liners, two sleeping bags, three pillows, and a quilt that kept me warm through a Connecticut winter. Then to add on top of that, I had three blankets that I didn’t care as much about, that I draped on top of the tent.

So when I got in that night, it was very cozy. Sure, it was cold, but not terrible, and my back wasn’t complaining for sleeping on that dirt.

What I didn’t anticipate was that a 10-15 mph wind was kick in through the desert and knocked my blankets off. So by midnight, my face was freezing. I buried my body under the quilt and the sleeping bag, and had to reverse my hoodie so I was breathing into the back to keep the chill off my face. Because I went to bed at 8 pm (two hours after sunset), I woke up at 3:45 to the rooster kickin’ off his Praise of Dawn. After another half-hour, I finally gave up and started the fire.

Now I normally wake up at 5 am, so this wasn’t terrible, but at home I have my coffee maker working by that point. Here I had to make the fire, get it hot enough, then wait for the water to heat before my instant coffee and cream could be drunk. Sounds awful, but this instant coffee is amazing. An hour later, I was warm again, had my coffee, read my book (by flashlight), and everything was right with the world. However, by the time sunrise had come (although it was overcast), the wind was so bad that I decided, “Screw it, I’m going back to bed.” In my tent, without the wind, I was quite cozy, and kept reading. Then a couple hours later, I was ready to drive to my convention (which I’ll save for another post).

Before I came back to the camp that night, I made sure to pick up somethings. One, I picked up some more charcoal (I had burned through an entire bag), but I also bought some chip clips, and some different food (because it turned out that there was a reason I was avoiding all this meat and bread). So this time, I clipped the blankets down on the poles and weighed down the ends with rocks. I discovered that I could pull the extension cord closer to my tent and plugged in my computer and phone (which got reception). So after my evening fire, I crawled into my tent at 8 pm and played computer games until 10 pm.

The blankets stayed on, my face didn’t freeze, and when I woke up at 5 am, I was quite cozy. This time, I didn’t have to use charcoal to start my fire, and got it going with one match. After my morning coffee and book time, I once again hid in my tent to play computer games. However, the sun finally came out, so by 9 am, it was actually getting HOT in that tent. I folded everything up starting at 11, and by noon, I was already heading home.

I had a great time–and glad to have had the opportunity to relax in the chilly desert. As for why I was in Tucson, I’ll have to leave that for tomorrow.

Chill(y) Camping, Southwest Style

18 Jan

Last weekend, I had to go down to Tucson, and the friend I was going to stay with ended up flaking on me. So instead of a lot of driving, I decided to camp. Now doing this in January, even in sunny Arizona, sounds like a recipe for disaster. But I decided I wanted to have a good story, so…

Now even the US Forest Service thinks camping in the winter is a bad idea, so you can’t reserve a campground around Mt. Lemmon (which overlooks Tucson) until April. Most of the commercial campgrounds are designed for RV’s, so that left me in a pickle. Then I discovered Hipcamp, which is basically AirBnB for camping, and listed a couple locations north of where I wanted. One of them was listed as a property that had a very hippie vibe. Even though that’s the exact opposite of what I am, I thought, “Okay, I don’t need to sing kum-by-ya, I just need a camp.” So I signed up.

I drove down on Friday, driving past Florence, Arizona, where I passed no less than six roadside stands selling Trump merchandise. Even in the most conservative town, I thought this was a little overboard. (Discovered later that the orange one was showing up for a rally on Saturday.) After two wrong turns (my own fault), I reach the campsite, and no one answers the door. Thankfully, there were a couple helpful folks, including an older man named White Wolf, who took me down to the campsite and guided me how to drive in.

And that’s when I realized, this wasn’t a “hippie theme,” this was a hippie commune. In fact, as I explored around, this commune had been around since the 60’s. It was a commune that had seen better days, but it was not dead. My campsite was next to two fenced off gardens, neither of which was prospering. There were about four houses on this tract of desert, a couple of RV’s, and… uh, maybe ten shacks in various stages of repair. Some had solar panels, furnaces, ovens… some were locked up, waiting for the next resident. However, there was electricity (through a chain of extension cords), water (pipes had been installed a long time ago), hot showers (for two minutes at a time), and even though we were in the desert, plenty of firewood. Turns out there was so much dead cacti (which burns fast and makes perfect kindling), dried weeds, and dead bushes that I could keep my rock circle going. (Though it did make me worry about setting off a brush fire.)

Because it’s a commune, maybe of the residents took their evening walk past my campsite, so I got to meet several of them. I saw more folks in the distance as I wandered around, so I’d estimate somewhere between 15-20 people lived on the property, from young kids to elderly; a good age spread. I met four large dogs, including Ginger (the white dog pictured here), who apparently was the neighbor’s dog, but enjoyed hanging out here more! Most of my conversations were short, but I got the impression that it wasn’t a classic commune, where everyone worked together to improve the property. They may have started like that, but now, the commune aspect was “you get to live here rent-free.” If you want to eat, though, you have to work somewhere off property. I met one gal who had just gotten off her night shift job, and I knew there was no need for a night shift on property. The camping and the yurt (which you can rent on AirBnB) helped pay the bills.

All in all, it was a very nice place to camp in a friendly community. However, it wasn’t like the residents were swarming you… they left you alone mostly. It was cloudy and getting chilly, so I thought I’d throw some extra blankets over my (rather cozy) one-person tent. After I enjoyed reading my book near the fire, the weather was dropping down to 45 F, so I put the coals out and went to bed.

How did that turn out? Well… I’ll have to tell you about it tomorrow!

“Really?”

13 Jan

I was walking around downtown Phoenix the other day–and inevitably I’m walking down a street where a homeless woman is sitting on the sidewalk. As I walk past, she says, “Really?!” It was a simple statement that bugged me the rest of the day.

Upon reflection, it bugged me the most because the implication is that I owe you something. It’s not like she had a sign out (like the picture I chose for this post), or a hat, she was just sitting against the wall on an empty street… literally just her and me for blocks. What do I owe the other hundred people I walk past on my way to work and back?

  1. Don’t bug them.
  2. Don’t stink.
  3. Don’t get in their way.

It’s a limited social contract, I realize, but it’s pretty straightforward. My obligation to my fellow Phoenician on a daily basis are those three. Now is that all we should be doing? No. But what was she expecting in this interaction?

The simple answer is money–and I go back and forth on this one. Years ago I felt like, “That’s a shitty way to make money, so if they’re willing to put in the ‘work,’ sure, I’ll throw them a buck.” Now I’m like, “We have a labor shortage in the simplest of jobs. You’re obviously healthy enough to work, screw you.” I don’t care if they spend that money on drugs, booze, or food (but let’s face it, it’s the first two), but I’m under no obligation to help you get those. The reason she (and at least three hundred others) are sitting there is because the county shelter, a food bank, a soup kitchen, and at least three other homeless services are there.

I give to one of those (and occasionally two others) because I believe that the homeless deserve to have help. So I’m thinking there are six locations within easy walking distance of my cube that will feed you, clothe you, help get you a job, and help you get housing. Yet there is a reason why you’re sitting on an empty sidewalk at 2 pm on a Tuesday. It’s not because you’re just down on your luck. It’s because the alternative is inconvenient to you.

In the end, the “really?!” tells me everything I need to know. My experience with homeless and ex-homeless people is that these are people who have exhausted every other connection they have. They have burned out their friends, they have crushed their family ties, and they think it’s all other people’s fault, not theirs. Why should I have to work? Doesn’t the government owe me something? You see me–give me something!

In many ways, that’s the greatest lesson that I learned and that many people haven’t. If I’m sitting in a bad situation, I did something to get me here. Sure, I may have had a bad break here and there, but my choices led me to this place. It’s my choices that will get me out. It’s never too late.

Somewhere Beyond the Barricade

12 Jan

Another lifetime ago, I was asked to review a book, and I promised I would get to it… right after the book on my Kindle. Well, three months later I did and… is it bad? Is it good? The answer was unsatisfying.

The name of the book is Alejandro’s Lie by Bob Van Laerhoven. Now once I got past my knee-jerk resentment of the Dutch, I barreled into the text. Start with the good stuff: the book is incredibly well-written. The characters are detailed and multi-faceted. The setting is… interesting. But every time I read a chapter, I had a hard time starting the next.

Someone once said that being an author is like being a substitute teacher; you have the readers a reason to pay attention. So here are some of the things that threw me off while reading:

1. If it’s Chile, just call it Chile.

Alejandro’s Lie is set in Chile during the end of the General Pinochet dictatorship. Except it’s not Pinochet, it’s Pelaron. It’s not set in Santiago, it’s Valtiago. It’s not Chile, it’s Terreno. At first I thought, “okay, I can accept that it’s a made up South American country.” But it’s not, it’s in the Andes. Everything about this screams “CHILE!” and it’s not subtle about it. You mention America, Belgium, Cuba… why not Chile?

I only have a tertiary knowledge of Chile and its history (mostly from Death and the Maiden), but come on! Why not completely make up a whole country like Parador, where you can invent everything you want how you want it without offending anybody… but he doesn’t. Why just write about Chile and then file the serial numbers off?!

2. Your protagonist should actually do something.

The eponymous Alejandro, after ten years being tortured in retail hell Chilean Terranan prison for being the lead guitarist of a protest band, finally gets out and has nothing. He runs into a protest that goes violent and saves a rich woman from getting arrested. Okay, good start.

Then Alejandro is whiny for the next hundred pages. He has to be coaxed into everything by Beatriz (the love interest), including sex, to get back down with the cause. Everything that moves the plot is done by either Beatriz or Rene (the Belgian priest). What the hell is Alejandro’s lie? That he’s not really down with the cause? Yeah, we get it.

3. Everybody Hurts

One of my favorite radio hosts talks about he loves War and Peace, so I tried reading it again. I got to Page 250 and stopped reading because I just couldn’t care about any of the characters. They were aristocrats trapped in a cage of their own making. Interestingly enough, he also talked about how he hates Dune, which told me that his tastes and mine and completely different (I’ve read Dune six times–love it).

Alejandro is miserable about being tortured. Fine. Beatriz is miserable because of the oppressive father and oppressive ex-husband in her life. Okay. Rene is miserable because he feels like his life’s work is meaningless and he should have just banged his brother’s girlfriend and been married in Belgium. None of the characters actually want to do anything apart from a vague idea to free Terrano from Pelaron, but they certainly aren’t on fire about it. They’re too far up their own ass to actually fight.

Sure, this is more realistic, but it’s depressing as hell.

So… can I recommend this book? It is good, but it’s not for me. I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction for just this reason. I want a story, not detailed character studies, and their interactions. That doesn’t interest me; but if you like War and Peace (or Russian literature in general), go for it. But I got about 2/3rds through the book in three months and it was torture getting that far.

Maybe I’m not the best audience to review your book. *shrug*

The Redemption of Colonization

17 Sep

I only play computer games that are (at least) five years old. So I went back to play Sid Meier’s Colonization–the original from 1994–and thought… how can I play this in such a way that I don’t genocide the Native Americans?

Colonization is a dirty word these days, so it’s not surprising that this game doesn’t get a lot of love. For those of you not familiar with either the ’94 or ’08 remake, the idea is that you play one of the four major colonizing powers (English, France, Spain, or Netherlands), build up settlements in the New World, build up your cash crops, deal with the Indians, and eventually build up a power base to declare independence from your European power… and then win the war and gain your freedom!

You see the problem. In academic circles, this would be called exploitative, early-stage capitalism (and late-stage mercantilism), and terribly, terribly racist. And it is… after all, he only problem is that the most ideal spaces to build a colony are already taken… by the native inhabitants. (Fancy that!) However, this IS what happened in our history, so it should not be hidden or ignored. It is also terribly enjoyable, but instead of playing the “normal” way (wipe out the inconvenient Indians, pacify the convenient ones, and build your Empire), I decided to take (what I’m calling) the Treaty of Waitangi approach.

For most of us, that makes no sense, but it was a treaty signed in New Zealand between the British and the local Maoris that granted (local) sovereignty to the Maoris, in exchange for Brits being able to buy land to put it under that control. Most of this treaty was ignored, the Maoris were exploited, BUT… after several wars and a hundred years, the New Zealand government decided to actually follow this treaty and made reparations, creating a joint government between Anglos and Maori.

So what I do is settle on the land NOT occupied by the natives and give them a wide berth, send out missions to pacify the nearby tribes (yeah, I’m not Christian either, but it works! Think of them as embassies), and agree to every Indian request for food. The result? Peaceable colonies, only ONE fight with the natives, and plenty of room to expand. My current game is in the Pacific, so I only occupied HALF of New Zealand, and I’m still working my way across Australia. No genocide of Tasmania, the aboriginals still control half the country, and I’m still able to exploit most of the subcontinent to my heart’s content.

Usually in my games, the natives get honked off, and I have to fight off Indian attacks until I have to destroy the nearby villages to protect my colonies. However now… we have a good balance. I do wonder what the future of this approach would be for an independent Australasia. My guess is the Canadian model; unequal treaties, intermarriage (half-breeds commonplace or Metis), and smaller and smaller reserves for the Native population. Not genocidal, but just as exploitive. I would PREFER to think that the two populations would blend into a new culture, half-European, half-native… but history tells us that doesn’t happen. Even in places where the native population still overwhelms the European settlers (like Samoa), the native culture still suffers.

So I’m still being exploitive, but with the best intentions. What do you think? Is there a way to redeem Christopher Columbus (there’s a whole sci-fi book written on this topic)? Or do we just plow through the way history actually happened? Or do we just assure ourselves, “It’s a game, it’s NOT history?” Let me know in the comments below!

Conversations with Crazy

21 Jul

I was walking to my bus stop and I noticed a homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk, waving his hands, like he was dancing to his own tune. Then I got closer and the crazy began.

I try to give eye contact with most homeless folks, simply because it gives the minimum of decency. I see that you exist. He pointed to his wrist, so I thought, “oh, he wants to know the time.” So I tell him the time, he shakes his head, so I take off my headphones, and proceeds to tell me how foreign intelligence agencies are omnipresent and destroying Arizona.

Now the difference between a conspiracy theory and a crazy person is all in the cadence. A conspiracy theorist will stay on topic, explaining in a step by step way that microchips are getting smaller and smaller, that they are able to put them on smaller things, and they’re cheaper. So they can put them on anything, so the COVID-19 was an excuse to get people to use more hand sanitizer, which has tracking chips, and now the government has chips on all of us.

This guy started on foreign intelligence, then switched to tracking, then switched to being a good Christian, but believing in freedom of religion… And that point, my bus arrived, and I was able to apologize and leave this conversation that was going no where.

I used to think it must be fun being crazy… You can dress how you want, dance and shout, and people give you wide berth. On the train, I’ve noticed at least once a week one of my fellow passengers can’t stop moving. Not just walking or pacing, no… Jerking and dancing around. It’s unsettling.

Which made me think… Imagine if I couldn’t stop moving. Something in me makes it impossible for me to sit down. Maybe it’s nerve damage, maybe it’s a belief that the chairs are full of disease, maybe I’ve taken so many drugs that I can’t sit still for more than five seconds. What a hell that would be. If I literally thought that foreign agencies were after me, and that it was up to me to stop them, yeah… I wouldn’t be able to sleep in the same place every night. I couldn’t stay in the same place every hour!

I have great sympathy for the homeless, but I’m not blind to the fact that many of these are on drugs or mentally ill. We should fund mental illness treatment far more than do. You can’t help someone who believes that aliens from Zardoz are trying to kidnap him. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to stop taking his drug. That’s where we need to focus our help.

But I could be wrong… What do you think? Is our freedom of religion under threat from Zardoz? Let me know in the comments below!

The Great Resignation

18 Jun

I got a letter from LinkedIn saying, “Experts are predicting a ‘Great Resignation’ due to people wanting to move on and try something new.” Considering I’m ahead of the curve, I found this rather interesting, and it shows how resistant people are to taking away their “rights.”

I could go on about the collapse of commercial real estate, or newly remote workers fleeing expensive areas like San Francisco and New York City, but I’m more interested in the resistance to “returning to normal.” I’ll use my new job. One of the reasons I specifically took this job was because after three years working remotely, I desperately wanted a desk. (You can read more about my decision, it’s more complicated.) When the COVID hit over a year ago, my co-workers told me how sad they were that they had to work from home–this was such a radical change from their normal existence. Now that they’re shifting back to the office, there’s a massive push back from my co-workers about returning to their desks.

At the same time, my boss’ boss is doubling down on “You have to be at your desk!” She is resistant to having her employees continuing to work all the time from home. Even with the resistance that is obvious from her phrasing, she’s still insisting 2 days minimum for most, 3 days for admins. Why? Who knows?! Considering our company has a healthy history of people shifting departments, not to mention losing and hiring folks, why would you risk losing a ton of employees by being stricter about remote work?

My main thought is that she’s lonely. She’s tired of being in a mostly empty cube farm, her assistant not being there, and having to do all her meetings online. What’s the point of going into her office if she’s the only one there? So why not force everyone to come back. But the problem is that once something is granted to a person, they consider a right, and they get very angry if it’s taken away.

When the rules change at work, people start updating their resumes. People get comfortable in their ways. When I was first told back in… oh, 2007, “Marcus, you’re going to work from home starting next week.” I was shocked. But I found the joy of flexible work. At that time, the boss realized that most of his trainers were frequently in classes, or shifting around, and thought… “Gee, I can convince my bosses that we can save money if don’t have dedicated cubes.” And he was right. So for five years, I enjoyed the choice of either working from home, riding down to work, or riding out to wherever and working from there. I got to really love the bike trail and my cellular internet adapter (sorry, I can’t think of the actual name), finding myself working outside near the mounds of Fort Ancient, Ohio.

Then one day, my department got subsumed by Information Services, and the word came from on high. No more flexible work, you need to be in your cubicle, none of this adjustable schedule. I decided to shift jobs within my company, and when that wasn’t an option, I became a traveling consultant, and I’ve gained a measure of flexibility ever since. Even with my 5-day-a-week cube life back in place, I still have a great boss which allows me to be flexible when the needs of my life require me to be elsewhere.

I think that’s why I agree that the Great Resignation is about to happen. Some people may want to keep working from home, they may not, but everyone agrees they want the flexibility to choose. When your boss realizes, “Why are we paying for this office space if no one’s using it?” and insists you use it… those that want to keep working from home will seek out the TONS of jobs that are now remote. And that’s what my boss’ boss doesn’t realize; give people flexibility and you will have happy workers. Play the “because I’m the boss card,” you will lose them.

But I could be wrong–what do you think? Let me know in the comments below! Then check out one of my books and give me the flexibility to make more. However, if $1.99 is too steep for your wallet, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. You’ll be glad you did.

Secular Sainthood

10 Jun

If the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, then our spiritual icons must appear in ad space. In an America where people are less spiritual, and more ignorant of their own history, something has to take its place–therefore we have secular saints.

This is nothing new–in fact, there’s a term for it–“civil religion.” In a young country such as ourselves (and 300 years is pretty young), America had to invent a whole mythology and founding fathers to lionize and exalt. Since the best example of a working republic was Rome’s, our national buildings emulate Roman design consciously. Without a state church, we had to take away most of the direct religious connections, and appealed to unifying concepts (such as the Ten Commandments).

The recent change in our civil religion has been who we choose to venerate. Since we learned that our founding fathers were just flawed white men whose beliefs do not match our modern sensibilities, there has been a push to eliminate the old gods in favor of the new. In this case, Valley Metro in Phoenix has pushed to have a local artist create these beautiful pictures of 19 historical women to honor Women’s History Month.

Okay, let me get off my soapbox briefly to say, “These pictures are really good.” We should celebrate the founding mothers as well as the fathers. It was a little harder to be a big splash as a woman two hundred years ago, so our examples are far more recent. Now I’m going to take my fairness hat back off and ask, “Don’t these pictures look a LOT like Orthodox Christian icons?”

There’s a flower around their head (cough, cough… halo), one of them is holding an paint wheel like a cross or a book, and they all stare down at you like they owe you something. Like saints, these women are to be venerated; their lives are examples of how we should behave. Rosa Parks, Sally Ride, Harriet Tubman… women who broke traditional standards and succeeded. We made sure to throw in as many ethnicities as possible, regardless of how much it makes sense. For example, Jumko Tabei, the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Seriously? Or take Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African American to graduate from an American school of nursing. Who cares! You could have used Elizabeth Blackwell, first female American doctor, but we already hit our limit of pale skinned women.

What I wonder is how long these new secular saints will last before they are replaced. How long will Madam C. J. Walker last as “the first Black woman millionaire in America” before her belief in self-reliance and her relationship with the wealthy overwhelm her ethnic status? How long will Judy Garland’s role as a gay icon last when people stop watching The Wizard of Oz? The problem with creating new gods is that they don’t have a tradition to support them when the next generation comes along. But maybe that’s the point–new gods for a new generation, nothing stable, everything politically correct? Maybe I’m being hyper-critical about a bunch of urban art. Let me know in the comments below! Then if you want some more ephemeral art, check out one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too expensive to support the arts, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. You’ll be glad you did.

End of Watch

7 Jun

I’ve never been to a police memorial before–and I’m not sure this qualifies–but I got to attend the barbeque benefit for a fallen officer recently. It was an interesting experience and gave me a look into a world that I rarely step into.

Now that I work for the government. we get a lot more notices of what’s going on around “our fair city.” On Memorial Day, Officer Ginarro New of the Phoenix Police Department was hit by a driver running a red light at a high rate of speed. Bam. Dead at 27, after serving in the military, and two years as a police officer.

Not what I was expecting–certainly what you are expecting. The police union decided to host a fundraiser at their building, which as it turned out, was within walking distance of my workplace. First thing that struck me as unusual was that the fundraiser was being held from 10 am to 10 pm. It only struck me later was that was to be open to police officers whose shifts would overlap those times.

I got there around 2 pm (because my shift is set a little later so I can drop off my kids in the AM) to see a fire truck hanging a giant American flag and a digital billboard, and folks grilling away happily and collecting donations for the family. The place was packed. There were plenty of cops there–I was expecting that–a couple of firemen, but there was lots of families. Big kids, small kids, moms… even some folks I didn’t expect. Apparently I sat right behind the grieving family.

The actual food and drink was available in… what could have only been a garage originally, but was now a storage place / workout area / general storage area. Obviously it was a cooler place out of the sun. I walked right in and there were two lines of people waiting for food. Apparently the demand was so great that the grill couldn’t keep up with the number of burgers and franks the guests wanted!

However, eventually everyone got fed, it was a nice atmosphere. Everyone was friendly and glad to be helping out. It’s something I hadn’t seen in a while. However, I could just be out of touch–what do you think? Let me know in the comments below! Then check out one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too steep for your wallet, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. You’ll be glad you did.

That’s All, Folks!

3 Jun

I’ve been blogging every day for about a year now and my life has changed considerably since then. I’ve also felt like I’ve written on every topic can I imagine. So as I’m finding myself repeating the same thing for my daily post, it’s time to say goodbye.

I originally started this website to get more exposure to my books… and I have, but nowhere near enough to justify it. I realized that if I really want to continue down this social media exposure path, I have to dedicate a lot more time to it… and I don’t really want to.

Thank you for all those people who follow me. I’m sure I’ll continue to blog, but much more irregularly, and focus on my actual writing. When I publish another book, I’ll be happy to let you know.

Cheers,
Marcus

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