Archive | August, 2020

The Long Road Home (Part 1)

11 Aug

My grandmother died on Friday – her and my grandfather were my surrogate parents in college, so I’m driving home to Illinois with my son to go to her funeral. From Phoenix, that’s 24 hours of driving… Ain’t this gonna be fun.

The first leg is not too bad. Cut through the mountains northeast until you hit interstate. It’s a lot of windy road which made my son sick. Then once we got Payson, we just fed him, and he was fine. Then through the Rim Country and you hit the high desert.

There’s a whole lot of flat for a while. Then you hit New Mexico, with the mesa and pueblo which is quite beautiful. Heading through Navajo country (largest reservation in the US) and several smaller rezs, I was drawn to gas and cheap tobacco at one of the stops only to find everything but the gas closed due to COVID-19! You put up twenty signs lauding this place and you didn’t think to put up one that says you’re closed?!

Then we got Albuquerque, which is absolutely gorgeous from a distance, and went to my brother in law’s place. He and his lady were so nice to us.

We even broke out the padded swords and let Uncle and Nephew play for a bit. It’s a good start to the trip. Of course, this is the easy part!

Quality with a “K”

10 Aug

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “k.” There’s no particular reason why quality has to be spelled with a Q, in fact… it probably makes more sense with a KW. However, if you’re used to the dictionary, it weirds you out, just like all the little updates in my life. They’re not amazing… just weird.

So I managed to earn my “k!” – a thousand followers on Twitter. My joy was foiled because I got pinged because I decided to unfollow 40 people who weren’t following me. Facebook, LinkedIn, and even WordPress lets you know when you’ve gone too far with following folks. Twitter? They punish you and let you know you did bad… but won’t specifically tell you what you did. Yeah, that’s quality with a “k.”

Quality with a “k” is apparently a fun phrase that apparently was big in Eastern Pennsylvania back in the late 80’s; heard it from a guy who grew up there–I’ve heard it nowhere else. Okay, other accomplishments!

  • Finished my second (fourth?) draft of Defending Our Sacred Honor, which is the next novel I intend to publish. Love the story, laughed out several times, but I still hate the name. That’ll be a post for another time.
  • Plan to create my first audiobook with my novella, Virginia is for Lovers because it’s shorter. Got the equipment, but need to figure out the mechanics, because I’ve never done it before.
  • Gotta start thinking about what I’m gonna start writing next. Thinking about blitzing for NaNoWriMo in November.
  • Wondering how long I should sit on To Serve a Foreign Queen, which is the novel I just finished. Too much work to revise, no interest. It’s not the worst plan to let it sit in my folder for three years like Defending…

I just wanted to show everyone that it’s very common in India to spell it “kwality.” Yeah, it keeps bugging me. What’s some of the little things that bug you but no one else? Tell me in your comments below!

Maps Killed My Idealism

9 Aug

My dad bought me my first atlas when I was eleven years old; yeah, I was THAT kid. I love maps and poured over them. I loved looking at places that I had never been and dreamed about going there one day. So imagine my surprise, one day in 1983, the map changed.

This wasn’t the fall of the Soviet Union – this was six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall – this was a name change of a country in West Africa. Of course, I didn’t notice it at first; I couldn’t! The mapmakers only changed the maps years later, once enough nations accepted that the Republic of Upper Volta was now “Burkina Faso.”

This is one of those landlocked countries I find endlessly fascinating–probably because I grew up in a landlocked state. It also has the very-funny-to-English-speakers capital of Ouagadougou. So it grabbed my attention. So when it suddenly shifted names, I wanted to know why. In 1989 (yes, it took that long for the maps to change), we didn’t have the Internet, so I checked the CIA World Factbook. It said, “They changed their name to more accurately reflect the historical and cultural history of their people.” “Oh,” I told myself, “that makes sense,” and moved on to whatever interested me next.

Something can be true and not true at the same time. Yes, they changed their name for that very reason, but the factbook neglected to mention that they overthrew their government and installed the leftist Thomas Sankara as the president. That was part of his plan. By the time I noticed the map change, he had already been thrust out of office and replaced by another man… who ended up being a strong man for two decades.

It did spark an interest in African politics and government shifts, but really, what it taught that 15-year-old me is “don’t trust people’s press releases.” Sankara’s goals sounded really impressive, but considering he only lasted four years, I’m guessing he ticked off the people he was trying to support or the army that put him in power… either way, the name change became obvious that it was a way to grant legitimacy to his overthrow of the government rather than some lofty ideal.

So was it maps that really killed my idealism and taking claims at face value? No, but maps are simply a reflection of other people’s claims anyway, so I’m gonna say it was the trigger for me. The drawing of lines in Africa is the primary reason behind so much of the violence – because when politics is tribal / ethnic, and your line cuts right across tribal land, suddenly you have a majority in one country and a minority in the other and that will never change. The fact Yemen is in a civil war was because the country was split between Western and Soviet factions during the cold war, which just happened to be split on cultural lines. When they unified the country, you had that lovely majority/minority split, and the minority got ticked off enough to revolt.

I’m not going to make this a US comparison, because although the basic concepts are there, actually going out and shooting takes a different level of crazy… and thank God, we’re not there yet. We created tribes when we lost all our other cultural / religious / familial connections and felt isolated. It’s one thing to go on Twitter and say, “Orange man bad!” It’s another to march in the streets when you know the cops won’t shoot you. It’s a completely different level to go out when you know they WILL shoot you. There’s a smaller number the more dedicated you go.

Which is why as an older man don’t trust idealism. It’s easy to go march when it’s a party–I’ve marched myself–but it takes another level of crazy to actually do something about it. I’ve gone off the deep end myself, and in the end, I don’t think it’s worth it.

“When did you lose your grace?” (Sorry, movie quote.) Did you have a transformational movement that made you a cranky old fart like me? Or did you have a epiphany that made you man the barricades? It doesn’t have to be epic like looking at a map. 🙂 Tell me about it in the comments below!

Where is Coconut Grown in Germany?

8 Aug

German Chocolate is my favorite type of cake – my wife makes it for my birthday every year. However, there’s nothing German about it. Coconut does not grow in Northern Europe. So where the heck did the name come from?

The answer is that it’s a marketing ploy–this one happens to be a hundred years old, dating back to the turn of the century when they’re trying to sell a new recipe to an unknown public. Jake’s Coconut Chocolate Cake is a tactical risk; German Chocolate Cake sounds exotic.

This is an extension of the “different languages sound exotic” argument I made a few days ago, however, people keep doing this! Take, for example, this rather pedestrian example. This is a coffee machine where you get the option of “Dakota Roast” or “European Blend.” I can buy that there’s a favorite blend in Europe… why the #*$& would I care if oil frackers in North Dakota like their coffee a little darker? Do I imagine Sioux indians riding across the plains drinking coffee? Is the brew in Fargo worth travelling for?!

There’s lots of examples of this. Texas Roadhouse comes to mind instantly (great bread). There’s cars called the Tucson and Sedona, or my favorite, the Montana. When you’re driving in Arizona, this is not that exciting. The Arizona Bread Company sounds great in Arizona… the St. Louis Bread Company, not so much… which is why it’s called Panera outside St. Louis. 🙂

Wearing words that you don’t understand on your shirt is also weird… but hey, it looks cool, right? This is a Chinese example, but I remember kids wearing French phrases on their shirts in high school (thirty years ago), and I thought it was stupid then… especially since I could read French. If it says something cool, I’ll give it a pass (like my wife’s handbag which has a whole Psalm in Hebrew), but if you’re depending on someone else to tell you what it means (like tattooing Chinese characters on your skin), buyer beware!

Am I alone? Obviously this technique works or marketers wouldn’t do it, but am I the only one who notices? What examples do you find particularly outrageous? Let me know in the comments below!

If yer not Dutch, yer not much

7 Aug

I grew up in a town that was half Dutch, half not – I was on the half nots. I can say Housinga, Vandermyde, and Reimer properly… because they were my classmates. This rather strange situation led me to a love/hate relationship with all things Dutch. This also created an ethnic solidarity to a past their ancestors wanted to forget.

Between 1880 and 1920, there was a wave of Dutch immigration to Northwest Illinois (and Michigan and probably Minnesota). This took the nearby Catholic town of Fulton, Illinois and turned it completely Dutch. They spoke Dutch, they went to Dutch Reformed churches, their kids mostly hung around other Dutch kids. The story my grandma (born 1937) would tell me is that the Dutch kids wouldn’t be allowed to drink and dance, but they DID seemed to get pregnant a lot.

Now a lot of this is slander, because she also told some degrading stories about Catholics too, but it certainly changed the political and social landscape of these small farming communities. This created a new identity among the new citizens. The picture with the windmill is on the Mississippi River. The people of Fulton bought the “de Immigrant” windmill from the Netherlands and moved it brick by brick to Illinois. There are Dutch Days every summer (well, not this summer) with folks wearing wooden shoes and washing the streets.

The funny thing is that their grandparents and great-grandparents were doing everything in their power to blend in… to become American. They refused to teach their kids Dutch. The strictness of the Dutch Reformed Church weakened over the decades. The last Dutch-language service in my town was in 1972. They went to the local schools, embraced being Americans, and apart from the strange-sounding names, were American by my generation in every sense. Of course, by then, there were other waves of immigrants which shifted them over to “white.”

Of course, I’m not blameless. I’ve got a kilt in my closet and my ancestors left Scotland three hundred years ago. I’ve never been to Scotland. I’ve been to the Netherlands (okay, the airport), but I have as much connection to the Hague than I do to Dumfries. My ancestors may have left thanks to being on the wrong side of a political dispute (Dissenters against the Kirk), but what they really wanted was land to farm. Along the way, we lost the “e” on our name–fought, then married Irish–and kept moving to have their kids get their own farm.

Maybe we’re all looking back to a history that doesn’t exist? Thanks to a note in my family history, I thought I was 1/256th Cherokee for decades. (Turns out, I’m not… not even close.) Are you proud of dubious connection to the past? How much is your identity tied up in your ancestry? Let me know in the comments below!

Lorum Ipsum Rocks!

6 Aug

There is a saying: quidquid latine dictum, altum videtur. “Anything said in Latin sounds profound.” Certainly it grabs my attention–even nonsense Latin, like lorum ipsum which is used as space filler. What is it about a dead language that draws you in?

My first exposure to Latin was in choir–there’s a LOT of sacred music that is only sung in “Church” Latin, since until Vatican II, that was how all Catholic services were done. As a singer, Latin is a lot easier to sing than in English. English is a Germanic language and has a lot of “sh” and “th” and hard “c’s” and your tongue has to work around that. Latin is the Romance language, and just like French, Spanish, and Italian, softer vowels are easier to sing.

Take this example — this is St. Louis Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. It looks like an office building in the middle of downtown, but it is covered in Latin phrases on the outside. It grabs your attention. I only noticed the diocese coat of arms 15 seconds after I tried translating the two phrases. The lower one is easy “Ecce Tabernaculum Dei” – Behold the tabernacle of God. The one above the door I had to run through a translator – “All nations will bow before thee, O Lord” – I could only catch “Omnes,” “Corum,” and “Domine.” Not bad for someone whose knowledge of Latin only comes from translations of choir music. 🙂

However, maybe it’s not just Latin? In the movie, the Matrix, the Merovingian says, “I love French… [rattles off some nonsense words], it’s like wiping your ass with silk, I love it.” German generally sounds aggressive. Personally, I love the sound of Dutch – I guess it’s because it’s German with softer vowels… LOTS of softer vowels. You never run into more double “a’s.”

It could just be an American thing — I know bits and pieces of ten different languages, but can only barely speak anything but my own. We don’t use multiple languages in regular daily conversation. (Unless you count Spanish signs.) So maybe the unknown is the appeal. I don’t know what the heck the words above me say… but I -want- to know. I wanted to know what Lorum Ipsum meant and was disappointed to find out they were just nonsense words.

What do you think? Is it just the sense of the unknown? Is it the formality of a dead language that you can’t hear that makes it sound profound? Let me know in the comments below!

Abbreviation Nation

5 Aug

If I say “USS Badger” or “HMS Richmond,” you know exactly what those abbreviations mean. I love ship prefixes, I use them extensively in all my scifi stories, but as I’ve learned over the years, most non-English-speaking countries don’t use them. So… naval intelligence puts some prefixes on anyway!

Take the Wufeng Shan, which is a type 072 landing ship run by the (Chinese) People’s Liberation Army Navy. They have no ship prefixes–that’s probably a symbol of imperialist oppresion. So without an official one, you can go with the more prosaic CNS – Chinese Naval Ship – or my favorite, the PLANS – People’s Liberation Army Navy Ship. There is something so wonderfully bizarre about the term “Army Navy.”

This is not just a foreign thing — sometimes the US military takes the abbreviation too far. Take the ship pictured above: USAV SSGT Robert T. Kuroda (LSV-7). First off, this is an Army ship; that’s right, the US Army has its own ships. Unfortunately, the Army decided, we can’t just use the standard prefix. We go with “United States Army Vessel” and then add the frickin’ rank of the man we’re honoring! The hell?

Or you can go with the NOAAS Okeanos Explorer, which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Ship. They’re one of the civilian federal uniformed services of the US (didn’t know that, did ya?) along with the National Health Service. The hospital ships, though, are run by the US Navy but are given the civilian designation USNS Mercy – United States Naval Ship.

When you have to translate it into other languages, that’s where prefixes get fun. Take the picture above – Hr.Ms Van Amstel (F831). That’s Harer Majesteits or His Netherlands Majesty’s Ship which works a lot better than the English equivalent: HNLMS. Sometimes even English abbreviations can get cumbersome, such as HMNZS Te Kaha (New Zealand naval ship) or the CCGS Cap Aupaluk (Canadian coast guard ship), which at least dropped “Her Majesty’s” ship from the title.

I find this endlessly fascinating. So much so that I like reusing old ones – my current story project is set in the Terran Confederation, so the ships have a Confederate State Ship, such as the CSS Community of Harmonious States.

Am I the only one? Do you like ship prefixes? What are some of your favorites? What would you name your ships? Tell me in the comments below!

Shrug Shoulders, Smile Awkwardly

4 Aug

When I was living overseas, I figured that if I ever wrote a travel book, I would have to call it “A Land Where No One Makes Change.” Where I lived in the Indian Himalayas, everything was a cash economy. Yet strangely, no storekeeper EVER had change for your big 500 rupee bills. Were they lying? Or was there a deeper reason?

To preface this, I was working in Uttarakhand State about 15 years ago, but I just bet this is still the case. Lot of things changed while I was living in Mussoorie. First off, they changed the state name from Uttaranchal to Uttarakhand (Northern Valley to Valley of the Gods… I think), we finally got a real pizza place (Dominos is frickin’ gourmet compared to sweet tomato sauce on baked bread), and our very own cafe (Barista). I’m sure I wouldn’t recognize the Buz (bazaar) if I went back.

However, I bet few people have credit card readers, and most of the stores will have difficulty making change for a 500 rupee note. Now, for my Western readers, if you do the calculation, that’s only US $6.67. However, the purchasing power of that note in the hills is closer to $13-20! To explain, I was making $3600/year – that put me in the poverty range back home in America, but made me upper middle class in the mountains. I had two servants (a housekeeper and a laundry man) and a 43-year-old Bajaj green scooter that I called the Hulk (it was mean, green, and dangerous to ride).

Of course, I didn’t pay for my apartment or utilities, so there was some benefits. However, I saved up enough cash even on that little to pay for a round-trip plane ticket back home! THAT’S how far my US Poverty Level salary extended. So when you’re going to a storekeeper than maybe makes… oh, Rs.100-200/day and has to pay rent, food, fuel, and take care of their elderly mother singing bhajans (hymns) all day, that burns out fast. Gee, I wonder why they couldn’t make change for a note that equaled a week’s profit?!

So when I see signs in the US saying, “We can’t make change,” that’s where my mind goes. It didn’t help that the ATM machine only kicked out 500 rupee notes, so if you wanted change, you went to the “grocery stores” or you waited in “line” at the bank. NOTE: neither of those statements are accurate. “Sardarji’s” was the size of a big closet and crammed to the ceiling with packaged groceries, with fruits and veggies on top of other shelves crammed with stuff. If something didn’t sell, it stayed there… forever. That wasn’t even the name of the store: it was “Harkrishan Store” and it was run by a father and son who were both Sikhs. So since “sardar” is the (insulting) nickname for Sikhs, you soften it by giving it the honorific “-ji.” Also, no one ever lined up at the bank teller; they just moved as a mob to get to the front. Not always the case in India, but at my bank, yes.

In the US, I rarely use cash–everyone has card readers, except for the rare exceptions of the dive bar I frequent weekly–and that has more to do with the economic hit they took for being closed for three months. They couldn’t afford to pay their fees!

Have you been having trouble making change? Have you run into this problem before? Let me know in the comments below!

Challah Wallah

3 Aug

There is a simple joy in baking bread. It’s unlike any other type of baking. The ingredients are deceptively simple. The timing is known, the process is straightforward… so why on Earth can’t I ever get it right?!

Ever since I got married, I’ve been (not always) making bread. Part of our faith involves blessing the wine and bread every Friday night, and you get a lot more out of it if you make your own bread. I’m sure I’d get a lot more out of the wine if I had my own vineyard, but when I started, we couldn’t even get wine up in the Himalayas, so… count your blessings.

When I first started out, I had a lot more advantages than I do now. I could use real wheat flour and eggs and milk. I had a marble countertop (because marble is really cheap near where they quarry it) that I could whack the bread onto to make it fluffy. Then I could braid it into challah, which is this wonderful braided bread that looks and smells great. Then you put an egg glaze on it… boom! My newlywed wife used to boast about my bread to her friends. One of them called me the “challah-wallah” (wallah means “seller” in Hindi) and that name stuck.

However, once we left the mountain and moved back to the States, my bread making stopped being as easy. Try throwing a ball of dough onto a plastic countertop and you’ll shake the ever-living crap out of your kitchen. So my bread didn’t turn out as fluffy. Then we discovered my wife had a milk allergy, so we removed milk. Then we realized that wheat did not agree with me, so we had to use alternative wheats. Then egg was a problem for the boy. Then yeast is a concern for the ladies in the family.

So how do you make bread without all of the components? Or as I phrase it, “How do you make bricks without straw?”

At first, we ended up having oily pancakes. Thankfully, over the years, the world has become now full of alternatives. You can grind up flax seeds and make an egg substitute. We use sourdough starter to get some lift in the dough. We use spelt flour, and when that doesn’t work for me, we use chickpea, rice, and whatever GF flour we can find. Milk turns out not to be as important as you might think. Some weeks, our bread turns out great, others… it’s a gooey mess in the middle and you have to wait until Sunday to bake it again as toast.

Nowadays, we can’t braid the dough because it doesn’t stay together enough to create the lines to make the braids, but it turns out you can buy molds that can give the illusion of braided dough (see my picture above). Sometimes we just give up and put the dough in cupcake molds.

Why did the simple joy of baking bread become a science experiment? Am I the only one who has these problems? Tell me your bread-baking woes in the comments below!

Whale Puke to Ambergris

2 Aug

So I finished the first draft of my most recent novel, and man… does it suck. The plot goes nowhere, the characters are unrealistic, and I’m sure if I look too deep, a dragon will appear for no apparent reason. How do I turn this crap into a spun gold?

When I decided to give my “writing career” another try (a year since self-publishing my last book), I figured that doing the July version of my favorite writing motivator – NaNoWriMo – would be a good way to get those creative juices flowing. And it has! I am feeling much better about myself, I’m expanding my outreach, and even started writing this blog! (BTW, I’m grateful that you’re reading this.) However, as much as I’m happy about expanding my writing opportunity, I’m incredibly disappointed in what I wrote.

When it comes to this situation, I keep remembering a scene from Dean Koontz’ Lightning, in which the main character (an author) is writing her latest story. Her husband comes in and asks, “How’s the story coming?”

She responds, “Ugh. Whale puke.”

He smiles and says, “Great! That means it’ll sell another 10,000 copies!”

Ambergris, one of the precious perfume components and is rather expensive, comes from whale puke. I try to remember that your first draft will never be publishable. What’s important is that you get the words out first. You can polish it all you want before you publish, but if you don’t have anything written at all, you have nothing to polish… or publish.

So the current plan is to throw it in the drawer and not look at it for three months. Give my mind a chance to breathe and try and remember what I liked about this universe and where I want it to go. In the meantime, I’ve got another novel that I need to edit and get ready for publication. I’ve got this audiobook project that I want to make of one of my stories. And… as always, continue to promote the books I’ve already published.

Speaking of which, have you checked our my latest Kindle offering? #shamelessplug 🙂

Do I suffer alone? Do you have finished novels that haven’t seen the light of day in… years? Do have uncompleted stories that you just stopped one day and never came back to? Cry on my electronic shoulder in the comments below!

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