Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ask me a different question

I was asked whose writing ability I'd like to have and if I would choose write like them permanently.

Why would I want another author's writing ability? Ask me if I want their prolific output (yes) or their earnings (most definitely), but not their writing ability.

While I admire many authors and learn from their techniques, or lack of technique, I don't want to write like anyone but myself. How can I tell the stories of my life and experiences if I'm doing it through another writer's senses and styles? I've no doubt Ray Bradbury has spent some time in Central and South America, but he has not seen or known what I lived with every day in Panama. The way he saw the airport landing strip cut out of the bloody jungle clay is not the same way I saw it as a small child with the bloody clay dripping, congealing and clotting on the black macadam of the strip as the plane touched down.

John Steinbeck saw human waste during the great exodus of middle America and the people displaced crowding into tent cities on the California coast angling for jobs picking grapes or lettuce or whatever they could do to stay alive another hour, another day, another week. He saw the crumbling fish canning factories along the Pacific coast and the lives that washed up among the broken boilers and near empty diners. Had he seen the flood of people caught in the Mississippi levees in New Orleans, it wouldn't have been from the level of the street where getting a license to paint faces or sketch in pastels or tell fortunes with tarot cards was the ticket to a better life than pushing a Lucky Dog cart into the eddies and currents of tourist traffic in the Vieux Carre, but I did. He saw it from a loftier perch and I saw it from with stale hot dog steam in my eyes with my stomach cramping from hunger while partying tourists bought hot dogs they ate dripping catsup, mustard, relish and onions less than a foot away.

I admire many writers and I enjoy their different styles for many reasons, but the only ability I want is the ability to share my stories with a world wide audience and make enough money so I don't have to split my time between earning a living and doing what I love the most -- writing. Ask me a different question.

That is all. Disperse.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Have Faith, Your Belief is an Opinion

Pronunciation: \ˈfāth\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural faiths \ˈfāths, sometimes ˈfāthz\
Etymology: Middle English feith, from Anglo-French feid, fei, from Latin fides; akin to Latin fidere to trust — more at bide
Date: 13th century

1 a : allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty b (1) : fidelity to one's promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
2 a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
3 : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs
synonyms see belief

— on faith : without question

Pronunciation: \bə-ˈlēf\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English beleave, probably alteration of Old English gelēafa, from ge-, associative prefix + lēafa; akin to Old English lȳfan — more at believe
Date: 12th century

1 : a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing
2 : something believed; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group
3 : conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence
synonyms belief, faith, credence, credit mean assent to the truth of something offered for acceptance. belief may or may not imply certitude in the believer . faith almost always implies certitude even where there is no evidence or proof . credence suggests intellectual assent without implying anything about grounds for assent < a theory now given credence by scientists>. credit may imply assent on grounds other than direct proof .

Pronunciation: \ə-ˈpin-yən\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin opinion-, opinio, from opinari
Date: 14th century

1 a : a view, judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter b : approval, esteem
2 a : belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge b : a generally held view
3 a : a formal expression of judgment or advice by an expert b : the formal expression (as by a judge, court, or referee) of the legal reasons and principles upon which a legal decision is based

— opin·ioned \-yənd\ adjective

Today's post is brought to you by the continued wrangling over religious in/tolerance in the military and especially at the Air Force Academy where the current commandant is doing his best to promote a tolerant environment for the worship of all faiths.

A friend who works at the Academy keeps sending me links to articles and articles about this issue ever since the ring of stones was set up for pagan worshipers to gather. One intolerance Christian put a railroad tie cross against one of the larger stones of the outdoor circle and set off the current debate. There have been comments about how our forefathers would view the military and would cringe at the incursion of religion into the military and government sites, but I'm not so sure they know whereof they speak. It's hard to say what the individual founders of the Constitution would say since many of them did go to church and carried their faith with them, but one thing is certain, it was their anonymous belief that a state religion would only tear apart the fabric of the country they created and endowed with their own blood, sweat and tears.

The purpose of the dictionary definitions of faith, belief and opinion above should be obvious, especially since the first two words -- faith and belief -- have figured prominently in all the articles about the current discussion about tolerance. When you get right down to it, the whole idea of a single religion speaking for all is an opinion and has no basis in fact. Some people have faith that one god is the only god, whatever they choose to call him (the Jews have several names for him, Muslims one, and Christians none at all, other than god or lord, which are titles and not names) and other have faith that no god or the anthropomorphic (made in man's image) representations of natural forces and ideas called gods and goddesses rule their lives. It is their belief that they are not alone or, if they are alone and life is just a finite point of existence no one survives and is blown out like a candle flame, that they are alone and nothing matters because we're all going to die. Then there are the more exotic religions based on worship of ancestors, animal headed god/desses and cargo planes that once disgorged vast quantities of food, material, weapons and people and then took them all away again. There are religious beliefs of many types in every part of the world and all of them promote the idea that one set of beliefs is the only true path to enlightenment. I find that difficult to believe that if no one will agree to wearing one color, one cut of clothing, one shoe design and one hairstyle there is hope for everyone believing in one god or one religion.

When you boil down all the rhetoric, gossip and proselytizing, it comes down to one simple truth: one size does NOT fit all. America has been in the forefront from its bloody birth because there was no state religion and freedom was at the center of what has become the most important country on the planet. It isn't because the United States of America is the strongest, richest or most powerful nation in the world and can destroy every other country in the world ten times over; it is because America is the only country that works hard to promote and maintain freedom: freedom to speak out without fear, freedom to print opinions and beliefs without fear and freedom to worship any religion without fear. The word is out; the streets are not paved with gold, but, with hard work and faith in the system and yourself, anything is possible. It's time the evangelical arm of Christianity got the message that in order to practice their religion without fear, they must allow the same freedom to others and stop pushing their agenda down everyone else's throats. Christianity is a religion, a set of beliefs that followers have faith in, but it is not the only religion and believers have neither the right nor the mandate to force everyone else to believe their way and only their way.

I have faith in the Constitution. I believe that following the simple statements set down by our founding fathers will keep us a diverse nation of freedom loving and tolerant people. It is my opinion that all this religious tug-of-warring benefits no one and that it will tear this country and its people apart, thus negating the principles on which this country was founded.

There's a simple solution: You find meaning in whatever religion you choose and allow everyone else the courtesy to find meaning in their own way. After all, the only person you have some amount of control over is yourself. I can say, from personal experience, that I have enough trouble controlling myself and I do not need nor do I want to control anyone else, except maybe my mailman, but that is a story for another time. In the meantime, follow the dictates of your heart and leave everyone else to follow their own. We'll all be a lot happier.

That is all. Disperse.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Writing Murphy's Law: A Fable

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Everyone knows the saying and knows it's called "Murphy's Law," but does anyone know how it came about?

It started in aerospace engineering when using a human, specifically Murphy's unnamed assistant. What Edward Murphy actually said was that if there was a way for his assistant to make a mistake he would. In conversation later among the team members, the aphorism was pared down to its basics and thus a legend was born.

The idea that if something can go wrong, it will, or that if someone can make a mistake, they will, has been around as long as there have been people. Jehovah set the whole thing up when he told Adam not to eat the fruit of a certain tree, thus guaranteeing it would happen.

In 1841 in Norwalk, Ohio, a newspaper ran this parody of Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh:

I never had a slice of bread,
Particularly large and wide,
That did not fall upon the floor,
And always on the buttered side.

But back to Murphy's Law and Nick T. Sparks who put Murphy's Law on the literary map with the publication of A History of Murphy's Law where the story goes that the first run printing of the book had to be destroyed because of a typographical error that was not discovered until several of the books were sold, thus proving the aphorism that when something can go wrong, it will. In this case, on the cover of the book.

There is nothing so humiliating or depressing as seeing the cover of your very own book for the first time. For Nick T. Sparks, it was a mixed blessing. His books were already on the shelf when he opened the box sent by his publisher and gazed with excitement on the cover of the book, A History of Murpy's Law. It took a few moments for the euphoria to die a quick and violent death as the realization of what he saw sank in. The worst had happened, something had gone wrong and hundreds of thousands of books were sitting on bookshelves around the country with a glaring mistake on the cover: Murpy's Law.

The editors at Periscope Film didn't catch it, neither did the copy editor or printer, and no one in the marketing department saw what was obvious to Sparks. On the front cover in bold yellow type, Murphy's Law had struck before anyone would open the book and read one of the sixty-eight pages. Murpy's Law. Could anything be worse? Not even when Why Everything You know About Murphy's Law is Wrong was serialized and published as a four-part article had the Law descended and hit with such force. There were a couple of minor mistakes in syntax, grammar and spelling, but they were minor, almost invisible compared to the first run publication of the book. What could Sparks do but laugh?

He was still laughing when he called the publisher's office and requested his editor get a copy of the book and look at it, really look at it. The editor's groan turned into a banshee wail when the enormity of the mistake hit with full force. The very idea of recalling hundreds of thousands of books from retailers all over the country was a monumentally daunting task, and then there was the publisher to face. Who would get the axe over this one? The buck could not be passed fast enough or far enough.

It is sad to say that all the books were recalled and consumers were hunted down and forced to give up their copies of The History of Murpy's Law so new covers could be printed and hurriedly replaced. It was the worst typographical error in the history of printing, at least to publisher and editor of the book. I think it was the ghost of Murphy's assistant making sure that his fame would not be forgotten and so the world would realize that mistakes . . . happen.

When mistakes happen in minting coins and paper money it turns otherwise ordinary money, few seldom see except as a way to pay for good and services, into an item to treasure, an item that will inevitably go up in value. Stamps with airplanes printed upside down or monarchs facing the wrong direction are sought after and cherished. In books, errors bring readers to a screeching halt in grammar shock when reading racked with guilt where wracked with guilt should be or, in a financial article, pay the principal replaces pay the principle, even though everyone knows that principals seldom required bribing to discipline rebellious students. Such mistakes in grammar are the result of sloppy work and lazy writers unwilling or unable to use a dictionary when in doubt. Strict grammarians cringe, wail, and gnash their teeth while less exacting readers keep turning page after page, occasionally stopping just long enough to sip their glasses of wine, nibble a bit of cheese or strew crumbs of food between the pages while chuckling softly at misplaced subjects and dangling participles.

In the end, when all is said and done, Murpy's Law will out.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Vacation friendships and home

There is a poignancy about returning home from vacation. I am glad to be home as I was glad to leave, a balance of emotions and aims.

My intention on vacation was to relax and get away from the chores and duties and reminders of work that surround me every day and follow me even into sleep at times. I got what I wanted: peace and relaxation. I also got more than I asked.

My days followed no particular order or scheme, other than the impetus of the moment. I had breakfast at the B&B in the mornings and tea at the castle most afternoons, and dinner was wherever my wanderings led me, even to the point of not eating a formal dinner and snacking on something picked up on my walks. Wednesday morning was very different. The owners of the B&B surprised me with a birthday cake at breakfast, thus alerting the other guests to the significance of the day. One guest, Rob from New Mexico, chose to offer a more personal birthday greeting and took me out to dinner that evening to an Italian restaurant nearby where he grinned like an idiot when the owner brought out a birthday cake covered with blazing candles and singing Happy Birthday while the rest of the clientèle joined in. We had a pleasant evening and spirited conversation, but I was ready for the quiet and peace of my suite by the time we returned. He didn't intrude on me at breakfast the next morning and we passed in the hall as I headed to the castle for tea. Out of politeness I invited him to join me. He balked at first -- "I don't drink tea. I'm not that refined." I assured him he could have coffee if he chose and he agreed to walk me over in case I needed a strong arm to keep me from falling as it was snowy and slick outside. It didn't take much urging for him to join me and he even agreed to try the tea and was pleasantly surprised. Black oolong has quite a strong caffeine kick; I chose jasmine green tea. I prefer a less pronounced caffeine kick. Tea led to dinner on Thursday and a repeat performance on Friday evening as we were both leaving Saturday morning, he to return to New Mexico and me to return home.

I hadn't intended to meet or get involved with anyone during my vacation, but I am flexible if nothing else. Rob was quite the gentleman and didn't intrude into my plans for relaxation and getting away from work and responsibilities. He had an infectious laugh that broke through my initial reserve as he regaled me with tales of life on a sheep ranch in New Mexico. He promised to write -- real letters -- but I will not believe it until I see it. Men are notoriously inconstant correspondents. He was very handsome and five years younger, but I choose not to hold that against him. As a companion, he was friendly and intelligent and surprised me with his tales of just how much technology can be done from a sheep ranch with a more than adequate satellite hook-up. Technology and nature in one very intriguing package.

The rest of my vacation consisted of rounds of sleeping, reading, lounging in a tub that could have doubled as a swimming pool, napping, reading, fire gazing, reading, sleeping and relaxing. It's just what I needed. I felt positively boneless and limp by the end of my stay, so boneless and limp I booked a long weekend in September before I left. Rob said he had an idea that he would need another vacation by then as well to celebrate his birthday. We'll see. Vacation friendships do not always last, but they are pleasant while they do.

Getting home early, I decided to dive back into my usual weekend chores by making bread that eventually became pain perdu, otherwise known as French toast, finished up some reading, returned some phone calls and acknowledged the many birthday wishes I received while I was away and then planned dinner. I made roasted chicken with a variation on the bleu cheese sauce I make for grilled steak by adding browned mushrooms and capers for the chicken and the baked potato. It was marvelous. I actually missed my own cooking. Imagine that.

Today, I'm diving into the letters, dispatches and histories of Gaius Octavius Caesar, also known as Augustus Caesar, and reading a review book I need to finish by Tuesday, and writing this.

I want to thank everyone who remembered my birthday in their blogs and journals. I did read them while I was gone, but limited my time online to get away from it all. It was wonderful to know that so many people remembered the anniversary of my birth. It was a memorable day for me and a reminder that even though I live alone I am not alone with such friends as these.

Time to take the chicken and potato out of the oven and fix lunch, do a couple loads of laundry and dive deeper into the life of Augustus Caesar and drift with the tides and currents of history for a few hours more until it's time to roll up this day and prepare for my return to work.