Category Archives: JCFness

Selected for Publication!

DDtM SelectedDrawing Down the Moon has been selected for publication by the Kindle Scout team. It will appear sometime in 2015, hopefully sooner than later.

I want to give my most heartfelt thanks to everyone who clicked through to the Drawing Down the Moon page, nominated the book, twisted friends’ arms to do the same, and used precious electrons and your more precious time to share my incessant posts about this. Your enthusiasm, along with God’s grace, has launched this project and you’ll soon get to see the fruits of your labors. And then it will be time to bug you for reviews!

DOH!

Apologies to subscribers and those out there taking in this site via RSS feed. A couple of days ago, I noticed a glitch on a rather large number of posts and decided to fix a few… forgetting that whenever I updated them, they would show up anew on RSS.

A good thing I didn’t fix all of the posts that had the glitch.

Now that I know about the issue, when I have time to sit down and fix it, I will turn off RSS for the duration and keep your news feeds clear of re-runs.

In the meantime, the Kindle version of The Company Man has completed the coding process and is undergoing the first wave of corrections and proofing. Look for it and a trade paperback version of same sometime later this month, hopefully.

And look for a preview of the cover art in these pages soon.

And Here’s Another Sign That I’m Approaching Geezerhood

After spending 48 years of my life hating it, I now actually like oatmeal.

This is How it All Starts

Okay, so I’m at the fair last week, and somewhere along the line, either in the Men’s room or one of the Port-O-Lets, I notice the writing on the dispenser of hand sanitizer that now appears everywhere. It says, kills 99.99% of all household germs!. And I’m thinking, yeah, but it’s that other .01% you have to worry about, because they might grow up into something nasty.

That’s what gave birth to the short piece that you’ll be reading this Monday.

But of course, my brain didn’t stop working there.

See, I took something obvious, something that is worrying a lot of biologists, namely, that our psychological dependence on things like germ-killing sprays and alcohol based hand sanitizers instead of old fashioned soap might be making our immune systems lazy, and worse yet, breeding up a generation of supergerms who scoff at things like alcohol and penicillin. I just wrote it up for Monday in such a way that it has a dark, funny ending.

But really, that’s not an idea. It’s a concept. I call it a notion. Good for a 100 word story, but not strong enough to support a 100,000 word novel.

In order to do that, it needs to meet some other notions to really become viable.

Which of course, it did.

I’ve recently been wondering how much of the world’s population would have to be killed off in some kind of pandemic before our current infrastructure of internets (sic), power plants, and canned food would collapse. I’ve been wondering about loss of population percentages against a scale of technology, and what knowledge would be lost and need to be relearned in the event of something catastrophic like that.

Lost technology is something else that has caught my eye over the last couple of decades. Ever since I heard that, if for some reason we had to mount an Apollo-like mission into outer space, we could no longer do it. A lot of the Apollo-era engineers and scientists have retired or died, and we’ve spent twenty years on a “new” technology that is now wearing out.

All of this stuff, the hand sanitizer, the population numbers, and the lost technology, it was all drinking in the same bar when another of my notions walked in. Not really a notion, but a literary observation.

It’s about gunpowder.

Obviously taking a cue from history, there’s been a lot of writing in fiction that reflects the power of the invention of gunpowder. When it comes into play, it changes everything, at least in the hands of people who want to stuff it in tubes with a piece of lead on top of it, and not in the hands of folks who want to make pretty colors in the sky.

Basically, in literature, gunpowder marks a line – the beginning of an era that is reliant on science instead of mysticism. An age of enlightenment, a coming out of the dark. An age when we no longer believed in magic.

Or even, in certain pieces of fiction, a time when actual magic begins to fade from the scene as people flock to the concreteness of science. In other words, magic stops working because people stop believing in it.

This is an idea that has fascinated me for a long time, and gunpowder is such a perfect turning point. I can see why other writers have picked up this particular ball. But me? I could never suspend my disbelief to get through any fantasy piece outside of The Hobbit, which I read for a high school class. I seriously enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films, but that’s because the disbelief was already suspended for me with CGI creatures and effects.

So as much as I admired it, the whole magic v. gunpowder theme was a theme that I would pretty much leave alone.

Except now all of these notions are at the same table in the bar, and they’re laughing and drinking together and…

Are you there yet?

My subconscious said they belonged together. And pretty soon it bubbled up into my consciousness, which said, it starts at a county fair, with lots of people, food, and animals. A guy uses hand sanitizer, but it isn’t enough. Pretty soon, what he’s caught from somewhere has killed off so much of the world’s population that our technology infrastructure has collapsed, and a new dark age is beginning.

And that’s when… little by little… magic… starts… coming… back.

Now that is a sandbox I could play in.

It still needs a lot of work. I need characters and a time frame. Would it be a trilogy? Maybe just a single book, and by the end magic is not yet in full swing, but has shown up just enough to give a glimmer of hope.

Now I don’t know if I’ll actually ever do anything with this. It depends on if this group of notions that is now an idea keeps nagging me, keeps coming back to this same bar, and then some other friends show up…

But I bring this to you today just so you can see that this is how it happens. This is how writers take little things, like a dispenser in the Port-O-Let at the county fair and spin it until it has created an entire new universe worth exploring.

So the next time you see a writer stating out of a window, be assure that he is not simply enrapt with the squirrel skittering across the lawn – although he might be.

The long odds are, he’s probably thinking about gunpowder. And the .01% of germs that the bottle of hand sanitizer missed.

Listening:
If you see something that looks like a star
And it’s shooting up out of the ground
And your head is spinning from a loud guitar
And you just can’t escape from the sound
Don’t worry too much, it’ll happen to you
We were children once, playing with toys

(via iTunes shuffle play)

A Visit from the Karma Police

I don’t believe in Karma. As a Christian, I think the whole good deeds/bad deeds thing works in an entirely different way. But sometimes I have to wonder about the ironies that life hands you, and, well… the word Karma has worked its way into our culture, and it sure comes in handy at times like this (I’m developing a whole post on Words We Need, but that’s for a later date).

For example…

When I was in high school, I came to the conclusion that Ohio was the funniest state of the union.* And that Akron was the funniest-named city in Ohio. My high school career was filled with comic references to Akron, Ohio, something that spilled over into college.

Then one day I met a girl from the same corner of the universe where Akron was, and I would tease her mercilessly about where she was from. And on another day I realized I was in love with this girl and we got married… in Ohio… near Akron.

But we went to live in Wyoming after the wedding. Now Wyoming’s economy has as many peaks and valleys as the Big Horn Mountains that it hosts. And after seven years, a valley came, and we started looking for another place to live. A place where the economy was stagnant and flatlining. But when you’re in a valley, even stagnant looks good.

So in 1987 we moved. To Ohio. Close enough to Akron that the neighborhood I live in is considered a suburb. And while we managed to produce a son in Wyoming, the daughter came in Ohio.

The Ohio jokes had been on the way out long before that, but once we crossed the state line, they vanished. And I found another outlet for recurring humor. Root canals.

You can see where this is going already. I became known for saying I preferred root canal to an activity I did not wish to engage in at all – “Hey, Joe, we’ve got a spare ticket to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Beauty Pageant – they’re going to crown this year’s Queen.” “Gee, I’d love to, but I’ve got a root canal scheduled that day and I’ve been so looking forward to it.” And here’s a short compilation of root canal references that have appeared on this site. Hilarious!

Only now I write this with half of my face feeling like it is made of lead, with that uncertain cool feeling at one corner of my mouth that makes me think I’m drooling all the time, the taste of medicine in my mouth that not even Ricola drops or Steak and Shake Chili can take away – me, sitting here with half of a root canal in my mouth. Yeah, half. The root canal part is done, but the permanent filling isn’t due to a complication that is sometimes found in such a procedure.

Go ahead and laugh, especially since I’m not in any pain. Yet. I get a bruised feeling that my dentist told me to expect. But it turns out that root canals are not generally painful during or post-operatively, unless you were in pain from the tooth in question to begin with. So my spirits are good.

Except I told my wife one thing this morning as I was going out the door. I reminded her of the Ohio jokes and the root canal jokes, and I said, “From now on, I’m going to be really careful what I joke about.” Then I added, “I think I will start joking about getting a million dollars.”

“No,” my wife said. “Joke about getting five million dollars.”

She’s right. A million dollars just doesn’t buy what it used to.

Listening:
He will take you, if you run
He will chase you
He will take you, if you run
He will chase you
‘Cause he is the Lord.

(via iPod Shuffle)

* Now that I am an Ohio resident, I know that it is actually West Virginia.

So Who Am I, Anyway?

It’s a strange thing to find out that something unexpected makes up who you are. I mean, there are some things that I take for granted that make up the bag of protoplasm that happens to be me – my relationship with God and my family, my job, my writing, my addiction to music, my peculiar sense of humor.

Lately I’ve been finding out that other things seem to make up part of who I am. Like dogs. I love dogs, and have great admiration for working dogs. If there’s ever an Animal Planet or Military Channel special about dogs being trained to do jobs, my eyes are glued to the screen. After a double tragedy three years ago, our family never got another dog, and even resisted it for a while. As the friend of one of my work colleagues put it, “A dog is a heartbreak waiting to happen.” I’d put it into similar words, only not as eloquently – that we let dogs into our lives, give them food and shelter and affection, and they pay us back by breaking our hearts.

So when we recently, finally, broke down and got a dog – and this time I had a perfectly legitimate reason for getting one, which will be elaborated on shortly – and I told one of my oldest friends what I had done, his reaction was, “Good. You aren’t you without a dog.”

Why am I always the last to know these things?

Now the reason for the dog is to protect the new chickens I purchased at a swap meet last week. If you’re a reader of The Accidental Farmer, my blog about the rural side of me, you know that about this time last year, coyotes made a series of raids on our farm, and over a couple of days managed to carry off most of the chicken population (one survivor made it to spring and was eaten by a raccoon that was later trapped and measured three feet long). Between this and the three possums that I trapped in the barn over the years, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to go into chickens again unless I could protect them better – and that’s where the dog came in (and you can read more about this process over at the Farmer – I’m not going to reiterate it here).

A writer friend accompanied my daughter and I on the trip, and she ended up writing a funny account that will be posted in “the other place.” In that account, she noted that “the man needs chickens.” She also said, politely, that my personality deteriorated to the point where people were saying they wished I would get more chickens for their sake.

Hmmm. Knew I’d been out of sorts and not myself for a while (I even told my wife that I didn’t feel like there was much of the original me left), but I didn’t realize that it was so noticeable… that I’d become… curmudgeonly. I mean, I knew I liked having chickens. When they were gone, I missed the eggs and the meat. And I enjoyed watching the chickens around the barnyard and feeding them scraps of bread from our porch. In part due to the exercise of looking after them, they got me off of blood pressure medication. I guess I didn’t realize that they were such a calming influence of my life. But others clearly knew that.

Again, why am I always the last to know these things?

Well, anyway, it’s looking now like most of the pieces of the original me have come back in some form or another. iTunes brought music back to me, and the guitar opened up another door in that area. Wargaming has dwindled, but I still have Memoir ’44. And now I have a dog and chickens.

Now that I know all of this, I can see that the apathy I’ve developed toward my writing has started to evaporate, too. For one, I’ve started to develop another (no doubt doomed-to-failure) plan involving completion of the Pirate project this weekend and the Christmas play by fall, with perhaps a revision of And/News slated for the beginning of next year.

The question remains is whether I can shake off this dearth of time and start putting words to paper again.

Good question. All I know is that, were I a believer in signs, I’d know for sure that I had just gotten one. As I finish this post, the song that comes into my ears through my entirely random iPod Shuffle is the one that I plan to use in the Christmas play, when and if I get to direct it.

Now is that a sign or is that a sign?

I don’t know. Ask the dog. Or the chickens.

Listening:
Nobody gonna take my car
I’m gonna race it to the ground
Nobody gonna beat my car
It’s gonna break the speed of sound
Oooh it’s a killing machine

(via iPod Shuffle)

Vinyl

Once upon a time, music came on black vinyl discs 12 inches across (okay, there were other sizes and other colors of vinyl, but stay with me here – I’m writing for atmosphere). This vinyl was fragile, more fragile than CD’s, and the very act of playing them wore them out because they had grooves that this thing called a needle rode in, and the tip of this needle was a diamond, the hardest substance known to man, so of course it was going to degrade the sound as it went. The needle picked up the movement of these grooves and sent them into an amplifier which made bigger vibrations on a speaker, and that produced something we heard as music.

And in spite of all it’s disadvantages, I miss it. I really do miss vinyl.

Not that I’m a vinyl snob, one of those folks who insist that there’s something missing from digital recording because it’s not a continuous thing, it’s series of samples – never mind that there are so many samples a second that our ears supposedly can’t tell the difference. I’ve never A/B’ed vinyl against a CD of the same recording through the same stereo, so I can’t give an opinion. No, there’s something else about vinyl I miss.

First off, I’m missing a lot of music because it never made it to CD. Just a couple of days ago I was ready to spend $130 – $150 on either a USB turntable which would let me plug into my iBook and rip some of my old vinyl, or else on equipment that would let me retrofit my old turntable with a new stylus (needle) and a black box that would let me do the same thing – the cost of doing either was about the same.

And I wanted to make this big investment because of… one album. That’s right. I haven’t heard fenetiks, an album by Jules and the Polar Bears in decades. It was one of my favorite albums when it came out, and it’s on my list of fifteen favorite albums. Lucky for me, I suppose, is that I discovered that fenetiks was on a lot of other people’s lists as well, because a company named Wounded Bird Records had the good taste to reissue it on CD along with some rare bonus tracks from the same period.

So I saved a ton of money, but the bad news is that fenetiks got me to thinking about what other great music I was missing from my still-consuming-space vinyl collection. A quick tour of my old vinyl rendered In The World by a pre-Saturday Night Live G.E. Smith; the Twisting by the Pool EP by Dire Straits; the Beat Surrender EP by The Jam; the three lives sides of Al Stewart Live/Indian Summer (available as Live at the Roxy, but that’s not the point), also Stewart’s Russians and Americans (rare on U.S. vinyl, rarer as a CD); You Won’t See Me the posthumous album by Triumvirat’s Helmut Koellen; Joe Jackson’s rare un-used soundtrack for Mike’s Murder; Strange Man Changed Man and Funland by Bram Tchaikovsky; I Advance Masked and Bewitched by Robert Fripp and Andy Summers (the former available on an out-of-print CD, but I’m not paying inflated collector’s prices for it) and Fripp’s collaboration with David Byrne God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners; Nash the Slash’s authorized bootleg Hammersmith Holocaust; North Star by Phillip Glass; Sound On Sound by Bill Nelson’s Red Noise (also an overpriced collector’s CD); Chaz Jankel and Questionnaire by Chaz Jankel; Stick Figure Neighborhood, Talkback and Bridges Over Borders by Spoons; and Woody Allen’s The Night Club Years (which features material cut from a later compilation).

This is not to mention old vinyl that has original mixes of material that’s not available on CD (the original pressing of Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge; bits of The Original Sin by Cowboys International); albums I have for only a couple of songs (Lake and Lake II by -who else? – Lake; Steve Hackett’s Defector; Sides by Anthony Phillips); and 12-inch singles with unavailable alternate mixes (Icehouse’s I Can’t Help Myself and Soft Cell’s extended version of Torch).

There’s some musical nostalgia here, but most of this is music that I’d like to have available. But there is a certain nostalgia to vinyl, and maybe that’s why I’m feeling so sentimental about it. It really does represent an era that no longer exists.

See, it used to be when you bought an album, you were getting more than music. There was this whole experience of going to a record store and browsing for albums – looking at these big 12″ by 12″ that had beautiful, cool, or intriguing artwork. Some was ingenious – like the cover of Ambrosia’s Somewhere I’ve Never Travelled, which folded into a pyramid (supposedly so the listener could harness this new age energy source for him/er self), the enigmatic work turned out by the art house Hipgnosis for the likes of Pink Floyd and 10cc, or Roger Dean’s turnips-in-space visions for Yes.

Aside from the art itself, the covers also contained vital information that might appeal to your desire to buy. Try getting the list of instruments Mike Oldfield played on Tubular Bells on the back of a CD, along with the other art, the bar code, and all of the legalese stuff that goes on nowadays (okay, I bought that one for more than one reason – the cover was also intriguing, and the clerk in the record section of the department store where I spotted it said that her rack jobber said it was the best rock album he’d ever heard. I think the sticker on the outside connecting the music with The Exorcist pushed me over the edge, too… the accumulating circumstances were too irresistible). I used to be so into synthesizers, that I used to blindly buy records if the list of personnel listed a guy who played “synthesizers” (not keyboards – there was a difference). That was how I ended up with The Dream Weaver by Gary Wright, which, once you get past the obligatory title cut/single, is a pretty good album.

I also picked up, during the height of my Who fandom, a white album cover with a thin line drawing of an artist on it – Pinball by Brian Protheroe. I almost dismissed it as a Who ripoff, but turned it over. All the lyrics were printed on the back. I read the words to the title cut and was hooked. I bought the record and have followed Protheroe ever since.

I used to find music other ways. Until I got to Oklahoma City and found a good record store (the late, great Wilcox Records, where I would end up working in college), most of my buying was done blind, because Gillette, Wyoming didn’t have a record store and only a country AM radio station. So I started reading Creem and Circus and Rolling Stone, making sure my folks didn’t see them in the house (my Mom once saw the cover of Edgar Winters’ They Only Come Out At Night and asked me to get rid of it – I just hid it spine-in under “W”). I got into Jethro Tull because my record buying buddy and I were listening to Moontan by Golden Earring, which has great prog stuff on it once you get past Radar Love. One cut featured Barry Hay playing flute and my buddy said, “This is what Jethro Tull is supposed to sound like, because Ian Anderson plays the flute.” He couldn’t have been more wrong about the sound, but inside of a week or two, I had my first Tull album, A Passion Play, which I still listen to.

I would also following certain record labels or imprints – Stiff and Virgin, the monsters of our era, with great punk and new wave, and great prog rock, respectively.

You know what it was? It was mining for gold. It was such a wonderful, reckless era… buying up records, hoping to find some gold in all the sludge.

And there are some great moments associated with just the records themselves that have nothing to do with the music. The day my son decided to put one of his Disney records on my turntable – but first he took off one of my Pat Metheny records – with fingers covered with peanut butter. The time in the dorm I decided, for some odd reason, to convince two of my friends that I was drunk. And I couldn’t do it until I took an album off the turntable and put my fingers on the vinyl. Vinyl was even responsible for my first date (of sorts) with the girl I would end up marrying. I was making a student film for a class, and my copy of the album I was to use for background music, Oxygene by Jean Michel Jarre, was accidentally destroyed. In a rush to the record store, I ran into a girl I knew and on impulse asked her if she wanted to come along for the ride. For reasons she can’t explain, she said yes… and so it began.

I don’t know how this little obsession is going to end. I suspect I’ll eventually get the electrical plumbing I need to rip my vinyl, but I miss that whole experience of shopping for music. That’s not something you can do now unless you browse the halls of CD Baby (where I discovered the genius of Jim Bauer) – and there’s still no 12″ by 12″ artwork to go with.

Sometimes, compact isn’t better.

I once told Scoob, one of my die-hard music friends from college, that I had a plan for our retirement. What we need to do, I said, is find a city where we both want to live (he prefers state capitals) and both move there and start up a used and new vinyl store. No CD’s, no mp3’s, no bubblechips, or whatever the technology is when we reach retirement age. Vinyl. Just vinyl. And because this store would be the endeavor of our twilight years, I had the perfect name for the store…

Final Vinyl.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m not so much still in love with vinyl as that I’m enamored of what it stood for in my past. In which case, I don’t think I’m living in the past. Not at all.

I just want to be able to listen to it.

Listening:
They don’t want to see you dancing
Got their feet nailed to the floor
They say we’re moving somewhere new
But we’ve been there before

(via iTunes shuffle play)