Friday, April 29, 2011

No help or bad help?

Have you ever been in one of those situations where you need help with something, you actually know what you need help with, yet people insist on giving you some other sort of help because they think they know what you need better than you do? Do you hate that? I hate that. I mean, I really, really hate that.

Let me give you an example:

A couple of years ago, my mother-in-law needed help with some yard work. It really wasn't a big thing she needed help with, but my mother-in-law was (she died last fall of pancreatic cancer) very independent. Preferred to do everything herself. She had enough tools in her garage to make men salivate. A drill press. A table saw. She built things. She gardened. She never went by "Mom" or "Grandma" or anything like that, because she had a name, and that's what she went by. Yes, she kept her maiden name when she got married. The fact that she asked for help at all was pretty significant.

The problem, though, was that the whole thing got turned into this big, yard work party. In and of itself, that would have been fine, but the event got out of hand. People were doing things that my mother-in-law didn't want or need help with. Being a very gracious host, though, she didn't say anything and allowed things to just progress. Until it became apparent that the thing she actually wanted help with was not going to be addressed at all.

A couple of hours into all of this, she approached me and asked me if I would help her with something. Sure. I wasn't enthused about whatever it was I was doing, anyway. Of course, I'm never really enthused about yard work, so doing one thing was as good as another. There was a large branch in her backyard, a fair sized portion of the tree it fell from, that was too big to drag off for disposal. That's the thing, the one thing, she needed help with. She needed it chopped up into small enough pieces to go into the yard waste disposal. And, yet, there it sat in the backyard receiving no attention at all. I got an axe and started chopping away at it while she cleared the smaller branches that I chopped off.

And she talked to me about being frustrated by everything that was going on. She didn't want to offend anyone, but this branch was the only thing she had wanted help with. She hadn't wanted to need help with that, but she knew she wasn't going to be able to do it by herself. All of the other "help" was actually depriving her of several weeks worth of gardening that she found enjoyable.

At the end of the day, there was talk from a few people about making yard work at my mother-in-law's a monthly event. People were kind of excited about it. They'd thought they'd really helped, and they felt good about it. Fortunately, in this instance, people, being what they are, failed to follow through with that threat, and her gardening space wasn't invaded again.

When I was a kid, my mom often gave me "help" that I didn't want. It was very traumatic. Like this one time when she cut up this Star Wars poster that I had colored so she could put it in a frame because "I would like it better that way." I didn't like it better that way. I liked it the way it was, and she took scissors to it. No, I never did get over that.
And then there was my very first poetry assignment from school. I was in 4th grade. We had to write a poem that had something to do with food for some contest. We were allowed to have help. I didn't write that poem. I stood next to my mother protesting as she wrote this two page poem, but she wouldn't listen to me telling her that I didn't want her to do it for me. Did you get the part where I was in 4th grade and my mom wrote a two page long poem? She instructed me to tell the teacher that I wrote it. I hadn't learned to say "no" to my mom, yet, so, when the teacher looked at what I'd turned in and asked me if I wrote it (and, yes, she asked me in front of the whole class), I said "yes." I felt horrible about it, but I didn't know what else to do.

I could go on...

But I won't, because I'm sure everyone has their own experiences with this. Maybe it wasn't your mother, though. Or, maybe, it was.

I'm sure part of the problem is that parents tend to train their children in the understanding that "help" actually means "do it for you."
"Here, let me help you with that," as the parent takes whatever it is that the child is doing and does it for said child. So children learn that asking for "help" is equivalent to asking to not to have to do it.

Of course, when you're dealing with children, actually helping them takes oh so much longer than just taking it and doing it yourself, so there's a great temptation there.

I think, though, that we carry that expectation on into our adult lives. Both sides of the coin. We still mean, "will you do this for me?" when we ask for help. And, when people ask us for help, we expect that they mean that very same thing.

I'm wondering if writing makes me more sensitive to this issue than other people, though. Well, I'm already sensitive to it in the same kind of way as my mother-in-law with her yard work. If I'm asking you for help, I'm not asking you to do it for me. I mean, if I want something done for me, like unloading the dishwasher, I'll just have one of my kids do it. That's what they're for, right? But only unloading, never loading, because there is that other kind of help where you have to go back and re-do the whole job and it takes longer than it would have to begin with. Kids are especially good at that kind of help. Which isn't to say that you shouldn't let the kids help sometime, just make sure you have time to re-do the job if it doesn't turn out the way you wanted it to.

With writing, the thing that I've found most difficult to get "help" with is feedback. Even when I'm specific. "Read this and tell me what you think of it" and a lot of "do nots." Like "do not correct spelling." "Do not correct grammar." "Do not tell me how you would write it differently." Invariably, I get all of those things back. Sometimes with correctly spelled words "corrected" incorrectly. These things don't help me. If I'm asking for feedback, I'm not asking for an editor. That's a completely different task. What I want to know is story and flow. How it makes you feel. Did you get bored? Do you want to know what's coming up? Did it make you care? The details (spelling, grammar, all of that) will get worked out, but I don't care about those at all if the story isn't working.

Is it better to have bad help or no help? Sometimes, it's really hard to know. I hate having to re-do something because of bad help (like when I had to re-type a paper that someone "helped" me with, but there were so many errors in it that the teacher handed it back to me and said to re-type it), but are there times when the bad help is better than no help?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

No Sugar Added (part 2): The Coffee Solution

I have a terrible confession to make. I'm barely a writer. I know  this is true because I don't like coffee. I also don't like the only acceptable substitute: tea. That's not to say that I don't occasionally partake of these substances. I even, occasionally, want a cup of tea, but I don't really drink these on a regular basis or from any habitual desire to do so. That  means I don't sit down at the computer in the morning with my cup of liquefied caffeine to get to work. It also means that I don't drag my laptop (which is, at the moment, a glorified paper weight, but that's another story) to the cafe to enjoy some foreign ambiance while I sip a beverage and work.

In fact, just the other day, my wife and I were at our favorite local cafe, and I noticed a number of women sitting with their laptops and mostly empty cups just writing away. I'll explain the whole cafe thing in a moment. I commented that I just didn't get that whole thing with the cafe and the laptops; my wife looked at me like I was crazy. I don't ever see men doing that, though, so, maybe, that's more of a female thing than a male thing. At any rate, my caffeine choice has always been soda... but, of course, I gave that up. No sugar equals no soda, because 0 calorie sodas are nasty and, actually, just as bad for you, or worse, than the ones with sugar.

When I first came to California, my experience with coffee extended only to its smell. I love the smell of coffee brewing. Growing up on  the farm, I used to wake up to that smell. Okay, well, that's almost true.  My grandparents had a farm in East Texas, and I spent a lot of time there as a kid. A lot. My grandmother was a morning person, and the first thing she did every morning was set the coffee to brewing. No one else drank it. Not my grandfather. Not my mother. Not my father. I loved waking up to that smell. But I never developed a desire for the actual substance.

When I moved out to CA, there were two things my wife wanted to get me into: alcohol (that sounds bad, but no one wants to drink alone, or so I've heard) and coffee. No, I'd never had a drop of alcohol before I moved out here, and I've still never been drunk. Or even tipsy, much to my wife's dismay. She has set a goal for herself of getting my tipsy, but, so far, she hasn't managed it. Okay, there was this one time while I was still in Louisiana that I got tipsy, but it wasn't exactly alcohol related and is a story for another time.

Coffee, though, was a big issue. Even though I was willing to go sit around in cafes with her while she had coffee, she didn't like it that I wasn't having anything, so it wasn't a satisfying experience for her. After years of training, she worked me up to mochas. Starbucks mochas with only one shot of espresso (instead of the normal 2) and a lot of sugar. Not that I had extra sugar added, I didn't, but their drinks commonly have more sugar than a can of soda. In fact, Starbucks is, possibly, the most sugar saturated place I know of that isn't an actual dessert shop.

Then...? Then, we cut (processed) sugar from our diets.

As you might imagine, this caused considerable problems with  the whole cafe thing. Although we didn't know it at first. Initially, when we dropped sugar, my wife also dropped caffeine in an effort to get her whole diet stabilized. The caffeine wasn't an issue for me since I'd quit drinking soda, which hardly counts as having caffeine, anyway. It was months and months before we hit a coffee shop again. Starbucks. A latte for my wife (no sugar in those), a mocha for me, because I (still) can't do lattes.

Oh. My. Gosh. I cannot describe for you the amount of sweet in that mocha. It was... horrendous. I wasn't able to make it through a third of it. That's the thing, though; when I was having sugar all the time, Starbucks seemed perfectly normal to me, just like it seems perfectly normal to virtually everyone else in the USA. But after going off of sugar for months, all I could taste was the sugar. And it was just too much.

Just to throw this in, the average sugar consumption per year of someone living in the USA is currently over 125 pounds. That's up 4-5 times what it was just a few decades ago. You know in those old TV shows when the dad catches his son smoking and he makes him smoke a whole pack all at once to show him how horrible it is? I feel like we should sort of do that with sugar. Give people their yearly allotment and tell them to eat up. All of it. Right now. I could go on to talk about how sugar consumption is linked to all sorts of health problems, including cancer and especially breast cancer, but, instead, I will just link this article for you: Is Sugar Toxic? Just to warn you: it's long, and it's kind of scary.

All of this lead to figuring out how to make mochas at home that didn't include sugar. I do have a morning drink, now: hot chocolate. Peppermint hot chocolate. Occasionally, I'll throw some coffee in to make it a mocha instead, but that's never more than once or twice a week (when I accidentally pour too much peppermint in and need something to cut the taste). Oh, and let me just be clear, here; I'm not talking about little hot cocoa packets. Those have sugar. This is something I make from baking cocoa sweetened with honey. I'll get back to that in a moment. The recipe, that is.

And as another aside, I just want to say that honey is, like, a miracle food. Some of it. There's actually a type of honey from Australia that can, literally, be rubbed on open wounds to promote healing. Very quick healing. Like Wolverine regeneration type of healing. Okay, so that's probably stretching it a bit, but still... It's too bad we're killing off all of the bees that make this amazing stuff. (And, no, I'm not going to argue the validity of honey vs sugar. Maybe some other time. Trust me, they're not the same. Rub some sugar on an open wound and see if does more than just sting.)

We did, also, find a cafe we can (kind of) frequent. They have what's called an Aztec mocha. It's spicy! Although not really spicy enough for me. More than adequate for your average consumer, though. People blame that on me growing up in Louisiana, the love of the spicy, although I can't see it. We didn't do spicy food when I was a kid. At any rate, it's not too sweet, and we can manage one a week together. On Sunday mornings. That's pretty close to the extent of processed sugar we get. Don't get me started on the kids, though. Especially my daughter. The girl is a hummingbird. Not that we provide her the sugar... Let me just say that for a school that's fairly "hippie," there is a constant stream of sugary goods in that place. Not to mention the relatives at holidays. And after years, yes, years, of going on about "no sugar," they persist in doing things like giving our kids Easter baskets full of enough sugar to last them months. >sigh< [My mom doesn't even live here, and she's constantly mailing my kids hoards of candy (which they never see, because it goes straight into the trash).] At least one of them did better this year, though, by providing a brown paper bunny in their baskets instead of the actual chocolate bunny.

The sugar thing is a constant struggle. It inundates our society. We can't go out to eat and really enjoy it, because everything is too sweet. Even the salad. Yes, salads! It's a good thing I'm a good cook, because the awesome part of that is that we have problems finding anywhere to eat that makes food as good as what I make, so it makes it easier to not eat out since we know we're just going to be disappointed. That doesn't mean my wife doesn't have to remind me of that when I don't feel like cooking, though.

I mentioned in  part one of this the disbelief with which people respond to the idea of cutting sugar from their diets. The most common phrase is "I could never do that." I imagine that that would be the same phrase that people would use about cutting out most of the destructive habits we have as a society. Like dropping to owning only one car. "I could never do that." Or actually using cell phones for emergencies only. "I could never do that." Getting rid of cable/satellite television. "I could never do that."

We only have two cars, right now, because my mother-in-law died last fall and left us her Prius. Prior to that, we spent 7 or 8 years with just one vehicle. We even spent a couple of months with no vehicle after our van blew up (yes, blew up), last summer. We haven't had cell phones in more than 5 years. We've never had cable television in the 14 years my wife and I have been together.

Yes, you might just say that we are rather contrary people, but we prefer to do things our own way. I was lucky to find someone that's contrary in the same ways I am, although that contrariness does cause us to butt heads more frequently than I'm sure we like. More than I like, at any rate.

Of course, this is not without its negative consequences in the writing field. But that's probably a whole different post...


Because I know some of you are interested, or, at least, one of you, I will now go about explaining how to make hot chocolate without sugar along with how to make the spicy mocha. Disclaimer: I really like dark chocolate, much darker than my wife likes. She says my hot chocolate is too bitter, so be aware before you try this at home. However, my kids, who love the sweet, prefer my hot chocolate to hers.

The most important part of the hot chocolate is the cocoa. I've tested a variety of brands, and, unfortunately, the best is not available in stores. That I know of. As far as I know you have to order it. I prefer King Arthur's Double-Dutch Dark Cocoa as my base (my wife uses King Arthur's Black Cocoa). Here's the real trick, though, you can't use just one type of cocoa. Not if you want the superior hot chocolate. My wife and I both use Ghirardelli's Unsweetened Cocoa as our second. If you need a fall back, the Ghirardelli's works well with Nestle's. Forget Hershey, though. Seriously.

Now that you've worked out your cocoa blend, I'll hit you with the next obstacle: my wife and I have an electronic kitchen scale that we use for things like this, because it's easier to keep your proportions the same with the scale than by measuring by volume. And you can do it right in your drinking vessel, if you have a scale that tares. So...

You need to start with 1 ounce of cocoa. I use a ratio of about .7/.3 (Double-Dutch/Ghirardelli)

The honey... my wife no longer uses honey in hers; she's switched to sucralose. However, when she did use honey, she used 1.2 ounces. I tend to only use .8 ounces (unless I'm not paying attention and squirt too much in). [If you want to make it a peppermint hot chocolate, this when you add in the peppermint extract - .05 ounces. If you hit .1, it tends to make it too strong.]

Okay, this is very important. Add in about 1.65 ounces of milk. We use non-fat, but that's really up to you, I guess. Whatever you do, do not go over 2 ounces of milk. You need to mix the cocoa and milk into a paste, a smooth paste, and, if you put too much milk in, you'll get little blobs of floating cocoa that won't mix. These explode in the heating stage and will cause your yummy beverage to boil over in the microwave. Okay, after creating your cocoa paste, add more milk in to bring your total milk up to 12 ounces. Stir your paste into your milk and heat for 2 minutes your radiation device.

That's your basic hot chocolate (or peppermint hot chocolate). Well, my basic hot chocolate. Instant coffee can, of course, be added, at this point, if you want a mocha instead.

Now... let's step back a moment... the directions change just a little bit if you want a spicy mocha. And trust me, you want a spicy mocha, not a spicy hot chocolate.

After you've added your cocoa to your mug but before you add the honey, you have to add the spiciness. This is a little complicated. In my opinion, you need three types of pepper and cinnamon. The best type of cinnamon to use is Vietnamese cinnamon, which can also be found at Safeway under the name of Saigon cinnamon. Regular cinnamon works, too, it's just not quite as good. Here's how I do it:
Cinnamon - .05 ounces
Cayenne pepper - a gentle sprinkling, enough to see it spread over the cinnamon
Chipotle chili pepper - twice as much as you used of the cayenne or thereabouts
Ancho chili pepper - this is kind of your base pepper. You need to add enough to bring your total weight (starting with the cinnamon) up to .1 ounce and then add a little extra. Not enough to bring it up to .15, though, although it's not a disaster if you do.
Tare your scale and pick back up with the honey.

No, I don't know why it makes a difference which order you do the honey, all I can tell you is that it does make a difference. The spicy stuff doesn't mix in as well when you put the honey in first.

So there you have it! I hope all of that isn't too complicated. If you try it out, any of it, you'll have to let me know!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I just missed your heart...

In the past week or so, I've come across several lists of the toughest chicks in fiction. Some of these were for chicks in movies. Some for television. Some for both. Some from literature. None of these lists included Hanna, and for that, I think they are all lacking. Yes, even the literature lists should have included Hanna; she's that kick butt! In fact, she's so kick butt, I'm sure that that's where that movie came from. Someone said, "Hey! Let's make a movie about a young girl that can kick butt like no body's business!"

Someone else tried to ruin  the party by saying, "But, wait, why can she kick so much butt?"

And that's where it all fell apart.

The movie, Hanna, is strung together on the very thinnest of plots. I mean Run, Lola, Run thin, but that one works better, because that's all the movie's supposed to be about. But the makers of Hanna, evidently, wanted the movie to appear as if it contains substance, so they tried to write a story as to why Hanna can and does kick so much butt. And I say makers, because I have no idea who might be at fault for this ill-conceived notion. Was it just bad writing from the start? Did the director dispense with the story in favor of the action? Did the producers demand it? Also, speaking of Lola, and I didn't time it, but I would guess somewhere close to 1/3 of Hanna is actually just music video of (mostly) her just running. Or crawling. Being chased, at any rate. Sometimes it's Erik.

Having said all of that, if you like a good action flick and don't need much story, it's a great movie. My friend, who took me to see it, certainly liked it much better than I did. The fight scenes are well done, and there's plenty of suspense wrapped up in the action. And running. Lots of running. And I bet the director or the writer or someone thought they were being very clever by wrapping the movies ending up in a circle to tie it back to the opening. Oh, but wait, I'm letting my antipathy for the story slip back in there.

The biggest issue with the story is that it resorts to the "big reveal" in order to explain the story all at once because it failed to provide the viewers with enough information as the movie progressed to figure anything out on  their own. Really, I hate this. Especially since they could have allowed us the information throughout the movie by cutting out 10 minutes of running.

Let me just say, though, that I'm not dissing "the big reveal" in and of itself. It's often a necessary plot device, especially in mysteries; however, if done poorly, it can ruin what might have been a good story. Here's an example from a couple of similar movies that were released back-to-back:

1. The Prestige (Oct, 2006): A movie about two magicians obsessed with learning how the other has performed a career-making trick. The clues are provided throughout the movie. If the viewer pays attention, s/he is able to put the pieces together and figure it out in advance. Or, at least, parts of it. When the big reveal (the prestige) comes, it is only to fill in viewers who may not have caught all of the clues. Very well done. [I own this movie, by the way. Hugh Jackman is excellent. It's also the type of movie that is better on a second or third viewing as you can see how the puzzle pieces are being put together.]

2. The Illusionist (Sept, 2006): Another movie about a magician pulling off an extraordinary illusion. The illusion is, in effect, the plot. The key to the movie. However, the movie fails to provide the information needed for the viewer to figure out the puzzle, so, during the big reveal, there are flashbacks with allow us to see all of the pieces that were not actually shown the first time through. Basically, the audience is not allowed to figure it out in process but thrown all of the left out pieces at the very end in order to see the whole picture. I find this to be a very cheap trick. Basically, the writer could not figure out a way to seed the story with the pieces needed so just withheld them all. This is the tactic Hanna uses.

Just a note: I think the best usage of the big reveal, at least in any recent movie, was The Sixth Sense. In fact, Shyamalan did it so well in that movie that it has sustained him for more than a decade of increasingly worse movies. That was free.

There was one other very positive aspect of Hanna: the acting. Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett are both excellent. In fact, they are the two characters that give the movie any sort of depth and weight. Saoirse Ronan (Hanna) does a fine job, but I haven't seen her in anything else, so I'm not sure if it was acting ability or just the way she is.

Well, I hope you still had your pop culture hats on from last time, but you can take them off now. At least, for a little while.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Simon Pegg is brilliant!

Okay, folks it's time for another pop culture post, so strap on your special hats and pour a bowl of milk. Remember, pop culture always stays crunchy!
[Just as a note: my oldest son's pop culture hat looks like this:
Really, it does, but that has nothing to do with this post. And that's not my son in the picture, just his hat, but Adam, there, is already all over the web, so I'm sure he won't mind being in my little blog any more than he minds being in anyone else's. Not to say that he doesn't mind. He might. But I won't add to it, I'm sure, one way or the other.]

There hasn't been much time for movies in the last year or so. Or money. My kids will tell you about it if you mention the fact that they missed Rango and a whole slew of other movies they wanted to see. However, my wife and I did manage to make it to Paul, last weekend. We went with some sci-fi buddies of ours; otherwise, we might have gone to see something more "respectable." Actually, if we hadn't run into this other couple, we wouldn't have gone to see anything, as it was one of those "wow, we haven't seen each other in ages, let's go to a movie and sit in the dark and not talk!" kind of things. heh
But, hey, we did get invited to a party out of it.


So we went to see Paul. It's hilarious. Frequently, I laughed first and loudest. I think the movie was made just for me. However, the people sitting in front of us, what looked like a grandmother and her teenage grandson, didn't find the movie anywhere near as funny. I almost felt bad. Almost. If you like science fiction, especially Star Wars, you want to see this movie.

I'm not going to say anything about the plot, though. That's how I went into it. I knew it was Simon Pegg and it had something to do with a CG alien. But that was enough for me. It's pretty much enough for me to just see Pegg's name on something. It's like he (and Nick Frost, his writing partner and co-star) is pop culture. But, please, don't pour milk on him. I'm not thinking he'd appreciate it. Look, here's an example:
You MUST watch this if you like Star Wars
I will say one thing about the movie, it starts off at the San Diego Comic Con; alas, I've never been. >sob<

But it's not just Paul. It's also Shaun of the Dead. And Hot Fuzz. And it's Spaced. That was British television series he did. Yeah, I know; you've never heard of it, but that's kind of where it all starts. The beginnings of his pop culture brilliance. Go watch it. Right now. I'll wait. Okay, not really, but you can come back later. The blog will still be here. Probably.

Seriously, Simon Pegg makes movies out of the things that my friends and I used to joke about, and he's brilliant at it. Paul is under performing a bit at the box office, but don't let that stop you from going to see it. If you're a sci-fi fan, that is. If you're not, you're not going to get the movie at all. I think the lack of performance has more to do with the title than anything else. It doesn't scream what it's about like Shaun of the Dead. But the title is part of the joke. Paul. E. T. Simple. It fails to grab the imagination, though, so, unless you're actually looking for Simon Pegg vehicles, you're likely to miss it.

Which brings us to the writing section of our post: titles. The all important title. I one bought a horrible book because of the brilliance of its title. I'll even tell you which book: Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. That is an incredible title. I wish I'd thought of it. I bought the book. One of the very few books I haven't finished. But a brilliant title. Last time I bought a book based on its title, too. Yep, learned my lesson. Both of them. Don't judge a book by its cover (title). And have a good cover (title).

Okay, yeah, maybe I didn't learn that lesson well enough, because the cover of my book sucks, but that's more to do with the fact that I haven't been able to afford any cool artwork for it, yet, than that I'm satisfied with it. One piece at a time...

Anyway, go see Paul. It's not deep, but it is a good time!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

First Award!

Wow! I got my very first blogger award!
Much thanks to Jennifer over at It was completely unexpected, so thank you very much! She has a great blog, by the way, so you should all go over and check it out.

Hmm... now, I'm supposed to tell you 7 things about myself. I'm not good at these lists. I think it may be an issue with counting, although I'm not sure. I never got bad grades in math as kid, so that shouldn't really be a problem. Maybe it's just my issue with lists. Let's see what I can come up with:
1. I saw Star Wars when I was 7, and it changed my life.
2. I like the prequels.
3. Yes, I even like Jar Jar. He makes me laugh.
4. I still have all my Star Wars toys from when I was a kid.
5. Not only do I write, but I also paint. That relates to Star Wars in that I wanted to post some pics of some miniatures that I've painted, but, for some reason I'm not tech savvy enough to understand, they won't transfer. That will have to happen later, once I've figured out how to make the tabs work.
6. When I was in college, I used to, sometimes, answer the phone with my Yoda voice. People didn't know how to react. Often, they would leave messages with "Yoda" for me. Oh, how hard it was not to laugh.
7. I find your lack of faith disturbing.

Now, I'm supposed to pick a bunch of new people to award... but, being new to this whole thing, I don't think I have 15, so I'll just go with the few I'm really liking so far. Sorry, Jennifer, I'd award you, but I probably shouldn't just pass it back to you, although you'd be on the list if you hadn't sent it to me.

1. The Warrior Muse
2. The Slight Detour
3. The Blutonian Death Egg (the fact that I love the title has nothing to do with it, I swear)
4. Pitch Slapped
5. maybe genius
6. Writer in progress...
7. It's the world, dear
8. Fire In Mine Ears

Well, that's more than I thought I'd get. Pop over and check them out!
And thanks, again, Jennifer! I appreciate the acknowledgement and encouragement!

Friday, April 8, 2011

No Sugar Added (part 1)

There's a battle being waged in the United States, at the moment. Actually, there are several; however, it's the fat war that is probably the most significant to people on a personal level. It should be, at any rate. Me? I'm all into the fight for the environment, because that's all about what we can do for our kids and our grand kids, etc, but, people being mostly self-focused, the war against food should be more prominent. I say the war against food, but, perhaps, what I should say is the war for food, because a lot of what we (that being  the collective we, not me) eat is not actually food at all. It's just chemicals and additives, and it's destroying lives.

I'm going to get off the soap box, now, because this really isn't a post about that. Besides, you can go pick up any random package of food in your house and look down the list of ingredients and see how many of them that you actually recognize. And how many things don't start with "high fructose corn syrup."

A few years ago, my wife and I made a huge lifestyle change. Let me just make it clear that we didn't go on a "diet." Diets don't work (don't argue with me about that, statistics back up what I'm saying as an actual fact, not an opinion). Diets don't work, because people see "going on a diet" as a temporary change to reach a desired goal. Once said goal is achieved, they revert back to what they were doing before the diet, and, of course, end up back where they started. Or worse. So... my wife and I didn't go on a diet; we made a lifestyle change.

It was actually a fairly simple thing to do, although people always stare at me in disbelief when I say  this and, inevitably, respond with "I could never do that." To a certain extent, I can understand that. However, having done it, I can't. I reacted the same way when my wife said she wanted to do this, although it wasn't the thing in and of itself that was the issue for me; it was the soda. See, my wife said to me that she wanted us to cut sugar out of our diets. Not just sugar, really, but simple carbs. That means sugar, HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), and white flour. There are some other things, but those are the big ones.

I grew up on soda. I mean that. Didn't drink anything else. Not even water. Well, there was milk at school. Chocolate milk (which has just as much sugar). Because that was the only option (the milk, not the chocolate), but, otherwise, I drank soda. Coca~Cola, preferably, but, as long as it was carbonated, I'd drink it. Almost. So the idea of giving up soda, which had pretty much been my sole beverage for 30 years and more, was pretty daunting to me. I wasn't sure if I could do it.

It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. I just quit buying it.

Now, there are a lot of directions I could take this, at this point. For instance, I could tell you about the weight loss. I could tell you about the increased health. Increased health not just from the weight loss but from eating better food. After all, when you cut everything with HFCS in from your shopping list, you have to replace it with something (for us that meant more raw foods). I could you tell you about mood improvement. However, I'm going to tell you about just one thing: taste.

I don't think you can understand how much flavor fruits and vegetables have just on their own. I never knew. We process the flavor out of everything. Or drown it in sugar. Everything! It's horrible. Carrots are sweet. Did you know that? So are bell peppers. And they taste different depending upon what color they are. I like the red and orange ones the best. I never knew they had flavor variations before we dropped the sugar from our diet. It was all AMAZING! Trying new foods suddenly became something I wanted to do rather than dreading it.

We live in a culture that wants to homogenize everything. The big melting pot. Food. People. Entertainment. Fit in. Go with the flow. Drench yourself in corn syrup and blend in. I'm not for that. I'm for cutting the sugar out of our lives. The real and the metaphorical. Don't blend in. Don't be like everyone else. Have your own taste. Your own flavor.

I'd like to say that writers have a leg up on that over other people, but I look at what's available on  the reading shelves (especially after some huge hit of a book), and I know that's not true. We are just as prone to jumping on band wagons as everyone else. What I'm saying is that it's time to find our own wagons.

And to put just one other slant on this, as writers, we often get stuck in patterns. We have our own "sugar" that we coat everything with. I could name authors who started out good (and I mean good) but had their own brand of sugar that they poured all over all of their writing so that it all ended up tasting the same. The problem with that is that you only need to read that author once and you've really read everything they've ever done.

Don't sugar coat your lives. Or your food. Be different. Change things up. Develop your own flavor and your own taste!

Next: How this all affects... coffee!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Go Local! (or "Why You Should Buy My Book")

My wife and I have had a long running discussion about supporting local growers. When I first moved to CA, I had no idea of this as a concept. I'd like to say that it's because I grew up in the south and it was a normal practice there. My grandparents had a farm, so we did, actually, eat a lot of locally grown food, because it came from relatives. However, I didn't realize that this wasn't a normal thing to do. I used to go with my grandfather on Saturdays and sit in the stall at the farmers' market with him. Maybe things were just different then.

Of course, we had no idea of recycling, there, either, so I doubt it. I was surprised, when I moved to CA in '97, that there were two trash cans: one for garbage and one for recycling (more than 10 years later, they are only just now doing that where I moved from).

My wife wants us to buy as much locally grown produce and meat as possible. Meaning, she wants us to always buy locally when it's available. My stance is more pragmatic. I have to look at the money side of it and curtail our "local" spending to what we can afford. Unfortunately, buying locally grown stuff costs more, so it's always a balancing act of staying within what we can afford while including as much of the local market as possible. Buying local is good for the environment, though, and I'm all for raising environmental awareness. Thankfully, Safeway actually labels, now, what is locally grown, and I buy heavily from that produce when I shop.

But what does this have to do with books?
Well, supporting local artists is kind of the same thing, just on a more global scale.

Here's the thing:
Once upon a time, for an artist to survive as an artist, the artist had to find a patron. A rich patron. Someone who would put them on staff, so to speak, so that they could paint or make music or whatever it was they did. Mostly, it was painting or music related, although there was some sculpting thrown in here and there. And acting. Some of our greatest music and art has come to us because a patron supported a particular artist. Playwrights are included in this list of artists. Even Shakespeare had to have his patrons.

And when books began to be published, that meant that the author had to find someone who would pay the publishing costs so the book could be printed. Initially, this was more like giving the author a loan; later, it meant taking a percentage from the profits, not just being paid back. Of course, from that grew our "traditional" publishing model. That model says that the publisher gets to keep the bulk of the profit and makes the writer, in essence, an employee. No one looks at it that way, though.

Now, we could debate all the nuances of the publishing industry right up until it collapses in on itself in the same way the music industry is, but that's probably pretty pointless, so let's just skip that part.

One of the things I've made a practice of doing for a long time, all the way back to my teens, is buying music I liked from the artists at their concerts. At first, this was because I was seeing a lot of musicians that were unlabeled or on labels that were hard to find at your standard music stores. This was before the Internet, so, if you didn't buy it at the concerts, you didn't get to have it. As I got older, it was because I knew that the musicians got more of the money if I bought it directly from them as opposed to buying it at the store, and I thought that was a good thing, so I would actually wait to buy a new CD at a concert if I knew I was going to be seeing a particular band within a reasonable amount of time after the release of a new album. However, it was much later before I realized that the future success of a musician or band might be dependent upon whether or not I bought a CD [or cassette, because CDs weren't a thing, yet, when I was a teenager, so I have this huge collection of cassettes that I really can't play anymore].

Two things happened to really cement that idea in my head, and both of them had to do with me buying self-produced CDs from two different bands. Both of these bands went on to get signed by a label and shoot to the top of their particular genres. I bought one of these CDs because of one particular song. I heard it, and I knew, "this song is going to be a big hit." I started making people listen to the song and telling them what I thought of it. Mostly, people didn't listen to me. I was right, though; somewhere over a year later, the group's first labeled CD was released, and that was their first single. A huge hit. The CD went platinum. The biggest song in its genre to date, and it was released about a decade ago.

The other event isn't quite so spectacular. The group is hugely popular in its genre, but the important thing here is that the self-produced CD I have by them is, in many ways, better than any of their label releases. Some of the songs, good songs, have never been re-recorded. I still listen to that CD as often as I listen to any of their later music.

I often wonder about other groups (whose CDs I own) who have faded away. Mostly, no one's ever heard of them. Some of these singers/groups were good. Good enough to make it. But they didn't. At least one of them, whom I had a slight association with, didn't make it because too many of the members of the band had to go out and get "real" jobs and no longer had time to do the music thing. Would they have made it if more people had supported them when they were just starting out? It's a hard question. Because what we want to say is that if they were good enough they would have made it. That's the easy way out. But it's not true no matter how much we'd like it to be true. But, you know, if it was true, it would absolve us of any guilt in  the matter. The truth is many artists "don't make it" because they are forced to give up creating in order to survive. Because, in the past, their local communities didn't support them.

The world, though, is changing. There is no "local" community for art, anymore. The Internet has made the whole world the local community. The music industry has made that blatantly apparent. We, as a people, have the ability to become the patrons. We can support artists independently of producers, publishers, and gallery owners. We can support them directly, cutting off the leeches that want to feed off of others' talent.

Now, I'm not saying we should be indiscriminate in our support, but, you know, when we value music or literature or art, we should do our best to support what we like. That can be a bit more difficult when it comes to writing. I mean, we can evaluate a musician or band in a few minutes with just a few songs. Even if we don't like an album, we can probably buy just the songs we like, but a book... well, a book takes a time investment as well as a money investment, so we can find ourselves much less willing to throw in our support. Someone else has to prove to us, first, that it's worth our time.

Often, we rely on the publisher to tell us it's good enough. I mean, they published it, right? It must be good. heh Publishers don't even believe that. If they did, they would make an investment marketing the books they print. However, they leave it to the readers to be the marketers. We can do that without them being involved at all.

And to bring this back around to the environment, the publishing industry is one of the most wasteful industries on the planet. Every year, hundreds of thousands of books are destroyed because the publishing industry is built on a model of waste. [And I have first hand experience with this having worked in book stores and being involved in the comic book industry for a while.] But it doesn't have to stay that way. They won't change on their own, though. We, the readers, have to show them that there are better ways. e-books. POD (print-on-demand). Smaller, more personal book stores. Book stores willing to support the authors in their community and help them to find a voice.

How do we do all this? Support new authors. Buy directly from authors instead of from the big chain book stores. By POD books when they're available. Or e-books. But,  you know, if you're like me and like to actually hold a book you can smell in your hands, POD is the way to go. And, you know, buy my book. >cheesy grin< No, not really. I mean, yes, do, if you want to. I'd love that. But what I really mean is that you should find new authors that you believe in, support them, prove that they don't need the big publishers to be successful. Become a patron. We actually  have the power to change the industry if we want to do that.

And, you know, it really is just good for the environment! Go local! Save a tree!
And let the oil companies know we're coming after them, next!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Back in the saddle...

I was finally able to sit down and have a really long chat with my bicycle, yesterday, about why it decided to quit working after the little "incident" a few weeks ago. I don't understand its problem. Really. I mean, I'm the one that broke my wrist; I don't see why it had to get all ornery about the accident and decide to quit working. But we talked it out, and it decided to let go of the chain that it was holding locked between the frame and sprocket. I didn't even have to threaten it. Maybe it was tired of being left out in  the rain we've been having?

At any rate, I was back on my bike for the first time  in more than 3 weeks, yesterday, and the kids and I returned to our routine of biking to school, today. It was good. I hadn't realized how much I was missing the biking. Of course, it's still one handed biking, because I can't grip the left handlebar, yet. I can sort of use my fingertips to guide it from that side, if I need to, though, so, I think, I'm good.

However, that means that I'm, once again, cutting my reading time. See, when we walk, the kids and I, I read. People look at me funny. Stare. Sometimes yell indecipherable things from passing cars. But, you know, why spend it just walking when I can read as I stroll along? It's more efficient the way I do it. Of course, I don't read as much on the legs of the trips when they're with me, but that's okay.

Now, I just have to remember those lessons about what not to do while riding my bike...

In other back in the saddle news, I'm almost finished with my revisions in the 1st edition of my book, The House on the Corner. Yes, this does relate to "back in the saddle" even if only in my own head, at the moment. That will become more clear sometime in the next of couple weeks. But what does all of this mean for you? Well, as soon as I've finished this, I'm going to make the 1st edition unavailable. I will be replacing it with The House on the Corner: The First Person Edition. So, if you want to own for your very own a 1st edition copy of House, now is the time to do it. Then you can pet it and call it "my precious" the way I do when no one is around to see me.
No, I don't really do that. But I have thought it.

Okay, I'm going to go, now... back to that other post I've been working on for... I don't even know how long, days and days.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sunday Coffee and Books

Every Sunday morning, after the kids have left for church with their grandparents (why we're not going to church is a very long story and one I won't get into any time soon), my wife and I go out for Aztec mochas. Yes, Aztec mochas. Specifically. Yes, it's important. Generally speaking, we make our own mochas at home. But not very often spicy ones. At home, I do peppermint, and my wife does straight up chocolate. The mochas we make at home are better than what you can get from Starbucks or any of the local coffee shops we've visited, so we don't often waste our money on buying inferior products. However, although we do occasionally make spicy mochas at home, and good ones, we can't quite get them to match the Aztecs from Flying Goat (don't you love the name?), so, once a week, we splurge and go out for our coffee.

None of that is actually important except that it helps set the scene. Sometimes, after we get our coffee, we stroll through downtown, which is what we did today. And, in strolling through downtown, we decided to step into an Antique store that we've never been into before. Actually, we haven't been into any of the stores downtown; we always just window shop. However, today, my wife said, "You know, I wouldn't mine going in here sometime." And I said, "Well, let's do it." And she said, "I didn't necessarily mean right now." So I said, "But we're here right now, so  let's go in." So we did.
[That's probably not exactly how that conversation happened, but that's the gist of it.]

I have a problem with antique stores that I was reminded of this morning -- the frequent inclusion of things which are not antiques. It's like the over use of the word "classic" for things that it doesn't apply to. People seem to think that if it's slightly old at all or if it is something that's considered collectible, then it should be in an antique store. So there was a section with comic books, none of the ones I flipped through were more than 10 years old, there were toys that were from my lifetime, and lots and lots of stuff that I'm pretty sure was brand new but made to look like it was an antique. And then there was a whole section of books...

First, let me just say, that this was by no means a section of "antique" books. The sign said "Rare and Used," but what it really meant was "Used." Yes, some of the books were quite old, but I'm fairly certain that there wasn't anything in the store that could have been classified as "rare." However, if you can get past that, the  book section was the best of what a book store should be. It was also the worst.

It was the kind of book store that makes you feel like a kid lost in a book store or library before you know how they work. You don't know that there's any kind of organization, so everything is a discovery. This place had no real organization. Or no standard kind of organization. I'm sure that the guy that was working there had some way that he organized it, and he could probably take you right to anything you wanted, but, for us, there was no discernible organization to the books. Although some of it certainly had to do with size. All the Harry Potter books were up on top of the bookshelves. See, not antiques.

But there were plenty of old books. Old Tom Swift books and Bobbsey Twin books. Rudyard Kipling. Old editions of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew on the shelf next to virtually brand new editions. And other less familiar works like The Lord of Misrule, which is a great title but only a mediocre poem. And The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill, another great title and one that no one, today, could get away with. I haven't read much O'Neill despite an English degree with an emphasis on Literature. Which meant, I suppose, a lot of Shakespeare, because I've read most of Shakespeare. And, speaking of Shakespeare, so old editions of Shakespeare works: The Tragedies of Shakespeare, The Histories of Shakespeare, and The Comedies of Shakespeare.

Every time you turned a corner or went to a new shelf, it was like, "Wow! Look at this!" Of course, if you wanted to look for anything specific on your own, you were out of luck. So, yeah... It was fun to browse through those old books. Great smell. Old, brown pages. Something "new" around every bend. But, you know, nothing really worth buying. I mean, if you are actually a collector of old books, there was nothing of value there, so there was no point. And if were looking for something to read, mostly, you'd want to get something that wasn't at risk of falling apart in your hands, so, also, no point, despite the inclusion of a few newer books, it's not the kind of place you actually want to go if your looking for something. However, it was a great stroll while having the Sunday morning coffee...