Saturday, June 18, 2011

Today I was an 8-year-old nerd, and it was AWESOME!!!

Hi there!

Well, the Husband and I returned this week from a trip to his family farm in Iowa, a mystical land of wonderful people and potato salad.  And today we went on a special excursion that I had given him for his birthday last month:


(It's actually termed LEGO Kidsfest, but I feel slightly less silly by truncating it.)

Anyway, there's not a whole lot that can be written about this magical festival of plastic bricks.  It has to be experienced -- the reverberating roar of a thousand delighted children, excessively enthusiastic event leaders ("Let's see who can build the tallest tower, okay, kids?  On your mark, get set -- LEGO!"), and buckets and barrels of LEGOs being communally dumped, stirred, and sifted without a care of Purell or Lysol to dampen the fun.

While the Husband and I were working on the creations you'll see below, we met a man who brought his children all the way from New York to Pittsburgh to attend LEGOFest!  Well, actually, the primary reason for the trip to Pittsburgh was that it was this New Yorker's mother-in-law's birthday, which probably means that he would have volunteered to take the kids to a paint-drying festival if necessary.

Anyway, all I can say is, if LEGOFest is in or near your town, GO!  And check out these pictures! =)

Husband met Captain Jack Sparrow!

 And I met a dinosaur!

Then we found Hogwarts...

... and the Dark Knight, with one of the cast-offs from Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

 Speaking of Disney.... 

This fellow didn't seem to mind all the adults swarming around at the Kidsfest.  As Husband put it to me, "I think it's kind of like Comic-Con... nobody judges anybody else."

 Also, the fellow had built a pretty sweet city.

 I made a palm tree!

 And Husband made something that looked kind of like an Indiana Jones artifact.

 He worked super hard! 

And he even figured out how to make the spiral piece hide inside the outside piece... man, I picked a winner. 

 Husband was also really sweet and made me a heart!  

 Naturally, I instantly set about devising a way to make it breakable.

 And then I rounded things out by climbing into a sarcophagus.  All told, a pretty typical day.

Yes, every subject in these pictures WAS constructed entirely with LEGOs!  How cool is that?!

...and now I'm curious.  Have you ever been to a convention of this sort?  And if so, just how nerdy was it? =)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why I Dislike Friday the 13th

SHAMELESS REPOST with edits, because I have a morbid fascination with revisiting this story whenever I'm about to travel, and because the illustrations took a long time. =)


I have to say that I am a little bit nervous about traveling on Friday the 13th. Not because I am a superstitious person – I pick up tails-up pennies all the time, and I walk under ladders, and I had a pet black cat named Lucky, of all things – but because the last time I scoffed at traveling on Friday the 13th, rather dreadful things happened. Namely, THIS:

Maybe I should back up a little bit. Let’s imagine that you are me, almost seven years ago. It is August 2004, and you are about to trot off to college for the first time. Considering that you have lived all of your eighteen-and-one-half years in Ohio, save for four weeks that you spent in Normandy (two of which were spent largely in battling gut-wrenching homesickness), your mother is justifiably concerned that you have decided to go to college in Orlando, Florida.

But you are going, and you are equal parts petrified and rapturous about the future. You and the family chuckle a bit about the fact that you are leaving on Friday, August 13 – the dorms don’t even open until Sunday, but you, your sister, and your mother are going to enjoy the weekend in Orlando before you move in.

You get an earlier flight than your mom and sister, because your ticket is one way, and theirs are round-trip. You hear on the news in the couple of days leading up to Friday that there is a tropical storm somewhere down around Florida… but Florida’s a big state, and the little projected path on shows it going somewhere else entirely! You’ll be fine. You finish packing. It’s the night before you leave, and you’re too excited to sleep! So you stay up and watch re-runs of Laverne and Shirley while imagining your incalculably awesome future:

You go to the airport, leave your mom and sister (and half your luggage) in the Columbus terminal, and board your Southwest Airlines plane to Orlando.  You buckle your seatbelt and wait.
"This is your captain speaking. Uhh.... facing some weather conditions down south... uhhhh... with any luck we'll land this thing in Orlando in about two hours."

Well.  You can't really do anything.  The plane is in the air.  So you eat your peanuts and wait.  Sure enough, the plane lands in Orlando without a problem, and you breathe a sigh of relief.  The worst is over.  You de-board, gather your bags, and settle onto a bench by the information desk.  Your mom and sister should be getting in around 3:00.  It's 2:40.

You check your watch (because it is 2004, fool, and you don't have a cell phone yet!).  It's ten past three.  They're probably about to land.  You engage in some disinterested people-watching.  Twenty minutes later, you check it again.  And ten minutes after that.  And every ninety seconds after that.
At about 4pm, it dawns on you that you are, after all, sitting right by the information desk, and they might actually have something resembling information.  You inquire about Delta flight ####, and the gentleman behind the desk shakes his head.  His lips move, and it looks like he's saying something like "CANCELLED."
You are quite shaken.  You drag your heavy bags behind you as you frantically locate a pay phone and call home.  Your mother answers, which cannot mean anything good.  Apparently, Delta's finest informed her that they did not consider it safe to fly.  They told her this AFTER your flight was already in the air.  She's a little on edge.  Oh, and that little Tropical Storm Charley has turned into a Category 4 Hurricane.  It should hit Florida by nightfall.
So what do you do?  The only thing you CAN do.  You tell your mother that you're all right, and that you will take the shuttle to the hotel and hunker down there.  You can only hope that plan will work.  But when you hang up the phone, it's not a good feeling.

So I had just hung up the pay phone in the airport, having confidently assured my mother that I would absolutely survive the storm of doom that was hurtling towards me.  However, having no idea what a hurricane was like or how to prepare for it made my insides feel like a maelstrom of airplane peanuts and terror. 

I called for the shuttle and made my way to the Orlando airport Clarion, an attractive hotel with a glass atrium lobby full of potted plants and demure furniture.  On my way there, even as scared as I was, I couldn't help but bounce in my seat to see the palm trees and pale stucco buildings.  I was going to go to school in Disney-town!

I checked into the hotel on my own and lugged my luggage up to my very own room, feeling like quite a big girl.  This was around 5pm.  I turned on the TV, checked the weather channel, which told me that Hurricane Charley was probably going to hit in Tampa and stay along the Gulf Coast (good news!), and then watched "That's So Raven."  At about 5:30pm, it occurred to me that I had not had lunch and was famished.  I grabbed the information folder and called Papa John's to order a pizza.

"Hello, Papa John's - we are limited to pick-up because of the hurricane - can I help you?"
"I guess not." I said sadly, and hung up.

I went down to the lobby to eat at the restaurant.

"It's closed." The girl at the front desk informed me.
"C-closed?" I repeated.
"For the storm."  She said.
"Will it be open tomorrow?"  I asked, beginning to panic as I realized that it was not a hurricane but hunger that would be my end.
"Probably not."
Resisting the urge to ask if she had ever helped anyone EVER, I instead inquired, "Is there anywhere that I can get something to eat?"
"There's a Seven-Eleven next door."
Resisting the urge to congratulate her on being marginally helpful, I sped out the door to the Seven-Eleven to stock up.

You know how people say that you should not go grocery shopping when you're hungry, because you will impulse-buy so much more junk than you need?  That condition is compounded by not knowing when you will be able to buy food again, and by buying your groceries in a Seven-Eleven, where the food groups revolve around Doritos and beer.  Fortunately, I had a mini-fridge and a microwave in my room, so my options were a little more open.

Unfortunately, the Seven-Eleven had already been ravaged by other hotel guests and locals, who must have finally exhausted their Y2K stockpiles and needed to refill on Spam and Twinkies in time for THIS apocalypse.  I grabbed a basket and began filling it as quickly as I could, before the current wave of shoppers snatched up everything but the motor oil and copies of Red Book.  I managed to grab a huge bottle of water, a jumbo bag of Twizzlers, Pepperidge Farm Milano Cookies, Stouffer's frozen dinners, kettle chips, Snickers bars, bottles of Diet Coke, and a few other gems.  Looking guiltily over my unchaperoned grocery basket as the checkout clerk silently judged me, I tossed in a few apples and some sugar-free gum.

I slogged back to the hotel by about six o'clock, and the wind was starting to pick up.  The sky was filled with unfamiliar clouds.  I went back to my room, took a shower, changed into my pajamas, and checked the weather again.  The Gulf Coast was about two hours to the west of Orlando, which meant that we would get hit with something called "feeterbands," the outer arms of the hurricane that would hug us with rain and high winds; but the "eye" of the hurricane, the most ferocious part, would miss us by at least eighty miles or so.  I breathed a sigh of relief, popped in a Stouffer's dinner, and called my mother to tell her the good news.

Being informed that the hurricane was not going to personally swallow up her daughter must have been a relief, but it enabled my mother to return to those more familiar parental worries, like Norman Bates possibly having the hotel room down the hall from me.  I reassured her that I had the door locked, the deadbolt locked, the chain on, and the dresser wedged in front of the door (which may have been a slight exaggeration), and that I had enough food to last me at least until she could get on the next flight to Orlando, which would be Heaven-knows-when. 

Her last words before we hung up, other than "I love you," reiterated that I should under no circumstances leave my room, for ANY reason, ESPECIALLY AFTER DARK.  I returned to my frozen dinner and watched some more Disney Channel.  I was a mere ten miles or so from Disney World, and every commercial that showed some bit of the theme parks had me bouncing again with excitement.

I checked the weather again at about 7pm, when rain really started HITTING the window. 

"Hurricane Charley has turned.  It is a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of up to 150 miles per hour, and it has made landfall in Punta Gorda.  Charley is expected to reach Orlando shortly after sunset."

At that moment a piece of paper was slipped under my door, almost causing my arteries to implode from stress and fear.  I scurried to the door -- had the Grim Reaper left me a confirmation number? -- and read the paper.  It wasn't from Death, actually, but from the hotel management.  They would monitor the weather report, and if deemed necessary, they would either knock on doors or call rooms to herd us all into the windowless ballroom for the night.  If we failed to comply, they said, we did so at our own risk.

Well, the next couple of hours were kind of a blur.  I called my mother back and told her the bad news, at which point she told me to UNblock and UNlock my door, in case I needed to get into the hallway in a hurry.  When you being confronted by a Norman Bates-like murderer scares your mother LESS than the alternative, you know it's bad.  I rotated among trying to watch TV, praying, and contemplating the fate of Mickey Mouse and the rest of the Magic Kingdom.  I don't know why, when confronted with a potentially life-threatening situation, I felt the need to concern myself with how Disney World would survive, but I did.

It had just gotten dark when the lights went out.  I huddled in the bed farthest from the window and waited, listening to the winds growing stronger and the rain smacking harder.  There was a knock at the door, and I opened it carefully, hoping that it wasn't a strangler. 

An innocuous, tired-looking hotel employee, with several flashlights in his hands, informed me that it was time to go to the ballroom, or face the storm monster alone in my rapidly-darkening room.  I wasn't sure what to bring, so I grabbed my Bible and a pillow and shoved everything else into the bathroom.  I padded down the dark hallway and joined a growing stream of harried guests clutching pillows, valuables, and children.  We stepped cautiously down the dark stairway, wondering why there were no emergency lights.  The skylight in the stairwell had fallen open, allowing rain to tumble in upon us as we hugged the walls and slipped around it. 

As we hurried across the lobby towards the ballroom, a horrible, soul-crunching noise echoed from somewhere far above us. 
"What IS that?!"  I asked no one in particular.
A wizened old man replied, "That's the screws in the tin roof.  The wind's pulling them out."


I picked up my pace into the ballroom and staked out a spot as far from any exits as possible.  It occurred to me at that point that I had not brought a blanket. A kind family from Wisconsin offered me their extra comforter, and I huddled up against the wall with it in true Linus fashion.

The wind got louder and fiercer, even as we shut the heavy ballroom door. No sooner had everyone settled into the room and heard a shouted message from the hotel manager than a terrible smashing crush echoed through the air. Someone decided to be the Sheriff of Ballsville and open the door to the lobby.

The floor of the lobby was covered with what looked like rough diamonds. They had fallen all over everything, from the potted palms to the sedate furniture, and they were quickly being drowned in sheets of rain. The entire glass atrium had blown in. And the wind was still growing louder.

We all waited pretty quietly after that, just listening and talking in low voices, until the winds outside sounded like a freight train was about to charge into the ballroom... and then there was nothing at all. We were in the eye of the hurricane. It was like the eerie silence in a horror movie, when you know the monster is on the other side of the door -- you can see his shadow on the floor -- and it's only a matter of moments until he lurches forward and swallows you whole.

Thinking about the clearly evil, all-seeing eye of the storm itself, I half-expected Sauron and an army of orcs to creep around the corner, but figured that they were probably too busy razing EPCOT to the ground.

One bit of hope clung to my hurricane-addled brain, and that was the knowledge that as soon as the hurricane's eye passed over us, the winds and rain would start to gradually decrease. The worst would then be over, and I had managed to not be in the glass lobby when it exploded. When the winds came roaring back with a vengeance and nothing collapsed on me, I sighed with relief and prepared to hunker down in my makeshift bed for the night. However, it occurred to me that my poor family had no idea what state I or the building surrounding me was in at that moment, and I ought to find a way to let them know that I was still breathing. I tentatively approached the kindly Wisconsinites who had lent me a blanket, when I saw cell phones in their midst.

Me: Um. Could I maybe use your phone? My mom is in Ohio, and she probably thinks I'm buried in rubble.
Kindly Wisconsinian: Aw, shur! Go right ahed noh! (hands me her cell phone) The cell toher might be dohn, tho' -- there seems to be a layg in the signal.
Me: Thank you. Um, a what in the signal?
Kindly Wisconsinian: A layg. Like when yoo talk and it echoes in the phone.
Me: Oh, a lag! ... I'll watch out for that.

I called my mother and quickly told her that I was alive ("Are you OKAY?! The IDIOTS on the weather channel said Hurricane Charley was POUNDING Orlando!"), that the eye had gone over us but I was all right ("The EYE?!?"), and that I would call again as soon as I could, considering that there was no electricity and thus no land line phones ("Okay, but call SOON!").

As I closed the phone and handed it back to the kindly Wisconsinites, I saw that it was 12:23am. The eye was long gone, and the winds no longer sounded like Mother Nature wanted to heap destruction and misery upon us. Friday the 13th was over. I snuggled under my borrowed blanket on the hotel ballroom floor and thought quietly about what might lay ahead in the next four years of college. Would UCF be everything I hoped? Would the people be nice? Would my classes be difficult? Would Cinderella Castle rise from the orc-savaged ashes?

Years later, I can say that UCF was everything I had hoped for, that the people were very nice, that my classes were appropriately difficult, and that Disney World was (miraculously) spared by Hurricane Charley. After that first night and the initial move-in as I waited (for four days) for the Orlando Airport to open and receive my mother, college seemed almost easy by comparison.  That first night might have made me wary of Friday the 13th, but it sure gave me a heck of an introduction to self-reliance.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

First Page: What do you think?

Here's a first-page idea that crossed my mind today, for a restricted-writing novel (in the vein of the brilliant Mark Dunn).  I'd love and appreciate any honest feedback!




Mrs. Hattie Rendell, Esq.
Pottawattamie County Attorney
1525 Snap Street
Thimble, IA 51549

June 13

Dear Hattie:

Attached please find the transcripts you requested, of our interviews with the defendants, Misses Adelaide and Rosemarie "Ree" Hightower, and several witnesses.  I regret to report a minor mishap with the transcription: the interviews were led by Deputy Sheriff MacDonald and transcribed by a greenhorn who will remain nameless (off the record, ma'am, an unbearable jackass who's since been shown the door).  The greenhorn recorded all of the responses accurately, but neglected to note MacDonald's pertinent questions at the time.  Unfortunately, our antique cassette recorder also managed to eat the tapes before this oversight could be corrected (off the record, ma'am, your public support of the law enforcement levy this fall would surely mitigate this problem in the future).

I apologize on behalf of my office for this error.  We would have re-taken the statements, but the Hightower sisters and the witnesses have all refused to say anything further (off the record, we did get a confession, so I would hate to see these interviews thrown out).  As long as the case is tried in Thimble and doesn't require traveling to the capital, MacDonald will be happy to testify, to the best of his creaky old memory, what questions were asked.  I'll try and get some of them out of him, but I know you have a court date coming up soon, and I wanted to at least get you these responses as a start.

Good luck with the preparations for the trial, and just let me know if I can help you with anything else.

Dutifully Yours,

Fred Tom Wilkes
Sheriff, Thimble Township
Thimble, Iowa

P.S. Maggie asked me to ask you for your macaroni salad dressing recipe.  If she asks -- I asked.  FW

Haikus about Starbucks

Shameless repost from my old blog... because I love haikus and Starbucks.  Especially together.  I added a few new ones into the mix, to make it a little less shameless.


(does less shameless equate to more shameful?  because that's not what I'm going for.)

I'm eco-conscious!
(But also, I just want my
ten cents off... don't judge.)

People seem to think
You're healthy and tasty.  Well...
I'm not fooled.  You're gross.

Could make a haiku
Simply out of this drink name...
Now that's a bit much.

Too many buttons.
I could tell you what to push,
But I'd just seem rude.

So tasty, and yet
I wish I'd never looked at
The nutrition facts...

Why sell indie discs
In the store when you just play
Gaga remixes? :-/

Thanks for being you!
Scrumptious, warm, and fulfilling.
You're my favorite. ;-)

(Psst... YOU are my fave.
Don't listen to the latte.
You're lighter, too. WIN!)


Spice and cinnamon
Hooray!  You are delicious!
... but I need caffeine... :(

Why do you exist?
The whole point of coffee is

You were behind me.
Yes, we ordered the same drink,

I take the first sip -
Crap. They left out the syrup.
This tastes like failure.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Cutting Purple Prose: Try an adverb edit!

“The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King

I have a confession to make.  I love adverbs.  Seriously.  Mr. King and others have decried their usage far and wide, going so far as to say of J.K. Rowling, “[she’s] never met an adverb she didn’t like.”
But is that really such a bad thing?  I mean, adverbs can lend inflection or motivation to an action or statement, using fewer words than a roundabout description would.  For example:
“Melanie hurried down the deserted hallway.”   This is a little sparse for my taste.  Why is Melanie hurrying?  What’s driving her action?
“Glancing over her shoulder with a gulp, hoping that her footsteps wouldn’t invite pursuit, Melanie hurried down the deserted hallway, as she wondered why it was empty at that hour of day.”  I kept this sentence free of adverbs on purpose; it’s descriptive of Melanie’s trepidation and the need to rush, and it “shows” rather than “tells” the action and motivation.  It does border on wordy, though, and if every sentence uses this many commas and clauses, the reader will get mired in details.
“Melanie nervously hurried down the unusually deserted hallway.”  These adverbs get the important information across in fewer words, with only an independent clause that is quick and easy to grasp.  Admittedly, it’s not as interesting, as it feels more like a summary and less like a scene.  What about mashing these flawed sentences together?
“Hoping that her footsteps wouldn’t invite pursuit, Melanie hurried down the unusually deserted hallway.”  With a leading modifier for one piece of information and an adverb for the other, it’s a better mix, in my humble opinion.  It reads more smoothly, getting the point across in 14 words instead of 32.
With that in mind, here’s a suggestion for all you writers out there, based upon something I tried a few weeks ago on my finished manuscript, The Keeper of Hawthorn Garden.  In Microsoft Word, I used the CTRL-F “Find” command to search for common adverbs throughout my book: really, very, such, quite, -fully (thoughtfully, carefully, wonderfully, etc), and so on.  In the newest version of Word, the program will even tell you from the get-go how many times you’ve used a selected word. 
(you could also start by just searching "ly" at first to pull up common -ly adverbs, but as I have characters with the surname Lytton, it wasn't practical for me.)
I made a list, adding to it as I went, of over 30 adverbs that I thought I might have overused: barely, tightly, nearly, sharply, softly, suddenly, gently, quietly, quickly, slowly, eagerly, almost, quite, lightly, -fully, simply, fast, scarcely, excitedly, actually, anxiously, very, indeed, such, really, rapidly, swiftly, hastily, and more.  For each word, I searched the manuscript with the “next usage” function, and snap-decided whether the word was or wasn’t necessary to the sentence, chapter, and story.  If it wasn’t, I deleted it and moved on.  I kept track of before and after numbers as I went, and the results were both surprising and encouraging.
I cut hundreds of words!  LITERALLY.  Hundreds of them!  I threw out almost 30 “verys,” 50 “quicklys,” 30 “quites,” and dozens of lightlys, tightlys, and brightlys.  I felt liberated to see the word count drop bit by bit, because I knew that I was excising only what was unnecessary.  It didn't sting like cutting a scene or a character, and it didn't take all that long. 
I'll probably wait another month and then do another adverb purge, after my inner concise-inator has recharged.  I can tell, though, that it's increased my adverbial awareness in my work-in-progress, too.  When I'm writing now, I ask myself, "Can I really cut that 'really'?  Can I do without that 'obviously'?"  The answer, more often than I would have expected, is yes.
Don't get me wrong - I still adore a good adverb.  Stephen King can't win me over to his side that easily.  But learning to use them like seasonings, instead of ingredients, is a skill that I am eager to develop further.  If you're up for it, try an adverb edit!  And please let me know how it goes!