Thursday, December 19, 2013

Scrooge – A Christmas Carol.

Throughout my life, variations of this story have been my favorite Christmas stories. The endless retellings and versions of this story means that it is also one of the most popular Christmas stories of all time. Unlike other stories about plucky kids accidentally left home alone, lonely divorcees becoming Santa Claus and flying reindeer guiding Santa’s sleigh, this story is a real adult story. It has layered characters and profound character development. It grabs us by the throat and demands that we recognize ourselves in it. This small book has had more impact over the years than many a turgid and popular bestseller. One reason is because it is such an effective mirror, showing us views of ourselves.

We have all been Bob Cratchit, whether working for a skinflint, unappreciative boss, maybe being responsible for a family in difficult times or perhaps even caring for a beautiful child with devastating health problems. We have all been a Fezziwig of a sort, putting aside mundane work-a-day cares to celebrate, rejoice in the beauty of being alive and just have FUN.
And we have all been Scrooge, at least a little bit. Some misfortunes in our past put us into a permanent survival mode. Afraid. Willing to hurt others and cut ourselves off from society because of being afraid. Possibly having some blind good luck in finding love along the way, and then losing it due to some permutation of that early habit of fear. Continuing on alone, the habit of fear and individual survival at all cost never broken or enlarged to include a group beyond ourselves, never growing to encompass any group or a society. Grimly determined to survive at all costs and thus increasing those costs.
For some of us, some miracle, accident or other intervention in our lives shakes us up and makes us realize that we’ve lost our way, wasted part of our lives, made mistakes. Those of us lucky enough to have gotten the message and acted on it look back on those lost times with a shudder of horror and count ourselves blessed to have had a second chance. Scrooge is about all of us because we have all needed an undeserved second chance, at some point.
Everyone wants to be redeemed, to have a magnificent life that they would be proud of. There’s a line in the 1988 movie Scrooged, where Frank Cross says that Christmas is the time when “For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be”. Dickens’ story has stood the test of time because it is the ultimate redemption story of a sad, mundane character getting a second chance and seizing it for dear life.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Word Nerd - Found in the Shelves! (sample)

This first edition of David Kahn's groundbreaking 1967 book about cryptology (the making and breaking of cyphers) is a real find. Before this groundbreaking book was published, the public never had such a resource about the romantic and sometimes tragic history about codes and cyphers used throughout history.

Read about:
  • Mary Queen of Scots dooming herself by using an easily broken cypher.
  • Brilliant Polish and British experts breaking German and Japanese codes and turning the tide of the Second World War .
  •  Technologies used in the Cold War

The importantance of this book resonates even today. Kahn was pressured by the NSA to alter it before publication. In fact, this was the first place that their name was publicly mentioned. And while it was published years before today's modern digital cryptography was ever devised, an updated Kobo eBook version covers current developments.

“A wild longing for strong emotions and sensations seethes in me, a rage against this toneless, flat, normal and sterile life. I have a mad impulse to smash something, a warehouse perhaps, or a cathedral, or myself, to committ outrages...”

“But it's a poor fellow who can't take his pleasure without asking other people's permission.”


Steppenwolf is Hesse's classic story about a man divided in himself, certain that he is both a civilzed, refined human and a wolf of the Steppes. As he wanders the dark streets at night, a mysterious figure hands him a booklet that addresses him by name and which sends him on a journey that will either save him or destroy him.

This brilliant book is a classic look at a man's struggle to come to terms with the conflicts in society and himself which most of society tries to blot out and ignore.

This gorgeous edition contains in one volume many of Dickens' best works, including:

  • Tale of Two Cities
  • A Christmas Carol
  • David Copperfield
  • Great Expectations
  • The Pickwick Papers

Including a number of fine illustrations, it is a fine collection of the works of one of England's finest authors.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shakespeare tattoo ideas

Ideas for a Shakespeare tattoo:

1) Words


2) An image of Shakespeare himself

3) Some memorable character from one of his plays. Either a villain like Richard III or some outstanding hero...

Booksellers for a Day

In an economy that continues to be very lean, the best way to thrive is to be innovative, to come up with ideas that are new and fresh. That's what Snohomish's Uppercase Bookshop did yesterday when they gave us the opportunity to be booksellers for a day.

Think about it: what book lover hasn't fantasized about what it would be like to work in a bookstore instead of their their current day job? Even if you enjoy your livelihood and find meaning in it, as I do, working in a bookstore is something I've always fantasized about.Bookshops are like travel agents that sell you tickets to other worlds for the same price as a cup of coffee. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that magic?

Now I know what it's like to work in a bookstore....and I want *MORE*!

Everett Herald article about Uppercase: link
Yelp reviews: link

Monday, November 4, 2013

Repent Harlan, Said the Drip Drop Man

(With apologies to Neil Gaiman. And Harlan Ellison.)

I’ve never been afraid of coffee or espresso machines before. I’ve had cups of coffee that might have melted spoons in diners that would make Edward Hopper’s blood run cold. But since visiting one particular coffee shop in Seattle, I’m now a lot more cautious about where I get my Java...

It started around 9 am one morning in Seattle. I had finished a late night book signing at around 1:30 am the previous night and on top of being jet-lagged was thus so seriously tired that I was having a difficult time staying awake.  Being in Seattle meant that I had a lot of cafes to choose from but there was something about small, dark café called the Drip Drop Café that caught my eye.

The coffee shop was old…very old. It predated Starbucks and possibly the arrival of Columbus in the new world. It had cups that appeared to have been carved from polished mammoth bones; drifting piles of coffee grounds in the room’s corners seemed to predate the pyramids. The very air in the cafe seemed liquid, warm, humid, probably highly caffeinated. The cashier and baristas were friendly on the face of it but in the way of Marines who are pretty sure they won’t HAVE to kill you. There appeared to be coffee grinding machines and steamers but from the stuttering howl they made when operated by the baristas, the grinding could have been done by damned souls or even self-flagellating gnomes under the counter.

When I ordered my coffee, the barista seized my hand and locked eyes with me. She asked “Do you want your coffee with room?”

“For cream?”

“For truth.”

“Uh, sure.”

A few minutes later, I sat down with my coffee. While it cooled, I watched people order and walk away with their drinks. This being Seattle, a lot of the drink requests sounded more like incantations to dark Vegan gods than coffee orders but the baristas handled the requests with aplomb and an intense efficiency that was actually quite impressive. Just then, a prominent local lawyer started walking away with his cup, took a sip, scowled and went back to the barista.

“Hey, my coffee is cold and bitter!”

“Like your soul,” she replied. “You said you wanted room for truth.”

“Well how about making it over again and doing it right!!”

Silence gripped the room: a dozen conversations abruptly ceased and people busily looked down at their coffee with scared expressions. I happened to be looking out of the corner of my eye and it looked like there was something else in the barista’s place, like a gargoyle from a desolate cathedral or a Faustian demon. Her hands planted on the counter and the chilling, ancient visage leaned across the counter, inches from the terrified man’s face.

“Leave. Now.” 

The man uttered a strangled squeal and scampered out, walking crabwise as if he was afraid he would lose control of his bodily functions. Conversations paused in shock resumed and it was as if the incident had never happened. But I knew and now I wondered what MY coffee would taste like, since so many of my stories involve pain and fear and haunted souls.

I took a sip. It was the best coffee I had ever drunk in my entire life! It was like being 20 again on a Spring day and you’re in the British museum and a pretty girl smiles at you! It was like being at the pier and seeing dolphins frolic there, jump through the air and then spell out your name. I sat there and savored the coffee as long as I could, each sip like a mouthful of recovered youth. Finally, there was no more left of it to drink and I reluctantly took my cup back to the counter. As I started to walk away, the barista said “I know you’re not local so I won’t ask you to sign our plastic bag ban petition.”

“You know who I am?”

“Of course. And thank you for staying so late last night to make sure everyone got their book signed. It was classy. I was near the end of the line.”

“Thank you.” I stopped to look at the petition. “If you tell me a bit about this, I’ll Tweet about it later. You’re trying to avoid landfills?”

“No, it’s more the metaphysical implications that we’re worried about. “ (pause) “Sorry, I just kind of dropped that on you there. Look, most of your writing has to do with mythology of one kind or another. The old gods versus the new ones in American Gods. All the gods needed sacrifices to stay alive, the larger the sacrifice the better?”


“How many sacrifices could be more significant than a dinosaur. One that lived 150 million years ago? That’s what the petrochemicals in plastic bags are made of, after all.”

What she was saying began making sense. She continued speaking.

“When you render down a plastic bag, it’s a kind of sacrifice. That’s why the human population is exploding.  That’s why the world’s climate is changing. Unconscious sacrifices are being made and they are being answered. If it doesn’t stop, the world is going to change in ways you could never imagine. Yes, even you. The old ones are waking up and they WILL wake up…hungry.”

“So what can we do to prevent it?”

The barista paused. Her face was like a stony mask with a hint of sadness behind the eyes, like she was trying to be loving and gentle while a beloved pet was given her last injection. Then that look was hidden behind a brave and blandly hopeful smile and she said, “Just do your best to get the word out and it will all be fine. Oh, and do me a favor and thank Harlan Ellison for his introduction to Strange Wine. He didn’t exactly convey the message we asked him to but he tried to do something and the effort was appreciated.”

I never went back into that particular café again. I didn’t have the nerve. I did start to talk to Harlan once about that café but I stopped when his face started to turn green.

I wonder how much time we have left.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Why have duplicate copies of books?

Some people love books. Then there are people who LOVE books...

This point was driven home to me recently, during a conversation with a friend. We were hanging around a bookstore and I mentioned needing to get a duplicate/loaner copy of a book. She stared at me as if I had just suggested we build a pillow fort there and sip Scotch while reading in the middle of the aisle (which is, incidentally, every real book lover's least their G-rated fantasy). When I asked if she had ever gotten a loaner or accidentally ended up with multiple copies of a book, her stare segued into something more like concern that my brain had stripped its gears. Pointing out a book with a particularly shiny cover served as a convenient way to change topics and the conversation moved on more smoothly from there.

But the experience got me thinking more about books and the accidental or intentional possession of multiple copies thereof. A little thought made it clear that there are actually a fair number of reasons why a book lover might have extra copies of a book. Strange to say, the number of such reasons is actually INCREASING. And the fact that Snohomish has the coolest bookstore in the known universe doesn't help.

So just in case you find yourself having to defend this perfectly valid lifestyle choice, here are some excellent reasons for having duplicate copies of books. If they don't make sense to you, please try not to judge.

1) Accidental duplicates 

Cause: You can't find a book and think it just might have accidentally ended up in a pile sent to a used bookstore. Or maybe you had a pet that chewed books (e.g., dogs, rabbits), haven't seen a favorite book in a while, see it in a bookstore and know you just HAVE to get a copy in case it's gone

Examples from my bookshelf:

"The Man Who Never Missed" from Steve Perry's excellent Matador series (only one pictured because Accidental Duplicates make natural Loaners)

"Ellison Wonderland" by Harlan Ellison

2) Ebook and paper

Cause: The advent of readily available eBooks raises the question of whether the future of book publishing will favor paper books or eBooks. This is arguably a silly and pointless discussion because each has advantages in some respects. eBooks are great for taking along on road trips where you don't want a separate backpack full of books. Paper books are more stimulating to the senses and can never run out of batteries when you're 2 pages from the end of a book. So making this an either-or proposition is a fool's game, in my opinion. Since reading a favorite book is one of those things that can make a hard day of travel more fun,

Examples from my bookshelf:

"Living the Martial Way" by Forrest Morgan

"The Stars My Destination" by Alfred Bester

"Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future" by Mike Resnick

"The Atrocity Archives" by Charles Stross

"Steppenwolf" by Herman Hesse

3) Best. Book. Ever.

Cause: You read a book and it's like opening the toy you wanted most on Christmas Day. You realize that it has changed your life forever. That it has provided you ideas or insights about life and the world that will serve you for the rest of your life. And you know that you will always want to have at least copy of this book to take with you wherever you go. Bonus points if it inspires you to get a literary tattoo.

Examples from my bookshelf:
"East of Eden" by John Steinbeck. My blog post about it. The paper copy on the right also has tremendous sentimental value because I read it just after moving to Northern California, an hour's drive from Cannery Row

4) Loaners and Set Asides

Cause: You have a book that you want to lend out to friends but can't stand the idea of not having a copy available to read yourself when you need to. Or maybe the copy you have has deep sentimental value and the thought of it being lost is completely unacceptable. 

Examples from my bookshelf:
"Good Omens" by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett - possibly the most hilarious book I've ever read and the copy on the left was given to me by my friend Deirdre, who has since passed away with breast cancer. I will never have it off of my shelf again. The edition on the right is my Loaner copy.

"Star Trek 10" by James Blish - a simple adaptation of some Star Trek original series episodes, this was the first science fiction book I ever bought. I have had the edition on the left for some 40 years and have fond memories of climbing a tree on Summer days and sitting there, reading this book. It was autographed by Leonard Nimoy, who seemed a little impressed at how old it was and how well-loved it obviously was. The edition on the right was purchased to have a new, fresh copy on hand...because cool cover, right? (This was before the Klingons were our friends)

5) Multiple versions

Cause: Some books are periodically re-issued with new content and older versions are still desirable because they also have unique content.

Examples from my bookshelf:

"Adventure Motorcycling Handbook" by Chris Scott. This is one of the books that has inspired thousands of people to to chuck the daily grind and go out and see the world. I long to have this book and ones by Lois Pryce, Austin Vince, Ted Simon in eBook form too.

There you have it - my personal reasons for having multiple copies of the same book. Most of these books overlap multiple categories, e.g., I have all of these favorites that are available in paper and electronic form. But to me, these reasons all highlight the vast importance that books have in our lives.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why Use a Fitbit (or something like it)?

Anytime the topic of exercise comes up, it seems to inevitably veer off into a discussion of weight, leading to an even more contentious discussion of body image. It's pointless and counterproductive so I'm just not going to go there. I have no interest in telling anyone what they should look like or how much they should weigh. What I will do is encourage anyone interested in feeling better to make some form of exercise...and walking is the easiest...part of their life on a regular basis.

I started using the fitbit pedometer because my company held a fitness challenge through most of the Summer. And as I've said elsewhere, I was pleasantly surprised at how something as simple as adding walking to my exercise routine could strongly supplement an existing aerobic fitness habit that I've stuck to for over 10 years now. Walking is GREAT - I regularly engage in other exercise but walking is how I started that fitness habit and walking added to it again. This was a great and pleasant surprise.

That's the plus side to walking. There's something else to consider on the other hand: the risks of living too sedentary a life.

Here's a question for people who are shrugging at the notion of regular exercise: have you considered smoking cigarettes lately? The answer is probably "no"...if you don't smoke cigarettes already, chances are you are partly avoiding it because you know it increases your risk for a pointless, unpleasant, early death.
It's DUMB.

Here's something you may not know: diseases related to inactivity are poised to take over as #1 preventable cause of death. The bar chart below (based on CDC data) shows annual deaths from inactivity in a firm second place to smoking. Yes, pretty soon people may be dying faster from lack of exercise than from smoking cigarettes. And this chart is based on 2004 data...9 years have passed since this data was collected. I doubt that the outlook has gotten rosier.

That's it, all I have to say. I don't want to discourage people by getting tedious about the topic of maintaining physical activity to improve health. But before I close, let me reiterate:
  •  I have zero interest in talking about weight or shape or being snarky gym rat guy. Your shape is NOT my business
  • I would encourage anyone who is not physically active or who needs a change to try walking as a low stress, high benefit activity
Some people would probably include a disclaimer at this point about checking with your doctor before starting an exercise program. That seems kind of unfair because the people who sit around without exercising don't have to check with a doctor first. Duh!

The End of the Fitbit Challenge 9/21

My company's fitbit challenge ended on Saturday, Sept 21. As I've said elsewhere, I was pleasantly surprised at how much adding a vigorous walking program could add to the existing 3-4 YMCA workouts a week. Throughout the challenge, I definitely noted an increase in energy and strength.

Aiming end the challenge with a bang, I started the day with a 9 mile walk around the town of Snohomish, out the Centennial trail and back.

Sights around town.

The haunted Oxford Saloon, which I STILL haven't visited.

The VERY South end of the Centennial Trail.

Walking on out... or maybe back, I'm not sure.

Later in the day, I walked a couple more laps around Tye Lake

Total steps taken during the challenge, from 7/22 to 9/21, were over 1.1 million over a distance of 500 miles.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sunday morning drizzle by Tye Lake

The work fitbit challenge ends on Saturday, September 22, so I was out walking a bit this weekend to start powering through the last bit. Started out yesterday walking a few laps around Tye Lake before using the elliptical machine at the YMCA. It was a little drizzly but also quiet and nice.

These abandoned toys made me think of Toy Story 2. In the background, there's a guy either using a metal detector or checking for landmines.

Did I mention the drizzle?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Walking in Issaquah

This week, I took my Tiger 800 in for her 6000 mile service. She's been a great motorcycle and I look forward to taking her on many more journeys...

The fitbit challenge is going on for a couple more weeks, so I wandered around Issaquah and took more pictures. This is an old tour bus outside the XXX root beer joint, near the motorcycle dealership.

My previous employer has moved but the building still carries its "brand".

There's a cool walking path near there and I thought it would be fun to walk it one more time. Still gorgeous, though the path is now paved instead of being cinders. I walked a LOT of miles here, on stressful days!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Cat Adoption Fail?

Recently, we adopted a couple elderly cats and I was thinking it would work out well. But I've developed some concerns. They may have been misrepresented to us.

1. They are allegedly "hunting cats, adept a hunting upland game and waterfowl". Yet Paisley runs away every time I try to get her to take a point. And when I tried to get Cyrus to jump into the water to practice fetching a duck, he just glared at me. Pressing the issue resulted in a trip to the ER.

2. They are also allegedly "quiet and well behaved". Yet we're starting to notice small amounts of cash and household valuable missing, along with a sudden abundance of cat toys. There is a strange group of cats constantly hanging around our house now. What looks like a cat bong has me thinking that the cats are taking advantage of Washington state's liberalized marijuana laws.

I don't know what to do.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Recent Pictures

Here are a couple pictures taken this weekend.

Near the start of the Centennial Trail.

 A neighborhood park.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

In which I find I've been Living A Lie and have a harrowing encounter with a mollusc

Sunday started well...I decided to get an early start on my Fitbit Challenge walking by taking an 8 mile walk first thing and being mostly done with obligations for the day by about 10 am. With that in mind, I headed out the door and out to the trail.

The Centennial Trail was, as always, a deeply ugly place. This is a favorite spot that we used to visit even before we moved to Snohomish. Given that I now walk and bike by it several times a week, it has deep associations for me.

More ugly landscapes.

This is the point where my simplistic tale of a Sunday morning walk becomes a tale of wretchedness, a cautionary tale. Dubuque Road has been the turnaround point for long walks and short bicycle rides for the better part of a decade now. I used to walk it with Goldie, our yellow lab, when she was younger and up for long walks. The thing is, I had it pegged at about 4 miles from my starting point.
As I reached the Dubuque Road today, I blithely checked my trust pedometer to see what it was showing for distance walked. I expected it to say about 4 miles. To my shock and dismay, the the Fitbit flashed a message of subtle horror to me: "3.22" it said, with an understated high tech smirk.

I have been working in the corporate world for about 30 years now. I am used to maintaining a poker face or a sarcastic developer smirk. I did not rage and howl. But inside, I was reeling. For years now, my walking and biking distances have been overestimated by about a mile and a half, when you consider the two way trip. I have been Living A Lie....

I did walk on, as far as the point in the path parallel to Centennial Middle School. That took me to the 3.5 mile mark, setting up a nice 7 mile walk. It was a mile less than I had planned this walk to be but it would have to do.

Walking home, sadder but wiser, I decided to bury my shame in a coffee binge. The Iced Americano provided for me at SnoTown Espresso was tasty and the barista friendly. One thing I love to do when out running errands is to get a sense of the story behind the people I interact with and I had a few minutes of fun interaction with the barista, who it turns out works as a dental hygienist during the week. She has been working this Espresso stand for a while and was covering today for a co-worker's vacation.

She did look at me oddly when I asked which job was more fun, so I moved along before she could become too alarmed and decide to summon the authorities.

As I walked along, I happened to notice a fairly large and dangerous looking slug oozing across the walkway, It was clearly waiting for me to be distracted so that it could turn and attack me all unprepared. Fortunately, I have been warned about the duplicitous and deadly nature of these innocuous seeming molluscs...

There's a lot of yellow in this picture...