Thursday, December 6, 2018

NaNoWriMo 2018

That makes three in a row...

Pretty similar to last year's graphic...
First, context. If you don't know what NaNoWriMo is, mark the following for later reading: National Novel Writing Month.

As I've already mentioned, this was my third year of completing the challenge (results for prior years can be found here: 2016, 2017).

This year was... different... from the past two years. More on that later. Let's get straight to the numbers (since everyone likes graphics and/or tables).

Only 25 days!
That's right, everyone! I crossed the "finished" line on 11/25, with a full five days to spare. This result was three days faster than last year, but still two days slower than 2016. Still, the pace seemed really consistent. Metrics include:

  • Highest day's output: 3,491 words on 11/04
  • Lowest day's output: 630 words on 11/13
  • Mean daily output: 2,024 words
  • Median daily output: 2,050 words
So, what did I learn this year? Or maybe, what did I think about this year's challenge?

Writing every day, even just a little, helps a ridiculous amount. Looking at the day-by-day, you can tell that my flow, such as it was, never suffered from the interruptions that life brings like last year. I had other things going on (more on that in a minute), but still managed to find at least 30 minutes throughout the day to write a few sentences.

Finishing prior to Thanksgiving is a good goal, but extremely difficult. This year, especially, since Thanksgiving was early-ish (11/22), getting everything done before having to leave town or otherwise deal with the festivities was a lot to ask for. I realized this relatively early on and managed my expectations accordingly. The goal shifted to steady progress, at least a little, every day, INCLUDING on travel days and while I was out of town.

(High) Fantasy is pretty fun to write. This probably goes without saying for other writers in the genre, but I found high fantasy to be really fun to play with. Most of my writing is urban fantasy, with a little sci fi and high fantasy thrown in, but this was my first long high fantasy work since high school. Worldbuilding, even in pantser style, was incredibly enjoyable. Some days where my output was lower were actually my most creative, as I was thinking about the world itself, its peoples, its histories, naming things, drawing maps, etc. Some of that work made it back into the story, but most of it was just there, flavoring my thoughts as they went along.

I don't take my advice very well. Last year, I mentioned two important things:

  1. Reduce commitments to free up writing time.
  2. Write regularly throughout the year so the habit won't be so forced.
Yeah, neither of those happened. I'll speak about the second one first. This turned out not to be that big a deal for me. I wrote a couple of short stories this year, including a silly one involving my summer glamping trip and a funnier one for Halloween, but not much else (aside from journaling). Even so, getting into the writing, finding the times for it, wasn't all that challenging. I looked forward to it on most days, and don't remember feeling like it was a slog at all this year. That's not to say I didn't get frustrated at the way the story went, but I didn't feel like I was fighting it like I did last year.

The first one was much worse this year. We're not running anymore for lots of reasons, but I still try to get some regular exercise in on a daily basis. I'm still running D&D, and participating in the Transformers role-playing game at Matt's. I'm more or less RUNNING Be A Santa this year, as Pat has essentially been out of the country since October. I'm still gainfully employed, even had a work trip over the last few days of the month. Then there's the stuff I do around the house normally, and by the end of doing all that, I'm beginning to feel stretched a little thin...

Worth it? ABSOLUTELY! Despite what I just said about being stretched, I enjoyed this year's challenge more than last year's. I don't think there was any single thing, but the combination of writing something completely new without the expectation of it being good or even making sense was pretty liberating. I felt like I was more in the spirit of NaNoWriMo this year than last.

And the book I wound up with is... broken. Fundamentally broken. HOWEVER, it's got enough interesting stuff to make me realize that I could pick it up for editing and not feel like I was scraping my face off with a rusty spoon. About halfway through, I switched viewpoint characters, and that felt great. I also realized afterward that one character that started silly then turned serious could actually remain silly if I just shifted some of their attributes to the third character (yes, there are three companions in this story). I'm also very pleased with the various races that populate the world, even if they're not all that original, because there are ways to shake them up. It's kind of fun to have a dragonborn that acts like a dwarf a lot of the time.

So... editing in January/February. But, there's still something to be done this year. My last bit of writing for the year will be a Christmastime short story. I really want to make it a ghost story, since that's the old tradition, but I'm struggling with a theme. Any suggestions? :-)

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Quite a year...

It’s been quite a year, hasn’t it?

From Mother Nature’s gut-punches in the forms of wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and volcanic eruptions, there is no shortage of folks in want of basic needs -- lacking food and water, or clothing, or shelter, or some combination of all three. Beyond that, this has been a year that has seen an unprecedented level of scorn from one person to another, a seeming lack of compassion or empathy that I can’t remember seeing before.

And yet… and yet...

As we approach the holiday season, we are reminded of just how fortunate we are. We notice an innumerable set of things that we take for granted every day.

Our mere existence is miraculous. The sun rose this morning, and we all woke up at some point today. Every one of us that are reading this note possess a piece of modern wizardry in the form of a computer or mobile device that couldn’t really be imagined a hundred years ago, not to mention the ability to actually read. We still retain the desire to laugh at silliness, or enjoy a sunset.

And did I mention art? Music? Oceans? Weekends?

I have worked with Pat Tallman for five years now, helping with the Be A Santa campaign for Penny Lane. When I think of all of the suffering endured by so many people this year, I’m also reminded that these are the burdens the kids of Penny Lane carry every year. They will not be at home or with loved ones during the holidays this year. They will not have a stocking or tree, much less gifts waiting for them in either.

Unless… unless…

The desperation this year has brought about has also brought about great heroism. People giving of their time and other resources in order to benefit those around them and beyond their immediate sphere. That’s actually what Be A Santa is all about as well. Most of the donations come from folks that will never meet any of the kids, but that understand what it’s like to be in need of a joyful holiday season. These Santas sacrifice of themselves, taking a little of what might’ve gone to their own families and friends so that others can have a chance at the same joy they are sure to share. To every one of you that has donated this year or in year’s past, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart on behalf of all of us at Be A Santa and the kids of Penny Lane. And know that you are making a difference in this world, in the world of these children. You are a source of happiness for them, and I commend you for that.

If you’ve never considered volunteering during the holidays, I encourage you to do so. It’s one of the most rewarding things you can do -- it truly is the gift that keeps on giving. And it is my sincere hope that this note finds all of you happy and well during this special and wonderful time of year. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Motley Crew (Halloween 2018 short)

Photo courtesy of
I'd been wandering around the main drag and square of the active little town for a while tonight, trying to avoid the rambunctious young adult crowds meandering through the streets. Who would have thought that Halloween would be such a big player in Papillion, Nebraska, of all places? Famous for flat, boring landscapes, and definitely "not for everyone," Nebraska had lived up to its recently adopted tourism slogans as I'd driven through the state. I'd had a bit of car trouble earlier in the day, and as I'd entered Papillion, driving northeast on Interstate 80, it had completely stalled out. I called the local towing company and had my car taken to the local repair shop (one and the same organization, unsurprisingly), realizing I would be forced to deal with this issue instead of making it to Iowa tonight. It was just as well. There was already a wintery chill in the air, and the clouds, though still sparse, were flying across the waning moon, alternately obscuring and revealing its half hidden half smile every few seconds.

The local mechanic said that the repair wouldn't take long, but that he didn't have the part in stock and wouldn't be able to get one until tomorrow. He seemed really eager to close early as well, and when I asked if he had plans for the evening, he gave me a strange look, then declared "it's Halloween," as if that answered the question entirely. I asked him if there was a motel nearby that would have a room for the evening. He replied in the affirmative and offered to give me a ride, as it was near where the street party was happening.

"Street party? You mean, a Halloween party?"

He nodded. "Yup. It's the best shin dig of the year!"

"And, uh, they close off the streets? The whole town attends, I take it?"

"Pretty much. There will be games, and costume contests, and a concert! I'm going as the Cowardly Lion this year. All I need is a little... cah-ourage!" the mechanic replied, giving me his best Bert Lahr impression. Honestly, it wasn't half bad. I smiled at him and wished him luck.

As we pulled into a parking lot on what must've been the main drag of Papillion, I realized he was going to need luck to stand any chance in the costume contest. The street was blocked off and already filling with a mystifying menagerie of creatures from science fiction, fantasy, and pop culture. Stepping out of the pickup, I was assaulted by the scents and sounds of a carnival as well. Popcorn, caramel and candied apples were clearly in view, steam lightly billowing off of the vat where the apples were being dipped as well as puffing out of the popcorn machine every time a snack bag was snatched. Music was in the air as well, with the theme from The Munsters fading out as The Monster Mash was fading in.

"The Fairfield Inn is over there," the mechanic said, pointing to the opposite end of the drag. "Hey, drop by the balloon pop booth later. I'll give you a couple of darts for free!" He gave me a friendly wave before making his way into the crowd, carrying a medium sized duffle bag over his shoulder, presumably containing the aforementioned lion outfit. I made my way down the drag, dodging kids and adults alike as they frolicked with zeal.

Entering the motel, it only took a moment for the clerk to get me the keys to a room on the third floor. I was about to dump my stuff when I realized that I was operating on an empty stomach. Candy and carnival fares were not what I was in the mood for, so I slung my backpack over my shoulder and went back downstairs to see if there were other options. The clerk was amazingly unhelpful, not understanding why I would want anything other than what was bound to be offered at the street party. I thanked the lad for absolutely nothing in this case, and made my way back outside.

Which brings us back to the wandering around, looking for a place to eat while trying to stay out of the way of random ghoul encounters. After what seemed like hours, I turned down a lane that ended in a tavern called Pomona’s. It looked cozy, almost quaint with smoke curing out of not one, not two, but three different chimneys. The facing was a mixture of wood and stone, and the windows were somewhat shadowed, their crosshatches giving off a dull gleam in the pale moonlight. The door itself was a dark, heavy wood. It smelled like… well, I was never very good at distinguishing woody smells. I’ll just say it smelled old, but not in a rotten way. And it was, indeed, heavy as I pulled the old fashioned handle to release the latch.

Stepping inside, I was greeted by a pleasant warmth. I hadn’t realized that it had dropped into the 30’s since the sun had set. I closed the door (with effort) and glanced around the interior. It was dimly lit, with the brightest spots being fireplaces at either end of the large room as well as a larger hearth directly across from the entrance. The room itself was large and mostly square, with lots of four-sided tables scattered randomly around the area. The bar extended from the far left corner, with seats leading to the edge of the fireplaces on both the left and center walls. I noticed that the place was mostly empty, unsurprisingly, since practically the entire town was out on the main drag currently.

A group of costumed characters was seated around a low table next to the fireplace on the center wall. My entrance had apparently interrupted a conversation as it drew their collective attention. The one dressed as Frankenstein gave me a friendly wave, as if inviting me to join their group. I looked around hesitantly, feeling awkward and self-conscious for some reason, when the guy stood up.

“Bro, don’t just stand there! C’mon over here and have a drink with us!”

That… was unexpected. The guy was over seven feet tall if he was an inch, with a build that would leave Arnold Schwarzenegger with severe feelings of inadequacy. Still, he seemed friendly enough, with a goofy grin and emphatic gesticulations of affability. I made my way between the empty tables and took a seat next to the big guy.

“Bro! Whatcha drinkin’?”

“Oh, uh… I’m not sure. What’s… good… here…” My voice trailed off as I glanced at the rest of the group around the table. If the first guy’s Frankenstein costume was good, the others there were equally impressive. There was a vampire, a werewolf, and a mummy as well, and all of them looked like they’d put a lot of effort into their outfits and makeup.

“Dude, EVERYTHING’s good here! We’ve got the place to ourselves tonight!”

“T.M., ye’ve GOT to calm doun,” the werewolf said. I was surprised by two things: first, underneath that impressive mask was someone that was distinctly female based on the pitch and tone of her voice, and second, she was SEVERELY Scottish. “Nae more BROs or DUDEs tonight, if ya please.”

“Gah, don’t be a buzzkill, Morrie. You should hit the gym with me next week! Improves your entire outlook on life, dudette!” The werewolf rolled her eyes as she took a drink of whatever was in her tankard.

“We all go zrough phases, Morrie,” said the vampire, at least I assumed he was supposed to be a vampire. He had the classic pale skin, luminescent eyes, and fangs, but also had what appeared to be a really poorly done fake beard. “I’m sure T.M will werk zrough zis in ze next few years or so.” Well, his Transylvanian accent was laid on a little thick, but I let it pass in honor of the night.

“That’s, like, easy for you to say, Vasile. You’ve, like, gone all hipster this year,” said a distinctly valley girl voice from the other end of the wide hearth. I hadn’t noticed anyone standing there, as there was a shadow cast by the edges of the fireplace, but a girl that couldn’t be more than sixteen emerged from the darkness to take a seat at the other end of the semi-circular array of chairs. She was wearing a full-blown black cowl with the hood drawn back, bunching at the base of her neck, allowing her strawberry blonde curls to cascade evenly over the front and back of her narrow shoulders. Bright, blue eyes with the lightest dusting of freckles on high cheek bones completed her profile. I wondered what she was supposed to be…

“Well, Amanda, one must try to keep wiz ze times. Speaking of zat, where did I put my vape stick?” The vampire named Vasile started moving glasses and plates around on the low table in an effort to locate it.

“Yeah, keep with the times… gag me with a spoon!” replied Amanda. “You should totally have someone do your beard for you next time. It’s, like, grody to the max!” She appeared to be about to offer to fix it, but thought better of it at the last minute, and picked up a snifter full of a light amber liquid. It looked like either brandy or cognac, but certainly the proprietor here wouldn’t serve that type of thing to someone that was CLEARLY a minor.

“Damn, I can’t find it anywhere!” Vasile said, straightening up. He gave a speculative glance at my backpack, as if I’d somehow swiped and stashed the thing without even knowing it existed, then turned to look at the mummy. “Have you seen it, Merkha?”

“WHAT? WHAT DID YOU SAY?” the mummy almost screamed at the vampire.

“TURN UP YOUR HEARING AID, MERKHA!” the vampire yelled back at the mummy.

“BURN UP THE PRETTY MAID? WHAT DID SHE DO?” the mummy yelled back at the vampire. Amanda took the mummy’s moment of confusion to gesture toward him. I couldn’t tell what happened, but I heard a slight crackling coming from the mummy’s direction. A moment later, the mummy looked around, in a slightly different state of confusion, and said, at a normal volume, “I didn’t even know the maid was here today…”

I realized then that Amanda must be the witch of the group, using her “magical powers” (a.k.a. sleight of hand) to mess with the mummy’s hearing aid. I had to hand it to her — it was a pretty slick trick, but I was pretty sure I’d seen better.

“He geits worse every year,” Morrie the werewolf said.

“It’s cuz the dude never works out,” Tim stated, flexing his bicep. I finally noticed the fine stitching scar marks he’d put at various places on his exposed limbs. I couldn’t decide if his makeup or the werewolf’s was better. I’d put money on either of them to win the costume contest.

At the same time, the mummy would give them a run for that money. He (I assumed it was a he), looked ancient. The bandages in which he was wrapped looked to be authentic linen, although they appeared to be so well aged that they were dusty and brittle. They were more patchwork than I would have expected, although all the colors were extremely faded, ranging from pale gray that might’ve been white at some point, to ruddy brown, to sea foam green, to a tired royal blue. The parts of his skin that were exposed were dry and wrinkled, resembling the wavy sand dunes from whence his namesake certainly originated.

The only thing that ruined the illusion for me was the fact that the poor old guy obviously couldn’t hear. No, if there was anything other than simple presentation in the costume contest, he wouldn’t be winning it.

“Who gets worse every year, sweetie?” the mummy named Merkha said to Amanda. “And aren’t you just the spitting image of my good friend Mandy the Witch?”

“YOU get worse every year, duh. And I AM your good friend Mandy the Witch.” Amanda the witch said to him, with a gentler tone in her voice that I’d expected. I think she genuinely cared about the old guy, although I couldn’t imagine them actually being good friends given the difference in their ages. She took his hand, all the same, and patted it affectionately.

“Aha! Zere it is!” Vasile exclaimed, picking something up off the ground. He’d apparently located the missing vape stick, and, putting it to his lips, inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. He blew the vapor back over his shoulder, and I was shocked to see it coalesce into a vaguely human form.

“Hi everyone, sorry I’m late!”

“Bonnie!” everyone except me cried in unison. It reminded me of the “Norm!” greeting the bar crowd from “Cheers” used to give to that beloved character. But… was I imagining things? Had the lack of food, drink, and high amounts of stress during the day finally gotten to me? The thing that was taking a seat next to me was definitely NOT corporeal.

“Hit me again, would you Vas?” Bonnie said, which prompted the vampire to take another long drag but this time exhale in a slower, steadier pace. The vapor seemed to fill in the form of an ethereal lady with long, flowing hair and a slightly tired-looking face. She gave me a smile and introduced herself.

“Hello there, I’m Bonnie. Excuse me if I don’t shake your hand, but… it’s a skill I never quite mastered.”

Her appearance here must’ve been an elaborate trick, some kind of laser light show setup. If so, Bonnie was a shoo-in for the costume contest, despite the competition around this table.

“Well, Bonnie,” I said, “I’ve got to admit: As impressed as I am with everyone’s costumes, yours is the clear winner. No offense to anyone else,” I said, my gaze drifting around the table, “but however you’re doing this clearly deserves to win the prize.”

Bonnie smiled at me, and the smile seemed full of a sadness that I couldn’t understand. “Thank you. That’s one of the reasons we came here this year.”

“Oh? You guys aren’t locals?”

“Bro, does this town look like a place where we could party on a regular basis?” T.M. asked, giving me a friendly slap on the back that almost sent me sprawling across the low table. Vasile caught me as I flew forward, moving at an inhuman speed, and helped me back to my chair. As he did, I noticed that his eyes were actually glowing, faintly radiating reds, oranges, and yellows, as if fire was kindling in his irises.

“So, where are you guys from?” I asked, straightening myself up as I tried to recollect my calm. The sense that something wasn’t right was growing in me moment by moment.

“Aw over,” Morrie the werewolf replied. “We shuid nae get aheid o’ oorselves. Let’s do proper introductions. I’m Morag, or Morrie, an I’m originally from Scotland.”

The giant beside me went next. “I’m The Monster, but bros call me T.M.. I’m from England. At least, Doc Frankenstein said so. I’m not really where were all of me is from originally, but all of me is bro at this point, dude!”

“And I,” the vampire next to me said, “am Vasile, originally from ze Transylvanian region of Romania.”

Bonnie was next. “I’m from Ireland, although I think I’ve finally lost my accent.”

There was a pause in the introductions as the focus went to the mummy. Finally, he said, “What?”

“We’re doing introductions,” said Amanda.

“Oh! Sorry about that. Let’s see. I’m…” he looked to Amanda for help.

“Murkha,” she whispered to him.

“Yes! That’s it. Murkha. I’m from Egypt! And I’m old! Frighteningly old!” He raised his wrapped arms and hands towards me, wriggling his fingers, as a whispery “oooOOOooo” slipped out of his mouth. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Did that scare you at all?” he asked.

“A little. The ‘oooOOOooo’ was pretty creepy.”

Murkha smiled in a self-satisfied way, leaning back in his chair as he crossed his arms over his chest. “See? Still got it, you whipper-snappers! Take notes! This was a free lesson from the master!” He closed his eyes and seemed to doze off immediately.

Amanda shook her head, a smile playing across her lips as well. “And I’m Amanda, originally from the Valley, but, like, WAY before it was the Valley.”

As they finished their introductions, I realized there were only three serious options.

1. They were some kind of acting troupe and were pulling my leg in a big way.

2. They were some band of escaped lunatics that thought they were classic Halloween monsters.

3. They WERE classic Halloween monsters.

I was about to challenge them with these thoughts and demand to know what was going on when I heard the intro to “Thriller” blaring over the loudspeaker from the main drag. Apparently I wasn’t too far away from it despite my stumbling about.

“WHAT? WHAT’S THAT?” yelled Murkha the Mummy, who had apparently turned down his hearing aid again.

“It’s time to go to the contest,” Amanda replied as she waved her hand to adjust his hearing aid again, helping Murkha to his feet at the same time. The rest of the group rose and headed toward the door.

“Zat’s definitely our cue,” Vasile said. “We really do enjoy ze costume contests. It’s one of ze main criteria we use to select where to gazzer each year.” Vasile took my hand and shook it in what would have been considered a warm manner if his touch weren’t ice cold at this point.

“Nice to meet you, lad,” Morrie the werewolf said, giving me a toothy, wolfish smile.

“Later, bro!” T.M., The Monster called to me, offering me another friendly wave.

“Like, good chatting with you,” Amanda the Witch said.

“Yes! Take care, lad!” Murkha said. I also heard him ask “Who was that, again?” of Amanda as they headed out.

“Thank you for spending a moment with us. It’s so rare in these times to get to do that,” Bonnie the Banshee said to me. I noticed that she was evaporating as she exited, but Vasile gave her another puff to refresh her countenance.

I watched them walk back toward the main drag as a group, and felt a kinship with them unlike I’d felt with anyone in a very, VERY long time. I only hesitated a moment before making a decision, grabbing my backpack, and jogging out of the tavern to catch up with them.

“Hey everybody! Wait up! Would you mind if I tagged along with you?”

They stopped in their tracks, and as one, turned back to me, mouths agape. Their collective surprise warmed my heart so much that a huge grin forced its way onto my face. As it did, a rustling came from my backpack.

“I… I’m not sure you understand—” began Bonnie.

“Oh, I understand,” I replied as I dug the undying carved turnip from my backpack and moved to the front of the group. The turnip’s faint glow illuminated the path ahead as I started walking slowly toward the main drag. “I never got a chance to introduce myself. I’m Jack. Jack o’ the Lantern. Very pleased to meet all of you!”

Monday, July 30, 2018

A quiet couple of months... not a bad thing, provided your status quo is at least "good enough." Our summer has been full of idleness, aside from work.

OK, that's not quite true. The main regular summer activities so far have consisted of:

  • Reading: I've finished about 5 books since summer began, which is below my regular pace. I'm not working very hard to get to "the goal" this year, instead reading for pure leisure.
  • Writing: I actually put a few lines in a journal almost every day BY HAND. You might recall that I purchased a few fountain pens (although I've not actually made a blog entry about them, I don't think), and am putting them to good use. I've also managed to write a really silly short story for the annual gathering of my college buddies. It is quite ridiculous, so I obviously enjoyed writing it immensely.
  • Gaming: D&D is on hold for now, but we gamed through June, and the Transformers game is still going strong. And then there are the other games, board and card, which we regularly play. Gaming is a bigger thing this year than in years past.
  • Coding games: I've got a couple in process, although this one is probably as done as it's going to get: Have a go at it and let me know what you think. 
There is a collection of other activities as well, but we'll leave those be for the time being. Suffice to say that we continue to be here and mostly busy.

And remind me to tell you about my sprained ankle, but let's wait until next week for that...

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Spring Vacacay (con't (con't))

The plans for our final day of fun had been left deliberately vague, since we knew we were doing a hike that might leave us in a less-than-able state. We were, indeed, sore on getting up and moving around a bit, and decided that another vigorous hike was probably beyond us. As well, an extended drive would not be very comfortable, so that meant that Point Reyes was out. Then Tanya suggested Rodeo Beach, which we had been to before and liked quite a bit. I was immediately sold. We packed up a picnic lunch and set off.

The drive to Rodeo Beach is kind of fun. There's a one-way tunnel that you have to wait on, so getting there requires patience and dedication. Beyond that tunnel, you drive through Fort Cronkhite, a World War II mobilization post, one of the few remaining in the United States at this point.

The beach was more crowded than we'd ever seen it. Luckily, it had been mostly abandoned the other times we'd visited, so the only thing that was really in short supply was viable parking. We managed to find an empty parking spot about a quarter mile from the beachhead, parked, then made our way to the beach.

Breezier than expected!
The beach itself is not very large, but has decent waves and good opportunities to climb to some overlooks. We opted not to climb anywhere; instead, we found a spot to the left of the bridge pictured above, set up our towels (which, when combined, made for a serviceable blanket), and started laying about.

Nice place to lay about!
The wind kept the day interesting from the comfort perspective, but otherwise, it was simply perfect. I don't think I've got the skill to describe what it's like to just sit on a beach for a few hours and do absolutely nothing but gaze out at the ocean, listen to the waves and wind, and watch a few people splash around, surf a bit, and build sandcastles that their puppy dogs would inevitably knock over. I pretended to read, but the truth is, I just sat there for the most part. It's more than relaxing -- closer to meditative than that. I loved our afternoon on the beach just as much as the hike the day before.
Tanya needed a new phone background. This might be a keeper!
There were even a few people there with kites. Unfortunately, the pictures with the kites turned out looking like little specs of birds up in the sky, which should give you an idea of how far up they were. I distinctly heard one guy say that he'd let out the entire line, which for a conventional kite was probably 120 feet or so. The one we were most interested in looked exactly like a shark, except for the fact that when it was 120 feet up in the sky, it resembled nothing more so than a large black bird.

Looking at kites, making duck faces.
Eventually, the sun descended enough for the chill in the constant breeze to become slightly uncomfortable. That, and we ran out of snacks. We reluctantly decided to pack up and head back to the rental, knowing that this was the last excursion on what had been a short but supremely sweet Spring Vacacay.

The entire set of adventures went well beyond our expectations. I'm not sure which one I liked best. They each fulfilled a very different kind of need, and the diversity kept us well entertained. Given the chance to do it again, in exactly the same way, I would, no question.

And we really don't have a summer vacacay scheduled, although I do have a company trip to Denver during the first week of August, so you never know... ;)

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Spring Vacacay (con't)

Day 2 of 3 dawned bright and early. I mean that literally. San Rafael is far enough north that the beginnings of summertime mean the planet's axial tilt is sharp enough to allow the sun to rise at least an hour earlier than I'm accustomed to. The result was an unexpected beauty at 05:15. The saving grace was that San Rafael is also two hours behind our normal timezone, so it felt like 07:15.

We got out fairly early the second day. Our destination was Stinson Beach and some of the hiking trails around it. The area was breezy and cool, which was counted as a good omen. The planned route was a little ambitious at about 9 miles, considering that we hadn't done any hiking any recent months, and we still weren't sure how well our knees would hold up. Despite any reservations we might've been secretly harboring, we ventured forth with smiles on our faces and hope in our hiking hearts!

The fools didn't know what they were in for...
The first trail we took (Dispsea Trail) led up the mountain. What we didn't realize was that there was a race of some kind on that trail in the opposite direction, coming down the mountain. As such, we wound up spending a decent amount of time on the ascent standing respectfully aside for runners, some of which had clearly taken tumbles during the race. One poor girl looked like she'd been on the losing end of a prize fight. Her slow and staggering descent served as a solemn reminder of yet another reason to NEVER RUN A RACE EVER AGAIN EVER!

The area is heavily wooded and wonderful to walk through. I've always liked the color of light as it makes its way through the foliage to the forest floor. I especially like it when its also illuminating a certain Tanya...

Seriously, have you ever seen anything so lovely? The woods are nice too.
After a couple of hours on this trail, we made it to the top of the mountain. The ascent had been a gradual 1500 feet or so, and we felt pretty good after making it up. It was even cooler and breezier at the top of the mountain; I wish this blogging software supported video better (or at all without hacking the html), because I've got a cool clip of the fog rolling around through the trees, sounding exactly like rain.

One quick note: there were lots of bicyclers at the top as well, although they all seemed to be street bikers. Driving up those winding roads was challenging enough. Riding up them is something I couldn't be paid to do.

The path back down was along Matt Davis Trail, and it was dramatic and even breath-taking in places. The air was still quite foggy despite the strong breeze, so the trail felt very empty as well as mysterious. I'll stop telling and start showing a little.

That's fog, not sky. What's over that ridge?!
Surprise! It was a bunch more fog!
The fog wasn't at a constant level; it flowed over the landscape here while rising above us there. It almost seemed to stick to the tops of some of the trees.

Three hairs and some air to paint all this!
(If you don't understand that caption, I urge you to watch more Bob Ross)

The path on this trail wandered in an out of the trees quite a bit. The fog obscured our view anytime we were in the open, and gave re-entering the trees a slightly ominous feeling.

No, that's OK -- you can go first, honey.
After another couple of hours of walking through this, our legs were shaky, but we emerged from the mists and made it back to the beach!

Civilization! Well, as civilized as Stinson Beach can be...
For anyone that has access to this area and hasn't walked it, I STRONGLY encourage you to do so. It was one of the coolest walks I've been on, and I would love to do it again. We actually considered going back there the next day, but quickly realized two things: first, we were going to be sore and foot-tender after today's walk, and second, we had other outings to attend to.

Last stop: Rodeo Beach!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Spring Vacacay!

Followers of this blog might have noticed a trend forming over the past several years: spring expeditions to fun/interesting/outdoors-y locations. In 2014, we went hiking in Utah. 2015 took us to southern California for work, but we got out a little bit. 2016 was a Seattle adventure, and 2017 was the huge London blowout. This year, we really didn't think we were going to go anywhere. Work schedules were such that it didn't appear to be in the cards. Then, Tanya's company unexpectedly scheduled an offsite in northern California (south of San Francisco), which was going to wrap up on a Thursday. We realized we could make a long weekend of it, and our Spring Vacacay tradition was saved!


After spending several days writing Wifeless Husband Haikus, I joined Tanya in sunny San Francisco. We drove north to San Rafael, where we had booked a VRBO with a Prince theme. You think I'm kidding, but I'm not -- Prince stuff was everywhere. I wish I'd taken a picture of the gate, because it had the Prince symbol on it. As it is, I'll leave you with this photo, from the living room looking into the bedroom.

Pringles are ours, not Prince's. Also not shown: all of the purple LED lighting.
First days for us typically entail getting to the lodgings, finding a place to eat, and getting to the grocery and sundries store. The rental was amazing well-provisioned, meaning we didn't have any essential sundries to pick up -- only breakfast foods and snacks.

We headed out for dinner. The evening meal was provided by Chalet Basque, which was a lucky find in that it was only a mile or two from the rental. Tummies full, we procured groceries for breakfast and some other things we'd be taking on our hike(s), and a bottle of wine, because how can you not have a bottle of wine at all times this close to wine country?


A quick note on breakfast: we typically take breakfasts at the rental. This one had a very pleasing view, so on the first morning we were there, we decided to have breakfast on the patio. Some folks might not find it to be worth the effort; those folks would be wrong.

Eggs, bacon, tea, and english muffins with butter and jam. EVERY MORNING PLEASE!!

Wine Country

The first real day of Spring Vacacay was centered around a sojourn into wine country. 

Napa or Sonoma? Why not both! :-D

We had scheduled a wine and food pairing for early lunch at St. Francis Winery in Sonoma Valley and arrived in time to take a short stroll around the grounds.
I was told there would be food here...?
Someone is pretty clever with reflections!
Lunch was five wines, each paired with a thoughtfully, elegantly, and excellently prepared food course. I could have had more of each (yes, food AND wine). If you're the kind of person that likes the idea of going to wine country but doesn't particularly want to drive (or get driven) to a bunch of separate tasting rooms, I strongly suggest something like this. Over the course of a couple of hours, we got to have good conversation, learn about the wine and the chef's processes, and enjoy foods and wines in ways we wouldn't have otherwise. Two sloshy thumbs up, would consume again!

Our next destination was Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley. Yes, it's a real, Tuscan-style castle, and was very crowded when we arrived. Apparently a lot of other people had the same idea we did -- go to wine country on a Friday afternoon and tootle around a castle.

Roses and dragons and castles! Oh my!

Thanks to my impeccable timing, we got there 45 minutes before our guided tour and tasting was supposed to begin. But, as luck would have it, when we checked in the greeter asked us if we wanted to upgrade to the cheese and wine pairing tour for a few extra bucks. They had an opening for two people on the tour that was supposed to start five minutes later, so I think we got a slight discount. We, of course, said yes. As I've already stated: wine and food are vastly superior to just wine.

Our guide had been at the winery almost since the beginning, so she knew everything about everything there. The castle was constructed from stones imported from Italy (not entirely, but in lots of places), all of the metalwork was done by an actual Italian blacksmith, all of the artwork was done by Italian artists, etc.

Hand-painted walls, hand-forged fixtures... 
Our fearless guide, and knower of all the things!
The owner loves dragons!

The castle had four levels above ground and four below. All of the barrels, as you may have guessed, were below ground. It's a veritable maze down there! If you got lost, at least you'd not get thirsty!

Barrels for days!
As the tour ended, we were led to a private tasting room where we partook of particularly fine wine and cheese. The pairings were supposed to be either "compare" or "contrast." Instead, we all tried all of them -- all the wines, all the cheeses, and adored them all.

From the inner courtyard. The private tasting room is in the lower right.
Maybe the most surprising thing we learned is that we actually like some ros├ęs, and for me, the darker, the better!

Upon finishing with this winery, we realized there was a mountain drive near where we were, and we love those kinds of views. Unfortunately for us, there were no scenic overlooks. If you wanted to get that view, you had to earn it by parking and hiking. Given that we were already planning to hike the next day, we decided to call it a day.

As an aside: we originally had dinner reservations in Sonoma, but by the time we'd finished eating a large lunch and just south of a ton of crackers and cheese along with an un-disclosable amount of wine, we realized that we weren't going to be hungry for dinner. Rather than force another fine meal on ourselves, we went back to the rental and snacked a little later in the evening. Lesson learned -- late dinner reservations are a necessity when lunching in wine country.

Next up: Hiking!

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Half Marathon That Wasn't

The last time I mentioned "running" in this blog, it was July of 2017 (Summer Running). In that entry, I mentioned that we were preparing for the Rock 'n Roll Half Marathon, which was held on March 25th of this year. As it turns out, we did not run that race, and the lessons learned leading up to the race are probably worth mentioning, if for no other reason than as a cautionary tale for anyone that has dreams of running any moderate- or long-distance races.

November 25, 2017, Plano Pacers Turkey Runoff

This was the first preparatory race Tanya and I ran. It was a short distance on purpose -- we wanted to try something pretty informal and not too taxing for our first race experience. Full disclosure: I ran track in high school (although, admittedly, not very well), and had even run a 5k a couple years prior. Even so, it was good to get some race-centric jitters worked out. How'd I do, you ask?

Faster than a herd of turtles!

I felt really good about these results. It was the fastest time I'd ever run for a 5k, and I felt like I could have gone even faster. As a result of this race, both Tanya and I looked forward to the half marathon. We still had four months to train, had an ambitious plan of how to get there, and were positive things would work out fantastically.

February 3, 2018, Hot Chocolate 15k

Then the bad times started. We were training along pretty well, considering it was winter. Twelve runs in December, varying in duration and intensity. The longest run that month was just under 10k, which seemed pretty good to me, given our next race was a 15k. Then, on January 4, about thirty minutes into our run, I felt something go wacky with my right calf. What I first thought was a cramp turned out to be a mild strain, which I further aggravated by not allowing it to heal. I tried running again on January 11, and it tightened up again after twenty minutes. I realized I wasn't right, and took a longer break. I still wanted to try to run the 15k, but was pretty skeptical that I'd have the legs for it. On January 24, I did a very easy, 30-minute run, and felt just fine at 13:30/mile. A few days later, I ran 10k at that same, slow pace, and still felt fine. The 15k was a week away. Given that I felt OK, I figured I'd give it a try, just at a really slow pace.

I won't keep you in suspense. The race went better than I expected. It was ridiculously chilly in the morning when we got there, but by the time we were running, I was plenty warm.

Finished! And still upright!
That was a long race. It was 5k further than I'd ever run, and I was pretty beat. I managed 11:00/mile, which was way faster than I thought I'd be able to run. And, as with the 5k, the results left me very hopeful about the half marathon. We still had almost two months to train, after all.

March 25, 2018: Rock 'n Roll Half Marathon

Given the amount of time we had left, we needed to increase our mileage by about a mile per week. Tanya had a plan all mapped out that would make it happen. The only problem was, she was starting to feel twinges of pain in her knee. On longer runs, she'd get 8 miles in and have to pull up. I was also having trouble getting extra miles in. February 27th's run of ~8 miles was pretty challenging, but I managed to complete it at the slower ~13 min/mile pace. The following weekend, the long run ended for me at 7.85 miles (12:46 pace). I was beginning to think I wasn't going to be able to get the mileage in, that my legs just couldn't take the pounding. Tanya's knee was continuing to bother her as well.

Our last long run in preparation for the half marathon was on March 17th. I only made it a little longer than 5 miles in (11:40 pace) before I had to stop from calf cramping. I felt like it really was a cramp instead of a strain, but didn't want to take any chances. Tanya, on the other hand, ran for another almost 4 miles before she was forced to stop. Her knee wasn't going to allow her to run any further. With the half marathon only eight days away, we realized we weren't going to make it. Or, rather, that we could try to make it, but it would be foolish to potentially injure ourselves any more than we already had in order to try any particular race around Dallas.

Lessons Learned

So, in the end, we didn't run the race, and actually took three weeks off from running in an effort to allow for better recovery. Even after that, Tanya's knee was still bothering her some. We've decided to switch our exercise routines to be more core-centric and work on flexibility and strength.

So what did we learn?

  • Give yourself LOTS of time to prepare. Our training plans ranged from twelve to sixteen weeks. Set aside at least that amount of time. And expect that you'll miss a bit, so you might give yourself an extra week or two just in case.
  • Stick to the plan. Do the workouts -- ALL of them. If the plan says to run four times a week, don't skip what you think might be an unnecessary recovery run. If the plan says to cross train on your off day, do it. Don't take that day off. These plans are typically created by people that know what they're doing. Don't think you know better than them about the training plan (although you certainly know more about how your body is reacting to the plan, and you might need to tap the brake or accelerator accordingly).
  • Don't short circuit the plan. We knew we were going to have to cut corners in order to get the mileage in for the half marathon, and it just didn't work. Instead, we should have a) started training earlier, or b) picked a race that was further out. Our bodies simply couldn't adapt/adjust/recover quickly enough, and in the end it injured us. Speaking of...
  • Injuries happen. When you push your body, bad things can happen to it. This is more true of people that aren't accustomed to rigorous training, but are working up to it. When injuries happen, deal with any disappointment you might have in not meeting your goal, but allow yourself to heal and recover. There's no race for which the reward is worth permanently hurting yourself that I know of. Then again, I'm not very imaginative about these things. However, being able to walk comfortably in my golden years is more important to me than getting a piece of cheesy metal today.
  • Short distance is our style. We feel like 5 and 10k races are probably about as much as we want to run, with the occasional 15k thrown in for good measure, once we've gotten back into the habit of running regularly. 
To the last point above, the Hot Chocolate was definitely worth running. After the race, you get a bunch of chocolate and marshmallows and stuff. And during the race, they have hot chocolate at the aide stations. And, once we feel like our bodies can handle it, we'll start running again. As I said last year, running in Texas in the summer is a bit like going to a sauna and doing high-knees instead of just sweating -- it's not impossible, but it's certainly less than ideal.

Maybe we'll wait until autumn to start running again... :-D

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Do NOT use Agile! (sometimes)

A good friend of mine received some distressing news recently. Her client was "migrating" to Agile methodologies, and wanted to use Agile to run their project. She had a theoretical understanding of what Agile is, but no practical idea of how to implement it. She asked if we could talk through it, and I agreed.

The discussion was really frustrating. About three minutes into the description of her project (including the people and politics involved), I realized that an Agile approach to their project was fraught with peril. It reminded me of something that you won't hear me say very much: there are times when it is a BAD idea to use Agile, or at least, unnecessary to do so if there's any organizational inertia.

Let's cover a couple of non-negative situations where Agile isn't a necessity to successful project delivery.

Short Projects

Projects that would typically encompass only one or two Agile iterations are probably easily handled via any methodology. As such, don't feel like you have to jump through all the ceremonial and artifact-centric hoops that are required for most Agile approaches. To be clear, you CAN run these projects in an Agile manner, but it's not necessary. Note that software package/solution spikes fall into this category for me (since they take anywhere from a day to a couple of weeks at most).

Simple Projects

A short project isn't necessarily simple, and a long project isn't necessarily complex. I'm defining "simple" projects as projects that are solving problems that have already been solved in well-known ways, or projects whose outcomes aren't very important. R&D projects might fall into this category. For me, secondary ETL projects are commonly in this category: a client needs to add a new data feed to an extant data stream, and the input mechanism is going to be the same as the original one. This is probably pretty simple, and doesn't mandate an Agile approach.

Fixed Triple Constraints Projects

For projects where each side of the triple constraint triangle are truly fixed, Agile approaches aren't necessary. Contracts with governmental agencies might be this way, for example. Projects where the budget is fixed with a hard deadline and a specific scope can succeed with a Waterfall approach. I would still argue that the team *could* improve delivery iteratively via introspection and subsequent changes, but the project could still be successfully delivered without this.

Alright, now let's get into the less happy reasons to avoid Agile. Note that none of the following reasons are indictments -- Agile practitioners should also be pragmatists, and that's where these observations come from.

Teams Lacking An Agile Spirit

Not everyone can embrace change. Not everyone is confident enough to be kindly yet firmly honest with their teammates. Not everyone cares enough to do more than "their share." Not everyone wants to take on the responsibility of self-direction and organization. That's all OK -- Agile really isn't for everyone. If you have team members that are REALLY against Agile practices, it might not be worth trying. Or, you could see if there is another team on which those folks would fit better (which would be my advise). However, sometimes there aren't *any* teams that want to do Agile, because...

Organizations Lacking An Agile Spirit

Some organizations hear about Agile, send people to training, and then try to become Agile by using all of the Agile tools without understanding that Agile is a way of thinking about solving problems and interacting with people. Most of the organizations I've gone into trying to do Agile transformations (moving from traditional to Agile approaches) fall into this unfortunate category. They try to fit their current roles into Agile role titles. They try to create a Gantt chart on an Agile information radiator. They don't understand that Agile is about doing something fundamentally different, and instead fall into the trap of doing something operationally familiar with new tools.

Organizations Where Agile Has No C-Level Support

If you want to make a transformation from traditional to Agile project approaches, you *have to* have high-level executive support. The change is painful for most organizations, and there is typically incredible inertia in every aspect. Having someone high up that can mandate the changes until they are done makes this more possible. The fundamental problem with Agile approaches when no muckety muck is directing the change is that too many people/things in the organization can accidentally or intentionally sabotage the efforts.

Back to the discussion with my friend...

We wound up going through the twelve principles described in the Agile Manifesto. The groups involved with her project could legitimately enact a couple of them, had a chance of adhering to a couple more, but would absolutely fail to adhere to at least half of them. If you an go through that list and be honest about your ability to live them out, you should have a pretty good idea of whether your project is a good candidate for an Agile approach. At the very least, you'll have lots of good talking points about places/things you'll need to change in order to do Agile projects in the future.

In my friend's case, I suspect that the client mainly wanted to "do Agile" with them because they wanted visibility into why it took so long and cost so much to do what I would classify as "simple" projects. I advised my friend to talk to the client and ask if they simply wanted to be on some daily standups to see where the churn happens. Something as simple as that might satisfy the client without having to do a full-blown Agile implementation. I haven't heard back yet, but suspect that this is the track they will follow.

So the next time someone unexpectedly wants to do an Agile project with you, take the time to make sure it's a good candidate. Look for the pitfalls of team and organizational challenges. If the project clears the Agile principles pretty well, go for it. If not, it's worth more discussion before launching into an Agile approach that might've been doomed from the start...

Saturday, January 13, 2018

My Year in Books (according to Goodreads)

Apparently I'm starting a trend. Last year I didn't intend to have my first post of the year be the book-reading summary. This year, I totally intended it. I'm going to post the things that Goodreads reported as well as my own accounting where I disagree with them.

This marks my second full year of participation in Goodread's reading challenge. My goal this year wasn't as aggressive as last year though. I only aimed to get 50 books read by year's end. Let's see how I did! (As was done last year, I've snipped graphics from Goodreads and pasted them here. Thanks Goodreads!)

Made it!
My goal was 50; I read 55. Yay! However, the page count here is wrong. As it turns out, Goodreads lists the page counts for some book mediums strangely, especially ebooks. The page count I calculated after some manual research was actually 19,684. This is still a large mark down from last year's totals of 65 books and 23,442 pages.

With an average length!
This one is also slightly off. The three largest books I read this year were:
It turns out I hadn't populated the end date for Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell, so even though it was in my Finished list, and it seemed to count in the reading challenge, it didn't show up as a contender in the longest book competition. Last year's largest book was a paltry 736 pages (Bag of Bones by Stephen King).

For more reference, the three smallest books I read were:
Two books of poetry and one philosophical tome were my three shortest books? What does that say about art and thought? :-| One other quick note: the copy of Tao Te Ching I read was a translation by Ursula Le Guin, and was REALLY well done. If you're at all interested, I highly recommend getting a copy.

For comparison, the shortest actual book I read last year was The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman (72 pages), followed closely by The Road Not Taken and Other Poems by Robert Frost (81 pages). Another Robert Frost book! I suppose I should find a third one to put into the list for this year. ;-)

Given that one of the largest books was missing from the Goodreads calculation, the Average Length was actually 364 pages. For reference, the median book page-count-wise was Walden by Henry David Thoreau, at 352 pages.

That's all I'm going to include from the Goodreads stats. If you're interested in the full page, here's the link to the Goodreads summary. From here on out, it's custom graphs. Buckle up!

Orange and gray graphs!

Good grief, this chart is all over the place this year. There was a month where I didn't finish ANY book at all (April), right in between a 6-month and 7-month set. To be fair, it just so happens that I started some large books in April and finished a couple in May (including Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell).

No outliers this year!
Last year, I read SEVEN Brandon Sanderson books. This year only thirteen books had shared authors, which means that I read books from 45 different authors. That seems like a good thing!

Interestingly, I read just as many books by Amber Benson as Jim Butcher this year (three each). I did that because I knew I was going to meet her at HawaiiCon, and I'm glad I did. Not only did we get to talk about writing a bit, but Amber's a fantastic author that plays with mythology in at least one of her series and also writes collaboratively with other authors, all of which I'm interested in. You should check her out if you have the chance. She's on break from social media (not counting Instagram), but you can have a look at her Goodreads page.

Also in the honorable mention position are Neil Gaiman and Matt Carson. Matt is a friend of mine that is trying to become a traditionally published author. In the meantime, he's going the all-Amazon route. I highly recommend his work, especially his book of short fictions called Strange Reports From Sector M. If you like scifi, you should definitely get a copy. I suggest the printed version, because it was one of the few printed books I read this year. :-)

mmmmmm... pie...
Ah, the return of the book media distribution! How I've missed you, pie chart! Since I don't commute to work anymore, my Audible consumption has gone down as a percentage. That being said, I still listen to books almost as often as I read them. I tend to listen to books while I'm working out in the mornings or driving to pick up the boys. Kindle won the day with 23 of the 55 books, but actually reading as opposed to listening totaled 35 of 55. That's a big piece of pie!

And that was my year in books. I've entered the challenge again this year, and strongly encourage you to do so as well. Goodreads is a wonderful tool that provides a social aspect that I generally underutilize. If you're on Goodreads and we're not pals there, look me up at this link.

This year I'm trying to get to 60 books. So far, I've finished one and am reading three others. Technically, I'm on track, but two of the three I'm currently reading are 700+ and 1000+ pages. Wish me luck! And see you there!!