“And some folks say, he’s up there still” 2

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Nevada falls     A colleague of mine–to whom I will forever be grateful—had taken up the mantle of advisor and revived the high school backpacking and outdoor club. She organized the field-trip and I was invited to go along as part of the staff contingent. Though excited, I was apprehensive. It had been nearly twenty years since I’d last hiked in altitude, and I was no longer in the shape I was. I had gained 100 pounds, developed a “bad” knee and lost nearly all of my stamina. All week I brooded on whether or not I should bow out. Prom is next weekend, I thought; I could use this weekend to work on associated projects. I have tons of grading to do; I could get it done on Saturday. My mother was–and is–sick; she might need me for something. I had moved multiple times and couldn’t find my hiking gear (particularly my boots).
     Friday after school, however, I ended up purchasing a few items and settled on using my day-hikers–don’t let that fool you; I hadn’t used them in true anger for years. I continued to wrestle with cancelling almost until my alarm rang at 03:00. As it was, I arrived a bit late, but just a bit before the last person boarded the bus. It was only when I’d settled into my seat, that I decided I was going.
     When we stopped at the Yosemite vista-point and took our group photo, I truly comprehended the endeavor’s scope. Back in the day, it had been myself, one other advisor and never more than a dozen students on our pack trips. Small numbers were a guideline set down by CDF and we had followed it religiously. This, being a day-hike and not an over-nighter, was different and a massive affair. Nearly 45 students and a dozen staff were on this gig. Hat’s off to Ms. C. for ramrodding the event. I felt wanted to do everything I could to help make it a successful endeavor, as well as, personally make it to the end of the trail.
     When we finally arrived at the Vernal Falls trail-head, my apprehension was full blown. As I pulled on my knee brace and broke out the trekking poles, I wished my wife was there to give me her much appreciated encouragement. As it was, I offered a quick prayer to Yeshua and put my game face on. One of my former students turned District After School Program employee, Carlos, must have seen something pretty grim there because as we hit the trail, he sidled up to me and said, “Don’t worry, Mr. P., I’ll help you with whatever you need. You need me to carry something, you let me know.”
     I had to bit my lip not to joke, how ’bout carrying me?
     I knew I was in trouble the moment we truly started moving. The pace, set by the healthy young men and women and adults who were in seriously better shape than I, was brutal. By the time we started to ascend, I was far behind the others, many of whom were glancing back at me with both speculative and worried looks. After a few more yards, I had to stop. I was sucking and blowing like a billows. I couldn’t get enough air. Panic washed over me and left me sweating and embarrassed. One of my companions, a very nice counselor from the junior high, stopped and waited for me to catch my breath. Our group was nearly out of sight.
     “Don’t stay for me; I’m not sure, I can do this. In fact, my leg is hurting already and I’m short of breath; I’m going to go back to basecamp take a nap or just kick it for the rest of the day with Mrs. LW (a high school counselor who had volunteered to have lunch prepped when the kids finished their hike).”
     “Are you sure?” he asked. “Do you need help getting back?”
     “Naw. I’m sure,” I said. “Go on; I can find my way. No worries.”
     “Well, alright. See you later…”
     “Yep.”
     He nodded farewell and headed on up the trail.
     “Be sure to tell the others (staff), I’ve gone back,” I called after him. I then turned to find my way to the Swinging Bridge basecamp.
     My spirit screamed and my heart wept. My emotions began to travel a well trodden path to around a familiar dark pool in my mind. Why had I let things go?! Why had I neglect my health?! Why hadn’t I gone more into the mountains more often?! Why didn’t I even mountain-bike any more?! Why, instead of carrying-on, had I let my pain dictate a psychologically unsound course. All these thoughts and more rose up from the depths of the pool like bubbles. With each step my heart grew heavier and my emotions spiraled further. I thought about how some of my students would return from the hike and ask “…what happened, Mr. P.?” or worse, politely say nothing but have that look of pity for an old man in their eyes. I’d have to tell my wife, I hadn’t made it. What would she say? I’d have to admit to what the district has been working so hard to make my believe: you’re too old for this–make way for the young.
     I stopped dead in my tracks. Wait a bloody minute. First, I thought, you’re making stuff up in your head that hasn’t happened and most likely won’t…unless you want it too. This is the same stuff you warn the kids about all the time. Time to put the brakes on, bro! Second, you no longer have to worry about them worrying about you; they think you’ve headed back, so you’re free to hike at your own pace. At least make an attempt, I remonstrated myself, and if your knee truly screams “halt!” or you feel like you’re going to die gawping like a beached fish, you can turn back.
     I reversed direction and started after the horde.
     During the approach to the lower falls, I had to stop for a breather just about every 50 paces depending on the incline. My heart was hammering. I could see my chest bouncing. Unbidden, headlines flashed in my head: “High School Teacher Dies of Heart Failure On Yosemite Field-trip.” At least it’s a pretty location, I mentally responded. When I’d caught my breath and began again, it was with a “Hoka-hey” today-is-a-good-day-to-die mentality. At least it wouldn’t be in a bed hooked up to machines, I thought as I paced off another 50 steps and halted once again. That became my rhythm for the rest of the adventure: 50+ paces, pull off the trail, huff and puff, mumble a “Hoka-hey,” and maneuver back into trail traffic for another 50 paces.
     Being it was Yosemite, one of the true wonders of the world and, more significantly, one open to the public, trail-traffic was horrendous. Because I was slow, I had to pull over a lot for faster moving tourists. It had been a long time, but I can honestly say, I have never seen worse trail-etiquette in my life. Groups of people were walking abreast taking up the whole trail; folks stopping dead in the middle of the trail to adjust a strap, check phones, dig into a backpack or adjust the volume on their backpack speakers (yes, that’s right, not headphones, bloody speakers!) without looking over their shoulders; children running pellmell down the trail dodging adults while their parents called half-heartedly after them to stop. Bad stuff. More than once I had to rein-in my teacher voice and the urge to start calling folk on it. I found myself fervently wishing I could speak the various languages I was hearing, so I could ask people to turn down their backpack speakers, get down off the railing, stop trying to feed the deer or “…make a hole!”
     Lower Vernal Falls was a zoo as tourists on the bridge jockeyed for a shot of their compadres posing before the Upper Falls in the background. This was as far as many of them would go (thank the gods) as the trail forward to the upper falls was wetter, steeper and harder. I will say here and now, emphatically, and for the record that people are stupid…I state this as someone who knows fully well that their blog-post is essentially dedicated to his own stupidity. That being said…
     Witness the folks out on the rocks above the lower falls, dipping their feet into the rushing torrent, not ten paces from a warning sign which quoted a grief stricken mother who lost her sons over the falls in 2012 as saying her children had been “…only wading…”
     Witness the parent trying to entice the possibly diseased squirrel with bread for her children to pet.
     Witness the fools trying to drink directly from the river instead of the giardia-free drinking fountain thoughtfully and purposefully supplied by the park service.
     Witness the girl cutting trail over mist-slicked granite never thinking that if she happened to lose control and bump anyone on the way down, they’re in for a ten to 20′ fall on to solid rock.
     Witness the parent cajoling his toddler to piss against a rock not 4′ from the river because the line was too long to the bathroom.
     Regardless of my exhaustion, ever growing and insistent knee, and hammering heart, I knew I had to get the hell out of there before the stupid rubbed off on me. I was already doing something that could be categorized as such and didn’t want to lose my air of superiority or my determination to tackle the Endless-Stair which was the next part of my journey.
     Like something out of the Lord of the Rings, the Upper Vernal Falls granite stair is a marvel of trail construction, but like Tolkien’s dwarven engineering, it is not for the faint of heart and mine was calling me all kinds of names as I approached. The stairs were slick with mist from the upper falls and for someone with a bad knee, each step was treacherous. Folk were crowded on its narrow confines, and it took but a few flights to decide I would not be taking the stairs back down. It was simply too dangerous in my present condition. The next time I stopped for a Pause-and-Pant, I called blessings down on our fearless leader’s bun-bedecked head for choosing an alternate route back down to the Valley.
     It was a struggle to position my feet so my right leg did most of the lifting giving my left a chance to settle thus, sparing the knee. The brace was doing its job as well as it could, but there was only so much it could do. A further challenge involved timing my 50 pace spurts strategically, so I had a place to pull off and catch my breath–something not always possible. At such times, things got a bit freaky as whole families tried to pass each other and me at the same time. More than once I came away fully soaked along one side of my body as I tried to become one-with-the-wet-mountain and give them room. The stair seemed to go on forever. Up to this point, I had kept track of how many times I’d pulled over for a Pause and Pant (about 35), but there on the stairs, I lost count—I was too busy trying to survive. There better be a guru or Shangri-La or a cold beer or something up there!
     When I finally reached the top, I was both elated and relieved. I half expected the groups to be gone, heading back toward the Valley, but they were still there though nearly ready to descend having rested for about a half-an-hour. They were just as surprised to see me as I was to be there. I admit to feeling a bit sheepish, especially with staff. I’d said I couldn’t do it, but here I was. I made a joke of it by weaving a silly story about raw determination, trail-relationships of convenience, yoga pants and nearly dying every eighth-of-a-mile–all of which wasn’t too far off the mark. I tried to remain the upbeat teacher Mr. P. is known to be, but truth be told, I was nearly toast. All too soon, our trail-master was gathering her chicks under her wing and preparing to head off. If it wasn’t for my firm belief I’d die on those stairs if I attempted to descend them, I might have stayed there for a short rest and taken them down afterward.
     Carlos was both happy for my triumphant return from the dead but was now even more concerned considering my obvious state. He stuck with me as we moved out and after I insisted he go on ahead and stay with the group, he would only leave me if I accepted group B’s radio saying, “…if we need to check on you, we can.” At first this moved me, and there was a certain logic to it. It didn’t take me long to realize, however, that I was no longer a part of the working-staff. See, the walkie-talkies were meant for staff to use in case one of our charges was hurt and needed help. There were three of them: one with group A, one with group B and one at base camp, so they could all stay in touch with each other—Just In Case. They were not intended to keep tabs on an old man struggling to retain memories of healthier happier times. I wasn’t fulfilling my professional role anymore and had become a very unprofessional and unlooked for concern. Now they were worried about me. I was a liability and should a crisis arise and they needed this radio, they wouldn’t have it. Unfortunately, by the time I’d processed this, Carlos was long gone up the trail. I whistled loudly and called out his name, but unsurprisingly got no response. I began praying nothing untoward happened. As it was, a girl did roll her ankle from the group whose radio I had and they had to take the Valley Shuttle to finish the last part of the trip…but what if she’d broken her ankle? What if she’d fallen and been knocked unconscious? Could I live with that? Hell, no! Bottomline: I will never put myself in that kind of position again.
     Well, what’s done, is done and it is, what it is. I shouldered my day-pack and began climbing more granite stairs, These were not as steep as those below, but they rose nonetheless and I was soon back to my pace-and-pant pattern…although I hoped there were a few more paces in there.
     I had a wonderful view of distant Nevada Falls and the east side of Half-Dome. I talked to quite a few people, wondering at how young they all seemed ruefully half-remembering my immature reactions to those of age when I was younger and immortal. While I fully believe focus determines reality, I also believe that time waits for no one and if allowed to, will run its course without so much as a “by-your-leave.” So sad, that humans do not yet have more than one life time. They need two: one in which to make all the mistakes and another in which to try and employ the wisdom they learned from them.
     The descent was murder. I’d quite forgotten the feeling of controlled chaos a down-sloping trail can afford. Soon reminders in the form of jammed toes, loose underfoot debris, and broken bones resurfaced. On one of my long ago solo excursions, I had broken an ankle on a descent after a rock rolled out from under the pressure of my foot. The nearly three mile hike-out on a broken foot had resulted in surgery and weeks of recovery. Both knees were now reliving that memory and warning me of missteps. I was much slower going down, and I soon suspected I was much more than a half-an-hour behind. A quick radio exchange confirmed that the first group was already down on the Valley floor.
     I’m going to guesstimate it took some two hours to get down. With each hesitation, I felt a growing sense of urgency and guilt. I must admit though, on deserted stretches of trail higher up, in the illusion of privacy, I remembered things I’d nearly forgotten. I remembered summers when I spent more nights under the stars than under a roof. I remembered my daughters, all smiles and dirty faces, carrying backpacks as big as they were happy to be with dad…no others necessary. I remembered three six-point bucks leaping a morning stream, pine martins fussing on a pond’s edge, owls holding court, a black bear fishing, an eagle that looked at me, tarantulas dancing, “…the frontal lobe of a pica…” skull and a wolverine heading toward camp. I remembered my brothers and I chanting Wild Horse songs in heart-drum rhythm under a night sky so clear we were drowning in stars and immortality. I remember reading easily under a full moon. I remembered week-long solos into the Immigrant when I’d seen only a handful of kindred spirits who with a nod, or a smile, or an exchanged word acknowledged and blessed each other’s holy quest. It reminded me of so many other moments and times…times when the night embers spoke secrets for my ears and eyes alone…times when the high glide of a hawk was the harbinger of self-realization…times when the Milky Way was my blanket and the world was silent without the sound of cars or highways or phones…times when the business of the day comprised picking a peak, heading in a direction and napping under a tree…times before the self-imposed darkness, before I’d lied myself into believing I wasn’t worthy of such things and made myself grow old. Sweet memories and bone-deep wishes I had more of them to recall.
     Too early and before I hit the turn at Lower Vernal Falls, the trail was once again crowded with flatlanders with no more clue about trail etiquette than I do about “snapchat.” With all the speeding up and slowing down, pulling off to pant and dodging another tourist group, I was so tired that it doesn’t surprise me I missed Shuttle Stop 16. I think I stuck too close to the river on the way out. That was fine, by golly, because I wanted to finish in style by walking the route the kids did along the Valley Loop Trail. By the time I hit Shuttle Stop 13, however, and got a good look at the detailed shuttle map and the distance I still had to go, I knew that there was little chance of making it by our 16:00 depart-time. Besides, I was physically exhausted, so at Shuttle Stop 13, I boarded the sardine packed bus and rode it all the way around to SS 8. As soon as I got off, I found an honest-to-goodness Park Ranger and she gave me directions to Swinging Bridge, our rendezvous.
     “See that flowering dog-wood over there? Well, just beyond it is a trail that veers off to the right. Take that trail, stay on it, and you should be there in about 15 minutes.”
     Sweet.
     About ten minutes into that walk and from across a small meadow, I saw Mr. H. and Mrs. S. over by a set of busses. Whether they were looking to round up wandering teenagers or slow old men who take too long, I didn’t now or care, but they looked like they were looking for someone, so I headed in their direction. By the time I got there, however, they were gone. I checked out a couple of busses, but they weren’t ours. About that time Mrs. S. called me on the radio.
     “Mr. P., have you made it to a shuttle yet? Mr. H. and I are at Shuttle Stop 8, but we haven’t seen you…”
     Well, damn. If I’d just waited a few minutes when I got off the shuttle…
     “Mr. P. here. Been on the Shuttle and off already. Thought I saw you two over by the busses, but it appears not.”
     “No problem,” she replied. “Stay there and Mr. H. will come find you.”
     Roger that.
     I swear, it felt like the longest five minutes of the day until Mr. H. appeared out of the trees with a “Marco!” and a smile. We crossed the meadow over to Swinging Bridge and a waiting couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, made by our Trail-Master’s own two mits. Mrs. LW and the some of the kids gave me a cheer which I embarrassingly acknowledged with a weak-wave. The final lost sheep accounted for, we soon headed out on another small hike, which my knee let me know was cruel and unusual punishment, to the bus and a three hour drive home.
     On the way home, my wife texted that she was proud of me for having attempted and finished the route. I think she somehow sensed, as the best of women do, that there was more at stake than simply her man’s dignity. Considering the unexpected emotional and mental, as well as physical, route the adventure took, I’d say she was right. It wasn’t simply a journey of distance, elevation and endurance; it was one of time, memory and introspection. As for the upshot of it all? I honestly don’t know. I’m not a man of predictions. I try to navigate the Great River, but I know better than try and dictate, or even second guess, its course. Will I change my life-style enough to better accommodate a healthier performance next time? Will there even be a next time? Only time will tell. I will hazard the following, however.
     I was at the end of a pace-and-pant cycle, about midway down the return leg of the descent from Upper Vernal Falls. In my near hyperventilation, I was vaguely aware of an approaching uphill band of about half a dozen folk but had yet to scan them. When I finally did, I was surprised to see what I can only term as a Matriarch in the lead, bent nearly double and leaning heavily on a set of trekking poles. She’s come a long way, I thought, and still has far to go before she reaches the top. Those following were obviously her family, chattering away seeming unconcerned for their relative’s slowness or fragility, but the closer they came, the more I noted their strategic positioning all around her. If she were to fall, these would be there to catch her. I say all around her, but that’s not true. No one was out in front. No one was blocking her way. To even the casual observer, that was sacred space. She somehow sensed me and with hardly a glance in my direction, she said in a surprisingly robust though age-inflected voice,
     “I’m sorry I’m in your way; I’m as slow as a slug!” Oh, yes, I chuckled to myself, and I’m just the picture of a trail savvy spring chicken.
     “No, no, no,” I responded. “You’re going as fast as you need to go, so don’t you worry about it. No problem at all. You take your time. I’m still trying to recover from my last print and that down hill!”
     I watched as she carefully planted her poles and just as deliberately and firmly planted her feet in follow-up. She must be in her 80s, I marveled, and here she is climbing this same trail, its altitude and terrain notwithstanding. She and her entourage eventually passed with appreciative smiles and thankful nods.
     Time waits for no one and the truth is, I’ll never regain the time I lost in the losing of myself (see “And some folks say, he’s up there still 1”). That’s just as gone as the moments it took to write and revise this sentence. At the very least, however, I sense I still have some choices, not as many and maybe not the same ones, but choices nonetheless.
     I can chose to write my memories down as I have here displaying them as jewels fashioned during my life–lessons and insights, defeats and triumphs, a completed collection, mounted, finished and unique.
     I can chose to lament my losses sacrificing time like some deluded penitent to a ravenous god of his own making–sad and regretful, frustrated and bitter, a burnt offering, perpetual, tragic and mindless.
     I can chose to move, one step at a time, firmly planting one pole at a time, and experiencing what is still mine to do–careful and diligent, purposeful and determined, a wiser elder, aware, accepting and alive.
     What will I choose? All, none, one, some other I have yet to understand? I wish I knew. I can say this, however, at least now I know I have them.

“And some folks say, he’s up there still” 1

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Yosemite vista-point     After being asleep for over a decade, I unexpectedly woke up in the mountains yesterday. It was like a sudden and unlooked for encounter with an estranged friend or like going for a familiar walk only to have the ground give way. Standing at the stone railing of Yosemite Valley’s photogenic vista-point, memories and emotions spooled as I my eyes reacquainted themselves with a place I had not seen in years but which I had once known and hiked often. I slowly become aware of myself, the dull throbbing in my knee, the effort to draw a satisfying breath, the leaden heaviness of my limbs, the telling gray of my beard, and the wide yawning void between then and now. Surrounded by youthful energy and exuberance, I was brought up short by just how far this [old] “…hawk…” was “…from the moon.” And I realized, I wasn’t simply looking at the Valley. I was gazing into a mirror and the estranged friend I found there was not someone else; it was me.
     20 years ago, I fell in love with a remarkable woman. Up to that point in my life, I had never felt so deeply. I did everything I then could to insure that the relationship might last. Alas, despite mutual best efforts, the romance ended after nearly three years. Two decades later, I understand it was necessary, but at the time, it was very hard and I foolishly wanted to know why the relationship had ended. I was too naive to understand that asking such questions—questions which have no answers or wherein even the truth is unsatisfactory—is narcissistic, indulgent, and ultimately self-destructive. Such quests are not really about looking for truth so much as they are about looking for an answer that will satisfy an unreasonable belief that it exists, a belief that could that answer be found everything would somehow make sense and the unlivable made livable.
     Of course I found nothing. The human creature, however, is amazing particularly in its ability to adapt and, if unable to adapt, to create unique coping mechanisms. Unable to find satisfactory answers, I went about subconsciously creating a self whom I could understand someone wanting to leave. Unaware I gradually ceased to pursue many mutually beloved interests because associated memories were too painful. Subsequent relationships suffered and failed unknowingly haunted by those memories. Many longterm projects and cherished ambitions were unconsciously abandoned.
     I’m happy to say that over time I healed, became aware of and recovered from my coma-like foolishness, and while I still remember that long ago relationship and the woman I loved, I do so now with mature fondness. It’s no longer the unseen and internal ulcer I aggravated into being. This does not mean there aren’t scars or that all the damage I did to myself simply vanished. On the contrary, consequence-driven conditions still exist and here at the vista-point over looking Yosemite Valley, I was suddenly face-to-face with one.
     “We” had been avid backpackers and hikers. Sometimes by ourselves. Sometimes with a group of likeminded people or my brothers and daughters. We’d been to locations in the Carson Iceberg and Immigrant Wildernesses, Big Sur, and areas in Arizona. It was, in her words, “…our thing…”. Between our adventures, I went out alone or with my brother braving longer treks. I counted a summer as good if I spent more time in a sleeping bag that in a bed. Each summer I went for one or two weeklong solo trips leaving a brother or my mother an envelope addressed with a date and a stern admonition not to open it unless I’d not returned by the date and time indicated. “Shining times” my brothers and I called them imagining ourselves spiritual successors to Fredrick Manfred’s Hugh Glass of Lord Grizzly or Vardis Fisher’s Jeremiah Johnson of Mountain Man or any other dozen over used and romanticized wilderness icons from Daniel Boone to Grizzly Adams.
     After the breakup, however, slowly, gradually, and almost without notice, I became “too busy” to hike on weekends as other responsibilities called…or were created. Backpacking would have to wait, I reasoned, until vacation or better weather, so I stored my wilderness gear promising I’d return to it sometime next weekend, next month, next season, next year. Though I did rally once, bought a new mountain-bike and rode the hills in Calaveras and Santa Cruz, that too found its way into storage. Then time sort of stretched, warped and twisted and the “next” thing I knew, I was 100 lbs heavier, years older, and staring at myself from Yosemite’s vista-point.
     As the fresh mountain air filled my laboring lungs and the revelation played it self out, my eyes blurred and welled. No threat to family or life, no financial hardship, no unfeeling or over-demanding employer, and ultimately no ill-fated relationship had separated me from this—I had done it. I had made the choice, and had it not been for coming to grips with this earlier, albeit in other areas, I think this blow might have been the worst due to its unanticipated nature. As it was, however, I was able to smile ruefully to myself, albeit sadly, stoically adding the responsibility to that which already existed in my heart, and rubbing more of the sleep from my eyes.
     The vista point was becoming crowded. I knew the Valley would be much, much worse. It was already bad 20 years earlier; I could only imagine it now. Our trail-master wandered over and observed how once upon a time the Valley had been filled with fire-cleared meadows and older trees when its ecosystem was less impacted.
     “No people on earth love their nature more—so much so that we love it to death,” I observed and wondered to myself if we were doing more harm and than good by adding our visit’s pressure to the Valley’s overburdened and now nearly artificial and mutated ecosystem. I was struck by the thought that few of these visitors would or could understand such a perspective. I’m sure they saw their visit as a natural expression of curiosity and admiration and if confronted by the negative nature of their innocuous visit would become indignant or ignore it all together.
     Ignore it—like I had ignored the abuses I’d subjected to my own personal landscape? Awareness, I thought wryly, as I re-boarded the bus that would take us into the Valley, is the first step toward change. Well, now I knew; now I was awake, and here we were about to attempt to open the eyes of a whole bus-load of teenagers who had never seen the Valley’s wonders before. Maybe too, I could finish clearing the eyes of one particular old man as well.

Realizations, Revelations & RPGs

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Realizations, Revelations & RPGs      Lately, I have had to process a personal revelation concerning a dear feature of my geek-centric life, something I had always believed was complimentary to, but which I now understand was in competition with, my creative writing.
     I love role-playing games (RPG). Though Dungeons & Dragons was published ’74 when I was 13, I didn’t play my first session until a couple of years later. While I have trouble remembering the exact date of that first game, I vividly remember the character I played—half-elf Torian Asgard—and the non-player characters (NPC) who were my companions—Sadar the cleric and Bluehelm the magic user—and the place we explored—the digs of Roghan the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown: Quasqueton! These two great heroes had driven off a barbarian invasion but had disappeared during an expedition against said horde, leaving their stronghold, Quasqueton, just waiting to be explored and its treasures plundered.
     I do not exaggerate when I say that first gaming experience was a nothing short of revelatory (thank you, Ken!). Having read Tolkien, Malory, Lewis and Howard during my pre-teen years, I yearned to have adventures like Frodo, Arthur, Lucy and Conan and from the first roll of the dice, I knew I’d found a way to scratch that itch. It truly felt like I’d discovered buried treasure.
     It didn’t take too long for the storyteller in me to demand space at the game table. I quickly assumed the mantle of Game Master (GM) and began weaving my own scenarios for a group of players who would become my brothers-in-arms and life-long friends. Though I left D&D behind in favor of more intuitive game-engines, for the last 40 years I have continued to play, destroying the minions of evil and amassing a body of story, mythology and history to rival the most prolific of literary heroes.
     Due to circumstances, however, and though the crew still gathers to talk geek as we have for decades, we can’t seem find time to regularly game any more. I’m not going into the politics of this situation, for they are a rough emotional sea of wild cinematic waves and whirling simulationist water-spouts. Suffice to say that a “perfect storm” brewed itself made of equal parts life, age and personality. I would rather do is relate a realization and discovery made about myself and my creative writing while in the midst of this gale.

     Due to this gaming short-circuit, I found myself in a creative vacuum and as a result easily irritated, dissatisfied and, without overstatement, a bit bitter. Without regular gaming, I turned to my work-in-progress (WIP) to fill the void (which at present exists within the context of Holly’s HTTS class). It seemed natural. If you don’t have creamer, you reach for the milk. I mean, was I not creating imaginary worlds, cultures and religions as I develop my WIP? Did not heroes romp about discovering, fighting, loving, betraying, exploring, etc. in similar fashion to gaming? Were there not dark sorceries to overcome, conflicts to resolve, and villains to defeat? I thought to myself: a good bout of creative writing would be my surrogate game session while the ship groaned ominously and I waited for the storm to sort itself out. Good enough and off I went, bummed about the loss of regular bone-rolling but thankful I had a creative shelter in the storm. And indeed; while it wasn’t the same as gaming, it was medicine for my queasy stomach and balm to my wounded creative humor. So, for the last few months I created characters, spun dialogue, developed conflicts, wove plots, done necessary WIP world building and, all in all, had a rather productive time of it.
     And that’s when it hit me…hit me, I say, like one of those looking-for-lost-glasses-oh-shit-they’re-on-my-face type realizations:

     Without a game to creatively develop and GM, I had directed more time and energy into my WIP. Without a game to regularly express myself and play, the desire to role-play had been somewhat assuaged by writing.

     To many this may seem a “Well, duh!” sort of moment. To me it was nearly as watershed as the advent of gaming itself. It made me lean back in my chair and blink. I had always known that prepping my game-world in anticipation of a GM session was a creative outlet, but up to this point I hadn’t fully realized how much I depended on it nor how much of my storytelling energy I devoted to it.
     I have long lamented that juggling the two has been difficult. I see now that far from complementing each other, they have been in competition much in the same way books and films compete for audience. Each mode of storytelling: books, film, rpgs, may have entertainment as a common goal, but they use different methods to do so and deliver different story experiences as a result. I think this is the main reason why those who read are invariably disappointed when their favorite book is adapted to film. It is also the reason that while gaming and fiction writing share some commonalities and even inform each other, they both demand time as a resource and as a result find themselves in competition.
     Though I would never exchange my years of gaming nor even now give it up—it is a very important social outlet and connection to my brothers, as well as, an enjoyable mode of storytelling—I now understand better the creativity-sink it can be and realize it is not a replacement for serious writing…no more than writing is a replacement for role-playing.
     Well, what to do? I plan to adapt to this new reality and learn to walk its rolling deck. I’ll not exacerbate gaming’s present illusiveness by wasting what time I have waiting for a second advent. I will embrace the situation as a mixed blessing and make the most of it by romping in my WIP’s land of dark sorceries and bright heroes. I have learned a valuable lesson: time and energy are finite. When the storm finally passes, and it will, I will strive to keep the weather-gage and maintain a more satisfying balance.

“Notes” and the Dictation Button: Sweet Tools!

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012316 Notes     Development on Work-In-Progress (WIP) prelims goes well. I have yet to finish HTTS Lesson 8 homework, but I have been making steady and satisfying progress toward that end. In the meantime, I have discovered how to use the iPhone/Mac app “Notes” to my advantage.
     A quick bit of background first. I have ever been a PC man both with upright and laptop. A couple of years ago, I bought my wife an iPad. She was pleased but even more so after the family upgraded to smart iPhones and she discovered how the two devices could work in synch. When her PC crapped out, she purchased herself an iMac. Being a published and award-winning musician and singer-song writer, she was over the moon with the creative possibilities all three devices working in concert gave her. I watched from the sidelines with secret envy but couldn’t in good conscience let my perfectly fine PC laptop go; indeed, after the death of my last upright PC, it had been my stalwart companion for nearly ten years. Well, just as it began to show signs of age—it was having trouble communicating with our server and house wifi, and it had began to refuse to shut down even when so ordered—Santa-wife purchased me a MacBook Pro. Now it’s my turn to be over the moon as I explore the connection possibilities between it and my iPhone. BTW, while I still use my laptop from time to time, I see a day fast approaching when old-faithful must be completely retired.
     While working on WIP preliminaries, I am strongly focused on clarifying the five elements of The Sentence: a Protagonist-with-a-need, an Antogonist-with-a-need; Setting, Conflict, and Twist, and developing light, but no less critical, aspects of each element. As I am doing this, however, my muse/subconscious/right-brain has been hard at work fielding my left-brain with random, and some not-so-random, ideas and story details. Not wanting to lose any of these important, though less than clear or plot-synched, offerings, but neither wanting to interrupt my writing flow, I found it wonderfully convenient to whip-out the iPhone, open Notes, push the dictation-button (microphone icon) and record away. Once the idea is recorded, either verbally or text-wise, I find I can return to the writing at hand unworried about forgetting an interesting idea or losing a scrap of hurried scribble. Sweet!
     Further, as the app must pause in its recording to process dictation, it is training me to keep my thoughts brief and to the point, a skill I need to hone. And because the MacBook and iPhone are synched, my Notes are immediately available on my computer and ready for me to save, copy and paste, or edit as needed.
     Not only has this been supremely helpful for catching random ideas while I’m actively working on my HTTS homework but also in situations when my laptop is unavailable, such as in the midst of teaching, a faculty meeting, or a game—though I use only the briefest of manual text-entries at those times.
     The Notes are also an interesting record of organic story/idea evolution. I consider myself very lucky to have been blessed with both the abilities of an Outliner and a Pantster. As a result of 35 years experience as a Game Master (GM) and 26 as a teacher, I have no problems either developing detailed story outlines prior to writing or exploring the unexpected mid-story promptings of my right-brain. My first notes only vaguely relate to the latest as the plot changes and evolves. Complications appear or disappear, characters grow or diminish, conflicts escalate or dissipate, POVs re-orient direction and focus with each new right-brain note. I find the record fascinating and strangely reassuring, for I am led to believe that nothing is wasted and even the most seemingly unrelated idea can contribute to the whole in an unexpected and delightful way.
     Presently I’ve recorded 66 notes and, with each dictation, a bit more literary focus is achieved. I can feel their weight offering me a firmer footing from which to eventually start composing the WIP directly.

HTTS Sitrep 8, Part I: Writing Groups Scare Me, But I Want a Buddy

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Positive ions, baby!

Positive ions, baby!

     Greetings, true-believer–whoever you might be (I can usually count on my brother to read my blog snot); I am not dead.
     I continue to soldier on with HTTS. I’m almost to Lesson 8’s homework and am eager to begin writing the first draft of my official HTTS WIP proper. Sitreps for 5, 6, and 7 will have to wait for now, but rest assured (who am I talking to?), I did complete them. Huzzah!
     Seven, however, threw me psychologically. I know these lessons are designed to be finished in a week, all things being equal, but that lesson was challenging, taking no less than five months…five months and eight days to be exact. The length of my response to the prep-work is what did it. I’m sure 38 pages of 10pt, single spaced reflection was not what Holly had in mind when she wrote the lesson, and which she obliquely warned against. It is, nonetheless, what happened to me. I’ll detail that rather cathartic experience and how I got through it later. In this missive, I’m going to give voice to one of my secret writing wishes: a writing-buddy…other than my writing totems and writing sound-track.
     At my age writing buddies are hard to find. Work, home and personal responsibilities are not illusionary or excuses; they are hard reality, and social opportunities wherein I might meet such a person conflict with that reality. That being said, I must confess to having been to only one such social gathering: a Nano’ write-in at the Queen Bean in ’12. There were three other writers there. One left almost as soon as I arrived. That left the organizer/leader, and one other writer who, God bless him, talked most of the time. He didn’t know me, so directed most of his banter at the leader, a gentle and understanding soul, whom he seemed to know. Maybe he was nervous, but at every pause he would bring up a book he’d read or banter on about his WIP–not a 30-word sentence, mind you, but a blow by blow commentary. At the time, it irritated me a bit. Don’t get me wrong, it was cool to meet a couple of locals, but the event was billed as a “Write-in.”
     In retrospect, I wonder if the poor guy wasn’t just looking for a buddy too. Maybe he needed to break the cocoon of silence and isolation we writers by virtue of our craft tend to work in. I mean seriously, I’m in my bedroom right now at my emergency writing desk, a common occurrence lately (why not in the awesome study-library down stairs I’ve written of before with its comfy chairs and 2,500+ volumes? That, sigh, is another story for another time), with my head-phones on; I might as well be in my own pocket universe.
     Dear Santa, I’d like a writing-buddy who is about where I am at: working full-time, home responsibilities, maybe a serious hobby to two, and a dream to write, a love of storytelling but with very little (nothing) published. This person would encourage me when my out-put was meager and challenge me when I began to wimp-out. I could be able to trust them not to steal my ideas and they would help me develop them without demanding copy-right. We would delight in knowing the other understood terms such as: rough-draft, revision, re-write, alpha-reader, proof-reader meant and be able to judge work…or NOT…accordingly. No “If I were you…” or “I think you should…” or “From my perspective…” without solicitation. They would have their own problems and challenges and look to me for support and encouragement. Above all, we would both understand how hard this thing we love is to do and would gather strength from each other because of that understanding.
     Sheesh! It sounds like I’m a teen again day-dreaming about the perfect spouse. Pathetic.
     There’s a local writing group in Modesto that meets once a month. The first meeting comes with a no-strings-attached invite: no sharing of work or critiquing required, just a look to see if the fit it right. Nice. Later, however, attendees are expected to upload material for members to critique prior to meets. And rightly so, I say, but two thoughts hold me back.
     First, from what I’ve read of their profiles only one or two of the 500+ members have published a novel. The vast majority are like me, un-published wannabes. As an unpublished wannabe, I can’t help but ask by what right of experience do I critique other writer’s work? I mean sure, I can tell when someone’s grammar and punctuation sucks or when they’ve made errors in POV, or tense, or voice, or misused some literary device (my students have been great for teaching me that), but as far as giving out sound advice concerning writing fiction, it’d be like the blind leading the blind. I mean really, WTF do I know save what I’ve heard on Writing Excuses and read in books?
     Second, because I’m an academic writing teacher, have read extensively about writing, and am working through Holly’s class, I know only too well where my writing is at in terms of stage and condition. All I have to do is wait a week and re-read what I’ve written and I can clearly see and hear the problems: “Puuuutrescence!” So, why in the world would I offer substandard writing for critique that I already know to be rough, flawed and broken…especially when I can see and address those flaws myself? It would be one thing to offer a manuscript for critique that I’d done everything I knew how to do to improve saying, “I’ve done all I can, but I know it needs work. Please help me see what I can’t” or “It’s coming along, but I’m not feeling it in this part of the story. Can anyone help me?” but to offer my rough-drafts, revisions or even my re-writes for critique seems, frankly, presumptuous of other folks’ time and not a little rude.
     It reminds me of my seniors who turn in Senior Portfolio Project assignments with hardly more than a cursory glance for mistakes knowing I’ll point them out, which they in turn correct and get full marks for from the Project Committee. I don’t mind if it’s a mistake they’ve truly missed, but what irritates the shit out of me is when they don’t proof for mistakes they could easily have found themselves if they’d taken the time to look. In essence they are too lazy to do a little proof-reading…just like a lot of wannabe writers who are in love with the romance of writing but not so much with the less fun realities of writing well.
     Oh, hell no; I’ll not be “…that guy.”
     I have a cadre of brothers who will most likely form the core of my beta-readers. They are intelligent, versed in my chosen genre and take well to instructions (as long as we’re not gaming; then, everyone’s a GM). What I wish for and want is a writing-brother-in-arms, who’s in the trench right beside me, as confused, hopeful and bemused as I am.
     Ah, well, until I meet one, I still have this blog…and the knowledge of thousands of wannabe writers out there are wishing for the same thing and getting it done without. Oh, and I can’t forget my writing totems and mojo. Can you dig the salt-crystal lamp my awesome mom gave me for Christmas? True magic, man, true magic.
     I’m sure there’s a neat metaphor in there for next time.

HTTS Sitrep 4: The Strongest Chains We Forge Ourselves

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Arthur's Shelf     I have taken this lesson and done its critical exercises twice before, but in an effort to safeguard against familiarity and contempt, I took my time and made sure I paid even more attention to the details in a conscious effort to learn all it had to offer…or as much as I was capable of presently learning. The approach paid off in three solid Sentences, more on those later, but importantly it lead me to an important realization and discovery, one that was both alarming and liberating, frightening and affirming.
     I have elsewhere related in the Quill how my introduction to fantasy and heroic literature was made as a result of daily reading sessions at home. Under my mother’s watchful eye and guidance, I was allowed to choose the reading material and on the fateful day of our first session, I pulled Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur off the shelf, albeit an abridged juvenile version but Malory in its diction nonetheless. Added to the already fermenting solution of First American stories I’d acquired from the students my father worked with, it is no exaggeration to say that things were never the same afterward.
     Though Malory gets the nod for starting my love of epic fantasy literature, it was the Professor, however—J.R.R.Tolkien—who gets the prize for having the biggest impact. Having only had hints of such things in Malory, Tolkien revealed to me just what amazing things could be done with such legends and motifs.

     As an aside, I have to admit Scripture’s literary influence on me. As related earlier, I didn’t begin regular church attendance until sometime around the age of nine, but even before that, my grandmother’s Bible stories are among some of my earliest literary memories. As my reading acumen grew, I gravitated toward Old Testament stories of exotic cultures and adventure: the flight from Egypt; the building of the tabernacle and the construction of its furniture in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy; King David’s Three Worthies and their commander in I Samuel; the bloody and gruesome triumph of Jael over Sisera, the Canaanite general of King Jabin in the book of Judges. Later, after Tolkien, I remember copying a list of the monarchs of Israel and Judah because they reminded me of the kings in Le Morte and the appendixes in The Return of the King.

     I was so struck by the fabricated mythology upon which the Professor built his deceptively simple and straight forward stories—the myths and histories, the languages and alphabets, the maps and drawings—I was inspired to attempt the same. In the early 70’s, despite nearly living at the local library a block away, I knew of no other author who had embroidered with such detail, though of course, this would rapidly change as the fantasy genre exploded, but that time had yet to come. As a result, I believed that to be a fantasy writer one had to create that same depth as Tolkien had in order to write convincingly. Thus I began a succession of note-books, essays, maps, myths, cultural descriptions, time-lines, and historic, scientific and literary exploration that has lasted to this day nearly 40 years later.
     What I did not understand, however, was the true nature of Tolkien’s creativity, that is, why he created his mythology as he did. While young I erroneously thought it was to publish stories, but this proves inaccurate. Though a thorough explanation of his motives is far beyond the scope of this missive or the meager skills of its author, as I understand it, Tolkien wrote his mythology as a backdrop for his conlangs. Though long before he became a linguist, the Professor was writing his mythology, it naturally became his conlangs’ vehicle. While he told his children many stories, e.g. The Hobbit and Father Christmas, the greater elvish mythology, The Silmarillion, in all its iterations, was in the final analysis, a labor of personal interest. Albeit a fascination beyond a simple “hobby”, still it was done for its own sake as a source of self-edification and in conjunction with his delight in language. It was not, as I then thought, written with the purpose of publication.
     Thus, as a youngster, I began world-building believing that when my world was finished, I would have the Tolkienian depth required upon which to build an amazing story. What no one could warn me of was how time consuming and addictive world-building could be or that it really had no end game. Each layer of development led to another, each refinement would demand further refinement, and so on and so on.
     While I played with language in an effort to imitate the Professor, my forte seemed to be in culture; it’s anthropology and philosophy. I loved creating unique religions and traditions, beliefs and customs. As I grew older and my understanding broadened, I built these in careful layers of evolution so that the end results were based on natural progression and made sense. Many a college course in history and science were taken not only to fulfill GE requirements but with my world-building needs in mind. While I had a great time, and gained an appreciation of this world through the building of my own which I would never have enjoyed otherwise, it was a voraciously time and energy consuming activity. Though I wrote my world’s myths, folk-tales and pseudo-histories, I never seemed to have time to compose full tales of the brave and tragic heroes and god-like sorcerers that lurked in the far background of my mind. I always seemed to have one more history to write, one more detail that needed fleshing out before I could treat my heroes with confidence, but even as I tried to tie off the loose ends, more seemed to rupture and need tending. Consequently my tales receded further and further into the murky distance.
     When I discovered table-top role-playing games, my desire to write something like the Professor had in The Lord of the Rings was nearly eclipsed by the type of obsessive world-building which reigns supreme in the hobby. I threw myself into the task with renewed abandon—no canned modules or published settings for me! It would be all original or nothing. I assuaged the accusatory voice inside my head by telling stories, after a fashion, through game-mastering and by assuring myself that all the world-building was for the story I would someday write. Though I cannot begin to describe the hours of enjoyment table-top role-playing afforded me, along with the other wonderful side explorations it inspired, in the end I cannot deny it was a drain on my creative energies that led me no closer to realizing my writing ambitions.
     Early in the HTTS course, Holly expressed four key precepts: Safe never starts; Perfect never finishes; Victim never acts and Feel never thinks. Called “…thinking barriers…”, they describe four common afflictions that hamper many writers from fulfilling their literary aspirations.
     I believe that as the lesson’s point concerning world-building on the publisher’s dime and only building when a story required it struck home. I came to realize that I was both trapped by my own world-building and ironically using it as “Safe never starts” and “Perfect never finishes” excuses.
     I realize now that as long as I choose to refrain from writing my stories until the world-building is finished, until everything is “perfect”, I will never write them. I see that my desire for this perfection is also a way of keeping my ego safe, safe from the possibility of failure and from facing the fact that I will never be able to replicate Tolkien’s feat nor his success, that my ambition to build a world as complex and as deep is indeed beyond my abilities or my years…or what is required to write my stories.
     It hard to admit this, but from Lesson 4’s perspective, I can see how my four decades of world-building have been a hindrance to my writing ambitions rather than an inspiration. While I am not prepared to call all my efforts in the area a waste, for many a good thing came of my world-building not the least being hours of creative enjoyment, I have to admit that as far as fiction is concerned, I have produced only a fraction in comparison. In retrospect, I believe my energies would have been better spent in reverse and primarily on writing fiction.
     This “revelation” was not the complete surprise I may have made it sound. I believe the realization had been working its way up from the depths of my subconscious for a long time and the Lesson simply gave it that last push to bring it to the surface. Lately I have found the RPG I game master burdensome. My world had grown so vast, that I have trouble keeping up with it in all its detail. I gave become more and more dissatisfied with gaming as a means of storytelling, and that frustration has communicated itself to my players. In short I was no longer having a good time and neither were they.
     It is interesting to note that later in life even Tolkien had begun to find his creation a burden as he struggled to finish the last and definitive version of The Silmarillion.
     In the 1996 documentary J.R.R.T.: A Film Portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien, his son Christopher spoke on how the pressure to “…write back…” an agreement between the LotR and The Silmarillion was becoming overwhelming in scope, particularly because even as he attempted to aligned the epic with his mythology and establish consistency, it inspired new stories and additions; indeed, the Professor had moved on from the major legends of the mythology—the sundering of the elves, Beren and Lúthien, Túrin Turambar—to entertain metaphysical questions concerning elvish immortality and what it meant to be an immortal incarnate and its implications on the mythology, a theme he wanted to explore in the final version of The Silmarillion. According to his son, however, “…the whole thing had…become too large, too complex…to impose so precise a metaphysical explanation on it; it was perhaps a task for a younger man. The flame began to die down and he hadn’t the energy left for such a huge transformation…” despite deeply wanting to “finish” the work. I sometimes feel that Bilbo’s lament over being too tired to finish compiling his memoirs in what would later become The Red Book of Westmarch, and that all he really wanted to do was write, “…poetry…” was a reflection of the Professor’s own feelings in this regard.
     I approached my third go-round of The Sentence exercise with all this in mind, and as hard as it was, I forced myself not to consider my world setting by default as I cast about for story seeds from my SSM. I determined that if an idea came that involved my world as a backdrop that would be fine, but I would be wide open to any suggestion that came regardless of genre, setting or character type. The results were telling. Of the three ideas that I eventually wrangled into The Sentence, only one was set in my fantasy world. The other two, though paranormal in theme, were set in this world in modern times.
     To say that I felt a sense of freedom as a result would be stretching things a bit, but it would not be wholly inaccurate. I did feel a release of pressure that I’d not realized I held within me, an anxiousness that somehow I wouldn’t be able to come up with any ideas sans my world. Developing two ideas independent of my fantasy world was both affirming and exciting especially since the idea which stands out as the one that might be a vehicle for the rest of the course is not the one set in my world.
     This lesson helped me understand that ultimately what I must do is write and to do that, I cannot confine myself to the limits of my world-building. And while there is nothing wrong with writing a fantasy set in that world, to hinge my definition of what a writing career should look like based on a single setting is to willfully cripple myself as a writer. I will forever admire the Professor and his work and owe him a great debt, but if I am to be successful in own goals, I must keep my options as broad as I can and that may mean breaking the confines of both this world and my own.

HTTS Sitrep 3: I Think, Therefore I Muse, Part II

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Sunwolfe     When I was young, I thought I had a spirit-helper named Dirus.
     I pictured him as a gray wolf of great size, wisdom and strength. Though both a lone-entity and a pack member, I don’t ever recall the pack being a big part of our exchanges save only once—but of that, I’ll speak another time. Whenever I had a problem or felt a deep yearning for love, understanding or beauty, I would call him to my waking-dreams and we would talk. He was as honest as his teeth were razor sharp. He bit hard and his jaws were strong.
     He could shape-change from a wolf to an aged and glyph covered shaman or a scarred and proud warrior in his prime. When he changed, however, his head always remained that of a wolf.
     I wrote down many of our conversations and more than a few of our adventures. He brooked no fools and did not hesitate to let me know when he thought I was acting one or was wasting his time. His voice was as vivid in my head as someone at my ear and we spoke together clear until I was in my early 30s.
     Though he was a powerful entity and stood tall in my dreams, I sensed that behind him was a fragile truth, a secret, that should it ever come to light would somehow change things forever. I suspected I knew what it was but as long as I never said anything about it, never articulated the words, he would always be on call.
     When an important relationship ended in a traumatic breakup, it left me an emotional wreck. At a low point in my recovery, I mentally acknowledged the secret: that Dirus was really a composite made up by my conscious and unconscious mind from my mental, physical and emotional experiences and yearnings, that he was not real in the sense of an independent entity; he was a fantasy and in truth nothing more than…me.
     From that moment on, I rarely conjured the Great Wolf and our conversations ceased—he was a figment of my imagination, something I, my right-brain and left-brain, had made up.
     I know this might be upsetting to some, and in someways it upset me too, but deep down I knew where Dirus had come from, knew he was but a construct that my mind had cobbled together—a patchwork character using my experiences as a source. For example, during the early to mid ’60s, my father and my grandmother worked as counselors at Philco-Ford’s Employment Training Center in Madera, California for Native Americans. The corporation, no longer in business, was under contract with the BIA to offer vocational training to Native Americans. On occasion both he and my grandmother took me to work and I was fortunate enough to get to know some of the students there. Native peoples have a deep affection for children and the students took a shine to my sister and I. I was able to do and see things as a child that adults could not such as participate in dancing and singing, impromptu language lessons, eating amazing tacos and playing with their children. I believe my love of all things native and aboriginal had its origin there. When I turned nine, the BIA took direct control of the facility and my father felt the mismanagement was such he had to resign. Not long afterwards, the Center closed its doors. Though I was sad that I would no longer be able to attend Friday night sings, hear the cool stories or eat unci’s fry-bread, I’m glad to say that the memories have remained with me. It is in the stories told by those vocational students that the seeds of what would become Dirus were sewn.
     By the time I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, I was already labeled a day-dreamer and accused of “living in a fantasy world” by my peers. At the time I was hurt by the derision in their voices, but deep down I was happy to be considered a mutant who sang bad imitations of native chants, recited Tolkien’s poetry, read Conan adventures, dreamed of Bruce Lee and wrote bad short-stories rather than be counted among my peers as one of the many with only a drug induced haze or a hangover to show for the weekend. I reveled in being different and, as ever, retreated into reading whenever the drama became too much. With the legends the native students told me still in my heart, I bought a book called The Legend of Wolf Song by George Stone, which I still have and treasure. It tells the story of how wolves learned to sing and is the first place where Dirus makes an appearance as the protagonist’s god and helper. I so wanted to be like the main character “Wolf” and have Dirus as my mentor.
     It didn’t take long for the Great Wolf to emerge as a subject of my poetry and the mental counter-voice my mind conjured whenever I wrestled with the tough issues of growing up and needed someone, or something, I trusted to talk to. My imagination more than answered the call in Dirus.

     I miss Dirus. I miss his strength, his authority, his aboriginal connection to the truth, his native assurance of belonging, but I clearly understand that Dirus was not some visitor from the spirit plane, not an independent muse sent by the gods. He was me—a combination of my right and left brains and my experiences as a child and teen come to life in the fertile fields of my imagination. His power and ability to change my attitude, alter my physical reality, offer both damnation and salvation and truly change my world were, and are, products of me.
     I suppose this is why I am so uncomfortable with the idea that “my Muse” is somehow independent of my self. When it is referred to as “…your Muse and your You…”, I find it sets my teeth on edge like nails on a chalk board. I am me and my right-brain is me, as is my left-brain. I am the toy maker.
     I remember a John Milius interview in which the director of the Schwarzenegger Conan the Barbarian described Robert E. Howard writing the first Conan story in a panic with the Cimmerian hovering over his shoulder an ax held aloft ready to slay the author if he did not finish by dawn. A little research shows this story to be apocryphal, but it is a great illustration of how the romantic stereotype of the writer at the mercy of the muse or character is loved, embroidered and perpetuated. I suppose if it works, it works, but what drives me absolutely crazy is the copious amount of advice such stories generate that is more akin to how to become one with the Force than how to access the creative self.
     Left-brained folk, who have rarely had to fire up their right-brain neurons, are blown away when right-brainers tell stories of characters running away with the plot or how their muse Calliope became angry and took an extended holiday.
     I understand that the subconscious is remote and difficult to navigate, or even to define and describe in concrete terms, but such romanticism leaves left-brain folk wondering why their characters aren’t offering them direction, advice or running away with things; indeed, having a character run off “…with my story” is in some writing groups and forums almost a rite of passage or a badge of honor.
     No, I’m sorry. My characters do not go rogue; I do. I am responsible. If a character seems to be running away with the plot, then it is my responsibility to step away from the key-board or put the pen down. If I do this, it’s amazing how said rogue character can no longer commit another word to paper. I go mow the lawn, wash dishes, take a nap or switch WIP until things have calmed down, then I return. I completely understand how addictive the voices-inside-the-head can be. I am blessed with a very active right-brain and my characters come through loud and clear. I am also a teacher, however, and my left-brain skills are strong, but I am not subject to either side’s demands because in the end, I know it is me who chooses to follow the promptings of my right or left-brains not my characters.
     It is akin to the anthropomorphisization many pet owners subject their dogs and cats to. Don’t get me wrong, I love my pets and it never ceased to amaze me how my animals seemed to know what I was feeling and what I meant. My last cat and my last dog were seriously boon companions in this regard. I miss them as much, if not more, than I do my late father. I miss how my cat Greystoke seemed to know I was on my way home and was there on the front porch waiting for me no matter when I drove up. I miss how he would “converse” with me in various pitched meows when I told him about my day, my newest story idea or character concept. I miss how Callista stayed close and laid her huge head in my lap whenever I was depressed or sick, avoided me when I was tense, and knew just what to do to make me laugh. I am under no illusions, however, as much as my right-brain may play with the idea, that they were employing human emotions and observations, that they felt sorry or sympathized with me. No, they were animals and, as mine, keen observers of my behaviors, which they had down so well, it seemed like they knew what I was thinking before I thought it myself. For example, Callista noticed pending migraine symptoms long before I did and would paw at me like a service-dog. If I picked up on it, I could take my meds and blunt the headache’s pain when it came. If not, within a day, bam!, it was migraine-city and then I’d remember her pawing at me. Doh!
     No matter how I might subject her to personification Callista was, in the final analysis, a dog. This came strongly home when her cancer first showed up, and we had to have her diseased leg amputated. In a 135 pound dog this was not something undertaken lightly, especially as it involved a front leg. Would she be able to navigate? How mobile would she be? Considering her weight, how would it hamper recovery? The vet and I discussed many such considerations before the operation. I remember asking him if she might not become depressed and could that effect her recovery? He smiled and said that although he believed animals could become depressed, especially those who had lost a mate or human companion, he assured me that animals “…don’t think like us.”
     “We lose an appendage” he said, “and we’re not only scarred physically but emotionally as well. We wrestle with the mental demons of inferiority, weakness and imperfection. A dog is more likely to act as if nothing happened. They make adjustments because that’s what the moment dictates. If all goes well, we’ll have to hold her back because as soon as she can stand, she’s going to want to go for a walk, legless, stitches, staples, and scars notwithstanding. It’s all about what’s for dinner and are you ready to walk?—that will be her response.” And so it was.
     In the end, after a long and amazing battle with her disease (nearly two and a half years!), she died in my arms (30 pounds lighter—we had walked a lot :-)) a valued member of my family who can never ever be replaced, but nonetheless as the beloved dog she was, happy at being caressed by her human until the moment her huge heart stopped beating.
     Any anthropomorphic characteristics I might have imbued her with were nothing but mental constructs reflective of my own human needs and desires. Believing otherwise doesn’t necessarily hurt, but it does create a set of false responses and parameters that could have caused greater problems in myself.
     Characters running a muck in the playground of my mind, muddying my story and stealing lines? All mine, baby, me: constructs of my imagination, my muse, my brain, my responsibility.

     Does speaking of the right-brain in such terms hurt? I mean, so what if I want to call it a “she” or a “her” and name it Calliope? No. I don’t believe so, but neither do I believe it is okay to blame her for running off with the story or for writer’s block. Doing so creates a false perception that someone or something else is in charge, not me, and therefore my lack of accomplishment is somehow not my personal responsibility. It shields me from owning the problem and learning how to deal with it because to try and do so is paramount to admitting I am responsible and forces me to give up my romantic notions of a muse such as John Milius described. Instead of doing something about it, I sit and wait for lightning to strike or for my character to get with the program.
     This is one of the many reasons why I appreciate Holly’s course so much. She offers methods by which to understand the wild character and tools with which to make lightening strike. Though she refers to the right-brain as her Muse and the left as her “You” and her descriptions can get a bit squishy, the exercises and tools she offers are sound for bringing the two in concert and if applied with wholehearted focus and open minded flexibility, they can produce amazing results without any hocus-pocus or blood sacrifice–well, maybe a little blood🙂.
     Do they involve hard work? Oh, yes, but also hard play. Can it be frustrating? Of course it can, but what is worth having that isn’t also worth a little frustration? Can the process be a bit…illusive? Sometimes but usually due to my own shortcomings and learning curve. A bit mystical? No, I don’t think so—but there is room to believe so if I wish. Uncontrollable? To this I offer a resounding no! It’s about learning mental skills and control and the rules (which always change) but also about play and spontaneity and right-brain access. Impossible? Absolutely NOT.
     I make no claims that the above is the ultimate truth, only that it is my truth. Dirus was a powerful construct and I sometimes mourn deflating him of his power by admitting he was nothing more than a product of my imagination. On the other hand, I appreciate knowing just how powerful my imagination can be and feel blessed that I can tap that power in the creation of my literary characters. I enjoy that I might interact with them in a similar fashion and, hopefully, render them on paper as convincingly, but if not, either because they refuse perform or because of poor writing, it isn’t their fault or the Muse’s fault…it’s mine.

HTTS Sitrep 3: I Think, Therefore I Muse, Part I

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Nine Muses 225     Squishy and crunchy; right and left; designer and draftsman; creator and crafter; it’s all me.
     The hardest part of Lesson 3’s exercise was trying to do nothing that involved reading or heavy word-lifting while the right-brain was working. I did laundry, showered, played “Four-in-a-Row”, napped, meditated, listened to atmospheric lyric-less music, sketched, washed dishes, but of all the word neutral activities I tried, going for a walk or taking a driving were the most productive. Twice I used my Iphone’s “Voice Memos” app with good effect to record right-brain offerings and touch points—I plan to explore this option further. Twice I got lucky enough to find myself alone in the house and left to my own devices. I was able to think aloud without interruption or audience. These times proved the best for right-brain/left-brain communications and productivity.
     I noted a creative equilibrium that had to be maintained as I patiently tried to give my right-brain self time to graze the Sweet-Spot Map, chew thoughtfully on what it gathered there and then deliver an idea, yet at the same time keep my left-brain under control but not completely muzzled so as to allow it to accept or deny said ideas, and then gradually afford it more lead as further definition was required and let slip the leash completely when synthesis began to occur. This balance, for me, was critical to successfully calling down lightning.
     The point where the left-brain gradually turns from simply accepting or rejecting to requesting more defining information was a subtle one. Sometimes it happened without my noticing it. One moment my left-brain was giving ideas thumbs-up or thumbs-down and in the next asking “How can that work?” or “Where is this going?” and going even further as my right-brain self suddenly began offering more detailed answers.
     Though note-taking was discouraged, I must confess that my absolute best sessions occurred with a red pen in one hand, a blue pen in the other (metaphorically speaking of course, though I am somewhat ambidextrous) and a sheet of quadraliniar paper between them. Right-brain laid down its questions in red and left-brain responded in blue:yea-ing, nay-ing or maybe-ing. I found that this helped keep the left-brain in check as it enthusiastically tried to run with the possibilities right-brain offered up without allowing them to percolate. More than once I had to remind my eager left-brain self to calm down, speak softly, slowly, simply and allow my right-brain self the wiggle room it needed.
     Though I suffer from PERFECT, I am blessed that my left-brain self does not act so much the “inner-critic” (for which I am extremely thankful), as it does the experienced elder sibling ever ready to dispense advice and put everyone’s life in order. My left-brain was eager to start drafting plans even before my right-brain designer was finished conceptualizing the idea.
     Synthesis was more easily achieved than it was identified. One idea took nearly a whole week to bring to the surface, but once the Creator and the Crafter started slamming down details together and working in more or less sync, it was pretty obvious and entertaining.
     One thing I had to remind myself to do, and I don’t know if this was right or wrong, was to let go and stop worrying/refining an idea after synthesis: “…don’t expect [ideas] to be perfect or easily usable…” (bracket added by author for emphasis). I had to tell myself more than once that the exercise was not meant to produce a full-blown plot line complete with scene cards and denouement but simply a good idea with potential.
     I noted that the process had sped up by the time I landed my third idea. It took a quarter of the time my first idea required. Of course this could be dependent on a great many things from the need for sleep, to an unnoticed detail on the SSM, to finally uncovering a truly writer-self appealing idea. I suspect however, that my left and right-brains were learning how better to cooperate with each other. I wonder if trying to crank out three ideas a week wouldn’t be great training to take on for a month or so as good writing exercise.

HTTP Sitrep 2: Such a Waste

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Hater     It appears I am a hater and a holder of grudges even, I am ashamed to admit, against the dead.

     In my second go-round of the Sweet Spot Map (SSM) exercise, the “I hate…” portion populated itself all too quickly. Some of the items were good things to have an aversion for: injustice, religious intolerance, and mental, physical and emotional abuse, etc. I discovered other things against which I had set my anger and hate, however, less worthy things that left me alarmed and disturbed.
     As I allowed my right brain to express itself, the actions of five former high school teachers quickly added themselves to the “I hate…” page. I was mildly surprised at how fast the memories and emotions surfaced. I say “mildly” because I was no stranger to the memories having long ago wrestled with them while formulating my own teaching philosophy. What startled me was their visceral and evocative nature. 35 years notwithstanding, in a flash of memory and adrenaline, I was suddenly back in those classrooms, back in those embarrassing situations experiencing the frustration and impotent rage all over again.

     Some background is in order before I proceed. While we were not a regular church going family, whenever my mother, sister and I visited my grandparents, we attended with them. Doing anything with my grandma was always fun and I was in such hero-worshiping-awe of my grandfather that going anywhere with him was a treat. After years of witnessing their quiet conviction and genuine concern for others, their example has ever been the definition of what “living” one’s faith and true commitment means to me.
     When I was nine, my mother, who had dropped out of the Seventh-day Adventist faith when young, decided to start attending church again. She was soon re-baptized and my sister and I were enrolled in the local Adventist school. While I had some positive experiences and good times, I did not remain an Adventist but ceased regular attendance about a dozen years after my high school graduation and eventually withdrew completely. My disillusion with the Adventist religious system has many roots, but the tap root is firmly anchored in my high school experience and in the actions of the those five teachers.
     There was one teacher in particular whose name I had a hard time recalling. I could only remembered his surname’s initial probably because he was not one of my classroom teachers. I clearly remember the incident associated with him though.
     Students in the Adventist school system during the last half of the 70’s had to handle a ton of prohibitions. According to the powers that be, the devil was behind anything that was not directly connected to the religious system. Dancing, hand-holding, movies, non-christian books, competition sports, and bacon were high on the “no fly” list. Considering the era, and from a more experienced man’s viewpoint, I understand how such conservationism could have evolved. Kent State’s echo could still be heard; Watergate was a fairly recent memory and as a result, America had lost some of its confidence and deeply distrusted its leaders; indeed, it was during my freshman year that Saigon finally fell to the North Vietnamese. The legacy of the drug culture and free-love movement had left its mark in the dark rumor of AIDS gathering on the horizon. It’s no exaggeration to say that the country still feels reverberations of that time. As a consequence, leaders of many religious systems yearned for a simpler time when that “…old-time religion was good enough for…” all and the Adventists were no exception.

     But no where were these prohibitions more stringent than in reference to rock-music. One day toward the end of the year, a guitar-playing friend of mine and I, a drummer, decided to noodle with some tunes like Smokin’ on the Water and O’Black Water during lunch period while the faculty was up in the lounge eating lunch. My father, a non-Adventist, was an RV salesman by day and a bass playing musician by night. Though I wanted to play bagpipes (we’re Scottish on my mother’s side) my family couldn’t afford them, but I was indulged with a used set of drums as my second musical love. Now, we knew that playing at school would be frowned upon by the establishment but figured we’d be done by the time lunch was over. We’d play for 20 minutes or so, then load up the kits in our friend’s car with none the wiser. Being kids and rather naive, we didn’t take the rumor-mill into consideration and by the time we were setting up, a sizable crowd filled the gym eager for some music and when fully half the kids on a 175 student-campus disappear (closed campus), the faculty notices.
     Sure enough, about halfway through our second tune, the school band teacher appeared on stage—we were playing on the gym-floor. Like some bloody prophet making a pronouncement, he raised his hands and boomed out in a deep baritone,
     “If I were you, I’d stop right now. This is all I’m going to say: I would stop if I were you. You have been warned!”
     Typical teens, we stared at him like deer caught in the headlights and when he stepped back behind the curtain and we heard the door close, we, of course, promptly resumed playing. About five minutes later, Elder ‘C’, the principal, showed up with a face looking like thunder and shut us down by first running off the audience with threats of suspension and then threatening to dismantle my drum set himself if I didn’t do it first. As my friend stepped up to shut off the amplifier, he nervously—and unconsciously!–fingered a riff. The Elder came down like a hammer,
     “I said, turn that off! If you don’t want to be suspended, don’t defy me! Turn it off now!”
     The kid apologized and tried to explain it was just a nervous tick, but the Elder ignored him and acted like he’d been insulted.
     Under his stormy brows we grudgingly but quickly closed down our instruments and packed them out to the parking lot.
     I suppose we got off lightly because I don’t remember a phone call home and he probably could have confiscated our instruments for our parents to pick up later.

      So many things about this upset my teenage sense of fairness—things that have stuck with me to my adult present.
     More than anything, it was the hypocrisy of it all that made me feel as if my mouth had been filled with dust. Every week these same teachers in a mandatory-chapel touted how they were there to help us, to guide us, to become the people we dreamed of being because they loved and valued who we were. In reality, however, most of them were too busy trying to assert their authority and ignored the A-Number One Rule Of Working With Teens: as long as you’re genuine, you’ve got an in, but at the first scent of hypocrisy, you’ll be shut out forever. Both the band teacher and the Elder had claimed such sensitivities, but when it came down to it, they chose blind authority rather than the teachable moment.
     From my teenage point-of-view, the school administration had failed even earlier.
     A year before the above incident, the administration had officially endorsed a performance band in which I played drums. One of the interns had agreed to advise the band. We were heavily regulated with plenty of prohibitions on what we could or couldn’t play, but we were excited and worked hard practicing everyday and learning tunes.
     We were given permission to play at one banquet—the Adventist equivalent of a public school dance or prom wherein attendees dressed up, ate a parent catered meal then usually watched a sanctioned Disney flick (but only one deemed “devil-free” because even Walt had some questionable material like “Black Beard’s Ghost” and “Darby O’Gill and the Little People”!)–and absolutely no dancing involved. This time, instead of a film, we would perform. We played the mellowest of Bread, John Denver, Elton John and Barry Manilow. Our peers loved it and we all had a good time. Some of the Elders were less than enthusiastic, of course, but the fact that no one danced, sprouted horns or got pregnant during the whole time we played was indisputable.
     After the banquet, we were riding high on our success and looked forward to playing again, but…nothing came of it. Our adviser wouldn’t organize our next practice and kept putting us off. Without him we couldn’t use the gym or school facilities; indeed, he didn’t seem to want to talk to us about it at all. We went to the principal and asked for help, but were told that our adviser was tired and needed a rest, that we should stop pestering him and that the band had never been a long term proposition anyway. We were devastated. We felt we’d had our hopes lifted only to have them dashed. We had finally played music in a band…not a school band but a real band and now, we were old news and too much of a bother.
     Now, months later, here we were in the gym once again being brushed off and, this time quite literally, hustled out the door. I just didn’t understand how they could endorse playing music with one hand and then take it away with the other, especially considering we were not even remotely playing Ozzy, Black Sabbath or KISS tunes (“Knights In Satan’s Service” according to the Elders—what a crock) but here we were, nonetheless, being threatened with suspension anyway; indeed, if one looks at the Christian Rock scene of today, what we were trying to play was pablum by comparison and about as spiritually toxic as a wet-cracker. If the band teacher in question had only been willing to take a small risk and offered to show us some musical alternatives, we probably would have jumped at it because in the final analysis all we wanted to do was play and make music. Instead we were given proscription and admonition. So much for teachable moments.
     By the time the next year rolled around, I had ceased playing drums altogether and my friend did not return for his senior year. He talked his parents into letting him attend a public school were his love of music was encouraged rather than curtailed.
     The final “head-shaker” came about half a dozen years later when my old yearbook adviser, teacher and mentor (one of the very few instructors at that travesty of a school to warrant the appellation “teacher”) asked me to return to do some artwork for his book. I was blown away when I saw photos of kids holding hands, wearing fashions that would have violated a dozen earlier dress-code policies, and participating in competition sports with other christian schools. I was later told that the school band was now covering tunes in their present line up that had been banned only a few years earlier. Seeing the “what-the-hell-?” look on my face, my former adviser knew exactly what I was thinking and rattled off in his best Bob Dylan, “…the times they are a changin’…”. But not the hypocrisy I guess.

     What disturbed me most during the SSM exercise, however, wasn’t so much what happened or how it was so different from what I’d do as a teacher but how quickly the experience came to the surface as something “I hate…”. That and the realization that though I thought I had dealt with it and put it to rest, it had been lurking beneath the stagnant surface along with its fellows drawing who knows how much energy, emotion, and creativity down to muddy and fruitless death.
     As if to underscore the point, when I couldn’t recall the name of the band teacher, I phoned my sister. She promptly gave me his name. What brought me up short was when she mentioned that he had died in a car accident the same year I had returned to work on the yearbook.
     I hung up in stunned silence. He couldn’t have been more than 35 or 40. I remembered he had had a family, a wife and children. I suddenly felt a deep since of shame and embarrassment at having carried that anger and petty hate around for so long. From 1978 to 2015, for nearly 37 years, a corner of my creative mind had been devoted to my anger for this man, a man, who like myself, made human mistakes, but unlike me, would never have the luxury to unmake them. I saw my anger for the rapacious parasite that it was—a useless program running in the background, consuming life-force and sapping creative energy. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are things we must “…hate…” as suggested above, but this…this was nothing more than a leech-like petty indulgence that had brought about nothing good. What a travesty; what a waste! How much will never be done in my life because I have slavishly chained myself to this millstone? How many other chains have I, like Ebeneezer, forged for myself attached to the memories of the living and the dead?

     Holly’s method is initially big on self-examination and identifying problem areas which form roadblocks to a would be-writer’s career. Some of the exercises, like the SSM, are innocuous at first glance but pack a hidden punch when done honestly and with focus. I plan to use it for more than character motivations, details and story lines, but as a dark window to the soul. Through it, I hope I can identify and avoid those hidden and dreadful creatures that threaten my hopes and dreams.
     I want to apologize to any readers for being a bit vague about Holly’s course or methods. Considering that her course is how she makes her living, I want to respect that by not going detailing the wherefore’s of her lessons. Readers unfamiliar but interested should go to Holly’s site and research the course. Though the How to Think Sideways class is only offered annually, Holly has other excellent courses of writer-interest on everything from writing a novel series to editing that next draft to developing a ConLang for a particular setting.

HTTS Sitrep 1: The War Has Begun

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Battering Ram     Despite having done this lesson before, it was an up hill battle all the way.
     Since deciding to re-attempt Holly’s course, I have been beset by potential roadblock after roadblock. Friday the 13th , was appropriately the last day of 3rd quarter—only 48 more school days left, two months! Friday was also the cut off date for seniors to submit the paperwork portion of their senior-portfolios including letters of recommendation and some idiot teacher agreed to do more than his self-imposed limit of ten letters then promptly forgot about it. It came home to roost last week. Not only was I trying to administer final homework and projects—and correct them—but I was writing letters at top spead. I don’t use form-letters. I write real ones each taking about a ½ an hour or more. I inadvertently made an already busy after school even busier. Luckily, I had done half of them previously.
     On Monday there had been a mandatory after-school meeting with representatives of the District Office for those who had been “selected” to burn a week of vacation this year at the Model School’s Conference in Atlanta, GA.
     “A sign of your commitment to this effort will be the purchase of your own airline tickets—do this quickly before prices become too unreasonable. Reimbursement will soon follow…” What makes these guys think I’ve got a spare $600.00 for plane tickets regardless of reimbursement—I mean, hell, they know how much I make. They pay me!
     On Wednesday an all day visit by the county department of school’s ACCESS scholarship committee needed a teacher panel to interview. Guess who got “asked” to be on the panel? Yeppers….they called out the dinosaur. Suddenly I had to prep sub-plans for an extended block period. I do NOT simply say, “read pages 22-35 and answer the questions on page 37”. Any fool can do that. I’m a teacher, not a baby-sitter.
     Teaching seniors has its hazards and the helicopter parents were filling my email with confirmation and counseling requests because Jr. was not getting the grade mom and dad wanted for him—nor was he showing the minimum responsibility I’d like him too.
     Then there were the Tri-annual Review of progress and Present Levels of Performance forms that Resource required to be filled out…”ASAP…” complete with a review of strategies used in the classroom for those students in question. One even required me to connect my accommodations (those based on their recommendations) to State Standards—nothing like having your professional judgment questioned. If these are so damn important, how about a heads up: “…in three weeks Student X is up for his Tri-annual…”?
     And then there was the soft-lock down wherein students had to be moved to a cordoned-off section of the campus while a medical emergency was tended to.
     Oh, yes…did I mention Prom Committee, Student Council and Staff Collaboration meetings, tutoring the needy and a constitution writing consult with the officer of a new pan-high school club? One might wonder where preparing, delivering and cleaning-up after lessons comes in—you know, the thing I was hired to do? So do I, so do I😦
     Sometimes I’d swear that site and D.O. administration conspire to come up with adjunct duties during quarter’s end and scramble to get grade books settled just to see how much more they can squeeze from us. I suppose I should be thankful that after 24+ years, I’m still light enough on my feet to do the dance, but as a result, I put in a week’s worth of (with the commute) 14 hour days.
     In my next life, I’m coming back as an art teacher—and that’s not a dig at the art department. Those crazy people work hard too, but their grading seems to go a lot quicker than it does for English teachers. I know that the amount of paper comes with the territory, but I must see a stack at least three feet tall every other week!
     What ever possessed me to choose Language Arts? Ah, yes, that must have been that love of literature and writing, which finally brings me around to the point: I did get the first lesson of HTTS done.

     Between work and dinner and sleep, a bagpipe lesson, minimal practice, a chapter or two of my latest read, loving but demanding relatives and a (now three week bout of Bronchitis that leaves my ribs sore and chest rattling) that keeps threatening to become something more sinister, I did it. It took me longer to do the lesson than I’d have hoped…about 10 days rather than a week, but I got it done!
     It might be worth noting how I approach the material. I know it’s too much effort for some, but it is a solid study for myself.
     First I d/l it all—and movies included—and then survey it all noting headings and parts after which I write up a table of contents and goals-and-objectives sheet. I then print lesson materials and place in their own labeled binder. When all is ready, I then read and annotate the lesson, with a highlighter in hand making notes and observations. After this I re-read the lesson while taking reading-notes in my note-book, recording the main points and then responding in note form. Finally I attempt the homework.
     I did not tackle the Quick Fix, the Walkthrough or the Hotseat portions of the lesson, all of which I have dealt with before on my first go round and will revisit in the future. One thing about Holly’s lessons is that they are packed with a serious amount of good solid material but considering the above, I think following Holly’s advice and concentrating on the main lesson is the best strategy for now.
     I did not get to the HTTS forum “First Writing Discussion” though I really wanted to so as to I feel part of the class. I may attempt to do so later on (the day of composition) if I can find time, but a stack of 150+ essays calls to me like a siren that won’t be denied and I’ll have to give them their due. Alas, that is the price paid for concentrating on Holly’s lesson: a Sunday spent grading papers rather than doing personals, convalescing or prepping Wednesdays blog-post.

     What do I want to accomplish with these blogged How To Think Sideways Sitreps? Not to be overly dramatic, but in a very real way, the hosts of Mordor surround the city and Grond is knocking at the gates. I believe, with all my heart, that I’m fighting a battle as grim as any described in the fantasy literature I love. It is a battle against time, my own weaknesses and the demands of a world I’ve created and must somehow recreate. Failure is not an option because I’m not sure I’d have the strength to rally once again. While the aim of the course is to help writers to a career in writing, that goal is so huge, it is too bright for me to contemplate right now. I cannot look into the sun. If I can simply and successfully complete each lesson, then I will consider it victory. What comes after will come.
     These Sitreps are then a battle report, a call to empty space to bear witness, a measure and method of self-accountability that I hope will fortify me to keep my grip and not let go as I have in the past. I will not blame circumstances any more: death in family, sickness, the demands of those without a clue. I am the captain of my fate. I am in charge. In the words of one of my literary characters,
     “The twin edged sword of responsibility means both that I can cut a path through the enemy as well as cut myself, but no matter which, it is I who wield the blade.”
     Sounds grim, doesn’t it…maybe overly dramatic? I know…but that’s because this is just about the most desperate and serious thing I have ever been moved to attempt and so much depends on it.