Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Week, a Coincidence, A Deal and a Visit

Good week, with an amazing deal and a visit and some good work. But before I get to that, file this one under karma, or at least under Interesting Coincidences.

Last week I wrote about getting more organized in my work – and I've been doing pretty well, except for the last few days, about which more later – and about how it's fine to have a dream, but you need to plan for how you're going to achieve that dream.

And then I got this in a fortune cookie.

"Acting on a good idea is better than just having a good idea."

A coincidence, sure. But still, the kind that makes you go, "Hmmmmm."

Spent a few hours Saturday at an estate sale in Old Metairie. The house belong to a guy who recently turned 100. His wife had died years ago and his family was moving him up to where they could help him out. It was a big house

Anyway, there was decades and decades of "things." The owner and his wife had obviously traveled everywhere, he appeared to have been a sailor, he had been active in several carnival groups. As a fellow reporter once said after coming back from an interview with a little old lady who had been collecting for decades, "The Knick knack shelves where chockablock with bric a brac."

We picked up some interesting items, including a small Chinese vase that might be worth exactly what we paid for it – $15 – or around $250. Doesn't matter. We got it because we liked it. Same with the Scandinavian pitcher. A couple of vases. And we got a tuxedo that almost fits Max – whole thing, jacket, ruffled shirt, cummerbund, bow tie and pants. Well, the pants will never fit him. The previous owner was a tall man. But Max will grow into the jacket soon and the shirt already fits. Ten bucks for the whole outfit.

But the big thing was a set of Noritake China. There was a big stack of dinner plates – 14 I think – small plates, saucers, a tea ... there were a LOT of pieces. The only thing missing was most of the cups. There were only three left. Cups break, ya know.

And they were asking $65.

I don't know a lot about China, but I know that's not a much for that much dinnerware. Hell, that much Melmac plastic would have cost more than that. I looked the pattern up online. It''s a discontinued design, but it's by no means worthless. Plates were going for $10 a piece. The creamer was listed at about $35. The sugar bowl was listed at $15. And on and on.

They wanted cash, so I had to run to a nearby bank ATM. When I got back Tori was wrapping it in paper and packing it into a plastic bin, with a bemused look on her face. She had approached the women running the sale and said she wanted to buy the China. One of the woman said, "Great. How about $40?" Tori said, "Sure." They even threw in the plastic bin and paper.

As a writer I don't do a lot of bargaining and haggling, but it seems that's backwards. When you're negotiating a sale, you don't lower the price after you've made the sale, do you? We were prepared to pay the listed price. Tori said we were going to buy it. I would have thought that was a done deal. I guess they just like bargaining.

Anyway, we've got several hundred dollars (at least) worth of China. Not sure what we're going to do with it. Maybe give it to one of the kids, maybe sell it online. But even if we just use it to replace the department store stuff we use now, we're way ahead of the game.

Also last week, we had a visit from Robyn, one of Tori's closest friends and of all our Oregon friends the one she's known longest. We hadn't seen her in two and a half years, when she came out to New Orleans to help us through the firstAlex birthday since she died. Before that, while we were in the V.I. she was in Australia. Then she moved to L.A., which she hated, and now she and Daniel have moved to Knoxville, Tenn. (Long story not to be repeated here.)

Robyn had loaded up their stuff and was driving across country in a Ford pickup with a 4-cylinder engine, so progress was slow. But she got here earlier than expected. We expected her late Thursday, but after a short stop at an extremely noisy motel on the Texas/Louisiana border, she decided to hit the road and arrived in our driveway at 3 a.m. Instead of knocking on the door or window, she and her cat Owen slept in the front seat. So when I got up at 6, there they were. I knocked on the driver's side window and she jumped about as far as you can jump in the cab of a pickup.

So she and Tori had a good day together, then she had a "bonus day" when she slept in until almost 11 a.m. – which she never does. The road had taken its toll and she needed the extra day. She and Tori got extra time together, and Robyn made it to Tennessee on Saturday after a grand motor tour of the deep South – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Spreading Out as a Writer

Starting to get back in the writing swing, which I have let trail off a bit the last couple of months. Between various family errands and day-job work, it's easy to let that slide. But a couple of things have popped up the last few days to give me that kick in the pants I need to keep going.

The first was this quote from a literary agent's blog. She was writing about how not to give your "power" away. This line rang true to me.

"Everyone, no matter their career or chosen field, must do the hard work of becoming good at what they do. That’s where a great deal of your power lies – in your ability to study, learn, research, practice, whatever it takes to become the best. Don’t give up this key element of control over your future." Rachel Gardner

And this one even more so. It came from The Writer magazine, in an interview with notoriously obsessive, nit-picky Broadway playwright Doug Wright.

"If the subject isn't sufficiently compelling to occupy your time and attention for the three to five year time span it takes to write and rewrite a good play, then why should an audience give you 120 minutes out of their lives?"

Three to five years. Did you see that? It's a rebuke to those who think, for some reason, that writing is or should be easy. We've all heard them say it. "Oh, when I leave this job I'm going to write." Like it's just something you decide to do. You wouldn't say, "Maybe I'll try my hand at brain surgery," or "I'll tear down my car's engine this weekend." Not if you have no experience at medicine or mechanics. But people think they can start writing, because how hard could it be?

Someone said that to me just last week. Seriously. "I'm retiring next year, and then I'm going to start writing." And maybe she will. But I always want to ask, "OK, but what are you doing RIGHT NOW to get ready for that?"

Because you don't just say, "Now I'm a writer" and money starts rolling in. Even if you're good, some savant with all this raw talent, it just doesn't work that way. From the day you decide to start writing a story, with luck and hard work, you might start to see some return three or four years down the road.

And that was where the third kick in the pants came in. Mystery writer James Scott Bell is one of a dozen mystery writers/editors who contribute to the Kill Zone blog, and he's far and away the most helpful. The blog is not specifically or only for mystery writers, although of course that's their forte, but 95 percent of it is generally applicable to writing.

In his column Sunday (which I highly recommend you read here) Bell looks at an article on the habits of wealthy people, and applies those habits to writing. I think they really are applicable to just about any endeavor, but he's a writer, I'm a writer. We're talking about writing.

What it boils down to is asking yourself, on a daily basis, "What am I doing today that will lead me to become better in my field, and improve my chances of success." What am I reading, what am I studying, what am I doing today that will help me ultimately succeed?

He also draws an important distinction between having dreams and having a plan. "I'm going to be a New York Times best-selling author" is a dream. So is, "I'm going to make enough money on my writing to buy a six-pack of beer every other week." It's nice to have dreams like that, but just having dreams doesn't get you very far.

It's your plan that gets you there. In an earlier post, Bell once wrote, "Plans are what put running shoes on your dreams." A dream is something you hope will happen. A plan is what you do to increase the odds in your favor.

And here's maybe the most important thing Bell said. (Seriously, read the column.) A plan has to be measurable. You have to be able to count the steps, you have to be able to gauge your progress. If you can't, it's just a dream, just wishful thinking.

And part of what Bell does to achieve that really opened my eyes.

"Since 2001 I have kept track of my writing on a spreadsheet. I can tell you how many words I wrote, and on what projects, day by week by month by year. I prioritize my projects and know each day which one I want to work on."

I hate spreadsheets. I can see how they're handy for accountants and people who need to count large numbers of things, but I hate when I have to use them. Still, I can see how this is a good idea.

I have a target when I sit down to write. I always aim for 1,000 words a day. If I go over, that's gravy, and I usually do (my best day I got on a roll and knocked out almost 5,000 words. It felt amazing.) But it's very easy to say, I've got to do this, that or the other thing today, and not get around to writing on my WIP (work in progress.) That's a dangerous. It's easy to get out of the swing. Which is what I did.

But now I've got a spread sheet going, and I will mark my progress every day – every day – not just for my WIP, but for all the writing I do for the Source and for this blog. It's harder to ignore. I know that if I skip a day, that blank space is going to be in my word-count log forever. Or until I die, whichever comes first. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Why Must He Be So Reasonable?

Had my follow up visit with the doctor Thursday. It went fine, but it would probably have been more helpful if he hadn't kept being all reasonable.

We went over the results of all the tests and it was all pretty much what I'd told him six weeks ago – high cholesterol, a little too much weight. Turns out I don't have gout, just a sore toe. And my heart is fine, that's always good news.

So I'll be going back to see him in six months – and in the meantime I'll have lost some weight and lowered my cholesterol. I'll do the latter in part through a statin drug he's prescribed – which means no more grapefruit juice for me! Damn! I love grapefruit juice. There's half a bottle in the refrigerator. Ah well. The things we do simply to live longer.

As to the former, lose weight. Well, there ain't no secrets or surprises there. Eat less, and eat smarter, and exercise more. The plan is, I'll take the statin and restructure my eating and workout habits. Then at the end of the six months we'll check the cholesterol level again. If it's down enough (and by "enough" I mean roughly in half) then I'll go off the statins and see if the new, smart-eating me can keep it down.

I've already dropped six pounds since my first meeting with the doc Feb. 2, so I'm on my way but have a ways to go. It is a not inconsequential percentage of my current body mass. Biggest thing I've done is stop drinking milk. I was raised with milk, to me it doesn't feel like a meal without a glass of milk, or two. But milk, of course, is a liquid devised by mother nature to turn calves into 500 pound steers quickly and efficiently. So now my only milk comes on my morning Cheerios.

The doctor gave me – not a diet, but a sheet on how to eat more sensibly. First, do most of your own cooking. People who prepare their own meals tend to be healthier and have less weight problems than people who eat out a lot. Check. Already do that. I probably do 70 percent of the cooking in the house. Second, do the bulk of your shopping on the periphery of the supermarket – shop the outer walls first. That's where the produce, meat, seafood departments tend to be. As the doc said, "Buy food that looks like food." As much as possible, refrain from stuff in boxes or cans.

(Of course, the bakery often also is on the store's periphery, but I didn't point that out. It'll be our little secret.)  

Again - check. I already buy very little of the processed foods. I don't understand why, for instance, a person would buy a jar of spaghetti sauce loaded with sugar, dyes and preservatives, when it's so easy to make, and tastes so much better.

So as we talked about healthy choices (At dinner the contents of plate should be half plant – salad, vegetables, fruit, that kind of thing.) Starch – rice or potatoes – should be the smallest portion.

And this is where his reasonableness became a problem. I'd heave a sigh and say something like, "Goodbye red meat," and he'd say, "Oh no, a little red meat is fine, in fact ..." and he'd reel off several reasons why a little beef – grass fed, not corn fed – would be just fine. Or how I have to have a regular "cheat day" when I'm allowed to break the rules. We even had a spirited discussion about the awesomeness of bacon! How is that supposed to help me?

That's not what I need. I need a task master. I need someone to get all in my face and shout, "No more white rice! Step away from the cookies! Eat this quinoa, then drop and give me 10!"

No, I've gotta be the grownup here. Any yelling at me will have to be done by me. The grown up.

Speaking of quinoa, I have now tried it and don't plan to again. When we were at the Whole Foods a couple of weeks ago we picked some up. As the girl at the register rang us up we mentioned we didn't know how to cook it yet. She gave us some tips.

"So you eat it?"


"Is it any good?"

"Oh no," she said without hesitation. "But I eat it."

Well, good for her. We tried it. It's supposed to be very good for you, but cooking it made kind of a mess and it tasted sort of vile. In fairness maybe if we were better at cooking it, it might not have been completely vile. But I don't care.

It's no longer on our diet. I don't eat quinoa. You may quote me.

And I don't think that's being unreasonable.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Our Biggest Challenge Yet on the Kitten Front

We have a new kitten in the house, and this one will be a challenge.

We have fostered three kittens (here and here about halfway down) for the Spaymart, kittens that have undergone some kind of trauma and had trouble learning to socialize. And in each case we've been able to help them calm down and get adopted into homes where they're now loved and loving members of the family.

Kitten in the Closet
The new one is about eight weeks, but that's a guess. She was part of a litter of four found int he wild and brought to the Spaymart. Two were adopted. This one and the third got sick and were at a vet's office that – well, let's say care for the animals seemed to be secondary to the vet's convenience. The third died. And the one with us now was pretty badly traumatized.

We were told going in that, if we can't make any headway with her, they have a feral cat colony, so no pressure. That's not a great image to start with. And she sure showed no sign of wanting to be part of a family. She's scared.

Tori opened the cat carrier and she dashed behind the couch, where she spent most of her first day. We knew she used the cat box – which was kind of a miracle since it's in the laundry room and we never had a chance to show it to her – but we never saw her. Shame too, she's a very pretty cat.

Unlike the other three kittens we've fostered, this one didn't even have a name. She does now, but she had to earn it.

The second day she ran into our bedroom, burrowed into the closet, and spent the next two days there. We'd peek in, pushing aside the hanging clothes, talking to her the whole time and never reaching for her. All we could see was her eyes staring out. She didn't hiss, didn't strike out. Just stared.

Tori has spent hours, sitting outside the closet just talking and waving cat toys at her, the kind on the long flexible rod with a bunch of stuff fluttering around. And the cat started responding, tracking the beguiling objects and batting at them.

It's just a matter of patience. Lots and lots of that. We can't force anything. We haven't even tried to touch her yet. Just keep talking to her, keep playing with her, keep letting her know we're here and aren't going to hurt her. No sudden movements.

Ellen the Explorer
She mostly stayed in our closet for two days. We never saw her leave, but she did because the cat box was being used and the food disappearing.

She finally came out yesterday. And that's how she earned her name. We call her Ellen, because she came out of the closet.

She's spending most of her time behind the furniture in the living room. Right now I see she's very tentatively slipped around the corner, alert for any movement, ready to run. She's been at the food and water bowls, which are kind of out int he open, for about ten minutes. She's aware we're here, Tori at the kitchen table, me at my work station in the living room, and she's very cautious. Now she's exploring the living room. She's keeping her distance, but she's out.

Time. It's just a matter of time, I guess.

Friday, March 13, 2015

No News Is Good News

It's been two weeks since I took my cardiac stress test, and still no word on the results.

That's gotta be a classic case of "no news is good news," right. I mean, I've been imagining a phone call that starts with, "This is the hospital. Are you still alive?" I say "Yes," and they say, "Whew. That's great. Don't move. An ambulance is coming to get you."

But that hasn't happened, so I figure whatever the news eventually turns out to be, it can't be too bad, and it might even be good. So hooray for me.

By the way, for something called a "stress test," it was pretty boring. Took all morning, and it mostly involved sitting around waiting while the various things they gave me intravenously got circulated. Then they'd take some pictures of my innards, take some EKGs, pump in something else and make me wait more. Poor Tori, who came with me, missed all the "action," because there wasn't any, and because she couldn't come in the areas where they did the actual testing. Fortunately, she brought a book.

The only really difficult part was just getting from the place in the hospital where they did the IV to the place where they took the pictures, to the place where they did the EKG. It seemed as if they intentionally placed them at the farthest points away from each other in the hospital.

Since then I haven't really given it much thought. Just waiting for the results so I can get on with the next step – whatever that turns out to be – of making me healthy, or at least healthy-ish.

Catching up

Been a while since I posted. Lot of stuff going on, lot of it work, family stuff. Stuff I should be blogging about but I'm too busy doing it to take the time out to write much.

The family is good. Max is driving – I know, scary, but he's actually getting pretty good. Doesn't have a license yet, probably not until this summer. Louisiana, which is so backward in so many way, has some really strict laws about the process for kids getting licenses and what they can do when the first get them. But he's going through the hurdles.

Sunday, February 22, 2015


Tori and John on their hotel balcony. Happy.

Pirates, penguins, porpoises and more. What a great, serendipitous road trip we had.

Tori and I were talking about going to Fort Walton Beach, Fla., this June for the Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival. It's an easy drive from here, it's supposed to be a really good festival, and our friend Tom Mason is the featured performer.

Tori on the road.
But we don't know the town. The only time either Tori or I have been in Florida was stopovers on flights from the states to the islands. We were having trouble figuring out where would be a good place to stay so we could enjoy the festival and do as little driving as possible during the event.

Finally, Tori said, "What the hell! Let's go!" Thursday we jumped in the car with our toothbrushes and a change of underwear each and four hours later we were in Fort Walton Beach. (Whoever told us it was two hours to Pensacola lied – or drove about 130 miles an hour. But that's OK, it was a nice drive. Who knew Mobile has such a great skyline?) We felt right at home. It's a beachside town, and there's something similar about them, whether in Florida, Southern Cal or Oregon. A certain sandy funkiness that we recognized instantly.

Gulf of Mexico sundown.
Pirate and pirate
Unlike our last attempt to enjoy the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, this was a really nice place. I could stay there a while.

We found the waterfront park where the festival takes place, and found a resort approximately a hundred yards away. That would be perfect. We spent the night there, liked it, and the next morning we reserved the last room they had available for the early June festival weekend, a room big enough for us and Kate and Max.

While we were packing up to check out, the phone rang. It was my doctor, who wanted to talk over the results of my blood test. Nothing to worry about, in fact he said it was pretty much exactly what I had told him when I first walked into his office. The only thing to be concerned about is high cholesterol, which I had told him. I've got a cardiac stress test Thursday and assuming all goes well (or at least well-ish) we'll talk about how to get the cholesterol down.

That having been said, a big, greasy road trip breakfast was off the schedule. Tori insisted. For some reason, she wants to keep me around.

We asked at the desk for a good local spot for breakfast would be and they directed us to an out-of-the-way, not at all touristy restaurant called the Neighborhood Cafe. Well named, because that's what it is. It's a neighborhood place that tourists wouldn't even find, let along want to go to. But it was really good. I had an omelet made with egg whites only. It was delicious, and the best part was the hash browns. I'd swear they were cooked in bacon grease. Maybe not the best thing for my heart, but delicious!

But here's the thing –

The cafe was full up – Friday, I guess, the local clientele comes in for their chicken fried steak or biscuits and gravy. And except for the table of guys from the nearby Air Force Base and one other table, we were the youngest customers there – by far! I'm not kidding, I can't think of the last time I saw so many walkers and canes. It's not often these days that I walk into a place and lower the average age of the room.

After breakfast we stopped in at the chamber of commerce, which has a sign boasting "the Billy Bowlegs Museum," which turns out to be their conference room with a bunch of pictures on the wall. We introduced ourselves, Tori mentioned TLAPDay, and the next thing I know the chamber director is out there signing me up to do some radio spots announcing this year's festival.

Tori chats with Cranberry.
Tori and Cranberry
In the afternoon we went to the local aquarium, the Gulfarium. I'm sure during the tourist season it's a terrific place. In February, it was cold, cloudy, there was hardly anyone there, and half the exhibits were closed for the season. But it was a fun afternoon with a dolphin show, at the end of which, Tori got to feed a penguin. She and a girl, about 12 or so, were given instructions and told to sit cross legged. The little penguin, a South African penguin called Cranberry, wasn't interested in eating. Instead, she jumped right into Tori's lap!

It was, all in all, a terrific road trip, two days of just me and Tori. The weather was cold, the sky was  cloudy, and we had a great time together. And this the same week that we celebrated Mardi Gras.

      Sometimes life is too good.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Picture This: Pirates Prowl the Streets for Mardi Gras

It's an old, old saying, but it bears repeating.

To most of the world, yesterday was Tuesday. In New Orleans, it was Mardi Gras! In most of the world, people went through their normal weekday routine. They may have work a colorful tie to the office, or had a little party after work. But they went to the office, they went to work.

Here's the whole city was one big party.

I was again a guest of the Krewe of Pirates, the New Orleans group that parades through the crowded streets of the French Quarter and the surrounding area, pushing the pirate ship over the cobble stones, firing the bead cannon into the crowd. (Although the bead cannon was a little disappointing this year, lot of misfires. I think we need cannon Viagra.)

It was a great time. I learned a couple of important lessons the last time I went with the KoP. You can read about it here, here and here.

One – I got some gel insoles for my boots. In 2013, by the time we got back my feet hurt so badly I could barely walk. The insoles made all the difference. My legs are sore, and my toes were sore, but the soles of my feet were fine.

Two – There is NO place to go to the bathroom when you're out on the streets. No place. The bars and restaurants all have "Restroom for Patrons Only" signs up and they mean it. I spied one bank of portapotties, but the line was as long as most parades. When we got back to our starting point two years ago, I was practically doubled over from the bladder pressure, and I swear, I timed it and it took a full two minutes to pee.

So this year I did not drink my usual half a pot of coffee in the morning, and I stayed away from the beer and champagne. I drank rum from my flask, and I nipped at it, no guzzling. It felt SO much better.

So I had a great time. A GREAT time. Met some terrific pirates I'm proud to call brother. Reconnected with the boys from the Whiskey Bay Rovers, a group of maritime musicians from Lafayette, La., and great guys.They were along for the ride, and sang a tune at the bar.

Tori couldn't come along this time. Max is in the EJHS band and they were marching in the Krewe of Argus parade in Metairie (you wouldn't believe how many parades they have during Mardi Gras – about 30, I think) and Tori went along as one of the parent chaperones. She walked 6.2 miles keeping the crowds away from the kids and making sure they kids got water when needed. I only walked 3.7 miles, albeit pushing a pirate ship, and I got rum! I win.

You can see a video of the fun here.

As always, thanks to Charles Duffy and all the members of the Krewe of Pirates. It was a rollicking good time and I was delighted to be asked aboard. Now for some pix.

Eric of the Whiskey Bay Rovers

Manning the bead cannon.

Irish, a captain of the Krewe of Pirates.

Yeah, that's exactly what it looks like. 

Pirates on the prowl!

Steve of the Whiskey Bay Rovers.

Ol' Chumbucket flanked by Jared and Steve of the WBR.

Irish – A big man full of love – and rum.

A pirate from Tampa – the home of Gasparilla.

Charles Duffy, master of the fleet of KoP.

Not sure what this is supposed to be.

All sorts of costumes take the streets.

The streets become on big party!

Mardi Gras is for everyone!

Dodging a cannon shot of beads.

There's quite a lot of canonical costumes.

This guy's suit could have come from my own closet.

My favorite shot of the day – love the "Praise Cheeses" sign.

Irish's buddy, Shane.

A small group of Christians rally each year in front of the cathedral,
trying to convince revelers to change their ways. Fat chance.

Gandalf the Gray finds that he cannot pass.