Tuesday, February 19, 2019

What's Your Mood, Dude?

If you were alive in the mid-70s, you probably owned or knew someone who owned a mood ring. These cheesy accessories featured a stone which changed colors, supposedly according to the wearer's emotions. In reality, the stone was a piece of glass with a layer of liquid crystals in the base. These crystals rearranged themselves based on the ambient temperature, causing them to reflect light in different ways and appear as different colors. Whether they could in any way reflect the mood of the wearer is highly doubtful, but it was cool, relatively low-cost technology in an era when simple four function "pocket" calculators cost the equivalent of $250 in todays money and the handful of existing "fax" machines took hours to transmit a single page and ran five figures.

What you may not have considered is that mood rings never really went away, they just grew up, got more capable and became liquid crystal displays. In fact, there's a good chance that you are reading this on a computer, tablet or phone screen that is the great-great grandchild of that silly ring you wore in high school. Now, if we could just find a use for those old platform shoes and bell-bottom pants.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Fix It, Don’t Junk It

Thirty-nine years ago this month, the teachers of Port Clinton City Schools went on strike. They wanted better pay--shocking, I know--and more say in curriculum and class scheduling. After two weeks, the school board negotiated a settlement which gave them some of what they wanted. At the time, teachers in rural school districts like Port Clinton rarely went on strike like their urban counterparts. Their relative success in the strike of 1980 paved the way for teachers in other small districts across the state, for better or worse. Although the strike lasted only a handful of days, I recall vividly the weird, often absurd, lengths the school administration went through to keep the schools open through it.

Unions were still strong in Ohio in those days, and probably half the students were kept home by their parent on principle. Since my friend Carl’s father was the superintendent of schools and my mother was a non-union cafeteria worker, I felt a responsibility to show up. Plus, I was a senior in high school, on cruise control until graduation and wanted to see how this was all going to work out.

The "substitute" curriculum the high school rolled out was based on short courses taught by decidedly non-educator "subject matter experts." To a large extent, this involved glorified book reports on popular tomes of the day. Some of these were valuable, a discussion of Bob Woodward's book, The Brethren, which was about the Supreme Court, taught by a local attorney, for instance. But it also included some laughable attempts. One that sticks out in my mind was called "Fix It, Don’t Junk It,” and consisted largely of students bringing in non-operational small appliances and watching as a guy who ran a handyman business in town fixed them. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for more STEM classes and a respect for the trades, but this wasn’t really a class. The handyman didn’t teach us how to repair the items (which would have been useful) or even explain what he was doing (which would have been interesting, at least), he simply repaired them in front of us with an occasional off-hand remark like, “that’s really on there tight.” I'm sure some parents were grateful to get the old vacuum cleaner up and running again, but from an educational standpoint, it was pretty iffy.

A few days into the strike, Carl and I had had enough and decided it would be a good time to make some college visits, so off we went on a whirlwind tour of tiny, expensive private schools that Carl was considering and I certainly couldn’t afford. I was however, happy to eat free in their cafeterias and stay free in their dorms while being talked up by the recruiting staff. By the time we got back in town the strike had ended and normal school started back up a few days later.

It was a minor distraction that I suspect most town folk have largely forgotten. In fact, when I went out on Google to check facts for this post, I was surprised to find that there is virtually no record of it other than a brief mention an article about one of the union leaders, Nancy Dunham. Ah, Mrs. Dunham, now that's a whole 'nuther story.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Wouldst Thou Like To Live Deliciously?

I watched the movie “The Witch” on Netflix last week as part of my Halloween horror flick viewing. I had seen it a couple of years ago when it came out on DVD, but we were having trouble with the contrast on the TV back then and parts of the film, which is rather darkly shot to begin with, were just shadows moving across the screen, and it was difficult at times to understand the context of the dialog.
Okay, now I get it. Thomasin was talking to a goat. Somehow that is significantly more frightening than just the disembodied voice of Satan. And the goat following her as she walks naked though the forest toward the caterwauling of the coven is even creepier.
Sometimes the details make all the difference.
I am frequently asked during my book readings and signings where I get my ideas. The truth is, I don’t really know. They just... happen. I am completely unable to draw, and think the talent to take what one sees and convey it into a two dimensional representation is nothing short of miraculous. But when I ask artists how they do it, I always get the same answer... I don’t know, I just draw.
I get ideas in one of two ways. The first, and most common, is what I call “rearrangement.” Rearrangement is taking a basic idea found in some other work and asking myself, “how would I have written that?” My unpublished short story “Blue Ruin” is an example. It takes place in the same universe as "The Walking Dead," but posits the question; how would survivors living on the coast with easy access to the relative safety of the seas handle a zombie apocalypse. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when the "Fear The Walking Dead" spinoff tackled the same question. I disagreed with their sea-going storyline - I still believe a boat is the safest place to be - but I get why finding a safe place and continuing a horror story are two different goals.
The short story “Uncle Augie’s Blind” from my latest book, Ben and the Art of Lawnmower Maintenance, was similarly inspired by an obscure Stephen King story, “Uncle Otto’s Truck,” I read in Yankee Magazine when I was in college. The plots are completely different, but the setup and style of storytelling is similar.
I call the other way I get ideas the Eureka! Moment. In this scenario, something new, and often nonsensical, comes to me out of nowhere. I was hiking in the mountains yesterday, for instance, and the phrase, “ring me up for souse” popped into my head. Now, I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard that anywhere else, and I’m equally sure it’s of no practical value, except as the punchline of a joke or maybe the topic of a blog post, but there you have it. These Eureka! Moments are usually not fully realized concepts, but often just a title or a name. The title of the book I am currently working on, Craven Fork, came to me that way, as did the name of the main character, Owen Sinclair. The rest of the characters and the plot just sort of “unfolded” as I thought more about them.
Circling back to "The Witch," I have always liked the scenario of a colonial family scratching a living from of a plot of ground on the fringes of a great and mysterious forest, but I’ve never discovered the story or the voice to tell it. Maybe someday.

What's Your Mood, Dude?

If you were alive in the mid-70s, you probably owned or knew someone who owned a mood ring. These cheesy accessories featured a stone whic...