Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The School Year as a New Beginning

A new school year, even if you are not in school, is an opportunity for a new beginning. In some ways, it’s like a second New Year’s Day. You can’t really escape its influence either. Walk into any store nowadays and you will see sales on school supplies, clothes, and all the other stuff kids need to attend school in 2012. As a person blessed with a school-aged child, it’s truly an exciting time.

One of my passions in life is music, both listening and playing. Last night was the first rehearsal for my church orchestra. We call it an orchestra but, aside from the violins, it’s basically a band, so there’s a particular “band-ness” associated with everyone. It’s a feeling and an attitude that I’ve experienced since the fall of 1980 (!) when, in sixth grade, I first picked up my saxophone to learn how to play it. You can watch the “American Pie” movies and chuckle at the “band camp” references but, like every sub-group in the world, there are certain attitudes and outlooks when you are a band member. And you can call us band geeks, band nerds, or whatever, but we really don’t care. The comradeship of bandmanship is a thing unto itself and I love it.

While it was great seeing everyone again for the first time since early June and asking about the summer activities and such, that rehearsal was marked by an absence. One of the most funny, most friendly members of our group passed away in June. Doug was a trombone player—and all band folk can fill in the blanks on that—and he was one of the guys who always made rehearsals fun. He was also in our big band, playing bass trombone and boy did he talk the talk, that special jazz talk spoken only by folks who have been playing jazz for a lifetime. He sat right behind me in the jazz band, his notes and playing helping me keep the beat. 

Many of us played at Doug’s funeral in June. Our director was out of town and, through our small network, we were able to arrive on time, rehearse, and then perform in Doug’s honor. It was a moving time, that morning in June, and we’ve heard nothing but praise from Doug’s family and friends. 

Life, like music, keeps going on and on. We all know that, we all live our days with that intrinsic knowledge. But as rehearsal finished last night and the director specifically addressed Doug’s absence, he opened up the floor for anyone to speak. Sitting across the room from the trombones, I had known that Doug wasn’t there the entire rehearsal. But, at that moment, the memories hit me, moved me, helped me remember just what a precious thing life is.

Every day is not a guarantee to be a good day, but it is a guaranteed day. And this new school year, even if you are not involved in school at all, is a great time to pull out that list of New Year’s resolutions and see where you stand. If you’ve faltered a bit, make a renewed commitment to finish one by 31 December 2012. It can’t hurt, and it will likely make the rest of your year rewarding.

Me? My resolution of one thing still stands. I’m not there yet, but I’m aiming for it, and I’m letting this new school year act as a new beginning for the home stretch of 2012.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Simplicity of Travel

In an ironic bit of serendipity, my fellow author, Joelle Charbonneau, wrote about the increasing difficultly in unplugging when traveling on vacation. I, too, had that topic in the hopper as a topic worthy of discussion, but hadn't got around to it until now.

A little over a week ago, my family and I took a little vacation to Camp Wood, Texas, a small (768!) town about 2 hours west of San Antonio along the Neuces River canyon. We wanted to cap off the summer and get us ready for the new school year. As a reader, one of my favorite things to do is decide what reading material I'll bring. In the past, in order to have on hand any book that I *might* want to read given the destination--I'm one of those weird folk who tailors his reading to the vacation location--I'd be hamstrung with bringing a backpack full of things. I'm not kidding here. We'd have the suitcases, the carry on bags, and then there'd be the "book bag." The wife was puzzled. I'd shrug my shoulders.

With my Nook and the iPad, that bag full of books now became two slim electronic devices. Couple my composition book (the marbled-looking kind) and my bluetooth keyboard (to link with the iPad), my reading and writing material was wonderfully self-contained. I could have packed them in the suitcase, but opted for a backpack that was basically not needed. And, because I simply cannot go on a vacation without at least one physical book of some sort, literally on the way out the door, I grabbed my copy of Merle Miller's Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry Truman.

While my wife and I have cell phones, they are not smart phones. Yes, I'd love to have an iPhone, but, as of now, I don't have one. The only place in Camp Wood that has wifi was the public library, but, since I had no reason to go there, and since the hours were not a regular 8-5, I knew going in that I would not have internet access. The little house in which we stayed had DirectTV but we were blessedly away for the evening national news most days. We would glance at the local 10pm news out of San Antonio so we knew basically what was going on, but we weren't real worried about stuff. It was a vacation, after all.

Now, Joelle is a published author while I am, to date, not, so, understandably, she has many more deadlines that I have. The ones I have are all internal, on my own clock. It's a tad easier for me to just unplug. Going into past vacations pre-iPad, I never took my laptop, even as I was writing my first book. I'd always take the comp book and "unplug" from the electronic devices, too. I gave in with the iPad/keyboard combo and it wasn't bad at all.

What was great about the trip, what was simple, was that "my stack" of stuff consisted of the iPad, the Nook, the keyboard that I keep in its original box, and the Truman biography. Stacked together, they measured less than six inches tall. Everything that I brought occupied a nice, small, compact space. I didn't have my shelves of books I have here at the house with their spines staring down at me, calling me like sirens. I didn't have the other long boxes of comics doing the same thing. I didn't have the internet to use to chase some odd tidbit down a rabbit hole (still my biggest time waster). I had only that which I wanted to read and two modes of creating text.

And that's all I really needed. It was such a simple few days. I rose early like I always do, put on the coffee, and read the Truman biography for about an hour. Miller's book is basically a bunch of transcripts of his interviews with President Truman and his associates conducted in 1962 for a television show that was never made. If you've always heard about Truman's outlook on the world and his particular way of saying things, you should give this book a read. In our digital age, I'd love for those actual tapes to be digitized and made available. After an hour or so with Truman, I'd fire up the iPad/keyboard and bust out an hour's worth of whatever before the rest of the family began to stir. It was so simple.

Then we returned home, with all the shelves, the comic boxes, the internet, all of them begging to slice away just a little of our day. I'm not saying that I want to rid myself of my stuff, but there's a nice simplicity when you travel and you end up taking that which you need. When I pared down my actual reading needs for those few days, all the clutter here at the house seems, well, too much. I've still spent my mornings with Truman and I've finished the novel (the three novella Derek Storm story by "Richard Castle") I started in Camp Wood, but I still see all the things I *could* be reading when I sit in my library and read something. I do tune them out, but they still stare at me.

That's why I like vacations and the simplicity of travel. It's a chance to par things down to the essentials and, upon returning home, gives you a chance to reevaluate some of the things that might be cluttering up your life, be they digital or physical.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Creating Things the Old-Fashioned Way

For about a month now, I have had a crush on Kevin Smith. I have known about him the better part of 20 years, but never really paid attention to him. I've never seen one of his films, never listened to any of his podcasts (didn't even know he podcasted), and never read anything he's written.* And I would have likely continued on that trajectory for, well, ever if I hadn't happened upon another podcast over at SF Signal, THE site for all things science fiction and fantasy related. In episode 139, the discussion moved to include Batman (there's your crime fiction reference for you) and one of the panelists mentioned how ever good Star Wars fan needed to listen to the Kevin Smith podcast where he interviews Mark Hamill. Being such a fan, I searched out said podcast.

Kevin Smith and I, it turns out, share an abiding passion for Batman. His love of the Dark Knight is so great that he has created a unique podcast, Fatman on Batman, where he discusses Batman with a special guest. The Hamill episode, the first I listened to, was so good that the two of them talked for nearly three hours broken out into two podcasts. Now, to be honest, as much as I love Batman, based on the tip from the SF Signal podcast, I was expecting some great Star Wars anecdotes.

What I got was something completely different. The Hamill episodes barely touched on his days as Luke Skywalker. I didn't care, however, because what I learned is that one of my boyhood heroes is really a comic book geek like me. Throughout the two episodes, Hamill and Smith wax poetic about the life of a comic book and Batman fan in the pre-internet days. So engrossing were these two episodes that I've now listened to them twice.

And, joy for me, the new listener, Smith has posted an additional 9 podcasts. The interviews range from Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the creative forces behind Batman: The Animated Series, to some of the other voice actors on that show, a friend of Smith's, Walt Flanagan, and Ralph Garman, a long-time fan of the Adam West Batman TV show. Aside from the sheer, unadulterated joy these folks derive from their shared love of Batman and comics is something that's so obvious for a creative type that it's easy to overlook.

At the beginning of each episode, Smith has the guest basically give their origin story. That is the chain of events that led them to their moment in Bat-History. Every one of these folks, no matter if they are artists, writers, or actors, all paid their dues, Smith included. In these days of "overnight" successes no matter the field, it's great to see that normal folks who have dreams and talent, can, after a lot of hard work, make their mark on the world.

So many potential authors have, as their secret dream, the desire to write The Book, the surprise hit that will vault them to stratospheric sales and monies. I don't think that some authors want to write More Than One Book. I do, and I work at it. And that's why, in listening to the stories of the Bat-Folk I'm reminded that good, hard, consistent work while not always being flashy can, in the end, pay dividends.

If you love good discussion about the creative process, have an affinity for Batman and comics, and are not bothered by profane language, I cannot recommend Smith's Batman podcasts highly enough.

*In these past weeks, I have not only listened to all of Smith's Batman podcasts (some twice), I've read his first Batman book, Cacophony, checked out his next Bat-Book, The Widening Gyre, and two of his Green Hornet comic trade paperbacks from the library, got a copy of his first film, Clerks, and started the audio version of his non-fiction book, Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good.Yeah, I'm infatuated, but I'm loving what I'm consuming. Anyone have any recommendations?

Album of the Week: John Mellencamp's The Lonesome Jubilee

I read that yesterday was the 25th (!) anniversary of this album's release. While I tend to prefer his 1985 album, Scarecrow, as a whole, Jubilee has my all-time favorite Mellencamp song, "Cherry Bomb." For a young man who had graduated from high school that summer of '87, this tune spoke to a longing for a place I never knew. And in that crucial summer when I moved out of the house and off to college, that song captured the closing of one phase of life and the opening of another coupled with the knowledge I had at the time that life, for all that may be ahead, would never be quite so simple again. At the age of 18, when I listened to his words "...seventeen has turned to thirty-five...", I could not comprehend being in my middle thirties. Now, from a vantage point beyond the age of 35, I'm listening again to this album a quarter century removed from that summer and welcome the nostalgia. I am content with my life as it is and have few, if any, regrets. Life has been good to me and, as Mellencamp sings, "When I think back about those days/All I can do is sit and smile."