OUT OF REMISSION

I’m back. No, I haven’t been diagnosed once again with cancer, but I have been remiss. I have been quite busy lately, and that has prevented me from catching up my blog.

Therefore, I am “out of remission” and posting something new. I will try to be more proactive and blog more often in the future. I have no idea how many people are reading this beyond myself since nobody clicks “LIKE” at the bottom of the entries, but I will continue with this even if I am indeed the only one reading. It’s a cathartic action on my part and hopefully a pleasant reaction on the part of anyone who falls upon this and reads it.

That said, here is the interesting part of doing this. You see, I apparently DO have readers out there. Some I may know, and some I almost certainly don’t know, unless the IP address is giving me a wrong location on my Analytics page of this website.

Some people in China are reading my writings. I know absolutely nobody in China. Someone in Oregon near the border with Washington has read me as well, often visiting my page numerous times over the course of several days or weeks. China IP addresses show up occasionally. Recently, someone in Illinois spent quite a bit of time on my website, reading from various pages. Furthermore, in the past week I've had readers from Maine and Maryland visit my page. It does make me wonder at the reach the internet provides us.

China isn’t the only foreign nation represented in my analytics. I’ve had readers from India, Ireland, England, Germany, and even Russia. So, while my friends might not be visiting my website, total strangers are, and perhaps that’s even better.

Okay, enough on that. I’m just rather impressed that complete strangers are reading my blog.

If you aren’t following me on Facebook, you might not know that I won an award recently for a short story I wrote. I am the proud recipient of the Golden Nib Award for my story “As Luck Would Have It.” The judge’s comments follow:

The story was very engaging. The police procedural work reflected a high degree of realism. I also enjoyed how seamlessly the POV shifted from the daughter to the mother to the lead detective. The story was impossible to put down. Once you started it, you had to follow to see how it ended.

I will be posting the story eventually on this website, but not today. I have to keep something for the future, right?

And . . . enough of that as well. It’s a good story, if I do say so myself.

Finally, the holidays are upon us, and that is a time when thoughts of family pervade. I spent Thanksgiving Day in Winston-Salem with my niece (who prepares the meal the way my mother always did). The meal and company were wonderful, and it gave me time to reflect on how lucky I am.

However, I wasn’t finished there. I returned home early on what is called “Black Friday” and made a broccoli casserole to take to yet ANOTHER niece’s home for Thanksgiving dinner with my wife, Dee’s, family. We enjoyed a great time together, and I was even treated to a fabulous oyster stew as a side dish to the turkey and trimmings. YUMMY!! Dee’s niece, Tera, is married to a wonderful young man, Rick, and his father and stepmother were down as well with their family.

It really was a great time, and the joy of family made everything even better. Not only that, but I ate TWO Thanksgiving meals this year! To top it all off, my sister-in-law, who had recently finished reading Floating Twigs, was talking about how wonderful it was, and Rick’s father and stepmother bought two copies of the book—one for themselves and one for her mother, who loves to read.

Christmas is now on the near horizon, and it will be special as well. The sad part is my “turning six in January” granddaughter figured out on her own that Santa wasn’t real. She’s a smart one. Her parents—my stepdaughter and her husband—told her she was right but admonished her NOT to tell any of her friends or her little sister (once she’s old enough to appreciate the existence of that spry old elf). Alex agreed it would not be nice to spoil their belief in St. Nick. Again, she’s scary smart.

Well, that’s it for now. I have to save something for my next post, which I hope will be in another week or so.

Take care, everyone! And Happy Holidays to you!

What Dreams May Come, A Confession

It has begun. The dreams, I mean. Whenever I am apprehensive about something, I dream about it. You know, like the rest of the world. The problem is that these dreams never seem to go well. In fact, the only good part about the dream was waking up and experiencing the relief that it was a dream.

The catalyst this time is I have an important event coming up in my life. On September 15, eleven days from today, I will launch my first novel into the world. Friends and family, along with people I don’t or barely know, will show up at two o’clock at Ashland Coffee and Tea in Ashland, Virginia, to see me and, hopefully, buy my novel, Floating Twigs. I’ve been apprehensive about it for a while now.

First, I worried that I might not have ordered enough books. I’m still worrying about that, in fact. I ordered sixty, and it’s too late to order more without spending a prohibitive amount on shipping. Of course, what I want to do is sell fifty-nine of them because once I sell the sixtieth book, I’ll fret about what to do if someone else wants one. Yes, it will be available at Amazon, and there will be a Kindle version, but the truth is that once the person leaves Ashland Coffee and Tea, he or she might decide not to buy a copy after all. I know that won’t be catastrophic, but it will bother me—for weeks.

Then last night—or rather early this morning—I dreamed I forgot to bring the books to the event. Yes, I know how impossible that is. Then, probably triggered by my happy agreement with a writer friend to allow her to “buy” my book using her book as the currency, I had quite a few people there with used books they wanted to exchange for mine. It was chaotic, as dreams often are, especially troubling ones. And as anyone who truly knows me will tell you, I loathe chaos.

However, even in the chaos of a bad dream, seeds are planted.

I say that because one other good thing besides waking up to discover it was only a dream happened. When I awoke, a wonderful opening sentence concerning chaos, fear, and other “negative” emotions popped immediately into my head. Sometimes it happens that way. I will be doing something totally unrelated to writing when a sentence or idea will invade my brain and settle there, refusing to go away until I can write it down. Once written, the sentence or idea percolates, which is what I call it when an idea takes up residence in my brain to develop. Others call this allowing the idea to cook. Either way it’s a good metaphor.

Anyway, I got out of bed, opened a new document on my computer, and typed the sentence, making small changes to its structure. (Ah! The percolating has begun!) Now the idea it spawned will bug me until it grows roots and branches to become a story or maybe even another novel. If it becomes a story, I will write it in a day or two and be done with it, taking time from writing Hell is Empty, my current novel. If the idea becomes a novel, it will have to wait until I finish this one and possibly the three other novels that have been percolating for a while now. Which one I write all depends on how much a novel is screaming to be written. One is already beginning to knock rather loudly.

I know other dreams about my book launch will invade my sleep over the next eleven days. I suppose if the seed of a book or story is born from the chaos of the dream, it will be worth it. But in all honesty, I’d prefer to come up with the idea and let the dreams be good ones.

One Book Down. Another on the Way.

Well, it took a while, but my first novel is now complete. For a writer, complete does not mean the manuscript is done. That happened about a year ago. The rest of the process is where the work really starts. The writing is work--hard work--but it's the fun part. The publishing is the meticulous part of writing, and quite honestly something of a pain. Let's just say I will never again try to merge two pictures into one for the cover of a book. If I later find a publisher, their graphics team can whip out this stuff in no time. Me? I had to hire a friend who'd done this before, and while she did a great job, it was not easy in the least, mostly due to the requirements of CreateSpace.

I decided to self-publish through Amazon's CreateSpace for several reasons. First, I wanted to get my book out there for people to read. What good is a book if nobody can access it, right? There's a certain "uh-huh" look you get when you say you've written a novel but it can't be read yet because it's not published.

Second, I faced the fact that I'm not getting any younger, and spending five years or more trying to get an agent, which is almost always required to get a "large" publishing house to publish a novel, followed by waiting for the agent to get said publisher to publish my book did not suit my sense of "getting the book out there." The fact I have beaten cancer once, and the chances of getting the disease again is much higher for me than it is for those who've never had it also went into my decision. I also recently found out I have atrial fibrillation, so the heart isn't in the best shape either. So, I was faced with a "do you want to ensure you're still alive when the book comes out?" decision as well. 

Finally, I found that a great many very good books are now being self-published. In the "old" days, self-publishing was viewed as being done by those not good enough to find a publisher. "Vanity Press" was a sort of bad word in the publishing arena. Back then, a writer who decided to self-publish his book would contract with a vanity press for a certain number of copies. This was an expensive undertaking. That is one great thing about CreateSpace. It's a "print-on-demand" book creation website, meaning they don't print the book until it is ordered online by a reader or the author. 

However, back in the time before self-publishing became part of the mainstream in book sales and marketing, the one and only book I ever saw published by a vanity press was awful. This was in the early 1970's, and the few chapters I read were painful. Chapters averaged about 400 words; the heroine was a Civil War era "damsel in distress" seeking love; and furthermore, the racism of the author was evident in nearly every chapter involving an African-American. (Let's just say these people weren't referred to in that way in the book.)

As I said: Awful.

But times are different now. These days, contests are everywhere that are strictly for self-published books, and I do plan to enter as many as I can. Usually, the winner--and possibly other books deemed worthy of becoming a finalist in the contest--gets a "real" publisher. The winner and perhaps second and third place finishers get a monetary award, which would also be nice to have land in my lap. I am aware that winning or even placing high enough to get a look-see from a publisher is more than difficult; it's nearly impossible. It's tantamount to winning the lottery, although it's more than a "luck of the draw" accomplishment. That aspect is these contests' saving grace because talent is the sole criteria being judged. Still, who knows? Someone might read it and find it's worthy of more. We'll see. One thing is certain: If I don't enter, I don't stand a chance.

So now that I've completed my first book, having finalized the last proof yesterday (the third one) and waiting for my book launch date of September 15, I am concentrating on my next novel, the story of a girl who is kidnapped, the family that is left behind to deal with the tragedy, and the detective who is faced with trying to find the girl, which is made more difficult when the kidnapper makes no ransom demands or has any other contact with the family immediately after the abduction. It's a crime novel, a very popular genre, much different from Floating Twigs, a literary novel that has an element of courtroom drama as well, though the family dynamics and the character of the detective make my second book more than just about the crime. It's about people, which is what all good books are about, regardless of what shape the characters take (space aliens and monsters, animals that converse, androids, and so forth).

I am currently working on chapter eight of this book, with about 11,000 words written thus far, or about 12,000 if the part I've written that I will include later in the book is considered. (Yes, that happens sometimes. I will write something in a certain place in the narrative and realize it belongs in a different part of the book. Also, regarding Floating Twigs, I wrote chapter six after completing the first draft of the book and inserted it in an appropriate place in the narrative--a little insider information for those who read my blogs. The chapter resulted from a suggestion from one of my beta readers.)

This new novel is currently titled Hell is Empty from a line in Shakespeare's The Tempest: "Hell is empty and all the devils are here." This is what is known as a "working title." Whether or not I keep it will depend on how I feel about the pairing of the book and the title once the novel is completed. Then again, if I find a publisher, they will decide on my title. (Yes, that's how it works. The author does not have the final say about the book's title--perhaps some input, but that's about it.)

So, that's where my life is now. I am getting involved on Twitter (@CharlesTabb919) and my Facebook is mostly dedicated to my writing life. I have a "page" that I might activate. We'll see. If you've not followed me on Twitter (even if you don't really "tweet"), please do so. A large number of followers is always good for a writer.

As far as upcoming events other than the book launch, I will be appearing at Reagan High School in Pfafftown, NC, where I used to teach in late September or early October, date TBA. I hope to book a few more high schools while there. I should also be at various libraries soon. One is currently being set up, and others will follow (I hope.)

So, good-bye until next time!

Thoughts on Family

Today is what is traditionally known in the U.S. as "tax day," the day all income taxes are due. Because it's a Sunday, however, that day has been extended to this Tuesday, April 17. So how, you may ask, does tax day have anything to do with my family? I had an older brother, Rick, who was born April 15, 1952. He would be 66 years old today. My parents always called him their "tax baby."

There are days that I think of Rick often. He died on May 3, 2010, so it's becoming "a while" since his death. To say we fought as children would be a gross understatement. Rick could be a bit of a bully at times. I was three-and-a-half years younger, so I was his easy and constant target. Yet, it's funny how growing up can change things.

We became quite close as we aged into adulthood. I even rented a room from his family on more than one occasion, since that was easier, cheaper, and less lonely than living alone. That arrangement had the added perk of becoming a fixture in the lives of his daughters. To this day, the three of us feel extremely close because of their few childhood years I spent with them.

On days like today, I feel the loss of my brother considerably. It was on his birthday in 2010, eight years ago today, that I spoke to him for the last time. There is no person on Earth I have had better times with - perhaps as good, but not better. Of course, like anyone, I recall particularly fond moments in our lives. The memories that follow, a tribute to him, are a few of them:

In the mid-1970's, I moved back to Florida from the New Orleans area. My Vega did not have the ability to pull a small U-Haul, even with my meager belongings at the time, so I enlisted Rick and his 6-cylinder midsize to help. 

We rented a small trailer for a "local" move because it was cheaper than a one-way move, though it may have been illegal at the time, but the statute of limitations prevents prosecution now, so I'm safe. Leaving one night for the drive to the west side of New Orleans, we drove overnight to our destination. I forget the exact time we left, but it was dark and rather late. It was also cold, in the mid-twenties.

What we didn't count on was the gas consumption when pulling the trailer. The distance from my hometown of Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, to our destination of Kenner, Louisiana, which is on the far western edge of the metro area of New Orleans, was about 260 miles. We started with a full tank and my mother's Union 76 credit card. I doubt we had forty cents between us. By the time we got to Gulfport, Mississippi, perhaps 170 miles from home, we were forced to find an open gas station. It was the middle of the night, around 3 A.M., and we were lucky to finally locate a place that was open. Keep in mind, not everyone was open 24 hours back then, and a gasoline shortage added to our problem.

So on we continued to New Orleans. As the sun came up, we were approaching the exit off I-10 that leads into Slidell, Louisiana, just as you are getting on the L-O-O-O-O-O-N-N-N-N-G-G Interstate-10 bridge that crosses the eastern side of Lake Pontchartrain. (No, this is not the famous, twenty-four-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway that runs from Mandeville, Louisiana, directly into New Orleans, but at about six miles, it's long enough.) Sitting at this exit was a large Union 76 station/truck stop. All we had was the gas card, and it wasn't good at any other places along our route. We had about a half tank in the car - as I said, the gas mileage was abysmal - but we decided to go get the few belongings and stop on our way back.

Big mistake.

After loading my things in the small U-Haul, we headed back toward the Union 76 near Slidell. Just as we topped the rise on the I-10 bridge from the New Orleans side of Lake Pontchartrain, the car sputtered and quit. Rick put the car in neutral to allow it to roll until it stopped.

If you've ever been on this bridge, you know that it is actually two bridges, one for westbound traffic, another for eastbound. Although we had no gas can, the card could be held for ransom, so that wouldn't be a problem. But did I mention it was cold? A lighted time-and-temperature sign in Kenner had said it was twenty-two degrees - without the wind. We flipped a coin to see who would go get the gas. Rick lost the coin-flip. Bundling himself in his thin jacket, he stepped out, glared at me as if it were all my fault, which in a way I guess it was, and started walking, sticking his thumb out for a ride.

The second car to pass stopped for him, figuring out our problem since the car was parked right beside him in the breakdown lane. I sat and waited.

Of course, it was possible to hitch a ride to the gas station at the end of the bridge, get the gas, thumb a ride to the New Orleans end of the bridge, cross over, and finally thumb a ride to the car, but that would require finding two people willing to have a young man with shaggy, long hair and a smelly gas can in their car. Not gonna happen.

So I watched and finally saw a speck in the distance: Rick, carrying the half-full, three-gallon gas can as he walked facing traffic.

I got out of the car, bundled myself against the surprisingly strong and bitterly cold wind blasting over Lake Pontchartrain, and set off to meet him, feeling the least I could do would be to carry the gas can the rest of the way once we met somewhere on that freezing bridge. The wind chill had to be near or below zero. Rick appreciated the gesture.

We filled up at the Union 76 of course, once we got the car running, and stopped again at our previous oasis when the gas level dropped to a half-tank in Gulfport.

The adventure was not fun at the time, but it was memorable, and remembering it is fun. Had I known what a special memory this would be, I would have tried to enjoy it more back then. But back then, we thought we'd live forever.

Another memory of Rick also involved New Orleans. He was on his way from one place to another by air, and he purposely set up a long layover so we could have some time together. I was living in Metarie at the time, another suburb of New Orleans, and after I picked him up from the airport, we drove downtown to have some beignets and coffee from the original Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter. Our plan from there was to wander around the Quarter and see what we could see.

We ended up strolling around Jackson Square (right across the street from Cafe du Monde) and Rick decided to sit for a portrait. The artist ASSURED us he would be done in plenty of time for Rick to get to the airport and catch his flight. Yeah, right. When the man was FINALLY finished, it was obvious Rick would probably miss his flight, but we decided to try anyway.

We ran to where we parked the car, I paid the attendant for parking, and Rick took my keys and pulled my car up to the lot exit to pick me up. We ran several stop lights on Canal Steet, somehow avoiding getting a ticket. And these lights were not "maybe red" lights; they were red, with cars waiting. Rick would pull around the cars and speed past them when it was clear enough to shoot between oncoming cars to our right and left, only to be forced to do the same at the next light. When we got to I-10, Rick zoomed in and out of traffic. 

I've no idea how we didn't die, but we finally got to the airport, which is about fifteen miles from the French Quarter. Rick told me to circle around and if he'd missed his flight, which was scheduled to leave about twenty minutes before we had arrived, he would be outside waiting for me.

I circled around, and sure enough, Rick stood on the sidewalk, waiting for me. Instead of jumping in, though, he told me his flight was delayed an hour, and he had plenty of time. (Keep in mind that getting to the gate was not the hassle it is today.) Lucky break! We both could breathe again.

The next day, I went out to get in my car to go to work and found a flat tire waiting for me. All I could think was how lucky we were it hadn't happened the day before. I only wish I knew what became of that picture of Rick. It was a good one, done in chalk, and I'd love to have it, or at least be able to give it to his daughters.

Finally, one last memory of my brother:

Anyone who knows me well is aware I am a dyed-in-black-and-gold New Orleans Saints fan and have been since the day they began playing in the NFL in 1967. Rick, on the other hand, ended up in Tampa for his final years and became a Buccaneers fan. I forgave him. But in the last years of his life, he became quite ill and had to use an electric scooter style of wheelchair to get around. I would visit him every summer, and we would do as much as we could together. One year we went to Busch Gardens to enjoy the rides, but the best time was the year we attended Bucs camp in Orlando.

We loaded his truck with the scooter and set off. Arriving at the sports complex where Jon Gruden led the Bucs in their training camp, we pulled up in time to see about the last forty-five minutes of practice. When we got there, Rick bought an official NFL Tampa Bay Bucs football. I bought a t-shirt for my son-in-law (married to my stepdaughter), who is also a Bucs fan. (Don't worry; I've forgiven him too.)

When practice was over, several players stuck around to sign autographs. I managed a few for my son-in-law, and Rick got everyone there to sign the football, though there weren't that many players staying out to sign.

The most gracious among the players was Ike Hilliard, who happens to be the nephew of a former New Orleans Saint, Dalton Hilliard, a star running back for the Saints in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Ike Hilliard was phenomenal. He was going around from fan to fan and posing for pictures, etc. He was, at that time, nearing the end of a good career as a wide receiver, and his willingness to spend time with his fans was amazing. He was out there in the heat long after all the other players had gone inside to shower and enjoy the air conditioning after a long, hard practice.

Mr. Hilliard kept telling Rick, "Don't go anywhere. I'll get with you before you leave." We watched as he went from group to group posing, chatting, and signing autographs. He informed Rick he would be with him and not to leave at least three times.

When he finally made his way to us, he explained he wanted Rick to be his last fan so he could spend as much time with him as Rick wanted. Rick, remember, was in an electric scooter/wheelchair because of his illness, which was apparent to anyone who looked at him. (He was truly skin-and-bones.) Mr. Hilliard talked with Rick, allowed me to take as many pictures of them as I wanted, telling me not to worry as I fumbled nervously with the camera, and signed both the football and the t-shirt. I "confessed" to being a Saints fan, and told Mr. Hilliard to thank his uncle for me for all the great runs when he saw him again. He was a pleasant and wonderful man to someone who obviously was not going to be on this earth for many more years. Rick, of course, loved every second of it, and we thanked Ike Hilliard for keeping us for last so the man wouldn't feel rushed to get to anyone else. A class act.

So, those are three of the fondest memories I have of Rick. He had a great life, but he died far too young. That's what happens when you live in such a way as to flame out. He enjoyed "having fun" a bit too much for his own good. But he enjoyed every second of his life that he could, too.

Quick Thoughts

I sit here today, Saturday, March 24, with the "MARCH FOR OUR LIVES" event playing on the TV. It has given me increased faith in our nation's future. I taught school for years and always wondered where the anger of the young went as it related to the messed up world in which they live. When I was young, it was the Vietnam War that divided the youth from the "establishment." I saw no such indignation and anger among my students. 

Today, there are many young people who have found their fight. The young people of the 1960s and 70s kept up their protests until the establishment finally heeded the call and ended the war that was killing our fellow young people sent half way around the world to fight off what was referred to as "the domino effect," the mistaken belief that if Vietnam fell to Communism, the entire Pacific Rim would eventually fall as well. That war officially ended for the United States when Nixon announced an accord had been reached on January 23, 1973. It's been over forty-five years since then, and while there are certainly despots in power in many places in the world--that will always be, unfortunately--the dreaded "domino effect" never materialized.

Now, we have young people marching for their lives, just as my generation marched for theirs. Some adults who disagree with their political and moral stance are suggesting they should be quiet because they are too young. That brings back a lot of memories, since that was the angry exhortation by many adults when I was young. The shame is that the children have to step forward to take this topic on; it should have been the adults. It should have been Congress. And because I did not speak up when I knew it was a topic that needed to be addressed, I am ashamed.

To those fighting for sensible gun laws: May you not lose your passion for this cause. It is a good and noble one, regardless of what those in power suggest. You are the future. Too many fine lives have been taken. I fear more will be destroyed before change happens. But never quit. You will eventually save lives, and nothing is more noble than that.

And finally, register to vote and exercise that right. You are more powerful than the NRA. You just don't have their money.

It's Time. It's Past Time, in Fact

Let’s take a journey. It’s a journey through time, back to the years 1789 – 1791. The United States Congress were debating and creating what later became known as the United States Bill of Rights. On September 25, 1789, Congress sent to the thirteen states for ratification the amendments to the U. S. Constitution that gave the citizens certain rights.

Today, the second amendment has been the focus of much debate. This amendment reads, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Many people tend to ignore the beginning of this amendment. The purpose behind this amendment was to ensure the United States had a “well-regulated Militia.” The young country knew it would have to depend on the citizens for protection against enemies, foreign and domestic. The United States Army was mostly just the citizens themselves.

Those are the facts, whether you like them or not. (A note here: Facts are facts. They are not malleable in order to create an alternative fact you like more than the real one.) Now, I realize this sounds as though I am going to suggest the government, which has the capability to protect the citizenry from attacks, can now outlaw guns. Not so. If you think that any suggestions limiting gun ownership is an attempt to remove your right to “keep and bear arms,” you are incorrect. I will get into this later, but before that, I need to continue our brief lesson in U. S. history.

In the late 1700’s, the “Arms” that Congress gave us the right to own were considerably different from what they are today. Yes, people realize this, but many don't actually think about it. The nation's leaders then could not imagine the many ways man could develop to kill one another. I’ve researched this, and at the time the Bill of Rights was ratified—December 15, 1791—a well-trained soldier could load and fire his weapon 2 – 3 times per minute. That’s about every 20 – 30 seconds per shot. Today, we have developed weapons that can easily fire 20 – 30 shots per second.

The good men of Congress back then also had no idea the level of insanity that would permeate our nation a couple of centuries later. They did not think, “What if someone wants to attack innocent children in a school?” They did not consider the question, “What if someone wants to attack people at a social gathering, such as a concert?” And if they did consider these questions, their response would have been, “Well, it takes at least twenty seconds to re-load, and by then the attacker could be stopped.”

Therefore, the right they guaranteed us did not take advancement in firearms into consideration. The smartest, most foresighted thinker among them would have laughed himself silly if someone had seriously suggested the idea that a gun could one day fire a bullet at what is today the amazingly slow rate of one shot per second. However, they did expect future generations to make laws that were more in keeping with the times, which is why they allowed for changes to the Constitution in the first place.

Quite honestly, there have been too many school shootings. Sadly, there has been debate as to how to count school shootings. How odd we have to debate that. The gun advocates step forward and claim the numbers are inflated by the definitions being used. To that I say, so how many would be too many? It's sad that anyone would try to point out there have been "only" a certain number of school shootings, which is less than another reported figure. I'm sorry, but if one is not too many for you, I have to wonder about your morality.

Now, let’s talk about the guns available today and whether or not the average citizen should be allowed to “keep and bear (any damn) Arms” they want. First, while we would probably take up arms to fight against a foreign power that made the unwise decision to invade our country, the citizens would not be the group the invading army would fear most, if really at all. We citizens don’t own tanks or GPS guided missiles; our military does. The vast majority of us are not trained in strategic warfare. That’s what we have our military for.

Second, I’ve heard it said that we own guns to prevent our government from “taking us over” in some way. First, the elected government is already the one in power. They don’t need to “conquer” Texas or any other state. Furthermore, if you actually believe that the citizens could win a war against our highly trained, well-equipped, much more capable military, you’re living in a dream world. Oh, you might take out a few, but they would take you out much more easily. I am reminded of the first Raiders of the Lost Ark  movie in which a man jumps out and performs all sorts of menacing sword movements, and Indiana Jones casually takes out his pistol and shoots the man as if he's swatting a pesky mosquito. That's what we would be against any trained, well-equipped military: mosquitoes. And think about this: England has some of the free world's strictest gun laws, and I don't see the English military attacking their own citizens in an effort to take away their freedoms. And those gun laws have been that way for many years.

Third, many gun owners say they own guns for hunting. I’m no hunter myself, but I have no problem with your desire to enjoy that activity, provided you follow all laws regulating the pursuit. The last time I checked, however, the deer, birds, rabbits, squirrels, etc., are not armed with anything other than what Mother Nature gave them. Just owning a .22 caliber rifle would be enough to take down the smaller animals with ease, and a shotgun is enough to take down the larger game. Seriously, if you need an assault rifle to go hunting, I have to wonder what animals you think warrant such firepower. Do you think the deer are going to mount a counterattack?

Other gun owners say they own guns for personal safety. All well and good in my book. I understand. There are far too many people out there with mental disorders or personal vendettas who have legally purchased guns to do harm to others.

And that, of course, brings me to my point. We need laws that sensibly address the rampant problem of gun violence. Here are the suggestions I make, which are the full extent of what those of us making proposals have in mind.

1)      We should enact laws that prevent people who have a history of mental illness or a criminal record from owning a gun. Believe me, everyone will be safer, including the most ardent gun lobbyists. Yes, there will be those who access them anyway, but at least we can try harder to prevent those who should not have guns from getting them. Not doing so is simply telling our children and fellow citizens, "Yes, we can do more, but as a matter of fact we don't care if you get shot in school, or in a movie theater, or at a concert, or. . . ."

2)      We should enact laws that prevent people from owning any gun that is essentially meant for killing large numbers of people in a short amount of time. I’m talking about assault rifles here, such as those used in all of the mass shootings in our country. The average citizen does not need an assault rifle like the AR-15, especially a citizen mentally capable of killing others because he is angry and blames the world for his problems. And I’ve already explained why we are fooling ourselves if we fear our own government.

3)       We should enact laws that limit the power of any lobbyist by limiting their ability to buy politicians. This requires Congress to pass sweeping campaign finance reforms. I know how difficult that will be. After all, many politicians get very rich on what is basically a “nice” income because of the money given to them by lobbyists and others seeking influence. The highest paid member of the House, the Speaker, makes a little over $220,000 a year. The highest paid Senator, the majority leader, makes a little over $190,000. As I said, nice pay, but it’s less than half the minimum pay for a player in the NFL ($455,000 in case you’re wondering). Yet, these men and women often go into office living a modest lifestyle but within a few years are enormously wealthy. Gee, I wonder how that happened?

You will notice there is no mention of “taking away” everyone’s guns in the three suggestions above. I don’t know a single person who is in favor of that—and I know a lot of people arguing for stricter gun laws—regardless of what the NRA is saying to scare you into believing all the liberals want to melt down your guns, or whatever equivalent garbage they are spouting these days. Allow me to tell you a secret the NRA does not want you to figure out: They spout this stuff so you'll give them money. Seriously. That's the gist of it. It's all about the greenbacks. After all, it takes a lot of money to own so many politicians.

Finally, I have a few pertinent question. Is your fear of changing laws relating to the second amendment really more important than our children's lives? Do you actually believe that passing sensible gun laws will lead to banning all guns? Have you been paying attention to how difficult it is to pass any gun laws?

So, there you have it. Enough is enough. I taught school for a long time, and it's time for such craziness to stop. Thanks for all the positive thoughts and prayers, but so far that hasn't worked, and we need more than that. We need reform, and we need it now. Yes, Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell, it IS the right time to talk about it.

They Banned WHAT?!

DISCLAIMER: The assumptions concerning the imagined process for banning a book in the following blog entry are for illustrative purposes. I am relying on my own encounters regarding the banning of books, such as Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, which was banned in the school system where I once worked by an assistant superintendent who admitted he had never read it. True story.

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I belong to the Hanover Writers Club in Virginia, and at our monthly meeting this past Tuesday our group's president mentioned that a school system has banned my all-time favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Later, I found out that the system banning the book is in Biloxi, Mississippi. Part of me was shocked, especially when the person bearing this news mentioned it was banned because it "made people uncomfortable." Hello! That is what it is supposed to do. Still, part of me was sadly not surprised at all, especially considering the location of the school system and the current political climate in the United States.

First, understand that I have nothing against the state of Mississippi itself. My parents were born and raised there--though not raised to believe in the inferiority of any race--but I can also attest from having visited family there many times and having lived there as both a child and adult, that racism is, shall we say, a popular belief there.

I find it odd that the same people who have recently expressed impatience with such things as "political correctness" and "the government telling us what to do all the time" will also embrace banning a book, especially because they see the language as offensive. (The "N" word appears throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, but its presence is a necessity considering the lessons the book teaches.)

One thing about the banning that bothers me--besides the obvious attack against free speech--is that if taught well, TKaM is an exhortation to be careful about judging others by appearance alone, and that such words as the "N" word are hateful, hurtful, and as Atticus, the father of the first-person narrator says, "common." Having been raised in the South by a lady raised in Mississippi during the times depicted in the book, I can confirm that describing something as "common" is the ultimate insult about an action or, as in this case, a word. It implies that the word or action is beneath the dignity of humans.

Either the administrators in the Biloxi school district are unaware that this book teaches lessons against racism, or they are aware of it, which is even worse and almost certainly true. If they are aware the book teaches that non-white people as well as those labeled as "different" have been treated with extreme unfairness in our country, both in the past as well as the present, then banning the book is playing into the hands of those who seek to make us forget the sins of our past. It further leads me to consider these people to among the very seekers of which I speak.

Make no mistake. Banning the teaching of this American treasure is not to prevent students in middle school or high school from seeing the "N" word in print. The prohibition, either intentionally or unintentionally, serves to prevent students from learning that unfair treatment of non-white people has been going on for a long time. Racists are not portrayed in a positive way in Ms. Lee's book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Therefore, those with racist attitudes are much more likely to find a problem with To Kill a Mockingbird.

Imagine a racist child coming home from school and telling racist Mom and racist Dad that the book they are studying in school says hating people who are not white is wrong. In the current political climate, I can see racist Mom and racist Dad taking steps to point out the "insensitivity" being displayed in the book. They would never tell the school superintendent that teaching children that racism is wrong is a bad idea, so they do what I call the "Me? Racist? dance" and couch their objections in more palatable terms.

On the other hand, perhaps the mom and dad who started this really do feel the words are "uncomfortable," and their complaint was not based on racist beliefs. (I taught English for nearly thirty years, and such things as banning a book almost ALWAYS start with a parent complaint.) If that is the case, perhaps the superintendent should have invited one or both of them to come to the class so they can observe how such "discomfort" is being handled by the teacher, and the value of the lessons being taught. Education, after all, is a good thing. The Biloxi school district should seize the opportunity to teach the parents something they didn't know, not bow down to their wishes.

To those who suggest any book should be banned, I say this: When you remove the rights of one person to exercise his or her right to free speech, you remove that right from everyone, including yourself. That said, if people wish to stand on street corners and rail against books they deem unsuitable, that's fine. If they wish to exercise their rights as parents to request their own child read a different book, they should do so, and with my blessing. However, they should never be allowed to prevent other students from reading and studying any book deemed good enough to study in a school classroom. That's called infringing on the rights of others.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is wrong.

Animal People and the Pets Who Love Them

It's funny how some people don't care much for animals, especially the idea of having them as pets, etc., while others cannot see themselves without a pet of some sort in their lives. I am an animal person, and so is everyone else in my family. To be honest, I don't fully trust people who don't like animals. I feel they have a hollow place in their souls. It isn't that I don't like people who don't care for animals. I just have my reservations about them.

People who are not animal people miss out on what it means to love something that has the capacity to love you back far more than any other creature on Earth. Besides that, they are entertaining to an unbelievable degree.

Dee and I can spend much of an evening just watching our dog Bailey playing. He could be chasing a stick we've thrown or carrying the large one he seems to have adopted, tossing himself a ball in a game of his own devising, or pouncing on his "kong," a rubber, cone-shaped toy that has the tendency to bounce more unpredictably than a football. He will pounce on it as if it were alive and trying to escape, carry it a few feet, jerk his head upwards to toss it into the air, watch it eagerly as it bounces a few times, and then pounce on it again to start the process over. He will do this for quite a long time. And what animal lover hasn't laughed out loud at a dog trying to figure out a mirror?

Bailey also watches TV. He is especially fond of "The Dog Channel," a channel created for--you guessed it--dogs. Loops of images like dogs playing, people walking dogs . . . anything that might catch the interest of one of our canine friends. Occasional sounds like a whistling person or a squeaking toy calls to them from the TV speakers, helping to engage their rather intelligent brains. I can attest that these images and sounds work.

We also own a horse, Butter, a thoroughbred race horse, who is now retired from running races and is a frequent competitor in equine competitions of the "Hunter-Jumper" variety. Butter is really Dee's, since you could fit what I know about horses into something shorter than the length of this blog thus far, but I still love this horse. She is gentle, smart, and seems to enjoy me as well. Perhaps she likes me because I never climb onto her back. Who knows? But we enjoy her, though she never plays with any rubber toys. She has won ribbons, including five in a competition today when she moved "up in class" to, well, another class. This indicates the jumps, etc., are more difficult.

When I met Dee, she had two dogs and two cats. She even mentioned that if we were to do more than meet once, I would have to understand she loves animals. When we married, I brought another cat, Smokey, into this entertaining menagerie. These animals have all since died or been mercifully put to sleep, along with the three other dogs and one horse we've had at various times since we met, and I am certain they await us in Heaven. In fact, I am of the belief that if there are no animals in Heaven, then Heaven doesn't exist. I use the logic that if Heaven is a place in which I will spend eternity in total bliss, then animals must inhabit this realm as well because bliss would be impossible without the love and companionship animals provide. In fact, I feel God supplies mankind with pets to demonstrate to us what absolute love looks like.

I suppose this topic is on my mind because two dogs belonging to people I am close to have recently been "put down" to end their suffering after many years of their happy lives. I am aware that the two families have been hit hard by this, and I sympathize completely. In the past two years, we have sent three of our beloved dogs away until we meet again in that state of eternal bliss.

So, if you are not an animal person, you are missing something that only those of us who love our pets can understand. Our animals we no longer have are always somewhere in my heart. With this in mind, I raise a symbolic toast of "To Those Who Are at Sea" to the following animals. (It is a traditional, family toast we always offer, which is made in honor of those who cannot be there for whatever reason.) I am listing only those animals who graced the lives of Dee and me, as well as our daughters, since the day I met Dee. There are many others whom I loved before that, as well as those of friends and family, but there is such a thing as overkill):

The dogs who are gone: Pops, Cody, Huntley, Speckles, Hamilton, Brinkley, Quinn, and Casey

The cats who are gone: Klinky, Klung, and Smokey

The horse who is gone: Patty

And all of the pets who have touched the lives of my extended family and friends.

So join me, if you will. . . . TO THOSE WHO ARE AT SEA!

Haunted by the Muses

It's funny how wanting to be a writer suddenly becomes being a writer. Not Ha-Ha funny. Odd funny. As in . . . Whoa! I actually wrote a novel. And it's kind of good.

The best thing about that "kind of good" thing is that people whose opinions I trust have read it, or at least a portion of it, and are extremely complimentary of my work.

I am a member of the Hanover Writers Club, a chapter of the Virginia Writers Club, and at my first meeting, I was asked, "What are you working on?" Suddenly, a switch zapped itself into place, and I was "a writer." I told them--with almost manic enthusiasm--the basic story of my novel, and to my surprise, they were enthralled. Writers are not always an easy audience to impress. We are naturally skeptical when people mention they have this great idea for a book. On June 20, when that HWC meeting took place, I was working on either chapter six or seven of a book I anticipated would be 22-24 chapters, depending on what I did with the "trial" sequence in the book. (Yes, there is a criminal trial in the book.) As it turned out, the book ended up being 24 chapters.

I was told not to self-publish or publish with a small publishing house by everyone at the meeting. "You've got a great book there," was said by someone who has several books published by an imprint (a subsidiary in the publishing field) of Harper-Collins, one of the world's biggest publishing companies. (Excuse my not naming him. I don't have his permission to quote him by name.) I asked this person if he would read my first chapter if I emailed it to him. He told me that "literary" wasn't his genre, but he'd read it if I sent it. At the next meeting he used the word "phenomenal" in his assessment, while giving me a few suggestions for minor changes, which I heeded. 

I finally had someone who did not have a personal relationship with me in any way validate my ability to write. Several of my friends I requested to read my book as what are known as Beta Readers basically told me the same thing, and one of them was an avid reader who barely knew me but had recently met my wife. I would get requests for the next chapter from her frequently, and I found myself working harder to complete them to make sure I got her another chapter to read. She gave advice, which I usually heeded, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Another reader texted me upon completing the book and told me she couldn't stop crying. While it wasn't my intent to cause anyone sadness, I was aiming for a strong emotional response at the end of the book, and tears will likely be a frequent reaction.

But this writing thing is a very odd life. I went for years dabbling in it, but never really having the time to do more than that. I was reminded of a college professor who taught a creative writing class I took who told me not to become a teacher because I would not have time for writing no matter how much I wanted to set time aside for it, and he felt I could make a living as a writer. Now I have time, and I am compelled to write every day, and I feel the need to write if I don't set aside the time.

This blog is basically the result of feeling that need to write for the past week. I've been editing my novel (the first of several author edits) and finally finished that task yesterday. I now suffer from being haunted by the Muses, the Greek and Roman goddesses of the arts. I will soon have a new coffee mug I ordered. On this mug I have this website's address and the sentence, "I write because if I don't the Muses will haunt me." That's a true statement. It's as if someone is sitting beside me, tapping my shoulder and whispering in my ear so that nobody else can hear, "So, when are you going to write something?" Tap, tap. "Hey! I'm talking to you. When?" Tap, tap. "Will you be writing today?" Tap, tap. "If not, what about tomorrow?"

Tap . . . tap.

It really is like that. I mean, how can anyone ignore something like that? So, here I sit, talking about writing and telling you about my novel and why I think it is actually good.

Now, allow me a word about editing, if you please. First, it sucks. Second, it sucks but it's absolutely necessary. (I found more than one sentence that made me think I was the victim of a body snatcher when I wrote them.) And if you end up with more words than you had before you began editing, you're doing it wrong. Upon completing the first draft, I had around 83,500 words in the book. As I edited, I would also ADD words, phrases, sentences, short paragraphs, etc., to increase clarity. I also deleted words, phrases, sentences, and entire chunks. The book now stands at around 81,800 words. It is much tighter now. That is especially true for chapter one, which is no longer exactly what I first posted on this website. If you read it earlier, go back and look at it. Entire chunks of the introductory material before the flashback begins are no longer there. That portion had been around 650 words. Now it's around 300. My next task will be to read through the entire novel and make small changes where I see the need. I intend to have this completed by the end of this month. (A note here: A "late" reader suggested an additional chapter, which I realized would indeed improve the book. I wrote that chapter before setting in for the third and final edit, which took longer than I figured it would for a variety of reasons, some of them involving starting another novel the Muses were haranguing me about. The final word count is now a little over 86,000 words. I even had to change the original number of chapters from 23 to 24 in this blog.)

Finally, tomorrow (September 19) is my birthday. If you are here reading this, please know that I need verifiable evidence of page visits including as many comments and "likes" for my various blogs and fiction as I can get. You can find the rest of my work by clicking "Stories and other writings" at the bottom of any page on the website. I would consider it a birthday present from you (current or belated) if you would leave a short comment. Also, if it isn't tantamount to lying, it would be nice if you would take the half second necessary to click "Like" after something I have written, which includes these blogs. I am not asking you to click "Like" if you don't like it, but if you do, that would be nice. And if you don't know me, you could be giving a gift to a complete stranger. Think how that will make you feel!

Anyway, thank you for reading this as I manage to nudge the Muses away from me for the time being.

Chuck

Does Every Writer Suffer Insomnia?

It's a good question to ask, and I intend to ask the writers' group I belong to, Hanover Writers Club, about it when we meet this month, which just happens to be on my birthday.

As I sit here writing this, it is 4:44 a.m. I didn't just wake up five minutes ago, either. I woke over an hour ago. Yesterday morning I woke around four. At this rate, I figure I will be waking up before I go to bed in about a week.

Yesterday morning, if you use a loose definition of the word morning, it was a dream that woke me. It wasn't a good dream, so I won't describe it here, lest I plant a seed in your own minds and you'd be blaming me in the middle of an approaching night for your own insomnia. This morning, it was one of my famous migraines. I sometimes wake up with them. All I can say is thank God for Imitrex.

So, back to my original question. I have to wonder if it's something in the psyche of a writer to suffer from this malady. Does God put this into writers' genetic makeup to force us to wrangle with our Muse when the sane world is asleep? Many writers compose long treatises on writing, and many claim that the "wee hours" of the morning are best for creating the stories that sometimes seem to crop up out of nowhere. We are told, or at least I was by my mother, that everything has a purpose. Is heightened creative thought the purpose behind insomnia?

It is certainly a topic many writers have tackled. Stephen King even wrote an entire novel about it (Insomnia, Viking Press, 1994). I decided long ago King was trying to give us all the affliction by telling us his horror stories in the first place. I wondered if his stories weren't a manifestation of the old adage, misery loves company. And no, that isn't meant as a pun on the title of yet another of his successful books (Misery, Viking Press, 1987). Then, of course, there is also his novel, Doctor Sleep (Scribner, 2016).

Is his fascination with sleep due to his own struggles with it? Sleep itself has been termed a time when we go safely insane each night. And it has been shown that sleep deprivation will cause us to go quite mad quite soon. Wake up on Monday morning and remain awake until Friday morning, and by that time you'll be suffering wild hallucinations. You will essentially be dreaming while physically awake. Your overall health will suffer as well.

It is now 5:12 and I am still not sleepy. I've suffered from this off and on since I was in my twenties, which is a long time ago. The interesting part of this time alone in the dark sitting before the only light in the room glowing from my computer screen is that a story coalesced in my brain while writing this blog. Oddly, the idea has nothing to do with sleep. Where did that idea come from?

That's a good question, too.

Comments for this blog entry are "ON." You are free to comment as you wish. If you like to write, whether for your own pleasure or a desire to publish, your take on the question posed in the title is welcome. You can even tackle some of the other questions I asked in this. Even if you hate to write, your musings on the subject are welcome. Don't be shy. I really want to know what you think. And by the way, there's also a place to "LIKE" this and my other blogs.

There's More to Life Than Writing

Okay, I may be exaggerating with the title. Really, I'm not, but sometimes I have to remind myself of that. Family is more important, and I am frequently reminded how happy it makes me to spend time with those I love.

This afternoon, Dee and I picked up our granddaughter, Alex, from her home and took her out for some fun and food. She's four-and-a-half and more fun to be with than most adults I know. (Sorry, friends.) Her vocabulary is amazing, both because she's extremely intelligent and her parents don't talk down to her the way people who think you have to "simplify" things for children will do.

We started our excursion by going to the Lewis Gintner Botanical Gardens in Henrico (a suburb of Richmond, VA). The place is beautiful and fascinating. The grounds are well-kept and the people there are friendly and helpful, including the guests, and why not? When one is strolling through a veritable Garden of Eden, one tends to be relaxed and pleasant. Dee and I are members there, so we can go as often as we wish, as well as bring a few guests with us. Today, Alex was our guest.

We began by making our way to the Conservatory, where a special, secluded room with hundreds of colorful butterflies of various types float on the warm, moist air inside, gathering nectar from the myriad flowers adorning the walkway edges. By secluded, I mean visitors must first enter one room before being allowed to enter the "butterfly room" to prevent any of the delicate creatures from escaping. We even witnessed the lady in charge of entrances and exits catch one of the fragile insects and return him or her to the main room before letting us in.

The room is intended to educate visitors, and staff were on hand to answer any questions someone might have. Often one can find a butterfly attempting to hitch a ride to the great wide world outside the controlled atmosphere of the room by alighting on someone's shoulder or back. They are always discovered and returned to the room. The butterflies are, of course, seasonal, and I am glad we were able to stop in before the summer wanes into autumn.

Next, Alex, who had been there before with Dee, wanted to show me the "HUGE" tree house in the gardens. We trekked up a long, winding wooden ramp to find ourselves above the garden, where openings that served as windows afforded a wonderful view of the surrounding grounds. A young man was up there with a laptop, and my first thought was, "What a wonderful place to write!" There was also a lady with a book she was reading in the mostly silent room.

We left there and got some fish/turtle food from a dispenser (free) and fed two very large turtles in the lake nearby. One snapping turtle was casually sunning himself on a rock, and to be honest we didn't bother to feed him since getting fingers dangerously close to his mouth would be necessary. However, we did feed his neighbor, whom I called "Mossyhead" (because his head was covered with a plant-like growth). Alex was fascinated by this encounter, and she even stopped by again later in the hopes of finding the turtles still there, but they had moved on.

The final garden stop I will tell you about is an enormous, ancient tree that is available for kids (and some adults) to climb on. The tree itself is gnarled and its very long, thick, knobby branches, which are not far from the ground, are supported by constructed "crutches" built some distance from the massive trunk. It looks like a tree one might encounter while accompanying Bilbo Baggins through Mirkwood during a reading of The Hobbit

We made our way back to the entrance and to our car, and I drove us to a lovely restaurant called HUTCH, on Gaskins Road. Alex had cheese and macaroni with bacon sprinkled throughout. Dee had a salad topped with glazed salmon, and I had the Mushroom-Swiss burger. I don't know how good the Dee's and Alex's food was--they said it was delicious--but my burger was amazing. I had hardly eaten all day to save up some calories to enjoy my meal, and I can honestly say the temporary starving was well worth it.

After that, it was time for dessert, and we stopped at a shop to have gelato. It was the ending of a perfect afternoon. We took Alex home, where her energy and antics entertained everyone until Dee and I had to leave.

Yes, family is a wonderful thing. Be sure to spend quality time with yours soon. Everyone will be better for it.

James River Writers Conference

I will attend this on October 14 and 15. While there, I will meet NY Times bestselling author, David Baldacci. Also in attendance will be Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The best news is that it's held in downtown Richmond, which is only a forty-minute drive from my home. Traffic might increase that time, of course.

I have also registered to speak to an agent (a whole seven minutes!) about my book. I'll make a pitch and see if she wants to read more. (I chose three who are interested in my genre, and all three happen to be women. I was given my first choice.) I am very excited about this. Not only will I learn a great deal, but I will be able to do some networking as well.