Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Where Am I Gonna Get A Chicken?

Writing prompt for 8/30/16

You're standing in line at the bank when you begin to feel faint. You think you make it to a chair, but it gets hazy really fast. The next thing you know, you're standing outside an Italian bakery, holding a rubber chicken in your hands, with a television crew in front of you. "And how did such an amazing event make you feel?" The reporter says.

"And how did such an amazing event make you feel?"

There's a microphone in my face. A camera not far off. And there's this odd smell in the air. Like a wet feather pillow.

But the reporter is anxious for an answer. And my Momma taught me it's rude to keep people waiting.

"I -- "

Momma again swam into my conscious. Aside from it being rude to keep people wait, she was adamant -- adamant -- that we should never speak without thinking first.

"I -- I'm not -- not really sure how I feel."

The reporter smiled and the camerawoman stopped rolling her eyes.

"A bit stunned?" the reporter said.

I used to be a reporter, I remembered. Though that memory seemed to bear little aid in the present situation. When an interviewee is at a loss for words, the journalist -- who awakes each morning with scads of words just floating around the brain untethered -- provides them. A smart interviewee, unwilling to break his Momma's rules, would obligingly use them.

"Stunned," I stumbled. "That's a good word for it."

"Can you explain the chicken?"

Rule Two for journalists: When the interviewee is merely parroting those random words, suggest more of them.

There was indeed a chicken in my hands. A rubber one. I sniffed. It was not the source of the smell of the wet feather pillow, a fact which inexplicably made me feel much more at ease than the words the journalist was helpfully providing.

"Oh, I saw the whole thing!"

A man. A man of a certain weight and of a certain lack of teeth -- the kind of person who is gold to journalists because not only did they see the whole thing -- they NEVER lie about that -- they are loquacious to the point the general stunned feeling in the air expands to encompass the journalist as well.

The reporter, sensing the camera dying every second it lingered on my stunned visage, immediately shifted to her newest interlocutor.

"We wuz both standing in line at the bank -- I've got my first payroll check to cash, back to work after two years of living on the dole you know. He was in front of me. Had a lunch bag. Don't know what he was doing at the bank; you'll have to ask him. He was next in line when the robbers came in. Man, they were loud. Screaming for everyone to get down and getting really upset when the deaf guy in the line next to us didn't hear. They shoved everybody who wouldn't get down and this guy -- " he paused just long enough to cock his thumb at me "didn't budge. DID. NOT. BUDGE. Had that look in his eye, you know, the look that means even though it's only 8 in the morning he's already seen enough shit to last him the rest of the day."

"Is that true?" the reporter asked me.

"Yes, it's true. You don't sit around out of work for two years and not know that look," the man said without skipping a beat or ceasing to emit his talkative spittle.

"GET DOWN YOU! The robbers hollered at him. And I mean hollered. Even the deaf guy heard them that time. But this guy didn't budge. Instead, he held up his bag --"

"Oh," I said, and I could feel the blood draining from my face.

"And the robber tried swatting it out of the way, but he held it up and was waving it around and the bag itself was wriggling and there was a gawd-awful noise coming out of the bag -- "

"Oh, no. No, no . . ." A nearby cop grabbed me by the arm.

"So the thugs SHOT the bag out of the guy's hand and feathers went EVERYWHERE!"

"He's going down!" the cop yelled. He lurched forward to catch me and acidentally stepped on the rubber chicken that had fallen out of my hand. And crushed it.

"Dammit! Get me another chicken! NOW!" the cop yelled as the journalist and the loquacious man and the camerawoman bent over me. "You saw how UGLY it got last time! GET ME A CHICKEN!"


Monday, August 29, 2016

The Larry David of Fantasy Novelists

Titus Groan (Gormenghast, #1)Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a long time reading this book, I thought I'd picked another stinker. Another long, dull indulgence like "Little, Big" where Nothing. Ever. Happened. And Mervyn Peake's book is very much in that vein, where nothing really happens.

But there is a plot. And it's obviously continued in the next novel. Good thing I bought all three of them.

At least with Titus Groan I could feel things building, just a little bit at a time. And now I have to read Gormenghast to see how much of that building actually happens. And will probably have to read Titus Alone as well. He got me hooked. And his writing is beautiful.

It's very Dickensian with interesting and extremely dull characters. And there are enough twists in the story to keep things going for the more adventurous reader. But this isn't a great quest, if that's what you like in fantasy. It's as if Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld wrote a great quest novel about all the stuff that happens before the quest starts.

View all my reviews

Monday, August 15, 2016

Beta Feedback Blues

So late yesterday afternoon I got some feedback on Doleful Creatures from a beta reader I don’t know.

I’m frightened to open it up.

It’s sitting there in my email, unopened (yet acknowledged, I’m no social dummy most of the time).


A few factors.

We’re leaving on a vacation shortly, and I’m not sure I’ve got the attention span right now to start into a beta feedback reading. Though it’s certainly possible I’ll be taking my Doleful Creatures materials with me as we travel. I always have grandiose visions of getting writing or editing done on vacation, and this time around, it’s no exception.

Also, I’m scared. What if it’s no good?

Yeah, not the best confidence-building role model there.

So I’m taking it with me. When I have a calm moment, I’ll open it up and read it. Hopefully, I’ll find it constructive.

Maybe THIS is the Next Big Idea

Facebook Writing Prompt:

You are the proud owner of a Crossroads In in a mystical kingdom where a lot of Unexplained Stuff goes down. A group came to stay tonight with a kid who has "Chosen One" Stenciled on his knapsack, surrounded by robed dudes. As the owner of Crossroads Inn, you're pretty sure something requiring better insurance than what you've got might be brewing.

I've been doing these for about a week and a half now. I'm rather proud of this one. It might be the Next Big Idea I need for a novel. I told the prompt-writer she's better Anne Elk this prompt right away.

"Kind sir, is there room at the inn?"

Tall man. Bald head. Crimson robe with sequined edges. A bit gaudy, but I've seen worse.

"Half a moment, half a moment," I said. With some urgency. as the thatch above the kitchen was still technically on fire. "Let us put the fire out. Then we'll count heads. Dragon was on the hungry side, so I'm sure we've got a vacancy or three."

The well had run dry, but we had enough guests to form a bucket brigade from the duck pond. A few buckets had come out of the privy before my wife got wise and kicked the two knights errant down to the pond with their mucky helmets still in their hands.

"Next time we buy an inn, you do better due diligence!" my wife screamed.

"Yeah, like the one you said we had to have in Ostchester, the one with the enchanted mirror in the hallway? How many guests did we lose through that -- all before they'd paid.!

We had the fire out in a trice, and set our man Hamlet to repairing the thatch.

"Now then," I said to Baldy of the Crimson Robes. "How many?"

Turned out there were quite a few. At least half a dozen in Baldy's vein, along with a ragged carter who smelled of horse and a disgustingly bright-eyed waif of about nine or ten who looked like a real horse's ass.

Maybe that sounds harsh to your ears. But if you've run inns as long as we have, you get to peg people pretty quickly. And this group made it easy, what with "Chosen One" stenciled on the youngster's knapsack.

"Ought to charge you triple, bringing that in," I said to Baldy, pointing at the lad.

Baldy tried to retain the expected look of sincere hopefulness on his face, but there was a smirk barely hidden underneath his pencil mustache.

"But, if your story's good enough, you might talk me into quadrupling. So I'd suggest you get inside, get your dinner, and keep your noses tucked underneath your blankets until, oh, shall we say one or two ay-emm, when the baddies hunting yon vunderkind come a-spying to put everyone in this humble hostelry to the knife, save for the proprietor and -ess who cower cravenly in the cellar until the eldritch lights have passed."

"Well, if there's a way -- "

"Now you're talking doubling the quintupling, kind sir."

"There is a way?"

"Hamlet!" I hollered. "You still remember the hidden, forbidden path that leads through the Swamp of Fear to the dazzling Caverns of Mystery, where adventurers seeking their fortune and protection for the One Who Will Restore Justice and Mercy to the Universe may be escorted and hidden and be entertained by comical hijinx along the way?"

"No," Hamlet said. "Or at least, last time I took that path I was left wanting after being stabbed by that eldritch sword and nigh on died and such. That spot in me back still itches a bit."

"Let's get your dinner, kinds sirs, and as my wife is a-cooking I will check with other sundry characters and spirits who inhabit the inn and surrounding swamp and wood to see if they have ways that don't recall past cursed wounds."

"Did you say 'curse-ed,' with the accented 'E'?" Baldy asked.

"Indeed I did. As an innkeeper, one is compelled to know the badinage. Helps keep a roof over one's head, so to speak."

They set to on pork pies with bread and cheese and ale with less than hearty appetites, save for the wait who ate for three grown men and then napped confidently underneath the table as the crimson-berobed and carter smoked uneasily by the coals of the dimming fire.

They looked to put-down and careworn I sent Hamlet on a quick errand to the crags to see about another way, and entertained the group as much as I could in Hamlet's absence by being forgetful, stumbling about as a fat innkeeper should and bringing them raw potatoes instead of scones with butter.

Hamlet came back about midnight -- cutting it a bit close, as always with that muttonhead -- and I was able to bring the Berobed Half-Dozen some good news.

"I have outside in the pines eight stout eagles willing to take you on a skyward journey to wherever you might care to go as long as it is in the general direction of their crags in yonder mountains as they have to get up early for a battle three valleys over," I said. "Only be quick, as they are ill of temper and at least two of them are sleepy enough they might be prone to dropping things. And, just to help you on your journey, Hamlet reports an ill feeling on the bridle path about a half hour's run from the inn and getting closer."

The company roused the waif who, with much complaining, was compelled to re-don his stenciled knapsack -- spelt, of course, with the accented E -- and with a few shrill cries and one muttering of "You could have done that BEFORE you picked me up, you filthy bird!" the group was off, silhouetted against the rising full moon as they continued their journey.

"Did them a kindness, you did," my wife said as they disappeared into the moonlight. "And they didn't pay."

"What? Oh, damn!"

Friday, August 12, 2016

Nearly Three Years . . .

Later this fall, I’ll reach the three-year mark as scoutmaster in the Ammon 11th Ward.

A few thoughts on this:

Thought 1: It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly three years. That’s three scout camps. Untold numbers of meetings, probably close to a dozen courts of honor and a lot of campouts.

Thought 2: I kinda want my Tuesday evenings back.

But . . .

Thought 3: Our youngest son will join the troop in just a few days, and will be in the troop for two years. So that means Thought 2 is going to be legitimately tamped down as our son says I have to be scoutmaster as long as he’s a member of the troop.

So . . . 

That means at least two more years at scout camp. Lots more meetings and campouts. And I’m okay with that. I need to remember that though I might get tired of Tuesday nights, I can’t show it, or the boys will get tired of Tuesday nights and then we won’t have a scouting program to speak of. And that would be a shame.

I can’t be the best scoutmaster in the world, but I can be the best one these local boys have. And given one of those local boys is my son, I’m going to have to try harder. He’s not easily impressed.

[Unofficial Scoutmaster Motto]

(Unofficial Scoutmaster Motto)

As a relatively new Scoutmaster (I’m closing in on my third year) I still feel the need to seek advice as needed – and boy do I need it.

Here’s the latest struggle: I’ve got a small knot of boys who attend our monthly campouts religiously, but when it comes to our weekly Scout meetings, they’re rarely or only occasionally present.

Everywhere I read online tells me the same thing: It’s my fault.

I don’t buy that.

I think the fault lies in the fact that Scouts want activities that are FUN!!! rather than just fun, and that when any amount of tedium arrives, they’ve trained themselves to bail, and bail quickly.

What do I mean when I say FUN!! rather than just fun?

FUN!! is an activity that’s going to blow their socks off – thus their regular attendance at monthly campouts. We had a full complement of Scouts attend a week of Scout camp last month. That was FUN!! Last night, we went geocaching, which apparently was only just fun, as a smaller group of boys showed up. (And I’ll admit the week before we went to a city council meeting, which didn’t strike anywhere on the Fun-O-Meter, but got them through requirements for the Citizenship in the Community and Communication merit badges.)

Where are the differences?

From what I’m reading online, there are four cures to getting Scouts to come to Scouts:

1.      Letting the boys lead the troop
2.      Incorporating fun into every meeting
3.      Having friends in the troop
4.      Getting parents involved.

I agree all three have to be there, and we try our level best in our troop to make sure those elements are there.

I believe, however, there ought to be a fifth element involved:

5.      Training Scouts for occasional tedium.

But, young, inexperienced Scoutmaster, doesn’t No. 2 negate the need for No. 5?

Let’s look at our recent visit to the city council for an answer. I worked in newspaper journalism for ten years and know firsthand how dull city council meetings can be – and that’s even for the adults involved in them. To a group of 12- and 13-year-old boys, even the thought of sitting still and quiet for more than five minutes while adults drone on about uninteresting things is maddening. Yet if we want Eagle Scouts, the Citizenship in the Community and Communication merit badges have to be earned.

To the city’s credit, they asked our Scouts to present the flag and to lead a prayer at the meeting – getting them involved in a familiar part of the process. But there’s no way they can make a discussion on rezoning and easements appeal to a bunch of young Scouts. And do we bribe them with ice cream or a game afterward – shifting their focus to the reward rather than the points of view they should be earnestly trying to remember so they can pass off their requirements? Maybe. But we didn’t. And even a week later, we had as good a conversation about rezoning and easements as one can have with a group of 12- and 13-year-old boys. We had to have this meeting to check off requirements, and now we’re moving on to more entertaining things.

But what to do for the Scouts who didn’t show? Maybe they avoided the tedium for one evening. But they still haven’t magically checked off those boxes, so the tedium still lies in their future.

We have made games out of requirements – turning discussions on calories, food labels, and other such dull stuff form the Cooking merit badge into relay races. But there comes a time when tedium is the only way to get a Scout through a requirement – and if they don’t learn to deal with tedium and instead are enabled to dodge it, they’re missing out.

So how to teach tedium?

1.      Offer it in small doses. We were at the city council long enough for them to hear the points of view they needed to fulfil their requirements, and then we quietly left.
2.      Spread it out. We held off on the discussion of what happened at the meeting until the week after – giving them two smaller doses of tedium rather than one large dose that would have checked off those boxes a week earlier.
3.      Consider the age of the Scouts involved. Our discussion on whether the city should rezone a bit of residential property for commercial use over the objection of a few neighbors was short and sweet. We asked a few questions to get more responses out of each of the boys, but at the end the discussion lasted no longer than ten minutes – the time it took us to drive from our meeting place to a nearby park where we went geocaching. We didn’t expect a lengthy, detailed dissertation.
4.      Add incentives. And I do not mean bribes. We’ll obviously have to hold a follo0w-up activity at another city council meeting for the boys who didn’t show up. Those who showed up the first time won’t be forced to go again.

Ah, Mister-Scoutmaster-Man – you said your reluctant boys are rarely if ever attending weekly meetings: They must ALL be tedious!

Maybe they are, to a certain point of view. Remember that discussion of FUN!! versus just fun? The boys we took geocaching enjoyed their time, even if it didn’t end with the FUN!! of ice cream. Those who aren’t coming are making that FUN!! versus just fun choice before they even get to Scouts. All we’re asking of them is an hour a week, and we’ll try to make that hour as “fun” and as productive as possible. But (and I’ve seen this) if they band together and tell Mom and Dad they’re going to Scouts but instead wander off unsupervised to the basement to play yet another video game, we can be having fun (and even FUN!!) at Scouts, but if they’re not there, that’s not the fault of the program, that’s not the fault of the boy-led troop, that’s not the fault of the Scoutmaster either. These are boys making their own choices. And when they get caught in their choices, it’s typical to offer up the excuse that “Scouting isn’t fun” because that shifts the blame to the leaders and the program, not the boys. So if you’ve got a boy who says Scouting isn’t fun, go to a month’s worth of Scout meetings with him. Maybe you’ll find he’s telling the truth. Or maybe you’ll find out he’s feeding you a line. I know where I’d put my money in that equation.

These same boys went to a week’s worth of Scout Camp last month – and while they had fun, they also worked through the tedium of a few Eagle-required merit badges. All we had to do was to keep them from hanging around the campfire, whittling. And once they got to the merit badge stations, they saw the fun in what they were learning. Getting them there and through even the idea of tedium is the challenge.

“Follow Me, Boys” does a pretty poor job of showing the tedium of Scouting – nobody wants to make a movie about boys sitting around reading food labels, or writing reports about the city council meeting they went to. And yet the tedious is as much a part of Scouting as is FUN with as many exclamation points as you care to add to it.