My new Vox Amp

I have a new toy.
I have been teaching myself to play the guitar. I mean really play it, not just hit the rock power chords of “Freebird” like I did way back when.

The toy? A Vox amPlug Headphone Guitar Amplifier – Classic Rock version.
th_classicrock_slant

It is tiny, about the size of a standard deck of playing cards split in half lengthwise. I plugged it into my Peavey T-15 electric guitar and was amazed at the sound quality. And because I used my MP3 player ear buds I was the only one who could hear it. I can practice without disturbing the rest of the household.
I strummed “Horse With No Name” for bit, and then (ahem) hit the “Freebird” power chords.

Now I have no excuse not to learn to play.

This is so cool!!

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Story With No Name, accepted for publication!!

I planned on waiting until I had a new title to announce this acceptance, but that is proving harder than I expected.

My story, formally known as “The Shadow Blade of Thistlethwart”, has been accepted for publication in the “Infinity Swords” anthology from Carnivah House.  I am so jazzed!  I was expecting a rejection and had even picked out the next market to send it to.  The story currently has no name because the editors had one condition: give it a new title.  Easy!  No Problem!

Hah!!

The real ‘gotcha’ for me is that I was never very happy with the original title.  When the story idea occurred to me and the first pages flooded out faster than I could type, I needed something to name the word processing file.  ShadowBladeThistlethwart was what I named it.  Over time as I finished up the first draft of the story I guess I convinced myself that it was a good title.  It was a little cutesy and screamed juvenile fantasy (i.e. Harry Potter), but as a person with a quirky sense of humor I thought the juxtaposition of the title against the backdrop of an opening quote that established a strong science fictional setting was a hoot.  So I left it and did not give it another thought.

Now, I find it is branded into my brain.  I still don’t like it much, but I am afraid that I can’t come up with anything better.  I am likely being too hard on myself.  Yesterday, I gave myself a headache pondering and thinking about it.  All in all, I’d rather be drinking beer.

Which, just to show how sparky and exhausted my brain was, I actually considered using for a title.  “I’d Rather Be Drinking A Beer” was only marginally worse than “Accidental Hero”,  “The Good Evil Does”, and “Yes, Mister Churchill, There Is Such A Thing As Evil.”

Actually that last one has some promise.  It has that quirkiness that makes me grin.

The editors suggested creating something that fit the story’s theme.  Easier said than created.  When I stopped and took time to figure out how I came up with other story titles that I really liked, I realized that all of them just popped into my head at some point.  None of them were created with a conscious thought given to theme or character or plot.

I am going to read through my story a few times and cross my fingers that something pops.  If not, I think I’ll go have a beer.

Review: The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

I have had this book on my reading shelf for a few years now. I read it back in high school, and have been meaning to read it again ever since. Because I have set myself the goal of reading all of the Hugo Award winning novels that I have yet to read, I figured I’d kick off the effort by reading this novel again.

This novel consists of three distinct novelettes, portions of which were originally published in the science fiction magazines Galaxy and If. The three stories are appropriately subtitled: “Against stupidity …”, “… the gods themselves …”, “… contend in vain?” It is the middle story that I feel won the Hugo for the good doctor. It is the strongest of the three and rightly lends its title to the overall title of the novel. It is an amazing piece of fiction. The entire story takes place in an alien parallel universe with alien characters, both so different from human experience that when one stops to think about it, you must wonder if Asimov himself was an alien to have even imagined them. As I have said in past reviews, I really love great characterization. With Odeen, Tritt and Dua, Asimov introduces us to alien creatures and then sets about crafting them into people that we care about. I found myself wondering how the climax of the third story was going to impact the parallel universe characters. As a young man, I longed for a sequel that furthered the story of the struggle for communication between our universe and the para-universe.

I have had many people tell me that Asimov is not the greatest science fiction writer of all time because he lacks literary flair. But I contend that he should be considered for the position based on his alacrity and accuracy with words. There are times when reading that many of us finding ourselves backing up to assimilate the meaning of a sentence. Not so with Asimov. I dare say that even the deep science content of this novel can be easily understood the first time by anyone who reads it.

I recommend “The Gods Themselves” as a good introduction to Asimov’s work, especially those who may be daunted by the multi-volume Foundation and Robot series.

Guess Who’s NOT On Time For Dinner?

The recent dearth of posts here at Blogtide Rising is partially due to my participation in a comedic dinner theater production–Guess Who’s NOT On Time For Dinner?
Performing in community theater has been wonderful for me. Not only is it fun, but it has been a great outlet for dealing with work related stress. I was looking forward to this particular production because the author/director wrote my part specifically with me in mind. I think it worked out well. There were times during rehearsals when he and the other actors were laughing at my portrayal of my character.

The play itself was marvelously funny. The author, Delmar Burkitt is a local playwright with two plays published by Elderidge Publishing Company. He enjoys audience participation, and this play had a lot of that. The play takes place within a restaurant that is set up on the stage which is where the audience is seated.  Most of the cast are restaurant staff–with a few customers tossed into the mix. The waiters are actors and we actually took (limited) orders and served the audience their meals. The major acting segments took place prior to drink orders being taken, in between each major meal service, and of course after dessert. The in between times were filled with live entertainment and with the wait-staff actors doing a large amount of improvisation with the customers as we took their orders and served them food and drinks.

I was an overly nervous waiter on his first night working solo. I taught myself how to make my leg shake as if I were terrified; and how to shake a pitcher of iced tea so the ice would rattle while I was pouring yet still keeping the spout steady so that I really didn’t spill anything (the trick is to shake up and down, not side to side). I had a brown paper bag that I hyperventilated into when a (fake) tray of drinks was dropped by one of the other actors.  Other cast members playing the waiters were a young lady with a *fake* cold, a forgetful gentleman, a bookworm, a chatterbox, a college student studying forensics, a klutz, a music lover with headsets constantly blaring music, and finally a multiple personality disorder sufferer who decides to experiment by not taking his medicine before starting work.

The ad libs were wonderful, especially those of Woody Roll who played multiple personalities hilariously. The live entertainment was real, and was necessary to give the audience a chance to eat because as long as the actors were on stage interacting with them, very little food was eaten. Boone Brabson and Nancy Cupp performed several popular country songs including “Margaritaville“, “Luckenbach, Texas” and “Crazy”.

It was tremendous fun, and Delmar was even asked to take the show on the road to Circleville, but he declined. It will be some time before I can be in another of Delmar’s productions. He is writing a play for the Waverly High School Drama Club, and won’t start on his next community theater project until after he recovers from that.

As always, Delmar’s productions are for charity and this time the beneficiary was the Waverly Enrichment Group.

Sending Out Stories…

One would think that a natural outcome of writing a story is to send it out for publication. Not so. It is very difficult, at least for me, to finally admit that a story is ready to go out. I am not confident in my skills as a writer, and I have this big urge to just let a story sit until I am confident in my skills, and can give it that final revision that will make the story the best that it can be. But when is that day going to arrive?

I have a large backlog of partial, rough draft, and nearly finished stories as a result. I may not be the best writer that I am eventually going to be, but the time has come to be brave and just send out stories and find out if any professional editors think I have what it takes.

I actually decided this back in November 2007. I immediately sent “The Journey” to Every Day Fiction with the full expectation of a swift rejection. The idea was to prime the pump, get the ball rolling, show some pluck… and to remember what it was like to get rejected. Well, they accepted it instead.

Today I sent off another story; fully expecting rejection. I did at least five final revisions of it. Yesterday evening I was thinking of another tweak I could make, and realized that I was just delaying. It is just fine as is, and perhaps the tweak would make it better, but perhaps it would make it worse. As you can see, sometimes I over think things.

I have some other stories that need some more revision, and I am going to get busy with them. One has a fast approaching deadline. I guess my point of this entry is that I am not going to obsess on trying to get the stories as perfect as they could ever be. I am going to simply get them to be as good as my current skill set will allow, learn from the process, and then send out more stories.

Personal Writing Challenges (part 1)

I have been giving myself personal writing challenges to force myself to not slip into procrastination. I have a small list of exercises, topics and stuff that I can fall back on when the creative juices dry up.

One of the exercises is to take something I have written for work (where passive voice is encouraged) and revise it into the active voice. (i.e. “The design was implemented by the lead programmer. The coding was finished early.” became “Our lead programmer coded the patch in record time.”) However, one item on my list demanded that I look into situations where the passive voice is appropriate.

In a blog entry on “voice”, author and high school teacher James Van Pelt described his favorite passive voice sentence used by one of his students. “My eyes were opened by me.” (BTW his blog is a treasure trove of good stuff for those of us who had our self esteem smashed flat by our own high school creative writing teachers. But that is a different blog topic.) I laughed out loud and I decided then and there that I would take that sentence and use it as the center piece for my passive voice story exercise. It took a month and a half for a story idea to form around that single passive sentence. Once the idea was in mind, it took less than twenty minutes to hammer out the first draft in long hand. I have been refining it for the past two weeks. The majority of the story is purposely in the passive voice because of the situation of the main character. The story deals with physically opening ones eyes, not with a metaphorical or spiritual “eye opening” experience. The character opening his own eyes, instead of having someone open them for him, is key to the plot.

As is typical for me, it is a science fiction story. I have decided that I am going to send it into one of the big three SF magazines; which is something I haven’t done with a full blown story for nearly 25 years; mainly because of that creative writing class in high school, but also because I am a procrastinator. Back in the late 1990’s I did send out “The Journey” my flash story that EDF published in November, but that was just a whimsy, I haven’t sent anything else out to a fiction publisher.

I am expecting a rejection. The story is in the passive voice after all, and just because I think it works does not mean that a professional editor will. But there is a chance they will agree with me.

(Thing #94)

Tales, Gossip and Scandals of 1850

Our town kicks off the fall holidays with a celebration called Jingle Bell Weekend. Craft shows, mini concerts, social gatherings and a parade in downtown are hallmarks of this outpouring of community spirit and good cheer. In recent years there has been a walking Lantern Tour of the historic neighborhoods of Waverly, Ohio. This year’s performance was last night, November 17th, 2007. The first stop of the tour provides hot drinks and cookies to those participating. Stationed along the route are actors that entertain the crowd and provide historic information about the town. Taken together, the performances at each stop make up a complete play. The performance was titled “Tales, Gossip and Scandals of 1850”.

This was my first year participating as an actor. I was one of the lucky actors that made up the “town council meeting” segment, and spent the evening indoors with the refreshments. Most of the troupe spent the evening outdoors while the temperature dropped from a comfortable 50 degrees to just above freezing. Still, most people said it was the best weather a Lantern Tour has had for the past couple of years. This year had the largest audience the tour has ever had, and the organizers broke them up into manageable sized groups for the space available at each stop. We performed our parts of the play four times during the evening.

Acting is fun. I think I do a good job as a community theater player. After most performances I have audience members approach me and tell me what a fine job I did. It is a real ego boost (like I need one!) The best part for me is when I get direct reaction from the audience during the performance. This year I got a good laugh as the town council chairman when I merely rolled my eyes and slumped my shoulders as another character repeatedly interrupted the proceedings.

After our last performance we, the town council actors, shadowed the last group of tour participants around to each stop. The crowd was laughing at each performance, and so was I. Most of these actors will also be in a mystery dinner theater play I am in. That play will be performed in early December 2007. They are a fun bunch of people to work with.

This performance is part of my 101 Things to do in 1001 Days list.  Scratch Thing #22. Give 101% into performance for Jingle Bell skit.

I don’t trust medical billing services…

Medical bills need a special level of attention. Not only don’t I trust the insurance company to do the right thing, but I also don’t trust the medical billing services that most of the local health providers use.

From the insurance company angle, I have to be alert to denials of coverage that shouldn’t have been issued. The denial always seems to be in direct proportion to the amount of the bill. (Higher the bill the more likely it will be denied.) This is just an occasional thing.

The worst part of keeping track of medical bills are the billing services. Most of them are either totally inept or totally criminal.

Some of the screwy things I have seen include:

1) Treating my insurance co-pay as if it were the disbursement from the insurance company and then trying to collect from me the funds that the insurance company already sent them. This is subtle and sneaky.

2) Similar to the above except the insurance plan “write off” (if less than the disbursement) is entered as the disbursement. Again they are trying to collect the same money the insurance company already sent them.

3) Sending bills in two totally different styles a week apart. The billing service for the major hospital in the area does this. First you get a simple black and white bill, then about a week later you get a fancy light blue bill for the same visit. If you are not paying attention you could end up paying twice. When I did this once, they politely held on to my money until I figured it out on my own. They refunded my money, but I had to discover the mistake and ask for it.

4) This is the newest one… The billing office calls demanding payment before any bill of any sort ever is sent to you. They make it sound as if the account is going to go to collections if you don’t make arrangements over the phone right then and there. Then… a few days later, the bill arrives in the mail. The timing makes me think that it is mailed the same day the call is made. Again, if you are not careful, you could double pay the bill.

5) The worst is when they apply a payment to the wrong bill. It seems to always happen when the billing service has already implemented trick #1 or #2 above and they want to confuse you so that you do not notice the switch. This was so bad at one point that for one payment I sent in, they were taking a few dollars from it and spreading it across six or seven different bills, none of which had the same billing account number as the one sent in with the payment. At this point, I was still trying to accommodate the errors and to make sure that the amounts still balanced. When one nasty hairball of cross posting amounts and misapplying insurance disbursements finally foiled even my skills of logic to untangle, Doris convinced me to demand that they correct it all on their end. So I waited until the inevitable call came from the billing service to demand payment. I then looked up the bill, and gave the person the check number that I payed it with, and told them it was already paid. When they started the song and dance that the money had been applied elsewhere and that I still needed to pay it, I held my ground and insisted that they correct the numbers on their end because “I had already paid THAT bill.” For months the same kind of calls happened over and over. Sometimes they fixed the numbers, sometimes not. I kept paying the bills that I knew I owed, but not any in the hairball. This kept up until they threatened me with sending it to collections. At this point I collected all my paperwork and physically marched into the billing office and loudly started exposing their ineptitude and/or dirty tricks. After only a few minutes a manager, whose voice I recognized from many telephone calls, came bustling out of her inner sanctum and jotted down my name, etc. and told me she would personally see that it was all straightened out and that I should have just called instead of harassing her staff. I pulled a sheet of paper and started listing the dates that I had spoken specifically with her about this same issue. She actually yelped. I demanded to see a complete billing statement for all five of my family members for the entire year when she was finished.

The tricks or “mistakes” keep happening, but now I just blast them and make them correct their “accounting” error immediately.

My previous method of keeping track of everything was overly complex, and was designed to help me work around they games they played with my money. Now that I am no longer playing along, I needed a simpler system; especially now that I have a child living out of state. I sat down last weekend and set up a simple “in, pending, out” filing system for each member of the family. I sorted every medical bill from this year into the apprpriate file folders, and all is good. Now I’ll be able to lay my hands on all the records quickly for when those pesky billing calls interrupt dinner.

Scratch Things #32 and #33 from my list of 101 things to do in 1001 days.

32. Organize medical bills
33. Create better system for keeping track of medical expenses

Adams Lake State Park

Doris has taken some amazing nature pictures, and wanted to take more. She suggested that we head out to a state park she had remembered seeing last year when we went to West Union. We were in different vehicles and I did not notice it at all.

I am so glad she did. It turned out that it was Adams Lake State Park and Adams Lake Prairie State Nature Preserve in Adams County, on SR41 near West Union, Ohio.

Like many Ohio State Parks, it is small. It has one paved trail that runs for 3/4’s of a mile along the lake front from the dam near SR41 to the turnaround at the dead end of the park’s access road. The park takes up 49 acres, 47 of which is the lake itself. That remaining two acres is pleasingly laid out with a playground, shelter and numerous picnicking tables and grills. A tiny stand of old forest trees resides between the access road and the hiking path, and this area is also interspersed with picnic tables, but no grills. The lake level was down a bit, likely due to the dry spring weather we had. There was a nice surprise for me. There were two prominate beaver lodges on the far side of the lake, and a third lumping of branches that could also have been a lodge. On the near side of the lake near the walking path a few trees were girdled and obvious beaver teeth marks were visible. Doris saw a small head bobbing in the lake, but I missed it.

Adjacent to the park is the 26 acre Adams Lake Prairie State Nature Preserve. By law in Ohio you need permits to access the state nature preserves or to hike in them. That is unless a state approved trail is provided, in which case you are allowed to use the trail. It is illegal to leave the trail unless you have a permit. I was happy to see that it appears the patrons of the park abide by this rule as there were no unauthorized side trails or worn areas that are common in most state parks. The gravel and dirt trails in the nature preserve total approximately 8/10’s of a mile. Part of it is a nature walk that includes signs describing plant and animal life in the area.

I am thinking of returning in the springtime to see the prairie in bloom, and the spillway of the lake in action. The dam has a double spillway, one of which is likely only for emergency overflow. Owen’s other grandparents live near this state park, so it is very likely that I will be visiting it again in the future. Next time, I’ll pack a picnic lunch.

(This is part of Thing 46)

Scratch Thing #70

70. Replace both couches

I guess you could say we are frugal. We purchased a couch when we lived in Chicagoland and were still using it yesterday, some 15 years later. The love seat we had was a hand-me-down (albeit a nice one) from a relative. The couch fabric was splitting and the love seats springs were broken and unrepairable.

They have been that way for over a year.

I could blame budget concerns (being frugal can account for part of the purchase delay), but this was primarily a procrastination thing. Deciding on what to purchase was the biggest concern for me. I didn’t look hard or do a lot of comparison shopping, but I have concluded that most furniture being built for the US market is not the same quality it was 10 or 15 years ago. The high price, high end furniture excepted because I did not look at any of it. Budget would not allow a purchase that large.

We settled on replacing the love seat and couch with two couches from Big Lots! Our oldest boy Justin works there, and at least around here, they currently have the best quality furniture and selection for the best price. The local big box store only carries college dorm room style furniture. The only two furniture stores in Waverly have closed their doors. The two furniture stores in Chillicothe that I was aware of have also closed their doors. This left slim pickings.

The couches may not have the longevity of the old ones, but only time will tell on that score. But they look nice, and they sit well which is important for my back. Justin made a cartoon drawing of me sitting on the old couch that he labeled “slouch cam”. It sat low enough that if I tried to sit on it with a straight back for a long period of time, my legs would go numb. So, I slouched. More often, I’d just lie down. I think these new couches are going to be a big improvement.