Monthly Archives: September 2012

The No Shame Poetry Series Presents "Assay"


for Becky

I am silver but you
You are gold.
Wrenched from the earth
I must be processed, transformed
Treated to become myself.
Found in your most elemental form
In fresh running mountain streams
You drop into evidence at the bottom
Of copper pans and
Shine like stars through
Clear water.

I will do as a precious metal
But you,
You shine.
You are the gold standard.

I am silver but you
You are gold.

–Dan Verner

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Advice for Writers–Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock

1 My first rule was given to me by T.H. White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.

2 Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.

3 Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.

4 If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction.

5 Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development.

6 Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.

7 For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.

8 If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.

9 Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery).

10 Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.

from The Guardian

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Technology Wednesday–A Word to the Wise

I thought junior year in high school chemistry was going to be a disaster. There was a new curriculum with a lot of math, and let’s just say I didn’t do math, at least not very well. And the teacher was the Fury not only of the department, but of the school. She ruled through intimidation and fear. We were a bunch of “good” quiet kids, so her draconian measures were unnecessary, but she used them nonetheless. One guy, fresh in from California, dared to shrug when she asked him why he didn’t have his homework. He disappeared from class and no one ever saw him again.

The class had 35 members, without enough places for everyone, so after about a week of this chemical reign of terror, Mrs. Ott–not her real name (she liked to say about almost everything, “This might be on the test” to increase our anxiety)–announced that five people would be forming another class. And miracle of miracles, I was one of the five. I was never so relieved in my life. I think the new teacher could have been Satan himself and we would have been glad.

Instead of Satan, our new teacher was a tiny quivering woman whom I will call Mrs. Carter fresh from a career as an industrial chemist who apparently decided to try her hand at teaching. She was terrified of us and grew so nervous she had to sit down every once in a while and calm her nerves. We were kind to her, knowing what we could be sent back to, and together we learned chemistry. One of the students, Dick, was a mathematical genius who went to M.I.T. and became a rocket scientist. When Mrs. Carter would lock up on a math problem, she would stare at the board and tremble more than usual. Dick got up, took the chalk from her, sat her down in her chair and worked the problem. “See?” he would say, and Mrs. Carter would nod her head with the rest of us.

She also made tests easy. If a concept or problem would be on the unit test, she would say, “A word to the wise–study this carefully.” We just had to mark what she pointed out, study that, and do well on the test.

I was thinking of “a word to the wise” this week when my iPhone offered to update its OS–and in doing so, wiped out all my contacts, telephone numbers and calendar items. I have been trying to be all high-tech and keep everything on my phone, although I do have some random scraps of paper with information on them. I eventually found that I could recover most of the information from my computer, which synched with the phone when I uploaded some pictures about a month ago. That made reconstructing the information easier than had I been forced to start from scratch. I’ve heard from some other people who had the same experience and were fortunate enough to have the material synched as well. (I’ve also heard that the new OS drains the battery more quickly. Carry your charger with you at all times!)

So, my word to the wise is, back up your data. Back up your data. Back up your data. You’ll be happy you did.

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The Biscuit City Chronicles–Digging to China

I saw the other day that Google Earth had added a new feature that allows users to dig a virtual hole from any spot on earth and see where they would come out on the other side. This reminded me of a popular belief when we were kids that if you dug a hole straight through the earth, you’d end up in China. Somehow, this benighted idea included everyone and everything being upside down on the other side of the earth.  Now, I don’t think we were especially stupid or even in the magical stage of cognitive development, but a few minutes with a globe and recall of the facts of gravity would have shown us just how dumb these ideas were.  And we weren’t little kids at the time. I remember being about ten years old and thinking this.
For the record, if we were to dig straight through the earth from this location, we’d end up in the ocean somewhere south-south-west of Australia. To come up in China, you’d have to start in Argentina. Not that we let facts get in our way.

One of our favorite places to play was a large vacant lot a couple of houses down from my house.  We met there and played all kinds of games, mostly involving throwing things at each other.  And of course at some point we decided to dig to China. This quest was made more difficult since none of us had a shovel and had no chance of borrowing one from a tool shed and carrying it down the street for several blocks. Kids couldn’t get away with anything in those days.  If our parents didn’t see us, a neighbor would, and come out, take the shovel away and tell our parents we were up to no good.  When we got home, our parents would grill us about why we had a shovel and what we were going to do with it.  The conversation would go something like this:

Parent: Mrs. Smith said she saw you walking down the street with a shovel this afternoon.
Kid: (under breath) Well, she’s a nosy old bat, isn’t she?

Parent: Excuse me?

Kid: I said, it was just like that…

Parent: What were you going to do with a  shovel?

Kid: Dig a hole.

Parent: Why?

Kid: (under breath) We wanted to dig down to China.

Parent: Where?

Kid: China.

Parent: Well, since you have so much energy, you can dig the weeds in the garden…

So, knowing how this would play out, we were reduced to using a couple of old serving spoons we had found for our excavation. We started digging in the rock hard clay soil characteristic of this area under a blazing sun and actually worked for a couple of hours.  By that time we had a hole about a foot and a half in diameter and six inches deep. I thought it was quite an accomplishment for a couple of kids with spoons. By then it was time to eat, and somehow we never got back to our hole to China.

I’m sure there were other absurd beliefs that we cherished, but about the only other one I can recall is the idea that, given the right kind of cape, I could fly like Superman.  I adopted the usual expedient of tying a bath towel around my neck and jumping off the front porch.  I didn’t achieve anything near flight. I was discouraged from this feat until I saw (on the back of a carrot bag, strangely enough) an ad for a “real flying cape.” This was apparently before the days of truth in advertising. I sent off my quarter and a few weeks later received in the mail a cape made of thin plastic that would have been red if it had been thick enough. I gleefully tied it around my neck and climbed to the top of our shed in the back yard.  Flight was just an instant away. I could fly to China!  No need to put all that effort into digging!  I took a deep breath and launched myself into the air and landed on my feet with a thud.  It really hurt and although I was on the short side to begin with, I was even shorter after my jump.  I threw the cape down in disgust and gave up on the idea of trying to fly that way.

Maybe we as kids had a kind of underlying interest in other cultures and took China as someplace exotic and different. We were fed a steady diet of adventure stories—tales about Admiral Byrd and Charles Lindberg and Chuck Yeager—and I believe we saw going to China as an adventure.  I was thinking of digging to China the other day when it occurred to me that in this area we are surrounded by people from all over the world. So we don’t have to dig to China.  China has come to us.

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Some Odd Doings

Last week I witnessed or heard about some things that were, well, out of the ordinary.

Our younger daughter Alyssa, who is an ace Human Resources person (Your Neighborhood H.R. Lady, as she likes to style herself) was sharing with me some of the answers employees put for their emergency contact. She said that some people put 9-1-1. That same afternoon I was at a doctor’s office and overheard a man registering as a new patient. The receptionist was very kind and patient with him since he seemed to have some trouble understanding some of the questions.

“Who should we put down for an emergency contact?” she asked.


“No,” she told him, “someone we can contact in case of an emergency.”

“Honey,” he replied, “there ain’t no one.”

I thought it sad.

Then our local commuter rail, the VRE (Virginia Railway Express) was delayed as much as five hours Wednesday afternoon when someone left a box of unidentified body parts on or near the tracks. It turned out to be animal body parts. How many times does some Kentucky Fried Chicken mess up so many people’s afternoon?

Then there was the inconsolable lad in the three-year-old preschool room  where I was installing coat hooks  Friday with my cordless drill and other implements of destruction. The boy started crying when I walked in the room carrying my tools. His kind and expert teachers asked him if he was afraid of me. He said no, and kept crying, saying he wanted his mom, who was teaching across the hall. One of the teachers thought the noise of the drill frightened him so she brought him over and I let him run it. When they moved away from me, he set up a howl again. After I was nearly finished, they gave up, having made a noble effort for over an hour to quiet the child. They took him over to his mom and came back, saying she told them that he was afraid of tools.I felt bad, but none of us knew. I could have come back later.

I don’t blame the boy; each of us, for the most part, is afraid of something. I had a student who, as a high school junior, was terrified of clowns. A teacher dressed as a clown (there’s a story there but I won’t tell it here)  came into my room to ask me something, and the nice young woman freaked out. She was so bad off I had to have a friend take her to the clinic where I understand she finally calmed down. But it was a reminder of what fear can do to us.

Myself, I’m afraid of dogs because one bit me in third grade. But that’s another story for another day.

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Poem of the Week–Transformation


Mere pollen
Gold dust in the eye
Tranforms all
And all is golden, gilded, shining:
First dawn
Harvest fields
Light of late afternoon
Sunset through clouds
And moon’s first beam
Stars against night sky
Gold of dreams:

Gold dust in the eye.

–Dan Verner

(Based on a phrase in a message from a  friend referring to pollen as “gold dust in the eye.”)

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Rules for Writing–Neil Gaiman

Rules for Writing

1 Write.

2 Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

3 Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

4 Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.

5 Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

6 Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

7 Laugh at your own jokes.

8 The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

from The Guardian

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Born Free

The Money site on recently posted a list of “10 Things that Used to be Free” (I know, never start a sentence or title with a numeral, but that’s how they had it) at if you want to read the comments and suggestions for avoiding charges. Here’s a short form of their list:

1. Airline services
From baggage and leg room fees to charges for in-flight movies, meals and even bottles of water, airlines have “unbundled” many of their complimentary services and passed on these costs to the consumer. When my dad and I flew back from the Left Coast, we could have bought additional leg room. We also could have bought a nice little pillow and a tiny blanket or a two-week-old dried out turkey sandwich. We didn’t.

2. Food delivery
Many restaurants now charge a delivery fee, usually anywhere from $1.50 to as much as $6. Then you’re expected to tip the delivery person on top of that. I did not know this since we never have food delivered. Huh.

3. Banking
Today, charges abound — from monthly charges to overdraft and ATM fees. Some banks have even charged for talking to a teller. According to Bankrate’s 2011 Checking Account Survey, only 45% of non-interest checking accounts were free, and maintenance fees averaged $4.37 a month last year, up from $2.49 in 2010. The average AMT withdrawal fee for a noncustomer was $2.40. We still have free checking, but I have a bad feeling that it will be going away. On the bright side, a couple of accounts we have for some accounts related to family trusts actually reduced the minimum balance for free checking.

4. Television
Years ago, TVs with “rabbit ears” might have looked silly, but the programming was free. Today, local TV is still free, but more than 100 million American households pay for it through cable and satellite providers, according to research company SNL Kagan, and monthly costs average $50, or $75 for the digital version. Yep. And since Comcast “improved” our service with FIOS, navigating the remotes has become a daily challenge.

5. News
Sure, there’s still plenty of news out there for free, but 20% of U.S. newspapers require readers to pay to access online content, according to Mashable. I think this trend is going to continue. 

6. Trash pickup
Trash removal is certainly something we wouldn’t want to pay for, and often it’s included in your property taxes. But in some areas, that’s changing. According to a survey of 70 Indiana cities conducted by Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman, 46 of those cities have a trash fee, while only 24 have no fee. We have trash, recyling and yard waste pickup which comes out of property taxes. So far. I know people who pay for trash pickup find that the services compete with each other to see who can offer the lowest rates.

7. Gas station services
There was a time when gas station attendants would pump your gas and clean your windshield for free. Today, this complimentary service is nearly gone, with the exception of New Jersey and Oregon, where state laws prohibit self-service. Often, you’ll even have to pay to pump air into your tires. Yep. So long, free air.  It was good knowing you.

8. School activities and facilities
As if college tuition wasn’t high enough — the average in-state tuition at public colleges is $8,244 a year, according to the College Board — schools are increasingly charging extra fees for fitness facilities, parking garages or even campus health services. Pay to play seems to be the name of the game.

9. Directory assistance
Back in the day, you weren’t charged for calling directory assistance. Today, calling or texting your carrier’s 411 service could cost you a couple bucks. I hate using directory assistance. It’s another one of those darned voice recognition programs. 

“Say a city and state, please.”
“Manassas, Virginia.”
“Montpelier, Vermont?”
“No! Manassas, Virginia! Virginia!”
“St. Thomas, Virgin Islands?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand you.”
“I’ll transfer you to an agent.”
“Whew. Why didn’t you do that in the first place?”

10. Paying a bill by phone
Today, you often have to pay a fee just to pay your bill — over the phone, that is. For example, DirecTV charges $5, and Verizon charges $3.50 for over-the-phone payments. Yes, and it costs to visit the DMV in person. But who wanted to do that in the first place? Our insurance company charges to pay the bill online, by telephone or through the mail. It’s called a “convenience fee.”  I called them once and asked who it was convenient for? They replied, for the consumer. I allowed as how it was not convenient for me to pay to pay. They allowed as how they would pass my feedback along. I suppose I’m fortunate they didn’t charge me a feedback convenience fee.

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The Biscuit City Chronicles–Sea Monkeys, Roy Rogers and Magic Capes

I was about as gullible when I was a child as I was imaginative. I believed everything I read about or heard or saw on television was true, and especially the commercials. This is how (as I have written another time) I sent away for a Roy Rogers action set that promised, for a quarter, to deliver practically life-size figures of Roy, Dale, Pat Brady, their horses and Pat’s Jeep. When the figures came, they were, in the words of my mother, “almost big enough to see” and molded in a plastic the color of, well, sorry, but the color of vomit. You think I would have learned from such an experience. But I didn’t.

I also insisted on sending off for “a magic flying cape” as advertised on the back of a bag of carrots. The deal was I had to eat the carrots before ordering the cape which my mother assured me was a waste of time and money. It was. The “magic flying cape” was about a micron thick and ripped to shreds the first time I tried to fly off our porch and tore the thing to shreds.

Still, I did not learn, as the episode of the sea monkeys illustrates. Poet Leigh Giza mentioned sea monkeys in a Facebook post the other day and I was reminded of another adventure in consumer cluelessness on my part. The ads in comic books showed the “sea monkeys” as little monkeys in water dressed up like clowns, for some reason. They were, of course, brine shrimp, which, when they arrived and hatched, looked more like mosquito larvae than any kind of monkey. I guess. They were too small to tell what they looked like.

And so I was duped again. But then there was the ant farm, but that’s another story entirely.

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A Good Meal, a Grace-Filled Speaker, a Trip Home, a Panel, a Handbell Concert and a Typical Sunday with Some Additions

Picking up the story of our packed weekend from last week, we went to a banquet Friday evening which actually started the convention of Pilots for Christ. The food was great and it was an opportunity to meet people from all over the country whom I had only know through emails or posts on the PCI website.

We then went to Walnut Hills Baptist Church for the speaker for the evening, Gracia Burnham. Gracia told a tale of captivity, grace and forgiveness in a riveting presentation lasting over an hour. Gracia and her husband were flying missionaries to the Philippines in 2001 when they were captured by Muslim guerillas and held for over a year. They were constantly on the run in the jungle, short of food, clothing, medical care or anything we take for granted. They were also caught in the crossfire of thirteen gun battles between their captors and Filipino army troops. In the thirteenth battle, Gracia managed to escape but was wounded in the leg.Her husband Martin unfortunately was killed in the gunfire.

She told the story of how she recovered, physically, mentally and spiritually, to the point that she began a ministry with her former captors who were captured and imprisoned for life. Four have undergone conversions.

She was an eloquent speaker with a sense of warmth and tranquility. She has a website at, for more information and has published a book about her experiences, In the Presence of My Enemies, as well as an inspirational book, To Fly Again. Both are available on

The next morning we came back home and I went to a panel discussion sponsored by Write by the Rails, our local writing support group. The topic was “Marketing Your Book,” and our four panelists provided useful and practical information to the thirty or so people present.

That evening we went to a concert by the premier handbell group in the country and perhaps the world, the Raleigh Ringers. The concert, at the Hylton Performing Arts Center, was co-sponsored by the Manassas Chorale and Manassas Baptist Church.

Sunday we had the usual church and Sunday School in the morning, with a church picnic after services and a visit to my father in the afternoon. We ended the weekend with our own handbell rehearsal, which proved that we are not the Raleigh Ringers.

And so ended a packed weekend and varied activities. I have no complaints!

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