Saturday, November 1, 2014

National Not Writing a Novel Month

So, every November for the last decade or so, I've started writing a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I've managed most years to finish the required 50,000 words (which is quite a bit shy of an actual novel, but constitutes a respectable start), but I have yet to take the next step and actually finish writing, editing, and attempting to publish any of those poor, forgotten stories. (One of these languishes despite my darling husband's frequent requests to know what happens next.)

That said, I've decided this year to take a pass on NaNoWriMo and instead focus on a few things that might have a more positive impact on my life.

First, because November is the month in which we Americans celebrate our feast of Thanksgiving, I'm going to repeat my practice of naming (most likely on Facebook) something for which I am grateful each day this month. These may be simple things or grand ones. I may repeat myself a time or two, though I'll try to find a unique thing for which to be mindfully grateful every day.

Second, I'm going to get rid of something every day this month, either by donation if the item is in good repair and can be of use to someone else or by elimination if the item is broken, ruined, or otherwise valueless. The item might actually be a collection of items, e.g. a box of clothes or household goods that can go to the local charity shop or a stack of paper scraps I feel certain I'll get around to using in my collage some day. In fact, most days I expect to exceed my goal on this effort, but I won't get too far ahead of myself.

I'm making this month a time for letting go of what I no longer need to make more room for those things (and people and practices) in life that bring me great joy.

Feel free to follow my progress through what I'm calling "NaNoWriNoMo" or to play along if you like.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The legacy of heroes

"The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example." -- Benjamin Disraeli

This morning, Memorial Day, I realized to my own embarrassment that I do not know where the war memorial is in my current home town. In fact, I'm not even certain one exists. I did a quick search online and couldn't really find evidence of one, but I suspect one stands in the old, decrepit cemetery on the outskirts of the local college campus where lie the bones of the town's founders and other luminaries. Chance are good that I'll take a walk later in search for it.

Dunlevy War Memorial (photo by Susan Sparks)
Such was not the case in my childhood. My little town's war memorial occupied a place of prominence and pride that I could see clearly from the porch of my mother's house. A shrine made of brick and stone, it bore the names of Dunlevy's war dead, names shared by their fathers and sons and nephews and cousins who still lived in the town. The memorial stood at the end of a long street in the "bottoms," that part of town between the railroad tracks and the river, flanked by the local barge-building enterprise on one side and the boat club and Giuseppe Garibaldi Hall on the other.

When I was young, the local military honor guard from the VFW travelled around the valley from town to town, holding services at each small memorial, paying honor to the war dead among their families and descendants. The detail always arrived in Dunlevy for services at 11 a.m., rain or shine, but I somehow remember only the days of blazing sun and brilliant blue sky. We woke up early, offered help (or more often hindrance) to the women who prepared a mid-day meal to be served to the veterans in the Garibaldi Hall after the service, shoring them up for services in other towns through the afternoon. 

I remember the sound of wind snapping the always-new-for-the-occasion American flag that hung above the memorial. I remember sizable crowds of people gathered, heads bowed in reverence, while the chaplain spoke words about honor, valor, sacrifice. I remember how I held my breath and felt my heart jump in my chest as the honor guard fired their guns -- once, twice, three times.  I remember the metallic jingle of spent shell casings falling to the pavement between rounds and how my friends would reach for them, careful not to burn their fingers. I remember, too, the sound of "Taps," played sadly, somberly, often by a local Boy Scout, my friend Paul who that day became something more than just a boy with a bugle. 

I remember the uniforms and the stories the veterans would tell as they ate lunches of ham salad sandwiches, potato salad, coffee and beer. I remember feeling connected to the past, feeling anxious about the future, wondering how many more names would find their way onto that small memorial.

It may seem weird that I grow nostalgic on Memorial Day more than on any other holiday, but my memories of that day loom large. They remind me of how much sacrifice has gone into protecting and preserving our freedom. They remind me to be grateful.

To those who gave their lives, and to the families they left behind, thank you. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Up the (Amazon) River without a Paddle (or a stabby thing)

So, my trusty old Kindle gave up the ghost and went to the land of screen-freeze with lines and partial page image and everything. Yes, I tried the little restart button trick, and it didn't work. (So don't bother trying to mansplain that to me, okay?)

I got a lot of great reads out of that Kindle, and I'm so delighted with every aspect of Kindle's design, that I just went ahead and ordered a new one, this time a Paperwhite. The device arrived today in perfect working order, and I happily plugged it in to charge and set it up with my existing account. During the set-up process, I very clearly selected English (US) as my language of choice and assumed that would let Amazon and the kindle know that I would only need a User Manual (more on this in a bit) in one language: English.

So, imagine my surprise when I logged into and discovered that I have two full pages of alternate language editions of the Kindle User Manual as well as few alternate language editions of the Free Dictionary. Here's a screen cap of just the first page of my Manage Your Kindle (MYK) interface.

Fair enough, some ghost in the machine screwed up, and I got not one, but two (sometimes three) copies of the Kindle User Manual added to my library in Italian, Portuguese, German, Spanish, Chinese, French, Japanese, and US English (thank heavens!). I also got copies of all the Free Dictionaries associated with those languages.

I mentioned already that I selected US English as my language of choice when I set up the device, right?

Anyway, as a person who frequently borrows library books on my Kindle, I need to use the Manage Your Kindle section to select which device I want my books delivered to and to return books when I'm done reading them. I like the Manage Your Kindle interface because it's pretty simple, doesn't try to overcomplicate things, and allows me to do things like delete content I no longer wish to have in my library (like a collection of absolutely awful fantasy novels I picked up on the recommendation of someone I no longer consider a friend).

So, savvy Kindle owner and Amazonian loyalist (from the customer side, at least) that I am, I attempted to delete the unwanted manuals and dictionaries using the MYK's handy Action menu, a dropdown that allows me to send content to a device, open content in the Cloud Reader, download content, and delete content. Except, apparently, 20 or so alternate language editions of the user manual. When I attempt to delete them, I am chided --in red no less-- "Deletion of this item category is not supported in MYK."

It's important to note at this point that all these copies of the same damned user manual and their attendant dictionaries are not actually on my new device. They're just in my Library, taking up the first two screens of a content management tool that I use pretty frequently. Now, I can bypass them after the page loads in its default view by simply selecting my "books" from a dropdown or by breadcrumbing through the screens to get to a place where content that I actually have and want on my Kindle resides. But that's bullshit. It's a really lousy customer experience and speaks volumes about Amazon's shoddy approach to UI/UX design for user tools on the website.

So, frustrated by (a) the presence of unwanted content and (b) my inability to remove it from my library, I contacted customer service using their "chat" tool.

That went well.

The little screen cap here represents the first ten or fifteen minutes of my interaction with the level 1 CS rep. After not being understood or even listened to for about ten minutes, I asked to be escalated. The next level was unable to help me, but he did provide me with an answer that basically just mimicked the website's admonition that "Deletion of this item category is not supported in MYK."

I was less than satisfied with this exchange, told the CS rep so, and signed out of chat before using any of the colorful and expressive epithets and oaths I felt very much like swearing at that point.

I did what anyone who makes websites for a living would do: I turned to customer service email to vent my spleen. The text of that email follows:

Troubleshoot my Kindle > LA's Kindle Paperwhite

I just purchased a new Kindle Paperwhite. Much to my chagrin, this purchase has loaded about 20 editions of the Kindle User Guide in a variety of languages into my library (not to my device), and they are occupying the first two pages of my Manage Your Kindle interface. When I attempt to delete them, I am told, "Deletion of this item category is not supported from MYK.

I like to use MYK, especially for delivering library books. I like it because it's a pretty easy-to-use, well designed interface. Sadly, it is now an enormous irritation because I can't even see actual content I might want on my Kindle unless I sort by content type for books or simply breadcrumb my way through the third page of listings.

Why, please tell me, are all these alternative language editions of the user manual in my library? Please, please tell me there's a way I can get rid of them or suppress them from showing up at the top of my MYK list.

I just had the absolute worst customer service encounter I've ever had in Amazon Chat, and I'm hoping this one will work out a little better.

If the answer is simply, "Sorry, you're stuck with twenty versions of a User Manual you don't even really need in English because the device is so brilliantly and intuitively designed," I guess I'll just have to learn to live with that.

But I'm holding out hope that you can do better.


About a half-hour later, I got an email response from the same CS rep who let me down in chat, reiterating that "Deletion of this item category is not supported in MYK." He assured me he would pass my feedback along to the developers. My favorite sentence from this email reads "If you need any further assistance please let us know so that we can assist you accordingly. " 

Well... I'll think about it, but it seems bloody unlikely that you'll be able to give me any assistance until somebody fixes this flaw in your website, and I don't expect that'll happen any time soon. Thanks, Customer Service. Have a nice life.

So, having vented all this, I do feel a little better, but I am reminded that a curmudgeonly colleague of mine pointed out to me when he learned of my old Kindle's demise that paper books never fail. He's right. And brick-and-mortar stores don't send customers home with a stack of 20 or more user manuals in languages they neither speak nor read and tell them they won't be able to simply drop them in the recycling bin. Or, better still, burn them in a great, conflagration of vengeful gratification.

I'll return, in conclusion, to the rather complimentary observation I made in my CS email. The irony of all the User Manual overload is that the Kindle is such a well-designed device that the manual --even in my native language-- is somewhat superfluous. The Kindle is delightful, and I will continue to read on it happily despite my being so disgruntled by the absolutely horrible experience I've had on the website.

Now I'm going to go read for a bit to calm my nerves.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Walk on the Mild Side

Today a friend posted to Facebook about reclaiming her neighborhood walk after having been intimidated a while ago by a bunch of ass-hats driving fast and yelling rude comments out of their car. A gentle soul, my friend confessed that she honored them with a double-digit salute -- once they'd gotten far enough out of range, that is.

Like her, I sometimes allow circumstances to get between me and my walking practice. I call it a practice, because walking is for me both a form of exercise and a kind of meditation. When I'm doing it regularly, both my body and mind reap the benefits. My weight is manageable. My blood sugar levels are steady and normal. I sleep well and soundly. I'm less cranky and less easily annoyed by minor inconveniences, bad drivers, and stupid questions. (Yes, I hate to break it to you, but your kindergarten teacher lied: there are stupid questions, and I'm always amazed by the number of times they're asked by really smart people.) I feel more limber and graceful when I'm walking regularly, and I feel just a little bit quicker of wit. Why, then, do I ever fall out the habit?

Well, for one thing, I'm just too susceptible to little demons like hot, humid summer weather (I am a far more devoted walker from October through July) or the hundred little errands and chores I feel I have to finish before I can take a walk. I'm limited, too, by my thinking. Because I like to use my walking time to get inside my own head, to clear out the cobwebs and fill my mind with fresh air and birdsong, I don't do well walking with friends or co-workers, though they are awfully good about asking me if I'd like to come along when they take walks at lunch time.

When I'm not walking outdoors at least 30 minutes a day, I do try to put in the time on the treadmill, but it's not the same. Without the genuine connection to the natural world, I find myself propping my Kindle on the treadmill's control panel and reading a novel or listening to an audiobook through headphones. I confess, the boredom of treadmill walking has actually driven me to watching well-loved episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a perfect companion for a 40-minute treadmill burn. Since treadmill walking requires distractions, I get the physical workout, but not the psychological boost.

Walking outdoors is always the better choice.

I'm fortunate at the moment to live in a lovely suburban area with plenty of greenery and well-maintained sidewalks. I'm lucky as well, that the routes I usually walk aren't too heavily trafficked by bothersome cars spewing exhaust fumes and bass boost in equal measure.

That said, I know I need to reclaim my neighborhood walking habit. I need to rise above the discomfort of too much summer heat and get my feet back on the sidewalk every day.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

There will always be us

I met Jeff Eicher just about 25 years ago at a place with an unlikely name, California University of Pennsylvania. He was a student, and I was a former student who had just joined the faculty. We met at lunch, proving that lunch is the most important meal of the day.

Me and Jeff in Seattle, 1997
We discovered that we liked a lot of the same music, books, and movies. More importantly we found we liked a lot of the same people. We became friends, and when Jeff found himself in need of a place to stay for the summer when he was in graduate school, I offered to clean out the spare room at my house to make room for him and his cat, Betty. That summer turned to fall and fall to winter, and so on. Jeff was offered a job at the university, and for five years he and I operated as the very best of roommates, each guarding the other's best interests --at home and at work-- and neither placing any unreasonable expectations on the other. 

We shared our meals and we shared our dreams. We talked long into the night and watched bad movies and World War II documentaries on cold, rainy days. We hosted parties that often ended in pancake breakfasts for the most stalwart guests who slept on one of the many couches we kept in the place for just such occasions.  Jeff and I operated as a team those years, cheering each other on during good times and helping each other out in bad times. In short, we became family.

When the time came for Jeff to move on and his plans to move to Florida fell through, I suggested he stay a while with my sister and brother-in-law in Seattle to see if he liked the place. I'm happy to say that he liked it here very much. He met wonderful people. He met Ron, the love of his life. Jeff was so happy here that he persuaded me to follow a couple of years later.

And for sixteen years, we shared phone calls and emails and text messages. We met occasionally for coffee or lunch. When I met my husband, Damon, he had to be "Jeff and Ron approved". We always celebrated birthdays and New Year's Day together, marking the passage of time with great food and drink among a beloved family of friends. Jeff stood at my side as man of honor at my wedding and I was looking forward to returning the favor and standing up for him as his "very bestest man" later this summer.

So you may understand why my mind still can't quite wrap itself around the miserable fact that Jeff died of a heart attack on Sunday morning, May 19, 2013, at the age of 46. 

I've been trying to make myself write something about Jeff since then, and I haven't met with much success, perhaps because I feel that the whole Earth is horribly broken and the person I would call upon to help me fix it is no longer here.

Last year when I was reading Just Kids, Patti Smith's excellent and sentimental memoir of her extraordinary friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, I kept highlighting passages and turns of phrase that reminded me of my relationship with Jeff. I called him a couple of times to read passages aloud to him, and he laughed or sighed along with me in full appreciation and understanding.

This last week, one passage has been resonating in my brain. When they were getting ready to move out of their rooms at the Chelsea Hotel, Patti felt sad and anxious about the change. She asked Robert, "What will happen to us?" He looked at her and answered, "There will always be us."

Yesterday, when we laid Jeff's ashes to rest, I told a shorter version of this story to the people gathered to pay their respects and to wish him peace. I thought about each of us there and all of our friends in distant places who couldn't be with us and I realized how lucky we all were to have been a part of Jeff's "us." 

He was a good and kind and genuine man with a brilliant mind, a generous nature, and a laugh as big as a Buick. 

And I will miss him more than these or a million other words can say.

But, Jeff, my best friend ever, there will always be us.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Try as I might...

I honestly try each year to have a happy birthday.

I know that I have much to be happy about and grateful for: a wonderful life with a loving husband, a great family, excellent friends, meaningful and satisfying work, art and music, the cutest and most loving cats on the planet, a safe and comfortable home, reasonably good health, plenty of interesting things to keep me occupied.

I will do things on my birthday that bring me pleasure, like visit the zoo and a have a meal at one of my favorite restaurants. I will spend time making art and laughing with my husband. Perhaps he will play his guitar for me. It will be a good day, over all.

For the last 10 years, I have tried to be happy on my birthday, and a do manage to find some happiness, to be sure. But the day will always be bittersweet. From about the age of three, I began my birthday every year with the same ritual. Having been born on my mother's 38th birthday, I would look at her (or call her on the phone) almost as soon as I woke up and I would say, "Happy birthday, Mom."

"Happy birthday, baby," was her reply.

I have not heard those words in ten years, nor will I ever hear them again.

I wish I could say that I miss her a little less each year or that the ache dulls just a bit as time passes, but that would be untrue. 

So, I will try to be happy on my birthday, but if I'm a little blue, bear with with me.
Mom and her birthday "baby" -- letting my nerd flag fly

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Art on My Door -- A daily practice

Art on My Door: Day #54The frameArt on My Door: Day #1Art on My Door: Day #2Art on My Door: Day #3Art on My Door: Day #4
Art on My Door: Day #5Art on My Door: Day #6Art on My Door: Day #7Art on My Door: Day #8Art on My Door: Day #9Art on My Door: Day #10
Art on My Door: Day #11Art on My Door: Day #12Art on My Door: Day #13Art on My Door: Day #14Art on My Door: Day #15Art on My Door: Day #16
Art on My Door: Day #17Art on My Door: Day #18Art on My Door: Day #19Art on My Door: Day #20Art on My Door: Day #21Art on My Door: Day #22
Art on My Door, a set on Flickr.
So, I'm one day away from reaching 365 tiny (2" x 3") pieces of art created for the small card frame on my office door.

It's important to note that it has taken almost exactly two years to get to this point, the art being made only for days when I came in to my office to work. That means weekends, vacations, telecommuting days, and sick days have made up half of the last two years of my life.

I started the practice nearly two years ago when a series of events combined to create a gigantic opening in my life for more art and more creativity. I had agreed to host a one-day exhibit of "Leaving Dakota," a photography project from the amazing Kyle Cassidy. I was also moving into a new office with two significant features, a large, empty white wall that made a lovely home for the exhibit, and a small brass business card-sized frame on the door that just I just couldn't bring myself to treat as something boring or mundane. Thus, Art on My Door was born.

Looking back over the collection, I am struck by the variety in my own work, born from my willingness to try new techniques and embrace new media. I love to mix things up, so collage and watercolor and even a couple of 3D projects feature prominently.

I'm also happy with the mix of abstract and representational art. I enjoy playing with lines, doodling and "taking a line for a walk" as Paul Klee described the act of drawing.

I don't think I'm going to stop making art now that I've reached this milestone.

In fact, I don't think I can. The act of making has become an integral part of my daily meditation practice, a way I center myself and find some joy even in the most stressful or depressing days.

Art is powerful. It can heal you. I know this to be true.