Thursday, October 31, 2013

Making of a Volunteer

For our current ( and just completed ) writing class, the instructor asked us to do a longer project, behind the weekly assignments and such, that we would bring for a reading on the last evening. The following is the beginning of my project:

“You’ve got mail.”

It was from Mark, the administrator with whom I was volunteering at my parish. I hurriedly opened it: “Can you come next time prepared to talk about another volunteer opportunity?” This was an exciting development. I was a very capable, recently- retired computer geek, looking to contribute my skills in a volunteer position. I had already helped Mark learn Microsoft Publisher and had given him a PowerPoint presentation on how PowerPoint works. Maybe this was the opportunity to provide some training to help others in the department with the intricacies of Excel … the sort of branching out we had spoken of initially … and, truth be told, an opportunity to work with my favorite application in the Microsoft Office Suite.

“Thank you for coming,” he says.

“Of course,” I reply, “what do you have in mind?”

“Well, our Liturgical Coordinator, Randy, whom I think you do not know, has Mondays and Tuesdays off. We’re looking for someone to come in on one of his off-days, and inspect the facility, making sure it meets our standards. Are you with me?”

My heart is in my throat, disappointment palpable. I’m thinking, “I’m a computer guy, a real geek. You know it’s true. You want me to do that?” I actually say, “Please go on.”

“Well, the sorts of things we’d want … “ and I’m only partially hearing him, as he drones on and on about the facility, “… making sure nothing is growing in the holy water, the flowers continue to be presentable and no light bulbs are burned out.”

I didn’t hear everything, but I realize he wants me to do physical inspections of the entire building. And he wants me to make judgments on such things as the acceptability of the flowers around the facility.

“You don’t have to fix everything yourself … “

I am not up for this.

“… just be sure the non-compliant items …“

I don’t even know who does what around here.

“… to the attention of the appropriate people.”

I want nothing to do with this. Where’s the door I came in through?

Even this is a bit long, and it's only 20% of the total. Please leave a comment if you'd like to read more. I would consider posting it, perhaps in installments.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Book Review - On Basilisk Station

To me a good speculative fiction novel, whether it be sci-fi or fantasy, should not need too much explaining.  It is necessary to let the reader know how the universe the writer has created works, but that can be revealed more subtly than pages of straight up explanation.  I do understand that a writer can go to far in the other direction, and not explain enough, but I almost never run into that.

I recently read the first book in the Honor Harrington series called On Basilisk Station.  This is considered a classic sci-fi novel, and I've been meaning to read it for some time.  I've tried to read this book several times, and what held me back was the same thing that has always held me back form straight up sci-fi.  I don't like the endless explaining, and this book has that at several point
So if you're a sci-fi reader, then you should be used to that problem, and are ready to look past it.  If that's the case, I'll recommend the book.  The book represents believable problems, with believable solutions.  It also contains some action, and a good mystery.

When I say a good mystery, I mean one that is presented to the reader, along with clues that the reader can use to solve it.  I spent the the majority of the book thinking about it, but I didn't get it.  All the clues were there though, so that's my own fault.

As for the universe created, it might be a little plain, but it's also very believable, and I could see new technological developments in later books adding a twist.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

More "Stuff" means less room for us

They have become a defining characteristic of the roadside, wedged in among the malls and fast-food franchises — barracks-like rows of buildings with small garage doors, surrounded by a fence. A gated enclave for excess stuff. Our stuff is safer than we are, in many instances.

Having “stuff” has become the iconic definition of success … meaning we have lifted stuff to the level of idol. We have enshrined it in a gated community, protected it with a fence having a locked gate, and a lock on the door inside the community. And there are so many of these little shrines that it is now physically possible for every American to stand, simultaneously, inside one of these gated communities, under the total self-storage roofing now available in the United States. There are more than four times the number of these communities than there are McDonald’s here. And I thought there were a lot of McDonald’s!

Not only is our stuff safer than we are, we tend to take rather good care of it, even when we don’t deem it worthy of a gated-community. ( Those of you with your cars on the street and your stuff in the garage can skip the rest of this paragraph … you know both who you are and about which I speak. ) Perhaps living in the garage is not your idea of “being rather well taken care of.” But imagine yourself homeless and someone offered you the space his/her cars now inhabit. This person offers you that space in the garage to live. You can return there anytime, day or night. You would consider this being ( reasonably ) well taken care of. It is certainly better than living on the street. This well taken care of is the stuff of many of us. There are lots of us who’ve banished our cars to the outdoors so our stuff wouldn’t have to be. Still, we don’t stop accumulating; we turn to our shrines, the gated communities for our stuff.

How many of us is “lots of us?” Good question. I see a lot of cars parked on the street, driveway or parking slabs of houses that have garages ( anecdotal evidence ). I found a short, recent ( December 2012 ) article ( ) on the topic, citing two studies, admitting there was not many data, but estimating that 75% of garages could not be used to store cars because they were so packed with stuff. And the need for the garage is, no doubt, because the house is so filled with stuff that one can hardly get around.

And there are gurus that will help us figure out ways to rid our lives of excess stuff. I did a Google search on “rid stuff” ( without the quotes ) and gathered a hundred forty million results. I attended Benedictine Oblate Renewal Day and the speaker was an expert on getting rid of “Clutter.” ( I suspect this word is chosen to make the stuff she refers to sound classier. Indeed, Google found only three and a half million items when searching for “rid clutter.” ) And I subscribed, for a time, to her periodical e-newsletter. Why? Because I tend to gather clutter ( please note, not stuff ) in my small spaces until I can no longer stand it, and it seemed to me her method(s) would help me with my clutter better than others I have ( not ) tried. And it did.

In future installments, I may tell you more about me in this regard.

Monday, October 21, 2013

One More Time with Feeling

My current writing teacher has 'put a head' on an issue that has been looming since the day I took up the hobby of writing.  There seems to be two completely different mindsets when it comes to writing, and they are not compatible.

The first is that it would be nice for any given written work to be entertaining, but it should never be its 'primary' purpose.  So the purpose of any written work is to be informative, thought provoking, emotion evoking, and so on.  These people would see a book that 'merely' entertains to be a failure.

The other mindset is the one I have.  I think that entertainment is a worthy goal.  Not the only goal mind you.  I have nothing against an informative or emotional piece, it's just not what my goal is.  And truth be told, I would be happy if my writing is thought provoking, even though it's not my primary goal.

Given my goals, popularity is a good standard.  If people are entertained, they will buy it.  If no one is buying it, then it's probably not entertaining.  Of course there are exceptions, but I'll keep writing entertaining fiction, and cross that bridge when I come to it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

North Korean religious freedom ( variation on A Writing Class's Assignment )

The instructor for our writing class suggested, as a learning exercise, changing the order of the paragraphs of our short stories. I did that to "A Wrting Class's Assignment," liked the result, but had to rewrite it a little, not just rearrange the exact same text. Comments?

How does participative decision-making work in the monasteries?" "Is there tension between the monastics of the east and west?" Brother Jin feigned interest, occasionally leaning in as though exposing state secrets. Before they left, another lean-in: "There is absolute freedom of religion in North Korea," the monk told her, "and it's your responsibility to tell that to the world."

He had identified her from the unnecessary briefing; her intensity, the quality of her questions and her obvious high level of interest would have betrayed her to any competent agent, even a rookie.

Gwen's journalism thesis, "How the West can use an understanding of Eastern Mysticism to aid in disarming rouge nations," was controversial, especially in Eastern Block Communist countries, but creative. This creativity, as well curiosity about Phil's denial of North Korean mysticism, garnered her the tour she was on.

Philip Oslow had led a raucous life before settling down and becoming a Benedictine monk. He taught world religions at the Archabbey, and became Gwen's "Uncle Phil." He had also gained a reputation for his understanding of the impact of culture and politics on religious practice and belief.

Gwen would need every shred of courage she could find, along with much help from Phil to understand religion’s situation in North Korea. She would then be prepared to tell the world the truth. Brother Jin would not be pleased.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Book Review - Spice & Wolf

The Spice & Wolf series are the first books I've come across in quite a while that are not available as an ebook, so I thought I'd share a review to increase word of mouth.  This series was actually made into a television series, and a series of graphic novels, so it's not like it's completely unheard of.  The show is well done, and well acted, but the books are real gems as well, and seem to be forgotten.

I say series, because it wouldn't do to review a specific book, because they are rather short.  It takes place is a world much like Europe in the middle ages.  The story follows Laurence, who is a traveling merchant that happens across a pagan goddess who has lost her followers.  In a nutshell, Holo is a harvest goddess, and every year technology makes her less necessary, so she decides to move on by hitching a ride with Laurence.

The first hook of the series is the interesting concept of a normal man traveling with a magical being.  It adds interest when the girl who appears young, week, and probably uneducated; is anything but.  It might sound like just another 'magic girlfriend' story, but it doesn't play out that way.

The second hook is how knowledge is used.  Instead of just inventing magic devices to advance the story, the tipping points come from concepts that seem basic to us, but probably would not have to someone in the middle ages.  Holo the Wise Wolf, as she calls herself, is one of the few characters I've come across who the reader is not only told is wise, but actually demonstrates that.

The third hook is the interaction between the characters.  I think it's an amazing example of characters, with thoughts, and feelings, who express them in the ways people do.  It's never really straight forward, but people rarely are.  The greatest appeal is that the characters revealed are ones the reader will want to get to know, and keep you coming back for more.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Writing Class's Assignment

As Benjamin said, our current writing assignment is a 150-word story, using one of 9 suggested sentences as a prompt, and including the prompt in the story. I've underlined the prompting sentence.

Philip Oslow's raucous young life had rivaled that of Thomas Merton's. Philip settled down, becoming a Benedictine monk, teaching world religions at the Archabbey, and becoming Gwen's "Uncle Phil."

Gwen's journalism thesis, "How the West can use an understanding of Eastern Mysticism to aid in disarming rouge nations," was controversial, but creative. This creativity, as well curiosity about Phil's denial of North Korean mysticism, garnered her a tour there.

Jin Dong, career-long government agent, was tour guide, "Hello," through a joyless smile, "I am brother Jin." He identified her from the briefing.

"How does participative decision-making work in the monasteries?" "Is there tension between the monastics of the east and west?" He feigned interest, occasionally leaning in as though exposing state secrets. Before they left, another lean-in: "There is absolute freedom of religion in North Korea," the monk told her, "and it's your responsibility to tell that to the world."


Story Time

Walter and myself are in the midst of another writing class.  The teacher has some interesting ideas.  The class is Creative Non-Fiction, and so far he's been concentration a lot on writing on a small scale, and dealing with writer's block.  I, of course, have been making my work non-non-fiction.  This week's class he has us writing a hundred and fifty words based on one of nine sentences, and we must include the sentence.  That's a narrow window, but I wrote something in one-hundred and seventy-one words.  If you think about it, I only wrote one-hundred and fifty-one of those words.  Pretty close, I'd say.

Here it is.  I've underlined my "starting off" sentence.

As the monk performed his evening walk of the sanctum, he noticed an unusual pilgrim making his way through the altars.  It was his duty to greet all visitors, but this man gave him pause, and he didn't know why.  He carried no visible weaponry.  He made no treating movements.  Yet the monk continued on his survey of the seven alters until it finally dawned on him.  The man wore the cloak of the pagans who worshiped here nearly a century before, back when it was the temple of the Demigod Ctasah.

He hurried back to the coy pond surrounding the water goddess, and was again startled into silence by the man's bearings.  So he avoided the subject he wanted to discuss, freedom of religion.  Surly the man could not be allowed to worship his fish god here.  It was then he noticed the man's chanting was having an effect on one of the coy.  As the glowing fish rose, his faith wavered.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Maintaining the image of the National Football League ... a players-only responsibility?

The owners of the National Football League's Minnesota Vikings just recently were assessed a fine of $85,000,000    ( that's 85 million dollars ) and seriously rebuked by the judge hearing the case. Or, as ESPN's Web Story put it:

" ... the Wilfs had committed fraud, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty, and violated the state's civil racketeering laws. In a stinging rebuke, ( Judge ) Wilson said then that Zygi Wilf demonstrated "bad faith and evil motive" in his trial testimony."

To be sure, the Wilf's attorney promised, "We believe this decision will not stand on appeal," but attorneys are paid to say such things.

I read a commentary about this which wondered what the NFL thinks about it all ... specifically wondering if the league felt its image could be tarnished by owners doing this sort of thing or only by players for abusing substances or getting arrested. This got me to wondering, too, so I did some poking around. 

According to , the rules are tight and apply to everyone associated with the NFL. This page includes ( my emphasis ):
  • The NFL is enforcing stricter conduct rules in response to several NFL players embarrassing the league with their brushes with the law.
  • The Personal Conduct Policy dictates that all people associated with the NFL must avoid "conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League."
  • The penalties for violations of the conduct rules are swift and severe.
  • The NFL conduct rules hold those associated with the NFL to a higher standard of behavior than the public at large.
  • A criminal conviction is not necessary.
  • They will also punish people associated with the NFL for any alleged acts of violence, possession of an illegal weapon or acts that undermine the integrity of the NFL.
  • The NFL conduct rules apply to all NFL players, team owners, coaches and game officials.
This is completely consistent with an earlier official NFL communication, which I found at NFL communications, saying, "As Commissioner Goodell noted in 2007 when the league expanded and strengthened its Personal Conduct Policy: “We hold ourselves to higher standards of responsible conduct because of what it means to be part of the National Football League. It is important that the NFL be represented consistently by outstanding people as well as great football players, coaches, and staff.”"

There you have it; everyone associated with the league has to be squeaky clean. No criminals need apply. The league demands the highest integrity of everyone. It holds itself to a "higher standard."

I have seen nothing and heard nothing about the league's outrage in response to this activity on the part of the Wilfs.    ( FULL DISCLOSURE: I have not scoured the internet and back issues of any newspapers looking for such response. ) Surely, to you and me, such a judgment at least suggests the possibility of wrongdoing, at some level. At least for me, it suggests — nay, shouts — a violation of the league's squeaky clean image.

The ESPN story that reported the judgment went on to comment ( again, my emphasis ):

  • "Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton ... said the lawsuit highlighted business practices by the Wilfs that 'are far from the legal standards for doing business in Minnesota.'"
  • "The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which is supervising the stadium project, quickly launched a review of the Wilfs' finances and legal troubles, to ensure they could still meet the Vikings' $477 million commitment to the nearly $1 billion stadium."
So while the governor commented on the tawdry aspect of the Wilfs' business practices, the only thing reported to be on the minds of the Sports Authority is whether the Wilfs will be able to keep their financial commitment.

In the middle of August, reported:

  • "... the National Football League said it remains committed to the stadium project despite the state audit of the Wilfs."
  • "A spokesman said the league would move forward with the $200 million loan it guaranteed to help finance the team's $477 million investment in the project."
Enough said.