Update on the Stolen Laptop

The laptop is still stolen.

I’ve given up on ever seeing it — or the data it contains — ever again. In the meantime, I have a decrepit Windows XP desktop computer available for a number of minor tasks.

I don’t know whether the OS is missing important files or the computer is infected with viruses or if this is just how computers were in 2005. Along the line of viruses, if we’re going to use metaphorical sicknesses to describe a computer’s behavior, I think mine has the digital equivalent of Alzheimer’s disease. Ask it to do something, and it takes time to mull it over first — you can hear the hard drive working away — and even then it might not do what you told it to. There’s no guarantee that files you opened or websites you visited yesterday will readable today. Once, the computer decided to go into standby mode while I was typing.

Why, just now, working in MS Word and knowing that a system crash could happen at any moment, I pressed Ctrl+S and was treated to a dialog box letting me know that the “Places bar” was being initialized. I’ve worked in Word for almost as long as it has existed, and I have never heard of a Places bar.

After two minutes of waiting, the Save As dialog box finally opened. Two minutes after that, I had managed to navigate to a folder on my desktop. Three minutes after that, the file finally finished saving (though it’s still labeled as “Document 1” on the task bar).

That’s no exaggeration. It took me seven minutes to save a file.

It’s maddening. So I generally avoid it.

I’ve been doing a lot of longhand writing, which takes twice as long as typing and leads to hand pain twice as fast. Even when I’m home, I prefer the immediacy of writing to the interminable, inexplicable waiting of using the desktop. And if I want to write on the go, my options are severely limited.

So I’ve given up on getting my laptop back, but I haven’t given up on writing. In fact, I have three blog posts (two stories and an essay) very nearly ready to post, just as soon as I transcribe them from page to screen. If this computer will let me.

If I hadn’t been unexpectedly fired at the beginning of the summer, I might have already replaced the laptop, and you wouldn’t be reading this particular gripe right now. But as it is, I’ve already been putting off paying some of my regular bills to keep from overdrawing my checking account. Until I get a few paychecks from my new job into my account, my disposable income is nil.

The purpose of all these true, heart-breaking facts is to build up a sense of pity and desperation, but also of hope. And here’s why: I’ve launched a FundAnything campaign to try to crowdsource the purchase of a new laptop for yours truly. My goal is relatively small: $500, just what I need to cover a decent laptop, a copy of MS Office Student and Home, and the fees associated with FundAnything and PayPal.

I offer my writing and editing talents as rewards for donors, and you should feel free to offer up any ideas for other rewards you might pay me to perform. Check it out at http://fundanything.com/en/campaigns/help-the-words-flow-again and consider helping me out of this madness, won’t you?

For the record, yes, it does feel awkward asking for money for something so selfish, sandwiched in there among people trying to pay medical bills, save wounded animals, or fight patent trolls. But will I let a little awkwardness stop me? Like my Facebook banner image says, I put the “wkwa” in “awkward.”*

Consider this both an experiment in crowdfunding and an opportunity to restore my faith in humankind.

Just for fun, here’s the video I made for the campaign. Notice its low quality. This is the direct result of filming with a tablet that records only in mp4 format and then trying to piece the video together in some old software that won’t read mp4s without purchasing a new add-on.

*I totally stole “I put the wkwa in awkward” from someone, though I don’t remember who.


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There Were Trees

I remember there were trees,
And shadows
And the smell of wet grass
And tiny ripe berries
That my Mom said were poisonous,
So that I wouldn’t eat them.
And a rusted swing.

Back then
It was easy to catch up to myself,
Because I always was.

But now
I must try
To be who I am.

It’s easy to give thanks
When it does happen …
When my God cups me in his hand.

This Time

A child sat alone,
As he had done
A hundred times before.

But this time …
This time. His God tends to him
And tips His decanter
To his lips
And lines of wine
Dribble without cause.
Don’t deliberate,
Catch them all with your tongue, my child.

Each drop is precious gold,
Pearls from a mindful steward.

To a Thief

Among some of the worst things that can happen to a writer has to be the theft of a computer. I, unfortunately, was the victim of such a theft on Monday.

Later, I may write about the emotional impact of having my laptop stolen, how I had taken my hard drive space for granted, and how I feel like an utter moron for not having established a backup routine for my data. That may come later.

It occurred to me this morning, though, that the laptop lid bore a rather large sticker advertising this very blog, and that the thief might in fact decide to come visit in order to revel in some anonymous fame, paradoxical though the concept is.

So this morning, I address this blog post to the person who made off with my laptop from the library a little before 2:00 on Monday.

Keep the laptop. The hardware means nothing to me. A glorified typewriter is all it really is.

But the data on that computer is irreplaceable. I’m a writer, and the literally hundreds of thousands of words held in hundreds of files on that hard drive represent not only my past but my future. It holds, among other things, almost 40,000 words of one unfinished novel as well as sketches and outlines and preliminary scenes of four or five other possible novels. It holds short stories, essays, and blog posts both finished and unfinished. It holds my life’s work.

Those words are very important to me.

So please, person who took my laptop, if you have any decency in you, and if you haven’t wiped it clean yet, please pop out the computer’s hard drive and drop it into the book return slot at the library where you found the computer. You can get an inexpensive hard drive online or at Best Buy or somewhere and still have a decent laptop for super-cheap to use for whatever you want, and I will have the product of hundreds of hours of creative work returned to me.

Please, just the hard drive. The rest is yours.


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The Thing about Going to the Local Zoo

The thing about going to the local zoo is that, after you’ve been there a few times and gotten to know all the animals, you end up spending more time watching the other zoo-goers than the ostensible main attractions of the place.

Yesterday, I went to the Indianapolis zoo to get a look at the new orangutan habitat and because I needed the exercise. I’ve been to that zoo dozens of times — every year, my parents renew our zoo membership as a Christmas present. I spent maybe twenty minutes trying to glimpse a furry orangutan scalp or a black orangutan knuckle over and around the heads of the hundreds of children and their grandparents in the new orangutan building, and then I was finished with the new stuff.

So I walked around and saw what there was to see. It was familiar territory. The most adorable animal by far in the place — the red panda — was lounging in the fork of a familiar tree just being his adorable self, as usual. I moved along.

A tiger was circling his enclosure, as usual, and occasionally glancing up through the glass at what must have looked like some pretty appetizing young humans. I moved along again.

The bears were out and performing for their audience in their way. Really, they were watching all the people who were watching them back. It was a little eery, but nothing I hadn’t seen before. So I turned around, ready to move along, when I spotted something I had never seen before.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was about six feet tall, had long brown hair, and wore a wide leather belt through the loops of his pressed, dark blue jeans. It wore a puffy shirt, the kind that might be worn by someone dressed as a pirate for a Halloween party, but it was dark purple instead of the usual white. Also, in a display that was certainly meant to attract females, the shirt was open almost to its navel, exposing short, curly salt-and-peppers on a well-tanned chest.

It looked like a 1970s disco pirate on safari.

I know it’s wrong of me to judge a person by his appearance, and I’m doing my best not to judge. But I did notice him, which I think was what he was going for in the first place.

I see a person dressed like that — or in various other extreme get-ups — and I see someone wearing a costume, not just clothes. I see someone who came out of the shower in the morning wrapping a towel around his waist and thinking, ‘Who (or what) should I dress like today?’

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the best time of this guy’s life was when he was the backup keyboardist for The Moody Blues, and he has decided to live only in that era of his life forevermore. Maybe he really was an old-fashioned over-flaired pirate who was only at the zoo to pick out a new parrot to sit on his shoulder. Maybe his wife gets turned on by his chest hair.

I don’t know, and that’s the problem.

It’s not a problem for me as a person — people do plenty of “weird” things for reasons I don’t understand — but it’s a problem for me as a writer. I find extroverted characters the most difficult ones to write because I have a really difficult time understanding what motivates them. So creating a realistic extroverted character is a challenge.

I understand the motivation to be different, to be original. Even introverts have that motivation not to simply be pulled along by the whims of pop culture. But I have been unable to get into the head of the type of person who starts his day trying to figure out how to be noticed by perfect strangers. What kind of emotional rewards come from strangers stealing glances, stodgy old men making faces, and children outright staring?

To me, as an introvert, this type of extroversion sounds like a psychological problem.

But yes, I am aware that, to an extrovert, introversion might also seem like a psychological problem. (For some of us, it probably is, too.)

What all this really means, though, is that I need to make an effort to start writing more extroverted, flamboyant* characters. I need to create characters who like to be the center of attention. Characters who are more outgoing than I am. More shameless. Less reserved. I need to create these characters and have them act the way they act and then figure out why they act that way.

Any knowledge I glean will help me become not only a better writer but a better human being.

I first spotted my disco pirate as he was passing the enclosure of the bald eagle, perhaps the most distinguished and distinguishable of all the birds of prey. A bald eagle can’t change out of his unmistakable white head. He simply can’t help the way he looks.

Maybe Mr. Disco Pirate can’t help it either.

Maybe none of us can.

In the meantime, though, help me understand, from a writer’s perspective, what extroversion can look like in literature. What novels feature well-written, understandable extroverts?

* I am aware that extroversion and flamboyance are two different things. Please don’t castigate me in the comments for saying that they’re synonymous. I know they’re not. The most extreme personalities are the most difficult for me to understand, though; why start small?


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After My First Game of Peeve Wars

I received my Grammar Girl’s Peeve Wars card game in the mail (along with some other grammary goodies) this weekend, and through an unexpected twist of fate, I actually got to play the game with my sons on Monday morning. Now I’m here to report.

If you’ve never heard of Peeve Wars, don’t worry — you’re in the majority. Peeve Wars is a labor of love from everyone’s favorite maven, Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl), which was funded through FundAnything.com. That’s how I got my hands on it. I imagine it will, at some point, be available to larger audiences, but right now it looks like only those who contributed funds are getting the decks.

That’s still a lot of decks going out, though: 568 contributors ponied up $28,025 toward the project, almost double Mignon’s original goal.

At any rate, the premise of the game is pretty straightforward: You amass an army of grammatical peeves — little monsters like Alot, Invasive Apostrophe’s, and Very Unique — and when you think your army is maddening enough, you try to annoy the other plays to death. You also have a few heroes available to grant patience when others try to annoy you, heroes like Autocorrect, the Librarian, Noah Webster, and even Grammar Girl herself.

I’ve played the game exactly once so far, but here are four things I learned from that premiere:

  1. No card game’s instructions can account for every possible situation a player might encounter. I had learned this from playing other card games; this one only reinforced that belief. Peeve Wars isn’t terribly complicated, though. We only stumbled over one situation that wasn’t explicitly covered in the instructions.
  2. Read the instructions. All the instructions. To say I learned this isn’t exactly true. I will never learn this.
  3. Knowing your grammar won’t help you win. Peeve Wars is won through elimination. I am a word connoisseur, a fairly seasoned editor, and a lifelong reader inching toward his fortieth birthday. My opponents were a fourteen-year-old trombone-playing Boy Scout and an eleven-year-old denim-eschewing ragamuffin who might be even more addicted to Doctor Who than I am. In spite of my apparent grammatical superiority, I was the first player eliminated.

    In short, language is only the theme for this game. You don’t need to be member of the grammarati to play Peeve Wars any more than you need to know about surgical procedures to play Operation.

  4. Sharing other characteristics with Grammar Girl might improve your chances of winning. In my game, the redhead won.

Overall, Peeve Wars is a fun, wholesome game. The imagery is adorable (thanks to artist Len Peralta), it’s easy to learn and play (thanks to Mignon Fogarty and Joseph Kisenwether), there isn’t a whit of violence to the game, and you can play a round in 20–25 minutes. It’s a great game for children, parents, and grandparents.

And if it can keep just one “could of” off the street, it’ll be worth every penny.


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Ten Things I Found in an Old Notebook

Here are ten things I found in an old notebook of mine. Once you read them, they are yours.

The first paragraphs of an essay I was calling “On Judging Books,” which was meant to outline how I approach book reviews.

A very weird beginning of a short story told in first person from the
perspective of a some sort program accessed through voice recognition

A recipe for “Lonely Asshole Pie.”

A short story about a junky who shoots up oil paint, slices open his fingers, and paints canvases with his own blood. (Most likely inspired by William Burroughs.)

A list of words that people probably mispronounce until they hear someone else say them, for example, lingerie, albeit, and colonel.

A fictional anecdote (that is, an overlong, bad joke) about being frightened of proctors after mentally connecting proctor with proctologist.

A fan letter to Neil Gaiman that I never sent.

This sentence, written high up on an otherwise blank page:

My god, she even has beautiful feet!

This bad poem:

A Man’s here to take me away
I don’t know where he wants me to go,
But it’s gotta be better than this, so
I’ve no motivation to stay.

There’s more of it, but it only gets worse. I’ve been binge-watching Doctor Who this week; I wonder what was going on when I wrote this?

And, finally, the beginning of the three-word Wednesday I mention here. It remains unfinished. Someone want to finish it for me?

The elevator is always crowded at this time of morning. I usually bypass it and take the stairs, but it is a Monday morning, and I’m groggy and irritable. So I waited with the pack in the hallway for that Pavlovian ding that would signify the actual start of the workday.
The crowd of people bottlenecked through the doors, jostling for a place against the elevator wall. It took three tries for the elevator doorsto slide shut because somoene wasn’t fully inside. But shut they did, and I was immediately reminded of why I don’t take the elevator.
The buxom woman next to me was a bot too fragrant; her morning perfume spritz hadn’t had the opportunity to wear down yet. Coffee breath and body odor broke through and blended with her aroma, creating a noisome stench that only seemed to grow as the elevator began its ascent.
And, of course, no one said a word about it.
Halfway between the third and fourth floors, the elevator shuddered. The lights went out. The elevator stopped.
Someone said, “Oh, shit,” and there was a collective sigh, which only tainted and strengthened the coffee breath stench.
Brief power outages were a monthly occurrence in this building, more so during summer, when the industrial-sized air conditioners sucked up power like water through a straw. The electricity nomrally returned in less than a minute, which is why we all remained so calm.
At first.
I don’t know how much time passed in the rising heat and choking stench of that black box, but at some point, the darkness was pierced by the glowing screen of someone’s iPhone. One by one, tiny LCD screens lighted the small space as people checked their e-mail, texted bosses and staff, and even played Angry Birds.

What now? You’re stuck in a dark, smelly elevator crammed with people and have no idea when you’ll be able to get off. Or if.

I have a vague recollection that I wanted to play out Lord of the Flies in a stuck elevator. But beyond that, I have no idea where this was going to go. It’s up to you. Consider this your creative writing prompt of the day.


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Weird Al’s Blurred “Word Crimes” Lines

I can’t not respond to Weird Al Yankovic’s new song “Word Crimes,” can I? So here goes.

First off, congratulations to Jarrett Heather for a beautiful and well-executed video. The song is a parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and Mr. Heather did a great job of using only certain elements of the original video — like those incessant hashtags and the balloon letters — without trying to force the entire Weird Al video to match up. This is a great production for his portfolio.

But now, the song itself.

Weird Al on Language and Usage

Weird Al Yankovic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have known for a while the Weird Al is a peever. Regardless of how you feel about peevery in general, it does reveal one thing about the man: He loves his language.

Plenty of logophiles, linguists, and editors will push back at what look like “rules” of language that he highlights in his video. They’ll talk about different registers and different dialects and language as a sign of privilege and all that.

And they will be right, to a degree.

It will all come back to prescriptivism vs. descriptivism, which it always does, plus a healthy dose of “spelling isn’t grammar,” which is, of course, true.

But before you start working yourself into a tizzy overanalyzing the lyrics, keep these points in mind:

One. The phrase word crimes is intentional hyperbole. To people like Weird Al (and me), the errors in grammar, spelling, and usage that are highlighted in this song are crimes in the same way that ordering filet mignon well done, covering it with ketchup, and eating it with your hands is a crime.

Two. Throughout the song, all references are to written language. The imagery and lyrics both point back time and again to the written, not spoken, word — email, Twitter, composition books, emoji. Weird Al has deftly avoided the wholesale condemnation of spoken slang, so don’t even go there.

Three. For the most part, Weird Al did a decent job of avoiding the biggest controversies of English usage. It’s hard to argue against these bits:

  • There’s a big difference between its and it’s.
  • There’s no x in espresso.
  • Learn your homophones.
  • Don’t use quotation marks for emphasis.
  • Doing good is different from doing well (again, in written forms).
  • Only morons spell moron “moran.” (Which is a reference to this guy →.)

Four. He doesn’t, as the most annoying peevers do, take a side in the Oxford comma debate:

But I don’t want your drama
If you really wanna
Leave out that Oxford comma

Five. Perhaps the best, most instructive line of the song is this: Use your spell checker.

But yes

There are some genuine, personal, arguable peeves in there:

  • The use of literally to mean figuratively (For the record, I agree with Weird Al about this one, but I also recognize that it’s a lost cause.)
  • Couldn’t care less vs. could care less
  • Who vs. whom (Again, I agree with Weird Al. But until such time as we all agree to just stop using whom altogether, it ought to be used properly. What he says about it in the song, though, isn’t very helpful.)
  • Using leetspeak and emoji.
  • Irony (No one ever wins an argument about what irony is or isn’t. Is that ironic?)

Whether you agree with his assessments or not, remember that Weird Al Yankovic isn’t an English teacher, a linguist, or an editor. He’s an artist and entertainer who loves his language. That’s something to be encouraged.

And I’ll say it again

My only gripe about the song is the acceptance of personal attacks on people who make these errors. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Grammatical is not the same as Right, and ungrammatical is not the same as Wrong. People use language in different ways in different situations, and it will always be that way. I’m sure it would take no time at all to find a Weird Al lyric that breaks the very word crimes that he sings about in this song.

But again, it’s parody. It’s hyperbole. It’s fun. Word Crimes isn’t a Nobel Prize acceptance speech, so just enjoy it for what it is.


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Word of the Day: Thaumaturgy

The Word of the Day today is Thaumaturgy. I discovered this word today while reading Alice Munro’s Runaway (great book, by the way):

At college she had mentioned how her father had explained to her what thaumaturgy meant, when she ran across the word at the age of twelve or thirteen.

According to Merriam-Webster, thaumaturgy means “the performance of miracles.”

This is how H.G. Wells used the word in his short story The Man Who Could Work Miracles:

There were astonishing changes. The small hours found Mr. Maydig and Mr. Fotheringay careering across the chilly market square under the still moon, in a sort of ecstasy of thaumaturgy, Mr. Maydig all flap and gesture, Mr. Fotheringay short and bristling, and no longer abashed at his greatness.

And if I were forced to use the word in a sentence, I might conjure up something like:

On a bustling Friday afternoon, the wandering monk walked into the town square, and to everyone’s astonishment, miraculously transformed the water in the big fountain into Shasta Orange Soda, an unequivocal demonstration of thaumaturgy.