Friday, September 26, 2014

Magic Redux: A Gift from the W.W.W.W.W.W.

The "witchbox" project came to a close this morning, as my youngest tore into her stack of presents. Front and center on the table was the gift in question, which my wife and I denied all knowledge about. You learn very quickly as a parent that lying and messing with your child's head are two simple, but deeply satisfying joys. So let's follow the deception train to from start to finish:

If you read the post from the start of the week, you'll know that my wife and beloved co-liar were informed recently -- in the matter-of-fact way that six-year-olds have -- that my daughter, was, in fact, a witch. As she kept scavenging scraggly, splinter-laden sticks from the yard to wave at us and her siblings, we figured this was a fad that was going to stick for at least a little while. Since she's been using the laundry soap cups to mix up sand-and-leaf "potions" in the yard, and since we're tired of sand-and-leaves in the laundry, we set out to make an inexpensive witches kit for her birthday. We pulled this together in about a week and a half, with inspiration nearly completely stolen from Dante's Wardrobe and her excellent faux package projects.

Step one was sourcing replacement bottles for the potions. Assorted bud vases from local thrift stores supplied these:

Bottle assortment

Tip: the more exotic-looking the bottle, the better the effect. That tall white bottle with the faded gilt (?) designs was the hit of the day.

Since they are secondhand, and some are a little past their best days, I had the idea that these would be a gift from a real witch, made up of some of her leftovers. Co-conspirator was tasked with finding a box big enough to hold all these, which she did with excellence:

Box and such

It's difficult to tell but this is a decorative book-shaped box made from heavy cardboard. She also picked up some fancy tissue paper and ribbon, and raided the papercrafting aisle and our own craft supplies for more items to include. Here's what it looked like last night, minus the bottles, which are off-camera.

The withbox, pre-assembly

For wands, we have a couple of pieces of leftover dowel rod from the garage, sanded down a bit and sprayed with scrapbooking sealant containing glitter. Clear plant marbles went into an old bag we had around. Given her steadier hands, the missus volunteered herself to fill up the tiny glass vials of "potion ingredients" (glitter, flakes of paper, tiny beads) while I worked on wrapping and packing up the bottles, and the small mortar and pestle that's packed up here in cardboard and tape.

I brought all my Tetris skills to bear:

The withchbox, bottles, balls, and wands

...while a lot of careful funneling and filling happened next to me...

A few potion/spell ingredients

Pack into the open space with some remaining tissue, and add a few feathers... "phoenix down," suggested my middle child, a Harry Potter fan. Better than my suggestion of "squished owl."

The witchbox complete

And seal it up with some more ribbon, which we were surprised to discover was two-tone:

Witchbox ready for delivery

To provide a cover story for this assembly, and because I always relish an excuse to play with pens, there was a letter enclosed (click for more readable size):

Letter to a witch, part 1
Letter to a witch, part 2

My only regret with this letter -- beyond my penmanship -- is that I did not include "Wizard" in the organization name, because seven W's in a row is just that much funnier than six.

The unboxing was a great success:

The witchbox revealed

Grizelda's letter was read aloud by the recipient, and I'm pleased that she both laughed and said "ew" at all the right places. Clearly, my target audience is seven-year-olds.

Our goals for this project were do amuse and delight, on a budget, and to get nature out of the laundry room. Did we succeed?

Amusement and delight are a huge yes. As I was packing up for work this morning, youngest was already preparing to mix up some concoction in the back yard. I expect we'll be finding gold glitter and mysterious purple powders in our lawn for years.

On a budget
is an optimistic maybe. There were a number of new items in the mix, like the glitters, the box, ribbon, the tiny bottles. Everything purchased was on clearance or came from a discount or thrift store. Some of the items were things we had around the house. That tall white bottle that was so awesome cost all of 25¢  Kids of this age don't care.

The old adage about "time is money" applies here, too. If we had started sooner, I bet we could have sourced more of these things at lower cost. Those tiny vials arrived about 10 hours before the package was actually opened, for instance... but they are the same bottles for sale at the craft store across the street, which I could have snagged with a coupon. Admittedly, it's hard to plan around the whims of a 6 year-old, and who knows where we would have hidden everything in the meantime.

In general, though, I'll say we got far more for our time and money than the standard pink plastic playset. It's easy to pick something off the shelf and hand it to your kids, and I will be the first to admit that we've done that on more than one occasion. We are not a Pinterest-type household. But I also see the worth, and yes, the magic, in doing a project like this, especially an open-ended one that encourages imagination. Already we're wondering how to write a thank-you note to a witch.

I'm certainly glad we did it, and I don't even feel a little bit like a liar.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


I woke up early this morning to something that's too rare right now in California: the sound of rain, draining down the downspout outside my bedroom window. This is our first serious rain of the season, one that's been anticipated for a week at least. I never had an appreciation for something as simple as rainfall until I moved here. The climate in the areas where I grew up were known for their general unpredictability (standard joke: "Don't like the weather? Wait five minutes.") Nearly two decades a Californian now, I've gotten complacent about weather in general, and tend not to have as much awareness of the passing of the seasons. This isn't meant as a brag, honestly! Despite the autumnal equinox arriving this past week, my days are the same as they were in April, or June, or August. Only the early darkness belies the fact that time is, in fact, advancing. Thanks to the ongoing drought, the hills and trees around me are in a permanent state of late summer: withered leaves and dried grass (we say "golden" to make ourselves feel better.)
The tempo of the rain just picked up, it's delightful. It's complacency-shaking, too. A reminder that change can and does happen, and that it happens whether or not we're ready for it. Now a rumble of thunder: this is a rare storm, indeed! Of course everyone along my morning commute route will also be shaken up. Californians are notoriously bad drivers, tops in many polls, and the rain brings out a special degree of incompetence. I'll need to be on my guard, as I take my future driver to school this morning. There's nothing like driving in the rain to summon Fatherly Judgment about everyone else on the road. ("You call that a turn signal?!" "Hey, headlights on! It's the law!" etc.)
Of course I'm also going to summon the spectre of NaNoWriMo in this post. We're under a month away from October, and whether it's due to new management at the Office of Letters and Light, or whether it's just blue-car syndrome because I'm unprepared, there seems to be a lot of discussion about planning and preparation this year. My initial reaction is one of the California driver, faced with the first precipitation of the season: lose all common sense, and veer wildly. "Write? Plan? I can't do it! My God, it cannot be October already."
My second reaction is that of the seasoned vet. This will be my seventh(?) foray, and all but one of those years in the Typewriter Brigade. I know I can generate 50K words in the allotted time, though let's not talk about the quality or editability or the future of those words. Like many vets, I'm not doing NaNoWriMo to prove that I can. The challenge isn't the thing any longer, and honestly hasn't been since year two.
Quite frankly, at this time of year, I'm just parched. Sapped creatively from a long development project at work, from the daily grind of drives to school, stops at the grocery, and kids' sports on weekends. I wear the same clothes every week, and do the same tasks, and attend the same meetings. It takes something like NaNoWriMo to break up the sameness. To water the mental grass, to mangle a metaphor. I have tried writing and editing on a daily basis, but the inertia of my daily life is strong, and it's hard for me to get motivated to change my habits.
When the improbability of November rolls around, though, the herald of the end of the year, and long nights, holiday plans, and other demands... somehow that's just right. I do subscribe to the philosophy of "when you have a million things on your plate, what's one more?" And NaNo is finite . By definition, it won't last forever, it makes no demands after the thirty days, there are no obligations or even expectations. A month of cutting loose, talking typewriters, photographing toy rhinos -- occasionally even writing. It's a welcome shower of weirdness on thirsty soil.
This year has been particularly withering, and I've got a lot of low-level stress that's chipping away at me right now. I'm not anywhere as prepared as I like to be for this, attempting to craft a whole novel, with my little story point milestones all typed up on notecards. Frankly, I'm a mess this year. But I'm also not going to miss out on the chance to play in the rain.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

That Magical Age

20140921 typecast pt1

Bottle assortment

20140921 typecast pt2

Box and such

20140921 typecast pt3

Typed on a very Muggle-ish 1952 Skyriter
Smith-Corona Skyriter c. 1952

It's alarming to me how out-of-practice I've gotten at typing. Typos, dropped words... you'd think we were in the middle of NaNoWriMo. Which, incidentally, is approaching at an alarming pace: even faster than my kids are growing, it feels like. I hope to get some more limbering-up typecasts in during the next month.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Watch Out

I have to admit, I felt pretty clever. I'd rigged up my tablet and a Bluetooth keyboard into a pretty workable solution, and with the addition of an Ikea table and our broken-in sofa, I had a surprisingly ergonomic little editing setup. I'm still lacking actual *time* of course, and it's in the throes of the fall youth sports and annual project cycles at work that I wonder how I ever manage to carve out any spare time at all in November. (Secret: sleep deprivation, in the name of creativity.)

The best thing about my new setup is that it is fairly portable and easy to set up. Just about any location will do. And with a WiFi connection (strong on the sofa) all my changes would be backed up, trouble free in the magical Internet Cloud, where I could pick up the next day during a break at work, or on our home PC in the kitchen. Better editing through technology!

The Edit Zone
Textual Purgatory

Of course, there have been rough patches. No adoption period is completely smooth. I misunderstood the new Google Docs at first, for example, and assumed that a plain text document that I was editing on the tablet would see its changes blitted out into cyberland. In fact, I should have taken the trouble to convert that plain text into a "Docs" document first, because all those hard-entered changes were, quite simply, lost. It was with a Biblical level of frustration and some very un-holy language that I swore at my own stupidity, accepted that hour of writing as Really Truly Lost, and rewrote again. And maybe it's a little better for the experience, though a part of me still thinks that some of those lost sentences were gold.

Now flash ahead two weeks or so, and another editing opportunity opens up on a Sunday afternoon. I sequester myself in the bedroom with the door shut, flip the tablet into "Offline" mode after taking care to download the fragment I'm rewriting, and set to it with vigor. The words, they are flowing. The prose, it is prosing. Progress is being made: sweet, sweet progress. And eventually, when the kids and pets are demanding meals, I set the whole thing up on the table, click on the WiFi, and wait for the magic to happen.

Needless to say, the magic failed to happen. In fact, I was greeted with the unhelpful "Opening document failed" message for upwards of an hour or two, interspersed with random app crashes. Checking the document online on a different computer was just as discouraging, since it showed the pre-edited state from the morning, with a recent time stamp -- implying that Yet Again, all those newborn words were slurped into the ether, or whatever purgatory awaits the otherwise unsaved. The unholy vocabulary vented forth again.

This does, surprisingly, have a happy ending. After contemplating Deep Mysteries for a good long while, the tablet manage to send the text up into the 'Nets, though to this day it still cannot actually open the offending document. And I have come away properly humbled and chastised for daring to do the evidently unthinkable act of editing while not connected to the perpetual umbilicus of Internet connectivity. I dared to go offline and create, and I was punished for it. Those of you in the 'sphere doing your own voluntary de-Googling are welcome to smile at my hubris and the soul-crushing that followed.

So, ha ha, Google. Fool me twice, and all that. I've dug out the Neo, and what it lacks in superconvenience it more than makes up for in reliable simplicity. I'm back on the sofa again, typing this up, and I fully expect to retype the other chapters of this draft in this very spot. The Bluetooth setup will henceforth be reserved for idle forum posting or Twitter or the occasional remote access for work, where the text is transitory or unimportant or both. You don't get to hold my creative output hostage any more. I can't spare the time.

Old Faithful

* * *

And speaking of time, today was the generally-anticipated announcement of the latest Apple gadgets, including their first generation take on a Smart Watch. It sounds pretty slick, if you're the right sort of market. I'm certain that I'm the wrong sort of market, since I don't receive nearly enough calls to justify a buzzing reminder on my wrist, or if I need to -- send a doodle to someone? I'm sure it's going to prove invaluable to some market niche, and I'm perfectly satisfied not fitting into that niche. Surrounding all the hype and glory are all the unspokens, too: details like battery life, and the workability of the device when removed from the communications cloud emitted by its master device. I've had the unpleasant experience of watching my own personal technology have a mini-meltdown when it was isolated from the rest of the connected world for an hour or two. I can't imagine the anguish this poor device might experience if the wearer were to leave it in another room or (horror of horrors) turn the damn thing off now and then.

* * *

Multi-faceted technology can be great, I suppose, if your life is suited to it. But complex technology is like the teeth of a key, and it will only mate to a similar lock. If you depend on your watch (I depend on mine) and your watch depends on your phone, then maybe you adapt your behavior so you always always always carry both. Now you worry about charging both nightly. Now you protect your investment with cases and covers and carriers and pockets and pouches. Maybe you'll hold off on that hike or that bike trip, because the signal is so weak out by the reservoir, or you're not sure if everything is waterproof, and God, what if it slipped out of your pocket?

Watch out, is what I'm saying. The smarter the gadgets, the more they shape our behavior. The more the teeth of those keys will bite. I wouldn't wish those hours of textual uncertainty on anyone, and I certainly won't live them again. I'll write where I like, and I'll tell time by the old reliables -- my kids demanding food -- and I'll keep my habits my own.