Friday, December 18, 2015

Every Day, Carried

Feeding the Daily Beast in 2015

Yes, this again. 'Tis the season to recycle.
NaNoWriMo 2015 is now officially a Fond Memory, despite a kind of struggling finish. This year's writing basically depleted the last major deposit of story ideas in the infamous brain dump box, started so many moons ago. I suspect the plot wasn't entirely ripe yet, despite all the planning and pre-planning and post-pre-planning that went into it. Frankly, it left me a bit wrung out, but come December 1st, I kept to the vow that I made way back this summer. I've been scribbling a bit each day, refilling the notebooks if not filling up index cards, and trying to get my brain back into the low-volume-but-not-no-volume mode of being creative. My fingers are starting to itch for a return to The Ballad of Congo Willy, my oft-started, oftener-aborted NaNo 2011 win that i was working on up through September. Maybe I'll have it done by the end of the year. That would be a good thing!

The daily writing is, quite frankly, harder than I thought. Fine with the collective noise and mayhem of November, but more difficult to manage in a solo setting -- sneaking in a page or two in the evening between dinner and the kids going to bed. But a funny thing happened sometime last week: hard as it is, the writing, once started, is getting easier. And more interestingly, I think, is that I'm finding myself thinking back, way back to my first Typewriter Brigade-fueled November. That novel may be ripe for a rewrite, too. Perhaps 2016 will be the year of the rewrite? That remains to be seen.

It will be seen largely offline, though, as I am slipping towards my end-of-year holidays, time with the kids and away from the computer, time to play with pens and paper and to keep the rhino fed through the rest of the year, and, muse-willing, into the next year, too.

Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays, everyone!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Suede Recap: The Nano Challenge

We're into the final ten days of NaNoWriMo, and I've been averaging around 1700 daily words, right on par for finishing on time and on target with the words. I've already had to bench a cheap nylon ribbon on account of drying out, and just now, I finished re-wrapping the platen in another sheet of suede-finish/velour-texture paper from the craft store. I've been using in it lieu of a backing sheet this year, and back before Nano got going, wrapped the platen of my main machine in tape, sticky-side-out, with a cut sheet of paper adhered to it.

The Good:
  • It's super-grippy, and seems like a quick and cheap solution to slippery worn platens. I'm running about 6-10 pages per day through the machine, and not a one of them has come through crooked. I've never had this kind of luck with a backing sheet.
  • Still an incredible bargain, especially when you coupon-stack and pick numerous replacement sheets from the craft store. Plus, it comes in zebra print which I was not quite bold enough to try (yet.) The color really dresses up the machine, which is in desperate need of it. Royal knew how to make them ugly.
The Bad:
  •  It is, fundamentally, paper, and as much as I want to pretend it's something more durable or cushioned, it's no replacement for a fresh grippy platen. The one on the Royal is a little rough from many past years in the Typewriter Brigade (this is year #8) and it's now featuring noticeable vertical banding along the rubber from all the impacts. Even with a backing sheet or two, this platen works hard.
  • Applying this is still tricky, and getting the seam flat where the ends of the paper meet requires either three hands or a better grasp of geometry. In theory, one should be able to cut right to size. In practice, I just wrapped-and-trimmed. It shows.
  • In time, my rough-and-ready tape job showed through. Not by wear in the paper, which held up admirably, but in the wrinkles from the tape surfacing on the paper itself, leading to uneven type. As in many things: take your time and take care.
The Mystery:
  • Is the fancy paper more cushioned? At least at first it seems like it is. Repeated strikes over a few weeks, though, hammered the surface into oblivion, leaving only the area outside the margins free of problems.
  • Has the platen suffered any less damage than it would without paper at all? I don't know. As I subscribe to the backing-sheet-always school of typing, I don't think it's a bad thing. It's made it over 60 years now. Any TLC is probably worthwhile.
The Photos:

I'd hoped to peel the old sheet off somehow and have it laid next to the new one for comparison. This did not happen. Since I'd practically covered the platen in tape, the only way to remove the paper was to tear and peel in a long spiral.

Here you can see the platen on the left -- note the banding from years of typing, some of the paper on the top (the blue-tape side), and fragments that I managed to salvage. Can you tell which part of the green paper was outside the margins?

Velour-wrapped platen: unpeeled

Here's another comparison of original texture versus the three-weeks-in side. You can see how bad the worn surface was wrinkled at the end. I had wrapped the platen like a barber pole in tape, spiraling down it completely.

Three weeks of daily typing took their toll

The replacement going on. I backed off on the tape this time, going for four loops instead of a complete surface. Nothing is stuck to the rubber of the platen: the tape is fastened only to itself on the ends and slides freely.

Preparing wrap #2

The new red wrapper, pre-trimming.

Covered in red

I creased along the edge where the paper meets itself, and then used a sharp pocketknife to slice down the crease to remove the excess. It's still not as good as computing the actual size or the paper needed. There's still a bit of an overlap in the final product, but it's less than my original.

Trim to fit (mostly)

This whole experiment has me looking at other sheets of material at the craft store, too -- nylon sheets, maybe actual felt instead of faux-felt... upholstery fabric? The possibilities are endless. I don't know if it has much real merit beyond short-term writing projects like Nanowrimo, or maybe the occasional photo shoot, but I'm still happy with the results.

Now, if someone just sold a wrapper that made my plot better...

Sunday, November 1, 2015

November again

November dreaming

Right on schedule, November is here again, and with it the trembling anticipation of drafting another novel. (Trembling in part because I'm surely fueled on a breakfast of coffee and leftover Halloween candy.)

If you're participating, then what are you doing on the Internet? Get back to work! And may your rhinos run straight and true and in interesting directions. Stay strong, Wrimos.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Easily Suede

The green veldt demense of the Nano Rhino

typecast 20151030

Suede style

Aside from the obnoxious wrinkle in the paper, I think it looks pretty good.

Suede backing

And it certainly cushioned the blows, too. And no punch-outs on my paper, either. Now we see how it does in the face of a 30-day marathon typing extravaganza.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Join the Club

In a way, I'm a bit sad.

I've been sticking with the Don't Break the Chain approach to revising one of my old drafts -- a book that optimistically combines love, sex, religion, drugs, death, magic, biodiesel and video games under the unlikely title of The Ballad of Congo Willy.[1] This was the product of NaNoWriMo for me in 2011, and I have attempted rewrites and restarts every few months since the keys cooled from the original draft, always fizzling out for one reason or another.[2] But I'm actually almost nearing the end of it now, three months into making myself spend some time with it every night. I can't say that it's actually good, but I know at least that it's improved from its previous form, shoved in a box on a shelf being ignored.

Inspiration was hard to come by for this one, and instead of getting itchy fingers at the approach of November this year -- time for a carnival o' writing! -- I'm feeling kind of... dry. Empty. Not used up, necessarily, but not as eager as in years past. A bit sad, even, because there's no way I'm not doing NaNo this November, and more than I'll allow myself a night away from C.W.. Writing even terrible fiction is such a sea change from my day job mucking around with databases and code,[3] and I enjoy the oddball camaraderie of the Typewriter Brigade and the general festival nature of NaNo. For someone who slips into his habits easily and stubbornly refuses to get out, a month of creative chaos is a welcome and necessary part of my life now.

But what to write about?

I know that I'm not a (seat of the) Pantser come November. I don't just sit down at the typewriter and bleed. I need at least a sketch of a character or two, and a situation to toss them into: the basics of an outline, which I adhere to or drift from over the course of the thirty days. This flawed exercise is my capital-p Process, such as it is. And usually I am coming into October with just exactly these basics, having scrawled them down in notebooks and index cards during the summer. But I've spent all that time this year rewriting and revising, not sowing. So just as I'm forcing myself to Get Creative Daily, Dammit, I'm going to cutover into Full Bore Planning Mode in October.

The Internet[4] attributes this quote to Jack London:
You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
After three months of enforced hill-climbing, I completely agree. There are days when rewriting C.W. was mental agony, and days when I couldn't get out of the way of my fingers fast enough. And I know that book is far better[5] overall for the attention it's been paid this summer, especially when the going got tough. And now I'm looking at the hill that is November, and realizing that I need to climb this thing yet again, and the only way to do this is to grab hold of both sets of bootstraps[6] and go.

But it's friendlier with more.

So here's a challenge to you, dear reader. Who's with me? Who's willing to head out and club up some inspiration? Who needs to break out of their daily rut a bit and write four weeks of bad prose? "I have nothing to write about" isn't an excuse.

Who's going to join the club?

[1] I did say I was being optimistic.

[2] Just one reason: pure unadulterated slacking off. I've tapped a vein of the stuff and mine it all day long.

[3] All of which is flawless, of course.

[4] "The Internet is always right." -- Abraham Lincoln

[5] And much, much weirder. I'm happy with that, too.

[6] Not sure this is physically possible. Not worrying about that, either.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Two In, Two Out

The daily beast is getting fed. This is a good thing, generally. Two months of daily writing down, a scant two more months to go before NaNoWriMo begins. Muse willing, I hope to actually have a second draft done by then, fully digital, and ready for an editing pass and then farming out to beta readers. Even with school happening now with the kids, I'm able to at least hide for 15-30 minutes and keep my toes in, creatively-speaking.

Feedly the Daily Beast in 2015

November will happen regardless. There's no avoiding November.

Peeved Rhino

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Chain Unbroken: Feeding the Daily Beast

The way up

So, it's been a month. How's it been going?

The daily writing is definitely a thing that's happening. Like NaNo, the first week was exhilarating, the second was suck-laden, and the third and final weeks have been feeling more downhill-ish. This is probably a good thing. I'm rewriting my 2011 NaNo draft, an effort that I've started and abandoned many times before. I've dug out the draft and have it standing by, but so far have not needed to refer to it. Somewhere along the trail of aborted rewrites, Things Changed Direction, and now the typescript is more of a ghost of Once Was than a skeleton of What Will Be. But it's still comforting to have around, totemic in a way, and of comforting heft.

View from the top

So I'm not exactly at the top yet. In fact, I'm not sure I'm quite halfway. But I'm happy with one of the big decisions -- putting most of the book in first-person present tense -- and have come up with other things that I want to incorporate when this is finally in digital form, for at the moment, it exists on paper, in my head, and in various iterations of Chapters 1-Through-3 sprinkled across my hard drive and my email folders. The Inner Critic is loose, alas, since he only gets chained up during November, so he keeps whispering in my ear that This Is All Boring Tripe and What Gives You The Right and so on. I'm trying to rise above, mainly by putting my main characters through hell and/or making them more mentally unbalanced than originally drafted. I don't know if this is a healthy approach to deafening the self-criticism. It feels a bit sadistic. I'm not sure that I'm supposed to be enjoying that.

At the start of the month, I ran off a simple* 6-month calendar for myself to cross out. For July it looks like this:

     July 2015
Su Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa
          X  X  X  X
 X  X  X  X  X  X  X

 X  X  X  X  X  X  X
 X  X  X  X  X  X  X
 X  X  X  X  X 31

The chain remains unbroken, but there's many more links to forge. Time to grab the AlphaSmart and a quiet corner** and hammer on some words.

* Thanks to the excellent cal program built-in to Linux and Mac OS X: cal 2015

** Ha ha three kids ha ha "quiet corner" ha ha ha

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Shortcuts, long cuts, and the unbroken chain

The summertime NaNoWriMo event is going again, "Camp NaNoWriMo" for the uninitiated. The very last thing I want to do in July is sit and write, though. It's hot here in Northern California, and especially hot this week, with rare humidity to up the ante. I'm taking sunrise walks to try to get the step count boosted in our office FitBit competition without actually having to step outside during peak heating hours. I have a physique and temperament much more attuned to cooler autumn days, and feel that summer heat is best experienced from indoors though insulated glass, with a cooling iced coffee at hand.

Morning walks have advantages. Solitude, for one, and lovely views that remind me why I'm glad to live where I live, when the sun and ongoing drought is trying to turn us all into people jerky.

The rewards of getting lost

This view, for example, which greeted me as I headed off in a new-to-me direction, and discovered a park that I'd never visited before. I think I've found the site of next year's Typewriter Day celebration, for sure. I look at a slightly different face of this mountain from my office. It's good to see it in a different context. I also got to be warned on the way out of the park with the possibility of mortal peril. That wakes you up a bit:

Take a little time out

That arrow is pointing in the exact opposite way I intended to travel, of course. And from this vantage, I wasn't entirely sure where I was. So, instead of making a poor choice and taking the short-cut to the right along a busy sidewalk-less street, I veered left, looking for landmarks. Being the suburbs, it didn't take long: the trail crosses the street at a known point, so I set off along it, thinking that eventually it would give me the option to go right again, back to home and breakfast. And yes, after a lot of wandering and one bad turn up a service road, I made it. The long route was worth it in the end, terminating just up the street from the campus where I set up for this year's Typewriter Day.

My pace was easy, and I passed only three people for the hour I was out. I was in no hurry, though shortcuts were plentiful, if not particularly useful.

The shortcut less-traveled

I know I've spent a lot of bytes here alternating talking up NaNoWriMo and bemoaning not having the motivation to sit down and really finish any of the many, many drafts that are stacking up in my life. I've started and stopped multiple times, and spent more time searching for "the one true editing solution" than I have actually revising.

Let's face it, it's a slog. A long, tedious slog, and there's no short-cut for it. Ignore the signs at your peril, and prepare to be run down by criticism if you do. And most importantly, take it a step at a time.

I read Jerry Seinfeld's "Don't Break the Chain" advice for the first time a few weeks ago, and I've been (of course) procrastinating about applying it. But with the news about Camp NaNo starting up again, and a fresh month on the calendar, and the good habits of daily steps under my feet... I think it's time to break out the red marker and set up my own unbroken chain this summer, even if the trail is long and points the wrong way.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Fringes

Typewriter Day 2015
The original typing spot, more comfortable than it looks

20150623 typecast

Pro tip: make sure your ribbons aren't dry before Typewriter Day, and allow settling time if you must re-ink. Splotchiness aside, it was good to get fingers on keys again, and I attracted only a small amount of attention from a group of passing students out early on campus. Summer sessions must be starting up since I saw more people during my half-hour typing walkabout than I have in the last three weeks. Or maybe it's just the attractive magic of the day.

Typewriter Day 2015
The backup typing spot, once the aural assault began

The Corsair still surprises me for being less-awful than I imagine it to be. For this purpose, it's just about perfect as it is light enough to carry, with the enclosed plastic body and sealed bottom keeping it free of dents and making it suitable for just about any surface.

Typewriter Day 2015
How convenient: waist-level typing stations with their own outlets for your coffeepot

Typed on a SCM Corsair Deluxe, nee Skyriter
SCM Smith Corona Corsair Deluxe

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Cat Named Abraxas: the Mythos Continues

I'm not sure what brought it on, but the witchy gift prepared for my youngest last fall finally paid dividends with an outbound letter left on the porch last night full of questions in scrawly pencil. The response letter is below.

If nothing else, it's a chance to play with calligraphy nibs, which don't have nearly enough opportunities for use in day-to-day situations.

20150618 pencast pt1

20150618 pencast pt2

With a nine-month gap, this may be the slowest interactive fiction experiment ever... but it's still a lot of fun.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Weeding Wednesday, and the Battle of the Bloat

Weeding out
The task at hand

This morning I made a start on one of our summer obligations: working service hours at our local swimming pool, as per our membership terms.[1] Ten hours in total of some upkeep-related activity is required, and we habitually choose the weeding/sweeping of the parking lot. Done in the early morning, it's cool and vacant, and given our normally dry summers[2], once weeded, it tends to stay weeded for the duration of our duties, only needing the weekly sweep to keep it looking nice. Little maintenance is required if you do a good job up front.

My entertainment -- and the above photo -- is provided in the form of a hand-me-down smartphone from a relative that was mouldering in a drawer (the phone, not the relative) after being outclassed and out-spec'ed by the relentless advance of its successors, marching to the beat of Moore's Law. As urged by several articles on the Internet, and after being assured at how easy it would be by following the step-by-step instructions, I did what any sensible person of my technical background would do: wasted a lunch break or two trying to unlock it, then surrendered and handed it to my teenager, invoking the ancient ritual of "Root the damn thing for your incompetent father and I'll take you out for burgers." A day later, he dropped it off in my hands with the appropriate response ("Double-Double with an extra large vanilla shake and fries") and lo, it was good. Evidently, so was the burger, shake, and fries.

I've recently been in the phone market, since my current one is now at death's door, and, as the Son gleefully points out, "It's so old the keypad is in Roman numerals." Smart-assery aside, he's right. And thanks to a good decision by the federal government, the market for phones is as broad as the Internet itself. After researching and comparing, I've bought a phone online (Arabic numerals) and picked a carrier, and am getting hooked up. I'll miss my old phone somewhat, as it's dead-simple and survived much neglect at my meaty hands, not the least of which is frequent drops (the new phone is also rugged.)

Alas, in this enlightened iEra of iSmart iPhones, even a "feature phone" as mine is classed is not free of that most dreaded of infections, bloatware, aka, crapware or (politely) handy software add-ons from your truster carrier. Thanks to the "unlock law" cited above, the vendor for my phone is actually not my carrier, so not only am I stuck with applications that I don't want, but they are applications I can't use, since they are tethered to a service I don't have.

The Son was, as expected, not impressed. "Ugh, Facebook? Twitter? What's this 'YP' thing?"

Yellow Pages, I explained, and then I had to explain the notion of a phone book[4].

"Well, can I root this for you?" he asked, angling for another free meal.

"I don't think so," says I. "It's not Android. It's a proprietary closed OS. It's not like there's factory images out there." This is me, trying to salvage my own failure with the music player setup by recycling some jargon I read. It sounded good.

The Son handed back the phone and unconsciously wiped his fingers on his shirt, like they were soiled. Pah.

What's worst, of course, is that he's right. Bloatware really is a nuisance, taking up limited memory on an already low-power device, and I bought the damn thing. Thanks to the FCC, I even was able to snip the software tether that tied it to the old carrier. But the traces remain. Unlike the logo on the faceplate, there's no easy way to pluck out all the weedy code that's infesting my new device. Given my fruitless experiments with the supposedly open Android system. I know that if I suddenly lost my senses and wanted to blow a mortgage payment on a carrier-subsidized phone, it, too, would be saturated with useless and immortal apps and "features," testaments to a business partnership that may not have any relevance to the customer.

I know this is my usual sour-graping. I basically got the new phone for free, by converting piles of loose change from my drawers into online store credit. I'm only one phone-technology generation behind the curve, and because of my inherent cheapness and utter lack-of-being-a-teenage-boy-ness, I am squarely in the boring demographic of phone plans.[5] And this whole discussion is so #firstworldproblem that in the grand scheme, it makes little difference.

But dammit, I want my space looking nice.[6] I want to weed this silly thing down. Every time I have to jog past some useless icon -- looking at you, "YP" -- it's an automatic reminder of the automatic obsolescence that surrounds us, and the silent pressure that we're all faced with to stay ahead of that march. Eventually the teenagers will grow up and move out and buy their own burgers, and then where will we be?

[1] Unlike the pools of my youth, which were public, this part of California at least is very big on members-only neighborhood pools, usually the nexus of the other local phenomenon of neighborhood swim teams. "Our" pool is mercifully swim-team-free, which is why this dramatic low-angle photo of the parking lot shows no cars. Swim team practice usually starts at Ungodly O'Clock in the morning. This would have been packed if we had a team based at our pool.

[2] Except this morning, when it was -- and is still -- lightly raining. This is cause for celebration in our drought-stricken state, and especially coming a few days after a patch of baking heat. I have learned to appreciate water like no other resource since becoming an adopted Californian. [3]

[3] Can you tell I've been reading David Foster Wallace lately, he of the meandering footnote?

[4] And then a digression on public pay phones, and how it was amazing to me the first time I saw a major metro-area pay phone with a massive book suspended from a don't-steal-me chain, between those thick black plastic covers. The "Appliances" section alone was easily larger than the entire directory of my hometown. The Son tuned out about 3 seconds into this digression, as I'm sure you have.

[5] You know it's bad when the salespersons look at your current phone, shudder visibly, and then point you towards the Carrier Aimed at Seniors, with Very Basic Phones containing No Sharp Edges and having Large Easy-Read Buttons on them. And you know, I really did consider it.

[6] "My" meaning "really I'm licensed to use this device and theoretically don't own it, due to some Byzantine click-through contract, oh and by the way, the carrier now owns my teenage son in perpetuity under the terms of the Family Plan." They're welcome to him, I say. He's expensive to feed, and awfully smug.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Thixotropical disasters at dawn

After a brief Twitter exchange of you show me yours, I'll show you mine yesterday -- of pens, thanks -- and paring down the bag to a reasonable Every Day Carry configuration, I extracted my beloved Fisher Space Pen and got it packed up for my summer morning walks. I get an hour back in the morning where I'm not toting a child to school, and I've been using it for self-improvement purposes, i.e., undoing all the recent pinic-food binges and trying to crush my co-workers in our weekly office Fitbit challenge. Summer is advancing rapidly here in California, and by 8:00am it can get uncomfortably warm uncomfortably fast. Better to take to the paths at dawn, I say.

So in the pocketses goes all the Precious: step counter, music player, pen and index card... because always a pen and index card. The Space Pen is perfect for this task, and has given me years of trouble-free writing, despite being dropped, laundered, lost, found, lost again, lent to children, and tossed in endless pockets.

Evidently, today was the final straw, for when I uncapped the handy ball-point... no handy ball point met my eye. What did meet my eye is an overlarge quantity of thixotropic ink, which is a fancy science term for "an intensely gooey substance that stains everything it touches, especially skin, sinks, and pets." Somehow the ball broke free off the end of its little pressurized cartridge, and, free at last, the contents of the refill took that as an invitation. The ink didn't so much ooze out as erupt. The entire inside of the cap is covered in, to be equally scientific, inky assploded deathsplooge. Luckily the ink isn't so thick as to merely collect in the cap, and handily seeped backward into the body and grip sections of the pen.

It does not rinse out. It does not swab out. You can put a swab in the affected parts, but what comes out resembles less of a writing instrument's insides and more of an unfortunate sea bird after a run-in with BP. After covering my fingertips and most of my kitchen sink and parts of the dog with sticky indigo spots, the pen has been banished to a bath in the thrift-store ultrasonic cleaner in the garage. It's currently trembling like a beetle drowning in espresso and turning the water toilet-bowl blue. I think the ink is enjoying the ride.

Luckily, a refill awaits in the EDC bag. And hopefully this one will give years of splooge-free service, because honestly the last thing my wife needs to hear again is "Honey, there's a thixotropic storm in my pants, and I don't know how I'm going to clean it up."

Friday, May 8, 2015

Short Ride

Spring sports are winding down, and I've decided to draw my own volunteer involvement to a close and let someone else take the reigns of this particular tornado. Events of last fall have given me a new desire to better enjoy the time I have, doing things that I like to do. That means parenting, of course, but also trying to get back into the creative mode, and shake off the stresses and self-made obligations that take away from that.

Life is a short ride on a fast machine... and like last year at this time, John Adams' compositions seem to be particularly apt to my frame of mind. This one is perhaps more joyful than the other work, and feels more like a conclusion that a collision. Enjoy, and I look forward to returning soon.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Pocket Pen Showdown: Space versus Sport

I've taken to carrying a few index cards and a small pen around all the time, to jot down the million or so to-do items, shopping lists, and "remember to talk to ..." reminders that flit across my brain at this time of year, at the confluence of youth sport and big-projects-at-work seasons. I am still deftly refusing to go the smart phone route, opting for the dumb-slab approach to keeping on track. Here's my dumb-slab:


An inexpensive "index card briefcase" that someone gave to me a few years ago, and a pair of pens: the blue one is a bullet-style Fisher Space Pen that I've had long enough that, by eBay convention, now gets to be called "vintage," and a gift-to-myself Kaweco Sport fountain pen. A few thoughts on each, with each. The scanner did a hash of the Space Pen with its boring black ink. It's actually far clearer in real life than this would indicate:

20150327 pencast_space

With the sports team, I've been doing a lot of check-writing and invoice-signing and general scribbling around, and for that, the Space Pen is unequaled. It's tiny, so I can stow it in my shirt pocket, and because of the pressurized ink cartridge and the magic ink, it's always ready. As a regular fountain pen user, I forget about the obligatory get-the-ink-flowing scribble that one must do with cheap stick ball pens (and not-so-cheap ones, too.) The Space Pen is always ready. I don't need to write upside down, or under water, or in space, but I do need to write things quickly, and in limited space, and on-the-go. Try filling out track meet paperwork with a fussy pen while escorting a line of 8-year-olds. NOT A GOOD IDEA.

20150327 pencast_sport

The Kaweco was more of an indulgence buy, using a holiday gift card given to me for the always-dangerous enablers at Jet Pens. It was more of a "rounding-out-the-order" buy than filling a specific need, but it's proven itself a fine contender when I have a little more control over my writing environment. I'm still a pen snob, proudly so, and I have no issues fussing with nibs and inks and the whole post-versus-non-post agony. For the record: I'm on #TeamNonPost. Like the Space Pen, the sport is small enough to live in the bottom of a pocket, with no clip to snag. It's not so precious that you feel bad letting it knock around with your keys and wallet, and it's got little touches that make it a fine choice. Swappable nibs, for example, a twist-off cap cap with faceted sides to prevent it from rolling around. I'm a sucker for demonstrator pens, too. ("Look at the ink!")

No pen is perfect, though. The Space Pen -- or correctly, the knock-off refill I am using -- is prone to "ink boogers" around the ball after a period of disuse. I suspect this could be related to the heat of riding in a pants pocket, too. The Space Pen is always easily lost, given its slippery-fish finish. My own example went missing literally in two seconds -- I had it, and then suddenly I didn't. (My wife found it at last, as all excellent wives do for their klutzy husbands.) So upset was I that I finally bought another. Evidently Fisher has started putting a little grip section on the pen, and... I don't like it. Try looking at product shots on Jet Pens. I don't think of myself as sensitive to that sort of thing, but after growing used to the smooth grip of "my" pen, I found it hard to adjust. The new one is my daughter's now, and we'll she what she says.

The Sport I've found to be something of a dry-starter. It writes fine and fast once the ink gets moving, but there's a little refill-squeezing to get the ink down into the feed and the nib. I'm not sure what's going on here, as I'm using the refill that came with the pen. Luckily, ink mysteries are one of the things that fountain pen users secretly love to fuss over, so I'm not too bothered by it, not really. The cap doesn't have any air holes in it, so it's not drying out that I can notice. Kept on its side, it starts right away, but I can't guarantee that sort of storage, bouncing in a pocket or rubber-banded to a journal in a bag.

Finally, nether pen is a very graceful poster -- that is, sticking the cap on the non-writing end. The Space Pen is really so very tiny that you almost need to post the cap, unless you're gripping it in your fingertips, like starting a fire with a match. Which, incidentally, is pretty much how I write with it, keeping the cap in one hand and scribbling with my claw-fingers perched on the barrel. Apologies to all past teachers who tried to show me the One True Light of penmanship: it didn't take. On my Space pen, and on the new variant now in my daughter's care, the posted cap want to work itself off the end a bit, unless you really jam it on. And it's a polished surface trying to grip a polished brass (?) inner ring... so no dice. It tends to work loose no matter what I try. The Space Pen has a small rubber O-ring sealing off the halves of the main pen and helping the cap stay on a bit with friction. Something like that is needed when writing, in my opinion, though I don't know how it would be engineered.

The Sport has the advantage in the posting-the-cap department, I think. The facets bring the overall posted diameter up to something like a "real" pen, and I would imagine that the aluminum models (the "AL Sport") also get a bit of weight balance with the cap hanging out there. I personally think it looks like the skinny barrel is being swallowed whole by some large green worm, and just keep the cap gripped in my non-writing hand as well. Pro tip: keeping the cap is is a good way to get your pen back when it's borrowed briefly. I would not say "no" to a donated AL Sport just to make the comparison complete. Are you listening, Kaweco/Jet Pens? I can be bought, so very, very cheaply.

So, which pen is the winner? Currently, I'm giving the edge to the Space Pen. I was very distraught to lose it, in part because it was a gift, and in part because it's becoming my always-got-it pen, ready for any mundane job. The Sport is seeing less activity right now, but it's got a place in my writing arsenal, and certainly has a greater range of ink choices... and no boogers.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Love, Oncology Style

Let me preface this by saying: everyone involved is now fine and healthy.

Please refer back to this phrase in case you feel yourself freaking out at some point in this post. I freaked out just writing it, and needed this reminder.

Now then...

My eldest child developed a strange and persistent lump of skin that didn't respond to any sort of topical treatments. The lump was dubbed “It,” and It had to go. So last summer during school break, we had It removed. As a parent, it's disconcerting to hear your child's doctors essentially throw up their hands and say “we don't know what this is, but It should come off.” So, there was a minor bit of outpatient surgery that left us with you-babble-while-anesthetized stories that will serve us for years. Off went the excised part of my child for a biopsy, and home came my child, bandaged, sutured, and drugged, and glad to be rid of It at last.

Until the phone call.

Suddenly we're getting a call from the lab, the technician reading off the very long medical name for It, which sounded like blah blah blah lymphoma blah blah blah, followed by phrases like “pediatric oncologist” and “radiation treatments” and “start immediately.” 

It turns out that cancer is a wonderfully clarifying disease. You are either the type of person to fall apart, or the type of person to get into ass-kicking mode. I'm pleased to say that I married the latter.

My wife drove from school to daily radiation treatments, with the other children in tow. We'd meet up at the end of the day: child-in-question exhausted from the radioactive assault, other children exhausted from the daily trips through San Francisco Bay Area rush hour traffic, my wife exhausted from driving and worry, and me exhausted by association. August, September, October... these months are blurs. Somehow, my child managed to keep it together, managed to stay strong enough through the treatments to stay awake at school, managed to keep spirits up despite missing sport practices and not having the energy to make it past 9:30 at night.

Somehow, it all worked out, and everyone involved is now fine and healthy. The lump was benign and rare, treatable with excellent recovery odds. “If you must get cancer,” said the oncologist, “this is the one you want.” Yay?

My heart goes out to parents of patients dealing with worse incarnations of this disease. We got off lucky. Oh sure, there's now qualifications. A six-month oncology followup soon, and lifetime annual checkups with a dermatologist. Watching the sun exposure, especially on the site of the surgery and treatments. And parents remembering what matters, and refocusing.

Eldest is on the cusp of adulthood: just celebrating a major birthday, learning to drive, even thinking about life beyond high school. Around midsummer last year, my wife and I were sufficiently Freaked Out about any and all of these, because “Motivated” is not a term we would have applied to this child. We have not yet seen one leave the nest, and I'm always afraid that we're somehow screwing it all up. There are plenty of things to worry about when that first child is ready to stretch their wings. I hope, for all of your sakes, that you handle it better than we were.

Post-op, these things don't seem to matter as much. There's still the usual background-level worry that every parent has for their children, and we always reserve the right to Third Degree when the situation arises: we were teenagers once, too. (“Who is going to be at this party? Where is it? Who's driving? How are you getting home? Do you have your phone? Call us any time.”) But now we're fretting less about grades, less about future plans... fretting less about a lot of things, in fact. It's a good feeling, the non-fret.

I'm generally anti-New-Year's-Resolution, but I did privately agree with myself to try to be more easygoing in general at work, at home... at life. Smile a bit more. Agree a bit more. Stress a bit less. Stress a lot less, because my capacity for stressing out has been both increased and drained by last year's activities. Also: take regular vacation days, simplify whenever possible, spend less money, read more library books. Maybe, like most resolutions, these will fade away in the months to come. This blog is littered with a thousand good intentions and projects-started, after all. I'm no stranger to a lack of focus.

So that's kind of where I am right now, and where we are, and a sort-of explanation for why the extended silence here. After getting through the holidays, and getting the official “OK” from the oncologist, we have also been able to stop, and breathe, and look at each other and realize: that completely sucked, and we don't ever want to do that again. On a day devoted to love, we are taking it. Appreciating what we have, what we did, and that where we go in life is not always where we planned it. Thanks, cancer! You sucked, and don't darken our doorstep ever again.

* * *

One administrative note: I'm turning off comments for this post, not because I don't like my three regular readers, but because we're still suffering a bit from empathy fatigue. We generally didn't say anything to anyone until after the treatments ended, and as such, extended friends and family didn't hear about it until we put a very condensed version of this story into our annual snarky-and-weird holiday newsletter. You could pretty much track the US Postal Service's efficiency by the phone calls we received as our cards made it across the country and the recipients went "OH MY GOSH CANCER" and then called to comfort us. Our response to all: "It's fine, we're all fine, treatments were done in October. Relax."

So if you have the urge to freak out, here's some alternative actions:
  1. Say this aloud: "It's fine, we're all fine, treatments were done in October. Relax."
  2. Consider donating to a reputable anti-cancer charity and help kick this stupid disease's ass.
  3. Hopefully nobody is on the fence about this, but please vaccinate yourself and your children. I can now officially say that I was the parent of a temporarily immunocompromised child, and we had to contend with endless hand-washing, carrying around alcohol gel, and worrying about colds rocketing around my child's school. Now measles -- freaking measles! -- is in the Bay Area. Please keep the population safe and get your kids their shots.
  4. If you have kids, hug them, and if you have a significant other who has shown amazing strength, courage, and keeping-it-together-in-the-face-of-insanity, please hug them more. And if you have neither, please hug a nurse, oncologist, or radiologist (with permission.) Double hugs for the pediatric variety. Hugs for everybody.
And that's about all the room I have on the soapbox today. Expect a resumption of the usual, intermittent programming soon. Some things never change. I need to tell you about pens!