Sunday, December 29, 2013

New Year, New Game, How Will You Play?

by Bert Carson

Maybe you have to be a FreeCell fan to appreciate this illustration and, since this post isn't about FreeCell, but rather life, both in general and in particular, let's refocus.

Now the illustration is to the point - a question and a choice.

Actually, there are three choices you must make before restarting the game.

1. Do you want to play again?

2.  If you choose "yes," you must choose "the same game" or a "new game."

And then comes the choice not written, but understood.

"Will you play the restarted game the same way you played the game you just lost?"

If there is a way to cheat at this old XP version of Freecell, I don't know how to do it.  However, there is a way to clear a game you know you are about to lose without having the loss register in your statistics.  If you haven't discovered the way, it is simply to reboot your computer.

To use a real life analogy, it's the same as severing yourself from an old life and leaving town to start over in a place where no one knows or cares if, or how many times, you've rebooted.

Today, with a fresh new calendar looming dead ahead, let's take a look at the three Freecell questions again.

First a note:  These questions only pop up when you've selected restart.   If you don't desire different results than than you are currently achieving, stop reading here and have a great year.  However, if a restart is in order, here are the choices offered by both Freecell and life.

1.  Do you want to play again?  I don't know about you, but when I've lost or I'm facing a sure loss, I always want to play again.  So I answer "Yes" and move to the next choice.

2.  (Do you want to play) Same Game?  For the same reason, I chose to to play again, I always choose, "same game."  I'm not going to quit on a loss, and I'm not going to give up on a particular game.

And now comes the question that Bill Gates didn't put on the pop up menu; 3.  Do you intend to continue to play the way you have been playing?  There have been many times when I wished that had been a pop up choice, because without thinking, I select "yes," then "same game," and five, or ten, or fifteen moves into it, realized I was in the exact same position as before, and I was going to lose exactly the way I just did.

Life is like Freecell.  As long as there is life in you, you have the option to restart.  However, even if you reboot, you will ultimately lose if you play the way you have been playing (it's the old insanity definition in new clothes—if you do the same thing you will achieve the same results).

So, with 2014 rapidly rising in the east, let's consider the possibilities:

1.  Do I want to play again?
2.  Do I want to play the same game again?
3.  Will I play the same way I played in 2013?

Happy New Year - may it be your best yet.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Wisdom of Travis McGee - #3 - Personal Value

by Bert Carson
John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee has an opinion on everything, and since they pretty much mesh perfectly with mine, I've decided to share them occasionally.  The sharing will be in no particular order or regard for subject matter.

Being a Virgo, I'd normally put them at least in book order, however, thanks to Amazon/Audible and whispersync for voice, I won't be doing that.  You see, I often listen to the Travis McGee stories while driving.  If a tidbit of wisdom comes though my headset while my body is moving down a highway at 70+ miles per hour, the chance of me highlighting the gem are pretty slim.  However, I can, and will, pull my trusty pocket notebook out, prop it on the steering wheel, and make a cryptic note like - Orange Chpt 8 - which means (to me) Bright Orange for the Shroud, Chapter 8, has a noteworthy McGee bit of wisdom.  Then when I'm I'm sitting still (not in the car), I'll open my notebook, find the note, open the referenced book, and find (in this particular case) near the end of Chapter 8:

"People take you at the value you put on yourself.  That makes it easy for them.  All you do is blend in.  Accept the customs of every new tribe. And you try not to say too much because then you sound as if you were selling something.  And you might contradict yourself.  Sweetie, everybody in this wide world is so constantly, continuously concerned with the impact he's making, he just doesn't have the time to wonder too much about the next guy."

That's McGee, explaining to a friend how he could easily insinuate himself into a group of strangers at a country club.  It's also McGee explaining to his millions of readers that the value you place on yourself is the value the world places on you.  That is wisdom, and it isn't the wisdom you expect from a serial pulp hero.  I think of it as the Travis McGee Wisdom Bonus. I find them delightful, and I love to share the delight I find in life.

I hope you find them delightful also.

Friday, December 27, 2013

And That Has Made All The Difference

by Bert Carson
Christina and I came in from our evening run a few hours ago and one of us said something that prompted the other to say, "And that made all the difference."

For a moment, the source of the phrase eluded us both, so I Googled it.  Before the search was complete, I remembered.  I even remembered hearing Robert Frost reciting The Road Not Taken, and I recalled reciting it myself in workshops and seminars.

Now, it's almost 4 AM, and I can't shake the poem—truth is I'm not trying too hard to shake it.  So, I decided to check out images of country roads with forks.  I found quite a few, but stopped when I found the one above.  Actually it jumped out of the pack, selecting itself.  I posted it and immediately realized that I can look at it, throw my eyes out of focus a bit, and recall facing and making that decision some sixty-five years ago.

Actually, as decisions go, it wasn't much of one.  I approached the fork, saw the choices, and barely slowing, took the road to the right.  I didn't take it because it looked the easiest, and it hasn't been.  I didn't take it because I figured I'd have a lot of company along that way, and I've met precious few who shared my choice.  I didn't take it for any reason other than I knew it was the way for me to go, and that has made all the difference.

The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay 
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh 
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Messenger - The Message - Naught Else Matters

by Bert Carson
Unlike other ecstatic poets, Kabir was not a monk or an ascetic.  He was married, had children, and made his living weaving cloth.

We don't know if Kabir was Muslim, Hindu, or Sufi.  We do know he was, to quote Robert Bly, one of his translators, a powerful spiritual man and poet.

As such, he seems to have a direct connection with the One, as reflected in his work which comes to us over more than 500 years of time; though no one knows for sure when he was born or when he died, all agree his work is timeless.

Kabir, like the man whose birth we've celebrated this day, did not pull punches.  His message is clear, timeless, and inspirational to those who believe there is more to be had from life and are committed to finding it.  On that note, I share his poem with you.

The Time Before Death - Kabir (version by Robert Bly)

Friend, hope for the Guest, while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think... and think... while you are alive.
What you call "salvation" belongs to the time before death.

If you don't break your ropes while you're alive,
do you think
ghosts will do it after?

The idea that the soul will rejoin with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten—
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.

If you make love with the divine now, in the next life
you will have the face of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is,
Believe in the Great Sound!

Kabir says this:  When the Guest is being searched for;
it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work.

Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.


Merry Christmas - May your face reflect the satisfied desire of your soul as you walk in joy with the Great Sound.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Writing - It's Not Easy - Never Has Been - Never Will Be

by Bert Carson
Today writer's have tools that streamline the work, but we do not have a tool, nor will we ever have a tool, that will make writing easy.

Jack Woodford said, "If you are turning to writing to escape hard work there is utterly no hope for you—it is far harder than any other work of which I have any knowledge."

I concur but hasten to add, all work, done well, requires effort.  The greater the work one does, the greater the effort they must expend to do it and, here's a slight modification of that thought, the effort expended must equal the level of achievement one expects to attain.  That is true of ALL THINGS, writing, painting, speaking, singing, ditch-digging... all things.

So, the level of achievement intended, determines the effort that must be expended.  Or, as we red necks say, a half-assed effort will not get the job done.

If you came to see about becoming a great writer, don't bother.  It will take the same effort as the last endeavor you failed to accomplish.

There is no glory, no success, no great achievement without great effort. Don't let the slick tools available to writer's today blind you to the fact that to write you must first work, work, and work some more.

If you don't accept that, you'll be in an eternal dark and stormy night.

Enjoy the work.


A Message From Santa

by Bert Carson
I was five when that picture was snapped.  The guy with me looked like Santa but I wasn't convinced.  

Three months earlier, I'd started my school career.  The day I walked into the class room, I was sure about Santa.  Within a week, my confidence in him was almost gone.

Daddy, noticing the change in me, asked, "What's the matter son?"

"The older kids say there is no Santa Claus.  They say parents just made up that story and they put the presents under the tree when the kids go to sleep..."

That’s all I could get out before all the emotion I’d been stuffing erupted and I sobbed.  He wrapped his arms around me and held me close, not speaking until I stopped crying.  Then he squeezed me and said, “Son, just because a lot of people don’t believe in Santa doesn’t mean he isn’t real.  That just means that Santa won’t be stopping at their house.  Those are the houses where parents will have buy presents and put them under the tree while  their children sleep.”

I thought about that, sniffled, and said, “But what if a kid isn’t sure about Santa?  Will Santa  stop at their house?”

Daddy didn’t hesitate, “Well, that won’t be a problem for you Son.  When you go to sleep Christmas Eve, I’ll stay up and ask Santa to come to your room for a minute or two.”

He stopped talking and I wiggled loose from his grasp, moved away from him a bit, looked up and refocused on his eyes.  My Daddy had never told me a single thing that hadn’t proved to be true, but this was the most important thing we’d ever talked about and I wanted to be sure.

He knew what I was doing and met my gaze with his.  He stayed like that for a long time; until I was convinced.  Even then I asked, “Are you sure he’ll come?”

He grinned and said, “I am.”

That didn’t stop the talk at school but it stopped my doubt.  I realized none of the older kids who were telling the youngest of us “the truth about Santa,” would ever believe I was going to meet the real Santa, so I didn’t bother to tell them.   No matter what foolishness someone believes, separating them from that belief is about the most difficult task a human can take on.

Finally the day came.  We did all the things my family did on Christmas Eve.  First, dinner with my mother’s parents, her brother and his wife, and then the traditional opening of all the gifts that had been accumulating under the tree for weeks.   I was growing more impatient by the minute.  Daddy, realizing that, gave me more than one furtive gesture, making it clear I should calm down.  Then it was off to my other grandparents’ home for the same ritual, without dinner, but with many more participants.

Then it was done and we were back in the car headed for our house and my rendezvous with Santa Claus.  It must have been near midnight when mother tucked me in.  As she turned to leave my room, I asked, “Would you please tell Daddy I’d like to talk to him.”

A few minutes later Daddy came in my bedroom, put his finger to his lips and whispered, “Don’t worry.  It’s all set.  I've sent a message to the North Pole and I received an answer.  Santa will take a few minutes to talk to you while he drinks the coffee and eats the cake you left out for him.”
I don’t know how long I slept but I do know that I woke instantly when a hand brushed my shoulder.  I sat up, squinted in the faint light, and was immediately crestfallen when saw that it was Daddy.  I thought he was about to tell me some story about how he missed Santa.  

Instead he whispered, “He’s here,” and stepped away from the bed.

Immediately Santa was framed in the doorway.  He had a cup of coffee in his hand and grin on his face.  He walked to my bedside, touched my hand, and said, “Always remember this night and I will be with you every Christmas Eve.”

He turned, stepped toward the door, stopped, turned back to me and said, “Tell your friends.  That’s your job because I just don’t have time to talk to each of them.”  He grinned again and then he was gone.

Daddy and I sat in silence, broken a few moments later by the sound of hoofs on the roof and the faint twinkling of bells.

Never forget to believe.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Writing, Running, Tracking Both

by Bert Carson
For the past few years I've recorded my runs with a Garmin heart rate monitor watch, with built in GPS.  In addition to the cute little map of the run, I get more stats than you can imagine or that I know what to do with.  For example, the watch records average heart rate, peak heart rate, time and duration of the run, weather, elevation gain and loss, average pace, peak pace, etc. etc.  There's also a place for me to put comments, like, "Why do I do this when I could be sitting in one of the cozy little pubs I just ran past."  That's just an illustration - I don't drink or sit in pubs.  What I do note in the comments section is traffic, which is pretty important since I usually run at night, and how I felt; "strong, fast, smooth," or more often,  this year, "fading, slow, couldn't find the pace."

You might be thinking, 'well, Bert, you're 71, you should be fading, and slow, and off the pace, but that isn't true.  This has been a tough running year because I didn't run enough.  Enough for me is six days a week.  Six times 52 means I should have run 312 times this year.

I ran the run in the illustration at the beginning of the post last Friday evening - it was #126 for the year.  I will, run eight more times this year, giving me a total of 134 runs.  That means I failed to run 178 times.  That's why my speed has gone down the tubes and that's why, in 2013, I've used the words slow, tough, and fading far more than the words, fast and strong.

I love my Garmin watches, and seeing a print out of my runs, but if a running log is going to be an incentive to running it must be more than a collection of illustrated, dated, and numbered sheets of paper.  So, in addition to printing out the stats on each run, I'm going to keep a running journal - it will be a journal with space for every day of the year and I'll make a notation beside each day.   The daily entries will not be elaborate - simply a statement of what I intended to do, what I actually did, and my evaluation of my performance.  At the end of each entry I'll write a cumulative total for the year to date.

As I wrote that last paragraph, I realized I could do the same thing with writing - keep a writing diary, make a daily entry that includes my writing objectives, actual accomplishment, and my thoughts regarding both.  Being a fountain pen addict, I wanted a book that was fountain pen friendly, was compact, and had sufficient page space but not more than I needed.  I found all of that in the Rhodia Meeting Book, available at many online stores - here's the link to the book on one of my favorite sites, - Rhodia Meeting Book at JetPens.Com

I began a trial run of my new tracking method last night.  If you're interested, I'll keep you posted on the results.  If you have suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

Merry Christmas,

Thursday, December 19, 2013

On Writing - When Casual Sex and One Night Stands Aren't An Option

by Bert Carson
The Philosophy of Travis McGee #2

In the world of serial characters, Sam Spade, Spenscer, Harry Bosch, Elvis Cole, Lucas Davenport, and many, many others, there are numerous points of agreement.  They are Detectives or private detectives.  They are funny or at least witty.  They never bother to look inward - they are much too sure of themselves.

And then along comes McGee.  Travis McGee, the creation, or extension or John D. MacDonald, sometimes its hard to tell which, who doesn't come close to fitting the mold.  He's not a detective, or even a private detective.  Travis is a salvage specialist.  That works this way (from Deep Blue Good Bye):
"Trav, honey?"
"Were you kidding me that time we talked about... about what you do for a living?"
"What did I say?"
"It sounded sort of strange, but I guess I believed you.  You said if X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back, and keep half.  Then you just... live on that until it starts to run out.  Is that the way it is, really?"

"It's a simplification, Chook, but reasonably accurate."

Travis McGee is not a detective or private detective.  But what he isn't is not the major difference between McGee and the rest of the pack.  It is what he is that makes the difference.  He is a man willing to examine his life, his motives, his fears, yep, fears.  Not something serial heroes are known for.

And then there's the point of this post.  Casual sex.  McGee is not interested in it, turns it down, and in each of the six books I've read so far, he explains why - in this excerpt from Bright Orange For The Shroud, Travis tells how he feels about sex and why -

"I was awake for a little while in the first gray of the false dawn, and heard the lovers.  It was a sound so faint it was not actually a sound, more a rhythm sensed.  It is a bed rhythm, strangely akin to a heartbeat, though softer.  Whum-fa, whum-fa, whum-fa.  As eternal, clinical, inevitable as the slow gallop of the heart itself.  And as basic to the race, reaching from percale back to the pallet of dried grasses in the cave corner.  A sound clean and true, a nastiness only to all those unfortunates who carry through their narrow days their own little hidden pools of nastiness, ready to spill it upon anything so real it frightens them.

Heard even in its most shoddy context, as through the papery walls of a convention motel, this life-beat could be diminished not to evil but to a kind of pathos, because then it was an attempt at affirmation between strangers, a way to try to stop all the clocks, a way to try to say: I live.

The billions upon billions of lives which have come and gone, and that small fraction now walking the world, came of this life-pulse, and to deny it dignity would be to diminish the blood and need and purpose of the race, make us all bawdy clowns, thrusting and bumping away in a ludicrous heat, shared by our own instinct."

McGee's philosophy is true, honest, and pertinent.  MacDonald's writing is the best I've ever read.  That's why I've fallen for Travis McGee, and his creator, John D. MacDonald, and if it's alright with you, I'll continue to share McGee's philosophy from time to time. 


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Philosophy of Travis McGee - Number 1

by Bert Carson
Travis McGee is a character who was created by John D. MacDonald.  Travis appeared in twenty-one novels, copyrighted from 1964 - 1986.  Recently John D's work has been converted into eBooks and is available in that format at all popular eBook sales outlets.  Most are also available in audio book format, and they are all still in print in paperback.

Caleb Pirtle, with a casual comment, introduced me to the works of John D. and within hours of making the recommendation, I was up to my neck in in The Deep Blue Good-By, the first in the Travis McGee series.  Today I'm half way through number five, A Deadly Shade of Gold.

I'm reading the books on my Kindle, and when I'm driving, I listen to the the Audible version.  On the the Kindle, a passage which has been highlighted is noted and annotated with the number of people who have highlighted it.  Early in the first book, I realized that I'd never seen so many highlighted passages in a novel, any novel.  And the passages that are highlighted are, generally, serious observations made by Travis McGee, who tells the stories in the first-person voice.

John D. MacDonald
After noting a number of such passages, a thought budded and grew in my mind - write a series of blogs centered on what I consider to be the
most powerful of McGee's observations.  I don't mean trite McGee observations that MacDonald added for color, like, "Don't sit on the front row at the ballet."

I'm talking about comments of substance.  Things that you can put in the back of your mind and roll in, inhale, breathe deeply of, and more than likely find that you agree with totally.  Things like:

"I am wary of the whole dreary deadening structured mess we have built into such a glittering top-heavy structure that there is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it," which, here at the beginning of another Christmas season, jumped off the page like it was lit in flashing neon.

So why bother with a series of blogs about the wisdom of a "pulp fiction" writer?  Because, good writers, the best ones, put everything they have into their books.  No matter the genre, or length of story, or even the relevance of the topic, the essence of the storyteller is there, and in the case of John D. MacDonald, speaking as Travis McGee, and I find it worth considering, pondering, expanding, and understanding.

So, that was number one in what will be at least a 21 blog series.  What do you think?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Invisible Baristas and Invisible Writers

by Bert Carson
An hour ago I pulled into the drive thru lane of one of Starbucks 5,500 coffee houses, just as I do three to five times a week.  As always, I crossed my fingers and inched toward the cold, coffee-brown speaker waiting to take my order.

Before I could bring my vehicle to a full stop a wonderful voice boomed out of the box, "Good morning Good Looking..."

I smiled and uncrossed my fingers - it had worked yet again.  "How do you do that?" I asked.

She laughed.  "I'm not magic.  You're on camera, Sweetie."

Her explanation didn't take away a thing from our conversation.  Of the 151,000 Starbucks employees, Rachel is the only one I know by name, the only one who calls me good looking, the only one who doesn't start our morning talks with, "What can I get started for you?"

That brings me to the point.  Rachel isn't invisible.  She has made a point of not being invisible.  If she weren't at Starbucks I'd still drive through and get my whole milk latte, but because she is, the trip is special.  A hot word being kicked around by writers today, is invisibility.  Most agree that it is a good thing.  I do not think it is a good thing nor do I believe those who maintain that it is have thought about it a lot.

Books are far too personal to be written by invisible entities.  All baristas would be boring if I didn't know Rachel, and, thanks to her, believe that there are others like her waiting behind those faceless drive thru sentinels to speak to me.

What we do not need are authors who come across like a scripted barista, "Hi, welcome to Starbucks.  What can I get started for you?"  I call them writing-by-the-numbers authors.  We need more authors who begin their books like Rachel begins her conversations with me.  Authors like John D. MacDonald, who began Darker Than Amber, with this line - "We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge."  (see Caleb Pirtle's magnificent blog -  I Never Left John D. MacDonald For Long).

Author's have never been invisible.  In fact, author's are just the opposite.  Authors, if they are worth the price of their book, are the elephant in the room that everyone talks about.  An author is each and every character in the story - he or she is every scene and every moment of the book.  A writer, by the very nature of writing, cannot be invisible.  What a writer must be is REAL, TRUE, and CONSISTENT.

That doesn't mean it always happens that way - in fact, with the ease of publication today, more often than not, writers are anything but real, true and consistent.  But, the fact remains, when a writer who is real, true, and consistent, tells a story, people are drawn to their fire, where they sit in rapt attention as they absorb the tale...

"Thanks, Rachel.  Once again you've made my day..."



Sunday, December 15, 2013

Time Management For Writers

by Bert Carson
Nick Saban is not an efficiency expert.  He is the head football coach of the University of Alabama.

Fredi Gonzales isn't a time management
consultant.  He is the manager of a professional baseball team, the Atlanta Braves.

On the surface it appears the two men do not have a lot in common.  Two different sports.  Two levels of play.  One coaches young men who are still attending school.  The other manages men, some young, some not so young, who have left school and are living their dream, or some portion of it.

There is a less-than-obvious connection between the two men - Me.  I'm the connection.  Before I tell you more about that connection, let me tell you of another commonality the men share. They each lead the most talented group of men to ever play their respective sports, and second, neither of them led their teams to championships this year because of something else they have in common - without going into detail I call that common trait, stupidity-under-fire.

Now, back to me, the common connection between the two men.  I was a rabid fan of both teams until the manager/coach of each overwhelmed me with stupidity.  Even a rabid fan can only take so much.  So I resigned my Atlanta Brave and Alabama Football fan commission and walked away from the sports war.  To quote Chief Joseph, a man who never heard of either football or baseball, "I will fight no more forever."

As soon as I made the decision I realized how much time I've spent watching Gonzalez and Saban mismanage the best athletics in their sports, men I could have taken to the World Series and the BCS Championship game, with one hand tied behind my back.  Then I admitted to myself that I would never even meet one of those players, much less coach them, so I took a deep breath and turned away from games I have no control over, redirecting myself to a game I can manage.

Saban and Gonzalez, thanks to their stupidity-under-fire, have combined to give me five to eight hours a week to devote to my game - writing.   Before accepting their gift, I often fought to find even twenty minutes a day to journal, and suddenly two men who aren't even time managers or efficiency experts have combined to give me almost four hundred hours a years to play my game, and I'm going to use it, every second of it.

Look around in the corners of your life.  You might find a time manager lurking in recesses of your day - a person who is grabbing an hour or two of your time without you even realizing you've been robbed.  Someone who is taking away your game.  When you find him or her, take your game back.