Saturday, November 26, 2011

Upcoming Interview (Donna Cori Gibson)

Just a reminder that on Thursday, December 1st, I will share my interview of the popular singer Donna Cori Gibson.  Hope you can stop by!  As I'm trying to make some serious headway on my novel, this will be my last interview until February 2012, or so.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Your Black Friday Report from Western Oregon

 I've never really shopped on Black Friday before.  Between needing to get a particular item for my daughter at Best Buy as well as feeling an obligation to go simply out of the misguided Occupy Black Friday movement, we found ourselves shopping all night long--not arriving home until after 4am.  Yawn!

While I don't think I'll venture out to anything like this again for a long time, we were fortunate to get a couple amazing deals for Christmas.  In fact, I think this is the first time ever when we're nearly done with our most important Christmas shopping before even reaching December.  That's a nice thing, I suppose.

The people-watching was sometimes a little disturbing, but people were by and large polite to each other.  I would like to point out a couple things, though, to the corporate leadership of Best Buy.  Admittedly, this popular electronics retailer likely had more people waiting at the single entrance than Kohls had waiting between their multiple entrances.  Still, Kohls proceeded to handle the crowds of shoppers with courtesy and efficiency while Best Buy herded us like cattle, weaving in and out of the aisles like sleepy zombies--hungering for electronics more than fresh brains.

I repeatedly noticed Best Buy employees wandering aimlessly around the store, looking tired and frazzled. We arrived an hour, or so, after the initial opening at Best Buy, because we opted to visit Kohls first.  Even arriving around 1am and starting the line around 1:30, we were waiting in the line for at least two-hours.  Instead of opening temporary registers at strategic points around the store, all the cashiers were frantically working up front of the store; this didn't work so well, and it was easy to sense the growing frustration and anger in the shoppers--not to mention the interesting smells.  

Before coming to work for the State of Oregon about fifteen years ago, I worked in the retail loss prevention field.  I realize there are loss prevention and theft challenges with having employees cashiering at other points in the store, but I suggest that this concern can be mitigated by employing plainclothes and uniformed security personnel inside and outside the store--along with the "eyes in the sky" and clear lines for customers to follow to registers and out of the store.

While I considered it important to do my little patriotic part for the economy this year, I don't plan to venture into this retail maelstrom again, if I can avoid it--especially at stores that treat their customers more like a herd of cattle than valued individuals who are tired and just want to purchase their haul and go home to bed.

As an aside, Apple gets the form over substance award this year for their promotion of "The day you've waited 364 days for."  We would have seriously considered buying one or two Apple products this year, except their hyped Black Friday discounts averaged only around 10% off on their popular products.  Come on, Apple, is that the best you can do?  That's about as exciting a deal as a dollar off door stops at the local hardware store.  My iPhone and I went elsewhere this time 'round.

Best Buy in Salem around 11:30pm.

Waiting for Kohls to open around midnight.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Profit Break

With Christmas rapidly approaching, here are some items from yours truly for your shopping pleasure.  Hope you can check them out!  :)

Calendar featuring my photography from NE Oregon (Drop me a note about coupons, if interested.)

Calendar version 2 (Contact me about coupons.)

Recreational vs. Professional Blogging

The last time I gave a talk to elementary school students, I emphasized the importance of practice for the writer.  Write as much as you can and read good books, too.  I think there's value to the writer in keeping the writing going, but sometimes it's hard to categorize one's writing.  In other words, what does the professional writer do who enjoys writing unprofessionally at times?

For example, as the readers of Tristan's Travels already know, I have a tendency towards silliness.  The problem was that I didn't really want to associate the silly writing too closely with the more serious writing found on this blog.  Not sure why I never thought of it before...but I have created a second blog entitled The Restless Auditor; it's very silly.  So far, the content is taken from revised posts from sometime ago.  New content will eventually follow.

Besides being another form of writing practice for me, the silly blog serves as a kind of recreational release valve.  It's a way of responding to annoyances with humor, and it seems to work for me anyway.  I hope you can check out The Restless Auditor--and let me know what you think (maybe).

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Why I Left Facebook

Well, I haven't completely removed myself from Facebook, but I, at least temporarily, deactivated my primary account late this afternoon.  It's not that I have anything against social media...  On second thought, maybe I do have a little something against social media.  In many ways, I think it encourages some of the poorest dimensions of our already bankrupt modern culture: shallowness, pettiness, and meaningless busyness--the antitheses of reflection and substantive work.  So much of Facebook to me really boils down to pettiness and silly acts of pointless reciprocation.  I'm friends with some authors who seem unaffected by it, always upbeat and positive.  With my particular personality, though, it seems less than a positive focus, encouraging an unhealthy dynamic and distracting from the important things, the eternal things.

I found, for instance, that I was talking about writing more than I was actually writing--a sure sign of trouble for an author.  Yes, marketing is a necessary evil when it comes to writing, but I think the correct balance between timing and saturation is critical.  Not that I was over marketing or promoting myself (well, maybe sometimes...a little), but the content has to come first.   If the content becomes secondary to the marketing, you might as well be selling air.  While it can certainly bring people together, Facebook also has a way of focusing us far too much upon ourselves.

That's why I thought it'd be good just to step back from a lot of that stuff and concentrate on what I'm good at: writing fiction.  When I've finished the final page of revisions of the novel, I'll consider giving it another crack.  Until then, please pardon my absence on Facebook for a while.  Now, be sure to "like" this post....

Update: Yes..., it is true.  I did grudgingly return to Facebook in January 2012.  I still dislike it for all the reasons I mentioned above (and more), but, for the time being, it seemed an important way to connect with my readers.  There may, however, come a point when I can't stand it anymore.  So, don't be too surprised should I vanish someday soon from social media--Facebook, at least.     

Jill Kransy's recent piece brought this issue to my attention again.  Hope you can check out her article on this fascinating topic!

(Two of my other reflections on social media (and its dysfunctional relatives) may be found at Connection Illusion and Internet Ramblings.)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Father Tim Mockaitis' Audio Interview

Fr. Tim at blessing of Kimberly's gilded frames.
This morning's in-person interview of our priest, Father Tim Mockaitis, may prove to be one of my favorites.  It was really more of a far-ranging conversation than a typical interview, exploring everything from his book, The Seal, concerning the 1996 surreptitious recording by the Lane County Prosecutor of a prisoner's sacramental confession to the larger issues regarding this sacrament as well as the morality of the death penalty--and even touching upon the thorny issue of Pro-Choice Catholic politicians.

It had my intention to transcribe the entire interview for the purpose of this post, but I came to the conclusion that this would actually make it less engaging an experience.  I suggest that you listen to the entire interview, but I also will include some time markers--in case you want to quickly listen to particular sections and return later for the rest.

Since it wasn't my initial intention to use the audio, it's been necessary for me to do quite a bit of editing via Apple's Garage Band software.  I've removed a few of our topic digressions--as well as some of my throat clearing, and even some of my "is it recording?" episodes.  All things taken into account, though, the sound is pretty good for a simple iPhone recording.  Way to go Apple!

Again, thank you to Father Tim for taking an hour out of his busy morning to answer these questions in such a thoughtful and personal way.  I hope you enjoy this month's interview as much as I enjoyed making it!

1.  What warning should all Christians, and Catholics in particular, take from the egregious taping of this Sacrament of Confession on April 22, 1996 by the Lane County Prosecutor's Office?

2.  When did you decide that you needed to write The Seal?  (4 minutes and 10 seconds) 

3.  To the best of your knowledge, does this tape still exist as evidence in the Lane County Sheriff's Office?  If so, how does this make you feel?  (8 minutes and 20 seconds)
4.  Has this experience helped form your personal belief concerning the morality of the death penalty? (13 minutes)
5.  If the opportunity to read a taped confession were to come about within a publication such as a newspaper, do you believe that a Catholic's reading of the immorally-taped confession constitutes a serious sin?  (38 minutes and 20 seconds)

6.  For the most heinous murderers, do you see a sense in which it acts as a mechanism of self defense for society at large?  In other words, these people will never escape or be released in error to murder again.  (15 minutes and 20 seconds)  
7.  I don't know the statistics, but it seems that the Sacrament of Confession is being ignored by more and more Catholics.  Have these numbers indeed fallen over the last few decades?  If so, why do you think more people don't highly value Reconciliation?  (18 minutes and 30 seconds)
8.  When did you decide you wanted to be a priest?  In a related vein, did you have a particular moment as a younger man where you experienced a second conversion, a conscious turning towards Christ?  (As a family of former Evangelical protestants who crossed the Tiber in 2005, this question is always of interest to me.)  (23 minutes and 55 seconds)
9.  Who would you say are some of your favorite authors and why?  (29 minutes and 55 seconds)

10.  In a few words, what are some of the top challenges you think are currently facing the Catholic Church?  (32 minutes and 15 seconds)

(Click Here to listen to interview.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What I Learned From Meeting Brian Jacques

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to briefly meet Brian Jacques (June 1939 - February 2011), acclaimed author of the Redwall series.  I recall he was particularly fond of an illustration of my wife's which was on our business cards at the time.  While talking with him for a few minutes was great, what I really took away from the evening was his talk on writing for children.  One item that stuck with me concerned his response when he was asked about whether, or not, he read books similar to his own: the competition.  He replied that he avoided doing so.  It was his worry, he explained, that doing this might unconsciously influence his own characters and the originality of their adventures.  That was the degree to which he cared about safeguarding his own originality.

Granted, it may be much easier for an extraordinarily popular writer to avoid mixing with the competition than for the rest of us more average writers, but I think there’s a message here for all of us.  Of course, not everyone agrees with this view.  One literary agent I met in Seattle took the position that it’s a mistake if the writer fails to immerse himself in his own genre, and it is true that writers should to be able to intelligently compare their work to the competition.  Still, as I said, I think there’s more truth than error in Mr. Jacques’ position.

I irritate my family to no end at times, because of the ways I try to implement this wise advice.  If there’s a movie that comes too close to my writing for children, for instance, I’ll avoid going—unless seriously outvoted.  It seems to me that there’s a general apathy to originality in the creative marketplace of today.  Sometimes, we mistake originality with simply “being different,” but it’s more than that.  
One example, a personal pet peeve, that comes to mind is the tendency for more and more authors to try to re-write classic works with their own modern spin.  While I have seen this work artistically a few times (and commercially more times), it too often makes the reader only too aware of how much better the classic actually is.  This holds even more true when the author betrays ignorance concerning the original work. 
If we look at these re-writes, in particular, we’re likely to hear several explanations or excuses from their producers—it introduces younger readers to the classics, satisfies public appetite for this style of writing, or, hey!, there’s only so many plots from which to choose!  Broadly speaking, I think the first position is the most tenable, but none is convincing to me.  In my mind, it’s still a symptom of the larger disease of creative apathy.  If you’re a writer, do your job!  Create your own memorable characters, settings, and plots from scratch.  An example of a re-write work along these lines might be Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  Of course, this is just my personal opinion, and there are clear exceptions--for example, the great movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? as inspired by Homer’s Odyssey.  

To digress into a bit of a philosophical vein here, if creativity and originality are likened to a pool from which successive generations of artists, writers, and composers draw their inspirations, I’d have to say that the water has become somewhat shallow of late.  Mysterious places and phenomenon of our planet are regularly unmasked by science.  Each stone that is turned over in pursuit of science is one less stone under which the fairy may fly—to put it in romantic terms.  (I can imagine my late uncle Phil Rand cringing at this expression of sentimentality.)  It's not that I'm lamenting "progress" exactly, but I'm suggesting there's a downside, too.  The more we come to know, the less mystery or unknown there is in the air, and it's that sense of mystery and adventure which has inspired some of the West's greatest books.

I’d also take the position that unique experiences of individuals from which creative work is born or nurtured has been lessened to some degree by shared media, shared experiences.  Instead of experiencing our own adventures, we are content to watch and listen to those of strangers.  All of these things—from the felling of the forests to the flickering television in our living rooms—seem to have drained the pool of creativity bit by bit.  Of course, there’s always hope, because God is the greatest source of real inspiration.  In conclusion, I'd like to end with the words of my father-in-law, John Collier.  

Five hundred years ago if you wanted to hear the greatest words being spoken, see the greatest sculpture being carved, see the greatest painting and hear the best music, you went to church. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Eric Holder Needs to Go!

Back in the early 1990s, I was seriously considering a job in federal law enforcement.  To this end, I spent most of a shift riding-along with a US Border Patrol Agent out of the Blaine Sector field office.  To say that it was interesting work would be a big understatement.  

These officers are impressive in their knowledge of law enforcement practices as well as very complex immigration law and, of course, they must be fluent in Spanish.  Their daily work is both dangerous and challenging--both mentally and physically.  Although my career ultimately took me in a different direction of service, I have great respect for those who wear the badge of Border Patrol or Customs Agent.  It can be an incredibly difficult and risky job, and they deserve all the support we can give them.
This is precisely why it's so important for the Obama Administration's Attorney General Eric Holder to waste no further time in submitting his resignation.  As I tweeted on October 10th,"Fast and Furious suggests that Eric Holder was either (a) a disconnected manager or (b) untruthful in his recent testimony--or both."  The fact that Fast and Furious was such an inane endeavor is bad enough, but that Mr. Holder appears to be lying about what he did and did not know about the ill-conceived gunrunning seals it--he needs to hit the road.

According to news reports, guns from this program are linked to the death US Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and also at least one attack on two Arizona police officers.  The guns have also found their way  south to Mexico where they were recently discovered in the residence of an arrested drug cartel kingpin.  This being the case, they have undoubtedly been used to kill men, women, and perhaps children in the cauldron of violence which Mexico has become.  One must ask, therefore, what responsibility does the US bear for the use of these weapons within Mexico?  While there may not be legal responsibility or liability, the moral culpability is unquestionable.

On May 3rd, Eric Holder testified before the House Judiciary Committee that he  "...probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks."  As widely reported, Holder now appears to have been much more in the communication loop than he has previously disclosed.  As suggested earlier, the (unlikely) prospect of him being blissfully unaware altogether would betray such an unfathomable lack of organizational leadership, that it wouldn't really put him in a better position; it's a lose or lose scenario.  The evidence at this point, however, clearly suggests that Mr. Holder was deeply ensnared in this illegal and profoundly foolish gunrunning operation.  

I'd also argue that this kind of ill-conceived and strange thinking is also evident in some of Mr. Holder's other official actions.  Who, for instance, can forget his bewildering approach to the Black Panther Voter Intimidation case from 2008?  This is an individual who appears to be using his public office to further his disturbing personal agenda.

In honor and respect of the US law enforcement officers and their families who have suffered tragedy because of these weapons as well as the innocents killed or maimed in Mexican drug violence, and the whistle-blowers such as Agent John Dodson, it's high time that Attorney General Eric Holder resign his post effective immediately.  

..."Dodson just about came apart all over them (his supervisors). In a 'screaming match' that was heard throughout the Phoenix office by many employees, Dodson yelled at Voth and Assistant Special Agent in Charge George Gillett, 'Why not just go direct and empty out the (ATF) arms room?" (to the cartels), or words to that effect.' 

(Fox News, September 26, 2011)