Going Green (but mostly just going)

The Royal Dockyard in Bermuda is the former Royal Navy base and is now a cruise ship port and home of the National Museum. The museum is housed in a series of former Navy buildings set among green grassy areas within the sea walls.

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The superintendent’s House at the Royal Navy Dockyard in Bermuda

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Some of the grassy area around the dockyard.

It’s a beautiful spot, full of history and sweeping sea vistas, but something has changed since we were there a few years ago. Maintaining so much grass is undoubtedly a bother to the people who run the museum. Grass has to be cut periodically and that means noise, expense and possible interference with visitors. Apparently someone got a bright idea; why not keep the grass cut in an ecological and natural way? They could save money, make the place even more picturesque, and be “green” at the same time.

The solution? Sheep! That’s right, they got a flock of sheep to wander the grounds nibbling the grass to keep it all neat without those nasty, gas-burning lawn mowers. Save money and save the earth at the same time!

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Nature’s lawn mowers busy converting grass into…other products.

Well, it works like a charm. The sheep constantly trim the grass and don’t bother the tourists. What’s not to like? Well, there is one little problem; unlike gas-powered lawn mowers, nature’s lawn mowers produce sheep manure. So now visitors must spend more time watching where they step than watching the scenery! The place is covered with the ..er, “end products” of the sheep’s efforts. Even with caution, anyone wearing sneakers with deep treads will have to do a bit of “sole searching” and cleaning before returning to the cruise ship. So if you go there, whatever you do, don’t wear sandals or flip flops…and don’t even think about going barefoot.

What were they thinking? Part 2- The VCR high priests

I have written before of businesses that institute policies that drive customers away, such as the grocery store with no prices on the items and the retail store that had so few clerks manning the checkout stations that the long lines made shopping a turn-off. The other day, I remembered a very early manifestation of this “what are they thinking” phenomenon; one from years ago.

Back in the 1970s, (yes, I am that old) VCRs that made it possible to record TV shows came out and they were a fascinating, and expensive novelty. They were expensive ($700-1500) and sold mostly by electronic or specialty stores in malls. (The Internet was still just a gleam in Al Gore’s eye at the time.) My wife and I dropped in on such a place at the local mall to see if we wanted to take the plunge. The only way we would consider one would be if it was a basic, less expensive model.

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The shop was brand new and only sold VCRs. Great, we thought. They should know what they are talking about. inside were cloth-covered display tables of various heights and on the tables were a variety of the newfangled machines, still gleaming from the factory. Our plan had been to see what the various prices and features were and decide accordingly, but like everyone else at the time. we had no real experience in these things because they were so new. We immediately ran into  a problem: there were no prices marked or listed. We called a salesman over, and noticed he was wearing a suit, which we took as a possible sign of either high prices, pretentiousness, or both.

He confirmed that the prices were not on display, because “it doesn’t work that way.”

“So, how does it work? Charades?”

“Different models have different features and are best for different uses.”

“It’s a video recorder,” I said. “What else can you use it for…a doorstop?”

“Well, you might record frequently or sporadically. You might record to build an archive of movies or programs, or you might record as a way to watch programs the next day. You might rerecord over and over on the same tape.”

“Well…”

“You tell us how you plan to use the VCR and we will determine exactly which model best suits those requirements. Then we can talk about price.”

“I can’t just buy the cheapest and see how it goes?”

“No. We will determine which VCR is best for you.”

“But I have never had a VCR. I really don’t know exactly how I will use it yet. If the price isn’t right, I don’t want one at all.”

“We can discuss your preferences for what you watch now and come up with ways to use your new VCR to enhance the experience. Then we will be able to determine which model is best for you.”

“Or…I could go somewhere that doesn’t treat prices as a state secret. Thanks for your time.”

The place was out of business within six months. They had a hot new product, but found a way to make it hard for customers to buy it. If they had simply offered the sales consultation as an option, that would have been a good feature for some people, but making it the only way to buy was a huge turn off for the casual buyer.

What were they thinking?

The writing “process”; examining the holy relics

There is probably no human endeavor that bestows a higher level of prestige for a lower level of actual accomplishment than writing. Even people who have never read anything beyond their grocery list or the TV listings are often in awe of even the most obscure scribbler.

“Ooooh; you’re a writer? Hey, Mabel; come take my picture with this guy!”

Even in this era of self-publishing, when even somebody who couldn’t write a coherent ransom note can get into print, writing has a mystique as some higher calling. This mystique manifests itself in various ways, but one of the strangest, at least in my opinion, is a fascination with the so-called writing process. People seem to be absorbed with the minutia involved with pounding a keyboard. How many hours a day do you write? Do you write in the morning or afternoon? Do you have a special place, or can you write on a bus?

A lot of this, of course, is just a healthy curiosity about a field that, for many who dreaded having to crank out a book report when they were in school, is another world. The strange thing, however, is how often actual writers ask these questions. I have attended a few writing conferences in the past several years, and they usually offer some good up-to-date information on marketing, trends, and news. Many of the sessions, however, seem to be agonizing discussions of the writing process. Exactly how should you outline, and in what format? Should you write one chapter at a time? Should you set a daily quota of words or pages written? How about critique groups? How does J.K. Rowling do it? The implication seems to be that if you adapt these “correct” methods, and follow in the footsteps of more famous writers, your writing will improve dramatically. It’s like the role played by holy relics in the early days of the church, when, say, St Peter’s sandals were assumed to have the power to inspire or heal.

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A great example of this idea is when Adrian Conan Doyle wrote a followup to the Sherlock Holmes stories his father made so famous. The preface to the book assures us that Doyle used the same desk his father used to create the original stories and that he was surrounded by the same objects that his father handled. My reaction was a hearty “so what?”. Desks and objects don’t have any writing talents to impart to anyone who doesn’t have talent to begin with. How successful Doyle’s efforts were depended on him, not the objects.

Much of this is interesting in an academic sort of way, but any author that tries to copy either the conventional wisdom, or the methods of some well-known writer is doomed to disappointment. Moving to Maine will not make you Steven King, any more than writing with a quill pen will make you Charles Dickens, or wearing a white suit will make you Mark Twain. A writer has to do what works best for him or her. It might resemble how some big-time writer works, or it might not. You may work best in the middle of the night, or while watching Jeopardy, or at the beach, or while wearing a lucky hat. If it works for you, who cares? It’s the end product that counts.

Writing is not like repairing a computer or removing an appendix, where there is one specific, proper way of doing it. Different things work for different people. Don’t try to imitate someone else; write so that they might one day want to imitate you.

Decisions

When you come right down to it, life is about decisions. We are constantly deciding on a course of action, and dealing with the results. Many decisions are simple; what socks do I wear today? When do we have dinner? Some decisions are harder because we have limited information. Which movie do we see if they are both new and unreviewed? Some decisions are harder because the consequences of a wrong decision are great. What should my major be in college?

We tend to think that when we make a decision, it is either the right decision or the wrong one. The most difficult decisions, however, do  not have a “right” course of action; both alternatives are undesirable and fraught with danger hardship and uncertainty. In my just released eBook, The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero, one man faces just this sort of gut-wrenching decision.

Spaniard Gonzalo Guerrero comes to the New World in 1511 seeking his fortune, but a storm shipwrecks him among the mysterious Maya. He struggles to survive and come to grips with this alien civilization that has highly developed writing, mathematics, building and astronomy, but which is constantly at war and practices grisly human sacrifice and even cannibalism.  He knows he is far from home and farther from any hope of rescue, so he slowly adapts and learns the language, but he still yearns for Spain. Then he meets Zazil Ha, an extraordinary woman who captures his heart. As he rises in Mayan society, he is able to marry Zazil Ha. Within a few years they have three children and life is good. Guerrero no longer thinks much about his former life. This is his world now.

Then the Spaniards arrive, bent on conquest and Guerrero’s world is shattered. What should he do? Should he abandon his Mayan family and return to the land of his birth? Could he betray people who, whatever their faults, have come to trust and depend on him? He can’t uproot his new family and take them to Spain, where they will be a curiosity at best, and the subject of suspicion at worst. Should he stay, only to watch the Spaniards overrun his new home? Guerrero is caught between the land of his birth and the woman of his heart. There are no good alternatives.

He decides to stay and to use his knowledge of Spanish ways and tactics to help the Mayans resist the Spanish invasion. Twice the Spaniards send messengers and twice he refuses. The man who a few years earlier just wanted to go back to Spain becomes a renegade.

It’s an amazing true story of a man who must decide between very bad alternatives and then live (or die) with the result.

Here is the video trailer for the book.’

Extras, extras; read all about it!

Writers tend to travel a lot. They go for research, relaxation, book promotion, and to attend conferences. One of the great things about traveling is how educational it can be. For instance, we recently learned that a seemingly brand new bottle of soft drink requires historic preservation! Who knew? We also learned that we were expected to subsidize these efforts.

Mark this under “Truth is stranger than fiction…and usually more expensive”. It has to do with the never ending search for squeezing a few more bucks from the consumer. This time by the travel industry.

When hotels want to charge more, but don’t want to scare travelers away with higher rates, many are taking a tip from the airlines and making up the difference with add-ons, fees, and hidden charges for things any normal person would assume were included. For instance, you’d think that the cost of the hotel includes use of the pool, but many hotels are now charging a “resort fee” on top of the room cost. Whether or not you actually use the pool doesn’t matter. This is like a movie theater charging an entertainment fee on top of the ticket cost. Strangely, the more expensive the place is to begin with, the more creative they seem to be with extras. Cheaper hotels are far more likely to include parking, WiFi, and breakfast in their room rates than their more expensive sisters.

We recently saw extras raised to an art form when we visited a well-known out of state resort/conference hotel. In addition to the already pricey room rate, the place charged a $39 resort fee and a 6% historic preservation fee. These fees were added to everything, even to a bottle of soft drink, leaving us to wonder just how old that bottle actually was, and exactly how they were preserving it.

“Historic” bottles?

With these extra add-ons, a room advertised for, say, $300, will actually set you back $355 (plus state taxes of course) They also add a 20% gratuity to your restaurant bill “for your convenience” and, just in case you have any money left at this point, provide a line on your bill for any extra gratuity you might be itching to part with.

So if you travel for whatever reason, keep your eyes open and ask lots of questions about what is included  before booking a room, or a flight, or a cruise, or anything related. Add up the extras before you commit. Hit the road, but don’t get taken for a ride.

The Blessings of Socialism

I think it was P.J. O’Rourke who, writing of the relative backwardness of East Germany, asked what sort of a system is so bad it can make a nation of Germans unproductive. Well, East Germany is just a bad memory now, but there is one artifact that gives a pretty good idea of just what socialism did to that country.

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. has a section of the Berlin Wall on display, and with it, a concrete East German guard tower. The idea of the tower, of course, was to give guards a vantage point from which they could shoot anyone trying to escape the “worker’s paradise” and get to West Berlin. The tower is about three stories high and has three levels inside until you get to the top level where the guards are stationed, but here is the telling detail; there are no stairways!

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Berlin Wall-East German side: drab gray concrete for a drab gray regime

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Berlin Wall-West German side: Graffiti and artwork

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East German guard tower with no stairways

No stairways? Then how do the guards get to and from the top level? Well, the procedure was for an officer, or sergeant to accompany each shift change and bring a ladder. He would escort the next shift up to the top one floor at a time, then pull the ladder up and place it to get to the next floor. He would bring the previous shift down the same way in reverse. That way, the men in the tower were stuck there until the next shift.

Why go to all that trouble?….to keep the guards from defecting!

Imagine a system so vile, so oppressive and so dysfunctional that even the guards could not be trusted to tolerate it. That’s communism/socialism for you; it’s not so much a worker’s paradise as a worker’s penitentiary.,

The Critic is your friend (…sort of)

There are many people in this world who have great writing ability, but are unsuited to ever become writers.

What?

That’s right. Because to be a writer, you have to be able to take rejection and criticism. Many would be writers wither at the first rejection or the first encounter with someone who is unimpressed with their work, but this is a mistake. Critics and unfriendly reviewers can be you friend if there’s any sort of consensus. For instance, if just about every review mentions that your characters are wooden, or maybe that you write too much description, you might want to take notice and work on that part of your craft. They can’t ALL be wrong; listen to them.

On the other hand, many one-off comments can be safely ignored with the understanding that if there was anything to it, almost everyone would be saying it. Every writer learns to shrug off frivolous rejection and criticism. After all, even popular works have their critics because different people have different tastes. I once got two rejection letters from two publishers on the same day; one said the work was too unconventional and the other said it was too “mainstream”…and they were professionals!

So some unhappy readers are inevitable, and an unhappy reader is usually the most eager to make his displeasure known on Amazon or some similar public forum. Here’s a little secret that might make it easier: some criticism is worthless and you will never understand it. Here is a case in point….

I haven’t had very many bad reviews, and they are usually of the vague “I didn’t care for it” variety, but recently, I got one that mystified me.

My book The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero has a couple of good reviews, one of which said the book was “brilliant” and “moving” in its depiction of a Spaniard shipwrecked among the Maya and later forced to choose between his Mayan family and the country of his birth. Another said it was “A solid and imaginative story that opens a window onto a vanished civilization.”

But one review rated the book only two out of five stars and said it was “juvenile”, “implausible”, and “politically correct” without giving any actual examples. All right, so he didn’t care for the book; that’s his privilege and you can’t please everyone, but juvenile? The book depicts, among other things, sex, bloodshed, epidemic disease, human sacrifices, treachery, warfare, a rape scene, and slavery. Its characters grapple with culture, religion, duty, loyalty, and the necessity of making hard choices in an imperfect world. Is that what passes for juvenile these days?

As for being implausible, that might possibly apply to various specific actions or plot twists, but the overall plot is based on a true story, and follows the recorded events very closely. If the book is implausible, then so is life.

Finally, we have politically correct. Well, one theme of the book is that the Spaniards were pretty callous and ruthless towards the Indians they conquered, but that is something that is pretty much accepted nowadays. At the same time, I depicted the Maya as advanced in many ways, such as astronomy, mathematics, and writing, but I also showed their  brutality, human sacrifices, constant bloodletting, superstitions, and incessant warfare. At one point, a Spaniard says in exasperation, “Peace? These people have never known peace. When they are not trying to kill us, they are killing each other.” In short, the book never shows a simple view of evil Europeans oppressing saintly and virtuous Indians, so I’m not sure where the political correctness comes in.

So if you are an author, pay attention to your critics….if they are specific, and if they actually make sense.