Hero

All a father wants, I think, is to be a hero in the eyes of his children. I’ve tried to do this with varying degrees of success, but this week, I think I finally succeeded.

We upgraded the kids’ phone plans to unlimited data.

I didn’t get my first cell phone until I was twenty-five years old, in the spring of 1999. The reason I got one is because I had recently been hit by a truck on the side of the interstate after our car broke down. Before then I had got by just fine using payphones and land lines, which I just realized makes me sound really old. So I bought a Nokia 5160 (selling points included “three built-in games” and “clock with alarm”), tracked my monthly minutes on a piece of paper, and constantly checked AT&Ts map to see which states I had coverage in.

Ten years later in 2009, I got my first iPhone. The following year, Susan got one. Before the time Mason was out of grade school, he had one. Morgan’s in sixth grade now. She’s owned three.

I don’t remember how much my first monthly cell phone plan cost, but it’s done nothing but go up. When Susan got a cell phone, it went up. When we traded in our simple cell phones for smartphones, it went up. When Mason got a phone, it went up. When Morgan got a phone, it went up.

As of February, our base cell phone bill was $250/month, but that doesn’t include overage charges. With that plan, Mason only gets 3GB/month and Morgan gets a paltry 1GB. Each time they go over their limit, AT&T charges us an additional $10 and I do a lot of yelling. Last month our bill came to $310, and my throat hurt.

Enter Verizon, who last month announced a new four-phone unlimited plan. By the time I noticed it, AT&T decided to match the deal — four phones, unlimited minutes, unlimited data, for $180/month. They also expanded our coverage to include all of North America, including Canada and Mexico. All of that, and we’re saving $70-$130 per month.

And my kids think I’m a hero.

Saturated

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks diving into several of the “how to write” books, podcasts, and tutorials I’ve picked up and/or bookmarked over the past year. I read Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham, and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, and referenced Deborah Chester’s The Fantasy Fiction Formula for a novel I’m working on. I finished Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, and read a few chapters of Stephen King’s Dance Macabre (I’ve read King’s On Writing multiple times). I started reading Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and despite its tagline (“the last book on screenwriting that you’ll ever need”), I just ordered its two sequels.

I often compare writing to computers. To some people computers are simply magical boxes, but after you’ve worked on them for a while (and especially after you’ve assembled your first one), you quit seeing computers as a single unit and more as the collection of parts they really are. An empty computer case is little more than a paperweight, but once you’ve mounted a motherboard, added a processor and some RAM, connected a hard drive and run power to everything, you truly get a feel for how a computer works — how the components work together, and why each one is important.

And so it goes with writing, be it a novel or a screenplay. I’ve spent the past two years looking at stories, tearing them apart, and studying the pieces. One of the things we touched on again this week is the Hero’s Journey, a series of steps (or beats) that people have been using to tell stories for literally thousands of years. By studying centuries of stories, Joseph Campbell (in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces) gave each of those steps a name:

  1. Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting with the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection Hero
  12. Return with Elixir

And while some of the titles for each part may sound a little dated, it’s not difficult to take a movie like Star Wars, or The Wizard of Oz, or The Matrix and just go down the list and check each one off. Cross the threshold, Neo, and pick one of these pills.

Additionally, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat book proposes that there are, in fact, only ten different movie genres:

  1. MONSTER IN THE HOUSE: (Jurassic Park, the Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday the 13th )
  2. THE GOLDEN FLEECE: (Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Back to the Future, Finding Nemo, Saving Private Ryan)
  3. OUT OF THE BOTTLE: (Bruce Almighty, The Mask, Groundhog Day, Aladdin)
  4. DUDE WITH A PROBLEM: (Die Hard, The Hunger Games, Titanic, The Terminator, Bourne Identity)
  5. RITES OF PASSAGE: (Bridesmaids, Trainspotting, 28 Days, When a Man Loves a Woman)
  6. BUDDY LOVE: (Starsky and Hutch, Pretty Woman, Mr & Mrs Smith, Finding Nemo, Thelma & Louise)
  7. WHYDUNIT: (Citizen Kane, Chinatown, Despicable Me, JFK, Mystic River)
  8. THE FOOL TRIUMPHANT: (Elf, Forrest Gump, Amadeus, The King’s Speech, The Pink Panther)
  9. INSTITUTIONALIZED: (Full Metal Jacket, Nine to Five, Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
  10. SUPERHERO: (Harry Potter, The Matrix, Gladiator, X-Men, Spider-Man, Frankenstein)

Since Snyder published his original list, JD Scruggs added five subgenres for each genre.

If you’re wondering if this overload of knowledge makes it more difficult to enjoy books and movies, the answer is… “kind of”. Today I read a book or watch a movie, I can’t help but peek under the hood and look for the parts. When will the protagonist accept the call and cross the threshold? What will be the major setback that occurs right before Act III begins? While the right side of my brain may be enjoying the narrative story that’s being told, the left, analytical side is always looking at the underlying structure.

Harry Belafonte: A Glass Half Full

Wednesday evening, my Theories of Professional Writing class (along with approximately 1,000 other people) got the opportunity to hear Mr. Harry Belafonte speak about his life and thoughts about equal rights and the current state of politics.

I know Harry Belafonte largely as a singer and an actor, and for his work on 1985’s “We Are the World,” but I must admit, I wasn’t familiar with all the humanitarian and civil rights work Belafonte has been involved with. The 90-year-old Belafonte shared anecdotes about both John F. and Bobby Kennedy, and about the first time he met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Belafonte shared several stories about his time as an entertainer, but to keep things in perspective, he also reminded the audience that he returned home from World War II to a country where he was not allowed to vote.

In regards to President Trump, Belafonte said that while much of the country sees the proverbial glass as “half empty,” he sees the fact that many topics that were once only talked about behind closed doors are now being brought out into the open, the “half full” view. In regards to voting, Belafonte said those who don’t vote are only oppressing themselves. About education, Belafonte said “Reading is a gift. Knowledge is a defense against oppression. Make it your business to know.”

Despite the largely (I thought) positive message of Mr. Belafonte’s words, his appearance was not without controversy. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs referred to Mr. Belafonte as a radical leftist and released a press release protesting the event. Fortunately there were no protests at the actual event (it was cold outside).

Logistically it would be a lot simpler for me to complete my degree online, but by physically attending classes on campus opportunities such as this one occasionally present themselves. After doing more reading I can’t say I agree with everything Mr. Belafonte says and believes, but his message Wednesday night was one of education, equality and peace, three things I think the world could use more of right now.

Star Wednesday: One of a Kind Sign

One of the more interesting and occasionally frustrating things about Star Wars collecting is that sometimes you run across something that is as mysterious as it is enjoyable.

A few years back, a friend of mine who buys, fixes, and sells arcade games found this sign in a warehouse and gave it to me. He didn’t know anything about the sign’s history, and neither do I.

The sign is not actually blue. I took the above picture with the sign resting on the hood of my car. It’s actually clear plexiglass. Inspection of the artwork reveals halftone dots in a few places, so I know it was printed rather than hand painted. That being said, the yellow lettering across the bottom was obviously hand-drawn. The “O” in “FORCE” doesn’t match the “O” in “YOU” for example, and there are tiny mistakes inside several of the letters.

The appearance of a TIE Interceptor (rather than a normal TIE Fighter) leads me to believe this was made after Return of the Jedi was released in 1983. Other than that, it’s tough to date.

Seven holes have been drilled through the sign. It was mounted to something — what, exactly, I have no idea. The whole thing has been cut out. There are no stress or fracture marks around any of the angled cuts. It has all the hallmarks of being mass produced, except I can’t find anyone else who has one. Or has even seen one.

After a while, the wonder of “who made this?” and “what was it for?” goes away. The sign currently hangs on a wall above one of my computers, with tacks stuck through the pre-existing holes to hold it there. Thousands and thousands of different Star Wars products have been made throughout the years, so I’m always surprised when I run across something that someone felt the need to make. I enjoy the mystery of this sign as much as I enjoy the sign itself.

Stepping Into a Tiny Home

I have blogged about my infatuation with Tiny Homes before. I find the concept of paring down all of one’s material possessions and moving into a tiny home exciting and a little bit wacky. I know that a tiny home would not be compatible with my current lifestyle — I simply own too many things and love them all — but it’s still fun to dream about owning one.

This past weekend at the Oklahoma Home and Garden show, several local builders set up a Tiny Home Village consisting of half a dozen tiny homes for the public to inspect. I’ve seen hundreds of tiny homes on television, but this was the first time I ever step foot in one.

I don’t know who first said “the camera doesn’t lie,” but it does, almost every time. None of the pictures I took at the Grand Canyon or of the icebergs and glaciers of Alaska did those locations any justice. Cameras lie all the time. Anyone who has looked at a house online and then gone to see it in person can tell you that. Real estate agents know exactly how to make rooms look big, sometimes bigger than they appear in real life. Apparently, so do television crews.

The first tiny house I entered was 24′ x 8′. On television, each section of the home would have been presented individually. “This is the sitting room. This is the kitchen. Back here is the bathroom.” But once you’re standing inside one, you realize that they’re all kind of the same space. In that home, the living room was roughly 6′ x 8′. There was a plush chair and an end table and nothing else because there wasn’t room for anything else. The kitchen ran down both sides of the tiny home, with an aisle down the middle that led to the bathroom. The bathroom felt small, and it was empty. Based on the chalk outlines on the floor, it appeared the home owner could iron one’s clothes, cook eggs on the stove, and poop without ever moving.

Above the bathroom was the bedroom loft. Again, television wizardry has a way of making those lofts look more inviting than I felt as I stood before it. There was less head room than I had imagined. It was higher than I had imagined. The ladder was more steep than I ad imagined. Getting into and out of bed looked less fun than I had imagined.

Every time I’ve put a house up for sale, my real estate agent tells me to get it as empty as possible before showing it or taking pictures. People want to imagine their stuff (not yours) inside the home they’re buying, and empty rooms look bigger. Some of the tiny homes on display this weekend took that to the extreme and had “sheds on wheels” on display. One of them had no interior at all — just particle wood and a few pictures of what the space could look like. I already know what they could look like from watching television shows. It wasn’t until I stepped inside a fully furnished one that my brain realized why they call them “tiny” homes.

Susan’s favorite was this (relatively) large tiny home, made from a shipping container. It’s 40′ long and 8′ wide. Inside there was enough room for a bedroom, a kitchen, a dining area, and a nice sized bathroom. There was even an upstairs loft for a second sleeping area. The downside of the container-based tiny house is that it’s less portable than the trailer-built ones. Without wheels, moving this one involves a large flat bed trailer, so the intention is to drop it somewhere and let it sit.

I still love and will continue to watch tiny house television programs, and I would love to own one someday to act as a writer’s cottage or a lake house, but as for a primary residence… I think this weekend might have cured me.

Shadowlord Cards

Back when we were kids, my buddy Jeff had all the best board games: Crossbows and Catapults, Dark Tower, and this game from Parker Brothers, Shadowlord.

From what I can remember, Shadowlord was a bit like Monopoly set in space. Players moved around planets, built spaceships, and fought one other. The ultimate goal was to beat the Shadowlord, whose name is Starlord (no relation to Peter Quill). If you want to know more than that, here’s a link to the Cliff Notes version of the manual and here is the full manual. I’m not saying the game was complicated, but the last page of the manual says that due to the challenging nature of this complex game, players are free to call their 1-800 number for clarification of the rules.

While I don’t remember all the details of the game, what I strongly remember were the character cards that came with the game. There are four classes — masters, warriors, merchants, and diplomats — and each one has an associated number (8, 6, 3, and 0). Each player picks one master card. The other cards are drawn and acquired randomly throughout the game.

Each character class serves a different purpose. Warriors are important in battles, merchants allow you to draw more cards, and diplomats prevent your planets from being attacked. That being said, there’s no difference between cards with the same value. All fighters are the same, all merchants are the same, and all diplomats are the same. Their unique names and appearance make no difference in the game.

And yet to us, the different characters were everything! Who wanted to draw old man Kaare when you could get Viggo, a fierce lizard man! Again, within the confines of the game, there’s absolutely no difference between the two cards. They just as easily could have been plain white cards with numbers printed on them, but that would have been nowhere near as cool as these guys.

I have no idea who created the artwork for this game. The manual doesn’t mention anyone’s name, and the cards have a copyright of Parker Brothers printed on them. Best I can tell, none of the cards are signed; neither is the artwork on the box’s lid.

A few years after playing Jeff’s, I got my own copy of Shadowlord from a local discount store. The box had been opened, and when I got it home I discovered it was unplayable due to missing pieces. My mom took me back to the store and the teenage cashier let me combine two boxes into one, thus giving me roughly 1 3/4 copies of the game.

I have no interest in revisiting the game (nor do I have the time or patience to relearn all those rules!), but I recently had a strong desire to see those cards again. The scans I found online were small and incomplete. so I did what any (in)sane person would do — I bought a set of the cards off of eBay, and scanned them in.

The cards are roughly the size of playing cards, but printed on what feels like cardboard. Each picture was as great as I had remembered them, and as I thumbed through them I remembered recalled the dumb backstories we had created for some of them. Folke and Elayne were fraternal twins, the illegitimate offspring of the Air and Fire Masters. Or was it Selwyn? It’s been a long time.

If you want to download the complete set of cards, here you go: shadowlord_cards.zip

Right. Back to it.

After a month and a half off, today is my first day back to school.

At the graduate level, nine credit hours is considered full time enrollment. I’m taking ten in the form of Young Adult Fiction Writing, Writing the Screenplay, and Theories of Professional Writing. I have no idea if I can handle this much school in one semester while juggling things at home and things at work. It will be fun and exciting for us all to see what I fail at first.

Last semester I submitted roughly a dozen short stories to various online magazines and journals. It took a while, but the last rejection slip finally came in this past weekend, right around the time I got the bill for next semester. I hope all of the time and money invested in this dream pays off someday.

Coffee Mug Tree

Susan and I are the only two people in this house who drink coffee. Between the two of us, we own at least thirty coffee mugs. Because 2017 is The Year of Parting with Things, you might think donating a couple of those mugs would be an easy place to start. I went into the kitchen last week with every intention of picking out a couple of coffee mugs and getting rid of them. Instead I walked out of the kitchen and ordered a MyGift Vintage Rustic Brown Iron Mug Organizer from Amazon, because, and this should be obvious to everyone by now, I am batshit crazy.

Other than coffee, Susan and I occasionally drink hot tea. We also use coffee mugs once a year for dyeing Easter eggs, although I can’t imagine there are many years of that tradition left. Just to recap, on coffee days (when Susan and I both telework from home) we’ll use two mugs. On non-telework days, we’ll use none. We own thirty, and now fifteen of them are sitting on our counter, perched on top of a vintage rustic brown iron mug organizer.

And look how grand they look! The organizer holds fifteen mugs in all, and on it right now are half a dozen Star Wars mugs, a couple we got on vacation, and three my dad had custom made for me. If the mug holder has any drawback at all it’s that it doesn’t rotate. There are even more great mugs on the back side!

And you know what this is?

This is a line of ten sad, generic mugs that don’t even get a spot on the tree! If any mugs are going to get donated they will come out of this pile, except we will never get rid of them because a football team could show up unannounced and all order hot tea all at once.

Discussions are ongoing as to whether the blender and the coffee pot should trade places — after all, having the mugs next to the coffee pot makes sense. I suppose the mixer could be put away in a cupboard, which, now that I think about it, would make enough room for another vintage rustic brown iron mug organizer to hold all our other mugs! Why didn’t I think of that before?

In other news, The Year of Parting with Things is going great!

1,825 Things

What do a beat up Star Wars arcade cabinet, a toy telephone that utters horror phrases, and an old iPad case have in common? They are three of the twenty things I’ve parted with so far in 2017. If I get rid of five things a day every day this year, 5 x 365 = 1,825. Minus twenty, that leaves 1,805 to go.

Bill Clinton once famously said “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” and along those same lines, when you say you’re going to throw away 1,825 “things,” at some point you have to define what a thing is, even if it’s only to yourself. I’ve defined a thing as, well, a “thing.” A box of 100 paperclips is not 100 things. It’s one thing. If I were to throw a cake, I wouldn’t count the eggs, flour, and milk separately. This would never be a problem because I would never throw away an entire cake. Regardless, ask me again in November and I might be counting individual dried-up ink pens.

But even if I were to count those ink pens separately, I’d run out of them pretty quickly. I might be able to scrounge up a dozen dead pens, which would barely buy me two days. And technically, I’d be cleaning up my desk of dead pens. If you’re looking for 1,825 things to get rid of, they can’t all be Star Wars arcade cabinets.

Last night, I almost got ahead of myself and got rid of seven things instead of five. You gotta pace yourself, I thought as I left a spiral notebook and a pencil sharpener sitting on the dinner table overnight. First thing this morning I tossed them into the donate tub. Two things down, three more to go.

So far, the number of things I’ve tossed into the trash and the number of things I’ve donated are roughly equal. I don’t know if that ratio will remain the same throughout the year. I’m not really tracking it. I’m taking pictures of some of the more memorable items, like the Star Wars cabinet, but not things like dried-up pens.

Although most people say it takes twenty-one days to build a habit, after only five days I’ve found myself looking for things to get rid of in every room I enter. If I really do keep up this pace, I’ll run out of the easy things early on and may have to face more difficult choices later in the year.

Ten Resolutions for 2017

Later today I’ll be printing this list out and reading it twice a day, once every morning and once very night.

01. Watch one movie per week
Easily achievable (I watched 83 last year). Just like 2016, I’ll keep track of the movies on my Media List page. Additionally, I’ll write a sentence or two about each one.

02. Read one book a week.
Last year I averaged less than one book per month, so this will be a huge challenge. I’d like for the majority of these to be fiction, but I’m not setting that as a hard rule.

03. Exercise five times a week.
Thirty minutes, minimum. I’ve done it before. I need to make my health a priority in 2017.

04. Submit one piece of writing per week.
This stuff ain’t gonna publish itself. Depending on my college workload, this is one that could easily slip without regular effort.

05. Self-publish a book.
As of last night, The Collector of Collections is at 50,000 words. I’m still working on the book’s tone, but it’s getting close. It’s just a matter of working on it every day.

06. Submit a book to an agent.
I don’t believe in “only” self-publishing or “only” traditional publishing. Everything has its place, and this is something I would like to do.

07. Get rid of 1,825 things.
1,825 equates to 5 things a day, every day of the year. I started this last year, but got caught up in the picture taking/list making that I tend to get lost in. Whether or not pictures are taken and lists are made, five things are going in the garbage or a donation box every day.

08. Make $1,000 in sales.
I’m going to track my Patreon contributions more closely, along with my digital and traditional sales. $1,000 is a number I can achieve if I am actively working and trying to sell things.

09. Do one home improvement project each week.
A lot of these things are about self-improvement. I want to help out more around the house, too. I’m sure once Susan reads this she’ll have a list ready for me in no time.

10. Clean and reorganize my home office.
I have a fantastic home office area that is so cluttered that I’m embarrassed for even my family to see it at this point. It’s time to get that area set up and turned into an awesome workspace.

Honorable Mention

More podcasting.
The goal is somewhere between one show a week and one show a month. I’ll firm up the details on this in the near future.

More art.
I’m not sure what form it will take yet. This is really too ambiguous to list as a resolution as it stands.