Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The New Year

Some people look to the end of a new year and the start of another as a time of new beginnings.  To them, the new year holds infinite possibilites to correct mistakes of the past and move forward into new ventures.  I've never really followed that philosophy.  The difference between December 31st and January 1st is only one day.

This year, I get it.  With everything that's happened, 2014--especially the latter half--has been the worst year of my life.  I want to erase it from my memory.  I'm done with 2014.  I don't know what 2015 has in store for me, but whatever it is it cannot be worse than 2014.

I'm usually a nostalgic person.  I tend to look back on the past with rose-colored glasses and to focus only on the good things.  Not this year.  I'm staying up until 12:01 a.m. so that I can wave 2014 goodbye and tell it to get lost.

Here's to the future!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

New Year's Resolution--The End

It's not quite the end of the year but I've managed to accomplish my goal for the year!  I have completed 20 books this year!  In my youth that would have been no problem, a feat easily accomplished during the summer months.  But now as an adult, time is a scarce commidity so I feel very proud of myself.  If you want to check out the other books I've read, you can go here and here.

Four Boots is a book by Jeff Alt chronicling his journey with his wife along the John Muir Trail (JMT).  I fell in love with the idea of thru hiking the JMT this summer during the all too brief six weeks that I had off when Destree and I got a chance to take a few camping trips and a good hike.

Jeff started planning the trip for just himself witth no real purpose in mind--he just wanted to hike.  All of that changed when his brother-in-law committed suicide.  The simple hike turned into an opportunity to raise awareness for depression and to try and take away the stigma associated with it.

The book follows the pair day by day, as an experienced backpacker and his novice wife grieve for their loss as they take in the wonder around them.  Jeff shares their highs and lows, the triumphs and challenges as they make their way along the 221 mile trail.  In the end, they honor the life of a man taken too soon, have their own personal triumphs, and grow closer as a couple.

Reading Four Boots really cemented my desire to hike the JMT, and to do it while I'm still young.  My 26th birthday just passed.  (Backpacking gear would be awesome, in case you were wondering.  Or if you don't want to do that, the ads on my blog are there for a reason)  I've decided that I want to do the trail by the time I'm 30.  That gives me just a few short years to get my butt in shape and get on the trail.  Destree and I will be hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim in 2015 (more to come on that soon) which will help, but we certainly have more work to do to hike the JMT in one go.

Beowulf is considered the first true piece of English Literature.  There may have been others before it, but none have survived.  Heck, even Beowulf barely survived.  It's a work that's groaned about as high school English teachers tell their pupils to read it, but I think it's a blast to read.  One day I'm going to take the time to learn enough Old English (Anglo Saxon) to read Beowulf in its original language.

I love medieval literature because of the larger than life characters that populate it.  You have figures like Beowulf, Sigmund and Eigil whose exploits continue to influence and inspire modern authors.  Beowulf is so grandiose that I can't help but love it.

Beowulf is the ultimate hero's saga.  He travels far from home with a small band of warriors to do battle with an ancient monster, Grendel.  He rips Grendel's arm off and the creature dies.  All seems well until it's mother comes seeking vengeance.  She falls at the hands of Beowulf as well.  Beowulf leaves the kingdom a rich and honored man, his fame only growing.  Fast forward many years and Beowulf has become king in his own right and a dragon is terrorizing his people.  He takes a group of warriors with him to fight the beast, but he is the only one with the courage to fight.  Eventually one man comes to help the king, but Beowulf is mortally wounded while slaying the dragon.  It may sound like so many modern fantasy stories, but that's because it's the original work.

The other thing I find about Beowulf and other medieval epics is the blending of Christian and pagan elements.  The story of Beowulf is obviously one with pagan origins, probably dating to a time before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes journeyed from their Teutonic homelands to the British Isles, but they were an oral people.  It wasn't until their lands were "Christianized" that they were really introduced to writing by the Catholic educated priests.  So what we have with Beowulf is a Christian spin on a pagan work.  It shows the elements of paganism that still prevailed in England at the time.  It's a different way to look at the spread of Christianity, and I find it fascinating.

Just like Beowulf, Willa Cather's Death Comes to the Archbishop is another book that I've read before (though the similarities end there).  It was required reading in high school, and I think I was the only one who enjoyed it.

Recently, I was trying to figure out which book to pick up next, and oddly enough I was in a mood for a western.  I don't really own many westerns.  I have a book on Custer's Last Stand, but I was looking for a quicker, easier read.  So I settled on rereading Cather's novel--the first real novel I've read in quite some time.

The story centers on a French priest who has been serving in Ohio but is transferred to the Southwest.  America had just made great territorial gains and Manifest Destiny was in full swing.  The church saw it as an opportunity to reach the native peoples of these areas so they created a new Diocese for this French priest.  The book chronicles his interactions and efforts to bring the church to Native Americans and Mexicans while getting rid of any abusive, corrupt local priests.  Overall it's a fun look back into America's westward expansion from a more religious standpoint.

A War of Gifts is a novella penned by Orson Scott Card set during the events of Ender's Game.  The story focuses on a boy named Zeck.  His father is an abusive, tyrannical preacher who Zeck follows wholeheartedly.  Zeck's father preached pacifism, so Zeck refuses to fight at Battle School.

He feels that he is being singled out because of his extreme religious views, though all forms of religious expression are banned.  So when he sees two Dutch boys participating in a Sinterklaas tradition, he complains.  When that gets him nowhere he incites students of other religions to express their beliefs.  He turns a war of gifts into a divisive struggle between the students.  In typical Ender fashion, Ender comes in and saves the day by helping Zeck to realize his father's faults.  Zeck is still an outsider but he's a healthier child.

It's not the best work in the series but it was enjoyable.  I don't think I've read anything by Orson Scott Card that I haven't enjoyed.  Read the other books in the series first, but if you want another glimpse into the Ender's Battle School days, then pick up A War of Gifts.

Nearly every year since I was born, my Uncle Jeff gets me at least one book for Christmas.  In that entire time, I don't think I've received one bad one from him.  He was the one who got me into Ender's Game years before there were talks of a movie.  It was because of him that I fell in love with Asimov.  He initiated my fascination of Lovecraftian horror.  Without fail, whatever he gets me is gold.  So I have no idea why I wait so long sometimes to read what he gets me.

A year or two ago he gave me Kurt Vonnegut's Armageddon in Retrospect.  I had heard of Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse 5) and knew that he had a dark, satirical wit.  Again, no idea why I didn't read Armageadon in Retrospect sooner.

It is a collection of short stories about war, humanity, and how we as humans react to overwhelming atrocities.  Drawing from his experience as a soldier and prisoner of war in World War II, Vonnegut relays the horrific realities that man committed against man.  If everyone were to read his gripping accounts of what people saw and experienced during WWII, I think there would be less intolerance and more peace in the world.  I think the final lines of Wailing Shall Be In All Streets best sums up his poignant view on war--and is a great outlook on life, too.  "We accepted their congratulations with good grace and proper modesty, but I felt then as I feel now, that I would have given my life to save Dresden for the World's gnerations to come.  That is how everyone should feel about every city on Earth."

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Happy Holidays

So, I'm Christian.  During this time of the year I tell people "Merry Christmas."  But if they tell me "Happy Holidays," I'll tell it back to them.  Honestly, it doesn't affect me if someone prefers one or the other.  And if you want to tell me to have a happy Hanukkah," well good for you.  If you want to tell me to have a solemn Ramadan, I hope you have the same.  If you tell me to have a crazy Kwanza, you too (even though I still don't really know what all that entails).  And if you tell me to have a great Winter Solstice I will, and not just cuz it's my birthday.

What's my point?  I think people need to unbunch their panties when it comes to being so Nazi about they wish a good season upon someone's life.  So Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Solemn Ramadan, Crazy Kwanza, Great Winter Solstice, and whatever else may be important to you this time of year.

Yes, I understand that Christmas is about celebrating the birth of the Christ child in the tumultuous Middle East some 2,000 years ago.  But someone wishing me a "Happy Holidays" doesn't change how I celebrate and commemorate that momentous occasion.  After all, some of the most famous symbols of Christmas (the tree, Santa) heavily borrow from Teutonic paganism.  So why should someone saying "Happy Holidays" offend me?

Okay.  My rant is done.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

More Writing Stuff

Like so many who try their hands at writing, I started out with the dream of writing a best selling novel.  From a young age, that was the focus of any fictitious writing I set to paper.  But writing something that long can be difficulty.  It takes time and a lot of planning.  Very few people are able to sit down and pound out a halfway decent novel without first plotting out characters, setting, scenes, conflict and much more.  It's too easy to get distracted in the details or to surrender in the face of such a daunting task.

I never gave up on the idea of writing a novel, but I found myself focusing on shorter fiction.  I was able to complete a piece in a matter of days instead of having a barely started manuscript sitting around and gathering dust.

It's been about five years since I made that switch and in that time I've penned over two dozen pieces along with several scenes that can and will fit into novel ideas that I have.  As I'm reading through a book written to help writers plan and outline a book, I've realized the strengths and weaknesses that have come about from writing exclusively short works.

When you're confined to a few hundred or a few thousand words you have very little room for character development.  The characters you create don't have to possess much depth.  An undeveloped character will surprise the reader because they do not know what to expect out of him/her yet.  That can get old quickly in a novel-length work, but is perfectly acceptable in a short work.

Instead, the focus of a short piece of fiction is usually on the story itself.  Originality and surprise drive the reader to devour the story.  I feel that I've done a good job learning to craft a gripping plot, at least for a short work.  I may have to do a little work to adapt what I've learned to a longer piece, but the underlying ideas are the same.

What I feel weakest at, however, is character development.  In a short story, a single plot point is enough to drive a character for a few thousand words.  But for fifty or a hundred thousand words--you need someone more complex.  As I'm planning out the novel, I'm realizing how simple my characters are.  What drives them?  They are who they are for a reason, but what exactly are those reasons?

As I've asked myself these questions and I begin to explore them, I've began to add extra layers to each character.  I'm not finished yet, but it's a start.  And doing it now, before I've written the bulk of the novel, I'm saving myself so much hassle.  I'd have to rip up and rewrite a lot if I waited longer in the writing process.

I've also been realizing that my dialogue is a weak point.  My characters talk the way that I write.  That's wrong.  People rarely talk the way they write, and each character is different.  They each have their own unique voice, and I'm stifling them by making their dialogue indistinguishable from every other character.

When it comes to setting, I feel that I'm hit and miss.  Sometimes I do an okay job and other times I fail to draw the reader into the page.  I picture the surroundings in my mind and focus on moving the story along and forget some of the minor settings.  Do they matter?  Do add to the overall story or are they superfluous and occasionally distracting?  I'm not sure.

I am learning a lot by going through this book.  It's helping me to grow in my writing abilities and I'm only a fraction of the way through.  I recently finished the first draft of a short story (a hair over 5,000 words) that is loosely connected to the novel I'm writing.  As I go through some of the writing exercises I'm using this short work as practice.  I'm eager to go through and give it an edit, but I want to wait and read more before I make my first edit.  It'll take a while before it's truly finished, but at least it'll better (I hope).

I'm really excited for this literary journey that I'm on.  The goal is to have the first draft of the novel completed by this time next year.  Wish me luck!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Kriz-nan

I wrote this a few years ago and dug it up this past week.   Enjoy.



    The warm noisy inn was a pleasant respite from the cold cheerless path that had been the tree travelers’ only companion for far too long.  The heat emanating from the hearth called to them, but they needed ale, rooms, and hot food first.  They located the busy bar-maid and got her attention.
    Kriz-nan, the bearded barbarian from the north told her “We need three warm beds, three hot meals to fill our stomachs, and three tankards of your best beer to wash the food down.”
    She turned her head and shouted, “Toog, get these three beds and something to eat and drink on the double!”  He face returned to look at the travelers.  “And who might we be, wandering around these parts?  A dwarf, a wild-man, and a--” but before she could guess the identity of the final member of the trio, Kriz-nan interrupted her.
    “I’m no dwarf!”  He puffed up his chest before continuing, “I am Kriz-nan the Barbarian!”
    “Barbarian, huh?” the bar-maid replied.  “You look too short.  You’re about dwarf height.”
    “Oh, well, that’s because my shins are missing.  You see, I was fighting this dragon once, and he had this razor sharp tail.  I was distracted because I was helping some children escape the clutches of this evil dragon, when it caught me off guard and cut my feet off.  While I was down, it took a second swipe at me and cut of everything I had below my knees.  He thought I was helpless and grabbed me with his claws,” Kriz-nan was using wild hand gestures at this point, “and went to eat me.  But I was just playing the part of a nearly dead victim.  I thrust my sword up through the roof of his mouth and into that tiny brain of his.  I was able to sew my feet back with his sinews, but alas, I could not find my shins.  It’s the dragon’s fault that I look like a dwarf.”
    “And did you know,” interjected Danalgorn, son of Edagorn, before the bar-maid could tell them that she really didn’t care about any of what they were telling her, “that the word ‘dragon’ actually has its roots in the word ‘drakein,’ which means to see clearly.  And while I am certainly a man and I know that my appearance may seem to be wild, I am no wild man of the woods!  I am Danalgorn, son of Edagorn, a ranger who has come from the east.  Speaking of the east, did you know that--”
    The barmaid cut him off.  “Whatever it is, I can tell you right now that no, I do not know it.  Nor do I care.:  She turned to Marco, the final member of the trio.  “And who might you be, because whatever I’d guess, I know I’d be wrong and corrected.  So just spit out your whole life story so I can get back to work!”
    “Oh,” Marco said in his usual quiet voice, making the bar-maid strain her ears to hear.  “I’m just Marco the nearsighted hobbit archer.”
    “An archer, huh?  Never would have guessed it.  I would have thought a nose like that would make it hard to shoot properly.”
    Marco murmured a few names at the bar-maid that would have had all three of them kicked out of the inn if she’d have heard them.
    “What was that?  Couldn’t hear you above all this ruckus.”  She swept her arms around the whole room.
    “Oh, nothing,” he replied.  “Just that my nose does get in the way sometimes.”
    But before any more could be said, Toog returned to show them to their rooms.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Origins

Christmas.  Unless you're Ebenezer Scrooge, it's probably your favorite time of the year.  But how did Christmas as we know it come to exist?  What is it called Christmas?  Why is it celebrated on December 25th if we have no idea when Jesus was born?  Why do we exchange gifts?  Why is there an overweight old guy in Coca-Cola colors breaking and entering to give us presents and fill our stockings?  Why the heck is there a tree decorated with tinsel, lights and ornaments sitting in our living room?  It sounds like a tradition cooked up by a drunk frat house, not a sober family tradition to celebrate the birth of a Jewish Messiah 2,000 years ago in the tumultuous Middle East.

I like asking questions like those above.  I actually want to spend time next year researching many of the origins of Christmas traditions, particularly the pagan ones.  I think it will be fun to write and I hope it will be fun to read.  So if you're looking to shower me with gifts this season, I wouldn't argue for some reference material for the book.

So why is it called Christmas in the first place?  Christmas is a compound English word with roots going back over a thousand years.  Our current English word Christmas comes from the Middle English word Cristemasse.  And Cristemasse itself is a derivative of the Old English Crīstesmæsse , a word first recorded in 1038.  Crīst is an Old English translation of the Greek word Khrīstos(Χριστός--which we English speakers know as "Christ"), which comes from the Hebrew word Māšîaḥ(מָשִׁיחַ--which we English speakers know as Messiah) which means "anointed one."  The word mæsse comes from the Latin word missa.   Missa means "dismissal" and comes from the Latin phrase "Ite, missa est" which translates to "Go; it is the dismissal."  Over time the term missa (and later mass) came to denote the entire Eucharist service in the Roman Catholic Church.  So Christmas basically means "Christ's Mass," or a church service to celebrate God's anointed one.

But what about alternative name for Christmas?  How did "Xmas" come about?  Was it really done by baby-eating athiests to secularize a sacred Christian holiday?  No.

While it may now be used by people who want to take Christ out of Christmas or who are too lazy to type out all nine letters of the word, Xmas has it's roots in antiquity.  The initial letter of the Greek word Khrīstos (Χριστός) is chi (X).  So "Xmas" does keep "Christ" in Christmas.  And no, that's not some malarkey someone concocted to give legitimacy to "Xmas."  In Middle English we see Χρ̄es masse where "Χρ̄" is an abbreviation for Χριστός.

But Christmas has been known by other names throughout history.  The Anglo-Saxons typically referred to Christmas as "midwinter" for obvious reasons, though occasionally it was known as Nātiuiteð.  The word Nātiuiteð comes from the Latin nātīvitās, which is where we English speakers get the word Nativity.  Both the Old English Nātiuiteð and the Latin nātīvitās mean "birth."  In Old English the word Gēola--or Yule to our 21st century eyes--referred to time in December and January.  Over time it became nearly synonomous with the Christian celebration of Christmas.  The word "Noel" or "Nowell" entered English towards the end of the 14th century from the Norman aristocracy.  The Old French word noël or naël, words themselves derived from the Latin nātālis (diēs) "(day) of birth".

There you have it, a fun little lesson on the Etymology of Christmas and a few Christmas-related words.  Hoping to have a few more articles of this kind this month.  It's early in the season, but Merry Christmas!