What you need to be a steamboat pilot

by Gumbo on May 6, 2017

One cannot easily realize what a tremendous thing it is to know every trivial detail of 1200 miles of river, and know it with absolute exactness.  If you’ll take the longest street in New York, and travel up and down it, counting its features patiently until you know every house and window and lamp post and big and little sign by heart, and know them so accurately that you can instantly name the one you are abreast of when you are set down at random in that street, in the middle of an inky black night, you will then have a tolerable notion of the amount and the exactness of a pilot’s knowledge who carries the Mississippi River in his head.

And then, if you will go on until you know every street crossing, the character, size, and position of the crossing stones and the varying depth of mud in each of these numberless places, you will have some idea of what a pilot must know in order to keep a Mississippi steamer out of trouble.

Next, if you will take half of the signs in that long street, and change their places once a month, and still manage to know their new positions accurately on dark nights, and keep up with these repeated changes without making any mistakes, you will understand what is required of a pilot’s peerless memory by the fickle Mississippi.  I think a pilot’s memory is about the most wonderful thing in the world.

— Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain

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Food Lion, Scaggsville, Maryland

by Gumbo on June 14, 2016

I was at a little Food Lion buying some cat food at the self-checkout. Suddenly I heard a lady start yelling. There, in checkout aisle #1, a white woman in her late 20s or early 30s — look up “trailer trash,” and her picture truly would be there — was screaming at the top of her lungs at a black woman, who was maybe in her forties or 50s (and, I might add, well-dressed; she might have been coming from work). 
White bitch (since that’s what she was) had her face about a foot from the black lady’s face, and she was screaming something about her taxes “are going to pay for your ass” forever. This went on for about a half-minute, then she left in a huff.
 So everybody just froze. The checkout girl (who looked like she was too young to have that job) just looked scared, and kept ringing up the black lady’s order. The black lady looked at me with a little smile and shook her head. A young white woman in scrubs stopped as she approached the other self-checkout, arms full of groceries, her mouth open. “Oh my GOD,” she finally said. And burst out with nervous laughter.
 I wish I had done one (or both) of two things. First — I wish I had pulled out my phone and held it up. I wasn’t going to film White Bitch, but it would’ve been nice for her to think she was being filmed.
 Second – I wish I had said something. Like, “Calm down and go home, cupcake. You missed your meds.” Oh — she was no threat. If she had touched me, there were a half a dozen witnesses to give statements to the cops. Including the black lady. I’m sure the manager, at the counter behind me, was already calling Howard County Police, who were literally two blocks away.
 Incidentally, this little incident was exactly like a video that went viral recently — a white woman in a Wal-Mart (LOL) was yelling at a young white man on food stamps who was shopping with his child. It was so similar it was uncanny.
 Anyway, I went home angry at myself for doing nothing. And decided that if Elon Musk wants to put together a one-way trip to Mars, and they need a woman in her 60s — I’m game. Totally serious.
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Titanic of 1997

by Gumbo on October 3, 2015

I finally watched Titanic. Four observations, if I may.

(1) I could’ve done without the Cal character. I know they wanted that conflict but the Titanic presented enough of a challenge to everybody, and he was just a jerk getting in the way. In fact, it was unrealistic because NOBODY is that much of a jerk; I kept thinking of the moustache-twirling cartoon character Snidely Whiplash, giggling fiendishly while tying Nell to the train tracks.

For that matter, the whole Jack-Rose thing was unnecessary (as Night to Remember proved), but at least they were believable and interesting to watch.

(2) I could have listened to “old Rose” for another half hour. Drop Cal, give me old Rose. Better yet, drop Cal, and give me more Thomas Andrews, Wally Hartley, and old Rose. Enough story there to drive the entire film, and no jerks.

(3) And most disturbing — I *really* hated Cameron’s Captain Smith. An ineffectual, impotent, paralyzed man. I really liked the Captain Smith of A Night to Remember — constantly trying to get the Californian’s attention, never giving up until the very end (“God help you.”) Maybe Cameron’s decision to leave out the Californian was not such a good idea — Smith had absolutely nothing to do in this film except walk around looking like he’d gotten into Charles Joughin’s booze supply.

(4)The breakup at the end was more realistic than NTR. The effects were great; someone said that this film cost more to make, even in constant dollars, than it took to build the actual ship. Probably true. Should have given more money to the writers — or hired some.  (And the shipbuilders could have given more money to the folks building the watertight compartments. Ah well).

All in all, other than the fact that the great ship had a supporting role, I don’t see what the fuss was about. Run of the mill disaster film. 3/5, for Gloria Stuart, special effects, cinematography, and soundtrack.

(RIP James Horner, one of my favorites — some of the track had echoes of Apollo 13, also from him).

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The RMS Titanic

by Gumbo on September 27, 2015

A few weeks ago, I saw A Night to Remember, the 1958 film adaptation of Walter Lord’s book of the same name.  All about the RMS Titanic.  I’d seen the film before when I was a kid (probably on TV, although I’m not sure) and I don’t know what possessed me to get the DVD from Netflix.  As usual, it sat on my desk for months before I finally played it.

I was bowled over by this movie, and have been obsessed ever since.  I’ve joined Titanic enthusiast groups on Facebook; I’ve already read about three books; I’ve fallen in love with Wallace Hartley, the intrepid bandleader on the ship who, with his mates, played until the very end.

And then I looked at all the underwater footage.  And my heart broke, yet again.

Here’s a partial explanation of the ship’s allure, at least for me.

  1. There’s the magnificence of the ship, of course; fatal design flaws aside, she was absolutely gorgeous.
  2. There is the way the “classes” were segregated (apparently a necessity, due to U.S. immigration laws), and the way they were treated during the evacuation– which was atrocious, but again, a sign of the times, a historical fact.
  3. There was the “new-century” optimism that with Edward VII on the throne, airplanes, motorcars, electricity, phones, “wireless”, discovery of viruses, etc. etc., humans could conquer anything.  But then there was the violence of the final sinking, as if some great god had shouted “Oh YEAH? Well, hold my beer and watch THIS,” and snapped the ship in two as if she were a plastic model – likely due to the aforesaid design flaws, caused by the arrogance and cost-cutting of the people who built her.
  4. After the disaster, so much in the world changed in how we approached the sea — we now have the SOLAS Convention and the USCG flies the Ice Patrol to this day.  I mentioned it to a Coastie I know, and he said, “Yep, still do it.  All by air, of course.”  Of course.
  5. Finally, it was one of the last gasps of hope and “greatness” before the trenches, chemical warfare, and horror of World War I.

All this — and I haven’t even mentioned the fascinating individual stories of the 2200+ people on board that ship, and on her rescue ship, the Carpathia.

I don’t know how to separate the wreck from the people, and both from the times.  The wreck site is not just a shipwreck and a graveyard, it’s a museum, and I wish there were some way to preserve it as such.  Since there probably isn’t, I wish Dr. Ballard had never found it.  The fact that we found it — but can’t save it  — is yet ANOTHER testament to our helplessness.

And as a footnote, it didn’t escape my notice that Ballard found the Titanic right after he found the pieces of the submarine Thresher.  (In fact, the search was classified at the time, and the Navy put out the story that Ballard was in fact looking for the Titanic.)  The Thresher disaster was an accident that happened when I was 9 years old — and it scared the pants off me.  I had nightmares for weeks after that happened.  I’m glad that nobody told me at that time about “exceeding test depth” and how those 129 people died — truly, “submarine sank and couldn’t be saved” was horrific enough for my young imagination.

Yes, we went to the moon.  Yes, Curiosity and Opportunity are wandering around Mars (with Spirit having lasted longer than she should have).  Yes, we snapped cool pictures of Minor Planet Pluto — who wasn’t even known yet when the Titanic sank.  Yes, we have the Internet and can share cat videos and GIFs of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  But when all is said and done, when we can’t even preserve a valuable piece of history right here on our own planet — the Titanic screams at us, yet again, from two miles down — that we’re really not all that, after all.

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I won NaNoWriMo

by Gumbo on December 5, 2014

I managed 50,000 words for Sparrows Falling, in some kind of order.  It ain’t pretty, but it’s a win.  Now the fun part starts.

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Saving Private Ryan

by Gumbo on November 9, 2014

So about two years ago (it was December 2012) I received two DVDs from Netflix.  One was Shawshank Redemption.  The other was Saving Private Ryan.

I held on to both movies for. . . . a long time.  I finally watched Shawshank after about a year — loved it — it’s one of my favorite Stephen King stories.  Sent it back to Netflix.

I finally got around to watching Saving Private Ryan tonight.  It was massively disturbing, and haunting, but a solid five stars in my book.  The only thing that mystifies me, after watching it, was ABC’s decision to air the whole thing, uncut, on Veterans Day in the early 00’s.  No cuts or edits for language or the horrendous violence.  From Wikipedia:

A total of 65 ABC affiliates—28% of the network—did not clear the available timeslot for the film, even with the offer of The Walt Disney Company, ABC’s parent, to pay all fines for language to the Federal Communications Commission.

Two comments about that.  First, the notion that Disney, in the early 00’s (under the late reign of Michael Eisner) took a courageous stand that put honor before money, is mind-boggling to me.  Second –it is mystifying to me that the FCC might care more about “language” than  the copious amounts of guts and blood flying around in that movie.

In the end, however, no complaints were lodged against ABC affiliates who showed Ryan, perhaps because even conservative watchdogs like the Parents Television Council supported the unedited rebroadcast of the film

Tom Hanks rocks, also.  I guess Netflix can have their movie back.


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Sparrows Falling is IT

by Gumbo on November 3, 2014

This will be my NaNoWriMo book. And I’m having a great time with the Eridanians– I just came up with a cool character, who stepped in right out of the blue. That happened with my book last year, too. It’s amazing.

Now, if the damn NaNoWriMo site would just quit with the 404 errors every time I try to update my totals — that would be really, really swell.

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Novel — Done. Published. Check.

by Gumbo on October 19, 2014

My 2013 NaNoWriMo book, Banish Level 3, is done.  First novel published, although it isn’t really the first novel I’ve “done.”

I have two more in various stages of completion.  Sparrows Falling [working title] is stuck on being about 2/3 done.  I’m having a vicious internal debate over how to end the damn thing.  This is a “Jesus” novel that has been in the works since 1995, and was actually finished at one point (under a different name) and actually had an agent, but it didn’t sell and I pulled it and began totally reworking it in 2002 or so.  Only a few things survive from that earlier effort, the main thing being the setting.  It is set around my favorite planet, besides Earth:   Jupiter.

The Awesome Army of Phat, a YA novel set in New Orleans, is about 1/2 done.  I started writing this for a Writer’s Digest novel writing class, and the instructor (a published author) thought that it had great promise and urged me to finish it.  I have the beginning and end finished, but have to fill in the middle.  I really should do that one next, but I dunno.

As for past books, I wrote a very odd book called The Ministry of Defense , best described as “feminist sci-fi”, which I finished sometime in the late 90’s or early 00’s.  It’s not ready for prime time, although I think it has some promise, if I ever turn back to it.

My very first, halfway decent novel, was Buzzard Point.  it was written in the early 90s — back when I actually worked at Buzzard Point, DC, while in the Air Force.  (This was so long ago that it was on a 1.8 mb disc and I had to actually buy an “A:” drive from Amazon to get to it. )  It is a YA sci-fi novel, written in Word for Windows or whichever version of Word was being used with Windows 3.1.  I had so totally forgotten about it, that when I found it and started reading it, I had to read through the whole thing to see how it ended.  It too has a lot of promise, although  not ready for prime time.

Then there was a totally forgettable thing that I wrote in the early 80s.  I don’t even remember the name.

Then — there is a book that hasn’t been started, which I really should do.  In fact, I’m thinking about doing it for NaNoWriMo 2014, although it’s not a novel.  It’s more like a memoir.  Its working title is Looking for Ruby.  It deserves its own blog post; I’ll write about it later.

But BL3 is a done deal….. I would be honored if you would check it out.

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Razzleberry Redux

by Gumbo on July 7, 2014

I was goofing off, surfing around, and read the Wikipedia article on Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.

I found out why the songs were so spectacular.  The songwriting duo — Julie Styne and Bob Merrill — went on almost immediately to write the the music for Funny Girl.

In fact, get this (from Wikipedia and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer):  

[Christmas Carol] Producer Lee Orgel heard Styne playing the piano. He thought the song was sensational and asked if it was a solo for Magoo’s Scrooge. Styne and Merrill told him it was for “Funny Girl.” It was ‘People’. which would become a huge hit for Barbra Streisand.

ROFL, as they say.  But you know — the song would have fit nicely in Dickens’ story.

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All thumbs — literally

by Gumbo on July 6, 2014

My book, Banish Level 3, is done.  It’s been through two rounds of professional editing and two beta readers.  A professional artist is working on the cover.

The editor suggested that I submit it to an agent.  I really didn’t want to do that.  My whole idea was to go independent, and never have to wait for anybody to make a decision on my future.  The book would stand, or fall, on its merits.

But I decided to submit it to one agent.  (I’m still pursuing the cover — knowing that the agent would reject it. )

I was typing my query to the agent I selected, and while typing, I hit the space bar.  The message was sent.  Of course, the e-mail wasn’t finished yet, and I was mortified.  I sent another quick e-mail explaining to the agent what had happened, feeling like an idiot.  He responded this morning, very nicely saying that he would disregard that e-mail, and would wait for my real query.

I probably won’t submit a real query.  I think this is a wakeup call that  I’m not cut out for this process.  I’m just going to publish the book, put a link here, and forget about it.

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Is this a mental disorder?

by Gumbo on June 13, 2014

So I’m sitting in the vet’s office, waiting to have my dog’s ear re-checked.  This vet always has the National Geographic channel on — and it’s always the absolutely most disturbing nature videos.  And of course, I’m a captive audience.

On this occasion, they were featuring predators.  Most of the footage was predictably vicious.  But then they showed what happens when a shark attacks a water bird — looked like a cormorant — who was just sitting on the surface of the water, minding her own business.

The shark didn’t get hold of this bird right away.  The bird was trying to fly away, but couldn’t get her wings going fast enough.  The shark finally got a grip on the bird’s feet, and the bird gave one last attempt to fly — she raised her head up and let out a desperate cry, before the shark pulled her under.

I cringed, actually cried out (fortunately, nobody was around me), turned away, started crying, and I was totally frozen, hoping that nobody tried to talk to me until  I recovered.  How would I explain myself?

I’m crying now, just writing about it.

What happened to that bird, happens every day, millions of times a day, out in the real world.  Why the hell does it affect me so horribly?  Is this a mental disease?   What the fuck is wrong with me?

What the fuck is wrong with National Geographic, showing that shit on TV?

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Am I really a writer now?

by Gumbo on April 8, 2014

My little novel (54,000 words) is now in two places:  it’s with a professional editor (who is also a published writer), and with a professional cover designer.  Once they work their magic, I will have to get it up on Amazon as an e-book.  I do not want to do the “send to agent/ wait for reply/ send to another agent/ wait for reply/ send to publisher/ wait for reply” — all the while getting rejected by all of them.  Life is way too short.

The novel is called *BANISH LEVEL THREE.*  It is YA (14-y/o protagonist), takes place in the future, and has time travel — so it’s sci-fi, I guess.

It was my 2013 NaNoWriMo “winner.”  I want to have a book on Amazon.  I want to be a published writer.  And as Hugh Howey has proven — self-publishing is doing just fine, thank you very much.

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Razzleberry Dressing

by Gumbo on January 6, 2014

So. . . I was playing around with my iPhone and I got the idea, out of the blue, to see if iTunes had Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.

That was one of those shows, like A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Wizard of Oz, that ran like a thread through my childhood.  It was a big event when these shows were broadcast on one of the three channels.  And then you had to wait another year to see it again.  Good Lord — how did we ever survive?

So. . .there it was in iTunes.  I was on wi-fi, so I downloaded it –700 mb — and then immediately started watching it.  And sat there — motionless — in my chair, and watched the whole thing from start to finish.  Mouth agape.

The first thing I noticed was how lovely the colors were in the show.  Christmas Carol was copyright 1962 (and 1990) and we had a black-and-white television during most of the 60’s, but I must’ve seen that show in color, at some point.  Or maybe they enhanced the color in the 1990s.  Whatever, it was as if I’d never seen it in color — the effects people and animators did a really good job.  Even the shading in the cemetery at the end was gorgeous.

The second thing was this:  this little show was support for the proposition that it doesn’t matter if the animation is primitive — as long as the story is solid, nobody is going to care.  The Simpsons and The Flintstones and The Bullwinkle Show also proved that; this was just one more notch in that wall.

The final thing– and the thing that made me sit, unmoving, for the whole 52 minutes — were the songs.  Especially the ones from young Ebenezer and Belle.

Memories from my childhood came rushing back, and by the end, I was crying like a baby.  Not just for the things that Katrina flooded, ruined, and washed away — like my church, my school, and my high school.  But — for the relentless hourglass of time, like the one with which the Witch of the West threatened Dorothy.  It slips away.  And ain’t a damn thing any of us can do about it.  Charles Dickens knew this; hell, Lescaux cavemen knew it, for Pete’s sake.  The substance of Dickens’ perfect little  story — which, even though it pretends to be all Christmas-y and happy, is fundamentally sad — resonates with me now, even if it was just a good Christmas story back when I was 10 years old.

Because, in the end, the kid that watched those shows every year- -with so much promise — is SO dead and gone.  Yes, things turned out okay.  But I’m 60 years old now, and as much an old fart as Scrooge OR Marley.

In the words of the immortal Mr. Vonnegut — so it goes.

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Ready to Go –Banish Level 3

by Gumbo on January 4, 2014

Banish Level 3 was my National Novel Writing Month effort.   (Yes, I “won.”  Yay.)  It is in much more “final” shape than Sparrows Falling — which isn’t even in first draft yet.

The protagonist is a 14-year-old boy, and there are two girls around his age as well.  So I suppose it is YA.  The main antagonists are adults, and there are other very important adults in the story, including one who is a sometime-viewpoint character.  I suppose that doesn’t take it out of YA, but I don’t know.

The current word count is 52,358.   Short for an adult novel, so — I’ll go with YA.  It might get a little longer, but I don’t think it will get up to 60 K.

It takes place at some point in the not-near future, and time travel is involved.  So it is also sci-fi.

I currently intend to self-publish; I do not want to go through all that send-the-manuscript-and-wait nonsense that is involved in getting an agent and getting published.   Life is too short.

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Fourteen Degrees Outside (Fahrenheit)

by Gumbo on January 3, 2014

With a windchill of 0.  In the backyard, it looks like about 6-8 inches of snow on a flat-roofed shed back there.

Thank goodness I took leave today.  Last thing I need is to be falling down and breaking a hip or something on 23rd Street NW.

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