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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Travel Advice: There are absolutely no absolutes

I hesitate to give travel advice.

I used give it. Heck, I used to serve it on platters. Oh, you’re going here? Bam! Here’s the list of must-sees, here’s where you’ll want to avoid. Go at this time, and save money by doing this and that. I heaved advice like I was throwing hay to livestock.

But over the years I’ve realized a couple things about travel, and more importantly, a couple things about giving advice that I should have learned long ago: aaaand I'll share those things in a second.  Before I do, I should say five years from now my opinions may change. But today, right now, here are three pieces of advice for people who might be planning a trip in the coming weeks, months or years.

TIP ONE: There are absolutely no absolutes!

 Wait, isn’t that an absolute? Doesn’t that mean. . . shuddup!
 Here’s one thing about travel I consider a fact: No two people travel the same way.

Some people want to do it cheap, some don’t. Some want a schedule. Some don’t. Some people believe the only way to see the sights and experience the culture is to spend a week/month/year doing so. Others feel sufficiently immersed in days/hours/few minutes. In my humble opinion, the right answer is entirely personal.
You can absolutely do Rome in a day, or you can do Rome in a week. Or you can spend a month and barely scratch the surface.

So take your time. Or don’t. Go at whatever pace you want and don’t feel guilty or superior about it. You didn’t see or experience a great deal more because you spent a week at Angkor Wat than the 
guy who spent a day.

That’s the beauty of travel.

TIP TWO: Not everyone speaks English, and that’s okay!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen travelers become frustrated in foreign countries when the person they’re speaking to doesn’t speak English. Remember, English is what you speak, not what they speak. It seems obvious, but it’s an easy thing to forget in the situation.

My advice: Don’t get frustrated when you have difficulty communicating in foreign countries. Just don’t. It’s not a big deal. So the meal you got wasn’t what you thought you ordered. Don’t worry about it. If you have urgent dietary needs, you’ll need to plan for those. Phrases like, “I will die if I eat peanuts. Are there any peanuts in this dish?” are phrases worth knowing cold if they happen to apply to you. If not, don’t worry about it. Learn a couple words, and hack your way through the rest with a smile (and a phrase book).

All will be fine.  If nothing else, you’ll return from your trip and blow everyone away with your charades skills.

TIP THREE: It’s easier to avoid trouble than it is to get out of trouble! 

 Eyes opened, folks. That’s it. Realize where you are. Walk with purpose. Be aware of your surroundings. Be aware of the people around you. It’s easy to get distracted in foreign countries. I’ve found myself in a number of shifty places, and while I’d never say you shouldn’t trust anyone, or that you should be afraid everywhere you go, I do suggest one rule: Trust your instincts when something feels “off,” and question your instincts when something feels safe.  

That’s all I got. What about you guys? Any universal travel tips? Any words of wisdom for people setting out for adventure this year?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

If you can't read faster than a cat . . . YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!

I took a speed reading course quite a while ago. I think I’d watched a movie where a character read books like the pages were on fire, and I had to give it a try. I have to admit, I am pleased with the results. No, I can’t scream though a book about quantum mechanics in a few minutes, and I’m not blasting through novel-length material in minutes either. But it did have a dramatic impact on my reading speed and I can comfortably get through most novels in a couple hours.

I’m not going to explain all the techniques I learned. I’m not qualified to teach it, and I am not sure I could condense the material into a few sentences :\. But if you take a course or two, I’ll say that the most helpful techniques I learned were: silent reading (how to stop saying the words in my head), and how using movement and peripheral vision can reduce eye-fatigue. Another thing I learned was that reading speed is a range. When you read technical material you go slower than if you’re reading a magazine article about the latest Hollywood breakup.  Knowing some techniques raises that range, but it’s always a range, so any test of reading speed is directly related to what you’re reading.

With that in mind, I don’t power through novels when I read them either. I like to spend a bit more time with the words. But magazine articles, or online opinion pieces I read to kill time whist waiting in a doctor’s office, those I can read pretty quickly. A couple times when a book was discussed in a book club, I did push myself to get it done on short notice, but I find I miss some of the intricacies of the language and some of the subtle plot points if I go too fast. Point is, it’s a useful skill, and I actually encourage people to learn a few of the techniques.

Just for kicks, here’s a link to a reading-speed test that you might find fun. I suggest approaching it the way you read a novel. Don’t try to race through it. A brief quiz after the piece tests your comprehension and doing the test twice will skew the results (since it’ll be your second time reading the piece and comprehension will be better). 

Let me leave you with a quote, the implications of which I completely agree with.

Have any of you guys taken a speed reading course? Did it help? Oh, and FWIW, when I took the test and read the piece at the speed I read novels, it said I was reading just under 700 wpm. But again, material makes a difference (digital vs. print makes a difference too). I'm not going to read Macbeth that fast, or even anything by Dr. Seuss for that matter - those guys were poets, they almost demand to be read aloud!

Friday, February 15, 2013


 And if you look out the window to the left, you'll see the new Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone cover. Scholastic, the USA publisher of the series, is re-releasing the books with new covers to celebrate the 15th anniversary of their arrival in North America.

I've seen some mixed responses to the new covers on Twitter and Facebook, but I'm in camp "LOVE IT." I loved the original covers, too, don't get me wrong. But if new covers revitalizes interest in the series among younger readers just discovering the boy wizard, I welcome the change.

Okay, speaking of book covers . . .

I know, I know, I’ve done posts about book covers before. I clearly have an unhealthy infatuation with them. In fact, lately I've gotten back into the swing of reading (my son had put a dent in that activity over the past month or so), and I've discovered so many incredible book covers, that I'm thinking about making "cover art" a recurring theme in this blog.

I read more than just kid-lit, actually kid-lit probably only makes up 50% of what I read, so I might have a couple days where I post a dozen adult books whose covers are swoon-worthy. I have some files building on my computer, so we'll see . . .

As I've said before, there's simply nothing like a well-designed book. I am frequently in awe of those artists who create book covers, and the designers who do the typeface (which is, in my opinion, just as important as the actual artwork). Nothing is just haphazardly thrown together, it's all done with careful consideration. I think staring at a cover and wondering what the artists/designers were thinking when they designed it is part of what makes a book great.

 Oh, and just so there's no misunderstanding, please realize I have zero (less than zero, if that were possible) artistic skill. I just love it when I see something that captures what I felt when I read a book. Actually, now that I think of it, I wonder how my color blindness impacts how I perceive book covers.

So today I wanted to share a few covers I discovered that compelled me to either read the books, or add the books to my TBR list. It happens with alarming frequency, actually. But in today's instance, I tried to build a list of covers that might be off the beaten path. I thought I'd make a concious effort to find covers for books that might not be on your radar yet.

Let me know what you think.

 (PS – The pictures are links. They'll take you to Amazon if they're available. And if they're not on the market yet, the links will take you to the publisher's websites.

 Here we go:

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Oversharing, Exorcists, and Ransom Notes

I'm a bit of a newbie when it comes to large-scale social media stuff. Most of the people I know on facebook and twitter are people I've met face-to-face first, and then added on those sites to keep in touch. So learning how to meet people in the eUniverse is something I'm still getting used to. 

To help, I’ve been stalking some of the more effective social networkers. I’ve been watching their tweets, and checking out their blogs, and visiting their face book pages. In the course of all that, while I have seen some interesting things, there’s one thing I would like to say 
to everyone who is an active social networker:


I get uncomfortable when my closest friends tell me about their medical conditions. When a Twitter pal or Facebook friends busts out the details of a rash they picked up while backpacking across Europe, I reach for the UNFOLLOW/UNFRIEND button pretty quick.

In recent days, between Facebook, and Twitter, I’ve seen posts about bladder infections, kidney stones, rashes, discharge (*shudders*), stubborn pimples, dandruff. And those are just tweets and posts. I’m not even talking about the pictures that people share where all I can think is: What were you thinking uploading that?

On a positive note, I will probably remember those people. So they’ve achieved a goal of at least setting themselves away from the pack. On a negative note, however, if I ever found myself sitting across from them at a conference or workshop, I might wonder if it’s safe to shake their hands.

So please, feel free to tell us that you’re pregnant, just not how it happened. Tell us you’re not feeling good, but don’t post pictures of your rashes. You know what, just pretend you’re standing in a room with a couple hundred people, and all of them are listening to what you’re saying . . . because, YOU ARE!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and overshare by accident. I could, for example, tell you that the last time I changed my son’s diaper I seriously considered the need to hire an exorcist. EVIL, that was the only explanation for what he’d created. Pure, unadulterated E V I L !!!    But I wouldn’t do that. That would be oversharing, and we’re not doing that here . . . .

What can we do, Steve? If we have friends who overshare on social media, how can I stop them without hurting their feelings?

Never fear, I have the solution, and it’s simple. Just send this letter to every person you know who overshares. Together, we can make social media a less awkward place.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Secret Messages in Books . . .

The other day I was having a discussion with another writer about this little up-and-coming series of novels for kids about a boy wizard who saves the world. It's called, Harry Potter, or something like that. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry, it’s not that well known. I'd put a link up to the book but copies are nearly impossible to find.

Anyway, she – the writer I was speaking to – explained that she didn't like the books, and began expressing concern about some the things JK Rowling put into her book.  In particular, she said she had the most difficulty reading the parts where incest and sexual abuse were discussed.

As someone who has read the books, and who remembers them well, I was surprised. 

“No, madam,” I said, “you have your books confused. There are no such references in Harry Potter. Perhaps there is another, far more edgy children’s book you’re thinking of.”

She stared talking about some of the wizards and their obsession with “pure bloods” in the series, and the implications of those obsessions. Then she talked about Centaurs and Professor Umbridge and how she was . . . you know what, here’s a link to an article (BUT a quick *WARNING*: the article does have some language that might be offensive to some readers...) where the top five depraved themes in Harry Potter are discussed. There are arguments to be made for such things. Perhaps JKR even wrote them into her books on purpose.

But the fact that this other writer had picked up on them, and I hadn’t, got me thinking about messages and themes in books, and how they can exist and not exist in the same instance. They existed for one reader, and they didn’t for me. 

"Ah," you say, "that means one of you was smarter than the other. One of you is right while the other wrong. You can't both be right, Steve. JK Rowling meant it, or she didn't. Stop trying to justify your ignorance!"

Well, let's think about that. What about JK Rowlings intent? Is that relevant? I think it's only relevant if that is what the reader picked up on.

See, I’ve always read books and imagined I was sitting on a couch across from the author while they told me their story. In that way, it’s a bit like a conversation. I listen, and what I hear is just that, it’s what I hear. Sometimes you might get something out of a book that someone else doesn’t get, sometimes you might get something that even the author hadn’t intended.
The point is, neither is more relevant than the other. The conversation you had was different than the conversation I had. That’s all.

“C’mon, Steve,” you say, “either the author meant it or not. If they did, it’s relevant, if not, it’s irrelevant.”

Fair enough. But let me ask you this, if you were to make a comment on someone’s clothing, and you meant it as a compliment but they took it as an insult, and were offended, are their feelings any less relevant because you hadn’t intended the offense?

I think the fact that books can say something to one person and something else to someone else is brilliant. I especially think such things are relevant in Children’s books where an adult, generally, is doing the talking, but the experiences of the children are coloring how they’re receiving that information.

As I back slowly from the room, allow me to leave you with three famous quotes:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.   Twain, Mark

Yes, readers often infer that there is symbolism in my work, which I do not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humorous. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.    Ralph Ellison

"This happens often, and in every case there is good reason for the inference; in many cases, I have been able to learn something about my own book, for readers have seen much in the book that is there, although I was not aware of it being there."  Joseph Heller