Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Smile When Your Child Says "No."


This past week, my inner voice drove me to abandon work and attend an afternoon lecture on “Free Will & Philosophy” given by a Philosophy Professor from a top University. As an aside, we all need to listen to those subtle instincts and energies that guide our paths. That’s a hard task for many… filtering the white noise of life to note signals in the system that have deeper personal meaning.

Returning to philosophy, the topic wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was nonetheless captivating. As a bonus, the Professor was entertaining, energetic and nimble. At one point, the presentation focused upon the Yale University Milgram Experiment on obedience: why seemingly normal people when put in the role of “teacher” (and encouraged by a lab-coated authority figure) will administer electric shocks to a “learner” test subject in another room even though they can hear the person screaming. Hold the objections, the electric shocks were faked. The learner responses were pre-recorded theatre to observe each teacher’s reaction. The Professor then mentioned another famous psychology experiment: the Stanford University Prison Study where ordinary people were randomly assigned roles of guards and prisoners. Guards were told to be firm, but their actions grew steadily more brutal. So much so, that the two week experiment was prematurely terminated after only six days.

Perhaps you are now asking “what do these studies have to do with my children or my parenting style?” The Professor viewed the discussion from a philosophical perspective of questioning Society’s idea of morals and blame, and whether we live in a deterministic clockwork world of no free will. This is an oversimplification for brevity, so my apologies to the good Professor. Still, why did more than 60% of the people in the classic Milgram Experiment keep shocking the learner subject until the occurrence of what might have been death or permanent injury, simply for a wrong answer? Why didn’t more people refuse the instruction, or acknowledge the desperate pleas (pre-recorded) of the learner subject? Did the teacher volunteer have free will or was another mechanism running the show? Well, such questions remain under avid scrutiny today, although there are several theories for the unexpected results. As you may have already guessed, I’m tossing out a proposal for you to consider, both as to your children and your parenting choices.

After the Professor’s formal presentation, I took the opportunity to ask questions (as did others). For a while, I listened to everyone… absorbing the ebb and flow. The Professor suggested that humans have a behavioral template that influences choice even when their actions have horrible effects. He posited that in a situation of conflicting data (i.e., I don’t like administering electric shocks that severely hurt a normal person, but the esteemed scientist standing over my shoulder calmly says to continue doing so), humans have a predisposition to obey the person that we think has more information or authority. This may stem from our early evolution, where snap decisions to follow the leader - a person appearing to have better data in a confusing situation - resulted in survival. Standing among the crowd circling the Professor, I agreed that this adaptive “Darwinian” strategy was a component to the equation, but my thoughts drifted to conclusions that would challenge that paradigm.

Before you ask for my academic credentials on such matters of the mind, the short story is “nothing formal.” I am a father, a fan of metaphysics, I believe in critical thinking, and my opinions rely on observation and theory. If that’s not enough, feel free to stop reading here.

As the conversation hit a lull, I asked the Professor, “Have you considered the implications of the Industrial Age public education model on the obedience found in the Milgram Experiment?” He seemed uncomfortable… there was a camera man filming the exchange… I waited, but was disappointed as his reply effectively dodged my question.

I wasn’t about to let the Professor off the hook. After another minute, I politely pressed, “Is it possible that the behavioral template evidenced in Milgram is being dramatically reinforced by our educational model of teacher/student that begins at pre-K? Teachers tell students they must sit down quietly, must memorize what is said, must study the knowledge presented and must be a productive worker/member in society.” I paused, and silence ensued. So, I fired away, “How often can students disagree with their teachers without receiving punishment or social stigma?” I really wanted to add mandatory prescription drugs for ADHD or similar en vogue behavioral disorders to the litany, but opening that door would have muddied the waters.

This time, the Professor launched a counterargument. He knew of a Milgram Experiment variation using test subjects in cultures without public education, and the results were essentially unchanged. Before I could ask him if the experiment’s designers had truly verified if they had a sampling with neither public education, nor a surrogate teacher/student learning system, he moved to another question… another philosophy twist.

I thought about his answer. While that study might have unexplored pitfalls in the analysis and conclusions, what would happen if I assumed for argument purposes that his Milgram variation had merit? This logic pushed my thoughts to another common factor that would reinforce such disturbing behavior. I again wedged my voice into the conversation, “Professor, what about the earliest form of education, the parent/child relationship? Those roles pre-condition an obedience template from birth that is not much different from teacher/student. Could our relatively modern parenting style, from the Victorian Era forward, which emphasizes discipline, respect, and obedience be unintentionally hard-wiring our children’s cognitive weakness?”

I could see him thinking about this… and the camera kept filming. Then, another audience member interrupted with a book reference to a related psychology topic, and after a moment, the Professor shifted to his core material, leaving my supposition dangling over the cliff in the company of Wile E. Coyote.

So, what’s my “takeaway” from this pleasant interlude of philosophical thought? I’m admittedly surprised at the outcome, though maybe I shouldn’t be: when you “select” the path, things happen.

Rather than knee-jerk disagreement or admonitions of impracticality, I hope that some of you will perceive the faint glimmer of light roiling against the darkness. To that end:

Life Lesson: Be open to letting your child explore asymmetrical or unconventional forms of education: apprenticeship, travel, homeschooling, independent study, art, experiential investigation, play, etc. Mainstream public education can be a positive (I have met teachers that give heart and soul to the kids), but as applied across the board in its lowest denominator, today’s public education is designed as a compliance oriented Industrial Age necessity for managing the masses, instilling societal programming and producing workers.

Life Lesson: From this point on, I will do my utmost to look beyond the surface when my child says “No,” whether it’s to me as a parent, to a teacher or to anyone. Safety concerns aside, I will encourage my child’s instincts, independence and critical analysis skills. I don’t want to produce another cog in the great wheel of Society. This approach won’t be easy, convenient, or peaceful. I will suffer a fair amount of impingement upon my existence to the extent that I freely choose to sacrifice my expectations for the sake of my child. Of course, it’s maddening to hear your child reject your direction, and there are certainly risks to encouraging a non-conformist model. But I’m going to reap the wind, and think of it in terms of a contemporary film metaphor:

Neo must awaken from the Matrix.


Extra Credit: anyone recognize the picture reference below?

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Soulstealer War - Finally on NOOK in E-Pub Format and Discounted!

There's a master blacksmith at the NJ RenFaire who forges serious weapons... truly artistic and elegant battle steel. At our last few "hail and hearty" greetings, besides testing a blade or two, and chatting of things metal, he has asked me in earnest, "Bill, when will The Soulstealer War be available in E-Pub format?"

After much angst, of which I will spare everyone, you can now purchase The Soulstealer War on NOOK in E-Pub format! This version is priced at a 50% discount from the hard copy... for a limited period.

As a reminder, my work remains available on Kindle, Amazon, B&N and at various independent shops.

My author "to-do" list now includes completing the Audiobook version, as well as the next installment of the series - The Soulstealer War: The Splintering Realm. Yes, I know folks expected this earlier... thus, let me part with simple words of wisdom from the esteemed poet Robert Burns:

"The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley..."

With gratitude,

W.L. Hoffman - breathe slowly, observe humbly, dream deeply and evolve.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ground Control to Major Tom - Anyone Listening?

Absent extraterrestrials accelerating our learning curve by letting us ride their alien coattails as Space-faring vagabonds, humanity’s future rests with colonizing the final frontier. The hazards of this gamble will be severe. We may even splinter into multiple subspecies as we adapt to conditions on other worlds. So be it. I don’t like rolling the dice with existence, but incredibly, that’s civilization’s daily lottery purchase while governments squabble, squander, and potentially degenerate into Orwell’s 1984 or the movie Idiocracy. Neither of these fictional options bodes well. Let me remind everyone that although the odds of winning the Powerball Lottery jackpot are a daunting 1 in 175 million… it happens frequently. Now think about those statistical results in relation to the occurrence of an Extinction Level Event. It’s not as farfetched as you thought.

To those who say we aren’t ready... my riposte is that we damn sure won’t be without setting into motion dedicated resource allocation and systemic planning. Sadly, I cannot repudiate the fact that humanity is an immature and imperfect life form. However, long before we gain enough wisdom to govern our base nature, we will need to ascend to the stars if we wish to survive. Show me the corner of our shrinking planet that remains untouched by our sphere of influence – it’s impossible. While our population is ceaselessly smashing against our terrestrial boundaries, what of incurable pandemics, deadly environmental degradation, gamma-ray bursts, rogue asteroid collisions - pick your cause, but the only effect question is “when,” not “if.”

I have opined on this topic before and will continue to do so. Today, my outcry is sparked by a news article on China launching astronauts to their Tiangong 1 experimental Space Module. The article seems to mock China’s description of the task as “glorious and sacred,” denigrates their national support as “Communist Party propaganda,” includes ridicule of their children “dressed as happy ethnic minorities waving,” cites a Twitter comment that charges China of wasting money for this mission, and finishes with the coup de grace - accusations of an interstellar arms race. Really, that’s objective, agenda-free reporting? Of all the critical discussions that this worthy event could have engendered, why is the public instead served a cold dish of short-sighted, fear mongering drivel?

At a time when NASA’s current role in Space exploration is that of an armchair cheerleader, are we truly going to hurl stones at any culture that pursues advanced strategies for our race’s sustainability? Why is it that in the last decade the most memorable moment of Space ambassadorship is a song performed in orbit by a Canadian astronaut? Bravo, Commander Chris Hadfield! Someone must awaken the people, and your rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” aboard the International Space Station was magical … my hope is that it calls to those among us, young and old, who still harbor enough imagination and pioneering spirit to propel our species to a wondrous adventure among the heavens.

I am an American, and I love my country. The US Constitution stands as a singular social triumph over an otherwise turbulent human history. Though the freedoms enshrined therein may be under siege these days, I derive no comfort from petty attacks on foreign nations. I am not defending China’s human rights record or similar politics. I am speaking of their effort to embrace a common destiny, one that should unite humanity. Indeed, one of my greatest concerns is that my country has cut the legs out from under what could be our existential salvation – NASA. While I agree that permitting and incentivizing private companies to enter the Space foray makes good sense, I am steadfast in my belief that such a galactic endeavor really does require global cooperation. For that reality, we need our governments and elected leaders to be stakeholders in this higher vision.

What happened to the grandiose dreams of the generations following Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind?” Does nobody look in amazement to the sky, to the Universe? If only every one of us could reflect upon our blue jewel from Space… Earth… humbling, magnificent, and yet, merely a dew drop in the vast Cosmic ocean.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Hurricane Sandy - Update 6 - Princeton and Atlantic City, NJ Regions

For those not familiar, I am a fantasy and sci-fi author currently working on Book II of The Soulstealer War. While that series is fiction, this account of Hurricane Sandy is not. It is an e-mail update (#6 - scroll down and read Updates 1-5 first as they are in chronological order) that I provided to concerned friends and family, so the writing style is clipped. I live with my wife and two daughters in the Princeton, NJ region and my mother lives in Margate City, NJ (beach block) on the same barrier island as Atlantic City.

Storm Update #6 - Written Tuesday morning, more than a week after Hurricane Sandy - 11/6/12

Margate City: Not much to add… it’s a mess. Clean-up at the Shore continues, and incoming weather will exacerbate the problems. Mom is energized, edgy and emotional – can’t imagine why. I’ll drive down this weekend if she needs me.

Princeton: Power was finally restored on Sunday. I sent the promised Text messages to all those neighbors that had left for greener pastures. House by house, life returned. We are lucky. My understanding is that several hundred thousand PSEG New Jersey customers remain in the dark, including people in our township. This was also confirmed by an informal poll at school yesterday. The teachers had gathered the children to discuss storm experiences, and one of the questions related to how many were still without power. My wife reported about 25% raised their hands – the school had invited parents to stay for coffee and assurance that everything was safe. The estimate from PSEG is that everyone in our township should have power by Friday. For those counting, that would be twelve days from Hurricane Sandy’s landfall! Consider that reality next time someone mentions storm preparations.

The load of firewood that I requested on Saturday was delivered around noon Sunday. It was the largest “cord” of wood that I have ever seen… I greeted the contractor warmly, offered coffee and overpaid for the emergency service. I then sorted and stacked for the next few hours. After that, I scooped the mounting ash from our fireplace (it went into our mulch pile), and then reloaded it with kindling and fresh logs – an old habit – I like it ready for the match after each use. During this time, my wife ferried the girls to quilting lessons and pottery. Gas lines at the local borough stations were fairly short – though we are still under the odd/even rationing order. As you travel to the main highways and north of here – gas remains an issue.

In the late afternoon, I serviced and filled the genny, and then stowed it in the garage. The five gallon safety cans will be topped off with gas today. That Nor’easter is coming, and I won’t lay odds on whether the shaken power systems in our area will hold.

On Monday, I finished returning the house systems to their pre-storm configuration. Cable is still down, but so what… we don’t watch much TV anyway. Work - yes I do have a job - once the Internet Wifi was operating as well as the office phone and my desktop computer… I began the process of catching-up on client communications and transactions. I also phoned my youngest brother at his office in New York City, and to my surprise, discovered that his entire team had procured a U-Haul, filled it with food, blankets, toiletries, etc., and had driven to Queens for direct distribution to folks. Well done little brother.

Halloween had been rescheduled for Monday night. My heart wasn’t into it, but our daughters were so looking forward to the costumes and fun. We all got dressed, and we were joined by another young girl who lives a few miles away – her dad was out of town. I took care of the shuttle service. I told the girls not to expect much and that we would only knock on houses with an obvious welcome mat. I also let them know that we would reverse the tradition in part – I was giving away light glow sticks (12-hour green chemical version) and a few bottles of wine for a handful of close neighbors. The night was abbreviated, but we had a nice time after all. I spoke with every family (renewing ties and asking as to status) and then dispersed them gifts. We all needed a break.

This morning, I have one eye focused on work, and the other on that Nor’easter. A penetrating rain with 50 mph wind gusts is not the prescription we were hoping to hear. Later today, we will take the girls to Vote as a family. They know about the Constitution and our voting system… we also discuss candidates and their parties – Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Tea, Green, Constitutional, etc., and even write-in possibilities. I make no prediction as to the Election outcome, and I truly wish for peace regardless of who wins.

The switch has been flipped – we have grid power – and yet, the events of this past week have made an indelible mark. Things aren’t normal. Folks are discussing house-wide generators, food supplies, solar energy systems, and water sources. Fireplaces that were either non-functional or which served as little more than interior decoration, are being inspected for duty. I don’t anticipate these sentiments will last… it’s so easy to fall into society’s Lotus-flower sleep… but for the moment, I’m encouraged.

With gratitude.

W.L. Hoffman

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Monday, November 05, 2012

Hurricane Sandy - Update 5 - Princeton and Atlantic City, NJ Regions

For those not familiar, I am a fantasy and sci-fi author currently working on Book II of The Soulstealer War. While that series is fiction, this account of Hurricane Sandy is not. It is an e-mail update (#5 - scroll down and read Updates 1-4 first as they are in chronological order) that I provided to concerned friends and family, so the writing style is clipped. I live with my wife and two daughters in the Princeton, NJ region and my mother lives in Margate City, NJ (beach block) on the same barrier island as Atlantic City.

Storm Update #5 - Written Sunday morning, almost a week after Hurricane Sandy - 11/4/12

Relationships. They matter more than ever in an emergency. Yesterday, we burned through the decent firewood. We are now down to the rot. Before Sandy, I had contacted a landscaper to remove this stuff to make space for a new load. However, it fell to the wayside, in part because I had other priorities, and also because I was using this junk wood in our backyard fire pit. I logged in a call to the contractor who had provided us with firewood for the last seven years – his Fall advertisement was still on my desk. He remembered us, and though he was delivering in upstate Pennsylvania with orders backed-up, he understood the circumstances here and promised to deliver a heaping cord tomorrow. I thanked him, and headed out to clean our wood stack. This took several hours. The rot went into the mulch piles, which left two empty six-by-six inch railroad ties clear for the incoming wood. I also repositioned our eight-foot metal fireplace holder. Good to go.

Next, I turned to refilling the genny. I was mixing the stabilized emergency gasoline that had been under the tarp since last Spring, with the new gasoline I had obtained Friday. Normally, I would do first in, first out, but I didn’t want to risk the genny with bad fuel. While pouring the gas, our neighbor from behind the house (Mike) surprised me with a visit. He lives on a different street, and our last encounter had been testy as he had attempted to dig a drainage line over our property without permission. Don’t get me wrong, we resolved that episode. He had apologized, laying the blame on his contractor. Without rehashing the details, suffice to say that this was a knowing incursion onto our property. Still, I was of a mind to let there be peace.

Mike and I chatted for a while. He was barbecuing the last of his freezer meat – thus he had seen me – and was also a bit freaked. Though our prior meeting had not been the warmest, he was looking for camaraderie. Most of the neighbors on his side were also gone, and he never imagined that power-down could happen for a week in NJ! His genny, like ours, was also wired into critical systems. He had gasoline issues, food supplies in his basement and a baseball bat by the bed. He and his wife were “creeped out” at night. They had signed up for firearm instruction, but that was next month. Short story – I extended the olive branch, and told him I’d watch his back and to let me know if he needs anything. He agreed to do the same for us. I didn’t give him every detail on our situation, but enough. Relationships – they do matter. Perhaps one can be an island as a “prepper” in a hardened bunker in the Redoubt, but in my experience the folks that truly understand survival always acknowledge that it takes cooperation by a team of like-minded adults and children.

While I was busy at the house, my wife was making a run to Whole Foods to see about fresh food. We got word through our friends on Twitter/Text that the store was open, had generator power and had received a delivery. I reminded her that as the pet store was in the same shopping center, try to buy whatever bags they had available of Aslan’s dry dog food. I had bought two 20-pound bags pre-Sandy, but he’s a 70 pound shepherd and he rips through the chow.

My wife returned a few hours later with groceries. The entire shopping center was dark except Whole Foods. Fortunately, the pet store owners had set up a table outside and were walking customers in one at a time with a flashlight – cash only of course. She bought their last 20-pound bag and a few chewy treats.

Goods were unloaded, dishes hand washed, fireplace stoked, lanterns checked (fresh batteries for the non-rechargeables), dog walked and dinner cooked. My wife had purchased a mashed cauliflower side from Whole Foods, but upon sampling it in the pan with the onions, she tossed it. Spoiled. Lesson learned… she would ask for a taste at the store before buying any prepared items. After dinner - it’s dark, cold and windy – I did the genny refueling for the night, and observed that it was running a hair rougher to my ear. Note to self: could be the fuel mix, but six days of 24-hour running means that tomorrow I need to check the oil, carburetor, fuel line, etc.

Turning to the Shore, and a bit of positive news: I confirmed that mom had checked into the hotel. Eventually, we spoke via the mobile. Her phone battery charger had died the other day and she was otherwise busy with contractors, insurance adjusters, FEMA reps, etc. She had brought enough food with her from Pennsylvania, and in South Jersey, gasoline was not as much of a problem. As for our family home on the beach block, pretty much as expected. The garage had four feet of sand, the doors were destroyed from the waves and everything inside was history. The basement of the home (which is more like a first floor due to the home’s elevation) was trashed, a total loss of all systems (HVAC, pumps, washer, dryer, electrical, freezer, etc.). There was a foot of sand to dig out and everything will have to be removed to the foundation before the mold gets a grip. Thankfully, the first floor and above - having been built high in 1938 and all windows were boarded-up for Sandy - suffered minimal damage. Mom told me that the local supermarket will not open for several days, but that other stores are beginning to show signs of life. The overall damage to the City is huge, and there is a foul “smell” in the air. She will do the back-and-forth from the house to the hotel until things are repaired. The only dependable contractor that has been helping her is the carpenter that our family has known for decades. Again, it’s all about relationships.

This isn’t the most riveting update, but life is all about the little things. Sometimes they take more energy than we imagine, and it wears you down. Our family realizes that our situation is so much better than that of others in NJ and NY, as well as other regions of the country. In part, that’s through our decisions and actions, but luck also plays a role. I’m told that power should be restored today, and that although our daughters’ school has one building without power or fire alarms, the main building will be open for classes tomorrow – Monday.

Best wishes to all. This might be the last update – in a good way.

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Hurricane Sandy - Update 4 - Princeton and Atlantic City, NJ Regions

For those not familiar, I am a fantasy and sci-fi author currently working on Book II of The Soulstealer War. While that series is fiction, this account of Hurricane Sandy is not. It is an e-mail update (#4 - scroll down and read Updates 1, 2 and 3 first as they are in chronological order) that I provided to concerned friends and family, so the writing style is clipped. I live with my wife and two daughters in the Princeton, NJ region and my mother lives in Margate City, NJ (beach block) on the same barrier island as Atlantic City.

Storm Update #4 - Written Saturday morning after Hurricane Sandy - 11/3/12

No power still at our home in the Princeton area. Lost another neighbor yesterday. The one with the rental genny, family of five, they left for their mother’s home in Pennsylvania. Last night was cold, and I imagine dealing with one space heater in a bedroom was not comfortable, coupled with the shower situation. We are all on well water here. So, if the genny isn’t hard-wired into the system, no power for water. If I had to figure the circuit connection on the fly, I’m guessing I could MacGyver it - though it would obviously not pass inspection and there would be a risk factor – but they had other options and this is not Mad Max world. Again, my wife and I offered our home, but they politely declined. Another neighbor to text when our utilities are restored.

Yesterday, we gave both of our daughters a break. My wife initially planned to drive them to a horse stable about 10 miles way – this is where my youngest helps around the barn, mucks, cleans gear, and brushes/feeds/grooms the horses. In exchange, she gets to ride – though we do contribute small payments to the owner (a middle-aged woman who has managed horses her entire life). After the stable, there would be a play date with another family – they were on the way back to our home. I had the discussion with my wife about gasoline for the SUV. I’ll take the hits here for having a guzzler, but when it comes to driving my most precious possessions in the Universe, I got my wife the biggest four wheel drive vehicle I could with height clearance, a massive engine and room to spare for all of us and the dog. To my surprise, my wife acknowledged the gas concern (over the years, she has an amused, but accepting tolerance for my prepping), but she felt the benefits outweighed the costs. I agreed, and noted that our use had already lowered the gas level so we would have to find a refill.

Back to the stable, with 20+ horses needing daily care, the owner had a back-up generator for water, but this was unnecessary as power was restored two days ago. Well, upon arrival, the owner informed us that the utility company had cut the power to restore other areas of priority. Her genny at the main farm building (a good distance away) was pulling water slowly, and she was busy ferrying water in her pick-up truck and caring for the horses. The kids helped for a while, but no riding. When they arrived at our friend’s home, they were greeted by the sight of 34 trees on the front of the property (more than 15 wooded acres) blown over by Sandy. My theory is that a mini-twister must have touched down, but perhaps it just took hours of sustained high winds. Power was out there too, but they had a great time exploring the grounds. I should mention that the mom is a botanist who regularly spends months in the Amazon. I trust her with my family.

While my wife was out, I rigged up power to our water softener system, and ran it through a regeneration cycle. Our well water is super hard – lots of minerals, but fine for drinking. The water softener has other effects for soap, laundry, the pipes, etc. Next, I hopped into the garden, grabbed two leeks and an onion, dinner was going to be a stir fry. The genny also needed refueling. One issue, no matter how careful I am when pouring the gas/funnels, I cannot seem to shake the odor of gasoline. Yeah it would be nice to have a pump, and perhaps I will rig one up when I have spare time. For now, the family tolerates it, and after scrubbing, the aroma eventually fades. Aslan, our pooch, also got in a great run in our backyard with a neighbor’s dog. They were visiting their home across the street to check status, and then returning to their parents in a section of Princeton that has power.

My wife and kids returned, and I later reviewed pictures of the fallen trees. After raising the garage door for my wife (no power and it’s heavy even with the spring tension), I noted that the SUV’s gas gauge showed just over half full. I was also thinking about the empty gas cans from the genny usage. The report was that gas lines were still absurd. Our town was e-mailing updates and our friends in the area had formed a network that was using Twitter/Texting to communicate open gas locations. The Airport was offering gasoline for genny use only (aviation gas with lead and other additives) for $6.00 a gallon! Knowing that I might have to fill the SUV, I opted to stay with regular gas stations – for now.

My wife and I agreed that late tonight (Friday still) might provide a decent window for short lines, so long as the stations stayed open. Short story – I left the house at 10:00 pm and found one of our local stations, waited in line for an hour and twenty minutes. It was unreal, and so was the “look” of the people filling up. As I got closer, I could see folks pulling all manner of gas containers from their trunks – from one gallon grime-encased plastic to ten gallon suitcase sized plastic that was difficult to lift. I half expected to see milk jugs. When I finally got to the pump, I was told either the car or the gas cans, but not both. They were running low. I told the attendant to fill the SUV. In the interim, I removed four five gallon safety cans and one five gallon plastic container from the trunk, and got ready to fill them. He came back and looked on dubiously. I followed my gut. I said, “I’m a local, come here all the time. You must be part of Horhay’s extended family or a friend.” He nodded affirmatively and said, “Family.” I continued, “Here’s money for the gas, we’ll round it up, you keep the rest. These cans are powering the genny for our home.” With that, I started filling, and he left for another customer – they had six pumps going. By the way, I paid $5.00 per gallon of regular. Free market economics at work: supply and demand. I peeled off $200.00 in twenties – these are the largest denomination that I keep on hand – this was for 25 gallons in the cans and 12 gallons in the SUV.

On the way home, I got a text from our neighbor friend April – she was looking for gas for her car but had bypassed the crazy long line at the same station I had just left. I advised her immediately – she’s young – I told her to get back in that line ASAP and wait it out. Back home, as I skimmed online news after midnight, I saw that the Governor has enacted gas rationing, aka Jimmy Carter style. Beginning today, there is now an odd/even license plate system for filling up. The last number in the plate has to match the odd or even of that day of the month in order to be serviced. That’s going to go over well. Forget commuting to work, and traveling up and down the state for family, unless you have enough gas to get back or can wait a few days for a reliable station.

Turning to the Jersey Shore, mom has gone dark. She was supposed to make her way from Pennsylvania to the hotel near our home in Margate, NJ. We have called her mobile phone and the house line several times with no response. I’m not worried yet, but this morning I will track down the hotel and see if she checked in. One of our local crew who lives in Ventnor City (shut down for infrastructure, but residents allowed back), the town next to Margate, described the area in a text message this way, “It’s the Twilight Zone down here.” He sent a picture of our garage – the waves had knocked the doors out and sand/seaweed/muck was piled high. No one was at the house, and he couldn’t get in to see the first floor or basement. He is going to visit our house again today and see if mom is around. On a separate note, I saw a post on Facebook from another Shore friend, stating that she reported potential looting. There was a private truck driving around her neighborhood and loading up with appliances and similar items at the curb. One Facebook commenter told her to relax, this was acceptable. She replied, “Yeah, but not at 11:00pm, and they were driving way too slow and using a flash light to shine in peoples’ yards.” She notified the police. I have not received an update on this yet.

One final comment for the preppers of the world – the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant confirmed near-total cooling pump failure, and power failure. The back-up diesels saved the day on the spent fuel pool. Salem I, which had the emergency steam release, has been quiet. No further news that I can find. In a real long-term grid down scenario… there are more than a hundred nuclear power plants/reactors in the US alone. And so I ask, with all seriousness, are we doomed under such circumstances regardless of our plans?

I understand that other parts of NJ and NY are in far worse shape than here, and that a Nor’easter might be approaching early next week. However, I keep thinking that things will change in the Princeton area with the flip of a switch, i.e., power restored. But until then, we are in crisis mode, and there are strange concerns occupying my mind while this lasts.

This is neither exciting, nor fun. But I will remain upbeat for my family.

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Sunday, November 04, 2012

Hurricane Sandy - Update 3 - Princeton and Atlantic City, NJ Regions

For those not familiar, I am a fantasy and sci-fi author currently working on Book II of The Soulstealer War. While that series is fiction, this account of Hurricane Sandy is not. It is an e-mail update (#3 - scroll down and read Updates 1 and 2 first as they are in chronological order) that I provided to concerned friends and family, so the writing style is clipped. I live with my wife and two daughters in the Princeton, NJ region and my mother lives in Margate City, NJ (beach block) on the same barrier island as Atlantic City.

Storm Update #3 - Written Friday morning after Hurricane Sandy - 11/2/12

Princeton. No power still.

Yesterday, after my early run for gasoline, we did the accumulated laundry since Sunday. I cranked open the window and rigged up the extension cords to the genny. Our daughters hardly issued a complaint with helping to fold – a chore they dislike – but under the circumstances, I’m guessing there’s something extra nice about fresh, warm, clean clothes. I continued clearing debris from our property and then helped my wife prepare lunch. We heard back from our eldest daughter’s piano and singing teachers… they were willing to accommodate lessons cancelled by the storm if we could get there. Both are within a few miles of the house and a minute away from each other. The piano teacher gives lessons from her home and the singing teacher uses a local Church. Both had power restored. Needing a break of normalcy, my wife and I agreed. I would stay at the house with our youngest, while she ventured with the other. My wife was also going to see if the local farmer’s market was open.

At the farmer’s market, my wife did her first ever shopping by flashlight. There was a line, and the store was allowing five people in at a time with an employee escort for each with flashlight to assist with shopping. Cash payment only. They only had non-perishables and the shelves were sparse. Several items she wanted – mostly soups – were gone. She did find a wonderful organic butternut squash soup among other groceries, and a bag of carrots. These were part of our dinner mix last night. On the way there, she sadly observed the destruction around Princeton. Trees down everywhere, debris, cars and houses hit, but lots of lucky falls as well – a few feet in either direction and the tree damage would have been far worse for many people.

In the afternoon, mail was delivered. I spoke at length with our delivery person. The workers that had reported for duty were sorting mail by lantern/flashlight, first class was backed-up for this week, and if they didn’t find more gasoline, mail would not be delivered for a few days even if the power was restored.

About an hour later, our next door neighbor knocked… they were leaving to find a hotel. This is a neurologist who works at a local Medical Center. Not wealthy, but he could have afforded a house generator system if he had been like minded. I offered our home (these are also good folks), but they didn’t want to be a burden to anyone. They simply asked that I text them when power returns. Coincidentally, I checked in via mobile text with my best friend from Maplewood, NJ, telling him my concern that all of our neighbors were vanishing to hotels or extended family, and the reply text stated that he was in a hotel in Philadelphia with his family.

So, at this point, we have three categories of people. Those without generators who left days ago, those who have generators but not hooked up to the critical systems (leaving for lack of water, food, sanitation, heat, etc.) and those with hard-wired generators staying put as long as the natural gas flows or gasoline is available. Remember, these aren’t hardy country folk or preppers. They aren’t used to grid down or even making do with less. My friend in Maplewood – I’ve known him since 5th grade – he can afford anything he wants and still no house power system or supplies. I wonder how many people have now received the wake-up call? Perhaps Sandy is a blessing in that regard.

Still, as much as I’m grateful not to be overwhelmed by cold and hungry neighbors, the evening walk with Aslan our dog was eerie. Empty houses greatly outnumbered the occupied. What would these people do if there was no external refuge in which to retreat? Would my family be a target even among friendly neighbors? Last night, I began thinking more seriously about the Mossberg secured under our bed… I train/shoot at Range 14 at Fort Dix in NJ. I’d also like to put in a halfway plug here for solar lighting. My experience is that even top of the line solar flood/spot lights will have a substantial failure rate after a year. However, beyond a sizable alert dog, there are few better crime deterrents here than good exterior lighting. Our house is bathed in a blue glow of solar lighting for most of the night. I understand this cuts both ways in terms of standing out… but there are other homes with accent solar lighting on walkways/driveways, so perhaps it does not make us that much of an oddball, especially with the interior of the house dark.

We received a message that there would be no school on Friday - today. The roads and lack of operating stoplights are a safety hazard, and it turns out the school’s fire safety system shorted out during the storm. They estimate that it will be fixed by Monday, November 5th, and that classes will resume then. Things in Princeton are improving each day, and we hope to have power back soon. Other parts of NJ are still chaotic as you get more urban (Jersey City, Hoboken) and closer to the Shore.

Turning to Margate City, under immense pressure, the barrier island access restriction was partially lifted by the Governor late yesterday. Several of my Shore friends – the locals – were finally getting into town to survey the damage. The ones that stayed had been giving us a reasonable preview on conditions. No fresh food or water available on the island (but the local bar was serving drinks), and the word is that wherever the water surge line stopped at your house is the measure of damage. Margate has modestly varying heights of property, bulkheads and dunes for protection. But when ocean meets bay, pretty much everyone is in a jam. Mom is stubbornly making her way back to our family home on the beach block. Bull dozers are clearing walking paths through the sand on a street-by-street basis. We should have a full report later today on the interior water damage. Ventnor City remains voluntarily closed due to the infrastructure issues, and the access restriction for Atlantic City still holds – at least that’s what I last heard.

I’m going to start the day’s work. Best to all.

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Hurricane Sandy - Update 2 - Princeton and Atlantic City, NJ Regions

For those not familiar, I am a fantasy and sci-fi author currently working on Book II of The Soulstealer War. While that series is fiction, this account of Hurricane Sandy is not. It is an e-mail update (#2 - scroll down and read Update #1 first as they are in chronological order) that I provided to concerned friends and family, so the writing style is clipped. I live with my wife and two daughters in the Princeton, NJ region and my mother lives in Margate City, NJ (our family home on the beach block) on the same barrier island as Atlantic City.

Storm Update #2 - Written Thursday morning after Hurricane Sandy - 11/1/12

Yesterday, Halloween was cancelled by executive order, but I spent the day doing more clean-up anyway. Chain saws were buzzing in the neighborhood, and I was stacking wood for the fireplace even though green. I helped the neighbors across the street who had a rental genny. Offered showers and heat as their genny is only extension cords for the refrigerator and small appliances. My girls had a bit of cabin fever and it doesn’t help that my wife is not feeling good. Made tea, soup and fresh wholesome food left in the refrigerator. Also, we still have kale, onions, scallions, leeks and herbs in the garden. These are my winter hardy plants that last well into the cold weather. They survived the storm winds being low to the ground and well rooted. The girls are also helping somewhat with the hand washing of the dishes… not fun.

Also took some time to walk the dog… Aslan needed a romp for his mental exercise. Spent an hour fixing the back fence so Aslan could be let outside without a leash and deer could be kept out. The fence will probably need total replacement, but at the moment, there are no gaping holes. The power drill and deck screws worked like a charm. Lots of periodic sirens – I’m guessing medical and fires related to generators/space heaters failures and accidents.

The girls don’t have school this week. We got word that power was restored late yesterday to the school, but that the roads were still impassable. There is an order from the Governor to stay off the roads unless essential travel only. It gets dark early, so by 3:30 pm things are winding down and the lanterns are on for reading and general action around the living room. I have rechargeable lanterns and battery throw away… no issue for now.

The temperature all day yesterday was cool and very chilly by evening. People without power were warming themselves in their cars. On Aslan’s evening walk, I could see the car headlights in various driveways. I think it also let people charge cell phones. This brings up the glaring problem for the moment – gasoline. Our genny is doing very well on gas consumption… but between it and the chain saw, we are burning a fair amount. Same with the neighbors, and especially the ones using the cars for heaters. The town has opened the Rec/Senior centers for temporary warmth and water – but not after 8:00pm. Don’t know how many people are driving to use these facilities. Anyway, back to gas. While I used on/off shutdowns for the genny for a few hours of the time to save gas – I had the living room fireplace raging yesterday – this is not optimal especially for the refrigerators. Yesterday, I heard from two neighbors that they had found open gas stations with ridiculous lines and rationing. As it was getting late, I opted to stay home and deal with it today.

Woke up today (Thursday) at 6:30 am, and headed out with 4 five gallon safety cans looking for open gas stations. The traffic lights were still out and only the main artery roads are dependable to be open. I was lucky to find two gas stations within six miles of the house. Gas stations that were open yesterday were now empty of gas. As to these two that were open, they already had lines of cars 50 deep. They also had police officers enforcing the lines, gas rationing (ten gallon maximum per person) and general traffic flow order. It took me and hour plus, and it was cash only as I expected, but I started home with twenty gallons of gas. I thought about coffee on the way, and pulled into our main shopping center with a Thomas Sweet, or in the alternative, a Dunkin Donuts in the ShopRite Supermarket. The entire center was closed. ShopRite was open with minimal lighting and I had hope, but when I got to the door, there was a sign saying they only had non-perishable items for sale. The mini-Dunkin Donut stand was closed. By the way, we are hearing from other supermarkets… same story. They cooked what they could, donated to soup kitchens and have thrown out the rest of the spoiled food. At this point, I think Whole Foods on Route 1 may be our best bet for fresh food. As you guys know, I have plenty of non-perishables. And yes, I do have organic coffee at the house, so I am enjoying a cup as I type. I just have to unplug other stuff to brew it.

I am breaking to refill our genny with gas. Next agenda once things warm up is to get the fireplace going, and then I will rig up extension cords so that we can do laundry for the first time since Sunday morning. Bear in mind, my genny is only hard-wired into the home for critical systems, and that didn’t include the washer and dryer. So I will need to power them and the house water system – should be fine – but they are energy hogs.

We also got word that five nuclear power plants had issues during the storm, and that Salem actually had a “controlled” emergency steam release and pump failures. Nice. I’m sure it was only safe levels of radiation, no harm to the public. Right. Oyster Creek was offline anyway, but had cooling issues with the spent fuel pool. I’m assuming that the state and federal folks are on top of this. Hopefully.

The update on the Shore is pretty dim. We still don’t have good onsite intel. Island access is closed and the residents are upset/trapped. On the positive side, there are parts of Margate with power. There is limited non-perishable food and no fresh items, and water remains contaminated. Some areas are still flooded – though its draining. Ventnor City which is right next to Margate, is sealed off due to city septic failure and more than 1,000 homes with moderate to severe damage. We have received limited pictures of our home from locals and a Sheriff friend. The sand is piled against the house three feet deep which means the five feet of water on top of that probably got into the entire first floor and basement. All critical systems will be trashed. We are beginning the process of talking to contractors and getting mom situated at a nearby hotel to make daily trips to the home to coordinate. She’s upset, but holding up - tough nut.

I’ll provide another update later.

Cheers. I mean that… single malt whiskey does not need refrigeration, is good for brushing teeth and warms the soul.

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Hurricane Sandy - Update 1 - Princeton and Atlantic City Regions

For those not familiar, I am a fantasy and sci-fi author currently working on Book II of The Soulstealer War. While that series is fiction, this account of Hurricane Sandy is not. It is an e-mail update (#1) that I provided to concerned friends and family, so the writing style is clipped. I live with my wife and two daughters in the Princeton, NJ region and my mother lives in Margate City, NJ (our family home on the beach block) on the same barrier island as Atlantic City.

Storm Update #1 - Written the Wednesday morning after Hurricane Sandy - 10/31/12.

Wednesday morning. I slept a fair bit last night (Tuesday), and as the electronics have charged from the generator, here’s the scoop. Make no mistake Mother Nature still rules. You are going to lose the head on collision, so best to lightly sidestep her dominion whenever possible.

I prepared my family and house in Princeton, and was still surprised. I think a lot of people were, especially at the Shore. There aren’t a lot of locals left who can remember the 1944 Hurricane, and there was a much different population for the 1962 storm. From the little I have heard from my Shore friends, those who stayed regretted the decision. The Shore got crushed, power will be out for a week or more and the drinking water is compromised – there is a boil alert as well as filtration. That’s assuming they get the news. Generators are great, but few folks had them, and those that did, well let’s just say that six feet of storm surge pretty much kills your genny… as you are unlikely to have it placed much higher on the property.

Let’s come back to Princeton for the moment. I had the house in decent shape. Outside stuff stowed and roped, and I put two little giant pumps on the floor of the basement and rigged their hoses 75 feet out one of the basement windows. If the power went early, I had the portable gasoline driven genny on the front porch… sheltered enough to run and ventilate. Many people don’t know that your typical portable genny is not designed to operate in significant rain - though many will last for a while – there is a good chance of shorting the electrical systems and in getting shocked. I also had two 100 foot extensions cords through the front window to the basement for each. Short story – we thankfully didn’t get as much rain as was forecast. No real issue in basement.

On Monday afternoon, before any of the heavy storm impact hit, we were surprised by a knock on the door. Our neighbor lost part of his roof and is looking for tarps, caulk, tape, rope, etc. I was able to help with these items and also the contact info for our home contractor who had put out an e-mail earlier advising they were available for emergency repairs. This neighbor has a wife and three children – good family – bad sign to lose the roof before the real storm winds arrived. Told him our house is open and to let me know if he needs anything else.

While we had the utilities working, my kids were fine. Though by about 6:30 pm, the winds began to escalate dramatically. Even with the games and TV, they were nervous. It was dark and loud outside – things were flying by and the power had been flickering. At 7:00 pm power failed. By 7:30 pm, we made the decision to go down to the basement. The wind was roaring at 60-70 mph plus sustained and higher gusts. So we set up an area with sleeping bags, pillows, lanterns and snacks. Our basement is unfinished – cold concrete floor – but does have shelves, storage bins, etc. I was not prepared for the fear in my kids’ eyes, nor was I expecting the knot in my chest as we could hear the house shutter and pipes rattle with the faster wind bursts.

So with all my readiness… I was still humbled and doing my best to reassure the kids that we were fine. Best decision was to burn through the charge on my wife's laptop and watch episodes of Psych – a funny detective show on TV. We had the occasional trip upstairs to go to the bathroom – no flushing without the power. We are on well water. I had water in the bathtub ready for this, but not during the height of the winds. The flashlight showed trees down, fencing gone, stuff flying and I was worried about one of our old growth trees hitting the house. No detours – bathroom and then back to the basement.

After midnight, when the winds had settled at more like 30 to 40 mph, we moved to the first floor guest bedroom. The kids nodded off with my wife and I went outside to start the genny. The temperature was dropping – though we had ample blankets for that – it was more to avoid food spoilage in the refrigerator. Most refrigerators will give you four to six hours unopened of decent cold. You can extend it a bit by turning the temp down pre-storm (which I did on both refrigerator and freezer), but after that… food will spoil. Freezers are better – probably two to three days if not opened - possibly more, and especially if full of food or home-made ice bags to take up the empty space.

So, in the wind and rain, and with a hat to protect against flying branches and lantern, I repositioned the genny near our exterior hard-line hookup. This is where we plug the genny into the house systems and I use the man-high garage door as the rain shield. Exhaust vents outside. Again, never run a genny in a closed garage or home – the fumes will penetrate and kill. I had just serviced and tested our genny before the storm – you need to know how these things work. Choke on, first pull and she kicked in with a reassuring hum. By 1:00 am we had power to the systems. I had to unplug items that were power drains which I forgot, but essentially as I flipped the breakers in the basement on the genny auxiliary panel and we had heat, water and power to the refrigerators/freezers. I spent the night on the living room sofa waking up every hour to walk the house looking for leaks, broken windows, and checking the genny (overheating, gas leaks, oil, venting, etc.).

Yesterday is a bit of a blur. Mid-morning, I discovered that our neighbors had sheltered in their basements as well. Trees were down everywhere, roads were closed, flooding by the river, no power. Anyone without a working genny was leaving for friends and family that had one. Temps are getting colder this entire week, and then there’s food and water. I made fresh coffee for folks, offered food and then began assessing damage and clean-up. I always keep the chain saw oiled and ready from the last use, and so I put on my Kevlar chaps and began cutting trees.

Around mid-day I refueled the genny. This means shutting everything down, then pouring in the gasoline, then restart, then circuits. If you don’t, you can blow the systems starting the genny with a full electric load. I heard from one neighbor that there was access to Highway 206 via one road, and I thought about gasoline. Between chain saw and genny… it was a priority. The kids played games, saw another show on the laptop which was charged as were phones, and we had another knock on the door from another neighbor friend – April. After she got hot apple cider, food and good company she walked back to her home.

At about 3:00 pm, and before daylight sank further, I headed out for gasoline. Got about four miles, passed two police roadblocks, all traffic lights out and roads closed, and after passing the third gas station that was closed with a no fuel sign, I called it a day. What was I thinking? This was a surprise to me, but should not have been. Everyone else was burning gas like crazy too. The stations were out until roads opened for refueling, and even then, the rest of NJ is in deep, so who knows how long that will take.

Returning home, I hit my emergency gasoline supply under the tarps outside – the five gallon safety cans had been there since last summer, but I had put Stabil in the gas to keep it good beyond the usual three months. There are commercial grade versions that will give you years, but I don’t have access to that stuff… at least, not yet. Short story, the gasoline went into the genny and is just fine. This means I am good to go for several days with 24-hour genny use. I’ll venture out again today to see if any of the gas stations are open with fuel.

Back to the Shore… I hopped onto Facebook for a few minutes. It is not easy using your mobile phone for Internet access on some websites. On a serious note, the Shore is a mess. I was able to find out that our home still stands, but that in all likelihood has been flooded out. Our basement would be a swimming pool with all systems killed. There is three to four feet of beach sand filling the entire length of the street and from every home. High tides are still bringing in flooding, but not nearly as much as the full-moon tide on Monday. People were evacuated by chopper, the island was cut-off with all roads impassable, and clean-up will take weeks. People had live wires in their yards, short circuits in homes as water flooded, natural gas lines that need to be secured, trees down, windows broken, etc. Numerous homes, though elevated, have been hit with two to four feet of ocean water (this means mold), overnight temperatures are headed to the 30’s and 40’s this week, and they do not have any systems to boil water, etc. My mom is still evacuated, not sure when she can return. Have not heard anyone mention looting in Margate, but I did see one report in Atlantic City (though I cannot tell credibility of source). Let’s see what happens the next few days.

Going to start the day now… there’s work to be done, kids need breakfast, no school until maybe Friday, Halloween cancelled, and my wife (who is now standing beside me) says her throat is swollen and painful. Uggghhh. I’ll fill you in later with another update.

Thanks for the concern and for checking in with us.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

2013 NJ RenFaire - Preview

Like atrophied muscle, IMAGINATION withers if not exercised. One delightful cure: a day-trip to the 2013 New Jersey Renaissance Faire! My family loves to dress the roles and meld into the live-action performances. Here’s the preview video of this year’s RenFaire theme.

…and while my cupboard holds ample Highland Single Malt Whiskeys, a Kilt requires more creativity. What a perfect winter sewing project for my eldest daughter!

Breathe slowly, observe humbly, dream deeply and evolve.

W.L Hoffman

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