Friday, August 03, 2018

The Spice Must Flow … and that’s not Sean Spicer, the Spice Girls, or Piquillo Peppers!

As a dad, I don’t often get feedback on my job performance. Sometimes, the plan is to throw everything on the wall and see what sticks. This mish-mosh style acknowledges that my children may do the opposite of what I say. I liken this behavior to a parental remix of Schrodinger’s Cat of quantum physics fame—while multiple possible outcomes are superimposed in the quantum wave before observing the child, upon fixing the parental eye on the target, all that momentary potential collapses to the least desired result!

Once in a while, however, I abandon the scatter-shot parenting and take the direct approach. Included in this wishful category are books I consider a must for my children to experience. Thus, my tale today concerns science fiction novels—specifically, books that forever transformed my worldview. I have a long list, but for the teen years, my top four reads—and many of you may disagree—are Foundation (Asimov), Rendezvous with Rama (Clarke), Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein), and Dune (Herbert). These are generally not for the early teen years. Certainly, any good reader can get through these novels, but the magic occurs with a mindset mature enough to “grok” the beyond.

I have previously quoted many a Dune reference to my daughters with no avail. And so, with my eldest leaving the nest for college, I had almost given up hope that she would crack the book’s pages. Two weeks ago, she walked quietly into my home office, where I was working at my desk. She pulled up a chair, and then began the conversation in a measured tone, “Dad, I have some questions.”

I had immediate feelings of dread and gratitude—could this be about boys, and hadn’t her mother handled that topic … and she still wants my advice.

Taking a deep breath, and turning off my computer, I prompted, “Okay, what’s up?”

She let loose with, “I’m confused about the relationships between the Imperium, the Great Houses and the Emperor. How does the CHOAM company fit in, and is the Spacing Guild more powerful? Does the Emperor control the Bene Gesserit?”

Cue the huge smile on my relieved face. Inside, I was laughing with pure joy. Outside, I nodded and asked, “How far into Dune are you?”

“Not very,” she admitted tentatively. Then she quickly added, “His writing style is amazing. I can see why it’s one of your favorites.”

Not wanting to leave her questions hanging, I managed a half-reply along the lines of, “Herbert’s world-building—organizations, governance, trade, religion—is a lot to process. These are great questions. There are layers within layers within layers. It’s not unlike real life. The CHOAM … "

We chatted iteratively for five minutes on a framework. The rest was for her to discover. I finished with, “I’d love to hear your ideas after the next hundred pages.”

Addendum: I took my daughters to the Jersey Shore to visit Grandmom, and this gave my wife a staycation break. My eldest daughter forgot to pack hair conditioner, a brush, extra shoes, and other sundry items, but the big win—she remembered Dune in a plastic bag for reading on the beach!

Question: Regardless of the reader’s age, what are your top five transformative science fiction novels? If I had to provide a fifth choice, it would be from Zelazny, Gibson, or Niven.

Breathe slowly, observe humbly, dream deeply, and evolve.

W.L. Hoffman

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Local's Summer Reading - Atlantic City Proof

Quincy Avenue is a beach where anything can happen. Without knowing its history, you might never guess this secret. Swimming on Quincy Avenue is officially prohibited by Margate City … at least during regular hours. It’s been that way my entire life. Instead, Quincy Avenue is the surfing beach, and also the spot where Hobie Cats and ocean rigs of more recent vintage like Windsurf boards, Paddle boards, and Kite boards are launched.

But harkening to my childhood, Quincy Avenue was the place where living legends roamed … these island folk were always doing “crazy” things as defined by most people. Joel Fogel and Chris Gilmore (along with Margot) come to mind, but there were others. These few stick, because from about the time when I was four years old and onward, I watched each summer as they lived life their way. Joel was always appearing like a bronzed native with only his “sock” to protect everyone else’s modesty. He would constantly venture into some new manner of craft to ride or sail above the waves. His ocean kayak skills were beyond everyone, and nobody can forget the flying boat! His exploits traveling the wilds of the world were inspirational, and it’s a safe bet that he still continues to seek such experiences.

Chris was tall, lean, gentle spoken, and with flowing locks (later gray) … and at first glance, he seemed like he would blow over in a stiff breeze. This fragile impression was obliterated once you saw him in action. Chris would pilot his Hobie Cat standing on the trampoline or the sidebar in most any wind, regardless of whether the boat was tipped on one pontoon. He was poetry in motion, shooting waves in and out of the surf with a casual mastery that I have yet to see repeated by anyone. Back then, I had just finished reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I remember imagining Chris on his Hobie as Gandalf riding the skies on Gwaihir the Windlord, greatest of the Middle Earth eagles. Chris also served me my first Littleneck clam to taste; freshly harvested and cooked over a beach fire pit near the crumbling cement footers of the once-boardwalk on Quincy—remnants from the ’44 and ’62 storms. It might have been a Fourth of July, a Labor Day, or maybe he had just picked that day for a beach bonfire—I don’t remember. But I do recall the welcoming smile Chris broke into as he told me to try the clam and not to burn my mouth on the shell. It was salty, chewier than I expected, no butter, straight from the ocean … all good. I ate half-a-dozen more over the next hour.

These local legends all had an intangible quality … the “you know it when you see it” factor, and that was most evident when they interacted with the Atlantic. Chris, however, was also a writer. And in the summer of ’79—29 years to this very day—he presented my mom with a signed copy of his novel, Atlantic City Proof. Mom is not the easiest person to get along with for anyone outside our family. She is an introvert, old-fashioned, a gardener and not a fan of silliness that might lead to inner revelation. While Mom doesn’t always shine, I think over the years many people have pegged her wrong. Regardless, she always had an undeniable respect and an unspoken fondness for these Quincy Avenue denizens, and perhaps some of them knew this.

And so, we come to that day long ago, when a knock sounded on our front door in the midst of a cloudy summer day. It was Chris, and I recall Mom inviting him into the foyer. Dad was at the hospital making rounds on his patients. Chris had a book under his arm. I don’t know why he chose that particular day for his gift, but sitting in our living room he explained that Atlantic City Proof was a fictional adventure tale of two young characters—Minnie Creek and Garvey Leek—set during Absecon Island’s rumrunner past. He gave Mom the book, and she congratulated him. The inscription was: “Sweet sailing, Carol, I hope this book always brings fond memories – Love, Christopher Cook Gilmore, 10 July, 1979.”

As Chris left our house, it started to rain. Mom saw me at the dining room table, and immediately handed me the book. I flipped to its first page, and as I happened upon the mention of Lucy the Elephant, I was hooked. I finished the book two days later. For an island kid, whose babysitter was the back bay and the beach, and whose grandfather retold events from Atlantic City’s Prohibition Era, I related to almost every reference in the novel. From clam digging in the bay, to boat engines, to Captain Frye trying to arrest Minnie and Garvey, it all made sense. Heck, I often saw the real Captain Frye at the Margate City Yacht Club where I learned to sail—then a ramshackle bayfront home with docks, a crane, and a marsh-weed sandlot filled with dolly-tied Sunfish, Lasers, and GPs. Whether there was any truth to Captain Frye’s Coast Guard days patrolling for rumrunners, I cannot say, but this tanned, white-haired, suspender-wearing mariner had wrinkles in his wrinkles, and always kept a seafaring tool box nearby. Anyway, about a week after reading Chris’s book, I had the opportunity to tell Chris how much I loved it. The exchange was barely 30 seconds, as I had stopped him on the beach as he was headed to rig his Hobie. I remember his warmth and kindness, and the twinkle in his eyes when his long hair wasn’t blowing across his face.

As the years flew by, I had less encounters with Chris and the others as I became a beach lifeguard on Margate’s south end, and eventually disappeared to college and law school. Chris passed in 2004, and while as a child I sensed how unique he was, I never had the chance to talk with him as a man. I’m also a very different person now, at the beginning of my middle age, than I was as a younger man. I’m more open to life, to philosophy, and to dreams of a new reality. I often contemplate such matters as I sit with family on Quincy Avenue beach. I’ve also got a crew of friends who always return there, and it was an offhand remark at dinner with them this week regarding Chris’s book that awakened these memories. And so, I pulled Chris’s novel from Mom’s bookcase, and gave it a relook. For those of you who miss him or want to meet this Quincy Avenue legend, he’s alive in the pages of Atlantic City Proof. His book is a perfect choice for idle summer reading. Therein, you might also discover a bit of old-school Jersey Shore magic, as well as the invisible ties that unite my generation of island locals.

Good journey, Chris, and to others who have crossed. You too, Pop.

W.L. Hoffman

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, June 04, 2018

The Soulstealer War and The Pathway to Dragons - Book Expo / Book Con 2018 Roundup!

Waking pre-dawn to log the long drive each morning, and then returning late night exhausted, but oddly exhilarated, it was an honor to be an Exhibitor at this year’s Book Expo / Book Con! If you are launching a new book, you can’t miss this Show of Shows. Thus, the next installment of my fantasy and sci-fi series, The Soulstealer War: The Splintering Realm, carried me to New York City this past week. The Javits Center spectacle can be daunting, and it didn’t help that I was exercising rusty “Show” muscles. But what the heck, I always prefer the deep end of the pool!

I love writing about the Realm of Weir - the characters, the creatures, the cultures, the folklore, the languages, the songs - but as an author, I also love meeting the readers. Give me a conversation, and I’m hooked. I come to the Booth with an open mind. This means I don't care who you are (and usually I can't tell until 10 minutes into a conversation anyway). Sure, I’m there as the point man for the Realms (Weir and my daughter’s Pyranis), but I also want to hear your story, your business, and your interests. Just as I sometimes delve into the nature of true magic (see my website), the only way a nexus will manifest is by letting the flow occur. I look for awareness in the folks who cross my path, and brief eye contact sends me into a flurry of possibilities. This flight of fancy then lands on firmer ground once the conversation begins.

Book Expo was heavy on people seeking swag, signings, and freebies, and there is a balance to be struck. The Show doesn't really want you to be selling, but you can take orders and fulfill them amazingly fast! And there is always karma; I give away a fair share of books for goodwill and to see what the Universe will manifest. My Booth was by chance a stone's throw from the big players - Simon & Shuster, Baker & Taylor, Ingram, IPG, etc. - and I was a wee minnow in that sea, but there was an abundance of synergy. I met foreign licensing contacts, reviewers, librarians, printers, buyers, publishers, literary agents, marketers, translators, artists, designers, social media experts, radio folks, podcasters, authors (aspiring and established) and a few other wild cards. All good. This is a marathon, and not a sprint. I will abide; everything unfolds in due time.

Book Con was the exact opposite of the industry insiders - finally, the public! Here be readers of the genres that are my passion, and possibly dragons too! Teenage girls and women dominated the crowd. I’m talking 80% as a rough guess. That was a surprise, but live and learn. There are too many wonderful encounters to detail, but here’s a few favorites:

To the young women who live near the Appalachian Trail with the software coder who will find my website’s hidden access portals (without hacking it to shreds as promised) … your group rocks!

To the pregnant mom who is an aspiring author - my hopes that you put one foot in front of the other and take the road less traveled - get your writing out there! This advice was a common theme as I met many unpublished authors, and I was happy to impart what wisdom (and foolishness) I could. I’ve been there. I get it.

To Meg-a-Watt - thank you for a great conversation on fantasy, sci-fi and life. At first, I thought you said you were Megatron … then you added the “Queen Bee” to clarify, and I still apologized because that didn’t mean anything to me. Finally, you said you were LitBuzz, and helped further my information gap with discussion on how you began and grew that endeavor.

To purple-haired Kristin and her dad - your spark is bright enough to set the world on fire - and that you read my book (and Hannah’s) that night after buying them, and loved them, and came back to tell me the next day at the Booth … there is no more amazing way to start a day as an author!

To the man who was pushing his niece in a stroller, who was dragged to Book Con with his girlfriend and who never picks up books, let alone reads them … it was my privilege to hand you Book One and Two. The real reward was your girlfriend’s joy watching your willingness to venture into her world, and the long embrace you two shared a booth away.

To Tim, the bow-tied literary guy, who now knows that my alter-ego wears a vest with a pocket watch, often topped in a worn Stetson hat, thank you for the chat and your advice on my Boris Vallejo/Julie Bell front cover banner.

To Janine, author of The Puzzle Quests: Shimmer’s Eggs (and other books), whose son succumbed to cancer - your story is inspirational and our conversation will stay with me.

To the librarians and teachers - there were so many - I wish I could have given you more free copies of Hannah’s middle school chapter book The Pathway to Dragons: The Portal to Pyranis - you have one of the hardest, thankless and yet, most important careers on the planet! That cannot be said enough.

To the group of three teen girls who had their Mikey (a classic commercial, where one brother serves as the guinea pig for tasting a new cereal - and the girls had no clue on this dated reference) be the designated reader for any new book series - that you returned a short while after buying Book One to tell me that during the Show you read the first 50 pages and loved it, that the writing was awesome - thank you for that thoughtful gift.

To my immediate Booth neighbors on either side of the Show floor - Cameron and Rebecca the jewelry gurus of Stern Design Works, and to Anne Wheaton (Piggy and Pug children's book author) with her outgoing publicist Susan Peters - your cheerful company was an unexpected pleasure!

Though not a meeting, I need to give a shout-out to Dog Ear Publishing and founder Ray Robinson - your support during the Show was invaluable. And indeed, another Dog Ear author stopped by my Booth for conversation.

Also, to Amy and Julie from Reed Exhibition, and Scott from Freeman – your assistance helped make my Show experience a success, and the Booth “check-ins” were greatly appreciated.

Finally, as a reminder, a portion of our book proceeds are donated to The NJ Center for Tourette Syndrome, Special Strides, and The Bridge of Books Foundation. Any additional support you can provide to these worthwhile charities will make a difference!

With utmost gratitude to all of you,

W.L. Hoffman - breathe slowly, observe humbly, dream deeply and evolve!
Author of The Soulstealer War (and other tales) -
Proud Father of the Author of The Pathway to Dragons -

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, April 27, 2018

Book Launch - Fantasy & Sci-fi - The Soulstealer War: The Splintering Realm - May 1

You are invited to the BOOK LAUNCH for the next installment of my fantasy and sci-fi novel series – The Soulstealer War: The Splintering Realm. All are welcome on May 1, 2018, and/or you can go to the Facebook Livestream from Small World Coffee in Princeton, NJ - 8:00 am to 11:00 am. This is also a good day to order copies in stores and online via Amazon, B&N, etc., and anyone purchasing more than 5 hardcovers or 10 paperbacks will receive a special enlarged wall poster of the Book Launch signed by me. Book Two is available in multiple formats, and Book One has just been re-released in Hardcover! The Boris Vallejo/Julie Bell artwork on the Hardcover Dust Jackets is fabulous! My website has been redesigned and includes hidden secrets. Finally, while a share of this book's net profits will go to the NJ Center for Tourette Syndrome, please consider offering your additional support to this worthy non-profit -

With gratitude,

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

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

RenFaire? - "You're mad, bonkers...But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are." Lewis Carroll

Under a folding card table serving as a writing desk, our youngest daughter, Hannah, claimed a living room corner. Sheltered. Quiet. The space spoke to her.

Hannah called, “How old do you have to be to stop making forts?”

I was cooking in the kitchen, and my wife was nearby doing research. Our answers were simultaneous, “Never.”

Hannah scrambled out, and eyed the throw quilts on the sofa. “Daaaad,” she began sweetly, “do we need both of these blankets?”

I knew where this was heading. “I’d prefer if they stayed on the sofa. I’m sure you can find something else. Need help?”

“Nope,” Hannah replied, flashing a mischievous grin. For the briefest moment, I felt that parental twinge…the reluctant and joyful realization that my little girl is growing up. She’s making her own magic. That’s how it should be.

I returned to dinner. Ten minutes later, pillows served as the third wall, a huge knitted cotton blanket softened the floor, and bathing towels draped over the desktop for the fourth wall. Voila! Fort complete…Hannah disappeared underneath…doing Hannah things. Mad scientist, budding superheroine, relaxing with electronics - it was all good. Yes, even the technology. You can’t deny the future, but I dare to think it can be shaped; cause and effect, unless were playing Queen’s Rules in Wonderland, which, by the way, we also do when the “Willy Wonka” mood strikes, for indeed, “a little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”

A person needs a hidden lair to do things…a secret lair…or an open Faire! A bizarre of creativity, an elixir of life, a realm to explore, with characters to delight - why of course, it’s the New Jersey Renaissance Faire!
As a parent, I’m constantly assessing the “moments” I share with my children. It’s the actions and experiences that will stick with them, not the words. Opportunity, as defined in Merriam Webster, is a favorable juncture of circumstances; a good chance for advancement or progress. To be able to recognize opportunity, and to convert opportunity while ensnared by a vibrant live-stream of pungent wit, witless pun, and timeless fun - those gifts I’ll gladly serve to my children.

The annual pilgrimage to Liberty Lake is less than a week away, and I keep looking over my shoulder for the Pardoner, the Knight and the Wife of Bath. You still have time to change your plans, and perhaps your life. My girls are already choosing frocks, dusting boots and eyeing swords. The leather grips on their blades bear a slight stickiness with the humidity. The steel is not polished…a drop of oil perhaps to remove the dirt. There’s no fanciful etching, but these master works from the RenFaire blacksmith are cherished. So are the trinkets and odd tokens, the purses and corsets, the music and company; this medieval community is like visiting an eccentric grandfather who tilts at windmills. Rain or shine, you can breathe deeply in the Faire’s rural air. Although, it’s the twinkling in the Faire Folk’s eyes that that you inhale the deepest. It’s infectious merriment, unless you’re dead, but even the dead can be resurrected with the proper dice roll. Let’s see, is that 2d6 on the System Shock check and how many Level/Constitution points?
RenFaire can hoist the anchor, but traveling beyond the harbor is up to you. Venture the quest! “Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” (Tennyson). What price can you put upon generosity of spirit? “How little is the cost I have bestowed, In purchasing the semblance of my soul, From out the state of hellish cruelty!” (Shakespeare).

How old do you have to be to stop going to RenFaire?


NJ RenFaire

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Actions Have Outcomes - Digging into the Soil of Life

Spring, for me, means planting. On this topic, there is a treasure trove of technical and intuitive gardening information to discuss. While I’ve absorbed a fair share, I’m not tackling that beast for this entry. Instead, I feel compelled to share what I love most about gardening . . . drum roll please . . . the process.

Sure, gardening is a stress reliever, delivers good exercise, and enables you to feed delights to your family - both visual and culinary. And there’s an undeniable joy to smelling good earth after a rainstorm. But in a world of digital digression, exacerbated with moments of feeling stuck on a phantasmal merry-go-round, I am rescued from despair by a lesson from my garden: actions have outcomes. Seems obvious right? And yet, how often do I succumb to digital nirvana only to wake after an hour goes by and ask - what the hell just happened? I get this “dirty” feeling, a self-guilt far worse than the grimiest recess in my garden. Please avoid the lurid conclusions. Yes, that Content is pervasive on the Internet, and hey, I’m a guy - happily married with children - but still a guy. Curiosity and an open mind are healthy human traits. So, putting aside those distractions, the feeling I’m struggling to convey is one of life passing me by while I run like a hamster on the treadmill.

There are online interactions that are worthy, humorous, social, informative . . . I acknowledge these positives. The problem is striking the balance. Our minds crave data. This is concurrently our great strength and our weakness. It takes effort and time to sort through a seemingly infinite field of electronic Content, and the few actions we take in the digital realm rarely have outcomes that we can predict, let alone recognize when they manifest. There is such a thing as too much connectivity, with too little impact. That largesse of other people’s stories, available with a finger swipe or keystroke, overwhelms us subconsciously, if not outright - paralysis by analysis. Or perhaps, it’s all too illusory, in that we think we have gotten somewhere only to glance askew at a mirror of empty dreams, and then turn away. For who among us truly wants to stare into that abyss?

Little steps, joined together, inevitably produce results. Rather than being a voyeur, I jump into the fray. I stand, stretch and walk outside. The fresh air awakens my spirit. My garden is neither fancy, nor expansive, and I won’t win any prizes. The chicken wire needs fixing in places, and I have to constantly excise rotten wood in the raised beds and stakes. At night, I scrub the black soil from under my nails. My muscles ache with a soreness that is satisfying. My girls have become experts in removing my splinters. My thoughts alight with compost, companion plantings, succession crops, pest remedies and seed experiments. The preparation began in December. In February, seeds were ordered and pulled from my reserves. Then as March arrived, the clean-up hit me in earnest. Those days were cold, the wind raw and the weeds tenacious. I had cuts, thorns and reptile skin on my hands. I could sand wood with my palm, and that touch certainly wasn’t going to win over my wife. Early April saw pruning and mulch, and with the soil finally ready, I savored our seed choices. The girls had their favorites, too. I visualized the growth patterns and light sources, checked the day and overnight temperatures, and noted the weather forecast. Perennials that we had labored over last year began budding. Those ferns that seemed dead and gone . . . their fiddlehead fronds continue unfurling today. In a week, we should have vegetable sprouts poking through to the sun.

Slowly, taking these myriad tiny strides, our garden comes into awareness. There will be outcomes, both good and unexpected. There’s no “easy button” to push. Gardening is patient work. But the process harkens to everything else we do in life - actions have outcomes - and sometimes when I’m lost, I rejoice in the comfort and motivation of that simple wisdom.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Sir Richard Branson - Bravo!

As I continue to scan news coverage of the recent commercial spacecraft explosions – Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo prototype and Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket mission to the International Space Station – I am trying to process our current societal incarnation without acquiescing to a profound dismay. Too many of our media sources are displaying an accusatory tone or a condescending “I told you so.” Is this pandering attack-dog mentality the measure of what now sells newspapers and digital content to a plethora of armchair experts? Alternatively, is the situation even worse? Have our pundits forgotten the days when boats were made of wood and men were made of iron; when the intrepid Amelia Earhart launched a flight that would elevate all people, as did our steadfast aim for the Moon during the Apollo years? Have such whispers shadowed the visionaries of “every” human era, or is the intensity of the “hue and cry” different this time? Disappointing as the pettiness and naysayers may be, I doubt these rumblings eclipse the inner voices of the courageous men and women who challenge history, for this rare breed grapples with far mightier opponents – foes such as death, impossible dreams, and human destiny.

Folks, you’re going to scratch the paint when you move mountains. I’m not suggesting that death isn’t a tragedy. It is under any circumstances. Yet, when we shatter the ordinary, when we dare to greatness, it is then that our collective spirit finds solace in acknowledging the tradeoffs inherent to that particular dice roll. Some goals are worth dying for, hopefully not needlessly, but no plan is without error. Imperfection is the very essence of “humanity.” Combine that practical reality with pilots and astronauts who are essentially riding mega-bombs, and yes, this activity qualifies as ultra-dangerous on any given day. Applying our typical media filters and overly litigious legal standards to this extreme endeavor is inappropriate. In part, that’s why government has heretofore been at the helm of Space ventures. I think nobody questions the presumption that the private sector can produce more efficient results, but ultimately, the incredible costs, technological advances, oversight authority, mission parameters, and the “astro-ethics” discussion should fall under the umbrella of government. As plagued with missteps and waste as that public path may be, I am convinced that no single company, individual or oligarchy should control these outcomes.

Would I attempt Space, however, if I were a billionaire several times over? Absolutely, and I say to Sir Richard Branson – BRAVO! Don’t be discouraged by the exodus of SpaceShipTwo tourists. Their romantic, fantasy-fueled adrenaline rush is cratering to one hell of a reality hangover: Space travel is a serious matter, vital and necessary, but still potentially lethal. Save the apologies. None are needed. Humanity’s future depends upon colonizing the stars, and I would see that future become the present. To have a direct impact on that achievement would be profoundly satisfying. Some of us in this existence find peace within, while others taste magic in a simple joy, and yet others are constantly questing beyond the horizon. I am one such person “cursed” with a curious and restless soul. I have a friend who views this nomadic trait as a singular flaw in human nature. I disagree, and leave it to a higher power to decide. Until then, my gaze tilts to the night sky and I wonder at that which awaits – our evolution and reorganization into a civilization that would shine light into the darkest corners of the Universe. A fundamental shift in our cognition and values will only be possible once we escape our terrestrial origin. I recognize that we’ll export our brand of human weakness to the stars – fear, hatred, doubt, jealousy, fanaticism – but over time, these frailties will wither into memory as our consciousness expands. The Age of Discovery never ended, and like an old friend coming up the walkway, one need only open the door to renew ties.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Guatemala - My New Jersey Family Leaves Our Comfort Zone

My family recently returned from a “service” trip to Guatemala. No, we aren’t Missionaries or in the Peace Corps. This charity work is the annual tradition of the Princeton Friends School. Each year, the eighth grade children and parents support a sister-school in Guatemala by providing teaching programs, school supplies, books, and assorted “infrastructure” improvements. The trip also affords a language opportunity by immersing ourselves in a Spanish speaking culture.

Prior to arriving, my household both anticipated and dreaded the experience. Simply put, my lovely wife is extremely open to this type of venture, while even on my best day, I view air travel somewhere between “hell no,” and “spread my ashes in the backyard.” Thankfully, a double-pour single malt Scotch at the airport usually softens this stance. Furthermore, while I am willing to risk my safety, that tolerance shrinks dramatically when it comes to family. Still, my eldest daughter had been looking forward to this journey for years.

As an epic fantasy and sci-fi author, I had already conjured a thousand-and-one tales of death-defying twists and weird dimensional portals mixed with machete wielding trolls. Sure, there were a few outcomes with lost Incan ruins and Indiana Jones-like treasure hoards, but my brain couldn’t focus on these pleasant teasers among the deafening roar. So, to ease my nerves, and in keeping with the best practices of any good Dungeons & Dragons adventurer, I insisted that we hire a guide who knew the terrain… BEST DECISION EVER.

Enter Carlos, aka Guatemalan Guide. I’ll say it right up front, if you are considering travel to Guatemala, and your political status doesn’t mandate a brigade of armed security as we witnessed for the Queen of Spain who happened to be staying in our hotel, then Carlos is your man. In the airport mayhem, I didn’t have time for an in-depth first impression with Carlos, but it was enough. Our flight arrived with six other flights into Guatemala, and after clearing Customs, we exited into throngs of screaming people behind barricades. Due to scheduling, our family had taken a separate flight from the rest of my daughter’s classmates. As I scanned the crowd, my head kept replaying scenes from the movie The Year of Living Dangerously. Of course, this is exaggeration, but I was relieved to see Carlos in the front of the pack. Although unable to chat, my first impression of him was solid: warm smile, welcoming greeting, a sign for our party, athletic build, rugged outfit.
Once identified, Carlos took the point position while I fell to the rear. In seconds, we were surrounded by a persistent contingent of women and children hawking us junk goods and begging for anything. Note: this was the hardest “sell” over the entire trip, and while disconcerting, was not representative of our experience in this wonderful country. My “you are not in Kansas” radar quieted a notch as we left the parking garage in Carlos’ comfortable van. He had drinks waiting in a cooler, began relaxed conversation with my family, and drove at a leisurely pace. Later, I would come to assess Carlos as everything a “guide” needs to be: a gentleman and "people" person, who speaks several languages… Carlos has an eye for the surroundings, is incredibly flexible as to itinerary and will tailor the activities to your taste. My family calls him “amigo” now and he has an open invitation to stay in our home in Princeton. For those that know me, that says it all.

So, as to Guatemala… this is a country of extremes. On the one hand, the people were friendly, the culture was fascinating, the landscape was exotically beautiful, and the coffee and chocolate (grown locally) were phenomenal… but on the other, the poverty is astounding, the infrastructure needs vast upgrades, and Guatemala City has a tense fickleness that can result in gourmet dining/memorable shopping or a crime statistic. This urban balancing act is also not uncommon in densely populated US cities, so our crew used the same rules: common sense, situational awareness, and leveraging local knowledge - Carlos! Other precautions included the US Department of State's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program which offers continuing email notifications/warnings for your destination country, and arranging for our mobile service. A word to fellow travelers... our cellular provider did not have an agreement with Guatemala, so roaming or accessing the Internet was priced somewhere between absurd and ludicrous. We were informed it would cost about $20 for every single MB downloaded. My wife confirmed this... by accessing the Internet for two minutes upon touchdown in Guatemala... and was promptly notified of almost $250 worth of roaming charges! From that point forward, and absent an emergency, we accessed the Web only via free Wifi sites.

Our first night stay on the side of the volcano at La Reunion rivaled any luxury resort. We had our own villa with an infinity pool and outdoor shower that seemed almost like a garden waterfall. In the evening, the resort burns an intoxicating incense (helpful with insects though it was not yet rainy season), and as we sat dining in its open air restaurant, thick clouds rolled through the doors lending their magic to the surreal mood.

In the morning, Steph and I awoke before the girls. She wanted to snap photographs in the tropical stillness, which was only interrupted by what we thought was noise from nearby construction. As I scanned the grounds, there was no evidence of any workers or heavy equipment. Then, it dawned upon us... silly tourists, that was the erupting VOLCANO! Gentle shaking rocked the slopes as impressive steam belches puffed into the sky. The lead photo (above) captures the start of one such event.

We soon bid goodbye to this oasis, and headed to the historic city of Antigua. Founded in the early 1500's, destroyed in 1541 by the Agua volcano, and rebuilt with a Spanish Baroque influence, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must-see. The city's artisans, cafes, ruins, catacombs, local people, and country quaint charm managed to capture our hearts. The streets were cobblestone, and while select buildings featured gorgeous Spanish elements, most establishments to the street-view presented painted cinder block wall structures.
At first glance, not the most attractive to our eyes. But each of these modest entrances belied a curious adventure. They opened to enticing shops, green-fountained courtyards, romantic cafes and music filled havens. Inside, the cinder block yielded to five hundred-year old masonry and inspiring architecture. As tourists, we were careful about spending money. While we naturally acquired the local currency in our dealings - Quetzales - we found the US dollar was widely accepted in Guatemala, so long as the bills were low denomination and without imperfection, i.e., no markings, folds or rips. This required adjustment, and the bills I took home were the rejects. The exchange rate was favorable at just over seven Quetzales to the dollar, and the girls got there first lesson in haggling... though afterwards I would usually find a way to pay the craftsman more for the handmade Guatemalan goods - some products took almost a year to complete. We were reminded of our many blessings in our US lifestyle. Of course, there were also drawbacks... our stomachs were not as prepared for partaking the Guatemalan fare. Thus, our protocol with eating and drinking was very disciplined, and Carlos advised us on which sources were totally fine and which to avoid. Unlike other members in our group, our family never experienced any gastrointestinal moments.

It was hard to leave Antigua for the urbanity of Guatemala City, but this would be our home base for the duration of the service work with the school children. Our initial entry at the Hotel Barceló was a bit daunting - Carlos talked us through the front gate... barbed wire, tall fence and armed guards with automatic rifles. I appreciated the security presence, but the downside had me asking why such a formidable deterrent was necessary. This was the reality of Guatemala City and in staying in a such fine hotel with comparatively wealthy tourists and prominent business people. Later that week, Queen Sophia of Spain arrived at the Barceló. The security seemed to double, and while we were often bumping against her guards in our hotel travels, she set aside time to meet the Princeton children and parents. She was gracious, accommodating and thoroughly engaging. As for the Barceló staff, I have only great things to say... and they made all the difference in our visit.

Each morning our group would leave via one bus to reach the school about fifteen minutes away (non-rush hour). The children and parents taught lessons (Geography, Math, English, Health) in Spanish, donated books, explained new games, discussed nutrition, and generally helped repair anything that needed mending. It was a humbling and heartfelt "giving" to the community. Upon returning in the late afternoon, there was usually time for a dip in the hotel's pool, journal entries, and other Guatemala City sights.

Meals were fine in the Barcelo, however, our family explored a few of the restaurants in town. We found Jake’s Restaurant, elegant and upscale, where I met the owner, a flamboyant and gracious NJ born chef - Jake Denburg. He greeted us at the entrance and after sharing our NJ roots - a rare encounter in Guatemala - Jake joined us at the table. He produced a fantastic bottle of rum, made several menu recommendations and offered an insider's perspective from his decades in Guatemala. We sampled spectacular meatballs that brought me back to those I'd grown up with in Atlantic City, and then finished with prime cuts of beef - done to order, seasoned to perfection and mouth watering.

Then, there was Gracia Cocina de Autor, a comfy bistro style restaurant with Pablo - a bear-sized chef of gentle nature - proud and talented, and so accommodating for our family’s particular diet that he invited my wife into the kitchen to watch him prepare a custom meal for us. The food was delicious, with our favorite dish being a coconut milk, chicken and rice creation - gluten free and organic. Accompanying that treat was a glass of single malt... much harder to find in Guatemala than the Johnnie Walker blended offerings, and a soothing finish to the day.

Our departure from Guatemala was much like the entrance, with the crowds beginning at the street and surging into the airport terminal. This time I knew what to expect, and I had "great" memories of our travels to lift my spirit. There were trucks emptying young student volunteers (dentists, nurses, builders, etc.), and lines of people forming in the heat. I took a deep breath, and turned to Carlos. He had already located two reliable porters to help with our luggage and usher us to the proper check-in counter. As the girls were bumping around in the human traffic, there was no time to explain to him how much he meant to us, or how grateful I was for his guidance to my family. I gave him the "bro" hug, while each of my girls latched on to him for an emotional farewell. I don't know if we'll see him again, but I hope so. Peace to you Carlos, and to your law studying wife, your young children and numerous beloved pets.

With that, I leave you with this picture, designed and painted by a Princeton student, on the wall of the school in Guatemala City... the translation is "kindness and friendship for all."

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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?

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,