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

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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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